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.
"I don't think this is a haunting," said Wakaba, fiddling with her hair pensively. "The people here don't react to spells the way ghosts would."
"They're not ghosts." Hisoka cast a glance back over his shoulder, where the children were still playing happily in the dust. "I don't know what to call them. They're real, but they're not. They're like... like..."
"Reflections," said Watari. He was watching the river tumble past his feet, which dangled over the small cliff they were sitting on. "Every detail is perfect, they look completely real, but they're just images, copies of something we can't see."
"That's it. That's what they feel like."
Watari tossed a stone into the river. Its ripples were instantly swept away by the fast flowing water. Wakaba picked up a stick and dropped it just below the cliff. All four Shinigami watched it bob away like a tiny boat on the current.
"Reflections of what?" demanded Terazuma, though he didn't sound like he expected an answer. "And where's the damn mirror?"
"I really hoped it was a Shikigami," she said. "It seemed like the only thing that made sense - they can affect reality in strange ways. But we can't find one. We've been working at the shrine for the last two days, we've talked to everyone in the village... there's no sign that there is or ever was a summoned god in this place. The shrine is dedicated to the god of the mountain upriver, but we can't make contact with him - I don't think it's him doing this, he doesn't have the power, not now all the people who worshipped him have left."
"But that shrine woke him up," pointed out Terazuma. "It's makin' me itch even from here."
Wakaba edged a little closer to him. Terazuma appeared not to notice, frowning at the far bank of the river, where the trees grew much closer to the water.
"What's over there?"
Watari followed his gaze and shook his head.
"More forest. It doesn't look like it was ever cleared, and there aren't any lights at night. We haven't been over - there's no bridge and no place to cross."
There was a brief silence, in which Hisoka and Terazuma met each other's eyes with similar incredulity.
"We can fly."
Watari rolled his eyes.
"Not here, we can't. What do you take me for? It's the first thing we tried, to get out. Our powers don't work right. Even Wakaba-chan's fuda aren't doing much."
They all stared at the rushing water, too fast to swim, too deep to wade, strewn with sharp rocks, and Hisoka suspected that the same thought was crossing all their minds: if their Shinigami powers were stripped from them in this place, were they vulnerable in other ways?
"Maybe if we had some rope," Watari went on slowly. Hisoka could feel the flicker of wakening curiosity from him; this was a simpler problem to solve than the village itself. "If we could tie it to something on the other side… we could hang onto it so we didn't get swept away. Or even walk over, if we could get two or three ropes set up."
"No way in hell," Terazuma snapped. "I ain't walking no tightrope and I definitely ain't swimming for it. Can't you, y'know, draw us a bridge or something?"
"I told you, our powers don't work right," Watari retorted. "I can't make anything stick. Anyhow, I never could do inanimate objects. It has to be something alive."
Hisoka looked at him questioningly. "What does?"
Watari blinked, taken aback. "Did I never show you...?" He paused, and a strange, regretful expression passed across his face. "No, I guess I never did."
He pulled out the pack of cards Hisoka had seen him use before, but laid them on the grass and reached into his pocket again. This time he came up with a small notebook, half its pages torn out, and a stub of a pencil.
Watari sketched quickly and tilted the pad to show Hisoka his work. Hisoka had been expecting something at least competent, but was confronted with a crude, childlike drawing of a bird. He opened his mouth to say something, but Watari had already turned the pad back. He reached out with his other hand, his power flared golden-liquid against Hisoka's mind, and he reached into the paper, just as he had with the cards.
For just a second, there was a sparrow perched on his finger. It was there for barely long enough for Hisoka to register its existence - real, alive, vibrant - before it flickered out like a candle in a strong wind.
"That's the best I can manage here."
"And you can do that with anything?"
"Anything living," Watari repeated. "I can... bring them out of the paper. I can't make people, but sometimes I can... sort of bring them through from somewhere else, if I know them well enough to draw them right."
He picked up the pack of cards, shook them out of their soft, worn leather case, and fanned them out in his hands. Hisoka had never had a chance to look at them properly before. They were, he realised, a kind of custom tarot deck, beautifully illustrated and lettered by hand. Glancing at Watari for permission, he took the cards and leafed through them. Animals and birds in bright colours leapt out at him. He recognised the black crow and the red cat he'd seen in battle before, the white hawk, the black stag with its porcelain antlers, and the tawny fox with its cunning eyes. Most of the ones he'd seen Watari use were near the top; further down in the deck were creatures Hisoka could see no immediate call for on Bureau business - a tiny hummingbird, coloured like a jewel, a field mouse with enormous black eyes, and a dozen butterflies in flight, almost bursting out of the frame - but they had obviously seen as much wear as the others.
"They were a gift," Watari said, and sudden, sharp grief washed into Hisoka like water, blood-warm and drowning. "My power's never been much good for fighting. This way I don't have to take the time to draw something. They're not that strong, but they're usually enough."
He didn't have to say that he'd never wanted to use them as weapons, or that the giver hadn't meant him to; the currents of that bitterness and regret were tugging at Hisoka with cruel fingers.
Hisoka shook the cards back into order and handed them back to Watari. "But they don't work here?"
"Not for more than a few seconds, no. Otherwise I'd have sent one of the birds out to scout."
"So we're back to ropes if we want to get across the river."
"I'm telling you, I ain't doing it--"
"Fine, you can stay here!" Hisoka got to his feet and shoved his hands in his pockets, prickly from the lingering memory of Watari's unhappiness. "But we've got to do something."
"Whatever we do, it might as well be tomorrow," Wakaba put in before Terazuma could reply. "It's getting dark again. The days are shorter here."
"You just walk into people's houses?" Hisoka said.
"They don't mind." Watari replied as they made their way through the village. "They react as if we're visitors, like friends or relatives - they just feed us and make us beds without having to be asked."
"I tried to give them money the first night," said Wakaba, "but they didn't seem to understand."
"This one's good," Watari went on as they approached a larger house set back from the others. "It's a big family, so it doesn't feel so creepy to be sitting in their home."
Wakaba had taken the lead; she opened the door with a brisk knock and entered into a friendly greeting with someone inside. Just as Watari had said, the other person was reacting as if she had every right to drop in unannounced. Terazuma stumped in after her, obviously uncomfortable with the whole situation, and Hisoka hurried to follow, thinking, irrelevantly, that this was probably the only time they wouldn't have to worry about paying for accommodation...
As he passed through the doorway he shivered, hesitating as if he'd stepped off a short drop. It took him a moment to register the scene in front of him.
Terazuma and Wakaba were sitting on the other side of the room, even though they'd entered seconds before him. Hisoka blinked. Terazuma was attempting to wrap a bandage around his arm one-handed, while Wakaba sat beside him on the couch, hands twisted together helplessly as she watched. Hisoka opened his mouth to ask when Terazuma had injured himself, but his voice died away as he took in the rest of the room.
It was not the inside of a traditional farmhouse, not by a long stretch. It was the twin of the living room in the tiny apartment Hisoka had been assigned in Meifu, except that it had been personalised with bright colours, well-loved furniture, ornaments, paintings and books, vases of flowers - Wakaba's touch was everywhere. Hisoka turned to look behind him. The door was still open. The village was still there in the deepening dusk. Watari was at his shoulder, impatient for him to move.
"What's happening?" asked Hisoka.
"What do you mean?"
Hisoka turned back to the tableau, just in time to see Terazuma swear as the bandage came loose yet again. Wakaba burst into tears.
"Don't cry," snapped Terazuma. "I hate it when you cry. It ain't nothing, just a scratch."
"It's still bleeding," sobbed Wakaba. "You could have been really hurt! I don't understand why Kuro-chan didn't..."
"Don't call him that." Terazuma started again on the bandage, grabbing it in his teeth and hauling it too tight too quickly, so that it slipped out of the loop he had been making. "Gods dammit!"
He surged to his feet, just as Wakaba tried to lean forward. They collided, not hard but enough that they grabbed hold of each other automatically. To Hisoka's confusion, Wakaba jumped back with a little shriek, and Terazuma gave a half-gasp of warning.
"Bon?" Watari was still at Hisoka's back, but his voice was fainter, and when Hisoka glanced behind, it was as though Watari were behind a screen, his outline unclear. "Bon? What's wrong?"
