Through the Obsidian Ring
The darkness was mercy
Sūl's first light broke the horizon.
The early morning was still brisk when they arrived at the outcrop overlooking the ruined city of Uruk, which sat overshadowed by the colossal ring wall. A thick mustard fog enveloped the city remains, only showing the few buildings that pierced through the whirling clouds of nauctis gas discharge from the ring structure.
Originally built to house the ring's workers, the city grew until the ring's completion. With access to the other side was no longer permitted, the inhabitants of Uruk settled elsewhere. Rumors suggested that the other half of the city remained standing beyond the megastructure.
"Why are we stopping?" demanded the magnate Tommie Steylette from the back of the hover transport.
"We are on foot from here. We'll walk the hover wagons," stated the smuggler Vue, who brushed past him to disconnect the carts.
"We are kilometers away from the ring," complained Tommy's wife, Amber. "It'll take hours to get there."
"Only an hour if we keep a good pace," replied the smugglers' leader Bron. "While we have an understanding with the ring's more passive security, though it's best not to catch them on a bad day. Or worse, let others know where the entrance is. This is as close as we can get without giving away our position to the ring or where we are headed."
Moving from the outcrop, they entered into an empty canal bed that ran through the city. After having stuck her foot in thicker mud more than once, Lynea Dossanos complained, "Why is walking in the muck the only way to get to the Drear lands?"
"Steady rain washes away our tracks in this ravine. If you want to get through the ring, an old canal maintenance door within the remains of Uruk is our way in. Besides, a little mud won't make you any less cute," the attractive young smuggler Pennie replied, making Lynea blush. She had offered Lynea safe passage through the ring. Evading her arranged marriage within the great Dossanos banking clan and entering a world of freedom and adventure on the other side.
The mustard-like fog dissipated as they passed the final building, revealing the ring as Lynea had never seen it before. Over a two-thousand meters high with dark gray stone-like panels welded together on the side. Everything felt cold within its shadow, its length stretching as far as she could see in either direction. Only the Steylette family stood with Lynea in awe of the structure, their mouths agape at the immensity of its construction while the smugglers had approached a small door on its side.
Pennie knelt beside a small panel and placed a tool within it. She jostled it within the lock until Liam, a blue three-legged Vari, approached to help. The Vari made some unintelligible sounds with its mandible, then the smuggler Alina spoke for him, "He said to put pressure down at the bottom Pennie, then move the edge inside."
"Yes, yes, I know. I know what I'm doing, thank you."
The door opened. Pennie regained her composure and motioned for everyone to follow. Liam and Bron entered the threshold behind her, then Alina and the Steylette family close behind.
"Darkness before and darkness after. You paid to see the other side. Here's the entrance," Vue remarked as he adjusted his rifle and walked inside. Lynea could hear the descending echo of Vue's boots clanging within the ring, only to be overtaken by some inhumane drumming of machinery from deep inside the dark entrance.
Overwhelmed by fear, Lynea froze. Her desire to move forward was stunted by the anxiety of what lay ahead. Pennie stepped back through the entryway with her hand out and grabbed Lynea's. Lynea took a final look at the ruined city and the hills beyond that led back home before submitting to Pennie's pull as the mustard fog filled the air again.
Inside, the air was stale and humid. A pungent mixture of rust and grime filled the low-ceilinged tunnels. Vue and Tommie needed to crouch to maneuver more easily. The further they traveled, the machine sounds seemed to dissipate, and the faint operating lights that guided them grew more dispersed until nearly all light was extinguished. Left with only Bron to guide them through the void.
Lynea grabbed Pennie's hand tighter, having never felt this mix of dread and excitement before. Lynea whispered, "How much further?"
"We are still in the outer lower section of the ring's three portions. The lower hull rests just above the wastes and under the upper hull. Luckily, we were here about a month ago and received capsule transport command codes. We'll cross over and back up the other side of the outer portion in no time."
