(Okay, here it is. Dig in, guys!)
Chapter VIII: Fire and Ice
Over the course of the next two uneventful days, Webber had to carry double-duty to prepare for the approaching winter, hunting, gathering wood, twigs and other materials. The Shadow Manipulator lay on the horizon, but Wilson forbade him to touch it, or even go near it. He could manage to deal with things at the camp, even with a thoroughly ruined leg, but he was otherwise stuck there, and tried not to do too much unless he absolutely needed to, saving his strength. So he took to occasionally working on a small wood carving, of a strange device he had seen from the information Maxwell had given him a long time ago. Unfortunately, it looked like Maxwell’s face, and that fact made him angry.
The following night, the last one before winter arrived, Webber stopped by again with plenty of logs, pine cones and a decent amount of meat. The ice box was soon filled up to full with edible foodstuffs. Webber then dropped the wood next to the fire, sweaty and exhausted from the hard work.
“Okay….I…..I think this is….it……”, Webber said, in between gasps for air. Wilson looked over at what there was, and nodded. It was a decent haul. “Good. Then we make final preparations…..”, he replied. Webber groaned. “There’s MORE?”
“Nothing too major. But there is something to show you…”, Wilson said, slowly getting up. He had trouble getting over to the chests where he kept the non-perishable supplies. Webber reached out to help him walk, but Wilson stopped him. “No, no...i’ve got it…….”
He stumbled over to the chests, and eventually took out a large, curved stone with a pearled surface, like that of a golf ball, bringing it over to the fire.
“It’s an invention of mine. I call it the Thermal Stone. It can hold in heat.”, Wilson answered, putting the Thermal Stone next to the fire, letting it take in the heat from it. “It’s going to be pretty brutal during the winter, and we can’t afford to wander around too long, away from a heat source. This might give that little extra something, at any rate.”
“Oh, that’s pretty neat. But, uh, there’s only one of them.”, Webber replied, sitting down. “No problem. I’ll show you how to make another one of them. It just might save your life.”, Wilson continued, getting out some rocks, flint and a pickaxe. Taking the flint, and tying them together into a small cluster, before surrounding the bundle of flint with rocks, and gluing them in place. Once the glue had dried, he started gently tapping away at the rock with the pickaxe, creating the dimples that made up the surface of the Thermal Stone.
“Having a dimpled surface like this ensures that the heat or cold will take the most time to dissipate, unlike with any normal rock.”, he went on, Webber watching closely. Once Wilson was satisfied with it, he tied the rock to a stick, and put it over the fire, continuing to carefully pick at it as it heated up. Once it was hot, it was slightly moldable, and he started working it. It hurt to do it, but he worked through the pain, molding it into another Thermal Stone.
“There. Just let it cool for a bit, and it’s ready to go. Got it?”, Wilson said, putting the stone down away from the fire. Webber nodded, looking at it for a moment. “Yeah. So does it stay hot forever?” “No, it doesn’t. It’s not a good crutch. It’s enough to keep you from freezing long enough to get back, I hope.”
A few snowflakes started to slowly fall down. The winter’s snow was beginning to trickle in. “...It’s starting early.”, Wilson said, with a sigh. He limped over to the chests, taking out a light jacket and a pair of rabbit earmuffs. “Here. You might want to wear these, too. Gives you better chances.” He handed them to Webber, and he put them on. “This is pretty nice. Thanks.”, he replied, smiling a little bit. He felt a bit warmer now. “You can make it up to me by not dying.”
Meanwhile, somewhere far underground, far below the caves, even beyond the ruins, in realms even darker, there lay a temple perched above an ocean of nightmare fuel, always churning, never tiring. Deep within the temple was a strange dungeon. The geometry seemed rather impossible. It was a dark, foreboding place that tended to sap the sanity of those who stayed for more than a moment or two. Unfortunately, there was one occupant, in one of the cells. A woman. A woman wearing a red blouse and a black skirt that went down to her ankles. Her hair was all frazzled, and she seemed extremely distraught, ready to lash out at a moment’s notice. She was less upset about being stuck where she was, however, and more upset that there wasn’t anything around she could light on fire. She had been trying to break down the stone bars that made up the cage for the last hour, to no avail.
