For some reason, Aido almost hoped that Momo would appear to him in his sleep. However, she didn’t. Not the first night, or the second, or third. The more Aido walked, the more he tried to convince himself that Momo didn’t even exist. Every time that thought snuck into his head, though, he would look back down at his feet. Sure enough, the shadow—Momo—was always there.
He never spoke to Shmee about his concerns, however. In his eyes, Shmee was nothing but a tool to help him get rid of the shadow. She was useful only for getting him to the Spirit of the Volcano. That, and teaching him how to speak a little bit of the Dal-Lorhien, the language she liked to speak in.
“Though I was brought up speaking the Common Language,” she told him one day, “everyone in my town was taught the classic subjects, including the Dal-Lorhien. In fact, most peoples’ families speak the Dal-Lorhien at home, and the Common Language out in town and at schools. Many kids in my town also had a high magical aptitude, so we also learned a little bit of magic.”
“Are you a real inaaran?” Aido asked suddenly. Ever since the day she had stolen Dr. Tarr’s golden tooth, he had wondered if she could maybe take the shadow away.
“True inaarans study at a university,” Shmee replied with a sigh. “And I hated school, so I left as soon as I could, so I could travel the world. I’m only an amateur magician.”
To pass the time, Aido insisted on learning the ancient language. After all, he thought, walking for so long was boring. As much as he could, he tried to talk in the Dal-Lorhien. He found himself proud of being able to construct simple sentences after the long days spent traveling the road. Nevertheless, the many errors he made were embarrassing for him, much to Shmee’s amusement.
“You don’t need to repeat the same vowels if they’re close together in the same word,” she told him patiently.
“But it makes sense to do it,” he grumbled in reply. “It would make as much sense to say ‘karieorie’ as ‘karorie’.”
As Shmee opened her mouth again, she stopped dead in her tracks.
“What is it?”
“We must be getting close. Kitsus are watching us,” she replied quietly, looking into the trees. Aido’s eyes widened.
“Are you sure they won’t hurt us?” he whispered. Shmee chuckled.
“No, they won’t. And they also can understand you,” she added. Aido gulped.
“Can’t we stop off at a hamlet for the night?”
“What, are you scared?”
“No! I just think it would be… nicer if I could sleep without thinking a kitsu is going to eat me in my sleep,” he told Shmee weakly.
Suddenly, loud peals of shrill, girlish laughter rang out from somewhere deep in the woods. Aido shuddered. Shmee, on the other hand, grinned, and called out something in the Dal-Lorhien. Aido frowned at how he translated.
“Did you just say ‘Hello’ and… something else?”
Shmee laughed. “I asked them to share the joke.”
Aido sighed in exasperation. It often annoyed him that Shmee wasn’t more serious. Sure, she could be if the situation called for it, but in general, he found that she was a goof-off. She also seemed to have a love of talking about herself, always sharing with Aido stories from her childhood and being “back at the village.”
“Back at the village,” she went on, “we were never taught to fear anything made by the Spirits. Everyone at home grew up terrified of zombies, for example, but absolutely nobody had a fear of werewolves!”
“To each his own,” Aido muttered. Thus, life went on for Shmee and Aido along the many trails that slowly led to the Town of Spiders.
The day they arrived was calm, with a light breeze blowing the dense, bright green foliage. Aido was acutely aware of just how different it was here as opposed to his own town, or even Sunnyshore. While Sunnyshore was spacious and clean, the Town of Spiders was densely packed with tall buildings that seemed to be empty.
“Where is everyone?” Aido found himself whispering. Shmee grinned.
“This is what happens when people get scared of kitsus,” she replied, just as softly. “The Emperor spreads his propaganda about how kitsus have been eating babies, and people run away.”
“But is there anyone left here?” he asked, almost urgently. Shmee nodded slowly.
“Yes, but they’re probably like the villagers back in my village, with them all clinging to the old ways and trying to make things as old as possible. In fact, I’d bet they live in the houses that are in the worst condition.”
