The wind whistled through the frozen crevice, as it had the day before, and the week before that. Food was dwindling, the last catch Nicolas had made now nearly picked clean, nothing more than a dog-sized shell on cold stone. His canteens held naught but frozen droplets. The Frenchman sat shivering in his parka, his extremities numb and his eyes wary for any movement aside from the billowing storm of white that had been raging since he had begun his climb. The frostbite had set in yesterday afternoon. Nellie would be wondering where he was by now.
It was supposed to be a couple days trip, a week at most. He had made the trip to Mont Blanc annually for the past decade, always taking time off from work to have a night or two at the summit for pictures and sightseeing. His wife had never understood his compulsion to go back, but Nicolas had never gotten the view from the top out of his head, and likely wouldn’t for the rest of his life … however long that might be. A freak storm, a massive blizzard the likes of which he had never seen on the mountain or otherwise had halted his progress around a thousand feet from the peak, forcing him into his current cramped quarters for fear of being blown away and turned into little more than a pile of mangled bones in the snow. It had been a fate the photographer had narrowly avoided, the memory of having to dig like an animal into shelter still fresh in his mind, the wind loud enough in his ears to make them ring as the heavy layers of insulation he wore nearly flew clean off his person.
At first Nicolas believed the storm would pass. Give it a few hours, he kept telling himself. As he took a few shuddering breaths further, he tried to force the nightmares of the blizzard rolling on endlessly out of his mind once again. With everything else that had transpired, the weather was the least of his worries. While the initial span of time he spent in this dreary refuge passed without incident, the Frenchman having brought enough food and water to last him perhaps a few days more than the trip was supposed to take, both his mental and physical state had declined rapidly, the constant noise and weakness of body taking its toll.
Then there were the bugs. Good lord, the bugs. Skittering brown cimicidae that kept creeping their way in from the storm, their flat, round bodies swollen with the black blood of gods knew what. Nicolas had thought it an illusion the first night he woke up with one trying to saw through the half-frozen flesh of his arm with that disgusting beak, but he had come to his senses rather quickly after he felt the cold from the outside slipping in from all those broken layers of clothing. It had managed to scratch him, BITE him, goddammit, before he swung his pick with all the strength his arm could muster into its back, splattering thick brownish-black ooze all over his clothes and goggles. It howled, its serrated maw clattering and clacking while it skittered backwards, having nearly taken Nicolas’ ice pick with it had he not pulled it out at the last second.
That had been back when he had food. Now, he wished he had swung a little harder. More had come in the nights since, but the Frenchman had only managed to kill one thus far, having eaten whatever fleshy parts he found inside out of desperation over the course of a few evenings. It was disgusting, every part of the thing filled with that rancid, oily sludge, but at this point, he would eat another, swearing to himself that he could hear the sound of his stomach growling over the jet engine of a storm not ten feet in front of him. While once he had been terrified of the things, as the days passed he found himself wishing more would show, either to kill him or to give him the strength to survive for just a few hours longer. His body could hardly move with the chill that had settled in his bones, but he still held his pick in hand as best he could with his frosty purple fingers, hardly believing himself that he could muster up the strength to fight again.
Nicolas’ teeth chattered against their will, stained with flecks of dark brown underneath his scarf from his wretched meal, this constant shivering being the only true reminder that he was actually alive. It felt as if he was floating in a fever dream, sleep coming to him seemingly at random as he kept watch over the small crack leading into his small den of relative shelter. The only indication that time was even passing was when he was able to check his watch, although that was a rare urge at this point given how insignificant time was in this situation. It had been too long for the storm to continue this long naturally, especially this early on in the winter, so there was no use in seeing how long it had been raging and when it was likely to end. The Frenchman tried to wipe the thought of worst-case scenario out of his head again, as if he hadn’t already crossed that line once insects the size of pitbulls started trying to drink his blood. He briefly thought of his Nellie, of her smiling face, before he heard the scuttling of legs at the entrance to his hovel.
A gray mass came in from the cold, clicking and moving experimentally within its new hiding hole, seemingly unaware of the company it held. It looked different from the others, still low to the ground but longer rather than wider, its carapace the color of dead flesh and flecked in spots with snow that softly thudded off its body in chunks as it maneuvered about the cave. The only thing Nicolas was concerned about, however, was that it looked meaty enough for a meal. As it clambered towards him, glossy black eyes swiveling in curiosity at the bundle of blood and clothes sharing its new space, the Frenchman swung with surprising vigor, jabbing the saw-tooth picked deep into the mass of soft abdomen.
