Embers and ash floated to the ground like snow, searing his skin on contact, as seventeen-year-old Fiearius Soliveré lay sprawled on his aching back on the floor, his limbs laying at odd angles. Every inch of him felt bruised and beaten. Slowly he blinked his eyes open, letting the ceiling swim into view, wincing as he tried to grasp just exactly how he and Dez had gotten to this point.
He eased slowly to a sitting position, but as soon as he put pressure on his left arm, he let out a yell that no one could hear; sharp pain rocketed through his wrist, straight to his shoulder. Broken bone, probably.
The support beams of the building around him were creaking, ready to give up. And the smoke. It filled his lungs, his throat, his eyes. From what he could tell, Rowland — their target — was gone. He’d probably knocked Fiearius out and run off before the whole place collapsed on itself.
Dez was nowhere in sight either. Maybe Dez had gone after him. Maybe he was caught in the fire. Maybe he too was knocked unconscious and left in the thick layer of smoke to choke to death.
Again, Fiearius tried to right himself, but again the roaring pain from his arm was too much. And he was exhausted. That scuffle had taken a lot out of him, as had the lack of oxygen in here. Even if he could sit up, he didn’t know what he’d do. Last he’d seen, the stairwell was blocked by flames. Rowland had made sure of that. It was beginning to seem that the only option he had was to lie here in this crumbling structure and wait for death. He had always assumed he’d die young, but never had he imagined dying before his eighteenth birthday.
Never had he imagined dying like this.
It had started as such an ordinary morning. Gaiané had stayed the night so of course Dez had been in a bad mood, but Fiearius had made them all breakfast and he’d cheered up a bit. They’d spent the first half of the day lying around in their tiny, bare little apartment overlooking the entertainment district, complaining about their boss who, in their opinion, was a smarmy creep, until she’d been called away by her partner for a job. Fiearius had lingered in the door and kissed her goodbye, essentially making her late and surely landing him in a bout of trouble later on, but it had been worth it at the time. It was definitely worth it now…
In the middle of the afternoon, when still no word of a gig had come in, Fiearius and Dez had truly believed that they had lucked out and would be getting the day off. Perhaps no one was in need of half-rate Society threatening today. They made casual plans to meet some friends at the pub down the street that evening. And then they’d gotten the call.
It was their boss, Arkin Liardson. The smarmy creep. “Come into the office,” he’d told them. “I need to brief you myself on this one.”
It was odd. Typically, solution jobs came in through their consoles with all the information they needed. A personal briefing with Liardson himself was unusual, but it wasn’t cause for concern. It was more an indication of secrecy. Whoever they were charged with confronting was too confidential to pass along to the nice young ladies of Internal homebase that input the information to send out to agents. Fiearius hadn’t been concerned. Not even when they’d made their way uptown for the briefing in his office and they’d been told the name.
“Pieter Rowland?” Dez had asked, shuffling in his seat, curious. “I know that name. He’s been in the news recently.”
“He has,” Liardson had confirmed from across the desk. “He’s been a real thorn in our side. Thinks he’s some dov’ha géitan rebel leader who’s been going about assaulting Society brass.”
Fiearius had perhaps heard the name once or twice, though he wasn’t nearly as interested in reading the news every morning as Dez was. If he had been, he probably wouldn’t have had to ask, “Assaulting? In what way?”
Both Liardson and Desophyles had turned to him, and replied in unison, “Arson.”
Fiearius couldn’t hold back a snicker. “Arson?” he repeated, confused. “Seriously? This guy’s running around the city just setting stuff on fire? As rebellion? Against us?” He scoffed and shook his head.
“It may sound ridiculous,” Liardson admitted, leaning back in his chair and tapping his fingers on his desk. “But it’s becoming a serious issue. We’ve already lost four valuable members to his antics and we’ve had enough of it. He needs to be stopped.”
“Fair enough,” Fiearius agreed. “But why tell us?” Instantly, his partner shot him a glance that read nothing if not ‘shut your mouth’. Dez had always been of the belief that the best way to get ahead was to suck up to your superiors and say yes to everything and never ask questions. He was also of the belief that they very much needed to get ahead and soon. Fiearius, on all counts, disagreed.
