- It didn't take but a minute.
Stopping to chip a bit of discolored stone from the wall, he holds it up to his eye to study it. Odd geometric shapes catch his attention, the jagged edges of the subject showing a bit too perfect in the light. The cleavage divides golden ratio by golden ratio, pleasing to the eye and fantastical to behold. Uncommon shades caught somewhere between a grey-green and a midnight blue and cool to the touch, cooler than expected. And as his vision slips from edge to edge, patterns emerge. Like hieroglyphs in some ancient barbarian crypt. Forms too regular to be natural and too unnatural to be man-made.
Madness, they had called it, to believe that man could live in such a place. He, against all convention, had taken the writings as truth and led the crusade deep into the earth. Armed with but his fervor, what some had called fanatical zeal, he pushed downward and downward. And his surety is being rewarded. It's not so much that the people of the caverns had etched the walls surrounding him with minuscule workings of tools or implements, in fact, his companions largely fail to acknowledge the disposition of the place as that of artifice. No, it's as if the ancient dwellers of this chamber deep below the earth had influenced their domain by virtue of their presence. The rocks formed in just such a way due to the suggestion of vile practices and dark rites practiced here. Swirls in the sandy ground were as they were in response to the aura of rancor exuded by those who trod here. From the ceiling, even, fall drops of water that plop somehow discordant on the limestone and quartz to the beat of pagan drums and gnashing teeth. Every experience with which he is being provided proves his claims to be more than wild ravings to his peers.
The very first day in the dark, they had passed through a narrow spot in the tunnel, wherein had once been afixed a portculis. He had been the only one to see how it had once been. The grooves in the ceiling, though not visible to the eye, had certainly been mortared over to mask the intent of its builder. Ridicule followed from his companions who posited that he was grasping at straws.
But he knows it was there. The same of the hook they had come upon, high on the wall, where these previous denizens had hung robes, or bodies. Natural cave formation they had said. He couldn't expect them to follow his superior intellect with their closed minds.
From down the tunnel, faint mumbling from the group and shadows cast in their torch light are growing faint. He bids them for another moment to glean what he can from this place.
Earlier, a pair of columns had risen up above a dry, underground lake bed. Towering into the darkness, they were only just too perfect to have been the work of geologic forces. Strange angles protruded from them, angles that should have turned torchlight outward but instead cast shadows where they shouldn't. Angles that could only have existed beneath, in this place.
Warm illumination rolls out across the stone as the man moves on, fire capturing each detail of the rock face. Basalt slides coolly by as his fingertips graze across. The light bounces too softly from a depression in a shelf he leans out to avoid. Here in the wall, a lip of rock distends forth, forming a place where one could gather an assortment of one's liking: roses, candles, other, more sinister things...a microcosm of possibilities nestled in the hollow of stone. This being where the light of his torch seems to be collecting and from which, not escape, he draws his hand down to it.
The scientific curiosity competes with and conquers the apprehension of the unknown. "I've found something!" He cries. His distorted voice echoes him. No other answers forthcoming, he exclaims again into the dark. The light at the end of the tunnel has dimmed to nothing and the footsteps have faded.
Resignedly, he takes up the guide line at his feet and knots the rope to signify this place. Now, resolving to return, the man continues on, this time, the way he came. Left hand grasping the life line; right hand, the torch. Left brain, ahead; right brain, ahind. Left, earth; right, earth.
What manner of mystery perplexed him in these corridors? The forms in the bedrock they'd seen an hour earlier, sculpted by human hands or human imagination? Had the plank they unearthed the day before been carried here by a member of an ancient tribe or a seasonal flood? He shakes his head to clear the conflicting thoughts.
The path rises steadily as the thread leads him on, over a mound that may have contained shattered earthen jars, around outcroppings showing pick marks...or was it natural wear? Surely the expedition would see that the boot tracks in the dust were at least solid evidence of sentient activity in this place. Their constant refusal to credit the proof would finally be squelched when he returned them to the stone basin, showed them the designs in the stones, brought them upon a stone concretion, too hard to be natural.
Hooked into the edge of his perception, he can just hear an inhumanly quiet voice far ahead. His pace becomes a bit quicker. He recalls his elation earlier upon discovering painted images on a large stone. The others had written them off as lichen, red, orange, white. He stumbles a bit as his foot catches on a human skull. No, its a rock. Perhaps these beings turned remains to stone as well, surely a spectacular find! the skull seems to cry out to him as he hurries on, wheezing with the effort.
Ahead he hears more voices, now louder and with greater emphasis. His pace quickens further and his lungs burn. He shouts and echoes scoff at him. The rope he follows tears at his hand as it slithers through, taking flecks of skin until his palm is slick and wet. His feet fly as they threaten to outrun his torch.
