Third world! Air world, Fai's world. This is also where the story starts to take a darker turn. And, to be honest, this was the part I was really interested in writing this fic for; my primary concern for the first two worlds was keeping myself interested enough with the kids' problems without boring either my audience or myself to sleep.
The Missing Worlds - Castle In the Air I
Spoilers: This story is set in the uncertain period after Piffle World, but before Recourt; in other words, in the same never-neverland that the second season of the anime mostly took place in. This means that Fai has not yet learned to whistle, Syaoran is still the original Syaoran, and nobody knows anything about Kurogane's childhood.
Summary: An argument, and a peaceful little town.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Kuro-pon," Fai said in a light voice.
"Huh?" Syaoran had been in the middle of breathlessly checking to see if Sakura was all right, when he'd been diverted by the older men's argument. He'd been in the library, patiently cataloging books, when he'd heard the roaring rush of Mokona's dimensional magic; the wooden chair he'd been sitting in was knocked over on its side from his mad rush for the courtyard.
Sakura was just as painfully glad to see him as he evidently was to see her; the joy that lit up his face and the glow in his light brown arms was so unexpectedly familiar it struck a pang in her heart. His face lit up like that when he looked at her, no one else, and Sakura wasn't the jealous type but she'd never been so glad of that as of right now.
But it was hard to concentrate on Syaoran after what had happened in the last few moments before they'd left the last world. She looked from one older man to the other; Kurogane was glaring, his hands clenched into tight fists, and Fai had an expression of artful innocence in his face. If it weren't for the tension in his shoulders and throat when he swallowed, Sakura might have thought that nothing was wrong at all.
"What are you talking about?" Syaoran asked when neither of the two men spoke.
"Right before we left," Sakura said slowly, glancing between Kurogane and Fai. "We met a man who - who looked an awful lot like Fai, and he turned around when I called Fai's name, but… he wasn't Fai."
"He was Fai's double?" Syaoran stated the obvious conclusion, surprise written on his face. "But how is that possible? Yuuko-san said that two doubles with the same soul couldn't exist in the same world. Isn't that the whole point behind making us stay behind?"
"How should I know?" Fai said airily.
"You were in an awful hurry to get us out of there," Kurogane growled.
"Well, maybe it would have been dangerous to stay for very long?" Sakura temporized. She didn't like the heavy atmosphere between her two older companions; it frightened her a little to see them fighting, not playfully like they normally did, but with a heavy edge of menace like a thunderstorm. "Maybe nothing bad happens right away, but it would have happened if we'd stayed."
"Not damn likely," Kurogane snarled, eyes not even flicking in her direction as they bore down on Fai. "We were there for three days and nothing seemed to happen at all."
"Maybe Yuuko is wrong then," Fai snapped, and the strain was more evident in his voice this time.
"Excuse me, but no." A new voice rang out across the courtyard as Yuuko's image flickered into place along the wall, tracing the Witch's by-now familiar figure in light and shadow. She was dressed formally again, in an elaborate gown with wide pointed shoulders and her hair bound up in an intricate style, but her eyes and lips were narrow and there was no humor in her voice for a change.
"To answer your question, Kurogane, Fai," Yuuko continued, turning her attention back to the two of them, "I was not wrong. There are few other magicians who know as much about the laws of the dimensions as myself, and I have unfortunately had direct experience with this particular tragedy in the past. Two souls cannot exist in the same world at the same time; there are no exceptions."
"But, Fai-san didn't see the other person until the very last minute," Sakura objected. "Would that have made a difference?"
Yuuko shook her head. "It is not a question of distance, or seeing," she said. "The barriers between dimensions are in some ways as thin as a soap bubble, and in other ways infinitely strong. But within the boundaries of a single world and time, the same soul cannot exist twice. It is a paradox that the universe will instantly seek to undo. The death would be immediate, and irreversible."
"But," Sakura said in confusion.
"But you're not dead, wizard," Kurogane ground out. "And I'd like to know why not."
