Aido looked around, positive that any minute, the door he had come through would reopen so that he could go back down the mountain. However, as the moments wore on, he realized that it was not to be. He paled.
“Momo, how do we get out?” he asked timidly. Though she didn't respond with words, he could tell that she was uncertain, and when Momo was uncertain, Aido knew it was a bad sign. He looked around, and to his horror, he realized that the kitsus were still watching him. Fear struck him dumb. Were they going to do something to him?! Were they going to... eat him?!
As if they read his thoughts, all of the kitsus began giggling.
“Eat you... that sounds like a good idea. Young boys tastes freshest!” one of them said, its voice slipping into Aido's mind much like the Spirit's did.
“Absolutely delicious!” another one purred.
Aido began to back up, his frightened blue eyes staring at the hundreds of kitsus lining the walls.
“No,” Aido whispered. The kitsus all laughed as one, seeming to enjoy torturing Aido.
“Even tastier than tarantulas,” another added cheerfully.
“Please stop,” Aido murmured, finding himself putting his hands over his ears to try and block out the kitsus. Of course, since it wouldn't work as the kitsus spoke telepathically, they only giggled again, feeding off his fear.
“Will you just leave him alone?” a kitsu demanded. Startled, Aido looked up, and saw one kitsu hissing at the rest. “He has important things to do, and you are wasting his time.”
The other kitsus all murmured among themselves irritably as the kitsu who defended him pushed herself off the ledge, leaping over the chasm of lava onto the ledge where Aido was. She bared her teeth in a ferocious-looking grin. “Hello again, Aido!”
Aido stared. “Sarita? Is that you?” The fox-girl giggled, fanning out her tails behind her.
“The one and only! Now, how about we get out of here? Ma forgot that you can't just magically fly out of here,” Sarita replied. Aido looked at her curiously, though his eyes were briefly distracted by the kitsus who continued to glower at him.
“So that's how you get out of here, by flying?”
Sarita groaned. “I was being sarcastic. There's actually a tunnel that will lead us out, but you're not allowed to see, so you need to close your eyes as I lead you to it.”
“And what if I don't close my eyes?” Aido replied defiantly. Sarita giggled.
“Them my brothers and sisters will have a delicious meal,” she replied. Aido didn't need to be told twice. He shut his eyes.
He was definitely not in a tunnel when Sarita told him to open his eyes. He blinked, surprised. The moon was shining down from the night sky. He was outside!
“How'd I get out here so quickly?” he asked Sarita, looking around for her. Now, she looked just like she had earlier, as a young girl with long, black hair and almond-shaped brown eyes. She grinned. “And how did you—?”
“I hypnotized you for a bit, so I could get some clothes on and lead you out here without you seeing anything,” she replied with a shrug. Aido looked at her suspiciously.
“You... hypnotized me!? And... And why didn't you tell me before that you were a kitsu?!” Aido demanded with a hint of whining. Sarita smirked.
“I heard that you were scared of kitsus, and I didn't want you scared of me,” she told him. “And yes, I did hypnotize you. Us magical creatures can do that, you know.”
Aido let out a yawn. He had forgotten how sleepy he was. He had traveled the whole day before arriving here, and he hadn't even slept before abandoning Shmee and hiking up that mountain... “Is it safe to sleep out here?” he asked Sarita. One of her dark eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“Of course it is. Why?”
“Because I don't feel like I can stay awake another minute,” he replied, feeling slightly wobbly. Quickly, Sarita held out an arm to steady him.
“Yeah, you should probably sleep. I’ll figure out where that impolite lady is, then bring her back here. Does that sound good?”
“No need. Aido, what in Inaar's name happened?!”
Aido didn't look up enough to see where Shmee came from, but she quickly darted over to the children, kneeling in front of Aido and grabbing his shoulders both to steady him and to scold him.
“I've already circled this mountain once looking for you! What is going on?!”
Aido swayed a little. Everything was feeling so surreal, and he just wanted to sleep. “Lady, I can explain as we let him sleep, all right?” Sarita said firmly. Shmee's gaze drifted to Sarita.
“And just who are you?!”
