TIME SEEMED TO stop for a moment in that strange room beneath the world.
Maxwell stared down at Steven, glowing bright. Whatever the Zodiac was, it was clearly powerful. Maxwell’s fists were clenched tight, energy flaring out from them in waves, and he clearly no longer needed a vehicle in order to fly. The Dragon figure hissed and spat, rising proudly above its master.
Steven glanced down at Jasmine. She lay on the ground between the pools, dazed, struggling to rise. The bodies of the two technicians lay still, nearby.
Jasmine and Maxwell, Steven thought. They can both do such amazing things. And I’m just a kid. I’m helpless—I’m a—
He didn’t know what that meant. He didn’t really know what was going on in this room, or what was at stake. But as he cast another glance at Jasmine, somehow he knew: I have to help her.
He clenched his fists and glared up at Maxwell. If I jump, he thought, I can tackle him. Tackle a big glowing man with crazy mystical powers? Oh, man, this is gonna hurt—
Then the grinding sound rose up again, louder and harsher than before. It seemed to drill into Steven’s ears, filling the room with noise. He and Maxwell glanced up together—just as every light on the shipan flared to life at once, bathing the room in blinding radiance.
Steven shrank back, blinking and covering his ears. But Maxwell was already moving, swooping through the air toward the center of the room.
“CARLOS!” Maxwell screamed.
Steven peered through the light. On the stage, Carlos moved quickly around, yanking out cords and smashing keyboards. He jabbed his elbow into a glass screen, shattering it. Sparks flew, igniting a low fire that blazed across the array of machinery.
Then Carlos saw Maxwell coming. His eyes widened with fear. He tossed a broken computer display up at Maxwell, and took off at a run.
Maxwell held up a glowing hand. The display sparked as it struck the Dragon energy, then shattered into a thousand pieces.
Above, the shipan began to spin. The grinding noise grew even louder; the blinding lights began to whirl, flashing wildly around the room.
Steven turned in surprise. Jasmine had raised herself to a crouch and was staring at him.
“Throw it!” she said.
He stared at her, baffled.
She held out both hands in a gesture of exasperation. “The grenade!”
He looked down. To his surprise, he was still holding the second metal sphere. And the light on its surface had turned green.
Steven reared back and threw the sphere up as hard as he could. It smashed into one of the shipan’s lights, triggering a shower of sparks. The light flashed and shorted out.
Then the shipan exploded with a deafening crack. Smoke billowed out, thick and black. Shards of glass, pieces of metal and plastic, began to rain down.
Steven raised a hand to shield his face from the debris. “Grenade,” Steven said.
Jasmine smiled. “Yeah.”
Maxwell swooped up high, his figure barely visible through the smoke. “No,” he cried. “The Convergence!”
Steven looked up, past Maxwell. A large crack ran straight through the center of the shipan; smoke billowed out of it in thick clouds. Its lights blinked on and off, madly, as the disk continued to spin.
Down below, the pools began to glow brighter.
“Hang on,” Jasmine said. “Things are about to get crazy.”
Steven stared at her. “Crazier than this?”
A light stabbed down. Maxwell swooped through the air, intercepting the beam as it met a matching flare shooting up from one of the pools. Again he screamed, his body glowing bright as he soaked up the power.
In the aura above Maxwell, Steven thought he saw a sinister, long-tailed Rat.
Carlos ran up, waving away smoke. He crouched down to help Jasmine.
“I’m all right,” she said.
“Good. Here.” Carlos reached into a bag and pulled out three more grenades. All their lights were green.
Above, another light flared bright. Maxwell flew toward it, his scream a constant blare now. When the beam struck him, a smiling, capering Monkey appeared in the energy glow above his head.
A look of suspicion crossed Carlos’s face. He gestured at Steven. “You trust this kid?” he asked Jasmine.
“I don’t trust anybody,” Jasmine replied, wincing as she tried to stand. “He’s got a good arm, though.”
Carlos stared at Steven blankly for a moment. Then he handed Steven a grenade.
Jasmine threw two grenades upward simultaneously. Steven watched as the two spheres whizzed past Maxwell, passing harmlessly through the Monkey apparition.
When the grenades struck the shipan, the world seemed to explode. The shipan cracked and split in half. One half stayed mounted in place, while the other hung loose from the ceiling like a hinge. Beams flared bright in all directions. Some of them shot downward toward the pools, but they missed their marks, scorching energy marks into the ground. Others blasted sideways, gouging holes in the metal walls.
