I refuse to cower.
Even though I’m afraid.
I try to steel myself.
Even though I’m not ready to die.
But then I realize that this fire,
this fire that doesn’t burn,
it’s like the fire before —
that I took from Rick —
creative and destructive,
And things are changing.
The fire moves us.
All three of us are moving.
I ride a shockwave of heat.
Rising like currents beneath our wings.
Like I have wings; my childhood dream.
And I feel that same sensation.
The one I’ve felt a few times since arriving in Drodden.
Still new to me, but getting more familiar each time.
A shift in everything that changes where I am, how I am.
Like a change in my own vibrations, and the others’.
Because this time they’re coming with me.
And I’m out of that terrible nothingness —
Time shifts. A thought clarifies in my head: an idea how time actually works, when you’re a ghost. It’s usually so unclear. But there’s certainty here. Time is slower for you sometimes, when you’re a ghost; the living world sometimes seems to rush past. Ordinary, everyday events are beyond your scope, too quick to follow – like watching the woman you love wound herself, over and over, and you can’t do a thing to stop her. Why think of that here and why now, you ask? Because, right now, time isn’t moving, even though I am. Sliding out of where I was to somewhere else. I don’t understand what I’m experiencing right now. And I’ve learned — especially today — that, yeah, anger can be a motivator, but sometimes you have to observe and learn and figure out what to do next. Like right now. And you don’t observe and learn very well when you’re punching helplessly at walls. I want to understand — because I need to understand if I’m going to get out of this intact.
Not to mention … I need to save Rick.
And here’s the thing — I do feel helpless, right now, specifically because time isn’t moving. Mostly, that’s why, anyway. And. well, sure — if you get technical, some element of something that might be time seeps on by as I’m thinking this stuff. But ever since my first death, I’ve learned to feel the currents of time, and what they’re doing to me. Been a slow process, but I’ve got some of it figured out — and right now, I can tell that I’m in-between human heartbeats; you just learn to be able to read stuff like that.
Then, there’s a whooshing sound — except I feel it more than I hear it. And just like that, I’m back in the dungeon again. But it isn’t enough to say just that. It’s dark here, this new concept of what here even is. I want to take in what I see, to record it, because it’s new. I try to describe it, to myself, so it’s in the book. It’s dark, is what comes to mind first — dark, that is, except for this tiny spot of light where I’m standing. I look up. I don’t see or even sense the … I don’t know, the limits of the ground or the ceiling. Looking up, the ceiling seems to expand upward forever, more a metal sky than a ceiling. And my feet aren’t touching the ground. Nothing feels real, even though I can tell this is reality. The harmonies are right. But my perception of them — that’s what’s off. Like looking at a picture of yourself. Except you’re on the other side of whatever differentiates the picture from everything else, at the same time. Like you’re inside the image, in the spaces between the things it shows you; then, my perception of it changes, in the stillness before the new heartbeat starts. The change: it’s a new sense of here — a collection of angles now, throwing me off. From one angle, it’s like staring up-close at television static that becomes a clear picture when you get close enough to it. From another, it’s like nothing more than being a spectator. But I can tell I’m really there.
Except … no. That’s not right. It’s not I. It’s we. We’re really there. I’m not alone. I can feel that Cameron and Rick are still with me, even though I can’t see them. I felt myself drawing them out of the grey clouds and back to the real world. But I can’t find them. All I can tell is that they’re … stuck, somehow. But when I reach out to them, to draw them toward me further, they somehow become more distant. Like one of my hands, trying to catch the other, while the other is trying to avoid being caught. A memory comes: me, as a little girl, trying to touch the little rainbow from the waterfall in mom’s garden. It’s disconcerting, to get that memory at this moment, given the last time I saw the garden, but it came to me in a way that wasn’t intellectual; like my body somehow knew to bring it out, and like my body somehow understands having that memory at this moment, the way a body understands breathing. It resists the urge to try, the same way as you’ll mess up your breathing if you try too hard to control it. And, more than that, there’s a sense of something new in that awareness; it’s that there is a ‘we’ to feel, too, beyond myself — something tangible; not just a collection of us, like three people in the same room. This is a sense that I’m not the same as I was a moment ago, before this new we, but I’m also somehow protected — intact, and not changed. Like I’m inside a shape — a part of its structure, holding it together, essential to its integrity. There’s strain, like something being crafted — or has already been crafted. Like when you heat up metal to bend it into a shape. There’s stillness, too, here in the between-heartbeat moment.
But no matter what, I’m still me — even with the others joined to me. And I vow to hold on to that even if this is how things are now.
A heart beats. I feel it. Is it Rick’s heart? Is it Hilda’s? Is it even real, or is it just imagined? I don’t know. But that heartbeat seems to stretch into forever, punctuated by vibrations at regular intervals. It’s soothing, but not in a way that makes me feel comfortable. It’s almost hypnotic in a way that makes me want to run. I don’t trust feelings like that — sleepy, easy feelings. Comfort-feelings. When you’ve had the life I’ve had, with the way people deal with and react to you, you can’t afford to be comfortable. Not for too long. Complacency is death for anyone who isn’t on the top rung of what folks decide to call human.
Another pause and I feel the heady rush abate — like the heartbeat’s throbbing is pushing some drug into me that I have to resist. Just below the range of my hearing, I’m aware of another depth of sound — a rhythm that comes from all around me at once. That rhythm pushes, even as the heartbeat pulls. The sensation of being drawn back and forth between planes actually reminds me of the first few days when I woke up from being dead. Which, yes, you can do. Which is actually how that works — or worked for me, anyway. This feels like that same kind of half-awake half-asleep dreamy nightmare fuzziness, and despite the pulsing calm I’m feeling a lot of fear — because it’s unnerving to feel like things are new and unknown again. Like I don’t know the rules again. But my own heartbeat is matching the rhythm of the vibrations around me. And with each beat of my heart, the light at the edges of my vision continues to expand. The pulses make the darkness around us disappear, in layers.
I notice Rick’s naked body lying on the floor of the dungeon. Which is so odd, because I’d swear to you that he’s here with me. I just can’t see him. But he’s definitely here, inside the frozen picture of the dungeon. He’s off to my side, except he’s also above me and below me and inside of me and beyond me; he’s occupying the same space I am, but he’s separated from me by what feels like incredible distance. It’s like we’ve divided a single space between us, somehow. Where he is, I’m not – and vice-versa.
And then, I realize – there’s also Cameron. Oh, hell. He’s in here, too — and I can tell that … parts of Cameron are in a third division of the space Rick and I occupy.
I can feel Cameron, too. More, I can feel his vibrations — in a way that I can’t help but notice is completely different from how I sense Rick.
There are vibrations to Rick, too – but Rick’s aren’t harmonizing the same way as Cameron.
I theorize that it’s because Rick’s still alive.
I think that’s maybe what’s making the different harmonies. All three of us are pressing against each other like tuning forks set to different frequencies.
None of our vibrations match.
But the vibrations are still working together, even though there’s no harmony between us. It’s like … something familiar. It’s like a machine of some kind.
Come on, Evelyn. Think!
I glance toward a different angle, frustrated, and I notice Hilda Leek kneeling over Rick’s body, her bloodied, bloodless-looking hands clutching Rick’s shoulders; I think she’s lifting him up from the dungeon floor in a panicked grip. It’s hard to know what I’m really experiencing and what’s abstraction and what’s memory and what might be trickery or hallucination.
Hilda’s mouth looks like she’s in mid-scream. At first, it seemed like this image — and the whole picture — is frozen still. But it’s not. As each little split-second of time broadens into a longer moment — and as my own confusion gives way to observation — I’ve become increasingly aware of the most subtle movements in my surroundings — Hilda’s eyes blinking, her hair moving, Rick’s breathing. But, it’s all in the slowest of slow motion. And, in a curious way, a part of me feels like I should be terrified of that.
But I’m not.
Instead, there’s that sense of calm, yes, but I’m not so much resisting that now as trying to use it to slow down my mind. I don’t want to feel calm, but I do want to feel in-control, instead of fluttering on the heat of the Rick’s fire inside of me.
Regrets wash over me; the harmonies – disharmonies — around me start to cut at me the way that the echoes usually do. I can almost hear Rick and Cameron, both, screaming in unison, horrifyingly out-of-key with each other. They’re in terrible pain, wherever they are inside this new here.
“Don’t punish yourself, Wolfie. Sing with me.” It’s Lysette’s voice — from a memory I remember.
It’s one of my worst memories.
And yet, that echo doesn’t cut me. It makes me want to cry, but from sadness instead of pain, and I realize it’s my way of telling myself something — that I’ve done that too much today; I’ve spent too much time punished myself for not knowing things — one of my worst traits. That’s not who I want to be. I will not surrender, and I will not panic. It’s how I thought about it when I took Rick’s fire. It’s how I felt when the book sang in my voice, and all I could think of was how Lysette would sing to me. Lysette gave me power I didn’t want … and it hurt her so much. Rick — I took something precious from him, without meaning to.
