I was on my knees in the tunnel, going through my pack. My breath froze and crystallized in front of me, dusting its contents with ice shards. The heat lamp I'd set on the rock next to it was throwing shadows across my hands, as I tore through packets of rations looking for the sealed gel pouch.
My toes felt like ice, and my bare fingers were stiff and shook as I shivered. I alternated between holding them next to the heat lamp, and rummaging through my pack as fast as I could. Sweat dripped off of them and froze.
"C’mon, where is it ... " Protein bars. Space blankets. Chemical heating pads. Cryo- there it was!
My fingers slipped, and it fell to the bottom. “Argh!” One hand dug through and held everything up, while my other hand reached down and grabbed it. Then I moved back up to the heat lamp really fast, shivering and trying to get the pouch open.
It had a brand name, but I didn’t care. It was cryoberry concentrate, and I needed it to kick my metabolism into overdrive before I froze down here. Shivering violently, I managed to tear open the pouch, then lifted my cloth mask just enough to squeeze the gel into my mouth.
I gagged. It was painfully sweet, and so tart that it burned. How many hundred times stronger than sweet cane was it? How much acid fermented in each berry? I’d tried to drink a cup of the juice once, and even after watering it down I couldn’t finish it. This was like an entire pitcher of the stuff in one mouthful.
I nearly spat it out, on reflex, but managed to force my mouth closed and tilted my head back, feeling the gel tear down my throat like bad heartburn as I swallowed. My tongue felt like I’d just drank scalding water, and I moistened my mouth, swallowing fast to clean it out. Then I cringed, gritting my teeth, fighting back the urge to vomit.
A voice in the back of my head told me “If you hadn’t run off on your own, this wouldn’t have happened!” I tried to remind myself what it was like back at camp; the loud, echoey snoring, the heat and sweat and itchy bedding, and the feeling of being suffocated. It’d been the second night in a row like that, and I’d already stayed up for most of it. I’d had to.
Was freezing and dying down here better than that? Probably not. I hadn’t meant to go this far, though. And I would’ve told someone if I’d known they would listen ... if I’d known they cared at all. Or wouldn’t have just told me to tough it out, like they’d been doing.
I’d left markers, at any rate; chalk marks on the wall that had followed me all the way out here. Now I just had to follow them back ...
... assuming I lived through this.
Cold was my next thought, followed by pain. I winced again, my throat tightening, fighting back tears behind my goggles. Then I pulled the mask back down over my face and put my gloves back on, still shivering. My feet were so cold they’d numbed, and my hands were still so cold they hurt, but the searing pain in my throat was starting to turn into warmth, and I could feel it beginning to spread.
Better get these out for when I need them, I thought. I pulled two handfuls of protein bars from my pack, and stashed them all in my pockets before zipping the pack up again and shouldering it. I was still cold, and still weary from hiking so far. But after all that I was wide awake.
I picked up the heat lamp and started walking back down the tunnel, stone and ice glistening in the lamp’s glow. Powdered ice crunched under my feet. I clicked the lamp shut, into flashlight mode, then looked behind me, away from its beam. It was surreally pitch-black just a few feet away.
When I turned around again, the first thing I saw was a bright orange chalk mark shining in the light, with others past it leading back along the tunnel. I was on the right track; the pedometer on my belt said that I still had a way to go, but I didn’t care ... I could do this. I’d make myself do this. I had to.
The cold began to subside. I could feel my feet again, pins and needles inside like warm water had just been poured over them. It hurt, but I had to keep walking. The pain in my throat was harder to ignore, though, and so was the tightness in my stomach. It was no longer just from the acid; it was also the hunger pangs starting. I was going to need to eat soon, to fuel the furnace my body had turned into.
I was unwrapping the first protein bar when something stopped me in my tracks. The shadows didn’t look right, along the side of the wall. I went closer to investigate, and found a narrow tunnel leading back towards the main passage, which opened up and curved off in another direction some distance in. It looked icy and slippery, but I thought I could manage it even with my pack. Should I, though?
I walked over and shone my flashlight down it, trying to see where it went. It looked like it opened up after only ten metres or so, and-
What was that?
I looked at the ground, my protein bar all but forgotten. Something was there, partway lodged in the ice. Something that shone bright blue in the light.
I got down on my knees to inspect it more closely. It looked like a stone disc, its outer surface carved into segments. There was a rune engraved into each segment, and taking up most of one side was a bright blue jewel.
