"No way." Aido stared at the long fang in Shmee's hands. "Where did you get that?!"
"The people in the village use them as weapons," she replied. "Sometimes they carve them into knives. The points are very, very sharp. The roots are weak, though, so the fangs break off every couple of years and the villagers collect them. New fangs grow back in their place." Shmee shuddered.
"I told you they were the size of my head," Sarita muttered.
"I'm sorry I didn't believe you," Rest told her with a frown. "I honestly didn't think that those stories were true."
"It's okay," Sarita replied, slightly smug. "It's not your fault you don't have our instincts."
"So what are we going to do?" Shmee asked, wrapping up the fang. "They get bloodthirsty whenever the moon is out. Maybe we should find somewhere to lay low until the new moon— that's the only time of the month that they don't eat."
"No!" Aido protested. "We can't." Everyone stared at him. "Look, we don't have much time. We don't want any more dead creatures on our shoulders because we're too scared or something. Sarita knows how to fight. We can use magic, Shmee. And Rest has his own dagger. We can do this."
"Um, Aido, did you see the size of that fang?!" Sarita hissed. Aido nodded.
"I know, we're up against something big. But do we have a choice?"
"No," Rest replied, putting a hand on Aido's shoulder. Relief flooded every pore of Aido's body. Rest supported him! "We can't let a chance for the Emperor to kill any more dragons, or any other creatures, for that matter. We need to solve this as soon as we can."
Shmee sighed. "I don't feel comfortable with this."
Anger flared inside Aido. "Comfortable?! Don't talk to me about comfortable! I've never been comfortable with this quest at all! I was banished from my village, I had to meet the angriest Spirit and risk being killed by her, I burned my body trying to save the Spirit of the Lake, and time passed so quickly in that forest that I could have easily been there for years without knowing it! This is nothing compared to what I've been through, Shmee! And now you feel uncomfortable?!"
Shmee's normally pale face was scarlet and Sarita stared at him with a dropped jaw. Aido's fists clenched. Even weeks ago, he might have apologized for that outburst. But not this time. Not now.
"Then it's settled," Rest said firmly. "We'll go. Whether or not you or Sarita want to come with us, we're going."
"I'm going," Sarita announced. "I'm not abandoning Aido." All eyes then turned to Shmee.
"I'll go," Shmee said, but her voice wavered. "I just hope I don't get killed."
At last, Aido began to feel remorse. "I'm sorry, Shmee. I shouldn't have been so mean…"
She shook her head sadly. "No, no. I understand what you're saying. I was foolish to say what I said."
"I'm not mad, Shmee," Aido told her. His heart felt heavy. "Let's just… forget it all. Let's just talk about what we're doing. What else did you learn?"
Shmee, still looking somewhat shaken, nodded. "Ah… yes, of course. I got a little information about the Hills, too." She sat down, placing the fang beside her. "Where should I start?"
"Tell us about the Spirit," Aido asked, excited.
"The villagers don't know much about the Spirit of the Hills, actually," she told them. "But from what I heard, he isn't too harsh. In fact, the villagers hold him in the highest respect. They just don't have much interaction with him."
"If he's so great, why did he create the werewolves?" Sarita scoffed.
"From what I heard, he made them so that humans wouldn't try to become invincible; he wanted to make sure that humans would know to never think themselves as mighty as the Spirits."
"He should've just set them all on the Emperor," Aido muttered.
"The werewolves are good for making the locals behave, but outside of Ievai, they don't have much influence," Shmee replied. "Except, of course, in scary stories."
"Just like how us kitsus are scary!" Sarita said with a smirk. Aido was frowning.
"Wait… I thought nothing made by the Spirits are evil. Why do they eat humans if they're not evil?"
"That's what I was wondering," Shmee confessed. "I never knew that werewolves actually did eat people. Do the Spirits have their own definition of good and evil?"
"Maybe they only eat certain things," Rest guessed. "Maybe they only eat bad people."
"But if they're hungry all the time, it wouldn't matter whether or not a person is bad," Sarita retorted. Aido sighed.
"Well, those are the questions we can ask the Spirit when we get there," he told them matter-of-factly. He looked back to Shmee. "Did the villagers tell you how to find him?"
"The Spirit of the Hills and his children are very well-known, even more than being killers, for their speed," she replied. "The fastest werewolves can move so fast that they're no more than a blur. The Spirit of the Hills, though… he isn't even a blur. He has so much energy inside of him that he is always running through Ievai. Maybe he's even right under our noses now!"
Startled, Aido took a step back. Was it true? Was the Spirit of the Hills so fast that he simply couldn't be seen? Was he always running?
"So how do we get him to stop?"
Shmee sighed. "That, I'm not so sure about. The most I heard from the locals is that he would probably have a place that he sleeps every so often— maybe once a month. But nobody knows where that sort of place would be."
