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The Show Goes On

45: Borderlands

There was no definite way to track the days in a world forever frozen at midnight, but, as far as any of them could estimate, they had been traveling for about three days now since leaving the glade before the gates of the Court of Stars. The cabin, though not exactly fast, was not exactly slow either, so they had covered quite a bit of ground. What had once been thick forests had thinned as they wandered, and the ground had grown rockier. A soft mist seemed to cling to the earth, eddying about the cabin's chicken feet with each long step it took. That same faint whiteness hung higher in the air as well, thickening the higher up you looked so that they could no longer see the stars when they turned their faces skyward. Instead, there was only a foggy grayness and the barest hint of the moon's silver eye.

The fog itself was a light source, Shinichi thought as he leaned against the porch rails, gazing out across the landscape that was somehow both barren and wild all at once. Most of the vegetation here was tangled and grew low to the ground or clung to the sides of jutting ridges of rock that glistened faintly with damp. The trees here too were not the towering, fully grown giants surrounding the lands of the Court or the skeletal, leafless specimens of the black forest. Instead, they were strangely contorted things that grew in odd shapes with knotted branches and sprays of jagged leaves so dark that they glistened like obsidian.

There was almost a beauty to it all, the canine detective thought as he drank in the muffled stillness of this fog-enshrouded land punctuated only by the rhythmic thump, thump, thump of the cabin's slow footsteps. It was the beauty of the wild things—of places untouched by human hands and steeped instead in magic and unspoken things.

The sound of heavy fabric fluttering in the wind and a familiar scent told Shinichi that Kaito had joined him on the porch. On cue, strong arms slid around his waist from behind, pulling him back against Kaito's chest.

"How far do you think it goes?" he asked in a whisper because the landscape demanded only whispers.

"What?" Shinichi asked, allowing himself to melt just a little in the embrace of the man he'd been terrified he might never see again.

"This world," the magician replied with a blitheness that did not match the seriousness in his eyes. "I've been wondering if there might be an edge to this place. If there is, finding it might be the first step towards getting home."

"Maybe," Shinichi conceded, although he wasn't too sure about the existence of such an edge even in this crazy place. Admittedly, he couldn't imagine this world as a typical sphere either. "Or maybe this world just goes on and on into the infinite. There's really no way to tell. And we really can't afford the time it would take to find out one way or another."

Kaito snorted. "Do tell. Although," he added in a much lower voice. "Sooner or later, we may not have a choice."

Shinichi winced at the thought. "I hope it doesn't come to that."

"Well, we'll just have to keep our fingers crossed."

They fell silent then, each sinking into his own thoughts as they watched the rugged landscape roll gently on by.

Shinichi thought back to the previous evening when their entire traveling party had crammed themselves around the cabin's circular table to study the latest version of their map of this world. Kaito's Court doppelganger had outlined the borders of the three greater regions for them as well as a few landmarks, one of which was the mountain range through which the Warlock's tunnels ran. Since they had presumably retrieved everyone they needed to from the Court itself, they had only the rest of the black forest and the Queen's lands to search. Of course, that was if they were being optimistic and assuming that these three lands were indeed all there were. For a moment, Shinichi wished they had thought to ask about an edge of the world or at least what might lay beyond, but he shook away the thought. There was no point speculating about such things just yet. For now, they had to focus on the people and places they could reach.

"Do you think we should be trying to retrace the route you used to get from the Queen's palace to the Court?" he asked, breaking the silence.

Kaito frowned. "I don't think we could. Not unless we stumble across the mermaid's pool or something while we're wandering around here. And even if we could, I don't think there'd be much point."

"So you don't think the Queen would help us?"

Kaito snorted. "Not the way the Lord of the Court did, if that's what you're hoping. Though she might decide to keep us all trapped in her palace. No, we should steer clear of her if we can."

"All right then," Shinichi agreed. After what he'd heard about the fox queen and her efforts to trick Kaito into staying with her, he couldn't say he had been particularly eager to meet the woman for himself. But he would have endured the awkwardness if it meant garnering information that could help them bring everyone home safely.

"In that case, I guess we'll have to take your shadow's suggestion," he mused.

Kaito sighed. "Let us hope Miss Kazuha returns with good news then."

As though summoned by her name, a part of the surrounding fog billowed out and thinned, twisting and tucking and thickening until it had become Kazuha. Enshrouded by mist so much like her current body, she was barely visible even to their well trained eyes.

"It just goes on like this for miles in every direction," she reported as she drifted down to hover over the porch railing as though perched there. "It's just a lot of ridges and woodland. I didn't see anything that resembled a building of any kind. It must be a lot farther away than it looks on the map."

