The mountains really did disappear into the clouds.
Aido couldn't stop staring at the enormous Grace Mountains but Sarita was trying to urge him on. "Come on, Aido," she grumbled, giving him a shove. "We need to get going or else we're not going to get as far as we need to go today."
With a heavy sigh, he plodded along. In their effort to reach Mount Dirvenien, the four of them were trying to travel a certain amount of miles every day. Even though it had been almost two weeks since they left Arid Point, the walking was easier than it had been on the way to Blossom City. They weren't in the mountains… yet. In fact, this was the first time they caught a glimpse of them, far away, their tips hidden by the clouds.
"How much longer until we get to the Fallen Valley?" Aido asked. Shmee looked over at Rest, who chuckled.
"Perhaps a week. It's a little way south and then we'll have to cross towards the mountains. The valley itself, at least, will only take a couple days."
"That's a relief," Sarita muttered. "As long as I'm not going to want to end up tossing myself over a cliff."
Aido laughed. The trail to Blossom City had been harsh and steep. He knew he could handle anything that was easier than that pass! Still, he couldn't grow complacent; at some point, he was going to end up climbing the tallest mountain in Inaar… somehow. And he was not looking forward to it.
Rest, who had been silent until now, let out a long sigh. Everyone looked at him, but he didn't seem to notice. Instead, he was gazing at the mountains intently. "How I've missed you," he murmured to them.
"How long as it been since you've been here?" Shmee asked curiously. Rest smiled darkly.
"Since I left for Inaar City."
"Two years ago?" Shmee looked surprised. "You haven't been to your home in two years?!"
"It seems like an eternity," Rest replied sadly. "At first, I didn't even want to come back here. I thought it would hurt too much, to look up at my mountains and not be able to fly through them… but now I'm just glad to be home."
All of their eyes returned to the mountains with reverence. How would the mountains have looked if the graces could still fly? Aido wondered. Would they have seen winged humans flying around the sides of the mountains or disappearing into the clouds? Or did the graces not fly around in big crowds? It struck Aido as odd that, despite having been traveling with a grace for a month now, he still knew very little about their culture.
"We'll be there soon," Shmee murmured encouragingly and Rest smiled.
For once, Aido was rather unhappy when the night fell. The darkness shrouded the mountains and made it harder for them to be seen and the fluffy clouds only hid them even more. At least the night was peaceful; the sky was clear and there was no wind, which was a relief. It was a rather chilly night as it was.
Even though it was a beautiful night, Sarita seemed ill at ease. She didn't lay down to sleep even after everyone else did, and instead spent her time pacing around the group. Aido, who couldn't sleep much anymore, just watched her anxious twitching.
"What are you doing?" he whispered. Shmee, sleeping, puffed out an exhale, but didn't wake up. Sarita scowled and looked back at Aido.
"Shouldn't you be asleep?"
"So should you!"
They glared at each other briefly, but Sarita broke the stare to shake her head. "No. We can't do this tonight," she mumbled. Aido frowned. What was wrong with her tonight? "I just have a really bad feeling tonight. Maybe my kitsu's instincts are acting up or something."
"Why do you think that is?"
"I don't know!" Sarita snapped. "It just feels like something bad is going to happen."
"Do you usually get feelings like this?"
"No, which is the weird part," she replied. "The only time I've felt this funny was back in Ievai, and that was because the stupid werewolves were running around. But this is grace country. There isn't anything bad about graces."
They stayed up talking for a couple hours before Sarita finally caved in and went to sleep. Whatever her threat was, he thought, at least it didn't keep her up too much later than usual. Aido, of course, always had trouble speaking, so he spent another few hours learning some spells from Momo that might help with freeing the Spirit of the Wing.
Yet even he managed to fall asleep in the end. He woke up to the bright sun and the cloud-covered mountains, but also to the frightened chatter of Sarita, Shmee, and Rest.
"You can't ignore this! We can't ignore them!"
"What are you talking about?" Aido asked Sarita groggily. Sarita's face worried him; her expression was one of sheer terror. She didn't respond, but pointed up past the trees. Aido's stomach dropped. What he saw was smoke. Lots and lots of smoke.
"What… what is that?"
"I investigated this morning— I got up early," Sarita replied, her voice a whisper. "It a camp of soldiers."
Aido was struck dumb. Soldiers?! What were they doing out here? He racked his brains and remembered with instant regret that they had stopped in Arid Point. Someone there must have seen his shadow! There was no other reason an army could be out here in the middle of nowhere, so far from Inaar City or any other of the important towns!
"No, no, no," Aido mumbled, backing away from the smoke. "They… they must have figured us out at Arid Point."
