s the wind grew stronger, Senna started shivering, trying in vain to zip her bright orange parka further up. It was cold, and it only seemed to get colder as night went on. Hundreds of snowflakes, each like a tiny dagger on her sensitive skin, violently clashed with her unprotected face. The scarf that guarded her until recently was tied around an erect tent pole, waving about like some sort of mocking flag, despite being heavy from the snow that melted upon it.
“Do you think you could raise that a little faster?” she jolted angrily.
“You’re more than welcome to come over here and try it yourself!” retorted the voice, unnaturally cheery for this weather. A smiling face emerged from behind the giant rock. François didn't seem at all perturbed by the savage world around them, despite his short blond hair and beard being completely encrusted in hoar, giving him an appearance of some mythic Norsemen king.
“Why is it taking so damn long?” Senna moaned. “I’m cold and-“
“Well if you just took the hammer like I asked you to, I wouldn’t have to nail those poles into the ground with a climbing pick.” François sounded more inconvenienced than truly angry. “It would be difficult enough if the earth wasn’t as hard as iron.”
Senna gave up. With a silent thump, she dropped rear-first onto the nearby pile of snow, and immediately regretted it: under the relative warmth of her body, powdery snow melted as if in a blast furnace, soaking her pants and panties. She bolted up as if pricked, but the damage was already done. Wind seemed to blow even more harshly over her moistened garments, and she felt like she only now understood the phrase ‘freezing your ass off’.
“Done!” exclaimed François, grinning as he presented the finished tent to Senna. He turned around, and despite his wife’s pleading look, howled loudly down the direction of the wind. In the large open space, his voice reverberated like the scream of a thousand men. Senna was convinced she saw a snow form nearby peak collapse from the echoes.
“Why do you have to do that every damn time?” she asked, halfway to tears. “What if the wolves hear you?”
“There’re no wolves in this part of Alps,” responded François, still grinning. “And even if they were, they’d have to be mad to come out in this weather, and they’d have to have wings to get all the way up here.”
Senna couldn’t help but to silently agree with him: their tent was raised on a solitary peak, halfway up the mountain. It was half collapsed on one side, providing an alcove that dramatically lessened the wind, a nearly perfect spot to pitch a tent. The rock below them would be hard to scale without the mountaineering equipment, and completely impossible for any large animal. The remains of the peak that loomed above them like a tower provided them some protection from the elements, and when the weather cleared, the view from their position would be breathtaking.
“Besides, it’s just a little victory screech.” François playfully punched her in the shoulder before leaning down to open the tent. “Don’t you ever get the urge to do something just for the kicks?”
“I do not,” retorted Senna in an apathetic voice.
François sighed. “Where oh where is the woman I married?” he proclaimed theatrically.
“Uhm, let’s see: she’s buried under the metric ton of snow-why did we even come here in the first place in this time of year?”
“Look around you,” smiled François, spreading his hands. “It’s a winter wonderland!”
Senna’s eyebrow rose so high it almost disappeared in her frost-encased bangs: the sky was as grey as lead, and the air around them was nearly opaque from the seemingly endless snowflakes.
“Okay, okay, maybe not as wonderful, but you have to admit,” said François “that it’s breathtaking.”
“Oh I agree,” said Senna. “Quite literally.”
It was now François’ turn to drop in defeat.
“Fine, I admit it, I was wrong. The weather is horrible. But I’ll make it up to you, I swear it: we’re going to Mallorca next year. How about that?”
Finally, Senna smiled. For all of his shortcomings, François was a sweetheart. Feeling softened by his words, she finally entered the tent. It was warm inside, almost astonishingly so, courtesy of the small gas heater she insisted they bring. It was fairly spacious, a bit too much for only two people, but she didn’t really mind: better that than too small. After fiddling with the belts and buckles of her backpack for a good minute, she finally managed to open it. A bunch of clothes, enough to dress a dozen people, occupied most of the backpack’s interior. Without much thinking, she picked the pair of jeans and underpants that looked most comfortable. She was relieved to finally change out of her wet clothes that were unpleasant to wear despite the agreeable shift in the temperature.
François was laying flat on his back, already asleep, gently snoring. Senna couldn’t help but to giggle at the sight: he could fall asleep with a battle raging around him. Of course, the storm raging around them wasn’t exactly far off.
