The harsh wind licked the dusted snow off of the poorly constructed cabin. Positioned a few meters away from the edge of the cliff was the construct rocking along with the blizzard. Ice crept in through the gaps in the roof. A young man with an overgrown beard threw open the door and hurried inside. He wore a leather jacket with fur around the shoulders, a wooly hat, and had a pair of rugged binoculars wrapped around his thick neck. Using the lens, he peered out over the other side of the mountain. “We’re safe,” he frantically said to his younger brother, cautiously positioned against the wood. The eldest pedaled back from the frosted window, and slowly doused the oil lantern sitting on the floor.
“You got it, right? I saw you attack it with your knife, right?”
“I think, it was moving so fast I couldn’t even tell.”
“What’s that on your back?” the younger brother weakly whispered. The eldest quickly reached for the fire prod before removing his coat and bringing it to his nose.
“It smells like…sulfur,” he said.
“Was that some bear?”
“I…I don’t know. I can’t even describe it .”
The wind’s speed started to diminish as the indigo moon crept behind the peak of the mountain. “I shouldn’t have brought you up here, this is all my fault,” the eldest said.
“Don’t think like that,” the younger exhaled.
“No, it is, I should have waited until you were healthier before we did this.”
“If we would’ve waited, I may never have done this climb,” he passively smiled. “You know I wanted us to go on this trip, we’ve talked about it for too long.”
“Always the optimist, even in the face of danger,”
“Right…” the younger replied. “What do you think we should do? Bar the doors?”
“Smart idea. Whatever is out there, it’ll have a harder time getting through the door if we block it.”
“Did you get a good look at it? the younger curiously asked while gasping for air.
He shook his head, and specks of crystallized sweat bounced onto the frigid boards.
The eldest rose to his feet and began rearranging the furniture to barricade the entrance. He angled the massive dresser towards the door, tilted the circular table to block the exposed window, and broke the lantern to scatters shards of glass in front of each possible entrance. Sitting in the corner, the younger brother watched in awe at his resourcefulness.
“This reminds me of old times?” the eldest said while wiping his hands.
“Oh…does it? How?”
“Remember how we used to play in the woods. I’d build a fort, and you’d sit around waiting for it to be complete. We’d stay out till the sun went down, and we’d play that one game. I forgot what it was called,” the eldest said.
“Ah, that’s it. You always wanted to be it too,” he chuckled.
“Those were the days…everything was so simple back then.”
“And then I got sick…” he confessed.
“And then you got sick.”
“Who would’ve thought,” he coughed, “that ma and pa gave me the bad genes?”
“Don’t blame them,” he stated.
“I’m not. Nobody is to blame but myself, for being so weak,” the younger paused. A gale cut through the logs and stung their sullen eyes. “That’s why you wanted to bring me up here, right? To show me I wasn’t weak.”
“Guess you figured out my motive, huh?”
“I am the smarter one, remember?”
“Is that so,” the eldest laughed.
The repositioned furniture slightly creaked as the night progressed.
“Do you even want to take a guess at what that was?”
“It had two legs, and it stood upright.”
“I thought I saw a tail or something attached to it. But I don’t know any animals that stand on two legs and have a tail.”
“Ever heard of a kangaroo?”
The younger leered at his brother, “you think a rabid kangaroo is chasing us across the Appalachian trail?”
“No, but it is an animal with two legs and a tail.”
“Yeah yeah, so we have no clue then,”
“Do we need one?”
“Not really, so long as we survive,” the younger confessed.
“We should escape, first thing in the morning.”
The younger nodded before dropping his head back onto the wood. “I’ll take first watch so you can regain your strength. You’ll need as much of it as you can if we have to make a quick escape.”
“Wake me up when it’s time to switch shifts, or if you hear anything. I don’t care if it’s just an icicle falling off of the roof, wake me up.”
The eldest snapped his fingers, before reaching for the cast iron prod in front of the fireplace.
In the stillness of the moonlight, a slight echo rang from outside of the cabin. The youngest just managed to drift off to sleep, before the echo resounded. He frantically jumped out of his nap, but reached for his side immediately afterward; his muscles were spazzing once again. “Did you hear that?”
