Grandstand

Interlude 23B – Grandstand (Summus Proelium)

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Okay, this certainly hadn’t gone the way Setrea expected it to. Yes, she had known that simply injecting her stolen knock-out drug into the obviously evil boy without waiting for his sister to talk him down would be controversial. But she certainly hadn’t expected it to make the overall situation worse. Why wouldn’t his zombies fall down when he wasn’t around to actively control them? Wasn’t that how it worked with everything else? Why would his suddenly be completely different?

All those thoughts and more ran through her mind while Broadway was kneeling in front of her brother’s body, shaking him almost violently while shouting for him to wake up. But Setrea already knew that wouldn’t do any good. The drug she had injected him with was too potent. That was the point, after all. He was supposed to stay asleep. And now… well, now they had an even bigger problem than before. If there was no way to wake him up and make him shut off the zombies, this place was going to turn into a massacre.

Pack had turned away from the window, looking straight at Grandstand herself. “We have to do something. Paintball’s team is getting as many of those people out as they can, but they can’t really stop those monsters for very long. If they can all teleport and just keep running under Jason’s ‘kill everything in sight’ orders, this… this could be really bad.” She paused briefly before adding, a bit pointedly, “That is, if you’re not just about to run away.” 

“It’s my fault those things are still a problem,” Setrea shot back immediately. “I might not have the rock solid moral standing that a thief from La Casa has, but I’m not about to walk away from a bunch of innocent people being slaughtered, either. We all have our lines.” 

“I don’t really care what your line is,” Broadway put in abruptly, looking up from the boy as she finally gave up on waking him.  “All I care about is stopping those things before my brother ends up being responsible for a fucking massacre.” 

“What about those gems attached to him?” Setrea asked pointedly, staring at the four-inch-wide ruby in the middle of his chest, as well as the smaller black, two blue, two green, and one amber-colored stones under his throat and against his shoulders, hips, and over his navel, respectively. “What if those are keeping the zombies going or… something?” 

“I tried to take them off,” Broadway started. “But they wouldn’t bu–” She was cut off abruptly, as the red stone began to glow. In the same moment, the boy’s hand snapped up to close around her throat tightly. Recoiling and choking a bit, Broadway blurted a weak, “Stop! What–thought–thought you said he’d–” She abruptly teleported to one side, before slumping over to hold her own throat. “Thought you said he’d be unconscious for hours!” 

Before Grandstand could reply, she felt something fly through the air at her from behind. Several somethings, in fact. Spinning that way, she ducked and twisted, forcing two of the objects to miss her, though the third hit her arm and stayed there. It was an amber stone, like the one attached to Jason’s stomach. It stayed locked against her arm, even as she went to grab it. Yanking hard accomplished nothing aside from pulling painfully on her own skin. 

“Oh, he is,” a voice spoke up. A figure stood there, near the hole they had all climbed up through. She was clearly female, in her mid-teens and wearing what looked like a long red raincoat and a black cloth mask that left her mouth and chin exposed, along with dark goggles. She raised a hand to point at them, and Grandstand could see five different rings there, one on each finger. The ring on her thumb had a yellow/amber stone on it, the one on her index finger was blue, then red, then green, and finally a black one sat on her pinkie. It was the red one that glowed then, which was matched by another glow from the red stone on Jason’s chest. 

“But that doesn’t mean he’s useless,” the girl half-snarled. With that, her hand snapped to one side, and Jason abruptly lunged to his feet before throwing himself at Pack. The La Casa Touched was taken by surprise, falling sideways with the boy on top of her. Her lizard-animals rushed to intercede, but were cut off as the fire-zombie from downstairs abruptly appeared in a rush of flames and ash, forcing them to recoil. 

Grandstand, for her part, immediately focused on Manifesting Alistae in order to push everyone’s attention away from her so she could deal with this little girl quickly and decisively. Yet, even as she tried that, the woman felt a sudden rush of intense pain in her head that made her double over with a yelp. The amber stone that had attached itself to her arm and refused to be removed was glowing. 

“Yeah, I wouldn’t try that if I was you.” There was obvious amusement in the girl’s voice. She showed her hand, where the matching ring was also gleaming brightly. “Try to use your powers without my permission, and bad things happen. That’s what my yellow stones do. It’s pretty fun, huh? I mean, for me. Who really cares about you, honestly?”

Pack was still struggling under the taller, stronger boy as he tried to choke her. The lizards were trying to spread out to get around the zombie so they could get to her, but weren’t having much luck. And Grandstand apparently couldn’t use her power with the damn stone attached to her arm. Well, power or no power, she wasn’t helpless. Immediately, she brought one of her pistols up and took aim. In another second, she would end thi– 

“Jennica?!” The shout made Setrea stop, as Broadway pointed at the other girl. “Is–is that you?” 

The name made the girl in question start a bit, clearly taken by surprise. Gaze snapping that way, she blurted, “Wh–do I know you? Wait… what?” For the first time since she had revealed herself, the figure seemed taken aback and uncertain. “Who the fuck are you?” 

Pivoting, Broadway sent a blast of concentrated sound toward Pack and Jason. It struck the boy, knocking him off her while giving Pack a chance to roll out of the way. Instantly, her gorilla-lizard positioned himself in front of her, snarling at the zombie, Jason himself, and the masked girl who was apparently behind all this. Jennica. Whoever that was. 

“Fuck it,” Setrea muttered, taking aim once more. Whatever was going on here, they could figure it out once she made sure this girl wasn’t a threat.

Jennica, however, abruptly snapped without looking at her, “I wouldn’t do that if I was you. See the black stones?” At those words, the one just under Jason’s throat began to glow with a purplish light as he stood half-slumped with his eyes closed, like a robot or something that had been turned off. There was also another one attached to Pack’s arm, where Jennica had apparently thrown it at the same time as when she had hit Grandstand with the yellow one. 

“Any injury you try to inflict on me, happens to everyone with those stones instead,” the girl informed them snidely. “So go ahead, shoot me. See if I care.” 

Okay, well this was getting more complicated by the second. Apparently Jason wasn’t responsible for this whole thing. He was being… what, controlled by the stones that were attached to him? Stones that came from this girl, Jennica. Setrea couldn’t activate either of her Manifestations through the blinding pain that came when she tried, and any attempt to actually hurt this girl would just be passed off to Jason and Pack. In short, the whole situation was a fucking mess. Worse, she was still no closer to being able to interrogate whichever of these two knew something about the other person who was vying for a spot on the Scions. Setrea might have preferred not to let a bunch of innocent people get slaughtered for nothing, but her main goal here was to find out who murdered Jolene. So far, she knew it was someone who was trying to get in with Pencil and Cup, and that those two were running some sort of contest. The person behind the fire-zombies was another part of it, and they had to have interacted with the other person. The person she was really after. She didn’t care if that ended up being Jason, this Jennica girl, or some third suddenly-revealed mastermind. Whoever it was, she was getting some damned answers out of them. One way or another. 

“It’s pretty cool, isn’t it?” the girl was gloating. “Anything that gets hit with a black stone takes all the damage that was supposed to hit me. You get a yellow stone, you don’t get to use your powers without a fuckload of pain. Red stone, I get to control you. Wanna know what the blue and green stones do? Keep pushing me and you’ll find out.” 

“Jennica,” Broadway was saying while taking a step that way, “you need to stop. What the hell are you trying to do? What did you do to your brother?” 

