“Do you think we’re dead?”
I gave Eleanor a perplexed look.
“I can see your breath. And we’re talking right now, so…”
“No, no,” she muttered, shivering in the keening wind, “not here. No sense in asking that here.. I mean out there.”
I stared out past the dark sea, reaching to the horizon and likely further still than I could ever conceive of.
They say hell is hot. As I sit on the ramshackle heights we fight every day to maintain, the cold clawing at my skin, I truly wish it was.
* * *
My mother used to say,
“As long as you tried.”
Those five words hammered strength into my psyche. They once gave meaning in battling hardships and misery.
Now? That’s a dangerous epithet. You’re free to try if so inclined. Just know that none of us will even try to save you when your belly is sliced open and your guts slurped by the creatures that dog this place.
We’ve had our fill of brazen souls out here. They serve to be torn apart in our place – I suppose it’s something to be grateful for. The braver you are, the quicker you’ll learn: bravery is as insubstantial as death in this place.
I should backtrack.
I’m an extremophile. Always have been. After the first time that adrenaline rush flooded my veins I was hooked.
Water sports, base jumping, spelunking, anything you can name it’s likely under my belt.
The one activity I’ve found myself coming back to is mountaineering. Ever since my dad took me up Mt. Snowdon, there’s been an inscrutable urge to summit something higher. Something steeper, and harsher.
This leads me to my most recent trip: summiting Monte Rosa’s tallest peak, the Dufourspitze. My climbing partner and good friend Rob climbed it in 2018. He shared plans of a second summit, so I took him up on the offer.
I say ‘climbing partner’, but with my skill level I really mean ‘guide’. Rob’s expertise blows mine out of the water.
Nothing much of interest happened on the drive. Long, boring, standard overall. When we arrived, the parking lot serving as our starting point was empty and quiet. Dead still.
There was an air of unease lingering around us. Around me, at least – if Rob felt it, he didn’t show it. But it was there, and I should’ve taken it as a warning. That’s retrospection for you.
Looking up at Monte Rosa made everything seem so insignificant. Its monster of a rock face stood mighty and gazed out across the landscape. Ants beholden to a molehill in its dominance. God help any who climbs it.
Instead, we planned around the Marinelli couloir, a steep and snow-laden gulley.
We tripled checked our mandatory gear. Ice picks, crampons, ropes, etcetera. All present. Clear and cold mornings were forecast for the ensuing week – perfect climbing conditions. Rob’s meticulous planning was impressive, to say the least. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little envious.
The mountain hut alone was a four hour climb, though the terrain was forgiving. Hard packed snow crackled below my crampons. A reassuring sound.
Inside was cozy. The walls were insulated well, and the wood stove was stocked with more than enough firewood. Yet, even as the fire roared, a chill crawled up my back. Just like the parking lot, we were alone, and a nagging intuition in the back of my mind said that may not be coincidental.
“Sure you’re ready for tomorrow, mate?” Rob said, glancing over at me from the counter.
“Why- I mean, yeah. Yup. I’m in good hands, coming with you.”
“Look, once we’re up into the couloir, we aren’t turning back, so there’s no shame in having second thoughts. ”
“No, it’s not that, it’s… I mean, yeah, I could come back another time. But who knows how long I’d have to wait? Life’s hectic, you know? Might be years passed till I can try again.”
“Just making sure. Nerves are a dangerous beast up there. Long as you listen to me, you’ll be fine, but remember: don’t panic. If you’re feeling anxious, remind yourself that getting upset won’t help your situation.”
Heat from the waning coals coddled my body. Only embers flickered by the time I began to nod off into a deep, dreamless sleep.
We set off at 8am after having oatmeal and berries. The first few hours ended up being a tough yomp along the snowfield skirting round toward the couloir. Azure sky gazed down through wispy high cirrus.
We were about a mile from the gulley when light snowfall started up. It wasn’t hugely surprising, being on a mountain and all. But the sky remained clear. If anything, it’d grown clearer over the past hour, and still the snow fell regardless. It was such a bizarre sight I worried I might be getting altitude sickness.
As icy pinpricks pelted my skin, the reality of the situation dawned on me. Visibility was dropping by the minute, and within ten I could scarcely see Rob twenty feet ahead.
And then he was gone.
I don’t mean his silhouette bled away into the whiteout. I mean even his footprints were entirely covered over. I called out to him in a panic, cupping my hands together in a futile attempt to pierce the howling gale.
Hoping to catch sight of Rob I plodded forward another hundred or so yards.
