Grandstand

Interlude 14B – Grandstand (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

Ten years ago, somewhere very far away

As the sun rose above distant snow-capped mountains, its rays cut through low-hanging violet clouds that ran close to the ground. A single massive structure towered high above that purple fog. It appeared to be the statue of a man in full plate armor, holding a sword out ahead of him as though pointed at someone, and a shield at the ready. The statue was taller than most mountains, a colossal figure large enough that the human figures who stood upon it seemed smaller than the tiniest insects. 

The statue was no mere statue. It was a bustling city. Dozens of tunnels had been bored through the main body, running in every direction, from the waist up to the head. Buildings were constructed both within these tunnels and upon the statue’s exterior. Various wooden walkways and railings wrapped around the giant warrior’s body, extending out over his raised arms, and even onto his weapon and shield. A great field of grass, dotted with various fences and livestock, took up most of the statue’s shield arm, while the face and rear of the actual shield had row after row of wooden platforms extending out from the shield itself. Each of those platforms held layers of carefully tended dirt and crops, and were reached via the ladder that ran from the bottom of the shield to the top. Those tending the crops simply climbed to the level they wanted, stepped off, and went about their business watering, feeding, weeding, and gathering. The crop platforms extended far enough out to require carefully maintained support struts. 

It was upon the second-to-bottom platform that a small blonde female figure lay on her stomach in the dirt amongst the carrots. She had pried a small hole into the wire fence that lined the area around the farming platform, and stuck her upper half through just enough to peer over the edge. Laying there, the girl stared down through the violet clouds and pretended she could see the ground below. The ground where the Edeliens dwelled. Though it was almost certainly her imagination, as the girl squinted intently, she thought the shapes in the swirling violet fog almost looked like several of those monstrous creatures staring back up at her. She could imagine the things, despite never having seen one in all of her eleven years of life. In her mind, she saw them crawling on top of one another, snarling and hissing in impotent rage at their inability to penetrate the powerful invisible shield generated by the colossus the city was built upon. That protective field prevented the Edeliens from coming any closer than fifty feet from the base of the statue. They were trapped far below, forced to war with one another or hunt the Roen, those who had once lived upon a colossus (for there were others dotted over the world’s landscape, some even within view of one another from what the girl had heard) and had either willingly left or been banished. She had even heard that here were some Roen who had never lived on a colossus. All of which seemed both insane and oddly intriguing. How did they survive? How did they hide from the monsters? Did they actually fight them? 

If she leaned just a little closer, if she squinted just a bit more, the girl could almost see through the fog. The shapes down there had nearly resolved into forms she could maybe recognize. She could… just… about…

“Setrea!” The annoyed male voice calling from several platforms above jolted the girl a bit. “You’re late for training! What are you doing down there? I don’t hear weeds being pulled!” 

Realizing only then just how long she had been lying there, the blonde girl, Setrea, pushed herself to her feet and dusted herself off as well as she could. “Coming, Papa!”  

With a slight grimace at her own appearance, her white pants and pale green shirt marred by the ground, the girl nonetheless dashed to the ladder and started to climb past other platforms where dozens of people were working the fields. She made it several levels up, past other people working the various crop fields and to the point where her father stood impatiently waiting. He was a slightly heavyset bald man with a thick mustache, who squinted at her while she paused there, still standing on the ladder (which continued up through several more platforms). “You were groundgazing again, weren’t you? By the Warrior, Setrea, how many times must you be reprimanded for wasting the day away with your head in the dirt?” From his pocket, he produced a small, circular pocket sunner, a device with a clock face on the front and a tiny red crystal at the top. The sunner could tell the reader what time of day it was at any point as long as it was calibrated by holding it up toward the sky now and then so the crystal in the top could measure where the sun was. It was her father’s most prized possession, a reward from the military for outstanding service during his mandatory time in the guard.

Setrea, for her part, offered a slightly weak, “I’m sorry, Papa. I’ll try harder not to lose track of time.” 

With a low sigh, Euead Keve reached out to lay one hand gently against the side of her face. It was a tender touch, one showing the man’s deep love for his daughter despite the way she exhausted him. “You have a chance, Setrea. You can be more than a farmer. You can Manifest. Learn your lessons, channel this power, and you will be one of our elite. I know you can do this. Listen to the Tsun, follow his instructions, and you will learn to Manifest better than any the Warrior has ever known.” 

Swallowing hard as she tried her best not to wilt under the terror of disappointing her father, Setrea forced herself to nod instead. Her voice was quiet, “Yes, Papa. I will make you proud.” 

“I am already proud, Moonlight,” the man insisted affectionately before clearing his throat. “But my pride cannot save you from the Tsun’s annoyance for tardiness. Hurry now, before his head puffs up and explodes.” He demonstrated by bulging his own cheeks out with air and crossing his eyes, making a wild face that brought a fit of giggles to his daughter. 

He was right, of course. The Tsun would already be pacing back and forth, ranting to himself and the other students about her being late. With a grimace, the eleven-year-old quickly began climbing once more. In moments, she made it to the top of the shield (the rim was wide enough for a dozen men to lay head to foot from the front to the back), where several crop-bundlers loading supplies into wooden crates and barrels teased her about being late. She shot back her own remarks about focusing on their own work, even while sprinting along the shield to reach a wooden rope bridge that extended out along the livestock-filled arm of the colossus toward its chest. 

For the next several minutes, Setrea ran along the various walkways and rope bridges that crisscrossed along the giant statue. She had to dodge around people, most of whom knew her by sight and name and called out their own mixture of encouragement or chastisement. 

Finally, she crossed a bridge extending out from the giant toward a circular platform about ten feet wide, where a youngish man with a shock of bright red hair and tanned skin stood next to an enormous metal pole in the middle of the platform. At the top of the pole was what appeared to be a simple wooden roof, providing cover from the sky as though this was some sort of pavilion. But it was far more than that. A metal box with several levers and complicated-looking dials was attached to the pole. 

The man, Jek, laughed as she approached. “I had a feeling you’d be on your way! The winds said so!” 

Panting heavily as she skidded to a stop, Setrea took a second before managing, through heaving breaths, “Please… take… me… around?” 

