"Sarita! Wait!" Aido practically launched himself off the stool as he ran down the stairs that Sarita had just descended. That girl had to be hiding something from him. How else could she have known about the reason he had come to this town? All that Aido knew about her was that he needed to catch her and make her explain herself.
However, in the market portion of the store, he was intercepted. "Sorry," the shopkeeper told him, "but the little miss doesn't want you chasing after her…Not that you could catch her."
"Who is she?!" Aido demanded. The shopkeeper raised his eyebrows, and his eyes flickered down to Aido's shadow before he spoke again.
"She's Sarita, of course."
"Well, obviously!" Aido replied, unable to contain his frustration. "But she seems to know things about me that I've never told her!"
"Oh, well, she was probably spying on you, shadow-boy."
"Why and how?" Aido knew his voice was rising, but he didn't care. This matter was too pressing to be ignored.
The shopkeeper gave Aido an odd look. "You mean you don't know?"
"Sarita is a kitsu, boy," the shopkeeper said seriously. "I thought you knew that, from the way she was letting you follow her."
Aido stared. Sarita… a kitsu?!
"She was probably spying on you before you even got here."
Aido said nothing. He thought back to all of his talking with Sarita. Suddenly, it made so much sense. Her teeth, her order of fried tarantula, calling the Spirit of the Volcano odd names… And the growth on her back…
"Didn't you even notice her tails? They dangle down the back of her dress," the shopkeeper explained.
Of course… the growth on her back had to be her tails, all bunched up. Was she trying to keep her identity a secret?
"Thanks," he muttered to the shopkeeper. How did Aido not realize that she was a kitsu? Wasn't he supposed to recognize magic? Or did that rule only apply to humans? He shook his curly blonde head in disbelief as he slowly walked back up the stairs. He was an idiot for not recognizing that she was a kitsu! It was such a strange thought. Since before he arrived in this town, he had wondered about kitsus and how terrifying they might be, while the first person that he met here happened to be one!
Maybe he could explain why he didn't know, he thought desperately, trying to preserve his dignity to himself. He didn't know that kitsus could turn into humans, after all! This seemed to calm Aido down somewhat. It wasn't his fault he didn't realize it, after all!
Still, a nasty little voice in the back of his mind told him tauntingly, he had to have realized that something about Sarita was strange. Aido sighed as he plopped back onto the stool, where his plate of chicken and greens was waiting for him.
Aido was almost surprised at how good the chicken was. It was seasoned a perfect amount, and was cooked just right. Seeing Aido's face, the cook, Elitie, laughed.
"We're the favorite of the kitsus for good reason, you know," he told Aido in a deep, booming voice.
"Yeah, it's really good."
Elitie let out a long laugh that was just as deep and booming as his voice, and just as jolly.
"So how do you put it all on Sarita's ma's—I mean, the Spirit of the Volcano's tab?" Aido asked, figuring he might as well get some real answers out of this place.
"Well, we'll come to the store when we open up the next morning morning, and find a sack full of coins on the doorstep," Elitie replied cheerfully. "And the Big Sister always includes some extra coins."
Aido nodded as he continued his meal. So, the Spirit of the Volcano was a generous Spirit. That was good to know. Still, he couldn't quell his fear about her. To Aido, she was still this dangerous being, despite how generous she could be.
He pondered. He didn't want Shmee to get killed because she wanted to be involved with getting over to Mount Daladane. This was why he dismissed the idea of leaving tomorrow. Shmee would insist on following him, despite the warning. Also, hadn't Sarita said that he had to leave as soon as he had finished eating?
He couldn't help but be annoyed. Would he have time to sleep? He didn't know how much longer it would be until dusk. Shmee had said that Mount Daladane was only a few miles from the Town of Spiders, so he supposed he had a chance of reaching the Spirit of the Volcano by then. He wrinkled his nose. So much for a day off from walking!
When Aido finished his meal, and he thought through his plan again. He needed to leave right away. He knew the day had to be almost over—all day had been spent arriving here, but it couldn't take long to get to the volcano, could it?
"Sir, how do you get to Mount Daladane?" he asked Elitie. Elitie frowned.
"There's an old trail. It's used only by kitsus nowadays, because very few people ever want to see the Big Sister," he said.
"Where is it?"
Elitie paused. "Do you know how to read the Dal-Lorhien?"
