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 #14 – Complicated

Eon City, four months ago.

Frank Mejia, AKA Shadow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘My future’?” Frank asked.

“Yes, your future,” Janus said. “I’ve brought you a few years into the future. You need to talk to yourself.”

Frank shook his head, trying to wrap his mind around what had happened. “So your Third-Gen power is time travel?” he finally asked. “Who even are you?”

Janus gave an exasperated noise before answering. “Seriously?” he asked. “Are you really that slow? I told you already, my name’s Janus. And I’m not a Third Gen,” he added as an afterthought.

“So what are you, then?” Frank demanded. “Are you a Fourth Gen like Nightmare?”

“I’m what will eventually come to be known as a Fifth Gen, if you’re going to obsess about it,” Janus said. “My parents were both Fourth Gens, and their powers mutated – kind of like what tends to happen in your time when Third Gens and Satyrs mix. You have Hybrids – we have Fifth Gens.”

Frank was lost. “What?” he asked again, his eyebrows narrowing in confusion.

“I’m not going to explain it again,” Janus said. “Look, if you want answers, you’ll go into the Asylum building and talk to yourself. The you of this time,” he added slowly, as if Frank wouldn’t understand.

Which, to be fair, he didn’t.

“This is the future?” he asked.

Janus put a hand to his forehead. “Come on, man, the concept isn’t that hard to get,” he said. “This is a few years into your future. I’m not giving you the exact date because then it all might start getting messed up, but there are some things you need to know about what’s coming for you if you’re ever going to survive it.”

“Where do you fit into all of this?” Frank asked, still suspicious.

“I’m a traveler,” Janus said. “I’ve been running around time since I was born, the way you ran around the construction site when you were a kid. I can’t change anything, but I have a little influence if I can push people in the right direction.”

“You ought to talk to Casey,” Frank muttered.

“Sparrow’s powers aren’t the same,” Janus said. He apparently knew exactly who Frank was talking about. “She gets limited visions of the future, kind of like she’s skipping to the last page of a book. And most everybody around her doesn’t believe a word of it, because her powers influence them, too. I travel through time, so I can see everything – as long as I know when and where to go. People believe me when I tell them what’s coming, at least as much as they would believe anybody else. Right now, I’m trying to get you to talk to yourself so you have an inkling about what’s going to happen.”

“Why don’t you just tell me what you want me to know?” Frank demanded. “Why bother bringing me here?”

“It’s complicated,” Janus said, shaking his head. “If I interfere with things directly, then other stuff starts changing until what’s supposed to happen happens anyways. If I want to take steps to change the world – to, say, save everybody on it – then I have to work indirectly. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen, but I can take you to the guy who knows; namely, you.”

Frank stared at him. “Say I believe you,” he said, folding his arms over his chest. “Isn’t that… I forget the word for it, but isn’t there some kind of physics law or something that breaks?” he asked.

“You mean a paradox?” Janus asked.

“That’s the word,” Frank said. “Isn’t that a paradox?”

“Of course it is,” Janus shrugged. “Paradoxes are kind of my specialty. I’m a time-traveling kid who messes around the universe in six dimensions – I’m a paradox. This,” he added, gesturing around them, “is nothing. Now, are we gonna stand around yapping all day, or are you going to go inside?”

Frank thought for a moment, before nodding and walking to the edge of the alley. “Thank you,” Janus said, walking right behind him.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, four months ago.

Parker Fawkes, AKA Fallen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You can’t be serious,” Parker scoffed, folding his arms in front of him. “Why would I ever work for you?”

“There’s a lot more going on here than you know,” Jaunt shrugged. “I think it’s time to fill you in on some of the more… finicky details.”

Parker rolled his eyes as Jaunt clapped his hands together to summon a portal. “‘Finicky details’?” he repeated. “You can’t be serious.”

“I’m not,” Jaunt admitted, throwing his hands apart to tear a hole in space. “It’s a gross understatement, I know. But take a look through here, and I think you’ll have too many questions not to follow me through.”

Parker peered through the portal, seeing a blue haze on the other side. “What the…” he trailed off, his eyes widening as he saw what lay beyond Jaunt’s portal.

Jaunt smiled beneath his mask, putting an arm around Parker’s shoulders. “Like I said,” he repeated as they stepped through to the other side, “there’s a lot more going on here than you know.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, three months ago.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

Not him,” came Reiki’s insistent voice over the comms. “I don’t care who we get, just not him.

“Trust me,” Outlier said grimly, “he’s far from my first choice, too. But once we locate David he’ll be our best bet of getting him back. Name one person half as accurate with a blow gun.” She walked down the sidewalk, shaking her head as she began listing to one side.

I don’t see why we can’t just do it ourselves,” Reiki grumbled. “He might not even show up – it’s not like we can pay him.

“David’s a powerhouse,” Outlier explained for what felt like the millionth time, stopping to lean against a building. “He can level the tunnels if he wants to, and right now he doesn’t have any inhibitions. He’s why we’ve been having all the earthquake tremors this last month, and we need to stop him before he causes serious damage – he’s already been delaying work on rebuilding the tower. Now, half the team’s down, and we’ll only get one chance at getting him Dale’s treatment. If we miss, then he could disappear for good. You and Granny can take him on head-to-head while I run interference, but we’ll need somebody else to shoot him with the blow gun, to get the treatment into his system. With David’s powers, he’ll probably protect himself with his usual rock shield; we need somebody who can make a bull’s eye shot through any crack in his defenses.” She sighed, hating to be right, before adding, “That means we need him. He’ll show up.”

I don’t trust him,” Reiki growled, sounding even more surly than usual. “Ten bucks says he won’t show. Are you sure there’s nobody else? What about Holmes?

“I’ll take that bet,” Outlier said. “And Holmes hasn’t been seen since the riots. A lot of Watchers were hurt that day, not just Natalie and Rina. Either that, or she can’t get away from her day job. That’s why the three of us have been on overtime since the curfew was lifted.”

Which begs the next question,” Reiki muttered – though since he was speaking into his comm unit, he must have wanted Outlier to hear him.

“We’ve been over this, Reiki,” Outlier said patiently. “The city needs the Asylum now more than ever. We can’t just give up on it.” She noticed some people walking towards her, so she ducked down an alley and began climbing up a fire escape to scope things out from a rooftop while she finished the call. Agent had once told her that the point of patrols was to show the city their faces, to gain the public’s trust – so it wouldn’t do any good for people to see Outlier collapse from exhaustion.

Why not call the team quits?” Reiki asked. “We went from a team of ten down to a team of three in one night. Even Agent gave up on us; why won’t you?

Outlier bit her lip and counted to five before responding as she climbed up a fire escape. Yelling at Reiki wouldn’t help matters, even if it was the hundredth time she had to answer the same question. “I told you,” she said, “the city needs us. Even if we’re not at full strength, it gives people hope to see our faces.” Pulling herself up over the top of the building, she added, “Besides, what would you do without the Asylum?”

Probably go to the Watcher board myself and take a paying gig,” Reiki answered immediately. “It’s easier to be idealistic when we have a place to live and a steady paycheck coming in.

“Agent will be back,” Outlier told him. “He just… needs some time.”

Haley,” Reiki started, but Outlier interrupted him.

“I’m Outlier when we’re on duty, remember?” she said.

Fine, Outlier,” Reiki grumbled. “Agent’s probably not coming back. He’s been through this before with Team Ark, and they didn’t lose so many people.

Outlier sighed. “We didn’t lose anybody, Reiki,” she said. “We know exactly where most of them are, and once they get back on their feet, things will get back to normal. We’ll get Earthborn back, Rina and Natalie will heal, Agent will snap out of it, and we’ll find out where Frank went. We’ll rebuild the tower, and it’ll be how it was.”

I sometimes forget how new you are,” Reiki said dryly. “Things will never ‘get back to normal’ for us. Even if everything goes according to your plan and the others get back to Watcher work, we lost Parker.

“Parker isn’t dead,” Outlier pointed out.

No, he’s not,” Reiki agreed. “He’s a traitor, which is worse. We worked with the guy; he was on my patrol shift before you came along and he went on that undercover thing. He’s Natalie’s brother, and he was Frank’s best friend. No wonder Frank ran off.

“Frank didn’t run off,” Outlier said. “His family hasn’t even seen him since the day of the riots. He used to go see them every week; he wouldn’t have left without at least talking to them.” She shook her head. “No, something happened to him, and as soon as we get Earthborn back, we’ll find out what. In the meantime, you and I’ll patrol the city and keep people from taking advantage of our lack of manpower.” She dropped to a knee on the rooftop, still watching over the city while giving in to her fatigue.

“When was the last time you slept?” came Reiki’s voice from behind her. Outlier shut off her comm and spun around to face him, ignoring the slight tilt in her vision as she stood up.

“I’m fine,” she said, folding her arms. “You’re supposed to be patrolling the other side of the city.”

“Haley, go home,” Reiki growled. “I can handle things until dark; you can pick back up after you eat something and sleep for eight hours.”

“I told you, I’m fine.” She took a step forward, and her vision swam. “You can cut out your light tricks, too. I’m not falling for it.”

Reiki scoffed. “Fine,” he said as Outlier’s vision cleared, “but I’m not the one making you lean to one side. You were doing that before I came up.” He raised an eyebrow. “You patrolled yesterday, you stayed out patrolling all last night, and you’re still here this morning. Haley, you’re human – you need breaks at some point.”

“Just because I’m human doesn’t mean I can’t keep up with the rest of you,” she shot back.

Reiki raised his hands innocently. “I’m not saying you can’t,” he told her. “I’m a Third Gen, and I need to sleep, too. That’s where I was while you were patrolling last night – sleeping. Like a normal person.” He put a hand on her shoulder, adding, “You’re not immortal.”

Outlier took a deep breath, steadying herself. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll go home and take a nap. I’ll be back to take the night shift.”

“Good,” Reiki said, letting his hand drop. “That gives you nine hours, at least.”

“And then I’m making that call,” Outlier added rebelliously. “We need him.”

“Fine,” Reiki growled. “Call the merc. Natalie won’t be happy about it, though.”

Outlier shrugged, stepping back down to the fire escape. “She doesn’t have to be,” she pointed out with an innocent smile. “Trick’s in no shape to go up against Dark David, so she won’t even have to know we called him.”

Reiki rolled his eyes. “She’ll know,” he called after her. Outlier just gave him a jaunty wave as she descended the ladder.

Haley Prince, also known as the hero “Outlier”, found her way home somehow. She didn’t remember much of the drive once she got back to her motorcycle, but she had made it home without crashing so she must have been awake.

“Damn,” she muttered as she took off her helmet. “I guess I do need sleep.”

But she didn’t go to bed right away. Since the Asylum building had been blown up, she was staying at her parents’ house in the suburbs. Her mom had left a plate of ham and cheese sandwiches out for her and her brothers, with a small note.

Kids, the sandwiches are to share.

Dad and I will be home at 5 o’clock to start making dinner.

I love you!

Since Haley was the youngest at twenty-one years old, her mom didn’t need to go through the trouble of taking care of them – but ever since Haley and her brother Scott moved back home, they regularly found their mom treating them like they had never left. Haley shook her head, grabbing a sandwich and moving to the living room to eat.

Scott was sitting on the couch, staring at the blank TV. Haley took one look at him, then returned to the kitchen to grab the plate of food and brought it back with her. “Scott, Mom made sandwiches,” she said, putting the plate down on an end table next to him. “You need to eat something.” she flopped back into the recliner, taking a big bite of her own sandwich.

Barely moving his head, Scott’s eyes moved to look at Haley. He raised an eyebrow as he took in her uniform. Haley looked down before rolling her own eyes and turning back to her sandwich. “No, I didn’t bother to change,” she said between bites. “I’ve been out on patrol for thirty-six hours straight, and I’m hungry. So sue me.”

Scott shook his head slightly, grabbing a sandwich from the plate. After another few seconds of awkward silence between them, Haley sighed. “You’re going to have to say something to me eventually,” she told him. “I know you can – you were pretty chatty with Mom the other day until I came in the room. What’s the matter?” she added, taking a bite of her sandwich and talking with her mouth full to hide the tremble that came into her voice. “You still hate me for becoming a Watcher?”

“That had nothing to do with it,” Scott muttered.

“Excuse me?” Haley raised her eyebrows. “Did you just deign to speak to me?”

“Haley,” Scott sighed, resigned to his little sister’s attitude towards him. “It wasn’t about you becoming a Watcher.”

