Sometimes there are coincidences in life. As humans, we’re wired to see patterns in everything, even where those patterns may not exist. Sometimes the things that go bump in the night really are just the house creaking and a prickly feeling on the back of your neck is nothing more than your nerves getting the better of you.
Even something as extreme as coming home to find flames leaping from every window in your apartment building isn’t a sign that someone’s out to get you. Unless, that is, you’re me.
The fact that we’d crossed paths with a professional assassin earlier would have been enough to make me suspicious of the blaze. I could think of half a dozen reasons the killer would want to burn our building down ranging from simple murder if they caught us in it to denying us a safe hideaway if we happened to be away. Beyond that though there was the fact that Earth-Glass sort of wanted to kill me.
As a dream lord, I could make things real or unreal. Earth-Glass wasn’t the kind of world that was happy with that sort of thing. It wasn’t the sort of world to have a conscious “Gaia spirit” watching over it though, meaning it didn’t have an active champion like my Mom defending it. Instead it relied on skewing chance and probability against me. For events in my immediate area that wasn’t a problem. Making things “normal” was the one sort of dream magic I could get away with using. Anything outside my awareness was a different matter. If an assassin had needed some lucky breaks to set my home on fire, Earth-Glass would be happy to provide them, no matter how many innocents might be harmed.
“We need to help the people who are still inside.” I said. Even from across the narrow end of the bay that the Bella bridge spanned I could see the flames were picking up in intensity. I breathed out carefully and nudged the world. Fires look dramatic but there could still be survivors inside the building. In fact with the boiler being on the side that we were facing, it was possible that we were seeing the very worst of the blaze.
“It’ll take too long if we wait for the bus. I can see traffic backing up ahead of us already.” Way said. There hadn’t been a lot of traffic since we were past office hours for most of the local businesses. What cars were ahead of us were slowing to a crawl though.
With a wordless nod we rose and walked to the front of the bus.
“Can you let us out here?” Way asked the bus driver.
“Sure thing.” the weary driver said with a shrug and opened the door. We’d already been stopped due to the traffic which meant Way and I were able to make our way to the bridge without any danger of getting run over.
“The shooter could be waiting for us.” Way cautioned as we ran.
“Disguises then?” I asked.
“What do you have?”
“Our performance cloaks and some scarves.” I offered, rummaging around in my (depressing normal sized) bag as we ran.
“We’ll tie them around our faces. It’s not much but it will help a little with the smoke too.” I said, knowing that ‘a little’ wasn’t going to do much to save our lungs if we weren’t careful.
Putting on a cloak and tying a scarf on while you run isn’t an easy task. On the other hand quick changes are somewhat second nature for folks in the stage magic biz, so we managed it a bit more easily than most. By the time we were halfway across the bridge we were two running figures in dark flowing cloaks with bandit-style masks hiding our faces and hoods obscuring our hair. I was sure people noticed us running by but with the darkness, the confusion and our makeshift disguises I was also sure their chances at identifying us were non-existent.
The smell of wood smoke filled my nostrils well before we reached the end of the bridge. I thought the running was making me warm but, the closer we got, the more I could feel the heat from the fire reaching out to bake my exposed skin. That left me to imagine the kind of inferno the inside of the building would be. Going in there was not going to be fun.
“If the shooter’s here, where would he be?” I asked as we ran. There was a crowd gathered around the building but the heat of the flames was keeping them well away from the burning structure.
“Rooftop. The nearby ones are all the same height, he’ll have the best shot and the best chance to escape.” she said.
“Can you get to one?”
“What about the people in the building?”
“I’ll help them. You make sure no one shoots them once they’re outside.” I said.
Way looked at me, a debate raging behind her eyes and then nodded.
“Be careful.” she said “I don’t want to have to try to finish this mission without you either.”
I smiled and nodded my agreement before she changed course towards the fire escape of the building across the street from ours.
I had several options available to me from there. Our apartment building sat on the intersection of the road which ran around the perimeter of the island and one of the streets that lead to the island’s center. The crowd had gathered at the front of the building, which was the closest side to me since the building faced the water and the bridge. I could have avoided them by following Way and swinging around to the backside of our apartment building. With how the building was constructed that would have been the smart move too.
The front of the building had been a later addition and was built from cheap wood that was all-too-eager to burn. The back half of the building was an older, brickwork construction. That didn’t mean it was fireproof – the floorboards and roof would still burn quite nicely but (thanks to my dream magic tinkering) the fire hadn’t spread there quite as quickly. It would be a lot safer to retrieve the people who were still alive in that part of the building before the fire got to them.
The only problem was that would mean giving up on anyone who might still be alive in the front apartments and despite the limitations on my power I wasn’t willing to accept that.
So instead I barreled through the crowd and hit the door with a flying kick, shattering its flaming wreckage over the main foyer.
I don’t usually design my other identities with much in the way of physical skills. As “normal Jin” I spend most of my time sleeping and the rest solving problems with magic, so I’m not exactly the world class athlete that my brother James is. Since Earth-Glass was cranky about letting me use my magic though I figured having some physical talents to fall back on would be a good thing. As a stage magician that came in handy too. A lot of stage magic is misdirection and timing, but there are some effects that require a hefty amount of strength and speed too.
That all served me well enough in knocking down the front door. Surviving the inferno I’d hurled myself into was another matter though. The air was so hot I could barely breath, and so smoke filled that I couldn’t risk getting much into my lungs in the first place. That severely limited the amount of time I could afford to spend looking for people.
