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The Show Goes On

46: Following the Signs

It really did look like something out of an old cartoon writ large.

"Is it just me, or does it kind of look like it was put here just for us?" Heiji asked, eyeing the sign with distrust. They could all see what he meant.

Due to its great size, the sign in question was actually at eye level when viewed from the cabin porch or through one of its windows. Had they been on the ground or even riding in, say, a pumpkin carriage, they would have had to crane their necks. One might have argued that the sign was built this way so that it could be seen from a great distance, but the constant fog in this area rendered that argument a little weak. On the other hand, there were several rocky ridges in the area, so maybe the sign had been meant for travelers cresting them.

Shinichi leaned forward, squinting at the sign's weathered edges. "Is there anything on it about where exactly it's pointing to? Like maybe on the back or in small script?"

"I'll go check." Kazuha darted off.

Since it was far too crowded for all of them to stay on the porch, Hakuba and Ran went back into the cabin to examine the landscape on their other side through the hotel window while Heiji climbed up to the window in the attic. Kaito took off to survey the area from above, leaving Shinichi and Akiyama to continue performing their observations from the porch. Ten minutes later, they reconvened inside.

"The back of the sign's exactly like the front," Kazuha reported. "I didn't find any small writing or letters or anything like that. But I think the hand is actually gloved."

"Well that's interesting," Heiji mused. "Sort of anyway. Can't see how it might matter, but who knows?"

"Very helpful," Hakuba drawled then shook his head. "Suffice to say we do not know anything about the purpose of this sign—"

"Ya mean other than that it points somewhere."

"It does not even have to do that," the blond retorted. "We are in a madhouse of an imaginary world. For all we know, it's a sign there's here just to be here."

"And even if it's pointing somewhere, it could be a trap," Ran said quietly. "It seems a lot of the more inviting places in this world are like that. Traps to lure you in."

"Maybe," Shinichi conceded. "But that might be a good reason to follow it. If it leads to somewhere that wants people to visit, it might be a good place to search for lost guests. Besides, there's still the chance that it's pointing towards the House of Stories we're looking for. I say we follow it and see what happens."

"But what if it's actually leading us to a den of man-eating monsters?" Akiyama demanded, gesticulating wildly as he pictured enormous beasts with big teeth and nasty tempers. "We'd be doomed just walking in!"

Kaito stifled a laugh. "You have a point too. But that's why we're going to do this the smart way."

"Which is?" Shinichi asked.

The magician stood up, gesturing for silence. Once he had all their attention, he grinned, showing off his fangs and causing several people (Ran and Akiyama) to flinch and draw away.

"We're splitting up!"

X

The decision had been an easy one to make. Team A would stay in the cabin and follow the sign (or signs, if more appeared) to their destination to see what they might find. Team B would shadow team A and watch out for trouble lurking in the dark. They would also scout ahead to bring back as much information as they could on what exactly they might be walking into.

Goals set, the more mobile of their party were immediately assigned to Team B. Led by Kaito, their members included him, Kazuha, Akiyama, and Ran. That left Shinichi, Heiji, and Hakuba to form Team A.

Shinichi had positioned himself out on the porch where his heightened senses would be of the most help, and Heiji had appointed himself his friend's unofficial bodyguard. He too was out on the porch with his light saber in easy reach, ready to deal with anything that might leap at them.

With nothing better to do, Hakuba had begun cataloging their journey in one of the notebooks that Shinichi had requested from the Court while keeping an eye out the back window. It would, he felt, surely be a useful record to have. And frankly it was nice, down to earth work that helped him feel less like he was going out of his mind.

The enormous, pointing sign led them across rugged, broken terrain that grew more fragmented by the hour. Ridges jutted skyward in ever larger and more irregular heaps that loomed like fortresses and monsters out of the fog. At other places, the land fell away abruptly into deep ravines whose floors were completely hidden in pools of black shadow. Progress slowed, and they all had to thank the cabin's long legs that they were moving at anything faster than a crawl.

The found the second sign standing at the end of a series of stone pillars like the fifth finger of a hand half buried in the earth. It too displayed only a gloved hand pointing them onward in a slightly different direction. The third sign towered right out of a seemingly bottomless gorge on a wooden column that must have been miles long. The sight was so bizarre that they all stopped for a while to marvel at the sheer preposterousness of its existence before adjusting their direction accordingly and setting off once more.

Shinichi was beginning to wonder if perhaps the signs really were pointing nowhere—just a joke played on travelers meant to send them wandering forever in circles through uninhabited wilderness when he caught a flutter of yellow out of the corner of his eye. In this mist-touched land of rock and trees, that brilliant, creamy yellow stuck out like a sore thumb, and he pointed it out to Heiji, who squinted up at the rocky walls of the canyon that they were currently traversing.

"It kind of looks like a strip of cloth," he said uncertainly. "But why would there be a strip of cloth up there?"

"It looks like it's caught on a spur of rock. It must have been blown here from somewhere else."

"Huh. Guess that makes sense." The scarecrow brightened. "That means there must be something up ahead. It's about time. I was getting pretty sick of all this rock and creepy plants."

