When she came to, all she could remember was the screaming. Desperate cries resounding from all around like a surround sound alarm going off. Screams melding into a dissonant chorus of fear, almost in an attempt to leave a last cry on the Earth before it all came crashing down in that fateful expedition. She remembered staying silent, but she didn’t know if it was because of self-restraint and determination to keep her dignity to her last breath, or if the fear had already seized her consciousness.
The merciless wind took no pity on her situation. Gusts of numbing cold swept against her partially exposed body, the other half protected by the life jacket that was not ripped to shreds like the rest of her clothes. She huddled behind what used to be the aircraft’s fuselage, now a wavering sheet of aluminum alloy that looked as if it were almost intentionally pierced into the snow. She looked down at her hands; they were turning blue with frostbite. She hurriedly inserted them into the pockets of her coat, exposing gaping holes ripped open by the impact. She surveyed her surroundings, pained with confusion. Strips of metal and acrylic littered the snowy landscape. She couldn’t see the end of the mess. Of the larger pieces that held together, she recognized the white and cinnabar red paint on a shard of the airfoil.
Vol 714. “Expeditions for adrenaline junkies! www.expeditions4you.com for more!”
Then she remembered.
The joyous vacation she had planned for months. She had even taken an extended leave from work and searched up the most reputable travel companies. Her chosen trip was an expedition to rural Tibet and promised a climb up Mt. Kailash in the Gangtise ranges. Only accessible by a flight from the local Tibetan airport, Mt. Kailash was not quite as ambitious as Mt. Everest or the others in the Himalayas, but it was touted to be one of the most rewarding climbs for even seasoned backpackers. And so excitedly she prepared, so hopeful and full of anticipation of the spiritual healing that lay in store. In the months leading up to the expedition, she trained at her local gym for hours a day and gradually intensified to short backpacking trips in the mountain ranges near her hometown.
The one detail she had neglected was the political turmoil that was escalating in the region. She had decided to commit to the expedition — for was all her effort and planning going to go to waste? She had decided that the rural mountain ranges would be safe from the violence in the city — it was the great outdoors, wasn’t it?
And on board the aircraft she went, with a group of eleven other fellow backpackers in tow, each and every one brimming with excitement and chatter about the promise that awaited. Some were wealthy locals from Tibet who, too, wanted to experience the natural beauties of their homeland. Others were tourists from all over the world, like herself, who had long revered and admired the snowy mountains from a distance. The tiny aircraft barely fit the twelve passengers and three crew members. It was a well-maintained body, a bold coat of red and white paint gleaming from its exterior following a recent overhaul. It stood confidently on the airstrip run by the travel company and welcomed its travelers, quite out of sight from the other passenger airplanes.
In the cabin, the backpackers exchanged jovial small talk and learned about each other’s training regimen for the trip. Some were experienced backpackers who had summited numerous mountains. A well-built, tan gentleman could not stop bragging about his recent climb up to the third base camp of Mt. Everest, before regretfully admitting he had to turn back due to prematurely developing a bout of hypothermia. Everyone shook their heads sympathetically. She remembered feeling the jitters in her stomach, surrounded by many others so much more experienced than she. But she had brushed it aside, reminding herself of her own rigorous training in her city hometown, the best she could do while maintaining a draining job in banking.
She suddenly recalled the disgruntled look her boss had given her when she requested to take the month off work. He couldn’t say no; she had made all the necessary arrangements and was performing beyond expectations, although that was owed to her countless sleepless nights and sacrificed relationships. An attractive, young woman in her twenties would normally have many things to enjoy in a bustling city. But for her, a burning desire to please, outperform, and potentially a severe lack of self-love had led her to shuttle continuously between the unkempt bed in her tiny apartment and her desk in the office. The breaking point came when she was passed over for a promotion for the third time. Six years in the same position, same job. She watched helplessly as younger, more spritely male subordinates rose to her rank and overtook her. While she, well, she could only see herself getting more exhausted by the day.
The plane jolted to a start as it made its way to the runway. She shook her head and dusted her dark hair, trying to snap out of her unpleasant reverie.
The hour following takeoff gave her no peace. The backpackers did not let up for a moment, each animatedly sharing about the peaks they had climbed, their eco-friendly lifestyles, weekly expeditions, and admiration of the true backpacker “leave-no-trace” lifestyles. She was beginning to wonder how she would survive two weeks stuck in cramped tents with this group.
