THE PRISON CARCERI
Orrus had been walking for weeks beneath Vârr’s unforgiving skies.
Escape from Nouvatai’s tethers hadn’t been easy. The capital city’s grasp of its child-slaves and helot workers was tight and even those who were legally free suffered under its inscrutable eye. Everybody leaving was inspected for freedom papers, and anyone found wanting was sent to the ‘gangers, where they would either be picked up by new employers or, if they were never claimed, traded in the dusk-market auctions to magnates.
It had taken Orrus close to a year of struggling against the draconic administration of Vârr to obtain travel passes that would grant him safe passage across the ailing nation.
Those papers were worth more than any number of bits he could think of. Without them, a safe return home was inconceivable and he would likely never see the Institution again.
He thought of his goal, the mythic hollow known as Carceri. The notion brought a renewed sense of purpose to his endeavour. Purpose laced with no small sense of dread.
He had travelled with a group of pilgrims out from Nouvatai, heading northwest, following the old umbra pipeline to one of the rival capitals of Satarr. He left them there, continuing north in the company of a merchant barge fighting the flow of the river Ichoria for some days. From there he’d met up with a small cadre he’d previously arranged with to charter a voyage into the Plains of Vârr via conveyor. He’d spent over a week on the bone-rattling vehicle and had seen many relics of the nations’ ancient subjugation to Korachan - crumbling fortresses and waypoints, and, most disquieting of all, the hollow remnants of settlements that had been abandoned with the empire’s retreat years ago.
Then, two days ago, the ambulant had left him just a few miles from the maw of Carceri. Even the promise of payment had not been enough to persuade them to travel all the way to the infamous site.
He was alone now, with the great unending basin of the Vârran Plains surrounding him. In the distance up ahead to his left the terrain warped into finger-like pillars of stone pointing aimlessly to the open sky above. It had taken him a while to get used to the stars and clouds and the sheer vastness of it all. It made a difference to the concrete roof that he was used to having above him.
He was a man accustomed to the solitude. Strangely, a lifetime of transcribing and researching under flickering paraffin lamps within the bowels of the library had prepared him for - this. He looked to the sky, its twinkling stars and wondered how many of them were souls gestating, waiting to be born or reborn to the Material Plane.
He could spend a life wondering.
In the distance ahead, brooding and sinister under the dark pall of night, was the Varrachon - the great artificial mountain made from the tailings and waste rubble from the hollowing of the tunnels of Carceri. The locals said it was cursed, and avoided it, and, looking at it beneath the starlight, he could understand why. Even at this distance, over 50-miles away and little more than a ridge along the northern horizon, he could feel its presence, its oppressive history, bearing down on him. Foul thoughts trickled through his mind, polluting all they touched, causing his eyes to make furtive glances towards the flat-topped mountain, each lingering longer than the last, each burning the image of what he saw deeper into his mind.
Maybe the others were right in turning away, he mused.
The next morning he continued north, following routes that had been charted millennia ago and which had changed little in the ensuing years.
He reached a crossroads at around midday - a good omen. It was little more than a compact patch where the dirt had been trampled solid by centuries of travel. A bassorah shrine stood pitifully at the centre of the crossroads, a common-enough in Korachani lands. He walked up to it, his eyes making out a corroded iron idol, its features reduced to scabs of rust and discoloured grime. Once it had been an angelic figure, robed and proud; probably a saint of the upper territories, but time and neglect had reduced it to a mound of rotten iron, crippled beyond recognition. Prayers and graffiti were etched in the soft stone that surrounded it, so dense as to be more prominent than the stone itself.
The idol was covered in necklaces, some depicting stylised swords, others in the shape of a throne - both symbols relevant to the religion of Korachan.
Instinctively, he reached for a necklace he wore that bore a similar sword symbol.
At its feet was an accumulation of meagre offerings and baubles, some caked in dirt and others clearly left more recently.
