Most of the day was spent wandering the town in thought. Sometimes Aido would walk into a shop, look at what was for sale, and then leave. He simply didn’t know what was left to do. Kitaj had stayed with him for a little while, but had to leave at his bedtime—he had claimed that he would get “a nasty ole beatin’” from his gran if he didn’t. However, he had pleaded with Aido to come with him, but Aido had only shaken his head. He didn’t want an older version of Kitaj gawking at his shadow.
Lots of people had been staring at him all day, and it was really bothering Aido. At least, he thought gloomily, they weren’t violently turning on him. Maybe many of them shared Kitaj’s opinion.
Just what was he going to do? Aido hadn’t thought of a back-up plan to Dr. Tarr being a fake. Sighing, the boy sat down on a bench. He couldn’t return home, but he knew that he couldn’t stay here. It was only a matter of time until people found out and would want to kill him. He could try visiting the Spirit of the Grave, who could get rid of Momo, but didn’t know how to find him. He also highly doubted that he would get rid of Momo for Aido.
Slowly, he lay down on the bench. His eyes were drooping with exhaustion. He was tired, hungry, and he wanted to go home. It felt like his thoughts were running in circles. He wanted to go home, but he couldn’t because he had a shadow. Those thoughts were looped in his mind, and he didn’t know what else to think.
He didn’t want to sleep on the bench, but he couldn’t buy a room in the inn. He needed to conserve his money for emergencies, just as he was starting to conserve his food. And he had lived in the dark for one night already—he could do it again. He even had the comfort of knowing that this time, he was in the middle of a village. Nothing bad could happen in a village.
Except robbers. Aido’s eyes flew open, and he looked around nervously. He knew that robbers could be around here, and that he would be easy prey. With determination, he forced himself to sit up. Maybe he could just run into the woods to sleep.
A voice, however, stopped him from moving. At first, he thought it was Momo, but that notion was dismissed as quickly as it had come. Momo’s voice was deeper than the one he was listening to. This one… was musical.
“Why buy the stuff now, girl?” a vendor was asking. An airy laugh responded to his question.
“I want to set out before sunrise tomorrow. Plus, things are cheaper when bought around dusk,” the musical voice responded. Surreptitiously, Aido lifted his head to see who the speaker was.
He frowned. The storyteller? Hadn’t she been in his hometown only yesterday? How had she gotten here so quickly? But it was her. Her pale skin made her stand out from the crowd of tanned people. Her back was turned to him, so he couldn’t see her face, but something about her voice made him know that it was the storyteller.
“In a hurry to get out of Sunnyshore?” the vendor asked her.
“Not really. But I did my sightseeing here on the way down to Sage’s Toll Village,” she explained. “And I want to go up North, and that will take a long time. So I want to get going before the frost sets in.”
Frost? This intrigued Aido. In all of Inaar, the lack of dark skies made winters very, very mild. Aido himself had never seen it, partly due to Sage’s Toll Village’s warm climate, and with the winters becoming less dreary. The storyteller must be headed far North to get to see frost.
Apparently, the vendor was just as surprised. “Frost? You make it sound like such a normal thing!”
The storyteller laughed. “Yes, well, I grew up in the North. Ever hear of Kiksaaj-Elej Kairienal?”
Aido raised his pale eyebrows as he saw a look of awe cross the vendor’s face. “That’s an old name. Hasn’t it been modernized?”
He watched the storyteller shrug. “Yeah, but our village is so isolated that it took a long time to go out of our old ways. We still can’t stand to call it ‘Kiksage Star Village.’”
“Ahhh, so that’s where you’re from. You really must know the snow, then,” the vendor laughed. “As for its name… Everything is becoming modern now. You should know that.”
“It doesn’t mean that we’ll let go of the customs so easily,” she replied firmly. Aido watched as she swung her pack over her shoulder. Strapped to it, he could see a harp case. “On that note, I need to go find an inn to stay at till the morning. I don’t think I want to start out this late. I don’t want to mess up my sleep schedule.” She laughed again.