“My brother?” the other girl gave a short, barked laugh. “Obviously, you don’t know me very well after all. He’s not my brother, he’s just some guy who lived with the same family I lived with. He’s nobody. Except for my ticket into the big leagues. The Scions wanna see someone do something special? How do you think you’re going to react when I pull off a massacre like this and manage to blame someone else for it? It’s perfect, and there’s no way any other dipshit’s gonna top it.” 

Other dipshit. Setrea instantly zeroed in on that. This girl knew something about her competition. She could tell her something about who he really was. 

“You really think we’re just gonna let you do that?” Pack demanded while clearly keeping a wary eye on the zombie, who was just standing there as though awaiting new instructions. “I don’t care who you think you are, you don’t get to murder a stadium full of people just to show off for a bunch of other psychopaths. And Jason can’t take the blame when we tell people it was you.” 

“Well darn,” Jennica sarcastically lamented while kicking at the floor, “if you’re gonna ruin my fun like that, I guess I’ve got no choice…” She looked up then, a smile spreading across the exposed lower portion of her face. “I’ll just have to kill all of you.” 

In that instant, the amber stone on Jason’s chest glowed, as two more clouds of ashes suddenly flew into the room. They reformed quickly into a couple more fire-zombies, one of which threw itself toward Broadway, while the other went toward Setrea. 

So, sure, things weren’t great. She couldn’t use her power, and she doubted this thing would care about being shot. None of them had cared that much before, and they probably weren’t going to start now. Worse, shooting the bitch herself would apparently only end in hurting her own… well, allies was a bit of a strong word, but still. They were working together, and Setrea didn’t really like the idea of hurting them. Especially when there was no guarantee that it would accomplish anything. Now there were three zombies, a girl who couldn’t be hurt, and the innocent guy she was apparently puppeting somehow. Who, for the record, was unconscious and had no chance of fighting back for himself.

In short, things could have been better. 

An instant later, just as Setrea was taking aim at the knee of the zombie who was coming for her, in an attempt to at least slow it down, a small form rocketed up out of the hole leading downstairs and planted itself against the ceiling. Or rather, himself.

“Hi, guys!” Paintball announced, seemingly cheerfully, while standing upside down. The zombies, the puppeted Jason, and Jennica had all stopped short to look that way reflexively. “Sorry it took me so long to get up here, you would not believe the traffic. Oh, and the part where I had to stop and listen to your evil plan so I knew what was going on.” He added that with a thumbs up toward Jennica, which was accompanied by a purple thumbs up that appeared in the middle of his chest. Upside down so it could be seen properly, of course. Which was followed by a slightly awkward moment as the boy slowly turned his hand around so that his thumb would be pointed up as well. 

For her part, the evil little girl giggled. It came off sounding more than a little unhinged. “Oh, goody, it’s you. You think you’re really funny, huh? You know how fast I’ll get accepted by Pencil if I bring you in so they can play with you? They might make me second-in-command.”

“Jennica!” Broadway blurted, still keeping one hand raised toward the zombie who had been coming toward her, just in case he started moving again.  “Would you stop and look at what you’re doing?! Why would you want to join the Scions? Why would you want to hurt your brother and blame him for–for this?! What the fuck is wrong with you?!”

Clearly glaring that way, the girl snarled, “Okay, I don’t know why you think saying my name like we’re supposed to be friends will suddenly make me see the light and turn this whole thing into a great big Care Bear hug pile or something, but knock it off. I don’t know you. I don’t care about you. I don’t care about any of you. I’ve been treated like shit from the moment I was born. My parents didn’t want me, nobody wanted me. Well, you know what? I don’t want them either. You? These other people, the idiot up on the ceiling, every fucking person in this stadium? You can all go to hell. It’s time for me to get mine. Fuck all of you.” 

Before Setrea, Broadway, or anyone else could respond to that, Paintball piped up. “Yeah, that’s about what I figured.” He clearly used blue paint on his shoes, springing himself forward and over the girl’s head before landing in front of her. “I wish you weren’t evil. We could’ve teamed up, you know? Come on, think about it. You’ve got all those different color rings connected to those different stones you throw around? And they all do something different based on the color? Yellow, blue, red, green, black. You’re even using most of the same colors I do, it would’ve been perfect. We could’ve had so much fun together.” 

“Ehhhh,” Jennica drawled out, “I think we can still have fun together.” With that, she brought her hand up. A red stone appeared in the air, clearly projected out of the matching ring on her hand even as she sent it flying right at Paintball. 

An assortment of shouted warnings went out, even as Paintball himself dove sideways. The stone corrected to follow him, but Setrea was already acting. Pistol extended, she fired once, nailing the stone in mid-air and shattering it just before the thing would have caught up with the boy. 

Unfortunately, no sooner had she done that, then her entire body exploded in pain, making her drop the gun and double over with cry. She dimly heard Jennica taunting her by saying something about being able to control the amber stone manually too, then caught the sound of Paintball saying something. 

The pain abruptly stopped, as Jennica turned to the boy. “I’m sorry, what did you say? The screaming was a little distracting.” 

From where he was lying on the floor, Paintball repeated, “I said, that’s far enough. I only needed you to take a couple steps forward.” Just as the girl was clearly processing that, he gave a loud, sharp whistle.

Instantly, something slammed up through the floor directly below Jennica’s feet. The floor itself broke away instantly, giving Setrea and the others enough of a glimpse of the underside of it (what would have been the ceiling of the room below) to see that it had clearly been painted pink. They also saw what had broken through using that pink circle. It was a narrow, six foot tall ruby and silver box, which had captured the girl inside, cutting her off from sight. They could hear the girl, screaming at them as she pounded the sides of the box. 

“Boy,” Alloy announced while rising into the room behind it, “she’s pleasant, isn’t she?” 

The two partners exchanged a high five, all while Jason and the zombies remained completely still. Paintball, turning away from Alloy, explained, “We found the room where she locked up a couple of the park managers.” 

Nodding, Alloy added, “Would you believe we only found them because I thought I saw a raccoon waving at me? Anyway, the guys in there said that it seemed like she could only activate the stones she was looking at. So, in there, she can’t look at any of them.” 

The pounding and shouting from inside the box abruptly stopped, before Jennica’s voice called, “Maybe I can’t see, but I can still hear. And that’s not quite right.  Remember the green ring? It lets me go aaaanywhere one of my other green stones is. In other words–”

In the midst of that spiel, Setrea had already snapped her pistol up. She fired twice in rapid succession before the girl could say anything else. Each shot skimmed either side of the unconscious boy who stood at attention, shattering the green stones there. The shots drew blood, but not that much. Mostly she simply grazed the boy. Even Broadway, who started to shout out in shock and anger when she saw Setrea pointing the gun that way, stopped short and stared. 

“Damn,” Paintball put in, “you’re a good shot.” 

A slight pause followed that, before Jennica let out a loud, frustrated scream. Then there was a sudden flash of bright green light from within the box. When no other sound followed, Alloy opened a hole in it, then transformed the box back into two marbles, revealing nothing inside. Jennica had teleported away somewhere. She was gone. And with that, the various colored stones all vanished from Setrea, Jason, and the others, while Jason himself collapsed back to the floor like a puppet whose strings had been cut. He was still unconscious. 

“I uhh, guess that means she’s gone?” Pack managed, while touching one of her lizards protectively. “She must’ve had another green stone somewhere else.” 

“Fuck!” Setrea blurted, spinning to punch a nearby wall hard enough to bruise her hand. “Damn it! She was my best shot! She was my best fucking shot to find out who the Scions’ other contest recruit is! I have to find that piece of shit!” 

