The bite of Winter in Luaberhorn could chew through even the most defiant coats and base layers. Even a prepared skier, all masked up and bold, would become acutely aware of every crack, every flaw in their clothing. Today was especially cold, especially punishing to those that did not prepare, as if the Luaberhorn wasn't brutal enough without artic temperatures and beating snowfall. Still, John Strone made the climb to the summit. No challenge was too great for him, no demand too obscene, and when he had gotten word that the mountain would be closed off to skiers for a month because of a particularly harsh winter, he bought his plane ticket to Sweden immediately. His thirst for adventure had been insatiable lately, and even after thousands of dollars spent on every sort of danger the world could offer; he had not had enough. Perhaps he needed to prove something to himself, or perhaps he had grown sick of the safety found in his office-job routine. Perhaps he wanted to die, to go out in a blaze of glory, screaming towards destructing with a fire in his belly. Whatever logic he used to justify his rash behavior, he was here, in Luaberhorn, Sweden, climbing a dangerous ski slope on the month that it was closed for being even more of what it already was: a death trap.
He looked back, looked down, seeing past a dozen warning signs, past the three layers of caution tape that he crossed over, and onto the world beyond the mountain. The view was breath taking, so pure and quiet in this land bathed in snowfall. Countless trees flanked the steep, swooping ski slope, a forest of endless wonder blanketed in heavy snow. The trees seemed to sigh against the weight that the grey sky disgorged upon them, moaning a quiet defiance as the snow drew their swooping branches downward. Little lights were farther away, still visible as dawn slowly peaked over the mountainous landscape. The world would be waking up soon, he thought, and that world would go on about it's boring little life while he was up here.
How many people, he wondered, would trudge to their cubicles and slog through their traffic as he climbed to the top? How many people would dredge through the mundane slog of existence while he was here? They were merely alive, he thought, merely alive while he was truly living. Upward he climbed.
The mountain had been unforgiving, just as he had hoped it would be, defiant to his every step as the snowfall picked up and the packed ground grew looser. Every step was a labor all its own, and his muscles, all bound tight, ached against the never-ending drive forward. His body had grown hard through years of pursuing these kinds of adventures and all the prep work needed to ensure that he didn't look like an absolute fool while doing them. He had long sense lost track of the mountains climbed, the sharks swam with, and the planes leapt from. He had long sense lost track of the countless hours he had spent in gyms and with trainers to ensure that his body was ready for whatever challenge he could dream of next. Perhaps it was all the swimming with sharks and planes jumped from that brought him to this mountain on this day. All those other adventures had been spent safely nestled behind the guidelines of countless safety regulations and red tape. An instructor was with him during every jump, swim, hike, climb, and run. Every time, he was bound by meager rules of caution, made to stand beside men who had let the adrenaline rush fade into some sort of mundanity of their own life, as if their adventure had stopped as soon as they started getting a wage for it. Here, there was no safety net to catch him, or coach to drag him along if he fell. Here, he was free to experience danger unabridged and bask in the glory of a victory he gained unaided.
He could have sworn he heard the beat of a helicopter's rotor above him, probably the local police making sure no one was doing exactly what he was doing, but he hung tight to the tree-line and was sure he was invisible to them. He made sure to account for potential resistance, wearing all white from head to toe. Were he to be spotted, or even potentially spotted, he could just lay down and become one with the bleached ground. He had heard rumors of some rather unpleasant animals roaming around the mountain since the regular ski traffic had been gone for a while, but that only added to his heightened sense of ecstasy. It was a rapturous thing to think that he could ski beside wolves and bears. He could live unhindered like they do, if only for a few minutes.
He was almost at the top now, or at least as high as he would need to go. Hours of hiking before dawn had granted him a path to a plateau that offered a commanding view of the mountain below him. Unforgiving wind was assailing him as he stood atop the break in the trees, and he could see why the local authorities would want this place closed off to anyone less bold than he. He would fall, he was sure of it, the wind was bending him over even now. That inevitable fall wouldn't be a band one, he was sure of it. None of the falls and slips he had encountered before had been damning, so why would this one be any different? Sure, all those other falls had been accounted for in the safety regulations of whatever organization he was adventuring with, but this snow was no different than any other and neither was this danger. Risk was risk, no matter how well prepared for, at least, that is what he told himself as he drank in the cold, morning air.
He clipped his snow boots into their slots in the skis, made sure that his pack was tightly bound to his body, and tested his legs against the fury of the wind and snow. Had the weather worsened in the last few moments? No, he was just free of the tree-cover. He would be fine once he was on the slope, once the trees were all around him again. He leaned over the steep drop off that would carry his momentum to the bottom and breathed in the adrenaline that was coursing through his veins. He lived for this moment, these few seconds before he took off all the safety constraints and poured himself into an experience that could very well be his last. He could die like this, he knew it. His fall could be a bad one, his legs could break and he would be lost. He could slip off the trail and into the forest, slamming hard into anything in his path. All the little lights in the village below would stay on and his could go out forever. He felt it, drank it down, and let the fear pass. It was time to make the jump.
