Issue #13 – Fallen Angel

Faun Headquarters.

Parker Fawkes, undercover.

“Three, two, one…” Kiara counted down, a spoonful of mashed potatoes in her hand.  “Blast-off!” She flicked the potatoes at Parker, who threw his head to the right to catch the potatoes in his mouth.

“Ack!” he gagged as the fluffy white stuff choked him.  The gorilla-satyr to his left patted him on the back between his wings, and Parker managed to swallow.  “Thanks,” he said, turning to the satyr who had helped him. “Scott, right? Scott Prince?”

“Yeah,” said Scott.  “You know me?”

“Only by reputation,” Parker answered carefully.  “I met your sister the other day.”

Scott’s eyes widened in alarm.  “You met Haley?” he asked nervously.

Parker knew why.  Haley Prince was a Watcher in the Asylum, who was better known around the city by her moniker “Outlier”.  The Asylum was making a name for itself in the underworld by bringing criminals in, and the Fauns – a terrorist group by anyone’s definition – had standing orders to take members of the Asylum down by any means necessary.

“That was the drunk chick, right?” Kiara asked, loading her spoon again.  “What happened to her?”

“I sent her home,” Parker said, raising his eyebrows at Scott.  “No point in waylaying bakers, right?”

“Right,” Scott said weakly.  “Thanks, Fallen.” He used Parker’s nickname among the Fauns.

“So Fallen,” Kiara said sweetly, arming another scoop of potatoes, “Rumor has it that you’re going to take over Eon City when Claw leaves.  You’ll be in charge of all of this!”

Parker shrugged, shaking his shoulders to loosen them.  “That’s the rumor,” he agreed. “I haven’t heard anything from Claw about it, though.  I know he plans to leave the city soon, but I don’t know where or when.” With any luck, it’ll be to jail within the week, he thought.

Another satyr slammed their plate down next to Parker.  “Did you hear?” Lizard asked them. “The House just passed the Leash Law!”

“What?” Parker jumped up from the table.  “When?” The Leash Law had been a bill in contention for more than a year: if ratified, then all non-citizen satyrs would be required to be kept on a leash in public areas.  Satyrs already needed a special license before they could become citizens, and unlike humans and Third Gens, they weren’t born with their citizenship – they had to go through the naturalization process when they turned twenty-five, unless they opted for government service when they turned eighteen, as Parker had done.  Some states already had the Leash Law (or laws like it) in effect; the current threat was the law becoming a national standard.

“Last night,” Lizard reported.  “If the Senate passes it, then we’ll all be reduced to nothing more than animals.”

“I can’t believe it,” Kiara said, her spoon prepped to fling another scoop of potatoes at Parker.  She had frozen in position at the news. “How could they do that? How could anyone vote for that?”

Lizard rolled his eyes.  “King,” he said simply.

The CEO of King Enterprises, Jonathan King was a vocal opponent of satyr rights.  The Fauns had been at war with King Enterprises for years, protesting the unethical treatment the company gave satyrs, but King was an influential force and had the resources to lobby for the Leash Law.

“Of course,” Parker muttered.  “When’s the Senate vote?”

“Next week,” Lizard said, before taking a big bite of his lunch.  “If we want to stop it, we’ll have to move fast.”

Parker nodded at Kiara, who began clearing his plate.  Without another word, he was off to find Claw.

Claw took his meals in his War Room – a large meeting place where he briefed his lieutenants on the Faun’s strategy.  He was alone when Parker found him, pouring over maps of the city. “Parker,” he acknowledged without turning around. “Just the guy I want to see.”

Parker came up next to him, looking at the maps for himself.  “I just heard about the House vote,” he said. “I came straight here.”

There were five maps spread out on the large table, each of a different sector of the city.  Different spots were marked with exes, marking areas where crowds were known to gather. Claw studied these, his eyes narrowed in concentration.

“The vote is troubling,” he said.  “We’ll have to move up our timetable.”

“What’s the plan, boss?” Parker asked, every bit the picture of a loyal Faun lieutenant.

Claw looked at him.  Parker knew that Claw was suspicious of his motives, and rightfully so – he might not have known about Parker’s double life as an Asylum Watcher, but he did know that Parker was in contact with his sister.  Natalie was a well-known Watcher in Eon City, going by the moniker “Trick” in the Asylum. Parker had so far earned Claw’s trust by being the model Faun, and he was the next logical choice to run the organization in Eon City, but he knew how precarious his position was.  He could see all of the doubts flashing through Claws mind as the crocodile-satyr considered.

“Okay, Fallen,” Claw finally said, moving over to give Parker a better view of the table.  “I think it’s time to let you in on the big picture.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Natalie Fawkes, training.

“Damn!” came the shout from across the room.

Natalie had been training on a Wing Chun dummy, and the shout was just distracting enough to let her get hit by one of the spinning arms.  “Hey!” she cried, marching over to the bench where Haley sat. The new girl was checking her phone, taking a break from her workout. “What’s the big idea?” Natalie asked, shoving Haley’s shoulder as she rubbed the spot on her arm where the dummy hit her.  “That’s going to bruise!”

Haley looked up.  “Did you hear about this?” she asked, ignoring Natalie’s ire.  “The House just passed the Leash Law!”

“What?”  Natalie snatched the phone out of Haley’s hand, her bruise forgotten for the moment.  “When?”

“This morning,” Haley said as Natalie scanned the article.  “The Senate vote is next week. How could they do this?”

“That doesn’t matter,” Natalie said, tossing the phone back to her.  “What matters is that it’s done. We need to be on our toes for the next week – the Fauns have been pretty quiet lately, but shit’s gonna hit the fan sometime before the Senate vote.  Be ready.” She walked off, grabbing a towel to dry off.

“Where are you going?” Haley called after her.  “Training’s not over!”

“I need to talk to Agent,” Natalie called back, not turning around.

She headed up the stairs to Agent’s office, not bothering to knock as she barged in.  Agent was sitting at his desk, staring intently at his surveillance screens. “I had a feeling you’d be here, Nat,” he said.  “The answer’s still no.”

“This is going to blow up in our faces,” Natalie said.  “The Leash Law is the biggest issue on the Fauns’ agenda – they already trashed a bunch of DMVs in the state because of the licensing; what do you think they’ll do after this?”

“I’m hoping they’ll focus their efforts outside of our city for once,” Agent said.  “I’m planning on them starting some kind of riot, though. That seems to be Claw’s pattern – hit multiple areas at once to spread police forces thin, and then run and hide.”

“Parker’s still undercover,” Natalie pointed out.  “He needs to be out of there before Claw makes his move, or he could get hurt!”

