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Issue #2 – …Come Great Things

Office building in Eon City.

Jorge Cruz, AKA Poisonshot.

“Where’s my sister?” Poisonshot demanded.  “You told me that if we pulled that job you would get us out if we got caught.”

“And I keep my promises,” the man in the shadows agreed.  “But I never told you when. I have an image to keep up, and so it will take time – ”

“I don’t give a damn about your image,” Poisonshot said.  “We go for my sister now.”  He pulled out his bow and nocked an arrow; while he didn’t point it at the man, it was meant as an unveiled threat.

The man in the shadows stood up, calmly straightening his suit jacket.  “Patience,” he said, walking around the desk to lean against the front of it.  He was intentionally making himself a bigger target, which reminded Poisonshot that he wouldn’t stand a chance in a fight with the suit.  “We’ll get your sister back. It just has to be on a certain timetable – otherwise, she would have been caught for nothing.”

“You never even told us why we had to hit that bank,” Poisonshot said.  “Now I have the Asylum searching for me, and my sister’s been locked up.  I think you owe us some answers.”

“Soon,” the man said.  “For now, though, I need you to finish what you started.”

Poisonshot raised an eyebrow.  “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked.  “And when, exactly, will you give us what you promised?”

“You’ll get your reward when the job is done,” the man snapped, before composing himself.  “You did well, stabbing Shadow with that arrow. He’ll be out of commission for awhile. But the Asylum has a new member – and she needs to be tested.  Go after her, and I’ll be sure to give you what you need.”

“And my sister?” Poisonshot asked.

“In Zatvor, she’s currently better off than you are,” the man said, raising a hand.  The air in front of him seemed to tear open, revealing a desolate wasteland on the other side.  Poisonshot had seen the man do this before; he was a Third Gen who could open portals to many different places.

This time was different, though.  The air on the other side seemed almost blue with dust, and the ruined buildings seemed inhuman.  The man smirked at the bewildered look on Poisonshot’s face. “We’ll talk again soon,” he said before stepping through.  As the portal closed, he added, “Try not to get yourself caught, too. At least, if you want to get your sister back.”

As the portal closed, Poisonshot gripped his bow with white knuckles.  Screw you, he thought at the suit before turning to leave the office.  A small portal opened in front of him, dropping a file at his feet as if the man had heard the rebellious thought.  Poisonshot picked it up, thumbing through the file for instructions on his new target.

An Asylum noob, he thought as he read.  Just what’s so special about you?

* * * * * * * *

Outside Eon City National Bank.

Haley Prince, Newbie.

“Is he going to be okay?” Haley asked as they passed Shadow off to Dale’s medical team.  The arrow wound in his side looked serious; he had already lost a lot of blood, and from the nasty shade of red his skin was turning around the entry wound, the arrowhead had probably been poisoned.  The medical team took him in a helicopter directly back to the Asylum’s medical center.

Agent grimaced.  “Dale’s the best doctor in the country.  If anyone can stop the poison, it’s him.”

Haley bit her lip, knowing that he hadn’t answered the question and afraid to ask why.  The rest of the team had returned to the tower, all except for Reiki and Granny. Reiki had to go out on the next patrol, and Granny was still tracking down Poisonshot.  Agent stayed behind to supervise the clean-up, and Haley stayed with Agent since she wasn’t fully cleared in the headquarters building.

Earthborn had successfully caught Poisonshot’s partner Skadi, a snake-satyr, and after handcuffing her and putting a muzzle over her fangs they passed the criminal off to the police.  Agent explained that Satyr and Third Gen criminals, who might overwhelm a regular prison, were kept in a special facility outside of the city called Zatvor Penitentiary.

Just as Agent was explaining the process they had for booking criminals, he was interrupted by a loud roar and a flapping sound.  Haley involuntarily backed up as a large dragon landed in the bank’s parking lot.

Agent seemed nonplussed, as if he saw dragons every day.  “Oh, Granny’s back,” he said, clicking his tongue in disappointment. “Doesn’t look like she caught Poisonshot.”

Haley just looked at him, completely shocked.  Turning back to the dragon – an actual dragon! – she saw a familiar shape dismounting from its shoulders.  Granny turned back to the dragon with her knitting needles in hand and whispered something to it. The dragon folded its wings back and shrank until it could fit into the palm of her hand.  Granny bent down and picked it up before shuffling over to Agent and the startled newbie.

“I lost him about five blocks from here,” she reported bitterly.  “He slipped down a tunnel, and it branched a ways in. I think there must have been a hidden passage in there, but Herschel’s too big to take in the tunnel in the first place; I need to go back to the tower for Louise.”  Granny put her hands on her hips as she added, “Not to mention that a place that dark is more Shadow’s territory than mine. How is he?”

“Dale has him,” Agent told her.  “No news yet. I’ll send Reiki to the tunnels, see what he can find.  Haley, stop gaping. You’ve already met Granny.”

Haley quickly closed her mouth, which had been hanging open ever since the dragon landed.  Now that Granny was closer, she could see that the dragon had turned into a small, plush, knit toy in Granny’s hand.

Granny smiled at her, even though her eyes still showed her worry for Shadow.  “The short answer to your question is ‘magic’, dearie,” she said, patting Haley’s arm sympathetically.  “Not widely known, but it is still around. The long answer might have to wait for another day; it’s rather complicated.”

Haley nearly responded, but thought better of it.  After all, Agent and Granny were acting like the dragon was a usual occurrence; like the callsigns, it was probably something she would get used to.

Agent was already moving on, instructing Granny to take Haley back to the tower.  “I’ll be back in a bit,” he said, “but there’s still a lot to sort out here. Granny, could you make sure Haley is caught up with the others until I get back?”

“Will do,” Granny said, touching her needles to the plush dragon again.  Turning to Haley, she asked, “How would you like a ride on a dragon, dear?”

Given Haley’s expression, Granny already knew the answer.

* * * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

The team waits for news.

“Shadow’s still out, but Dale says he’ll be okay,” David told them when Granny and Haley returned to HQ.  “It was a good thing he bled so much; the poison was diluted, so it was easy-ish for Dale to counter it.” The team was in the common area’s lounge, waiting for either news on Shadow’s condition from Dale or else orders from Agent.

“Dale’s a Third Gen,” Rina explained to Haley, who looked confused.  “He can heal people with a touch, including cleaning wounds of irritants and poisons.”

That explained a lot.  With a Third Gen for a doctor, no wonder Agent wasn’t as concerned about injuries as everybody else.  “So what now?” Haley wondered aloud. “How do we catch this Poison guy?”

“‘Poisonshot’,” Natalie corrected her, standing up.  “And we,” she gestured to the veteran members of the team, “will do our job and track him down.  Newbies like you stay behind and wait until they have an actual uniform before going out on patrol.”

There wasn’t much Haley could say to that.  It was Rina who spoke up in her defense. “Hey, I’ve seen her stats.  Just because Haley beat you in a fight doesn’t mean you have to be so rude.”

“Beat me?  Hah!” Natalie laughed, but looked discomfited.  “Who told you that?”

“Parker,” Rina said, smirking at her.  “He said he heard it from Agent. You went to see what the new girl was made of, and you lost.”

“I’m going to kill them,” Natalie muttered.  “As soon as those smug bastards get back, they’re dead.”

“Anyways, Haley,” Granny said, as Natalie and Rina kept bickering, “When Agent gets back, he’ll give out assignments.  Reiki is going to the tunnels to see if he can find Poisonshot – but if the archer has any sense, he’s gone to ground.”

David stood up and stretched.  “We’ve got his sister in lockup,” he added.  “Those two never leave each other behind for long.  He’ll come out of the woodwork for her.” The elevator made a ding sound as the doors opened on their floor.  David added, “I’m more worried about why those two were robbing the bank.  Poisonshot and Skadi usually go for museums, and they don’t usually make so much noise about it.”

“That will have to wait,” Agent said.  “Reiki’s checking out the tunnels now, but he can’t look everywhere.  Nightmare, Granny, I need you to meet him in the tunnels. Granny, trade out your dragon for something that can fit down there.”

“Hey, what about me?” Natalie demanded as Rina and Granny turned to leave.  “Shadow was hurt by this guy; shouldn’t you put everybody out there?”

“You and Earthborn just finished patrol.  Earthborn doubly so since he also had to fight at the bank,” Agent told her.  “You know the drill: Dale has to check you out before any more assignments. Which means you two have to wait until he’s done with Shadow to join the hunt.”

“So you’re sending those two out with no backup?” Natalie said.  “That’s the kind of stupid call that got Frank hurt at the bank.”  She didn’t wait for a response, but stormed to the stairs to her room.

“That wasn’t fair,” David said, staring after her.  “There was no way to avoid a fight with those two, and sending in any more than me and Shadow would have just gotten in the way.”

“She’s just stressed,” Agent said, shrugging.  “I understand. Frank was an old friend of hers and Parker’s from long before they became Watchers.  Their moms were both on Team Ark together.”

Haley spoke up, “She’s got a point, though.  With how dangerous Poisonshot and Skadi were at the bank, we should assume that Poisonshot could surface again.  Shouldn’t more than three people go?” After she said it, she realized that she had just corrected Agent on her first day.  “I mean, you know, since there are some…” She trailed off, shrugging, before she put her foot further into her mouth.

“As it happens,” Agent said, amused by her outburst, “Chip says she has something you can wear.  I hate to throw you into it on your first day, but let’s see how you do out in the field.” Haley’s eyes widened, and a huge grin broke out on her face.  Agent added quickly, “You’re to stay close to Granny and Nightmare – if you guys split up, you don’t go off on your own. As soon as Trick and Earthborn are cleared for duty, they’ll come relieve you, and you come straight back to base.  This is recon only until they arrive; no taking any unnecessary risks.”

“I won’t let you down, sir,” Haley said breathlessly, biting her lip to stop smiling so hard.  She didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of her new team any more than she already did.

“Report to Chip on the fourteenth floor,” Agent ordered.  “As soon as you’re changed, meet Rina and Granny in the motor pool.”

“The motor pool?” Haley asked.

“B-1 on the elevator, dear,” Granny told her as she stepped into the elevator.  “Rina and I will meet you down there.”

As the elevator doors shut, Haley pumped her fist into the air.  Field work on her first day! Could it get any better than this?

* * * * * * * *

Tunnels under Eon City.

Reiki, searching for Poisonshot.

Probably not going to find him.

Reiki threw light into the stones around him as he walked through the tunnels.  He had been searching the tunnels for two hours since the bank heist; chances were that Poisonshot wasn’t down there anymore, but it couldn’t hurt to see where he was going.  His light stayed put, showing him the path out as well by illuminating the stones on the walls.

When he first entered the darker parts of the tunnels, he followed a trail left behind from when Poisonshot turned on a flashlight.  Reiki’s Third Gen powers allowed him to manipulate light and energy, including seeing where light had recently shone. But the trail stopped cold less than fifteen minutes into his search; Poisonshot must have turned off the flashlight at that point.  Since then, Reiki searched the tunnels methodically, lighting up the darker parts to see if there were any hidden passageways.

He made a gesture as if throwing something at the wall, but nothing happened.  “Welp, that’s as far as I can go,” he muttered. He peered as far as he could into the darkness, but saw no trail of where his prey might have gone.  He would have to go back out into the sunlight to recharge before he could continue.

As he turned around he heard a feint sizzling sound, as if something were being burned behind him.  Reiki turned back, but barely caught a glimpse of a rip in the stone wall before something hard hit him on the back of the head.  The last thing he saw before he collapsed was Poisonshot stepping out of a tear in the air itself.

* * * * * * * *

The Motor Pool.

Haley Prince, decked out and ready to go.

Haley’s new uniform itched.

Wish I could give it a wash first, she thought, wriggling uncomfortably before checking herself.  She desperately wanted to scratch her butt, but as this was still her first day she thought it would be crass.  Sure, she was in an elevator for the moment, but the last thing she needed was the doors to open on her scratching her ass for the entire team to see.

Despite its “new clothes” feel, the outfit looked amazing.  Haley had to admit that Chip had an eye for design: the unitard was a fashionable blue with red trim and a gold-colored utility belt, making her look like she stepped out of a comic book.  The fabric was light but sturdy, with extra armored padding around her knees, chest, elbows, and neck – Chip had told her that the padding could stop bullets if need be. The outfit was sleeveless, giving Haley the freedom of movement in her arms that she loved when working out, but included a light pair of gloves that would make it easier for her to grip heavy objects.  Her bust was supported without crushing her, so she could breathe easily and not make a scene even if she didn’t wear a bra underneath. It also left a little room in the hips, so that her underwear wouldn’t ride up. The boots were well-balanced, so that Haley couldn’t feel the extra weight of the steel toe. With her short-cropped hair, Haley felt like she could take on the world in this outfit.

Rina whistled when Haley stepped out of the elevator, and Granny nodded her approval.  “Chip’s outdone herself this time,” Rina said, gesturing for Haley to follow her to the car they had pulled around.  “That outfit looks amazing!”

“Now I just have to live up to it,” Haley said, getting into the passenger side and buckling up.  “Not taking the dragon this time, Granny?” she asked.

“I’m getting too old to ride everywhere, dear,” Granny said, sliding behind the wheel.  “Poor Herschel’s also getting worn from so many transformations. I’ve already had to stitch him up twice.  Best to let him rest a bit.”

Granny drove like a maniac.  They arrived at the tunnels in minutes, even though they were across town.  Haley and Nightmare jumped out of the car as soon as it stopped; Haley’s hand hurt from gripping the grab handle so hard, and Rina looked like she might throw up.  Granny slid out of her seat, picking up her silver knitting needles and her purse. “Oh, I keep forgetting: you young people don’t have the same reaction time I do.”

“On the way home,” Rina gasped, getting control of her stomach, “I drive.”

“Pish-posh,” Granny scoffed.  “We’re alive, aren’t we? Now let’s catch that crook!”  She marched over to the tunnel entrance as the two younger women stared.

“I’m learning all sorts of things today,” Haley said, shaking her head.  “I’m not sure if she’s crazy, but I want to be her when I grow up.”

Rina bit her lip and led Haley to the tunnels.  “Granny’s something else,” she said. “I’m not sure what, though.”

Granny began taking out another plush toy from her purse.  “Herschel would be too big for this,” she told Haley, tapping the side of her nose knowingly.  “But Louise is perfect.” She whispered to the toy, tapping her silver knitting needles to it as she set it down on the floor, and it grew into a large wolf.  The wolf began sniffing around the scene, occasionally looking back at Granny.

Haley wasn’t even surprised anymore.  After the dragon, a wolf seemed pretty tame – even though it was as big as her.  Granny slid on to the wolf’s back and said to Rina, “We’ll go ahead and find Reiki; Louise can sniff you two out again when we do.”

“Gotcha,” Rina said.  “The Outlier here and I will search on foot.”

“‘Outlier’?” Haley whispered.

“Your new call-sign,” Rina said, grinning at her.  “Reiki picked it, we all agreed. Welcome to the team, Outlier.”

Haley shook her head with a small smile.  She wasn’t sure of her new name, but now she felt more like a Watcher on the team instead of the newbie tag-along.  As Granny rode ahead on the wolf, Rina straightened up and became more business-like. “Right,” she told Haley. “We’ll start searching in a grid pattern.  Reiki will have started straight, no turns. We’ll start searching the side paths until Granny gets back.”

“Why do we think he’s still in the tunnels?” Haley asked.  “He could be anywhere by now.”

“We don’t think he’s still down here,” Nightmare said – Haley began thinking of the all-business Rina by her callsign.  “But if we find the passage he went through, then we can follow it to wherever he’s holing up.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Haley added, nodding.  “Agent wouldn’t have sent the new kid if he thought we might actually run into the target.”  A twinge of disappointment crept into her voice.

Nightmare smiled, not unkindly.  “You saw what this guy did to Shadow,” she pointed out.  “Stands to reason you would need some more training before you get put on a take-down.”

“Makes sense,” Haley said, her mouth twisting wryly.  There would be other criminals to catch; she didn’t have to get into a fight on her first day.

They took the first right down the tunnels, looking at the walls for any hidden passages.  In high school history class, Haley once learned that the tunnels were left over from the old city, connecting Eon City to the ruins underneath it.  After a flood wiped out the old city fifty years ago, Third Gens with elemental powers were paid to raise the ground up above sea level. As they couldn’t create new ground, they pushed the existing ground back to create large cliffs overlooking the ocean.  The ruins of the old city were pressed into a cavern directly below Eon City, and the tunnels were built so that people could still access the ruins as needed. It was a long hike down the tunnels, miles below the surface, and most people were not allowed to go down there.  The ill-lit tunnels became the perfect hideaway for criminals running from the Watchers, and so was deemed “unsafe” for humans to enter.

This was Haley’s first time in the tunnels, and she had never seen the ruined city before.  “Do you think he’s hiding out in the ruins?” she asked Nightmare as she remembered.

“Doubt it,” Nightmare said, still watching the tunnel walls for a hidden passageway.  “The ruins are miles down, and most of the passages down to it have been walled off. It wouldn’t be practical to run down there, even if there was a way down.”

“Not to mention the monsters,” Haley said, laughing.  At Nightmare’s puzzled silence, she added, “You know, the urban legends saying that monsters have taken over the old city?”

Nightmare shrugged.  “I’ve seen enough monsters in Eon City to worry about ones below my feet.”

“They’re not real,” Haley told her.  “It’s just something they told us in grade school to keep kids from exploring down here.”

