Sun Shine In
Chikage had never bothered to lock the painting back up.
She didn't much remember sealing up Kaitou Kid's workshop those nine years ago, recalling only blurry snapshot images, the burning of her eyes under makeup heavy enough to hide her sleeplessness and grief. She'd had to be strong for her little boy, try not to see the holes in his heart where laughter had once shone like the sun.
Only now Kaito was gone. And somehow, she knew that if she'd only been able to lock the door, if he'd never discovered Kaitou Kid, he might not have disappeared... but she hadn't, and he had.
Toichi's image swung away from her fingertips, the dark hole beyond swallowing her up, glimpses of empty-eyed masks and dresses sagging on their hangers passing her by, until the door of the little car clunked open and the leather seat rose up to bat her with a faceful of dust.
Chikage came back to herself, sneezing, curled up in the backseat of Kaitou Kid's tiny car. Kaito must not've yet discovered the usefulness of the car, how you could unscrew the seat and squeeze yourself into the narrow space between cushions and chassis, how you could hotwire it, how you could rewire the radio to listen to the police broadband from a distance or override it, how all those techniques could transfer to the vast majority of other cars to this very day.
How two flexible and inventive people could do other things.
Kaito wouldn't have had reason to discover how to fit in the backseat with company, though she and Toichi had spent a great many hours figuring that little trick out. Chikage might've even concieved Kaito back here. Small wonder he'd taken up the mantle so easily, if that was true. Born of Kid, in Kid's home, how could he not? But that didn't explain why, unless Kid was cursed, her son had just vanished like that.
Chikage curled back in upon herself, arms curved against her stomach like she could somehow call her son back home, using his first home, in his alter ego's home. "Kaito," she whispered.
A tear gathered itself on the tip of her nose, and fell.
By the time Chikage stumbled out of Kid's lair, eyes puffy and burning just like after Toichi's death, the house was dark and silent. The clock on the stove, when she fumbled her way into the kitchen looking for water, glowed a quiet 3:13; there'd be no point in trying to go to bed now, not with her alarm set to go off in just three hours. Though why she was bothering to go to work, when she didn't even have a son to provide for anymore, she didn't know... but it was better than sitting in her empty house, staring at old pictures.
She stuffed the coffeepot into the machine, flicking it on and waiting just long enough to hear that first burble of it working, then turned to wait at the kitchen table.
There was a letter sitting next to her chair, Kuroba Chikage written as if hanko-stamped.
Chikage blinked. Once. Twice. But the letter didn't vanish into half-forgotten memories and waking dreams. Except... Kaitou Kid was gone. Kaito had never known about Toichi's quirky love riddles, and had never thought to send any of his own.
Slim fingers plucked the envelope up, nails slitting through a wax seal she didn't recognize, unfolding the parchment - it was parchment, not ordinary paper nor heavy rice paper - to reveal the written side.
It seems that black feathers must gather upon this world. If that is so, then an invitation, from one ghost to his ancestor: since her brother is ill-behaved, this greatest of cats has gone to sulk.
Your journey begins at sunset.
No signature. But the riddle itself was enough to make her blood run cold. Black feathers: Kuro-ba. Ghost: phantom: phantom thief, Kaitou Kid. To his ancestor: to her, Phantom Lady, Kaitou Kid's mother...
Kaito had been here.
But... the ill-behaved brother, the sulking sister, that brought to mind the legend of Amaterasu, but what was this about a great cat?
She'd figure it out. First, though, she had to call in sick. It would take half the day to reach Ise Grand Shrine, and who knew how long to figure out the "great cat" part of the clue?
14:11. Or 2:11 pm, by Chikage's watch, with bright afternoon sunshine mellowed by the first green leaves of the year. There weren't many flowered trees behind the brown thatched roof of the Inner Shrine at Ise, visible behind a high wooden fence and stone wall. She couldn't get any closer to Amaterasu's sanctum, but surely Kaito wouldn't expect her to. And she still had to figure out the "great cat" thing; the shrine wouldn't have such a thing anywhere around it, though maybe there was a statue of a shishi lion-dog somewhere-?
Her watch clicked over to 14:12, almost imperceptible against her pulse, and Chikage spotted it. A flash of a lion's face, garishly emblazoned on the back of a tourist's shirt.
