Setrea Keve

Interlude 20B – Grandstand (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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? 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter