Heart of Ice: Part Two
Here’s something you may not know about exploration in icy conditions: if you’ve got a reliable source of heat or fire, don’t bring along water. It’s different in tundra climates, like we have south of the Terror mountain range, because these are basically arid, cold-latitude deserts. But in places like the Ice Caves, there is water all around you. You don’t need to bring any, and in fact it’s a bad idea to.
Water is heavy, as you might know if you’ve carried a bucket of it any distance, and in temperatures low enough to form permanent ice formations, it’s certain your water will freeze within any time at all. When this happens, your water is not only a burden but a danger, especially if you slip and fall (which is likely). Basically you’ve got several flasks or sacks of something equivalent to large, possibly jagged rocks in weight and hardness, and it’s easy to injure yourself if they get out of hand.
I solved the problem with a little hand-crank generator that my brother had hacked together out of an old Improved Lightning Beam, and a ring burner, like the kind used for camping, that hooked up to it. Instead of using fuel like petroleum jelly or butane, the burner was basically a ring of tungsten that heated up as the lightning current from the generator passed through it.
By the time I stopped for the night, I was fairly thirsty even with all the ice around me to melt for water, as I had to actually stop and melt it with my Fireball ability whenever I wanted a drink; and because water expands when it freezes, I had to melt a lot more ice than I got water. Before I set up camp, I hooked up the burner to the generator, which I had cranked to full before I arrived at the Ice Caves, then hacked generous chunks of ice from the far wall to put all the way up to the rim of a tin pan to heat (because it would, of course, melt to fill the pan only about halfway). Drinking it as it melted, the water was cold enough to hurt my teeth and incredibly pure.
I didn’t have to build a shelter to protect me from the elements, but I did erect a cone-shaped frame skeleton around which I secured a foil-backed nylon cover. The silvery reflective surface of the foil reflected the heat of the burner back inward rather than letting it escape, bringing the ambient temperature inside the shelter to slightly below freezing. Dinner was soup of dried vegetables and meat boiled in more ice melt water; for Skye, strips of beef jerky. I made sure to crank the generator to full once more before I curled up on the icy floor to sleep, still wearing my cold-weather gear and bundled deeply in a heavy sleeping bag. Skye tucked himself into the hollow of my back, between my last two spinal fins.
Something interesting that I noticed was the very occasional Bluna burrowing under the ice like it was swimming, leaving a white trail of packed ice dust behind it. I’d occasionally encountered one of these trails running through the walls of the caverns I’d explored, but no sign of their creators, as they didn’t appear to be any regular sort of geological formation. Now I knew what had made the trails.
The next day was apparent only by a renewed blue glow from the ice around me and by the beeping of my watch alarm. I awoke cold and very, very stiff. The generator had run out of power sometime in the early morning, and the pan of water had frozen to the burner. I had to crank the generator all the way to full and wait twenty minutes before I could separate the pan from the burner, but the exertion warmed me up and worked some of the stiffness out of my limbs. I didn’t bother to boil breakfast for Skye and myself, but ate it dry before stowing my shelter and tools. I wanted to get going on today’s exploration.
In the renewed glow, I quickly reached and passed the position at which I had stopped the night before. The whirlpool went down even farther than I had thought in the darkness of the previous night, plunging for what must have been about a kilometer before it became a narrower tunnel curving into darkness. Rappelling down the cliff-like contours of the spiral made me nervous, and I started pounding in pitons every twenty meters instead of every thirty. Each hammer blow sent me swinging out into open air; there were no handholds in the smoothly rippled sides. Skye perched on each latest piton before following me to the next one.
I’d rappelled several hundred meters down into the whirlpool, kicking off the wall and playing out line as I fell, when the ice started vibrating as if there were an earthquake. A bass rumbling came up into my ribs through the soles of my boots, and as quickly as I could I pounded in several pitons right next to each other and knotted my line to them in case the seismic activity got worse and began to fracture or shift the ice.
Then I looked down and saw maybe the most astonishing thing I would throughout my exploration. Some meters behind the walls of the whirlpool, following its spiral, was something that looked at first like a hundred-meter-long Bluna tunneling through the ice, and then more like the Snowager, although it was as completely transparent as the ice through which it moved, rather than banded like that ice monster. As far as I could tell, it was at least three times as thick around as I was tall. I realized that the creature took this route often, as I noticed that there were what might originally have been tunnels, deep inside the walls, whose white ice dust had compressed and frozen to nearly the same transparency of the original ice but whose grain slanted in a different direction.
The bass rumbling of the ice was now all-encompassing, and the wall I was perched on was shivering under me, shaking flakes of ice into my fur. I drove my ice pick into the wall and held on by the handle, but then the increasing juddering started working it loose and before I could drive it in again or grab onto my line I’d fallen into open air, hanging only by my safety line.
The sudden force of all my weight falling on my safety line overwhelmed the hook by which it was attached to the fishing line I was rappelling from, and with a sound like a file on metal it slid at falling speed down the line before jerking me to a stop twenty meters down, catching all my weight, and sliding again. I fell maybe fifty meters before I managed to grab hold of the main line with one hand, whose friction burned its way through my glove and into the flesh of my palm before I slowed. Now I was joggling at the end of fifty meters of line that were amplifying the vibrations of the ice in which the line was anchored, swinging freely over a deadly fall.
Then the line must have reached its weight limit, because it snapped.
I think I screamed, but if I did it was drowned out by the rumbling of the ice. The freezing air rushing past left me breathless in the face of its force, and the walls were going past too quickly for me to grab anything. My scraggly Gray Faerie wings were useless, feathers whipping away as I fell.