“Oh,” Nightmare said.  “I never went to school.”

“Homeschooled?” Haley asked, trying to make conversation.  The dark tunnels were giving her the creeps, so she wanted to keep talking while they looked.

“Sort of,” Nightmare answered.  “I was part of an experiment with nine other kids.  They tutored us in our down-time.”

“Experiment?” Nightmare had said it so matter-of-factly that Haley found herself asking.

Nightmare didn’t mind talking about her past.  “Genetics research. Illegal, of course, but some companies still do it.  Some humans and satyrs want Third Gen powers, so they try to recreate the original Third Gen experiments.  In my case, they were trying to combine Third Gen with the Satyr serum to control the outcome. The result varied between the ten of us, but we all wound up with the black veins and red eyes.”  She stopped at a patch of the wall, peering intently at it as she added, “They called us Fourth Gens.”

Haley stopped asking questions.  Even though Nightmare sounded fine, Haley felt like she was bordering on some big secret about her new teammate’s past.  Nightmare noticed Haley’s silence and added, “Everybody on the team has a backstory. Mine’s nothing compared to some of the others’.  What about you?”

“Nothing so dramatic,” Haley answered, relieved enough to tell the other woman about her failed past.  “Eleven tries at the Watcher exams, while also trying out for every military and police branch I could find.  Wasn’t until I met Agent that I had a shot at becoming a Watcher.”

“Eleven tries?” Nightmare asked.  “I’ve seen your scores, though. You’re amazing in every test you’ve ever taken!”

“I have a photographic memory, and I’ve been training my whole life for this,” Haley said, waving off the praise.  “I’ve got a small medical issue that kept me out, until Agent decided to take a chance on me.”

“‘Small medical issue’?” Nightmare prompted.  “What could be so – ”

The ground exploded in front of her.

* * * * * * * *

Tunnels under Eon City.

Granny, riding her wolf.

As Louise followed Reiki’s scent, Granny tried contacting him on the communicator.  “Reiki, come in,” she said. As she heard only static in reply, she muttered, “Darn things don’t work well down here.”

She patted Louise absently on the neck, and the wolf turned to look at her.  “You’ll find him, though, won’t you?” Granny asked. Louise wagged her tail and began following his scent again.

They came into a better-lit corridor, and Granny saw signs of Reiki’s powers in the stones that glowed on the wall.  “Getting closer,” she said, scratching Louise’s right ear. “He should be somewhere…”

The light suddenly stopped halfway down the tunnel, but Reiki was nowhere to be seen.  “What in the world…” Granny muttered as Louise started circling one spot. The scent trail ended at the light, but there was nowhere else he could have gone.

Something’s wrong.  The realization hit her as she put two and two together.  “Louise, we need to get back to the others,” she ordered the wolf.  “As Ackbar would say: it’s a trap!”

* * * * * * * *

Tunnels under Eon City.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

“Rise and shine,” came a voice from above Haley.  She felt a few taps on her cheek, as if someone were slapping her awake.  “Let’s get this over with.”

Haley opened her eyes quickly, remembering the explosion.  She and Nightmare had been knocked off their feet as a purple cloud filled the tunnel.  The smell had been sickly sweet, and both Watchers had passed out within a minute of breathing it in.

Now Haley’s hands were tied behind her.  She was sitting up against the wall of the tunnels, facing both Nightmare and Reiki against the other wall.  Reiki was unconscious, but his chest rose and fell with his breathing. Nightmare was awake and glaring at the figure who had captured them.

Poisonshot – who else could it be? – was stoking a small fire between them.  “Good, you’re up,” he said. “The sooner we get this over with, the better.”

“What do you want?” Haley asked, squinting in the dim firelight to see him.  Taking a better look at their situation, she could see that Nightmare and Reiki both had gags over their mouths.  Since Haley could speak freely, she figured that she could keep him talking until Granny found them.

As if he could read her thoughts, Poisonshot said, “The rest of your team won’t find you for a while.  We did a thorough job of hiding our tracks.” He turned back to Haley. “As for what I want: I want my sister.  But that’s not what should concern you right now. What you should worry about is what my employer wants.”

“Oh?” Haley kept looking around for an escape route.  “And what’s that?” Her hands were tied with some kind of twine, but she couldn’t break it without getting a different angle.  Her feet were also tied together, so standing might be difficult without Poisonshot seeing. She couldn’t get the element of surprise, then, and Poisonshot’s bow was strung in his hand.

Seeing her squirm, Poisonshot said, “You could try to run, hero, but your friends would be at my mercy.”  Sure enough, Haley saw that Nightmare and Reiki were both tied up with more than twine – they were practically cocooned in thick hemp ropes up to their shoulders.

“So what is it your employer wants?” Haley asked him.  If she could keep him talking, maybe Granny or one of the others might find them.  There had to be a reason they were all still alive. Her heart was racing, and she started shivering in fear.

Oddly enough, Poisonshot also started to shake.  He gripped his bow tightly with a white-knuckled fist as he dug around for something in his pack.  “You know what?” he said, stomping over to Nightmare. “I’ve had it up to here with that power of yours.  I warned you, and now you’ll see I’m as good as my word.” He held a small vial under Nightmare’s nose, adding, “Time to sleep.”

Nightmare’s eyes rolled up in her head as she passed out again, slumping against her bonds.  Haley, still panicked from Nightmare’s powers, yelled, “What did you do to her?!”

“Relax, she’s only sleeping,” Poisonshot said, waving her off as he capped the vial.  “It’s the same knockout gas I dosed you with earlier. She’ll be out for an hour – maybe less – which gives us time to talk.”

“Fine then.  Talk,” Haley said, even as her heart rate came down.  She started to see what Rina had meant back at headquarters that morning about causing people around her to panic.  “What do you want from me?”

“It’s pretty simple,” Poisonshot said.  “I just want you to choose.”

Haley gave an exasperated sigh.  “You know, I really hate it when people beat around the bush.  Choose what?”

“Which of your teammates should I shoot?” Poisonshot asked.

“What?” Haley asked, taken aback.  “You’re crazy!”

“I should explain,” Poisonshot told her, sitting across the fire.  “See, my employer says he wants to test you. He’s been testing all of the Watchers in Eon City – probably elsewhere, too.  So he asked me to give you a bit of a ‘Sophie’s Choice’: I’m going to shoot one of your friends, and I need you to tell me which one.”

Haley stared at him.  “And why would I do that?” she asked.

Poisonshot shrugged.  “If you don’t, I’ll just shoot them both.”

“Why do you have to shoot anyone?” Haley asked.  She had to keep him talking until Granny could find them.  “Why don’t you just tell your employer to stuff it?”

“I could,” Poisonshot said.  “But see, I need his resources to get my sister out of Zatvor.”

“She wouldn’t be in prison if you hadn’t hit that bank,” Haley pointed out, twisting her hands behind her to free them.  Since Poisonshot had to look through the fire to see her, she felt safe doing so behind her back. “I assume that was under orders from your employer, too?  They said you don’t usually pull bank robberies.”

“You’re good,” Poisonshot said, nodding in approval.  “Yeah, we hit the bank under orders. He needed a distraction from something else.”

“What else was he doing?”  Haley’s wrists were raw, but she managed to squeeze her right hand out of the ties.

Poisonshot didn’t seem to notice in the dim light.  “Heck if I know,” he answered. “But he said he would help us if we pulled it off.  My sister’s sick, see.”

“Sick?” Haley asked.  Now that her hands were free, she played along until she could do the same with her feet.  That would be trickier to do without Poisonshot seeing. “Sick how?”

“She’s a snake-satyr,” he said.  “Like most snakes, her venom sacs didn’t grow in until she hit puberty.  Since then, they’ve been slowly poisoning her from the inside.”

Haley stopped moving in surprise.  “Oh,” she said, not quite sure what else to say.

“She needs an operation to remove them, and since we have no money and no insurance…”  He trailed off, raising his hands in a helpless gesture. “We started pulling jobs to save up enough.  Skadi’s even been running with the Fauns, ever since Claw told us he could give her an antidote. But it’s not a fix – soon her immune system won’t take the antidote any more, and we’ll be back at square one.  My employer said he’d pay for the operation if we pulled that one job.”

“And one job turned to two, and soon it’ll be three, and four,” Haley said, trying to kick off the ties on her feet again.  “When will it stop?”

Poisonshot gave her a tight smile.  “I don’t know,” he admitted. “But right now it’s the only chance we have.  She’s my sister – I’d do anything to keep her safe.” He stood up and came back around the fire, gripping his bow.  “And right now, that means I’ve got to shoot one of your friends. Have you made a choice yet?”

The twine was at her ankles, but it would have to do.  “Sure have,” Haley said. She bent her knees and rolled to a standing position.  “You’re not hurting either of them until you go through me, first.”

Poisonshot blinked.  “You’re kidding, right?” he asked, raising his bow to point it at her.  “I could pin you to the wall right now, and still shoot both of them before you could do anything to me.  Why would you risk it?”

“Because,” Haley said, grabbing the twine on her foot and snapping it since she had a second, “it’s what I do.”

She dove towards him, one fluid leap that she had learned from her brothers growing up.  Poisonshot’s arrow grazed her shoulder, but it didn’t stop her from tackling him. In close combat he wouldn’t be able to draw his bow; adding Haley’s experience wrestling guys four times his size, and she had a distinct advantage.

That didn’t stop Poisonshot from trying.  Haley yelled in shock as he dug the butt of his bow into the wound on her shoulder, and her grip on that side loosened enough that he could roll away from her.  He scrambled to his feet, drawing another arrow from his quiver and nocking it to his bow in one fluid motion.

As Poisonshot drew back the arrow, a howl echoed through the air around them.  He cursed, letting the arrow fall as if a timer had gone off on the fight. He put a hand to his ear, saying calmly to the air, “I’m gonna need an evac.  Now.”

Granny’s large riding wolf ran into the tunnel, snarling at Poisonshot.  Granny was still riding its back, one hand on its fur and one hand in the air as she hollered, “Don’t even think about drawing that bow!”

Poisonshot raised his hands in the air, one still gripping the bow, as a hissing sound crackled in the air behind him.  He grinned at Haley. “Well done,” he told her. “We’ll finish our chat some other time, shall we?”

The air ripped open behind him, showing an empty room.  Poisonshot waved as he stepped through the portal, even as Granny and her wolf charged at him.  The rip in the air closed suddenly, and Louise sneezed at the spot where Poisonshot had disappeared.

“Gosh darn it,” Granny swore.  “We’ll never be able to track him now.”  Turning back to Haley she asked, “How are you, dear?  That cut looks bad.”

Haley put her hand to her shoulder, feeling the damage.  “He just grazed me,” she said. “Check on Reiki and Nightmare; they’re both knocked out.”

“As you wish,” Granny nodded, dismounting Louise and examining the two unconscious teammates.  Nightmare was already stirring; the knockout gas that Poisonshot used on her was wearing off. “Reiki was hit over the head,” Granny reported aloud, pointing to a bump on the back of his skull.  “We’ll need to get him back to Dale. Louise?”

The wolf walked over to Granny, who was pulling another stuffed animal out of her bag.  Despite her injury, Haley came over and helped put Reiki onto the beast’s back. “I’ll stay here with Nightmare until she comes around,” Haley said, seeing the dragon toy in Granny’s hand.  “You take Reiki on the dragon, and we’ll take the car back.”

“What about that cut, dearie?” Granny asked.  “Isn’t bleeding a bit of a… problem… for you?”

Haley opened a small pocket on her utility belt, taking out a small bottle of liquid bandage.  “I can stop most of the bleeding,” she said. “I’ll be fine; go.”

Granny pursed her lips, but mounted Louise.  “If we don’t hear from you in an hour, we’ll send someone back.  And dear?” she added, turning Louise towards the tunnel entrance, “You did good.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, Fourteenth Floor.

Haley Prince, End of Day 1.

“I’m sorry you got into trouble,” Agent said as Dale looked at Haley’s cut.  “I didn’t mean for you to be in so much danger on your first day.”

“Hey, everyone’s alive,” Haley shrugged, “and it makes for a heck of a story.”

Agent gave her a half-smile.  “Still,” he said, “First thing tomorrow, we start your team training.”

“What about Poisonshot?” Haley asked.  “Are we going after him?”

Agent’s smile turned thin as he told her, “If he’s using portals as you and Granny reported, then he could be anywhere in the world by now.”  He picked up his umbrella, adding, “We’ll just have to wait for him to come back into the open. I’m more concerned with his employer, in any case.”

Haley bit her lip, saying, “Poisonshot said that his employer was testing me.  That he’s been testing Watchers around the city, if not around the country. What do you think he meant?”

“No idea,” Agent admitted, “but it’s something we’re looking into.”

“Agent, if ye dinnae mind, I’ve got patients needing rest,” Dale pointed out.  Turning to Haley he added, “Lass, the arrow weren’t poisoned, so you’re good to go.”

“How’s Shadow?” she asked, sliding off the exam table and looking around.  “Is he okay?”

“Shadow’s fine,” came a voice near the elevator.  Frank stood there with David and Natalie, grinning at her.  “I hear you’ve had an interesting first day, huh, Outlier?”

She grinned back, heading over to join them as Dale moved on to examine Rina.  “Yep,” she said. “Arrows hurt, don’t they?” She looked at the spot where the arrow had grazed her shoulder, but the cut was gone.  Dale had used his Third Gen power to completely heal the damage.

“You’re telling me,” Frank said, chuckling.

“So new girl,” Natalie interrupted, “first day means we all go out for drinks.  What do you say?”

“You can tell us all about how you took on Poisonshot,” David said, playfully punching her shoulder.  “The others can join us as soon as they’re done here. I think Chip’s already down at the bar.”

Agent added, “We all could spare a couple hours from work.  I’ll schedule a stand-in to patrol this evening.”

Haley nodded.  “Stand-in?” she asked.  Agent chuckled, clapping her on the shoulder as they all stepped into the elevator.

“You still have a lot to learn,” he said.

Haley waved to Dale and Rina as Frank let them know where to go, and stepped onto the elevator with the others.  My new team, she thought proudly.

* * * * * * * *

Office building in Eon City.

Poisonshot, reporting.

“She did good,” Poisonshot told the suit.  “She kept me talking until she got her hands free, and she didn’t engage until I threatened the others.  She stood up for both of them, despite not knowing them that well, and played for time instead of just charging in.”  He shrugged noncommittally. “Is that what you’re looking for?”

“Maybe.”  The man in the suit sat back in the shadows, pressing his fingertips together as he considered Poisonshot’s report.  “I wish I could have seen more of her fighting style in action.”

“I got out of there when Granny showed up,” Poisonshot said.  “I’m not stupid enough to try and fight her.  We already know the outcome of that fight.”

The suit nodded.  “I get it. She’d wipe the floor with you.”

“Exactly.”  It wasn’t a blow to Poisonshot’s pride to admit it.  He’d seen Granny in action before; in a one-on-one fight with the old lady, with no civilian hostages crowding her space, she would win.  “Now, about my sister…”

The man in the suit looked at him expectantly.  “What about her?”

“When are we going to get her out of Zatvor?” Poisonshot demanded.  “I’ve done what you asked, I ‘tested’ the new girl. Skadi needs that antidote, and she needs an operation.  Why won’t you get her out?”

The man in the suit looked at his watch.  “It takes roughly sixteen hours for the antidote to wear off and for Skadi to start showing signs of being poisoned, correct?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Poisonshot said.  “And we’re coming up on that, fast.”

“Then in about two hours, the guards will be informed that there is something wrong with one of their inmates,” the man said.  “Skadi will be taken to the prison hospital, where they will discover the problem with her venom, and they will then extract the venom sacs for free.”

“What?” Poisonshot said, dumbstruck.  “Why would they do that?”

“Because Zatvor has certain rules in place,” the suit explained.  “They can’t allow a prisoner to die without at least trying to fix them.  With the right bribes, and the right doctors scheduled, they’ll fix your sister.  She can recover at Zatvor, and then we’ll extract her.”  He smiled sarcastically up at Poisonshot.  “Sound like a plan?”

“She’ll get better?” Poisonshot asked, hopeful.

The man in the suit nodded.  “As I keep saying, she’s in a better position than you are right now.”  He gestured between himself and Poisonshot. “You and I aren’t done yet.”

Poisonshot breathed a sigh of relief.  Skadi would be okay; that was all he cared about.  Looking at the man in the suit, he considered the bargain he had made for his sister’s life.  Worth it, he thought.  He straightened his spine as he asked, “What do I have to do?”

* * * * * * * *

Issue #1 – From Small Beginnings…

Motel in Eon City.

Poisonshot and Skadi, thieves.

“You ready for the heist?” Jorge Cruz, more commonly known by his moniker Poisonshot, asked his sister Skadi.  Poisonshot loaded the mechanical base of his quiver with different kinds of arrowheads as Skadi practiced her fighting against a small dummy.  The dingy motel room they used as a temporary base had only about two feet of room for her to move around, but Poisonshot knew that Skadi could strike men twice her size in seconds from ten times that distance.

“Of course,” Skadi hissed, punching the dummy in the side.  As a snake-satyr, she had grown up with a slight speech impediment, caused mostly by her flat, forked tongue.  Poisonshot smirked, watching his little sister as he prepared his quiver; Skadi’s yellow-green eyes were concentrated on her practice target.  The flat nose in the middle of her face looked like it had been squashed, but Poisonshot knew that his sister could smell a flower perfectly from twenty feet away.  Her hair was intentionally left bushy and large, giving her a striking resemblance to a cobra.