Broadway, who had fallen to her knees next to her brother to check on him, spoke up. “I’ll help you.” She looked up, meeting Setrea’s gaze. “I’ll help you find her and this guy you’re looking for. You help me stop her from joining the Scions, and I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure we find the guy you need too.”   

Just as Grandstand was about to respond to that, the sound of many police sirens, accompanied by several helicopters, filled the air. She glanced sideways toward the window, seeing several Star-Touched already starting to fill the stadium below. “Fine,” Setrea agreed. “But first, we should get out of here. 

“Something tells me those guys won’t be in the mood to hear us say we were trying to help.” 

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Interlude 23A – Broadway (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Hey people! The non-canon for this story is out for everyone to read right here!

As she left the Star-Touched people, who would hopefully make sure her brother’s monsters didn’t kill anyone, KD Rafferty sprinted toward the door labeled for employees of the ballpark. Pack and her lizards were right next to her, a reassuring presence. Unlike the woman ahead of them. Why was Grandstand here? She said she only wanted to talk to Jason about finding someone else, but KD didn’t completely trust her. Yes, she didn’t have to present herself to them, and she certainly didn’t have to make it easier for them to reach the ballpark. She’d obviously heard enough while eavesdropping to know where they were heading, and could’ve gone ahead of them. But still, KD didn’t know exactly what the woman was up to, and when it came to her family, that made her anxious. 

Then again, she didn’t know what Jason was up to either. Could he really be trying to get himself into the Scions? That didn’t sound like him, at all. But was she just viewing him through rose-tinted glasses? She hadn’t spent that much time with him for awhile now. Maybe he really had changed that much. Or maybe he’d always been like that. She didn’t want to believe it, but she had seen way too many stories about people having no idea that their sibling, or son, or neighbor was an evil piece of shit to say that it was impossible. And, well, given the company she tended to keep, she had some first-hand experience when it came to seeing evil pieces of shit.

Whatever, the best way to find out the truth was to get to Jason and make him tell them. If he really had gone this far, if he was willing to attack a stadium full of people, she was done holding back. She hadn’t wanted to expose her identity to him. But if that was what it took to really get through to her brother and get answers, then she would do that. She’d gotten into the whole criminal thing to make money and have some fun. To say nothing of attacking what she saw as an unjust, entirely corrupt system that benefited only the rich. But she sure as hell didn’t want to kill innocent people. This whole thing was going entirely too far. Whatever it took, whatever she had to do, she would get through to him. She would stop him from hurting anyone else, even if that meant revealing her true identity and pleading with him to stop. He would listen to her then, right? There was no way he would be that far gone.

With those troubled thoughts filling her mind, the girl reached the base of the cement stairs leading up to a higher walkway where the staff offices and whatnot were. Grandstand was almost all the way up them, but KD pointed past her while triggering a burst of sound from her gauntlet. With a thought, her body transformed and traveled along those soundwaves, reappearing instantly at the top of the stairs. To KD, it felt a lot like surfing a very unstable wave. A wave that was going out in every direction. She just sort of forced herself to go one way along it. The act of teleporting that way had made her feel sick and woozy afterward for awhile, until she grew accustomed to it. Even now, however, traveling too far that way could leave her feeling wobbly.

“Oh sure!” Pack called from below. “She’s got super speed and you can teleport, just let me walk!” 

“Don’t walk!” KD called back. “Keep running!” 

“Besides,” Grandstand idly added, “I only have as much speed as there are people to make ignore me. And since I’m trying to stay with you two, that doesn’t really leave a lot to work with.” 

Even as she said that, a couple people poked their heads out of a doorway down the hall, one calling, “Hey, what’s going on down there?!” 

“Well,” Grandstand announced, “That’ll do.” And with that, she took off running faster than she had been moving before, even as the two people shifted their gazes away from her entirely, having forgotten her existence. 

Which left those two people staring at the La Casa Touched, quickly realizing that this wasn’t some sort of game. The man fumbled, yanking his phone from his pocket. “I–I–I’ll call the cops!” he blurted in a voice that shook a bit too much, KD thought. For fuck’s sake, they weren’t monsters. It wasn’t like La Casa went around killing people willy nilly at the slightest provocation. 

Eh, then again, most people probably didn’t have a lot of interaction with Fell-Touched. Certainly not enough to really get into the differences between different groups. As far as this guy was concerned, they were all just villains. So, she pushed that thought aside and simply started running again while calling out, “Please do, I’m sure you’ve got the address! The heroes downstairs probably need the help!” 

“She’s not kidding,” Pack added while running along behind her, “they really do need help down there, and you should probably all evacuate as fast as you can. Good luck!” Her own words were echoed by a series of yips and growls from the menagerie of lizard-animals trailing behind in a ridiculous parade. They seemed to be expressing much of the same general point. 

“Okay,” KD announced as they ran together, “he’s obviously not in that room. So what do we do, just check all the rest of them one at a time?” 

In response, Grandstand pivoted and lashed out with her foot. As she did so, KD felt her attention suddenly riveted to the woman. She really was beautiful, and pretty damn cool all things consi–fuck! The woman released her power just as her foot managed to kick in the door, having obviously pulled not only KD’s attention, but that of Pack and all her lizards too, giving herself enough of a strength boost to knock the door off its hinges. 

“Would you warn us before you do that?!” Dani blurted. “It’s disorienting!” 

In response, Grandstand simply turned away from the open doorway. “Not in there. And just consider this a blanket warning ahead of time, I’m going to keep using my power to kick these doors in, because we don’t have time to be polite. Unless you’ve forgotten that this place is about to be crawling with a bunch of evil fire zombies, or you don’t want to find this guy before he manages to get a bunch of innocent people killed by the aforementioned evil fire zombies.”

Before either of them could respond to that, they heard Paintball’s voice over the game announcement system, loudly calling for everyone to evacuate. Which was a good reminder of just how little time they probably had at this point if they were going to make sure Jason didn’t kill anyone.

Dani and KD looked at one another briefly, their eyes meeting (despite the fact that one of them was wearing a featureless black mask and the other had a visor over her face) before they both turned back to the other woman and spoke as one. “Use your power all you want.” 

So, Grandstand did just that. Together, the three of them ran down the hall, kicking doors in and telling anyone they saw that they should get the hell out of the building. Granted, most of the people they were warning thought that that the trio were robbing the place or something, but whatever got the point across. As long as they got out of there, that was all that really mattered.

And yet, there was still no sign of Jason. KD had taken to asking everyone if they saw if there was someone who fit his description, a tall, lanky guy with long dirty blond hair and a tattoo of a rose on his neck. Or anyone wearing a mask or otherwise looking shifty. Which ended up getting the girl an awful lot of strange looks, given the circumstances. 

Whatever, she didn’t care. All that mattered was finding him before he did something he could never take back. She’d even be fine with him going to prison for what he’d done so far, as long as they could stop him from doing something even worse. She desperately wanted to stop her brother from being sent to Breakwater, if that was at all possible. Unleashing a horde of monster zombies on a minor league baseball game? That wasn’t something the authorities would overlook. It wasn’t just having fun, messing with people, stealing from the rich, it wasn’t any of that. 

It was terrorizing, and possibly murdering, innocent people. If he really was that far gone, if he wanted to join the Scions and murder people like that, then… then KD would push him into Breakwater herself. Even as a part of her still clung to the idea that this was all a misunderstanding, or he was being used somehow, or… or any number of increasingly desperate and unlikely explanations, she had already firmly told herself that fact in a small, quiet part of her brain. If Jason was responsible for this, he had to be stopped. And he had to be put away. 

