Noah fought to find refuge, dragging his ski boots through the snow. Winds kept throwing punches ever since rapid snow filled the evening sky. Doomed to walk the distance, Noah kept holding on to one ski as if it had life to spare; the other one stayed broken, sticking out like a thorn from his backpack. His eyes, holding on to a shard of visibility, never strayed from an image on the snow—a tall, wide rest house tucked between trees. It looked abandoned, for there were no lights.
After enduring his ice-cold penitence, he busted through the front door and pushed it shut. He then collapsed to the wooden floor and quickly sparked on his lighter, his face licking every spot of warmth; it wasn’t enough. He left behind the unbroken ski and walked deeper into the house. His lighter showed the way. Past the foyer, in the living room, there was a fireplace. Long curtains, torn and wrinkly, were nearby; he pulled one down, ripped it into shreds, and threw everything into the fireplace. The lighter gave the last touch, and the room blazed under mild firelight.
The lost skier thanked the heavens for the extra warmth. The snow on his puffy jacket was quick to melt; newfound water wetted the floor and bled out some white paint. Upon looking down, Noah’s eyes swelled. A vast stretch of weird markings filled the floor; they were like the kind that could summon a demon. Noah shook it off his worries, pulled out his walkie-talkie, and animated his thawed-out lips.
“Jackson, are you there?”
No one answered.
“J, this is Noah. I found shelter far east of the piste, please respond, over. Jackson? Come on, man. Come on, just answer me, please, over.” He could feel tears filling up his eyes and his breathing speed up, for not a single voice sounded on the speaker. “Oh, God...”
Wanting to keep his tears from falling, he yearned for more warmth, rushing toward another hanging curtain. He pulled too hard and slipped. The curtain tore away from the wall, and the extra-large drape folded on top of him, pressing him flat on the floor.
Before he could crawl out, muffled knocks sounded on the floor—footsteps. Four voices entered the room. Noah was far from being alone.
“So, as usual, they ask for mercy, right?” one of them said. “And this one woman offers me her dog just to spare her. Ain’t that hilarious, brother?”
“What did you do then?” another asked.
“I, of course, hushed her up the right way, heh.”
Peeking through a tear in the curtain, Noah saw that the firelight illuminating the floor had tripled. Perhaps they brought torches. Then a tip of a machete swung into his view. He wished to coil into a ball.
“Will you two shut up,” said a deep, stern voice. “Can’t you see that someone has lit the fireplace?”
“Oooh, we have a visitor then,” said an irritating voice.
“Seems that way. Yukra, nail down the front door. Let’s make sure he or she doesn’t escape.”
“On it, hail chief,” said the first voice. After a few steps away, he added, “There is a ski over here!”
“Leave it!” said the stern voice. “The owner will sure be back.”
Heavy pounding on nail heads sounded in the foyer. Noah could hear his heart beating the same sound.
“Praise the holy mountain,” said the stern voice. “She truly provides. Let’s look for that last sacrifice to complete the ritual. Sadly, there’s no snow trail here to help us out. Yukra, stay here and guard the door!”
“With pleasure, hail chief,” the first voice replied from a distance away.
“Let’s split up,” the stern voice commanded.
“After you,” said the irritating voice.
Footsteps faded from the room. Then Noah quietly squeezed out from the fallen curtain. He creeped away from the living room while the watchman, who looked like an average joe wearing layers, smoked a stick in the foyer.
Keeping close to everything opaque, he made his way to nearest door. Upon swinging it slightly open, he peeked inside. When all was clear and lit by candlelight, he entered. The sink and tiled walls labeled it as a powder room. Something blocked his next step. It was a boot, a heavy one. Between the cramped walls lay a woman. She wasn’t breathing. She wasn’t doing anything, not even sleeping, even if her eyes were shut. Her forehead displayed a blood-red drawing of a mountain, a lightning bolt, and a huge X in the middle. A bloody nail had bolted her hand to her chest; two stumpy candles, alive with light, sat beside her ears. Noah could feel his system wanting to vomit twice. Horrified, he covered his mouth.
“I gotta get out of here,” Noah whispered to himself, but with another long look at the corpse, he somehow recognized the woman. He pulled out his phone, scrolled through his gallery, and found the image of a missing person poster his fiancé had forwarded to him. The smiling woman in the photo matched the corpse, minus the smile and the open eyes. His heart drowned in pity.
He wanted to call his fiancé, a lovely reporter named Stephie. He wanted to ask for help and tell her about a brand-new scoop. For him, it was the only lifeline left, but most unfortunately, there was no signal.
“The attic must have a few bars,” he whispered. “God, I hope I’m right.”
