Aiko, part 3

The forest was full of secret places. A small clearing known only to a family of deer. A track hidden beneath brush that had been a favourite hunting trail of foxes for many summers past. A shallow depression in a cliff face that held an ancient nest, neat and tidy and never used. Aiko knew them all. She was the only one who did. Hotaru had begun to learn the ways of the forest, but there were some things that could only come from ten years spent walking the trails.

There was no telling where the dragon would be. The past two nights she had stalked these ways, working her way to the summit, leaving no stone unturned. There was no guarantee, even, that it had not slipped past her and settled in some hollow she had already checked. The mountain was too large to cover in one night; too large even to cover properly in three. As she made her way up the slopes, senses on a knife edge, Aiko knew that tonight she would have to make some hard decisions. This was the last night she had, and there was not enough time to check everywhere she had not yet been. She checked only the powerful spots: the waterfall under the towering beeches; the caves behind the moss wall; the clearing filled with the bubbling of an underground stream. It was dangerous, of course. Hotaru was looking for her and the powerful places were the only ones she would think to look. Unfortunately, there was no other choice.

It was midnight when Aiko arrived at the summit. This was the spot upon which she had pinned her hopes. There, coiled about the trunk of the massive pine that crowned the peak, eyes fixed on her as she came, the dragon waited.

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