I swung my pick into the wall and it caught, wrenching my right shoulder from its socket and leaving me swinging half a kilometer above the floor. One of the straps of my pack snapped from the jerking force of my stop, strewing equipment into the air. My generator and burner were the first to go, followed by the tent frame, my level and compass, and a number of utensils before the pack stabilized enough not to lose anything else. Skye nearly dove past me before he manage to backwing and flutter around my head, screeling urgently.
I held on with one injured hand and one dislocated shoulder until the rumbling in the ice died away. Slowly I pulled myself up the handle of the pick until I was resting with the top curve of the pick head in my sternum, left hand clutching the pick’s rear head and my right arm dangling. The only sound now was my own ragged panting. My face was cold; tears had frozen in my fur.
It was another eternity until I managed to work a piton out of my thigh pocket with my right hand, which seemed rubbery and unable to follow my commands with my shoulder out of joint. The first piton I fumbled and dropped, for it to clang several seconds later on the icy floor. The second one I managed to get out, and then I had to engage in a series of acrobatics to get my right arm and both legs wrapped around the pick’s handle and the piton in my left hand. I didn’t have anything with which to pound the piton in; I’d been using the hammer head of the pick to do so.
It took some more awkward rearranging to get the pick as far down as I could reach with one arm in order to kick it into the wall. Zafaras have incredibly powerful legs, and can kick with a huge amount of force. Even so, it was difficult to get the right angle to my kick, and the narrow looped head of the piton kept sliding between the cleats on the sole of my boot. I cut my hand several times with the sharp cleats, and crushed it twice with misdirected kicks. In addition, my powerful kicks into the wall pushed me outward and started loosening the pickhead from the ice before I figured out how to absorb and redirect the force with my body so that it went into the pickhead instead of outward into the void.
When I’d driven the piton far enough into the ice (now pitted with cleat marks) to be secure, I lowered myself far enough down the handle of the pick to hang from the piton with my left hand and keep my right arm wrapped around the pick’s handle. I realized only then that I would need two arms to climb down this way, and had to pull myself up to rest on the curve of the pick’s head again, this time with one foot resting some of my weight on the piton.
With my injured left hand it was difficult to grab hold of my arm, and in my awkward vertiginous position it was even more difficult to push it hard enough toward my shoulder to snap it back into place. When I managed it, I actually blacked out for a second, my right leg’s grip on the pick handle loosening dangerously. My vision returned just in time for me to feel the vertigo of losing my balance, and I clutched the pick with both arms to regain my equilibrium.
I climbed down half a kilometer like that, if you can imagine it. Even after I snapped it back into place, my right arm was still weak and rubbery, so I had to keep switching arms to hang from a piton with my right while swinging the pick into the wall with my left, because my right arm couldn’t manage the force needed. I wanted to climb upward, but couldn’t contort myself to pound the piton in that way as I would have needed to. So I made my way down, hanging from the pick to pound in the piton, then hanging from that while I pulled the pick free and swung it into the wall a few feet lower. By the time I was near the bottom, both of my arms were numb from exhaustion and my left hand looked and felt mangled, the blood from its wounds freezing as it hit air.
As I made my way down, I tried only to think of the actions of my climbing, but my mind kept coming back to how I would get out. The generator and burner, my most vital equipment, were certainly destroyed, and I had lost my tent frame and maybe half of my supplies. I didn’t think I could climb back up the wall of the whirlpool, and I didn’t know if the river course I was following came to the surface at any point. And I didn’t have the time to map my course to make sure I wasn’t getting lost; already my exposed left hand was cramped into a claw-shape from frostbite, and I could no longer feel my nose or the tips of my ears.
At least I still had food. Maybe.
When I reached the bottom of the cliffside, I salvaged what I could of the equipment that had fallen from my pack. The utensils were still usable, as were some of the poles comprising the tent frame, but the less durable of my equipment had been totally destroyed by the long fall. My hand hurt increasingly as I worked, and the last two fingers would not work at all; it was likely they were broken, especially as they had borne the brunt of kicking.
Soon enough they and my entire hand were throbbing with my pulse all the way up to my shoulder, and with each pulse the crushed fingers beat hot and cold. Eventually I had to stop and use my Regeneration ability to try to heal and dull at least some of the pain – I had been hoping to conserve as much energy as possible to use for warmth, but I would not be able to continue like this. As the magic flowed to my extremities a blessed coolness followed it, and the throbbing and pain eased to a more distant deep ache.
My last two fingers were still immobile, and now I was certain they had been broken. I kept first-aid equipment in an inner compartment of my pack; with bandages and a metal brace I managed to straighten and splint the fingers to my third finger to keep them properly aligned. Happily, my healing spell had readjusted my shoulder enough for me to be able to use the arm without difficulty, and I could once again feel my more exposed extremities, although they buzzed and burned with renewed circulation.
I started off again. From what I knew of the cavern formations, my best chance would be to follow the main river course, which at some point would either have welled up from the glacier’s surface as a spring or exited from the glacier’s extreme south edge to continue down the side of Terror Mountain as the source of a natural river. In my first day of exploration all of the tributaries that I had followed had dead-ended without emerging, and I had no guarantee that that the trend would change in the future.
Even after my healing, I was exhausted from my fall and the harrowing climb down, and the cold was making me lethargic. The tunnel that extended from the frozen whirlpool still sloped downward fairly steeply, and it would be dangerous for me to continue as clumsy and tired as I was, especially with my magic guttering low. I set up a lean-to in a bubble-shaped hollow in the ice with some of the usable tent poles, and wrapped my sleeping bag tightly around Skye and myself so that only my face was exposed. So sheltered, I fell into a heavy dreamless sleep.
To be continued...