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23. web

EVELYN DIEDZ

Well, this hurts.

My head would be a mess, if I had one.  But I quickly realize that I don’t.  Not yet.  Still feel like I’m all over the place, in pieces.

I try to remember why.

And then it starts to come back to me.  I was sleeping.  As much as people like me sleep.  I remember that much, now.  Actually, I hate calling it “sleep” at all — what happens to me.  And I never liked sleep even when I was flesh and bone.  There’s too much going on to sleep.  There’s not enough time.

But I was asleep, like it or not. I slept through this.

Why, again?

Oh.  Yeah.  Right.  Knocked on my ass … and melted by sunlight.  Fun.  Thanks for that, Jeff.  But my book stayed behind; I felt it split from me.

And now we’ve been rejoined.  Which would normally be great news.  Except this is an all-new kind of pain.  But pain can be a good thing.  Pain is something, like I’ve said.  And I can work with it.

Slowly, I’m putting it together.  Putting me together. With …

… their help?

They said my name.

That makes me stronger.

She read my book and got my name from it.

No. That’s not right.

Hilda and Cameron read my book.

It can only be read in concert.

They managed it.

But my name should make me feel stronger. How are they holding me?

But — And now I can feel waves of blood pouring into the book.  Which — … well, I don’t see how that could be good.  But it doesn’t change the facts.  I need that blood.  Blood – and them saying my name – those things are why I’m coming back together, bit by bit; the infusion is giving me strength.

Stye — I can feel his infection from here … wherever here is; I still don’t have eyes.  He’d love to infect me like he infects so many things in Drodden. But I’m not a thing; he isn’t strong enough to hurt me.  I filter – separate — his infection from the blood I’m getting.  I let Cameron’s diseased crap pass right on through me and it dissipates.  I filter it, and leave it on what’s starting to feel like the floor.  Thank everything that Cameron’s making so many miscalculations. I keep thinking he knows a lot, but then he goes and convinces me that he doesn’t really know half of what he’s doing, with all this.

Is this all just a hell of a lot of lucky guesses, maybe? Or, does he have a really bad teacher? Because, that filtration-effect means I can use that blood – and the power of my name – and come back together without much more interruption, I hope. It’s practically automatic. In fact, it’s already happening. And, as the moments pass, my hopes are confirmed, and I can start to see and feel again.

Once I have something that passes in this reality for ‘eyes,’ I look around.

And I feel sick over what I’m seeing.

It’s Hilda and Rick. But, I know I’m not really looking at Rick. I’m looking at Cameron Stye-in-Rick.  He’s using Rick’s body — like the kid’s marionette. Sick.  Rick’s lips are blue; there’s a gritty blue powder caking them. I can see Cameron’s face, too — gnarled, bloated, grinning manically with a mouth made of what looks like wiry hair and what I can only think to call bloated bone. He’s swollen up from all the blood he’s taken today, wrapping his tentacles around Rick’s arms and legs … and everything else.

Everything else.

Oh, no.

This isn’t just some kind of frenzy. This is a goddamn real ritual. Cameron has connected to Rick on fundamental levels. This is a professional-level possession.

And my theory that Cameron doesn’t know what he’s doing or has a bad teacher – well, all that falls apart.

The horses.

They’re his teachers.

That has to be it.

He was going to use Emmett.  That’s why he was after him.  They needed him for a ritual.  They involved him in something.

Except Emmett got away. And Emmett kept on getting away.

Which I’m guessing means they’re going to use me for this.

But then, I realize how little sense that makes.  They couldn’t have known I was coming to Drodden … could they?

And yet — here we are.

I feel stupid.  Beyond stupid.  Did I make this possible when I let them get my book? I’ve never guarded my name because it gives me power. But I never thought someone could use my own power against me. The stronger they make me, the bigger their payoff when they eat me.

And they are going to try to eat me.

I’m goddamn Plan B.

Plan B to get Cameron the strength he needs to — …

… — to what?

And then I can hear again.

Together forever!” Cameron-in-Rick gasps.

“Together forever!” says Hilda.

And it’s suddenly clear.

Cameron is … trying to create … right now … with Hilda Leek, using Rick’s — …

… — no.

Shihong’s words come back to me now.