Fiearius went on, “I mean, I agree, he should be stopped, clearly, but doesn’t this sound more like a job for the Prime? Or at least a Senior.” Someone authorized to kill him, essentially, he thought, but was unable to find the proper words to express it. Perhaps Liardson had forgotten that Fiearius and Desophyles were still just regular operatives. All they were ever instructed to do was threaten people with the notion of their more experienced colleagues. It usually worked. And when it didn’t, a few punches to the eye and kicks to the groin did the trick. Though he doubted this arsonist guy would be that concerned by two seventeen year old kids.
“No,” Liardson stated shortly and for a moment, Fiearius didn’t think he’d get any more explanation than that, but after a moment, he added, “You’re the right people for this job. I want you on it. Stop him.”
Fiearius fell silent. He could feel Dez’s eyes on him, practically daring him to disagree again. Daring him to give up this ‘opportunity’ as he would say. And it was, Fiearius realized. If they could really stop this guy, they’d be legends among standard IA operatives. They’d probably get all the best jobs from here on out. It really was a great chance. He’d questioned it once. He wasn’t stupid enough to question it again.
“Definitely,” he said obediently. “We’ll get right on it.”
Apparently, Information had managed to track down where this Pieter Rowland had been hiding out. It was some abandoned old building by the southern docks and that was where they were to make their appearance. As the pair boarded the PIT train to head south, they tried to put together some sort of strategy on how to tackle this. Oftentimes, the librera markings on their arm were plenty frightening enough, but this? This required a bit of creativity. By the time they stumbled off the train back into the dark streets surrounding the building, they had a plan and Fiearius was feeling confident once more.
As it turned out, Rowland’s hideout was an old apartment building, long since vacated. Eight stories tall, windows boarded up, the weeds on the walkway overgrown, it seemed exactly the kind of place to find a psycho like this.
The stairs creaked underfoot as they headed to the door. Then they paused, and Desophyles laid a hand on his shoulder. “You sure about this?” he asked under his breath.
Fiearius glanced over at him. No, of course he wasn’t sure, he never was. But he muttered, “Yeah. Go.”
Reluctantly, Dez nodded and ran off around the corner of the building to look for another way in. Mustering up his courage, Fiearius laid a hand on the doorknob and tried to ignore how strange this felt. He’d never walked into a place without Dez immediately at his back before. He had a gut feeling that separation here was the key. Catch Rowland off-guard. Cause a distraction and surprise him. Even if that meant walking into this building alone…
Tentatively, he turned the knob and pushed the door open. It swung in slowly, revealing the dark hallway inside. This place had been empty for a while. The hardwood floors were weathered, the paint on the walls was chipped away and cracks cut through every surface. A sour, heavy smell hung in the air — something recognizable, but he couldn’t place what it was.
The only light was what little of the moon shone past his silhouette in the open door. The only noise was the quiet scuttling of pests or rodents in the walls and the calm hum of the PIT train a few blocks away. Fiearius took a deep breath and broke the silence.
“Pieter Rowland!” he shouted to the empty building.
The scuttling grew suddenly louder before dying off entirely. Fiearius took another step forward into the hallway. “I’arte ti dené se pieh’tiarne Dov’ha niat.” It was a phrase he’d used on many a job before. There was nothing that struck a chill into Satierans quite like mentioning the judgment of the Dov’ha, no matter how non-religious they may have been. Devout Ridellian or strict atheist, respect was always given to the Great Stars.
But scared or not, Pieter Rowland did not budge. If he was even here. Only silence followed his call and with a sigh, Fiearius ventured on.
There was no point in being quiet. He was to be a distraction, was he not? A distraction and a representation of the power and confidence of the Society. He was not to be frightened of some bastard arsonist. He strode through the place as if he owned it, pushing open the doors to the empty apartments and stomping up the stairs when he found nothing. He would not show fear, but strength, which got easier and easier the higher up in the building he got. He scoured every apartment, every room, every nook and cranny and he found nothing. No one. Maybe he really wasn’t here after all.
