The sun was just starting to peek over the houses that lined the streets, beginning its daily process of staving off the chilly bite of evening air. It still had a long way to go, however, especially now that the year was wearing on and its arc across the sky grew lazier and lazier.
The trees seemed vaguely aware of this as a gentle wind stirred their branches and displaced a few red, orange or yellow leaves, sending them to the ground to mingle with those that had already fallen. Together they were beginning to resemble streaks of fire criss-crossing the sidewalks, and they crunched dryly underfoot as two people passed over their resting places.
Both of them wore boots. Hers were a striking shade of yellow while his were a more sensible brown. This was only the beginning of the contrast between the two of them, however. He'd bundled up in a thick blue jacket accented with a red scarf, while she was wearing little more than a yellow vest over a similarly yellow tank-top and skirt. Couple that with the boy's glasses and the girl's intensely red hair bundled into a pair of long tails, and anyone would've immediately picked him out as the meeker of the two between them, and possibly wondered why they were even walking together.
They would have been wrong. In truth, the two could not have been more alike, save for a few select sensibilities.
"Feels like winter's creeping in faster than ever," Vyse observed as he watched his breath come out in faint puffs of white before him. "I'm still not sure how you're not cold."
"I've got a furnace in my heart!" Aika grinned at him from off to his side, earning a breath of laughter from him. "But really, I'm just a little too excited to be cold right now."
Eyes the color of almonds regarded her in a sidelong glance from under a slight fringe of dark-brown hair. "You're not the type to get excited for school."
She leaned close and elbowed him in the side, making him stumble for a step. "Not for school, you dummy! I'm just excited to see everyone else again. Summer was too quiet."
Vyse adjusted one of the straps to the backpack that currently saddled his shoulders, finally giving her a smile. "That's the Aika I know."
"Knowing you, you're the exact same way." She gave him a knowing look as she briefly folded her arms over her chest.
He scratched at one side of his head, looking away from her somewhat awkwardly. "There are a few people I'd rather not see…" he admitted.
Aika briefly smiled and waved to someone across the street as she caught sight of them rounding the corner. The smile persisted despite her friend's mood as she turned her attention back to him. "Maybe you wouldn't have to worry about that if you didn't pick so many fights?"
She watched as Vyse lifted a hand to rub at his cheek, where a faint scar still lingered. "If I don't take the bullies down a notch, nobody ever will."
Aika shrugged. "I sympathize, but… I don't know. We're going into senior year. It might be time to break the habit before it gets you into the kind of trouble you can't get out of."
"Maybe." His voice was frustratingly noncommittal. She supposed she couldn't expect more than that from someone as stubborn as he was. "There are other reasons why I'm not all that excited about today, though."
She stared at him and the grimace on his face. The gears turned in her head until it clicked, her eyes going wide. "What, you're worried about her?" She bit back a laugh.
Vyse glared at her. "It's not funny! She could still be mad!"
Aika briefly closed her eyes and lifted a hand to her mouth to stifle further giggles. "I'm… I'm sorry, I'm sorry. It's just, she takes herself so seriously." She beamed at her friend when she finally managed to get herself under control. "I'm sure she'll have gotten over it by now. She's had all Summer to calm down!"
He rubbed at his forehead, clearly on the verge of getting a headache thinking about it. "You don't know her like I do."
"No, I don't." She admitted readily, before poking him firmly in the arm. "But I know you, and people who you've been perfectly nice to don't stay mad at you for long."
"I don't know that I was so nice to her…"
Her finger prodded him again, harder this time. Another poke punctuated each of her words. "You. Were. Nice! Now stop moping or I'll start tickling!"
Vyse rolled his eyes and put on a smile for her. "Alright, alright. Can't have big bad Aika getting on my case forever."
She shut one eye and stuck her tongue out at him. "No, you can't."
The small town of Arcadia was starting to come alive again with the beginning of Autumn fast approaching, and the halls of Arcadia High School reflected this fact as they fairly bustled with students that morning.
Vyse and Aika wove their way through the crowds as they headed down the main hallway from the entrance to the lobby. "Let's hope we'll be in the same homeroom this year," he said as they stepped into the lobby proper, where the crowding of students seemed to thin a bit - except around the board where the homeroom listings were posted.
"Ugh. I guess we should've shown up earlier." Aika sighed as she set her hands on her hips and tried to get a glimpse of the board around the rabble of students that surrounded it.
