A.N: Yes, I know this took forever. I got stuck in the middle for a while and threw out a lot of what I was originally planning. Anyhow, thank you all for your patience, and I hope you enjoy the chapter!
Disclaimer: I don't own DCMK or IY.
IY Timeline: This is set after Naraku's disappearance and before the Band of Seven.
15: Demons Past and Present
(World 15: Inu-Yasha)
An old woman made her way slowly through the fields of a small, farming village. Night had already fallen, and she would not normally have been out and about. However, a recent spate of illnesses in the village had led to the rapid depletion of her medical supplies. Therefore, she headed out to gather the necessary herbs. Luck had not been on her side though. She had had to travel much farther than usual to find the plants she needed. And so here she was now.
Being out so late didn't bother her though. The village had been blessedly peaceful of late, and it was kind of nice to be out here: surrounded by this soft and tranquil darkness beneath a sky filled with stars.
Pausing just beyond the village outskirts, the old woman turned her one good eye skyward. She was just in time to see a shooting star. For a moment, she wondered if it was her imagination that the light of the star had been green. But since she had sensed no evil from it, she shook away the thought.
Tonight was a peaceful night. Best to enjoy it while it lasted.
Kaito had received a lot of different kinds of reactions to his magic over the course of his life. Most people applauded his art, while others (such as Nakamori) were enraged. Then there were your skeptics and those who couldn't care less one way or the other. This, however, was the first time he had ever had a whole crowd actually run away screaming.
"He's a demon!"
"It's going to kill us all!"
"That's rather rude," he said to the deserted street around him.
Well, this sucked. How was he supposed to get any information now?
It was a rather ordinary forest, in so far as Shinichi could tell. All the plants were normal and showed no inclination towards sprouting baked goods. The few animals he had spotted were also all ones he could name with relative ease. There was, however, a distinct lack of any manmade trails.
"We should look for a river or stream to follow," he said to Kishiro. "Unless Kaito's really close, we can't keep looking for him without supplies. He still has the wizards' box."
The Spirit Beast's triangular ears turned to him before they flicked forward again. Shinichi smiled a little, stroking a hand over the large, black dog's furry back. He didn't have to reach down at all to do so. Kishiro's back was level with Shinichi's waist. It wasn't the largest he'd ever seen the Spirit Beast get, but it was more than large enough to make the animal look intimidating.
That worried Shinichi a little. The Spirit Beast had proven on multiple occasions that he had a keen sense for danger. Thinking back, he'd noticed that Kishiro tended to ditch his avian forms for the shapes of large predators when he was feeling wary. Following that logic, this forest must be hiding something sinister. Something that made Kishiro feel the need to arm himself with a full set of claws and a lot of very sharp teeth.
Shinichi looked up at the pieces of sky that peeked between the branches over their heads. Judging from the light, it was already late evening. If they didn't run into a settlement—or at least a cabin or some such—soon, they were going to have to camp out. On the bright side, he had a bottle of water with him. On the down side, that was about all he had in terms of sustenance. Though, now that he was thinking about food, he remembered that he might have a pack of cookies in his pocket from an eight star bakery in Gourmet Town. It was one of their highly nutritional, on the go treats. The bakery had been enthusiastically promoting it during their visit, and Kaito had shamelessly taken advantage of the free giveaways and raffles. He'd won them something like thirty packs of different nutrient bars and cookies just from entering the lottery.
Shinichi shook his head at the memory. Sometimes, he wondered if there wasn't something supernatural in Kaito's ridiculous good luck. That, or the thief had been plying his arts to get the lots he wanted. But Shinichi preferred not to think too much about that right now.
Lost in his memories, it took him a split second longer than it should have to register the sound of screaming. A child's scream, by the pitch of it. A terrified child screaming not too far away.
His feet were running before his brain had finished analyzing the sound. Kishiro loped along beside him, easily keeping pace, yellow eyes alert.
"Leave her alone!" a young boy's voice was shouting. "Go away!" His cry was followed by another cry, this one of pain.
A female voice screamed in response.
The air crackled with snarls and barks.
"Harumi! Go!" the boy's voice shrieked out, high and breathless with pain and urgency.
Shinichi burst into the clearing just as the girl's protest turned into another scream.
Blue eyes swept over the scene, taking everything in at lightning speeds.
There were two young children to his left. They had their backs to a formation of boulders that both provided cover and prevented escape. Before them were arrayed three scruffy wolves with their teeth bared and their feral eyes burning with senseless hunger. The boy's leg was covered in blood. He—they—had other injuries too, but Shinichi didn't pay them much more attention than was needed at the moment to identify that they were limiting. Those kids would not be able to run. Not far anyway.
The largest of the wolves lunged.
Shinichi's hand dropped to his belt on reflex. An instant later, a soccer ball went spinning straight into the wolf's side. It let out a high pitched cry as it was knocked off course mid leap and sent sprawling across the grass. It was up again a mere heartbeat later. Snarling, it whirled and threw itself upon Shinichi.
Two voices screamed in the background, but Shinichi's eyes were full of flying wolf and a gaping maw lined with jagged, ivory teeth.
Before he could move, the creature vanished. Confused, Shinichi looked around to find his assailant on the ground, pinned by Kishiro. The black dog seized the wolf by the back of the neck and gave it a vicious shake before tossing it aside. Then Kishiro was leaping at the other two wolves, white teeth bared.
They fled, followed shortly by their limping pack mate.
Shinichi ran up to the two children. Some corner of his mind noted absently that their clothes were old-fashioned—even older than the clothes they had seen in the Meiji era. And these two… Neither of them were wearing shoes. They were covered in dirt and scrapes and little bits of dried leaves.
"Are you two okay?" Shinichi asked.
"One of those beasts bit Ruichi," the girl said faintly, pointing at her companion's bloody leg.
"I—I'll be fine," the boy insisted, though his labored breaths and pale, sweating face said otherwise. "At least it didn't actually bite my leg off."
"It's no time for jokes, Ruichi!"
"You still have to get that treated," Shinichi said warningly. "Here, I can help." Sitting down next to the afflicted leg, he ripped a strip of cloth from his sleeve, soaked it in water from his water bottle, and began to clean the wound. Ruichi hissed in pain, but he didn't cry out or try to jerk his leg away.
"Do you have anything we can use for bandages?" Shinichi asked, glancing up at the girl hovering behind his patient.
"You can use this." She unwound the scarf she'd been wearing around her neck and handed it over to Shinichi.
Ruichi's eyes widened at the sight of it. "But Harumi, that's mother's—"
"Be quiet," she snapped, voice crisp, though there may have been a slight waver at its edges. "This is more important. We have to get back to the village before sundown."
"So your home is nearby?" Shinichi asked, using the scarf and a nearby stick to form a makeshift splint.
Ruichi shot him a suspicious look but nodded. "Yeah."
Just then, Kishiro came bounding back out from the screen of trees. Harumi screamed, her hands flying up to cover her face.
"He's a friend," Shinichi said quickly. "He's my friend's hunting dog." Kishiro certainly looked the part.
When the children continued to look unconvinced, Shinichi beckoned the Spirit Beast over and made a show of scratching him behind the ears. Kishiro, who seemed perfectly aware of the situation, wagged his tail vigorously. The excited-puppy act he put on would have made his master proud, the detective thought with a mental shake of the head. Even the Spirit Beast's features shifted subtly so that he now looked less like a wolf and more like a dog.
Harumi let out a stifled shriek when Kishiro nosed up to her and licked her face, but, after the initial fear had passed, she began to run her hands over his fur. Soon, she was laughing as he bumped her with his head, wiggling this way and that about her in a little game of touch and go.
Satisfied that Kishiro was making a good impression, Shinichi offered Ruichi his hand. "Can you stand?"
The boy frowned, though whether it was in pain or irritation, it was hard to tell. He let Shinichi help him up though. He winced when his injured foot touched the ground. His fingers clenched convulsively around Shinichi's arm.
"Kishiro or I can carry you," the detective offered.
The boy shook his head. "I can walk," he said, chin set in a stubborn jut.
Shinichi would have argued, but he recognized it as a lost cause. So, instead, he called for Kishiro and Harumi to come back and pretended not to notice that Ruichi was still hanging onto his arm for support.
"So which way do we go?"
"The village should be this way," Harumi said, pointing. "Hey Mister, you never told us your name."
"Sorry. It's Shinichi."
"Your clothes are funny. Where did you get them?"
"Well… My mother likes to get me weird clothes." It wasn't a lie either, he reflected with a rueful smile. Though boy did he wish it was.
The little girl's face fell abruptly. "Oh. You should wear it then."
Shinichi frowned at the sudden change in the atmosphere, but he chose not to comment. "So did you guys come out here by yourselves?" It would help to know if they had to search for other wayward villagers.
"Yeah." It was Ruichi who spoke this time. His voice was solemn, and his gaze stayed fixed straight ahead as they walked. "We were checking the snares we set up a few days ago to see if we'd caught anything."
"We had," Harumi continued. "But the wolves got to them first."
"Well, the vegetables in the garden should be ready soon," the boy murmured, brows knit tight above his eyes. "We'll be fine. Don't worry about it. We just have to build better snares next time."
The little girl nodded, large, dark eyes grim. "I know."
"So what were you doing in the forest?" Ruichi asked, looking up at Shinichi sharply. The suspicion from earlier was back in his eyes. Seeing those eyes, Shinichi wondered exactly what kinds of lives these two had been leading. They couldn't have been more than eight years old, if even. And yet, by the sound of it, their parents either weren't with them anymore or were otherwise incapacitated.
"I was traveling with a friend of mine," he started, mind scurrying to assemble a plausible story.
"The one who owns this dog?" Harumi asked.
Shinichi laughed. "Yes, him. We were headed for my aunt's house. She's supposed to be having a baby soon, so my parents asked us to go over there and do what we can to help. But my aunt moved away when I was only three, so I don't remember her very well, and I'm not too familiar with these roads either. My friend travels more than I do. He's a…craftsman. So he volunteered to take me to my aunt's house."
"It was going pretty well until a few days ago. I honestly don't know how it happened, but we sort of got separated. And, well, I've been trying to find my way back to him and our supplies since then. I figured they'd be in a village or town around here by now. He wouldn't move on without me, so he'll have chosen somewhere in this area."
"So you're looking for your friend because you got lost," Ruichi summarized then snorted. "Well, you're not going to find him in our village. We don't have an inn for guests to stay in. We have enough trouble without outsiders bringing in more."
"Ruichi!" Harumi exclaimed, voice shrill with annoyance. "Don't talk like that. You know it upsets everyone."
"Only because it's true. It doesn't really matter what our lives are like anymore. When it's your time, that's it. It's all gone. So maybe there really isn't any point to doing anything."
"Wait, wait," Shinichi interjected, stopping just as the first rooftops became visible beyond the forest fringe. "What did you mean when you said that when your time comes, it's the end?" It sounded like a reference to the fact that all life had to end, but Shinichi had the oddest feeling that that was not all the children meant.
Neither child answered his question. Instead, Harumi started chatting about what they could make for dinner.
As Shinichi had suspected, Harumi and Ruichi were siblings. Ruichi was the older at eight years. His little sister, Harumi, was only one year younger. The two of them lived in a small cabin at the edge of their village. Their parents had both left them. Their father had been taken by illness. Their mother had just gone.
They didn't elaborate.
Now more unsettled than ever, Shinichi drank in their surroundings.
The village was bordered by organized fields on all sides except the one that bumped up against the forest. The village itself was pretty much what he'd expect of a small village. The streets were populated, though not overly so, and everyone had a kind smile and a nod for his two new acquaintances. They regarded Shinichi with a degree of wary anxiety, but they didn't appear hostile. A few wandered over to ask Ruichi about his injury. After hearing the whole story from the kids, however, their attitudes towards Shinichi softened.
"So you're saying there's a demon who's been terrorizing the villages in this area?" Kagome asked.
Ahead of her, Sango nodded. The demon slayer's face was grim. "They sent a letter to Lady Kaede asking for our help. They say the demon dresses in strange, white clothes. He just showed up without warning. No one knows what he wants, but he's been terrorizing all the nearby towns and villages. Some of the men tried to drive it off, but they were all defeated easily."
On Kagome's other side, a white-haired young man dressed in red gave a loud snort. "This area sure ain't look like it's being terrorized by a powerful demon."
"Well, from what I have heard," Miroku, the last member of their little party, said. "This white demon descends upon a town or village in human form. But he shows off his powers before them then demands that they give him food and shelter."
"Sounds a bit like what you do, eh Monk?" Sango asked dryly.
"I have never done any such thing," the dark-haired man said, drawing himself up in righteous indignation that none of his friends believed for an instant. "I merely offer my services to those in need."
"For an exorbitant price," the demon slayer countered.
"I prefer to think of it as fair trade."
"Couldn't the demon just be passing through?" Kagome asked, far too used to the others' bickering by now to be easily distracted by it. "I don't understand why everyone in this area is so scared of him. It doesn't sound like he's killed anyone."
"Well, let's go find him then and see for ourselves," InuYasha declared. "Come on! I smell something there."
The red-clad dog demon was off in an instant, forcing the rest of the party to run to catch up.
The scene they came upon was not what any of them had been expecting when they'd been told of the strange, white demon.
Here was a young man, one that would likely be in his late teens if he was human, dressed in a pristine white suit jacket and slacks that had no business being seen anywhere this side of the Bone Eater's Well. Kagome gasped. He had a real top hat too. The kind magicians wore. He even had the shoes to go with the suit. How could this be?
The young man was sitting on a spread of white cloth that appeared to be a cape. Half a dozen white doves were sitting or pecking around him.
