May 21st, 212.
The Highlands; Noon.
The hallowed halls of Vital Yield Ministries were messy but quaint. A thin sheen of grime covered every surface and there were small rips in the forest green fabric of the pews. Volunteers did their best to keep things tidy, but they all knew it was a losing battle. There was never enough money in The Highlands. People had to be fed, streets cleaned, necessary services and items imported from other hoods. As important as the church was to its parishioners, the vitality of their entire community was held to a higher precedence.
Despite the mess, the congregation loved each service. Presided over by the esteemed minister Jerah Speartale, they found that their faith carried them away from their surroundings. From their worries. Even if Jerah’s long-winded sermons often ventured on boring. Usually, it didn’t matter. They’d praise when he raised his voice, toss their hands into the air when he clapped, and jump into glossolalian fits as the choir sung. That was usually. Today was unusual.
An eerie silence lay over the audience. Hushed, besides the occasional punctuation of a loud, whining siren. Even muffled by the building’s brick walls, the sound was alarming.
Clouds of dust poofed up from religious text as pages turned. Some of the congregation had fallen prostrate, hands held together as they prayed. Others gripped rosaries, muttering for safety beneath their breath.
Jerah, standing raised behind the pew, looked down over his gathered flock. He looked as if he felt their fear. Felt his own fear. His gaze stopped at Alerio, his boss, leader of Late Noon, O2G of PRI, Elan Vital of The Highlands; the man he sought in turmoil. Their eyes locked.
“Aleri…” Jerah spoke quietly.
“Yeah, has to be Sketcher. Which means…” He let it go unsaid, finding himself unable to admit what the alarming herald meant. “Stay here. All of you. That means you too, Rubi.” He added, speaking to a young girl near the front who’d spontaneously leapt from her seat. She grumbled assent, glaring at Jerah as if already thinking of a way to sneak by him.
Alerio stood. His surname was Smallguy, and it had become somewhat of an unfortunate omen. He was quite short, barely topping five feet. His nice fashion sense, orange-red flannel tucked into black slacks, almost came across as humorous. Akin to a young kid dressing up as a businessman. Yet, his presence seemed large. The bandana over his eye made it seem larger.
Running through his lanky-blonde hair, the bandana bore the insignia of Period Realms Incorporated. An hourglass, dual comets, and a crescent moon. Symbols for Late Noon, Sudden Dusk and Midnight Showoffs, respectively. The imagery having been combined together to symbolize the gang triad’s unity as P.R.I.
People turned to look at him as he walked by. They were citizens of The Highlands. It wasn’t a place where those who gave up survived. He’d seen these very eyes stare down crisis after crisis unblinking. Yet, they’d all heard the stories. They knew what it meant if Jokes was coming. Even protected by the strength of P.R.I or Zarat’s own inhuman capabilities. It didn’t matter. Fear now made those same eyes blink back verging tears. Alerio found himself almost overwhelmed, he was too nice to feel fear was enough reason to fail them.
A familiar face greeted him as he crossed the church’s threshold. Ula, looking as if she’d ran all the way there, stood at the bottom of the stairs. She was leaning against the handrail, balancing herself as she heaved heavy breaths. Even fatigued, she was strikingly beautiful.
“Aleri…” Ula began.
“I know. We all heard it.” Alerio’s response was punctuated by another of the alarming shrills. “What’re you doing here? You should be at home. If something were to happen to you, Yaz…” The sentenced trailed off, unfinished. He looked down at his polished black shoes.
“You need to spend less time around Zarat.” She reprimanded. “Yaz would be a hurt orphan, yes. But, I’d much rather my son dealt with the pain of that, than to see his eyes turn on me in disappointment. If Yarrow were here, hell, if Yaz was home, do you think either of them would sit idly by?”
Alerio wanted to argue, but found his mind unable to come up with logical counterpoints. Especially, when he knew his prime reasoning was guilt. Guilt and regret. He’d been there when Yarrow died. Whatever anger had led young Yaz to go off on them that night, Alerio had already admonished himself ten times worse before ever stepping on that porch. To watch Ula die too… he didn’t know if he could handle that. Or face Yaz after.
