It took him a long time to realise that he had not died.
The first moment, that horrible hollowing of him, the sensation of things burrowing into him through his thoughts, lasting for hour after hour... that at least let him know he still existed, if only to hurt. But slowly, slowly, that conscious knowing and remembering bled away, fragmented into slivers and shards, blunting and dissolving away into nothing.
After that it had been very quiet. He was blind and deaf and could not tell if he had a physical form at all, if he hadn’t been flayed alive until nothing but chunks of bleeding meat and memory remained. It was almost peaceful.
He wondered if this was, in fact, what death was. If all that talk of souls losing their ties to the flesh and moving on to somewhere else, and the counterpoint that denied the existence of anything that survived death at all, had both been wrong. Perhaps to die was simply to become unable to move or breathe or think, but still here, still trapped in the mortal vessel until every last cell had rotted into dust.
Gradually, he became aware of an itch. It started on the edge of his vague, alienated sensations, and then spread to the thoughts provoked from that knowledge, and from there it quickly became all he could think about and all he could feel, but he could think and he could feel. He was grounded in himself again. He remembered that there had been a before.
It started from the inside, where the nerves were complicated and temperamental, and the feeling mutated into nausea and vertigo and fatigue as his mind struggled to parse the input. Then it broadened and widened and crept up to his skin, and there... there his flesh had a thousand different ways to quantify pain.
“I’d forgotten how warm it was.”
By then he was thinking in almost-complete concepts, and he could not remember his name or his face or his dreams of the halls and the chimes but he knew that he needed to dig his nails and teeth into his skin and rip and tear until he could drag out the sensation, rend himself to the root and expunge it. What happened next didn’t matter. He needed it out.
Eventually he had limbs again, but they seemed bloated and heavy and his attempts to begin scratching and digging the hurt out were stalled. There was movement, he could feel it behind the itch, in the cavity of his chest and, slowly as his senses returned, in the room around him. It was a room, he knew from the feel of the air, and though his eyesight was a sea of flashes and shadows and his hearing not much better he knew it was a room on the mundane, mortal circle, and not some great beyond of formless suffering as he had thought. There was a blanket over him that his leaden arms could not even brush aside, and a voice murmuring beside him.
Memory returned slowly and in incoherent chunks. Bit by bit he knew who he was, remembered his stifling little town and his schoolroom with the braying creatures he was forced to abide in silent disgust, his father’s softly disappointed face, the sea and the sun and the words of the forbidden and forgotten texts.
He remembered the altar, and the blood, and the muffled scream. He remembered what he had done and even with his thoughts heavy and dull he was shocked and appalled at his own actions. He pushed the memories away, then repented and dragged them back, examined them closely, looking for something to explain it. Surely he would never have given in to a moment of reckless emotion. He was far stronger, far more logical and sensible than that. He wasn’t like the others.
The voice at his side was his father, he realised, cleaning and tending to him, whispering wards and charms over him. The indignity of it was intolerable... He must look a truly pathetic thing. Still, day by day, he was improving. He could move a little, think without exhausting himself.
He was alive, and healing. He should not have been.
He had touched the sigil. He had stepped into the stream of the sacrifice, the carnivorous river they had with word and sign diverted to swallow a soul in offering. It had washed over him and by rights it should have consumed him. By rites.
But he was here, with his own mind and his own name.
He could not really believe it until the day he opened his bleary eyes. His father, bathing him with a damp flannel and a bucket of lukewarm water dark with holly and fragrant with lavender, almost screamed when he realised he was watching him.
He leapt on him, cradling his face and asking questions in an incessant buzz until with great effort he managed to dam the tide with a hissed request for water. Mercifully the man immediately nodded and left on his near-silent treading feet, returning soon after with a glass of water that tasted so salty he would have spat it out if he wasn’t so parched. As his father held his head up to drink he saw scores of red marks crisscrossing his flesh, some long and razor-straight and some looping in scribbly red strokes.
His father noticed his breath hitch and hushed him, stroking his hair. They were not binding; he had researched every old language and ritualistic vernacular and the rivulets were meaningless scrawl, an artefact of coming too close to the river, nothing more. Not even deep enough to scar. They would wrap them away from the air and the eyes of prying strangers.
As he drank, still unable to take his eyes off his mutilated skin, his father muttered a litany of apologies. He knew he had been too young, he knew it would be too much, for a moment he thought he had actually… ah, it must have been by the grace of the Nobility. A miracle. They must make another offering in thanks, when he was better. Far too soon, yes. He should never have sent for that woman. Forgive him. Forgive him?
He lay back and endured the monologue, a captive audience in his moribund body. After a time, he drifted back into sleep, dark and dreamless.
So the days passed as he recuperated. Every day the world was a little clearer, his motor skills slowly reappearing, his mind reawakening to itself. His father continued to tend him and he suffered the indignities of it, the base carnality of a human body too weak to attend to itself. The apologies, too, were almost ceaseless and almost as tedious. As soon as his shivering arms could hold a spoon he put a stop to the former, but no matter how strong his voice became he could do nothing to stem the tide of the latter.
He continued to improve. With the window open and the sunlight streaming in he convalesqued with a stack of well-thumbed books and a steady diet of tasteless food, and wondered why he felt that he was being watched.
His dreams of the Court had stopped.
But he had had short periods without them before, and there was no reason to assume this was not simply another. He may even have had his visions while he had been trapped in his incoherent… indisposition, and simply been too lost and unmoored to realise it.