Even so long after the Empire’s presence here, thought Orrus, its influence remains strong. He crouched and held onto his necklace, speaking a silent prayer to the Leaden Throne and the dead god that ruled from it.
When he stood, the Varrachon seemed fainter than before, as though rebuked by his piety.
He did not know what unsettled him the most; that his prayers to remove the maddening thing from his sight - at least for now - were answered; or that a dead god had answered them.
Sleep did not find him that night, so he began writing under the light of the Blood Moon:
…The Empire’s intelligentsia is likely acquainted with tales of the old pantheon. Legends of creation, hubris, fall, banishment and a lingering punishment have been passed down over the years, corrupted by local custom into fragments that exist in isolation, unaware of their other parts. Few have managed to piece together this wreckage into a true history worthy of such legendary beings. I suspect that none, in all their obsession, have unearthed the truth in its entirety, and any who claim so are likely guilty of the same hubris that doomed the Demiurges so long ago.
Carceri, was possibly the will and command of such a being.
I cannot say where or when the first shovel struck, or when the first pick fell, but it must have been a horrific task to be burdened with that first of unnumbered billion labours designed to create that great negative space within Elyden. For those workers to have lived their lives knowing that their decades of shovelling, digging, carving, were nothing besides the titanic proportions of the envisaged structure must have been soul-wrenching.
Or perhaps the knowledge that their blood and sweat had contributed to that dream (or nightmare, I know not which suits the grotesqueries of Carceri better) was a fortifying thing, a balm in a torturous life. Those labourers toiled under a gods’ obscene vision, trusting to faith only what their god could see. Perhaps its construction was purpose enough to them, a task of piety, of reverence in itself. It brought them together for hundreds upon hundreds of years, uniting a people who would have otherwise fragmented.
Artisans worked, delicately chiselling at a block of marble bigger than a palace, knowing that the face they were preparing would not see completion until after decades of weathering had taken their toll on its surface. Even as far removed from that reality as I am, I cannot imagine such a thankless task.
I try to imagine the centuries... millennia, perhaps, it must have taken to get those sprawling chambers and hallways hollowed out; the millions of slaves (or faithful?) tasked with dragging waste material from miles below ground to that arrogant landfill outside. A landfill, that over years and millions upon millions of tonnes of rock and ore and earth became the mountain known now as the Varrachon…
Head hung low under a soaked cowl, Orrus continued through the rain. The drive that had until then sustained his travels was ebbing, leaving his thoughts weak.
The false mountain continued to haunt him. It loomed heavily, now a ghost hiding behind the heavy curtain of rain that fell on the plains, and the further he moved, the more its ghastly form seemed to taunt him.
Finally, the blankets of descending water revealed something almost welcoming. Vârr had, under the empires’ auspices, been a land of quarries, open-pit mines, collieries and - further north, where the shadow of the Atramenta was weak - great lumber-works. Korachan had raped the land to within an inch of life before abandoning it. Even the monolithic colossi of ages past had been stripped, ripped apart by great machines for their materials; testament to the greed of that moribund empire.
Orrus was facing such a quarry. It stretched before him like a grotesque cavity, forlorn, a wasteland of detritus. Hanging over the quarry’s edge, was a latticed citadel, or at least what remained of one. It had stood there watching silently the slow decay of the Empire’s greed.
Soon, thought Orrus, it will collapse into the pit.
Orrus braved a brief foray into its bowels. There was little there in terms of comfort. It was cold, wet and empty, altogether a fitting remnant of the old regime. Anything of use had been taken years ago.
He slumped down against a wall. The man closed his eyes, willed sleep to overtake him. But it never came. His head was filled with the whisperings of that accursed mountain and darker, fouler things beneath. He could not sleep.
Instead, he wrote.
…Little is known of the Demiurge whose edict saw the construction of this place. It seems as though the history books, the loremasters, and the bards of old, forsook the name of this Demiurge. Yet who were they? I do not know if I should pen their name on these pages. It is a name that is largely forgotten, and to those few who remember, it has become synonymous with despair. Perhaps you should know. Better to have one layer of sanity stripped away now in warning than to have your whole mind burnt by ignorance at a later time.
