Chapter 6

Just as Shmee predicted, they were just outside of Arid Point, which Aido discovered was aptly named. Compared to the lushness of Ievai, this place seemed oddly out of place. The little grass that grew in the town was brown and tough, and the streets were very dusty. Shmee told them that Arid Point was the northernmost edge of the Southeast Desert, but Rest was quick to say that there was plenty of greenery in between Arid Point and the sand dunes of the true desert.
Aido was expecting Shmee to make them camp out again, but she must have been so tired that she didn't protest to their suggestion of sleeping in an inn for the day. According to Sarita's logic, since they would be sleeping during the day, nobody would see or care about Aido's shadow. All they wanted was to sleep in a soft, comfortable bed.
Since Shmee was running low on money, Rest picked up the tab for the two rooms. He was careful not to mention his connection to the Emperor; none of them knew if the Emperor had been advertising around that Rest was a deserter. Nevertheless, the innkeeper didn't seem to care and handed them the keys to their rooms without a second glance.
Aido fell asleep almost immediately and Momo didn't wake him up, which was something he was grateful for. The exhaustion that had evaded Aido for so long had finally caught up to him and knocked the boy out.
"There's no way I'll be able to do this."
When Aido awoke, he was aware that it was night; the comforting darkness had returned. Groggily, he sat up and looked around towards the bed where Rest was sleeping. Or not. Aido gaped at Rest, whose sleeve was rolled up and had a knife poised and ready to cut into his arm.
"This is crazy," the man muttered to himself.
"I'll say!" Rest looked quickly over at Aido, surprised. "What are you doing?!"
"Trying to see if I'll be able to get into the bone," he replied with a frown. "I'm trying to see if it's actually possible."
"Why now?!"
"So I'll have the comfort of knowing I can do it when the time comes."
Aido shook his head in disbelief. Was Rest completely out of his mind?! Seeing the look on Aido's face, Rest sighed and put the knife down. "I won't do it in front of you," he promised, but he could tell Rest was disappointed.
"Just let him be," Momo told him. "There's not much else he can think of to do for himself."
While they got dressed, Aido kept sneaking glances over at Rest. The man's scars were as gnarled as ever, and unopened. He hoped Rest would keep to his word; one little cut might turn into a desire to open all of them, just to see if he could.
Both Shmee and Sarita were already awake, so when they joined the girls, they were ready to go.
"We're really going to get our sleep schedule out of whack," Shmee told them with amusement. "We're going to end up sleeping days and traveling by night."
"Fine by me," Aido replied. Sarita rolled her eyes.
"Of course it's fine by you, shadow boy," she grumbled. "Anything depressing is fine by you."
"Who says it's depressing?" Aido asked cheerfully. "It's more peaceful and cooler at night than the day."
"Whatever you say."
They must have slept pretty late, for the sun began to rise only a few hours into their trek. During one of their breaks, Aido took a look at the map to see just where the were on Inaar. He was very surprised; Ievai must have been bigger than he thought it would be. They were very far away from where they last had been. He felt almost dizzy. He had never thought he'd come this far east in his whole life, but here he was, twelve years old and on the other side of the country.
"How long does it take to get to the Grace Mountains?" he asked, his voice shaking slightly at the realization of their distance. Shmee looked over at Rest.
"From here, probably about two weeks," he replied. "At least, to the mountain we need to be at."
"The highest mountain, right?" Aido asked, remembering a story Shmee told him long ago about the Spirits. She nodded.
"That's right. Mount Dirvenien, where the Spirit of the Wing has his nest."
"Very close to my home," Rest added thoughtfully. "Perhaps we'll see some of my old people in the village where they live with the humans. We can see if the Emperor stuck to his word and is helping them or not."
"And if he lied to you?" Sarita asked, ever the optimist. Rest frowned.
"All the more reason to hate him," he replied simply.
For most of the day, Shmee suddenly decided it would be a good idea to keep everyone's mood up by making them all sing songs. At least, she tried to make everyone do that. Sarita firmly put her foot down, Aido sang a couple verses once in a while, and Rest was pretty silent for the most part. That meant that they had to endure Shmee's out-of-tune singing for a lot of the day, even when her voice grew hoarse and she began singing some of the same songs over and over again.
