Chapter 3

Aido was able to tell that they were getting closer not by reading Shmee's map but by the way Sarita was acting. Her mood became surlier, as if how she normally acted wasn't bad enough. She also became jumpier, always looking over her shoulder. At night, she would even curl up to sleep beside Shmee. Out of all of them, Shmee seemed to be the most sympathetic to Sarita's odd behavior. Privately, she told both Rest and Aido that Sarita's kitsu instincts were kicking in; she knew that she was crossing into dangerous territory and was trying to keep herself safe.
So Aido did as much as he could to be nicer to her. Not that it worked, of course. Her grumpy attitude made it harder for him to keep on being nice. For the most part, he left her alone to her own devices, which consisted mostly of clinging to Shmee. With the normally talkative storyteller preoccupied with a troubled kitsu and Momo keeping to herself most of the time, Aido spent his days with Rest.
From him, he started learning more about the graces' culture in-depth. Surprisingly, it was extremely interesting. It made him only hate the Emperor more, though; how could he wipe out such an incredible race from the world?
"When a child turns a year old, they get their face tattoos," Rest told him, gesturing to his own. "You don't really remember it by the time you're an adult, unlike some of the other tattoos. Elders get their tattoos when they're elected into position— they get tattoos on their chests. If they can't stand the pain, then they forfeit their position."
"Even if the tattoo is halfway done?"
Rest nodded. "You can always tell who fails that test. It's a long process, as well. We use thorns to puncture the skin with the dye. The chest patterns are very elaborate, we well, so many can't handle it. From what I've heard from our old Elders, they went into a sort of trance and truly embodied the grace that our race was named after."
"Is that why you're called 'graces'?"
"Sort of. It's meant to be that graces are… you know. Graceful." Aido laughed and Rest gave a small chuckle. "In all seriousness, we're known for being rather… stoic, but kind. Serene."
Aido nodded as they walked on. They didn't get much further, however, when Sarita stopped and hissed.
"We're in the Hills."
"Yeah, we've seen hills for miles already," Aido replied, but Sarita shot him a dirty look.
"Stupid. I means the Hills. The Ievai Hills. We're here."
Aido quickly drew in a quick breath and looked around, expecting things to look different. He was rather disappointed. These hills were like the other hills they had seen on their way here: green, lush, and somewhat empty. There was nothing to distinguish them from any other hills he'd ever seen, in fact.
"How do you know?"
Shmee, however, looked thrilled. "She's right! We are here! We're just a few miles outside of Bordertown, actually."
Aido, not satisfied, kept his eyes on Sarita. "How do you know?!"
"Kitsus are born with the instinct to know to protect ourselves," Sarita told him darkly. "Old Mama Kitsu doesn't want us to be killed by those nasty werewolves."
"Watch your tongue here, kitsu-girl," Rest warned. "They could be watching us."
Aido looked around skeptically. There weren't even any trees that a werewolf could hide behind. Then a fear gripped him; could werewolves turn invisible?
Sarita, seeming to be as skeptical as Aido had been, let out a barking, albeit nervous, laugh. "That's stupid. There's nowhere for them to hide."
"That doesn't mean they're not listening," Rest replied evenly. Sarita paled visibly and clung tightly to Shmee's arm.
"Don't worry, kitsu-orie," Shmee crooned, ruffling Sarita's sleek black hair. "We'll make sure the werewolves don't try to pull a fast one on you, or us." Rest nodded in agreement. Aido, on the other hand, wasn't so sure. What were werewolves capable of?
Shmee looked thoughtful for a moment. "So, since we're only a few miles out, we should take a vote. Should we skip the town and go straight to the hills, or should we camp here and send me in to the town tomorrow?"
"The sooner we get this all over with, the better," Aido muttered under his breath, but Rest gave him an odd look.
"I vote we stay here for the night. We might be able to pick up some good facts from the villagers in the morning," he told them firmly. Sarita's tails jerked anxiously; apparently, she wasn't a fan of the idea either, but Shmee seemed to approve of Rest's plan. She nodded.
"I like that idea. Maybe we can figure out a way to avoid werewolves tomorrow in town. I'm going to be the only one to go in, though— Sarita's not welcome, Rest's a fugitive, and Aido…"
"…Is a shadow-boy," Aido replied, rolling his eyes. Shmee grinned toothily.
"Can we go back maybe a mile?" Sarita asked. Everyone turned to look at her. "I'll be safer sleeping when I'm not directly in Ievai."