And yet, there was still no sign of him. They reached the end of the private office area, and had found little more than a dozen or so now-terrified employees, who were hopefully evacuating while flooding the emergency network so the authorities might actually do something. Through a doorway at the end of that hall, there was another stairwell leading back down, or a walkway that would take them across to an area where the private executive boxes for the rich fans sat. 

A mixture of staff and those rich fans were milling about in the corridor, talking loudly to one another about what was going on down on the field and why Paintball was here. Before Broadway and the others could do anything, or even be noticed, someone screamed from inside one of the rooms. The cry was echoed by another, and soon more people were streaming out from the private boxes while shouting about monsters and zombies. So, apparently Jason‘s little friends had made their entrance. At least they didn’t look stupid for trying to evacuate people now. 

The crowd turned to run right to the stairwell, only to stop short when they saw the Fell-Touched standing there. KD could see the people putting two and two together. In this case four wasn’t actually the right answer, but still. A few cried out while everyone spun to run the other way, even as she opened her mouth to blurt, “Hey, no, we’re not…” A groan escaped her. “Oh never mind. Whatever, run that way then.” Under her breath, she muttered, “We are so getting blamed for this.” 

Grandstand was already moving to the first door while casually noting, “Having a reputation has its upsides and downsides.” She kicked the door in, glanced around, and shook her head. “Fuck, this is taking too long. Can’t we search this place faster? Send your little friends there, lizard girl. They could spread out and hit every room a hell of a lot more efficiently than the three of us.” 

Pack looked like she was about to argue, then thought better of it and shrugged before stepping aside as she sent the lizards out to check every room ahead of them. Which was… well, quite a sight. Watching reptilian hybrid versions of an eagle, bear, gorilla, panther, monkey, and reindeer split up to kick in doors was pretty surreal. 

As they kept moving behind the scattered lizards, Grandstand turned to glance at Broadway. “Where the hell is he? You know him, right?”

“I have no idea!” KD blurted. “Obviously, I don’t know very much about him after all. Not if he’s the type of person who could do something like–” In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by the sudden appearance of one of the zombies. He was a heavy Latino man with dyed blond dreadlocks, and an obvious bullet hole in the middle of his head. He came slamming his way out of a door leading into what looked like a custodial supply closet, snarling as he saw them. 

Before he could do anything, Broadway pointed and sent a burst of sound that way while converting herself to follow it. Surfing that wave right past the man in her sound form, she reappeared behind him and pivoted to bring both hands up, unleashing a narrow burst of high-pitched music from her gauntlets. As soon as the sound was in the air, she caught it with her power and both magnified and narrowed the sound even more. She had used this to punch holes through concrete before. Normally, of course, she toned it down for human beings. She wasn’t a killer and had no desire to permanently cripple people. But this was different. This guy was already dead. He was a corpse who just needed to be taken apart. She had no need to hold back. 

And yet, despite the fact that those twin bursts of sound would have shattered concrete blocks in front of them, they did barely anything to the zombie. He staggered slightly, before pivoting with stunning speed. His hand flashed out to smack Broadway, but before he could make contact, there was a roar from the other side. Mars Bar came in out of nowhere and slammed into the man, knocking him sideways into the wall. The lizard bear howled in pain immediately, staggering back with visible burns all over his body. Pack shouted out in dismay, before quickly ordering Twinkle Toes to back off before the lizard-gorilla could come to his friend’s aid. In the same moment, she raised that shotgun and fired a beanbag around into the zombie’s face. The force made his head rock backwards, but did very little else. 

Abruptly, however, the air was filled with several more gunshots. These came from the two pistols that Grandstand had produced, which she repeatedly fired while advancing that way. Each shot made the zombie’s head rock backwards again, but he still wouldn’t fall.

Stopping Holiday from charging in, Pack reloaded the shotgun with a couple more shells, then took aim once more. Before she could fire, Broadway shouted, “Just knock him down, he doesn’t matter! He’s just delaying us!” Even as she said that, the girl charged up her gauntlets to unleash an even louder burst of sound. “Both of you hit his knees!” 

To her relief, the other two didn’t argue. They quickly readjusted their aim, Pack calling left so they wouldn’t both hit the same spot. An instant later, she unloaded the shotgun into that knee, while Grandstand hit the other with both of her pistols. 

At nearly the exact same time, as soon as she heard those shots, Broadway unleashed the sound burst from her gauntlets. The guns were much quieter than they should have been, thanks to Touched-Tech, but she still caught hold of that sound as well, just to add as much as possible to her power. This time, she didn’t narrow the force nearly as much. She wasn’t interested in cutting through the zombie. Instead, she kept it just about as wide as his body and magnified it as much as she could. It slammed into the already-dead figure like a freight train, just as his legs were knocked out from under him by the shots. Unable to brace himself as the blast of sound-powered force slammed into him, he was sent flying down the corridor. 

Without wasting another second, the three of them spun to the supply closet the zombie had come out of. Broadway was there first, poking her head in and looking around. There. A ladder that had clearly been pulled away from somewhere else led upward through a hole that had been burned into the ceiling. 

Either way, that was where he was. So, she looked up, pointing so she could send a burst of sound through the hole and teleport herself that way. No way was she going to wait around to use the ladder. Not when Jason was about to make the worst mistake of his life.

Reforming herself in what turned out to be some sort of enormous attic type storage space that had to be as wide and long as the entire building’s structure, she spotted the boy in question almost immediately. No, not boy. He was an adult. Older than she was, certainly, and adult enough that the authorities would have no problem sentencing him to Breakwater for this. He was on the far side of this wide open attic area (what was this for?), yet incredibly easy to spot. Because there was nothing else up here. It was just a wide open space with nothing in it. Nothing except for Jason himself. He was standing over by a narrow window that overlooked the field, staring down that way with his back to her. As soon as she had taken that in, however, he spun, and she saw his face. 

It was him. It was her brother. He had lightly tanned skin from spending a lot of time outside, was well-muscled thanks to all the yardwork he tended to do for extra cash, and had long dirty-blond hair pulled into a simple ponytail. He had no shirt on, and her attention was immediately drawn to several polished stones that seemed to be attached to the boy’s skin. The largest one, a red, gleaming, almost flat ruby, sat in the middle of his chest. It was about four inches across and looked incredibly smooth. There were also two blue ones up by his shoulders that were about half the size, and a couple of equally-sized green ones on either side of his stomach, just above his hips. An amber-colored stone that was smaller than all the rest sat right over his navel. Finally, there was a black one just under his throat. All of the stones were glowing faintly. 

He also wore glasses, which he was staring at her through while pointing what turned out to be a weird-looking pistol. It wasn’t an ordinary gun, that was for sure. 

“I got no problem with La Casa or any of you,” he was saying, his voice cracking a little. “But if you don’t back the fuck off down that ladder, I will.” 

“Jason,” KD blurted, “you have to stop this!” 

“I don’t exactly have–wait,” he interrupted himself, “how the fuck do you know my name?” 

Right, he wouldn’t recognize her. Not only was it impossible to see her face through the helmet, the armor she wore boosted her height by several inches. He’d never guess who she really was. Which had been a large part of the point of wearing this sort of costume, so no one would recognize her. But now… now what was she supposed to do? 

“Jason,” she started hesitantly. “We–” 

That, however, was as far as she got before the older boy abruptly crumpled to the floor. Suddenly, Grandstand was standing behind him, having clearly injected him with something from the syringe she was just putting away. 