Remnants and echoes of his name can be seen across this nation, including the name of the land itself - Vârr - and the foul mountain that looms to the north.
His name was Vorropohaiah, twenty-first of the Two-and-Twenty, a craftsman without equal amongst his siblings. The Demiurges were never satisfied with their work shaping the world, and continuing shaping Elyden, deforming her further with every touch. And so she was sullied forever by the hubris of the very beings whose purpose it had been to craft and maintain her.
In wake of their mistake, the Demiurges were cursed to live in the world of their creation. Vorropohaiah lamented this judgement, perhaps most of all his siblings, and his realm fell into despair even as the mortals entrusted to his support came to worship him as a living deity.
He was known not by his orations, of which there are few; nor for his great conquests, of which there were none; but for his creations, of which there exist many extant examples. At night he would dream dark things, nightmares that lurked round the corner of every dusk. Those dreams fuelled his unending need to create. Like his siblings, his purpose had been to shape Elyden, but the edifices and landscapes wrought by his hands were unlike any other. Valleys, colours muted, sounds subdued, were born of his nightmares and raised by his hands. Animals that know neither rest nor hope suckled on his tears, spreading throughout the world, bringing his dark dreams to those who slept.
Perhaps it was in his creations that Vorropohaiah found solace. Maybe each statue was a gaol in which he could imprison a nightmare and its polluting whispers. If such is the case, I cannot but wonder what form of demon or horror Carceri had been built to imprison, for the place sprawls like a canker, a tree whose poisonous roots span a thousand miles and more in every direction, spreading from a twisted taproot that, perhaps, to this day is home to a nightmare vision that disturbs a dead god.
He created compulsively, sometimes taking a fresh work and going over it anew continuously until nothing was left of the original or its subsequent incarnations but for the mountainous debris at its feet. He would instruct his prophets, who were as much craftsmen as religious figures, to quarry certain materials, warning them to not stop until the resource was stripped from the earth in its entirety, leaving thousands upon thousands of tonnes of material in the wake of cyclopean hollows. Sometimes the material would go untouched for decades, whereupon he would create a Byzantine structure overnight.
Few of these masterpieces had uses, though many of them survive to this day; their withered forms casting troubled shadows over Vârr and other lands…
Orrus’s dreams that night were replete with murmurs and glimpses of what might have been Vorropohaiah’s horrors, stalking the lands around Carceri. He could see nothing, and felt only the words that had wormed their way into his thoughts, haunting his mind with eyes open or closed.
Above him, the Blood Moon was full. The Virgin Moon was nowhere to be seen: a bad omen.
Orrus sat writing under the red light, the howls of troubled creatures filling his ears as dreams had filled his sleep earlier on. There was little he could do about it but rest with his firearm close by, and the harness around his dagger unfastened. Not once since leaving the confines of civilisation had he used them, but their presence had been enough to keep his spirits elevated. As though the gun and knife were not enough, he hung an amulet he had brought from the institute - supposedly a saint of Vorropohaiah called the Feeder - around his neck, as though the symbol of a dead god made any difference.
He would write more about Vorropohaiah or Carceri, but could not find the heart to do so. He wished only to sleep, to cast off the shackles of the waking world and fall into nothingness. But his dreams... he feared them so.
The corpulent form of the Varrachon lay before him like a gargantuan corpse, mounds of waste-flesh marring the grey-brown earth of Vârr. Its base was obscured by a sparse tree cover, their withered shapes trophies to the affliction of the land; twisted and tumorous, their fruit poison.
The path had run its course some miles back, where an abandoned inn sat rotting dejectedly. Where before he had been a vagrant lost in the ruins of a broken nation, now he was truly alone, a trespasser in a forgotten land. Carceri was close, he could feel it.