Their time walking seemed endless until Bron stopped at what looked like a dead-end, with a narrow hatch door under a pale yellow light. Liam unlocked and opened the door, which emitted an overpowering smell, and quickly moved down a slim flight of stairs. Lynea could not fathom what produced the foul odor of excrement, vomit, and rot. She was merely content that the darkness kept her from seeing whatever was creating the smell.
Everyone was quiet. The two Steylette children looked deathly afraid, clinging to their mother. After a moment, Liam reappeared, immediately shrilling.
"Ladder is solid." Alina interpreted after Liam's stridulation. Alina opened a large bag of gas masks and grabbed one out for herself while commenting, "If it was the same as a few weeks ago, we should have a clear path all the way through. Your contact confirmed the capsule transport codes?"
"My contact didn't feel like contacting," Bron groaned out.
"So we are going in blind?!" Alina hissed in reply.
"Bron, you didn't make contact before entering here? This is dangerous!" Pennie echoed the sentiment.
"If what our Steylette friend here said earlier is true, we may not have had much of a choice," Bron replied gauging his words carefully while looking at Lynea. It's not like I didn't try to make contact. Either way, we are already here. The longer you spend complaining, the more troubles we'll have. I'll head down first. Liam, lead the cart. The Steylettes next, then the rest of ya."
Bron activated a hologram showing a ring's rough design from his wrist communicator. "Everyone, secure your gas masks. The condensed nauctis gas can be nasty down there. There is a descending hallway to the lower hull's transportation system with very little surveillance. This should be pretty uneventful as long as we don't go any further down into the wastes. It's a straight line to the lift that will bring us across the ring to the other side. No lights. Try not to make any sounds."
"You should've just given us a map. What are you lot good for? You're just walking us through disgusting empty hallways," Amber scoffed.
"We're here just in case they aren't empty," Vue responded, attaching a suppressor to his rifle. Pennie checked her kinetic pistol, ensuring it was loaded.
"There may be a few stragglers, but nothing we haven't managed before. Let's get going," Bron commanded.
The smuggling party headed down the ladder into the dark lower hull. A deep, sticky, moist ooze covering the floor made every step a laborious task of shifting feet through the filth as they continued walking. Even with image detection from the mask's visor, Lynea could not determine where anything was, other than Pennie's shape in front of her.
Lynea thought she saw movement in the frequent adjoining tunnels they passed. Echoes of steps in the distance mirrored the figures lingering in the dark corridors. The smell seemed to intensify the further they walked under a flashing red light.
Lynea bumped into Pennie, who stopped moving.
Liam was busy opening another locked door. What Bron was frustrated about was inaudible, but his voice was very anxious and gruff. Alina argued back in a similar muffled tone.
Distant silhouettes in the dark began to move and collect.
Lynea could start to understand Alina as her voice became more anxious and loud, "The transport door won't open. Liam thinks the capsule is being used for a supply run. Even if he could jam it open, there still wouldn't be a capsule to across."
Bron looked around, concerned, before pointing down a perpendicular corridor, "There is a construction lift that can take us a level up about half a klick west of here."
"Why won't you get this open?!" Tommie Steylette demanded, "My wife can't take much more of this." Amber Steylette was hunched over, moaning and gasping for air.
"Get it together. Let's move now," Bron snapped back.
Amber's moaning and heaving became much louder.
"Shut her up now!" Hissed Bron in a harsh whisper.
Lynea's anxiety rose as she saw Pennie stare at black forms gathering at the far edges of the halls. Pennie nervously whispered, "This is a lot more than a few stragglers. Why are there so many?"
Lynea looked over to a far corner to see a little girl sitting in the fetal position under a faint light, eyes wide and filled with terror in a directionless gaze, breathing heavy. Lynea tried to pull on Pennie's arm to show her the little girl, but Pennie's eyes were glued to the darkness in front of her.
