A deafening barrage of three shotgun blasts in rapid succession filled the previously silent night air. The cacophonous booms rebounded off the nearby surrounding alley walls, sending their destructive thunder out into the city street beyond, like heralds trumpeting the utter annihilation of whatever poor soul had been unfortunate enough to be in the path of that weapon.
And yet, the ‘poor soul’ in question stood entirely unfazed by the trio of solid slugs that had been intended to tear through her. Well, not stood, exactly. Rather, she continued sprinting forward, taking all three shots without blinking before she managed to grab hold of the extended shotgun and rip it away from its wielder. At the same time, her foot lashed out to slam into the man’s stomach with enough force to send him to the ground in a heap.
After considering the shotgun for a brief moment, the blonde woman, known as Grandstand to the public, tossed it aside with a grunt of disgust. It fell into a nearby pile of trash that sent dust out over the polished boots of her ringmaster costume, which she flicked off with a contemptuous snap of her foot. Then she stared down at the man. He was a white guy in his mid-thirties, wearing old army clothes from a military surplus store. Which fit with the camouflage-painted shotgun he’d been using and had almost killed her with rather than answer her questions. Had she not summoned her new Manifestation of Deunmar in that instant, giving herself two seconds of total invulnerability, that blast really would have killed her. All because this dipshit didn’t want to talk to her.
Before he could recover, she kicked him again, this time in the shoulder. “How about we try that entire conversation again. Hi, how are you? My name’s Grandstand, so nice to–” Without warning, she reared back and lashed out with a hard kick to the face that made his head snap back, a yowl of pain escaping him. “–meet you!”
“Oww, fuck!” The man recoiled, falling against the nearby alley wall as he stared up at her. “How the fuck did you do that? You’re not supposed to be invulnerable. That ain’t your powers! If I can see you, I can shoot you. I shot you! I fucking know I did! How the fuck–what did–what?!” He was sputtering, pressing his back against the wall.
He wasn’t wrong as far as that went. She really shouldn’t have been able to make herself invulnerable. And, up until very recently, she couldn’t. Her powers were derived not from these ‘orbs’ as everyone on this world thought, but from the ability to manifest different heroic avatars from her own world. Well, two avatars now. It had been one before. She’d been able to Manifest the avatar of Alistae, giving herself enhanced speed for everyone whose attention she shifted away from herself and enhanced strength for everyone whose attention she shifted toward herself. Now she could also Manifest Deunmar to give herself a very brief window of invulnerability. A couple seconds at most.
But of course, this guy didn’t know anything about that. She didn’t exactly go around advertising the fact that she was from another world. As far as everyone around here knew, she was just another normal Earth human who had gotten powers by touching a glowing orb. And while it was possible to touch another orb and either switch up or add to your powers, that was rare enough that this guy’s confusion was understandable.
What was not understandable was the fact that even while he was sitting there with the woman standing over him, he was still trying to get out of talking to her. Specifically, his hand was groping down to grab for something in his pocket. And that something almost certainly wouldn’t be good for her. Especially given she couldn’t Manifest her invulnerability for a few more seconds.
Grandstand didn’t let the man get very far. Her foot went down against his groin with just enough force to let him know that she could have done a lot of damage if she wanted to. Holding it there while his eyes widened, she spoke flatly. “Bring it out with two fingers, and just know that if I don’t like what you’re doing with it, you can say goodbye to your best friend.”
There was a very brief pause before the man gave a reluctant sigh and used two fingers to pull out a closed flip phone, one of the old kinds that could take a real pounding.
“Aww, for me?” Grandstand kept her foot where it was while reaching down to take the phone from his fingers. “Let me guess, you were about to tell me the address of the guy I’m looking for, but it’s in here so you had to look it up.” Her tone was sweetly dangerous, making it clear she didn’t believe a word of it, but was giving him an out.
“Look, bitch,” the man snapped, though his tone turned slightly more pleasant (and strained) when she reacted by gently pushing her foot down against his crotch. “I know you’re looking for Miles Boyd. Everyone knows that. The whole fucking city knows you blew off your boss so you could tear the city apart looking for that fuck. But I can’t tell you where he is. Sandon’s scarier than you are on your best day. She wears people’s fucking bones against her skin, man! You know that shit, right? If there’s a super strong person anywhere in the state, she tracks them down and takes a bone. She wears a fucking full body suit of bones under that costume. That’s some real psycho shit right there, okay? She says don’t tell you where Miles is, so I can’t fucking tell you where Miles is! You wanna argue with that, talk to her! Not me, her!”