“If you must. But, stay with me and don’t be rash. Neither Jokes or Sketcher are people regular citizens can stand up to. Hell, most Spirits might find themselves having a hard time.”
“How about our Spirit?” Ula asked quietly. Alerio stiffened. She gazed around, suddenly recognizing that their Spirit was nowhere to be found. “Where is he anyway?”
“I’m going to alert him now. Come on.”
Ula followed him as walked from the church down Meso Street, coming to a pause once he’d reached Anubhoot Ave. Alerio looked to the north, where the Rising Ridge loomed. The building capping the large hill was once home to the Sentinels of Aurora. Eons ago. It had remained abandoned until Zarat renovated it as P.R.I’s headquarters. The Platinum WatchHouse.
“He’s back at the HQ? He just warned me this morning. Why would he go back up Rising Ridge?” Ula asked, following Alerio’s gaze.
Alerio, turning his one uncovered eye towards her, debated mentally with himself. Then, sighing, he finally said, “Zarat is sick Ula. A degenerative nerve condition caused by exposure to irradiated shrapnel. He gets a pretty involved treatment everyday. If he came to warn you this morning, it means he missed a session. Likely, he’s even double-dosing in preparation for intensive combat.”
Ula frowned, obviously bothered by the prospect of Zarat visiting her over the sake of his own health. Or, perhaps, it was because neither of them had informed her of his worsening condition. Alerio had also, just then, neglected to include that the irradiated shrapnel had come from their fight with Medicina. Killing Yarrow and infecting Zarat. The woman really was a monster, even thirteen years later. Her reputation of a nuclear temper had not been in vain.
“I can’t believe. I… I had no idea.”
“You know Zarat. Determined he could beat it, that no disease would kill him before he’d prepped The Highlands for his death. Sorry for not telling you sooner, but let’s discuss it later.”
Ula nodded, frown still on her face. Alerio turned away from her and faced back towards Rising Ridge. He Änimized, and an aura of änimotes encapsulated his body. He crouched onto one knee, raising one hand up to his cheek and extending the other outward.
“Evince: Arma de Famu Grandi, Buen Retroceso.” There was a faint, nice-sounding pop. By the time he’d finished getting in position a green recoilless rifle was in his grip. The barrel rested on his shoulder blade.
His visible eye, the right iris, glew as he stared through the scope. Alerio Smallguy had always been ‘Nice’. A nice guy. Nice dresser. Nice friend. Nice leader. “Evince:” But, most importantly, he’d always been a… “Nice Shot!”
There was no ammunition loaded into the barrel. As he touched the trigger, tiny änimotes floated up from the skin of his arm. They flitted around him, hovering near the front opening of the weapon. A slight narrowing of his eyes, and the Änim coagulated inside, just as he fired.
The large projectile came out about the size and shape of a football. Alerio didn’t budge, dark-gray dust expelling from the opening in the weapon’s back, balancing the gun’s momentum. His shot rocketed off towards the tip of Rising Ridge, pinging against an antenna some few miles off in the distance. It’d hit its mark. But, of course it had. Alerio could count on one hand the times he’d missed.
“Nice.” Alerio said to himself, standing, once the shot had made contact.
“Nice, indeed.” A voice that wasn’t Ula’s.
Alerio spun around with his gun raised, poised to shoot. Ula stood beside him, shank in hand. No-one was there. Alerio’s heart raced in alarm. Realizing this, his blood went cold. A figure, dressed in all teal, rolled up on a long silver aeroboard a few seconds later.
“Alerio Smallguy, Elan Vital of The Highlands. I greet your being with resolve.”
“Sketcher Tick, Ca Elan Vital of Bluff Hamlet. I resolve to greet your being.” The Elan Vital’s, second-in-command beneath their Spirits, exchanged formal introductions. Sketcher, carrying the Ca title, was of the higher standing Sept Ca, the seven hoods recognized as the elite of Shiatsa Taction. Alerio watched the apparently bored Sept Ca Elan Vital intently.
In person, Sketcher wasn’t imposing on the level the stories made him out to be. He had pale, almost albino skin and his limbs were thin and lanky. The teal jogging suit did nothing to make him threatening. Nor did riding around on, essentially, a giant silver alarm clock. Even his mannerisms were oddly relaxed, disinterested. Alerio thought that was the most disquieting thing about him. He looked like someone who’d faced fear. And then got over it.
