|The Gray Man
Author: SilvorMoon PM
Sora's father is researching old mountain legends, and he's letting her come along for the ride! Too bad for her those legends are real, and now she's being haunted by a mysterious Gray Man...Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Supernatural/Adventure - Sora T. - Chapters: 3 - Words: 43,725 - Reviews: 11 - Favs: 7 - Follows: 1 - Updated: 03-31-04 - Published: 03-15-04 - Status: Complete - id: 1773888
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Professor Takenouchi did not appear again until evening. Sora had considered waking him up for dinner, but she decided that he would wake up on his own when he'd slept enough, and in the meantime, it behooved her to keep quiet and not disturb him until he was ready to awaken. She passed the time as best she could and tried not to fidget. Most of the day was spent fiddling with the portable video game Daisuke had lent her. She was not ordinarily a video game player, preferring actual reality to virtual reality, but she had actually gotten quite good at the game by the time her father finally shuffled downstairs. She'd gotten so caught up that she didn't realize the professor was there until he was standing right behind her.
"Having fun?" he inquired.
"Yow!" she said, and dropped the game. Her video game avatar quietly slid into a chasm and died, to the accompaniment of doom-filled music.
"Sorry!" he said. "I didn't mean to throw you off."
She smiled. "That's all right. I'm just happy to see you up and around again."
"Don't worry about a thing," he said. "The... transformation, or whatever it is... it eats up a lot of energy, but it usually doesn't take long to recover. Not unless I do something really major, which I haven't. Not recently, anyway."
"Do you feel well enough to answer some more questions?" she asked. "You've got to admit, this is really strange. I'd feel a lot better if I understood it a little more."
"I don't blame you," he answered. "I wish someone had been around when all this first started to explain things to me. As it is, I'm still working by trial-and-error... but I'll explain as much as I can. Would you like to sit out on the porch?"
"Why?" she asked.
"Because," he answered, "I'd feel better for a breath of fresh air... and because I'd like to show you something."
"Oh. All right. Coming, Piyomon?"
The little bird nodded. The three of them trooped out onto the back porch and settled themselves on the steps. The sky was the cool blue of early evening, just after sunset, and the first stars were winking in the east. A soft breeze rustled the tops of the trees. It was the right time and place, Sora thought, for discussing magic.
"I suppose," said the professor, "you remember telling me that you thought something had been following you yesterday? I didn't say anything about it, then, but I've known all along that you were being followed."
"You did?" asked Sora.
"Yes," he answered, "because I was the one who told him to do it - especially after I heard about your meeting with the old woman and her dogs. I asked him to keep an especially close eye on you after that. Here."
He cupped his hands to his mouth and made a series of strange sounds, a mix of guttural growls and high-pitched yips. The call was answered by a rustle and a patter, and a large fox bounded out of the forest. He trotted familiarly into the yard and stretched out on the ground with his forelegs crossed primly in front of him and his tongue lolling in a vulpine grin. He was, of course, the kitsune who had rescued Sora earlier. The professor spoke to him in that strange animal language, speaking carefully and stumbling on the difficult words, but he seemed to know what he was talking about. When he had finished, the fox nodded politely and said a few words back to him. Then he turned to Sora and nodded politely.
"Hello again, girl-pup," he said. "I am glad to see you're still alive and whole. I did try to tell you, dusk-lizards are no prey for a girl alone, or even accompanied by such a fine bird. Leave them alone until you have more experience. Yip!" He made an abrupt, high-pitched bark that Sora guessed was his way of laughing.
"I wouldn't have met them at all if I'd had a choice in it," she said. "Thank you very much for saving me."
"You did have a choice," said the kitsune. "You should have stayed out of the forest. I would have thought your father would have warned you of the danger."
"He did," said Sora quickly. "I just didn't listen."
"I didn't tell you nearly enough," said the professor. "I should take some of the blame. I knew there were dusk-lizards, and other equally nasty things in there... but I didn't know how to tell you so you'd believe me."
"Lucky for you, there are kitsune in the forest as well," said the fox. "At least one, anyway, and one is all you need."
"Yes, that is true," said the professor, smiling. "Sora, allow me to introduce you to my friend and research partner. This is..." He made a complicated sort of growling noise.
"I don't think I can say all that," said Sora.
"I'm not very good at it, myself," her father admitted. "I've been assured that my accent in kitsune is atrocious. However, he has permitted me to give him a name in the human tongue. I call him Arthur. It seems to amuse him, and it's easy enough to say in either language."
"He assures me it is a noble name," said the kitsune called Arthur. "Fortunately I am fluent enough in human speech, otherwise I would have suspected him of naming me after a toaster- oven or something equally absurd."
"You speak very well," said Sora. It was true. She might not have spoken kitsune any more than she could jump to the moon, but she was sure her father had more of an accent in the language than Arthur had in Japanese.
Arthur flicked his tails in dismissal of the compliment. "When you live as long as my kind do, you have to find some kind of hobby to keep you busy. I choose to meddle in the affairs of human beings. The rest of my tribe thinks I'm a bit crazy for taking such an interest in you magic-less creatures - saving the good professor's presence, of course - but it gives me something to do."
"Arthur has been a useful associate of mine almost from the beginning," said Professor Takenouchi. "He keeps me plugged into the spiritual grapevine, and I provide him with scraps of information for his research. And we watch each other's backs in times of danger, of course."
"Or the back of certain young progeny of his," Arthur chimed in.
"Yes," the professor agreed. "As soon as I realized you might be in danger, I asked Arthur if he would trail you and keep an eye on you - secretly, of course."
"But he wasn't secret," said Sora. "I heard him following me. So did Piyomon... well, today she did."
"Yes," said her father again, and this time he looked faintly worried. "I suppose that was my fault. There was only so much I could do for you while you were awake, if I wanted to avoid awkward questions, so I had to constrain myself to putting protective wardings around you when you were asleep at night. I suspect that touch of magic gave you just enough connection to the spirit world to know when such creatures were nearby. Not enough to see them clearly or learn their nature, perhaps, but enough to know they were there." He frowned. "I have to wonder if that also attracted the local spirits to you, or if there was some other reason."
"I could have told you that," said Arthur. "It's not your magic that's got the spirits riled up. They were stirring before you came here. But they're drawn to the magic that stems from the girl and the bird."
"I don't have any magic!" Sora protested.
"Don't you?" asked her father. "And here I thought you had enough to help save two worlds, if not more."
"But that wasn't magic, that was-" said Sora, and stopped.
"Magic," Arthur said. "Or if not, then something very like it. A different kind, maybe. Not the magic of nature. Technology-magic. Computer-magic, maybe, if some of the stories your father tells about you are true. It is strange and different, and the local beings are curious about it. Some are frightened by it. Some covet it. Either way, it is a dangerous magic to have, here in the wild."
Sora shivered a little. She thought of her dream of the old hag that the Gray Man had fought. Hadn't he said something about the old woman wanting Sora's power for herself?
"Dad," she said suddenly, "I've been having these dreams. Every night since I came here, I've dreamed about you - about the Gray Man. You were doing things... Were they real?"
"That would depend on what kind of things you dreamed I was doing," he answered.
"Well, the first night, I just saw you walking in the forest..."
"That's reasonable enough. I've been doing plenty of that."
"And then I dreamed that you fought the old woman with the dogs," Sora continued. "And after that, it was the monster that killed the boy from the village."