"No need to sound so disappointed, Kuro-sama," Fai teased.
"Fai," the Witch of Dimensions said, and the blond man turned quickly around to face her. "Those secrets which are not mine to give, I keep," she told him cryptically. "You are free to tell whatever stories you wish to tell, or keep whatever silences you wish to keep. But I will not have you spreading doubts or lies about my secrets. This journey is hard enough on your companions without giving them reason to doubt my knowledge, as well."
"I understand," Fai said in a subdued voice.
Yuuko turned to the rest of them, and this time she did have a smile for each of them. "Welcome back, travelers. I see you made it home from the last world in one piece. And you retrieved the feather successfully, I might take it?"
"Oh! Yes," Sakura said, gratefully reminded of their victory in the last world. She didn't remember all of it - she'd blacked out the moment the feather had touched her and woken up the next morning at the inn - but she knew without a doubt that the young Chinese thief had played a key role in reclaiming her feather. "Everything went well."
"You aren't hurt, are you?" Syaoran said anxiously.
Sakura shook her head. "No, there was no fighting at all," she said. "None of us were in danger - at least, not until the last minute, I think…"
"I'm glad to hear it," Yuuko said. "Syaoran here has been invaluable to me in helping to catalog my collection of books and manuscripts! I'm afraid they'd been badly neglected over the years; I simply never found the time to sit down and organize them all."
"She was using a stack of them to hold up an aquarium," Syaoran said under his breath, disbelief and outrage warring at this mistreatment of old texts. Sakura giggled, then quickly stifled it.
"All of you have been quite helpful while staying over in this shop," Yuuko continued. "Feel free to stay here and rest as long as you need, but when you leave again, I have quite a collection of magical items that need to be identified. I'm looking forward to Flowright-san's company over the next few days. Enjoy!"
With that, her image flickered and vanished. Sakura blinked, trying to make sense of her last statement. Since both she and Syaoran had stayed behind in the shop once already, that meant they would have to leave either Kurogane or Fai behind when they went on to the next world. Why did Yuuko seem to be so sure it would be Fai?
She turned back towards her older companions; Kurogane was standing off to the side, as stiff and indignant as a ruffled cat. Fai was sitting on the edge of the shop's porch, elbows on his knees and head bowed. "Fai-san, are you all right?" Sakura asked him cautiously. She'd never seen the confident, happy man in a state like this before; it almost frightened her.
Fai lifted his head, and managed a smile for her. "I'm fine, Sakura-chan," he said.
"What did happen in the last world?" Syaoran wanted to know in some confusion. "If it wasn't your other self, Fai, then who was it?"
"I don't know," Fai said.
"Bullshit," Kurogane said flatly, and Fai flinched very slightly at the curse word. "You do know something."
Fai laughed. "Maa, Kuro-stubborn, it doesn't work like that," he said. "You don't get to be the one to tell me what I do and don't know!"
Kurogane looked furious. "You always weave these damn webs with words," he hissed. "But this is important, dammit! This isn't just your precious secrets any more. If that witch's words are true, then you should have died when you'd seen your doppelganger. But you didn't. Without knowing what happened, there's no way we can know if it's safe to go on to the next world or not!"
"Please, don't fight," Sakura said, almost on the verge of tears. "There's no reason to get angry, is there? I mean… nobody's hurt, and we're all here…"
The older men took a look at her face, then glared at each other, then away. "I'm sorry, Sakura-chan," Fai said quietly. "Don't worry too much about it. This has nothing to do with your quest for the feathers at all."
"Sorry," Kurogane grunted, but then turned a heated glare on Fai in the next moment. "But you still haven't answered my question!"
"I don't know what you expect me to say, Kuro-chi." Fai took a long, shaky breath, then suddenly wore a cheery smile. "Well, it's obvious, isn't it? If seeing my alter self should have killed me, but I'm still here, then clearly that person in the other world wasn't me. So it must just be someone who happened to look a lot like me, but has no relation. It's just a coincidence, that's all."