“You could have fooled me,” Haley said. “The last time we spoke, you called me a ‘blood-traitor’ and said I was no sister of yours. You said the Watchers and the police were arresting the Fauns – whom you called ‘activist seekers of justice for the satyr community’, if I remember correctly.” The last part was redundant; they both knew that Haley had an eidetic memory, and never forgot details. “Then you ran off to join the Fauns, cutting off contact not just with me, but with the rest of the family, too. Mom and Dad were worried sick!” She was nearly yelling at this point, pointing at him with her sandwich. “Then, a month ago, the day after the riots, you come crawling home with your hat in hand asking Mom and Dad for a place to stay, but not saying a word to me. You wouldn’t even stay in the same room as me for two weeks!”

At the end of her rant, Haley was panting – she really needed sleep, if she could get that worked up. Scott raised another eyebrow at her as she sat back down and took a defiant bite of her sandwich.

“Like I said,” he told her, “it had nothing to do with you being a Watcher. I said those things because I was taken in by the Fauns’ ‘equality for all’ message.” He shoved the last bit of his own sandwich in his mouth. “I was wrong, okay?” he said with his mouth full. Swallowing, he added, “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and I’m sorry for all the stuff I said before leaving.”

Haley stared at him, dumbstruck. Scott had never apologized to her before, not even when they were little and he had pulled the head off of her favorite stuffed animal. Not when he had broken her arm while sparring in high school. Haley’s memory was close to perfect, and this was the first time Scott had ever apologized for something.

All she could think of to say was, “Thank you.”

“I didn’t mean to snub you when we got home,” Scott continued. “I just didn’t know how to face you after… you know, the riots and stuff.”

He was clamming up again. Tired as she was, Haley didn’t want her brother to stop talking. “You’ve been different this past month,” she told him. “What happened with the Fauns? Why’d you leave?”

“You sure you want to talk about that?” Scott asked, resting his elbows on his knees and putting his head in his hands. “You and me, we never saw eye-to-eye on a lot of stuff, but the Fauns were at the top of the list.”

“You were so gung-ho about joining them,” Haley said, polishing off her sandwich. “Then the riots happened, you left them, and now you’re apologizing for what you said.” She shrugged, dusting her hands of crumbs as she stood up to get the vacuum from the hall closet. “I’m curious.”

Scott rolled his eyes as she got the vacuum out, but didn’t say anything about it. Their mom would lecture them for an hour if she came home to find crumbs all over the carpet. Instead, he said, “It has to do with Parker. You know, the Asylum guy?”

Haley stopped dead in her tracks when he mentioned Parker’s name. “You mean the traitor who blew up our tower?” she asked carefully, starting to regret her line of questioning but too curious to stop. “What about him?”

“He saved my life,” Scott said, standing up and taking the vacuum from his sister. “The night of the riots, Claw was going to kill me, but Parker stepped in. Then that video went viral, but it didn’t show the whole story. Claw and I were off camera, and if Parker hadn’t pressed that button, I’d be dead now.”

Haley shook her head. “Wait,” she said, “you’re telling me that Parker sold out the team to save you?”

“Yeah,” Scott said, looking away. “Pretty much.”

Haley sat down hard in the armchair, the vacuum forgotten. “That… that changes things,” she muttered, before suddenly standing back up. “I need to go, there’s way too much to do – ”

“You aren’t going anywhere, baby sister,” came another voice from the doorway. Apparently Haley had been so caught up in Scott’s revelation that she didn’t hear the front door open. Dean, her oldest brother and a bear-satyr, marched over to her and pushed her back down into the chair.

“Hey!” Haley cried. “Dean, what’re you doing here?!”

“That friend of yours, Reiki, stopped by the bakery,” Dean said. “He asked if I could make sure you got home and got to sleep. Good thing I came by, too, since you seem to want to run yourself into the ground.”

Haley jumped up. “I’m fine,” she insisted. “I have to get some things together, and I need to talk to some people about tomorrow. This is important, Dean!”

“You’re no good to anyone if you collapse from exhaustion, Haley,” Dean pointed out, sounding annoyingly like Reiki. “You get to bed and get some sleep first, then you can go.”

“This can’t wait,” Haley insisted. “If I’m going to talk to Parker – ”

“You are not just going to walk into Faun headquarters,” Scott piped in, his eyes going wide. “That’d be suicide!”

“Not necessarily,” Haley shot back. “Have a little faith.”

Dean folded his arms. “Okay, tell you what, baby sister,” he growled. “If you can get past me to the door, I’ll let you walk out of here. But if you can’t, then you go to bed and sleep for at least six hours before you go gallivanting off somewhere.”

Haley balanced her stance and raised her arms, preparing for a fight. Dean raised his eyebrows – he never could raise just one, even when he tried – and the fight drained out of her. She couldn’t take Dean on in her current state, which meant that walking into the Fauns’ lair without a plan and before getting some sleep was a stupid idea. Slumping a little in defeat, she muttered darkly on her way to her room.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, a few years in the future.

Frank Mejia, very confused.

“This is supposed to be the Asylum building, right?” Frank asked Janus as the elevator took them up to the top floor. “Where are the licenses? They used to be hanging in the entrance hall.”

“Only copies were ever hanging there,” Janus said. “Besides, you all don’t need them now.”

Frank shook his head. “‘Don’t need the licenses,’” he repeated. “I’m not even going to ask. So, the future, huh? You can travel through time.”

“And space,” Janus told him. “To me, it’s like walking down the street is to you. I go where and when I want.”

“I only know of one other person who can go where he wants, when he wants,” Frank said. “Jaunt. Any relation?”

“Oh please,” Janus said, waving a hand lazily in the air. “That hack? His portal-jumping isn’t even a Third-Gen power. He gets it from… but I wasn’t supposed to tell you that. I really shouldn’t have said that,” Janus began muttering to himself. “The timeline needs to be handled carefully. Stupid!”

The elevator dinged, and the doors opened onto a large living area. It looked identical to their home before Parker had blown it up, and Frank looked around in awe.

The only difference he could see was the people. Instead of his team, there were about twenty people in the different rooms, hanging out as if they were at home. Frank had known that the Asylum was supposed to grow over time, but seeing how many members there were in the future shocked him a little.

“Who are all these people?” he asked his guide. “How did the Asylum expand so much in just a few years?”

“Shit happened,” Janus shrugged unhelpfully. “You recruited a lot over time, and more people began stepping up to follow your team’s example. Come on, this way.”

Janus began leading Frank to the lounge, but they were stopped by a few people along the way.

“Hey, Shadow,” asked a young guy with a scottish accent. “Merlin and I were wondering if you’d like to join us for dinner. We’ve got a lot to talk about lately, what with Avis’ – ”

“Not now, Duck,” Janus cut him off.

“Janus,” the one called “Duck” greeted, “didn’t see you there. So today’s the day, huh? Shadow’s been waiting.” He looked Frank up and down curiously.

Janus nodded. “Yep. He’s in the lounge, right?”

“If I knew where he was, I wouldn’t have mistaken this one for him,” Duck replied, nodding back at Frank.

“Thanks anyways,” Janus said, continuing to lead Frank.

Frank had a million questions about this time, but he started with, “Who was that?”

“Oh, Duck? You’ll meet him in a couple of years,” Janus told him. “In your time, Duck, Merlin, and the rest of Avis are a group of Scottish heroes who basically do what the Asylum does, just in Scotland. Ah, here’s Shadow!”

They entered the lounge, and Frank had a disconcerting moment when he first saw himself. The other version of Frank – the one from this time – looked older, and had a few more scars. One in particular ran along his jawline, which the younger Frank didn’t have yet. Frank rubbed his goatee, noticing that his older self had changed the cut.

The older Frank looked up from the papers he had been pouring over. “Janus!” he cried, standing up suddenly. “Today’s the day, then?” He looked over at the younger Frank, looking him up and down. “Dang, this job’s aged me,” he muttered. He gestured for the younger Frank to take the seat opposite him. “Let’s get to it,” he said. “You have a ton of questions; I’ll try to answer them.”

Frank sat down across from himself, and began to hear about his future.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Hospital Rec Room, a little less than three months ago.

Natalie Fawkes and Sabrina “Rina” Dawson.

“Hit me,” Natalie said, tapping the table between herself and Rina. Rina dealt a card face-up, shrugging as she did so.

“Not sure why you’re obsessing,” she commented. “They’re going after Dark David tomorrow because he’s a danger to the city until they get him the treatment. They can’t wait for us.”

“Easy for you to say,” Natalie scoffed. “Your powers just got a little out of control. You might be down for weeks. I’m fine; the stupid doctors just want to keep me here for ‘observation’.”

Rina raised her eyebrow at her. “You think this is easy for me?” she asked. “My powers imploded. I’m kept in isolation at night so I can get some sleep without the entire hospital freaking out over imaginary monsters from my nightmares. I can’t even use them the way I normally would to help during the team out during the day, not accurately. I have to stay behind because I’m powerless to help my friends – that’s far from ‘easy’.”

“You know what I mean,” Natalie muttered by way of apology. “I never had powers. I’m used to going out exactly like I am right now – tricks up my sleeves and cards in the air.” She threw her hand down and pulled a card from the top of the deck. Tossing it up, she caught it by making it float between her fingers. “I could help right now, if the doctors weren’t so… so mother hen-ish.”

“That’s a neat trick,” Rina admitted, having seen her friend pull it many times over the last few weeks in the hospital. “Let’s see you do the scarf-throwing one. You know, like you’d actually do in a fight.”

She grinned at the annoyed look on Natalie’s face. Natalie had been trying unsuccessfully to toss her scarf around a practice dummy in her room for weeks – her shoulder hadn’t quite healed enough to use that particular trick, which is the real reason the doctors were keeping her in the hospital. Dale had done his best with his Third Gen power, but some things would only heal over time.

“I just can’t believe Haley’s in charge,” Natalie said, changing the subject as she put the card back in the deck. “Agent left the team in the lurch.”

“Agent’s dealing with his own stuff,” Rina said, shrugging. As Natalie picked her hand back up, she added, “You know this isn’t the first time he’s lost a team.”

Natalie pursed her lips. “Don’t make me say it,” she warned. Rina just smiled knowingly. “Seriously, I hate agreeing with Haley on anything, but it’s like she and I are the only ones who haven’t given up on the team. We’re not lost, we just had a setback. A big setback,” she admitted, “but not insurmountable. Agent needs to pull his head out of his ass and realize that, because Haley’s not a leader.”

“She’s not doing a bad job,” Rina shrugged.

“Did you not hear what Reiki said earlier?” Natalie asked. “Haley’s running herself ragged trying to do everything instead of delegating anything. That’s not a leader.”

“You should be happy,” Rina pointed out dryly. “We finally found something that Haley’s bad at. You don’t have to call her ‘Little Miss Perfect’ anymore.”

Natalie rolled her eyes. “I liked calling her that,” she said. “When the team fell apart, it was comforting to know that Little Miss Perfect could hold everything together.”

“Except that it’s been a month, and she’s barely hanging on to it all,” Rina added.

“Right,” Natalie said, showing her royal flush and raking in the chips. “I need to get back out there, and so do you. We can get Earthborn back, and when the team’s back together Agent will come back.”

Rina nodded, twisting her mouth as if she didn’t want to say the next words. “And what about Frank and Parker?” she asked.

Natalie’s face turned stoney. She didn’t say another word, but stood up and left the room. Rina watched her go, not surprised at her reaction. She sat back in her chair, wondering how her friends could have left them like that.

“Agent, we need you,” she muttered to no one.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, Faun Headquarters, four months ago.

Parker Fawkes, AKA Fallen.

Parker was battling cabin fever.

He had never been good at waiting around, and that’s all he had been able to do for the last month. Sure, Claw left him in charge of Eon City, but he was still on the ECPD’s Most Wanted list. He had been holed up in the Faun’s headquarters since the riots, and he was going stir crazy from it. He had taken to working out in the afternoons, just for some sort of movement – and because sitting around gave him too much time to think.

“You know, I don’t understand your obsession with push-ups,” Kiara remarked from the doorway, crossing her arms and smirking at him. “Aren’t you supposed to be super-strong, or something? What’s the exercise supposed to do?”

“Did you want something, or are you just here for the snarky comments?” Parker asked, standing up and dusting his hands off.

Kiara raised her eyebrows, coming further into the room. “Can’t I just be here to admire the view?” she asked, grabbing his shirt from the chair and holding it out to him.

“Thanks,” Parker said, grabbing the shirt and putting it on. “Sorry I’m being a grouch. I can’t stand being cooped up like this.”

“I’m surprised you came back here after Claw leaked that video,” Kiara said, shrugging as she sat down on one of the room’s folding chairs. “How can you trust him after that?”

“Didn’t have much of a choice,” Parker said, fitting his wings through the slits in his shirt and sitting down across from her. “He leaked that video to make sure I had nowhere else to go.”

“I’d have just flown away,” Kiara said, “just to spite him after a stunt like that.”