"Terazuma-san?" tried Hisoka.
Terazuma paid no attention; he was staring at Wakaba as though she'd grown an extra head. Wakaba's eyes were very wide, still brimming with unshed tears. Very slowly, holding her breath, she reached out and took the bandage from Terazuma's hand. Just as slowly, she advanced a few steps until she was standing in front of him. She lifted his injured arm and deftly tied the bandage in place. Her hands were shaking, and Terazuma seemed to be in a state of shock.
"I don't understand," whispered Wakaba, her face white. "This can't be happening."
Terazuma's expression was changing slowly, going from incomprehension to something like joy.
"It is," he said, fierce and certain. "He didn't come out when I needed him, but he ain't here now, neither."
Wakaba didn't seem as happy as Terazuma. If anything, his words had frightened her terribly.
"No," she said, backing up. "No, no, this can't... Hajime, do you know what this means?"
There was a light in Terazuma's eyes that Hisoka had never seen. He was suddenly sure that he was witnessing something very private, something he had no business knowing.
"Yeah, I know what it means," Terazuma said, taking two firm steps forward and laying his hands on her shoulders. "Kannuki..." He paused. "Wakaba..."
"Oh," she said, "oh, don't you see? It's one thing if we can't summon them, but if even the ones like Kuro-chan are going..."
"He ain't gone, I can still feel him. He just ain't waking up."
Hisoka knew he would kiss her, and was even more sure he shouldn't be here, but he was frozen in place. Wakaba began to cry, in more earnest than before, the kind of tears that came from deep grief and long struggle and a heartbreak more bitter than anything Hisoka could imagine.
"What if they never let me in again?" she cried. "What if I can never open the Gate again? What did I do, Hajime? Why do they hate me?"
"You didn't do anything," growled Terazuma, and kissed her.
Hisoka turned and stumbled for the door. As he crossed the threshold he collided with Watari, and they both fell headlong down the steps.
"Bon? Are you okay? What did--"
Hisoka struggled to his feet and turned to look back at the door. Terazuma and Wakaba were both there - no trace of tears on her face, none of that fierce joy on his - staring out in alarm. The room behind them was crossed with wooden beams and lit dimly by candles.
"Did you see any of that?" he demanded.
Terazuma frowned, Wakaba shook her head in confusion, and Watari, getting to his feet behind Hisoka, said, "See what? You stopped dead inside the door, asked what was happening, and then shouted for Terazuma... what did you see?"
"I'm... not sure."
Hisoka advanced cautiously up the steps. Wakaba and Terazuma fell back, and he stepped carefully over the threshold once more. This time nothing happened. The room was exactly as he expected it to be, with a pair of women busying themselves at a charcoal stove and chattering away, oblivious to the strangers in their doorway. Hisoka wanted more than anything to bury what he'd seen down deep and never mention it to anyone, but he thought maybe he was beginning to understand, and he had to know if his suspicions were correct.
"Terazuma-san," he said slowly. "Your shikigami - something happens if Wakaba touches you?"
Terazuma's face darkened.
"Not any more," he said. Hisoka waited, and Terazuma continued, grudgingly. "Used to be that if she touched me, he'd come out - take over, and be real cranky and hard to contain."
"Not just me," Wakaba said softly. "Any girl. Kuro-chan doesn't much like women."
Hisoka turned his gaze on her.
"And Wakaba-san, you can open a gate to Gensoukai?"
Her face tightened.
"I used to be able to," she said. "I'm one of the Gatekeepers. There are four of us, but we can't any of us get in now that... now that it's shut off." She stared at her feet. "Did someone in the Summons Division tell you?"
"No. I didn't know until just now." Hisoka looked around him, seeing only the old, dusty furniture and the fragrant tatami mats of the farmhouse. "I saw a... conversation, between you two," he went on cautiously. "About Gensoukai. I think it was a memory... but it's not mine."
Terazuma's frown deepened, still uncomprehending, but Wakaba's hand flew to her mouth and she let out a small sound of chagrin. Hisoka met her eyes, brushed her mind, and blushed fiercely.
"I'm sorry," he said, "I don't know why... why I saw that, but..."
"It's okay," she murmured, as Watari and Terazuma looked between them in bewilderment. "I... I was thinking about... I forgot about your power..."
"This isn't my power." Hisoka glanced around him again, half-expecting the room to change each time he looked. "At least, not all of it. It happened when I woke up here, too - I saw something from my own memories, from the outside. When I left the house, the image vanished."
Watari came cautiously into the house.
"It didn't happen to Wakaba or me this whole time," he said. "It's gotta be your power that's setting it off. But I dunno why you'd be seeing... I'm guessing these aren't happy memories you're talking about?"
"No. There's... a lot of strong emotion in them," Hisoka said carefully, refusing to look at either Wakaba or Terazuma. "Before, I saw myself in the infirmary after the Sargatanas case."
"See, that doesn't fit," said Watari, kicking off his shoes and sitting down cross-legged on the tatami. "Everything else in this place is... I dunno... neutral, peaceful. It has nothing to do with us. Why aren't you seeing the memories of these people, if you're gonna see anything?"
"Because they are memories," Hisoka replied, without knowing the words were coming until he'd spoken them. "Everything we're seeing - they're memories, of these people and this place."
There was a silence, in which Hisoka removed his own shoes and sat down on a cushion that had been embroidered by hand with the characters of a woman's name.
"But in that case," Watari said at last, speaking for all of them, "whose memories are they?"
Somewhere in the early hours of the night, Hisoka bolted upright and fled the house as if he were suffocating. He didn't properly wake up until he was outside, gasping in the warm night air and shaking like a leaf. He managed to halt his headlong flight and draw several deep breaths. Then he sat down slowly on the lowest step, cradling his head in his hands.
There were so many images in his head, he could barely think straight, fragments and colours that must have come from the dreaming minds of his companions, so jumbled he could make nothing of them. But in among them were dark shadows, images and memories that he was sure were his own, that he could not explain. Some of them were becoming familiar to him now. They had been in his dreams since he had returned from Kumamoto: the white-haired man, fiery letters on his skin, shuttered purple eyes and a hand in his… but in the silence of the forest, they were clearer, and there was something else...
Can you hear me? Someone calling, all through his dreams, calling him by name. Can you hear me, Hisoka? Can I help you? Can you hear me, Hisoka?
"I'm going crazy," Hisoka whispered, and half believed it.
A cool wind stirred in the trees and brushed at his hair, and he sighed and rubbed his eyes. He should have known better than to go to sleep in a room with the other Shinigami, in this strange village of all places, but he had been tired, and his eyes had closed before he'd meant them to.
The village was quiet and very dark, much darker than any place Hisoka had ever been. There were no streetlights, no glow of them, even, above the surrounding hills, and no moon - had he still been mortal, he doubted he could have seen anything at all.
But the stars blazed like white fire above him, like nothing he'd ever seen before, so thickly clustered it was bewildering to the mind, so bright they almost hurt to look at. They gave enough light for his inhuman sight, enough light even to cast faint shadows. Hisoka sat in the darkness, hearing small insects in the bushes and occasional nightbirds calling, and looked at the stars, and wondered if life had been good here, in this village of a time past. He remembered the overgrown graves and the forest creeping down to the river, and for the first time wondered if this might not be the work of some benevolent force, preserving something lost.
Then he thought of the people from outside who had ended up here, unresponsive to anything, and shook his head. It might not have been intentional, but whatever the village was, it had clearly also become a trap.
He heard running footsteps.
Hisoka jumped to his feet, every nerve on alert. The footsteps were light but frantic, as if someone were running for their life. He thought they were coming from the direction of the shrine. He turned to call the others, but the runner was already changing course: they would not pass him unless he moved at once to intercept.
Hisoka sprinted up the hill, cutting across someone's vegetable garden and into the trees. The runner was near him now, and he was getting real feelings from them, real emotions: fear, and hopelessness, and something familiar that he couldn't place. It was like looking into clear glass...
"Kazusa!" he shouted, and heard her gasp.
Then he could see her, through the trees. She'd slowed at the sound of his voice, but was looking all around for him, and when her eyes lighted on his, she ran to him with a cry. She showed no sign of stopping, and Hisoka automatically reached out to catch her before she could collide with him.