“You got it, kid.” Jek gave her a nod before grabbing hold of a leather strap, one of dozens that were attached to the metal pole. “Hold on,”  he ordered while tossing it to her. As the girl caught and wrapped the strap around one arm, gripping with both hands, Jek pushed up on one of his levers while simultaneously twisting one of the dials. Immediately, a piercing warning whistle filled the air, informing anyone nearby that the airskipper was departing. At the same time, a long, blade-like metal structure rose out of top of the tall central pole. The ‘blade’ split apart into two equal pieces before falling in opposite directions, snapping into position to form one long horizontal blade broken up by the center of the vertical pole. Gradually, the blades began to turn, at first slowly before picking up speed, soon spinning so fast they were a blur. Meanwhile, the locks that attached the platform to the colossus released, and, with a quick spin of a dial and gentle push on one lever, the airskipper pulled away and began flying up and around. 

Gripping the strap tight, Setrea watched the colossus below and in front of them. The lower stomach area was where she and most other people lived and worked. Shops and other businesses were in the chest area. Even then, they were flying past the primary market around where the colossus’s heart would have been (the various shops lay both on constructed platforms that extended out from the statue and within the tunnels that had been bored through it). 

Meanwhile, the neck and head were for the city’s leadership and upper class. She’d never been that high. Nor had she been below the waist. The upper legs were where the poorest people lived, those who barely got by. Below that, in the lower legs, were the main barracks where the city’s defenders trained, lived, and worked. 

But Setrea wasn’t heading for any of those places. Their destination, in this case, was the sword-arm, where the schools and training universities stood. All along the flat surface of the statue’s weapon were half a dozen large facilities, with wide combat and athletics grounds between them. The place she was headed for was at the very end of the sword, essentially on the tip. 

Even as they approached, hovering closer, she could see old Master Tsun, with her classmates Naem, Korden, and Lanileth. Lanileth and Korden were sister and brother respectively. They were human, like Setrea herself. Naem, on the other hand, was a Hive-marked with pronounced red mandibles, matching red chitinous skin, a thick black shell on his back, and six arms. Essentially, Marked were those whom, many, many years ago, were mutated to become something half-creature and half-human, with the changes passing down through their descendants. The type of Marked indicated what sort of mutation they had. Hive-marked like Naem looked like insectoid-humans, though specifics varied. Claw-Marked were those mutated to appear closer to felines, Fang-Marked were canines, Scale-Marked were reptilian, and so on. Some lived here amongst other humans as all shared the same ancestors, but Setrea had heard that there were many more in their own hidden cities. 

In any case, all four were watching intently as the airskipper drew closer. No sense in trying to be subtle, so Setrea thanked Jek before releasing her grip on the leather strap. She took a few running steps before flinging herself off the skipper, landing in a roll on the grassy field that had been planted along this part of the statue’s raised blade. 

“Setrea,” Master Tsun chided once she had popped to her feet, “you are late.” 

Like Naem, Tsun was Marked. Rather than an insectoid Hive-Marked, however, he was Wing-Marked, appearing to be a humanoid bird of prey whose arms doubled as wings.

She stammered her apologies, but Tsun wasn’t interested in them. He simply told her she would be staying late to help clean the restrooms to make up for her lack of appreciation for the time of her instructor and classmates, then moved on. 

Moving on, in this case, meant telling the four students to spread out away from each other while facing him, to give one another space. Once they were in position, the old bird-man continued. “Now then, let us see what you have learned so far, my flocklings. What is the name of the warrior whose frozen form our city is built upon?” 

Lanileth, a dark-haired, dark-skinned girl several inches taller than Setrea, immediately spoke. “Reahandu the belligerent, Master.” 

“Just so,” Tsun confirmed. “Reahandu was a great warrior, a champion against the beasts that plague this world. He was one of sixteen, those we revere today for their feats of cunning, bravery, and power. Sixteen champions who led the fight against the invader Edeliens, those monstrous beasts who threatened apocalyptic destruction against our people when we lived upon the ground hundreds of years ago. What happened?” 

That time, it was Naem who spoke, his voice broken up by the occasional chitter from his mandibles. “Tch-Brave warriors fought the Edeliens–tch. Used ancient magics–tch–to grow tall, to break-tch the Edelien army. But the Edelien leaders-tch had their own magics. Magics that scattered the champions across-tch the world, and turned them to these… statues.” 

“Indeed,” Tsun again agreed. “Hundreds of years ago, our champions grew to the size we know them to be now and nearly eliminated the leadership of the Edeliens. Yet, with what must have been their last gasp of power, the mad monsters turned Reahandu and the other champions to this… metallic state, which they have been stuck as ever since. But we were not overrun, why?” 

Setrea took her turn to answer. “The magic force that gives the Champions their growth power, it still exists, and it gives off a shield that stops any Edelien from getting near.” 

“Thank you, Setrea,” Tsun offered with a nod. “Precisely. Once our ancestors learned that the Edeliens could not come within a certain distance of these frozen champions, we built first camps, then entire cities upon them. Then we began to wait for their awakening. As we have now waited for almost five hundred years.” 

After letting those words settle, their teacher continued. “But protection through physical proximity is not the only way our old Champions offer us aid. There are those of us, like the four of you, who are able to Manifest. Korden, what does it mean to Manifest?” 

The boy, smaller and shyer than his more bold twin sister, hesitantly answered, “Each of the sixteen champions had their own strengths and powers, incredible skills they used in battle. Someone who can Manifest can… umm… summon the spirit of a Champion and use those skills and powers. Some people who can Manifest can only do one or two Champions, others can do more. The very strongest can manifest any of the sixteen. But uhh, never at the same time. You can only Manifest one at a time, no matter how strong you are.”

“A demonstration, if you would?” Tsun requested, gesturing to a large metal ball, about two feet across, with a handle attached to it.

Korden, in turn, sighed a little self-consciously before walking that way. He put both hands on the handle, took a tight grip, and tried lifting. The heavy ball didn’t budge an inch, no matter how much he tried. Then, the boy stopped pulling and focused. Staring at him, Setrea saw the moment he Manifested. A glowing silver figure that briefly appeared around him, the ghost-like outline of an enormous, bare-chested man with more muscles than any human ought to have. Heur, the barbarian. It was only there for a brief couple seconds before the image faded. Apparently only those who were capable of Manifesting could see those ghostly apparitions when others used them. 

With a loud roar that was entirely out of place with his small form, Korden heaved the heavy metal ball up with one hand, swung it around a couple times, then slammed his opposite fist into it and crumpled the whole thing up with ease. Then he dropped it quickly, staggering a bit as the Manifestation faded. It was hard to hold them for long when you were little. Apparently adults could hold them for a long time, even indefinitely in some cases. But Setrea and her classmates could only manage short bursts. 

“Now then,” Master Tsun began, turning her way. “Setrea, if you could–look out!” 