And above the chaos, just barely visible through the billowing smoke, the shipan had cracked free to reveal a sliver of open sky. A few of the disk’s beams flared up through the opening, arcing like lightning into the humid Hong Kong night.
Maxwell hovered in midair, staring in alarm at the wreckage. Maxwell’s Dragon had manifested again, Steven noticed; it stared along with him, like a pet crouched on his back.
Then Maxwell turned to look down. He fixed green-glowing, murderous eyes on Carlos, and pointed a thick, crackling finger.
“You,” he said.
Maxwell swooped down just as Jasmine leaped in front of Carlos, shielding him. Above Maxwell, the Dragon hissed in anticipation. There was a loud crunch from above.
Half of the shipan—a massive chunk of bone and metal—crashed down on top of Maxwell. He grunted in pain, flaring bright. Then he fell.
“See? Things got crazy.” Jasmine grimaced. “Don’t answer, just run!”
Steven followed her and Carlos, dodging around the pools. Maxwell plummeted toward them, the half shipan forcing him down with its weight. When they struck the ground, the whole chamber shook.
Up above, the other half of the shipan still hung loose from the open ceiling. Beams flashed and flared, stabbing out from it in all directions. Pools erupted across the floor. Some of them intercepted the beams from the broken shipan, others splashed harmlessly into the air.
Steven looked over at Maxwell. He lay grimacing in pain, trapped beneath the heavy bulk of the shipan. It was lodged in the ground, one sharp end buried deep. Only one light still glowed on its surface, jutting up several feet above Maxwell’s figure.
Jasmine gestured at a radiance rising up from the pool behind them. “Uh-oh,” she said.
Carlos consulted a handheld analyzer device. “Uh-oh squared,” he said.
Steven barely heard them. He found himself staring at the single light on the grounded half of the shipan. It seemed to pulse, transfixing him with some strange lure.
“Kid,” Jasmine said. “We gotta go.”
Steven shrugged her off. The shipan’s light seemed to expand, to fill his world. He had the strange feeling that it was speaking to him.
Maxwell struggled, craning his neck to look upward at the blazing light. His eyes seemed normal now; the energy had faded from him. Slowly he turned toward Steven.
“No,” Maxwell said.
Carlos looked up sharply from his analyzer. “Kid,” he said. “What did Maxwell call you before?”
As Steven watched, the shipan’s light burst forth. It lashed out, arcing up over Maxwell’s trapped figure, heading straight toward Steven himself.
Again, time seemed to stop. The energy hung in the air, billowing outward as it drew closer. Steven saw shapes inside it: circles, triangles. Stars and moons and galaxies; sharp fanged teeth and sharper, slashing claws. A long line of people stretching back through the ages, rich landowners and poor Chinese peasants, farmers who worked the soil and kings who ruled other men from gleaming palaces in the sky. The beam seemed to contain all these people, all of them turning to greet Steven as the light reached down to scoop him up inside its depths.
Then the energy struck. Steven felt a cold pain, like a thousand icy needles plunging into his body at once. The light seemed to reach inside him, penetrating his arms and legs, passing through into his brain and heart. Filling him up, transforming him into something new, something different. Something he couldn’t quite imagine.
The last thing he saw was his grandfather. The old man’s kindly face smiled wide, his voice cutting through the pain. It’s all right, Grandfather said. Something is ending here, but something new is beginning. Just remember me, remember who and what you are. Where you came from, and what you may become.
My little Tiger.
Then the energy passed, ebbing away like a receding wave. Grandfather vanished along with all the others, the people and the stars and the fangs and claws.
Steven shook his head. The air was thick around him; scorch marks smoked from the floor and walls. He seemed to see everything through a thick green haze.
Jasmine was shakily getting up. It seemed something had knocked her down. She looked at him, her eyes wide. Carlos stood just a few feet away, also staring at him. He started to ask them why, but then a deafening roar rose up, echoing all around. It filled the inside of his head, the room—his whole world.
Jasmine raised a finger and pointed up.
Steven followed her gaze. Above and around his body, haloed in a thick green energy aura, a strange apparition whipped its head from side to side. A fierce, raging Tiger, its sharp fangs and piercing eyes announcing its presence to the world.
