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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 kid 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?”

* * * * * * * *

Issue #10 – The Past That Haunts Us

Eon City, five years ago.

Frank Mejia, about to do something stupid.

Deep breath.

Everything appeared to be moving in slow motion as Frank Mejia jumped off of the roof.  Behind him, he knew that Natalie was cheering, that Miranda was yelling, that Parker was applauding, and that Alex hid her face in her hands.  He barely heard the whoops and hollers of his friends as he concentrated on the one rule of the group: Don’t Die.

Breathe.

He kept his mind clear by focusing on the drop, and the hanging metal rafters that would stop his descent from the five-story building.  The second it took for him to fall down to it seemed to last an eternity.

Here it comes…

Frank’s feet hit the rail, but his right foot slipped on the early morning condensation.  His heart skipped a beat as he fought back panic. Six years of training paid off, as his muscles knew what to do: without having to think about it, he bent his left leg to absorb the impact, turning to grab the beam with both hands.  As he leaned forward to absorb some of the impact with his arms, he stared with wide eyes at the ground four stories below.

What was it again?

Oh, yeah.  Breathe.

He slowly pivoted on his left foot to look back up at the roof, where his sister and his friends stood cheering for him.

“Frank, you crazy sum-bitch,” Miranda, Frank’s sixteen year-old sister, yelled down.  Her cat ears were flat and the soft reddish-brown fur on her tail stood on end, showing just how scared she had actually been. “What would I tell Mom if you’d missed?” she asked, arms folded in front of her.

“That my aim was off?” he called back, grinning.  “Somebody better tell Alex she can look, now.”

 “Uh-uh,” he heard Alex’s voice answer, but her face did not appear over the edge of the roof.  “You want to kill yourself, fine, but there’s no way I’m going near that edge.” Alex had a problem with heights, and while she could follow the group up to the top of the building, she always refused to look down.

“Man, that was intense,” cried Natalie, grinning down at her friend.  Her dyed-black hair, starting to grow out, waved in the wind as she looked over the edge.

Parker also poked his head over the side.  His feathery blond hair ruffled in the breeze as he grinned down at Frank.  “Dude, that was amazing!” he cried.

The five friends used to practice parkour and free-running together in this abandoned construction site on the edge of the city, back when they all went to high school together.  The five-story office building was only half-complete, with open walls and exposed rafters giving the tracers an expansive playground. They hadn’t been there together in more than a year until today, though; since Frank and the twins had graduated high school, the twins had gone to New York to get their Watchers’ licenses while Frank helped his mom out at her dojo.  I missed this, Frank thought as he grinned back up at his friends.

He cat-crawled along the beam, examining the slick surface carefully as he went, to get back inside of the building.  Years of dust had settled on the top of the rafters, leaving black streaks on the legs of his light-gray sweatpants.

As his feet reached the main floor, he saw his friends come down from the roof.  Miranda was the first down, jumping through a hole in the ceiling and landing with a roll.  As she popped up beside Frank, Natalie followed her down. Instead of jumping, though, she grabbed onto the edge of the hole and lowered herself down, landing in a crouch on the ground.

Parker came through next, diving through the hole and using his large black and white wings to slow his decent, until his hands hit the ground and he could roll to a stand.  He left his wings unfurled, posing as he pretended to see something off in the distance.

“Where’s your cameraman?” Miranda asked, snickering.

Parker shrugged and ran his hand through his hair.  “Don’t need one,” he said, grinning. “I’m just sharing this with the world.”

Alex was the last one, hesitating for a second before jumping down.  Jumping out of her four-point landing, she closed her eyes for a second as she shook off her fear of heights.

“You okay?” Frank asked.

Alex nodded, her chin set.  She blew her raven-black bangs out of her face and said, “That was insane.”  Smacking Frank over the head, she added, “You could’ve died.”

Frank grinned again.  “Yeah, but I didn’t,” he pointed out.

Parker came up behind him and pulled him into a one-armed hug.  “You aren’t the one with wings,” he said. “What was your back-up?”

Frank walked back over to the edge, shrugging off Parker’s arm.  “See that rafter a floor down?” he asked. “I’d have grabbed that.  I have done stuff like this before, you know,” he wryly added.

“Not off a five-story drop,” Parker pointed out.  “They made us do some crazy stuff in Watcher training, but even the instructors would draw the line at a jump like that.”

“Well, maybe not,” Natalie smirked.  “Could be they just didn’t think of it.”  Parker shuddered at the thought, flexing his wings behind him as if to reassure himself that they were still there.

Twenty year-olds Parker and Natalie Fawkes had just finished the year-long training to become Watchers.  Humans didn’t usually become Watchers – it was nearly impossible for people who didn’t have special abilities to pass – but Natalie had grown up learning her father’s street illusions.  She could easily keep up with her brother, and wanted nothing more than to join a vigilante force. The twins already had an offer from a new agency in Eon City.

 “Mom would love this,” Miranda said, walking out onto the beam and looking down at the drop.  “Hey Frank, when she kills you later, can I have your stuff?”

“Ha, ha, very funny,” Frank said, jumping to grab a rail that ran along the ceiling.  He swung his way across a five foot wide hole in the floor, landing silently on the other side.

Alex took a running start, jumping across the same hole.  Landing next to Frank, she said, “You know, you actually looked a bit like Kindred when you were jumping.”

Of course he did.  Kindred was his father – although Alex didn’t know that. When his parents were Watchers, they kept their identities out of the limelight as much as possible to give their kids a normal life.  Frank wasn’t even sure Miranda knew that their parents had been a part of the famous Team Ark – she was just a kid when the team broke apart and their parents became full-time managers of the dojo.

Changing the subject, Frank latched on to the last detail.  “Will your parents keep your stuff while you’re away?” he asked.

“Of course,” Alex said.  “I’m only gone for the first month.”  She flipped back onto her feet, calling to the twins as they crossed the gap, “I just hope the Task Force training won’t be as brutal as your Watcher stories.”

“At least yours will be shorter,” Parker said, folding his wings around his torso and jumping across the hole in the floor as well.  “Your training only lasts a month or so, right?”

“What was that internship you got again?” Frank asked Alex as Natalie followed them over.

Alex held her chin up proudly as she answered.  “I’ll be working for the DoD, in the Meta-Human Vigilante Task-Force. They’re responsible for gathering and coordinating intelligence on the meta-humans in other countries.”  She shrugged one shoulder, as if it was no big deal, but her grin gave away how excited she was for the opportunity.  “I’ll mostly be a paper-pusher as an intern, but who knows? A month for training, half a year as an intern, and if I do well they might hire me on full-time.”

Frank knew that Alex loved talking about it.  She was the youngest applicant to be accepted into the program at seventeen years old; her test scores had ranked fourth in the nation’s history.

“Hey, what time is it?” Parker asked suddenly, looking towards the skyline.

“Nearly five,” Miranda told him, checking her watch.  “Frank, we’re supposed to meet Mom at the gym,” she pointed out.

“Oh, yeah,” Frank grinned back at the others.  “Same time tomorrow?” They all agreed, and Frank and Miranda jumped down through the hole in the floor.

Frank followed his sister down to the ground floor, staying back at her pace.  Miranda Mejia was a cat-satyr, with long, pointed ears that she usually covered with the ski cap that was currently in her cargo-pants pocket, and a long reddish-brown tail that helped counter-balance her when she jumped.  Frank had been doing parkour since he was twelve years old and was one of the fastest tracers on the coast, but Miranda had a natural grace that allowed her to jump far and land softly without much effort.

They walked along the streets of Eon City mostly together, though occasionally one of them would break off to try a stunt if they saw a good opportunity.  Eon City was filled with rails, ledges, and walls for the tracers to play on.

“Mom’s gonna flip when she hears about that jump,” Miranda told him as they walked the three blocks to their Mom’s gym.  “She’s told you dozens of times to be careful.” She wrapped her tail around her waist and tucked the tail of her tank top around it – a habit she had formed to help her fit in at school – as she pulled the ski cap out of her pocket and put it on.  Her eyes were still the golden-flecked cat eyes, but there wasn’t much she could do about them.

“Not if she doesn’t know,” Frank said, pointedly raising an eyebrow at her.  “Just like she also won’t know about you hanging out with us instead of getting your summer reading done, like she told you to do.”

Miranda got the hint.  “Fine, I won’t tell her,” she grumbled as they came to the entrance of the gym, “but it was still reckless, and stupid, and dangerous.”

Frank grinned.  “I know; it was fun,” he said, poking her in the side.

It was a typical day for them, before Frank decided to become a Watcher.  Even after he joined the Asylum, he sometimes thought back to that time with his friends – the last time the five of them were all together.

Some memories were worth preserving.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, present day.

Frank and Miranda, coming home.

Frank walked through the doors of their mom’s mixed martial arts dojo (or “the gym”, as the family called it).  His mom was finishing up with a class, while Miranda sat on the couch in the lobby area waiting for her to finish up.  Frank sat down next to her, looking at the TV in time to see the tail end of a news interview.

On the screen was a familiar face from social media: Sean Hannah was young for the CEO of Pharos Industries.  He was only about forty years old, and seemed to play that up for the audience – he was a thin man, wearing an impeccable suit and tie, but his curly brown hair was left unkept.  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 electric blue eyes and sly half-smile.

“Pharos Industries has always been the leader in genetics research,” scrolled the captions at the bottom; although the sound was turned off, it seemed that the CEO was the one talking.  “Now we prove once again how our innovation can take America forward in scientific discovery.”

“Him again?” Miranda asked, turning her attention away from the TV and onto their mom’s class.  “Pharos has been everywhere lately, ever since that guy took over.”

“What’s that thing they’re advertising now?” Frank asked her, still watching the interview.

Miranda didn’t take her eyes off of the class.  “I think it’s called ‘Gen Juice’,” she answered.

The television confirmed that two seconds later, as the interviewer went on to describe it.  The captions said, “Gen Juice advertises itself as being able to give normal humans the same powers as Third Gens.  How close do you think you are to releasing it to the public?”

Sean Hannah grimaced.  “Unfortunately, we are still in the testing phase.  It will be another few years before the formula is anywhere near ready for humans – we don’t want to repeat history,” he chuckled.  “We’ll also need to get approved by the FDA, and make sure our licenses are in order; it’s unlikely that the public will see it for the next five years, and then the military –”

“Hey kids,” greeted their mom as the class ended.  Frank turned his attention away from the interview to say hi.  Sara Mejia was a small woman, barely five-foot-two, slim and athletic.  She walked with a limp, sometimes even needing a cane. The shattered kneecap in her right leg still seemed to pain her, even years after the accident.  Frank didn’t know how it had happened – only that it had happened nine years ago. He had come home one day to a phone call from his dad at the hospital, telling him that his mom was in intensive care.  The doctor told them that his mom would always have that limp, though it might get better in time.

Sara’s smile left her with worry lines around her eyes as she looked at Miranda.  Nineteen year-old Miranda’s human side took after their mother: they both had the same hazel eyes, high cheekbones, even the same hair color.  Frank had seen pictures of his mom as a teenager, and had to admit that Miranda looked like a taller, more feline version of her.

They met every Saturday morning at the gym to practice sparring, at their mom’s insistence.  Sara claimed it was to make sure that they kept up with their training, but Frank knew it was because she worried about them.  Frank was now a full-time Watcher, and Miranda went to Eon City’s community college – even though she still lived at home, she didn’t see her parents much.  Frank could tell that his mom didn’t see Miranda often enough; Sara always seemed to watch her with worried eyes these days.

“What’s wrong?” Frank asked his mom in an aside, while Miranda went to get water out of the fountain in the back.  “Need more painkillers?”

“No, I’m fine,” Sara said.  “Just promise me that you’ll keep an eye out for your sister.  I’ve been hearing so many reports of satyrs being kidnapped recently; I don’t know what I’d do if Miranda was one of them.”

There had been a rash of missing satyr cases across Eon City in the last year.  Frank knew that his mom believed the police didn’t care enough to expend resources on finding them. He couldn’t blame her – even Agent seemed at a loss on where to start looking, and he had the full resources of the Asylum at his disposal.

“Of course I will,” he sighed, “just like I said the last ten times you asked.”

“Frank, this is serious,” Sara scolded.  “There have been three missing satyr reports this week alone.  I don’t want your sister getting caught up in it.”

“Fine,” Frank said.  “I promise. But I can’t be everywhere – Miranda has a mind of her own, and I can only call her so many times in a week.”

“Just do what you can,” Sara told him.  “That’s all I ask.”

Miranda came back over, rolling tape around her hands.  “Are we going to spar or what?” she asked them, pointing to the ring.  “I swear, Frank, this time I’ll kick your ass.”

“You can try,” Frank shrugged, giving her a cocky grin.  “I doubt you’ll do better than the last hundred times.”

He climbed into the ring with her, their mother limping over next to the ring.  Miranda took her hat off when they sparred, though she kept her tail wrapped around herself.  Frank used to grab her tail while they were sparring to teach her not to wave it around while she fought.

As soon as Sara gave them the go-ahead, Miranda tried to knock her brother down with a swift kick aimed at his chest.

Miranda was graceful, but Frank was fast.  He dodged her foot, rolling around her and grabbing her from behind.  Growing up sparring against his sister showed him her exact weak spots, and he knew that Miranda had never learned how to escape a full nelson.

“Give up yet?” he asked calmly as his sister struggled against him.  Her legs flailed in the air as she tried to break his hold, but try as she might she couldn’t get free.

 “That’s enough, Frank,” Sara said, and the siblings stopped struggling.  “Miranda, I’ve told you before: escaping that hold isn’t about brute force.  You need to use your opponent’s weaknesses against him.”

Frank could almost feel the wheels turning in his sister’s head.  The one weakness she would need to exploit was his height – Miranda was four inches taller than his five-foot-four stature, and she could use that leverage if she just leaned forward.

The thought apparently occurred to her at the same time.  Frank had less than a second to tighten his grip on her again before she drove her shoulders downwards.  Frank’s toes came up about an inch off of the ground, and suddenly Miranda had the upper hand. She grabbed his right knee, quickly yanking it upward and making him let go of the hold if he wanted to land properly.  As it was, he landed on just one foot as Miranda held onto his leg. She pulled it forward, throwing him over her hip and slamming him onto the mat.

“You’re getting complacent,” Sara said dryly to Frank.  “You think that because your sister is weak against the one move, you can use it on her every time and not be bothered to follow up.”

“I get it,” Frank groaned, slumping against the floor.  He got up, as Sara turned back to Miranda.

“Very good, sweetheart, but why did you hesitate?” she asked.

Miranda smirked at Frank, saying, “I know how to break out of that hold; I just forget it when I’m sparring.”

“Then you don’t know it,” Sara chided, and the smirk fell from her daughter’s face.  “If you know something in theory but forget it in practice, then what good has it done you?  Again.”

They spent the remainder of the hour going over that hold until Miranda successfully dumped Frank ten times in a row.  As they finished the practice session, even Frank had to admit that his little sister was getting better.

“Very good,” Sara said after the last throw.  “You’ve stopped hesitating.”

Miranda smiled, pushing her bangs out of her face.  “Thanks,” she said. “I needed to work up a good sweat.”  The grin changed to a sour expression as a loud guffaw sounded behind Sara.  “Great,” Frank heard her mutter. He looked over to where his sister was watching.

The laughter came from two large fighters who seemed to be finished for the day.  One was wearing a bright green workout shirt, while the other sported a black shirt with a skull on the front.

“Yeah, little kitty,” Skull said.  “Better not hesitate or the big bad pipsqueak there’ll pull your ears.”

“What?” Miranda demanded, glaring back at them.  “You want to say that to my face?”

Frank stood up, putting a hand on his sister’s shoulder.  “Come on, they’re not worth it,” he said.

“Did you hear what they called you?!” Miranda demanded.  Frank shrugged.

“I heard a fart,” he told her.  “You know where those come from.”  He had been teased about his height before; it didn’t really bother him anymore.

“Hey, kitten,” Green Shirt called.  “You want to see how a real man fights?  I know you satyrs have such… animal instincts!

Miranda’s cheeks flushed, and she started forward as if to fight them, but Sara held up a hand as she turned to face the hecklers.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” Sara said, smiling at them.  Frank could see the anger boiling in his mother’s eyes, though. “I have a strict no-bullying policy in my gym.”

Skull crossed his arms.  “And who’s gonna make me?” he asked, taunting the slim-framed woman.

Sara smiled pleasantly, taking one slow step forward.  “I will,” she said, cocking her head to the side. Frank could see that the two brawny fellows thought she was joking.  They laughed even louder at that, and Sara laughed, too. The mirth didn’t quite meet her eyes, however, and Frank knew what would come next.  He had only ever seen his mother this angry once before, and it did not end well for the person who had made her mad.

Mid-laugh, Sara suddenly grabbed the scruff of Skull’s shirt, tossing the man over her right hip using the same move that they had just been drilling.  Instead of landing on the semi-soft mat, however, Skull went crashing into the side of the ring. A loud THUNK told Frank that the heckler had hit the hard wooden frame, and he could hear the heckler’s moans from the floor below them.

Green Shirt’s eyes widened, but he didn’t have time to process what he had seen before he, too, was knocked to the ground.  Sara had used her cane to knock his legs out from under him, and then followed up with a punch to the gut when he was on the floor.

Green Shirt coughed, as though choking down bile, as Sara stood over him.  “Don’t you ever talk to my kids that way again,” she said. “Got it?”

“Yes ma’am,” they moaned.

“Now get out of my gym.”

The two hecklers got up as quickly as they could and ran out the door, Frank and Miranda’s laughter following them into the night.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, night.

Frank walking Miranda home. 

Sara had to stay late to finish up some paperwork after the kids finished practice.  It had stacked up recently, and she was determined to finish it before going home. She told Frank that she would get a cab, and asked him to walk Miranda the mile to their townhouse.

Miranda was unusually quiet, frowning slightly as she walked along the curb like a balance beam.  Her tail was tucked around her again, and she was still wearing the ski cap even though it was a warm night.

“You okay?” Frank asked her.

Miranda shrugged.  “It’s nothing. Those guys were just jerks.”

She was thinking about the hecklers.  “Being a satyr is nothing to be ashamed of,” Frank told her.

“I know that,” Miranda huffed.  “I just wish Mom didn’t have to step in like that.”

“She was defending you,” Frank said.

“Yeah, and she shouldn’t have to,” Miranda snapped back.  Then she deflated again, as though the fight had gone out of her.  “Besides,” she added, “I’m used to it.”

Frank’s jaw clenched as he realized what she was saying.  “You mean you hear that from other people?” he asked.

Miranda just looked at him with her yellow eyes, and for the first time he really noticed how inhuman they looked.  “What do you think?” she asked rhetorically. “I get it on campus, too: ‘Mangy Miranda’, ‘here, kitty, kitty’. That ‘animal instincts’ crack wasn’t even the most original one I’ve heard.”

Frank stepped in front of her, halting her on the curb.  With a grave expression, he said, “And if they can’t be original, then what good are they?”

Miranda gave a startled chuckle and said in an equally formal manner, “Too true.  Maybe they should have said something about my tail.” She uncurled her tail, letting the streetlights shine on it.

“Nah, too obvious,” Frank said, turning around and continuing to walk.  “How about, ‘Ooh, the fury of the Furry.’”

“Nice,” Miranda laughed, her melancholy forgotten.  As they passed the construction yard, she grinned at Frank.  “What do you say?” she taunted, “A little night training before you go back to the tower?”

“How are you not tired?” Frank asked her.  After spending the last hour getting pounded into the ring by his little sister, Frank was ready to go home and lounge on the couch in front of the TV for the evening.  It was his night off, and he just wanted to rest.

“Come on,” Miranda said, starting to climb the fence around the abandoned site.  “I just want to try one thing.”

“Nah, come on down,” Frank said, “Mom told me to take you straight home.”

It was hard to see it in the dark, but Frank could tell his sister was rolling her eyes at him.  “This won’t take long, I promise. I just want… what was that?”

She stopped climbing, and took one hand off of the fence to remove her ski cap.  Her long ears twitched in the moonlight as she listened. “What is it?” Frank asked.

“I think someone’s in trouble,” Miranda hissed.  “Shush.”

Frank listened, straining to hear anything unusual nearby.  Miranda’s hearing was as good as a cat’s, though, and there were some things that were easier for her than for her brother.  Frank might be a Third Gen, but his powers were mostly limited to being able to see in the dark; his ears were all too human.  “Come on,” she said suddenly, jumping down from the fence and starting to run. Her tail came unwrapped from her waist as she ran off down the sidewalk.

Frank ran after her, calling for her to wait.  Soon after he passed the edge of the construction lot, he heard it too; somewhere nearby, someone was fighting.  From the inhuman growls that punctuated the sound of punches and kicks, there was at least one satyr in the struggle.

Frank sped up, catching up to Miranda as she stopped in front of an alley.  In the dark space between the buildings, five figures were trying to subdue a sixth.  Miranda moved to dart into the fray, but Frank put a hand on her shoulder.

“We have to help,” Miranda said.

“Wait,” Frank said quietly, “we have no idea who they are or why they’re fighting.”

“She’s a satyr, Frank,” Miranda shot back, glaring at him.  “Isn’t it obvious?”

Knowing that Miranda’s night vision was better than his own, Frank squinted down the alley.  The momentary distraction was all Miranda needed to escape his grip; before he could stop her, she had charged headfirst into the fight.

Frank had no choice but to follow; his mom would kill him if he let Miranda get hurt.  He grabbed the first attacker he came to and dragged him away from the center. As the surprised mugger turned around, Frank punched him in the jaw; the man went down like a sack of bricks.

Frank saw Miranda with her back to a wall, using the MMA style of fighting that their mother had drilled into them since childhood.  She held off one attacker but while the wall at her back kept anyone else from sneaking up on her, she also had no escape route. Frank dodged a third fighter and grabbed the arm of his sister’s assailant.  Twisting his arm around behind his back, Frank kicked him in the back of the knee to force him down to the ground. These guys were a foot taller than Frank, but his muscles were harder from a decade of parkour and mixed martial arts, and his Watcher training outmatched their fighting style.

Miranda nodded her thanks, her eyes wide as she focused on something just behind him.  With only two opponents, the satyr woman they had come to rescue could now stand and fight on her own.  Frank quickly slammed the guy he held to the ground, making sure he didn’t get up, and then turned to watch.

This new satyr was unlike anyone Frank had ever seen.  Her floppy ears whipped through the air as she held her own against two guys twice her size.  Her eyes glinted black in the moonlight, even in the darkness of the alley. She swept the feet of one of her attackers out from under him, and then turned to punch the other one in the face in one movement.  She was definitely a dog-satyr, with fur covering her face, but she didn’t have a tail like Miranda did.

“A little help here,” the new satyr cried, as the guy on the ground grabbed her leg.  Frank shook himself for the hesitation, before jumping into the fight.