Finally, he was there.
It was little more than a pit, like the quarries he’d passed farther south, only far smaller and immeasurably deeper. It was trapped within a broken forest, the branches of its trees twisted and entwined together as though the land itself were trying to hide this place from mortal eyes.
Orrus could not help but grin as he approached. The scratches and aches that covered him were suddenly gone, replaced with a gratitude for his forbears - the Imperial surveyors who had mapped the region, the locals he’d met in the south who had told him of the forest and the ‘black eye’ within.
And suddenly, there it was; Carceri. It lay there like a slumbering beast, unaware of a world that was slowly, inexorably, passing it by.
All the research in the world could not have prepared him for the sight that greeted him. Orrus could scarcely believe it. Yet, there he was at last, the first leg of his journey finally complete.
It was no more than a hole, but still, for all its lack of pretensions, and the simplicity of its design, it was still the most humbling thing Orrus had ever seen. It was not the main vestibule of Carceri - that honour was held by a larger maw farther south, but it had been appropriated by witch-hunters centuries past, effectively barring entry into the great hollow. There were other places where the surface and hidden worlds coalesced scattered around Elyden, and none of them held places of honour and pride in their regions’ myths and legends. This was no different.
It sprawled before him like a sinkhole, roots and trees clinging to its sides as though there was no other place for them to lay root in Vârr. Orrus moved closer. The walls were sheer, though as he made his way closer to the edge, he glimpsed for the first time a gigantic staircase flanked by columns, with the gaping maw in its centre. its stairs worn to little more than a ramp, spiralling down into the darkness. The columns, where they still stood and had not tumbled into the abyss eons ago, were weathered and covered in moss, beneath which he could make out ancient relief-work, its details eaten away by time and water. And that was it. No roof, no other sign of artifice or indication as to the historicity of the place.
He felt like a maggot in a gaping wound, the body of his host unseen in its magnitude.
It pained Orrus to look at it, to think that so large a structure had been ripped out of the very flesh of Elyden.
“Wondrous,” he whispered, memory of troubled dreams banished.
He was finally there, as though the weeks of travel, the hundreds of miles he’d traversed suddenly meant nothing. He was looking at one of the oldest known products of mortal toil, predating every known empire and nation by thousands of years. The people who called Carceri home would not recognise the world that had grown around their home, and here he was standing on it.
Orrus’s sat down, transcribing what he felt into words he knew could never capture the scope of what stood before him. He rubbed his hands in disbelief as he wrote, trying hard to imagine each foot that had graced it, and the stories it could tell.
He stood after realising the absurdity of his attempts, and took his first steps down.
A tangible draft emerged from the depths, greeting him with catatonic air regurgitated slowly, deliberately, to the surface.
* * *
He had been drawn into that world; a realm of which nightmares were made and impossibilities were tangible. It was as though the farther he went, the more distant the rules of the natural world became.
It was his third day of descent and still he was going, stumbling down those worn stairs. He’d seen nothing but stairs and columns so far. Thousands of columns, marching motionlessly down the stairs with him.
Occasionally he’d pass a tiny doorway hewn into the natural wall of the pit that guarded entry into a room, whatever treasure or purpose it once held evaporated long ago.
Though the prospect of descending a seemingly endless stairway was nothing to balk at, the source of Orrus’s amazement lay largely elsewhere. Three days’ descent, and still there was light. Above him, the mouth of Carceri was but a dim star in an otherwise black night. But it was not a black night. An unearthly grey twilight yet permeated the air, painting the decrepitude of Carceri, a rotting place that deserved nothing but darkness in which to dwell. Gazing down the curve of the stairs, Orrus could see nothing past a few dozen yards, yet as he moved, that colourless luminance seemed to follow him, keen on showing him the musty rot of the place he’d found himself in.
It was weak, but enough to navigate with.