If you’re reading this where I think you are, then you know what something so out-of-place means. You know what’s about to happen. And if I’d been reading this there too, then I would’ve known in a heartbeat. But I’m not sure what I would have done.
But I didn’t know, so here’s what I was thinking:
Oh wow. Oh wow. How big is that jewel? Oh wow, I don’t believe it. How many grams worth is this? Who cares. I’m rich now! I’m so rich!
I started grinning like an idiot, the protein bar even further from my mind as my stomach twisted and growled. Should I tell them? I thought. It’d make the perfect comeuppance! My eyes widened. But what if they take it from me? What if they just take it and don’t even ask, just like they used to do ... just like some of them used to, I corrected myself. No. This has to stay secret.
I nearly doubled over, as the hunger pangs overtook me. Then I knelt down right next to the protein bar, peeled the wrapper from it, and swallowed the entire thing at once, barely tasting it.
Another one followed, more slowly this time. It was chewy, and tasted of nut butters and vegetable oils. I stashed the wrappers in my other pocket, still chewing and savoring the second bar. Then I looked down at the disc, and wondered how on Tsoneria I was going to get it out of the ice.
I should have asked “how long”. It took me about half an hour.
I didn’t have a crowbar, or an ice pick. I had a few matches, but not enough to make any headway. The ice froze back, slick, and I had to be careful not to slip and stab myself as I hacked at it with my knife. Twice, I had to stop and grab another protein bar. I could feel myself growing uncomfortably warm.
Finally I grabbed hold of the disc and pulled, and the remaining ice broke away. Then I tried to stand up with it, only to be stopped short and nearly fell over. What the heck?
I looked closely. The disc had thin leather strips attaching it to the ice, tied around a loop at what must be the top. It wasn’t just a disc, it was an amulet; some kind of ornament. And the leather was buried deep in the ice.
I didn’t have time for that. So I cut the straps off, then held the disc up to the light, grinning excitedly. It was gorgeous, and I’m not just saying that because it looked valuable. The gem was as big around as my thumb, and the light played off it like a museum piece ... I could imagine it displayed on a pillow, behind glass. Meanwhile, the stone around it was smooth, with no sharp edges except where the runes were carved. It looked finely made, and not manufactured.
I turned the stone disc around. On the back were intricate slots and grooves. I furrowed my brow, examining it. This side looked less like a piece of jewelry, and more like a piece of machinery. What was it for?
No clue, I thought. Oh well. I pocketed it, and started to go back when I stopped in my tracks. That side tunnel was beckoning me, and I don’t mean in a magical, mysterious sense. I mean something more like an OCD way. It was going to drive me nuts if I didn’t go down it.
You’d think I would’ve right away, just to see if it had anything to do with the gem and the disc. Or if there was any more where they’d come from. You have to remember, I had just spent the last couple of hours walking through the cold, then digging on my hands and knees ‘till my neck was sore. Plus I was hot and sweaty and uncomfortable inside my coat, now that the extract had taken effect. I really just wanted to go to bed, and tried to tell myself I could take everyone there tomorrow or something. But my OCD won out, and I sighed and walked down the tunnel.
Did I say “walked”? More like “squeezed” down the tunnel. It was iced over, and I could see stone past the ice but that didn’t help me gain traction. About halfway through I started to have trouble going any farther, and I panicked because I was alone and I didn’t want to get stuck here. But it turned out I’d just gotten my coat caught on something, and I got the rest of the way through, and looked out and gasped.
I was standing in a worked stone shaft going a hundred or more metres up, all the way to the mountain’s surface. The air in here was warmer than outside -- the ice seemed to stop at the entrance -- and the distant top shone like a gem in my flashlight, whole facets lighting up at once. I realized I was inside a hideaway; from above, that whole ceiling would look just like snow. I might be the first human inside this place, ever.
This is SO. COOL, I thought. Then I realized I was standing in darkness, and slowly shone the flashlight around.
Four-legged shapes prowled the darkness.
I jumped, banging my head on the wall and dropping the flashlight, going down on my knees to pick it up quickly. I fumbled with it for a moment before looking up again. My heart raced as I saw the shapes once more, and the shadows they threw on the walls. But then I realized they were statues ... not living creatures, just statues.
I put one hand over my heart, trying to control my breathing. I was about to burn up, both from the heat, and the adrenaline racing through my body caused by the moment of fear. I yanked off my coat and mask, gasping in a few breaths through my mouth before removing my boots and my snowsuit. After that I looked around again, hearing my breathing echo like I was inside a cathedral.
