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Burning Down The House


Shadowboxer

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The Heliopolis Heights is a gorgeous apartment building standing right on O'Donnell and Michigan. Constructed in 1929, the apartments are a towering splendour built in a modernized Georgian style that stands out from the neighbouring tenement buildings lining the street. For years, tourists and architecture students have visited the Heights to catch a glimpse of the unique building. Artists set up easels across the street to paint its portrait, and photographers snap its picture when the sunlight hits it just right. Like most weekday evenings, by nine o'clock most people have retreated home. Traffic is sparse, and few pedestrians wander the sidewalks.

Without warning, an ear-piercing explosion bursts out of the windows from the top floor of the Heliopolis Heights, sending broken glass and charred curtains down to the sidewalk. A thick plume of orange-red flame erupts out of the window and greedily licks around the frame. Within moments, sirens blare in the distance.

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Four blocks away, Nightrival sits on the roof of a tenement building with his legs dangling over the side. He lifts up the bottom of his mask and tucks it over his nose.

"Ninjas and robots and super-villians and magic," he exclaims, "whatta month. All these other heroes, they got someone to come home ta and talk about all the madness they hafta endure. But not me. I work at the warehouse all day and then I gotta fight bad guys all night, and who do I come home ta? An empty apartment."

Nightrival sighs. "Until . . . until I met ya. Ya never judge, and that's wha' folks in my line o' work need. So, I really appreciate ya comin' up 'ere wit' me and listenin' ta what I gotta say," he slurs as he gazes at a foot-long hoagie clutched in his hands.

"It's not like I got time to hit the singles scene. How the heck I'm goin' turn heads with my rep? Hi, my name's Liam and I like long walks on the beach, jumpin' across rooftops and beatin' up zombies. Oh, I 'ave a secret identity and a whole lotta guys want ta kill me all the time. Yeah, I can just hear the phone ringin' off the hook."

He shrugs his shoulders. "Ah, well. I least we have each other."

Just as he's about to take a bite, a glob of mustard oozes out of the sandwich and lands on his top.

"Ah, man. And I didn't bother to get napk - "

Behind him, the explosion from the Heliopolis shreds the air, causing him to reflexively recoil at the horrible sound. He wraps the hoagie in its brown paper, sets it on an air duct and speeds towards the noise. The flames have already spread to two neighbouring windows, and the windows below have also shattered as the inferno quickly eats its way down to the lower floors.

A fire alarm shrieks. Minutes later, residents spill out of the front entrance and crowd on the sidewalk, pointing to the chaos above. Two fire engines turn the corner and brake on the street. Firefighters pile out of the trucks and unravel hoses, sling on protective gear, and control the panicking crowd congregated outside the apartment building. The air is filled with billowing black smoke, the flashing blue and red lights from the fire engines paint its swollen belly. People scream and hold one another as they helplessly watch the magnificent building be crowned with fire.

"Help! Someone, please!"

"Oh my God! Where is Rebecca? Where is my daughter?"

"There's . . . is there someone still up there? Yes, there! There he is! In the window!"

Nightrival is across the street when the firefighters arrive. He sits crouched at the edge of a roof facing the disaster. The blaze will eventually be uncontrollable, growing into an immense beast glowing with hellish malice.

The crew down there ain't goin' ta get ta all those folks in time. Time ta pitch in.

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  • 3 weeks later...

NightrivalHS.jpg

Nightrival stands and removes a swing line from a pocket in his costume. He spins the hook in his hand and releases it, sending the line across the street in a single arc and hooking it onto the ledge of the Heliopolis Heights' roof. For now the fire is only burning within the upper floors but threatens to circulate to adjacent apartments. The flames stretch their fingers high into the night sky. Two fire engines extend their ladders. Firefighters anxiously wait on the street for the ladder to reach the top floor. Suddenly, an immense fireball booms out of a window and knocks one of the ladders right over. People below crouch and shield themselves from the sparks and glass spilling onto the street. The other ladder is steered away from the flames.

A firefighter operating one of the turntables at the back of an engine yells to the others. "It's too hot! We can't get close enough!"

They nod and grab axes and oxygen tanks from the engines. Once they're suited up they race into the building's front lobby. Police officers herd the crowd away from the scene.

Nightrival cannot put out the fire. Part of him wishes he could call upon a superpower that could snuff out the flames with just a thought. Instead, he resigns himself to rescue duty and prays that the firefighters can contain the blaze before it swallows the entire building. His legs push him off the roof and he soars over the street like a blackbird. He tucks in his legs as he swings over the flashing sirens. He's been using the swing line for weeks, but he finds watching the world speed past him while the air gently brushes his face has yet to lose its appeal.