Her father nodded slowly. "Yes, those sound like accurate reflections of my work to date."
"So that old woman was really some kind of spirit?" asked Piyomon. "And those dogs, too? Is that why my attacks didn't work on them?"
"Yes, yes, yes," he said. "The old woman... she is a kind of mountain spirit."
"False Turning," Sora murmured.
Her father gave her a curious look, but said, "That is one possible name for her, yes. Her delight is to lure travelers onto magical paths and lose them in the forest, either for her own entertainment or for her magic. If she thinks you are of no use, she feeds you to her spirit-dogs. If she does think you're useful..." He trailed off and shrugged. "You should feel very lucky that Piyomon stopped you from going into her hut. If you had ever come out again, you wouldn't have been in any recognizable shape. Perhaps not even to me."
Sora shuddered. "I am thankful. So you destroyed her for attacking me?"
The professor sighed regretfully. "No, I simply banished her back to the heart of the mountain... as punishment for going out of bounds."
"Out of bounds?" Sora repeated blankly.
"If I could have, I gladly would have destroyed her. I have no liking for creatures like that who live only to cause suffering. However, she is part of nature, and is what her own nature dictates. Her function is to lure travelers on to false turnings. That is what she does - all she ever can do. She can't help doing it any more than a snake can help killing baby ducks when it's hungry. I can't punish her for doing what she was created to do. However, spirits must abide by rules, and she is only permitted to take travelers in certain ways, from certain places. She should not have bothered you as long as you were on one of the town's main roads. The road through the village, like the road to this house, is an old way, and protected. She had no authority to take anyone who walked it, but she was apparently so tempted by your presence that she tempted you directly off the main road. That was why I was sent to punish her."
"That doesn't seem fair," said Sora.
"The ways of Nature are not always fair," her father answered. "Not even usually. It is one of my chief regrets."
"Be comforted," said Arthur. "The old hag has been sent to the heart of the mountain, miles under the earth. She will be years worming her way out of that again, and years more recovering her foul hounds. She will not have power again in your lifetime. Even then, she will probably be much more careful who she snatches in the future."
"Oh," said Sora. She was not particularly pleased by this answer, but she decided to let it drop. "What about the other thing - the dusk-lizard, I think you called it. What happened to it? You banished it, too, didn't you?"
"Yes," he said, "and I was merciful to that one. I would have been within my rights to destroy it. I did destroy the one that attacked you, and Arthur killed the other two himself."
"The young lady got the first one a nice poke in the eye," said Arthur approvingly. "It might have died anyway without my help."
"The dusk-lizards are not true spirits," said the Professor. "Not like the False Turning, or even like Arthur here. A true spirit-being can live on pure energy, is immune to natural sickness and many forms of physical injury and infirmity, and will live practically forever unless something very powerful kills them. The dusk-lizards are monsters only. They have some innate magic, but they are only marginally intelligent, need food to survive, and can be killed by normal, physical means. An ordinary man with a small hatchet and a measure of courage could kill one without much more effort than would take to finish off, say, a large dog. It's dangerous, messy business, but it can be done without aid of magic. That just speeds the process a lot."
"So why didn't you kill it, then?" Sora asked.
"Because it provided me with information," he answered, "and that was what I desperately needed. Dreadful as the thing was, it was the first being I'd encountered who could give me any clue as to what was going on... as to why I'm really here."
"What do you mean?"
His mouth quirked in a wry smile. "I think it can be taken as said that I seldom if ever know exactly what I'm doing. When I am sent on a mission, it is usually no more than a point in the right direction. I have to do a lot of detective work. I have to talk to people and listen to the rumors. I have to win the trust of local spirits and persuade them to part with some of their knowledge. I have to spend a lot of time just scouring the countryside looking for clues. Sometimes I get lucky and someone tells me right off what I'm after. Other times I find myself trapped in a proverbial fog. This has been one of those times. I know something bad is lurking near this town somewhere, but I don't know its nature or its purpose, much less where exactly it is now. That is the puzzle I've been trying to solve, and last night I got my first real hint."
Sora blinked, puzzled. "But I thought it was the dusk-lizards who were doing the killing."
"Yes," said Arthur, "and that was a puzzle in itself. Dusk-lizards may not be as intelligent as humans, much less kitsune but they are smart enough to know that there are big, strong farmers in that town down there who can club them over the head and kill them if they came too close. For the most part, they are cowards who never attack anything more dangerous than perhaps a lone wolf. For one to kill a human, even a small one, near the borders of a populated area... it is a thing quite strange. So, you believe you have an answer, sensei?"
"A hint," the professor said. "When I spoke to the dusk-lizard who killed the boy, he told me that been ordered to kill a human and bring it back with him, but that he'd fled when he heard the sound of another human approaching. When I pressed it, it told me a remarkable thing. It said it had received its orders from a tree. Now, what do you make of that?"
"Are there talking trees around here?" asked Piyomon. "I knew there are lots of them in the Digital World, but I haven't seen many in this world."
"Oh, there are a few around," said Arthur. "They're a dying breed, sad to say. Not many people pay attention to them anymore. Stubborn things, most of them - mired in the past. There are one or two around here, that I know of, but I thought they were on good terms with the local humans."
"There are things that live inside trees, though," said the professor grimly.
Arthur's ears flicked forwards and backwards, as if something surprising had just occurred to him. "You don't think... a chiworm?"
"It's a possibility," said the professor.
"Stars, I hope not," Arthur answered with a shudder. "I never want to see one of those again. Once was enough. It took all nine of the local clan leaders to finish the thing off. Forgive me for saying so, but a chiworm might be a bit out of your league, friend."
"Nevertheless," said the professor, squaring his shoulders, "I've been sent to deal with it, and I must try."
"Well, then, I hope it's not a chiworm, after all," said Arthur. "Still, can't be too careful. I'll start checking for rumors of talking trees, if you like."
"I'll let you know if I find anything, then," the fox replied. "Best of luck to you, old friend. I'd hate to lose one of the few humans I know who still speak kitsune. And goodbye, young lady. It was pleasant to meet you face to face. Farewell, noble bird. Choose your battles more carefully next time!"
With that, the fox gave a flick of his tails, and seemed to vanish into the shadows. Sora stared.
"That's not quite how I imagined a kitsune would be," she said.
"Well, he is quite young, as far as his people go," her father replied. "He's only... three-hundred and seventy-eight, I think. Not quite four hundred, anyway. He won't be full grown until he has the full set of nine tails, and that probably won't be until long after you and I are gone."
"I hope I get to meet him again," said Sora. "That's the kind of spirit I like."
Her father smiled. "Yes, I'm grateful that not everything I run into has to be monstrous. When I've dealt with the matter at hand, I'll have to show you some other things... It will be good to finally have someone to share them with."
"I'll look forward to it," said Sora.
There was a moment of silence. The two of them stared up at the sky, watching the stars come into view. There was very little moon that night, and the constellations stood out clearly against the absolute black of the sky. After a while, Sora found herself asking a question she was not sure she wanted the answer to.
"Dad," she said, "what's a chiworm?"
