"Hey, Asuka, what do you think of coffee?"
Asuka looked down at the phone in her hand, contemplating the many possible responses to that question. Given that it was her brother who had asked it, the right answer could be almost anything.
"I like coffee well enough," she said. "It wakes people up in the morning. It helps warm them up in the wintertime. I'm sure a lot of people make good money selling coffee. Coffee is useful."
If Fubuki noticed the slight tone of sarcasm in response, he was clearly untroubled by it.
"Great," he said. "So you'll be there?"
"Maybe," said Asuka slowly. "Where is 'there'?"
"At the coffee shop!" said Fubuki. "We're having a good time here!"
Asuka sighed a little. "There are a lot of coffee shops, Fubuki."
"Yeah, but this is the one where we are. It's on the corner of River Road, and, um... I don't know the other one, but you can find it, right?"
"Yes, I can find it," said Asuka, smiling a little in spite of herself. She was, after all, a college student. She'd learned to navigate around the city well enough to find all the coffee shops. "I'll be there soon."
"Great! I'll let him know you're coming," said Fubuki brightly, and hung up.
Asuka shook her head as she tucked her phone back in her purse. There was no one in the world she loved as much as her brother, but his telephone skills sometimes left something to be desired. He had a way of forgetting that people couldn't necessarily see him or his surroundings from the other end of a telephone connection.
Still, it would be nice to get out. It was a Friday afternoon, classes were over for the day, and she had no homework that couldn't wait until later. It would be good to get out and see her brother and... who? He'd said "we", so presumably someone was there with him. As sociable as Fubuki was, it could be anyone from an old friend from school to a stranger he'd met and bonded with. She thought she'd have heard if, say, Manjoume or one of the Marufuji brothers had come to town, but you never knew.
It wasn't that long a walk to the coffee shop Fubuki had mentioned, so Asuka threw on a jacket and stepped outside. Autumn was on its way to winter, but for now the air was only refreshingly cool, and the trees were still showing their last traces of color. She smiled as she trotted up the sidewalk, kicking up the dead leaves in her path and enjoying the brisk breeze. All the same, it was nice to finally reach her destination and slip into the warmth of the coffee shop.
It didn't take her long to spot her brother. Fubuki had spent the first few months after his graduation dueling in tournaments, but hadn't liked the rigid schedules that the tournament circuit imposed on him. These days, he was mainly working as a Personality - acting as emcee or commentator at dueling events, occasionally appearing in commercials or on the radio. Recently he'd even been considering an offer to take a small role on an upcoming sitcom about a group of young duelists starting out on the circuit, and Asuka had no doubt that he could make a success of it. He'd developed something of a cult following - no surprise, really - and tended to dress the part, in bright colors and flamboyant patterns that only someone with his degree of flair could carry off. It was only natural that her eye should be drawn to him, or at least, to the vividly pink shirt he was wearing. It took her a second or two longer for her to realize who his companions were.
"Hey, Asuka!" Fubuki called, waving to her over the crowds. "I saved you a seat!"
Asuka threaded her way through the crowd, keeping her eyes fixed on her brother's companions. She would have said that Fubuki's capacity to accept and forgive was nearly limitless, but it still surprised her to see him talking to Saiou Takuma, of all people.
But there he was, looking sleek and elegant in a dark suit, with his long hair in a loose braid over one shoulder. He and Fubuki had apparently been there for a while. The table in front of them was strewn with the remains of pastries, and Fubuki's coffee cup was mostly empty.
"Sorry I didn't call you sooner," he said. "You know how it is. I knew you were in class, so I thought I would get some coffee while I waited for you, and then he turned up, so I called him over, and we started talking..."
"It's fine, it's fine," she said, sliding into a chair. "I understand."
"It was very good of you to join us," said Saiou politely.
"I'm thankful to be invited," she said.
Truth be told, she wasn't quite sure how to feel about this invitation. Being invited to spend time with Fubuki was one thing. She liked being around her brother, at least in small doses. Spending time around Saiou was another thing altogether. She couldn't remember her time in the Society of Light all that well - it was more a collection of hazy images and vague impressions than anything concrete - but the experience had left her with little trust for the man. She knew that wasn't fair. It wasn't as though he'd enjoyed being controlled by an evil supernatural entity, after all. Still, there was something about his piercing gaze and abstract manner that made her uneasy. He must have sensed something of what she was thinking, because he offered her a reassuring smile.
"Don't worry," he said. "I promise I'm not up to no good."
Fubuki nodded. "He's just here doing research."
Well, that sounded harmless enough. "What kind of research? You mean at the university library?" The school she was going to was one of the largest universities of dueling in the world, and had financial backing from Industrial Illusions. Their library on dueling-related material was internationally regarded as the best there was.
"A bit, yes," he said. "Actually, I'm here on business for Pegasus. I've been working off and on for him as a consultant. He's always looking for duelists with occult experience to work on his more outre projects."
"I see. I suppose that makes sense," she replied. "So what are you researching?"
"This and that. You see, an old associate of his passed away and left behind a house full of things that might or might not be junk. I'm supposed to be determining how many of them actually have any occult potential and should therefore be circumspectly removed before they find their way out into the general populace."
Asuka imagined what would happen if a lot of magical objects ended up in the hands of unsuspecting people and suppressed a shiver.
"I think I'm glad you're doing that," she said.
"It's turning out to be a rather large job," said Saiou. "Fortunately, Pegasus has been kind enough to pay for Mizuchi and me to stay in a very good hotel until the job is finished, so it's no great hardship. He wants to make sure I do a thorough job."
Fubuki nodded. "Some of the stuff he's been telling me about is pretty amazing. I'd love to see the inside of that house."
Asuka smiled. She'd seen the apartment that Fubuki had set up with some of the earnings from his TV commercials. It had zebra-striped carpeting, bead curtains, lava lamps, and a purple heart-shaped hot tub. It gave her a headache to be in it very long, but her brother seemed utterly at home there.
"I think I'll pass," she said.
"The house itself is actually quite lovely," said Saiou. "It has, unfortunately, been crammed with so many things that it's rather hard to tell. I wouldn't mind living there myself, once the impedimenta has been cleared out."
They chatted a bit about other houses they'd seen and places they'd traveled while Asuka sipped a mocha. It was actually a more pleasant conversation than she would have expected. Saiou was obviously doing his best to be a polite guest. She was almost a little sorry when Mizuchi threaded her way through the coffee shop crowd to join her brother.
"There you are," she said. "I thought you'd be back at the house by now."
"Time does seem to have gotten away from me," Saiou admitted. "Blame it on not being able to tear myself away from my companions. There is always work, but congenial company is rare."
Mizuchi gave him an indulgent smile. "Well, I'm glad you were having fun, but you know Pegasus is going to want a progress report soon."
"I know," he said. He stood up. "Well, as much as I've enjoyed this interlude, I must return to my work. Thank you for keeping me company."
He gave them both a polite bow and glided back out of the coffee shop with his sister in tow.
"That was nice," Fubuki observed. "I didn't think I'd run into them here, did you?"
"It never crossed my mind," Asuka agreed. "It was actually nice to talk to him, though. He's not so bad, when he's not trying to take over the world."
"Hey, that's not fair," Fubuki said. "Half the people you know tried to take over the world. Even me, kinda."
Asuka couldn't argue with that. She took a last swallow from her drink and began to get up. Fubuki followed her.
"Let me walk you back to your dorm," he said gallantly.
She smiled. "Glad to have you along."
They stepped back out into the street. Evening was coming on fast, now, and the air had a bite to it that hadn't been there before. The setting sun cast an orange glow over everything. Off to the west, the a pale white moon was rising over the horizon. Asuka shivered a little as a particularly strong wind blew past, and Fubuki took off his long duster and draped it over her shoulders. She flashed him a grateful smile.
"So what did you and Saiou talk about?" she asked.
"Stuff," said Fubuki, waving a hand vaguely. "Did you know he plays the piano?"
"No, I didn't know that," she said.
"Yeah, he says he's pretty good, and I believe him. I'm going to go see him sometime later and we'll have a jam session. Apparently that house he's been working on has a nice baby grand."
"I'm sure you'll enjoy that," Asuka said. Whether or not Saiou would enjoy it was another question. She had a sense that he probably preferred classical music, while Fubuki tended to gravitate towards bouncy pop songs. Still, he could play those very well when he wanted to, and she wouldn't have minded hearing what the two of them could do together.
They were still talking about music when they reached the door to Asuka's dorm.
"So where are you off to now?" she asked.
"Back to my hotel," he said. "I've got an audition tomorrow, so I've gotta get my beauty sleep!"
"Well, good luck with that," said Asuka. "I know you'll get the part."
Fubuki flashed his camera-perfect smile. "You bet I will! Goodnight, Asuka. I'll call you tomorrow and tell you how it goes."