That’s a debt I have to to repay, if it can ever be repaid.
I hear new waves of Rick and Cameron screaming — like fresh echoes replacing weak ones.
I know that it’s up to me to save us. But tumbling in these between-heartbeats moments won’t get any of us anywhere. So I do the only thing I can think of, thanks to Lysette’s memory.
I try to sing. Wordlessly, the way Lysette would. Not really with my voice, either — with all of me. And — here’s the best part — the song is silent, too. All that weirdness, put together, somehow feels like a thing that would be entirely possible here, wherever this is. And, as I start, I realize it’s a lot like what I thought of before; it’s like breathing, like the body I’ve become knows how to do it. As if maybe it was some instinctive part of me that knows about how to do this. I call out toward Rick. And, by extension, Cameron, though I’d just as soon throw him into the fire, if I could find out how. But with all three of us so intertwined around each other right now, I get the feeling that if I damaged Cameron I’d damage Rick and myself just as bad. Like crushing a house I’m somehow inside of at the time. But I call to both of them to come to me — so we can extricate from this. And, so we can figure out what’s happening.
And, as I sing, their screams become songs, too. And then, there’s harmony, at last – because I make that harmony. I bridge the gaps between those vibrations. I make it all a song – a silent song. It’s not a song any living person should ever want to hear. This isn’t ‘harmony’ in the way the idea is used in cutesy kid’s stories. This isn’t living in harmony as a peaceful state. This is an amoral kind of harmony; it moves inside of me like fire – like Rick’s fire.
But, it’s a fire I control. Or maybe it’s better to say I direct it. Yes, I direct his fire.
And that’s when realization comes. The power I sensed is real. It did move into me. I am the one in the most control, out of the three of us. They’re not directing the song; I am. This isn’t Rick’s song, or Cameron’s. This isn’t Hilda’s Trio. This is all me. This is my song.
In fact, it almost feels like Cameron is hiding from the two of us, even as he’s singing.
And, it also feels like Rick is shocked, stumbling, but trying.
I can feel the electricity of Rick’s living mind, and I can feel how Cameron’s spirit is pulsing along with mine. But I’m the one who’s … well, as close to being in-control as it feels like any of the three of us can be. But it is control, in a way. And with that realization comes movement, of a sort — out and up and down, into the sky-that-isn’t and the ground-that-isn’t … and everything in between. And who and what the three of us are – that living state of being expands further and further, with my song guiding it all. I’m directing what we see. My vision stays clear; it’s a vision that’s also shown to Rick … and even Cameron. I know they’re seeing it, both of them. I can tell what they sense; their senses are being drawn away from the center. No, that’s not right. They’re not being drawn away; they’re being pushed out by the waves of sound — by this silent song of mine. There is no union. We’re not one being.
They are being put into harmony with me, and I’m at the center.
The Middle C – that’s the principle note; isn’t that the one, Lysette? I know next-to-nothing about music. It’s like I am the point where Rick’s shocked vibrations meet Cameron’s terrified notes. I am directing that energy out into the world. All three of us are spokes, all surrounding a central point. There’s the two of them, rising, joining into my one spoke at the top. It’s me, facing both of them, even as we’re unable to see each other – even as I’m able to know what they are seeing, what they are experiencing. It’s me, turning their chaos into harmony without even having to try now. And, as we spread outward, things change.
But, what changes isn’t so much our place in the world as the range of what we can see and perceive. And I can tell the two of them are seeing it, too. I’m not sure how. It’s part of my awareness. I can see the electricity of perception flowing into me from both of them. And now we see the whole of this pitiful dungeon beneath the pawnshop. Then, outward and farther and we see the whole of the pawnshop. Then it spreads further and further outward, to the road that leads to the pawnshop. And it isn’t just the perspective you’d get from flying a plane over the town of Drodden — or a map. It’s seeing through things, too. It’s part of how this harmony works. Seeing and feeling the shape of things; their structure, down to levels I don’t even understand. Like I’ve said — I don’t know science. But I feel like we’re looking at … whatever the things are, molecules or atoms or particles or something — the building blocks of things. They’re the size of planets – but I see them all, and it’s all so simple for me to understand in that moment, even if I can’t name these things. There’s a song to those planet-sized building blocks – a simple, beautiful math to them. I see how the pieces unite to make the cold floor of the dungeon. I see how they connect to make up the walls. I see the infinitely vast spaces between them, as if they were huge and I was small. And it grows and grows.
The song flows from us freely now, three parts speaking different languages of experience. Three different perspectives that move us, that add to what can be known. Rick’s shock has changed to cool notes of wonderment. Cameron’s mewling song of terror rises higher and higher, but has become more of a question than stark fear. And on the song goes. And the heartbeat intensifies, as our energies expand upward, downward and outward, all at once — flowing over each other, in-between each other, in the same way that Cameron and Rick and I are occupying this same space — by virtue of the careful positioning of what is connecting with what isn’t, in haphazard perfection. The shapes around us lurch and change in this moment of slowed time. Now, nothing is still. The world ripples, and bends — and breaks in places.
There are broken places, I understand in this fundamental state. There are parts of the dungeon that are broken. I can see that now; something was fractured here, down deep on this fundamental level that I now can understand. I see tiny tears and gashes. The place has become unstable, on a level no one in the everyday world can see. The place is broken on a subatomic level — a molecular level – a primal level. My natural urge is to want to fix it. Except, this isn’t the kind of unstable you can just fix. I don’t know that it can be fixed. And then, further realization dawns. It’s not just broken, I realize: it’s warped — damaged. It’s rotting out from the core. And, I realize that this kind of rot can’t be fixed.
It has to be burned away.
I try to direct the song – to bring the fire.
But, now there is resistance.
I’m stronger, and I guide us onward. I want perspective on all this. That maybe I can I try to direct the song further, to give me the perspective I need. I think of Lysette’s hands, bleeding from needles. Bleeding from cuts. I see Drodden bleeding. I sing about the blood, and Rick and Cameron instantly join me, energized in different ways — Rick’s sorrowful reflection at his bloody day, Cameron’s voice singing of hope and opportunity and — at the same time — pure terror. I don’t understand the emotions invoked in me by Cameron’s song, but it doesn’t matter, because we’re spinning away and out to the edges of Drodden. It’s like we’re up in the clouds, but everywhere else, too — as I’m tumbling through the woods by Fell-Munch Road, I’m also in the center of town and on the periphery and inside Sweet’s Drugs. Broad and intimate, my perceptions are all those places, all at once.
And then, with another bright golden flash that smashes into my eyes, another layer covering up part of the universe seems to fall away from us, and it’s time for me to be overwhelmed again — and for time to seem to go by even slower.
It’s the glow of blood.
All the blood is glowing — in a way I’ve never seen it before.
And there are even few things in-between.
And, remember what I was saying about keeping control? Yeah — now, that’s not what’s happening.
My control of the song – of the power — collapses.
I suddenly feel like I’ve been blinded. But then, I realize that I’ve just had the briefest flicker of awareness that I’m being struck — hard — against my forehead. Accompanying that single moment come a barrage of images — twisting impossibly, overlain, like moving see-through pages of a book being looked at all at once. I can’t close my eyes. But I can move them, not that looking in any particular direction helps block any of this out. It’s too much. So much information that it takes a moment for me to even realize there are images to be seen, that it’s not just a mass of shapes. I hate being out-of-control, so my instinct is to try to make sense of it all. As I try to focus, I can make out more and more diverse shapes in the mass in front of me — us — glowing with reds and gold and greens of different kinds of blood-energy — which I realize, in turn, are making up increasingly-complex patterns that I can make out in greater detail, the more I look. They coalesce, and I realize that it’s the images of the town of Drodden — the same image as before — as the base of what I’m seeing. Except, now, I’m seeing the trails of blood drenching the town; drenching the cliffs, even, I realize, as the paths draw me forward. Because it is drawing me, I realize. My fight to perceive it seems to pull me along. And I need to know; I can’t help but follow the patterns, pulled along these multicolor roads as they trail back out of town to the very street I walked to come here yesterday morning. Blood, layered in ways that tell me … a story, is all I can think of to describe it. Maybe ‘a guided tour’ works, too? I don’t know what to call it, even as it’s happening to me. My perceptions follow the trails the patterns leave. They crisscross each other. The trails of blood are thick all across the surface of Fell-Munch Road; but there are endless paths of blood twisting down into the ground below the road, and out in all directions – paths of murder, paths of betrayal, the killing of parents and children and lovers and enemies.
But it’s not all fear and pain; I see beauty — the blood of childbirth, the blood of growth and change.
