Albert truly despised the Frostlands.
The frigid wastes around Winterhome were devoid of nearly any distinguishing features, save for a few jagged, icy crags sticking out of the ground. Snowdrifts shifted and moved daily, shaping the landscape like the now-mythical Sahara, forcing scout teams to either trudge through several feet of snow or attempt to find purchase on the underlying ice to advance. Shrill winds hounded them at every step, robbing them of breath and forcing them to bundle up in the thickest clothes they could find.
It was hell on Earth, and they still had another mile to walk before they reached their destination.
"Are you sure we should keep going, Albert? The wind's starting to pick up," Charles called out, his voice muffled by the woolen scarf wrapped around his mouth.
"We'll keep going until we reach that cave. After that, we'll rest," Albert said, trying to ignore the numbness creeping into his limbs. They had already been travelling for several hours that day, hoping to reach shelter before setting up their next camp. With luck, the cave would provide enough protection for them to sleep. After that, there was simply the long trek back to Winterhome, dragging the scant supplies they had found thus far home.
Albert wasn't entirely certain why he had been picked for the scouting teams. Most of his outdoorsman experiences had been as a lad, going on a few camping trips with his brother in the nearby woods. His subsequent career as a clerk had hardly required him to make trips more strenuous than walks to the pub.
Maybe he was chosen for the role simply because he was still alive. The fires from the uprising hadn't discriminated between the innocent and the guilty, and the final death toll had been abhorrent. The city needed as many working hands as it could get if it was to recover and endure.
For now, if his purpose was to traverse the Frostlands, he would do so. He owed the Captain that much for freeing the city, even if it was ultimately a doomed venture.
It would have been easier if either of his companions had experience, but, sadly, that was not to be. Charles had been a miner before the uprising, while Davis had been a line cook. Neither of them had set foot outside of Winterhome since the journey to get there, but with the manpower shortages…
Well, Albert was just glad to have someone watching his back.
Their seemingly endless trek continued, with the only sounds being the howling winds and the crunching ice underfoot. Albert took the lead, scanning the horizon with frost-coated binoculars and a long-outdated map. Charles and Davis lagged behind, pulling along their supply sled with all the strength they had.
By the time they reached their destination, the sun had nearly set. The dim, vague glow from the horizon was barely visible through the clouds and snowstorms, forcing them to break out the arc lanterns. Even then, with how poor the visibility was, they nearly walked past the mouth of the cave.
The cavern entrance looked just as foreboding as it had several hours ago, barely visible through his frost-coated binoculars. Thick sheets of ice surrounded the entrance, leaving massive icicles hanging from the roof. The lack of visibility and the poor terrain made each of the men reach for their pistols. None of them wanted to fall victim to another bear attack. Raising his weapon and arc lantern, Albert went in first, scanning the area for signs of movement.
Immediately, several items caught Albert's attention. For one thing, the cave was far larger than he had expected. Far from the small, cramped holes they'd encountered previously, this cave was rather spacious, with enough room to easily fit a dozen people. Their lanterns offered just enough light to make out the corners of the room, with small, smooth outcroppings jutting out from the walls.
However, there was one thing that caught Albert's attention above all else: it was warm.
Not warm like the shacks and hovels of Winterhome, with hastily plugged gaps and half-mended holes in the walls letting in the cold. Not warm like the exterior of the Generator, which, for all its might, still could not bring the surrounding temperature above freezing.
The cavern was warm like Bristol before the frosts. Like how a spring day ought to have felt, instead of the madness outside.
Albert could feel the warmth flow over him, letting his limbs recover in stinging needles and pricks as the frost melted from his clothes. Nearby, Charles and Davis were doing the same, marveling at the fact that they could no longer see their own breath frost over. Charles had even gone so far as to take his gloves off, the mad bastard.
There must be something heating this cavern. Some sort of geothermal vent, perhaps? Albert thought, frowning. That was the only explanation he could think of, given the rushed and half-hearted training he had received for this job. It may not be close enough to help Winterhome, but a natural source of steam and heat could, Lord willing, keep a small number of people from freezing to death. Maybe they could turn it into an emergency shelter, given enough time and preparations. Not enough room to save everyone, but if even a few could survive…
Albert shook his head, trying to rid himself of such fanciful thoughts. As if Winterhome had the resources to set something like that up when they were still tearing down the scorched ruins of half the city.
Still, it was certainly a comfortable place for a short rest. The cavern was already protected from the winds and snowfall by the narrow entrance and rocky overhangs, and the immediate area appeared to be free of wildlife. At least, it looked that way with what little tracking experience he had earned during the past few weeks. He couldn't make out any of the usual signs of inhabitation, such as bones, droppings, or tracks.
