Nine Years Ago
At first, when the small blonde girl spoke up, there was no response from the assortment of people in front of her. More than a dozen of them all crowded ahead, their backs to the girl as they yammered on excitedly, none paying her any mind. Whether they didn’t hear her at all or just assumed that the child belonged to someone else and was thus that person’s problem was up for debate. Whatever the truth, the result was that none even turned around.
So, the twelve-year-old cleared her throat a bit pointedly. This, again, accomplished nothing. A brief look of consternation crossed her face. With a sigh, she took a breath, focusing on summoning the spirit of Alistae, the cheerful entertainer turned assassin from her own world. The world where this girl, Setrea, had spent the first eleven years of her life, before finding herself accidentally transported to this place one year earlier.
Though no one here beyond Setrea herself would see it, the violet intangible form of Alistae appeared around the girl for a brief moment. Arms crossed, with his twin daggers held in reversed grip so that their blades were just visible sticking out from under either elbow, he gave a half-bemused, half-disbelieving stare at the crowd while shaking his head.
The nearest translation of what her people called this that she had been able to find in the past year was ‘manifesting.’ Sixteen heroes had fought to save her people from the monsters that plagued their world. They were frozen as giant metallic statues now. Statues upon which her civilization had built entire cities. But their power was able to be called upon by certain people. People like Setrea, even if Alistae was the only one she could manage so far. She had tried for others, of course (especially after arriving in this strange place), to no avail.
She could manage this pretty well though. Alistae’s ghostly form vanished a moment after appearing, but his effect remained. She could feel his strength, his confidence, his intense desire to protect others and make them laugh. But most importantly, she could feel his gift.
It was that gift that she used right then, the ability to draw the attention of people either toward or away from her. In this case, she drew attention toward herself, though only exercising a tiny amount of it. Just enough to affect the people immediately in front of her.
The effect was instantaneous, all of them abruptly pivoting to stare at the young girl. So, with their eyes on her, she dropped the Manifestation and spoke very carefully. “I excuses. You are people moving away for my please seeing.”
From the way they were staring at Setrea, she had the sinking feeling that her mostly self-taught Anglesh lessons weren’t going nearly as well as she had hoped. Thinking the sentence through once more, she tried again. “Excuses, I am not seeing. You are people please moving?”
Behind her, someone cleared their throat a bit more dramatically than Setrea herself had. “The kid wants you to scoot over, she can’t see the giraffes.”
Turning at that, the girl found herself staring at a tall, red-haired woman in her early twenties. The woman closed and then opened one eye quickly. “Come on, I like the giraffes too. They’re pretty neat.” Then she held a hand out, even as the people ahead of them made room as requested.
For a moment, Setrea hesitated. She understood… about every other word or so, enough to put the woman’s meaning together. Her grasp of this Anglesh had progressed quite rapidly over the past year, though she still heavily struggled when it came to putting together sentences herself in a way that was understandable to the people who spoke it. Their rules for which words went where were so confusing. She had no idea how they kept it straight.
Still, she did want to see the giraffes. She came to this… zoo, that was the word for it. She had come to this zoo every few days for the past several months, just to walk around and marvel at the simple fact that people on this world had so many different sorts of animals to look at. On her world, they had the few animals they could keep on the statue, or the birds they could see flying around, and that was it. Sure, there were others down on the ground, but she had never been on the ground. It was far too dangerous.
But here, on this world? There had to be hundreds of different types of animals across the entire planet. It was amazing. Terrified as she was to be in this situation, so far from home and with no one who could help her, Setrea did love to come and see the creatures in this zoo.
So, she accepted the woman’s hand and stepped that way, eyes widening with delight at the vision of the long-necked animals in front of her. A noise of amazement escaped her.
“They’re pretty cool, huh?” the woman, still holding her hand, noted with a smile. “Giraffes have always been my favorite. Are they yours?”
Taking a few seconds to process those words, translate the ones she didn’t understand as much as possible, and fill in the blanks, Setrea finally replied, “I knowing not. Animals are being many for choosing.”
