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.
I promise there's some actual comfort in this one
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Xion was getting worse. They had tried to bundle him with blankets but anything that touched his skin caused him pain, even as he did not wake. Caitlyn tried to draw him deeper into sleep but even she couldn’t fight against him forever. They had tried pouring water down his throat but some must have dribbled into his lungs because he coughed and hacked for an hour of near-consciousness as Caitlyn sweated nearby.
Pera couldn’t stay near the sickroom anymore. He waded out into the lake and tried again to call on his fire. It was there, he knew it was. He could feel it burning a hole in his chest and if he could only reach, only stretch himself a little bit farther, perhaps he could make it. The sun beat down on his head but it only seemed to strengthen the walls between him and his power. It was there, he knew it was, if only he could get there. And he couldn’t.
“Gods damn it!” Pera kicked the water. He was useless, worse than useless. Xion was dying and there was nothing he could do. He couldn’t even set something on fire. He considered going to Caitlyn, but she’d already spent too much of her power on his nightmare. She was needed now to keep Xion under.
If Xion were here he’d do better. If Xion were here he’d be organizing, delegating, getting things done. He’d have a plan and a backup plan and maybe one after that. That was what Xion was good at. But Xion wasn’t here, he was somewhere in a dream and sliding inevitably toward death.
The water hissed and bubbled around Pera’s feet as he started to sob.
It took Pera a very long time to realize that the water dripping down his cheeks was dew, not tears. He looked up into whiteness, down to red-heated rocks. Flame licked around his feet, fading fast now. As he calmed the steam cloud began to clear and he saw again the forest and inn and run-down abandoned village again.
Pera dropped to his knees. He was exhausted. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to think or feel or be. He hadn’t known since Xion had been burned.
What would Xion do, then? Pera knew this routine, had lived it a thousand times. He’d experiment, look for patterns. Pera’s fire had been trapped inside him for days. He hadn’t been able to muster the flame to light a candle, let alone boil an inch of lakewater. So what had been different then? What had been different inside his dream? The dream was easy enough, he’d been afraid, terrified. Had he been afraid just then, too? Of course he had. Not that he hadn’t been other things too, sad and lonely and angry, but he had been afraid.
And yet the times when he’d been most blocked were the times he’d been afraid too. The barrier between him and the flame was made of fear and it was fear that kept him from reaching out and touching it.
Pera had watched a soldier have a panic attack once. The man had heard the sound of metal against metal and their body had gone still and silent. They had sat for minutes until another soldier had come and reached out. That soldier had said something, quietly just for the two of them, but Pera had heard. “I know you’re afraid. That’s okay. Do you remember how we practiced? Hold the fear close to your chest, acknowledge it, and then let it out.”
Pera had expended too much power boiling off the lake and the store of fire inside him was burned down nearly to embers. The sun was still up and it was growing, igniting again, but for this he wanted it to be smaller, easier to control.
He closed his eyes and reached toward the embers of his power. They lay in the boiling rage and acidic fear in the pit of his stomach. He reached out again, just as he had before, but this time he opened his hand gently, beckoning the fire to him.
At first the blinding heat wrapped around his fingers and tried to pull him in. It beckoned with anger and the sweet taste of vengeance. Pera was ready for that, with happy memories and hopes and dreams. He knew what he wanted and it wasn’t revenge. It was family, and he’d found more than enough for a lifetime.
Pera grabbed and ember and pulled it toward him. It drew itself out into a thick strand of flame, so he wrapped it from palm to elbow like he was coiling a rope. Tongues of fire escaped, fleeing over his body and threatening to escape into the world where they could set their tiny, mischievous fires. Pera called them back, winding them into his coil. These motions were familiar to him, like breathing or dreaming.
He was afraid. He could see that now, could understand it. He was afraid of his coil of flame as he pulled it off his arm, doubled it, twisted the end around the center so it would stay a tight neat bundle. When the metaphor was no longer convenient he reshaped it into a ball, then a heart. It sat in his hand, small and vulnerable. It would have to do.
A heart made of flame and fear and rage rested in his palm. He had made it. He had controlled it. He knew it, vein and muscle, blood and sinew. He knew it and he knew what it was made of, in its core, not just fear and rage but love and joy and the sound of silence broken by a loved one coming home.
Pera slipped the heart inside his chest and fire flowed through his veins. He held it within all of him for a second, letting its warmth slide through his blood as his skin glowed cherry red and his tattoos flashed white hot. It was terrifying. It was exhilarating. He had never felt so fully himself.
With a thought, a flame ignited in Pera’s palm. It tried to stray but now Pera knew it as intimately as he knew himself. Fear threatened to snuff the flame and rage to fuel it into a great monster but Pera had taken it all inside himself and let it go and now, at least for a moment, the fire was his to control.
Caitlyn brought Pera into Xion’s dreams. The images were confused, blurry, nonsensical. The faces of brothers and fathers floated in the aether, no longer connected to bodies, whispering gibberish. Death and Pain stalked animated as great clay constructs, helpfully labeled with huge glowing letters. Godstones glittered on the floor, flashing purple-white as the magic of the world overwhelmed their crystal matrices. And among it all there were flames. Xion’s internal world was burning and there was only so long before he turned to ash.
Pera pushed toward the epicenter of the dream. As he neared where Xion stood, at the center of a storm, the brothers and fathers wielded swords and staves. Pera’s fire deflected them and he kept moving. The godstones grew thick and he sunk to his knees but he kept moving. The fire wrapped around his legs and tried to burn him, tried to hold him, and he pushed on.
He came to the center of the storm of flame and memories and found a wall of force. Through the shimmering purple barrier he saw Xion standing, hands on his ironwood staff. He wore no clothes and his skin was red and raw, still burning within the dream. He gazed off into the distance and Pera knew, though he couldn’t say why, that Xion was looking at death and at whatever lay beyond a mortal plane with no gods to lead the way to eternity.
Pera knocked on the barrier and it stood fast. He slammed it with his palms and it stood fast. He sent his flame around it, looking for a weakness or a hole or a small flammable place, and it stood fast.
He breathed in and called his fire back. It came to him, again shaped as a heart. With a moment’s will it became a blue healing flame, all his power concentrated in one spot. He knealt before the wall and offered it, eyes cast toward the ground. The wall might not open for him and Xion might wait for death, but he would offer his heart for as long as Xion might reach out and grasp it.
The world shook as Xion’s barrier fell to pieces. Pera looked up. Xion stood, now between two figures. To one side was Pera, dropped to one knee and holding his heart of flame. To the other was man of shadows, an echo of the god of death, fading but still strong enough to come to harvest.
Xion saw Pera, knew him, but was he worthy of choosing? Pera had put him here in the first choice. It was Pera’s fault that Xion had to make this choice at all and the shadow man had such a pull, even to Pera whose soul was rooted firmly in his body. Pera closed his eyes and opened his lips to let a single word escape, “Please.”
A moment stretched to eternity.
Hands, Xion’s hands, burned red-raw but still his hands, cupped around Pera’s. Xion’s eyes, brown and beautiful, reflecting Pera’s flame. Xion’s lips, not burned now but full and whole, pressed against Pera’s.
Pera knew his flame. He knew his heart. He knew Xion, knew the body pressed against him. His flames had been used to hurt but now they wrapped the pair together. Pera reached inside himself, down to the last nearly-extinguished ember of his power, and spun a blue thread to play against Xion’s body. This time, he would heal.
The dream ended and the waking world was set aflame.
1. This is the longest thing I've written in like a year, so woot
2. I'm sorry you had to read it