CHAPTER 14- ARSON
In centuries to come, there would be a question asked amongst wise men. Was it a person’s lineage that defined who they were, or the way they had been raised? Nature or nurture? With Thomas Hieronimo, the question was moot. His father had used to joke that Thomas had been born biting and kicking. And he had been wild, and his father’s hard, thundering hands had taken the wildness and pressed it into something worse. Now his mind was a perfectly balanced knife. He killed with just enough calm to be dangerous, and just enough joy to be terrifying. His body was also a knife, whip thin, and perfectly still. And when he moved, it was like a lizard flying up a sunlit wall. He steeled himself before a killing, but in truth, there was almost nothing left to steel. His conscience had been skinned and nailed to the back of his head long ago.
Or so he thought.
For as he gripped his spare knife in his left hand and laid his fingers on the door handle a very strange thought came into his head.
“Can you kill your own sister?”
It was not that he didn’t know the answer that caused him to pause. It was the fact that the question even raised itself to begin with. Suddenly, rapid, almost panicked thoughts began to swarm through his head. Can I kill my sister. Yes. Yes Yes. Sure? Yes. But what if…? I can do it . Enough. But a moment’s hesitation, that’s all it would take…
He remembered his days studying under the old Spaniard. In fights he would throw himself into brawls, biting and thrashing, and usually he would win. But the Spaniard would cuff him around the head and say “You’re not unbreakable! You’re bone and flesh. Anyone can break bone and flesh.” The Spaniard had not added that what was true of the body could also be true of the mind, but Thomas had learnt the lesson anyway. And now he was unsure of himself. One moment’s hesitation, a half second of weakness was all it would take for one or both of them to escape.
Could he be sure that he would not have a half-second of weaknesses? Could anyone?
He raised his eyes to heaven in frustration and saw the thatch that made up the roof.
An elegant solution presented itself to him.
With the chair braced against the door so there was no escape, he calmly raised the candle over his head until the tip of the flame kissed the bone dry thatch. He was a little disappointed that it merely started to burn, and did not explode instantly into an inferno over his head. Still, it was spreading quickly enough. He blew a farewell kiss to his sister behind the door, and calmly threw his jacket over his shoulders and went downstairs to wait in the street for the screaming to start.
“We have to go.” Marie whispered.
“Now. Now. Now!”
She began throwing her things into her bag, making sure three times that she had her comb.
She ran to the door and pushed.
She tried again.
“Oh no.” said Marie.
The first wisp of smoke was now curling down over the door frame like a small grey adder, curiously scouting for little mice.
“Oh no, no, no, no.” Marie mumbled.
She turned to call to Isabella, but she was curled up on her bed, as far from the door as possible and her face was white as marble.
Isabella had many memories of her time on the road with her father and brother. None were pleasant. But she knew which was the worst.
Her father had been involved in a street brawl in Lyon, and had stabbed another man in the neck. The man had died and his friends had hunted Robért Hieronimo out of town with his two children in tow. Robért had pulled every trick he knew to shake them off his scent, but the mob was tenacious and they had finally trapped the three of them in an abandoned cottage.
Reasoning that if they went in to the darkness of the cottage, Robért would pick them off at his leisure, they decided on the simplest course of action and torched it.
The three fugitives had only barely escaped with their lives.
For weeks afterwards Isabella had woken screaming, much to the rage of her father, who would clout her roughly and tell her to go back to sleep.
The only, thing, the only thing that got her through that time was that she had been able to tell herself, over and over again until it became her mantra, that she would never have to endure anything like that again.
The crackling had become deafening, the heat was already unbearable and she could feel the ebony smoke clawing a black swathe down her throat.
No no no no no no no…
Not again. Please.
“Isabella? We have to go, we have to get out of here.”
But now it was Isabella’s turn to freeze rigid in terror. She stood, her gaze fixed on the bedroom door just as Marie’s had been on the host of angels camped outside.
“Isabella, come on, we have to go!”
“No! No, no, I can’t…”
She was back in the cottage, walls of flame on every side, Thomas beside her, coughing piteously, her father’s face lit up like the devil, his black beard bristling…
Marie grabbed the doorknob, screamed and let go. It was as hot as a coal. Frantically she grabbed a sheet from the bed, draped it over the knob, and twisted as quickly as she could, but even so she could feel the heat radiating through the fabric. She heard a chair leg snap.
The door swung open and she was thrown back by the explosive force of the back draft, as the relatively untouched air of the bedroom was sucked up gluttonously by the vacuum of the flaming landing. She yelled in pain and held her hand to her forehead which had been badly scorched.
In front of her, Hell yawned invitingly.
Yellow white flames danced like cannibals in the landing, smoked curled on the ceiling like a sleeping black dragon. The heat seared.
She saw something she’d take to her grave.
