“What do we have here?” Virulesse said. “How peculiar… A Stone-rank at your age?”
Oh shit. Oh fucking shit. It was bad enough when I thought she was going to murder Elder Hammond right in front of everyone, but now she was standing mere feet away from me, all her attention on the one person she would probably want to kill even more.
Bohriam, for his part, was scared fucking stiff and speechless. All things considered, that was probably for the best.
“Who is this boy?” Virulesse asked no one in particular—and therefore probably everyone. “Is he… What’s the politically correct way of saying this… Mentally capable?”
Boh stuttered out his rehearsed response. “M-my name is Bohriam Sen Kahl. From the Kahl branch of the Sen family line. I’m a Level Sixty-sev—Sixty-eight Stone-rank and my—”
Elder Hammond spoke up. “He’s a good lad, as capable as any of us—though he’s been tasked with a rather unique Personal Quest—”
Virulesse glared. Without breaking eye contact with Bohriam, she raised an arm and pointed her open palm to the side. Wordlessly, she launched a fireball that instantly incinerated a random Gostreyan who had been watching from another part of the crowd. Dozens screamed and scrambled away from the smouldering ash of what used to be their neighbor. Virulesse spoke loud enough to cut through the horror. “Do not interrupt us, Renegade Hammond. We are having a conversation.”
Fuck. Holy fuck. She just killed someone just because Elder Hammond interrupted her. This woman wasn’t just an evil overlord—she was batshit insane. And yet, I was pretty sure she conveyed to everyone exactly the message she was trying to send.
The Exarch returned her full attention to Bohriam. “Are you not strong enough to ascend?” She had none of the cold-blooded fury that she had worn a few seconds ago. Instead, she watched Bohriam with casual curiosity. “Even as a Stone, at Level 68 you must have seen plenty of combat, won plenty of fights… In fact, you might even have been a useful addition to that pathetic army Gostrey called its ‘Aegis’.”
Fuck. If this conversation went on for even one more sentence, there was little chance of Boh making it out alive. Not in a world of magic truth-easing and lie detector eyes. Did Virulesse have that ability? Was she already using it? No, that didn’t matter—Vaxal had it too. If she wanted, she could just have Vaxal pull the truth right out of him.
But this was also a world of evil magical tyrants and ruthlessness I couldn’t imagine. Could I really survive here for long without Boh? Did I even want to? Maybe it was time for a little do or die action on my part. Before I had time to talk myself out of it, I took a small step forward. “Hey! If you think a Stone-rank at his age is crazy, you should check me out!”
“Ash, what are you doing?!” Boh said.
I half-expected Virulesse to swat me away like a gnat and for my swatted head to snap right off its neck and go flying down the street—but instead she glanced sideways at me, her monocle faintly glowing as her eyes slowly widened.
“Fascinating…” Virulesse breathed. Her lips parted into a mesmerized smile as she studied me. “You’re not registering on my Inspection Oracle at all… Even the Godlight Guardians aren’t strong enough to do that…”
I nodded proudly, hiding all my terror behind a smile of imaginary confidence. “That’s right; I may as well be invisible. But the thing is, I’m even weaker than Boh here.” Thank you, Grennick the Gray Guardsman, for giving me at least this piece of intel I could work with. The rest, for worse or worse, was up to me.
“Ash,” Boh warned again, but Virulesse ignored him.
“What are you?” she asked.
“I’m nothing,” I said. “I don’t have the Seven Sevens System. I’m a Null-rank.”
At that point I noticed Elder Hammond in the background calmly and quietly directing other Gostreyans out of the plaza. Good. At least someone here was a responsible adult. What I was doing was just as likely to get everyone here killed as it was to distract Virulesse from any one person. What was I thinking? What was my endgame here? Focus, Ash. What am I doing, so I can do it most effectively?