"I can only see the listings for the freshmen and sophomores from here." Vyse grumbled as he leaned over someone's shoulder, avoiding the urge to push people aside.
"Out of the way." Vyse spun as he heard an indignant squeak from Aika behind him. She was rubbing her arm as she glared daggers at another boy who was just now standing alongside him. The newcomer had bright blonde hair hidden under a violet bandana that matched his black-and-violet jacket and pants. The boy hit Vyse with a glare of his own as he stepped past him and shoved his way through the crowd to the front.
"Screw you too, Lapen." Aika muttered darkly as she moved to stand beside Vyse. She cast her gaze downward and saw that Vyse had curled his fingers into a tightly-clenched fist. His eyes were locked on the back of Lapen's head, and they burned with barely-restrained anger. She let the back of her hand brush against his as he whispered to him, "I'm fine, though. Relax."
She saw Vyse tremble slightly before some of the tension went out of him. His fist unclenched as he turned his head to give her a weak smile. "Sorry. I know it's not worth it."
She smiled back at him before patting his shoulder once. "I know. It's okay. I hate him too."
Slowly the people milling around the board began to thin out, and Vyse and Aika were able to step up to it and locate their classes. Vyse referenced a laminated card that he'd pulled out of his wallet as he eyed the class numbers. "Looks like I'm in room 225," he observed before turning to Aika.
She was still scanning the board when a smile broke out on her face. "225! We're in the same homeroom."
He lifted a hand, and she high-fived him with automatic precision. "Who do you think it'll be?" He asked as he started leading them off towards the stairs to the second floor.
"Hopefully Mr. Ilchymis…" She said with a slightly dreamy look in her eyes.
"You do know that crush is never going anywhere, right?" Vyse said with an amused glance back at her over his shoulder.
"A girl can dream!" She protested.
Vyse chuckled to himself as they mounted the stairs together. "Well, don't let me stop you from shooting for the stars, then."
As it turned out, their homeroom teacher was not Mr. Ilchymis.
Vyse and Aika sat at adjacent desks as they watched a rather burly man in a green shirt write out his name on the board with his left hand. His right hand, some sort of bronze-colored prosthesis, stayed at his side, fingers curling and uncurling.
Eventually the teacher set down the marker before turning around. His white beard and mustache combo bristled as he spoke in a rumbling, deep voice. "My name is Drachma Hughes, but you'll just be callin' me Drachma. I'll be your homeroom teacher for this semester."
He took a few heavy steps over to the podium before casting his gaze out on the class. His hands, one human and one metallic, settled to either side of the lectern. "Any questions you gotta get outta the way before I start in on announcements?"
Immediately a hand shot up on the right side of the room. Drachma looked slightly irritated that someone had bothered to take him up on his offer, but nonetheless nodded in their direction. "Yes?"
"What happened to your hand?"
The older man's eyes narrowed at the boy who'd just spoken. "Kids these days really don't have any manners." He growled. "I used to sail on a fishing boat. I lost it in an accident on the high seas."
"Sea monsters?" The same voice spoke up again a moment later.
Drachma's growling got deeper. "No. There ain't no such thing."
"Awww…" Whoever had been speaking sounded disappointed.
The teacher kept a glare fixed on the boy who'd spoken up for several moments afterwards, before sighing and shuffling the papers on his lectern. "Anyways, got a few announcements what need to be made before I can start. Apparently, if you're interested in startin' a club this semester, there'll be a few new rules you'll have to abide by…"
Vyse gradually tuned him out as he leaned back in his seat. "What is with this guy?" He whispered as he turned his head to look vaguely in Aika's direction. "Have you seen him before?"
Aika was busily tapping something out on her phone just beneath her desk. "I'm asking around, but nobody's seen him before. He must be new."
"A mechanical hand? Fishing accidents? How's he even a teacher?" Vyse's brow furrowed in consternation. "Hopefully he's as spacy as most guys his age."
He heard a sigh from the redhead to his right. "If only we'd had Ilchymis… apparently Merida's in his class now. Lucky girl…"
Vyse arched a brow at her. "You still talk to Merida?"
Aika looked up from her phone in confusion. "Uh, duh?"
"I thought you two got into a fight over her last boyfriend."
"Well, yeah, but she's dumped him since."
"And like that, everything's just okay?"
"Why wouldn't it be? She and I go way back."
"She called you a scarecrow."
