The pristine whiteness of the last night's snowfall was broken by a spreading patch of blood, so bright that it that it appeared unreal at first glance. But Edwin could feel the exact moment when the crunch under his shoes softened into slush. He seemed to be sinking into it, and the change made him come to a full standstill.
He resisted an urge to gag as the smell finally hit him. He could not, for the life of him, explain how it smelt red, full of warmth steaming up into the icy air, but it was there nonetheless. He cleared his throat, and uttered the same words he had been repeating for the last hour, through the woods: "Mr Stork?"
He knew it would do no good even as he spoke, because he had already seen the body lying on its back, no more than a couple of steps away, both arms and legs spread out as though Mr Stork had been making snow angels. But live high school teachers, even the really old ones who did make snow angels when they thought no one was looking, were of course not disemboweled and did not expose to the open air intestines and other organs usually put to much better use inside the body.
Edwin squeezed his eyes shut at the sight, but it did not help; the images inside his eyelids were just as vivid, and he could feel bile at the back of his throat. He opened his eyes again to the surety that he was going to melt into the whole mess. He backed away in staggering steps, and watched with horrified eyes as his own shoes made messy, fresh red marks on the snow.
"It smells of death here."
"No kidding," Edwin retorted before he could help himself and then nearly did fall over. "Yolan?!" It came out as an unmanly shriek, and a few clumps of snow floated down from the trees. There was no echo, so the sound simply ended into the distance, as though it had been sucked away.
But Edwin didn't have the energy to feel creeped-out at that. He stared at the other man, who had appeared some distance to his right. "Yolan," he said again, and began scrambling over. "Is it really you?" he said, and then, as he got closer, "You're not wearing shoes."
Yolan, his best friend, had been gone for two weeks. Well, not really gone, because it was Yolan's habit to go off into the woods when the mood took him and stay there for days, even weeks until a craving for computer games got too much for him. This occasion had just been longer than most of the previous ones.
"And you're wearing just-" Edwin was just about to pull off his jacket when Yolan shook his head. "You... don't need it," Edwin concluded. Yolan had never worn shoes that Edwin could remember and cold weather, too, never seemed to affect him. "Mother's given you sweaters every winter for the last six years," he ended up saying. He knew he ought to be talking about the corpse of Mr Stork lying not twenty steps away, but as always, Yolan commanded all his attention when he was present. "And you always wore them."
"I like Jennifer's sweaters," Yolan said, as though that explained everything. Just looking at him made Edwin feel cold. He was still wearing his Snoopy T-shirt and jeans, the same clothes he had on when he stood up one afternoon and said he was going to take a walk. Edwin would have suspected that Yolan was doing it to get out of algebra except that Yolan actually liked math. "Why are you in the woods?"
Edwin came back to reality with a thud - literally, as his feet slipped on the snow and he fell on his backside, which knocked the breath out of him. "Damn it," he said and tried to stand up. His eye caught a trace of red, and looking back, he saw a trail of bloody footprints from the blood surrounding the body.
"Here," Yolan said, and held out a hand.
Edwin grabbed it and pulled himself to his feet, noting in passing that Yolan's hand was surprisingly warm, considering his attire. "I was," he swallowed, "looking for Mr Stork. He said he saw you in the woods and knew where you were hiding. He said he would be at the lake," he said, referring to the small lake in the middle of the woods not far from the edge of the town. It was a popular hiking spot in the summer, and the trail was so well trod that every year at townhall meetings, someone would suggest laying down a brick road. But anyone going off the trail risked getting lost. "So I came, but I couldn't find him, so I decided to explore, but I saw him--" He pointed with a gloved finger, then stared.
The body was no longer there. The patch of blood was still there, but the eagle-spread body of one of Edwin's neighbours was gone. Beside him, Yolan said, "Too fast."
Edwin frowned in confusion. "What-" he began, but before he could complete his question, Yolan had grabbed his wrist and said, "Let's go." And then with that strength he could command at unexpected times, Yolan made for the thickest part of the woods, nearly dragging Edwin off his feet as he did so.