"I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong," the demon, for presumably he was the demon, said to no one in particular—unless he was speaking to the doves. "I mean seriously, do I look like a cannibal to you? All the magicians in this world must be raving lunatics. Of the violent and evil variety, I mean," he added as an afterthought. "It would certainly explain the reaction. How inconvenient."
"Is that really the demon?" Sango wondered aloud, doubt clear in her tone. She squinted through the screen of bushes at the stranger. He certainly wasn't acting like any demon she'd ever seen, and, as a professional demon slayer who'd been trained for the job ever since she was little, she had seen more than her fair share of demons. Despite her uncertainty, however, she kept a hand on her weapon. It never paid to be careless.
"He is certainly dressed oddly," Miroku murmured from beside her, frowning. "But I sense no demonic aura."
"Well he ain't no ordinary human," InuYasha interjected. "There's something weird about his scent."
Sango nodded. "So what's the plan?"
"Ch. What are you talking about? Let's just get rid of it so we can get back to looking for Naraku." The half demon's hand went to his sword as he spoke. He'd never been a patient person, and it had already taken far too long to just travel to this area and find the damned demon. But before he could draw his sword and challenge the strange demon, Kagome caught his arm.
"Wait," she said. "Let's try talking to him first."
"What? Don't be stupid. He could be dangerous."
"I'll be careful," she said, rising to her feet. "But I have a feeling about him."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Kagome didn't answer. It wasn't that she didn't want to, but she couldn't quite put the feeling into words. Whatever it was though, it was telling her that this man wasn't a bad person.
Even so, she stopped a good distance away from the stranger. Just in case.
"Excuse me," she called.
The young man looked up from where he had been flipping through a deck of what she would swear were poker cards (which had no business being in the hands of anyone here in Japan during this century) and smiled. The cards vanished, and he hopped to his feet. The doves all around him took to the air in a flurry of white wings. Once they had gone, the white cloth on the ground had gone too, and the stranger now had a cape.
"Good afternoon, my lady," he said, sweeping into a showman's bow. "It's a pleasure to finally see a friendly face. If it isn't too much trouble, I would greatly appreciate a few directions. I am unfortunately rather lost."
Kagome blinked, surprised by the stranger's mannerisms. "Oh, well. Can you tell me where you're going? And where you're from?" This was as good a chance as any to find out if her suspicions were correct.
"I am searching for a friend of mine. I can't say for sure where he is, though I know he should be close. He will likely head for civilization though. As for where I'm from, that would be Tokyo, Japan."
Kagome perked up. Tokyo didn't exist yet in this era. "What century?"
The stranger stared at her. "Pardon?"
She laughed a little sheepishly. "I know it's a strange question, but it's kind of important."
"Well, last I checked, it was the twenty first century," the stranger said slowly. "Although I must admit that the people around here don't dress the part. They don't even appear to have electric lights."
"Do you remember how you got here?" she asked.
"I remember a bright light," he said carefully. "And a stone."
Kagome tensed. "A stone?" Could he be talking of a Shikon Jewel shard? It wouldn't be the first time one of the shards had ended up in her era. And it would certainly go a long way in explaining the stranger's appearance here.
"Yes. A green one about this big and round." He held up his thumb and forefinger to indicate a circle.
"That's right. By the by, Ojou-san, are you gearing up to tell me that I have traveled back in time?"
Kagome, who had been trying to figure out how to say just that without coming across as crazy, drew back in astonishment. She hadn't expected him to come to the conclusion on his own so quickly. It wasn't a very logical thing for most people to think. On the other hand, it would save a lot of trouble for everyone all around if he would believe it just like that.
"That's pretty much it," she agreed eventually, offering the stranger what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "I know it's not easy to believe."
The stranger chuckled. "Well, it's not the strangest thing that's happened. But what about you? Your clothes." He gestured to her outfit. "That is a school uniform, yes?"
If she'd had any doubts left that he too was from a later time, his comment put them to rest. But a green stone? That couldn't be a jewel shard. But then what could have brought the man here? Unless there had been a jewel shard hidden inside this green stone of his?
"My name is Kagome," she said, opting to get the basic stuff out of the way first. "And I'm from the future too."
The stranger didn't look the least bit surprised. He only nodded and stepped forward, offering her his hand.
"My name is Kaito, soon to be the world's greatest magician! You have my gratitude for all your help. It has been a pleasure speaking with you."
Realizing belatedly that the magician was offering to shake her hand, Kagome reached out to take the proffered limb.
There was a rush of wind and a blur of red and white. Then there was a boy in a red kimono shouldering his way between her and the newly named Kaito with a scowl on his face.
The newcomer growled. "Who the hell are you?! You don't smell right."
"Well that's insulting." For his part, Kaito was not all that surprised by the rude intrusion. He'd been aware that he was being watched for quite some time now. He was mildly taken aback by the dog ears that appeared to be growing out of this newcomer's head, but that was only a very minor point of interest. He'd seen much weirder by this point.
"I'll have you know, I bathe regularly."
"What are you?" the rude one barked—okay, not really, but Kaito couldn't resist applying the description to the boy in the privacy of his own mind (and sniggering).
"I am a simple magician," Kaito replied. He swept his hat off his head, and three birds erupted into the air. His audience of two both jumped back. Somewhere in the trees, two more gasps were barely audible. None of them had seen any birds returning after they'd flown off earlier. Had these birds been in the hat all along? Surely they wouldn't have fit!
Kaito smirked behind his Poker Face.
So there were at least four of them.
He returned his hat to his head and smiled. "But I am also a traveler. I have been to many places and seen things that you would not believe."
InuYasha snorted loudly, having already gotten over the astonishment of seeing live birds fly out of a hat. "Whatever. Are you the demon who's been threatening the villagers around here?"
"Nope." Kaito held up a finger. "First of all, I am human. And second, I haven't threatened anyone. Although I may have given a few locals a mild shock or two. But seeing as they tried to shoot me first, I'd say they were the ones doing the threatening."
"And demanding food from them?"
"I wasn't demanding food," Kaito objected, still patient. So that was what the villagers had thought he was doing? Go figure. "As I said, I am a magician—a performer. Where I come from, it's quite common for people like me to be able to trade a show or two for a hot meal or some coin. It's just business, really. Had I realized things worked differently in these parts, I would have explained myself more clearly."
"A show," the white-haired boy repeated, tone skeptical.
"Like a traveling minstrel," Kagome explained.
"I can, but no. I perform magic." Kaito snapped his fingers. There was a flash of light followed by a shower of confetti. He swept a gloved hand through the air, and the rain of confetti pulled together to become a handkerchief. A flick of the wrist later, the handkerchief too vanished. "It is my art."
The boy still looked suspicious, but none of them had time for further comments as Miroku shot abruptly to his feet behind the bushes. "Something's coming!"
No sooner had the warning left his lips, then a massive, armored centipede reared out of the underbrush on the clearing's opposite side. It hissed and lunged. Kagome fumbled for her bow and InuYasha drew his sword (which, Kaito was interested to see, really should have been far too large for its sheath), but neither of them did anything at all after that as they watched the no-longer-stranger blast the demon in the face with lightning.
The force of the blast sent the creature arching backwards and away, all its legs flailing. Then Sango's hiraikotsu smacked into its middle, tearing it in half. The large, boomerang-shaped weapon spun back to its master's hand. The two halves of demon centipede fell to the ground with an unpleasant squelch and wiggled a moment longer before going still.
Kaito hid a grimace behind his Poker Face. That was frankly disgusting.
"So tell me," he said, turning back to his new acquaintances. "Are giant bugs a regular hazard around these parts?"
Shinichi lay awake in the still darkness of the cabin.
"It's the full moon tonight…"
He frowned at the recollection of Harumi's words. They echoed in his head, repeating themselves over and over. It was the way she had spoken—that near-whisper touched with fear and weighed down by melancholy. Yet there had been acceptance in her voice too. The acceptance of something sorrowful born from resignation and hopelessness.
What was it about the full moon that could possibly elicit a reaction like that? In Shinichi's own experiences, the full moon was something people looked forward to. It was a beautiful thing that people got together to enjoy over cups of tea or sake. It was a light in the darkness, a source of inspiration for both artists and romance, and it was a symbol of mystery and magic both. Shinichi himself would admit a certain attachment to the full moon and the memories that it held for him. But he digressed.
What might a full moon night signify that would result in Harumi's fearful request for him to stay?
Though Shinichi would never admit it aloud to anyone, ever, he had briefly entertained the idea of werewolves. It was the first thing that had popped into his head when he thought of full moons and horror stories. And, for a few minutes that he would never tell anyone about, he had thought over the implications of the existence of such creatures for a small, farming village. After he had painted the picture for himself in his own head, he had—with great relief—dismissed the idea.
If the village was having werewolf problems, he would expect a lot less resignation and a lot more anger—maybe even a mob or two. It wasn't like there weren't at least a few tried and true methods to deal with the monsters. He would also have expected people to be barricading their houses or setting up traps, preparing themselves whatever way they could to protect themselves and their families and livestock. The fact that neither Ruichi or Harumi had freaked out abnormally in reaction to Ruichi's bitten leg was another piece of evidence against the presence of werewolves. There were others, but, now that he had established the unlikelihood of werewolves, Shinichi felt he should be focusing his mind on other options.
Opening his eyes, he turned his head to peer through the darkness to where the kids were sleeping in the opposite corner of the room. He couldn't actually see them in this gloom, but he could hear their soft, even breathing.
A faint smile tugged at the detective's lips. Well, whatever was scaring them, it hadn't managed to keep them from their sleep.
Shinichi wished he could say the same. But he just couldn't shake this feeling that there was something wrong.
It had started the moment he walked into the village. Though everyone was acting normal enough, there had been a definite muted quality to the atmosphere. People talked in quiet voices and watched each other with worry in their eyes.
Then there had been the visitors.
Sitting up, Shinichi wrapped his blanket around his shoulders and turned to sit facing the cabin's only window. They were shuttered, but he could still see the faint, silver glow of moonlight seeping between the slats.
He closed his eyes, thinking back. It had been shortly after he had finished cleaning Ruichi's wound and wrapping it in proper bandages. Harumi had been cooking some kind of stew in a pot over a fire just outside the back door. Said door, like the front one, had been propped open to allow the cabin's air to circulate.
That was when a woman in a red kimono had appeared next to the simmering pot and greeted Harumi with a soft smile.
"Aunt May!" Harumi exclaimed, moving to give the woman a hug. "Do you want to eat with us?"
The woman patted the little girl on the head. "I'm sorry, but I can't. I want to make sure I make dinner for my husband and Naruhiko today, just in case… I mean, well, I want to make sure we have a good meal together as a family today."
Harumi's face fell, and she nodded in solemn understanding.
"Here, let me see." The older woman leaned over the pot and took a tiny sip from the ladle. "My goodness, Harumi. This flavor is amazing! Your mother must be very proud of you. Here." She slung the bag she'd been carrying off of her back and set it down on the ground next to Harumi. "I brought you these. They're vegetables and fruits from my garden. You should add some of these, these, and these," she continued, picking out ingredients. "You'll be amazed by the difference they make. They're great for adding variety."
Harumi nodded enthusiastically, and the two fell to discussing the finer points of cooking.
Before Aunt May left, however, she came over to where Ruichi was seated and gave him a hug.
"I'm sorry to hear about your leg, but I'm sure it'll be better soon. You were protecting little Harumi, weren't you?"
The boy hung his head, face turning pink.
The woman smiled. "You're strong, and you have a good heart. I'm sure you'll be a great man someday."
With those parting words, Ant May had departed.
She was followed shortly after by a boy who gave Harumi a small bouquet of wildflowers, blushing furiously all the while, then ran away without saying a word. While the boy's behavior was nothing strange, Harumi's expression when he'd gone had been more than odd. She had held the flowers close to her chest with sad and somber eyes.
"I won't forget," she'd said then. Had there been some kind of hidden message in the exchange? If there was, Shinichi was having trouble deciphering it.
The visits hadn't ended there either.
By the time evening had fallen, it seemed the entire village had come by. And, watching out of the front window, Shinichi had observed that this was happening all over the settlement. Everyone was visiting everyone else, and there was a lot of hugging and soft words.
It was almost like a…like a farewell party, he thought in mild confusion. Only it wasn't a farewell party for one person. It was a farewell party for everyone attending the party.
Was their odd behavior related to the full moon too?
Hearing movement, Shinichi sat up quickly, all his senses on high alert. The source of the sound, however, was not inside the cabin.
In the faint, silver moonlight that managed to seep into the room, he could see Kishiro standing by the door. Well, he called it a door, but it was more like a hanging screen. The Spirit Beast was stock still, his ears pricked forward and his tail arched high over his back. There was tension in every line of his posture.
Unable to resist the urgings of his curiosity, Shinichi got up quietly and padded over to stand next to Kishiro. If he pressed his eye to the crack between the doorframe and the hanging screen, he could just make out the street outside.
And there was that sound again. It was a single footstep—a sandal-clad foot on dry dirt.
Shinichi frowned. Yes, it was definitely the sound of footsteps, but they were excruciatingly slow. The interval between steps was almost five whole seconds.
Part of him wanted to push the screen aside so he could get a better look, but the strange chill crawling up his spine stayed his hand. Besides, the footsteps, sluggish as they were, were getting closer.
As if on cue, a figure appeared in his line of sight.
Shinichi started in surprise.
