Consciousness came suddenly, assaulting Albert's senses with warmth and light.
It took him a moment to focus, blinking a few times as he tried to clear his vision. Eventually, he was able to wake up enough to see a familiar, if unimpressive, environment.
He found himself in the main bedroom of his bunkhouse, with jumbled cots and hammocks crowded together wherever their owners could find space. It had been winterproofed to the best of their abilities, with rugs and blankets covering the walls and floors, although they could never find enough to cover everything. A handful of flickering bulbs lit up the room, somehow making it more difficult to see the scattered belongings left lying on the floor.
Mercifully, it seemed that he had the room to himself for the moment. None of the other beds were occupied, and he couldn't hear anyone moving about. He could take his time getting ready for the workday.
Considering nobody had woken him up, he might even have the day off. No trudging through the Frostlands, searching for scraps of civilization. Instead, he could try to enjoy the amenities of Winterhome. Perhaps he could take a trip to the chapel, or see if anyone had any books they'd be willing to part with.
Yawning, Albert shifted in his bed, pulling back the covers-
…Why were his arms uncovered? Where was his coat? Where were his gloves?
It seemed that most of his winter clothing had gone missing, leaving him with only a dark blue shirt on. Looking down at the rest of his body, Albert was surprised to find himself only wearing a set of pajamas, leftovers he'd carried all the way from Bristol. The soft fabric was comfortable, but it was still only a single layer.
That couldn't be right. Even in the bunkhouses, people would be daft to take off too many clothes. With the threat of the Generator going dark at any moment, they had quickly learned that it was sensible to keep layered up at all times. He'd heard stories of people who had been caught off-guard during the first outages, nearly freezing to death while they slept.
As Albert looked around, something told him that it wasn't real. It was similar, but the details were slightly off. The air was filled with a constant, gentle warmth, rather than most of the heat sticking near the radiators and the heaters. No matter how many carpets and rugs they put up over the walls, there was always another crack to let in that soul-sucking cold at all hours of the day.
Then there was just how silent the room was. Even the Generator, whose bellows and struggles were the heartbeat of the city, had fallen completely quiet. Despite that, the electrics of the bunkhouse were still functioning, with the lights on and the heaters running. Perhaps…
...It must be a dream. The stress must have gotten to him again.
Now he could remember. He hadn't been in Winterhome in nearly two weeks. He didn't need to wear winter clothing all the time because the cavern was already warm enough.
But why was he dreaming this up now? It wasn't like he had any terrible memories from the bunkhouse. Even if he did, he wasn't sure why his mind felt stressed enough to bring it up now. Everyone was a bit unsettled by their new surroundings, for sure, but it was a manageable paranoia.
A loud crash brought Albert out of his thoughts. Turning towards the noise, he noticed that a bowl had fallen off one of the tables, shattering into pieces as it hit the floor. It was shortly followed by a mug, then several pieces of silverware, as the tables themselves started to shake.
Soon enough, the entire room began to quake, jolting furniture and debris around the room. Gripping his mattress, Albert tried to hold on as his bed trembled and shook wildly. The walls themselves started to rattle, sending tarps clattering onto the ground and causing cracks to appear in the wood. Bright, searing beams of light came in through the gaps, illuminating the room in a brilliant orange.
As Albert stared, one of the walls gave out, collapsing in a cloud of dust and debris. The room grew brighter and brighter, the beams of light shifting like a mass of tendrils trying to rip the building apart. Within moments, the ceiling started to collapse, sending boards tumbling throughout the room.
Albert tried to cover his head, watching as his home was destroyed, as the ceiling moved closer and closer towards him-
-and cursed as something smacked into his head, making his ears ring. Holding his skull, he glanced around the room, wondering what had happened.
…He was back in his tent. He recognized the frayed, grey fabric hanging above his head, bowing down between a handful of steel rods. An arc lantern was suspended between them, almost blinding him with its light.
Glancing around his pillows, Albert noticed a flash of purple amidst the dark. He reached out towards it, finding himself clutching onto a small piece of crystal. But he hadn't brought anything like that along with him last night. Where had that-
"Looks like you're finally awake."
Turning around, Albert noticed that both Charles and Davis were awake and staring at him. Charles was staring daggers at him, while Davis looked resigned to the situation.
"Will you just shut up already?" Charles asked. "You've been yammering on to yourself for the last hour. We're trying to sleep-"
The sharp ringing of a bell echoed through the ruins at that moment, causing everyone to fall silent. Charles looked towards the source, his expression turning despondent in an instant.
"Good morning, lads! It's time for the workday to begin!" One of the engineers announced, in a voice that was far too cheerful that early in the morning. Soon enough, the sounds of rustling tarps and hushed conversation followed suit as their neighbors prepared for work.
"Oh, for fuck's sake," Charles groaned, falling back into his bedding with a light thump. Davis moaned in response, covering his head with a pillow.