Chikage hurried to follow, heading out through the torii gates, glancing around in search of the tourist. She didn't see him, but that was no guarantee she'd missed him. Down the path, over the bridge, out to the road... and there. On a bus loading some thirty meters away, there was an advertisement for a zoo, featuring a lioness.
"Follow the leader," she murmured. Okay, she could do that.
She barely caught the bus, tossing a few yen in the meter. She couldn't see the tourist, not with everyone's backs pressed against the seats, but Kaito wouldn't get her this far just to disappear while in transit. So Chikage took a seat near the exit, and watched the budding and flowering trees go by as the bus wove its way down the mountain and towards the port.
Once off the lone road up the mountain, she split her attention between the buildings outside and the passengers within. No sign of the lion-marked tourist, even though Chikage watched people disembark at each stop. Eventually the tourist shopping outside the shrine grounds gave way to city streets. No one remaining looked like a tourist anymore, and Chikage's heart sank. How could she have missed him? He wouldn't sneak away on her. Not her Kaito, not after having drawn her out in the first place.
The bus stopped again, and the crowd of people waiting shifted. Chikage jerked. There. There, on the bus stop bench, the zoo was advertised again. Kaito had to have planned that, must mean for her to get off here. She hurried to her feet, rushed out the closing doors, and fetched up hard against the bench, a hand patting down the steel-frame back. Nothing taped behind the lion; nothing wedged between the slats. She knelt, peeking underneath. Nothing hidden under the seat. A glance up revealed nothing on the rain shelter.
No note. And little chance of spotting Kaito in the usual city crowds.
Perhaps there was another lion in sight?
Chikage straightened, ignoring the odd sidelong looks she was getting from bystanders, and turned slowly on her heel. Bank, restaurant, billboard, department store, police box, intersection, shrine... shishi statue.
From the shishi statue, there was another glimpse of a billboard, this one for the Lion King musical back in Tokyo. Chikage followed the view until the road angled sharply and split, the bulk of it taking the crowds and noise down to the sea, a thin offshoot dead-ending at a lighthouse.
Some instinct led Chikage to follow the unused path, passing several short, black-painted poles meant to block cars from access, then squeezing past a chain-link gate that had been haphazardly bent, too recently to have been replaced yet. She couldn't think of anything that would damage the gate so badly and leave the poles untouched, nothing natural... so maybe Kaito...?
The lighthouse door was open. The door just within, to the center of the lighthouse, was chained closed, but to her right, a narrow staircase spiraled upwards, late afternoon sun shining gold at the top.
Deep in that light, something moved.
Kaito. Chikage's heart pounded in her throat in time with her footsteps as she rushed up the stairs, stopping short at the top. The lighthouse lamp spun slowly in the center of the airy room, its light easily ignored in the warmth pouring through the windows... but the dark figure standing alone at the western end of the room, staring calmly out at the setting sun, was entirely too little to be Kaito.
As the child turned, long pigtails spilling out from under her kindergarten cap, Chikage's heart sank. But she rallied, just a bit, for the incurious little face staring up at her. Though there was no resemblence to her son - even as a toddler, even in his sleep, Kaito had been eager and animated - she had to be calm. Someone was missing this little girl.
"Are you lost?" she asked the child.
A slow shake of that small head. "Waiting," she answered, in a thick accent that Chikage couldn't place, but brought to mind rolling alpine mountains and thick stands of flowering grass.
"Oh. Is someone coming to pick you up?"
No answer. The girl stared blankly up at her.
Chikage sighed. At least someone had taught the girl well about talking to strangers. And she'd meet this someone eventually... what sort of person just left a small child to wait alone like this? Not even in a home, just out in a public utility which would be nothing but slow-moving, frightening shadows in less than an hour. "Looks like we're waiting, then," she murmured.
The girl turned back to watch the lowering sun. Chikage glanced around the room, the center lamp flashing in her eyes, then picked a window two down from the child's and waited.
Minutes passed. Slowly, the shadow of the mountain began to stretch across the town, lights winking on in bits and pieces: a street here, a district there, houses lighting up unevenly, one-two-three. And still the little girl was silent; eeriely so, for having nothing more entertaining to watch than the mountain's creeping shadow.
Finally, finally, the reddened sun's rim touched the mountain ridge, and the child spoke.