It was Aunt May. She was still wearing the red kimono he'd seen her in earlier that day. But…there was something wrong with her face. The muscles were relaxed, and her eyes were almost completely closed. Even stranger was the way she moved.. Her arms were out to her sides, rising and falling as she walked—no, ran, for despite her languid pace, the way her body was moving was the way a person ran. She looked like a girl half her age running through an invisible field of flowers with her arms flapping in joyful spirit as she chased butterflies or something.
She leapt and twirled and laughed in complete silence down the middle of the village road. Gravity apparently had no hold over her, for she drifted light on her steps, and each time she leapt into the air, it was only with reluctance that her feet once again kissed the earth.
Farther and farther away, she pranced, her red kimono a vivid splash of color amidst the softer hues of the moonlit night.
Shinichi blinked, but the bizarre scene continued. Was he dreaming?
In a matter of minutes, the woman had cavorted all the way through the village. Realizing that she was almost out of sight, Shinichi hurried out into the road. He made it to the top of the hill where the road dipped down towards the forest in a matter of moments, but by then it was already too late.
Aunt May was nowhere to be seen.
Had he missed her? Where had she gone? She couldn't have just vanished. Had she gone into the forest? If so, should he go after her?
Or had all that been a hallucination? Like a waking dream he'd had born from nerves and anxiety.
Something warm rubbed against his thigh, and he looked down to see Kishiro had padded up behind him. The Spirit Beast pushed his head against his stomach in a playful manner that made Shinichi chuckle and scratch him behind the ears.
"Does that mean you saw it too?" he asked, half hoping for an answer even though he knew Kishiro couldn't really give him one.
The Spirit Beast glanced down the road to the place where it met the forest then turned back to Shinichi, gaze serious. Before Shinichi could ask him any more questions, he circled around the detective and began to herd Shinichi back towards the cabin.
Well, if that wasn't an answer, Shinichi didn't know what was.
Morning found the village in a state of mourning.
"It Called Aunt May this time…"
"I—I was really hoping it wouldn't be her," Harumi managed to gasp out between gulps for breath. Her cheeks were wet with tears. "Not—not that I want it to have been anyone else, but… Aunt May…"
Standing a few steps away, Shinichi watched the brother and sister hold each other and grieve. And he thought of the woman he had seen who had turned into a girl then danced into the sky never to come back down again. None of it was making any sense.
But…did he really have the right or ability to interfere? He was a stranger to the ways of this world. He could just make things worse. So should he pry? The question was dismissed almost as quickly as it came. He didn't know if he could be of any help, but he couldn't leave this place like this either. It was all just too…wrong.
He glanced down at Kishiro where the Spirit Beast was sitting by his feet, its gaze fixed on the weeping children. The detective inhaled deeply then crouched to look the Spirit Beast in the eyes.
"I want to try to help them," he said in a near whisper so that only Kishiro could hear. "If you want to, you can go look for Kaito first and bring him here. But I can't leave this place like this. I'm sure Kaito will understand."
Kishiro's gaze was piercing, but Shinichi held it, determined. Finally, the large canine let out a soft yip and licked his face.
Bracing himself for whatever was to come, he strode over to the kids.
The boy looked up from where he had been rubbing circles on his sister's back. His eyes were rimmed with red, though his tears had been silent.
"Can you tell me what happened to Aunt May?"
The boy's gaze fell to the floor. His expression didn't change. "Like I said. She was Called. Last night."
"But what does that mean?"
"It means she's never coming back," Harumi sobbed, clutching tighter to her brother's shirt which was already soaked through with her tears. "She was so nice, and she was always doing what she could to help us out. She…she..." The girl broke down again, shaking.
"She's gone," Ruichi stated as though the presentment would end all questions. "Everyone who's Called goes, and they don't come back."
"Do you," Shinichi started hesitantly before deciding to just go in for the plunge. "Are they dead?"
Both children fell silent. Even Harumi's crying became muted.
It was Ruichi who finally broke the awkward silence with a short, sharp sigh. Then he looked up straight into Shinichi's eyes with a determined expression that the detective well recognized from those who knew they weren't going to be believed but had decided to forge on and say their peace anyway.
"It started five years ago. That was when the first person was Called. It was the village headman that time. We got up in the morning, and he was just gone. We searched all over the village and throughout the forest around this area, but we didn't find any traces of him or where he might have gone or even what he might have been doing. Well, no traces but one anyway."
"Yeah. We found his left sandal. It was just outside the village on the road past the fields. But there were no footprints around it. And there was no body or blood. Just is sandal—like maybe it had been thrown there or dropped."
Shinichi mulled this over then nodded. "So then what happened?"
"We weren't sure. We thought maybe one of the forest demons got him when he went for a walk, or maybe he'd been attacked by wolves. I was too young then for the grownups to want to tell me anything. All I know is that, after a while, everything just went back to normal.
"That was until a month had passed. The full moon came again. And that was when…" He stopped, drew in a deep breath, then started again. "That was when we got up and Mom was gone. She'd been Called in the middle of the night. We never saw her go."
"And we never got to say goodbye," Harumi whispered. "We had a fight that evening. Something stupid. I can't even remember what it was about anymore. But we all went to bed angry. In the morning, I…I knew I had to apologize, but I… I never got the chance."
"It's been like that ever since," Ruichi concluded. "Every full moon, someone in the village is Called and they leave and never come back. We don't know where they're going or how they leave or why. They just go, and that's it."
"It has to be the work of a demon," his sister murmured, shivering at the very thought.
Ruichi's face was just as grim. "Maybe. But…well, there isn't anything we can do about it. We've tried patrolling the village all night on full moon nights, but that didn't work. No matter how careful we were, when the sun came up, we always found there was someone gone. We tried locking ourselves in our houses during the full moon and trying to stay awake together the whole time, but that didn't work either. Somehow, the chosen one will go, and the people she or he was staying up with would all be fast asleep."
"And this has continued for five years?"
Ruichi nodded. "It's been hard, but it's also made us all a lot closer." He looked down at his sister where she was hiding her sniffling against his shirt sleeve. "When you know that you could die at any moment and that everyone around you could also disappear at any time, you start to wonder what's really important. You find you'd rather spend as much good time with your family as you can than go around fighting or arguing with people. We try our best to remind each other of the good times and show each other the people we hope to be remembered as."
"Can't you all just leave?"
"We don't have anywhere to go," Harumi whispered. "This is where our farmlands and our homes are."
"Besides, no one wants us around," her brother added, a hint of bitterness in his words. "The neighboring villages are all afraid that whatever's plaguing us might go after them if they took us in. A lot of them have even started saying that we're all cursed. We just have to do the best we can by ourselves."
Five whole years.
That was an awful long time to be living with such a terrible shadow looming over your head. Shinichi could only imagine the despair and the sense of helplessness these people must be suffering. And yet they continued to live their lives with smiles on their faces. Those smiles hinted at deep sorrows, but they were not fake. It was like the children had told him. These people had learned to appreciate what they had while they had it. While that was a tiny blessing in this storm of misfortune, it didn't make their future look any less bleak.
Shinichi walked slowly around the village with a deep frown etched onto his face. Now that he was looking for the signs, he could see that the village had once been much larger. However, many of the empty houses had either been taken apart for spare materials or converted into storage units and animal pens.
Stopping at the far edge of the village, he looked out over the fields. The adults of the village were tending to their crops, but, farther out, other fields had gone wild and were now overrun with weeds.
It was a desolate sight.
Wandering back into the village, he paused by Aunt May's house. Her son was sitting out front with his knees hugged to his chest and his eyes distant and blank. Though muffled, the sound of weeping could be heard from inside the little building. It was the rough, ragged sobs of a man who had tried but could not hold in the pain any longer. Shinichi knew without asking that the source of those heart wrenching sobs was Aunt May's husband.
The detective part of him had wanted to speak to these two a little about the woman who had gone. To ask them what she'd been like and learn what he could about her lifestyle, habits, and behavior. But he couldn't do that now.
These people needed time to heal and lay their own demons to rest. Only then would he be able to ask his questions.
He needed more information.
But where was he supposed to start? This place obviously had no library, and the last book in the village had been lost in a fire over a year ago—a fact that would have horrified Shinichi if the whole situation hadn't been bad enough already.
"I guess we should start with these demons then," he said to Kishiro (because he had to talk to someone, and the Spirit Beast, at least, would understand). "Everyone says that these disappearances must be because of a demon. So if we can learn more about why they think that, we could find a lead of some kind to figuring out exactly what's happening."
The Spirit Beast made a low, guttural growl that sounded like an 'if you say so' to Shinichi. Then he padded over to rub his massive, furry head against Shinichi's stomach, making the detective laugh.
They found Ruichi and Harumi tending to their own little vegetable garden. It wasn't much in terms of appearances, but there did seem to be several healthy plants that might be ready for the cooking pot.
"Excuse me," Shinichi said, making both children look up. "I was wondering if you could tell me more about these demons you mentioned. There weren't any where I'm from."
"Really?" The children traded startled looks.
"Your home must be really nice," Harumi concluded, looking wistful.
"Oh. Well…" Shinichi stammered. Apparently these demons were a lot more common than he'd thought. "Yeah. I heard stories though, so I was wondering what was true."
Ruichi shrugged, going back to his weed pulling. "There isn't much to say. Most demons are just huge monsters that try to eat people or destroy our crops. They're evil, always trying to make themselves stronger by killing or taking human souls and that sort of thing. I'm not an expert either though, so all that's just what I've heard."
"Are they intelligent?"
"Demons?" The boy looked mildly surprised by the question. "Well, some of them are. I've heard of a lot that have deceived nobles into giving them exactly what they wanted and other such things. But the kind you see most are just giant monsters running around. They're pretty dumb. They're just beasts with big appetites and a taste for human food."
"I see. And they tend to resemble animals?"
"More often than not. I hear some can even look all human, but I've never seen one myself. Or at least I don't think I have. If it really did look human, I guess I wouldn't know."
Shinichi nodded again. "Um, so…has anyone seen… I mean, on the full moon, I know you said that most people fall asleep even when they don't plan to, but has anyone ever reported seeing anything…strange? Anything they couldn't explain?"
Ruichi turned to stare at him. "Like what?"
"Uh, well…" Shinichi hesitated. Those visions he'd had that night felt like a dream, and trying to find words to describe the event wasn't easy. It sounded ridiculous even in his own head. But he had to ask. "Like glowing flowers sprouting up, and people dancing and then, well, flying away…?"
Now both Ruichi and Harumi were staring at him.
"Do you want to go lie down?" the little girl asked finally when the silence grew too awkward. "Maybe you should get in out of the sun for a bit. And drink more water. That should help."
"Uh, thank you," Shinichi said slowly, trying not to sound too exasperated. The children meant well, but it was hard to do your detective work when your perfectly reasonable questions were met with concerned inquiries about the state of your mental health. Not that he could blame them. It really was a ludicrous dream or not dream or, or…reality. It was a ludicrous reality, but he'd seen it, and he was almost certain that he had not been asleep at the time.
So what did it mean?
The townsfolk were so enthusiastically grateful when they received the news that the 'demon' had been dealt with that they lavished the little team of demon slayers with far more gifts than Sango felt she could rightfully take. They had already paid her the usual fee, and even that seemed a lot when she thought about just how little they had actually done. But a job was a job, and they had solved the problem, so that wasn't a huge issue. But the towns in the area had all heard the news and, all having been threatened at some point by the strange, white demon, they had all come to give their thanks and congratulations. And then they'd brought gifts of everything from food to crockery to clothes. And none of them would take no for an answer. It was rude, they said, to decline gifts.
Which was why the lot of them had been found a few towns down the road selling off a wide assortment of things they didn't need. Although they had kept a few articles of clothing that fit Kaito so that he wouldn't keep sticking out like a sore thumb (and so that, hopefully, no one would recognize him as the demon who'd been terrorizing the area). The magician had also asked to keep a few sets of clothes that were slightly too small for him, saying that his friend would need them.
Now here they were on their way back to the small town that generally served as their home base. They were setting up camp for the night.
"Why's he still here?" InuYasha cast a mistrustful look to where Kaito was helping to build the campfire before turning his scowl on Kagome.
"Don't be like that," the girl said, unfazed. "Of course we have to bring him with us. He doesn't belong in this time period. It's only right we help him get back to the future."
"And you believe he's telling the truth?"
"Yes," Kagome said confidently. "He knows things he could only know if he was from the future." She had spent the past few hours quizzing the young man on everything from scientific discoveries to facts about foreign countries that didn't exist yet to make sure of that. And, on every occasion, he had answered correctly.
"But he doesn't have a jewel shard?"
She shook her head. "I don't see one."
"That doesn't make any sense then. How could he possibly be here if it wasn't by the power of a jewel shard?"
Kagome shrugged. She couldn't answer that either. But, well, if she could travel time, who was to say no one else could? Just because it had never happened before didn't mean it couldn't happen now. It would be hypocritical of her to assume he couldn't be from the future too. In the same vein of logic, it was perfectly plausible that, somewhere out there in the vast stretches of the universe, another jewel existed that had special powers.
InuYasha didn't look satisfied, but he let the matter drop.
"So," Miroku began as the five of them sat down to a meal of spit-roasted wild rabbit. "Kuroba-san—"
"Call me Kaito."
"Kaito then. Can you tell us what that power was you used upon the demon? It did not feel like spiritual power, but nor did it feel like the power of a demon."
"To be entirely honest, I don't know what you'd call it," Kaito replied cheerfully. "I call it magic. But the woman who trained me was a psychic and a master of martial arts. She called it manipulating spirit energy."
"Well, I've heard of martial artists manipulating their chi to perform amazing feats," Kagome offered after a moment's thought. "Never anything like creating lightning, but maybe it's the same concept."
Kaito laughed. "Perhaps. The human mind is a complex and surprisingly powerful tool when honed well."