"Look!" cries out a man still in his pajamas.

"Is that the Raven?" asks a firefighter.

Nightrival unhands the line and somersaults onto the window ledge. He presses his back against the brick wall. Whattaya mean the Raven? Do ya see a cape, buddy? I'm gonna need better press. He shakes his head then creeps closer to a nearby window where a modest amount of smoke is rolling out. Heat radiates from the wall, burning his hand. A blend of wood smoke and burnt plastic seeps into his nostrils. From what he heard, there's a least three people trapped inside the building. He knows there be should be more since the fire was so sudden and caught the residents unaware. A spotlight crawls across the wall and shines over him. He covers his eyes and peers down to see one of the engines searching the top floor with one of their powerful lights. The engines and people resemble toys from his perspective.

"No! It's Nightrival!"

He continues his approach to the window. Alright. Find these three folks and search fer others. Shouldn't be too hard. Another explosion erupts out of the same window where the ladder tipped over, shaking the entire building. Nightrival's feet slip under him and he slams onto his back and rolls off the ledge . . .

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His arms lash out and his fingers catch the concrete ledge. He swings from the edge, hovering above the fire engines. The spotlight follows his brief descent. A few people scream at seeing a man nearly fall to his death, and they subside once Nightrival heaves himself back onto the narrow ledge.

The explosion erupted three window away from where Nightrival is standing. Very little smoke is coming from the window next to him. He deduces that the fire has not spread this far but will very soon; he decides that it will be his point of entry.

He stands in front of the window and drives his fist through the glass, breaking it completely. One foot steps through the shattered window and he slips into the apartment. The living room is sparsely furnished, as though someone had just moved in. Not their lucky day, he thinks darkly. Smoke seeps in from under the front door and climbs up the ceiling, where it slithers across the room like a silent, gray snake. Nightrival's lungs burn and convulse and his chest shudders as he coughs. His mask will provide some protection, but not enough against full-blown smoke inhalation.

He dashes into the kitchen and finds a dish towel lying on the counter. Turning on the sink faucet, he holds the towel under the running water then ties it around his mouth and nose. Just as he turns off the faucet he hears a small voice crying from another room.

"Mommy? Mommy!"

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He runs towards the voice. Behind him, small flames appear along the baseboard. The smoke grows thicker and darker. Nightrival doesn't notice the danger as he races down a hallway adorned with family photos. He stops at a door; a sign hanging from the middle reads Rebecca's Room. He swings open the door and spots a small girl sitting upright in her bed, trembling under a pink blanket adorned with Lady Liberty in various poses. Tears stain her face and her eyes are red and puffy.

"Mommy?"

"Not quite. I'll get ya atta 'ere jus' th' same."

Why is she still 'ere? Where th' heck is 'er parents?

"Are you a cowboy?" she asks, pointing to the dish towel around his face.

"Um, only on weekends."

He picks her up and she instantly calms down, much to Nightrival's relief.

"Don't worry, kiddo. Yer gonna be fine. Jus' stay close."

"You talk funny."

"Tell me 'bout it."

Nightrival exits the bedroom and halts at the end of the hall when he sees a raging fire now consuming the wall in the living room. The entire room is obscured with black smoke, concealing the way out. The fire crackles with manical glee. Intense heat pounds against him but he ignores the blistering sensation as he concentrates on finding the window he entered. He shields Rebecca from the flames with his arms. She coughs, and he removes the towel and holds it against her mouth and nose. Smoke immediately pours into his lungs and he violently hacks and shudders. He doubles over, stunned from the shock of suddenly inhaling toxic fumes, as the fire swells and looms over them like a massive orange bird spreading its wings.

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The fire quickly surrounds them, burning the adjacent walls and the ceiling. Nightrival can barely see through the stinging pain in his eyes and the smoke clouding the room. He holds Rebecca closer. His chest expands like a balloon then he coughs once again, only this time it sounds more ragged and thunderous. The hot smoke has completely invaded his lungs and he becomes nauseous and dizzy from the poison now coursing through his veins. The heat continues its assault on his human frame, drawing out his strength with their long, prickily fingers. Nightrival's shoulders sag from carrying his small passenger. Rebecca sobs as he slowly sinks to the floor.

A deep voice echoes from beyond the flames.

"Liam?"

Nightrival pries open his eyes and instead of a burning apartment he sees a wide baseball field. The sun is fat and bright. He hears other voices, some older and some younger, yelling and chatting all around him. Nightrival is not wearing his costume; in fact, he's younger, wearing a worn-out Comets jersey. His hand is in a soft catcher's mitt.

