“This is it.” The sound of scraping snow and quiet panting were the only noises audible. Eristottle, a young blue Kougra, huffed as softly as he could to catch his breath. His exhales rose in mists.
“Yarr, about time. Took forever just to find this stupid cave,” growled Kiba in his sharp Krawk Island dialect. He rolled onto his back and stretched, unclenching great white paws and yawning to expose pointy white teeth.
“Shh.” The two were hushed by a soft, female voice - Artemis, a yellow Eyrie. “Open your eyes and take a look at where we are.”
Above them, enormous icicles hung from the high, expansive ceiling, glinting dimly in the muted light. Outside the mouth of the cavern blew a silent blizzard - flurries of falling snowflakes swirled quickly and absorbed all noise, making Eristottle feel as if he had gone deaf. But now he drank in the sound and sight of his two companions as they tried to quiet their wheezing. An electric shiver tingled down his spine. They were so close now - he could feel it.
The trio rested for twenty minutes, every now and then glancing anxiously at their watches. Artemis preened her resplendent golden feathers - not out of vanity, but because clean feathers meant swifter, more silent flight. Kiba drained his canteen and collapsed in a steadily-breathing heap. Hunched over, Eristottle leafed through his journal and curled his numb, wooden claws around a black ink pen.
10th Day of the Month of Celebrating, 9:31 NST
We have arrived at the mouth of the cave. It is not far from here. Kiba is snoring; Artemis is quick to muffle him with the climbing equipment. My entire body is shaking - I cannot help it. When I tried to refer to my compass, some of my breath fogged up the glass. I tried to wipe it off, but I couldn’t. My breath had already frozen into a layer of ice.
The explorers continued their upwards journey, shouldering their backpacks and using pickaxes to steady themselves as they slipped through the powdery snow. The higher they ascended, the more the cavernous tunnel resembled a mouth. Gentle air currents - not powerful enough to carry an Eyrie’s weight - switched directions constantly as if the cave was breathing. Slowly, to Eristottle’s eye as he trudged along, the dimness of the tunnel ahead turned gradually to the color of white. As they tread closer, they realized exactly what it was - a towering wall of solid snow that reached from floor to ceiling. They had reached a dead end.
“What is this?” Kiba pointed accusingly at the wall as if to blame it for existing. “It’s 9:54! We don’t have time to waste!”
Eristottle dropped his backpack and leaned against it in exhaustion before rifling through a thick wad of crinkled papers. “Calm down, Kiba!” he rebuked. “I’m sure there’s a way somewhere!”
“There must be,” commented Artemis, “For where else would the air currents be coming from?” She unfolded her wings with a loud Fwap! and started to glide slowly about the cylindrical enclosure. Beneath her, the two Kougras cringed.
“Does she have to be so loud?” whispered Kiba frantically. "She might wake the--"
“I found it!” Artemis executed a graceful backflip and landed lighted in front of her companions. “There’s a tunnel,” she whispered, her voice rushed with excitement. “It’s between two icicles. It’s small - I almost missed it, so we’ll have to go up one by one. There was another tunnel too; it was massive, Kiko Lake could easily fit into it, but the currents were too powerful. If we got caught in that, we would easily be crushed.”
Eristottle pulled on his rope, again, to ensure tightness. As Artemis took off, flapping frantically, he looked down and was alarmed to see the ground looking increasingly smaller. He took steadying breaths and put his faith in Artemis, who was suddenly as magnificent and beautiful as Fyora herself, and the rope, oh sweet, sweet rope. Next to him, an agitated Kiba had glued his eyes shut to avoid watching his dangling feet.
The three reached the tunnel and wormed their way up the slanting slope on scraped elbows and shaking knees. The snow in the tunnel looked blue in the shadows and glinted like jewels.
You know what? thought Eristottle to himself. After this adventure, I’m taking a break. Somewhere far from snow. The beach at Mystery Island sounds good. Maybe I’ll spend a few weeks with my owner- I’ll help her restock or something. Any more expeditions like this and I’m going to end up crazy- or dead. Either way is not such an appealing prospect.
Slowly the blue of the ice crystals lightened and a light could be seen at the end of the tunnel. As the explorers emerged with snow dusting their eyelashes and armpits sweating inside their jackets, they stopped short.
“Sloth’s Knuckle Hairs...” swore Kiba in awe.
Eristottle’s jaw slackened to release a white plume of breath. Not one hundred feet away from them lay a massive worm of ice, coiled around a towering mountain of splendid, rainbow-colored treasure.
10th Day of the Month of Celebrating, 10:19 NST
We’re here, finally in sight of the Snowager! It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen: It’s at least fifty feet tall, and its body is so smooth, as smooth as glass! We’re a fair distance away from it, as I write this. I plan to have this journal- and some other of our supplies like food (we won’t need that now), dropped down the tunnel. That way, if I, or we, don’t come back, this might serve as a warning or record for posterity, or those to come.