He had come prepared with a military torch and many reserve batteries, as well as a lantern and fuel, enough for weeks in the dark. Yet he needn’t have. It was eerie, and something he had not read about in any of the accounts of Carceri he’d encountered. It seemed to come from nowhere and yet everywhere all at once.
* * *
It was hard to keep track of time in a land that was locked in unending twilight. He consulted his pocket watch, taking note of the passage of time in his notebook.
Yet something nagged at him, as though the passage of time as he felt it did not correlate with the empirical evidence presented to him by the instrument. By this point in his descent he’d stopped to sleep for no less than six times, with many short rests between. His first attempt at sleeping within Carceri had been fitful, plagued by uncertainty and fear. He’d secreted himself in one of the small rooms that peppered the outer wall of the stairs, sitting in silence, too reluctant to put thoughts to paper, let alone sleep, but as he continued his descent he began to let go of his apprehensions, and sleep, if such it could be called, had eventually come to him.
Yet despite the amount of time he’d felt had passed, his watch showed an elapse of only 36-hours. Surely an impossibility.
Despite the monotony and slow tread of the descent - his legs were aching from the repetitive motion of descent - his descent was far from uneventful. More than once he’d slipped on the worn steps, tumbling down. He thanks the Leaden Throne for the outer wall and columns, which had stopped him from tumbling into the abyss more than once. In places, the stairs had been blocked by rocks where the outer wall had partially collapsed, forcing him to clamber over them. He’d even been forced to jump across the abyss to the other side due to the way forward being otherwise unassailable, a feat he convinced himself he would never tire of recounting to his peers once he returned home.
He encountered graffiti and other signs of previous exploration, with some scribbles in the old Korachani script going back at least 1,000-years, if the dates they proclaimed could be trusted. He touched them, marvelling at the link between present and past, and gave himself courage that he was following in the footsteps of braver more intrepid mortals.
His descent seemed fuelled by gravity and will alone, the strain in his legs doing their utmost to ground him. But now, on what he’d convinced himself was his seventh day, despite what his watch showed him, he was overcome with an exhaustion so great that no amount of trepidation could keep him from falling prey to sleep.
He woke to memories of a stifling prison, his skin glistening.
He ran his fingers through his hair, trying to bring himself out of the false prison into the present. But what exactly was the real world?
Increasingly over the past days he was finding it more and more difficult to tell dream from reality. Was a world of unending staircases and a darkness he could see through, reality? And if not, where was he? Sometimes he felt more alive when he was dreaming, the sibilant whispers of distant entities the only thing to remind him that he was asleep. Or was it the other way round?
He was no longer sure…
At times he’d hear a distant rumbling or chittering, or a chill whisper that seemed to have crawled from his dreams into reality. At others, his dreams were interrupted by noises he was sure were emanating from Carceri itself.
More than once he contemplated turning back, but the mere thought of those stairs, the strain on his legs, banished such thoughts.
And then, when his thoughts were ready to rally against him, the stairs stopped. He fell to the floor, the fatigue of weeks finally overwhelming him. He cried. His tears shepherded him to a sleep so pure and so deep that he might have died.
Orrus steadied his legs on the level ground, soaking up the simple joy that seemed dead to him, and looked around. He was standing on one side of what looked like a gigantic chamber.
Pillars, their edges geometric and hewn from the rock, supported a ceiling that hovered out of sight. From the darkness crawled roots, like the trunks of trees. They hung down from the void in matted clumps, some tangled round the great columns that supported the room, others hanging freely, swaying gently in a breeze that Orrus did not feel.
He did not remember seeing any trees on the surface that were large enough to support roots that size. Then again, that did not really matter, for no tree, regardless of its size, had roots that searched so deep.
And then, he heard a small tinkling sound, coming from the roots. He looked up, struggling in the gloom, failing to see anything. Dust floated down onto his face.
He cursed, blinking, and looked back up. Then he realised that not all the roots were indeed roots. Amongst them hung chains swaying gently in the expansive room.
