The village was a snapshot of ancient Japan: a river valley like a shallow basin, surrounded by thickly wooded mountains, the flat land given over to rice fields. The houses were spread out around the edges, clinging to the very feet of the hills to leave as much space as possible for the rice. Hisoka counted maybe fifteen houses, and a small inn built over a natural spring near the place where the road entered the valley. It was obvious to him now why Terazuma had insisted on appearing miles away, in the northern suburbs of the great urban sprawl west of Osaka, though it had meant a long train journey. To have materialised here would have been impossible to hide or explain. Even in the small town where they had disembarked from the train and climbed aboard a rickety old bus, their sudden appearance would likely have been marked.
The promise of winter hung heavily over the valley: the leaves had gone from the small ornamental trees, although the dark green of the conifers on the mountains remained as rich as ever. Here on the north-west coast, ice-laden winds would soon skim across the Japan Sea and blanket the landscape in metres of snow. Hisoka wondered if Shinigami were allowed holidays. He would give a lot to trade Meifu's unearthly sakura for a few days of sharp, beautiful winter.
"C'mon," muttered Terazuma, swinging his bag onto his shoulder as the bus made a laborious U-turn in the road and began to rumble back the way it had come. "We'll check the inn first."
The quietness of the valley had led Hisoka to expect a deserted hallway and an unfriendly host, but the plump, middle-aged woman who came to meet them was smiling and talkative, and told them that the inn was unusually full, but she could find them a room for a few nights. The building was as clean as a shrine and the rooms freshly-aired.
"We're supposed to be meeting a couple of friends," Hisoka said as she showed them in. "Have they arrived yet? A long-haired man with glasses and a girl my age."
The woman looked startled.
"They did arrive, my dear, but you're out by a week or so. They only stayed the one night." She looked troubled. "They were going up the old road into the hills. That's bad country, up there."
Hisoka glanced at Terazuma, who was staring sullenly out of the window. Despite his attitude, Hisoka could tell he was listening intently.
"We'd planned to hike up there together," Hisoka invented on the spot. "You say they went on alone? When did they get back?"
"They didn't," she said. "But they didn't say they were staying any more nights, so I didn't think twice about it. Should I call the police? It's bad country up there... people have disappeared, you know," she added in a lower voice.
"We heard something about that," Hisoka said easily, "but don't bother with the police just yet. Watari-san's probably decided to camp up there or something. We'll go and find them."
The woman did not seem reassured.
"The weather's turning," she said. "You be careful."
After she had gone, Hisoka moved to Terazuma's side. The river was visible from their window, winding around a shoulder of rock, where it was spanned by an old stone bridge. Just beyond that, according to the case report, the modern road petered out into little more than a cart track - what their hostess had called 'the old road'. The late afternoon sunlight had been blotted out by low-slung clouds, and a heavy twilight pooled in the valley.
"We should get going," Terazuma started. "It ain't far--"
"It's a two-hour walk, if I've read the map right, and it's getting dark," Hisoka said bluntly. "We're not going anywhere tonight. Besides--" he added as Terazuma rounded on him, "--the people here can probably tell us more than what was in the case file. The landlady certainly wasn't happy about the 'bad country', was she? Anyway, if we disappear now she'll call the police, and the last thing we need is for mortals to get involved."
A flash of déjà vu struck him, something about mortals meddling in Shinigami cases, but it passed even more swiftly than dreams left his waking mind. Terazuma was glaring at him, but there was a grudging respect behind it.
"You're learning fast."
"Anything to avoid another of those inquiries," he muttered.
To his surprise, Terazuma laughed.
The road, while rough, was well-kept until it reached the lower slopes of the hills at the head of the valley. There it suddenly faltered, becoming pitted and overgrown, all but lost in the encroaching forest. Looking around for a reason for the transition, Hisoka spotted a path branching off to their left, and narrow, steep steps cut into the hillside.
"Wait," he called to Terazuma, who was already five steps ahead and among the trees. "Let's see what's up here."
"Just a shrine," Terazuma replied without interest. "Can't you feel it? Come on."
Something Watari had said in Kyoto connected itself to the odd, tugging sensation Hisoka had been experiencing for the last few minutes, and he filed it for later research with the Gushoushin. He also stood his ground.
"We've already passed the village shrine, back in the valley. How many places this size have more than one that big? And the steps look new."
"So? The disappearances are happening further up this road." Terazuma took an impatient step uphill. "We're wasting time."
