For days, a snowstorm seemed to be waiting just over the horizon. As they drove deeper into the Silent World, the clouds overhead gathered and thickened, heavy and dark, and as the wind picked up and the temperature dropped, they started to find themselves truly alone. No beasts, no animals, nothing but a crisp emptiness around them as the height of winter settled in.
Lalli prioritized camping locations that could support them for a multi-night stay, if it came to that. Easy to defend, easy to shovel out, and isolated from trees and other structures that may fall over in a storm, or worse, provide a habitat for any desperate beasts or trolls trying to get out of the weather. Every night, the team huddled under their blankets and listened to the sound of the wind howling against the tank. Every morning, they woke to find that the snow hadn’t started falling yet, and had to debate the merits of forging onward or waiting, in case that was the day that the skies finally opened up.
That morning, it’d seemed impossible to Tuuri that the snow hadn’t started yet, but after assessing the sky and the cluster of buildings off in the distance, Sigrun gave the orders to head out as normal.
“Mikkel and Lalli with me. It looks like a quick in-and-out job, so we’ll only need a few hours, not the entire day. We’re going to find ourselves under a pile of snow soon enough, but if we’re quick about it we’ll be done before it starts. Just in case, you—” she pointed directly at Tuuri as she said it—“drive the tank back here as soon as you drop us off and get settled in for the weather.”
Their target was one of a chain of bookstores, with a large storage space in the basement if their research was accurate. It wasn’t a particularly long drive, but the morning was painfully cold and windy, and the clouds seemed to darken as they approached the remnants of the town. Still, Mikkel and Lalli disembarked from the tank without a second thought, and Sigrun only paused in the doorway for a moment.
“Go back to the campsite. Stay there and stay put. If the snow starts, we might be delayed getting back, but it’s more important that camp stay fortified.”
“Will do, boss!” Emil said with a quick salute; Sigrun repeated it back at him cheekily and jumped off the tank. Outside, Lalli was staring at the clouds above his head, long enough that the doubt settled in Tuuri’s stomach.
“Maybe this is a bad idea,” she said, drumming her hands on the steering wheel. “Lalli looks like he’s hesitating…”
But as soon as she’d said it, Lalli turned to join Sigrun and Mikkel at the front of the building. Emil craned his neck after them, his hands on the dashboard as he debated, but finally shook his head.
“He looks fine. Anyway, you heard Sigrun, let’s fire this thing up and head back.”
By the time they’d gotten back to the campsite, the first snowflakes had started to fall.
In an honestly surprising show of competent research and the benefits of maintaining record-keeping from the Old World, the store was as good a cache of books as the map promised. The conditions in the basement would be almost ideal. While there was a large glass façade ringing the first floor, where moisture had penetrated enough to write off the books on display on the moldering shelves, the basement was made of poured concrete and completely enclosed, accessible only by a set of stairs behind a locked metal door. Of course, the main issue was their relative vulnerability below-ground.
“We’re not stepping foot in that staircase until we clear this place for nests,” Sigrun said to Mikkel; Lalli might not have been able to understand her words, but based on the way he was eying the corners of the ceilings, he understood the sentiment. “Only one exit and no natural light spells death trap if we assume there’s nothing’s down there waiting for us.”
There had been signs of various occupants over the years on the ground floor, although all the signs seemed to indicate that they had come and gone. A colony of moss and a suspicious splatter spilling over the railings on the second floor gave them pause, but Lalli scurried up the stairs and back almost soundlessly to clear the second level with a shake of his head at Sigrun.
“Good work, little guy,” she said, beaming a thumbs up at him. “Well, the structure is pretty sound and it doesn’t look like we have any company now. But with a building this large and secure, there’s always the risk of a few stragglers coming in out of the cold, especially with the weather as it has been. We go in, we grab what you book nerds want to look at, and we get back before the snow starts to accumulate.”
Mikkel hummed in agreement, tugging the door open to the basement below, and waited. The air smelled stale, which was a good sign; little air flow in and out, and unlikely to have any cracks that would allow something to slip in from the outside. Sigrun grabbed his shoulder before he could take his first step down the stairs.
“Hey, Lalli,” she said; Lalli turned to watch her hand motions as she spoke. “Stay up here—” a hand out to stop him from moving forward, then a finger pointed down to the floor at their feet— “and watch our backs.” Two fingers pointing first to her eyes, then out to the rest of the room.
Lalli nodded, then immediately turned his back to them and sat on the floor, looking out into the open room. He looked tired, which wasn’t too surprising; he was essentially pulling double duty, scouting at night and accompanying the team for support during the day. Mikkel felt a familiar sense of guilt, and resolved to suggest that he stay at the tank tomorrow, if the team was even able to go out at all.
