Iceburgs on dark water.
Stories

The Mysterious Fate of the Metus

They hadn’t seen the cairn the night before. Captain Williams pulled up the collar of her wool coat as the wind buffeted her and whipped up tiny cyclones of powdery snow and ice that stung her face. The lookout had roused her as soon as there was enough light to distinguish shapes. Perhaps on a normal mission suspicion wouldn’t have arisen so soon. But here in this barren, frozen heath, any anomaly on the horizon warranted investigation.

The sun was high enough now, attempting to inject some color into the monotone world of ice and snow, that they could see it was a stone cairn, simple pile of large gray-brown rocks. Williams examined it and then ordered a few of the crew to dismantle the structure. At the bottom, in a glass jar that looked like it used to carry some sort of jam, there was a note. Williams wasn’t sure if she should be hopeful or worried.

Arthur, her first mate, took the note out carefully. It was dry from the frigid air and looked like it might crack. Williams nodded in response to Arthur’s look and the man read aloud.

Log entry 13, Carpo, 732
We got stuck in the ice. I knew this was a risk with leaving Inder so late in the season. But I think the chances of finding what I’m looking for will be better now anyway. We arrived on the coast of Kantara two weeks ago and the ice finally impeded our progress. I didn’t want to damage the hull so we dropped the anchor and let it come to us. It may still cause damage, we will see what we can do. But for now, things are well. We will set up the investigation and hopefully not waste a winter here.

Relief soothed Williams’ mind. This was good news. They must have left the note here for search parties, to let them know the Metus was not in peril. Her friend was probably fine and getting ready for the ice to melt. But when she looked at Arthur the empty feeling in her stomach returned. The man, clearly sensing Williams’ emotions, was shaking his head. He looked grim.

He said, “There’s more, Captain. It’s in the margins, curls around the page. Looks rushed.” Then he continued.

5, Citrix, 732
Reynolds is dead. Crew diminished and chaos threatening. Held vote to abandon ship. Went south to look for village, or anyone. It followed us, must return. Tried to catch it, cannot be caught. Tried to kill it, unsuccessful. Attempting to escape. May the gods watch over us.

A shadow passed over Williams’ mind at the words. She couldn’t imagine what they could mean. Was she really too late? Had the search been deployed in vain? Had she just lost one of her closest friends?

She couldn’t imagine how things had gotten that bad in less than a month. Reynolds had been fairly tight-lipped about his mission, but she didn’t think he’d do anything that would get himself killed. But then the note mentioned a mysterious “it.”

She looked to Arthur, the man’s ruddy cheeks now matching his flaming hair, reminding Williams it didn’t do to stand around in these conditions. Everyone would freeze. Arthur passed the note to the captain and shrugged. He had no better idea what it meant.

“They clearly wanted someone to find it.” Williams said at last.

“But do they want us to come rescue them or stay away?”

A hastily scribbled note wasn’t enough to make them turn around. Williams had a duty. She may hate it here, but she couldn’t take the chance that she could still do something. Even it was just to bring his body home.

They moved on, leaving the dismantled cairn behind, once a beacon, now just a pile of rocks. The wind picked up and they all pulled scarves tighter around their faces. Just over an hour later, they came to an oasis of vegetation in the otherwise blank slate of the tundra. Some scraggly bushes with no foliage and lichen were all that made up the small collection.

There were also some curious shapes among the bushes. Darker shadows, eerily familiar. Williams lengthened her pace to get ahead of her crew and Arthur followed close behind. She used her rifle to move the branches for a better look. Bodies. At least they used to be.

“Look here,” she said. “What do you think?”

Arthur crouched down, used his pocket knife to poke around.

“It’s them. Some of them. The insignia is here on the sleeve.”

He moved a scrap of tattered, dirty cloth and Williams saw the faded Inder Royal Navy symbol. Williams joined him for a closer look. They exchanged a glance.

These men had either been picked over by animals after their demise, or had met a more unfortunate end than hypothermia. If the cold had gotten to them, their clothes would likely have been removed and strewn about in the final delirium before death.

