91 Zi'da 717
The Tundra north of Viden
Alucard's cold eyes never turned to look at the trio again, instead focusing on moving into the mouth of the cave. Caius' defiance continued to echo around his head, though, stoking the flames of anger to a purple-and-black rage. The young noble was mouthy, that much was true, but he just couldn't see that Alucard was only there to protect them all. He didn't know why he was there, just the same as them...
Well, that wasn't entirely true, was it? Alucard had a sense, as he often did about these sorts of things. A hand went up and brushed the fabric covering his chest, a subtle and quick gesture, as he slammed foot after foot into the quickly-freezing blanket of snow, leaving heavy footprints in his wake. The temperature was dropping rapidly, a biting cold that seemed to seep into their warm gear and strip them of any comfort. They weren't in serious danger of freezing because of the provided material, but all comfort they had, even the slightest modicum, was sucked from them like a greadl sucked the marrow from the bones of its prey. Alucard felt the change, each step taking him closer to the mouth of the cave, and each step assuring him that he was traveling in the right direction. He just had to convince the three behind him that following him into the cave was their only option.
Which it was. That much he knew.
As he came upon the cave, he stopped, turning around. His white skin had paled even further, attempting to blend chameleon-like into the snow below him. His jaw was set and clenched, tight against the stinging winds that ripped at their exposed flesh, biting noses and searing ears with extreme cold. It was like the cave was breathing a cone of cold onto them, each wave of icy air as cold as the next, repeatedly. Alucard stood in the entrance, face colder than a grave, as they approached. First, his freezing glare stopped on Caius, as frigid as the air around them, then to Darcyanna and then Maebella. His lips were a thin line, the horizon between life and death, and when he spoke, his voice was low and guttural, almost lost to the howling winds sending swirling clouds of icy snow around them.
"A'right, listen up. From here'n out, we're in this together. No more sardin' talkin' about yer deaths, or missin' yer warm beds. No more bein' a little shit an' tryin' to undermine my every fuckin' word. From here, we're a unified front, or we're four fuckin' corpses, freezin' beneath the cold, hard ground in this Saints-forsaken cave. I don' care if'n ye don' give a sardin' shit about me. From here, your survival depends on our survival, understand?" His voice was barren, rivaling the landscape for the bleakest experience in their lives. Each flicked between each, Alucard nodding.
He'd given a variation of that speech thousands of times to thousands of faces, plenty of fresh recruits in it for glory or money. He'd said the same thing so many times that Alucard had started to believe it... He started to believe that they could survive if they worked together, but he knew the Frozen North better than any, and the barbaric landscape didn't give two shits if you worked together. But in Alucard's experience, a fractured team was the surest way to leave men and women behind, and he had no interest in that on this occasion, even if one of them was a mouthy shit.
"We gotta get inside an' figure out a base camp, so's to ensure we have a place to rendezvous should we get sep'rated." He turned and trudged into the cave, the others following him at a close distance. Heading into the unknown, distance could prove a serious adversary, and so they clung close to the more experienced, and strongly scented, First Ranger. Together, the four of them trudged through snow growing to cover their feet entirely, each step taking more and more energy to take. Alucard looked back every few steps, to make sure one of the prissy nobles weren't face down in the hardening powder, or to ensure that the Videnese girl hadn't just turned and left. They needed each other now, he knew that. All of them... Losing the other Eidisi had ensured that their every decision was critical now, no room for any errors.
The last time the situation was as dire, Alucard had lost his team. Not this fuckin' trial, though. He promised himself that he would lead these three through this, whatever that cost. Each step reminded him of the gravity of that conviction, but it was one that he was willing to confront when the time came. Plenty of missions had come and gone, plenty of life and death, struggle and success... And Alucard had never feared more than he did in that moment.
But the narrow passageway had an opening at the end, though from their distance they could not tell if that was the extent of the cave system, or perhaps just some sort of antechamber. Or, for all Alucard knew, it could be the lair of some snowbeast, intent on snacking on a delivered meal. He paused, hand raising with all the fingers standing straight up, indicating a stop. The trio behind him noticed his left hand was missing the ring finger, the fabric of his glove sewn there so that there was no excess fabric. He turned, pointing to their positions, then held up the palm of his hand.