Shinichi frowned. "That or it's not an actual building. After all, just because it's called the House of Stories doesn't mean it has to be house-shaped."

"True. It could be a giant tree with book-shaped fruits," Kaito quipped. "Or maybe a canyon where all the walls have been carved into shelves. It could even be a shoreline where all the seashells tell you stories when you put them to your ear."

"Anything's possible," the detective agreed gloomily. They really should have thought of that earlier, he reflected. "We should probably consider scouting around on the ground while we travel too. Just in case it turns out to be something you two can't see from the air."

Kazuha grimaced, rather accurately expressing Shinichi's own thoughts on the matter. "You heard me when I said it's like this for miles, right?" She waved a pale hand at the surrounding wilderness. "Searching all of it up close would take, like, years and years!"

Kaito laughed. "I'm sure we could find someone to ask for directions before it got that bad, but your point has been duly noted."

"Actually, I think looking for someone to talk to is a good idea," Shinichi said. "We should talk to the others about it." He glanced back at the cabin's closed door, but Kaito tugged him back.

"Let them sleep," the magician admonished. "We can talk when we break for lunch."

Seeing the sense in that and understanding that a few hours wouldn't make much difference, Shinichi relented and settled back into Kaito's warm embrace. He let his head rest against Kaito's shoulder and closed his eyes, trusting his nose and his ears to alert him to any impending danger.

"So I've been meaning to ask," Kazuha said into the ensuing silence. "I wasn't there when the, uh, masked man was going over the map with you guys. So I was wondering, why did he think we should go look for this House of Stories place? I mean, what is it? I thought it sounded like a library, but after what Kaito-kun just said…" She shrugged. "I guess what I mean is, what are we looking for there? I thought we were supposed to be tracking down other party guests and stuff like that. How can a library help us with that?"

"Well, putting aside the question of whether it is an actual library or not," Shinichi replied. "He told us that the House of Stories is where all the stories of this world go. He wasn't very clear on what that means, but he seemed to think it would be the best place for us to find answers about how this world was put together and how it works. If we're going to find a way home, that information will be invaluable."

"So maybe a place with records," Kaito speculated. "Or better maps. Maybe a local tour guide or two."

Kazuha giggled at that. "I'm not sure libraries stock tour guides for lending out."

The magician shrugged. "You never know."

They passed the next few minutes in idle chatter consisting mostly of Kazuha updating them on what she had heard through what everyone had taken to calling the Crystal Ball Network. The party headed for the sanctuary had reached the Pumpkin Patch quite quickly in their magical carriages, but they were still there now as they tried (and apparently failed) to make the old Path Finder laugh. But it was still early yet, and it sounded as though everyone was still in relatively high spirits. It probably helped that a great majority of them were, if not magicians themselves, avid fans of magic, a fact which naturally meant an inclination towards performance. Last Kazuha had heard, they had made it a contest of sorts to see who would be the first to get a chuckle out of their difficult audience. Though their efforts had yet to elicit more than a twitch of the lips from the Path Finder, they had had one another rolling on the ground more than once. Shinichi felt it was a good thing that they were having fun. He just hoped they remembered to monitor their supplies.

The other scouting teams had had a lot less to report. None of them had located anyone interesting yet, though the skeleton troupe had stumbled across a ruined tower they swore had to be eight stories high.

"They think they saw lights flickering in the upper windows, but they're not sure. They're planning to investigate it after they've done a little more surveillance."

"I'm glad they're being careful," the detective noted.

"But how are they communicating with the Network?" Kaito asked. "They were all skeletons, weren't they? Was one of them an undead seer or something?"

Kazuha laughed. "No. They have a ghost with them, but that's not why either," she hastened to add. "There was a couple who came as Bell and the Beast. Bell's costume came with a hand mirror, and we discovered it can do basically what the crystal balls do. She lent it to one of the skeletons. Her brother, I think. Mayleen's husband gave his scrying crystal to one of the angels since his was small and easy to carry."

"So now we're swapping inventories," the magician mused then laughed. "The longer we're here, the more it seems we should all have taken a leaf out of you and Tantei-han's books and done some mix and matching with our costumes. Perhaps if I had had my dear Shin-chan here wear the robes and hat I got him along with his adorable ears, he would now be a canine detective who can cast magic spells and had a loyal stuffed owl to fly his messages for him. But alas, it's too late to be lamenting what could have been now. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?" he continued, leaning in to whispered into Shinichi's furry ear too quietly for Kazuha to hear.

The ghost girl watched in curiosity as Shinichi blushed bright red then elbowed his way out of Kaito's embrace and pushed the taller man towards the railing. "Go fly around or something. It's your turn to check the layout of the land. I'll start updating the map."