But we can shape it, once Cameron comes back,’ she’d said to me.  ‘Once Drodden’s on the big map.’

More memories come back, too.

How Shihong talked about wanting Salat to write about what’s happening. And who they say they are, the four of them. And, their unspoken promise to bring death and famine and all the rest of it.

They’re working together.

The four of them are helping Hilda to push Cameron Stye back into the real world.

They’re going for a goddamn resurrection. That’s what Shihong meant by ‘shape it.’  They’re going to try to not just bring Cameron Stye back – but they’re going for a full-board religious-type resurrection. What have I walked into with these people — with Drodden?

Maybe that’s how Cameron and Hilda knew about me.  Did Shihong or one of the other three tell them I was coming?  I mean, I was there when the four of them warned Salat about me.  That little conversation makes a lot more sense now, if this was their plan from the beginning. Or — was I led here?

And then a deeper kind of realization: this can’t happen.  Cameron Stye can’t be reborn with a real body.  As …  whatever he thinks he’s going to come out like if this works.  I can’t let that happen.

So I do my best to think.  As I try figure out this plan of theirs — with the mechanics happening right there in front of me — I want nothing more than to run over and separate Hilda Leek from her possessed grandson’s body.  The revulsion I feel is beyond … anything.  I can’t come up with good ways to process it.  Pure disgust overcomes me –and the kind of rage that pushes your muscles before you’re even fully aware of it happening.  It’s the kind of rage that sends your plans straight to tell.

I’ve seen it wreck things — too many times — for other people, but I’ve rarely felt it in myself.

But I’m feeling it now.  Everywhere.  And the fact that my muscles are made of … whatever they’re made of … doesn’t change that burning sensation that’s telling me to act.  See, you can hold onto your craziest kind of anger, even when you’re a ghost; I kept mine, for sure.

I didn’t want to lose it.

And it’s boiling in me.

And it drives me forward — even if I’m not all there, and maybe because of that.

I’m nobody’s ‘Plan B.’

So I try to move. But I don’t get far.

I hit a barrier — hard.  I slam face-first into it, and I’m seeing purple stars.

It felt like my own fist was punching me in the face when I hit the barrier — sort of.  It’s hard to explain to the living.  Feedback like that isn’t uncommon, but it still goddamn hurts.

I fall to my knees, stunned by the blow, and that’s when I notice the bloody pattern on the floor — a ringed circle.

The shape of the circle makes me think of Saturn.

And at the center of the pattern – it’s my book, burning like it’s on fire — but not burning up.

And the pain of that fire hits me all at once — because I’m the one who’s burning up, instead. That’s why I wasn’t coming together right.  Cameron is using the fire to keep the book burning … and to keep me burning. It’s a feedback loop. The book keeps drawing from the supply of blood being fed into it – Jeff’s – and the book just keeps on burning, and my connection to the book means I’m burning, too.

He’s cooking me.

And all I can do is endure it.

The pain is so severe that I’m retreating from it. I’m moving back inside of myself. As I do, the nature of what Cameron and Hilda have done gets clearer and clearer to me.   It’s like the pain is waking me up from a long sleep. I realize that they’ve used my name to make me manifest enough to tie all this together. My name doesn’t make me weaker; it makes me stronger. But they want – need — me to be stronger. They’re using my strength against me – creating a functioning ritual that these two somehow worked out in their heads. Or, maybe they’ve gotten it from somewhere.  Maybe they’re adapting something — spreading enough of Jeff’s blood around for the book to keep repairing and keep me present but too weak to fight back.

Jeff.  Poor Jeff.  Poor guy.  And I can’t do shit to save him.  I’m trapped here like a fly.  The fire is there to force me out, and it worked.  And, yeah, I might not be stuck in the book any more, but I’m still fucked.

The blood pattern on the floor — it might as well be a proper fucking pentagram, for all the good I can do for anybody right now.  I guess the shape of a blood pattern doesn’t matter, after all.  But I keep trying.  I try to strain against the limits of the pattern.  No go.  The blood trail is a closed loop, sending me back to where I start — painfully — every time I try to move.  I can’t cross the blood, any more than Cameron could cross the blood on Fell-Munch when he was chasing Emmett.  No matter what, I’m stuck following the fucking circles and rings of this pattern — and running into myself over and over along the way.