Experimentally, Aido looked up at one of the broken windows. “Do kitsus live in these houses?”
“Kitsus? No. Whenever they want to sleep, they go there.” With that, Shmee pointed a long finger up to a lonely mountain that stood high above the treetops several miles away.
Shmee didn’t even need to say the name of the mountain. Aido knew, without a doubt, that it had to be Mount Daladane, the home of the Spirit of the Volcano. Aido had never seen a mountain before, and now that it was pointed out to him, he couldn’t help but stare at its massive size.
“Yeah, I’ve seen bigger,” Shmee replied smugly. “I actually live on a mountain that’s way up higher than that!”
Aido suppressed the strong urge to roll his eyes. Once again, Shmee had to go off, proving her point that she’s been to bigger and better things.
“It doesn’t look like a volcano,” he stated flatly. “It’s not smoking.”
“Not all volcanoes smoke,” she laughed. “This one hasn’t erupted in over a hundred years.”
“Did it kill people?” he asked curiously.
“No,” Shmee replied. “The town was destroyed, but people could see it smoking. They were able to tell that the Spirit of the Volcano was angry, and they ran away.”
It was an odd idea for Aido. He had grown up knowing that Spirits existed, but he had never come this close to one. It was so strange, to think that he was only a few miles from something so divine, and so deadly! He continued to stare, even when Shmee started talking about other subjects. Not that he listened, of course. He was so lost in his own thoughts about the Spirit of the Volcano that he didn’t bother listening to the woman.
How many kitsus actually lived around here? he wondered. And how did they live? Did they just travel around the village, and return back to their mother to sleep? He tried to imagine what they looked like. Despite all the oral stories about these creatures, he had never once seen a picture of one. Sure, children would draw how they looked sometimes, but he doubted they were accurate—foxes didn’t have long, protruding fangs, right?
“Oh, look, Aido!”
“What?! A kitsu?!” Aido asked, looking away from the mountain immediately, twisting his head around frantically. Shmee laughed.
“Oh, no! I just wanted to show you one of the tarantulas around here,” she told him, pointing down to the corner of one of the old buildings. For some reason, Aido’s hopes were dashed. He would have liked to see what a kitsu looked like. Nevertheless, Aido looked down, at a small tarantula hovering by the wall of the building.
“This is a native spider to the town,” Shmee told him, diving into her serious storytelling voice. “It’s called the anj Malata ier anj Kitso, or the Food of the Kitsu,” she told him cheerfully. Aido wrinkled his nose. That was a cheerful name.
“Poor thing,” he commented, bending down for a closer look. “Are you gonna get eaten?”
“Do you like bugs?”
“Yeah, as long as they don’t make a buzzing sound,” Aido replied cheerfully, putting a hand onto the ground beside the tarantula. “We have some tarantulas at home, and sometimes I try picking them up.”
“You should be careful.”
Gently, Aido tapped the tarantula’s furry leg. Coming to life, the tarantula slowly crept onto Aido’s palm. Shmee watched in fascination.
“I’ve never tried holding one. Do they bite?”
“Wouldn’t you know this sort of information, Shmee?” Aido retorted, in a somewhat mean tone of voice.
“I can’t stand bugs. I’m not scared of them, but I don’t like spending my free time holding things with too many legs.”
“I learned in school that spiders that live in our region aren’t that poisonous. It’s the spiders that live out east that are really dangerous,” Aido told her, proud of his knowledge. He took great pleasure in teaching Shmee things, when she liked trying to teach him all the time!
As he opened his mouth to tell her more interesting facts, however, footsteps approached, the pair turned their heads to look at the old man who had arrived.
“Welcome to the Town of Spiders,” he rumbled, his beard seeming to block his voice from making sound. “My name is Arjilo. Is there anything I can help you with?”
Just as Aido was about to shake his head, Shmee responded for him. “Actually, yes. Is the Blue Spider Inn still open?”