A man, and for a second she could have sworn it was her father, burst out of a side room, screaming like a horse, his body on fire, his great beard an inferno. He tripped and fell and lay writhing on the floor howling and howling. Then she saw an angel, striding through the flames as if they were painted on a wall and when he reached the man he simply stretched out his hand and touched him. The writhing stopped, and the screaming ceased. The angel stood, and looked at Marie, but what with his hood and the smoke she couldn’t make out his expression. For a terrible moment she thought he was coming for her, but instead he turned away, as if his fascination had been exhausted, and walked out through the solid wall.
It was now or never. Get out now, or wait until the flames were licking her toes to the blackened bone. She took Isabella’s trembling hand and more dragged her than led her to the door.
No it was pointless, even from here the pain was unbearable, there was no way she would be able to cross the landing, not even if she left Isabella and ran alone.
As it always does when faced with a hopeless situation, her mind began to wander.
Was this what Hell was like? Would her father have to endure this every day until time died?
Suddenly she wanted to hold him more than anything in the world.
And that’s when she noticed that the flames had stopped burning.
It was incredible. And yet part of her was not surprised to find time suddenly arrested. It felt like it had happened before. The shock of seeing the flames the first time had been so much greater than seeing them frozen in the air. Logically she knew that what she was seeing was impossible, but she honestly could not muster much amazement. She stared at the flames. They simply stood still in mid-rampage, brilliant and yellow. And when they no longer danced, Marie could see just how beautiful they really were. She reached out her hand, slipping it free of Isabella’s grip, who was now staring into space as still as the flames.
Marie reached out and placed her palm near the still flame. For a second it felt as if it had gone completely cool but slowly she felt the pain spread across her palm, like scalding hot treacle and she yanked it back with a hiss of pain.
She could still feel the heat from the flame, but it took so long for it to hurt her that she might be able to make it across the flaming hall alive. But what about Isabella? She’d have to pull her across. And she would have to hurry, who knew how long this bizarre state would last?
She took Isabella’s hand in hers, and squeezed it tightly. She gazed across the smoke filled flaming corridor, now like a picture, still as death.
Isabella was as light as a feather, and her legs dangled in the air behind them like a banner. Marie could not know that as she was running she was going so fast that to Isabella she was a blur.
On she ran, through the flames, the smoke and the screams that, in the time void, were low and lasted for minutes on end, like wolf howls.
The heat was getting worse and worse, and from all corners she could feel it creeping over her, a terrible burning pain. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw that the flames were beginning to stir again…
The time void collapsed with the deafening sound of crackling flames. Suddenly, she was burning.
She screamed and lost control and, still travelling at heightened speed she crashed into the wall, throwing Isabella into the corner with terrible force. Marie looked up blearily. They were cornered, flames on every side, blocking the way she came and cutting off the staircase. She could feel her skin beginning to blister in the heat. Isabella lay unconscious at her side, a blue-black bruise blighting her forehead. Probably for the best. She wouldn’t want to be awake for this.
Maybe the smoke would kill her before the flames.
Maybe, maybe, please God let the smoke kill her.
She breathed in deep and felt the foul black fog tear it’s way through her throat, down her gullet, into her lungs like a swarm of razors.
She coughed like a sick old man.
“Mmmmmm. I smell something cooking.” came a voice over her head.
She raised her tear-bleeding eyes and had she the voice she would have screamed.
Floating against the ceiling, wreathed in smoke, was the hideous spectre of Rashgiel-el-Goli.
She buried her face in her stomach, trembling. All in all, it would be hard to see how things could get any worse. She was about to suffer the worst death any human being can undergo.
And the demon that dragged her father to Hell was here to claim her too.
“You’re Sariel’s little pet, aren’t you?” the hell spawn purred.
The hairs on Marie’s neck were curling in fear.
“I don’t see her here. Where could she be? Hmm? Where would she be now, do you think?”
The flames licked closer.
“Your father sends his regards. He’s looking forward to seeing you again.”
God, take me away.
“And your friend. Room for you both.”
“Do you know what they do to him? Do you? I’ll give a clue, it involves a noose made of razor wire.”
There was a crack like a back breaking and suddenly, Marie was sitting on air. She scrambled and caught the edge of the floor as she fell through the smouldering hole that her weight had broken through. Isabella, still dead to the world, flopped down and if Marie had not caught her with her free arm as she slid down she would have fallen into the inferno below.
So, there’s Marie: hanging by one arm from the ceiling, Isabella suspended a few feet over the fire with the other like a great fleshy pendulum. The poor girl does not deserve this.
And, believe this if you choose, it’s going to get worse.
Because Isabella is about to wake up.
And when she sees where she is she is not going to be pleased.
“Isabella! Stop! Stop!”
“Oh God! Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!”