Something behind her. She saw the old bird-man’s eyes widen, heard a trio of screams from the other three students. She heard a roar. Then a light, blinding in its intensity, the roar growing deafeningly loud as the girl froze in terror and confusion. 

A voice screamed unfamiliar, strange words at her. She had no idea what they said, but the words seemed to come from inside blazing lights that had suddenly appeared in Setrea’s vision. An instant later, those lights suddenly cut to the side, as a metal monster went screaming past. It was followed by another, coming up just as quickly with a loud, blaring noise just like its packmate, and more bellowed words she didn’t understand. 

Before the second metal beast could devour her, or the first could spin back to finish the job, the girl hurled herself out of the way, landing on stone-like ground while crying out for Master Tsun. 

He wasn’t there. No, she wasn’t there. She wasn’t on the statue. She was… she was somewhere else. Raising her gaze as she lay on the… stone ground, Setrea swept her gaze around wildly. More fast-moving metal monsters with lights on their faces, roaring at everyone they passed. Humans walking in every direction, ignoring the monsters like they weren’t there. Bright, colorful lights, enormous buildings, far higher than any that could have stood upon the Frozen Champions. People shouting back and forth. 

“Wha… what…?” Speaking in a trembling voice as she sat there on the strange ground, looking at the baffling, terrifying sights around her, Setrea stammered, “Where… where am I? Papa? Papa where are you? Papa!” 

A voice from nearby snapped something, though the words were again unfamiliar. The tone, however, was one of annoyance. When Setrea’s gaze turned that way, she found herself facing two men in some sort of uniforms, like the army her papa had been part of before. The uniforms were blue-black rather than green, and didn’t seem to have any armor. They did have what looked somewhat like deuther sticks, except black instead of white and without the spike on the end. 

The man who had spoken said something again. And again, Setrea didn’t understand him. He was speaking in some… strange language. But she did understand when he stepped closer, raising a hand. She understood he was trying to stop her, trying to grab her. His hand caught her arm, as he said something else, a little more forcefully, as if she had been ignoring him rather than completely incapable of understanding.  

Setrea tried to pull away, snapping for the man to let go. But he seemed just as confused by her words as she was by his, the grip on her arm only tightening. 

In a blind panic, terrified of everything around her, she lashed out. “I said, let go!” Without thinking, she focused on everything Master Tsun had taught. She thought of Alistae, the one member of the sixteen champions she’d already learned to Manifest. Alistae, the man who was as much an entertainer as he was a warrior. He was an acrobat, whose feats of athleticism had been legendary even when he was a child younger than Setrea. But he had also been trained from birth to be an assassin. His powers were geared toward that, as Alistae was always capable of holding an audience’s rapt attention, or pushing it away when he needed to be subtle. 

It was his intangible form, invisible to all but her, that appeared around Setrea for a moment when he was called upon. His lithe figure with that broadly smiling face and cool, observant gaze, his twin teuste daggers held in a reverse grip in both hands. 

The girl felt his power, his skill, his quiet confidence and boundless joy for the world he fought to protect. She felt it as a rush, eyes opening wide with a gasp as she shoved the uniformed man away from her once more. That time, she did so while summoning Alistae’s power to draw attention. In that moment, everyone on the street suddenly snapped their gazes to her, giving Setrea a burst of strength that allowed her to shove the man who was holding her back. Except it did more than shove him back. In her panic, she actually bodily threw him into the other man, both of them crashing to the ground. 

Now they were mad. And everyone on the street, all these strange people, were suddenly shouting at her. They were all mad. They saw her throw the uniformed man, and now they were coming. They were coming after her. 

She reversed the power. Alistae’s attention-drawing ability that boosted his strength for everyone looking at him abruptly became an attention-diverting power, forcing everyone to look away from her and become distracted by literally anything else. It also boosted her speed. 

That speed was what Setrea used, pivoting to flee. She ran away from the people there before the power could slip. She already felt herself losing control of the Manifestation. She’d never been good at holding it for more than a few seconds at a time. Now she just had to get away before the angry people remembered her again. She had to get away, had to… had to figure out where she was, what all these people were, how they could be on the ground with all the Edeliens out there. What language they were speaking. What those big metal monsters that kept roaring at her as they raced past were. How they could have buildings like this. What those awful smells were. It felt like she couldn’t breathe. 

And most of all, how she was going to get home. 

*****

Ten Years Later

With a startled gasp, Setrea woke, jerking up in her bed before looking around and easing herself. She wasn’t back home. She was here on Earth, as she had been for some time. 

She called herself Grandstand now, after a decade of learning the language and customs of the people in this world. Because yes, it was an entirely different world that Setrea had found herself on. She still had no idea how she’d ended up here, or how to get home. But she knew that to do that, to find a way back to her own world, she had to have two things: money and power. 

Working for Cuélebre, being his second-in-command, was how she would get that money and power. She used her ability to Manifest Alistae in order to pretend to be one of these ‘Touched’, which helped explain why she was capable of doing the things she did. 

She’d been trying to learn to Manifest others, but thus far had had no luck. Either because she would only ever have been able to Manifest the one, or because she wasn’t on her own world. Alistae’s power had come to this place with her, that was all Setrea knew. She was sure she wouldn’t find out the truth until she got home, to her real home, where her papa (that was the closest word in English to what she knew him as) was waiting. 

The Ministry. They had the power, the resources, to help her. More to the point, they controlled Braintrust, the collection of Tech-Touched who had the best shot at sending her home. But she didn’t trust them. Any of them. 

She didn’t trust Cuélebre either, but she could pose as his loyal second, she could fill the role, just as Alistae had in all of his performances both on and off the battlefield. She would bide her time, until an opportunity came to seize the influence she wanted, influence that would force Braintrust and anyone else she needed to find a way to send her back where she belonged.

At times she almost lost faith. She’d been in this world now very nearly as long as she had lived in her own. Then, she had been only this world’s equivalent of eleven years old. Now, she was twenty-one, a full adult, even to these people. 

But she would not give up. However long it took, Setrea would find a way to get back to her world. She had to. She couldn’t give up on her papa. After all, if he was in this position, he would never give up on her. 

She just wished she knew what the thing behind her back home had been, and how (not to mention why) it had sent her here. But she had figured out one thing at least. On the same night that she had come here, at the exact same second she arrived, three others right here in Detroit had vanished. The other three had all been her age, two girls and a boy. None were related and they had not been anywhere near the same location. But all three had simply vanished into thin air while people were looking at them, and all of the witnesses had reported seeing a ‘giant statue’ in the instant before the children disappeared. 

