Within

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The assembled rocks seemed solid enough, and they had held up under Porfirio’s weight, but Deke still gave them a tentative kick before taking the first step into the structure. Nothing budged, and so he plunged in.

The passageway was a narrow cleft between the towering rocks. It was lit well enough from the sun overhead, but shadows gathered and seemed to move at the base of the pillars. The passage twisted and turned, making it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. Porfirio was nowhere to be seen, but as there had been no branches off of the path, he still had to be somewhere ahead.

A small spiral staircase built of flat rocks took Deke to a second level within the structure. He had no idea how far into it he was, his sense of direction tangled by the tortuous path. The walls were smoother now, large slabs of stone that looked far too heavy for even Porfirio to lift. They were a reddish sandstone, their colors seeming almost liquid in the shadowed light.

Step, turn, twist. Long minutes had passed without a sign of Porfirio. Deke was starting to question whether he’d missed a turning after all. The sandstone slabs in the walls were interspersed with enormous white pillars embedded in between the slabs now, great towering structures as broad as Deke’s waist that looked like nothing so much as tremendous bones. The red in the walls had deepened. The floor was slightly sticky underfoot. Deke looked down, but saw nothing but darkness. He could barely make out the shapes of his own feet.

“Porfirio!” Deke called again. In the narrow confines of the rock, he expected his shout to ring in his ears, but instead there was no echo at all. It was as if he were in the middle of an endless void, with nothing anywhere to hear his voice. Deke touched a wall for reassurance, and found it warm and slightly yielding to his touch. His fingers came away sticky and red.

Up ahead, the path split at last. Deke paused at the three options, unsure which one to take. He started down the leftmost, only to hear a strange squelching sound from ahead.

“Porfirio?” he called, drawing his gun from its holster. Again, his voice returned no echo. Deke stepped cautiously forward, gun at the ready.

Four steps took him to the next twist in the passageway, where he was hit by a stench intense enough to make his eyes water. Through the haze of tears he saw some sort of white, dog-sized creature rearing up at him from the ground. He staggered back a step, thumping his back into the semisoft wall, and the creature advanced. Deke fired two shots at it and was rewarded with a squeal and a thud.

Wiping away the tears and covering his nose and mouth with his hand, Deke knelt to examine the thing he had shot. His bullets had torn through it like soft cheese, splattering the walls with a pulpy white mass. The creature itself appeared to be some manner of grub, only grown to incredible size. Deke had never seen anything like it. The smell, however, reminded him of the rot that had festered inside Ol’ Sal. Deke wiped his hands on his pants, spat on the ground, and turned back to try another path. It seemed unlikely that Porfirio had simply stepped over this thing.

The next option Deke tried also had a grub, but this one was dead, its body split open from where it had been kicked into the wall. Deke covered his mouth again and hurried past, glad to be on the right track again. He had lost track of both distance and time, but it felt as if he had been in here for half an hour or more. He glanced up to see where the sun stood in the sky, only to realize that the walls now closed together in a vaulted ceiling overhead. The light within was unchanged, seemingly coming from the walls themselves. The sandstone was redder than ever, its swirled patterns standing out against the stark white pillars still appearing at regular intervals.

Up ahead, the path forked again, but this time one wall was marked with a smear of lumpy white pulp from a grub. No dead grub was visible nearby, so Deke assumed that Porfirio was simply carrying a handful of that with him. He imagined the smell and nearly gagged. A man might never get that stench off of his hands.

Deke followed the path, dependent entirely on his unseen leader. At one point he had thought to turn back, and had retreated to the previous junction only to discover that he did not know which tunnel he’d come from. Deke pictured being lost in here among the endless red walls, day and night unchanging, eating rot grubs to survive. His stomach lurched, and he turned back to follow Porfirio again.

For miles, the path seemed to stretch on. Deke simply followed, eyes alert, hand on his gun. The red walls were soft enough to yield to a finger’s touch now, bending like a thick sheet of rubber. Even with his knife, though, Deke couldn’t manage to make a scratch, and the white pillars were as hard as any granite. From deep within the walls, however, Deke could hear a slow grinding noise, a steady chewing. He did his best to shut his ears against it.

