The repeated, hollow ping of a basketball against the asphalt echoed in the empty court as Nano Santos dribbled in wide, easy circles. He lined up for a shot, his body falling into a natural position as he quickly gauged the distance from nearly halfway across the court. Then for a moment he was airborne, defying gravity as he pushed the ball away from his fingertips. It found its trajectory and sailed through the air... then bounced harmlessly off the backboard. Nano dropped his hands to his knees in dejection, panting to catch his breath.
The sun had set hours ago, and the night air was unusually calm. There was no breeze, and the warm humidity of late spring weighed down on his shoulders, sticking his own sweat to his skin. Nano straightened up and glanced towards the harbor. The small street court jutted out from the side of a hill, allowing him a distant view of the sea, but the smudge of the city’s pollution choked out any starlight, turning the water to a dark, matte gray which melded with the jet-black horizon. It felt as though Ikeda was biting its breath: caught in a feverish calm before a coming storm. Nano frowned, dragging the back of his hand across his mouth. The unease he had felt that night had been distracting him, throwing off his shots and causing him to lose his focus. He had fought against it, but with each loop of the court he only felt more and more suffocated, his steps landing more heavily then they should have. He was tired, but at the same time too jittery to relax.
"Hey!" Someone called to him from the other side of the chainlink fence. It was Emi Tenka, one of the Fullbringers of Xstence. Out on a delivery round? He blinked to acknowledge her, and tried to wipe the sweat from his face with his shirt.
"I got something for you," she said, ignoring the the fact that Nano had more or less ignored her greeting. Before he could head over to the fence, Emi had leaped over it, landing easily on the other side. She walked over to the basketball, examined it with disinterest, and tossed it over her shoulder. It fell easily through the hoop, and Nano glared at her.
"Here ya go," she said, handing him a small device. It was Nano’s pager, which he had accidentally damaged in a fight against a Hollow the week before. Tetsuo must have repaired it and given it to Michiyo, who had given it to Emi, who was now giving it to him. He took it from her hand, turned it over once, then stuffed it into his pocket. She punched him in the arm. "That all ya gonna say? No thanks?" she asked.
"Thanks." He shrugged, then went to pick up his basketball.
"I dunno why, but Mrs. Yamahana wanted me to ask you something." She tapped her chin and frowned, then flapped her hand. "Bah, can’t remember what it was."
Nano guessed that it had something to do with his Fullbring training. He had just learned to manifest Bringer Light, which meant the next step would be for one or more members of Xstence to help him manifest his final version of And One. It was a dangerous process, Tetsuo had said, and required the assistance of at least one other Fullbringer. But in his current state Nano didn’t think he was ready. He held the smooth skin of the basketball between his hands and felt frustration well up within him. That’s why he had been out here, day after day for two weeks straight, trying to hone his affinity to his focus. And the result?
Nano glared at the net, then raised the ball above his head. He balanced it perfectly, tipping his shooting hand back at just the right angle. This time, the ball flew over Emi’s head, hit the backboard, and bounced into the net. Bank shot.
"Aw well, have fun kid," she said with a wave over her shoulder as she turned to leave.
Without warning, a single, precipitous tremor rippled through the atmosphere. A wave of unknown mass slammed down on top of Ikeda, and whatever calm there had been before was stripped away by the screech of sudden wind. An immense knot of spiritual pressure formed above them, and Nano gasped for breath, turning to look at the sky.
From a singular point of pressure above the mountain ridge to the north, the sky burst outwards. A black line cut across the horizon, strange light pouring from an unseen fissure in strange, linear patterns. Bright colors of blue and purple and green mimicked the most spectral beauty in the natural world, yet twisted into unnatural hues. It was distinctly uncanny.
No, this pressure was unlike anything he had ever experienced from a Hollow. Inexplicable, primordial dread settled in the pit of Nano’s stomach. Narrowing his eyes, he thought he could see movement against the light. A writhing of cephalopodic limbs reaching down to touch the earth.
"What the hell is that?" Emi shouted. Like the blotting of black ink, dark figures joined the writhing limbs, dropping from the sky. They touched the surface... and a ring of dark energy exploded across the sky.
The initial crack, followed by a tremendous roar, slammed into Nano’s skull. Both Emi and Nano were sent reeling across the court. Gravel travelled with him, tossed up from the the force of the distant impact. At last, it subsided into a deep vibration within the surface of the earth itself, leaving an uncomfortable buzz in Nano’s ears.