“No, what was it?”
“Sounded like a shout. Shit, do you think it found us?”
“Doubtful,” the eldest said.
“What about our tracks?”
“The blizzard probably covered them by now, even ol Ham-bone and his bloodhound nose couldn’t find us. And we put them lights out as soon as we came in.”
“Right, I forgot about that,” he exhaled. The silver moon shone its light through the window, flooding the cabin with ivory. As the beam crawled from one wall to the next, the younger brother picked his head up for just a moment to notice his shadow across the floor. His sickly frame was barely visible; the radiation had eaten away at much of his muscles, leaving a crackling skeleton in its wake. The youngest twirled his wrists, watching the darkness give form to his figure once more before glancing at his brother; his eyes trailed the floor until they reached his sturdy boots. The eldest peered through the sliver of the window that was available, gripping the metal prod. The moon retracted behind a slight wave of snowy clouds, but for a short second, the younger brother failed to recognize his brother’s shadow. Along the floor were the shades of his boots, the iron in his hand, and even his hat; but in the areas where his body was visible were absent.
“Shhh,” he interrupted before placing his bony index finger over his lips.
The youngest remained quiet as he watched his brother from his corner of the bleak cabin. The remaining light from the moon dissipated, leaving them in complete darkness.
Huff. Huff. Huff.
Trying to control his breathing, the youngest clasped his shaking hands together and tightened his fingers around each other.
Huff. Huff. Huff.
A low growl came from outside the cabin that caused the younger brother to lose his rhythm. Unable to see his brother, he forced his buckled knees to curl, giving him enough momentum to rise. Using the wall as support, he nudged himself closer to the entrance, hoping to catch his brother. As he leaned against the sturdy board, the growl increased in volume, whatever was outside, it was coming their way.
“Brother, brother, where are you?” the youngest whispered. When he experienced the gnawing silence, he assumed that his whisper wasn’t loud enough, but he couldn’t even hear his brother breathing. The growl suddenly changed into something more of a shout, a primal cry. “Brother, please help,” the youngest whispered once more. Footsteps shuffled along the boards, and suddenly, he felt a frigid hand against his shivering arm. He had recognized the grooves of his brother’s hand before he pulled him down.
“It’s outside,” the younger stated.
“Yeah, I heard.”
“What should we do?”
“Right, the entrances are blocked. There’s no way it can come in.”
“Exactly…” the eldest voice had a sinister tone in it.
The tension in the room had enough energy to melt the entire peak, and yet, the eldest was calm. His younger brother pressed his back against the wall once more and started to cry.
“This is my fault. If I was stronger, we could leave.”
“Don’t start thinking like that.”
“Remember that night when we promised not to abandon each other?”
“Vaguely,” the eldest responded.
“Well, I want you to break it. Now!” The shouting outside was barely audible, but it sounded strangely human.“If you leave, you can escape. I’m not going to be responsible for killing us both. I’m not afraid to die,” he confessed.
The eldest said not a word but tightened his grip on his brother’s arm.
“That’s exactly what I needed to hear,” he snickered. Suddenly the shouting outside transformed into words, and the youngest heard his name amidst the whipping gusts.
“Brother, do you smell that? It smells like sulfur…” he whispered.
“It must be because I can barely contain my appetite any longer.”
Out from behind the clouds, the moon curled itself at the peak of its phase, once more providing the cliff with light. The crystalized ice in the window panes refracted the beam, illuminating the cabin, along with the two brothers. The youngest sat motionless as he failed to see the shadow once again, “what’s going on?”
A loud bang cracked against the door, and the eldest cocked his head in an unnatural position. “It’s me! Open up,” the voice on the other side shouted.
“Who is that outside?”
“A bothersome pest, I should have thrown him off the cliff when I had the chance, but that bastard is a fighter,” he muttered. The marks on the back of his coat weren’t from claws; they were from his brother’s knife. “Now, you mentioned that you’re ready to die, which means I have my invitation to the feast.”
“What…what do you mean?”
“Open up! It’s me! Open up now!”
“A hunter needs not explain why he shot the deer,” he slyly laughed.
