This soft glow of light that cast his shadow against the wall wouldn’t have been from fire or candle flame. Turning, he found himself facing fire. It floated freely in the middle of his space, an seemed to be no more than the displaced tongue of candle flame. Then it grew, changed, and shaped itself into something almost homid. A being made of pale wood, the flame wreathed its head in a way that burned but did not consume it. Fire was its visage as well, lines on the smooth surface that looked to be eyes and a mouth. The mouth spread into a smile.
“Spirit,” he said, and tried to perceive what manner of spirit it was that hovered before him. Try as he might, though, he could not wrap his head around it. “If you are a friend then be welcome in my home.” But the caution in his tone made the spirit laugh. A light, soft sound.
“You honor me. But then you have ever honored the spirits, have you not?”
“As is correct for my Auspice.” Glancing around, he noticed that while he cast a shadow, nothing else in the room did. There was illumination but to his eye all around him was flat, as if he was seeing a drawing of his room. “I am dreaming,” he said aloud. “This is a dream.”
“Think you so? You were told of my coming. Take you so lightly the words of your teacher?” The spirit flickered as he looked back at it. Taking a step forward, unafraid of a dream, he looked closer. The wood grain that made up the spirit was a constantly changing thing, but it was not simply lines. The patterns were made up of glyphs. They moved too quickly for him to make out.
“If not a dream, then what are you then?”
“I am the previous,” the spirit offered. “I am which came before. I am what were.”
“Not a very definitive explanation,” Stone Path muttered. “And you are supposed to be some sort of guide? Well if you are a guide, then guide me. If you are just some stew that’s gone off then be truly gone.”
But even as he finished speaking the cabin around him melted away in a sudden, incandescent glow. He blinked once, twice, and then they were standing on a street corner. It was afternoon, the sun hiding behind heavy grey clouds. Stone Path’s breath caught and he did a slow turn.
“Know you this place?”
He frowned at the spirit and then laughed and shook his head a little.
“Know it? This is home?” And it was just that. Carriages rumbled past, horseshoes clattering and wheels set in ruts carved in the frozen street. As he stepped back from the sudden noise a pair of boys ran past and grabbed hold of the back of the carriage and dropped to crouch. Their worn shoes slid along on the ice and they whooped and laughed and held on until the coachman spotted them and half stood with his whip. They released the back end and ran off down an alleyway. Stone Path half made to follow before he caught himself.
“That was Jacob and… and Phillip. I…” He swallowed his words and turned on the spirit. “What is this? How are we here?”
“Memory. These are shadows of before.”
“Again you answer without answering.” But Stone Path was already looking past the spirit to the building behind them. Moving to the window he peered in.
“They all played and made the fool. And who is here then, who does not?”
Inside the house, through windows that had been kept unblocked so that light could come in, a woman lay on a bed. She groaned and twisted under a layer of blankets. A little boy sat at her side, wringing a cloth and wiping her forehead. The boy glanced anxiously at the door to the room, but back to the woman each time she made another plaintive sound. After what seemed to Stone Path an eternity, a man came through that door followed by a woman with one arm.
“You need to heal her,” the little boy said weakly.
“Won’t bother if we heal her as she is. She needs to be Cleansed.” The woman looked at the man, then the boy. “Get the shutters. We can’t risk moving her.”
The boy sprang up and went to first one window, shutting it tight from inside, and then to the window where Stone Path and the spirit stood. The boy glanced nervously outside, right through them, and shut the windows up. Another moment passed, and then the pale glow of a Circle of Cleansing peeked through the cracks in the shutters and there was a terrible, wrenching scream.
Stone Path stepped back. “Take me from here.”
The light from the window spread, grew, swallowed up everything and then faded once more. Squinting in the remaining glare, Stone Path frowned at the spirit. “Can’t you be less blinding?”
The spirit tilted its head back. “You spend your days banking my coals and would ask more of me? Consider consider.”
“Yes. Yes… well…” A bit uncertain, he looked around and changed the conversation. “I know this place.” Snow fell lightly around them, and the early morning showed a house at the edge of the city, where it gave way to farms and woods. “How many times have I walked this road?” And he walked it now, toward the sound of laughter and music. A young man and woman ran past, hands clasped tightly. They laughed and ran up to the door of the house, pausing there.
“You’re sure it’s alright?” The young man said, and the earnest concern suddenly there was an echo of the child from before.
“Of course. My parents think you’re a ‘decent young man’.” The woman made her voice husky to imitate her father. She nudged her companion. “Anyway, I don’t care what they think. You and I have a promise between us. You and I…”
“…until the moon falls out of the sky.” The young man laughed a little, nodded. “Yeah. Well, with the work I’ve got now, we’ll be well on our way. I… wanted to wait until Christmas but…” He fished something from his pocket and held it out. It was a skeleton key with a little tag on it. After a moment of confusion, the woman’s face lit up.
“The house! You’ve bought the house.”
“I’ve bought the house,” he said, grinning. Taking her hand he put the key in, wrapped it and her hand in both of his. “I haven’t been able to tell you everything about my life before, but that doesn’t matter anymore. It isn’t who I am or what I want. You are.”
Stone Path turned and walked away. The spirit followed, watching him. He didn’t have a clear path in mind, that was obvious, but when he looked up from the road he froze in his tracks.
“Oh. No, spirit. Not this place.”
“But this is part of what went. Where were. Tell me.”
“I…” Stone Path looked at the house and its fields. Its barn and the little house closer to the road where a sign said ‘clinic’. “She wanted to tend to the veterans. Said it was the least we could do for them, after all they gave. Men with broken bodies and broken minds. I could deny her nothing, and so….” He walked to the clinic door and through it. It was less hospital than boarding house, and they passed men missing legs, arms, eyes. Men who sat and stared out at the snow. There was the sound of pain from another room and he slowed. “There was a man that came in. Spoke of war and horrors. He didn’t seem dangerous. Perhaps a bit mad but we had dealt with those kind before. This one though… he had wandered off into the fields and I went to fetch him. He attacked me. It was a mess, a blur. He fought like an animal. I half expected him to shift but he didn’t. Still, I was no match for him. When they found me it was hours later. I’d been in the snow. I was in a bad way and they brought me back here.” Pushing open a door he went through, his voice distant. “I was so sick. Infection and exposure. And then…” He looked at his own form on a sweat-soaked bed, younger, body bent and straining under the sheets. “And then.”
Stone Path turned his head but didn’t look away. The woman tried to soothe his stricken self, tried to get him to calm, to drink some poppy, anything at all. And then the creak of bone and sinew and her concern turned to terror as Delirium set in. He couldn’t turn away now, reaching out a hand though he knew there was no way to save her. Not her, not the men in this place.
“I thought myself out of the war. I was too young for man’s war and I hadn’t shifted to join my father in his. But the war found me, and I brought it to those who never deserved it.”
“You carry all of what was within. How do you honor them? What parts are brightest?”
“What does it matter? The war is what it is, and we are better off when those who don’t belong in it are as far from it as possible.” Stone Path barely realized that he was back in his own cabin. Hardly noticed that he was alone. Wiping a hand over his face, finding it damp, he moved through the darkness to his bed and lay on it. Sleep did not come.