The snowstorms had ceased, leaving behind clear but desolate skies. There was no sound reaching Anton’s ears except the crunching of snow from his boots and the sled behind him. As he began walking, still a day from home, he saw the comforting sights of smoke from the chimneys of the farm and the town. He was nearly back.
He walked onward with renewed vigor, eager to return home with his catch. As his steps carried him forward, his eagerness gradually turned to dread. He wasn’t so close to Dungannon that the smoke from chimneys should be so clearly spotted. It was thick, black smoke.
He dropped the sled from his shoulders, running as quickly as he could through the snow towards the town. His better sense came over him and he slowed his past to a fast walk, one that would likely still exhaust him by the time he arrived but at least he wouldn’t collapse before he got there. His lungs and legs burned, but he kept pushing himself to move. His stomach growled from its prolonged hunger, reminding him why he had been away hunting.
He first spotted the Krantz farm from atop a nearby rise. His legs stopped as he took in the sight, his mind unable to process what he had already imagined was true. Black smoke slowly rose from the scene, but it was thinner than it had been. Barns were scorched and collapsed, and the family home was a smouldering pile of rubble. Anton fell to his knees, then forward onto his face. The cold snow shocked him enough to rattle him into action.
He shakily pushed himself up to one knee, then used a nearby tree to pull himself onto his feet. He ran forward once again, ignoring the burning pain in his legs and his lungs and fully giving into the sense of delirium that overcame him.
Spots of red stood out in one the white snow, next to the black. Blood. The first body he came across was a cow, emaciated but one they had hoped would grow quickly in the spring. Her body was lying in a collapsed barn, clearly killed before the fire. Why? Anton staggered further towards the house, where he saw more blood… and more bodies. His children… not young anymore but grandparents… them and their wonderful spouses, loved parts of the family. Next came some grandchildren, young but old enough to be parents- and most were.
“Hello? Anyone?” Anton called out, hoping to find someone alive, someone he could save. No response came. He called out again and again as his legs carried him past the farm, but he heard nothing.
Automatically, he walked into town. He wasn’t thinking anything, but if he had been… he wanted to find anyone alive, someone he could save or talk to to ask what happened. Unfortunately, he already knew.
The bandits. That gang of cultivators that had been growing stronger for the last decade. Even normal bandits wouldn’t be so brutal. Living people could be stolen from again, and there was no profit in burning down buildings. He should have come faster.
He staggered into town, completely unaware of his own body. Dungannon proper was exactly the same as the Krantz farm, merely burned out husks of buildings and bodies of all sorts surrounded by snow covered ground. Most of the fires had sputtered out. Anton called out for anyone until his throat was raw, and even more beyond that.
As soon as he saw the camp he should have run to town. He could have warned them. What did food matter?
His feet carried him back and forth until his tracks criss-crossed the city square many times. There were a few tracks not his own, but he couldn’t tell if they were coming or going. He started to follow them out of town, towards Graotan. His brain told him there was something there. His body told him it could do no more.
Before he even reached the edge of town, he collapsed face first into the snow. He didn’t even feel the cold, the burning of his lungs, the pain in his legs… none of it registered to him. No coherent thoughts crossed his minds, merely ideas of how he could have arrived faster. How he could have changed his route to spot the camp on his way out. How he could have immediately returned to warn people. As if… such actions would make a difference. What would people have done? Prepared to fight? Fled their homes in the middle of a snowstorm? He didn’t have answers to that. He didn’t have answers to anything. At least he was going to die with everyone else. He almost smiled at that thought as consciousness left him, but he had neither the strength nor sufficient ironic joy.
Heaven was cold. Or was it hell? Heaven wasn’t supposed to be painful. If it was hell… it wasn’t as bad as he thought, until his memories came back to him. Then it was worse. He opened his mouth to cry out, but he had no strength for that.
Bright light streamed into his eyes from the sky. Light mixed with snowfall. When had he gotten on his back? He thought he heard something. A hand touched his chest and his head. Something soothing flowed into him. It was like cool water on a hot day, but in the cold it was also like a toasty fire and a hot cup of tea. Then he heard something. A voice, calling to him.
His eyes focused on a man in front of him. His throat… was just barely able to make sound. “…Vincent?”
“I saw the smoke. I ran here from Graotan. I know this is hard, but did you… see where they went?”
Anton tried to shake his head, but he couldn’t. “…no.” Breathing was hard. “Saw their camp.”
“You found it?” Vincent’s eyebrows furrowed. “Where is it?”
“Can… show you…” Anton tried to stand up, but he could barely even move his fingers, let alone raise his body. “It’s… out in the forest. By the oak with the… seven knots…”
“I don’t… know the place.” Vincent sighed.
“… drag me.”
“If I move you, you’ll die,” Vincent replied.
“…So? If you can kill… the bandits… at least I’ll die for something.”
Vincent grinned, “Determination… that’s good. Fine. Point me in the right direction.”
Anton had given piggyback rides to his children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. It had been probably ninety years since he had gotten one himself, give or take a few years. Yet he found himself picked up like a little child. He knew he wasn’t as heavily muscled as he had once been, and there was no fat left on his bones… but he hadn’t expected to find himself so casually carried. Nor had he expected to then move so quickly.
“Sorry about this, Anton. I’m sure it’s not comfortable.”
Anton had no energy to respond to the thought of discomfort. He could barely keep his eyes open as he bounced along, the scenery blurring past him- and not just because of his poor eyesight. He directed Vincent with as few words as possible, guiding him along towards his tracks, partially covered with new snow. However, he hadn’t taken the straightest route from the camp. He’d gone the easy way, but he pointed Anton straight towards the camp, away from his tracks. At least, they would get close. For all his apologies, the motion from being carried by Vincent was… quite minimal. No worse than walking speed on a horse. He recalled seeing him move smoothly over the land before, and he imagined it was the same now… though he couldn’t see his feet. Leaning would be inadvisable, so he stayed draped over the man. “A few degrees right. Straight through that tree.” At first he had thought he would have to find slightly traversable paths, but as Vincent jumped over a stream ten paces wide he realized they could be a bit more efficient. At the speed they were going… they would arrive at the camp in less than an hour. Assuming Vincent could keep it up. Not only was that true, but Anton felt the speed actually increased.
“I see it…” Vincent said. “But I don’t sense anyone nearby. Rest here for a moment, Anton.”
Anton smiled, preparing to close his eyes for the final time. Vincent would surely catch them now. At least… nobody else would suffer.
“Damn,” the expletive pulled him out of his reverie. “So that was how they hid. The formation only broke because of the excessive snow. With a formation master among them…” Vincent continued speaking to himself, “… and they must know the formation broke as they were out. They likely won’t return here.” Anton saw Vincent bury his head in his hands. “Just empty tents…”
“How can I… help…” Anton couldn’t just die now. They were so close.
“I’m sorry. There’s nothing more you can do. This is the best lead possible, and it might allow me to find them in the future now that I know.”
“… gonna kill them…” Anton muttered.
“Of course I am. You’ve seen what they do. Killing them will bring justice.”
Anton wasn’t listening to Vincent. Instead, he was trying to get to his feet. “I’m… gonna kill them.” Somehow, he made it to his feet before toppling forward. “Gonna… get… them…” Once more, his consciousness faded.