Chapter Eighteen: The Ethereal River,

"Death, the last sleep? No, the final awakening." –Walter Scott

"So…you got a name?" I awkwardly asked the Vesper as it slowly led me through the mist-ridden forest. I could have sworn that with every step I took, the temperature dropped another five degrees.

"Ayyeee diiiiiihhhhhddd..."

"What is it?" I asked. The Vesper quit walking and looked up at me, sort of like a lost puppy.

"Aayyeee…waahhz… 'Tohh…Moe'." It answered sadly, turning its head to the ground and resuming leading the way through the frost-covered forest.

"What do you mean by 'was'?"

"Nohhht…al…eyev…ahny moor…Vesss…pur…nohw…"

"So…when you were alive, your name was 'Tomo'?" I asked it, feeling the aches of pity jump around like ping-pong balls in my chest. The Vesper didn't respond: it just nodded its head stolidly.

"What do you have to do to be a Vesper after you ...die?" I questioned again, my voice lower. Again it didn't respond; it just shook its head and pointed to the area ahead silently.

"Woah…" I breathed.

The Ethereal River, Northern Banks

"Okay, so where is this 'Sobriety' person?" Ryou grunted as he hefted Blithe onto his shoulder. Blithe wearily lifted her head and sniffed the air frailly.

"She lives in the hollow of an old pine tree somewhere along these banks." She answered quietly. Keiichiro shivered and hugged his coat tighter around him, tossing the bag of weapons onto his shoulder.

"God, can it get any colder?" He complained.

"Don't jinx it." Komori muttered, rubbing her frozen hands together.

"Is that the tree over there?" Ryou asked Blithe with relief, pointing to an ancient pine tree rooted into the spongy ground a few feet away. Blithe grinned and nodded, gesturing for Ryou to put her down.

"I have to go and tell her we're here. She won't trust any of you." Blithe explained before limping towards a jagged crack in the trunk of the pine tree sheltered in the blind of fog.

The Ethereal River, Southern Banks

Every inch of the icy river and its banks was frosted in a thick icing of glittery snow; even the trees that limply hung overhead had been blasted with the fury of the eternal winter encompassing the river. My beige boots crunched loudly in the snow as the Vesper beckoned me forward towards the clear purple waters of the river.

"What is this?" I asked the Vesper in a whisper, as if the beauty of the river demanded silence.

"Ehhthhh…eeaarrhh…eeeeh…aaaahhll…Riih…vuurhh…" The Vesper's voice grated through the air harshly. "Yuu kee-onnha…coohhntroohl… riih…vuurhh." It lifted its shadowy arm and pointed upstream.

"So…Where's Tomo, then?"

"Gohhhh…saaah…murrr…Caayyhvvs…" The Vesper trembled at the mention of 'Gossamer Caves'. "Yuu kee-onnha…lyyyvvsss…theeeyr…"

It didn't seem likely to me that an evil entity would live in a place overflowing with such gorgeous scenery, but as Blithe said, nothing in the Spirit Realm was as it seemed.

The Ethereal River, Northern Banks

"Blithe! What happened to you?" Sobriety exclaimed, rushing to Blithe's side and forcing her to lie down on a cozy pile of straw in the corner of the roomy dwelling.

"It's a very long story. But if you wouldn't mind, could you do something about these injuries before I get into any of that, senpai?" Blithe asked as she whistled for Ryou, Komori, and Keiichiro to enter. Sobriety's sharp brown eyes analyzed the three with intense scrutiny before she nodded and bade them to sit. In the centre of the dwelling burned a small fire that lit the entire room and spread warmth to every tiny crevice, despite its size. On the walls there were countless shelves carved out of the belly of the tree that supported various glass bottles filled with strange, foul-looking liquids. Sobriety was rather small in comparison to Blithe, but had a commanding, yet comforting, air about her that gave her a motherly countenance. Each of her nine tails was covered in her brown sugar colored fur and two witty almond-brown eyes were set squarely above her sloping muzzle. Underneath her default frown sat the timid existence of a grin. Sobriety got onto her back legs and reached for a cluster of green liquids on the top shelf, shaking her head.

"Now what are Valor and Beholder going to think if they see what I let you get into?" Sobriety scolded teasingly as she bit the cap off one of the bottles and began to slather it over Blithe's injuries. Ryou, Komori, and Keiichiro pinched their noses as the acrid odor from the serum circulated through the burrow.

"Ugh!" Ryou choked on the smell; Sobriety threw her head back and laughed at his expense.

"I'd forgotten how funny humans were! Now how did you come upon these three?" She asked Blithe, massaging the concoction into the stained bandages and chuckling to herself.

The Ethereal River, Southern Banks

"How on earth could she possibly…Ugh, get Tomo all the way over here that fast?" I asked no one in particular as I struggled to climb over a mountainous hill that (according to the Vesper) sheltered the Gossamer Caves.