And yet, I keep on coming back to the worst aspects I see. I’m like that. I know I am. I won’t even get into how much of what I’m seeing brings me back to thoughts of Lysette too painful for the book. I’ll focus on just how awful I am in my bouts of perfect pessimism, instead. And it hurts me to think that about myself, and it hurts to realize how lost in my own feelings I’m getting, but the thoughts keep coming and keep coming and there it is — and knowing that it’s just me getting lost doesn’t make it any better. So, yes, I see the bad side of things in this, mostly, even as I see that stitching of blood-trails creating new families and helping people rise above what they can do aas they bleed for their cause. The worst elements draw my attention, even as they’re also too much to bear. It’s a conflict that keeps gutting me as I watch, so much so that every part of me is recoiling from the tableau, but I can’t even move to do that. Not that it would matter if I could — I’m faced with more blood trails in whatever direction I look. Given no choice, I follow one path that seems to stand out to me amidst the chaos — because it’s Emmett’s blood. I recognize it, because I can spot the patterns and colors and vibrations. I can only keep track of one at a time, even with this all happening to me at the same time. I do what I can to understand the overwhelming burst of sensations; I keep myself as focused as I can on collecting what I see as I glide along, drawn by Emmett’s green-yellow trail. I don’t want to get lost in the spiraling patterns, but can’t help it. It’s like breathing, at this point. It’s impossible not to, and I feel like I’ll die again — come apart, maybe, even, if I don’t. The path draws me back, and leads to the Yellow House. Fountains of blood make different-colored blossom-patterns, dense and horrifying, across the floor and ceiling of the Yellow House; waves of bloody paths are stitched across the floor of its basement leading in too many directions to track. And on and on and on, blood on blood on blood. So much so that I notice something else now: the more blood in a space, the less it draws me. It’s the sharper, more distinct patterns that have the greatest pull. And I do blot some of it out, as the images move faster and faster and more and more detailed. In spite of my need to understand, I can only handle so much. And something tells me the trails may go on forever, through all of time. It’s an impression I get, but what I’m seeing in passing as I’m drawn along supports it. Images of people killing each other for food or gold or a car or a horse or a wagon or a toy rifle — a moment where I catch a little rivulets of blood running along the corridors of a building I don’t know that looks like a kid’s footprints if the kid had been walking through red-green-gold paint. But then, it’s gone again, and I’m pulled onward — out into the burial plots in one of the Drodden cemeteries. There’s so much death — death on death, natural and unnatural. Landscapes are coming apart without coalescing; something I’ve never seen up-close, now happening over and over again right in front of me. The past and the present becoming one as I witness this illustrated presentation of Drodden’s bloodletting — the slaughter of endless numbers of people and then it’s buried by fresh grass and new buildings and even before there were buildings. And the patterns go back farther and farther backward into time, and I can see pieces of the past, in the way the blood lies on the ground. And it’s everywhere – in different concentrations, yes, but everywhere, old over new, new over old. I can see ancient trails, the first people bleeding out as they made war, making endless patterns and shapes that I don’t even want to look at, but can’t look away from. And it feels effortless to let the song we sing continue, and like so much effort to stop singing — impossible effort. And we move forward. And that’s when I realize that this is the trail I walk. This is where I step, when I can’t hitch a ride with someone’s body. I follow these trails of blood. That’s what the path is – the one Casper Ada taught me about. This is why I can only go to certain places, and why certain spots block me. On my own, up until now, I could only go where there’s been blood that’s fresh and bright enough for me to see and find use. The blood guides me like light. Why didn’t he tell me? Why didn’t the good Docktor Mask tell me what the path really was?
It all becomes clear. The lights that drew me to Drodden were shapes in the pattern being formed, because those moments create sparks of bloody light. The lights are fresh blood, spilling somewhere – making patterns, drifting off people and cross-stitching with others and making new trails … in a never-ending cycle of creation – because all of this is constant. Living beings — their bodies are pulsating with the stuff. Blood is dripping and falling off them always, everywhere they go — though it’s more intense when there is violence or passion.
I get a measure of the health of the people I see by how the blood drifts off them, yes, but also by how it moves inside of them. Because I see circulatory patterns now; people rich with it, anemic with it. I see the strength or weakness of the intensity of the glow of their blood. But it isn’t a matter of life or dark; there are shades, but where it truly varies in the people is from person to person. And then I realize that the moments and the people are overlapping. Another layer, revealed to me — a layer that blends what I’m seeing as now with what I saw before as history. And I’m seeing through all their eyes at once — all within that heartbeat’s span. I can tell where I am in the process, the way an architect knows the difference between a blueprint and a finished building. It’s all part of that vitality, too. The freshest moments sparkle with light. The glow of the past is dusty and faint. But, it’s not the same for every moment — as if some have greater impact than others. I see Hilda’s pattern now, and Rick’s, and even Cameron’s, drifting in front of me. And then Emmett’s trail comes back into view, crisscrossed and twisting back and forth — into Cameron’s over and over again. And then, I see the path from yesterday morning, with Emmett trying to cross Fell-Munch Road. Except now I see something else in that moment: blood fighting blood. The song continues; the angle of things shift again. The pattern of blood fighting blood looks ike a picture I once saw in one of Lysette’s old science books — the image of two magnets where the same sides were pushing against each other in a pile of metal shavings. The way the shavings moved into polarized waves. That’s what the trails seem to do when blood fights blood. And then I understand the weird blood-patterns around the Yellow House, and why Emmett had so much trouble with it — because Emmett’s blood-trail lies across Fell-Munch Road, too, and it was like the magnets for him. I remember something Lysette said to me; that there’s metal in blood or something. I don’t remember. Now, I don’t think Emmett died there on that road, though, from what I’m seeing. The patterns aren’t the same as those weird … I don’t know, call them ‘punctuations’ … that I can see in the trails where I see death happening. Complicated swirls that erupt into what seem like infinite golden spirals going out in all directions from them. I seem to be traveling down the paths of random trails. One of those trails leads me back to the center of Drodden — the statue, a fountain of bloody roads flying up from it. I see the moment I first saw Shihong and her friends, watching me as I tried to find my first leads. I tumble back along that path for a while. I see the image of a slaughtered peacock split open on a fence, bleeding out onto the ground next to a sign that reads HILTRAUD FARMS. The bird, I realize, has been crucified. I see Rangi kneeling as if in supplication before it, speaking words I can’t understand. Then, I see the others, gathering to ride their bicycles along Fell-Munch, somehow untroubled by the gravel. As if they’re floating just above the ground. Then, another trail I come across along Fell-Munch feels familiar again, and I realize I’ve come back around to Emmett’s again. Emmett’s blood-trail is the same as part of the pattern on Fell-Munch Road. It’s not something I can explain in deep detail with words … or, I don’t know, maybe I don’t have the words, if they exist. But now that I can see the trail, I see it and I understand it. More than any of the times Casper Ada tried to explain it to me. And that moment when Emmett crossed Fell-Munch Road is bright in my memory and fills my heart. It must have taken almost everything from him to climb those steps to the Yellow House — in ways not even I could see at the time. I remember his light, how he looked when Penny picked him up last night. And then I see Penny’s blood-trail, and I’m pulled back along that, to the moment when Penny last encountered Hilda Leek at the Drodden Visitor’s Center. I see the moments played out in the vibrations in the patterns, the way bodies displace the rain, just like all the past events I’ve been seeing. Except this one is more close-up; it’s as if these moments are fresh enough to be more visible to me when I’m like this. And I feel like I’m there with Penny, and I hear the human voices of that moment all around me and feel the sensations. I relive that moment: ‘Hi, Ms. Leek,’ Penny is saying. And I see Ms. Leek turning toward Penny. Except I’m part of this we now, so I’m seeing it from outside myself, like walking through a movie. I see how I was connected to Penny then — still too exhausted from my journey to Drodden to do anything. I’ve never seen my … that thing that’s around people when I join with them. Well, Lysette called it my aura, but there’s got to be a science word for it. My electrospectrowhatever. And, from this new vantage, I watch as the blood-pattern of blood falling from Penny drops down into stitched patterns on the floor of the Visitor’s Center, commingling with the blood-pattern that’s falling from Hilda. And then I watch as blood-energy pours from Hilda’s eyes and crosses over in the breadth of a moment toward Penny, like an insect’s feelers or a snake’s outstretched tongue. The blood pattern around Hilda recoils, glittering with potential violence, and then Hilda’s swinging at Penny with the metal box. Except, no. Swinging at me. And — somehow — pushed by the patterns wrapped around her body, as if they were alive, as if they were lifting her arms to swing at me, as if they were vibrating with a song that compelled Hilda Leek to try to destroy me with physical force. She knew I was there, and it was like the pattern was guiding her hands. The pattern coming from — I follow it — the box she held. And Rick and Cameron are still singing, and I want them to stop but I have no way to reach them, because I have no