Somehow, when Setrea was sent here, three kids from Earth were sent to where she had been. But how? Why? 

And, most importantly, what happened to them once they showed up there? 

Previous Chapter

Showdown 7-06 (Summus Proelium)

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That saying ‘all hell broke loose’ didn’t apply here. Not because violence didn’t erupt, but because those words in that order utterly failed to really portray just how much violence erupted and just how quickly. Hell didn’t break loose, it was a meteor that suddenly and apocalyptically slammed into the Earth. Followed by several more meteors that came slamming in behind the first because they just couldn’t stand to miss all the fun.  

Honestly, the best analogy I had for it was one time when I had needed to ask Simon something a few years back. I’d gone into his room to find him lying on his bed with his headphones on. Next to the door was his wall-to-wall sound system, so I’d just reached out and hit a button with the headphone symbol on it. Pretty dumb, I know. It turned off the headphones, and suddenly the entire room had been flooded with screaming, earsplitting metal music. It had, with the touch of a button, shifted all that music from being pumped through his headphones to being pumped through the dozen different high-end speakers he had scattered throughout all of his rooms. My ears had practically been ringing for days after that little mistake. 

That’s what this was like. Not that it had been exactly peaceful before, but when the Ninety-Niner and Oscuro troops had surrounded Pack (and her pack), Eits, That-A-Way, Syndicate, Whamline, Wobble, Carousel, and me, the violence had at least paused. Mostly because we really hadn’t stood the slightest ghost of a chance in that position, against those kind of numbers. But now that Blackjack and more of La Casa had, in turn, surrounded the Oscuro and Ninety-Niners, everything just sort of exploded. Violently. 

For me, ‘violence exploded’ was pretty apt, considering basically the same instant everyone started fighting, just as I dropped my phone back in the pocket that hadn’t been cut open, something hit me. It was Cuélebre’s tail. I saw it coming from the corner of my eye, just in time to activate a bit of the orange within the image I’d painted across my costume. Even then, the tail still struck me with enough force that I was lifted clear off the ground and sent hurtling through the air with a belated scream. Flailing, I failed to actually right myself properly before colliding with a dumpster near the corner of the loading dock behind the store. The orange paint meant I didn’t end up with any broken bones (or worse), but I was still dazed, slumping to the asphalt with a low groan as my vision went a little blurry for a moment. 

The fighting, of course, didn’t stop for me. Gunshots and more filled the air, even as I groggily lifted my head to stare in that direction, trying to blink the daze away. Two Ninety-Niner thugs with shotguns were hoisted off their feet, slammed into one another, and hurled away in opposite directions by a couple of Whamline’s coils. Those same coils exploded in front of Coverfire, the concussive force knocking him away from That-A-Way while he was still trying to grab her. An instant later, there was a sharp whistling sound and a narrow distortion in the air slammed into Whamline. It was Silbón, a guy from Oscuro with a dark wide-brimmed hat over a dark gray face mask that left his mouth exposed and ragged clothes. 

Silbón was joined by a couple Oscuro thugs firing guns. They were set upon by Twinkletoes and Holiday. One of the Syndicates was on the ground. Another was shot at several times, but the bullets went through his semi-translucent body. The guy who shot at him was hit by one of those electric shopping carts directed by one of Eits’ mites (going faster than I thought those carts were capable of), just before one of the La Casa troops dove into him, both thugs rolling across the ground as they each fought for leverage against the other. 

Violence. Fighting. More than I could possibly hope to follow. Double Down, Blackjack, Cardsharp, and another member of La Casa named Hardway (a guy who manipulated inertia and motion of himself or things around him) were fighting Cuélebre and Sandon. The latter wore a modernized suit of armor with a lion’s pelt over the back, its fake ‘head’ functioning as her helmet and mask. They were all fighting in a jumble of motion and violence. Everyone was. It was all blurred movements, gunshots, powers flying off, the roar of animals and screams of both anger and pain. By the time I dragged myself off the ground, half the people there were down for one reason or another. Some would be down for much longer than others, but either way, the violence was taking its toll. This was too many people with too many powers and weapons in too close of quarters. Even as I took a step that way, my eyes caught sight of Pack and That-A-Way, bumping up against each other just as a figure loomed up behind them. It was another teenager, though definitely not part of the Minority. He wore the completely cliche ‘inmate’ outfit of a black and white striped prison suit with a black burglar mask and one of those prisoner numbers written across the front of the striped shirt. I had… no idea what his powers were. But before either That-A-Way or Pack could react, his hands grabbed each of them by the shoulders and all three disappeared. The ‘prisoner’ guy as well as both girls vanished. 

No! No, no, no! Where were they?! What– then I realized that Pack’s creatures must have been linked to her or something, because all of them disappeared a second later too. Hopefully, whatever prisoner boy had been doing, he hadn’t planned on that. 

But I didn’t have time to think about it. I didn’t have time to think about anything. Suddenly, just as I saw the group vanish in front of my eyes, a guy grabbed me from behind. It was just some random Ninety-Niner thug. I smelled awful alcohol breath as he yanked me off my feet with an arm around my waist, his other hand groping down my side toward the unruined pocket as he snarled, “Okay, kid, where’s the other vials, huh?! Where are they?!” 

That was what it took. Up to that point, since the moment Cuélebre’s tail had knocked me thirty feet into the dumpster, everything had taken on a bit of a dreamlike quality. My ears had been ringing, and I’d just sort of been staring at all this fighting in a daze for the past few seconds, as if I wasn’t really there. It was like I was watching all of this on television rather than interacting with it. But this guy grabbing me, that was enough to snap me out of all that and make me remember that I was actually involved.

As the guy groped over my leg looking for my pocket, I quickly turned that part of my pants blue and activated it, sending his hand snapping up and back. At the same time, I drove my helmeted head backward into his face. The combination of both made him drop me with a yelp, and I turned while landing, sending a shot of red paint into his chest while my left glove turned red as well. Activating both yanked him toward me, just as my other hand turned purple and decked the guy. He hit the ground and didn’t move. 

Another guy was coming for me, but I painted my legs green and my feet purple, using that to leap up and over him, twisting in the air before coming down right on top of his shoulders. He collapsed under my weight, and as we both fell to the ground, I snapped my hand to the side, shooting a spray of yellow paint at a group of bad guys who were going after Wobble and Carousel. They suddenly slowed dramatically, giving those two a chance to deal with them while I rolled forward off the guy I had just dropped onto. 

