Rick’s bleeding hand grasps at my bleeding wrist.
I have about half a second to watch as Rick’s bloody fingers cut through Cameron’s sticky tentacles like they’re not even there, freeing me.
And then time seems to stop, or slow down, or — I never know exactly what it is. The living world stops moving in a way I can track.
But then something new happens — a blinding white light slowly erupts around Rick and me. Like a chemistry experiment, in slow motion. Light, from where Rick’s hand is holding my wrist.
And I feel it happening to me again —
a familiar sensation today
unknown to me before today
falling out of one space and into another
out of the world i’m in but no less real
except it’s not like when I’m tethering
not even close
not like when i link to someone, or when the cord broke
so different than linking with someone
breaking down into pieces that slip between the cracxks
but it doesn’t hurt
in-between the real world and this place
and it feels like i’m the one doing this
until i’m all in this new place
and i’ve left my book behind
and then i hit the ground —
and when i hit the ground —
i hit the ground hard.
I land on my feet. And, for some reason, it occurs to me that I’m proud of that. There’s a bright light coming from all around me. But, as my eyes start to become accustomed to it, I realize that it’s a different light than before. It reminds me of the midday light when Lysette and I went to the Arizona desert. I look down into my own shadow, and see sand beneath my boots.
And another shadow, next to mine. I look over at the shadow’s source, blinking, teary-eyed from the brightness.
Rick is standing next to me.
And — shit — so is Cameron Stye.
Except now, it’s not just the outlines of energy I’m looking at when I see Rick and Cameron, together.
No — it’s physical, right in front of me.
I’m seeing Cameron Stye. And it’s a sight I immediately wish I weren’t seeing.
Rick is standing in profile to me. I can see that Rick’s flesh is torn and ripped — with big, gaping holes that look like sores.. No pus or blood coming out of them, though. The skin around the sores looks dead; lifeless, like emptied blisters. Spiney, hairy tentacles from … the trunk or stalk or whatever that rooty thing at Cameron’s center is … they’re jutting out and actively burrowing around under Rick’s skin, pulling at Rick’s extremities. Behind Rick’s neck, there’s a foul-looking clump of thick hair shivering at the base of Rick’s scalp. Like a hunk of scalp and clotted blood. Or, no — I look at it at a slightly different angle, and now it looks like a pulsing pile of dog shit with hair in it, pressed tight against Rick’s skin. And then, I turn my head and now it’s like a tick sucking blood.
And Rick’s just standing there — twitching, slowly swaying from side-to-side. In time with the pulses of the black clump on his neck.
And that’s when I realize where I am. I’m in Rick’s landscape. He brought me in. But it’s not like when I was linked to Gunny. That time, I was too weak to manifest. I was doing everything I could to hide from Cameron Stye, so he wouldn’t god damned eat me. But now — I’m seeing a possession from the inside. Something I’ve never been able to make happen before. And I realize it must be from when Rick and I touched.
No — when our blood touched.
Spirit blood and living blood. Together.
That’s what made this happen. It connected us. In a different way than my tether. A far more intimate link. One I’ve never worked with before. I know it’s different because of how heavy I feel. There’s weight to me. The kind of weight I remember from being alive. This place might as well be the real world.
Rick’s shoulders really start twitching, then. I hold as still as I can. I worry that moving might lead to a fight with Cameron. And I don’t want to hurt Rick in the process.
In fact … I realize that, if I want to help Rick, I need to take in all the information I can. I need to understand this unfamiliar situation. And this … horror in front of me. I can’t think of any other word for the appalling spectacle I’m witnessing. And the horror is twofold. What Cameron has done to Rick … and to himself. I’ve never seen a ghost inflict this much damage on themselves. I can’t even make out a discernible face to Cameron; he’s just a pile of floating teeth around that grotesque, seething clump.
Just like Emmett told me. Emmett’s ‘worst one.’ Smaller than Emmett described. But, then again, half the time that kid’s a raccoon. So what should I expect?