“HUH,” Jasmine said, gesturing at the Tiger form rising up from Steven. “That wasn’t in the plan.”
Carlos aimed his analyzer at Steven. “Almost ninety-seven percent qi suffusion,” he said. “Ley-line energy steady…stem-branch alignment is—”
The Tiger roared again.
“—he’s a Tiger, all right,” Carlos finished.
Jasmine rolled her eyes. “Way ahead of you, Doctor Science.”
Steven barely heard them. He looked around, trying to clear his head. One of the pools had spilled open, its eldritch liquid flowing out to sink into the ground. The control stage was a wreck, smashed flat by a fallen beam. On the far wall, curving above, a smoking shard of metal hung loose, threatening to fall.
And on the ceiling, the remaining half of the shipan disk still flickered—but its beams were fading. Smoke filled the room, but it was starting to clear, dissipating up into the open air.
Maxwell lay still, his eyes closed, legs still buried under the other half of the shipan. Bits of green energy puffed out of his mouth with each shallow breath. How can he be alive? Steven wondered. That thing would have crushed a normal person.
“He won’t be out for long,” Jasmine said, following Steven’s gaze to Maxwell. “We better move.”
Carlos cast a long, dour look around at the wreckage. Then he turned, frowning, to gesture at Steven. “What about him?”
Steven clenched his fists. “Hold on. Rewind, restart, respawn. STOP!”
Jasmine raised an eyebrow.
“What’s going on here?” Steven continued. “Who are you guys? What is the Zodiac, who is that guy buried under the king-size sundial, and why do I have a freaking Tiger inside me now?”
Jasmine and Carlos exchanged surprised looks.
“How do we even start?” Carlos asked.
Steven could only stare at them. He could see and feel the Tiger start to fade away as his energy died down.
“With a question of my own, I think—” Jasmine said. She stopped to gather her thoughts. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I followed you! You were leading a tour with my class and I saw you go through the door and I heard screams and then there was the creepy staircase and your empty uniform and then all this!”
Jasmine stared at him for a moment. Then, unexpectedly, she laughed.
“I never liked that uniform,” she said.
Steven stared back. “Are you gonna answer my—”
Before he realized it, Steven was on his feet and leaping. The Tiger roared, stretching its paws upward. Steven soared through the air, landing gracefully several feet away—just as an enormous metal beam tore loose from the wall and slammed down to the ground, exactly where he’d been standing.
Steven stared in shock at the jagged metal beam. Dust rose up around it, settling down in the nearby pools and on the ground. Its far end still hung shakily from the scarred, smoking wall.
I should be dead, he thought. That thing could have killed me. The Tiger—whatever it is, it just saved my life.
Jasmine stepped forward and grabbed his arm. “Focus, kid,” she said. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Steven. I’m just gonna run through this real quick because, as you can see, this isn’t a very healthy place to be right now. Okay?”
As if to punctuate her words, the half shipan on the ceiling gave out a loud groan. One of its lights cracked loose and fell, shattering on the ground next to the wrecked control stage.
Steven nodded quickly.
Jasmine gestured around. “This chamber here is an ancient site at the center of a bunch of—crap, I can never remember what they’re—”
“Ley lines,” Carlos said.
“Right,” she continued. “Ley lines, qi energy, and a whole bunch of other scientific stuff that I can’t understand. Nobody understands it except Carlos here.”
“I only understand about half of it.” Carlos smiled shyly. “Maybe two-thirds.”
“The Zodiac influences all our lives,” Jasmine said. “And for some reason lost to the ages, its power is concentrated in these pools. Now, every once in a while, a little bit of that energy drifts out into the world. It floats through the air until it reaches someone born in the right year, under the corresponding sign. Then the energy seeps inside that person, enters his or her body.”
Steven stared at her. “And that person gets…what? Superpowers?”
“The energy is usually present in very small amounts. Somebody contacted by it might wind up being a little bit stronger, faster, or smarter than average. But not enough to make anyone suspect an outside influence.”
“However,” Carlos explained, “once every twelve Zodiac cycles—every one hundred and forty-four years—the stars line up in a particular configuration. And the power, the energy of the mystic pools, is magnified to more than a thousand times its normal strength. That time is today.”
“Carlos calls it the Convergence,” Jasmine said, smirking slightly. “He’s not so good with names.”
Carlos looked hurt. “I’m good with a lot of other things.”
“Yes, you are. Of course you are.”
