He couldn't remember a time before fire.
Couldn't remember what the hillside would have looked like before the forest was reduced to a sea of charcoal that crunched like brittle bone beneath his feet.
He breathed in the ash, felt it clog his nostrils, felt his body try to flush it out in thick black mucous that dripped without pause from his nose.
Every breath burned.
He'd been walking for weeks, but time moved slowly here. It was hard to tell. The sky was shrouded in dense black cloud, low and heavy, blocking the sun, the moon, the stars. For all he knew, they'd burned, too.
It was his fault, he knew that much. Knew it in the marrow of his bones, like part of his very nature, like knowing his own name.
The fire, the dark, the solitude. All of it was his doing. He just didn't know how, didn't know why.
From time to time, a light would come to hover at his edges, crowding close and humming like a swarm of insects. It spoke to him, knew him.
He asked aloud, "What have I done?"
It's reply was always the same.
A single word repeated in a voice like cracking glass;
He knew not what it meant, yet still the word filled him with a dread, cold and heavy in his stomach.
Now, in the dry heat he walked to the edge of the river, leaned down to run his fingers through the clear water.
For a moment, it lapped, gentle and cool against his blistered skin, and he lifted it to his face, a blessing. With closed eyes he let it trickle over his filthy cheeks, washing away the dirt, the ash.
But against his face it ran warm, suddenly thick and viscous, soaking into the collar of his shirt, and when he opened his eyes he saw it was not water but blood.
It dribbled into his mouth, cloying sweet and tinny on his tongue.
He scrambled back from the bank, kicking up ash that rose and fell slowly back to the ground like black snow, and let the bile rise, purging himself until his throat was raw.
Still heaving on all fours, he looked up at the river. It ran crystal clear, pure and clean in contrast to the blackened earth on every side.
He crawled to it, submerged a hand and snatched it back as it turned red, warm against his skin. Bubbling. Pulsing.
"What have I done?" he asked, staring at his hand, streaked red and dripping.
Hede, said the light.
He shook his head and wiped the blood away, letting it soak into his shirt as the light grew around him like an aura.
"What have I done?"
Hede, it repeated.
He pressed his eyes closed, pushing his palms hard against them until spots appeared beneath his lids.
"I don't know what I've done.
A sob wrenched in his chest as his memory filled with the smell of matches, with the sound of popping timber, the roar of flame.
He shook, his face slick with tears and blood and mucous as he struggled to breathe, and the memory finally slipped free, tumbling to the surface.
Hede, the light said, hede.
He saw it, then, clear as the river.
A struck match, held fast between his thumb and forefinger.
Felt a twisted thrill run through his chest, bright and electric as the flame grew, as he watched it lick up over dry branches.
Saw as a single leaf, caught in an up-draft, lifted.
Watched on as it grew, devouring another tree, another, another, growing and feeding like a hungry thing, flames like teeth tearing.
Staggered back as the wind changed. Ran for the road.
Then, there was shouting, somewhere in the back of his mind. Screams. Eventually, sirens.
"What have I done?" he asked, but the light didn't answer.
He knew, he knew, he knew.