There’s fire all around and too much smoke to really see, but habits are habits, and Sam Yamato’s body has done this dozens of times. It’s not that he’s not hopped-up on adrenaline and terror. It’s that he is used to being hopped-up on adrenaline and terror.
They’ve almost emptied the building, but he saw movement down a hall, someone walking, and he’d seen that kind of walking before: calm, unhurried strolling. Saving people is the main part of firefighting, but so is this. It’s just the part he likes the least. If it is what he thinks it is, which he hopes it isn’t. But whatever. His body is already double-timing own the hallway because that’s what bodies do: what they’ve done before. That’s also why he has his axe in his hand. It’s there before he even notices.
At the end of the hall is a conference room. Big table (on fire), faux-leather chairs (almost burned to nothing), generic art on the walls (fully immolated). And a slim figure sitting cross-legged at the centre of the table. Long-fingered, nearly skeletal, huge jaw chewing the air, and its whole body glowing red-hot. They all look a little different, but this one seems especially languid, in no rush. Fire elementals are the worst. Sam grips the axe a little harder.
The elemental turns to him, its jaw opening like the trunk of a car. A car that’s on fire. “YOU WILL FEED ME.” They always say something like this. Sam once saw one of them grab a firefighter in two hands and then lift up her already burning body and stuff it into his open mouth. She turned to ash as she hit the elemental’s tongue.
“I will feed you this axe!” Sam says. Mostly for his own benefit. No one, no one, has ever managed to scare off a fire elemental. They don’t get scared. They’re fire elementals.
He rushes and swings the axe at the spot where the elemental was a second ago, but it’s already flitted to the other end of the room, crouching on a counter top. Which sets the counter on fire. Which makes this whole thing even harder. Which is when Sam wishes he’d just let it go and left the building. But he didn’t. Because it’s part of the job.
The elemental is focused on him now, which is not great. Sam lets his body do what it’s going to do because what else can he do? It leaps off the counter, jaws pointed at Sam. Sam swings the axe like he’s hitting a tennis ball—he realized a while ago he has to think of it in sports metaphors or else he freaks the hell out—and the axe head connects just before the elemental flits to Sam’s left. He has just enough time to celebrate the victory before he swings the axe again, but he’s too slow. There’s nothing there.
And now he’s the centre of the elemental’s attention, and they’re so fast. Its fingertips lightly graze Sam’s face-shield and it melts. He feels a wave of heat and smoke, and smells burning plastic. His vision is even more limited, now—half his eyeline is filled with melted visor—but he needs the oxygen the mask is feeding him, so he can’t take it off. Bad design. This is not the first time he’s been in this spot.
Eyes open a crack, tears running down, he hustles to the other side of the room with a not-yet-burning wall to his back. That’s when he feels the heat. Elementals are hotting than anything else you’ll ever meet, unless you’re a blacksmith or something, so they’re actually not hard to track. Thank God or Buddha or friggin’ whatever. You can almost literally fight them with your eyes closed.
He brings the axe down where the heat seems to be. In moments like this, everything happens at about a tenth the speed it normally does. He has a moment to admire his own technique. It’s not ego, either. His swings aren’t always this good. They’re often downright terrible. Sam’s big enough that he can rely on brute force, so his form’s never been the greatest, but this is a really good swing! Just like they taught him: a wide arc from the shoulder of his right hand, left hand guiding but not gripping. The nerdier firefighters talk about how this is how samurai swing their swords. He’s like 80% sure that’s a load of crap. And maybe a little racist.
Anyway, he is ready to give himself an A+ on the swing, and he really hopes it’s not the last thing he ever does, when he feels the head of the axe slam into something solid that has no business hanging at shoulder-height. He opens his eyes a bit wider to see the body of a dead fire elemental on the end of his axe. At first, it floats in the air—which is creepy as hell and happens every time and he hates it—and then the body slowly burns away to nothing. It starts with the fingers and toes and works it way to the torso. The head is always the last to go, those pissed-off eyes boring holes in his face as the jaw works the air, still hoping for one last meal. Jesus hell they were gross.
He gets out of the room backwards, watching the eyes stop glowing. You do not turn your back to one of those things because they’re not always dead when you think they are. His body double-times it back down the hallway. He can feel the exhaustion in his shoulders and back. It’ll work its way down through his hands next, and then his legs. He’ll have time to get out before that, though. He knows it. He’s done it a hundred times. His body knows what to do.