"Do you really expect us to believe that?" Kurogane said incredulously. Sakura kept her mouth shut. She wanted to believe Fai, she really did… but that stranger had looked so very much like him, and had turned around when she called out Fai… And Yuuko had told her that there was no such thing as coincidence, only hitsuzen.
Fai gave him a long, flat look. "I don't know what else you want me to say, Kuro-san," he said after a moment. "I'm not an expert on dimensions like Yuuko-san, but I've told you all I know."
Kurogane glared at him, then turned abruptly and stomped away. Sakura just caught the muttered "liar," as he went, but either Fai hadn't heard or pretended very well he didn't.
"Well!" Fai clapped his hands, beaming brightly at Syaoran and Sakura. "Now, unless the two of you are very tired, it's just about time to move on to the next world, now isn't it? Tell you what; since you two were such good sports about sitting out, how about I go next, hmm? I'm sure that you can manage without me!"
"All… all right," Sakura said, taken somewhat aback by his enthusiasm. She exchanged a long glance with Syaoran; how had Yuuko known what Fai was going to do?
The transition into the next world was the easiest one Sakura could remember.
Their feet touched gently to the soft and springy ground, and as the swirl of magic faded around them Sakura blinked and gasped as golden sunlight flooded in around them.
"Oh, how lovely!" she cried out without thinking; but the scene that stretched away from them was so beautiful that she couldn't help it.
They were standing in the middle of a green field, and the greenery stretched away in all directions until it folded up like a velvet skirt into hills on every side. The sky above was a brilliant crystal blue, and the sunlight beaming down on them fractured into a golden-green haze rising up at the edges of the woods. The sun-warmed air was pleasant on their skin, moved only by a gentle cool breeze.
Around and behind them, a piled stone wall marked the boundary of the field, beyond which loomed the green darkness of trees. But ahead of them the field sloped away downhill, and sharp-peaked houses poked their tiled roofs against the horizon. Where the village rose up on the slope of the other side of the basin, they made out streets paved with pale grey flagstones, and gaps between the buildings where narrow parks or plazas spread across the ground.
The scene was incredibly peaceful, almost idyllic in its beauty; the travelers almost felt like intruders just standing here. "Mokona," Syaoran said, looking down at the small white creature held carefully in his arms. "Is there a feather in this world?"
Mokona popped up, white ears twitching as she turned this way and that. "Yes, definitely," she said in a confident voice. "It's not the only big magic in this place, though - there's another one nearby, coming from the same direction as the feather. It's so strong it almost drowns the feather out, but the waves are different."
"Where are they?" Kurogane said. "The feather and this other strong magic. Are they nearby, or what?"
"Up there," Mokona said, hopping to Syaoran's shoulder and pointing one tiny paw. The three travelers turned their head to follow her, and Sakura gasped again as she saw it.
At the high end of the valley enfolding the village, just before the verdant green gave way to the bare mountain slopes of stone, hung a castle. It wasn't just seated on the high mountain slopes overlooking the town below - it actually floated in the sky, a whole island of rock and earth tapering down to hang in mid-air like a mountain turned upside-down. From this angle, they couldn't see much except for the bulk of uprooted earth, but tall graceful spires arched above the horizon, made of some shimmering white stone and capped with polished brass roofs.
"Is my feather making it do that?" Sakura said into the awestruck silence, voice hushed.
"Mokona doesn't know yet," Mokona replied.
From the edge of the floating island, a small river tipped over to pour into a beautiful crystalline waterfall, splashing into a lake below to slowly wend its way down its more mundane course through the city. That waterfall was the only connection the travelers could see between the village and the city, however; there were no stairs, or ladders, or any other way of getting from the ground to the sky.
"Well," Syaoran said, and he cleared his throat. "We aren't getting any closer just standing here. Let's go down to the village and see if the people there are friendly to strangers. Maybe they can help us get up into the castle."