“Nat, we’ve been over this,” Agent said.  “Pulling him out now would only put a target on his back.  Parker’s doing well where he is – he’s one of Claw’s closest lieutenants now, and this is the exact opportunity we need to get enough evidence to take down the ringleader.  You think Claw’s going to sit this one out? If Parker can tell us where he’ll be, we can catch him red-handed, and send him to Zatvor where he belongs!”

Natalie folded her arms.  “You know this for sure?” she demanded.  “Or is this just you trying to placate me again?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Agent asked.

“It means I know you’ve been lying to me!”  Natalie grabbed his shoulder and spun him around to face her.  “You’ve been lying to me for months! Parker’s been missing check-ins, and he’s all but gone off the grid.  You told me everything was fine!”

Agent looked surprised, which was rare for him.  “How did you – oh.” He closed his eyes as he realised.  “Haley told you. I thought she didn’t remember anything from when she was under the drug.”

“She has an eidetic memory, remember?” Natalie reminded him.

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Agent said dryly.

“Parker acted like she had been down there to see him,” Natalie hissed.  “He admitted to missing his check-ins.  Now tell me – are you refusing to extract him, or is he the one refusing to get out?”

Agent looked away, saying nothing.  His silence told Natalie everything she needed to know.

“I need to see him,” she said.  “You need to set up a meeting – ”

“Absolutely not.” Agent looked straight into her eyes, glaring intensely.  “And don’t you dare go behind my back on this one, Nat. I mean it. If you talked to Haley, you’ll know that the reason he’s been ghosting us is that he’s being watched. Haley got away with that little excursion because she’s still new enough that some people don’t know her face on sight.  You’re much more recognizable, especially to the Fauns. They have kill orders out on all of the Asylum Watchers; I’ve had to use my other resources to keep an eye on that side of the city.”

“Fine; so send one of them,” Natalie demanded.  “Get him a message from me.”

Agent stood up, putting a hand on her shoulder.  “I know you’re worried about him, Nat,” he said, “but Parker’s an adult, and a Watcher.  He’s not defenseless – he knows just as many illusions as you do, and he’s also a hybrid.  He can fly, and he has super-strength; he can handle himself.”

Natalie took a deep, shuddering breath.  “I like you, Agent,” she said, “but if my brother gets hurt, I’m holding you personally responsible.  Got it?”

“That’s fair,” Agent said, nodding.  “Can you keep a cool head?”

“Always,” Natalie said wryly.

“Then let me bounce some ideas off of you.”  Agent turned back to the screens, pulling up a map of the city.  “Here’s what I think they’ll do.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Park, Two A.M.

Parker Fawkes, deeply concerned.

“Come on, pick up,” Parker muttered to his burner phone.  He had to sneak out of the Fauns’ headquarters, which was made harder by the tension in the air.  None of the Fauns seemed to want to sleep with the news of the Leash Law hanging over their heads.  While Claw only shared the details of his plans with his trusted commanders, all of the satyrs in the organization knew that something big was coming.

The line clicked, and a voice came through the other end.  “Hello?” Frank said sleepily.

“Frank!  Thank god,” Parker said.  He ran a shaking hand through his hair as he nervously shook his shoulders out.  “I’ve got news; it’s pretty bad. Can we meet?”

Parker?” Frank asked.  “Where are you?  What’s wrong?

“Frank, it’s bad.  Please,” Parker pleaded.  “I need to talk to you. I couldn’t call Agent because it’s too risky, but you can sneak in a lot better.  I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”

No problem, buddy,” Frank said, sounding a lot more alert at Parker’s tone.  “Meet me at the last place I saw you.

“Thanks,” Parker said.  He suddenly realized he had been pacing.  “Twenty minutes?”

See you there.” Frank hung up.  Parker shrugged his shoulder again, taking off in the direction of the docks.  It took him exactly twenty minutes to run there – he didn’t dare fly.

The shadows on the dock were dense at this time of night.  Parker couldn’t see Frank and Natalie approach until they were right in front of him.  Both were dressed in their full Watcher gear; the Asylum Watchers were all quick-change experts out of necessity.

“Parker!” Natalie ran over and hugged him.  She had been worried – it was obvious from her relief at seeing him.  Parker hugged her back, just as happy to see his twin as she was to see him, until she pulled away and began hitting his arm.  “You idiot!” she said. “Why won’t you let Agent extract you?”

“Ow!” Parker cried, rubbing the spot she had hit.  “What are you even doing here? I called Frank!”

“Sorry buddy,” Frank said, shrugging.  “She wouldn’t leave me alone until I brought her.”

“You have news?” Natalie asked, folding her arms in front of her and tapping her foot impatiently.

Parker shook his shoulders out, and Natalie’s face softened at the familiar gesture.  “Yeah, I’ve got news. It’s pretty bad,” he said again.

“Spit it out,” Natalie said.

“Claw’s planning multiple riots around the country,” Parker told them.  “The Fauns have grown so much lately that he basically has an army at his command.  They’re going to form up the day after tomorrow, posing alongside peaceful protesters, and then Eon City will be turned into a war zone – along with five other major cities in the country.”

“A war zone?” Frank asked.  “I mean, riots can get pretty bad, but that has to be an exaggeration…”

“No, it’s not.”  Parker began pacing again.  “The Fauns as an organization are bigger than anybody realizes, even other Fauns.  I just found out how big this afternoon; Claw has other Fauns coming in from the rest of the state for this.  We’re expecting around ten thousand people, and most of them are going to be Fauns with weapons. They’ll outnumber the police three-to-one.  I think ‘war zone’ is the right term.”

“How do you organize a riot?” Natalie asked.  “Aren’t they usually just protests that get out of hand?”

Parker shook his head.  “Mob mentality isn’t that hard to control,” he explained, “especially when you have the numbers to back it up – which Claw has.  And that’s not the worst part.”

“Gen Juice,” Frank said, a note of accusation in his voice as he raised an eyebrow at Parker.

“You saw that, did you?” Parker said, dropping his eyes.

Natalie looked between the two of them.  “What’s he talking about, Parker?” she asked.

“You want to tell her, or should I?” Frank asked.

Parker let out a sigh.  “I was under orders from Claw,” he said by way of excuse.  “I was supposed to grab a vial of the stuff they used on Miranda and bring it back to him.  It was a test of loyalty, and I’d never have been able to help Frank get her out of there if I didn’t take it.  I swear, Frank,” he added, looking his friend in the eye, “I had no idea what it was at the time, or what Claw had planned.”

“I couldn’t believe it myself,” Frank replied.  “I heard what it was from Jaunt, after all.”

Natalie looked between the two of them, putting two and two together.  “Agent doesn’t know about this, does he?” she asked. “This… ‘Gen Juice’, whatever it is – neither of you told him that Claw has it.  Why?”

“It’s a Third Gen power enhancer,” Frank explained.  “Kind of like Elutherios – it makes Third Gen powers stronger for a time, but all of the satyrs who had been given it turned feral.”