He saw Aika's eye twitch. "Well, she won't call me that again."
Vyse rolled his eyes. "If you say s-"
He jolted upright in his seat as a metal fist slammed loudly down on the corner of his desk. "Talkin' in my class?!" The grizzled old man loomed over him with a furious glare on his face. Up close like this, Vyse could see that one of his eyes was curiously white. Was he blind in that eye?
"U-uhm, no sir!" Vyse lied badly.
"When I'm speakin', I expect you lot to pay attention! You come here to learn, not to blabber on with one another!" Drachma growled.
"Of course, sir!" Vyse did his best to smile, but the man's intimidating presence made that difficult. His expression ended up looking more like a grimace.
The teacher regarded him with a wide-eyed, intense gaze for what felt like an hour before straightening up again. "Aye, best make sure it stays that way. I don't take kindly to interruptions." With that he turned and headed back to the front of the classroom with heavy steps.
Vyse's shoulders sagged with a heavy sigh of relief. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Aika giving him a sympathetic look. He supposed he'd just have to talk to her after class.
Up the hill outside of town, the University of St. Tartas was also just beginning its Fall session. Students congregated all across campus as they made their way to their first classes of the school year, some with smiles and a spring in their step, others with the air of the guilty going to the executioner's block.
Alfonso Travanza had always strived to stand out from the common rabble. His short blonde hair was neatly combed and in the latest style, his face was handsome and unblemished with piercing blue eyes, and as always, he made sure his dress marked him as a member of the elite.
The pink collar of his dress shirt just barely peeked out above the neck of his off-white cashmere sweater, and his expensive shoes just barely clicked against the stone paving of the university quad as he made his way towards Teodora hall, named after his aunt's family. His own family was a significant contributor to the university's funding, and that only bolstered his feelings of superiority as he opened one of the double doors leading inside and stepped in.
This would be his first year at university, and already he'd gotten himself enrolled in a special program that would likely see him to the soaring heights of success within the next four years. He counted his way down the classroom numbers as he breezed by other, less-talented students, some of whom seemed to steer clear of him as they recognized him with wide-eyed stares.
Finally he came to classroom T14. Its entrance was as unassuming as the others the be found throughout the lavishly-appointed hall, but he knew it was the one. He opened the door and stepped inside with the long, bold strides of one who knew his great and regal presence was expected.
As soon as he entered, he felt all eyes settle on him. He counted three people who were most definitely students, along with two older men, either of whom could've been the professor. One of them stood apart from the group, however, and Alfonso immediately focused his attention on him. This man stood tall and strong, with salt-and-pepper hair cut close to his scalp that ran down his cheeks to encircle his chin and lips in a decidedly military styling of facial hair. But what caught Alfonso's attention the most was his eyes.
They regarded him without an ounce of respect. They were cold and distant eyes that cared not for his station or his origins. He immediately decided he didn't like this man. "Who are you?" The man asked.
Alfonso smirked as he gave a flourishing bow to the room at large. "Alfonso Travanza. You may have heard of me. I presume you are professor Galcian?"
"You're late." The man said.
"Only slightly," Alfonso admitted with a chuckle. "And besides, I like to think of it as being fashionably-"
"Sit. I don't want to hear your excuses. Don't be late again."
Alfonso twitched slightly as he was interrupted. He most definitely did not like this professor. Was he really the esteemed Galcian who'd been selected to run this special session of talented students? "Of course…" He growled as he stalked over to the nearest seat and took it. He ended up sitting next to a woman with red hair, who didn't bother looking his way as he sat down. That bothered him, too.
"I'm sure you all understand why you are here. You've been assembled under my tutelage as part of a special initiative this semester to provide a greater opportunity for those students of significant merit. While I'm sure you all have your reasons for being here," the professor briefly leveled a glare at Alfonso, "I expect you all to take your work here seriously. Slacking off will result in being ejected from the class, as well as the potential for other disciplinary actions."
Alfonso half-listened to Galcian's explanations as he went about appraising the other students. The woman next to him was a very pretty redhead with emerald green eyes. She seemed rather intently focused on Galcian's words, leaning forward in her seat as she steepled her hands before her.
Across from him was the older man he'd briefly thought to be the professor. He didn't actually look all that old, perhaps in his mid-to-late thirties, but his greying hair and prominent beard made him look considerably older than he actually was. Alfonso wondered why he was still in university, or if his was a special case among special cases. He set that one aside as a mystery to investigate later.