She passed through him like mist. Hisoka staggered in surprise, whipped around in time to see Kazusa, off-balance, trip and fall, curling up with a breathless sob.
"Hisoka-chan, help me," she begged. "It's after me and if it catches me... oh, I want to wake up, why can't I wake up?"
The last was a wail at the sky, and now Hisoka could hear something else coming, something that moved with near-silence but was betrayed by tiny snaps of twigs and branches in the forest.
"Come on!" he said. "Come with me, we'll protect you--"
She looked so real and solid that he reached out to take her arm without thinking. He couldn't even feel anything where his hand passed through her. Kazusa smiled sadly as she sat up.
"I'm not really here," she said. "I'm asleep, you see."
The sounds of approach were closer now. Hisoka stepped around Kazusa so that he was between her and whatever was coming.
"Kazusa, this isn't a dream," he said. "I don't know what's happened to you, but--"
"I know it isn't a dream," she replied in a trembling voice. "It's real. It's always real. It's just that I can only go away like this when I sleep."
"What do you mean?"
"He makes me sleep, and then I fall out of myself and go to so many places, and he won't let me wake up, not until I find it..."
"Find what? Who makes you sleep?" Hisoka went to grab his gun, only to realise that he'd left it back in the house. "Kazusa, what happened with the demon? I don't... I can't remember."
"I know," he heard her whisper miserably. "He took that, too."
The trees all around them were shaking and bending as if in a strong wind, and there was a pressure in the air as if before a storm.
"The doctor," Kazusa said, raising her voice high and determined over the wind, "I can't say his name, he'll hear me, he'll know! But there's someone else, Hisoka-chan, there's someone else and he's not the same--"
It didn't burst out of the forest in a frenzy like a wild beast; that would, somehow, have been less terrifying. Instead, Hisoka realised that it had been moving with inexorable steadiness towards them - slow, almost ponderous - but with strides as long as the space between mountain peaks. It was blacker than the darkness and insect-like in form; there were wings back there, Hisoka thought, and the faintest glimpse of faceted eyes that glowed a sickly yellow. It felt like Sargatanas had, foul and evil beyond words: there was no doubt it came from Jigoku. Hisoka wondered, with the irrelevance of panic, if every demon in existence intended to pursue Kazusa.
He didn't wait for it to make the first move. He gathered his power and flung it forward recklessly. Only at the last second did he remember that Watari had said their powers didn't work properly here, but his own seemed even stronger than usual, and for a few precious seconds he saw the demon reel back with a roar of protest...
... then Hisoka felt himself caught up in the thing's mind, if you could call it that - it was barely intelligent, more like an animal than anything, but driven by a malevolence that no creature of the living world could match. It was like breathing in and choking on foul liquid, and Hisoka thrashed wildly against it, trying to break free, even as he felt his own mind coming apart, the boundaries down...
From nowhere, the image flashed into his mind of a great, white tiger, crouched with teeth bared in an unmistakable posture of protection. All at once, he was free, staggering back physically and mentally. He dropped to his knees as the demon reared up with a buzzing shriek and struggled against a net of glowing silver threads that had suddenly ensnared it. As Hisoka watched, the web tightened and drew inward, seeming to squeeze the black monster in on itself until, with a final trailing wail, it vanished.
There was a faint glow all around him in the trees. Hisoka saw more web, thousands of silvery strands, all giving off that eerie light. It was wrapped around the trees like silk and pooled in the spaces between them like a creeping mist. It made Hisoka's skin crawl, but at the same time, it had strangled the monster and saved them, and he felt nothing of Jigoku's taint from it.
He spun back towards Kazusa. She was still sitting on the ground, looking around intently. The tears were drying on her face. She did not seem afraid any more, and that more than anything caused Hisoka to relax a little.
"Do you see them too?" he asked her.
"The mirrors? Yes."
"Mirrors?" Hisoka looked again into the trees. The light was fading, but he could still make out the gossamer strands woven in fantastic patterns. "I see spider webs."
"They only look like that from your side of the gate. Just like he only looks--" She stopped with a little frown. "Oh. He says not to tell you that yet."
Kazusa turned her head as if looking at something deep in the forest. Following her gaze, Hisoka could see nothing, except… was that a single, multi-jointed leg shifting across a lighter space between the trees? Or was he only making shapes out of a slender tree blowing in the breeze? He didn't like to count on it being the latter, but… if Kazusa wasn't afraid…
"I see," she said now. "Of course I'll tell Hisoka-chan. But… can you help me?"
"Oh." Her face fell. "I understand." Then all at once she gasped, and smiled, her eyes lighting up. "Really? Can I?"
"Kazusa?" said Hisoka again, unnerved by her one-sided conversation with the rustling trees. "What's going on?"
"He says I can stay here, just for tonight. He'll protect me."
As she spoke the words, she suddenly seemed to grow hazy, her outline blurring and a transparency coming over her body. She began to glow with the same eerie light as the webs, and then she too began to fade.
"Wait!" Hisoka went down on his knees and reached for her, but he could no more touch her now she looked the part of a ghost than he could before. "Who is 'he'? Where are you--"
"I'll be safe." Kazusa was still looking into the forest. She had clasped her hands together with a relief on her face that was almost painful. "But he has to hide me now, before anything else comes. I'll be safe, and I can sleep, and they won't even know… oh, thank you, thank you." She paused, and nodded. "Of course."
She was barely there now, an outline against the darkness, but she turned to look at Hisoka with that piercing directness that had struck him from the moment he'd met her.
"He says to tell you to come alone. Cross the river as dusk falls, right by the big grey boulder upstream of the village. He'll make a way for you to cross. Don't bring the others - the other Shinigami. He doesn't trust them. But he wants to talk to you. He says…"
Hisoka couldn't see her at all now, not even the glow where she'd been, and her voice was a whisper, but he still heard her last words clearly.
"He says it's about Tsuzuki."
To Hisoka's relief, the others didn't insist on trying to cross the river the next day. Watari made a desultory search for some rope, but when Hisoka said, truthfully enough, that he sensed nothing from the forest beyond, they didn't pursue the idea. Wakaba wanted to go back to the shrine. Terazuma wanted to stay far away from it. Watari was happy to go with Wakaba, but Terazuma had some thoughts about that, starting and finishing with "No."
Hisoka volunteered to go, partly to head off the impending fight, and partly because of the three of them, she was the one least likely to ask questions he didn't want to answer.
He hadn't slept for the rest of the night, and now his head ached and his eyes stung. He wondered if Watari had ever done any research on why shinigami still needed to eat and sleep. It seemed like a needless distraction from their duty… but maybe to lose such banalities would take them too far from their humanity. And for whatever reason, the Judgement Bureau seemed to value humanity in its employees.
Wakaba was quiet as they followed the path to the shrine, cradling a set of handbells and a bundle of white paper ribbons in her arms. Hisoka didn't try to make conversation. Hours of waiting for the sun to rise hadn't made any difference to the turmoil of his thoughts, and he was glad of the chance to be alone with them once more.
"… it's about Tsuzuki."
The name tore at him like an open wound. He recognised it, but when he reached for the memories that should be tied to it, he felt his thoughts stutter and fragment around the edges. Pain blossomed behind his eyes every time he tried to recall why it was familiar.
But Hisoka was no stranger to pain. He kept pushing, grimly bearing the agony and the way his mind seemed to waver like a heat haze. He remembered Sargatanas looming over him, and blood fountaining from a torn throat, and shiny black shoes in front of his eyes, but he couldn't pull the images together. The demon had done something, taken something, and he intended to find out what it was. Tsuzuki. If he could have hurried the sun across the sky, he would have done it without a second thought. Whoever Kazusa had been talking to, the one who had said he would protect her - he held some fragment of the knowledge Hisoka had lost. It might be a trap, but he knew he would go nonetheless, and go alone, as he had been asked.
He realised Wakaba had fallen behind. He turned to find her standing in the middle of the path, looking into the trees in a way reminiscent of Kazusa.
"Something's different." She turned in a circle, scanning the trees. "I can feel the resonance of… of… It does feel like a shikigami." Her hands clenched into fists by her sides. "But if it's a shiki, why won't it talk to me? And why don't I recognise it?"