“Then I’d be dead.” Parker shook his shoulders loose, his wings feeling heavy. “Law enforcement, Watchers, and the FBI are all hunting me – I couldn’t run from them and the Fauns, too.”

“But then he put you in charge here,” Kiara added, a curious tone creeping into her voice.

So this was why she was there. “Well, you almost went a month without bringing that up,” Parker remarked, standing back up and stretching his arms.

Kiara stood up, too. “You’re at the top of the Eon City police’s list for blowing up the Asylum building, and Claw put you in charge of the Eon City Fauns.”

“Is there a question in there?” Parker raised an eyebrow.

Kiara threw up her hands. “Only the obvious ones,” she said. “Why the hell are you now the leader here? Why didn’t he send you someplace else until the heat cooled? How does he trust you enough to put you in charge of the city?”

“It’s complicated,” Parker answered, shrugging. “You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you, too – I almost didn’t believe it, myself. But the short answer is that Claw’s not the only one calling the shots.”

“Oh, come on,” Kiara said, twirling one of her whiskers with a clawed finger. “You can’t say something like that and not give me any details!”

“Kiara, you once told me that you kept your head down around here because that was the only way to stay safe,” Parker said, leaning against a table. “Trust me when I say that asking questions about this will bring the wrong kind of attention.”

Kiara sighed, but said, “Point taken.”

She might have continued the conversation, but Lizard chose that moment to interrupt. “Fallen!” came the cry by the doorway. “We have company!”

“What?” he asked, following Lizard into the hallway. “What do you mean, ‘company’?”

“She just showed up,” Lizard explained. “Walked through the front door like she owned the place. Under Claw we would have just killed her on sight, but she’s… she’s asking for you, Fallen.” Lizard shook his head. “By name, too. I thought we ought to let you see her before we cut her throat.”

“We’ll see about the whole throat-cutting thing, Liz,” Parker said. “That’s how Claw does things, but I’m not Claw.”

“If she knows you’re here, then chances are she’ll tell someone else if you let her go,” Lizard warned.

“If she knows I’m here, then others might already know, and it’s a moot point.” Parker shook his head. “Just take me to her,” he instructed.

They came to the room Claw had once used as a throne room. Parker was still uncomfortable taking Claw’s usual seat on the dais, so he entered the room intending to stand in front of the intruder…

… and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw who it was.

“Is she trying to get us both killed?” Parker muttered.

“Who is she?” Kiara asked from behind him. Apparently she had followed them to the throne room.

Parker sighed in defeat. “Kiara, meet Haley Prince, Scott’s little sister,” he said. “Otherwise known as Outlier of the Asylum.”

“She’s an Asylum Watcher?” Kiara repeated. “I thought they were disbanded.”

“Not quite yet,” Haley said with a cocky grin. The Fauns had tied her hands behind her back and forced her to kneel in front of the dais, but she didn’t seem bothered by it.

“There’s only two of you left,” Kiara shot back. “The night of the riots we took your team down.”

Haley shrugged. “Sure, we’re running on fumes,” she admitted, “but we are still running. I’m making sure of that.”

“What the hell are you doing here, Outlier?” Parker asked tiredly.

“I had an interesting chat with Scott this morning,” Haley told him. “Should I keep talking, or do you want this conversation to be more private?”

Parker paused for a second, before telling the Fauns, “Clear out.”

“Fallen – ” Kiara started, but Parker cut her off.

“Whatever else you all might think right now, I’m in charge here,” he said. “Clear the room.”

The Fauns all looked confused, but they obeyed. Haley watched them go with raised eyebrows. “I honestly had no idea if that would work,” she admitted once they were alone. “So the rumors are true; you are in charge here.”

“So you had a chat with Scott,” Parker prompted, impatiently.

“I did,” Haley said. “He had an interesting story to tell me. He said the only reason you pressed that button was to save him – not just to save your own skin, like the video implies.”

“And you walked into Faun headquarters to confront me about it,” Parker finished for her. “That was probably the stupidest thing you could have done. You realize that I can’t just let you go.” He started pacing, shrugging his shoulders to loosen them. Of all the idiotic things…

“Since the video, you’re labelled as ‘unreliable’ to the team,” Haley pointed out. “You think I walked in here without an exit strategy?”

“What team?” Parker asked, suddenly coming to a stop and rounding on her. “You and Reiki are all that’s left, and Reiki won’t stick around forever. As for the others…” he trailed off, wanting to ask about his sister and his friends, but dreading what Haley might tell him.

“That’s actually the real reason I’m here,” Haley said, raising an eyebrow. “We’re going after David.”

Parker blinked. “David?” he repeated. “You and Reiki are going after the guy who can shoot lightning from his fingers? You’ll never be able to take him down.”

“We have help,” Haley said, “but it would be even easier if we had a super-strong bird on our side. Especially one who knows what David can do.”

“Ha ha, very funny,” Parker crossed his arms. “But right now, you have bigger things to worry about. How do you plan to get out of here? You’re tied up, and I can’t hold back the Fauns forever. Claw still has a kill-on-sight order out on you guys.”

Haley held up an arm, showing him the rope that had previously been holding her. “You mean this?” she asked innocently. “I told you months ago, Natalie’s been teaching me some tricks.”

“Impressive,” Parker said dryly. “That still doesn’t tell me how you’re getting out of here in one piece.”

Haley shrugged, standing up. “Like I said, I’ve got an exit plan.” She looked at the watch on her wrist. “In fact, I’ve only got about a minute left. You in, or what?”

Parker shook his head, smirking. “Okay, tell you what: if you can make it out of here alive, I’ll help you guys get Earthborn back,” he said.

“Awesome,” Haley said. She held up a hand and started counting down the seconds on her fingers. “Three, two, one…”

Right on cue, there came a loud BANG from outside the throne room. The sounds of panicked Fauns mingled with loud animals roars from behind the closed door.

“What, exactly, was your exit plan?” Parker asked, staring at the source of the commotion. His tone was unconcerned, but his eyes were screwed up with worry.

“I like to call it, ‘Little Old Lady With Dragon,’” Haley said, grinning proudly.

Parker raised an eyebrow at her. “Granny?” he asked.

“And Herchel,” she confirmed.

“They sound pretty pissed off,” Parker observed as a loud roar shook the building.

“You did blow up her zoo,” Haley pointed out.

Parker put a hand to his forehead. “Fine,” he said, waving his free hand in the direction of the door. “Go on, get out of here.”

“We’re going after Earthborn tomorrow at noon. Meet us at the caves,” Haley told him, heading to the door. “Oh, and Parker?” she said, her hand on the doorknob.

“What?” Parker looked up at her.

“It’ll work out. You’ll see.” Haley turned the doorknob, then stopped and looked back at him again. “I’m glad we didn’t lose you,” she added, then opened the door and raced through it.

Parker watched her go, dumbfounded. “She’s either the bravest or the craziest person I’ve ever met,” he observed to the empty room, “and I grew up with Natalie.” Shaking his head, he waited until the sounds of roaring had faded before checking on the Fauns.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Tunnels, four months ago.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

“You made it,” Haley said, biting back a grin as Eli Howard, also known as Butterfly the mercenary, strolled up. Reiki was standing next to her, rolling his eyes. He silently handed over a ten-spot, and Haley took it with a satisfied smirk.

“Well, I wouldn’t have missed this fiasco,” Eli said, grinning at her. “Besides, I have a different revenue stream for this gig. You’re in luck.”

“As long as you can use that thing,” Reiki growled, nodding at the blow gun Eli had strung across his back.

Eli shrugged. “I’ve never actually used one before,” he admitted. “But how hard can it be?”

Reiki started protesting, but Haley cut him off. “We need him,” she reminded her teammate.

“So when’s the party going to start?” Eli asked, nonplussed.

“As soon as the other two members get here,” Haley answered evasively.

Reiki turned towards her in surprise. “Two?” he asked. “I thought we were just waiting for Granny.”

“Right.” Haley bit her lip. “I didn’t want to tell you, because then you’d tell Natalie and it was bad enough that I called Butterfly…” she started babbling, talking around the answer.

Reiki saw through her mumbling. “Who is it?” he demanded.

“Yo,” came a greeting from behind him. Reiki spun around, his eyes narrowing as he saw Parker walking up.

Him?” he cried, getting into a fighting stance. “What the hell is he doing here?!”

“I asked him to come,” Haley said, shielding her eyes from the sun as she glanced upwards. “Hey, Granny’s coming now.”

“Don’t change the subject!” Reiki barked. “What’s he doing here?”

Haley gave Reiki a patient stare, one she often used to let him know that he was being testy. “There’s more to the story than the video showed,” she explained. “Parker’s not a bad guy; he was just put in a difficult spot. He’s here to help.”

“Don’t worry, sonny,” Granny called over, dismounting from her dragon as it landed. “Herchel and Louise will keep him in line. Bird-boy’s not going anywhere.” She took her plush wolf doll out of her bag, tapping her knitting needles to it and whispering something. Louise the wolf sprang forward towards Parker, hackles bared. Granny laughed as Parker stumbled backwards in surprise.

“I forgot how big she is,” Parker said defensively, flapping his wings to get his balance back. “Look, I’m sorry about the tower. Nobody was supposed to be there.”

Reiki relaxed his fighting stance, but crossed his arms as he glared at Parker. “‘Nobody was supposed to be there’?” he repeated. “Natalie, David, and Dale aren’t ‘nobody’. And the security guards. And the people we were saving from the riots. And the rescue workers from the riots.”

“And my zoo,” Granny piped in, giving Parker a disapproving look.

“And Granny’s zoo,” Reiki agreed. “You know the riot drills: the tower was a designated safe area for civilians!”

“And the bombs were on the top floor,” Parker snapped back. “The garage was reinforced, and the whole building wasn’t supposed to come down on top of it! I took a calculated risk to save the life of the guy in front of me, and I stand by it!”

“Reiki,” Haley warned as her teammate opened his mouth to respond. “He saved my brother’s life.”

Reiki turned to stare at her. “It’s true,” she told him. “So just… stop. Okay?”

He nodded and turned towards the tunnels. “Let’s just get this over with,” he muttered. Granny followed, with her wolf and dragon shuffling behind her. Louise gave Parker another growl for good measure before stalking off after Granny.

“Well, that was entertaining,” Eli said jauntily, putting his hands behind his head in a stretch. “Parker, glad we’re on the same side.”

“Shut up, Butterfly,” Parker growled at him, shaking his shoulders to loosen his wing muscles. He followed behind Granny, keeping a safe distance back from Herchel and Louise.

Eli shrugged, saying to Haley, “You’ve got yourself quite a ‘team’ here,” he said. “Everybody’s got each other’s backs, in any case. Just need to know if it’s help or a knife coming.”

“We can work together long enough to get David back,” Haley said hopefully. “We may not trust each other, but we can get the job done if we all stay professional.”

“Not sure where you got that idea,” Eli muttered.

“So, you have an ‘alternate revenue stream’?” Haley asked, changing the subject as they all headed into the tunnels.

“Yep,” Eli said. “Somebody seems to like you, in any case. They paid for me to help you get Earthborn back.” He peered ahead as the dark of the tunnels closed around them. “How did you say we were going to find him?”

Haley marched on. “He’s in here,” she said. “I got reports through Agent’s network of crackling lightning down here, and a commotion involving new tunnels being created. He’s definitely holed up here.”

“So… you have no idea how to find him,” Eli translated. “Great.”

“Have a little faith,” Haley said. “I have a plan.” Eli said nothing, waiting for her to continue. “Okay, I have part of a plan,” she finally admitted.

“There it is,” Eli said.

“It’ll work!” Haley insisted.

“Milady, you are an excellent fighter, and I have great respect for your lack of fear,” Eli told her, “but a leader you are not. When’s Agent going to start calling the shots again?”

“He’ll be back,” Haley said. “I’m only here for now. We can do this!”

Eli shrugged, barely visible in the dark tunnels. Haley found her flashlight in her utility belt and switched it on as Eli continued, “You rely a lot on faith, milady. People aren’t all good, and life isn’t made of sunshine and rainbows.”

“I know that,” Haley said. “I just think there are more good people in the world than bad, is all. And I know that Agent will be back before we know it. Natalie’s looking after him, after all.”

“Oh, Natalie’s got him,” Eli said in mock surprise. “That’ll fix everything!” He grinned, teasing her. “What’s with you two, anyways? I can’t tell if you’re friends or what.”

“Me and Natalie? We work together,” Haley said. “She and I came to an understanding, and we help improve each other.”

“So you’re rivals,” Eli said.

Haley shrugged. “I guess, if you want to put a label on it,” she said.

“Hey, you two in the back,” Reiki growled from farther ahead in the tunnels, “this works better if we’re quiet.”

“Reiki’s mad,” Eli whispered, teasing Haley.

