Chapter 1

Aido had left Dinérva weeks ago. He had left the beautiful city for a different city hidden behind tall mountains. Now he had left that city, as well, and was traveling towards the hilly center of Inaar, to a region called Ievai. According to Shmee, it was going to take a long time to get there, but everyone was grateful that things would be flat for a while. Hiking in and out of Blossom City had been pure hell in Aido’s opinion.
“We should probably avoid the towns on our way to Ievai,” Shmee informed them, reading her well-worn map. “Ievai is really close to Inaar City, and we don’t want to attract any attention.”
“Yeah, Aido,” Sarita teased. Aido scowled at her.
“Those towns would probably be boring, anyway,” he commented dryly. “Better to be safe in the woods than risk ourselves in a town. Inaar City would be too dangerous at this point.”
Not to mention that he was getting accustomed to sleeping on the ground. It wasn’t as uncomfortable as it had been when he left home. He had become more travel-hardened since then.
“We should probably get some sleep for the night, too,” the usually quiet Rest told them. “It’s getting late.”
“But we can get a couple more miles in before it gets dark!” Aido protested. Maybe he was getting a little too used to traveling. Rest shook his head.
“No. The dark has been changing. It gets dark earlier now, can’t you tell?”
“Yeah,” Shmee said. “I thought my mind was just playing tricks on me. I’m glad I’m not going crazy.”
Sarita let out a derisive snort. “Keep telling yourself that.”
Shmee ignored her. “Maybe the Spirits are waking up the One True God?”
Their whole travels were based on the hope that they could find all the Spirits, who were like demi-gods who lives on the world of Ékal. The Emperor had been trying to capture them, and had succeeded in catching both the Spirit of the Lake and the Spirit of the Wing, and there was reason to believe the Spirit of Time was becoming threatened, as well. Aido had to warn the Spirits to go to the Circle of Heaven, which was the most sacred place in the universe. There, the Spirits would call together to wake up the One True God, the Inaar, who would then right the world.
They only had to find three more Spirits, and the world would be at peace again.
“No,” Aido commented, his words coming out slowly. Everyone in their group understood that when Aido spoke so slowly, he was relaying information that his shadow Momo was telling him. “The Inaar cannot be awakened at all until all the Spirits have congregated. The only thing Momo can think of is that maybe the Spirit of Time is tampering. He probably knows something.”
The Spirit of Time was the Spirit who controlled the seasons and calendars, as well as being the guardian of the dragon riders. Ever since they found the corpse of the dragon and its rider outside of Blossom City, they knew that the Spirit of Time must know that something was amiss.
“And we still don’t know how to find him?” Sarita exclaimed, frustrated. Shmee shook her head, her black locks bobbing up and down with the movement.
“All I know from my lore is that he lives on the highest cloud.”
“And that’s helpful,” Sarita mumbled, kicking at a rock. Shmee flinched.
“I said I was sorry. You don’t need to be mean about it.”
“We could’ve asked the Spirit of the Forest!” Sarita’s almond-shaped eyes narrowed even more as she glared at Shmee. “Maybe the Spirit of Time is in Lorhien Forest, too, and we’d waste all our time having to walk across the country and back!”
“We can ask the Spirit of the Hills,” Aido pointed out, but Sarita barked with laughter.
“As if. He’s a lying good-for-nothing monster!”
Rest let out a weary sigh. “Aido, take whatever she says about the Spirit of the Hills with a grain of salt. It’s her nature to not like them. The Spirits of the Hills and the Volcano loathe each other.”
Sarita scoffed. “You’ll change your mind when you meet him. Then you’ll be kissing my feet!” She whirled around, her three fox tails whooshing behind her as she stormed away from the others in a huff.
“I guess she’s sleeping in the woods tonight,” Shmee commented, setting her things down. “I like sleeping in meadows. Less roots. Sarita’s crazy to run back into the trees.”
“I’d say,” Rest replied with a frown. “Bringing a kitsu with a grudge might not be the smartest idea.”
Aido looked up at the man in alarm. “What are you saying?! We’re not going to abandon her!”
“I didn’t say that. I’m just saying she might get us into a bit of trouble. Shmee shot a glare at Rest.
“A kitsu is the least of our worries. I’d say Aido is the riskiest one here.” She glared at Rest and Aido groaned. Ever since Blossom City, Rest and Shmee had been very cool towards each other, and Shmee was even beginning to pick arguments with him. He didn’t know what sparked this sudden change between them, since they had seemed pleasant enough before they went into Lorhien Forest. Now, they could hardly look at each other, nor would they explain to Aido and Sarita just why they were acting this way.