The tentacles of hair clench, then, and the teeth start floating together in the vague suggestion of leering mouths hanging open in the air, all sharing the same expression. And now those tentacles of hair twist,pulling tight, making noise like mooring ropes.
The sound makes me cringe. “What — the — … what have you done?” I say it out loud, without meaning to. I mean, I know what Cameron Stye has done to Rick. I see the pain Cameron’s putting the poor kid through. Rick’s in agony. But here’s the thing: I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s … absurd. And I’ve seen my share of possessions. I’ve seen what they can do to the ghosts who try it — and the people they try it on. But this? This is new territory.
Rick’s head turns his head to look at me. ” … knnkhhk …” Rick’s jaw twitches a little, and his throat tremors, like he’s trying to talk behind closed lips. Like ventriloquism. But then the mouth opens again. “Cunt.” Drawn out.
But I know it’s Cameron talking. And I can tell that Cameron wants me to be scared. Except — I’m not frightened. I’m disgusted. And — yeah — really, really angry. That last feeling is pretty much the norm, today, but I’m feeling it more for Rick than for myself at the moment. But I’m increasingly getting the impression that me just running over and yanking Cameron from off of Rick’s neck would end in disaster. Well, I mean, I think it would.
“Hi, Cameron,” I say. I don’t know enough just yet about what to do. I want to scream. But I know to keep calm. I’m reminded of a tick again — and I remember reading somewhere you can outright kill a person if a tick’s stuck to them and you do the wrong thing to pull off the tick. Part of the tick stays behind. And its victim can die. I’m not going to take that chance with this, when I don’t know what to do. So I stand my ground and wait.
“Mine,” Cameron says, pulling hard at the hair-strings and forcing Rick into a pose like a dangling marionette.
Again, I’m not scared. And — besides all that — Cameron Stye doesn’t sound as terrifying as he did in Hilda’s twisted fuckdungeon. Just like I’m manifesting here physically, I’m starting to think Cameron is, too. His words aren’t all echoey or mixing with Rick’s the way they were. Here, Cameron’s voice just sounds like some guy’s voice — aching with sickening hunger, like before, yeah, but weaker. Maybe even afraid, himself. Hard to tell.
The strings of hair in Rick’s skin yank up again, much harder this time. Rick’s eyes go wide. His mouth pops open, and he screams — a long, monotonous scream that stops as suddenly as it starts when it’s over. It’s the kid’s real voice, though, this time. I wince, but I don’t move.
The clump makes a ragged sound that I’m guessing is laughter. “Hurts?” Cameron says, sounding pathetically smug.
“Quit putting on a show,” I tell him. My hatred of him pumps the blood in my veins — and gives my legs more balance.
Except Cameron’s not done with his show, it turns out. He’s just getting started. Because, just then, the pulsing wad on the back of Rick’s neck bursts open. Whipping tendrils of thick, spiny hair erupt and twist in the air over Rick’s head. And then something else emerges, a jutting shape lifting straight up from the clump, a weaving tower of what look like spinal bones with throbbing veins wrapped around it up to the top, where a sickening parody of what I’m guessing is Cameron Stye’s face stares back at me. A parody because — it’s a baby’s face. The tiny, toothless mouth opens up. “REBORN!” Cameron shouts, drooling thick black ichor onto Rick’s hair.
Rick — who’s still just wobbling back and forth, twitching with agony. Poor kid, who I have no idea how to help.
“REBORN!” Cameron shouts again.
I curse Salat. For all the bullshit he was spewing, he might’ve actually known how to do an exorcism. I didn’t get deep enough into it with him to find out. I hate being a passenger. Salat, wasting all that time on the wrong kid.
“EAT! YOU!” Cameron roars each word.
I think he’s trying to goad me, or something. Wants me to rush. Wants me to damage Rick. But I’m not going to play the game his way. So I cross my arms. “I’m not going to fight you, Cameron; you’ve already lost. You and Gran’ma.”