My next actions I still ruminate over today, forcing me to curse my own cowardice. Even if I was the one who’d disappeared, I didn’t know that at the time. Without Rob to guide me, I thought I was surely going to die.
So, I turned back.
Following the compass, I made a steady descent, hoping to get back to the hut faster than we’d come up. The fresh dusting of snow made frantic steps a danger and I slipped several times.
After an hour, my view was unchanged. Pure whiteness. In my retreat I’d somehow failed to notice a crucial detail.
I wasn’t going downhill.
It seemed like I was in a flat snowfield but when I turned a full 360 to get my bearings, I understood I was actually facing a gentle incline.
A fresh wave of terror crashed down in my mind. I glanced down at the compass, and to my horror, saw its needle replaced by a listless, spinning blur.
I tried my best. Mom would’ve been proud. But the cold wore me down, the snow merciless as it pelted me. My footsteps grew closer and closer together until there were no footsteps at all.
I crouched on one knee. I wasn’t shivering anymore. Well, I did feel pretty warm. Hot, actually. I went to unzip my coat when a stark patch of lime caught my attention. An abandoned tent, long left to endure the elements. It looked old. My dulling mind didn’t catch the oddity – that it wasn’t already buried by snow. Our tent was in Rob’s pack, and with him out of the picture this was my only chance at survival.
There were a few small tears in the canvas, but the tent sufficed in its primary purpose.
Still, I had no means of warming myself up. Bundled tight in my sleeping bag, I felt the weight of exhaustion settle, and no sooner did my eyelids droop and my eyes roll back.
* * *
The fact I awoke at all filled me with a sense of relief. Brain still groggy, I sat up and observed the tent’s interior. It’d fared well in the figurative flashbang of a snowstorm.
Something was different. The small tears only looked out onto white, but all was quiet. Never has there been a silent blizzard.
Only when a cold shock hit my foot did I notice the mounds of melting slush on the floor, directly beneath each rip in the tent.
I was snowed in.
Adrenaline flooded my veins and sent my thoughts into hyper speed. How long had I been buried? How much oxygen was left in the tent? How deep was I?
Don’t panic. Freaking out won’t help.
I took a deep, controlled breath and crawled over to the zipper, hesitating before tugging it open in one swift motion.
White fluff poured into the tent, and in a transitory state between dread and understanding, I scrabbled backwards in fear of an icy casket.
My mind cleared. Logically, if the snow was that powdery, I couldn’t be down very deep.
Still, the tent sagged, its backbone long since snapped. I dragged myself out and pushed my way through the dampening snow, lugging the pack with all my equipment behind.
With the gap collapsing in on itself behind me, I planted my boots in the snow and stood.
I wasn’t on Monte Rosa.
I wasn’t in the Alps.
I wasn’t even on a mountain at all.
Standing near the bottom of a sort of half-cone slope, the horizon-wide expanse of dark water was the first hint I was somewhere else entirely. I could tell the ocean was a ways down, but only after shuffling down to the edge did I catch a glimpse of the precipice. A rugged ice face plummeting some four hundred feet. Vertigo struck instantly, knocking me onto my ass, hands splayed like starfish.
Something sticking up near the edge caught my eye. It resembled the curved rails of a pool ladder – if said ladder was poorly made and rickety, with coarse grey rope tied to each side. Greying fibres sequestered by an equally ashen backdrop.
A tiny ray of hope beamed somewhere deep inside me. Maybe someone was here. I crawled through the powder and gripped the steel bars. My gloves did nothing against the inexorable chill of wind-beaten metal. Still, desperate curiosity willed my head and shoulders to lean over the precipice.
Fixed into the mottled ice, a vertical tower of crude materials swayed in the ever-present winds. It reminded me of a shantytown with its hastily fastened planks and battered metal sheeting. For the life of me I couldn’t fathom what reason any sane person would have to build such a thing. Then again, I’d yet to find anything in this place I could fathom.
“Hello?” I called out. The first words out of my mouth since waking up were hoarse and weak, tumbling pathetically down the mismatched scaffolding.
There was an immediate response from somewhere below. I couldn’t see anyone but there were multiple voices, bleeding together into a garbled slur.
Relief warped into regret as I remained hunched, frozen, as if I were some frostcaked gargoyle on a forgotten castle. Though my voice barely cut through the winds, I regretted opening my mouth. I didn’t quite know why. The frantic shuddering of the platforms as someone clambered up to meet me instilled a deep, imminent foreboding.