Next to him were two others who looked like utter contrasts to one another. A remarkably short young man with purple hair in a bowl cut and sunglasses covering his eyes leaned over a notebook, scribbling down notes at breakneck pace, while beside him a massive slab of a man with brown hair slicked forward into a point stared at the red-haired girl with undisguised interest. How this jock had gotten into the class, Alfonso had no clue, but he knew by the look on his face that this one would be easy to manipulate.
That left one empty seat, however. As the minutes wore on, Alfonso began to wonder if someone had dropped out of the program. "Anyways, we'll begin today with some review to see what you already know." Galcian seemed to be wrapping up his speech when the door to the classroom opened again.
Into the classroom stepped a young man whom Alfonso could not classify. Immediately his eyes went to the newcomer's messy hair, which was strikingly white for someone so young. He wore a black jacket with a red ascot, along with black pants and shoes. The door slammed shut behind him, and he stood there next to the entrance, waiting patiently to be acknowledged with a serene sort of calm.
"Ramirez," Galcian said expectantly, "I was wondering when you'd show up. Have a seat."
Ramirez nodded slightly, a tiny inclination of his head, before crossing the distance to the group and taking the remaining empty seat. Alfonso immediately turned to the professor. "So when he's late, he doesn't get a reprimand?" He scoffed.
"Ramirez is a special case. His commute is quite a bit longer than yours, mister Travanza." Galcian said, fixing him with a stare that dared him to speak up again.
Alfonso grit his teeth as he settled down and looked away. Galcian resumed his lecture, but Alfonso no longer heard it.
He would not tolerate this sort of disrespect for long…
Lunch time rolled around at Arcadia High, and Vyse and Aika shared a table as they always did. Vyse disinterestedly poked at a slice of pizza with a plastic fork as Aika rambled at him.
"Can you believe that Drachma guy? He's so scary? What on Earth is his deal?" She said before taking a sip of something fruity from a juice box.
"I don't know. But I get the feeling we shouldn't piss him off any further. I don't need my dad to start reprimanding me again." Vyse muttered dejectedly.
"C'mon, Vyse! It seemed like he was threatening you! Isn't that reportable?" Aika seemed fairly frantic.
Vyse finally took a bite out of his pizza, chewing thoughtfully before swallowing. "I'm not sure he was threatening me. Maybe he's just a really intense guy."
Aika pouted as she pointed a fork at him. "What happened to the Vyse who can't stand bullies?"
He gave her a sidelong, unamused look. "I don't know if it really applies when the 'bully' is a teacher."
"Yeah, well…" Aika trailed off, not entirely sure how to respond to that.
"Hey guys!" A slightly younger boy sat down across the table from them, setting down a tray of his own before grinning at them both out of big blue eyes. His short, honey-brown hair made him look remarkably young, and the pair of sunglasses perched just above his forehead did little to alleviate this. "What's up?"
"Hey, Hans." Aika smiled faintly back at him.
Vyse gave him a half-hearted wave of his hand and a nod.
Hans's smile faded. "You guys don't look so good."
Vyse shrugged. "Our homeroom teacher is kind of a weirdo and a jerk." Aika explained in his stead.
"Yeah?" Hans said, leaning forward with a look of interest. "Who is it?"
"Mr. Hughes?" Aika said, sounding slightly confused. "He told us to call him Drachma, though. He's big and old and he's got a metal hand and an angry, growly voice." The red-headed girl briefly devolved into a series of growly noises as she tried to imitate her teacher. "No talking in my class! I'll wallop you across the room!"
The boy across the table chuckled at her before seeming to catch himself. "I'm, ah, sorry you have to deal with that. He seems like a real handful."
Aika heard Vyse snort out a laugh at Hans's choice of wording. "I can agree with that," Vyse finally said.
"You two are tough, though! You can handle it!" Hans clapped his hands together with another smile.
Vyse smiled awkwardly at the younger boy. Aika could tell that he was thinking of the times he'd protected Hans from others who would otherwise have picked on him. Since then, Hans had looked up to him, but Vyse didn't seem to enjoy it one bit. Not that he would ever have the heart to talk the starry-eyed boy out of it, of course. "Thanks, Hans." He said with his best imitation of confidence.
"No problem!" Hans chirped.
"Looks like you two are still glued together at the hip. I don't know why I expected that would change." A snippy female voice said from behind them.