Haley took a deep breath. “One more mission, one more mission…” she began repeating under her breath. The familiar feeling of being watched crept up again, and Haley shuddered in the dark. The tunnels were creepy.

The team came to the opening where they planned to set up their ambush. Haley pointed Eli to the pile of rocks where they had captured Dark David the last time. Eli mimed a salute, and hid behind the rubble.

The rest of the team took positions with their backs to the wall – which was pointless, since they didn’t know where David might appear. They all looked at Haley expectantly.

“What now?” Reiki asked in a whisper.

Haley responded in her normal tone. “Now we get his attention,” she said. “David, I know you’re there. Come out where we can see you; we just want to talk!”

“That’s your plan?” Parker scoffed, rolling his eyes. “‘Come out and talk to us’? You know, I thought you were gutsy for barging into Faun Headquarters like that, but you really are just making this up as you go along, aren’t you?” He shook his head and started back towards the entrance to the tunnels. “I’m out of here.”

Louise jumped in front of him, baring her teeth in a snarl. Parker jumped back in alarm as Granny laughed. “Nobody leaves until we see Earthborn,” Granny said. “At least give her a chance.”

She nodded at Haley, who took a breath and continued. “David, you told Natalie last time that you felt trapped,” she called. “You said you just wanted your freedom. If you talk to us, we might be able to work something out!”

“This is stupid,” Parker muttered, eyeing Louise warily. “It’s not going to – ”

“Last time I trusted one of you, you just trapped me again,” came a growl from behind Haley. “Why should I trust you now?”

Haley turned around to face him. Dark David’s face stuck out of the wall, but the rest of his body was still behind the brick of the tunnel. “Because we just want our friend back,” Haley told him, keeping her hands in view so that he could see she wasn’t carrying anything. “We’re tired of chasing after you, and you’re tired of running from us or you wouldn’t be here. Let’s work together to find a compromise.” She gave a hand signal to Reiki, and he lit up the tunnels so that they could see.

“What compromise is there?” Dark David spat, squinting in the sudden light. “Either he’s in control, or I am. We both can’t be there!”

“Help me understand,” Haley said, trying to keep him talking. “Why not?”

“It just doesn’t work that way!” Dark David said. His head came out of the brick wall, as if he took a step forward. “He’s got different plans, different goals. When he comes out, I get locked up! It’s not fair!”

Haley kept her eyes on his, showing him that she was sincere. “I want to help you, David,” she said. “We need you.” She took a step back.

Dark David followed, stepping fully out of the tunnel wall. “You need me?” he repeated, disbelieving. Electricity began crackling around his hands. “You brought the traitor, the mercenary, the grouch, and the Djinn all because you need me?”

“How did you know about that?” Granny asked, surprised. “I never told Earthborn; I never told any of the team!”

“Oh please,” Dark David smirked. “It’s so obvious. You have one of the talismans. Those needles – am I right? You meet some interesting people in the dark places of the city.”

Haley stepped between them. “David, we all want to help you,” she began again, but David cut her off.

“Help me? Then why does the mercenary have a blow gun?” he demanded to know. “You plan to trap me again.”

“If that were true, then he would have fired already,” Haley pointed out. “You don’t exactly have your armor on.”

Dark David looked uncomfortable. “That’s the only reason I’m still here,” he said. “I can pull up my armor faster than he can shoot.”

Haley narrowed her eyes, taking in the scene. He was hiding something; she silently thanked her brother for making her get a good night’s sleep so she could see it. “I don’t think so,” she said slowly. “I think you and our David are more symbiotic than you let on. He controls the earth, and you control the lightning, right?” She stepped towards him, making him back up, but he didn’t retreat into the wall like before. “That’s why your own mud armor held you down when Natalie faced you. That’s why Earthborn has such a hard time keeping his lightning straight – you two are fighting each other, so neither of you can use all of your power.”

“No,” he said. “I can use the earth powers just fine on my own.”

Haley took another step in. “I doubt that,” she said. “I think the reason you aren’t running right now is because our David won’t let you.”

“Haley…” Reiki warned. She held up a hand to quiet him.

“Eli could shoot you right now, and you couldn’t stop him,” she said confidently. “I’m right, aren’t I?”

“You want to find out?” Dark David said, raising a brick off of the floor with his powers. “Try me.”

Haley took in the scene, calculating the odds. He could raise a brick, but could he escape? “You’re bluffing,” she decided, reaching out to grab his arm.

Dark David let the brick drop as he shot her with a bolt of lightning from his hand. Haley fell to the ground, a burn mark on her uniform where the lightning had hit it. Her arm twitched from the voltage, but she was otherwise motionless. “Clever,” he said, stepping towards the rest of the team. “But not quite clever enough.” He raised his hands, readying another lightning bolt, but Parker darted forward, grabbing his arms and holding them behind his back.

“Now, Butterfly!” he cried.

Eli used the rocks to keep the blow gun steady and fired. In seconds, Dark David stopped struggling against Parker’s super strength and fell limp. Parker let him fall, then turned to help Haley. She had fallen against the tunnel floor when the lightning bolt had hit her, and her shoulder had a large burn on it right above her heart.

“Outlier?” Parker said, almost afraid to touch her. “Come on, you can’t die. Outlier!” Reiki and Granny came over, pushing him aside as they checked their teammate. “Hey!”

“Haley,” Granny said, picking up her hand. “Come on, dear, wake up.”

“Ugh,” Haley groaned, opening her eyes. “That hurt more than I thought.”

“You freaking idiot,” Reiki muttered at her. She tried to sit up, but he pushed her back down. “Stay down,” he ordered. “You’re lucky that blast didn’t kill you.”

“Chip does a good job,” Haley pointed out, pulling some of the torn fabric of her uniform away from the scorch to reveal an insulated layer underneath. “My uniform took most of it.”

Eli came over next to Parker. “You didn’t think a little thing like that would kill her, did you?” he asked, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Haley’s made of tougher stuff than that.”

Parker shook his head. “I can’t decide if she’s insanely brave or bravely insane,” he admitted. “She took that bolt on purpose?”

“One thing I’ve picked up on, working with the Asylum,” Eli said, “is that you all have your roles. Haley’s role seems to be taking whatever beating is necessary for the rest of the team to do their job.”

“So why did she even need us?” Parker asked.

Haley sat up, shaking off Reiki’s worrying as she looked at Parker. “I had no idea until we were down here that he didn’t have the same rock armor as Earthborn,” she admitted. “Reiki was here to light up the scene, and Butterfly was here to take the shot. Granny’s now going to get him out of here and back to Dale, before the tranquilizer wears off,” she said pointedly. “I’m fine, Granny. Go.”

Granny shrugged, and whistled for Louise and Herchel. The big wolf darted forward to Granny as the dragon walked over to David and picked him up in his jaws. As Granny’s animals moved David out of the tunnels, Haley continued.

“When my brother told me what you’d done for him, I figured we could trust you enough to help hold David while Eli took the shot,” she said. “That would make it easier for us. Then we got down here, and I found out that he didn’t have full control of Earthborn’s powers, and it suddenly got much easier. I love it when that happens,” she added with a sigh.

Parker stared at her. “So your plan really was to just come down here and ask him to talk?” he said disbelievingly.

“Yep,” Haley grinned as she stood up.

As Parker stood blinking at her, Eli and Reiki looked at each other and shrugged. “You get used to it,” Reiki said, turning down the tunnel to head outside. “Come on, Outlier; you should see Dale about that shoulder.”

As they left the tunnels, Parker just shook his head. “I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to that level of insanity,” he said, unfurling his wings in the sun, “but thanks for getting me out for a morning.”

Reiki glared at him. “This doesn’t mean you’re forgiven, Fallen,” he spat, using Parker’s Faun name. “Next time we meet, you’re fair game.”

Haley elbowed Reiki in the ribs, but Parker just flapped his wings. “I wouldn’t expect any less,” he said. Giving Haley a cheeky grin, he took a running start to fly back to the Fauns.

Haley shook her head as she turned to Eli. “You know,” she said, “even with Earthborn back, we could use an extra hand on the team.”

Eli considered it for a moment. “Let’s let Agent get back first,” he answered. “Sorry, Milady, but your particular brand of insanity isn’t something I can take on every mission.”

“Offer’s always on the table,” Haley said.

“Don’t push it,” Reiki growled. “Natalie will be back any day now, too.”

“She’s still upset about the whole ‘I shot her’ thing?” Eli asked. “She really needs to chill out.” He gave a jaunty wave as he jogged off.

Haley turned back to Reiki, grinning. He stared back with a questioning look. “How are you this happy?” he finally asked.

“I love it when a plan comes together,” Haley said. “We got Earthborn back – that’s a huge victory. Rina and Natalie will heal, Agent will snap out of it, and we’ll find out where Frank went. We’ll rebuild the tower, and it’ll be how it was.”

Reiki just sighed and walked away. Haley looked back at the tunnels before following him.

Things really could get better.

* * * * * * * *

Next: Issue #15 – In Another Time

Dawn of the Asylum, Issue #12 – Butterfly Net

Olympus – the ruins of a once-great civilization.

The timetable is accelerating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, evening.

Casey’s bar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Haley asked. “Paid by who?”

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, the next morning.

Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

A metallic room, on board a ship.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tested for what?” Haley asked.

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

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

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

Second, Eli stood on one side of the room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was going to be harder than she thought.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, evening.

Outlier has been missing for twenty hours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

The Invisible Maze.

Haley and Eli, still trapped.

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

Haley was really starting to hate that voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait!” Haley cried, pulling him back.

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, Butterfly Garden.

Frank Mejia, AKA Shadow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Green Room.

Haley Prince, on her last nerve.

“Push the button,” said the robotic voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“On three?” Eli asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, Essex Studio.

Natalie Fawkes, AKA Trick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They might find her, but in what condition?

* * * * * * * *

Red Room.

Haley and Eli, and a lot of fire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Push the button,” the voice repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Agent, about ready to bust some heads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jaunt,” Agent said, gripping his umbrella.

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

“I’m here alone,” Agent told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Blue Room.

Haley’s in trouble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, outside of Asylum Headquarters.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t know?” Haley asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Next: Issue #13 – Fallen Angel

Dawn of the Asylum, Issue #11 – Jekyll and Hyde

Pharos Laboratories, eight years ago.

Laboratory outside of Eon City.

“What do you mean, ‘our funding’s being cut?” cried Doctor James Samson, ripping the paper out of Doctor Carson Dale’s hands.  “The work we’re doing here could change the course of human history!”

“Come off it, Samson,” Dale said, shaking his head.  “You know as well as I tha Ethics Board always had a problem with your work.  This la’est project – ”

“This latest project is about understanding the human brain’s effect on the body,” Samson retorted.  “It could tell us how the Third Gen and Satyr serums progenerated so easily, when all other evidence says that neither species should be fertile.  They both should have died out in a generation or two, but instead the population rates have been hitting record highs. With further study, this project could have told us how that happened!  We might have even found a cure – ”

“A cure for wha’?” Dale asked.  “For Third Gens an’ Satyrs? We’re talkin’ about people, Samson; this is who they are!”

Samson shook his head.  “We’re talking about an anomaly,” he argued.  “Neither evolution was natural; they were both man-made.  They’re closer to genetic disorders than actual identities.”  He walked back over to his lab table, still talking. “If we could find a cure for autism, or Achondroplasia, or some other disability, then nobody would bat an eye.  Third Gen and Satyrism are no different – they just weren’t caused by any environmental factor other than human error.”

“Human error is wha’ tha ethics board is tryin’ ta prevent,” Dale pointed out.  “Unauthorized human experimentation is how Third Gen and Satyrism came about in tha first place.”

“Dale, you may have just gotten here last year, but I have been studying the effects of the serums all my life,” Samson said.  “My research has already led to breakthroughs that nobody else had seen before! Pharos hired me because of my work – ”

“Oh, you mean tha Fourth Gen serum?” Dale asked.  “Sure, tha was a ‘breakthrough’.”

“I recreated the effects of Third Gen and Satyrism in a controlled fashion,” Samson countered.  “I controlled what powers the subjects got – ”

“You mean tha kids,” said Dale.  “You experimented on children, and called it ‘progress’.  Now you run human trials on an experimental drug without goin’ through tha proper channels, and next you would have combined it with one o’ tha serums!”  He slammed his hand on the table to accentuate his point. “You’re jus’ lucky that nobody was hurt this time!”

Samson sighed.  “Scientific discovery takes risk, Carson,” he said.  “If Pharos doesn’t want to take them, then maybe I’ll take my work to King.”  He started stacking loose papers, as if he would leave right away.

Dale raised an eyebrow.  “Pharos an’ King both play by tha same rules,” he said.  “King more so, since the Satyr serum first came out. If Pharos will na’ fund your research, wha’ makes ya think King will?  Especially since tha protests started last year; all companies are playin’ by tha letter of tha law.”