He turned and went bounding down the sidewalk, pausing to turn back and wave to her as he reached the main road. She smiled. There were definitely times he got on her nerves, but at moments like this, when he was smiling and so full of life and enthusiasm, she remembered why he was one of her favorite people.
She was most of the way up the steps to her dorm room when she realized she was still wearing his coat. It made her laugh. Dear Fubuki. He wasn't the most together person in the world, but he got the essentials right. In good spirits, she let herself into her room.
The phone was ringing.
Asuka roused herself from a half-doze. She'd started watching a movie on television, but it hadn't really grabbed her attention as much as she'd hoped it would, and she'd begun nodding off within the first fifteen minutes. Now she realized that she had no idea who that woman was was talking to, nor why the two of them appeared to be trying to have a duel in a helicopter hovering over a volcano.
"I am definitely not taking Juudai's recommendations for movies anymore," she said. "Our tastes don't align at all."
She reached for the phone. "Hello?"
"Have you heard from my brother?" The voice on the other end was vaguely familiar, but the breathless note of panic in it made it hard to identify.
Asuka frowned. "Your brother?"
"This is Saiou Mizuchi." Her tone was that of a woman trying valiantly to stay calm. "I'm trying to find my brother. We were supposed to meet for dinner an hour ago. I've called his cell, but he isn't picking up. I thought he might be caught up in his work, so I tried the phone number for the house, but no one answered there, either. I remembered he'd made plans to do something with your brother later, so I thought he might be somewhere with him, but I can't get Fubuki to pick up, either. I thought you might have some idea where they might have gone."
"They didn't tell me anything," said Asuka. "Did you try Fubuki's cell or his hotel phone?"
"His cell. He gave me his number."
Of course he did, Asuka thought. Fubuki always gave pretty young women his phone number, as a matter of habit.
"Let me call his hotel, then," she replied. "He said something about a jam session. Maybe he's just playing his music so loud he can't hear his phone."
Her dorm had a land line, so she set her cell down on her coffee table and went to call Fubuki's hotel number. The phone rang... and rang... and rang... Asuka put the receiver down, feeling a slow chill crawl down her spine. She picked up her cell again.
"He's not answering," she said.
"I don't like this," said Mizuchi. "I can't get a clear fix on it, but I feel in my bones that something is wrong."
Asuka didn't argue. Saiou's powers may have taken a drastic drop after the Light of Ruin had left him, but nothing she'd ever heard suggested that Mizuchi was powerless.
"We need to find them," she said aloud.
"Agreed," said Mizuchi. "Is there a mirror where you are now? A full-length one?"
"There's one inside my closet door," Asuka offered.
"Open your closet, then. I'm coming through."
The connection clicked off. Asuka tucked the phone in her pocket and went to open the closet door, so that the light fell full on her mirror that hung there. Then she sat down on the sofa again and waited. Her gaze fell on Fubuki's jacket, which was now hanging over the back of a chair.
Fubuki, what have you gotten yourself into?
The surface of her mirror rippled, then went dark. A hand emerged, followed by an arm, then a foot, and soon a whole body was stepping through the glass as easily as someone passing through a set of curtains. In less time than it took to draw a breath, Mizuchi stepped out of the mirror and into Asuka's room. Her eyes were dark and serious.
"Any word?" she asked.
"No response," said Asuka. "What do you think might have happened?"
"I'm not sure yet," said Mizuchi. "I only know that Saiou told me that he would be working at the old manor for most of the evening. He didn't say anything about doing anything with your brother except in the vaguest of terms. Did Fubuki tell you anything of his plans tonight?"
"He said he had an audition tomorrow and he was going back to his hotel room to rest up," said Asuka. She made a face. "I should have known he wasn't being truthful. He's usually the type who stays up until he crashes."
"I'll check his room," said Mizuchi decisively. "There may be clues there as to where he went next."
"Take me with you," said Asuka insistently. "I want to help."
Mizuchi looked her over thoughtfully, then nodded. "Yes. I think I'm going to need your help." She smiled, very faintly. "For one thing, I don't know where his hotel is."
"That, I can definitely help with."
A short cab ride later, the two of them were walking briskly through the lobby of Fubuki's hotel. It wasn't the best hotel in the city, but it was still a long way from a budget chain, and a few people turned to stare as these two young women came barreling through their serene entryway, with its palm court and indoor fountain. Asuka ignored them in favor of getting to the elevator as quickly as possible. When they reached the door to his room, however, they encountered another obstacle.
"The door is locked," Asuka announced, after she'd tried the handle.
"If there is a large enough mirror inside, I ought to be able to get through, now that I have an idea where the room is," said Mizuchi. "Wait just one moment."
She wandered off, presumably in search of a suitable reflective surface. Asuka stood in the hallway alone, fuming. It wasn't that she minded having Mizuchi's help, but what was Asuka going to contribute to this situation when Mizuchi could do these incredible things and all she had going for her was raw determination and a deck of cards?
A moment later, Mizuchi opened the door, and Asuka let herself be ushered inside. The room looked the way she would have expected a room occupied by her brother by any length of time to look. An MP3 player and portable speaker had been set up on the coffee table, a scree of television magazines and romance novels were scattered across various flat surfaces, and articles of clothing had been dropped or flung more or less randomly around the room. Asuka had to stifle the urge to start picking up after him.
"Is he usually this way?" Mizuchi asked.
"The room doesn't appear to have been ransacked, if that's what you mean," said Asuka. "Fubuki just tends to be... very caught up in life. It doesn't leave him a lot of time to clean up afterwards."
Mizuchi's grave expression softened a little. "I see. Takuma isn't like that. A place for everything and everything in its place." She began walking slowly into the center of the room. "I'm not picking up anything negative. Can you find anything out of place?"
Asuka began working her way methodically around the room - first through the little sitting area, then the bathroom, then the bedroom. Nothing suspicious jumped out at her. There were no threatening letters, no bloodstains, no signs of anything being broken or tampered with.
"His Duel Disk isn't here," she observed, after making a careful inventory of his belongings. "He took his deck with him. Nothing else is missing."
"That's something to start with, anyway," said Mizuchi. She looked speculatively around the room, until her gaze fell on a large mirror adorning one wall. "I suppose we're going to have to do this the hard way."
She walked deliberately towards the mirror and reached out to lay a hand on its surface.
"Watch carefully, please," she said. "It's hard for me to maintain concentration enough to do this and watch what happens at the same time."
Asuka nodded and moved to a better position to see exactly what the mirror would do. Mizuchi took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and... began to glow. Her hair and clothing shifted slightly around her, as if moving in unseen water currents. The mirror glowed as well, then darkened, then cleared. Now it reflected the room again, but not the room exactly as it had been. Asuka could no longer see herself or Mizuchi reflected in it. Instead, she could see Fubuki walking around with a distracted air. After watching a few seconds, she realized that what she was seeing was a glimpse of the past - that somehow Mizuchi was forcing the mirror to show what it had been reflecting the last time Fubuki had been in the room. As Asuka watched, he dug through his luggage and got out a spare jacket. Then he picked up his Duel Disk and fitted it on his arm. He clipped his deck pouch firmly to his belt. Then he did one more thing that Asuka did not understand. He paused for a moment, clearly steeling himself. Then he dug all the way to the bottom of his bag and took out a small box that she had never seen before. It appeared to be made of ebony or some other dark wood, with fittings made of tarnished silver. With a look of extreme reluctance, he unlatched the box, revealing an interior lined with purple satin on which rested a single card. Asuka's breath caught. There was no text on the card, only a dark image of a sharp-featured mask surrounded by a web of chains. She knew that card.
"No," she said softly.
The reflection in the mirror didn't listen. She saw Fubuki take out his cell phone and dial up a contact.
"Uh-huh," he said. "I've got it. Are you sure this is a good idea?" A pause. "Well, of course I do. It's not like I can just throw it away." Another, longer pause. "Okay, sure. I'll be right there."
He hung up. Pocketing the card, he began striding purposely towards the door. The mirror went dark, and Mizuchi stepped back, panting slightly.
"Did you see anything?" she asked.
"Yes," said Asuka. "Mizuchi, he's got the Darkness card. Why is he carrying that around? Where would he be taking it?"
"I don't know," Mizuchi admitted. "Did he say anything that might give us a hint?"
"He was talking to someone on the phone," said Asuka. "It sounded like they were planning to meet. It might have been your brother - I couldn't tell. He did say something about how he 'can't just throw it away' so whoever he was talking to must have asked if he still had the card."
Mizuchi's lips were pressed into a hard line. "It must have been Takuma. Anything else would be too much of a coincidence."
"I'm sure you're right," said Asuka. "It sounded like they were going to meet somewhere."
"It wasn't our hotel room," said Mizuchi, "I'm sure of that much. The only other likely place is the house where Takuma was working. They'd have privacy there to do whatever they liked."
"Do you know how to get there?" Asuka asked.
Mizuchi nodded. "And I think we had better go soon. Whatever those two are doing..."