"Shmee, we've heard that song about three times already. Just shut up," Sarita finally complained. Shmee, looking playfully offended, let out a dramatic sigh.
"All I wanted to do was make the day more fun!"
"My ears are going to start bleeding if you keep going on."
Aido chuckled to himself, and he heard Momo do the same in his head. He figured that Momo shared Sarita's opinion.
"Well, do you know anything better?" Shmee goaded, but Sarita wasn't about to fall for that one.
"Nice try. I'm not singing."
"What about you, Rest?"
The question obviously caught Rest off-guard and he made an odd face. Aido wasn't quite sure whether it was shock, disgust, or maybe even a mix of the two. He looked over at Shmee. "Are you kidding?"
"I hope that's a good answer, because I'm waiting!" she replied cheerfully.
"And if I choose not to?"
"Then I'll start singing again!"
Sarita groaned. "Please, Rest, just do it. Her voice is horrible."
"So this is why you never became a bard, right?" Aido asked Shmee with a grin. "You had to settle for 'storyteller' because you just couldn't sing!"
Shmee laughed. "So, you figured me out. I am just a failed musician, after all."
"What about the harp that you carry around all the time?" Sarita asked, pointing to it. Perhaps it was the most useless item on their trip, for Shmee seldom used it; the last time she had was to earn some extra money at Blossom City, which seemed like a lifetime ago.
"I just use it for dramatic effect," she replied with a shrug. "I only know a few chords. My poor fingers can't figure out any other ones! Anyway, Rest, sing?"
"We don't want to listen to Shmee anymore," Sarita added with a grumble. Rest sighed.
"I have no choice, do I?"
"Nope!" Shmee was grinning. "You may proceed."
Rest took a deep breath.
"After a while, at the end of the day,
Before the sun truly dies,
The moon comes to play, the stars start to shine,
The Spirits give chase across the pink skies.

Stuck on the land, we think it's a curse
While up and down the day springs,
But lucky for us, oh, thank you, Father,
That you gave your sweet children their wings."
Rest blushed and Aido grinned. "I didn't know you could sing, Rest!"
"I don't enjoy flaunting."
"It could have saved us a lot of trouble with Dr. Tone-Deaf," Sarita added, almost accusingly, as she jutted her thumb towards Shmee.
"I never have heard that song before," Shmee confessed. "I wish I did. It's beautiful."
"Just a typical grace folk song," Rest replied with a smile. It faded abruptly. "Not that it holds much relevance anymore."
"Don't think like that," she told him sharply. "There's hope, remember?"
Rest was silent, and Aido knew he was thinking of the incident earlier that morning. Had Rest really lost hope?
"Can you sing some more, Rest?" Sarita asked. Aido wasn't sure if she was genuinely interested or if she was just trying to lighten the mood, but nonetheless, Aido was grateful. Anything to help get Rest out of his depths of despair!
So Rest began to sing some more. Some were songs Aido knew, other songs concerned the graces. The man did have a lovely voice. It was rich and soulful; when he sang, Aido was certain that he actually meant what he was singing. It was far from superficial, like Shmee's. Rest's emotion was real, particularly in the sadder songs.
He also had the foresight to stop when his voice began to get a little raspy. Shmee would have just kept singing, hoarse voice or not, but Rest told them that it was important to preserve his voice.
By the time they stopped to camp, their minds were still fresh from the pleasant singing. It had made the time pass that much faster, Aido thought with a smile. If they kept up like this, they'd be at the mountain in no time.
Rest, too, seemed to look more at ease than he had that morning at the inn. He wasn't panicking over not being able to regain his wings. He also hoped he wouldn't frantically try to cut his scars open again. Aido was just worried that it would mess up Rest's arms even more. They were scarred enough as it was!
"Momo, when do you think it'll be safe to practice necromancy again?" he asked after he lay down.
"I'm not sure. I think whatever happened to you was just a fluke thing— you weren't using it because you needed to and it overwhelmed you. You always seem fine in our practices," Momo told him thoughtfully.
"Except when you taught me how to fight with it. Is it evil to do that?"
"No. Nothing is inherently evil. Only the way it is used. I think you were, perhaps, getting a little greedy about magic when we were practicing, and with the werewolves, you were trying to gain power. Both weren't moral, and how it affected it proved it."
