There’s fire everywhere. And I really do mean everywhere. All around. Covering Rick, me; even the sand beneath us is burning, and all the dunes and valleys in the distance are on fire, too.
I hear Rick screaming, but I’m not looking at him. I’m not looking at anything. Or, if I am, I’m really processing it.
I’m on fire.
I seize up.
Rick keeps screaming.
I don’t know what to do.
I become aware of movement in front of me; Rick is responding differently than I am. He’s in the midst of a pitiful stop-drop-roll on the burning sand. Screaming and swearing. The particulars of the words have no meaning for me at this moment.
Then I realize something important: I’m not in any pain. And neither of us is smoking. It’s fire, but … we’re intact, the both of us. The flames aren’t actually burning us. They don’t hurt. Our skin isn’t melting.
In fact, I’m feeling stronger than I was a moment ago.
The realization helps me break through the freak-out. I can think again. I turn to look at Rick.
Other than the mass on his neck, Rick looks undamaged, too, despite the flames. He’s still screaming, though, waving his arms maniacally now, cursing as he tries to put out the flame.
But I notice something else as I’m looking over toward Rick. The kid’s undamaged, yeah. But Rick’s landscape, on the other hand? The space around us? ‘Damage‘ doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s hard to describe what I’m seeing there. The way the landscape is burning. It’s like … as if each individual piece has its own separate flame. A different fire for every piece — down to each grain of sand. And these aren’t like normal flames like you’d see in the real world, either; sure, they’re colored like a regular popping-popcorn fireplace fire, but the way this fire moves is … I don’t know, the word that feels right is ‘progressive.’ Like the individual pieces are working on their own, but also in concert, to burn the land.
Rick’s stops flapping his arms and goes back to screaming again.
I finally manage to force myself to move. I take two steps and lean down to put my hands on Rick’s shoulders as he sits on the burning sand. “Hey, kid,” I manage to say. Somehow, I keep my voice relatively calm. I give him a gentle shoulder-shake.
He’s isn’t stopping his screaming — he’s looking at me now, though, and making eye-contact. Which means he’s screaming right in my face.
“Kid,” I say again.
More screaming from the kid.
“RICK!” I shout at him. “DOES IT HURT?”
He stops screaming. His mouth snaps shut. He’s just sitting there, surrounded by fire, shaking like he’s cold.
“It doesn’t hurt. The fire’s not hurting us.” I say.
His screaming fades away into a pitiful mewling sound. Then, he falls silent for a moment. And then his arms go out and he cries “But I’m burning!”
“No you’re not,” I tell him. “There’s fire — but we’re not burning.”
He holds out his arms, as if I couldn’t see it before. “Who are you?” he asks. He looks down at his flaming hands at his sides. “I’m on fire!” He starts sobbing.
“My name’s Evelyn Diedz,” I tell him. Thank goodness I can say my own name without any problems. But my brain can’t help tapping a warning at the inside of my head that this isn’t how it normally goes. That this is the realm of the uncharted for me, too. Saying my name. Without it hurting every inch of me. I get distracted by wondering how it’s happening. Not sure if it’s from when I managed to get CJ Sweet to say it out loud, or because of all the chances that have happened to me since then. But I’m focused on helping Rick. Which is also why I decide to feign knowledge I don’t have. “Rick — it’s not that kind of fire. We’re not really burning.” Fact: I don’t have the slightest clue what kind of fire it is, but I’m going to pretend for a minute in the name of helping the hysterical kid.
It works. Rick’s sobbing abates, and he just blinks at me. Then, “The fuck-?” Rick says, in a much quieter voice. Once he’s talking like a person, I notice that his speech — and his eyes, and his movements, now that I’m actually trying to communicate to him — look kind of drugged. He tries to get up, but drops to his knees. “What’s — … ?” He trails off.
I’m not surprised that Rick seems out of it. Considering what was happening to him, and the likely exhaustion. But I’m also kind of thankful he’s not barraging me with a hundred questions about where he is or what’s going on. Because hell if I know.
Rick tries to stand again, this time ending up on his feet. He holds out his left hand in front of his face, like he’s checking how a new ring suits him. “It … doesn’t hurt,” he says quietly. Then his mouth is hanging open. He just keeps staring at the flames on his fingertips. “How- … ?”
A part of me knows I should be consoling him. Calming him about our situation. But all I can think to say is “Hell if I know, kid.’
Rick is holding up both hands now, turning them back and forth in front of his face. “This is so fucked-up.”
“Rick — the fire. We need to — … ”
Rick starts shuddering hard, now, his whole body shivering.
“… — well, that hurts.” I tense, ready for another fight with Cameron. I look over, and see the clump of hair’s still just sitting there on Rick’s back, split-open and broken up, but otherwise inactive, just like before the fire. And, yeah, the clump’s on fire, too, but not burning away from Rick. The thought alone of the smell that would accompany that hair gives me a momentary gag in the back of my throat.
Then, Rick’s shoulders jerk a few times, and then the blob on his back falls off. It plops noisily onto the ground, trailing tendrils of hair that are sliding out of a big dead-skinned hole just like the ones that cover Rick’s body. What looks like the last of the hair pops out in the form of a thicker knob of gnarled hair, with what looks like a clenched-up set of hooks flush to the knob.
For what feels like the hundredth time since I got to Drodden, I manage not to be sick.
Rick must feel the thing coming off of him, because he winces and reaches up to rub at the dead flesh ringing the hole in the back of his neck.
“Don’t touch it!” I warn him. I have no real reason to say that. I have no idea if that would be a bad idea or not. But, for now, I’m going to work under the idea he shouldn’t mess around with it.
“What — the — fuck?” Rick says, blinking. “What the fuck is that?” He eyes the clump fearfully, his pupils dilated wide — like he’s on a bad drug trip.
