content notes: child viewpoint, cults, grooming, gaslighting, vague body horror, self-harm as worship.
"Mommy!" You cry as she's just about to walk out the door, "I want to go worship with you!"
Her scarred flesh wrinkles into a smile as she laboriously reaches down to ruffle your hair.
"Not until you're older, dear heart."
"But why? I'm a big girl now!"
"You are, you are, but you're just not ready. Spend some more time with the kettle while I'm gone, okay? You've got to build up a tolerance."
"But I don't like the kettle! It hurts ..."
Someday, when you're much older, you'll understand the sadness in her smile.
"I know, dear. But that's what God wants you to do, okay? And we mustn't disappoint it."
"All riiiiight," you whine, but the moment the door closes behind your mother you're creeping out the back door—who cares about the kettle! This time you're going to worship properly!
The path up to the caldera is worn smooth from countless years of use. Your mother is one of the last stragglers walking up it today, but still she finds friends to walk with.
It's easy to stay out of sight. You just hang back, creeping through the shadows behind stray boulders.
All the village's other children must be locked in their homes, being good and practicing their scars—but all the others are so frustratingly young! And irritating. Why shouldn't you join the adults, right? You should worship properly!
It's not up to them to decide for you.
The little tunnel that dips beneath the caldera's rim and into its heart is closed and locked by the time you reach it, the gate's metal bars too close together to permit even your small body to pass through, but that's no trouble at all. There's another path over the rim.
It's an older trail, in much worse repair, a relic from the days before the village dug the tunnel. Your little legs are burning by the time you reach the top, but the sounds of prayer echoing out of the caldera drive you forward—
They're such strange sounds, though ...
You carefully peer over (being cautious! Investigating! Definitely not worn out), looking down and down towards the knot of bodies writhing in worship against the boiling water—and the light glowing beyond, the God's towering form watching from the center, blazing with holy heat—
It's so much easier to go down the slope, down and down to the shore, but you're still careful to stay out of sight. God's ring of eyes isn't paying you any mind, and the worshippers are all lost in their own affairs—though the way they're worshipping looks different, somehow.
It's not just heat and prayer, is it?
You can't quite tell for sure, not from this far away, but the noises echoing up don't sound like the restrained chants you were taught, and the way they're moving, like rutting beasts draped with loose skin—
You can't help but want to get closer. To understand.
There's something wrong about the way flesh stretches between them, like none of the worshippers are wholly separate. Like they're all linked into one being, connected by burned and bleeding tendrils—
You're not paying attention to your feet, and the caldera takes advantage: a rock shifts beneath you and, with a startled half-scream, you fall.
You don't dream.
When you finally wake you're in your own bed, with something tight and hot wrapped around your head. Your mother is there too, sitting at your bedside, just looking up from a book—she's freshly bandaged too, tight wrappings obscuring half her face and all of her body that you can glimpse beneath her loose dress; sacred wounds only just ripening into the scars of worship.
"Oh, thank God! I was worried you wouldn't wake up, dear ..."
"Don't you remember?"
"I ... I think so? Some of it?"
"We found you on the path up to the caldera; you must have been following me up when you tripped and fell. It was horrible—"
"Uh, I'm sorry?"
"You should be, dear! Everyone was so worried. I was so worried!"
"But, I thought ... I thought I went into the caldera? I remember ..."
"No, dear, you didn't. You must have dreamed while you were out."
"Still! Let me take a look at you ..."
After that it's all perfectly normal; your mother fusses over your head and changes the bandages and pokes and prods to see if you have any other injuries (you don't) and asks you a series of bizarre questions to figure out if you have a concussion, all perfectly normal—
But she keeps on emphasizing that you were found on the path. That you never made it inside the caldera. That whatever you thought you saw was just a dream.
After a while you even start to believe her. It's easier than trying to hold out.
And besides, God wants you to obey her.