This news was extremely disheartening to Aido. Frustrated, he stood back. "Spirit of the Hills!" he yelled as loudly as he could. "We need to talk to you! It's important!"
There was no reply. Not even the sound of wind could be heard blowing through the grass. Worry gripped him.
"What do we do?!"
Rest held up a hand. "I'm sure he would have to sleep somewhere. Why don't we look around for it? Or perhaps Shmee could go back to town and see if she can find some more clues?"
She gave Rest a rather annoyed look. "You think I didn't already?"
"Of course you did," he scoffed. "It's just that I don't think anyone could talk to a whole town."
Shmee sighed. "I suppose," she replied slowly. She took off her pack and unloaded it, showing them all what, exactly, she had bought at this city; lots of good food for travel, some basic medical necessities, other little camping things. And a small knife.
"Who's that for?" Aido asked.
"Oh! I forgot!" she laughed weakly and handed it to Aido. "I bought this for you, since Sarita has your dagger. It's made out of werewolf fang, so it's very sharp. I figured you should have something physical to use as a weapon, just in case."
With a wide grin, Aido picked it up. Just as she said, it was made out of the pearly white werewolf fang. "Thanks!"
"Don't mention it, lie karorie," she replied. She no longer seemed to be upset with him, which was a relief. Maybe he should do something for her later to make it up to her, he thought to himself. Just to make sure she knew that she was still appreciated.
As soon as she organized her goods on the ground, she bid them a small wave and turned back in the direction of Bordertown.
She had hardly left their sight when a loud howl echoed across the land. Sarita screwed up her face, baring her fangs and hissing. Rest stood beside her protectively, looking around warily. A stony look crossed Aido's face, however. He wasn't scared. He balled his hands into fists. Not at all.
"I bet if they're this close, they can smell me," Sarita pointed out in a whisper.
"We're not going to let them near you," Rest reassured her. "They should know to put aside the old grudges for the sake of Aido."
"They'll find some reason to kill me regardless."
Aido looked around, thinking. If needed, how could he gather life energy? He would never try to take it from another human; he could never do that to Rest or Sarita. He looked at his feet and a pleased look came over his feet when he saw where his shadow was resting. There was grass. Lots and lots of beautiful, lush grass! A limitless supply, as well. He found his source. He had his magic. All he needed was a reason to use it.
Despite Sarita's worries, the werewolves didn't come for them. At least, not then. Not even when the sun began to set, which was when Shmee returned.
"Any luck?" Sarita asked anxiously. Shmee shook her head.
"Afraid not. There were some people telling me some legends about where the Spirit sleeps, in a cave on the coast, but that's at least another week's walk through the Hills. I suppose we could try, but it will be extremely dangerous."
"Don't worry," Aido replied, perhaps a bit too brightly. "We're all strong."
"I know, lie karorie," she replied softly. Again, Aido felt bad. Was he pushing Shmee into this too hard?
Before he could come up with some kind of new apology, they heard it again: the howl from the Hills. Only this time, it was much closer. Worried, Sarita inched towards Shmee. "I might have to change into a kitsu to fight them," she told them all quietly. "Kitsus and werewolves have been fighting since Ékal was created."
"They must put aside their grudges," Rest said firmly. "If the Spirit of the Hills is as fair as the villagers think, he'll call off his children."
"Or so we hope," Sarita added darkly.
"Should we camp out here, or head back again?" Shmee asked.
"We should stay. I can stand sentry— I'm not tired at all," Aido told them. Everyone looked surprised. "We can't run away from them all the time. We have to prove to the Spirit of the Hills that we're brave enough to do this."
"He's right." Aido looked at Rest, thrilled that the older man was supporting him. "Perhaps the Spirit of the Hills is watching us, testing us, to make sure we are courageous. Think of every obstacle as a test of our courage."
"Momo can help keep me up, anyway," Aido added. "She keeps me up a lot anyway."
Within him, he felt Momo was surprised at Aido's sudden volunteering, but she could tell he truly wasn't tired. So she didn't protest.
"All right," Shmee said slowly. "Don't do anything stupid, though. Please."
"I won't," he swore. He dug into his pouch and pulled out the Blessing of Warmth. "You can use this while you sleep. It helped us all out last night."
Gratefully, Shmee took it. "Is there anything you'd like, Aido?"
"A book would be nice," he replied as Shmee dug out Rest's well-worn book of graces. "The moon's bright enough to read by."
"Wake me up if you get tired," Rest told him seriously. "I can take over if you need it."
"Thanks," Aido replied, but he knew in his heart that he wouldn't be waking Rest up; he didn't feel like he was going to be sleepy anytime soon. The remaining three huddled together to take advantage of the Blessing and one by one, they fell asleep.
