Leonard pushed his face firmly into the crease of his elbow as another scathing blast of frigid air blew through the desert. The snow piled up at his feet as he stumbled up a small incline, struggling to keep his balance as the biting cold permeated his winter jacket. Shivering, he turned, baring his back to the icy downpour and staring across the barren fields of white before him. At the very crest of the blizzard, a single tent was cartwheeling across the snow, leaving a trail of tiny dents as each of its jagged ends came into contact with the ground. Leonard prayed no-one had been inside as he watched it disappear from sight, disintegrating into torn scraps of material as it went.
Tracing the tent’s path, he spotted a patch of levelled ground, where a collection of scattered debris was strewn. Hastily, he skittered back down the incline and ran toward it, clutching his hood as it flapped mercilessly in the wind. Two ends of torn wire swayed back and forth at the edge of the area, where a tent had been nailed to the ground. Beside them was a piece of dark fabric, and Leonard’s pulse quickened as he saw it was the torn remains of a winter coat collar. Reluctantly, he kneeled and scooped it into his palm, wiping the blurriness from his eyes with the back of his gloved hand.
‘JEFFRIES’ was scribbled on the frost-smeared label. Leonard rolled the name back and forth through his head as he stared at the familiar handwriting. Jake Jeffries. The one who had convinced him the oncoming blizzard was ‘just a minor weather spike’. The rotten, no-good bastard that had talked him and his wife into joining him on this damned trip.
He tossed the collar aside and with moderate difficulty, pushed himself back into a standing position. The last tent of the half a dozen the trip had begun with flew into the air as he came near it, its orange exterior fading to a solemn grey as it vanished in the haze. Leonard dropped to his knees once more and rummaged through the snow, finding only empty flasks, plastic food packaging, and used waste bags. No flare gun, no emergency supplies, and no sign of any of the other hikers. No sign of…
“RACHEL?” Leonard desperately called out. “RACHEL, CAN YOU HEAR ME?”
He was answered with another intense blast of cold to the face, this time without the shield of his arm to nullify the effect. He coughed and hugged his chest, gritting his teeth to stop them from clattering together. Already, he had lost feeling in his toes. The cold was undoubtedly getting to him, and yet, there was nothing he could do. Dozens of questions raced through his brain as he felt his final moments dawning. Where were all the others? Had they already succumbed to the conditions? Was he the last one left? The thought of his wife of so many years dying cold and alone was almost enough to force a tear from his wind-stabbed eyes.
And then, like a mirage, he saw it. An animal corpse in the snow.
With the last of his energy, Leonard sprinted at the thing. He was both grateful and dumbfounded: grateful that whatever powers that be saw him fit to live another day and dumbfounded that such a creature could have made it so far into oblivion. The nearest wildlife should have been miles away, and yet, here lay some sizeable beast whose basic survival instinct must’ve somehow malfunctioned, leading it all the way to certain doom. From the way its lower half was already covered with snow, Leonard reckoned it must’ve perished fairly recently. As close as it was to the tattered remains of camp, he was sure he would’ve seen it before.
And as for what it was, Leonard didn’t have the slightest clue. He was sure it was just his frozen mind, but as he shuffled to where he assumed its stomach would be, he noticed it didn’t seem to match the characteristics of any animal he knew of. Its skin was dark and furry like a bear’s, but its appendages were thin and elongated, ending in shattered, deformed hooves. Perhaps it wasn’t the cold that lead to this thing’s demise, but rather, some apex predator that had chased it until it could go no further? Regardless, at that moment, its presence meant safety and survival. It was big enough to climb into, and as the storm showed no signs of stopping, that was all that mattered to Leonard.
The ambiguity of the creature remained as he took out a pocketknife and slit open its coarse belly. Warm, slimy innards spilled out, resembling no kind of anatomy he had ever seen before. There was no stomach, intestines, liver, spleen; everything just looked like one big pile of rotten pinkish mush, like melted ice-cream. It stuck to Leonard’s clothes as he shovelled it out onto the snow, distracting him from the cold if only to violate his senses in an equally unpleasant manner. Gore had never much bothered him before, but now, he felt sick to his stomach.