He took care of the guy on the ground, allowing the satyr-woman to finish off the other one.  As the sounds of fighting stopped, Frank turned to the woman. “Are you okay?” he asked.

“Where’s the merc?” came the confusing reply as the woman frantically looked around.

As Frank opened his mouth to ask who “the merc” was, he heard a scream come from behind him.  Turning, he mentally kicked himself for forgetting about the fifth assailant. The first guy he had punched on his way in had also recovered, and was now grabbing Miranda by her exposed tail.  He yanked cruelly, pulling her into him and grabbing her by the neck. A lean bald man stood next to them, grinning with a smile that didn’t quite meet his eyes.

Frank ran after them, but the bald man drew a katana from a double sheath on his back and held the blade up to Miranda’s throat.  Miranda stopped struggling as the metal touched her neck.

“It’s too bad you don’t want to come with us, Toby,” the man called back to the satyr-woman, “but this one will work just as well.  Thanks for the match.”

Frank shook his head.  “That’s my sister,” he cried, trying to stall as he figured out what to do.

The man just shrugged one shoulder.  “Sorry,” he said, “but I have to meet my quota.” He pointed at the satyr woman, who doubled over in sudden, uncontrollable laughter.

Suddenly, the wall next to him seemed to open up, though none of the bricks moved.  Through the hole, Frank caught a glimpse of wooden crates stacked in the background, in a space much too big for the building next to them.  The merc gestured to the goon holding Miranda to step through, before going through the portal himself.

Frank ran after them, jumping to dive through the opening in space, but the portal closed just before he hit it, and without any extra space to finish his dive Frank crashed head-first into the brick wall.

“No!” he shouted, pounding his fists on the brick.  “No, give her back!”

“They’re gone,” the woman said from behind him, her strange laughter subsiding.  “You shouldn’t have interfered.”

“Yeah?  You’re welcome for saving your life,” Frank spat back.  “Where did they go? We have to follow them.”

“I have no idea where they went,” the satyr-woman said, dropping her eyes to the side.  “I’ve been tracking them around the city for months; this was the first solid lead I’ve had in weeks, and now they could be anywhere.”

“They’ve got my sister,” Frank growled, “because we were trying to save you.”

“Yes, because you led her into a fight,” the woman shot back.  “If you’d just left well enough alone…”

“Then you’d have been dragged off with them,” Frank said, his voice rising, “and we would have gone home.  Miranda stopped to save you, now you tell me where she is!”

“I don’t know!” the woman shouted back, catching his eyes with her inhuman black ones.  “I have no idea how they do that portal-thing, I don’t know where they take the satyrs once they have them, I don’t even know why they’re grabbing satyrs, I – just – don’t – KNOW!!”

Frank was shocked into silence for a few seconds.  When he spoke again, his voice was much quieter as he asked, “So what do we do?”

“’We’?” the woman repeated.  “There is no ‘we’, kid; I’m going to track them down.  I have an old friend in the city I’m going to see; you run home and wait for me to find them.”

“’Run home’.”  It was Frank’s turn to repeat things.  “I’m not just ‘running home’ without my sister.  Mom’ll freak.” What’ll I tell Mom? he thought even as he said it.  After promising to look after Miranda, she was taken on his watch.  How was he going to break the news?

“Tough,” the satyr-woman said.  “I’ve got to find a new lead, thanks to your interfering – your mom is your problem.”

With that last word, she ran out of the alley and into the night.  Frank stood there, dumbstruck, for another minute before running for help.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, Agent’s office.

Frank Mejia, briefing Agent.

“I’m telling you, the satyr woman called him ‘the merc’,” Frank told Agent, running through the events of earlier again.  He had come straight to the tower after his sister was abducted; he was hoping to find her and get her home safe and sound before his mom even knew she had been missing.

“What did you say she looked like?” Agent asked, typing something into his computer.

“Long tail, cat ears, I mean, you’ve met her…” Frank said.

“Not your sister,” said Agent.  “The satyr you rescued.”

Frank thought back.  “She’s a dog-satyr,” he said.  “She had fur all over her – at least the parts I could see.  Floppy ears, too. It was dark, but I think her fur was light.”

Agent typed something else into the database.  “That sounds like Holmes,” he said. “Toby Watson.  She’s a private eye in the city; we’ve used her information on a few cases.  I asked her to keep an eye out for the kidnapped satyrs – I guess she found something.”

“What about the guy who took Miranda?” Frank asked, impatient.  “What do you know about him?”

“You said he pointed at Toby, and she started laughing uncontrollably?” Agent asked.  He suddenly looked uncomfortable, as though he wanted to change the subject.

Frank saw through him.  “You know who he is, don’t you?” he accused.

“You know who he is, too,” Agent said.  “That was Marauder, of Team Ark.”

“… What?” Frank asked, hoping he had misheard.

Agent turned to look at him.  “Didn’t you ever meet your parents’ team?” he asked.  “I mean, I know you and I only met a couple years ago, but surely you met Derek, Casey, Steve…?”

“No,” Frank said, stunned.  “Mom and Dad wanted to keep us out of it; I don’t even know if Miranda remembers that they were Watchers in the first place.”

Agent turned back to his computer.  “When I first went to put the team together, I asked Derek if he would join,” he said.  “He and Earthborn were my first recruits, since your dad and Casey refused. Marauder said he’d think about it, but he turned me down, too.  I wasn’t surprised – Team Ark’s breakup was messy, and for any of them to come back here…” he trailed off for a second, then shook his head to clear it.  “Let’s just say that this wasn’t my first choice for a post, either. Regardless, I’ve kept up with the old members, just in case: Star, your mom, runs the dojo.  Kindred, your dad, does Watcher work solo. Sparrow now runs the bar.”

“And Marauder?” Frank prompted.

“Marauder worked as a Watcher for a while, but he turned mercenary.”  Agent pulled up a file on one of his screens, showing Frank the face of the man who had abducted Miranda.  “Derek Hessing, ex-military Third Gen with the power to manipulate emotions. He fell off the grid a while back, doing less-than-reputable jobs for not-so-good people.”

“And now he’s kidnapping satyrs,” Frank finished.  “Why haven’t you stopped him before?”

“On what charge?” Agent asked.  “Derek’s a professional – he knows how to cover his tracks.  Him kidnapping Miranda in front of two witnesses is probably the best break we’ve ever gotten on the kidnapping ring.”

“Glad my sister’s abduction could help,” Frank said drily.  “Now what?”

Agent scanned the file, looking for something.  “We have an address for him,” he said. “Nightmare and Trick are patrolling near there now; I’ll have them check it out.”

“Great,” said Frank.  “What can I do?”

“There’s a storage warehouse near the docks that Marauder has also been known to use,” Agent told him.  “Jaunt has also been seen in the area.”

“Jaunt?” Frank asked.  “What’s he got to do with this?”

“You said they stepped through a hole in the wall and disappeared,” Agent reminded him.  “That has Jaunt written all over it. Unless you know of another Third Gen who can rip holes in space, because Marauder sure can’t.”

“Okay, so I’ll check out the warehouse,” Frank said, turning to leave.

“Not so fast,” Agent said.  “I’m not sending you down there without backup.  Haley will be back in an hour – ”

“I’m not waiting,” Frank said.  “My sister could be there, and in an hour they could move her.”

Agent ran a hand through his hair, gripping his umbrella.  “If I’m going to coordinate the groups, I can’t go with you,” he said.  “The others are out on assignments.” The elevator door opened.

“Don’t worry about me,” Frank said, pulling out his phone as he stepped into the lift.  “I know who to call.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, warehouses near the docks.

Frank Mejia, AKA Shadow.

Shadow didn’t turn around as he felt a sudden gust of wind.  “Glad you could make it,” he said, keeping his eyes on the building.  His goggles, set to infra-red, showed him how many people were inside.

“I’ll always be there for my friends,” Parker shrugged as he knelt down next to him.  “What’s the sitch?”

“Miranda was kidnapped,” Shadow told him.  “You remember Marauder from Team Ark?”

“You’re kidding,” Parker whistled.  “Marauder? He was a hero!”

Shadow’s mouth twisted.  “And now he’s a mercenary, apparently kidnapping satyrs for Jaunt.  Including my sister.”

“Hey,” Parker said, putting a hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “We’ll get her back.”

Shadow turned to look at him, pushing his goggles up on his forehead.  “Seriously man, thanks for coming,” he said. “I know you could get in a lot of trouble with Claw for working with a Watcher…”

“Ah, don’t worry about that,” Parker said.  “I got Claw’s permission to come.”

“Really?” Shadow asked.  “How’d you manage that?”

Parker raised an eyebrow.  “Satyrs have been kidnapped,” he said, as if it were obvious.  “The Faun’s manifesto is to help satyrs. I just told him – in front of witnesses – that I had a lead on it, but that I’d have to work with a Watcher to follow through.”  He pushed his sleeves up, revealing a bandage on his arm. “Claw said I’d have to try to kill you when the satyrs are safe, but he let me go.”

“Are you okay, man?” Shadow asked, concerned for his friend.

Parker shrugged.  “It’s not as easy as I thought it would be,” he admitted.  “Claw’s… well, he’s merciless to those who fail him. But I’m moving up in the organization, and we should have enough to bring him down soon.  He’s planning something big; all I need is to get in on it, and we can catch him red-handed.”

“Just come home soon,” Shadow told him.  “Nat’s been out of her mind with worry.”

“How many guards?” Parker asked, changing the subject.

Shadow pulled his goggles back down over his eyes, looking back at the building.  “Looks like ten guards, and five prisoners – they have the satyrs grouped at the back of the building.”

“Okay then,” Parker said, standing up and shaking out his wings.  “What’s the play for the two of us? I distract, you sneak?”

“Like old times,” Shadow grinned at his buddy.  “Nat’s going to be pissed that she missed it.”

Parker chuckled.  “I’ve got something that’ll make her really jealous,” he said.  “She wasn’t the only one to pick up some tricks from Dad.”

“So, do I call you Blackbird again?” Frank asked as they moved into position.

“Better not,” Parker said.  “The Fauns know me as ‘Fallen’.”

Shadow shook his head.  “That’s way too cheesy, man,” he said, “especially with your wings.”

“Then I guess we’re sticking with ‘Parker’ on this one,” Parker said, grinning.  “Man, I missed this. Let’s go get ‘em.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City warehouses.

Miranda Mejia, waking up.

“She’s coming to,” a male voice said from somewhere above her.

Miranda Mejia woke up in a small room, tied to a hard reclining chair.  With the two people and bright lamp above her, she thought for a moment that she was at the dentist’s office.  Then the wooden walls came into focus behind them, and she remembered the fight.

The bald mercenary had taken her through the portal.  Before she could even try to fight back, someone stuck her with a needle and she blacked out.  Now, still groggy from whatever drug they had pumped her with, she fought against her bonds. The two figures looked at her, and then turned to each other.  The one on the left had a faint blue glow, but the light above kept Miranda from seeing either of their faces clearly.

“Who the hell are you?!” she tried to shout, only to find that her mouth had been gagged.  She settled for a string of muffled profanities that would have made her mother wash out her mouth as she struggled against the chair ties.

“Interesting,” said a female voice.  It sounded nearly robotic; if she didn’t see two figures above her, Miranda would have thought it was one person talking to a computer.  “Your methods are rather crude, but appear to be effective.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the male voice replied, and the shadowy figure on Miranda’s right waved a hand dismissively.  “One out of twenty candidates isn’t what I’d call ‘effective’.”

“Nevertheless,” the woman replied, “one candidate is better than none.  It appears your experiment was successful in that regard.”

“She survived,” the man conceded, “and she’s not raving like some of the others, but whether or not she gains powers remains to be seen.”  Miranda quieted down. Powers?  This sounded like something she might want to hear.  Neither person acknowledged her presence, so they might say something to help her later.

“What is the purpose of this experiment?” the female robot asked.  “Your task was simply to find a viable contestant. We did not need you to alter them.”

The figure on the left cocked her head, while the figure on the right put a hand to his temple.  “This planet technically has three dominant species,” he said, “the Third Gens, the Satyrs, and the Humans.  Humans are probably not going to last more than a few generations. While the Third Gen and Satyr serums were supposed to create recessive genes, they’re growing more in numbers as the therapy mutates.  Soon, maybe even within my lifetime, homo sapiens will become endangered. So we really need to focus on the surviving two.”

“What is the purpose of this experiment?” the woman asked again, in the exact same tone as before.

The man sighed.  “You asked for a viable contestant.  One. It isn’t fair for a world of two dominant races to limit our representative to only one of them.  I’m trying to find a candidate who can represent both.”

“So you are infusing a satyr with the Third Gen gene?” the robotic voice asked.

“It’s the least invasive procedure,” the man answered.  “Satyrs are a physical mutation, while Third Gen is a mental one.  As we found when the satyr serum was first tested on humans, the physical mutations can kill.  So I focused on the successful serum: I tweaked Third Gen to interact with a satyr to give them powers.”

“Of your twenty candidates, you injected ten with the current serum.  Of those ten, only one has awoken with any mental clarity,” the woman reported.  “Would it not have been more scientifically judicious to study the candidates before injecting them?”

“Oh give me a break,” the man replied.  “Of course it would, but you gave me a time limit.  That kind of lab work would take years to set up and run, and then would only work with the resources that I’m just now getting.  We have what, two years left?”

“Your time: two years, one month, five days, six hours, eight minutes – ”

“Yeah, yeah, I got it,” the man interrupted.  “The point is time’s short. I can’t keep this under wraps for much longer, but I’m finally getting into a position where I can find you a viable candidate.  This particular experiment is just me stacking the deck; just like the Fourth Gen experiment, or kidnappings, or any of the others I’ve orchestrated since your boss first told me about this.”

Miranda squinted her eyes, trying to see her kidnapper’s face.  The voice didn’t sound like Marauder from the alley, and this figure seemed to have a head full of hair instead of Marauder’s bald pate.  The voice seemed vaguely familiar, but Miranda couldn’t quite place it.

“So do you have your report?” the man asked.  The figure on the left nodded, and they disappeared in a flash of blue light.  The man swore, and moved out of Miranda’s line of sight. She tried to turn her head, but found that her neck was also clamped down.

She let out a muffled protest again, and the man actually answered.  “I am sorry about this,” he said. “But like I told Ayu, time is short and you’re my back-up plan.  Hopefully you won’t be needed; I’d hate to send a teenage girl to that sadist.” Miranda’s eyes widened in alarm.  “But someone has to go. Personally, I’m rooting for the Team Ark members, but Marauder has already proven corruptible, and Star is crippled.  The Asylum teammates are too new; two of them are human, the Third Gens are under-powered, the Fourth Gens are unstable, the Djinn is too old, and the hybrid has his own agenda.  You were a stroke of luck, by the way,” the shadowy figure came back into view, pressing his hands together. A dust mask dangled from his arm. “Agent sent the Asylum team to look for you, and Claw actually sent someone to help.” He moved away from her chair, but stayed in her field of vision.  “Agent also knows what’s coming,” he added as an afterthought.  “I just can’t wait around for his goody-two-shoes approach.  Wish I could, though.”

After a second’s pause, he shrugged, and opened his hands in the air in front of them.  The air seemed to tear, showing a scene of deserted ruins in mid-air. The man shrugged again and said, “It doesn’t matter.  We’ll figure it out; you just get some rest now. I’ll be seeing you.”

He put the dust mask on and stepped through the portal, leaving Miranda alone in the small, dimly-lit room.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City warehouses.

Parker and Shadow.

The guards were taken aback when the entrance to the warehouse slammed open and smoke began pouring in.  A Guns N Roses song began blaring from the entrance as an angel appeared out of the fog. Parker flared his wings, flipping his knives out dramatically as he grabbed the guards’ attention.

“You know what your mistake was?” he asked over the music.  “You guys pissed off the Fauns. Claw doesn’t like human thugs who kidnap innocent satyrs – and you really shot the wind when you kidnapped one of my friends.”

He really does have Nat’s flare, Shadow thought to himself as he slipped in behind his friend.  While Parker drew the guards’ eyes, Shadow could sneak through the shadows around the side of the warehouse to get to the prisoners.

Sure enough, the guards turned their guns on Parker, who dove for cover behind some boxes near the entrance.  Shadow was already out of the firing range, but he helped Parker out by throwing some shadows into the guards’ faces.  They stopped shooting as they found that they couldn’t see.

Shadow reached the prisoners, who looked dazed and confused.  They didn’t respond when he told them to move, even after he cut their bonds – they seemed catatonic, though they were wide awake.

Miranda wasn’t among them.  Shadow tuned his goggles back to infra-red and looked around, seeing if he could find another heat signature that might be her.  Behind him, he heard the guards scream as Parker pulled out his next trick. Shadow was looking around frantically, trying to find his sister, when he saw a faint signature behind what appeared to be a solid wall.

Turning his goggles back to normal vision, he found a small panel.  As he pressed a button, a red laser grid scanned his face. A female voice said, “Scanning… subject unknown.  Authorization not found.”

“Agent,” he said, calling through his com.  “I think I found a secret room, but there’s a panel with what looks like a retinal or a facial scanner.  Can you hack it?”

You know, I usually need some more details,” Agent pointed out.  “Can you show me?

Shadow pulled out his phone and took a picture of the scanner.  Once he had sent it to Agent, he asked, “So can you hack it?”

At some point, you’re going to have to learn what it is I do,” Agent told him.  “I can’t ‘hack’ scanners.  I can, however, trick them into shutting down and opening the lock.

“Fine, whatever,” Shadow said.  “Can you do it?”

Done.” As Agent said it, a hidden panel opened in the wall.  It became a door, leading to the hidden back room of the warehouse.

Shadow moved to enter, but before he could go in he doubled over in a fit of laughter.  A voice said from behind him, “Clever, Star – very clever. But not quite good enough.”

As he turned around, Shadow found himself face-to-face with Marauder himself.

Marauder furrowed his eyebrows in confusion.  “You’re not Star,” he said. “You’re wearing her outfit, but you don’t have her limp.”

The laughing fit subsided, and Shadow stood to face him.  “My name is Shadow,” he said. “I’m from the Asylum.”

“The Asylum?” Marauder repeated.  “Those new guys who Agent thinks will replace us?  Funny.” He drew one of his katanas and pointed it at Shadow’s throat.  “Your buddy over there claimed to be from the Fauns. You working with criminals now, or was he just blowing hot air?”  He seemed to study Shadow’s face behind the goggles. “Wait, I recognize you – you’re Sara and Kevin’s kid!”

“I’m also the guy from the alley, when you took my sister,” Shadow pointed out.  Despite the sword at his neck, he pulled out his nightsticks and turned them on. The hum of the tasers came on behind the sounds of fighting and Parker’s playlist in the background.  He caught a flash of light out of the corner of his eye, but kept his eyes riveted on Marauder in front of him.

“Right…” Marauder said, shrugging.  “Like I said then, it isn’t personal.  Just business.”

“Then you shouldn’t take this personally,” Shadow said, shoving a taser into the sword at his neck.  He followed through, knocking the sword aside and putting the other taser into Marauder’s arm. The mercenary went down, his body shuddering from the wattage that hit him.

Shadow turned back to the door to see a masked man slowly clapping.  “Well done, young man,” the masked man said. “Marauder is not an easy guy to take down, but you did it so neatly.”

“Who are you?” Shadow asked, clutching his nightsticks in a defensive stance.

The masked man shrugged.  “Nobody of consequence,” he said.  “I believe my record refers to me as ‘Jaunt’.”

An icy feeling washed over Shadow.  “You’re… you’re Jaunt?” he repeated.  “You’re the guy that took down Team Ark!”

“Oh, that?” Jaunt said, waving a hand.  “That was nothing. Team Ark had problems long before I got there; I’ve done many more relevant things.”

“Where’s my sister?” Shadow demanded, holding up his nightsticks.

Jaunt stepped out of the doorway, motioning for Shadow to go in.  “Right through here,” he said. “She’s fine; she turned out better than the others.  You can have her back, now.”

“What did you do to her?” Shadow asked, tentatively stepping past Jaunt into the hidden room.  If it was a trap, Parker was still outside – Shadow had no doubt that Parker had his back.

“Just gave her a new serum,” Jaunt said, shrugging as if it were no big deal.  “I think Pharos is planning to market it as ‘Gen Juice’. She’ll get a taste before the black market gets their hands on it.”

“I won’t let you get away this time,” Shadow said, jamming one of his tasers towards the villain.

Jaunt threw himself back, swatting Shadow’s hand away.  “None of that, now,” he said, stepping back further. “You can have your sister back, but I’m not quite ready to stop the experiments.”

“What?” Shadow asked.

“Something big is coming,” Jaunt warned him.  He moved to where Marauder laid. “I’ve been preparing the world for it.  One of these days I might even show you – but for now, get your sister and get out.  Your Faun friend will leave as soon as he has a sample of the Juice.”

Shadow shook his head, even as he realized the sound of the fighting had stopped.  “He wouldn’t leave,” he said. “He was here to help me get my sister.”

“He was here on Claw’s orders, to pick up a shipment,” Jaunt said.  “Make no mistake: you’re getting your sister back because I’m letting you take her.”  He clapped his hands together, and as he pulled them apart a hole seemed to open in the space between them.  A blue-hued desert landscape showed from the other side as Jaunt grabbed Marauder and tossed the limp mercenary through.

Jaunt stepped through the portal after him, saying, “Tell Agent I said hi,” before it shut behind him.

Shadow let out a frustrated sigh, before going into the hidden room.  There he found Miranda tied to a medical chair. “Frank!” she cried as soon as he removed the gag.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Shadow said, freeing her from the other restraints.  “I’m here.”

“Hey, man,” Parker said, poking his head into the room.  “You got her?”

Shadow nodded.  “She’s right here,” he said.  As soon as he freed her arms, Miranda threw them around her brother in a hug.

“I don’t know what they did to me,” she admitted, her voice shaking.  “They were talking about an experiment, and said I was the only one who woke up from it – so I know they did something, but I don’t know what they did…”

Shadow gently shushed her.  “Don’t worry about it,” he said, holding her back so that he could look into her cat-like eyes.  “We’ll get Dale to check you and the others out. But after that, you’re going home. It’s over.”

Miranda was still shaking, but she stood up from the chair.  As she rubbed feeling into her limbs, Shadow reflected on the tough training that his parents had put them through.  Miranda might not be a Watcher, but even after the night’s ordeal she could still function enough to get out of there.

Parker came into the room.  “I’ve finished off the guards,” he said.  “The other satyrs aren’t moving – you’ll take them to Dale?” he asked.  When Shadow nodded, still keeping an arm around his sister, Parker added, “Okay.  I have to get back to the Fauns, then.”

“Claw doesn’t want you to take the satyrs to him?” Shadow asked.  It didn’t sound like the cult leader to let satyrs leave with a Watcher.