"Um," he said. "Well, it's... a kind of parasite. They lay their eggs inside the trunks of trees, and the eggs grow there quietly for years - centuries, sometimes, as long as the tree lives. However, when the host tree finally dies and the sap dries away, the creature inside begins to hunger. They've been known to compel weaker magical creatures, such as the dusk-lizards to bring them food. At first, they're satisfied with the blood of small creatures - frogs and lizards and things. Then squirrels. Rabbits. Foxes. The longer they're fed with the blood of living things, the stronger the larva becomes and the more it takes to satisfy them. At the last, they burst forth and eat every living thing in their path. Have you ever seen a swarm of caterpillars attack a tree? Imagine a caterpillar that can eat whole forests and towns - trees, cattle, people, everything. That's what a chiworm is."
"How do you stop something like that?" asked Sora, eyes wide.
"I don't. I never have before, at least. Chiworms are thankfully rare, and they only appear once every few hundred years. From what I've gathered, they do eventually get their fill and undergo some kind of metamorphosis, just like a caterpillar does. It's just that until that happens, it is very, very dangerous to be standing too close to it. The best way to deal with a chiworm is to find it before it hatches and destroy it then, before it has a chance to do any real damage and while it's still vulnerable." He frowned. "If the chiworm is already up to the point where it's demanding human blood, it is probably already close to hatching. I'll have to move fast if I want to catch it..."
He trailed off, and turned to look at his daughter.
"It is going to be dangerous," he said. "If things go wrong, this whole village could vanish off the face of the earth, and you with it. We've already learned from hard experience that the local spirits are drawn to you. How much more do you think you'll draw a creature whose essence is greed?" He paused a moment, and Sora, unsure if he expected an answer, said nothing. He sighed. "I can still send you home, you know. It wouldn't be difficult. I could send you back to Tokyo in the blink of an eye, if that's what you wanted. I don't want you to feel you need to be here, and Arthur and I can't always be here to protect you."
Sora shook her head. "I wouldn't leave when I thought you were in danger, and I'm not leaving now that I know you're in danger. Dad," she said, looking into his eyes, "I would go through anything to be with you, because you're my father, and I love you. No matter how bad things get, I'd still rather be here with you."
He stood in silence for a moment. He slipped his fingers beneath his glasses to rub his eyes, and she thought she saw a hint of dampness there, though it was hard to tell in the dim light.
"Sora," he said, "I know... I must have been a disappointment as a father sometimes. I truly wish I could have been there for you more often. But it comforts me, at times like these, to see that you've grown up into such a fine young woman... even if I can't take any of the credit. Right, then." He straightened up, squaring his shoulders and beating a fist into his palm. "I will take care of that chiworm. I'll tie him up and deliver him to you gift-wrapped, if that's what it takes!"
Sora beamed. "That's right, Dad. Show him who's boss."
"If I'm going to do that, I'm going to have to get going," he said. He sighed. "I'm glad I took a nap today; I'm not likely to get any sleep tonight. You ought to get some sleep, though. You've had a hard day."
"I took a nap when you did," said Sora. "I'm wide awake now - really! I want to sit up a while longer."
"All right, then," said her father. "Just don't try to wait up for me. I probably won't be back until dawn, if then."
"Don't work yourself to exhaustion," said Sora. "What happens if your worm wakes up while you're sleeping? Then we'll all be in trouble."
To her surprise, he laughed.
"Sometimes you sound just like your mother," he said. "Goodnight, Sora. You too, Piyomon. I'll see you in the morning."
With that, he loped off into the night. Just before he vanished completely into the trees, Sora thought she saw a silvery shimmer, and she knew the Gray Man was on the job again, and she smiled. She trusted her father. She was sure he could handle anything, even something that sounded as horrible as the chiworm. Thinking these reassuring thoughts, she stared up at the sky, picking out constellations. High above her head, she could see the winding trail of stars that made up Draco, the starry dragon. She watched it idly, and in her mind, it slowly took on the semblance of a real dragon, which became a creeping worm, which ate up all the other stars in the sky until she was dreaming of only darkness.
At approximately eight o'clock, she woke again with a start, and immediately felt guilty. How could she be sleeping at a time like this, when her father was out putting himself in mortal peril? She immediately got up and, without bothering to dress, tiptoed into her father's room to see if he was back yet. The room was empty, and the bed showed no signs of being slept in.
Resigning herself to a wait, and telling herself that her father had promised to be back sometime early that morning, she forced herself to go through her morning routine. She woke Piyomon, dressed and groomed herself, and made breakfast. She washed the dishes slowly and swept the kitchen floor - not because it was dirty, but because it was something to do. Always she kept an ear turned toward the door, listening intently for any signs that her father was returning. However, he did not arrive, and her spate of activity wound down to jittery boredom.
Nine o'clock passed without any sign of the professor's return. Ten slid by the same way. Sora found herself walking to the window every few minutes, peering intently into the forest, watching for any sign of him. When eleven rolled around, she was nearly in a panic, and sincerely wondering if she ought to be going into the woods to look for him. She was just about to resign herself to that unpleasant possibility, when she finally heard the sound of heavy footsteps falling on the porch out back. She ran to open the door, and her father stumbled in.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Fine, fine," he said tiredly. "As well as can be expected, anyway..."
Sora eyed him critically and decided he was right. He looked tired, but no more tired than anyone would be after being out all night. He certainly didn't look as bad as he had after he'd fought the dusk-lizard, and that struck her as being wrong.
"You didn't find it, did you," she said flatly.
The professor made a face of disgust. "Not a sign of it. No, that's not right - I heard hints, rumors, guesses, just nothing I can put my finger on. There are millions of trees on these mountains. The thing could be in any one of them." He sighed deeply. "Even with help, the odds against us finding the worm before it hatches are astronomical."
"You'll find it, Dad," said Sora bracingly.
"I know I will," he said, grimacing. "Once a chiworm hatches, it will be rather hard to miss. The trick will be finding it before that happens, and it will be a very difficult trick to pull off. Don't think me more than I am, Sora. I may be gifted with abilities other men don't have, but at bottom, I'm still just an ordinary man." He shook his head. "Still, ordinary men have been known to do great things. I'll have a rest and a bath and maybe some lunch, and start searching again. If Arthur comes around, call me."
"What if you're still in your bath?" she asked, with a ghost of a smile.
"If he has news of importance, send him up anyway," said the professor. "His kind tend to think clothing is a ridiculous notion to begin with. One of the reasons they find humans so amusing. Then again, they seem to think taking baths is a bit silly as well. Have you ever seen a fox taking a bubble bath?"
Sora managed a small laugh. She knew he was just trying to cheer her up by being silly, and she didn't want to add to his troubles by letting on how worried she was.
"I'll make lunch," she said. "For Arthur, too, if he wants it."
"That would be lovely," her father replied. "I'll see you in a bit."
He climbed slowly up the stairs and vanished from sight. Sora watched him until he had disappeared, and then headed toward the kitchen to make good her promise.
"You're worried," said Piyomon.
"Yes," Sora replied. "And frustrated. I guess I'm not used to being stuck on the sidelines when something big is going on. It's kind of stupid to be jealous that my dad is going out into danger when I can't... but I guess I'm not exactly jealous. I just wish I could do something besides hang around the house waiting for it all to be over with."
"We could go with them," Piyomon suggested. "Ask if we can help."
"We can't," said Sora bitterly. "You've seen what happens. Every time we go out into the forest, we get in trouble, and we can't defend ourselves."
"I tried," said Piyomon unhappily. "I wish I could help more..."
Sora declined to comment. She knew how her partner felt. It was a difficult transition to go from being a savior of two worlds to knowing all she could do to aid this little town was to fix lunch for the people with real power.