Hisoka suppressed a pang of guilt. If Kazusa's protector was a shikigami, it had placed Wakaba clearly among the ranks of those it did not trust. He found himself hoping the mysterious presence was something else entirely.
Wakaba was still looking into the trees. Just for a moment, Hisoka thought he saw the webs again, barely visible in the daylight, but when he squinted to bring them into focus, they vanished entirely.
"Well… let's carry on," said Wakaba at last. "Maybe at the shrine…"
The fading hope was all too clear in her voice even without the bitter wash of her sadness against Hisoka's thoughts. He hunched his shoulders and joined her in walking in silence up the steps to the shrine he had barely glimpsed the day before.
As they came up to the gate, a feeling of - expectation? - crept over him and he slowed his pace, then put out a hand to stop Wakaba.
"What is it, Hisoka-chan?"
"I think…" Hisoka stared at the gate, trying to see something that didn't want to come into focus. He paused, closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and opened them again, this time letting his vision blur deliberately. Now he saw it: a circular web woven across the gate. "I think if I step through, I'll be inside another memory. It's… something about doorways. Thresholds. They're the trigger."
"Do you want to go back?"
Wakaba almost sounded like she'd prefer that, like she couldn't bear to fail again at the shrine. Hisoka hesitated. Then he braced himself, reached out, and took her hand. He felt her surprise, and her immediate attempt to dampen her thoughts, and was grateful.
"I think if I hold onto you, you might see them too," he said. "Will you come through with me?"
Her hand tightened on his. "Yes."
"I don't know what we'll see."
"I do," said Wakaba quietly. "It's all I can think about right now."
Hisoka took another breath, and they stepped forward together.
They were in Wakaba's apartment again, but this time it was dark, and at first glance Hisoka thought it was empty. Then a shadow stirred against the far wall, and he made out someone sitting with her knees drawn up against her chest, head bowed.
Next to him, Wakaba let out a long sigh. She almost seemed relieved, even though Hisoka could feel how it hurt her.
"Yes," she said. "This."
The shadow unfolded itself and stood up. There was the click of a switch, and a small lamp on a shelf came on dimly. In its light, Hisoka saw Wakaba - or rather, the memory of her - standing on the far side of the room… but it was a far cry from the Wakaba he'd come to know. Even with her sadness and fragility, she managed to smile most of the time, and often brought a little light into the Summons Division. This Wakaba was… empty.
There were no ribbons in her hair, which fell flat and lifeless, as if she'd been out in the rain and hadn't bothered to dry it off properly. Instead of the schoolgirl outfits she usually wore, she was dressed in the robes of a Shinto priestess. They too hung limply on her, their folds softened into dejected langour as if she had worn them for a long time. She looked much older like this, and the weary way she moved only reinforced the impression.
She walked over to the centre of the room. Hisoka saw that the rugs that had covered the floor in the other vision had been pushed aside, and on the wooden boards was inscribed a circle marked with characters written in the old style. He could read enough to understand it as an incantation, a complex ritual centuries old.
"This is how I always used to open the gate," Wakaba - the real Wakaba - said. "When they gave us computers in the Summons Division, Watari-san wrote me a program to follow all the steps of the incantation. It was so quick and easy… it meant I could go to Gensoukai without having to prepare for hours. But sometimes… I would still do it the old-fashioned way. And when the program stopped working…"
The memory-image of Wakaba picked up a staff that had been carelessly discarded on the floor. It reminded Hisoka of the Buddhist priests' staff, with rings at the top that would clatter and jangle when the base was struck on the floor. It couldn't have been as heavy as those metal rods, but Wakaba still seemed to struggle with lifting it. She breathed deeply several times, then began to walk around the perimeter of the circle. After the first circuit, she began to chant. Her voice was hoarse, and faltered on the more archaic words.
"This was the seventh time that day," said Wakaba quietly. "I just thought… if I kept trying…"
Hisoka swallowed, recognising all too well that cycle of desperation and hope. Maybe this treatment will be the one to turn things around…
"This was after the gate closed?"
"Yes." Wakaba stepped forward, looking at the memory of herself with an odd blend of grief and deep compassion, as if she wanted to put her arms around this image of her own pain. "This was after Tsuzuki-chan died."
Hisoka staggered backwards as if struck. He snatched his hand from Wakaba's, terrified she would read his thoughts through the link, and saw her turn towards him, startled and concerned. She immediately began to lose definition, fading as if behind glass, and he realised she had fallen out of the memory without him to keep her there. He stumbled further back, until he passed under the gate again, and could turn his back on the dismal scene from the past.
The sound of her dirge-like chanting faded out as he hunched over, wrapping his arms around himself. He heard quick steps behind him, and then the real Wakaba was at his side. She did not try to touch him.
"Hisoka-chan? Are you okay? Did you see something else? Did you--"
Speaking the name was like biting on tin foil; that blackness in his mind was screaming at him never to voice it. Hisoka screamed back, silently, in the depths of his own head, and refused to be cowed.
"Who… is… Tsuzuki?" he ground out.
Wakaba was staring at him in confusion and alarm.
"Hisoka-chan? Are you--"
"Who is he? Why do I know his name?"
He was giving too much away - he knew had to get control of himself - but Wakaba wasn't Watari, or Terazuma, or Tatsumi. She just paused, waiting to see if he would speak again, and then she answered.
"He was the shinigami assigned to the Second District," she said with devastating simplicity. "He died three years ago."
"He's the one no-one will talk about." This wasn't right, didn't fit with the hole in Hisoka's memories, but he plunged ahead, now that someone was willing to tell him what he'd wanted to know since his first day in the Summons Division. "The one who… Terazuma said he was - 'lost to the sight of the kami'…"
"Yes. Lord Enma…" Wakaba swallowed and glanced nervously around the clearing. "Tsuzuki-chan died. He died again, and this time his soul didn't return for judgement. Lord Enma couldn't find him. None of the other judges could either, not in Meifu, not in all the six worlds, not even in Gensoukai. He just… disappeared, burned up in Touda's fire."
"One of his shikigami. The winged serpent. His fire is so hot - it burns black--"
If I had a fire hot enough…
Hisoka clutched his head and sucked in air through his teeth. He would not give in to the pain.
"-- it can even kill a shinigami," Wakaba finished.
The killing of gods is something of a special study of mine.
Those words. Who had said them? With such vicious amusement…
"But-- if he summoned it… how could he have--?"
Wakaba was silent.
"We don't know," she said at last, and for the first time, Hisoka caught the shadow of a lie in her thoughts. "The fire… burned out of control… it took out five blocks in Kyoto…"
Another little shock of recognition. Nothing's ever easy in Kyoto, Bon.
This place… gets to me.
"Watari-san was there," Hisoka said. "Wasn't he?"
"Yes." Wakaba stared at the ground. "He and Tatsumi-san both. They couldn't save him."
"Is that why they're always at each other's throats?"
"I guess. Watari-san never told us exactly what happened, and Tatsumi-san… well…"
"He's not someone you ask too many questions of?"
Hisoka looked at the shrine gateway again. As far as he could tell, the faint shimmer of the web was gone. He wondered if the act of stepping into a memory had destroyed it.
"We can go through now," he said.
"Oh. Of course." Wakaba turned to where she had dropped her bells when she ran to check on him. "Would you help me set up the boundaries?"
Hisoka took a handful of the paper ribbons and began working his way around the edge of the shrine clearing as instructed. He was about halfway done when he remembered what Terazuma had said in the library, and felt the shiver of another piece clicking into place.
"One of the Shikigami died too," he said. Across the clearing, Wakaba froze. "In the fire. Didn't they? That's why Gensoukai was closed off."
"We don't… we don't know. For sure." Wakaba didn't turn around, her voice very quiet. "The last thing we heard… right before the gate closed… was that Touda never came back from Kyoto."
"Touda was the Shikigami who…"
"But could he be destroyed by his own fire?"
"I don't know. I just don't know." Wakaba began moving again, resuming the tying of the paper ribbons with hands that shook faintly. "All I know is that the last thing I heard… the Judgement Bureau was in complete chaos, Watari-san almost died in the fire too, he was unconscious in the infirmary for days, and Tatsumi-san just vanished into the shadows… Kojirou-chan and Kotarou-chan - the gate guardians - came to me and asked me where Touda was. I said I didn't know, and they just left… and then when Konoe asked me to open the gate so we could talk to Tsuzuki's Shikigami… I couldn't do it. It has never opened for me since."