Parker shrugged, shaking out his wings.  “Claw isn’t interested in taking in strays who can’t function,” he said, moving over to check out the lab where Miranda was held.  “Technically he’ll want me to bring him Miranda, but I’ll make something up about you not letting me take her.” He picked up a small medical jar with an orange liquid sloshing around in it.  Facing Shadow, he said, “Go ahead, get her out of here.”

“Agent’s sending the others,” Shadow told him.  “They’ll want to see you.”

Parker shook his head.  “I can’t stick around,” he said, heading for the door.  “If Claw finds out I’m chummy with you guys, he’d probably kill me.”  He gave Miranda a quick hug as he passed. “I’m glad you’re okay,” he told her, walking out the door.  “Catch you later!”

As he walked out the door, Shadow watched him pocket the jar of liquid.  He wanted to go after his friend and ask why Parker had just lied to him, but he had his hands full helping his sister.  The siblings made it to where the other satyrs were kept, and watched Parker fly off into the night.

* * * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, the next day.

Dinner time.

“I can’t believe he was there and didn’t wait for us!” Natalie cried, pounding her fist on the counter.  “That inconsiderate jerk!”

“He said he might be home soon,” Frank told her again, trying to calm his friend’s temper.  “Just one more big job with Claw, and he said they can catch him red-handed.”

“He’d better,” Natalie muttered, folding her arms over her chest.  Her food lay untouched on the plate in front of her.

“How’s your sister doing?” Haley asked, sitting down at the kitchen island with her dinner.  “Did Dale sign off on her?”

Frank nodded.  “Clean bill of health,” he said.  “She’s taking a few days off of classes, just for her mental health, but physically Dale couldn’t find anything wrong with her.”  He gave a small sigh as he opened the fridge to find something to eat for himself. “She’s acting different,” he added with a worried frown.

“Stands to reason,” Reiki shrugged, listening in from the living area.  “Anybody would be shaken up after that, even if they didn’t hurt her.”

“What about the other satyrs?” Rina asked, sitting next to Reiki.  “Have they said anything yet?”

“Miranda was the only responsive one,” Haley said, swallowing a bite.  “Dale had the other five moved to a lab outside the city for treatment.”

“We only got six back,” Natalie said, grabbing her fork and stabbing a piece of broccoli angrily.  “Reports had fifteen missing satyrs, including Miranda, and we only got six back.”

“We’ll find the others,” Haley said.  “Six is better than none. Especially when one of the six was family.”  She nodded towards Frank.

Natalie huffed.  “Sorry, Frank,” she said.  “Of course I’m happy we got Miranda back safely.  I’m just frustrated with how little we know. This Jaunt guy has been playing with us, and I’m sick of it.”

“And he got away,” Frank added, frustrated himself.  “I had him right there, and he got away.”

“We’ll get him, too,” Haley promised.  “Agent’s working on it. In the meantime, we can train, and be prepared for when we see him again.”

Natalie and Frank looked at each other, but they didn’t say anything.

Rina spoke up to break the silence.  “Hey, Frank – I’ll give you another chance to beat me at Smash Bros after dinner!” she called over.

Frank grinned at her, though it didn’t quite reach his eyes.  “You’re on,” he said.

Haley was right – they would get another chance.  Worrying about it would only keep them up at night for nothing.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, night.

Miranda Mejia.

Something’s different.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Sara asked her daughter for the hundredth time that evening.

“Mom, I’ll be fine,” Miranda said, settling into bed.  “I’m going back to school tomorrow and everything. Stop worrying!”

Sara sighed.  “I’ll never stop worrying about you, baby girl,” she said.  “But if you’re sure…”

“Mom, I need to sleep,” Miranda pointed out.  Sara took the hint and backed out of the doorway.  “Good night!”

“Sleep tight, sweetheart,” Sara said, closing the door enough to block out the hallway light, but leaving it open a crack.

Miranda got up and closed it the rest of the way, shaking her head.  She wasn’t even jumpy any more – her mom was worrying about nothing. She hadn’t been hurt.

In fact, she felt better than she had in her entire life.

Miranda smiled to herself as she looked down at her hands.  She snapped her fingers, and a small flame lit up above her thumb.  She watched the fire dance for a minute before snapping her fingers again to turn it off.

It was different, but she was definitely okay.

* * * * * * * *

Issue #9 – Granny To Us All

Asylum Headquarters.

Granny’s room.

Brittany Rose James yawned as she woke up, slowly stretching her creaking joints.  She smiled wryly at the stuffed dolls lining her wall, saying, “It’s no wonder they call me Granny, huh?”

She slowly swung her feet over the side of the bed, settling them into her slippers before standing up with more creaking and groaning.  The alarm clock at her bedside blinked 5:03 am in big green numbers. She never needed to set it – she snapped awake at five in the morning every day.

“What day is it today?” she asked her zoo, picking up her knitting needles from her nightstand as she straightened the blankets on her bed.  She tapped them against a small knit dragonfly, whispering a spell. The dragonfly came to life, zipping over to the calendar hanging next to the door.

“Oh, it’s the twenty-first!” Granny said.  “Thank you, Roberta. Silly me, I almost forgot my own birthday.  One hundred and nineteen years young, eh?” she chuckled. She stopped to admire herself in the mirror as she went to the bathroom.  “But I don’t look a day over eighty.”

Her morning routine took about two hours as she straightened her room, packed certain stuffed animals into her day-bag, washed and dressed herself in a pastel outfit.  Today was special, though – she wore her special birthday shirt to see the doctor.

“Good morning, sunshine!” Dale greeted her, referring to the bright yellow suns that dotted her shirt.  “Happy birthday to my favorite octogenarian.”

“Good morning to you too, Doctor,” Granny said, smiling at his flirtations.  “Though I’m afraid I stopped being an octogenarian around the time you were born.”

Dale grinned back.  “You’ll forever be eighty-three to me, my dear,” he said.  “You need your pills this morning?” He held out a cup with six pills in it.

“Wouldn’t hurt,” Granny said, taking it from him.  After swallowing everything he prescribed, she went back to her room to get a load of laundry in before breakfast.

When she came down to breakfast, she was surprised to see Haley sitting at the table.  “Morning!” she said cheerily.

“Good morning,” Granny said.  “I’m surprised to see you down here; the others don’t usually get up until later.  Do you have patrol this morning, dear?”

“Oh no, my patrol’s this afternoon,” Haley said.  “I just couldn’t sleep, so I came down early today.  I hear it’s your birthday,” she added, changing the subject.

“Another year older,” Granny shrugged, shuffling over to the coffee pot.  “One year left.”

“Come again?” Haley asked, tilting her head in confusion.  “One year left ‘til what?”

“Oh, never you mind, dear,” Granny said, sipping her morning brew.  “It’s an old person thing.” She winked conspiratorially at the younger girl, putting a finger on her nose.

Haley giggled.  “I’ve never met another ‘old person’ who fights while riding a dragon,” she said.  “Instead of ‘old’, why don’t we just call you ‘youth-challenged’?”

“Works for me!” Granny cackled.  “Would you like some eggs?”

“That’d be great, thanks!”  Haley stood and got a bowl down from the cupboard.  Together, the two of them prepared breakfast for the team.

Granny liked Haley.  The girl had been polite and charming since the day she started at the Asylum.  Haley would often join Granny for tea on days she didn’t have patrol, and she was always extremely helpful.  Granny watched as the young hero squirted ketchup on her eggs.

“Would you like some?” Haley asked, offering the bottle to her.

“No, thank you,” Granny said.  “Never know who else will show up.”

She thinks I mean the other Asylum folk, Granny thought as Haley shrugged and put the bottle down.  Granny had stopped using condiments on her food more than a hundred years ago.

* * * * * * * *

One hundred and seven years ago.

Brittany James, age thirteen.

It was summer vacation, and Brittany was loving every minute of it.  Middle school was tough: she had always been socially awkward, and she couldn’t make friends at school no matter how hard she tried.  If she was friendly, she was called “weird” – but if she was anything less, kids would say she was being a bitch. There didn’t seem to be a middle ground for her; the other kids in her classes were determined to hate her just for existing.

In the summer, though, she didn’t need to get along with people.  She could watch TV all day while her parents were gone, and play video games.  She was currently preparing her favorite sandwich for lunch: turkey and swiss with tomato, lettuce, onions, and mayo.

She squirted the mayo in a thin stream onto the bread in a star shape today.  She didn’t know why – it just pleased her to see the shape take form. A star, then a circle around it – the bottle was nearly empty, though.  She had to shake it to get the last bit out, and it sprayed a random pattern onto the rest of the pentagram.

Smoke began to fill the room, and glowing red eyes stared at her from across the table.  “Who has dared summon me?” came a booming voice.  Brittany was coughing from the sulfur-smelling smoke, and couldn’t answer.  “Who dares to call upon the great Mališa?

Brittany stared at the demon’s eyes.  At the time, she had no idea that demons really existed; she thought they were just fairy stories to frighten kids into behaving in church.  Her first thought was to panic – but then she noticed something strange.

The demon was staring at her sandwich.

It looked back at her, realizing what had happened.  “You summoned me… with lunch?” Mališa asked.  “You, child – you didn’t mean to summon me here, did you?  Why did you write my name with mayonnaise?”  The demon stood up, revealing his bat-like wings.

The movement also revealed that Mališa was only two feet tall.  He looked bigger because he was standing on the counter next to Brittany’s sandwich.

Speak, child!” Mališa demanded.  “Do not waste my time, or I’ll devour your soul!”  He bared his fangs, and despite his diminutive size, Brittany had no doubt that he meant the threat.

“I…” she stammered.  “I… I was wondering if you were hungry.”  She gestured to the sandwich. “Please, would you join me for lunch?”

The demon blinked at her.  “You want me to eat with you?” he asked.  “You… you don’t think I will eat you?

“Well, that would be pretty rude,” Brittany said, “to eat your host after being invited to lunch.”  She shrugged, warming up to the idea as she got out another piece of bread and began making another sandwich for herself – this time without mayo.  “Care to join me?” she asked the demon, who was still standing on the counter.

…I am a bit peckish,” Mališa admitted.  The demon grabbed the sandwich already made, putting the two pieces of bread together carefully.  Slowly, he took a bite. His eyes widened, and he looked down at the sandwich in his hand. “This is delicious,” he said, surprised.  “I haven’t tasted something this good in centuries!

“I’m glad you like it,” Brittany giggled.  “My secret is putting the cheese in between the lettuce and tomato, and the tomato on the meat.  That way, the juices of the tomato don’t soak the bread, and the cheese adds flavor to the lettuce.”

Amazing!” Mališa finished his sandwich, savoring every bite.  “I don’t get food like this at home,” he said.  “The other imps take the best stuff for themselves, and call me ‘runt’ when I try to get my share.

“That’s awful!” Brittany said.  “I have the same problem with the kids at school.  They say I’m ‘weird’, or else they ignore me when I try to talk to them.”  She sighed. “My parents are always at work, and I don’t have any siblings.  It gets kind of lonely around here.”

I have five hundred and thirty-two brothers and sisters,” Mališa told her, “but they’re all much closer with each other than they are to me.  Nobody has time for the runt of the litter.”  He sighed, sitting down on the counter as Brittany finished her sandwich.  “Even my parents named me ‘Little One’ – my siblings got all the cool names, like ‘Bringer of Death’ and ‘Saberwing’.  For a demon, it’s embarrassing.

“‘Saberwing’?” Brittany asked, giggling.  “What, does he have like a sword on his wings?”

Mališa started to laugh, too.  “No – but he does have a nose that takes up his whole face!” he told her.  They both giggled.

“I think Mališa’s a cool name,” Brittany told him.  “Sounds like ‘malice’.”

Mališa looked at her with wide eyes.  If he had tear ducts, Brittany thought he might cry.  “That is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me,” he told her.

The demon stayed for an hour before he had to go back home.  He told her about life in the underworld as an imp, having bigger demons pick on him all the time.  Brittany told Mališa about the kids at school who picked on her.

I will devour their souls!” he swore when she told him about the girls who would make fun of her lack of chest in the gym locker room.  “They will rue the day they messed with… I never did get your name, child.

“Brittany,” she introduced.

They will rue the day they messed with Brittany!” Mališa finished.

When Mališa left, it was with the promise of coming back the next day to chat some more.  For the rest of that summer, Brittany had lunch with her new friend – and suddenly the world didn’t feel quite so lonely.

But she never used condiments out of a squirt bottle again.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

After breakfast.

The other Asylum members trickled into the kitchen over the morning.  Frank came back after his night patrol, ready to pass out until the afternoon.  Granny always made him eat something before bed, since his rocket-skates took a lot of physical effort to use.

“I don’t know what’s been going on lately,” he said, slowly and dramatically trying to lift his fork with effort.  “There were five robberies last night. Five! Two were from Third Gen and Satyr groups, and one was the Fauns.” He took a bite and looked at Natalie, who was eating her own breakfast at the kitchen island.  “Parker says hi, by the way.”

“You saw Parker last night?” Natalie asked, suddenly interested in the conversation.

Frank nodded.  “He was leading a group of Fauns in a jewelry heist,” he said.  “I told him that was cliché. He said that Claw wanted those pieces for some reason.”

“Which pieces?” Granny asked.  She was always on the lookout for interesting artifacts; maybe Claw had discovered something.

“A gold necklace,” he said.  “Big, pretty gaudy. It had some onyx stones set in the gold.”

“Did they have a pattern?” Granny asked, drawing something on her napkin.  “Did it look like this?”

What she showed him looked like a maze puzzle, with certain etchings around the edges.  Frank nodded. “I don’t know if that’s exactly what it was,” he said, “but it looks pretty close.  Why? Do you know it?”

Granny pursed her lips.  “I’ve never seen it in person,” she said, “but I know of it.  I’ll check it out later today, dear.” She shrugged, using the back of the napkin to wipe her mouth.  “It’s probably just a replica.”

The description disturbed her.  A relic, after all this time? she thought to herself.  No, probably just a replica.

But she would check it out.  Just in case.

* * * * * * * *

One hundred years ago, to the day.

Brittany James, nineteen years old.

“How are your studies coming, Brittany?” her dad asked over dinner one night.  “Keeping your grades up?”

“Yes,” she said.  “My theology course is amazing!  We got to debate over the different religions’ versions of heaven and hell last week.”

She attended a local college for her first years, since her dad said it would be cheaper than going to a university for her basic classes.  Brittany had no idea what she would major in, but ever since Mališa showed her some old tomes from the underworld, she wanted to go into a field that dealt with similar books.

Mališa had been teaching her Coptic and Aramaic for years, so she was already at the top of her class in her archeology and ancient literature electives.  Over the last six years he had also introduced her to some higher-level demons, praising her sandwiches as “the best in all the realms!”

She fed anyone who came for a visit, and they taught her different things about ancient history – most of them had been alive for it, after all.  She used her allowance for sandwich ingredients, which confused her parents to no end. When she was fifteen, they told her to get a job to learn the value of money, and to stop wasting it on foodstuffs; she just managed to afford better ingredients.

Brittany learned how to make her own bread, and her sandwiches became the stuff of legend in the underworld.  Mališa still managed to come almost every day, and the two had grown close as friends.

But dinner was always with her parents, who asked her about her grades and then talked politics for the rest of the evening.

“That’s good to hear, dear,” her mom said.  “Did either of you hear about the new serums being tested?”

“Genetics,” her dad said, rolling his eyes.  “People keep trying to live longer by any means necessary, even though that stuff never works.”

“Pharos has promised results with this new one,” her mom said.  “They’re calling for human test subjects, and it passed the FDA regulations.”

Brittany fiddled her fork around her pasta.  “I think it would be nice to never get sick again,” she said.  “If it works, this might be a cure for cancer and other stuff like that.”

“If it works,” her father said.  “That’s a big ‘if’. Messing around with people’s genes – if it goes wrong, and it could easily go wrong, then all of the test subjects would die.  And if it goes right, they’ll just raise the price until nobody but the rich can afford it.”

“May I be excused?” Brittany asked.

“You’ve hardly touched your food,” her mother noted.

“I’m not really hungry,” she said.

“Of course,” her dad waved her off.  As Brittany took her plate to the kitchen, she heard him add, “It’s all those damn sandwiches.  I swear, that girl could eat a horse at lunchtime.”

Grinning to herself, she went up to her room to study the latest scrolls that Mališa had brought her that afternoon.

The next day at lunchtime, Mališa showed up early.  “There’s someone new coming today,” he told her, “and I feel like I should warn you that tensions might get a little high.

“You know the rules,” Brittany said.  “Café Brittany is middle-ground. No feuding houses.”

This is a little different,” Mališa said.  “This new guy… well, he’s not from the underworld.  He’s from the overworld.

“The ‘overworld’?” Brittany asked, setting out her sandwich stuff.  “What’s that?”

Another realm,” Mališa explained.  “I think humans might call it ‘heaven’.

“Wait a second,” Brittany said, stopping with her hand halfway into the package of turkey.  “Are you trying to tell me that you invited an angel to lunch with demons?”

Oh, not at all,” Mališa said.  Brittany breathed a sigh of relief and continued setting up.  “The angels are much too busy to deal with a low-level imp like me.  I invited a malakhim.

“A malakhim…” Brittany repeated, stopping again.  “Okay, I thought that the demons and celestials have been at war for millennia now.”

Correct,” Mališa said, grabbing a box of Cheez-Its from the cupboard.

“So how, exactly, do you know a malakhim to invite?” she asked incredulously.

Malakhim are low-level celestials,” Mališa explained.  “Kind of like imps are to demons.  I run across them all the time when running messages between realms; this one, Remmiel, I started talking with the other day, and found he’s actually not so bad.  So I invited him to lunch with us.

“What about the other demons who come here?” Brittany asked.

This is a middle-ground,” Mališa said.  “We’ve all agreed to your no-fighting rule; I’ll just make sure it applies to Remmiel.

“Can you?” Brittany said.  “I mean, no offense, but you’re pretty small compared to some of them.”

We’ll just say that you won’t have anybody around for sandwiches any more if there’s any fighting,” Mališa shrugged.  “Nobody will ever risk that.

He was right.  When Remmiel showed up that first time, the other demons nearly went to war in Brittany’s parent’s kitchen, but Mališa shut it down by threatening to take away the food.  After that, everyone was civil; a couple of other imps even shook Remmiel’s hand on their way out.

From that day on, Brittany’s sandwiches were known in the overworld, too.  Remmiel came back, and brought some friends of his, too. Brittany began meeting celestials as well as demons, and food brought the warring factions together, if only for a little while.  It continued like that for another year, before the next big thing happened.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, a jewelry shop.

Granny’s checking out the necklace.

“It’s a replica,” she muttered under her breath, sighing with relief.  “Of course it is.” She bought it anyways, bringing it back to the tower for further study.

On her way back, a man bumped into her.  “My apologies,” he said, tipping his hat.  He walked on, but Granny grabbed her needles and turned to face him.

“I may look old, sonny,” she warned, “but I’m not to be trifled with.  I’m nearly at the end of my hundred years, so my power is many times that of yours.”

Your hundred…” the man said, turning back to her.  “So you’re djinn-marked, like me!”

“Can’t you even sense the other djinn, sonny?” Granny scoffed, twirling her silver knitting needles in her hand.  “You’ve been marked for what, less than a decade, then?”

The man rubbed the ring on his right hand.  It was a large, gold piece, similar to the necklace he held in his left after picking Granny’s pocket.  “I need this necklace,” he told her. “And I’ll be needing whatever your relic is.” He he inhaled sharply, annoyed by something.

“You’re really new at this, aren’t you?” Granny said.  “That necklace is a replica; any djinn could smell it.”

“You don’t understand,” the man said.  “I’m trying to – ”

“You’re trying to collect the relics, bring them together with the Ring of Solomon to break your curse, along with all of the others,” Granny finished, rolling her eyes.  “We’ve all been there. Three of the relics are in use – four, since you’re new. You’ll have to find the other three before someone else gets to them, or else you’ll have to murder the djinn-marked for theirs, and that’s a hassle.”

“You know where the others are?” he asked.  “Tell me!”

Granny sighed.  “The young are always in such a rush,” she said.  “You have a hundred years from the time you’re first marked before your soul is trapped.  The ones in use right now are much older than you – it’s easier to wait them out than it would be to kill them, low-level as you are.”  She looked at his ring, studying it. “Let me guess – Jessamyn? Or is Rogul the Djinn of the ring?”

He clenched his fist, holding the ring up for her.  “You know what this is?” he asked.

“Calm down,” Granny said, making a placating gesture.  “Yes, I know what it is. I know all seven of them, though I’ve only seen pictures in books.  I’ve been doing this for ninety-nine years now; try to keep up.”

“So you know where the others are?” the man asked, calming down.  “And where’s yours?”

“Mine was melted down during World War Two for knitting needles,” Granny said, showing him.  “They still hold the djinn, and mark the next one. It’s happened with some of the other relics, too.”  She turned around, beckoning him to follow her. “Come, join me for lunch. I’ll introduce you to my friends, and we can bring you up to speed.”

The man followed her back to the tower, where Granny had security let him up to visit.  They took lunch in her room, and she (along with her friends) explained everything to him.

* * * * * * * *

Ninety-nine years ago, to the day.

Brittany James, her 20th birthday.

Happy birthday to you!” sang a chorus of demons and angels, happily chatting together in Brittany’s kitchen.

Congratulations on getting accepted to the university!” Mališa added.  “We’re all so proud of you!

“I’m just happy that this little experiment of ours is working,” Brittany said, hugging her oldest demonic friend.  “Just look at this place – so many demons and celestials are hanging out, catching up, and having fun together!”

There’s talk that even the Archangels might come to visit,” Remmiel added.  “This place is known to all as a haven from the war.

Lucifer himself has even heard of you,” Mališa said.  “He sends his regards for your birthday.  Uh-oh,” he added as a chill grew in the air.  “Oh no, not today…

“What is it?” Brittany asked.

Veliki,” Mališa whispered.  “He’s an Ifrit, a high-level djinn.  His older brother was trapped in a relic by a human, so he says he hates all of your kind.

What’s he doing here?” Remmiel asked.

He heard about the lunch club,” Mališa said.  “He’s been threatening to come shut it down for a while now; nobody told him where it was, though.

“Well, he’s here now,” Brittany said.  “The no-fighting rule is still in effect.  Plus it’s my birthday – I don’t want any fighting ruining it if it can be avoided.”

Looks like a party in here!” boomed the Ifrit’s voice.  “It’s the human’s birthday, is it?  Well, I brought a gift!

Sure enough, when the crowd parted to show the Ifrit, he appeared as a lion-headed warrior holding a small, wrapped box.

Brittany, the rest of us here are low-tier,” Mališa hissed.  “If Veliki decides to fight, he’d kill us all!

Nonsense, Little One,” Veliki purred with a smirk on his lion’s muzzle.  “I’m not here to fight.  I just want to give the human her birthday present.

Mališa’s eyes were wide.  He hopped up to the counter next to Brittany, saying, “It’s a trick; it’s got to be!  The Ifrit are djinn; they’re known as tricksters.