Unfortunately, that put me right at the feet of the Oscuro Touched with the wide-brimmed hat. Silbón. His power involved whistling, of course. Basically, any time he was whistling, he was almost entirely immune to damage. He would absorb that damage, and could then expel it through a whistle. When he did, his whistle would take on the same traits as the damage he had absorbed. He could whistle to absorb bullets, whistle again to absorb lightning, and whistle a third time to absorb fire. After that, he could, at any point, use the kinetic force of the bullets, the electricity from the lightning, or the heat from the fire in his whistles. Using a damage type spent the charge of absorbing it, but he tended to have absorbed a lot. 

Just as I ended up basically half-sprawled in front of the man, staring up at his black mask under that wide hat, he pursed his lips. Eyes widening, I slapped my hand against his foot and put black paint there. 

No sound came. I’d muted him. He had a moment to somehow look surprised despite me only being able to see his lips before I twisted around and drove my foot up between his legs with a bit of purple-paint boost. Then he wasn’t interested in trying to whistle anymore. But I still kicked him a couple more times just to be sure. 

Scrambling back to my feet, I snapped my gaze over to the fighting. It was… uhh… wow. Chaotic. Still. A couple random thugs were coming for me, but I blue-launched myself up and back, flipping in the air to land on the edge of the metal awning over the loading bay. Activating a bit more orange meant that the bullets they shot up at me just made me stagger a bit before I managed to yank their guns away with a shot of red. Before they could react to that, I took a few steps back out of their line of sight, tossing the pistols away to either side. And then I sort of… doubled over and tried not to hyperventilate while hugging myself. The shouting and screaming coming from everywhere, being shot at, nearly being hit by Silbón, all of it just… just… it was too much. It was too fucking much. And what about Pack and That-A-Way?! Were they okay? What was going on? Where were they? What could I do? What–

Nothing. I couldn’t do anything for them, not at the moment. I just had to hope they were okay, and focus on what was going on right here, right now. I could do this. I had to do this. I couldn’t abandon them down there. I had to help get that vial back. 

That settled, I took a deep breath before running forward, using a mixture of purple and blue paint to launch myself into the air. Between the two, I was sent really high and really far. Sailing over the battlefield, I helped out the best way I could. Namely, I first used yellow paint to slow my own descent, then used all the time I had while passing over the fighting to hit bad guys with more yellow paint and good guys with a mixture of green, purple, and orange. Mostly green and orange, as I couldn’t expect them to suddenly know that they were strong. But being faster and tougher would help regardless. As would their opponents suddenly being much slower. 

It helped so much that, by the time I landed on the far side of the lot, dropping into a roll, most of the random Ninety-Niner and Oscuro Prevs were down. Between the four Syndicates, Wobble, Whamline, and the La Casa people, they dealt with their unpowered opponents neatly. Unfortunately, that didn’t solve the issue of the guys who did have powers. Especially Sandon and Cuélebre. And that situation had gotten worse, as I saw Hardway off on the far side of the field trapped inside Ringside’s bubble. The two of them were fighting sans any powers as Ringside had apparently elected to remove Hardway’s at the expense of her own, and both were really good at that. They would be busy for awhile. 

Meanwhile, the remaining three La Casa people were fighting the leadership of the two rival gangs. Blackjack’s power wasn’t exactly suited to straight up and prolonged confrontation, but he had Double Down and Cardsharp for that. And they were definitely earning their keep. 

As far as Sandon went, the Ninety-Niners’ leader had been around long enough that her powers were pretty well known. They revolved around bones. Yeah. Basically, touching a bone gave her access to all of that person’s strength and general toughness. If they were a Touched with enhanced strength, it gave her a portion of that as well. Of course, touching bones from multiple different people gave her each of their strength together. And the inside of her suit was apparently completely lined with little pieces of bone. She was one of the straight-up strongest people in the city just because whenever someone with super strength showed up, she made a point of hunting them down and taking a piece of bone from them if possible. Which was eeeuuuggh.  

So yeah, between Sandon and Cuélebre, there was a lot of strength on the bad guy’s side. Double Down’s ability to absorb any kinetic force that hit him and Cardsharp’s power to alter her own physical properties to make herself tougher helped deal with that somewhat, but they couldn’t actually hurt the bastards enough to put them down. The best they could do was let Double Down absorb enough kinetic force to send right back at the Oscuro and Ninety-Niner leaders, while Blackjack used his own power to watch for the right moment and target. I kept seeing him randomly using a pistol to shoot at Cuélebre’s tail for some reason. Then I noticed that every time the tail was struck, a bit of electricity shot off of it. Like it was fizzling. 

Was Cuélebre’s tail how he summoned lightning? And was Blackjack shooting it to disrupt his attempts to do so every time? Was that why he hadn’t just fried everyone already? 

Well, that and the fact that he didn’t know where the other vials were, beyond the one in his hand. That was probably why he wasn’t just throwing lightning around everywhere, beyond Blackjack stopping him from using calculated strikes. Hell, maybe that was why Blackjack was able to stop him, because it took more time for him to carefully aim or something. Enough time for Blackjack to hit that spot of his tail. 

Whatever the answer, I was just glad we weren’t fried. Because we already had enough problems. As I crouched there, trying to present as small a target as possible while watching for an opening in the midst of their busy fight, I saw it. The vial was still in Cuélebre’s hand while he was fighting. It was right there. 

Unfortunately, just as I prepared myself to try and take it from him with a careful application of red paint, there was another interruption. This one came in the form of a figure who appeared in the middle of their fight. He was a tall guy in a dark red hood and cloak over a white bodysuit with a collar that extended up over the lower half of his face. Longhaul. That was Longhaul. 

The second he appeared, the man used his power to send Blackjack, Double Down, and Cardsharp to the far side of the parking lot, while looking at his leader. “They found the car that took off, it’s on the far side of Campus Martius Park. Still no driver.” 

Wren. She was remote driving the thing to get it out of here. 

Sandon was already looking to Cuélebre, who smiled. He was looking right at me. He read my body language. “The vials. That’s where they are.” 

Blackjack was coming. So were the others. But Cuélebre bellowed a deafening, “Do it!” At the same time, his wings came slamming down, as he launched himself upward. 

And then a woman’s voice called, “Ladies and gentlemen!” At that, my eyes, as well as basically all of those attached to anyone on our side in the immediate area, snapped over to see a woman in a sexified version of a ringmaster’s outfit sitting there on a motorcycle. Where had she come from? It was Grandstand, Cuélebre’s second-in-command. Even as everyone looked that way, she smiled. “Follow the leader.” Then the motorcycle kicked into motion, peeling out and swerving around before tearing out of the lot. 