Cameron’s baby-head bobs up and down with laughter, spitting more of that black goo onto Rick’s head. “YOU LOSE,” he says. The baby-head’s lips contort into what I’m thinking is supposed to be a smile.
I manage not to puke by running through what I’ve seen of how Cameron works. I keep on with trying to distract him: “Seems like you’re still trying to be a big man, even here. You don’t even seem to know where ‘here‘ is.”
“I know!” Cameron protests.
“Of course, you do,” I tell him, front-loading the sarcasm. I smile a little smugly, too, even though the way I’m talking and the look on my face both go against everything I’m feeling.
“FUCK YOU EAT YOU WRONG YOU YOU WRONG!” Cameron screams, and Rick begins lurching forward toward me, taking awkward steps. The floating mouths follow suit.
Shit. Shit shit shit. I retreat back a few steps and try to think faster: about how what Cameron does is all based on TK Wanderlad — a kid’s TV show I couldn’t manage to find anywhere before I came to Drodden. Nothing there to use that I can think of right now. Not enough info for me to work with.
Rick takes another step.
Thinking of Cameron’s ghost shape — all hair and that white, brittle whatever-stuff … it looks like brittle bone or sun-dried dog shit. Nothing there, either.
Rick’s another step closer to me. Baby-Head Cameron is laughing, drooling. The hair-tentacles are weaving through the air fast enough to make whipping sounds.
I step backward three more steps.
Rick keeps advancing.
I’m running through the sickest, most recent things I saw. Cameron on top of Hilda. Cameron torturing Jeff, who I can feel is still alive. Cameron torturing Father Salat, feeding the priest Salat’s own blood and Cameron’s spirit-blood at the same time. How Cameron wants to eat me. To get my spirit blood. How the mix of two kinds of blood made Salat’s energies go all wonky. How Rick and I shared blood to get us here.
“Fucking CUNT!” Cameron says.
Because if Rick and I sharing blood in the real world got us here — bought us time — then maybe a little more of mine will help him. I look at my hands. Here, they’re not bleeding. But I can fix that. So I reach up to my mouth and bite down as hard as I can on my own hand. And it hurts, but it’s all I can think of to do. My blood flows across my fingers. I put my hands together and slide the blood around so it’s covering both my hands. And, as I bleed, I realize I really do have an idea. Maybe complete nonsense, as ideas go. But the only thing I can think of to try. And it’s all about my blood mixing with Rick’s.
Cameron sees what I’m doing, but doesn’t seem to care about anything but continuing his approach and making threats. “DIIIEEE!” Cameron says, still advancing on me, those big baby-eyes narrowing sharply, like an animal predator’s.
I walk at a measured, circular angle, away from Rick and Cameron. “Rick?” I yell. I realize I haven’t said a damn thing to Rick. “You fought him before, Rick,” I say. “Fight him one more time. I know you can do it.” And I reach out with both hands, so Rick can see them bleeding through his open eyes.
More laughter from Cameron. Then, “He LOSES! You LOSE! LOSE! LOSE LOSE LOSERS!” But I notice little hairs slide around Rick’s face from the clump, slithering under Rick’s eyelids, which yank shut a moment later.
“One more go, Rick. I know you can hear me.” I’m calling out as loud as I can. I don’t know for sure that he can hear everything I say, of course. As I’m speaking, more hairy threads stuff themselves into both Rick’s ears pretty tight. But I have to hope. “Let’s kick his ass together.”
“I AM PRINCE KING YOUKNOWME!” Cameron bellows. And then, right after that, his head begins to jerk to the left and right.
I know why. It’s because Rick starts fighting again, like before, in the fuckdungeon — but I’m seeing it from inside Rick’s landscape now. As the dusty ground rumbles, and the sand gets picked up by a powerful wind that buffets all three of us. It drops Rick and Cameron both down to the ground, which means the two of them aren’t advancing on me any more. Kid’s changing his landscape how he can, to fight back. I’m guessing it’s how he got momentarily free those times before during the ritual.