“Jason!” KD blurted, before her gaze snapped that way. “What the hell did–” 

“Oh, sure,” Grandstand retorted, “I was really just going to stand around and let you have a moment with him or whatever while his monsters were out there killing people. We can both chat with him once we get him out of here and somewhere that he can’t attack us with his zombies.” 

“Uh,” Pack started before KD could respond to that, “speaking of his zombies, they aren’t falling down.” She had climbed up by then and was standing over by the window, staring at the field. “They’re still running around out there. Why aren’t they falling down? He’s unconscious.” 

“Does it have something to do with those… gems?” Pack asked, squinting that way. “What the fuck are those?” 

“No fucking idea, maybe if someone hadn’t knocked him out, we could’ve asked him. And maybe he has to actively make the zombies stop?” Broadway pointed out. “So, wake him up.” 

“That uhh, that might be a problem,” Grandstand admitted. “He’ll be out for hours thanks to this stuff.” She was looking at the syringe. “I really thought him going unconscious would stop the zombies. Isn’t that usually how it works?” 

“Fuck!” Pack snapped her gaze to her bird-lizard. “Riddles, go get Paintball! Lead him up here, we’ve gotta figure out what the fuck we’re supposed to do now! 

“If we can’t make those zombies stop without waiting for this guy to wake up, we’re in trouble.” 

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Enkindle 23-16 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, we were all a bit surprised to find Grandstand suddenly standing in front of us. Or, more to the point, crouched on top of the van. Giving a double-take while the others reacted around me, I found myself blurting, “You’re the reason the cops never tried to pull us over!” Wait, she had been crouched on the roof the entire time we had been driving up here, at those speeds? What the hell was this chick doing? Why would she have been following us like that? Why was she here at all? 

Under her Zorro-like bandana mask, the woman smiled faintly while hopping down to land on the pavement next to the van. “Worked that out quick, didn’t you? You’re welcome. Now, like I said, are we gonna go in there and be heroes, or what?”

Poise, stepping slightly in front of me, spoke up sharply. “What are you doing here? Last I checked, you and Cuélebre were on the outs, but I don’t think that means you suddenly decided to switch sides out of the goodness of your heart.”

“Better question,” Pack abruptly put in while holding that shotgun of hers. She hadn’t gone as far as to point it at her, but the point was made. “Why were you following us close enough to find out what we’re doing?” 

“My business is personal,” the woman shot back. “But, just to ease this along since I’m pretty sure we don’t have time for a lot of arguments, let’s just say I wasn’t following you. Or, well, I was only following you recently. I’ve been tracking down the guy you’re after right now. You know, the one responsible for those zombie attacks, like the one that’s about to happen right in there. I need to talk to him. He has information about the guy I’m really looking for. I’ll help you stop him, then I get to talk to him until he tells me what I need.” 

While the rest of us were absorbing that, Broadway stared at the woman, voice dark and clearly suspicious. “What exactly do you want to talk to him about?”

“Relax, it’s not about your secret identity,” Grandstand retorted while visibly rolling her eyes. “I’m gonna be really honest here and say I very seriously couldn’t care less about that. This is a hell of a lot more important. And yeah, I know, my old gang and your gang aren’t exactly friends right now. Big whoop. I’m here for bigger fish. Like the kid over there said, I’m not at the top of Cuélebre’s best friends list at the moment, so picking a fight with some kids over your secret identities or whatever isn’t even on the first ten pages of my to-do list. My real friend, a close friend, was murdered. And the guy in there knows something about who did it.” 

Broadway made a noise before starting with, “If you think–” 

“Relax, Soundwave,” Grandstand interrupted, “It wasn’t him, so I’m not out for revenge. If I was, none of you would’ve ever known I was here. He’s not the guy who killed my friend, but he’s got information I need about who it really was. Now that’s all I’m gonna say about it. I figured since I caught a ride with you guys, and I only know where he is thanks to you, I owe you some sort of explanation. But that’s enough. I’m going in there to find him before he takes off again. If you all want help making sure a bunch of innocent people don’t die, you’ll get over yourselves and come along.” With that, she started to move to the entrance.

Calvin’s head shook while our whole group looked at one another uncertainly, the boy hesitating before managing a confused, “What’re we supposed to do? She’s a bad guy, right?” 

I shrugged, with a glance toward Pack and Broadway. “Not like she’ll be the first villain we’re working with. And she’s right, people in there are going to get hurt or die the longer we stand out here and debate about it.” A funny feeling ran down my spine, but I shook it off and turned to run toward the stadium. On the way, I fumbled with my phone and used the redial to call Caishen yet again. I left another message to say that we were there and that we needed help. What else was I supposed to do? Yes, she had told us not to go after whoever was responsible for the zombies alone, but we couldn’t just let this happen without trying to stop it. We weren’t hiding the fact that we’d found him. We’d called everyone we possibly could. They were all busy. The only option besides going in there was to just let it happen. And I didn’t care if she got mad at us or not, I wasn’t going to do that. Dangerous or not, we weren’t just going to let a bunch of people die. If it turned out she thought we should… well, then the Michigan heroes were a lot worse than I thought. 

There was, of course, one more thing I could do. Slowing my run, I turned toward Paige and lowered my voice. “Call the Ministry as yourself real quick. Tell them Paintball called you and told you what was going on, and asked you to tell them they need to do something. They know that I know something about them anyway, and that you have their number. But can you do it without them tracking your phone as coming from right here?”

Paige, absorbing that, gave a short nod. “I’ll forward the call from another phone back in the city.” With that, she set to work doing just that, while I started running once more. Maybe it was dumb to call in the Ministry and ask them for help, but I was seriously desperate. They wanted to keep crime under control, and something told me Jason hadn’t received their permission to do this. 

“Glad to see it didn’t take long for you to come to your senses,” Grandstand informed me as we approached the gate. Unsurprisingly, the man who was standing there looked a little surprised at the sight of what was coming toward him. He was staring at all of us, but mostly at the woman beside me. I saw his hand move to the radio on his belt, only to stop short as his eyes abruptly shifted toward me, hand dropping away from the belt as though he’d never reached for it to begin with. “Hey, sorry, costume night’s not til next week. I don’t know who screwed that up, but hey, you all look pretty g–holy shit what the fuck?!” That last bit came as he caught sight of Holiday and Mars Bar, who were already partway shifted into their large forms. 

Oh, and he paid absolutely no attention to Grandstand as the woman simply walked right past him. Obviously, she had used her power. On the other hand, she did pause to wait for us, while making an impatient ‘hurry up’ gesture with her hand. Whether it was because she genuinely wanted to help, or because she thought she had a better chance of finding this Jason guy with Broadway and Pack, I wasn’t sure. A voice whispered in the back of my ear that it might be less about thinking Broadway could help find him, and more about thinking she could use Broadway as a hostage against him if he found out she was his sister. 

Then again, would he even care about that? Could someone who was trying to show off for the Scions give a shit about his sister being in danger? I had no idea. But then again, I couldn’t even fathom having a brother who would try to show off for the Scions in the first place. Yeah, my brother had clearly killed people, but there was a pretty vast gulf between that and auditioning to hang out with Pencil, Cup, and their gang.

Ignoring the gate guide for just a moment, I turned to the two La Casa Touched. “You guys go find him. Have Riddles let us know if you track him down. We’ll get everyone out of here. Just… be careful.” With that, I turned back to the guy, who looked even more confused. He’d grabbed his radio from his belt again and was fumbling with it. As it fell from his hand, I shot red paint at it and at that hand, making it jump back into his grip as he made a noise of surprise. 

