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

Asylum Headquarters.

Something’s wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Asylum HQ.

Debriefing room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We searched the area,” Frank started.

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

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

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

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

“She’s not dead,” Agent repeated.

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Casey’s bar.

Slow night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s not the same,” Agent muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Outskirts of Eon City, near the cliffs.

A very nice memorial service.

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

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

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

They should have known – it was never that easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ETA three minutes, guys,” Agent replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is he now?” Parker said suspiciously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trick is alive, you know.”

* * * * * * * *

A dank, dark cave, a few days ago.

Natalie Fawkes, somehow alive.

Told you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aw, fu – ”

* * * * * * * *

Sean Hannah’s Mansion.

Natalie’s wake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And worst-case?” Frank prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What consequences?” Agent asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So she says,” Miranda muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Agent asked again, impatiently.

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

* * * * * * * *

In a cave somewhere.

Natalie Fawkes, A.K.A. Trick.

Still alive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, Natalie’s room.

Cleaning out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” Reiki asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You remember what happened next?” Eli prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Trial in the caves.

Natalie Fawkes, A.K.A. Trick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Tunnels underneath Eon City.

Frank Mejia, A.K.A. Shadow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?” Outlier asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Parker showed up?” Natalie asked, surprised.

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Next: Issue #18 – The Highest Form of Flattery

Also: Issue #17.5 – New Year Special 2020

Dawn of the Asylum, Issue #12 – Butterfly Net

Olympus – the ruins of a once-great civilization.

The timetable is accelerating.

“He said we had two Earth years,” Jaunt said, glaring from behind his dust mask. “He promised!” The dry desert air chafed his exposed forehead, but he was too focused on his current problem to bother putting on a hat.

The blue-tinged hologram he addressed smiled pleasantly at him. “He did not lie. He will arrive in two years, two weeks, five days, four hours, two minutes – ”

“Then why are you taking over?” Jaunt demanded. “I promised to have a candidate ready, and I meant that I would find one!”

“There is a candidate we have scouted,” the hologram said. “We simply intend to test them. They are currently incomplete, but show an indication of aptitude for the prerequisites.”

Jaunt rolled his eyes. “And exactly what ‘aptitude’ are you talking about?” he asked. “If they don’t meet your standards, then why bother?”

“Humans have shown resilience, particularly this one,” the hologram said. “They adapt easily, and can be molded to fit the standard if they show the proper aptitude. Based on your current reports, this one seems promising.”

“So you’re just going to take over now, is that it?” Jaunt demanded. “I have done more than a decade’s worth of research for you, trying to find the best candidate, and you just take a random kid?”

“The selection was hardly random,” the hologram said, still giving Jaunt that annoying, mechanical smile. “We have received your data on the team known as ‘The Asylum’, and made a preliminary hypothesis about one of the members. Given the data provided, we think she will be an excellent candidate.” The hologram’s face didn’t change, but it moved closer in a slightly threatening manner. “Of course, if you disagree with our assessment, we can always change the timetable. However, given his excitement over the current rounds, I cannot imagine that he would be pleased with you interrupting him.”

“You’re a machine,” Jaunt countered, hiding a shudder at the veiled threat, “you can’t imagine anything.” He sighed in defeat, adding, “Nevertheless, I see your point. Fine; if you want to waste your time with an unqualified candidate, be my guest. I’ll be continuing my other research.”

“Very good,” the hologram said, backing up. “I look forward to working with you.”

Before it could disappear on him, Jaunt asked, “Hey, which Asylum member are you testing?”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, evening.

Casey’s bar.

“Woo-hoo!” Natalie cried, slamming a shot glass down on the table. “I win! Pay up.”

Haley shook her head, pulling her wallet out of her pocket. “I can’t believe you just took ten shots of Jack,” she said, handing Natalie a twenty-dollar bill. “Good thing we walked here.”

The bar was only a few blocks away from Headquarters, so Haley, Natalie, and Reiki had decided to walk down for a change of scenery after their patrols. Earthborn and Granny were busy with the evening patrol, and Frank and Rina declined to join them; neither of them drank alcohol. Rina said it made her nauseous, and Frank just didn’t like the taste. Since they also had the night patrol, they decided to just stay at Headquarters until the shift change.

“Ah, this is nothing,” Natalie said, grinning. “Agent has rules about us getting too drunk in our off-hours; my limit is thirteen.”

“Though you still hope that we aren’t called in,” Reiki pointed out. “Especially not tomorrow morning.”

Natalie shrugged, picking up a shot glass from the table in front of her and licking the rim. “I don’t get hangovers,” she pointed out. “I’ll be fine.”

“That may be,” said Casey as she cleared the empty glasses off of their table, “but you’re still cut off.” Cassandra “Casey” Johnson was an old teammate of Agent’s from Team Ark. Despite her codename being “Sparrow”, Casey wasn’t a Satyr; she was a Third Gen with the ability to see the future. She still reported her visions to Agent, but was otherwise retired from Watcher work.

“Come on, Casey,” Natalie pleaded. “Just one more?”

“Nope,” Casey said, picking up the shot glasses and putting them on a tray, “Agent would kill me if he found out I served you this much.” She took the glass out of Natalie’s hand last, bringing them back to the dishwasher behind the bar.

“Fine then,” Natalie said, beginning to slur her words a little. “Anybody up for karaoke?”

Haley pursed her lips. “I don’t sing,” she said.

“Sure you do,” Natalie told her. “I heard you last week, singing that one song for the doctor…”

“‘Lavender Blue’ is an old tune my mom taught me as a kid,” Haley pointed out. The night was young, but she had to raise her voice over the growing din of customers. “I hummed a few bars to distract the mark; that’s very different from singing a pop song in front of everybody.”

“You’re no fun,” Natalie said. She stood up from the table and grabbed Haley and Reiki’s hands. “If you won’t sing, then at least come dance.”

The bar had a dance floor in the back room, while karaoke was done in the front. On the weekends the place was crawling with satyrs, Third Gens, and humans all looking for a good time. Casey had a heavy hand and a good wait staff, so her place was pretty popular.

Haley groaned, but got up – she knew that Natalie wouldn’t let it go unless she did one or the other, and dancing seemed like the lesser evil. After a sharp tug on his arm by the insistent Natalie, Reiki got up as well. He and Haley exchanged glances as they allowed Natalie to drag them to the dance floor.

After a few minutes of awkward movement, Natalie stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Haven’t you guys ever been clubbing before?” she asked.

Haley was stiff in her movements, self-conscious of the people watching from the sidelines. In contrast, Reiki looked like he was having an upright seizure: his arms were flailing while his feet tangled around each other. Natalie stopped them, shaking her head. “Come on guys, like this.” She demonstrated, keeping her feet close together while she swayed to the beat of the music.

Haley tried to copy her, but Reiki just shook his head and went to find a seat on the sidelines. Watching him leave, Natalie shrugged. “Oh well, looks like we’re the ones having fun tonight. Right Haley?”

“I’m not sure I call this ‘fun’,” Haley pointed out. People were beginning to look their way; as Watchers of the Asylum, most of the city knew their faces. Even though most of Casey’s other patrons were also Watchers, Haley could just see a video of her awkward dancing going viral.

“If you’re really that worried about it,” Natalie told her, “then I’ll take the pressure off of you!”

Natalie left Haley’s side, moving to the center of the dance floor. She strutted to the beat of the music in a large circle, opening up some room in the dancers as the song changed. When the first beat dropped in the new song, she began to really let loose.

When they were kids, Natalie had trained in many styles of dancing with her brother. Along with some of the acrobatics she learned when training to be a Watcher, she combined different dance styles into something graceful and unique. Once the spotlight was on her instead of Haley, the bigger, less coordinated girl faded back to the sidelines.

After a minute of watching Natalie on the dance floor, a vaguely familiar voice came over Haley’s shoulder. “She really does love the spotlight, doesn’t she?”

Haley spun around, coming face-to-face with Eli Howard, also known as the mercenary Watcher, Butterfly. “You!” she cried, startled. “What are you doing here?”

“Can we talk?” he asked, gesturing for them to take it outside. Haley nodded, allowing him to lead her out the front door.

Once they were outside in the brisk summer night air, Haley asked, “What is it?”

Eli was looking around for something. “I just wanted to see how you were,” he said distractedly. “I haven’t seen you in a while, and I thought we could talk.”

Haley narrowed her eyes. “You know where I live,” she said. “If you wanted to talk, then why follow me to the bar?”

“That’s presumptuous,” Eli scoffed, his eyes still darting around. “What makes you think I followed you here? I happen to like Casey’s.”

“Then what are you looking for?” Haley asked, narrowing her eyes in suspicion. “You’re acting shifty. I think I’m going to get the others.”

“Wait,” Eli said. “You know Trick hates me.”

Haley shrugged, turning to go back inside. Eli grabbed her arm, and years of fighting practice took over; reflexively, Haley swung his arm up behind him and held it there, slamming Eli up against the wall of the bar.

“Why did you want me out here?” she asked. “No lies this time!”

“I don’t know,” Eli admitted, his face pressed painfully up against the bricks. “I was paid to just get you out of the bar and away from the others.”

“What?” Haley asked. “Paid by who?”

A bright, bluish spotlight came down on them. “I assume by them,” Eli said, glancing up at the source.

Haley shoved him against the wall again in annoyance. A tingling sensation ran up her spine, and she suddenly couldn’t feel anything – not the night air on her face, not the concrete under her feet, not even Eli, who looked as if he was dissolving in front of her. Haley looked down at her hands, noting with detached alarm that she could see straight through her hands. She tried to look up at the spotlight’s source, but her vision chose that moment to go white.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, the next morning.

Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.

Natalie fought back a yawn as she poured herself a bowl of cereal. She might not get hangovers, but the dancing and alcohol from the night before really took it out of her. It was lucky that her patrol shift didn’t start until the afternoon; she could stand for some downtime until then. Poor Reiki had the early morning shift; it was a good thing he didn’t dance much the night before. Natalie’s muscles ached from the hours-long unscheduled workout she had given them.