She trailed off, apparently unwilling to finish the sentence. Asuka didn't either. She knew what that Darkness card was like. No one was safe when it got involved.
"The sooner we get there," she said, "the better."
Two years ago, when Asuka was still a raw freshman, her advisor had thrown a party, a backyard barbecue for all of her students. At the time, Asuka had been impressed by the rambling old house at the edge of town, a charmingly timeworn Victorian with potted petunias in hanging baskets on the front porch and a backyard full of bird feeders and rose trellises. As a girl who had lived most of her life in Japanese cities, she was used to only very rich people having so much living space. This house was in the same sort of neighborhood, all quiet tree-lined streets full of old but clearly cared-for houses, many of them with children's toys in the front yards or dogs penned up outside them. The one the cab dropped Asuka and Mizuchi in front of, however, had none of these things. It had a brick wall around it, surmounted by ornamental but still sharp metal spikes. The front walk was blocked by an iron gate, through which Asuka could see a rather weedy and overgrown front lawn. The house behind it looked tall and imposing now that night had fallen. All of its windows were dark. To Asuka, it seemed as if the house was becoming part of the night sky itself. She shivered a little, not just with cold.
"It doesn't look like anyone is home," she said.
"Looks can be deceiving," said Mizuchi. She slipped a key from her pocket and began unlocking the gate. "Anyway, we have to check. Even if they aren't here now, there may still be clues as to where they went."
The gate swung open silently. Asuka fished in her purse and brought out the little flashlight she kept there for nights when she got home late and the walk up to her dormitory was too dark for her liking. Its blue-white beam was bright enough to illuminate the front walk clearly, but its light only made the house itself look even more ghostly. It seemed to be painted white or perhaps pale gray, and in the twilight it looked like something out of an old black-and-white movie. She almost expected to hear a wolf howl in the distance as she and Mizuchi made their way up to the front door. She reached the door first and tried the handle.
"It's unlocked," she said.
"That fits," said Mizuchi. "The front gate locks itself as soon as it closes. If Takuma was expecting your brother to show up, he would have left the gate open and the door unlocked so he could continue to work while he waited for Fubuki to show up. He could have easily shut the gate behind him but not bothered to lock the door."
"I'm sure he wouldn't have thought of it," said Asuka. "Would your brother have gone off without remembering to lock the front door?"
"Certainly not," said Mizuchi. "There are valuable and potentially dangerous things in this house. He never would have gone off without making certain the doors and windows were all secure. He's very conscientious about that sort of thing."
"Then," said Asuka slowly, "either they're still inside, or they didn't leave of their own free will."
Mizuchi nodded, looking grim. She opened the front door, letting it swing silently open. The hallway inside was dark, but Asuka could dimly make out the contours of a small foyer. The reflection of the moonlight off the floor suggested tile, and some shaggy shadows that were probably potted plants. Mizuchi stepped inside and felt around on the wall. There was a soft snap as she flipped the light switch, and the hall suddenly went from gloomy and sinister to cluttered and homely. Asuka followed Mizuchi inside.
"Well, Fubuki was definitely here," she said. A coat rack next to the door was hung with several old jackets in shades of brown and black, one sleek silver-gray one that surely belonged to Saiou, and one purple one with faux-leopard fur trim that could only belong to her brother. She was distinctly glad that the one he had loaned her earlier had been a more reasonable color.
"Takuma, too," said Mizuchi. "And I doubt they would have gone out in this chill without their coats. Even if your brother could stand it, Takuma hates being cold."
"Then they're still in here," said Asuka firmly. "I refuse to believe that there is anyone in the world who could take both of them on at once without waking up the whole neighborhood."
The two of them stood quietly for a moment. There was no sound of anyone moving anywhere in the house. That was wrong. Saiou might be skilled at silence, but Fubuki was always noticeable. You could tell he was coming while he was still on the other end of the street.
"Let's split up," Mizuchi suggested. "I'll take the upstairs and you look downstairs."
Asuka nodded. The two of them parted ways, Asuka starting through the nearest door while Mizuchi started up the stairs. Asuka listened to her friend's light footsteps creaking gently on the treads until the sound faded into inaudibility.
"All right," she told herself. "Let's find some clues." There had to be something around here to find. There was, she told herself, no way Saiou could have been working here for days without leaving some trace of what he'd been working on, and no way Fubuki could have passed through without leaving his mark.
The first door she tried proved to lead to what she assumed was some sort of living room. It had to be only an assumption, because it looked nothing like her idea of a living room. Her living room back home had come equipped with a television, a sofa, a few easy chairs, and a coffee table. This room had no television. It did have furniture, but most of it had been shoved into a corner into a little huddle, as if the room's owner had believed his living room was a quarter the size it actually was and had made the furniture fit accordingly. The rest of the room was filled with shelves, not only pushed against the walls but packed into the remaining floor space, so closely that Asuka, slender as she was, had to turn sideways to get through them. Some of them were crammed with things - old books, bits of statuary, carved bones, scattered gemstones and bits of rock, articles of jewelry, crystal spheres and pyramids, incense burners, and other odds and ends that Asuka couldn't identify. Some of the shelves were empty, but there were clear patches amid the dust that suggested that something had been there recently.
Asuka threaded her way over to the cluster of furniture. There was a single lamp plugged in on an end table, and it turned on when Asuka tried it. By its light, she could see that the coffee table was covered in papers - Saiou's papers, she guessed. Not that she knew his handwriting particularly well, but he was the only one likely to be writing lists in Japanese. She peered at them, attempting to make sense of his notes. It appeared he had been taking inventory, dividing the house's contents into "magical", "historical", "of no interest" and "dangerous". She was relieved to see that the latter category was extremely short. His notes on those said only how he'd identified them and what he'd done to neutralize or seal them. All of the pages were carefully annotated with the date and time. Very useful, she thought, for her purposes. She shuffled through the pile until she found the last notation.
"...appears to have a profound dampening effect on all known forms of occult energy. Brief testing has led me to tentatively rate its absorption ability as at least a negative seven on the Grant-DeWitt scale, with occasional spikes suggesting a maximum capacity of up to negative nine. There are also traces of some form of feedback or power leak rating no more than a two on the GDW scale, the source of which is as yet undetermined. I intend to make further experiments later by introducing several artifacts of known power levels and abilities and measure the results by means of the dual-harmonic resonance principle..."
Asuka put the paper down with a faint scowl. What on earth was a dual-harmonic resonance principle - or, for that matter, the Grant-DeWitt scale? Certainly nothing she'd ever heard of, or was likely to need to know. She was, to tell the truth, getting a little fed up with all these magicians around here today. She had never liked magic and supernatural phenomena. That was one of the reasons why, as much as she cared about Juudai, she preferred not to deal with him for more than a day or two at a time. He'd encountered the supernatural and gone running towards it with his arms open. Asuka had taken one look at it and decided that if she never saw it again, it would be too soon. Supernatural things were dangerous and unpredictable. When they got involved, people got hurt. They had taken her brother away from her for months, they had lured her into a cult, they'd trapped her in another dimension... and now she was beginning to think they'd taken her brother and Saiou, again.
Are some people just naturally prone to this sort of thing? Or is it that once it touches you, you're marked forever, and everything else in the world sees that mark and realizes you're an easy target?
There was clearly nothing else of use to be found in here. She picked her way through the clutter and through a side door that led to a dining room. Apparently whoever had owned the house had not done much entertaining, because this room, too, had been taken over by clutter. One wall was dominated by a massive curio cabinet that was so stuffed with things that the door wouldn't close, and the entire dining room table had been piled with more objects that wouldn't fit in the cabinet or on the shelves that lined the other walls. Even the chairs had been stacked with books. None of these looked to have been disturbed; apparently Saiou hadn't made it that far yet. Asuka was just inching her away around the table, trying not to knock anything over on her way to the kitchen, when...
She froze. That had been her brother's voice, she was sure of it. It had sounded distant and echoing, as if he were calling from another part of the house.
"Fubuki?" she called back.
She scrambled towards the door, knocking over a chair in her haste. Books spilled across the floor, but she jumped over them and dashed into the kitchen. She called his name again, then waited. A wisp of sound answered her, something that might have been her name and might have been a question, too far away to be distinct. She stood for a moment, eyes closed, straining every nerve to discern where the sound had come from.
Asuka jumped a foot.
"Don't sneak up on me like that!" she said, whirling to glare at Mizuchi.
"I'm sorry," said Mizuchi, "I just thought I heard you calling, so I came down. Have you found anything?"
"I thought I heard something," said Asuka, frowning. Had it been her own imagination? Maybe she had only heard the sound of Mizuchi moving around overhead. Only... she was so quiet when she moved... "Whatever it was, it's gone now."
"I see," said Mizuchi. "Well, come see what I've found."
She started up the stairs, and Asuka followed her.
"Mizuchi," she said, "what's a Grant-DeWitt scale?"
Mizuchi gave her a curious look. "Where did you hear about that?"