A few yards away he sees a man facing him, the sun behind him. He has red hair and broad shoulders. He's also wearing a catcher's mitt. Nightrival squints but he can't make out all the man's features.

"What's wrong, kiddo?" the man asks. "You let the ball go right past you."

He walks towards Nightrival and his face emerges from out of the bright light.

"D-dad?"

Connor smiles and strides past Nightrival, then leans over and picks up a baseball nestled in the grass.

"You gotta keep your eye on the ball, son."

"Dad?" Nightrival feels a lump in his throat. Tears trickle down his cheeks, and he immediately wipes his face.

"Hey, it's alright. You'll catch it next time."

Nightrival hangs his head.

"Oh. You're thinking about grandpa."

"Sometimes."

Connor kneels and places his large hand on Nightrival's shoulder.

"Grandpa was a good man. He put food on the table and clothes on our back. Just keep him here," he adds, pointing to Nightrival's heart, "and he'll always be with you."

"But-but I wanna learn how to fight, like grandpa. That's how I wanna r-remember him."

Connor sighs deeply. "When I was your age, I wanted to box too. But your grandpa didn't want me wrapped up in his world. He wanted me to do something . . . respectable. I want the same thing for you. You can make a difference without knocking people around. I'm kicking the bad guys out of your old man's union, aren't I? Am I hitting people to make this happen?"

"No."

"That's right. You be a fighter on the inside, and a saint on the outside. You remember that, okay?"

"I will."

Nightrival closes his eyes. The fire roars in his ears.

"I'll remember, dad," he mutters.

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Nightrival squeezes his eyes and imagines a baseball falling into the padded palm of his catcher's mitt. He smells freshly cut grass and popcorn overwhelming the choking smoke and ash circling him. With a groan and a snort he lifts himself up again, shrugging off waves of heat threatening to drain him completely. He slows his breathing to limit the amount of smoke entering his lungs. Slowly, deliberately, Nightrival returns to his feet. He peers into the smoke and spots a glimmer of light in the near distance. Must be were th' window is.

"Let's get outta 'ere,"

The flames flare brighter, and he hears a rumbling from the next apartment. The ground shakes. Nightrival narrows his eyes.

"Oh, man."

A massive fireball erupts out of the wall, resembling a giant, flaming fist rocketing towards them. Nightrival takes a single wide step, ducks and rolls away from the rushing flames consuming the furniture and pictures; they blacken and shrink, and the walls appear to melt.

He keeps Rebecca close and tumbles twice before he hits the ground running. Nightrival races to the window and places a single foot on the ledge. He steps out of the window, and smoke billows out of the window behind him. Rebecca remains clutched in his arms. Sirens and spotlights shine down below. A helicopter with the WFAN logo blazoned across its side whoops over the building, whipping the air around him. Suddenly, another rumbling expands inside the apartment. Nightrival hastily searches and finds a swing line under his costume, tosses it at another window three stories down, and leaps off into the night. In seconds another explosion rushes out the window.

He swings in a downward arch, holding the line with one hand and Rebecca in another. Soon he descends onto the street, right in front of a fire engine. For once, he doesn't savour soaring through the air. Fightfighters gather around him when he settles back onto the pavement. One of them takes Rebecca, who is staring blankly at the window where she was just moments ago.

"Rebecca? Rebecca!" A woman in light blue housecoat bursts out of the crowd and runs towards the firefighter holding her daughter. She picks her up and someone covers them with a blanket.

"I was at the neighbours, just for a second!" she cries. "We got seperated! Oh, thank you! Thank you!"

They are quickly led away from the scene. Nightrival peeks over his shoulder and nods at Rebecca, who waves at him as she's carried to a waiting ambulance. He grins, then doubles over coughing. He braces himself against a lamp post with an outstretched arm. All the sounds return to him: the sobs, the screams, the sirens. The world seems to lazily spin around him. Another firefighter approaches him and places a gloved hand on his back.

"You alright?"

"Yeah, man," replies Nightrival. "I jus' need a sec."

He glances at the firefighter and he notices a woman's face behind the visor, one with freckles and blue eyes.

"Sorry," he sputters.

"Don't worry about it." She turns to her crew. "He's got smoke inhalation," she exclaims, "I need oxygen, fast!"

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"I'm not going to take off your mask; I know what that means to you," yells the firefighter above the fire and sirens. "But I need to know how your lungs are doing. I'm going to listen, and you take a deep breath."

Nightrival nods. The firefighter presses her ear against his chest and he follows her instructions. His chest expands then sinks.

"Again," she asks. He complies. "Again." She carefully listens, then lifts her head to face him. His costume is smoldering and he reeks of burning wood and sweat.