She had just decided to get a glass of water with her cereal when Agent stormed into the living area. “It was pretty stupid to get that wasted last night,” he said loudly, crossing his arms.

“Wasted?” Natalie asked, blinking innocently. “What ever gave you that idea?”

Agent gestured to his data pad. “We keep track of your vitals, remember?” he said. “If I had needed you three, you wouldn’t have been fit for duty. You guys already missed training this morning.”

Natalie’s heart skipped a beat in nervousness. “I didn’t have training this morning,” she said, shaking her head and checking her schedule. “I double-checked before we left last night – yep, says right here: I have patrol this afternoon, but I have the morning off.”

Agent took a breath before responding, irritated. “I know you didn’t,” he told her, “but Haley did. And Reiki was ten minutes late to his patrol shift.”

“Then why are you asking me?” Natalie said, turning on the sink for her water.

“Because you’re here,” Agent said, “and the others aren’t. I’ll be having words with them, too.”

“Reiki didn’t drink that much last night,” Natalie told him. “He had, like, two beers. He was swaying a bit on the way home, but I thought he was just dancing. He should have been fine this morning.”

“And Haley?” Agent asked. “I’ve never had a problem with her before, and I don’t want your influence rubbing off on her.”

“Because I’m such a bad influence?” Natalie said sweetly, grinning at him.

Agent smiled despite himself. “Exactly,” he chuckled. “Do you know where she is?”

“No idea,” Natalie said, shrugging. “Haley left a couple of hours before me and Reiki last night. Casey said she left with Butterfly, so I assumed she had just gone home with him.” She took a swig of water before adding, “Don’t you keep track of our vitals? She’s fine, right?”

“Her chip malfunctioned last night,” Agent admitted. “I was going to tell her at training this morning to see Dale to have it checked out, but then she didn’t show up.”

Natalie finished chugging her water and refilled the cup. “She left with Butterfly last night,” she repeated. “You might try asking him.”

“I’ll make the call,” Agent said. “If you see Haley, tell her I’m looking for her. And don’t you be late for your shift,” he added.

Natalie gave him a mock salute. “Yes, mon capitan,” she said. As Agent left for his office, she picked up her spoon and stared at it.

Last night at the bar hadn’t been a first for the group – Natalie dragged them out every other week to blow off some steam. Haley had never skipped training before; she loved the job too much.

Shaking her head, Natalie began eating her breakfast. It’s probably nothing, she thought.

She couldn’t shake a nagging feeling in the back of her mind, as if she had missed something important.

* * * * * * * *

A metallic room, on board a ship.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

Haley groaned as she sat up. Her head was pounding, and her mouth tasted like sandpaper. She could hear a feint humming noise, and the metal floor beneath her seemed to be slightly vibrating.

Remembering what had happened the night before, Haley’s eyes snapped open. She was alone in a large, sterile room; there was no furniture, no door, and she couldn’t even tell where the light was coming from. It seemed as bright as any office in the room, but there were no lamps, windows, or overhead lights.

“What the hell?” she asked herself, standing up. She still wore her casual outfit from the night before: a sleeveless floral-patterned nylon shirt, a knee-length black skirt, and dress sandals.

“Hello?” she called angrily. “What the hell am I doing here? What’s going on?”

As if summoned by Haley’s questions, a small bluish figure appeared out of nowhere in front of her. It looked kind of like a little girl, with high cheekbones and big eyes. On second glance, however, she could see that it had ridges on her nose, and long, pointed ears. The little girl was wearing long robes that covered her feet; it took Haley a second to realize that she had no feet, and was floating a foot off of the ground. The girl flickered, and Haley realized that she was just a projection.

A holographic screen appeared across the girl’s chest. Words began typing across it, as if the girl were speaking.

Hello. My name is Ayu, it wrote. How might I be of assistance?

“Um, hello?” Haley said once she got over the initial shock of the girl’s appearance. “Where am I, and why the hell am I here?”

You have been selected. The little girl had a pleasant smile on her face, but it didn’t meet her eyes. We require you for testing.

“‘Testing’?” Haley asked. “What testing?”

You have exhibited traits that we find desirable, Ayu wrote. We would like to see if you have more.

“What do you mean, ‘desirable’?” Haley asked. “What have I done?”

You are the hero known as ‘Outlier’ on your planet, correct? Ayu said. You have caught our attention.

Haley rolled her eyes. “So I ask again: What have I done? I just started as a Watcher three months ago.”

In that time, you have been tested along with the other members of your team, Ayu explained. You have demonstrated wit, cunning, patience, diligence, discipline –

“As much as I enjoy being complimented,” Haley said, interrupting the list, “I must insist you take me back. I have training in the morning, and I’d like to punch Eli in the face before bed.”

It is midday in your sector of Earth, Ayu told her. It has been twelve Earth hours since you arrived on board.

“Twelve hours?” Haley sputtered. “What… why?”

The transfer can be difficult for a species that has not yet adapted to space travel, Ayu explained. You needed to… “sleep it off”.

“You’re kidding,” Haley said, exasperated. “Fine. I missed training. I still need to get back; or am I a prisoner here?”

You will be tested, Ayu wrote. Then you will be returned.

“Tested for what?” Haley asked.

Testing will begin shortly. Please enter the next room, Ayu wrote.

A door opened in the wall in front of Haley. Sighing in annoyance, she stepped through. “Better get this over with,” she muttered.

The next room was just as sparse as the one she had left, with two key differences. First, there was a big red button on the far wall – which was about twenty feet away from the entrance.

Second, Eli stood on one side of the room.

“You!” Haley started towards him, flexing her arm threateningly.

“Now, hang on one second,” Eli said, putting his hands out as if to hold her back. “I was just doing a job, and now I’m stuck here just like you.”

“A job, huh?” Haley said. “You get me away from my teammates, so that I can be abducted and brought to who-knows-where, and I have some kind of alien kid telling me that I have to be ‘tested’ before I can go home. That was a ‘job’ to you?” She strode over to him and grabbed him by the collar.

Eli shrugged. “It paid well,” he said. “They just want to see what you’re made of, then we can go back.”

“When we get back, I’m getting Agent to lock you up,” Haley told him, letting him go. “I agree with Natalie and Frank: you’re a menace.”

“Whatever,” Eli said, straightening his shirt and rubbing his neck.

Haley looked around at the room. “So when is this ‘test’ supposed to start?” she asked the room.

Nothing visibly happened, but the soft hum of energy was suddenly in the room with them. A female voice spoke over an intercom, saying, “The test has begun. Push the button.”

“That’s it?” Haley asked. “Just push that big button over there?”

“Push the button,” the disembodied voice said again.

Raising her eyebrows, Haley started forward. Eli shook his head. “Wait, Outlier, maybe we should – ”

“You don’t get to talk,” Haley said, walking backwards. “I’m taking this test, and getting us out of here so I can bring you in.”

“I’m just saying, it can’t be that easy,” Eli said, putting his hands on his hips.

Haley ignored him with a wave of her hand as she turned back around – just in time to walk face-first into an invisible wall. “Ow,” she said, rubbing her nose where she hit it. “Damn.”

“Told you,” Eli said, smirking. “What kind of idiot are you? Of course there’s going to be something else to it.”

Haley turned to glare at him. “Okay, smart-ass,” she said. “What do you recommend?”

“No idea.” Eli shrugged, walking over to her and feeling for the invisible wall. “I’m guessing it’ll be a maze.”

As if it heard him, the voice said again, “Push the button.” Haley looked around the room, but she couldn’t tell where the wall was or which way to go.

This was going to be harder than she thought.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, evening.

Outlier has been missing for twenty hours.

“You haven’t seen him either?” Agent was taking a call in the common room, as most of the team gathered to compare notes. “… Okay. Let me know if he turns up.” He hung up, turning back to the others. “Haley didn’t show up for her patrol this evening,” he said. “I checked with building security, and she didn’t come back last night after the bar. The last time anybody saw her was when she left the bar with Butterfly – I just heard from some of my contacts on that end, and nobody’s seen him, either.”

“That’s not so unusual for Butterfly, though,” Rina pointed out. “He comes and goes as he wants.”

“But Haley is Miss Perfect,” Natalie pointed out. “She’s never so much as stepped a toe out of line before; she wouldn’t just disappear on us.”

Frank pulled his uniform hoodie over his head, getting ready for his patrol as he spoke. “So what do you want us to do about it?” he asked. “Any places we should check?”

“I have another person to check with,” Agent said. “If you guys could canvas the city, that might turn something up. Earthborn is currently checking the tunnels, to see if either of them turn up down there. I’m also asking Toby to check with the Fauns – she can get in and out of there a lot more discreetly than any of you, and she won’t raise a flag with them. I’m not sure what other enemies she might have made,” he admitted. “Our best bet is to figure out where Butterfly might have taken her. I have a list of his usual haunts; you guys check these places out.”

He set a very short list down on the counter. Natalie took one look and raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re kidding, right?” she asked. “‘Butterfly Garden’, a studio on the north side, and then a few dives?”

“He’s a pretty straightforward guy,” Agent said, shrugging. “If he’s in the city, he’s usually at these places unless he’s on a job.”

Granny stood up from a chair in the corner. “I’ll check out some of the dives,” she said. “I can handle myself if there’s trouble – though most people wouldn’t trouble an old lady,” she added with an impish grin.

“I’ll take the studio,” Natalie said. “If he took Haley somewhere, I doubt we’ll find them at any of these places, though.”

“I’ll check out Butterfly Garden,” Frank said.

“That leaves me splitting the dives with Granny,” Rina said.

Agent nodded. “You have your assignments, then,” he told them. “Get to it.”

* * * * * * * *

The Invisible Maze.

Haley and Eli, still trapped.

“Push the button,” came the robotic voice yet again.