When he’d finished with the eighth floor, still empty-handed, he headed back down to the seventh which is when he heard it. A single creak. Fiearius froze mid-step. His heart stopped beating in his chest and his breath caught in between his throat and lungs. The window, he realized suddenly. Gods, how could he be so stupid? How had he not noticed that streak of light on this floor when he’d gone through it the first time? The window. It wasn’t board up like the rest. It was a wide gaping hole leading right onto the fire escape.
Fiearius wanted to clap his hand to his forehead in frustration at his own lack of attention. Of course. Of course Rowland would unboard one of the windows so he could hide on the fire escape. Of course.
Fortunately, it was a good situation. Rowland wouldn’t risk making noise again by heading down it so if he could just…creep…carefully…over…
His footsteps on the hardwood were mercifully silent. If he could just reach the window without him knowing. His body tensed as he approached, his hands raising in preparation to…just…grab him and–
Just as Fiearius lashed out the window to seize the man by the neck, another pair of hands came lashing out towards him, wrapping around his own throat roughly and forcing him back into the hallway. Choking and struggling to right himself and regain the upper hand, Fiearius flailed in his clutches, wildly throwing blows out in front of him until suddenly he just…let go. Fiearius stumbled backwards and, still trying to catch his breath, looked up to find a familiar face staring down at him.
“Sorry…” Dez muttered, looking only mildly apologetic. “I thought you were someone else…”
Fiearius glared at him, putting his own hand to his neck to massage it lightly. “Fuckin’ hope so…” he muttered, a shakiness to his voice. “We’re not supposed to kill him, y’know.”
“Oh that wouldn’t have killed you,” Dez remarked easily, a hint of amusement in his eyes. “Just knock you unconscious for a few hours.”
Fiearius paused and stared at him, mildly aghast. “You’ll have to teach me that one sometime,” he muttered finally. Dez shrugged and Fiearius added seriously, “I don’t think he’s here.”
Dez considered him briefly and looked up at the ceiling. “I think there’s someone upstairs,” he remarked thoughtfully.
“No, that was just me,” Fiearius told him simply, shaking his head and turning back towards the stairwell defeatedly. “The whole place is empty, trust me.”
No sooner had the words left his mouth, the whole hallway resonated with a loud ‘thump thump thump’ as though someone was stomping up and down on the ceiling. Both pairs of eyes shot up.
“You sure?” asked Dez before Fiearius rushed for the stairs and he was hot on his heels. Together, they stormed up to the eighth floor, rounded into the hallway and froze so quickly that Dez plowed right into him. Though as he righted himself, Fiearius could do nothing but stare at the scene before them.
It didn’t make sense, his head told him. He’d just been up here. He’d just been up here and it was empty. He knew it had been. So how the hell was the whole hallway suddenly filled with barrels from one end to the other. And there, in the center, sitting cross-legged atop one, was a man. A skinny, malnourished thing, his ribs poking out from under his pasty flesh with naught but a ripped pair of pants covering his otherwise bare and blackened skin. He seemed to be occupied by something he was turning over in his hand, though it was too dark to see what. But how the hell did he…? He’d only been downstairs all of five minutes.
For a long moment, three of them just remained there, perfectly still. Fiearius couldn’t bring himself to move nor could he bring himself to look away from the man seated before them. He only regained his senses when finally Dez’s hand gripped his shoulder and he gently moved him aside.
“Pieter Rowland, the judgment for your crimes has come to pass,” Desophyles said sternly, stepping past Fiearius. “The Society has had enough.”
Instantly, as though he had only just noticed their presence, Rowland’s eyes shot up to stare at them between the curtains of long, greasy black hair. A slow grin curled through his lips as he flashed white teeth. Despite the smile, he said, “I’m disappointed.” And seemed to leave it at that. Awakened from his stupor and quickly becoming attuned to the seriousness of the situation, Fiearius straightened beside Dez and tried to exude confidence that was slowly slipping away.
Rowland continued, “I really was hoping they’d send me someone important.” He tapped whatever was in his hand upon the surface of the barrel. “Someone to make an example of.” Carelessly, he slipped off the edge of the barrel, his feet landing gracefully, lightly on the floor where he started to wind between the barrels towards them. “Wouldn’t that be a show? For me,” he clasped a hand to his chest humbly, “to take down the very best of Internal.” The unsettling grin returned. “Wouldn’t that be grand?”
