domingo, 1 de julio de 2018

ZODIACS 12

THE CONCERT WAS held at a converted castle in the French countryside, nestled against the trees along a quiet road. Steven, Jasmine, and Carlos approached a thick wooden door, framed within dark stone. Above it, on the outside of the building, a modern marquee displayed worn plastic letters: CE SOIR—LES POULES.
“‘Ce Soir,’” Steven said. “Is that an opening act?”
“I think it means ‘tonight,’” Jasmine replied.
“Oh,” Steven replied. He felt vaguely embarrassed.
They showed their tickets—which Carlos had bought via Wi-Fi on the plane—and passed through a bar area into the main concert hall. It was dark, with antique chandeliers hanging from a ceiling too high to see. A few small balconies dotted the walls, separated by stage lights and a few huge covered windows. Most of the seats were full—about two hundred or so—and a few people were dancing in the aisles.
Up on the stage, a trio of Asian men danced in formation, stomping their feet. Steven pointed a thumb at the lead singer. “That doesn’t look like Roxanne!” he shouted over the music.
Jasmine stifled a giggle. Carlos just shook his head, jabbing at the touchscreen on his analyzer. “She’s here somewhere!”
The music built to a crescendo, then stopped. The lead singer raised his hand and barked out several words in mellifluous French. The audience rose to its feet, applauding.
Steven looked at Jasmine. “He said thank you!” she said. “And then he said the main event would be…”
But Steven had stopped listening. Up on the stage, a young woman was striding forward. She was tall, with a confident, almost haughty expression, and she wore a hoodie with a picture of a rhino on it. A guitar was slung over her shoulder. She carried it casually, as if she’d been born with it.
The other band members filed onstage behind her, taking their places: guitar and bass player flanking her, the drummer at his drum set. A low rumble of applause rose up as the woman cast her gaze across the audience, a sly smile teasing at the corners of her lips.
“Merci!” she yelled.
Her eyes met Steven’s—and something happened. He felt the Tiger surge, felt its energy welling up inside him. An aura, faint but strong, appeared around the woman in the hoodie, and for just a second Steven thought he saw fear in her eyes.
Then the other guitarist struck a raucous opening chord—and the moment was broken. The energy faded from the young woman as though it had never existed. She shook her head, turned toward her band mate, and made a quick chopping motion. He broke off playing, puzzled. She leaned in and spoke urgently in his ear.
After a brief, whispered discussion, the band broke into a much softer, quieter song. The woman nodded in approval, but her band mates looked unsure. She cast another glance toward Steven, then quickly looked away and broke into a melodious tune.
Jusssss-tice,” she sang. “There must be jusssss-tice in the world…”
“Did you feel that?” Jasmine’s voice in his ear made Steven jump. He’d forgotten she was there.
“I’m not…what?”
“Her.” Jasmine cocked her head at the stage.
The singer was pacing back and forth now, rapping in low, even tones. “Stop the slaugh-terrr,” she chanted, pointing with both thumbs at the animal on her shirt. “Stop the ex-ploi-taaaaaa-tion…
Carlos pushed in between Steven and Jasmine, holding up his analyzer. He nodded sharply.
Steven remembered the flash of energy, the aura surrounding the singer. He knew what Jasmine was going to say, even before she spoke the words.
“She’s Zodiac, all right.”
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Ex-ploi-taaaa-tion…
Roxanne forced herself to focus on the lyrics. But inside, she was terrified. Don’t let it show, she told herself. You’re onstage now. Keep the show going. Nothing matters but the show.
The band, she knew, was baffled by her actions. Pierre had been about to launch into “Maman,” the new song. It had a harsh, driving beat and a shrieking vocal, so they’d agreed to open with it. They knew it’d bring the crowd to its feet.
But then Roxanne had seen the three strange people enter: the man in the coat and glasses, the woman with harsh eyes, and…and the kid. When she’d locked eyes with him, a strange feeling had run through her. The same sensation, she realized, that she’d felt when she shattered the mirror in the bathroom.
