I apologize for the lateness of this chappy…. (_|_|_)__ __(_|_|_)

I have had little or no access to the internet for the last… three months or so. It sucks. Please read and enjoy….

DAY 8 (1st Day of Chonyid Bardo)

Hikari's eyes slowly opened, providing her a view of the leafy blue-green underside of a forest canopy. For a moment, she didn't move, not even her eyeballs, as she was assaulted by a deep bodily ache, centered mostly in her left shoulder. She listened for a moment to the stillness around her, broken by strange birdcalls and, she abruptly realized, soft breathing coming from her side.

Slowly turning her head towards this noise, she found a down-for-the-count Shinzou stretched out on his stomach about a foot away. He had at some point retrieved his pack, for it was leaning against a nearby tree, but his tent was not set up and there was no sign that anyone had tried to start a campfire.

As more awareness filtered in – unfortunately accompanied by more pain – Hikari noticed that they were not far from the clearing where the battle that she had been injured in had taken place. In fact, they were only about twenty feet under the trees, in a semi-screened half-circle of low bushes. Shakily, she tried to lift her hand, and it sluggishly obeyed her command. She stared blankly at her palm for a moment, a fuzzy image of glowing green flickering through her memory, before allowing it to fall back to the ground at her side with a thud.

This small noise was apparently enough to wake Shinzou, as he snapped awake with an almost convulsive twitch of his muscles. He immediately gave a small groan of pain as his body complained at the sudden motion. His eyes, though, shot around, attempting to locate the source of the noise that had startled him. Gray met blue as he noticed that Hikari was awake and watching him.

"How are you feeling?" His voice was ragged and rough.

"Terrible." Hikari found that she didn't sound much better. "I thought I was going to die… again."

He chuckled slightly, stopping quickly as he winced from the ache this ignited in his ribcage. "You almost did, which is pretty impressive for a ghost, but you managed to blow that thing away. I was really impressed… right before I passed out."

"Nice to know I wasn't the only one. What happened?"

"I came to a couple of minutes later… you were bleeding everywhere, so I went over and patched you up a bit, then drug you over here to get you out of the open. Did I mention that I was in terrible pain during all of this? Anyway, I made sure you weren't gonna die, and then passed out again." His voice had begun slurring alarmingly near the end of this explanation, as if simply speaking was taking all of his energy away.

"How long have we been out then?"

"All night, it looks like." Painfully, he used one wobbly arm to roll himself over onto his back.

"Shinzou… are you alright?" Hikari was watching his struggle with basic movement with concern.

He let his eyes flicker back over to her. "Yeah. I don't have any physical injuries, but… the fight with Carxin, that trap he used, transforming… they really put a strain on my system. And then coming into contact with that thing…" He trailed off drawing in a deep breath at the involuntary shudder that ran through his body. He could still feel that deadly chill down in his bones. Continuing, he reassured Hikari, "Don't worry, I'll recover from the energy loss and shock pretty quickly. Actually, now that I've had a full night of sleep, I ought to be able to fix myself up in a couple hours. Then I'll get to work on you, okay?"

"Um, okay…" She replied quietly. "I appreciate it. Though…"


"It looks like you've already patched me up quite a bit." She raised an eyebrow in something resembling her normal sarcastic manner. She hadn't been aware of much of anything when she first awoke, but now that she was a little more aware, she could feel bandages covering a large part of her body. Moreover, her ragged and bloody clothes were gone, and she had been changed into a new set of what she presumed to be Shinzou's clothes, and was currently covered by a thin blanket as well.

"Er, well…" Shinzou was watching her observe these things, for she had lifted her head slightly to look, with a bit of a blush. "Your wounds needed to be bandaged, otherwise you would have bled to death, and I couldn't leave you in those clothes, so…that is, I, um…"

"'S okay." She waved it off after a moment of watching him suffer in embarrassment.

"I have female friends that I've taken care of after battles, so I promise I didn't, ya know, do anything..."

She rolled her eyes as he didn't even register her comment. "Shinzou! I said its okay! I'm glad you took care of me, even though you were hurt, and I trust you, strange as that is." The last part was said in a mutter that he managed to hear anyway. His head shot up to meet her eyes finally, and relaxed a bit at the glimmer he found there, telling him that she was joking.

Clearing his throat a bit to get rid of the lingering embarrassment and also to signal the topic officially closed, she spoke up again. "Why don't you get some more sleep? I put some spells on them, so your wounds will heal faster if you rest." He dragged himself upright into a sitting position, leaning wearily against a convenient tree trunk.

Suddenly not having enough energy to respond, let alone argue, Hikari simply nodded. The conversation and minor activity had used up a lot of her energy. She allowed sleep to claim her again, somehow greatly calmed simply by the sight of her traveling companion in one piece.

As her eyes closed, Shinzou sighed. That battle had been a close one. Even as a ghost, now that Hikari had a physical body she was susceptible to everything that a 'live' creature was, including 'death,' though if she was killed now it would be a death of the spirit and she would completely cease to exist. She was now essentially a different kind of being. After all, there were many kinds of creatures here in the Spirit Realm that fell into the category of 'Spirits,' and nowhere near all of them were dead.