“It’s magnificent,” breathed Artemis. Now as they were nearing the giant worm, they dared not talk any louder than the faintest of whispers.
“I know, mate,” sighed Kiba. “That’s the shiniest Sword of Skardsen I have ever laid eye on.” He was glared at.
They were hunched behind a giant crystal of glinting ice that shown rainbow patterns on the crunchy snow. Crunchy. That was the problem. In order to avoid any noise whatsoever, they decided to be flown over by Artemis, and to grab some treasure, together, as they all wanted something for show. Now they were busy shedding all of their unnecessary equipment and baggage, and roping up again.
“I think I know what that tunnel was,” whispered the yellow eyrie as she yanked on the knot around her waist. “I think it was made by the Snowager when it first slithered into this cave.”
“Can’t be,” hissed Kiba. “That tunnel was just big enough for us, remember? Last time I checked, I hadn’t gained 500 pounds. That worm is huge.”
“Maybe it entered this cave as a baby and never left,” mused Eristottle. “Funny, I wonder what it eats.”
There was silence.
“That may be good n’ all, lassie,” murmured Kiba, ignoring Eristottle. “But that still leaves one question. You remember you said there were two tunnels? One with a wind current so powerful it could crush us?”
“Yes,” said Artemis. “The current was obviously air pressure. But one strange thing I noticed about that tunnel was that it had immense ring marks along the edges, like it had been created by some monstrous worm, bigger than the Snowager’s girth by far. Its mother, maybe?”
Kiba gave his knot one, final pull. “That’s ridiculous. A worm that big would leave remains. If it’s not alive, then its body should be somewhere around here, right?”
“No,” said Artemis. “Those worms are made of ice. If they died, they could easily melt, or be crushed into snow, leaving no trace.”
Golden feathers fluttered silently in the stinging air. Three silhouettes dropped deftly to the snow below and crouched behind an ice crystal. Eristottle’s heartbeat was beating so loud against his ribcage, he feared that the Snowager would hear it.
Up close, the giant worm was even more impressive. With his keen eyes Eristottle cold see that the Snowager wasn’t entirely smooth-in fact, its body was covered with flakes of ice- scales. He sensed it breathing in rhythm, apparently in deep sleep. It was 10:34- the time was perfect. The three flitted like shadows until they could feel the cold emanating from the Snowager’s body. They slowed. Eristottle held his breath. Looking up, he thought the serpent-like head seemed as far away as the sky.
Slowly, he reached for an exquisite negg, and his claws curled around it. A bead of sweat formed on his brow. The treasure’s brightness was overwhelming- dripping paintbrushes, magical swirling potions, irreplaceable faerie treasures! He was terrified, but at the same time he wanted to take everything in this wonderful hoard of unbuyables- everything! He gently pried the negg from the wall of glittering items, and withdrew it. He dared not breath.
Eristottle’s heart turned to stone. Items were slipping, shifting to fill the gap that the beautiful negg had left. And more, and more starting falling until the giant mound resonated with the sound of pebbles clattering down a sandy slope when the waves draw them to sea. Looking desperately to his companions, he saw they had the same problem too as they froze guiltily clutching their prizes- Kiba with his sword, and Artemis with an ancient book.
And then, the serpent twitched. Eristottle’s blood froze in terror as a horrendous head, with wintry gales escaping from its nostrils raised itself to peer at them. Eristottle felt he could not move- his joints and muscles acted as if they had turned to stone.
The monster opened its cavernous mouth and gave an ear-splitting roar.
“That was a fantastic story, Misty. Class, I want you all to follow Misty’s example and write using your imaginations.” A Christmas Uni stood in front of the chalkboard.
“Yes, Miss Apple,” echoed the class.
“Now Misty,” said Miss Apple, clomping her front hooves together in delight. “I want you to tell us what inspired you to write this splendid story.”
An Usul with light blue eyes adjusted her large pink bow at the front of the classroom.
“Well,” she said, “When my owner took my family to the Ice Caves for vacation, they had this book on for sale at the Ice Crystal Shop.” She fingered a thick, musty, leather-bound book. “I thought that was weird- I mean, a book at an Ice Crystal shop? Turns out it was a diary kept by some explorer, found accidentally a while ago by some Poogles when they were building snow forts. So I begged my owner to buy it, and she said yes, and I found it incredibly interesting. It’s stuffed full of love letters, like this one here.” She flipped open the heavy volume and leafed to a certain page. “’My dear Petunia’,” she read, “ ‘I cannot wait until our paws can join beneath the intrepid moonlight once more.’” The shut it close as the class tittered in giggles.
“Its initials are S.B. Eristottle Klark,” observed the teacher, peering over the Usul’s tiny shoulder to read the black lettered inscription. “Well, that’s certainly interesting. I wonder what happened to Mr. Klark.”
“Yes, me too.” The Usul smiled. “Me, too.”