Now it was Aido's turn to frown. "Is it spelled like it sounds?"
Elitie laughed. "No, no, it's written in a different script. Would you like me to copy down how it looks so that you know you've got the right trail?"
Aido nodded. Elitie took a sheet of paper from under the counter, and after scribbling some old notes away, he began to write odd-looking letters. Aido looked on curiously.
"So that's how you write the Dal-Lorhien?"
"What does it say?"
"Katista aar anj s-Kitso, or the Road of the Kitsus. You can find it at the part of town closest to the volcano."
Aido nodded. That made sense. Elitie handed Aido the paper, and Aido looked at the curly, elegant script. So, now he knew that the signs around town had been written in the Dal-Lorhien, as well. He had wondered about the writing, but he understood now.
With a quiet mumble of thanks, Aido left the tavern and made his way toward the volcano. He had never seen a mountain before, let alone an actual volcano, but it was different than he expected. Weren't mountains supposed to touch the sky and be covered with clouds? His mother had told him that the mountains where the graces lived were so cloudy and high that it was impossible to see the top. Or, at least, that's what she had always thought.
The walk to the trail was surprisingly simple. The roads in this town, despite being gray, were easy to follow. They were wide and direct, which was something Aido wasn't used to. In his hometown, all the roads were long and winding. He didn't pay so much attention to the buildings this time around. He was so lost in thought thinking about the Spirit of the Volcano and Sarita that looking at buildings seemed so… trivial.
He was still in shock that Sarita had been a kitsu. Kitsus were supposed to be nasty little foxes with too many tails. But here, Sarita had been a human girl! A human girl who had been following him! Kitsus must also be fast, since she had made it back to town quick enough to catch him at the inn and start up a conversation with the innkeeper. He didn't even know why she was in the first place. Did the Spirit of the Volcano send her?
Before he knew it, Aido arrived at the edge of the town, in front of a small sign that was coated in webs. Tentatively, Aido looked from the paper Elitie had given him to the sign. The letters were a perfect match.
However, in that instant, Aido yawned. It had to be almost time to sleep—the air was cooling, which meant the dusk had to only be a few hours away. But he couldn't turn back. He didn't want Shmee to die. Taking a deep breath, Aido started to walk down the road.
For a road that was seldom used, it was very well worn. No grass or weed dared growing in the path, probably in fear that the kitsus or the Spirit of the Volcano would destroy it.
Yet despite the ease of the trail, Aido felt very uncomfortable. From the minute he set foot onto the trail, he had the disturbing feeling that he was being watched. He could only imagine that it was the kitsus. And even the air on this trail felt heavier than normal! Was that because he was getting close to a Spirit?
"I don't like this, Momo," Aido murmured.
"Don’t worry, I'm right with you," Momo's familiar voice replied. Startled, Aido looked around, trying to see if Momo had appeared near him. But it wasn't so. Still, he tried to draw strength from Momo's words as he continued down the trail.
Aido endured the invisible stares of the kitsus for the few miles of the trail. He would be at the volcano soon, he kept telling himself. Soon, he would meet with "Old Mama Kitsu" herself.
How had time passed so quickly? The sky was beginning to tinge with pink when the trail opened into a large, grassy clearing. Anxiously, he looked around. He still felt the stares of the kitsus, even now, at the base of Mount Daladane. He gulped, and looked up the mountain. Where was he to begin? He hadn't imagined it being so wide.
The question was answered for him. A wide ledge began at the base of the mountain, and traveled gradually upwards. Aido wrinkled his nose. He hadn’t realized it would take this long to hike out here and climb the mountain. Maybe he should sleep first, he thought tiredly. His feet hurt, and all he needed was a brief nap—
A deafening sound filled the clearing. Aido groaned, and covered his ears to try to block it out. It was as though… something was roaring.
"Aido, we need to keep going," Momo said firmly in the back of his mind.
"I can't, I'm too tired!"
"Didn't you hear what the fox girl said? She said to do it today!"
Aido sighed. "Why do you even care? The only reason I'm here at all is to get rid of you!"
"You just need more proof that you can't get rid of me." Her voice tickled Aido's mind. He huffed, and slowly walked through the clearing toward the trail.
However, at its base, he hesitated, and looked up the long, steep path that led to a side of the mountain that was obscured from view. Once he started, he knew, he wouldn't be allowed to stop. Or, at least, that's what Sarita had said. That made him worry. What would happen if he stopped for a rest?