"See what I've found!" He runs on, furiously pumping legs, furiously pumping heart. Another minute and two. His legs begin to cramp and moisture rims his eyes and beads on his forehead. The voices ahead are shouts and the tunnel is bright with light that illuminates nothing. Shrieks and moans ricochet from every angle, screams of terror and sadistic lechery tear through his mind. Something was down here. The thought grips his mind like some dark denizen of the underworld. Guttural groans and mad cacklings reach a crescendo. "SOMETHING IS DOWN HERE!" and his hand snags on the rope.
It's a knot.
A second passes. His wild eyes grow distant and unfocused for but a moment, then snap back as his mind butchers its way into the present. Cotton invades his mouth and cascades down the back of his neck, causing his hair to prick. Nostrils flair, skin blanches, extremities tingle.
A minute passes. Cold sweat trickles down between his eyes. The rope drops, the knees go weak. He calls out again and again, the words being chewed up by the darkness and regurgitated back in distorted, unfamiliar syllables. He sinks down to the ground, breathing hard. Tremors overtake him.
An hour passes. He makes his way down the tunnel, follows the guide line. The fiendish cord proves circuitous and he finds himself returned to the knot. Once, thrice. The torch gutters and goes out. The vile darkness settles about him. He strikes his knife against his flint, revealing a moment frozen time with each strike.
A day passes. He dreams in the dark. Haunted, morbid dreams. Dreams of grotesque beings with hollow eyes and hearts, breathing darkness, beating drums stretched tight with flesh. He awakes in the dark. His hands search the wall, guiding him up. He feels outlines too straight and groves too intricate. Details of portent. Surly there was a clan that had made this their place worship, had performed their wicked rites here.
Hunger grips his stomach and thirst parches his lips. Oppressive darkness robs him of sight and he stumbles with every step. There are no sounds, no breeze, no warmth. His thoughts turn continually to despair.
A week passes. He wanders down corridors and passages he is sure have been seen only by the evil spirits who built this place. He wheezes as he walks and he hears his eye lids close and open again as he blinks. His mouth is dry as the dust he kicks up with each step. His hunger is matched in ferocity only by his rage at having been left here. His hatred burns like the sun, so very far out of reach.
When the man calls now, there is no echo. His shouts for rescue crack out from his throat like leaves scraping across bare rock. His mind is full of vengeance, retribution for the suffering he's endured.
A month passes. He no longer weeps. His voice sounds only in vitriolic curses hacked out between bouts of barking coughs and ragged gasps. His eyes remain closed as they have long since dried and become frothy white. Fingers and toes lose their nails and back hunches to accommodate the twisted warrens he wanders.
A year passes. The infinite emptiness in its stomach becomes a comforting constant. The foul air and crushing silence are its closest companions. Stringy and pale hair swings from a mostly bald head and nails: hooked, black, and piercing jut from its digits now. The jaw, hanging ajar at a disturbing skew, sports ugly fangs like the stalactites and stalagmites of its subterranean domain. Above the jagged entrance to its cavern of a mouth, the once shining orbs have sealed, forever separating it from the truth of its eternal phantasm. What is left of the tunic that had hidden a man's impropriety drags along the floor of its home like intestines drug by the disemboweled. It shambles in the heart of the earth, alone.
Shreds of humanity, left over from the routines of its previous life, find their way into the creature's manner. It screeches and howls in an unholy tongue to the gods of this place. It cuts its body with shattered stones until it fills the carved depression in sacrifice to its masters. It doesn't remember why it claws reliefs into the walls where it sleeps until its nails are bloody stumps at the ends of raw, pallid phalanges. The beast only remembers that it's always been that way. Under the soles of mankind, the monster beats its skull against the carved monoliths it worships, pounding out a rhythm to chill the spirit.
And then, as it happens, the pitiful demon experiences the inexplicable as it dashes itself against the rocks, punishing itself for the glory of its lords. A sensation that has been long forgotten like an extant repression from the halcyon years of youth. It sees. The parched spheres beneath layers of scar and skin flare with pain as the light squirms its way into the beast's mind and etches threats and revelation into the inside of its skull. Illumination shines from somewhere far away within the caverns. As it listens, snapping its head away from the searing radiation, it hears footsteps. And voices.
Men come upon a stone basin spattered with blood, see freshly carved idols chiseled into solid rock. Inhuman footprints cover the ground and evil-looking words scrawled in blood cover the walls, the ceiling. Then comes the pounding. A rhythm to chill the spirit. And then chanting in demonic tongues. And then the nearing of dry footsteps.