“Can it wait, pitiful sorcerer?” Ristle opened his eyes to see that the sky through the trees was periwinkle. The air was fresh. It must nearly be dawn. He sat up, and saw, all standing in a row in front of the cart, a million spirits of all shapes and sizes.
There were the yokai that Rokudo had warned about. Two kitsunes with at least nine tails each stood sentinel at each end of a variety of creatures. A huge, slender man wearing a noh mask stood in the middle of the dusty road, and two kappas looked in from the bushes.
There were also a variety of tiny, green and blue spooks, some with one eye, some with two, even three, who were all looking very shy and rigid. Ristle wondered if the one who he and Helia had spotted earlier was among them.
Then there were goblins. They were mostly small, brown figures towards the back, but a few looked much more gruesome and hulking, some wrapped in blood stained bandages.
Forest spirits also added to the mix. Wisps of smoke, water, steam, or fire gambled through the line cautiously, never staying still.
And there were the promised ghosts, not looking in any particular direction, hovering off the ground by a few feet. They were all naked, a slightly glowing disturbance in the air.
Faeries of all sorts lined the trees, all holding acorns and walnuts, as though hoping to pelt them at the cart the first chance they got.
Ristle blinked. The man in the noh mask spoke again, “Go back where you came from. We do not know whether you are human, but you possess knowledge and power. Use it.”
“We came to speak with Kadelvesi, and we do not want to harm you.”
Elidia was watching a tiny, female fairy in one of the trees, who was sitting elegantly next to a small troll.
One of the kitsunes scoffed, “Harm us? Puny mortals harm us? How about we sit and talk and have a drink.” He pulled out a jug.
“No.” The man in the noh masked waved a hand down. “The vision stones, you said?”
“Yes,” Rokudo smiled softly. “We must talk to Kadelvesi about them.”
“Well, we were employed to protect Kadelvesi, and we will. How about this: We will let you speak to Kadelvesi, but for a price.”
“A price? One of our lives? A prisoner?” Rokudo shook his head, softly.
“No, not a price like that,” said a voice. A short man with a crinkled, smiling face and long, flowing robes pushed past a few spooks, then stretched out his arms. “Not a price at all like that, P. We will let you go if you make a promise.”
Lots of the spirits scoffed or sniffed, and one fairy threw a rock at the old man, who deflected it easily.
“Promise me, P. Promise me that you will not harm Kadelvesi. That you will not ask any difficult questions. That you will not, not even once, ask the location of a vision stone, especially if she would not like you too.”
“Merfee. You are just like when we last met. Right then, I promise. I, Provellius Rokudo Quarentil, promise not to do any of the things you uttered.”
“Good then. Pass through.” The line of spirits parted, and the cart rattled in.
“Right. We must watch…. ourselves now that we are in Kadelvesi’s domain. Do not speak of any plans we have.” Rokudo seemed to be looking at Elidia more than anyone else.
“Why don’t we take a break?” Elidia asked. “You look exhausted, and I think Helia isn’t looking good, either.”
Ristle glanced at Helia. She was very pale, and sweat was dripping from her forehead. Ristle scootched away from her, hoping she wasn’t going to be sick.
“I’m…I’m fine,” Helia said. “It’s… okay.”
“Sure. Whatever.” Tiger snorted. “You look awful.”
Elidia said something inaudible to Rokudo, who nodded, pulling the cart to the side of the road, where Elidia got out and climbed onto a bike.
“I’ve- my vision stone has seen a map of this place, so… I know a good place for camping.”
Tiger got up, stretched, and climbed onto the other bike. Both of them started pedaling.
They only glimpsed a few more spirits through the trees: a pond full of kappas, two fairies tittering to each other while hovering in the air, and a menacing pair of eyes peering out of a cave.
The landscape became rockier, and the trees thinned. Pretty soon the landscape was mostly crunched up granite boulders, tall grass dotted with wildflowers, and the occasional pine tree.
Around them, they could see tall mountains in the distance, some snow capped and dotted with fields and trees. They must be in a basin of some sort.
“Here it is,” Elidia said as they reached an open meadow dotted with boulders and surrounded with rocky peaks. There were a few bare patches of ground that would be good for lighting fires. “We should set up some tents.”
“Right,” Rokudo said, flapping to the ground. “Our plan is: We set camp, sleep, and eat, anything to get us relaxed for tomorrow. Two of us will stay outside and watch out for danger while the rest get some shuteye. In the morning, we’ll climb to Kadelvesi’s cave on foot, while one of us stays here to watch the cart. Actually, two of us should stay. Emerald and Mark, would you mind? I’m afraid a dragon might find you tasty.”
“Alright with me,” said Emerald brightly. “Helia, dearest, would you like something to eat?”
“No, I’m fine.” Helia smiled a bit.
“Okay, then. Can we help with something, Rokudo?”
“Yes, of course! You too can prepare dinner while the rest of us set up the tent. Ristle, could you and Elidia go fetch water? I’m sure Elidia knows where some is.”
Ristle nodded, and he and Elidia set off into the forest, Elidia walking gingerly because of the knife she’d stashed in her boot.
“Where’s the nearest stream or well?” Ristle asked as they climbed over a large, mossy boulder. Elidia had a small backpack on, and her cardigan was tied around her waist. The sun had just come up, and the mountains glowed a beautiful, cantaloupe- like pinky orange.
“It’s a river. It’s near here, but it has a kappa infestation… Do you know anything about kappas?” They had conquered the boulder, and were walking side by side through straggly pine and juniper.
“Um… water imps?”
“Yeah, well, they aren’t generally violent, more often than not more mischievous than harmful, things like tying shoelaces together or stealing food, but sometimes they’ll try to drown you or go after your spirit ball-”
“Well, the only real way to fend them off is cucumber, they go mad for it. Oh, the spirit ball is-”
But she was cut off by the sounds of splashing and laughter. Looking through the trees, Ristle could see a variety of greenish forms moving around what seemed to be a body of water.
“Why did we choose a kappa infested pond? I mean-”
“Shh!” Elidia stepped forward, and pulled Ristle with her into the clearing. The kappas didn’t notice them. There were about ten of them, all with monkey faces or else bird’s beaks, and all green but one turquoise one sitting on a rock towards one end of the pond, where glassy waterfalls cascaded into the greenish water. All of the kappas had short, bristly hair around the soft spot in their head, a place that had to be kept wet, or else they would be sapped of all supernatural power. Some had metal basins on their heads to protect them.
“Hey, Kappas!!!” Elidia shouted suddenly.
“Humans!” screeched the turquoise kappa. “What do you want?”
“I know what you want!!!” Elidia shouted. “You want….these!!!” She pulled a bundle of tea cucumbers out of her backpack, and waved them above her head. “Yum, yum!”
Hmm… Why Elidia doesn’t just bow to the kappas, I don’t know… Yokai are weird. Maybe she thinks cucumbers are a better idea.