Hisoka asked no more questions. The pain in her voice was too raw. He sat silently and watched as she rang the bells in an eerie melody. As she worked the summons ritual, an idea slowly came together in his mind. Wakaba had known exactly what they would see… the visions in the webs could be influenced by the bearer of the memories. Even though he couldn't remember it consciously, could he use the doorways to find out what Sargatanas had taken from him?
Terazuma was shouting at one of the villagers when they got back. Watari was watching dispassionately.
"We thought maybe if we could make them angry…"
"What? They'd attack us?" Hisoka cast a disbelieving look at the pair of them. "What sort of plan is that?"
"Not attack us, but kick us out maybe…" Watari sighed as Terazuma leaned into a young man's face. The man gave him a confused look and stepped away. "It's not working, anyhow."
They both watched Wakaba approach and touch Terazuma on the arm. He jumped slightly, and Hisoka thought that however many years he'd spent not able to touch Wakaba still outweighed more recent experience. They spoke quietly, and then headed down one of the paths towards the outskirts of the village without a backwards glance.
"Pretty sure we aren't wanted there for a while," said Watari. "I'm thinking we should go hang out in the graveyard."
At Hisoka's expression, Watari half-laughed, and rubbed at his eyes.
"Sorry. Sense of humour's gone off a bit, being stuck here. I figured we could write down all the names on the grave stones, see if anything stuck out. Maybe someone important died here, or there's someone who doesn't fit."
"You should do that," said Hisoka, seeing an opportunity. "But I want to try something. If the rest of you are on the edges of the village, maybe I can pick something up in the middle."
It wasn't entirely a lie, but he still felt a pang of guilt when Watari nodded enthusiastically.
"Great idea, Bon. You're probably our best chance of getting out of here. This place seems to react to you, somehow."
Hisoka had already decided on the house he would try. It was a small one, barely more than a hut, built into the side of the slope, and there were bushes and branches hanging over its roof. It had a secretive, private air about it that drew Hisoka in. His earlier explorations had established that the only occupant was a middle-aged woman who spent most of her day outside working on her garden. Sure enough, when he reached the house, she was kneeling in the vegetable patch, working in silence. She didn't look up as he approached the door.
Now that he knew what to look for, Hisoka could see the faint shimmer in the doorway. As far as he could tell, not every threshold would trigger a memory, and they seemed to shift around according to the time of day, but he'd had a feeling this one would work. There was something about the house that made him think it held a lot of memories of its own, and perhaps that meant something in this place.
He stopped on the raised wooden deck. Wakaba had said that she'd been thinking about her memory of the day the gate closed for good. Hisoka couldn't think about the memories he'd lost, so he tried to bring other things to the forefront of his mind: Sargatanas, the violin, Kazusa. Waking up in the ruins in such excruciating agony, with no idea how he had been so injured. He tried not to focus too hard on any one of the memories - he had no need to relive them, after all - but kept the associations strong in his mind.
As he reached for the door, his thoughts went unbidden to the name he now had for the empty space in the Summons Division. Tsuzuki. And someone within this village wanted to talk to him about Tsuzuki. And he was sure there was something he should remember about that name, some link of his own to the Shinigami who had died and slipped from the world so utterly that even the Judges could not find him…
He felt a sticky tug as he stepped inside the house, as if strands of web had caught on him for a moment before letting him through. He knew at once that it had worked: the interior of the house was another place entirely. But with a sinking feeling, he realised it was one that he knew all too well.
The walls were the same monotonous grey-green he'd stared at for six years. The blinds were as ugly and grey as he remembered. Monitors and other equipment beeped and whirred, their operation lights tiny points of colour in the darkness. Through the open door was the incongruous scene of the lost village, bathed in afternoon light, but the windows of the hospital room were dark. Two pale bars of moonlight pierced the blinds that never quite closed properly, falling over the pillow of the bed.
Hisoka didn't want to look at the figure lying there, but he made himself do it anyway. His stomach turned. He looked even worse than he'd realised. His cheeks were so sunken he could almost see the skull beneath, and his skin was paper white. His eyes were open, staring into the darkness with the blank weariness of too much pain with no relief. It was one of those nights, sleepless and almost unbearable.
He couldn't bear to look too closely at himself, so he examined the machines and the medical chart instead. This was about six months before his death. A part of him wished he could reach out and press a pillow over his own ravaged face, to end it quicker. A part of him wished someone had done that when he first fell sick, when he was thirteen years old. Maybe without the years of illness, and the burning need to know why, he would have passed peacefully through the Judgement Bureau and gone on to another life…
Hisoka shook his head. He was here, not alive but still himself, and even with all that had happened since he had joined the Summons Division, he realised that he was glad. Glad that he still existed. Glad that he could do something in the world. Glad that he could help others lost as he had been, and glad that maybe he could still make a difference despite his short and pointless life.
He wished he could tell the boy in the bed that.
But none of this was what he'd been trying to remember. Hisoka sighed, and turned back to the door. Perhaps he could go back out and try again…
The door was closed. Hisoka frowned, and fought a moment of panic. He had definitely left it open… He reached for the handle, only to see it turn before he could touch it.
Someone came hesitantly through the door. Behind them, Hisoka saw the corridor leading to the nurses' station, but it was hazy, and he could still see the outlines of the village beyond. Then the door was shut behind the unknown figure. Hisoka stepped slowly backwards, watching them closely. He didn't remember this at all. Was this some sort of outside interference? Another memory intersecting with his own?
As if to confirm his hunch, the person - a man, from his voice - said, "Where did Watari go?"
"Terazuma-san?" Hisoka tried, though the voice was not Terazuma's.
There was no response from the stranger, but to Hisoka's surprise, he heard his own hoarse voice from the bed.
The stranger was silent for long enough that Hisoka wondered why his past self didn't press the call button. Then he realised that - if this had really happened - he had probably doubted whether it was real, or another hallucination.
"He's not here," the stranger said at last, apparently to himself. "He's not here."
"Who is--" The memory of Hisoka stopped to cough, and in the process seemed to change his mind about what question to ask. "Who are you?"
Another long silence.
"I don't… know."
The figure moved towards the bed. Hisoka stiffened defensively, and saw the alarm in his past self's eyes, the first movement of his hand towards the call button, but there was something about the way the man moved… he drifted, faltered, seemed not to know where he was going. It was the gait of a sleepwalker, and the other version of Hisoka seemed to recognise it too. He did not press the button, watching instead with wary eyes as the stranger passed him by and went to stand by the window.
"Who are you?" said the stranger.
Another pause. "Hisoka," said the boy in the bed.
"Can't you sleep either?"
A snort that was almost laughter from Hisoka's past self. "I've spent too much time sleeping."
There was a rattling, the sound of the beaded cord that adjusted the position of the blinds. For a moment, they drew tighter, then flipped in the other direction, opening wide and spilling moonlight into the room.
"If you're not going to sleep, there's no point being in the dark," said the stranger, but Hisoka was barely listening, transfixed by the face now illuminated in the pale light.
I know you. I know you!
That dark hair and those unearthly purple eyes… as vivid as a Shinigami's, but clouded with incomprehension, as if he truly were asleep, or drugged into near-insensibility. Of course he would know him, Hisoka thought, if this was a true memory - he'd remember a face like that all his life, not that there was much of it left at this point in time - but he knew that wasn't why the man looked so familiar. Try as he might, he still couldn't recall these events ever happening, but that face… he knew that face. Those eyes. They brought up a swell of emotion: anger and gratitude and fear and disgust…
Leave Hisoka alone.
"I guess not," said his past self. Hisoka moved to get a better look at the purple-eyed man, but he was already drifting back towards the door. He stopped when he reached it, and laid his hand on the handle like he didn't quite know what it was for. Hisoka saw now that he was wearing a green hospital gown, his feet bare on the tiles.
"So many doors here," said the stranger. "But no way out."
The Hisoka on the bed let out a long, ragged breath, and closed his eyes.
"No," he agreed. "No way out."
The purple-eyed man opened the door.
