From Unofficial Handbook of the Virtue Universe
Part One: Love And War
"You don't have to creep out," grumbled the shaman known as Naga.
He heard a sigh from the end of the bed, his lower body sink slightly at that end of the mattress when she put her weight into one small spot by his feet. He recognised the actions he sensed from her direction, she was getting dressed and there would be no point trying to convince her to stay.
"Come on, baby, it's late," he attempted anyway.
The pressure left the mattress and he opened his eyes. The light was low, merely ambient lunar lux and whatever filtered in from the street outside. The woman was standing in the corner of the room, facing the mirror as she bound up aurum hair in a short pony-tail behind her. In the polished pane of glass he caught sight of himself, a muscular, dark-skinned with dreadlocks pointing out at wild angles like palm fronds and then her; the ghostly figure with dark sapphire eyes and an iron-bound jaw: Alarcity. She leveled a cool, direct gaze into their reflection, like Medusa into Perseus' shield.
She finished winding up her hair and turned away from the mirror. Naga dug his hands into the mattress and sat upright, catching a waft of cold air from the window across his chest.
"Uriel called," she muttered as she crossed the room towards the table where she had left her purse.
"So," she echoed, the blue gaze swept back toward him. Her tone was aloof, like she was speaking to an exasperating child, "I have to go."
It was Naga's turn to sigh. Alarcity had already turned away and was twisting open the doorknob.
"You know what they say about people who feel no emotional connection after sex?"
"They're sociopaths," calm her flat reply.
- * *
The magic weaved around Pandemonium was powerful and bore a scent that was simultaneously sweet and acrid, like desert sand scorched by ball lightning. Though it was distinctive the scent wasn't distressing, but rather on a cold, winter's night in a northern metropoli, it registered as curious and even a little enticing, a subtle way of marking the presence of a club belonging to some of Paragon City's arcane elite and a sanctuary for those that practiced the art of magic. Even at this hour Pandemonium had a crowd, as boiled down as it was to the hardcore practitioners of The Art who huddled in corners lit in varying different colours, throwing challenging glares and razor-thin smirks to magicians of differing traditions.
Alarcity drifted among the cabals until he found Uriel, the clubs influential owner and a thin, hawkish looking man lounging in one of the semi-circular booths at the rooms periphery. Assorted hangers-on, among them a passed-out Cabal woman, still in her witch's hat and a doped up alchemist boy guided her into their presence with blank stares like runway beacons at night. Uriel acted oblivious to her presence until the last moment, when he shot his stare out to her.
"You're here," he cawed with a smug grin. Long, bony fingers reached out to pluck a pipe from the alchemist's unresponding fingers. "What name are we using today? Alarcity? Elizabeth? Sob-"
"Alarcity," came her sharp reply.
Uriel's nostrils flared at the rebuke, like he had inhaled it and was tasting the words for venom. Then, all at once his expression eased and with a careless wave, he dismissed the mages around him. Alarcity felt magic erupt in the air, like pings on a sonar from the assembled magicians, who began to depart, displaying their disdain like cats, with slow, can-hardly-be-bothered progress as they swaggered away from the booth, leaving only Alarcity, Uriel and the catatonic Cabalist.
Uriel raised a hand into the light, displayed curved claws of nails which pointed to a place in the booth opposite him. Alarcity obliged by sliding into the seat.
"Why did you call, Uriel? We're not exactly friends."
"I need something recovered, Alarcity, and it's in your interests to follow this up."
"Somehow, I doubt it."
Uriel tapped out ashes from the pipe onto the table, one brow perched significantly higher than the other. "Of course it is, you -are- a hero now, aren't you?"
Alarcity fell silent.
"I hear you spend time among The Reciprocators these days. Really, mutants and cyborgs? When are you going to start acting like a mage?"
Alarcity's watched with what evolved into a death-stare, but she sensed it only delighted the man.
"I don't blame you, I hear the most intriguing stories about them. Is it true they've tamed a golem? Still, in our circles it's unbecoming."
His eyes flickered up from the pipe to her. In the low club-light, the irises had a vaguely purple-green sheen.
"The Purity Ring, Alarcity. It was supposed to be transferred into my custody but someone went to a great deal of effort to cut through my guards and steal it."
"I fail to see what it has to do with me," answered Alarcity.
Uriel smiled in a manner that revealed all too many teeth. Carefully, he began packing the pipe again, pressing green matter into the cup with the pad of his thumb like nothing at all were the manner. Alarcity could hear the tremor in his voice, though. Something was amiss.
"The ring contains plague-bearing spirit, brought into being by The Legacy Chain to erase magic from Etoile Isles. Without regular warding, it will begin to infect all those in its presence with a virus that feeds on the mystical energies of its hosts. Left unchecked, it will devour our community and leave us as..."
"Right," Uriel spat.