The banging against the door continued until a piece of the furniture was dislodged, giving the stranger outside enough room to break in. He slammed through the entry, holding a serrated survival knife in his right hand. In front of him sat his younger brother on the floor, and…him.
“Get away now!” he shouted to his younger brother.
The double on the floor quickly released his grasp on the youngest before the brother tackled him to the ground. Retreating to the darkened corner, the youngest took hold of the metal rod that had previously dropped and anxiously listened to the exchanging of blows. A warm liquid splattered against his face, and the winter air congealed the blood. The noises slowly dissipated as the younger brother heard the sound of the knife pulling itself out of flesh. The eldest brother rose to his feet, the snow still resting in his beard. “I made a promise, remember?” he said before crouching down.
“How do I know it’s you?”
“I’m still covered in snow, idiot.” he chuckled. The youngest brother dropped the rod to the side and embraced his savior.
“That thing…it looked just like you?”
“It did,” he panted. “Whatever it is, it’s dead now.”
“Jesus and I was in here with it, the whole time.”
“Did you not recognize it was me?”
“I couldn’t tell; it remembered things. I talked to hi- it as if it were you.”
“It broke it when we first came in.”
“Maybe it’s scared of light?”
“Maybe…” the youngest exhaled.
The knife was stained with red blood, and the smell of iron filled the claustrophobic cabin.
“Any idea what it was?” the eldest asked.
“None,” he said weakly.
“The only thing I can think of is a few hiking buddies of mine used to share an urban legend. Apparently, there are some things science still can’t explain.”
“What did they say?”
“Arix,” the eldest stated as he removed himself from his brother’s grasp.
“Arix, that’s what they called it. I don’t know much else aside from that, except they live in high altitudes. Some say they’re rogue angels who come down and possess people; others believe them to be akin to drifting spirits.”
“Angels? Attacking humans? That’s crazy, even by my standard.”
“Not attack, eat.”
“So these evil angels,” he coughed, leaving a splatter of blood on the floor. The eldest pushed the dresser out of the way to allow light to sink into the room. Laying on the floor was an exact copy of the eldest brother, with slash wounds to his chest. The fur from his jacket had scattered across the floor, and most of the wool was a dark shade of crimson. The eldest bent down to examine the creature on the floor, before giving it a good kick in it’s gut.
“Damn thing impersonated me, and put you in danger.”
“You saved me, though,” the youngest expressed. His breathing had been surprisingly shallow since the incident. “These angels, they come and eat people?”
“I honestly don’t know, the only reason I’m familiar with the term is that out here, you have to assume everything is real, even if it’s not.”
“Even if it’s not,” the youngest shuttered. “What now?”
“We head back down, and I’d rather not stay here and wait to see what happens to this thing?”
The eldest picked up his brother and threw his arm over his shoulder to support him.
A fresh layer of snow had blanketed most of the cliff, but the eldest was able to locate his tracks. “This way,” he said as they embarked down.
“How will we know which way to go?”
“Simple,” he smiled, “we’ll let the moon guide our path.” The two continued their descent, shuffling slowly for the youngest brother kept losing his breath. The snowstorm had stopped by the time the set-out, giving them a greater range of visibility, and an impressive look at the stars.
“It’s only up here, where man has yet to colonize, can you see such a sight,” the eldest expressed as they walked.
“Right, it’s so vast.”
“How many days did we spend just aimlessly staring at the stars,” the eldest asked.
“I did most of the staring; you used to make out with Erin.”
“That I did,” he chuckled. “Wonder whatever happened to her. She had the softest lips. When we make it off this mountain, I’ll give her a call.”
“You don’t think she has a family by now?”
“Won’t know until I call,” he laughed.
“Let’s keep going; the moon is starting to come back out again.”
The eldest nodded and provided his brother with a crutch once more.
An hour passed and the two had finally reached the tree line, and one step closer to the path. Along the way, they’d momentarily stopped to rest their sore muscles.
“Do you think people will come here?”
“Probably, but we’ll be long gone by that time. Plus, I’ve always wanted to be dead,” he joked.
“Is that so?” the youngest whispered to himself.
