Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chapter 4

The Devil's Muse

One fifty nine am found the station house and the men held within deep in slumber. From outside on the street the building would appear to be vacant, not a single source of light spilling out into the night from the pitch black windows. On the inside, however, a stream of moonlight filters in, focusing its illumination on the station's fire and EMS scanner. Its lights flickered in a rapid continuous succession of green and occasionally one or two yellow dots, dependent upon the volume of the static over the empty airwaves.

Upstairs, ten men and two dogs laid upon their beds unknowingly conducting a symphony of snores and deep, heavy breathing. Should a person unfamiliar of their way of life happen upon them, the sounds reverberating throughout the second story room would unquestionably be thought of as an irritating ruckus, capable of driving even the sanest of sane to the brink of insanity in the event of prolonged exposure to it. But to one of their own, it would only invoke a sense of peaceful calm—simply because it meant their night had been a quiet one.

A peaceful calm that shattered as the minute hand of the clock above the plasma screen TV in the lounge struck the twelve and the arrival of precisely two am brought along with it the deafening shrill of the station's old fashioned red metal alarm.

As the sleeping men were ripped from their peaceful slumber and began jumping from their beds and jamming their feet into their boots, the radios they've left on their shelved headboards squawked a series of tones followed by a woman's voice relaying a combination of numbers and letters only they and EMS would understand. The combinations gave them their destination and are followed by the description of the scene given to the dispatcher by the informant who had dialed 911.

The men picked up their pace, following behind the dogs down the stairs as more details flow through the speakers of their radios, alerting them to the urgency of the call and to the awareness that they have not a moment to spare because it isn't just a typical middle of the night call for assistance in a motor vehicle collision or a possible carbon monoxide leak. It's an already out of control structural fire in a residential apartment building; a five alarm fire that's hit out the three stations within the closest proximity to it and necessitating each station's aerial ladder trucks and back-up tankers. It's a fire so severe and intense that within their squadron, it's been given it's own name.

"It's time to dance with the Devil's Muse, boys," Edward called out, thrusting his suspenders over his shoulders and ripping his turnout coat and helmet out of his section in the dual row of lockers running the length of the middle of the truck bay.

The Devil's Muse. It got its name from its sinister nature. Edward himself had only ever experienced the likes of it four times in his decade long career. His father told him time and again of his dances with her over the years, but never, not even for a moment, had he ever believed in the impossibility of some of the things he'd described. For the entire four years of his high school experience he'd questioned his father's sanity.

He stopped questioning it the first time he ever danced with her.

"How's the knee? You gonna be able to handle this?" Alec yelled over the wails of the sirens back to Edward from the front seat as Felix barreled the nearly fifty foot long vehicle down the virtually empty streets.

Edward locked his eyes with Jasper's as he pushed his fumbling hands out of the way and affixed the collar of his turncoat for him. "We'll be fine," he hollered back, not breaking his gaze and speaking more to Jasper than to Alec, because in this moment, he needed more than just the silent reassurances Edward provided him when in need.

Jasper needed more because the first, and only, time he'd ever danced with the Devil's Muse, she'd led and he'd followed flawlessly right into her clutches.

Nine years ago, Edward had almost made the same mistakes, allowing her to lead him in confusing circles while luring him further and further into the inescapable confines of Hell's domain on Earth. It was a game she played with you in large buildings with more than one stairwell—but only one exit.

Tricky prankster she is, using her flaming fingers to twist around corners and steer you away from the path to your freedom. And once she has you turned around, she traps you in a blinding shroud of swirling, asphyxiating smoke that only the crackling and popping sounds of her laughter can penetrate.

But Edward had long ago learned the steps to her seductive dance. He held the key to the shackles she attempts to bind you with in the knowledge of how to escape her playground.

The only way out—is through the flames.

The truck hadn't even come to a full stop before Edward was hopping out of the cab. He'd seen his father's department issued maroon Expedition from halfway down the block; its spinning strobe lights creating a dizzying carousel of flashing colors in the dense smoke creeping across the ground and hanging seemingly motionless in the air. As Edward's crew exited their trucks hastily and began unrolling lines with practiced ease, working in teams of three's to get their hoses flowing with water quickly, he strode in his father's direction. The throbbing pain in his knee from earlier had dulled to a mild annoyance by the flood of adrenaline coursing through his veins.

"What have ya got?" he inquired loudly, Tango heeling loyally at his side as Cash took his place beside Carlisle.