I somehow hadn’t realised before, but the ropes tied around the bars I clasped onto were actually those of a rope ladder. They whipped into the cliffside, heralding the arrival of the figure who’d just pushed their way out from under a rotten blue tarp.
A dishevelled and wild-eyed man pulled his way up the wooden rungs, patchy bundles of matted hair swinging across his face. When he saw me, he paused, wired eyes suddenly morphing into something rabid, before continuing up the ladder with fervour.
As if dislocated his jaw dropped wide open and flopped around on its hinges. I didn’t know what the expression meant, but suffice to say I was fucking horrified. Those eyes… they betrayed hunger.
I flopped onto my back and fumbled with the zipper on my bag, tearing out an ice pick and steeling myself. Two sets of blackening fingers curled over the rim before me, followed by this bestial vestige of a human climbing up onto the snow in all his wiry might.
“H- hey, what are you doing there lad?” I chuckled with transparent unease.
He almost looked surprised after I spoke, as if language was a foreign concept to him. He sucked air in through his teeth with a hiss.
“Cold, cold… so hungry. You… warm. Fresh.” He spat in a gravelly voice.
I backed up, raising the ice pick clutched tight in both hands. The man went a few uncoordinated steps, before lunging out of nowhere and diving on top of me.
I yelped in fear, falling backwards and raising the pick horizontal in defence. Spittle sprayed from yellow teeth gnashing inches from my face.
Acting swiftly I rammed the blunt handle of the pick into his throat, causing him to recoil. Only seconds later he persisted with all his rage, seeming to shrug off the blow to his jugular as though it were an insect bite.
In the scuffle he managed to grab my right arm, and sunk his teeth into my wrist. I screamed and let go of the pick with my right. Instinctively I swung it in my left, the sharp end sailing true and embedding directly into the side of his neck.
Viscous blood exploded over my face as I wrenched the pick back towards me, tearing the front of his throat open in a ragged gash.
The man shot up straight in response, stumbling uncontrolled back to the edge and dropping limply into the open air.
Despite my close call, something else disturbed me. The blood that had poured out onto me was cold. I don’t mean lukewarm, cold. If not freezing. No steam rose into the air as one might expect, it just curdled and froze on my clothing.
With no other choice, I crept back to the rope ladder and looked down.
A ratty woman had just climbed up into view and paused after seeing the man’s body supine on the platform.
“Ugh, goddamn it. Again, Curt?”
What she said took me aback, but the bubbling laugh from ‘Curt’ was the kicker. Throat practically nonexistent, he was alive. And laughing.
“Hey, uh, sorry about him. You can come down, it’s safe.”
I almost joined Curt in his hysteria. It was such an absurd proposition.
“Safe? You’re dangling off the edge of a fucking cliff!”
“Let me rephrase. Safer. Trust me, you don’t wanna spend another minute up there.”
“What? Nah, fuck this. I’m out of here.”
“Are you? Are you really? Take a look around. Where in the name of God do you think you are right now?”
“No idea, but even if my chances are one in a million at getting home I’d rather die out there than stay here.”
“Me too, traveller. Me too.”
With that the conversation was over. The woman turned her attention to Curt. I refused to witness any more of this madness and stormed off back up the slope I’d come down from.
After a few steady paces I stopped dead in my tracks.
Something was off.
Imperceptible movement in the snowfield. Distant thuds growing nearer. I squinted to make anything out but I didn’t need to.
There, near the buried tent I’d crawled out of, the falling snow outlined an absence. Empty air. A strong gust flung pale dusting off the ground to form a haze, and in it, the shape was clear.
I couldn’t tell you what it was, only what it resembled. Serpentine in form and of simply vast size, it coiled through the haze the way an air bubble darts through water. Two, maybe three sparsely spaced legs jabbed at the ground leaving clear imprints of whatever this thing was. Scythe-like mandibles sliced through the air towards me.
It wasn’t a hallucination. I could hear its sharp limbs clacking, feel its heavy steps through the ground, so I reneged on my words and scampered back down to the ladder.
Vertigo be damned, I couldn’t stand up against whatever the fuck that thing was.
The girl was still tending to the man whose throat I’d torn out and shot a glance over to me.
“Told you.” she said with an ill-fitting smile.
“Huh? What the fuck was that? I couldn’t see it- well, I could but-”
“It’s fine. They won’t come down here.”
I sank to the floor, if it could even be called that, and a sudden wave of despair overtook me. I hadn’t the first clue where I was. Something deep in the recesses of my mind doubted I was even on Earth anymore.