Skadi rested from her practice.  “Why are we hitting up this bank, anyways?” she asked, “I mean, I know Claw told me to come down and cause some trouble with you, but I don’t get why we couldn’t pull a more high-profile target.”

“Claw got the same tip-off that I did,” Poisonshot told her.  “We can’t tell anyone about it, but if we follow our instructions to the letter right now, then we’ll get all the help we need.”  He kicked the other chair away from the small table, inviting her to sit down.

“And you’re sure you can trust this guy,” Skadi hissed skeptically, sliding the chair back into the table as she sat down.

“The tip-off or Claw?” Poisonshot asked, poking her in the ribs with a blunt arrow to lighten the mood.

“The tip-off,” Skadi said, reluctantly smiling as she batted the arrow away.  “We already know that Claw is unreliable.”

Poisonshot raised an eyebrow.  “That’s not a good thing to say about your boss,” he pointed out, pulling the arrow shaft back and fitting it into the high-tech quiver, “especially if he can rip you to pieces in seconds.”

Skadi shrugged.  “It’s true,” she said, the smile fading from her face, “and all of the Fauns know it.  Even the feral satyrs can see that Claw will sacrifice any of us on a whim if he thinks it would benefit him.”

“So why do you work for him?” Poisonshot asked her.  He didn’t particularly think much of the cult leader one way or the other, but he did care about his sister.

Skadi ignored his last question; he already knew the answer.  “Anyway,” she said, not meeting his eyes, “can you guys really trust this tip?  What kind of help are we talking about?”

Poisonshot didn’t want to give in to Skadi’s evasion, but he knew pursuing the subject of Claw would only make matters worse.  “I’m pretty sure we can trust him; if nothing else, it’s an easy job. Mostly, we’re just making noise to distract from what the client has planned.”

“Right.”  Skadi didn’t sound convinced.  “Because being the distraction isn’t dangerous at all.”

“It’ll be fine,” Poisonshot told her, pointing at her fangs as he added, “and the help we’ve been promised is well worth a little risk.”  He picked up his now-finished quiver and showed her. “What do you think?” he asked, grinning in pride.

“I think it’s probably stupid,” his sister hissed, still talking about the plan and barely looking at the quiver, “but if you’re sure, then count me in.  I’ve come all this way already, right?”

“What could go wrong?” Poisonshot asked her, testing the quiver.  He pressed a small button on the strap and pulled an arrow out; instead of a point at the end, this one has a small metal fist as the arrowhead.  Poisonshot aimed his composite bow for a small target on the wall ten feet away, a dime that he had taped up there for just this purpose. He released, and the wall caved outwards; the force of the arrow blew a hole in it about the size of a basketball.

Skadi surveyed the damage and sighed, retrieving the arrow for her brother.  Bringing it back over to him, she said simply, “Heroes.”

“You mean those punks from the Asylum?” Poisonshot asked her, packing the shaft back into his quiver.

“If by ‘those punks’ you mean Earthborn and Shadow,” Skadi replied, sitting back down at the table, “then yes.  I mean, the others are bad enough, but those two are like a machine.”

“They’re not invincible, though,” Poisonshot assured her, pulling a small crucible over to her side of the table.  “All we have to do is get a little poison in them.” He grabbed his sister’s jaw, tilting her head forward. Holding her elongated teeth over the small bowl, Poisonshot waited as small drops of poison began filling it.  It only took a few minutes for a half-cup of poison to come out. “An arrow for each of them,” he said, taking the bowl and filling a small container at the bottom of his quiver, “just in case.”

Skadi wiped her mouth, hating the aftertaste of the poison; it tasted like bile to her.  “And the guards?” she asked.

“Regular arrows usually work for them,” Poisonshot said, “and if not, you can see to them personally.”  He rinsed the bowl out thoroughly in the sink before putting it in the small dishwasher. “Big day tomorrow,” he said, yawning and stretching.  “I’m gonna head out. You staying here tonight?”

Skadi nodded, and then hugged her brother.  “Are you sure it’ll be alright, Jorge?” she asked.  “I have a bad feeling about this.”

Poisonshot looked at her face, remembering how she gave him the same face when she was ten, when he had convinced her to run away from their foster home.  “It’ll be fine,” he repeated, pulling her away from him so that he could grab his keys. “After all,” he said, holding up his quiver again, “Who could possibly stop us?”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, Monday morning.

Haley Prince, gawking outside.

Haley had hardly taken her eyes off of her shiny new Watcher’s license since it arrived in the mail Friday morning.  Her family had taken her out to dinner to celebrate, and still she found herself glancing down at it every now and then.  Even at her volunteer teaching job at the community center, Haley found herself pulling it out of her bag during breaks just to look at it, as if it would vanish if she left it hidden for too long.

Saturday morning’s mail brought with it her welcome packet from the Asylum, detailing her job expectations, compensation, benefits, and other paperwork.  All weekend long, the only times Haley stopped staring at her Watcher’s license was to pour over the paperwork for her new job. She spent a few hours online filling out the forms necessary, but even while she did that the brand-new license was sitting next to her mouse hand, within easy reach.

Haley woke up before dawn on Monday morning, too excited for her first day of Watcher work to sleep much.  She put on her usual cotton training outfit – her welcome packet said that she would be fitted for a proper uniform during orientation this week – and headed downtown to the Asylum headquarters just as dawn broke over Eon City’s skyline.

The first time she stopped staring at her new license was to stare at the tower.

Haley knew she looked like a tourist, but she couldn’t help herself.  She had seen the Asylum tower from a distance before – who in Eon City hadn’t? – but this was the first time she would actually enter the building.

It took five minutes of staring up at the twenty-story tower for Haley to make her feet move.  When she finally entered, she was caught up in just how busy the building was – there couldn’t be this many Watchers, could there?

“Excuse me,” she said to the man at the front desk.  “I’m looking for…” she had to stop and check her folder for the details, which her brain didn’t seem to want to remember at the moment, “the Asylum offices?”

“You are going to have to be more specific,” the man said in a thick Nigerian accent.  The twinkle in his eye showed that he was amused at the noob. “This entire building is full of Asylum offices.”

“Oh, um,” Haley stammered, trying to find the right page of the welcome packet.  After a minute of searching, she gave up and said, “It’s my first day here. I’m supposed to meet a guy named Agent… something-or-other, but the packet doesn’t give me many details.  Tall guy, brown hair and eyes, carries a large umbrella; could you please help me?”

“Agent Something-or-Other?” Something was really amusing the guard.  “I think I can help you. Not many Agents are based here, you know. I know of only one who would be that enigmatic.”

“Oh, good,” Haley said, sighing in relief.  “I’d hate to mess up the boss’ name on the first day.  What should I call him?”

“What is your name, sweetheart?” the guard asked, ignoring her question.

“Um, Haley.  Haley Prince,” she told him.  “If you could just tell me where I’m going…”

“Haley Prince?” the guard asked her to clarify.  “You mean the new Watcher?”

Haley knew she was stammering, but couldn’t help it with how quickly the conversation topics were changing.  “Um, yes, mister…”

“Jaiyesimi,” the guard introduced.  “No ‘mister’ about it. You can call me ‘Jay’ if the name is too long; everybody does.”

“Well, thank you for your help, Jaiyesimi,” Haley said, finding her voice.  “Where can I find this Agent?”

Jay grinned at the proper pronunciation of his name.  “I think I am going to like you, Miss Haley Prince,” he said.  “Agent can be found in his office on the top floor, but I will call him down to you.  You still need to be added to the security system.”

He typed in some notes on his computer and handed Haley a badge.  “This will get you around the building, but you need an escort until the badge office can fit you in,” he explained.  “Agent should be down shortly to get you started.” He gestured towards some seats in the waiting area. “Oh, and his name is ‘Agent’,” Jay added.  “He doesn’t go by anything else around here.”

It took a few minutes for Agent to appear out of the elevator.  When he did, he waved a quick hello to Jay before hurrying over to meet Haley.  “Early on your first day,” he said, “I like to see that. Before we begin, do you have any questions?”

Haley had hundreds of questions, but she wasn’t sure which ones would be covered as they went along.  She picked a safe one, just to start: “Are all of these people Watchers?”

Agent chuckled.  “No; the Asylum is currently home to eight field Watchers, including yourself.  Everybody else here is support.”

“That’s a lot of people,” Haley said, swiveling her head as she tried to take in everything at once.

“The Agency provides us with state-of-the-art equipment,” Agent explained as he led her into the elevator, “and a lot of it is personalized to each Watcher’s individual needs.  That kind of tech requires a lot of tech support, and it’s easier if they’re on hand for repairs and such.”

The elevator had glass walls, so they could see each floor as they passed.  Haley looked at the elevator buttons with wide eyes before turning to look at the paper-strewn offices that the elevator was passing.  “This is a twenty-story building,” she said. “Surely eight Watchers don’t need hundreds of techs.”

“You’re right,” Agent said, “we don’t.  Each floor has a purpose: the first five or so floors is our business development.  These people handle the paperwork of our assignments, including legal issues, clean up, and media relations.”

The elevator took them past some more offices, but these were filled more with lab equipment and computers than paperwork.  “The next few floors are for equipment development,” Agent explained. “The scientists here do some government contracting, as well as helping us.  We have to pay for all of this somehow.”

The elevator stopped at a larger floor, and Agent gestured for Haley to step out.  “This floor, the fourteenth, is where the Watcher tech is developed. We’re going to get you fitted for your uniform real quick.”

“Agent!” came a shout from across the room.  The people in their immediate vicinity didn’t look as startled as Haley felt, so it must have been a common occurrence to hear shouting.

A young woman, younger even than Haley, marched up to them.  “Good, you brought the noob,” she said, and then started walking away.  When she realized that Agent and Haley weren’t following, she turned around and gestured impatiently.  “I haven’t got all day, you know.”

“Haley, this is Quinn Kaine, our head of technical development,” Agent introduced as they stopped in front of what looked like an ERI machine.  “Everybody usually calls her ‘Chip’. She was top of her class at MIT, and graduated with a doctorate in mechanics at eighteen years old.”

“Dale!” Chip called, grabbing Haley by the shoulders and sitting her down on the machine’s bed.  Haley was surprised to see that Chip had a robotic arm, though not more surprised than anything else that day.

Another man came over, whom Haley assumed was “Dale”, and Chip pointed at the machine’s console.  “Are you wearing any metal? Underwire, or such?” Chip asked brusquely. Haley shook her head. “Good.  Lay back here, and we’ll get you scanned. Dale?”

“Dinnae worry, lass,” Dale called in a Scottish accent over as the bed moved back into the machine.  “We’re getting your measurements and your physical done all in one go. Chip’s just better with machines than people.”

“What’s wrong with my people skills?” Chip asked him.

“You’ve no bedside manner,” Dale answered bluntly.  “Can ye nae see you’re making her nervous?”

A few flashes of light later, the bed moved back out of the machine.  As Chip and Dale argued over Chip’s personality, Agent told Haley, “They’re pretty much always like this.  That’s Carson Dale, our Chief Medical Doctor. His team is in charge of patching us up after missions.”

“Excuse me, Agent?” Dale said, interrupting Chip’s tirade.  “Have you seen this?”

Chip looked over his shoulder, and Agent moved over to look as well.  Haley recognized the look on Dale’s face: it was the same look every doctor had ever given her after doing her bloodwork.  Her shoulders slumped in defeat – she knew it was too good to be true.

But Agent surprised her yet again.  “Yes, I knew,” he said. “Her blood work is unusual, yes, but she’ll make a great Watcher.”

“I’m surprised she made it through the physical for her license,” Chip said.  “Usually that’s grounds for termination in this line of work.”

“Yes, thank you Chip,” Agent said, waving a hand dismissively.  “We know that there are… extenuating circumstances. Sorry Dale, but this one might keep you on your toes.”  When Chip started to open her mouth again, Agent cut her off. “We’re keeping her as long as she can keep up.  End of discussion.”

Haley’s eyes brightened.  They knew about her blood problem – and they were going to take a chance on her anyways?  In hindsight, Haley would remember that Agent was at her last failed Watcher exam, and that Natalie had mentioned it during their match the previous week, but at that moment Haley looked at Agent with newfound respect.

Leaving Chip and Dale to their work, Agent took Haley back to the elevator.  “Dale’s office is on the fifteenth floor,” he told her. “You’ll have to see him after every mission, even if you didn’t get hurt.  Agency policy. But here,” he said as the elevator stopped on the sixteenth floor, “these last five floors are home for the Watchers.  Your new home.”

The elevator opened into a large living space.  Haley could see a game room, a study corner for quiet reading, a kitchen, and a common room.  The walls were a mix of glass, wood, and plaster. The floor seemed to be designed so that each area was relatively private from one another, but one person could see at a glance who was in each room as soon as they left the elevator.  Unlike the carpeted offices or the tiled tech floors, this floor was wood with area rugs thrown down – it gave the place a more home-like feel than the offices below.

“I know it told you in the welcome packet, but I’ll reiterate it for you because this is important,” Agent told her.  “The next two floors are living quarters, and this is the common area. You’ve been assigned a room here – you don’t have to live here, but most of us do.  It really saves time on the commute.” Agent started walking toward the kitchen, where Haley could see a half-eaten plate of eggs with a sign saying Be right back hastily scrawled next to it.  As he picked it up and started eating the cold eggs, Agent added, “At the very least I recommend leaving one of your uniforms and a set of toiletries here, because after some long patrols you’ll be grateful for the shower and bed.  As with any dorm, we have a chore wheel set up that you’re expected to take part in. Part of the privacy we get in our living quarters is that the janitors aren’t allowed up this far – so we all have to pitch in.”

Finishing his breakfast – which Haley guiltily realized she had pulled him away from when she arrived early – Agent rinsed the plate and put the dishes in the dishwasher before calling out to the other rooms, “Hey guys, come meet the new girl.”

They walked over to the spacious common room, where four other people also gathered.  Haley didn’t see Natalie – the only other Asylum Watcher she had met – but the others were just as unexpected as she had been.

First there was the old woman.  Her hair was a steely gray, and was pulled back in a tight bun.  From the wrinkles on her face, Haley guessed that this woman was in her seventies or eighties.  She sat in a reclining chair with a cup of tea on the table next to her, and was calmly knitting with four silver needles – though Haley couldn’t see any yarn outside of what the needles had already knit.

Second in the room was a guy with gel-spiked hair and a nose ring.  His sleeveless shirt was splashed with a half-sun/half-moon picture, and his jeans were tattered.  He had tattoos up and down his arms, and one on the back of his neck of the word “Reiki” in decorative lettering.

Next was a girl only slightly older than Haley with shockingly white hair.  At first glance Haley thought she also had tattoos, but no – the girl’s veins showed up black underneath her pale skin.  She must have been wearing contacts, because her eyes glowed bright red. She could have been a satyr, but she was unlike anyone Haley had ever seen before.  Other than that, though, she was dressed normally in bright pink pajamas, though she came from the direction of the game room. As she drew closer, Haley got a sense of unease, as if the girl were radiating mistrust.

Lastly, following the white-haired girl out of the game room, came a short kid with spiky black hair and thick-rimmed glasses.  He was dressed in sweats and a t-shirt, seemingly the most normal of the bunch. “This had better be good,” he said, flopping down on the couch.  “I was just about to beat Rina at Smash Brothers.”

“You were not,” the white-haired girl said, smirking.  “I had you down to one life.”

“Guys,” Agent interrupted.  “This is the new girl, Haley.”

The four Watchers looked towards her in unison.  “New girl?” the punk-guy said. “Since when?”

“Since today,” Agent told them.  “We scouted her out last week. I told you guys this last weekend about it.”

“Hi,” Haley said, hoping that she wasn’t going to start stuttering again.  “I’m Haley Prince, and I look forward to working with you all.”

“She seems nice,” the white-haired girl said.  “My name’s Rina, Sabrina Dawson. My call sign is Nightmare.  That’s Reiki, Granny, and Shadow.” She pointed at the punk, the old lady, and the glasses guy in turn.

“You’ll get your own call sign when you start going on patrol,” Agent told her.  Haley just nodded, trying to fix names with faces.

“You can call me Frank,” said the glasses guy, seeing the confusion on her face.  “You’ll get used to the whole two-name thing in no time.”

“Thanks,” Haley said, finding her voice again.  “It’s very nice to meet you all.” She moved over to where Rina stood and held out her hand to shake.

Rina raised her eyebrows, staring at the outstretched hand for a second before taking it.  “She’s a brave one,” she said. “It usually takes people a few days of living here to adjust to me.”

“I’m sure you’re not that bad,” Haley laughed, though she felt like she was missing something.

Rina smiled at her.  “I’m really not,” she said, “but usually people have to get to know me first.  It’s my power, see – I can cause panic, hallucinations, mass hysteria, et cetera with a thought – but I can’t always control it.  Most times, people get frightened or panicked just from being in the same room as me, until they get used to it.”

“Oh,” Haley said.  “I guess I just put that down to nerves on my first day.”

Rina smiled brighter at her and let her hand go.  “It really is nice to meet you,” she said, and it sounded much more genuine this time.

Haley shook Frank’s hand in turn, then moved to Reiki.  He didn’t take her hand, and she let it drop awkwardly to her side.  Since the punk was just staring at her in silence, Haley tried a joke to lighten the mood.  “You must get along great with Natalie,” she said.

