His hands were cracked and old, withered hide wrapped around jagged bone. Creases and valleys cut through them, dark purple lines darting between his knuckles. Each scar hissed a story, daring you to ask where, or why, or how.
The fire flashed an orange glow against his angular face, throwing shadows against his cheeks and flickering into his eyes. The pain had started already. His hands clasped together, thumbs rolling over each other.
Such was the cost.
A pallid finger reached out above the flames, tempting them. He could feel the heat in his bones, the fire twisting its tongue around the tip of his fingernail. At first, the heat simply pooled, threatening — but listening. Eager, but just so. A slow inhale. Cool cedar filled his lungs. Exhale. His nostrils burned. He didn’t need the fire to listen.
No — his sacrifices, this journey — it wasn’t so that he could be heard. It wasn’t so that he could gently whisper to the elements. Spit in the eye of the natural world, for all he cared.
No. He needed the flame to obey.
Sharp teeth briefly glided against each other, catching and grinding. A grunt caught in his throat. The flames wrapped around his wrist, tracing his veins, ripping them up from his flesh. The sickening whispers began. His skin popped and cracked. The scent of burning wood replaced with that of singed hair and boiled muscle.
His blood caught the fire, and as the dripping crimson met the twisted flame, an acrid smoke billowed down over the fire, out toward his feet. For a moment, there was silence — darkness. There was nothing. Starlight would’ve been enough to cut through the forest, had it not been for the smoke.
Ah, had it not been for the smoke.
“Manifest,” he growled.
And so she did.
The flame caught again, the oxygen from his lungs just enough fuel to ignite her presence. Up from the logs, a new, unnatural blaze spilled forth. Two legs stood in the fire, orange and black and red and nothing. Up poured her hips, her chest, her neck, her face.
They weren’t there, but they were. Like the flame, they twisted and lurched, chasing — daring — more oxygen. Her eyes caught his, the embers of her pupils blinking in and out as the wind buffeted them. Her lips sat, just inches away from his.
Her voice was a whisper, and he was unsure if that was part of the game, or if it was all she could muster. If it was all that could be allowed.
He lifted his finger — the same one that summoned her forth — pulling it through her body, indirectly swirling the blaze that formed her essence. It slid up her chest, slowly tracing her neck, following her jaw. He turned his hand up, letting her chin sit, cradled in his two fingers. With every motion, he felt his wounds. Every second was a struggle not to spit and curse and gnash and let loose every hateful sound at once.
And yet, it was easy. Just look at her eyes. Amber and crimson twirled and twisted, locked into crystal spheres.
“Your gift,” he said. “It’s time. I need it.”
His eyes closed, heavy under the pain. Or that’s what he told himself. The temptation to watch her work, to take her — ah, and that was why the pain was there, was it not? If he did, he’d be killed. He would be eradicated. And so he had to just trust her. The pain, and the threat of more, kept them closed.
He felt the heat of her breath reach across the side of his face, threatening his ear.
“I am yours,” she said.
All the air in his lungs was ejected, stolen. His head felt like it was disconnected, removed and thrown somewhere else, to another dimension or reality or whatever could possibly explain the entire world being condensed into nothing. His skin felt hot, somehow hotter than when it was burning. He could smell the embers, and then the cedar again. A loud, hissing ringing in his ears grew to a deafening cacophony. He lost track of where, or when, he was. Time was a blanket, and it was suffocating him.
Truthfully, he knew it hadn’t been more than a second.
And then the pain left, the noise left, the oxygen returned to his lungs. His eyelids lifted, his palm hanging open over smoldering ash — a flame long extinguished due to a lack of attention. His arm was as it always was, as it always really was. There were no burns, no channels, no valleys, nothing. There was never anything here.
But as he exhaled, he could feel the heat.