After her. We had to go after her. Everyone else was already rushing that way, leaping into action to catch up with the woman. But just as I went to follow, intent on using green and red paint to catch up and maybe stop her, a hand grabbed my arm and yanked me back. It was Eits. He shook me violently, yelling something about Cuélebre at me. But who cared about Cuélebre when–wait. 

Grandstand’s power faded a second later as Eits shook me violently once more. I snapped out of it in time to see everyone else disappearing as they took off after her. After the distraction. 

“Cuélebre!” Eits shouted at me. “He’s getting away, what do we do?!” 

“How did you–” Then I realized it was probably the fact that his focus had been split between his own mind and all of his mites. That had saved him from Grandstand’s power. And there wasn’t time to worry about it anyway. 

“Close your eyes,” I blurted, grabbing onto Eits. He had time to yelp before I launched both of us into the air through a combination of blue paint at our feet and a red paint yank at the nearby building. We went up and over the roof, while I informed the boy currently holding on for dear life, “There’s a demon trying to catch a car, and we’ve gotta catch him first.”

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Interlude 6B – Cuelebre (Summus Proelium)

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The room had the appearance of an old Japanese dojo, with soft lighting, padded floor and fusuma, or rectangular wall panels. A pair of illuminated fountains at either front corner of the room provided gentle, soothing sounds of water steadily falling. Between and slightly before them knelt a figure whose meditative pose, with his legs crossed beneath him and hands lightly held to the sides, was at odds with the sheer menace of his physical appearance. This did not look like any ordinary man. When standing, he was a solid fifteen feet, his blue-purple skin appearing rough, while his demonic wings and long bladed tail completed the monstrous impression. Even sitting now, as he was, the figure still towered above most men. 

A soft, yet still intrusive chime interrupted the peaceful air within the room. It was followed momentarily by a second chime. The first indicated that his attention was requested. The second following it was the sign that it was too important to wait. A third chime would indicate an immediate emergency, such as an attack or something that couldn’t wait even thirty seconds. 

Hearing no third chime, and thus understanding that this was important but not an immediate overwhelming threat, the kneeling, meditating figure exhaled slowly. Then he opened his eyes and looked to the single object that stood between the two fountains: a mirror. It was enormous, standing clear to the ceiling of this twenty-foot high room and stretching eight feet wide. The sides of the mirror were decorated by various gothic figurines as knights and gargoyles. Within the reflective surface of the massive mirror, he saw himself as the rest of the world did. But looking further, gazing into his own eyes, he saw the man they would never actually know. He saw the man before the power. 

Danilo Taca. It was a name that the man known as Cuélebre hadn’t gone by for quite some time. Given his extensive physical changes, having much of a secret identity wasn’t really in the cards. He relied on his subordinates to do such ordinary, day-to-day things as shopping or making any appearance in public where intimidation or outright violence wasn’t desired.

Some of those who were similarly physically altered, he knew, were capable of transitioning their forms between the more mutated version and something that would more easily blend in. For whatever reason, he lacked that ability. Since the day he had touched the glowing orb and gone from being just another Latino guy being hounded by his parole officer on one side and his dealer on the other to… what he was now, he had been this fifteen-foot tall demon. A demon with more strength and power than almost any in the city. There was a reason he had been mistaken for being an Abyssal for awhile. Very little could actually stand up to him. 

It was almost funny, the way being turned into what he was now had entirely solved his addiction issues. For so much of his life, Danilo Taca had been addicted to a pharmacy’s assortment of the usual suspects. Anything he could snort, smoke, or inject. He’d gone through all the normal cycles of trying to get clean, being out of it for awhile, then inevitably falling back into old habits. He even had a kid out there somewhere, one he’d made with an old girlfriend during one of his clean times. He’d told himself back then that he’d stay clean for his girls. But… well, his willpower back then wasn’t exactly the greatest. He’d stumbled and, when one was talking about that kind of lifestyle, a stumble meant one fell directly off a cliff. 

So he’d fallen off the cliff and eventually ended up hiding out in the back of a crackhouse, waiting for the day either his parole officer or the dealer he’d stolen from to bribe the parole office the first time managed to find him. The cops had raided the house, and he’d managed to escape through a basement window only to have a couple of the damn dogs start chasing him. With cops shouting, someone shooting back in the house, dogs barking and nipping at his heels, Danilo had, through sheer adrenaline, hurled himself up and over the fence at the back of the yard. Falling on his back in the alley there with sirens wailing and the sound of more cops coming his way, he’d opened his eyes to see the orb floating above his head. He’d touched it, and… among all the other changes, his addiction issues were gone. Sure, he still kind of missed the great way his old vices made him feel at times, but… the physical urge, the feeling of being sick without them… they were gone. He hadn’t touched any of it since that day. 

Still, despite the many advantages his size and power granted, there were times when Cuélebre regretted being unable to pass as an average person the way others could. There were no times when he was ever just Danilo anymore. He was Cuélebre now and forever. 

But there was no sense in dwelling on such things. Picking himself up, the naked giant reached out to pluck his specially designed and tailored pants from the nearby shelf, tugging them on. Leaving his chest bare, he moved to the sliding door and used a single claw to push it aside. Beyond was a much heavier steel vault-like door with a spinning lever, which he cranked three times before pushing it open with a grunt. Strong as he was, he made it a point that his inner sanctum would be difficult for almost anyone to penetrate. The heavy door was a part of that. 

The second the vault door had been pushed open, the meditative peace of his sanctum was filled with blasting, piercing hard rock music that reverberated through the large hallway. It was coming from the nightclub and bar that lay directly above. That club served as one of several public fronts for the Oscuro gang within their territory. The corridors he now stood in (as well as his actual sanctum) were actually heavily refurbished alcohol smuggler tunnels from back during the days of prohibition. The bootlegger who’d had the tunnels built originally had designed them large enough to drive a truck through to reach the basement of his illegal bar at one end. The other end of the tunnel, meanwhile, came out several blocks away through an ordinary-looking storm drain. Cuélebre had paid a hefty fee to have the tunnels shored up, put new entrances in leading to various buildings in the neighborhood for his people to get in and out of, and added a few defenses and security here and there in addition to rooms that would fit his size. It’d cost a pretty penny, but being safe (not to mention comfortable) was worth it.