Senna was used to storms. She grew up in central France, where such weather was more often than not. But never in her 22 years did she witness anything resembling this: it was as if nature herself was mad at this particular part of the mountains.
‘Nonsense,’ thought Senna as she unceremoniously dropped to the surprisingly soft floor. The sky has long since darkened beyond visibility. In the warm light, Senna took a moment to observe her wedding ring. François had it specially made, and was wearing an almost matching one. The large diamond was slightly off center, and right next to it was a cut just large enough to fit the diamond from François’ ring, which had the same cut that would fit Senna’s diamond when they were pressed onto each other. The only difference was that his ring was of pure gold, while her own was silver, and adorned with half a dozen more colourful jewels no larger than dust mites. On several occasions, they would get strange glances for the irritatingly asymmetric nature of their rings. But Senna barely noticed those. She thought that François had a wonderful idea, and that the rings were perfect.
Lost in thoughts, she forgot the time, and quickly checked her wristwatch, that stated it was nearing nine o’clock. Perfect: time to go to sleep. Hopefully, in the morning, the weather would be a bit more docile. After wrapping herself snuggly in the bedroll, it only took her a few moments to drift away into sleep.
In her dreams, Senna found herself outside. She stood on the peak where they camped, but there was nothing there. Not their tent, not their gear, not even François. But the storm seemed to compensate for that. It was even stronger than before. But this time, it behaved unnaturally. Instead of following the wind, the snow seemed to gravitate towards the peak not too far from them. Senna immediately recognized it: it was that very peak that the reverb from François’ voice collapsed. Strange: even amidst the thundering howls and whistling of wind, she could still hear something that sounded like a rattle. Despite not wanting to, Senna’s legs moved on their own, taking her closer to the peak. She walked down the slopes without any issues, as if the gravity itself aided her. She barely noticed that: the sound of the rattle was so rhythmical, so soothing to her mind, that she wanted for nothing more than to listen to it for the rest of her life. So she kept on walking. But something in her subconsciousness screamed at her to stop. Some primal, limbic part of the mind recognized the unspoken threat. She snapped from her stupor, but she couldn’t force her limbs to obey her. And it was too late. She was already at the bottom of the collapsed peak, and could now see where the sound was coming from: Near the root of the peak, a cave was carved in the stone. It was dimly lit by barely noticeable flames, and Senna could now hear something else: beneath the wind and rattling, she could hear a deep, malevolent hum.
She never made it inside. She was yanked from her sleep just in time to see the particularly violent gust of wind forcefully rip the tent poles from the ground and send almost the entire thing flying. The gas heater was tipped over and fell, spilling its burning content on the tent floor, immediately igniting it.
With a scream, Senna scurried away from the burning cloth, ignoring the wave of cold that washed over her when her bare hands sunk into the snow. Her scream also awakened François from his sleep. In the nick of time: he rolled away into the safety of the snow just as the flames started licking his clothes.
Just as soon as it started, the fire was snuffed out by the merciless blowing of the wind. But the damage was already done: they lost their tent, their heater was broken, and even their backpacks were missing. A quick glance to the precipice of the peak revealed that they were pushed over, either by the wind or by their panicked struggling to get away from flames. The only things they had left were the clothes on their backs and the bedrolls they were still wrapped in.
Senna felt as if she were nearing a mental breakdown. This day started of badly, but it seemed it would only get worse.
“Oh François!” she cried. “What will we do now?”
“I… I don’t know,” he replied. “Hey, it’s all right, we’ll figure something out,” he added, seeing the look of desperation on her face. “Look, I still have these,” he said, pulling himself out of the bedroll and taking a small padded bag from inside. It contained their climbing picks and a large horn-handle bowie. Some dull part of Senna’s mind wondered why he would store those in his bedroll, but she hushed it: he probably anticipated something like this may happen, and decided to keep them near himself. His unorthodox thinking may just prove to be their salvation.
“Listen,” he said, “we’ll climb down and try to find some shelter. There’s bound to be something like a mining cabin or a cave around here. If we can outlast the storm we’ll be able to call for help.”
“And what if we don’t?” rebelled Senna.
“We will,” he responded firmly. “We will survive this. I promise you.” He took her hand into his own.
“Let’s go now,” he spoke in a commanding voice. “The longer we stand still, the worse will it get. We have to keep moving.”
