A staircase wound halfway up the exterior of one, halting before reaching the top floor. What looked like a doorway proved to simply be a tunnel passing straight through the solid mass to the other side. The windows were actually just shallow carved reliefs, not openings to a hollow exterior.
The next was a chunk of a maze. Like somebody cut out a section of a much larger obsidian maze and plopped it down here…though I could see no signs of fractures, and it was built on what looked like a permanent foundation embedded in the terrain.
Somebody built it like that on purpose. Multiple entries and exits, no rhyme or reason to it, absent the larger context that would’ve given it purpose. Why? Why build this? I’m no archaeologist, but shouldn’t the ruins of a civilization look lived in?
Shouldn’t it all be designed for practical purposes? Homes, roads, walls for defense, farms and so on? Nothing I’d seen so far looked useful for anything. Even the structures most architecturally similar to buildings were deliberately designed to be purposeless.
I couldn’t fathom why. The amount of labor involved to build all this had to have been staggering. All that for nothing. For thousands of enigmatic, derelict ruins. Perhaps the final legacy of a sick culture?
Yes, that’s it. A demented people who devoted themselves to building all of this, for no other reason than to leave it behind. Temples, maybe? Tributes to the god of madness. Still, I took some encouragement from it.
It was a significant change, for one thing. Welcome indeed after that long, dreary trek across the wasteland. The increasing occurrence of these ruins as I approached the mountain suggested I was onto something. That I was headed in the right direction.
For what, I couldn’t say. Something. Anything besides more wasteland. It didn’t seem possible that these ruins were natural formations, but I still couldn’t comprehend why they were built. Ruins don’t just spring out of the ground. A civilization had to exist here at one point to construct them.
I kept returning to that thought over and over as I made my way between the towering, abstract shapes. Working myself up, convincing myself that they might not be extinct. That there may still be humans down here, and something resembling a society.
A few of the obsidian structures were recognizable as parts of an enormous statue. Did it topple over, scattering its constituent pieces across the landscape? I could see no signs of damage, save for erosion.
What if these were built by those assholes who shot me down? What if I was heading straight for an outpost teeming with them? At least then I might find some answers, if I could isolate one of them from the rest. Or even hijack one of those airships.
At least then I’d be somewhere. That’s the heart of it. I’d already wandered through more nowhere than I ever cared to see. So eager was I to follow this path to its end, that it took me some time to realize I was being watched.
Out of the corner of my eye, taking care not to let them know I was aware of their presence, I spotted several shadowy forms darting between the rooftops of those queer obsidian buildings. Fleeting, like apparitions.
Their numbers grew as I walked until dozens carefully studied me, lining the top floors and stairwells to either side. What are they? What do they want? Despite myself, I clutched the satchel to my chest. It’s not the grub they’re after, surely?
Once there were enough that they felt safe, they no longer made any effort to hide from me. They must’ve been human once. Two arms, two legs and a head. But such slender limbs, their torsos coated with thick, black fur.
Their heads were all wrapped up in filthy white gauze, dried stains where blood soaked through under the eyes. I called out to them. First introducing myself, then asking what they wanted from me. There came no reply.
Instead the creatures quickly encircled me, emerging from tunnels carved into the monoliths, and from crevices between them. How delicately they crawled, bodies contorting to follow the unique contours of each structure as they scaled its walls.
More and more, teeming, flowing along the walls around me. Surging and coursing like rivers of strange flesh, sinewy limbs rhythmically shifting to find new hand and footholds with spider-like grace. I called out again, this time a warning. Once more I received only silence for my trouble.
Then, an ear splitting groan filled the air. I clutched my ear holes and doubled over, scanning my surroundings for the source. The crawling, bandaged things immediately scattered. When I spotted the cloaked figure on the horse, it answered one question but raised another.
Should I also flee? If those things are afraid, shouldn’t I be as well? The figure finished blowing into a hollowed out ram’s horn, stashed it within its cloak, then awaited my reaction. I couldn’t make out whether it was man or woman. Or human, even.
The cloak consisted of a billowing, gauzy sheet of black fabric which totally covered their body, without even holes to see through. For the brief moment its hand was exposed while it blew on its horn, I could see its arm was skeletally thin, covered in a brittle layer of translucent brown skin.
The beast it rode on was stranger still. For one thing, it had no head or even a neck, just a four legged torso. The legs were proportionally those of a horse, if elongated, and they did terminate in hooves…but the rest of the creature’s anatomy lay fully outside of Earthly taxonomy.
It was sickly pale, as with many creatures I’ve so far encountered down here. On account of the lack of sunlight I assumed. It had prominent ribs which shone through the skin, not just where the ribcage ought to be, but all along the torso from front to back.
The cloaked figure reached out and beckoned me. I backed away, and began to flee until I spotted a fringe of crawlers peering at us from distant rooftops. Waiting for me. “I mistook you for an outlander” the figure suddenly croaked. It startled me to hear it speak, though by now I should really have assumed it.
“The outlands…are a graveyard. The decaying remains of a once great empire. Lingering spirits from that age eagerly afflict those who come here. The heretics we exile to this place are changed by it. They degenerate, becoming as bestial and ravenous as their false doctrines. It is not safe here.”
I protested that I didn’t know about any of that, and was only trying to find my way home. His posture shifted almost imperceptibly. “…I see. Then it’s your good fortune that I found you. Follow me.” I hardly wanted to, but I also didn’t want to be left alone with those crawling, bandaged wretches.
It brought to mind something eel mouth told me. That there’s no waking up from nightmares down here, except into another nightmare. The only choices I’ve had since my abduction were between one horror and another. All I could do was pick the one that looked survivable.
So I followed him. All the while watching closely for any sign of betrayal, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice. Some time later, we left the obsidian ruins behind and were soon surrounded by structures of a very different sort.
Crude imitations of multi story city buildings, fashioned from frameworks of lashed together bone and wood. Wood? I looked again. Sure enough. Where did they get it? I saw no trees on the way here. Taken during raids on the surface?
That wasn’t the only difference. There was some sort of growth which coated everything. It’s difficult to describe except by comparison. Ridged, skeletal…spidery? A flowing, branching, tangled texture which crept up the sides of some buildings and fully engulfed others.
I asked the cloaked figure about it, but received no reply. He only rode in silence, practically unmoving except for his cloak. A fungus? It didn’t look alive. It now coated the ground as well, crunching beneath my feet as I walked.
Stay Tuned for Part 19!