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After the Dark – Part 7 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

I have a memory of catching fire.
Sudden, unbearable heat all over my head and arms which instantly reaches a peak, and my skin ignites, flaring in the previously cool air. I am gifted a moment to scream before all is blackness; my last breath is of burning flesh and wood, on my tongue a mouthful of crisping humus and earth.
That fierce pressure about my waist, my pelvis audibly cracking, it is a root of the alltree. Unlike its careful swaddling of my circle before bearing them into the earth, this is a violent tearing through the ground. The uppermost feet of soil had been churned to a softness by the unravelling roots, but I felt I was being torn in half, dragged sideways into the dark. That crushing pressure ravels around my legs and I’ve dimly aware of a change in direction, one that almost rips me in half. Its only blessing is a distraction from the raw, burned flesh of my upper body and face, flecks of soil grinding into that ruined skin. Being enveloped in the earth has extinguished the flames, but my nerves are on fire all the same.
It is utterly black. My eyes are worthless – I have to close them to avoid their being rubbed raw by the dirt – my ears and nose are filled with mud. My only sensation is of motion; an arm trapped up above my head catching around a buried cord of wood, some other root, it snags my hand and with the inexorable drag downwards, my shoulder separates with a crunch that must only be audible inside my body. Another thread of pain besieging my mind.
Besides the scrape against my skin of stones and sudden, frightening, hard materials I can’t identify,  I’m aware that my last breath was of smoke and its precious cargo of oxygen has been ill-used in pain and trying to scream. It’s a panic that grows as I’m pulled further into the earth, past the layers of fine and slowly compacting matter into a harder, wetter region, where the force of my progress slows, so that I feel like I’m being stretched out, every broken bone separated, as if I’m being pulled through a hole too small for me. I’m being squeezed to death, unable to even move my unbroken arm for the weight and density of the soil around me. I try to open my mouth but can taste only slimy clay. There is no air for me here.
The doubts I’d suffered above ground return in full force as my brain is starved of oxygen. Mercifully, my sense of pain is dulled as my existence narrows to my brain, trapped in its battered skull. Is the shettling all a lie? We have offered ourselves to the trees as food, a ritualised sacrifice for the monsters that we cherish, protect and worship. They are gods who demand our blood, and take it masked in family and warmth. Only I now know the truth – I am special – I will understand before they take me. My circle are down here with me, already being crushed by roots, broken by the tonnes of soil above us, mashed into a paste that the trees will suck dry and discard our flavourless skins for the worms… I see the trees as inverted demons, their legs waving in the air, the sun and moons warming their feet, as below their faces are made of a million thrashing tentacles, tearing us apart and consuming us. Perhaps I will see my circle again, feel the grace of their touch before we are eaten together. A dim relief, a shared moment of comfort before the end. A finger through a lock of hair, the shape of an ear, the softness of a wrist… I would accept any fate, just to be with them again, not here, in the darkness.
Even in my hallucinating state I realise that the last I saw of my circle was them on fire, being burned even as the roots themselves crisped and twisted, trying in vain to haul them away from that awful light. They are all gone, instantly murdered before the trees could draw them to safety, or to a worse death at their endless fingers. There will be no relief from this hell, this choking dark nightmare.
I am alone. I am alone in the dark, and I am dying, abraded and asphyxiated by the earth that nourishes my beloved allforest. I have no breath, and my lungs are screaming. I would be screaming if I could.
Dimly, I am aware of tremors in the earth, of terrific concussive forces that rock my body, fracture my already bruised flesh, travelling with ease through the meat of my world, and into me. But that world is beyond me now. In another heartbeat I am beyond regret and fear. I am… nothing.
I never expected to wake up. But I did. I was moving again, gently this time, though even the most miniscule of movements was agony. Steadily I emerged from the soil, the root wound about my waist and legs carefully resting me in what felt like a hammock made of thin strings. Gingerly it released me, my pelvis and legs shrieking as they tried to return to their natural shape. I was suddenly able to draw breath again, although it felt like the first time my lungs had ever functioned. The air was dry and cold, but it was air. I greedily inhaled as much as I could, but my fractured ribs complained bitterly, reducing me to shallow puffs. It was still an improvement. Then I felt a thousand tiny filaments run over my skin, triggering sharp slashes of pain where I was burned, abraded and broken. Those thousand fingertips wrapped around me like a lace cocoon; I was held by the alltree. Then I prickled all over as their almost infinitely fine tips slipped through my pores, invading my body. In surprise, I tried to open my eyes. Nothing happened: my eye sockets were filled with compacted mud from my passage from the surface. With my unbroken arm I scraped away the worst of it, tolerating the pain of the movement. I had expected to be greeted by darkness, but being able to open my eyes was worth such a disappointment, but no – a faint luminescence filled the space I hung in. I could see a ragged ceiling of  earth above me, with a crumpled imprint of my own body where I’d been drawn down. From that ceiling, a carpet of dangling roots, their fibrous ends waving gently, in response to something other than a breeze, for there was none.