Sarita sighed. “I'm Sarita. I'm a kitsu. And I've been with Aido almost every step of the way today.”
“Thanks for bringing me along,” Shmee grumbled. She turned her attention back to Aido. “Why didn't you tell me? I looked all over town for you! I was so worried, and finally I asked some man who said he had given you directions, and I knew that you must have come here! You could have died and you just left me hanging?!”
“I told him to,” Sarita said, trying to be helpful. “It was important that he had to come here, without you--”
For a brief moment, Aido closed his eyes and lost awareness of everything around him as he was asleep for just a few seconds. Fortunately, Shmee was still holding on to him, so as he began to fall, she caught him. “Can Sarita explain while I sleep?” he asked groggily. Shmee frowned, then nodded.
“All right, if only because I think you'll die if you don't,” she replied, joking weakly. Aido nodded, seeming now to just be going through the motions of agreeing. Anything that would let him sleep. With that, Shmee let go of him, and Aido plopped onto the ground, immediately lay down, and fell asleep within moments.
The sun was shining when he woke up, and he squinted to let his eyes adjust to the light. He felt much better after sleeping. Still, he didn't get up quite yet. He just wanted to enjoy the feeling of lying down for as long as he could. It didn't take long, however, for all of the memories to come flooding back.
He shot up where he lay, his heart pounding. Shmee and Sarita were staring at him from where they sat together beside the fire. “Are you all right?” Shmee asked. Aido nodded, trying to calm himself. So many things had happened the day before, and he just needed to get used to them all.
“I'm fine,” he replied, his voice hoarse. He frowned. “How long was I asleep?”
“Well, we finished meeting with Ma late last night, and now it's the afternoon after that,” Sarita explained, smoothing one of her tails thoughtfully. They lay beside her, almost like a coppery blanket. Aido found it so... strange. Sarita no longer felt as though she needed to hide them under her dress, but it was certainly a sight Aido needed to get used to. He had to stop himself from staring; he had a feeling that she would call him rude if she caught him doing so.
“You slept like a rock,” Shmee added, her voice lacking its usual pleasantness. “Anyway, Sarita explained everything.”
“Oh,” was all Aido could say. Was Shmee angry with him? He still felt bad about running off on her like that, but would she really hold a grudge against him?
“I'm going to go catch me some lunch,” Sarita said, bouncing up. “The tarantulas around here are easy to catch, and I want to make sure that I'm nice and full by the time it's sunset!”
Aido hardly had the time to repress a shudder at the thought of eating tarantulas than Sarita bounded away and into the forest. But sunset... So, it would finally be time to meet the Spirit of the Grave. Aido reached into his pocket and gripped the smooth stone inside-- the Blessing of Warmth.
He looked back up at Shmee, who was not looking at him by going through her pack. “I left most of our things back at the Inn,” she told him curtly. “We'll go back there once we finish up our business here. I brought a change of clothes for you, though.”
“Thanks,” Aido murmured, letting go of the Blessing. A long silence passed between them before Aido worked up the nerve to say something.
“I'm sorry about running off on you like that,” he told her awkwardly. “I just... Sarita seemed so serious.”
“I don't doubt it,” Shmee replied dryly. “She's very persuasive.”
Another long pause. This was turning more uncomfortable than he thought it would be. “Are you... angry with me?”
Aido would have never expected to feel so insecure because of Shmee. She was so easy-going, and Aido didn't think he would ever be worried about their friendship. Sometimes, she had even been so annoying that he didn't even want to call her a friend! But now... he supposed he had to admit that she was one.
Shmee paused with her rummaging, and looked up at Aido with a startled look on her face.
“Aido, I'm not angry,” she said firmly. Then her face softened. “I was upset. I was worried. I knew what the Spirit of the Volcano was capable was, and I was worried you would be hurt, or killed. At most, I'm still not quite over it, but I'm far from angry, karorie.”
“I'm sorry,” Aido said again, his guilt increasing. He was actually surprised that Shmee was worried about him. But what had he been expecting? He had thought that she would be angry over missing an adventure, not about his welfare...
Shmee smiled weakly. “It's all right. Just... next time, talk to me first, and we can figure things out.”