Sigrun turned back to the dark staircase in front of them, hefting her lantern with a sense of satisfaction. “We have a pretty good dynamic going, the two of us,” she said, heading down first to light the bare steps for what was likely the first time in almost a hundred years. “The whole Finnish thing isn’t even a problem.”
Mikkel followed her, one hand trailing on the wall to his right for balance. They had reached a landing halfway down when he heard a noise from behind him; turning back, he saw Lalli silhouetted in the doorway at the same time that his hand brushed against something moving on the wall. He physically recoiled, stepping back on instinct—and realizing with a sickening lurch in his stomach that there was no room to step. He lost the fight to keep his balance. Sigrun reached for him a second too late; he dropped out of the shaky circle of light from the lantern and fell down several stairs into the darkness below.
His ankle twisted underneath him as he landed, hard and at the wrong angle, on his hands and knees. Despite the throbbing in his ankle, he instinctively clamped down on any noise, frozen in place, scarcely seeming to breathe.
There was a damp, slithering noise in front of him, as if the entire room was breathing back at him.
It couldn’t be long after noon, though it felt a lot later than that. The snow carpeted everything in a monotone gray that almost perfectly blended in with the sky. Tuuri knew that they could reasonably still expect Lalli and the others to stay out for at least a few hours more, while it was still technically daylight. Lalli had worked plenty of assignments during snowstorms before, and when hunting trolls, Sigrun’s team surely wouldn’t return from a hunt early just because of the weather. Collecting books was easier than that. It was indoors, and as long as they didn’t stumble into a nest, there was little risk involved. So it was silly to wonder why they weren’t back at the tank yet.
Still, she caught herself fiddling with the highbeams on the tank for what was probably the sixth time. Reynir smiled next to her in the front seat.
“That’ll be nice,” he said cheerfully, as if he hadn’t said it twice already. “They should be able to see that even in this storm.”
She put both hands on the steering wheel, then after a moment of thought shifted them to her lap instead, to be less tempted. It wasn’t even a huge storm yet. “You didn’t hear anything, did you?” she couldn’t help but ask him.
He frowned, scrunching up his eyes in a way that looked more like he was trying to induce a headache than trying to reach out to the others. “No, sorry,” he said, eyes still closed. “I think it only works if I’m asleep. Or if Lalli is also asleep? Sorry.”
Emil appeared in the doorway at the sound of Lalli’s name, his hair slightly ruffled and Kitty meowing encouragingly in his hands. “Lalli? You didn’t see them coming, did you?”
Tuuri shook her head. Reynir’s face drew tighter together, as if he could will himself into unconsciousness— or a headache, more likely. “He’s trying to reach out to Lalli,” she explained, making a vague gesture from her temple to illustrate thoughts flowing out. “You know, through a dream.”
Emil snorted doubtfully, and shook his head. “Tsk, poor Reynir,” he said, his eyes kind and helpfully condescending, like an adult disabusing a child of a fantasy. “He just doesn’t get it. We may all have dreams about Lalli, but that doesn’t mean we’re actually talking to him. Go on, tell him I said that.”
“Emil says you should keep trying,” Tuuri said after a second, as Emil nodded encouragingly behind her.
“That didn’t go as well as I’d hoped,” Mikkel said. His voice dropped dangerously close to a grunt mid-sentence as they staggered over the uneven remains of the carpet on the first floor, but he thought he recovered fairly well. “I was aiming to break my neck.”
“The day is still young,” Sigrun said from under his left shoulder, supporting more of his weight than he wanted to admit; reluctantly, he still trailed his right hand along the wall for balance. They’d barricaded the door to the staircase, but once bitten, twice shy. Lalli watched them maneuver with what he liked to imagine was silent concern, occasionally pushing debris out of the way to make the path easier for them. “You’ll have to deal with a broken ankle as your consolation prize.”
“It’s a sprain,” he insisted. “I can make it back to the tank.”
Sigrun threw a pointed glance out the windows, where the snow was falling so heavily that it was already blocking half of the view.
“You’re joking, right? Not with the snow coming down like this. We can barely see a meter in front of us. At the rate you’re moving, we’ll freeze in the middle of the street on the way back.”
“Or trip over a pothole. I’d get a second shot at my neck,” he agreed. “But at this rate, the storm could last past nightfall. And that thing is still waiting in--”
“Then we wait for tomorrow,” she interrupted him, scanning the room above the clutter. She and Lalli really had developed some unspoken conversation skills, or at least they both instinctively knew what to look for when facing the possibility of remaining on top of a nest overnight. Lalli lead the two of them to a defensible corner, far enough away from the windows that the radiating cold seemed to subside somewhat. The wall was still in one piece, and there were no damp spots anywhere from the ceiling to the broken floor tiles. They could also keep an eye on the snow piling up against one of the windows, and had a clear enough view of the staircase, innocently barricaded on the other side of the room, that they would know if they got any company.