For a moment, the older woman regarded her, clearly trying to decide how to respond to that. “I… suppose there are a lot of them to choose from. Maybe… you could walk around with me so we can see more?
“My name is Jolene Iverson. What’s yours?”
An attractive blonde woman sitting atop a sleek motorcycle across the street from a bar known to be a hangout for extremely unsavory types, and watching the place for an extended time, almost certainly would have been a bad idea in any given case. Adding in the fact that this particular attractive blonde was immediately identifiable, through her circus ringmaster outfit (including the black top hat rather than a helmet) and Zorro-like bandana mask, as one of that particular gang’s primary enemies took away that ‘almost’ and made it a dead certainty.
Or it would have, had Setrea, now more commonly known as Grandstand, not had the ability to simply manifest Alistae’s power to divert everyone’s attention away from herself. No one would pay her any mind no matter how long she sat there watching the bar.
At least, not until she wanted them to pay attention to her. And that moment was rapidly approaching.
The bar wasn’t technically officially linked to either La Casa or the Easy Eights. Rather, the gang who made their base here was a minor one only loosely affiliated with the Eights. A minor league, triple A team rather than part of the Majors. Still, they were armed and dangerous. Well, so was she. And she had one thing they didn’t have at that moment.
She was fucking pissed.
Stepping off her bike, Grandstand made her way across the street, heading for the bar while still diverting the attention of several people who remained in her line of sight. She had become so accustomed and experienced at Manifesting Alistae that the ghostly figure simply appeared at random times around her own form or nearby. When his form appeared, he would visibly react to what he was seeing, expressing amusement, disbelief, or any range of emotions. But he never really communicated, and she couldn’t tell if he was actually watching what happened for real, or if his reactions were a manifestation of her own subconscious. Either way, it made her feel a tiny bit more connected to her home.
A heavy-set bouncer lounging beside the door gazed right past her, fingers drumming lazily along the shotgun that lay across his lap. Once she grabbed the shotgun, the man’s eyes finally focused on her. Powerful as it was, her gift couldn’t compensate for directly affecting someone like that. He noticed her, eyes widening a bit. Yet as he started to hoist his considerable bulk off the chair, the man found himself immediately aborting that attempt and freezing as the barrel of his own shotgun was pointed at his neck.
“You know who I am?” she asked him, voice flat. When his head bobbed as much as it could without choking himself on the barrel of the gun, she nodded to the side. “Run.”
As soon as she moved the gun, he did just that. Without sparing her a glance, the man took off, sprinting as fast as he could. Which, considering his size, was pretty fast. Or maybe he was just that motivated.
In any case, she only watched long enough to make sure he was really leaving. Then, shotgun still in hand, Setrea took a breath before stepping through the doorway.
The bar was essentially a large oval, with the actual bar part in the middle and booths along the walls. At one end were a couple pool tables and a door to the restrooms and employee area, while a jukebox stood next to the entrance she had just come through. The place was fairly crowded, with nearly every table and bar seat full. Including the pool tables, each of which was in use. Every person there was either a member of this gang (they called themselves Cross Vipers), or somehow connected to them enough to be allowed to stay here. The bar didn’t serve outsiders.
Letting her gaze pass over the room while the power of Alistae ensured that they ignored her (Alistae’s spirit form itself appeared to examine the jukebox curiously), Setrea considered for a moment before abruptly switching that power. Now, rather than pushing their attention away, she pulled it to herself. At the same time, she took aim at the nearby jukebox and pulled the trigger. The resulting shotgun blast echoed throughout the room while the music itself was murdered mid-song. Alistae’s ghost gave her a disappointed look before vanishing.
Now she really had everyone’s attention. Tossing the shotgun aside, Grandstand faced the assembled group. Almost fifty people, all staring at her. A few started to rise, only to stop as their companions put hands on their arms or shoulders.
