Coldest Winter: Chapter Two
by CRMY Studios·
The party's stay in Fairbanks was not as relaxing as Ralph hoped it would be. The local's warnings and the children's tall tales had spooked the crew more than he expected, and he had not even mentioned what he saw and heard on the first half of their journey. Ralph could tell they were not welcome in Fairbanks, and his efforts to convince the locals that the future pipeline would boost the local economy were futile. They scolded him for being a traitor and selling out to the fat cats. In a sense, Ralph sympathized with them. The construction and the pipeline would completely alter Alaskan history. As a local Alaskan, he knew the value of simplicity and harmony with nature, two of the main reasons many Americans moved to the final frontier. Nevertheless, he needed the cash and believed the pipeline would bring economic prosperity to the state in the long run.
Tired of their cold treatment from the locals and the continuous onslaught of snowballs from the children, the party stayed only two nights in the city instead of their planned three. Their stay in Fairbanks concluded with the final decision by Ralph and Levi to send Dick home. Dick's behavior quickly spiraled out of control in Fairbanks as he became increasingly paranoid about the snowmen watching him. Both nights, Dick blockaded Been and his’ hotel room with furniture and boarded up the windows with cardboard. He continued to have nightmares, and the shrieking got so bad that the hotel staff fined the group for breaking curfew. Even though Dick's strength and occasional comedic relief helped the group on the first half of the journey, he was now a liability.
After seeing Dick off, the party ventured southeast and followed the Tanana River; their plan was to cut a path between the Alaskan Mountain range and the Wrangell Mountains. The second half of the journey was much more somber than the beginning. They mainly hiked in silence and took far fewer stops to ponder the incredible landscapes around them. Instead of staying up around the campfire swapping stories at night, the men turned in early to maximize their travel time. Without mention, the party had unanimously decided to get the trip over as fast as possible. On the surface, their reasoning was that they wanted to beat the imminent winter weather; but deep down, they were rattled. Something about their stop in Fairbanks made everyone uneasy, and it wasn't just the stories they heard. Ralph, Levi, and Been had all seen and been told worse when they were in the service. Calvin for that matter, had seen and heard worse on his own expeditions! Whatever made the party tense was completely unexplainable, and though not one of them would have admitted it to another… maybe even supernatural.
Following the Tanana River was easy, and there were multiple small villages along the way. Each town met the party with the same cold distrust as Fairbanks, and it only seemed to get worse as they progressed. In addition, the random snowmen seemed to be appearing more frequently than before. Levi lobbed the heads off every snowman they passed, occasionally wasting bullets by blowing them to pieces. Ralph mentioned that maybe Levi should stop destroying the snowmen on the off chance of some sort of cosmic retribution, but Levi shrugged him off.
"If the snowmen are watching us and reporting to big Mr. Frosty, then Mr. Frosty needs to know that we mean business..." Levi laughed with a hint of nervousness at the end of his words.
When the party reached the Tanana Valley, things began to change. Everyone began to feel a presence — like they were being watched by something beyond their imaginations; an omnipresent disturbance that crept deep down into their bones. Suddenly the snowmen stopped appearing, and each night felt more silent than the previous.
Slowly, each member began to hear voices in the wind. First, it was Been, who heard them while hiking. He also held off from mentioning anything to the party, for he feared they too would think he had lost his mind like Dick. One day, when Ralph and Been were out surveying, a low rumble echoed through the trees. At first, they thought it was the wind, but then it happened again. It was a dark, cavernous growl that seemed to swell up from the ground beneath them. Shortly after the growling started, it was joined by faint whispers. The whispers were so realistic they could almost feel someone's lips graze their ears. The voice was hushed and strained, but the words were clear, "The snowman is coming... the snowman is coming..."
Now that Ralph and Been had experienced this together, they knew something was wrong. When they returned to the party, Ralph asked Calvin and Levi if they too heard the noises. Calvin said they hadn't, and Levi joked that maybe they drank some caribou urine-infested water. Yet it would only be a matter of time. The next day, while the party was traversing a steep decline, a primal roar erupted out of the silence and caused a small avalanche. The roar was then followed by an onslaught of whispers, like thousands of tiny voices all stacked on top of each other.
"The snowman is coming..."
"He'll eat your flesh..."
"You can't see what you don't believe..."
"It's too late..."
"We tried to warn you..."
It was the final thing that sealed the deal. The party knew something was deeply wrong, but they were too far into their journey to turn back. The only way out was forward.
By the time they reached the town of Tok, each man saw shadows off in the distance. It didn't matter what time of day it was, the shadows danced in and out of their peripheral. Ralph wondered if they really had gone mad. Was it the cold, the water, exhaustion, or hypothermia? Soon each man reported nightmares of being buried alive and hearing people being torn apart. They constantly were waking each other up with screams. Then, after their first night in Tok, each man claimed to have the same nightmare of watching themselves being sacrificed on top of a mountain as a giant eagle watched over them.
