The loft window vomited thick smoke.
Flames the color of angry polished pennies sprouted from side windows.
Paint curled as the night sky transformed to orange and red and crimson. Nika bounded off the porch and sprinted toward the barn’s mismatched doors. She’d once thought those odd doors quaint. Sadly, now they would fall victim to the inferno, along with the barn and everything—everyone—in it.
She bellowed for help, to no avail. Were Kes and the others sleeping inside the barn? She couldn’t remember. Of the Petersson family, she neither heard nor saw a peep. The main house was dark, save the reflection of the salacious fire.
There, not ten strides away, loomed the well pump. Buckets, some made of sheet metal, most wooden, were scattered around the pump like so many glowing, drunken fire beetles. She veered toward them. No way in hell could she douse the fire by herself, but she had to try. Her mare, Gazelle, shrieked, caught inside the infernal death-trap. Her pain seemed immeasurable, the wails growing louder by the moment.
Nika grabbed up a bucket by its cloth handle. She worked the red-shafted pump furiously. It rattled and she heard the whoosh of dry wind, but no water sprung forth. Unnerved, she looked back to the main house. Where could everyone be?
With an explosive gout, thick green water gushed from the nozzle, filling her bucket. She pulled it away to maneuver another under the tap, but the cloth strap shredded, spilling the slimy muck all over her pants and boots.
The next bucket had a solid handle, and she filled it to brimming. Little white fish rose to the surface. Dead fish. She nearly retched, but held her composure, and rushed to the barn. What could one little bucket do against such a conflagration? Despair hit her nearly as hard as the heat pouring from the barn.
Just as she approached those blackened, once-charming mismatched doors, they burst outward as if blown apart by TNT. The blast struck Nika hard, and she flew back, stunned. She landed flat on her back, all air knocked from her lungs.
A man stood in the fiery space—in the void of the door’s frame. Fire stormed around him, through him. He took slow, lumbering steps. The flames made it impossible to see his face, but from his stocky build and hate-filled gate, she recognized him all the same. This terrible man matched every description she’d heard. It was Felon. He was on fire. No… he was fire.
Nika desperately gulped for breath, but none was to be had. The air she drew scorched her lungs. She reeled, helpless, as the flaming monster slogged past her like he hadn’t seen her. Or perhaps he had, and was saving her for last. With each step, Felon left a trail of fire in his wake. Flames spread outward like blazing snakes in quest of prey.
A scream erupted from the porch. Deirdre Petersson held Mickey and little Nate in a mother swan’s embrace. She urged them inside, pushing them both through the screen door, then followed them into the house. Next, Folmer pressed past them and outside to face the intruder. The bear of a Swede planted his feet and raised a long-barreled shotgun. His mouth moved, a vision of outrage, but Nika couldn’t hear what he yelled over the gale of flames. She tried to call out, to warn him to throw away his gun. Albert Towler had used a shotgun, and the felon made it explode. But she had no breath, no voice. Her vision dimmed even as the flames brightened.
He was no more than two yards in front of the porch.
Folmer fired his gun. No, the gun didn’t go off. In his hands, it blossomed sparks, smoke, and fire.
Even as Petersson died, Felon raised his arms, palms forward. A sinister gout of hellfire spouted from his upturned hands. A geyser of flame tore through the spot where Folmer stood. The stream of fire continued past the doorway. The house erupted, a cruel, spectacular fireball that sent flaming debris whirling across the yard. Nika screamed… or tried, and failed. Smoke and flames overwhelmed her, choked her, burned her, and…