The bodies were as tattered as the cloth. Williams could see bone in several places. But, and she couldn’t decide if this was better or worse, she could detect no tooth marks in the bone. There were large wide gashes though. A knife? But it didn’t appear that they had been gnawed. And the gashes were filled with ice.

Williams stood and Arthur did a quick check for any other notes or items of use before joining her. The captain wasn’t sure what to do next. This was hardly an encouraging find but she felt obligated to keep looking. Try to find survivors.

She noticed the others grouped together looking at something on the ground. And was glad they hadn’t come over to see what she and Arthur had found. She decided that they would leave the bodies there for now. They had already been out in the cold this long, another week wouldn’t cause any more damage. They could pick them up on the way back.

She went over to the crowd and shouldered her way to the front. On the ground in the center of the group were claw marks. No…Williams bent down. There were slashes in the rock made of some sort of crystal. It was ice. It looked like solid frost. Williams touched it and she felt tiny barbs through her gloves. They looked like larger versions of the marks on the bodies.

The captain looked back toward the corpses. It hadn’t rained here in months so these gashes in the stone couldn’t have filled and frozen naturally. And she wasn’t sure what could have cut the stone like that. Certainly no animals. Even if a bear was around, it’s claws weren’t that far apart. The marks on the bones could have been a knife but not these.

Feeling fatigued, mentally and physically, she stood and rubbed her gloved hand over her face. She wasn’t here to investigate, just find them. The note indicated they returned to the Metus. Williams and her crew came from the nearest settlement and no one had seen anyone wandering the tundra. Whatever “it” was, it seemed to have forced a retreat. Whether or not any of this made sense, they would have to press on.

Arthur waved the others forward. and took the lead. Williams lingered. Uneasiness filled her thoughts. The note, the bodies, the markings. She had expected to find them on the ship at best and frozen at worst. Not this. None of this.

They decided to camp just short of the ice fields. The fields were lined by the flat, frozen earth on the south; dark, forbidding mountains to the west; and the ocean on the north and east. Years of impacting and adding more snow and ice had made the cold plateaus quite hight. One couldn’t tell how far above sea level they were by standing at the edge where the ice and dirt met. The first fissure would reveal the truth. In the center and at the base of the mountains, the height was the greatest. It was lowest at the coast where the new ice formed. If the Metus was there, they wouldn’t be able to see it for a few days.

Already ill-disposed to the climate, the situation made the landscape more foreboding. There was something particularly eerie about the ice fields. Williams tried to identify what it was. Maybe it was the way the ice creaked and groaned as it moved ever so slightly with the currents beneath. Or maybe the way the wind howled through the fissures. Or maybe the fact that nothing thrived out there. No plants, not even the sparse lichen. Animals didn’t venture out there either. It was an environment designed to keep living things away.

Yet here they were. They weren’t the first and most certainly wouldn’t be the last. Williams had worked in cold climes before but had hoped to be done with it. She had finally landed a local assignment. But then her friend and colleague had gone missing. One last trek. She hated herself for hesitating to go and look. For waiting to be asked rather than volunteering. Perhaps if she had gone immediately, as soon as his mission was called into question, she might have saved him. Williams tried to convince herself that there was a mistake and maybe he was still alive on the ship waiting for her. But the note was only clear about one thing. “Reynolds is dead.”

Attempting to redirect her thoughts, she looked out over the dark snowy panorama, lit only by the moon. She supposed some would call it beautiful. The silver gleam to everything. The dramatic shadows in the cracks and the haunting mountains to the west. But all she could see were those bodies. The ones she left behind today and all the men and women she’d lost to similar mesmerizing terrains.

Williams ducked into her tent and pretended she could sleep.

When the commotion started, Williams thought she was awake, but her eyes opened and a film of grogginess coated her mind. There was a noise that barely registered on her awareness, then voices. Sitting up, Williams tried to clear the fog from her mind and hear what exactly they were saying.

“Where did it come from?”

“Where did what come from? I didn’t hear anything.”

“How could you not hear it? It was right by the tents.”

“It was the wind.”

