26 - Sam
I don't think my thighs are ever going to stop aching. It feels like we've been hiking forever, trudging up this mountain but never getting anywhere. Before, it used to feel like the lodge was barely five minutes walk from the cable car station. Now it felt like hours. I had been so eager to get here, so eager to finally find some solution to... everything. And yet, now that I'm here, trepidation is sinking into my stomach, making each of my footsteps heavier than the last.
Do I really want to be back here? Hell no. If anyone had paid me a million dollars last week to face this mountain, I would have cursed them to hell and run a mile to get away from them. In my head, I know that the wendigos aren't coming back. They'd screamed their last in that lodge fire. But they still haunt the place, their chilling screeches hollowing in the wind, plotting. Watching. Waiting.
Mike owes me a heck of a lot for doing this.
Our feet sink into the soggy, squelchy earth – a ground that has soaked up the melted snow like a sponge – leaving a trail of muddy footprints behind us. My nose scrunches, recoiling as I catch another whiff of the passing breeze. It spells constantly of burned ash here. Wolfie skims in between the trees, occasionally circling back to my side before stalking once again. I don't worry too much about him – he seems to know what he's doing. More than Josh, at least.
Josh has been stalling constantly, his feet catching on the earth underneath his heels, his eyes going wild like he's fighting something inside his skull. His head had been jerking to the side, his eyes twitching, listening for something. And he wouldn't continue to climb until he was sure there was nothing after him – that included waiting for me to call Wolfie to heel, assuring Josh he wouldn't attack.
It's been exhausting.
Subconsciously, I rub the red finger marks around my wrist, cradling the skin in my other hand, wincing when I catch a particularly raw spot. He gripped me too tight. Pulled too hard. Too eager.
Josh would never have let go if I hadn't said it hurt.
Ironic. He didn't want to hurt me - and yet that's exactly what he did.
This time. That time, two years ago. In this same place.
Never to hurt you.
Yeah right, Josh.
The chilly breeze creeps in under my hood, slithering down my back. I clasp my arms around myself, shimmying where I stand, drawing some kind of heat from the patches of visible skin. You'd think I'd come better prepared this time; you know, with a flamethrower, a few bombs in the backpack and, for the hell of it, a whole suit of armour. You know, just in case.
But I'd been in such a hurry, too quick on my feet to worry about anything other than freeing Mike.
That was another thing Mike owed me for. Hypothermia.
Before I start cursing the cold again, Josh ushers me forward, his head cocked unnaturally to the side, huddled into his neck. Narrowing my eyes cautiously, my teeth shattering, I send him a questioning look. What the hell has he seen?
He hisses at me, waving his hand frantically. I roll my eyes, but, considering the fact he was right last night about hearing something behind the window, I follow his orders and trudge my way up to him.
Wordlessly, he stabs his finger in front of him, off into the distance. My breath catches. There it is. The lodge.
But it looks nothing like the last time I saw it. It's a skeleton. Charred, ashy beams protrude out of the ground like spider legs. The building has tumbled down on itself, the floor now black with soot, disintegrated planks collapsed over each other. The fire really tore it apart. There is nothing recognisable about it. It's a smudge of black against the landscape. It churns my stomach, making me feel sick. There is a constant, distasteful smell of charcoal.
"It's so..." I can't find any words. All my words have been tangled in the spidery branches of the trees, yanking them away from me, leaving me empty. Despite all the horrid things that happened up here, from Beth's death, to Hannah succumbing to the wendigo, to almost being killed, I've never really had the chance to mourn this place. It holds more than just nightmarish memories.
Josh hushes me aggressively, pointing harder, further into the remains, underneath the soot and the ash and the blackness. "Someone... there's someone there," he insists through sharp, gritted teeth.
"What?" I snap back, instinctively crouching, my lungs too tight to be able to hold my breath. "Where?" I narrow my eyes as if that could make my eyesight zoom in. Why the hell would anyone else be here? This place has been deserted ever since we burned it down – and Josh got detained for it.
My eyes search through the rubble, alert for any flash of movements or colour within the blackness. Glancing at every inch, every corner. My breath releases in confusion. Nothing. What the hell did Josh see-?
"Boo!" Hands pounce on my shoulders from behind. I yelp, swinging around in a fit of rage, almost smacking Josh in the face.
"What the hell?!" I lunge at him, aiming to punch him in the shoulder, gritting my teeth – both from adrenaline and trying to bite down my laughter. "That was not funny-!"
Behind Josh. A flash of a figure; standing stock still, hands stuffed casually in his pockets.
I scream, stumbling back.
Josh's eyes widen, jerking his head around, cowering instantly.
I glance between him and the figure, back and forth, back and forth, frozen in fear.
Because in front of us, the man who had sneaked up behind us, no sound at all, is wearing Josh's maniac mask.
"Josh," I breathe, tugging at his arm. My chest heaves, despite the rest of my body having been frozen in place. "This isn't another prank, is it?"
He whimpers, like he's facing a nightmare. He shakes his head erratically.
"What the hell do you want?" I snap, sudden aware that, whoever this is, it could be my stalker. Who isn't satisfied with just taking pictures any more. "This isn't funny!" My voice breaks, my legs quake. But I grip my hands into fists, lift my head up high and convince myself that all this is just some stupid joke.
If this is just Chris who has followed us up here and is playing some stupid prank – again – I am going to kill him. I can face Ashley's wrath.
Then the figure smoothly raises his hands to the charred, melting mask, and Josh flinches beside me. I almost trip on my heels, lumbering back. Then the man pulls the mask off, revealing dark, caramel skin and a casual smile.
"I thought it was pretty funny," he comments casually. "Apparently, he did too," he nods in Josh's direction.
Wolfie bursts out of the trees, bounding towards the man. My heart lifts – Wolfie to the rescue! - and then sinks at the sudden thought that he might get hurt.
But all those thoughts are shattered when he enthusiastically wags his tail, barking in delight, almost collapsing into the man's eyes.
The man's face lightens almost instantly, falling into a crouch down to meet the wolf, wrapping his arms around his furry, lump of a body. "Hey, bud," he purrs, scratching Wolfie behind the ears. I stare at them in disbelief. "How you been?"
Then he turns to look at us... at me. "I thought you'd appreciate a little more..." he nudges his head in the Josh's direction. "Reliable help."
Josh sneers at him.
Who the hell is this guy?
And, as if he could read my mind, Wolfie having rolled onto his back, he adds, "I'm Tag."