Cameron-in-Rick and Hilda are standing up now.  I don’t want to look at them, but I know I need the details if I want to stop them.  I need to pay attention, no matter how revolting it is.  I can’t look away, no matter how much I want to.

The deed is fucking DONE!” Rick’s voice is thick and oily with Cameron’s infection.

“I love you, my Prince of Bedtime!” cries Hilda, high-pitched and shrieking.  Sounding hysterical with joy.  “By all our names, we are REBORN!  My Carlton Stanford!   My Cameron Stye!  My Rail Man!”

And I love you, my Friendlietta Flowergirl!” Cameron-in-Rick roars.  “In all our forms, we are REBORN!   My Octavia Burrell!  My Hilda Leek!  My Flower!

I don’t recognize the names.  Carlton Stanford.  Octavia Burrell.  I want to research them, to go back through my book to see if there’s anything I’ve missed – too see if these people have inadvertently told me things about what’s really going on – but it’s on fire, and I can’t read it while it’s burning.

Their ritual — I don’t even want to see it, it’s so disgusting.

I want so badly to look away.

But, I can’t.

So I try to focus on other things.  Like how the others who need my help are doing.

First, Jeff Armando: I can see that, yeah — he’s this close to dying.  They’ve torn him apart. I notice that his lips are blue, too, like Rick’s; they’re blue and … slimy. What did they do to him? Oh, god. He’s so weak – just the faintest glow. What I can see of it as it dwindles, anyway.  And, there’s a haze around his body — shaped like a dog.  Fading.  And, yeah, he’s not one of us, either.  He won’t stick around after the fact if he croaks.  He’ll just be done.

And then, Daniel Salat: I don’t know what’s going on with him.  He’s still alive … but … what’s happening to him isn’t what I’d call dying. He’s not one of us, either — but something strange is happening there.   His energy is all over the place, like a storm around his body — squeezing inward tightly, and then expanding like lightning. His face is a mess of blood … and there’s that same gritty blue sludge caked around his mouth that Rick is wearing, and that was on Jeff’s lips. There are pale blue veins spreading out from his mouth. And, his face … it’s pulsating. He looks like a zit with a heartbeat.

And, I have no idea what any of that means. It’s new — more new stuff to figure out. I wasn’t counting on Drodden to surprise me this much. And then, I think of the blood on Fell-Munch Road.

My disgust and hate boil over again, and I lose it.

I smash myself as hard as I can into the walls of the blood pattern, trying to disrupt it or find a gap or anything.

The pain is excruciating, but I don’t cry out.

There’s no gap, of course.

I’m still stuck.

And that’s when Cameron-in-Rick looks right over at me.  “And, Friendlietta — our ghost is here!” He curls Rick’s lips back into this phony-looking smile.  “Hello, bitch. You’ve given me some serious trouble today.

Hilda turns to look at me, too, wild-eyed with a look of alien lust that I’m glad I don’t understand.  “I want to watch you eat her!” she says.  She’s drooling as she says it. Spittle is flying out of her mouth.

That’s the plan. But it’s gonna take time to make the connection.”

“Eat her!” Hilda shrieks.

“Working on it.”

How the fuck do I get out of this?

Cameron-in-Rick walks over toward me and then kneels down about two feet from the blood pattern.  I can’t do a damn thing.  I punch at the barrier with my half-realized left arm.  All I do is hurt myself a little more.

Don’t bother,” Cameron-in-Rick says.  “You seem to at least know better than that, Evelyn Diedz.

He knows my name.  That’s how he got me out of the book.  He called out my name.  He didn’t let the book say it.  I quickly backtrack through the book, in my mind.  I haven’t had time to do that since I don’t remember when. I try to absorb what it’s absorbed. The fire makes it really hurt to do that, too, but I don’t have any choice.  I find Hilda’s discovery of my identity on the pages.  Lysette’s traps couldn’t prevent it.  Cameron was – is? — siphoning the book’s energy.  And he’s using it to try to attune to me. This fucker knows how to do some serious phantom tricks.  I don’t even know how it all works, and I had a teacher – a really good teacher. Nobody taught him, far as I know, and he’s manipulating spirit energy like a pro? There’s more to Cameron than I thought. And, unless things really turn around for me, it’s looking like that mistake is going to cost me, big-time.