Albert wasn't sure how to react, still trying to gather his bearings. What was happening? Had he done something in his sleep again? If that was the case, it wasn't like he knew what his mind was focused on this time. All he could remember from the dream were flashes of light and heat, along with a vague sense of panic.
Charles sighed, getting to his feet and fixing Albert with a glare. "Look, I've tried to be reasonable, but I'm at my wits' end here. Either stop fucking around in your sleep or find another tent."
Albert blinked, confused. "W-what? What kind of a demand is that?"
"The kind where I'm tired of dealing with you. You've been like this all week, and I've had enough," Charles growled, storming out of the tent. All Albert could do was watch, wondering what the hell just happened. Were they going to throw him out of the tent for something as trivial as nightmares?
Davis was no help. All he did was shrug his shoulders at Albert's confused expression, following Charles out the tent. Soon enough their footsteps faded out of hearing, joining the sounds of the rest of the camp beginning their morning rituals.
It took Albert a few moments to collect himself. His head was still sore from where the crystal had hit him, although there didn't seem to be any bleeding. It was still unsettling, keeping him distracted while he gathered his things for the day.
As Albert walked out the tent, intending to go to the mess hall, he couldn't get over Charles' behavior. What kind of person behaved like that when someone was having a nightmare? He'd expect that from one of the Major's thugs, not someone who had fought in the uprising.
Of course Charles placed all the blame on him. It wasn't like they were all stir crazy from a week without any sunlight. It wasn't like there were people who hadn't spent most of their lives underground or had more experience with people than picks.
…This is getting out of hand. I need to calm down.
Normally, Albert tried to find peace by walking along the riverbank. The grasses lining the waterfront, though scattered, were a marvel to behold after months of seeing nothing but ice and stone. When he was feeling imaginative, he could almost pretend he was strolling along the River Avon, heading back to his apartment after a nighttime trip to the pub.
Sadly, that spot had started to become crowded recently. Some of the workers had decided to test their hand at fishing in those waters, setting up nets and preparing rods. There hadn't been any signs of life in the river so far, but that hadn't stopped them from hanging around the path on their way to work.
Thankfully, a new option had just become available: their work camp had finished its first shrine.
Making his way through the nearby tents, Albert caught a glimpse of it above the nearby structures. It was plain and simple, made up of scrap wood and cloth instead of polished bronze and white plaster like the shrines back in Winterhome, but its design was unmistakable. Supported on several stilts, the main body of the shrine was elevated above the nearby ruins, with holy symbols placed across an upper platform for all to see.
Underneath the structure, a small bowl was laid on a pedestal, where offerings could be made and prayers could be given. Lanterns and candles were placed on small platforms attached to the stilts, offering both warmth and light for visitors. It was a far cry from the old churches of the mainland, but it still served its purpose.
Albert couldn't help but be pleased at the sight of it. Though they may have found refuge from the storm, the people of Winterhome were not foolish enough to accept it thanklessly. The Captain and the Almighty would both receive their dues.
Even now, the day after it had been erected, the shrine was already in use. A handful of workers had gathered underneath the structure, hands clasped and heads bowed in prayer. While he would have preferred to pray by himself, the atmosphere was more pleasant than by the waterfront. From what Albert could see, some of the others had already left prayer slips, beads, and pieces of those purple crystals inside the offering bowl.
The crystals were strange, but…they were also beautiful, in a way. They seemed sensitive to the smallest of light sources, reflecting with a brilliant glow upon exposure. Some of the workers had discovered a few stockpiles of loose crystals while exploring the ruins, and they had gradually been passed around to the rest of the expedition. A few of the men had already expressed interest in looking for more crystals in the rest of the caverns once a reliable path was established.
At this rate, we'll end up as another Kimberly, Albert thought. All we're missing are the Boers and the mining automatons.
Albert continued to make his way to the shrine, idly wondering about what had happened to the colonies. The papers had said that the dominions would be safe from the cold, but they had lied about the changing weather before. How far south would the Great Frost reach? Would any parts of the Empire be spared?
All he could do was pray that others had found shelter elsewhere. Though this may have been the second great deluge, the Lord had provided plenty of warning to prepare.
Something else caught Albert's attention, pulling him out of his thoughts. As he arrived at the congregation, hands twiddling in his pockets, Albert felt something odd. Pulling it out, he noticed that he had brought along his piece of purple crystal from that morning.
The crystal was about the size of his thumb, and about as heavy as a similarly sized piece of coal. Notches and marks on the sides were left from whenever it had been mined out, although they weren't terribly ugly. If anything, they made the crystal more entrancing, catching light and making it dance across his palm in strange and beautiful patterns.
He hadn't been certain of what to do with it, but now seemed a fine time to use it. With his rosary and notebook back in the city, it was just about the only offering he could make.
Picking the stone from his pack, Albert placed it in the bowl. Then, bowing his head and closing his eyes, he began to pray.