"I can't breathe, I can't breathe," Amber cried before removing her mask and vomiting. Lynea felt some splash from the discharge on her leg, making her stomach writhe in disgust.
"You bitch!" Bron yelled as most of the vomit landed on him.
The darkness seemed to come alive, growling, whimpering, and snapping around the smuggling party. Lynea kept pulling on Pennie until she also looked at the shivering child. Before turning right back as the shadows began to cluster. Lynea could see a turbulent wall of humanoid flesh shrouded in the darkness around them.
"Let's go now!" Vue urged at a dull roar.
"She needs help," Tommie snapped back loudly, bent over his wife Amber, trying to console her.
Moaning and growling grew in every direction—steps of suction in the muck reverberated from the dark. Pulling on Lynea, Pennie's eyes were wild with fear. The shadows around birthed a ravenous sound. Shapes of creatures began to crawl into view near the transport access.
"Aghhh!!!" Screamed Tommie as a pale-yellow sickly creature latched onto him, tarring his ear off. Corpse-like in appearance with ghastly sunken yellow eyes, it was entirely nude with only scraps of cloth draped across its body. Filth covered the curdled-milk colored skin and the white wisps of hair. Its dilated pupils expressed nothing but hunger.
Bron struck the creature on Tommie and tore it off, knocking over the heavy cart onto Liam, who screeched in pain. Alina raced over to help remove the cart.
The Steylette children began to scream once another creature grabbed their mother and bit into her arm. Its teeth sunk into her flesh, forcing Amber to howl in pain.
Lynea tried looking for the shivering child again but could not see through the growing horde of sickly fiends now visible in the blinking light. A creature from the side grabbed Lynea's hair and pulled her to the ground. A single shot from Vue's kinetic rifle killed the beast. Vue helped her to her feet, barking at her, "Go now! Do not stop!"
Vue turned and buried a large knife into the skull of a creature hurling itself toward him.
Lynea turned on her wristcom's light to find an opening, only to see Amber grabbed by several creatures. They tore at Amber's midsection, exposing her innards and burying their teeth and nails into her flesh. Others pulled her arms and legs with such intensity that they tore Amber in half. Her blood curtailing cries and piercing shrieks continued after being ripped apart, her anguish ignored by those engorging themselves in their new spilt feast.
The light from Lynea's wristcom drove the creatures mad with rage. Pennie forced off the light and pulled her in the opposite direction while screaming, "RUN!"
Lynea's heart raced as she sprinted behind Pennie down what seemed an endless corridor; their putrescence-covered boots caused suction sounds as they ran. Starved writhing creatures lay scattered everywhere, some gnawed on the ripped appendages of others in a desperate bid to stay alive. Their sickening mucus smeared across Pennie and Lynea as they passed. Screams of the smugglers trailed behind them as they ran, but the growling of the creatures grew.
As they turned a corner, Lynea saw several flickering red lights over a wide opening in the wall with a large cage inside. Pennie instructed, "Get inside that old construction lift."
What little could be seen in the dark was obscured further by thick clouds of nauctis gas that drifted around them from the opening beneath the cage.
The lift was old, and its rusted hinges screeched as Lynea and Pennie ran inside and slammed the door shut, pulling the lever, and locking it.
"What were those creatures?!" Lynea could barely ask between panting.
"We call them ghouls. It's what happens when people are sent to the ring. A mixture of prolonged exposure to the hallucinogenic nauctis gas and cannibalism as their only food to eat. They often travel in clusters eating the weak or the dead, but we've never seen this many before."
Pennie noticed a decayed body lying on the floor of the cage. Fully clothed and covered in a black cloak. Pennie kneeled beside the corpse and turned over part of the cloak to reveal a yellow inside lining. Pennie looked confused, "A laurel?"
"Are you a Dossanos or not? Laurels are spies and assassins. Intelligence agents who don't hold allegiance to anyone but themselves. Trading and working in secrets. I wonder what secrets he died with," Pennie started to pat down the body, pulling a small wallet with a strange yellow insignia on it and placing it in her pocket. "And how did he end up down here?"
