STEVEN STARED into the inferno, the fire that seemed to blaze throughout the chamber without burning anything. He focused on the Dragon, the raging Zodiac creature that was Jasmine and something else, too.
He remembered Jasmine leaping toward the Zodiac pool, reaching out for the energy beam. As she’d told Kim, back in America, Jasmine had asked for the power. In a way, she’d invited it in—but now it was threatening to overwhelm her.
Grimacing, he ran forward and grabbed her hand. The Tiger energy rose up around him. It reached out, seeking its own kind, stretching out a strong paw to help its Dragon teammate.
Jasmine turned, as if aware of Steven for the first time. She made a frantic head motion, warning him away.
“Not going anywhere,” Steven said. “We can do this. Like in my quarters, remember?”
“No,” she said. “Not this time. It’s too much. Too strong.”
The energy poured into him, coursing through his veins. It felt like fire, like sparks, like tiny electric shocks all over his body. She’s right, he realized. She’s absorbed all the Dragon power this time. It’s too much for her—too much for both of us.
“Get away,” she gasped. “Leave me.”
Suddenly he knew what to do. He looked at her, gripped her hand tighter, and smiled.
“No,” he said.
Then he swept his other arm wide. The Tiger whirled like a jungle cat, roaring out an ancient summons. It called out to its allies, its teammates. Its friends.
“ ’Bout time we saw some action,” Liam said.
And then they were all there with him. Roxanne, the Rooster, her power fierce, wild, and rebellious. Kim, the youthful Rabbit, an endless font of energy and heart. And Liam, the unstoppable Ram, smiling as he fed them his strength. The Tiger guided them, led them, fed the fierce Dragon energy in tiny jolts through each of them in turn.
Slowly the Dragon form calmed, shrank to its normal size. Jasmine staggered, sighed, and dropped to her knees. She looked up in a daze, taking in each of her teammates.
“Thank you,” she said.
Kim shook her head. “That was intense.”
“Quite a rush,” Roxanne said.
“ ’Ey!” Liam called out. “Look who finally showed up!”
Steven turned to look. Duane was staggering toward them, coming from the direction of the Vanguard ship.
Kim, Liam, and Roxanne moved forward to help him. “You missed all the fun,” Kim said.
Roxanne grimaced. “Girl, you need to learn what ‘fun’ means.”
The Tiger, still on alert, reached out for the newcomer—and snarled. Something’s wrong, Steven realized. Duane seemed dazed; his movements were stiff, uncoordinated.
“Duane,” he said, “are you okay?”
Duane turned glazed eyes toward Steven. “I’m sorry,” Duane said.
Then he reached out and fired off his power.
“NO!” Carlos cried.
Behind Carlos, the machine exploded. Jasmine’s and Maxwell’s manacles snapped open as the blast flung them in opposite directions. The cavern floor shook, knocking Roxanne and Liam off their feet.
Dust flew everywhere. A pair of stalactites crashed to the floor.
Steven grabbed Duane by the shoulders. “Why?” Steven asked.
“Don’t blame him,” a female voice said. “I sort of made him do that.”
Steven looked up sharply. A new agent, one he hadn’t met before, walked forward out of the dust cloud. She was tall and imposing, with high boots and a cape. Her hair was swept over one eye; the other was glowing a deep shade of green.
Instinctively, Steven knew who she was: Snake.
“Vanguard tech is shielded from your friend’s powers,” Snake said. “Your little toys aren’t so sturdy.”
Kim, Liam, and Roxanne gathered together near Steven, waving away the thick dust.
“Savages!” a voice said.
Steven whirled around. Monkey stood crouched over the limp form of Maxwell, glaring at Steven with a deadly, unnerving fury.
“You did this,” Monkey said. “You crippled him. A great man, brought low by the likes of you.”
Liam turned to Steven. “Is that the same fella we fought before?”
“He seems different,” Kim said, staring at Monkey.
Snake, Steven thought. She’s the real threat here. He turned back toward her, ready to attack—then stopped as a quake rippled through the entire chamber.