voice to tell them to stop. And then I take notice of the pattern of the metal box Hilda is holding — it’s Cameron Stye’s, and I reacognize I’m seeing Cameron’s box with the Rail Man clothes inside of it. It has to be. A flash hits me: the sight of Mickey Laddow, whose simple patterns of blood are overwhelmed and overcome by Cameron Stye’s. Mickey’s blood-pattern is visible to me — his speaks of simplicity, and he looks like nothing in this vision so much as a mouse caught inside a vast spider-web, and it’s horrible and I don’t want to keep doing this but I can’t even figure out how to look away. There’s nothing to look away from: it’s all inside of me, inside the three of us who have joined together like this. The blood-trail of the box leads me inside of the, and my suspicions are confirmed: bloody clothes, the burlap soaked with Cameron’s bloody pattern with its jagged italic lines made of the pattern of Cameron Stye’s sickening rust-colored blood. And the pattern of the knife Cameron used, which is drawing me back further to my worst failure in Drodden: I have to watch Cameron killing Victor and Gunny again. The trails lead me on and on and one of them becomes my everything as the trail immerses me and I’m now inside the tunnel of its path; it’s squeezing me around my chest as I’m pushed through and I come out the other side and see Mickey Laddow’s possessed body with its pattern interwoven with Cameron Stye’s blood. Mickey-Cameron is cutting Gunny’s hand during the ritual at the Dirt Clod yesterday, and I watch as the cross-stitching of blood as it happens again, with the tips of the fresh patterns bursting forth from Gunny’s body, gently guided as if by Cameron Stye’s will, and then the lines of Cameron’s pattern wrap tightly around the lines of blood pouring from Gunny’s hand and it changes the entire shape of everything about Mickey-Cameron’s pattern. Even as the patterns from Gunny’s blood form into their own lines and trails, they are pulled away from him and absorbed into the broader pattern of Mickey-Cameron, and it changes Mickey-Cameron’s pattern until that bonding has somehow become Mickey-Cameron-and-Gunny, though the Gunny part of the pattern is already slowly coming apart — and then I’m watching as Mickey reaches the Marsh house, crossing another circle of blood around that house, effortlessly, because of the new pattern around Mickey-Gunny, and Mickey is walking through the empty spaces of the pattern, changing the vibrations and structure and to follow the blood-path in a different way, stepping sideways ….. …. … .. . and the song changes and now I’m feeling that sideways shift from afar, and I’m recognizing it, and realizing it’s what’s been happening to me and then Mickey-Cameron is coming back out the other side . .. … …. ….. and this singing group of mine, we all come back into that maddening vibrational harmony again and we’re moving again and we’re come around again to Mickey-Cameron killing Victor and Gunny again, and this time I notice there’s no punctuation-fountain from either of them, and then Mickey-Cameron is dragging the two Marshes out into the yard and setting them on fire and I’m pushed downward through another tunnel and I’m seeing a much-younger Mickey Laddow slashing his own hand open and walking through the woods dripping his blood on the ground and I’m seeing him lay out a package of marshmallows and he bleeds on it and his eyes I don’t want to look at his eyes they’re not his they shouldn’t be his they belong to Mickey and I hate what Cameron’s done to them and Mickey’s little hand is bleeding and he’s dancing in mud and rain and bleeding on marshmallows and then another quick trip through another little tunnel of blood and I’m seeing raccoons eat the marshmallows and they change and they’re tearing apart Jay’s dog and CJ Sweet is tending to a wounded and bleeding Jay Redwing who’s gotten into a fight with another boy and that other boy’s path comes into view and then I see Risky’s Pond except filled with blood no overflowing with blood and there are so many patterns and there’s Emmett’s again stitched to so many others and all those patterns in the water split off in so many directions and I want to get away from them all but I’m still unable to move just like before and I’m being forced to watch all of this because it’s in the same moment as everything else I’m seeing and it’s going faster and I need to control it and a second moment begins and I want the song to stop and I am being pulled apart now — not from the others but me, myself, pulled apart and I can’t make it stop and the trail is everywhere and it’s too much and — …
… — I’m hearing a voice: “She’s getting lost.” It’s Eleanore Erobern’s voice. And I realize that it’s not a memory. Happening now, in the midst of the arrival another new heartbeat’s thudding vibrations.
The surprise makes me — lets me? – cease the silent song – or, more accurately, my part of the silent song. The seemingly endless vision of blood goes totally blank as I hear Eleanore’s voice. But I try to grab on to the sensation of now, and hold on as tight as I can.
And the others — I feel them stop singing when I do. I sense their shock and surprise at what they must’ve also seen. Somehow, I sense they were seeing exactly what I was seeing before, so I reason they probably heard the Eroberns, too.
Then I’m hearing Bernard. “Understandable. Seeing the plane from this far out for the first time can be — … hey! What’s she doing?”
I can’t talk. But, yeah, freaking out and getting ready to fight is what I’m doing. And then I feel a great lurching, tearing sensation — different from what I felt when I saw the blood-patterns. I thought those feelings a moment ago were painful; this is more like some kind of infinite nausea. I feel like I’m going to puke for the whateverth-time-today.
I hear Bernard: “I do not want her doing that here.”
Eleanore’s voice again: “Neither do I. That’s not for her.”
I store that bit of information away. While I highly doubt they’re talking about my fit of nausea, I decide whatever they do actually mean might be important. Whatever the Eroberns don’t want me to do, I’m guessing that might just be exactly what I should do. If they’ve been overcome by a moment of sincerity and are actually trying to help, then that’s their loss for confusing me earlier so fuck you, Eroberns.
My eyesight is coming back to me. We’re in the basement again — assuming we ever really left — and I can feel that only a few more heartbeats have passed. But — yeah, there are heartbeats. That’s the term to notice. I can tell time is speeding up for Rick, Cameron and me again. Or, rather, we’re slowing back down toward normal.
Like I said, time for ghosts works in weird ways.
Hilda is still kneeling by Rick, but she’s just moving in that shuddery, stilted kind of way that I see in people sometimes when I’m moving quickly.
“She’s slowing down,” I hear Bernard say. I still can’t see either him or his sister.
“We should try again with her, after this, maybe?” says Eleanore.
Their voices come from everywhere around me, and it’s driving me crazy because I can’t even turn my head. Which, you know, on its own would drive me crazy.
My book has stopped burning and lies in the pattern of blood that held me earlier. I understand those patterns a little better now, after the vision, I think. At the moment, it looks like plain old ordinary blood, so I’m guessing the pattern-seeing ability was restricted to the vision. If any of that was real. I think it was real. There’s a lot of blood making up that pattern. It wasn’t mine, though. So why did it hold me. But a little bit of my perception of the blood has changed. I can still see the waves and shapes and patterns in the particles that make up the world around me, too; I can see where those particles are made up of blood, too. I’m guessing that it’s that my senses still heightened in this fuck-it-let’s-call-it-a-union of me and Rick and Cameron, and I can still recognize the way the particles vibrate around each other in a particular way, in the real world. And — …
… — I realize that it was Jeff’s heartbeat that I was feeling. I can follow the disturbances in the vibrations and particles to that heartbeat. Its vibrations stand out to me now. And — …
I hear Bernard: “Wait, is she recognizing that — …”
“Is she?” interrupts Eleanore.
“Does she know we’re here?” That’s Bernard’s voice.
“Can she hear us?” That’s Eleanore.
“Possible. Doubtful.” Bernard sounds dismissive of me.
They’re both still invisible to me. Except right now I’m not even looking for them. I’m looking over toward Jeff Armando now and — …
… — oh, Jeff. I see him now. Really see him. I had been too focused on my escape and fight with Cameron to really notice — no, to really pay attention — to what was happening to Jeff before now. Or maybe it’s that I- … yes, it’s because of this new awareness I was given. I’m seeing the stitching of the blood patterns, still. Not so completely and intensely as before. And only the now of them, as they exist right in front of me. But I’m seeing their shape and structure. And Jeff Armando is dying. His heartbeats seem somehow desperate — an effort by a body to keep going even though it knows it’s failed.
An effort that seems — even sounds — fruitless.
Poor goddamn Jeff Armando. The man who just — only — wanted a dog. Who shouldn’t be here. Who trusted a priest’s sick dreams. And Jeff’s landscape is there, visible to me now even outside of his dreams, so simple to spot. It had always been there, if I’d known how to see it, like this. It looks like a sandcastle island, draining away by degrees from the rush of the tide. Jeff’s landscape — this little island — is small but it’s beautiful and I don’t want to see it, all at the same time. His glow. Golden light spilling out of him; it’s his blood. My song becomes a cry. I reach out, but I can’t connect back to the real world. No matter how hard I try. There’s nothing I can do to stop it. Golden light is just spilling out all around his body where he sits. His little island falling apart. Pieces getting smaller and smaller and drifting on the air into different shapes, like little pieces of memories I don’t understand and can’t keep straight enough to even put down in my book, they’re going away so fast. I catch sight of dog’s face, a basset hound … and then the last of it drifts away from Jeff’s body and I want to reach out but the shape of the we I’m in stop me from moving in any kind of way that makes sense or that I can control. Another few trickles of golden light fall from Jeff’s body. I’ve seen this happen to people who don’t come back as ghosts. I hate it. I watch as the particles of light try to fuse together into something cohesive. A few little sparks manage to merge, weakly, but then they come apart in front of me. And I don’t want it to be like this, but it is and I can’t stop it. I can’t do anything. And I look away and I don’t want to think.