Samson stopped shuffling, putting his hands on the table in defeat.  “So if Pharos is cutting this project, what do they intend for me to work on?” he asked.

“Pharos wants us on tha ‘Gen Juice’ project,” Dale told him.  “By tha time we come in tomorrow, this stuff will be packed up in storage, an’ we’ll be startin’ fresh.”  He clapped Samson on the back. “Come on, we’ll go ta tha pub, have a drink.”

Samson shook his head.  “You go on without me,” he said.  “If they’re packing all this up tonight, I need to get some things in order first.”

Dale shrugged, and walked out the door.  Samson looked around at the lab. This project had taken over the last seven years of his life; for the funding to be lost felt like his legs being cut out from under him.  He waited a minute to make sure that Dale wasn’t coming back before moving over to the vials labelled “samples”.

Checking over his shoulder in case anyone came into the room, he pocketed three vials.  This work is too important to lose, he thought rebelliously.  Maybe he could continue his work on his own.

After all, scientific discovery takes risk.

* * * * * * * *

Pharos Laboratories, present day.

Agent meeting with O.N.C.

“Why, exactly, are we here?” Agent asked, looking uninterestedly around the laboratory.  Trick, Outlier, and Shadow had all been ordered to come with him, but he addressed the lady who had just entered the room.  She wore a business suit and horn-rimmed glasses, giving her the appearance of an executive. Her steel-grey hair was tied back in a no-nonsense bun, and the way she carried herself suggested that she was in command.

“Who’s that?” Outlier whispered to Shadow.

“Agent’s boss,” he whispered back.  “They call her O.N.C.”

Outlier frowned.  “‘O.N.C.? Why?” she whispered.

As the executive lady turned her intense stare on the whispering duo, Shadow added, “You’ll see,” under his breath.

“Mr. Hannah has requested our presence by name,” O.N.C. told them.  “There was apparently a break-in at one of the more sensitive labs, and he wants to keep this quiet.”

“‘He wants to keep it quiet’,” Trick scoffed.  “So he called in three of the best-known Watchers from the highest-profile team in the country, along with their supervisor and his boss, because…?”

“Because you three have impressed me.”  Sean Hannah, CEO of Pharos Industries, chose that moment to walk through the door.  “Blackbird is currently on an undercover assignment, Reiki is a loose cannon, the Fourth Gens are unstable, and, frankly, Granny’s just weird.  The people in this room have shown ability and restraint,” he added, glancing at Trick.

“I’m sorry, but what is this research?” Outlier asked, trying to ease the tension from the CEO’s implication.  “We haven’t been briefed at all yet.”

“Right,” Sean Hannah said, picking up a sheet of paper.  “Eight years ago, my predecessor had research here called Project Eleutherios.”

“‘The liberator’,” Outlier said.  “Eleutherios was one of the names for Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry.”  As the others stared at her, she shrugged, adding, “I did a project on Dionysus in middle school.  The guy was scary.”

Shadow raised his eyebrows.  “‘God of wine and revelry’,” he quoted.  “Sounds like he had fun.”

“He made people lose their inhibitions,” Outlier explained.  “In small amounts that could be a good thing, but Dionysus could drive people crazy – literally insane – with his powers.  Some of his followers even turned to cannibalism. Some legends even claim that Dionysus was a conqueror – ”

Sean Hannah cleared his throat, and Outlier cut herself off with a sheepish apology.  “Origins of the name aside,” the CEO continued, “Project Eleutherios was supposed to be a drug that heightened a human’s natural abilities.”  He looked at Agent, adding, “Much like the Fourth Gen serum, except not quite as powerful.”

“This was the precursor to Fourth Gen?” Trick asked, glaring at him.

Agent narrowed his eyes.  “It was shut down only eight years ago,” he pointed out to his team.  “More like this was what Fourth Gen led to.” Crossing his arms, he asked, “So what was the problem with this one?  Photosensitivity? Dual personalities?”

“Lack of inhibitions, as the name suggests,” Sean admitted, nodding to Outlier.  “The lead scientist, Doctor Samson, was called in front of the Ethics Board for attempting human trials without authorization.  While the effects proved to be temporary without continuous application, the subjects became unstable, and a danger to themselves and others.  Watchers managed to get the situation under control, and Pharos Industries immediately cut funding to the project.”

“So why now?” Outlier asked.  “Eight years later, why would anybody steal this drug?”

“Better question: why wasn’t the research destroyed?” Agent asked.

O.N.C. answered.  “Projects like Eleutherios cost a lot of time and money,” she said.  “Most companies would rather store such a thing for possible reuse later than to start from scratch in the future.”

“So again,” Outlier repeated.  “Why now?”

“I’m sorry, who are you?” O.N.C. asked her.

Outlier looked at her, seeing what she was trying to do.  “They call me Outlier,” she said, extending her hand. “And you are?”

“My name is of no consequence,” O.N.C. said dismissively.  Behind her, Shadow mouthed to Outlier the letters O-N-C, trying not to laugh.

Outlier bit back a grin of her own as she said, “Fine, O.N.C.  Now if somebody would please answer my question: why now?  What changed to bring this research back to light?”

“Doctor Samson was recently fired,” Sean Hannah told them.  “We believe that he might have stolen the research before he left.”

“Wait, back up,” Trick said, walking up to the CEO and getting in his face.  “You’re saying that this guy, who by your own admission was a sociopathic jerk called in front of the Ethics Board, wasn’t fired until eight years later?”

“And that he stole proprietary information from you?” Agent added, also crossing his arms.

Sean Hannah gently pushed Trick away, saying, “I only became the CEO here five years ago.  I had no idea that the company had done such things, and it wasn’t brought to my attention until he almost tried a similar stunt on the Gen Juice project.”  He straightened his jacket. “Of course, he was fired for even suggesting we go to human trials at this point.”

Shadow stepped up next to Trick.  “I recently had a run-in with your Gen Juice project,” he said.  “My sister and a bunch of other satyrs were kidnapped and tested for it.”

“That wasn’t Pharos Industries,” the CEO said sternly.  “That was a copycat, trying to catch up with our research.  Pharos has always been ahead of the curve in the R and D department, and so we have a lot of rivals trying to catch up.  Unfortunately, word about the Gen Juice project leaked to the public years before it was supposed to – again, probably Samson trying to accelerate it – and I’ve been running damage control for the last year because of it.”  He shifted on his feet, putting a hand to his temple. “You have no idea how many press conferences I’ve had to make just to tell people that it’s years from being finished.”

“Okay, so you know what was stolen, who stole it, and why,” Outlier said.  “So what do you need us for?”

“Muscle,” Agent answered, still glaring at both O.N.C. and the CEO.  “This is a test, right? You want my team to find Samson and bring him in so that you can see them in action.”

“And evaluate them,” Sean Hannah added.  “You three have done exemplary work thus far.  Trick took down King Enterprises’ pet project – in front of a crowd, no less.  Shadow broke up the satyr kidnapping ring last week, and Outlier has been making quite a name for herself around the city.  Didn’t you help stop the museum thief?”

“Along with Reiki,” Outlier said, folding her arms.  “Why isn’t he here?”

The CEO shook his head.  “As I said, Reiki is a loose cannon.  He doesn’t work well with others, and if he gets involved there’s usually violence.”  He walked around a table, adding, “I would prefer to avoid a scene, if you can.”

“Fine,” Agent said, uncrossing his arms but still glaring.  “We’ll help. Do you know where this Doctor Samson is?”

“Yes,” O.N.C. told them.  “In fact, we do.”

* * * * * * * *

Doctor Samson’s home lab, Eon City.

Outlier, Shadow, and Trick.

“Doctor Samson?” Outlier called, knocking on the doctor’s door.  “We’re Watchers from the Asylum. We have a few questions for you.”

“Doesn’t seem like he’s home,” Trick said after a minute, nudging Outlier aside.  “Give me a sec.”

Neither Outlier nor Shadow saw what she did to the lock, but in a few seconds the door was unlocked.  “How’d you do that?” Shadow asked.

Trick shrugged.  “Magic,” she answered, grinning secretively and holding up her hands to show that they were empty.  Given that she wore her Watcher outfit – which Chip had helped design with plenty of hidden pockets – Outlier was pretty sure she had just slipped something up her sleeve.

Shaking her head, Outlier stepped into the lab calling for Doctor Samson again.  “Hold up,” Shadow told them. “I sense something.”

“Something’s in the shadows?” Trick asked him.

“Shh,” Outlier held up a hand.  “Do you hear that?”

Someone was muttering to themselves in the dark house.  “Doctor Samson?” Trick called, heading towards the noise.  “Is that you?”

“I think he’s singing,” Outlier said.  “Listen.”

Sure enough, the halting voice was singing a jaunty tune from the next room:

“Lavender blue, dilly-dilly

Lavender green

If I were king, dilly-dilly, I’d need a queen

Who told me so?, dilly-dilly

Who told me so?

I told myself, dilly-dilly, I told me so…”

“Any guesses?” Shadow asked, heading to the next room.

Trick shrugged, but Outlier answered, “Lavender Blue, by Sammy Kaye from the nineteen hundreds.  My mom sometimes plays classical stuff like that. But why is he singing it?”

As they entered the room, they saw a small laboratory.  The tables were heavy and metallic, and the only light came from a few desk lamps scattered around.  Various test tubes and jars were scattered about the room; a few had flowers in them, while others had A man was dancing around the table, still singing:

“If your dilly-dilly heart

Feels a dilly-dilly way

If you’ll answer yes

In a pretty little church

On a dilly-dilly day

You’ll be wed in a dilly-dilly dress of

Lavender blue, dilly-dilly

Lavender green

Then I’ll be king, dilly-dilly, and you’ll be my queen…”

The man was dressed in beige slacks and a white lab coat.  His hair was pulled back into cornrows, and he had a flower in his hands.

When he caught sight of the heroes, he grabbed Outlier’s hand with his free one and pulled her closer to dance with him.  “Umm, excuse me?” Outlier asked, trying to push herself free of the madman. “Are you Doctor Samson?”

“Doctor, doctor…” Samson chuckled.

“Doctor Foster went to Gloucester 

In a shower of rain; 

He stepped in a puddle 

Right up to his middle 

And never went there again!”

“Doctor Samson!” Trick practically shouted at him, startling him into letting go of Outlier.  “Snap out of it!”

“That’s not helping,” Outlier said.

Samson shoved the flower at her, saying, “Pretty flower for the pretty girl.  Smells like… smells like…

“Lavender blue, dilly-dilly – ”

“Nope, not starting that again,” Trick said, grabbing his wrist and wrenching it behind him.  “Doctor Samson, you’re under arrest for the theft of – ”

“No!” Doctor Samson suddenly screamed, wrenching his arm around and throwing Trick over his hip in a display of inhuman strength.  “No! Not theft – this was my life’s work!”

He picked up the metal table, looking like he would throw it on top of Trick while she was down.  The jars and vials flew everywhere around the room, smashing against the floor and walls and splattering their contents everywhere. Shadow stepped forward to tackle the man, but Outlier grabbed his shoulder to stop him.

“Doctor Samson!” she shouted, trying to grab his attention as she wiped a few drops of liquid off of her wrist.  “Don’t you want to dance? Lavender blue, dilly-dilly, lavender green…

“If I were king, dilly-dilly, I’d need a queen

Who told me so? dilly-dilly

Who told me so?

I told myself, dilly-dilly

I told me so…”

Doctor Samson began singing again, swaying to the tune.  He put one end of the table on the floor and began to dance with it.  Trick scrambled back to her feet, wiping some of the test tube contents off of her coat with her hand.  Shadow clapped her on the back, shaking off his gloved hand as he realized she was soaked in the stuff. Outlier breathed a sigh of relief, saying, “He must have been affected by his own drug.  We should take him to Dale.”

“Dale?” Samson said, still dancing with the table.  “Doctor Carson Dale? I know him!”

“You know Doctor Dale?” Outlier asked slowly.  “Do you want to go see him? He wants to see you.”

Samson paused for a second, considering.  “Nah, not really,” he told them. “Dale helped the board cut my funding, see.  He’s a liar, and I don’t want to see him.”

“He says he’s really sorry about that,” Trick said, taking her cue from Outlier.  “He’d like to be friends. But you have to come see him.”

“I’m uninhibited, not stupid,” Samson told her, setting the table down.  “No need to talk to me like I’m a child. Dale said many years ago that he wanted nothing more to do with Eleutherios.”  He put his hands on the table, adding, “I was so close, too!  I could have stabilized it, but I needed test subjects.  Human ones, not those satyr or Third Gen ones.”  He turned back to the Watchers. “That’s why the Fourth Gen project failed, you know – we used satyr and Third Gen subjects.  Fourth Gen enhanced their powers, yes – and even gave them new ones. But at a cost, a terrible cost. Even my own children…”

He hopped up to sit on the table, swinging his legs freely as he started singing again:

“Here shines the sun,

Shining so bright;

Now the whole world’s emblazoning.

