Joah crested another hill, his feet crunching the fallen leaves – dried husks of burgundy and gold. There was a scent to the air here, Joah felt more than smelled it – a thick patch of must. He paused atop the hill, panting to allow his old lungs to catch their breath.
To his left, at the bottom of a small gully, Joah saw a massive slab of rock. The boulder was moist, caked with fresh brown soil. Up the slope to the rear of the gully was cut a fresh track of destruction from the wake of the stone’s tumultuous descent to the valley floor. The source of the trail was lost to a curve in the hills.
Joah made his way carefully down the slope to the monolith. He tested each step with his staff. The tempestuous summer had left many loose stones uncovered from tremor or flood. Joah had no intention of adding his name to the list of those who had fallen to their death from misplaced trust in old paths.
As he approached, Joah found that the stone was far larger than it had appeared. The oblong behemoth was roughly three times Joah’s height, and half as thick. During the fall, one end of the massive white stone had cracked off, revealing a deep blue-black slate beneath. The severed portion had landed flat side up just beyond the stone itself. A ray of sunlight decorated the rough surface, immaculate as the altar of any village chapel. The fractured blacked surface was like a rough sea, frozen mid-storm.
As if compelled by the rays of sun, Joah turned his gaze to trace the path of the stone’s descent. He was blinded by the early morning sun as it leapt from behind low clouds, bath the stone in a blaze of fire. He fell to his knees in rapture at the base of the stone. Surely this was a sign from God, this was the place to be prepared.
For a long time Joah remained kneeling reverently at the altar, lost in prayers of thanksgiving. Finally, as he started to rise, his ancient knees failed him. Joah shot out his hand reflexively to steady his fall. His palm slid across the edge of the altar. The flesh was shorn nearly to the bone on the razor edge of the flint. Joah clutched the wounded hand to his chest, watching as the blood seeped into the white shell of the altar. The blood that spilled onto the black face of the altar was lost, its deep color a perfect match for the dark luster of the cloven stone. This was not a frozen sea, but rather a churning roil of frozen blood.
Joah pressed a broad plantain leaf to his wound and bound it clumsily with a rage from his pack. Swooning, he turned back to the source of the ravine. The sun had been masked again with cloud, and no longer dazzled the eye. Now he could see that the rim of the surrounding hill had fallen. A shear crown as tall as a man wound around the rim of the gully. At the head of the scree pile gaped a deep blackness – a dark portal beneath the hills.
As carefully as he could, Joah picked his way through the loose dirt and small stone up to the cave entrance. The long walk from the village, the spiritual discovery, and the loss of blood had taken a toll. A wave of nausea overtook him, just shy of the cavern’s mouth. The world spun in his eyes, and Joah collapsed, his wounded hand reaching out to the darkness.