He became able to walk, slowly expanding his world from the room to the rest of the house, the garden, even a little ways into town, though his father fretted about it. Under the light of a new moon they slit the throat of a stray dog to thank the Nobility for his wondrous escape and recovery. He watched the blood run seep into the grass and resisted the urge to check if someone was looking over his shoulder.
He went back to school. His teacher smiled and said that they had all missed him, and gave him a pile of work he had missed with a wink. Of course he’d probably catch up in a few days, wouldn’t he? He was such a bright little thing.
The other children were less enthused about his return. He avoided their faces and slouched over to his chair, trying to ignore the whispers. At recess, when they plucked his shirt and bandages, he told them he’d fallen out of a moving car. They kept pulling anyway, laughing, bemoaning that he hadn’t fallen under one instead.
He thought of the dog, eyes rolling and limbs twitching as its life poured out of it.
On Sunday, he had to go to church.
He had hoped that he could avoid it for another week, but his father reminded him that it was a small town and rumours were stirring. Questions might be asked. He needed to be seen to be whole and happy.
He loathed the pantomime of the services with every nerve and vein of him. It was an ancient practice, he knew, it had kept their true theology hidden in plain sight for centuries, and it was, despite all expectations, a good place to recruit new converts. But the stories and the songs and the dull, docile faces of the congregation sickened him. He had always counted the hours until it was over and he and his father and their true followers could retire downstairs to the real ceremony.
But who knew when some nosy outsider would begin joining dots, or a local going through their family history would notice troubling irregularities, or someone in the miniscule police force would flip through the records and see a pattern of oddly regular disappearances? Their sect had survived milennia on sheer paranoia. Of course, his father said with an insipid smile, he wouldn’t need to assist in the service himself, not until he was feeling up to it. Small mercies.
So he put on his smart shirt and shiny shoes and combed his hair and held his tongue. Perhaps the true mass afterwards would bring him some peace, at least. He would petition the Court in prayer, explain himself and remind them that he was beyond faithful, he was one of their own. Chosen.
Then, surely, he would walk the halls in his dreams once again.
He stood at the door of the oratory and greeted the flock with all the geniality he could muster. Yes, it had been a frightening accident, but yes, he was much recovered now, thank you for your concern.
As soon as the last of the stragglers wound their ways in and he followed them into the pale stained-glass light he knew something was wrong. He couldn’t put anything specific to it; he didn’t feel nauseous, didn’t feel any pain except a little itching ache from his wounds. If he felt anything at all, it was a persistent restlessness, a sensation that he was shivering even while sitting completely still, and a feeling of great dread. He rushed through the hymmes in a desperate babble, each verse feeling like it was stretched thin to hours. It intensified as the service limped on, driven by his father’s words.
He didn’t believe a word of it, he reminded himself. None of them really did.
He was uncomfortably warm and his skin buzzed. His wounds began to itch so badly that he had to dig his fingernails into the grain of the pew. He reminded himself of the true chapel below, the cool darkness, the comforting echoes.
The homilies were screws drilling into his skull and the prayers felt like ground glass in his mouth. Other people were starting to look at him.
He ground his teeth. He could feel the sweat soaking into his undershirt.
So much droning and humming and deferential forelock-tugging. He imagined the entire room burning, the bodies crackling as the fat boiled up through the blackening skin, their tongues shriveling in their mouths as they continued to sit in servile submission.
He endured. He needed to last to the end, that was all. When he could retreat down into the cool darkness, when he could speak to them, when he could ask them what he’d done wrong, how to make amends, why they had forsaken him when he didn’t belong here, couldn’t possibly belong here with these pointless, vapid animals.
Somehow he must have made it to the Eucharist, because people were standing, lining up. He managed to stumble to his feet and join them, the whispers flaring up after him. He could see the look of concern on his father’s face as he approached, but the man was no more that a pillar of meaningless flesh to him now. Endure.
For a while it felt like he would be in the queue for the rest of time, shuffling forward in inches and gasps as his damp clothes stuck to him. When he finally reached the end he almost collapsed to his knees.
He looked up at his father and they exchanged their murmurs, and he took the bread and the wine, and it was almost with relief that he got to his feet and stumbled back the way he had come, and it was almost over and he might just manage to get through it and then, beyond that, there was his salvation, and-
He stopped, catching himself on a pew when his own pitiful momentum nearly took him to the floor. His hand clutched at his mouth as he gagged, red spilling between his fingers as he shuddered and retched around the hunk of flesh in his mouth.
He didn’t remember moving again. He didn’t remember leaving the chapel, stumbling back into the house. He didn’t remember half climbing, half crawling up the stairs, his mouth dribbling blood and bile, as he dragged himself into the bathroom.
In his mind there was no gap between that moment of horror against the pew and the moment where he ripped his clothes off, buttons flying, and looked down at his body. It was not sweat that had stuck his shirt to his skin.
The wounds had opened, and they were moving. He watched, and what else could he do, but watch, shirt still hanging from one arm by the cuff and trousers stuck around his knees, as his flesh was carved and reformed, muscles unwinding like skeins of wool and bones cracking into shards and other things, things he didn’t want to think about, erupting and disappearing. Blood oozed from his pores thick and dark.
A movement above drew his eye, and like a flighty animal his head jerked up to track it.
In the mirror above the sink he saw his own face, clean and unmarred and… different, in a way that made his slithering innards wrench.
His reflection beamed at him, warm and beatific.
“Ah, look at us, what a lovely thing... That’s much better, right? For a while there I was worried we weren’t going to make it, but you held on so tight! I’d forgotten humans could be so… devoted.”