The rest of the room laughed, but Reiki just scowled.  “Just stay out of my way, newbie,” he said. His shoulder bumped hers as he stormed out.

“Was it something I said?” Haley asked, puzzled.  She hoped she hadn’t just made an enemy here on her first day.

“You’ll have to forgive him, dear,” Granny said, shaking her hand with a surprisingly firm grip for someone her age.  “He’s always been a sourpuss.”

“If you play any role-playing games,” Rina told her, “he’s like the team’s barbarian.  Not necessarily heroic, but the rest of us can point him in the right direction.”

“I’m sure he’s a good guy,” Haley said, not comfortable with talking about him behind his back.  “He just doesn’t know me, that’s all.”

Sensing that she wanted to change the topic, Granny said, “Well, my name’s Brittany James, but everyone calls me Granny.”

“I’m not sure why,” Haley said, awkwardly.  It seemed impolite to constantly remind the woman of her advanced age.

Granny just laughed.  “I’m older than I look,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper, putting a finger to her nose.

“So now you’ve met the gang,” Agent said.  “Well, except for Parker and David. Natalie and David are out on patrol, and Parker’s not here this morning.  You’ll probably see him when he gets back, though.”

He dismissed the others back to whatever they were doing, and dragged Haley back to the elevator.  It was nearly ten at this point, and they still hadn’t finished the tour.

Agent showed Haley to her quarters on the eighteenth floor.  It looked like a college dorm room, with basic furniture, a bed with a mattress and white sheets, and an empty desk with a lamp.  The adjoining bathroom was just as simple, with a small tub and shower head, a toilet, and a sink. “You can decorate it however you want,” Agent told her.  “This is your space to rest after missions or patrol. We don’t charge rent, either, though you’ll have to pay for your own food. Again, janitors don’t come up this far so it’s up to you to clean your own room, whether you use it or not.”

“So what exactly do we do?” Haley asked.  “I mean, you said there were eight of us, but I’m brand new, you’re showing me around, and the four of them just seem to be taking it easy.  How do we earn our keep?”

Agent chuckled.  “Take your breaks when you get them,” he said.  “That’s what those four are doing. We have a rotating schedule of patrol, where at least one of us canvasses the city at all times.  Natalie and David are on shift this morning, and Reiki will be going after lunch. They’re eight-hour shifts, with one to two people during the day – when police presence is heavier – and at least two at night.  Also, I’m not a field Watcher – I’m directional support. I stay in the office and plan missions based on all of your abilities.” He gestured to the screens. “We’re also on-call twenty-four/seven as backup in case a major threat appears; though an all-hands call only happens maybe once or twice a year.”

* * * * * * * *

Rooftop, Eon City.

Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.

Patrol was usually boring.  Most days, nothing happened – especially not in the early morning.  Now it was nearly noon, and the city streets were getting packed with workers taking a lunch break; that made it hard to see things from the hustle and bustle on the ground.

Natalie perched on top of a building, listening to the police scanner as she surveyed the city.  Her shift was almost done, and she was getting tired of walking around the streets with all of the people.  Natalie liked her job as a protector of the city, but that didn’t mean she enjoyed interacting with the masses.  Every hour or so of her shift, she took a few minutes to breathe by stepping back from the streets.

And it was that habit that allowed her to see the police lights before the scanner call.  “All units, robbery in progress at Eon National Bank, address one-zero-five-niner; hostage situation…

Natalie stood up and jumped down the fire escape, barely touching the stairs.  A robbery was new; the Eon National Bank in Eon City was one of the largest and best-secured in the world.  No one in their right mind would rob it.

Natalie smiled as she radioed Earthborn and HQ.  She hopped on her motorcycle and sped across town to the scene as she reported to Agent.

This patrol was about to get interesting.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Haley Prince, still in orientation.

Agent and Haley went up to the nineteenth floor, which was a double-sized training room complete with enclosed area for Third-Gen sparring matches.  “We also require certain training,” Agent told her, leading her over to a holographic board. “This shows you the schedule. Team training includes everyone who isn’t out on patrol, and it happens at a different time every day.  We also have doubles, triples, or individual training times, as needed – that’s determined by your performance on missions, by the way.” He showed her the weight training area, the punching bags, the target room, and the sparring area as they talked.  “Remember, as soon as you put on the uniform, you will be watched at all times. We record how much training you get, how much rest, your patrol schedule, your mission schedule, your extra-curricular activities, everything. Even what and how much you eat.”

“That seems pretty invasive,” Haley said skeptically.

“The data is used to be sure you stay in peak condition,” Agent said.  “This job relies heavily on us being at our best at all times. You’ve got nothing to worry about as long as you’re eating and training properly; Dale will let you know if he thinks you need to change something.”

“Great.”  Haley grimaced as they got back into the elevator.  She knew that she had signed up for this job – had wanted it most of her life, in fact – but it had never before occurred to her what that would mean.

Agent saw the look on her face.  “You’re not a prisoner here,” he pointed out.  “You’re free to leave at any time. You’re also a grown adult – free to make your own choices about pretty much everything, down to what you wear every day.  Reiki and Natalie should have proven that.” That did make Haley feel a little better about it. “This job isn’t like others,” Agent continued. “We put our lives on the line fighting monsters that the regular police can’t handle.  We track down robbers, thieves, and murderers, and we’re kept in the public eye so that we can’t abuse our power or privileges. You’ll find that the team goes to charity events and does volunteer work around the city, because studies have shown that the people trust public servants that they know over ones they don’t – and we need them to trust us in order to do our job.  Even the anti-social ones like Natalie and Reiki smile for the public, because they know how important all of this is.

“You won’t be asked to give up your extra-curricular activities.  In fact, we encourage things like your work teaching those self-defense classes at the community center.  We’ll help you work around that schedule as best we can for the same reason we monitor everything else about you: as public servants we’re scrutinized the most, and we don’t want the people turning on you when you need their cooperation.”  The elevator opened onto the final floor. “Do you understand?”

“Makes sense,” Haley told him, “as long as I can still binge on cookies every now and then.”

Agent chuckled, and showed her the top floor of the building.  This was his office, and various screens around the room showed different parts of the city.  “You won’t have to come here that often,” he said, “but I think it’s good for everyone to know how this works.  We have programs up here recording everything around the city – all cameras, all police scanners, everything. This is how we hear about any major crimes committed.  Most of this is automated, but I work up here sometimes, too. The algorithms are set to alert me if they hear certain words or phrases, or if the cameras pick up something particularly shady.”  He held up his cell phone, adding, “I can access any of these cameras on here, and determine whether or not the threat requires the Watchers. Then I page anyone needed, and they drop whatever they’re doing and go to the scene.  You’ll get a pager along with your uniform as soon as Chip’s done making them,” he added.

“So, was that enough information dumped on your head for the day?” Agent asked her.  “It’s about lunch time now; I’ll give you the rest of the day off to process, and tomorrow we’ll pick up training.”

“I don’t have to go home, do I?” Haley asked.  “I was hoping to try out some of the training equipment.”

“You don’t have to go home,” Agent said, “but I’d recommend you go back to the living area and socialize with your teammates.  It isn’t just the public who falls under the ‘trust those you know’ umbrella. Reiki in particular needs time to get to know you, and you all have to trust each other in order to work together.”

“Got it,” Haley said, moving back toward the elevator.  “You coming?”

“You go on ahead,” Agent said, noticing something on one of the screens.  His phone buzzed in his pocket. “I’ll be right down.”

Haley stood over by the elevator and called it, but waited for Agent before getting on.  She remembered the security protocol – that until she was cleared by security she had to be escorted – even if Agent forgot it for a moment.

Agent looked at the screen for less than a minute before joining Haley at the elevator.  He typed something in on his phone as he walked, and Haley could hear the faint echo of an alarm from a few floors down.

“You’re in luck,” Agent told her as he pressed the button for the roof.  “Your very first day, and we’ve got a call.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters Roof.

Haley Prince, still day 1.

On the roof of the tower stood an airship, fueled up and ready to go.  Like everything else in the building, it seemed state-of-the-art: the circular wings indicated VTOL technology (or so Haley hoped, since the roof wasn’t long enough for a runway), and the mottled grey design would blend in against the sky.  As Agent hopped into the pilot’s seat and turned on the ignition, the motor purred no louder than a car. He pointed Haley into the back, where ten seats faced each other in two rows. The space was cramped – the ship certainly wasn’t meant for long flights – but there was enough room for Haley to easily reach one of the seats near the cockpit.

There must have been another elevator, because the other Watchers joined them on the roof in less than two minutes, geared up and ready to go.  “The quick-change is a crucial skill for a Watcher,” Frank told Haley with a wink as he buckled up across from her. “You’ll learn.”

Most of the Asylum Watchers looked very different than they had earlier morning; Haley actually recognized some of them from the news now that they were in uniform.  Frank, as Shadow, had traded his sweats and t-shirt for cargo pants and a hoodie. His boots were high-tech, with buttons on the heels and tubes on the sides. The clothes had extra padding around the knees and elbows, presumably to cushion him if he fell.  The striking part of his outfit, however, was that he had replaced his glasses with a pair of goggles that looked as though they came from a steampunk video. He still seemed able to see, so Haley assumed they were prescription.

The others all wore different outfits; they kept referring to “uniforms”, but there wasn’t much uniform in the Watcher’s outfits.  Reiki had neon-green trim over his black body armor – he was much better protected than Frank, but he couldn’t move as freely. Rina, as Nightmare, wore white with a spider-web pattern, covering every inch of her skin.  A hood protected her head, and a cloth came over her face; her red eyes were only visible through a sheer cloth that covered the rest of her face – Haley started to think that maybe the red glow wasn’t from contact lenses.  Even her hands had gloves on them, like she didn’t want anybody seeing her skin.

Granny was wearing pale brown robes that looked even older than her.  She was faster than she looked, and had no trouble keeping up with the younger Watchers.  Her mind didn’t seem all there, though – she muttered to herself, and she still had her silver knitting needles in her hands.

“Trick will meet us there,” Agent called back over the intercom.  “ETA two minutes.”

Haley’s stomach lurched as the airship took off.  She leaned over to ask Frank, “Who’s Trick?”

“You met Natalie, right?” he asked back.  “Trick is her call-sign. We all have one; you will too once we start working together.”

“What’s yours?” Haley asked, curious.

“I’m ‘Shadow’,” Frank replied, reminding her of what they had told her before.  “Rina’s called ‘Nightmare’, David is ‘Earthborn’, and Parker is ‘Blackbird’. The others go by their call-signs instead of their real names, even at HQ.”  He grinned at her. “Like I said earlier, you get used to the double-name thing.”

“So what would you call me?” Haley asked.

Reiki, sitting next to Frank, answered for him.  “I’d say ‘Outlier’,” he told her, “because you defy expectations.”

“Is that a good thing?” Haley thought he might be warming up to her, but Reiki still looked as if he’d eaten something bitter.  He didn’t answer.

The ship arrived at the scene in just a few minutes, as promised.  The Asylum Watchers filed out quickly, leaving Haley a few paces behind.  Despite Agent’s claim that all-hands calls only happened once per year, they all knew exactly where to go without discussing it.

“We run drills for this sort of thing pretty often,” Agent said, coming up behind her.  He must have seen how lost she was, because she was the only one who got orders. “Stay close to me.  Today you’re just observing; you’ll see action once we have a better idea of how you mesh with the team.”

Haley was okay with that.  She had always wanted to be a Watcher, and had spent most of her life training to get her license – but she had no idea how much work, planning, and training the team seemed to do to work as well as they did.  The Asylum had only been around for a few years, but they worked together like a well-oiled machine.

For one thing, Agent didn’t need to direct them.  He and Haley moved behind the police line, where Agent began coordinating with the Captain.  Frank/Shadow took a position where he could see into a lobby window, and Reiki joined the police line front-and-center.  Rina/Nightmare and Granny both moved to crowd control, directing the onlookers to a safe distance.

“What’s the situation?” Agent asked as he approached the Police captain.  Natalie/Trick was already there, but she broke off the conversation and turned to him.

“Two robbers, apparently armed.  They have twenty hostages in the building.  At least one of the robbers isn’t human – there have been acid-based projectiles firing from the inside.”  Natalie’s uniform included a long black overcoat, fingerless gloves, as well as combat boots, and her dyed-black hair was pulled back into a braided ponytail.  She had a few handkerchiefs sticking out of her pockets, which Haley knew from experience probably had some nasty surprises in them for the bad guys.

“Acid-based?” Agent asked her, bringing Haley back to the present.

“See the holes on the ground?” Trick asked him.  “The stuff they’ve been spitting at us caused that.”

“Earthborn and Shadow should go inside, then,” Agent said.  “Trick, you get Reiki and Nightmare and station yourselves at the exits.  The rest of us will coordinate with the police for evacuation of the hostages and possible negotiation for release.  Is Earthborn on site yet?”

Haley stumbled, surprised to see the ground moving.  Trick grinned under her mask as the Earth shook beneath them.  “Oh, I think he’s on his way.”

* * * * * * * *

En Route to the Bank.

David Perry, running.

If he concentrated hard enough, David Perry could move the Earth.

Not the entire thing at once, but he could change the terrain to something that suited him better.  For instance, if Dave wanted to get to the bank robbery currently going on, he could just run there; each step would carry him an eighth-mile, and he didn’t have to fight traffic on the bridge.  It also saved him time getting dressed; as the hero Earthborn, he just pulled up a suit of rock armor to cover his identity.

He made the air crackle with electricity as he ran up to the scene.  Dave had gotten into that habit a few years back, shortly after becoming a superhero.  He had realized that it was easier for him to call lightning when the air was already dry, rather than trying to summon the electricity mid-battle.

Prepped and ready to go, he raced for the bank.  “What’s happening?” he asked Agent once he made it to the scene.  The rocks he kept in front of his face only had two slits – one for his eyes and one for his mouth.

There was a girl standing next to and slightly behind Agent, wearing a cotton training outfit instead of a real uniform.  “Who’s the new girl?” David asked, before Agent could speak.

“This is Haley – the new recruit,” Agent introduced.  “Haley, this is David Perry, codename Earthborn. You guys can get acquainted later.”  Agent filled him in on everything Trick had just told him.

“Spitting acid?” Dave asked.  “Sounds familiar.”

Agent nodded his agreement.  “We have a few old enemies that fit the description,” he admitted to the girl standing next to him.  “Poisonshot and Skadi being at the top of the list.” He pulled out his data pad, pulling up profiles to show her.  “Jorge and Katie Cruz, otherwise known as Poisonshot and Skadi. A brother-sister pair of thieves. He’s good with a bow; she’s a snake-satyr.”

“Why are they going after a bank?” Dave looked around, thinking that he might have missed something.  “Seems like kind of a small-time bit for them, doesn’t it? They’re usually gemstone-and-art people.”

Agent shrugged, putting a hand on his ever-present umbrella.  “Beats me. But whatever it is they’re after, they’ve got hostages.  Twenty people are in there, and the siblings haven’t made any demands yet.  I’m sending you and Shadow in to smoke them out. You go through the front; Shadow will meet you around back.  The others have the other exits covered.”

“Got it,” Dave said, stepping forward.  His rock armor made a crunching sound with every step, reassuring Dave that there were no weak spots in it.  He turned and walked into the bank.

It was a large building, with a high ceiling and tile floors.  Dave knew that he was tracking gravel into a classy establishment, but it didn’t look as though the manager minded right now.

Sure enough, the two villains were none other than the siblings.  Poisonshot must have known David was coming to just let him walk in the front door without a challenge.  He stood next to one of the hostages with a cold, calculating look on his face. Skadi crouched on the far side of the room, but David knew she could cross the distance in a heartbeat if needed.

Poisonshot lazily held an arrow to his bow; it seemed to have a small capsule at the tip, designed to burst on impact.  Dave hated to think what might be in that capsule – having faced them before, he knew from experience that Poisonshot never had anything pleasant in his quiver.

“See,” Skadi hissed as they watched Earthborn walk through the doors, “I told you they’d be here.”

“Relax,” Poisonshot told her, not even trying to keep his voice down, “It’s only the Rock.  There’s not much he can do in here.” He gestured around them, talking directly to Dave. “If you rip up the floors here, you might accidentally hurt a hostage.  Same thing if you throw that lightning around.”

Dave swore to himself as he realized that Poisonshot was right.  The siblings had laid all of the hostages around the floor, some lying down, some sitting, and some standing, to keep him from using his advantages.  The only rocks he would have available to him were the ones he was using as armor; against the acid in Poisonshot’s arrows, he didn’t want to expose any more of himself than he had to.  Lightning was also out of the question; the hostages around the wall were tied gripping a metal railing. It would only take a small spark from Earthborn to electrocute them all.

“On the other hand,” Poisonshot said, bringing the arrow to bear on Earthborn, “I don’t have that problem.”

He fired, and Dave automatically brought up his arms to block, taking the force on the rock instead of on his skin.  The force of the arrow made him take a step back, but he held his ground. “You think an arrow can stop me?” Dave asked him.

“Maybe not one,” Poisonshot admitted, pointing to Dave’s hands, “But soon enough you’ll have no armor left.”

Dave looked down at his wrist and swore again.  The liquid in the capsule was, in fact, acid; the rock armor, usually a few inches thick, was only a thin layer where the arrow had struck.  He had walked straight into Poisonshot’s trap – he couldn’t fight, and now he couldn’t even put up a good defense.