"That's what we were thinking," Shmee told him. She looked very pale. "Sarita also said they're on horseback. They'll catch up to us within a day."
Aido was feeling truly sick now. He wanted to throw up. He looked from Shmee, to Sarita, to Rest. "What do we do? Do we keep on going?"
"Those horses will catch up to us very quickly," Rest warned. "They might also have hounds with them to track our scent or inaarans to look for us. We stand no chance."
So this would be how it ended. The Emperor was going to catch them, Aido thought hopelessly. The world was doomed.
It was a familiar feeling, somehow. No— it was a feeling Momo had felt before, he corrected. Momo had felt this way just before she had died, knowing that the world was going to ruin and that she was unable to help. Even though she had gotten out of it by turning into a shadow, Aido knew better than to hope for anything like that.
"Aido can't be caught!" Sarita exclaimed. "If he does… the Spirits won't stand a chance. He'll die."
"Can't Momo come back at get someone else to do the job when I die?" Aido asked, his tone surprisingly calm. Shmee shook her head.
"No, she can't, she can only—" she began, then stopped. Aido's eyebrows shot up.
"No," she mumbled. "Only Momo can tell you that… you'll figure it out one day."
"What do you mean?!"
"Momo told me something when we were in the Halls of the Spirit of the Grave," Shmee confessed. "She… told me some things… about why she chose you."
Irrationally, Aido grew angry. "And you didn't tell me?!"
"It's something for Momo to tell you," she replied, looking stricken. "I'm sorry, Aido! She only told me in case something happened to her to make her disappear."
"And now we're all going to die," Aido remarked dismally. "The world is doomed."
They all looked up, surprised, at Rest, whose normally placid brown eyes were full of fire. "Graces aren't as fast as werewolves… but we are quick," he told them. "We can also support heavy loads— we had strong muscles to help other people fly with us."
They all stared. "What are you talking about?" Aido asked slowly. Rest took a staggering breath.
"Aido, I can carry you and run away from here as quickly as we can. But you're the only one I can carry." He looked over at Shmee and Sarita, his face full of regret.
Shmee didn't look surprised, but she looked upset. "Of course," she said, nodding. Aido, however, was unsure.
"I can't do that!" he protested. Shmee gave him a firm look.
"Aido, of all people who need to stay away from that army, you do. You need to go with Rest or the world will be doomed. Sarita and I will be fine."
"We can't abandon him!" Sarita sounded oddly emotional, which was a tone that Aido had never heard from her before. Rest scowled.
"Would you rather have him caught?"
"No, no," Shmee interrupted. "Sarita, listen, we can still help Aido."
"We can distract the army so that they'll have enough time to get away safely," she explained. "We can make a scuffle; not serious enough to get us killed, but enough to keep them busy while Aido and Rest run away."
Sarita looked less than thrilled. Finally, she nodded. "We'll probably get killed anyway," she warned. Shmee laughed darkly.
"We'll either be killed here or be tortured in day for an eternity," she replied.
"You can't do this," Aido said softly. Shmee only returned it with a sad smile.
"Get on my back now, Aido. We don't have much time," Rest said, kneeling down. Aido shook his head.
"I can't leave them!"
"Aido, listen to me." Shmee put her hands on his shoulders. "We're doing this because we want to. It's more important that you protect this world."
"But you can't die!" he suddenly felt like he was close to tears. Even Shmee looked choked up.
"I'll do my best not to. If the army lets us go, we'll try to catch up to you. But you can't let your personal things get in the way of helping everyone. Would you die to save this world, too?"
"Yes," Aido replied meekly. "But you don't have to! This isn't your fate!"
"You believe in fate now?" Shmee's smile was faint. "I guess I have influenced you after all." She hesitated, then unclasped her necklace. Her necklace's pendant symbolized the Scales, which were the symbol of an ancient religion. The Scales themselves represented the Spirits, while each side of Scale represented good and evil. She put it around Aido's neck.
"Take good care of it. This necklace means a lot to me."
"Of course." Shmee's eyes were running freely now, which set Aido's tears off. "I'm proud of you, lie karorie. You've really grown up in the months we've been together."
"I'll miss you, Shmee."
The two hugged. This could be the last time they ever would do so, Aido thought, broken-hearted. Even though Shmee could be the most annoying person on Inaar, she had somehow become his family away from home.
Sarita then came up to him. Even though she was clearly trying to fight them back, tears were dripping from her almond-shaped eyes. "Don't do anything stupid, all right Aido?"
Aido gasped out a weak laugh. "Only if you don't."