Haley was really starting to hate that voice.

“I’m trying,” she growled, as Eli laughed at her. She spun to face him. “What’s so funny?” she demanded.

“You,” Eli said, still chuckling. “You’re yelling at a machine.”

“Oh, she knows what she’s done,” Haley said, shouting. Whether she was shouting at him, or the voice, or at the general situation, she wasn’t sure. “She knows exactly what she’s done! We’ve been at this for two hours now, and not only can I not figure out where we’ve gone wrong, but the only path I can seem to find leads us to the wrong wall!”

“Aren’t you supposed to be some kind of genius?” Eli asked, mocking her.

Haley took an angry breath. “I have an eidetic memory,” she said. “In this case, that means I can draw a map in my mind of where the walls we’ve found are. But no matter which way we go, it always leads us back to this one point – nowhere near the button!”

“And of course we can’t climb it,” Eli said, also frustrated. “We can’t see how high it is, but the sides are smooth, and apparently the top is out of jumping range.”

“It’s a stupid optical illusion,” Haley fumed, pounding her fist on the nearest invisible wall. “I don’t know how she’s doing it, but I swear, next time she shows that smug little holographic face…”

“You’ll beat up a kid?” Eli said. “Or will you just throw your fists through the air, since holograms don’t actually have bodies to hit?”

Haley pressed her lips together in annoyance. “You know,” she said, “you have a body I could hit. Maybe I’ll just take out my anger on you.”

“Idle threat,” Eli said, completely unconcerned. “You’d never hit me. It goes against that whole Asylum ‘holier-than-thou’ complex you’ve got.”

“Lucky you,” Haley said drily. She pounded her fist against the wall again.

Something suddenly occurred to her. She hit her fist against the wall again, but more thoughtfully than angrily this time. “The walls all lead back to this spot,” she muttered.

“Oh, gears finally turning in that rusty brain of yours?” Eli said.

“Are you trying to be annoying, or does it just come naturally to you?” Haley asked.

Eli shrugged, putting his hands behind his head. “It’s a gift,” he answered.

“Well, if you’d shut up for a minute, you might figure it out, too.” Haley walked over the metal wall, feeling the invisible one beside her as she went. “We’re still assuming that what we see matters,” she explained. “We can’t see the walls in the middle of the room…”

She put her hand on the metal wall, but met no resistance. Eli stared as her hand went through the wall. “So why would the walls on the edge of the room be real?” he finished.

Haley stepped through the holographic wall, coming into another room on the other side. This room glowed green, and the invisible walls reflected the light enough to be seen – while they were still sheer enough to see what was on the other side, at least now they showed up to the naked eye.

“Video game logic,” Haley muttered as Eli stepped through the wall behind her. “Rina’s much better at those.”

“Well, we’re not done yet,” Eli said. He clapped her on the shoulder, then walked ahead. There was a soft click as he stepped on a loose tile on the floor.

“Wait!” Haley cried, pulling him back.

Three knives flew in front of Eli’s face, where he would have been standing if Haley hadn’t stopped him. “Whoa,” he muttered, his eyes wide.

“Video game logic,” Haley repeated. “Rina’s always telling me that you have to be careful of traps in dungeons like this.”

“Noted,” Eli said, pulling his arm out of her grip. “So what do we do?”

“No idea,” Haley said, peering around through the green light. “I’m horrible at these kinds of games.”

The voice chose that moment to come back on. “Push the button.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, Butterfly Garden.

Frank Mejia, AKA Shadow.

“He lives here?” Shadow asked the groundskeeper, looking around at the field.

Butterfly Garden was a nature preserve on the edge of Eon City, where hundreds of butterflies nested. The air around them was humid, as the garden was kept at optimal conditions for the winged insects. The smell of the plants around them was unlike anything Shadow could smell in the city – the air was fresh, and the dew sparkled in the sunset.

The groundskeeper shrugged. “Eli often comes and helps out with the grounds,” he said. “So I let him kip out here when the weather’s nice, or in the main building when it’s not. He’s got a way with the butterflies, see – he moves like them, and he can walk into the middle of a flock without hurting any of them. It’s that Third Gen power of his, all kinds of useful.”

Shadow stopped gazing around the picturesque garden to look at the groundskeeper. “When was the last time he came here?” he asked.

“Few days ago,” the man said. “He’s a drifter, that one – he don’t hang around much. He just likes the butterflies, when he’s got no other place to go.”

“So he didn’t come here last night?” Shadow asked, his shoulders slumping slightly. The garden was a dead end.

“Nope,” said the groundskeeper. “Try the Essex Studio across town – he sometimes talks about going there.”

“Thanks,” Shadow said, turning away and turning on his com unit. “Butterfly Garden was a dead end. Any luck, guys?”

* * * * * * * *

Green Room.

Haley Prince, on her last nerve.

“Push the button,” said the robotic voice.

Haley started mocking it. “Push the button, push the button,” she said. “I know I have to push the freakin’ button – I’m just not sure how to get there!”

The floor was covered in hidden switches, and it seemed like every time they made some progress something would force them back. They were still a ways away from wherever the maze was leading them this time, and had already had to backtrack twice.

“I think we have to go through the choke point,” Eli said, citing a spot they had passed by twice due to the size of the spinning blades shooting from the walls.

“And what, dance our way through?” Haley asked sarcastically. “Every time we try going there, it’s a close call.”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense,” Eli argued. “We’ve tried all of the other paths – the other walls are all solid!”

“I know, I know,” Haley said. “I just have a really bad feeling about that one.”

Eli shrugged. “Doesn’t that mean it’s the right path?” he asked. “Video game logic, remember?”

Haley rolled her eyes, but she led the way back to the choke point. There were two spinning buzzsaws moving quickly up and down the corridor, but they had already discovered that other traps were peppered along the way.

“On three?” Eli asked.

“Okay,” Haley said, a nervous feeling in her stomach. She hadn’t felt such a sinking feeling since her last Watcher license rejection. “One… two… three!”

She darted forward, keeping an eye peeled on the ground for the loose tiles that indicated a trap. Dodging the blades on the sides, she saw the first volley of arrows zip out of the wall in front of her with a SHUNK.

“Allow me, milady,” Eli said, coming up beside her and using a break in the saws to get in front. He tapped out a beat on his leg with his fingers, counting the time between arrow volleys. In rhythm, he said, “Three, two, one, now!” and pulled Haley forward. He stopped suddenly, allowing another volley to pass in front of him before pulling her again.

Five volleys later, they had made it to the other side. “That was incredible!” Haley said, looking at him in awe. “How did you know?”

“My Third Gen ability is hyper-proprioception,” Eli explained, grinning at the praise. “I know exactly where I am in regards to everything around me. It gives me excellent aim, and – more importantly – a really good sense of timing. Come on, let’s move.”

He took one step, straight onto a trap tile. A knife shot out of the wall, aimed straight at his head.

“Watch it!” Haley said, catching the blade just before it reached Eli’s head.

His eyes widened as he turned to see how close he had come to dying. “Thanks,” he said as Haley dropped the knife.

Haley swore. “I’m still in my clubbing clothes,” she muttered, looking down at her outfit as she held her hand away from her body. Blood began to well up in her palm from where she had gripped the edges of the blade.

“Afraid of getting a bit of blood on your pretty shirt?” Eli teased.

“No,” Haley said. “I just don’t have my first-aid supplies; they were in my purse, which I left in the club.” She shook her head, wincing as the blood in her hand began dripping onto the floor. “From now on, I’m not going anywhere without my utility belt.”

“Here,” Eli said, taking off his shirt and handing it to her. “Wrap it with that. Least I can do, since you saved my life and all.”

Haley took it, thanking him. She gripped one of the sleeves with the bleeding hand and wrapped the cloth tightly around it. “Well, it looks like we made it to the wall,” she said.

Eli picked the bloody knife up off the floor and slipped it into his pocket. “Never know when a weapon might come in handy,” he said. “No pun intended.”

“Ha ha,” Haley said dryly. “Let’s see what’s next.”

The two Watchers stepped through the wall into the next room, which was bathed in a red glow.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, Essex Studio.

Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.

“Trick here,” she said over the coms. “The studio is a bust, too. They haven’t seen Eli since yesterday morning.”

Roger,” Agent told her. “You and Shadow check out the next bars on the list.

“How are things on your end?” Trick asked him, getting onto her motorcycle and revving up the engine. “Any leads from your contacts?”

No,” Agent sounded mad. “They are being purposefully vague in their answers. I think they know something, but they aren’t talking.

Trick pressed her lips together as she drove off. “Want me to go kick their asses for you, Agent?” she asked.

I’d love that, actually,” Agent admitted, “but it’s more than my job’s worth at this point. Did the studio tell you anything?

“It’s a gymnastics studio,” Trick said. “Butterfly’s been a gymnast since he was a kid. Who knew?”

The guy sleeps in a field of butterflies,” Shadow added over the coms. “At this point, I don’t think anything would surprise me about him.

“Apparently he’s pretty good. He teaches gymnastics to kids in his spare time,” Trick said. “He’s got that in common with Haley, at least.”

Haley isn’t in the Watcher business for the money, though,” Agent pointed out. Trick could hear the worry in his voice. “We still need to find her; if she isn’t back yet, then there’s something wrong.

“We’ll find her,” Trick promised. In the silence that followed, she knew that Agent was remembering the day they found her mom. She might not get along with the Outlier, but Trick hoped that history wouldn’t repeat itself.

They might find her, but in what condition?

* * * * * * * *

Red Room.

Haley and Eli, and a lot of fire.

“Something’s wrong,” Eli said, looking at Haley. “Why are you losing so much blood?” She had already re-wrapped the shirt twice, and it was nearly soaked through.

Haley looked down at it and grimaced. “My blood doesn’t clot,” she told him. “It’ll keep bleeding until I get to a first-aid kit.”