*I wish I could go along,* she thought as she chopped vegetables. *Even if I can't fight, I wish I could just be there...*
At least the food looked good. She had used up the last of the fresh vegetables she'd bought in town and concocted an array of rice cakes and similar delicacies, arranged neatly on platters. When her father finally reappeared, dressed in fresh clothing and still toweling his damp hair, he stared at it in surprise.
"Gracious. I wasn't expecting something quite this elaborate," he said. "When you said you'd make lunch, I was expecting sandwiches or something."
"You need your vegetables. They're good for you," she told him facetiously. "I can make rice cakes in my sleep, anyway. Besides, it's the least I can do," she added with a grimace.
"Now, don't be like that," said her father. "You are making a difference, Sora. Just the fact that I finally have someone to talk to is a huge relief. You make this so much easier for me just by being here."
She smiled a little. "I know. I mean, my mind knows it, but... I'd still like it better if I could do something a little more... constructive."
"Perhaps something will come up," said her father. "We'll think about it more later - after lunch."
They settled down to eating quietly, and Sora decided not to bother her father with any more talk. He looked somewhat refreshed after a bath, but he still looked tired, and she was sure he was also frustrated and worried, and certainly not in the mood to hear her complain about being left at home.
However, the quiet was broken in mid-meal by the sound of someone shouting at the back door - or, perhaps more accurately, howling at the back door.
"Hellooooo! Is anyone in there?"
"Arthur, don't be so loud," said the professor. "People will hear you."
"There's no one out here to hear me," said Arthur, "and even if they could, that's the least of our worries. Can I come in?"
"Yes, yes, come in. It's easier than shouting at you."
Arthur came striding in. This was interesting mainly because Sora heard no sound of the back door being opened. The fox glided into the kitchen and glanced at the gathering around the table. Sora noted that he was carrying a lump of something dark and irregularly shaped in one paw, though she could not make out precisely what it was.
"Hello again," said Arthur, nodding politely to her and Piyomon. "What's this? Food? I could use some... though I can't see what you human types see in vegetables." He picked up a rice cake and bit it. "Hm, not bad. Not the best thing I've ever had, but still palatable."
"Please, Arthur, we don't have time for small talk," Professor Takenouchi said. "What brings you here? I suppose it would be too much to hope for good news."
"You're right," said Arthur. "See what I've found."
He carefully placed the object he'd been carrying on the table, and Sora leaned closer for a better look. She realized now that it was a lump of wood, but not of any type she had ever seen before. Wood that was gold, or brown, or reddish, or gray - that she was used to. She was not used to it being black, not in its natural state. She also doubted that anyone would want to paint or stain a piece of wood this color. It was an ugly reddish-black, like dried blood...
The professor was gazing very intently at the piece of wood.
"Where did you find this, and how long ago did you find it?" he asked.
"About fifteen miles from here, as the crow flies, traveling east by northeast. It was only a few minutes ago that I found it, but by the time I'd gotten there, the worm was long gone. I'm not familiar with the creature's scent, but I guess it's been moving freely for at least two hours, if not more."
"And you didn't try to follow it?"
"What point in it? I'm only a young kitsune, after all. I don't have the power to take on even a newly-hatched chiworm. As soon as I realized what I'd found, I came straight to you."
"Very well, you did the best you could," said the professor tiredly. "We have our work cut out for us now, though.... How well do you think you could track the worm's scent?"
Arthur gave a barking laugh. "You won't need me to track him. The things leave their own trail. I'll lead you as far as the tree I found... and perhaps a bit further, out of friendship to you. I don't have it in me to fight worms, but perhaps I can be of use to you in other ways."
"Thank you." The professor rose to his feet. "I'm sorry, Sora, but duty calls. Maybe if I'm lucky, we can get to the thing before it gets near the village..."
"I want to come," said Sora.
Her father sighed. "You knew my answer to that without the bother of saying it."
"I have to come," Sora told him. "You'll need me."
"Sora, I appreciate the sentiment, but--"
"Listen, Dad," she said. "I've been thinking. You said yourself, the spirits around here seem to be drawn to me. Maybe if it senses me nearby, it will go after me instead of the town. Maybe I can distract it so you can fight it."
Her father stared at her.
"I ought to forbid you from ever having children," he murmured. "There is obviously a germ of insanity in my blood somewhere. I'd hate to see it go on any further. Listen, Sora. This is dangerous. I have no idea what I'm going to do when I find this creature, and here you are, asking me to bring you along, to remove the protections I've placed on you so you can use yourself as bait..."
"I will carry her," said Arthur abruptly. "She is light enough. She will not be a burden."
It was his turn to receive an astonished glare from the professor.
"Who asked you?" he said.
"No one," said Arthur. "I think it is a good idea. I may not know much about chiworms, but what little lore survives from those who have triumphed them says that they are not to be fought alone, even by the greatest of warriors. I have heard my grandsire say, once or twice, that it is safer to fight a chiworm in the company of the weakest newborn pup than to go trusting solely in one's own strength. And your daughter is hardly a newborn pup."
Professor Takenouchi frowned, obviously deep in thought. At last he sighed, his shoulders slumping.
"It is foolish to doubt the wisdom of the kitsune, even when it sounds ridiculous on the surface. Still, I don't like putting my child in danger. Sora, are you sure about this? ... No, don't bother saying it, I know you are. Very well. But if things go wrong and anything happens to you, I'll hunt down Arthur and his grandfather and turn them into fox-skin coats!"
"You would have a difficult time doing that, I think," said Arthur. "My grandfather died before you were born."
"Your humor is not appreciated," said the professor. "If that is all, I suppose we had best get going. Sora, go with Arthur. Don't worry about me; I have my own ways of traveling. I'll catch up to you."
Sora nodded. She beckoned to Piyomon, who followed obediently after her, and the two of them allowed Arthur to escort them outside. When they reached the back yard, Arthur dropped down to all fours and crouched on the ground.
"You will ride," he said. "Be thankful. I know of none alive today who can say they have been carried by a kitsune. You will want to hold on to your friend the bird. She will not be able to fly quickly enough to keep up. I think it will be most comfortable for both of us if you ride sidesaddle. My back was not meant to carry humans."
Sora did what she could to settle herself on his shoulders. She wondered how he was going to manage, for he was a lean and slender creature, and she was fairly sure she was his equal as far as bulk and weight were concerned, but once she'd settled herself more-or-less comfortably, he didn't seem to be inconvenienced by her.
"Lean forward a bit, and hold tightly to my fur," he said. "You may not be comfortable, but I won't let you fall."
Sora did as she was told. As soon as she had established a firm grip, the fox took off suddenly into a lightning-fast dash. She was shocked by the sudden movement, but once he found his stride, he moved as smoothly as water through its bed of polished stones, and she felt that she was hardly moving at all. She found the confidence to loosen her grip just a tiny bit, and sit up to admire the scenery.
"Do you think Dad is going to be all right?" she asked.
"Your father is a remarkable human," said Arthur. "Not just for his magic, though that is a rare thing in these waning days. Much of the old wisdom is in him, the wisdom of tree and stone, wind and sky, and of many living things. And he loves you. That is no small thing, when you are fighting the spawn of shadows. A man may have magic and courage and strength, but if he loves nothing, he is no better than they are, and they will engulf him sooner or later. Thus I advised your father to take you with him. You will be good for him, I think."
"I hope so," she said.