"I'm not worried about me. You're the one who keeps getting into trouble," she pointed out. She paused, then wrapped her small arms around him in a tight hug. "Take care, stupid." She looked up at Rest. "You too. Good luck on getting your wings."
Rest nodded somberly. "Thank you, Sarita. It means a lot. I'm sorry about our initial differences." Sarita waved her hand, dismissing them.
"No harm done."
Rest finally turned his gaze upon Shmee. He got up from his kneeling position and stood beside her. "Be safe, Shmee," he said, his voice quiet. With wide eyes, Shmee's head lifted towards Rest's, almost too close.
"I'll do my best, Rest," she replied, her voice even quieter than before. Aido blinked. Did he miss something? She opened her mouth, as if wanting to say something, then shut it and jerked her head away. "You two need to get going."
Rest kneeled again and Aido climbed onto his back. "Goodbye, Shmee. Sarita," Aido said with a trembling voice. "And… Momo thanks you for all the help. She says she couldn't have done it without both of you."
The girls smiled. "Good luck, karorie." Shmee paused. "Iedieé."
Aido managed a smile. He recalled a distant memory, of telling his own parents that he loved them before he left his village. Shmee now did the same thing; making sure she knew that she loved him before they parted.
"Iedie s-ieé," Aido replied, to both Shmee and Sarita. He loved them both.
The loneliness of leaving Sarita and Shmee set in the moment the pair vanished from sight. Just like that, they were gone. He couldn't imagine what traveling was going to be like without them. They had both been annoying to travel with, yes, but he had been so close to both of them. Shmee had been with him since the beginning and Sarita joined them not too long after. Rest, on the other hand, was still somewhat of an enigma. He wasn't close to this man. He was close to Shmee and Sarita, and now, both were gone.
"I'm in love with Shmee."
With wide eyes, Aido looked down at Rest. Did he just say…
"This is like reliving Kalamalie's death all over again."
Grief filled Rest's voice. Aido was still stunned. Rest truly didn't seem like he could be in love with anyone, particularly Shmee. They had fought so often! Rest hadn't even hinted it before, but now, he was confessing his love about the woman they just left behind.
"She can't die," Rest added in a murmur. He sighed. "I'm sorry. I just… needed to get that off my chest."
"Did she… know?" Aido asked slowly. Rest let out a bark of laughter, halted short due to the movement of his running.
"Perhaps. The Lorhien Forest… we… well, that was when I started to feel this way," Rest told him humorlessly. "I should have told her back there."
"Then you'll tell her when they survive. When we survive."
Aido wasn't sure how confident he was that any of them were going to live through this, but he had to try to be confident.
Why didn't he feel more jealous? Aido thought with surprise. He wasn't stung at all by Rest's sudden confession. But didn't he have a small crush on Shmee? Wasn't he supposed to feel heartbreak or anything like this? He wasn't feeling hurt at all, he found. He was upset that they had to leave them behind, yes, but he didn't feel anything romantic towards Shmee. Maybe it wasn't a crush, he thought, surprised. Maybe Shmee was just like… a sister-figure now? A mother-figure? Something that wasn't romantic at all, he knew that much.
Rest was just as faced as he promised he was. This must be his true speed, when he wasn't hindered by the slow walking of the others. For once, the man actually seemed like he was working hard. He began to breathe more heavily and Aido could feel that he was sweating with the exertion.
Had the soldiers found Shmee and Sarita by now? Aido wondered to himself. But he didn't voice his concerns; he didn't want Rest to worry even more, though he was probably thinking about it the whole time. It would have been a good idea to talk about something else, but Aido just couldn't think of what else to say.
He put a hand to the necklace gave him and he nearly started crying again. Shmee had never taken it off in years, she told them. Now she had given it to Aido.
Spirits, they wouldn't really be executed, would they?
Sarita would probably be at risk for execution, since she was a kitsu. The Emperor didn't seem to have any qualms about killing the children of Spirits!
"Stop thinking about that," Momo instructed him. "You're alive and that's all that matters."
"So you say," Aido muttered. "You've been dead for so long that you don't remember what it's like to have friends."
Momo seemed hurt, but didn't respond. Rest, however, did.
"It sounds like you're being a little hard on Momo."
"She made it sound like Shmee and Sarita weren't important."
"Well, it is true that you're the important one in this, Aido," Rest replied.
"That doesn't mean Momo gets to be mean about it," he grumbled.
"I'm not being mean," Momo told him patiently. "Just realistic."
"And does realistic mean everyone can be mean to each other?"
Neither Rest or Momo responded to that. Everyone left each other to blissful silence… for the time being, anyway.
The mountains really did disappear into the clouds.