"Can't you go on your own?" Aido asked with a scowl, but Shmee gave him a harsh look, and he recoiled.
"Being a lone kitsu anywhere near Ievai is dangerous for her. Do you want her to get killed, Aido?"
Aido felt color rise into his cheeks. He didn't like it when anyone was angry with him, especially with Shmee. He still had a small crush on her.
"Sorry," he mumbled, looking down at his feet. Shmee's look softened.
"No, I'm sorry. I forgot that… you get worried now, about making it to the Spirits," she replied softly. Aido shook his head.
"No, I was stupid for even thinking that. I don't know what came over me."
Everyone stared at him. Shmee and Rest looked concerned, and Sarita, merely curious. That, more than the others, surprised him; of all people, Sarita should be the concerned, if not angry, one. In fact, he would have expected her to be angry. But she wasn't.
"It's all right, Aido," she replied, not a trace of anger in her tone. "I know you didn't mean it."
Shmee was obviously as surprised as Aido was, but Rest managed a smile. "We're all tired. Let's just go back to where Sarita would be more comfortable and call an early evening."
"Good idea to me," Sarita replied, her voice sounding close to a purr. "It will be nice to sleep a little extra."
Aido had to admit, it sounded like a good idea to him, too. Now that he knew how close they were, he didn't feel as much need to rush into things quite so heavily. Of course, the ideal situation would be to meet the Spirit of the Hills tonight, but he probably shouldn't go unprepared. He wasn't sure what werewolves were capable of.
So they retraced their steps, going about a mile or two to where Sarita felt she was in less danger. After a rather bland dinner, the four of them fell to the ground, wrapped up in sweaters and blankets. The weather was getting much colder; winter in the north was more ruthless than in the south, Aido learned, much to his dismay. In the south, where he lived, there was hardly any winter at all! But here… it wasn't even snowing and he was freezing!
He felt someone inch close to him, and was surprised to see Sarita had decided to curl up next to him for the night. "Remember the Blessing my Ma gave you?" she whispered, resting her head on his shoulder. She was very warm; kitsus had the warmth of the volcano inside of them. "You should use it."
He had almost forgotten! With a murmur of thanks, Aido reached into his pouch, where his hands met two stones. One was the Blessing of Breath, which helped him breathe in places where nobody could, like underwater. That was given to him by the Spirit of the Lake. The other stone was the one Sarita was talking about: the Blessing of Warmth. Aido had only used it to go to the Halls of the Spirit of the Grave, but he had forgotten he could use it normally. He wrapped his hand around it, and a liquid warmth flowed through his body. He sighed with relief.
But before he could fully nod off, he looked over at Shmee, who was shivering slightly in her sleep. Aido looked over at Sarita, who smiled. "I think we should share the warmth," she told him in a low voice. Nodding, the two inched over to Shmee, never breaking apart. Aido rested so that his body lay in the curve of hers. However, the sudden warmth that flowed from Aido into her jerked her awake, and she turned to face him with surprise.
"I'm using the Blessing," Aido told her quietly, pulling out his hand where he held the fiery crystal. "Sarita reminded me of it. It looked like you could use it, too."
A relieved smile crossed her face. Behind him, Sarita beamed at Shmee as the three snuggled up together, relishing the warmth and, in Sarita's case, protection. None of them were surprised when Rest quietly approached, asking, "Can I have some of that warmth?"
Finally, Aido felt as though he was doing something good, he thought as Shmee fell asleep with her arms wrapped around him. He was helping them, like he was supposed to, instead of acting all weird. Maybe this was what Shmee was talking about whenever she talked about the "old" Aido, he thought sleepily. But before that thought could grow even more, his heavy eyes slid shut.

It was sunny when he awoke, but it was a cold morning. Fortunately, his body was still touching the Blessing of Warmth, so the whole group of them were still warm. The rest of them were very much asleep, as well, he thought with amusement. He didn't know why he was the first to wake up. Maybe he was getting used to less sleep?
He was too comfortable to move, though. He didn't want to upset Sarita by moving, since her arm was flung around his neck, and he didn't want Shmee to get grumpy from lack of sleep as she often did. So he was content to lay there, listening to their heartbeats on either side of him. He was vaguely aware that Rest would be on Sarita's other side, but he was in no position to move and see.