“Even your sister?” Parker asked, worried.

Frank waved a hand dismissively.  “No, not her,” he said with relief, “but all of the others had to be taken to the nature preserve in California.  The powers faded, but the psychological damage is permanent. I can’t believe Claw would use something like that on his own people.”

“Wait, hold up,” Natalie said waving her hands to get the boys’ attention.  “Claw has some of this Gen Juice that turns satyrs feral?”

“Yeah, but just a vial,” Frank said, shrugging.  “He’ll probably make our lives harder by dosing a few satyrs and letting them run amok, so the police would have to handle the riots without the Asylum.”

“It’s worse than that,” Parker said, fidgeting.  “I only took one vial – but Claw has scientists of his own.  They managed to duplicate it and turn it into a gas that Claw plans to release throughout Eon City during the riots.”

Natalie stared at him.  “The protest isn’t going to just be Fauns,” she whispered.  “He’s organizing a real protest with civilians that he’ll turn into a riot by dosing everybody in the city with the Gen Juice!”

“And it won’t just be satyrs turning feral,” Frank added, horrified.  “Third Gens will lose control of their powers. Humans might start developing powers of their own.  It’ll be chaos!”

“The riots will take place in five other cities around the country – I don’t know which ones, but it’s a good bet that any protests organized over the Leash Law are at risk of turning violent,” Parker told them.  “But here in Eon City, it’ll be disastrous. And it’s all my fault.”

“But we know now,” Natalie reminded him.  “We have a day and a half to figure out how to contain it.  Claw would have gotten his hands on the Gen Juice whether it was you or someone else making the pickup – but by telling us, you’ve just saved a bunch of lives.”  Parker looked away again, so Natalie grabbed her brother’s jaw and forced him to look at her. “You’re a hero, Parker,” she insisted. “You’re a Watcher, like us, and you just saved the city.  And now you’re coming home.”

Parker pulled away.  “I can’t, Nat,” he said, shaking his head.  “Not yet. All we have on Claw right now is circumstantial, and he’ll be leaving the city soon.  If I pull out now, we’ll never get him – but if I wait until after the riots…”

“Parker!”  Natalie was the only person who could make Parker feel guilty, reckless, and ashamed, all at once, just by saying his name.  He saw his own blue eyes reflected back in her identical ones – eyes that were worried about him – but he had his own goal in mind and he wouldn’t abandon it, even for his sister.

“Here,” he said, pulling a sheet of paper out of his pocket.  “I copied the map of Claw’s plans. I put exes over the spots where the riots will concentrate, and circled the spots where he plans to release the gas.  If you guys can be waiting there for him, we can stop this.”

“Who else did he show this to?” Frank asked, frowning.  Parker didn’t answer, so Frank continued, “Nobody, right?  You’re high enough in the Fauns now that he expects you to lead this, so you’re the only one who knows the full plan.”

Natalie punched Parker on the shoulder again.  “You idiot,” she said.  “If we take this to Agent, if Claw sees that we were ready for him, he’ll know that you’re our informant.  He’ll kill you, Parker!”

“Maybe,” Parker admitted.  “But this is our last chance to get him, Nat.  All I have to do is place him at the center of the riots, and he’ll be charged with reckless endangerment, incitement of violence, the full monty.  I just have to grab his plans from the war room, along with the tapes from the security cameras in there, and we’ve got him!” He turned a pleading look on his sister, knowing that she would understand.  “This is the guy that killed our mom, Nat. He’s killed so many people without even a moment of guilt, and I can bring him – and the Fauns – down once and for all. Then I can come home – you’ll see.”

“Or you’ll die,” Natalie said bluntly.  “Claw will go free, and I’ll be left to tell Dad why I let you do this alone.”

“I don’t intend to die,” Parker said, giving her a cocky grin.  “Count on that.” He looked at his phone, checking the time. “I have to get back.  Promise me you’ll show this to Agent,” he said, looking at both his sister and his best friend.

“You need to get rid of that phone,” Frank pointed out.  “You’ve had it for too long. If this works, then you won’t need it, and if it doesn’t…”

“Then I won’t need it,” Parker finished, nodding.  He handed the phone to Frank, adding, “I have some pictures on there that put Claw at the center of it all.  If something happens to me, you still might be able to bring him in.”

Natalie gave him a swift hug, growling, “Nothing better happen to you, idiot.  If you die, I’ll kill you myself.”

“Always with the death threats,” Parker grinned.  He gave them both a jaunty wave and turned to walk back to the Fauns’ headquarters.  He wished he felt as confident as the show he had just given them, but deep down he had a feeling that this would end badly for him.  He only knew one thing for certain:

One way or another, this assignment would end with the riots.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, the next evening.

Trick, Shadow, Nightmare, and Granny.

“You sure about this?” Earthborn asked as they headed down into the tunnels.  “I know that Parker’s info said that they’d be releasing gas from the sewer lines, but it seems… I dunno, too complicated to be one of Claw’s plans.”

“Blackbird risked a lot to get us the information,” Trick said.  “He sounded sure.”

“Earthborn has a point, dear,” Granny told her.  “The riots sound real enough – the Fauns have pulled similar things before.  But I don’t see how they could have replicated that Gen Juice stuff to cover the whole city in just a few weeks, especially from only four points underground.  Something seems off.”

Shadow shrugged, bringing up the rear.  “Dale confirmed it,” he said. “Apparently it’s possible, so we have to assume Blackbird’s info was right.”

“We’re heading underground, splitting up, and we left Nightmare back at base in case she’s affected by this stuff,” Earthborn pointed out.  “Since when have these tunnels ever been nice to us? This smells like a trap.”

“If something goes wrong, you can collapse the entire tunnel network, E.B.,” Shadow reminded him.  “What are you so worried about?”

“We left Nightmare, Reiki, and Outlier to take care of the riot,” Earthborn said practically.  “Nightmare’s powers would only make a mob that big worse, Reiki’s powers don’t work so well after dark, and Outlier’s human and a newbie. Agent’s last update put the numbers at close to fifteen thousand protesters throughout the city; I’m worried, that’s all.”

“It’s not just them,” Granny said, pulling her wolf doll out of her bag and touching her knitting needles to it.  As Louise the wolf grew to life-size, Granny said, “Agent is calling in all of his seconds and mercenaries. Every Watcher in the city will be helping to quell the riots – Holmes, Vulcan, Butterfly, all of them.”  She mounted her wolf, smiling down at the others. “They can get along without us for a few hours.”

“Besides,” Trick added, “Outlier and Reiki are just going to keep an eye out for anyone who needs shelter.  Nightmare’s going to keep an eye on things from a distance, and Agent’s going into the field for this one. Agent knows what he’s doing.”

