The boy was peeking into the hallway when the house caught fire. It was very quick. One moment, he was trying to catch a glimpse of what was happening downstairs, then there was a flash of light, and half the hall lit up. He had a moment to register a searing wave of heat, before something grasped him by the shoulder and yanked him bodily back into the room, slamming the door shut behind him. He let out a pained yelp as he toppled, the heat still near to blistering the skin of his face and hands, and landed on his rear, watching the flames begin to crawl beneath the door.
In the confusion, he didn’t quite manage to process his mother kneeling beside him, her fingers still digging painfully into his shoulder. Somewhere on the floor below, there was a crack like thunder, and a man’s voice let out an almost bestial shout. Then the air itself grew parched, like being pushed inside an oven. He scrambled around blearily on the floor, looking for a place that didn’t hurt to sit, before his mother’s hand dragged him into her embrace, and with a few muttered words, the heat just died away. He could have sworn he saw a sheet of something blue pull a tint across his vision, before his mother’s voice muttered quietly in his ear.
“Charlie,” she said, her voice quiet; utterly calm. “I need you to listen to me right now, okay?”
Charlie wasn’t sure what to say. He wasn’t sure what was going on. There were people downstairs and his room was rapidly catching fire. At least his mom was calm. He took shelter in that idea, and gave her a shaky nod.
“Good boy,” she whispered. “Then when I say to go, we’re going to jump out of the window, and make a break for the house across the yard.”
Charlie shot a look at the house caught in silhouette beyond the window, and swallowed.
“I-it’s kind of a long fall,” he mumbled. “Are you gonna be coming with me?”
He felt her finger prod him gently in the shoulder.
“I’ll be right behind you,” she murmured, her voice surprisingly steady over the crashing sounds below. “I’m going to help you with the fall, and the moment you hit the floor, I’ll be coming along behind you.” She leaned in, her forehead bonking gently against his own. “You gonna be brave like I know you are?”
In the room below them, there was an infuriated cry, this one female, followed by an ominous kind of crunch as the floor beneath the bed began to split.
Charlie saw none of it, refused to see it. He just focused on his mom. He took a deep, steadying breath, and nodded.
“Good,” his mother gave him a final soothing smile, then directed him to the window with a shove. “Now go!”
It was probably for the best that Charlie didn’t think as he made that dash across his room towards the yard, angling his shoulder to the window so as to simply force himself through the glass.
He made it almost the whole way before the floor gave way, and suddenly he was falling.
He let out a terrified kind of shriek as the boards gave out beneath his feet, his hands scrabbling before him for something he could grasp. Pointless.
He had a single moment, as he fell, to register the hellscape roaring below him, the once gentle looking playroom now engulfed in flame and smoke. He hit the carpet with a thud, and felt a second of surprise at how little pain there was, before his new perch began to creak, threatening to plunge him into the basement down below.
By pure instinct, he scrambled to his right across the floor, half blind in the haze of heat and smoke, making his way towards the kitchen. No basement under there. Solid ground.
He was semi-aware of his mother shouting something up above, but among the cracks and source-less screams, he didn’t have a clue of what she said.
It was when he reached the kitchen, scrambling into a corner by the bench, that he finally caught a glimpse of them.
Two figures, dueling in the smoke, their light cutting through the haze like diabolic torches.
He huddled himself into a ball beneath the counter, and didn’t dare to make a sound.
When it came right down to it, Leanne was getting frustrated.
The elemental wasn’t quick. The increase to the raw force of his fire hadn’t made a change to that. He was sluggish in his attacks, and slow in his retreats. She, on the other hand, moved with lightning at her back, building up in a charge across her frame, before releasing in bursts within her, causing time itself to slow for a few brief moments at a time.
So why couldn’t she seem to hit him?
It was maddening, aiming shot after perfect shot towards her opponent’s skull, each so quick he shouldn’t even have been able to move, only for a blast to push her back, or for a shape within the flames to bat her fists aside mere inches from his frame. It was maddening, like the beast had some sense of what she’d do before she did it.
He was playing with her.
Leanne swore, dancing backwards as the elemental flicked his wrist, the tiny movement sending a hundred tiny tongues of flame dancing, whip-like through the space between them. Each lash left deep gouges in the floor and walls where it struck, the edges blackened like coal. It hardly mattered. It wasn’t as if the place could be set any more on fire.
She pulled into a crouch as her lightning gathered into another burst around her frame. Then dodged to the side with a growl as his back-swing raked a jagged arc through the floor where she had perched. Her shield may be stronger now, but she still wasn’t in any hurry to test it against his flames. At this point, they burned so hot across his form that even being close to him was marginally draining. Was that his plan? To just avoid her strikes and let his ever burning fire sap away her shields?
Reluctantly, Leanne pulled back, releasing that built up charge and retreating to a back room as time slowed to a crawl. She needed time to think.