Butterflies fluttered in his stomach as he remember just how close they were to the Spirit of the Hills. The anxiety to move was upon him once again, but he was torn. He couldn't wake them up. But he was so excited to finally meet the Spirit of the Hills and figure out what to do about the two remaining Spirits.
Aido was still nervous about the werewolves, but nothing could compare to the excitement of having saved another Spirit. He would be that much closer to his goal of finding them all and the world really could be saved.
Somehow, he was able to wait for them to wake up without getting too uncomfortable. It probably helped that he didn't have to wait for very long; Rest was the first to get up. Usually, Rest was the first one to get up since he liked having his quiet time in the mornings, so Aido didn't begrudge him of that small luxury. It wasn't like the could go until everyone else was awake, anyway.
They all woke up soon enough. Sarita came to consciousness with the flick of her long fox-tails and growled something unintelligible. Shmee rolled away from the warmth Aido provided at the same time, looking around sleepily as she ran a hand through her short black hair.
"Any breakfast?" she asked, her voice low with tiredness.
"I'm making some," Rest replied; he had started a fire and was roasting some rabbits over the fire, their bounty from the snares they set up the net before. As Aido pocketed his Blessing, the others got up to join Rest around the fire. "How soon do you think we should leave?"
"As soon as we're all awake," Shmee replied groggily, rubbing her eyes as she plopped beside the fire. Rest laughed airily.
"Have any raw ones?" Sarita asked, watching with distaste as Rest turned the spit that the rabbit was on.
"Of course." With that, he tossed her another rabbit. Pleased, she turned her back to them and chomped into it. Aido grimaced. He wished that she didn't like raw things this much. At least she had the courtesy to turn away.
For the most part, their breakfast was silent. It was almost like a ritual. Every day, they ate their breakfasts in near silence as their minds began to function normally. By the end of breakfast, Shmee's grogginess had dissipated, Rest seemed more prepared to deal with his grumpy travelers, and Sarita was her surly self.
"I'd like a dagger," the kitsu told to Rest firmly. He sighed.
"I don't have any extra ones."
"It's not like you need yours," she scoffed. She looked over at Aido. "Or yours."
"It's okay, she can use mine," Aido relented, unhooking his dagger from his belt and giving it to Sarita. "The werewolves will probably want to kill you more than me."
"That's right!" she replied with a curt nod. With that, they all packed their things and began to go back in the direction they had been yesterday.
Aido was getting more and more excited with every step he took. He was so close, yet so far. After all, Shmee needed to stop in Bordertown first. They needed supplies, information…
"We're in the Hills again," Sarita told them with a shudder as they reached the point they had made it to yesterday. "If those werewolves show up, we shouldn't hesitate to kill them."
Shmee covered her mouth, but it was too late; Sarita already noticed she was hiding a laugh. She whirled to face the storyteller. The fur on her tails was standing on end. "You think this is funny?!" she demanded. "Have you ever seen the size of their teeth?! One fang is as big as my head!"
"I doubt that," Rest interrupted dryly. "Werewolves are generally about the size of a full-grown kitsu."
"And that's still big," Sarita pointed out. "A full grown kitsu is so tall that it could reach Shmee's shoulders. And some werewolves can get bigger than that!"
"But not so big that they have head-sized fangs."
Sarita gave out a furious growl and stomped her foot. "Stupid. They could still eat you in a couple bites!"
A look of resignation crossed over Rest's face. "Whatever you say, Sarita."
As they continued walking, Sarita kept mumbling or groaning in anger that was almost certainly directed at Rest. Either he didn't hear it or he was ignoring it, for he didn't respond to any of it.
At one point, Shmee finally stopped them. "This is as close as you all should go," she warned. "I'm close enough to town that I can get in and out pretty quickly, but I don't want you guys to be noticed."
"Fair enough," Rest said, promptly sitting on the lush grass. "We can relax here… nap… eat. Not like there's anywhere better," he added, looking around. Aido looked around, too. It was true that everywhere else was the same; there wasn't a tree in sight that would change up the scenery at all. It was all empty.
"Is there anything anyone wants?"
Some good food would probably be a good idea, Aido thought to himself, but he ended up saying, "No thanks."
"Just make sure you find out how to keep the werewolves away," Sarita told her irritably.
"Or anything else we'll need to get to the Spirit of the Hills," Rest added. With a perky nod, Shmee darted off in the direction of Bordertown.