“I’m looking for the people who pulled the job to attack the reporter lady on the freeway!” she called, eyes scanning everyone for reactions.
The bartender spoke up. “Hey, look, you got the wrong place! That was Scion shit, ain’t nobody here part of that–”
“They were fake Scions,” Grandstand interrupted, her eyes narrowing in on a booth against the right-hand wall, about halfway to the back. She took a step that way before immediately shifting Alistae’s power to make everyone ignore her for the time it took to cross the distance. For those brief couple of seconds, she might as well have been invisible, because no one could focus on her. Once she was in front of the table, she reversed the effect again to draw everyone’s attention while simultaneously drawing the pistol from its holster at her hip to point at the head of the red-haired, lanky man sitting there. From the point of view of him and everyone else in the room, they would have completely lost interest in her for about five seconds, then suddenly regained it as she practically disappeared from the doorway and reappeared next to that table.
“Whoa, whoa, hey!” The red-haired man jerked a bit with the gun pointed at him. “I don’t know what–” He stopped as she pressed the barrel harder against his temple. “Okay, okay, okay, chill out! We didn’t kill the reporter, god! We weren’t supposed to, just supposed to chase her down, attack them, make it look good. Play the role, okay? The dude paid super well and we were just supposed to make it look like the Scions were attacking her. Fuck, I thought it was the chick trying to make herself look important for some follow-up story or something.”
Shifting the power yet again so that everyone in the room aside from the people at this table would forget about her, Grandstand narrowed her eyes, voice dangerous. “Who paid you?”
“Li-like I said, I thought it was her, til she got killed for real!” the man stammered. “It–fuck, fuck just– Miles! Miles Boyd, he’s the one who sent the invite, he’ll know more, I swear! He divied up the cash too! It was all him, you wanna talk to him!”
“Just two more questions.” With that, the blonde woman lowered the pistol from his forehead down past his nose, over his mouth, and to his throat. “Where is this Miles Boyd? And what does he look like?”
A short time later, with the Alistae manifestation ensuring no one even thought to follow her (the effect would wear off soon after she left), Setrea threw a leg over her motorcycle, started it up, and took off with a roar of the engine and squeal from the tires. Minor Touched-Tech linking the black top hat to an actual hairband she wore kept it perfectly positioned on her head despite the speed of the bike.
Once she was a couple blocks from the bar, Setrea ordered the bluetooth attached to her motorcycle to call Cuélebre, her attention focused on weaving the motorcycle between a couple cars that happened to be going entirely too slowly for her liking.
After several rings, the voice of her Fell-Touched boss came through. “Grandstand, what is it?”
She could picture him now, a fifteen-foot-tall demon-like figure sitting in that meditative pose in his dojo room. Few people had the number of his private cell, and fewer still would call him without going through the proper channels first. He probably hadn’t even needed to check the number to know who this one was coming from.
“Miles Boyd,” she announced. “He’s some low-level fuck attached to the Ninety-Niners. I really need you to have them cut him loose so he and I can have a conversation without causing an incident. Shouldn’t be too bad, but since we’re supposed to be allies with them for the moment, I thought it might be a good idea to go through the proper channels.”
There was a brief pause before Cuélebre replied, “Am I supposed to know who this guy is, or why you want to talk to him?”
“He’s the guy I need to talk to so I can find out who ordered the hit on Jolene Iverson,” Setrea informed him, gunning the motorcycle off the street and through a narrow alley. A shortcut on the way to the right area, which was clear across the city. Plenty of time for her boss to make the necessary arrangements.
Cuélebre was silent for a moment, clearly digesting that before speaking again. “Ah, and why, precisely, would you be looking for the person who murdered a reporter? Don’t get me wrong, doing a favor for the Scions is a bad idea. He deserves whatever he gets. But why exactly does it involve you?”