Her face appeared bright red in this room, reflecting the light around them. Eli couldn’t tell in the light, but he thought she looked paler than she had in the last room. “Hang on,” he said, counting the time for the next trap. “We’re almost through this one.”

“You know that for sure, huh?” Haley asked him. She had let him take the lead a while ago, as her head was starting to get fuzzy. “We could be going around in circles for all I know.”

“What happened to that eidetic memory of yours, huh?” Eli asked. “Shouldn’t you know where we are?”

Haley shook her head, stumbling. “I lost track after the last fire burst,” she admitted. “I could really use some water.”

The red room didn’t use blades and switches like the green room had done. Instead, flames shot in random patterns through the corridors. They could see the jets that would shoot the flames, which was a blessing – they could avoid getting burned, though the temperature in the room rose with each burst of fire. The main walls were still metallic – if they didn’t find their way through soon, they could be cooked alive.

Eli tried to wipe the sweat off his forehead, only to find that his hand was too wet to do any good. Haley was worse off – she was swaying, and her breathing was coming more heavily. The dry air burned, and he knew they needed more than water to make it through.

“We need to stop the bleeding,” he said. He began to shout to the air, “Hey, hologram lady! She needs medical attention if you want us to finish!”

“Push the button,” the voice repeated.

“She’s no help,” Haley said, shaking her head in an attempt to clear the dizziness. She began to unwrap the shirt from her hand. “If bandaging isn’t working, then I’m going to need to cauterize it,” she told Eli.

Confused, Eli asked, “What do you mean, ‘cauterize it’?” He looked back just in time to see Haley grab the metal base of a flame jet with her injured hand. “Hey!”

Haley gritted her teeth as the jet roared to life, keeping her head and torso as far away from it as possible. When the fire died, she pried her hand from the metal surface and cradled her arm. “Bleeding stopped,” she muttered, shivering in pain. “I just hope Dale’s on hand whenever we get back – I’m going to need his healing powers.”

“Here, let me see,” Eli said, reaching for the injured hand. Her palm was charred, and her fingers were covered in blisters. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“I don’t even feel it,” Haley told him, smiling weakly.

“Yeah, because the nerves are fried,” Eli said.

Haley gingerly yanked her hand away from him. “I can function,” she said. “Stronger than a rhino, steady as a boulder. It was the fastest way.”

She pressed forward, Eli following closely behind her. “Now you aren’t bleeding to death,” he said. “You’re just cooking yourself. I got stuck with a masochist, and if she dies then I’m never getting out of here. That’s just great.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Haley asked. Her charred hand did one good thing – it took her mind off of the burning air.

“It means that this is your test,” Eli said angrily. “You have to be the one to push the freakin’ button.”

“And I will,” Haley said, shrugging. “Look, here’s the far wall.”

She reached her injured hand out to touch it, just in case they had reached one of the real metal walls; she couldn’t afford to burn her other hand. As the burned hand passed through, she turned back to give Eli a confident grin, even as her eyes watered in pain –

– and was pulled through by something on the other side.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Agent, about ready to bust some heads.

That’s the last one,” Granny said over the coms. “Roberta didn’t hear anybody talking about a missing Watcher.” She referred to her dragonfly, who allowed her to listen to multiple conversations at once.

I got nowhere, too,” Nightmare said from her own location. “It’s another dead end.

Nobody’s seen or heard anything from Butterfly in the last two days,” Trick added. She and Shadow had finished checking the other bars on the list. “Any luck on your end, Agent?

“Earthborn hasn’t found them in the tunnels,” Agent told them, “and my contact is still being dodgy. You four meet up back at headquarters; I’m going to meet them in person.”

You could use some backup,” Nightmare pointed out. “We’ll go with you!

“No,” Agent said. “It’ll go better if I’m alone. They’re not dangerous,” he added, just to put their minds at ease. “Just annoyingly unhelpful. Agent out.” He muted his com, banging a fist on the table next to him in frustration. He had spent the last five hours trying to contact anybody who might know where Butterfly had taken Haley, to no avail. Now there was only one person left to try – and he really hoped it was another dead end.

Agent went down to the motor pool and took his car out across the city. At this time of night, the roads were mercifully clear – he arrived at the dock warehouses in minutes. When he stepped out of the car, a hole ripped in the air in front of him.

“Jaunt,” Agent said, gripping his umbrella.

Jaunt stepped through the portal, looking around. “Pretty clandestine, don’t you think?” he asked. “Where’s your team?”

“I’m here alone,” Agent told him.

Jaunt chuckled. “That must be killing you,” he said, “to be meeting with me like this. Now, what did you want to talk to me about that needed such a dreary meeting place?” He looked around at the warehouses, wrinkling his nose at the fishy smell coming from the wharf.

“Stop playing around,” Agent said. “You’ve been ducking my call all evening. Don’t pretend you don’t know what this is about.”

“You’ve misplaced a teammate,” Jaunt said, smirking at him. “Or should I say, another teammate.”

He was trying to get a rise out of Agent, referring to Striker. When Agent worked with Team Ark, they had tried and failed to arrest Jaunt – and it had torn the team apart. Striker had vanished from the face of the earth that day, and the team couldn’t recover. It was Agent’s worst failure, and it had been entirely Jaunt’s fault.

Jaunt knew how Agent felt about him, and reminded him of it every time they met. Now with Haley missing, there was no doubt in Agent’s mind that Jaunt was behind it.

“Listen here,” Agent said, using his umbrella’s handle to drag the thief’s face close to his. “You know where Outlier is. You’re going to tell me right now.”

“Pretty touchy for an Agent, aren’t you?” Jaunt said, unconcerned. He didn’t even try to pull free of Agent’s grip. “I didn’t take the girl.”

“You know who did, then.” It wasn’t a question – Jaunt knew more than he was saying.

Gingerly, Jaunt pulled the umbrella handle away from his neck. “She was last seen with the mercenary, wasn’t she?” he asked, evading the question.

“Mercenaries are hired,” Agent said, swinging the umbrella back down to his side. “I want to know by whom.”

“We don’t always get what we want,” Jaunt told him sagely. He clapped his hands together, preparing to leave again. “Don’t worry about the girl,” he added once the portal was open. “If she survives, she’ll be returned to you.”

Agent caught Jaunt’s arm. “I’m not done yet,” he growled. “What do you mean ‘if she survives’?”

“She’s being tested,” Jaunt told him, shrugging. “That comes with some risk. But Outlier should have no problems with that, right?” he asked, smirking. “After all, you hand-picked her for your team. The human girl with the extraordinary willpower.”

Agent’s grip loosened for a second, and Jaunt yanked his arm free. He stepped through the portal before Agent could grab him again.

“Damn him,” Agent muttered, getting back into his car. If he didn’t need the thief…

But he did. That line of thought would get him nowhere, and Haley was still missing. He could only hope that they found her – or that she passed this “test” – before it was too late.

* * * * * * * *

Blue Room.

Haley’s in trouble.

Haley kept her charred hand behind her as she faced off with her opponent. She barely registered Eli running through the wall behind her, keeping her eyes on the giant figure that had pulled her into the room.

This room was different from the others. Aside from the blue lighting, it was round instead of square, and it didn’t seem to have any maze walls, invisible or otherwise. The floor was covered in a small pool of clear water, coming up to Haley’s ankles. However, the biggest difference loomed in front of her: instead of traps, this room had –

“Is that a knight?” Eli asked, his eyes going wide.

“Boss fight,” Haley said. “Video game logic, remember?” The knight was in full armor, complete with sword – but it stood ten feet tall in the large chamber.

“At least this room has water,” Eli said weakly. “We have to fight that thing?”

Haley pointed towards the opposite end of the room with her good hand. Eli followed it, seeing a door on the other side that was covered in bars. “I’m guessing we have to subdue it,” she told him, grimacing as she tried to flex her injured hand behind her.

“You’re in no shape to fight,” Eli pointed out. “You’re injured, and you lost a lot of blood…”

“Yes, I’m aware,” Haley said, exasperated. “There’s got to be a trick to this room, just like everywhere else.”

Eli rolled his eyes. “I’m all ears,” he said.

The knight drew its sword, coming after them. Haley pushed Eli out of the way, then dove to the other side to avoid the knight’s swing. Luckily for her, the knight was slow and lumbering, as if it weren’t alive. She rolled to a stand, looking around for its next attack.

It had to have a weakness. Haley could try taking its sword, but strong as she was, she would never be able to wield it with one hand. There had to be another way – even if she just disarmed it, she had no way of knowing what would open the door in front of her.

The water seeped into her shoes, tripping her as she tried to dodge the knight’s next attack. Tripping saved her life – the knight sliced his sword through the air over her, and would have bisected her if she had been upright.

“What do we do?” Eli cried, rolling away from another swing of the giant sword.

Haley scrambled to her feet, wincing as she kicked something under the water. A loose tile! “Eli, there are switches in this room, too!” she called over. “I think we need to press them all.”

“Press the switches? Are you mad?” he called back, dodging another swing of the sword. “The last ones tried to kill us!”

“Just trust me, okay?” Haley said, stepping on the switch by her foot. “Find a switch!”

Eli shook his head in disbelief, but began feeling his way through the water for loose tiles. Haley, for her part, tried to keep the attention of the knight to give him space to move. Her clothes were soaked from falling into the water, and her skirt felt like a weight around her legs. Her breathing picked up again as her heart rate rose, and a wave of nausea washed over her as she narrowly avoided the knight’s sword.

“Haley!” Eli called, snapping her back into the moment just in time to dodge another hit. “Almost there!”

He stepped on two more switches, but Haley saw the problem: the final switch was at the knight’s feet. She braced herself, blinking the water out of her eyes as she forced herself to focus on the sword. Eli looked over, crying, “What the hell are you doing?!”

As the sword came down again, Haley dove forward towards the giant knight. She pressed the switch with her good hand, using her injured one to push off of the knight’s legs in the direction of the door.