Edwin saved his breath for keeping up with Yolan; he had the feeling that Yolan would not be adverse to dragging him bodily if he had too, and his dignity was not about to allow that. His boots sank deep into the snow, and they were going into a part of the woods where few of the town dwellers ever ventured. If he were accompanied by any other person, Edwin would have protested the direction they were taking, but since it was Yolan, he followed.
The town of Weather "300 miles from everywhere", as a local wag had it, was on the very edge of the largest natural forest reserve on the continent, and it was so big that it had long been popular lore that some parts of it remained only sketchily surveyed and even that had been done in the last century, when the railways first came to this part of the country. Part of the reason was that some of the terrain was dangerous - rockfalls, and underground rivers, for example - but the real reason, if one had lived in Weather long enough to be privy to the gossip, was that parts of it were haunted.
Gossip told of phantoms and monsters that lurked in the darkest parts of the woods; a tree so old that its roots reached the centre of the earth; caverns so deep that one could see stars; werewolves and vampire bats and fire ants and deadly toodstools. Probably sentient mud as well, Edwin added to the list in his mind, trying for a touch of sarcasm to push away all the stories he had heard in the twelve years since he and his mother had came to Weather.
The oldest family - by lineage, not by age - in Weather scoffed at such stories. As well they might, Edwin thought. If he asked Yolan what was most dangerous in Weather, "a deer" would probably be the answer. But then Yolan knew the woods better than most.
"Yolan," Edwin asked, "where are we going?" and added, "I think my hand is going numb." An exaggeration, of course.
The iron grip around his wrist loosened, but Yolan dragged him on without reply. It was only after they had been going for more than half an hour without stopping, and were scrambling across a tiny stream half-covered by ice that Yolan said, "What do you think?!"
Edwin noticed that Yolan stepped into the icewater without changing expression and shivered. "What?" he asked. Sometimes it took an admission of ignorance for Yolan to notice other mortals, because otherwise Yolan had the tendency to assume that other people were just as perceptive as he was. It had taken three attempts before Yolan realised that Edwin really couldn't see through shapeshifters.
"We're trying to lead it back into the other side of woods," Yolan said, steadying Edwin over the slippery ice with his other hand on Edwin's upper arm.
"Oh," Edwin said before the rest of his brain caught up with him. "What do you mean, 'it'?" He had intended a demanding bellow, but at the last second instinct caught up with his vocal cords and it turned into a furious whisper which, given the frozen state of his cheek muscles, came out as an unintelligible.
Yolan's lips quirked in a smile, but he sobered again. "Quick," he said, "why do you think I came to look for you? I was on its trail for more than a day. I saw it kill - Over here!"
The last part of his reply softened in volume so suddenly as to be nearly inaudible, but the accompanying grab that nearly wrenched Edwin's arm from his shoulder was unmistakenable.
The smell of red - danger and death. Edwin's brain finally made the connection as his nostrils flared in reaction to the smell, and then two things happened at once: Yolan grabbed him in a tight hug, and the ground shifted beneath his feet, causing him to sink further into the snow, right up to his shoulders, and only Yolan's hand clamped over his mouth prevented him from exclaiming from alarm.
"Quiet, don't talk," Yolan said in his ear, obviously taking care to choose words without sibilants. "It'll hear."
Edwin swallowed. The smell was closer now, and he nodded once. The hand slipped from his face, but now he noticed that Yolan was plastered against his back, as though the snow was pushing them against each other. But it was colder than anything Edwin could have imagined, soaking right into his bones and making them ache. Unable to help himself, he began to shiver, but Yolan hugged him even more tightly than ever, and it felt to Edwin that he was being imprisoned by a cage of ice. He tried to struggle to no avail; Yolan had always been stronger than he looked.
Yolan's head nudged his own, and then Yolan said, "It can feel--" Yolan had meant to say "sense", Edwin could tell, from the nearly imperceptible puff of air against his frozen cheek, so cold that it did not steam--"your body heat."
Edwin thought, what? But he had no time to wish that he had demanded better answers from Yolan because at that moment, exactly what lumbered into view.
It was about eight feet tall, though that could have been because Edwin was looking at it from about ankle level. If that thing had ankles, he thought numbly, suddenly glad that he was too frozen to speak, because if he could, he would be - he would be--
He would be saving his breath for running.