Stepping out of his personal meditation chamber, he was immediately addressed by a woman in what appeared to be a circus ringmaster outfit, with a long red tailcoat fashioned so that the front only covered the top third of her torso. The front-center part of the ‘coat’ (such as it could be called one) was black with several rows of silver buttons. Beneath the tailcoat she wore a matching red vest that covered more of her upper body, leaving only the space from her navel to her waist bare. Black pants, dark gloves, a black top hat resting atop braided blonde hair, and a black, Zorro-like bandanna mask completed the look. She wore a whip on one hip and a pistol on the other. 

This was Grandstand. She had an assortment of powers. One allowed her to command the attention of anyone who could hear her voice, forcing them to focus on her and forget about anything else going on around them, though pain or injury would snap them out of it. She was equally capable of shunting attention away from herself and onto something else, allowing her to essentially disappear unless she took some direct action against them, breaking the effect. While the first power was in use, she would gain strength and durability for each person paying attention to her. While the latter was in effect, she would gain speed for each person whose attention was being drawn away from her. And she was capable of using both at the same time, forcing some to pay attention to her while the attention of others was diverted, allowing her to mix and match an assortment of strength and speed while controlling who noticed her. Beyond that, Grandstand always possessed an enhanced sense of timing and balance, as well as a constant awareness of how many people were looking at her. 

“There’s been a problem,” she informed Cuélebre curtly as soon as he emerged, standing a few feet away with her hands clasped behind her back. “It’s Handler.” 

Pausing, Cuélebre took a moment to consider his response before carefully guessing, “His secret project, the one he said was coming to fruition tonight. Something went wrong.”

With a nod, Grandstand replied, “Very wrong, sir. You aren’t going to like this. And neither is the Ministry. This falls directly under something they would have had to give permission for. And they wouldn’t have given it for this.” 

Starting to walk down the large, refurbished tunnel, Cuélebre ordered, “Let me worry about the Ministry. They may control the city, but my people are mine to judge. Tell me what happened.”  

She did, and he immediately regretted his previous words. Stopping in the tunnel, he dropped his head and heaved a long sigh. “He should have told me what he was planning. I could have told him that it was stupid. I could have told him to leave it alone. Or negotiated to pass the information to the Ministry so they could handle it, making them owe us a favor. As it is…” He exhaled, turning to punch the wall with his massive fist with a sharp curse. As reinforced as it was (for just this very reason), the blow still left a visible dent and spiderweb cracks. He stood there, fist against the wall as he continued in a flat voice, containing his anger beyond that single outward expression. “As it is, we’ll be lucky to get out of this without substantial losses, monetary and otherwise. Correction, we won’t get out of it without substantial monetary losses. We’ll be lucky if that’s all it is.”  

Some might have been surprised to hear the way a former lowlife thug, who had spent his life in and out of prison and never graduated high school, turned giant monster spoke. But the truth was, Cuélebre had done more studying and learning since his transformation than he ever did before it. After realizing that he no longer felt those old addictions, he’d worked to improve himself as many other ways as possible. His body was about as strong as it could ever get, so he’d worked to exercise his mind. Not being able to go out in public helped with that. He couldn’t waste time going to bars, stadiums, arenas, or anything else where people would see him. His free time, for quite some time, had been taken up by learning more than he ever had at school. He’d had college professors brought to him and paid to teach him. By his count, he’d actually learned enough to have both earned his GED and at least one Master’s Degree over the past three years or so. Hell, he’d even considered reaching out to find that kid of his and her mother a few times, but had dismissed the urge. There was no reason to drag them into this kind of life. 

Not that it mattered. Learning was a way of passing the time, a way of reminding himself that he was more than his outward appearance, and a way of ensuring that he knew more than others might expect. He’d figured out long ago that he could run Oscuro as an iron-fisted thug and keep it going for awhile, but that if he really wanted to achieve anything, he needed to be more than that. His people, generally, respected him more for that. 

And then one of them went and did something this utterly idiotic, and made him want to revert to a far less mature mindset. He had to take a minute to collect himself before sighing. There was no sense in waiting any longer. “Where is he?” 

Pointing to the nearest vault-like door (there were many spread along the tunnel), Grandstand replied, “He’s waiting for you above, in the back of the club.” 

Without responding, Cuélebre reached out and opened the vault door. It led into a large basement room. As with all of the rooms beneath the Oscuro holdings, the basement had been refurbished and updated to suit his size. This one appeared to be a living room, though one where everything within it was scaled up, with much larger chairs, dressers, a desk, even a television with a remote intended for use by his massive hands. Stepping in, he moved to the enormous, specially made plush leather chair in the corner and sat. His tail went through the convenient hole, idly dragging back and forth along the floor as he waved a hand. “Bring him down.” 

Obediently, Grandstand moved to the heavy metal ladder against the far wall and pressed the button against it. There was a buzz as the intercom activated. “He’s ready, come down.” 

A moment later, the circular hatch at the top of the room was hauled open, and Handler climbed down the ladder. Out of his costume, the man was a thin, balding figure named Luis, with an intricate patchwork of religious tattoos on his left arm depicting the life of Jesus. 

Hopping off the ladder, Luis turned to Cuélebre. “So, I suppose you heard that–” 

“Stop,” Cuélebre ordered, holding up a hand. As his subordinate fell silent, he exhaled long and slow, watching him as several thoughts ran through his mind. Finally, he said, “You don’t know where the girl is.” 

“No,” Luis admitted. “We have people looking, but to be honest… I don’t think we’ll find her in time.” He said it quietly, but definitively, standing straight as he awaited the judgment of a man who could cut his head from his shoulders with a simple flick of his tail. “I made a mistake. I should have brought the girl to a secure facility before letting her wake up. I was… eager to begin. It would have been an incredible gain for–” 

“Stop,” Cuélebre repeated, watching as the other man’s mouth obediently snapped shut. Again, he watched the man in silence for a few moments. His eyes glanced toward Grandstand, who was standing quietly in the corner, before flicking back to Luis. With a sigh, he came to a decision. “You need to get out of town.” 

“Sir?” Luis asked, blinking up. 

“The authorities will want your head,” Cuélebre informed him. “We need to get you out of town before they start looking. You can lie low up north. Keep your head down, take a vacation. We’ll bring you back in a few months, maybe longer.” He paused before adding, “And I will be taking from your accounts to pay the Ministry for the complications.” 

It was clear that the other man didn’t like that, but he accepted it with a bow of his head. “Of course. Whatever’s needed. I’ll pack my things.” 

“Do that,” Cuélebre nodded with a dismissive wave. “Be ready to go in fifteen minutes.”