Aika slowly turned around as she heard Vyse exhale sharply. Behind them stood a girl with icy blue eyes and white hair in a slightly jagged bob that faded to blue at the tips. Her eyes were fixed on the back of Vyse's head as she loomed over both of them with arms crossed over her chest. Her black t-shirt had some band name written on it, but Aika couldn't make it out at a glance.
"I'm not sure why you expected that either, Piastol." Aika said with a polite smile. "Do you need something?"
"Oh, nothing important. Just wanted to say hi to Vyse." Piastol said, icy gaze still locked on the young man in question. "After all, we haven't seen each other since Spring."
"Hello, Piastol." Vyse managed stiffly, avoiding turning around.
"Hello, Vyse." Piastol said with a poisonous sweetness. "It's so good to see you again. I spent a lot of time thinking about you over the Summer. About all of that time of mine that you wasted? Remember that?"
"Vyse wasn't wasting your time!" Aika snapped back at her.
Piastol finally turned to look at Aika, setting a few fingertips just below her collarbone in a look of feigned surprise. "Oh, right! How could I be so silly? He was really just spending that time with you."
"Piastol…" Vyse sighed.
"We already told you it wasn't like that." Aika said, matching Piastol stare for stare.
"It doesn't have to be. You two may as well already be married for all the time you spend together," Piastol huffed.
"Will you just-" Aika began, but she stopped herself as Vyse raised a hand to request her silence.
"Piastol," He said, finally turning his head to look at her out of the corner of his eye, "I'm sorry for how things ended between us. I messed up, and I really do want to make it up to you sometime. But right now, can you please give us some space?"
The pleading note in his voice took some of the fight out of Piastol's stance, and her gaze went to the floor as her features softened. "Whatever." She said, her voice suddenly very tired. She spun on her heel and headed off for another table.
"Wow." Hans said as he watched her go.
"She's crazy." Aika muttered, keeping her eyes on Piastol's back until the girl in question was out ofher line of sight.
Vyse shook his head. "She's hurting."
"Well, she's got a funny way of showing it." Aika leaned closer to Vyse with her best reassuring smile. "Wanna go out on the town after school?"
Vyse stared at her for a moment before the tiniest smile appeared on his face. "Sure."
Downtown Arcadia was not very large, but it still had everything Vyse and Aika wanted for. Things had warmed up since the morning, and Vyse rolled up his sleeves as they walked down the sidewalk together once more in the wake of school letting out. "Well, all things considered, that first day could've gone worse." Aika said, trying to keep the mood light.
"It could've gone a lot better, too." Vyse retorted sullenly.
"You're not in any trouble yet. I think you can stand to cheer up!"
"Not gonna let me sulk, huh?" Vyse's smile was gradually returning.
They passed the the time along the walk from the school to the main street with idle conversation, but it dwindled into a sudden silence as they came up on a curious sight.
"Do you know that girl?" Aika gestured to a woman who stood near one of the walls of the book store, being loomed over by a taller man. The girl had pale blonde hair that fell to her shoulders and a long white sun dress that looked rather out-of-season. The man seemed to have taken a rather keen interest in her, as evidenced by the way he pressed in upon her to keep her from leaving.
"I don't, but…" Vyse's voice dropped to a growl as he continued, "I do recognize the guy." He stalked forward, and Aika hurried to follow him as Vyse closed the distance to where they stood with a confrontational air about him.
The young man finally seemed to notice them when they were a few feet away, and he turned away from the girl to smirk at them. "Oh, wow, if it isn't Vyse. Been a while, hasn't it?" His blue eyes flashed with condescension as he stared Vyse and Aika down.
"Harassing yet another girl, Alfonso?" Vyse said with feigned pleasance, his white teeth showing through his smile. "I thought you'd have moved past this behavior once you graduated."
Alfonso sniffed dismissively at him, running a hand through his golden hair in an unconscious gesture. "I'm not harassing anyone, you delinquent. I was merely offering her a tour of the town my family helped to build. Far better me than anyone else."
"I… appreciate it, but I really don't have time... " The blonde girl protested quietly.
Alfonos leaned closer to her. "Come now. It won't take that long! You'll have fun."
"Back off, Alfonso." Vyse warned.
"Uh, Vyse, remind me who this guy is?" Aika asked as she leaned over his shoulder and grabbed his arm, hoping to calm him down.