Speaking of physical needs… Shinzou realized that his mouth was almost unbearably dry, and his stomach was aching from hunger. How long had it been since he had eaten? He thought back for a minute. Yesterday afternoon. Yup, it was time for breakfast.

He groaned in equal amounts of irritation and pain as he reached out and dragged his pack over to him, digging out a canteen of water, his small kettle, a package of ramen, and his seldom used butane hotplate. He tried to save the hotplate for emergencies when he couldn't make a fire… like now. It struck him as the water was heating that the newly 'living' Hikari would have to be fed as well… and was probably even hungrier than he was. After all, she had gone through a powerful transformation yesterday, and then used some sort of energy attack to defeat that monster, and was now healing from serious injuries. Fighting and healing, Shinzou knew from experience, were two of the most energy using and therefore hunger causing activities one could participate in.

Taking a sip from the canteen, which still held a good bit of water even after he had filled the kettle, he debated waking her up again so she could eat. It was a good indication of how sore and tired she must have been that the complaints of her stomach hadn't registered. Ultimately, he decided that getting food and water into her deprived system was more urgent than sleep. The nutrients would undoubtedly help anyway.

He came to this decision just as the water reached boiling, the kettle giving out a squeal of steam. Moving it from the plate to a nearby rock with one hand, and using the other to gently shake Hikari's unwounded shoulder he called out, "Hikari? I hate to wake you, but you need to eat."

"Eat?" She slurred sleepily. "Wha?"

"You're essentially alive now, you breathe, you bleed, so you probably need to eat. Aren't you hungry?"

"Hungry?" She was still dragging herself to full consciousness, concentrating on the sensations she was getting from her body. "What does 'hungry' feel like again?"

Shinzou blinked at her stupidly for a second. What does…? Wait. She's been dead for two hundred years. I guess you could forget something like that. He thought dubiously. Being male and ultimately one to think with and of his stomach in almost all situations, he found this implausible, but as some people had been fond of reminding him, this was not the case for everyone.

He was saved from attempting to explain, however, when Hikari's stomach growled loudly, ending the debate. He pulled out a second package of ramen, and poured the boiling water into both containers. While they were waiting, he offered his canteen to Hikari. "You must be thirsty too."

Hikari was quickly reminded of two of the unpleasantries of being alive, hunger and thirst. It had taken her a minute, but now her memories of these sensations came rushing back and she quickly accepted the proffered water, sitting up slowly in order to drink. As she quenched her thirst, Shinzou checked on the cooking progress of the instant ramen, proclaimed it 'done,' and dug into his cup.

Having drunk enough that her throat was no longer parched, Hikari hesitantly accepted the quick meal from Shinzou's hand, his other being occupied in holding his cup to his lips so that he could sip some of the broth.

"Is this stuff any good?" She asked, "I mean, I see you eat it all the time, and in my old house they had it sometimes…"

"Hmm. Instant ramen is after your time, huh." Shinzou realized.

"Most stuff is nowadays. I've kept up on news, developments and info over the years, but when it comes to physical experiences…"

"Yeah, I can see how that would be tough for a ghost. Anyway, why don't you just try it and see if you like it? It ought to be cool enough for you to eat now." It took her a moment to re-master eating, but quickly fell into the old habit, quietly slurping up the noodles. It was an… interesting taste.

After a few minutes of eating in silence, Shinzou finished his cup off and leaned back against his tree looking a lot happier. By the time she finished her meal a minute later, Hikari also found herself in brighter spirits. Unfortunately, the activity had reawakened the pain of her injuries, and she found herself sore all over. Grimacing in discomfort, she tried to find a position in which she wasn't aggravating one ache or another. Noticing her movement, Shinzou made no comment, but pulled out his medicine kit, procuring a flat gray pill from within.

"Here. Swallow this. It'll get rid of the pain so you can get back to sleep." He offered it to Hikari.

"Sleep? Are you sure you're not going to just wake me up in twenty minutes again?" Despite saying this, the ghost readily accepted the medicine, swallowing it quickly and washing it down with a gulp of water from the canteen.

"I promise to actually let you sleep this time. I wasn't thinking before. I should have realized earlier that you'd need to eat and drink…" He trailed off.

Lifting her eyes to his face, Hikari noted the slight furrowing of his brow. "Hey, it's okay. I didn't even realize it until you pointed it out."

"Hm?" He met her eyes as his train of thought was apparently interrupted by her reassurance. "Oh, thanks, but that wasn't what I was worried about…"

"What then?" Hikari decided to drag the info out of him before she succumbed to the exhaustion that was crowding at the corners of her mind. She fought off a yawn as he took a moment replying.

"Well, first off now that you have to be fed too, it's going to double the amount of supplies we'll need to carry. I'll probably need to get you a full pack and gear." He sighed. The bounty from Carxin, which he was definitely still planning to collect after all the trouble they had gone through getting it, would probably be spent in its entirety on these unexpected new expenses.

After a moment of silence as she mused this, Hikari spoke again. "What else is bothering you? That isn't all, I know it."