"And…" Momo seemed to have moved on from explaining to theorizing. "Maybe this is how the Emperor became so corrupted… he was just so obsessed with his desires that it blinded him. Maybe that's why he's so stupid."
Aido couldn't help but laugh. Of course Momo would call the Emperor stupid. No wonder she had been executed for treason!
"Why don't we just practice some lighter stuff tonight?" she suggested. "That is, if you're up to it. Perhaps we shouldn't take a risk… Oh! Would you like to brainstorm ways to break magical chains?"
"Sounds good," he replied, but he was slightly disappointed that they couldn't practice necromancy. Still, she was right. It was a risk. "What were you thinking?"
"I think our best bet is to try and reverse the spell," she told him. "It's kind of… you know… impossible to break things that are made to be unbreakable." Aido laughed at her logic.
"Fair enough."
Momo refused to keep him up too late, since she also felt that was another reason Aido has lost control. Despite going to bed at an earlier time than usual, it was once again hard for him to nod off. Instead, he looked up at the trees around them. After the emptiness of Ievai, it was nice to have trees again. Trees were more natural than that emptiness.
And the trees were so beautiful at night… He loved how the stars shone through the leaves. It was beyond him how he could have thought that a world without night, a world without these stars, could be any good at all. Even further beyond him was how the Emperor could have thought they were evil in the first place!
At some point, he must have fallen asleep, for when he woke up, the sun was rising in the sky. The others were prodding the campfire, getting breakfast cooked. Shmee had a puzzled look on her face while Rest and Sarita were deep in conversation.
"What's going on?" Aido asked. Shmee looked up at him and chuckled.
"The sunrise. It's only just now starting to rise. Isn't that strange?"
He looked up past the trees at the pink sky. It took a moment before it struck him that it was odd. The sun was rising a lot later than it usually did in his world. "Yeah. Why is it rising so early?"
"We think the Emperor's spell is weakening," Sarita replied. "It's even weaker now. Something must be going on even as we speak to try and make things right."
"Maybe it's because most of the Spirits are in the Circle of Heaven now," Shmee said thoughtfully. "Or maybe the Spirit of Time is getting even more involved."
"Could be." Aido looked up at the sunrise, still feeling slightly groggy. It would be so much easier if they could ask the Spirit of Time about it themselves, but they had to find the Spirit of the Wing first.
"So, what's the quickest way to the Grace Mountains?" he finally asked, looking over at Shmee. "Or, at least, to the mountain we need to be at."
"Well, to get there," Shmee told him, taking out her map with an air of officialism, "we'll have to go down further south of Snu, and then cross into the mountains into the Fallen Valley. That will take us to the eastern coast of Inaar, then we'll travel south till we get to that village Rest was talking about."
"Edge's Cove," Rest told them quietly, prodding the campfire.
"Yeah, that," Shmee added dismissively. "Anyway, that's the base of the mountain we'll be going up. I have no idea how we'll manage to climb it, but Rest says that people in that town know how to climb."
Rest nodded, looking slightly put-out for some reason. Aido frowned. Why was he suddenly more dismal today after the light-hearted evening of singing yesterday?
"It'll be a safe route?" Sarita asked suddenly as she stopped picking at the grass.
"It should be, as long as we stay out of more towns. It was probably a mistake to stop at the last town."
Nobody responded. Now that Shmee had pointed it out, they were beginning to realize that maybe it wasn't such a good idea-- what if someone had recognized Rest as a fugitive, or Sarita as a kitsu, or that Aido had a shadow? It was worrying to think of what could have gone wrong. What should have gone wrong.
"Let's not think of it," Rest said firmly, looking up with more confidence than he had just shown. "Whatever might have happened is over. Let's just keep on moving. We have a lot of the world to see and too little time to do it."
"Yeah. Who knows, it might be our last chance to see the world ever!" Aido added with a nervous laugh. Everyone stared at him.
"That's a rather morbid thing to say," Sarita commented. Aido felt his cheeks turn pink.
"I mean... that is, if we don't ever finish this job, well... I just wanted to be realistic," he said, rather uncomfortably. Shmee laughed, but he could tell it was half-hearted.
"I've had enough of realism. Let's just get on with the optimism, shall we?"
And so their day began.

The End

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