"I found some of your brother's notes in the living room," she explained. "I couldn't make heads or tails of them."
"I see," said Mizuchi. "Well, the Grant-DeWitt scale is a rating system used to determine the power of a magical object or spell. It goes from zero to fifteen, with zero being something completely inert, and fifteen being... well, something like the Light of Ruin, something that has the potential to cause wide-ranging changes in the world, if not obliterate it entirely."
"And what if something rated negatively on the scale?" Asuka persisted.
"That would mean that the object in question negates or absorbs magic, with the numbers designating just how much magic the object can pull in. So an object that rates a negative five could cancel out the power of something that rated a five on the Grant-DeWitt scale."
"I see," said Asuka. "So what's the..." she paused, trying to remember the exact wording. "The dual-harmonic resonance principle?"
"A way of figuring out what sort of magic you're dealing with," said Mizuchi. "There are a lot of different kinds, you see - spiritual, elemental, emotional, numerological, archetypal, and so on. Each one has its own sort of resonance. If you're dealing with an unknown type of magic, you can sometimes work out what it is by exposing it to some other type of magic and watching how they react to each other. Someone was bright enough to work out a standard battery of tests, a list of specific procedures that you can use to make an exact identification."
"I see," said Asuka thoughtfully. So, Saiou had found a thing that absorbed magic, and he didn't understand why or how, so he had apparently been planning on running tests on it. Could that be why he'd called for Fubuki - because he'd wanted to expose the power of the Darkness card to his unknown magical object to see how they'd react to each other? Or had he hoped that the whatever-it-was might be strong enough to cancel out the power of that card and destroy it altogether?
If that was his idea, I can see why he did it. She would have been willing to risk a lot to see the end of that card. Still, she wished her brother had thought to warn her... though, if she were being honest with herself, she knew she would have tried to talk him out of getting personally involved. Let Saiou take all the risks, she would have said, and she doubted Fubuki would have been willing to take such a cautious - he might have said cowardly - way out.
The two of them scaled the tall staircase to the second floor, and Mizuchi escorted Asuka to what had presumably once been the master bedroom. It was, Asuka thought, actually a rather nice room. It was the only room she'd seen so far in this crazy house that looked inhabited. Yes, there were a number of shelves crammed with books and bric-a-brac, but most of the trinkets were the kind that were pleasant to look at, and she thought that at least some of the books were the sort that an intelligent man might read for pleasure rather than research. A fat leatherbound novel with a cloth bookmark rested on the bedside table, but none of the chairs were occupied by anything but pillows. The closets appeared to contain only the usual jumble of clothes and shoes, the slightly shabby articles of a man who had bought a perfectly good wardrobe years ago and saw no reason to buy anything new when styles changed. There were even a few photographs on display - a few large ones on the wall showing a stocky square-faced man in various far-flung parts of the world, and some smaller ones resting on various desks and shelves showing him as a boy with family and what she thought might have been school friends. No sign of a wife or children. A lonely life, this man had led, but apparently also a busy one. She hoped he'd at least had fun with it.
Aside from these signs of life, there were also signs that Saiou had been hard at work here. Some of the shelves were empty, and a series of cardboard boxes had been stacked near the door, all neatly labeled in his precise handwriting.
"So what did you want me to see?" Asuka asked.
Mizuchi pointed at a chair off in one corner. Since the room was lit only by a couple of table lamps, the corners of the room were shadowy. She hadn't noticed until Mizuchi pointed it out that there was something lying next to one of the plush armchairs pulled up near the window, so that the curtains partially hid the whatever-it-was. The shape of it was familiar. Asuka walked reluctantly forward and picked it up.
"You're right," she said, turning it over in her hands. "This is my brother's Duel Disk. His deck is still in it."
"And no true duelist would wander off without their Duel Disk," Mizuchi concluded. "I think we can safely assume that this was the last place either of our brothers were before... well, something happened."
Asuka felt a faint chill. So there it was - whatever had taken her brother, it wasn't just one of his whims. He hadn't just decided that the two of them should go out for pizza or dragged Saiou off to the music store to look at guitars. They were just gone, and that meant something truly bad had happened.
"Can we figure out where they went?" she asked.
"I think so," said Mizuchi. "I can do the mirror trick again. That should tell us something."
Asuka bit her lip and said nothing. She was, she reflected, feeling out of her element and getting fed up with it. Why had she even been dragged along on this jaunt in the first place? So far, she had been of very little use, beyond confirming things Mizuchi obviously already knew. She didn't understand anything about Saiou's research, or about how the Darkness card actually worked. She couldn't work mirror magic the way Mizuchi could. The most she could do was act as a second pair of hands and eyes under Mizuchi's direction. It rankled. Still, she was willing to do whatever it took to get her brother back.
"Let's try it," she said.
Mizuchi nodded and glanced around the room in search of a reflective surface. There were no mirrors as such, but the large photographs on the walls were covered by glass, and that seemed to be good enough. She selected the one that gave the best reflection of the whole room and rested her hand against it. Without being told, Asuka moved into position to give herself the best view. Once again, she watched the glass ripple and clear. In it, she could see the dim reflection of Saiou sitting on the edge of the bed, reading over his notes and looking preoccupied. After a moment or two, he raised his head, as if he'd heard a distant sound that didn't quite carry through the mirror. He put his notes aside and stood, walking across the room to get a small object off a shelf. It looked quite inoffensive, only a plain jar or vase carved of pale gray stone, sitting in the bottom of a shallow bowl of matching material. All the same, Saiou handled it carefully. He was just setting it down in the middle of the floor when the door to the bedroom opened and Fubuki strolled in.
"This is some place you've got here," he said.
"It isn't my place. I'm only visiting," said Saiou. "Please be careful not to touch anything, especially that." He pointed at the jar in its dish, and Fubuki leaned over it for a better look.
"It doesn't look magical," he observed.
"It isn't," said Saiou. "It's a kind of anti-magic. If you activate that card of yours, it should absorb the card's power and render it harmless."
"Is that so?" asked Fubuki. "Sounds too easy to me,"
"I've tested it on several other objects," said Saiou. "The results were quite satisfactory."
Fubuki gave a half-shrug. "Well, you'd know, I guess. What exactly do you want me to do?"
Saiou and Fubuki fussed a bit over where Fubuki was supposed to stand. Then he powered up his Duel Disk and withdrew the Darkness card from his pocket.
"Well, here goes nothing," he said, and slapped the card into place.
There was a flash. Asuka found herself blinded as the dim image in the glass suddenly became dazzlingly bright, glowing a sickly sort of green. Then Mizuchi gave a shriek as if she'd been burned and staggered backwards, clutching at her hand. An instant later, the glass shattered. Shards rained down onto the carpet. At the same moment, every light in the room went out with a pop as the bulbs shorted out, and Asuka found herself blinking in the sudden darkness.
"Mizuchi?" she called. "Are you okay?"
"I don't... I don't know," said Mizuchi weakly. "That hurt..."
"I don't know that either. Everything was fine, and then there was a wrench... I felt like something was trying to pull me into the mirror. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before."
Asuka felt her way to the wall and groped for a light switch. She flicked it up and down a few times with no result.
"The lights won't come on," she announced. "Whatever happened, it shorted something out. Here, let me try my flashlight."
She fumbled in her purse and took out the little flashlight. Praying that whatever had taken out the lights in the room had not destroyed her flashlight's bulb as well, she flipped the switch, and was relieved to see a pale circle of light appear on the floor in front of her.
Her relief was short-lived, however. Even in the dim bluish light, she could see that there was something very wrong with this room. The carpet that had been a solid shade of red before had a peculiar pattern on it now - no, not quite a pattern. It was more as if someone had been drawing diagrams on it, the same sorts of strange things she had seen in Saiou's notes, some crisp and fresh, some so faded she could barely make them out. Her eyes ached a little just seeing them. Carefully moving her light upward to avoid flash-blinding Mizuchi, she began scanning the rest of the room. Other details seemed just as subtly off. She had been sure that had been a soft easy chair a moment ago, but now it was some sort of wingback with peculiarly angular lines. Had that end table's feet had claws before? That photograph, there - she didn't remember it having such a bad case of redeye before, and wasn't there something unsettling about the face's expression? And there was no trace of a draft in here, so why did those curtains seem to be moving?
"Mizuchi..." she said catiously.
"I see it too." Mizuchi was suddenly at her side, her posture protective. "I think we should not stay in this room any longer."
"Is it likely to be any better outside?" Asuka asked, a bit sharply.
"It isn't likely to be any worse," Mizuchi replied.