"Eh, well, there's also that aura-beast." He shook his head. "I have no idea what that was, I've never heard of such a thing in any of my studies or travels. More importantly though, why was it after you, Hikari? You're not a fighter, and were apparently not even a threat if you'll pardon my saying so."

"I kicked its ass anyway, so go ahead."

"Right. So it went after you, and I couldn't touch it." Something flickered in his eyes as he crossed his arms over his chest. This is what really bothered him; he hadn't been able to protect a non-combatant in the middle of a fight. If it weren't for that unexpected ability of hers, she'd be dead. As it was, he couldn't help feeling responsible for the massive injuries currently marked by the white bandages all over her body.
            Hikari was silent for a moment as she pondered this, but after a moment found she could come to no particular conclusion. "That Carxin guy the aura came out of even said he was after you, not me, right?"

Shinzou flinched slightly. "Yeah. He did. And that brings me to our final problem." At Hikari's questioning look, he elaborated. "He was after me. I have a… decently sized price on my head here in the Spirit Realm. And—" Anger at himself forced him to stop for a moment, "I transformed!"

"Why is that bad?" Hikari queried, and then answered her own question. "No, wait, you said earlier that people could track your energy. You said that people had noticed you using your powers to get to the Gate, right."

Shinzou nodded miserably. "Exactly. Transforming uses a hundred times more power than that minor tracking ability, so changing like I did was like sending up a giant flare saying 'Come and get me!'"

Hikari winced slightly. "I can see how that's a problem. So I guess we need to get going pretty soon." She gave him a sharp look. "If we're in that much danger, why were you telling me to sleep?"

"Well…" He sighed quietly. "You really need to rest, and though it might cause more trouble in the future, and probably will, I can fight off anyone nearby that comes after us. Judging from the power readings I've been picking up, none of them are really a match for me, which is probably why they didn't attack us right away. They're strategizing right now, but they'll come soon, and then I'll kill them. I don't really want to, but…"

"Then we should get going!" Hikari proclaimed energetically, using her good arm to push herself to her feet. Or rather, that was the intention; she didn't make it even a quarter of the way there before collapsing back to the ground. "Ouch…"

Shinzou, who had been moving to stop her, instead moved over to her side. "You see? You're in no condition to travel."

"But, we need to get out of here!" She turned her face away. "I don't want to cause you more trouble after you've gone though so much trouble to take care of me."

"Then you should relax and heal!" He snapped, looking almost immediately apologetic. "I'm sorry, it's just…"

"This is really bothering you. Come on, we really should leave, Shinzou. After all, if enough people come after you, they might hurt or kill you right?"

"I seriously doubt they'll be that organized or cooperative."

Seizing on this sudden insight as leverage, she rounded on him. "But they might, right? Best not to take chances." She announced this with supreme certainty.

Shinzou sat back and glared at her halfheartedly for a minute before sighing in exasperation. "Fine! We'll go back to town! I can disguise our trail enough for us to pick up the bounty and some supplies before we run for it."

"Finally!" Hikari took a moment to look smug before she was interrupted by Shinzou's upraised finger.

"However!" He continued, "You are not going to walk. I'll carry you. You need to heal." Despite her protests that he not waste his energy, he got to his feet and got his pack ready for travel. "No arguments! You can't walk, and if you try it'll only slow us down."

She settled into a miffed silence as he checked the straps on his pack, ensuring that it was absolutely travel-ready and that it was balanced so that the weight would be of the least amount of strain on his weakened self. "Now then, I need some bounty proof." He murmured. "Wait here for a minute." He called to Hikari, turning and walking back to the clearing where the fallen form of Carxin lay. Glancing around to see if any other bounty hunters had moved into the immediate area yet, he found the way clear and so quickly darted out to the corpse.

Two minutes of gory work later, and he had his 'proof.' He pulled open a small tear in space-time and dropped it through. He moved over to the small stream at the edge of the clearing, cleaning off his hands and the sleeve-blade he had used in the clear water. He also took the opportunity to refill his canteen in the clear water farther up the flow. Drying his hands and blade thoroughly on a cloth from his pocket, he returned to where Hikari sat.

"I thought you were getting proof." She greeted him with a raised eyebrow.

"I did." He set himself to picking up his pack and attaching it to his back.

"Where is it?"

"In a Pocket dimension. It's not the sort of thing I, or you I'm sure, would care to look at for an extended period of time." Pack in place; he bent down to scoop Hikari up in his arms.

"Eh?" She was a little surprised to suddenly find herself cradled against his chest. "What are you--?"

"With your shoulder, you wouldn't be able to hold on to my back, so I have to carry you like this." He explained shortly, getting his bearings and setting off out of their copse of trees and across one edge of the bloody clearing. Her embarrassment at the position she was currently in was lost as she caught sight of Carxin's body – now headless. Slightly queasy at the sight she hunched down in Shinzou's arms a little more. Noticing her reaction and the, er, view; he cast a glance at the body as well before speaking.

"You see why I put it in the Pocket dimension?"

"That's gross Shinzou!"

"Well, I don't have a choice if I want the money. I have to take proof and I can't haul the entire body." Well, actually, he could, but the less dead stuff he was carrying the better.

