No time, he knew. Shifting he raced down the road to the village.
It was purely dark, the moon and stars hidden behind the haze and clouds. He didn’t need them to see, but he could pick out the village only by its silhouette against the snowy surroundings. No one was out this late but he slowed his movement and focused his thoughts and then called on the gift to see the world’s reflection. The silvery glow of that place was beautiful and crystalline and the village’s reflection was made there in ice.
The soft sound he had heard before came again, and he sought it out. It was a little sad song, in the voice of a child. There was no rhyme or reason to the song. It was clearly made up. But toward the end of the song…
“And the rabbit’s taken all the cakes
He’s left none here for me
Or so he thinks but I have hidden
A cake under my hat
The cake is sweet and tasty
But I can’t eat it anymore
My hands are cold and I can’t feel
The cake under my hat…”
The song faded into a sigh, and a little sad sound that came across as a bit of a wail. He knew that wail, in a much more terrible incarnation.
A little glimmer of light came, between two of the houses. A pinpoint of flame that flared, faded, died out. And then again, and again. With careful motions, he closed the distance. When he saw the spirit and it saw him they both stopped and went quiet.
“Oh hello.” It was a sigh, and the spirit that looked like a little girl watched him without any sign or concern.
“Hello,” Stone Path said, and studied the spirit the way he had learned. This was a jaggling, and a strong one. It was a spirit of Cunning, and the spirit’s name… “Oh, of course.” Then with another effort he tried to sense its nature. Corruption oozed around the spirit like the threadbare cloak it wore, sulfuric and strong. “Why do you sit here, spirit, all alone?”
“They brought me here,” she said without hesitation. “They came across land through all of the seasons and in this season especially they carried me. Over and over they spoke of me. And so here I am. In the cold.”
“Dreaming of warmth and joy and comfort.”
“Those things…” She stopped, frowned as she turned to face him. “Those dreams… I almost remember but it has been so cold and dark and these people know little of comfort and warmth and joy. I freeze and they do nothing. And so…” Her gaze moved to the houses around her and the air in the physical world dropped several palpable degrees.
“But I know of comfort, and joy, and warmth. Will you let me show you those things again?”
“The world is cold and dark,” she sighed. “What could there be of comfort here?”
“Let me show you. I am called Stone Path, and I have been called honorable and wise by some. Please allow me to prove this to you, and help you go no longer without your dreams.”
The girl got to her bare feet, and stepped toward him. He could feel the oily taint of the Wyrm around her, like the soot on her face. Like the ash on her fingers. Lowering himself, ducking his head, he offered her his back. When she touched him he fought a shiver. She was barely there, but he felt a weight of more than something physical as she set herself on his back, fingers pushing into his fur. Cold pushing down into his bones.
He did not wait another moment, racing back toward the forge. Cold started to take his speed, creeping into his joints, making his body numb. He knew there was frost on his entire body, and if not for his determination he knew he would not make it back. As it was, by the time he got to the forge his body was sluggish, his thoughts muddy.
“Warmth,” the small voice said. “So warm. I want all of it.”
Staggering, he shoved through the door and brought his front paws both down on the bellows on the floor. The air heaved into the forge fire and it sent a rush of sparks and heat from the banked coals.
“Here. Stand. Here.” He panted it out and she slid from his back, gliding toward the enticing fire. With his own weighted movements he walked around the fire, around the spirit, describing a circle on the wooden floor with a dragged claw. The forge space lit up with the lambent glow of the Circle of Gaia’s Cleansing. The spirit let out a wail and came at him and he snarled and set his will against hers.
— — —
When dawn came Hellion stopped in at the forge. He found the fire burning strong and his uncle there, curled up in wolf form against the side of the fire. The little carving of the bird that Rebecca had made sat between his paws, nestled under his muzzle as if he were keeping it safe and warm.
Stone Path would not speak of what happened to his nephew, or to the other members of the Sept. He only ever told Rebecca the story, later on Solstice day after the games and songs and stories had all had their turn and he and the cub sat and watched the Waystation fire die down. He knew it was a tale that needed telling. And, he told her, while he did not believe that humanity needed to be anywhere near their war, he understood now what the spirits had been trying to tell him.
It was never about caring about humans, or even liking them. But they were part of the world, and as they went so went the Triat. By watching and listening and keeping them in care, they proved the barometer for all the good and ill of the world. It took so little for the Wyrm to have its way, and he would be damned if he let it have its way with anything. Even just a little village.
Stone Path was as good as his word to the spirit. He kept the fetish close for his whole life, sharing its curious property of perpetual warmth with whoever needed that comfort. At his Gathering for the Departed, many years later, per his request the fetish was set on his pyre. The spirit was released and appeared with his own at the ceremony, a guiding flame to his Homelands.
Rebecca, finally released from her own promise, stood at his Gathering and told this tale. When she finished no one could say it was not true, though certainly some did not believe her. But she alone saw the three other spirits who came to the Gathering, and each Solstice after for the rest of her days she told the tale of Ben Vandenberg, called Stone Path, Klaivesmith and Teacher and friend to all who knew him.