As most other people ran away from the fiery explosion and the ensuing whirlwind of flaming debris, Bohriam ran headlong into it—the perfect picturesque caricature of a stupid superhero thinking only of rescuing others before himself. Or at least, that’s what I assumed was going through his pure naive heart. Maybe he had just completely lost his mind. And maybe I had too—because I was chasing after him.

Gee, you’d think I hadn’t been paying any attention when Bohriam told me to steer clear of danger like my life depended on it.

The street around the destroyed building was covered in a cloud of thick gray smoke, obscuring visibility more than a few feet. Not slowing down his sprint at all, Bohriam manifested a shirt out of his inventory and held the cloth covering over his mouth and nose.

I hid my face behind the crook of my elbow. “Bohriam, don’t!” But what was I telling him not to do? Run head first into the danger? I still knew fuck-all about what was dangerous on this world. Oh shit—could there be asbestos in this debris?

A huge gust of wind burst forth from the center of the street, emanating out in all directions, blowing away all the smoke and haze. I shielded my eyes with my arm until the tempest died down.

Standing in the middle of the street where the burst of wind had come from was a tall man with ghoulishly pale skin. Armor covered his body from his neck down, bumps and spikes on its surface constantly shifting like it was made of 4-dimensional liquid metal. Behind him stood three other blatant anime villains, with a floating palanquin in the middle of the group, its interior hidden behind a closed door.

The tall man’s arm was raised high, holding a spherical, cracked, glowing stone reminiscent of the phos-rocks I had seen last night. The other hand, he had wrapped around the skull of a Gostreyan man hanging limply in front of him.

The tall man spoke with a deep, naturally hoarse voice. “Do you still wish to defend your home, gosling?”

The Gostreyan stuttered out a “N-n-no sir!” The tall man released his armored-clawed grip on the Gostreyan’s skull. The Gostreyan fell to his hands and knees, groveling.

The cracks in the tall man’s stone orb deepened and he unmanifested it into his inventory. He looked out over the edges of the street. A small crowd had gathered around the scene. I took an instinctive half-step back—this was someone I did not want to mess with. My Olympian snark would probably get me killed in a matter of seconds.

The tall man’s voice boomed as he addressed the crowd. “People of Gostrey! I am Vaxal Brigyndir, enforcer of the will of the Exarch Virulesse, the lawfully appointed ruler of the province of Viskavia. Your little rebellion has failed! I announce the presence of the Exarch herself, Virulesse Syndane, here to judge this town for its treason against Beleria!” He gestured to the floating palanquin, whose occupant was notably not getting involved yet.

“Anyone who stands in our way will be annihilated,” Vaxal thundered. “Now, direct us to your Council of Elders, and the path of destruction we carve into your streets will be gentle.”

Damn, that guy stole my “take me to your leader” chance!

Also, shit, it was the fuzz, we were all gonna die.

On my left, Bohriam hadn’t moved since the tall man—Vaxal—had started speaking. Good. As a member of the Gostrey Aegis—the only remaining member—the Exarch and her entourage probably wouldn’t think twice about killing Boh on the spot if they noticed him and realized who he was, no matter how small a role he played in yesterday’s battle itself. Judging by how Boh was trembling in fear, he was probably thinking roughly the same thing.

A shout came from elsewhere in the street. “Murderers!” Andreon, the spoiled brat from last night, ran screaming through the crowd into the wide clearing around Vaxal and his accomplices. “Gray Guard scum!” He manifested a curved dagger of blue steel into his hand, pointing it at Vaxal. “I’m going to kill you for what you did to Jonakan!” He charged at Vaxal with full superhuman speed.

The ends of Vaxal’s mouth raised into a grin as Andreon closed the distance. Shifting into a fighting stance, he drew back his fist in preparation for a full power punch.

Andreon reached Vaxal and stabbed the dagger forward—and almost faster than I could comprehend, Vaxal’s arm thrust out, leaving a trail of red sparks and flame in its wake. Vaxal’s palm met Andreon’s face, his fingers wrapping around Andreon’s head. It was like Andreon hit a brick wall. In that single unseeable instant, all of Andreon’s forward momentum was cancelled. A shock wave of scalding wind followed the path of Vaxal’s outstretched arm, with Andreon’s skull its epicenter.