Steven blinked. “So…you mean…”
“It’s a lot to take in, I know,” Jasmine said.
“I’ve got the Tiger power. That’s one sign of the Zodiac.” Steven paused. “You’ve got…something…and the rest of the powers are—”
They all turned. Maxwell lay glaring at them, his teeth gritted, power flaring from his eyes. But his legs were still trapped beneath the broken shipan.
Carlos held up his analyzer. “I don’t think so, chief. Far as I can see, you only absorbed four of the Zodiac signs. Maybe five.”
Maxwell’s eyes flared green.
“Not only that,” Jasmine said, “but you can’t hold them very long, can you? Only a person born in the year of the Rat can wield the Rat’s power. You might be a Dragon—or half a Dragon, anyway. But you’ll have to pass along the other powers soon, or they’ll eat you alive.”
“You,” Maxwell seethed, staring at Jasmine. “Ungrateful girl. You turned my best scientist against me.”
“She didn’t turn me against anything,” Carlos said, a new edge creeping into his voice. “I made my decision when I learned about Lystria.”
Maxwell squeezed his eyes closed. A snarl escaped his lips. The bat-winged Dragon flared up briefly above him, then faded quickly away.
“Oh!” Jasmine smirked. “I think you hit a nerve, Carlos.”
“What’s Lystria?” Steven asked.
“I’ve fought in seven wars,” Maxwell said. “I’ve seen things, made decisions you can’t even imagine. This is a hard world, little girl. You’re not ready for it.”
“I’m not a little girl. Not anymore.”
Jasmine reached out her arms, her brow furrowing in concentration. A flurry of energy particles rose up from Maxwell’s trapped figure, wafting over to surround Jasmine. As Steven watched, the energy resolved itself into the form of a Dragon…but not the winged Dragon he’d seen projected from Maxwell. This was the other Dragon—the lean one, with sharp talons and deadly jaw.
She smiled, glowing bright. As she rose up into the air, the Dragon opened its mouth wide and screeched.
Then Jasmine coughed. The Dragon made a shrill noise and faded away. The glow receded, and Jasmine dropped down, shakily, to the ground.
“Oh, Jasmine,” Maxwell said. “You think you can steal my power? My birthright, the mantle of the Dragon?”
“We’re both Dragons.”
“Your mother would be so disappointed,” Maxwell said, a cruel smile crossing his face.
Jasmine clenched her fists in anger. Dragon energy rose up from her again. But it was fainter, this time, a ghost of its former self.
“Well,” Maxwell continued. “I guess I’ve stalled you long enough.”
Up on the catwalk, the stairwell door slammed open. Four large men in military uniforms marched in, followed by four more. Then another six.
“Crap,” Jasmine said. “Vanguard is here.”
“You always did talk too much, Jasmine.” Maxwell smiled. “Who knew that smart mouth would be your downfall?”
Steven eyed the soldiers, a sinking feeling in his gut. They carried big, high-tech energy weapons and bulky equipment packs. “Who’s Vanguard?” he asked.
Jasmine grimaced. “Maxwell’s private army.”
“Best there is,” Maxwell said.
Up on the catwalk, the soldiers stood for a moment, waving away smoke. They haven’t seen us yet, Steven realized.
Jasmine glared at Maxwell again—and again, the Dragon energy began to swell up around her. But this time, Maxwell raised his head, and a feral expression came over his face. The bat-winged Dragon lunged forth from him, snapping its jaws at Jasmine.
As Jasmine watched, startled, the energy around her started to shimmer, rising up like fireflies in the air. Maxwell’s Dragon opened its mouth again, devouring it, breathing it in.
Jasmine collapsed. Carlos ran forward and caught her before she could hit the ground.
Steven heard the Tiger roar inside him again. He turned to Maxwell and snarled.
Then he felt a hand on his shoulder. He whirled, baring his teeth. It was Carlos, with Jasmine standing weakly behind him.
“No!” Carlos said. “You can’t fight him.”
Steven looked back at the grinning Maxwell. “He’s trapped under that thing,” Steven said.
“You have no idea how powerful he is. The Dragon is the strongest of all the Zodiac signs. Even half that power could stomp a Tiger like a bug.”
“Come over here, boy,” Maxwell said, baring his teeth like an animal. “Give it a try.”
“Besides,” Jasmine said, waving her arm upward.