Alarcity eased back into her seat, watching Uriel as cracks began to appear in his cold facade. The theft had him furious.
"The ritual to calm the ring is Oranbegan, and your type are thin on the ground. It was either you or Akarist, and he doesn't return my calls anymore."
Alarcity turned her attention outward, trying to ignore the feeling of concrete hardening in the pit of her stomach. If all was as Uriel said it was, the situation was bad- yet something felt out of place. She considered for a moment, unable to decide if her instincts were warning her of looming treachery, or if it was just disgust at being lead around by her nose.
"How do I find it?"
"I've consulted a diviner. The ring is located in a crypt beneath an old cathedral in King's Row. Marduk can give you the details. It's swarming with Warriors, though."
Alarcity rose out of her chair.
"I know where to find back-up."
Uriel smiled again, broadly and fell backward into his seat. A spark of green fire appeared in the chamber of the pipe, writhing like one of the dancers nearby.
"Uriel, if you cross me, I'm burning you down.
Part Two: Street Magic
Requiem was a different club to Pandemonium. Where the latter was cold, dark asylum from the mundane world, permeated with subtle magics, Requiem reveled in the heady, chaotic mix of uncontrolled arcane power- the pounding, grinding of raw, loud, angry music and the primal writhing of black-clad bodies dancing beneath the flashing, multi-hued lights like snakes under a charmer's spell.
Amid the dancers, the revelers prowled three Reciprocators. The first, a raven-haired woman, The Serial Avenger wore a perpetual scowl of disapproval that warded drug-fueled patrons from her person. The second, a younger, waifish punk-rock woman by the name of Ace Zephyr stood beside the Avenger, her black and blue Reciprocator uniform barely concealed beneath an unzipped, grey hoodie and white earbuds that were suspended from thin wires. Unimpressed by the wild, tumultuous sea of bodies and rapid-fire lyrics blasted from the podium on the other side of the room she simply waited, a typical look of apathy drawn out on her face.
A third, Alarcity, stood in the darkened corner of the club, speaking with a bulky of Korean decent, though their voices were lost to the maelstrom of rumbling bass, Zephyr could tell their tones were curt and words business-clipped. For Alarcity, the hostile undertone was nothing new, but Ace would never have suspected the man was anything more than another raver, but nothing was ever simple when magic got involved. She caught a nod from Alarcity, whose business was apparently concluded and tapped Avenger on the shoulder when the other Defiant Fist approached.
"Our boy's out back."
"Has he got the Purity?" checked The Serial Avenger.
"He's buying something big from The Warriors, and this is the address Uriel gave me. It has to be it."
"Three of us, Larce, is that going to be enough?" asked Ace.
Alarcity's mouth quirked thoughtfully when she considered the question.
"Yes, I have friends meeting us out back."
Avenger's brow perked, she wasn't known for her approachability or for working well with strangers. "Who?"
+ + +
The three Reciprocators moved across the club as one, driving oblivious party-goers from their path with a slow-fuse conviction. Alarcity nodded towards a non-descript door set into the far wall and they navigated through the feverishly hot crowd to that portal. The Avenger reached it first and with only a slight heft, twisted the doorknob out of its fixture. The music covered a snap.
"Cheap shit," she muttered.
Zephyr smirked. The Avenger pushed the door open a sliver and peeked through the crack. The room on the other side was larger than she expected and carried the scent of freshly turned earth. A pride of Warriors, burly men in leather vests that bore ancient Grecian art stood around a table headed by a burly black man man in a dark, navy suit and what appeared to be a few bodyguards. The Avenger felt her jaw tightened at the mere sight of the man, the feeling he invoked wasn't fear as such, but a gut-churning unease as if something wasn't right with the area around him, right down to the vibration of molecules in the air. She glanced back, beckoning Alarcity to the door with a crooked index finger and waited while the mage inspected the scene.
"No time like the present."
The Serial Avenger nudged Alarcity aside, earning a disapproving glare from the magician and stepped sideways through the door. The man's head came up just as Alarcity joined her in the room and Zephyr closed the door to keep the ravers oblivious. Avenger could see now the man had some sort of box, half the size of a briefcase in front of him, which he latched shut as his eyes turned up to meet the Defiant Fist trio. No stranger to dealing with psychopaths of all stripes, Avenger braced herself, but felt that unease return when he revealed a shark-like grin that stilled even the bristling Warriors around them.
Zephyr's eyes cut sideways to the blaster. She was as stoic and impassive as an ancient, Greek statue. The man spoke again.
"What have you brought me? Mutant gene-trash and a... human? Alarcity, dear. You could have at least brought another witch."
The insults washed over Alarcity like they were nothing. Her attention was fixed on one of the mystery man's bodyguards, another black man, heavily built with long, ebony dreads. Avenger, however, was quickly reaching the end of her patience, it showed in the balling of her fists. Then Alarcity's eyes snapped back to the speaker.