"One of the residents said they were awoken by an explosion that shook the building," Carlisle shouted, pointing at the building that had flames and columns of pitch black smoke spilling out of the broken windows on the first and second floors. "At this point, I'm speculating there was a gas leak, but P.D. is questioning arson."

"Is everyone out of the building?" he asked, because at that point it was the only thing left that mattered aside from keeping it from spreading to other nearby structures. The building was already destroyed and quickly being devoured.

"No one's reported anyone missing, so I'm assuming it's vacant. We'll do a sweep as soon as we get the..."

Edward's focus on his father's words was cut off by the sound of a woman screaming. His head shot to the side to see a short blonde haired woman running down the sidewalk in a disco-ball looking mini dress and heels of death enticing heights.

"Bella!" she screamed, jumping to try and see through the crowd of onlookers to find who she was looking for. Just feet behind her was another woman running in yet another barely there dress and pair of death trap heels. "Bella, where are you?"

The hair on the back of Edward's neck began to stand on end as he looked between the frantic women and the burning building. His feet automatically began moving as they pushed their way through the crowd, still not finding the person they were calling out for. The moment he recognized the look on their faces as they looked up at the second story of the inferno and the blonde in silver collapsed to the ground with a bloodcurdling scream, he was in motion.

"Edward!" his father yelled as he ran to the truck and pushed the panel door up to the compartment that housed their SCBA tanks and masks.

Fearing the moments he'd already wasted, he tossed the gear on as he ran toward the building's glowing entrance, hearing almost nothing but the pounding of blood in his ears and the rumble of the flames sucking up the air, fueling them and creating vortexes of blistering heat.

"Edward! Are you crazy?" his father roared, stepping in his path.

"There's someone trapped in there! I'm going in!"

"NO! I'm ordering you to stay put until they get that water flowing!" Carlisle commanded, trying to verbally and physically stop his son from embarking on a suicide mission.

Horrific fear shot through his system as Edward ripped himself out of his father's hold and ran straight for the entrance, mask still in hand as he thread his arm through the second air pack shoulder strap and disappeared into the smoke and flames.

"Get that water going, NOW!" Carlisle screamed, running toward the trucks.

The heat and lack of oxygen just inside the doorway took Edward's breath away as he kept moving forward with purpose, ripping his helmet off to affix his mask to his face. The first floor of the building was a mix of blinding light and floating hunks of ash that twirled in the swirling waves of heat. He could taste the ash and soot in his mouth; bone dry burnt dirt.

Sweat had begun pouring down his face, steaming the inside of his mask and further incapacitating his vision in the flickering smoky hall. Movement on the periphery of his vision that had resembled a hand coming around a doorway nearly had him moving toward it, but as his head turned, he caught the last remnants of the Muse's tendril-like fingertips disappearing against a charred wall.

"Not today you wicked bitch...gonna have to play smarter than that," he breathed, her response coming instantly by way of a loud series of angry bursts and hisses and the booming echo of falling debris.

"Edward! Get your ass outta there! The foundation's not gonna hold!" Carlisle's voice shot through the radio, panic flooding his tone.

He grabbed a hold of his receiver strapped to his coat and held the button down with his thumb. "Not yet, Chief...I'm Tango-in' in here."

"You keep dancin' with her and you're gonna Cash your last check! Get out of there now!" he commanded fiercely.

Even with as dangerous a situation he was standing in, he couldn't help but chuckle under his breath at how he and Alec's dogs got their names. Tango n' Cash—dance with the Devil's Muse and cash your last check. In the only six fires of this caliber their city had seen since the start of his career, she'd claimed the lives of three men. Three men who'd been both brave and stupid enough to attempt to conquer the stage she dominated masterfully.

And in that moment, as a series of moisture droplets trailed down his mask's shield, he spotted the rear stairwell in the clear trails.

"Take your bow, bitch. This dance is almost over," he breathed again, sweeping his surroundings entirely from floor to ceiling as he placed his foot on the first step.

Outside, Carlisle watched on helplessly as the building disappeared behind walls of smoke and flames, the now powerful streams of water flowing from three different directions not doing a damn thing to tame the demon's rage.

"Get as much water inside as you can! He's gotta have clear passageways!" he ordered with passion only a father whose first born's life was in grave danger could ever possess.

"One of these days,'ll be the death of me," Carlisle whispered to himself as he began to recite a silent prayer for his son's safe return. Tango heeled beside him, whining mournfully and inching his way closer to the building, closer to his master, with every passing minute.