“Dude,” I quickly put in, “the zombie-monsters over in Detroit, you heard about them? The guy who’s been controlling them is here. As in he’s in this stadium, not just the city. He’s gonna attack this place any minute. You need to start evacuating people right now.” As his eyes widened in shock about what I was saying, I grabbed his wrist and shoved the radio up to his ear. “Call it in! Open every gate, every door. Let everyone out, right now! Set off the fire alarms, whatever you need to do, just get everyone to move!”

That was all I could take the time to say. Leaving the man stammering in confusion, I ran past him and into the entrance area of the stadium. The others were right behind me. Grandstand gave me an evaluating look briefly before nodding as she pivoted to run toward an area labeled for employees. On the way, she called back, “Your pal‘s gonna want to have a good view of the stadium and privacy! Probably upstairs somewhere!” 

Broadway and Pack were right behind her, along with the assortment of lizards, who were growing by the moment. I barely paid any attention to that, however. My focus was on several guards who were jogging up from around the other corner. As they approached and tried to tell us we had to leave and that this whole thing wasn’t funny, I snapped a hand up to shoot green paint over the rest of our little group. Seeing me actually do that brought the guards up short as they realized this either wasn’t a costumed prank, or it was a really good one. 

“Zombie bad guy from Detroit’s attacking this place, you gotta get everyone out!” I blurted while already activating the green paint to run past them. “You guys get down to the field and help people get to the exits! Watch for zombies!” I called over my shoulder just as we reached the top row of bleachers. The people there, watching the game below, jerked in surprise at the sight of me. Though most, again, didn’t realize I was the real thing. Not yet, anyway. But they would pretty soon. 

Stopping short, my gaze scanned the field, then the bleachers, then up into the higher areas. Nothing untoward. The place seemed completely normal. If we were wrong about this, if he’d changed his mind and we were sounding the alarm for no reason–no. We definitely couldn’t take that risk. Even if we ended up looking paranoid and stupid, it didn’t matter. 

To the people around me, who were staring in even more confusion about whether this was some sort of presentation, I added, “Unless you guys wanna be trampled, you need to get out right now. Run! Get the hell out of the stadium! It’s not a game, it’s an attack, so go! Just spread the word and get the fuck out of here right now!” With that, I pointed my hand toward the announcers booth. It was above the bleachers by the first base line, while we were above home plate. A line of red paint went flying from my hand, making the nearby audience gasp as they realized I wasn’t a fake. That gasp became a cry of surprise that spread throughout the audience as I triggered the paint and launched myself over their heads, across all those bleachers, and all the way to the raised booth. 

“Korey Rikers, the second baseman, coming to–what the fuck?!” That was the announcer himself, his shock broadcast all over the stadium and over the radio as I hit the window next to him. I could see the skinny guy with his big droopy mustache holding a hotdog in one hand, which slowly fell to the desk, dripping ketchup and mustard over the keyboard sitting there as he stared at me wide eyed. The man turned to a guy next to him and half-covered the mic while hissing a question about whether this was some sort of promotional stunt. Despite the covered mic, his words were still picked up and broadcast, and I could see more people looking up to where I was and pointing. If I’d wanted everyone’s attention, I was sure getting it. Now I just had to do something useful with that.

To that end, before the stunned announcer could recover, I planted my knees against that window (staying in place thanks to the gravity defying boots), painted a bit of the glass pink, and punched through it. As the man gave another curse of surprise, I apologized before grabbing the mic from his hands. “Everyone get out of the stadium right now!” I blurted into it while squeezing the button so my voice was projected. “There’s a bad guy who wants to hurt everyone here, you need to get out of your seats and get to the parking lot! And then keep going! Just get out of here! Find an exit and get out!” Yes, it wasn’t perfect. There was a good chance we would cause a panic. But what choice did we have? We needed to get everyone out as fast as possible. The second Jason saw us or realized people were starting to leave, he would unleash his monsters. There was no time to be subtle about it. Besides, we could watch for anyone being trampled or suffocated. We–we had to do it this way. 

Okay, the truth was, maybe someone more experienced would’ve had a better idea of how to do this. Maybe there were twenty different better ways. But I had to do something right then. I didn’t have time to stop and think about it. 

At least people were listening. The group who had been close enough to hear me tell them what was about to happen before I painted my way up here had already cleared out and were running out the same way we had come in. Which left an opening for others below them in the stands to pick themselves up and start running. Meanwhile, the guards had actually listened and spread the word. I could see other entrances being hauled open, the people there shouting for more of the audience to get out those ways. 

The rest of the team were busy getting everyone moving. Calvin and Hobbes were helping by using the teleportation power. Hobbes was all the way over on the far side of the field where there was a gate that was usually only opened to allow cars to drive onto the field. It was open now, thanks to one of the guards there. With Murphy by the gate, Calvin got everyone he could in the lower stands to grab onto him, and teleported them over there. Then Murphy started to run. They were splitting up how much work they each had to do by taking turns with which one of them ran to collect people and which one stood by the gate to catch their breath. 

Meanwhile, Poise and Style were in the middle of the stands, on opposite sides of the stadium, directing everyone about which way to go. The two of them were making sure no single exit was overwhelmed with people. And anyone who tried to shove their way through quickly found themselves grabbed and pulled out of the way so others could get past. Sierra and Paige seemed to be everywhere at once, slipping through the crowd easily to find the potential troublemakers before anything bad could happen. 

Then there was Alloy. She was above the crowd, hovering in her armor. Apparently she’d started to get the hang of using just that to keep herself in the air without a board under her feet. That or she felt like she needed every other marble she possibly had for other things. Either way, those other marbles were turned into various walls and ramps to lead the audience one way or another. Whenever one exit area started to get too full, she noticed from her elevated position and used one of her marbles to block that way off, directing people down a lesser-occupied route. 

Spotting a group of players mixed with employees and some of the audience being pushed to one side out onto the field, I used a mix of blue and red paint to throw myself that way. “Hey, coming through!” I called out to announce my arrival before landing near the group. Quickly, as they looked at me and started to blurt questions, I painted a pink door onto the nearby wall, before lashing out with a purple-powered foot to kick through it. I had to kick a couple times, but I finally knocked out enough of the pink door shape to reveal the open, weed-filled lot behind the field. “Go!” I blurted. “Run and keep running. Just trust me, go!” Even as I said that, my gaze snapped around the field and up into the stands. There were still a lot of people, but the place was getting emptier by the moment. We were actually doing this. We were going to get these people–

And then it happened. A loud, terrifying shriek filled the air, as a man appeared on top of the announcer’s booth where I had just been. And not just any man. A clearly dead one. The top third of his head was gone, leaving some of his brain visible. His arms were twisted around the wrong way, and he forced them back into position with a series of audible snaps, while all of us stood there and watched in horror. Then, he tilted his head back and gave a terrible howl that was half-banshee and half-wolf. It echoed around the field, before being answered by another howl. Then another one. And another. 

They were everywhere. Two of them burst out of the restroom up behind the third base stands. Another one came crawling out from under the outfield fence. The visiting team dugout had one that came through the locker room area, chasing two people who had been going out that way. More were in the stands. We’d gotten some of the people out before Jason reacted, but not nearly enough. And now these monsters were here. Not just one or two. There had to be a dozen of the things, at least. 

This sick piece of shit wanted to put on a show for the Scions, and he was going to do it by slaughtering as many innocent people in this place as he could. Unless we stopped him. But we had barely been able to handle one of these things before with all of us working together. What the hell were we supposed to do about twelve of them all spread out, and with a bunch of civilians in the way?