Obviously trying to distract herself from the sight that they were quickly leaving behind, Hikari voiced a new question. "Say, Shinzou. You said you put the, uh, proof in a Pocket dimension. What's a Pocket dimension?"

Easily giving in to the change of subject, Shinzou replied. "Well, it's a little area on another plane of existence."

"Another plane? I thought there were only two! How many are there?"

"There's actually an infinite number, ranging in size and complexity across the entire imaginable spectrum. The Spirit Plane and the Physical Plane are the two that we consider the most 'normal' and, I guess, important."

"So there are other people living in other planes and stuff?"


"Won't they be kinda… mad about you dropping a severed head on them?"

"Eh? No, you see, my Pocket dimension doesn't have anything living in it. At least, I certainly hope not!" He chuckled lightly before continuing. "When I said there were an infinite number of planes, it's because not only are they continuously being spontaneously created by universal forces, but people are always artificially creating them for personal use."

"Personal use?" Hikari was totally absorbed in this magical discussion. This subject area was completely new to her, and she found it fascinating.

"Yes. I myself have several that I use for a variety of things, such as carrying objects, and I have a special one that I can drop small demons and spirits into if I catch them. There's one that most magic users have that is specially shielded to store magical objects that are dangerous or valuable." The scenery had changed into the gloom of the forest as Shinzou walked. At this rate, they'd probably reach the town by noon, and he'd sure be feeling it then. Only a few minutes into their trip and his muscles were already complaining…

He picked up his lecture once again to distract himself as well as Hikari this time. "It's this common storage use that gave them their name, actually. Not only are they literally a 'pocket' of space, but people use them for holding a variety of objects, much as we do with pockets in our clothing for everyday items."

"I see. Pocket dimension. Definitely makes sense." Hikari sounded so terribly serious, and was in fact nodding slightly as if agreeing with the fact. Shinzou fought off the urge to laugh at her expression as he traversed a patch of rough ground, getting himself under control. An amused smile graced his lips when he spoke again.

"Yes. So, those are the normal uses, but some people invest a lot of time and energy into creating these things. Some people even live in their own personal dimensions."

"Really? They bring their entire house with them wherever they go?" Hikari's eyes widened at the thought.

"No, they can't do that." Shinzou corrected her. "Dimensions that large aren't portable. They can be 'stepped into' from almost anywhere, but they actually exist only in one spot, and require a special portal for access."

"Sounds like they're essentially portable."

"Well, you can get cut off from those dimensions, and there are some places, quite a few actually, where you can't create the portal to access them. With a truly portable Pocket dimension, like mine, they're with you all the time so you can't be cut off from them unless someone completely disables your magical powers or puts a special spell in place. That's why I don't carry all of my stuff in a pocket dimension, plus the more stuff you have in it the more power if takes to maintain."

"I see." Hikari absorbed this new information in silence for a while as Shinzou continued to walk towards the town. After a few minutes she came up with a new question. "So, can anybody access any dimension they want? Could somebody go into your Pocket dimension and take your stuff?"

"Not without a whole lot of trouble and me being very aware of it. Personal dimensions are particular to their user. You have to be 'keyed' to one to access it."

"So, if the owner died…"

"That's a bit of a dark question, isn't it?" Shinzou glanced at her before answering. "It depends, once again, on the particulars of the Pocket dimension. Some cease to exist; 'dumping' their contents onto whatever plane the owner's body is on. Some collapse and destroy everything inside, but those are rare. A third type will just end up sealed off, with no one able to access it. Those are the most common. Some people spend years 'prying' the Pocket dimensions of dead people open to get their stuff." He added this last as a bit of trivia.

"Some people's hobbies…" Hikari muttered.

"You know, with your magical powers, I bet I could teach you how to make one of your own." Shinzou offered.

"Really? Cool!"

"Yeah, it's easy. It's a basic skill that everyone learns when they begin magical training. It teaches fine control and long-term power maintenance." At this point, they had been traveling for about half an hour, with about the same amount of travel time ahead of them.

Hikari yawned, the medicine Shinzou had given her earlier finally catching up to her. As the pain of her injuries receded, she found herself nodding off, lulled by the easy rhythm of Shinzou's strides. Before she knew it, she found that she could no longer keep her eyes open.

Noticing that his companion had become very quiet, Shinzou glanced down and found her sleeping against his chest, head on his shoulder. Taking care to keep his pace smooth, he continued towards the town that was just now appearing through the trees in the distance.

Hikari awoke for the third time that day with the feeling of something soft beneath her. Opening her eyes blearily, she found herself in the room of an inn. Shinzou was nowhere to be seen, but his pack lay in one corner. She smiled a bit at the message held in the object, 'Don't worry, I'll be back!'

Sitting up – it was nice to realize that she could now do this with only minimal pain, Shinzou must have worked hard healing her – she surveyed the rest of the room. Plain, ordinary, just the same as the last one they had been in. It had only been a couple of days since then, but it felt like so much longer.