“Start the fire. Get a light.”

Williams emerged to see the men crowded at the edge of their small camp holding torches out toward the dark night like a ward against evil. Arthur was in front trying to get the men to tell him exactly what happened.

“I couldn’t sleep so I was just lying there and I heard a sound,” Thompson said. “Then it came again louder. I swear it was right outside my tent. So, I sat up and it looked like smoke was filling the tent. I turned to wake Henry, and when I looked back at the entrance, the smoke was gone and I heard the noise again.”

“What did it sound like?” Arthur asked.

Thompson clearly groped for the right description. “Somewhere between a scrape and whisper.”

More arguments broke out with more than one claim that it was the wind. Arthur got them under control again.

“Did you hear anything?” Arthur asked, looking at Henry

Henry still didn’t look fully awake and just shook his head.

“Come on, how could you have not heard it?” Thompson was beginning to look more scared than the situation seemed to warrant.

Henry just shrugged. The crowd dispersed back to their tents and Thompson looked betrayed.

Back in her tent, the tired captain curled back into her sleeping bag and managed uneasy rest until the sun rose.

Arthur tapped on Williams’ tent shortly after dawn. The captain emerged and blinked at the brightness. The sun was already glaring off the snow and ice of the fields. As if the light itself was warning them off. She turned away to face the tundra and relaxed some.

“Sir, the rest of the men aren’t up yet, but I think you should come here before they do.”

Her first mate led her past the tents west of their camp. The long shadows of the tents stretched before them, extensions of the safety they represented. The glare of the sun to her right made it hard to see, but there was something heaped on the rocky ground about fifty feet from camp.

Her shoulders dropped even more, and her pace slowed. She knew what it would be. And it would make everything worse.

The two stopped and Arthur bent down to turn the body over. It was Thompson. He was blue and his skin was frosted but he didn’t die from hypothermia. There were large slashes across his chest, abdomen and legs. And they were filled with the same three dimensional frost Williams had seen on the older bodies and in the stone. Involuntarily, she gazed south toward the other bodies.

It couldn’t have been a bear. A bear would have eaten him. And it would not have been quiet. How did no one hear this? Why didn’t Thompson call out? More unsettling, where was the blood? It wasn’t cold enough to freeze it before any could be spilled and yet none had come from any of the cuts. She crouched next to Arthur. It looked like they had been cauterized only instead of burnt, it looked frozen. The flesh was smooth and the blood along the cuts congealed.

She stood and rubbed her face while she tried to think. Her biggest concern was how to handle the rest of the crew. Once they found out about this, it would be harder to keep them in line.

“Wrap him up in a tarp so no one can see the body. He went out to piss and slipped or something and froze.”

Arthur nodded, not questioning or making any indication of what he thought of the lie. They both went back to camp to find the supplies and try to take care of Thompson before the others woke.

When the others were heating their cans of breakfast over the fire, Williams stepped up. People were still coming in and out of tents, getting ready and tending to necessities. Her presence naturally drew everyone to the fire and they quieted. Thompson’s absence had yet to be noticed.

Without preamble Williams said, “Thompson is dead.” She let them mutter and look around, confused, like the man in question was surely just standing behind someone. “It appears he went out sometime last night, probably to relieve himself, and he slipped. He froze before dawn.”

Everyone looked toward Henry. The man still didn’t say anything. He looked stunned, possibly a little ashamed. Undoubtedly the others would ask him how he didn’t hear Thompson get up, how he could let him go out alone. It would be worse if they knew what really happened.

Hopefully this real, tangible incident would erase the memory of the confusion earlier in the night and no one would question the story. Williams considered herself a good leader but after the strange things that had happened she wasn’t sure how long she could hold out when they started asking questions she couldn’t answer.

They all packed up their gear and loaded it back onto the sleds, one being dedicated just to Thompson’s body. Williams stood at the edge of the tundra, the threshold between solid ground and the ice fields. She pulled down her goggles to shield her eyes from the glare and took the first step across.