“Don’t do it,” Snake said. “This cavern is about to collapse.”
She’s right, he realized. The roof was cracking and shattering, breaking off in large chunks. The explosion had been the last straw.
“A great man,” Monkey repeated. “The only person on Earth who can be trusted with the Zodiac power. Everything I am, I owe to him.”
He propped up Maxwell and started leading him toward the ship. Maxwell shook his head, groggy. He seemed partially paralyzed.
“We’ll be leaving now,” Snake said. “Good luck getting out with your lives. If you survive, we’ll see you again.”
At the ship’s hatch, Maxwell held up a shaky hand. Monkey paused. With great effort, Maxwell turned his head to look back at Steven and the others. When he spoke, his voice was crystal clear and full of hatred.
“You think you’ve won. But you’ll destroy yourselves,” he said. “And then you’ll destroy the world.”
A massive chunk of ceiling crashed down, followed by an avalanche of rock. A stalactite dropped straight toward Steven. Roxanne looked up, opened her mouth, and shattered it into powder with a sonic cry.
Kim’s hand clutched Steven’s shoulder, a little too tight. “Like I said, confined spaces?” she said. “Not amazing!”
The Vanguard ship’s hatch slammed shut. Its engines hummed to life and it began to sink into the ground, shaking the chamber even more.
Steven motioned his team back and pointed up at the quivering ceiling. In the center of the cracked stone, Maxwell’s entry passageway was still intact. “There,” Steven said. “That’s our only way out.”
He turned toward Jasmine. She grimaced, still weak from her ordeal. But she nodded.
“Hang on,” she said.
Glowing brightly, she reached out her arms. The Dragon energy fanned out, encompassing all of them: Carlos, Kim, Liam, Steven, Roxanne—even Duane, who stood dazed and disoriented, only half recovered from Snake’s hypnosis. They gathered together, huddling for protection against the falling rock.
Another large stalactite cracked loose from the ceiling. Jasmine turned toward it and roared, incinerating it with the Dragon’s fire-breath.
Then she closed her eyes, concentrating. The Dragon spread its wings and began to rise toward the ceiling, carrying the entire group inside its ethereal body.
She really is powerful, Steven thought.
As they drew closer to the hole in the ceiling, Steven cast a last glance down at the ancient zodiac statues. A shard of rock struck the tiger statue in the neck, severing its head. The tiger head teetered, toppled, and crashed to the ground, smashing the remains of Carlos’s machine.
The stone tiger head rolled into the center of the room. It tottered for a moment, then disappeared into the huge abyss left by the departure of the Vanguard drill-ship.
“I, ah, don’t think that means anything,” Liam said.
Then they shot upward into Maxwell’s passageway. Jasmine’s Dragon energy lit up the narrow vertical tunnel, showing their progress as the rock walls sped past. Up, up they flew, clinging to each other as the cavern below crashed in on itself.
“Uh,” Kim said, pointing upward. “Uh, uh, uh…”
Steven looked up. Just ahead, the passageway seemed to terminate in a thick round metal hatch.
“Jasmine?” Steven asked. “We’re kind of heading for that hatch, like, extremely fast.”
She frowned, holding her hands to her temples. “If Maxwell got through it, so can we,” she said. “Hang on.”
“Wait a minute, Jaz,” Carlos said. “We’ve been traveling upward at a slight angle. If I’m remembering correctly—”
But he was too late. The Dragon opened its mouth and spat fire at the hatch. The metal burned white-hot, softened—melted—
—and then water gushed over them like a tidal wave.
Steven had just enough time to draw in a final gulp of air. The river, he thought. Maxwell tunneled down from the bottom of the river!
Then the Dragon energy dispersed, and the water pulled Steven away. He caught a quick glimpse of Roxanne and the others, caught up in the flood, being swept back down the tunnel along with the rushing tide of river water.
But Jasmine reached out with her power and caught hold of them. With a tremendous effort of will, she pulled them all up, forcing them through the hatchway. First Steven, then Kim, Duane, Liam, and Roxanne, with Carlos bringing up the rear.