“Look — I’ll explain later, ok?” I’m hoping I’ll actually have an explanation by then.
“But — …” Rick turns a slow circle, staring out at the fire around us. He looks back at me, expression one of bafflement.
I follow Rick’s line of sight, taking in the slow circle. At first, there’s nothing I can see that isn’t on-fire. But then I notice something. Far, far in the distance. And equidistant no matter which direction I look.
Waves of grey. Familiar ones. The same as the ones when I was trapped inside Emma Albrecht, earlier. But I’ve never seen them actually arriving in a landscape, like they are now; they’re rising up from the edges of what I can see. And rushing toward us.
Well, that hurts.
“We’ve really got to get out of here, Rick!” Because my plan of keeping Rick calm is out the window. Screw being calm. That’s a priority for later. Right now, I’m focused on getting the two of us out of here. I reach my hand out toward Rick. “Take my hand.” My words are an order.
And Rick, thank goodness, realizes it’s an order, and reaches out to grasp my fingertips.
And I’m in no way expecting what happens now.
Because the fire that consumed Rick glides right off his body as I take his hand. The moment our skin touches. The fire glides right off of him, and onto me — and now it’s my turn to be all out of it and drugged-up, I guess.
And, suddenly, I’m feeling high as a kite.
And awake. In a way that says I’ve never been before now.
“You’re glowing,” I hear Rick say. I don’t see his lips moving though.
And then the scene around me changes — dramatically. Everything I’m looking at now seems to correspond to what I saw a moment before, but it’s like my vision has become … abstract, somehow.
To my eyes, Rick is like a tightly wound collection of golden string. It’s like he’s been replaced by some kind of symbolic version of him. I’ve never experienced this before – not even once. I’ve never had training about it from Doc. One of the Rick-Strings is reaching out to me; somehow, even though I didn’t remember reaching for it, I’m now holding the end of it in my hand. I can still feel Rick’s palm against mine, though. I can feel his warm skin even though all I can see is this cord.
I look around, to try to take in more of the abstractions — and I realize that the raging fire has changed, too. The fire has been replaced. It’s now more like a sea of white-gold liquid, floating in space. And I say ‘in space’ because that’s what the border of this place looks like; a border I can see how, as if from afar. Even though I can feel my feet on the burning sand. And wherever the flames were being overcome by the grey wave, I’m seeing what looks like the perfect blackness of starless space. I get some serious vertigo. I try to shut my eyes, but I can still see it all. Like I don’t have eyelids, even though I can feel the lids closing over my eyes. Weirdly, that sensation is somehow as horrific as anything I’ve experienced in Drodden, and I’m momentarily wracked by the idea of always having to see and never being able to really close my eyes. “Fuck, this better not be forever,” I say to myself. Because, I’ll tell you right now: if this is how things are for me now, I’ll be out of my mind in a few days … if I survive that long.
“What?” Rick cries out, plaintive and confused. “What are you doing? Where can we go? It’s all around us! What is this?”
I look back at him. And that’s when I see that he’s on fire again. Cord-Rick is on fire, I mean. Except — it’s only for a moment. There’s a flash. Then, it’s like the fire around him goes out. Then, once again, the flames slide off of him and over onto me. But they don’t hurt. They make me feel even higher than I did a moment ago. The vertigo is gone. Doubt is gone. All sense of weakness is gone.
There’s only power. I feel a strange sensation of coldness that goes against what my brain says I should be feeling, with the fire all over me.
“Hey — I can’t move!” Rick says.
“Me, neither,” I tell him. I don’t like how emotionless my voice sounds. But I try to calm him: “But, we can communicate. Focus on that.”
“I’m feeling really sick,” Rick says. “What’s going on?” His voice barely registers with me.
I want to break contact with him, but I find once again that I can’t move. It’s like I’m both in my body and floating above the ground, at the same time – floating, kind of like I do when I’ve joined with a person. But it’s also kind of like the sensation of being in someone’s landscape – like it was with Salat. Except – I’m frozen in place as if a living person disrupted me. But then, I realize that I can still move my eyes. I can shift my focus.
I look back at the edge of what I can see of Rick’s landscape, to check on the progress of the storm. That sickening, grey encroachment — it’s advancing, faster now than before, looking like a tidal wave. And it’s advanced far enough now that I can see what it’s leaving in its wake.
I face stony, ashy walls of solid greyness. And, it’s exactly like those empty spaces I find sometimes. Like the one I found in Emma Albrecht’s mind. And some places in Salat’s that were too far away for me to get to. And those other people I’ve been trapped in.
Which means that — unless my hunch is really mistaken — I’m seeing whatever happened to them … in real time … and happening to Rick.
I try to call out to Rick. My lips won’t move.
And then another layer of fire is covering Rick again. Except, this time, I’m watching the edge of Rick’s landscape and I only just catch the moment Rick’s cord-body appears to burst into flames. And that’s when it clicks that it’s all connected. Rick’s landscape is being burnt-up. And the energy that it took for him to create it in the first place … is coming back to him.
And then, that energy is coming right back out of him again — and coming into me.
The waves of grey climb higher and higher, making weird shadows around Rick and me. The fire on the ground turns dark. I realize that Cameron’s not there any more.
I want to run. I want to fight. Something. But I’m immobile, and it looks like Rick is, too. I can’t even let go of Rick’s hand. I can’t sever the connection between us, even as this new fire around him leaves his body and pulses over to me. I suddenly feel like I could swallow stars, and yet I can’t even open my fingers.
And then I understand why I’m feeling so high.
I’m … absorbing Rick’s landscape.
I try to stop.
I don’t know how to stop.
I can’t figure out how to get either of us out of this.
And then, the waves of grey suddenly crash down onto both of us.