“I’m Eleanor by the way.”
Shaking, I looked over to her with a grimace, then promptly winced from the pain of freezing wind whistling through my teeth.
“Nicholas- why, how are you so nonchalant right now? How long have you been here in this, this hell?”
“How long? Fuck if I know. Time doesn’t have a say anymore. Not for me. It’s not as if clocks work here, even if I wanted to know the time. A day could be months, years, and a night could be five minutes, or vice versa.”
There’s not many things a man can do when faced with impossibility. Do you deny, to enkindle self-detriment? Or accept and give up so easily? A question of a hopeless fight versus hopeless submission.
“Look. How about you come down with us, get some shelter. I know, it’s not… optimal. But believe me when I say it’s a paradise to living up there.”
Before, I had Rob to guide me. Whether he’s still in the world I knew, or he’s here somewhere, I don’t know. I should hope he made it out, but the coward in me also hopes to see him in this cursed place. To let him take the lead. And the same coward in me chose to stay with Eleanor, Curt, and the rest.
The rope ladder ran down through every level. A group of us sat on a nine-foot square base of cobbled ply and sheet metal, enclosed by flapping rolls of sun-bleached canvas and tarp. A room by some sliver of a margin.
At the time there were six of us. A paler, sharp faced man with a vaguely slavic-tinged accent introduced himself as Alexi, and spoke on behalf of Curt.
“You see, friend, the hunger. It breaks down the strongest and the weakest man all the same. To eat anything substantial is rare. Let alone something warm.”
Of the remaining two were Nia, a tan woman whose dappled skin displayed mild vitiligo, and an older gentleman bearing several tight pink scars over his hands. Same for his face – well, what could be seen of it past a greying beard. He doesn’t remember his name – everyone calls him Yago, or Santiago. Something Hemingway. Never read his works myself, but as far as wind-beaten fishermen go, Yago certainly looks the part.
It took a while of idle chatter for me to finally come around to the question seeping through my thoughts.
“So… how do you survive here?”
Eight words were all it took to derail the conversation, and have them exchange pitied glances.
“Ain’t a matter of surviving, son,” Yago rasped, “it’s a choice between lesser evils.”
I was exasperated.
“What does that even mean, you old-”
Yago’s sunken eyes toppled my will and I trailed off. He huffed, more with fatigue than frustration.
“Try as you might. Can’t die in this place.”
I went to bite back, but swallowed my words as I remembered Curt. He laid beside us under a dirty sheet. Nia must’ve caught on because she reached over and tugged the fabric down to reveal Curt’s injury.
Now, his ruined throat was filled with what looked to be ice. Only, the ice looked tainted. Putrid almost, with sallow mycelia exploding within. Crimson tributaries forced their way through the frost, up on the left, down on the right.
Tingling dread crept in a similar manner, up my spine and neck, and flowing back down through my chest. If this was reality now, then… well, I don’t fucking know. What moral is there? What sadistic law of nature permits this?
* * *
With no other choice, I’ve learned quickly what to do and what to avoid. Either empirically alongside my fellow captives, or from their lessons.
Every few… actually, just whenever we need to, we set out in the snowfield above in alternating groups of two or three. Oftentimes the invisible creatures move to someplace else, leaving the path clear for us. I’d let them use my ice picks, though I made it clear that if it was my turn I’d always have one in hand. The third member used some kind of socket wrench with a sharp stone driven into the end.
The iceberg is possibly the most treacherous ground I’ve ever had to traverse. Fissures hide under deceptive snow overhangs. One misstep on such unstable ground means falling a hundred feet into an icy casket. That wouldn’t be so bad, since you could eventually climb your way out – only, the Boreworms that tunnel deep inside the ice are quick to snatch up anything coming their way.
Worse still, those seethrough monsters come and go as they please. I myself have been caught, what, eight-odd times? The way their mandibles carve and cleave… they must be serrated, because it hurts. It really fucking hurts, and I’d rather not experience the sensation again, but we have to go searching. We have to.
Most of the time we find little. Usually nothing. A beaten metal sheet or frost-blackened planks are cause for celebration.
You see, our cliff dwelling doesn’t stay by itself. If only it were that easy. No, the iceberg is sinking constantly, at a glacial rate, into the abyssal brine below. Perpetual snowfall packs itself down into ice over time and roughly maintains the iceberg’s elevation.
So we have to deconstruct. Dismember the lower levels and lug them back to the top. Drive old rebar into the cliff with blunt objects, and fasten everything back together.