“We can hope,” Earthborn muttered.  He knelt down, putting a hand to the ground.  “I don’t feel anything unusual down there, but it’s hard to tell.  We all know where we’re going?”

“We all have copies of the map,” Shadow said.  “What do you mean by ‘unusual’?”

“There are people down there,” Earthborn said, “but there are always people down there.  I can count them for you, but I can’t tell you which ones are usually there and which ones might be Fauns.”

“Well, we aren’t getting anywhere standing around here,” Trick said.  “Keep in touch over coms, and let’s get started.”

The others nodded, and they all headed off in different directions.

* * * * * * * *

Faun Headquarters.

Parker Fawkes, AKA Fallen.

Parker deployed the Faun teams according to Claw’s plan, still playing the role of the good lieutenant.  He watched the clock, waiting for his chance to go into the war room to steal the plans. Claw was watching Parker from his throne in the main meeting room, lazily sprawled over the armrests as he listened to Parker addressing the team leaders.

When he finally dismissed the Fauns to the protest, Claw finally spoke up.  “Scott Prince, could you stay back a moment?” he said in his soft voice. Scott looked around, confused, but stayed back in the room while his team left.  Despite phrasing it as a question, Claw had given an order – and nobody disobeyed an order from Claw.

“I think we should talk in private,” Claw said, jumping up from his seat at the front of the room.  “Meet me in my war room, both of you.”

Parker walked silently beside Scott as they headed for the room, wondering what Claw wanted with them. This was his chance, though – all he needed was a moment of distraction, and he could get everything he needed to take down Claw.

Scott nodded to him as he entered first.  They both stood at attention in the dim room, in front of Claw; Parker was dwarfed next to Scott, but he kept his wings unfurled to show his status as a satyr.

“You both are wondering why I called you here.”  Claw didn’t look at them. He was standing at the table, looking over his plans as he spoke.  “I’m sure you already know what you two have in common.”

A chill went down Parker’s spine as Claw spoke.  Scott was Haley’s brother, and he was Natalie’s – what they had in common was the fact that their sisters were both Asylum Watchers.  He knows, thought Parker, fighting back a shudder.  Any sign of weakness from him, and Claw would kill him before he could blink.  Waiting for confirmation was his best bet for survival.

“Tonight’s operation was carefully planned,” Claw continued.  “Every piece was in place, and every team leader knows their part.  I have teams of Fauns mobilizing to create chaos in different sectors of the city.  So imagine my surprise when Erinyes reported that the Asylum was waiting for us in the sewers, to stop the gas from being released.”

He turned around to face them.  “It doesn’t matter too much,” he continued.  “There is no gas to release. But I do wonder why the Asylum thought there was.”

Parker’s eyes widened slightly as he realized what was happening.  The story of the gas had been a trap, and he had walked straight into it – leading his friends in, too.  “What happened to the Asylum, then?” he asked, trying to feign nonchalance.

“Erinyes’ team is taking care of them now,” Claw answered.  “But there’s a bigger issue to address. I know that I was betrayed,” he hissed, baring his teeth in a crocodile smile.  Walking slowly over to Scott, he added, “I know exactly who it was, too.”

“I didn’t betray you!” Scott cried.  “I swear! I haven’t seen my sister in months, and I only knew where my team was going to be stationed, nothing else.  Honest!”

Claw put one of his claws up against Scott’s chin.  Scott gulped, looking like he was about to cry; he knew as well as Parker did what would happen if Claw didn’t believe him.  Parker had to do something.

Terrified, and knowing that it would kill him, Parker said, “It was me.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Tunnels.

Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.

“I’ve got nothing,” Trick said to her comm unit.  “Anybody else see anything?”

No,” came Shadow’s voice over the comm.  “There’s no movement here, but it feels like I’m being watched.

That’ll be the people who usually stay down here,” Earthborn added.  “Are we sure that Parker’s intel was good?

“Granny?” Trick asked, ignoring the question.  “What about your side?”

All clear here, dearie,” she replied.  “Earthborn, would you mind checking the tunnels again?  Louise is getting a bad feeling, too. I think there are more than the natives down here.

There was a brief pause while Earthborn used his powers to scan the tunnels again.  “That’s weird,” he reported.  “There’s a crowd of people at all four of the spots on the map.  Guys, check your six – I think we should meet back up at the entrance and get out of here…

Trick looked up, just in time to see a large bat-satyr jumping towards her.  Jumping out of the way just in time, she spun around to find five more satyrs facing her.  Trick backed down the tunnel, knowing that the five-on-one fight was very bad for her.

“Oh, come on,” said the bat-satyr.  The girl had short, dark hair and black eyes, but her teeth were bared in fangs.  Her arms were leathery, and extended down to make bat-like wings. Her long fingers ended in claws, which were currently poised as weapons.

“How could you miss, Erinyes?” one of the other satyrs asked.  “She’s a sitting duck!” The satyr’s own webbed fingers made it almost a joke, but Trick wasn’t laughing.

“Shut up,” the bat-satyr – Erinyes – said.  “The squad in tunnel C shouldn’t have let Earthborn get off a warning.  But no worries – we can still take them all down.”

Trick pulled her scarf out of her front pocket, along with another packet.  “You’re all welcome to try,” she said to distract them. “But I doubt you’ll be much more than a nuisance to us.  After all, you couldn’t even surround me properly.” She grinned at the Fauns, and threw the packet to the ground.  It exploded in a cloud of colored chalk and glitter, making the Fauns cough and buying her a minute’s head start.

Trick ran back towards the entrance, where the team was supposed to meet if anything went wrong.  She had the closest position to the entrance, as the others all had powers to draw on; Granny could easily out-distance the Fauns on her wolf, Earthborn could travel underground, and Shadow could hide himself in the dark tunnels.

It was a three-minute run for Trick, but she could hear the bat-satyr screeching from behind her.  Despite the twists and turns in the tunnels, Erinyes could at least keep up with the Watcher – though the other satyrs in her group seemed to be falling behind.

Just as Trick turned a corner to see the light at the end of the tunnel, Erinyes slammed into her back.  Trick gripped the scarf she still held, twisting around to wrap it around the bat-satyr’s neck. She yanked it downwards, slamming Erinyes’ head against the cold concrete floor.  Erinyes fell off of her, dazed, allowing Trick to jump to her feet and reach another pocket.

“Echolocation, huh?” she asked, pulling out a small pellet.  “Try this on for size!” Trick threw the pellet down next to Erinyes’ head, where it exploded with a flash and a loud BANG.  Erinyes screeched, and Trick ran to put some distance between her and the rest of the Fauns that were starting to make up the distance.

Erinyes recovered quickly – at least enough to continue the chase as the rest of her squad caught up.  The five Fauns raced for the tunnel entrance, only to find Trick stopped there, facing them with her arms crossed.