Rowland came to a stop a few feet from them. Fiearius was overcome with the distinct feeling he should take a step backwards. Or five. But he stood his ground and Dez beside him as the strange little man put his long bony finger to his lips and observed them curiously. “But instead? They send me nothing more than sacrificial lambs,” he said, sadly, reaching that same finger over to run down Fiearius’ chest.
Instinctually, he brushed it away.
“Next time,” Fiearius warned harshly, “It will be the best that come for you.” It was a half-hearted effort. Fiearius was quite sure now of one thing and one thing alone: they didn’t belong here. He’d been right to begin with. This was not a job for two standard operatives. They were out of their league. Way out of their league and they would be very lucky if they even made it out of here alive. Carefully, he took that step backwards, fully intending to get the hell out of here, but Rowland’s expression changed suddenly. His eyes grew wide, his features fierce and he too took another step towards him.
“And I look forward to it,” the man said, his voice barely above a whisper, but full of crazed malice. There was movement out of the corner of Fiearius’ eye. Rowland’s hand. The object he’d been holding. He could see him fiddling with it, but his attention flew back to the man’s face as he said viciously, “But tonight, I’ll accept their tribute.”
Before either Fiearius or Dez knew what was happening or how to stop it, Rowland cheerfully clicked the lighter on and tossed it behind him into the barrels. Barrels, Fiearius realized far too late, of ship fuel.
The explosion was deafening as a freight train. The sheer power of the blast threw them backwards, ramming Fiearius up against the wall. Every inch of his skin felt seared by flames and heat and all sound dropped away from his ears. He squinted, and the light burned his eyelids.
But he had to move, he had to get out of here and he had to find Dez. Blindly, he flung out his arm and staggered forward. He made it a weak, jagged step to the side when a hand gripped his shoulder, seizing the fabric of his shirt to steer him. Dez.
Senselessly, they shouted directions at one another, but the words were swept away by the cackling flames and smoke. And Fiearius didn’t need to hear what he said. They were clearly thinking the same thing: get out.
With difficulty they found the stairs, staggering down and pressing their forearms over their mouths and noses. Fiearius hoped he’d find clean air here, but what he found —
The hallway of the seventh floor was already ablaze. Lines of fire cut through the hallway in distinct patterns. Fiearius’ stomach dropped. The whole place had been laced with the stuff, prepared for this very situation. That was the smell he’d met at the front door. Ship fuel. It was everywhere. This whole building would go up in flames any moment.
Well. If it hadn’t already.
Panic was shaking through him now. Fiearius tried to breathe evenly to calm himself, but with each breath, he inhaled more and more smoke and instead of keeping him cool, he was choking as he charged down the hall to the next stairwell, hopping over the divisions fire and feeling the flames bite viciously at his legs. He could still see Dez in front of him as they turned into the stairs down to the sixth, but only for a moment.
Just as Fiearius laid his foot onto the first step, the ceiling of the stairwell came crashing down like a waterfall of debris and lava, blocking his path and blocking his view.
Stunned and shaking off the hot dust and dirt that had splashed onto him, Fiearius stumbled backwards into the hallway, his mind and heart racing. His eyes glanced up to the only blue light in sight. The window. The fire escape. Of course.
Furiously, he sprinted back down the hallway, now leaping over the ever worsening blaze, his eyes watering and his feet pounding on failing floorboards. If he could just get to the window and climb out he could–
Only feet from his victorious escape, something flew at him from outside his vision and collided with enough force to knock him off his feet and into the wall. It took him a moment to realize that it wasn’t an object at all as he felt fingernails dig into the skin of his arm and flailing limbs hurled at him from every direction. Dazed and confused as he was, Fiearius still had an advantage over the lanky Pieter Rowland. One swift hook to the chin and the man was sent staggering backwards.
Blinking through the smoke to keep his eye on him as Rowland wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth and laughed grimly, Fiearius carefully stepped backwards, one hand reached out, desperately hoping to come in contact with the windowsill. Before he reached it though, those manic eyes were back upon him, the whites turning red.
