1 From the Smoke Into the Fire

Once I brushed the ashes of flesh and clothes off myself, my first thought was about dinner. As I slipped out of the building into an alleyway, I hardly noticed how much smoke was already coming from of the basement. The fight with the white-coated alchemists made me hungry enough to stop at the first food cart I saw, a small halal joint with all the usual suspects. Lamb and falafel on rice or with a salad are good on occasion, but I got my usual: a chicken gyro. More often than not, it ends up just being a bland pita with meat, vegetables, and too-rich white sauce. Regardless of the taste, I can eat it while I walk, and that's good enough for me. While I don't have a car, I do have a skateboard, and I find that I eat on the go a lot, so I'm fond of anything hand-held.

A bit later, I was sitting on a bench across the street, halfway through my gyro, and staring at the building as it softly billowed smoke. Everyone walking along Finch Street stopped to at least take a look. As I saw flames creeping out of the broken first floor windows, I smiled with satisfaction. My expression changed quickly once I saw a figure peek over one of the windowsills, but duck back down quickly. Without skipping a beat, I wrapped the rest of my gyro in its foil package, and tucked it into my back pocket. Since I started following the system's orders, I hadn't been caught in the act or otherwise found out, and I didn't intend to start then. Truth be told, I didn't want to kill the window-peeker if I didn't have to. For all I knew, they hadn't even seen me. I hoped that they weren't one of the whitecoats that had slung chemicals and weapons at me, but I had to make sure.

I felt the heat coming off the building as I made my way back into the alley, like an open oven that smelled of drywall and piss. It didn't bother me, like most heat, but what did was the fact that the peeker was still inside. I had come back around to the alley such that I could see both ways out of the building, and nobody had come out. As well, I hadn't heard any sounds of struggle over the crackling flames. Putting Smoke at half output to hide myself, I stepped into the piss-and-drywall oven. I could see just fine, but to anyone looking at me, it would look like a load of black smoke got pulled back into the building with me. More flames than expected greeted me in the lobby, as well as a strange sight. A little girl with long, frizzly brown hair in some sort of dusty jumpsuit too big for her was trotting around, like she was lost in a grocery store. She must have heard me come in, because she turned to face me and shrunk away. The sight of her wide, shiny grey eyes in a face that looked hollow like a skull stopped me in my tracks. Instinctively, I turned Smoke off completely to make sure she knew I was a person, and offered my hand to her. I figured I'd be easier to forget if she knew me as just, "the man who helped me out of the burning building."

"Hey there, it's alright. I'm not going to hurt you." Making myself sound calm and concerned felt stranger than I thought it would. After a moment, the girl, thin with notably small limbs and not more than three feet tall, stood back up and tentatively took my hand. I wanted to whisk her up quickly, drop her just outside the alley, and bolt home, but a splitting pain in my head brought me to one knee. The girl let out a shriek, falling backwards as she pulled away. A message from my system, in a deep voice I had never heard before, pierced my head.

[Attention: All Avatars, Chaos and Being have made contact.]

#

Maybe I should go back a bit. I'm not a very emotional person. On the rare days I watch the news, nothing surprises me. A hurricane levels a whole county in Mississippi? They have an entire season dedicated to rain and flooding over in India and those places. Some lowlife goes nuts with a rifle at his neighborhood school or grocery store? There are whole wars being fought by kids that were taken from their parents and told, "kill or be killed," in the really wretched parts of the world. Don't get me wrong, I still feel for anyone who gets hurt or loses something out of no fault of their own. Things aren't fair, and that sucks. I just don't worry about everything I see on the street or on the internet. I couldn't tell you why, it's just how I've always been, at least, as far as I know.

The point is, when some fat trucker with a beard down to his collarbones insists on paying for his iced tea, honey buns, and meat sticks with silver dollars and quarters, I can just stand silently and wait for him to finish counting coins. It helped that there were maybe five other customers in the whole store, from what I could tell. For a good-sized grocery store just out of downtown Callastus, it was a slow evening. "There's $10.75," he said after double-checking, and presenting me with a handful of coins in one large, glistening palm.

I swiped them out of his hand, made change in dimes and pennies, gave the big fella his receipt, and sent him on his way with a, "Thank you, come again." Without skipping a beat, I turned off my register, printed out the receipt backlog, and took out the drawer.

My manager, Connie, a thin blonde a little less than twice as old as me who had a ring through one eyebrow, said, "See you Monday, Trevor," as I handed her my sales for the day. After I turned towards the breakroom, I waved a half-hearted goodbye over my shoulder. As always, just as I pass through the alcohol section next to the already-dark deli, the system pings me.

[8 targets currently in proximity, 5 bonuses available.]

