I continued weeping on the way, but crucially, I also continued walking. I didn’t come this far just to lay down and die. It was a crushing setback though. I really thought I was close. Thought I knew what to expect from this place.
It never occurred to me that there could be essentially an entire other world down here. Ever since the village, I assumed I knew everything about this realm, or at least everything I would ever need to. How could I have known that beneath Hell, there’s another Hell?
Isn’t that just the way? Every time I think I’ve fallen as far as anybody possibly can, the ground gives out under me. The air, noticeably denser down here, stank unbearably of sulfur. The sky was piss yellow and permanently overcast, with no gaps through which to get my bearings relative to the world above.
I recognized it as the same thick yellow vapor from the spawning pit. It must be heavier than the white mist, collecting down here below it. But then, how do they float? How do those gas bag creatures float, if this is what’s inside them?
Of course it wasn’t important and I knew I would probably never find out, but it did wonders to distract me from the lingering pain of my wounds. The one in my thigh in particular, which pulsated agonizingly with every step. There was no keeping my weight off it either, on account of the satchel.
I couldn’t limp properly. I could do a hurried sort of hobble, but that hurt even worse than walking normally. I could feel my face contort every time I put my foot down and shifted my body onto it. If only it would go numb! Of course it refused to. If anything, it only hurt worse as the hours dragged on.
“At least I’m not alone” I mumbled, gazing down at the little bundle in my arms. Horatio gurgled, then slowly rolled up into a ball again. Wish I could do that. Then again, that’s kind of what I was doing before I wound up down here.
To think there was a time when I craved solitude. Back when I thought I was better than all those so-called mutants I lived in the midst of. They’d undoubtedly recoil in fear and disgust if they were to see me like this.
For the entire time that I was confined to the sunlit pool by my own ignorance, before I discovered the nature of the black fog, all I could do was feel sorry for myself. I can’t pinpoint when the reversal occurred, but now I felt pity only for the poor, decent people whose happiness I diminished.
It hurt to dwell on. More so than the bullet wounds, to the point where I couldn’t bear it and sought some alternate means of distraction. For a while I counted my steps. Then I sang to Horatio, though it was really to myself.
The cracked, dismal terrain stretched out seemingly forever ahead of me. I must be closer to the mountain than I was before, but there was no visible indication of it. Onward I trudged, nevertheless, for lack of any other option except to lay down and die.
Maybe that’s my way out of here, I thought. This long, grinding misery could finally come to an end. It wouldn’t be so bad if I’d stuck by the black pool, I’m certain of it. If I’d just let them finish turning me into a mindless beast…
I’m only suffering so much because I’m still conscious. Still intelligent enough to reflect on what life was before this happened. If I just let them finish stripping away my humanity, this pain would’ve vanished along with it.
It’s only Hell until you give in and become a demon. Then it’s simply home. Whatever you cannot overcome, you must either adapt to or be destroyed by. To refuse to adapt to new surroundings is to declare war on them. To invite, and deserve, the suffering which results.
At least that’s how it seemed to me as I plodded through the desolate brown expanse, cursing my own stubborn nature with every step. “It only hurts until you adapt” I repeated to myself. Land is Hell to a fish. The deep sea is Hell to humans. But not because either are designed for the purpose of torment.
The abomination of desolation. That phrase kept repeating in my mind. Where have I heard that before? One of my old roommates I think. That’s what this place is. Nothing captures it as well. The abomination of desolation. The abomination of desolation. The abomination…
The wind picked up. Gentle when I arrived, now buffeting my body and bearing along clusters of dried mud flakes through the air. More than once, a flake wound up in my mouth, turning back to mud before I could spit it out.
Still others frequently blew into my eyes. The gale grew more and more violent, mud flakes whipping past with increasing density until I realized a storm was upon me.
Nothing to do but press on and endure it. Even when it toppled me, what could I do except pull myself to my feet and forge ahead? When the silhouette of a jagged outcrop drew near, I almost didn’t believe my eyes.
Wouldn’t have been much comfort before the storm. Up close, the formation turned out to be made of obsidian or some similarly brittle black mineral. The larger dagger shaped protrusion branched out all along its surface into smaller, pointed shards.
Any shelter in a storm. I nestled in as tightly as I could without slicing myself on it, holding the satchel close. In the process I bumped something behind me. When I turned to look, it was human remains.
Despite the raging winds, the excitement of discovering the first trace of humanity I’d so far seen down here compelled me to examine the pitiful heap. Long since reduced to bones, still wearing a tattered, faded uniform bearing a hammer and sickle insignia.
I couldn’t read the name embroidered under the insignia, but recognized it as Russian. Must’ve had the same idea I did, taking refuge here while a storm blew past. Only to pass away, in his sleep if he was lucky.
I then noticed some odd contraption on the skeleton’s wrist. Like a bulky wristwatch with several dials, a busted speaker grille and a little red bulb which must’ve last illuminated years, even decades ago. The fractured grille revealed torn wires inside.
If he fell down here, as I did, the watch must’ve broken on impact. Then again it should’ve also broken every bone in his body. He might’ve flown down here on a winged insect. But then how did the watch break?
Who was he? How did he wind up down here, I wondered. Abducted from his home like I was? His uniform seemed to suggest otherwise. Do the major world governments already know about this place? Perhaps they’ve sent expeditions before.
But then, why is he alone? Did his buddies leave him behind? More questions I would never know the answers to, as the dead are famously good at keeping secrets. Whoever he was, his troubles are over. I was not to be so fortunate.
Once the storm passed, I set out for the next outcropping. I lost my bearings during the storm, but the mountain was now visible again. The closer I got, the more numerous the outcroppings became. I grew so accustomed that when I saw the first ruin, I initially mistook it for another outcropping.
I slowed on approach, still unsure what I was looking at. The architecture was altogether alien. Angular, monolithic and brutal. A monument of some kind, I assumed, as I could see no entry or exit. No windows, no doors, nothing I would expect it to include if it were a dwelling.
I might’ve explored it more thoroughly, except that I spotted another like it on the horizon. Traveling from one to the next on my way towards the base of the mountain, their frequency increased until I was surrounded.
There must’ve been a civilization here. Hundreds of thousand strong. Millions? But the more ruins I encountered, the more I began to notice a certain theme. None were usable for anything. Even those which resembled buildings.
Stay Tuned for Part 18!