The heartbeats stop.
Jeff Armando’s story ends there.
Just like that. Just like — …
… damn it all.
And despite losing the ability to see those blood-patterns … any ghost can see another ghost coming into the world. And here — there’s no newborn ghost. No sudden burst of energy. No cocoon of hardened smoke. Not even a hint to suggest anything beyond the collapse of everything that Jeff was. No sign of an emerging landscape floating away on the wind, either. Not even that. There’s just … nothing. He came apart when his body died, and then the pieces of him just fell into the flowing vibrations of the world. Into those waves of particles I can still see and feel making up the air and the walls and the floor and the books and the movie projector and the movie screen and the torture chair and damn it. It’s my fault — all of this. The realization hits me hard; I feel it hit Rick and Cameron, though I can’t really understand or feel the sensations I’m getting back from them to know their reaction. And I’m disgusted all over again, because — this is my entire fault. And a man is dead because of me. Another one. I didn’t do enough. I was too busy trying to save myself — and Rick, too. Which means I picked a person to live and a person to die. I decided. I fucking decided who could survive. And the result is that people are dead now because of me. People gone I could’ve saved if I had more strength — if I’d worked harder.
And yet, the fucking priest is alive. What justice is that? None.
Time continues to speed up. Most ghosts don’t cry. I’m one of those. I wish I could, right now, though. I wish I could get it out. Instead of this burning in my guts that I can’t get rid of. And it’s getting worse and worse.
And the vibration around Rick and Cameron and me is changing, falling out-of-sync with the flowing tides of particles . .. … …. ….. a subtler change than before and one I feel like maybe I can almost control if I really try and ….. …. … .. .
And I’ve done it. I feel the vibrations shift. And we’re back, all three of us — but we’re still stuck in this strange, new shape.
Time has returned to normal.
Hilda Leek finishes the act of letting go of Rick’s body from one last shake, and is lifting her head to look right at me. She’s screaming now. Pointing at me.
And that’s when I realize that — standing beside Hilda — I can also now see Rangi, Shihong, Bernard and Eleanor, all looking like they have in the real world over the last few days — like four normal kids. Each carrying a big black bag — like trash-bag size, but made of a material I can’t recognize. Silky-looking. Soft. So black that in the bad light down here I can’t even make out if there’s stitching or an opening or anything like that. Each bag looks alike, though. I can make out that much.
An errant thought has me wondering how they got here. Were the doors upstairs locked or unlocked? So much has happened, I don’t remember. Did they just teleport in? Can they just do that?
“AS PROPHESIED!” Hilda shrieks. Her voice goes so high, she almost sounds like a kid. “As prophesied!” she shrieks again. ” Trio has returned!”
The four kids standing in front of the kneeling Hilda all turn to look at me at once. I don’t know what they see. Shihong looks almost amused. I can’t see Rangi’s face under his hoodie. Bernard looks puzzled, and Eleanore has the exact-same expression as her brother.
Then, they turn back toward Hilda, all four of them — as if I’m not even here. As if they don’t notice Jeff’s body lying over there.
“It is as your Bellbrun promised,” Shihong says toward Hilda. I notice that I can see that Shihong’s lips aren’t moving. Did they ever? I can’t remember, somehow.
“‘Oh, most precious one,’ Bellbrun called you,” says Shihong. “You’ve waited so long. How long?”
“So LONG!” Hilda wails.
“How long has it been that you’ve waited for vengeance? For your share of the blood it would take to lead you forward?”
“So long.” She’s crying, but smiling.
I really, really want to be able to fucking move.
At that point, Bernard starts to glow white, like in Salat’s landscape. The glow is from a fire that’s forming around her head.
Kind of — …
… — like a fucking halo.
“As was promised to you, I give you my crown of victory,” Bernard says. “You called out to us to come to you. And we did. And now you’ve won the day. The world will be yours to conquer — this world, and any other. You are the arrow. Let me be the bow.”
“But where is Cameron?” Tears flow from Hilda’s cheeks.
The others look toward Shihong.
There’s a pause, as if Shihong is trying to decide what to say.
Hilda just keeps looking up from where she’s kneeling in front of Shihong — blinking, open-mouthed, expectant. Repulsive to me in every way.
Shihong’s eyes brighten. “He is there — … ” and she points to me.
Well, that hurts.
“He is one with TRIO!” Hilda cries.
“Yes. TRIO has returned in the form of the Purple Woman — your grandson Friedrich — and Cameron.”
Hilda moves to stand, and approaches me. ‘But that’s not how it’s supposed to be.” She looks back toward Shihong. “Cameron must be freed! That’s what you promised!”
“Prophecies can arrive in unexpected ways,” Shihong says. She’s still looking at me.
“But YOU PROMISED!” Hilda cries.
Shihong’s red halo ignites. She turns her head toward me, smiling now. “He will be! The ritual isn’t done yet.”
Hilda seems mollified for the moment, drawing closer.
Shihong’s tone goes back to practiced recitation. “You called out to us to come to you. And with this blessed faith — born from your beloved Bellbrun, given to you as a gift, you’ll be able to strike down your enemies. Anyone you choose. Or even to make them fight each other for your pleasure.”
“Yes! Yes!” Hilda says. She moans quietly to herself as stands in front of me now.
“These enemies — and any others anywhere on the Earth. Let me be your sword.” Shihong says.
Hilda is peering at me. “Oh, my precious Cameron. My dearest, sweetest Prince.”
I wish I could know what the fuck she’s seeing.
“We’ve won, Cameron. I’ll have you out of there SOON!” She shouts that last word, right into my face. Then, she’s laughing — wet chuckles full of phlegm and spit. She wanders back toward Shihong and drops down near Rick’s body again. “Continue!’ She waves her hands. “Continue — the way you promised you would!” She’s practically whining. Again, I’m reminded of a child not getting her way, or not getting her way fast enough. Being a spoiled brat about trying to end the world on her schedule.
And me? Like I’ve said, forced to just stand and watch. And drip; I can’t even move to wipe off my — … do I even have a face? I feel her spit dripping down over … whatever’s there. I get a sense of revulsion from Cameron and Rick — though, somehow, I also get the distinct sense it’s for different reasons for each of them.
Then, it’s apparently Eleanore’s turn. Her head catches fire with a black halo. “You called out to us to come to you,” she says, echoing Shihong and her Bernard. “You’ll be free to eat what you want and drink what you want. And to make this world as thirsty and hungry as you wish. Let me be your scythe.”
Hilda dances nude in the very center of the room.
And I get to watch it all. With dead Jeff Armando’s physical body lying right over there.
And then, unsurprisingly, it’s time for a pale-green halo around the top of the hoodie covering Rangi’s face. He says nothing. He simply nods, and then points toward me.
And. I. Still. Can’t. Move. Damn. It. That feeling of helplessness bubbles up inside of me again — thick nausea at the pit of everything. I can tell that Rick and Cameron feel it, too. Like something is building up inside of me.
Meanwhile, The War-and-Famine Pestilence-and-Death Cheer Squad are all standing around Hilda like a bad oil painting of the end of days, heads glowing and arms outstretched.
“By sword and scythe!” Shihong cries. “By bow and beast! A new world comes from the old, and your faith will be rewarded, Hilda Leek.” The old-timey way she’s talking is seriously at odds with Hilda’s cackling. She looks over toward me now. “We will free you, as promised, Cameron.”
The sickness in my gut pushes upward into what should be my throat. But I can’t swallow. I’m too insubstantial. All I can do is to feel a hot wetness dribbling down from my mouth.
So – that means I have a mouth, I guess. It’s something. I try to hold on to that, the way I always hold on to ‘it’s something.’
And then, I hear a sound like a roar – but it’s deeper than any roar I’ve ever heard before; it shakes the ground nearby … in a way that feels wrong.
I’m turning my head toward the source of the roar, but I feel like I’m moving slowly, like I’m trying to swim through the deep-bass rumble of the roar just to turn my head. There’s … a kind of wrongness to the way the sound of the roar moves through the air — like the roar is carrying wrongness with it. And, it doesn’t stop. It just keeps on going; and, the longer it goes the longer it takes me turn my head toward the source. But after what feels like forever, I do –
— and I see that it’s Salat.