"Yer son has a lot of faith in ye, Kuroba-san." Chikage's head snapped around, her eyes meeting the girl's with a jolt. The child continued, "He could only bring ye so far; open the door, as it were. Ye must walk the path on yer own. Are ye willing?"
What sort of question was- Chikage opened her mouth, but the girl's eyes went fierce, fierce enough that Chikage knew this wasn't a question that would accept a knee-jerk answer. What had Kaito gotten himself into...?
Whatever it was, it was something her son thought she could handle, something that he could live with. That meant she could live with it too. "Yes."
"Nae turning back," the girl warned.
"Then the seven trials begin." At the center of the room, the halogen light shattered into flame. "I am me ain' sel," she said, the words coming out in strange, twisted syllables that took Chikage a moment to decipher as vaguely English. "First an' nameless, attending Simha Muqhau. Who comes tae petition the anchor?"
Chikage stared. The child looked completely serious, not very childlike at all. A quick glance at the lighthouse lamp was more convincing: there was no sign there had ever been an electric lamp at all, no fuel under the fire, and a perfectly-sculpted golden lion's head was set into the stonework where before had been smooth concrete. "... Kuroba Chikage," she answered, voice flat and eyes carefully not glancing at the windows for escape.
That got Chikage an almost aggravated flicker of eyes upwards. "Ye need tae give him a token," Ainsel told her pointedly, voice lowered.
A token. Of course. A token of her identity... would be her driver's license. (The possibility of an identity theft scam flickered across her mind and vanished. This was much too far-fetched to be a scam.) Slowly, Chikage felt her fingers slip into her purse, snap open her wallet, and extract the card from the frontmost pocket. When she drew it out, Ainsel's eyes jerked towards the lion-head ornament.
The mouth opened as Chikage approached, metal stretching without hinges around a perfectly detailed throat. Risking both hands to the gleaming fangs, she placed the license in the cup of its tongue, the rough metal blood-warm against her fingertips, and bowed as she backed away, as it folded her identification into its mouth and swallowed.
She broke into a cold sweat. Everything - everything - could've been explained by Kid's illusions. The fire, the child, the lion... except she couldn't remember her name. "What...?"
"Simha Muqhau has accepted yer sacrifice," Ainsel replied quietly. "Ye've six more." A slight tilt of her head, the first sign of curiosity in the child, and she asked, "Regrets?"
Kaasan. Anata. Musume-chan. Phantom Lady. She still had that much of her identity. And now... petitioner, maybe, or nanashi. So many labels. It would have to be enough. "None."
Ainsel inclined her head, acknowledging that, then bowed to the fire and headed downstairs. Phantom Lady hurried to follow, stumbling a bit on the darkened staircase, but when she hit the landing at the bottom Ainsel was gone. The exit had been closed, chained shut just like the inner door directly across from it, and where it had stood across the space was another stairwell, spiraling down into the dark.
The air grew more damp and cool as she descended, tiny white lights near the ceiling barely illuminating the few steps she could see twisting ahead. One landing. Two, and the stonework changed, crude-cut blocks providing handholds in lieu of a handrail. Three. Four. The walls under her hands started getting slick, and she nearly slipped, jerking away in surprise, when her palm landed on a thick mat of algae. Five landings. Six. Seven. Eight brought the faint sounds of trickling water, too persistant to be a simple drip or even a thin ribbon cutting into the wall... where had the wall's mortar lines gone?
The ninth landing opened up into a blue-lit grotto, ivy trailing down charcoal-gray stone from a crevice high above. A stream spilled in from some underground source, sending ripples out across a small, bioluminescent lake lapping very nearly up to her toes. To either side of her, thick banks of river rock curved outwards to form a pebble beach.
At the center of the lake, a fountain burbled and spun water into a vaguely human shape. A flash of white eyes behind the fountain put paid to the idea that she was alone here; the shadows behind the fountain were clearly human, a lanky, almost naked man the color of teriyaki sauce, his head resting on one folded-up knee, one hand moving over the stones near his foot.
He didn't look inclined to speak. So she picked her way carefully across the shifting river rock, and settled down next to him. Now she could see that he was drawing an intricate pattern of spots on a stone, quick twisting movements with a chip of colored rock in his stained hands. There was a small assortment of similar painted stones in a pile between them. Many of them were spotted, as was the one under his hand, though a few had been streaked with white.