The snow crunched under her boots, making a sound almost like groaning. It echoed the sound in Williams’ soul at the thought of venturing out into this even more desolate landscape. She wished she could see the beauty most people saw in it. They spoke of the sparkle of the sun on the snow or the smooth textures of the wind blown snow dunes. But the emptiness made her feel hollow and filled her with an inexplicable dread.

The others soon joined her and, with Arthur at her side, they began their trek north, toward the ice-locked Metus.

Shortly after lunch, they came to a fissure. It wasn’t a wide one but the ice was higher on the other side. They unloaded a sled and used it as a bridge. The process was repeated, the gap getting wider each time.

They saw no signs of the others all day. No one spoke as they made camp and ate dinner. They pitched fewer tents so they could sleep closer together for warmth. Williams knew that wasn’t the only reason. They didn’t want a repeat of last night. And with all these fissures, they could lose someone and never find them.

If anyone heard or saw anything peculiar that night, they didn’t say. Williams wondered if they would be able to see any of those strange gashes in the ice and snow. She hoped not, whether or not they were present.

The second day on the ice fields they marched faster. It was colder and everyone was eager to get the mission over with. Williams doubted any of them expected to find Reynolds’ crew alive, but they couldn’t turn back until they checked. She didn’t know if her dislike of this place had infected them or if they were developing it on their own, but she was glad for their alacrity.

The fissures they had to cross after lunch were too large for the sled. They had to hammer spikes into the ice and extend a rope ladder across using a grapple. In all her years of mountain, glacier and snowy assignments, this was something Williams had gained considerable experience with and she was quite the expert now. She landed the grapple on the first try, getting it deep enough to hold. Naturally, she went first. Besides feeling responsible to test the bridge, she was the lightest.

Crossing was dangerous and, if Williams was honest, terrifying. She tried not to look down as she hovered over a hundred foot drop to the sub-zero ocean below. The sun reflected off the walls of the fissure, spreading its blue-green glow over her. It made her think of illness and infection. Glad to have her feet on solid ground once more, she secured her end more firmly and the rest of the crew came over.

While she waited, she surveyed the view ahead. More of the same. She wondered if they would actually find the Metus. Locals had told them accounts of a ship in the ice. But that didn’t mean they would find it. There was also the possibility that it sank.

She was returned from her thoughts by Arthur. He didn’t have to speak. Williams knew there was something for her to see. She followed Arthur several yards from the crossing and looked where the man pointed.

There were two spikes driven into the ice. Fragments of rope hung limply from them. They just stood and studied the area for a moment. Williams was glad to see a sign of the other crew’s passing, but didn’t know how to interpret what she was seeing.

“Why would they cut it?” Arthur asked.

Williams didn’t answer right away. She knelt in the snow and examined the ends of the rope. It was sliced clean and jagged crystals grew from it. She looked over the edge. About forty feet down, an ax was stuck into the blue-green wall. Nothing else was visible. Williams rubbed a hand over her face.

“I’m not sure they did,” she said.

She stopped and thought of the note again. The “it.” Had whatever the Reynolds crew was so afraid of been what killed Thompson? It was the first time she had let herself think those words. That something killed Thompson. Perhaps they should have headed back.

“I don’t know, Arthur. And there’s no way to know. Hopefully we find the Metus and can get some answers there.”

Arthur nodded and they went back to the crew and went on their way.

Again, Williams woke to raised voices. Her fatigue and sour mood were such that she actually considered staying in her tent. Only for the briefest moment, but she considered it all the same.

She came out to confusion. Arthur was was coming out of his tent too. Williams lit a torch and tried to calm everyone and organize them but the crew kept shouting and moving about. Williams was reminded of bees on honeycomb. Stifling a sigh, she removed a glove and whistled loudly.

Silence. Only the occasional sound of dusty snow brushing by on the wind broke the stillness.

Very calmly, and in a much quieter tone than they had been using, Williams spoke, “What is going on?”

She held up a hand to quiet them and pointed at Griegson, who came forward.

“More of us heard the strange noise and some have seen the smoke-like substance Thompson reported. One man is missing,” she said.

“Missing?” Williams asked, alarmed.