It would be rude to refuse,” Veliki said.  “Trick or no, she must take it or insult her guest.”  He licked his lips.  “Nobody would fault me for retaliating against an insult.

“This is a place of peace,” Brittany said loudly.  “Of course I will accept your gift in good faith, and I expect you to follow the same rules as everyone else.”

Of course,” Veliki said, sickeningly sweet.  “Go ahead; open it.

Brittany picked up the box, smiling back at the Ifrit as she tore into the wrapping paper.  Veliki continued talking as she unwrapped her gift. “Centuries ago, my brother met a human named Solomon,” he said.  “Solomon was a gifted magician, who also summoned demons to help him rule.  He mostly used us for power – to eat his enemies’ souls, and terrify his conquered people into submission.

“Sounds like an ass,” Brittany said.

Yes,” Veliki slowly said, a confused look on his face.  “He was.  If a demon turned against him, he would lock us away.  Seven Ifrit djinn tried to stand up to him at once, and he trapped them inside seven relics – knickknacks that the king of men had at hand.

“I’ve heard a story like this before,” Brittany said.  “Was one of them an oil lamp?”

Veliki nodded.  “Rogul was trapped in an oil lamp.  Jessamyn was trapped in a ring. Ogrlica was trapped in a necklace, Frikad in a perfume bottle, Çapraz in a golden cross, Chiroq in a small pillow, and my brother, Krstot, was trapped in a silver cross.

Brittany opened the box to find four plain silver knitting needles.  “They’re lovely,” she said. “Thank you!” She had been half-expecting to find the silver cross from his story.

Pick them up,” Veliki said with a sly grin.  “See, human history is rather complex.  I rescued these from Germany in nineteen-fifty-two.  The Nazis had melted down any metal they got their hands on to make things of… practical use.

Brittany picked up the needles as he spoke, and her stomach sank when he got to the part about the Nazis.  “Then these…” she said hesitantly. A sharp pain went through her hand where the needles sat, as if they burned her skin – but try as she might, she couldn’t drop them.

See, a trick!” Mališa said.  “You’re hurting Brittany!”  He launched himself at the Ifrit, claws out, but Veliki just opened his mouth and swallowed Mališa whole.

“No!” Brittany screamed, half from the pain in her hand and half from the casual murder that Veliki committed in her home.  The other demons and celestials scrambled to leave, disappearing in puffs of smoke and beams of light.

As the world started to go black, Veliki loomed over her.  “Let’s see if you have what it takes to free my brother,” he said, laughing as he, too, disappeared.

Brittany blacked out, and nothing remained but the pain.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, present day.

Granny’s room.

Mališa was a good friend,” Remmiel said as Granny finished telling the djinn-marked man her story.  “I still miss him.

“He thought my lunches might end the war,” Granny said, smiling fondly as she remembered her best friend.

The man swallowed a bite of his sandwich.  “So the Ifrit killed him?” he asked.

Swallowed his essence,” Xabla, one of Mališa’s siblings, confirmed.  “Mališa, as a being in the universe, is gone.”  Granny had met Xabla at lunch a few days after Mališa was killed.

They sat in a moment of silence, before Granny continued.  “Anyways, that was when I was djinn-marked. I was tested, like you, and came to on my kitchen floor.”

“Only a few minutes had passed,” the man said, remembering his own marking.

“Exactly.”  Granny picked up another finger-sandwich.  “I haven’t seen Veliki since then, but I’ve had djinn-powers.  Anything I make using these comes to life.” She gestured to the zoo of plush animals around her room.  “As you can see, I’ve been busy.”

“You joined the Asylum,” the man said, “and you fight crime.”

“Well, for many years I went after the relics like you,” Granny told him.  “It was a futile effort. Of the three remaining without a marked human, two are in the underworld and one is in the overworld.  The others, like my needles, are in possession of the djinn-marked, and I guarantee you they will not go easily.”

“But if I can do it,” the man said, “if I can bring all seven together, I can break the curse on all of us.  We won’t have to be trapped in the relics with the cursed Ifrit after our years are up – we’d be human again!”

Granny nodded.  “True,” she said.  “That’s why I brought you here.”  She gestured to her other two guests.  “Remmiel can help guide you through the overworld, and Xabla has volunteered to show you to the two in the underworld.  Plus there are other, higher-tier beings that know me and owe me favors. They will help you, too.”

I recommend going to the overworld first,” Remmiel said.  “The seraphim are less likely to attack a human if you don’t stink of the underworld.”  He looked at Xabla apologetically, adding, “No offense.

None taken,” Xabla said sincerely.  “I agree; demons who don’t know Brittany will attack anyone not of their clan, no matter what they smell like.  So if going to the overworld first makes you slightly safer there, then by all means go.

“Now?” the man asked.

“You have someplace better to be?” Granny asked in return.  “Remmiel, if you would do the honors?”

Sir,” Remmiel said deferentially, taking the man’s hand.  “If you’ll come with me.

As the two of them disappeared in the normal celestial beam of light, Granny sighed.  “Oh, to be young and on an adventure.”

You still have a year left,” Xabla pointed out.  “It’s not much, but it’s something.

“I’m perfectly content to spend it here, in the Asylum,” Granny said, smiling.  “Something big is happening right in our backyard, and hell if I’m going to miss it.”

Xabla smiled at her with her bat-like teeth.  “Happy birthday, child,” she said.  “I hope it’s a good year.”  She disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving Granny alone with her thoughts.  She didn’t even notice when she fell asleep.

A loud knock on her door woke Granny from her reverie.  “Come on, Granny!” Dale shouted through the door. “It’s your birthday, and we’re all going to the pub to celebrate!”

“Be right there!” Granny called back.  She smiled at her reflection in the mirror as she put her slippers on.  “Not a day over eighty,” she said, before picking up her bag and needles and heading out.

* * * * * * * *

Issue #8 – Dark David

Four years ago, a lab outside of Eon City.

Drake Rogers, on the table.

It didn’t hurt.  That was what surprised Drake the most about his condition – he had been thrown around, pummelled, and electrocuted quite thoroughly, but nothing hurt.

In fact, he couldn’t feel anything below his neck.

At first, he had assumed that the doctors had tied him down.  Then he thought that maybe they had given him an anesthetic. The truth dawned on him slowly – especially since the doctors didn’t seem to want to tell him – that he was paralyzed.

That damn kid, he thought.  His opponent hadn’t really been a kid; the target had been in his early twenties.  But Drake, who was in his thirties, saw him as a kid – a stupid kid who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and by sheer accident was now the strongest being on the planet.

As if echoing his thoughts, a voice came from the doorway.  “Sucks, doesn’t it?” Jaunt asked him.

The man in the suit strolled in as if he owned the place – which he probably did.  Drake didn’t even know which hospital he was in, but it looked as fancy as the other facilities that Jaunt owned.

“What… do you… want?” Drake managed to croak out.  Breathing enough to speak was difficult, since he was on an artificial respirator.

“The same thing you do,” Jaunt said.  “I want you up and about, able to take on your enemies.”

“You… did… this…” Drake pointed out.

Jaunt shrugged.  “I can see why you think that,” he admitted.  “It was my hit that you were taking out, my order to kill any witnesses, my order to track the witness down when you failed to kill him.”

“Your… drug… made him… a… monster…” Drake said.  “I… killed… him… the… first… time…”

“You shot him,” Jaunt said.  “You buried him in a shallow grave, and left him for dead.  But you obviously didn’t kill him.”

“I… shot him… in the… heart…” Drake said.

Jaunt smiled.  “And then buried him right over a chemical runoff,” he said.  “Then lightning strikes the ground where he’s buried, and poof!  Suddenly there’s a new, more powerful being running around.” He shook his head.  “All of that experimenting with the Fourth Gens, and the answer was right under our noses.  We have a true Fourth Gen, with no aversion to sunlight, who has god-like powers.”

“Can’t… control…” Drake said.  “He’s… insane…”

“We’re working on a fix for that, too,” Jaunt said.  “I have my top doctor figuring out a serum for him; we’ll have him back to his old self in no time.”

“What… do you… want… from me…?” Drake asked.  He was getting tired of Jaunt’s blathering.

“Simple,” Jaunt said.  “No experiment can be called a success unless we can duplicate the results.”  He moved over next to Drake’s bedside. “I want your consent to give you the serum, and then shoot you with a bolt of lightning.”

It sounded crazy.  Drake would have said no – except what did he have to lose?  He knew about the Fourth Gen serum, and how it had nasty side-effects in all of the other subjects.  But he was facing long-term paralysis, and that scared him more than dying.

“Do… it…” he said.

Jaunt smiled again and walked out of the room, calling behind him, “It’s already begun.”

Drake twitched his cheek in a ghost of a smile, the first since he had woken up from the fight.  He would get his revenge for what the kid did.

David Perry would get what’s coming to him.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, present day.

David Perry, AKA Earthborn.

“Wake!” came a squeal from next to David’s side of the bed.  “Wake, Daddy, wake!” There was a slight tugging at his sheets as his two year-old daughter tried to get him up.

“Sweetie, our daughter’s calling you,” Amy mumbled from behind the sheets.

David looked at the clock.  Of course baby girl’s calling me, he thought.  “It’s nearly eight,” he said, nudging Amy to wake her up too.  “I’m up, munchkin,” he told his daughter.

He groaned as he climbed out of bed.  He put his daughter in her booster seat at the table and got breakfast ready for the three of them.

“What time does your patrol start?” Amy asked, yawning as she came out of the bedroom.

“I’ve got the afternoon shift,” David told her, kissing her good morning.  “Starts at twelve and goes until about eight.”

“I have to work the evening shift,” Amy told him.  “I’ll call my mother to see if she can babysit tonight until you get home.”

David grinned at her.  “I love you, you know that?” he said.

Amy smiled back at him, still tired.  “You say that every day,” she told him.

“I mean it every day,” he said, pouring her a cup of coffee and sitting next to their daughter to help her with the cutlery.

Amy came over and kissed his forehead before sitting down next to him.  “I love you, too.” she said. “It’s nice to have a decently quiet morning for once.”

No sooner did the words come out of her mouth then an alarm rang, coming from the bedroom.  David winced, getting up as Amy took his spot next to their daughter. “You just had to jinx it, didn’t you?” he teased, going to the bedroom to answer his com.

“Earthborn, we need you,” Agent said, sounding urgent.  “There’s a powerful Third Gen tearing up downtown.”

“Can’t Granny take it?” David asked, pulling on his uniform.

“I’d ask her, but it’s calling you out by name,” Agent said.

“I’m being requested?” David asked, pausing for a second as it sunk in.  Finishing with his uniform, he added, “Most bad guys tend to hate it when I show up.”

“Union Square,” Agent directed.  “Get there as soon as possible.  I’m also sending Granny and Nightmare as back-up – we’ll need our heavy hitters on this one.”

“Roger,” David said, and Agent hung up.  David went back out to the kitchen to let Amy know.

“Be careful,” she said.  “We’ll be watching the news.”

David gave her a mock salute and kissed their daughter goodbye before heading out the door.

It took Earthborn only a few minutes to get downtown.  That was one benefit of his powers – he could travel faster by tunnelling underground than he would in a car.  It had taken him more than a year to get a handle on his powers, but now they were a part of him. Dale’s serum helped keep the crazy under control, and as long as he used his lightning powers sparingly he wouldn’t go mad again.

Which is why he gave an exhausted sigh when he saw the bad guy shooting lightning bolts out of his hands.

“Hey, Earthborn,” Nightmare greeted as he ran up to join them.  “He’s got the same electric powers as you; I think that’s why he’s calling you out.”

“Not possible,” Earthborn said, shaking his head.  “Maybe similar to mine, but that’s not my power.”

“David Perry!” the electric villain called out.  “Or do you go by ‘Earthborn’ now? Come over here and face me!”

“He seems to know you by name,” Granny said, landing her dragon on his other side.  “Friend of yours?”

Earthborn shook his head, drawing rocks up to cover him in his usual armor.  “I don’t recognize him,” he said.

The villain had scars all over his face, and his brown hair was shaggy.  He shot a bolt of lightning in Earthborn’s direction, but he missed, hitting a parked car behind him.

“Who are you?” Earthborn called.  “What do you want with me?”

“Oh, you don’t recognize me?” the villain called back, giggling maniacally.  “You did this to me, you know. Four years ago, you went on a rampage trying to destroy the city, and I tried to stop you.”  A cold, sinking feeling rose in Earthborn’s stomach as he began to realize who this was. “You beat the crap out of me, as ‘a warning to others’ if I remember right.  Well, now it’s my turn. We’re on the same playing field now.”

“Drake?” Earthborn asked.

“Ye-es,” Drake said in a mocking voice.  “But so much more handsome than the last time we met, don’t you think?”  He gave a mocking bow. “Even with the Fourth Gen serum, the same serum that brought you back from the dead, it took four YEARS for me to recover from that fight,” he said.  “And what’ve you been up to?” He started walking forward, making the air around him crackle with electricity.  “You got a girlfriend. And had a little kid. And started working a cushy job as a Watcher in the Asylum. All while I was eating out of a TUBE!”

Drake threw a bolt of electricity, but it again went wide of Earthborn.  Nightmare had to dive out of the way. “What’s he talking about, Earthborn?” she asked.  “He took Fourth Gen serum? But he doesn’t look like the rest of us – he’s out during the day with no cover.”

“Cliff notes version: his name is Drake Rogers,” Earthborn told her and Granny.  “I thought he was dead. He tried to kill me four years ago – he did kill me four years ago – but he buried me with a chemical, that might have been Fourth Gen, and lightning struck, and I woke up with my powers.”

“And you beat the crap out of him?” Nightmare prompted.

Earthborn shrugged.  “Honestly, I don’t remember much about that,” he said, this time loudly enough for Drake to hear.  “The electricity I shoot messes with my head; more so back then before I could control it.”

“And you have so much more control over it now?” Drake asked, still coming towards him.  “I think I’ll test that.” He shot another lightning bolt at Earthborn, this time using an enormous amount of power to strike everything in a city-block radius.

The street had already been cleared of pedestrians, but there were police officers in the line of fire.  Earthborn stomped the ground, and every living being in the strike zone was surrounded by earth to block the lightning.  Unfortunately, that also included Nightmare, Granny, and Herschel, which meant the fight was now one-on-one. “Neat trick,” Drake said.  “But how about this?”

He had come close enough to lunge for Earthborn, tackling him to the ground even with his rock armor to protect him.  Drake used another huge burst of power to shoot lightning directly into Earthborn, breaking through the armor and hitting him in the chest in a constant stream of electricity.

“Hurts, doesn’t it?” Drake asked through gritted teeth as Earthborn lost control over the rocks surrounding him.  The armor completely broke apart, showing Earthborn’s face as he directly absorbed the electricity.

Then, a surprising sound rose above the roar of Drake’s lightning:

Laughter.

He looked down at Earthborn’s face, as his victim laughed with his eyes wide and staring.  His bright red eyes, which shone with the same manic glint that Drake often saw in the mirror.  And Drake then knew that he had made a horrible mistake.

“My turn,” David said, grinning as Drake’s electricity ran out.  He punched his arm upward, throwing Drake off of him with a giant fist made from the rocks littering the ground.  Drake screamed as he was pummelled without mercy, as David stood up in a shower of sparks. “You tried to kill me,” he accused.  “Twice now. So I have no reason to let you live to try again.”

He shot lightning at Drake with a lot more accuracy than Drake had demonstrated.  As the energy flowed around them, he also picked up any loose gravel from around them, and pulled it together into a giant, compacted ball of dirt.

Nightmare had just managed to dig herself out of the ground trapping her when she saw David slam the giant chunk of earth onto Drake’s head.  The bad guy was buried, but David didn’t stop his onslaught – he hit Drake again and again, even after he fell unconscious from the beating.

“Earthborn!” Nightmare called, watching with horror as her teammate acted like a villain.  “Earthborn, stop! He’s down!”

David turned towards her, and she saw her own red eyes staring back at her.  “Earthborn isn’t here right now,” he said, an insane grin spreading over his face.  “In fact, he’s been keeping me suppressed for years.  I think it’s my turn to come out now.”

Nightmare didn’t know what else to do, so she called Agent.  “Are you seeing this?” she asked into the com.

“Granny’s buried, along with her dragon, and David’s other personality is free,” Agent summed up.  “Yeah, I see it. I’m calling all hands for this one. In the meantime, try to bring him in – that’s the only way we can help him now.  Use any force necessary.”

Nightmare didn’t think; she sent out a wave of her power at David.  If she could give him a mild heart attack, then they could get him back to headquarters before he hurt anybody else.

“Oh, Rina,” David said, still calm and unpanicked.  “The Nightmare Child. There’s a big drawback to your power – for it to affect me, I’d have to fear something.”  He raised his hands, pulling up spikes of rock from the earth. “And what could I possibly have to fear? I’m a god,” he said.  He used lightning strikes on the ground around her to emphasize his point. “I’m the god of the earth. I’m the god of lightning.  The god of storms. The god of death.” He pointed at her. “Your power doesn’t work on me.”

Nightmare stopped wasting her time with her powers, and ran towards him to take him down the old-fashioned way.  “I don’t want to hurt you,” she said, “but I will if I have to.”

David yawned, cocking his head to one side.  Nightmare managed to land one punch, and it didn’t even phase him.

She never even saw the spikes as they impaled her from behind.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

All hands on deck.

“What  the hell, Agent?” Natalie demanded as soon as the elevator doors opened.  “First my brother, now David? Any other secrets you’re keeping from us?” Natalie and Frank entered the room together, where Granny, Haley, and Reiki all waited with Agent for orders.

“How’s Rina doing?” Frank asked.

“Rina’s in recovery,” Agent told them.  “Dale says she’ll be fine. Her accelerated healing kept her alive, and Dale’s doing all he can to fix her.”

“She wouldn’t have been in that position in the first place if you had just told us about David’s problem,” Natalie growled.

“I know,” Agent sighed.  His knuckles were white on the handle of his umbrella.  “I messed up. I didn’t want you all worrying about this, or trusting him any less as your teammate.”

Natalie shook her head, keeping her eyes locked on Agent.  “This is why you sent him home early from the party,” she accused.  “Why Dale has to check us all out after every little thing, even when we’re fine.”

“Partly,” Agent said.  “Dale also worries over all of you.”

“Let’s not get off-topic,” Granny said.  “David is now out there causing havoc in our city just like any other Third Gen who lost control of his powers.”  She patted her bag, asking, “How do we stop him?”

“How did this happen?” Frank asked.  “I mean, I always thought the guy was just a really strong Third Gen.  But that Drake guy was talking about ‘Fourth Gen’ – isn’t that what gave Rina her powers?”

“No more lies,” Natalie warned.  “No more half-truths. If we’re going to stop him, we need to know everything.”

Agent sat down on a stool at the kitchen island.  “David was an accident,” he told them. “From what he told me, he witnessed an assassin – Drake Rogers – kidnapping a hit, and was taken alongside; Drake doesn’t leave witnesses alive.  Drake shot him in the heart and buried him and the other guy in a field. Somehow, lightning struck the spot where he was buried, and David woke up with his powers.”

“And the other guy?” Haley asked.

“No idea,” Agent said.  “I was put on David’s trail as an afterthought, only once his alter ego started running rampant.  Anything before that you’ll have to ask him.”

“Assuming we can get close enough to him,” Natalie muttered.  Out loud, she said, “I’ve never seen someone that strong. Even Rina doesn’t have that much power.”

Agent shook his head.  “She does,” he told them.  “Rina can drive hundreds to panic at once if need be – she just doesn’t usually need to in the Asylum.  Accident or not, David is a Fourth Gen like her – and Fourth Gens were designed to be single-person armies.”  He leaned back against the kitchen island, adding, “Elementals like David are usually strong enough when they’re Third Gens, but they usually can only manipulate one element – and they have limited control.  Eighty percent of Third Gens who suddenly lose control over their powers are elementals.”

“But they don’t usually go crazy,” Natalie argued.  “They just cause storms, or fires, or something, but they don’t mean to do it.”

“To our knowledge, that would be because of David’s electrical powers,” Agent said.  “His other personality only comes out when he uses too much lightning.”

“So let me get this straight,” Haley said.  “This ‘other personality’…” She shook her head.  “Nope, not calling it that. This ‘Dark David’ that we have to go fight now – he’s that way only because he uses his lightning powers?  Then how is fighting going to help?”

“It’s not.”  Dale walked in from the elevator.  He seemed exhausted, with eyelids that would barely stay open and shuffling feet.  He held a case in his hand, presumably to give to Agent.

Granny was the first to ask, “How’s Rina doing?”

“As well as can be expected,” Dale told them.  “Thank god for her natural healing ability – without that, she’d have been dead before I got there.”

Agent nodded.  “Dale, you were saying?”

Dale shook his head to clear it.  “Right,” he said. “I’d recommend avoiding a fight if you can.  All you need to do is stick him with this.” He put the case he was carrying down on the kitchen counter, opening it to show the team five syringes.  “It’s a concoction of my own making,” he explained. “Right now, he’s suffering from tachycardia due to heightened adrenaline levels. That’s why Rina’s powers wouldn’t work on him – he’s naturally in the state that she was trying to cause.  His electrical powers target the dopamine and norepinephrine neurotransmitters in his brain, causing his behavior change, lack of inhibitions, and delusions of grandeur.”

“So he’s drunk?” Natalie asked.

Haley shook her head.  “No, more like he’s been overdosing on Ritalin, right?”

“Ritalin, methamphetamines, and alcohol all rolled into one giant shock to his system,” Dale confirmed.  “His powers cause a ton of stress on his body, which is why he loses control just by absorbing some lightning.  The stuff in these syringes’ll bring him out of it – and then you’ll have one massively hung-over Fourth Gen to deal with.”

“Trippy,” Frank noted.  “Next question: how do we find him?”

“He dove underground just as I dug myself out of that shield,” Granny added.  “He could be anywhere by now.”

“There has to be some place he’d go,” Agent said.  “Even in his current state, he’s still David – he’d still have a place in mind, somewhere to hole up.”

Natalie crossed her arms.  “And do you happen to know where that place is?” she asked.

“No,” Agent admitted, pulling out his cell phone.  “But I know someone who does.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City.

David and Amy’s apartment.

“Thanks for watching her, mom,” Amy said, pulling her shoes on as she headed out the door.  “Bye, sweetie!” Her mother babysat often, so the toddler was at peace with her mother leaving.  That, and she was distracted by a coloring book.

As the door shut behind her, Amy’s phone rang.  “Hello?” she greeted, answering it as she headed to her car.

“This is Agent,” came the voice on the other end of the line.  “I need your help.”

“Good to hear from you too,” Amy said dryly.  “How’s the kid? Oh, she’s fine – sleeping through most nights, finally.  Other pleasantry stuff.”

She could almost hear Agent biting back a sarcastic retort.  “There’s no time for that,” he said instead. “We need to know where David might have gone.”