“Ah,” Arjilo replied with a dark chuckle. “He had received… a warning.”
Shmee flinched. Aido frowned. A warning about what?
“The owner went out to get some things, and when he came back, the inn was burned down. None of the buildings surrounding it were touched. We believe it was one of the little sisters,” Arjilo explained.
“Kitsus,” Shmee replied quietly.
“Anyway, he took the warning, and fled with his family that very night. There is one other in you may stay at, however. It’s called The Kitsu’s Maw. It isn’t as comfortable as the Blue Spider was, but it’s not that bad, either,” Arjilo told them. Shmee nodded.
“Thank you,” she told him.
Aido was relieved. He was glad to be in an inn tonight! He had almost forgotten what it was like to sleep in his own bed. Maybe he’d even be able to send a letter to his mother somehow.
“So you going to keep that spider on your arm, or what?” Shmee asked when Arjilo had walked away. Blinking, Aido looked down at the black and red spider that had settled on his arm. He smiled. “I think I’ll just take him back to the inn with us. I want to make sure he doesn’t get eaten.”
Shmee laughed. “You sure are strange, Aido. Protecting hairy spiders from being eaten by kitsus, but traveling with death on the soles of your feet!”
Aido ignored her remark as she led him down the dusty streets. “We can use today to recuperate, but tomorrow, we’ll go off together to climb Daladane. If the stories are true, then there will be a tunnel that opens into the volcano, and there will be a ledge to stand on inside of it.”
“Did they really teach you that in school, Shmee?” he asked grumpily.
“No. I pick up a thing or two while traveling,” she replied. Aido sighed.
“So when will we see the kitsus?”
“Soon, Aido, soon.”
He didn’t like this town, he soon decided. It was far too empty, too dusty, and too… hard. He was used to villages lined with dirt instead of stone, and having small wooden houses instead of massive grey buildings. He couldn’t stand the broken windows and dangling signs. It all seemed out of place in a forest.
Soon, however, Shmee led him inside one of them. He didn’t look in time to read the sign, but he assumed it was the inn. Awed, he looked around. He wasn’t used to seeing stone for walls instead of wood. In fact, he was so engrossed in his surroundings that he almost didn’t realize that Shmee was making a reservation—or that she had interrupted the conversation between the manager and a small girl in a long orange frock.
“Two beds, please,” Shmee said cheerfully. The girl glared.
“Can’t you see I’m talking?” she snapped. The manager laughed.
“Sarita, it’s good for business. It’ll only be a minute.”
“She should’ve said ‘Excuse me!’” the girl named Sarita growled. Shmee frowned.
“All right then. Excuse me, can I please make a reservation?”
The girl glared, her almond-shaped brown eyes narrowed. “Now you’re being sarcastic, lady!”
“Just be quiet,” Aido grumbled. Well, at least saying that had distracted the girl’s wrath from Shmee to Aido.
“You, stay outta my business, boy,” she warned. Furious, she marched right up to Aido, and even though she looked a little younger than Aido, she was still slightly intimidating. “Got that?”
Aido rolled his eyes. With an angry screech, Sarita kicked a sandaled foot at the manager’s desk.
“I hope you’re happy, stupid!” With that, she stormed out. Both Aido and Shmee stared after her as the door slammed shut.
“What was that about?” Shmee asked, looking slightly dumbstruck. The manager sighed.
“That’s Sarita. She shows up now and then to talk about how much she hates what the world is coming to,” he replied with amusement. Shmee laughed.
“Or just anything in general?”
“Yeah, that too.”
Aido watched as Shmee paid for the room, and chatted with the manager. Because that talk seemed rather boring, Aido spent that time by watching the tarantula begin to crawl back down his arm. He was looking forward to having fresh food for once. He ran out of his mother’s food days ago, and he was sick of eating the rabbits that Shmee would catch, and berries that he would scrounge up.
