“And what’s this then?” The voice was unfamiliar and he saw two men walk into the space. They had rifles resting on their shoulders. “This is a hell of a place.” One man moved to the middle of the room and looked around. “How has it not been emptied by now?”
“I don’t think anyone knows it’s up here.” The second man pulled his scarf down and opened a cabinet, then another. “Some dishes. Oh, hey hey! There’s some food here. Grab something so we can bundle this up and take it back.”
“This was a farm up here right? Or a logging camp or something.” The man tore a curtain down, rings and all, and brought it over. The second man started piling boxes and cans into it.
“Miners maybe. They kept to themselves, I think. My dad used to hear about them when he came into the village.”
“Explains why nobody’s been up here, then.” The tone was grim and Stone Path put a hand to his chest.
“We didn’t find game but this is even better. Easier to carry back, too. Let’s see what else is still here. Tools maybe. Guns.” The man picked up a spear hanging on the wall. “Hell, look at this.” He looked at the weapon – a fetish Stone Path himself had carved with delicate glyphs – and gave it a twirl. “Think my dad would like this for Christmas?”
“Be good for boar hunting, if we find any.”
They took the spear, used its length to carry the tied curtains full of food. Stone Path watched them go, walked out with them into the frozen grey landscape. The luminary bags were gone, though the ground held the marks of footprints. On the fence nearby perched an enormous raven. It watched the men go, then turned glowing fire eyes onto Stone Path. He found his voice past his simmering rage.
“What is this? Or… when? I have been to the past and the present. Is this some distant future?”
The spirit said nothing, only watched another moment and then took wing. Stone Path gave chase, then shifted down to lupus just so he could keep up. Down the road they went, past fields where no remnant of planting showed. Alongside pastures and barns where no animals stood and farmhouses with dark windows and open front doors. Carts sat in front of the barns, he noted, and carriages were along the drives.
It took no time to reach the village, though Stone Path was out of breath by the time they got there. The raven glided up to rest on the flag pole at the center of the green. The flag hung limp there, the fabric not moving in the still, dead air. Everything here was covered in a layer of ice or frost. From the paths to the buildings themselves, a crystalline glaze caught the scant light. Something about it hurt his eyes and he focused on the raven instead.
“Where are the people?” When no answer came he muttered to himself instead, walked toward the shop he had seen before. “Perhaps the mill closed and they left. Depending on such a thing to survive was a fool’s-” He cut off as he came to what he’d mistaken for a pile of snow. Bending down, he brushed at it and found it to be fabric. A little more effort and he pushed that fabric aside to find a face staring out past him. The man was dead, that was clear. He had died on one knee, rifle in hand and half turned as if he was trying to get up and away from whatever was ahead of him. His expression was surprised and confused.
Stepping back, Stone Path looked around, taking in the village again with new consideration. There were small lumps on the ground. Birds, he thought, also frozen with their wings spread. One seemed to have shattered on the stone steps outside the shop. The shop door was open and he went to it, looked inside. The place was frosted like everything else but all the shelves were stocked. He went to the counter and saw the outstretched hand of the shopkeeper still grasping a hammer. The same man he’d seen before.
Coming back out he walked to the raven.
“When is this, spirit? What happened here?” Still no answer came, but the raven turned to regard a house across the green. He knew that house. Loping over to it, he pushed his way through the partly open door. It bumped against the body on the other side but he did not look at the man at first. He looked to the fireplace and the three forms huddled against its cavernous darkness. When he turned from them he saw the man fully. An axe lay near to hand, and the front of his body still bore the icicles that had been rammed through him. Rushing back out Stone Path came to the raven.
“Spirit. Is this a certain future or a possible one? Can I change this?”
The wind picked up then, blowing snow with a thin sound at first that resolved into a wail, then a shriek. The flag on the pole where the raven sat snapped and cracked in the sudden gusts, flicking crystals into the air. The raven seemed unperturbed. Stone Path tracked the sound of the shriek as it went around the outside of the village, then between buildings.
“Warmth…” The word was drawn out in that wind. “I feel you.”
“Spirit,” Stone Path said quietly. “I beg you. Take me from this place.”
The raven ruffled its feathers slightly, then took to the air, hovering on one of the gusts a moment before continuing across the green. Stone Path chased after, watching the raven, the sky, and so he missed the obstacle until he fell over it. He tumbled and then got up, shaking his fur out, and turned to see what had tripped him.
Another body, yes. And packages wrapped in ribbons. This was the kinfolk woman from the Waystation. Her husband lay nearby. Both of them were images of frozen terror. And Hellion crouched over her, shielding her with his own form, teeth bared in pain and rage. A dozen icicles pinned his body to the earth.
“Must I take your warmth… again?” The wailing voice came and with it the cold. Cold that cut right through fur and flesh and buried itself in his joints. He could almost see it, the bending of light and shadow as it began to manifest itself. There was a hesitation on its part though, the wail fading in confusion.
And then the raven sank massive talons into his shoulders and he sat on the floor of his cabin in the dark. His bowl of half eaten stew lay overturned on the floor nearby. Reaching over he touched it. Frostbite was already healing on his fingertips but the stew was still warm. With a rush of motion he bundled himself into his boots and furs and ran out the door.