In the Grey

Written by Aaron Purton.

‘Jøss! This is it. Amaya!’

The sharp-eyed Amaya, arms folded against the cold, approached Fridtjof, the local guide. She towered over the wild-eyed Norwegian youth. ‘A book?’

‘A tidsskrift, er … Journal.’

Amaya’s brow arched. ‘Is there a body?’

‘No skeletons, no supplies … Nothing.’

‘Hurry up, then. I couldn’t care less about how some old tot wiled his days away.’ At worst, she thought, you found some poor soul who broke a leg or got separated from the expedition. ‘I need to know what happened to the crew.’

The look that flitted across Amaya’s eyes gave Fridtjof pause. She nodded for him to get reading, leaving him in the murky grey-blue alcove to exchange a few words with the lieutenant. Fridtjof studied the journal with a hawk’s eye gaze, picking out any note of interest. The journal was only a handful of pages long. He found what he needed quick enough. There was a distinct dip in quality as the handwriting became abruptly more frantic. Fridtjof lost his smile, calling her back with a slight tremor in his throat.

‘Listen. “Edward has yet to return—’

A clatter of equipment silenced him, and they waited and watched as the lieutenant led the remaining men into one of the offshoot tunnels. Fridtjof nodded again, licked his lips and muttered a prayer. For the first time he wished he hadn’t left Father to chase danger in the icy unknown. In the tightness of this void, he felt small, the fire inside all but withered out. It was just a stupid diary. Common sense told him whatever terror he would find was long buried. He hoped.

‘27th May, 1891.

‘Edward has yet to return. Lloyd is insistent that like the others, he too will show up one way or the other. God does not reach us this far down in the grey ice. Grey, for all colour has been drained from the world. Our lanterns do little to fight back the encroaching darkness, I fear. Our oil reserves … Pitiful. But we may not return. Not until the Queen’s ship is found. Whatever it should be doing this far below the earth I shall never know, but I follow Milton, and he has never let me down. What little comfort comes in sharing our measly rations of stale biscuits and jam. Not so terrible, but my stomach growls to no end. I write to keep my hands busy, and my mind off the cold. Milton has lost a toe to the frost, yet that has not seemed to dampen his spirits. I envy the bugger.

 

‘3rd June, 1891.

‘I find returning pen to paper to be calming. Keeping record of the interesting developments, but also my state of mind. It plummets to dreadful depths. The pain of a feisty stomach; the uncertainty that our missing four men shall return—these caves are a labyrinth that not even fair Theseus and a thousand yards of string would ever escape from. Yet, Lloyd keeps the steady countenance of a Queen’s solider. If nothing else, that gives me hope. Milton, ever so jovial, has grown distant and irritable. Keeps rambling of strange whispers. Hunger and exhaustion does curious things to the mind. Lewis and Edmund venture further into the dead ends, impossible fissures, and looping pathways, the rankness that stifles the air always drawing them back in the end. I keep stock of our equipment and supplies, and that is what I am good for. My own journeys into the grey tunnels instil in me a paranoia and ache that has me turning tail, dragging poor Milton back with me. He only seems happy to oblige. I do not know what it is, but there is a feeling, a dread so powerful I cannot place. We are alone, and that should be dread enough. But it is not the crushing weight of a mountain of ice trapping us in, where we could be forever forgotten to time. No, this is not that fear. It is worse.

‘8th June, 1891.

‘I came back to visit those last few pages during my idler moments of clarity, few as they were. What absurdity, I thought. The spell was gone. To fear what is not there, cannot be there. Logic tells me … God tells us that this fear can be conquered. We are still shaken at the loss of half our expedition. Lloyd has begrudgingly admitted that, at least. It did no good for morale, would you believe? I find it hard to smile these days. We are no closer to the ship, and our food reserves will barely carry us from these caves. I have urged we return to the HMS Minos post-haste on more than one occasion, but Lloyd has shifted from mere grunts and snipes, to the rage of a bulldog, barking any who disobey will face Her Majesty’s wrath. I shall not push the matter. Now. Tomorrow. Two days from now …? This was a doomed mission from the start. I only pray Lloyd sees sense, that his moaning belly speaks louder than his ambition. We shall not last another week. I face the prospect that I shall never see my family again, a pain I cannot put to words. I will keep my mind on work, on restoring Milton’s sanity. He raves in his sleep, and I fear for him. God have mercy on him. On us all.’

 

The glow of the lantern pulsed and flickered, a distant arctic wind howling through the ravine. Endless shadow stretched out, the light of a pristine blue sky a distant memory. Here they were utterly alone. The horror of it crawled along his spine.

‘2nd June? 1891.

‘Dammit all! Milton ran. I gave pursuit. Lloyd is lost to reason, a harrowing in his eyes, mumbling heresies. No time. I had to save my friend. I still can … There is nothing here. And yet … I feel it. It is pure folly. The sad symptoms of a starving mind, lost in grey. But I hear them. The whispers. An unclean smog scratches at my skin, and a dark shadow beckons me into the void. I tell it … myself to leave. And there, an awful rasping breath, howling hate, and I know this is not … should not … something lives beneath the ice. Through the grey, something ancient. All my life I conquered such fears, believed in the sanctity of God, of reason and … it is coming. I know it.

‘I see it now. Milton’s corpse floats suspended behind the grey ice, and something darker, impossibly vast swarms towards me. It should not be real. I am dying, a broken mind conjuring phantoms. I tell myself that even now. But there is a monster in the ice, mouth wide to devour me whole. Every fear that has plagued my mind comes hurtling from the blackness at terrible speed. I run. Now I am alone, my last thoughts too momentous to describe. But I feel it here. This time it will swallow me whole. No illusions, just death. God have’

‘Why have you stopped?’ Amaya snapped.

‘I … That’s it.’ Fridtjof furrowed his brow, flicking through the following pages, all blank. There were no signs of tearing either. A cold silence settled in him, a resignation. ‘We have to go.’

Amaya scowled, but despite baring her teeth, even an ironclad will shatters under enough pressure. They could feel it, could see a drifting blackness behind the grey, drawing ever closer. Something was with them in the ice. Something ancient.

 

Aaron Purton’s work appears in the Order and Tension editions of WORDLY.

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