Three miles, they said.
As the crow flies.
Christopher felt he must have done at least half of that by now.
He was beginning to crest the mountain, booted feet thudding against the muddy path as he strode forward with purpose. It was cold up there. Exposed. The night was deathly still, and a light mist swirled around his lower half.
Overhead, the stars were out in force, shining so brightly it was almost possible to make out the lie of the path ahead. Below him, at the foot of the mountain, he could see the twinkling lights of the village.
“Be home before long…,” he whispered to himself, thrusting his hands deeper inside his pockets and bowing his head. Great clouds of breath hung around his mouth.
Suddenly, a frown fell over Christopher’s face, and the length of his stride shortened.
What was that?
Up ahead, was that a figure approaching?
Surely not, who would be treading these mountain paths at this late hour?
Somebody else like him, perhaps? Another lad who went for a few beers in a neighbouring village, met a young lady, forgot the time and missed the last bus home. It probably happened all the time…
Then why was his goose-pimpled flesh crawling, seeming to writhe with a life of its own as it clung to his shivering bones?
The figure was closer now. Through the half-light Christopher could see that was, in fact, what it was. The looming outline of a man, dressed entirely in black, and wearing what looked like a hat.
He remembered the stories his grandfather told him when he was a kid. The stories about how the devil himself, the original fallen angel, stalked these mountainous peaks under cover of darkness, preying on weary travellers. Granddad never elaborated much on what he meant by “preying.” He never had to. Christopher’s imagination did the rest.
All his life, he had assumed Granddad must have been pulling his leg. Like the tall tales he often told about storming the Normandy beaches virtually single-handed. Christopher didn’t believe in the devil. Didn’t even believe in God.
But he had never walked these mountain paths alone after dark before, and right now anything seemed possible.
To his horror, Christopher realized that he had stopped dead in his tracks. His mind was racing. He felt like running. Should he turn around and retrace his steps? But where would he sleep tonight? He had to get home. Maybe he could just get off the path and hide until the figure passed. But that wouldn’t work, either. If he could see the figure approaching, then the figure could certainly see him, too.
He glanced over his shoulder. Nobody there. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or bad. He couldn’t imagine what kind of people would be treading these paths after dark, but whatever character they possessed, they could be witnesses.
Witnesses to what?
Something was going to happen. Christopher could sense it. The atmosphere changed, turning more sinister and oppressive. The air around him seemed to crackle with electricity and there was not a sound to be heard. Even Mother Nature had fallen silent.
The approaching figure was now just feet away, but Christopher still could not make out any detail.
Strange; at this distance, even by starlight, he should be able to see some facial features.
He forced himself to move, put one foot in front of the other, as the world around him swam in and out of focus.
The next thing he knew, the figure was on the path just feet away. At such close range Christopher could now see the man was indeed wearing a hat and had a scarf wrapped around his face to keep out the night chill. He wore a long, black coat, with the collars turned up.
As they passed each other the stranger lifted a hand in acknowledgement. Christopher nodded politely, then hurried on his way breathing a sigh of relief.
So, nothing sinister, after all. Just another tired traveller anxious to get home. Probably an ageing boozer making his way home from the pub.
He turned his head to watch the old fella stride over the crest of the mountain, and saw something that made his breath catch in his throat.
Dragging on the floor behind the man in black was a thick, sinewy tail. As Christopher watched, horrified, the tail flicked the air as if its owner was tasting it.
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