“That one is a given, Shmee,” Rest replied evenly. “I’m saying that if we should come across werewolves, her attitude might lead to some sort of injury.”
“I know that,” she shot back crabbily. “I’m just saying!”
Aido set his things down, blocking out their argument. It was better to ignore it. That fight would fade on its own. He closed his dark blue eyes, and in his mind, he reached out for Momo.
“I don’t like how there’s so much fighting going on,” he told Momo sadly, keeping his voice low enough so that Shmee and Rest couldn’t hear him. “Sarita, Rest, Shmee… why are they like this?”
“Probably different reasons.” Momo’s low voice entered his mind like his own thoughts, only her voice was out of his control. She was her own being. “Sarita’s just made about going to the Hills, and something must have happened between Shmee and Rest.”
“You told me that before. They told us that after we got separated in the Forest, they just went west until they made it out.”
“That doesn’t mean something could have happened to them in the meantime,” Momo replied slyly. Aido shook his head, a weary smile forming on his lips.
"You’re not giving up, are you?"
"Never. I think you may have noticed by now that I’m very persistent."
That she was; whenever she wanted to make a point, she wouldn’t stop bringing it up until she’s made it. Aido learned that the hard way when he found out he had a shadow, and that he had no choice but to help the Spirits.
"Anyway, I hope everyone starts getting along again. I don’t want to be stuck traveling for the rest of my life with a bunch of grumps."
"I hardly think it will be the rest of your life."
"It could be," he told his shadow darkly. He could very well die in this endeavor. He lay back on the spongy grass. Ever since he began learning about necromancy from Momo, he was slowly losing his fear of dying. The only thing that truly worried him was how he would die, and what would happen to the world if he did. It must have been how Momo had felt as she had been executed; leaving the world, knowing that it was doomed, was a very real fear.
Shmee and Rest had seemed to stop arguing, for he heard a rustling as Shmee set her pack beside him. "Everything is too complicated," she grumbled. Aido knew better than to respond to that; he didn’t want her venting at him.
Sure enough, she fell silent, so Aido was left to the sanctuary of his own mind… and Momo.
How were they going to last like this for the next two and a half weeks? That’s how long Shmee said it would take to get to the Ievai Hills, and it was definitely going to be a long two and half weeks if nobody was talking.
To keep himself occupied, Aido spent as much time as he could learning. Rest was teaching him self-defense with his dagger, Shmee was teaching him important lore, and Momo was teaching him necromancy. Sarita, on the other hand, was simply his distraction; whenever he needed a breather, he just spent some time with her. Doing so much all the time helped him keep his mind off of all the fighting and homesickness.
It also helped to think about the Spirits; they provided a puzzle that he could focus on. For example, was the Spirit of the Hills going to kill him if he found out that Aido had visited his enemy, the Spirit of the Volcano? And how was he going to free the Spirit of the Wing from his chains at the top of a mountain? And how was he supposed to find the Spirit of Time? Momo, for her part, tried helping him think of ideas and giving him different spells to try, but usually she only taught Aido bits and pieces of necromancy.
Necromancy. The one thing Aido was comfortable with when it came to magic. He could read the final thoughts of the dead with ease. He could reanimate corpses to do his bidding, suck the life energy from people, travel to the Halls of the Spirit of the Grave, and so much more. He was becoming powerful, and it was exciting to him. He had never dreamed of having power like this.
"Aido?"
He had to be careful not to become power-hungry, though, or else he might become—
"Aido!"
"What?" Aido blinked, surprised. He didn’t hear Shmee talking to him. She frowned.
"Stay with us, kid. I think you’re spacing out way too much," she commented.
"Sorry." Aido’s eyes were glazing over again.
"You’ve really changed in the past few months, have you noticed that?" Shmee’s tone didn’t suggest that she approved. Aido forced himself to focus, and he flushed.
"What do you mean?"
"I don’t know… you don’t seem to be as carefree as you used to be. Are you scared about the Spirits?"
"Oh, no," Aido replied, laughing weakly. "I’m not scared at all."
"Maybe that’s what’s changed," she remarked. "Not too long ago, you were terrified of doing this, remember?"
"Yes," he growled. He didn’t like remembering how he was when he first discovered he had Momo. He had been ignorant then, but now he couldn’t imagine being without her. "But I’m not scared now."
"I know."
An awkward silenced elapsed between them. He looked up at the sky. Was it really just a couple days ago that a dragonrider brought dark clouds and thunder across the mountains, whooping in triumph as he did so? And only one day since they had found that same dragon and rider’s corpse strewn across the valley? Aido shook his head. The memory was far too vivid. The Emperor was now beginning to attack other races. He could only pray that the Spirit of Time didn’t try to come down to interfere; that’s what led to the downfall of the Spirit of the Lake and the Spirit of the Wing.