It’s a hard wind, full of sand, and I can feel it cutting into my face, making me bleed from my nose and mouth. Which means I didn’t need to cut my hands, but that’s hindsight.
But what’s more important to me here is that the wind is immobilizing Cameron Stye. The baby-head’s eyes and mouth close. It squeals from behind tight-shut lips. And then I see Rick’s fingers tearing at the hairs on his own hands. Ripping the hairs out of his skin. The look on Rick’s face tells me it’s excruciating for him, which is probably why his body in the real world was spasming so bad. Rick gets the fingers of his left hand free, and then begins clawing at the hairs on his right hand and plucking them out more easily — though, from the look of things, no less painfully than before. But Rick doesn’t seem to care. The more freedom he gets, the harder he claws at himself, and the louder Cameron yells.
And I want nothing more than to help this kid, even though the sandstorm is hurting me, too. So I push through the pain and the wind to get to his side as fast as I can. I still don’t think it’s safe to risk yanking the clump off Rick’s back, no matter how tempted I am to do it once I’m kneeling beside the kid. Who knows what doing that that would mean for Rick over in the real world if I disconnected Cameron from him so forcefully? But at least now I can attend to him, and check out what’s happening close up.
As I get to Rick’s side, he’s fully freed his left arm, and he’s reaching up pulling the hairs off his face — from out of his mouth, from along his jaw. The knotty hairs make a snapping sound each time Rick frees a little more of himself.
Cameron is screeching in agony as Rick breaks each hair.
Rick takes a quick breath of air. “Help me!” Rick says, sounding desperate and exhausted. “Get him out of me!”
“Promise. Won’t stop ’til he’s gone.”
“Help me!” Rick cries out again. “Pull out the — … ” He shudders. ” … before he can grow new ones!”
“Okay, listen,” I say, trying to sound like I’m an authority. “He’s too strong for us to keep doing that. They’ll just grow back, like you said!”
“Hurry!” Rick pleads.
“We’re going to try a different idea,” I tell him. I try to make myself sound soothing, too. “Now it might hurt less. But it might hurt more.”
“Get him OUT of me!” Rick pleads. “… losing,” Rick starts to look dizzy.
And a new wave of hairy threads erupts from Rick’s back — from the clump — seeking out those bloodless open sores. “Ok! Try it!” Rick’s head lolls.
“Bite your tongue!” I tell him. “Or the side of your mouth. Hard enough to bleed.”
Rick’s eyes get a deeply-puzzled expression in-between the flickering of Cameron’s control, but then the kid’s look changes to a trusting one a moment later. “Ok,” he says. And then I see his jaw clamp down, and he gets a pained look to replace the puzzlement. His jaw unclenches, then trembles. He cries out. Then, ” … hurth!” The lisp tells me he’s trying to talk without moving his tongue too much. And then I see blood dribble over his chin.
I reach the fingers of my left hand up up to my face, where I can feel and smell my own blood dripping from my eyes and nose. And I confirm the shining droplet on my finger, and I reach over to press the finger to Rick’s lips. Am I making shit up? Not exactly. I’m using what I know, the only way I can think of. Sue me. “Get it on your tongue!” I tell him, trying to sound confident. “Where you’re bleeding.” I tell him.
He’s frightened, and confused. But he does it, thank goodness. Both of us are uncomfortable about it, but it’s the fastest way I can think of to make this happen.
Rick’s eyes shut. He loosens up. The wind around us dies down to nothing. He stops twitching.
And there’s more — Cameron’s hair-tentacles stop moving. The baby-head drops sideways onto the ground, silent. And most importantly, the blob on the back of Rick’s neck stops pulsing.
“Hell,” I say. I let out a long breath I didn’t realize I was holding. “I think that’s –”
And that’s when a literal hell starts to break loose around us.
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