“I’m not sure how I can help you,” Amy told him.  “He’s been on patrol all day, since you called him in early.”

“You haven’t seen the news?” Agent asked.

“I have a two year-old daughter who is starting to repeat everything she hears,” Amy pointed out.  “Of course I don’t turn on the news around her.”

“David was in a fight this morning,” Agent told her.  “He had to use his lightning powers.”

Amy stopped in her tracks.  “You don’t mean…?” she asked hesitantly.

“His other personality came out, and he ran off before the rest of the team could get there,” Agent confirmed.  “We need to know where he might have gone.”

“Um… try the tunnels,” she said.  “He likes being underground. Otherwise, he might have gone to the fields.”  She named the farmland outside the city where David had first gained his powers.

“Thank you,” Agent said.  “Call me if you think of anything else.”

“Of course,” Amy said.  “But if you do find him, won’t you need me to talk him down?”

“You have done it before…” Agent considered, “but no.  I think the team is up for this, and David would never forgive me – or himself – if you got hurt.”

“Right,” said Amy.  “I’ll be at work if you need me,” she added, just before hearing the click of Agent hanging up the phone.  “Dumbass,” she muttered under her breath.  She got into her car to go to work, trying not to worry about her superhero beau.

* * * * * * * *

Tunnels under the city.

Trying to find Dark David in the dark.

“How the hell are we supposed to find him down here?” Trick asked Shadow.  “This place is a maze!” She shone her flashlight into a suspicious-looking corner.

“Outlier and Reiki went to check the fields,” Shadow said, “so you and I get to check the tunnels with Granny.”  Shadow didn’t need a flashlight; he could tell what was in the shadows without looking.

“No offense,” Trick said, “but why us?  My illusions only go so far against his powers, and you’re more stealth than strength.”

“Stealth would be easier if you stopped talking,” Shadow pointed out.  Seeing the look on his friend’s face, he added, “We’re here because Reiki’s power works best out in the sunlight, and he works better with Outlier than any of us.  Granny’s our hard-hitter down here if we need to fight.”

Trick bit her lip, peering into the shadows around them.  “This place gives me the creeps,” she said. “Further down we go, the more I feel like something’s watching us.”

“If they’re watching, they’re not attacking,” Shadow said.  “Beyond that, I’d prefer not to think about it.”

“Mm-hmm,” Trick agreed.  They walked in silence for a bit, listening for movement in the darkness.

A shuffling sound alerted them to Granny riding up behind them.  Her wolf sniffed at the ground, whining softly. “Louise smells something,” Granny told them.  “I think – ”

The ground erupted around them.  Shadow and Trick were knocked backwards, and Granny was cut off from the other two by a wall of dirt.  Trick jumped to her feet, coughing, and shone her flashlight on where Dark David stood.

“That was a warning,” Dark David told them.  “As I’m sure Rina told you, I don’t have to miss.”

“Earthborn,” Trick started, but Dark David cut her off.

“I’m not Earthborn,” he said, shaking his head.  The air crackled around him with electricity, reflecting on his red eyes.  “That goody-two-shoes keeps pinning me down. I keep trying to come out to play, but I’m forced to watch from the sidelines.”

Trick glanced to where Shadow lay on the ground.  He looked unconscious at first glance, but Trick could see the shadows starting to envelop him.  She had to keep Dark David talking.

“Okay, so if you aren’t Earthborn,” she said, “then who are you?  We’ve been calling you ‘Dark David’, but…” she trailed off, shrugging.  ‘Not sure if you already had a name.”

“‘Dark David’,” he mused.  “I like it. Who came up with that one?  You?”

“Haley, actually,” Trick said.  “She thought ‘other personality’ was too much of a mouthful.”

Dark David laughed.  “True that,” he said.  “So I’m Dark David. Pleasure to meet you.”

“Why did you stab Nightmare?” Trick asked.

He shrugged, taking a step towards her.  “I felt like it,” he said.

“Are you going to stab me?” Trick looked around, as if she would see the ground coming at her.  Dark David gave that cold laugh again.

“If I wanted any of you dead, you would be,” he told her.

“So what do you want?”  Trick looked for Shadow in her peripheral vision, but she couldn’t see him any more.  She took a step away from where he had been, hoping that Dark David wouldn’t notice.

“I just want my freedom,” Dark David said.  “How would you like it if someone else was possessing your body, and you could see what they were doing but weren’t able to move on your own?”

“That’s what it’s like for you?” Trick asked, taking another step.  A scratching sound came from behind the wall that Dark David had thrown up.

“Granny’s trying to break through,” Dark David said dismissively.  “And it’s a bit more complicated than what I just described, but that’s the gist of it.  I remember – ”

Shadow jumped onto his back, trying to stick him with the cure.  Dark David roared, shaking Shadow off with a massive bolt of electricity.  Trick’s flashlight flickered, dimming with the electricity pulsing through the air.  “Shadow?” she asked. “Shadow!”

Her light barely made out the form of her friend, lying prone on the ground.  The shadows fell away from him – he was truly out this time, and Trick was alone.

“That’s Dale’s serum,” Dark David said, looking at the needle he pulled out of his shoulder.  Shadow hadn’t managed to inject him before getting thrown off. “You were trying to trap me again!”

Trick pulled her own dose of the serum out of one of her coat pockets.  Glints of blue flashed in the darkness, showing her where Dark David was even as her light dimmed.  “David, you need to come with me,” she said. “We can help you; don’t you want to see your family again?”

“That’s not my family,” Dark David yelled, his voice echoing in the tunnel.  “That’s not my life! I just want my freedom!”

“You remembered something,” Trick prompted, trying to get him talking again.  If he ran from the tunnels, they might never get another chance to catch him. “You were talking about how it feels to be stuck inside your own head…”

“I won’t let you take me!” he shouted.  “Let… me… go!”

“I don’t have you!” Trick said, confused.  She crept closer to him as she spoke. “I just want to talk.”

“Let me go!” Dark David roared again.  As Trick got closer, the light from his electricity showed her enough to see what he was talking about: Dark David’s legs were encased in mud, trapping him from the waist down.

She didn’t wait any longer.  Trick dove to him, sticking him with her needle and pressing the back end to get the serum into his system.  Dark David yelled again, trying to shake her off until the serum took hold and he collapsed.

The mud fell away from his legs as David groaned.  “Wha… what happened?” he asked, groggily.

Trick breathed a sigh of relief, just as Granny’s wolf punched a hole through the wall that had been separating them.  “Is everyone alright?” Granny asked.

“Yeah,” Trick called back, hearing Shadow get up as well.  “Radio Agent – we got him.”

* * * * * * * *

Back at Asylum Headquarters.

Infirmary level.

“I am so sorry,” David groaned again, his face in his hands.  “I should have told you all before; I really thought I had it under control.”  Agent had just finished debriefing him as Dale checked over the team.

“You did,” Dale told him.  “But even my serum can’t take as much electricity as that Drake fellow gave you.”

“I’m just glad you’re back to normal,” Rina said from her own bed.  She had nearly finished healing, but Dale had wanted to keep her under observation.  “Seeing you beat the crap out of that guy… that was scary. You weren’t you.”

“I’m just glad you’re okay,” Agent said to her.  “If it had been anybody else…”

“I don’t think he would have done that to anybody else,” Natalie mused.  “He said in the tunnels, ‘If I wanted you dead, you would be.’ He had plenty of chances to kill me or Frank, but he didn’t.”

David shook his head.  “He doesn’t think that way,” he explained.  “The other guy acts on impulse, not rational thought.  It was a stroke of luck that the lightning he threw at Frank only grazed him – if he’d gotten a direct hit, Frank would be dead now.”

“I don’t know,” Natalie shrugged.  “In the tunnel he just seemed more… sad, I guess, than anything else.”

“Don’t fall for it,” David said.  “He said what he thought in the moment you wanted to hear.  He’s not stupid – talk of ‘freedom’ and such gets people to empathize with him.  Then, when you let him go, he’d have terrorized countless others.”

“How much do you remember?” Agent asked.  “Do you know where he was in the hours before we caught up?”

David shook his head.  “I get the feeling that I ran into someone,” he said, “and that I tried to destroy something.  But I don’t remember details.”

“Well, anyways,” Natalie stood up, stretching as she walked to the elevator.  “Thanks for holding him down.”

“What?” David asked, looking up at her.

“Thanks for holding him down for me,” she said.  Seeing the blank look on his face, she added, “You know, covering his legs in mud so he couldn’t escape, distracting him enough that I could stick him with Dale’s serum… that was you inside his head, right?”

David furrowed his eyebrows.  “Natalie, when he has control, he has complete control,” he told her.  “He’s still me, he just acts different.  I’m not ‘inside his head’ any more than he’s inside mine – it’s not a separate personality, it’s more like being bipolar.  Or, you know, really, really drunk – I might not remember much when I sober up, but it was still me.”

“So assuming he wasn’t holding himself down…” Natalie started.

“…I don’t think you were alone in the tunnels, Nat,” Agent said.

* * * * * * * *

Zatvor Penitentiary, medical center.

Jaunt.

“You were supposed to get me out of here ages ago,” Skadi accused the man in the suit.  “Where’s my brother?”

“He’s safe,” Jaunt said.  “You’ll see him shortly.” He turned back to the patient in the full-body cast.  “As for you, I gave you the powers of a god and you still failed spectacularly.”

Drake couldn’t speak.  If he hadn’t had Fourth Gen serum, he would be dead – as it was, he could barely move a finger.

Knowing this, Jaunt continued.  “I’m terminating our relationship.  You got yourself into Zatvor, and you can get yourself out.  Skadi here was useless to me until she was healed,” he added for her benefit, “but soon she’ll be able to take her place with her brother.”

“‘Soon’?” Skadi asked, crossing her arms.  “How soon?”

She was looking better than when she had gone into the prison.  Color had returned to her cheeks, and she was gaining weight to a healthy point.

Jaunt nodded at her.  “Some other things need to be done first,” he said.  “I have other pieces in place, but money only goes so far when setting up a jailbreak from the most secure prison in the world.”

“How soon?” Skadi repeated.  “Ballpark figure.”

“Two months,” Jaunt said.  “That should go pretty quickly, all things considered.”

Skadi raised her eyebrows, but said, “Could you at least give a letter to my brother?”  She reached under her pillow and pulled out some papers. “I didn’t know where to send them.”

“Fair enough,” Jaunt said, taking them from her.  “It’s not an easy place to reach.” He clapped his hands together, forming a portal for himself to step through.  Pulling a mask over his face, he stepped through the portal. As the portal closed behind him, Skadi fell back into her bed.  The red lights on the cameras turned back on, and she knew that she was being watched by security again.

How does he do that? she wondered idley.  She thought back to the other times Jaunt had checked on her progress, and how each time he managed to turn the cameras off before portalling into the room.  It was a mystery she was trying to figure out.

After all, there wasn’t much else to do with her time.

* * * * * * * *

Issue #7 – Polar Opposites

Olympus – the ruins of a once-great civilization.

Jaunt, AKA the guy behind everything.

I’m Hatter, by the way.  Not that you asked.

Rude.

Alice Winters looked out over the desolate landscape, wondering why she was here.  The air was dense, difficult to breathe, and everything seemed covered in a sea-blue hue.  It was an arid wasteland, with columns reminiscent of Ancient Greece.

“Rome,” said Alice.

There was nobody around her.

“I’m talking to you, idiot,” she said, crossing her arms.  “The columns are closer to Roman, not Greek. Greek columns are thicker, and didn’t have the ridges.”

Wait, are you talking to me?

“Yes, you,” Alice said.  “And enough of this ‘Alice’.  People call me ‘the Hatter’; it’s more fitting.”

How are you doing this?

“It’s my Third Gen power,” Alice Hatter explained.  “I can talk to the narrator.  I also have some limited powers of narration, myself.”

What do you mean, ‘powers of narration’?

“You’ll see,” Hatter said slyly, putting a knowing finger next to her nose.  “Later this issue. Anyways, Jaunt’s almost here.”

Sure enough, a man stepped out of the shadows to address Hatter.  “Who are you talking to?” he asked.

“Nobody important,” Hatter said.

Thanks a lot.

The man shrugged, used to her oddities.  “Are you ready?” he asked.

“Ready to take on members of the Asylum because you want to ‘test’ them again?” Hatter asked him, “Or ready to pull off a heist and intentionally stick around for the Asylum guys to find me?”

“I know it’s not your usual method,” Jaunt said, “but it’s necessary.”

Hatter scoffed.  “If you say so,” she said.  “I hear Jorge’s sister is still in Zatvor prison, despite your ability to get her out.  But what do I know?”

“Not that it’s your business,” Jaunt said, “but plans have been made to extract Skadi when the time is right.  She’s still recovering from surgery, after all.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Hatter said.  “So she’s not useful to you yet.  I get how it works.” She clapped her hands together and rubbed them expectantly.  “Are we going to do this or what?”

Jaunt raised an eyebrow.  “Sure,” he said. “Shall I get the door for you?”

“Please,” Hatter said, missing the sarcasm.  Jaunt smirked and clapped his hands together.  When he pulled them apart, a rip opened in the air leading to Eon City’s museum.  “Thank you,” Hatter said. “This shouldn’t take long.”

She stepped through the portal, and it closed behind her.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum HQ, training center.

The team is at it again.

“Stop getting in my way!” Reiki growled, pushing past Shadow for the fifteenth time that training session.

“I wouldn’t get in your way if you told me where you were going,” Shadow said, jumping and pulling himself up onto a beam overhead.  “Or, you know, communicated anything. At all.”

“I am communicating!” Reiki shouted back to him, already moving on to the next part of the obstacle course.  “You need to listen better!”

“Can you two stop bickering for two seconds?” Outlier asked, jumping up to Shadow’s perch and following Reiki forward.  “I swear, if I have to do this same course for an eighth time because of you two…”

“To be fair,” Trick said, passing her, “the fifth time was your own fault.”  She whipped out a scarf, tossing it over a beam overhead to help her balance.  “You’re the one who fell.”

“Floor is lava,” Shadow nodded sagely, jumping to the next beam.  “Gotta move carefully.”

“Says the guy who ruined the last run by stopping to argue,” Outlier shot back.  She jumped to the next beam as the one she had been standing on suddenly retracted into the wall.

Outlier passed Trick again, racing to catch up with Reiki.  The goal of their “Floor is Lava” training was to make it across the training room floor without touching the ground – it was harder than it sounds, as the beams in the room kept rotating and disappearing.  If they paused for too long, they would be dropped onto the floor.

The atmosphere in the room was sweltering, which also affected their judgement.  Because Agent had a wicked sense of humor, a hologram on the floor made it look to the team as if they really were above a pit of lava.  He had also raised the temperature of the room to a hundred degrees, which didn’t help their attitudes or their tempers.

“We need to work together,” Outlier added, coming up next to Reiki.  “This is supposed to be a team exercise.”

“Oh lighten up,” Trick said.  “Why are you always so serious?”

“Why don’t you ever take these drills seriously?” Outlier argued.  “We’re supposed to be training to be heroes. This kind of stuff could be life-and-death some day.”

“Right,” Trick said.  “Because one day we might find ourselves dangling over a pit of lava, having to race to the top as our means of escape suddenly disappears.”  She shook her head. “That’s totally gonna happen.”

“Guys?” Shadow said.  “Maybe we should – ”

The beams fell out from under all of them, and all four hit the ground.

“And that’s it for match seven,” Agent said tiredly over the loudspeaker.  “You guys weren’t getting anywhere fast on your own, and we have a call to answer.”

“Where are the others?” Trick asked, wincing as she stood up.  They had fallen down at least fifteen feet, and as humans Trick and Outlier didn’t have powers to cushion their fall.  The floor was matted, and she had landed in a roll to disperse the energy of the fall – years of parkour practice had made that second nature.  “Nightmare, Earthborn, and Granny? I thought Earthborn was out on patrol.”

“Earthborn found a problem with the bridge that he’s busy fixing, and I deployed Nightmare and Granny for another call while you four were on attempt number four.”  Agent crossed his arms. “I’d rather not use all four of you, considering that performance, but reports are saying this one’s big.” He pulled out his data pad and looked at it.  “And weird,” he added. “People are saying that the Eon City museum exhibits are coming to life.”

“Coming to life?” Outlier repeated.  She had crashed to the floor in a break-fall, protecting her head but otherwise taking the hit.  Years of rough-and-tumble sparring with her satyr brothers had toughened her against most blows.

“Sounds like that one old movie we saw that time,” Shadow said.  He had used his shadow-bending powers to make a cushion to land on, rolling off it in a similar fashion to Trick’s parkour roll.  Reiki didn’t say anything, but used his light-bending powers to help him float down from the fall.

“Yes, exactly,” Agent said.  “So get to it.”

The four, already in uniform from training, ran to the helipad on the roof.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Museum.

Hatter again.  Hi.

“They are really taking their time in getting here,” Hatter said aloud, watching the chaos unfold around her as she stood on an empty pedestal in the center of the main hall.  An elephant tiptoed around an old lady, while a gaggle of cavemen ogled at the sparkling jewels in the Natural History displays.

In her right hand, she held a small, grey bag filled with what looked like gravel.  It was much more than that, though; it came from –

“Oh, get to the point already!” Hatter cried.  “I stole an exhibit called ‘Stardust’, which my client told me to pick up while I’m here.  Now I’m waiting around for those Asylum guys to get around to catching me.”

Fine, then.  Why did you bring the exhibits to life?

“Because I’m bored,” she said.  “I’d been waiting for an hour, and the sucky security around here didn’t even notice that the Stardust was missing!  Honestly, it’s the easiest heist I’ve ever pulled, and on this one I’m being paid to wait around for the Watchers. I had to do something to get their attention.”

Seems like overkill.  Is that a buffalo on a skateboard?

“Bison,” Hatter said.  “He seemed so disappointed that there’s no grazing; I had to give him something fun to do while we wait.”

Sure.  Makes sense.

“Don’t get snippy,” Hatter chided.  “He’s having much more fun riding that thing around than the moose did.”

And the whale?

Hatter shrugged.  “He needed to float to move.  I just made it so he could float through the air.”  She gave a satisfied sigh as she looked at her handiwork.  “This’ll confuse them plenty. Hey, narrator – when do you think the heroes’ll get here?”

They should be arriving any minute.  We wouldn’t have started the scene now if they weren’t coming.

“Good.”  Hatter jumped down from her pedestal, rubbing her hands together in anticipation.  “This oughta be fun. Maybe I could speed it up.” She cleared her throat, then said in a deep, booming, echoing voice, “Trick, Shadow, Outlier, and Reiki chose that moment to arrive.

Oh, that’s what you meant by ‘powers of narration’.

Sure enough, the four heroes came through the museum entrance, staring at the chaos surrounding them.

“Is that a dinosaur with a laser?” Shadow asked, adjusting his goggles in awe.

“Brachiosaur,” Reiki confirmed, his eyes wide.  “With a laser.”

“Oh good, you’re here!” Hatter said, skipping over to where the heroes were waiting.  “I’ve been waiting long enough.” They saw a girl, probably still a teenager, dressed in a tailcoat and fishnet stockings.  She wore a large top hat, cocked to one side, and looked rather mad.

Natalie shook her head, the first to remember why they were there.  “Who are you, and why did you bring the museum pieces to life?”

“More importantly, how did you bring them to life?” Outlier asked.  “I’ve never seen a Third Gen power like this before.”

Hatter shrugged.  “I have some powers of narration,” she said.  “I don’t expect you to understand; there’s only one other character in this story who could, and we haven’t seen her since the first trailer because she’s so incredibly shy.”  She walked over to the heroes, shaking each of their hands in turn. “My name’s Hatter. It’s so nice to finally meet you; I’ve heard so much about you all!”

“Charmed, I’m sure,” Outlier said uncertainly.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” Trick said.  “Why are you here, and what did you do to the museum exhibits?”

“Well, that’s a bit of a long story,” Hatter told them, “and a lot of it would spoil the ending of this season, so I’ll just give you the footnotes: I just stole something, and since nobody noticed I’d stolen it I decided to cause a little chaos to get your attention.”

“What?” Shadow asked, nonplussed.  “We’re going to need some more details.”

“The important question here is how are you going to stop me?” Hatter asked.  “Tell you what: you guys try to hit me, and if you manage to tap me before I escape, I’ll come quietly.”

Trick didn’t wait; she immediately lunged at Hatter.  Hatter danced to the side, laughing, while Trick growled her frustration.  “Stand still, you little – ”

“I got this,” Reiki said, his hands glowing with his power.

“Oh, you didn’t wait to hear the rest!” Hatter said.  “Reiki and Shadow suddenly switched powers.

Light burst forth from Shadow’s hands as Reiki tried to attack.  Reiki pulled his hands back, pulling shadows with them. “Hey, what the hell?” he shouted, waving his arms around.  The more he moved, the more he became a smudge of shadow in the middle of the room.

“What did you do to us?” Shadow cried, trying to turn the light on his hands off by shaking them.

“Don’t worry too much; it’ll wear off as soon as you catch me – however long that takes,” Hatter said, jumping back up on her pedestal.

Trick pulled a handkerchief from one of her uniform’s pockets.  “Don’t think that’ll stop me,” she said. Outlier began running at Hatter as well.

“Oh, you two are no fun,” Hatter said.  “So obvious. You don’t have Third Gen powers like the boys, so I guess I’ll have to be more creative.”  Just before the two Watchers reached her, Hatter said, “Trick and Outlier suddenly found themselves in the other’s body.

Outlier tripped, ramming the pedestal head-first, while Trick suddenly sneezed as the glitter in her handkerchief flew everywhere.

Hatter sighed, hopping down again and shaking her head.  “Look at them,” she said. “So confused. I ought to give them a chance to acclimate.”

You could always change them back.

“Where’s the fun in that?” Hatter said.  “Like I said, they’ll change back if they catch me.  I’ll even make it a narration if you like.” She cleared her throat and said, “Everything will change back to normal as soon as the heroes catch the Hatter.

Now what will you do?

“I’ll give them a day,” Hatter said.  “Hey, heroes: I’ll meet you back here tomorrow at the same time.  We’ll continue our little game then.”

Hatter walked out of the museum, leaving a trail of chaos in her wake.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, Dale’s lab.

Ain’t I a stinker?

“I hae ne’er seen a Third Gen power quite like this afore,” Dale said, his accent thickening in shock as he finished his examinations.

“How bad is it?” Agent asked, gripping his umbrella with white knuckles.  He had never faced an enemy that could knock four of his team members out of commission at once – even when his last team fell apart, they had never lost more than two members at a time.

Dale shrugged.  Agent glared at him, so he added, “I cannae say.  Reiki seems to be pulling shadows around himself,” he gestured to a smudge on one table, then to Shadow on the next.  “Frank’s got light-bending powers, and cannae turn ‘em off. And Natalie and Haley seem to have each other’s mem’ries.  I cannae make heads or tails of it.”