Soon enough, the strange painting was finished, and the man set it aside with the others. "I am Ubume, attending the anchor of Kakarta Kuna." Sad eyes met hers. "What is your purpose here?"
Ainsel's question had demanded she sacrifice the answer. Was this the same? But how could they demand she give up the ritual at only the second question? ... They couldn't. Trust Kaito. "I wish to find my son."
Ubume's gaze flickered down in acknowledgement, then returned. "Do you miss him, then?"
Another knee-jerk answer. She paused to stifle and consider it. But there was no qualifying it, no hedging or stipulations. Just the simple truth. "Yes."
"Do you grieve for him?"
That was exactly what she'd been doing right before she received the letter. Black feathers must gather... from one ghost... one ghost... She felt tears well up in her eyes, and quickly pulled a handkerchief out of her sleeve to catch them in case they fell. "Yes."
Ubume's head tilted, just a bit. "Why do you grieve, though, if you believe he can be found?"
It was only the quiet surety, not mocking or uncomprehending, that kept her still, sudden hot outrage burning in her eyes and spilling over. Why did she grieve? She'd lost her baby! No word if he was alive, if he was safe, if he was happy or warm or dry or fed...
Until last night.
Until this chance.
... Toichi would laugh if he saw her like this, his own Poker Face diamond-hard over eyes like knives. And not the fake blades from his show, either. She was getting their son back. Kaito could be... would be found, and when she got a hold of him she was going to give him a piece of her mind for running off like that without so much as an 'I'm going to be fine I have a plan'.
Straightening up, she cast a dark look at the damp handkerchief in her hand, then balled it up and threw it into the lake. Instantly, her face went dry and the lump in her throat vanished.
"Kakarta Kuna has accepted your sacrifice," Ubume said, teeth flashing bright in a lopsided grin as he helped her to her feet. With a directing gesture further downstream, he said, "I'm sorry for the leading questions. No more tears, now. Go on, with our best wishes."
If he thought an apology would mollify her... well, maybe in due time, but not this quickly. She bowed stiffly to Ubume, getting an incline of his head in return, then turned and left.
The cavern and lake narrowed as she followed the pebble beach, loose stones skidding out from underfoot, always threatening to send her splashing into the ever-faster current. After far too many close calls at twisting her ankle, she noticed the roof was getting lower, though there were still enough chinks in it to let moonlight through so she could see. Not that that was any more reassuring; even a solid cave roof could collapse all too easily, and this one was looking more like, in geological terms, precariously balanced rubble.
Soon after that, the loose stones petered out. But by this time, the cave had tunneled down to a worrying three meters high and two wide, little more than a bare footpath over a rushing stream. She'd be more worried about that if she wasn't so sure Kaito - and, by extension, Ubume and Ainsel - knew the cave wouldn't dead-end with no escape that wasn't underwater.
Sure enough, three chinks in the roof later, the stream abruptly plunged under a sweeping, paper-thin wing of rock curving out from the path, and vanished. The path itself then widened to fill the entire tunnel, and - although it still looked fairly flat - began to rise, the incline only just noticeable from the pull in her calf muscles.
Up and up, the tunnel twisting so that she could often could only see due to light reflecting off the walls ahead. In a couple of places, the rock narrowed until it brushed muddy streaks on both sides of her clothes; in one spot, she had to squeeze through sideways. The tunnel opened up again after that, though, easing back to a more comfortable four meters, with a faint breeze starting to prickle her skin with goosebumps. She had to be close to the end now.
Something flickered across her vision up ahead. A wisp of dust, sparkling in the moonlight, spun in the barest tracery of a dust devil across an empty disk of cave floor.
That was certainly new. Maybe a chimney up high in the roof...? Or, she thought as she walked up to the column, it could be...
The air grabbed her like she was made of paper, whirled her around several times, and spat her back the way she came. She landed hard on her back against the stone floor, dazed.
Ow. Okay. It could be the next meeting.
A quick check - toes and fingers wriggled fine, it didn't feel like she'd smacked her head - and she pushed herself up, only to freeze when something sharp pricked the back of her neck. "I am Damkina," a woman's voice, harsh and low behind her, "attending the anchor of Mithuna Adapa. Speak, mortal."
She opened her mouth automatically, then paused. Speak of what? Whatever she chose could end up the sacrifice, judging from the previous two.