Slowly, Aido nodded. He didn't think Sarita would have understood beforehand that he had to at least talk to Shmee, but now, it wasn't important. If it happened again, he would figure it out when the time came.
“Well,” Shmee said, jumping up. “Tonight, we'll set off for the shadow of the volcano, or whatever it's called. Sarita told me that's where we'd go next. Did you receive a blessing?”
Aido nodded, feeling somewhat numb, and pulled the blessing out of his pocket. This was the first time Aido had actually seen it, he thought, rather surprised with himself. The stone was warm to the touch, because of what Aido presumed was a living flame in the center of the smooth, crystal stone. Shmee looked at it dumbly.
“It's the Blessing,” Aido replied, giving Shmee an odd look. Shouldn't she know? Shmee stared at it for a moment, and then a look of comprehension dawned across her face.
“Oh!” she said, awed. “This makes so much more sense! 'Blessings' are actual stones, not something a Spirit says!”
“What?” Aido said, unsure.
“Blessings! There used to be stories of inaarans who made it their life missions to collect every Blessing that exists. I used to think they needed a verbal blessing from a Spirit, but if they're stones, it makes much more sense to 'collect' them!”
It made him feel better that Shmee had been just as clueless as he was when it came to the Blessing. He, like her, had thought the Blessing was just going to be something that the Spirit of the Volcano would say to him to protect him from cold or darkness. He didn’t even know how this Blessing worked, and Shmee must not know either.
Shmee seemed to be too lost in her revelation about the Blessings to go into any more conversation with Aido, which he didn’t mind. He just wanted to try and make sense of everything.
He weighed the warm stone in his hands. What other kinds of Blessings were there? He cursed himself for not paying more attention to the old legends. Did anyone these days still have Blessings? What other powers did they have? So many questions raced across his mind. Maybe, if someone collected all the Blessings, they could even be invincible! Or maybe all the Blessings only had mild powers, much like his Blessing of Warmth. He sighed. It seemed like being with Momo had introduced him to a much more complicated way of life.
It wasn’t long before Sarita returned, holding out a small satchel before her with her tales waving behind her and a pleased grin on her bronze face. Aido could see her fangs shimmering. “I caught a bunch of tarantulas,” she told him, almost with a purr. “We can’t fry them, but we can still roast them. Want some?”
“No thanks,” Aido replied, even though his stomach was rumbling. Shmee looked at him with a cocked eyebrow, and winked. Fortunately for her, Sarita didn’t see it. Sarita shrugged. “More for me, then,” she replied indifferently.
“Sarita, do you know anything about how this Blessing is supposed to help us?” Shmee asked, tossing Aido an apple. The boy smiled at her gratefully before taking a bite.
“Of course I do! It really helps to have your Ma be a Spirit,” Sarita replied, dumping the satchel of tarantulas into Shmee’s small pot. Shmee flinched, but said nothing, though Aido had an inkling that she was going to end up buying a new pot very soon. He grinned.
“How the Blessing of Warmth works,” Sarita explained, “is that when you go somewhere that’s too cold to live—maybe like the top of the Grace Mountains, or in dark caves, or in our case, to the Halls of the Spirit of the Grave—if you are in contact with the Blessing of Warmth, it’ll act like a shield. Anyone who touches it will get that shield, and you won’t feel the cold. It’s got to be skin contact, though,” Sarita added.
A look of delight crossed Shmee’s fair face. “So, you mean if both Aido and I are touching it at the same time, we’ll both be safe?”
Sarita shrugged. “I don’t see why not,” she told her, putting the pot over the fire. Aido shuddered as he heard very faint taps coming from inside the pot—the pronged feet of the doomed tarantulas.
“Did you hear that, Aido?”
“Yes,” Aido replied, slightly disturbed, still staring at the pot.
“Aren’t you excited?”
Aido very quickly realized that Shmee wasn’t talking about the tarantulas, but about wanting to come along into the Halls of the Spirit of the Grave. A red flag went up in his mind, but quickly took it down; Momo seemed very calm about the whole thing.