The creature did not retreat, in fact the opposite, its feeler-tipped legs skittering forward as it moved on top of the horrified photographer, that long black proboscis unfolding to reveal the many rows of sharp teeth inside. It bellowed a deep note, that gaping maw thudding against the glass of his goggles while Nicolas struggled to yank his weapon free from the bubbling wound, his mouth opening in a scream as he watched a multitude of slithering green tongues slip out of the many-toothed orifice to smear his lens with slimy gunk. The bug forced its proboscis into the first opening it could find just as soon as the photographer pulled the pick free, slamming it into the first patch of rancid abdomen his blindly swinging arm could discover. Unfortunately, despite these efforts, the probing appendage found its mark, and the photographer found himself choking as the sharp barbs scraped against the inside of his throat, his arm finding easier purchase as he hammered the sharp edge again and again into his violating attacker.
The insect bellowed again, its wounds leaking black pus as its legs wobbled and struggled to keep themselves upright. It was losing this battle, but still it refused to retreat, Nicolas grunting and screaming bloody murder around the invader to his body as he hammered away with a primal fury, gnashing his teeth and filling his starved stomach with whatever vile fluid his tongue could reach. It was almost as if all the weakness, all the cold had left him for these brief few moments, his body moving like it was on fire as he swung and swung and swung. In what amounted to about thirty seconds of adrenaline-fueled frenzy (although it felt like hours within his head,) the insect finally faltered, its horrid tendril falling limp within the Frenchman’s esophagus.
Spluttering and coughing, the frostbitten photographer took in pained lungfuls of air, wheezing as the spiked appendage was forcibly dragged up his windpipe. The thing on his chest still clicked and twitched as the seconds passed, Nicolas hardly knowing if he had actually killed the thing as his vision was blurred by fresh, frozen tears. With one final push, he felt the oily proboscis loose itself from him for good, his heart pounding in his chest. His mind reeled, his body still shaking from the rush of adrenaline combat had brought him, and he sucked down mouthfuls of air for but a few moments before leaning to sink his teeth into the insect’s soft underbelly. Foul-tasting goo dripped from his teeth as he choked the substance down, frozen fingers clawing at dead flesh as he took the bounty from his kill, weeping and sobbing through every mouthful of retch and vomit.
Nicolas laid on the cold stone for several hours following. His ears heard the whistling of the seemingly ever-present storm, the ground around him a mess of bodily fluids both from the intruders to his abode and his own weak stomach. It had been a worse meal than the others, he ended up deciding, a foul experience through and through, but at least it was fuel for him, something to keep him going. He heard the storm suddenly take a shift in tone, and with a grunt of effort, lifted himself up on his arms to stare at the entrance to the cave. The blizzard of white was clearing. Nicolas found himself laughing as the harsh winds ceased their incessant noise, brief glimpses of the landscape beyond catching his vision as his shattered mind tried to comprehend an end to the horrors he had experienced. The Frenchman dug his fingers into the cold rock as much as he was able, inching himself forward and dragging his legs behind him, the black tar that had made up most of the bug’s insides dripping from his mouth as he giggled, the sight of the Caucasus ridge looking to be the most beautiful thing in the world.
It was a painfully slow crawl. The frost had set in, and wounds formed in his fingers with nearly every foot he managed to move, staining the rocks a dark red. He didn’t care, of course, a blend of hope, desperation, and settled madness keeping his body going as he watched the storm whither away, granting him the beauty of the sunset over the hills. As Nicolas pushed himself to his limits, managing to lift himself over the edge of the cave’s precipice, he gazed downwards at the descent he would have to make if he was to return home, to Nellie, to life. His eyes widened in shock. He let out a scream, a bloodcurdling howl that burned his throat as the massive nests that stretched out beneath him burst with life, the noise from the storm now replaced with the sounds of yowling and clicking from enormous insects of all shapes and sizes. As thousands of legs began ascending to the noise above, Nicolas threw up again, fist-sized eggs falling out of his mouth into the snowy bluff beneath.