Agent went to Natalie’s bedside.  “Nat?” he asked.

“Over here,” came Natalie’s attitude out of Haley’s mouth.  She was holding an ice pack to her head and scowling in a very un-Haley-like way.  “I don’t know what that bitch did to us, but the second I see her again I’m gonna tear that stupid hat off her head and make her eat it.”

That’s definitely Nat, Agent thought, moving over to her.  Haley, in Natalie’s body, sat up and pulled her knees to her chest.  She looked thoughtful, and wasn’t scowling or angry – which meant it was definitely Haley in there.

“She said she’d be back at the museum the same time tomorrow,” Haley said.  “She also said that whatever this is will wear off as soon as we catch her – and that if we can just touch her, she’ll come quietly.”

“Oh, I’m gonna touch her alright,” Natalie growled.  “I’m gonna shove my boot so far up her – ”

“The question is,” Haley continued as if Natalie hadn’t spoken, “how are we going to catch her like this?  No offense Natalie, but you’re kind of puny – I feel weaker than I’ve ever felt in my life. My usual approach won’t work here.”

“You think I want to be a clumsy giant?” Natalie asked.  “These meaty fingers of yours couldn’t grip one of my cards without crushing it.  Not to mention that my coat won’t fit your mannish shoulders.” She raised her eyebrows at her own body.  “Offense meant, by the way,” she added.

“At least you guys don’t have powers,” Frank said.  “Reiki, how the hell do I turn this off?”

“I could probably tell you if I could see anything,” Reiki said sullenly.  “I’m stuck here, blind in the dark abyss of solitude, and hearing you guys talk is the only reason I’m not panicking.”

Frank rolled his eyes.  “Look at your hands,” he instructed.  “If you feel that fluffy stuff, that’s the shadows.  Just push it away, like swimming through cotton balls.”

Reiki was quiet for a minute, but this time when he moved his arms he emerged from the shadows.  “… Thanks,” Reiki said. “To turn the light off, you have to think about dimming light. Think of any sad memory you can.”

“Okay, how about when I found out my mom had been shot?” Frank asked, closing his eyes.  “I didn’t know how bad it was, or if she was going to live – I was so scared…” The light turned off from his hands.  “I wanted to find the bastard that shot her, and – ”

“Wait!” Reiki cried, but it was too late.  The lab shook as the air in front of Frank exploded.

He coughed, blinking.  “What did I do?” he asked.

“Anger makes explosions,” Reiki explained.  “Other emotions mixed in makes them different colors.  That one was blue, which meant sadness or fear.”

Haley looked over at him through Natalie’s eyes.  “So when you do fireworks shows in the park…?” she asked.

“I can manipulate my own emotions to make it do what I want,” Reiki said.  “I’ve had those powers since I was born; I grew up learning how to control them.  Now Frank has to do in a day what took me a lifetime?”

“I never really use my own powers,” Frank pointed out, looking at Agent.  “Except for the occasional prank or sulk, I’ve lived mostly like a human. How are we going to fix this?”

Agent pursed his lips.  “By training,” he said, “just like anything else.  Natalie, you show Haley how you fight, and Haley, you teach Natalie some of your skills.  Reiki and Frank, you two work together until you both have those powers under control.” He turned and gestured to the others to follow.  “You guys will have to work together, whether you like it or not. Now you’re under a time limit.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum training floor, three hours later.

Good luck, guys.

“Ouch!” Haley cried, sucking on her finger.  “What do you do, sharpen the edges?”

She had just gotten cut trying to throw Natalie’s playing cards at a target ten feet away.  So far, she had managed to hit the target once – and the card didn’t even wedge into the wood, like Natalie made them do.

“In my belt, there’s a vial – give it to me,” Haley said, pointing at Natalie.  “Quick!”

“Relax,” Natalie said.  “It’s just a paper cut. It’ll stop in a second.”

Haley took the cut out of her mouth, staring at it in astonishment as the blood clotted.  “Whoa,” she said. “You heal fast.”

“No faster than anybody else,” Natalie shrugged.  “That’s what people mean when they tell you that you heal slowly, you know.”

“Huh.”  Haley said, flexing Natalie’s hand experimentally.  “I never realized.”

Natalie clenched a fist.  “You still wouldn’t have had to realize if you’d hold the cards carefully,” she chided.  “The edges have metal inlaid, which yes, I do sharpen. Be careful!”

“Hey, it’s bad enough that you can’t fight hand-to-hand worth a damn,” Haley said.  They had just come from the sparring ring, where Natalie tripped over herself at least ten times in the past hour.  “If I can’t even figure out how you do fight, then neither of us are getting our own bodies back.”

“You have to be quick,” Natalie told her.  “Rabbit moves – never let them see you coming.  You take a card, and…” She demonstrated, hitting the target in the uppermost ring.

Haley tried, but her movements were stunted.  “How the hell do you move in this thing?” She asked, pulling a wedgie from Natalie’s outfit.  “It’s so tight!” She tried bending her elbow, but the sleeves wouldn’t let her bend very far.

“Better than this thing,” Natalie said, picking at Haley’s lack of sleeves.  “You’re so exposed! With your bleeding problem, I’d think you’d want to be more covered.”

Haley shook her head, walking over to her body.  In a sudden movement – more sudden than she intended, in fact – she punched Natalie in the arm.

“Hey!” Natalie said angrily, before she realized what Haley was showing her.  “That didn’t hurt.”

“I’ve been taking hits from a four-hundred-pound gorilla-satyr my whole life,” Haley pointed out.  “Anything less than being hit by a car doesn’t hurt all that much. Though you do have to watch for the bruising,” she added.  “I’ve learned to handle the blood thing, but bruises last for months and cuts don’t heal without help.”

“Noted,” Natalie said.  “How’s your aim coming?”  Haley threw another card, managing to hit the target again – but not with the sharp edge of the card.  Natalie rolled her eyes. “No, like this.” She picked up another card, holding it delicately by the corner.  In one swift motion, she flicked it at the target, where one corner remained wedged in the wood.

“Maybe you’d better hold onto these,” Haley sighed, handing the cards to her.  “You don’t know how to throw a proper punch, but you still have your aim. I’m going to be useless tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” Natalie said, taking them.  “Hey, you still know a bunch of fighting styles, right?” she asked.  Haley nodded (which was still disconcerting to see on her own face). “Do any use speed instead of strength to hit hard?  I’m pretty fast.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed,” Haley said.  “It’s like being fifty pounds lighter lets you move faster.”  She thought for a second back to her training in the gym. “I’ve been focusing on a hard-hitting style for years now, to use my height and weight to my advantage,” she said, “but when I was a kid Andy taught me some Aikido.”  She looked back at Natalie. “If I can remember it, that might work for me!”

“Glad to see you two have it figured out,” Frank said dryly.

“Any progress on your side?” Natalie asked him.

Reiki just growled as Frank answered, “Well, Reiki’s not covered in shadows.  That’s something.”

“I haven’t heard an explosion in nearly an hour,” Haley pointed out.  “That’s an improvement.”

“I’m too tired to be mad about anything,” Frank said, his eyelids half-shut.  “Right now, I’m just exhausted.”

“Maybe we should take a break,” Reiki suggested.  “That is, if you can stop feeling emotions for any length of time.”

“Hey, why don’t you – ” The air in front of Frank exploded again, although this time it was a much smaller boom.

“Thought so,” Reiki said, smirking at him.  A stray shadow came up around his face, but he swatted it away.  “You know, if you could get control of your emotions, you might find a better use for your power, too.”

Frank crossed his arms.  “Like what?” he asked.

“Like this.”  Reiki began plucking shadows out of the air and arranged them in front of himself, until they formed a smiley face in mid-air.

“Shadow art,” Frank said.  “How original.” He held his hands up and shut his eyes, concentrating.  Multi-colored lights burst from his fingertips until he had a rainbow in front of him.

“Better,” Reiki said, nodding.  “Now, can you turn it off?”

Frank concentrated again, and the light slowly dimmed.

“Progress, I guess,” Natalie said, flipping another playing card at the target.  “At least these giant fingers can hold the cards without crushing them.”

“Do you have to do that?” Haley asked.

“What?” Natalie flipped another card over her shoulder, hitting the outside ring of the target.  “In my own body, I can get a bull’s-eye every time without even trying. Now I’m five inches off, because this lumbering, giant body is five inches taller.  Five inches makes a huge difference when you’re throwing sharp objects, you know.”

“You keep calling me ‘giant’ and ‘lumbering’,” Haley said.  “I’m an athlete – my body is mostly muscle, and a heck of a lot more flexible than yours.  Why do you have to insult it at every turn?”

“Because it’s not what I’m used to,” Natalie said, shrugging.  “My style is light, quick, and short movements. If I take too long, the enemy can see my tricks coming a mile away.”

Haley put her hands on her hips, looking more like Natalie than she had all day with her glare.  “Well, it’s insulting. My style is straight-forward, beat them into submission. No fancy moves, no running around, and no cheating.”

“It’s not cheating,” Natalie protested.  “It’s using my skills to my advantage. I didn’t have a gym trainer and a gorilla-satyr; I had my brother and my dad, who are both bird-satyrs.  Dad taught me how to use street illusions, and Parker helped me develop them for combat.” She folded her arms, looking more Haley-ish than she had all day.  “It’s unnerving to have to run straight at someone.”

“Maybe instead of trying to use each other’s moves, you guys can come up with combo moves together,” Frank suggested.  “Haley’s got that Aikido thing, and Natalie can still use her cards, so why not figure something else out?”

“What about you and Reiki, huh?” Natalie shot back.  “Instead of relying so much on your powers – which you never did anyways – why don’t you guys practice your hand-to-hand?”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Haley said, nodding at Reiki.  “I know we don’t get along, but maybe if we work together – ”

“Hate to disappoint you, princess, but that’s never been our strong suit,” Reiki said.

Frank took a deep breath, trying to hold back another explosion.  “Maybe if you communicated better in the field – ”

“I do communicate!” Reiki growled.  “Haley there’s the only one who ever listens!”  He gestured first at Natalie, then at Haley.

Haley raised a hand.  “He does communicate,” she says.  “He goes first, and expects you to do what he does.  That doesn’t mean I agree with it,” she pointed out to Reiki, who looked smug.  “You still need to learn to vocalize your thoughts more. We shouldn’t have to keep our eyes on you as well as our surroundings.  But yeah, he does advertise his moves.”

Frank just looked at her.  “I’ve been training with him for nearly two years, and you picked that up in a couple of months?”

“I was new,” she said.  “My instinct was to see what he did.  Still cost us time while I figured it out.”

Frank looked back over at Reiki.  “Okay, fine,” he said. “Now that I know what to look for, let’s go train.”

“Hey, yogi,” Natalie said, nudging Haley in the arm.  “We still need to work on our moves.”

“Okay then,” Haley said.  “Let’s get to it.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Museum, the next day.

About time, amiright?

“They try so hard,” Hatter said, shaking her head as she looked around the museum.  The chaos from the day before still ran rampant, despite the obvious measures taken to contain it.  The police had rounded up the moose, the bisen, and the Neanderthals, but they couldn’t contain the whale, which still floated lazily above everyone’s heads.

“They took the bisen’s skateboard,” Hatter pointed out.  “That was just mean. He looks so sad now.”

You could always give him another one.

“No point,” said Hatter, hopping back up on her pedestal.  “The heroes should be here any minute. I take it they were training?”

Most of the night.  They’re pretty tired, but they should give you a challenge.

“Good,” Hatter said, rubbing her hands together in anticipation.  “Let’s speed this up, then, shall we?”

You want to do the honors?

“By all means,” Hatter said.  She cleared her throat and added, “Trick, Outlier, Shadow, and Reiki entered the museum.

The four heroes ran through the door, ready to take on their opponent.  Hatter greeted them with a smile. “Welcome back!” she said cheerily. “I trust the rematch will be more entertaining than the first round?”

“Change us back!” Natalie shouted, glaring at her.

Haley added, “Enough games.  Return everything to normal!”

“Or what?” Hatter asked, her voice silky.  “You’ll throw some playing cards at me?” She batted her eyelashes, grinning.

“No, but I will,” Natalie said.  She gripped her cards delicately with Haley’s hands and threw three in a row.

Hatter danced aside, hopping off her pedestal as the cards flashed beside her.  “Ooh, much better!” she said. She flipped her top hat off her head and rolled it down her arm, easily dodging as Shadow came at her from the left.

Another figure flashed beside Shadow.  Reiki had hidden himself in Shadow’s shadow, nearly hitting Hatter with a haymaker.  “Little too slow,” Hatter taunted as she jumped backwards. She nearly missed Natalie coming up from behind.

“Oh, thanks for the warning!” Hatter said, ducking under Natalie’s punch just in time.  She dove to her free side…

Right into Haley’s waiting embrace.

Haley moved in, knocking one of Hatter’s arms aside in a half-remembered Aikido move that she had practiced all night.  Grabbing Hatter in a headlock, Haley threw her to the ground.

“Uncle, uncle!!” Hatter cried.  “You got me!”

“Rules are rules,” Haley said.  “Change everything back and come quietly.”

“Fine, okay, sure,” Hatter said.  “Everything then changed back to normal.”  She gave a sigh.  “Thanks for the heads-up,” she added.

I can’t give away everything.  They are the heroes, after all.

“True,” Hatter said, raising her eyebrows in a resigned manner.

The commotion around them stopped as the exhibits turned back into inanimate objects.  Reiki began to glow, then got a hold of his powers and turned them off. “I’m back!” he cried.

“So am I!” said Shadow, drawing a smiley face in the air with his powers and grinning.  “Are the girls…?”

Hatter had her head slammed into the ground again.  “Yep, we’re back to normal,” Haley said from her own body.

Natalie gave Shadow a half-smile.  “Had to be done,” she said, standing up now that Hatter was unconscious.  “Let’s get a muzzle on her, just to be sure.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

I’m gonna go lie down now.

Narrator can take it from here.

“Hatter is in lockup,” Agent said.  “The guards have instructions to keep her muzzled at all times unless she’s eating.  If she tries to say anything then, knock-out gas will immediately fill the room.

“Good riddance,” Natalie said, stretching her arms out.  “Feels good to be back!”

Agent smiled.  “We did manage to interrogate her, by having her write her answers,” he said.  “She admitted to stealing the stardust, and delivering it to her employer. She wouldn’t say who her employer is past his street handle – ‘Jaunt’.”

“Wait,” said Shadow.  “That’s the one…”

“Jaunt is the villain that Team Ark was trying to take down when they fell apart,” Agent finished grimly.  “There were a lot of issues there to begin with, but he knew how to exploit every single one of them.”

“So what’s our move?” Haley asked.

“For now, we keep protecting the city,” Agent told them.  “Jaunt can open portals anywhere on Earth at will. We don’t know where he makes his base, so we’ll have to stay alert and look for more leads.”  He smiled at the group, though he couldn’t hide the shadows under his eyes. “You guys did good,” he said. “That was excellent teamwork. Keep it up!”

With that, he went to the elevator and left the team to themselves.

“Jaunt,” Shadow spat.  “My mom got shot chasing that guy.”

“I wonder what he meant by ‘Jaunt exploited Team Ark’s issues’,” Haley mused.  “The papers back then reported that Team Ark disbanded, but they didn’t give any details.”

Shadow jumped into one of the cushioned chairs around the living area.  “I don’t know it all, either,” he admitted. “All I know is that after Lyta was killed,” he nodded at Natalie, who tensed at her mom’s codename, “The team had a bit of bad blood in it.  Dad once mentioned that Striker had been challenging his leadership. Sparrow was Striker’s little sister and followed him everywhere, and Marauder closed himself off from the group.”

“That’s why that night hit Casey so hard,” Natalie continued, her voice soft.  “Casey – Sparrow – had the power to see the future. She knew what was coming, and she couldn’t stop it.”

“If I had to guess,” Frank continued, “I’d say Jaunt played on her fears, on Marauder’s cageyness, and on Striker’s beef with my dad.  With all of that, they’d have fallen apart in an instant.”

“That’s why Agent keeps after us about teamwork,” Reiki said, “right?”

“And why I was so pissed at him for keeping Parker’s mission from me,” Natalie added.  “You’d think he’d know better than to keep secrets from his team after all that.”

“We still don’t know a thing about this Jaunt guy,” Frank said, pulling shadows around himself like a blanket.  “I’m willing to bet Agent knows more than he let on, but he won’t tell us.”

“Come on, guys,” Haley said with a nervous giggle.  “He’d tell us if we needed to know, right?”

“If he thinks we need to know,” Reiki corrected her darkly.

They all sat in silence for a minute before Haley broke it.  “Well, this is depressing,” she said. “Speculating will get us nowhere, and my mom sent cookies from her bakery.”

Frank perked up.  “Cookies?” he asked.  “I heard cookies.”

Haley laughed, and the tension in the room was broken.  “Come on, they’re in the kitchen,” she said, grinning. The team followed her, and they started chatting about more mundane things.  While the mood was lifted, the question remained in the back of their minds:

Who was this Jaunt person, and what was his endgame?

* * * * * * * *

Issue #6 – Leech

Seventeen Years Ago, Unknown Laboratory.

Sabrina “Rina” Dawson, age eleven.

Nightmare on display.

“Here’s our most promising subject,” came the voice behind the mirror.  “Number nine, Sabrina Dawson. Our researchers call this one ‘the Nightmare Child’.”

Rina sat in the Pain Chair, waiting.  Every time they strapped her into the chair, they would try to bring out her powers any way they could – which usually meant pain.

Rina was used to pain.

“Why is that?” came a second voice.  The lead researcher was showing her off, then.  That usually meant they would start with the shocks.  Either that, or they’d cut off her arm to show that it would grow back in just a couple of days.  Today’s pain entirely depended on who he was showing off for, and Rina couldn’t see either of them behind the mirror.

The lead researcher was answering the question.  “Number nine has the ability to cause panic in those around her,” he said.  “Her mental abilities cause heart palpitations and a spike in adrenaline levels, usually manifesting in a fight-or-flight response.  In layman’s terms, she creates fear.”

It was going to be the shocks today, then.  The shocks always came first when they wanted her to show off the fear response.  Rina braced herself; the waiting was always the worst part.

Two nurses were in the room with her today.  She didn’t know how many people were on the other side of the mirror, but she knew her power would reach to them, too.  Ryan had told her that he’d managed to shock the lead researcher, so she knew it was possible.

Maybe I can hurt them, too, she thought, reaching for her powers.  She could feel the waves of fear radiating from her to the nurses.  One backed up a few paces, while the other started to shake.

“You see, she can use her power at will,” the lead researcher said.  They didn’t know his name, just that he was in charge of the experiments.  “But she has some trouble controlling it. This is the most basic reaction from our staff.”

Rina heard him, and redoubled her efforts.  She knew she had to show off soon, or the shocks would come.  She reached for her own fear and panic at the thought of the pain, and tried to throw it out past the mirror.

It didn’t work.  The second person was now saying, “She doesn’t seem powerful enough for our purposes.  Maybe the next one.”

“Hold on,” the lead researcher said in his oily voice.  Rina hated that voice, just as much as she hated what always came next.  “We have found that number nine responds better when stimulated. Observe.”

The shocks ran through her body without warning.  Every nerve was exploding with pain – Rina tried to scream but she couldn’t control herself.  She was thrashing against the Pain Chair, almost vibrating with the shocks running through her.  Just as she felt she couldn’t take any more, the shocks stopped.

One of the nurses was clawing at the door, and the other was curled up in a fetal position on the floor from Rina’s power.  The lead researcher was speaking again. “We’ve had number nine since birth, and gave her a new type of formula using both the Third Gen and Satyr formulas as a base.”  He sounded shaken. Good; that meant her power did hit him, even if only a little bit. “She has an incredible Third Gen ability, as demonstrated, but she also has satyr abilities.”

“Intriguing,” the second voice said.  He didn’t sound shaken at all. “Such as?”

“She has an axolotl’s ability for self-replication,” the lead researcher explained.  “She heals from any injury faster than a normal human, even going so far as to regrow limbs.”

They were going to cut off her arm again, too.  Great.

“She can regrow an arm or a leg?” the second voice asked in disbelief.

“It takes a couple of days to regrow, but she does.  Would you like a demonstration?” The lead researcher was hoping to get money from the second voice.  That was the only reason he would show off both of Rina’s powers so easily.

The second voice was willing to give it to him, too.  “Show me. Cut off her left leg, and I’ll come back in three days to see if it grows back.  If you’re right,” he added, “this could revolutionize the military.”

The left leg; that was new.  The nurses had composed themselves while the voices were talking, and now they came over to the chair.  The one that had been in the fetal position was now holding an electric bone saw, and Rina knew that today’s pain had only just started.

As the saw turned on, she couldn’t hear the voices any more.  As they began cutting through her leg, the coppery taste of blood filled Rina’s mouth as she bit her tongue.  Her eyes rolled back into her head as she lost consciousness.

When she woke up, she was in her room.  It was a tiny space, including four whitewashed walls and a small bed that she was quickly outgrowing.  Her right foot dangled off the bottom of the bed. She was wearing new clothes; someone had cleaned and changed her after the Pain Chair.  The lights were dim, to keep her skin from burning. Rina had read books about the sun, and Ryan had told her that it felt nice to sit in it – but she wasn’t sure she believed in that fairy tale.

“Hey there,” came a soft voice from the doorway.  Ryan stood just outside her room, giving her a soft smile.  “You okay?”

“No worse than before,” Rina told him.  Her tongue had already healed, and aside from her missing leg she was fine.  She sat up in the bed, swinging her remaining leg over the side to look at him.

Ryan clicked his tongue.  “The left leg this time?” he asked.  “Ouch.” He walked over to her, helping her stand on one leg.  “Why don’t we go to the playroom? The others are waiting.”

Rina smiled at him.  The pain was mostly gone from the morning’s exhibition, except for a fire in the stump where her left leg was growing back.  She liked playing with the others in the play room; it took her mind off of the Pain Chair.

As Ryan helped her hop over to a chair in the corner of the room, the others gave her sympathetic looks.  Rina was the only one who ever lost bodily appendages in the Pain Chair – the researchers knew that the others didn’t have the same ability, so they never had to test it.  In the playroom today, along with Rina and Ryan, were the sisters Katie and Leah, as well as Michael and Finn.

Ryan was the oldest of all of them, nearly twenty years old now.  He looked after the others as he always had, having come to the lab when he was seven.  Katie was close to his age, only a couple of years younger, but had been at the lab the longest.  Her little sister Leah was only eight, the youngest of all of the Fourth Gen kids. Michael was eleven, the same age as Rina, but he had come to the lab when he was five.  Finn was thirteen, but like Rina he had been a newborn when they started experimenting on him.

“The lead researcher is trying to sell the formula,” Katie said when she saw Rina’s leg.  “This one might bite. Most times, people say no as soon as they realize the side effects.”  She pointed to her skin and her eyes; like all of the Fourth Gen kids, her veins stood out black against her pale skin and her eyes were a bright red.  “Humans don’t want to look like monsters.”