The priest’s body twitches and shudders. His spine bends back – but, as I watch, it keeps on bending. The old man is folding up into himself as he thrashes from side to side, forward and back. All the while, his head is tipped back, and the roar is almost a visible force issuing up and out from his writhing throat. And that’s what’s happening; his throat is writhing. It’s like there are things inside of his throat, poking outward and stretching his flesh like he’s a cocoon. He lets out another roar, and the room feels like it’s shaking – but the first roar hasn’t ended yet. It’s like a second voice trumpets over that first low roar, but it’s not the voice of possession. The energy of change runs deep in that voice. I’ve seen and heard people transformed by exposure to different elements in the spirit world. That’s what’s happening here. Salat is changing – being transformed by whatever has been done to him. But — he’s becoming something I still don’t recognize. All I can tell is that he’s … becoming the wrongness around him. The world is pulling back from him – recoiling. His molecules, the particles and waves of light making contact with him — It’s like the building blocks of his reality are rejecting his existence, trying to pull away before they become infected by the profound sickness that has overtaken the priest. And now, his skin is changing color — to the kind of blue you see in drowning victims. It’s not the same blue as the powder I saw on his lips. The pores of his skin yawn open, and begin leaking — oozing and spurting the stuff so it flows off the contours of the man’s face in little rivulets. His eyes look like they’ve been pushed out from the inside. They’ve turned charcoal and white. The lids look like they’ve instantly scarified into rubbery blots of flesh hanging above the sockets. Then, Salat roars a third time, and I’m close enough to notice the mouth: unhinged from any sense of a human jaw, opening wide enough to swallow a goddamn newborn baby. And don’t fucking ask me why that’s what I thought of, but it just is. And that mouth is fucking full of teeth. Like, from everywhere: teeth, jutting out at random-seeming angles as they burst out from his gums. More teeth are poking inward from the inner-skin of the cheeks. There are even teeth erupting all along and across a whipping tongue that’s growing out of Salat’s roaring mouth. The front of Salat’s face seems to grow outward, then, becoming a saurian muzzle. As I watch, scales erupt across his skin as quickly as somebody might get goose bumps. He’s got goddamn scales. I’ve never seen anything like … the thing he’s become. This is new to me.
He roars again, and it becomes a howl, and his tongue lashes out of his mouth. And then he roars again – and then again and then again.
And every roar punches me in whatever I have for a spine right now.
I’m scared. I want to be clinical as I watch Salat’s body contort. I want to run through the catalogue of horrors I’ve seen when living people are changed like this. I’ve been here before, watching some poor sap end up as a servant of the dead. I’ve never gotten used to it. It always makes me angry. I don’t recognize what Salat is becoming, though. It must be a kind of creature that I never learned about, and one I’ve never encountered before until now. What I do know, though: it’s too late for Salat. I can’t do anything that I can think of to stop the change. I try to control my anger; I didn’t like the priest, but nobody deserves this – whatever this is. I resolve to figure that out as soon as possible, as I watch the old man’s clothes tear away, revealing muscles and skin that grow around him. Then, his limbs pop and snap at the joints, his spine twisting. He hunches down onto all fours. There’s more popping and snapping. After a few more seconds of that, Salat rises up again onto his legs. He looks … smaller – shorter and squatter. But I also see muscles underneath the scales. Scales. I can’t handle that part — scales. He’s rising now, stretching arms and legs that ripple with muscles. Bony protrusions burst up from his shoulders – like railroad spikes.
He’s their Rail Man. But … what is he?
I’m brought out of trying to solve that puzzle by Hilda’s cries. “Oh, joyous day! OH, JOYOUS DAY!” she’s screaming. As I turn to look at her, she’s dancing around and clapping her hands together. She turns a slow circle, lowering her head and raising it every few steps. “The Rail Man! The RAIL MAN!” she cries.
Her display is utterly repulsive to me; I want to do something — anything. But – I have no one to reach out to, no power to use … and no blood I can claim to get me out of this.
I’m stuck. We’re stuck — two ghosts and a living spirit fused together into some shape I can’t even see. The fire in my gut is bubbling, and I can’t even force myself to throw up to relieve these sick sensations.
What is he?
I’m brought out of trying to solve that puzzle by Hilda’s cries. “Oh, joyous day! OH, JOYOUS DAY!” she’s screaming. As I turn to look at her, she’s dancing around and clapping her hands together. She turns a slow circle, lowering her head and raising it every few steps.
It’s utterly repulsive to me. And I want to do something. But – I have no one to reach out to, no power to use … and no blood to help me push myself out of this like I had access to, just a little before this moment.
This is just two ghosts and a living spirit fused together into some shape I can’t even see. The fire in my gut is bubbling, and I can’t even force myself to throw up to relieve these sick sensations.
Dr. Casper Ada’s words coming back to me like a little while ago: ‘We all make our own limitations,’ he always used to say.
Well, that hurts, Doc.
I have no goddamn idea how I’m keeping myself immobile when I want nothing more than to get out of here with Rick.
And that’s when a moment I’ve been dreading arrives. Salat finally spots Jeff Armando’s dead body lying there.
I hope against hope that I’m wrong.
But, then … the creature’s long, slimy tongue shoots out of its grotesque wide-opened muzzle. The tongue slaps hard against Jeff’s corpse; the tongue’s teeth stick into the dead flesh. Then, Salat approaches, sucking the tongue back into that long lizard-muzzle as it closes in on Jeff …
I’m not wrong.
Daniel Salat begins eating Jeff Armando.
I do everything I can to look away. Like I said, I know I have eyes, because I can see. My range of vision is limited, though, and I can’t look that far away; and, what’s worse is that I can’t block out the sounds, either — wet, sloppy, hungry sounds of a predator devouring meat and crunching bone.
That’s an important element to remember; despite the spindly arms and legs and the shrunken frame, Salat is strong enough to break bone. I try to hold on to that to keep myself steady in the moment. I keep trying to tell myself to focus on facts. I keep telling myself that gathering information is my job. But it doesn’t change how I’m feeling sicker and sicker. I didn’t think it was possible to feel like this – like the whole world around me is giving me a disease. I keep thinking I’ve reached the limit of how sick I can feel about the things happening on Drodden. But the place keeps topping itself.
And then, as if in response to my thoughts, the monster that was once Daniel Salat retches. Then, the thing retches again.
And then the monster vomits what it had just eaten back onto the floor.
The thing rears back then, with a dissonant howl.
And Hilda Leek seems … pleased by that “You are not satisfied by that. You are not satisfied.” She says, shaking her head and then nodding. “Of course you’re not. Only one thing can satisfy you. Of course, only one thing can satisfy you. I will see to it. I will see to it. You will feed, and feed well — as prophesied!” Hilda cries. “AS PROPHESIED! THE RAIL MAN RETURNS! It was to be Rick! But it’s Salat! He is the Monster Guardian! He is the Anointed Thing!”
“Prophecy finds a way,” Shihong says. “I told you we’d make sure that it all came true, Hilda,. One way or another.” She lowers her gaze to the gore splattered across the basement floor. “We thought your guardian — the one you wanted — might have ended up being the Woman in Purple.”
“She’s to be EATEN!” Hilda declares.
Well, that hurts.
Shihong shakes her head toward Hilda. “You tried. It didn’t happen. But — we thought she might have been your antithesis. We know now she is to be One-of-the-Three – your Trio. You’ve done well.”
That wrongness – that sickness — seems to be hovering all around me now.
Salat continues to eat — yanking limbs from sockets, cracking bones and swallowing them whole.
“We will remember this!” Hilda says. “We will honor him in the books, in the scriptures! We will call it Salat’s Sacrifice!”
This is so sick. It’s so sick. I feel so sick.
“We must also remember and tell the world of Armando’s Gift, given up for us all,” Eleanore says.
“We will not forget,” Bernard says.
Feeling worse and worse. Think the sickness is going to knock me out.
Salat is finishing quickly, licking the floor of the dungeon now. Long, slow, scraping licks — teeth against concrete again and again.
And that’s when it all gets too much for even me — way too much.
And then I vomit.
So, yeah, I guess ghosts can do that.
And the relief is instant. And I realize that part of why I felt so weak and powerless was the act of carrying that fire inside of me.
Because, right now? I feel ready to tear off heads to save Rick. I don’t feel as strong as I did when I took Rangi’s blood; but I still feel pretty goddamn capable.
So, you’d think I feel good about what’s happening, at least the right-now of it.
Except, here’s the thing — what I vomited just a moment ago? It was Rick’s fire — all over the basement. The fire I’d wanted to find a way to give back to him.