A cool sensation flooded my body, horripilating my skin and it felt like it was coating my bones in a freezing gel. The pain was washed away, and I could relax and simply breathe again. No longer so strictly confined by the earth, the few feet of air between my face and the ceiling was enough to make me forget the panic that had wracked me. I accepted the questing roots that came through the ceiling and found their way inside me. I slept.
Light flowered in my mind. I felt nothing, just a luminance within, as if someone had lit a candle behind my eyes which only I could see, looking inside myself. The mind was incandescent, colours glimmering around and through it, pulses illuminating inner structures, flashes of electricity. I was watching my own mind. I could see a thought race across the hemispheres of my brain, striking at ideas and emotions, which grew or faded. Sometimes they would leap into a rainbow frenzy, or a thought would be just one bright spot that dimmed, extinguished, to be replaced by another elsewhere. I was aware of watching myself, but not of the thoughts that I could see. This was the shettle, I realised, these lights and colours were my past life, being run through, and presumably erased. I was watching my life running backwards, each thought, feeling and memory streaming through my mind, leached out by the alltree. With my leap in understanding, my focus drew closer. I passed through the fringes of my brain, enveloped in the pink jelly, surrounded by my memories sparking past and through me, until I came to rest, nestled in its centre. I was surrounded by the pulsing flesh in which all that was me resided. I was home. Yet that home was in the process of being emptied – I was moving out – but in a seeming paradox, I was to be left behind, while all the comforting fixtures and fittings I’d grown used to were being taken.
There was something wrong, though. As I rested inside my mind, those memories became real for me again, with memories I did not recall:
____I stand under the boughs of the allforest, arm in arm with Eleran
____I’m bundled up in blankets in the back of an auto, Rumala’s hand held tight in mine
____I brush my hair with silver hairbrush, worn at the corners, it feels nice on my scalp
____My suit is heavy, slowing my movements, I struggle with the helmet
____I am swimming with Aer, I am solely focused on how strong a swimmer he is
____Maina sits astride me, face alive with pleasure
____I empty a tin of buttons onto a table and sift through them, looking for the perfect replacement for a jacket I caught on a bramble
____Tereis spins in a wild jig, I am laughing and kissing Tesh as we dance together in Calia’s light
____I plant a seedling in the middle of a forest
____We all walk arm in arm down to the lake, the run and jump from the end of the pier
____Fire consumes my circle
____Opening a letter, tracing the familiar handwriting with my fingers, kissing the paper
____My favourite shirt wears out, and I am comforted by our mother
____I laugh so hard at something Eleran says that my ribs and stomach hurt
____A bright explosion in the sky, a fiery rain
____I shout at Miqual, and I feel such anger that I lash out and strike him in the face
____A juvenile alltree whips out a vine and badly tears my arm; Eleran carefully binding it with a white bandage
____I am hit by an automotive, the world spins around me
____A tiny alltree in a pot on a table
____I burn everything I own
____There is a knife in my hand and I slash wildly around me
____I stand under an alltree with Relyan, her camera balanced on her rucksack, we pose together for the perfect photograph
____I am born anew
____The roots wrap around me and my eyes close
____I am born anew
____The roots wrap around me and my eyes close
____I am born anew
____The roots wrap around me and my eyes close
____I am born anew
____The roots wrap around me and my eyes close
____I am born anew
____The roots wrap around me and my eyes close
____I am born anew
____The roots wrap around me and my eyes close
All these and so much more flooded into my memory, disjointed, out of order, not of the life I have just lived. It was frightening – for every moment I recognised a dozen more slotted into place, occupying and overlapping the life I had just lived. I swam, I ate, I fought simultaneously. Every instant of my existence felt like I was legion, crammed into the same narrow space. Slowly they settled in my mind, taking on shadow hues. I could see myself splayed into a hundred actions, many arms thrown out in each direction, blurring as each of my lives was overlaid and woven together. I both feared and loved Miqual; Eleran was my first, as was Tesh, and Rumala, and Tereis; I move away from the circle, I remain in the chalet always; I cry, I laugh, I sleep. I lived them all sequentially, each of those lives, from shettle to shettle, and backwards, and in skipping between tangential events in each life – guided through them by intense emotions, tracing every moment of anger, every moment of love, of doubt, and absurd joy. An infinite combination of thoughts and ideas assailed me. I had no sense of time, only the time contained in each memory, which stretched and fragmented according to its own rules and feeling.
It was bewildering, each thought burgeoning with so many experiences and variations that they became meaningless, unrelated, timeless, each moment like a star in the sky, and I drew shapes between them. I felt myself dissociating, fracturing – each shape in the sky a set of memories that cohered slowly into discrete selves. The constellations drift apart, each shape of myself condensing into tight points of light. Slowly they began to wink out, and I felt an enormous relief as my mental map simplified. The night sky became the earth: the mountain ranges of one life melted away, and a river ran in its place. Continents shifted, lands of memory disconnecting and rearranging themselves into the world I had most recently known. If I peered very closely though, I could still perceive those ghosts of former lives, now translucent – mere memories of memories.
I had only one life then, the one that ended in fire and fear and pain. I should not have even that. The glowing mind around me faded, its colour bleeding out into blackness and faint white outlines, and then, not even that. The darkness reached out and took me once more.

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