“Holding up a bank hardly seems like your usual target,” Dave said, hoping to keep them talking.

“You’re telling me,” Skadi rolled her eyes, earning her a sharp glare from her brother.

Poisonshot drew another arrow.  “We have our reasons,” he said, drawing it back.  “If nothing else, you shouldn’t be a thorn in our side anymore.”

Dave jumped out of the way as the arrow flew to him.  He punched his fist towards Poisonshot, allowing the rock that surrounded his hand to rocket towards the archer.  Having punched the target in the cheekbone, the rock-fist flew back to Dave. “I’m not quite out of tricks yet,” he said, raising his fists again.

“Neither am I,” Poisonshot said, pressing a button on his quiver’s strap.  Drawing another arrow, Dave saw that this one didn’t have the vial of acid on it; rather, it had a small metallic device that glinted with a blinking red light.  “This is a new one for me,” Poisonshot declared, as Skadi moved behind him. “The device on the end is a small bomb, capable of bringing down any of these pillars.”

He demonstrated, shooting an arrow towards a marble pillar in the back of the room.  On impact, the pillar became a pile of rubble. Dave had to concentrate to keep the falling marble from hitting the captives tied near it. The explosive wasn’t very powerful, but it could do a lot of damage if fired into a crowd of people.

For instance, a crowd such as the hostages in the room.

Poisonshot drew another arrow.  “Now where should I fire this, hm?” he asked, nocking it to the bowstring.  He pointed it first at Dave, then at a cluster of people to his right, then to the left.

“Stop messing around, Jorge,” Skadi said, “The police and the Asylum have us surrounded; how are we gonna escape?”

Poisonshot lowered the bow.  “Good point,” he said to his sister.  Skadi held a large sack of money, while Poisonshot looked towards the door.

Dave took advantage of the momentary distraction.  He concentrated on the pile of rubble behind him that had once been a pillar for the building.  Reaching out with his senses, he found a large chunk of marble and hurled it straight at Skadi.

The snake-satyr bared her fangs as she saw the rock flying at her, but she wasn’t fast enough to move out of the way.  It hit her squarely in the jaw, and she collapsed. Poisonshot drew back his arrow, but Dave was already coming with more rubble to hold his sister.

“Let her go,” Poisonshot growled, aiming the explosive arrow at Dave.

“Are you going to come quietly?” Dave asked him, still holding the rubble around his prisoner.  It was always tough, trying to talk while holding his concentration somewhere else, but years of practice made it doable.

Poisonshot glanced sidelong at his sister.  She seemed a little dazed from the blow, but was rendered immobile from the pile of rock she was buried under.  He glared menacingly at Dave, but lowered his bow.

Suddenly, he whipped the bow around and fired at the cluster of people to his left.  Dave’s eyes widened, his grip slipping on Skadi as he watched the arrow soar across the room towards the people.  Unconsciously, his hand reached out to try and deflect it with some rock, but he was too far away.

In a blur of movement, the arrow fell harmlessly to the ground.  A black-clad figure stood where it had been about to land. He had on a utility belt, where he kept items that he could use in a pinch, and a small backpack that Dave knew held his more bulky equipment.  A black hood was covering the figure’s head, but Dave saw the familiar glint of goggles around his eyes.

Shadow stood with his staff behind him, posing for his audience.  Dave had always thought him to be a bit too flashy for a superhero, especially one called “Shadow”, but the kid loved the limelight.  Shadow gave a small smirk towards the villains, saying, “Well, that wasn’t nice.” He twirled his staff until it stood next to him. Leaning on it like a walking stick, he added, “Next time, make sure that the digital release on those things is a bit less obvious.”

Sure enough, looking at the arrow that lay harmlessly off to the side, Dave saw that Shadow had perfectly destroyed the detonator on the bomb without hitting the explosive itself.  That kind of precision came from two years of nearly nonstop training, which his young crime-fighting coworker had thrown himself into with gusto.

“You’re late,” Dave called to Shadow, pulling his concentration back to the rock surrounding Skadi.

“Eh, you know me,” Shadow replied, shrugging, “I’ve got to make an entrance.”

Poisonshot pressed the button again, and drew out an arrow that looked normal – at least, the arrowhead was the proper size and shape for one, and there were no extraneous attachments.  Leveling it at Shadow, he said, “Let my sister go or your buddy here will get one in the face.”

Shadow calmly pulled his staff apart, breaking it down into two nightsticks that began to hum with energy.  Dave knew from experience that they were both electric shock prods designed especially for Shadow himself, lighter and more efficient than those used by the police.  The charge was turned off when he used it as a staff, but as soon as he separated them, they became highly effective stunning tools.

Dave watched helplessly as Shadow engaged Poisonshot.  He couldn’t properly lend a hand without freeing Skadi, and she could make all the difference in a fight like this.  Dave kept his grip on her while Shadow ran forward towards the enemy.

Poisonshot fired his current arrow, but Shadow deflected it easily with his nightsticks.  He dashed towards the archer, bringing his right prod down before Poisonshot could nock another arrow.  Poisonshot used his bow to block Shadow’s swing, but Shadow kept coming to keep the archer off-balance.

One lucky strike was all it took.  Poisonshot held his bow in one arm, blocking Shadow’s strike, and with the other arm stabbed Shadow in his unprotected side with an arrow.  Shadow flinched backward, refraining from clutching his side while he still held the electric nightsticks. Dave’s concentration broke, releasing Skadi as he hurled fist-sized rocks towards Poisonshot.

The archer leapt away, grabbing his sister by the arm and dragging her to her feet.  He shot an arrow towards the ceiling, this one a grappling hook attached to a line that pulled them both up to the roof.

Dave managed to hit Poisonshot’s arm with a rock, the one holding Skadi up.  As the line retracted, pulling the archer towards the daylight outside, he unintentionally let his sister drop to the ground, where Dave grabbed her again with the rubble.  “I’ll be back for her,” Poisonshot promised as the line sped him up towards the ceiling, “Count on it!!”

He escaped, but Dave had a more pressing problem.  He used the rocks to pick Skadi up and drag her outside to where the police waited.  The hostages that had been too scared to move during the battle all clamored out the door.  Once Skadi was safely in handcuffs, with a gag fitted around her mouth to keep her from biting anyone, Dave turned to Agent.

“Poisonshot escaped through the roof,” he reported.  “And Shadow’s down.”

Agent swore.  “Granny?” he said over comms, “the archer escaped through the roof.  You’re up.”

A large dragon appeared out of nowhere, flying up to the roof.  Haley barely had time to gape at the little old lady riding on its back before Agent moved again.  “Reiki, Trick, Nightmare: move in and release the hostages.” He pressed another button on his data pad to call Headquarters.  “Dale – incoming. We’ve got wounded; Shadow’s been hit.”

As Agent called Dale, he indicated for Haley to follow Earthborn inside.  David pointed to the hostages, and Haley ran over to help get them free.

Shadow still knelt on the ground, his nightsticks turned off and sitting beside him.  The arrow was still sticking out from his side, and his hands were clamped over the wound to try and staunch the bleeding.

“Hang in there,” Dave told him, “Agent’s calling Dale – we’ll get you back to HQ in no time.  Can you walk?”

“Not sure,” Shadow said, wincing in pain.  Dave could see the young hero’s foot twitch, and realized that Shadow was staying still through sheer force of will.  “I think it might have been poisoned,” he admitted.

“It’ll be okay,” Dave said, grimacing at the wound.  The dark bloodstain was spreading down the side of Shadow’s hoodie.  “We just need to get you out of here. Where’s that medical team?”

Dave couldn’t use the rough rocks to move his friend, for fear of aggravating the wound.  They needed the ambulance team’s stretcher to get Shadow out, but the team was nowhere to be seen.  “Hey!!” Dave called towards the open door, “We need help in here!!”

* * * * * * * *

Trailer #6 – Meet the New Girl

Asylum Headquarters, Eon City, Present Day

Natalie Fawkes. Training.

THUNK.  The corner of the queen of spades sunk into the bull’s-eye of the practice target.

Natalie remembered her dad first showing her how to throw playing cards accurately.  Not many people knew how dangerous paper cards could be with just an added flick of the wrist.

The ace of clubs followed the queen, hitting the bull’s-eye millimeters next to her with another satisfying THUNK.

“Nice,” came a voice from the doorway.  Natalie’s reflexes kicked in, and she raised another card as she turned toward it.

“Geez, Parker,” she breathed, dropping her arm as she scolded her twin.  “Don’t startle me like that!”

“Hello to you, too, sis,” Parker said, dryly.  “I had a feeling I’d find you in here.”

Natalie turned back to the target, barely stopping to aim before she sent the next card flying into the center.  “What’s going on?” she asked. She had come to the training room first thing in the morning to get away from people; only her annoying brother would miss the message.

“I just finished breakfast, and was about to go out on patrol,” Parker said, innocently.  He knew that he was bothering his sister but couldn’t help poking the bear. “Can’t a guy just want to say ‘good morning’ to his sister?”

“Good morning,” Natalie said through her teeth.  “Now go away; I’m trying to concentrate.”

Parker did the opposite – he came and grabbed the deck of cards from her.  “Come on, I know Dad taught you better than that,” he chided. “What was the point of all those blindfold exercises if you actually have to look at the target?”

He threw three cards in quick succession over his shoulder, just to prove his point.  Not only did they land in the bull’s-eye, but they didn’t even touch the other two that Natalie had thrown.

“Give it back!” she cried, whacking her brother on the arm until he handed the deck back to her.  “I was just warming up,” she added, glaring.

“Uh-huh,” Parker teased.  Natalie glared at him and tossed two more cards over her shoulder.  She didn’t need to look to know that they landed exactly above and below the rest of the cards sticking out of the target.  Parker whistled. “Okay, that was impressive.”

Natalie tossed her hair as she turned back to her exercise.  In high school she had started dying it black to match her Goth appearance.  Their dad had said it was just a phase, but it was one she still hadn’t grown out of seven years after graduation; the only difference was that she had let it grow out long, instead of the short, spiky ‘do she sported back then.  She used heavy eyeliner and black fingerless gloves as part of her motif as the vigilante hero Trick.

Unlike his twin, Parker kept his hair its natural blond, and trimmed it for a feathery look.  His black-and-white speckled wings matched his outfit nicely in his look as Blackbird, without coming across as too harsh.  He completed the domino look with gauntlets over his hands; the metal fingers were sharpened into points and served as his “talons” when he wanted to control his strength.

At twenty-four years old, the twins now worked as professional Watchers; they had gotten their licenses shortly after high school, and had taken down a few bad guys on their own before being recruited for a newly-formed team in Eon City – the Asylum.  For the last year the twins had worked their way up in this new team, and were regarded as some of the top performers.

Parker shrugged his shoulders the way he always did – he needed to loosen his muscles from the drag of his wings – and folded his arms behind his head.  “Well, nice talking to you as always, sis,” he said, grinning at her. “I need to get to patrol. Oh, and Agent was looking for you.”

Natalie made a face at her brother’s retreating back as he walked out of the training room.  He just waved without turning around, and called back, “Stronger together.”

“Stronger as one,” Natalie called the second line back.  It was their good-luck charm, so she had to do it – even if she didn’t feel like dealing with people.

Parker and Natalie always sought each other out before going on patrol – it was a habit developed since their mother went on a mission and never came back.  Natalie wasn’t a superstitious person, but they had a dangerous job; this was the twins’ way of making sure they saw each other in case one of them didn’t make it back.

Natalie threw one more card, bisecting the ones already embedded in the target, and went to find Agent.  She called the elevator to go to Agent’s office on the top floor of the headquarters building, and was taken aback to see him standing in it.

“Hey,” Agent said as Natalie moved to stand next to him.  “I was just looking for you. I’m going to scout a potential new recruit,” he said, putting his hands in his suit pockets and letting his ever-present umbrella lean against his side.  “Would you like to come?”

“Me?” Natalie asked, slightly confused.  “Sure, if you want me there.”

“After you, milady,” Agent said, giving her a cocky half-grin as the elevator doors opened to the garage.  He gestured towards his car with one hand as he effortlessly picked up the umbrella with the other.

As Natalie slid into the passenger seat of Agent’s jet-black sedan, she couldn’t keep it in any more.  “Why exactly would you want me to come along on this one?” she asked, suddenly suspicious. “I mean, it’s no secret that I’m not a sociable person.”

Agent didn’t answer her as he turned the key in the ignition and pulled out of the base’s garage.  They were down the road before he spoke. “Do you know anything about this recruit?” he asked.

Natalie did not.  She rarely paid attention to the Watcher recruit lists, unless she knew for a fact that they would join her team.  “This girl actually did her year-long training a few years back,” Agent told her, picking a file out of the center compartment without taking his eyes off the road.  Setting the file in Natalie’s lap, he added, “She’s taken the licensing exam eleven times since then.”

“Why would we want her for our team, then?” Natalie asked as she picked up the folder. She turned it open to the first page.  “I mean, it wasn’t that hard. How stupid would she have to be – holy crap!”

Agent smirked, knowing she had just read the new recruit’s test scores.  “Ninety-ninth percentile?!” she exclaimed, flipping through the pages. “Every time, even the first!  How the hell hasn’t she gotten her license yet with scores like these?! I was in the top of my year at ninety-two…”

“She’s got incredible strength and stamina,” Agent explained.  “She’s a naturally gifted athlete with a photographic memory. Apparently she’s trained her whole life to be a Watcher.”  Natalie just slapped the folder with one hand. Agent answered the silent question: “But she’s human.”

“Human? No way.”  Natalie flipped back through the folder, trying to find something wrong with the girl who seemed perfect on paper.

Agent decided to save her the search. “She never made it past the medical exam.”

“Why not?” Natalie asked, turning to the page.  “Was she taking steroids or something?”

“No – that would have disqualified her from taking the test again,” Agent said.  “The doctors found an irregularity in her blood. She has a vitamin deficiency that keeps her blood from clotting.  She bleeds easily, and so was deemed ‘unfit’ for Watcher work. They denied her license because of it.”

Natalie found the black mark in the recruit’s record.  “So how did she get her license, then?” she asked. “I mean, she has to be licensed if we’re recruiting her…”  She turned an accusatory glare at Agent as she realized.  “You messed with her paperwork, didn’t you?” she accused.

Agent tapped his fingers against the steering wheel.  “Not yet,” he admitted, “but yes, that is the plan. Someone this good, I want to grab her as soon as possible.”

“Her condition doesn’t bother you?” Natalie asked him.  “If she’s in the field and gets hit, she’d be down for a while.  And we get hit a lot,” she added, in case he forgot.

“She’s done extraordinarily well in simulations,” Agent said.  “She had to have taken some hits during training, and she’s still standing.”

“But that’s why you asked me to come,” Natalie guessed.  “You want me to size her up.”

“That,” Agent admitted, “and you’re a fellow human who can keep up with Third Gens.  You know how rare that is.”

“So are you,” Natalie said, but her small smile showed that she was pleased with the praise.

“I’m a highly-trained government agent who has been working as a Watcher-certified vigilante for almost two decades now,” he reminded her.  “You’ve only been doing this five years, without any other special training. Plus you have some… flare that I’m not allowed to use.”

“So you want me to do a magic show for her?” Natalie was even more confused now.

“No,” Agent said.  “Here’s how this is going to work…”

* * * * * * * *

Haley Prince massaged her hands as she glared at the punching bag.  It hung there, taunting her as she sorted through her emotions.

Hook.  Eleven tests, eleven denials.

Kick.  Nobody wants the girl who bleeds, no matter how good she is.

Cross.  Even the suit hadn’t contacted her yet, despite his promise.  She was starting to think he was a figment of her imagination.

Jab.  It was this stupid condition holding her back, and she needed to figure out a way around it.

The blows came faster and harder as the frustration took hold.  She couldn’t talk to her friends about it, or her family; not a single one of them understood the driving need Haley had to become a Watcher.  They all just told her to find something else to do with her life.

But what?  The police and the military wouldn’t take her for the same reason that kept her from getting a Watcher license.  She had no interest in working in her mom’s bakery like her brothers. Business bored her to tears, and she didn’t care about learning computers.  Becoming a professional hero had been her dream since she was a little kid, and she had worked her entire life towards that one goal; now nothing else was good enough.

The self-defense classes she taught at the community center were rewarding, but they didn’t pay enough to live on.

Why does adulting have to be so – cursed – HARD?!

With that last thought, Haley gave the bag a blow so powerful that a seam popped.  She blankly stared for a second at the steady trickle of sand as it fell out of the stupid bag before she moved to take it down.

“Another one?” Andy, the middle-aged gym’s owner, clucked at her, raising his eyebrows as he helped her with the bag.  “That’s the second bag you’ve broken in as many months!”

“Sorry, Andy,” Haley said.  “I’m just going through some stuff right now.”

“We’re all ‘going through stuff’,” Andy pointed out.  “The rest of us find a hobby that doesn’t involve punching the stuffing out of things.”  He grinned at her to show that there were no hard feelings, but Haley knew she would still pay for a replacement bag.  Andy knew exactly what was on Haley’s mind; he had known her since she was a kid, after all. “These things have a way of working themselves out,” he told her as they set the worn-out bag in the back room.  “Maybe you should find a real sparring partner, instead of taking it out on my poor innocent bags.”