Hisoka ignored him and started climbing the steps. At the third, something else came to his attention, and he called back over his shoulder to Terazuma:
"Besides, Wakaba-san came this way."
Terazuma was still muttering ill-temperedly when they reached the top of the steps, but he fell silent as they passed under the gateway to the shrine ground. It was smaller even than the village's own had been - just one wooden building - but clearly in frequent and earnest use. Fortune papers were tied so thickly on the nearest tree that they could have been snow, or blossom. Charms and talismans hung in the shrine itself, coloured ribbons and ropes festooning the plain wooden walls. A lantern burned on the altar, evidently trimmed only a few hours previously. It all should have given the clearing an air of festivity and comfort, but the forest up-slope was silent and dim, and no sound could be heard from the village they had left back in the valley. Hisoka was becoming aware of a deep, wordless sense of fear overlaying the place, and desperation in the gaiety of the colours on the altar.
Terazuma, oblivious, had wandered over to examine one of the paper-laden trees. Suddenly, he reached up to touch one of a pair of ribbons that had been tied to a branch.
Hisoka moved to join him. The ribbons were of the kind Wakaba usually wore in her hair: one sunny yellow, one deep pink. They had been used to tie a beautifully folded piece of paper to the tree. He reached up to take it down.
"Hey!" Terazuma's hand clamped onto his wrist. Hisoka wrenched away automatically, taking a step backwards as Terazuma glared at him. "You can't go reading her fortune."
"It isn't a fortune, it's on the wrong kind of paper," Hisoka retorted. "And it feels like she wrote something here. What if it's a message?"
"What if it ain't? What if it's personal?"
"What if we never find them because you're too squeamish to look?"
Their eyes locked. Hisoka caught the clear impression that Terazuma thought it would be easier to knock him out than argue further. Eventually, however, he turned his back with a low growl and started back towards the steps.
"Fine, but I ain't looking."
The ribbons came loose easily. The paper was harder to unfold, but when Hisoka finally had it open, the words in Wakaba's handwriting only deepened the mystery:
Who are you? Can I help?
"This is it?" Hisoka folded his arms over his chest and surveyed the forest. "There's nothing here."
Terazuma scowled, clearly as baffled as Hisoka. The road, such as it was, had finally petered out completely. The river had become narrow, deep, and swift. Its far bank was a tall, rocky cliff cut deeply into the mountainside; the slope above it had the look of being untouched by any human hand.
Their side of the river was thickly wooded, but the trees looked younger, suggesting a certain amount of forestry had taken place here. It was hard to tell in the twilight under the trees, but they seemed to be standing at the edge of a small area of flat land. Hisoka drifted away from Terazuma, aware of how silent this place was: there weren't even any birds singing. The only sounds were the rush and chatter of the water and the soft crackle of his footsteps on the blanket of brown pine needles. Yet a feeling was creeping up on him that he was standing somewhere that had once been a place, not just a stretch of forest. As the ground in front of him began to rise, he spotted square mounds too regular to be natural.
He heard Terazuma call from somewhere to the right. Picking his way back towards the river, he guessed that the other Shinigami must have disappeared around the bend upstream. A small spring met the larger watercourse just beyond a rocky outcropping. Terazuma had apparently followed this stream upslope, where Hisoka could distinctly see steps cut into the rocky bank.
He found Terazuma in a sort of grotto a few feet from a little waterfall, a natural hollow backed by a small cliff of grey rock. The air was damp with the falling water, and there was rich green moss growing everywhere. It blanketed what Hisoka took at first sight to be randomly strewn rocks. Then he recognised a certain order in their arrangement, and spotted the carved writing where someone had scraped the moss from one or two.
It was a graveyard - an old, old graveyard, traditional to a fault, laid out on the same lines as the family plot with which Hisoka's father had always had such a morbid fascination. How many decades had it been since anyone had come here to pray and honour their ancestors?
"There were foundations back there," Hisoka said, making the connection as he spoke. "The area must have been cleared once. This was a village."
Terazuma nodded. Hisoka looked at the overgrown gravestones and felt a twinge of sadness. It was not uncommon, he knew: the early part of the twentieth century had seen people migrating to the cities in droves, free for the first time of restrictions on their movement. The high, wooded mountains of Japan were dotted with lost villages. This one must have vanished beneath the trees long ago; Hisoka doubted anyone even remembered its name. The descendants of the people buried here would be far away in Osaka and Kobe, maybe even Tokyo. There was no-one left to light the lanterns for these spirits, or ask their guidance.