Gulping, Aido began the long ascent. If Aido had felt that the trail in the forest was odd, he felt the strangeness on the mountain tenfold. The invisible eyes that he thought were watching him only seemed to multiply, even though the trees were growing more sparsely as he went higher and higher.
It wasn't long before the sparse trees had disappeared. In fact, there was no more greenery, and Aido could see more easily how Mount Daladaine was a volcano. Everything was barren. Aido paused for a moment to sniff the air, and he wrinkled his nose. It smelled like rotten eggs.
"Keep going!" he heard Momo urge in his mind. Remembering Sarita's warning, Aido took off with a start, running as quickly as he could away from where he had paused. He felt Momo become amused. He slowed his running, and rolled his eyes. Stupid shadow had probably just given him a false alarm.
Soon, Aido's feet began to protest more than normal against the steep walking. He panted, but wouldn't let himself stop. To help himself keep going, he thought of Shmee, back at the town. It was dusk now, he thought grumpily. He should be back at the inn right now. Shmee was probably worried.
And what of his parents? If Shmee was worried now, they were probably sick with worry! Guiltily, Aido kicked at a rock.
"Momo, can you hear me?" he asked quietly.
"I can always hear you," she replied calmly into his ear.
"Do you remember your parents?"
There was a long pause, and Aido continued to push himself upwards. However, he knew Momo wasn't ignoring him. She was simply trying to figure out how to respond.
"Are they alive?" he asked, curious. Maybe, when he grew up, he could look for them, and tell them about Momo. It would be interesting to meet her family.
"Yes, but I am out of their minds," she replied calmly. "It would interfere with my plans if they remembered me."
Aido was horrified. "They don't remember you?!"
Aido fell silent. He didn't want to upset Momo any more than he felt she was already. From feeling her emotions, he could tell that she was extremely saddened, more than he had ever felt before. It was odd. In all his time of knowing Momo, he didn't feel her emotions as often as she probably felt his. Was it because she was dead?
Then, something caught his eye. He brightened. "Water!" Eagerly, he rushed up the trail, to a small puddle.
"Don't drink it!" Momo said hurriedly, quickly overcoming her sadness.
"This is hot spring water. It's not good for drinking."
"But I'm thirsty!" Aido grumbled. Momo chuckled.
"Soon, Aido. We're almost there."
That was far from the truth, he thought irritably a half-hour later. He was a lot higher up, at least. The sky was slowing gaining more and more cloudy violet against the dusty orange, constantly reminding Aido that he should be sleeping right now. He had done nothing but travel for so long, so why couldn't he just have a break?!
Frustrated, he came to a full stop. Firmly, he plopped onto the ground, and leaned against the side of the volcano. It was odd, having solid wall to lean against on the trail, but he wasn't complaining.
"Aido, up," Momo said firmly. Aido shook his head.
"I need a break, Momo! I can't walk up a mountain and not get a break!"
It felt so good to sit down like this! he thought comfortably, closing his eyes. It wasn't a bed, but it still felt good.
"No, Aido, you need to get up!" Momo sounded more urgent, but Aido ignored her. Who cared about what Sarita said? She was probably just trying to scare him.
Suddenly, a wave of heat erupted beside Aido. The boy jumped, and couldn't suppress a scream. Close to him, a wall of fire had grown—and it was moving toward him!
"Run!" Momo yelled inside his head. Aido didn't need to be told twice. He sprung up, but not before the flames licked his leg. He yelped in surprise and pain, and ran as fast as he could up the mountain, very much aware that the wall of fire was chasing after him.
The fire followed Aido up the remainder of the trail, which, surprisingly, was very short. For only a few minutes after beginning to run, he arrived at the end of the trail. He couldn't take his eyes off the view—he could see the Town of Spiders from all the way up here! He could even see the smoke from the roofs of its neighboring villages!
Subconsciously, he was aware that the wall of flames had come to an abrupt halt, and flickered behind an invisible barrier on the trail. Absently, Aido rubbed his calf, where he had been burned. Only now could he feel just how much it hurt.
Looking back to the side of the mountain, Aido's eyes widened at the enormous cavern that led into the stone. This had to be it, he thought. He gulped.
Did the Spirit of the Volcano know that he was coming? He certainly couldn't turn around now. The fire was blocking the way down, and he didn't want to hurt himself in it again. She would probably just kill him even if he did make it through, he thought glumly.
