1/8/1472 – 19:00 – 19:40: The group, after a long rest, strike out across the vast cavern, and soon stand at the entrance to the Great Maw's lair; an ominous arch of ancient stone, studded with the teeth of huge sharks. Beyond a wide corridor stretches away into darkness, its walls thickly carved with eyes, tentacles and slavering mouths.
“There are less of the Shadrakuulite carvings here.” Notes Lia.
“And by the looks of it,” answers Varracuda, gingerly stroking one of them, “these were done by the Maw itself, using its disintegration eye”.
A sickly smell – cloyingly sweet like hyacinths, and yet, also rotten and fishy – drifts from the darkness beyond, and with weapons drawn and powers readied, the group enter the horrifically decorated tunnel.
It opens into a vast chamber, who's ceiling rises to some 35' above the ground. Every last inch of it is carved with grotesque images of eyes, fangs, slavering orifices and veined tentacles. The stench continues to build, and fairly soon, outlined in the unwavering light of the floating lantern, the group see its source.
For a few, frozen moments no one can even speak, for the thing before them is so utterly repellent and alien that they are simply unable to craft words. It is clearly an altar, raised to some vile and utterly monstrous being; a table like central mass some 10' across and 8' deep, from which rise curling ribs, which overhang the centre like the legs of a spider. However, it is crafted from living flesh; raw, slickly shiny and bleeding. Mouths set into the top of the altar's table – lipless and toothed – suck the putrid juices that drip from several maggot infested fish lain upon them, whilst the arcing “ribs” twitch and flinch in apparent recognition of the group's approach. Stretched, blankly staring faces – unmistakably human despite their grotesque deformity and mutation – emerge like buboes from the arched back of the altar (which seems to be made from living, meat wreathed spines), their tongues protruding to ghastly lengths as they try to reach the rotting meat set below them, their eyes almost coming free from their tortured sockets as they boggle and stare at their torment.
“Kill it.” Whispers Lia in a small voice. “Burn it.”
The two Dhampir stand motionless, their eye teeth unconsciously extending at the sight of the blood that pours from the altar, forming scummy, slimy puddles of sticky black around it.
“I wouldn't.” Murmurs Thatari in a sick voice, “This is an altar raised to Chelde, the Mother of Abominations. That blood is almost certainly tainted.”
They stare a moment longer, before finally winning over their instincts, and backing off.
The group search the rest of the chamber, trying to ignore the squeaking whispers that issue from the altar, and find nothing other than a few highly decorated pillars of rock, carved entirely into more foul forms by Shumeth's artistry. They then empty several flasks of lamp oil on the living altar, and Thatari sets it alight with a spear of volcanic flame.
The heat is fierce, and the group are forced to flee the chamber, whilst the altar wails and howls eerily, shivering and writing in the midst of the inferno. A horribly delicious smell, like burned bacon fills the air, and everyone struggles to contain their bile. All in all, the flames burn for about 15 minutes...
19:41 – 19:43: The altar's skeleton lies blackened and creaking in the middle of its charred meaty carcass, and soot and a thin layer of fat covers everything in the chamber, revealing, in a far wall, that there is a concealed doorway. The assassin, breathing through his mouth, gives the door a quick look over, and declares it safe, before Shnecke forces it open with a deep click of hidden latches and gummy runners.
19:44 – 19:49: A loathsomely decorated corridor is found beyond, its walls filled with more of the Xareth'Chelde's insane carvings – though unmistakably living growths of meat, and gently pulsing blood vessels weave and wind around them; living sculptures crafted by the same demented evil as the altar.
“I just don't believe that the beholder could be behind the altar and all this.” Growls the assassin, looking at something that hangs wetly and shivers between two glaring stony eyes.
“In ancient Draxia,” begins the warlock, “There was an order of mages known as the 'Flesh Sculptors'. They were masters of manipulating living creatures and warping them into living works of supposed 'art', beasts of war or slaves. They specialised in implanting symbiotic organisms into their own bodies, and indeed, were supposedly hybrids themselves, having changed their own forms to better suit their purposes. This seems to be born of their crafts.”
“Didn't we meet a Draxian back in Irin that time?” Muses the Ulnyrr.
“Yeah.” Replies the priest, “But they are but a shadow of the nightmare they were in the Second Age and early Third.”
“What do we know about Chelde?” Asks Lia suddenly, her eyes huge and haunted as she takes in the horror of the living decorations.
Grigori clears his throat, and shakes his head as the details of the deity rise to the fore. “I believe that certain monstrous codices describe “her” as 'an infinite ocean of liquid flesh, reaching tentacles, slavering mouths, madly glaring eyes and birthing orifices from which she endlessly spawns .'
“She is universally held as a source of many aberrant species and many of the more, um, unusual monsters in the world, and although most of her worshippers are utterly inhuman, certain cults and lodges dedicated to her as a fertility Goddess or bringer of change have cropped up with disappointing regularity throughout history.”
Everyone plods on, trying not to imagine the Seas of Chelde, or the kind of person who would willingly submit to worship her...
19:50 – 19:53: The corridor writhes through the earth back and forth, heading ever southwards, and the group soon become used to the quivering, staring, reaching, pulsing, dripping masses of clearly aware and tortured tissue that hang in whorls and lines amongst the increasingly vile carvings (which now seem to feature far more eyes and “birthing orifices” as the priest put it than maws). Soon the corridor widens, and its ceiling rises upwards to form a small antechamber of sorts; the main corridor continuing southwards, whilst another heads off to the east. Hanging from the middle of this room are several stalactite like structures made entirely from living tongues, melded together. Drool hangs down from them in long, sticky ropes, pooling thickly beneath, and as the group come closer, they begin to wave and twitch, their drooling increasing as they “taste” their arrival.