The sound of the wretches began to grow just before they assaulted the cage, rocking it and releasing plumes of nauctis gas, creating even less visibility. They were rocking the cage back and forth, causing several creatures to fall into the shaft below. Lynea screamed in terror. Her hysterics enticed the howling creatures further, breaking their teeth and dislocating fingers in the slits of the cage. Any injured in front were torn and devoured alive by those behind them.
Pennie ran to a control panel and desperately hit buttons, "What language is this?"
"What are you doing, Pennie? We can't leave the others behind."
"Do you see them?! Any second we won't even be able to leave anyone behind."
Pennie managed to activate the lift, resulting in numerous lights to emit. Sounds from the pulley's grinding whined and screeched. Many of the creatures seemed confused by the sounds it made, standing with uncertainty in their eyes. Others became enraged, screaming and mauling the outside of the cage.
A ghoul managed to bend the rusted bars on the door partially open, enough to force its head through, making eye contact with Lynea, salivating in its attempt to enter the elevator. Pennie upholstered and fired her kinetic pistol, blowing a hole right through its skull. Other creatures ripped the body back out, throwing it to the ground within the hall, and began to devour the newest corpse.
Pennie slammed several more operating buttons, taking advantage of the distraction, and the cage descended. Fraught with despondence, Pennie continued to hit the controls, "No, go up! Go up!"
Ghouls witnessing the descending lift became even more enraged as their prey sunk into the gaseous abyss.
Just as Lynea and Pennie could no longer view the level, they could hear Bron shout through the above-infested hallway, "Pennie!!"
The lift continued to descend, unable to be stopped. Its smell was unbearable.
"I want to go home," Lynea mourned, fighting through her tears as she stared up at the dimly lit opening.
"We, we, we left a child up there! That little girl!" Lynea turned, expecting to see Pennie in a similar state of hysterics.
"She was already dead." Pennie's voice was monotone. She pulled out an herb cigarette, lifted up her mask, lit it, took her time to inhale and blow before remasking. Lynea looked at her in quiet frantic distress.
"Given how long this is taking, this is likely going to the bottom," Pennie said offering some to Lynea. "You might want this."
Lynea resisted at first but then took the cigarette, pulled up her gas mask, inhaled, then immediately coughed on the mix of herb and nauctis gas, and frantically slid the mask back on her face. Pennie grinned.
The lift suddenly jerked, hurtling Lynea and Pennie through the floor, shattering the floorboards to the ground below. Their several meter fall was broken with a soft heap of fermented flesh and rotting debris.
Pennie's mask broke off in the fall, and Lynea's cracked and bent onto her face, forcing her to rip it off because of the sharp pain.
Siting up, Lynea witnessed the horror of a moaning lacerated ghoul that barely survived it's recent fall beneath the cage. It began to bite the flesh of another recently fallen until it noticed Lynea. The ghoul had clearly broken both legs with open fractures. It began to claw towards her, rapacious in its hunger. Lynea found a long metal bar with a sharp side and swung, batting the numb ghoul as it inched its way towards her, gnawing on its own tongue. Just as the ghoul reached Lynea's foot Pennie fired a round from behind, spraying the ghoul's face onto Lynea's. Lynea screamed, dropping her metal bar. She wiped her face with her sleeves, removing the thick layer of ghoul innards and flesh from her face.
Pennie staggered over to where Lynea sat and helped clean off her face. Pennie handed Lynea her sharp metal stick back, "You'll need firm wrist control to swing better. Come on, get up. A proper lift shouldn't be too much farther if we continue the way we were going."
Stepping through a large door further down the hall, they entered a middle portion of a massive gorge with only a few rusted metal rods keeping victims from sliding down the narrow angled ledges into the apparent bottomless pit. The darkness born from its depths billowed black clouds of nauctis gas. The only light at all within the gorge were operation platforms far above the wastes.