Of course, he had heard the stories before, but he had never put much credence into them, because the youngest son of the oldest family in Weather had always laughed off the references to mountain men and grizzly bears and walking trees and who knew what, probably hobbits as well.
It was closer to nine feet, especially as it rose on its haunches and sniffed the air. The jaw, though furry, was surprisingly man-like, and the eyes were blue, Edwin noted with a detached curiosity that had passed shock two seconds ago and was wallowing in resignation. White fur that looked patchy in places covered it all over, though there were grey-green streaks that looked like moss. The bloodstains on the claws were turning brown.
Mr Stork's blood, Edwin thought.
It padded towards him and Yolan, its approach almost soundless. No wonder it had escaped detection all these years, Edwin thought. Yolan, next to him, gave a shrug.
Edwin's heart skipped a beat. It was never a good sign when Yolan did that.
The creature began digging right next to where they were, and Edwin started to struggle again. Clearly, while it could not see them, its instincts - or heat detector, or whatever talent it had - were good enough for it to find prey.
Yolan said distinctly, "Damn." The next moment, he released his hold on Edwin, and almost immediately put both hands around Edwin's waist and boosted him upwards.
That was when Edwin discovered that the overly soft snow was no longer, and instead it was only a snow-covered pit that they were in. Yolan's boost had sent him halfway to the top - away from the digging creature - and Edwin was too frozen to do anything more than wriggle until his entire body was above the pit. Then he watched as Yolan pulled himself up, limber as an acrobat, to stand next to him.
It darted backwards a few steps when they appeared, but it was approaching again, head turning from side to side as it surveyed them.
"You can't have him," Yolan said, coming to stand between Edwin and the creature.
Edwin wondered if the creature understood human speech, then realised it didn't matter. He hadn't come across a living object that didn't understand Yolan. He talked to flowers and birds as easily as speaking to his mother and sisters, even if, according to Yolan, the former group didn't often answer and the latter never stopped.
The creature continued its approach.
Edwin swallowed, wondering why he wasn't running yet. But he was so cold that it was all he could do to stand. Even his eyelids seemed frozen in place, for all that it seemed cowardly to simply shut one's eyes and wait for death...
"You already had one."
It took Edwin a second to realise that Yolan was referring to Mr Stork.
"You shouldn't have come so close." And then, "He's mine."
Edwin opened his eyes because Yolan's voice was coming from further away, and he saw that Yolan was now standing face to face - well, face to chest - with the creature.
There was a growl that could have raised the hair on Edwin's head. It was soft, and so low that it strained at the edge of his hearing. The ground seemed to vibrate.
Yolan only shook his head. He said, "I mean it," and bent down. At first Edwin thought he was picking up something from the ground, but he could only blink when Yolan pulled up a sheet of... snowflakes. It sparkled all over in the sunlight. It was about as large as a tablecloth and seemed wispy enough to float in a draft, but when Yolan flung it over the creature, it seem to expand even further in size, covering its head and entangling its limbs so that it tripped and fell heavily to the ground. It struggled, and then was still.
Though his muscles were still uncooperative, Edwin managed to pronounce from a thickened tongue, "Is it dead?"
Yolan shook his head. "It'll live. But we better get out of here in the meantime." He seemed so sublimely blasé that Edwin simultaneously felt relief and an urge to punch him in the face. But then Yolan turned to him, "Are you all right?"
"Will it-" Edwin began, "It killed Mr Stork! It could-" He stopped as Yolan came up to him, and took his hand.
"It won't kill anyone else. It can't find its way to Weather any more."
"But Mr Stork-"
"There is no body. Nobody knows what happened to him."
"Look at the way it's snowing," Yolan said, and at that exact moment it began snowing, snowflakes falling so thickly that they caught on Edwin's eyelashes. "I don't think you can find anything in this. Besides, what are you going to say, an abominable snowman killed him?"
"It's the last of its kind," Yolan said squeezing his hand. "Let it live."
Edwin's eyes met his and after a few seconds, he looked away. "Yeah."
They started to walk through the woods together. Surprisingly, the trees that had seem so thickly clustered in their mad dash hours ago now seem widely spaced enough for them to walk arm in arm. Neither glanced back.