“Good luck to you!” the vendor replied as she turned. Nodding pleasantly, she then turned—promptly locking eyes with Aido.
A look of surprise crossed her face as Aido vainly tried to flatten himself against the bench and closed his eyes, feigning sleep. But it was too late. The storyteller was already approaching.
“Hey, you,” she said. Aido tried to ignore her, but the musical quality of her voice kept distracting him, and he found himself doing the worst possible thing a person pretending to sleep could do: pretend to snore.
The woman laughed above his head. “I know you’re awake, karorie,” she said, prodding his shoulder. Cornered at last, Aido opened his eyes. The storyteller was standing over his face, smiling, and her eyes twinkling in amusement.
“What do you want?” he asked with a sigh.
“I thought I recognized you,” the storyteller replied as Aido grudgingly sat up. “You’re the boy from the fair who left in the middle of my story!”
Aido flushed. “Well, I was meeting someone…”
“Your friends?” she scoffed. “You were embarrassed to be in a storytelling tent.”
Oddly, the storyteller didn’t look offended. “I know kids your age. All of them think that it’s stupid to listen to a storyteller.” She laughed again. “Anyway, why are you here?”
Aido shifted uncomfortably as he sat up in his seat. “Long story,” he mumbled. The storyteller raised an eyebrow.
“I just think it’s weird for a kid your age to be on a bench in Sunnyshore Village by himself,” she told him. Aido shrugged. “What’s your name?”
The storyteller smiled, and took a seat beside him. Aido resisted the urge to groan. “Well, nice to meet you, Aido! My name is Shmee.” She extended a hand for Aido to shake, which he took reluctantly. “So, tell me why you’re here.”
“It’s none of your business!” Aido snapped. Shmee blinked.
“Well, I was going to offer letting you share my room at the inn, but if you really don’t want to tell me…” She trailed off.
Why, oh why, did she have to bribe him with a room for the night?! Shmee seemed to know that she had struck a nerve, for she winked at him. Aido scowled.
“I… Why can’t you just let me share the room?” he pleaded, knowing that it would do no good.
“Because I want to make sure that you’re not doing something dumb like running away,” she replied simply.
“Running away? You think I’m running away?!”
“I don’t know. That’s why I asked.”
Aido glared. “For your information, Shmee, I’m not running away. I would much rather be home than here.”
“Then why are you here?”
Aido was silent for a moment. He thought briefly of telling her that he was just out, buying things for his father. However, he had been raised with strong morals, and lying always made him feel horrendously guilty. And yet, he couldn’t tell this woman about his shadow. He doubted that she would let him stay in his room if she knew! Still… she would find out anyway. He sighed.
“My village banished me because I have a shadow,” he told her slowly, turning beet-red as he did so. She gaped at him.
Still, shock didn’t grip her for too long, oddly. She glanced at his feet, and at the shadow that hovered there, revealed by the setting sun. Her bright blue eyes flew back to Aido’s.
“And that’s why they banished you?”
Shmee paused. “Well… who is it?”
“The shadow. Don’t you know shadow-lore?”
Now it was Aido’s turn to stare. Come to think of it, he didn’t know much about shadows, apart from the fact that they were affiliated with the Spirit of the Grave and were an omen of death. Slowly, he shook his head. Shmee smiled.
“Well, when the Spirits were done with creating the world of Ékal,” she told him patiently, “each of them made a race specific to them, one that would represent them to humans. Kitsus and werewolves are both something like that.”
“I know that,” Aido replied irritably. Did Shmee think he was stupid?
She laughed. “Well, most races made by the Spirits are living things, but the Spirit of the Grave chose to do something different. He insisted that all living things needed to be reminded of darkness, and of things that are now gone. Because of that, he gave everyone a shadow. Every time light would hit an object, it made a shadow. Sometimes, these shadows would become almost like secondary beings to the person, and come alive. People with these shadows, it was said, were somehow touched by the Spirit of the Grave.”