Even though it's been a year since I was graced with this combo of a synthetic voice in my head and superpowers(which is apparently called a, "system," in online fiction), I still haven't nailed down what it means when it says, "In proximity," how it categorizes my, "targets," or why they're even called that in the first place. It tells me to scorch or burn a place down, I just light it up, and walk away. So far, that's worked every single time. I guess I just think of targets as things you can miss. Once I clocked out, just past seven-thirty, I stuck my name badge in my back pocket, exited through the back door of the store, and stretched my arms to the sky. Looking up-and-down the narrow and quiet 26th Street, I decided to head away from Market Street, and my apartment. As expected, the system took note.

[4 targets in this direction, 1 bonus available.]

That night just didn't feel like a night to try for a bonus reward. Limiting which powers I can use or sneaking around the scene for who knows how long just didn't seem worth it, and that was assuming the system wouldn't pull a fast one on me. Maybe it was just that I wanted to get home quicker because of the June mugginess. The heat didn't bug me, but I've never known someone who likes humidity. Whatever the case, it only took ten minutes or so of walking before the system gave me an update.

[Target: Condemned office building, 24th and Finch Streets. Alchemists conducting human experiments out of the basement. Burn them out, bonus for ensuring destruction of equipment.]

I couldn't remember the last time a bonus had specified destroying something that wasn't the target itself. 'What kind of equipment survives a building burning down?' I wondered, crossing the street onto Finch just as the opposing light went green. The building itself sure looked condemned, with graffiti splattered over the discolored bricks and a number of windows broken and missing large shards of glass. I wagered that the fact it was on the corner of 24th and Finch was why it hadn't been knocked down yet. Even though it was almost eight o'clock, I had to slip around plenty of people as I looked for a way into the building. Putting my hands in my pockets, I spotted a shadowed, unfenced alleyway. Glancing over both shoulders as I turned towards it, I put Smoke on very low output, making just enough to stop someone from getting a good look at my face or clothes. 'Never hurts to be safe,' I thought as I noticed a boarded-up doorframe with a word graffiti'd across it in an unreadably thick font. Cocking my right fist at my side, I channeled Ash, making it turn white and forming cracks on its surface. As I exhaled and punched clean through through the two-by-fours, embers and powdery ashes burst from the point of impact. Before I dispelled Ash, my knuckles had gone black with glowing red patches. By the time I peeled away the other boards that I could, my original skintone had returned.

The lobby of the building had two entrances, including the one I came in. The other one was a chained-and-padlocked door that opened out onto 24th. I recognized a door with a faded sign labelled MAINTENANCE ONLY as my way to the basement. It was one of the few completely intact things in the lobby. A simple brass chandelier hung from the ceiling that was missing half its arms, and what seemed to once have been the welcome desk was in two distinct pieces. Avoiding broken glass, pieces of tile, and wood splinters of various sizes, I made my way to the door, which creaked loudly as I eased it open, revealing a relatively clean grated staircase. I waited at the top of the stairs, and after a moment, a clinking of glass softly echoed up to me, giving me goosebumps and forcing a sigh out of me. It was rare for the system to give me a target that a lot of people could see, and even rarer, one with people still in it. That said, the scuffles I've gotten into while following the system's guidance only happened because of my stupidity, either in entering or getting out of a target. 'They're in the basement, so if I want to be sure the building goes up, I gotta start there.' For a moment as I snuck down the stairs, I considered turning Smoke back on, but when I guessed that the basement would be lit well, I shelved the idea. 'I'll stand out more than anything else.' About two floors down, at the bottom of the staircase, I was met by another door that seemed cleaner and more solid than the one in the lobby. It was difficult to tell for sure because of how dark it was, but when I felt the wall it was set in, I realized that it, too, was cleaner and thicker than the one that surrounded the staircase. I put my ear to the door and strained to hear something through it, but didn't get anything. To my surprise, when I tried the silvery handle, it swung open silently, revealing a dim expanse of empty space. Catching a few echoing whispers from somewhere, I took a step without looking around. My ankle caught cleanly on a tripwire, and nearly faceplanted, my palms slapping bare concrete. I had just enough time to curse myself, turn Smoke on full-blast, and bolt into the nearest corner as voices grew louder and closer. I didn't have time to consider whether to abandon the target and whatever reward came with it, as a half-dozen people in long, white coats rounded a corner I hadn't been able to see in the dark.

"It's an intruder, seal it!" A moment later, I heard glass shatter against the door, and snapped to look back at it. Evidently, that bit of glass held something nasty, and probably magical. A mass of churning brown bubbles that smelled equally of burning wood and grilled meat spread across the surface of the door and popped rapidly, rendering it indistinguishable from the wall. Realizing how much my smokescreen was already thinning, I did a double-take between the alchemists and the now seemingly-solid wall. 'Fuck. If I can't break through the wall and get upstairs in one go, I'm screwed. If I can't break through these guards, get the place lit, and get the hell outta dodge fast enough, I'm screwed.' I picked the second option. Channeling Coal in all four limbs, making them turn grey-black, glow bright red, and smolder, I charged.