Grinning in a way that made him look positively demonic, Kaito unfurled his great, black wings and vaulted the railing.

"What did he say there at the end?" Kazuha couldn't resist asking.

The canine detective turned even redder. "Something stupid," he insisted then hastily changed the subject.

Kaito didn't return until they broke for their next meal. Though they could eat on the move, they couldn't light a fire on the move, and so they had taken to parking the cabin at mealtimes. It gave them all the chance to stretch their legs, and lighting a fire allowed them to cook or warm their food.

Shinichi went inside to wake the others before climbing into the attic to check on the chickens and collect some eggs. They had built a sort of chicken pen in the corner of the attic, and the hens they had brought with them had settled in admirably even if they were a bit noisy and prone to pecking. Only Akiyama hadn't suffered a painful bite yet, and that was because the chickens couldn't do much to his finger bones. He picked up a loaf of bread, a wedge of cheese, a pan and a spatula on his way back down. Once again, as he had done many times over the past few days, he thanked the Court and its peculiar denizens. Misguided as they were, they had meant well. And once they had agreed to help, they didn't do so by halves.

They were handing around scrambled egg sandwiches when Kaito descended—a silent shadow on great bat wings. Shinichi offered him a sandwich and was gratified when the magician took it even though they both knew there was little point. In the midst of all this strangeness, they had all discovered a certain need to cling to what normalcy they could.

"When we're done here, there's something you've all got to see," he told the group at large as he sat down next to Shinichi. "I found a sign."

"Of the House of Stories?" Shinichi asked hopefully only to be treated to a wry grin.

"No. I meant I found a sign as in literally. It's a sign. A big one with a pointing hand painted on it."

There was a long, puzzled silence around the campfire. It was Heiji who broke it.

"I'm not sure I heard you right. Did you really just say you found a pointing sign like…like the ones you get in cartoons or something?"

"That's exactly it. Only this one's twenty feet high."

There was another long silence.

Eventually, Akiyama sighed. "You know, I kind of thought I couldn't be surprised anymore after everything we've already seen. But, well, I still kind of am."

"We should fear the day this all becomes normal," Hakuba muttered under his breath. They all heard anyway though in the muted stillness of this fog-enshrouded land. And even Kaito had to agree.

"Maybe it's a good thing though," Ran suggested. "If it's pointing, it has to be pointing somewhere."

"Which probably means we should head the other way," said Akiyama.

"He has a point," Kazuha agreed. "I mean, it's probably some kind of trap, right?"

Shinichi frowned and turned to Kaito. "Is it remotely possible that it's related to the House of Stories somehow?"

The magician only shrugged. "Anything's possible."

Letting out a loud groan, Heiji flopped backward onto the ground in a gesture that would have been more dramatic (and possibly given him a concussion) if his straw-stuffed body hadn't bounced when he hit the ground. "That's the whole problem with this place! Anything's possible. It's like trying ta make decisions when the rules keep changing."

"Did you see anything that might be dangerous near the sign?" Shinichi asked Kaito.

The vampire shook his head. "It's pretty much in the middle of nowhere."

"Then I think we should finish up here and go see it like you said. Maybe the actual site will give us some clue as to whether it's a marker we should follow or not."

Seeing that this was really the only logical way forward, they allowed themselves to shelve any thoughts of traps and monsters for a while and just talked of other things—real things. Akiyama told them about the Christmas magic show he had been working on with Haruka, and Heiji told them about a restaurant that would be opening in Osaka soon that he had been planning to invite them all to. They talked of their original holiday plans and what changes they might have to make when they got home depending on how much time had actually passed.

"Maybe if we're lucky, we'll get back and find that nothing's changed at all," Heiji offered. "Like those stories where you wake up and everything seems like it was just a dream, only it wouldn't have been 'cause you'd still have a souvenir or something. But you wouldn't have lost any time in the real world either."

"Or we could return to find that a hundred years have passed," Hakuba said flatly. "And we have become the ghosts in the tales people are now telling about that wretched hotel."

The conversation faltered after that, and Ran moved to clean the pans and plates they'd used in the tiny spring bubbling from between the rocks at the edge of the rocky clearing, waving away Shinichi's offer to help. She had been feeling more than a little guilty since they had left the Court. Away from that dazzling place's hypnotic influences, she could remember all too clearly how little use she had been recently. Shinichi had been grappling with Kaito's disappearance and possible death at the time and still managed to search both for their fellow lost guests and potentially useful information, and she had basically abandoned him. And later, when the others had gone to find him, she had stayed behind. Of course there had been reasons, but still…

She had power in this world. There had to be more she could do. But as for what that was, she really didn't know.