In that split-second when the fire erupts from me — and all my lucidity returns, a memory comes forth in my brain. And, in that moment, I’m suddenly remembering a story my mother told me … of all the things to remember. I never really paid much of any attention to her religious stories because … well, because I didn’t — don’t — believe in all that. Not even now in my new state of being. But I remember her talking about a goddess who vomited up the universe. It may have been a whole bunch of different stories with that element. I don’t remember. But that’s what this feels like. The hottest I’ve ever felt, and the coldest, all at once, passing through whatever I have for a mouth. I can tell from the vibrations that time hasn’t slowed down for me, but the moment I puke out that fire seems to take forever. I can tell it’s just a split-second, though. And, as I watch, the fire flows out over everything — the dungeon, the people in it. A secret part of me hopes I’ve just magically figured out a way to kick the ass of the Horsemen, Cameron and Hilda and they’ll all burn up and Rick and I will calmly walk out of here. No such luck. The fire doesn’t seem to do anything to any of the people in the basement. It drifts right past them, across and over them. They seem puzzled by it, except for mindless Salat who just keeps on roaring.
But then the fire seems to further ignite — becoming diamond-like — as the flames somehow carry a solidity to them they didn’t have before.
By then, enough time passes for people to start reacting:
“What-?” Shihong says.
“Help! Help!” Rangi cries.
“The boy’s fire!” Bernard yells. “Contain it!”
“I can’t-!” Eleanore says.
“Is this part of the prophecy?” Hilda grabs a hold of Shihong’s shoulders.
Shihong bats Hilda away effortlessly with a backhanded smack to Hilda’s face. Her eyes catch fire like her halo. “No,” she says, making a face of disgust. “I am not for you to touch. You are for us to touch.”
Hilda tumbles to the ground, looking to have been knocked-flat-out by Shihong’s strike; she’s bleeding from her mouth, a trickle of red streaming down over her chin and onto her neck. Quickly.
And Salat notices. More accurately, his tongue seems to notice before he does, the dripping pink mass drifting toward her, the tip quivering like it’s sniffing the air near Hilda’s face. Just in front of her face, now.
And I feel just a tick less helpless, even if all I did was puke. It’s something. And it’s pissing them off. Somehow, that messed things up for them.
And that’s good for me.
And then Salat’s tongue jerks forward toward Hilda.
“Control him!” shouts Shihong toward Hilda. “Control your animal!”
At the exact same time that Shihong is yelling at Hilda, Rangi moves in a literal blur to grab the tongue in his mitten-covered hand. Somehow, even with fabric over the fingers, the kid’s grip is strong enough to hold that powerful-looking tongue away from Hilda.
“I don’t know how!” Hilda cries.
Eleanore wraps her arms around Salat’s waist. “The same way you control any animal. He’s an animal now. So, control him.”
“It was supposed to be Rick,” Hilda whimpers.
Shihong looks disgustedly toward Hilda. “Things change, Hilda Leek.” She turns her attention toward Bernard. “Get the damned cover!” she says angrily to him. Then, she looks back toward Hilda. “Take him to where we agreed. The next phase starts there. This is your Christmas Eve, Hilda Leek. All the presents are coming. But you have to be on the run for it me what’s needed.”
The diamond-fire seems to be changing again. Those little diamonds seem to split from each other, breaking apart into what look like solid little lightning bolts. The bolts seem to be joining with the particles all around them as they move, dragging them along like sand in a current of water.
As Rangi squeezes Salat’s tongue, the creature that was once a priest is pulling back against Ragni’s grasp. It looks like a sickening game of tug-of-war where neither side of making much progress.
The particles are changing shape. There’s a low rumbling from all around as I feel the vibrations down in the basement starting to change.
What did I do? What am I doing?
Bernard pulls open the top of his bag and withdraws a burlap mask. I recognize it from when I was joined with Mickey Laddow. Except this one is fancier, more detailed in the stitching, bigger, crafted with more care — and newer, and without eyeholes. And, there’s a bunch of rope at the back of the hood that looks like a cinch of some kind. Bernard drops the mask over Salat’s head. “Calm. Calm,” he says. Then, he looks toward Hilda. “The leash – you know how to do that much. That will be up to you.”
Hilda is frozen for a long moment.
“Do it!” shouts Shihong.
A tremor passes through Hilda. She looks down at the ground; then, she reaches out with one hand, and I watch as she makes a cord.
And then, Hilda Leek makes a cord. She makes a goddamn cord, the way a ghost would. Or, the way Casper Ada would … the way Casper Ada taught me. She produces it from her arm, the way I make mine appear. Hilda’s cord is blue – the same blue as the sludge around Salat’s mouth from earlier, when he was changing. She extends the cord toward Salat, just like I would use mine if I wanted to connect with someone. But, that’s where the similarity ends. Hilda tightens her fist, and the cord wraps tightly around Salat’s neck.
Salat’s posture lowers, and the tongue retreats back into the creature’s mouth.
“Good,” says Shihong.
She’s taming the creature with her cord.
She’s controlling the thing; she’s dominating it with the power of her cord.
I can sense it from here. Waves of revulsion wash over me.
Rangi lets go of the creature’s tongue. “Help! Help!” he says.
And then, I notice that the particles in the room are shifting even further now, almost dancing as they’re moved by those little diamonds, which are stretching out now, lengthening to take up spaces between particles, to gently move and guide the waves of molecules or whatever I’m seeing that I’m calling molecules.
“Back, now!” Bernard says. He yanks hard on the cinch-rope at the back of Salat’s neck.
Salat’s tongue drops and slides back up under the burlap. The roaring finally stops. I can still hear Salat breathing, but it sounds like a massive creature that’s been tranquilized — impossibly deep inhalations and exhalations.
“Now, contain the fire,” Shihong says toward Bernard. “You, break the –”
Except I don’t get to find out what Shihong wanted to break, because that’s when the lightning-diamonds ignite again.
There’s a terrible noise, like two buzz-saws grinding into each other —
— … and then, with a horrible tearing feeling that seems to hit me from both inside and outside my body simultaneously, Cameron and Rick and I are separated in that exact moment.
We’re each thrown apart from each other, across the basement.
As I fly through the air, I’m nevertheless able to see that the Horsemen are clutching at their faces and their ears.
It’s as if whatever tore me and Rick and Cameron away from each other also hurt the Horsemen.
I see spirit-blood dripping from them now.
I feel another tick less helpless, even though I didn’t really make the explosion happen and I’m tumbling out-of-control through the air.
I land in a tumble where Jeff Armando’s remains were before Salat ate them all. My view of the world is sideways for a moment —
— and then, in that moment, I see Cameron landing at the exact same time that I do. He lands with a wet plop of slimy hair-tentacles, right there on the ground in front of the unconscious Hilda Leek.
Rick’s spirit-form never hits the ground, though. I see what happens to him, too, further along past Cameron. From my vantage, I see Rick’s spirit-from tumbling through the air; then, I see a golden tether, like mine, blossoms up, snakelike, from Rick’s body even as another drifts up and out of Rick’s spirit toward the first tether. The two golden coils twist together in the air and link in a split-second union, and Rick’s spirit is yanked forcibly and quickly back to his body before any part of the spirit even touches the basement floor.
Well, that hurts. Never seen that before. I want to run to Rick, but I realize I still can’t move. Fuck.
Bernard says. “I can feel the structure changing. I think she — … yeah … we need to leave.”
Rick sits up suddenly, gagging and choking and then screaming hoarsely.
“Not without them,” Shihong says. “I’m not starting over after all this. Carry them.”
“We need to go, Shihong,” Bernard says. “We can start over.”
“Carry them!” cries Shihong.
A new, different kind of fire comes on as Shihong and Bernard argue. It looks like electricity, spreading from each one of those little sparkling diamonds, one to the next. Like a sequence, spreading out geometrically. It runs across the length of the ceiling, over the floor beneath us — throughout the basement, in fact. But somehow out-of-phase with me and Rick’s body and the others — not touching any of the people, but touching the length and breadth of all the material down there. The things that have been caught in the electric flame seem to drift in and out of phase with the vibrations of the people, too, looking opaque one moment and practically invisible the next, giving the flickering impression we’re all in a room where someone’s turning the lights of reality itself on and off. That’s probably what Bernard was talking about. I realize it would be beautiful if not for the situation. I feel it pulling and pushing the waves along, changing them, directing them now, making them work in unison toward — something. I have no idea.
“Help! Help!” cries Rangi’s bird-voice.
Rick is still sitting up, blinking; he looks baffled.
I’m wondering if he even remembers what happened when his spirit was yanked from his body. I’m starting to get feeling back in my legs, so I try to crawl over toward him, hoping the Horsemen won’t notice me.
Shihong reaches up and grabs Cameron, lifting the limp pile of hairy tendrils off the ground. “We’re finishing this! I won’t go through this much work on her again. I’ll kill her and start over!”
“We don’t have time, Shihong. Bernard is right!”
I keep crawling, slowly.
Rangi grabs hold of the back of my neck and lifts me off the ground. “Help! Help!” he says.
I hear, but don’t see, Shihong shouting at Hilda. “WAKE UP!”
The room rumbles ferociously right after Shihong’s words, but I can’t figure out if it’s something Shihong is making happen or if it’s the lightning diamonds doing their work.
I hear what has to be Shihong smacking Hilda’s face again.