"Faaahhhhsssttt…" The Vesper shrugged, having absolutely no problem climbing the steep incline. I sighed and stared to my right, where the Ethereal River managed to flow upstream over the pinnacle of the hill, which wasn't that far anymore. A loud screech came from the cluster of ice-glazed trees coupled with the flashing of distant red lights.

"What the…?" I muttered, turning to see the vapory outlines of a train slither through the gaps in the foliage on invisible tracks. The Vesper didn't seem to notice the blare of the train's horn and continued nonchalantly up the hill. …I guess this is what Blithe meant by 'combining the worlds'…Although it's dominantly the Spirit Realm, I guess there are still some remnants of the Human World. It hadn't completely struck me that we'd been in both the worlds, since the scenery had taken on more Spirit Realm qualities. I shook my head and urged myself to march on and find Tomo and then find a way to get out of this mess.

The Ethereal River, Northern Banks

"I told you that you shouldn't associate with the Oni." Sobriety frowned after Blithe finished her story. Sobriety fetched a mouthful of balmy peony petals from a clay pot on one of the lower shelves and attentively sprinkled them over the drying green liquid as she sighed to herself. Komori plucked up the courage to speak.

"Um…I don't mean to rush you, but is this healing going to take long?" She asked abashedly. Sobriety's convictive eyes captured Komori and Sobriety's voice came out in a rasp, "It's best to take more care than less care."

Komori bit her lip and sunk down, hugging her knees to her chest like a scolded child. Blithe sighed and looked up at Sobriety respectfully. "Please don't scold her, senpai. Komori's eager to look for her son; she's just trying to be a good mother." Blithe explained quietly, her voice regaining back its strength as the healing effects of the herbs set in. Sobriety's almond eyes misted over with a sad nostalgia for a moment before she continued dropping the petals onto Blithe's injuries. "I'll try to hurry, then."

The Ethereal River, Southern Banks

"You have got to be… kidding me." I grunted, flopping onto the snow-covered ground. At the top of the sixty-degree incline we had the perfect view of the crystal mouths of six separate cave systems yawning wide beginning at the foot of the hill. The caves fitted their namesake: they were constructed completely out of quartz and shimmered alluringly at a hint of light; they were giant mirrors of ice sunk beneath mounds of glittering snow. The Vesper twitched a bit before turning its eyes to the ground, laying itself on the frozen ground, and rolling down the hill at breakneck speed.

"Hey! Wait for me!" I called, flinging myself onto the ground and rolling downhill. I couldn't exactly make top or bottom of anything through the dizzy spinning and churning of snow underneath me, but I had a vague impression that I was about to run into something really hard and—"AGH!" I smashed into a tree trunk veneered in frost, no time to stop myself. The Vesper leaned against the tree's other side, shaking its cameo-like head and convulsing.

"Ugh…" My head reeled when I stood and I had to clutch the tree's slippery white bark to avoid falling. "You know…rolling down the hill wasn't exactly the best idea." I grumbled dizzily to the Vesper, who just shrugged passively.

"Eh! Eh!" The Vesper began its penumbral charades again, motioning to the yawning mouths of the Gossamer Caves.

"Oh great. More charades." I sighed.

"Eh! Eh!"

"I know that Tomo's in one of those caves, okay?" I rolled my eyes. The Vesper nodded and started hopping up and down crazily. "I know you can talk. Just tell me which cave I need to-." Before I could finish the Vesper grasped my hand in it's and dragged me towards a smaller cave branching off at the far left of the cave cluster.

The Ethereal River, Northern Banks

"All right. You should be as good as new." Sobriety grinned curtly as she and Ryou helped Blithe slowly get to her feet. Her beautiful poker-smile spread across Blithe's face as she stretched her legs without wincing.

"Thank you, senpai." Blithe smiled gratefully. She whipped her head around to Komori and nodded determinedly. "Let's find out where Taro is, shall we?"

Blithe lowered her nose to the ground and sniffed the ground, sticking her nose out of the entrance to the burrow for a scent.

"It's pretty obvious that he hasn't been around here. You're not going to be able to pick up a scent." Ryou sighed, leaning on his elbow lazily.

"Well of course he hasn't been around here. Blithe's sense of smell is superb; she can pick up anything within a ten-mile radius despite any kind of weather. Be patient and she will have his trail." Sobriety lashed out sharply; Ryou turned his eyes to the ground. Blithe took in a long whiff of the air and picked her head up, looking south. "He's at the southern end of the river." She called to Komori happily.

"Let's go!" Komori grinned, stumbling out of the burrow and following Blithe eagerly, motioning for Keiichiro and Ryou to follow.

"I'd better go along just to make sure…" Sobriety mumbled to herself.

Author's Corner!

HA! You probably thought it was going to be forever until I updated again! …Or maybe not. O.o And I said I wanted to burn the old version of the story, but it's actually saved under my "Outtakes". : ) That's where everything that I don't put in my stories goes; it's like a graveyard for stories.

…I wanna play charades with a Vesper! …And a SecuriBot!

AXM, OUT! ((REAL theme music played by Vespers with tubas and SecuriBots with sinth keyboards))