The first time they outlined their hands with blown pigment, it was a holy thing. With the help of the sacrament they had shifted over, and placing their palms against the stone flank they felt warmth and movement, the charge of spirit. Through this thinnest of membranes they were making contact: the Others’ hands or forepaws were right there. Quick, get the paint!
Each time after that, though, it became a little more routine. The dried prints did not open into new passageways as they’d hoped. They made more prints, but it wasn’t quite the same. The rock began to feel like rock, instead of the living animal they knew it to be. Someone grew violent after ingesting the sacrament and split a boy’s head open before they could subdue him, so they decided to try the ceremony without it.
While most people just sat in the darkness feeling their bladders fill or resisting the urge to scratch certain itches, a couple of men claimed that it was better this way — they had a more direct access now, and if others did not, it must mean that they had violated some previously unknown taboo. Fortunately, their improved access privileged them with detailed knowledge of such things, and they began to speak the beginningless Law.
Now when they outlined a hand, it was to bear witness to one or another revelation. The steadiness of the rock was the whole point. Some things — perhaps most things — eluded contact, except in dreams. Those who knew could teach the rest how to become better dreamers, but it would come at a price, because don’t we have to kill in order to live? The Others were hungry for visions, so it was decided that the acolytes would stay underground and paint the pictures in their heads. They would give up sun- and moonlight for the welfare of the tribe.
The longer they stayed in the bowels of the earth-animal, the better and more vivid their visions became. Children were born down there and grew up by torchlight, clothed in thick pelts from the game they learned to draw without ever seeing it. Their parents marveled at their facility with the increasingly complex tools of animation, but grew alarmed at the obesity brought on by their sedentary habits. Come out into the other chambers, they pleaded. Explore the maze of passageways! That’s what we did when we were your age. But the kids wouldn’t listen.
The old shamans also felt lost. This new generation didn’t sit passively and wait for messages from the other side; they often began by sending messages of their own. The vision room became fully interactive. Those who lived aboveground only visited it four times a year, now, and the cavemen and -women regarded them with a condescension befitting their status as child-like primitives. You are living in a world of dreams, they would intone, eyes bulging, their corpse-white skin bared for effect. Be sure to keep bringing us fruit and game, so we can keep dreaming these dreams for you. A priest would lead them to the frieze of hand prints. Here are the ones who wouldn’t listen. See them reaching. See them trying to be born.