InuYasha let out a loud snort.
"So you said your friend might be around here too, right?" Sango asked. "Are you sure?"
"Yes," Kaito said gravely. "We were both holding that stone when it happened."
"But if he came with you through the power of the same object, why wasn't he with you?" asked Miroku. "It doesn't make sense."
"Well," Kaito said carefully. "The truth is this isn't the first time something like this has happened to us. That gem of ours has a tendency to jump us to all sorts of places. We've seen the future of space travel and made a stop in the Meiji era. We've learned we always land near to each other."
"Wait. Space travel?" Kagome gasped, leaning forward in excitement. "So you mean you've been to outer space?"
"That's right. It's a pretty amazing world out there."
"Then shouldn't you know how to get yourselves home too?" the half demon asked dryly. "If we're to believe you, you time travel all the time."
Kaito heaved a melodramatic sigh. "Alas, it is not so simple. We need to find our gem first. And we have to both be in the same place with it."
Finishing off his dinner, Kaito excused himself to sit on a boulder just outside the ring of firelight.
Meditation still wasn't exactly his cup of tea, but he couldn't deny that it helped with focusing and controlling his new powers. As his thoughts quieted, the forest around him came to life. Sounds that had been too tiny to acknowledge before were now sharp and clear. Even the aromas in the air seemed more defined.
He wondered where Shinichi was. Kagome and the others had asked the villagers for him, but no one seemed to have seen anyone matching the detective's description. Then again, there was a lot of wilderness around these parts. It would be easy to get lost in it.
Kaito inhaled deeply, counted to ten, then exhaled.
This place had giant, man-eating centipedes and other monsters—no, demons, he corrected himself. Worse, the people here seemed quick to call anyone who appeared strange a demon and attempt to drive them off. On the bright side, Shinichi wouldn't have gone into town brandishing magic tricks. So maybe they would think he was just a strangely dressed human.
Being attacked by monsters was one thing. Being attacked by humans over some trifling misunderstanding was a great deal more complicated. Yes, he knew Shinichi could defend himself, but his tools were designed for helping him capture criminals alive, not for helping him fend off angry mobs.
Unbidden, a morning from four days back surfaced in Kaito's mind. That was the morning a group of men armed with farming tools and hunting weapons had tried to ambush him in the forest as he made his way to the next likely town. They hadn't bothered to try to talk or even introduce themselves. They had simply leapt out of their poorly chosen hiding places and charged at him, their faces full of terror but their mouths screaming defiance.
They'd had the advantage in numbers, but it hadn't helped them much. Heist-honed reflexes that had been further polished by a crazy martial arts master had seen the whole lot subdued with almost laughable ease. The men had been even less coordinated than Nakamori's task force at its worst. Sprawled in the dirt with their weapons shattered, the villagers had been a pitiful sight. And Kaito almost helped them up, but when he'd stepped closer, he'd seen the fear in their faces, so he'd wisely decided to leave them be.
If Shinichi had found himself at the mercy of such people, Kaito shuddered to think what might have happened.
There was something about time travel that was, in Kaito's opinion, almost stranger than leaping into completely fantastical worlds. It was like how scary stories created horror by altering small facets of what would otherwise be normal.
Standing here now, dressed to suit the time period and armed with the knowledge that magic tricks should be kept low key, Kaito could only marvel at this surreal sensation. He felt like an actor on a movie set.
For the moment, he was wandering through town alone. They had all dispersed upon arrival to restock their supplies or gather news respectively. For his part, Kaito had had little luck thus far in his own quest for information. He had sent Aome to scour the town for signs of Shinichi with strict instructions not to leave the borders of the settlement, but she hadn't brought him anything either.
Ahead of him, a young woman carrying a stack of wicker baskets let out a cry as she stubbed her toe on a rock. Her tower of baskets teetered as she tipped forward. Kaito lunged, catching her before she could hit the ground. His left hand shot up and, with a few well-placed bops, righted the basket tower before it could topple.
"That was close," he remarked, helping the girl up. "Are you all right?"
She peered around her baskets with a warm smile and a blush. "Yes, thank you."
"You're welcome. Would you like some help with those?"
The girl hesitated a moment then nodded, eyes dropping to the ground. "If it isn't any trouble. My sister usually helps me, but she's taking care of grandfather today…"
Kaito relieved the girl of most of her baskets and grinned across the stack at her. "No trouble at all. So where do we need to take these?"
"We're delivering them to Yamanaka-san at the market."
"Ah, I see. I'm new here though. Would you mind leading the way?"
The girl giggled and nodded, setting off down the road again. "I was wondering why I'd never seen you before. Did you just arrive today?"
"Yep. This morning."
"Are you going to stay?"
Was it just him or was there a hopeful note in her voice?
He opted for a heavy sigh. "I'd like to. This town seems nice. But I'm looking for a friend of mine. I'm worried he might have gotten himself into trouble. I need to find him as soon as I can."
"Oh, that's too bad," she said sympathetically. "I guess this is an important friend then?"
He smiled. "Yes. The most important."
"Well, maybe I can help you," she offered, casting a smile back over her shoulder at him. "Since a lot of people pass through our town on their way to the trading post, I see a lot of new faces. What does your friend look like?"
"He looks a lot like me, actually, though he's a little shorter, and his hair's freaky neat except for this cute little cowlick that sticks up at the back. And his eyes are bright blue."
The girl thought for a moment then shook her head. "I haven't seen him. I would have remembered someone who looked like you. I'm sorry."
"No, no, it was kind of you to try. I appreciate your effort."
The girl blushed again and looked away. "I know! Once we drop these off with Yamanaka-san, I'll be going to the tea parlor. You can come with me. My friends and I have been meeting up there to make decorations for Ayame's wedding. One of them might know if your friend's come through town."
"Then there's no time to waste," Kaito laughed. "Let's make these baskets fly to Yamanaka-san!"
Which, of course, they didn't, though Kaito was sorely tempted to make them at least float. It would have been so easy, and he was sure that his new friend would have appreciated the show, but alas, better not to risk it. The last thing he needed was to cause another riot when he was possibly on the verge of getting some answers.
In any case, ten minutes later, Kaito was seated in the local tea parlor surrounded by young women, all of whom wanted to hear about his travels. He did what he could to satisfy their curiosity by spinning his adventures into tales more appropriate for their time period even as he kept a careful ear out. None of them had seen his detective, but that didn't mean they couldn't still provide him with useful information.
"What of strange occurrences?" he asked. "Has anything out of the ordinary happened around here recently?"
"Strange?" The girls looked at each other, all thinking.
"Yes. Either events or places. My friend likes mysteries." And had an uncanny ability to hone in upon them, especially when they were dangerous, he added to himself.
"Oh! I heard there was a lake somewhere in the mountains where, if two people go for a walk around the whole lake during the night of a full moon, they will stay in love forever. Isn't that romantic?"
"Uh, I don't know… That sounds kind of stupid to me. And it's not mysterious. If you want mysterious, you should go see that old shrine in the woods. I hear the god that lives there appears sometimes to visitors who come on full moon nights. If you can impress him, he will give you a treasure."
"That's just a myth. I've definitely never met anyone who said they got a gift that way. If you want something more believable, it has to be the ivory lady's cave. They say that any young man who approaches that cave will see the most beautiful woman in the world there waiting for him. She will ask him a question, and if he answers the question correctly, she allows him into the castle where he will become her husband. A man who answers incorrectly is stripped of his humanity and turned into a monkey. So far, they say, the lady hasn't deemed a single man worthy of being her consort."
"Isn't there supposed to be an island that appears on the last day of the year? It was supposed to be the only place where this really special medicinal flower grows."
Kaito filed away each story for later reference. He didn't know enough about this world yet to say with a hundred percent certainty which stories were plausible and which had to be mere myth. Best to keep an open mind.
Walking by outside, Miroku froze and turned to stare in mixed horror, respect, and envy at the sight of Kaito seated with a dozen pretty young women who apparently all wanted to talk to him. What in the world? What was his secret?!
Life could be so unfair.
He sighed. The grain dealer's daughter had been truly lovely, and she had loved having her fortune told. She'd even giggled when he'd asked her to bear his children, but then she'd smacked him for no reason (if he'd voiced this thought out loud in the vicinity of any of his friends, they would have rolled their eyes and scoffed, knowing full well his hands' tendency to wander) and stormed away.
He glanced again at the magician, who was now demonstrating his ability to juggle to his rapt audience, and sighed again. Yeah, life just wasn't fair.
"You want to know how long it would take to cross the mountains?" the young woman working the meat bun vendor's cart asked.
"Yes," Sango replied, confused as to why the woman sounded so surprised. It wasn't a strange question, was it?
"You won't be able to go that way." The woman handed a steaming bun to a child who'd just handed her a coin. "There's only one good pass, and there was a rockslide there just the other day. The whole route's blocked off. You'll have to go around."
"Can we not go over?"
"Climb the mountains, you mean? I wouldn't recommend it. Nasty storms up there this time of year. And the mountainsides are still unstable after the last earthquake."
"So what's the fastest route around the mountain then?"
"The northwestern road is the faster one, but it may be even more treacherous than the mountain storms. So I would recommend you go south first. You'll eventually find a large river that way. If you follow that river upstream, you'll reach a trading post. You can get better directions from there."
Sango nodded slowly. "What did you mean when you said the northwestern route was treacherous?"
"Well, it's only a rumor, but I hear there's a powerful demon that's moved into those parts of late."
The demon slayer's eyebrows rose. "I see. Can you tell me more about this demon?"
Later, when the group reconvened outside the village, Sango relayed the tale of the demon that had descended upon the villages in the forests, stealing away the people right out from inside their homes.
A few monks and priestesses had gone to try and drive the demon away, but they too had vanished without a trace. Now, no one dared travel those roads unless they had absolutely no choice.
InuYasha frowned. "Doesn't sound like Naraku's work."
"Maybe, maybe not. But before you dismiss the issue, you may wish to remember that a powerful demon might possess a jewel shard," Miroku countered.
"He has a point," Kagome said when the half demon still didn't look satisfied.
"Besides," Sango added. "If it's killing as many people as they say, as a demon slayer, I should offer my assistance."
"I hope you don't mind," Kagome said apologetically to Kaito. "I know you're worried about finding your friend."
Kaito let out a sardonic laugh. "If this demon's as much trouble as they're saying it is, I'm sure we'll find Shin-chan right in the middle of it."
"What do you mean?"
"He's a detective. Can't keep his nose out of other people's business if he tried. And he has the worst luck when it comes to being in the right places at the wrong times."
Adding a handful of herbs to the pot over the fire, Shinichi stirred the stew a few minutes longer before lifting the ladle to test the flavor. It wasn't as good as Harumi's cooking, but he'd taken it upon himself to take turns with her at the work.
"Lunch is ready!" he called out the little house's open doorway. The kids were out in the vegetable garden, playing some sort of game they had invented using colored stones. Kishiro had been watching them, but he seemed to have wandered off again. The Spirit Beast often vanished without warning only to return with a captured pheasant or rabbit or other small game. He'd even brought back a small boar a few days ago. That had led to an impromptu feast for the whole village.
Spirits had lifted a lot after that. There had even been dancing and music, and the villagers had whiled away the night wrapped in the memories of happier times.
It was a temporary relief, but, in these times, the villagers would welcome any distraction that could chase away the clouds hanging over their heads for even an instant.
Retrieving a few empty bowls, Shinichi began ladling stew into them.
He marveled once again at how quickly things could become normal. He had been here for less than two weeks, and this already felt like home. Not his home, per se, but a home. One that he was comfortable being a part of. He felt a little like he was back in Beika, looking out for the Shounan Tantei and keeping them out of trouble. Not that Ruichi or Harumi were anything near as trouble prone as those kids had been. These two had already grown out of their childhood, he supposed. They had matured out of necessity, and they had learned those lessons about the truly valuable things in life that most people didn't understand until they were much older.
What would their parents think of it if they were still alive, he wondered. Would they be proud? Or would they lament the circumstances that had pushed their children to grow so quickly? Probably both. Normal parents couldn't help but be pained when their children were forced to face such hardships without them. Then again, his parents had run off as soon as they could get away with it, so he supposed he could be wrong. But he'd like to believe that most parents were more responsible than his were.
"Kishiro! Kishiro's back!" Ruichi cried out suddenly, making Shinichi turn back to the door. "He's brought someone with him!"
"Wait, isn't that Shinichi Nii-san?" Harumi exclaimed. She craned her neck to look back into the house at Shinichi. She stared. Then she was swiveling around to gape at the newcomer jogging up to their door with Kishiro loping along beside him. "You're not him!"
The stranger came to a stop and bowed. "Nope. I'm Kuroba Kaito, at your service."
With a flourish, he presented the little girl with a yellow rose and a smile. "But I am here to see your Shinichi Nii-san."
"Oh, are you Kishiro's master?" the girl asked. "Nii-san said he belonged to his friend."
"That would be me, yes," Kaito agreed, chuckling. "So, may I come in?"
The girl smiled. "Okay. We're about to have lunch. You can join us."
"How'd you do that thing with the flower?" Ruichi butted in. "And why is there a bird sitting on your head?"
"With a lot of practice, and she's resting. We've been traveling almost nonstop for days."
"You said something about friends?" Shinichi inquired, picking up another empty bowl. "How many?"
"Four people and a cat," Kaito replied, pausing in the doorway to survey the tiny little house. It was rather rundown. From what he could tell, it looked as though only Shinichi and the two kids were living here. "You don't seem surprised to see me."