If that’s not work enough, the whole iceberg sways imperceptibly over time. It tilts forwards to precarious angles, resting for a drawn-out solstice before tipping backwards again.
Lose your presence of mind and there’s no second chance. Down into the freezing waters you go, torn apart by scaled monsters with their jagged spines and shark’s teeth, never blessed with the mercy of death until every cell in your violated body is torn and strewn asunder.
Of course, there’s a respite when the iceberg leans backwards. It’s not something to get complacent with – listen to that nagging reminder telling you that, at some point, you’ll be back in the same spot. That’s your survival instinct talking, obsolete as it is.
And even then, when you feel prepared for anything, this place always has an ace up its sleeve.
My first introduction to this concept was… well, it was a while after my arrival. I’d like to embellish the memory, to say we were sitting around a fire, something to that effect. No chance of that. Even behind cover from the wind, it’s like the warped physical laws here outright forbid sparks and flames.
No, I sat beside Alexi and Nia on a pile of saltcrusted cloths. Without much else to pass the time we’d engage in halfhearted games and hobbies. Contrary to his appearance, Yago had a strong singing voice. I’m kind of amazed he can remember any songs, the man can’t recall his own name for Pete’s sake. I guess it’s like Alzheimer’s – music’s the last to flee memory. Or so I’ve heard.
At the time, he stood out on the platform before us. He was singing… I think it was “Green, Green Grass of Home”. In spite of the choppy gale, his voice carried. It was pleasant. This song in particular rang with poignant nostalgia.
Once Yago finished, he stood with his hands held together.
“Pretty good, old man!” Alexi cheered. I bobbed my head in agreement.
“That’s really something. God knows I wouldn’t’ve pinned you as a singer.” said Nia.
Yago chuckled and, for a fleeting moment, our troubles were lost.
I guess we were too distracted to hear the heavy shuffling from below, because we fell back to silence when an enormous hand wrapped around the edge of the platform.
Whatever pulled itself over that edge… it was no creation of a sane god. Grey, blubbery flesh rippled in the wind. A disgusting, bloated thing the size of a tractor tyre peered over at us. A head.
Scattered perforations in the sides must’ve been ears, but it had no facial features other than a burbling, X-shaped hole right in the middle. Two, three more sets of hands clambered their way up to us, somehow crawling up the ice as if they were geckos.
None of these details held a candle to what their overall features resembled.
Elephant-sized hellspawn toddlers crawling on all fours.
Laggardly with age, Yago had no chance. Swollen, sticky fingers curled around his body, squeezing him in a grasp even world record strongmen couldn’t escape.
The awful harmony they made upon claiming their new plaything is etched into my soul. Gargling coos of childlike elation, deep in pitch and easily drowning out Yago’s hysterics. In the brief period before they left, I watched, oblivious to the screams of Nia and Alexi, as the creatures shook him around and pulled at his limbs. All I could hear were joints and bones snapping, cracking.
The creature holding Yago brought him up to the dribbling hole on its face. The hole dilated, revealing a cavernous passage of dripping flesh, and – with slowness I’m sure was intentional – pushed Yago inside, feet first up to his neck. It closed around him with such pressure I could hear his body breaking, and with crushed lungs he couldn’t even scream.
And just like that, they descended, leaving us with a cold, empty space shaped like an old man.
That’s how it goes here. No mercy. Just suffering.
Endless, indiscriminate suffering.
There are a handful of things we can predict – or at the very least, expect.
It may be logical to melt the ice and drink it. We are after all still subject to thirst and hunger, despite needing no food or water to live. Fresh snow from up above is okay, but the ice is bad water. It’s rotten. It putrefies and becomes teeming with disease.
In particular, it hosts some kind of parasite. Drink it, and they’ll start breeding inside you, until your organs are rife with them. They sap any moisture they can from your body, drying you into a shrivelled husk. Oh, and they’re permanent. Literally no way to get them out.
I mentioned Boreworms before. They’re not an issue, most of the time. Sometimes, if you look deep into the ice cliff, you can see them burrowing within. They’re lightning fast though, so I can never get a clear picture of them.
From what I can gather, they’re long, thick, and leech-like. Their heads open up to reveal strangely mechanical sets of spike balls which spin against each other to grind through the ice. I don’t know if they’re immune to the parasites. Maybe they’re symbiotic: worm eat ice, parasite take water. Who knows.