“We’re not monsters,” Ryan said, sitting on the floor next to Rina.  “We’re people just like them, and one of these days I’m gonna bust out of here and really show them what I can do.”

Katie rolled her eyes at him.  “Ever the hero,” she scoffed. “What are you going to do, shock them like they shock us?”

Electricity crackled around Ryan’s fingers.  “I can,” he said, looking Katie right in the eyes.  “Someone should give them a taste of their own medicine.”

“But you won’t,” she shot back, “for the same reason you haven’t done it yet: they know you can shock them, so they always wear rubber suits when you’re around.  It wouldn’t work.”

Ryan smirked at her.  “Oh yeah?” he said. “Well, what they don’t know is the little trick I’ve been working on.”  He turned so that his arm was hidden from the cameras and showed them: the electricity wasn’t just around his hand – it was his hand.

As the other Fourth Gens gawked at him, his hand returned to normal.  “I figured it out about a week ago,” Ryan explained. “I think we’re all more powerful than they want us to believe, so they don’t let us practice with our own powers.  But I’ve been doing it in secret, and I know how to control it now.”

“So what’ll you do when you’re out of here?” Rina asked.  She knew Ryan was as good as his word, and that he’d leave the experiment one day.  Ryan could do anything.

He shrugged in response.  “When I was little, I remember seeing heroes on TV,” he said.  “I wanted to be one of them – and I guess I still do.”

“A hero?” Rina repeated, thinking of the knights from her storybooks.  She giggled as she pictured Ryan with a sword and shield. “How dashing!”

“I’d want to be a viking,” Michael said, getting in on the game.  “Sailing the seas, going on adventures; that would be exciting!”

Quiet Finn spoke up.  “Maybe I could show people my poetry,” he shrugged.  The others knew that he scribbled on any paper he could find.  He had even written a lullaby for the younger Fourth Gens in the experiment.

“Yeah,” said Katie, “because all of that could happen, and it would be sunshine and rainbows every day.”

Here shines the sun,” Rina began singing Finn’s lullaby, the lines she thought were relevant.  Finn joined her for the next lines:

Clouds gone away,

Rainbows are pretty amazing.

Just close your eyes;

You’ll see the sky someday…

“Right,” Katie said, her voice softening despite the huff she was in, “but you guys have never actually seen the sun, have you?  None of us have seen it in years, and we’ll probably never see it again.” Turning to Ryan, she added, “That’s why they keep this place so dark, you know.  Even if we do get back outside, we’ll just burn to a crisp as soon as we see daylight.”

She stood up, probably to go back to her room, but Leah spoke up.  “I just want a hug,” she said quietly. Katie’s eyes welled up, and she sat back down next to her sister.  Leah’s abilities kept her from touching people’s bare skin; if they did, she would leech away their powers, and their life.  She always had to be covered, and had never been hugged properly by anyone, even her mother.

Ryan crawled over to her other side.  “Tell you what,” he said. “I’ll give you a hug right now.”  He reached out his arms. After staring at him for a second, Leah jumped into them, hugging him tightly.  Ryan’s face was screwed up in pain, but he kept holding Leah until Katie shouted, “Enough!”

Leah jumped back from him, and Ryan gasped for air.  The color had drained from Katie’s face just as much as it did his.  “Are you suicidal,” she asked, “or just stupid?”

Ryan grinned weakly up at her.  “Leah just wanted a hug,” he said.  “That’s what heroes do – they make other people feel better.”

In later years, even as she blocked out most of her time in the experiment, Rina never forgot that moment.  Ryan was the first person to ever teach her what it meant to be a hero: being kind to other people, even when it could kill you.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, Present Day (Nighttime).

Sabrina “Rina” Dawson, AKA Nightmare.

“You messed up,” Nightmare said, meeting back up with Shadow as they finished their patrol.

Shadow groaned, “I know,” as he skated along next to her motorcycle.  “I got cocky. It won’t happen again.”

“I wasn’t blaming you,” Nightmare told him, revving the engine as they kept an eye out for trouble.  “I’m just putting together what happened so we know better next time.”

“What happened was I messed up,” Shadow said.  “I wasn’t as fast as I thought I was. I shouldn’t have moved without backup.”

“You tied up the one,” Nightmare pointed out.  “You – hold up.” She skidded her cycle to a sudden stop, and Shadow had to turn around to pull up next to her.

“What is it?” he asked, glancing around.

Nightmare pointed to a jewelry store across the street.  “Looks like we got ourselves a good, old-fashioned jewelry heist,” she said, smirking.

“You’ve gotta be kidding,” Shadow rolled his eyes.  “Who does that anymore?” He turned off the engine on his skates and rolled to the front door, glancing in through the glass window and immediately ducking out of sight.  “My goggles are showing three heat signatures: two by the counter in the back and one near the case in the front,” he whispered, pressing the button on his boots to retract the wheels as he replayed the image he recorded on his goggles.

“I’ll take the counter if you take the case?” Nightmare suggested.  Shadow nodded to her and disappeared into the shadows.

“Damn, that’s cool,” Nightmare breathed, sidling over to the door to pick the lock.

She opened the door slowly, hoping to slip in unnoticed.  She had just gotten it wide enough to enter when a loud buzzer went off.  Stupid, she thought.  Of course a store like this would have a door tone, to alert the salespeople to a customer walking in.

The element of surprise lost, Nightmare swung the door open and ran into the room towards the intruder by the cases.  The jewels left in the case glinted in the dim light, reflecting the streetlights outside. The shadow from the door closing crossed over them, making them glitter.

Nightmare shouted as her target tried to duck past her.  She was aware of Shadow flying out of the darkness behind her, but the Watcher kept her mind focused on her own task – the duo had already let one bad guy get away this evening, and she would be damned if it happened again.  The girl wasn’t alone; there were two others with her.

The target turned towards her, enough of their outline showing through their loose black clothing to reveal that she was female.  The thief wore a hoodie, much like Shadow’s, to conceal her face, but instead of goggles or a mask she seemed in the dark store to wear heavy black eyeshadow.

The girl tried again to duck past Shadow, but he pushed her back.  She let out a feral growl – could she be a satyr? – and moved her arms through the air.

A wave of water swept over him, knocking him off his feet.  This girl wasn’t human, of that much he was sure. He coughed up the water he had inhaled, unclipping his nightsticks from his side.  The water drenching him meant that he couldn’t turn on the Taser mode, but they would still work well enough as weapons without it.

The girl moved her arms again, but this time Shadow was ready.  He dove forward, knocking her down and tangling her legs up with one of the sticks.  “You know, my mother told me never to hit a girl,” he said, grabbing one of her arms and cuffing her wrist.  “She also told me that stealing is wrong. And she definitely told me not to drown. I think it evens out.”

He grabbed the thief’s other wrist and cuffed it to the first one.  Nightmare was putting her own cuffs on the other two. “Your mother told you, specifically, not to drown?” she asked, as Shadow hauled his target to her feet.

“Yeah, it’s a long story,” Shadow told her, “involving the ocean, some ankle weights, and some snorkeling gear.  Remind me to tell you some time.” He turned back to the thief that he held. “Now what gave you guys the idea that a jewelry store was a good place to rob?” he asked.

The girl answered with another feral growl, struggling to break free of his grip.  Her hood fell back from her face, and Nightmare gasped in recognition.

“Susie?” she asked quietly, kneeling next to the thrashing girl.  “Sus, it’s me.” She pulled her hood down, taking off her mask to show the struggling girl.  With a closer look at the girl, Shadow could see that she wasn’t wearing dark eyeshadow – her eyes were red, and her veins stood out black just like Nightmare’s.

“What’s going on here?” he asked.  “Nightmare, you know this girl?”

Nightmare moved over to the two she had taken down and pulled off their hoods.  One was a normal satyr, but the other one had the same black veins. “Mikey?” she asked.

The Fourth Gen thief looked calmly at her.  “Hello, Rina,” he said. “Long time no see.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Interrogation room, behind the glass.

“Okay Rina, from the top,” Agent said, looking at the two Fourth Gens from behind the two-way mirror.  “Who are they?”

“The guy is Mikey – Michael Andrews,” Rina told him.  “The girl is Susan Dobbs. They were both in the Fourth Gen experiment with me.”  She was debriefing Agent while Shadow got checked over by Dale after their patrol.

“Any idea what they were doing robbing a jewelry store?” Agent asked, turning to look at her.

Rina shrugged.  “The last time I saw them was fifteen years ago, when we were breaking out of the lab.  After that, we scattered – I know Claw snatched up a few of us, but I thought that at least Mikey had joined government service like me.”

Agent picked up his data pad off of the counter in front of him and typed something in.  “Hmm,” he said. “Michael Andrews, Fourth Gen. Spent ten years in the military before being dishonorably discharged for striking a superior officer.  His criminal record indicates that he joined the Fauns shortly after that.”

“Of course he did,” Rina sighed.  “Mikey never liked structure, and I can’t think he’d be okay with authority figures after the lab.”  She cracked her knuckles nervously. Agent put a hand on her shoulder, and she flinched before realizing he was just telling her to calm down.  She slowed her breathing, getting her emotions – and her powers – back under control.

“What did they do to him there?” Agent asked.

Rina bit her lip.  “I’m not sure of the details,” she said.  “We never saw it happening to each other, just the after-effects.  But when we were younger Mikey always came out of it crying, saying that ‘they made him do bad things.’  They put him in solitary confinement for the last year and a half before we broke out, and I can only imagine what he went through.  I never even knew what his powers were.”

“And the girl?” Agent asked, typing something else into his data pad.  “Susan Dobbs has a criminal record a mile long; she’s labeled as a feral satyr.”

“A jellyfish,” Rina confirmed.  “They tried to make another regenerating Fourth Gen like me.  It almost worked – she heals fast, but she can’t regrow limbs.  You’ll find a scar around her right pinky where they tested that.”  Rina stepped forward, staring at her old friends in the room. “Susie was never all there; she can’t say more than a few words at a time.  But we might be able to question Mikey.”

“Are you up for that?” Agent asked her, gesturing to his suit.  “I’m obviously an authority figure; by your own description, he probably wouldn’t talk to me.  But you have a history with him; he might open up if you went in there.”

Rina took a deep breath.  “I can try,” she said, moving to the door.

She entered the interrogation room, feeling her fellow Fourth Gens’ eyes on her.  Susie was calmer, playing with a shoestring that Mikey had given her.

“So, the great Sabrina Dawson deigns to join us,” Mikey sneered.  “That ivory tower cozy enough for you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Rina asked, trying to stay patient.

“Oh please,” he rolled his eyes, leaning back in his chair.  “As soon as they busted us out, you left. Couldn’t get away from the rest of us fast enough.”

“That’s not true,” Rina said, sitting down across from them.  “I tried to keep everyone together. Katie was the one who split first, and the others that joined the Fauns.”  She leaned forward, catching his red eyes with her own. “You could have come with me, but you wanted to travel.  So when the government asked you to join the military, you left, too.”

Mikey was the first to look away.  “Maybe,” he admitted. “That was my bad.”  When he looked back at her, his face broke into a huge grin.  “It’s good to see you, Rina.”

Rina smiled back at him.  “So, you want to tell me why you were robbing a jewelry store?” she asked.  “My partner said it best earlier: who does that any more?”

“Oh, we were just trying to get your attention,” Mikey shrugged.  Susie echoed, “A-tten-tion.” She never looked up from the shoestring.  Mikey continued, “Leech wanted to let you know: we found him.”

Rina’s eyes widened in alarm, and she stood up from the table so fast that her chair fell over.  “What?” she breathed, wanting him to confirm it.

“We found him,” Mikey repeated, putting his hands behind his head in a very self-satisfied move.  “Leech is gathering the Fourth Gens, and she knew this was the only way to get you on board.”

“Leah joined the Fauns,” Rina said.  “How the hell did she find him?”

Mikey smirked.  “You think the Fauns don’t have eyes and ears everywhere?” he asked.  “We know who he is, and we know where he is now. He works for King Enterprises now, about an hour and a half away from here.”

Rina felt like she was going to be sick.  “And Leah’s calling all of us in for this?” she asked.

“Well, she thought we’d all get a kick out of storming the castle together,” Mikey said, grinning.  “Your powers would really make a difference.”

Rina shook her head, dazed.  Without another word, she left the room.  Agent was outside in the hallway, a questioning look on his face, but he didn’t stop her.  He just entered the interrogation room and left her to find a place to think.

Leah found him, she thought.  She said she would.  As she ran down the hallway to the staircase, she remembered the last time she had seen any of her fellow Fourth Gens.

* * * * * * * *

A run-down motel, fifteen years ago.

Rina Dawson, age thirteen.

“Ow, careful!” Rina hissed, trying not to move while Leah stitched her up.  Even with gloves on, ten year-old Leah’s powers sometimes bled through.

“Sorry,” Leah said, biting her lip as she tied off the thread.  “I’m done.” She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, a streak of Rina’s black blood appearing.  Rina took a cloth and wiped it off. “Thanks. That was a nastly gash,” she added for the hundredth time that morning.

“If I’d been any slower, he probably would have cut me in half,” Rina agreed.

“Would you grow back?” Leah wondered aloud.  “If he had cut you in half, would your bottom half grow a new head, or would your top half grow new legs?  Or both,” she added thoughtfully.

Rina shuddered.  “Probably neither,” she said.  “I’m not immortal. It takes days for me to grow an arm or a leg, and in that time I’d probably have bled out and died.”

Leah shrugged, going to the bathroom to clean her hands.  “I’m still not sure why you said no in the first place,” she called back.  Coming back out of the bathroom as she dried her hands on her pant legs, she added, “It’s not like we have many options.  The Fauns would be a roof over our heads and food on the table.” As if to accentuate her point, her stomach growled.

Rina closed her eyes, trying not to cry again.  “It’s not what Ryan wanted for us,” she said. Leah sobered at the statement.  “He wanted us to be free to pick our own ways, not just to trade one cage for another.”

“Ryan gave everything to get us out of the experiment,” Leah said, “but we’ve gotta survive.  He knew that.”

“Katie didn’t join either,” Rina pointed out.  “She just took off.”

Leah glowered at the mention of her sister.  “Yeah. But she’s also old enough to make her own way,” she said.  “You and me, they look at us and see kids. Heck, we’ve been out for a week and we’ve still never seen the sun.”

“I can figure something out,” Rina said.  “I promise. I’ll get a job, maybe become a Watcher…”

“You have to be eighteen to be a Watcher,” Leah pointed out.  “Face it, Rina, there’s not much choice. At least Claw would feed us.”

“Claw would kill me if he ever saw me again,” Rina said.

Leah shrugged.  “Yeah, you. But not me.”

“He’s dangerous,” Rina told her.  “My powers didn’t even work on him.”

“But my powers will.”  Leah began putting her few things into one of the bags they had procured.  She had made up her mind.

Rina had to keep trying to talk her out of it, though.  “We should stick together, Leah,” she said. “Katie went off, but what about the others?”

“What about them?” Leah asked.  “The feral ones are impossible to control.  Most of them already joined the Fauns – and the others took off to who-knows-where.  And Ryan – ”

“He’s not dead,” Rina said, folding her arms.

“If you say so,” Leah shrugged.  “He exploded in a blast of electricity when he took out the power, at least.  And none of us have seen him since, so he might as well be dead.”

Rina pursed her lips, knowing that the younger girl was right.  “Leah, we really should stick together,” she tried one more time.

Leah shouldered her bag, turning back to face her.  “Tell you what,” she said. “The lead researcher got away; I plan to track him down someday.”  She moved to the door. “When I find out who he is and where he’s hiding, I’ll track you down and we can go after him together.  Deal?”

Rina smiled despite herself.  “Deal. You better not leave me out,” she added.

Leah smiled at her and opened the door.  The sun was blotted out by storm clouds, but it allowed the Fourth Gens to step outside.  Leah still pulled up her hood before stepping out of the motel room. She wouldn’t hug Rina goodbye, but she waved a little sadly before she left.

Rina pulled up her own hood, watching her go.  She began singing their old lullaby to herself as she wondered if she would ever see the others again.

Here shines the sun,

Night’s gone away,

New days are pretty amazing.

Just close your eyes;

You’ll see the sky someday…

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, present day.

Rina Dawson, sitting in the stairwell.

Rina was humming to herself when Agent found her.  “I was right,” he said. “He wouldn’t talk to me. Unless you count a truly impressive amount of profanity.”  He sat on the stairs next to Rina, adding, “So what was that about?”

She took her time answering, trying to get the right words.  “An old friend of mine, Leah. She found out who the lead researcher was on the Fourth Gen experiment.”

Agent whistled, impressed.  “Wow. The Agency had problems with that.”  He put a hand on Rina’s shoulder. “So what are you going to do?”

Rina looked at him.  “I don’t know,” she admitted.  “The plan was that we’d all go in and kill him, but…” she trailed off.

Agent finished for her.  “But you’ve come a long way since you were a teenager on the streets,” he said.  “You don’t think killing him is right, and as a Watcher you want to stop it.”

“But he deserves it!” she said, clenching her fists and remembering all the times they had to grow back.  “He caused us all so much pain. Who am I to tell the others to just let it go?”

“You’re one of them,” Agent said.  “You’re probably the only one who can.”

Rina stood up.  “I have to at least meet them,” she said.

Agent stood up too, grabbing his umbrella off of the staircase.  “I’ll go with you,” he said. “I won’t interfere, but I need to know the outcome of this.”

“You also want to see what the other Fourth Gens can do,” Rina guessed.  Agent just shrugged, and opened the door for her.

“You know that I can’t sanction this mission without some official reason,” he pointed out.  “And if you go without me sanctioning it, you could get in a lot of trouble. You might even lose your license, even if you avoid jail time.”

“Thanks,” Rina said, stepping through.  He reminded her a lot of Ryan – Agent was always willing to stick his own neck out for the team.  “You sure about this?”

“An attempted assassination and a raid on King Enterprises?” Agent said.  “Not at all. But I know what they did to you there, and I know this is something you have to decide for yourself.  I’ll bullshit the reports if I have to.”

They went back into the room with Mikey and Susie.  “You make up your mind yet?” Mikey asked her.

“Yeah,” Rina told him.  “We’re going with you.”

“You want to bring the suit along?” Mikey asked, taken aback.

Rina looked between him and Agent.  “Yeah, I do,” she said. “Where is the meeting?”

* * * * * * * *

Outside of King Laboratories.

Middle of nowhere.

“You’re here,” Leah said, looking at Rina.  Time had not been kind to her – she looked much older than her twenty-five years.  “I wasn’t really expecting you to come.”

“I said I would, didn’t I?” Rina asked her.  She looked around at the group. Six of the Fourth Gens had showed up – the five who had joined the Fauns, and Rina.  Agent was the only human present; the rest of Leah’s army were satyrs.

Leah shrugged.  “Yeah, but you’re a big bad Watcher now.  With the Asylum, no less.” She glared at Agent.  “And I have no idea why he’s here.”

“I’m not letting a teammate walk into something like this without backup,” he said, shouldering his umbrella lazily.

“He’s cool,” Rina told her.  “Finn and Katie couldn’t make it, then?”

“They declined my invitation,” Leah said dismissively.  “Here’s the plan: we’re going to go in there and wreck shit.  Rina, you use your powers on anybody who gets in our way. I’m talking all out – no survivors.  Got it?”

“No,” Rina said.  “Most of the people in there are innocent.  We’re just here for the lead researcher, nobody else.”

Leah rolled her eyes.  “Rina, this place runs similar experiments to the one we broke out of,” she said.  “They’re hardly innocent civilians.”

“It’s wrong, Leah.”  Rina shook her head. “I can’t let you do this.”

“They torture people,” Leah hissed.  “You want to be a race traitor, fine.  But the rest of us are going to stop them.”

“No,” Rina said, glancing at Agent.  “You’re not.” Agent nodded at her, and Rina let her powers go for the first time since escaping the experiment.

It was chaos.  The satyrs felt the effects first – the feral ones began attacking the others, who started scrambling in panic.  Susie bit Mikey’s arm, dowsing him with water from her powers. Mikey shook her off, and then Rina’s powers hit him, too: he clapped his hands together, and a shock wave knocked everyone off of their feet.

“What are you doing?!”  Leah screeched, grabbing Rina’s arm and using her own powers.

Rina doubled over, but she didn’t stop the barrage on the army’s emotions.  As the feral satyrs clawed and bit at each other, the non-feral ones had to fight back in self-defense.  Adrenaline spiked through them all, and their fight-or-flight responses triggered; half of the army scampered off into the night.

Leah growled, letting Rina go as she screamed, “Cowards!  Traitors!”

Rina concentrated on her powers.  She could see Agent out of the corner of her eye, using his umbrella as a shield to fend off attackers.  He was also feeling the effects of her powers, but his Agency training allowed him to keep his head in the brawl.

Suddenly, Leah grabbed his hand with her own, and he fell to the ground.  “No!” Rina screamed, as his face started draining of color.

“Stop this,” Leah shouted at her.  “Stop it or I kill him.”

Rina closed her eyes, drawing her power back.  The satyrs became less panicked, and the fighting died down.  “Let him go,” she said.

“I can’t believe you did that, Rina,” Leah said.  “After everything they did to us. After cutting you to pieces.  After killing Ryan!”

“Ryan was a hero,” Rina said, her eyes drawn to Agent as Leah leeched away his strength.  “He wouldn’t want us to do this.”

“Oh, grow up!” Leah said.  “Ryan wanted to kill the guy himself!  All that hero crap was just him blowing hot air.”

Rina shook her head.  “That’s not true,” she said.

“Ryan put on a show for us kids,” Leah said.  “That’s all it was. They tortured us, Rina.  They have to pay!”

“They did,” Rina said.  “The nurses and scientists that took part in our experiment are locked up.  The only one that got away was the lead researcher – the rest of these people are innocent!”

“You’re soft,” Leah spat.  “Soft and weak. We need to make sure they never do this to anybody ever again!”

Agent was slumped on the ground, unconscious.  Leah still hadn’t stopped draining him; Rina needed to move fast, or she’d kill him.  “I may be soft,” Rina conceded. “But I’m still stronger than you.”

She let out an enormous wave of her power, and the remainders of Leah’s satyr army fell to the ground.  Leah and Mikey were the only two left standing, and Leah had been shocked into letting go of Agent.

“What did you do?” Mikey cried, looking at the satyrs all writhing on the ground.

Rina pulled her power back in again.  “They’re exhausted,” she said. “That’s what happens when your heart rate rises too much too fast.  I knocked them out.” She walked over and grabbed Agent by his arms, dragging him away from Leah and towards their car.

“I thought you were a hero,” Mikey said, his eyes wide as he looked at Rina.  “Heroes don’t do this.”