"Charles, break out the wireless and send a report back. There's nothing here," Albert said, holstering his pistol.
Charles glanced over at Albert in disbelief. "Nothing here? Are you serious? What about the temperature?"
"Not good enough," Albert replied, shaking his head. "If it's not something we can take back home with us, it's worthless."
Charles frowned, but, thankfully, did not take the issue further. He simply glanced over at Davis, scoffed, and returned to the sled. Davis, for his part, continued to sort through his pack, ignoring the rest of them like the good Londoner he once was.
While Charles worked on setting up the clunky, battered radio system, Albert and Davis got to work on the camp. A few scraps of wood were quickly turned into a fire, fending off the last vestiges of cold from the air. Davis opened up his pack, taking out some smoked venison to cook, while Albert prepared his bedroll.
In some ways, it felt like just another one of those camping trips from a lifetime ago.
If only you were here to enjoy it, James. Lord knows you'd make better company than this lot.
…He shouldn't bring up those memories. The world was already depressing enough without thinking about the past. Besides, the others weren't completely useless. He certainly wouldn't want to be the one dragging the sled around.
While he mused about his circumstances, trying to find something positive to think about, his hand bumped into something. At first glance, it looked like any one of the countless stones that littered the cavern floor. However, as he reached over to move it, Albert noticed another detail: someone had carved it.
Picking the stone up gingerly, Albert tried to make out what the carvings were supposed to be. The stone figure was roughly etched, shaped broadly like a cross, with deep lines spreading out from the center towards the prongs. A small, near-featureless face resided in the top-center, with only a pair of small divots noticeable.
What is this? Some sort of symbol? Albert wondered. It could be a sign that someone else was living here, but as he looked around, he couldn't make out anything else. Perhaps some poor soul had carved it while waiting for the storms to clear out and left it behind afterwards.
"Meal's ready. Get your fill."
At any rate, he had more pressing matters to concern himself with. He could have eaten a horse if they hadn't all died off from the cold already. Opening his pack, Albert placed the figure inside before heading to the campfire.
As usual, the game was tough and unseasoned. Still, warm meat was one of the few luxuries they could have these days, and the three indulged wholeheartedly. A few half-hearted attempts at small talk were made, but for the most part, the focus was on the food. By the time his plate was cleaned, Albert had already forgotten about the strange totem in his pack.
The rest of the evening went by quickly. Besides a quick response from Winterhome, acknowledging their report and travel plans, nothing of note happened. After a day's march through the Frostlands, nobody had the energy for anything more than their evening prayers. It was a blessing to finally crawl into their bedrolls, letting the warmth settle over them.
Feeling his eyes leaden, Albert slowly gave in to his exhaustion, drifting off to sleep-
-and waking up once more.
Immediately, the change in scenery caught his eye. Instead of the smooth, dark stone of the cavern, he was met with the sight of a well-furnished room. The walls were intact and covered in paper. Electric bulbs offered a comforting glow, illuminating the room in a light tinge of orange.
…It was his apartment. The same one he had abandoned so long ago, all the way back in Bristol.
As Albert rose from his bed, blinking away his exhaustion, he began to make out more details. His desk was still covered in half-finished forms and requisitions, his coat draped over the nearby chair. A handful of books were left on the coffee table, all lent to him by James. Thick, plain rugs covered the floors, bought when he had first moved in to cover the cold hardwood.
It was as if the world hadn't frozen over.
But none of this was real. It couldn't be. Bristol had fallen to the Great Frost months ago. He had barely escaped the city with the last Dreadnoughts. What was…
Albert sighed, rubbing his eyes. It had to be a dream. Perhaps his mind was still stuck on all that reminiscing from before, and needed to work its way through every painful detail. As if he hadn't dealt with enough trauma already.
But this wasn't like the nightmares he'd suffered from after the Frost started, or after the uprising. If anything, he felt more comfortable now than he'd felt all year. Warmth filled the room, giving with it a sense of hope that he'd long since abandoned.
"I wonder how far this dream goes," Albert muttered. If he opened the window, would the rest of the city look how it used to? Or would it be caught in the middle of the Great Frost, with factories and homes buried by the rising snow?
God, he hoped for the former. It had been so, so long since he'd seen a living plant outside of a hothouse. He'd give anything just to be able to walk in a park, even if none of it was real.
Slowly, almost reluctantly, Albert crossed the room, trying to ignore the achingly familiar creak of the floorboards beneath him. Sunlight streamed through the window curtains, giving him a cautious sense of hope. Gently, he pulled open the drapes-
…Where was Bristol?