"They've been here." Terazuma's voice sounded too loud, even over the sound of the waterfall. "No-one else would've cleaned the stones."
"So where are they now?" Hisoka turned in a circle, surveying the trees as if Watari might be waving from a few metres away. "I don't think they came back down the track."
"How sure are you?"
Hisoka shrugged. "I don't know, it's just an impression."
"Great." Terazuma scowled into empty space. "Maybe they teleported out."
"Not from anywhere near here," Hisoka replied at once. "I'd pick up the energy trace, I'm sure of that. They wouldn't go off into the forest, would they?"
Terazuma shook his head in bewilderment. "Why would they? Can't see what else they could've done, though. You got any idea which way they went?"
Hisoka closed his eyes and reached out cautiously. There were traces of Wakaba here, but he thought she had gone back towards the remains of the village. Apart from Terazuma's rising anxiety and frustration, the forest was refreshingly empty of human consciousness. In fact... he could barely sense anything at all, not even the small minds of birds, insects and animals. He thought they were there, but a considerable distance away - the woods all around this place were totally devoid of life. Hisoka felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
"Back towards the river," he said. "I'll try again by the road."
As they came among the old foundations, Terazuma stopped, staring at what little of the sky could be seen between the trees.
"It's getting dark," he said.
"That's not possible!" Hisoka craned his neck upwards. "It's only just after noon. Is there a storm coming?"
Terazuma strode towards the road without replying. Hisoka hurried after him, aware that with every step the gloom around them was deepening. It didn't feel like a storm. It seemed for all the world as if the sun were simply setting, hours ahead of schedule.
And then he sensed Watari, appearing from nowhere just behind him. Hisoka spun around, shouting to Terazuma as he did so - only to stop mid-cry and stare in confusion. There was nothing there. Yet his empathy told him that Watari was standing a few metres away, unaware of Hisoka.
"What’s wrong?" Terazuma was by his side, scanning the dark forest for danger. It was now almost impossible to see far, as if the sun were on the brink of dipping below the horizon. "What did you--"
"Watari-san!" Hisoka shouted. He reached out mentally at the same time, but it was as if Watari's thoughts were behind a frosted glass screen. "He's there," he said to Terazuma, "I can almost see him - but he can't see us, and he's not... there."
"That don't make sense--"
Hisoka jumped sideways involuntarily. Someone had almost walked into him, he was sure - but there was no-one there. The forest was empty, and yet he could feel them now, minds all around him, people moving to and fro, unaware of him, cut off from him, but unmistakeably there...
"Go," he gasped before he even knew he was going to speak. "Get out of here, Terazuma-san! We have to--"
"Can you hear me? Can you hear me? Can you--"
"Yes, I can hear you!" Hisoka shouted, and jolted into consciousness with the words.
He was in the infirmary in Meifu.
Hisoka sat up sharply and swung his feet out over the edge of the bed. He was not hurt in any way he could tell, but there was a lingering stale taste in his mouth that suggested he had been unconscious for a while. Of more pressing concern was how he had ended up back here. He looked around for Terazuma, but the room was deserted, and very dim with the blinds down. He quickly got to his feet and headed for the door.
Just as he reached it, someone opened it from the other side. Hisoka jumped back, and Watari came through, an open case file in his hand and a frown on his face. He did not look up.
"Watari-san! What happened? When did you get back?"
Watari ignored him completely. He moved further into the infirmary, still reading the file, then glanced up. He sighed, closed the file, and walked past Hisoka.
"Watari?" said someone behind him, voice sleep-thick and odd, and Hisoka almost jumped out of his skin, because there shouldn't be anyone there, he hadn't sensed anyone...
As he spun around, he realised belatedly that he could not sense Watari, either.
"Are you awake, Bon?"
The shock of what he saw was so great that for a moment or two he could hardly process it. Watari had paused at the foot of the bed Hisoka had just vacated.
Except he had not vacated it. Hisoka could see himself in the bed, just starting awake from sleep. He looked terrible. One of his arms was swollen and showed the welt of the spike that had been driven through it during the battle with Sargatanas. Hisoka reached up automatically to touch the place on his own body; it had healed without a scar.
"I suppose so," said his double, voice hoarse. "What time is it?"