Steven shook his head, letting a few bubbles of precious air escape. He looked around at the river bed, littered with seaweed and rusting bicycles.
Jasmine’s glow faded. She flailed in the water, almost floating away. Liam caught hold of her and handed her off to Carlos.
She’s exhausted, Steven realized. She got us this far—now we’ve got to save ourselves.
He looked around at the group and pointed, straight up.
They began to swim. Duane kicked hard with his big legs. Liam shot upward like a cannonball. Carlos swam surprisingly fast, supporting the semiconscious Jasmine.
Steven’s lungs ached as he strained to hold on to his last remaining air. None of our powers can help us now, he realized. It’s just us. Just seven people, determined to survive.
He broke the surface, gasping.
The stone bridge stood a few hundred feet away, spanning the river. A couple of tourists had stopped to stare, pointing at the figures popping their heads up out of the water.
“Agggh,” Liam said, spitting water. “That’s not what ye want when you get up in the morning.”
“Or the afternoon,” Roxanne said.
Steven looked around. Duane had just surfaced, gasping for breath. Carlos was treading water, holding Jasmine’s arm around his shoulder. She smiled, a weak but relieved smile.
“Kim,” Steven said, suddenly frantic. “Where’s Kim? Where is she?”
Liam looked around too. Roxanne made a frightened noise, a very un-sonic cry.
Steven looked up—and saw a very strange sight. Kim sat perched in midair, smiling down at them. She was soaking wet.
“What took you so long?” Kim continued.
Steven looked closer. Kim wasn’t really sitting in the middle of the air. There was something underneath her…something that shimmered, almost invisible to the eye. Something hovering low over the river.
“It’s the Vanguard plane,” Carlos said. “The one they used to drop off the strike force, in Greenland. It’s hovering in stealth mode.”
“I poofed up here, but nobody attacked me,” Kim said. “I think it’s on automatic.”
Steven motioned for the group to gather together. Liam and Roxanne splashed over closer to him, keeping their eyes on Kim. Carlos followed, along with Jasmine. Duane joined them last.
“Duane,” Carlos said, “Vanguard seems to have protected their equipment from your energy-shorting effect. Do you think you can hack through that plane’s security the old-fashioned way?”
Duane turned to Carlos and nodded, very fast. “It is very literally the least I can do,” he said.
“Looks like we found our ride,” Jasmine said. She turned to Steven, a serious look on her face. “Well, Tiger? What do you think?”
Steven looked around at the soaking wet faces, all turned to him. Then he glanced up at Kim.
“Let’s go home,” he said.
LIAM GRABBED HOLD of the control stick with both hands. “This thing is too slow,” he said. “Have y’got the voice-command circuit working yet?”
He was sitting in the Vanguard plane’s pilot seat. Next to him, Duane leaned over the copilot’s station, fiddling with a sprawl of wires spilling out of an exposed console. “Almost,” Duane said.
“My Uncle Dez taught me to fly planes,” Liam said, a lazy smile on his face. “Quite a barnstormer he was, too. One time during the war he—”
“Got it,” Duane said.
Liam cocked his head at him. “Did you just say that to interrupt my story?”
Steven smiled too, watching them. Duane actually made a joke, he thought. The world’s full of surprises.
Outside, they could see the Chinese countryside below. The coastline was just coming into view. Steven stood behind the cockpit, in an open area equipped with crash-seats and a large table. Jasmine and Carlos sat together at the table, talking quietly and bandaging up their wounds.
Roxanne lounged in a corner, picking idly at an old guitar she’d found in the back. “Gibson Sunburst,” she said, almost to herself. “Vanguard does and their toys.”
“All right, ye crazy plane,” Liam said. “How ’bout a quick loop-de-loop?”
The plane lurched sharply upward, then flipped upside down. Jasmine swore. Steven’s stomach jumped as he flew into the air, reaching out wildly for something to hold on to.