"These toxic black fumes won't kill us right away, but they will cause hallucinations. So we need to move quickly," Pennie remarked while ripping away her undershirt to make face masks.
They continued along the edge of the gorge when Pennie stopped. A sound of tapping metallic talons echoed its sound around them, only to be overtaken by the gradually increasing sound of ghouls running. Lynea looked to see Pennie's eyes were terrorized again. Pennie could hardly whisper out, "The Organist."
The shadows surrounding them began to move as the faint light above gave only the outline of the ghouls' menacing teeth and salivating long tongues.
Lynea was overwhelmed with terror, gripping her sharp metal bar sternly and swinging wildly with fear. Although the ghouls did not advance, only growling at the morsels that shivered in fear before them.
"Most who travel down here do not do so willingly," snarled a deep inhuman voice. Lynea could hear the tapping everywhere around her. Only a gruesome face resting above a morbidly obese drooping belly and arms came into view, somehow hoist high in the darkness. The unnatural way he swayed was masked until he approached, revealing his monstrous upright centipede-like form attached to his hips. Eight legs on either side of the Organist's carapace.
Lynea vomited from the image and the smell.
The fowl centipede-bodied monster moved toward them. Pennie held out the wallet of the body she had checked earlier.
"Laurel poon vitra!"
The Organist smiled, his multiple sets of misaligned teeth distracted from the sores and abrasions around his face. The monster paused and moved his boiled face inches from Pennie's, "A laurel, I see? A young and pretty one at that."
"We are with Bron's caravan, Organist. The ghouls have torn my party apart, we fell, and we lost our group, and we need safe delivery to a lift for passage to the Drear lands."
"A laurel and a smuggler. Quite accomplished. So young and delectable," The Organist snarled through his smile, which continued to grow, baring more rows of teeth.
Pennie stood trembling with the wallet still in the air.
After a slight pause, he turned back through the darkness to which he came, "Come follow me."
Lynea and Pennie were frozen in horror.
"You may want to keep close. They are starving and rarely get fresh meat."
The ghouls' remains and excrement on the ground were too grotesque for Lynea to view. Looking up, Lynea could see ghouls hemorrhaging from cracks in the walls and emerge from the gorge's ledge. Lynea could sense their hunger grow the further they walked. She decided to keep her gaze on Pennie's back as they walked alongside the Organist.
The Organist led them to another rusted metal cage on a lift platform, gripping the door tightly barring entry, "You are very fortunate to have found me. A moment too late, and you'd have been eaten."
"Thank you," Lynea said meekly.
The Organist's yellow eyes never left Pennie, "Indulge me, child. We both know you are no laurel. A true laural would never be caught, yet you know the laurel mantra. You say you are with Bron, but he is nowhere near you. Why did you come down here?"
Pennie's voice rattled as she spoke, "As I said, we fell and lost our group. This is an insignia I found on the dead."
The Organist's grin seemed to widen even more as he removed his hand from the door permitting entry. Once Lynea and Pennie were inside, he bid them farewell, "I do hope you find the remainder of your party soon."
The lift shot up a complex series of wires, climbing higher and higher. A roof opened, clearing the cage to pass into an opening entirely of bright white. Pennie crouched behind the waist-high boarded wall of the enclosure. Informing Lynea, "He must have sent us to the upper levels of the ring. We'll need to keep our heads down low to avoid security."
Curiosity eventually forced the young women to peak over the edge of the cage wall. They saw a world that neither had ever known, rolling green fields filled with laughter and smiles under a radiant sky. A world of paradise within the ring itself. In the distance across a blue lake, against the ring's endless bright-white wall, a town was filled with activity, and as the lift sailed over, the air's fragrance rushing by was filled with flowers and fresh-baked bread.
Lynea watched silently as they passed the world by.
She noticed Pennie staring at her.
"You look like shit," said Pennie.