Stop the killing. Stop the in-sani-teeeee…”
It had happened before, too—three times over the past couple of days. Whenever Roxanne became agitated and raised her voice, a surge of power seemed to fill her body. And then things…well, things broke.
So at the last minute, she’d decided to start off with a softer song, a ballad. The crowd, she could tell, was puzzled too—it was an unusual thing to do. But now the audience was with her, clapping and swaying and rising to their feet to dance gently.
My people…are your people. Your people are miiiiiiiiine…
This song, “The Killing,” featured a very even, measured vocal. Roxanne had been singing it now for at least two minutes, and nothing had happened. No surge, no energy. No glass breaking.
She glanced out over the crowd. The man in glasses was checking some machine in his hand. The kid’s eyes were still glued to her, watching her every move.
Pierre launched into the final chorus, and Paolo the drummer followed. Roxanne finished her last line and lowered the mic, smiling as the applause rose up.
Pierre was looking at her now, one eyebrow raised in question. She knew what that meant: Now?
Forget this, she thought. Forget jumping at shadows, forget being afraid of things I can’t understand. We’re young, and we’re onstage.
Let’s rock.
She spun around, facing each member of the band in turn, and mouthed the word: Maman.
Pierre struck the opening chord, even louder than the first time. Paolo pounded down a drum beat and Jaiden followed suit, laying down the hard, thumping bass line. The crowd let out a crazed howl of joy and release.
Roxanne smiled. For the first time tonight, she felt fully alive. She leaned in hard on the microphone.
Mothers don’t care,” she chanted, barking each syllable like it was her last. “FATHERS DON’T CARE—
The room exploded into chaos.
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When Roxanne, the woman on stage, cried out the word care, her head whipped around. A ripple of sound, like a distortion in the air, seemed to blast upward from her, heading toward the ceiling. At the same time, a halo of energy began to form around her body, writhing and surging outward.
“Look out!” Jasmine yelled.
As Steven watched, the sound-ripple struck a hanging chandelier, shattering it into fragments. Glass exploded in all directions, raining down over the crowd.
People screamed and started to run. Steven covered his head, shielding his eyes with his hands.
Onstage, the band had stopped playing their instruments. Roxanne’s eyes were wild now, scared. But sound continued to pulse out of her in short, sharp cries, like water pouring from a pressurized hose.
CHILDREN! DON’T! KNOW—
With each word, another burst of sound struck somewhere in the room. One blasted a crack in a wall; another shattered a window. One struck a man in the aisle, hurling him backward into a group of fleeing spectators.
“Rooster,” Carlos said, studying his analyzer. He pulled his coat tight around him to keep the flying glass away. “She’s definitely the Rooster.”
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Another sound-blast knocked a chunk of the ceiling loose. Panicked audience members ducked and fled.
Steven felt the Tiger rising inside him. Let me out, it seemed to say. This is what I’m here for. This is why I’ve chosen you!
He relaxed, letting the energy flow out and around him. He turned toward Jasmine—then stopped.
Jasmine was hovering a few feet above the aisle, oblivious to the falling glass and debris all around. Her eyes were blank, and her whole body glowed with incredible power. The ethereal Dragon figure surrounded her, hissing and spitting, its sharp talons clawing the air in fury.
She spread her arms out, extending the power. She turned to Steven, and her eyes seemed to focus on him for the first time. “I’ll protect these people,” she said. “You go get our Rooster!”
Steven’s eyes went wide. “Me?”
“You’re one of us,” Jasmine said. “Go!”
Steven gritted his teeth, feeling his own Zodiac energy rise to surround him. The Tiger’s energy-mouth growled, fangs flashing. He turned back toward the stage.
Another chandelier shattered. Steven ducked, but it wasn’t necessary. Jasmine extended her Dragon power above him, shielding him along with the others.
Up onstage, Roxanne was still singing—but Steven couldn’t hear the words anymore. Her power, the uncontrolled Zodiac energy, seemed to have overtaken her. Her entire being seemed to be funneled into those sonic bursts, the sharp deadly shocks shooting out of her mouth.
Steven ran toward her. He jumped over a fallen woman, pausing just long enough to make sure she wasn’t badly hurt. He dodged a stage light as it fell into the aisle.