Just as she was shutting her eyes in an attempt to block out the noise, an ear-splitting siren began screeching throughout the aircraft. A loud explosion sounded in the back of the cabin. Screams reverberated throughout the aircraft as a female backpacker pointed to the aircraft wing.
The wing was on fire.
The mythical red and blue blaze waved menacingly at its victims as it made its approach. The cabin crew burst through the galley but seeing them offered no comfort. Their faces were stricken white, like the blood had been drained from their ears.
With whatever wits remaining, the cabin crew haphazardly tried to console the passengers while yanking life jackets out of the emergency compartments below their seats. Another backpacker grabbed a crew member by the collar and shook him, yelling for answers. The crew member sputtered and stuttered. She could only hear fragments of his reply.
“Rebel groups…mistaken aircraft…attack…civil war…revolution…”
At that point, another explosion sounded. This time, there was no screaming. The blast took her out.
Staring back at the wreckage, she suddenly felt a sinister chill make its way down her spine.
What happened to the others?
The snowy ground was covered with dark red stains that she realized were not from the paint of the aircraft. It was dark. It was brown. It was blood.
She saw evidence of the struggle. Or maybe there wasn’t a struggle. Her fellow travelers could not have put up much of a fight, if at all. But she saw traces of footsteps — many, many of them — in the shape of thick military boots. They were all around. She frantically whipped her head around in search of the start and end of the traces. She heaved a sigh of relief when she saw distinct patterns that showed a group of footsteps making their way across the snowy landscape towards an unknown destination. She didn’t know where they went, but what mattered was that they had left. Scrambling to her feet, she felt a sharp pain tear through her thigh and slumped back onto her knees. Clutching her thigh, she realized the impact must have torn her hamstring. Shivering, she crawled around the wreckage, calling out the names of the backpackers she did remember, knowingly in vain. Her voice was hoarse and weak; she couldn’t even tell if she was making a sound as the wind carried her cries away with her last strands of hope. A tuft of animal fur clung to a sharp edge of the shattered strips of the aircraft. It was a light brown clump, grayish-white at the edges. Her face turned even more ghostly white with fear as the thought of predatory animals in the Gangtise ranges crossed her mind. They would surely be back.
Why was she the only one who survived? She immediately reasoned that it was because she was well-hidden by the large piece of fuselage. Or maybe that they had too many by the time they got to her.
Clutching the tuft in her hands, she observed a clear stitching at the bottom holding it together. It must have been from one of the attacker’s winter protective gear. Another eerie silence fell across the deserted landscape, but that was quickly dealt with by another howling gust of the unforgivable wind. At least she wouldn’t be eaten by wild animals.
She knew she had to get out of there, and fast. Whatever had made off with her fellow travelers, human or animal, they would be back soon.
She made another attempt to stagger to her feet, but the pain in her thigh was too excruciating to bear any weight. Her slim but muscular build from months of training now looked so feeble in the unrelenting wind. She crawled pathetically through the mounds of scrap metal and smashed acrylic panes in search of her backpack, and found it in a container resembling what used to be an overhead compartment. The faint blue skin of her hardy backpack gave her a sliver of hope. She felt it calling out to her, the one other thing that had escaped from the tragedy. She struggled with the lock that was jammed shut, propping her able knee against it while yanking the lid with what was left of her strength. With a final effort, the lid gave way, splitting open, and the recoil made her fall backwards into the snowy ground. She quickly sat upright and gingerly removed her prized possession from its prison. It felt warm, and its pristine condition starkly juxtaposed with the surrounding wreckage. Fumbling with the zip, she unpacked her thick coat, a granola bar, and a bandage for her cuts, feeling so thankful for having packed an extra set of thermal wear.
Upon prepping herself in her warm outerwear and tending to her abrasions, she felt a renewed will to survive. It wasn’t a sense of confidence or hope, there wasn’t much to feel confident or hopeful for. Maybe it was desperation or fear, but it didn’t matter. Whatever it was, she had enough in herself to keep moving along. Pulling out her hiking pole, she scrambled to her feet again, this time with more success. She proceeded to limp along the snowy landscape, feeling extremely nervous about the evidently human footsteps she was leaving behind.
By some magic of the land, at that point, the wind ceased. The blizzard of small flurries settled, as if pulling back an invisible shroud to reveal an almost whimsical, majestic expanse of the purest sheet of white around her. The perfect blanket of snow newly laden for her to tread on by Mother Nature felt like a new acquaintance apprehensively welcoming a new friend. She wasn’t quite sure how to feel about it. There was something inviting about the land, something otherworldly and mystical. For a moment she was so in awe of its beauty that she forgot she was hobbling along an ice carpet to nowhere.