No, tonight, dinner would be good. He hoped that there would be chicken. His thoughts turned to food so quickly. Shmee always made fun of him for it. She would always claim that food was always on a boy’s mind. But finally, he would have some good food for once!
“So, what brings you two to an abandoned place like Spiders?” the manager asked cheerfully.
“We’re actually going to pay a visit to the Spirit of the Volcano,” Shmee replied. “We have some business to take care of.” The man stared.
“You’re going to go bother our Big Sister?” he asked incredulously. Shmee nodded.
“It’s quite urgent, I’m afraid.”
The man laughed darkly. “I would hope it is. I wouldn’t put it past her to kill someone for disturbing her,” he warned. Aido wiggled uncomfortably. He didn’t like the sound of that.
“Don’t worry about us,” the storyteller replied brightly, with no trace of worry in her musical voice.
Shmee refused to explain to the manager about the specific reason that they had come, though Aido could tell that she was enjoying showing off the fact that she was going. Even as they went out briefly to get dinner, the manager was trying to wheedle information out of Aido.
“Don’t do it,” the manager warned. “The Big Sister can be very violent.”
“I know. Believe me, I’m a storyteller,” she told him, brushing him off. Aido was rather surprised that the man didn’t even notice that he had a shadow, but he figured he should count his blessings.
“I’ll be back later,” he told Shmee when they had left the inn. “I have some money. I can go buy food for myself.”
Shmee raised an eyebrow. “I don’t want you to get lost, spider-boy,” she warned.
“I’m sure someone will be able to show me the way if I get lost. People seem nice here,” he replied with a shrug. Surprisingly, Shmee nodded.
“All right. Just be back at the inn before the sky starts to turn pink. That’s when kitsus like to come out,” she told him, winking. Aido couldn’t tell whether or not she was kidding, but before he could ask, she had already turned around, and walked down one of the long, stony streets.
Aido sighed, and began to trudge down another one. He was glad to have some alone time for once. Shmee was only good in small amounts, even though she was useful. But she was so talkative that Aido felt that he could hardly think without being interrupted!
Curiously, Aido looked up at the buildings again, staring at the broken windows and grey walls. Some of the windows had spiderwebs. At least he knew now that most of the spiders here would probably be as harmless as the tarantula was. Aido had put it in his room to keep it safe from being eaten—for now, at least. It was a sweet little companion.
Thinking about companionship made him think about something else—more kids his age. Were there many here? He already knew that there was Sarita, but were there any more kids? The idea made him brighten. Maybe he could make some friends while he was here. If they would come near him, anyway. The shadow might scare them away. He could never tell what people would think. Until now, Shmee had kept him away from many of the hamlets that had lined the road, so he didn’t know what they would think. But now, there was the possibility that he would be judged again.
As he began looking at all the old signs outside of the shops, he caught sight of Sarita at the end of the street, staring intently at him. Aido blinked, and looked behind him, thinking that perhaps she was looking at somebody else. Her lips curled into a pert little grin, and she bounded forward toward him.
“Hi! I remember you. You were with the rude lady,” she told him with a smirk. “Why?”
“What?” Aido was caught off-guard by her quick talking. This clearly made Sarita annoyed.
“Why were you with the rude lady?”
“Oh… she’s letting me travel with her,” Aido told her uncomfortably. Sarita rolled her eyes.
“You look old enough to travel by yourself.”
Now it was Aido’s turn to be annoyed. “Well, I didn’t ask you, did I?” he replied hotly. Sarita laughed.
“I guess. So, what brings you to the Town of Spiders?” she asked him, folding her tan arms. Aido shrugged.
“I don’t know,” he replied, trying to turn the subject away from him as quickly as he could. “So, do you know any good places to eat?”
Sarita grinned, and Aido was taken aback by how… pointed her canine teeth seemed to be. But it was probably just the angle he was looking at her. He ignored it.
“Of course I know. What do you feel like eating?” she asked cheerfully, kicking at a pebble on the street.