Out of all the towns the party passed through, the locals of Tok treated the explorers with the coldest disdain. That night at the bar, an elderly man warned Ralph that between the Alaskan and Wrangell mountain ranges lay a place that was neither here nor there but somewhere in between. In that place, he said, "The King Snowman will eat your souls for what is to come."
"What do you mean?" Ralph questioned, his irritation growing. Why won't they just be straightforward with us? He thought.
The old man laughed, "Your souls will be ripped from your bodies and spread like ashes upon this land for consequences beyond what you and I will ever see. Mother Earth is dying, and she has been trying to warn us for a long time. It will only get worse... conquest, war, famine, and death will come as the flames burn brighter and brighter. This oil your superiors seek is the poison that will kill us all..."
Ralph swallows the growing knot in his throat. He knew from his childhood days about the four horsemen that would bring the end of the world. But what did that have to do with the pipeline? Who is this King Snowman?
At this point, Ralph didn't care about the interests of fat cats, the oil, or the money. He was burned out, paranoid, and delirious. What he needed was to finish the mission for himself and for his party, for them to see it through in the spirit of adventure.
The next day the party departed from Tok and entered the pass between the mountain ranges. The morning was eerily silent, with not a sound from the wind or any wild animals.
That afternoon, a thick fog settled over the pass — encasing the party in complete whiteness. Ralph thought about the old man's warning, "A place that is neither here nor there..." The fog made it seem like they crossed into a new plane of existence. The air was heavy and felt charged with energy. After they had been hiking for quite some time, Ralph looked at his watch to see that only an hour had passed.
Impossible... He thought. They had been hiking for at least two hours but no more than three. Maybe my watch is broken... However, when Ralph checked Calvin's watch, the knot in his stomach swelled. Calvin read that they had been hiking for four hours... Definitely impossible... Then Ralph checked Levi's watch, which read they hiked for six hours. Ralph began to feel lightheaded. Finally, Been's watch showed that no time had passed since the fog had settled.
Calvin claimed that maybe they had entered some strange magnetic field that was messing with their watches. "I've seen this before..." he claimed, before jumping into another one of his fanciful exploration tales.
"Ralph..." Been whispered, and he pulled on his leader's sleeve. In Been's hand was his compass. The needle spun wildly and uncontrolled, one second pointing north and the next pointing south. Ralph demanded to see every compass. To his horror, they all spun without regard to any magnetic pull.
Ralph excused himself from the group and walked a couple of feet before vomiting. His head was pounding - the old man's voice echoing in his ears...
Neither here, nor there... here nor there...
Without any sense of direction or how long they had been hiking, Ralph decided that they should set up camp and wait for the fog to pass. Each man would take a turn on guard and immediately wake the crew at the first sign of the fog lifting.
After camp had been set up, the noises started. At first, it was whispers, but soon the whispers evolved into primal shrieks and growls. The men lit a fire and set up a string of aluminum cans around the camp's perimeter. Ralph took the first watch while the other men tried to sleep between the unearthly noises.
As Ralph sat there, the fog began to play tricks on him. Off in the distance, he saw flashes of orange and blue fire and the silhouettes of snowmen appeared faintly in the afterglow. Ralph rubbed his eyes and tried to convince himself it was nothing. The old man was wrong. He was trying to scare them. Everything would be okay...
Suddenly the flashes of light stopped, and for a few minutes, it seemed as though the fog was lifting.
And then Ralph saw it... off in the distance, a shadow slowly moved toward him. At first, it looked like maybe it was a caribou or a moose. Then he wondered if it could be a polar bear. Ralph grabbed his gun and turned the safety off. His heart began to beat faster and faster.
Then the shadow became more defined. It wasn't a caribou, a moose, or a polar bear. Whatever it was, it was beyond what Ralph understood reality to be. The shadow stopped just outside of clear view but he could make out its silhouette. Whatever it was, it looked humanoid but was bigger than any human Ralph had ever seen. The monster towered over him, at least ten feet or more.
The monster raised its head towards the sky and shrieked. The sound was earth-shattering, like a flash bang went off right above Ralph's head. His ears popped at the sound, and he felt a vibration deep in his bones. Suddenly, the air around him became charged with electricity and goosebumps shot across his body.
"What the hell was that?" Levi yelled.
Ralph stuttered. Then the monster stepped into view. It was enormous; completely covered in white fur that helped camouflage it in the fog and snow. Its hands were the size of Ralph's torso, with thick nails protruding from the ends. The monster's teeth were the size of steak knives, yellow, and haunting. Its body was covered in scars showing a lifetime of battles. In the center of its chest was a cattle brand that resembled a pyramid with an eye at the top. Wrapped around the monster's neck seemed to be a collar with a dog tag. But all these details faded away... Ralph could only focus on the monster's eyes... red, piercing, and filled with rage.
The King Snowman... Ralph gulped.
And then, the monster lunged...
Chapter Three releases the day of the drop (1/29)