Alfonso's expression slowly turned derisive. "Oh, I see you still find company with her. Still can't get attention from anyone better, eh?"
"Starting to remember now…" Aika muttered, letting go of Vyse's arm as quickly as she'd grabbed it, all while narrowing her eyes at Alfonso.
Vyse had his fingers curled up in fists again. Alfonso rolled his eyes. "You're angry, Vyse. You're always angry. I'm sure you'd be delighted to hit me right now, but I think you know what'll happen if you do that. My family is not to be trifled with lightly."
"You're an ass." Vyse spat.
Alfonso chuckled as he turned his attention back to the girl. "Please, don't let him disturb you. Come with me and I'll show you the time of your life, away from such rowdy ruffians."
"I'm sorry, but I really have to go." The girl shook her head quickly and turned to leave.
Alfonso extended a hand and caught her wrist. "Ah, just a moment."
Vyse's fist collided with Alfonso's cheek, and immediately his grip let up. Alfonso let out a strangled gasp of surprise as he stumbled to one side, clutching at his face. "Why… you…" He breathed.
Vyse cracked his knuckles as he took a few steps closer. "Give me a reason to hit you again."
Alfonso straightened up and quickly looked around, but the girl had hurried off as soon as he'd let go of her. "Tch. You scared her off after all. Brute."
A raised fist from Vyse took what bravado he had left as he flinched away. "Fine. I'll go. But don't expect this to be without consequences." Alfonso fixed them both with a scowl before turning and hurrying off, one hand still clutching at his bruised cheek.
Vyse and Aika watched him go. "I hope that girl will be okay," Aika said.
"She'll be fine as long as she stays away from creeps like him." Vyse snarled.
Aika glanced at him, concerned. "You need to calm down."
Vyse finally looked at her again. His eyes were alight with anger that boiled just under the surface. "I am calm."
"You're about as calm as a storm cloud." She said with a shake of her head. "Nobody knows when or where you'll strike next, but everyone can see that you're dangerous when you're like this."
That seemed to get to him just a bit, and some of the anger faded from his eyes. He let go of the tension in his shoulders as his gaze fell to his feet. "Yeah, well, someone has to put people like him in their place."
"It's not good when you're taking pleasure in it, though." Aika noted as she took his hand and started leading him somewhere.
Vyse stumbled for a second as he was led along, but followed apace with her afterwards. "I don't take pleasure in it. Where are we going?"
Aika ignored his protest, instead opting to answer his question. "To the arcade. You need to blow off some steam."
The light of the setting sun shone down upon the ancient terrace, making the myriad flowers that ringed it seem almost mystical as their colors were tinged with orange. The quiet stillness of the setting was disturbed as two figures suddenly materialized, one to each side of the terrace.
The first was clearly modeled after a samurai, with dark blue armor and a pair of long, slender blades occupying its hands. The other looked something like a bestial huntress, half-cat and half-woman. She was clad all in spiny leather and hefted an impressively-large boomerang.
The huntress crouched low in an attack pose while the samurai brandished his swords in her direction. There was a long pause of three seconds before suddenly they rushed at each other.
The samurai's swords swept out, one-two, in a quick combo, but the huntress ducked under them and took his legs out from under him with a sliding kick. Almost immediately she spun around and delivered a flying upwards kick that sent her through a backflip away from him. The samurai flew into the air, tumbling upwards as the huntress swung her arm back in preparation to throw her boomerang.
A flash of light emanated forth from the samurai, and suddenly he righted himself in midair. The boomerang came sailing towards him, but he deftly twirled to one side as he descended, narrowly evading a hit. He flickered forward the moment he touched down, and the huntress took a few nimble steps back as her boomerang began to arc back towards her. She positioned herself so it would collide with the samurai on its way back, a smirk on her face.
Suddenly, the samurai disappeared, only to reappear behind her. His blades flicked outward in a twinned horizontal strike, and the huntress let out a cry of protest as she was sent flying forwards. She turned the fall into a forward roll before spinning around and bringing herself to a stop with her claws scraping the tiles of the terrace. Her free hand caught her boomerang as it returned to her.
The samurai twirled his blades before slashing the air in front of him. Waves of energy began flying at the huntress, and she lifted her boomerang in front of her as she straightened up, blocking the strikes with a few backwards stumbles.