Rowland was a blur as he lunged forward, this time his hand seizing Fiearius’ hair, but if there was one thing Fiearius had actually been ready for to begin with, it was a fist fight. He threw out a powerful punch. And made contact. And another. Again. It felt like one of the most unfair fights he’d ever been in. The man seemed so weak and ill-prepared to take on even a seventeen year old, but especially not a practiced seventeen year old. With each blow, Fiearius was sure he was going to break this skinny little man, but despite all his efforts, Rowland just laughed. Laughed and continued to lash at him violently, his nails scraping his flesh with each swipe.
It didn’t help that Fiearius’ head was starting to feel fuzzy. The whole floor was now engulfed in flames save the circle in which the two men fought. His breath was starting to shorten, his vision once more blurring and he wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep this up. Rowland had forced him away from the window which was now blocked by a wall of fire. There was no way out anymore. He was trapped and…feeling…very…faint…
Rowland must have seen the opportunity. As Fiearius’ offense weakened, Rowland swept his leg hard at his opponents’ and shoved him harder in the chest. Out of instinct, Fiearius seized the man’s hair in a desperate attempt to stay upright, but gravity was a stronger force than the both of them.
Fiearius’ back hit the floor with a hard thump and Rowland tumbled after him. The hardwood, heated to a burning temperature, singed the flesh of his arms and through his shirt. Fiearius howled in pain and, seizing Rowland’s shoulders with all the might left in him, rolled them both over, forcing the man’s wrists onto the ground and pounding his fist into his bruised and bloodied face. The eyes glazed and rolled back in his head as streaks of red poured from his nose. Finally, Fiearius had the upper hand in this fight.
And that was when the ceiling gave way.
It came down in a flood of flame and debris, punching a hole into the floor only feet from where Fiearius had Rowland pinned to the ground. Startled and blinded by the cloud it left in its wake, Fiearius’ grip faltered for just a moment, but it was enough. Fiearius didn’t see it coming, the still burning piece of debris that suddenly plowed into his cheek. And he was so distracted by it, he couldn’t even react when Rowland elbowed him in the ribs and pushed him over the edge.
The fall was short, but the crash was deafening as Fiearius landed on the fifth floor. His vision started to fade to black as he lay crumpled on the weathered floor, every part of him rife with pain. He couldn’t concentrate. He couldn’t stay awake, but only minutes later he felt a hand grasp his shoulder and roll him onto his back. As his whole body screamed in protest, his mind could only let him blink up at the dark shape looming over him.
“Goodnight, little lamb,” Rowland breathed maliciously. He turned and headed for the stairwell and Fiearius could do nothing but watch as he dropped a flaming chunk of wood on the steps behind him and the whole passageway set alight.
Bruised, battered, burned and ultimately defeated, Fiearius’ eyes flickered shut and everything turned to black.
Now, he was rather surprised that he’d even awoken at all. He had been sure that was it, but apparently his mind wanted to torture him a little further and make sure he got one last chance to consider his mortality before it finally hit him. What was he supposed to do? Lie here, broken, and run through all his regrets? Was the universe trying to make sure he knew he’d made mistakes before those mistakes inevitably moved in to cut him down? Was this karma slapping him in the face?
Or was this another chance?
The moment the notion crossed his mind, he was startled by a loud thump from above and the creaks of the building turning into snaps as the supports started to give way. A chunk of ceiling fell beside him. Despite the pain, he scrambled out of the way only to find another piece coming towards him. And another. This was it. The building was collapsing and he crippled within it.
No, this wasn’t another chance, this was just the pissed off gods making sure his death was in suffering.
Crack. Despite himself, Fiearius clumsily forced himself to his feet only to be brought down as the building started to shake violently. Crack crack crack. He started to feel the floor beneath him slacken under his weight. And then–
Fiearius watched in horror, as the hallway in front of his eyes, doors and apartments, walls, windows, all of it, seemed to let out a mighty roar and melt away from view. The whole thing just…sank. Half of the building, crumbled in on itself and, just like that, was gone. Moonlight now shone down upon him and for the first time in what felt like years, he could breathe. Real oxygen of the night air battling off the clouds of smoke as he felt a blast of wind hit his face. Beneath him, the fire reared up, fueled by the pile of debris that was once a structure. The roar of it and the heat he could feel even from his place on the fifth floor that was somehow still miraculously standing, was enough to make him cringe. But through the noise of the fire, he heard something else. A voice. A voice crying out in pain. A voice he knew.