The knight raised its sword again, but instead of swinging it at the pair it held it out in front of its sightless face. The bars in front of the door swiftly retracted into the floor with a shwoop.

Haley stumbled over to the door, meeting Eli there. Giving him a grin as he opened the door for her, she said, “We did it!”

Stepping through the door into the original room, her eyesight began to blur. She could tell that they were only a few feet away from the big red button now, and she stumbled towards it. Eli caught her injured arm, putting it around his shoulders to help her walk forward. “Come on, Outlier,” he said. “We’re right here; don’t quit now.”

Haley took a deep breath, taking it one step at a time. She couldn’t even speak, feeling as if she would puke if she opened her mouth. Her injured arm burned, and the rest of her body felt heavy. She reached out with her good arm, but she couldn’t see if it was touching the button; her eyes chose that moment to roll back into her head, and she gratefully passed out.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, outside of Asylum Headquarters.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

Somebody was talking; that was the first thing Haley realized as she came to. “Hey, you did it,” Eli said. “Come on, Haley; you beat the test, and you pressed that stupid button. Don’t you dare die on me now. Come on, wake up.”

“‘M not gonna die,” she mumbled, opening her eyes. She saw Eli’s face staring down at her, but above him was a pinkish dawn sky. “We’re back?”

“Haley!” Eli said, grinning at her. “That was the stupidest, bravest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Raising an eyebrow hurt. “What?” she asked, trying to sit up.

“I got you into that mess,” he said. “I was as annoying as I could have possibly been, and you still caught that dagger for me. Then you burned that cut closed – which, frankly, I thought was both idiotic and the most badass thing I’ve ever seen. You figured out the puzzle in the knight room, and still managed to press the button at the end.” He shook his head as he summed up the adventure. “I’ve never seen anybody keep their cool like that.”

“You weren’t so bad yourself,” Haley said, finally managing to prop her arms against her legs to keep herself sitting forward. It was still early enough that nobody was around, but she would rather avoid the awkward questions if anybody had seen her. “You figured out the pattern to the knives and the fire.”

“Yeah, well, I wasn’t supposed to do that,” Eli said, then bit his lip. At Haley’s questioning – but not surprised – expression, he admitted, “I was paid to hold you back. I was supposed to insult you, and basically be as annoying as possible to keep you from focusing.”

“Makes sense,” Haley said. She looked around and saw the familiar doors of Asylum Headquarters. “I need to get in there,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief. “I missed both practice and my patrol yesterday.” She didn’t try to move from her sitting position yet, though. Her head was pounding, and her stomach still threatened to rebel at the first sign of movement.

“You need help,” Eli said. “You’re injured, anemic, and you’re talking about missing work.”

Haley looked down at her hand, wincing as she saw the injury. The blisters weren’t as bad as they had looked in the fire room, but the charring around the wounds kept her from flexing it fully. “Meh,” she shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”

Eli gave a surprised laugh. “You’ve had worse than that?” he asked, disbelieving.

“My brother once dislocated my shoulder while breaking my arm in three places when we were sparring,” she told him.

“Ah.” Eli obviously didn’t know what to say to that. He was saved responding when a flash of blue light appeared next to them.

Ayu still looked like a smiling alien kid, but she spoke with the same grown woman’s voice that had kept repeating “push the button” on the ship. “You gave us excellent data,” she said. “Haley Prince, you exhibited more of the qualities we are looking for in our candidates. You are still incomplete, but you show promise.”

“So you’re talking now, are you?” Haley asked, moving as if to stand up. The world spun around her with the motion, so she elected to remain sitting.

“My vocal emitters function better in the atmosphere of a planet,” Ayu said. “On the ship, my voice echoes loudly, and some species have difficulty understanding. I wanted to be sure you understood the parameters of the test; for that reason, I kept vocal instructions to a minimum.”

“I passed your test,” Haley said irritably. “What else do you want?”

“She’s injured,” Eli added. “Can’t you do something?”

“She will live,” Ayu said, looking Haley up and down. “Her own doctor will be able to treat her injuries with minimal scarring.”

Haley blinked. “Well, that’s something,” she said. “So why are you still here?”

“I have been tasked with testing the heroes of your planet,” Ayu explained. “I have delegated this task for too long; now I must begin to take a more active role. I wish to inform you that you are still incomplete; however, you show promise. We will see whether you have been completed in two years; in the meantime, I will continue to test the other possible candidates from this world.”

“Why?” Haley asked. “What happens in two years?”

“The Gamemaster will arrive,” Ayu said simply. She didn’t elaborate, but turned to Eli. “The agreed upon sum has been deposited in your bank account. Thank you for your service.”

“No problem,” Eli said, giving Haley a guilty look. “Let’s not do this again, okay?”

“I will not require your services again for some time,” Ayu told him. She nodded first at Eli, then at Haley in some kind of farewell, and then disappeared in another flash of light.

Haley leaned back, laying back down on the sidewalk. If she had trouble sitting up, then standing was probably out of the question. “I think I’ll take a quick nap before going in,” she muttered. “It’s been a long day.”

“Wonder what that ‘Gamemaster’ thing is that’s coming in two years,” Eli mused.

“You don’t know?” Haley asked.

Eli shrugged. “They paid me to do a job. I did it,” he said. He stretched his arms for a minute, then got to his feet. “Anyways, I’d better get going before your friends come down. Trick and Shadow wouldn’t be too happy to see me.”

Haley reached an arm up to him, and he pulled her to her feet. The world still spun around her, but she managed to stay upright. Eli helped her to the doorway of the tower, then turned around and walked away.

“Eli,” Haley called after him. He turned back, stopping on the sidewalk. “Thanks,” Haley said.

Eli gave her a deep, mocking bow. “Any time, milady,” he said with a grin. Then he turned around and walked away.

Haley watched him leave for a minute before pressing the building’s buzzer. The security guard at the front desk hurried to let her in, catching her before she could fall through the open door. “Outlier!” he said, obviously startled to see her. “What happened? Everybody’s been looking for you all night!”

Haley gave him a sheepish smile. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” she said.

* * * * * * * *

Next: Issue #13 – Fallen Angel

Dawn of the Asylum, Issue #3 – A Good Influence

Asylum Headquarters.

Training.

“Stand still!” Reiki growled, rubbing his hands together as the twins jumped around in front of him.  “Let me hit you!”

“I think you’re missing the point here,” Parker laughed.  “Nobody is ever going to let you hit them.”

“Come on, Reiki!” Frank called back to him.  Natalie was throwing rather sharp playing cards at them, which would have cut them to ribbons if Frank hadn’t been deflecting them with his staff.

A bright light flashed from Reiki’s hands, but the twins dodged it easily – as they had been since the exercise began.  Parker and Natalie looked at each other and nodded; they didn’t need words to communicate. Parker jumped straight up, unfurling his wings to give himself extra lift, and pulled his arm back to prepare for a punch.  Reiki lifted his hands to throw the next light beam at him, while Frank turned his staff to catch Parker’s super-strong hit –

And both were hit by Natalie’s playing cards.

“That’s match,” Agent said, as Parker glided down.  He had been acting as referee for the group while he took notes on the training match.

Natalie grinned at their opponents as Parker landed next to her.  “Stronger together,” she started, holding out her fist to him.

“Stronger as one,” Parker finished, tapping his twin’s fist with his own.  They had been using that phrase as their rallying cry since they first heard it as kids.

“Yeah, yeah,” Reiki said, letting his Third-Gen powered light dim from his hands.  “You guys win again, we need to work on stuff, yadda yadda.” He turned towards Agent, asking, “Why did you have to put those two together again?”

“Because they work well together,” Agent said dryly, “and you need to work on your communication skills.”

Reiki sighed, moving to stand next to Frank for the After Action Review.  “Okay, what is it this time?” he asked, resigned. Frank just shrugged – he knew exactly what had gone wrong, and he also knew that Reiki wouldn’t listen to him.

Agent looked between the two pairs.  “You know,” he said, thoughtfully, “I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said a hundred times before.”  He picked up his umbrella from where it had been resting against his leg and walked to the elevator. “I’ll gather my notes and get back to you.  Dismissed.”

He left the training room.  Parker gave Frank a high-five and said, “I’ve got to get going.  Thanks for the workout!”

“Going again?” Frank asked his old friend.  “That’s every day this week!”

Natalie added, “You also haven’t been coming back to the tower every night.  What’s this ‘special assignment’ Agent has you on?”

“Can’t say,” Parker answered, pulling his twin’s braid.  “It’s going to be a while before I can get back to normal patrols, though.”

“You haven’t even met the new girl yet,” Frank pointed out.  “Haley’s going to be moving her stuff in today; this is normally when we get them with a welcome-to-the-team prank.”

“Aw, man,” Parker grimaced.  “You guys are going to have to do that without me.”  He looked at his watch, and hurried to the stairs. He would have to change out of his training uniform before he could go out on whatever mission he was assigned.  “Let me know how it goes!” he called back as he left. “Natalie – stronger together!”

“Stronger as one!” she called in response just as the door shut behind him.  “I swear,” she muttered, “he’s getting stranger with age.”

“Because you’re so old,” Frank teased.  The twins were three years older than him, and it was a long-standing joke between them.  “Hey, you want to play a free-for-all?”

“Sure,” Natalie said, perking up.  “I still have some tricks left up my sleeves.”

“Hey, Reiki,” Frank said, looking at where their teammate was last seen, “you wanna…”  He trailed off, realizing that Reiki had left the training room while they were talking.  “Okay, then – you and me, Nat, one-on-one.”

“You’re on,” she said, grinning as she let her cards fly.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, later that day.

Haley Prince, moving in.

Haley’s hands were full with a precarious box.

Her dad had offered to help her pack, but she had refused.  After all, she was an adult, wasn’t she? A stupid, stupid adult who now had a large, open box and no way to get it through the door.