"Kishiro told me you were getting closer. I figured it was only a matter of time. I'm not sure we have enough stew…"
"Don't worry about it. We brought our own supplies. "Once everyone's here, we can eat while we catch up. How's that sound?"
Shinichi hadn't realized just how tense he'd really been until he saw Kaito walking up the road. He felt like he'd been holding his breath all this time and only just now begun to breathe again. He knew fundamentally that the magician's presence wouldn't suddenly solve the problem at hand, but it was an immense weight off his shoulders to know that they were together again.
They shared a little of their exploits with each other while they waited for Kaito's new friends to arrive, though it was mostly the magician talking because they both agreed that they should wait for everyone to arrive before going over the details of the village's odd plight.
"They seriously thought you were going to eat them?" Shinichi wasn't sure whether to laugh or just gape. "Really?"
"Yeah. I've never been so insulted in my life," Kaito groused. "I mean, honestly, I've been accused of a lot of things, but cannibalism? That's just wrong."
"Actually, if they thought you weren't human then they weren't technically accusing you of cannibalism."
Kaito rolled his eyes. "Missing the point here, Tantei-kun. Hey, what's so funny?"
"Sorry, sorry. It's just—I mean, it sometimes feels like you can charm your way out of anything. It's kind of funny that all that smooth talking and showing off backfired this time."
"That's only because they didn't bother to hang around long enough to actually talk," the magician retorted. "It was damned annoying. I had to zap like a bunch of them before they gave up on attacking me with pitchforks or whatever. It wasn't easy making sure none of them were permanently injured. Not that any of them appreciated my efforts." He sighed dramatically. "Woe be to the misunderstood genius."
"But you worked things out eventually, right? I mean, it is you."
Now the magician looked sheepish. "I wouldn't go quite that far. I was mostly minding my own business by that point. The towns all evacuated whenever I was approaching, so I just picked up anything I needed, left some silver, and moved on. They ended up sending out for demon slayers. That's when I met the gang."
"They're demon slayers?" Intrigued, Shinichi leaned forward slightly. Maybe this was the answer to the village's problem. "What are they like?"
"They're an interesting bunch. They're actually on a quest of their own. They're hunting a demon named Naraku who disappeared recently. I don't have all their stories yet, but it seems they all have strong reasons to want to find and beat this guy. That's how we ended up coming this way. We heard rumors of the strange happenings here, and they were wondering if it might lead them to their prey—or to something called a Shikon Jewel shard."
"This world's magical jewel. I guess magic gems are pretty popular. Anyway, a shard of it can grant a demon or person incredible power, but it usually costs them their sanity. Few people can use such powers without becoming corrupt and evil. Or so I've been told. I haven't seen any of this myself."
"And you said they were originally hired to get rid of you?" Shinichi winced at the mere idea of it. Talk about epically disastrous misunderstandings. "Did you fight them?"
Kaito threw his head back and laughed. "No, no. We talked. It turns out this girl in the group is from the future—er, well, our present, very likely. Or at least what would be considered our present if this history matches up with ours. But that's beside the point. She recognized my outfit as being modern, so, well, here we are."
Shinichi digested the information as he poured them tea. The children had gone back outside to see what other vegetables might be harvestable. It seemed they wanted to make a good impression on their guests. Kaito had observed the way they interacted with Shinichi with amusement. It was like watching parents and children rather than babysitters and other people's kids. He had seen it before back in Germany and even back in their own world, but it never ceased to amaze him how the socially awkward detective could be so good with children. Maybe it was all the practice he got having to pretend to be one again. Reliving your youth with the more mature perspective of an adult had undoubtedly led him to many new discoveries about life and people alike.
A soft, genuine smile tugged at Kaito's lips. Maybe it was inappropriate under the circumstances, but he felt content right now.
The comfortable silence was broken by Ruichi's cry.
"You're a demon!"
Shinichi shot to his feet. Kaito, having an inkling of what this was going to be about, rose more slowly. Together, they exited the small house to see an odd band of travelers in their front yard.
Ruichi was standing protectively in front of his sister and glaring at a white-haired young man with dog ears poking out of his mane.
The dog man bared his fangs at the boy. "Yeah? And what of it?"
"What do you want from us?" Ruichi demanded, jaw set and shoulders squared even though Shinichi could see that he was trembling.
"Come now." A man in monk robes stepped between the pair. "We don't mean anyone any harm. We promise. We are but humble travelers."
"They're with me," Kaito called out, jogging over. "Ruichi, Harumi, these are Kagome, InuYasha, Miroku, Sango, and Kilala. Everyone, this is Shinichi, the friend I told you about."
"Why don't you all come inside?" Shinichi offered. "Kaito tells me we have a lot to talk about."
InuYasha snorted and trailed after the others into the tiny house. A small hand catching the hem of his red kimono made him look down.
Harumi smiled shyly at him. "I'm sorry about my brother. He can be a little rude sometimes, but he doesn't mean anything by it. I…hope he didn't offend you."
"Ch. It's got nothing to do with me what he thinks," the half demon grunted, but then his expression softened just a fraction. "He's right to be cautious. Ya never know who you're inviting in."
With everyone gathered inside the house, there was barely any room left. On the bright side, it was cozy even without a big hearth fire.
Conversation over lunch was relatively light. It wasn't until they had all finished and fresh cups of tea had been poured that the topic of the disappearances was raised.
"It happens every full moon," Shinichi explained, outlining the situation in a few brief sentences. "The villagers believe it's the work of a demon, though no one has actually seen one."
"Did you find anything when you were investigating?" Kaito asked.
"I was trying to figure out if there was a pattern to who disappears," the detective replied.
Miroku leaned forward slightly. "And did you find anything?"
"Well," Shinichi started, hesitated, then sighed. "I don't know if it means anything, but only one person under the age of eighteen has disappeared. And there is only one person left in the village who is over the age of thirty five. Of the elders who weren't called away, two died after suffering long illnesses. The last is Aunt Yohami. She can't walk though. Hasn't been able to since she injured her spine ten years ago."
"Does anyone have any idea where these people go?" asked Sango. "Has anyone ever come back? Or has anyone ever found remains?"
Ruichi shook his head. "We've looked. We look every time. You might find a lost shoe on the road or a ribbon from someone's hair caught in the underbrush, but that's it. It's like they disappear into thin air."
"I saw something though. It was the on the last full moon," Shinichi began then paused again, looking at the kids. They hadn't taken his story as anything more than a midday delusion born from heat stroke or something, but he knew what he'd seen. So he braced himself for the skepticism and described that surreal night and the woman who had danced her way into the sky. There was a long silence after he had finished.
It was Sango who spoke first. "I have heard of demons who carry their prey away into the sky. But all this about dancing…"
"It is certainly a peculiar tale," Miroku agreed. "Perhaps it was a hallucination."
"Or he was dreaming," InuYasha said dryly.
"Though if the people really are being carried off by something that flies, it could explain why no signs of them are ever found," Kagome reasoned. "You can travel a lot farther and faster by air."
"But is it really the work of a demon?" asked Shinichi. "Why would a demon kidnap people?"
"For lunch, probably."
"InuYasha!" Kagome hissed, jabbing him with her elbow and shooting a worried glance towards the two kids still seated with them. Rather than the stricken horror she'd been afraid she'd see in their faces though, she saw only a resigned acceptance that was far, far more painful to behold. They were so young… Time and time again, tragedy came on ruthless wings. It seemed that no matter where she traveled in this time, there were fragmented families, pain, and fear. And yet, despite all that, she had met many great people—people who stood up from the ashes and smiled at the future, forging on with what they had. And she would watch them and wonder if perhaps this was the strength that would eventually allow humans to build the thriving civilizations of her time. It was a humbling thought in its own way.
"In any case, Kilala and I can take a look around by air," Sango said. "If anything's up there, we'll find it. Though it may help to know where exactly people have disappeared from."
"We can show you," Ruichi offered, face lighting up with the eagerness of an active soul too long kept restrained.
"Great. There are still a few hours of daylight left. Would you mind showing me around now?"
With the two children in tow, Sango stepped back out into the yard where her tiny, two-tailed cat gave a little chirp. Flames erupted about her, completely engulfing her small, white body. Then, in a whoosh of hot air, a much larger cat appeared. It threw back its head and roared.
Both children leapt back with cries of surprise. But the supersized cat lowered its large head to nuzzle them each in turn. Soon, Harumi was laughing and rubbing her hands over the demon cat's thick, warm fur. Her brother remained reserved, though he did relax.
"And up you go," Sango said, lifting the kids onto Kilala's back before leaping gracefully on herself. "Don't be afraid. We won't let you fall."
"I wonder if they've found anything…"
"Probably not. If they had, I'm sure they'd have rushed back to tell us about it."
Shinichi exhaled slowly, fingers plucking idly at the grass. Beside him, Kaito leaned back on his hands and gazed up at the star-spangled heavens. Kishiro lay nearby, his dark fur rendering him almost invisible in the gloom. The three of them were seated on the hillside just outside the village and had been for the past hour or so, but neither of them was eager to head back to the house yet.
"It was right here," the detective said suddenly.
Kaito quirked an eyebrow at him. "What was?"
"The last place I saw Aunt May."
"Before she flew away."
"You're feeling guilty, aren't you." It wasn't a question. Kaito knew it was true. He could see it in Shinichi's eyes.
The detective looked away. "I just wish I'd known about the situation that night. I would have tried to stop her. I keep wondering if things might have been different if I'd at least called out to her. I know it might not have made a difference, but it would have been better than just watching her go."
The magician sighed. "What's done is done. All we can do is try to save the next one."
"Did you have any theories?" Kaito asked, changing tact. "About the order of victims. When you talked about it earlier, I got the impression you had more to say."
Shinichi hesitated before answering. "I can't prove anything."
"Doesn't matter. I'm sure any theories you come up with are at least worth considering."
Shinichi thanked the darkness for concealing his blush. "Well, I thought about what the others said—about how it's most likely a demon eating people. The thing is, many of the earliest victims were old. If a victim's ability to fight back was an issue, I suppose the elderly would be easier targets, but, from what we've seen, I don't think that's the case. But if it's not—"
"Then it's strange to go after the old, bony and stringy first," Kaito surmised, snickering at the flat look his comment elicited. "You'd expect a predator to want plump and juicy prey—preferably young and tender."
"I wouldn't have put it quite like that, but yes. So I got to thinking, well, what if it's not the bodies that matter? Ruichi mentioned to me that demons sometimes go after human souls."
"They can eat souls?"
"That was the impression I got. And, if that's true, then maybe they can eat other things too."
Kaito nodded encouragingly. "And?"
"I went back over my notes earlier. The first to disappear was the village headman. He was one of the oldest men in the village at the time. He was also one of the few who wasn't born in this village. He actually came from a town on another island. He spent most of his youth traveling Japan as a member of a merchant caravan. It wasn't until he fell in love with a girl in this village that he gave up that life to settle down here. When he did, he used the knowledge he'd gained from his travels to help them improve their crop yields. He also taught several new techniques for crafting things and making tools."
"Sounds like he was a pretty awesome headman."
"Yeah. It was a huge blow to everyone's morale when he disappeared."
"I can see how that might have made him a strategically advantageous target for an enemy aiming to chip away at the village. But I'm guessing that's not what you're thinking."
"No. I just noticed that the first six people to disappear were all villagers who had done a considerable amount of traveling. Some were responsible for handling trade with other villages. Others were just footloose for some years of their lives. Others traveled great distances to learn new trades. Whatever the reason, it meant that they would have seen and done a great deal that no one else in the village would have."
"Okay," Kaito said slowly. "So the demon likes to eat travelers?"
"That was only the start. There used to be a scholar living in this town. He came here to find peace where he could just focus on perfecting his art. He wrote a lot of poetry. He brought books with him too. Everyone in the village was allowed to read them if they wanted. He even taught for a while. Harumi says he was a wonderful teacher, always describing far away things and painting the beauty of life and the world in general for them with his words and his brush."
"Let me guess. He's gone too."
Shinichi frowned. "Yes. And so are his students—the ones who were learning to write their own poems and create their own art. Not only that, but the four men and women who were particularly interested in reading all the books he'd brought with him also went."
"So maybe it's about knowledge," Kaito speculated after a long moment of silence. "You learn a lot of random things from traveling, but you also learn a lot from reading books, so long as you're actually paying attention."
Shinichi nodded grimly. "The only one under eighteen to disappear was an adventurous girl who was always out in the woods even when people began saying it was too dangerous to go. She was a talented cook, and she used to bring back all sorts of wild herbs and other things to help feed everyone and keep everyone healthy. She was always doing something—or at least that's what Ruichi told me. If she wasn't fishing, she'd be hunting for herbs and small game. If she wasn't cooking then she'd be sewing new clothes for the children or teaching the young ones to identify edible plants and how to cook them."
"I'd say that fits. Even though she was young, she had a whole lot of experiences."
"But it's just a theory. And I guess it doesn't help a whole lot." Shinichi's breath left him in a resigned sigh. "It doesn't explain how anyone's being called out of the village or where they might have gone."
"No. But it does mean that we might be able to predict the next victim before the next full moon. That'll make it easier to plan our defenses."
Shinichi nodded solemnly. What went unspoken was the fact that, if they did end up waiting until then, it would mean they had given up entirely on finding Aunt May.
"Don't call me that," the detective grumbled halfheartedly. "What is it?"
"Would you play the violin for me?"
Shinichi turned to blink at the magician's earnest face. "What?"
"It's been a while. I want to hear you play again," Kaito said, pure sincerity in his words. "Please?"