Lalli was already squatting on the floor, eying him with that intense gaze of his, before closing his eyes and murmuring something rhythmic and lengthy in Finnish under his breath.
“D’you think he’s working some magic?” Sigrun asked quietly, helping Mikkel sit down without putting too much weight on his ankle. “Because I wouldn’t mind if he can keep that thing asleep in the basement.”
Mikkel wouldn’t mind that either, but Lalli’s voice had already petered out, his forehead braced against his knees. “I think he’s trying to get some sleep himself,” Mikkel said after a second. It was hard to tell with Lalli, but it was safe to assume he was sleeping whenever he could get the chance. “Let him. I can take first watch.”
Sigrun snorted. “What are you going to do if something shows up, trip over it?” Still, she turned her back to the room to look through his pack of medical supplies.
Neither of them could help but look over her shoulder, however. It was going to be a long night.
The sun might have been up somewhere, but the clouds obscured it so thoroughly that it looked like the middle of the night; though they’d left the headlights on, they illuminated nothing but indistinguishable lumps in the carpet of snow around them. The snow continued to fall.
“Please, please try to reach him,” Tuuri said, taking Reynir by the shoulders— practically shaking him. She looked about five seconds from knocking him out to get him unconscious, so he hurriedly held up his hands for peace and squeezed his eyes shut.
It was quiet in the tank, with nothing but the sound of the wind, the rhythmic swipe of the windshield wipers, and Emil’s quiet pacing to distract from the silence. It took him a second to notice when those background noises had faded away. When he opened his eyes, he was in the middle of a grassy field, a few cheery, light snowflakes coming down in the distance. He whooped in success, then took off running towards the surroundings, over the writhing, dark disturbances in the water, calling Lalli’s name every ten seconds.
Lalli emerged out of the empty ocean landscape so suddenly that Reynir nearly tripped over himself trying to avoid crashing into him. “Shut up. You’re attracting all sorts of attention.”
“Oh, good, you’re alive!” Reynir said. He threw his head back and raised his voice loud, trying to push the words out to his conscious self. “Hey, Tuur—mmmphh!”
Lalli clamped a hand over his mouth, eyes narrowed beneath the hood of his uniform. “Shut up.”
One of the shadows in the water tensed and tightened. Reynir nodded and tried his best to look innocent. After a moment, the shadows stilled, losing interest, and Lalli pulled his hand away.
“Tell Tuuri we’re not coming back tonight,” he said, rubbing his arm and watching the shapes in the water.
“Huh?” That was so different from what Reynir expected to hear that it took him a second to process it. “But it’s started snowing already, you’re really going to have to hurr--”
“Mikkel’s hurt and can’t walk. We’ll leave when the storm stops.”
“What?” Reynir said, a little too loudly, and hurriedly dropped his voice at Lalli’s glare. “No? Sorry! If Mikkel is hurt, we definitely have to come and get you.”
The shadows around them bristled.
“No,” Lalli huffed. “Just wake up and tell the others not to wait for us.”
Lalli reached over and pinched his arm.
“Ow! Okay, okay, I’m awake!”
He was awake. Emil was looking at him like… well, he never knew what Emil was looking at him like. Tuuri looked a little more hopeful. In fact, she looked like she was trying to avoid grabbing him again, with the way she kept twisting her hands in front of her.
“You were asleep, weren’t you! Did you find them? Are they okay?”
“Yes!” Reynir said triumphantly, then deflated. “I mean, yes, I found them. They’re not actually okay. It’s… actually pretty bad. Mikkel can’t walk so they’re staying in the city for the night, but... Lalli didn't say anything, but I think there might be something there with them.”
Tuuri’s hands had dropped, and she stared at him long enough that he opened his mouth to apologize again. Before he could say it, she nodded and sat back in the driver’s seat, elbows propped up on the dashboard.
She repeated what Reynir had said to Emil in a monotone, who was looking more and more concerned as he heard it all.
“…But Lalli’s been in situations like this before, and he knows how to survive if he’s stuck out there somewhere. And Sigrun must know what to do, too. If they think it’s better to wait, we can’t really talk them out of it.”
Emil’s hands progressively crept up into his hair until she was certain that he would tug it all out. “Wait?! They’re out there in the middle of the night—”
“It’s probably closer to 4 pm, actually—”
“—and Mikkel can’t walk, and they just want us to wait?! They don’t even have any firepower!”
“Well, hopefully they’re not using firepower. They can’t really afford to draw attention to themselves…”
“That’s not the point!” Emil said, slamming his hands on the dashboard. “As senior member of this crew, I propose we go after them!”
“Wait, why are you senior member?” Tuuri asked, momentarily distracted. “I’m older than you.”