He stood watching them, catching the odd glimpse of one as it made contact with another. In places, a huge chain would emerge from the darkness as he moved forwards, each link the size of a house, rusted solid.
He approached them, rubbing his hand across the scabrous metal. Any metallic lustre they might have once had was gone, replaced with shades of corrosion.
It’s like a forest, only upside-down and metal, he thought in wonder.
A forest that made a mockery of nature.
The farther he went the more vivid and exerting his dreams became, and he feared that that one night of uninterrupted sleep was just an anomaly. Sleep and wakefulness alike brought with them whispers that carried only the vague impression of words. Their pervasiveness made him wonder if he’d gone crazy, and if they were simply in his head.
His food, which he’d been rationing since leaving Satarr, however long ago it had been, was beginning to run low and though hunger clawed at him, he somehow managed to resist the temptation to finish the dry trail biscuits. He knew just by looking at what was left that there was not enough left for a return trip. He was too exhausted to think of it, hoping that the road ahead held answers.
He found himself stopping to rest more often, and found his pen wandering over the page more freely than before, the ideas and postulations of a man assaulted by an unreal world given form.
…The size of this place only exacerbates its emptiness. I am convinced now that nothing alive shares this place with me. I am alone, like an insect trapped in amber, separated so completely from the land of the living. I feel meaningless down here.
Strangely enough, the place only seems to come alive when I sit down to rest. At other times I notice little more than the odd reverberating echo, itself strangely disembodied and distinct from the otherwise silent place I now call home. But when I close my eyes when the time has come to sleep, I can feel the place come alive around me. I fancy I can hear colourless bats squirm amongst each other amidst those chains. I worry then that I am not alone, and am faced with the conundrum of whether it is worse to be down here alone or not.
I fear that I am beginning to understand the unsettling themes of Carceri, the despair that overcame Vorropohaiah and his worshippers. I hope it goes no further than understanding, and not into the realm of true experience…
He stopped writing there, his pen hovering over the page as he thought.
“Should I leave?” he wondered. “Have I really come this far to flee at… nothing?”
He looked around and realised that the wonder that had greeted his coming was gone, replaced with a dark trepidation. There was nothing awaiting him in that ruin, save death. And he had not come to Carceri looking for death.
He would leave.
Orrus’ story would likely have ended there, likely with his death, had fate not intervened to make Orrus a part of that wicked place...
Time passed, no longer a cycle, but a stream in waters of which he was trapped.
Who knew that after all this time, that Carceri would still be inhabited? And not by refugees or outcasts, but by the descendants of Vorropohaiah’s children.
On shuffling legs wrapped in puss-encrusted bandages they had come, their bodies hidden beneath layers of coarse fabric stained by decades of sores. Their hands, like their feet, were sheathed in filthy bindings that may once have been white. Through cracked lips they spoke an unholy blend of ancient Korachani mixed with words he could not fathom. Heavy cowls shrouded their features, and not even the glint of eyes could be seen in the darkness.
Those were the people who had found him, who hauled him across chambers and stairs and bridges to the dark room where the enormity of Carceri was reduced to little more than a single cell. His only furnishings were webs and the desiccated filth of its past inhabitants.
He sat in that cell for what could have been little more than hours, or as much as days. His only break from the stagnation of imprisonment was the cold embrace of sleep. The dreams that had plagued his earlier travels returned to him, reinforced by darker whisperings and secrets that had no right to be shared with one who was already so frail.
Light flickered in the hallway outside. It was the first natural light Orrus had seen in weeks. The luminance danced on the walls outside, causing shadows to skitter about the place. The walls seemed to grow alive beneath their movements, making Orrus dizzy.
The patter of footfalls marred that light, but whatever was carrying it never approached him, remained in the peripheries of sight, no more than a misshapen shadow.
And so his days passed, uneventful, each passing hour blending seamlessly with the last in a grey collage of waste that began to consume Orrus’s mind like a worm devouring a ripe fruit.