Then the plane swung around and leveled off. Steven landed, catlike, on the floor. Jasmine lurched into the table.
Liam laughed. “That’s how Uncle Deke used to do it!” he said.
“Don’t you mean Uncle Dez?” Duane asked.
Jasmine wasn’t amused. She picked at a bandage covering her stomach. “Opened my wound back up,” she said, wincing.
“Ah,” Liam said. “Sorry ’bout that.”
Steven walked up to the cockpit area. “Keep it level, you guys?” he said. “At least until everybody’s patched up.”
Duane nodded. He leaned in and touched the copilot’s console. A tiny spout of Zodiac energy burst from his fingers.
Liam stared at him. “What was that?”
“I just told the plane not to listen to any more of your commands.”
Liam sat back, chagrined. “Uncle Dez wouldn’t have put up with that,” he muttered.
Stifling a laugh, Steven crossed back to the table. Just then, Kim poofed in with a big box of bandages and first-aid equipment.
“There’s plenty more in the back,” she said. “Those Vanguard guys were ready for anything.”
Kim grinned and held up a box of pastries. “They got treats, too!”
Liam’s hand was in the box shockingly fast. “So is that it for us?” he asked. “Is the whole team thing over, now that Maxwell’s defeated?”
“He’s not exactly defeated,” Jasmine said. “Yes, we extracted the Dragon power from him and prevented him from capturing you kids. But he’s still out there, and he still has his millions and at least some of his Zodiac agents and his Carlos, what are you doing?”
Carlos was running a large wand over her, from head to toe. “Just measuring your power,” he said.
“I can’t go home yet,” Duane said. “I need that training you guys were talking about.”
His words sound sad, Steven thought. But his voice sounds like he wants to stay.
“What about you?” Kim asked, looking hesitantly at Roxanne.
Roxanne gave her a half smile, then struck a chord on the guitar. “I think maybe I can make the two halves of my life fit together,” she said.
Kim smiled back. “Besides, we can do more than just fight Mr. Maxwell, right? With our combined power, we could do a lot of good in the world.” She stopped, suddenly self-conscious. “I—I’m sorry. That’s not for me to—”
“No,” Jasmine said, a thoughtful look on her face. “You’re right. We’ve been so busy fighting for our lives…it’s easy to forget why we’re really doing this.” She looked at Steven. “After all, there’s more to life than just fighting the Vanguard, right?”
“If we’re going to do good in the world,” Steven said, “I still say we ought to have a name. All good hero groups have a name.”
“Well,” Carlos said, “I may not have powers, but I think I can help there. I was going to save this until we got home, but…”
Everyone crowded around as Carlos opened his laptop. Steven craned his neck, watching as a simple, stylized word appeared on the screen:
“Oh, great.” Jasmine rolled her eyes. “What does this one stand for?”
A smile tickled at the corner of Carlos’s lips. “It doesn’t stand for anything. It’s just Zodiac.”
“Zodiac.” Liam nodded. “Kind of on the nose, but it fits.”
Kim clapped her hands. “I like it!”
Duane stared at the screen for a long moment, then smiled. Roxanne struck a triumphant note on her guitar and sang: “Zodiaaaaaaaac!”
“Steven?” Jasmine touched his shoulder. “Can I have a word?”
She led him to the far corner of the room. “I know what you’re gonna say,” he said. “Our teamwork was sloppy. As soon as we get back, we should set up a real training program—”
She waved him off. “Back in the cavern,” she said. “When you caught me…I was trying to tell you something.”
“Oh,” he said.
“I was wrong about you. You did a great job back there. You didn’t just lend physical power to the team. You made them believe they could win.”
Steven blinked. He didn’t know what to say.
“I still want you to be able to have a normal life,” Jasmine continued. “But it’s nice having the Tiger watching my back.”
“Who wants normal?” he replied. “Normal’s totally overrated.”
Jasmine smiled. “Man, this is hard. I’m not used to being nice, you know? Don’t tell the others.” She gestured back at the table. “Especially Carlos.”