Thank you, Lord, for your mercy. Thank you for offering us this ark in the storm, and for providing deliverance from your divine punishment. We are grateful for your blessings this day, and for the gift of a new dawn. Please accept this offering, paltry though it may be, and guide us from the mistakes of our predecessors.
I beg of you, Lord, protect us from the storm. Protect our people, even as the world freezes around us. Protect our Empire, scattered and broken as it is.
Albert stood there a few moments longer, hands pressed in deference. Even back in the harsh snows and winds on the surface, shrines had always been a peaceful place for him to clear his thoughts and prepare himself for work. Now proved to be no different. He could already feel the anger from that morning fade away, replaced by a sense of peace and purpose.
But all good things must come to an end. Albert opened his eyes, offering one last 'amen' before moving out from the crowd. He still needed to get his morning rations and figure out what his work schedule for the day was.
Perhaps he could find another offering along the way.
Around halfway through the workday, another caravan arrived from Winterhome.
It was large, about twice the size of the first one. As before, it was mostly composed of workers, this time taken off of the crews rebuilding old Winterhome. Surprisingly, a few children and invalids had also accompanied the group, carried along on the supply sleds across the Frostlands. Most of the group were strangers, but there were a few quick words of greeting and celebrations between friends and family members.
Albert tried to ignore them as best he could, pushing past the crowds as he walked towards the vehicle depot. Nobody he knew had come along for the journey, so he didn't feel any need to get involved.
Instead, he focused on the supplies the caravan had brought with them. Industrial sleds covered in wooden boards, steel beams, and crates of food and coal were lined around the surface entrance, their electric motors still steaming from the exertion of their journey. Bags of other items were also piled on top, no doubt filled with clothing, furniture, and other accessories.
One container in particular caught his attention. It was branded with the symbol of a seashell, with the faded logo of the Imperial Exploration Company placed within. The words 'Mountaineering Equipment' were stamped on the side in bold, impressive lettering, as if they were warning of explosives rather than ropes and climbing boots.
Trying to grab the handles, Albert lifted the box, barely managing to keep from tripping. Though the container wasn't unbearably heavy, it was large and unwieldy, barely small enough to grip the handles with both arms. How much equipment was stored in there?
"You sure you don't need help with that?" A familiar voice called out. Looking behind him, Albert could see Charles approaching.
"I'll be fine," Albert said, still struggling to find a firm grip on the handles. "Don't you have someone else to bother?"
Charles sighed, looking away from him. "Look, I'm sorry about this morning, alright? It's been a long week, I've barely gotten any sleep, and…yeah. I'm stressed, is all."
"…It's fine. I suppose," Albert muttered. It was probably just a token gesture before they went off exploring again, but he'd be gracious enough to accept it.
Charles grunted in response, grabbing one of the crate's handles. Though Albert hated to admit it, the box was much easier to handle with two people. "But seriously, what's with you rolling about like that when you sleep?"
"I don't have any idea what you're talking about."
"Don't give me that. First the sleepwalking, now the thrashing…it's creepy as hell."
Albert scoffed. "Well, what am I supposed to do about any of that? It's not like I can just stop dreaming."
"I don't know. Check with a doctor, maybe? I'm sure they can brew up something to help fix what's wrong with you." Charles shrugged.
"They have more important tasks than dealing with bad dreams," Albert said. "Besides, who knows if they'd even be able to help?" From the rumors he'd heard, the medical wards were almost out of everything besides clean water and medical alcohol.
"Suit yourself. Just…try to figure out something, alright? I'm pretty sure they can hear you thrashing all the way back in London."
"…I'll see what I can do," Albert muttered. Not that it would amount to much.
Charles nodded, seemingly satisfied with the answer. "Good. Anyways, do you know where we should drop this stuff off? I can feel my arms falling off already."
It was an abrupt subject change, but Albert wouldn't complain. "Anywhere by the cliff should be fine. We still need to plan out a path to the top."
"I think I know a good spot. There's a part over by the river, where it goes into the wall. Not too steep, and there's a few more handholds we can use."
"I'll take your word for it," Albert said.
The walk back through the village was awkward, mostly due to the limited space and the crowds. Their settlement had suddenly tripled in size, with many of the new inhabitants bringing down supplies and possessions from the surface. They had to wait in line before they could descend to the ruins, barely managing to fit the container through the passageway once it was their turn.
I suppose we'll need to work on expanding that tunnel soon. Bloody traffic jams in the first week.
By the time they'd reached the cliffs, the workday had nearly ended. As their destination came into view, Albert took a closer look at the wall. As Charles had said, it wasn't as intimidating as other stretches of the cliff, with plenty of stalagmites and edges to hold on to. It was a shame it was still at least a hundred feet of climbing before they reached the top.
Inside the box, they found everything they would need for the ascent. Ropes, climbing boots, pitons, harnesses, and all other manner of equipment was stored inside, packed together like sardines in a can. Thankfully, there was enough gear to outfit their entire team. Who knew how long it would take to find another crate of equipment like this?
Now all they needed to do was figure out how they were going to climb up.