“They’ll live,” Rina said, getting Agent into the car and slamming the door.  “And if you ever threaten innocent lives again, it’s more than I can promise you.”  Another wave of her power shot out, just strong enough to make Leah and Mikey run the other way.

Rina shook her head, getting into the car.  Let ‘em run, she thought.  They’d think twice before trying something like that again.

She called for police and an ambulance as she drove back to Eon City.  Agent wasn’t going to like that she left the scene before the cops arrived, but she knew Dale would want to look at him as soon as possible.  Leah’s powers didn’t leave permanent damage, but Agent would feel like he’d been run over by a bus for the next week.

Once she’d finished making her calls, Rina began singing to herself.  The lullaby from her childhood sounded out-of-place; she had seen the sky, after all.  But a weight had been lifted that she never realized she carried.

Rina wasn’t a kid from the Fourth Gen experiment.  She wasn’t a victim, or a follower, and she no longer felt a need for vengeance.  After twenty-eight years, she was finally, finally free of it all.

Here shines the sun,

Night’s gone away,

New days are pretty amazing.

Just close your eyes;

You’ll see the sky someday…

* * * * * * * *

Issue #5 – Flown the Coop

Eon City Mall.

Quinn Kaine and Lena King, shopping.

“Did you see how cute those pumps were?” Lena King asked, gushing over a pair of shoes they had found on their shopping expedition.  “So sharp, so classy, so…”

“Expensive?” Quinn “Chip” Kaine offered.

Lena rolled her eyes at her friend.  “I was going to say ‘elegant’,” she sniffed.

“I’m glad you’re happy,” Chip said, “especially since they nearly cost what I make in a year.”

“But so worth it,” Lena said, smiling down at the bag she carried.  “These will go perfectly with my dress for the benefit dinner.”

Lena’s father was Jonathan King, the CEO and proprietor of King Enterprises.  Lena’s great-great-grandfather founded the company, and it had been passed down for generations; she was the next in line to take over when her father retired.  King Enterprises hosted a benefit every year to help different charity organizations make money, inviting the rich and famous to help them look good to the media.  As the CEO’s daughter and assistant, Lena was usually in charge of organizing the event.

“Fun stuff,” Chip said.  “Who’s the lucky benefit group this year?”

“Home for the Blind,” Lena told her.  “I tried getting Daddy to agree to the National Satyr Preserve, but you know him.”

“Let me guess: it wouldn’t look good in an election year when he’s trying to push that leash bill through?”  Chip asked.

Lena grimaced prettily, rolling her eyes.  “Don’t get me wrong – Home for the Blind was my second choice – but the NSP would have had a bigger impact on the press.  As the company responsible for the Satyr Serum, we should be doing more to help the descendants of our experiments.”

Chip shrugged.  “Your dad only sees satyrs who act like the Fauns do,” she said bluntly.  “He doesn’t see the ones who do an honest day’s work, even though there are a lot more of them.”

“Those who can get work,” Lena muttered.  “You know my grandpa helped found the Preserve, right?”

“How could I forget?” Chip said wryly.  “Your father ranted for hours at dinner one night just because I brought it up.”

“Right,” Lena giggled.  “‘That upstart Sean Hannah stole the contract!’” she said in a pretty good impression of her father’s voice.  “Speaking of Sean Hannah stealing things…”

“I like working at the Asylum, thanks,” Chip said, anticipating the old debate.

Lena grinned.  “Daddy still wants me to offer you more to come back.  You could probably name any number you want and he’d pay it.”

“Tell him it’s not about the money,” Chip said.  “I like being able to build my toys without being paranoid that they’ll be sold as weapons.”

Lena paused, pretending to think about it.  “Nope, sorry. Can’t help you there,” she teased.  “A weapons dealer has to deal weapons, not tools.” She sighed, getting serious as she added, “That’s one of the first things I’ll change.”

“Who took over for me when I left?” Chip asked, curious.

Lena made a face as she answered, “Skyler Greene.”

“Skylark?” Chip asked, incredulous.  “That social media hack?”

“I know you don’t like her,” Lena said, “but she’s not terrible.”

“No,” Chip agreed.  “She just posts everything she does online to show off.  Of course, not her failures – just her successes, so people watching will think she’s brilliant!”

Lena patted her friend’s shoulder.  “It’s not a crime, as long as they aren’t active projects,” she pointed out.  “Besides, you just say the word and you’ll have her job in a second. You know daddy never wanted you to leave.”

“He did offer me a pretty big number to stay,” Chip said.  “But I like my work at the Asylum. The Watchers are fun to design for.”

“Isn’t your stuff being used as weapons there, too?” Lena asked.

“Yeah,” said Chip, “but a lot of it is also used to save lives, and I know exactly who has which gadget.”

Lena shrugged.  “If you’re sure.”  Something caught her eye, and she turned to the store they were passing.  “Ooh, microprocessors! I’ve got a project at home that could use an octa-core chip.  Look, they’re so tiny!”

Chip laughed at her friend, who had acted the same way around the shoes, and followed her into the store.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, Agent’s Office.

Natalie Fawkes, getting briefed.

“We’ve been invited to the King Enterprises charity benefit,” Agent told the team.  “Apparently Jonathan King and Sean Hannah made a small bet over us, that we couldn’t take down one of King’s new weapons projects.”

Natalie rolled her eyes.  “Politics,” she muttered. “So the whole team’s going?”

“Sean asked for only two,” Agent said, amused.  “So I’m sending you and Earthborn.”

“Me?” Natalie asked.  “I’m hardly a heavy hitter,” she pointed out.

“That’s what David will be there for,” Agent explained.  “We’re not sure what this project is – it might require a bit of finesse, which is your specialty.  I figured we should be prepared.”

Natalie folded her arms, raising an eyebrow.  “You know, if you were looking for that kind of tag-team, Parker and I would have worked best.”

“Parker’s unavailable right now,” Agent sighed.  They’d had this conversation before. “You know that.”

“Right,” Natalie said, nearly snarling at him.  “He’s busy.  He hasn’t even been back to the Asylum in two weeks, because he’s busy.”

“Nat,” Agent said, “there’s nothing we can do right now.  I’ve already promised you a hundred times that I’ll do my best to keep your brother safe.”

“And then you send me to a party,” Natalie pointed out.

Agent gripped the bridge of his nose, as if he had a headache.  “I’m sending you into a fight,” he said. “An exhibition, sure, but I thought it would take your mind off things.”  He glanced at her through his hand, adding, “But if you like, I could always send Haley. She is stronger than you, after all.”

Natalie shook her head, knowing that he was trying to provoke her but becoming provoked anyways.  “Damn it,” she finally said, storming to the door. “I’ll go to the stupid party.”

“Make sure you bring something nice to change into!” Agent called after her.  Chuckling to himself, he turned back to his monitors. The grin fell off his face as he changed the parameters of his search for bird-satyrs in the city.  “Where are you?” he muttered.

It’s hard to keep someone safe when they fall off the grid.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Museum.

King Enterprises Annual Charity Benefit.

They really rolled out the red carpet for this, Natalie thought as she stepped out of the limo onto a literal red carpet.  Flashes went off in her face, and belatedly she remembered to smile for the cameras as David got out after her.  Agent came up on her other side, also smiling politely, and the three of them made their way into the building.

“You clean up nice,” Dave told her, flashing her a teasing grin.  “Not a handkerchief or swear word in sight.” Natalie was wearing a dress that had been laid out for her, since she didn’t have any fancy clothes of her own.  It was a very flattering cut for her figure, and easily the most expensive piece of clothing she had ever even seen, much less worn.

“I barely recognized you without the dirt,” Natalie shot back, also smiling.  “Did you actually take a shower?” Both David and Agent were wearing tuxedos tonight, but since Agent usually wore suits it didn’t look so odd on him.

“A bath, in fact,” he grinned.  “Lilac-scented bubbles, for the manly man.”  As they made it to the door, he struck a pose.

“Children,” Agent scolded from behind his own smile.  “Cameras.”

“They eat this stuff up,” Dave said, striking another pose for the cameras.  He waved jauntily at them before the trio went inside.

Agent turned to them.  “You have a half-hour to mingle before the match,” he said.  “Then go to the rear exit – we’ll have your uniforms waiting for you there.”

“Relax,” Natalie said, picking up a drink from the tray in front of her.  “We got this.”

“No drinking until after the match,” Agent said, taking the glass from her and putting it down on another waiter’s tray.

Natalie stuck her tongue out at him.  “Spoilsport,” she muttered, moving over to the buffet.

David and Agent gave each other an exasperated look.  “I’ll keep an eye on her,” David said, jogging to catch up with his teammate.

Agent watched them walk off, before grabbing his ever-present umbrella and joining the party.

Natalie didn’t like social functions.  She was fully intent on settling in a nice, cozy corner somewhere until the match started, but she was stopped by a man in his thirties.  “Nice night for it,” he said, looking at her with piercing blue eyes.

The eyes caught her off-guard.  “Oh, um, hi. Yes,” she stuttered, finally getting out, “it is a nice night.”

“Sorry,” the man said, flashing her a smile.  “I didn’t mean to startle you. You’re Natalie Fawkes, right?  The Asylum Watcher known as Trick?”

“Yes, that’s me.”  Natalie really wanted to go to her corner, but she also knew she had to play nice at a function like this since she was representing the Asylum.  “I’m sorry, but you are?” she asked.

“Mr. Hannah!” came a startled voice from behind her.  Dave walked up on Natalie’s right, saving her from embarrassment.

“Ah, you must be David Perry, known as Earthborn,” the man said.  “Forgive me, Trick; I’m not used to having to introduce myself any more.  I’m Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Industries.”

“Oh, so you’re the guy who signs our paychecks,” Natalie said.  “Nice to meet you!”

“Very direct, isn’t she?” Sean said to Dave, who looked like he wanted to melt through the floor.

“We’re working on that,” he said, shaking the CEO’s hand.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” he added pointedly, glaring at Natalie.

“Yes, it’s nice to meet you,” she repeated, shaking his hand in turn.  “Sir,” she added when Dave kicked her.

Sean laughed, not offended in the slightest by her behavior.  “I hope you’ll give us a good show,” he said. “I have a bet with King that you could take on anything he could throw at you.”

“So these are your champions, eh, Pharos?” came another voice from behind him.  Natalie began thinking longingly of her corner, where she wouldn’t have to deal with people, but it looked like she was never going to get the chance.

“Mr. King,” Sean said, greeting his business’ rival with a pasted-on smile and false sincerity.  “Thank you so much for hosting this event!”

“My pleasure,” King said.  “Here, I don’t believe you’ve met my daughter, Lena,” he added, gesturing to a pretty blonde girl next to him.

Chip had told Natalie about Lena, but it hadn’t prepared her for the actual person.  Chip had described her as a technical genius who could build her own computer stuff. She mentioned that Lena liked clothes and shoes, too, but Natalie had been picturing a glasses-wearing nerd, probably with mousey looks who wore clothes that tried too hard to be fancy.

The person standing in front of her was a cheerleader, dressed to the nines in a long, backless dress that flattered her figure.  Her blonde hair was pulled back in an elegant bun, and her smile seemed to light up the room.

Remembering what Chip had told her, Natalie greeted her with, “Nice shoes.”  They were nice shoes – strappy black pumps with four-inch heels that showed off her perfectly-manicured feet.  Not sure why they cost so much, Natalie thought to herself.  But the compliment made Lena’s smile brighten further.

“Thank you,” she said.  “I really like your hair.”  Natalie’s hair was pulled up into a braided bun, which she could easily let fall into a braided ponytail for the exhibition.  The spiked strap she had braided into it poked out in what she hoped was a decorative fashion.

“And this is Skyler Greene,” King introduced the other girl trailing him, “also known as ‘Skylark’.  She will be your opponent in this evening’s match.”

Skylark was dressed just as elegantly as Lena, but with none of her warmth.  Even when she smiled and shook Natalie’s hand, it seemed more like a taunt than a greeting.  “I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “My channel’s viewers really want to see me take down some Watchers.”

Natalie pressed her lips together as David gave her a subtle kick.  We’re representing the Asylum, she told herself.

Putting a smile on her own face, she said, “I’m looking forward to the match as well.  It’s always fun to put on a show.” There, she thought as David rolled his eyes behind her.  Subtle, but insulting.  Let her stew on that.

“I think we need to get going,” David said, steering Natalie away from the fancy people.  “It was nice to meet you, but we still have to change for the match.”

“Of course,” Sean said, before turning back to King.  The battle of subtext was more his arena than theirs.

As David led Natalie away, he hissed, “Next time, just don’t say anything.  Okay?”

“We win this match, I won’t have to say anything,” Natalie whispered back.  “Next time, I’ll just go to my corner and not have to interact with any more people.”

They made it to the back door, where Agent stood holding their uniforms.  “I see you met the CEOs,” he said.

“I think they wanted to see who they were betting on,” David said, grabbing his and unbuttoning his cumberbund.

“You guys can change behind those curtains,” Agent pointed to where they were supposed to go.  David moved off, but agent stopped Natalie. “Hey, Nat – thanks for doing this,” he said, smiling at her.

“I’m still mad at you,” she said, smiling despite herself.  “But with any luck the next part will be fun.” She moved to go to the changing area, but Agent put a hand on her shoulder.

“One second,” he said, unzipping the back of her dress for her.  “There.”

“Thanks,” she said.  Natalie went to the dressing room without looking back.  The chilly night air was giving her goosebumps, and she wouldn’t be comfortable until she got out of the girly dress and into her uniform.  If her face was flushed, it was because she was getting pre-battle nerves. Nothing else.

* * * * * * * *

A half-hour later.

Trick and Earthborn, ready for anything.

“We got this,” Earthborn said, giving Trick a fist-bump as they entered the makeshift arena.

The museum’s garden was surrounded by a large, blocked-off parking lot where the museum gave a fireworks show on the Fourth of July.  This was also where Trick and Earthborn would face Skylark’s creation.

The event guests were gathered in the garden, looking forward to a good show.  Trick felt a lot more comfortable in her trench coat; here she could throw one of her tricks if she needed to get away.  While she waited for an opponent, she pulled out her deck of cards and started shuffling it nervously.

“I’ve always wanted to learn how to do that,” Earthborn said, enviously, watching her twirl the deck around.  “I can barely shuffle them the normal way.”

“I could teach you sometime,” Trick offered, starting to show off now that she remembered people were watching them.

Earthborn smiled, pulling gravel up around himself in a make-shift suit of armor as the air began to crackle with a static charge.  “I’d like that,” he said.

THUMP.

The ground began to shake, but Earthborn hadn’t caused it.  Trick could see Skylark off to the side of the spectators, holding a data pad in one hand.  She had some kind of visor over her eyes, and her hands were busy typing something on her data pad.

THUMP.

The ground shook again, and Trick and Earthborn braced themselves for whatever was coming.  In the background they could hear Agent announcing the match, but the sound was echoing across the pavement and they couldn’t make out the words.

THUMP.  THUMP. THUMP.

Whatever it was began to run.  Trick stole a glance at Earthborn as they got into fighting stances.

THUMP THUMP THUMP – STOMP!

A giant robot jumped over the tree line and came to a stop in front of them.  It was man-shaped, with a big chest and thinner arms and legs. The head swiveled around, able to look in all directions.

“Looks pretty smash-’em-up to me,” Natalie muttered.  Her subtlety didn’t seem to be of much use against a twenty-foot robot.

A loud whistle blew, and the match began.  Earthborn started forward, bringing the ground up to hold the robot’s legs in place.  He gathered a bolt of lightning in his hands and flung it at the robot’s chest, but it glanced off harmlessly.

“Darn,” he said.  “Must be insulated.”

“It wasn’t going to be that easy,” Trick pointed out to him.  “Let me try something.” She pulled two mirrors out of her pockets, palming them without thinking about it as she had been taught.  On her palms were two buttons, connecting to small devices up her sleeves. One led to a fire trick, and the other was a high-density laser that could be used as a welding torch – that one was Chip’s design, but Trick loved using it.  From another pocket she pulled out a prism, and she shot the laser from her right hand directly into it.

A bright flash pierced the air, and rainbow-colored lasers washed over the robot.  The prism diluted the laser’s power, but enhanced its range so that she could hit it without being too close.  Sparks flew from the robot’s body, but it still managed to free its legs from Earthborn’s trap.

The robot began running at the Watchers, its arms transforming into octopus-like tentacles as it ran.  It whipped one at Earthborn, knocking him off his feet, before turning the other on Trick.

Seeing the move coming, Trick jumped up and onto the robot’s arm as it passed under her.  The arm whipped around, trying to shake her off, but she held on. Her mind briefly flashed back to hanging onto a building for dear life, and she figured out what she could do.

When the arm whipped close to the robot’s chest, Trick gritted her teeth and jumped, landing on the robot’s front as her arms scrambled to find a hand-hold.  She managed to grab onto the robot’s face with one arm, and she remembered the visor that Skylark wore – could King’s tech be watching the battle through the robot’s eyes?

She waved with her free arm, giving the robot a cheeky grin as she scrambled up to stand on its shoulder.  Grabbing one of the handkerchiefs in her front pocket, she pulled it out in a swift flicking motion. Glitter rained down over the robot’s face, and the arms came up to wipe at its eyes.

Skylark was definitely watching it from the robot’s eyes.  Grinning, Natalie called to Earthborn, “Crackle maneuver, forty-three!”

Earthborn nodded, understanding, as Trick redoubled her grip on the robot.  The arms had come up again, trying to get her off its back, but for them to win she had to hold on tightly until the right moment.  The robot was so focused on her that it had forgotten about Earthborn; she had to keep it that way until he could get into position.

Suddenly, the robot tripped.  Earthborn had changed the terrain around it so that it couldn’t get its footing.  Trick jumped off its back, rolling to keep the landing from hurting her. She could feel the crackle of electricity in the air, and she knew Earthborn had almost collected enough energy for her plan.

Running back to the robot’s head, she took out her larger scarf and wrapped it around the thing’s eyes.  Skylark had to take off her visor to see anything, and the octopus tentacles started turning back into arms to shake the scarf off.  “Now!” Trick yelled, diving out of the way.

Earthborn shot a direct bolt of lightning at the robot’s head, hitting the ground all around its upper body.  The robot stopped thrashing, and flopped to the ground, dead.

Trick stood up, dusting herself off as she went to give Earthborn a high-five.  His eyes glinted red through his rock helmet, but it seemed to be a trick of the light – the lightning had been blinding from that close, and Trick was still seeing spots.

“No!” came a cry from Skylark’s direction.  She pounded on her control, trying to make the robot move.  “Come on, get up! It didn’t even touch you!”

“Electromagnetic pulse,” Trick called over to her.  “The lightning drained its power source, and it won’t be operational for hours.  If this had been a real fight, we’d be tearing it apart now.”

As if to prove her point, a large spike of dirt shot up from the ground, spearing the robot through the chest.  “A little excessive,” Trick muttered to Earthborn, “but nice touch.”

The Asylum had won a decisive victory.

* * * * * * * *

Back inside the museum.

Natalie Fawkes, stuck at the party.

“Why do I have to stay?” Natalie asked Agent, trying and failing to sound like she wasn’t whining.  “David got to go home!” She was back in the fancy dress, looking around the party with a shudder.

“David has a kid at home,” Agent reminded her.  “Dale wanted to check you guys out later this evening, and he can’t stay out too late, so he got to leave first.  You, on the other hand, get to enjoy this lovely evening with me as we finish representing the Asylum.”

Natalie’s mouth twisted in a pout.  “I’m not talking to any of the fancy people,” she said rebelliously.  “I got my fill of that before the match.”

“Fine,” Agent agreed.  “Then dance with me.” When Natalie glared at him, he added, “Your choices are dancing with me, where I can guarantee that I’m the only person you have to interact with, or stand here and be accosted by anyone who wants to congratulate you on winning the match.  Your choice.”

Natalie glared at him, but dragged him over to the dance floor.  He knew exactly how to manipulate her, and she didn’t really like it.  Agent grinned and spun her around into the steps, in time with the slow waltz playing.  Surprisingly enough, Natalie let him lead, and she wasn’t a bad dancer.

“They teach you to dance at the Agency?” she asked, equally surprised that he knew the steps.

“Standard lessons,” he said.  “Never know when you have to attend fancy functions like this.”

“Like your suit,” Natalie nodded.  “You once told me you always look your best because it opens more doors than anything else you wear.”

“Exactly,” said Agent.  “Now, where did you learn to dance?”

“Parker… he and I learned when we were kids,” she told him, pausing for a second when she mentioned her brother’s name.  “Mom gave us lessons.” She looked up at Agent as they moved around the room, adding, “You really think you can take Claw down?”

Agent nodded.  “This is the closest we’ve ever gotten to stopping him for good,” he said.  “Parker’s a big part of that. But you know I won’t let anything happen to him,” he added.

Natalie put her head on his chest, hiding her face.  She still smelled a little singed from the lightning, but she had also put on some kind of perfume to cover it.  “I believe you,” she said. “I want to believe you.” She looked back up, meeting his hazel eyes with her bright blue ones.  “Don’t make me regret it.”

Agent smiled back at her.  “I won’t,” he said. “I promise.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

The next day.

“Some party, huh?” Frank asked as Natalie entered the kitchen at noon.  Her hair was in disarray, and she’d slept later than usual.

“Uhnn,” she grunted back at him, still tired.  “I had to stay there until two in the morning, and then Dale wanted to give me a check-up before I could go to bed.”  She groaned again as she looked in the fridge for some orange juice. “He took away some of the ouch, but I’m stiff all over after that fight.”

“I saw,” Frank grinned.  “Skylark was streaming it live from her channel.  We were watching it here with some of Reiki’s barbeque.”

“Lucky,” Natalie said, thumping him on the shoulder.  “What’d you think?”

Frank looked thoughtful.  “Nice work on the EMP,” he said.  “But Dave seemed to be in bad shape afterwards.  What would you have done if it didn’t work?”

Natalie shrugged, grimacing at the movement.  “Probably would have lost,” she said. “It was just an exhibition match.”

“Why do you think King wanted to test it out against Watchers?” Frank asked rhetorically.  Natalie froze halfway through pouring her juice. “Who would he sell something like that to?”

“I’m not sure I want to know,” Natalie muttered.  “Maybe we should come up with other ways to beat it, just in case?”

Frank grinned, lifting the mood.  “I’ll meet you in the training room this afternoon,” he said.  “I’ll get the specs from the video, and we’ll get the training room to give us a simulation.”

“Fun,” Natalie said dryly.  “Can I get some food first?”

Frank grinned, grabbing the last pop-tart from the pantry just as Natalie reached for it.  “Sure,” he said innocently, moving to the elevator with the poptart in hand. “Oh, by the way – we’re out of pop-tarts.”

Flashing her a grin, he stepped onto the elevator as it arrived and left.  Natalie grumbled to herself as she went to the cereal cupboard to see what was left.  She’d make him pay for that on the practice courts later.

Right now, she had other concerns.

* * * * * * * *