What was worse, her lamp was rolling around on top of her blankets, half out of the box already.  That lamp had been in her room since she was ten, and in her older brothers’ rooms before hers; her mom had gotten it as a gift from her parents when Dean, the oldest, was born.  It was at least thirty years old, and her mom would kill her if she broke it trying to move into her new room at Asylum Headquarters.

Jay, the front desk guard, took pity on her and helped her through the front door, but the rules were strict: she had to scan her new badge to use the elevator to get upstairs, and she had no way to get it out of her pocket.

Haley fumbled with the box and the lamp, trying to reach her badge to scan.  She shifted the box to her hip, only for the lamp to fall out. Her heart skipped a beat as she watched it fall, unable to stop the coming crash.

“Here, let me help you with that,” came a man to her left, catching the lamp before it hit the floor.

“Oh, thank you!”  Haley said, scanning her badge to get through the security gate to the elevator.  The man smiled at her, helping her get the lamp situated in the box.

“Can I take something up for you?” he asked.  Haley shook her head.

“Thanks, but only a few people are allowed on my floor,” she told him.  “I’m new, so I’m just getting a couple of things up there.”

The man shrugged, grinning at her.  “No worries,” he said. “So, you’re new?”

“Yeah,” Haley said, smiling back at him.  She shifted the box again to free up a hand to shake, and the lamp nearly fell out again.  “Sorry, I’m not usually this clumsy.”

The guy chuckled.  “I would hope not, Outlier,” he said, emphasizing her callsign.  “The new Watcher of the Asylum should be able to handle a box.”

“You know me?” Haley asked.  She wasn’t sure if she was flattered or creeped out until he explained.

“Everybody in this building knows you,” he said, “or at least knows about you.  There aren’t that many Watchers here.” His smile was disarming, and Haley relaxed a bit.  “My name’s Eli,” he went on. “Eli Howard. I’m a contractor here. Hope I see you around, milady.”  He gave a mock bow, and Haley fought back a giggle.

She let herself smile at him as she answered, “Nice to meet you, Eli.  Sounds good.”

“New girl!” came a shout from behind her.  Haley didn’t need to turn to know that Natalie was stepping out of the elevator.  She marched up next to her, glaring at Eli. “Why’re you talking to him?”

The rude behavior wasn’t out of character for Natalie, but Frank came up on Haley’s other side and added, “What are you doing here, Butterfly?”

For some reason, neither of the Asylum Watchers seemed to like him.  Haley had a dozen questions – he seemed really nice to her – but started with the most obvious.  “Butterfly?” she asked.

Eli shrugged.  “I like butterflies,” he said, “so that’s what they call me.”

“Okay,” Haley moved on.  “So then Frank, why are you being rude?  I mean, I expect it from Natalie,” she added, earning a glare from the other girl, “but not from you.”

“Butterfly here is a licensed Watcher,” Frank explained, “except he only takes jobs where he can get paid.  He’s a mercenary for hire, and he doesn’t seem to care who does the hiring.”

“Gotta make a living,” Eli shrugged again.  “Anyways, Agent called me for a job, so if you could tell him I’m here then I won’t have to be here as long.  Milady,” he added, giving Haley another mock bow. “I’ll be seeing you.”

Frank and Natalie turned Haley towards the elevator before she could reply.  “Watch out for that one,” Natalie said. “He’s all smiles and charm, but he’ll stab you in the back any time it suits him.  All the mercs are like that.”

“He seemed nice,” Haley said.  “What did he do that has you both acting like you sat on a pinecone?”

Frank pressed the button for the elevator.  “Last year, Butterfly took a job for the Fauns, to kill a rival gang leader.  We had to stop him, and he took a shot at Natalie. Since then, we don’t trust him.”

“Makes sense,” Haley said.  Changing the subject, she asked, “So why were you two down there?  I thought you both lived here.”

“We do,” Frank said.  “And you’re moving in today, right?”

“We thought we’d help,” Natalie added sweetly, “so we came down to get you.”

“…Thanks?” Haley said, suspicious at Natalie’s sudden change of tone.  As the elevator let them off, she stepped out into the hallway first. “Do you know which room is mine?”

She saw Frank nudge Natalie out of the corner of her eye as he said, “You’re down this way, next to Rina.  Here, I’ll show you.”

He led her down the hallway to the seventh door on the right.  Agent had shown her a similar room on her first day: it was a spacious dorm room with a bed and a desk, with a private bathroom and a small closet.  This one had Haley’s name and callsign on the door, and she couldn’t help but grin at her new room.

Haley put her box down on the desk, taking out the lamp and setting it up before she dropped it again.  She took out the blankets and sheets, leaving them on the bed as she grabbed another box from beneath them.  “Hey,” she called to Frank and Natalie as they left her to unpack, “wait up!”

She followed them back to the stairs, opening the box.  “My mom made some cookies for my first day here. Want some?” she said, offering them to her new teammates.

“Uh, thanks,” Natalie said, taking one.

“Are you sure you don’t want to spend some time unpacking?” Frank asked.

“Not right now,” Haley said, suddenly very sure that they were up to something.  “I’d rather spar with somebody first. I’d like to check out the training room a bit more; I can unpack later.”

Natalie nudged Frank’s side, not bothering to be subtle.  “Oh, well, we were just training earlier,” she said. “Maybe later.”

“Yeah,” Frank added.  “Maybe you should go back – ow!”

Natalie elbowed him in the side, still smiling sweetly at Haley.  “Maybe later,” Frank echoed, rubbing the spot where she’d hit him.  “I’ve got some… ah, other stuff to do. Thanks for the cookie!”

They left down the stairs, leaving Haley standing in the hallway with a box of cookies in her hands.  “Because that wasn’t suspicious at all,” she muttered, rolling her eyes. She started knocking on doors to see if anyone else wanted a match.

Rina and David didn’t answer; Haley figured that they were out on patrol.  She knocked on Granny’s door, and was surprised when the older woman answered.  “Yes dear?” Granny asked.

“I’m moving in today, and my mom made cookies.  Would you like some?” Haley said, offering the box.  “I was hoping for a sparring partner, too.”

She heard a growling voice from behind Granny say, “Ooh, cookies!”

“Mind your manners, Amii,” Granny called back.  “You and Ieialel still have some talking to do. I’m sorry, dear,” Granny added, turning back to Haley.  “I’d love to train with you, but some other time. My guests need some mediation, and we’re close to making a breakthrough.”

“Oh,” Haley said, wondering what kind of guests she could have that Agent would allow.  “Sure. Here, take some cookies for them, too. My mom’s bakery is the best in the city.”

“Thank you, dear,” Granny said, taking the offered treats.  Haley could also hear two inhumanly deep voices chorusing “thank you!” in the background.  “Maybe you could join us for tea tomorrow?” Granny offered.

Haley grinned.  “I’d like that,” she said.  “I’ll see you later, then.”

She turned to Reiki’s door, wondering if she should bother him or if she should just go unpack like Frank had suggested.  Figuring that she should at least offer him cookies, Haley raised her hand to knock only for the door to open.

Reiki blinked at her.  “‘Sup?” he asked.

“Um, cookies?” Haley said awkwardly, holding up the box.  Reiki took one, his eyes widening as he ate it. “Would you like to train with me?” Haley ventured.

Reiki closed his door, not even bothering to say “no”.  Haley raised her eyebrows at his door before turning on her heels and walking away.

She figured that she would leave the remaining cookies in the kitchen for the others when they returned, and was surprised to find Agent down there.  “Hey, I was just looking for you,” he said, taking a cookie from the box. “You’ve got training today; I just scheduled an extra session.”

“Okay,” Haley said.  “I was just looking to go there, but nobody else is available to train.  Who with?”

“Reiki,” Agent told her, leading her to the stairs.  “His performance this morning showed me that he needs some more teamwork exercises, and who better to train with than the new hire?”

“Sure,” Haley said, “but he just closed the door in my face when I asked him.”

“Don’t worry,” Agent said with a smirk.  “It’s mandatory. He’ll be there.”

Sure enough, Reiki was waiting for them in the gym, his grey training outfit clashing with his green-tipped spiked hair.  “You coming?” he growled to Haley when she emerged from the staircase. He whipped around and stomped towards the back of the gym.

The gym apparently had some other training rooms, each big enough for a group of Third Gens to fight each other.  The regular gym equipment was scattered around the entrance, indicating that the team spent most of their training time practicing against each other.

Haley followed Reiki, stretching out her arms as she walked for the match to start.  “So what’re the rules?” she asked.

Reiki shrugged.  Agent spoke up, saying, “This will be a teamwork exercise.  You’ll have to work together to ring the bell.”

The door to the training room closed behind them, and a wall began to retract into the floor, combining two of the practice rooms for more space.  Other panels in the walls opened, and different obstacles began protruding from the walls and floor. When the changes were finished, Haley saw that the room had transformed into a jungle gym.  She saw the bell that Agent had mentioned at the top of the far side of the room.

Agent’s voice came over a loudspeaker now.  “I’ll be monitoring the exercise from out here,” he said.  “Your goal is for both of you to ring the bell; you’ll have to work together.  We’ll be trying this until you both succeed.”

“Ready?” Haley asked Reiki.  He just growled in response and jumped onto the first beam.  The only way for them to get to the bell was to jump from one beam to the next, but the beams would randomly slide out from under them.  It didn’t happen often, but when it did it happened quickly.

Haley found that out the hard way; she was halfway up when the beam she was standing on suddenly pulled back into the wall with a THUNK.  She nearly fell six feet to the floor, but managed to catch herself on another beam nearby.

Reiki was ahead of her, obviously having done this before.  Agent’s voice came from the speakers again. “Reiki, this exercise is about communication,” he said.  “You need to watch your teammate’s back.”

“She’s fine,” he said, not even turning around to look.  “She caught herself, didn’t she?”

Haley was fine.  She pulled herself up onto the beam and continued upwards, catching up to Reiki.  Obstacle courses were her specialty, so once she knew what was coming she could avoid it.  Agent disagreed with the assessment, though.