Back inside the building, Edward paused on the stairwell, hearing the familiar moans and claps of the Muse's desires coming to fruition.

"Don't do it," he warned her, hearing another sinister groan and the clatter of more falling debris reverberating through the structure as he cleared the last step. "You can have the building but you can't have the girl."

"Someone find out what apartment she lives in!" he shouted into his radio.

One glimpse around the landing told him he had no time left. The entire second floor hallway was a blackout, leaving him unable to see even a foot in front of his face. Closing his eyes, he relied on his gloved hands and careful steps to guide his way. Feeling the peeling away, warped molding of the first apartment doorway, he searched blindly for the doorknob and upon finding it, pressed his back against the wall beside it.

With every ounce of strength in his body, he rammed the edge of the door with the back of his arm and elbow and spun to the side instantly to protect himself from the possible surge of flames. The doorjamb, weakened by the intense heat and licks of flames, gave way easily and granted him access to the destroyed apartment still ablaze within. By the light of the flames, he quickly cleared the main front rooms and kitchen area before heading down the hall toward the bedrooms.

"Bella! Can you hear me?" he shouted, sweeping his flashlight in steady lines across the floors, furniture, and ceiling; always conscious of his own safety while maintaining his search.

"For fuck's sake! Someone find out what goddamn apartment she lives in!" he shouted into his radio again before realizing that he hadn't heard a single thing over it for at least five minutes.

Standing on the second level of a crumbling building, he found himself at the crossroad of every fireman's worst nightmare, and at that very moment, both of their lives depended on his decision. Save himself while he still could, or continue his search and likely sacrifice his own life while trying to save hers.

And in an instant, as he made his way back toward the apartment entrance, voices of his friends and loved ones bombarded his mind.

"We're not heroes, man. We do what we can but we can't save em all." - Alec.

"Every person we search for is someone's child, sibling, friend, or loved one. Their lives are just as significant as our own." - his father.

"At the end of the day, it's not about whether we succeed or's about how hard we fight to do what's right." - Felix

"Promise me that every call you respond to, you do everything in your power to return home in one piece." - his mother the day he graduated the fire academy.

"The only difference between bravery and stupidity is a single degree of common sense. A brave man runs into a burning building to rescue someone. A stupid man stays inside a burning building when everything surrounding him is screaming warnings to get the hell out. So which are you, Edward? Brave or stupid?" - Sergeant Tilton after disregarding his orders and running back into a collapsing building to find his brother.

"Fuck me...I'm stupid," he muttered, stepping back into the hallway and knowing the decision had been made before he'd even ever entered the building.

It had never been a decision he'd ever have to make because it was just who he was, all the way down to his bones. The choice had been made the day he'd been conceived. The ability to concede defeat had never been coded and sequenced into his genetic makeup. It was probably in some half a chromosome he was missing, because in that moment, he was damn certain he lacked a single shred of common sense whatsoever.

"Bella! If you can hear me, yell back to me!" he shouted as he felt his way through the pitch black hallway. Just feet from the door he'd just exited the dense smoke smothered the flickering light he'd been able to use inside the apartment.

Edward's heart hammered away in his chest as the building rumbled out another one of the Muse's moans—only this one had gooseflesh spreading across his entire body and chills running down his spine. The combination of the moan and eerie creaking of the foundation beginning to give way transformed in his mind to the image of a woman of unnatural beauty with flames flickering in the reflection of her dark eyes, humming in pleasure and cackling as she tasted his demise on the tip of her finger.

He was within her reach and she knew it.

His mind began to get fuzzy as his vision faded in and out of focus, barely able to make out the glow of his flashlight's beam. The heat and fear were beginning to overwhelm him. He could feel the end drawing near, but he was still far from giving into defeat as his mind automatically began chanting a familiar prayer.

It was the prayer that his mother had hung above the front door of his childhood home, and had since hung one above each of her son's front doors. It was also the poem engraved on a plaque that hung in the center of the conference room's main wall, surrounded by rectangle brass plates with the names of their fallen brothers and the dates they'd responded to their last calls.

When I am called to duty, God

Wherever flames may rage,

Give me strength to save a life

Whatever be its age.

His hand found the second doorknob and he once again broke through the doorway, ever mindful to shield himself from sudden bursts of her fickle wrath. Unlike the first apartment, this one was just as pitch black as the hallway; filled to the brim from floor to ceiling with the toxic sooty fumes.

Let me embrace a little child

Before it is too late

Or save an older person from

The horror of that fate.