A little further, and they began to see more signs of life—or at least once must have once been life. More strips of colorful cloth appeared hanging from the rocks or twisted together like the remains of giant party poppers after the parties were over. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the way the cloth strips had been arranged or attached, but the deeper into the canyon they went, the more they all began to see that this place must once have been some kind of entrance into a settlement.

They began to see abandoned houses squatting along the feet of the canyon walls. But what caught all of their attention was the bright yellow, red, and orange strips of cloth that sprouted from the top of each old house like singularly strange weeds. The other ends of those cloth strips flowed out and across the canyon then up and billowed outward until they came together to form a shape they all recognized.

"It's a carnival tent," Hakuba said blankly, staring at the colorful, peaked construction woven throughout the canyon like it had become one with the canyon.

A few hundred meters more and the cabin came to a stop in front of a gigantic pair of wooden hands holding up a bright yellow banner reading "Welcome!" in bold red letters. Tiny red lights outlined each letter. More little lights, these in a multitude of colors, traced grinning faces across the rest of the banner as well as up and down the wooden arms. The overall effect was rather more sinister than welcoming, Shinichi thought, but he supposed that the empty town all around them didn't help.

A shadow fell over them, and they looked up to see Kaito gliding down to them from atop the canyon walls. Shinichi started down the rope ladder followed by his fellow detectives. The four of them met on the ground before the carnival's gaudy entrance.

A movement amidst the deserted buildings not far away became Ran stepping out into the open. She looked rather pale, Shinichi noted, and he wondered if maybe they should have had her stay in the cabin. All considered, with her somewhat excessive fear of ghosts and monsters, most everything in this world had be trying on her nerves. And yet she had volunteered to be a scout. Shinichi had wondered about her uncharacteristic choice, but there had yet to be any time to talk to her about it.

Akiyama appeared from inside one of the other houses carrying a rounded clay pot like he might have been thinking about smashing someone over the head with it.

"Did you run into some trouble or something?" Heiji asked him as he came within earshot.

If the skeleton could have blinked, he might have. Instead, he grinned and raised his shoulder blades in a clear shrug. "I thought I saw something moving in the house, so I went to take a look. But it turned out it was just a curtain fluttering in the wind."

"So there really is no one here then?" asked Hakuba.

"None that any of us have seen," Kaito said, looking to Ran for confirmation. She took a deep breath in a visible effort to calm herself then nodded.

"I looked in all the houses, but there's nothing in any of them but a few pots here and there and maybe a table and a few stools."

"We could consider salvaging some of them if they look like they're easy to pack," Shinichi mused. "They may be useful later. But what about the carnival tent? Has anyone looked inside it?"

"Miss Kazuha did," Kaito said as they all turned to look upon the enormous structure of cloth, rope, and wooden beams. "She went in about fifteen minutes before you guys arrived but she hasn't come out yet."

Heiji tensed. "What? Have you tried calling in through the front flap or something? I mean, it's big, but it's not that big. And the walls aren't even solid."

"Or so they seem from out here," Hakuba murmured, frowning. "Perhaps, like our cabin, its exterior does not show you the whole picture of what you might find in its interior."

"Great," the Osakan grumbled. "Well I'm going in to look for her. Don't try to stop me."

"We won't," Kaito assured him. "Because we're all going. It seems fair to assume that those signs were leading us here. So now that we're here and no one was ambushed along the road, I say it's time to move together."

"But what about the cabin?" asked Akiyama. "Don't we have to, you know, leave a guard or something? It would be dreadful if something were to happen to it and all our supplies while we are away."

"He has a point," Shinichi agreed. "We can't let our guards down just because this place looks deserted."

"I will stay and keep watch," Hakuba volunteered. "It will give me time to go through all our notes."

Shinichi nodded. "Ran? Could you stay with him? If something dangerous shows up, you'd be better prepared to deal with it."

Ran opened her mouth then shut it again. She looked up at the cabin then across at the looming, triangular mouth of the carnival tent before her gaze dropped to the ground. Behind her tinted visor, her brows furrowed. In all honesty, she did not want to venture into that tent. Even without stepping inside, her mind could supply her with all sorts of horrors that would be right at home in there which she would almost rather die than meet. But it was only almost. Because the problem was that someone really might die if someone with the power didn't go and meet those monsters. And hadn't she told herself that she would do better from now on? Try harder to be useful and support her friends when they needed her?

But Kaito and Hattori were perfectly capable guards too, the voice in the back of her mind that spoke out of reason rather than guilt pointed out. Shinichi too, with his new canine senses to add to his quick intellect, was far from helpless. And unlike her, they probably knew a whole lot more about the monsters and legends from which this world so eagerly drew its inspiration. What good could a girl who screamed at the mere mention of ghosts really do if she went into the presumably haunted carnival with them except get in the way?

Hakuba, on the other hand, was literally only human. He was intelligent, but he had no weapons and no way to defend himself against supernatural assaults. It simply made no sense to leave him to guard the cabin alone. And so, by staying, she would be supporting her friends too, just in a different way.

And so, with an effort, Ran agreed and silently hoped that she wasn't merely running away.

TBC


A.N: Happy New Year!