“She…” For a moment, Setrea paused. She thought of the weeks and months Jolene had worked with her, helping the then-new and scared girl to learn proper English and Spanish. She’d had questions, of course. Plenty of them. And Setrea had told her the story. Jolene was the only person she had told her story to. Yet, despite being a reporter, the woman had kept that secret. She objected to Setrea joining Oscuro, of course. And tried to talk her out of it repeatedly. But she never exposed the truth about her, despite what a huge story it would have been. Jolene had kept her secret.
And now she was dead.
“She was my friend,” Setrea finally settled on. “And this guy knows who killed her. I’m going to get answers out of him about who was responsible for that. And then I’m going to kill them, whoever they are.”
“Give me ten minutes before you do anything. Let me check on some things,” came the response, before Cuélebre disconnected the call.
Which left Setrea to mindlessly cruise along on her way to the Ninety-Niner’s territory. No, not mindlessly. Her thoughts continuously drifted back to moments she’d had with Jolene, from that first time at the zoo, all the way up to brunch a couple weeks earlier. That was the last time she had seen the woman in person, though she did watch many of her broadcasts. Jolene was her friend. Was. Until someone killed her.
With those thoughts swirling through her mind, she almost jumped at the sound of her phone alert going off. It was Cuélebre. Or ‘Boss’ as her audio alert announced. After taking a second to collect herself, she answered. “Yeah? Where are they sending him?”
There was a brief pause before Cuélebre spoke. “There is a little bit of a complication. Turns out this Miles Boyd might be fairly low on the totem pole himself, but his brother is one of their Touched. Jailtime.”
“I’m not interested in his family history,” Setrea retorted, even though she knew exactly why that was being brought up. She was simply ignoring it. “I want him.”
“And I made an attempt to make them let you talk to him,” Cuélebre informed her. “I even said that I would guarantee his safety if he told you what he knows. He declined. And they’re backing him up.”
“What do you–” Setrea stopped, measuring her response. “What do you mean he declined and they’re backing him up?”
“I mean, he refuses to talk to you, and they aren’t going to make him,” Cuélebre explained.
“So, I’ll talk to him without their permission and find out what he knows,” she replied flatly.
There was another pause before the response came, Cuélebre speaking very carefully. “I’m sorry, but you can’t do that. Just… think for a minute, amiga. We are in the middle of a war which is escalating by the day. Things are going to get worse before they get better. And the one thing we can’t afford right now is to lose our allies. The Ninety-Niners aren’t our best friends, but they are the only friends we have to hold against both the Easy Eights and La Casa. Jailtime is an important piece of the Ninety-Niners. His powers are pretty essential, so the last thing Sandon is going to do is piss him off. And forcing his brother to talk to you would piss him off.”
Stopping her motorcycle in a small parking lot overlooking a slightly lower street, Setrea replied in a low voice. “She was my friend, Cuélebre.”
“That I understand,” he replied. “And I sympathize. I do. You will get your chance at answers, I promise. But you need to think strategically and put it on the back burner for now. I’m telling you, we cannot afford to fight two gangs alone. Let alone three, if this vendetta against Miles Boyd makes the Ninety-Niners turn against us too.”
“By the time this war is over, the trail that Miles could lead me to, the trail that could point to the person who killed my friend, could be completely cold,” Setrea retorted. “Whoever hired him wasn’t one of the Scions. They wouldn’t want her dead, they’d want her captured so they could… kill her themselves. Slowly.”
“Is that part of why you’re so angry?” Cuélebre carefully (but not carefully enough) asked. “Because you didn’t think to be there to watch over her after she did that story?”
Rather than respond immediately with what she wanted to say, Setrea took a breath and forced herself to wait a moment before speaking in a tight voice. “Yes, I stupidly thought an entire group of Ten Towers Touched would be able to protect her. A failure on my part. But one I aim to make amends for, by finding the person responsible. And Miles Boyd is the only person who can help me do that.”