"Assuming that the castle and the village are friendly," Kurogane pointed out quellingly. "People don't uproot castles for no good reason - it must take a huge amount of magic to keep it going. Hanging your castle in mid-air would be a damn good way of protecting it from assault from the ground, don't you think?"
"Oh, surely not," Sakura protested. "I can't imagine that they're at war; there's no walls or weapons or anything in sight, is there? Besides, this place just feels so… peaceful."
Kurogane made a disagreeing noise, but didn't argue.
It was a short hike from the field where they'd landed into the village. Long grasses crunched under their feet as they walked; the field was clearly meant for farming, its straight lines and stone-lined boundaries betraying its man-made origin, but it was completely covered now with wildflowers and meadow grass. All the greenery was a little overwhelming to Sakura, who had been brought up - at least what she could remember of it - in a desert country. The field seemed a little wild and overgrown to her, but perhaps it had been left fallow this year; after all, plants would grow faster in such a lush, beautiful climate as this one.
They hadn't encountered any of the villagers by the time they crossed the boundary of the field into the village green, the wide common-held area where livestock would normally graze and children play. The sunlight hovered silent and golden over the flagstone streets, and the sound of their boots echoing between the buildings was the only sound in the still air.
The buildings were fascinating and beautiful, unlike any she had seen before; the walls were made of some whitewashed wood or plaster, strapped vertically and diagonally with black-stained beams of wood. The pattern of supports made a beautiful geometric design, and the tall pointed tile roofs that capped them just added to the sense of quaint coziness. Many of the buildings were two stories tall, and some of the second-story windows had flower boxes in them, spilling over with green stems and colorful profusion. But they still had yet to see any people, and Sakura's puzzlement grew with every empty street they crossed.
At last they fetched up in one of the town squares, a pattern of black and white tiles more or less at the center of the village - it really wasn't a very big village, but they ought to have seen someone. "Hello?" Syaoran called out, and his voice rang back from the rooftops. "Is anyone here?"'
"It's abandoned," Sakura said, feeling a crushing sense of disappointment. She had so wanted to meet the people of this beautiful village, to talk to them and get to know them. But they had all gone, it seemed, before the travelers ever set foot here.
"Yes, but why?" Syaoran's face mirrored his puzzlement. "There's no sign of an invasion or a siege, and the land around here is perfectly fertile. Why would they abandon such a clearly rich and thriving town?"
"Search the houses," Kurogane dictated. "Don't go out of earshot, but see if you can find any sign of where they all went. Keep an eye out for anything that looks like it might be connected with the castle - remember, that's our real goal here."
Syaoran nodded, and the three of them split up; somewhat reluctantly, Sakura trailed behind Syaoran as he headed towards one of the silent houses.
The door was not locked; it was a little stuck in its frame, but with a little bit of effort Syaoran forced it open. "Hello?" Sakura called as they peered together into the hallway; she didn't really expect an answer, but it just felt wrong to barge into somebody's house uninvited without at least announcing themselves.
"Look at this," Syaoran said as he moved forward, his footsteps muffled as he stepped into the house. "This is the dining room. The table is set, but there's no food."
As Sakura stepped after him she realized why his footsteps had been muffled; the floor was covered with a layer of dust, inches thick. Their movements had stirred up some of it, and Sakura sneezed explosively.
"There's dust everywhere!" she exclaimed. She looked up and sniffed heavily, staring around the corners and ceiling joints. "But no cobwebs! I'm a little bit surprised."
Syaoran turned to her with an oddly intend expression, head cocked slightly to the side. "Listen," he said.
Sakura stood still for a moment, holding her breath as she strained to hear whatever Syaoran had. "I don't hear anything," she said at last, letting out her breath in a gust.
"That's the point. There's nothing to hear," Syaoran said. "No dogs barking, no birds, no insects… nothing moving at all. There's not even the tracks of rats or mice to break up all this dust," he added, scuffing it some of it with his toes.