"I think she may come along," Momo told him thoughtfully. "The Spirit of the Grave is gentle, unlike his sister. And I think it would be nice if you included her. She truly cares about you."
“Aido? Hellooo, aren’t you listening?” Shmee’s musical voice broke through Momo’s somber mental one.
“Momo says it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to come,” Aido informed her. Shmee’s smile grew. Sarita raised her dark eyebrows.
“That’s nice of her,” the kitsu replied drolly. “But if Shmee gets killed, don’t blame me.”
For the first time ever, Aido felt a wave of fury come from Momo. “Momo says that the Spirit of the Grave is nothing like your Ma. She says she wants you to show more respect.”
Suddenly, Shmee took Aido’s hand. The boy blushed at the touch. “Momo, thank you,” she said. “I’m honored to come with you.”
Aido wasn’t sure if Shmee was simply sucking up to Momo or trying to calm her on purpose, but either way, Momo’s rage dissipated when Shmee’s voice musically said those words. Aido felt relief. It was a strange and somewhat uncomfortable sensation to be feeling fine, but having rage inside of you that was from a different person.
Sarita was still looking at Aido suspiciously. “It never hurts to be cautious,” she muttered, poking inside of the pot with a stick. The little tarantula feet were now silent.
“So, what did your Ma say?”
“Were you not listening the first ten times I told you?! She said, to go to the top of the shadow of the volcano, and then Momo will open a door,” Sarita barked back at Shmee. Aido sighed. He’d been trying to convince Momo all afternoon to try and elaborate on what the Spirit of the Volcano told him about finding the other Spirit, but she had been silent ever since her brief argument with Sarita.
It was sunset, the one time when darkness fell over the land. Even though most things didn’t have shadows until the land was completely covered in night, there was definitely one behind the volcano. Shmee had said the shadow was refreshing. Aido just thought it was ominous.
“I don’t see any door,” Shmee grumbled, her blue eyes staring at the tip of the shadow, as if expecting a door to pop out of the ground. “All I see is just a shadow.”
“Maybe it opens at a certain time of sunset?” Aido suggested. Shmee sighed.
“I’ve seen a lot of strange things in my travels, but I’ve never come across something this mysterious,” Shmee said, sounding frustrated.
The trio stopped at the tip of the shadow, staring down at it. Aido, who had never seen a true shadow on an object before, held out his hand, marveling how the shadow slipped over his hand and disappeared off the ground. What a strange thing, he thought. Momo never did this because she was connected to him. Was this how all shadows behaved?
Sarita, seemingly bored, flopped onto the ground, her three tails billowing around her. “You guys ready to go in?” she asked. “You guys need to remember to hold onto the Blessing, or else you’ll freeze.”
“I’ve got it all figured out,” Shmee replied brightly. “Aido and I will hold hands, and in our hands will be the Blessing. As long as we keep holding each other’s hand, we’ll be safe. But what about you?”
“I’m fine, I’m the child of a Spirit,” Sarita replied smugly. “Not only that, but because my Ma is in a volcano, all of her children have fires inside them, just like your stone.”
Shmee rolled her eyes. “Figured as much,” she muttered. Aido smiled a little. Even though he had butterflies in his stomach from nervousness, this playful bantering managed to distract him briefly. He did wish that Momo would say something to him, though—he just wanted some encouragement. How could they know that this wasn’t just one of the Spirit of the Volcano’s cruel jokes? Just the tiniest word of support from Momo would help him feel better!
A moment of silence elapsed between the three. Where was this door supposed to be? And Why didn’t Shmee and Sarita seem to be as nervous as he was? Nothing was happening, and—
“Are you ready?”
Though the voice was familiar to Aido, Shmee and Sarita had never heard it before. Both girls looked up in alarm at the tall, willowy figure silhouetted against the setting sun. Unlike the others, this figure was covered in the shadows cast on her from the sunset. Her blue eyes looked bloodshot on her pale face. But Aido recognized her anywhere; the short blonde hair, the long black dress, the bare feet…
Momo smiled, a true flesh and blood smile. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Shmee, Sarita,” she said, her low voice hoarse. “I’m Momo.”