With a little hesitation, Hikari swung her legs over the side of the bed, but did not stand up quite yet. It was strange. This was the first time she had been separated from Shinzou in their quest. Apparently now that she had a physical body, she wasn't relying on him for 'spiritual support' as much, though she was still very aware of the connection to him. It felt weaker, true; no doubt due to distance, but it was still there. She could sense him, and tell that he was alright, though a bit peeved about something at the moment…

Oh well. When wasn't he angry about something? It couldn't be anything serious; he always shielded his thoughts so even she couldn't read them during a crisis. Of course, it was probably just as much that he didn't want to be distracted by her, as that he probably didn't want her 'listening in' while he fought.

She finally stood and moved over to the window, which looked out upon a moderately busy village street. The length of the shadows showed that she had been asleep for several hours; it was now mid afternoon. Not having anything else to do at the moment, Hikari settled herself into a convenient chair to people-watch through the mostly clean window. Actually, it was more like demon-watching, with all the strange creatures passing by.

Devoting one part of her mind to the technique that Shinzou had showed her after the fight with the snake demon on the other side of the Gate, Hikari was pleased to find that the skill she had acquired for reclaiming lost spiritual energy still functioned, and seemed to be helping with her healing process as well. Now all she had to do was wait for her guardian to return.

In the meantime, Shinzou was out in the open-air marketplace that occupied one end of the town they were staying in. His first priority when he arrived had been procuring shelter for the night, and when he did everything including shaking his pack upside down, he had somehow managed to come up with enough spirit-currency change and a couple of tradable objects so that he could pay for a single room. He was hoping to go back and get another one later, but he had needed someplace to drop Hikari off while he 'worked.' He couldn't really wander around town carrying her everywhere. He had already cashed in on the bounty on Carxin and was eager to spend his new wealth on the supplies they so desperately needed. Though, it had taken some fast talking in the bounty office to manage to walk out unscathed. After Hikari had fallen asleep on the walk back to town, he had spent a few minutes coming up with a somewhat plausible story so that he wouldn't get grabbed as soon as he set foot in the dim little shack. He had even managed to incorporate some semi-truths in to add to the plausibility. It was a simple tale; he had told them that while out hunting Carxin, he had run across the assassin in battle with the powerful creature whose energy signature everyone else had picked up on. They had been spotted, and his partner injured before they could act. Knowing he couldn't handle the situation, he took cover and waited it out. The creature killed Carxin and took off. Not wanting to try his luck, Shinzou the Perfectly Normal Bounty Hunter had decided to nab the bounty and run back to town. The end. He felt kind of bad about that bit of 'himself' injuring Hikari, for it had very nearly been true.

Unfortunately, he had the sneaking suspicion that they had not been entirely convinced of his tale. As a matter of fact, he knew they hadn't bought it. Why else would there be no less than four people shadowing his every movement?

Sighing miserably while attempting to look as absolutely non-suspicious as possible, Shinzou readjusted the new, smaller pack he had bought for Hikari on his shoulders. He had been steadily filling it with necessary items such as camping and cooking equipment, and had already made a stop for clothes. He had picked up three outfits for her, plus a new one for him to replace the clothes that he'd lent Hikari. After her fight with the aura-beast, he hadn't even tried to salvage the garments; he had simply disposed of the blood-soaked articles.

His final stop was for food. It was amazing, instant ramen had even managed to cross the plane barrier, and was available to purchase here. Of course, there was an 'import tax' on it, but Shinzou picked some up anyway, since he knew he wouldn't be able to get it at all once they got out of the vicinity of the Gate. He also bought some perishable foods, such as fruit and meat, to be eaten right away, and some others that would keep for a little while at least. The ramen would have to be their emergency food supply.

Thus freshly restocked with food for the next five to seven days for both himself and Hikari, depending on how many meals they accidentally skipped, Shinzou turned around and headed back to the inn. He climbed the narrow staircase to the second floor room where he had left the ghost girl, feeling a small wave of relief when his four followers decided to wait outside and not actually follow him into the building. Maybe they thought they would be detected if they went so far as to come in right after him. Too bad he'd picked up on all four of them within thirty seconds of the beginning their respective surveillances. Shinzou knew, though, that shortly he'd probably be getting neighbours in the empty hotel rooms across the hall and next door.

With a resigned sigh, he gave up on his plans for a second room; they really shouldn't be separated if people were shadowing them. Looks like it's the floor for me tonight. Oh well, at least I get heat and a roof over my head.

He could feel Hikari sense his approach from the end of the hall, and so didn't bother with knocking before entering the room after unlocking the door with his room key. His young charge was seated in a worn wooden chair near the window, looking in his direction as he entered.

"Hey." She greeted him quietly.

"Hey yourself." He responded with a small grin, closing the door behind him. "Feeling better?"

"Much." To demonstrate, she stood and walked over to where he was standing just inside the room. He swung the new pack off of his shoulders and held it out to her.

"Here. This is yours now." The pack was of a lighter coloured and softer material than Shinzou's many-years-old one, smaller in size to more readily balance on Hikari's smaller frame. As he bought them, Shinzou had been placing Hikari's new supplies into the pack, and was carrying all of the other items with one arm. He took a moment to walk over to the small table the room was equipped with and set these down. The ghost was currently investigating her new possessions with some interest. It had been quite a while since she had actually owned something.