“So what does Momo have to do with it?” he asked, forgetting for a moment that Shmee wouldn’t know who Momo was. All that worried him right now was the fact that Momo—his “secondary being”?—was with him because he had been touched by the Spirit of the Grave. Shmee grinned.
“It was theorized that the souls of the dead were the ones able to put themselves into a normal shadow. It usually only happened when the Spirit of the Grave believes something bad feels threatened. And since you’re the only one to have a shadow for fifteen years, I assumed that this might be the case. Is Momo the name of your shadow?”
Aido looked down. Momo had constantly been warning him about danger—did Shmee’s claim about the use of a shadow make Momo’s warnings legitimate?
“Yes,” he told Shmee slowly. “She said that she died when she was eighteen years old. She also said that a world without shadows is bad.”
Shmee nodded. “She sounds like a smart girl,” she told him softly.
“Why did she pick me?” Aido asked suddenly, looking up at the storyteller. “I’m sure there are other people out there who can do it! People who are older, smarter, braver…” Suddenly angry, he lifted his legs up and wrapped his arms around them. “Have an answer to that question?”
Shmee frowned. “No. Only your Momo would be able to answer that,” she replied.
Aido clenched his jaw. “Well, I don’t care what my Momo thinks. I just need to get rid of her!” Maybe he should try the doctor after all, he thought bitterly. There was no harm in trying, and this seemed to be his last option. With a heavy sigh, he sank lower into the seat of his bench. “I need her to go away so that I can go home.”
He knew that he probably sounded whiny, and if he wasn’t feeling so panicked, he would probably be pretty ashamed of himself. As of right now, however, Aido could care less. How could he care about anything when all he had to look forward to was sleeping on a cold, hard bench and visiting a supposedly fake magician?
“Look, Aido,” Shmee said after a moment. “I’ll tell you what. You can stay the night in my room at the inn, on an actual bed, and tomorrow, you can come with me to the North.”
“The North?” Aido repeated doubtfully, trying to deny to himself the idea of a warm bed for the night. “Why would I go there?”
“Well, where else did you plan on going?”
Aido was silent, thinking about what he would be able to do. Traveling with someone experienced certainly seemed like a better idea, even though he loathed the idea of going even further from his parents. Yet he wanted to give the doctor one last shot.
“Tomorrow, I wanted to visit a doctor who might be able to get rid of Momo for me,” he said slowly. Shmee frowned, but said nothing.
“If that’s what you want, I can put off my travel for a day if you really want to see the doctor. Just in case it doesn’t work,” she added hastily.
Aido nodded reluctantly. Much as he didn’t like how that sounded, there wasn’t much else he knew of that he could do.
“Do you know anything else I could do to just get rid of the shadow?” he pleaded desperately.
There was a long silence as Shmee stared distantly into the sunset. The rare dark was settling in, and very few people were left on the streets at such a late hour. “All I could suggest,” she finally said, her voice slow, “is to ask the Spirit of the Grave to take it away himself.”
“Do you know how to get there?” Aido pressed.
Shmee nodded, almost imperceptibly. “I do… but it’s a strange route. To get to him, you would need a blessing of warmth given to you by the Spirit of the Volcano.”
Aido shifted uncomfortably. “Blessing?”
“Yes. The Halls of the Spirit of the Grave are so cold that you would die without her heat,” Shmee said softly.
“Does that mean I actually have to meet the Spirit of the Volcano?” he asked. Shmee nodded.
The Spirit of the Volcano… She was the mother of the kitsus, the demon foxes. She was infamous for her bad temper, and known to have killed many humans who did so much as look at her the wrong way. Aido felt he had very good reason to be downright terrified of such an idea!
“Are you crazy?” he finally asked. Shmee must have seen the horror etched onto his young face, for she laughed.
“Many people think so. But the Spirit of the Volcano won’t hurt you if she knows that you’ve been touched by the Spirit of the Grave,” she assured him. Aido stared at her doubtfully.