The moment's hesitation earned her an unamused chuckle. "Very good." The sharp point vanished, and she quickly scrambled to her feet as Damkina stepped around to face her. Light flashed off the small dagger Damkina held in one hand, and glinted off gold in several chunky bead necklaces, a coordinating collar, and a headdress of discs and leaf-blades sitting low on coiled braids. An undyed white length of cloth wrapped around the woman's body, the trailing end flipped forward over her left shoulder, her right shoulder and arm left bare. "Adapa would take the air from your lungs, should you not offer another token first."
She sucked in a breath - another token? - but found Damkina's thumb on her lip before she could ask.
"Don't make your last words a question," Damkina said. "Uncertainty sticks in my lord's eye, and it takes a century for him to spin it out."
She glanced past Damkina at the twisting wisp of dust, curving in a double helix around a quiet core, then back, mind racing. There was a clue here, something tickling at her brain... Gold gleamed, and she realized: she'd seen Damkina's headdress somewhere before. A museum exhibit. Mesopotamia... Sumer.
Another token. Last words. Air from her lungs. Speak, mortal. Sumer.
She dug into her purse, finding a pen. Damkina smirked - with approval, hopefully - so she stepped past the Sumerian woman to set the pen on the floor at Adapa's base.
"For you, Mithuna Adapa. Please let me pass."
Air blasted into her face - she quickly shut her eyes, tasting dust in her mouth - and whirled downwards with a blustery scream that set her ears ringing.
In the reverberating sound, Damkina's voice seemed small and thin. "Mithuna Adapa has accepted your sacrifice. Leave with your life, mortal, and be grateful."
And then... silence. Slowly, cautiously, she cracked one eye open to take a peek, then the other, uncurling from her instinctive crouch when nothing happened. The whirlwind and the pen were both gone.
Slowly, she picked herself up, brushing dust from her clothes. A quick glance around showed that Damkina had vanished as well.
Well. She huffed, the air coming soundlessly from her throat as she headed further up the winding passage. She'd survived that. With any luck, the rest of the anchors wouldn't be so potentially murderous.
She paused midstep, considering that. Then again... assuming myths and stories were anywhere near accurate, possibly even taken from reality as it were... They were only going to get worse. And this was only the third of, what had Ainsel said, seven trials?
A few steps further, a low strumming filtered through the dark.
Here comes unlucky number four, she thought to herself.
Another turn, and the quality of the air changed, hazing over with the scent of dew and greenery, the light diffusing almost enough to hide it when the cave roof opened up into a narrow, ivy-sided ravine. Rubble covered the floor in piles half a meter thick, rough gravel that bit into her hands when she climbed atop it, shifting loosely underfoot as she picked her way along.
It took mere minutes before the walls to either side stood too far apart for her to use the vines as handholds. She grabbed at the more vertical right side, ignoring the occasional shower of dirt as she continued to make her way along the ravine. The banks on the far side fell quickly, sloping back and flattening until they opened up into an alpine meadow.
The moon hung low in the sky at the far end, huge and full, illuminating a strange shape in the center of the meadow. The base was blocky, upturned points coming off the upper edges, one to either side of a more organic shape, all curves and pointy protrusions.
She stepped onto the grass, edging just a bit more upslope, and suddenly the shape resolved itself into a person sitting upon some sort of broad plinth or altar. It - for she couldn't identify the gender - was wearing elaborate, ancient Chinese robes, hair ornamented and piled high away from the strings of a long, flat instrument in its hands.
She crept closer, taking in all this, when abruptly the figure's eyes opened, light glinting off the whites.
"I am Jin Tian," he said, his voice identifying him the way his clothing didn't, "attending the anchor of Vrsabha Shu Mei. Congratulations on making it this far relatively unscathed."
Unscathed. Oh. Crap.
Jin Tian smirked slightly. "You won't be injured," he assured her. "My lady appreciates the finer things in life. Cruelty is not one of them." He stroked the strings one last time, then set his hand flat on the soundboard to silence them, and set the instrument aside. "It's a bit late for games, and I'm sure you're tired. So I ask, how important is it that you be recognizeable to your son when this ends?"