Regarding him for a moment, Grandstand considered her next move. Or rather, Setrea did. Was she even Grandstand anymore? Yes, because Cuélebre didn’t own the name, he didn’t own her identity any more than he owned her. And while she did feel a pang of regret for abandoning him to pursue her vendetta, it wasn’t enough to make her give that up.
Shaking those thoughts off, she focused on the man literally (for a part of himself anyway) under her foot. Then she flipped the phone open and glanced through the contact list. All very mundane names, incredibly generic. Obviously fake. She was willing to bet that Miles’ number was somewhere in there, but she didn’t have time to try each one.
So, Setrea took a breath to collect herself and consider. When she spoke, her voice cracked slightly before she got it under control. “Listen to… listen to me very carefully. I’m going to take this phone and you’re going to tell me which of these coded contacts is the one you’ve been using to talk to Miles. And I know you’ve been talking to him.” Before the man could do more than open his mouth to protest, she pressed on pointedly. “After you give me the contact number, you are going to get the hell out of town.” Her free hand dipped into her pocket, producing a store-bought Visa card, which she dropped on his chest. “There’s five thousand dollars on that, and the pin is one, two, three, four. Get the hell out of town, out of the state. Start up somewhere else. You’ve got no family here, I did my homework on that. Get home to that shitty apartment with the green window shades, throw whatever shit isn’t worthless and broken in that beat-up Mazda, and get the fuck out of here. Use the card to get yourself to a new city and set up there. Do whatever, go wherever. But if you stick around here, Sandon and I will just have to see which one of us you should be more afraid of. And whoever the winner of that is, I guarantee you’ll be the loser.” She pressed her foot down a bit more firmly. “The number, now.”
“But how do I know if–” the man started before his words turned to a sharp yelp when she pushed her foot down. “Okay, okay, he’s in there as Guy Long. You know, Miles Boyd… Miles is Long and Boyd like boy for G–”
“I get the concept,” Setrea interrupted sharply before stepping back. She heard the audible gasp of relief the man let out when she took her foot off his crotch and smirked faintly before reaching down to yank him to his feet a bit roughly. “Now get out of here. Do what I said. And Kurt?” She pointedly said his name to make it clear that she knew who he was, as if her bit about his apartment and car wasn’t enough. “If I find out you called Miles again, or your boss, or anyone else in your little gang… you know I can find you. And next time…” She narrowed her eyes, glaring down at him. “Next time my foot will go a lot further.”
Kurt gave a quick, longing look toward his shotgun, but gave up the thought of retrieving it when she cleared her throat. He was pivoting on his feet a moment later, sprinting out of the alley.
Setrea let him go, figuring it was about a fifty-fifty shot whether he would grow the balls to ignore her warning and contact Miles or one of the others anyway. But that was fine, she’d already deposited a tracking and listening bug inside his jacket when she hauled him up, so she’d be able to find him if he went anywhere he wasn’t supposed to, and monitor what he said through her own earbud.
Whether through Kurt or the phone she had taken off him, she was going to find Miles Boyd. And through him, she would find the person responsible for Jolene Iverson’s death.
Somewhat to her surprise, Kurt had actually listened to her orders. As far as she could tell through monitoring his movements and having the bug let her know whenever he said anything, he had gone to his apartment, packed his shit, and was on his way out of town. Of course, that still meant that the moment of truth was yet to come. Would he call to warn Miles or any of his old Ninety-Niner buddies before taking off? The closer the little dot on her phone app got to the edge of town, the more confident Setrea became that he wouldn’t be able to resist the urge.
Still, she wasn’t just going to wait around for that. While keeping half an eye (and ear) on Kurt’s situation, she had kept herself busy using the number he’d pointed out as belonging to Miles himself. She didn’t call it, of course. That would have been a good way to make the annoyingly slippery asshole ditch his phone entirely and take off. Instead, she had called an entirely different number, one belonging to… not quite a friend, but someone who owed her a favor. He had been reluctant to speak to her given the whole being on the outs with Cuélebre thing, but a few sharp words about what she had done for him in the past brought the man around and made him pay attention. From there, it had taken him only about ten minutes to use Miles’ number to track his phone to its current location. Specifically, a storage facility near a highway overpass, in one of the worst parts of the city that was still within Ninety-Niner territory.