“Her babies eat human children. You’re telling me that she won’t hurt me?!”
“That’s actually only a myth. The kitsus have never eaten anyone,” Shmee corrected. Aido folded his arms crossly. However, his grumpy look was interrupted by a very wide yawn. Shmee laughed again.
“We can worry about this tomorrow, okay? Stay at the inn with me for the night. I don’t want you to be robbed while you sleep,” she told him firmly.
Slowly, Aido nodded. He could worry about the kitsus in the morning. Right now, the idea of a warm, soft bed sounded too good to deny. “Are you still going to be leaving early in the morning?” he asked, suddenly remembering that she was supposed to set off. Shmee grinned at him, and shook her head.
“No. I’m going to be helping you, karorie. I want to make sure you stay safe. I believe in fate, and I believe my fate is to help you and your shadow,” she told him, her voice strong and firm.
“I don’t believe in fate,” Aido grumbled. Shmee’s grin didn’t fade.
“Maybe you will one day,” she replied. Aido didn’t reply.
The sun was high in the sky when Aido awoke. He was disoriented for a moment as he tried to remember where he was. He was lying on a soft, plump mattress, one that was much more comfortable than the mattress at home. Slowly, the events of the previous night came back to him, and he casually looked over at the other bed in the room. Oddly, it was empty. Reluctantly, Aido pushed himself up, looking around for any sign of Shmee. Her packs were deposited messily at the foot of her bed, so Aido assumed she had to still be around somewhere.
A quiet rumble in his stomach made Aido realize how hungry he was, and he anxiously bent over the bed to grab his own pack of supplies. Hoisting it up, he fished out a rather dry-looking sandwich.
“You hungry, Momo?” he asked groggily as he took a bite. If Momo had heard him, she didn’t respond, so Aido continued to eat. He wrinkled his nose as he realized that the sandwich was even drier than it looked. Nevertheless, he scarfed it down. Hunger made a person eat anything, he supposed.
As he finished his breakfast, he quickly made a small agenda in his mind. He wanted to go see the doctor, and if that didn’t work, he would let Shmee lead him to the Spirit of the Volcano.
Just as Aido was about to sink back into the bed, Shmee burst into the room, slamming the door against the wall. Startled, Aido jumped, staring wildly at Shmee. Somehow, he sensed that Momo must have been caught off-guard as well, for feelings that weren’t his were flitting across his mind.
“Good morning, karorie!” Shmee announced in a sing-song voice, sauntering into the room. Aido continued to stare. “You almost ready to get going?”
“Oh yes! We can visit your doctor friend, and then we’ll set off to see anj Saaj ier anj Dalédain!”
“Speak my language, please,” Aido replied grumpily, flopping back into the bed. Shmee laughed, her blue eyes glittering with mischief.
“All right, then, boy,” she said, winking. “I’ll speak your lowly language. As I was saying, if you want to go see the Spirit of the Volcano, we’ll need to leave as soon as we can.”
Aido sighed. “Fine,” he grumbled, sliding out of bed.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” she told him, again in her sing-song voice. Aido shook his head drearily. It was already starting out to be a strange morning.
Shmee insisted on going with Aido to the doctor, even though he tried to talk her out of it. She continued to act almost giddy, and Aido didn’t know which would be worse: having a hyperactive woman tailing him around to the doctor’s shop, or having her acting like she was his personal bodyguard.
“Quit staring at him,” she hissed at a curious man who was staring at Aido as they were walking through the streets. Quickly, the man averted his eyes from the shadow.
“What was that for?” Aido grumbled.
“Do you like being stared at?”
“No, but I can take care of myself,” he replied irritably. Shmee shrugged, a smirk playing at the corners of her mouth.
From the moment the pair approached the small hut where the doctor lived, Aido knew that he was going to have no luck. He stopped in his steps, staring at the old woman, who was stirring a giant cauldron in her front yard. Hesitantly, he approached her, with Shmee right behind him as he did so.