As Luis climbed the ladder once more and the hatch closed, Grandstand looked to him. “Sir–” 

“Get the Ministry on the phone,” Cuélebre interrupted, his tone resigned. “They’ll be expecting the call.” 

He waited then, while the woman used her own phone. Once she had them on the line, a couple button pushes transferred it to the oversized phone sitting on the nearby table. As it buzzed, he let it do so for a second or two before slowly picking it up. “This is Cuélebre.” 

“Minister White,” came the response. It was the woman, the female leader of the Ministry, the secret organization who kept the criminal underground of Detroit in line. She and Minister Gold were the secretive heads of the organization. They held more power than anyone really knew, with deep access into almost every Touched organization in the city. Anyone who pulled a job within the city owed the Ministry a tax, and they always collected. They had ways of either keeping the attention of the authorities away from you, or directing them your way. For a price, they could ensure that a job had a much higher chance of not being interrupted. The Ministry ran things in Detroit, and as far as Cuélebre knew, none of the authorities had the slightest clue they even existed beyond the occasional dismissed whisper. Most in his own organization, aside from Grandstand, were utterly unaware of them. 

“Minister,” Cuélebre started once it was clear the woman wouldn’t say anything else just yet. “I assume you’re aware of the situation.” 

After a brief pause, she confirmed, “We’ve taken steps to contain it. But we require an explanation.” 

“Handler worked on his own initiative,” Cuélebre informed her. “I was aware that he had a secret project, which he believed would be a great boon for Oscuro. I was unaware that he had designs on a member of the Minority, let alone the youngest. He intended to surprise me with… a gift. Had I known, you would have been informed so that the girl’s mother, who came to us to begin with, could be dealt with sufficiently.” And if that had happened, they would have been having a much different conversation. A conversation where the Ministry would owe him, rather than the other way around. God damn it, Luis. 

His words were greeted by silence for a few seconds, before Minister White spoke again. “I see. You are aware that there must be repercussions for this. The authorities will raze your territory to the ground to find someone who attacked the youngest Minority member in her own home. Let alone one who threatened to enslave her through torture. They have to. An example must be set, or no one will trust the Minority program.” 

“I know,” Cuélebre confirmed, his voice dark. His hand gripped the phone tightly. This was the part he had known would come since the moment Grandstand had told him about the situation. “I am prepared to make things right. First, one million dollars to your organization for the trouble all of this has caused.” 

“A fair start,” Minister White replied simply. “But hardly what will calm things down and ensure your organization doesn’t become the target of a full-city sweep the likes of which even you could not survive. The Star-Touched will be enraged by this act, Cuélebre. They will be united in coming after you, and none of the other gangs will intervene. They won’t want to draw that kind of heat to themselves. You’ll be alone out there, if something isn’t done to appease the authorities.”

Cuélebre’s response was a gruff, “I know.” He took a breath, steadying himself while turning a look toward Grandstand. The nearby woman was watching him with an impassive look, having taken off the mask as she played with it in her hands. Watching her briefly, Cuélebre continued. “You want him.” 

“We want to contain the situation,” came Minister White’s response. “You know the only thing that will do that.” 

“Of course I do,” he grunted, reminding himself not to throw the phone against the wall. “This will slow our income.” 

“We will take that into account,” Minister White assured him. “You have always paid your dues for the territory you hold. We understand that this will affect what you are able to tithe, and will of course allow for it. We may be able to point to a few future jobs that will bolster your coffers to make up the slack. But we must know, will this affect your actual organization?” 

“You mean are half my people about to suddenly change their minds about who they’re loyal to if I lose access to Handler?” Cuélebre snorted. “No. I’m not a fool. Handler has been useful for the growth of Oscuro, but not that directly. I’m not stupid enough to keep people close to me who were only obedient through torture. I used him to raise my army through training his… subjects and selling them to organizations outside of the city in exchange for cash or in trade for one of their own Touched. None of my people were his subjects.” He paused before amending, “None of the Touched, in any case. Like I said, it’ll slow income, it won’t cripple us.” 

“You may wish to warn those you have done business with, in that case,” the woman noted. “As I assume you are prepared to make the necessary arrangements to bring this under control.” 

Again, Cuélebre paused, looking over to the wall for a long moment before giving a low growl. “Yes. I’ll give you the address where Handler will be. You provide it to your contacts and have the authorities pick him up. But when they do–” 

“When they do,” Minister White smoothly assured him, “the heat will fade. Or, more accurately, it will be directed to the courts. He will be made an example of. I have no doubt that he will end up in Breakwater for what he’s done. And there will be a great deal of scrutiny. Anyone within your organization who is arrested at any point in the future will likely have a strong legal defense that they were taken by Handler, and it will be difficult to prove otherwise. Though I believe the confusion and uncertainty that raises will be more of a boon for your people than a hindrance.” 

“Small compensation for a grand mistake,” Cuélebre muttered before straightening. He gave the Minister the address she would need, exchanged a few more words, and dropped the phone back onto its hook. Turning, he cursed before putting his fist against the wall. 

Through gritted teeth, the giant, demonic man ordered, “Contact anyone we sold a Touched to in the past year. Let them know there may be issues and that they should be prepared to contain the subjects themselves, and that we will provide a certain level of refund if such problems are severe. And get me in contact with Sandon.” 

“The Ninety-Niners leader?” Grandstand inclined her chin curiously. “Do they have–” 

“No,” he interrupted. “They don’t have Handled subjects. I wouldn’t provide such a resource to any of our direct rivals. But they have made certain… offers of an alliance in pursuit of these vials that Blackjack wants so desperately. I’ve refused before now, but we may need the kind of boost such an alliance could provide. With their aid, we can sell the vials either to someone outside of the city, or to Blackjack himself. As desperate as he seems to be, he’ll pay any price for it. That could help recoup our losses from this disaster, even if we have to split it with Sandon and her people.” 

“This… Paintball,” Grandstand began carefully, “he seems to have the best lead on the vials, from what we know. He certainly has Ashton Austin, or knows where he is.” 

Cuélebre was silent for a few long seconds, thinking about the embarrassment he’d felt at chasing that boy all over the city, only to have him disappear at the last second. But this was more important than any embarrassment. “Then have our people watch for him,” he ordered. “Don’t attack. Don’t make themselves known until the vials are in sight. I want eyes everywhere watching for that boy to go gallivanting around with his paint. When he makes a move, our people will be ready. 

“He can do all the work to find the vials, and then we’ll take them from him.”

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