“Yes, Sir. I was trying to calm the men down so I could organize a search.”

A search party made of a search party. They definitely should have gone back. She pointed at Arthur and another man and they approached.

“Take these two with you. Look thoroughly, but briefly. And be careful. I don’t want to lose anyone else tonight.”

“Yes, Sir,” Griegson and Arthur said together.

The three set off. And Williams interrogated those remaining. The report was the same as the last time. A sound and what appeared to be smoke or steam. Three men saw it this time, all of the occupants of a single tent. It was one of these men, Stevens, who went missing. The missing man’s bunkmates weren’t sure how it happened. Stevens, woke and raised the alarm. The other two were roused by his shouts but quickly heard the sound. The smoke had already filled the tent. Then they all scrambled out, waking the others in their flight. The smoke disappeared and by the time Williams made it over, Stevens was gone too.

Before she could fully process the account, Arthur was back at her side, shaking his head.

“We found footprints, Sir,” Arthur said in a low tone. “They stumbled around and it looks like he fell at one point. From there he crawled or slid to the edge and the trail stops. We tried calling, but there was no response.”

Of course there wasn’t. But she was glad they had tried. Williams looked at the sky lightening to the east and knew no one would get any more sleep tonight. Griegson and the other searcher were now mingling with the rest, undoubtedly relating what they had seen.

“Use the torch to heat some cans for breakfast. Get the men ready to move. I want to be going as soon as the sun rises. We climbed all day yesterday; we will reach the highest point of the fields today and will have a vantage to see if the ship is in the vicinity. We will make a decision at that point.”

“Yes, Sir,” Arthur said, but he looked dubious for the first time.

Getting food in their bellies would help a little. Keeping the fire would also help. The sun would evaporate much of the fear. She hoped it would anyway.

Being captain meant making the decisions. If she started to doubt herself openly things would fall apart fast. But she couldn’t help wondering if she was letting her devotion to her friend, a friend who was in all likelihood dead, cloud her judgment.

There were many whispers and furtive glances as the crew breakfasted and broke camp. Once the sun came up, the rays did seem to ease their anxiety some, but the discontent was still on their faces. Williams just needed them to get to the vantage point and if the ship was visible, they might even go for it gladly, happy to see a familiar sight in this alien place.

The journey was quiet but steady. Everyone seemed to understand that there was a good chance they’d be turning back before the end of the day. No one wanted to defy their captain, Williams knew that, but they were being pushed too far. They crossed the fissures. No one spoke of how high they were or how the wind tugged at them like a playful child while they crossed.

Finally, they reached the peak. They could see down to the water level and the base of the mountains to the west. And Williams’ heart sank. She was ashamed at her disappointment but she knew she wouldn’t be the only one feeling it. At the edge of the ice fields was the Metus like a discarded toy.

Some of the crew, however, perked up. There was chatter now as they made their way. Crossing the crevasses was different now as they were on the higher side. After the first few, they could leap down and toss the gear across. It was much faster going than the trip up the ice shelves had been. No one even wanted to stop for lunch. They just kept going. Determined to make it by dusk.

As the sun set and bled orange-red light across the glittering snow, they approached the final ice shelf. On the other side was the Metus, dark and imposing, casting a large shadow that was more ominous than the sanguine tint over the rest of the world.

Williams could see now that the ship was definitely listing. The ice had damaged the hull and it would sink once the warmer weather reached this far north. When they rounded the bow, they found an haunting sight. There was a near perfect circle in the ice, melted down to the water. The center of the circle was a maze of frost-like structures jutting out of the ground. Like the ice formation Williams had seen in the ground and the bones, these were made of spikes and jagged edges and violently beautiful. They all stood in awe, not sure what to do.

At last, the setting sun spurred them to motion. No one wanted to be outside after dark. They gave the strange circle a wide berth and climbed up onto the deck. The door was frozen shut and Arthur and a few other men had to pry it open. It was damaged and wouldn’t close all the way but they could seal it off later so the cold air wouldn’t come in.