"Except one," he said, almost to himself. The door closed behind him with a click.
And then there was only silence, and the moonlight, and the shallow breathing of his past self. As Hisoka watched, he saw the boy on the bed reach for the valve on his IV that would dispense the sedative he hated so much, but he stopped before he reached it. His eyes opened again, and to Hisoka's surprise, there was a small measure of peace in them now.
He couldn't read the emotions of these memories, but he suddenly knew, as clearly as if he had recalled it - maybe he had - what was going through his past self's mind.
There is always one way out.
There was nothing more to see in the vision, only his own eyes watching the moonlight on the walls, the hum of the machines, and the faint sounds of the rest of the hospital. Yet Hisoka couldn't bring himself to leave. So many nights he'd spent alone in this room… he knew this was just an echo, a reflection of events already passed and unalterable, but nonetheless, he stayed and kept vigil over the doomed boy he'd once been, and tried to make sense of what he'd witnessed.
It wasn't as difficult as Hisoka had feared to slip away in the evening. The others accepted without question his half-truth that his earlier absence had given him something to explore, but that he needed to be alone so their emotions didn't block it out. They were all discouraged and out of ideas, and seemed content to sit with the family of ghosts for the evening. Hisoka thought of the monks and the detective, silently fading into the background of these memories, and shuddered. He hoped it was just a passing weariness, and not anything more sinister. He hoped he was heading towards a solution, and not being lured away where he could not help them.
He reached the boulder just as dusk was turning the woods grey and the river black. At first he could see no way across the racing water, but then a faint glow rose from the rapids, like a swarm of fireflies taking flight. The glow coalesced into silver strands, which in turn knit themselves together into a rope bridge that spanned the river. Hisoka had to steel himself to step onto it. The sticky way it tugged at his shoes made him shudder. He was careful not to put his hands near the rails, and walked across as quickly as he could.
The woods beyond were heavier and darker. Watari was right: the trees here had never been felled. Lacking any other direction, Hisoka simply began walking away from the river. There was a great sense of age in this part of the forest, as if nothing had disturbed this landscape in hundreds, even thousands of years. If the village was a piece of the old Japan that had been lost to the new century, this was a fragment of the ancient land that had existed before the people in it even had a name for it.
He began to see the webs out of the corner of his eye as the darkness deepened beneath the trees. His first instinct was to move away from the thicker clusters, but he checked himself, and instead turned towards where they lay densest. He could feel the faint ghostly touch of them on his skin as he began to pass through deep pockets of web. Ahead, a glow was strengthening, the same silvery light he'd seen the night before.
He came to the brink of a hollow, and saw that here the webs were as thick and high as a wall, but the hollow was relatively clear, save for the single strands that ran from all directions into its centre.
And sitting in the centre… Hisoka couldn't say he was surprised, but the spider sent a visceral shiver of horror through him nonetheless. It was enormous, bigger than a house, and it was sitting very still, and all six of its eyes were trained on Hisoka with unquestionable intent.
"Kazusa said you wanted to talk to me."
A pause, and then there was a touch on his mind. He shied back, but to his surprise, the mind that brushed his bore no resemblance to its outer form. It was clear and brilliant, with a shining power behind it that was in no way human, and there was curiosity, kindness, and intelligence running through it like the silver threads Hisoka had seen in the woods.
I do indeed, said a voice heard within his mind rather than with his ears. I think perhaps you can help me, and I think, perhaps, I can help you.
"Is Kazusa safe?"
That I do not know, but she came to no harm while she was here. If I could have freed her from her captor, I would have done so, but he has her body in his keeping, and though she can walk the worlds outside it, she is still mortal and must return.
"Who are you? Why did you bring me here?"
I am Rikugou, said the spider, and I brought you here because I have seen the reflection of my lost master in your dreams.
"Your… master?" Hisoka thought back to what Wakaba had told him. The next word he said carefully, balancing it on his tongue as if it might bite. "Tsuzuki."
"The shinigami who died three years ago."
He is not dead.
Hisoka nodded slowly. That… didn't surprise him, somehow.
"Everyone in the Judgement Bureau thinks he is."
Not everyone. Enma knows full-well that he lives, but cannot find him. We have ensured that.
We eleven Shikigami who are bound to Tsuzuki.
The spider - Rikugou - shifted in the centre of the clearing. One spindly leg lifted and moved in a beckoning motion. Hisoka approached without fear. Rikugou's intimidating spider form paled into insignificance compared to the brilliance of his mind and spirit. Hisoka no longer believed this was a trap.
"If you're the ones hiding him, how is he 'lost'?"
There are many ways to lose oneself. He still calls upon us, and we still protect him, but he does not hear us, he will not listen. Not even Byakko, not even Suzaku can reach him. He is deep in a lightless place that grows only darker each day. We are afraid for him. A pause. We want him back.
"Why me? Wakaba is desperate to talk to you - she thinks you hate her now--"
We do not hate her. There was an ache of grief in Rikugou's voice. How could we hate her, our gatekeeper, our sister, our friend? We do not hate Wakaba. But we cannot trust her, or any of Enma's pawns. He watches them too closely.
Hisoka shivered. "If they are pawns then so am I. I'm part of the Summons Division too."
But you are different.Your dreams of Tsuzuki are different. You have seen him since he went into the darkness.
Rikugou extended his four front legs and took hold of a segment of web from the clearing wall. He drew it closer, pulling it free all in one piece, and the strands seemed to melt and flow into a single silver surface. Mirrors, Kazusa had said. Mirrors, not webs.
In the mirror, Hisoka saw fire, blazing impossibly black, and great chunks of stone, and curls of dark smoke that looked like the coils of a serpent. On the edge of hearing, someone screamed: "Let me go!" It was Watari's voice, torn almost beyond recognition, and then, as if in echo, Hisoka heard another voice whisper, pleading: "Let me go." The mirror turned black with smoke and flame, and deja vu struck Hisoka forcefully. He had… dreamed this, he knew. Dreamed it in Kumamoto… or rather, unwittingly been caught up as Tatsumi dreamed it.
But now he knew the second voice. It was the voice of the purple-eyed man from the hospital, and Hisoka was half-expecting it when the image in the mirror melted into the same vision he'd seen for himself only a few hours earlier, but even that small forewarning did little to dull the shock.
"That's Tsuzuki?" he said when he could speak again.
"But how…" Hisoka shook his head, trying to clear it. "I don't even remember this! I only saw it from the outside--"
Your memories have been altered.
Rikugou lifted the slender tip of one foreleg against Hisoka's forehead, pressing lightly on the spot where mystics claimed the third eye lay.
Hisoka nodded. He felt a stirring in his mind, as if cobwebs were being brushed aside.
There are many places in your thoughts where the glass of your recollection has been clouded, said Rikugou after a few moments. More than once… and in different ways… but by the same hand, I think. The older magic is burned into your soul… it has had many years to tighten its grip upon you, and I cannot break it, though I can show you the form it takes…
Hisoka saw himself in the mirror, naked in a darkened room, as he had been the night he'd looked for the scars of suicide on his body - but now there were bright red ribbons of fire across his chest, letters inscribed on his flesh whose meaning he could not understand, but whose malice was unmistakeable.
This curse killed you, said Rikugou. There was a cold contempt in his voice. It was cleverly woven and concealed from you even after your death. Had you passed all the judges and begun a new life, its taint would still have followed you. The faint hint of a sharp smile. I doubt it occurred to its maker that you would choose to serve as a Shinigami. He underestimated you badly. Let us hope he continues to do so.
The more recent spell I can lift, for it was cast hastily and only has such power on you because its maker had already trodden the secret paths of your mind, without your consent. Hisoka felt something spindly against his back, another of Rikugou's legs, supporting him. A wordless question and answer passed between their minds, for Rikugou, Hisoka sensed, held a deep and powerful hatred for those who entered without permission. It was reassuring. Prepare yourself. This will hurt.
When it was over, Hisoka huddled on the ground, cradling his aching head. The tide of returning memory was so dizzying he retched, but he fought through the nausea and the pain to try and grasp the whole of it.
Let the mirrors help, said Rikugou. He crouched closer to Hisoka, his massive form acting as shield and shelter.