This nameless hell has fates o’ plenty, except one. Death. I didn’t know how it worked at first, but it later on became clear. Months, perhaps years after Yago’s abduction, something happened that was gut-wrenching and incredible in equal measure.
About 25 feet off from us, the ice began growing outwards. A small mounds at first, swelling like rotten pustules.
It was when a familiar visage began forming that it clicked, and we built a walkway across. Through some uncouth law of nature, Yago grew in the form of an ice sculpture. Then, colour flushed his skin, starting at his fingertips and slowly spreading.
He eventually broke free with a crack and a pop and fell down into our arms, vacant-eyed and nude. A grotesque and wholly unnatural birth .
Yago was never the same after that. Deference held our tongues from prying – until the curiosity got too much to bear. Even when we prodded him, asked him about what happened, not one inchoate word spilled from his lips.
I shudder to think about what might’ve happened during his absence, at the hands of those abominations. Things that considered him nothing more than a toy to wear out. We’ve taken to calling them Blubbers – I’d say it describes them to a T. With a honed skill at hiding, they’re not too hard to avoid. The problem is hearing them approach before they arrive, because if you don’t… well, no need to repeat what’s written.
Past that, a worse revelation came to light: no matter what we do, no matter what happens to us, no matter how violent or peaceful the death, we’ll return. Spat right back out into the fray every time.
No matter what.
The brutality displayed in this realm is nothing to be scoffed at, but at the very least, you grow accustomed. Meat and bone lose their sting. And yet, there are some things the scars can’t toughen you against.
One in particular stands out to me. Curt and I were out on a scouting trip. We’d long since made amends by this time and agreed to let bygones be just that.
Plodding along the ridge of a snow dune, Curt cock ed his head to look at something, then grabbed my shoulder with a wary firmness.
“Get down. Now.”
We both dropped down below cover. I hadn’t seen anything, but by now I trusted Curt’s judgement.
“What?” I whispered, “what’d you see?”
“Caught it in the corner me eye. Thank fuck I ain’t look at it.”
Without thinking I went to peek over into the open snowfield. Curt tore me back down by the scruff of my jacket, bringing me to eye level.
“The hell you doing, you fuckin’ oaf? Don’t look at it!”
I stared, confused.
“The Uncoupled. Should really get Ellie to go over-”
“Woah, slow down. Uncoupled?”
“Yeah. Don’t look too deep int’ the name. I only seen it in the corner me vision before. Jus’ a dark shape. Nah, more than that, a stain. A stain on the world.”
Carefully, I turned my head in the direction he’d seen it, as if I’d be able to see right through the snow.
“Okay… if you can’t look at it, how do you know?”
“Been plenty here before you, mate. Knew one or two of ‘em. This kid called, ah… Kent, yup. He looked. Said it was hollow, sort of an empty imprint that mighta once been a person. I think he said som’ along the lines of, ‘it’s like if you took someone and stripped everything away except their being’. Still not sure what he really meant, but it’s enough to know I ain’t never gonna look at it. Well, that, n’ the fact that a moment later he’s already thirty feet ahead and stumbling toward it.”
Pausing to let Curt’s words sink in, I muttered,
“Where is he now? I mean, Yago got taken, and he came back.”
He shook his head, eyes focused on nothing.
“Couldn’t tell ya. Only way I even remember him is cause’a his voice. Screams, god-awful wailing, surfing across the dunes n’ through the air. In those short times when the wind stumbles, if you just listen…”
Following his lead, I cocked an ear upwards, frostbitten air slicing past my skin. There was nothing other than the howling gale and the hammering of my heart. However, the longer I listened, I picked up on something distinct from the wind whistling.
It did sound like screams.
For all I know, Curt could’ve just been pulling a sick prank. It’s easy to hear things that aren’t there. To see what you want to see. Only, as I focused, it began to morph. Into the tone and timbre of a voice I still remembered. One I remembered well. It was the last voice I’d heard before this all happened. I tried not to think about it.
The words were hissed straight into my ear. It startled me so bad my legs straightened and I hopped off the ground. No question that time. It was his voice.
After that, it wasn’t a matter of not thinking about it, but of trying to forget.
I must’ve been in a trance when Curt spoke up again, snapping his fingers.
“Hey! You alright? Come on. We should get back. Ain’t see nothing out there worth the risk. Just, uh… if you ever see something in the corner your eye, something darker than dark… leave.”
I nodded, grimacing, and we made our way back down to our home.
If constant, freezing snowfall wasn’t enough, the weather knows worse cruelty. For the most part, we have shelter if it starts raining anything untoward. If you’re caught out in the snowfield, though, well… let’s say you’ll be back in a few weeks at best. Months or years at worst.
