He had been afraid, before; when he was Nergui, when he was alive. He had been alone and scared and he had run and suffered. He had had his world taken from him, his family destroyed. He had been tricked by the Mongols, abused by the Kazakhs, then used again for them. He had been a fool, to think he would ever have been left alone, that he perhaps would have died a simple, lonely death and the gods would have ceased to swarm around him and mile about and spit visions and promises of reward in his face.
Nergui took an entire hour to die, writhing and spitting blood on the ground like a sick animal. His heart ceased beating long after brain-death, the mind having chosen suicide over bearing the shock of flaying and the agony of a world filled with razor-sharp particles of dust and shearing gusts of wind. It was only then, that the higher aspect of what had been and could have been Nergui left the shackles of flesh and began to dissipate, to slowly discombobulate. It was then that it saw the places beyond and reached out to touch them.
They were places without distances or scale, idea-worlds that existed in the blank space between conscious thought, tiny islands that drifted into and out of the subconscious oceans. There were the landmasses of half-formed ideas and the volcanic furnaces of passions. There were great black holes that bent morality and sucked in purity, leaving behind only colorless ambiguity. The jungles of instinct ringed the horizon, the fear-trees tall and mighty, casting their shadow above all, populated by the fauna that made up lust and violence and nightmares (they were all blind, near-mindless things, all teeth and mouths and crooked legs). The deserts of desires would slide in and out of view, each granule of sand a mote of powdered glass, containing within it worlds of aspiration, raining down on the small but impossibly bright pools that made up innocence. There were Hells there, all fire and brimstone or fields of ice that went on forever, each of them big enough to fit a man’s palm. There were Heavens and Nirvanas and that spun on the faces of karmic wheels that rolled and tumbled about, smashing into each other. There were hourglasses the size of planets, drifting in orbit, wheeling and turning, the sand of time inside them forming mad dancing whorls.
But looming beneath them all, under the clear glass floor that made up the borders of language and measurable time, there were other things stirring. It took the thing-that-had-been-Nergui a wile, before it realized how seamlessly these things ran together, how they flowed into one antother even as they were part of a single, great thing: a consciousness, an idea-form that enveloped the entire world, made up by a multitude of tiny minds. It was vast and cold and alien and it moved with the careful deliberation of mountains, rippling with the sheer force of tectonic plates. The thing-that-had-been-Nergui looked upon it and saw it reach tendirls of its conscience down into the world, seeking footholds. Finding noe, it would retreat and try again, following the turning motion of the Earth, waiting perhaps for a mind it could latch on to, a mind as great and multi-faceted as its own, to grasp.
Such was the thing-that-had-been-Nergui’s fascination with this form, that it did not notice the swarm of little gods that rained down on it the next instant. They moved fast, like hungry rats, pouring out from the thought-spaces, each of them a halfway-formed image of a terror or a father or a mother that had not yet know the creative touch of human faith. He had barely a moment to look at the shapes of these parasitic thoughtforms and he saw among them a snarling old man, starved near to death, his body that of a serpent from the waist down. Another was a naked hermaphrodite, with a hissing wreath of snakes sprouting from where its head should be. Another was a smattering of inconsistent shapes, its face that of a child hewn in marble with long, needle-like teeth. There were creatures with the bodies of bears and the legs of antelopes; there were things that seemed to be nothing but mouths or naked flame or tiny storms. There were talons and whipping tails and mandibles. There were inconsistent, inexplicable shapes.
There was a great gnashing of the teeth and a terrible pressure and the thing-that-had-been-Nergui tumbled down with them through the clear-glass floor, through the gestalt being and back into the realms of distance and matter and time , dragged along back into the flesh, torn to shreds every bit of the way until nothing of it remained by a mote of light that pulsed and quivered and whispered: I am me, this is here. They came down, the gods and nested in the flayed man’s body. Some of the simpler-minded ones went for the pooled, clotted blood, scooping it in great handfuls and chewing the red mess, sating temporarily their need for sacrifice. The rest, far more ambitious creatures, clattered and tumbled down the highways of the blood and nestled inside the muscles, the lungs, the heart, the brain, the intestines. They made their home there, inside the flayed man, nesting in his flesh and when each of them had found its place, they said in unison:
And the flayed man, who was no longer Chinese or Mongol or Nergui or even alive in any true sense of the word, rose with a jerk. It did so in an unnatural, clumsy manner, digging its heels into the ground and pushing his body upward, its spine rising up in degrees, each motion of its segments commanded by tiny voices and hands. Something looked through the flayed man’s eyes, screaming commands at those below. The creatures that lived in the facial muscles contracted madly, the tongue lolled as it slipped out of the flayed man’s mouth and hung out of his mouth limply. There was no unifying intelligence, no subconscious conductor directing the flayed man’s motions. There were only a thousand thousand screaming voices, working in tandem as they turned his body this way and that, the arms flailing without rhyme or reason, the teeth chattering as the jaw clicked shut and hung open again. The flayed man stumbled, lost his balance and then fall, face-first, onto the ground. It took an hour for the arms and the legs to coordinate themselves to push the rest of his body back up. By then, the flayed man had been wreathed in a humming black cloud of flies.
The flayed man stood still for a while, the tiny voices contemplating their next action and then the neck turned the head, so it was facing North. There was nothing in the North but solace and winter and long, endless nights. The people who lived there were few and far between and could not possibly muster enough belief to allow the gods to survive. So the legs pivoted carefully and turned the body South. Now, there was promise. There was some warmth in the South and perhaps a hint of water. People gathered near the water. And yet, the buzzing of the millions of gods vying for a hold there deterred them. No, there would be no point there, in that land of squabbling things.
The flayed man turned West, but found there nothing but the thick clouds of violence and infighting. There was misery there, but also a hint of promise. Hardly a place for gods to find footing. So they went East, after all. Because there was some stillness there and the misery seemed to be abating, but not replaced with joy. There was only the calm that followed terror and an ache for its relief. This was a place for gods. This place of uncertainty and numbed horror. There would be bounty there, an overabundance of it. And so, the flayed man took his first sure step, the voices of the gods within it already blending together, singing commands and praises and hymns to itself in harmony, formed into words through the deliberate pumping of the lungs and the synchronized efforts of tongue and teeth.
The flayed man moved east, it voice the voice of many singing as one, its mind directed by the faintest afterthought, to the rhythm of a simple mantra: I am here, this is me.
I am here, this is me.
I am here, this is me.
And so the flayed man began its long trek back through Kazakhstan, wreathed in its shroud of flies, across the mountains and the plains to the place of promise. And inside the churning crucible of its body, the myriad gods rolled together and melded until they were one, each voice the voice of the greater whole, singing in unison its own praises. It was a prophet-in-itself, come to preach its own gospel.
We are here, this is us.
We are here, this is us.