They tried the door. Asuka was almost surprised when the knob turned. At this point, she would not have been surprised by self-locking doors, or by suddenly discovering that this one opened onto a brick wall. It didn't. It opened into a hallway, a dark narrow one lined with portraits. She didn't remember those, either. When she had last walked this way, the pictures on the wall had been inoffensive landscapes. Now they were all oil paintings of stern-looking people with old-fashioned clothes and superior smirks. She didn't like the way they kept snickering at her. She glared at them, and they immediately straightened up and assumed bland expressions. The staircase creaked ominously as she and Mizuchi picked their way down it. It seemed to have lengthened, and now wound gently back and forth like the track of a snake, making it hard to see very clearly what was ahead. Asuka couldn't fight the feeling that if she wasn't very careful, she would come around one of those curves to find the next step opened on a gaping hole, and she kept her flashlight fixed firmly on the path ahead of her.
The entry hall was much like they'd left it. The only real change Asuka could make out was the potted plants, which were now whispering and sniggering to each other, like mocking playgoers at an inept performance.
"Something is strange here," Asuka murmured, as she and Mizuchi crossed the great hall.
Mizuchi gave her a faintly incredulous look, as if wondering whether Asuka might not have noticed yet that things in the house had changed. Asuka gave her a ghost of a smile and shook her head.
"I mean," she said, "in the mirror, we saw your brother holding something - some sort of vase in a bowl. Was it there when you searched the room?"
Mizuchi looked taken aback. "Why... no. I haven't seen it at all."
"Then maybe we should think about where it is."
The plants in the corners rustled more loudly, more nastily amused than ever. Asuka and Mizuchi exchanged looks.
"I think you may be right," said Mizuchi. "But first, I think we should find a way out of this house. I don't think we're safe here."
They reached the front door. Mizuchi reached for the handle and cautiously opened the door. It swung outwards easily. That was the good news. The bad news was that there was nothing outside - literally nothing. All Asuka could see through the door was a dim gray emptiness extending to an uncertain horizon. It was like looking at the end of the world.
"I don't think," said Asuka, "that we're going to get out this way."
"No," Mizuchi agreed, "I don't think we are."
"So now what?" Asuka asked. "I refuse to accept that we're trapped in here. I don't suppose there's any point in trying the back door, is there?"
"Probably not," said Mizuchi, "but let's try something."
She cast a meditative look at the staircase, then shook her head, apparently deciding that she didn't dare risk it. Instead, she started back towards the dining room. She investigated the glass front of the huge curio cabinet with approval. It was still where Asuka remembered it, but the books and things on the long table were gone. Now it was laid out for dinner, with china plates printed in unsettling patterns and arrangements of cobwebby dried flowers placed at intervals down its length. Candles burned at intervals, in candelabrum shaped like bony hands, putting out a dim blue flame. There was what looked like a wolf's skull tucked in the curio cabinet between a pewter mug and a souvenir plate of some obscure little village in England.
What sort of place is this? Asuka wondered, annoyed all over again. All of these changes were like something out of a bad horror movie, and yet somehow they were all too ridiculous to be truly frightening. It was like opening a can of nuts and having a Jack-in-the-box pop out, something that gave you a start but was ultimately harmless, and somehow that made it worse. She had the feeling that something out there was making fun of her, teasing her the way a schoolboy would try to frighten a girl with a bug.
Well, I'm not afraid of you, whoever or whatever you are. I've faced worse and I can do it again if I have to.
Mizuchi opened the door to the cabinet, repositioning it to catch the candlelight and give herself the best reflection. The plate-glass in the doors went nearly down to the floor, giving her a good full-length view of herself.
"I'm going to try passing through the mirror," she explained, "the same way I got to your house. If I can get out, I'll try to find what's causing all this and find some way to get you out as well. If I can't work it out myself, I'll call Pegasus or Juudai or someone and get reinforcements."
"You're just going to leave me here?" asked Asuka, aghast.
Mizuchi looked pained. "I'm sorry, but I don't see any way around it. It's not safe to take you through the mirror passages - I'm not even sure I can - and one of us has to get out and get help. We're out of our depth here."
Asuka reluctantly admitted that this might be a point. If only one of the two of them could get out, then she should get out and get help as soon as possible.
"I'll keep looking for Fubuki and your brother, then," she said. "They might have been pulled into this whatever-it-is the same way we were."
"That's a good thought," said Mizuchi.
She began fishing through her pockets, coming up with a small comma-shaped jade stone on a loop of string. In this dark place, it seemed to shine with its own light. Mizuchi handed this to Asuka, who cupped it in her hands. It was warm to the touch, as if it had been lying in the sun.
"Take this magatama," said Mizuchi. "It isn't much, but I've infused it with positive energy - it's a sort of a lucky charm. It may give you some protection."
Asuka regarded the charm dubiously. She was not altogether sure this situation could be made better by adding yet more magic to it, but she felt it would be ungracious to say so. Besides, at this point she should probably be taking whatever help she should get. She slipped the cord around her neck with a murmured word of thanks.
"All right," said Mizuchi. "Wish me luck."
She held out a hand and stepped towards the plate-glass door. Its surface rippled, and her fingers touched the surface and sank into it as easily as if she'd reached into a pool of water. An expression of relief crossed her face, and she took another step forward.
Then she lurched, suddenly and painfully, as if something on the other side of the glass had seized her hand and pulled it hard. She stumbled forwards with a cry, her look of relief seizing into one of fear, and her free hand scrambled desperately for something to hold on to. She managed to grab one of the shelves inside the cabinet, but it was of slippery polished wood and offered no purchase. Asuka shouted, "Mizuchi!" and tried to grab for her, but it was already too late. Even as she reached for her, Mizuchi had been hauled through the glass and was gone.
Asuka stood there, too shocked to even feel anything. It had all happened in the space of a few seconds - she'd barely even had time to shout. She half found herself expecting that at any moment, Mizuchi would step back out of the glass again, dusting off her hands and declaring she was glad that was over. She did not. All that happened was that the candles went on glowing and the house went on creaking to itself. The shadows seemed to be growing darker, even as the blue flames grew taller and brighter. Asuka reflexively raised her little flashlight and pointed it defiantly into the shadows, determined to chase them away, to reassure herself that there was nothing to be afraid of. Almost immediately, the bulb popped and went out. Asuka stared at it with the feeling she'd just been betrayed by her last friend. Then, with a noise of frustration, she threw it into a corner.
"You aren't getting the better of me that easily," she said to the house in general.
She stepped briskly towards the table and reached for one of the candles. Creepy they might be, but they were giving steady light and weren't subject to the vagaries of electronics.
The hand-shaped candelabrum grabbed at her, clamping its cold metal fingers around her wrist, scattering candles in all directions. Asuka shrieked in alarm and flailed wildly. The hand held on. In a panic, she bashed it over and over against the table, shattering china, until at last its grip loosened and she could fling it away.
Then she did something she wasn't proud of: she ran. She bolted from the room, overturning chairs as she went, and ran into the dark. She ran blindly, stumbling over unseen obstacles, colliding with walls and pieces of furniture, regathering herself and running again. She ran and ran until at last, her foot caught on some wrinkle in a rug and she went sprawling. For a moment, she simply lay dazedly where she had fallen, taking quick, sobbing breaths. After a time, however, her heartbeat calmed. The house was still and quiet. Nothing seemed to be chasing her. She raised her head experimentally and saw nothing to disturb her.
"That was a dirty trick," she said aloud.
Nothing responded. Very carefully, she pulled herself to her feet. She had found a little room, mostly empty, with only a few chairs pushed up against one wall for furniture. One wall was mostly windows, but they didn't look out on that unsettling grayness. She couldn't see anything through them but night sky, but at least it was a sky with stars in it and a sliver of moon, just enough that the room actually had a bit of light in it. In that light, she could see music stands and carefully arranged musical instruments. A harp stood in one corner, a piano in another, and she could see cases for violins, clarinets, flutes, and other things on a nearby shelf. A row of assorted guitars were arrayed on a series of stands, and there was even a little bookshelf full of what Asuka guessed was sheet music. She had found a music-room. It made her smile a little, in spite of herself. The air in this room felt somehow cleaner than the rest of the house, and the shadows did not lie so thickly here, as if whatever malevolent force held the place had not taken up residence here. She could just imagine how delighted her brother would have been with this place, if they had been together and this had been a normal house by day, and not this haunted dark place...
Then the piano started playing itself. Asuka jumped back from it, only barely restraining herself from beginning to run again. As soon as she moved, the piano stopped playing. The silence that ensued had a distinctly sheepish quality to it.
What in the...?
Very deliberately, the piano began to play again, a seemingly random string of notes: one very low, two high, one middling, one low again. After a pause, it repeated those five notes again. Then again.
Asuka felt a sudden surge of hope. When she and Fubuki had been much younger, their parents had insisted that they both take music lessons. While Fubuki had taken to them like a duck to water, Asuka had struggled with them. The only instrument she had ever been able to cope with to any degree was a piano, and so for about three years she had picked her way through endless renditions of "Chopsticks" and "The Entertainer" and an assortment of children's songs, before her parents had finally conceded to the fact that she just didn't have the aptitude for it. During that time, though, Fubuki had decided that the traditional scale wasn't up to his purposes, and he'd taken a blue marker and carefully labeled every key on the piano, starting from A and working his way up to Z and starting over. Their parents had been displeased, but young Asuka had agreed with him that the system had made much more sense that way, and they had amused themselves by typing out words on this interesting new musical keyboard. After a time, they had gotten quite good at working out what words were being "typed" just by listening to the notes. Even after they'd moved on to other things, Fubuki had been in the habit of regaling her with secret "notes" played out on his ukulele, or whatever instrument he might have handy. It had been some time since she'd thought about those odd little performances, but it all came back to her now that she was hearing her name played on a baby grand.