“Stop! Stop! I can’t hold on! Stop struggling!”
“Let me up! Let me up!”
“Isabella if you don’t stop I’m going to let go!”
“I will! I can’t hold on! Now listen, I’m going to try to swing you over there, see by the door? There’s no fire there, and you’ll be able to get out.”
“It’s on the other side of the room!”
“Are you ready?”
She’d never know where she got the strength, but somehow, she was able to swing a shrieking, hysterical girl a foot taller than her clean through the air and safe to the other side of the room.
With one arm.
Isabella flew screaming through the air and landed like a cat on the tiled floor, which was scalding hot. She leapt up and did not even bother casting a glance back at Marie, clinging desperately to the ceiling, her toes dangling in the broiling air. She ran outside to where a mob had gathered and was desperately trying to stem the fire.
Marie could feel her shoulders separating, her vision was beginning to blur.
Her fingers slipped into air.
“Please! Please she’s still inside, you have to help her!” Isabella screamed, pulling desperately at the arm of one of the townspeople.
“No one who goes in there is getting out alive, now stand back!” the man shouted.
“But she’ll die…”
The sentence was cut off in her mouth by a great crashing and roaring, and she spun around just in time to see the red heart of the inn collapse into itself, sending showers of yellow sparks to join their starry brethren in the sky.
Isabella let out a single, strangled gasp. She was gone. Marie was dead. And the loss hit her in the chest like a hammer blow. She stared at the burning wreckage until it seemed seared into the back of her head.
And the thought that if she stared long enough she might actually see…
With a shudder she turned away and tripped over Marie who was lying on the ground as peaceful as a spring lamb.
Isabella shrieked and leapt to her feet.
Marie woke up and screamed.
Isabella screamed at the scream.
Marie screamed at the scream of the scream.
“How did you get out?! You weren’t there a second ago, I know you weren’t!” Isabella cried.
“I…I don’t know…I don’t…is that the inn?”
“Yes! It’s the inn that burned down! While you were inside it!!”
“Then…how did I get out here?”
Isabella simply pointed a finger at her and gave her a look as if to warn her that she was about to get a punch in the face. Then her expression changed.
“You…you’re like her, aren’t you?”
“I’m sorry.” said a voice. Marie felt a hand on her throat and suddenly she couldn’t breathe.
“I’m sorry. What is wrong with you?!” Thomas roared “I send my sister to kill you. You don’t die. I try to kill you myself, I set the damn inn you’re staying in on fire and you don’t die! You think this is a game? You think I don’t have better things to be doing than chasing you half way around the country? If I slit your throat right now, would you die? Would you be that accommodating? Do you think you could oblige me?”
Isabella was looking on numbly, trying to stop her legs from folding beneath her,
“Thomas…” she mumbled.
“Shut up!” he screamed, and it was clear that the last hinge had broken.
“Run!” he continued “Run and you might have a chance…”
Marie was not listening. A voice was whispering in her ear.
Unseen either by Isabella or her ranting brother, black evil floated by Thomas’ shoulder.
“Hello again girl.” Rashgiel hissed “We didn’t get to finish our little chat, did we? I suppose we’d better hurry.”
With the hand cutting off her air, her ears pressed tight to the folds of Thomas’ vest, and her eyes running with tears, she was deaf, dumb and blind. She could not hear Thomas’ ranting, Isabella’s pleading or the still crackling embers of the fire. All she could hear was Rashgiel’s cobra-hiss of a voice in her ear.
“What do you think will happen to you when he finally stops yammering and cuts you open?” Rashgiel inquired “Do you think you’ll go to heaven? That would be nice, wouldn’t it? That would be ever so nice. Of course, you’ll have to live with the fact that your father will be in Hell forever, but you’ll forget about him soon enough. Or maybe you’ll go to Hell? Then you could be with him forever, wouldn’t that be wonderful? Maybe you could share an oil pot…”
He gave a hideous snicker.
“You still don’t see, do you? Stupid girl. You’re not going to die.”
Marie stopped breathing.
“If you were about to die, there would be an angel here, waiting to claim your soul. Now, much as I would enjoy seeing this lout turn you inside out, I can assure you that you are going to survive this. And do you know why? Because, my dear, I am about to do this.”
And with that, Rashgiel lightly brushed a finger against Thomas’ shoulder.
Thomas felt a searing pain dance madly up and down his arm, and it dropped limply like a dead weight, the knife clattering to the ground. He screamed in agony, and fell to his knees. Marie had broken free of his grip and as she and Isabella ran whimpering off into the shadows he screamed after her that he would hunt her down carve her up eats bits of her set the leftovers on fire bury them in manure and dance for seven days and seven nights on her grave. And then he collapsed to the cool ground, cradling his arm and whimpering in pain like a dog. And over his head, unseen, Rashgiel grinned like a trap.