Whatever it was, we were going to have to figure it out soon. Because, with another chorus of horrifying howls, the zombies attacked.

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Enkindle 23-15 (Summus Proelium)

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We had to get to that stadium before those zombies attacked all the innocent people there. But more importantly, we had to make sure other people got there. All that mattered was stopping what was about to happen. And we needed help to do that. Unfortunately, none of us were having much luck on that front. Pack had called Broadway to tell her what was going on, and though the other girl was, to put it mildly, reluctant to believe that her foster brother would be that deranged and psychotic, she did agree that something bad was going to happen. So they both tried contacting Blackjack or anyone else in La Casa. But there was some sort of attack happening right then and they couldn’t get through to anyone important. 

Meanwhile, Paige made an anonymous call to both the Seraphs and the Spartans. And I, of course, called Ten Towers the way I’d promised Caishen I would. I even called her personal number that she had given me. But again, it was hard to reach anyone who would listen. I even made a third call to leave a message with Lucent, only to be told that he was out in the field right then and would get back to me as soon as he could. I wasn’t sure people were actually taking us as seriously as we wanted them to. Probably unhelped by the fact that we were pretty frantic and not in the mood to patiently explain. 

For my part, I did manage to get hold of That-A-Way, but she and the other Minority members, including Raindrop, were in the middle of helping the Conservators with some sort of big shootout involving Cuélebre and other members of Oscuro. It seemed like the entire city had decided to blow up at this exact moment. Well, to be fair, it had been blowing up for a while. There was a reason for the curfew intended to curtail the gang war, after all. But still, it really didn’t help us right now.

“Hold on!” Pack shouted while sending the van she had borrowed skidding around the corner.  The rest of us would’ve been thrown around wildly if it wasn’t for the seatbelts we had hastily buckled. “How long do we have until the game starts?!” She asked that while bringing the van to a brakes-squealing halt next to an alley just long enough for Broadway to jump in the front passenger seat next to her. 

Hobbes was pressed up into a corner, quickly checking her phone. “Uh, right now. It’s starting right now. But he won’t necessarily unleash his monsters first thing, right?” She was clearly trying to inject a bit of hopefulness into her voice. 

Even as she said that, we nearly rear-ended a couple cars that were blocking the road ahead at a stoplight. With a blurted curse, Pack jerked the wheel to send the van up over the curb. We ran through a wooden display selling vegetables, and all of us winced at the sound of thumps along the roof as an assortment of cabbages and wood bounced along it, along with the sound of the man running the stand shouting in dismay. One particularly loud thump made me wince.

Then, with a new set of bumps as the van dropped off another curb, we were back on the street. As soon as we went around the next corner, heading for the freeway entrance, Alloy called out to me, “The stadium! We can call them, tell them to evacuate the place.” 

So, that was exactly what I tried next. While half-listening to Broadway and Pack having a whispered yet intense discussion, I looked up the number for the stadium and called them. Unfortunately, the person who answered didn’t take me seriously. He laughed off my attempt at a ‘prank’ and when I tried to explain a bit more, hung up on me. I tried that number again and got no answer before calling the other number attached to the stadium. That time a woman answered and instead of laughing when I tried to warn her, she cursed me out and threatened to call the police. I was in the midst of yelling at her that she had to call the police when she hung up as well. This was going swimmingly. Fuck, fuck! 

“Style?” I asked, looking toward Sierra in hope that she had had more luck. 

“Called local 911 over there and told them the situation,” she replied, voice sounding tense. “They took me about as seriously as you might expect. Told me they’d ‘send an officer over to check it out.’ We’ll be lucky if they do that much.” 

“Fuck!” I blurted out loud. “Okay, okay, we can still get there and slow this whole thing down. Way knows the gist about what’s going on and she’ll get people there as soon as they can get away from that whole Cuelebre thing. We’ve left messages with everyone. As soon as they get a free moment, they’ll check them, and send people. We’ll get there. We can get there.” I repeated that, trying to convince myself before looking toward the front. “ I know asking for your help is a lot, and–” 

“Oh shut up!” Pack snapped. “Like we’re not gonna stop a bunch of monsters from slaughtering a stadium full of innocent people. That’s not even a question, Paintball.” 

Broadway hesitated before shifting around in her seat to look at me. “Besides that, I have to find out if my brother is really responsible for this. He could’ve been manipulated, or that evidence could’ve been planted, or… I don’t know. If he’s not responsible for this, if it’s not really his choice, I want to prove that before it’s too late. But if he is…” She trailed off before squaring her shoulders. “If he is then I want to stop him too.” 

Paige was looking straight at her, voice flat. “So if it comes down to it, you’ll side against him.” 

Broadway shot her a clearly dark glare. “If it’s a question of siding against him or letting him kill a bunch of innocent people, yes, I’m siding against him. I’m not a fucking psychopath.” Again, she paused before turning back to face the front once more while slumping back in her seat with a muttered, “Then again, I didn’t think he was either.” 

Oh boy could I really not blame her for that sort of reaction. It made me think back to exactly how I had felt when I found out the truth about my own brother. I thought about how it felt to be hiding under that dumpster when I heard his voice that night. No wonder she was having a hard time with this. And I definitely couldn’t blame her for wanting to find out if the whole thing was a mistake or whatever. I definitely would’ve preferred to learn that my family was being framed, and they at least weren’t about to be responsible for intentionally slaughtering a stadium full of innocent people just to impress the fucking Scions. 

“Whoever is actually responsible, we’ll stop them. If it’s him… we’ll deal with that. If he’s being used somehow, we’ll… do something about that too,” I assured her as firmly as I could while looking out the window as Pack sent the van hurling as fast as possible through the streets. I didn’t even care if we ended up attracting the police at that point, because they could help. We needed someone to pay attention. 

Of course, because I actually wanted the cops to pay attention to us, there were none to be found anywhere. Apparently the entire fucking department was also busy with other things just like every Star-Touched we tried to call, because the streets were practically empty. Which did help us get to the freeway even faster, but still.

Alloy looked up from her (disposable pay-as-you go) phone then, muttering a curse. “I tried that number Glitch gave us, but they’re not answering either.” 

“They will, someone will,” I mumbled, bouncing a little in my seat anxiously. “Someone will check their messages, or Way will get out of that fight and send someone. We’ll have some help. They’ll be there. Someone’ll be there.” Yes, I was trying to convince myself, and no it wasn’t working very well. 

“Hey,” Calvin started, “Maybe you could try Tweeting about it? You know, use the hashtags for the team and the stadium and say there’s an emergency and everyone needs to get out of there right now.” 

“If the tweets even gain any traction, they could start a panic,” Paige pointed out carefully. “Everyone stampeding for the exit at the same time wouldn’t help, especially when no one’s there to help.” 

“If those zombies attack, there’ll be a panic anyway,” I replied. But she wasn’t wrong. Alerting people to get out of there wouldn’t help if they all freaked out and hurt each other in a desperate attempt to escape. It would be like hearing a gunshot or shouting bomb in a crowded theater. People would be trampled. But what were we supposed to do, in that case? Roald was right, it was a chance to maybe get the people in the stadium to see our warning. We couldn’t just ignore that. Yet I was frozen for a moment between the fear of what would happen if we sent a warning and people were killed in the ensuing panic, or if we didn’t send a warning and people died because we didn’t get to the stadium fast enough. 