“Excuse me? Are you Dr. Tarr?” he asked. With a look of awe, the old woman looked up. Her spectacles were so thick that they made her eyes look bulbous. Aido looked down uncomfortably. She grinned toothily, and from one brief glance up at her, he saw that she had a gold tooth. Shmee snorted, and muttered something in her language.
“I am indeed, my dear child,” she wheezed. “What may I help you with today? A love potion for a lucky lady? An amulet for good fortune?” Shmee muttered something else. Wildly, Dr. Tarr looked over at Shmee.
“Do we have a doubter of the mythical powers granted to me by the Spirits themselves?” she asked, drawing herself up as far as her short stature would allow, spreading her arms to fan out her purple shawl. She grinned widely, and her golden tooth twinkled in the sunlight. “I can turn you into toad if I so desired, my child!”
Shmee snorted. “Don’t be foolish.” Aido felt himself flushing out of embarrassment of being in this sort of company—both Shmee and Dr. Tarr.
Dr. Tarr glared at Shmee before turning her attention back to Aido. “So, what may I help you with?”
Aido said nothing. It was as though electricity was building up around them—but it wasn’t coming from Dr. Tarr. It was coming from Shmee.
“Turn me into a toad,” Shmee urged, a playful smile spreading across her lips. “I dare you.”
Aido turned, staring at Shmee. Something odd was in her voice—it sounded too musical to be normal. Though the thought had come to him before, this knowledge seemed to hit Aido harder than ever. What was it about Shmee’s voice?
Dr. Tarr chuckled. “I should not be wasting my energy on you.”
“Korie-lar anth-el!” Shmee commanded. Aido jumped—the musical quality of Shmee’s voice seemed to explode, and in that instant, Dr. Tarr’s golden tooth vanished.
The old woman screamed, abandoning Aido and Shmee, as well as her cauldron, as she ran into her little hut. Aido stared after her.
“Shmee, what was that?”
Shmee giggled, and tossed something into the air, and caught it again. Though Aido couldn’t make out what it was, he did see it glint with gold. His eyes widened.
“Shmee, is that…?!”
“The old hag’s tooth, yes. I figured we could sell it, use it for our expenses,” she replied cheerfully, dropping it into her pouch. “Besides,” she added, a touch of seriousness beginning to slide into her tone, “You already knew I had magical aptitude.”
Aido stared. “What?”
“You’ve been touched by the shadows, and therefore you have been touched by the Spirit of the Grave,” she replied calmly. “You can sense magic in people.”
Aido didn’t reply, still trying to piece it together in his mind. Her voice. Was the strangeness in her voice the way he sensed her magic? He looked at the ground.
Shmee chuckled. “That’s what I thought.”
The duo set out to leave almost immediately. It was as if the meeting with Dr. Tarr was a sign to get going to see the Spirit of the Volcano. Past Sunnyshore Village was unknown territory to Aido. He didn’t even know the names of any surrounding towns, let alone how to get there. All he knew were the small fishing villages around his own, and the bigger town of Sunnyshore. It was probably shameful not to know about the rest of the world—after all, where did the smart kids go to secondary school and university?
“Where are we going now?” he asked, unable to help but be curious.
“Well, the biggest town we’ll be stopping at on the way to the Spirit of the Volcano is called the Town of Spiders,” Shmee replied calmly. “It’ll take about a week to get over to Mount Daladane, and that’s if we keep up a good pace.”
Aido wrinkled his nose. “Town of Spiders?”
“It’s actually a quiet little town, and very friendly,” Shmee told him. “They do have a lot of tarantulas running around, though. Hence the name.”
“Yeah, but it’s close enough to Mount Daladane that kitsus sometimes come over and eat the tarantulas,” she replied with a laugh. Aido groaned. It was bad enough that kitsus were the object of scary stories, but the fact that they ate tarantulas only made kitsus seem even worse!