She felt comforted to be able to see a radius of at least a mile around her; at least nothing could spring a surprise on her. But she was soon deeply unsettled by the thought that her attackers could see her too. As if on command, a small patch of towering pines presented themselves in the distance and she proceeded to make her slow way towards them.
The lonesome silence engulfed her. For the first time, she felt as if she were the only living soul in the world. Her heartbeat had never sounded so jarring. The crunching of the snow beneath her boots was obnoxiously loud. She started to miss the chatter on board the plane but immediately shook off the thought, refusing to even speculate what had happened to her peers.
The snow blanket was laid just for her. The mountains were watching her every move. She was a foreigner in this land, and the land had not seen many passing through. Just as uncomfortable as she was, the land felt hesitant to welcome her, but neither did it seem to have the heart to throw her out. An awkward harmony seemed to emerge between this small woman trudging through the untouched snow-covered plains and the imposing mountains that watched carefully in the far reaches.
She neared the patch of trees and took off her backpack, allowing it to fall off her shoulders impulsively. She immediately regretted it and hastily bent over to check for damages. Fortunately, the backpack was indeed as sturdy as advertisers in her city had claimed. But in that moment that the backpack impacted the ground, displacing a significant flurry of dry snow flurries, a resounding thud emanated and echoed through the woods.
The woods came to life almost in an instant. A mineral white ptarmigan took off from its perch on a snow-covered pine tree and brushed above her head as it swooped over, almost inspecting this strange creature in the woods. A family of pikas scurried away from the base of the pine tree next to her, the last of which seemed to cast a curious, judgmental glance at her before continuing on its way. And a porcelain white fox leapt up, aroused from its nap, and bounded away from her and deeper into the woods, almost like an elegant maiden. Around her, the firs and pines waved and rustled in retaliation to the displacement of critters, in an almost annoyed fashion. The reddish flush returned to her cheeks as a renewed sense of life began to fill her heart.
Just as quickly, the redness immediately gave way to a ghostly white when she made out a face watching her from behind a tree.
She opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out. She was so stricken with fear that she was momentarily paralyzed. A thousand thoughts rushed through her brain and all of them commanded her to run, immediately, but her feet seemed to belong to someone else for she could no longer move them. She could only stare as the figure backed up behind the tree again, just as quickly as it had shown itself. It was clearly a human, she thought.
She regained control of her limbs and with a resolution that defied even the courage of Gurkha warriors from the nearby Nepalese region, she decided to find out what that was. I would much rather die fighting than have that thing kill me in surprise, she resolved. It wasn’t a matter of heroism or bravery; she merely could not contend with the thought of being watched any longer.
Clutching her kukri knife behind her back and the hiking pole with her other hand, she made her way over to the tree, cautiously. Her heart thumped against her chest so violently she was certain anyone who was nearby would hear. She wished it would cooperate. It surely could not give her up before she even got to the tree. She reached the tree and, quick as a flash, whirled around the trunk, hoping to catch the person off guard. Well, at least I think it is a person, she thought.
The back of the tree trunk revealed no such hidden figure, much to her relief or disappointment. But she could’ve sworn she saw a figure disappearing into the woods, gliding swiftly away on two hind legs.
Bewildered, she shook her head, fatigued. Too many mysteries for one day, she thought. How long had it been? She rested her weary soul against the large pine and looked up at the dense web of thin branches that enveloped the sky above her. Sunlight filtered through the foliage and warmed her rosy cheeks with their rays. She allowed the light to blind her as she shut her eyes, embracing the moment of peace. Feeling refreshed from the short respite, she proceeded to pitch the tent from her backpack in the clearing in front of the tree. She felt too exhausted to ask more questions. There had to be a limit for how much fear a heart could experience, for she no longer felt scared. The sun let out a final dying plea before its descent, coloring the sky with dramatic hues of orange, pink, and red. Darkness quickly engulfed the land and plunged it into the deep night. The nighttime critters emerged cautiously from their daytime refuges. A snowy owl hooted curiously as it made an investigative swoop inches above the tent and families of lemmings scuttled through the fluffy snowy ground.
When was the last time she saw a sunset? She couldn’t remember. She gazed drearily across the landscape, at the dramatic painting brushed across the sky. It took her breath away. Just a week ago, she was buried in so many documents and data analysis spreadsheets that she barely had time to look up from her desk. Not that it was near a window; as the only female on the trading floor, she was relegated to the small desk by the female toilet. “It is convenient for you that way,” she had been told. She remembered forcing out a smile. She reached the office before the sun rose and left past midnight. But she never complained, her head always spinning with datasheets and numerical models. I love my job, she had repeated to herself.