Flowers in bloom,

Spring will come soon; we’re waiting.

When the green grass grows,

And the trees are close,

And the soft rain falls on the ground…

Here shines the sun,

Clouds gone away,

Rainbows are pretty amazing.

Just close your eyes;

You’ll see the sky someday…”

Tears started falling down his face as he said, “They never did see the sky, though.  They had to run away to leave the room, and they still can’t go out in the day. And poor Ryan, number one, he can’t even walk on the ground any more.”  He stopped crying suddenly, growing angry as he continued, “They all left me; abandoned me.  Those freaks of nature, who owed me their lives!  I saved them, you know – my work would have cured them and everyone like them of Third Gen and Satyrism!  Why doesn’t anybody see that?”

He gripped the side of the table, and the metal started bending under his strength.  Outlier hummed a couple bars of Lavender Blue, and Samson seemed to calm down. He began singing again, moving his head side to side in time with the tune.

“I wonder…” Trick muttered under her breath.  Turning to her teammates, she asked them in a whisper, “Should we tell him about Rina?”

“You think he’ll come if we tell him we’re taking him to her?” Shadow replied.  He sneezed, putting his hand to his mouth to cover it. “We really should get out of here.”

Outlier shook her head.  “We can’t take him to Rina,” she said.  “Anybody with eyes can see she tries to forget the Fourth Gen experiment.  I don’t know the details, but I don’t want to open up old wounds for her.”

“We won’t actually bring him to her,” Trick said, her voice as low as she could make it.  “We just tell him we will, and bring him to Dale instead.”

“Bad idea,” Outlier warned.  “His history with Dale, plus his super-strength and lack of inhibitions?  That’s asking for trouble.”

“You got a better plan?” Trick demanded.  “No? Okay then.” She turned back to Samson, saying, “Doctor Samson?  We might know where a Fourth Gen is. Do you remember Sabrina Dawson?”

Samson looked taken aback.  “Sabrina?” he asked. “The Nightmare Child?  She took her mother’s name, then – makes sense.  Her mother died young. Two children, nine years apart – but complications took her a week after Sabrina was born.  Sabby always looked up to her brother. Didn’t know he was her brother – that would have been problematic.” He hopped off of the table, adding, “Take me to her – I want to see Sabby again!”

Outlier gave an alarmed look at Trick, who avoided her eyes.  When she looked at Shadow, he was slowly becoming a smudge against the wall as his powers his him from sight.  They both understood what Samson had said, then.

“Oh dear,” Samson cut through the silent exchange, looking at the smashed jars and test tubes on the ground.  “Eleutherios – who smashed the vials? Shouldn’t have done that.” He shook his head. “Now the whole place is contaminated.”  He started humming Lavender Blue again, as the Asylum teammates looked at each other.

“Call Agent?” Trick asked, wincing at their mistake.

“Call Agent,” Outlier agreed.  Shadow turned on his com to ask for backup.

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

After a decontamination scrub.

“Well, I feel like I lost a layer of skin,” Natalie said, rubbing her pink face as she guzzled water in the kitchen.

“Do you guys feel any… effects?” Agent asked.  “Seriously, at the first sign of trouble, I’m sending you down to Dale.”

“Don’t worry, mother,” Frank said from the couch.  “We’ll be fine. I mean, look at Doctor Samson: mostly he was just humming some classical music and sitting around.  What’s the worst that could happen to us?”

Agent glanced at Natalie.  “I’m not sure,” he admitted, “but I’d still feel better if you three would stay here for the next few days – just in case.”

“Can’t,” Haley said, sitting in a chair across from Frank.  “I teach self-defense at the community center tomorrow. I can’t just cancel.”

“I’ll send someone to cover your class for you,” Agent told her.  “Most of the people in this business are good enough at martial arts to teach a basic move or two.  I think Sara would be more than happy to help, and she’s a certified instructor.”

“My mom?” Frank said.  “Sure, she’d be awesome.  But she also teaches at the dojo.”

“We’ll make it work,” Agent said.  “If not Sara, then I can find someone else.  You guys just rest up, and if we don’t see any symptoms in the next few days you’ll be back to your routine.”

Natalie gave him a mock salute.  “Aye, captain,” she said, grinning.  Agent flashed her a smile and went into the elevator.

As he stepped in, Rina and Reiki stepped out.  “How are you guys feeling?” Rina asked, seeing the teammates sprawled across the living area in their pajamas.  “We heard what happened.” She and Reiki were still in their uniforms, having just returned from patrol.

“Ugh,” Natalie called from the kitchen.  “Agent just grounded us for ‘a few days’.  Didn’t even say how many.”

“Myeh,” Frank shrugged from the couch.  “Could be worse. What would you guys do if we were affected?”

“Sit around singing Lavender Blue?” Haley giggled.  Natalie rolled her eyes.

Rina furrowed her eyebrows, sitting across from Haley in another chair.  “Lavender Blue?” she asked. “Why that song?”

“Oh, nothing,” Haley said, waving a hand dismissively.  “The guy we were tracking down was dancing around his laboratory singing it.”

“He’s the guy who ran the Fourth Gen project,” Frank blurted out.  “Apparently he continued researching it on Project Aloofness – ”

“Eleutherios,” Haley corrected.

“Yeah, that.”  Frank turned over on the couch so that his head hung upside-down on the seat.

“Guys!” Natalie was looking at Rina, who looked stricken.  “I thought we were going to avoid the whole Fourth Gen thing?”

“Oh pish,” Haley said.  “She deserves to know. This is the guy who ran the experiment on her, remember?”

Natalie walked over to the living area, hands on her hips.  “Haley, it was your idea in the first place,” she pointed out.  “Rina, I’m so sorry – ”

“No, it’s okay,” Rina said.  “I’m glad you guys told me. I… I just need to talk to Agent.”  She headed back to the elevator as Reiki moved over to Frank.

“You happy?” he asked, pulling Frank up by the collar.  “Rina’s upset. Why’d you tell her that?”

“Dunno,” Frank said, looking confused.  “I guess I just felt like it. Weird.”

“‘Weird’,” Reiki repeated.  “I’ll show you ‘weird’, you – ”

“Reiki, drop him,” Natalie said.  “I think we may have been more affected than we thought.  The experiments he was running, Project Eleutherios, it had a side-effect of making people lose their inhibitions.”

Shadow grinned as Reiki let him go.  “Hey, you think I got super-strength like Samson did?” he asked, not even fazed by Reiki’s threat.  “That would be cool; I might beat Parker at an arm-wrestling match.”

“Parker knows how to control his strength,” Natalie pointed out.  “He’s also still with the Fauns.”

“Oh yeah,” Shadow shrugged.  “Here, let me try – ”

He went over to Haley’s chair and tried to lift it, but it barely budged while she was sitting in it.  Haley shrugged at him. “Samson was human,” she reminded him. “Maybe the serum affected your Third Gen powers.”

Frank frowned, concentrating.  Shadows around the room began expanding until they covered the lamps, putting the room into complete darkness.  “Whoa, cool!” Frank exclaimed as their sight was completely cut off. He had never been able to make an entire lit room go dark before.

“Frank, stop,” Natalie said.  “We need to get you down to Dale.  Haley, we’ll all go; if Frank was affected, then we probably were, too.”

There was no response.  At Natalie’s command, Frank dimmed the shadows until they could see again, just in time to see the door to the stairs close with a click.

Haley wasn’t in the room any more.

Natalie put a hand on Frank’s shoulder, shaking her head.  “Aw, fu – ”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Agent’s office.

“Where is he?” Rina demanded, bursting into Agent’s office.  “Where did you take Doctor Samson?”

“He’s in the holding cell at the ECPD,” Agent answered calmly.  “Why do you need to see him?”

Rina shook her head.  “Of all people, you know what I’ve been through,” she said.

“Yes, and that’s why I ask,” Agent told her.  “You’ve known who he is, obviously, so you’ve had plenty of chances to see him, but you didn’t.  Why now?” He gestured for her to have a seat.

“I found out a month or so ago,” she said, slumping into the prooffered chair.  “After the stuff with Leah and Mikey, I looked into it. It wasn’t hard – I don’t know why the others had even waited that long.  I just… I’ve been putting it behind me for so long, I didn’t want to dredge it up.”

“And now that he’s been involved in a case, you want to face him,” Agent finished for her.

Rina shook her head.  “No,” she said. “Now that I’ve found out he’s been continuing his experiments, I want to ask him why.”

“Who told you that?” Agent asked, concerned.  “I thought the others agreed not to bring it up to you.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Rina muttered, but Agent stood up.

“It does matter,” he said.  “The other three have been exposed to the same thing Samson was.  The main side effect is a loss of inhibitions; if they’re spilling secrets, that might be a symptom, so who told you?”

“Frank,” Rina answered, standing up and heading to the elevator with Agent.  “But Natalie was telling him to stop.”

Agent pursed his lips as the elevator doors opened.  “Frank’s a little impulsive on his own, so it may be nothing,” he said, “but heaven help us if they’ve been affected.”

“Why?” Rina asked.  “So they act drunk for a day or so; no big deal, right?  They’re adults, they’ll be fine.”

As they stepped onto the elevator, Agent pointed out something that made Rina’s blood run cold: “Have you met Natalie?”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Medical Center.

“There you guys are,” Agent said, breathing a sigh of relief when he saw Natalie and Frank in the medical center.  “I’ve been looking all over for you.”

“I made Frank check in when he found out his powers were enhanced,” Natalie said.  “But I lost Haley.”

“What do you mean, you ‘lost’ her?” Agent asked.  “Where is she?”

“Best I can figure, she left.”  Natalie said. “But you know, it’s Haley; what trouble could she get into?  She’s the sensible one.”

Agent looked at his data pad, typing something in.  “Not sure,” he said, “but I’d feel better if we found her.”

Dale chose that moment to come in.  “I know why you didn’t bring Samson to me,” he said, “but I think I’ll need to see him after all.  This isn’t the same as the project we worked on eight years ago – he’s been tweaking it.”

“What do you mean?” Agent asked.

“Frank’s Third Gen powers are erratic,” Dale pointed out.  “He can’t control them. He also doesn’t seem panicked, but that could just be because he’s Frank.  I’ll need another subject to compare in order to be sure, and I’d like to ask Doctor Samson what he did to Eleutherios.”

“I’ll get him here,” Agent promised, “and I’ll track down Haley.  Natalie, you stay here; text me the second you start feeling the effects of it.”

“Will do,” Natalie said, swinging her legs off the side of the table.  “You let me know when you find Haley.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, night.

Haley Prince, AKA Outlier.

About to do something stupid.

Haley danced down the street, humming her favorite songs as she went.  On some level she remembered that Agent had told them to stay in the building, but she didn’t care.  There was something she had been curious about, and she was on her way to get answers.

She was still dressed in her pajamas, barefoot, but she didn’t care about that, either.  There wasn’t any reason to worry about her outfit – she was just going to ask a question.

A section of the south side of the city was Faun territory – Haley had learned that in her Watcher training, which is why she was currently dancing down their streets.  When she went on patrol in the afternoons, she rode a motorcycle through this side of the city. Many satyrs were nice people; Haley had met plenty of them on her rounds, as she kept an eye out for trouble.  Most of the people in the city knew her face as a Watcher of the Asylum, so a lot of them would greet her during the day. She had met a lot of people in her last few months as a Watcher, so she had no fear of the south side.

Although, she usually met people during her daytime patrols when she had a mode of transportation, a com unit, and her uniform’s utility belt to help get her out of trouble.  But she had spent the last hour walking down here, and she had left her equipment at the tower.

The thought was in the back of her mind, but like her lack of shoes it just didn’t seem to matter at the moment.  That’s something for future Haley to worry about, she thought, still dancing down the street to the songs stuck in her head.

“Who’s this?” came a voice from behind her.  Seven satyrs stepped out of the shadows, surrounding Haley before she could react.

The satyr who had spoken first was a cat-satyr.  She had round, cat-like ears, and a striped tail that waved in the night breeze.  Her eyes were small and yellow, and she had tufts of white fur – whiskers – on the side of her face.

Another satyr, a small man with a rat-like nose, spoke up as well.  “Hey, she looks like one of those Asylum guys. That new one, what’s-her-name.”

“Outlier,” said a third, a burly fellow with lizard scales covering his skin.  “The new Asylum Watcher’s name is Outlier – I’ve seen her around here when she patrols.  But she’s a sensible person; she wouldn’t have come down to this side of the city without a reason… or backup.”  Haley could see the glint of knives in his jacket.