Ye stay here, the gesture indicated. If the three could be amused in the tense situation, they all heard the command in his voice, in their heads. This was no time for amusement, but life was about a series of moments, and if theirs were at an end, this would not be the worst moment to remember as they died. Still, though, Alucard offered nothing else, crouching and crawling forwards towards the opening maw that extended beyond their vision. His steps made no more noise the the rustling of sifting snow, and as he approached, he offered them no parting glance. Coming up the opening, he paused, then slipped through. The cold grew, and they each felt it in a unique way, though none more than Caius.
The cold was never a problem for the Northern Noble, the Gawynes always being born of snow and Ziell-blood. But this time, the cold was intense, seeming to come from within him. Caius didn't feel it, but the girls did. Radiating from him was not warmth, but instead cold, surrounding him like a suit of frozen armour. Caius, he felt the cold, sure, but not the absolute frigidity he was putting off. He couldn't shake a feeling, either, like his heart was itching. He stood there, considering the feeling, until a sharp whistle floated down the passage to them, landing on each of their ears simultaneously. It was clear the intent.
C'mon. And they did, trudging forward into the freezing cave. The girls had to allow Caius a few steps to himself to keep from shivering, the cold of his aura compounding with the natural cold around them. It took them a few bits to reach the mouth of the chamber beyond, but when they did, they were overwhelmed, each of them.
Standing there in the center of the antechamber, Alucard stared up at the ceiling. It was comprised of a magical prism of colours, the natural light of the cavern echoing off the spiky stalactites to shred the light into colours, patterns both irrational and pleasing. Violets mixed with greens, swirling around reds and oranges, creating rigid dawn-dusk hybrids. Blues mixed with greens, mixing with the other mixtures, to create the phantasm of brilliance. To each of them, there was something different in that ceiling. To Caius, he saw the beauty of winter, the light refracted and coalescing to create the truest tapestry of natural light. For Darcyanna, she saw the ocean of emotion, coloured by the lights above her, seeing each variation and shade as the slightest facet of the next emotion, each bleeding into each other and forming, ichor-like, into a gestalt of feeling. Maebella saw the cold, hard light of intellect, seeing each colour as its constituents before seeing them as a whole. Her mind dissected the colours, seeing each as a part and whole.
But it was Alucard who was the most stricken, staring above him. Each colour, distinct or combination, was a face he'd covered in dirt, allowing them to rest eternally in the place of their choosing. Each red, whether deep or blood or wine, had a name to him. The yellows and greens and blues, they were the spectres of his past missions, echoing in the darkest recesses of his heart and mind. Tears rimmed his eyes, threatening to freeze in the cold, as the room pulsated like a beating heart, a dull thump coming from behind a wall.
Sitting against a wall, close to the opening that led further into the structure, sat a wooden chest, frozen in time by the freezing of its wood, sticking out against the shining glitter of the ice that covered the room. Within the chest, a long and thin sword sat. Next to it, a bow strung with eight arrows in a quiver next to it, made of smoothed and polished wood. Underneath it, a heavy fur cloak, appearing to be made of white reindeer fur. Alucard removed the contents, laying them on the ground in front of the three.
"Take yer picks, an' let's be off." He growled, the miasma of memory swirling above him souring the awe of the chamber. Turning back to the chest, he lifted the final item from it, a small leather-bound journal. Scratched on the title page, "Field Journal" was legible. The item mostly detailed the trek of the rangers from Viden, through a battle with a tundra beast, to the mouth of the cave, to the extreme cold of the entrance of the cave. Its author, Galius Sipender, was a ranger that Alucard knew. Well.
"A'right, well... Looks like we're not the first here, in an' case. Galius, good lad. Led a group of... seven here, three arcs ago. Never made it out, apparently. Fuckin' Kata's bloody rag, what're we doin' in this boghole?" The last bit was to himself, the ghosts still staring into him from on high.
"Ye picked? Let's fuckin' go." The beating heart continued, rhythmic in the walls around them. Alucard's eyes fell on the far wall, examining it for a moment before turning back to the three of them, impatient. He was ready to be done with this place and the ghosts of his failures.