The familiar rooftops and smokestacks of the city were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the entire landscape was nothing but swirling, golden clouds and massive pillars of dark marble. All of it was lit up by the distant sun, with a vibrancy that would have burned Albert's eyes if not for the cloud cover.
Albert sighed, leaning on the windowsill. "Guess going outside was too much to ask."
As he said that, Albert heard something off in the distance. He couldn't quite make it out; the only thing he could determine was the intensity. The sound was like the immense roar of the Generator, or the constant clamor of Bristol's shipyards; the noise of something massive, almost beyond comprehension.
He tried to peer further out the window, looking for the source of the noise. At first, everything appeared to be the same. However, there were small, almost imperceptible changes. The clouds were swirling more violently than before, the sun was moving closer-
…That was no sun.
As the sharp, radiant light in the distance grew nearer, its shape began to morph. No longer a featureless sphere, Albert could see great, innumerable tendrils of light connected to its core, tangling and shifting as it moved. His hands flew up to cover his eyes instinctually as the light grew brighter and brighter, quick glimpses at the being leaving him half-blinded.
Albert backed up, fumbling in panic at the presence approaching him. He opened his mouth, trying to make sense of such a strange figure-
-only for his head to snap back, sending him stumbling on his feet. The all-encompassing warmth vanished, replaced with a sharp, stinging pain on his cheek. Glancing back, Albert saw Charles standing nearby, hand raised and scowling.
"What was that for?" Albert cried, clutching his face. Had Charles just punched him?
"It's your own fault! You were fucking sleepwalking! I tried to stop you, but you just kept going, and going…Christ," Charles sighed. "How can you walk so fast when you're not even conscious?"
"Practice," Albert spat out, rubbing his jaw. "Did you really need to punch me that hard?"
"Oh, sod off. It was just a slap," Charles scoffed. "Besides, it worked, didn't it? You're awake now."
"With a broken jaw. Bloody hell…" Albert muttered, glancing around. Where was Davis in all of this, anyway? Surely he'd have said something…
…Wait, where are we? Where's the cave entrance?
Instead of the relatively open cavern they had set up camp in, they had somehow ended up in a cramped, sloped passageway. There was barely enough room for the two of them to stand together, and even then, only by leaning back against the walls. Charles's lantern offered the only illumination, casting the rough walls in harsh shadows.
"Finally noticed where we are, have you?" Charles asked, crossing his arms. "Don't know how, but you found a side tunnel. We must be at least a hundred feet below by now. Good thing I saw you, or nobody would've known where you went."
"…How did we miss this?" Albert asked, glancing back and forth. None of it made any sense. How would he have just stumbled upon something like this? And so quickly, too? He hadn't been asleep for that long. He had barely even started dreaming about…
What had he been dreaming about, anyways? Why couldn't he remember?
"It was hidden behind a stalagmite. If you hadn't gone and stumbled into it, I doubt we would've found this tunnel," Charles said, interrupting Albert's thoughts. "Thank God it didn't branch off."
"What? What do you mean?" Albert asked, trying to ignore the dull, throbbing pain in his skull. Like hell was that just a slap.
"You go down the wrong path in a place like this, you're not coming back out. Simple as that," Charles said. "If you're lucky, it'll be bad air that gets you."
"…And if you're not lucky?" Albert asked, shuddering involuntarily.
"Too many options to count. Come on, let's get going back. We've been lucky enough to have clean air all the way down here, but that probably won't last much longer," Charles said, turning back towards the surface.
Suddenly, a memory forced its way into Albert's mind. "W-wait. There might be people down here. Possibly. I found this back in the entrance," Albert said, reaching into his pack. He hastily pulled out the stone carving, presenting it to Charles.
Charles stared at the idol, frown slowly deepening in fury. "So you found this, and you didn't say anything about it?" He growled.
"If we'd found any other clues that survivors were around, I would have. But there weren't. You were looking up there too, and you didn't find anything!" Albert argued. It was a weak argument, admittedly, but the others were hardly blameless.
Charles sighed, rubbing his face. After a long moment, he turned back towards Albert. "Fine. We'll go deeper. But if either of us start feeling lightheaded, or short of breath, we leave then and there."
Albert nodded. His curiosity may be getting the better of him, but he wasn't willing to die for it.
They turned towards the lower tunnel, descending further underground. The uneven, rough terrain made it difficult to walk, the dim light masking any obstacles in thick darkness. Both men moved slowly, their attentions focused on the air they breathed.
As such, they quickly became aware of a new fact: there was a breeze coming from the lower end of the tunnel. One that was blowing towards them.
"…Could be a good sign…but where is it coming from?" Charles muttered. "Can't be another entrance this far below."
