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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?