A quiet door shut behind him. His footsteps were on mute, and his back bent every joint. The backpack with the broken ski weighed him down; he never dared to take it off. He reached a lounge of some sort with a chipped piano in one corner and a bar on the other side. When he reached the middle of the room, the corner of his eye caught some torchlight nearing an empty door frame.
Noah hurried behind the bar counter. Safe behind cover, he spotted the same torchlight making a sweep of the room with footsteps sounding. He flashed out the screen of his phone and looked through all the old bottles under the counter; almost all were empty. The torchlight was closing in. Noah’s left hand couldn’t stop shaking. Short breaths kept kicking out from his throat. Then he found half a bottle of gin.
A head came into view from beyond the counter. Noah hurled the bottle against the wall. The splattered gin turned to fire after hitting the stranger’s torch. The man fell to the floor, dropping his machete and screaming over and over again. Noah ran to him, pulled out his broken ski, and went for the throat. He never expected it to be so quick. The man stopped screaming, and guilt thrashed Noah from head to toe. With shocked eyes, he saw that his first kill had a bandana over his forehead, ink around his eyes, and black teeth. Burns had already stained his face, and flame-drilled holes showed on his jacket as well.
Someone hurried to the room from afar. “Brother? Brother!” There sure was a corpse, but Noah was no longer there. “NO!” the other stranger screamed.
Noah curled inside a storage closet, fixing an affectionate gaze on his broken ski while wiping the blood from it. “Sorry, Dad,” he said, “but thanks.”
Wrestling with guilt, he looked to his phone and sought some sort of a distraction. He found a voice message from Stephie, then played it in the lowest volume.
“Hey, babe, it’s... it’s me,” her melodious voice said. “I, um, noticed that you’ve been avoiding me ever since I told you to take a step back from everything extreme. I even told you to just go ride a bike around the neighborhood or something, adding that you don’t have to jump off the highest mountain or swim the deepest ocean till you’re old. I wanted it all to sound like a joke, but I know all of this is important to you—the thrill, the excitement. I get that. That’s how we met in the first place, remember?”
Noah gave a shaky, whisper-like laugh, tears streaming down.
“Look, I’m not trying to change you,” Stephie continued. “It just kills me to worry about you all the time. I, um, you know, I love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want us to have a future. I want us to have time. I... I hope you understand. Call me if you can....”
He gave a long sigh, happy to hear her voice but worried that it just might be the last time. There were so many things he wanted to say to her.
Another torchlight swept through the closet door, squeezing through the gaps. Footsteps were in a hurry. Noah sneaked out and ran in the opposite direction.
Under the light of his phone, a staircase appeared. On the second-floor landing, he entered a room. Seeing the quadruple amount of torchlight inside, he hesitated a bit, but no one was present. He walked further into the bedroom, straight to the wall that held four well-lit torches; a collage of pinned cutouts was right in the middle of it. Images and articles pointed to one person alone. He was known as the miracle of the mountain. His name was Gareth Hughey—famous for surviving the punishment of a snowstorm while being chained to a radio tower on a mountain. Noah was familiar with the man’s curly beard, long nose, and sleep-deprived eyes. Stephie had interviewed him before and shared some sympathy after finding out what a few bandits did to him. While Noah looked through the photos, he found one where Gareth Hughey posed as if he were a savior, a messiah.
“Are these guys following you?” Noah asked with a whisper. “Or are you just a messenger... of the holy mountain?”
“What did you say he did?” a voice from downstairs shouted.
“Holy crap,” Noah cursed as he sneaked out of the room.
Out in the hallway, he heard someone climbing the stairs, so he scurried into a different room—the master’s bedroom. A door gave a subtle click as he closed it. All of a sudden, his stomach was ready to erupt. Two more corpses occupied the room, lying still on the floor. Both were men with the same bloody markings on their foreheads. Each had two lit candles beside their heads, and each had a nailed hand to the chest. Biting his teeth, he struggled to tame the disgust inside him.
Someone was coming; Noah heard it through the door. He tiptoed past the corpses, straight to the on-suite bathroom. In the dark, he prayed that the sound would fade. It later did, and no door was opened. Then a click of static sounded on him.
“Noah, i-it’s Jackson. Can—can you hear m-me? Over.”
He pulled up his walkie-talkie. “Hey, hey, hey, Jackson. Hey, man. I’m so glad you’re alive.”
“You too, man,” said Jackson. “Ooowee...”
“I’m in a two-story chalet of some sort,” Noah said. “I’d invite you here, but crazy people are lurking inside. Where are you waiting out the storm? Over.”