Haley smiled back at him.  Andy had been a good friend to her and her brothers since they were kids, letting them use the gym after hours in exchange for odd jobs on summer breaks.  “My brothers all got too busy when they finished college,” she explained as they finished moving the ruined bag to the back room. “Without them, there aren’t many people I feel comfortable sparring against.”

“Maybe you should challenge her after all,” came a voice from near the front desk behind them.  “She looks like she matches you for strength.”

Haley turned around, surprised.  Two people, a man and a woman, stood near the front desk, watching them as they put the bag away.  The man was the same suit that had been at the exam two days ago; she recognized the omnipresent umbrella leaning against his leg.

The woman looked closer to Haley’s age, but seemed out of place in the boxing gym.  She was small, and had long, straight black hair, pale skin, and dressed like the goths Haley used to see in high school: black cargo pants, combat boots, and a black tank top with the words “piss off” written in large block letters on it.  She had black fingerless biker’s gloves on, and a black bandanna wrapped around her arm to complete the look.

She was also the one talking about challenging Haley to a sparring match.

The well-dressed man chuckled, contrasting the stern appearance of his companion.  “I’d like to,” he admitted in response to the woman’s suggestion, “but I can’t watch a fight I’m in.”

The goth-girl sighed.  “Fine then,” she said, “but don’t ever say I don’t make sacrifices for the team.”

She walked over to Haley, who tried to stop gawking long enough to ask, “Can I help you?”

“You’re pretty powerful against a punching bag,” the goth-girl said.  “How are you against something that hits back?”

The man stepped forward and interjected, “What my companion means to say is, ‘would you please spar with her?’”  He gave the goth-girl a wry grin, nodding his head toward Haley.

“‘Would you please spar with me?’” the girl mimicked, rolling her eyes.  Haley wasn’t sure what she thought about the suit yet, but the girl was rude.  Haley tried to get out of the conversation with them as politely as possible.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I only really spar with my brothers.  Maybe someone else around here will be your partner.”  She gestured around the gym, only then noticing that there weren’t many people around.  It was the off-season and the middle of the week, so the gym’s main clientele wouldn’t arrive for a few more hours.

“Nope,” said the girl, putting her hands in her pockets.  “It has to be you. You’re Haley Prince, right?”

Haley frowned.  “How do you know my name?” she asked, guarded.  It was a stupid question, she knew; after all, the girl had come in with the suit, who obviously knew about her from the licensing exam.  But Haley wanted to size them up, and asking a stupid question was the easiest way to get behind a person’s guard. People usually underestimated the “big, slow girl” if they didn’t know her – and Haley used it to her advantage.

The goth-girl frowned back, mocking her.  “How could you possibly want to be a Watcher if you don’t want to fight people?” she taunted, moving towards the ring.  “Come on, show me what you’re made of.”

Andy came out of the back room then, looking between the three figures.  “You don’t really want to fight Haley, sweetheart,” he said to the goth-girl.  “She’ll snap you like a twig.”

“We’ll see,” the girl scoffed, climbing up into the ring.  “Unless you’re chicken,” she added for Haley’s benefit.

The well-dressed man just shrugged at Haley’s questioning look.  “Natalie’s a little… abrasive,” he explained. “We’re working on that.  But please, Ms. Prince, we would like a better demonstration of your abilities.”

The goth-girl was starting to get on her nerves, and maybe a good sparring match was exactly what Haley needed to blow off steam.  She didn’t know why these two strangers had their eye on her, but it might be the opportunity she was looking for. “Fine,” she said, climbing up into the ring after her.  “Your funeral.”

Natalie started attacking as soon as Haley turned around.  Haley had to bring her arms up in defense quickly, taking the hits and not letting the smaller girl move her.  Haley’s biggest strength was her size – she was nearly six feet tall, and her broad shoulders were well-suited for her dense muscle mass.  Most of her opponents couldn’t move her if she didn’t want to be moved.

As soon as Natalie’s hits slowed by a fraction of a second, Haley shifted her weight to throw her off balance.  The smaller girl was faster, too, but Haley knew how to compensate for it from years of practice. She got in a few quick jabs before the other girl jumped backwards and started circling her.

“Not bad,” Natalie said, wiping the sweat off of her forehead.  She touched the spot where the jabs had hit her, and winced when she touched them.  “That’s going to bruise nicely.”

“Had enough?” Haley asked.

She got the answer that she was hoping for: “Not even close.”  Natalie bit her lip as she studied Haley. “You’ve got a solid defense, I’ll give you that.”

“How did you know my name when you came in?” Haley asked as she feinted a hit.  Talking was one way to take her opponent’s focus off of the fight, which could help.

“Agent over there has his eye on you,” Natalie said, using her thumb to indicate her companion.  “He seems to think you’re promising.” She jumped closer, aiming a punch at Haley’s jaw.

“Oh yeah?” Haley asked, dodging the blow and bringing her closed hands down on Natalie’s shoulders in response.  Natalie inched to the side so that the blow hit her shoulder instead of her spine; it was a testament to Natalie’s strength that she didn’t go down, but the muscles in her shoulder were better suited to taking the blow in any case.  “And what do you think?”

Natalie turned quickly, pulling a handkerchief out of her pocket as she went.  She swiped the cloth in front of Haley’s eyes, and swept her foot to knock her down.  As Haley fell to one knee, Natalie jumped up to give a final blow. Glitter sparkled around them, momentarily causing Haley to see double as her brain tried to process the speed of events.  She only just got her guard up in time to protect her face from Natalie’s rain of blows.

“I’m less impressed,” Natalie said.  A playing card appeared in her hand like magic, and she flicked it at Haley’s arm.  It didn’t hurt much – just a paper cut – but Haley winced as a gash opened up on her arm.

It was an illegal move in a real match, but something about this girl told Haley that this wasn’t a normal sparring session – they wanted to see what she could do, even when the odds were stacked against her.  Haley could hear Andy protesting somewhere in the background, but her focus was on the fight. Natalie backed off, scoffing. “A cut like that puts you out of commission, right?” she taunted, panting from the exertion.  “Sparring only against your brothers keeps you from seeing the damage a real opponent can do.” She held up more playing cards, as if to say that was only a taste of what I could do to you.  If all of those cards were as sharp as the first one she had thrown, Haley knew that the other girl could cut her to ribbons in seconds if she wanted to.

Haley stood up, keeping an eye on Natalie as she glanced at the cut.  “You’ve made three mistakes,” she told her, shaking out her arms and putting her guard back up.  She was tired of playing defense; it was about time this witch learned what it felt like when Haley went on offense.

“Oh yeah?” the goth-girl asked.  “What’s that, then?”

“First,” Haley said as she darted towards her opponent in another feint, “Just because I don’t stop bleeding doesn’t mean I bleed much faster than anyone else.  A cut like this won’t bother me for at least an hour.”

She reached in her pocket and pulled out the tube of sealant she kept there.  “Second, I keep this stuff on me. If I can get a spare second in a fight, I can stop the bleeding easily.”

Natalie went on offense again.  “You never get a second in a real fight,” she said as Haley dodged her hit.  Haley slid the tube back in her pocket, nodding her head to the point.

“True,” she said.  “But there’s one more thing that I see your file on me probably didn’t tell you.”

“And what’s that?” Natalie asked as Haley inched closer to her.

Suddenly, Haley swiped her foot, knocking Natalie off-balance.  She grabbed the other girl’s arms, spinning her around until her back was facing her.  Haley then grabbed the back of Natalie’s head and shoved her forward into the mat, putting all of her weight behind the move.

The result was that Natalie’s arms were caught by Haley’s left hand, her head was trapped by Haley’s right hand, and her legs were trapped by the rest of the bigger girl’s weight.  She struggled to break free, but Haley’s grip was like iron. Haley leaned forward just enough to finish her thought.

“Your third mistake?” she told her, tapping the other girl’s face against the ring floor.  “My brother’s a bear-satyr.”

She could hear Andy laughing with the agent off to the side.  Natalie said, “Okay, fine, you win,” and Haley let her up.

“Haley’s the youngest of five,” Andy was telling Agent, “and she’s the only girl and only human in her family.  Two of her brothers are Third Gens, and the other two are satyrs; the bear-satyr is seven feet tall and nearly four hundred pounds.  The other satyr, a gorilla, isn’t much smaller. She grew up fighting them all, and wins at least half the time.”

“It helps that Dean doesn’t really like to fight,” Haley added, winking at Agent.  “He’s a big teddy, really.”

“And she beat Natalie, here,” Agent said, sounding impressed, “even when she used her tricks.”

“Yeah, what was that?” Andy demanded, the grin sliding off of his face into a scowl.  “That thing with the cloth and the cards was fighting dirty, and we don’t allow that here.”

“Sorry,” Natalie mumbled, not sounding sorry at all.

Agent explained, “We had to fight a little dirty.  We had to know how she’d handle it.”

“So are you finally going to tell me what this was all about?” Haley asked.

Agent held his hand out for Haley to shake.  “I represent an agency here in Eon City,” he told them.  “You might have heard of us: the Asylum?”

“You guys are from the Asylum?” Haley asked, her annoyance turning to awe at the name.  “That’s the new Watcher group that patrols here; you guys are supposed to be one of the best agencies in the country!”

“And we only recruit the best,” Agent said, nodding his head towards Haley.  “We would like you to come work on our team.”

Haley’s eyes widened in excitement, before she remembered.  “But… I’m not licensed,” she said, looking at her feet in embarrassment.

Agent waved a hand in dismissal.  “That won’t be a problem for us,” he said.  “You can expect your license in the mail in a few days; we want you reporting for duty on Monday.”

Haley’s eyes widened again.  She looked at the man, wondering if this was some kind of joke.  “You’re serious?” she breathed. When he nodded, she had to hold herself back from jumping.  “I-I’ll be there,” she stammered, shaking with an adrenaline surge that had nothing to do with her recent fight.

Agent nodded again and headed out the door.  Natalie moved to follow him, but stopped in front of Haley.  “Good match,” she said, holding out a hand to shake. Haley took it, grinning like an idiot at this turn of events.  “I underestimated you,” Natalie added. “It’ll be interesting to work together.” She gave a small, tight smile, as if she rarely used those muscles in her face, before she walked out the door after Agent.

“See, kiddo?” Andy said, slapping Haley on the shoulder as they watched the strangers’ car speed away.  When Haley looked, her old friend was beaming proudly at her. “I told you these things work themselves out,” he said.  “Now let’s get that cut checked.”

* * * * * * * *

“You lost.”

Agent sounded amused as they headed back to headquarters.  Natalie grimaced as she put her hand to her cheek; that last move would leave her aching for days.

“Yeah, yeah,” she said, slouching in her seat.  “I’d like to see you do better.” Behind her hand, Agent could tell she was smiling.  “So you’re going to fix her paperwork?”

“Yes,” he said.  After a second’s beat, he added, “I’ve just never seen you lose before.”

“Shaddup,” Natalie said, whacking his arm.  “It happens from time to time. Just because I never let you beat me when we’re sparring doesn’t mean I’m invincible.”

“I should really be recording this,” Agent said, grinning.  “Parker would get a kick out of it.”

“Yeah, right,” Natalie rolled her eyes.  “Anyways, this recruit looks promising. She could be the greatest Watcher I’ve ever seen, if she keeps up.”

Agent’s smile died a little.  “She might have to be,” he muttered.

Natalie didn’t hear him.  They pulled into the Asylum headquarters, and Natalie quietly sighed, “I just want a hot bath after that bout.”  At Agent’s sly grin she added, “Not one word to the others.” They got out of the car, and Agent held up his hands in surrender.  “I mean it, Agent,” Natalie hissed. “One word of this to the others and I’ll see you on the practice courts.”

“Death threats already?” a voice asked from behind them.  Natalie whipped around to see Parker standing there with an identical grin to Agent’s.  Natalie huffed and marched towards the door. “What’s she mad about this time?” he asked Agent as if his sister wasn’t still within earshot.

“She lost,” Agent told him with mock surprise.

Really?” Parker said, matching his tone.  Natalie didn’t turn around, but she did flip them both the bird before going inside as the two guys laughed behind her.

“Oh, man,” Agent said, “that is not going to get old any time soon.”

Parker walked over to him, his own giggles subsiding.  “I actually came out to talk to you,” he said. “I talked to my contact in the city like you asked.  The offer was still open; I start Monday.”

The smile fell off of Agent’s face.  “Good,” he said. “Let me know what you find out.”

“Are you sure we can’t tell the others about this?” Parker asked, jerking his chin towards the door where his twin had just gone inside.

“This isn’t exactly by-the-book,” Agent told him, “and I’d rather not get her caught up in it when the bureaucratic storm starts raining down on us.”  He put a hand on Parker’s shoulder, adding “We can’t be too careful – if word gets back that you’re actually working on our side, you’re dead.  You know that.”

“I know,” Parker said, “I just hate lying to her.  She won’t take it well when she finds out what we’re up to.  Especially because we didn’t ask her for help.”

“Natalie can be touchy,” Agent admitted.  At Parker’s snort he amended, “Okay, she can get pretty bitchy at times.  But she’s smart; she can see the wisdom behind this.”

“I really hope so, for both our sakes,” Parker sighed, “or she might really kill us this time.”  He grinned to show he was joking again. “Come on inside; Reiki’s barbequing.”

“Now that I can get behind,” Agent grinned as well.  “You go on ahead.”

As Parker went into the building, Agent grabbed Haley’s file out of the car and thumbed through it again.  “I really hope you have what it takes, kid,” he muttered. “We’re going to need you.”

* * * * * * * *

Trailer #5 – Haley

Watcher Licensing Exam

Haley Prince, Exam #11

Faster than a cheetah.

The chant ran through Haley’s head as she sprinted down the track, as it had on so many fitness tests before.

Stronger than a rhino.

She came up to the first obstacle in the course: the monkey bars.  Haley swung through them easily, pulling well ahead of the other contestants.  That’s how she thought of them in her head, at least – they were all competing for the limited spots in the Watcher academy.

Agile as a cat.

Haley ran through the tire trap, focusing on keeping her balance as she stepped carefully in every slightly-too-large tire.  This is where she usually lost time; sure enough, two other contestants came up from behind her. She wasn’t going to let them pass, though – she wasn’t going to let the officers in charge of the selection see her fall behind.

Steady as a boulder.

Haley surged forward through the gauntlet of punching bags.  This obstacle was designed to slow the contestants down, but Haley barreled through past the others with no regard to the bruises that she was surely getting from the swinging bags.

She was the first to reach the balance beam, running easily across in just a few steps without losing her footing.  Haley could almost hear the selection officers’ collective jaws dropping, as she knew they must be. She had done so many obstacle courses before this one that she could probably run it in her sleep.  As she sprinted towards the last obstacle, she saw one of the other contestants coming up on her left. She pushed herself even harder, getting a burst of speed that let her come up to the rope swing first.

She had just grabbed the rope to swing across when the other contestant pushed her out of the way.  Haley fought to keep ahold of the rope, tightening her grip, but the damage was done: instead of jumping across, she just fell off the platform without much momentum.

Only one shot at this, she thought, gritting her teeth and bracing for the impact.  Her weight falling off of the platform gave her only one chance to land on the far side; if she missed, she would have to run back around to re-do the obstacle.  But she wasn’t going to miss.

She hit the platform with a thud, scraping one of her calves on the edge of the wood as she landed.  Letting go of the rope, Haley winced as she stood up and kept running. She remembered to swing the rope back to the other side behind her, but she gave a quick glare to the one who pushed her before she did.

She sprinted over the finish line first, allowing herself a quick grin as one of the selection officers came up to her.  “Great job, Prince,” he said, grinning at her. He called her by her last name, like he would any real cadet. “You beat the previous record by nearly a full second.”

“Lots of practice,” Haley said breathlessly.  A sharp pain as she took a step forward reminded her of her injury.  Looking down at her cut, the officer nodded towards the first-aid station set up on the side of the course.

“Go get yourself cleaned up,” he told her, all business, “then report to the start line for your score.”  He grinned again, giving her a conspirator’s wink as he added, “I think you’ll be fine.”

Haley gave a weak smile in return, and then winced as he turned to the next contestant.  She slowly jogged over to where she had left her bag, and brought it to the medic’s tent.  “Could I just get an alcohol wipe for this?” she asked, gesturing to her shin.

The medic took one look at the gash, and pulled out the requested wipes and a roll of gauze.  “Here,” he offered, “I’ll get that fixed up.”

“I can do it,” Haley said, pulling a small vial out of her bag.  The medic brushed her off, though.

“I’m sure you can,” he said in a patronizing tone, “but this is my job.  I’ll just wrap this up for you.”

Haley was torn for a second, before she sighed and slipped the vial back into her pack.  I’ll just apply that in the car, she thought, hoping that the final scores wouldn’t take too long.

She thanked the medic when he had finished – he did do a good job in cleaning and binding the wound – and then jogged over to the start line where four other contestants waited.  She stood at attention with them as the remainder of the twenty try-outs finished.

The full version of her mantra repeated over and over in her head as she waited.  Her dad had written that poem for her when she was a little kid chasing after her brothers:

Faster than a cheetah I run through the night,

Patient as a rainfall I wait for the light.

Stronger than a rhino, I help those in need,

Steady as a boulder I give word and deed.

Anger rolls through me, agile as a cat,

Fear flies away to the night like a bat.

Peace keeps me strong in times of doubt,

Strength keeps me steady in times without.

