Arctic winds bit at Isaac’s skin as he stared into the endless flurry of snow, icy water sloshing far beneath him. He looked out over the bow of the Breadalbane, a large, sturdy merchant ship that had been repurposed for something far greater than the sum of its parts. Ahead, glaciers manifested from the gloom, as if summoned into existence by some dark wizard. As the mountains of ice passed the ship, he shivered.
“What’s wrong, boy? Cold feet already?”
Isaac turned to face the source of the questions, shaking his head. “Not at all, Captain Taylor. Just working on a bit of a thicker skin.”
The ship captain grunted disapprovingly. “This is why I said we shouldn’t have children in the rescue party. They slow us down too much. And call me Jacob, damn it. We aren’t in the Navy.”
“Sorry, sir,” Isaac responded, immediately cringing at his own wording. “I know I still have some growing to do, but when Lady Franklin calls for help, we answer. Right?”
“Hm,” Jacob grunted again, his tone a little softer this time. “Good enough.”
He turned away, shambling across the deck towards the sails, leaving Isaac alone once more.
I can’t disappoint Lady Franklin, he thought, returning his attention to the ice and snow.
Eight years ago, the gentleman whom Isaac and his family served, Sir John Franklin, embarked on an expedition by sea to finish mapping the Northwest Passage for the benefit of future sailors. Family back in Britain expected to receive periodic communication from John, but after two years, they heard nothing but silence. His wife, Lady Jane Franklin, became concerned, and sent a search and rescue party the following year which yielded no results.
Not the least bit deterred, she worked with others to establish a heartier party, sending some of her trusted servants – Isaac included – to aid in any way they could. While the ships sent out had the goal of rescuing the entire crew aboard both ships – the HMS Erebon and the HMS Terror – Isaac’s only mission was the latter vessel, upon which Lady Franklin expected him to find her husband.
And Isaac had every intention of doing so.
A low rumble shook Isaac from his thoughts, and the Breadalbane began to shudder, destabilizing his balance. He fell forward, catching himself on the railing at the edge of the bow. Below, he saw that the ice had grown and thickened, now penetrating the ship’s hull.
“It’s too much!” he cried back at the rest of the crew. “We have to stop or we’ll sink!”
They began to close the sails, but the ship’s momentum continued unabated, plowing into thicker and thicker ice. The Breadalbane began to tilt to the right, and Isaac’s grip on the railing tightened as he felt gravity pull him towards the freezing water. Three crew members weren’t so fortunate, though, and they screamed as they fell, their bodies slamming into the hard ice far below and splattering it red.
“Abandon ship!” yelled Jacob, releasing his grip near the sails and sliding gracefully across the steepening deck. As he launched over the edge, he executed a dive, plunging into the water between two chunks of ice.
Isaac and the other crew members followed suit, leaping overboard into the frigid sea. As Isaac struck the water, his breath caught in his chest, frozen in place by the shocking cold. His body instantly grew numb, and he hurried back to the water’s surface, climbing onto the nearest floating piece of ice. He hardly felt the frozen water beneath him as he hugged his chest for warmth.
Overhead, the ship continued its roll, fully capsizing with a massive splash that soaked the already-wet former crew. They screamed in protest, and in the corner of his eye, Isaac saw the wave shove the blood and bodies of his fellow crewmates into the deep, forever lost to the fishes. His heart sank, and he held back his tears.
How will we return home? he wondered as the Breadalbane sank, fear numbing him more than the cold ever could.
“To shore!” Jacob called, pointing to what appeared to be a nearby land mass. “That’s Beechey Island. We should be able to find shelter there. Gather all the supplies you can and come with me!”
Isaac and the remaining crew scrambled for nearby tools and provisions, climbing over any thick ice they could find as the water between platforms began to re-solidify. After thirty grueling minutes, they staggered onto the shore of Beechey Island, collapsing into the snow. Only Jacob stood tall, hands on his hips, looking around. The snowstorm died down, revealing a wide, flat plane of white as far as Isaac could see.
“Where will we go?” he asked the former ship captain.
“Forward,” Jacob replied. “Always forward.”
With that, he took a step towards the arctic tundra, not bothering to look back and see if the others were following. Isaac trotted close behind, and the others grumbled, staggering to their feet to keep up. It was in this manner that eighteen men left behind their beloved Breadalbane, plowing straight into the frigid wasteland.
Hours passed as they trekked through the snow, remaining mostly silent the entire time. The seawater froze in thin layers across their skin, flaking off as they walked. Sensation had left Isaac a while ago, and he worried about the potential for frostbite. Despite the clearer weather, he saw nothing but endless emptiness, the earth as pale as an army of ghosts.