Without warning, the path opened up into a large, dimly-lit chamber. Deke couldn’t make out the ceiling or the far wall, but he could see in front of him clearly enough. The main feature of the chamber that Deke could make out was a pair of pits carved into one of the walls, a dozen yards ahead on the left. One was packed full of the oversized grubs, a restless, squirming pile of them which seemed about to spill out onto the floor. The other was a smooth, inky black, flat like a mirror.

Porfirio stood in front of the pit with the inset black disc, staring at his dark reflection. Deke hesitantly approached him.

“So,” he said. “I came all this way with you. Want to tell me what I’m looking at?”

Porfirio looked at Deke intently, then reached out and placed his hand against the blackness. The disc bulged slightly, and then suddenly Deke was staring at Father McCaig, as close as if he’d been sitting in the first pew at church. The padre was in the middle of a sermon, his face red and the scars around his eyepatch burning as he preached.

“‘But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect! And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. And the Lord said unto Cain, “Why art thou wroth? Why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well: sin lieth at the door!”’

“Wonder not to whom I speak, Deke Dambacher!” Father McCaig thundered. Deke started, hand twitching for his gun. “I speak to you, for though you be distant, I know ye be listening. All is revealed to me now. All!”

Father McCaig reached up a hand and tore away his eyepatch with a flourish, revealing that horrible, marred hole where his eye had been, and the terrible word carved into his flesh. As if to make sure that Deke could not avoid it, the picture zoomed in, allowing Father McCaig’s ruined eye to fill the entire disc. Its pustulent streaks and tarry ichor loomed large in the cavern, and Deke stumbled backward as the eye enlarged.

Porfirio, however, reached out and into the picture itself, his hand reaching into Father McCaig’s magnified eye to scoop out a thick handful of the black tar. Father McCaig roared, a booming sound that shook the cavern, and then the picture went black, the disc returning to a dim, featureless mirror.

Porfirio advanced on Deke, his hand dripping with black ooze.

“Oh, no,” said Deke, backing away. “You keep that away from me. I don’t need no part of that.”

Still Porfirio came, closing the distance with large strides, and Deke pulled out his knife.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Porfirio, but I ain’t letting you touch me with that.”

Deke held the knife in front of him, and when Porfirio stepped into range, lashed out. He intended to score a hit down the outside of his forearm, a cut designed to hurt, not to damage. But Porfirio stepped into it, grabbing Deke by the upper arm and causing the knife to stab him in his side.

Deke felt it glance off of Porfirio’s rib and winced, trying to pull the knife free. Porfirio clamped down on his arm and held him in place, making it bite in deeper. With his other hand, he reached out and smeared the black goo from Father McCaig’s eye across Deke’s face, slathering it across both of his eyes.

“Hell! Get it off!” Deke cursed, staggering away as Porfirio released him. He reached up to wipe his face clean, only to feel his wrists seized in two giant hands. “Let go of me, you big damn idiot!”

Deke opened his eyes to aim a kick at Porfirio, but what he saw froze him in his tracks. Were it not for the winestain birthmark covering what remained of his face, the man in front of Deke would have been unrecognizable. Half of his face was missing, all the way down to the bone underneath. The eye sat loosely in its bony socket, staring unblinking at Deke.

The rest of his body was no better. Skin, muscle, even organs were gone, ripped away in large chunks. At his feet sat a large wolf, its muzzle buried in the calf muscle of Porfirio’s right leg. It tore it away as Deke watched, blood spurting to cover the wolf’s face. Ice-blue eyes locked with his above a bloody grin, and Deke recognized the eyes of the grey-suited man from the park.

If any of this hurt Porfirio, he gave no sign. His skeletal hands still held all of his usual strength, and he dragged Deke across the floor. Deke followed numbly, unresisting, trying to piece together what he was looking at.

Before he could find the words to ask the question, Porfirio pushed him through the black disc, and Deke fell into darkness.


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