“I don’t know. Is there somewhere here that sells good chicken?”
Sarita laughed. “Ta, there are a lot of places. There’s one close by that I like. Follow me,” she told him. With that, she led him onto the next street.
Aido hardly had time to look at his surroundings because Sarita was leading him so fast. What he was able to see, however, was that most of the signs were written both in the Common Language and in a different, more flowing script. He decided he would ask Shmee about it later. Sarita seemed like the type to would make fun of him if he were to ask a question like that. At least with Shmee, she would answer, even if they long and drawn-out.
He tore his eyes away from the signs to look back at Sarita. Her long, straight black hair was bouncing with each step she took. He couldn’t understand why she’d wear such an ugly dress, though. It was orange, and hung down to her knees. If she lived in his town, she would certainly wear a better outfit! Girls loved dressing up—as far as he knew, anyway.
What added to the peculiarity of her dress was an odd bulge down her thighs. Did she have some kind of birth defect? Again, Aido refrained from asking. He knew his manners well enough to know that to ask about it was to be rude, and Sarita seemed to have a personal vendetta against rude people.
“Here we are!” she announced as they approached a small shop at the corner of the street. Aido read the sign. It was a combination of a tavern and an indoor market, or so the sign said. “They have such good food here! Old Mama Kitsu blessed it herself!” she told him, somewhat smugly.
“Old Mama Kitsu?” Aido repeated, somewhat startled by that irreverent term. Sarita laughed.
“Yeah, that’s my little nickname for her,” she replied. “She never seemed like much of a ‘Big Sister’ to me.” Aido rolled his eyes.
“Don’t be rude, boy,” she demanded, settling both her hands on her hips and giving him a glare. Aido resisted the urge to roll them again.
Both of them entered the building. Though Sarita went straight to the meats, Aido couldn’t help but look around in awe. This place was huge! However, as he took a step in, the man at the counter rushed over to Aido.
“You have to leave.”
“I don’t want you to bring bad luck to my shop,” the man said anxiously, pointing down to Aido’s feet. Aido didn’t even bother looking down. He knew that the man was talking about his shadow. Aido flushed.
“No,” Sarita hissed, marching up to the man. “You are not going to tell me what to do, sir.”
“No, no, I’m not talking about you, Sarita, I’m talking about the boy—”
“Yeah, well, he’s with me,” she told him, contorting her dark face into something comparable to a predator ready to strike.
“It’s all right, I can just go somewhere else,” Aido told her uncomfortably.
"Don’t you go letting him boss you around, either!" Sarita snapped.
"Look, Sarita, you know as well as I do that shadows—" the man tried.
"—are nothing to be scared of," she said firmly. "You’re not supposed to be scared of anything made by the Spirits."
The man shifted uncomfortably, but Sarita continued to stare at him, asking silent questions with her fiery stare. The man gave up, retreating behind the desk that he was stationed at. With a pleased huff, Sarita immediately went straight back to the meat.
Aido was angry. Just what had given Sarita the audacity to act this way? He knew how to take care of himself without having some girl try to be the hero! However, he knew it would be rude to tell Sarita that herself, so he tried to settle his anger by glaring at her back.
"The chicken here is really good," she told him, oblivious to his frustration. "Do you just want to buy some, or do you actually want to eat a meal here?"
"I think I'll just eat a meal. I don't know how to cook chicken well," he replied irritably.
Sarita turned around, quirking an eyebrow at Aido. "Why are you so grumpy all of a sudden?"
"Yes you are."
The two of them locked eyes, trying to outdo each other’s stare. However, when Aido found himself retreating from her gaze, Sarita smirked.
"I think I know the problem," she finally announced. "You didn't like that I yelled at the storekeeper for you." Aido said nothing. "You know, I don't understand why boys don’t like us girls sticking up for you."
"You heard me. In my experience, I have never seen a boy who likes having me stick up for them. All of my brothers hate it, and the village boys here hate it, too."
"You have brothers?"