Forgetting all about his broken arm, burnt flesh and bleeding wounds, Fiearius shot up and ran forward to the edge overlooking the rubble below. For a split second, he could see two figures locked in battle in the garden, but then the ground gave way beneath him and again, he found himself falling. This time, he landed on the charred remains of a door, still smoking with embers, but he didn’t stop to find out just how hot they still were. He stumbled back to his feet, frantically trying to gain a foothold in the burning mess, vaulting over chunks of brick and mortar and flailing forward.
Flames licked at him as he tumbled downward, ever nearing his goal. As he got closer and the smoke started to fade, he could get a clearer picture of what was happening. Desophyles was large, especially for his age. The prospect of him being beaten by a skinny twig of a man like Rowland was insanity. And yet, Fiearius had realized, Rowland was insane which apparently made all the difference.
He supposed you had to be. To kill and maim and destroy like he had. You had to lose a chunk of yourself. And Rowland had lost just enough to be incredibly deadly. Fiearius could see it in his eyes when the man looked up and met his.
“You just won’t fucking die, will you?!” Rowland called into the night air, his voice nearly drowned out by the still blazing building. Dez, who he’d had pinned to the ground with the sharp remains of a broken lamp, struggled to get away as Rowland abandoned him there on the dirt and stepped back towards the building.
But Fiearius, still entrenched up to his shins in dust, dirt and debris, didn’t budge. His eyes were fixed on his partner who was still trying to crawl away, but there was something wrong. He wasn’t moving his legs at all and there was a trail of blood left behind him. No wonder Rowland had the upper-hand. Dez had been crippled.
Unfortunately, Fiearius’ distraction hadn’t gone unnotice. A strange expression of epiphany crossed Rowland’s face as he watched Fiearius’ eyes search over his partner frantically. And then he smiled.
“No matter,” he called out, sounding proud of himself as he turned away and stalked towards the apartment building, holding out the lamp into the fire until it was alight. Brandishing it like a torch, he returned to hover over Dez who looked up at him with widened eyes. “This one can die first,” he said with a wide grin, raising the weapon over his head to strike it down into Dez’s chest.
Fiearius panicked. “No!” he shouted and lunged forward suddenly, willing himself to be down there and take that creepy son of a bitch by the throat. In his vigor, his foot, desperately trying to carry him onward, caught on debris. Instantly, he fell forward onto his chest and kept falling, tumbling down the smoldering pile of crumbled apartments, feeling every hard edge and sharp corner dig into him on the way down until he finally he rolled onto the ground in a cloud of dust, coughing violently.
He was trying to right himself (and failing miserably) when he looked up and saw Rowland staring at him, the flaming lamp still held high over his head as he stood over Desophyles across the yard. But he just stared. Stared with those cold, empty eyes that gave Fiearius the distinct feeling that he was already dead and this was some sort of hellish afterlife. Until suddenly he wasn’t staring anymore, but running. Running straight at him. Fiearius desperately tried to pull himself up, but he could hardly move. Every inch of him was screaming in pain now. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t get up. All he could do was wait until that murderous swing was upon him.
Or until right before he made contact when, in desperation, he shot up his legs, catching Rowland’s stomach in the kick and causing the man to make a full flip over his head. He landed with a heavy thump on the ground above Fiearius, his head inches to the left. Briefly, the two turned to look at one another and their eyes met and in just that moment, Fiearius saw something he’d never seen before. It was a murderous intent unlike any other. Strong and vicious and unrelenting. And behind it was…pleasure. This man genuinely enjoyed death. It was terrifying. And Fiearius’ survival instinct took over.
Suddenly, both men lunged at one another, each determined to get to the other first. Rowland clasped his hands around Fiearius’ neck. Fiearius seized and pulled Rowland’s hair. Rowland plunged his knee into Fiearius’ stomach. Fiearius drove his elbow into Rowland’s ribs. They struggled and wrestled there in the flickering light of the burning building, each just as desperate to gain the upper hand and to deliver that final blow, even if Fiearius didn’t realize it at the time.