"I think he's right," said Piyomon. "You always helped me, when it was my turn to fight."
Sora felt a measure of comfort creep over her. "I guess you're right. Maybe I'll be able to help, somehow."
The fox's magical speed brought them to the ravaged tree in a matter of minutes, and he skidded to a halt in a clearing so small that it hardly merited the name. It would, perhaps, have held a pool table or two, but no more. Still, it was a place where the sun managed to peer through the treetops and nourish a few patches of moss and wispy clumps of grass. Sora slid off of Arthur's back, and walked tentatively over to the place where the tree had been. There was hardly anything left of it now, only the jagged edge of a stump that broke off at about hip-height. The rest of it was strewn around in the form of variously sized chunks of wood and broken branches, all of them of the same ugly red- black color of the one Arthur had brought. Strewn around the base of the tree was a pile of bones mixed with scraps of fur and feathers. Sora did not look to see if any of them were human. She turned away.
There was fog on the ground, a strange thing for midday. She looked up and saw her father - or, more precisely, the Gray Man.
"Hello again," he said, with the ghost of a smile. "I told you I'd catch up."
Arthur was sniffing around the base of the tree, sneezing from time to time.
"This entire thing smells ghastly," he said fastidiously, wiping his nose with a paw. "The whole place stinks of dusk-lizards and rotting carrion."
"Can you tell which way the worm went?" asked the Gray Man.
"Offhand, I'd say this way."
He pointed at the ground. Sora stared as hard as she could, but saw nothing. Her father, however, walked over to the place indicated and knelt on the ground, looking intently. He seemed to pick up a trail and followed it, and Sora, not knowing what else to do, followed after him. A few feet away, they encountered a tree.
"Ah," said her father softly. "Yes. Look here, Sora."
He pointed. At the base of the tree, there was a hole, just barely big enough that she could have fit her hand inside it. If she had not had it pointed out to her, she would have missed it entirely, or assumed it was just a hollow, perhaps the den of some small animal. Now she looked more closely, and saw that its sides were almost perfectly smooth, save for tiny ridges that ran down its sides, like the marks left by small, sharp teeth.
"Here is our path," he said. "Now we follow."
He set off at a brisk walk, and Sora trotted along after him, with Piyomon fluttering above her head and Arthur gliding along in their wake, almost fading into the fog.
The further they walked, the more Sora felt a growing sense of nervousness. The fog that followed them made her feel she was back in one of her dreams, and she got the sense that she had left everything that was real and safe behind her. It was also disconcerting to see the path of the chiworm growing. She could track its progress easily. At first, the holes it left were no wider than her fist. Then they grew large enough for a cat to wiggle through, and then a small dog. Then she came to places where the trees had been sheared down entirely and chewed to sawdust, until only a few twigs and leaves remained. The path never turned or wavered, and she had an uneasy feeling she knew which direction it was going.
"Are we going to catch it?" she panted, as she tried to keep pace with the Gray Man. He had been walking along tirelessly, but she was starting to get slightly out of breath.
"We will," he said. "These worms are strong, but not fast... and I have a feeling he may be changing course very soon. I have reversed the enchantments I laid on you when I got here. Instead of hiding your presence, they are advertising it to everything who has the senses to detect it. Of course, I doubt anything in this forest would tangle with a chiworm, but it will know you're here."
She shivered. Suddenly the idea of meeting up with a bloodsucking worm in this dark, misty forest was almost more than she could bear.
"Why is it always so foggy?" she asked.
Her father looked surprised at the change of subject, but he seemed to understand that she needed it, and he said, "I really don't know for sure. It seems to follow wherever I go. My hypothesis is that it is a kind of symbol, or a result of the joining of the four elements that empower me. It is the water suspended in the air, and air touching the earth, and the fire of the sun shining through them... ah, here we go."
They had come to a break in the forest, a rocky slope where the trees could not manage to grow. As they stepped out of the woods, the sun beamed down on their shroud of fog and filled it with a mysterious light. For a moment, its beauty drove all thoughts of what was to come out of Sora's mind.
"Look," said her father, pointing. "Angels."
Sora looked in the direction he was indicating. To her amazement, she could see two glowing beings standing somewhere in the distance, their forms shining in the fog. For a moment, she was ready to believe they were real angels. Then she realized that one of them was slightly taller than the other, and that the smaller one seemed to have a winged creature fluttering over its head. When Arthur slipped out of the forest to join them, a fourth figure joined the other three.
"Pretty, aren't they?" said her father. "It is a peculiar kind of optical illusion. The sun projects our images onto the fog. They happen sometimes in the mountains - not just when there's magic about. I always like seeing them."
Sora nodded in silent agreement, and her "angel" seemed to nod back to her. The presence of the glowing forms was a friendly one, and made her feel a little less alone, less frightened. She took one last look at the bright figures on the hillside before following her father back into the forest.
After that brief instance of sunlight and fresh air, the forest felt more forbidding than ever. Sora pressed close to her father as she walked, and Piyomon abandoned flying altogether to trot at Sora's side. Even Arthur seemed edgy, and kept sniffing at the air and flicking his ears. Her father had his sword sheathed at his side, but he kept fingering its pommel as if expecting to need to draw it at any second. He carried his staff in his other hand, and his grip on it was taut.
"I think we should stop," said Arthur at last.
"Is it coming?" the Gray Man asked.
"The scent is growing much stronger. The wind is blowing towards us, what little there is of it. All of it smells of worm. The ground is trembling. Something large is moving nearby, and it is coming towards us."
Sora saw her father's expression tighten. "Then we will meet it here. If we go back, we'll be out in open land where we might be seen. The further we go in this direction, the closer to the town we'll be. I don't think we'll have to worry about trees getting in our way, here," he added wryly. Their quarry had already cleared a path wide enough for a four-lane highway to pass through.
They waited. Arthur stretched out on the ground in the pose of a library lion, his ears and nose fixed on the direction the chiworm had gone. The Gray Man paced, mist swirling around him. Sora hardly knew what to do with herself, but she sat on the ground next to one of the remaining trees, cuddling Piyomon to her for comfort.
*I don't know what I'm doing here. What am I going to do when it comes? I should have stayed at home in Tokyo and been bored.*
Gradually, she began to feel a subtle change in the air around her. It was an uneasy feeling, as if all the oxygen in the area was being slowly used up. She smelled something oily and faintly unpleasant. Arthur got to his feet.
"It's coming," he said.
The Gray Man nodded and slipped his sword from its sheath with the sound of a drawn breath. "Let it come."
Sora heard something and turned to look towards it. It was a rushing sound, reminding her of waves pounding on the beach, or perhaps the roar of an approaching subway train. It grew louder until she could feel it rumbling in the earth, and she stood up, trying vainly to distance herself from what was coming.
"I think this is the time when I leave," said Arthur. Fear glinted in his brown eyes. "Best of luck, wizard. I will wait for your return!"
He turned and fled into the foggy forest. The rest of the group watched him with varying expressions.
"Why is he leaving?" asked Piyomon.
"This is not his fight," said the Gray Man. "And he is still very young, and he is frightened. It took courage for him to come this far and stay with us this long."
"I still wish he had stayed," Sora replied. She couldn't blame him for leaving - she would have, too, if it had been an option - but still...