“Well, you gotta be mean to Carlos.” Steven grinned. “I mean, just look at him.”
At the table, Carlos was pecking away again at his laptop.
“He’s a nerd all right,” Jasmine said, laughing. “But he’s my nerd.”
Steven raised his head and willed the Tiger power to come forth. It glowed above, its savage head turning to face Jasmine head-on.
“Zodiac, huh?” he said.
Jasmine looked back, very serious. The Dragon rose up, its sinewy energy-body coiling around her. It looked stronger, fiercer, more solid than ever before. When its fire-breath touched Steven’s Tiger power, a flare of multicolored power surged into the air.
“Zodiac,” she repeated.
They walked back over to the others. “I think training can wait a few days,” Jasmine announced. “You’ve all earned a short vacation. And this plane can take you just about anywhere.”
“Great!” Kim said. Then she frowned. “Actually…I can’t think of anyplace to go.”
“Well,” Steven said, “I know where I want to go: back to Hong Kong. And I’d love to have some company.”
One by one, the others turned to him—Liam, Roxanne, Duane, and lastly Kim. “Hong Kong?” Kim asked. “So we can see where the Zodiac power came from?”
“Not exactly,” he replied. “I was thinking of the museum, not the secret sub-basement. There’s a lot of stuff I didn’t get to see, and I’d like to take in the rest of it.” He turned to Jasmine. “If it’s still standing.”
“It is,” she said. “But I thought you didn’t care about that stuff.”
Steven thought of his grandfather, of the heritage his parents had passed down to him. Jasmine was right; he’d never cared about it before. But now it gave him a warm feeling, a sense that he belonged to something greater than himself.
Then he looked at his teammates—and realized he felt something very similar toward them. They were the future, his chance to build something. His new family, built on the foundation of the old.
“I do care,” he said. “I do now.”
THIAGO THE RAT stood in a dark, cramped cavern, scratching away at the surface of the oracle bone in his hand. Stupid thing, he thought. So much slower than a holo-communicator!
Wherever his sharp fingernail touched the bone, faint gray writing appeared. When he was finished, the message read:
I THINK I’VE GIVEN YOUR YOUNG TIGER A CHANCE.
I THINK I’VE GIVEN YOUR YOUNG TIGER A CHANCE.
A massive crash resounded through the wall, shaking the ground. That’s it, Thiago thought. The main cavern has collapsed. His intuitive power had allowed him to ferret out this narrow side passage, the one place where he knew he’d be safe.
The Rat’s little mousehole.
At his feet, Nicky—Dog lay still. Malik—Ox—groaned and started to open his eyes. Thiago pulled out his gas gun, leaned down, and squirted another puff under Malik’s nose. Malik moaned and went limp.
Thiago stared at Malik’s chiseled features, his thick jaw. You’re just a little too loyal, Thiago thought. If I hadn’t grabbed you, you might have gone along with your friends’ little walkout, formed a whole other faction. And that wouldn’t have served my employers’ purposes.
Sometimes one pawn can tip the whole chess game.
When Thiago stood up, a return message was waiting for him on the oracle bone.
THANK YOU. I REALIZE YOU’VE PUT YOURSELF IN A DIFFICULT POSITION. REST ASSURED THAT YOU WILL BE REWARDED.
Thiago scratched out his reply:
DON’T MAKE ME REGRET THIS.
IF I DO, YOU’LL REGRET IT TOO.
IF I DO, YOU’LL REGRET IT TOO.
He stared at the bone for a long moment, but no further reply came.
Thiago exhaled, looking down at the sleeping forms of Nicky and Malik. He was playing a risky game, he knew. He remembered his own words, to Josie the Horse: If you defy Maxwell, you’d better have a Plan B. If Maxwell found out about his treachery, Thiago could wind up like poor Monkey.
He shuddered at the thought. I hope I’ve picked the right side.
Then he smiled and laughed, a high-pitched chittering sound. If not, he thought, I’ll just switch sides again.
After all, that’s what a Rat does.