Finally, however, she got an idea. Painfully pulling out a few strands of her own hair, she took her only possession, a lighter, and used it to light her hair on fire, throwing it at the stone bars. The present of light seemed to make the entire temple shift, twist and turn. The woman didn’t really seem to comprehend it, but it was an ample opportunity to escape, so she ran. Ran and ran. Eventually, she managed to get outside the temple, finding herself on a series of walkways and circular platforms over the ocean of fuel. However, she had no time whatsoever to feel the slightest bit of joy at escaping that place. Almost immediately, she felt an agonizing pain course through her brain, shifty, malevolent monsters approaching. They meant terror and death, which anyone could see. She started to panic, and kept running, hoping for anything that wasn’t what was immediately behind her. Any thought more complicated than that was drowned out rather quickly by a sea of voices that had forced it’s way into her head, whispering doubts, confusion and fright into her. Her legs were shaking, and she would trip on occasion. Her nerves were thoroughly shot, and there was nowhere to hide from the monstrosities, down underground.
Later that day, back at the surface, Webber returned to camp, with some bundles of raw materials. Leftover berries that hadn’t been scavenged, twigs, logs and cut grass, and threw a log on the fire to keep it burning brightly. Wilson was cooking up some bird eggs for the two of them to eat. He stayed quiet, but Webber didn’t.
“.....Yeah, that’s a fine how do you do, I guess.”
“...What?.....Oh. Sorry…..been out here so long, it’s easy to forget basic manners. Hello, Webber. I see you got a good haul. With any luck, this’ll be enough to get us through the winter………..assuming the thing doesn’t come back.”, Wilson replied quickly.
“The thing? What thing?”, Webber asked, inquisitively. Wilson sighed and scratched his beard. “.......It’s an abomination. Taller than a house and meaner than anything i’ve ever seen around here. Part deer, part….cyclops. One giant eye……..i’ve taken to calling it Deerclops.”, Wilson shivered as he continued, and not from the cold. “I had a much better camp set up elsewhere, few seasons back. He smashed it all to pieces. I did my best to fight him off, but it was a complete waste of time. I only just barely escaped with my life.”, he continued, with a sigh. Webber listened intently, starting to grow a bit worried. The Thermal Stone he was carrying on him was all warmed up again, but that wasn’t what was bothering him in the slightest.
“....I-is it still out there?”, Webber asked, his voice wavering a little as he spoke. The thought of running into such a creature amidst a snowstorm was somewhat scary. Wilson merely nodded. “....You’ll probably hear him before you see him, though, if you pay attention. I’d just run if that’s the case….”, his reply came, sullen. Webber nodded.
“Um, what if he comes here, though?”, Webber asked. Wilson shrugged. “I really don’t know. I suppose we make a last stand. Again, I nearly died trying to set up camp in the middle of winter. Nothing grows around this time of year…...if that thing comes after us this time, we figure out some way to kill it.”, Wilson grimly smiled. Deep down, he didn’t think he could do it. If the Deerclops found him, that was the end of the line. Webber nodded, feeling a little bit more encouraged, however.
Wilson sighed again, deep in thought about something. Eventually, he spoke up. “We’re running low on gold, by the way.” “Gold, huh?”, Webber replied. Wilson nodded. “Yeah. There’s plenty of useful things I could build with it….but we’re pretty much out. Not to mention, a little more food could always come in handy. Going to have to ask you to do some hunting out at night for me.”
“At night? But what if I get lost in the dark?.....there’s something spooky out in the dark.”, Webber answered back. “I know. But I just happened to remember something. We have just enough gold for me to make something to help get stuff done at night. But we’re missing one ingredient.”, Wilson replied. “....Fireflies.”
“Fireflies? Kinda weird.”, Webber retorted. Wilson shrugged. “I can’t think of a good substitute to use around here. So it’ll have to do. Once it gets dark out, they show up frequently.” Wilson said, slowly managing to stumble up to his feet, and heading over to a chest, fishing out a bug net after a few moments. “This ought to work just fine. Here, catch.”
Wilson threw the net to Webber. “Um...okay. I guess I can do that.”, Webber replied, as Wilson stumbled back over to the fire. The eggs were ready. “But first, here. You had better eat up.” Wilson scraped the eggs off of the rock he was cooking them on, and put them on some makeshift stone plates, so he and Webber could eat up. “Thanks.”
