The dream ended and the waking world was set aflame. Pera bolted upright surrounded by smoke and the scent of burned hair and beside him Xion screamed.
Pera searched, reached out with hands still flame-hot and found Xion’s skin in the smoke. He had to heal him. He couldn’t heal him. He had made this, he had wrought this. It was his fault. And the only thing he could think to do was add more fire. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t move. He had to. He had to. He had to.
Xion was still making noise, but he wasn’t screaming anymore. His moans were interspersed with coughs and getting weaker. The door to their room burst open and someone, Pera couldn’t tell who through the smoke but they were grabbing Xion and dragging him out and Pera was sitting there and sitting there surrounded by flames and there was nothing he could do.
Xion slept weakly in someone else’s bed. Caitlyn knelt next to him, one small hand in his burned one, “Okay, he should sleep now, at least for a while.”
Rina put a hand on Caitlyn’s shoulder, “Thank you.”
Pera sat in the corner, looking at Xion’s hand. His normally pale hand was stained red, splotched with yellow-white blisters. One had popped and clear fluid dripped down his fingers, pooling stickily on the floor.
The fire had consumed only their bed. The wooden walls and floor of their room had been untouched, with no mark except the pile of char on the floor and smoke stains on the ceiling. That just made it worse. He hadn’t been out of control, he’d been perfectly in control and still here was Xion, burned.
What could he do? He didn’t trust himself to heal Xion now, not after what he’d done, but Sirena was a hundred miles away and Torrvic hadn’t left his workshop in nearly a week. Rina’s salves and poultices were something, at least, but Pera had seen this type of burns before. They weren’t skin-deep like when you touched a pan fresh off the fire and it left a shiny red splotch on your finger. They weren’t the blisters like when he’d touched the blacksmith’s tongs when he was ten and they no longer glowed but had still been hot enough to raise a white welt across the side of his hand. These were the kind of burns Pera had left on corpses.
“Can you heal him?” Rina had turned to Pera.
“I don’t know… maybe?” Pera forced himself to stand and walk toward Xion, toward what he had done. He reached out and touched the skin of Xion’s hand. It felt warm, even to him, and the feeling of the skin was wrong, too smooth and swollen, almost like the skin of a ripe fruit.
Pera tried to reach inside himself and find his fire. It was there, he knew it was. It burned inside him, pain and rage and fear transmuted into flame. Now, though, it was hard to reach out and touch. It was like when he was young, when he could still burn and he’d been afraid to reach out and pull the pot off the fire even with mits. Then, the heat of the hearth had smacked him in the face and bowled him back but now it was his own heat that blew him back into his body.
Xion’s hand was no different, still painfully red and marred with blisters. The flame had not come. But now thoughts spun in his head. What if it had? What if it had slipped out of control again and hurt Xion? Killed him this time? Killed Rina and Caitlyn?
Pera ran out of the room, out of the abandoned inn, out until he was knee-deep in lakewater and then he kept running and running until his feet didn’t touch ground and he was, perhaps, safe.
“Caitlyn, I need help.” Pera said. He treaded water a few lengths away from a jetty.
Caitlyn sat on the structure and dangled her feet in the water. They’d been staying near the lake while they waited for Sirena and Dorro to get back from scouting a nearby city, nearly a week now and a day since Xion had been burned. Pera had not slept. “I can make a dream space for you to practice, if you want.”
“Yeah, but… do you think you’ll be able to make me safe?” Pera looked at his hands, “I don’t want to hurt you.”
There was steel in Caitlyn’s eyes but not her voice as she beckoned him towards the beach, “You couldn’t if you tried.”
The dreamspace she created was simple enough. There was a sketch of walls and a bed. On the bed, Xion lay in all of his deep-fried glory. Pera pointed to him, “Is that him? In the dream?”
“No, it’s just a dream-version so you can practice.”
“I don’t want to try it on him first,” the body in the bed changed to a wooden dummy covered in red polka dots or perhaps, in the way of dreams, it always had been. Pera gave a quick nod to Caitlyn in the corner and stepped toward the bed.
He reached for his fire, just as he had before. Again the heat pushed him back. Pera drifted near the surface of wakefulness for a moment but Caitlyn held him tight, using her weight to pull him deep under the sea of dreams. Pera tried again and again to reach out and grab that thread of flame from inside himself, but the harder he reached the more it seemed to shy away. He pulled, harder and harder, until his spirit was torn and jagged and he gave up.
The two of them slipped into a nightmare. It wasn’t hard to do in Caitlyn’s dreamspaces. Her mind was only a half step away from a nightmare anyway, it took only the slightest push from a dreamer to slip through the holes in her barrier and into hell.
The dream started like it always did, with Pera on the barge. This time he couldn’t move, just watch as the figures in black shoved a sword through Daryl’s belly. He saw the spurt of blood (crimson, glinting in the sun), heard the gasping exhale of breath (blood spattered over Daryl’s lip), and the ragged inhale (it would be his elder brother’s last). The splash as his body was kicked over the side was tinted pink. This was not the nightmare.
This was the nightmare: Pera’s hands began to feel hot. They burned hotter and hotter until he exploded into flame and suddenly he was face to face with Tiago. He reached out and the flames licked up Tiago’s body. Tiago deserved this, deserved to be incinerated. He deserved to die over and over again, for every person he murdered. He deserved it because he’d killed Daryl and kicked his body over the side of the boat without a second thought. He deserved it. He deserved it.
And then the body wasn’t Tiago’s. The face shifted sickeningly and in a second it was Xion and he was screaming. The flame caught in his clothes, in his hair, on his skin. It lit his face sickly orange as it blistered and cracked and flaked away.
Xion was burning, burning down layer by layer. First his skin melted away leaving bare muscle, then the muscles falling from the bones. His intestines tumbled out of his belly as they burned away and then he was only bones. The body was still screaming. Xion’s voice screamed as the last remnants of the skull blackened and blew away one charred flake at a time.