The woman sat alone in a tastefully decorated study. Every wall hanging, every book on the shelves had been carefully chosen and arranged. The final message still looked up at her from the oracle bone:
DON’T MAKE ME REGRET THIS.
IF I DO, YOU’LL REGRET IT TOO.
IF I DO, YOU’LL REGRET IT TOO.
The woman stared at the message for a long time. Then, with a quick motion, she wiped it clean with her palm. The oracle bone’s surface went blank, and she picked up her phone, looking at its screensaver: a faded picture of Steven Lee, age five, staring up in wide-eyed wonder.
A tear formed in the woman’s eye.
“My little boy,” she whispered. “What have we done to you?”
“CARLOS, I MEAN IT. Put the wand away or I’ll put it away for you, and you won’t like where it ends up.”
Carlos snapped the wand closed and turned back to his computer. “I’m just concerned.”
“Well, don’t be. I’m fine.”
They had dropped the others off, and were headed back to Greenland. Neither Jasmine nor Carlos knew how to fly a plane, but Duane had assured them the autopilot could handle the flight. The idea made Jasmine nervous, but so far the trip had been smooth.
“He did good,” Carlos said. “Steven, I mean.”
“That’s what I told him.”
“Are you ever gonna tell him the whole story? About you and Maxwell?”
Jasmine frowned. For a moment, her whole body went tense. She didn’t like to think about those days.
“Maybe someday,” she said, keeping her voice deliberately light.
Carlos was still frowning.
“That’s not what’s really bothering you,” she continued. “What is it?”
“I…” He turned and looked her in the eye. “Back in the Grottoes. The Vanguard team…they crumbled awfully fast.”
“Our team was better,” Jasmine said. But even as she said it, she knew that wasn’t the whole answer.
“I suppose,” Carlos replied. “But it almost seems like someone was helping us.”
“Maybe I got through to Josie. She’s a good person, deep inside. And she wasn’t there with Snake at the end.” Jasmine grimaced. “I’ve got a feeling our world is about to get a lot more complicated.”
Carlos peered at her. “Are you sure you’re all right? You’ve got a whole lot of Dragon power inside you, now.”
“I can handle it. Really.” She cocked her head at him. “But if you want to help me, go in the back and rustle up some dinner.”
He smiled, a little flirty. “I have four advanced degrees, and you want me to make dinner?”
“I’ll tell you what. Let’s land this thing and meet up with the others. I’ve been craving dim sum for forever.”
A moment later, his hands touched her shoulders. Despite herself, she jumped. He leaned in and gave her a quick peck on the cheek.
“Dim sum it is,” he said.
When he was gone, she let out a deep breath. Dragon energy poured out from her mouth, her hands, up from every inch of her body. The sharp-clawed Dragon whipped around the cabin, hissing and spitting fire. Then it turned, for the first time, to gaze directly at her with glowing red eyes.
“I can handle you,” Jasmine said.
The Dragon stared back silently.
“I can,” she whispered.
She tried to remember what the world had looked like, before. Before the Zodiac, the Dragon, before the Convergence and the Tiger and the recruits and the power. Before…
It took a lot of effort, but by the time Carlos landed the plane, she almost felt human again.
STAN LEE is known to millions as the man who co-created Spider-Man, The Avengers, X-Men, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Fantastic Four, as well as hundreds of other Super Heroes. Stan serves as the chairman emeritus of Marvel and is currently the chairman and chief creative officer of POW! Entertainment.
STUART MOORE is a writer, a book editor, and an award-winning comics editor. His recent writing includes EGOs, an original comic book series from Image Comics, and Civil War, the first in an ongoing line of novels from Marvel Comics. Stuart is also a partner in Botfriend, a comics packaging company.
ANDIE TONG has art and design work featured in titles across a range of franchises, including Tron: Betrayal; Spectacular Spider-Man UK; The Batman Strikes; Smallville; Wheel of Time; TMNT; Masters of the Universe; and Starship Troopers. He has worked for such companies as Disney, Marvel, DC Comics, and Dark Horse.