Thomas is ready for death. In truth he has been ready since Peking, but the laudanum somehow gave him the will to keep breathing, keep moving his limbs for days into weeks, weeks into months as his body healed. The laudanum kept him alive on the long journey home, through stormy seas and dry food he could only barely force himself to choke down. The numbing fog carried him, lifting his leaden limbs, soothing him to sleep like a cradling mother. It helped him forget the pain in his back, but it couldn’t salve the agony in his shattered soul.
What is a man of faith without faith? What had he to live for?
And yet he did not die.
He thought Erisden only more of the same, more mockeries of faith, more ravening wolves feasting on their flock. Faith was an opium dream, soothing and numbing but never real. There is nothing divine in this world, only illusion, only the lies of greedy men.
He lived for Jennifer. He came home for Jennifer, his sweet sister. He came home but she was gone, and so he set about to save her life with no regard for his own. He did not plan to die, he feared death without the grace of heaven, and yet—
Let death come, he thinks, his numb legs collapsing beneath him, sending him tumbling. Blood loss numbs him like laudanum, carrying him even as he lies still on the grass, watching his sister escape this island of madness, of miracles and their gruesome corruption.
He did not know what she was, this creature, but he knelt for her and felt the spark of faith in his long-extinguished soul. It kindled to a flame that burned him, cleansed away the ashes of all he once was. He knelt for her and gave himself to her and she took him into her grasp and claimed him.
He would have been her worshipper. He would have given her his life, his everything, in that moment, knowing at last a true and undeniable grace. He would have pulled his beating heart from his chest and fed it to her and cried with ecstatic joy that he could serve true divinity at last.
But she did not want his beating heart, though from that singular moment it beat only for her. She showed him visions and gave him orders, and as her servant he could only obey, could only take the lantern and grant her the fire she needed to cleanse away the corruption of the men who imprisoned her.
In return, she let him save Jennifer, save Andrea. Her grace gave him the strength for that but no more. From the moment he knelt for her, he knew he would never leave her. If he dies, let his death feed her, let his sacrifice restore her after the cleansing fire. Please, he thinks, as his blood moves from his body into hers, into the earth, into the soil and the rock. Take what is yours, take it, please, take it.
But she does not want his death. And as Malcom stands over him, Thomas feels the tide of his life-force halt its ebb and flow back, renewing him. He laughs with unexpected joy, and then gasps as he feels her power surging through his mortal flesh, transforming it, making it holy. And he understands—
The creature was not his god. She was like him, a mortal who knelt and gave herself to the divine. The god they both worshipped is in the earth itself, in the soil, in the rock. She had given her service and the earth was grateful to her and let her rest. And now—
True divinity can not be comprehended by mortal minds. There must be a messenger, an apostle to share God’s grace. And the god within the earth will not allow itself to be bound again.
You are my eyes, God speaks in him, in his bones, in the beat of his heart. You are my mouth. You are my feet, my hands.
I am yours, Thomas thinks back, burning, burning. He feels the swell of life around him, every blade of grass, every tree, every creature and insect and— And the human, mortal man kneeling over him with renewed devotion.
“Forgive me?” Malcolm begs. “I never meant— It all went so wrong.”
It did. Thomas knows everything now. Malcolm should have knelt as Thomas did and offered his devotion, but his pride and greed corrupted the divine. Malcolm was too weak to be the eyes of God, the mouth, the hands, the feet. But with the others gone—
The god within Thomas needs the faith of its worshippers. And it is hungry. It will give Malcolm another chance, the grace to prove himself true. If Malcolm fails, the mouth of God will take what already belongs to it. But if not—
“Yes, my son,” Thomas says, and feels as though the god speaking with his mouth is saying it to him as well, lifting the grief and pain and regret like the laudanum never could. “You are forgiven.”
Malcolm sobs and bows his head, pressing his face against Thomas’ belly, tears soaking into his shirt. Tears are not blood but they are another kind of sustenance. God hungers for many things. It sees now that the old ways were lost, that the world must be taught them anew. It did not understand that but Thomas does. Thomas will teach God and God will teach Thomas, and together—
Together they shall be a divine missionary and reclaim all the earth from the false gods that plague it.