It was then that she saw the boy, cowering in the kitchen, staring at her with utmost terror in his eyes. It gave her an idea. If the creature didn’t want to make mistakes, then maybe she could force one from him.
Leanne made no attempt to telegraph the move. There wouldn’t be a point. Their brief bout of combat had led her to believe the elemental could sense what went on within his fire, and as of now, both she and the boy were both well within his flames. Charlie had already turned to run when Leanne began her lunge, the elemental already giving chase from his position by the stairs.
She had almost made it to him when the ceiling above her head gave way. Then, with a flash of green and a roar like a vengeful God, Jacqueline Vance sent her crashing through the floor.
Charlie had already been running when the lightning figure came for him. He didn’t dare to look behind him as he ran, even as the sounds of yells and splintered wood filled the air behind him. He paid it no heed. There wasn’t room in his brain for anything but fear.
Maybe going for the front doorway was a bad choice, in retrospect. His blind dash through the dining room brought him face to chest with the burning man. What followed was the swiftest backpedal of Charlie’s life.
He wasn’t sure at first what it was that he backed into in his aborted attempt to flee, just that it wasn’t wasting any time in grabbing hold of him. He screamed, tried to push away, and was ignored. The next thing he knew, his captor had dashed past the flaming thing like it wasn’t even there, and had sent the both of them crashing through the window in a stream of glass and splintered wood.
The two of them landed in the grass in a sprawl, briefly blinded by the sudden lack of light. Had been in any state to think of it, he might have tried to pull away. As it was, both he and his captor were too busy having coughing fits. He hadn’t even noticed how short on air he’d been. Before he’d had a chance to fully recover, the grip around his waist grew tight once more, his captor pulling him to his feet. He didn’t have the energy left to fight.
“Come on, Charlie,” his mother’s voice croaked from just behind him. “Just a little further. We need to get away from here.”
Numbly; too tired to even think, Charles Vance began to move.
Hideyoshi watched the pair retreating down the street, then shook his head.
That could have gone far worse.
Hard enough fighting a foe as powerful as that, let alone with hostages in play.
He threw another glance outside. There were people out there, now. Neighbors and friends, come to watch the fire on the chance that they could help, some of them following halfheartedly after the house’s former occupants. There were probably already firemen on the way. He shrugged. He doubted anyone but the boy had seen a thing. From the outside, most of this would be concealed by the smoke.
With a slow sigh, Hideyoshi turned his attention back towards his foe.
She wasn’t moving, as far as he could tell. His scanning spell seemed convinced that she was still just sitting in the basement where Jackie punted her. Feigning death? The idea made him chuckle.
Either way, best to get this done with quick.
He heard a crash from up above as some distant piece of roof gave way, but paid it no mind. It was very calming, standing in the flames.
His opponent’s passage into the basement had left a hole; a three foot section of the floorboards cutting off in ragged, rapidly blackening edges over the relative darkness of the floor below. He walked over to it, and cast his eye down after her.
She wasn’t hard to find. She hadn’t moved, instead just sitting in the rubble where she’d landed, one arm resting across her knee as she scowled up at him.
“Lost the will to fight?” he asked, barely audible above the flames.
For a moment, she simply glared. He responded with a smile.
“Shut up,” she muttered. “Just. Shut up.”
Hideyoshi chuckled. The woman swore.
“I’m done. Okay? I’m fucking done with this. I’m done with Thirteen. I’m done with you. I’m done with trying to be smart.” As she spoke, she pulled herself to her feet, dusting pieces of rubble from her clothes with her hands.
“I wanted to save my strength,” she spat, the lightning once more building to a charge across her shoulders. “Minimize the energy I spent on you just in case Thirteen turned out to be a problem. But no. No matter how clever I think I’m being, and no matter how much stronger and faster than you I am, you keep on managing to dodge me. So fuck it. You want to make me go all out? Fine.”
“Glad to hear it.” Hideyoshi grinned. “Does that mean I can, too?”
“If you want,” she muttered, the electrical glow about her shoulders now spreading down along her back, a good deal brighter than before. “It won’t matter, either way.”
At that, he simply shrugged.
‘Well, here goes,’ he thought as he pushed his flames outward, extending them beyond himself as far as they would go, ‘I hope you’re not just bluffing.’
It had been six years since Hideyoshi last assumed his stronger form. The feeling was… unique. Even more so in suburbia. As his clothes began to burn, his flesh giving way to living flame, he hoped that she’d survive him. He felt his mind spreading out throughout the house, his senses reaching wherever there was warmth. He watched the world fade to pulsing shades of heat as his vision fell away. For a moment, he stood there, inhuman; hotter than the surface of the sun.
Then, her knuckles pierced his wards, and the world was turned to glass.
His power died away.