Her dad wasn’t exactly a poet, but the meditative nature of the words helped Haley keep her emotions in check.  It helped her in the interviews to keep her cool, especially when they kept telling her the exact same thing, over and over again, every single time she took the Watcher licensing exam.

Patient as a rainfall, Haley thought, before the apprehension swallowed her up again.  She shifted her feet, unlocking her knees before her blood flow stopped.  She didn’t dare look down at the cut. The less attention I draw to it, the better, she decided, even though she knew it was a vain hope.

Finally, the last contestant was through the obstacle course and the officers were joining the cadet-hopefuls.  Hurry up already, Haley let the impatient thought cross her mind before repeating the mantra again.

It took another twenty minutes before the officers were done with the group, as they listed everything they had seen – both good and bad – before announcing each candidate’s final score.  Haley would have appreciated the feedback a few try-outs ago, but now she just wanted to get back to her car as fast as possible before anyone noticed her leg.

Too late.  The officer that had congratulated her before called her out as the fastest candidate, and his smile faltered as he saw the bandage on her leg.  Don’t look down, Haley thought, fighting the urge despite knowing what he had seen.  The officers finished up pretty quickly after that, but the damage was done.

“Prince!” the medical officer called as she tried to leave.  “Wait a minute.” He was standing with the other evaluation officers at this point.  Haley’s shoulders slumped slightly as she gave a sigh. Turning around, she straightened back up and jogged back over to them.

“Yes sir?” she asked, keeping her demeanor respectful.  She had no idea who these officers might know, and showing any disrespect here could ruin her chances for the next exam.  She clasped her clammy hands together behind her back as she came to parade rest while she waited for the judgment.

Most of the evaluating officers wore Watcher PT uniforms, except for one man who stood out like a sore thumb in a three-piece suit.  It was all Haley could do not to stare at him; in late May, the weather had to be too hot for him to be standing there so easily.  His face wasn’t even flushed, though. He just stood there like the others, propping a large black umbrella up next to his perfectly shiny black shoes.

The medic saved her from staring by asking a question.  “What’s the matter with your leg?” – the very question Haley had been dreading.

Maybe staring at the suit wouldn’t be so bad.

“What do you mean, sir?” she asked politely, still refusing to look down on her own.

“The cut she got earlier wasn’t that deep,” the medic insisted to the others, “not something that she should need stitches for.”

They told her to sit back down by the medical station, and Haley had to comply.  Propping her leg up on another chair, she got to look at what she knew would happen: her stupid blood had soaked through the gauze bandage in less than an hour.

Haley sighed and reached for her bag, taking the vial out again.  The medic stripped the bandage off, showing the cut to all of the other officers.  The medic had been right, it wasn’t that deep. The problem was in Haley’s blood.

She had what the doctors said was an “inherent vitamin K deficiency”.  That meant, in layman’s terms, that her blood wouldn’t clot properly. When she got bruised or cut, it lasted far longer and bled more freely than it would for any other person.  Haley had been living with this her entire life; she had inherited the condition from her mother’s side, and it had never seemed like a big deal until she first took the exam for her Watcher license.  All she had to do on her part was to keep her diet high in vitamin K – in other words, eat an inordinate amount of kale and broccoli and take vitamin pills twice a day – as well as keep a vial of medical sealant in her bag, and she could live like a normal human.  At least, that’s what every doctor she had ever seen tried to say about it.

The problem was that she didn’t want to live “like a normal human.”  Ever since she was a little girl, she wanted to be a Watcher – a government-sanctioned vigilante that caught criminal Third Gens and satyrs that the human police couldn’t handle.  It was rare enough for someone who wasn’t a Third Gen to get their license in the first place, but Haley had very nearly done it. She trained every day, working to become just as fast, strong, and durable as any Third Gen or satyr.  She raced her brothers and her satyr and Third-Gen friends for months up until the physical test so that she could keep up. She had never wanted anything more in her entire life.

The day of that first exam came, and she had passed with flying colors.  She impressed the trainers, her fellow candidates, and even some real Watchers who had come to see the new cadets, that a human girl could keep up with (and in some cases even beat) a roomful of Third Gens and satyrs.  She had everything she had ever wanted within reach; it was the best moment of her life.

Then her traitorous blood showed up in her physical, and she was kicked to the curb.

Her doctor refused to sign off on the medical waiver for her license.  She went to three other doctors, who all said the same thing. Her dream was dashed by something entirely out of her control.  If she ever had a moment where she felt like there was no point in living, then that was it.

Haley wasn’t going to give up, though.  She tried joining four different branches of the military, and then moved on to police forces, and every three months she took the Watcher exam again, as soon as the next one came around.  This was Haley’s eleventh try at the Watcher exam, and now her only hope was to impress the selection officers so much with her scores that they ignored her medical forms and sign off on the license anyways.  She had to be the best, and it became an obsession – to the point where she had opened herself up to yet another disappointment by allowing a stupid board to cut her stupid leg.

The officers waited until the medic cleaned the cut, and didn’t say anything until Haley sealed it with the artificial sealant.  Then the lead officer, the one that had told her how impressed they had been, pointed out: “We can’t sign off on you with a condition like that.”

Haley snapped out of her reverie and looked at him.  He had some papers open on his clipboard, and from the small corner she could see, Haley recognized her medical file.  He had it open to the page they all did, the one that damned her chances of joining. “Please understand,” he continued; her feelings must have been apparent on her face.  “That obstacle course is nothing compared to what the Watchers face every day. Forget about the real legwork – if you’re going to bleed out from a paper cut, what would happen if you went up against an actual criminal?”

Haley couldn’t speak; her throat was closing up, and it was all that she could do not to cry in front of these seasoned Watchers.  She knew all of this, of course. They thought that they were saving her life by denying her the one thing that would make it worth living.  Every other let-down had been exactly the same.

The officers were kind, and that made it worse.  One sympathized, citing an old injury that knocked him back from patrol work to licensing.  Another recommended where else she might try, though he added that it might be best if she looked for another field.  Haley just stared at the cut, barely listening to the platitudes of the people who already had what she wanted. She nearly missed it when the man in the suit asked her a question.

“I’m sorry, come again?” she asked, dropping the “sirs” now that the officers had confirmed her worst fears.

The man in the suit gave her a small smile.  “I said, ‘why do you want to do this so badly?’”

Haley looked up at him, her eyebrows furrowed in confusion.  “It’s all I’ve ever wanted,” she answered, not knowing what else to say.

“But why?” he asked again.  “I see in your file that you’ve taken this exam eleven times now.  You’ve also tried out for four police forces, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and even the Coast Guard – every one of them told you the exact same thing.”  He closed her file with a snap, staring at her intently. “Why haven’t you given up? Why are you still trying out?”

“Because I want to help people,” she said without thinking.  Realizing that it sounded cliché, she explained, “I’ve always wanted the kind of adventure and excitement that came with being a Watcher.  I want to be the best I can possibly be, and, to me, that means keeping up with Third Gens and satyrs, and helping to clean up the city. This world is full of titans, and…” she trailed off, thinking, before finishing: “I might be just a human, but I want to prove that anyone can be a titan if they try hard enough.”

Silence followed her speech.  The selection officers all looked uncomfortable, as if she was a child saying “I’m gonna be an astronaut when I grow up!”  They don’t think I can do it, Haley thought wryly.  She wanted to put her hands over her face in embarrassment, maybe run home and hide under the covers with a pint of ice cream.  She could feel the heat rising in her face as her cheeks flushed, but she kept her eyes trained on the man in the suit, whose lips were pursed in a judging manner.  They think I’m weak, she thought, setting her chin in determination.  Weak, and childish, and naïve, and –

The man in the suit started to laugh.  It took Haley a second to realize it – he had looked so stern a moment before – but there it was: he was laughing so hard that he had to lean on his umbrella to keep from doubling over.  “Oh, you’ll do nicely,” he finally said once he caught his breath. “‘The world is full of titans,’ I’ve never heard it phrased quite that way before.” He pulled himself together, still chuckling at whatever it was he had found so funny.  “These men may not think you’re capable, but I might have just the job for you.”

He picked up his umbrella and put it over his shoulder.  “I’ll find you later in the week,” he promised. “There are just a few more things I need to take care of, first.”  He turned to the other officers present, who all looked at him like he was growing a second head. “… I think you’re dismissed, unless these gentlemen have anything else to add?”

He let them all sit in stunned silence for a second, before picking up his umbrella and walking towards the entrance to the yard.  Haley looked between him and the card a few times before calling after him, “Who are you?”

The man turned around and gave her a jaunty smile.  “My name is Agent,” he said, flourishing the closed umbrella in a mock wave, “and I will see you tomorrow.”

As she watched Agent walk away, Haley felt a dreadful, wonderful feeling that she had thought was gone forever:

Hope.

She looked back at the card he had left and smiled.  It was about time for a new job.

* * * * * * * *

Trailer #4 – Tower Climb

Pharos Tower, nine years ago.

Natalie Fawkes, way too high.

How did I get into this mess?

Fourteen year-old Natalie Fawkes was hanging on to the tenth-story window ledge for dear life.  Her hands ached with the strain of holding her, and she wondered once again if she really could finish her climb, or if she would fall to her death on the pavement below.

The book bag shifted on her back.  As flat as it was against her spine, it wouldn’t stay still with its bulky contents.  Natalie bit her lip and grunted as she pulled herself up onto the foot-thick ledge. She sat there for a minute, massaging her arms and hands to bring some life back into them.  The air on the ground was deceptively warm in the spring; eleven stories up, the wind nipped at her skin and froze her sweat-soaked shirt to her body.

“Wish I’d worn sleeves,” she muttered, looking down at her black tank top and sighing.  She felt a gust of wind beside her as her brother appeared.

Natalie’s twin brother was a satyr – in this case, half-man, half-bird.  Large, flexible, black-and-white speckled wings grew out of his shoulder blades, allowing him to catch the breeze and fly up to where his sister perched on the ledge.  His feathery blond hair ruffled in the breeze as he grinned down at her. “You okay?” he asked as he tucked his wings in to stand next to her on the ledge.

“Yeah,” Natalie grinned up at him.  “I’m just resting a sec. I don’t think I’ve ever done so many muscle-ups in a row before.”

“And you’re only halfway up,” Parker said, giving her a worried smile.  “You know, you don’t have to prove anything to those idiots,” he said, nodding his head at the ground below.

“’Course not,” Natalie told him, standing up next to her brother and looking out over the city.  “But I do need to shut them up.” She looked back at her twin, adding, “I’m fine; really. I can do this.”

Parker gave her a half-smile and an ironic salute before leaving his sister to her mission.  Natalie watched as he allowed himself to fall off the ledge, catching the wind as his wings unfurled.

Shaking her head to clear it from the height, Natalie turned back towards the building and jumped for the next ledge.  As her fingers caught the stone edge, she bit her lip and thought, Maybe I am crazy after all.

* * * * * * * *

Natalie had been working on a chemistry project when the whole situation began.  One of the instructions had not been very clear, and she needed the teacher to answer a question.  Unfortunately, the teacher seemed determined to ignore her; he went around to every other person first, even after looking directly at Natalie’s stubborn hand.  Natalie had been raising her hand for twenty minutes, unable to continue with the work, when she snapped.

Slowly, methodically – she needed to be obvious about what she was doing if she wanted to get away with it – Natalie began coating her hand with the dish soap next to her lab station.

“What are you doing?” Parker hissed next to her.  The question was rhetorical; he grew up in the same house, and had learned the same trick from their dad.  He knew exactly what his twin had in mind.

“If the teacher’s going to ignore what goes on right in front of him, then he deserves a little scare,” Natalie said, matter-of-factly, as she doused rubbing alcohol over the soap-covered hand.

Parker looked around at the class, some of whom were watching her with expressions that said she was being weird.  “You’re going to get in trouble for it,” he muttered, but he didn’t try to stop her as she turned on the Bunsen burner at their table.

“Maybe,” Natalie whispered back, running her free hand through her short dyed-black hair.  With one fluid motion, she ran her alcohol-drenched hand over the flame of the Bunsen burner and raised it up like before.

It took nearly five seconds before people registered that her raised hand was on fire.  Then chaos erupted in the classroom.

As expected, Natalie was sent to the principal’s office as soon as she rinsed off her hand.  Parker went with her, and marveled at how she talked her way out of trouble – she turned the tables on the teacher, asking the principal what her father might say when he was told that the teacher hadn’t stopped her.

They didn’t even call her parents.

“You know,” Parker said as they walked home after school, “that was risky.  If they’d called Dad, he would have been all for you getting suspended for that stunt; you know the rule.”

Natalie nodded.  Their dad had ingrained one rule of thumb into them since they were old enough to copy his magic tricks: never show off.  “‘True power requires subtlety,’” she quoted. “‘Your audience should never know all of your secrets; your strengths should be as well-guarded as your weaknesses.’”

“Right,” Parker said, acting as though he was ten years older than her instead of ten minutes. “And you just gave away the trick by doing it in front of the whole class.”  He grinned wryly at her. “Not to mention,” he added, “the entire class got extra homework assigned because you got the teacher in a mood. They aren’t going to like that.”

“Like I give a damn what they think,” Natalie retorted.  “We graduate in six months, and then we never have to see any of them again.”

Parker sighed.  “You know, eventually you’ll have to learn how to get along with people.”

“Uh-oh,” Natalie said, but she wasn’t referring to Parker’s lecture.  In front of the twins stood seven of their classmates, and all of them looked like they wanted a fight.

Natalie let her hand hover over her cargo pockets.  She kept her flash-paper and lighter in there, which would help if they needed an escape.  She was fine letting Parker do all of the talking; anything she said would be twisted around by these bullies.

“Can we help you?” Parker asked as they approached.

One of the gang, presumably the leader, stepped forward.  “We don’t have a problem with you,” he said carefully. “But her stunt just got us extra homework, so we want her to do it.”

The others piped in with things like “Yeah!” and “It’s only fair.”  Natalie rolled her eyes, walking past them without another glance. She knew it drove her classmates crazy when she pretended not to care if they existed.

As predicted, the movement just stoked the other kids’ ire.  “You think you’re better than us?” asked the leader. “You’re nothing but a wannabe – you think you’ll be a Watcher, but you’re all talk.”

Natalie stopped, and Parker put a hand on her shoulder.  “Nat, don’t,” he warned under his breath, but it was too late – they had hit on the very thing that Natalie herself was afraid of.

“I will be a Watcher,” she said, clenching her fists and whirling around to face them.

The leader smirked, knowing his barb had hit home.  “Oh yeah?” he asked. “Prove it.”

Later that evening, Natalie was climbing the tallest tower in the city, a book bag full of fireworks on her back.

* * * * * * * *

Pharos Tower, that night.

Natalie Fawkes, fifteenth story.

Each story of the building took two muscle-ups to climb: one to a bar in the middle of the window, where Natalie had only about two inches of space to grab on to, and one to the larger ledge in between stories.  The ledges of the twenty-story building were nearly eight feet apart; meaning that they were two to three inches above Natalie’s outstretched arms. This made the jump to the larger ledges especially difficult, as she couldn’t stop to rest between stories.

Natalie got into the rhythm of the climb early on, but fifteen stories up and she was getting tired.  Her current strategy of jumping straight from the window-bar to the larger ledges wouldn’t hold up forever, as the cold and the workout began freezing her aching muscles.

She reached up to the next window-bar.  Sixteenth story, she counted to herself, biting her lip as her arms shrieked from the movement.  Just do this one, and then only four more.

Her hands gripped the window-bar, and she forced her arms to lift her body up.  She put her right foot on the two-inch-thick space, and steeled herself for the difficult part.  From this position, she had to jump straight up as high as possible, grabbing onto the ledge above without falling.  Her legs were just as tired as her arms, and she shook with the effort of holding herself up.

“Come on,” she told her shivering body, “I’ll let you rest on the next ledge.”  She had used the same mantra for the last few stories, and it seemed to be working so far.

She tensed herself, and launched herself with her right leg.  She knew as she took off that it wasn’t good, though; her leg had been shaking too much, and her foot slipped as she threw her body straight up.  Her eyes widened as her fingers only scraped the ledge above, and she started to fall back down.

Years of practice paid off: adrenaline hit her system, and when her left arm hit the twelfth-story stone ledge she threw her head and chest forward to stop the momentum.  Her forehead slammed against the window, but she remained hanging from the ledge.

As Natalie swung her leg up, it, too, banged against the concrete. Ignoring the dull ache, she rolled onto her back, arching over the bulky bookbag.  She let herself lie on the ledge for a minute, cradling her left arm against her body and covering her eyes with her right elbow. She forced herself to breathe, fighting back against the shock and panic that her slip had caused, and mentally took stock of her injuries.

Head: aches a bit from the window, but should be fine. Doesn’t seem like a concussion.

Legs: probably bruised, but not bad. Ankle might have twisted a bit, but it’s still usable.

Abs: hurt from catching myself on the ledge, but no worse than before.

Arms: … Right one seems okay.  Left one hurts. A lot. Probably more than the adrenaline is letting me feel right now.

She blinked back the tears that had come from shock, swallowing hard as her breathing slowed back to normal.  She didn’t sit up, but she uncovered her face when she heard Parker landing next to her head.

“I’m taking you back down,” he said.  “No arguments. This whole thing is stupid, and you dying won’t prove anything to anybody.”

“Wait,” Natalie told him, her voice raspy.  Throat is dry, too, she mentally added, sitting up. She’d been in shock before, but this was the first time she’d needed to overcome it through sheer willpower.