"I want Purity," she announced in a low-key voice.
"No," the shark-grinning man teased with a voice that could have shaken the ground, "you want penance, and you're not going to find it here."
Zephyr's apathetic demeanor faded and her brow knit in confusion. "Penance?"
"Fuck this. Stand back, squishies," hissed Avenger.
"The angels," Zephyr reminded the Serial Avenger.
"Don't worry. They're here," stated Alarcity.
The Serial Avenger skipped forward a half step and threw her arms wide in defiance of the crowd. "I don't know what it is, but I'm taking that Purity and who the fuck here is going to stop me?"
The Warriors exchanged glances and surged forward towards The Avenger, who met the pylon head on like a ship barreling into a stormy sea. With inhuman speed and sickening crunch, her fists pummeled into the body of the first hapless enemy, sending him wobbling bonelessly to the ground.
Alarcity joined her compatriot, slinking gracefully across the floorspace without so much as a sound. Her combatant, a mace-wielding warrior, broke away from the group engaging The Serial Avenger and swung high at her head. She dipped effortlessly beneath the arc of metal and simply laid a soft touch on the center of his chest. A fraction of a second later, red-white light erupted in the air like a firecracker, launching the hapless Slammer four feet into the air and back into his brethren.
The Avenger's fists were unstoppable, pounding like jackhammers into hard leather and soft flesh and bone and only increasing in intensity as adrenaline and blood surged through her. A blade caught her side in a lucky nick, but she shrugged it off, laughing maniacally in the face of her foe to keep him focused on her while Alarcity channeled peels of thunder and lightning. Then, a sickening thought came to her.
She spared a glance back, catching a glimpse of a brightly haired figure idly pushing her earbuds into her ears.
"Going to get stormy," Zephyr uttered, as if she were reading the weather from a television screen.
A lucky blow across the chin dragged Avenger's mind back into the fight, but she felt the air grow heavy, pregnant with energy that was wholly different to that which Alarcity was throwing around. She pushed looming dread from her mind.
"Is that all you've got?" challenged the obdurate Serial Avenger.
Alarcity too had noticed Zephyr standing in the corner, even as she swept around the periphery of the fight toward the shark-man. His bodyguard, the shaman Naga, moved to intercept.
"Monica," he said to Alarcity, hunkering his large frame down into a combat hunch, "you don't want to be here."
Alarcity braced herself, channeling energy into the tips of her fingers, which ignited like stars at the ends of her arms. She said nothing.
"When Purity's released, he's going to clear Paragon of your kind. You can still get out."
Alarcity never recalled hearing Zephyr raise her voice like that before. She caught Naga's eye flicker to the young girl. Whatever was happening was big.
The light grew dim in the room, like the power was being sapped from the fixtures. The calamity of Avenger thumping Warriors to the ground disappeared into the growing darkness. Air grew hot and humid, until it felt to Alarcity like breathing was drinking. The all too familiar sensation of turbulent weather building was offset only by the prehistoric instinct that screamed that the brewing storm was too contained.
Zephyr raised her hands in the air. She could barely make the pounding of music in her ears, but beats helped her focus on shaping the cloud forming inside the room. Humidity condensed into water and a bolt of focussed will whipped it around the room with swirling, gushing wind. Excitement ran through her veins, forcing the corners of her lips up to a rare smile as she molded the primordial forces of weather into a weapon. Visibility became a dream as the clouds swelled and bodies of combatants, cowering and attempting to flee were visible only barely when forks of lightning cracked through the air like gunshots that reverberated from the metal walls.
Naga was lost in the storm and Alarcity seized the moment. She swept beneath his muscular arms and charged to the corner of the room to scoop up a long, cardboard tube. She looked up, shielding her eyes from the sudden rainstorm and extended her senses beyond the mundane to search out Purity. The toxin, or whatever it was, was still in its box, under the arm of the buyer who had a head start fleeing down the hall. Alarcity slipped the tube under her arm and bolted after him, a living arc of glowing light moving at superhuman speed.
Zephyr's shoulders began to sink as the energy drained from her and gripped a nearby wall when nausea threatened to overtake her. The storm petered out, the lightning died away and the thick cloud dissipated into a fine, autumn fog. She gasped heavily and looked up to where Alarcity had been, nothing. The Serial Avenger, however, was flicking soaked locks of hair out of her eyes and muttered to the unconscious bodies at her feet. Zephyr simply assumed The Avenger had "forgotten" to bring her Zig transporter beacons with her.
"Where's Larce?" the Avenger asked, her voice unshaken, despite the battering she had taken.
Ace tried to speak but resigned herself to simply shaking her head until she could catch her breath. "We could raise her on the comm?"
The Serial Avenger scowled. "When have you known her to give a straight answer? She'll call if she gets her squishy ass gets a beat down."