“And he will,” Cuélebre promised her pointedly. “After we get through this war.” He took a brief moment before adding, “Let me make myself perfectly clear. When the time comes, you will have my full support in tracking down the person responsible for your friend’s death. But we cannot push the Ninety-Niners on the issue right now. Doing so would risk making them our enemies instead of our allies, and that is something we cannot afford while we are in the middle of this war. You have to be patient. I’m sorry.”
Rather than respond verbally, Setrea did something she had never done to Cuélebre. She reached up and hit the button to disconnect the call. She hung up on him, her boss, her… the man she had chosen to serve as the right-hand to, in her quest to retrieve the resources she needed to eventually find a way back to her own world. He was her best ticket to finding a way back home, to her friends, her family, her papa.
For several long, mentally-torturous minutes, she sat there on the motorcycle, staring at passing traffic indecisively. Every once in awhile through that long, silent period, she would close her eyes and picture Jolene. She would remember the woman’s face that first day at the zoo.
Abruptly, Setrea felt a presence behind her. Turning slightly, she expected to see that Cuélebre had come to speak with her directly. Instead, the woman saw a form that was at once familiar and utterly foreign. Another ghostly figure, but this was not Alistae’s purple form. Instead, she was looking at the dark green figure of Deunmar. Deunmar, the Protector, was another of the sixteen heroes. She was a Marked, one of those descendants of humans who had been mutated into a partial animal form. In this case, Deunmar was Scale-Marked, related to reptiles. The nearest Earth animal to what she looked like was a turtle. Her thick shell protected her back, assisted by the heavy armor she wore, and an enormous shield that was taller than the woman herself.
Manifesting Deunmar allowed the person to make any object they were touching completely invulnerable to any physical damage for a limited time. Including the clothes or armor they were wearing, or weapons they were holding. It began at only what amounted to two seconds for beginners, with a twenty second cooldown. But that would improve with use.
All those realizations and memories passed through Setrea’s mind as she stared at the ghostly figure. A new Manifestation. Another connection to her homeworld. Deunmar stared right back at her, before giving a short nod. A nod that said everything it needed to.
Once more, Setrea closed her eyes. She thought of Jolene. She thought of the zoo.
She remembered the giraffes.
It was a solid door, very well-built and meant to prevent police from kicking it in very easily. What it was not prepared to stand up to, was a motorcycle literally driving straight into it. A motorcycle that, for that single instant, had been rendered entirely invulnerable to all damage thanks to Setrea’s new Manifestation of Deunmar. The door folded like cardboard, as she brought the bike to a halt in the middle of the small office building’s front lobby. The assorted handful of people sitting in the room stared at her incredulously, not even thinking to grab for their guns just yet. By the time one thought of it and went to grab the weapon from the nearby table, her whip had lashed out to catch his wrist, yanking him off his chair to the floor. At the same time, she pointed her pistol at one of the other men, sliding off her bike.
“Miles Boyd. He’s staying here. What room?”
“You’re not supposed to be here,” the man with the pistol pointed at him snarled. “Your boss told you to back off.”
“I’m sorry,” Setrea started, before using her far-more-familiar Manifestation to make them forget about her. Alistae’s ghostly form was sitting on a chair, curiously looking at the cover of a magazine that was lying there. He made a motion as though to pick it up before grimacing as his hand went through it.
Meanwhile, Setrea moved those few steps from the bike until she was standing directly behind the man she had been talking to, then dropped the power while smacking him with the butt of the gun in the back of the head. “Was that a room number?!”
“Ahhh, fuck!” Holding the back of his head, the man blurted, “He ain’t here! He took off half an hour ago!”
The man who had been whipped to the ground spoke up then. “You have any idea how bad you just fucked up? Our boss is gonna make your boss put you out to dry. You come into our home and fuck with our people? You just fucked up this alliance for your boss. So what do you think he’s gonna do?”
“Probably be pretty pissed off,” Setrea agreed in a quiet, almost thoughtful voice, before narrowing her eyes. “So I guess I better convince one of you to tell me where Miles went pretty quick. Not that I needed the extra motivation. I’ve got plenty.
“Let me give you some.”