Given how long the signal had been relatively stationary there (it moved around slightly now and then) either Miles was having a hard time figuring out how to store his old clothes and books, or that was his hideout.
So there she was, parked in a small alley across the street from the storage facility itself, considering her options. This Miles guy was important enough to the Ninety-Niners that they refused to let her even talk to him. Mostly because of his brother, Jailtime. The fact that his brother was a Touched gave Miles himself a lot of protection, apparently. Jailtime didn’t want his brother to be forced to talk to her, and that was that. At least as far as they were concerned.
But was that enough to extend to giving the man extra protection beyond just a place to hide out while they waited for her to give up or be stopped in some other way? As much as she wanted to be done with this part by just slamming her way in there to smack answers out of the shitheel, it would be too easy to walk into a trap.
She couldn’t use her Manifestations constantly, or switch between them instantly. Setrea had learned that shortly after acquiring the second one. Whenever she used Alistae, the ‘attention controlling’ Manifestation, Deunmar went onto a brief cooldown of about five seconds. Using Deunmar, on the other hand, gave Alistae a three second cooldown. Pretty quick, but still a bit of a pause. Between that and the twenty second cooldown Deunmar went into once she used his two seconds of invulnerability, there was a bit of a balancing act to be had.
So it was a good thing she was great at balancing.
With those thoughts in mind, Setrea stepped off the motorcycle and took one step toward the exit of the alley. In mid-motion, however, she pivoted, hand snapping up with a pistol as she pointed it at the figure who had emerged from the nearby doorway.
“Gonna shoot me, Stand?” the man in the red leather trenchcoat, black body armor, and crimson welding mask demanded. “I mean, I knew you were never really one of us, considering you’re not even Latina. But I didn’t think you were that much of a traitor.”
Grimacing, Setrea kept the gun pointed that way. Not that it would do much if the man activated the super-heated forcefield that made him invulnerable and allowed him to melt his way through anything in his path. “Coverfire, how did you track me down here?” Immediately, she realized, “You didn’t. You just knew where he was and waited.”
“Not just him.” The new voice came from the roof of the nearby building, as Yahui perched there. The woman’s power allowed her to transform any of her body parts into the parts of any animal, including the ability to mix and match herself into horrific chimera forms. In this case, her feet were enormous bird talons, her body was the armored hide of a crocodile, one arm was a long cobra snake that hissed and snapped at the air while the other was the muscular, furred arm of a gorilla, and her head was that of a Siberian tiger. A pair of massive wings were just tucking in against her back. How she managed to get a body like that off the ground to fly as well as she did had always confused Setrea, but it worked somehow.
Looking that way, the blonde woman narrowed her eyes, attention flicking back and forth between the two of them. “No Cuélebre?”
“He’s busy,” came the retort from Yahui. “Had to go out of town for a little bit to do a recruitment run. You know, since you decided to fuck us over. You know the Niners are talking about dropping our alliance because of you?”
“If they dropped the alliance, they’ll have to deal with La Casa and the Easy Eights without Oscuro help,” Setrea pointed out flatly. “There’s no way Jailtime or his Prev brother is worth that much to Sandon. He’s useful, but he’s not that useful.”
Coverfire snorted in disbelief. “He shuts down all movement powers that he doesn’t want people using in a fight and he can grab enemies and just punt them to his little private prison bullshit. Hell, if it comes down to it, he can extract the rest of the team the same way. In what reality is that not useful enough to keep him happy? And letting you go kick the shit out of his brother isn’t gonna keep him happy.”
Setrea heaved a heavy sigh. “For fuck’s sake, I just wanted to talk to him. He has information I need, and if he just told me what it was, this would all be over. It didn’t need to escalate like this.”
“And you should’ve listened when the boss said no,” Coverfire informed her. “You know how shitty things have been lately. First we lose Handler cuz he’s a fucking dipshit who got ideas above his place. The dude was doing just fine recruiting and training frontline nobodies, but he had to try to grab a Touched. Not just a Touched, a fucking little kid Touched. That’s over the line. If he wasn’t already dead, I’d put him in the ground myself. So that’s bad enough. But now you take off, and fuck us over with our allies in the same move?”