And so they did. It took them longer than they anticipated to descend, especially since they no longer had ropes to secure them, and since Senna changed into clothes that weren’t as warm as the ones she had when they arrived. More than once, Senna felt her leg slip on the frozen slopes, and she gripped her picks so fiercely that her knuckles turned white, despite the rest of her hands being red from the cold.
Half an hour later, they managed to climb down to the base of their peak. Now fully exposed to the cutting winds, Senna felt immense gratitude to the fact that she still had boots on her feet. The snow here was much deeper, and she’d sink nearly to her knee with each step. Orientation was pointless: there were no points of reference, no stars in the sky. Their phones could not get reception in such weather, and François lost his compass and flare gun with his backpack.
“Okay...” François sounded unsure in their next move. “Assuming the wind comes from the west, we should follow it. I’m fairly sure there is a lodge some hour away from here in that direction.”
Senna started nodding in agreement, but a sudden wave of chills, one that had nothing to do with the weather around them, spread from within her like an explosion.
“No, François!” she pleaded. “Not downwind!”
Surprised, François took a step back from her. “Senna?” he asked, completely blind to the source of her fear. Truth be told, Senna could also not explain what made her afraid. But the nagging feeling in her mind insisted: don’t go downwind.
“I… I think we should try and go east,” she suggested, briefly recomposing herself.
“Senna.” François’ voice was warm and comforting. “You’re tired. You’re not thinking clearly. If we go east, it would be days before we reached anything resembling civilization. And that is assuming if we survived. If we go west, we’ll be back to safety in no time at all. I promise. Now come.”
Against her better judgment, Senna gave in. They started following the wind. Snow not being blown in their faces was a pleasant change, but Senna still couldn’t calm down. The nagging feeling in her mind didn’t go away. In fact, it only seemed to grow stronger the further and further in they went. The night ahead of them didn’t seem to end.
Deep hum broke through the whistling of the wind. Both Senna and François froze in place, as the sound kept reverberating around them. Senna felt a rush of pure terror course through her veins: she remembered now, and the humming around them was exactly the same as the one from her dream. It sounded like thousands of horns sounded at the same time from beneath the ground. As if the Earth herself was singing. It seemed to be coming from all around them.
And along with the hum came the sound of the rattle.
Against her will, Senna felt her legs move, carrying her closer to the source of the sound. To her horror, François was walking in tandem with her, his face hazy.
No! She didn’t want them to go there. She didn’t know what awaited them at the end of their road, but her instincts knew it could not be good. And yet, despite all her will being focused into one point, she was powerless to resist the hypnotic force of the rattle. Fear within her grew to panic. Her heart started beating erratically, and she started hyperventilating. She clasped her hands over her ears, pressing them to pain in an attempt to silence the rattle. But it was all in vain.
Her steps inexorably dragged her and her love ever further. And soon enough, she could see their doom. The cave. The very same one from her dream, lit by the very same fire. And the persistent sound of the rattle, coming from within. Senna noticed that, just like in her dream, the snow fell directly toward the mountain, defying the wind. She realized now that this was no natural storm. They never were walking west. They were walking towards the rattle, that lured them close enough to spellbind them.
Just a few steps later, they crossed the threshold of the cave. Despite being out of the blizzard, and near a large, warm fire, Senna felt her blood turn to ice.
The cave wasn’t particularly wide, but it was well over 50 metres in the mountain. The light cast by the flames illuminated the figures sitting near the walls of the cave. They were arranged in two rows, stretching nearly from entrance to the back, their legs crossed in the timeless lotus pose, naked to the waist.
And they were all dead.
Their skin and flesh were of deep caramel colour, as if they were just thawed from ice after thousands of years there. They were gaunt to the point of impossibility, their bones sticking out from beneath their dead hide. They were completely hairless, and apparently eyeless. Only shriveled remains stood where their eyes once were. It was impossible to tell their sex, but Senna noticed that the corpses on the left side were much smaller than their compatriots on the right, even for minuscule parodies of humans that they were.
And, to Senna’s horror, they all had long wounds on their necks. A deep, morbid part of her mind calmly acknowledged that these people were sacrificed.