"What the hell was that?" Emi exclaimed again. A vortex of smoke, tainted by the unearthly color of the rift, rose from the mountain ridge, its silhouette clearly cut by the disturbing orange glow spreading from underneath. But the crack in the sky, along with the descending cloud of creatures, had disappeared.
Earthquake sirens wailed as the reverberation beneath their feet continued.
"Come on Nani!" Emi said, getting his name wrong as he grabbed his hand and pulled him into the air. They moved quickly through the sky, heading towards the source of the disturbance before any passerby from below could notice them. But as they neared the epicenter, Nano pulled back, forcing Emi to stop on the rooftop of a house.
"What?" she snapped.
"That’s—" his voice came out hoarse, and he cleared his throat. "That’s where the nuclear plant was."
Emi’s eyes widened, and she glanced back at the smoke rising into the air.
"Well shit," she muttered.
The power plant, located in the mountains above Ikeda, had been unused for several decades, but the government had sealed off the perimeters in fear of containment. Now, the swelling billows of smoke, if they had really come from the old plant, spelled nuclear disaster. Emi narrowed her eyes, daring the bio-hazard to meet her face to face.
Just then, a thin line of blue arced above the smoke, and Nano and Emi knew exactly who had formed the translucent, shimmering barrier. It was the largest force field Nano had ever seen Michiyo generate, and it stretched over the clouds before closing in a sphere that hovered above the horizon. The heavy orb of smoke glowed and pushed against the barrier as Michiyo fought to to contain it.
"Let’s go!" Given all the go-ahead she needed, Emi took off to meet Michiyo, Nano close behind her. They blurred over the outskirts of town, flying over the forest at the base of the mountains, until they spotted Michiyo on a plateau.
"You two!" Michiyo stated as they landed. "What do you think you’re doing here?"
"We saw the explosion," Emi stated with a shrug.
Michiyo turned back to controlling the smoke, her face crinkled with concentration.
"It’s too dangerous, you shouldn’t be here."
Below them, a glowing mass of ephemeral energy stretched between a yawning, dark chasm in the base of the valley. The energy formed a glowing membrane that shimmered over the surface of the void, swirling with light and crystalline color, pulsating with a freakish energy. Nano was pushed to his knees by the intensely concentrated spiritual pressure, and the buzzing in his head grew louder, like electric static.
Above the constant feedback, he heard the dull throb of a helicopter’s blades, and glancing up he saw a first response helicopter flying towards the center of the smoke. Before anyone could react, dark tentacles rose from the center of the swirling energy and wrapped around the helicopter. Its motor whined as it strained against the creature, then it was pulled down into the rift. As soon as it hit the membrane, it exploded in a plume of bright orange. Nano’s eyes widened.
"'Bout as dangerous as anything else we’ve faced." Emi said with a shrug, but her expression was grim. She activated her Fullbring and a green light enveloped her forearm as armor snapped into place. Soon, they were joined by other figures who appeared on the plateau amid flashes of Bringer Light: the other members of Xstence.
"Stand back everyone!" Michiyo yelled as she formed another barrier over the veil of thick, viscous smoke.
Somehow, the paged message, indicative of Tetsuo’s caution, was able to reach them despite the atmospheric disturbance:
Emi clicked her tongue with annoyance. The cautionary message had reached everyone too late, as they already stood on the brink of destruction. At last, Michiyo managed to contain the toxic cloud of smoke, shrinking it into a large, hovering orb.
Finally, Tetsuo and Kōhaku made their appearance. They flashed down from the sky and immediately approached Michiyo to confirm the situation. But Nano couldn’t hear what they said above the buzzing in his head.
Make it stop, he pleaded silently. Make it stop.
The pressure continued to build, swelling to a breaking point. Then, the film across the mass of energy broke open. It surged upwards in a torrent of dark energy which consumed the entirety of the valley. As the wind and dust howled around him, Nano fought to his feet. Strangely, the buzzing in his head had subsided.
He approached the edge of the precipice.
Below him, the ground of the valley had vanished. There was no crater of impact from the explosion. There was only a rift, and an endlessly deep void which seemed to call to him, to lure him towards its horizon.
"Nano?" Vaguely, distantly, he heard his name being called. He struggled against the magnetic pull of the rift, and stared back at the other Fullbringers.
Then, without a word, he disappeared.