No, he told himself firmly. Spirits were good, and weren't anything to be scared of. But if that was true, why couldn't he shake the fear? Slowly, he approached the mouth of the cave. He had to remind himself to take deep breaths. Who knew that meeting a divine being was so frightening?
The moment that he stepped into the tunnel, all seemed to go dark, as if the tunnel had swallowed him up. Aido shuddered. He wasn't comfortable being around so much dark. But it wasn't dark for long.
Torches, lit seemingly as if by magic, flickered on the sides of the cavern. Aido couldn't help but be awed by the fact that these torches did set shadows in the cavern. It was strange and haunting, but Aido knew better than to sit around and stare at the torches.
He fought off a yawn, and pushed himself further into the cavern. This was the part that was unknown to Aido. How far down the tunnel did he have to go to reach the Spirit of the Volcano?
This question was soon answered, for further down the tunnel, Aido saw dull, light above him, at the end of a towering stairway. He sighed. He was getting tired of climbing things. Nevertheless, he forced himself up. The idea of him fretting any further about the Spirit of the Volcano was enough to give him a headache. He had done nothing but worry for the entire walk, and it felt like it had sapped all of his energy. It was better not to worry, and feel better about himself.
Oddly, he felt a wave of approval wash over him from Momo. Aido forced a smile. He could do this.
At the top of the stairs, Aido found that the tunnel opened onto a ledge overlooking a lake of lava. Mustering up his courage, he stepped onto it.
Instantly, another wall of fire rose behind him, blocking the tunnel, his escape route. Aido whirled around, staring at it.
The sound of hundreds of children giggling forced Aido to look back into the volcano. Nervously, he looked up at the walls, and was horrified to see, sitting on ledges similar to his own, hundreds of kitsus. These weren’t the human kind, either—these were foxes. They looked so similar to normal foxes, except instead of only one tail, each of them had three.
"Why have you come?"
Aido's first instinct was to cover his ears against the loud voice, but the voice wasn't coming from outside—the sound was inside his mind.
"Please! I just came to—"
Aido flushed, and he couldn't tell if it was from the intense heat from inside the volcano, or from embarrassment.
"Are you the Spirit of the Volcano?"
A bubbling sound came in response. At first, Aido was alarmed, thinking that the volcano was going to erupt. Looking into the lava, he saw a mound of it rise up in a tower of liquid fire. Aido couldn't help but stare as the lava fell cleanly away from the tower, revealing an enormous being standing in its wake.
This couldn't be just a fox. This, he knew, was the mother of all foxes, the mother of all kitsus. He understood now why the legends spoke so respectfully of her. Her fur was thick, and instead of the typically coppery red of a normal fox, it was the color of molten gold. Nine tails fanned on either side of her enormous body, impervious to the lava that they waved against.
What intimidated Aido the most, however, wasn't the amount of tails she had, or the color of her fur. It was her eyes. They seemed to be made of pure flame, yet held an unparalleled intelligence—and an unforgiving gleam.
Aido found himself looking down, unable to meet the Spirit in the eyes. He heard hundreds of voices raised in laughter, and he didn't even have to think about where they came from. They were the kitsus, presumably mocking him.
"Tell me why you are here. I have no time for your childish games."
He could tell that the Spirit of the Volcano was getting angry.
He felt he was struck dumb by her sheer presence.
"If you have no reason to be here, I will kill you." He knew she wasn't joking.
"I… I have a shadow," he squeaked.
The audience of kitsus murmured in curiosity. Aido prayed that Sarita had been truthful about the Spirit of the Volcano not killing him if she knew about his shadow. If she hadn’t been, Aido didn't know what he was supposed to say next.
Aido was almost surprised that she had let him continue. "Well… I was wondering if you would give me a blessing of warmth so that I can go see the Spirit of the Grave.
The ever-watching kitsus laughed again as one. "Silence!" roared the Spirit of the Volcano. The lava beneath her was beginning to bubble at her words, and Aido was seriously concerned about what would happen if it erupted. Fortunately, the bubbling stopped as quickly as it had begun.
"Why do you wish to see my brother?"
Aido trembled with relief. She was actually hearing him out.
"I want to get rid of this shadow."
The Spirit of the Volcano chuckled slowly, deeply. "Does your shadow have a name?"