But the pinnacle of horror stood at the bottom of the cave, which was dominated by a giant wooden statue, easily three times taller than man. It depicted a giant humanoid, wrapped to the waist in pelts of various animals. His revealed flesh was a mass of bulging, gleaming muscles, devoid of even the slightest imperfection, save for the gaping hole in the center of his chest. His arms were spread open, as if he were trying to grab the entire world. His unnaturally beautiful face was flawed only by the pair of giant antlers that grew from his forehead. When Senna’s eyes adjusted to the refraction, she realized that the idol’s chest, abdomen, and arms were inlaid with tiny, white gems, which formed a pattern similar to that of a human bloodstream. All lines started from the hole in his chest and spread across his body.
At the base of the idol, Senna noticed five more corpses. But unlike those that lined the walls of the cave, these ones were fully clothed, and stood upright.
And they were moving.
Senna’s mind stopped. What she saw defied all logic and reason. And yet, the reality was before her. Five corpses, dressed in clothes that looked like it came from the ice age, stared at her and François with eyes that were surprisingly alive, contrasting their skeletal appearance. One of them shook the infernal rattle that brought them here, and another held something that looked like a large clay pot. Two were empty handed, and the last one held a spear with a wickedly sharp head made out of crystal.
Taking a few shaky steps, the horrors started to slowly make their way to them. The one on the far left still shook the rattle. Senna couldn’t move her legs, but she managed to turn her head to look at François: he was staring idly at the corpses. As if he didn’t even acknowledge their existence. As if the prospect of five zombies walking towards him wasn’t frightening at all.
The middle of the corpses was now close enough to reach out and touch her. The prospect of that was too much for Senna: her legs gave out, and she fell to her knees, sobbing like a child.
“Please,” she whimpered, her eyes stuck to the dusty floor, the fear contorting her accent, “don’t hurt me.” But even as she spoke, she became aware of the uselessness of her words. Even if the thing understood her, it probably wouldn’t care.
“Not just yet.”
Senna looked up, her shock overcoming her fear.
“You will not die just yet, witch.” The corpse’s voice was dry and wheezing, as if his throat was as dry as the desert sand. “We still need you and your mate, even if only for a little while.”
Senna stared at the mummy in disbelief. Not only could it talk, but it could speak perfect French.
“Do not be surprised, witch,” continued the corpse in archaic, outdated Italian. “We have been here for winters beyond count. Men came here, from the lands of Celts, Hellenes, Etruscans, Illyrians, Geats, Bulgars, and beyond. We learned their tongues, less out of necessity, and more out of endless boredom. But the time of boredom will soon end.”
“What do you want from us?” Senna managed to squeeze out. “I’m not a witch.”
“Not you perhaps, but your ancestor was. Her powerful blood courses through your body, same as it coursed through her. It is by that blood that we shall awaken the Horned God, and finally be free.
“I can see the confusion on your face,” said the corpse, “so I shall explain it to you: thousands of winters ago, we were a part of the tribe that lived not far from here. But we were cast out. Meaningless, little transgression, yet it almost cost us our lives. We fled to this cave, and to our surprise, we were hunted no longer. But then our doom showed itself. The witch of our tribe cursed us. We would remain here forever, unable to leave, as death and decay ate away at our bodies and minds alike.
“Not long after, the witch came to us. She knew we could not hurt her, so she told us the truth, reveling in our pain: we were an… experiment. She set us up, only to test the spell she taught from her predecessor. And it worked. Oh how she laughed and laughed while we wailed in horror and misery.
“She left us there to die, you see. But it seemed someone still listened to us. Not long after, the wall of ice collapsed, and the body of the Horned God appeared.
“We did not know who left it here, but we could immediately feel how ancient it was, even then, countless lifespans ago. It spoke to us, whispered to us in our sleep. It said that he was once just like us: betrayed by his kinsmen and locked here for eternity. But with our aid, he said, he could be free once again. He promised that we would not ever die, and when he walked this land once again, we would be raised high in his service, the chieftains of this world.
“He said his kinsmen, great spirits like himself, carved his heart out, and left him here as a living statue. He said all we needed to do was give him his heart back, and he would be whole again. But his kinsmen were a tricky lot: they shattered his heart into a hundred pieces, and scattered it from Sun’s rise to Sun’s set, so it may never again be reunited.
“We despaired, but he helped us again. He gave us tools to call his heart back to him, and reunite it with him. A rattle, made from his bones, and a spear, made from his dried blood. He could not wield then, he said, turned to stone as he was. But we could, and we would. With these tools, we remained here. Still unable to leave, the power of the Horned God made us undying. We no longer lived, so hunger, pain and time meant nothing to us. He gave us power over any wind, rain and snow within five scores of paces from this cave.