"I don't…" Shinichi started to say but stopped as the magician brought out a violin case in a flurry of white cloth. Kaito held it out to Shinichi, that ever present smile on his face much softer this time. Soft and sincere—two expressions that were rather foreign to that usually smug face.
Shinichi hesitated a moment longer before accepting the instrument case. Part of him was of the opinion that now was not the time, but he suspected Kaito would say that they had nothing else to do at the moment, and the magician would be right.
Kaito's smile widened when Shinichi flipped the latches on the violin case. Operation Distraction was well on the road to success.
Back at the little house on the edge of the village, furry, white ears twitched then swiveled. "What's that sound?"
"It sounds like a violin," Kagome replied, confused.
"It's a western instrument. It was invented in Italy," the girl replied absently, the majority of her attention focused on the music. She was surprised to realize that the song was familiar, although she wasn't so well versed in classical music that she could put a name to it. Maybe one of the travelers had a radio on hand? That didn't sound like a recording though. But where in the world had they been hiding a violin?
The questions soon faded into the background of her thoughts, however, chased away by the heart wrenching beauty of the music. For the next half hour, the human girl and the half demon stood side by side on the edge of the little yard and listened to the violin's high, sweet voice sing songs from another time. The world seemed to soften with every note set adrift upon the breeze. And, for a few blessed minutes, all their troubles too seemed to soften and melt into soft shadows and starlight.
When the music ended, silence settled back over the world. The tranquility was achingly perfect, and both Shinichi and Kaito were loathed to break it. But then the magician spotted the pale shape with flickers of flame around its paws sailing past overhead, and he knew it was time to go.
With a sigh, he rose to his feet and stretched. Then he looked at Shinichi with a smile.
"You, my dear detective, are truly amazing. If you ever change your mind about the detective gig, you can consider auditioning for a position with an orchestra."
The detective rolled his eyes. "Flattery isn't going to get you anywhere."
"Is that so?" Kaito leaned in, grin turning into a smirk. "You're blushing~."
Shinichi turned away quickly to hide the deepening color in his cheeks and busied himself with putting the violin back in its case. "My technical skills still need a lot of work, but I think all that practicing in Vihala paid off."
"It sure did," Kaito agreed amiably. With a snap of his fingers, the violin case disappeared. Then he offered his arm to Shinichi like a gentleman would to a lady. "Shall we?"
To his surprise, Shinichi accepted the proffered arm, though not before muttering, "You and your dramatics."
"A cloud?" Kagome repeated, puzzled.
Sango nodded. "It looks ordinary, but it was drifting due south even though the wind was blowing from the northeast. I would have checked it out, but I didn't want to bring the children with me."
"That was wise," Miroku agreed. "Did you notice anything else?"
The demon slayer sighed. "No. There was no demonic aura either. It's possible it was just an ordinary cloud."
"Talking about it is pointless. We just have to go check it out tomorrow," InuYasha grumbled. "If it's still there. Beats sitting around waiting for the next full moon."
"Getting up there may be a problem," Kagome said, counting heads. "Shippo's at Kaede's, and Kilala can't carry all of us."
"It may be a little premature to say there's anything worth everyone going up there to see," Shinichi said, hand rising to his chin. "We can send an advance party up first. We can decide what to do next based on what they find."
It really was a very odd cloud, Sango mused. She had thought so before because of the way it didn't quite travel with the wind as clouds should, but, up close, there was more to it. The cloud didn't have any particular shape. Its edges frayed out and wisped away on the breeze as clouds were wont to do. And yet, no matter how much the mass of water vapors expanded and contracted, expanded or twisted in, the core of the cloud was always there. It was a space about the size of the village below within which the cloud never seemed to change. It was like a large, fluffy center enshrouded by amorphous wrappings that happened to be clouds.
"Let's see if we can fly into it," she told Kilala. "I want to see what's inside."
"Are you sure about this?" Miroku asked from behind her. For once, his tone was serious. "There is something ominous about this cloud. I couldn't feel it from the ground, but here right next to it…"
"Just stay alert. All right Kilala, let's go."
With a roar, the fire cat turned and flew straight into the heart of the cloud, heading for the opaque expanses that lingered at its center.
For a moment, all was white with the world. The air was chilly and damp in the way cold does to humidity. But then they were met by something much thicker. It was a part of the cloud, or so it appeared, but it was so dense that it was actually solid. It was like pushing against a dense wall of wool.
Another push and wiggle, and suddenly they were looking up at the most astonishing sight they could ever have imagined under the circumstances.
There was a garden inside the cloud.
Water gleamed in small pools and streams surrounded by banks of fluffy clouds. The soft, white substance formed paths and miniature bridges all surrounded by deep flowerbeds. The blossoms in those flowerbeds were of a species none of the intruders had ever seen before. Their petals were large but thin to the point of transparency so that they looked like spun glass.
Over it all hung a luminous fog through which it was impossible to see more than a few dozen paces. Its presence only made the vision before them more enchanting. It was like a glimpse into a realm of dreams.
"What is this place?" Miroku whispered, astounded.
Sango had no answer for him. Instead, she squinted through the haze as Kilala flew slowly over the garden. Ahead of them, a pillar loomed out of the whiteness. When they drew closer, they could see that it was the trunk of a tree whose roots and canopy were one with the cloud.
Kilala halted abruptly to hover just beside the trunk. They could see more trees ahead, but they were all much more interested in the twinge at the edge of their senses. It was an all too familiar feeling: the oppressive presence of a demon aura.
"We should inform the others." Directing Kilala to land, Sango gingerly lowered herself to the fluffy, cloud floor. Her foot sank a little into the whiteness, but it held. "It looks like we can walk on this. Kilala, we'll wait here. Can you please bring the others up?"
The massive feline let out a rumble of ascent before disappearing into the fog.
Kaito let out a low whistle as he surveyed the ethereal garden in the sky. "Whoever lives here has good taste. We should take a picture."
"I don't like it," Shinichi murmured, shifting uneasily. The place was undeniably beautiful, but there was a presence here that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Suddenly the glowing mist was not a magical embellishment upon the garden's beauty but a sinister veil hiding whatever dangers lurked in waiting for the perfect opportunity to pounce.
"I can sense a demonic aura," Kagome murmured, frowning. "But it's faint or…or muffled somehow. I think it's this fog and the cloud.
"From what we saw on the outside and the way it looks in here, I believe we're dealing with a space about the same size as the village," Sango explained as they all gathered around her. "There is definitely a demonic aura here, but we've only seen the fringe of this space. With this fog, it'll be easy to miss things without a careful search. So I would recommend that we split into two teams. We're here to confirm whether the demon or demons here are responsible for the disappearances."
"And find out what happened to the people they took," Shinichi added.
"We can meet back here in two hours."
"Why can't I just blow this place away with my Wind Scar?" InuYasha complained. "Finding the demon'll be a whole lot easier without this weird cloud."
"That may be true, but there is still a chance that there are people up here."
The dog demon snorted in disbelief but didn't argue.
Eventually, it was decided that Kagome, InuYasha, and Kaito would head right while Sango, Miroku, and Shinichi headed left. They would establish the exact perimeters of this odd cloud space then begin working their way inward in search of survivors or remains. Eventually, they would meet up at the middle or, if things didn't play out quite so smoothly, back at the first tree at the far edge of the garden.
Kaito hadn't been thrilled by the arrangement. He'd only just found Shinichi again, and besides, how was he supposed to watch the detective's back if they weren't together? He couldn't even rely on Kishiro because the detective had asked that the Spirit Beast keep watch over the kids. But Shinichi was the only one who knew what Aunt May looked like, whereas InuYasha had a keen sense of smell to guide him. The rest was just a balancing act. So here they were.
Shinichi found himself carefully sketching a map in his notebook as he trailed after the demon slayer and the monk. They made their way between tall, slender trees and past pink and yellow flowerbeds that glowed like cotton sunsets.
Could this place really be the abode of a demon? It was too lovely, surely. And there was no sign that there had ever been violence. It was nothing like the graveyard he'd half expected to find.
A flicker of red out of the corner of his eye made Shinichi turn abruptly. In this ethereal landscape, the stark brilliance of that flicker of scarlet stood out like a drop of black ink on white paper. But it was moving so fast that it was swallowed up by the fog in an instant. That one, fleeting glimpse, however, had been enough for Shinichi to make out a human figure.
"Over there!" he cried out to his companions as he dashed after the disappearing figure in red. He could hear the others right behind him, but he didn't dare take his eyes off that flicker of movement ahead to check.
"What is it?" Sango demanded as she ran, one hand already on her weapon.
"There's someone here," Shinichi replied, darting around another tree. "They just ran past us."
Miroku's grip tightened around his staff. "It could be the demon."
"It looked human," the detective said quickly, although he knew that might not mean much in these parts. Even so, he was allowed to hope. "It was wearing red. Aunt May was wearing a red kimono the day she disappeared."
Sango and Miroku traded looks. They could guess what their new friend was thinking, but they both knew that his hopes were most likely in vain. The woman had disappeared more than two weeks ago. That was a long time to be in the hands of a malicious demon, especially if it was hungry. But neither of them voiced their thoughts.
Instead, all three focused their efforts on pursuing the fleeing shape in the fog.
The desperation of their mad dash clashed with the muted tranquility of the cloudy sanctuary. It felt like they alone were real, chasing shadows in an empty land.
The gust of cool air tugged at the fog. Rather than thinning, it simmered and began to sparkle. What had been fog now resembled a cloud of fairy dust.
A sudden weariness swelled up from deep within their chests and spread all the way out to the tips of their fingers and toes. Kilala landed just behind the group as their pace stuttered and slowed. The next thing she knew, she was laying on the ground, red eyes glazed. In a sudden burst of flames, she shrank back to kitten-size.
"What's going on?" Miroku exclaimed as he swayed and ended up sitting on the ground. His staff landed with a jangling thud.
"Some kind of gas!" Shinichi gasped, covering his nose and mouth with his jacket in a vain attempt to fend it off. He could already feel his eyelids beginning to droop.
"No. Spores." Leaning heavily against a tree, Sango fumbled through her equipment. She produced a gas mask and quickly strapped it around her head. Then she pushed a second mask into Miroku's hands before turning to show Shinichi how to put on a third. They all breathed more easily once the masks were in place, though it took a few minutes for them all to shake off the wooziness.
By then, however, Aunt May was long gone. And there was no gas mask for cats.
"I can carry Kilala," Shinichi offered. He had never seen a weapon quite like Sango's, but he didn't have to recognize it to know that it would be easier to handle without a sleeping cat to protect.
It was the sudden gust of air that alerted them. It tore through the forest, nearly knocking them off their feet. The accompanying shadow drew their eyes upward just in time to see a glimmer of massive, butterfly wings and incandescent scales.
The beast didn't seem to have noticed them as it circled around to land some hundred or so meters ahead.
Kaito traded glances with his two companions before the three of them moved cautiously towards the spot where the demon had disappeared beneath the treetops. It wasn't long before they spotted their quarry between the slender trunks of the surrounding trees.
The creature was long like a serpent. Its body was covered in tiny scales that shone with every color of the rainbow. Several long, silvery whiskers drifted lazily about it, barely visible to the naked eye. Its butterfly wings too glittered, the fine, powdery scales shedding sparkling fairy dust every time they flapped. If they hadn't been in hiding, Kaito would have whistled. He hadn't expected the demon to be so, well, pretty, albeit in a toothy reptile kind of way.
A flicker of scarlet drew his gaze down to where a woman had emerged from the trees opposite their hiding place. She was middle-aged, but she moved like one much younger. She ran laughing across the clearing, completely unaffected by the presence of the massive, serpentine creature towering over her.
"Yes, come here, my dear," the demon crooned. Its long neck arched and it lowered its head until the tip of its snout was just above the woman's head. Then its jaws parted. Teeth gleamed.
Kagome drew in a sharp breath. Reaching back to her quiver, she snatched an arrow and loosed it at the demon's head. The shot had been hasty, so the arrow flew too high, but it was enough to get the demon to rear back its head.
"Who's there?" she demanded.
InuYasha cursed. There was no point hiding now, so he stepped out into the open.
"Release the human!" he demanded, glaring over the tip of his sword at the monster more than ten times his size.
The giant demon bared its teeth in reply. "Go find your own meal! This one is mine."
The last word hadn't even left the beast's snout when a giant boomerang came spinning out of the fog. The weapon struck the demon in the back of the head. However, it rebounded off of the creature's scales without leaving so much as a scratch.
The demon's serpent eyes flashed crimson. With a hiss, it whipped its head around. Its narrow jaws opened wide, and a ball of silver light shot forth from between its fangs.
Sango caught her weapon as it came spinning back to her and swung it forward to act as a shield. The orb of light struck her makeshift barricade, but, to her surprise, she felt no impact. Instead, the orb of light expanded, enveloping her in its radiance.
"Sango!" several voices cried out. Miroku appeared, charging with half a mind to catch the demon slayer if she fell.
Then the light cleared, and his steps slowed. Confusion was writ clear across his face.
There stood Sango exactly where she had been. There wasn't a mark on her. In fact, she didn't even look like she'd been hit. The strangest part of the scene, however, was the fact that she was laughing silently.
"Uh…Sango?" he asked, taking another step closer. The woman didn't react. Instead, she mouthed silent words as though speaking to someone as she gestured with her hands. Her weapon fell flat on the ground, forgotten. Then she turned and jogged away, waving for an invisible person to follow.
"What? Hey, Sango!" InuYasha exclaimed. "Where the hell are you going?!"
The demon laughed, the sound like a thousand dry leaves thrashing in the wind. "She cannot hear you."
"What did you do to her?!" Miroku roared.
"My goodness, You should be thanking me. Such ignorant mice."