"Fubuki?" she asked.
The piano played a triumphant fanfare. Asuka laughed.
"It's good to hear from you! Where on earth are you?"
The unhelpful reply came: Stuck.
Asuka frowned. The trouble with having to play out replies one letter at a time was that it frequently resulted in a kind of shorthand that, particularly in Fubuki's case, could be difficult to follow.
"Stuck how?" she asked.
The result took several tries to work out, but after repeated questioning, she managed to get the gist of it. Somehow Fubuki seemed to have gotten separated from his body, and was now drifting ghostlike around this house, unable to get out. No, he didn't quite know where his body had gone off to - he had a feeling it was nearby, but he couldn't seem to get to it. Where was Saiou? Around here somewhere, searching for a way out, or at least back to their physical forms. Had they seen Mizuchi? Not yet, but they'd felt a disturbance a few minutes ago that they suspected was probably her. No doubt she'd turn up soon. Fubuki didn't sound happy about that last part.
"So what is this thing?" Asuka asked at last. "Why is it doing all this?"
There was a brief pause - Asuka had the sense that there was a consultation going on outside her hearing. At last, the piano rang out with the word, Hungry.
"Hungry?" Asuka repeated. Was her brother thinking of food at a time like this?
Eats magic, he clarified.
"Ah!" she said, realization dawning. "It's hungry, and it took you and Saiou and Mizuchi because all of you have some kind of magical traces on you?"
The piano played out a definite, YES. Then, after a brief pause, it added, Eats house.
"It's eating the magic from all those things in the house too?" Asuka guessed.
Another YES. Then: Getting stronger.
"So what's it going to do when it's taken everything it can get inside the house?" she asked.
Don't know. Not good. A pause. Might get out.
"And we don't want that."
The answer was firm. NO WAY.
"Well, I'm going to find a way out of here," she said, "and then I'm going to find a way to get all of you out, too."
No, the piano insisted. Can't leave.
"Why not?" she demanded, feeling rather cross. If he was picking now of all times to get pessimistic...
You have no magic...
The rest of what he was going to say was cut off by a creaking noise. Asuka looked up in time to see that the shelf of sheet music - and hadn't it been further down the wall a few minutes ago? - tilting inexorably downwards. It landed on the keys with a discordant crash, hard enough that the piano's legs buckled. Asuka jumped backwards and managed to avoid being hit with any flying debris. Sheet music spilled across the floor in all directions. She noted without much surprise that they all seemed to be funeral dirges and heartbroken ballads.
"Fubuki?" she called tentatively. "Are you still here?"
The piano gave a mournful little plink, too out of tune to be sure what note it was trying to be. Asuka sighed a little.
"I had a feeling," she said. "Well, it was nice while it lasted. Don't worry, though - I will find a way to help you. You can count on me."
She slipped out of the room and out into the hallway. It seemed to have gotten much larger since the last time she'd been there, growing so wide and tall that she felt only a foot high in comparison. Some suits of armor had loomed up out of the shadows that weren't there last time. She scowled, and the paintings on the wall scowled back at her, their eyes accusatory and faintly glowing.
"Now, you stop that!" she scolded. "It's not funny and I'm not scared, so you can save the effort."
Nothing happened. Asuka sighed and began walking resolutely down the hallway, still frowning. She was getting awfully tired of this overdone haunted house aesthetic.
If I can't talk to Fubuki anymore, I wonder if there's any way I could communicate with Saiou? Or even with Mizuchi? Where would they have gravitated if they were wandering around this house? She had no way to be sure, with Saiou, but she was willing to bet that she could find Mizuchi if she could find a mirror somewhere in this place. Where would she find a mirror? A bathroom? A bedroom? Did she even know where to find any of those things? Did she even have any idea where she was anymore?
She was so deep in thought that she almost didn't hear the creak of the nearest suit of armor starting to move. She glanced up just in time to see an axe come plummeting towards her, and she jumped backwards with a yelp. The axe bit deeply into the floor, ripping through the carpet and shattering the floorboards.
"Okay," she said breathlessly. "Maybe I'm a little afraid."
She heard another creak behind her. She didn't even bother to turn around - she just took off at a sprint. The hallways were so dark that she could barely make out where she was going. All she could see were dark walls and the lighter path of the carpet, showing her the way to go. Without knowing how she'd gotten there, she found herself back once again in the entry hall. She raced across it, hearing the sounds of heavy footsteps fading behind her. Apparently whatever was after her, it didn't care to come into this room. She let herself slow down, catching her breath but not quite ready to drop her guard yet. She was getting tired of running away from things, and she had the unpleasant sense that she was being herded. This house wanted her to go somewhere, and every instinct she had said that whatever it wanted, she should be doing the opposite. But how could she compete with something that was seven feet tall and carrying an axe that probably weighed as much as she did? Even if she'd had her deck, she doubted such a thing would have stopped to duel with her.
The far side of the entry hall seemed brighter than the rest of it, and without really thinking about it, she made for that brightness and what little reassurance it could offer. There seemed to be light filtering in through the windows now, the same sort of reassuring glow she would have expected to see through her own windows at night - a familiar blend of moonlight and street lights, with the occasional flickering light of a passing car. Asuka stared very hard at the windows, expecting a trap. She couldn't see much beyond them, but everything seemed normal. Very cautiously, she reached out and touched the handle of the door. Nothing happened. So far, so good. She slowly turned the handle and pulled it open an inch. A rush of night air blew in, chilly with the bite of autumn. She smelled dead leaves and city smoke and asphalt. With growing unease, she opened the door all the way. There was the front porch, and there the lawn with its weedy garden, and beyond it the wall and the gate. She could see the street lights and the trickle of traffic in the street. House lights twinkled in the distance, and the twinkling red dot of an airplane moved slowly across the sky. Somewhere she could just barely hear the thrum of a baseline, the music too far away and muffled for her to identify. A dog barked in a nearby yard. No matter how hard she strained her senses, Asuka could find nothing out of place, nothing that would indicate that she was seeing anything other than reality. She stooped a little, picking up a dry leaf that had blown onto the porch. It crumbled in her fingers the way a real leaf would.
Relief washed over her. She could get out. She could leave and go find help, and everything would be all right...
But before she could take that step, she paused for just a moment to think. When Mizuchi had opened this door, it had opened on a vast empty landscape. Now it was showing her a perfectly ordinary suburban street, a clearly open path back to "real life", with no obstacles in her way. It was too easy, and she didn't trust it.
So why did it change?
And then there was another matter: why had Fubuki told her that she couldn't leave? She obviously could. The door was open. There was nothing stopping her from getting out. There seemed to be every indication that the house wanted her to get out.
And that, she decided, was why she couldn't leave. Whatever was controlling this house fed on the magic of other beings. It had blocked Mizuchi from escaping because she still had something it wanted. Now it was letting Asuka go because it had no use for her. She could escape, walk right through that door without hindrance, and whatever force was controlling this place would digest her brother and her friends while she stood outside and watched helplessly. She had a sneaking suspicion that even if she tried to walk back into the house again after this, she would find only the mundane rooms with nothing sinister or magical about them at all, and no trace of Fubuki or the Saiou siblings. She could only save herself.
"Forget that," she said, and slammed the door.
A groan ran through the house, as if its entire foundation had shifted. Asuka resolutely turned her back on the door and glared around the room. The shadows pressed in closely, and the potted plants rustled and reached for her with grasping leaves. Nothing touched her. Asuka watched it all with slowly calming nerves.
I'm not magical at all, not even a little bit. Fubuki told me so.
"So you don't want me here, huh?" she asked the house at large. "Well, let's see how badly you want to get rid of me."
Mind made up, she turned to open the front door again. A ripple of tension ran through the air, as if the entire house was holding its breath. Before she could stop herself, Asuka reached up and closed her fingers around the cool stone of the pendant Mizuchi had given her. Then she gave a sharp yank and felt the cord snap. Then she flung the pendant as hard as she could and watched it sail across the yard, sparkling in the lamplight as it flew before finally disappearing into the grass. Asuka heard something behind her hiss in what sounded like frustration, but she ignored it.
"There," she said, closing the door again. "Now you'll get nothing out of me."