“Because,” he explained, the patient tone of voice undermined by the thread of panic still working its way through his vowels, “I’m immune, so I outrank you, now let’s go!”
“Sigrun said to stay put,” Tuuri said, though she turned to eye the view out the window one more time. She thought of Lalli and the others, cornered in a building somewhere with mounds of snow blocking the exits and beasts circling in the dark— and Mikkel trying to limp back the next day, through the blocked-off streets, easy picking for anything that warmed up enough to go after him. “But she didn’t expect… we can drive in the snow, if we make our move fast. If we wait much longer, it’ll be too high for us to drive on it, but if we hurry—”
“Exactly!” Emil said, voice triumphant despite it all. “Now, onward!”
“Hold onto something, Reynir,” Tuuri said, adjusting the mirror and leaning forward to face down the gloom.
“Oh, good,” Reynir said, bracing himself against the side of the tank. “I knew we weren’t going to leave them behind.”
It was quiet in their little corner, which was a good thing. A bit cold, but that could only be expected, given the extent of the wind and the snow outside. The most important thing was that they could settle there for the duration of the storm.
Sigrun hadn’t done half bad at binding his ankle. It was something he could have managed on his own, but Sigrun waved him off when she finally dug out the bandages. “I had to do this a few times in the field,” she’d said. “I mean, most of them were also bleeding, and we were still being attacked by giants when it happened, so this isn’t hard at all.”
He snorted, tentatively flexing his ankle. “And then your team hiked 15 miles uphill in the snow on their broken ankles, right?”
“You only sprained it, dummy,” Sigrun settled back next to him, nudging his good leg with an elbow. “And besides, they’re professionals. I’ll cut you some slack this time. Both of you— looks like the mage really is ready to pass out whenever he gets a chance.”
Lalli did appear to be asleep, once he glanced over. Mikkel smiled. “He needs it more than the rest of us. Let him get some rest.”
“Yeah. Speaking of, you should doze off while you’re at it. I can take a pretty long watch, but I don’t want you falling asleep in the middle of yours.”
“I’ve done watch before,” he said mildly, though he closed his eyes as if to take her up on the offer-order. “Not a single beast has ever snuck onto the Madsen farm, thanks to me.”
“Ha, sure. Your farm’s entirely in the safe zones.”
It was. Luckily for the Madsen family, the entire farm was confined on Bernhold; they hadn’t even been impacted during the last outbreak scare. “Yep.”
“That’s fine. Big guy like you, you could probably scare the little ones off just by glaring at them, if you didn’t go and injure yourself first.”
“I did it on purpose so I could make you take the first watch,” he said, relaxing a little more against the wall. He tensed up again almost immediately as Sigrun laughed and slapped his shoulder.
“You’re not bad, for a clumsy amateur.”
There was a muffled thudding noise, distinct enough from the background noise of the storm that he opened his eyes. Sigrun was already scanning the room, her eyes trained on the barricaded basement door.
“It doesn’t sound close,” she said, but her hand was still on her knife, just in case. “But it could be—”
A second thump, a little louder now. Sigrun was on her feet, holding out one hand to signal for him to stay down and quiet. He didn’t have much choice as far as the former was concerned, but waited anyway, one hand slowly reaching for a knife of his own.
Next to him, Lalli opened his too-bright eyes and said “Tuuri.”
Then, with a huge crash, the tank burst through the storefront.
“Sorry!” Tuuri called, audible even through the windshield. The ambient noise of the storm outside was quite a bit louder, now that the outside was also inside. Snow was already piling up on the carpet from where it was blown in by the wind.
Sigrun was on her feet, gesturing alarmingly with the knife. “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?!” she shouted. “You do not leave camp!”
Emil jumped out of the tank, laid eyes on Lalli, who was crouching calmly on the ground, and visibly relaxed.
“We made a decision, sir,” Emil said, in a voice like he was trying to assume command. Behind him, Tuuri was still issuing a steady stream of apologies, which took away from the total effect. “We left while we could still drive on the roads.”
“—though it’s a lot harder to see through a snowstorm than we thought,” Tuuri admitted, and the numerous scuffmarks on the front of the tank seemed to corroborate this. Reynir raised his head from the seat behind her, looking slightly frazzled, though happy to see that the others were in one piece. “But we couldn’t leave you out here,” Tuuri finished, her voice growing firmer and more confident as she finished. "First rule is stick together."
Sigrun turned her face up towards the sky with a groan of frustration. “Mutineers! A team full of mutineers! I’m keeping my eye on you, fuzzhead,” she said, jabbing a finger at the driver’s side window. “Get the big guy in the tank so we can get out of here and I can yell at you some more.”
“Yes sir!” Emil said, shooting Lalli a grin as the two of them helped Mikkel get to his feet.