She dropped onto the bed and methodically took each item out and looked it over. When she came to the clothes, she raised an eyebrow. They looked like they were just the right size… She hopped up, a dark blue, half-sleeve shirt and black pants in hand, and headed into the small bathroom to change. She came out a moment later, now carrying the spare set of Shinzou's clothes she had been wearing. The Apothecary looked up from where he was taking inventory of their food supplies, both those he had just bought and what had been left in his bag, and glanced at her new look. He gave her a quick thumbs-up in appreciation.

"I thought those would look good on you, and I was right."

"Ah, thanks. A lot. However…" She gave him a demanding glare. "May I ask how you knew exactly what my size was? These fit perfectly."

"Oh, that." He waved a hand dismissively. "I have a couple of evil sisters. When I was younger, not only did they drag me along occasionally when they went shopping, but sometimes they made me go out and just buy them stuff."

Hikari blinked. She hadn't known that Shinzou had any family at all, much less siblings that obviously held some way over him. "Well, I guess that's a decent explanation. For a second there I was wondering if you were some kind of pervert or cross-dresser or something." She blinked quickly as Shinzou promptly fell out of his chair, ending up in a twitching and furiously blushing heap on the floor.

"What in the name of the gods would even lead you to think that?!" He cried, not even trying to get up yet.

"Well, I dunno…" She trailed off as Shinzou began muttering to himself, rolling onto his back and placing one hand over his eyes.

"Do I really give off that kind of vibe? I try to be manly and all, but maybe I'm doing something wrong. Is this why mom and dad were always a little worried about me? I'm not a pervert…"

Leaving him to his unhappy and embarrassed ramblings, Hikari continued to inspect what was left in her pack. Most of it she recognized, but there were a few tools and objects that she wasn't sure about. Probably camping or traveling equipment of some sort; she'd ask Shinzou about them later when he quit mumbling.

Shinzou had finally quit talking to himself, and was in the process of dragging himself back into his chair as Hikari cleared her throat and asked the main question of the night.

"So, what are we going to do now?"

"Well," Shinzou turned to look at her, the last bit of his blush fading from his cheeks. "I'm not really sure. I know that now there is a place you must go, but I don't know exactly where that may be."

"Terrific." She muttered. "Well, what about time? Do we have a schedule?"

"Hm. Yes, but it's a lot more flexible than our last one. We have, I think, roughly forty days to complete this part of the journey."

Hikari breathed out in a sigh of relief. She had very nearly missed her last deadline, and the consequences of even cutting it close had not been enjoyable. She spoke up again, "What about objectives? Are there any tasks I need to complete, like having to find inner peace last time?"

Shinzou dug into his pack to find his worn notebook. "Well," He flipped through the pages to the notes he wanted, "It says that you'll be tested during this phase, but the details are unclear…"

"Tested?" The ghost put a hand to her chin as she thought. "How do you think?"

"I dunno. I've never done this before. It's all new to me. Inner peace, aura demons, I've never had so much trouble…"

Both of them blinked in surprise as the same thought occurred to them. Hikari spoke first. "You said you'd never seen one of those aura creatures before; never even heard of them…"

"And you were the one to defeat it; I couldn't even touch it…" Shinzou nodded to himself, the more he thought about it, the more sense it made. "I'm willing to bet that that thing was one of your 'tests.'"

Groaning in disbelief and frustration, Hikari flopped backwards onto the bed. "Does that mean I'm gonna be duking it out with those things on a regular basis?"

Shinzou sighed, leaning back in his chair. "Probably. I guess this means I'll really have to focus on teaching you how to protect yourself."

"Well, I'm always happy to learn new things." Hikari drawled only somewhat sarcastically. She stopped when she noticed Shinzou straighten up suddenly.

"I forgot about it until now, but out at the clearing," He dug into his pocket after something, "I found this near where you defeated that monster." He held out a small, flat black stone. Hikari accepted it slowly. She could feel magical energies flowing around it, energies that felt remarkably like her own.

"What is it?" She asked while turning it over in her hands. It felt dark, but not dangerous.

Shinzou shrugged. "I have no idea. I have the feeling though, that you should hold onto it."

Hikari nodded slowly, and then turned to her pack. Selecting a protected inner pocket, she slipped the stone inside for safekeeping. She zipped it closed and then turned to the task of replacing her possessions in the bag. Shinzou sat back and gave advice while she did this, telling her how and where to place things to even the load and make them accessible. When she was done, Shinzou turned the conversation around again.

"So, I'm thinking that we'll leave town tomorrow morning at the latest." He announced, "I've come under suspicion here, so we need to leave quickly and without notice."

"Who suspects you? The bounty office?" Hikari was immediately concerned.

Shinzou nodded in confirmation. "They've already let word leak to somebody as well, I had four guys tailing me this afternoon."

"Four?" If Hikari had been drinking water, she would have spit it out in an amusing double take. "That goes a little bit beyond suspicion, Shinzou! That's full-blown surveillance!"