And then, at a juncture when his mind could take no more, an angel came to him. It was no creature of brilliance or white wings, but a foul-bodied thing, ally of those who had brought him there.
It came into his cell.
“Do you know why you are here?” spoke the figure, its voice a strange mix of feminine and masculine that Orrus could not place.
“How do you know this language?” said Orrus, realising how parched his mouth was.
“That is not why I am here, man of the sun.”
Orrus shifted his weight further onto the wall, remembering suddenly that he was a captive. There was nowhere for him to turn. His neck tensed, tendons protruding as he assessed his situation. It was hopeless. He had no option but to humour the man, if indeed man it was.
“You are here because we allow you to be. You are a trespasser. Tell me, how does your government deal with trespassers?”
Orrus knew perfectly well how the Iron Guard would deal with trespassers. He stared at the man, whose face, like those of the others, was hidden behind a heavy cowl. He could make out no features save swollen, cracked lips.
The figure nodded. “If we wanted you dead, you would be so already, friend.”
“That is hardly comforting. I am speaking with a man who would hide his face from me, who keeps me locked up without food or water, in this... this, hell. Tell me, friend, how exactly am I meant to trust you?”
A grim laugh served as reply. Then the cowl was thrown back, revealing the features of a corpse that had festered for days under the midday heat of summer. Only, the man was not dead.
“It felt courteous not to force your plump eyes upon this,” said the man. “I will cover up again in the assumption that that is your desire. There is no need to explain yourself. I understand. This,” he motioned to his face, “is not something you wish to see. But I show you anyway, perhaps to show that we are all victims.”
The man replaced the cowl. “Good. Now, do you have time for a story?”
Orrus realised it was no question.
“I shall tell you a story that is seldom heard outside of Carceri, one that only we provosts know. But first, you must sleep...”
The man waved a withered hand before Orrus. The world faded to black.
You know Carceri to be the dream of a Demiurge.
Our Lord Vorropohaiah, like his siblings, draws power from worship. We believed. He gave us life, gave us these wondrous places. Yet still, his thoughts lingered on what would follow our demise. Our Lord knew that his people would not last forever. He had to make sure that something kept future generations together. And this is that place. To this day, it bonds us together under his ever-watchful gaze.
This place is our home, as it has been for millennia. Yes, it is old. Yes, the spirits of billions haunt its depths and the blood of even more mars its floors. No place in this world has seen as much death as this, just as none has seen as much life. Great engines keep this place alive, keep the air flowing, the light burning. They toil endlessly in the bowels of Carceri, where earth turns to fire. These engines do not run on wishes or dreams. They need fuel... but do not worry yourself about such things, they are unimportant in the vast scheme of things.
All that matters is that we remain alive to continue the dream of our Lord Vorropohaiah. Yet, that dream was almost ended once.
There were never many of us to begin with.
Over time our numbers dwindled, as did the strength of our Lord. It was torture to see he who had given us life diminish, all because we were not able to maintain him.
Our death as a people was responsible for far more than his own dwindling in strength and faith. His mind grew weak too, spawning dreams that had never been revealed before. His nightmares spread throughout the tunnels. Somewhere in those dark dreams were sown the seeds of his great plan.
He left us, departing with words of hollow encouragement, urging us to survive until his return, when he would have all the answers to our ailment, to his weakness, to everything...
Many years passed, and generations came and went, until finally Vorropohaiah emerged from his solitude, changed.
And he spoke his dictum:
That every generation, the most faithful and devout of worshippers would be permitted to undertake a pilgrimage to the cavern he had called home for so long, where they would be allowed to partake in the holiest and most absolute of communion with him. That communion would sustain him and through him, his people.
He collected the most dedicated of his priests and returned to his exile deep beneath Carceri, preparing for the first of what would be many pilgrimages.