“Help! Help!” I hear Rangi say. Then, he’s pulling me toward him, so my face is looking into his hoodie — at darkness.
And then I realize, no — it isn’t just darkness. It’s full of distant, shining white shapes. Like the ones changing the room right now. Like little diamonds. Or stars.
“Help! Help!’ Ragni keeps saying. He sets me down on my feet. And then, he gestures toward Shihong. “Help! Help!’
What the hell? Is Rangi … helping me?
Shihong opens her mouth and spits what looks like the same kind of electricity sparking through the fire-diamonds. It engulfs Hilda for a moment.
Hilda squirms and opens her eyes. Her eyes go wide with terror. I don’t know if she’s seeing Shihong or something else with more truth than the image of the little girl Shihong shows the world; I’m reminded of the horror I saw when I first met Shihong in Salat’s landscape.
And I’m getting the hardcore-deep feeling like, as bad as this situation is, it’s about to get Really, Really Worse if I don’t do something. I start to stumble toward Shihong. The whole time, I’m guessing just like I figured back in the landscape that she could rip me apart length to breadth.
But I have to try.
Rangi walks over toward Eleanore and Bernard and wraps his arms around them. Except, that’s not it; it’s all of himself that embraces him. He becomes some dark shadowy version of the shape he’s taken up until now, a dark figure wrapping tightly around Eleanore and Bernard.
“Do you accept your Cameron to be reborn?” Shihong’s yelling at Hilda. Her voice is commanding, terrifying even to me.
I see Bernard hugging Eleanore with one arm, the other holding the cinch to the back of Salat’s burlap mask. Bernard’s embrace is protective. He looks up at the ceiling. “Watch the newborn stars, Eleanore. It’s beautiful.”
Hilda manages a terrified, feeble couple of nods.
Shihong carefully sets Hilda down, making sure she can support herself.
My steps are leaden.
The ceiling of the basement is burning up overhead and dripping molten-orange rain that doesn’t burn. I feel it touch my face, like everyday rainfall.
“It is beautiful,” Eleanore says.
And then the diamond-fire changes its vibrations again, and the fire bleeds through into the real world. The objects in the basement begin to glow orange-hot, and the pleasing rainfall gives way to steam and heat and finally real fire. But the fire’s still a little bit out of sync with the vibration of the real world. So it’s like a full-born fire that I can see and feel, but from far away and yet getting closer moment by moment. I get the feeling this place is about to go up in very real flames. And, also, I get the feeling that I could maybe trap us all down here, if I could figure out how to work all those vibrations. I feel like there’s a chance that I could contain them all, never to be extracted – except that doing so might also include trapping myself, and maybe – somehow — even Rick.
And, I want to stop Shihong, yeah. And, there could be worse things than being trapped, if it meant stopping what’s happening in front of me.
But, I need to save Rick. I need to come out of this with that much. I can’t let the kid die, or be trapped forever — even if it means letting the Horsemen get free. I’m not willing to take that risk with Rick’s life.
“Say it!” Shihong shouts. “Say you accept for your Cameron to be reborn from your body and blood! Say he can come in! Invite him in!”
I stop heading toward Shihong.
“I accept.” Hilda moans wearily.
“Help! Help!” I can hear Rangi protesting – something; I can’t guess what it is.
“I don’t care, Rangi,” Shihong says. “We’re staying to finish this!” She turns back toward Hilda. “Say the whole thing!” Shihong says.
“… I’m so tired.”
“Say it loud!” Shihong shouts.
“I accept!” Hilda says.
I turn toward Rick. I make my move, and run toward him. And my steps feel stronger, and I can move faster, as I get to him.
Rick is lying on his back now, looking up at the diamond-fire. I can tell the moment I come into view, because I see his pupils change. “Evelyn?” he says.
So, he remembers that much. “Please, Rick — tell me you remember. Say my last name, Rick. Please.”
Rick blinks, confused, seeking the name. “Deetz?” he asks.
“Good goddamn enough.” I feel myself shift vibrations to meet his, and I grab his arm. My fingers slip a little. He didn’t get my name quite right. But like I said, I’m hoping the universe thinks it’s close enough. And it does.
“Are you a ghost?” Rick asks me, coughing on the very real smoke pouring out of the walls.
“Yeah,” I tell him. He’s heavier than I want him to be. I’m not used to helping carry the weight of a real, living person.
“I accept!” Hilda shouts.
Rick turns at the shoulder, trying to look back. “What?”
“Don’t look!” I say to Rick. “Don’t look back. We need to get out of here. The place is coming down.”
“That’s my grandmother!” Rick says. Which means, I’m guessing, that he doesn’t remember.
“Say it!” Shihong says again.
“No!” I lie. “It’s not. It’s a trick. We gotta get out of here. Don’t look back. You’ll be trapped. Keep your eyes forward.”
Real fire licks at us now, the heat making Rick’s body break out in an all-over sweat. Rick looks down at himself. “Wait — where are my clothes?’ He’s realized he’s still naked.
“I ACCEPT FOR CAMERON TO BE REBORN!” I hear Hilda cry behind us. We’re out in the room with the projector. The others have not stopped us.
“Where is she?”
I lie again: “We’ll find her later,” I say.
“Promise?” Rick asks.
“For fuck’s sake, kid — move!” I don’t have enough of a grip to force Rick anywhere. I’m not on the same … frequency or whatever you call it with ghosts. I’m close, but not quite exact. Maybe because of his this place is coming apart.
“Not enough. And? And? And?” Shihong demands.
“I LET HIM IN!” I hear Hilda scream. Then, I hear her maniacal laughter again. “HE CAN COME IN! PRAISE BELLBRUN IN ALL THINGS!”
The ceiling is a patchwork of molten cracks above us – and the floor, too. But the heat has only come through partway.
“Then CAMERON STYE will be REBORN! Open yourself to him! Accept your salvation!”
We’re starting up the stairs. The air is still hot, but getting cooler.
The stairs are tough for Rick — and tougher for me. I’m exhausted, and it’s taking so much out of me to guide him and help him up each step. But I do it. It’s not fast. And I feel the vibrations of heat and pressure building and building behind us.
But I’m hearing only silence from the basement-dwellers.
We reach the door at the top of the stairs, at the little foyer just inside the entryway from the pawnshop. It looks to me like the door’s been blown off its hinges; the edges of the doorframe is singed black, and there’s no sign of the stairway-leading door.
Then, there’s a loud series of explosions from far down the stairs — from the torture chamber, I’m guessing. I feel the force and it hurts me. Rick’s ears start bleeding. It’s all impact, though — there’s no fire or smoke coming up the stairway.
Not yet, anyway.
We fall onto the cool surface of the pawn shop floor. He’s gasping. I’m shaking.
As we reach the pawnshop, things in there start going nuts. Electrical devices start freaking out. Sparks start flying. Power goes out to even the night-lights. Remember what I told you about what I do to electrical appliances when I’m not linked to a body? And even sometimes, when I am? Yeah.
“The fuck?” Rick is startled, despite the situation. When things were going down in the basement, I think he was in shock. I suspect he was unable to comprehend it all. Here, though? He’s in familiar territory that’s become weird. So, now, he’s getting really scared about what he’s processing. “What the fuck?”
A cry emanates from deep down the stairs — an inhuman-sounding howl. To my ears, it sounds like a little of Hilda’s voice, a little of the Horsemen’s if they were all shouting together. But … I think maybe I’m hearing Cameron’s voice, too. “Keep moving. It’s nothing. It’s all a trick. Just get us out of here. Come on.”
“I can’t,” Rick says, dropping to his knees. “Gotta stop.”
“Not goddamn now, kid.” I pull the kid up, and drag him as he stumble-crawls toward the door of the pawnshop.
I pull at the front door. It’s locked.
The cry from the basement grows louder.
I reach for the locks, and my hands pass right through. Damn it!
“Unlock it,” I tell him.
“OK,” Rick says. His hands are shaking and sweaty. He unlocks one of the locks.
A thunder of noise accompanies the cry — cries, now — from the basement.
Rick turns another lock. Then another.
The little neon sign in the front-door window of the shop explodes with a rain of sparks, most likely thanks to me.
“Shit!” Rick says, ceasing his efforts to blink dimly at the exploded sign.
From the basement comes a rush of white flame, roaring overhead of both of us, crackling with the electrical energies of the diamond-fires and smashing apart glass all over the pawnshop.
“UNLOCK THE DOOR, KID!” I yell. I can’t hear myself. I doubt Rick can hear me, either.
But, just then, his trembling hand turns the last lock. Rick doesn’t have to be told to pull the door open. He does that much on his own, thank goodness.
And that’s when I realize I’ve left my book behind.
But I don’t care right now. Can’t make myself care.
Instead, I’m helping Rick out the door. The two of us stumble into the night. And as we breathe in the open air, I swear to you it has never tasted so good as it does right now.
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