“Be of good heart,” the voice boomed, shivering the walls and furniture. “I come at your invitation, after all.”
“M-my invitation?” Stone Path sorted himself to a sitting position and tried to breathe. The spirit – for spirit it had to be – filled the cabin with the bulk of a shaggy crinos bear. A bear from the dawn of the world. Shoulders against the ceiling, the spirit peered down at him. Its eyes were red and yellow flame that took up what space it did not. That… that and his whole cabin was piled with meat and fruits and jugs of drink. When he put his hand down to get to his feet he crushed a sweet bread of some kind and pudding oozed onto his floor. He tried to focus, keeping his voice respectful. “I don’t remember inviting you… I think I would have recalled having met you before, great spirit.”
“By your actions and inactions have you invited me,” the spirit rumbled cheerfully. “Have you not seen already my kinspirit? Now it is upon me.”
“Yes, I understand that you seek to guide me in some way. Will you tell me who you are?”
“I am the moment. The acclimation and splendor. I am the revel. Where my kinspirit was, I now am.”
“In… my cabin?” Stone Path aimed for clarification.
“In your tiny, lonely cabin!” The spirit boomed with boisterous agreement. “But not for long. Come, now. There is much and more to see.” It put out a great hand. Stone Path, pausing only a moment, wrapped his hand around the claw extending from its forefinger, noting that his fingers and palm did not meet. The bear stood up, somehow, dishes and food crashing around them and then…
It was evening, the sun setting around them and they stood in the center of the village that neighbored the Sept’s territory. There was noise and laughter though it was muffled, coming from indoors or from people bundled up against the cold.
“Here you are,” someone called from a shop doorway, waving. A woman came hustling past Stone Path, wrapped in layers of threadbare garments. She went to the man in the doorway who handed her a box. “There now. Got some nuts and dried apples in there, and I’ve put in an extra rabbit. The one you’d ordered wasn’t near big enough for your family’s Christmas.”
“Oh but I couldn’t-”
“Never mind that,” the man said, waving it off. “Wouldn’t have anything at all to give you if your husband hadn’t fixed the damage the storm did to my roof. One good turn to another, that’s all. Now go on before you freeze.”
“Alright… alright but I insist you come by Christmas day to share it.” The words come with a rush of visible breath. They came to agreement and the woman went back across the village square. The man glanced about, muttered an obscenity about the cold, and shut his shop door against the biting wind.
“It will make a fine feast,” the spirit rumbled. Stone Path turned, prepared to look up but was startled to see that the spirit was now a crinos rat. Before he could react to this, the spirit moved a hand.
“You shouldn’t give away the rabbits,” a woman’s voice said. They were inside the shop now, and the woman was busy making quick work of a pile of dead chickens.
“I gave away one rabbit,” the shop keeper noted. “And for good reason. Anyway, we’ve more than we can sell just now. Nobody’s got much of either coin or trade with how the harvest went. Have you told anyone?”
“About the animals all freezing?” The woman shook her head, pulling feathers out and down into a sack. “Only Samuel, on account of his goats did the same and I was counting on the milk. People are going to learn of it soon enough.”
“Ah, true.” The shopkeep chewed on the end of a fingernail. “Well, the meat will keep at least. I’m more worried about the river freezing.”
The woman paused in her plucking and looked at him. He looked back at her. And then they both set about their work.
“Why do they care about a river freezing? Rivers freeze.” Stone Path shook his head. “Spirit, what does it matter that they’ve one difficult winter?”
“True, one winter does not much matter.” The spirit turned to look at him, whiskers twitching. “And who ever worried about the thinning out of the human population? It’d only be for the betterment of Gaia.”
Hearing his own words out of a rat face did not particularly improve Stone Path’s attitude. Still, he didn’t respond as the spirit motioned again. Now they were inside a cozy little house, its main room not much bigger than his own cabin. A fire was low in the hearth, a small pail of coal and a short stack of wood near it.