She sighed - half in relief, half in something she couldn't identify. A simple, direct question, with only one, unfortunate, answer. It wasn't important at all. There were other ways to identify herself to Kaito, ways that Toichi had used when he was playing with his disguises. So she shook her head, opening her hands and shrugging, trying to convey that as best she could.
"Then I do hope you have a token. If nothing else, I can give you a cloth to wash your face with."
Wash her face...? ... Makeup. It wasn't called putting on a face for nothing, then. She reached into her purse, taking out her foundation compact. It had both makeup and mirror, which should be enough.
Long fingers reached out and plucked the compact from her own, suddenly age-spotted and gnarled, hand. "This will do," Jin Tian said. He tugged his robe's skirts to the side, revealing a round, horned divot in the face of the plinth, and pressed the compact snugly inside. "Vrsabha Shu Mei has accepted your sacrifice." He slid from the altar and took her hand, tugging her gently to follow him to the far side of the stone.
There, a thick stand of tall grasses had been crushed into some semblence of a couch. Jin Tian pressed her to sit. "Rest, now," he said, hands guiding her to lay down. "The next trial will be here at sunrise." One hand passed over her eyes, dragging a wave of exhaustion with them, and the last thing she remembered was cloth settling gently over her shoulders.
Her nose twitched.
It wasn't pitch-black anymore. And she was... awake? Awake. Yes.
And what was that noise? She cracked her eyes open, moving slowly under the embroidered silk robe covering her, joints aching as she pushed herself up to find it was dawn... and that her surroundings had changed. The small, grassy clearing of Jin Tian had been little more than a cleft in the mountainside, but now her grass couch lay in a meadow surrounded by thick pines.
The altar here looked almost the same, but where Jin Tian's vaguely resembled a pagoda roof, this one had long outcropped corners that turned seamlessly under to touch the squared-off base. A woman in a sari, all reds and golds and heavy jewelry, sat on the far side of the stone, shaking a cup in her hands and watching her with dark, amused eyes.
Phantom Lady got up, stumbling a bit with her new, stiff-jointed balance.
"I am Atha, attending the anchor of Mesa Kapardin." The sari-clad woman slapped the cup facedown on the stone with a sharp thunk. "Care for a game of chance?"
... That was about as clear as mud. What was she sacrificing now, her luck?
Atha smiled, slow and knowing. "Why do I ask?" she said wryly, rhetorically. "I'm told you've always played before." The cup lifted, six dice showing two clovers, three black feathers, and a grinning Kid caricature. "Look, I even brought your favorite."
Her eyes narrowed. What was the game here...? Atha's smile gave nothing away. Was she supposed to choose one of the dice? If so, was she supposed to choose rightly or wrongly? Or was she supposed to take the cup and toss the dice herself? Or was it something entirely different?
How was she supposed to ask the rules of the game?
The stories always said the spirit was the one bound to the rules. Humans weren't. But to circumvent the rules, you had to know them... and the only rule of these trials she'd figured out was that the clue to the sacrifice had to be in Atha's first sentence after the ritual greeting. 'Care for a game of chance.' If chance, luck, wasn't the sacrifice - since she couldn't give up her luck, not if she had any hope of getting through the next two trials - then the part to look at was 'care for a game'.
Care was the more meaningful of the nouns. What did she care about, what was the emotion above all the others in bringing her here...?
She was not going to sacrifice her love for Kaito. It was what had driven her here in the first place. She would never make it through the last trials if she didn't have that need to even try.
Her eyes dropped to the dice. There had to be something else. Clovers, black feathers, Kid... Sunlight flashed off her hand.
Her wedding ring. Toichi. Oh gods, Toichi. It fit too well, the way Toichi had loved games, loved taking risks, how she'd loved his shows and heists alike, never suffering a sleepless or worried night except for those first so-new heists and those last horrible weeks searching for Pandora... She'd always cared for a game of chance, for her Toichi.
It ached in her heart, though the tears - from the sleepless nights after his death, from the lonely days after each milestone Kaito reached without Toichi to see: his first dove, his first day in junior high, his first flipped skirt, his high school entrance exams, his acceptance into Ekoda High - the tears wouldn't come. They were gone, given to Kakarta Kuna.
Toichi had missed Kaito's first heist. His first imposter, his first young hero-worshipper, his first true challenger - oh, what Toichi would've said about losing to a Holmes otaku! He'd missed everything... including Kaito's last heist. His vengence, that had been so clear in the note's riddle.