“Giving up so soon?” Erinyes spat at her.  “I’m disappointed. Fallen made you out to be some kind of demi-god with the tricks you have up your sleeves, but you’re just a lowly human after all.”

“‘Tricks up her sleeve’,” the duck-satyr sniggered.  “I see what you did there.”

“Shut up, Lou,” Erinyes rolled her eyes.

Trick raised an eyebrow at them.  “I’m no god,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.  “I just happen to know something you don’t.”

“Oh yeah?” one of the other Fauns sneered.  “What’s that?”

A burst of electricity shot through the corridor, hitting all five Fauns in a chain of lightning.  “Earthborn’s right behind you,” Trick said dryly as the Fauns all fell, unconscious, to the ground.

“You okay?” Earthborn asked.  As Trick opened her mouth for a sassy reply, he staggered.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” she asked instead.

Earthborn shook his head.  “That’s the fourth time I’ve done that in the last few minutes,” he pointed out.  “Granny and Shadow are tying up the other Fauns now – I need to see Dale.”

“Dark David?” Trick asked hesitantly.

“Yeah, he’s… argh!” Earthborn clutched his head as he cried out in pain.  “He’s trying to break out. I need to get to Dale, now!” He looked up, and his eyes glowed red in the dim corridor.

“Granny, Shadow, come in!” Trick called over her communicator.

On our way to the entrance,” Shadow reported.  “Granny’s got her wolf and dragon carting the Fauns that tried to ambush us.

Shadow took a beating, but he should be fine,” Granny added.  “How are you doing?

“There are five more Fauns lying at the entrance to the tunnels,” Trick told them, helping Earthborn to his feet.  “E.B.’s in bad shape; I’m going to take him back to Dale. Can you guys handle clean-up?”

I’ve already called it in to Agent,” Shadow said.  “We’ll pick up those others on our way out; we should be there in a minute or so.  You go on ahead.

“Got it,” Trick said as she helped Earthborn into the car.  She didn’t like leaving the five Fauns unattended, but they didn’t have any time to waste.  Granny and Shadow could handle themselves against a bunch of tied-up satyrs, and they could get a ride back to Headquarters from Granny’s dragon if need be, after they brought the Fauns to the police.

Trick drove as fast as she could through the city, needing to get Earthborn help as soon as possible.  The protest was already in full swing, with satyrs blocking off many of the streets downtown – Trick had to take three detours before they pulled up into the Asylum tower’s motor pool.

* * * * * * * *

Faun Headquarters.

Parker Fawkes, formerly Blackbird of the Asylum.

Claw looked at Parker from the corner of his eye, not moving a muscle for a long minute after Parker admitted to betraying the Fauns for the Asylum.  Slowly, he smiled. “I know,” he said, taking his claw away from Scott’s neck and giving the kid a fatherly pat on the cheek. “I just wanted to see if you’d come clean.”

The scary part was that he wasn’t angry.  Claw seemed almost gleeful that Parker had confessed.  He turned to look at Parker, putting an arm around Scott’s shoulders.  “You were a Watcher,” he continued. “It stands to reason that you would tell Agent what I had planned.  I had to test your loyalty, see; I told each of my lieutenants something different about tonight’s operation.  So yes, I knew that you were the one to betray me as soon as I saw where the Asylum Watchers were headed.”

“So why’d you call us both here?” Parker asked, confused.  Now that his charade was finally over, a calm settled over his nerves.  He knew that he would die before he could leave this room, so now his only concern was Scott’s safety.

“Fallen, you’re a hybrid,” Claw said, as if explaining to a child.  “Hybrids are rare when born. So far, any attempts to create them have had problematic consequences – they go insane, or they have serious drawbacks.  You’re unique, and I can’t just throw you away that easily.”

Parker’s heart skipped a beat.  There was a chance he might get out of here alive, if he played his cards right.  “What do you want from me?”

“Loyalty,” Claw said, shrugging.  “But since you’ve already proved yourself a traitor, I’ll settle for insurance.”  His left arm still around Scott’s shoulder, Claw used his right hand to point at the table, where a small box sat.  “Open it,” he instructed.

Parker didn’t hesitate.  He went over to the table and picked up the box, opening the lid.  He hadn’t seen it when he first came in the room, but first Claw had been standing in front of it and then his attention had been on Scott.  It was a reasonable oversight, and if Parker had not been scared out of his wits he might have seen what was coming.

The cardboard popped open easily.  Inside was a small, metallic cylinder with a small, unassuming red button on one end.  “Pick it up,” Claw told him.

Parker gingerly took the detonator out of the box.  Tossing the box to one side, he turned back to face Claw, who gave him a smile that didn’t quite meet his eyes.  Claw pulled a remote control out of his pocket, and as he pressed a couple of buttons on it he told Parker, “Stay right there.  I’m just turning on the cameras.” Parker looked into the corners of the room, noting the security cameras as little red lights blinked on.

Claw took a few steps backwards out of the camera’s sights, still hanging onto Scott.  “To leave the room, all you need to do is push the button,” Claw said. “But first, I want to make sure you know all of the consequences.”

He ran a claw under Scott’s chin pointedly.  The gorilla-satyr’s eyes were wide, and he gave Parker a pleading look as Claw silently threatened his life.  Parker gripped the detonator as his heart beat faster.

“That button is a remote detonator,” Claw continued.  “My associate has planted bombs on the top floors of the Asylum tower, where the Watchers live.  Three bombs, to be precise – one in the medical bay, one in the weapons lab, and one in Agent’s office, where all of his spy equipment is based.”

He raised his eyebrows at Parker, who said, “It’ll destroy the Asylum’s infrastructure.  They’ll be crippled for months until they could rebuild.”

“Yes,” Claw confirmed.  “Now, the time is currently…” he checked his watch, to be accurate, “twelve-forty-two in the morning.  At this time of night, the building is closed to their regular workers. The only people in the building would be the Watchers – except at this moment, the Watchers are currently spread out across the city, dealing with the riots that have broken out.”

“Nobody should be in the building,” Parker clarified.  He didn’t doubt Claw’s word – the Faun’s leader was ruthless, but he was no liar.

“Correct,” Claw said.  “Nobody should be in the building.  Now, to be fair, we have no way of confirming that.  So pressing the button is taking a chance with people’s lives.  If you press it, you might kill or seriously injure someone. At the very least, debris from the explosion will fall out onto the street, and any civilians walking by could be injured or killed.”

Claw was careful not to say it, but another stroke of his claw against Scott’s neck showed Parker the ultimatum: either Parker presses the button, or Claw would kill Haley’s brother.