Something crashed, and she jumped. At the same time, a force slammed into her - not painfully, but with enough power to lift her off her feet and throw her a few yards away. She hit the ground with a bump, but thankfully she'd landed on dry leaves instead of being beaten against a tree. She sat up and saw her father standing with his staff outstretched, and with a large fallen tree between them. The fact that she had nearly been crushed by hundreds of pounds of falling wood, however, was not nearly as horrifying as seeing what had propelled them at her.
Even after seeing the destruction wrought by the chiworm, she had not been able to properly wrap her mind around what it would be like. When she had imagined a monstrous worm, she had thought of something like an earthworm the size of a boa constrictor. She had not been prepared for this. The worm wasn't just large, it was gigantic, large enough to swallow a school bus without difficulty. It came crawling at them with its mouth wide open, a great gaping black hole full with row after row of hairlike teeth that twitched and scrabbled of their own accord, like so many crawling insect legs, as if desperate to sink into anything that came near. Its body was made of undulating segments, each slightly smaller than the last, tapering off to a whiplike tail. How long was it? Fifty feet? More? It was moving so much, it was hard to tell. Its whole body was a dark red color, glistening slightly, reminding Sora unpleasantly of raw meat. The thing paused for a moment as it drew nearer to them, swinging its eyeless head from side to side, searching.
"Stand very still," said Sora's father in a voiceless whisper. "Don't move a muscle..."
Sora froze, trying not to breathe. On the periphery of her vision, she could sense more than see that Piyomon was sitting as if she'd turned to stone.
There was a silvery flash, and Sora was just barely able to stop herself from turning her head to watch. It wouldn't have done her any good at any rate, because by the time she could have looked, her father was already gone... and just now, he didn't look much like her father anymore. He was a silver blaze, streaking toward the worm with sword raised. The worm whipped its head around, tracking his movements. The Gray Man raised his sword and lunged...
There was a dull thud as the blade struck the worm's hide, and bounced off with enough force to carry the Gray Man backwards with it. He landed on his feet, skidding slightly on the loose topsoil and trying desperately to recover his balance. He succeeded only marginally, falling into a soft juniper tree that cushioned him somewhat and propped him up. It might have saved his life, because its support was the only thing that kept him on his feet, so that when the chiworm lunged at him again, he was able to leap aside. The worm continued to trail him, following the sound of his movements.
Sora wanted to shout, to ask if her father was all right, but she didn't dare make a sound that would advertise her presence. Instead, she watched as he ducked behind a tree and seemed to vanish from sight. The chiworm drove itself at the tree trunk, chewing through it in a flurry of sawdust, only to have the Gray Man drop out of its branches and land squarely on its back. Shouting words in some unintelligible tongue, he drove the sword downwards towards into the place where the worm's head could have been, if worms had such things. There was a flare of light that flickered silver and green and red, and a snap like an electrical arc. Then the worm gave a jerk, and the Gray Man was thrown from his perch to land on the ground a few feet away from Sora, rolling over and over in the heap of dead leaves and getting tangled in his cloak.
"This is going to be harder than I thought," he said indistinctly.
The worm shook itself, seeming no more than dazed. It lurched around drunkenly for a few minutes, but there was no sign that the blade had even pierced its skin. It seemed to regain its sense of place long enough to finish eating the tree, and then turned its attention back to the Gray Man. Sora's father scrambled to right himself and lurched away from her, shouting to draw its attention towards him, away from his daughter.
"I'm the one you want!" he called. "Follow me!"
The chiworm turned its eyeless head towards him, and the tempo of its wiggling teeth picked up. It lurched towards him a few feet - and then made an astonishingly fast dive. There was no time for the Gray Man to move away, but he made a movement with his tree branch that caused a flare of silver light, and the worm turned a few feet to one side, demolishing a large shrub instead. It twisted itself around with surprising agility, forcing the Gray Man to parry it again. Sora watched, concerned. Before, when he'd battled the dead-end dogs, he'd barely put any force into his swings, and yet his blows had killer force. Now he was putting all his strength into each movement, and the monster was barely deterred. Despite all his efforts, the Gray Man was being herded slowly backwards - towards Sora.
"It's no good!" he shouted. "It's too strong for me! Sora, you're going to have to make a run for it!"
At the sound of Sora's voice, the worm raised its head a few feet, its whole slimy body seeming to tense. It made a wild dive for her, and her father made an equally desperate strike at it, sending it flying at a ninety-degree angle from where it had actually wanted to go. The Gray Man, drained at the effort the blow had taken, dropped to one knee, panting. His pale gray clothing was dark with sweat.
"Go!" he shouted again. "Don't argue with me! I'll hold it off!"
Sora hesitated a moment, torn. The chiworm swayed before her, like a gargantuan snake before its charmer. Even without eyes, it was sensing her somehow, feeling her breathing, hearing her heartbeat. It wanted her. It wanted her with a hunger that was impossible for a human being to fully comprehend, and if she let it get anywhere near her, nothing, not even the Gray Man, would stop it. It slunk slowly towards her, and was once again fended off by a wall of silver light - but weakly; it was clear her father was running out of strength. He could not defend her much longer...
She broke into a run, sprinting away as fast as her legs could carry her. Piyomon gave a startled squeak and tried to flap after her, wings pounding as she struggled to make herself airborne. The worm reacted to the movement at once, surging towards her. The Gray Man flourished his staff again, calling up a wall of gray fog... and the worm smashed through it and continued its dive.
But something else moved faster. One moment, Sora was staring, petrified, as the dark void of the worm's gaping mouth, and in the next instant, something coppery-colored had flashed down from nowhere, snatched her up in its arms, and she was rising up into the sky. While she was still absorbing what had happened, Arthur the kitsune was setting her carefully in the branches of a nearby tree.
"Where did you come from?" she asked.
"Oh, well," he said, shrugging and turning his head. "I was just hanging around, to make sure everything came out all right. I did say I wouldn't fight the chiworm, but I might do something else."
"Could you help Dad?" asked Sora. From her perch in the tree, she could still see where her father was dueling with the worm. It seemed to be a little confused by having Sora vanish so suddenly, but it seemed to be taking out its annoyance on the Gray Man, and Sora wasn't sure how much longer he could hold out.
"I could try..." said Arthur slowly. "I don't know what I could do, though... He is the greater magician, between the two of us. If he can't stand up the worm, I certainly can't."
"You said it was better for two to fight it together," Sora pointed out.
"So I did," Arthur answered, chagrined. "Well then... I'll try. I can't promise much, but I'll do what I can. Maybe I can buy some time... Stars, I should have realized everyone was right when they said I was crazy. Be careful, girl-pup!"
There was another coppery flash, and Arthur vanished. Sora began climbing higher up the tree, trying to get a better view of the battlefield. A few moments later, Piyomon came fluttering up to her.
"Sora, how'd you get up here?" she asked.
"Arthur," said Sora succinctly. She was concentrating on climbing the tree, which did not offer as many hand and foot holds as she would have liked. She tried not to think too hard about how far down it was; it was one thing to be carried safely by her partner, and another to be trusting her life to an ancient tree. She didn't trust too many of the natural spirits around here.
When at last she deemed herself to be high enough, she managed to twist around and look back towards the fight. True to his word, Arthur had joined the fray. He stood between the chiworm and the Gray Man with fur bristling, tails spread, and fangs bared. The chiworm slithered back and forth in front of him, apparently trying to figure out his nature. Experimentally, it made a dive, and Arthur fired off what appeared to be a cluster of red and blue fireballs that burst in its mouth, making it back away with a squeal. Behind him, the Gray Man leaned heavily on his staff, and even from a distance, Sora could tell he was gasping for air.