The two of them started eating. “So, did you come across anything interesting while you were out and about?”, Wilson asked, just to break the crippling silence that winter’s harsh winds often brought with them. “Nah, not really……..although I did find some big tracks.”, Webber replied. “.....The Koalefant.”, Wilson answered. “.....You have no clue what i’m talking about, do you?....” Webber shook his head. “It’s a big, furry animal. Very elusive. But the trunk can be turned into a particularly good vest. I thought I was being clever when I killed one during the warm months. But that only gave a little protection when winter came.”, he explained further. “Where is it now?”, Webber asked. “....I lost it when the Deerclops smashed through.”, was Wilson’s answer.
“If you see more of those tracks while you’re out, Webber, track it down and kill it. With that winter coat it’s bound to have, I could make an actual, decent bit of winter clothing to keep you warm.”, Wilson went on, as he finished eating. Webber nodded. “I’ll do my best.”, Webber replied, as he finished his food as well. “....If you can’t make it happen, we could still pull through……..but since I can’t really move around too well, we need every advantage we can get. Understand..?”
“Yeah, I think I do. I’ll head out right now.”, Webber replied, getting up.
“....Remember. As soon as night falls, catch some fireflies and come back here. I’ll make something that’ll help you out.”, Wilson said in a reminding tone. Webber nodded and headed back out into the blistering cold, Thermal Stone fully recharged and ready to go.
Meanwhile, the fiery woman continued to run for her life, escaping the temple with strange, nightmarish creatures chasing after her. The sky was mostly not a sky at all, but a cavern, although a jet-black, starless sky could be seen through holes in the cavern ceiling. It almost seemed as if the sky moved erratically, as if another being altogether, rather than a starless expanse. The adrenaline was starting to kick in, and she found fresh agility and lightness of step, running as fast as was humanly possible. It was a dead end, although there was a crawlspace leading elsewhere. Putting the lighter away, she dove in and tried to crawl inside. It was a tight squeeze, and she struggled a bit to fit herself inside. One of the creatures bit down on her lower leg. She yelled, and kicked the monstrosity away, managing to get into the crawlspace.
Rather than phase through it and continue to harass her, however, they stopped, the grimaces on their faces almost a seeming mockery. The woman didn’t even spend any time at all trying to make sense of it, though, and kept crawling. Eventually, she reached another cavern, where pure nightmare fuel flowed through pathways underneath the cavern flow, strange black light radiating upwards. For anyone else at any point in time, it would’ve been an odd sight, but she paid it no heed and continued to run. She only knew she wanted to be anywhere but here. Before something here could kill her.
Eventually, she found a circular platform suspended above the fuel to catch her breath, and make at least some attempt to make a crude sense of what was going on. She quietly wondered to herself if there even was a way out. Before she had any serious amount of time to dwell on it, however, a chilling voice called out to her.
“And just where do you think you are running off to?”
The blood in the woman’s veins immediately ran cold at this, her body starting to quiver. The nightmares were beginning to close in on her. She looked around frantically, trying to figure any way out of this whatsoever. A large stone statue rose up from the ground, clutching a cane-staff with a purple gem embedded into it. All sorts of shifty abominations surrounded the woman. Large shadowy hands began to close in as well. A grim determination flowed through the woman. She had no plans to die here anytime soon. And she wasn’t going back to that rotten, horrid prison cell either. She ran at the statue and, in a fit of desperation, jumped at it, grabbing a hold of the staff. The statue raised it’s arm, magical power flowing through it. She gripped the staff, trying to grab it mid-spell.
“...! Don’t let her get away!”
They drew closer and closer, racing towards the woman. She managed to pull the staff free, however, and lept down. Without any real understanding of how it worked, she waved it around to see if anything would happen. Maybe it would vaporize the monsters. But rather, instead, there was a flash of light. A flash of light and she was gone from the place, finding herself in a far less gruesome series of caves. Her head still pounded, and she could hear more monstrous shadowy creatures slowly closing in on her. Her head pounding, and not wishing to risk warping back into a prison cell, she put the staff away and took her lighter out, beginning to explore. At this point, she was desperate to see the light of the day, and the warm sun on her face.