"Eh, well…" He shrugged unconcernedly, which only served to make Hikari more irate.

"You're not taking this seriously!"

"On the contrary, I'm taking it very seriously. However, they're not moving now since I've given them no reason to. As long as I lay low and leave quickly, it'll blow over."

"If leaving quickly will help, why don't we go now?"

"Well," Shinzou replied, "I already got a room. That implies I'm staying the night, so if I take off, it'll be suspicious, like I'm running away. If we leave in the morning, it'll just look like we're moving on. Also," He held up one finger for emphasis, "I want to sleep indoors tonight. I'm tired of dirt. And I want to get a real meal for dinner and maybe breakfast. I can't do either of those things on the road."

"Somehow I feel that I should have suspected that all this would come back to your stomach in one way or another." Hikari grumbled, but saw the logic in his strategy. Besides, it had been quite a while since she had been able to eat, so a real meal or two was sounding pretty attractive. "All right, you win."

He nodded at her acceptance, choosing to overlook the comment about his stomach for now. He pulled his light jacket out of his pack, pulling it on quickly. "Well, as I said, tomorrow morning at the latest, we may have to leave in the middle of the night if it gets too hot around here."

"If that's the case, I vote that we get dinner and then get some sleep as soon as possible." Hikari announced, rising to her feet purposefully.

"Precisely what I was thinking." Shinzou joined her and then headed for the door, pulling up the hood of his jacket on the way to further hide his face, which had been behind its omnipresent mask for pretty much the entire day. Before he stepped out, he pulled out one of his ofuda magic seals and placed it on the doorframe.

"What's that?" Hikari came up behind him and inspected the magical paper with interest.

"Just a quick seal to keep anyone but us from entering the room." Shinzou replied, opening the door and stepping through. As Hikari followed him outside, there was a small snap of power behind them as the seal came into effect. Closing and locking the door behind them, Shinzou led the way out of the building and onto the street. Right away he picked up his four followers and – what's this? – a new face had joined the party. That made a total of five people following his every move. Shinzou sighed irritably. He really hated being the center of attention, especially malicious attention.

After wandering for a few minutes, which Shinzou thoroughly enjoyed since he was doing it intentionally for once and not just because he was lost, they picked out a decent looking restaurant with cheap food. The Apothecary made sure that they snagged a booth in a back corner so that not only could he keep an eye on the door and the creatures following them, but to ensure they also got some marginal privacy as they ate.

By the time the food was delivered to their table, three of the five had followed them inside. I wonder if the owner would give me this meal for free if I told him how much extra business I was getting him? Shinzou thought wryly. He had no doubt that if he hung around for a day or two more, providing he didn't get caught, he would have a full entourage following him everywhere. Too bad for the local businesses that he had no intentions of letting it get anywhere near that point. Dropping his mask but keeping his hood up to hide his face, Shinzou dove into his meal with his normal amount of gusto.

Hikari had been rather quiet, but was apparently enjoying her meal quite a bit. Shinzou found the food mediocre, but Hikari had been 'deprived' for quite a while, so anything was bound to taste good. Shinzou found it interesting that restaurants in the Spirit Plane always served 'human' food, no matter where they were. He had been told years ago by a friend of his that it was not only because a lot of demon actually picked up a taste for human food when they were on the Physical plane, but also because a lot of the ingredients, or something close anyway, were available on both planes. Additionally, there were creatures and people that were actually native to the Physical Plane everywhere, such as ghosts like Hikari.

Speaking of which… Shinzou's eyes flickered over a faded form slouched at a table next to a wall. Another ghost. Hm. This might prove useful. He tapped his ghost lightly on the foot to get her attention.

"I'm gonna go over there for a minute." He gestured almost imperceptibly with a slight turn of his head. "Just hang out for a little bit."

She blinked at this unexpected decision on Shinzou's part, but didn't comment as he stood up and casually walked over to where the other ghost was sitting, chair leaning against the wall. It, or rather he, was a young man, probably about Shinzou's age or a little older. Well, when he had died, at least. Ghosts didn't age after death, so he could have been any age, really. He was wearing a dark green shirt, partially covered by a gray jacket, and black pants. His faded hair and eyes had probably once been sandy brown and bright blue, respectively.

The male ghost glanced up as Shinzou approached, sizing him up in an instant. Hm. It seems that he's a fighter. How interesting. The other had apparently seen the question that Shinzou's expression asked, for he used one booted foot to kick the chair across from him out from under the table, inviting the Apothecary to sit down.

Shinzou dropped into the chair, adjusting the position slightly so that he could still keep an eye on the ones who were keeping an eye on him. He could see his new tablemate's eyes flickering over the shadows as well as he noticed a combination of Shinzou's check and the spies' reaction to his move. He raised a slightly questioning eyebrow at Shinzou, who responded with an equally light shrug.
            Shinzou took it upon himself to begin the conversation. "So, are you a native to this area?"

"Who's asking?" The other drawled unconcernedly.

"A traveler who could use some local insight."

