There was just one more thing I had to get, one thing I couldn’t leave behind. Someone grabbed at my arm but I shrugged their hand off, pushing back through the hallway against the flow of evacuating employees. The alarm was high and shrill, had the timbre of a shrieking animal that assaulted my ears no matter how I tried to protect them.
The very highest quarter inch of the hall was beginning to gather wisps of smoke, just barely thick enough to see. It looked, rather, as though the gypsum ceiling tiles themselves warped and bubbled. Heat pushed back against me like giant, slow, gelatinous hands cupped and trying to resist my momentum. They could not stop me, but there were other forces beyond them, hands that could press with greater force. Burn and sear.
The fire, wherever it had started, had spread to the office at the end of the hall. I squared at the door, took the scene in through its window to try and comprehend it. It seemed there were only two colors in there now: a dark brown with the weight and texture of fresh mulch, and a kind of gold that was red and orange and yellow and white all at once. My eyes did not want to follow the movements of those hues, only distantly register their general dispositions. It was on tables, had claimed some of the carpet, was rolling reluctantly down from the ceiling where it boiled above. Most of the floor was still clear.
Knowing the door would be hot, I thrust its handle down with my elbow and hooked one shoe around the edge. The blast of heat when I got it open just a sliver was already nearly intolerable. It hurt my ears and my sinuses as much as it did my skin. Nonetheless I slipped in. Nobody was coming back for me now.
I ran, or thought I ran, across the rows of desks to reach the opposite door, the one that led to my supervisor’s office. Really it was a series of slow, uneven steps, between which I lunged forward a couple feet at a time. The heat, which was at this point painful to my eyes and bones, both crushed and tried to explode me from the inside. I had to pass a desk that was well ablaze. Flame flashed over from it to my arm, and when I batted my sleeve out the flesh underneath felt almost cold, the fused fabric clung to it pinched as I moved. There would be pain soon. For now it was almost an itch.
When I reached the door, the handle resisted my attempts to turn it. Deciding it was somehow locked, I backed up and struck the door with my heel. It took several tries, but the deadbolt eventually split the wood, tearing the lock plate away with it.
Another burst of heat. I hadn’t thought the air could get any hotter without setting me ablaze myself.
The back wall of Josephine’s office had been a book shelf, but it was now an inferno. It screamed with its own roar that actually penetrated the infinite blast of the fire alarm. Flames seemed to leap from it directly outward at me, tried to snap in my face like predatory fish. Below them, Josephine’s desk seemed almost untouched, though the carpet around it was engulfed. I pressed in, hands cupped around my eyes as though that would keep the heat from them. Squinting, I found her inbox and carefully leaned across the flaming rug to snatch the papers in it. The envelope would be in that stack. If not, then it was already too late, and I might as well let the flames take me.
The chair turned to face me. Josephine was there.
She was completely untouched. If anything she looked dim and cool, as though she stole the light from the fire and hid it in herself. The flames around her were pulled in her direction, but they did not seem to touch her skin. Her clothes were long gone, the chair collapsed and vanished in a fireball as soon as she stood up from it. Her old, wrinkled face had both a vitality and a deep bitterness to it.
Thin as the air was here, at what was evidently the heart of the inferno, I managed a long, dismayed sigh. It was her. Josephine was the Infernal.
I had in my hand, somewhere in this stack of papers, a letter addressed to her, a piece of private mail, warning her that such a creature skulked in this office. I had given it to a mail clerk, with instructions to pass it on to her discreetly. That had not happened: it had gone out for normal delivery, risking detection.
The Infernal raised a hand and beckoned me. I backed away, but with an offhand motion she spread her fire across the doorway. In a desperate move, I threw the contents of her inbox into the flames in the corner of the rooms, into which they disappeared. Josephine looked without concern to the spot into which I had thrown it all, and the flames crept out of the way like herded animals. She pushed away from the desk and strode across to that corner. Stepped into the flames and knelt to retrieve the papers laying in what was now a shallow crater of ash.
She dusted them off and shuffled through them, casting several glances at me. When my letter appeared she made a smug face before opening it by pressing a knuckle to its spine and singing the folded edge of paper away.
I was becoming faint, as much from the sight of my supervisor, crouched in the corner, naked and shadowed with all the room’s fire twisted to point its wicked, crackling tips at her, reading the incriminating letter in her hands, as by the scalding air searing at my throat and face and hands.
She smiled and let the paper burn up in her hands. Stood. She was four-foot-ten, stooped and a little heavy in her old age, yet also the most terrifying, majestic, and beautiful creature I could imagine at the moment.
“I knew someone was on to me,” she said. “But you have so much still to learn. So much.”
She held a hand in front of my sternum, so that I gasped at the white-hot-cold mote of pure burning death I could only have escaped by throwing myself into another. When it had burned away the breast of my shirt, she placed the hand on my chest, and gave me her fire. Now I was one of them, as well.