Then the worm made its move. Faster than Sora would have imagined possible, it whipped its slender tail around to crack full-length across Arthur's side, sending him flying. He tumbled over and over in midair before slamming hard against the ground. He made feeble swimming motions before slumping over, dead or unconscious. The Gray Man made a move, either to strike back at the worm or perhaps to try to heal Arthur, but it was too late. The snakelike tail whipped back again, wrapping around his legs and torso, holding him like a deer caught by a snake. He stared, petrified, as the worm raised its head high above him, hovered there for a moment, and then began driving downwards...
All was suddenly silence, save for the echo of that single word ringing faintly on the air. The worm stopped moving. Slowly it turned its ponderous head around, facing in the direction of a nearby tall tree. There was a bird in it - a large bird. There was also a single human being.
"Leave him alone," said Sora. "It's me you want. Leave him alone and come get me!"
"Sora, no!" her father gasped. He struggled weakly at his bonds, but it was useless. He had no more strength to fight.
Sora stood her ground. She didn't know what she could do to a chiworm, but she was not going to let her father die without a fight, nor would she let her new friend Arthur's sacrifice be for nothing.
Very, very slowly, the worm began to move. It slithered in her direction as if expecting to have some trap sprung on it at any second. Its tail gradually unwound until the Gray Man, limp an exhausted, was free from its coils, and he dropped to his knees. He leaned heavily on his staff, trying to regain his feet, but it was no good, and the worm crawled inexorably closer to Sora. Its head swayed slowly back and forth as it crawled, and she found herself staring at its open mouth, strangely fascinated by that gaping black voice as it swung back and forth, back and forth...
The chiworm struck. It surged upward like a geyser, and Sora had time for one last impression of a round circle of mouth and teeth before she was swallowed up.
She was instantly surrounded by darkness - darkness that crawled. A thousand teeth were scrabbling against her skin, making her feel as if innumerable insects were creeping over her skin. For a moment, she was too shocked to do anything. Dimly, she had expected that as soon as the worm had eaten her, she would be dead. Instead, she was trapped in a dark, damp, smelly place, but she was still very much alive. She tried to kick, to struggle, to do something that might save her, but the crawling teeth continued to draw her down, down, down...
Then something strange happened. Instead of being chewed up, she found that the teeth were gradually easing off, until they finally vanished altogether. Now she was floating in some dark, undefined space, a chilly void with no beginning or end. She stretched out her arms, trying to find a boundary of some sort, but she met only damp chilliness, like clouds. It made her fingers ache just to touch it, and she curled into a ball, trying to stay warm somehow. The darkness was insidious. It brushed over her skin and ruffled her hair, trying to creep under her eyelids and crawl under her fingernails. She was breathing it, feeling it running down her throat to clog her lungs. No matter how she tried, she couldn't keep it out...
*Is this how I'm going to die? Bad enough being eaten by a worm... I thought it would be over quickly... I'm just going to sit here until I freeze, or drown, or whatever it is I'm doing...*
Emotion stirred vaguely in her; it might have been anger, or just frustration. She had known for years now, that there was no guarantee that she'd die in bed at a ripe old age, but she'd always vaguely thought that if she did die fighting, it would be beside her friends. Now she was going to die, and she was going to do it all alone...
The knowledge hit her like a crushing blow. She was never going to see any of her friends again. She was never going to hear Taichi laughing again as he got up to some new escapade. She'd never hear Yamato singing again. Never again would she see the look of wonder and joy in Mimi's eyes that seemed to become more common with every passing month. Mimi always seemed convinced that some new good thing was just around the corner - how would she take it when she found out her best friend was gone? And what about the rest of the Chosen? Some of the youngest, she had barely gotten a chance to know. She had been looking forward to seeing how Takeru and Hikari were going to grow up, and what would become of Ken now that he'd found real friends again. She had been looking forward to being there for her new protege, Miyako, as she navigated the rough waters of adulthood. No chance of that now. And she'd never see her mother again. Or her father. Or Piyomon. Or anyone.
Something flared inside of her. It wasn't anger or defiance - there was no room in her mind for anything like that. At that moment, all she had left was a desperate desire not to be separated from the people she loved. The light glowed softly in her mind, strong enough that in this dark place, it seemed like a real light, not just a metaphorical hope, but something she could hold close to keep her warm. There were moments in her life when she was reminded that she'd never really lost her Crest. It was right where it had been all along, hidden safely inside her, just waiting for the right moment to shine...
There was light. Sora opened her eyes. The world around her had caught on fire, and she was no longer surrounded by shadows, but by flames, flames unlike anything she had ever seen before. They burned in every color of the rainbow, not just orange and red, but pink and green and purple and blue and every shade in between. They brushed against her skin, softly as feathers, warm as the breath of a living thing. She discovered she could move again. She had no idea what was going on, but certainty came to her that if she was going to escape, now was the time to do it, so she put all her energy into trying to move forward. Her eyes were blinded by the flames and her hands were stretched blindly before her, but her feet found purchase somewhere and she was able to move forward. The flames in front of her seemed to warp crazily for a second, as if she was looking at them through a bubble-eye lense. Then she felt her hands come in contact with something that stretched like rubber. She pushed and clawed at it, digging in with her fingernails until she felt it tear, and, with a final rip and a great rush of fresh air...
...she staggered out into the fresh air and fell in a heap on the leaf-strewn ground. She lay there, panting, eyes half-closed, unable to do anything more than lie there staring vacantly at the earth in front of her. She could hear a great rushing noise behind her, but she lacked the strength to get up and see what was going on. It wasn't until she heard someone calling her name that she was able to raise her head groggily and see what was going on.
"Sora! Sora!" The Gray Man was running unsteadily over the uneven ground, occasionally tripping over roots but always moving forward. Piyomon hovered above his head, and behind them, Arthur was limping along on three paws, with one hind foot raised. The three of them gathered around Sora and eyed her warily, as if afraid to find out if she was dead or not. Sora tried to say something reassuring and started coughing instead.
"She must be all right," said Arthur. "She's breathing, kind of."
"I'm... okay," Sora managed as she got her breathing under control again. "Just... what happened?"
Her father looked up and stepped back a few surprised paces as he caught sight of the burning remains of the worm. Sora almost smiled - trust her father to overlook something like that!
"What in blazes?" he muttered.
"An apt question," said Arthur.
"Is that it?" asked Piyomon warily. "Is it dead now?"
"I should hope," the Gray Man said. "I don't see how anything could survive... What on earth happened?"
"I don't know," Sora admitted. "One minute I thought I was a goner, and the next, that happened."
"I guess it finally ran its course," said her father. "Talk about timing!"
"Somehow, I doubt it was coincidence," said Arthur, slicking his ears back in a vulpine frown. Then they flicked up again. "Wait one minute. I don't think it's over yet..."
All eyes turned back to the flames. They were moving slightly, bending and warping into a multicolored globe of light. It trembled a moment, looking for all the world like a giant flaming egg just on the verge of hatching...