“Alright, play fair you three.” The woman with the groceries was unpacking her lot, chiding the three children who were arguing over a set of toys. The smallest was barely at walking age, and the other two were a few years older each. He could not tell if they were boys or girls, bundled as they were even in the house. A man came in from the back door of the place, stomping his feet to warm them before moving to the fire to crouch in front of it.
“God, I swear it’s getting worse.” He rubbed his hands together in their gloves and all but put them in the fire. The woman came over and set one of the pieces of wood into it. He protested, but not much. His voice lowered. “Ice won’t break. Mill owner says if it don’t thaw we won’t have work.”
And then he was set upon by the three children in various stages of toddling and you wouldn’t have known his expression to have ever been one different from the jovial one he wore. Stone Path watched the children tackle their father, his appreciation for their pack tactics lessened by a small frown.
“Do they not provide for their people? Does this mill owner not have some way to make sure his workers aren’t left without?”
“Have you known it to be so?”
“I have.” Stone Path lowered his head to look at his hands. “My own master, when I was in my youth. When there was a fire in the row houses where his office was he gave us wages even while he found a new place to work from.”
“Not all have such care in their heart.”
“But they are his own people.”
It was faint protest, and when he looked up they were just outside the Waystation. It was almost dark now, the sun only hints of color over the plains to the west. Tracks in the snow muddled the ground and there were paper bags set up along the way down to the road, cut out in patterns with candles in them. Luminaries to light the path for any who would come. The Waystation itself looked warm, a bough of pine wrapped into a wreath hung on the front door. The spirit moved past him, going to the door and was quite suddenly a… crinos fox.
Stone Path stared at this form. He had never seen a fox shifter before, but there was something about this form that struck him more than the rest. The glow of its lambent eyes seemed to chase down its fur and all along its multiple tails. It was grinning, opening the door and going in. Stone Path followed, and then paused when he came to the greatroom of the Waystation.
Here his Sept was gathered. Shifters and kinfolk. Each of them in homid or lupus, laughing around the fire that had been built in the center of the room. Beyond them a feast had been quite thoroughly massacred and the Den Parent was handing out mugs of hot drinks or setting down bowls for the guests. The Talesinger was sitting on the back of a chair, teetering precariously as he finished up what seemed to be a rousing story about the antics of a squirrel and a dog and a fox and a unicorn. It was impossible to say what the tale was even about, but everyone laughed at the end or yipped or stomped a foot.
Stone Path watched them carry on, watched his nephew chatting up a married pair of kinfolk with something of an amorous gleam to his eye.
“As long as it doesn’t put a bug in anyone’s britches,” the man laughed. Hellion shook his head and waved the notion away.
“Where is your uncle, anyway? Not coming, again?” The woman looked around as if Stone Path might jump out from behind a curtain.
“Oh, no. No, he won’t come. He doesn’t go in for joy and games and frivolity.” Hellion picked up a jelly tart and picked at the edge of the crust. “It doesn’t stop the war, after all. And if it doesn’t stop the war it isn’t worth doing.”
“That sounds… terribly lonely,” the woman said quietly.
“It’s his own choice though,” her husband said. “Can’t make a shifter do anything they don’t want to. No offense, Sam.”
“None taken,” Hellion said with a wink. “Good thing I’m open to doing plenty.” That elicited a round of laughter. And then someone was proposing a game of lupus charades. And someone else noted that there wasn’t enough brandy for that.
Stone Path watched, caught up in the warmth of the room, the sound and noise and joy that filled the space. When the game started he was barely aware that he was trying to guess the answers, in spite of them not being able to see or hear him.
“My time is nearly over.” The spirit eyed him, musical voice cutting through the din of singing that had started up.
“Oh, just a little longer, please spirit,” Stone Path said. “They’re in the middle of the Ballad of Thunder Walking.”
“A fine song indeed, but this is not for you. You would rather dine in Malfeas, would you not, than remain here.”
Something about the tone made Stone Path stop and turn toward the spirit. But it was gone. And the music was gone. And the greatroom of the Waystation was dark and cold. Bitterly so. Frost covered the inside walls in spite of it being shut up. The hearth in the center held only ashes.