Despite the threatening poses the satyrs had adopted when the rat-satyr called her a Watcher, Haley didn’t feel any danger.  “I’m looking for somebody,” she said. “You wouldn’t happen to know him, would you?”

“Depends,” the first satyr said, grinning like a hungry cat.  “Who are you looking for at three in the morning in Faun territory?”

“Brother of mine,” Haley said.  “He works as a bouncer on this side of town – I’m just not sure where.  Name’s Scott Prince; would have just gotten off work. You wouldn’t know him, would you?”

The cat-satyr raised her eyebrows.  “You’re looking for Scott?” she asked, disbelieving.

“Yep,” Haley said with a cheeky grin.  “He’s my brother.”

“Hey, what’s going on here?” came a familiar voice from behind the cat-satyr.  “Who’s this?”

Another satyr stepped up.  This one seemed vaguely familiar to Haley: he had feathery blond hair and a pair of speckled black-and-white wings growing out of his back.  “You!” she cried, pointing at him. “I think I’ve seen you. You know my brother?”

Parker Fawkes cleared his throat.  “Kiara, why are you guys harassing a drunk chick?” he asked the cat-satyr.

“We think she might be a Watcher from the Asylum,” Kiara reported.  “The new one, Outlier.”

Raising an eyebrow, Parker asked reasonably, “Do you guys really think an Asylum Watcher would get this drunk and come into Faun territory at night without weapons or backup?  She doesn’t even have shoes on,” he pointed out.

“Do any of you guys know where I can find Scott?” Haley insisted.  “I need to find him. I need to ask something.”

Parker shook his head.  “She might not be a satyr,” he said, “but she’s related to one.  She probably just looks like the Watcher, but Scott’s family are all bakers.”  He walked over to Haley, adding, “I’ll see she gets out of here. You guys get back to patrols.”

The satyrs scattered at his command, and Parker guided Haley over to the sidewalk.  Once they were alone, he hissed, “Are you trying to get us killed, or are you just stupid?  If Agent needed me – ”

“Agent?” Haley asked.  “Agent doesn’t know I’m here.  I have the next few days off – I wanted to see my brother.”

Parker’s eyebrows furrowed.  “Wait, Scott’s really your brother?” he asked.  “You know he’s a Faun, right?”

“Right,” Haley said.  “That’s why I came here – he ran away from home a few months ago.  Well, I say ‘ran away’; he’s an adult, he can do what he wants,” she added.  “But I wanted to know why. And why he never comes to a family dinner any more.  And why I can’t see him…” Tears began to mist in her eyes, making her vision blurry as her brain went down that trail of thought.  “He’s my big brother. I’ve only got four; Sean’s been upset since Scott left. They were close, you know – the satyrs in the family.  Scott’s a gorilla, and I miss sparring with him and Sean. My mom’s been sick with worry, and my dad, well, he doesn’t emote. But he’s also had Scott on the brain, you know?”

Parker sighed.  “I know where Scott is,” he told her.  “I can give him the message. But it was stupid for you to come down here on your own – you’re a Watcher of the Asylum, Agent has rules against getting this wasted.”

“Oh, I’m not drunk,” Haley said, starting to dance again.

“Yeah, pull the other one,” Parker laughed, watching her, “it has bells.”

“Really,” she said, grabbing his hand and starting to dance with him.  “I just got hit by Eleutherios.” She grinned, repeating the name. “That’s a fun word: Eleutherios.  Eh-loo-theh-ree-ohs. E-leu-therios…”

Parker smirked.  “Isn’t that another name for Dionysus?” he asked.  “‘God of wine and revelry?’”

“You know stuff!” Haley exclaimed happily, throwing her arms in the air as she twirled.  “Oh, man, I had to tell Natalie and Frank who it was!”

She had been back-leading their dance to the tune in her head, but Parker took over the lead at that.  He was rolling with Haley’s drunk behavior so that she wouldn’t cause too much of a scene; while he could smell that the other Fauns weren’t within hearing distance, he had no idea who might be watching.  “Yeah, my sister’s studious, but she forgets stuff as soon as she doesn’t need it any more,” he said. “Besides, Nat was always more into Norse mythology than Greek. She wouldn’t know Dionysus from Apollo.”

“Natalie’s mean sometimes,” Haley said, “but she’s a good Watcher.  Small but scrappy; I’ve been teaching her Aikido.”

“Really?” Parker said, slowly leading the dance down the street to the edge of Faun territory.  “Nat listens to you?”

Haley shrugged.  “As much as she listens to anyone,” she admitted, twirling in the dark.  “Anyways, if you’re giving Scott a message, then you’re not taking me to him, right?”

“Right,” Parker said.  “I’m taking you out of here before you get in trouble.”

Haley stopped dancing and started walking.  “You’re a good guy, you know that?” she said.  “I know you’ve had to do some bad things, like sticking up that DMV, but you’re still a Watcher under it all.”

Parker bowed his head to hide a sheepish smile.  “I’m not so sure,” he said. “The DMV was small potatoes compared to some other stuff I’ve done.  If you remember this conversation in the morning, you might ask Agent about it tomorrow.”

“I always remember everything,” Haley said.  She shook her head. “Agent doesn’t talk about you,” she told him.  “Last I heard, he hadn’t heard from you in a while. But Frank contacted you last week.”

“I talked to Agent after that,” Parker said.  “But yeah, I haven’t been reporting in as regularly as he’d like.  Claw’s been onto me for a while, so I’ve been keeping my head down.”

“You okay?” Haley asked, hugging his side and leaning against him as they walked.  He smelled like flowers and some kind of citrus, neither of which fully covered up the scent of blood on his clothes.  “You sound sad.” She looked up at his face, studying it. “No, not sad… scared. You’re afraid of something.”

Parker tensed at the scrutiny, and Haley stepped away from him.  “You don’t even know me,” he said.

“True,” Haley nodded.  “We’ve never been properly introduced.  I’m Haley Prince, also known as Outlier,” she added, holding her hand out for him to shake.

Parker gave a short laugh at the sudden change of subject.  Taking her hand and giving it a mock kiss, as if she were a princess, he said, “I’m Parker Fawkes.  I went by Blackbird in the Asylum, and now the Fauns call me Fallen.”

“Pleased to meet you, Parker,” Haley said, grinning.  “Thank you for walking me this far. I guess you can’t go too much farther.”

Parker shook his head.  “But if you follow this road, you’ll get back to the tower.  I’m also texting both Agent and Frank to pick you up.” He pulled out an old-fashioned cell phone, which was how he contacted the Asylum members.

“Oh, Frank was hit by the Eleutherios too,” Haley said.  “So was Natalie. But Agent should get the message.”

Parker looked like he wanted to ask, but shook his head.  “I can’t be seen with you when Agent gets here, but I’ll keep an eye out so you don’t get into any trouble.”

“Nice to meet you, Parker,” Haley said, grinning at him.  “I hope you come home soon.”

Parker nodded.  “Tell Natalie I intend to,” he said.  “And Haley?” he added as she started to walk away.  She looked back curiously. “It was really nice to meet you, too.”

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

Medical Center.

“So this drug makes people dance randomly?” Natalie asked.  “If I try that, please stop me.”

“Eleutherios releases inhibitions,” Dale pointed out.  “We’re just lucky Haley didn’t try to use any powers.”

“Don’t need powers,” Haley said.  “I’ve been fine ‘til now, I can go without.  No, thank you.”

Agent crossed his arms.  “You’re lucky Parker found you and convinced those Fauns that you weren’t Outlier.”

“Meh,” Haley shrugged.  “I am who I am.”

“Still,” Dale said, “for tha sake of research, Haley, could you grip tha table?”

Like the table in Samson’s lab, the one Haley now sat on had a metal frame.  She studied it for a second, before grabbing the edge and squeezing until her knuckles were white.  “Nope,” she said. “No powers. No, thank you.”

“Hmm.”  Dale studied the table, before looking back at Haley.  “I guess this version of tha serum in’t as potent as tha one Samson took.”

“Or else it just got mixed with a bunch of other stuff,” Haley said, hopping back up on the table.  She began humming to herself.

“Not that song again,” Natalie said, rolling her eyes.  “It’s never going to get out of my head now.”

Dale moved over to his work station, where he had a microscope slide with some of the Eleutherios on it.  “She has a point,” he said. “Dinnae you say tha you got soaked with the stuff after some jars broke?”

“Yeah,” Natalie said.  “Samson pushed me to the ground and the jars broke around me; I got it all over my back.  Shadow put his hand in it, and some must have splashed on Haley.”

“But you’re na affected,” Dale pointed out.  “You got tha worst dose, but you arenae loopy like these two.”  He gestured to Haley, who was still humming to herself, and Frank, who seemed intent on doing handstands.

“Okay, so I’m not dancing in the streets yet,” Natalie shrugged.  “So?”

“So maybe you have a natural immunity,” said Dale, still adjusting his microscope.  “I have samples of yer blood on file; I’ll need a sample now, post-affliction, to compare.  Agent, this might take a bit.”

“Not a problem,” Agent said, pressing the elevator button.  “Rina asked to see Doctor Samson, and she might help us get some answers out of him.”

“Good luck,” Natalie called wryly.  “Have fun interrogating the prisoner, while I’m stuck here getting poked with needles.”

“There’ll be other prisoners,” Agent told her as the elevator doors opened.  He flashed her a grin as he stepped on. “I’ll make sure you get a turn, too.”

Natalie threw a hospital pillow at him as the elevator doors closed, Agent laughing from behind them.

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Police Department, interrogation room.

Sabrina “Rina” Dawson, AKA Nightmare.

Rina shuddered when she saw the lead researcher through the two-way mirror.  Samson was hunched over the table, looking like he was asleep; he could just be any other old man, except she knew him as a monster.

Agent looked at her with concern in his eyes.  “You sure about this?” he asked. “He might talk to you more than he would to me, but if it’s upsetting…”

“I can do it,” Rina said, cracking her knuckles.  “I rarely saw his face, so it’s not that bad. He’s just another bad guy, right?”

“We need to know what was in the Eleutherios,” Agent reminded her.  “Also if he’s been conducting human, satyr, or Third Gen experiments outside of Pharos.”

“And about how he stole the research from Pharos, and what else he might have.  Yeah, I know,” Rina said impatiently. “Can we get this over with?”

Agent nodded.  “He’s still under the effects of the drug,” he added, “so he might have trouble staying on topic.  You need to guide the conversation.”

Rina looked at him sideways as she opened the door.  “I have done this before, you know,” she pointed out.  “I worked as a police interrogator before you recruited me for the Asylum.”

“Right, right,” Agent said.  “Just… you can pull the plug at any time.  I know how personal this is for you.”

“I’ll be fine,” Rina told him.  “You just worry about him.”

She left the viewing room and entered the interrogation room.  Agent watched from the sidelines, letting Rina talk to Samson on her own.

Samson’s head snapped up to look at her as she walked in.  “Sabby?” he asked, studying her. “It’s my Sabby! Number nine, the Nightmare Child.”  He chuckled. “You really put the nurses through the ringer, you know.”

“Good,” Rina said, sitting down across from him.  “I need to know what was in Eleutherios.”

“Dionysus, Bacchus… probably a lot of wine!” Samson giggled.

Rina raised an eyebrow, letting her power affect the doctor.  “The drug, doctor. The one you’ve been working on in secret. What’s in it?”

“Ooh,” Samson shivered.  “You’re controlling your powers, and you didn’t even need a shock.  Impressive.”

“I’ve learned a lot since we broke away from you,” Rina hissed.  “I don’t have time for games. Tell me what I need to know so I can help my friends.”

Here shines the sun,” Samson sang.  “Have you ever seen the sun, Sabby?  I’d love to take you to the beach. Why don’t we go to the beach?”

Rina slammed a hand on the table.  She took a few deep breaths to calm herself before asking again, “What was in the drug?”

Samson considered her for a moment.  He could see that she was close to snapping, and realized that he might not want to be on the receiving end of that.  “I don’t really know,” he admitted. He lost the silly grin, straightening up in his seat and folding his hands on the table in front of him.  “I know what you’re asking me, Sabrina, but I’m not sure what affected your friends.”

Rina’s eyes widened.  “You weren’t really affected,” she accused.  “You’ve been foxing this whole time!”

“On the contrary, I was affected,” Samson said.  “It wore off about an hour ago.  I maintained the charade because that Agent and his like were less likely to let me see you while I’m sober.”

Rina stood up, knocking her chair over.  “Sabrina, wait!” Samson said, reaching for her hand.  The handcuffs chaining him to the table prevented him from reaching her.  “Sabrina!”

“You want me to wait?” Rina said.  “Tell me what I want to know.”