Steven looked. The soldiers had spotted them and were running along the catwalk toward the ladder leading down to the floor.
Steven glanced quickly from Jasmine to Carlos. Can I trust them? he wondered. I don’t even know who these people are.
The clattering of the soldiers’ footsteps grew louder. Steven took one last look at Maxwell. The leader was still glowing bright, and grinning from ear to ear.
Jasmine slapped Steven on the shoulder, hard, and ducked under the half-fallen wall beam. Without looking back, she motioned for Steven and Carlos to follow. Carlos took off, and Steven hurried after them.
Jasmine led them across the room, around the pools, past several chunks of debris, to the central stage. It was still smoking, and it smelled like burning metal. Carlos motioned them to duck down behind it.
“We can’t hide here for long,” Jasmine said, keeping her voice low. She pointed toward the stairwell entrance, up on the catwalk. “And that’s the only exit, right?”
Grimly, Carlos nodded. “Jaz, how powerful are you now? Can you…I don’t know…fly us out of here?”
“Not right now. You saw what happened back there…Maxwell and I share the Dragon power. It’s different, more powerful than the others. And right now, he’s got the upper hand.”
All three of them looked up at once. Steven frowned, studying the inward-sloping walls of the chamber. They were pocked with jagged metal now, burned and broken.
Eight feet above, the half-fallen ceiling beam slanted over their heads. And past that, above the broken shipan, the night sky showed through a semicircle in the roof.
Suddenly Steven noticed that Jasmine was staring at him.
“It’s up to you,” she said.
“Me?” he asked.
She gestured blithely at Carlos. “He doesn’t have any powers.”
“But…but…” Steven paused. “I don’t even know you people! Why should I go with you?”
“Are you kidding?” Jasmine asked.
She gestured back toward Maxwell. Steven could see the soldiers clustering around Maxwell, beginning to dig him free.
Steven gritted his teeth. Guess this is it, he thought. Do you really want to be a hero?
Swallowing in fear, he nodded. He clenched his teeth, willing the Tiger energy to rise up inside him. He tensed himself to leap—
—and then Carlos stepped forward, holding up a hand.
“No,” Carlos said.
Jasmine’s head whipped around. “What?”
“We can’t.” Carlos shook his head, gesturing decisively at Steven. “We can’t take him with us.”
JASMINE SCUTTLED over to Carlos, keeping low to stay behind the stage. She stared him in the face as if she’d never seen him before.
“What,” she whispered again, “are you talking about?”
A loud mechanical hammering noise rose up. Steven glanced around the damaged stage. On the side of the room, the soldiers were using digging tools to break up the big half shipan on top of Maxwell.
“Kid,” Carlos said. “Steven. How old are you?”
“I’m fourteen,” Steven said.
“Fourteen! Yes! That’s my point.” Carlos turned back to Jasmine. “He’s just a kid. This whole thing we’re doing, it’s dangerous. We should keep him safe.”
Jasmine looked back, astonished. “That’s exactly what I intend to do, Carlos. That man is a menace. We tried to stop his plan and it didn’t work, but we can’t give up. This power I have…we have…it’s something we need to figure out,” she said. “Besides, what else can we do? You want to leave him here? Leave him with his little friends, so Maxwell can track him down and take him out.”
“There’s a bigger problem,” Carlos pointed at Jasmine. “You took this power. Whatever happens, that was your choice. Maxwell too, for that matter. But the kid didn’t.”
“That’s exactly why we’ev got to take him,” Jasmine replied. “He’s one of us know—a Zodiac. And he needs protection.”
“Stop talking about me like I’m not here!” Steven cried.
Jasmine turned to him, surprised.
“He’s at least got to know what he’s getting into,” Carlos said. He didn’t look happy. “It’s got to be his choice.”
“Steven,” Jasmine said, her voice low and intense. “Here’s what’s at stake. Maxwell is determined to grab all the Zodiac power for himself. If he gets hold of you, there are two possible outcomes. First he’ll try to enlist you in his private army. If you refuse, he’ll experiment on you until he figures out how to get the power out of you and into a Tiger of his choosing. Someone he can control.”
“That…doesn’t sound good,” Steven admitted. “But…but I keep wondering…” He hesitated.
Jasmine threw up her arms. “Spit it out!”
“…what would he say about you?”
She seemed taken aback. “Nothing good,” she admitted.