He feared that, if nothing changed soon, he might be the next to join that army.
“Hey,” one of the crewmen called out, pointing. “What’s that ahead?”
Isaac squinted, trying to focus on three small, dark shapes close to the ground, but he couldn’t make out the details.
“Only one way to find out, right?” Jacob responded, drawing a knife from his belt. Isaac followed suit with his hatchet, unable to use any firearms, since the sea had soaked their gunpowder supply.
They moved toward the objects, and as they drew close, Isaac registered three wooden planks jutting up from the snow. Each one had a little writing on them, and as the crew slowed to a stop, Isaac read them aloud.
“John Torrington. John Hartnell. William Braine.”
One of the crew members near him sighed. “Those three were part of Franklin’s expedition. I guess they didn’t make it.”
Jacob stepped closer to the makeshift gravestones, whistling. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
The crew gathered around Jacob, peering down. Sure enough, there were three body-sized holes in front of the three gravestones.
Three empty holes.
A crew member scratched his head. “What do you think happened? Did the others get hungry and eat them?”
Jacob shot him a stern look. “Don’t say something like that, sailor. Franklin’s men aren’t cannibals.”
The man shrunk back sheepishly, and Jacob crouched near the graves, holding up an empty glass vial lying atop the snow. “What do you think this was for? Medicine, maybe?”
Suddenly, a strong wind swept through the group, carrying a renewed flurry of snowflakes with it. Isaac felt the air irritate his chapped skin, and as he squinted in discomfort, he saw a figure approaching through the storm.
“Hey!” he called, getting Jacob’s attention. “Over there!”
The group hurried toward the incoming silhouette, but quickly stopped, balking in horror.
From the flurry emerged a gaunt, pale thing, a humanoid figure wearing white clothes and sporting curly blonde hair. Its face was shriveled and stiff, blackened by frostbite, the eyes cold and lifeless. Still, it shambled towards them, mouth open in some silent scream of eternal terror, the snowstorm whipping its hair around haphazardly.
“What in God’s name is that?” a crew member near Isaac gasped.
Isaac turned to look at the man who’d spoken, and his eyes widened, his lips parting in terror. “Sir, behind you!”
Another Frozen Man had appeared behind the crew member, this one’s hair short and black. It reached around the man, shoving its fingers in his mouth, and jerked downwards, ripping his lower jaw from his face. The crew member screeched, blood pouring from the wound, his tongue flopping helplessly down from the missing lower half of his face. His eyes watered in pain and panic before rolling into the back of his head, and he passed out into the snow, the white powder quickly turning red around him.
“Hey!” another crew member yelled, running at the black-haired Frozen Man. Rearing back, he swung a large mallet in his hand, the blunt end of the tool connecting with the assailant’s face. Rather than causing any notable damage, the mallet’s wooden handle splintered, and the rubber head broke away, leaving the Frozen Man unfazed. Looking down at the useless handle in his hand, the crew member frowned. “Oh.”
The black-haired Frozen Man struck out with one arm, punching into the would-be attacker’s chest. A sickening, wet sound reached Isaac’s ears through the snow-filled winds as the thing’s arm emerged from the other side of the crew member’s body, red and glistening. The Frozen Man removed its arm from his chest, leaving a gaping hole that gushed blood. The crew member gasped, stumbling around for a moment, before dropping to his knees and joining his jawless comrade in the snow.
A sharp crunch drew Isaac’s attention back to the first, curly-haired Frozen Man, who’d lifted another crewmate into the air, folding him in half like a tablecloth. Nearby, a third Frozen Man appeared, this one bald and bearded. The thing reached up behind the closest crewmate, snapping his neck in one swift turn. Three men surrounded the newcomer, assaulting it with their tools and weapons, but it ignored their blows against its icy, hard skin, tearing them to pieces effortlessly.
“Isaac!” the boy heard Jacob cry as he struggled against the curly-haired Frozen Man. As the thing grabbed him by the neck, lifting him into the air, he choked out three more words. “Run! Save yourself!”
Ignoring the man’s pleas, Isaac rushed at him, wielding his hatchet. He brought the blade down onto the arm holding Jacob in the air, but the metal shattered into pieces, sending painful reverberations traveling back up Isaac’s arms. The Frozen Man batted him away, sending him sprawling into the snow; as he struggled back to his feet, it grabbed Jacob’s face with its other hand, ripping the man’s head cleanly from his body.
Sucking in the freezing air, Isaac hyperventilated as he sprinted across the snow, away from the massacre. He turned his head, squinting his eyes shut as blood splatter turned the snow red, the droplets of pain and fear freezing in the wind and falling down like hailstones. As he fought back tears, he staggered forward, beyond the sounds of the crewmates’ screams.