With knees bent and head bowed, he slipped over the edge and let gravity take him into a state not so far removed from freefall. The wind ripped and tore at him as he lost himself to the rapture of adrenaline and speed, careening down the mountainside; totally out of control. The world grew cold and blurry as he gained speed, the wind pulling him more into its clutches with every passing second. He could see the first turn, and he leaned to one side, braking into the snow and kicking up a cloud of it all around him. The next turn was sharper, with a steeper drop off as a punishment for those who failed to take it. He slid again, this time barely able to hold himself up against the furious gusts that beat against him. Still, he held firm. The slope was steep here, making the speed he gained before pale in comparison. It was terrifying and beautiful, to be so out of control.
Then, some new path appeared before him. It was like gold in a labyrinth, so beautiful and tempting. There was a perfect opening in the trees, and clear snow between them. He slanted hard, sliding into the opening and whipping into the tree line. Old evergreens whipped past him at blinding speed, and he could feel the crack of limbs as he brushed through them. His heart was racing, his eyes so sharp as everything came into the perfect focus of adrenalin. The world moved slow around him as he zoomed down the mountain, and he could see everything. There was some other movement beside him, deeper within the forest. It was fast, keeping pace with him; it seemed. The form was low, hugging the ground, and he could make out legs churning up the snow. This was it! He was skiing with wolves! It was an incredible creature, so purposeful and sleek in its motion. It was so free, free like he was to run from the constraints of a society that was not made for him. Then the form changed. It was different, if only subtly so. It shifted direction without losing speed, then again, then again. He had never imagined a wolf to be able to move like that, never in all his life; yet there it was.
His gaze had been transfixed too long, but when he returned his focus to the forest in front of him, it was far too late to change his course. Rocks jutted up from the ground, reaching up at him from beneath the snow. One caught his left ski, then another, then another. He was airborne, completely at the mercy of gravity and his own momentum. The hard ground greeted him when he landed, and he tumbled hard against it. His speed was slammed to a halt as he crashed into a tree, then the world went dark around him.
When his eyes fluttered open, night had fallen hard onto the mountain. He could taste dried blood in his mouth and feel it on his face. He attempted to stand, but a searing pain in his leg brought him back down. His leg was broken, dear god his leg was shattered. He could feel fresh blood running down it as his motion upset whatever wound was underneath his cloths. Were it not for the heavy snow that had landed on him, he thought, he surly would have died of hypothermia by now. He looked around, careful not to move his useless leg, and tried to gain some sort of bearing on how far from the bottom he was. He could see nothing but forest in every direction. Nothing but a blood trail. A blood trail? It was spotty in some places, partially covered by fresh snow, but the heat had kept it from being lost completely. A horrible realization laid on him: he had been drug here. Yet, what would drag him? Where was he? He rolled over, he had to check his leg.
Blood had seeped through his pants and was frozen on the outside of his gear. If even a little of the cloth had been torn then his leg would be frostbitten for sure. It seemed that there were no tears, no breaks in the fabric. That was good. He paused, he had to assess. He had fallen from the skis, but even though he was clipped in they were nowhere to be seen. Even though he had been drug through the snow, he could see no rips or breaks in the fabric of his clothing. His leg was destroyed, that was sure, but if it was the wolf that found him then he would be dead by now. He hadn't strayed very far from the trail, so if he followed the blood back then he could find the clearing that formed the path down the mountain. Yes, that was it! If he got to the clearing between the trees he could fire the flare gun in his pack and the helicopter would pick him up. Sure, there would be hell to pay once he got back to civilization, but that was the least of his worries right now. He had to survive. His pack. Where had his pack gone? None of his gear was still on him. No backpack, no extra clothing, no food. Everything he had brought with him for just this occasion was nowhere to be seen. Why? Why the blood trail? Where was his gear? His mind became frantic, his thoughts a jumble of unanswerable questions. Fear took hold of him, as if all the adrenaline seeking he had done to get himself here meant nothing. His usual calm was broken by panic, and he screamed. He screamed loud and hard into the night. The echo drifted, waned, and then vanished into the snow-covered landscape. Then something else screamed back. Shrill and loud, some voice that was the very essence of anger cried out into the darkness around him, encircled him. Then it too was gone, lost in the muted white snow-scape that surrounded him and the whole world was silent.
John was sobbing now, quietly gasping for breath as he tried to drag his broken body from its would-be tomb, every tendon raging against each little push and pull. His adrenalin was extinguished, all spent out from the bliss that had turned into a nightmare, and now there was nothing to push back the searing pain that shot through every nerve in his body as his ruined leg lay limp behind him. Still, he had to move. There was no time. The wolves would get him, or the cold, or the hunger that would eventually settle upon him like the snow already had. He reached out in front of him, pulling on roots and rocks and anything that he could use to drag his body forward. The blood trail winded and snaked through the evergreens, meandering out of sight and into the darkness beyond his field of vision. His ribs ached, and he could only assume that they too were broken. The forest took on a void-like quality, and he wondered if this stillness was what the night sky above sounded like. All that broke the silence was the soft drag of his body against the snow and the weak moans that spilled from his lips when his leg brushed up against anything.