Except by that point, it wasn’t day, but rather the middle of the night. Meanwhile, Webber had just finished gathering fireflies, and brought them to Wilson. He took some of them, and got to work, using the Alchemy Engine to weave together a straw hat, before feeding in the gold. The machine whirred and pulsed, melting the gold nugget down into gold plating, molded into a light fixture. The fireflies were placed inside the fixture, and given a blast of special kinetic energies to keep them in a permanent state of motion, giving off bright light, before a lens was placed on it, and the Alchemy Engine finished up, spitting out a Miner’s Hat. Wilson took it, and handed it to Webber.
“Okay, here you go. Now, remember. We need gold more than anything else. If you actually find something useful, that’s fine, so long as you have room in your pockets for it. Otherwise, i’d much rather you just focus on the important things. Before you start to freeze to death.”, Wilson explained again. “Yeah, I got it. I’ll be quick as I can about it.”, Webber replied, putting on the Miner’s Hat. It had a decent range to it, which put a smile on his face.
“Do you want the rest of these, Wilson?”
“No, you keep them. Those fireflies won’t last forever. You’ll be wanting more to keep it refueled.”, Wilson answered, waving him off. Webber nodded and headed out, exploring northwest.
“Gotta find gold…..gotta find gold.”, Webber said to himself as he headed out. There was a rocky area in that direction, with a lot of large boulders lying about. Perhaps there might even be some rocks with gold veins in them. Pick in hand, he headed out in that direction. It was dark, and not having a wider field of vision was starting to make him feel particularly paranoid. This was the time of day where normally, he would be sleeping, but Wilson had insisted that he head out in the middle of the night. Webber gritted his teeth and continued onwards, regardless.
Eventually, he heard a voice behind him, that made him jump.
“Say, pal…..what are you up to? A nice late-night stroll?”
It was Maxwell. Webber turned around and kept his distance. He couldn’t actually see him, though. “....Uh…...um…!”
“Suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, but i’m just wondering if you brought enough light to see by.”
Webber gulped. “Uh, y-yeah, I brought plenty, t-thanks! Bye!”
“In a hurry, too, pal? Now that’s just too bad. Was looking forward to having a nice chat. You should hurry along now. If something happens to Wilson, it ends up being on you to save him. But if you don’t happen to be there…...heh….”, Maxwell continued, sending pangs of crippling fear into Webber. Without giving an answer at all, he ran along. Maxwell apparently didn’t follow. “....No…..Wilson’s going to be okay…..he’s always okay, right?.................that guy was just trying to get under our skin………...yeah, yeah, that’s it.”
Webber tried his hardest not to let what had been said bother him as he continued onwards, reaching the rocky area before too long. The thermal stone he had been carrying on him was starting to cool, so he knew he had to act quickly. He caught sight of a boulder with a large gold vein, and got out a pick, starting to work away at it with the heaviest swings he could manage. It took a few minutes, but he managed to break it apart, and helped himself to all the gold. It was enough to keep Wilson’s experiments going for quite a while, but now Webber was starting to feel cold. He started to hurry on back, when he heard the sound of more hounds advancing towards him.
“Oh no….no, nope, this is bad…..”, he muttered under his breath, starting to run as fast as he could. He stopped when he saw what was up ahead, though. A mound of bones. Several, actually. And more and more hounds were coming out of the mounds, growling and snarling angrily. Somehow, Webber had gotten turned around in the midst of the snowy weather. Webber readied a spear, getting ready to fight his way out, even as the cold continued to sap his strength. Ten hounds approached Webber, five of them icy-blue. Some of them suddenly sprinted at him, and he managed to sidestep, running for it, out of the rocky areas, and into some trees. However, the cone of vision that he had with the mining light was short enough that he ended up not being able to correct his course in time, causing him to collide with a tree head-first, knocking the hat off of his head, plunging him into darkness.
Things had gone wrong, and panic was starting to set in. The hounds were closing in, and he couldn’t see anything, except for the light from the mining helmet, which had landed atop a tree branch. He lept up onto the branch, trying to get to the mining helmet. He suddenly heard a loud hiss, and the cracking of the tree branch.
“Uwaaah!! W-who’s there?!”, he shouted, a burst of adrenaline egging him on. At the last second, he managed to grab the helmet and put it back on, pushing the night monster away at the last moment. The hounds would be much more difficult to deter, however...