Vaxal grabbed Andreon’s dagger in his left hand while Andreon recoiled in place from the palm strike. The dagger was so small in Vaxal’s giant gauntlet that it looked more like a toy than a weapon. Vaxal held the blue blade casually between his middle finger and thumb. Then he snapped his fingers—and the blade cracked in half like glass.

Andreon manifested another weapon—a smaller dagger, it looked like, maybe a knife—and he jammed it into Vaxal’s wrist. The attack caught Vaxal by just enough surprise that he let his grip on Andreon falter. Andreon gracefully dropped to the ground, and sprung immediately forward into an attack at waist level.

Vaxal reacted to the attack just in the nick of time, jumping to the side as Andreon slashed through empty space. “I’m not Gray Guard,” Vaxal said. “But I am the one who hired them.”

“They killed my brother!” Andreon spat.

“Then perhaps they deserve a bonus!”

Andreon screamed, running forward with nothing but his fists and a fuckton of fury.

Vaxal tore the knife out of his wrist and threw it at the ground with enough force to embed it in the stone of the road. He dodged Andreon’s volley of jabs effortlessly, moving his bulky frame with a speed and control I couldn’t imagine. As fast and furious as Andreon was, he wasn’t landing a single blow.

“Enough of this!” Vaxal said, and he stopped trying to dodge. Andreon connected with a punch to the chest powerful enough to sound like a sonic boom. Vaxal didn’t even move.

In a blink, Vaxal brought his hand up, grabbing Andreon under the chin and lifting him a foot in the air. Both of Vaxal’s eyes began to glow a blinding bright white. “What do you most fear?

Struggling against Vaxal’s grasp, Andreon couldn’t look away from Vaxal’s blinding eyes. Andreon’s own eyes began to glow just as fervently.

Living with humiliation?” Vaxal laughed. “You’ll get no such honor from me.” He threw Andreon into a nearby building with enough force to send Andreon straight through the wall.

Vaxal crouched, preparing to jump after Andreon to continue the fight (and probably leave a crater where he stood in the process), when a new voice rang out from inside the palanquin. “That’s enough, my dear—you’ve had your fun.”

Vaxal powered down, releasing an aura of energy I hadn’t even realized was surrounding him. “As you command, my lordess.”

The palanquin’s doors swung open, revealing the Exarch in all her modest glory. Next to Vaxal Brigyndir’s humongous armored frame, Virulesse Syndane looked downright human. Black shoulder-length hair and smoothly tanned skin on a slim body that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Earth. She looked like she was about my age, maybe a couple years older. And though she lacked all the bulging muscles that Rikaine or her friend Vaxal had, it could not be denied that this woman emanated power.

“Besides,” she said, “haven’t you noticed? Our true adversary has finally arrived.”

I turned around to the other side of the crowd and saw Elder Hammond casually walking up to the Exarch’s party. “You should not have come all this way.”

Virulesse jumped down from the floating palanquin, an exhilarated smile on her face. She manifested a monocle in front of her left eye. It began to glow a deep green as she stared at Elder Hammond. Then she burst into laughter. “You think you can fight me? You’re a disgrace to your Rank, old man.”

Hammond shook his head. “There is no fight to be had here, honorable Exarch. Gostrey submits to your authority.”

“That wasn’t your position yesterday,” Virulesse retorted.

“Yesterday, you turned us into derelicts and widows. Today, I ask that you spare us our lives and what little dignity we have left.”

Virulesse laughed. “Spare you? You dared to revolt against the kingship of Beleria! An example must be made.”

Hammond hung his head gravely, resigned to whatever fate the Exarch had in mind for him. “Then exemplify.”

Virulesse manifested a long whip made of pure crackling energy. She walked toward Hammond, her grin growing more sadistic with each callous step.

But before she reached Hammond, her monocle started glowing once more, and she let her energy whip vanish. Her vicious smile was replaced with an expression of curiosity as I realized she was looking directly at me—wait, no, at Bohriam.

Characters: Ash, Bohriam, Vaxal, Andreon, Virulesse, Hammond, some poor gosling with a raging headache now