“Maxwell is a monster,” Carlos said. There was a dark, hard anger in his eyes now. “He thinks he’s the only person who can control the Zodiac power; he thinks he’s making the world a safer place. He thinks he’s seen enough horrors to know that good and evil don’t exist, and that he’s the only one who should be trusted with this power.
“The reality? He’s a vicious war contractor, a general-for-hire with no allegiances, no principles. He got tired of working for governments and corporations, so he started Vanguard. If he gets the Zodiac power, he’ll be unstoppable.”
“We’ve been fighting Maxwell for a long time,” Jasmine said. “He has all the advantages: all the toys, all the manpower, all the money. We can’t promise you any of that.
“But,” she finished, “we can promise you something worth fighting for.”
Suddenly, Steven thought about looking at the empty shipan display case with Harani and Ryan. It couldn’t have been more than an hour earlier, but it seemed like a different life.
He thought about how all the locals in Hong Kong had expected him to speak Cantonese. He thought about the weird looks he’d get from his classmates when he ate the lunches his grandfather had prepared for him. He even thought about the Steel Mongoose, and his endless store of bravery and resourcefulness. The way he seemed to be at ease anywhere.
Now, in this weird subterranean chamber, he realized: Maybe this is my chance. Maybe this is where I belong. Steven glanced up again. The broken ceiling beam arced up at an angle, several feet up. Too far to jump. Too far.
But the Tiger stirred inside, calling to him. Let me out, it seemed to say. I can do this. Let me do this.
He crouched, feeling the Tiger energy rise up around him. With a roar, he leaped straight up, eight feet at least, and grabbed hold of the half-fallen ceiling beam. He swung his body up, grabbing the beam with both legs and letting his arms hang down.
He cast a glance toward the catwalk. From this angle, slightly elevated, he could see the Vanguard soldiers hefting the pieces of the shipan off of Maxwell. He’d be free in a few minutes.
Carlos and Jasmine were staring at Steven. He held out one hand to each of them.
“Come on,” Steven said.
Jasmine clasped one of Steven’s hands. Carlos hesitated, then grabbed the other. “Is this going to hurrrrrrrrrrt—”
Before Carlos could finish, Steven flipped them both up into the air.
Jasmine reached out gracefully and grabbed hold of the metal beam. Carlos fumbled, unable to get a good grip. Jasmine snatched him out of the air by his belt, grunting as his weight yanked her off-balance. Steven reached down and grabbed Carlos’s arm, and together he and Jasmine pulled Carlos up onto the beam.
Steven scrabbled up onto the beam after them. Dimly, he thought: Every single thing I’ve just done is impossible.
“Yes,” Carlos said. “Hurting factor: positive.”
Jasmine pointed down. “I think the hurting’s just begun.”
Steven grimaced. Down below, the soldiers had noticed them and were aiming their guns upward.
“Freeze right there!” a soldier called. His long-barreled stun gun, its tip crackling with energy, was aimed straight at Steven.
“Follow me,” Steven said.
In a feline-like manner, he took off up the slanted beam at a run. Jasmine motioned for Carlos to follow, and headed in Steven’s direction.
Steven heard the weapons firing behind him. With a horrible sinking feeling, he realized: That’s it—we’re dead. I can climb like a cat, but those guys are trained soldiers.
So much for the Tiger’s short career.
But then he looked back. Jasmine was edging backward up the beam, facing down at their attackers. As she held out her arms, a powerful aura fanned out to surround her, and the fierce, snakelike form of the Dragon rose up. Electric bolts leaped out from the soldiers’ weapons, like miniature lightning—enough to fry a person alive, Steven thought. But when the bolts struck Jasmine’s Dragon-glow, they flashed and disappeared.
Down on the ground, another burst of Dragon energy flared up. Maxwell emerged from inside of it, shrugging off the last chunk of the fallen shipan.
Steven climbed higher. The roof was only ten or twelve feet above now. The half shipan still hung loose, dark and quiet, a silent sentry leading to the open air beyond.
A little too far to jump, Steven thought. The Tiger might make it, but Jasmine and Carlos wouldn’t.
“There!” he called, pointing at the wall ahead. A line of bolts protruded from it, some of them scorched from the shipan’s blasts. Steven reached out and leaped off the beam, grabbing hold of a bolt with each hand.
“You are most surely joking,” Carlos said.
