Calum parked in front of the cabin, and he and Rob took their luggage and groceries inside, stomping snow off their boots before crossing the threshold. A winter storm had moved through the area a few days ago, blanketing everything in white. The roads had been good, however, until they hit the narrow, bumpy lane leading to the lake. Calum had crept along its curves, hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel, and breathed a sigh of relief when they’d finally reached their destination.
Rob immediately checked the wood box next to the fireplace. “I need to do some chopping.”
“I’ll turn on the heat and put the food away while you’re playing mountain man.”
He laughed and pulled on heavy gloves. “You might want to get the water going, too, or we’ll be peeing outside.”
Calum heard the sharp smack of the ax as he dealt with the chores of making the cabin habitable. Rob had told him where everything was on the drive up, and getting things squared away didn’t take long. The air slowly warmed, initially smelling bad because the furnace hadn’t been used in a long time. He turned on the water and ran it in the kitchen sink, then crossed to the large window overlooking the lake. Someone had left the canoe right-side up on the shore, and it was full of snow. He didn’t know what the white lump next to it was. The cabin belonged to Rob’s parents, and they’d borrowed it for the weekend. Both of them looked forward to this mini-vacation.
There was still sunlight, but it wouldn’t be around long. Days were short this time of year. He peered at tracks winding across the frozen, snow-covered lake.
Rob came in with an armful of logs and dropped them in the box. “Let’s start a fire. Brrr, it’s chilly in here.”
“Come here. Look at this.” He indicated the view with a nod.
Rob stood beside him, giving off waves of cold, cheeks pink from being outside. “What am I looking at?”
“Those tracks across the lake. Notice how there are none in the yard? They just end.”
He squinted. “I don’t think those are human. Might be a goose.”
Calum studied them again. Maybe, but if it could fly, why walk? “I’m going to take a look.”
“I’ll take a look. You start lunch. I’m starving.”
He went to the kitchen and opened a cupboard door. “Soup and grilled cheese sandwiches?”
“You read my mind. We’ll eat in front of the fire.” He raised his eyebrows at Calum. “Because you’re starting one, correct?” He grinned. “I’ll be right back with another load of wood–after checking out your mysterious tracks.”
Calum stopped him at the door with a question. “What’s that lump of snow next to the canoe?”
“The sitting rock. Too big to move. It’s probably been there for centuries. I fished off it when I was a kid.” He raised the collar on his coat. “Did we get everything out of the car? It’s supposed to snow again soon, and once I’m in, I’m staying here a while.”
“We’re good, I think. Want me to help with the wood?”
“Nope. Food, man! My stomach’s rumbling.” Shooting Calum a smile, he was gone, banging the door behind him.
Fifteen minutes later, Rob still hadn’t returned. The soup was simmering, and a stack of grilled cheese sandwiches were in the oven, staying warm.
“Where the hell is he?” He stepped out on the porch and scanned the area. No sign of him. “Rob? Lunch!” No answer.
Back inside, he moved to the window and looked at the lake. Rob’s footprints were clear in the snow, running parallel to the first line of tracks. Now that he had a comparison, he saw Rob had been right: those hadn’t been made by a person.
When Rob still hadn’t returned after another half hour, Calum pulled on his winter gear, went out, and circled around to the lake. “Rob! Where the hell are you?” Rob’s footprints went all the way across the frozen water and into the shadows thrown by the trees on the other side.
Squatting at the edge of the snow-covered ice, he saw the tracks led to this shore, then whatever had made them had stopped, turned around, and gone back, overlaying the original prints. The few clear ones he saw didn’t look like they’d been left by a goose. The shape wasn’t quite right, and they were larger that those of a bird. Couldn’t be a dog or wild cat, either; he was familiar with their tracks. He’d never seen anything like them before, but that didn’t mean anything. He wasn’t much of a tracker.
He stood and followed Rob’s trail. The sun was already going down behind the trees on the opposite shore, and he hunched into his fleece jacket as a gust of icy wind blew out of the north. Dark heavy clouds were forming along that horizon. Snow coming later tonight or tomorrow. “Rob!”
The parallel lines of tracks led to the opposite shore, then north along the edge of it for about ten yards before cutting sharply east into the woods. Heaving a sigh, yearning for hot soup, melted cheese sandwiches, and a cozy fire, he plunged into the trees on a convenient game trail, calling Rob’s name every few yards.
It was hard going. There was just enough snow cover to hide roots and rocks, and he tripped a few times. Fir, evergreen, and oak crowded close, the latter forming a canopy overhead that kept out the light and made it feel later than it was.
Why had Rob gone this far? Why hadn’t he waited until after their meal? It would have been fun to solve this mystery together, with full stomachs and maybe a flashlight or two. As it was, he was irritated, and his fingers, in their inadequate gloves, were starting to ache with the cold.
Rounding a bend in the trail, he spotted a patch of blue in the sparse long grass off the path. He rushed over and picked it up: one of Rob’s gloves. Worried now, he pocketed it and kept going, staying on the meandering game trail as the woods got darker and the temperature steadily dropped.
Breaking out into a clearing, he halted, not sure what to do next. Keep going? Return home and call for help? He looked up. Where were the birds? Why was it so quiet? There should be crows or grackles around at least, fussing in the trees as they called to each other.
It was at that moment he heard a soft, sibilant chittering on his left. He turned in that direction but saw nothing. Then he heard the same noise on his right. Again, he caught no movement in the underbrush.
He opened his mouth to call for Rob again, then abruptly clamped his lips shut. Yelling felt like a bad idea.
He backed up until he was on the game trail again, then swung around and hurried back to the lake. Maybe he’d somehow missed Rob, who might be at the cabin right now, slurping soup and demolishing sandwiches, and wondering where Calum was.
He was about to round a curve that would bring the lake and the cabin on the opposite shore into view when something landed on his back. What felt like teeth sank into his shoulder, and something even sharper dug into his lower back.
Crying out, he stumbled and fell to his knees with the thing still on him. On the ground in front of him was a spray of blood. He gasped for breath, on the verge of panic. That wasn’t his. Rob’s then? Where the hell was he?
Whatever was on his back was doubling down: biting harder, digging deeper. Calum dropped and rolled back and forth, trying to dislodge it. He heard again the soft chittering of earlier, only now it sounded angry and impatient. The thing breathed on him; it smelled bad, and he gagged.
What the hell was it? He couldn’t get a good look at it.
Sick, terrified, feeling blood trickling down his back, he tried to rise so he could scrape it off against a tree, but several more of the creatures attacked–one from the front, one each on either side. Four of them then. What were they? He saw teeth, long, sharp, curving claws on what looked like feet, too short arms, feathers…. Feathers.
There was sharp pain everywhere as they tore into his flesh through his jacket and jeans, the chittering now loud short calls, and he tried to fight them, he really did, but he became weaker and weaker until….
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