Before long, there was a big enough hole for him to crawl into. It was most likely going to be the foulest, most repugnant thing he had ever done, but it was still more preferable than succumbing to hypothermia. Leonard stood up and gazed out at the desert one last time, re-affirming its emptiness before taking a deep breath and climbing into the carcass.
Jagged ends of bone pressed into the surface of his coat as he made himself as comfortable as possible, tucking his legs into the fetal position. He reached back to the flap of skin he had used as an entrance point and folded it shut, bidding farewell to the whistling wind. The smell was worse than he expected, but the difference in temperature was instantly noticeable. How long he would have to remain inside the corpse he had no idea. He dreaded the thought of sleeping within it, cringing at the idea of rot and decay seeping its way into the body as he tossed and turned in slumber.
A little bit of time passed. Leonard kept his ears sharply tuned to the sound of the storm, which was showing no signs of diminishing. The thought of a warm shower with Rachel helped him keep his composure, even as he repositioned himself for the fourth or fifth time.
Without warning, a revolting churn erupted from behind his head, followed by a sharp rippling sound like tape peeling from a wall. Goosebumps trickled down Leonard’s back as he turned to see what had caused the noise.
At first glance, nothing seemed to have changed. Only when he reached out to re-open the flap did he realise that it had sealed itself shut.
He pawed at the inside wall relentlessly, assuring himself that he had merely misplaced where he had made the incision. But no, the mark was there, plain as day, the scar from which he had separated the tissue remained, perfectly reformed. Instantly, the fleshy walls of his meat prison seemed to be closing in on him. The heat growing infinitely more intense, he once again unsheathed his pocketknife, only for it to slide between his slippery gloves and disappear between one of the creature’s organic crevices.
Leonard screamed, writhing and squirming as his body sank into the carcass’ watery fluids. A soaked tendril oozed out from an opening beside his neck, filling his mouth and reaching all the way into the depths of his throat. Several more tendrils wrapped around his arms and legs and rolled him over to face the opposite side of the creature, where a gaping maw stretched open and beckoned him inside with its meaty lips.
Even as he clawed his hands into the creature’s flesh and strained himself against the push of its tendrils, Leonard found himself sliding closer to the maw with each passing second. Hot sweat poured from his brow like a waterfall, vomit rising up his throat only to be forced back into his stomach. Pushed only inches away, he was thrust inside the opening, the tendrils releasing their grip and the maw closing behind him, plunging him into pitch blackness.
Ripping his gloves off, he clawed incessantly at the flesh around him, only managing to scrape off tiny slices of meat with his fingernails. Small strings of a hard, wiry substance grabbed hold of his head, pinning it to the side and burrowing into his skull. Blood spurting down his neck, Leonard felt his body go limp in an instant as the cordons squeezed around his brain, darkness intruding on the edges of his vision. The sound of static filled his ears before everything went silent, his senses switched off in a mere instant.
Horrid, indecipherable screams burst into Leonard’s ears as he slammed back into consciousness.
“Leonard?” He heard one of the voices shout, a little louder than the rest. “Leonard, are you there?”
A piercing agony stuck its claws into his brain as he felt it brush against the brains of many others, electrical impulses burning and carving their way through his mind like streaks of fire. His eyes were glued open, and before him lay the cold, desolate desert, snow still ravaging the ground, the storm just as intense as ever. A shattered, deformed hoof lay limp in the corner of his vision, and it took him but a few seconds to realise the eyes he was staring through weren’t his.
“W-we tried to warn you Leonard…” Another voice spoke. “We t-tried to warn you…”
He attempted moving his body but knew deep down he didn’t have one anymore. There was nothing but constant noise and the frozen, unmoving visage of the piling snow. Picking them out individually would be a near-impossible task, yet Leonard was sure he could hear hundreds upon hundreds of voices of all ages, accents, and nationalities, all fighting to be heard over each other. Their collective attention was diverted by the appearance of a figure in the distance, wandering aimlessly through the storm. The noise grew to an unbearable level, everyone screaming at the person to run, to get away, to seek shelter elsewhere.
But Leonard could only watch as Rachel spotted the carcass and ran toward it, a hopeful smile on her face.