Fire was all around him. He coughed, as the superheated air cracked his lips, his throat. He blinked, but the tears sizzled away before they could even fall. He gasped once, twice, fighting for air, but there was nothing but heat, and choking smoke. Embers flashed and danced before his eyes. He looked up, hoping maybe an angel would be there, reaching down, to lift him up out of the flames and pain.
The darkness above split, fractured, the cracks flaring a brilliant crimson, the cracks looping swirling, diving in and out amongst the black.
Jack gasped. He recognized that pattern.
He was dreaming. All he had to do was wake up.
The flames leapt, grabbing at him, wrapping tightly around his arms and legs, searing into his skin.
Jack couldn’t get enough air to scream.
Beth’s voice broke like a thunderclap from the darkness above, and the curtain of flames around him shredded, leaving only the roiling coils of flame that slithered their way tighter around his arms and legs.
Above him, a familiar, bewildering pattern of blue and red flickered among the darkness. The red threading woven through Jack’s dreamcatcher caught and locked among the other pattern every few degrees as they rotated, one amidst the other.
“Jack, get up!”
He tugged weakly against the fiery bonds.
“No! Never say that here! You can. You will.”
Jack tugged again, looking away from the mesmerizing pattern in the dark vault of his dream, casting left and right.
“Where are you?”
“Jack, get up!”
He pulled again, and the flames pulled harder. He could feel that they wanted to burn hotter, but Beth must have somehow been muting their power. Something snakelike, lizardlike hissed at his ear.
“Jack, you have to hurry. I don’t have much time left.” Beth’s voice wavered. She sounded very tired.
The curtain of flames was beginning to creep back up in places, the flames licking subtly higher at the edges of Jack’s vision.
Jack strained against the fiery coils again, and suddenly, his right arm slid free.
“I did it!” he cried.
A streak of flame in the corner of his vision caused him to look up.
The writhing serpent of flame was streaking towards the spinning pattern of blues and reds. The pattern flickered rapidly, like it was lit by a bulb that was just about to give out.
Jack gritted his teeth, lunged forward, hand outstretched.
That fiery… thing… would not reach the pattern. He wouldn’t let it.
Strength flooded through Jack, and he wasn’t sure if he tore through the bonds that held him, or if they leapt away as if he had begun to burn them.
He reached out, closed his hand on the shivering, flaming tail, and hauled against it with all his might, spinning, flinging it back the direction it had come. He watched with fierce satisfaction as it smashed into the ground, vanishing with a rattling hiss and puff of embers and smoke.
He remembered that he was still sailing through the dreamscape when he crashed headlong into the gauzy strands of Beth’s dreamcatcher. He struggled against it, and only tangled himself further in the threads.
He made to jerk his arm free and felt familiar, warm hands on his wrist and lower arm.
“Not so rough,” Beth’s voice whispered. It seemed to thrum, vibrate through the threads.
“I did it, Beth! I got free!”
“Yes, Jack. You were very brave.”
“How come my arms aren’t all burned? They don’t even hurt any more.” He twisted his arms, staring along their length. The warm hands yanked his arm back when he strained against the blue threads.
“They don’t hurt because you don’t believe they do.”
Jack tried to wrap his brain around that idea.
“That’s crazy,” he decided.
“Welcome to my world, Jack. Now hold still. And stop talking. It’s hard to concentrate.”
Jack yawned. The hands felt good, supporting him, unwinding the blue and red threads from where he was stuck in them.
He decided not talking sounded like a pretty good idea, and within minutes, he began drifting back to sleep.
“Hey, Beth,” he mumbled as he drifted off.
“What?” Gentle as it was, there was still a touch of annoyance edging her voice.
“How can you go back to sleep, if you’re already dreaming?”