The fissure had not been hard to find. The locals all knew of it and avoided it like the Black Plague. They pointed the way to the knight and shook their heads behind his back, making their signs of warding against evil just for good measure. And once Ceannric had gotten within a quarter mile of the place, the smell led him the rest of the way...the rotten-egg odor of sulfur and a curious, underlying sweetness that reminded him of clotting blood. He pushed on past dusk, not eager to spend another night camping when he was so close to his goal...not that he'd be able to sleep much anyway, so fraught were his nerves. The discoveries of the past few months had been unwelcome additions to his mental repertoire; revelations of the portals, rumors of betrayal, the epiphany of the Everwar and its seemingly imminent arrival on their very shores. It did not make for pleasant dreams.
The terrain was uneven and rough, strewn with fallen logs, thorn patches and bracken, catching at his boots as if to beseech him not to continue with this foolish quest. Then, suddenly, the plant life simply...died out. Not a tree, not a shrub, not even a stubborn weed. Nothing but a wasteland of a clearing fifty yards across, populated only with bare dirt and cracked boulders. It was between two of these, at the center of the despoiled earth, that he could spy the fissure, little more than a brutal breach in the rock from whence the black vapors issued forth, a belch of unnatural despair.
He crept forward, pulling his pack from his shoulders and digging for the rope, looping it around his chest. He had no idea what to expect, and limited himself to a long knife for weaponry, wrapping a length of dampened cloth around his face to help keep out the fumes. With a brief prayer, he ignited the light within the crystal pendant round his neck, stepping into the breach. The very moment his foot passed the threshold, the fine hairs on the back of his neck stood on end, and the magical light seemed to glow a bit dimmer, as if the darkness sought to consume it. He did not need to cast any divinations to know this was no natural place.
The descent was narrow and treacherous, the stone underfoot crumbling, more akin to a tomb than anyplace meant to be traversed by man. In places he had to turn sideways to squeeze through the spare apertures. And the fumes were relentless, acrid and black. His eyes watered and stung, and more than once he had to stop and uncap his waterskin to replenish the moisture in his veil and splash his face for some relief. It mattered little; within mere minutes it was bone dry again, and he coughed under the cloth like a serial pipe-smoker. His light wavered on the uneven walls, casting bizarre shadows that did not seem to mirror any movements he was making, and he could swear he heard faint whispers emanating from all around, impossible to localize. He chastised himself for an overimaginative fool, and continued down.
How much time had passed? He knew not, only that his knees ached and the heat was oppressive. But gradually, he became aware that the passage was broadening, only minutely, but enough to allow the vapors to spread out a bit and become less blinding, more just a nuisance. Then, without warning, his boot turned on a patch of scree, and down he went with a muffled bellow and a small avalanche of gravel, covering the next few yards in a trice, albeit on his backside. With some choice Themsian curses, he got to his knees and picked himself up, brushing stone dust off his breeches, raising his crystal to look around and get his bearings...
A room. Or really, more just a larger cleft in the rock, on the far side of which the crack narrowed to a mere stalagmite-ridden slit, looking for all the world like a maw hanging slightly agape, smoke issuing forth like the foul breath of a leper. In front of the wall squatted a low, broad platform of black rock, the dimensions of an altar, discolored with darker stains that put one in mind of rivulets of liquid that must once have spilled down the sides. Fat, half-melted cylinders of dark tallow still clung to the corners like mute aspirants. But it was the carvings on the walls that drew his eye, disturbing runes strewn across the stone in discordant lines that hurt the brain to see. He squinted at the wriggling letters, slowly realizing it was an ancient dialect he'd seen in some monastic libraries...his lips moved as he turned, translating, reading the inscriptions half aloud...
Black candles I light in your honour,
I invoke you in this precious moment.
Your sigil I have drawn.
I cut my flesh.
I give you, Orzalon,
my life force.
My blood is spilled for your victory.
The words swirled before his eyes, and as he read, his inner monologue seemed to be joined by a growing chorus of other voices, voices feverish with the pitch of fanaticism, and a deeper, bone-thrumming bass that bespoke something much larger, far older, guiding the intonation. It vibrated along the cartilage of his ears and swelled in his head, rushing forward in a zealous momentum that brooked no hesitation or pause. A low, husky laughter bubbled up, sinister and insane.
I am your temple.
I feel your presence increasing within me.
When people look at me,
they see you.
As they feel me,
they feel you.
I anoint them with my blood.
When they drink of me,
they drink of you.
From somewhere, Ceannric heard screaming. He thought it might be himself. Images coalesced in his mind's eye, a panoply of horror. He could see shrieking humans being held down by chanting, dark figures as they were skinned alive, the knife so meticulous and careful, keeping the flesh intact as it was peeled away inch by inch...the skins being hung like cloaks, saved for later use, waiting to be worn...And the smell, overpowering, a wall of stink that assaulted the reptile brain, every visceral fear known to man coagulated into one, pungent sniff...
He remembered nothing of the hysterical, pitched flight from the fissure, the torn flesh and bruised limbs from scraping the walls on the way out. The moon was high in the sky when he came back to himself out amidst the bracken, on his hands and knees, dry heaving into the dirt. He shivered and spit a gobbet of blood from his bitten tongue, clambering to his feet on shaky legs. He never looked back toward the fissure. He could not bring himself to do it.
One word echoed throughout his mind and made his flesh crawl, his spirit quail at the possibilities it suggested. He must get back and tell the others, share this revelation before it seemed merely the stuff of fable and nightmare, the fabrications of a troubled mind. He said it aloud once, just to hear a sound beside the pounding of his own blood in his ears.