Then, of course, it hatched. There was an eye-searing burst of light, and a whoosh as of a thousand candles being blown out, and then a swirl of smoke that brought to mind exotic incense from some faraway land. From out of the flames rose a glowing beast with a long slender neck, a dainty reptilian head, six slim legs, and a long tail like the train of wedding gown. It fanned a pair of glowing wings, broad bands of feathers that flickered and flashed as if the rainbow fires still burned somewhere inside them. The whole creature seemed to be made of some kind of prismatic crystal, at once pure white and every color of the rainbow. The group stared in awe as it gave forth an echoing cry and leaped into the air. It flew three slow circles over their heads, caroling its flutelike song, before finally flapping away and disappearing over the tops of the trees. There was a long moment of silence.
"What ... was that?" asked Sora at last.
Arthur muttered something in his own language. When that drew blank looks, he said, "It was a... a rainbow-dragon, maybe you'd call it. Though it's not a dragon, exactly... I'm a bit bemused myself. I'd never seen one before now. They are among the rarest creatures on earth... I had no idea they were related to the chiworms."
"I admit when I'd heard they metamorphosed, I had no idea it was into something so dramatic," said Sora's father faintly. "I suppose it must have finally reached its transformation stage..."
"Maybe," said Arthur dubiously. He was looking very hard at Sora, with a speculative light in his eyes. "And maybe it is only that it finally found that which would satisfy it."
The professor glanced at his friend. "And what would that be?"
"The only thing that can."
He said nothing more, but the professor seemed to understand. Sora remembered briefly her last thoughts before the dramatic transformation, and thought maybe she understood, too.
"Can we go home, Dad?" she asked. "I'm a little tired."
He laughed. Suddenly all the fright and worry seemed to melt away, and the worm seemed like little more than a bad dream.
"Yes, Sora," he said, "I think now we all had better go home. Can you walk?"
Sora tried to get to her feet, while Piyomon hovered anxiously over her, ready to catch her should she fall. She did not. She staggered a little, her knees feeling weak and shaky, but she could stand on her own two feet.
"I can get up," she said. "I don't know if I can walk."
"I can help a bit with that, then," he said. "I think I have just enough magic left for this..."
He knelt briefly next to Arthur, and the gray fog briefly surrounded his wounded paw. A moment later, Arthur set it down and walked a few experimental paces, his tails wagging happily. Then the Gray Man turned to his daughter and rested a cool hand on her forehead. She felt something cool and shivery run through her, and she thought briefly of rain clouds and spring showers, of flowers opening in the rain... Suddenly she found that her energy was back. The same, however, could not be said for her father. He dropped to his knees, and silvery light obscured him briefly, until he was just Professor Takenouchi kneeling on the leaf-strewn earth, his hair and clothes in disarray.
"I'm okay! I'm okay," he said hoarsely. "Just... I don't think I can get up again, that's all."
"We'll help," said Sora.
With the combined help of Sora, Piyomon, and Arthur, the professor was able to stand again, enough to prop himself against a tree, breathing hard.
"Don't worry, friend," said Arthur. "You've worked hard today. I'll get you the rest of the way home."
"You'll have to," he answered. "I've left my glasses at home. I can't see a thing."
Sora giggled. "You never change, Dad. Not even as the Gray Man!"
"That's as it should be," said Arthur. "Come along, humans. This mighty kitsune warrior will get you home safely."
Leaning on each other and laughing quietly, the four mighty warriors limped home. High above their heads, a wind whispered by, carrying on it the distant sound of flutelike music...
A night breeze made the wind chime on the back porch chime softly, before moving onward to make the tops of the trees sway. Those were the only things moving. Sora, her father, and Piyomon were still and silent, sitting on the back steps, while Arthur stretched full-length in the garden. A few empty plates were scattered around, bearing the crumbs that were all that were left of the cake, and a few empty glasses were sticky with the residue of sweet tea. Now that they had eaten and drunk, all anyone really wanted to do was sit still and watch the stars come out one by one.
"I hope this is as exciting as the summer gets," Sora murmured.
"I hope so," said her father. His eyes were half-closed; he looked nearly asleep. "It was almost a little too much excitement for me."
"Same here," said Sora. "You're still going to be looking for - for creatures and things, though, right?"
"Yes," he said softly. "Always. This summer, and in the fall, and all through the winter..."
Sora sighed. "I thought so. Well, I'm glad I get to spend this summer with you, monsters and all."
"And what am I?" asked Arthur, twitching his tails. "Not a monster, I hope. Perhaps I come under your listing of creatures and things?"
Piyomon giggled, and Sora said, "Not hardly. You're one of a kind. Arthur."
"Well, perhaps," he said, looking molified. "Still, you should reserve judgement on me until you've met more kitsune."
"I've met more kitsune," said the professor, "and I agree with her assessment." To his daughter, he said, "You make it sound as if we'll never see each other again. There will be other summers, and other vacations. Though perhaps none so action-packed as this one."
Sora yawned. "Thank goodness for that."
"You're as exhausted as the rest of us," said her father. "I think it's time you went to sleep."
"No. I want to stay up a bit longer," said Sora, and yawned again.
"I'm sleepy," Piyomon said.
"As are we all," said Arthur. "I advise you put your kit to bed, and then send yourself off to sleep. That is what I'm off to do, at any rate. Good night, friends. Good hunting to you."
With one last flick of his tails, he bounded off into the night, vanishing into the shadows beneath the trees.
"Our furry friend is right," said Professor Takenouchi. "It's time for all three of us to get some well-deserved sleep. I'll tell you what - I'll help you upstairs if you'll help me upstairs."
Sora giggled a little. "Good deal."
The three of them made their way carefully through the lower floor and up the stairs, their tired and sore muscles protesting every step of the way. Sora's father helped her into her room, and she flopped down onto her bed without so much as bothering with turning down the covers. Piyomon fluttered to her place next to her and closed her eyes.
"This is as far as I'm going," said Sora. "Good night, Dad. ... I love you."
"I love you too, Sora," he answered, stroking her hair. "Remember, even when I can't be nearby... part of me will always be with you."
Sora nodded slightly. She was so tired, the words seemed to be just part of a dream. Her father stood over her a moment, watching her sleep. He smiled slightly. One of his hands moved in a complicated gesture, and something like a silvery spiderweb drifted towards her bed to settle over her face. With a satisfied nod, he slipped out of her room.
Unaware of this, Sora slept, and as she slept, she dreamed. She thought she was walking in a forest where the trees loomed motionlessly over her and pale gray fog roiled on the ground. She walked aimlessly, hearing nothing but her own breathing, seeing nothing but the empty forest. Then, somewhere far ahead, she thought she saw a shimmering silver light. Smiling slightly, she picked up her pace and hurried toward it. As she drew closer, it took on an ever-more-familiar shape.
"Dad, what are you doing out?" she asked him. "I thought you were going to go to sleep."
He smiled, a bit sheepishly. "I couldn't resist. Besides, I wanted to make sure this would work."
She blinked. "What would?"
"This," he said, waving a hand around. "The dreams, I mean. Causing them on purpose instead of accidentally. It is working, isn't it? I've never done this before..."
"Of course it's working. I'm here, right?" she asked, laughing.
"I suppose so," he said. "Well. That's nice to know."
"So, what are we going to do now?" she asked.
"Well, I was wanting another look at that rainbow-dragon from earlier... I thought maybe we might have a look for it."
"Sounds great," said Sora. "Which way?"
The Gray Man held up a finger, as if testing the wind. He turned and pointed. "That way, I believe."
"Well, let's go!"
"Right you are!"
He set off at a jog, glancing back to make sure his daughter was following. She caught up with
him and took his hand, following him into the fog and getting caught up in her dream.