The world was a strange, spinning, sickening place, full of shadows and bright lights and screaming voices. It whirled around him, tossed him about like a piece of driftwood on the sea, then flung him gasping to the shore, bursting him in to consciousness. A breath. Another. A gasp of shock and fear.
The ground beneath his feet was smooth, cold stone. The air was a damp chill against his skin. It was dark – his eyes were still closed, because he was scared to look.
He was face down, the stone pressed all along the front of him. He peeled himself off it and knelt there, alone and shaking. It was cold everywhere but his back. His back was burning from the inside, hot and raw. He rubbed at it, but he couldn't reach. His arms weren't long enough.
He opened his eyes. There was light, dipping in from somewhere above that he couldn't make out, but only a little. It was dim and shadowy. He was in a little room – a cave – with a rushing waterfall flowing straight down the centre, into a pool on the floor, surrounded by a carpet of thick green moss.
He stretched out his arms – they were long and thin and white – and crawled to the moss. It looked nice and soft and cool. He wanted to lie on it, and soothe his burning back, but it took him forever to reach it (he was shaking all over, exhausted, he didn't know why) and lying down seemed to jar his spine, all his bones, dug them into his skin, so he crouched instead, huddled, and drank the water from the pool.
There was a woman. Perhaps she had been there the whole time, he wasn't sure, but she was there now, standing in a narrow doorway, holding a plain stone bowl.
"You're here," she said.
"I am?" He clutched at the moss by his feet. "I am. Why am I?" His voice felt sharp against his tongue.
"You were born. It's alright. You're safe." She hurried towards him. She was draped in cloth, a white gown that was hardly more than a thick sheet twisted around her. She knelt beside him. "You're not ready yet. You're not finished."
"I know." He could feel it. He felt like a lump of unshaped clay.
"I can help." She set the bowl down amidst the moss, and reached inside, brought out a sharp stone knife. She handed it to him. "Here."
"For me?" The edge of the blade was smooth and fine. He didn't dare test it.
She was unwrapping herself, unpinning her single broach and letting her cloth fall to the ground. It was just a sheet, a simple rectangle of cloth. She folded it carefully, and sat back, naked, to look at him. She was as pale as he was.
"Sit here." She gestured at the cloth. "Kneel. Face away." He did as he was told. He didn't know what else to do. Her fingers traced up and down his back. He could feel something sharp and unpleasant moving beneath the skin, as if running away from her touch, and he hissed.
"Does it hurt?" she asked. He nodded. "It's going to hurt a lot more. But you'll be finished soon." She took the knife from him gently and tilted his head down, forcing him to look away. "This will hurt a lot. Don't worry. You can trust me."
He felt the tip of the knife pressed against his skin, and he didn't have time to move away before she made the first cut, slicing straight down his back, a long, shallow line, then another running parallel. His back was open and bleeding, blood mingling with the moisture around his feet. Yet it hardly hurt at all. His back had already been a blaze of heat and pain. "Is that all?"
"No. I'm sorry." He felt her fingers on his back again, the knife gone, felt her tracing the edge of the cuts, and then she took a hold of his skin and ripped, tearing him open wide. It felt as if his whole body was opened up, a great gaping hole in his back, his spine, his lungs, his heart, everything exposed and screaming, he was screaming, and her hands were delving deeper and deeper into him, cold and hot and bloodied. His voice echoed around the cave, he was crying, he could hear himself begging, trying to fight against the intrusion, but her hands held him in place.
She found it. Something. Some thing deep inside. Her fingers wrapped around it, and she pulled, and pulled, until it was bursting out of him, sliding and flopping down his back, and she let go. She'd let go. He was free.
He slumped forward onto the moss, buried his face in it, in the wet, earthy smell of it, and sobbed.
"It's finished now," he heard her say. "You're finished."
There was no blood on the moss, or on the cloth, or on her hands. He reached up to feel his back, but there was no blood there either. Just something new, damp folds of something that wasn't quite skin rising from his shoulder blades. He groped at it wildly, at them, trying to feel. "What did you do?"
"I finished you off." Her hands were on his back again, gentling him, guiding him, rubbing at his shoulders. He felt his new wings flex and spread, and it felt so right. His eyes fluttered closed. They were tiny and weak and limp.
"They're so small."
"They'll grow," she said. She urged him up, took her damp robe out from under him and dressed herself again, then knelt, filled the bowl with water and washed the knife. There was blood on the knife, but nowhere else. She had no wings.
"I don't understand," he said.
"You will." She lifted the bowl, took his hand. "Come."
She led him away over the mossy carpet, his wings twitching against his back, through the little doorway, down the passage, and beyond.