“That’s not the point,” he told them as the bell retracted into the wall.  Another bell appeared on the far side from them, forcing the trainees to change direction as they went.

“Hey, what else can this place do?” Haley asked Reiki.  He still didn’t answer, instead launching himself forward.  Another trap appeared, this time firing small laser bursts at Reiki.  They seemed to be low-power; one grazed Reiki’s shoulder but didn’t even singe his shirt.

Reiki dodged the lasers, looking back at Haley expectantly.  She followed him through the fire, still balancing on the beams, and he nodded at her.  “You’ve got a head on your shoulders,” he said approvingly.

Haley suddenly realized that he was testing her.  She grinned at him. “It’ll take more than that to slow me down,” she said.

It took three more tries before they managed to catch up to the bell and ring it.  Agent threw other obstacles at them, but Haley had to watch Reiki go through them before she could figure them out.  Reiki didn’t say another word for the rest of the exercise.

By the end of the training hour, Agent was fed up.  “You both could have caught the bell much sooner if you’d just talked,” he said.  “I know what you’re capable of.  Reiki, you know the routine; Outlier, you’re good at obstacle courses.  You both were hit more than five times apiece, which is unacceptable in the Asylum!”  He was close to yelling at this point, and he seemed to realize it.

“Sorry, Agent,” Haley said.  “It won’t happen again.” She looked at Reiki, wondering why he refused to say anything during the exercise.  Agent was right; if he had warned her about the obstacles, they both would have finished much faster.

Reiki just shrugged in response.  Haley wanted to kick him when he spoke, “Agent, I have that other really important thing scheduled in an hour.  I need to shower and change first; can I go yet?”

Agent put his head in his hand, saying, “Sure.  Fine.” Looking up at the two of them, he added, “Take Haley with you.”

“What?” Reiki asked, his eyes widening.  “Why?”

“She should see this, too.  Outlier, meet Reiki in the motor pool in a half hour.  Dismissed.” Agent turned and walked out, but Haley could have sworn she had seen him grin.

“So, what’s the mission?” Haley ventured to ask.  Reiki just stormed out of the room in response. Rolling her eyes, Haley went to her own room to shower and change.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City.

Outlier, victim of a practical joke.

“So Frank and Natalie put some sort of flashing strobe light in my room,” Haley said, venting to Reiki as he drove them to the mission.  “Thing is, I can’t figure out where it’s coming from – so far, I’ve found three mirrors but no strobe light.”

“Yeah,” Reiki said.  “Natalie’s really good at that.”

“At what?  Driving me crazy?” Haley asked.

“At the hazing pranks.”  When Haley didn’t respond, he added, “Every time a new Watcher moves in, the twins and Frank get them with some kind of prank.”

Haley rolled her eyes.  “So they did this to you, too?” she asked him.  Reiki nodded.

“‘Course, because my powers allow me to manipulate light, they used a beeping noise while I was trying to sleep,” he added.

“Hmph.  As long as they don’t do it again,” Haley said.  “I just need to find the darn thing.”  Thinking about Natalie and Frank, she remembered the other odd encounter of the morning.  “Do you know of a ‘Butterfly’?” she asked.

“Butterfly?” Reiki echoed.  “Why d’you want to know about him?”

“I met him this morning,” Haley said.  “Frank told me he’s a Watcher, but he’s also a mercenary.  Is that a thing?”

Reiki glanced at Haley before responding.  “If the Asylum hadn’t tapped you, what would you have done with a Watcher’s license?” he asked.

“… I guess I never thought about it before,” Haley said, taken aback by the realization.  “I was always so focused on getting my license, I never really considered what I’d do once I got it.”

“The Asylum – an agency where Watchers come together to help the public – is a new concept,” Reiki explained.  “Most Watchers take work from the lists, where people pay for that kind of work to be done.  Because they use it to pay their bills, most become bounty hunters and mercenaries for hire.”

“So if most Watchers are mercenaries,” Haley asked, “why would Natalie and Frank hold that against Butterfly?”

“Because not all Watchers take money from villains like Claw or Jaunt,” Reiki said.  “Butterfly is known for not caring where he gets his money; just as long as he gets paid.  He took a shot at Natalie; you know her temper.  And Frank’s been friends with the twins for years, so he doesn’t forgive something like that easily, either.”  Reiki paused as he changed lanes, before adding, “A merc also shot his mom.  That doesn’t help.”

“Huh.”  Haley mulled that over for a bit.  It took her a few minutes to realize where they were; when she looked out the car window, she was surprised to see trees and grass instead of buildings.  “Why are we at the park?” Haley asked, glancing sideways at Reiki.  “What exactly is the mission?”

Reiki pulled the car to a stop.  “That,” he growled, pointing at a pavilion a ways in front of them.  He got out, pulling a large bag from the backseat, and Haley scrambled to follow.  They both had changed into their uniforms, and Haley wondered at the wisdom of sending them out on a field assignment shortly after the failed training session.

There were civilians around, seemingly having a picnic.  A dozen children ran screaming around a playground, while a few adults stood around talking.  There were a few balloons around, and a stack of gifts on one of the tables. Haley looked around, trying to find the source of the trouble.

“What’s the situation?” she asked, walking briskly next to Reiki.  “Domestic abuse? Robbery?”

Reiki paused before the door and looked at her with raised eyebrows as they walked up to the party.  “Brace yourself,” he said.

From their right came a shout, “He’s here!  He’s here!” A young boy ran up to them and screamed, “Reiki!”

Even more surprising, Reiki’s face broke out in a huge grin as he knelt down on the boy’s level.  “Hey kiddo,” he said. “‘Course I’m here! I wouldn’t miss my best bud’s birthday!”

Even as he said it, Haley looked at the party and saw that nothing was wrong.  The decorations in the pavillion told her that the kid was turning eleven, though he seemed to be small for his age.  Reiki nudged her shoulder and she turned back to the birthday boy.

“Hi,” she said politely as the boy’s parents came up to them.  Reiki grinned at them.

“Mom, dad, this is Reiki!” the kid introduced.  “He’s the Watcher I was telling you about.”

The mom smiled at them.  “Welcome,” she said. “Thank you so much for coming; Robby hasn’t stopped talking about you for weeks!”

“Happy to be here,” Reiki said.  “I’m Reiki, and this is my colleague Outlier.  Robby here invited me a few weeks ago; I hope you don’t mind I brought a plus-one.”

“Not at all,” the mom said, shaking Haley’s hand too.  “Robby has been so excited, saying that a real live Watcher was coming to his party.”

“Ever since that show you put on, he’s been a completely different kid,” the dad said.  “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Oh, that?  No problem,” Reiki waved off the praise.  “Happy to help. By the way, here you go, bud,” Reiki said, pulling a present out of the bag for the kid and handing it to him.  “Happy birthday!”

“Wow, thanks!” the kid said, his eyes going wide.

“Hey champ, let’s go put that with your other presents,” the dad said.

The kid turned back to Reiki.  “Could you do the fireworks thing again?  Maybe later? Please?”

Reiki laughed.  “Sure thing,” he said.  “You get everyone together, and I’ll meet you over by the sandbox.”

The kid grinned, and ran to tell his other friends.  Haley couldn’t stop staring at Reiki; she had never seen him smile before, and he seemed like a completely different person.

As the kid – Robby, as his mom mentioned – ran off, his mother led them over to the pavillion and introduced them to the other adults there.  Haley leaned next to Reiki and whispered, “So, a really important mission, huh?”

“Yeah,” Reiki whispered back.  “I promised the kid I’d come.”

“I don’t recognize his parents,” Haley said.  “Do you know them?”

“Never met his mom before,” Reiki answered.  “I just met the kid and his dad in the park a few weeks ago.”

Just then, Robby ran back and grabbed Reiki’s hand.  “You’ve gotta come see this!” he said.

Reiki made a helpless gesture to Haley before letting the kid drag him off.  Robby’s mom laughed, as Haley tried to make sense of the situation. “So, how long have you known Reiki?” the mom asked, turning to Haley.

“Oh, I’ve only just started working at the Asylum,” Haley said.  “I’ve known Reiki just a couple of days. Agent – our boss – said that this would be a good mi… a good experience for me, so Reiki brought me along.”

The mom grinned at her.  “It’s nice to know that the Asylum is watching out for us,” she said.  “Robby and his father likes to ride their bikes to the park in the city.  It’s nice to live in a place where we don’t have to worry about the crime rate as much.”  She led Haley to the back door, explaining, “We just moved here last month from New York City, see, and that was no place for a kid like Robby to run around.”

“You mentioned a show,” Haley prompted.

“Oh, Reiki’s show,” Robby’s dad came up and joined the conversation.  “Reiki puts on a show in Central Park about once a week. Oh, he’s starting – watch.”

He pointed to where Reiki and the kids were gathered.  The kids all sat in a circle, watching Reiki in the middle as he started moving his hands to use his power.  He seemed to be plucking something out of the air, gathering something up.

Suddenly, Reiki started spinning his hands in a circle in front of his face.  Multi-colored lights traced the air where his fingertips were, creating a wheel made of light.  It looked like a normal light show, until he threw the wheel into the air and caught it as if it were solid.

The kids all clapped and cheered for the trick.  Reiki gave a small bow, and spun the ring up in the air again.  This time, he dove through the hoop in midair, doing a flip for his audience.  Haley was shocked to see him grinning broadly as he raised his arms, preparing his next trick.  Small explosions began popping above his fingertips as he created fireworks in the air.

“The kids really love him,” Haley mused aloud.  Robby’s parents both smiled at the scene.

“When we moved here, Robby didn’t have any friends,” the dad told her.  “He and I used to come to the park, but the other kids didn’t want to play with him.  Reiki came up after his show and asked Robby what was wrong; when he heard, he started putting on a show just for him.  Kids began gathering around, and Reiki used the show to introduce them all to Robby.”