As they descended amongst the bare trees, an iced branch broke off of the shaft; the eldest pushed his brother away, taking the brunt of the crash.
“Damn, that went right to the bone,” he muttered to himself. The eldest took a moment to catch his bearings before searching the ground for his brother. He shouted his name, but only heard the sound of the frozen branches scratching against the bark. The searing pain from his immobile shoulder was enough proof to diagnose a broken bone.
“Now how are we going to get out of this mess?” As he stood up, utilizing the same tree where the branch had fallen from, he noticed a fresh trail in the snow. Kneeling next to the disturbance, he also realized that his brother was not responding to his calls. Deciding to follow the path, the eldest gripped the branch and wielded it as a walking cane; it could also double as a weapon if needed. The forest line was scattered with trees, and the moon had difficulty peering through the thicket. After a few failed attempts at call-and-response, the eldest threw himself against a tree, the slush chilling his spine.
Far off in the darkness, a branch cracked, and then another, and another. The eldest shot up to his feet and managed to hold the stick in his good hand. “We should’ve thrown that thing over the edge,” he whispered to himself as the noises came closer. An opening between the trees allowed enough light to peer down on his position, and the eldest brother dropped his stick. Standing in front of him, with his arms extended, was his brother. There was no shadow cast on the ground behind him, and upon his back were four wings, two leathery, and two covered in black feathers.
“What…what the hell,” he shouted.
“For a human, you’re pretty well informed.”
“You guessed it, Arix. However, I don’t like the term angel; they’re too passive.”
With adrenaline coursing through his veins, the eldest reached for the stick, and swung with all his might; but it passed through him as if he’d try to hit mist. “You can stop now, It’s inevitable,” the creature lulled. Ignoring his request, the eldest continued to swing until the radiating pain forced him to drop the branch.
“I like you. I mean that ” the Arix whispered. His voice sounded like soothing waves crashing against a rocky shore.
“What did you do with my brother!?” he screamed. The Arix dipped behind the tree and smiled; his teeth coated with black sulfur.
“First, can I say, what a fantastic relationship you two have. Your brother, he loved you, there’s no doubt. I wandered all through his memory while you carried his body down the mountain. Even when he was sick, he tried his best to live up to you. Isn’t that why you two were here in the first place?”
“Shut up, do not talk about him like that! Tell me, where is he?”
“That’s a trick question,” the Arix snickered. “Technically he’s here, but then he’s also…back up there,” he sung. The eldest had stared deep into the eyes of the creature before frigid tears swept down his frostbitten cheeks. “As for what happened to him…well I’m sure you can figure that out.”
The eldest dropped to his knees, the snow coming against his thick leather. He stared into the sky, trying to catch a glimpse of the stars, but the trees blocked his vision. The Arix knelt down beside him with a devilish grin, and its wings fluttering slightly in the wind.
“You invited me,”
“What…do you mean,” he whimpered.
“We’re not allowed to feast on humans unless they grant us an invitation to do so? Remember your joke? Always wanted to be dead? Well, that’s a meal ticket for me,” he crooned. The creature’s tone fluctuated, and for a brief second, he heard his brother’s voice.
“Your brother, he said he’d die if it meant saving you. Quite touching, but he was too frail to enjoy,” the Arix said while picking its teeth.
“Brother, brother…brother!” he shouted.
The Arix let out an inhuman chuckle as he fully expanded his wings, which stretched out farther than his arms.
“Before I die, make me one promise.”
“Making a deal with the devil?” the creature laughed. “Why not, what is it?”
“Don’t impersonate him anymore, please. Let him rest in peace. If you need a host, use me. Just…let my brother die here.”
The Arix stared deeply into the blank eyes of the eldest brother, before beating his wings against the incoming gale.
“Deal,” the Arix whispered before blasting into the sky. The eldest laid back on the melted slush, his eyes tracking the snow as it started to gently blanket the land. As the creature descended from the heavens, the brother noticed the moon had disappeared, leaving a sky full of stars; It smelled of cut pine, the watering hole him and his brother had swum in as kids, and the sweat on Erin’s soft lips the moment he kissed her.