"I see." This time his eyes strayed to the table that Shinzou had just left, silently taking in Hikari, who momentarily met his eyes over the rim of her coffee cup. "Is that all? Or maybe it has something to do with the chick following you around?"

"Now that you mention it…" Shinzou leaned back in his chair. "I could use a little help with her from a, shall we say, expert?"

"A newbie, huh?" The male ghost appraised Hikari again, and something in his look this time got her to bristle slightly and turn a glare upon him. He chuckled softly, not at all intimidated by her defensiveness, leaning forward to drop one arm onto the table, propping his head up by placing his chin in his hand and his elbow on the table. He continued to stare, and Shinzou got the feeling it was just as much to simply irritate Hikari as it was to observe her.

Moving on, Shinzou acknowledged, "Well, she's new in a way. She's been a ghost for quite a while, but hasn't been traveling before."

"Or fighting." The other put in. "I can tell. She doesn't know how to protect herself." The faded blue eyes turned to Shinzou for a moment before flicking back to Hikari, "Must be rough on you, trying to keep her from getting eaten by anything and everything around here."

"Yes, well, at any rate…"

The young man finally gave up annoying Hikari from a distance and turned back to the Spirit Warrior in front of him. "So, are you looking into any services in particular that I might be able to provide?"

"Well, I have several questions that I was hoping you might be able to answer."


"Judging from your aura, you're a ghost that's already 'passed on' and completed the Bardo phases, correct?"

"Yeah, a while ago. I didn't feel like hanging out in the underworld or getting reincarnated right away, so I'm taking some time off as a ghost here in the Spirit Plane."

"Good, then maybe you could give us a few pointers. The girl," He nodded towards Hikari, who was watching them suspiciously, "Needs to cross over. She was a trapped spirit, and I got put in charge of taking her to the underworld."

"Wow!" The ghost started chuckling again, "It really sucks to be you, doesn't it?"

"Thank you." Shinzou replied sarcastically. "So, getting to the point, I was hoping you might remember something about your trip to the underworld."

"Eh, not much, sorry bud." He noted Shinzou's look of irritation and discouragement with interest. "Hey, calm down. I don't remember the first trip, but if it's a guide you're looking for, I can help ya, no sweat."

"Really?" The Apothecary leaned forward on the table.

"Sure. I have to go back and get checked out every couple months or I get in trouble. There's a special 'Ghost Gate' that we," Indicating himself and Hikari with a wave of his hand, "Have to use."

"Really? How interesting." Shinzou murmured, taking mental notes. Yes, this man would definitely be an asset to their quest. "So, are your available for hire as a guide? I'll pay you, of course." Shinzou took a mental account of his finances. Yes, he could pay. He'd wanted to save his extra cash for an emergency, but this just meant they'd have to do some more 'work' sooner.

"If you're offering a decent price for my time, I'm sure we can hammer something out." The ghost gave a wide grin.

"How does this sound?" Shinzou quoted his price, and after a few minutes of haggling, the ghost's grin had gotten wider as the two males shook hands to seal their agreement.

"All right then. Anything else?" The other asked, obviously expecting another request.

"As a matter of fact, I had noticed that you are obviously a skilled warrior as well as a ghost, and as such I was wondering if you might be able to give my ghost a few pointers?"

"Eh, I thought ya might say that…" He leaned back, glancing at Hikari, who was obviously listening in on their conversation. "Well, she's pretty cute, so I'd hate for something to happen to her." He shrugged. "I guess I could give it a shot. See what I can teach her."

Shinzou breathed out in a sigh of relief. "Thank you." He replied earnestly. "I'm knowledgeable about death and the afterlife, but I'm no Necromancer, and I'm certainly not a ghost! I was wondering how I was going to teach her anything."

"No sweat, man. There's certain techniques and stuff that only ghosts know, so you wouldn't be able to teach her anyway. So, where are you staying?"

"Darine Inn. You know it?"

"The one over at the edge of town? Yeah, I did a job for a guy there a while back. You guys are leaving in the morning right?" He continued at Shinzou's confirming nod. "Great, so I'll meet you guys there and we can take off."

Satisfied with his business dealings of the day, Shinzou stood and gave the new ghost one last nod in parting. "Tomorrow then." He turned away, but then remembered something and returned for one last question. "Oh, and by the way, I didn't catch your name."

With a smirk, the young man looked up from his drink. "Me? I'm Merren."

"Well Merren, I'm Shinzou, just so you know. And she," He gestured to the other ghost, "Is Hikari."

"Hikari, huh? With a name like that, it sounds like she's my type."

"Don't bet on it." The girl in question had risen from her seat and joined them as she saw Shinzou prepare to leave.

"Yikes, she's got spunk too." He didn't look intimidated in the least by the glaring female.

"Hikari, that's enough. Let's go get some rest." Shinzou paused to toss some cash onto their table to pay for their meal. "After all, we've got a long day ahead of use tomorrow."

"Right, whatever." Hikari followed him out of the restaurant with a final glare at Merren, who gave a smirk in return.

"So Shinzou, what's up with that guy?"

"Ah, Merren? Since he's a ghost, I've hired him as a guide for us and a teacher for you. He'll be joining us in our travels tomorrow."