Roxanne had grown her own energy halo now. Its wide, feathered wings spread out from her body, stretching to cover the width of the stage. Above her shrieking head, a coxcombed Rooster whipped its sharp beak back and forth, moving in time to her sonic cries.
Steven leapt up onstage. The band had fled, he noticed, forced back by those vast energy-wings. The last member, the bass player, paused briefly at the curtain, then dashed offstage.
“Hey!” Steven called. “Hey, uh—Roxanne? Rooster?”
He felt vaguely silly, calling her that.
Roxanne turned in response. She seemed to be in shock, unable to stop the sonic assault. Now that she was facing him, a blast of sound caught him right in the chest, knocking him into the air.
Steven gasped, struggling for breath. But the Tiger was already in control. He twisted in midair, whirling around to land on his feet at the edge of the stage.
He cast a quick glance out at the seats. Most of the audience was gone now. Jasmine had narrowed her Dragon shield, protecting the last of the spectators from falling glass and fragments of ceiling. Carlos huddled close to her, still studying his analyzer.
Another sonic blast whizzed past Steven, ruffling his hair. He turned back toward Roxanne and roared. The Tiger’s cry filled the air between them, a loud primal sound.
Roxanne stopped, shaking her head. The energy around her seemed to flicker and weaken.
“Listen to me,” Steven croaked. “Just stop a minute and listen, okay?”
She blinked, clearly disoriented. Then she opened her mouth and barked again. A blast of pure sound struck the ceiling. A heavy curtain rod split in half and clattered down between them.
“Stop it! You have to stop this,” Steven said.
She clamped both hands over her mouth, forcing it shut. Then she turned terrified eyes to Steven and shook her head.
Steven took a step toward her—a normal, human step, small and gentle. He willed the Tiger to recede, forcing the energy back inside. Soothing the Tiger.
Roxanne—she needs to see me as a regular person now, he thought. As someone she can trust.
“I’ve only had this power for a little while myself,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder if I can handle it. I need help…and I think you do, too.”
Roxanne lowered her hands, and a small sonic cry burst forth, high-pitched and frantic. It struck the stage, splintering the floorboards. She clamped her mouth shut again and nodded at him.
The audience was gone now. Jasmine hovered at the edge of the stage, waiting. Her Dragon glow pulsed tight around her, fierce and powerful. Carlos stood behind her, watching.
“Let us help you,” Jasmine said.
Roxanne stared at Jasmine, then looked back to Steven. The Tiger energy was gone from him now.
“I need help,” Roxanne whispered, keeping each syllable low and quiet. “I do.”
Steven smiled and reached out his hand.


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ROXANNE’S MOTHER fluttered around the small hotel room. “Can I get you all something to eat? Or to drink? This room has a mini fridge. Would you like a cola? Or some crackers, a biscuit maybe?”
“We’re fine, ma’am,” Steven said.
He sat on the little sofa next to Jasmine, with Carlos wedged in on her other side. Carlos was aiming his analyzer at Roxanne, who sat slumped in an armchair. Ever since Steven had helped her offstage, she’d withdrawn, become quiet and sullen.
“I want to thank you so much for saving Roxy,” her mother continued. “I knew that place was unsafe. It’s five hundred years old! I knew she shouldn’t play there. And I told her not to wear that silly sweatshirt, either. But Roxy knows I support her.” She paused, crouching down next to the little fridge. “Would you like me to order hamburgers? Americans like hamburgers, yes?”
“Maman,” Roxanne said, not moving her head to look up. “Sit down. You’re gonna give me a seizure.”
Jasmine smiled. “Thank you for your hospitality, Mrs. LaFleur.”
“It’s Ms.” An uncomfortable look crossed the older woman’s face. “Ms. LaFleur.”
“I use my mother’s name,” Roxanne said, her voice flat. “Not my father’s.”
Steven felt a sudden urge to move past that topic. “Ms. LaFleur,” he said. “The castle—the concert hall—it didn’t collapse on its own. Roxanne had something to do with it.”
“What? That’s absurd.” Ms. LaFleur frowned, and her whole demeanor changed. She marched over to Carlos and said, “What is that thing you keep waving in my daughter’s face?”