Hisoka lifted his head and looked into the mirror, and together, they watched the missing pieces of Hisoka's memories reassemble themselves, and now Hisoka could see how it fitted, understood how Tsuzuki had activated the ward - his own ward, left in that drawer in his desk - and how he'd known about Hijiri, and why he'd been so terrified to learn that Hisoka was from the Summons Division.
Then Sargatanas was bound, and Hisoka was transfixed by the man who had completed the ritual. Silver hair, and an eye that was hidden from the world because, Hisoka knew with utter certainty, it was not fully human… the doctor, Kazusa's doctor, the man who gave orders to Tsuzuki with the unwavering expectation they would be obeyed, the man who had spoken so easily of the killing of gods.
He wears white, Rikugou said, in mockery of his darkness, and so that when he kills, the blood will show his true self in an instant, like ink dropped into clear water.
"Who is he?"
I do not know his name. Tsuzuki never told us. But he has power, and the soul of a demon, and three years ago he took our master from us.
The mirror's vision faded. Hisoka found he was shaking uncontrollably. He felt sore and bruised inside his mind, and the flood of memory was still taking time to settle into its proper place.
"And since then you've been hiding Tsuzuki from the Judges?"
Yes. We do not want Enma to find him first.
"You're certain he's looking?"
Oh yes. Why else would he have brought you into his fold?
"What do you mean?"
Rikugou gave a dry and rasping laugh.
Enma has a mirror of his own, he said. And you stood before it in judgement. His eyes are keen. Even with so much of your past hidden, he could not have missed seeing what I saw… seeing Tsuzuki cross your path in the world of the living.
Hisoka sucked in his breath in something that was not quite a sob. "That's why… that's why, then… that Lord Enma offered me the job, even though he knew I'd… that I was recorded as a suicide."
I do not doubt it. A pause. I had thought to ask for your help as one outside the web, but I see now that you are already part of this.
They sat in silence as Hisoka slowly regained his composure. It was fully night now, and the stars above were bright and beckoning. Some part of Rikugou's mind was on them, Hisoka sensed, watching the way they spun and tracing the patterns they laid out for the future.
"So this is why you didn't want to talk to the others," he said at length. "If they knew Tsuzuki was alive…"
They would tear the world apart to find him. They could not help themselves.
"And Lord Enma would follow. But that means I can't go looking for him either. It's just luck I didn't tell anyone about him before that doctor took my memories…"
Luck, and your own good judgement. You saw the shadows in the Summons Division, and you knew better than to trust them.
Hisoka realised, with a jolt of warm surprise, that Rikugou thought highly of him: he admired Hisoka's clear sight and determination. Hisoka sensed his amusement, and a gentle affirmation.
I am already bound to a master, said Rikugou, but I will gladly give you any aid I can. And not only for Tsuzuki's sake.
All at once, Hisoka remembered what he'd originally hoped to accomplish, before the revelations Rikugou had brought upon him.
"Can you get us out of here?"
I can, said Rikugou. This place was not of my making, but I took shelter in it when I slipped out of Gensoukai, and my presence has strengthened it… and made it dangerous, I am sad to say. I was troubled by the mortals who became ensnared, and alarmed when Shinigami came in turn to investigate. Before you came, I had decided reluctantly that I must depart and return to Gensoukai so they could escape.
"Isn't Gensoukai closed off?"
Yes. But a spider can always find a way in… or out. I slipped into the mortal world just after the gate was closed, and found this place, and I have been here since, watching the stars. It is the only way we can gather any news of Tsuzuki, apart from when he summons one of us - and those times have been few and far between, at least until recently.
Yes. Whatever the pale man has him doing, it requires him to fight spirits and bind demons. Byakko has been very busy of late.
Hisoka frowned as his thoughts returned to the others. "I'll need to think of something to tell them…"
You can tell them the truth. This place was deeply loved. A kami came to dwell in the mountain and guarded these people from all that would harm them… but it could not guard them from their own hearts, and when they chose to leave, it could not - and would not - stop them. Without anyone to feed its spirit with prayers, it withered into a husk and faded on the breeze, but while there was anything of it left, it held the memory of its people close, and watched their lives unfold again and again.
Rikugou moved, raising himself up on his eight legs to a height that exceeded the trees. Where he had been sitting, the threads that ran into the clearing came together in an intricate mandala.
That kami is gone now, but its memories were strengthened by repetition, and lingered on. If I had not come here, there would only have been ghosts and shadows left in the ruins… but you need not tell your companions that. Tell them your power led you to the ends of the threads, and you were able to unweave them. That, too, is truth of a kind.
Rikugou slipped the tip of one leg into the depths of the mandala, and tore. Threads flew out in all directions, and all around him Hisoka felt a rustle and rush of wind in the trees, and saw the silver webs begin to dissolve.
"What about you?"
I must return to Gensoukai. Without this place to shield me, I may not be able to evade Enma's sight. But I meant what I said, Kurosaki Hisoka. I am an astrologer, not warrior, but if I can aid you, call upon me. I know much of the mind and its secrets. I can teach you how to better defend yourself.
A few loose strands of web stirred at Hisoka's feet and came together in a tight mesh. It glowed brightly, and when the light faded the web had become a mirrored disk in a golden frame, the size of Hisoka's palm. He bent to pick it up. Reflected in it, he saw his own face, but where Rikugou's spider form should have been, there was instead a man wearing archaic robes embroidered with astrological symbols. He smiled and nodded, and Hisoka saw a second pair of eyes on his forehead, closed for now.
With this you can speak to me in Gensoukai, but take care not to bring it into Enma's presence. He would sense its power even if he did not know its purpose.
"Thank you." Hisoka slipped the mirror into his pocket. "And… thank you for what you did. For giving me back my memories."
It was the very least I could do. Rikugou's voice was as clear as ever, but Hisoka saw that his form was fading into transparency. He seemed to hesitate before speaking again. I know you will pursue the pale man, that you will seek to find the answers, for your own sake, and for those you call friends in the Summons Division. You do not know Tsuzuki, or love him as we do. Still I ask you… will you try to help him?
Hisoka remembered how Tsuzuki had drawn back, turned away, ready to let the doctor do as he wished if he could only be absolved of responsibility for it… and he remembered Byakko leaping to protect him, and Tsuzuki's voice, grating but determined, "Leave Hisoka alone."
And then that moment in the hospital, something they had shared that had been exorcised from Hisoka's conscious memories.
"So many doors here. But no way out."
"Yes," Hisoka said. "I'll try."
The bridge of webs was still there when Hisoka reached the river, but it vanished the second his feet were solidly on the other bank. He could no longer see any hint of the glimmering strands between the trees, and the forest felt different. It took him a moment to realise he could hear a bird somewhere in the distance singing its evening lullaby, and that somewhere far beyond, he could feel the ebb and flow of humanity that had been on the edge of hearing all his life.
The others were looking for him in the village. The houses were still there, but they were beginning to fade around the edges, and Hisoka could see the outlines of the trees that had grown up in the modern day, sometimes spearing right through the middle of a building. The people were no more than flickers, brief still images glimpsed out of the corner of his eye.
"Bon!" Watari dashed up to him with an energy that had been sorely lacking earlier in the evening. "What did you do?"
"I… cut the threads," Hisoka said.
Terazuma and Wakaba caught up to them, also full of questions, and Hisoka repeated what Rikugou had told him. A wave of sadness passed over him as he watched the houses around them grow slowly more transparent with every word he spoke. This place had been deeply loved, but that was not enough to resist the tides of time now that the Shikigami had departed. It wasn't as hard as he'd feared to make his story sound convincing. As Rikugou had said, it was mostly the truth.
"Look," said Terazuma as he came to the end of it. They all followed the direction of his pointing finger, and saw the two monks sitting on the ground, the outlines of a house still around them. They were looking around them in a daze. "Guess the other one's around somewhere."
"We'll take them down to the village," Watari said. "Make something up about hallucinations, mushrooms or something." He paused thoughtfully. "Or maybe… hey, Bon, d'you think you could get at their minds, make them remember something different--"
"No," snarled Hisoka. For a moment he felt sick again, but mostly he was almost too angry to speak. He finally managed to spit out, "I can't do that, and even if I could, I wouldn't."
"Whoa, okay, I just thought--"
Watari scowled and seemed about to snap back, but then Wakaba spoke for the first time since Hisoka had told them the village's story.