"She is reliving her most cherished memories," the demon purred. "As you too will be doing soon. You see, I am not cruel to my food. You may enjoy the best that your lives have had to offer while I consume all the memories that you have collected up until now. You should consider yourselves blessed. Few mortals ever get to end their lives in such bliss."
"You're eating her memories?" The horror on the monk's face was mirrored on the faces of all his friends.
"Not yet," the demon replied offhandedly. "I still have this little morsel to finish."
"We won't let you!"
Kaito took the opportunity while the demon was distracted to grab Aunt May and pull her to safety—or at least that was his plan. But he ran into what felt like solid nothing before he could reach the woman. The invisible wall repelled him and, for a split second, it was visible as a crackle in the air. Then the demon's tail came whipping at him, forcing the magician to beat a hasty retreat.
"Foolish humans," the demon hissed. The crackling energy field surrounded Aunt May in a translucent bubble that levitated up and attached itself to the demon's back. "I will deal with you when I am finished with my meal."
With that, the demon flapped its wings, preparing to take off.
"Oh no you don't!" With a cry, InuYasha leapt, his blade held high over his head. There was a shimmer of crimson light in the air. It washed down the length of the half demon's blade, turning it a brilliant red. Then that crimson blade smashed into the barrier protecting Aunt May, and it shattered.
For the first time since they'd found her, Aunt May reacted to something they did. Her eyes flew wide open. She stared all around her in terrified incomprehension.
No longer anchored to the demon, her feet slid across its scaly coils. She screamed as her arms pin-wheeled in a futile attempt to recapture her balance. An instant later, she was falling.
White-clad arms scooped her out of the air. "Gotcha!"
The woman froze, staring up into the face of her savior then past him to the massive, toothy jaws descending towards them from above. She screamed again, trying instinctively to throw herself out of the way.
"Whoa!" Kaito exclaimed as the woman's struggles caused his glider to wobble violently. "Hey, calm dow—"
Kaito banked sharply to the right. Aunt May threw her arms around his neck in a death grip, face the color of old milk. Pearlescent scales streaked past them, clipping the edge of Kaito's glider. The next thing either the thief or his cargo knew, they were spinning wildly out of control.
Down below, Shinichi watched in horror as KID's white glider careen straight into a tree. There was a crackle of snapping branches. Then two figures came tumbling down in a shower of leaves and twigs.
The detective sprinted to where they'd fallen. "Kaito! Aunt May!"
Dropping to his knees beside the tangle of heavy cloth and limbs, he shifted Kilala to one side to free an arm and scrambled to help extricate the two. A white gloved hand appeared from somewhere in the tangle. For a split second, Shinichi thought he saw a sheen of blue light around said hand, but it was gone before he could be sure. Then Kaito's messy-haired head popped up, grimacing. He had lost his hat but, surprisingly, his monocle was still firmly in place.
"Haven't had a landing that bad in ages," the magician complained. Unclipping his cape from his shoulders, he stood and shook it out. He eyed it critically then made it disappear with a flourish. "I'm going to have to make some repairs." Then he turned to the woman sitting dazed on the ground next to him. "Hey," he said, tone gentle. "M'lady, are you all right?"
Slowly, the woman raised her head to look at him. Her eyes were large and oddly empty of understanding. There was only confusion and fear in her gaze.
"Are you injured?" Shinichi asked, moving to stand beside Kaito, surreptitiously checking him over for any wounds. "Does anything hurt?"
The woman's dark eyes turned to him, but still, she did not speak. She only huddled there where she sat, knees pulled up to her chest, and her entire body trembling.
The detective and the thief traded looks. The same thought had leapt into both their minds when they'd looked into her empty eyes.
This woman was not Aunt May. Not anymore.
"How dare you!" the demon's voice tore through the tranquil haze of the cloud sanctuary. It grated across their eardrums like metal screeching against wire. "No one is allowed to steal from my garden!" it roared. Its head reared back and up right out of the treetops. Spotting her quarry instantly, she shot forward again, jaws opening.
A glowing arrow struck her on the snout. Crying out in pain, the demon drew its head back and glared at the young woman with the bow who was already notching a second arrow in preparation for round two.
It could sense the immense spiritual power the little girl possessed, raw and untrained as it was.
A flash of crimson drew its gaze to the half demon with his demonic blade. The air was shifting. And now, she realized, she no longer had a hostage.
Cursing the ill fortune that had brought these insolent intruders into her home, she turned and shot away through the trees, thoughts of revenge already boiling in her mind. She would not tolerate this insult. But she had learned to choose her battles. Vengeance would be sweet.
"It's getting away!" InuYasha bellowed.
"No it isn't!" Bracing his feet, Miroku grabbed the prayer beads wrapped around his right hand. With a battle cry, he loosed the warded beads and held out his hand. "Wind tunnel!"
There was an instant roar of wind. Branches shook and strained. First the leaves and twigs flew towards the monk's hand and vanished. Then came the branches ripped right off of their trees and even the fluffy cloud rocks that hadn't really been stuck to the ground. Flowers tore themselves from their stems and soon chunks of cloud earth followed. All of it whirled towards the monk and down and down into the black hole that had appeared in the palm of his hand.
It was one of the most bizarre scenes Shinichi had witnessed thus far in their travels, he thought. A person with his own palm-sized black hole. And now, flying backwards towards the monk as its wings struggled to drag it away, was the serpent who fed off human memories.
"I cannot be defeated by mere humans!" it screeched as its body dwindled, becoming smaller and smaller as its voice grew higher and higher. "You are nothing! Nothing!"
With quick movements, Miroku wrapped the prayer beads back around his hand. The wind died instantly.
Kaito whistled into the ensuing silence. "Not very impressive last words, but I guess she could've done worse."
Sango woke with a start and sat bolt upright.
"Ow!" two voices chorused.
Miroku sat back on his heels, rubbing at his forehead. Under other circumstances, Sango might have spared some energy on being embarrassed at the monk's unexpected proximity, but she had other, more pressing matters on her mind at the moment.
"What happened? Where's the demon?"
"It's gone," InuYasha reported, arms folded and face set into its customary scowl. "You missed pretty much the whole thing."
"How are you feeling?" asked Kagome.
"I…" The demon slayer hesitated then shook her head. Fleeting images of a lively village and a little boy laughing danced across her thoughts, leaving behind a lingering sense of nostalgia that was turning rapidly into the hollow ache of loss that was never far from her mind these days. But now was not the time or the place for dwelling on the past. "I'm fine. What happened to the woman?"
"She's still alive," Miroku said, turning to look past Sango to where Shinichi was trying to explain the situation to the formerly missing Aunt May. "But it appears she has no recollections of the past several years of her life. Mentally, she is a mere child now."
"It is," he agreed, face solemn. "But there is always the possibility that she will recover, given time."
"Does she have any other injuries?"
"No. A little surprising, considering the height she fell from."
Sango blinked. "She fell?"
"Hey, it wasn't entirely my fault," Kaito said from the woman's other side. "That demon cracked one of the struts in my glider. It's not easy to land when that happens, especially in a place with so many obstacles. We're lucky we ran into a tree with enough branches to help slow our descent."
"I see." Sango looked both the woman and the magician over with a growing interest. If it weren't for the fact that they had no reason to make up lies about a fall, she might not have believed them. Neither the magician nor Aunt May had any of the cuts or bruises that you would expect to see on people who had just crash-landed in a tree.
Then again, maybe they'd just been lucky. And clouds made for a soft landing.
"In any case, we should head back to the village," said Shinichi. "I think it would be best for Aunt May's family to try and help her."
"Maybe seeing them will bring back what she's lost," Kaito agreed, though he wondered if he was being a little too optimistic. Better to be optimistic than a et blanket though.
"Yeah. Let's go." Straightening, InuYasha glanced up at the cloudy sky then frowned. "This place is starting to change. The grounds' getting softer, and I'm starting to smell stuff from outside too. I'm guessing it's about to fall apart without that demon holding it together."
There was a moment during which they all digested this piece of information and what it meant. Then there was a sudden rush for the tiny cat still sleeping in Shinichi's arms.
"Kilala! Wake up!"
"It's time to get up, Kilala!"
The warm bundle of fur stirred in Shinichi's arms and one large, red eye blinked open. But then it slid shut again, and the animal curled into a small, warm ball of fur from which quiet, purring snores could be heard.
"This is bad," Miroku exclaimed, pointing to where the trees a little farther away from them were dissolving into wisps of cloud.
"We're sinking!" InuYasha exclaimed, grabbing Kagome and shifting her onto his back. "We're gonna fall!"
On cue, the last of the cloud beneath their feet softened, sank, then dissolved into cottony wisps of damp nothingness.
Shinichi wasn't sure if he screamed or not. He was sure that Kaito had grabbed him, and he was marginally aware of the magician cursing in his ear about broken glider struts as the said glider opened above them. But then there was only cloud and sky and that feeling of weightlessness that comes before the ground comes fast towards your face. Yet all he could focus on were the strong arms holding him close, offering to protect him even with his damaged wings.
And Shinichi wished desperately that there was something—anything—he could do.
Only Ruichi and Harumi saw the light falling from the sky that night, but everyone in the village heard the screams of those who had just been forcibly reintroduced to the might of gravity. They ran out with Kishiro to the grassy slopes just outside the village. There they found six humans, a half demon, and a cat lying unconscious on the grass. Almost everyone's attention was on the form of Aunt May as relief and wonder washed through them. But what the kids remembered best was the soft, blue white glow hanging in the air around them. It was a warm, comforting kind of light that Harumi would later describe as ethereal, but it was gone by the time the rest of the villagers arrived.
Aunt May's return caused an uproar in the village. The people's shock was every bit that of people seeing someone come back from the dead. Their delight at her return, however, was tempered by the discovery that she had almost no recollection at all of the past two decades of her life. Mentally, she was a little girl again, confused and frightened by the sudden disappearance of the village as she'd known it.
"I can't imagine how she must be feeling," Shinichi murmured, watching through the window as Harumi and Ruichi led Aunt May through the village, pointing out each building and telling her about its inhabitants. The woman seemed more comfortable with the children, so she was currently staying with them in their little house. But her husband and son came to see her every day, though they had decided to introduce themselves as close friends rather than relatives.
"I can't either," Kaito admitted, idly juggling three colorful balls and his monocle. "But at least she's not alone. Everyone here seems pretty awesome. She'll be just fine with them."
A smile tugged at the corner's of the detective's lips. "Yeah. I'm sure you're right. I just hope the problem really is over."
"We'll know once the next full moon comes round. No point worrying about it until then."
"Do you remember that time we fell? When the cloud dissolved. Kilala never did wake up, and my glider was pretty well shot."
"I remember you saying something about that while we were falling, yes."
"So then what happened?"
"Uh, we fell…?" It seemed pretty obvious to Shinichi.
Kaito rolled his eyes. "Do tell. What I meant was, I don't remember actually hitting the ground."
"That's not all that surprising. It was a long fall. A little memory loss after a crash like that is to be expected."
"Maybe so," Kaito conceded. "But don't you find it strange that that was all?"
The magician quirked an eyebrow at him. "Are you serious? Being a bit slow here, Tantei-kun."
Shinichi glared at him then turned back to the vegetables he'd been chopping. "If you have something to say, just say it. Some of us have work to do."
Kaito chuckled. "Now, now, I already promised I'd do the dishes later. And you were the one who told me you didn't need help. But seriously," he added, expression sobering once again. "Didn't you wonder at all? About how none of us were injured after that fall. Like you said, it was a hell of a long way down. But none of us were even bruised. InuYasha is one thing, not being human and all, but I would have expected at least a twisted ankle if not a broken leg or two."
Shinichi winced at the thought. "It is strange," he admitted. A fall like that could easily have broken necks. "I suppose we were just extremely lucky. You do have an insane amount of good luck when it comes to getting out of sticky situations, and I guess I can't complain much about mine in that department either."
"So you think we all just got lucky."
"I'll admit it's not a very good explanation, but it's the only one that makes any sense. I think we should just be grateful."
Kaito mulled this over for a moment as he watched Shinichi dump the chopped vegetables into the pot.
"I don't think that was all."
"What do you mean?"
Shinichi wasn't entirely sure why Kaito seemed so fixated on this issue. They'd all landed safely, miraculously uninjured. That was great news. Why look a gift horse in the mouth?
"The kids told me they saw light the night we fell. And when they found us, we were all glowing."
"I still don't see what the problem is."
"They said you were the last to stop glowing."
Kaito quirked an eyebrow at him. "That doesn't make you wonder at all?"
"If you had something to do with it, obviously."
Shinichi snorted. "I don't see how. Why would you even think that?"
Kaito's expression remained serious. "Do you remember that time I was in a car crash?"
Shinichi's hands stilled in their stirring of the stew before resuming their work.
"Yes," he said quietly. "It's kind of hard to forget."
Kaito winced inwardly. He knew that time had been hard for the detective, and he didn't relish reminding Shinichi of it. But it couldn't be helped. "Well, while I was visiting the spirit world, they mentioned something about how they normally have to do some legwork to make sure a person's body stays alive while their soul's away. You know, in order to bring people back to life. But apparently they didn't need to do that for me."
Shinichi snorted. "Somehow, I'm not surprised. I mean, it is you."
One corner of Kaito's lips quirked up. "While I'm flattered that you think so highly of me, that isn't what I was getting at."
"I know," Shinichi replied with a sigh. "But everything you've said would be circumstantial evidence at best."
"Mayhaps," Kaito agreed after a moment's pause. "But my gut says there's something to it."