Gathering himself, Alerio realized what he had to do. He’d never felt this sensation before. There was something about Sketcher that made him have to shoot him. Now. He depressed his trigger finger slightly.
“Stop it.” Sketcher said blanky. “Sway: State of Distress.” Änim spread from his body in a triangular, scalene waveform, the sky seemed to warp, and Alerio was paralyzed.
Alerio’s heart beat rapidly and his finger slipped from the trigger. With his psychic Expy to guard against mental assaults, this was the strength of Sketcher’s Influence āxon, Sway, alone. Sketcher using Änim to stifle Alerio’s persona, his will. He felt his blood rushing, his fight or flight reflex kicking into overdrive and then running laps. It was all he could do not to scream.
Being up close to witness it, he could analyze the intricacies of Sketcher’s alarms. All advanced Aesmanatic combat was simply variations and synecdochic expoundings of the five Āxis, with the Sobriquet being the special lense they filtered through. Sketcher’s Sobriquet, for instance, was well-known as ‘Alarming’.
Thus “State of Distress” was a Sway äxon, under the Influence Äxis. Expanding his aura to make a siren like wail, inducing symptoms of an alarmed state. It strangled the persona of Sketcher’s target, effectively causing it to enter an alarmed state. Persona was one of the five types of properties Aesmancy could interact with. Persona was the animating principle of a being; their will. With it in an alarmed state, Alerio’s very intentions to act were halted.
Alerio would’ve found it a masterful technique. That is, if he didn’t currently find himself in the opposition of said mastery.
“I know what you’re thinking, Alerio.” Sketcher said, floating idly on his aeroboard. “You too… Sprite.” He added, without ever turning to look Ula’s way.
Alerio didn’t dare take his eyes from the Bluff Hamlet Ca Elan Vital. He didn’t need to to know Ula’s reaction. The woman was prideful. A Sprite was the term for any citizen of a hood, not a direct subordinate of it’s Spirit, who engaged in actions within the Pneumacratic system. Actions such as battling foreign Elan Vitals. Technically, titling her this was true. Alerio would never volunteer to explain that technicality to her though.
“Bullshit.” Ula retorted.
“I bet I can take this guy out before he counters. Then, I can get a chance to at least hurt Jokes, or distract him from attacking the hood until my Spirit comes to the rescue! …Close?” Alerio wasn’t sure which of them he was pretending to mock. Either way, it wasn’t complimentary.
“Don’t feel special. I honestly don’t have to Expy to scan alarmed thoughts much at all these days. They all think the same thing, you know?” He sat up on his longboard. “They’re all wrong. Even if you could take me out, Jokes isn’t like you and I. He’s beyond a human being. He’s a… a… ahh. Sorry, I can’t find the word.”
Sketcher had spoken the entire time without ever remitting on his Sway emission. Alerio wondered how enduring the man was. Änim, a person’s spirit, was just as capable of fatigue as any muscle. Being a rather strenuous forced expansion of said spirit, most Influence strikes came in burst. Stamina, spiritual or otherwise, wasn’t limitless.
“A monster?” Ula offered.
“Watch your mou-” Alerio took his shot.
Sketcher was a foot away from them in an instant. In the distance, a rumbling echoed where Alerio’s projectile made contact with brick. Alerio could now count on two hands the times he’d missed. Dust rose into the air. Collateral damage was necessary, but he really hoped that wasn’t the Delicacy Pastry shop. He loved their cakes.
As Alerio leapt back from Sketcher’s reaching hand, shooting at the ground to generate a Sculpt barrier, Ula was already striking. The shank vanished from her hand in a beam of yellow, reforming at Sketcher’s back. The man leapt from his board; backflipping, and landing on his feet with the board now gripped in his palm. Ula’s shank whizzed by and stabbed the ground.
“Et tu, Sprite?”
The blade vanished again. As it did so, Alerio, retreating a few feet, took another shot. His football-shaped bullet hurtling forward, he saw the blade appear next to Sketcher’s head.