"Bella!" he yelled, squatting down low and making slow sweeps with his practically useless flashlight. His flashlight dropped out of his hand and onto the floor as his heart lurched into his throat when the floor shook beneath his feet.

Enable me to be alert

And hear the weakest shout,

And to quickly and efficiently

Put the fire out.

"ED...RD! AN...R ME!" his radio crackled to life.

"Quit fucking with me you wicked bitch!" he roared into the blackness, sweat pouring down his face and neck as his hand shook on its path to his receiver.

"What apartment does she live in?" he hollered into the radio.

"GE..OU...THERE...NO..! THA...S'AN...RDER!"

"What fucking apartment does she live in?"

"YOU DON...AVE...TIME!" his father's voice wailed through the speaker.

"JUST FUCKING TELL ME BACK OR FRONT, NOW!" Edward exploded, as the floor shook beneath his feet once more.


I want to fill my calling

To give the best in me,

To guard my friend and neighbor

And protect their property.

Edward tightened his hold on his flashlight and stood from his kneeling position on the floor. His heart was racing so fast he couldn't even feel the beats, it was just a constant thrum against his chest and the sides of his neck as he resumed his half crouched position and began making his way through the apartment.

His time was running out too quickly, like the last grains of sand in an hourglass.

And, if, according to your will

I have to lose my life,

Please bless, with your protecting hand

My family and my wife.

He cleared the front rooms to the best of his ability in the blinding conditions, yelling out Bella's name over and over again as he moved through the apartment. The continuous chant of the Fireman's Prayer the only thing keeping his sanity intact and fear at bay as the Muse taunted him relentlessly, her sinister laugh comprised of roaring hisses and deafening claps mocking him at every empty turn.

When I am called to duty, God

Wherever flames may rage,

Give me strength to save a life

Whatever be its age.

He searched every inch he could find in the single bedroom and found nothing. His fear was mounting exponentially with every passing second as he turned back toward the bedroom door and allowed his feet to retrace the course he'd traveled back toward the living room and the apartment door.

Flames had begun to lick their way down the hall, slithering against and climbing the already blackened with soot walls of the inside of the apartment. But while the sight would stop the hearts of even some of the most fearless men alive, amidst the most dire of circumstances and in the almost nonexistent flash of a moment, a single flame sent a surge of hope through his veins.

Because that briefest flicker of light allowed him to see what his flashlight hadn't.

A hand.

"Bella!" he hollered, striding forward a few steps before dropping to the ground and searching for the hand he was positive he'd seen. His hands moved in wide arcs as he crawled, his flashlight held beneath the palm of his right hand as it scraped against the warped wooden floor, and finally, finally, he found her.

He quickly tore off his gloves and pressed his fingers against the side of her throat. Panic shook his entire frame as he felt a pulse so faint he almost had to question if it was his own and she no longer had one. Had it not been beating so slowly while his was racing frantically against his chest, he would have assumed he'd been too late.

"Hang on sweetie, hang on," he pleaded, hoping she could somehow hear him as he ripped his helmet and mask off, coughing instantly from the dense smoke filling the apartment. "Don't you dare give up on me now. I didn't come this fuckin' far to let you go."

Edward turned her head and brushed her hair away from her face before pressing his mask against it to give her fresh oxygen as he shed the air pack from his back and tore off his turncoat. As quickly as he could manage while choking on the dry searing soot infiltrating his lungs, he resituated the air pack on his back and wrapped her in his turncoat to protect her from the flames he knew they'd be crossing on the way to their salvation.

As he hoisted her up into his arms, a terrifying boom rocked the building.

"You can't fucking have her!" he screamed at the Muse, adjusting her in his arms so he could reach his radio on his turncoat.

"I've got her. I'm on my way out. Have medics ready."

"Stay with me, can do this, just stay with me," he spoke to her unconscious form in his arms. He was no longer sure if it was to comfort her or himself with the increasing frequency of foundation tremors, echoes of falling debris that he was sure by now were parts of ceilings caving in from the weight of the water being unleashed on the building.

By the light of the Muse's dancing tendrils of fire, Edward carefully descended the rear stairwell, testing each step before bearing the entirety of their weight upon each plank. As he neared the bottom, he began to hear the familiar voices of his fellow station brothers and relief began to pump furiously through every inch of his aching, exhausted body.

But that wicked Devil's Muse still had tricks up her sleeves, luring him into a sense of false security at their proximity to safety before demolishing it just as quickly.