Kaito had done everything for his father. Given everything for his father... how else could he have gotten justice so quickly, in one heist, with the police only slowly starting to piece together everything weeks later, unless he'd had the spirits' help? How could she... how could she and Toichi... do any less?
She tore the ring off before she could think any further, throwing it savagely among the dice.
Atha blinked, startled for only a moment, then gently scooped the dice and ring into her cup. "Mesa Kapardin has accepted your sacrifice," she said softly, shaking the cup slowly in her hands.
It felt strange. She remembered Toichi, but why had she thrown the ring so viciously? Why had she still been wearing it at all, ten years after he was gone? It didn't make sense.
When the cup lifted, there was only one die left. The upturned face had a strange image on it, a fat rectangle with a line across, a small dash in the center of each half. "Mother," Atha read for her. "Your role is now clear." She pointed downhill. "The river will lead you to the end."
She couldn't see the glint of water from here, but the spirits had yet to steer her wrong. They were getting something out of this, after all, though she wasn't sure what. So she hobbled down the slope and into the treeline, not looking back.
It was quiet and dim under the pines, mist clinging in patches where the ground dipped, thick evergreens shutting out the sky. Like many pine forests, the understory was empty and trackless, with broken and worn-down stumps jutting out of the trunks at odd angles. She remembered hearing somewhere that pine trees snapped each others' branches off when they got large enough, when the lowest branches grew into each other and broke under the weight. It may even have been true, here.
At least she didn't need a path. As long as she kept going approximately straight and down, she should reach the promised river. Hopefully sooner rather than later, though. It felt like Jin Tian had taken more than her (middle-aged, but still youthful) good looks. Her hips and knees were stiffening up in a way that did not bode well for her ability to keep walking. Not if she didn't find a nice, level sidewalk going her way.
She might as well wish for the moon, while she was at it. That might be more possible anyway.
The trees opened up into a narrow strip of mud beach, an empty boat bobbing gently against the riverbank. She clambered into it gratefully, then - when it didn't budge, despite her pushing it off the shore - found a slit-topped box and dropped coins in. Six of them, and the boat slid into the current like a fish.
Kaito would've thrown fits at the metaphor. Had he sat in this boat, she wondered as it sped downstream. Had he seen the flicker of half-seen things in the corner of his vision, in the water and behind the leaves on the trees? Had he seen how sinuous shapes seemed to wind at the edges of the clouds in the sky, far ahead? Had he seen the watery hands that nudged the boat to the broad, grassy bank of a bend in the river?
A willow stood alone here, broad branches shading a wide area, a few leafy fronds trailing almost to the water. Slowly, carefully, she climbed out of the boat.
A short, handsome man, reddish-blond hair and a neatly trimmed beard, dressed in well-made huntsman's greens, lay sprawled half-asleep against the base of the tree. He had a fishing pole propped against his knee, a thumb on the line and the line trailing into the slow current. As she hobbled closer, catching a glimpse of a pointed ear, he opened one blue eye to fix upon her.
"I am Oberon, attending the anchor of Mina Titania," he said, voice surprisingly smooth and refined. He tapped a thumb against the tree trunk, then smacked twice against the ground next to him, beckoning her to sit. "So, show me what you came here for." At her look, he rolled his eyes. "You aren't giving him up. It's just for identification."
He'd seen Kaito? Maybe? Her hands shook from more than just age as she fumbled for her wallet once more, opening it to the thick photograph insert stored at the center. Toichi - why did she carry that, fond memories yes but it had been ten years, honestly girl - Toichi and Kaito, yearly school pictures.
Oberon turned the wallet gently towards himself, and began turning through the pictures. Kaito's latest portrait didn't get a twitch of recognition, and her heart sank. First year of high school, first year of junior high, third grade - the last picture before his smile had broken, just weeks before Toichi's death - then both his adorable, gap-toothed photos from first and second grade. Kaito in his silly, bright yellow kindergarten cap. His preschool picture. His first professional photo, on his second birthday.
A baby picture. Oberon's face crinkled into a fond smile, and he slid the image from its protective sleeve. "That's him."
She sucked in a breath: her heart felt like someone had squished the broken halves back together and squeezed.
Oberon tucked the picture away in his tunic. "I can point you to the guy who knows what became of him," he said blandly, as if the words didn't put ice in the pit of her stomach. "If you're sure you want to know."