"Maybe they took their animals with them when they left?" Sakura guessed.
"They wouldn't have taken rats and spiders," Syaoran said, shaking his head. "It's just very strange, that's all. Every world is a little different, but I've never seen one that didn't have any kind of bugs or rodents at all."
"I wonder where they all went," Sakura said half to herself. Syaoran shrugged and turned away, intently examining the fixtures in the kitchen. In the back of the house, a shadowed staircase led upwards to the second story; Sakura hesitated for a moment, but there had been no sign of danger so far, and besides, Syaoran was just a few yards away. "I'm going to check upstairs," she announced before heading to the stairs.
The upstairs proved to contain the bedrooms; one large one with a double bed, completely empty, and another smaller one with a child-sized bed. Sakura moved into the smaller bedroom, staring around at the faded colors of the wallpaper and the scattered detritus of children's toys. Just like Syaoran had said, some things were the same in any world; this bedroom had obviously belonged to a little girl. She could easily imagine the little girl who lived in here, sleeping under the patterned quilt in the cot or playing with the toys.
The ceiling sloped down here, following the sharp arch of the roof; a little door, half the size of the normal ones, led to a tiny closet. Suddenly curious, Sakura pulled the door open, and then screamed.
By the time she recovered herself, Syaoran was already at her side, urgently asking if she was all right. Sakura heaved a deep breath, regardless of the dust; her hands and face were full of sharp pins and needles, and her eyes were riveted on the shape of the tiny skeleton curled on the floor of the closet. The flesh had long ago faded away, but the bones were still draped about with the remains of a faded pastel dress. Inches away from the skeletal hand, almost buried in dust, was a forlorn wooden doll.
"Oh, Syaoran…" Tears were streaming down her face, and she clung to Syaoran's shoulders. She didn't resist when he turned her face gently away, but as she sniffled and pressed her face into his shoulder she could still see the image burned into her mind.
"What happened?" Kurogane's familiar voice filled the hallway, and Sakura spared a moment to be amazed at how fast he had gotten here after he heard her scream.
"It's a body," Syaoran told him, not letting go of Sakura's shoulders. "A… young one, probably a little girl. She's been here for a long time, though. I don't know what happened to her."
Kurogane grunted and entered the room; he had to kneel down to fit under the sloping roof by the closet door. His keen red eyes narrowed as they pierced the gloom, and he reached out one hand with surprising gentleness to nudge the tattered cloth aside. "No sign of injuries or violence," he reported. "Looks like she was holding the doll as she died; hard to tell if she was playing, or just holding it for comfort. No way to tell at this point what killed her."
"Could it have been a plague?" Syaoran asked with just a hint of fear. "Are we safe here?"
Kurogane shook his head, then shrugged as he stood up. "As old as this body is, it wouldn't still be contagious," he said. "If it was plague, though, I'd expect there to be more bodies. Even if her family cleared out to get away from the plague, I'm surprised they wouldn't take their daughter's body along, or at least give her a burial or cremation."
"She was so young," Sakura whispered into Syaoran's shoulder, and there was a moment of uncomfortable silence as the men shifted. Suddenly she wished Fai were there, so that he could give her one of his gentle hugs and murmur something soothing in the way he always had.
"Princess," Syaoran said in a gentle voice, hesitantly rubbing her back. "It - it was a long time ago. There's nothing we could have done."
"That doesn't mean it isn't still sad," Sakura countered, and pulled away from Syaoran to head for the door. She didn't want to be in this room any more, in this sad deserted house with its last lonely young occupant.
As the sun sloped westward in the brilliant sky, they searched the rest of the village - some of the buildings were large, others small, but all echoingly empty. They found no more bodies, of any age or size, and Sakura wasn't sure whether to be glad or sorry about that. She was glad that no one else had died, but it also made her sad in some ways to think that even in death, the little girl was all alone.