For the first time, her brain was too tired, or perhaps too shaken to recall what the client had requested last week. Lying back into her warm sleeping bag, asleep she fell, in a relaxed trance reserved only for the blissfully oblivious.
When she awoke, she awoke to chaos. She felt her head; it was throbbing. Her daze was prematurely terminated when she noticed a hole in the wall of her tent. Her senses awakened in her panic and fear seized her consciousness. There was shouting. There was shouting from all around. The thin opaque walls of her tent made her feel like an ignorant, trapped prey. She traced the path of the hole and saw an arrow pierced in the back wall of the tent. It had barely missed her. She immediately knew what was going on. In that instant, she really wished she were as ignorant as a prey.
With trembling hands, she hastily readied all weapons she was armed with, but she was prepared for wild animals, not a human combat. Cookery, pocketknife, and pepper spray in hand, she peered through the hole in the tent.
Four burly men clad in military uniform and berets bearing the tuft of fur she had seen on the wreckage were approaching her tent. Their eyes were ablaze with zeal and hunger, and their steps were bold and confident, like a pack of wolves approaching a deer. In their arms, they carried bayonets and rifles, but none seemed concerned enough to hold them ready.
Her eyes widened, petrified. Her hand tightened around the cookery as her mind raced through her options. She could stay put in her bright blue tent and put up a fight when they neared. Or, she could attempt to flee. A switch flipped in her mind and with a swift slice, she slit open the back of the tent and ran for her life.
The fluffy snow of the day before was thick and unforgiving. Rising up to her knees, its slushy texture slowed down her footsteps as if she were wading through a bog. The disturbed snow ensnared her feet and refused to release its relentless grip no matter how much she tried with the little energy she had left.
A searing pain shot through her lower back, paralyzing her footsteps. She fell to the ground, writhing in agony. She reached out to her torso and felt a foreign, sharp stick penetrating into her waist. Her reddened fingers clasped the wound and tears of frustration welled up in her eyes.
She heard a triumphant cackle and more footsteps sounding closer by the second. They were casual, relaxed footsteps, like those of a hunter approaching a struck prey. She was the prey. She dared not look back at them. She awaited her fate, lying crescent-shaped on the icy white expanse.
The footsteps were getting closer. She shut her eyes and tried to shut her ears too. But there was nothing else to hear.
A long, deep howl erupted, piercing through the silence. The footsteps stopped. She opened her eyes. The men had stopped advancing. They were just a few yards away now.
Another raspy howl emanated from the distance. The breather of that haunting melody was nowhere to be seen, but its voice told of its immensity. The men’s tanned, intimidating faces were now awash with white.
A pine tree let out a faint rustle, shedding pine needles over her. An eerie silence set over that windless white expanse.
A large grey creature tore through the pine needles and landed between the girl and men. Its landing was soundless, but its weight displaced a flurry of snow. The creature was the height of a large adult man but was doubly as broad and massive. Grey hair across its chest and head bristled as it snarled at the men, bearing a set of sharp, white fangs. It stood on its two hind legs which took strong semblance to that of a weightlifter, but it seemed adept at pouncing with its front paws too.
She opened her mouth to scream but failed to utter a sound. Lifting her head from the snow, her eyes were fixed on the creature. Its fur bristled; snowflakes shimmered on its glossy coat. Its eyes were crazed with fury, flashing blues and greens across its irises. The creature advanced towards the men, its stare locked on its new victims.
One of the men screamed in fear and began backing away. The other whacked him with his bow and took aim at the creature. With a bound quick enough to rival a cheetah, the creature dodged the shot and lunged at its attacker, pinning him to the ground. It closed its fangs around the nape of the attacker’s neck and thrashed its snout around, whirling the struggling body in the air. She shut her eyes and tried to erase the sight of the scarlet liquid that gushed and splattered about, and the sound of bones crunching. The shrieks of the men were seared into her memory. The others fled as quickly as their snowshoe-clad feet could take them, abandoning their comrade, who was strewn across the landscape in a dozen crimson pieces.
The creature, seemingly disgusted at the blood that dripped from its fangs, hurriedly washed itself in the slushy snow. The snow was stained red and the creature reappeared from its bath, moistened but cleaned of any trace of the battle. It looked at the girl sympathetically but hurriedly closed its gaping mouth to hide its fangs, almost apologetically.
She could not take her eyes off of it.