I sent out another whisper of dream magic. I couldn’t cheat and simply sense where people were but the crash of the door could very reasonably elicit cries for help from anyone who was still alive.
It took less than a second before I heard a child’s screams coming from the floor above me. Being careful to stay low, I gritted my teeth against the searing heat and crawled to the stairs.
I directed another whisper of dream magic as I climbed the stairs. The bomb used to set the fire was in the boiler room, I told the world, since that’s at the front of the building and also the easiest source for a fire that would engulf the building quickly. That meant that the people who lived in the apartments in the old brickwork half of the building would have heard the explosion and had a chance to evacuate on their own. Even the stubborn ones would have seen the smoke and the flames and there’s nothing like fire to motivate the recalcitrant.
But, the world whispered back to me, there were all those people in newer section. All the ones caught in the bomb blast. None of them could have escaped.
It had to be a small bomb, I countered, or else the building would have collapsed. Also what kind of assassin carries sticks of dynamite around with them? It had to be something clumsy and improvised.
Even so, the world wordlessly sent to me, the ones in the new side wouldn’t have had any warning. The flames would have caught them unaware.
The night was still early, and many of the people who lived here worked two shifts. They could have been out, I argued.
Some of them, the world agreed; some but not all.
I reached the second floor and sighed.
Some but not all.
I could feel the world shivering at the gentle alterations I’d managed to make in saving some of the people in the building with dream magic. Any deeper changes and I’d have a reality fracture to deal with and that was not a fight I could afford to have yet.
“HELP! Momma! Help!” a young boy screamed from the room near the stairs. The door to the room was cracked and open. It looked like the initial blast had shook it loose from it’s cheap hinges. Similar damage was obvious on the rest of the floor.
With the windows shattered, the toxic gases would be able to escape too, I reminded the world. Not that they’d escape entirely but the lower the concentration, the better the chances anyone had of getting out of the building alive.
I crawled into the room, keeping in mind that whatever poisonous gases were here would be strongest at the ceiling. Inside the apartment, I saw a woman collapsed on the floor and a crying young boy huddled over her.
“I’m here to help.” I told him as I moved over to inspect the fallen woman.
She was still breathing, which was good sign, but she was also unconscious, which was a bad one.
“We need to leave right now. Is there anyone else here?” I asked the boy.
“No. Daddy’s at work. You gotta save Momma!” the boy said. He was rocking back and forth and couldn’t even bring himself to look at me. That was really bad. I definitely couldn’t carry the two of them outside on my own.
“I’m going to save you both.” I told him. “Here, you need a magic scarf like I have to keep you safe. Want me to find one for you?”
“Find one for Momma!” the boy insisted.
“Ok.” I said and reached over to his ear, pulling out a long blue scarf as I did so. The boy’s eyes went wide with amazement. It was pure stage magic, but it achieved its desired effect.
“It is magic!” he screamed as he stopped rocking at looked me straight in the eyes.
“And here’s one for you.” I told him, and pulled a bright yellow scarf out of his other ear. “Put it over your mouth, while I fix up your Mom. Then follow me.”
I could have told him to grow wings and fly away at that point and I’m pretty sure he would have made an effort to. The scarves weren’t going to do much for any of us, but they did make me feel a little better when I lifted the boy’s mother into a fireman’s carry.
Physically fit or not, even as “The Amazing Jin” I wasn’t a particularly large girl and moving a full grown woman was not an easy task. I got her up onto my back without dropping her though and then turned to her son.
“Hold your Mom’s hand ok? She needs you to stay with her.” I told him.
Their apartment wasn’t as engulfed in flames as the foyer was which meant I was marching the two of them in the scariest possible direction. Despite the roaring flames, the little boy stayed with me, clutching his mother’s hand like a lifeline.
Together we moved as quickly as we could but by the time we reached the bottom of the stairs I thought the fire was going to completely overwhelm us. The heat was unbearable, the stench of the smoke made me want to vomit and the brilliance of the flames made it hard to even see.
I heard a crack that sounded like a beam splitting and prepared to dodge or run but I couldn’t see where the problem might be. What I did notice a moment later though was that the front doorway wasn’t burning any longer!
“Let’s go!” I told the little boy and started sprinting (as best as I was able) towards the exit.
I saw a splash of water hit the door post as we ran towards it and got another splash full into the face as we burst out into the night air. The cool water and the rush of oxygen felt so ridiculously good that I tripped and fell. Two pairs of strong hands caught me before I tumbled to the ground though.
Blinking to clear my eyes, I felt the woman I was carrying being lifted off my back. All around us I heard a group of people in motion. When my eyes cleared, I saw that the crowd that had been watching the building had formed a bucket line and was passing water up from the bay to throw on the blaze. It was too late to save our building, but the apartments that were around it were in danger if the blaze ran unchecked.
I tried to speak but my lungs spasmed into a racking cough.
“Get them air!” I heard one of the people around us yell and the three of us who’d escaped the burning building were lead back to the end of the bridge where there was a bus stop to rest at. I looked over at the woman I’d carried and saw she was conscious again, though bleary eyed.
“Are you ok?” a young man, one of the people who’d helped me walk over to the bus stop, asked me.
“I’ll be fine.” I told him and got back up. There were still more people in the building.
“Where are you going?” my helper asked.
Before I could answer him, I heard a terrible shattering followed by an immediate yell from the crowd as the front half of the building collapsed. The flames roared as though the falling building was a bellows.
Some but not all.
That was all I could save.
I turned to the man who’d helped me.
“To find the person who did this.”