+ + +
The halls had lead Alarcity to caverns, too dark and winding to be able to employ her speed, but still she made good progress. After the sweltering tropical storm upstairs, the cool, dusty air of the subterranian labyrinth was refreshing.
A kind of tension, borne more of guilt that fear, wrapped its icy fingers around Alarcity's heart. Naga, the buyer's bodyguard and a former lover, was helping get Purity- whatever that was, out. How long had he been playing her and how many knew? The mage surprised herself by cursing Phaize out first, he was always the one urging her to be less guarded. Instantly, she felt ashamed for transferring the blame, Alarcity knew this was her doing.
Up ahead she heard the pounding rapid footsteps only slightly slower than the thumping of her heart, the quarry charging along the stone maze. Alarcity paused to tap a few keys on Alexus' field computer, strapped to her forearm. The buggy AI cheerfully reminded her that running in the dark, with scissors was inadvisable and then engaged nightvision with a pulse of blue light from sensors build into her X-shaped mask, igniting the world in varying shades of blue ranging from cobalt to a soft aqua.
The pounding of pursuit stopped and Alarcity slowed to a cautious walk, hugging the tube close to her body as the passage opened up into a large cavern. Up ahead, through the filter of blue light, she could make out the buyer, waiting with his shark-like grin that revealed all too many teeth.
"Purity," stated Alarcity.
The man adjusted his tie as if he were at a business meeting. It took a second, watching the focus of his pupils for Alarcity to realize he could make her out even in this pitch black.
"In time," he said, his tone loaded with smugness.
Alarcity twisted the end off of the cardboard tube and reached in. From inside its confines, she removed two, long swords, four feet with a slight curve along their blade. Hello angels, she thought to the weapons, I missed you.
"Poor child. You don't even know what Purity is, do you?"
The swords seemed to roar when Alarcity twirled them in her deft fingers, approaching in a cautious, feline manner.
"Wrong!" barked the man, his voice echoing around the chamber. Electric chill ran down Alarcity's spine. The man backed up a step in response.
His long, spindly fingers paused on the latch and then twitched, diving into the box. Alarcity drew her blade back, like an arrow in its bow and signalled for her muscles to engage, for blood to pump like hydraulics and drive the weapon forward and true. Instead, pain swept over her side, an explosion in her ribs that sent her mind body, and body staggering to the ground. She blinked back stars and caught a glimpse of a large, masculine figure sweeping through the darkness. That body, she had seen so many times before. Naga. Blades clinked as they bounced across the ground.
The mage put her palms on the rough ground and struggled to right herself. The taste of coppery blood filled her mouth and she spat out onto the floor. Force came bearing down and it seemed for a second as if sickness was overcoming her, but then she recognized the squeeze of arms. Arms which had once embraced her, now pinning her to the ground.
Alarcity's vision righted itself and dread suddenly penetrated the haze of pain. The other figure, the buyer was approaching, a syringe in his hand. Her heart thumped, like a hammer, empowering her limbs to struggle against Naga's bulk. Her mind refused to believe that physical strength could matter and she willed the other man off, with no effect. Her legs and arms kicked wildly, sending up sparks and arcs of blue, mystical light until she felt a sharp sting, like a bee's at her side. The luminous energy began to fade, shuddering like a fluorescent tube expiring. A leaden sensation overcame her until all she kicked up was dust, and then nothing at all.
"Purity," the buyer whispered in awe.
Alarcity reached out with her mind, into the void from which she drew her powers but felt the glimmer of magic growing further beyond her. A heart-felt panic overcame her as she realized the Oranbegan magic was evaporating from her like water on an asphalt road in the summer heat. She twitched, spasming wildly to escape like a rabbit in a trap. A part of her soul was dying.
The mage summoned her spirit and gazed once more into the void. The light of her magic was sinking away, like the light on a ship submersing into night time waters. With a last, desperate effort, she pictured herself diving into those unfathomable depths to rescue it.
"Magic is the abomination, Elizabeth," she heard the buyer's voice roll over her, as smooth as butter, "technology, science are all creations of humankind. Mutation is simply the next step in evolution."
Naga watched as Alarcity's eyes went wide, but unseeing. Purity was coursing through her veins, and the fight for survival had reverted the woman to a dumb, animalistic fight-or-flight mentality.
"Magic? Your magic is fire, stolen from the gods. Purity, Elizabeth-Who-Became-Alarcity, is going to eradicate your scourge and return us to our place as the favoured children of Hequat and of the whole pantheon. Purity is the herald of our return to the old ways!"
Submerged in the void, clawing in those black waters for the withering piece of her soul, the words echoed around her, but did not reach Alarcity's conscious mind. Her struggles slowed, both in the spirit realm of the void and in Naga's arms. Finally, they stopped and the world seemed to go black.