The night before, Henry had dreamed of the Goddess.
It hadn’t been the first time. Not the first time She’d drifted into his sleeping mind, overwhelming him with Her invisible yet undeniable otherness.
But it had been the first time, the first dream, in which She’d ever spoken.
Come here, She’d said, and come alone.
Now, Henry walked through the woods She’d shown him with a lantern in hand, trying to keep his composure when no small measure of him wanted to fall to his knees and burst into tears and thank Her, thank Her, thank Her for this blessed opportunity until his voice was no more. What more would She want to do with him if Her first encounter was with a slavering idiot?
He nearly failed himself within the first hour. A mansion easily a third the size of his own village had materialized before him with no warning, and it was all he could do not to fall arse-first into the leaves in surprise.
Henry drew a sharp breath that came out in a huff. This shouldn’t surprise you, he chastised himself. She is a higher being. There’s nothing She can’t do.
Eyes fixed forward, he approached the front gates. They were wrought iron, resembling nothing so much as enormous hands clasped in prayer. Nestled between their palms, there was a ring of iron encircling the silhouette of a murkrow.
Its eye opened, glowing bright, and Henry visibly started for the second time that night. Dignity, he reminded himself. For all he knew, She watched through those eyes. He met the iron bird’s gaze, trying with all his might not to wince or squint. Endure Her light.
He was about to speak, to announce his presence, but of course, of course, She already knew he was there. The gates swung outward without a sound, at which he stepped back, but no more than he had to. They all but grazed his chest as they opened.
He put out the lantern, then proceeded up the long path before him. Lamps stood to either side, glowing golden in the night, and another iron murkrow perched atop each of them. As he approached each pair, their eyes opened, bright as stars. She still watched his every move. Mindful of this, he held his head high on the way to the doors, his hands at his sides, no emotion on his face.
As silently as the gates had, the doors opened. Beyond, he saw chandeliers and marble floors and carpeted staircases winding out of sight. And unless his mind was playing tricks on him, he heard footsteps shuffling his way. He tensed in spite of himself. Could it be…?
He smelled the new arrival before he saw it. It hit him like a wall, reeking of every kind of filth he could name. Eyes watering, he fought against a surge of nausea and very nearly lost.
This is a test, he told himself, gritting his teeth. It has to be… As he wiped away the tears, the source of the stench finally came into view.
She was close to his height, Her skin a moldy shade of green. It had ruptured in several places, something grey-brown and lumpy bulging through the wounds. Another one burst open, right then and there, and a glob of the same filth dropped out. She looked upon him with wide, crusty eyes, breathing noisily through parted, pointed teeth.
“Servant?” She said, Her voice crackling wetly. “Servant, you?”
Henry suppressed a tremor. This couldn’t be happening. His Goddess couldn’t be such a wretched, disgusting creature… and yet, here She was. Here She was, smiling warmly even as She rotted alive. Just a test… He swallowed against his sickness. “If my Lady so wills,” he said, “then yes, I will serve You.” He shut his mouth before anything more solid could escape.
She cocked her head at him. The little piles of muck on top quivered obscenely. Then She burst into laughter, drops of something dark and greasy flying from Her throat. “No! Only Drass.” As She spoke, a metallic tentacle slithered out of Her side, dripping more filth as it curled inward to gesture at Her broad chest. “I serve Nalna. Now, you serve Nalna.”
Henry took a moment to make sense of that. Then he felt relief wash over him like cool water. This horrid thing might not be the Goddess after all. The possibility almost made the stench more tolerable somehow. “If you’ll take me to Her,” he said, “I will gladly serve however She wills.”
“Yes, yes!” Drass turned toward the stairs at the opposite side of the room, beckoning Henry to follow. He did so, as close as he could stand, doggedly keeping his sights turned forward. Every so often, his boot squelched into something half-solid in the carpet. He didn’t need to see it. It was hard enough to keep from reacting as it was.
Drass led him up one flight of stairs, and then another. And then several more, without pausing. Henry wiped sweat from his brow in vain, his joints threatening to lock and his breath burning in his chest, and wondered just how many floors the mansion actually had. More than he’d have counted from the outside for sure. As many as it took, no doubt, to prove to his Goddess that he’d endure anything for Her.
Finally, finally, the climb came to an end. His legs wanted to turn to jelly, but he couldn’t sit yet. Drass was waving him forward again, toward another pair of towering doors.
This, he dared to hope, was it. Every shudder he’d suppressed, every heave he’d choked back, every step he’d taken in a body that screamed for rest would prove worthwhile in the most glorious ways imaginable.
The doors opened all on their own, noiselessly, as he’d come to expect by this point. And there, in the middle of a room that looked for all the world like the night sky itself… there, as far as he could guess, She stood.
She was perfectly visible, despite the surrounding darkness. Shorter than he’d expected. Pale purple, dressed in a black gown with white bows adorning the front, hair or horns or something without a name standing out from Her head in discs the size of Her face. She moved a little closer, and he realized Her clothes weren’t clothes at all. Don’t look away. No surprise. No mortification. Nothing else. It wasn’t his place to decide what She should or shouldn’t wear in his presence.
<Enter,> She said.
Henry’s mind skipped a beat. Then he nodded, and without a word, he stepped into the sparkling void.
As soon as he was past the threshold, the hall outside vanished. There was only star-studded blackness where the doors should have been. Whatever unseen floor lay beneath his feet disappeared next—the sky now surrounded him from all sides—but he didn’t fall. He hung in midair, cradled by Her power as She rose to meet his gaze.
<So,> She said. <You’ve barely arrived, and already you’ve managed to disappoint me.>
Henry’s mouth dropped open, but no sound came out. Distantly, he realized he wasn’t breathing, and apparently no longer needed to. But first and foremost in his thoughts were Her words, echoing in his mind. His heart seemed to turn to stone inside him. No…
<I cast my sentries in the form of carrion birds to unnerve you,> She elaborated. <I conjured the foulest creature I could imagine to disgust you. I intended you to crawl up those stairs. To collapse before you ever reached me. And yet you refused to break down, refused to cry out, refused to give me anything I wanted.>
He stared through wild, bulging eyes, desperate to assure Her that yes, yes he could suffer for Her, yes he could stop holding back and let any further misery show, if only She’d give him another chance. But he couldn’t speak. Couldn’t breathe. Didn’t need to.
Until She lay Her hands upon him.
Suddenly his lungs burned in their emptiness. Suddenly his tears dried away, and he flailed helplessly in the air-that-wasn’t, reaching out to Her with swollen hands. But She drifted back out of reach, Her form still crystal clear as the stars dimmed all around him.
<I should have known,> he thought he heard, before it all went black and he knew no more. <I should have known you’d only bore me.>