Carlos looked up. “It’s a portable qi analyzer,” he said. “We’re very close to a ley line here, so I’m getting an unusual amount of interference. But it’s designed to detect Zodiac energy, sort it into its five component elements, and measure the relative strength of each branch.”
Roxanne’s mother just stared at him.
“I’ve learned not to ask,” Jasmine said.
“Sometimes I play Plants vs. Zombies on it, too,” Carlos admitted.
“This magic Zodiac energy,” Ms. LaFleur said slowly. “You say it’s inside my daughter?”
“It’s inside everyone, to one degree or another.” Carlos snapped off the analyzer. “But it’s not magic. It’s based on elemental forces, the relationship between stellar positions and the earth’s electromagnetic field. And yes, there’s no doubt. Your daughter now possesses an enormous concentration of Zodiac power.”
“She was born in the Year of the Rooster, wasn’t she?” Jasmine asked.
Ms. LaFleur shrugged and looked at her daughter.
Roxanne sighed. “Yeah, I was. We did that Chinese Zodiac thing back in school.” She turned toward Jasmine with a challenging look. “I hated school.”
“You’re probably not gonna love this either,” Jasmine replied. “But—”
“No. Wait. Hold on a moment.” Ms. LaFleur stepped in front of Roxanne. “This is absurd. My daughter is not some superpowered person like in those Steel Aardvark movies—”
“Mongoose,” Steven muttered. “Steel Mongoose.”
“—she is normal,” Ms. LaFleur continued. “Why are you here, anyway? What do you want from us?”
Jasmine leaned forward. “We want to help your daughter, Ms. LaFleur. What happened tonight could happen again, at any time. Back at our headquarters in Greenland, we can train her to use her power safely.”
“And,” Steven added, “we can keep her safe from this dude called Maxwell. He wants to lock us all up and train us to be super soldiers, or something.”
“No. Absolutely not.” Ms. LaFleur stared at them. “I may not approve of Roxanne’s clothes, or her style of music, or the fact that she left university after one semester. Or the makeup she slathers onto her face, or the causes she latches onto seemingly on a daily basis, or the career path she seems intent on pursuing despite all rationality and sanity—”
Maman,” Roxanne said. “The point?”
But,” Ms. LaFleur continued, “I support her right to do these things. To find her own path in life, to follow her dreams. And no fairy tales about magic Zodiac powers are going to stop her from doing that.”
There was an awkward silence. Then a sudden light caught Steven’s eye. Jasmine stood up, glowing brightly once again. The Dragon energy surrounded her, coiled around her body like a serpent, its jaws gaping wide. When she spoke, her voice was like an amplified hiss.
“The Zodiac power is real.”
Roxanne’s eyes widened. Her mother froze.
“Jasmine,” Steven said. He rose to his feet, alarmed.
But Jasmine just reached out a hand to him, glowing with Zodiac fire. Before Steven could even formulate a thought, the Tiger within him reacted. He leapt to his feet and loped over to join her.
Then he turned to face Roxanne and her mother. The Tiger energy glowed all around him now, its fierce jaws whipping back and forth, its roar rising up to fill the small room.
“What,” Ms. LaFleur said, “what is that?
Carlos just sat on the sofa, a worried look on his face. “No more property damage,” he said softly. “Please?”
Together, Steven and Jasmine—the Tiger and the Dragon—stared at their new recruit. Slowly they began to walk toward Roxanne, their energy forms whipping around the room, snarling and roaring.
Steven felt like he was in the grip of something huge, something he could barely control. The Zodiac energy was still new to him, still overwhelming. Jasmine was only using a fraction of her Dragon power, he knew; he’d seen her flare up much brighter than this. But it was still enough to fill the room with light.
Roxanne seemed to shrink back into her chair, watching Jasmine and Steven with terrified eyes. “Mothers don’t care,” Roxanne whispered. “Mothers don’t care…”
Steven recognized the lyrics of one of her songs. He stepped out in front of Jasmine. “This is real,” he said. “I know you don’t want it. I’m not sure if I want it either. But…” He held out a hand to Roxanne.