Parker hesitated.  If he pressed the button, chances were that nobody would get hurt.  If he didn’t, then he and Scott would die here and now. Parker took a deep breath to calm his nerves.  If it had just been him in the room with Claw, he would have broken the detonator and thrown it as far away as possible – but he wasn’t alone.  Scott’s life also hung in the balance, and Parker couldn’t be responsible for the other guy’s death.

“The choice is yours, Parker Fawkes,” Claw said, licking his lips.  The psychopath didn’t care what Parker chose – if Parker chose to die, it would be done in a flash, and if he pressed the button then Claw would gain a new lieutenant, as no sane person would testify against Claw as long as he had proof that they had committed this level of terrorism.  Even if nobody was hurt in the blast, Parker would be facing twenty to life for his role in detonating the building. Since Claw had this on camera, while carefully keeping himself and the ultimatum out of it, he could use it any time he thought Parker might turn on him again.

Parker narrowed his eyes at Claw, hating the Faun’s leader for putting him in this position.  He glanced at Scott, seeing the fear on the other guy’s face.

Closing his eyes, Parker made his choice.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.

Outlier was there with a few civilians.  “Trick!” she called as they opened the car doors.  “What happened? You guys stop the gas already?” The civilians crowded around the car, looking the worse for wear.  Nobody seemed injured yet, but all of them were frazzled by the commotion outside.

“There was no gas,” Trick explained, helping Earthborn out of the vehicle.  “It was a set-up. Shadow and Granny are cleaning up now, but we need to get E.B. his treatment soon.”

“Maybe the whole riot rumor was a set-up, then,” Outlier said hopefully.  “Reiki and I have been getting people off the streets who are just caught up in the crowd; apparently the motor pool was designed as a bomb shelter.  They should be safe down here until it blows over. There hasn’t been any violence yet, though, so maybe – ”

Reiki chose that moment to come crashing down, leading a young mother and her two toddlers while flashes of light burst behind them.  “It’s starting!” he called over. He checked to make sure the civilians were okay before coming over to the others. “Some kind of signal went off.  Sounded like gunshots, and suddenly people began pulling out weapons. The police are already out in riot gear, but there are way more protesters than there should be.”

“Better get out there, then,” Outlier said grimly.  “Agent’s downtown at the city capitol building, protecting the government officials – he’ll need our help.”

“No,” Trick told her.  “You and Reiki keep doing what you’re doing.  Agent can take care of things down there; right now, the important thing is to save the civilians.  Earthborn and I will join you after Dale sees him.”

“Better get going,” Reiki said, looking at Earthborn.  “He’s in bad shape.”

“No duh,” Trick said.  “Good luck out there.”

“You too,” Outlier told her, before she and Reiki ran back out into the fray.

It took only a few minutes more before the elevator reached the fourteenth floor.  “Dale! Glad you’re here,” Trick said breathlessly, helping Earthborn to a medical table as she greeted the doctor.  “He’s used too much electricity – he needs treatment!”

Dale’s eyes widened as he shut the lid on a box.  “I have to treat patients downstairs,” he said, grabbing a medical kit and heading for the stairwell door.  “Please, take him and follow me down.”

“He can’t wait,” Trick insisted.  “Look at him!”

Earthborn’s rock armor had crumbled, leaving David’s face exposed.  They could see his eyes burning red like Nightmare’s, and static electricity crackled around him.  Trick’s hair was frizzing from being in contact with him, and David’s face was screwed up in concentration as he fought back against his alternate personality.

“I’m sorry, Trick,” Dale said, heading for the stairs.  “Now that the riots have started, there will be people in the motor pool who will also need immediate treatment.  I’ll treat him on the way down, if you can follow me.”

“It’s fourteen flights down,” Trick pointed out.  “Wouldn’t the elevator be faster?”

Dale looked around, as if dazed.  “Maybe. We don’t have time to debate this, Trick!”

“Dale, come on – he just needs a shot.  You treat Earthborn, and I’ll go stock up on my supplies.  I’ll meet you two downstairs, and we can get back out there.”  Trick opened the door to the stairs despite Dale’s protests, and started up the stairs to her room where she kept her spare tricks.

A flash of heat hit her from behind, and a roaring sound filled her ears.  She was dimly aware of rubble falling around her, before a piece of the building hit her head and she blacked out.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, night.

Nightmare.

It took fifteen minutes for the rest of the team to make it back to the tower.  Firefighters were already at the scene, helping Outlier and Reiki evacuate the civilians from the lobby where they had been waiting out the riots.  They needed to get people as far away as possible, as debris was still raining down from the top floors.

“What happened?” Nightmare asked, looking up in shock.

“Someone planted bombs in our living quarters,” Agent told her, coming from the direction of the Police Chief.  “I was just debriefed. I’ve got the rest of the team helping the evacuation – Granny’s up on the top floors trying to find survivors, and Shadow’s helping get people out down here.”

Nightmare took a deep breath, trying to get her emotions – and her powers – under control.  The last thing they needed in the current atmosphere was more panic and fear. “What about the others?” she asked.  “Outlier and Reiki were supposed to be guarding civilians here.”

“They’re fine – a little shaken up, though,” Agent told her.  “Outlier took a hit from a beam that fell, but aside from a nasty bruise she should be all right.  Reiki’s already helping Shadow. You okay?”

“Fine,” Nightmare told him.  “How can I help?”

“Probably not with the evacuation,” Agent admitted.  “I need eyes – my main server was destroyed. You can help by getting me my data pad from the car.”

Nightmare nodded and ran for the back entrance to the motor pool.  The motor pool was underground and reinforced, meant to act as a bomb shelter for the building.  Most of the civilians that Reiki and Outlier had saved from the riots had been bunkered down there, and none had been injured.  Nightmare dashed down to Agent’s car and grabbed the pad for him, avoiding contact with any of the civilians or rescue workers. Her powers would only hurt the situation, and they made her feel useless in times like this.

She ran back to Agent, staying close in case he needed something else.  Agent turned the data pad on, scanning the many cameras around the city to assess the damage.  At his side, Nightmare grimaced when she saw images of looted businesses and rubble in the streets.  It would take them weeks to clean up the damage. It almost didn’t seem real, watching it through a computer screen – if she hadn’t been out during the riots, seeing the writhing mob destroy everything in its path first-hand, she might have thought it had been a television show.

The sound of a roar brought her back to reality, as Granny landed her dragon in front of them.  Nightmare’s breath caught as she saw the dragon set two bodies down at the medical station. One stirred, and Nightmare saw Dale’s face screwed up in pain as he slowly sat up.  The other body lay deathly still. Nightmare felt Agent tense up next to her as they recognized their teammate.

Granny motioned frantically for everybody near the building to move.  She brought the dragon around, pointing up at the top floors. A loud rumbling started, drowning out anything she might have said.  The dragon began picking people up from around the building, setting them down a ways away from the building as the rumbling grew louder.