"It's not too bad. You got any burns on your nose or your mouth?" Nightrival shakes his head. "Good," she replies. "Your breathing's laboured." She turns her head. "Where is that oxygen?" she orders.

Another firefighter promptly anwers the call, holding an oxygen mask and tank in his hands. Nightrival lifts the bottom of his mask over his nose and the two firefighters affix the oxygen mask on him.

"Take regular breaths," she explains.

"I'm . . . alright. Ya got better . . . things ta do. Jus' gimme a minute."

"No, I'm staying right here until I know you're not going to die on us."

Nightrival laughs. "Fine. Y-Ya gotta name?"

"June. June Abados."

He offers his hand. "Nightrival."

June gently bats his hand away. "I know who you are, tough guy." She listens to Nightrival's chest again. "You still don't sound that great. I'm going to - "

"No . . . no need," he interrupts. "Like I said, I jus' need . . . some time."

"Alright. Take all you need."

One minute goes by, and Nightrival is still nauseous and weak.

I . . . can't be hangin' out 'ere . . . all night. Folks . . . need help . . .

He inhales deeply, as though he's about to practice a series of katas, and centers on his lungs. Another minute passes, and his vision begins to clear and the strength returns to his arms and legs. He rips off the oxygen mask and slips his own back over his face. June's eyes widen with astonishment.

"You weren't kidding," she says.

Nightrival stands and starts to walk away.

"Thanks for th' help."

June snags his arm. "You're not going back?"

"I gotta."

"I should be up there," she grumbles, "but I'm stuck down here 'cause - oh, nevermind." She pauses. "You're going to need some help."

She runs over to the engine, opens the cab door, and steps inside it. She exits clutching a mask and a yellow turnout coat, returns to Nightrival and hands him the gear. He slips into the coat and straps on the mask.

"Take these. I'll try to join you."

Nightrival lifts an eyebrow. "Ya seem pretty eager ta walk inta th' inferno."

"That's 'cause I'm a firefighter. Now go!"

Nightrival tips his head. "Yes, ma'am."

He leaps on top of the fire engine then jumps again, throwing a swing line at the same time. The remaining firefighters on the ground watch as Nightrival soars over the hoses spouting water. June takes off her helmet; her short, blonde hair ruffles in the evening breeze.

"Wow," she mutters.

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  • 3 weeks later...

NightrivalHS.jpg

The mask and coat are stifling. Nightrival is not accustomed to wearing a heavy layer over his costume that could weight him down and slow his reflexes. He twists his shoulders as he swings over the fire engines to settle into the coat. As he gains more height he releases the line and tosses another one behind him, towards the top corner of the building. He shifts the weight away from his arms and swings further up in the opposite direction. He releases the line and drops onto the ledge in a crouching position. Suddenly, someone pokes out of a window on the other side.

"Help! Somebody, help!"

Nightrival turns his attention to the voice. Tha' dude wasn't there a minute ago, but I saw 'em earlier. I 'ope 'e stays still.

He stands and carefully walks along the ledge with his hands pressed against the wall. He moves past the window from where he rescued Rebecca, which is blasted out entirely and a fire still rages inside the apartment. Heat pours out of every window and the fire continues roaring in a terrifying chorus. The flames have spread to the roof, completely submerging the top of the building. Just below Nightrival's feet, the fire has crawled down into the floor under the blaze. Firefighters direct their hoses at that floor to halt the inferno's progression.

He eventually reaches the window and sees that the person is a young man in a white t-shirt.

"'Old on, man," he says reassuringly. "I'll get ya down."

The man nods his head but his eyes are clearly white with fear. Nightrival holds a swing line at the base of the hook and attaches it to the window ledge. He puts his arm under the man's arms and tightens his grip. The man puts wraps his arms around Nightrival's neck. The roof right above the window groans then sags into the apartment.

"Ya ready?"

The man shakes his head. "No."

"Good."

Nightrival leaps off the ledge. The roof sinks so far it crumbles into fiery rubble and collapses into the apartment. The man screams as they plummet towards the street; flames and bricks and glass explode above them and rain down on their heads.

An extended ladder from one of the engines draws closer. Nightrival counts to ten and when they fall past the ladder his hand reaches out and grabs one of the rungs, then swings forward and freefalls the rest of the distance. He alights on top of a fire engine like an autumn leaf gently settling onto the ground. June rushes to Nightrival as the vigilante lowers the young man down to the street. A crowd of firefighters gather around the man and carry him away.

"How'd you do all that?" asks June.

"Positive thinkin'."

"Right. Our spotters have one more on the top floor, right beside the last one."