Shinichi made a noncommittal noise in his throat. Lifting the ladle he'd been stirring with to his lips, he took a tiny sip of the piping hot broth. Judging it to be decent, he dumped the rest of the vegetables in. "Go tell everyone that lunch is ready."
They stayed until the next full moon. Everyone in the village stayed up all night: waiting, expecting, hoping… When dawn broke, they discovered that no one was missing.
To say that they were overjoyed would have been an overstatement. These people had become too accustomed to their dreary fate. They could not simply accept that things had changed. But the seed of hope had been planted. It needed only time to sprout.
Ruichi and Harumi were reluctant to see Shinichi leave. They had grown rather attached to the detective in the few weeks they had lived together. Truth be told, Shinichi knew he would miss them too. But they were strong, and he was confident that they would be fine. After all, they weren't alone. The whole village had grown closer than most families after their shared ordeal. Together, he was certain they would be able to rebuild and move on.
"So will you two be traveling with us?"
Kaito turned to see that Kagome and the others had already gathered by the road, packs and tools in hand. Clearly, they were ready to leave.
"I believe so," he said. "We can leave just as soon as Shinichi finishes his goodbyes."
"Kagome! You guys! You're back!" A small child with a rather bushy tail ran out of the little hut's door as the group of travelers approached. An old woman followed him out at a much more sedate pace.
"Hey there Shippo, Kaede," Kagome greeted the two with a smile. "How is everyone?"
"Most of the villagers have recovered," the old woman replied. "Though a few will be bedridden for a while yet. And what of your journey? Did ye find the demon?"
"Well, sort of…"
"It's a long story," Sango added.
"I see. And what of your new friends?"
"That too is a long story," Miroku replied with a smile. "I would suggest that we take this conversation inside."
A good hour of storytelling and a warm meal later, the weary travelers and their new friends settled into a soft, comfortable silence.
"A green jewel, you say," the old priestess murmured, feeding another dry twig to the fire. It snapped and crackled. "And it was whole?"
Shinichi nodded. "Yes."
"Then it is not a shard of the Sacred Jewel. But if all ye say is true then it may be no less mysterious. Do ye have the stone with you?"
Shinichi glanced at Kaito, who shook his head. "Unfortunately, we're still looking for it. Aome usually helps us a great deal with the search, but I didn't want to send her out too far on her own with all the dangers around here."
"Very wise," Kaede agreed. Then she paused, thinking. "Tell me, when did ye arrive in this time?"
"Around a month and a half ago, maybe a little more?" Shinichi hazarded. "It was the day of the last full moon—not the one we just had. The one before that."
The old woman looked at him then lowered her gaze to the leaping flames between them. "A green stone… I wonder…"
"What are you thinking?" Kaito asked, leaning forward. He could read in the woman's wrinkled, one-eyed face that she remembered something she felt might be important, but she wasn't sure and therefore was hesitant to voice it. "Please, we need that stone. If you have any ideas at all, we'd appreciate it."
"I understand," Kaede assured him like a grandmother speaking to an impatient grandson. "I do not know if this has anything to do with your magical stone, but, a little over a month ago, I saw a shooting star."
"A shooting star?" Shinichi repeated, confused and a little disappointed. Was she going to suggest they wish on it? Or was she one of those fortunetellers who read the stars?
"I remember it clearly because I thought it was strange at the time. The light of that star was green. A very bright, rich green. I had never seen a star that color before in my life, falling or not, so I took note of its path through the night sky. It flew straight that way towards the forest."
Kagome followed the direction of the old woman's gesturing hand and frowned. "That's the same direction as the Bone Eater's Well."
"So it's an area you're familiar with?" Shinichi asked eagerly. "Do you think you could show us the place tomorrow? Maybe that shooting star was our stone landing."
"If you want to, I'd be glad to help. But try not to be too disappointed if it isn't. I mean, this area is a long way from where you two, uh, landed."
Kaito flashed her a lopsided grin. "It's the best clue we've got."
"We'll go after breakfast then. I can take the chance to go home and get a few things."
The nights in feudal Japan were, Shinichi reflected, a little too quiet. On the one hand, it was peaceful, but on the other, it made it all too easy to get lost in your thoughts. At times, the world felt empty rather than tranquil.
"What are you doing out here? I thought you said you were so exhausted your brain was about to implode."
Shinichi leaned back on the low fence around the house's little yard and sighed. "I couldn't sleep."
"You could have let me know you wanted to go stargazing. I'd have joined you sooner." Hopping easily over the fence to stand beside Shinichi, he casually looped an arm around the detective's waist, pulling him closer. "It's a little chilly out tonight. You don't want to catch a cold."
For once, Shinichi didn't blush at the magician's affectionate gesture. His gaze was fixed on the stars shining in the blackness overhead. He said nothing, but he leaned into Kaito's embrace.
It was the magician who eventually broke the silence. "So what are you worried about now?"
Blue eyes blinked slowly. "What makes you think I'm worried about anything?"
"Because you always are. And you have your thinking face on. That usually means something's up."
Shinichi frowned. "I'm not worried. And I was only thinking about how beautiful the stars are."
"Well, light is always clearest in the dark. Kind of funny if you think about it. Here we are in another world and time, and the stars look just like they always do."
"That's it, isn't it."
"They're the same. They never change—not fast enough to really affect us anyway. They're always there. Always watching. They've seen people as they are now and as they were centuries ago, and they'll continue to watch how we change centuries into the future."
"I see you're feeling philosophical today."
"I don't know. Maybe…" Shinichi absently rested his head against Kaito's shoulder, gaze never leaving the star dusted skies as though trying to memorize every radiant pinprick. He really was exhausted. His mind felt fuzzy even as it buzzed with a restless energy.
"I wanted to thank you."
Kaito arched an eyebrow. "What for?"
"You're always there."
The magician cracked a grin. "I try."
"I hope we don't end up like them."
"You lost me there. Like who?"
"Up there," Shinichi mumbled, eyes half closed. "Always watching. Seeing everything. Never part of anything."
Kaito frowned. "All right, that's enough of that nonsense," he said briskly. "We have a lead. We'll need our energy tomorrow if we intend to follow it. And that is why we will now both be going to bed."
The well stood in the middle of a grassy meadow. It looked ordinary if perhaps a little old and overgrown with vines.
Perched on the edge of the well, Aome's white feathers stood out in stark contrast against the wood and stone.
"Why is it called the Bone Eater's Well?" asked Shinichi.
"Well, the villagers threw the remains of a demon into it a long time ago," Kagome explained. "That's what Kaede told me."
Kaito made a face. "Rather unsanitary way to treat your water."
"It's a dry well, Stupid," InuYasha scoffed.
The magician took no offense. Instead, he strode up to the well and leaned over to look down into its depths. It was indeed dry. He could see the bottom clearly, and there was no sign of their gem.
"Do you see it?" asked Shinichi. He circled around to the well's other side to take a look for himself. Seeing nothing, he turned to Aome. "Are you sure?"
The bird bobbed her head.
Kaito gave the well's empty depths one last good stare for good measure before straightening. "Miss Kagome, you said this was the way you take to get home, right?"
"Would you mind telling us how it works? It seems our stone may have gone to the other side."
"Well, you just jump in."
"That's all?" Shinichi asked, surprised. It sounded too simple for time travel. "Is there like a…spell or something you have to cast first? So it knows when to send you."
The girl laughed. "No. It only goes to my time, I think. But it doesn't work for everyone."
"Do you think it'll work for us?"
Kagome smiled a little ruefully. "Sorry. I think you'll just have to try it. But if you can't go through, you can tell us what to look for, and InuYasha and I can try to find it for you."
"Sounds like a plan." Kaito hopped up onto the edge of the well. Then, with a cheery salute to the meadow at large, he jumped.
Shinichi leaned quickly over the well, looking down.
There was no response—which made sense, considering the well was devoid of life.
Rather more worried than relieved, Shinichi sat on the edge of the well, swung his legs over to the inside, and let himself slide down.
For the first half second, everything was normal. He could feel the rough stone of the well's interior scraping against his back and the cold of the underground radiating from below to war with the warm sunlight streaming down from above. But then that one instant was gone, snatched away by a wash of emptiness filled with an eerie radiance and the glimmer of distant galaxies.
He was floating in the void, suspended between sky and earth, past and present, and he realized with a start that he knew this feeling of being nowhere and everywhere at once.
But then his feet touched the ground, and the world was dark and solid and real again.
"Cool, right?" said a familiar voice right next to him. Shinichi turned slowly to find Kaito grinning at him. "Seems like maybe our kind of travel isn't too far different from their kind, in some ways."
"Maybe," Shinichi murmured. Then he yelped as Kagome materialized and nearly landed on top of him.
"Oops. Sorry! I thought you two would have gotten out already. We should probably move before—"
Another figure materialized, this one dressed in red, and suddenly the well was very cramped indeed.
"What the hell—"
"Hey, stop pushing!"
"Ow! Someone stepped on my foot."
In the midst of their bickering, light appeared overhead, and a young boy's voice called out.
"Sis? Is that you?"
Kagome's family members, those being her mother, grandfather, and little brother, were surprisingly unsurprised to see Kaito and Shinichi climbing out of the well inside their shrine along with their daughter and her dog-eared friend.
"I see you've made new friends," the older woman had said, beaming. "And you're just in time for lunch too. Come in and have a seat. I'll have everything out in just a minute."
"You really don't have to worry about us," Shinichi started to say. "We just—"
"Nonsense. Now come inside and sit down. Do you like tea? Shota, go get the extra cups."
And so, before either traveler had quite gotten their feet under them, they were seated around the Higurashi family's dining table being quizzed about their adventures and their origins.
Shinichi wasn't at all surprised when lunch evolved into Kuroba Kaito's Magic Show. The magician had the whole family gasping and clapping in enthusiastic wonder in no time. But, from Shinichi's point of view, the person enjoying the show the most was Kaito himself. It was the first chance Kaito had gotten to cut loose in nearly two months, and he was holding nothing back, although he did take care not to make too much of a mess.
Watching Kaito wow his little audience made Shinichi smile. The tension still left inside him from the last few weeks finally dissolved, and he found himself laughing and clapping with the rest of them as the magician's show reached its peak.
Much later, Kaito took his bows after the third round of encores and dropped back into his seat next to Shinichi. Kagome's mother brought out another round of tea and snacks, and the group settled in to trade stories.
It was only then that Shinichi remembered to ask about their gem.
"A green stone?" Kagome's grandfather mused. "Like that foot we found in the yard?"
"It was totally spooky," Shota agreed. "But it was green, and it did seem to be made of stone."
"Where did you put it?" Kaito asked.
"Uh, well, Grandpa wrapped it up in sutras and put it in the warehouse."
Shinichi and Kaito traded looks. "He…wrapped it in sutras?"
"Here. I'll go get it." Hopping out of his seat, Shota trotted out of the house. He returned a few minutes later with a wrapped bundle.
The stone appeared to be roughly the shape of a human foot. Shinichi said roughly because it was difficult to see anything through the layers upon layers of warding tags that had been plastered all over the stone, leaving not a centimeter of green visible anywhere. By the time Kaito and Shinichi had finished peeling off the charms, they had enough charms to start their own vendor's stall. When they saw the shape the stone had taken, Shinichi decided he could sort of understand.
"Okay, that is a bit creepy," Kaito mused, echoing Shinichi's thoughts. "It's human, right?"
Shinichi examined the small, skeleton foot then nodded. "I think so…"
"You think so? As in you're not sure? I'd have thought you'd know this kind of thing."
"I'm not a doctor," Shinichi huffed. "But yes, it looks human. It's just, well, there's only one joint in the small toe here." He pointed. "There should be two."
"Any idea what it means?"
"…That humans in whatever world this represents have one less joint in their pinky toes."
"…Right. I guess I was asking for that one."
"So is this what you two were looking for?" Kagome asked. She and InuYasha were the only ones left in the room now. Her grandfather had gone to answer the phone. They could hear him telling someone about how Kagome was dreadfully ill. The girl's mother had taken the opportunity to take the dishes to the kitchen, and her brother had run off saying something about homework.
"Yep." Kaito sketched a half bow towards the girl while still seated. "You have our most sincere gratitude for finding it."
"But, I mean, you didn't mention it looked so…"
"Creepy?" he supplied.
She laughed, looking embarrassed. "I've seen worse."
"To be honest, we've never seen it look like this either. It changes shape now and then."
"That's pretty cool." The girl leaned closer, squinting at the stone. "Well, there's definitely no jewel shard in it. I guess it really is a different magical jewel."
"Why do they need it?" InuYasha asked, arms crossed. "They're already back."
Kagome blinked and sat back. "Oh yeah. Do you guys live far from here?"
Shinichi looked at them, confused, then turned to Kaito with raised eyebrows. He was pretty sure this wasn't their world. After all, Kagome hadn't recognized Kaitou KID's distinct uniform. He had simply assumed Kaito had told their new friends the whole story before they'd all met up. It seemed he'd been wrong.
The magician merely put on a rueful smile. "It's a bit far, I'm afraid. Can you recommend anywhere we could stay for the night?"
"You can stay here," the girl offered. "Mom and the others won't mind. I'll go let them know."
Shinichi waited until he and Kaito were alone before asking, "You didn't explain?"
Kaito shrugged. He pulled his cape out of nowhere and set to work examining the extent of the damage. "It just seemed simpler to stick to time travel. You know, what they're familiar with and all that."
Shinichi supposed he couldn't really disagree.
Next: Quirky New Friends [My Hero Academia]
A.N: My Hero Academia is probably one of my favorite of the newer series I've tried in the last few years. I highly recommend it. :) Well, thanks for reading, and I hope you all have a wonderful holiday!