The statues lined the wall of the wide, circular room, all of them big cats, all of them in different poses; walking, resting, cleaning themselves. I recognized a tiger, a leopard, and a lynx along one side before my eyes scanned over the rest of the room.
Beneath the stone rim that the statues were on was a large circle of dark earth, with glass lines embedded in it, radiating out from the centre. They looked interesting, almost runic, and the light played off of them ... and something else in the room. Gems, set in the eyes of the statue at the far end. It looked like the leopard, but different ... the carved spots were larger, the tail was thicker, and the shape of its face reminded me of a picture I’d seen once. A leopard, maybe?
It was looking down at me.
The blue jewels in its eyes seemed to wink, as I shone the flashlight across them. I stepped towards it in my wool socks, beginning to tremble as I got closer. The light from my flashlight glinted off of the lines in the ground as I did so.
I started to feel very small, as my eyes darted between the carved floor and the cat statue watching me. I didn’t feel like a brave explorer, decked out in the best modern gear. I felt like an interloper. I could feel the echoes of the big cats who’d once lived on the mountain above judging me as though seeing a human creature for the first time. And I felt scared and contrite, and really sorry for disturbing them.
But I didn’t feel unwelcome. I didn’t feel like I’d done anything to anger them, and I planned to keep it that way. I stopped about halfway across the room, shining my flashlight discreetly up at the statues, casting big shadows across the wall. Then I took a step towards the statue at the far end again, but my foot caught on something and I tripped and fell.
I screamed! I just about had a heart attack, scrambling backwards on hands and knees and shining my flashlight all around, looking for the thing that’d just grabbed me. But nothing was moving; the statues were all still where they’d been. There was just an unusual spot on the ground where I’d tripped. A place where my light shone differently.
I crawled closer and examined it. It was a circular hole in the floor, right where the glass lines were radiating out from, a few centimetres deep and with grooves carved inside it. And it was about the same size as the disc.
No one ever thinks they’re in one of these stories. Few people realize the significance of the things that they see all around them, but even I wasn’t dense enough to miss the connection. And the second I realized it, my OCD told me to “Put the disc in the hole.”
My heart raced again. I tried to argue with myself. “What if that triggers the self-destruct? Or brings the roof down, or something?” But then I imagined a robber, his face hooded and eyes dark, grabbing things up all around the room, and running out into the tunnels. And in my mind’s eye, I saw the disc fall right where I’d found it.
It wasn’t a vision. It was just starting to seem like the most plausible explanation. And besides, the disc was obviously meant to be there. How could anyone fault me for putting it back? They’d have to be Fey, or something, to do that.
My last retort was that I wanted to keep the disc, so I could sell it. Living on disability didn’t leave me enough silver for anything, after I’d bought food, clothes and clean water. I had to rely on my friends for everything, even to pay for this trip. I wanted some independence ... I wanted to at least be able to repay them. I looked up at the statues meekly, clutching the disc in both hands, as though trying to see if they judged me for this.
“You can take it back out once you’ve tested it", my brain said. "Just try it once so you can see what happens."
The statues were silent.
I cringed, squeezing the disc tight in my hands. For a long moment, I hesitated, then slowly knelt down to the ground, placed the disc in the hole, and ran like heck, nearly falling over in the process.
I turned back around once I bumped into one of the statues, breathing fast and looking back down at the disc. What hadn’t I done correctly? After a second it clicked, and my brain said "You’ve got to turn it in place. That’s what the grooves are for." And I facepalmed, smacking my icy glove to my forehead, before shaking the ice from my hair. The statues said nothing as I walked back towards the disc.
Kneeling down next to it, I gave it a quarter-turn before something clicked. A glow shot out through the lines all around me, so fast that my breath caught, and so bright that my flashlight was drowned out. A bass hum vibrated the floor.
I knelt there, frozen in place, too scared to do anything else.
Sweat coated my sides and I watched as though dreaming, as more glowing lines crept up from the floor towards the center statue, illuminating its spots and markings. Then there was a rumbling, growing steadily louder as the stone crumbled and fell away, revealing a real, living leopard underneath. I watched with wide eyes as it stretched out on the pedestal, extending its claws and swinging its tail as the rumbling faded, leaving only the bass hum beneath me, and the pounding of my heart.
The leopard peered down for a moment, its head cocked to one side as if curious, and I looked on in terror, the voice in my head whispering that I was going to die. Then it sprang.
I was out as soon as my head hit the floor.