"I need to go get my things from the shrine." Her voice was quiet and there was something broken behind it. "I'll just be a few minutes."
Terazuma turned to follow her, but she shook her head.
"Kuro-chan might still react to the shrine," she said.
"You ain't going alone--"
"I'll go with you," Hisoka said quickly. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. "You two find the other mortal. We'll meet you at the path."
Both Watari and Terazuma began to protest being ordered around, but Wakaba was already walking away, so Hisoka followed without bothering to argue.
They didn't speak. Hisoka didn't need empathy to know that Wakaba had wanted to be alone. But Rikugou had asked him one more favour, and he had agreed, and he'd been wondering how he would get her away from the others before they returned to Meifu…
At the shrine, Wakaba went straight for the bells, taking their silk wrappings out of her bag and beginning to swathe them again. Hisoka took a deep breath. He was afraid of how she would react, if he was honest. And he was afraid that she would want to ask more questions than he was comfortable answering.
A pause. "Hisoka-chan, could you give me a few minutes?"
Hisoka put his hand in his pocket and took hold of the thing Rikugou had given him.
"There's something else I didn't tell you, about this place," he said carefully. "At the centre of the webs… I met someone. And he asked me to give you something."
Wakaba turned towards him with a confused look on her face. "What do you mean? Who would--?"
Hisoka crossed the space between them and brought his hand out of his pocket. Wakaba stopped mid-sentence when she saw what he held.
There was a silence so sharp it could have cut the shadow from a soul. Wakaba's hand flew to her mouth, clamping across it as if she were holding back a scream. Slowly, she reached out with the other to take the small wooden puzzle box that lay in the palm of Hisoka's hand. She was shaking so hard by the time she touched it that she almost dropped it onto the forest floor, but her fingers moved with certainty to slide loose the first parts of the puzzle. She seemed to know the box by heart, deftly twisting and unlocking its layers to reveal what lay at the centre… a single black feather. Wakaba stared at it, and Hisoka thought she had forgotten even to breathe. Her eyes were so full of tears, and her mind so utterly still with shock, that he was worried he'd hurt her, that Rikugou had been wrong when he'd said this would make things better…
And then she took a breath, and let out a sob, and her emotions flared to life with such blazing, brilliant joy that Hisoka staggered back. It was like a banked fire suddenly coming to life, flames leaping and dancing, a soaring gladness that engulfed her so completely that she seemed to glow against the darkness of the trees. She was crying in earnest now as she curled her fingers around the feather and brought her hand up to press it against her heart, but the tears were like the poison leaving a wound, a deep and terrible hurt beginning to heal.
"Wakaba-san…?" Hisoka said hesitantly. He didn't think he could touch her, not when her emotions were so overwhelming, but he wanted to do something. "Are… you okay?"
She smiled through her tears.
"There was a Shikigami here," she said.
Hisoka nodded. "He told me the others can't know."
"He said his name was Rikugou."
Wakaba took a shaky breath. "Rikugou? I've never known him to leave Gensoukai." She opened her hand again to look at the feather as if she couldn't believe it was really there. "Did he say… anything else?"
"No. He just said to give you the box. He said… you'd understand."
And this was the moment Hisoka had dreaded, where surely she would have a hundred questions, starting with why Rikugou had spoken to Hisoka and not to her…
But Wakaba just nodded.
"Yes," she said. "I understand." And she smiled at him like a sunrise. "Thank you, Hisoka-chan."
She laid the feather back inside the box and closed it up as easily as she had opened it, before slipping it into her bag. She turned back to the altar and began to gather her bells with hands that still trembled faintly. And around him, Hisoka felt the world waver, and saw shadows of memory unfold, reflected in the last of the mirrors. He caught a glimpse of Wakaba with two winged Shikigami, teaching them how to open the box, and the laughter and love between them was like the sun coming up on a cloudy day.
The memory faded, and with it, the last of the ghostly village. They were no longer standing in a shrine, but merely a small clearing where a few fragments of moss-covered wood could be seen beneath the carpet of bushes. Above them, the sky was light. The stars that had shone on the village were nowhere to be seen.
"I wish I knew what this place was called," Hisoka said suddenly.
"Kouya," Wakaba replied. "That was the one question… the people would give us an answer to."
Happy valley. Hisoka nodded slowly.
"Let's… remember it, then."
"Yes." Wakaba put the last of her bells in her bag. She held out her hand to him. To Hisoka's own surprise, he took it. "Let's remember it."
Hisoka fully expected trouble when they returned to Meifu. He and Terazuma had left without authorisation, and he understood now why that would induce such panic in the Summons Division. He'd already decided the best way to go would be to apologise in the formal style he'd learned so well from his father. The last thing he needed was to draw more attention to himself before he'd had a chance to decide what to do next.
He hadn't expected the silence. The people they passed in the halls stopped talking and stared. There was whispering, but when Hisoka looked towards the sound, people shut their mouths and averted their eyes. A bubble of space spread out in front of them as they walked. Some of the officials from the other divisions hurried away. Others watched the four Shinigami as if they expected an outburst at any second.
"I don't like the looks of this," Terazuma muttered.
"Yeah." Watari continued to walk confidently through Bureau, but Hisoka sensed the dread welling up in him. "Something's happened."
"We've been gone a week," Wakaba said. "Maybe they were worried about us."
Hisoka reached out and brushed the minds around them.
"Worried, yes," he said. "Anxious, nervous, scared… but not about us. Or at least, not about our safety."
"Hell," said Terazuma. "What're we in for now?"
The Summons office was also unnaturally quiet, though there were more shinigami present than Hisoka had ever seen in his time in Meifu so far. Most of them turned to look as the door opened, and here at least there was a ripple of surprise and relief, tinged with the same dread that had pervaded the rest of the Judgement Bureau.
"Yo," said Watari breezily, "what did we miss?"
Before anyone could answer, Konoe threw open his door and stared at them through narrowed eyes for several long seconds.
"Watari, Kannuki," he barked. "Terazuma, Kurosaki. In here. Now."
Konoe barely gave them time to shut the door. "You want to tell me where you've been? Why you didn't call in? What you--" he pointed at Terazuma and Hisoka, "--thought you were doing, taking off like that?"
"We couldn't call in--"
"We were trapped--"
"Couldn't sit here an' do nothin'--"
"One at a time!" Konoe roared. His gaze snapped to Hisoka. "Kurosaki. You've barely been here a month. I expected better from you."
For a moment Hisoka was consumed by anger, a towering rage he could barely contain. His father had always 'expected better' too… but the unfamiliar surge of emotion so alarmed him that he crushed it instinctively, clawing back control with no more outward sign than a quick breath and a slight colouring of his cheeks.
"Watari-san and Wakaba-san were trapped in an illusion left over from a dead kami," he said with icy precision. "When they didn't report back, Terazuma-san and I were worried, so we went to find them. We dispelled the illusion, rescued the mortals who had been trapped in it, and returned as soon as we could."
"He says 'we'," Watari interjected, "but Bon got us outta there. We'd have been stuck for good without him."
"Yes," Wakaba said, "it was a good thing they came. We couldn't see through the illusions, but Hisoka-chan could."
"Shoulda sent him in the first place," Terazuma said with a scowl that implied he hadn't forgotten that his objections to sending Wakaba with Watari had been overruled. "Kid knows what he's doin'."
A lot of the bluster had gone out of Konoe as they spoke. Hisoka could feel his surprise, which was matched only by Hisoka's own. The last thing he'd expected had been for the other three to speak out so strongly in his defence, and he sensed that Konoe hadn't seen it coming either. And behind the surprise was a glimmer of… relief? Gladness? Something Hisoka couldn't quite catch, but that made him see Konoe's anger in another light. He, at least, had been worried about them.
"Well," Konoe grumbled after a moment, "be that as it may. I'll need full reports, from all of you. Every little detail - make sure you come up with a good reason for everything you did. I can't afford to lose anyone else right now."
"Lose?" Watari tensed. "What do you mean?"
"Tatsumi has been removed from the division by the Judgement Bureau's security force," Konoe said quietly. "For investigation of his actions in the Sargatanas case, and… his role in the disaster in Kyoto."
To be continued in "Into the Fire".