“He’s been a completely different kid ever since,” the mom added.  “It’s like he’s come out of his shell. He’s never had that many friends before, even in our old home, but now he’s socializing and having fun.”

Haley smiled, watching her teammate as he created a sparkling rainbow in the air for a finale.  “Reiki’s really something, huh?” she said.

After his show, the birthday boy blew out his candles and the cake was cut.  Reiki came over to where Haley was standing and handed her a piece, taking a bite of his own piece.  “Having fun?” he asked. His face was back to its resting scowl, but it was softer around the eyes than Haley was used to.

Haley smirked at him.  “I never would have thought it,” she said.  “You’re just a big squish!”

“I am not,” Reiki protested, furrowing his eyebrows.  “What’s a squish?”

“You know,” Haley said, teasing him, “you’re so hard and tough on the outside, but underneath you’re just squishy marshmallow fluff.”  Haley took a bite of the cake before adding, “I have a brother like that.” As Reiki scowled at her, she nudged his shoulder with her own.  “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.”

Reiki might have argued, but a police siren cut him off.  The Asylum communicators buzzed on in their ears at the same time, and Agent’s voice came over the coms.  “Reiki, Outlier, I hate to cut the party short, but there’s been an incident near you.” He gave the coordinates, and the two Watchers started running to the scene.

At the edge of the park, a Third Gen was spewing lava over the grounds.  Panicked civilians ran away from him, their screams piercing the air. “Who’s that?” Haley asked over the coms.

“Not sure,” Agent replied.  “He’s new, but he’s been trailing lava for the last few blocks.  It’s putting civilians in danger, and he needs to be stopped quickly.  Earthborn is ten minutes out, but he could set fire to the entire park by then.”

Haley pulled a pair of goggles out of her utility belt and put them on, and Reiki did the same.  “How are we going to get close?” Haley asked her teammate. Reiki just shrugged in response. The firefighters were busy putting out the lava that the Third Gen had trailed behind him, and the police were trying their best to keep the civilians away.  The air around the Third Gen was scalding, and neither Reiki nor Haley could get close.

Reiki bit his lip, and seemed to have an idea.  Before he could move, Haley grabbed his arm. “Hey,” she said.  “We need to communicate, or we’ll never beat this guy. What’s your plan?”

He glared at her, but said, “I might be able to draw the heat out of the air to get closer to him.”

“Good,” Haley said.  “Can you get us both in there?”

“I can try,” he grimaced, “but that’s a lot of energy to absorb.”

Haley thought back to his light show.  “Do you have to absorb it?” she asked. “Can’t you, i dunno, redirect it or something?”  She mimed the ring of light he had done earlier.

Reiki furrowed his eyebrows, but nodded.  “That might work,” he said. “Let me see if I can do it, then you follow behind me.”

He began spinning his hands in front of him, and Haley could feel the air cooling down.  A ring of light shone in his hands, and Reiki threw it up in the air above them.

It only lasted a few seconds before the air heated up again.  Reiki repeated the movement, and the duo moved a few feet closer.  Haley could see the strain that Reiki was taking with each toss of the ring, but he gritted his teeth and kept moving them.  She didn’t want to think about how they would get out of the burn zone if they failed to subdue the Third Gen.

There was no footing within ten feet of the Third Gen that wasn’t lava.  Reiki tried to cool some of it off, but he couldn’t work on both the ground and the air at the same time.  Haley took stock of their surrounding, trying to find a path through, but they were stymied.

The Third Gen saw them, and threw up another spout of lava in their direction.  “I can’t hold this for long,” Reiki said, stumbling. “Need to finish this quick.”

Haley took another look at the Third Gen, whose eyes were wide as another stream of lava came out of his mouth.  “Helk,” he cried, “ah cahn cahnolle eh! Helk!” His voice gurgled from the burning rock pouring from his mouth. It didn’t seem to burn him, but he also didn’t seem able to turn it off.

“Put him to sleep,” Reiki said.  He glanced at Haley, adding, “Chip gave you a knock-out pistol, right?  He’s asking for help because he can’t control it; we need to knock him out.”

Haley pulled a small pistol from her belt, checking the settings.  “I’ve never used this before,” she told Reiki, “but Chip told me it could stun an enemy.  Right?”

He glanced at the gun, nodding.  “It can. Set the dial to one,” he instructed.  “The kickback is minimal, but aim a little low just in case.  I’d do it myself, but…” he trailed off, tossing another ring of light into the air.  “Don’t miss,” he added. “That’s not something we like to use regularly.”

Haley had trained with firearms before when she was trying out for the police academies, but nothing like the tiny little peashooter Chip had given her.  It was the size of her closed fist; “compact” was the word Chip had used to describe it, but it was smaller than any other weapon Haley had ever held before.  Her only chance of hitting the Third Gen and knocking him out was to hope Reiki’s directions were correct.

She pulled the trigger, and a pulse of energy shot forward to the Third Gen.  Reiki was right, the kickback wasn’t nearly as much as the pistols she trained with, but there was enough that her wrist hurt from the effort of holding the weapon still.  The pulse hit the Third Gen with a loud POP, knocking him to the ground.

“Yes!” Haley cheered.  Reiki gave a weak smile, collecting more of the heat around them.  With the Third Gen knocked unconscious, lava stopped flowing from his mouth.  The heat began to lessen, and didn’t come back as much with each new toss of Reiki’s light ring.

The two Watchers left the heat zone, and Reiki collapsed on the ground.  His face was red, and his hands looked burned from the effort of dispersing the heat.  “Are you okay?” Haley asked him. Reiki just nodded.

The firefighters had caught up to the scene, and were cooling down the lava so that someone could get close to the Third Gen.  Agent pulled up in another car and walked over to Haley and Reiki to debrief them, with Dale following closely. “Thanks,” Agent said as police officers began containing the Third Gen.  Dale moved to Reiki and looked at the burns on his hands. “Witnesses confirmed that the guy suddenly lost control of his powers; putting him to sleep was the right call.”

“It was Reiki’s plan,” Haley said, clapping her teammate on the shoulder.  Reiki seemed close to passing out. “He’s the one who caught that the guy wasn’t doing it on purpose.”

“Aye, and he did well in keeping injuries to a minimum,” Dale added, using his own Third Gen power to heal the worst of Reiki’s burns.  “You two’ll have a bit of a sunburn left, but nothing some aloe can’t fix.”

Agent nodded, offering his umbrella to Reiki as a cane to help him stand up when Dale was finished.  “Good call,” he repeated. “You two worked well together; we might have to team you up more often.”

Haley looked at Reiki, who smiled at her.  “I had a partner who actually pays attention,” he admitted.  “I wouldn’t mind teaming up with Outlier again.”

Agent raised an eyebrow.  “Well, Earthborn should be here soon, and it’s technically your day off,” he said.  “You guys can go back to the party if you want.” He nodded to something behind them.  Haley turned around to see the kids and adults from the party looking at the scene in awe.  “Your fans await you,” Agent added with a smirk.

“Fifteen minutes,” Dale said.  “Then I want you on your way back to Headquarters for a full exam.”

Haley helped Reiki over to the kids.  He was still exhausted, and both of their faces and arms were still raw from the heat, but they assured the kids and their parents that they would be fine.  “Thanks for having us,” Haley said to Robby’s parents while Reiki said goodbye to Robby. “Sorry about the mess.”

“That was exciting,” the mom said, her eyes wide.  “You guys do that often?”

“Not really,” Reiki assured her.  “Just when we’re needed.” He shook their hands, managing not to wince from the contact with his newly-healed burns, and the duo walked to their car.

* * * * * * * *

Back at Headquarters, the next day.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

Haley’s peeling burns itched, but there was nothing she could do about it now.  She was scheduled for a patrol with Reiki that afternoon, her first patrol since joining the Asylum.  She was supposed to meet Reiki in the motor pool beforehand, but decided to get some fresh air first.  She left the elevator at the lobby level, but as she walked towards the door to go outside she ran into a familiar face. “Hey,” Eli greeted her. “I heard about the excitement at the park yesterday.  You okay?”

“Yeah.”  Haley didn’t stop to flirt with him this time; she was on the clock, after all.  She walked outside, blinking in the sunshine, and Eli followed her out.

Eli pressed his lips together.  “They told you about me, huh?” he said.  Haley nodded. “I get it,” he added. “They don’t trust me, so you don’t trust me, either.”

“It’s not that,” Haley said.  “I just don’t know you.”

“You know of me,” Eli said.

“But I’ve only heard their side of things,” Haley shrugged.  She thought about Reiki’s behavior at the party as she added, “I’ve learned not to judge people on first impressions.”

“You don’t hate me?” he asked, beginning to smile.

Haley raised an eyebrow.  “To be clear, I don’t like you either,” she told him.  “I’m just not judging you based on hearsay.”

Eli straightened, smiling that cocky grin at her.  “Well then, milady,” he said, “I’ll just have to prove myself to you.”  He gave a mock bow and walked away.

Haley called after him, “Don’t get cocky!”

He just laughed and gave her a thumbs-up.  Shaking her head, Haley started jogging to where her teammate waited.  I’ll have to watch out for Butterfly, she decided.

She would most likely see him again.

* * * * * * * *

Next: Issue #4 – The Watcher in the Darkness

Dawn of the Asylum, 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?”

* * * * * * * *

Next: Issue #3 – A Good Influence

Dawn of the Asylum, Trailer #5 – Haley

Watcher Licensing Exam.

Haley Prince, Exam #11.

Faster than a cheetah.

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

Stronger than a rhino.

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

Agile as a cat.

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

Steady as a boulder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faster than a cheetah I run through the night,

Patient as a rainfall I wait for the light.

Stronger than a rhino, I help those in need,

Steady as a boulder I give word and deed.

Anger rolls through me, agile as a cat,

Fear flies away to the night like a bat.

Peace keeps me strong in times of doubt,

Strength keeps me steady in times without.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope.

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

* * * * * * * *

Next: Trailer #6 – Meet the New Girl