"Princess," Syaoran said in a low tone, and he came over and touched her shoulder. "I don't mean to disturb you, but… I mean, I just want to ask… have you seen anything?" He made a little gesture in the air, and looked at her helplessly. "From the people who used to live here, I mean?"
Sakura thought about the question. Ever since she was a small child she'd sometimes been able to see and speak to departed spirits. In Jade Country, Princess Emerald had lingered near the ruins of her castle home for centuries, worried for the fate of the children should the terrible disease come again. If such a disaster had struck this town, there might be some lingering shade, but… "No," she said, and shook her head. "I haven't seen anyone, or heard anything. All I feel from this place is - well - peace. If we hadn't found that body, I wouldn't have thought anything was wrong at all…" She trailed off.
"We're not learning anything new down here," Kurogane said brusquely as he rejoined them. "We've got to find some way to get up to that castle and see what's up there. If your feather is up there, Princess, it might hold the key to this whole mystery."
"But how?" Syaoran asked. "There's no way up there."
Kurogane shrugged. "First thing to do is get as close as we can, and see," he said. "If we have to, we can take apart some of the building materials from these houses and try to build a turret to reach it. It would take a while, but nobody's using these buildings any more."
Syaoran looked doubtful, or maybe that was just his expression at the thought of dismantling all these beautiful buildings. "Let's go and see first," he said.
They set out across the silent village towards the castle, floating at the top of the valley. They were all a lot more wary, now, than they had been when they first arrived; whatever had happened to this village, it was impossible to think that the castle wasn't somehow related. Sakura couldn't help but worry; had her feather somehow caused this? She hated to think that her feathers could cause such silent sorrow… but they had, in the past, when the wrong people got hold of them.
They hiked up the last slope towards the castle, and then paused a moment at the crest of the hill. From this angle they could see little except the underside of the floating hill, only the tallest of the silent spires peeking over the edge.
"Mokona, is there any way you can help us get up there?" Syaoran asked. The little creature shook her head woefully.
"None of Mokona's techniques would work for this," she said. "It's just too high. We'd have to ask Yuuko for help."
"I'll be damned if I ask that witch for anything," Kurogane growled. "It figures that skinny bastard mage wouldn't be here just when we need him. He's the one who knows the most about this magic stuff."
Suddenly a light burst from the spires of the castle, a blindingly bright blue-white light. It accompanied a tremendous noise like the ringing of a bell, and each of the travelers clapped their hands over their ears as Sakura cried out.
The noise ceased, and as the travelers stared stunned, a glowing shape appeared at the edge of the island. A pale sheet of light descended towards them; at first Sakura thought it was another waterfall, but as it unfolded and unfolded she realized it was actually a pale, translucent staircase. The glowing blue light followed the edge of the staircase as it descended, and the closer it got to ground level the more it resolved into the figure of a human being.
"This is it!" Mokona piped up, barely audible over the ringing echoes of the noise from before. "That's the source of the big magic Mokona sensed earlier!"
The shimmering staircase curved gracefully in mid-air, and continued unfolding until the final step spread out along the ground only a few yards away from them. The light shifted as it rounded the bends of the staircase, and as it came around the final curve they realized it was being held like a lantern in the hand of a tall figure walking down the staircase towards them.
At first they were unsure if the stranger walking towards them was a man or a woman; it was tall and slim, but a long braid of blond hair fell down its back and twitched with every step, the trailing end nearly brushing against the ground. The stranger was wearing blue, richly-cut clothes with ornate decoration around the clasps of the tunic, belt and gloves, and it was the style of the trousers and the thigh-cut boots that finally clued them in that their visitor was a man.
And then he raised the light to illuminate his face, and he wasn't a stranger at all. Fai's familiar face smiled radiantly at them, and Fai's bright blue eyes shone out with an unearthly twinkle.
"Travelers!" the stranger exclaimed happily. "I'm so happy you've come! Please forgive me for my lack of hospitality until now; it's been so long since anyone has come this way that I simply wasn't expecting you. Please, do come up to the castle and make yourselves at home!"