His return had an immense effect upon the people. Great masses took place, each bearing witness to tens of thousands of individuals, all ecstatic that their father had finally returned bearing wisdom. Great monuments were raised in his honour, amongst them the Hall of the Father Returned - a chamber, miles long to a side, supported by great columns depicting Vorropohaiah, constructed from ores unknown to surface folk. Preparations were made for the first pilgrimage.
Within a year, the most devout of his children had gathered. Amongst them travelled aspergists and thurifers, spraying their unguents and incense amongst the hopeful pilgrims. Flagellants, whipped into a frenzy by the hysteria surrounding them, smote themselves.
And in the midst of it all, his priests and caretakers, my ancestors, came to the towns that hid in the darkness. The faithful followed us in their thousands, young and old, man and woman, it mattered not.
They made their way through the winding tunnels, finding towers and monuments half buried in ash and dust along the way. Most had never seen such things, and they served only to fuel the passion and love they felt for their father Vorropohaiah.
Then finally, after years of travel, they found him.
The Vorropohaiah they rediscovered was not the one who had left them all those years before - he was bloated, laconic, but upon seeing his worshippers, his eye shon like a star in the equatorial sky. His worshippers saw this and they were ecstatic.
When Vorropohaiah spoke, they followed his words without thought. They went to him, giving him their bodies as he had decreed so long ago. They would be part of the most intimate communion imaginable - they would become one with their god, who took them into himself.
And so the processions of Carceri began.
Legions of priests march to and from Vorropohaiah’s mausoleum-temple, like a great train, each group separated by years of distance. The pilgrims’ unbiased devotion to their deity sustained them throughout their holy journey into ages unattainable otherwise.
Millennia passed, and the settlements of Carceri became breeding grounds for these pilgrimages. Vorropohaiah fed. As he fed he grew to proportions unattainable by any creature alive or in the imagination.
The Demiurge became the mausoleum-temple, filling Carceri with his form.
Our Lord the Temple.
My ancestors built great stairways within his flesh as the faithful marched on in euphoria.
They chanted litanies as they walked into his body where their physical forms were destroyed amidst screams of rapture, even as their minds became one with that of our father. That is how my Lord Vorropohaiah survived through the ages, yet it is also how we - his tribe - had slowly begun to kill ourselves.
We knew not at the time how quickly our population would dwindle, yet dwindle it did, until only a handful of priests such as myself were left - all others had sacrificed themselves to our Lord, the Temple.
Vorropohaiah needs to feed, and without the faithful to sustain him, he would die. Now, the matter of communion falls upon his priests, and those who would give their lives to become one with a god...
Orrus woke, coughing. He was sick, only there was nothing to bring up. He retched as the memory of his dream faded, replaced by the hunched figure of that man, or priest or whatever he was.
Orrus looked around, wiping his mouth.
“It was a dream?”
“Isn’t everything but a dream?” said the Provost. He offered a hand to Orrus. “You came here seeking a dead god. Instead you find one that lives, one that feeds. Would you help feed him?”
Orrus made his own way up, ignoring the hand. He looked away, unable to face the man who had planted such thoughts into his mind. He felt filthy at having dreamt such things. He had come to this place looking for answers, yet now all he had were more questions. Finally, he spoke. “This place is an affront to nature. I know now why its memory was left to rot, why the trees try so hard to hide those stairs. I should never have come here.
“Yet here you are. I have seen your thoughts, your dreams. You are close with Vorropohaiah. You obsess. You are here, a step away from finding him in a way you could never have imagined. Come and you shall see the world through the eyes of a god. Come and you shall feel what it is like to live for a thousand times a thousand years.”
Orrus touched the sword on his necklace, found strength in it. “No.” His reply was pure, without thought.
The provost nodded “You do not know what you forsake. You will live the rest of your short life wondering what it would be like to be a god, to be the hands that built this place, the mind that thought this place. You will die with that question on your lips and you will never know the answer.”
“Yet I will die the person I was born.”
“An ant, where you could have been a god,” said the Provost, shrugging. “So be it.”