The thought of Sarita having a family of her own cooled Aido off slightly. He supposed that it was only natural that she had a family, but after seeing her wander the streets so freely, he couldn’t help but be surprised. Were parents out here more relaxed? Sarita, on the other hand, rolled her eyes.
"Too many, it seems like. And sisters, too, I have a ton of them," she replied. "Anyway, don't be so dumb about me sticking up for you. As I said, this place has the best chicken."
With that, Sarita led Aido up the narrow stairway that led to the tavern portion of the building. To Aido, it didn't seem all that promising. The corners were matted with cobwebs, and paint was chipping off the walls. Nevertheless, Sarita brought Aido up to the counter, and Aido watched as she gingerly sat on the stool. She sat in such a way that made her bulge stick out from over the top of her stool, and Aido couldn't help but watch as it seemed to begin to grow, and curl around both sides of her stomach.
His curiosity got the better of him. "Sarita, what's with that thing on your back?" Aido couldn't tell whether to be nervous, scared, or awed by such a strange spectacle. However, it was seemingly the wrong thing to say, for Sarita glared fiercely at Aido.
"Don't you know it's rude to ask a lady about a growth on her body?" she demanded haughtily. Aido flushed.
"I just thought it's weird… I mean," he stammered after seeing her expression grow from angry to furious. "I just didn't think growths… you know… moved."
"It's a weird growth," she said firmly, turning back to the counter. It bothered Aido that she didn't answer his question, and he found himself sliding on his stool as far from her as the seat would allow.
"Kailoriée, Elitie," Sarita said conversationally to the man behind the counter. "Me and Aido would both like the seasoned chicken, with some green beans and potato for Aido's side, and some fried tarantula for mine."
The man, Elitie, wrinkled his nose, but said nothing as he set to work. Sarita grinned, and Aido glared at her again. Did Sarita really think it was necessary to order it for him? Not to mention that all of that food was probably expensive.
However, the question of money was answered for him. "Put it on my mama's tab," she added to Elitie.
"I can't just do that," Aido protested.
"My mama doesn't mind," Sarita replied with a shrug.
"And who's your ma?"
Sarita sighed, and turned to face him, looking at him seriously. "It doesn't matter. But you need to listen to me for a minute. Why are you here?"
Aido stared blankly. "What?"
"If you're here about the shadow, you gotta listen to me, okay?" she said, her voice hushed. Because she sounded so serious, Aido slid on his stool, back toward her again.
"Okay," he replied, his voice just as hushed.
"After we eat, you need to go visit Old Mama Kitsu," she instructed. "That rude lady isn't allowed to go with you. You've got a shadow, so you're important, and Old Mama Kitsu will tolerate you. But the rude lady doesn’t have a reason to be there, and it will annoy the Old Mama so much that she'll kill her."
Aido stared. "Sarita… how did you know I needed to see the Spirit of the Volcano?"
Sarita was silent for a moment. "I was spying on you as you entered the town," she finally said, slowly. "I heard you and the rude lady talking about climbing Mount Daladane."
She looked back up at Elitie. "Actually, can you make my food to go?"
"You're leaving?" Aido asked, surprised at the abruptness of Sarita's decision to go. She nodded firmly.
"I have things to do. Just remember: as soon as you're done eating, climb Daladane alone. Once you start climbing, you can't go back down," she told him, her voice hurried and quiet. "Make sure that Old Mama Kitsu knows you have a shadow. Then she'll listen to anything you have to say."
It stunned Aido at just how much Sarita seemed to know about just what he was doing. He thought back to the conversation he had with Shmee as they had entered the village. They talked about Mount Daladane, of kitsus, of spiders, of climbing the volcano—
Elitie handed Sarita a bag, filled with food. "Thanks," she mumbled, and climbed off of the stool. Aido stared at her as she left the tavern hurriedly. Then it hit him.
Sarita couldn't have seen him enter the town. She had been talking to the innkeeper.