“Evince: Snooze Sphere.” Sketcher swung his board in a wide circle around him. A siren followed, screaming into the clear noon sky. The projectile and shank were sent careening. And, without giving Ula’s weapon a chance to appear again, the man rushed forward. He was alarmingly fast. Within moments he’d closed the gap between them and jumped into the sky. “Reside: Drop In Alarm!” He brung his board down behind them with both hands as he fell.
Compared to what followed, Alerio felt the world before had been almost silent. Full of familiar, relaxing sounds. Strong gales carried down Rising Ridge, the crunch of worn asphalt beneath his shoes, that indeterminable whirr always present wherever civilization rose. It reminded him what he’d always wanted. The nice sound of tranquility. Then everything howled in an alarming cacophony.
When Alerio blinked he realized he’d flew four blocks. He was on Atmo Street now, his home road. Anubhoot Ave beneath him was ragged, soundwaves having ripped the road apart. Cruisers had slammed into light-posts or buildings, and shattered glass littered the streets. He tried to look around for Ula but couldn’t move. He felt blood drizzling from his eyes and ears, could tell he’d broken his left arm and at least two ribs. All this, yet his primary thought was, I have to get up and help everyone fix our hood.
Lying prone on the ground, he felt Sketcher floating above him. He struggled to move. Still nothing. The effort only sending spasms of pain through his entire body. He felt the Änim rush of Sketcher preparing another strike. Before his consciousness blacked out, Alerio saw a navy blue turtleneck turn the corner.
May 21st, 212.
The Highlands; Early Afternoon.
“Exhibit: Rushed Conviction.”
Moments before his aeroboard could connect with Alerio, Sketcher was sent flying. His body pitched across Anubhoot Ave, bouncing off asphalt like rubber, and he crashed through a wall a block away on Oxy Street. Debris, dust, and bits of mortar and brick expelled into the air. Before he could move, another strike followed.
Then another. Then another. Heavy, determined blows that rained on him with furious intent behind each attack. Another. Another. Two more. Eventually, even Sketcher’s Exalt faded and his Änim flickered into a smaller aura. The barrage halted. With ragged breath, filthy teal suit, and a small streak of blood on the corner of his lip, Sketcher looked up.
Zarat Icewood stood over Sketcher, tall and powerful. Wrinkled features contorted into a look of determinedly extreme distaste, he quirked an eyebrow.
“Still alive, eh? That’s what’s up. I will give Bluff Hamlet one thing. Your whole hood has got endurance etched into its very fabric.” Zarat raised his fist again, shrouding it with scalene waveforms of Änim. Sketcher smiled. Zarat heard a rueful squak and looked to the sky.
A single black quail flew against the backdrop of prismatic blue. It seemed almost out of place. But then, in a way, it was. Quails weren’t natural to The Highlands. Its wings flapped languidly. Any slower and Zarat was sure it’d fall from the sky. Dark feathers fell from the long crest, leaving a cimmerian trail in its aerial path.
The bird landed atop the building Zarat had beaten Sketcher into. As soon as talons touched the lip of the roof, the entire structure collapsed into dust. A roiling cloud billowed over Zarat, blocked only by the Sculpt forcefield he encased himself in. At his feet, albino skin now covered in orange-red powder, Sketcher laughed. Loudly. Alarmingly.
“Jokes is here! Jokes is here!” The man yelled in-between laughter. Zarat turned around.
Dan Jokes, Ca Spirit of Bluff Hamlet, stood in the center of Anubhoot. A porcine man stood a respectful step away on his left, a large black quail perched on Dan’s right shoulder. Behind Dan were at least two hundred soldiers garbed in a dark, burgundy armor. The Sanguine Infantry.
Without a word, Zarat walked away from Sketcher, and to Alerio. He scooped his Elan Vital up gently, moving next to grab Ula. “Damn it”, he self-chided, figuring he’d caused this telling her not to come. Carrying the two of them in the nook of his elbow’s, he deposited them softly in the alley of a nearby grocery market. He hoped the distance was far enough away.
Walking back onto the street, Zarat strode towards the army. His gait fearless, purposeful. He Änimized. With a ‘Determined’ countenance, he spoke towards Dan Jokes.
“What up, kid?”