Arthur Braithwaite had looked into the eyes of the Devil and was still breathing, for now.
Desperation spurred him onwards through the storm; heart pounding like a jack hammer, blinded by a mixture of driving snow, starless night and eyes filled with his own, stinging, congealing blood.
How long he had been running for, Braithwaite could not tell. Rudely awoken from a fitful sleep by the terrifying sensation of a tent being literally shredded around his ears, the rips had let inside one of the demonic creatures that he and Jonathon Ferrier had trekked so far up into the mountains to catch.
Sleeping in their heavy swathes of furs to keep the bitter cold at bay meant that at least he had a chance of surviving out in the forest as long as he could escape its terrible clutches.
Chest heaving and with lungs burning from sucking in huge gasps of frigid air, Braithwaite waded on through thick snow that sucked him down to his thighs at times. Staggering and floundering; often running painfully into low branches and protruding twigs that gouged painfully into his face and hands, he waited for teeth and claws to tear into his back at any moment.
Soon it will be over, his strangely calm mind kept reminding him. Just give up, turn around and wait for death. The beast wants your blood. Why fight it?
Loss of blood and exhaustion were beginning to wear him down, starting with his mental resolve to survive. As an experienced soldier, who'd fought many battles over numerous, blood-soaked campaigns, Braithwaite recognised the symptoms and forcibly shrugged them off. Survive, blast it. Just keep going and bloody well survive!
Ten minutes later, finally completely spent, his knees buckled and he collapsed down into the snow for the last time. Struggling to get up only succeeded in spectacular failure, leaving him rolling and thrashing about as if gripped in the tight embrace of madness.
After years of evading the hand of Death, this then was the moment he would meet the Lord.
Wheezing out huge clouds of vapour; his blood already staining the pure snow all around him invisibly in the nearly obsidian darkness, Braithwaite listened for the sound of the Yeti whilst his mind sluggishly tried to recall an appropriate prayer. Time passed at a geriatric pace but, eventually, his heart rate and breathing dropped enough for his ears to actually register the fact that the dark forest all around him was totally silent.
Wiping clotting blood from his eyes, his natural night vision swam back into focus. His headlong flight had halted inside a small clearing which was being heavily snowed upon; thick, heavy flakes occasionally cajoled into pretty swirls and twists by a mischievous, freezing breeze. One side of the clearing was solid rock; rising up in the form of a sheer, slick rock wall that disappeared into the darkness after ten feet, soaring to an invisible, indeterminable height. The remaining circumference of the clearing was ringed with thick forest.
Then Braithwaite spotted something unexpected and his heart lurched with the one emotion he never expected to feel again.
At the base of the rock wall, roughly a foot above the point where it rose out of the snow, a natural fissure appeared to split the face horizontally for a length of about fifteen feet. The gap created was only narrow; perhaps two feet at its widest point, but he realised that it might offer him exactly the protection he needed.
Suddenly flooded with renewed energy, Braithwaite managed to crawl on his hands and knees across to the rock, unable to contain a whoop of joy as his eyes beheld the geological damage more closely. Jamming one arm in, right up to the shoulder, he could feel no sign of a back wall. As if his unuttered prayer had been magically answered, it appeared to be just large enough for him to squeeze inside. If it was deep enough, it would surely protect him from the vicious jaws he knew would soon be upon him.
Sure enough, as he struggled to climb inside, tossing his Martini-Henry rifle in ahead of him, his ears caught the sound of something heavy crashing its way towards him through the woods. Years of military experience once again paid off for him, allowing him to get on with the job at hand and not become frozen to the spot with fear.
Pushing further inside the fissure, he forced himself as far back as he could, not stopping until he could delve no deeper.
Shielded from harm, twenty feet inside the thin tear in the granite, Braithwaite heard the beast arrive at the clearing with a splintering of wood. Within moments, its sensitive nostrils followed his scent right up to the rock.
Roaring in frustration, its long, massive arms leaned into the fissure, scraping vicious claws furiously against bare stone as it tried desperately to prise its prey free from the bosom of the mighty rock face. In the end, realising the futility of its actions, the creature resorted to shrieking directly into the crack; the guttural snarls echoing evilly in the confined space so much so that Braithwaite had to clamp his hands over his ears to prevent himself from succumbing to blind panic.
The noise persisted for an eternity but then stopped abruptly. Ears still ringing, Braithwaite was unable to believe he was still alive. Suddenly overcome with a wave of fatigue, hitting home like a heavy bullet in the chest, the hours of horror and expectation of imminent death dissolved inside the safety of the rock and his body did what was needed to protect itself; it shut down.
Unconsciousness morphed into a deep sleep in the early hours of the morning before finally lifting into a light slumber as a watery dawn broke over the nearby mountain peaks; unseen within the cold darkness of the fissure's depths. Stirring, eyes blinking open with great effort, Braithwaite gathered his wits and tried to make sense of the events from the night before.
The worst part was not knowing if the creature was still outside, lurking in the shadows of the trees; waiting for him. He had his trusty rifle next to him and felt confident he could get off an accurate shot as long as he had enough time.
More importantly, he knew that to stay where he was meant certain death from dehydration and starvation.
Gathering his courage, Braithwaite took ten full minutes to simply listen. Straining his hearing, the world outside the rock crack appeared to be cheerily silent. Cautiously sliding himself closer to the opening, his gaze focused upon a heavy curtain of snow which was still falling, and had been all night long, transforming the nearby trees into indistinct, dark forms. Without a breath of wind, it remained eerily quiet, though he sensed it was still very early in the morning.
Braithwaite had been in the same quandary many times before; more often than not on some godforsaken battlefield.
To run or stay? To move forward or retreat? To attack or defend?
As an old soldier, he knew there were usually no right answers at the time. With hindsight, naturally, the best decisions seemed obvious but in the moment you just had to follow your instincts.
And his instincts told him to get out of this place as fast as he could; head for higher ground where he could see anything coming and perhaps even find his way out of the forest, hopefully to the village of Bruk.
Sliding out, heart pumping adrenaline-fuelled blood around his entire body, Braithwaite dropped down into the snow and quickly brought the Martini-Henry rifle up to his shoulder. Loaded and ready, the lethal weapon was poised to take a vicious bite out of any attacking monster but nothing erupted through the veil of snow to be bitten.
A few breaths later, enveloped in the clouds of his own expelled air, Braithwaite nodded encouragingly to himself and started walking. With the rifle still tucked snugly into his shoulder, sweeping the long barrel from side to side in front of him, he made the best judgement he could about which direction offered higher ground and determined to himself that he would escape the terrible fate which had befallen his dear friend the night before.
Several hours later, some miles to the north, a scream of sheer terror rang out across a nearby mountain valley, mirrored by a savage roar; underlined by the deep bark of a single gunshot.
With no human ears around to record the moment, it was quickly swallowed up by a mournful breeze and lost in the silence of time.