When she turned around again, the room had gone nearly pitch black. She could no longer see the walls or ceiling, and the floor was only a bit of gray flatness in an otherwise unbroken expanse of black. Asuka began walking across it anyway, head held high. The air felt cool around her now, raising goosebumps on her arms and the back of her neck. A breeze wrapped around her, carrying a scent of decaying wood and mold. She kept walking. All around her, now, she could see small glints of red and green and ice blue winking slowly in and out of sight, like glittering malevolent eyes that vanished whenever she looked straight at them. Ghostly shapes like reaching hands drifted towards her, brushing cold fingers against her face. She winced but did not stop moving forwards.
Nothing here can touch me. I have no magic. There's nothing that can be taken from me.
She closed her eyes, blocking out the sights, and kept walking. The floor felt sticky, now, clinging to her feet as if she might sink into the carpet and be swallowed up by it at any second. Things brushed against her legs - rough scales and shaggy fur. She felt hands tugging at her hair and brushing cold, bony fingers against her cheeks. Her heart pounded and her throat ached with a desire to scream, but somehow she kept herself moving forward, even as her knees trembled. She refused to fall down. She was going to keep walking until she found something she could work with. Wasn't she at the far end of the hall yet? It hadn't been that long. Surely she had reached the end by now...
She opened her eyes. She wasn't in the house anymore. She was standing in what seemed to be a stone hallway with smoothly curved gray walls that looked as if they had been carved of solid granite. No matter how hard she looked, she could find no sign of a break or seam - the walls flowed smoothly before her and stretched in an unvarying expanse behind her. There were no windows and no doors, only the occasional hollow where candles rested, burning with steady blue flames. They extended a few feet ahead and a few feet behind her, and then everything disappeared into darkness.
"Well," she said, "now we're getting somewhere."
Exactly where this was, she didn't know, but she had a feeling that she was getting closer to the truth. The haunted house had been a stage meant to frighten her. This had the sense of something real about it. She reached out to touch the wall, and yanked her fingers back. The stone was icy cold.
I won't be doing that again, she thought.
She took a few cautious steps forward. The candles behind her went out, and a few more lit themselves ahead of her. All right, that was interesting. She tried taking a few more steps. The candles continued to follow her. She broke into a run, her footsteps echoing loudly off the bare walls. The path ahead of her continued to curve, making it impossible for her to see what lay ahead of her even if the light of the blue candles could reach that far. On and on she ran, until her chest ached and her throat burned from the chill air, and the stitch in her side forced her to stagger to a halt. For a moment, she crouched motionless in the center of the hall, hands braced on her knees, hair falling across her face as she tried to catch her breath. Slowly, she raised her head again. The scene in front of her was no different than it had been when she'd started running: unmarked gray walls, unwavering blue candles.
She frowned. It occurred to her that the hall in front of her had been curving steadily to her right, and that the floor had been perfectly level this whole time. Thoughtfully, she reached for one of the candles. It felt like ordinary wax under her fingers. Swiftly, she turned the whole thing upside-down and extinguished it on the stone beneath it. Its light went out with a soft hiss. For good measure, she broke the candle in half and tossed it onto the floor. Satisfied with her work, she began walking again, counting her steps. One, two, three...
She'd reached two hundred and thirty five and had just been beginning to wonder if she'd guessed wrongly when she realized that there was a patch of dimness up ahead of her. She picked up her pace, and was completely and coolly unsurprised to find that the candle she'd destroyed was lying on the floor in front of her.
"So that's how it is," she said.
She paused to consider. Obviously she was meant to wander in circles here until she either gave up or starved to death, or both. But she had gotten in, which presumably meant there was a way out. She hadn't seen any signs of a door, but that didn't mean there wasn't one.
Hm. I wonder...
Under normal circumstances, Asuka was the most restrained and self-controlled of young women. Where her brother wore his emotions on his sleeve, Asuka tended to reserve herself to no more than brief flashes of anger or joy. Still, desperate times called for desperate measures. There were a lot of candles in that endlessly looping hallway. She methodically destroyed them all, smashing them against the walls and crushing them under her feet, leaving a swathe of darkness behind her. She was breathing heavily by the time she was done, but at least the exertion had warmed her. Without those candles to lend a little bit of light to her world, the passage felt very cold indeed. Those icy cold walls, that forbid you to touch them...
Asuka began walking - very slowly, now that the lights were out. Her eyes strained to catch even the faintest glint of light. For a long time, there was no light at all, and she began to wish she had kept just one candle with her just so she would be able to see something. Then her eyes detected the faintest trace of a glow. It was so faint, she never would have been able to see it if there had been any other light at all. Now she picked up her pace, hurrying towards that almost invisible gleam. When she reached it, she found that it was indeed what she'd been hoping to find. On either side of her, between the niches where the candles had once stood, Asuka could see the arched outlines of two doorways. If Asuka put her fingers to the wall, she could just barely feel the crack that marked the edges of the door, even though she hadn't been able to see it when the lights were on.
This place can try to trick me all it wants, but as long as there are rules, I can figure them out!
Now she was left with a new challenge. There were doors to either side of her. One, she guessed, was the way she'd come in. The other way would lead her closer to her goal. The question was, which way was which? She doubted she was going to get to back up and try again if she made the wrong call. There was a fifty-fifty chance.
No, there isn't. Think logically. There must be a way to work it out.
Thoughtfully, she ran her fingers along the edges of the doors. Neither of them felt different from the other. Both were made of the same grainy stone. That seemed to be a theme around here. She thought of the stone walls that went around and around forever, and of the vague grayness stretching away to nothing that Mizuchi had revealed when she opened the front door. She thought of the jar she'd seen Saiou handling, the one that rested in its own little dish. All of this had to be the fault of that jar, that little stone jar.
Mind made up, Asuka turned towards the inside wall. If all of this was happening inside a stone jar, then the answers she wanted must be at the center of it. She pushed on the door as hard as she could, and felt stone grind as it slid backwards. Cold blue-white light spilled into the hallway, momentarily dazzling her. She held her hand up in front of her face and stepped through.
She knew what she had expected. She had expected horrors, a final mustering of strength that would test her courage to the breaking point. Instead, she found stillness, utter stillness. She was standing in a dark space that seemed to go on forever in all directions. The air felt stuffy, dead, difficult to breathe, as if some inertia was weighing it down until it was more solid than air. Asuka walked slowly through the miasma while she waited for her eyes to adjust.
Her first clear impression was of a junkyard. Looming over her were heaps of objects - cars, beds, old toys, broken doors, old television sets, kitchen sinks, a spinning wheel, an old Bakelite radio. Nothing looked newer than forty or fifty years old. Some of the objects seemed to go back centuries. All of them were worn, dusty, looking somehow tired, as though demanding any of them to fulfill their original functions would result in them collapsing into dust, even though most of them felt fairly solid when she touched them. A narrow path wound haphazardly through the sea of garbage.
"What is this place?" she murmured.
Nothing answered her, but she thought she felt a vague stirring of interest in the air, or in the ground under her feet. She continued walking, occasionally scrambling over places where the heaps of junk had spilled over to block her path. She didn't like touching them. Something about the lifeless aura over them made her feel like she was clambering over piles of skeletons. If she didn't look at what she was touching, she could easily believe the irregular bits of metal and wood were bones...
There was something about that thought that she didn't want to probe too closely.
At length, she came to a place where the piles of odds and ends began to thin out. At first it was only that the path through the mountains of junk was a little wider and less frequently blocked. Then she realized that the piles of oddments were a little smaller, no longer towering higher than a house, but merely only the height of a large room. Then the heaps were no higher than her head, and the path began to diverge in places, winding around little islands of garbage. Then it wasn't a path at all, only patches of clear space randomly dotted with piles of trash. Then even those were gone, and Asuka was walking through a featureless plane.
But not quite featureless. At the very center of it all was a place where the floor seemed to be moving. Asuka crept forward, fascinated. It took a few more steps before she finally realized what she was seeing: a whirlpool, churning slowly around in the middle of an otherwise solid floor. It was black, but there were faint reddish and greenish highlights over its surface, giving it an oily sort of sheen. As she watched, shapes like hands seemed to reach up from its surface, and eyes slowly blinked open and shut. A faint sucking sound emerged from it. Asuka remembered what Fubuki had said about the spirit of this place: hungry...
She stepped boldly towards it.
"Well, I'm here," she told it, folding her arms over her chest. "You've done your best to keep me out, and I've gotten here anyway. Now, let my friends go."
Why should I?
Asuka tried not to twitch. She hadn't really expected an answer.
"Because they aren't yours to take," she said. "You've already got more stuff down here than you could possibly need. You can't have my friends, too. Give them back."
I haven't finished with them yet. You may have the husks after I drink them dry.
"I want them back whole," Asuka insisted. "Where are they?"
Here. Among the others.
Asuka looked around slowly, taking in the endless mountains of trash. Husks, the thing had said. Was it possible, in this place where nothing was as it seemed, that these drained, broken things had once been people, sucked dry by this ever-hungry mouth? She thought of her laughing, sun-worshiping brother being reduced to this and shuddered.