“Not cool, Grandstand,” Yahui put in, her voice dark. Some people had told Setrea that it sounded odd to hear the woman’s normal voice coming from random animal heads, but she wasn’t bothered by it. Maybe because it reminded her of the Marked, people from her own world who were descendants of humans who were mutated into animal forms and had become a race all of their own.
“She was my friend,” Setrea informed the two of them sharply. “That guy in there knows something about who killed my friend. She was my only friend for a long time. She helped me when I didn’t have anybody. Now she’s dead, and I’m going to find out who killed her. Whatever it takes, whoever I have to go through, I’m going to get answers. You say I’m a traitor, but the way I see it, I’m being loyal to the person who needs it the most, because she can’t defend herself anymore.”
A long moment of silence followed her words, as the other two exchanged looks. Then Yahui hopped down from the roof, landing on the pavement smoothly before pointing. “There’s her bike. She can’t be far.”
“What–” Coverfire started to blurt in confusion before catching the woman’s eye. He paused for about two seconds before inclining his head as though in realization. “Yeah, she’s gotta be around here somewhere. Get high, see if you can find her. We’ll… call our buddies inside if we don’t see her in ninety seconds.”
They were giving her a chance, Setrea realized. They were deliberately pretending that she had used her power to divert their attention away from her. Which she hadn’t, but they were using that as an excuse to give her an opening to get inside. Ninety seconds. They were giving her ninety seconds before they called in a warning.
Before that realization had even fully settled in her mind, she was off and sprinting. A quick glance at her phone showed that Miles’ signal hadn’t changed. She knew exactly what unit he was in. A few people near the front office looked her way, but she instantly shifted their attention away and used the resulting speed boost to move even faster.
Her mental count had reached about forty-five seconds by the time she reached the rolling, garage-style door of the storage unit in question. Miles’ phone was directly on the other side. Setrea extended a hand with the same gun that she had pointed at Coverfire moments earlier. A single squeeze of the trigger resulted in a sound about as loud as a cough, even as the spot where the door’s lock was burst apart. With that catching the attention of whoever was inside, she focused on shifting that attention away from her. An instant later, she grabbed the handle and hauled the door up, already pointing the weapon inside, directly at the spot where the phone was.
The small space was set up like a miniature apartment living room or something, complete with a couch facing a television where some sci fi movie was playing. Miles was right there in front of the couch. She recognized him from several pictures, a skinny guy, just under six feet tall with a mangy-looking beard. He was on his feet, though he looked confused as to why, thanks to her attention-diverting power.
An instant later, Setrea was in front of him. She released her Manifestation while simultaneously smacking the man in the face with her pistol. Not hard enough to break anything, but definitely enough to get his attention, power or no power.
As the blow knocked him back down onto the couch, his gaze snapped to her, curse escaping him. “Fuck! Ow, what the–you–you–” Scrambling backward a bit, he reached for the gun on the nearby table, but stopped when she leveled her own weapon at him. “My brother finds out what you’re doing right now, he’ll be pissed the fuck off!”
Stepping that way, Setrea pressed the pistol to his forehead. “Would you rather he be mad because I hit you in the face, or because I shot you between the eyes?”
The man froze, seeming to consider that for a second before exhaling. “Fine, fine, but I can’t tell you what you wanna know, man. I can’t tell you who hired us to do the run against that reporter lady cuz I don’t know.”
“You know something about it,” Setrea insisted, pressing the pistol hard enough against his forehead to make the man flinch. “Something good enough to make me not pull this trigger.” She could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice. He knew something.
The man still caged a bit, clearly not wanting to give it up. Finally, he exhaled. “Fuck, god damn–fine. But you ain’t gonna like it. Look, when we were making sure everything was good to go, just before that reporter left the station, I was on the phone with the guy, the one who set it up. Or girl, I don’t fucking know. They were using a voice changer, so that’s no good. But the point is, I was on the phone with them to make sure we had the green light. We had to speak in code and shit, you know, like spy stuff. Their idea. Anyway, I was just finding out if the eagle was leaving the nest or whatever when I heard that chick say she was ready to go. Like, through the phone connection.”
“That chick? What chick?” Setrea frowned. Her time was up, it was time to get out of here.
“Iverson,” came the response. “The reporter lady herself. Trust me, I memorized her voice. She came up and said she was ready to go. Like, either to the person I was talking to or to someone right next to them. As in the people escorting her out of there.
“So you wanna find out who was responsible for Iverson’s death, check the fucking Star-Touched who were with her when it happened.”