“I’ve already told you, I don’t know,” Samson said.  As Rina turned for the door, he added, “There were five different trials of Eleutherios on that table, and when they smashed they combined.  I’m not sure what combination might have affected your friends – they might have canceled each other out, or strengthened each other’s effects.  I just don’t know!”

“Are they in danger?” Rina asked, turning back to him.  “The drug that you were under wore off; won’t it wear off for them?”

“Probably,” Samson said.  “All five had a limited effect in my trials.  Without further exposure, they’ll probably be back to normal in a day or two.”

“Okay then,” Rina said, picking her chair back up and sitting down.  “Next question: what other experiments have you done using humans, satyrs, or Third Gens as subjects?”

Samson looked her in the eyes.  “I’ll make you a deal, Sabrina. An answer for an answer – you answer my questions, and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

“What could you possibly want to know about me?” Rina scoffed.

“Can’t a father want to know his daughter?” Samson countered.

Rina could almost hear Agent’s hiss from the other room; she had never told him that particular piece of information before.  “You stopped being my father the first time you cut off my arm,” she told him.  “Heck, you stopped being my father as soon as you put me in your precious Fourth Gen experiment.  So no, we can’t go to the beach, because you made me allergic to the sun!”

“That was unintended,” Samson said.  “I was trying to save your life.”

“From what?” Rina asked.  “I was perfectly healthy before you gave me the serum.”

Samson shook his head.  “You were born a hybrid, Sabrina,” he said.  “Your nightmare powers killed your mother before you were three.  I was trying to get rid of them.”

“Right,” Rina scoffed.  “You started me on Fourth Gen as a baby.  You ‘wanted to get rid of them’, but instead you made them stronger. Then you marketed me to any military, government and private sector, to say that you could create super-soldiers.  And then you cut off my freaking arms and legs just to show them that they’d grow back.” She cracked her knuckles again, showing him her hands.

Samson looked away.  “I’ll admit, I was not exactly father of the year,” he said.  “I needed funding, so I had to give them something. It wasn’t until your brother rebelled and broke you all out of there that I – ”

“Wait, hang on,” Rina said, leaning forward.  “‘My brother’? Ryan was the one that got us out of there.”

“Yes, Ryan,” Samson said.  “Your older brother. He was one of the first experiments in the project.”

Rina took a deep breath, trying and failing to calm herself.  “So it wasn’t just me,” she said. “I wasn’t even your first child to be born as a guinea pig.  Ryan was my brother…”  She shook her head to clear it.  Act now, emote later, she reminded herself.  She had learned that lesson in her early days as an interrogator, but she had never dealt with information that personal before.  “You said you had a question for me,” she continued, getting back on topic. “If I answer, you’ll answer my questions. Deal?”

“Deal,” Samson said.  “All I really want to know is: how have you been?  Since leaving the laboratory,” he clarified. “You’re currently a Watcher in the Asylum, correct?”

“I’ve been great,” Rina told him.  “Nobody prodding me, or making me learn to do things one-handed or use crutches.  I get to bring bad guys like you to justice.” She leaned forward. “My turn. What other projects have you been on?”

Samson shrugged.  “Aside from Fourth Gen and Eleutherios, I worked on the Gen Juice project at Pharos Laboratories.  In my spare time, I tried to perfect Eleutherios at home, but I could never get it to take away Third Gen or Satyrism.  It only enhanced the effects.” He sighed. “I don’t know what they put into the original Third Gen or Satyr serums that made them so resilient,” he said wistfully.  “We – humanity – created our own demise in trying to perfect ourselves. I want you to know,” he added, leaning in towards Rina, “that I only ever worked on these projects to help you and your brother.  I want to find a cure, so you can be a normal girl.”

Rina shook her head.  “How did you get the research out of Pharos?” she asked.

“Oh, that part was easy,” Samson said.  “When Eleutherios was shut down eight years ago, I just omitted certain parts from my inventory report and took them home with me that night.”

Rina glanced towards the mirror, knowing Agent was hearing every word.  “I’m asking about your recent theft,” she said. “When you were fired from Pharos, you took more.  What did you take, and how did you take it?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Samson said.  “I didn’t take anything else when Pharos fired me; just the research from eight years ago.”

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Police Department, interrogation room.

Agent and Rina.

“You believe him?” Rina asked Agent once the interrogation was over.  She joined him in the viewing room, noting that O.N.C. and Sean Hannah had both joined them at some point during her questioning.

“If he’s lying, he’s the best I’ve ever seen,” Agent admitted.  “Which then begs the question: why did you two put my team on a cold case without telling us?”

Sean raised an eyebrow, folding his arms in front of himself.  “Does it make a difference?” he asked. “The research he stole was proprietary, and he was recently fired.”

“It means you never answered Outlier’s question,” Agent said, folding his arms to mock the CEO’s posture.  “Why now? What changed?”

Sean grinned.  “Her,” he said, nodding to Rina.  At her startled look, he added, “I wanted to see how she could handle pressure; nothing seems to phase her, and I knew this would.”

Rina glared at him.  “She’s standing right here, and can be addressed directly,” she said.  Her powers began to flood the room, making the CEO twitch uncomfortably.  O.N.C. took a few steps back, and both of their breathing got harder and faster as Rina gave them the anxiety attack that she herself had been holding back since the start of the interrogation.

“Enough!” Sean roared, waving a hand through the air as if that would stave off the panic.  “If you can’t behave like an adult, then you can just leave!” Rina released the pressure on the room, turning and storming out the door.

Agent shook his head at them, unaffected by her powers.  “You deserved that,” he said, turning to follow Rina. “Don’t ever mess with my team again.”

He caught up to Rina halfway down the hall, calling her name.  “You okay?” he asked, tentatively.

Rina had tears rolling down her cheeks, and she was shivering.  Agent put his arms around her, letting her get control of herself.  “It’s okay,” he said. “He can’t hurt you any more.” Rina could feel him shivering from the effects of her powers, but he didn’t let go.

“It’s not that,” Rina sniffed, biting her lip to control the quiver in her voice.  “He said… Ryan was my brother. My actual brother! I always thought he was just another kid in the experiment.”  She sniffed, trying to control her crying. “This is stupid. It’s been nearly fifteen years since he died; I don’t know why I’m so upset now.”

“Hey,” Agent said, pulling away to look her in the face.  “Traumas like that don’t just leave,” he told her. “All we can do is move on and try to live despite them.  It doesn’t matter if it’s fifty years later and his name comes up – you take the time you need to mourn. As long as you don’t let it consume you, it’s healthy to cry sometimes.”

Rina sniffed.  “Thanks,” she said.  “You sound like you know what it’s like.”

“I was the Agent of Team Ark,” he reminded her.  “I lost friends, and other friends got badly hurt under my watch.  So yeah, I know what I’m talking about.” He gave her a sad smile. “If I ever found out that Striker was my brother, I’d be crying in the hallway, too.  I’m impressed you didn’t lose it in front of the others.”

Rina shook her head. “‘Interrogate now, emote later’,” she told him, turning to walk down the hall now that she had gotten herself under control.  “The detective I worked with taught me that. If you cry in front of the perp, you’re only giving him power.”

“True,” Agent said, falling into step beside her.  “Hey, while you were in there I got news from Dale.  Haley and Frank seem to be returning to normal.”

“That’s good!” Rina said.

“He’s still not sure why it didn’t affect Natalie, though,” Agent added, worried.  “I’m just hoping it doesn’t have any long-lasting effects.”

Rina put a hand on his shoulder.  “She’s fine right now,” she told him.  “We’ll worry about anything else as it comes.”

Agent nodded.  “Yeah,” he said.  “I guess I should be grateful she didn’t go berserk.”

“Super-powered Natalie with no inhibitions,” Rina said thoughtfully.  “That’s a scary thought. Then again, how can we be sure the drug didn’t affect her?”

“Meaning?” Agent asked.

Rina shrugged.  “Natalie doesn’t let much of anything stop her,” she said.  “That’s when she’s sober, and that’s why it seems scary for her to be on a drug like that.  But then, since she already lives her life with few to no inhibitions, maybe the drug did affect her – we just couldn’t tell.”

Agent raised his eyebrows, considering the point.  “That… sounds plausible,” he said slowly. “That actually makes me feel a lot better.  Thanks.”

“No problem,” Rina said.  “Now what say you we stop and get some ice cream on the way back?”

“Sounds good,” Agent said, grinning.  “Chunky monkey?”

“Chocolate chip cookie dough,” Rina said.  As they got to Agent’s car, Rina began humming an old tune that her mother used to sing as a lullaby:

Lavender blue, dilly-dilly

Lavender green

Then I’ll be king, dilly-dilly, and you’ll be my queen…

* * * * * * * *

Next: Issue #12 – Butterfly Net

Dawn of the Asylum, Issue #7 – Polar Opposites

Olympus – the ruins of a once-great civilization.

Jaunt, AKA the guy behind everything.

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

Rude.

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

“Rome,” said Alice.

There was nobody around her.

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

Wait, are you talking to me?

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

How are you doing this?

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

What do you mean, ‘powers of narration’?

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

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

“Nobody important,” Hatter said.

Thanks a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Asylum HQ, training center.

The team is at it again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Museum.

Hatter again.  Hi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure.  Makes sense.

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

And the whale?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You could always change them back.

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

Now what will you do?

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters, Dale’s lab.

Ain’t I a stinker?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Asylum training floor, three hours later.

Good luck, guys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank concentrated again, and the light slowly dimmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Eon City Museum, the next day.

About time, amiright?

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

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

You could always give him another one.

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

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

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

You want to do the honors?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right into Haley’s waiting embrace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Asylum Headquarters.

I’m gonna go lie down now.

Narrator can take it from here.

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

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

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

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

“Jaunt is the villain that Team Ark was trying to take down when they fell apart,” Agent finished grimly.  “There were a lot of issues there to begin with, but he knew how to exploit every single one of them.”

“So what’s our move?” Haley asked.

“For now, we keep protecting the city,” Agent told them.  “Jaunt can open portals anywhere on Earth at will. We don’t know where he makes his base, so we’ll have to stay alert and look for more leads.”  He smiled at the group, though he couldn’t hide the shadows under his eyes. “You guys did good,” he said. “That was excellent teamwork. Keep it up!”

With that, he went to the elevator and left the team to themselves.

“Jaunt,” Shadow spat.  “My mom got shot chasing that guy.”

“I wonder what he meant by ‘Jaunt exploited Team Ark’s issues’,” Haley mused.  “The papers back then reported that Team Ark disbanded, but they didn’t give any details.”

Shadow jumped into one of the cushioned chairs around the living area.  “I don’t know it all, either,” he admitted. “All I know is that after Lyta was killed,” he nodded at Natalie, who tensed at her mom’s codename, “The team had a bit of bad blood in it.  Dad once mentioned that Striker had been challenging his leadership. Sparrow was Striker’s little sister and followed him everywhere, and Marauder closed himself off from the group.”

“That’s why that night hit Casey so hard,” Natalie continued, her voice soft.  “Casey – Sparrow – had the power to see the future. She knew what was coming, and she couldn’t stop it.”

“If I had to guess,” Frank continued, “I’d say Jaunt played on her fears, on Marauder’s cageyness, and on Striker’s beef with my dad.  With all of that, they’d have fallen apart in an instant.”

“That’s why Agent keeps after us about teamwork,” Reiki said, “right?”

“And why I was so pissed at him for keeping Parker’s mission from me,” Natalie added.  “You’d think he’d know better than to keep secrets from his team after all that.”

“We still don’t know a thing about this Jaunt guy,” Frank said, pulling shadows around himself like a blanket.  “I’m willing to bet Agent knows more than he let on, but he won’t tell us.”

“Come on, guys,” Haley said with a nervous giggle.  “He’d tell us if we needed to know, right?”

“If he thinks we need to know,” Reiki corrected her darkly.

They all sat in silence for a minute before Haley broke it.  “Well, this is depressing,” she said. “Speculating will get us nowhere, and my mom sent cookies from her bakery.”

Frank perked up.  “Cookies?” he asked.  “I heard cookies.”

Haley laughed, and the tension in the room was broken.  “Come on, they’re in the kitchen,” she said, grinning. The team followed her, and they started chatting about more mundane things.  While the mood was lifted, the question remained in the back of their minds:

Who was this Jaunt person, and what was his endgame?

* * * * * * * *

Next: Issue #8 – Dark David

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 #6 – Meet the New Girl

Asylum Headquarters, Eon City, Present Day.

Natalie Fawkes. Training.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Eon City, Andy’s Gym.

Haley Prince, frustrated.

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

Hook. Eleven tests, eleven denials.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Had enough?” Haley asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Agent and Natalie.

In the car going back to Asylum HQ.

“You lost.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

Next: Issue #1 – From Small Beginnings…

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