Aido wasn't surprised when Sarita provoked Rest into another argument involving werewolves, but he tuned them out. He wasn't interested in Sarita's theories or Rest's rebuttals. Instead, he poked around his mind to get Momo's attention.
"Do you know anything about werewolves?" he asked. He felt Momo trying to think.
"I'm afraid I don't know much. Only the legends I heard when I was a child. I never traveled in this region before, so I'm not positive what's true and what isn't," she replied. "For all I know, werewolves could be cuddly puppies."
"Or bloodthirsty killers like Sarita says." Momo laughed.
"Do they have any special powers?" he asked. "I know nymphs can shapeshift and mermaids can breathe underwater, but what do werewolves do?"
"I'm not sure," Momo confessed. "I never really studied the other Spirit-children. I was a language girl, not an animal one."
Aido thought back to his childhood stories. He knew for sure that the werewolves and kitsus were sworn enemies, and that both were considered dangerous by his society… But look how wrong they had been about kitsus! Kitsus were intimidating, yes, but not that dangerous. Were werewolves just as misunderstood?
"I'm going to rip their necks open with my teeth!" Sarita startled Aido by announcing this odd promise to Rest. He smiled a little. Okay, maybe she could be dangerous, but not in the way he was raised to think. They didn't attack unprovoked. He could only hope that the werewolves were the same.
Enemies of the kitsus and… what else? He had also heard from some stories that in the full moon that they turned into humans. But he also heard that they were still wolves at that time, but that was when they bloodthirsty. He wasn't sure. There were so many contradictions in those tales! Was it safe to assume that something happened in the full moon?
"Is it a full moon tonight?" Aido found himself asking uncertainly. Both Sarita and Rest looked at him, surprised.
"I believe it is. It was a full moon last night, wasn't it?" Rest responded with a frown. Sarita shrugged.
"I don't pay attention. The moon changes so quickly that I don't care anymore. I've seen the moon change over and over again. It doesn't concern me."
Aido had almost forgotten that, despite how young Sarita was in kitsu years, she was already a couple hundred years old. He felt almost frustrated with her. Why didn't she know more about the world?!
"Calm down, Aido," he heard Momo tell him. "I can feel you getting worked up again." Aido let out a long exhale. She was right. He had to stop getting so worked up. It just caused more trouble than anything else.
"I was just asking because I always heard stories that werewolves did something at a full moon," Aido told them. Rest looked surprised.
"I've never heard of that."
"It's because you graces are idiots," Sarita muttered. Rest chose to ignore that.
"Maybe nothing happens at the full moon then," Aido remarked thoughtfully. That would be a relief. He didn't think he cared much for surprises, especially when he was worried about these creatures as it was.
For most of the time as they waited for Shmee, Aido theorized with Momo about just what to expect from the werewolves. In the end, they established nothing concrete; the werewolves were still as mysterious as they were to start with.
When Shmee came back, she walked toward them slowly, her face grave. In her hands, she held something, perhaps about a foot long, under a cloth. Maybe an extra dagger? Aido thought curiously. She stopped in front of them, clutching the thing under her hand, keeping it under the cloth carefully.
"I don't want to worry you," she told them flatly.
Everyone looked up. "What did you figure out?" Rest asked with a frown.
"Werewolves… aren't nice," Shmee told them, as if she was dropping some sort of bomb. Sarita snorted.
"Obviously. That's what I've been saying all along! I knew I was right," she told them all smugly. Shmee shook her head.
"When I say 'not nice', I mean… exactly what our worst fears are," she told them unhappily. "I'm beginning to think we should wait until the new moon to head for the Hills."
Concerned, Rest stood up. "Why?"
"Werewolves aren't evil, but they do have… needs. Much like how a wildcat needs to eat meat to survive," she explained. "All the houses in Bordertown are made out of stone, and very few people live there. The ones who do have to leave raw meat outside their doors every full moon, or else they come."
"Why?" Aido asked, his stomach dropping.
"They're meat eaters, Aido."
"But there's no shortage of rabbits. We had a lot for breakfast this morning…" Aido's voice trailed off as Shmee laughed weakly.
"You don't understand. Rabbits to them is like eating one bite of food. Werewolves are rather… big."
With flourish, she took of the cloth of the thing she was carrying and Aido felt as thought something had stopped his heart. It wasn't a dagger that Shmee was carrying; that foot long, sharp object was a tooth. A tooth of a werewolf.

The End

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