“Fathers don’t care,” she continued. “Children don’t KNOW!”
The sonic blast struck Steven like a truck, slamming him backward into Jasmine. He bounced right off of her powerful Dragon energy and slammed sideways into an end table. His elbow struck a lamp, shattering it in a shower of sparks. Then he toppled to the ground.
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The Tiger roared.
Roxanne leapt to her feet, fists clenched, knocking over her chair. Zodiac energy surrounded her, rising up to form the unique shape of the fierce-winged Rooster. Its beak snapped and pecked at the air.
“Oh, no,” she said. “Maman, help me…”
Roxanne turned toward her mother—who stood perfectly still. She stared at her daughter with a look of utter terror.
Then she backed up into a table, sending it tumbling to the floor. “Stay away,” she said. “Stay away from me!”
“Maman?”
Ms. LaFleur’s eyes were wide. “Your music,” she said. “Your clothes, the makeup, the causes—I can live with all that. But not this.” She shook her head in panic. “Not this.
“No,” Roxanne said. “You can’t give up on me. You can’t. I’ve always had you. I’m—I’m so LUCKY!
The sonic blast struck the wall just above her mother’s head, smashing a hole in the plaster. Ms. LaFleur looked up, cast one final terrified glance at her daughter, then turned and sprinted out the door.
Roxanne watched her mother go. She didn’t move, but the Rooster energy form raised its head and let out a long, mournful crowing noise.
Then the energy faded, and Roxanne slumped to her knees. Steven rushed forward to catch her. And then, for a moment, the Rooster was just a normal person again. A confused, semiconscious girl.
“I was lucky,” Roxanne whispered.
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“Music is my life,” Roxanne said sadly. “But that part of my life is gone.”
“Not gone,” Jasmine replied. “You may have to put it on hold for a while.”
They sat in a nearby cafe, sipping hot drinks. Carlos had suggested they get out of the hotel room before anyone came to investigate the noise.
Steven turned to watch Roxanne. She stirred a spoon listlessly in her coffee, swirling the milk around.
“I cannot sing anymore,” she said. “Not without hurting people.”
“We can help you with that.” Jasmine took the girl’s hand. “We can train you to control your power.”
Roxanne squeezed Jasmine’s hand. The girl closed her eyes tight and let out something that might have been a sob. “Maman,” she said. “She was always there for me. And then…the way she looked at me when…”
“You were right,” Steven said. “You’re lucky to have a mom like that. Not everyone does.”
Roxanne looked at Steven, squinting as if she were noticing him for the first time.
“She’ll come around,” he added. “Your mom, I mean.”
Something odd crept into Roxanne’s eyes. “They are training you, too?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Steven replied.
“They will train you to dress better? Not that you aren’t rocking that cargo pants look.”
Steven stared at her for a moment, shocked. Then Jasmine let out a loud laugh. Roxanne burst out laughing—the first time they’d seen her do that. Even Carlos chuckled.
Steven smiled back.
Man, he thought. Are all the recruits gonna be like this?


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“I KNOW THIS might be difficult to accept,” Steven said. “But there’s this thing called the Chinese Zodiac—”
“Aye, sure, I get it,” the newcomer interrupted. “Crazy energy, ancient power, an’ for some reason it chose me. All good so far.”
“Well,” Jasmine said, smiling. “At least somebody’s not freaking out about this.”
The newcomer, Liam, wasn’t at all what Steven had expected. He was a few years older than Steven but about Steven’s height, with thick glasses and a round physique. He didn’t look like someone who’d been infused with Zodiac power, or any other power for that matter. And he seemed utterly unconcerned about the whole situation.
But Carlos had confirmed it: Liam was the one they’d come to find. So while Roxanne traveled back to Jasmine and Carlos’s hideout, the rest of them headed to find the Ram.
Carlos made a noise, and Jasmine turned to him. “What?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” Carlos studied his handheld analyzer closely. “I’m getting some sort of new reading. Might be nothing.”
Liam waved to a woman, who was just closing up shop for the day. “Oi, Millie,” he said. “How’s business?”