It was almost like coming home. After so long living outside in tents and seeing nothing man-made for miles, this ship was comforting. And warmer. The lack of wind alone made Williams and her crew feel at home despite the dark.

It was not a large ship and wouldn’t take long to search. Williams ordered the crew to take out all the lanterns and torches and light them. Then she put Griegson in charge of the search. She motioned to Arthur and they headed toward the captain’s quarters to find the log and discover what was going on. Spirits were already much higher than that morning. Animated voices echoed back, and hopeful calls for the lost crew bounced off the metal walls as they split up.

When they entered the cabin, Williams took off her gloves and hat then sat at the desk. She opened the log and flipped to the place where the page was ripped out. What she found was a tale too wild to be believed. Even in the log, Reynolds hadn’t divulged the true reason for his trip. He left at an odd time for a mission to the Kantara but he was so well respected that everyone just trusted that he knew what he was doing. Reynolds’ first mate, Ialman, decided that he should share the truth in case the log was ever discovered.

Reynolds had been to the Kantara the spring before. On that mission he had sworn that he saw something. Something he couldn’t identify or explain. Something possibly supernatural. He had always romanticized the supernatural and Williams could easily see how he might become obsessed with this idea. In fact, she recalled teasing him about it over coffee. He had arranged to go back in the fall, even though it was not a good time to travel. He funded the voyage himself and staffed all manner of specialists.

Shortly after they arrived, things started going badly beginning with the ice getting too thick to continue. Reynolds didn’t care all that much because he just wanted to stay in one place and set his specialists loose on the area anyway. But then people started to disappear. The watchmen mostly. Anyone alone outside after dark. The men started talking about a sound and a strange vapor was seen around the ship.

Then they found the first body, one of the scientists. It was just like the ones Williams had seen. He had been out alone taking some sort of readings. They didn’t notice his absence until the next morning and when they checked his station they found him dead, icy gashes across his chest, abdomen and legs.

They were all shocked, but now the scientists had something to study. They were stuck in the ice anyway so they might as well make the best of it. Ialman didn’t know what, if anything they discovered. It was likely over his head anyway.

After the lone crew members’ disappearances and the solitary scientist’s death, a companion system was adopted. No one went out with fewer than two other men. The result, however, was simply a faster body count.

More of the icy wounds claimed lives and the crew became unsettled. When the captain was found dead after a scouting mission, things began to break down. Ialman managed to keep his position but only if he agreed that they abandon ship and try to find their way to a settlement.

The final account in Ialman’s hand told of their plans for departure. He said that he would tear out the page and leave it as a sign in case they didn’t make it to a settlement and someone came looking for them.

Williams realized the writing on the note matched the last entry and not Ialman’s section. She continued reading, noticing Arthur had been reading over her shoulder.

8 Citrix, 732
After Ialman died, we decided to come back. It followed us away from the ship and we realized that was the only place it never got to us. We didn’t think we would make it, and not many of us did.

We made a plan. We tried shooting it, and that didn’t work. We tried catching it and that didn’t work. It also doesn’t seem to notice our blades, though anyone close enough to try that is already lost.

I should probably describe it in case this log is found someday. But now that I try it is rather indescribable. It is incorporeal most of the time. It travels along as a kind of vapor. It makes the most disquieting whisper noise. Like a ghost with a gravely voice. Or, now that I think of it, like scraping ice. When it is corporeal, it is deadly. Any touch rends the flesh and leaves behind a wound instantly frozen and filled with ice crystals. It most closely resembles one of those long, elegant dragons. The kind with the shaggy face. Only instead of shaggy it is crusted in frosty protrusions.

So, our plan. We decided that it is clearly connected to the terrain, the ice and snow, so perhaps we should fight it with fire. Upon reaching the ship we gathered all the fuel we could find. We will make a circle and attempt to lure it in then light it. We don’t know if we can trap it or kill it or what might happen. We may all die.

Hopefully I will write again and have good news. If not, I sincerely hope this log is never found.

Williams looked up at Arthur but the man was staring straight ahead. She could no longer hear the conversations echoing through the Metus. She saw vapor seeping through the crack they had left in the door.

 

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