With a haunting bone chilling sigh, a gust of wind blew through the last of the crumbling skeletal frame of the building's ground floor, reigniting withering flames and fueling them; encouraging them to grow and spread and devour the domain she'd claimed as her own in its entirety with her captives trapped within.

Towering flames slithered their ways up the walls and across the ceiling, siphoning every last bit of oxygen within the caged inferno with a menacing rumble caused by the multiplying numbers of tendrils snapping at the air like the tips of bullwhips.

"Get out of there!" Alec yelled at Edward as he stood frozen, Bella in his arms, staring at the blazing manifestation of the Muse's fury at their near escape. The powerful stream of water under Alec and Felix's control had little effect in taming her wrath as they tried to clear him a passage through the walls of flames.

Twenty five feet stood between the demon's captives and their freedom, between life and death, suffocating heat and fresh cool air. Twenty five feet between triumph and failure, and as Edward took his first hasty steps toward the end of his latest dance with the Devil's Muse, her rage at his having defeated her yet again climaxed.

Just fifteen feet from the gateway leading out of the bowels of Hell, she began tearing the building down around them. A section of ceiling collapsed in the path, narrowly missing crushing them beneath as it came crashing down in an avalanche of torched, flaming debris. The heat and wave of broiling embers that burst forth upon its collision with the floor, singed the hairs on Edward's arms and the molten projectiles fused to his skin, searing it and sending blinding shards of white hot pain through his body.

He staggered backwards, curses ripping from his lips as tears from the scorching agony pricked and fell from his eyes. The men's shouts from just feet away as they fought valiantly to save one of their brothers and the life he'd valued over his own, were drowned out by the roar of the Muse's victorious laugh reverberating from every angle surrounding him and the deafening thud of his own slowing heartbeat in his ears.

In his ten years of battling the fiery demons, he'd heard the desperate cries of too many to count and responded without hesitation or fear for his own safety. His fears had always stemmed from someplace much deeper than his own sense of self. They were born and safeguarded within his heart in the names and love he had for those he considered family. It mattered not to him should the day come he answered his last call, only that his family would survive the heartache they'd endure.

And should today be that day, he was almost certain they wouldn't.

"You may claim me one day...but today ain't that fuckin' day," he muttered as he stepped backwards, giving himself room to execute the maneuver of desperation that would free them both of the Muse's deadly clutches.

"When I am called to duty, God," he began to pray aloud as he tightened his hold on Bella and headed for the flames.

"Wherever flames may rage..."

The reflection of the flames flickered and glowed in his eyes as he grew closer, pushing himself to go faster with every ounce of strength he possessed.

"Give me strength to save a life!" he roared, his feet pushing them off the ground and sending them airborne over the debris and through the flames.

An act of courage so daring only few would have what it took to attempt; too dangerous to hope escaping without incurring bodily harm...

An act of courage far too straining for an injury weakened body to sustain.

Emerging through the wall of fire, Edward appeared to his brothers as an avenging angel; a man not of this Earth but of the Gods, untouchable and indestructible even by the most violently evil of terrifying adversaries—but indestructible he was not.

Beyond the reach of the flesh searing and clothing scorching flames, Edward's injured knee succumbed to its vulnerable condition and crumbled under the impact of their combined weight upon the ground. A guttural scream of intense agony tore from his chest as he collapsed to the floor and the body of the woman he'd never known was tossed from his arms, coming to rest feet before him, sprawled limp and seemingly lifeless across the charred surface.

The ground beneath his crumpled body shifted and his eyes shot up, unbridled fear mixing with sheer agony as they locked on his baby brother's - the pride and idolizing awe in the dark depths vanishing instantly. Time moved like molasses across a flat surface as the floor rumbled and began to give way, panic forcing the air from his lungs as his mouth formed the inaudible words, "Oh God."

"GRAB HER!" Edward screamed. His words, filled with the finality of a man staring death in the face, nearly went unheard as the ground shattered and broke apart beneath him, swallowing him whole into the pitch black nothingness below as Emmett wailed Edward's name in horrified despair.

The last image burned into Edward's still full of life eyes before his body made impact with the basement floor and an avalanche of debris buried him, was the lower half of Bella's dangling form being hoisted back up to safety. In the moments before the pain shredding through his body became too severe to keep fighting against and the blackness overtook him, his lips turned up into a smirk and a gurgled breath left his lungs with his victorious last words.

"You can't...have her."

He'd danced with the Devil's Muse in a fierce battle over the life of an innocent...

And he'd won.

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