But Jasmine laughed. She grabbed Carlos around the waist and jumped. They scrabbled at the wall for a second, then grabbed on to the uneven surface. As Steven climbed upward, they began to follow.
“Don’t look down,” Jasmine said.
“Not a worry,” Carlos replied.
The soldiers seemed to have stopped firing. When Steven looked down, he saw Maxwell yelling at his men, pointing upward. Steven couldn’t make out the words.
“Maxwell doesn’t want us dead,” Jasmine said, still climbing. “He needs the power inside us!”
“Inside you,” Carlos said. “There’s no power in me.”
“Just brainpower,” Jasmine said, smiling.
“Flatterer. You’re just trying to distract me from my imminent demise OH GOD A LITTLE SLOWER PLEASE?”
Steven stopped, breathing hard. The wall ended a few feet above, but the hole, the way out, was just out of reach. The remains of the shipan blocked their way: a semicircular mess of smoking metal and broken glass hung precariously by a few thick cables.
Jasmine climbed up next to Steven. “You can do this,” she said.
He looked into her eyes. Slowly, he nodded.
Later, Steven could barely remember the next few minutes. Somehow he balanced himself on the wall, grabbing Jasmine under one arm and Carlos under the other; but that was impossible. He leaned forward and tossed Jasmine onto the shipan, then took hold of it himself with his free hand, swinging forward with the terrified Carlos under his arm; that was really impossible. As the shipan strained and creaked under their weight, he tossed Carlos up through the hole, then reached down to grab Jasmine and fling her up after Carlos. Then, just as the shipan cracked free and fell, he leaped up through the hole to freedom.
Impossible. All of it.
There was one thing he remembered clearly about the whole ordeal. As he knelt on the ground outside, breathing in the thick Hong Kong air, he cast a final glance down into the now-exposed chamber. Maxwell hovered a few feet off the floor, glaring upward, his winged Dragon-form screeching in helpless anger.
Then Jasmine pulled Steven to his feet. “Nice work,” she said.
Steven looked around, dazed. They stood in a cleared, grassy area; trees stretched off to one side, forming a thick forest. On the other side, the brightly colored thatched-roof buildings of the museum rose up in the night. Emergency lights flashed, and local police stood holding back curious spectators, fifteen or twenty feet away.
“Looks like we made a little noise,” Jasmine said. “We better get moving before Maxwell gets his strength back. Carlos, let’s—”
But Carlos stood a little way off, staring at the sky. Steven followed his gaze and felt his breath catch in his throat.
Above, green energy flashed against the clouds like some unnatural fireworks show. It zipped back and forth, up and down, fanning out in one direction, then another.
“The Zodiac power,” Carlos said. He pulled out his analyzer and pointed it toward the sky. “Not all of it flowed into Maxwell, or into you two. When we sabotaged the equipment, some of the power ran wild.”
Steven stared. “And it’s still up there?”
“I think…it was trapped by the warm front blanketing the city. But now that front is moving away.”
As they watched, the green energy seemed to flare even brighter than before. Then it arced away, over the trees, and began to fade.
“Where’s it going?” Jasmine asked.
“I don’t know,” Carlos replied. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. I assumed the other powers would just seep back into the pools if they didn’t find a nearby host.”
“Puzzle it out later. Right now, we better move.” Jasmine gestured back down at the hole leading to the strange underground chamber. “Maxwell’s weakened, but he’s got at least two Vanguard squadrons down there with him. He’ll be after us in minutes.”
Steven whirled around. He squinted at the museum buildings, at the crowd held back from the site of the explosions. In that crowd, he recognized a small figure wearing an orange sweater.
“Harani!” he called.
“Steven,” Jasmine said. “We’ve got an exit route. But it’s gotta be now.”
Harani reached out toward him. A policeman held up a hand, holding her back; she stared helplessly, her hand outstretched. Gathered around her, Steven could see Ryan, Mr. Singh, and the other kids. People he’d known all his life.
His old life.
Jasmine raised a hand and projected a thin beam of Dragon light at the woods. A small path became visible, leading through the orchids and gum trees. When she turned back to Steven, her expression was unusually gentle.
“Say good-bye,” she said.
Steven cast a glance at the sky. The faint afterimage of Zodiac energy was just fading. He looked back over at Harani, at her puzzled, questioning face.
Good-bye, he mouthed.
Then he drew in a deep breath and turned to follow Jasmine and Carlos into the unknown.