“I d-dug myself a snowhole under a t-tree. I think it can—keep me alive f-for a little longer, but it sure doesn’t keep me warm. I p-placed my backpack r-right on top like a tombstone just so anyone could f-find me. Hey, you be c-careful in there, all right?”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll call for help, okay? I’ll call for help, over.”
Jackson laughed a bit. “Well, we sure didn’t outrace th-the storm like we promised.”
Noah smiled. “No, we didn’t. Sometimes nature wins.”
“Uh... I don’t wanna die, man,” Jackson said in a heartbreaking way.
Noah pursed his lips and slowly shook his head. “Just... just hold on, J. Please hold on. Jackson?”
He no longer replied.
Noah checked his phone. One bar of the signal showed, then faded, then showed again.
“Damn it,” he said. “Gotta find the attic.”
Pulling open the bedroom door, he saw one side of the hallway was clear. The other side... was not. Another cultist stood in the middle, holding a torch and scowling at Noah. A blow of air punched the skier’s lungs. With machete in hand, the cultist rushed toward him. Noah pushed the door shut and leaned all his weight on it. The man’s machete speared through, piercing Noah’s gut. The skier groaned, then pulled back and kicked the machete out of shape. The cultist couldn’t pull it out. Noah swung open the door; the machete followed. The cultist was left with a torch, and he used it to hit Noah. The burn nearly brought him to his knees, but Noah replied with the quick stabbing of his broken ski. With three deep cuts, the cultist collapsed, his black teeth showing.
Careful not to leave a trail, Noah wore his backpack up front to try to clog his wound. Weak on his knees, he tried every door further down the hall. Then the last one revealed a set of stairs.
“The attic,” he whispered. After locking the door behind him, he went up to higher ground. Breathing heavily, he lay down on the attic floor, freed himself from his backpack, and clutched his wound. His phone finally had two bars, and they didn’t waver. With two taps, he started a call.
“Pick up,” he kept whispering while the phone hummed and buzzed. “Pick up. Pick up.”
Warmth expanded inside him at the sound Stephie’s voice.
“Hello, Noah, is that you?” she asked.
“Stephie!” he said. “Thank God. I need... help. I’m stranded in a... in an abandoned house east of Mt. Recrest’s piste. With the edges of the roofs hanging.”
“A-are you joking?” she asked. “You knew there was a storm coming.”
“You’re right. You’re right. I’m such an idiot. I came with Jackson. We wanted to pretend that the storm was chasing us. Stupid. I’m cold, badly hurt.”
“Oh... Oh... for the love of...”
“Stephie, there are people in here who... who look like extreme fanatics. They sacrificed one of your missing persons... and a few others.”
“I’ll do everything I can to get you, okay? I’ll bring over some officers to help out. Babe, is Jackson with you?”
“He’s near the piste... under a tree, in a snowhole. Look for his backpack. It’s... out in the open.”
“Got it. If I recall correctly, the storm should be over after an hour or so. Don’t do anything stupid till I get there, all right?”
“’Course, oh... and, Stephie...”
“I’m...” The call beeped to a close. The battery of the phone had died. “I’m sorry,” Noah continued, dropping the phone. “I’m sorry....” He quickly dozed off under the weight of his injuries.
Much later, the banging sound against wood woke him up. A machete was swiping through the attic door as if it were tall grass. A hand punched through the door and unlocked it. Another bandana, pair of inky eyes, and set of black teeth came for Noah. Something was different about this cultist—a drawing of a cross above a mountain on his forehead, painted white.
He marched up the attic, smiling widely and holding up his torch. “Here comes hail chief,” he said.
Noah was too weak to get up, too weak to even get his heart racing.
A flash of light speared from behind the cultist. “Freeze! Stop!” Someone shouted from behind.
He didn’t stop. He even raised his machete.
Bullets slung out, piercing through the cultist and the roof.
The next thing Noah saw were uniformed personnel in coats escorting him out.
Nighttime outside the large house had become calmer. The storm had passed. Spotlights were everywhere, more officers stood present, a few cameras were on the scene, and several snowmobiles were parked outside. Under aimed rifles, four more cultists were on their knees with cuffed hands.
Within Noah’s blurry vision stood Stephie, who looked beautiful with a black ponytail and tearful eyes. In her hands, she held the other ski Noah had left behind.
“Your father would be furious,” she said, handing out his ski.
Noah leaned in for a hug. “Oh, Stephie...” he whispered. “With my heart, I understand. I’m so... so sorry.”
“Jackson’s fine, by the way,” she said in a cracking voice. “And... I know. Love you.”
“Right back at ya,” he replied, showing no intention of letting go.