"Thanks." Nightrival already has a line twirling in his hand.

"Wait!" she shouts. He pauses and looks down. "The fire's spread to the lower floor," she continues. "There's a handful of people trapped in there. Our guys can't reach them; the stairs and elevators are a no go."

Nightrival nods. "I'll do my best."

Another explosion erupts from the roof and June peers up at the chaos. "You better hurry, I'll catch up - " She turns back to Nightrival; he's gone. June smirks. " - in a second."

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  • 3 weeks later...

NightrivalHS.jpg

Nightrival has already returned to the ledge along the top floor windows, swinging upwards like before. The eastern side of the Heights is up in flames. He's far enough away to not feel the heat, though sirens and helicopters fill the air with their respective sounds. One apartment on the western corner is not burning, but it will soon. The flames will quickly overwhelm this section of the building in minutes. Nightrival carefully approaches the closest window. He peers inside and sees nothing. With his back to the window, he drives his elbow into the glass and it cracks. Another blow does nothing, then another sinks the window inwards. Nightrival takes a deep breath then heaves his elbow into the glass once more. The center of the window shatters and he slips inside.

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  • 2 months later...

NightrivalHS.jpg

Nightrival finds himself in another living room. This one is simply decorated: a few photographs hang from the wall, and two couches with floral patterns are wrapped in plastic. A small television stands on a dinner tray in the middle of the room. He looks around and then cups his hands over his mouth. He can smell the smoke drifting inside.

"Hello!" he yells. "Anybody home?"

"There's no need to make such a ruckus, young man," replies a tiny voice. "I'm sitting right here."

Nightrival swings his head from side to side to find the owner of the voice. He spots a small figure seated on a rocking chair facing the television. Normally he cound find someone, even of that stature, in a darkened room if he searched hard enough. For some reason the person only appeared to him now. He steps closer. The figure in the chair is dressed like an elderly woman. She is wearing a blue dress under an apron trimmed with lace. A pair of heavy leather loafers hang from her feet. Her white hair is tied back in a tight bun and thin, square glasses balance on her nose. She must be no taller than four and a half feet. Her human resemblance ends there, however. Her round face is greenish-blue and covered in scales like a fish, and bookended by long, pointed ears. Her eyes are coal black and they shimmer in the faint light. She holds a pair of knitting needles and a ball of yarn is tucked in beside her.

"You look lost, young man," she says.

Nightrival pinches the base of his nose. I hate this town.

"Um, yeah, right. Sorry ta barge in on ya like this - "

"You broke my window."

"I had ta get in here, didn't I?"

She crosses her arms. "You did, did you? You could have knocked on the front door like a sensible person."

"The hallway is on fire."

"Still, I'd prefer a little more sensibility. Harold always insisted that the world needed a strong dose of sensibility."

"Harold?"

She points to a framed black and white picture standing on a side table. Nightrival peers closer. The woman is in the picture, much younger than she is now, and beside her is a man with the same features. They are seated on a blanket under an oak tree.

"Harold is . . . was my husband," she explains. "He worked in textiles."

"I see. I hate ta cut this short, but the building's on fire an' I gotta get ya outta here."

"I'm not going anywhere, young man. I have lived in this apartment for fifty years. My Harold - bless his heart - passed away in this very room. We raised six children here. I'm not about to scurry away when a few little flames poke their noses in here."

"I know this ain't a party right now. Ya gotta lot of memories here. But, ya can't stay. Even elves aren't fireproof. I think."

"Elves?" she huffs. "What makes you think I'm an elf?"

"Well, um, the ears an' all . . ."

The woman crosses her arms again and her lips tighten.

"I am a water sprite, young man. Water. Sprite. I thank the elemental spirits my Harold is not here to listen to this. To think, young people today can't tell the difference between a sprite and an elf. Harold would have had a fit; he would think you were being quite insensible."

Nightrival hangs his head. The idea of dragging a little blue woman out of her apartment is not exactly the scenario he imagined. A sharp odour seeps into his nostrils. He turns to look down the hall. Flames are raising from under the front door and are getting larger. He decides to do away with sensibility and take the initiative.

"I hate ta do this but yer comin' with me, ma'am."

He rushes forward to pick her up. Just as he's standing over her his chest clenches tight. He panics when he realizes he can't draw a breath. Clenching his chest, he falls to his knees and looks up at the woman now gazing down at him with her shining black eyes. He opens his mouth to speak and water gushes out instead of words. The sprite picks up her needles and continues knitting.

"You people are much like us, young man," she says softly. "We are both made of water. Now, promise to be sensible and I will draw out all that water I directed into your lungs. I told you I'm not leaving and that's final."

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