“It’s alright, my child. Now, step forward.”
The underground chapel was damp and cold but his skin was burning. When the boy took the knife he was sure it would slip out of his sweating hands, and held the handle tight enough to feel every wrinkle and crease in the ancient leather.
He took half a step toward the altar, then another. In the candlelight the… the thing, tied to it, was a vague shape of writhing shadows. He hoped the ropes would hold.
He glanced back towards his father. The priest nodded serenely, gesturing him onward. When he looked back, she- no, it, a thing, an object, an absence, a nothing.
It was staring at him, wide wet eyes imploring, flickering to the warm gleam of the knife.
He held it tighter and took another step.
The candles were the only light in the room, and the tiny circle of pale illumination made the room seem bigger, like he was walking on an island of stone and wax in the middle of a vast void. It did not feel like the room he’d been made to clean so often, and the decoy of a quaint and cozy church upstairs could have been on a different planet.
He reached the edge of the sigil, red and black scrawls that seemed to move when he looked at them in a way that made his head throb.
“Stop,” his father’s voice made him jump. He had almost forgotten he was there. “No further. Do not disturb the contract.” His face flushed at that. Did the old man think he was stupid? He’d spent the better part of a year drilling every part of this into him.
“Complete the ritual, as I have done before you, and my master before me, and as it will continue to be done after your time, until the day the seals are broken and we all descend to a world where there is no before and will be no after.”
“...and will be no after,” he mumbled along. He took a deep breath, raised the knife high above his head and spoke the only line he had been given: “I dedicate this sacrifice to the Crimson Court.” Then he brought it down with all his strength at exactly the spot he had practiced again and again in his room.
The thing screamed through the gag and he flinched back, watching the blood pool around the handle jutting out of its chest. The liquid quickly overflowed, filling the hollows of the throat and collarbones and running down the groves in the ancient altar, spelling out old blessings and entreaties. Meaningless decoration, he knew. Only the sigil, the contract scrawled on the floor, really mattered. That was what would reach them.
It began to squirm. The hollow, hallowed room was suddenly full of the scents of incense and the sounds of whispers and chimes.
“It is taken,” his father said, as if he couldn’t tell that himself, with his skin itching and stinging just to be this close to the active sigil.
He ignored him and closed his eyes. He could see it, in the dark of his mind, he could see the red hallways, the fires and the effigies, the thrones of debauched and desecrated Kings, with the largest and grandest at the head of the hall, covered in scars in testament to the many failed usurpers, so close and so real that if he just raised his hand…
It was so much clearer than in his dreams. Surely, that had to be proof of his destiny, no matter how his father may have scoffed and berated him for his blasphemous thoughts. This was where he belonged, not on this wretched little rock with these shallow, pointless people.
He opened his eyes, and his adrenaline turned to ice and tar in his veins.
The thing was looking at him. Staring at him with its fear-filled eyes as its life throbbed and drained away, its soul pulled to tatters. But no, it wasn’t fear. Something else, there was something in the expression that set his teeth on edge.
Could she see it too? Could the broken meat in front of him see his vision somehow? Was it doubting, mocking him like his father had done? No, he had never been good at reading people, but he could see that it was something… sad. Acceptance? Could a weak and pathetic thing like that understand inevitability and face it with dignity?
No, he realised with a shudder. No, it wasn’t for her own sake. This wailing, woeful waste of a life, with the last of its precious breaths this pitiful thing pitied him.
The realisation was like a shock jolting straight to his spine. He lunged forward without another thought, barely even hearing his father’s shouts, his mind only red, red, red as he grabbed the knife and tore it out before thrusting it back, again and again until his hands were slick and sticky and the smell was rank and overpowering and still he held the knife.
He felt the sigil raking and burning across his skin from the moment he crossed into it, but it was not until the body no longer whimpered and gurgled at his assault that he regained enough of his higher thought to be able to understand the pain. Far, far too late.
Hunched over his mother’s still-warm corpse he gasped and whined as the runes and glyphs ripped over and through him, words in long-forbidden tongues slithering under his skin and over his tongue as he grasped the body, his face buried in its torn and mangled breast as he shivered and mewled and waited for the consumption of his mind, body and soul.
The chimes reached such a cacophony that he thought his skull would crack from the reverberation, but somehow under all of it he heard a voice, soft and mild but entering and filling him until it was everything, everything.
And the voice said unto him: “Oh, that’s new. Hello, are you lost?”