That happened one time while Eleanor and Alexi went out scavenging. They must’ve been on their way back when it started raining these razor sharp ice shards, finger-sized blades that sliced straight through canvas and embedded deep into wooden platforms.
Pained snarls from above heralded Alexi’s arrival, the rope ladder quivering under his descent. The best way I can describe how he looked was as if a shrapnel grenade had detonated three feet in front of him – well, all around him really. Deep, weeping gashes littered his body, and strands of flayed skin danced in the wind. It was like looking at a mangled human-shaped version of those cheese strings. You know, the ones you peel strips off of? I wish I could taste one of those again.
Anyway, there wasn’t much we could do except bandage him up – even then, it was more so we didn’t have to see his injuries. I realised in my stupidity something we’d overlooked – he was alone.
“Oh, shit. Alexi, where’s Ellie?” Nia whimpered, “she fall behind?”
He sat there, lifeless. It could’ve been the bandages wrapped around his head. I think he was just too broken to register the question.
“Alexi you motherfucker, where is she!?”
With his throat and chest a pulpy mess, Alexi’s voice was little more than a grating rattle.
“Didn’t make it. Ankles… achilles sliced to shit. She fell down crack.”
Nia just stood there, letting her head lull back, and let out a forlorn wail into the sky. One of transparent despair and indignance at this reprobate world. One I felt all too closely.
I remember looking into the ice, and seeing torn flesh dangling from a Boreworm’s mouth. Dull pink smudges carried through the ice as they tunnelled.
A while later, two or three weeks at a guess, her rebirth began. It seems that whenever this happens, they aren’t too far away. Thirty feet, tops. I don’t wanna jinx it. Maybe it’s luck. More likely, it’s just how this place works. I dream sometimes of being reborn from the ice, only to fall out rigid and lifeless. But all we get are failed miscarriages.
There’s one more thing I find worthy of putting on paper, and that is the Storm. It happens at random, according to Curt. There’s no pattern to its visits. I’ve only witnessed it twice in my time here.
The first time it swirled on the distant skyline, I found myself totally rapt in its magnificence. A terrifying sight to behold. We’d been imprisoned in a night that must’ve lasted at least two or three years, relatively speaking.
And in accordance with the darkness, the only light being the bruised, moonless firmament, it took a while for the black clouds to register, congealing across the waters.
Well, it wasn’t hard to notice after deep crimson flashes lit up in its bowels. Pulsing vermillion glimmers, so full of energy I could feel heat wash over my face from across the waters.
That heat grew into a roiling whirlwind as the Storm neared. The others were quick to stir from their meagre shuteye when they too felt it.
“The hell’s that?” Nia stammered, evidently as clueless as I was.
“Oh… no. No, no, please God no. Not again,” Curt croaked.
“Uh, guys, what’s happening? What is that out there?” I asked.
“Storm’s a’ coming.”
We all turned to Yago in sync. Those were the only words he’d spoken since he returned from the Blubbers, and the mere sound of his voice came as a shock. We pressed for details, but he’d already sunken back to his dead-tongued dejection. Curt was no help either. He just shivered and stared paralytic into the churning depths of that stormhead.
I’ll be honest; after the Storm drew nearer and pattering rain replaced the snow, a certain excitement overtook me. Inky blots darted across the flashing lights deep in the stormclouds, captivating me in awe. I threw my head back and opened my mouth, allowing the rain to spread its warmth across my tongue.
It felt heavenly. The sensation of warmth after so long deprived was like nothing I’d felt before.
The euphoria was shortlasting, and concern replaced it as the raindrops turned scalding. When they started to burn and sizzle off my face I flinched and dove back under cover.
Before long, the air was an all-encompassing haze of steam. It was like we’d just entered some malfunctioning steamroom. Each breath brought with it a flaring heat that spread from my lungs to the rest of my organs.
It’s funny isn’t it. In winter, it’s cold and dreary, and you wish it was summer instead; then when summer rolls around, the beating sun and stifling nights make you yearn for the cooler seasons.
In that boiling cloud, I begged for the cold to come back. At least we could layer up in coats and pants. There’s nothing to be done about the heat. You can’t exactly take your skin off when it’s too hot.
Momentary relief came as cool, trickling streams from above. My relief was sorely misguided when I understood what it was.
Minor runnels quickly inflated to a formidable downpour.
Then, into a violent rapid. Nothing could be heard over the roar of rushing water.