Onward he crawled, and with every moment that passed he became aware of just how much blood he had lost. Dear God, was all this his blood? It was everywhere, going on forever. No, not forever. No, he couldn't think like that. He was moving slowly, that's all it was. The trail looked much longer than it was because it was so dark. Nothing drug him, either. He must have drug himself, must have tried to crawl to safety while he was disoriented, then he lost consciousness along the way and that was why he couldn't remember. Yes, that had to be it, he rationalized. The wolves would have eaten him, they would have smelled the blood and eaten him. That screaming from before was just a figment of his tired mind. Just an imagining, a waking nightmare. Yes, that was it. That had to be it. Nothing else made sense. Then he heard another sound penetrating the darkens around him. His body would shift, he would slide and moan, then the patter of little feet would stir the snow around him. The pitter patter would never go on for much longer that the sound of his body writhing against the snow. Drag. Tap-tap-tap. Drag. Tap-tap-tap. Onward the little feet pattered.
"Hello?" His voice was weak, shaking. "Hello, is anyone there?" It was a little fox, that's all, he thought. Just a little forest animal that wanted to see what all the commotion was about. That's all. That's the only thing it could be, right? Whatever it was moved in the darkness somewhere, just out of view. Then there was a bigger sound, the sound of trees shaking. There it was! Just to the left of him, an evergreen shuddered against some new weight bearing suddenly down against it, then snow fell loose from the branches in clods, smacking into the ground nearby.
"Hello!" He was frantic, stuttering out the word without any strength left in his words. He pulled himself faster, willed his body to fight through the pain and move. He had to move. Like a wounded soldier crawling through the mud of some far-flung battlefield, he slugged forward through the forest. Behind him, he could see his leg was bleeding through his pants again, leaking with a resolve to leave him. He could feel sleep pulling at him, slithering up his body. He had to move, had to find his pack. It had to be here, it just had to be around here somewhere. There was food in his pack, and a little lantern. He could light a fire and launch his flare and then he would be safe, he just had to find that god damned backpack.
Another tree shuddered ahead of him, once again just barely inside his view. The snow fell hard against the ground. He was not alone. It was not his imagination. He was being followed. Hunted.
"Show yourself!" He called out weakly into the darkness. Then came the scream again, hard and mean and shrill. It was an evil sound, a horrid cry from something that was so far from the natural. It was close, so very close now, yet he could not see it. The canopy of night swallowed the tops of the trees, and that is where the pursuer resided. Onward he crawled, no longer fighting down his sobs and cries as his leg seemed to hang heavier and heavier off him.
The silence around him drug on and on. He had to have been going for an hour now. Jesus, how deep into the woods had he been pulled. That's when he heard it. A low, mechanical growl from somewhere distant. An engine! It was the engine of a jeep!
"Help! Help me!" He screamed into the shadowy world around him. "I'm here!" He cried, over and over again, he cried.
"Hello?" a faint voice called back, it was still so very far away.
"I'm here! Please, help me! I'm hurt!" He could see the headlights in the distance now, only a few dozen yards ahead! He could hear the Jeep's engine churning into the night.
"This is the police! Where are you!" It was a different voice, some other person. A pair of flashlights cut up the darkness with the sharp glow of daytime, their glimmer reflecting like diamonds off the snow that lazily fell before them.
"I'm here! I'm in front of you! Please, please help me!" He could feel sleep pulling hard at him, but he could not answer its siren's call. He was so close to safety now.
"Keep calling us! We're coming!" The tree right beside him shook and fresh snow slumped to the ground.
"There's something here! Something is following me!" He was desperate, his screams like those of a madman. He could hear the clacking of a shotgun chambering a round.
"There's a pack of wolves out! Just keep making noise, it'll scare them! Just keep calling to us!" The officers were so close now, half the distance now. He was going to be safe. Then one of the flashlights slapped the ground and was concealed by the snow. He could hear screaming, screams of agony from ahead of him.
"Mother of God!" One of the officers screamed, his shotgun discharging into the night. In the muzzle flash, John saw his pursuer for the first time. It was horrible, otherworldly in its wicked form. So tall. How could it be so quiet, so fast if it was that big? The shotgun fired again, and John saw the creature descend upon the second officer, his flashlight flying out of his hand as his arms were ripped from his body. It shrieked, so horrid and shrill, as it tore into the officer. It's cried were mixed and muddled by the agonized gurgles of the officer's dying breaths. It turned, and in the dull glow of the discarded flashlight John could see it's wretched eyes glaring down at his broken body. It skulked towards him, going down on all fours as it slowly inched forwards. Then, with one clawed foot it crushed the flashlight beneath its weight and the world was dark again.