Watari made his way over to the blinds, glanced at the other-Hisoka for permission, and pulled them up sharply. Hisoka saw himself flinch from the bright sunlight.
"It's close to noon, but don't worry about that - no-one expects you to work today. Just be glad you didn't have to face Konoe. I thought I'd go deaf before he was done."
"Took full responsibility for everything, would you believe it..."
Hisoka began to back away, unnerved beyond expression. Seeing himself from the outside was strange enough, but hearing this conversation, which he remembered, was nightmarish. Watari continued to tell his other self how the Sargatanas case had panned out, and Hisoka could see, from this perspective, that he glanced occasionally at the case file he had laid on the bed. Hisoka's case file, of course.
His hand found the door handle behind his back. With a last, troubled look at the two doppelgangers in the infirmary, Hisoka turned it, pulled the door open, and slipped out into the corridor.
And found himself standing outside in hazy autumn sunlight.
Hisoka brought up a hand automatically to shield his eyes, squinting around him in disbelief. He was standing on a wooden veranda, a set of steps leading down before him. A few metres away ran a river, chattering and sparkling. To his right and left were rough wooden houses, and in the small space between them and the river were crammed several tiny rice paddies. He could hear voices in the distance, and laughter, and the click-clack of someone using some sort of tool.
Slowly, Hisoka turned to look back at the door he had come through. It was a wooden door in a wooden wall, leading into another small abode. It was still open, and through the doorway he could see the infirmary, and hear himself talking to Watari.
He reached out and shut the door. He counted to five. Then he carefully opened it again.
The room beyond was a roughly furnished kitchen. A woman washing rice at a stone basin looked up, startled, and a cat on the windowsill twitched its tail and regarded him with narrowed yellow eyes.
"Can I help you?" asked the woman, her accent strange and her words old-fashioned.
Hisoka stared at her for a while.
"I don't think so," he said at last, and shut the door.
A quick exploration confirmed what he had already begun to suspect: he was in the same place that he and Terazuma had been exploring before the unnatural darkness fell. The same place, but greatly changed. Where before there had been only silence and the last few traces of human habitation, now he stood in the midst of a small, but vibrant settlement. The trees had been cleared a long way back from the river, the houses built into the sleep slopes of the valley, and the flattest land packed with crops. The path to the graveyard was well-trodden and sunny, and the headstones clean and adorned with forest flowers.
And there were people. Children played and carried out chores; women chattered and washed their linen, men chopped firewood and fished. All of them were dressed in old-fashioned clothes that Hisoka had never seen outside his history books. Strangely, they showed no surprise or curiosity at Hisoka's presence, simply nodding to him as he passed, or, in the case of the children, calling out to him to join in their games. Stranger still, they were real - he could sense their presence and feel the swirl of their emotions.
He found Terazuma watching two old men carving wood with the easy skill of a lifetime's experience. The other Shinigami glanced up warily at his approach, then relaxed. Hisoka thought he might even be relieved, but all he said was, "Oh, there you are."
Hisoka came to a stop beside him. They both watched the old men carving for a time, before Hisoka asked, "Where did you wake up?"
"Down by the river, a few minutes ago."
"You didn't see anything... strange?"
Terazuma snorted. "Apart from all this?"
Hisoka opened his mouth to tell Terazuma about the infirmary, then changed his mind. He had the uneasy feeling it might have been a hallucination of his own, and he did not want Terazuma to start thinking he could not be relied on.
"Have you found the others?" he asked instead.
Terazuma shifted restlessly where he stood. "Ain't looked yet. Tried asking them, but..."
The two old men were still carving away peacefully, paying no attention to the conversation happening next to them. Hisoka cleared his throat loudly.
He got no response. Terazuma turned and began to walk away. Hisoka followed.
"Notice anything odd about them?" Terazuma asked.
Hisoka glance back over his shoulder. The two men had not looked up to watch them leave. They were carving almost in unison, small chips of wood falling on their robes and tumbling to the ground.
"They're wearing..." Hisoka stopped walking. "They're priests!"
"Yeah. Reckon they're the two who disappeared. There's another guy, might be our missing detective. They're the only ones who don't speak."
Hisoka hurried to catch up as they reached the main part of the village again. Terazuma pointed to a house further up the slope, almost under the trees. A man was sitting on a cushion in the doorway. He was wearing a modern suit and tie, in stark contrast to the traditional dress of the people around him, staring peacefully out into the distance.