Sarita and Rest returned eventually; Rest had gathered firewood, and Sarita fell asleep the moment she came back, having eaten something her fox body must have scrounged up in the woods. With her asleep and her chattiness asleep with her, the other three had a very silent dinner. Apparently, neither had refused to back down from their argument and decided on a silent truce.
Were you ever like them? Aido asked Momo, retreating to his mind again.
"Never," she replied. "Then again, I wasn’t too much of a social sort. I mostly kept to myself and my books. I hated conflict."
So I can’t wait till this one is over.
"Which one?" Momo asked teasingly. "The one with your friends, or the one with the world?"
Both.
Momo laughed inside his head. "They’ll both be solved, in time. I believe in you, Aido, and I believe that you can ease any conflicts you face."
Inspired, he looked from Shmee to Rest. Both were keeping their eyes down, glued to their dinner. Maybe he could try to resolve their conflict…
"This is dumb," he announced. Shmee, surprised, almost dropped her bowl, and Rest simply frowned.
"What?"
"You two. You’ve both been so… crabby to each other since we left Lorhien Forest, and I’m getting sick of it."
"Aido—" Shmee began, but Aido waved his hand in dismissal.
"No. You don’t have any excuse for it, and I don’t want to travel with people who can’t even have a good conversation with each other!"
Rest gave him an appraising look. "You don’t understand the… complexity of the situation, Aido—"
Aido let out a hollow sort of laugh. "Please. I don’t understand how complex a situation could be? Look at me!" He gestured to the shadow beneath him, accentuated by the sunset. "I can’t go into a town without worrying about being arrested. I had to do so many complex things on my own. Whatever happened between you two is beyond that— this is just petty."
Shmee’s mouth was hanging open and Rest never ceased his unreadable stare. Aido knew he was probably being harsh, but he needed to slap them back to their senses. He honestly couldn’t handle them acting so childishly when they had to do something so important. Really, what would the other Spirits say when they saw their saviors were quarreling like children?
After what seemed like an eternity, Shmee nodded ever-so-slowly. "I’m sorry. You’re right, Aido." She sighed. "You’ve just got to understand… things aren’t that simple between Rest and me."
"They don’t need to be," Aido replied firmly. "I don’t care if things are simple, complex, or strange. Just… the world is having enough trouble already. We don't need you to add to ours. It's making everyone grumpy."
Rest looked down, almost shamefully. "You are right. I wish I had seen it before." He balled his scarred hand into a fist, and smacked the ground with it. "I'm becoming too humanlike. I was a grace. Of the Serenity tribe! I shouldn't be like this. Yes, it was a mistake, but I should not hold a grudge."
"And I'm old enough to know better," Shmee added ruefully. "It's not like…" Her eyes flickered to Aido. "Never mind."
Aido looked at the two of them suspiciously, but didn't ask for any details. If they wanted to tell, he'd let them. As if he'd let that become another source of an argument. "So will you apologize?"
"Yes." Shmee was the one who spoke first. "I'm sorry, Rest. We shouldn't have let ourselves get so angry."
"I apologize, as well." Rest ran a hand through his long red hair, looking rather distraught and hopeless, in Aido's opinion.
Of all of the people Aido traveled with, Rest was the one who seemed to have the most problems; he connected very closely with the victims of the Spirit-children, considering he was a child of a Spirit. As a grace, he had been born with wings and the ability to fly through the mountains he lived in. When the Emperor had launched an attack on them in order to draw out the Spirit of the Wing, Rest and his wife Kalamalie had their wings cut from their bodies. Kalamalie died of her wounds; Rest did not.
He smiled at Shmee sadly. "No hard feelings?"
"Only if it never comes up again," Shmee replied, a wry smile returning to her face. Aido also began to grin. He had solved a conflict, albeit a small one.
They finished their dinner and cleaned out their bowls before laying down in the grass. Aido was still smiling even as he pulled a blanket over himself. He looked over to Sarita, nearby, who was awake— and grinning.
"You got them to shut up, didn't you?" She sounded pleased. Aido laughed as quietly as he could manage, so as not to attract the attention of the ones he had "shut up".
"For now, anyway. Go back to bed, 'Rita."
He closed his eyes, eager for Momo to wake him up for another lesson in necromancy. As he fell asleep, he heard Sarita whisper, "I knew you could handle them by yourself."

The End

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