“Oh, no…” Agent muttered.  He shoved the data pad into Nightmare’s hands before running to help.  Nightmare looked down at the pad, which showed the view from the news chopper circling the tower.  There was no sound, but she could see a figure standing at the top of the shattered floors.

David swept rubble out of his way with a flick of his hand as he made his way to the edge of the building.  He looked into the camera for a second, grinning maniacally. Nightmare flashed back to the memory of Dark David impaling her as she recognized the expression on his face, and the red eyes that shone in the predawn darkness.

She barely had time to shout before Dark David clenched his fist.  The building shook, rumbling for one long minute before it collapsed.  Nightmare saw through the data pad that David dove off the building, and looked up to see the ground rise up to meet him.  There was a roaring in her ears – someone was screaming, and it almost felt like her own voice. She was dimly aware of Agent running towards her, until a sharp blow to her head left everything mercifully dark.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, the next day.

Aftermath.

Parker kept his hood up in the crisp fall air as he watched the cleaning crews clear the rubble around the building.  He had spent the morning trying to find some kind of news source – he had dumped his burner phone after warning Frank and Natalie two days before, and he had left the one he had gotten as a Faun behind after last night.  The city was still under curfew from the riots, so the papers hadn’t been distributed yet. Aside from the cleaning crews that the government and big businesses in the city coordinated, there was nobody out on the streets.

He closed his eyes, clenching his fists as he tried to remember something – anything – that made sense.

Scott’s safe, he thought.  Claw let him go once I… once it happened.  As soon as Parker had pressed the button, Claw turned off the cameras and released his hostage.  Scott ran for the door without looking back, and never came back to the base. If he’s smart, he’ll go home and forget about the Fauns, Parker thought bitterly.

He couldn’t do the same, no matter how much he wanted to right then.  His home had been destroyed when he pushed that button.

Until he saw the rubble of the tower for himself, Parker had hoped it wasn’t true.  The last few days – the last few months, even – had to all be just a bad dream, and he would wake up any minute.  When he opened his eyes, he’d be on the Asylum’s couch, and Natalie would be giving him grief for napping so long just before their patrol.

A sudden, sharp pain to the back of his head made him open his eyes, bringing him back to reality.  “You have a lot of nerve showing up here,” came Frank’s voice from behind him.

“Frank!” Parker cried, spinning around.  “Thank god!” He stopped suddenly, seeing the state his best friend was in.

Frank was still in his Watcher gear from the night before.  He was covered in dust and bruises as he glared at Parker from behind his goggles.  He held his phone in his hand, letting the news clip play for Parker.

“ – an anonymous source.  The video shows Parker Fawkes, formerly a Watcher of the Asylum, detonating the bombs that destroyed Asylum Tower.  The Asylum had been using the Tower’s underground parking levels as a shelter from the riots. Rescue teams pulled twenty-one injured people from the scene before the building collapsed, killing eleven.  Bodies have been identified as – ”

Frank stopped the clip there.  “Eleven dead,” he repeated. “Four were night shift security guards, and seven others were firefighters and EMTs who were checking to make sure people got out.  Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”

“I can explain,” Parker said, closing his eyes again in shame.  He opened them again to say, “I had to do it, Frank.  Nobody was supposed to be there, and – ”

“Maybe I wasn’t clear,” Frank interrupted, clenching his fists at his sides.  “Do you have any idea what all of this has done to the team?”

“They weren’t up there,” Parker pleaded, his heart beating faster as the bottom dropped out of his stomach.  “They couldn’t have been. You guys were supposed to be handling the riots, and the rest of the building is closed at night…”

Frank shook his head, not taking his eyes off of Parker.  “Earthborn needed treatment,” he explained. “Nat had taken him back to see Dale in the medical center – where one of the bombs went off.”

“No,” Parker said, shaking his head.  “No, Nat couldn’t… They aren’t…” He refused to finish the thought.

“Dead?” Frank said the word for him, and Parker hung his head.  “No. They’re not.” Parker glanced back up, hope rising in his chest.  “Earthborn was in enough of his right mind to cover them from the blast.  Granny pulled Dale and Nat out of there with her dragon.”

“And David?” Parker asked.  Frank’s tone was making him dread the next words out of his mouth, but he had to hear it.

“He didn’t get the treatment in time,” he said.

Parker shook his head, trying to deny the accusation he heard in his friend’s voice.  “You said they weren’t dead,” he countered.

“Oh right, you weren’t here for that part,” Frank said.  “Turns out that when he uses too much of his electric powers – like he did in the tunnels last night – David turns into a supervillain.  I mean full-on, stab-Rina-in-the-chest type bad guy. He brought the rest of the tower down before he disappeared.”

“Rina?” Parker asked.

“The stabbing thing was last month,” Frank explained.  “She got better. But right now they have to keep her sedated – between the riots and the building coming down, she’s lost control of her powers.  Agent had to knock her out to keep her from starting another riot last night, and every time she wakes up, she causes a stampede in the hospital. Have you ever seen injured and terminally ill people try to run for cover?” He let out a short laugh, and Parker’s mouth twisted up at the mental image until Frank added, “It probably would have been funny if it didn’t rip IVs out and break bones further.  The hospital staff had to work overtime last night strapping the worst cases down in case it happened again.”

“Where’s Nat?” Parker asked.  “I need to see my sister.”

Frank shook his head.  “She’s still unconscious,” he said.  “Earthborn hit her with a literal ton of bricks while he was saving her life.  She has a bad concussion, and a lot of broken bones.”

“What about the others?”  It was like watching a train wreck – the more Frank told him, the worse the news got.  Parker couldn’t stop listening.

“The riots disbanded when the building came down,” Frank said.  “People who had just been throwing Molotovs came to help us dig through the rubble.  Even the protesters knew you’d gone too far.”

“The others?” Parker asked again.

“There was no gas,” Frank continued, ignoring him.  “I don’t know what Claw plans to do with the vial you gave him, but the riots here were the same as the others around the country.  Mob mentality struck, and five cities are now trying to clean up the mess. I don’t know what you thought this would do, but the anti-satyr feeling is only growing.  Mom’s keeping my sister at home for now – ”

“What about the others?!” Parker was shouting now, his own fear and guilt crushing him like a weight.

“Granny lost her zoo,” Frank said.  “Those stuffed animals she had knit?  She only had the dragon and the wolf on her last night.  The rest of them were in her room, which went up in flames.  I’d steer clear of her if I were you,” he added wryly. “She’s pissed off, and she still has the dragon.”