Elder Hammond. I was giving Elder Hammond time to come up with a real plan. To get his people out of the danger zone, to hopefully distract the Exarch from me and Boh as well. I had to hope he would be on my side—because I sure wasn’t doing myself any fucking favors.
“Incredible,” Virulesse said, filled with wonder. “I’ve never heard of such a thing being possible. And yet…” She turned to look at Vaxal, who was standing next to the empty palanquin with his arms crossed, an expression of impatient disdain on his face. He gave the Exarch a slight nod. She turned back to me. “… I believe you. What’s your name?”
“My name is Ashleigh Kyriakides. But my friends call me Ash.”
Virulesse smirked. “And what should I call you?”
Gulp. I bowed my head. “You can call me whatever you want, honorable Exarch.”
She laughed. It took most of my willpower to not nervously join in the laughter—I was pretty sure if I did that, I was a goner for sure. Instead I held my ground, tense like I never was before, hoping to God—or maybe to Magann—that I wasn’t making an utter fool of myself.
“I can tell from your name that you’re not a native Viskavian,” Virulesse said. “Denalythe, perhaps? Or maybe Austerdane?”
Yes, good, conversation. I just had to keep Virulesse’s attention long enough for Bohriam to realize he should be getting out of here! God damn it, Boh! Read the room! At least half of the former crowd had dispersed at Elder Hammond’s silent instructions, but Boh seemed to be painfully oblivious to it. That just meant I would have to keep Virulesse’s attention away from him even longer.
(… Of course my first boss fight in a fantasy world would be to prolong a casual conversation. God, I was not prepared for this.)
“Neither of those,” I said. “You probably haven’t heard of the place I’m from.”
“Is that so?” Virulesse chuckled. “Try me—I’m well versed in global politics.”
“Uh… Hoboken, New Jersey?”
Virulesse raised her eyebrows, clearly surprised to be met with a location she hadn’t heard of. “Where on Era is that?” she asked rhetorically. Of course people would still rhetorically ask that.
“It’s… not on Era,” I said. “It’s on another world… I’m from another world.”
Virulesse stared at me in a mixture of confusion and shock for a long few seconds. She whipped her head around to Vaxal, who had dropped the veneer of displeasure and was staring at me with the same level of shock and disbelief. Virulesse returned her gaze to me, and I watched her expression morph as she processed my revelation—from astonishment, to excitement, to primal sadistic glee.
“Renegade Hammond,” she called out without breaking eye contact with me. “I believe I’ve found an arrangement you would be amenable to.”
Hammond was standing near Vaxal, one of the only Gostreyans left out of what had recently been a sizable crowd of onlookers. “Your will is mine, honorable Exarch.”
“I will spare this town and all its inhabitants,” Virulesse said. “I will forget your little rebellion ever happened and never come back… in exchange for the Null-rank.”
Uhh. Shit. Beside me, Bohriam tensed.
Elder Hammond bowed his head to the Exarch. “Gostrey graciously accepts your mercy. I am sorry, Ashleigh Kyriakides.”
Fuck. No. I didn’t want to get Virulesse’s attention that hard. She took a step toward me, reaching a hand up to my face, and I stepped back. “Um, do I get any say in this?”
Virulesse kept walking toward me. “My dear, we are going to learn so much from each other…”
Yeah, like how to be an evil overlord’s plaything. No thanks. “I am a big fan of learning… But on the other hand—” I spun around on my feet and ran away as fast as I could.
God, I fucked that up. Why did I say anything at all about where I’m from? Now I was on the radar of the goddamn evil empire, and I was powerless to do anything about it. But hell if I was going to let them catch me without a fight—as futile as I knew it was.
“Ash, no!” Bohriam shouted.
Behind me, I heard Virulesse chuckle gently. “Vaxal?”
The last thing I heard was Bohriam frantically shouting “Ash!” as something flew at me at lightning fast speed. I don’t know whether it was a weapon, an energy attack, or Vaxal himself—but it hit me before I could make it halfway down the street, and the world quickly faded to black.