Millie gave him a sour look, then a quick smile. She turned away.
They were walking down the winding main road of Liam’s village, in Northern Ireland. The houses were built low—one or two stories—and a lot of the stores seemed to have gone out of business. The sun had just set, and a light mist was rolling in.
Steven realized that most of the cars parked along the road were compact models. In America, he thought, there’d be a lot more SUVs.
“This place feels peaceful,” he said.
“Peaceful?” Liam turned to him. “Aye, that’s one word. Hey, Angus. Crops comin’ in?”
“You seem to know everyone here,” Jasmine commented.
“I’ve lived here all my life.”
“So,” Steven said, “like we were saying. The Zodiac—”
“Mate!” Liam grinned. “I believe ye. I already knew something happened to me, you just put the words to it. Here, I’ll show ye.” He turned to a very large, muscular man, a giant walking by in a T-shirt and jacket. “Mal. Hit me in the stomach, aye? Hard as ye can?”
The giant, Mal, smiled and nodded. He whipped his fist down and slammed it up into Liam’s gut. Without a sound, Liam flew up off the ground, soaring several feet through the air. For just a moment, a Zodiac energy form appeared in the air around his body: a raging, charging Ram with sharp, curled horns.
Steven gasped.
Liam slammed into the side of a boarded-up storefront, chipping several bricks on its facade. As he slumped to the ground, the Zodiac energy faded.
Before Steven could make a move, Liam was on his feet, dusting off his stomach. He walked back to the giant, grinning. “Good one, Mal!” Liam said. “You been workin’ out, aye?”
Mal nodded, smiling shyly. “Whenever Downton’s not on,” he said.
Jasmine, Carlos, and Steven converged on Liam. Carlos ran the analyzer across his body, excited. “No damage at all,” Carlos said. “But, yes, a considerable discharge of Zodiac energy.”
“See you, Mal!” Liam called.
Mal waved and walked off.
Steven felt a sudden sadness, a kind of envy for Liam’s life. This man knew who he was and where he belonged. He had friends, routines, and probably family who cared about him. Since Steven’s horrible conversation with his mother, since learning that his grandfather had passed away, he felt rootless, unsure where he belonged.
He sure didn’t feel as comfortable with the Zodiac power as Liam did.
Steven looked at Liam’s gently smiling face. Is it right for us to take him away from here? he wondered.
As if she’d read Steven’s thoughts, Jasmine began to speak. “Liam,” she said. “We were worried that our Zodiac recruits would need training, but I can see that’s not a problem with you. You obviously know how to use your power.”
Liam shrugged. “I’ve been brawling since I was six years old. It’s just easier to get back up again, now.”
“But that’s not the only reason we’re here.” She frowned. “You’re in danger. There’s a man called Maxwell—he’ll stop at nothing to get hold of the power inside you. He, or his agents, are probably on their way right now.”
“Aye, so ye say. But nothing can stop me, right? I’m indestructible. So why should I go with…” Liam turned as a man staggered by. “Hey, Glenn,” Liam said. “You all right there?”
“Right as summer rain, Liam.”
Liam watched, an odd look in his eyes, as Glenn shambled off into the sunset. “‘Right as summer rain,’” Liam repeated. “You know something? I’ve had the same conversation with that man, every night for the last ten years.”
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Then Liam turned abruptly to Steven. “Tell you what, mate,” Liam said. “If you can beat me in a fight, I’ll go with you.”
Steven blinked. “What?”
“In a fight. Fair fight, Zodiac to Zodiac.” Liam smiled. “What do you say?”
Steven turned to Jasmine and Carlos, looking for help. But Carlos was engrossed in his analyzer again, tapping at its touchscreen.
Jasmine just shrugged. From the smile tickling at her lips, Steven had the feeling she was looking forward to seeing them fight.
“It…it seems like a weird way to decide something important,” Steven said.
“Like I said, I’ve been fightin’ all my life.” Liam’s smile took on a nasty tinge. “Unless you’re afraid?”
Steven clenched his fists. Inside him, the Tiger roared. As always, it couldn’t resist a challenge.
“Where?” Steven asked.