Blind, breathless, and panicking, I reached out for a hold. My fingers wrapped around metal. A pole driven into the ice. I held on with everything I had.
There was a thump beside me. A gurgled shriek. Eleanor. Despite my total exertion to keep from being swept away, I outstretched a hand.
“Ellie! Here, grab my hand!” I screamed, a candle in the wind to the rapids.
Without delay I felt her slippery fingers intertwine with my own. I heaved. It felt as if my spine would snap right there and then. I just didn’t have the strength. The cold torrent sapped all the excess energy from my muscles.
Following the cry, I barely made out Curt clinging helplessly to a torn canvas. The steam swallowed him up again, and my stomach knotted when a harsh tearing noise scraped my eardrums.
In total, uncut despair, I watched as Curt plummeted past the platform and out of sight.
And as if on cue, Ellie’s fingers slipped away. My heart felt as empty as my palm. Her screams faded from my ears, replaced by the incessant torrent.
I don’t remember the wait following. Only the waterfall suddenly abating, giving way to familiar grey murk hanging in the sky.
Curt and Eleanor were gone. In any other situation, I might’ve found solace knowing they’d drowned, or perhaps even died on impact with the ocean.
Of course, that was out of the question. We were left knowing with absolute certainty they were going through unimaginable suffering, and far more to come. Whether at the hands of unseen leviathans, Blubbers, or any other nameless things lurking in the depths, it didn’t matter.
I just hoped whatever found them was vicious enough to tear them apart, digest their bodies into nothing and allow them to return.
A week passed, and Eleanor began to regrow. Another two weeks later, Curt appeared. After their rebirth, we all knew better than to prod. Just leave them be. Let them process it. Let them decompress.
Loss may seem a trivial affliction without death. But it would be naive to think of loss as a purely physical separation. Yes, you may be taken away, put through unspeakable suffering, and then be reborn. For lack of a better term, those victims lose some integral part of their being. Slowly. Chipped and whittled away. Something so abstract, so important, yet it cannot be grasped by the hand. Once it’s gone, there’s no reeling it back.
And still we went on. We had no choice, and fell back on mindless habits for comfort. In a way, we found paltry success in learning what makes this place tick. Trial and error. However awful those trials have been.
My thoughts lingered on the Storm after it happened a second time. We were seasoned, prepared for what was to come. Making sure our cover was uninfiltrated by the elements, we pulled together ropes and twine, tied them around ourselves and fastened the ends to various driven poles and stakes.
Maybe I’d been too focused on the Storm and its sizzling droplets to catch Yago unfastening himself and standing up. A yell from Alexi brought me to attention, but it was too late.
Yago, already several paces away, lumbered toward the edge of the platform. We all thought he’d jump, futile as it’d be.
Instead, he threw off his shoes, socks, jacket, pants… everything, until he stood stark naked, exposed to the elements.
At this point we knew better than jumping up to help. We had no fault in this. He’d come back eventually, after all.
Yet, I could sense something changing. I don’t know what, or when it started, but it was there. A shift, a redirection of energy.
Yago howled as his skin bubbled and blistered under the Storm’s ferocity. I think it was when his skin began sloughing off in great swathes that it happened.
Without warning, Yago’s entire being burst into a furious red flame. A sparking vermillion plasma, crackling with the intensity of lightning.
Eyes watering from the heat, I watched transfixed as his silhouette, shrouded in hellfire, seemed to be eaten away into nothing. Not a puff of smoke or steam billowed from him. His backlit shadow disintegrated inch by inch until the last smattering of fragments were burned away entirely.
Absolutely nothing remained of Yago once the storm passed. Not one stray hair or nail fragment.
Of course, we expected him to grow out from the ice face. Right away, in fact.
We scanned every last inch of the cliff. Nothing.
It’s been… hell, I can’t even guess how long it’s been since then. It’s all so, so fucking arbitrary. Meaningless. Could be decades, centuries, millenia. My family might be long-dead by now. Hell, humanity could already have gone extinct.
And in all that time I’ve yet to see even a hint of Yago’s return.
Maybe he’s in another, worse place. Maybe he’s dead. Or maybe he made it back home.
Those are the only possibilities I can imagine, and as far as I can see, that’s a 2/3 chance of escaping this place. Escaping eternity.
Next time the Storm comes around, I think I’ll follow that old man’s example. Strip down to my most human form. Raw for the whole world to see.
And maybe, just maybe… the rain will set me free.
Credit: A. K. Kullerden
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