Isaac wasn’t sure how long he stumbled through the storm before his legs gave out beneath him. He collapsed face-first into the powder, so numb that he barely registered the collision. As the wind shifted direction, a low, hollow moan reached his ears. He slowly raised his head, squinting through the snowflakes at a dark void near him.
“A portal to hell,” he mumbled to himself deliriously. “That explains everything.”
The flurry slowed, and he realized it wasn’t a gate to the underworld at all – it was merely the entrance to a cave, embedded in a nearby hillside. Rejuvenated by the promise of shelter, Isaac dragged himself back to a standing position, shuffling towards the natural structure. As he reached the entrance, he leaned forward, peering into the darkness.
I can’t see a damn thing, he thought to himself. No matter. What’s in here can’t be worse than what’s out there.
He walked inside, his footsteps echoing off the cave walls, haunting his ears like the ghosts of his fallen crewmates. As he moved forward, the echoes tightened, as if the cave had begun to narrow, and he paused, reaching out with his hands to measure the width and height. His palms touched cold stone, and the storm faded once more, allowing sunlight to filter into the cave. As it illuminated the space around him, Isaac gasped.
Ahead sat a pitch-black, ornate coffin made of some kind of stone, its door open to reveal an empty interior riddled with silver spikes. The spikes crackled, arcs of green energy flickering back and forth between them. The entire coffin seemed to hum, its pitch low, its tone steady. As Isaac stared, he felt the hair on his head begin to raise.
As he began to back away from the strange contraption, a figure caught his peripheral vision, and he turned to the cave wall on his left. Screaming, he let go of the cold stone wall.
A wall that wasn’t made of stone at all.
Merely centimeters away stood another Frozen Man, a petrified skeleton in tattered clothes who seemed to be embedded into the side of the cave. More Frozen Men surrounded the first, creating a complex collage of horrific, shriveled bodies. Isaac’s eyes traveled up, then to the right, realizing that he was surrounded by dozens of unmoving figures.
Realization struck him, and he quickly took count.
One hundred and thirty-one, he thought to himself. Plus the three outside. This is what remains of the Franklin expedition.
“What year is it?” a voice crackled from behind, startling him.
Isaac spun around to see a tall man enter the cave, shrugging the snow off his shoulders. He wore stonelike, pitch-black armor, seemingly made of something similar to the coffin on the other side of the cave. The armor was studded with small silver holes, lined up much in the same way as the array of spikes within the coffin. The man’s face, the only exposed part of his body, appeared bleach-white and angular, with thin, red lips and black, beady eyes.
“What year is it?” the man repeated, his voice raspy, as if he hadn’t had a drink of water in a long, long time.
“It’s . . .” Isaac gulped. “It’s 1853, sir.”
“Ah . . .” the man nodded, reaching into a pouch on his armor and retrieving a glass vial full of black, viscous fluid. “About two thousand years, then. No wonder I’m so tired.”
Without another word, he walked over to the nearest petrified expedition member, administering a single drop of the black fluid into their mouth. Moving to the side, he continued this with each body he encountered, murmuring to himself.
“My enemies thought, since they couldn’t kill me, they’d just hide me in this hole forever. Well, forever didn’t last quite as long as they expected, did it? You’ve failed, Bastet.”
“Excuse me,” Isaac interrupted gently. “Who are you, sir? What are you doing to these men?”
The man chuckled, turning to face the boy. Behind him, the Frozen Men began to animate, crackling like dry tree branches as they stiffly ripped themselves from the cave walls. Isaac’s eyes widened in horror, and the man in the armor finally answered his questions.
“I am – was – the ruler of The Underneath. The conqueror of death. The Black Pharaoh. I am Khufu, and I am here to remake The Overhead in my own image.”
Moving with the speed of a striking snake, Khufu lashed out his arm, lifting Isaac into the air by his neck. As the boy opened his mouth, gasping for air like a fish on land, Khufu tilted the glass vial over his face. A drop of the black substance fell from the lip of the vial, landing directly on Isaac’s tongue.
Instantly, he felt his pulse quicken, his heartbeat pounding in his ears. An inexplicable rage filled his chest, and he felt his muscles twitch beneath his skin, as if covered with crawling ants. Khufu dropped him to the floor, and he felt his bones stretch and crackle, turning him into . . . something else. He put his hands to his face, which had begun to stiffen, the skin hardening, and tears leaked from his eyes as he realized what kind of monster he was about to become.
He’d found Sir Franklin, after all. He just wouldn’t be bringing him back.