The maelstrom made a snickering sound. If you want them back, why don't you look for them? They're here somewhere. You can have them if you can find them.
Asuka looked around at the heaps of trash. They seemed to go on forever in all directions.
"How much time do I have?" she asked.
If you want them back before I've finished? Not long.
For a moment, Asuka's mind went blank. The amount of ground she needed to cover seemed endless. She knew there had to be some logical way to go at it, some way to reason out where her friends had gone, but her mind was blank. She could not think where to begin amid all of this chaos.
Think. Calm down and think. What's really going on here?
Her mind, apparently goaded to the point where it had to jump in some direction or break down entirely, fetched up an image of her first year at Duel Academia. She could clearly see Chronos at the front of the class, lecturing his students on duel theory. The most important thing, he was saying, was to figure out what your opponent's goal was, and then find some way to block it.
The opponent's goal...
This whirlpool thing's goal was to suck up every drop of magic it could get its mutant hands on. That meant it wanted to hold on to Fubuki and the rest for as long as it possibly could. That meant it had to delay Asuka - by scaring her out of the house on a wild goose chase in search of help, or by making her run in circles forever in those corridors. Or, apparently, by tricking her into searching through mounds of garbage in hopes that she could recognize her missing companions.
"You know what?" she said. "No. I have a better idea."
The vortex stopped churning for an instant. What? What was that?
"I said, I'm not going to play your little game. I'm going to find my friends on my own terms."
You'll never be able to find them before...
Whatever the thing was going to say was choked off, as Asuka seized on the nearest object - a ceramic wash basin - and threw it as hard as she could. It went down the creature's gullet and stuck there for a moment, making it choke and gag. Asuka smiled grimly. She had guessed correctly. This thing ate magic, all right, but it couldn't handle the physical bodies left over. That was why it had been leaving them piled around it for years and years. She grabbed a small trunk and hurled it at the whirlpool, then followed that with a pair of heavy candlesticks and a lamp. The creature continued to emit pained gurgles, apparently unable to spit anything out once the objects were caught in its downward pull. Encouraged, Asuka kept digging, tossing everything she could find that was small enough to throw towards the gaping mouth. She had been working like this for several minutes when she became aware of a rustling, and she turned her head to see that several of the objects around her had began to move of their own accord, lurching and rolling towards the pit. She smiled a little. Apparently some of these still had some fight in them after all.
She was still rummaging through the heaps of garbage when her hand touched something warm. She jerked back, surprised, then paused and reached down again, deep into the heart of the trash heap. She came up with something smooth and round clutched in her hand. It was a crystal ball, faintly iridescent and glowing softly. Asuka smiled a little.
"Hello, Saiou," she said.
She tucked the crystal ball between her feet where it couldn't roll away, and kept digging. It took her longer to find the little hand mirror with the rubies set in the frame. That went into her pocket. The ukulele almost fell on her, tumbling down the side of a hill of garbage with a discordant twang. She picked it up and hugged it close to her chest.
"Hold on, everyone," she said. "I'm pretty sure something is going to happen soon, but I'm not really sure what it is."
Something obviously was going to happen soon. What had seemed to be a bottomless pit was now clogged and overflowing, and sounds of exhausted gasping were audible over the rumble of more and more things trying to force their way through the portal. The floor was beginning to heave and shake. Asuka had to go down on her knees to keep from, clutching her three priceless treasures as the world rocked around her.
"Hang on," she said, hoping they could hear her over the din. "I won't let you go. Just hang on."
Objects tumbled all around her in a never-ending avalanche, and the ground bucked and heaved like a horse trying to throw its rider. Asuka gritted her teeth and clung tighter to her friends' forms, afraid that if she slacked her grip even a little she would lose them forever. She felt the floor give one tremendous surge, heard something like a scream rip the air, and then...
The world ended. Asuka felt the ground fragment beneath her, felt the very air around her being ripped away. Everything was falling away, everything but the three precious items she still clutched to her chest, and she curled around them and screamed until she had no air left in her lungs.
Then everything went away.
Something was tickling Asuka's nose. She winced, trying to get away from it without actually moving. The attempt didn't work very well. Feeling as if her arm weighed fifty pounds, she slowly moved to rub at her face. Somewhere in the middle of the movement, it dawned on her that she seemed to be lying on the floor. That thought was enough to distract herself from the tickle. The floor? Definitely. She was lying face-down on the carpet, and the dusty pile was what had given her the urge to sneeze.
Lying on the floor offended her sense of propriety. No matter how she felt about moving, she needed to get up. Slowly, she forced her eyelids open.
"I think she's coming around," said a voice above her head.
A scrambling ensued, and then someone else said, "Here, let me help."
Warm, familiar hands reached down and began prying her off the carpet. She managed to turn her head enough to look up and see her brother looking down at him, his expression one of intense relief.
"It's about time," he said. "I was starting to think you'd never wake up."
"Fubuki?" she murmured. Then, "Fubuki, you're all right!"
He laughed. "See? What'd I tell you? She's out cold for an hour and wakes up asking if I'm all right."
"That is a sister's prerogative," said Saiou's voice. As Asuka managed to get herself into something like a sitting position, she turned to see him relaxing in a wingback chair, looking tired but pleased. "You might recall my own dear sister doing something similar when we woke up."
"An hour? I was out that long?" Asuka asked. She was looking around now, trying to take stock of her surroundings. She was back in the master bedroom - a perfectly ordinary-looking bedroom, now, she was pleased to note. The only thing that seemed to be wrong with it was that the floor was strewn with the shattered remains of something made of stone, and the shards had apparently been propelled hard enough to leave gouges in the wall and furniture and break the glass on some of the photos. Asuka realized that she'd been lying on some of them, and her skin was now marked with the dents left by their pressure.
"At least that long," said Saiou. "Mizuchi was the first to wake up - owing, I suppose, to the fact that she was not trapped as long as the rest of us, nor did she have to make the effort you did when you freed us. She is currently downstairs helping me gather up my notes, as she has apparently deemed me too drained to do it myself. I am disinclined to argue."
"So is it really...?" Asuka began, and wasn't sure what she wanted the last word to be. Destroyed? Gone? Dead? She picked up a few of the fragments of what had been the stone jar and let them run through her fingers to bounce off the carpet.
"You were able to successfully destroy it," said Saiou. "Whatever animus resided in that artifact, it is no longer connected to this world."
"Good," she said firmly. "I'm glad it's gone."
Mizuchi came into the room, carrying a cardboard box. Scraps of paper peeked over the edge.
"I think this is everything," she said.
"Thank you," said Saiou. "I have no intention of going back inside this house ever again. If Pegasus wants any further reports, he may send someone else."
Asuka considered this an entirely reasonable position. She hoped Pegasus would feel the same.
Fubuki reached for the box, flashing Mizuchi one of his winning smiled.
"Please, allow me," he said gallantly.
Mizuchi allowed herself to be persuaded. She passed the box to him and instead moved to help Asuka the rest of the way up.
"Ready to leave?" she asked.
"More than ready," Asuka agreed.
They trooped outside. The sky was no longer dark now, but turning gray and pink with the onset of morning. Asuka lingered on the front porch, admiring how beautiful everything was. The fresh, cool morning air felt wonderful after the memory of that eternal junkyard. It was good to be alive and free on a morning like this. At least one of her companions seemed to feel the same way. Fubuki was humming to himself as he sauntered across the yard.
"One good thing seems to have come of this," said Saiou. "The Darkness card appears to have been eaten. We didn't find a trace of it when we came around."
"Of course," said Mizuchi, "if you hadn't tempted that jar-spirit with something so powerful, it probably wouldn't have woken up and done so much mischief in the first place."
"That's true," said Saiou, sounding suitably chastened.
"At least it's over now," said Fubuki, "and everything came out right, and it's a beautiful morning!"
He was right about that much. The birds were singing, and the ground was sparkling with dew. Asuka looked thoughtfully at the ground. No, not just dew. Something in the grass had a sparkle of its own. She veered off the front walk to stoop and pick it up.
"Look, Mizuchi," she said. "It's your good-luck charm."
She offered it to her friend, who took it and turned it thoughtfully over in her hands.
"Well, it still seems to be working," she said. "Why don't you keep it? As a souvenir."
Asuka thought about it. She still wasn't all that sure she liked magical things. She surely didn't want to spend her life relying on them. Still...
"All right," she said.
She took the stone back. It still felt warm in her hand, despite lying out in the cold all night. She smiled a little as she slipped it into her pocket. As a good-luck charm, she wasn't sure she needed it, but as a souvenir, it would do nicely. It would remind her that she didn't need to be afraid of anything, even magical things. She could count on herself to come through when she needed to. That was a good thing to remember.
"It's a good thing I don't have classes today," she said, to no one in particular. "I feel like I could sleep for a week."
"You aren't the only one," said Mizuchi, pulling a wry face.
"Yeah, no kidding," said Fubuki. Then he brightened. "Hey, what do you think of coffee?"