Albert stayed quiet, uncertain himself. The tunnel continued downwards, gradually leveling out as they moved forwards. After several minutes, the tunnel leveled out completely, tapering off right as they reached another opening. Readying the lantern, the two men stepped forwards-
And found themselves facing the ruins of a massive settlement, in the center of an immense cavern. Countless tents and lean-tos filled the area, with faded canvas and rugs making up the walls of homes in a veritable rainbow of colors. The sheer number of homes would have been enough to fit an entire village before the frosts. Small glass jars hung from poles, filled with some sort of pale, illuminating substance he couldn't quite make out.
Off to one side of the cavern, a large stream flowed from one end to the other, filling the air with the sound of rushing water. Thick bundles of tall grasses lined the bank, heedless of the fact there was no sun to sustain them. The cavern roof wasn't even discernable, with the light of Charles's arc lantern unable to reach the ceiling. Throughout it all, a light, warm breeze flowed through the area, circulating the air and keeping the temperature warm.
It was a natural bunker. Impervious to the Great Frost, well-prepared with housing and water, and with natural ventilation. No wonder so many people had set up their homes here. Even without the sky to offer illumination, this place was already more comfortable than the deteriorating conditions of Winterhome.
"…What is this place?" Charles muttered, stepping forwards.
"A tent city? Could be more refugees from the mainland," Albert replied. Lord only knew how many people must have fled the Isles by the time it all collapsed. It was possible that these people had tried to follow the paths in the ice left by the Dreadnoughts, only to stumble upon the caverns along the way.
"Shouldn't there have been tracks in the entrance? There's no way you could drag all this stuff down that tunnel without leaving a trail," Charles said.
"They must have gotten in through another cave," Albert said. With the dozens of feet of ice and snow accumulated up above, it would be easy for another cavern to be buried and hidden.
Minutes passed by wordlessly as they wandered through the tents, looking for any signs of life. Surely with a settlement this size, there had to be at least some sign of who lived here. Documents, ruins, bodies…something, surely.
And yet, despite an exhaustive search, they couldn't find a single trace of what happened to the original inhabitants. All they could infer was that they left suddenly, and that was only a guess based on the interiors of the tents. Most of their contents were scattered and disorganized, with rugs, pillows, and other belongings thrown about.
Stranger still, many of the tools and furniture they discovered were unfamiliar, or oddly primitive. There were no arc lanterns, wooden crates, stockpiles of tinned cans or spare clothes. Very few of the tools they uncovered were even made out of steel, with most being made out of carved stone or scraps of wood.
"…I don't like this," Charles muttered, crawling out of yet another empty home. "Feels like we're walking through a graveyard."
"Maybe they didn't die. We haven't found any bodies," Albert said.
"Then where the hell is everyone? Who would just go and leave all this behind?" Charles asked, gesturing to their abandoned surroundings. "Shit, there must be enough supplies here to set up another city."
"Maybe they went further in? This place is certainly big enough for them to go deeper," Albert shrugged.
Charles shook his head. "I still don't like it. Towns aren't meant to be underground. Just feels…off."
Albert scoffed. Towns weren't meant to have factory-sized furnaces in the center of them either, but nature had forced their hand. Without access to a Generator site, anyone left would no doubt use whatever they could find.
But Albert couldn't ignore Charles's point. Sheltered or not, something had caused everyone to flee. Who was to say that it wouldn't happen again? Or if the people that had lived here wouldn't come back?
…Did either of those questions even matter at this point?
A discovery like this would have been noteworthy even before the Great Frost. An underground cave system this massive, with flowing water moving throughout it, would have been a tremendous thing to study and explore.
Now, though, it represented something even bigger. Clean, fresh water. Breathable air. Living space that was free from the cold, with enough room to fit hundreds of people.
Enough room for an entire city, potentially.
It could be another disaster just waiting to rear its head. It could also be their only hope of surviving the seemingly endless winter. Ultimately, it was the Captain's decision, but given the deteriorating conditions in the city…
Albert turned back towards Charles. "We need to get back to the entrance. Winterhome must know about this place."
The former miner hesitated, glancing back and forth between Albert and the ruins, before moving off. Albert couldn't completely blame him for his hesitation. It would be prudent to look through the rest of the ruins and search for survivors, or at least traces of who built this settlement.
But the Generator was failing. Every minute counted, and the discovery of a safe home for Winterhome's citizens was exactly the miracle the city needed. Even if it was temporary, even if only a fraction of their people could survive, at least something would endure.
Albert turned around and moved back towards the tunnel, still unconsciously holding onto the stone idol in his pack.