Ah.  There we go.  Realization. I like how that tastes.”

I try to think. But I can’t come up with a damn thing to do.

“Looks like you’re figuring it all out,” Cameron-in-Rick says. “Every victim is the same. You’re born to be victims. But’s it’s all right. I like to watch your faces when you figure it out.”

I can feel him trying to harmonize with me. I’m not about to let that happen.

“Struggle for me for a little bit, okay, bitch?”

I seriously get the urge to curse him out, but … no mouth. Besides, what good would it do?

“I always make them wait. You should see it. They really squirm. That’s the best part.”

It’s so repulsive. I recoil. I want to escape. But escape, at this point, isn’t happening. When I gave her my name, I was hoping she’d use it, but I know she hasn’t said it out loud since we met.   If she had, I’d feel the lifeline. I’d be able to get to her.

You’re figuring out I’m too strong for you. I’m not the Prince you knew. I’m the King, now!

I realize I have to shut down the idea of retreat, no matter what CJ has or hasn’t done. Cameron could follow me to CJ, for all I know. That’s not happening. And Hilda could follow Cameron. Also not happening.

“And you know your situation is fucked. That’s good.” Cameron-in-Rick says.

He’s probably right. I mean, the longer he spends getting off on this, the more my strength is returning. He knows a lot, but he doesn’t know everything. And he lets his own pleasure get in the way. I’m in so much pain, but I’m not going to give him any satisfaction, so I try to give him my blankest face.

I said struggle, bitch. If I have to wait, you’d better make it worth my while.

I’ve mostly come back together, but it hurts so much. And that gets me wondering – do I have to come back together before he can tear me apart? Is that what this is? Maybe it is, and maybe not. But it’s something to hold on to, and I hold on tight.

“You’re done, bitch. I’m close; almost … almost there. I’m gonna make it take a while when I tear you apart.” Cameron-in-Rick in a gravely whisper.

He sounds even more turned-on now, and it makes me want to retch. The urge to retreat is screaming at me to get the hell out of here. The voice of self-preservation is making me want to give up, to raise my hands and walk away and abandon these people who haven’t done a damn thing for me.

“On second thought, no – you’re not done. You and I won’t be done … for a long time.” Cameron-in-Rick is whispering to me, his voice gravely and lustful.

I run through every lesson I can think of that Ada taught me about the material forms of ghosts. How they’ve worked in the past, how they might interact. It doesn’t give me any ideas, but it helps me concentrate on something other than Cameron’s taunting. I refuse to give in to despair. I’ve been there. Feeling despair seriously sucks, especially when it can kill you. Especially when you’ve already died once. I’m not going to die again. Not like this.

“But I’ll … make it faster … if you make me feel good now.”

Cameron sounds slower now. Slurred. And then I notice that I’m not the only ghost here who’s not at their best. Cameron-in-Rick isn’t looking so good, all of a sudden.  That confident sneering suddenly breaks into a worried frown.  Then, he stumbles backward, dropping to his knees.  “Hilda?”  His breathing becomes panting as he beckons her to him. “What’s-?”

Hilda is at his side in an instant, wiping her fingers on the knife they were using to cut Jeff. She smears the blood across Rick’s chest.  “Here,” she says.  She hums as she works, painting a fresh 2 and a 7 on Rick’s bare shoulders.

All I can do is watch, disgusted, as Cameron’s hair-tentacles writhe around me. They never touch, but the more I materialize, the more I can feel them brushing up against what’s not quite there yet.

He pushes her away the moment she’s done, returning to his feet.  “Rick … is … really fighting me,” he says.  He shakes Rick’s head.  Then, he’s back on the floor on his knees, throwing up.  Thick green goop flows as the poor kid’s guts spasm from the possession.

“No, no, no!” Hilda says, shaking her head.  “I can see it. I told you it wouldn’t work with her this close! You’ve taken too long! She’s ruining the — the resonance or … something! She’s ruining it! How are you doing this?”

If Hilda’s asking me, I don’t know how to answer. I honestly have no idea what she’s talking about.

It’s … not her. Goddamn it, it’s not … her. I … told you! It’s Rick!”

“You’ve taken too long!” Hilda cries out again. “Too long!”

