Most martyrs are forged in ironclad conviction, in unquestioning zealotry, but there is a sickness that can turn its victims into martyrs of a strange and unformed faith.
On the smallest scales of which we can conceive, the distinctions between the unknown and the impossible narrow to an almost imperceptible degree; the sicknesses and maladies to which all mortal things are prone stemming not always from things we would be able to categorise by science alone. The human body can, undoubtedly, be riven and ruined by any number of micro-organisms, but some are more nefarious, seeking to rewrite the behaviour and change the very nature of the people they afflict. Most commonly, these behaviours increase the likelihood of the particular virus, bacteria or parasite in question being passed on - examples usually being more prolific or pronounced in the animal kingdom - but some, like the Nodding Syndrome which has spread from Tanzania through South Sudan and into Uganda, have a more mysterious intent driving them. But while the word intent may suggest a more deliberate influence than can be reasonably argued in many cases, let alone proven, there are examples of outcomes that certainly evidence links to purpose. The creation of Blackbone Martyrs is one of the more persuasive examples of such an aetiology, with a clear course between the original infection and the uniformity of new behaviours by those in whom the symptoms have run their course.
The initial visual presentation of the infection in question, and a lack of a known vector which to investigate, give the sickness its name - Black Web Disease - though the etymology of the word ‘disease’ makes that part at least a literal misnomer. Suffers will initially notice, or will be noticed to have, small web-like patterns on their skin, generally on their hands or feet at first. These webs, formed by a mould-like organism, will slowly spread across the skin, resisting any attempts to remove them short of excising or burning the affected tissues or, in extreme cases, amputation of the affected extremity. In both instances these are only palliative measures, delaying tactics, as the Black Web might only lay dormant for weeks, months at the outside, before reappearing on the sufferer’s body in a different place. The disease is not stayed, nor even slowed, on any amputated tissue; instead continuing to spread whilst simultaneously delaying any natural decay that should occur. While some people have wished to explore this last property more thoroughly, seeing potential applications for extending transplant-organ viability and slowing the ageing process amongst many others, most samples are incinerated as a precaution, despite a transmission rate that is only infinitesimally greater than zero.
Even on the affected person the Black Web Disease seems to grow outwards only from the initial site, concentrating its efforts on spreading uniformly. As it covers more and more of the body it begins to slow the sufferer’s metabolism; the depression of normal physiological and psychological functions progressing apace, hand-in-hand. They become sluggish in both body and mind, beginning to sleep upwards of eighteen hours of the day and only grazing on food whilst any of the thousand understandable fears they might have had are reduced to muted interest. Even before their skin is entirely covered, most are reduced to a soporific state more closely resembling a coma than a more fitful form of rest; heartrates reduced to under ten beats per minute, breaths so shallow as to be nearly imperceptible to the eye. When this state stabilises, they are close enough to death that inexpert attention might see them sent for autopsy, for burial or cremation. The Black Web Disease continues its work, not slowing down until the entire body is marked. There is a brief period of delicate stasis, breath at its most bated, before the patterns spread onto covered eyes and begin to draw the rest of the infection inwards, turning the sclera black.
From this point the progression turns to the creation of a Blackbone Martyr, patterns extending out along the optic nerve into the brain and through muscle into the skull and, from there, the rest of the skeleton. The patterns reform, tight and concentrated across and through the porous materials of bone and marrow, webbing over the surface of the brain and through the grey and white matter and turning them all to the ashen black. The effect of blackened bones is sometimes visible to the naked eye, and is more noticeable through pale and pallid skin tones, especially when coupled with a slight frame and in joints such as the knuckles, which are closer to the surface. Once the pattern has set in the bones, the previous symptoms abate entirely in under an hour, but the person who wakes up and walks away is not the same person who those around them will remember. First and foremost, and whatever their previous positions on faith - whether religious, spiritual or secular - they are Blackbone Martyrs from that point onwards; and some have questioned whether the original victim has changed or been more thoroughly replaced. Either way, they are committed to the new and often nonsensical faith that they are all too eager, even desperate, to die for.
Even though the Blackbone Martyrs talk endlessly, mixing the interests of their past lives into conspiratorial fears about how they had been distractions, deliberately placed in their way to keep from their part in The Great Work (capitals implied and, consequently, assumed), the shared foundations of their faith are either secret or poorly conveyed. Typically, a Blackbone Martyr will become increasingly paranoid and detached from their old life as they attempt, unsuccessfully, to share the new worldview that has consumed them. Garbled messages mix random words and concepts from classical theology, astrology and assorted superstition in with scientific and academic theory, creating dissonant tone poems that attract no new believers to their side. Each stands alone, seeming to make no attempt to acknowledge the condition that remade them, nor to seek out those fellow sufferers who might understand them. Eventually, they snap. The manner of their deaths, always within six months of their transformation, fall into the category of death by misadventure, but this is a kind interpretation of the recklessness that becomes characteristic of the grand and dangerous gestures through which the desperate Blackbone Martyrs proselytise. With science failing to stay or understand the transformation, exegesis has taken its place; with a score of scholars working through The Blackbone Gospels, a collection of their every recorded statement. As yet, to no avail.