“And we waited. Year after year, we would rattle the Horned God’s bones on the Winter Solstice. Whomsoever carried the fragment of his heart, he said, would hear the rattle, and be unable to resist. And, as sure as nightfall, they came to us, carrying the parts of his holy heart as if they were mere jewelry. They all died, their throats cut by the very spear I now hold. Their blood fed our lord, strengthening him, and the pieces of his heart brought him closer to freedom.
“In time, we learned two things: as the Horned God grew stronger, the carriers of his heart started to be drawn to him, whether they knew it or not. And some of them were descendants of the same witch that jailed us here. They, he said, were important. Their blood held powerful magic that would strengthen him like nothing else. And we were glad to oblige. The witch was beyond our reach, but we could still take our revenge on her progeny.
“And now here you are, carriers of the last two pieces of his heart, and you, the last descendant of the witch that trapped us here. You will set the Horned God free, and we will reap the rewards for our service!”
The leader nodded to his empty handed compatriots. Without a word, one of them walked up to François, while the other stood near Senna. As one, they both reached towards their rings. Senna felt her stomach contort in disgust as the cold, dry fingers touched her skin. The specters took their rings off, ripped the crystals out, and discarded the bands like they were rubbish. Displaying amazing agility for desiccated carcasses, they ran up to the body of the Horned God and, scaling it as if it were a tree, inserted the crystals into his eyes.
The hum that Senna almost managed to ignore increased tenfold. It was so powerful now that she could feel it vibrate in her bones. It now sounded like a speech, whispering of ages long forgotten, before the Earth was encased in ice. When the bestial men and women like himself reigned over the world. Of the golden age of the planet. The age that would come back once again.
As if deaf to the roaring voice, the mummies dismounted the statue, and made their way to François. One of them forced him to his knees, while the other started unzipping his jacket, and tearing the buttons off of his shirt. Soon enough, he was bare to waist. Just like the mummies that lined the walls of the tomb.
Senna started shaking frantically. She knew what was coming. She knew she would watch the love of her life be slaughtered like an animal. She wanted to scream, but no sound came out of her throat. She tried to look away, or at least close her eyes, but the power of the rattle denied her.
Without a word, the undead that carried the pot lowered it before François, and then pulled his hair, forcing him to lean over it. The leader silently placed his spear at François’ neck.
The swish of the gleaming blade was lost in the scream that finally clawed its way out of Senna.
She screamed desperately, begging, cursing, denying. Tears streaked down her face like rivers.
And her lover bled to death, indifferent to pain both his and hers, warm blood shooting from the gash on his neck like a geyser.
It was over fast. François’ lifeless body slumped over and fell in the dirt. The expression on his face was that of pain, as if the rattle gave him back his will just long enough to experience all the pain before his fire was extinguished.
Senna wept inconsolably now. She couldn’t think anymore, she couldn’t feel anymore. All she knew was that her husband, her best friend, was dead, and that she would join him soon.
Cold, dead hands that touched her skin roused her from her despair. Horrified, she rose her eyes to the mummy that unzipped her parka.
“No!” she managed to mutter. “No please don’t!”
Deaf to her pleas, the cadaver continued with his job. Soon enough, her parka, her silken shirt, and her bra were all removed and discarded. Shame from being exposed barely registered in her mind. She could only think of escaping.
“You are afraid, are you not?” said the leader. “Good. Be afraid.” The anger in his voice was the first hint of any emotion. “Be afraid like we once were. Be afraid as you know there is no way out. It will only make killing you that much sweeter. After he is free, perhaps I will ask the Horned God to bring your ancestor back to life, so we may take our revenge on her, to take her life a hundred times for each winter we languished here, and then leave her as she left us. And we'll make sure to use you and your mate well: you will serve us even after you are gone, as soldiers in the army of the Horned God!”
Senna’s cries were now but pale whimpers. She knew this was the end, as the pot, filled to the half with blood was placed before her, and the cold hands that surely belonged to death itself dragged her over it.
She felt no pain as the blade sliced her veins open. Only the warmth of her own blood on her bare bosom. It was strangely pleasant.
Then her light went out.