The Untethered of Flesh

The lines between religions and cults are sometimes razor thin, and so the most extreme fringes of faith can sometimes seem to create the most brutally fervent followers.

In 1935 CE, somewhere deep within the frozen Siberian Steppes, a small and violently insular religious order - their name translating into English literally as ‘The Untethered of Flesh’ - was forged in necessity and tempered in desperation by its founder Marat Olegovich. Originally the leader of a small gang in the Russian gulag where he was being held as a prisoner (the details of any charges laid against him have proven impossible to trace and he apparently never spoke of them), Olegovich began to shift the manner of his hold over his followers from the pragmatics of shared survival to spiritual counsel. After a few months he had converted around sixty prisoners and, crucially, several guards to a faith he was still in the process of defining and had yet to give name to.

Apparently impatient to take back his freedom, Olegovich decided not to continue with efforts to convert more of the prisoners or guards to his side, instead holding court to prophesise that God would send a sickness to strike down his gaolers and free those who were loyal to him. More amused than concerned, the guards ignored his warnings but a few nights later they were all - bar those who had secretly joined Olegovich - incapacitated by deathly fevers and nauseating dizziness. Seeing their chance, the prisoners began to riot; tearing the gulag apart as Olegovich and his followers disappeared into the night. The bodies of the guards who had chosen to join them, and had likely poisoned their former colleagues, were later found stabbed to death not far outside the gates.

The rest of the group wandered the frozen wilds for over a week, losing almost half their number to exposure and starvation as they ate through their supplies and resorted to foraging for anything they could stomach to eat. They began to refer to their hardship as “the trial”, with Olegovich convincing the survivors that their faith was being tested, that once those weak in spirit were culled from the flock the rest of them would be delivered. Despite this assured reassurance, dissention fomented into anger and one of the followers finally tried to attack Olegovich. Failing and fleeing, the attacker crashed through the earth into a warren of underground caves and broke his neck. His death was a bloody baptism, the caves offered shelter and food (edible roots and mushrooms) and the group set up their camp beneath the fallen world.

Faith solidified, Olegovich refined and refocused his teachings on the virtue and necessity of their ordeal. His dogma took the phrase “sins of the flesh” quite literally, placing the weaknesses of flesh at the root of all evils and believing that by ridding themselves of their flesh they could become closer to their God. The order finally had a name: The Untethered of Flesh, and strict vegetarianism became one of the groups central practices. Partly a matter of the internal consistency of maintaining that flesh was equivalent to sin and, I suspect, because the already underfed group became increasingly open to Olegovich’s more extreme teachings as malnourishment gnawed away at reason. Hunger, along with any other neglect for physical need, were gnostic experiences: the flesh denied was the flesh lessened, literally so as The Untethered of Flesh wasted away, diminished by the subsistence diet to which they subjected themselves.

Their cultish religion was a ragged tapestry of demagoguery and Russian Orthodox Christianity, deviating most starkly from the latter in their eschewal of Christ as part of a triune Godhead. To them, the idea of God made flesh was worse than wrong - it was the grossest, most profane blasphemy. Instead Marat Olegovich transplanted himself into the role of nascent, de facto messiah: He would be the first to knowingly and deliberately submit to the annihilation of his body, becoming a purified spirit that he might better know and enact the will of God. If aspects of Olegovich’s teachings had been pose or posturing previously he had clearly been won over by his followers’ belief in him, ego overtaking any underlying guile as he prepared to offer his last lesson.

Despite the worthiness with which he had imbued suffering, Olegovich preached that to die - even from such noble hardships - left the spirit bound to the sins of the flesh; one’s corpse a rotting anchor that, depending on how ill his mood on any given day, would either hold a spirit back from ascending to heaven or drag it down to the pits of perdition. Death alone could not suffice as a purifying act, so he drew up plans for a bloody and charnel ritual by which he could be reborn, a leader and example to his devotees. What he came to describe to his assembled flock was so brutal it would turn the stomach of the most seasoned torturers who had ever lived: a complete and total vivisection without anaesthetic or relief of any kind.

Once his followers had been assured of his certainty, that this was the right path, he remade one of the caverns into a ritual chamber and had his most trusted follower begin the work. It started with the complete removal of the skin, a pattern of long, shallow cuts which, when the appropriate brute force was applied, allowed the body to be completely degloved before the flesh was pared away, leaving organs and bones and a circulatory system. These were removed in turn, bones and non-essential organs first as the heart continued to beat and the lungs drew in slow and agonisingly painful breaths. That the loose collection of connected part could still be alive was impossible, but Olegovich’s heart continued to beat until it was wrenched loose.

Any air of ceremony came from the precision of the work, rather than any reverence or concern for the condition of the skin, for the meat and the muscle - all of which were gathered together and tossed out into the frigid cold to become either a feast for an opportunistic scavenger or a ghoulish surprise for some unlucky explorer, frozen solid and buried by layers of the persistent snowfall. Despite the fact that the work had been carried out at Olegovich’s insistence and to the letter of the instructions that he had given, a pall fell over The Untethered of Flesh: They had all been party to the death of their leader and, without his confidence, some began to worry that their beliefs were mistaken.

Three days later Olegovich’s voice spoke, a whisper that could be heard throughout the caves, continuing to share his work as catechisms. This continued for months, with the voice eventually asking that his second, the man who had performed Olegovich’s untethering, come to the ritual chamber alone. The others gathered outside and waited in silence until, after several days, Olegovich’s whisper beckoned them in, this time echoed by that of his second. Inside the ritual chamber they found another skinned and disarticulated body. The sermons and catechisms continued, now delivered both by Olegovich’s disembodied spirit and that of his former second. Every few weeks they would call another follower to the ritual chamber, later calling on those standing vigil to dispose of the remains as the voices were joined by the newly untethered.

This continued over the next few years until the last living member of The Untethered of Flesh remained, surrounded by voices. Olegovich asked him to write down the story of their faith and his teachings, a new gospel. It took him weeks of continuous work, and when it was done he was sent back into the world as the faith’s first missionary. Instead he died trying to find civilisation, with the gospel being found on his frozen body, the skin flayed from everywhere except his face, and becoming an occasionally-reproduced curio. Despite this scarcity a small number of pilgrims from all around the world go in search of these caves every year, most returning unsuccessful. The rest go missing, though it is a matter of mere speculation as to whether they have been lost to the harsh conditions or if they found the caves and became part of the group, themselves untethered of flesh by the divine spectral hand of Marat Olegovich and becoming echoes in his chorus.

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