Slowly, taking care of her injuries, she rose to a crouched position.  She winced as the bruises on her legs throbbed with the movement, but they weren’t as bad as she had initially thought. Clearing her throat, she stood up and leaned back against the glass of the window.

Parker put his hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off.  “I’m fine,” she said again. “I just mis-timed that last jump; I can still do this.” One good thing about shock, she thought absently, I don’t feel the cold as much anymore.

“I don’t care,” Parker said, his voice cracking.  “You’re done. You’re lucky that you grabbed that ledge; with how fast it happened, I’m not sure I could have caught you.”

Natalie looked up at her twin’s face, not saying anything.  She could see the worry in Parker’s blue eyes, even through the angry frown on his face. He had been calling her ten kinds of stupid ever since she made the bet, but she was determined to see it through.

Parker, on his side, saw the determination in his sister’s face.  Her short, spiky hair, dyed black to match her closet, only served to accentuate her icy eyes as they stared him down.

People always said that they looked alike, but Parker never saw it.  True, they both had blond hair (before Natalie dyed hers), and they had similar coloring and features, but while Parker was usually carefree and sunny, Natalie had a determined look in her eyes that never really went away.  He was the Third Gen with wings, the Satyr with power; people both feared and admired him for things beyond his control. But Natalie…

She was the human, growing up in his shadow.  Their classmates wouldn’t dare pick on Parker – at least not to his face – but Natalie was constantly teased for being “the weird girl who wants to be a Watcher”.  If she had been anyone else, the stunt in class would have been seen as cool, or even heroic to their high school classmates – but because Natalie was a loner, it was just another reason to pick on her.

The silent exchange lasted only a couple of seconds, but Parker eventually blew out a defeated huff.  “Fine,” he said, “climb the stupid thing. But I’m staying up here with you, just in case.”

Natalie grinned at him, too tired to speak but still standing up on the ledge.  She flexed her arms, testing the injured one to make sure it would still take her weight.  I’ll have to put more weight on my right side, but I can manage, she thought.  She looked back up at the window-bar, grit her teeth, and jumped.

* * * * * * * *

“ – fireworks display over the Pharos Tower in downtown Eon City is reportedly the work of an unknown party.  When confronted by investigators over the illegal pyrotechnics, Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Industries, had this to say…”

Parker looked over at Natalie as the news report played over breakfast.  She could barely move her spoon to her mouth to eat breakfast, but a huge grin covered her face as she listened.  Parker shook his head; his sister was wearing a long-sleeved turtleneck that she hated in order to hide the fact that her left arm was turning nasty colors.

“You are entirely too proud of yourself right now,” Parker hissed across the table.  Somehow they had made it home without waking up their parents. As annoyed as he was with Natalie, he knew that they both would be grounded until they were thirty if he gave away that they had pulled off the apparently-illegal fireworks display.

Natalie stuck her tongue out at him.  “I just pulled off the stunt of the century, and didn’t even get caught.  Of course I’m proud.”

Parker shrugged his shoulders, stretching them from keeping his wings folded around his waist at the table.  “You nearly died for that stunt,” he reminded her. “You’re injured, you got maybe an hour of sleep last night, and you have to act normal today so that Mom and Dad don’t get suspicious.  Have fun with that.” Natalie was too tired to come up with a retort, so she settled for kicking Parker under the table. From her wince, the movement hurt her more than it hurt him.

“Hey, have you seen Dad yet?” she asked, realizing how late in the morning it was getting to be.  Their father usually got up early, putting coffee on for their mom and cooking breakfast for the family before school.

“No, I haven’t,” Parker said, his eyebrows furrowing.  “That’s weird.” He got up from the table and went to their parents’ room to check.  He came back a minute later to report, “They aren’t home. Neither of them. On a school day – that’s never happened.”

Natalie groaned as she stood up.  Her side hurt more than ever, but her phone was in her bag and she needed to see if she had missed any messages the night before.  “I got five texts from Dad,” she told her brother.

“Ooh, busted,” Parker grinned.  But the grin slid off his face when he saw the expression on Natalie’s.  “What’s wrong?” he asked.

Natalie ignored him, dialing her phone in a hurry.  “Dad?” she said, more timidly than Parker had ever heard her in his life.  “I’m so sorry I wasn’t… We were just out with some friends, we’re home now, we’re fine.  Dad, what happened?”

Parker piped up, “Yeah, sis, what happened?  Is he that mad?”

“… No.  No, no, there’s got to be some kind of mistake…” Natalie was close to tears – and Parker couldn’t remember ever seeing his sister cry.  “No, she can’t be… Daddy… Okay, we’ll wait here for you. I… yeah, we’ll talk later. Okay. I love you, Daddy.” She hung up the phone, turning to her brother with tears in her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Parker asked.  He was getting a sinking feeling in his stomach, and he had never seen such a shocked look on his sister’s face before.  “Nat, what happened?”

“Dad’s at the hospital,” she said.  “Mom didn’t come home last night, either.  She was on a mission downtown, and… her team found her ripped to pieces.”  The tears started falling freely down her face, as she choked out the horrible truth: “Mom’s dead.”

* * * * * * * *

Trailer #3 – Project: Asylum

Former Team Ark Headquarters, three years ago.

Derek Hessing, formerly known as “Marauder”.

What the hell am I going here?

Derek Hessing stepped through the open doorway of the building that he had once called “headquarters”.  That was back when he went by the name “Marauder”, while he worked with Team Ark. It was a bittersweet moment for him – the memories associated with this place were mostly good ones, tainted by the horrible memory of the last time he set foot here.

He had thought that he would never return.

The building was enormous, meant to house training rooms and living spaces for a dozen people.  The lobby looked like any office building or apartment complex in Eon City, but the entryway to the main living area was exactly as he had left it.

Three years’ worth of dust had settled, disturbing the home-like feel that Derek used to know when walking in.  None of the old team had set foot in this place in years, and it showed through the little details: there was no flower vase in the front hall from Kindred’s love of plants.  No smell of delicious meals came from the kitchen, as Sparrow wasn’t cooking. No sharp sounds came from the metal shop where Star used to work in her downtime. The security cameras had no red lights, as Agent hadn’t turned them on in years.  Derek could almost hear the thuds from the training room where he and Striker used to spar, but Striker was long gone…

Derek stopped in his tracks.  No, he wasn’t imagining it: there were definitely sounds coming from the sparring room.  Hardly daring to hope, he ran in that direction as he allowed his feet to take him down the stairs and through the familiar hallways.  Could Striker really be back? He’d disappeared without a trace five years before; surely he would have found his old teammates if he was still alive…

Derek came to a halt outside the training room.  His shoulders slumped slightly when he realized that it wasn’t Striker in front of him, but he straightened again when he realized that he had never seen the intruder before.

“Who the hell are you?” he asked, storming in.  It was a testament to how long it had been since he had last used his Third Gen ability to subdue someone that he did not think to use it now.  Instead, he moved towards the sword area where he kept his practice katana; they were still there after all this time.

The intruder straightened, turning to face Derek.  The young man seemed to be in his early twenties, around Sparrow’s age the last time Derek had seen her.  He wore a tank top and sweatpants, and he didn’t look like he intended to run – which implied that he had been staying there for a while.  “I could ask you the same thing,” he said evenly. His eyes sparked with excitement, as though he was daring Derek to try something that would start a fight.

Derek side-stepped, never turning his back on the other guy.  “My name is Marauder,” he said, relishing his old name as he used it for the first time in five years.  “This is Team Ark’s headquarters, and you’re the one trespassing. I’ll ask again: who the hell are you?”

“’Name’s David,” the young man replied, shrugging.  “Some people call me Earthborn.” He didn’t seem concerned when Derek picked up the wooden swords, suggesting that he thought Derek either couldn’t or wouldn’t use them.

As he stepped forward, Derek nearly stumbled over a small pile of rocks.  Straightening back up, he raised the practice sword and pointed it at David.  “What are you doing here?” he asked.

David just shrugged at him.  Derek fought back a grin; the young man reminded him a lot of his old friend Striker.  He waited in silence for a moment to catch the young man off-guard, and then sprang forward onto the sparring mat.  Whipping his sword around in a fluid motion, Derek lunged at the intruder, aiming for the young man’s legs to knock him to the floor.

A small, sharp pain hit his arm, knocking his sword off-course.  Derek looked around for the source, but all he saw was David standing in exactly the same spot as before.  A smug grin spread across David’s face, which only made Derek want to knock it off. He gripped the wooden sword tighter and swung around for a new attack.

It happened again!  This time, Derek managed to catch the assailant out of the corner of his eye: a rock had flown up from the pile on the floor, hitting him just hard enough to knock his swords off-course.

Derek looked back over at David, who was still smugly standing there.  The name “Earthborn” rang in his ears, making him roll his eyes in frustration: of course the kid was a Third Gen.

But then again, so was Derek.

“Nice trick,” he said, standing to face the young man.  “Want to see a new one?”

He lunged forward once more, but this time he kept his mind focused on one word: funny.  At the moment when the rock should have hit him, Derek heard it clack back onto the floor as “Earthborn” started laughing uncontrollably.

The sword connected with the young man’s leg, forcing him to drop down to one knee.  David wasn’t laughing anymore; the command had only been for a second, but it was long enough to give Derek the upper hand.  He was putting one of the swords at the kid’s throat, intending to make him talk through intimidation, when he heard the crackling sound.

A flash of light threw him across the room, where he just barely managed to stay conscious.  The kid walked towards him, electricity crackling around one of his hands.

He can throw both rocks and lightning? Derek thought.  Not fair.

Just as David began to loom over him, Derek heard an impressed whistle from the elevator doors.  “Wow,” came a familiar voice from the same direction. “I mean, I’d heard about you, but that was incredible.”

Derek looked up, laughing.  “About time,” he said to Agent.  “Mind helping me take out the trash?”

The young man glared at him, electricity sparking back up in his hand.  Agent propped his umbrella up against the door, saying, “Not really. I mean, I did invite him here.”

Derek shook his head to clear it, standing up as the kid backed off.  “What the hell do you mean, you ‘invited him’?” he asked, confused.

“David,” Agent said, “I’d like you to meet Derek, otherwise known as Marauder of Team Ark.  Derek, this is David: he’s going to be on the new team.”

“You’re kidding.”  Derek got to his feet, still unsteady after the fall.  “When you said ‘new team’, I thought you meant you, me, Kindred, and Sparrow would stick together.”

Agent sighed, leaning against the edge of the sparring ring.  “Kevin is still helping take care of the kids,” he explained. Derek and Agent had both known their old team so well that their code names and real names were interchangeable. “Their youngest is in high school, and he says that both he and Sara have been enjoying their retirement.”

“And Sparrow?” Derek asked.

“Casey told me,” Agent cleared his throat, and gave a bad impression of the girl’s voice: “’Go fuck yourself.’”  He gave a weak laugh, adding, “Her words, not mine. I guess she’s not quite over what happened to Striker.”

“And you think I am?” Derek said, pushing past the new guy to stand in front of Agent.  “The team broke up that day,” he said. “You and I tried keeping it together for a while by ourselves, and that didn’t work out so well, either.  What makes you think getting a newbie would make any difference?”

“Four new members.” Agent corrected him.  “Earthborn isn’t the only person I asked.”

“You know, Earthborn is standing right here,” David said, raising an eyebrow.  “I’d like to know what the hell’s going on, too.”

Agent shook his head, smiling again.  “Alright then,” he said. He walked back over to the elevator, picked up his umbrella, and motioned for the other two to join him.  “I’ve been tasked by my superiors to start a new team,” he explained as they all crowded into the elevator. Hitting the button for the debrief room, he added, “It’s called Project: Asylum.”

* * * * * * * *

Trailer #2 – The Twins

Fifteen years ago.

The twins.  Not supposed to be here.

“We’re strong together, but we’re stronger when we’re all of one mind.”

Parker and Natalie first heard this phrase when they were nine years old, listening at the kitchen door to their mom’s team argue over their latest mission.

Most of the details about this meeting grew foggy over the years.  For example, if you asked the twins today about who said it, or what they looked like, you might get different answers.  Parker would tell you that it was their mom’s teammate Kindred who said it, while Natalie might insist it was their mother.

What, exactly, the team was arguing about is also a matter of debate.  They could have been going over failed battle tactics, or they could have been arguing over dinner options.  The Watcher team worked as a cohesive unit when fighting supervillains, but they rarely agreed on anything off the battlefield.

This story isn’t about them.

It’s actually about the twins listening at the door.

“What do you think that means?” Natalie asked her brother, shrugging away from his wings as they crowded the small door space.

“What what means?” Parker said, shrugging his shoulders to give his twin more room.

“’One mind’?” Natalie quoted.  She wasn’t interested in his answer; she asked it to make sure he was paying attention.

He wasn’t, really.  Parker had followed his sister to the door of the living room out of curiosity, not interest.  Their mom usually had her teammates over for strategy meetings, and the novelty was long gone. “I guess it means they have to agree on stuff,” he shrugged.

Natalie dreamed of being a Watcher like their mom.  At nine years old she knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up, and that conviction never wavered.  “Strong together, stronger as one,” she repeated, biting her lip.

Suddenly, a bright light illuminated the room.  Sunlight streamed in around them as their father opened the curtains behind the eavesdropping children.

“You know you two aren’t supposed to listen at doors,” he said, glaring at the guilty-looking twins.  He had just come from his workshop, and his face was streaked with black powder from his latest project.

Natalie and Parker’s parents seemed like polar opposites.  Their mother worked as a Watcher, one of the superheroes that kept the city safe.  Their father was a street magician – an illusionist – which was a difficult profession when there were people who could actually do miraculous feats.

Natalie was the first to recover from the surprise.  “How else are we supposed to learn?” she asked. “That’s an actual Watcher team,” she added, in case he didn’t understand the significance.  “They’re heroes!”

Parker shook his head and went back to his chair.  The living room was comfortably furnished, but the only chair that Parker could comfortably lean back in was the low-backed cushioned seat at the far side of the room.  He flopped down in it, stretching his wings behind him over the chair’s back as he listened to the exchange.

Their dad sat down in one of the matching recliners, pointing a clawed finger at the other one for Natalie to sit.  Of the three of them, Natalie looked the most out of place: as bird-satyrs, Parker and their father both had avian traits alongside their human ones.  Parker had feathery hair and wings, while their dad had a beak and talons in place of some of his fingers. Natalie, in contrast, was human: her thick blonde hair hung in curls around her face, and her softer features gave her an innocent appearance – or it would, if she didn’t insist on scowling at nearly everybody.

Their father sighed, settling into his chair.  “Your mother works very hard to be a Watcher,” he told them, “but the job is dangerous.  I’m not sure I want to see my children go into it. Especially you, Nat.”

“Why me?” she protested, crossing her arms to match her furrowed brow.  “I’m just as good as Parker. As anybody.”

“Natalie,” their father said in a warning tone.  She stopped glaring, and he nodded before answering.  “It isn’t about your ability, Stinker,” he told her, using the childhood pet name that he rarely called her any more.  “The doctors told us when you were little that you might never develop a third-gen ability. As twins, your brother got both the satyr and third-gen genes from your mom and me, and you were left as a regular human.  Because of that, you can’t protect yourself the way he can.”

“Mom’s not a satyr either,” Natalie grumbled.  “Most of her team aren’t.”

“Not many satyrs become Watchers these days,” their father conceded.  “Parker, you’d do well to remember that; there are gangs out there that target satyrs, especially ones who get their Watcher license and work with a company like your mom’s.”

“I know, dad,” Parker said, shrugging again to loosen his shoulders.  “Nat’s the one who wants to be a Watcher, not me.”

“So, what do you want to do?” their dad asked.

Parker tilted his head to the side.  “I don’t really know,” he admitted. “I like the idea of helping people, but the Watchers look like too much work.  Nat’s always been better at that.” It was true; Parker had better social skills and was good at making friends, but Natalie got better grades in school.

Natalie threw her hands up, drawing the attention back to herself.  “Exactly,” she said. “So why can’t I do it?”

Their father sighed and put a hand to his forehead.  “It’s not that you can’t,” he told her. “You could. I’m pretty sure you could do anything that you set your mind to, honey.”  Looking directly at her, he added, “I just hope you won’t.”

The twins both gave him questioning gazes, so he continued, “Every night your mom leaves the house for patrol, it worries me.  She’s on one of the best teams in the country, she had the best training and has a flawless record as a hero, and she can lift a tractor over her head.  But all it takes is one villain who is more dangerous than her, and she won’t come home.” He smiled, and Parker could see his eyes glistening. “I don’t want to worry about my kids, too.”

Natalie bit her lip.  Parker knew that look: her mind hadn’t changed one bit.  But now she felt a bit guilty about it.

“But I don’t want anything else,” she muttered, just loud enough for them to hear.

Their father stood.  “You know, as a human you’re going to have to work harder than anyone else at it.  You’ll be compared to third-gens and satyrs who can use their powers or claws or wings.  You’ll have to find some way to keep up with them.”

“I know,” Natalie said, her voice getting hard again.  “I don’t care. I can do it.”

Their father stared at them for a second.  While the details of this anecdote have been forgotten by the twins, both of them can agree that this was the moment it all started.  Their father, doing his best to talk Natalie out of her dream, realized that he couldn’t. So he made a decision that would change their lives forever.

“Come with me,” he said, turning back to his workshop.  “I’ve got a lot to show you.”

* * * * * * * *