“Am I the only one that thinks we are inside some kind of great beast?” Murmurs the Ulnyrr, his jagged axe raised and ready.
“Ssshhh!” Growls Grigori suddenly, I can hear...laughing, coming from this side tunnel.”
He turns to face the others, his pale features even paler than usual.
“It's not the good kind of laughter though.”
19:54 – 20:05: They move along the side corridor, the air hot and humid, the walls here pulsing with fleshy sacs and quivering body parts that are normally not seen. Ahead a bloody, sanguined light bleeds wetly from a large cavern, and by now all the group can hear the sobbing, broken titters and thickly slurred prayers that ooze from ahead. Moving with surprising stealth for them, they manage to get near enough to see into the chamber without disturbing its occupants.
It is a large cavern, though almost every last inch of its walls, floor and ceiling are covered in flesh. Three membranous doors lead from it; one ahead to the east, one to the north and one to the south, each reminding the group of the hard fats that sometimes cling, sticky and fibrous, to cooked meats. The northern door is guarded by three canine beasts; skinny, slime skinned thing with narrow, pointed heads and four lidless eyes. Flies crawl over them constantly, feeding on their wet flesh, apparently drawn to them for some reason.
In the middle rises a column some 15' across, of what appears to be meat, a baroque mass of entrails, limbs, eyes, mouths, tongues and genitalia. Steam rises from this column, and the red glow that suffuses the heavy air seems to come mostly from it.
Kneeling around it, wearing robes that are apparently made from flesh and lank hair, are six humans. They are the source of the laughter and prayers, and seem to be engaged in some kind of worship; bowing towards the pillar and heaving up their clotted prayers.
The first of them dies in a blast of cleansing radiant fire, as Grigori sweeps inwards and unleashes his fury – though his entrance into the room triggers some kind of alarm glyph, a multitude of larynges that grow from the walls like weird fungi, suddenly emitting strident, mindless, piping screams. The rest of the group pile in, the barbarian splitting the chest of another before they can rise, the assassin running a third through. As they fall back, so the cultist's hoods drop away from their faces, and the adventurer's are suddenly confronted with visages straight out of a nightmare; their faces frozen, so it seems, midway between the features of a human, and something akin to a Xareth'Chelde. Tortured folds and bulbs of flesh bulge noisomely from their warped, melted faces, pulsing with slightly differing rhythms. Their mouths are twisted gashes, filled with human and monstrous teeth, whilst their eyes are either too close together, preparing it seems to fuse into one giant orb, or spaced at differing heights, weeping viscous fluids that reek of alchemical acids.
Now aware of the group, the canines launch themselves to attack, a gut ripping stench flooding before them, bringing tears to the eyes of all (save the two undead, who's breathless state renders them immune). At the same time, the eastern door suddenly thins and parts, revealing another monstrosity, quite unlike anything the group have seen so far.
It may once have been human, or may be some abomination that wears the bipedal form of one. There is no way to tell, for it is utterly wretched in form; a hunched, tumour covered thing with soft flesh the colour of wet clay. Its head seems to almost melt into its bulging, wobbling shoulders, and several 10' long tentacles, wet and spongy, are wrapped around its body, their origin impossible to tell. Its eyes are impossible to see, for they rest within deep holes that look almost scooped into its soft, rubbery face, giving it a lugubrious, almost pitiful expression. Its mouth is full-lipped and down turned, and tiny, sharp teeth are clearly visible within its wet, gabbling interior.
Despite its appearance, this horror moves with sure speed, and as it approaches Lia feels a steel hard cold reaching down her spine and into her soul.
“It's psionic!” She snarls, throwing a potent barrier of psi-energy around the group, shielding them from direct psychic attacks, and making the nightmare snarl with anger.
Beyond this thing, in a chamber lit more by varying shades of darkness that true light, the group get the impression of sturdy barbed feelers sprouting like strange, bloody ferns from the walls. And stretched upon their cruel ends, their bodies warped and bent into forms one would think impossible to allow life, whilst undeniably being both alive and aware of their horrible predicament, are several more cultists.
For terrible moments the cramped, stinking chamber is filled with ferocious combat. The canines are surprisingly durable enemies, who's savage bites send those they strike tumbling to the ground, whilst the tumorous horror proves to be a potent force of destruction, its tentacles and fists sending poor Varracuda and Lia tumbling to the ground, near death. However, hampered by the ardent's magnificent psionic shields, it is unable to effectively make use of its most potent psychic attacks, and the group are able to slowly beat their way past the surviving cultists and snapping Retch Hounds, to engage with it.
It fights like a daemon, but even as it knocks Lia unconscious, and prepares to blast the group with a wave of mind-shattering psionic power, it finds the barbarian's axe embedded in its chest, and with a despairing gurgling, psychic cry, collapses, flailing to the floor, its sweet-smelling blood pumping from its diseased heart sacks and smoking pipes.
With its mental goading gone, the surviving hounds beat a sudden retreat, taking their choking stink with them, and the group rush to heal Lia, and to secure this place of warped flesh and madness made manifest...