At first, I didn’t understand what woke me. I was so exhausted from the long trip across the country that as soon as my head hit the pillow, I was asleep like the dead. But as I was tugged back to consciousness, the thick, pungent smell of smoke overwhelmed my nose, and the crackle of flame disturbed the late-night silence. Realizing the danger, I bolted upright in bed, my throat already half-closed, my heart beating twice its normal rate. The smoke was so thick I couldn’t breathe, and I fell back against the mattress as a coughing fit erupted from my chest.
Breathing shallowly through my mouth, I blinked against the stinging smoke and scrabbled for my discarded T-shirt so I could shield myself from the haze permeating the room. It was growing thicker by the second, and if I didn’t want to suffocate, I needed to get a move on.
With the T-shirt pressed to my face, I slid, belly down, off the bed and onto the floor. Three inches of relatively smoke-free air allowed me to breathe more freely, and I crawled over to the door, trying to get a feel for my situation. I pressed my hand to the thin, painted wood, gritting my teeth against the heat that scalded my palm. The smoke billowing from beneath the door triggered another coughing fit even with my impromptu mask, and I retreated hastily, considering my options.
I had two choices to escape death. I could open my bedroom window and jump down the fire escape, or I could try braving the fire raging beyond my bedroom door.
Crawling to the window, I hauled myself up so I could peer over the ledge. Unfortunately, the thickening haze made it difficult to see outside even with my shifter vision, and a cloud had drifted over the moon, blocking out my main source of light. Even so, a tingle skipped down my spine, causing the hair on the back of my neck to rise. There was somebody out there, watching, waiting for me to escape by using the path of least resistance. If I climbed out this window, I’d likely run straight into an ambush.
Then again, it was entirely likely that if I braved the fire and made it out into the hall, there would be an assassin from the Resistance waiting for me out there too. If I took my chances with the fire escape, at least I wouldn’t have to endure third-degree burns.
But then, I remembered I wasn’t the only one at risk here. My neighbors were in danger too – it was only a matter of time before the fire spread to the other apartments. There was a newlywed couple next door to my place, who had a six-month-old child. I needed to help them get out. After all, it was my fault they were in danger in the first place. Unless the fire inside my apartment was ignited by some kind of freak accident.
Then again, the Resistance had left a note on my apartment door only hours ago, telling me in not so many words that they were going to kill me. A freak accident would be a hell of a coincidence under these circumstances.
Mind made up, I pulled on some clothing, grabbed my weapons, and yanked open the door. The overheated metal doorknob blistered my hands, but I ignored the pain. Instead, I surveyed the damage through stinging eyes. My entire kitchen was in flames, and the fire had blazed a path over to my living room furniture. Smoke was escaping through the window above my kitchen sink, which someone had broken. Flames blocked my path to the door, rising high enough that, considering my low ceiling, I wouldn’t be able to jump over them without setting my pants on fire.
Oh well. There was a first time for everything.
I took a deep breath, which was a mistake, and immediately doubled over as I coughed up the scalding black cloud that entered my lungs. Dammit. Angry now, I swiped at my watering eyes and straightened as best I could.
Stop wasting time! People might be dying.
I braced myself, then dashed for the exit, taking a flying leap over the growing pillar of flame. As expected, the fire lashed out at my legs, traveling up my ankles to wrap around my calves. I clenched my teeth on the scream that threatened to tear from my throat, angling my body feet first as I crashed through the doorway. As soon as I landed, I dropped into a roll, moving back and forth until the flames devouring my legs were extinguished.
Wincing, I climbed to my feet, then cloaked myself in the illusion of an old woman. My legs burned like…well, fire, as I ran down the hall and began pounding on doors, shouting in a quavering, but shrill, old-lady voice that everybody needed to evacuate the building. Alarmed voices began to fill the air, but people weren’t moving fast enough for my purposes, so I yanked open the newlyweds’ door, breaking their flimsy lock in the process. Smoke filled their apartment, and I covered my mouth as I ran to the bedroom in the back. The fire was going to eat through the wall and spread to them in no time.
“Get out!” I threw open their bedroom door, and the couple shot straight up in bed, eyes wide with shock. The baby in the crib instantly started crying, and I raised my voice so they would hear me over her wails. “The building is on fire. Grab your kid and get out!”
The couple stared at the haze of smoke creeping into the room, and the man nodded. “Get the baby, Dalina,” he ordered, hastily rising from the bed. “Let’s go.”
I dashed from the room, then went to herd other people from their beds. Thankfully, several of them were already moving toward the fire escape at the end of the hall, which was what I wanted. Not just to save them, but because I needed to get myself lost in the crowd of residents fleeing the building. If I came out first, even in my old-woman guise, the Resistance was more likely to be suspicious and guess it was me. Once enough people started swarming for the exit, I dashed down the stairs to the second floor, then repeated the process, banging on doors and shouting at people to evacuate.
By the time I got to the first floor, I was staggering, my legs burning like mad from the pain. They were probably only second-degree burns, which meant they hurt like hell because they hadn’t killed my nerve endings. Even though they were healing thanks to my shifter heritage, it was going to take some time. Luckily, the people here were already roused and heading for the exit, having heard the commotion from the upper floors.
“There now.” A man hooked an arm around my shoulder, supporting me. I glanced up, startled, and found myself staring into the face of a thirtyish human with spectacles on warm brown eyes. “An old lady like you shouldn’t be the one trying to evacuate everybody. You look like you’re in pain. Let’s get you out of here before you get hurt any worse.”
“T-thank you, young man,” I quavered, leaning against him. I allowed him to gently lead me outside. This was perfect. Nobody was going to suspect me now, not as an injured old woman being practically carried out by a helpful human. We followed the crowd out into the lobby and through the front doors.