A shiver went down Hisoka's spine. One of the children kicked a ball in his direction - rather than avoiding it, he reached down to pick it up, and held it out. The boy ran up with a grin, and Hisoka asked, "Have you seen our friends? A man with blond hair and a girl in a school uniform."
"School uniform?" The boy looked blank as he took the ball. Like the woman, his language was old-fashioned. "Don't know. Want to play with us?"
"Well, see you!"
Hisoka frowned at the boy's retreating back. Terazuma laughed without humour.
"They're all about as helpful as that," he said. "They'll talk to you about the weather or the fishing or what's for dinner, but ask 'em a question about where or who or when and they wave you off like they don't understand."
"Maybe they don't." Hisoka shivered again. "This place feels strange. It's full of sound, but it's not loud."
Terazuma shot him a look of irritation.
"Their minds. They're all around me - they should be giving me a headache by now, the way I've been scanning, but they're just..." Hisoka struggled to put into words the things he was sensing, and gave up. "I don't know. Something's wrong, that's all."
Terazuma snorted. "You're telling me."
"Maybe if we..." Hisoka broke off. "There!"
Hisoka took off running, Terazuma hard on his heels. It had been a flicker on the edge of the rise and fall of the other minds around him, but it was enough to give him a sense of direction. His feet led him further back into the trees, further than they had explored before the darkness had fallen, up a path he hadn't been able to see from the river, then steps cut into the mountainside. Now he could sense Watari clearly, and Wakaba with him, and he suddenly knew where they were going and why he had not picked them up sooner.
When they reached the clearing, he was not surprised to see a small, immaculately tended shrine surrounded by offerings, or the prayers tied to the tree branches around them. He was not even entirely surprised that it was the mirror image of the one they had visited down in the larger valley.
What did take him unawares was the way Terazuma staggered and fell to his knees as soon as he stepped through the shrine gate.
Watari was doing something over by the main shrine, while Wakaba had been in the middle of a low chant over a neatly folded fuda ward. They both looked up, startled, and Watari's "Bon!" was drowned out by Wakaba's cry of alarm when Terazuma fell.
Hisoka turned to help him, but Wakaba was there first, reaching out towards Terazuma as she peered anxiously into his face.
"Hajime? Are you alright?"
"Don't..." Terazuma's voice was a growl - not just his usual gruff tones, but an animal sound that grated on the ear. "Don't... touch me..."
Wakaba froze in place, her eyes suddenly wide.
"Kuro-chan?" she whispered.
Terazuma nodded savagely. Hisoka looked up when Watari brushed his arm.
"We need to get him away from the shrine," he said. "Wakaba-chan can't help us move him. Can you grab one arm?"
Biting back questions, Hisoka nodded. He and Watari between them managed to get Terazuma staggering back down the steps, while Wakaba trailed behind, looking like she might cry. When they were out of sight of the clearing, Terazuma gave a shuddering sigh and straightened up slowly.
"Damn," he said.
Wakaba edged forward to his side, expression fragile with equal parts hope and dread.
"No. He's sleepin' again." Terazuma looked at her, their eyes meeting in something so intensely personal that Hisoka glanced away. Then Terazuma reached out a hand and took Wakaba's.
Wakaba let out her breath in a gasp and threw her arms around him. Hisoka shook his head, partly in confusion, partly from the way her emotions were so mixed up even she couldn't tell the difference, and finally looked at Watari properly.
The scientist had a tired look about his eyes, and his clothes showed the creases of several days' wear. He caught Hisoka's glance and smiled wanly.
"So, you're stuck here too, huh?"
"Stuck here? What do you mean?"
Watari gestured to the village visible through the trees below them.
"The road's gone," he said. "There's just forest all around. Go far enough into the trees and you find yourself coming right back to the village. We've been trying to get out for three days. Nothing works. There's no way out."
"Bullshit," broke in Terazuma. He had disentangled himself from Wakaba and now looked angrier than Hisoka had ever seen him. "Ain't no such thing as a one-way door. There's always a way out."
"Yeah, that's what I thought. But we haven't found it yet, and I'm starting to wonder..."
"Did they send you after us?" broke in Wakaba. "Did they realise what's going on?"
Hisoka looked at Terazuma. Terazuma mumbled something incomprehensible.
"They didn't exactly send us," said Hisoka, when the silence had stretched out just slightly too long.