The samurai gave up on his ranged attacks and started rushing her again. She twirled once before sending her boomerang flying at him once more, but he leapt over the spinning crescent on his way towards her. She hissed as she extended her claws, ready to meet him head-on.
He took a slash at her, and again she ducked before trying to slash at his feet. He leapt high into the air, flipping forward once before beginning to descend upon her at high speed with his swords pointed downwards.
The huntress just barely dove to the side as he hit the ground with thunderous force. Now, however, his back was turned. The huntress growled her success as she grabbed him from behind, tossing him over her shoulder. He landed heavily on his back, and she dove upon him, mauling him with her claws.
When it seemed like he was on his last leg, he finally managed to interpose one of his swords between him in her claws. His remaining sword arced towards her head for a killing blow.
And then she hauled him up with her. Moments before his sword could finish her, her boomerang came sailing back, striking him from behind and carving him in two. He let out a melodramatic wail as he disappeared in a flash of light. The huntress twirled her boomerang once as she assumed a victory pose.
"Player 1 wins!" The screen declared.
"Hah!" Aika cheered as she let go of the controls.
"Damn it. Have you been practicing behind my back?" Vyse muttered as he leaned back, rubbing at his face in mild exasperation.
"Hey now!" She chided him, "Don't be a sour puss! You won the first three rounds all in a row!"
She thought she could see a smile through his fingers. "Yeah, yeah. Still, you've really gotten good."
Aika winked at him as she leaned on the arcade cabinet. "I learn from the best."
Vyse swatted her playfully on the shoulder. "Flatterer."
She smiled catlike at him before looking around. "What should we do next?"
"Well…" Vyse pulled out his phone, checking the time. "It is getting pretty late. We could take a quick look around to see if anything interesting is happening before we head out."
"Sounds like a plan!" Aika bubbled. Vyse led the way as they wove down the corridors formed by the lines of cabinets and games, and eventually they came upon a crowd of observers gathered around what looked like a shooting game of some sort.
"Now what's the hubbub here?" Vyse wondered aloud as he wove his way into the crowd with Aika in tow, trying to get a glimpse of who was playing.
Standing in front of the cabinet was what Vyse at first assumed to be a young boy. As he looked closer, however, he picked out several features in the boy's face that identified him as older than that. He couldn't quite pick out how old he was, but he was very strange looking, with violet hair cut short and a pair of sunglasses on despite being indoors.
But beyond all that, he was good. He held the light gun in a one-handed grip, adjusting his aim in tiny, efficient motions to take out each wave of enemies as soon as they spawned in. His expression, or what Vyse could see of it with his eyes obscured by the dark lenses of his shades, was wrought with intent concentration.
"That looks like the last level." Aika pointed out.
"Yeah, and he hasn't even been hit." Vyse shook his head with disbelief. "Who is this kid?"
Finally the kid finished tearing through the level's seemingly endless procession of mooks, coming at last upon the final boss. A tremendous monster filled the screen, looking like something out of a sci-fi B-movie, and began slinging wave after wave of projectiles at the screen.
Vyse finally saw the kid smile. He looked positively excited as he fired away, narrowly avoiding hit after hit while still whittling away the boss's health. Vyse thought he could see the kid's breathing stop for a moment as he finally took damage. Then another hit, and another hit, until he was on his last leg.
The boss was critically low on health. Vyse, Aika, and everyone present seemed to be holding their breath as they watched the climactic confrontation.
The kid was about to deliver the finishing blow when one shot seemingly out of nowhere took off his last chunk of health. The screen flashed red, then faded to black, as the words "Game over" faded into view. Beneath them, flashing repeatedly, it said "Insert coin to continue."
"Damn it all to hell!" The kid shouted as he flung the light gun at the cabinet. It bounced off the front with the clatter of plastic on metal, and moments later he stormed off, disappearing into the crowd.
Vyse and Aika watched him go before turning to each other. "Who was that?" Aika asked, bewildered.
"I've never seen him before." Vyse admitted. "But it looks like he's done for the day. We should probably head out, too."
Aika nodded her agreement, and together they left the arcade. The sun had set some half an hour ago, and it had gotten considerably chillier when they stepped outside. Vyse pulled his jacket tighter around himself as he rolled his sleeves back down, and Aika shivered beside him as she wrapped her arms around herself.
"It feels way too cold. Wasn't the sun out just a little bit ago?" Aika whimpered.
"It is getting towards winter…" Vyse said.