“Paintball,” Paige spoke up, getting my attention. “If he’s monitoring social media around the stadium and the game–” 

“Right,” I realized, “if he’s paying attention, and he probably is, he’ll see any warning we send long before it spreads to the rest of the people. He’ll know we’re onto him and start the attack immediately.” Pausing, I amended, “Or whoever is behind this.” 

“He’s doing it,” Broadway muttered. “I just don’t know if he’s responsible for it. I don’t know if he’s really choosing this, or if they’re manipulating him.” Her voice made it clear which she was hoping for. “And you’re right. If you put out a general warning, he’ll see.” 

So, painful as it was, I couldn’t send that warning. It was one thing to contact the authorities, or try to tell the people in charge of the stadium to start an evacuation immediately, but hoping that a public message will get through to the crowd at all, let alone be listened to, before he noticed it and acted? No. No, we had to at least get there first. Please, damn it, let us get there before he started the attack. 

Instead, I swallowed hard before focusing on Calvin. “Watch Twitter stuff around the stadium, or any news, or anything. Just… just tell us if there’s an emergency, or if anyone starts talking about monsters. Or–you know.” 

For his part, the boy met my gaze before giving a short nod. “I’ll watch for it,” he murmured, voice catching slightly before he looked down at his phone once more. 

Right, so at least we had someone to tell us if we ended up being too late. Clenching my hand tightly, I looked back to the front, my voice tense. “Pack, I hate to be the little kid in the back of the car during a road trip, but are we there yet?” I was trying to simultaneously lighten the mood a little bit while also pressing the urgency. Not that she really needed to be reminded. I knew that. I just felt helpless, sitting here in the van hoping those things weren’t already attacking people. With every second that passed, I kept expecting Calvin to abruptly blurt out that it was too late. 

“Doing my best,” the girl informed me while her hands clutched the steering wheel tightly. She clearly had the pedal all the way to the floor as we were sent practically flying down the freeway while weaving in and out of traffic. There hadn’t been many other cars in the city itself, given the whole curfew situation. But there were people driving out of the city. So we kept running into pockets of traffic. Not that that stopped Pack. She just drove around them, even going up onto the shoulders without a second thought. Again, if our insane driving attracted cops, good. 

But it didn’t. We weren’t really attracting much attention at all, come to think of it. A few people honked, but not nearly as much as I might’ve thought. We were, for the most part, entirely ignored. Maybe with the gang war going on, everyone was afraid to pay too much attention to a van acting this erratic. But hey, with any luck, maybe they were calling the cops. I didn’t care if we had to lead a procession of a dozen police cars and a helicopter all the way there for refusing to pull over. Wait, scratch not caring, I hoped that happened. 

Unfortunately, we still seemed to be experiencing some sort of weird situation where nobody was paying attention to us. Aside from those relatively few honks as we cut around people, we didn’t have any problems. Including no cops showing up. Probably because they would’ve been helpful, and we couldn’t have that, could we? 

Rocking back-and-forth in my seat while silently urging the van to go faster didn’t help. Fortunately, putting my hands against the side and painting the thing green did actually contribute. And given we were being ignored by the other cars, it was even more helpful. Soon, the van was practically flying along the side of the freeway, zooming past everyone else as though they were standing still. 

“Once we get there, you guys get into the stadium and start evacuating people,” Pack was saying while keeping her hands tight on the wheel. “They won’t listen to Broadway and me, and seeing us with you will just complicate things. So we’ll go look for Jason.“

Broadway was nodding. “Whether it’s just him or somebody else has him, they’ll be somewhere that they can watch what happens. I just–” she stopped, clearly considering her next words before speaking a little more clearly. “I just hope we can find him before anything… before he does something we can’t stop.” 

Her words made me swallow hard. Yeah, I definitely knew how she was feeling. Well, at least to an extent. I really had no idea how I would feel if my brother was out there trying to impress the Scions. But still, the whole thing made me sympathize with her. She was a villain, sure, but just like so many other situations I had found myself in since getting my powers since that night, the whole thing wasn’t that cut and dry. She was worried about her brother, yet still willing to stop him if he really was this far gone. It just… maybe it made me think about what I would do if I was face to face with my own brother and he was about to do something like this. 

I would stop him, that was for sure. If he was trying to kill this many people–if he was trying to kill any innocent people, I would stop him. I just… had no idea where we would go from that point.  Which, I was pretty sure, was exactly what Broadway was thinking about. Would she reveal her identity to him in order to make him stop? Would that even work? I supposed it depended on how far gone he really was, and on whether this was all actually his choice or not. 

All I really knew in that moment was that I was glad I wasn’t her. I had enough family issues to deal with. 

Pushing those thoughts out of my head, I spoke up. “The second we go in there and start to tell people to get the hell out, he’s going to unleash his monsters.”

Paige nodded once from where she was sitting. “But at least we’ll be in there to get their attention.” 

“And then what?” Murphy demanded. “What are we supposed to do? I dunno if you were paying attention before, but we could barely handle one of them, and this sounds like he’s planning to unleash more than that.”

“We focus on making exits and safe paths for people to get out,” I put in. “I know it’s not gonna be easy, and they’ll still panic. But at least when we’re right there, we can help. Alloy, I want you to use your marbles to make platforms and shields and stuff to get people out of the way. Maybe even just pick them up and carry them out of there whenever you can.”

She started to protest that she needed to help with the zombies, but I cut her off. “You’ve got the best chance of protecting and shielding people. Focus on that, okay? Once there’s enough people out that the rest of them can run without trampling each other, you can jump in and help us. But we really need to protect everyone in that stadium. We need you to do that.” 

She hesitated before giving a short nod. “Just be careful, okay?”

“We’re gonna do our best,” I replied with a somewhat shaky thumbs up. I was terrified about what was about to happen. Murphy was right, we had barely been able to do anything to one zombie at a time. How bad was this going to go when there was a whole group of them right in front of a bunch of panicking civilians? This could be horrific. But what else were we supposed to do? We didn’t have any better options. We’d already tried to contact everyone else who could help and they were either busy or weren’t listening. Just while we were sitting there discussing all this, I had left six messages on the emergency system of the Doephone app, and I still had no idea how long it would take someone with authority to pay attention. There was no one else. We had to get in there and do this ourselves. And hope that we could get lucky with Broadway talking her brother down.

With that in mind, I turned to Pack. “Maybe if he’s unconscious, it’ll stop the zombies. So if he doesn’t listen as soon as you guys get to him…” 

“Yeah,” she replied, “he’s going to turn them off, one way or another.” To Broadway, she started to add, “Sorry–” 

“No,” the other girl interrupted. “You’re right. If he doesn’t listen and call it off as soon as we get to him, just… knock him out. Yeah, he’s my brother, but I’m not letting him get away with this.”

Finally, even as she said that, we were pulling into the rather full parking lot of the stadium. Pack drove past all the other cars, straight up to the sidewalk ramp leading to the ticket stand and entrance before bringing the van to a screeching halt. The doors flew open and we all hopped out. I pivoted to tell everyone something about getting inside, when I simply stopped short. There was a figure crouched on the roof of the van, where she had clearly been through most of the ride. 

“Hey there,” Grandstand greeted me with a wave. “So, we gonna go be heroes or what?” 

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Interlude 21B – Setrea (Summus Proelium)

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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.” 

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Interlude 20B – Grandstand (Summus Proelium)

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Nine Years Ago 

“I excuses.” 

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?” 

********  

Present Day 

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.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 14B – Grandstand (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next 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 a 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 there 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? 

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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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