Want to... her heart squeezed painfully again. There couldn't be that many reasons she might not want to know what had happened. What if Kaito was... changed? Alive, please let him be alive- What if there was a reason that Oberon couldn't recognize her son except as a baby? Jin Tian had aged her...
She had to know. Even if... even if something horrible had happened. She'd come too far to give up now.
Slowly, she nodded.
"All right, then," Oberon said. He pointed downriver once more. "Don't take the boat, there's a waterfall. Walk until you can't walk any farther."
And with that, he sprawled once more at the base of the tree, one finger resting on his fishing line and the other tucked into his tunic where he'd secreted the picture of Kaito. The token, of course it was the token, but what had she given up?
She cast one last, uncertain glance over her shoulder, then stumped away along the shore of the river.
The grass petered out quickly as she walked. It had been dry but still green at Oberon's willow, but by the time the tree vanished behind her - which took far less time than it should have - it was brown and patchy. Some nine steps later, only a few lone tufts remained clinging to dirt baked hard as stone. Three steps after that, even the tufts were gone, the river cutting whitewater through flat desert as far as the eye could see.
A speck of light flickered on the horizon. Blue-white and tiny, it grew rapidly as she walked, going from a steady beacon to an oddly sketchy shape, almost but completely unlike the difference between a distant campfire and those same flames in a fireplace.
Another step, and the shape shifted again, flickering like caged lightning. Now she could see that the horizon ended where the light was, nothing but sky and pale clouds visible beyond them, as if the world had fallen away.
One last step, and the light was a pair of little fairy wings, fluttering on the back of a small child sitting on the edge of a cliff. The river rushed past him to tumble into the pale abyss, so far down that all she could see was mist and rainbows for kilometers.
"Pretty, isn't it?" the child asked. He - she thought it was a boy, at least - glanced over his shoulder at her. "It's going to be my grave."
"But that's not for centuries yet," he finished blithely.
She stared, stricken. I can't. I can't... this is the first thing he said, and it's about graves, and this is the final trial and I can't think of any other meaning...
"Not that you're here to hear about that. You're here about Kaito Kid." Dumbly, she nodded, and the child went on, "I take it you were expecting a girl. And a lot of formalities. So-and-so attending the final anchor of so-and-so. Don't worry, I know you can't answer - Mithuna Adapa took your voice as part of the sacrifice.
"Anyway. There is no guesswork for the final trial. No anchor and attendant, either... not for two thousand more years, and my attendant won't be a girl anyway," he added. "I'm Kumbha Saguru." Something about that name, the tea-blond hair and the promise of matured good looks in the child's features and that name, seemed like it should be familiar. "And I rule here."
He ruled? He had Kaito, then- or... or what Oberon had hinted...
"There's just one thing I want."
She froze as the child stood, flapping his tiny lightning wings, and turned those maybe-familiar, inhuman eyes on her. "I used to demand answers," he told her, something rueful flickering across his face. "For several reasons. But I don't need them from you; I know the answer to everything I could possibly ask. However..." He ducked her grasping hand, slid smoothly between her fingers like air, and hovered just out of reach in mid-air over the chasm. "I do want to know one thing." And he spread his arms wide. "Jump."
So that was it. Did he seriously expect to catch her...? A little boy like him? Or did he not mean to successfully hold her at all? If Kaito was gone...
If Kaito was gone.
They wouldn't have put her through all this if Kaito was gone. She wouldn't have mattered to them: Kaito would've never agreed to anything that brought her to their attention if there was any chance they could go after her once he was gone.
Could Kumbha Saguru catch her? He certainly thought so. But would he?
Chikage landed in a teen's strong arms. The child had vanished, but the teen had the same tea-blond hair, the same lightning wings - larger, though, huge birdlike expanses of power that glowed like neon, as if they were lightning but too polite to jaggedly spit sparks all over the place. He spun her around in the air, smiling so brightly she had to smile back, even through her tears.
"You made it," Saguru said. One hand ran through her hair, strands of auburn in the corners of her wavering vision. "Your trust is returned, sevenfold. Welcome to Faerie."
"Kaito?" Chikage rasped.
Saguru tipped his chin down. "Kaito Kid," he corrected, and Chikage could see the glider spiraling up from below.