Aido paused, wondering why she wanted such a trivial piece of information. "Momo."
The kitsus began to chatter excitedly. However, when the lava began to bubble again, they fell silent.
"So, her crazy idea is working after all," the Spirit commented. "I cannot say that I am not surprised."
"What crazy idea?" Aido asked angrily. Was Momo up to something?
"When she died, she made a connection to the Spirit of the Grave, begging him to listen to her. She begged him to warn the other Spirits of the Emperor's plan," she explained. "The Spirit of the Grave believed her. So he turned her into a shadow and let her travel. Alone, she traveled to me, to warn me of a terrible danger. I did not believe her. Many years later, she returned, only to tell me that two of my siblings had indeed been captured by the Emperor."
"Why?" Aido asked, beginning to feel a little frightened. Why did the Emperor capture Spirits?
"The Emperor is a foolish man. His goal is to eradicate darkness forever," she replied calmly. "However, to do so, he needed to gain complete control of the Spirits. Last I heard, he still had the Spirit of the Water and the Spirit of the Wing under his control. The rest of my brethren have gone into hiding."
"Has the Emperor tried to capture you?"
Sparks of electricity began to illuminate the Spirit of the Volcano's golden fur. "You are becoming too curious about unimportant matters. I tell you what I must, not what you desire."
Aido backed up nervously. He wasn't sure if sparking fur meant that she was going to attack him or not. "Sorry," he mumbled. But she ignored him.
"It is unsafe for the rest of us to remain unprotected," she continued. "That is why I have locked myself in here. I do not let anyone in. The other Spirits have done the same."
"So what do I do?" Aido asked, unsure. "Why am I here?"
"You must set the other Spirits free," the Spirit of the Volcano replied calmly.
Anger flared inside of Aido—why did it have to be him to do this? Did Momo just volunteer him for this job?! He was only twelve, what business did she have in separating him from his family to do a job he never asked to do?!
"I don't want to do this," he said flatly. He heard the kitsus muttering in surprised tones around him, but he ignored them. "I never wanted to leave my home just so Momo could do something. What's so bad about an eternal day?"
If Aido's little speech hadn't made the Spirit of the Volcano angry, his last sentence apparently did. The lava bubbled around her. "Are you that ignorant?" she demanded furiously. "Do you really believe that an eternal day is not bad?"
Aido frowned. Of course he didn't. He had grown up being taught that it was the night that was bad, not the day. He felt Momo grow uneasy within him.
"You will learn one day," she replied, displeased. "But you belong to us. You must do what we ask of you, or the destruction of the world will be on your shoulders."
Aido flushed. That was a harsh ultimatum-- if it was true, anyway. But... it had to be, didn't it? Even though he was brought up with the knowledge that dark things were bad, the Spirits were more right than a mortal man could ever be.
“But... can't you just pick someone else to do this?” he asked, his voice tinier than ever. “I'm just twelve. I can't do anything like this.”
“I am afraid that is not up to you, or to me. If anyone, it is up to both Momo and the Spirit of the Grave,” the Spirit told him, seemingly pleased that Aido was caving in to her words. “So have we reached an understanding?”
Slowly, Aido nodded, his heart sinking as he did so. “I guess,” he relied meekly. Still, he clung to the hope that maybe the Spirit of the Grave would hear him out, and give the job to someone more qualified for it. The kitsus began to chatter again the excitement, and the Spirit of the Volcano gave a huff of approval.
“Good. It is your job to tell my brother, and the other Spirits, to meet at the Circle of Heaven, so that we may call upon the Inaar,” she said firmly. “I will tell you how to find the Spirit of the Grave, and I will give you a blessing of warmth. To find my brother: when the sun hits my mountain at sunset, a shadow will be cast. Walk to the top of its shadow, and there, Momo will open the door.”
Hesitantly, Aido nodded. All that remained now...
“And the blessing of warmth,” The Spirit said, almost lazily. She flicked her golden tails, and Aido felt something heavy slip into his pocket without anyone placing it there. “Before you enter the Halls of the Dead, hold this stone and you will feel heat flood your body. It is a special stone, filled with the warmth of my volcano—and my blessing.” The Spirit of the Volcano let out another huff. “I will take my leave now to the Circle of Heaven. Good luck, Aido.” With that, the Spirit of the Volcano vanished, leaving a mass of bubbling lava in her wake.