“It was the only way,” Rick says.  He coughs up more green pus and spits it out. “It was the only … the only way to get all of her!”

“We should’ve waited for Gunny!” Hilda says.  “That would’ve been easier. We should’ve waited!”

Gunny?  No.”  Rick’s head shakes.

“But-”

Too new. Not enough. Wouldn’t break open … the path.” Green foam pours out of Rick’s mouth, followed by yellow bile.

“Oh, no!” cries Hilda, on seeing the bile. “He’s rejecting you!” She wrings her hands. Then, she cries out “Come into me!” She sounds sickened with desperation.  “Hurry!”  She presses both of her hands to her belly, making a circle with her fingertips.  “Rick’ll dispel you.  We can skip ahead. It’s begun already!  It’ll work! I know it.  I can see it!”

I see what she means, too. Those hairy tentacles of energy — they’re coming apart even as they replenish and wrap around Rick’s body again.

Rick is resisting. I want to tell him to keep fighting. I can’t let this happen – to Rick, or anyone else.

Cameron Stye can’t get a second chance.

Anger floods through me. If I could reach Rick, I could probably help.  Right now, I want to help Rick more than anything else.  I smash myself against the barrier again and again, pointlessly, and I feel fresh wounds pop up.  But I don’t fucking care.  I keep right on bashing against the restrictions of the pattern.   It’s all I can think to do.

It’s because — at this point — I honestly can’t see any way out of here.

Cameron-in-Rick notices my efforts and grins at me, despite the obvious agony he’s sharing with Rick.  He makes Rick’s tongue lick along the kid’s upper lip as he stares at me.  “Stupid … whore.  I’m going to … eat you now!”

Then, Rick doubles over.  A fountain of green sludge sprays out of Rick’s mouth.

Hilda’s eyes go wide.  “Wrong.  All wrong.”  She looks right at me.  “You’ve got to move. You don’t have the strength. Come into me — now!”

Rick’s eyes shut.  “I have to eat her.”

Hilda looks back toward Rick. “There’s no time. Do it later!” Hilda is pleading.  “Do it after!  You’ve got to listen to me!  I can see you fading.”

Rick drops to his knees.  “Fuck you, you little bitch.”  I have no idea who he means — me, Rick or Hilda.  Don’t really care.  “I’m Prince Youknowme — the Prince of Bedtime!”  He stumbles back to his feet, leaning against the wall beside him.  He pounds both fists on the wall.  “I decide when it’s time to lie down.  I decide when it’s time to get up!”  More frothy green goo — foamy with bubbles, now — erupts from Cameron-in-Rick’s nose after that.

“Then eat her now!”  Hilda’s shoulders shake.  “Lie down like we practiced.  Do it!”

Yeah,” Cameron-in-Rick says.  “Yeah.  Yeah!”  It’s like he’s trying to psyche himself up.

“You’ve … got a lot of things to do.  You’ve got … a lot of things to do!”  She’s laughing as she talks — but it’s the kind of laughter you hear from someone after they almost fall backward out of a chair.

Cameron-in-Rick nods, and lies back down on his back beside the blood pattern, head turning to look at me.  “Be ready to kill Rick when I tell you,” he says.  Then he opens his mouth.  It’s horrifying to see, because he’s pushing Rick’s muscles beyond capacity, like he’s trying to disconnect Rick’s jaws.  Blood flows over Rick’s lips, dribbling along the side of the kid’s face. “I know what I’m doing! Almost there! Any moment now!”

Hilda lifts the knife above her head, holding the handle with both hands.  “I’m ready!”

But … I’m ready, too.

And that’s when another one of Cameron’s sickening patterns hits me, sticky and thick — tendrils flowing out from Rick’s throat to cover me in dense, glowing green chords.  I don’t know for sure if it’s really there, or just energy, or both at the same time.  It’s a complex pattern.  It feels hot on my new skin after a few moments of it being there.  The barrier keeping me in doesn’t seem to work the other way, because Cameron has no problem spitting these strands at me.  They’re wrapping around me, like his tentacles were wrapping around Rick earlier. I feel my new-formed muscles weakening wherever this new pattern touches me, relaxing against my will from the heat.  And then come Cameron’s teeth — hundreds of them, forming what feels like an endless army of fangs, biting at me from everywhere.

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Published inpart 2

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