Parker bit his lip as Frank continued.  Granny loved her zoo; they were living creatures when she was around, after all.  But there was more to worry about. “Reiki’s fine,” Frank said, “but he’s worried about the girls, who are all in the hospital right now.  Haley was hit in the shoulder by a falling cinderblock in the first explosion – her collarbone is broken, but she’s still looking to patrol today because apparently she’s a masochist.  Let’s see…” he began counting on his fingers. “I told you about Rina and Nat. And David. Chip wasn’t there last night. Dale was dazed, but he’ll be okay – he says he was right next to Earthborn when the bomb went off, but Nat was on the staircase.  E.B. didn’t need to throw rocks at Dale like he did her. But Agent’s only barely keeping his head above water.”

“Why?” Parker jumped on the news.  “What’s wrong with him?”

“What do you think is wrong with him?” Frank asked.  “A teammate turned on the rest of us, another one disappeared, and half the remaining team is down for the count.  This isn’t the first time it’s happened to him, too – Team Ark disbanded for less!”

“I had a reason…” Parker said weakly.  After hearing about the fallout, it sounded bad to him, too.

“Eleven people are dead, Parker,” Frank reminded him.  “Your own sister was nearly one of them. Your team could have been on that list, too.  The country wants to blame you for the nationwide riots last night, too. Agent already gave the order to arrest you.”

Parker had to laugh at that.  “Arrest me?” he repeated. “In the aftermath of Claw’s riots?  They’d throw the book at me!”

“Claw wasn’t on the video,” Frank said, shrugging.  “You were.”

“You know I was being coerced,” Parker said, almost asking.  “Claw would have killed someone right then and there if I hadn’t pressed the button.  The building was supposed to be empty – I traded the building for Scott’s life.” He put a hand on Frank’s shoulder.  “You believe me, right?”

Frank looked away, staring at the rubble heap that had once been Asylum Tower.  Pulling out of Parker’s grip, he said, “I want to believe you, buddy. I can only see it from hindsight – but there’s just so much damage… I don’t even know if the team can recover from this.”

Parker let his hand drop to his side.  “Are you going to take me in?” he asked.

Frank hesitated.  He pressed his lips together, coming to a decision, before saying, “I’m supposed to.  I got banged up in the riots last night, too – I couldn’t force you to come with me. I won’t fight you, buddy.  At least, not now.” He turned around, calling back as he walked away, “I’ll have to arrest you if I ever see you again.”

Parker watched his old friend until Frank rounded a corner.  He put his hands back into his hoodie pockets and turned to get away from the rubble.  As he wasn’t watching where he was going, he nearly ran into a man in a suit.

“Excuse me,” he muttered, moving to walk around him.

The man grabbed his arm with a gloved hand, making Parker look at his face for the first time.  The well-dressed man was wearing a mask, smiling kindly at him. “Parker Fawkes?” he asked.

“You’re Jaunt,” Parker said, freezing in his tracks.  “You broke up Team Ark!”

“And you just broke up the Asylum,” Jaunt reminded him.  Parker hung his head, all fight leaving him for the shame.  “The whole country is calling you the worst criminal since… well, since me.  Everyone knows your face by now, because you broke their heroes. You have no place to go, and nothing to do – except, of course, run from the law.”

Parker sighed.  “What do you want?” he asked.  “Here to rub it in?”

“No,” Jaunt said.  “I’m here to offer you a job.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, outside of the former tower.

Frank Mejia, AKA Shadow.

Frank walked away from Parker with mixed feelings.  On the one hand, everything was falling apart around them, and it was all Parker’s fault.  On the other hand, Parker had been one of his best friends since middle school. Injuries and exhaustion aside, Frank couldn’t fight him.  So he had let him go.

As his stomach rumbled, Frank realized that he hadn’t eaten yet.  His body was screaming at him to find someplace to sleep – he had been awake for nearly two days now.  His muscles were on fire, and it hurt to move. His eyes kept closing, too – so he didn’t see the kid until he ran into him.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, his eyes snapping open.  “I didn’t think anybody was out now. Curfew, and all.”

“Not a problem, Shadow,” the kid said.  He was a teenager, at least – obviously younger than Frank, but not yet fully grown.  Frank was used to people recognizing him, so the kid calling him “Shadow” wasn’t out of place.

“Look, you should go home,” Frank told him.  “The Asylum is still patrolling, but law enforcement is stretched thin right now.  It’s not safe.”

“Oh, I agree,” the teenager said.  “It isn’t safe right now. But it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.”

Frank frowned.  “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, wondering if the scrawny teenager knew something he didn’t.

The kid looked him up and down.  “I’d have preferred to get you at your best, but you’ll have to do as-is,” he said cryptically.  He held out a hand for Frank to shake, adding, “My name is Janus, by the way.”

“Shadow,” Frank said, shaking the kid’s hand reflexively.

Janus grinned, tightening his grip.  “Good to officially meet you, Shadow,” he said.  “On your side, anyways. Now, please come with me.”

It wasn’t a request.  As Janus’ grip tightened, the air around them turned opaque – as if a thick fog had settled over everything.  It cleared in what felt like only a few seconds later, but when he looked around, the sun had set.

Looking to his left, Frank saw that the Asylum Tower was suddenly whole again.  It looked a little different from before, but there was a building where only seconds ago there had been rubble.  The air smelled different; there was a distinct odor that hadn’t been there before, and Frank saw trash lining the streets.

Janus began pulling him back towards the tower.  “Come on, Shadow,” he said. “You need to meet yourself.”

“Wait, what the heck just happened?” Frank asked, pulling his hand out of the kid’s grip.  “This is Eon City, but it’s not – where am I?”

Janus turned back and gave him an exasperated look.  “I keep forgetting this is your first time,” he sighed.  “I know you’ll need a warning or five about what’s coming, but it still should be obvious.”

Frank just glared at him until he answered the question.  “Oh, all right,” Janus said. “You’re right – this is still Eon City.  Just, for you it hasn’t happened yet.” He grinned, throwing his arms out in a ta-da gesture.  “Welcome to your future,” he added.  “Hope you enjoy the show!”

* * * * * * * *

 

The Asylum will return in October 2019.

Issue #9 – Granny To Us All

Asylum Headquarters.

Granny’s room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

One hundred and seven years ago.

Brittany James, age thirteen.

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

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

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

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

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

The demon was staring at her sandwich.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Brittany,” she introduced.

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

After breakfast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she would check it out.  Just in case.

* * * * * * * *

One hundred years ago, to the day.

Brittany James, nineteen years old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“May I be excused?” Brittany asked.

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

“I’m not really hungry,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, a jewelry shop.

Granny’s checking out the necklace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Ninety-nine years ago, to the day.

Brittany James, her 20th birthday.

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Brittany asked.

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

What’s he doing here?” Remmiel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds like an ass,” Brittany said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brittany blacked out, and nothing remained but the pain.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, present day.

Granny’s room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now?” the man asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Issue #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?”

* * * * * * * *