Liam stopped and gestured at a building with chipped blue paint and a flickering neon sign in the window.
Liam strode forward, pushed open the door, and disappeared inside. Steven hesitated for just a moment.
“Hey,” Jasmine said. “Check it out.”
He followed her pointing finger to the sign hanging over the pub’s awning. In faded, chipped letters, it read: THE RAVEN AND THE TIGER.
Jasmine shrugged. “It’s fate.”
She held open the door. Steven grimaced and walked inside.
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The pub’s insides were as rundown as its exterior. Pictures of old men hung on the walls, above tables with missing legs. A couple of bored-looking men and an old couple sat at the bar. Above, a second-story balcony looked like it was about to collapse.
“Not exactly the Four Seasons,” Jasmine said.
Steven frowned. “Where’s Carlos?”
“Said he’d be along. He wanted to take a few more readings first.”
Liam was already clearing tables out of the large central area. The bartender, a wiry middle-aged man, looked on in amusement. “Liam,” he said. “Should I be sellin’ tickets?”
“I dunno,” Liam said, gesturing at Steven. “You think this lad’s gonna put up a fight?”
The bartender snorted and started back toward the bar. “I think you’ll eat ’im for breakfast,” he said. “With maple syrup.”
Again, Steven felt the Tiger snarl. He forced it down and walked up to Liam. “Look,” Steven said. “I really don’t think this is gonna—”
“What’s your Zodiac sign, now? The Tiger?” Liam smirked. “That sounds like a right cute little kitty cat.”
Steven gritted his teeth.
The bartender stood by the door now, motioning people inside. The townspeople started to troop in, watching the confrontation expectantly.
Liam just kept smiling at Steven. “In fact,” Liam continued, “I almost feel sorry for ye. Soft little boy like you wouldn’t last ten minutes growin’ up around here—”
Steven leaned forward and jabbed his fist twice, very fast, into Liam’s face. Liam’s head snapped backward, like a bobblehead doll. Then he shook his head, as if he were throwing off water.
“Awww, that’s cute, mate,” Liam said. “Like a kiss from Grandma.”
Steven clenched his fists again. The Tiger energy rose up all around him, forming its familiar energy shape in the air. When he saw Liam’s grinning face, the Tiger roared.
Steven charged. He reached out and grabbed both of Liam’s shoulders, slamming the Irishman’s body against the wall. A picture frame shattered, and a stuffed fish fell from its hanger to the floor.
“That’s more like it!” Liam said.
The two of them grappled for a moment. Out of the corner of his eye, Steven saw Jasmine eyeing the battle. More people were crowding into the pub now, gathering behind her to watch.
Liam freed one arm from Steven’s grip and punched him in the stomach. Steven gasped and doubled over. He took a step back.
“Are ye gettin’ it yet?” Liam asked.
Steven roared again, a deep, primal sound. Enraged, he ran toward Liam, headfirst. His charge was clumsy, uncoordinated. But when his head struck Liam’s stomach, the two of them tumbled down to the floor.
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Liam huffed and rolled over on top of Steven. Steven’s head struck the floor, and he felt broken glass cut into his ear. He cried out.
When he looked up, Liam was sitting on top of him. Liam wasn’t scratched, injured, or even breathing hard.
“I’m trying to show you,” Liam said, “there’s no way you can beat me. Ye might as well give up.” His voice was almost kindly now. “Nothin’ stops the Ram.”
Steven’s vision was blurry. He looked up, past Liam’s looming face, searching for Jasmine. He couldn’t see her, but other people were watching. Dozens of local residents, looking to see whether he was tough enough to beat their champion.
“Give up?” Steven spat blood. “Never.”
Even as he said the words, he knew they sounded foolish. Steven—the Tiger—was strong, fast, and unnaturally agile. He didn’t know the extent of his power yet; this was the first time he’d really been in a fight. But he knew he could hold his own against any normal enemy.
Not Liam, though. The Irishman was right: the Ram was unstoppable. That was the very essence of its power.
Liam shrugged. “Suit yerself.” And he reared back.

Steven braced himself for the head-butt, but it still hurt. A lot.

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