After he was sure they were asleep, he set the book down. He didn't feel as though he was going to read anything tonight. Instead, he was going to figure out how to find the Spirit of the Hills.
He stood up and looked around. Everything made him suspicious. Was the breeze the blew the grass the sound of the Spirit running by? Were the werewolves hiding in the mysterious dark night? He simply couldn't tell. Anything could be anything around here.
He brought the palms of his hands together. "Saaj, askir aar ie," he murmured. "Spirit, come to me." The magic he infused in those words turned that sentence into a plea for the Spirit of the Hills.
"It's hard for a Spirit to reply unless he's connected to you in some way," Momo told him. "I wasn't able to reach the Spirit of the Grave until I was in the act of dying."
"We're in Ievai. He should be able to listen," Aido replied confidently. Again, he repeated, "Saaj, askir aar ie."
He didn't know how long he was like that. He felt no fatigue, no exhaustion, merely elation from the magic flowing through his veins as he called out to the Spirit. He knew his magic was strong, so why wasn't the Spirit answering him? This only made him more and more frustrated, and so he kept calling harder and harder.
It must have been late at night when Aido did sense that something around him had changed. It was similar to the energy that he felt coming from Rest and Sarita, but it was unfamiliar. He frowned and turned back to the sleeping three.
Over Shmee, something was definitely there. It was a large creature, the largest living creature Aido had ever seen, save for the Spirits themselves. Its shaggy brown fur was matted and encrusted with something that looked like dried blood. The smell that wafted from it even smelled like blood. Foot-long fangs protruded from its mouth, pearly white but stained with red. Its large golden eyes were staring intently at Shmee. It growled.
Reaction was what overcame Aido next. With silence, he held up his hands so that his palms faced the night sky. "Korie-lar érva!" he shouted. The werewolf looked up.
Momo was aware that something in Aido's head had changed. This wasn't her Aido anymore.
Whatever happened, she knew, had probably been a mistake; perhaps he was thinking to suck the life from the grass to attack the werewolf, but he didn't stop there. More energy poured into Aido than he could ever have imagined, and its power filled him up so strongly that it too over his body and mind. The life from the werewolf began to flow into his body.
A whipping sound woke Shmee, Rest, and Sarita up with a jolt. Aido looked as though he was sucking two large tornados into his hand. His eyes changed color— no longer were they his usual dark blue, but now they were a menacing black. His young face had a look of mad glee etched into it. Momo was desperately searching his mind for the real Aido.
"Look!" Sarita pointed at the werewolf, who was lying before them, whimpering. The white substance that looked like a tornado was flowing from the werewolf and into Aido's body.
"Aido! Stop!" Shmee screamed, but it was no use.
"This power is beautiful," Aido told them, his voice harsh. "To think, the vile thing that had this power was going to use it to kill you. I am not letting that happen. You should be thanking me!"
"Aido, you're hurting him!" Shmee begged, staring at the werewolf, who was writhing weakly beside their small camp. But he didn't stop. He didn't want to stop. "Please stop!"
Something hard wrestled Aido to the ground, startling him out of his trance. He fell limp as he returned to normal. He heard Shmee sobbing. His mind was so fuzzy that he didn't quite understand what was going on. What just happened? The last he remembered, he was trying to suck magic from the grass. And now Shmee was crying?
"What?" he found himself saying, his voice hoarse. And his head hurt. Then there was something on top of him…
"Lekk, he is fine now. You may get off."
The thing above him growled and Aido remembered: Werewolves!
The pressure on his chest disappeared and Shmee's sobs got closer as she approached him. "Aido? Can you hear me?"
"Yeah… what just happened?" he asked. His mouth was very dry.
"The magic took over him," Rest remarked anxiously. Rest must be standing nearby, as well. "He doesn't remember a thing."
"Oh Spirits!" Shmee cried, pulling Aido up and wrapping her arms around him. She was covered in sweat. He was starting to become unnerved at what happened. It terrified Shmee, worried Rest, and Sarita…
"Never touch him!" he heard her hiss. Determinedly, Aido turned his aching head towards where she was. She and… was that a werewolf?… were circling each other. She had, at some point, changed into her fox form and her coppery red fur shone in the full moonlight. The werewolf she was circling was growling. It ran a long tongue over one of its pointed fangs.
"I did not have a choice," the werewolf growled. This werewolf's mind-voice was raspy and furious. "You, his dirty defender, did not do it yourself."
"Don't speak about things you don't even understand yourself!" Sarita retorted.
The voice that rang out then was much more powerful than either Sarita or the werewolf. Tiredly, Aido looked up and his dizzy mind nearly lost consciousness. The Spirit of the Hills had found them!
"No way." Aido stared at the long fang in Shmee's hands. "Where did you get that?!"