Aika was rubbing at her arms uncomfortably. "Something feels weird."
Vyse could feel it too. He lifted his head towards the sky as he felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristling. The very air seemed electrified, like it was anticipating something. "Huh…" He said to nobody in particular.
"Hey, isn't that the kid?" Aika said, drawing his attention back downwards again. He followed her pointing finger to see that it was indeed the kid from the arcade, running down the sidewalk at full pelt. He stopped a ways down by a fence, supporting himself against it with an outstretched hand and hanging his head.
"Is he going to be okay?" Vyse squinted through his glasses as he tried to get a clearer look at the expression on the kid's face. It was hard to see at a distance, especially with the kid's sunglasses.
"We may as well go check. Home is that way, after all." Aika shrugged, heading down the sidewalk in the stranger's direction.
Vyse looked around again as they approached him. The air still had that tension to it, and it was rising by the minute. As they drew nearer to the kid, he could faintly hear him sobbing.
"Hey, uh… whatever your name is…" Aika murmured, leaning close to him, "Are you going to be alright?"
The kid looked up, hastily wiping a few streaks of wetness from his cheeks. "I'll be fine." He muttered. His voice was most definitely not that of a child. Vyse was again left wondering how old he really was.
Aika smiled at him. "You're really good at that game."
The "kid" only seemed to get angry at that. His face scrunched up in irritation. "Not good enough. Never good enough."
Aika's brow furrowed in confusion and sympathy. "I'm sorry. What's your name? Mine is Aika."
Her confusion seemed to be mirrored in his face. "Edwin. Edwin De Loco."
"Well, Ed, let me tell you that I've never even been to the last level of that game, especially not without losing any health. You were a star up there." Aika reassured him.
De Loco just got angrier still. "It's not about the game! It's about everything! Nothing ever works, don't you see? I can never win!"
Vyse lifted his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Look, you've got to calm down, kid…"
De Loco turned and screamed at him in pure reaction. "I am not a KID!" His voice echoed through the wide-open space of the street.
Vyse shivered as he felt that odd tension reach its peak. Automatically he felt his gaze go upwards, to the street light above them. It flickered once and went out.
Immediately he heard confusion from Aika. No, not just confusion, panic. She could feel this too. "Uh, Vyse? What's going on?"
"I, uh, don't… know…" He murmured, looking around as street lights began going out one by one around them. It was getting darker and darker all down the street.
And then, Vyse felt something new nearby. More specifically, behind him. He glanced at De Loco to see him frozen in shock. He and Aika slowly turned around.
Behind them stood a massive monster, looming forth from the inky blackness of the night and silhouetted against the buildings all around. Not just any monster, either. This one was familiar. They had all seen it mere minutes ago on the screen of the arcade cabinet. It lifted its dinosauric head and screamed at them with an unearthly fury.
Vyse took Aika's hand and began to run. He got a few steps away before he realized that De Loco wasn't following as he stood still where he was, evidently too shocked to do anything else.
"What are you doing? Get away from that thing before it kills you!" Vyse called to him.
De Loco didn't react as the monster reared its head back and sucked in a breath. Its mouth lit in orange and red as smoke spewed forth from between its lips. Then it whipped its head back downwards, spitting a fireball straight in De Loco's direction.
"Shit…" Vyse swore as he let go of Aika's hand and rushed forward, hoping to intercept it. He knew he'd be too late, but he had to try anyways.
And then, something collided with the fireball from the side. Something like a silvery mass of fluid engulfed it, and the fire dissipated a few feet away from either of them. Both Vyse and the monster watched it as it flew back to the center of the street, where a new figure now stood.
Her blonde hair and her white sundress were stirred by the gentle night breeze as she stared down the monster, accepting the silvery fluid back into her outstretched hand. It slowly metamorphosed into a ball with a curling tail before seeming to adopt a remarkably cute face.
But it couldn't hold Vyse's attention at all. This was the girl from earlier, the one he'd thought he'd been saving. What did she have to do with all this? How had she stopped that fireball?
It seemed that none of his questions were due to be answered as she turned her head to look at him over her shoulder. Her eyes were silver, like the creature floating over her hand, he realized. Beyond that, though, they were cold and distant as she met his eyes. Her voice was just as quiet as it had been last time, but this time it echoed unnaturally to them, seeming almost like a presence in Vyse's mind. He shivered in sympathy with both Aika and De Loco as he heard it.