I rest my hand on the tiller, feeling the creaking of the timber resonating through my flesh and bones like I was hammering it together all over again. The wind blows all around me, and the sea—vast, but far from endless; I can see the faint squiggles of land in the distance—heaves up and down, and pitches my little boat every which way.
But I'm not worried for my ship, or for my health—though I certainly won't deny feeling green in the gills. I fight the urge to vomit only because I know I'm getting close. I can feel him calling me—guiding me, just like always.
Why? I don't know. In all the time I've known him, I've learned to never question where he leads me next. Is it to her—or perhaps even to them?
Sometimes I wish I had someone to talk to about these things, clear up some of the mystery in my head.
But there's no one else left to talk to.
The craft was tiny and primitive—barely more than a single-sail sloop with a few odds and ends about the deck; some lashed here, others scattered there. But the type of craft did not matter to the Obelisk Force agent as he zoomed in on the vessel with the lenses built into his silver mask. All he was concerned about was the pilot of the ship, the sole sign of life aboard—and the fact that he was getting dangerously close to Academia territory.
Of the pilot, not much could be said—the agent (helpfully designated Beta-Seven; individuality mattered very little to the most elite fighting force within the ranks of Academia) could not see much under the black cloak he was wearing, only the hem of a robe of some light bluish color, and a hint of something attached to his left wrist that might have been a Duel Disk, but from this far away he could not be certain of the specific design. The cloak covered most of his body, including the top half of the face. But the size of the pilot suggested he was in his early teens or thereabout—old enough, in the agent's opinion, for him to know better.
Beta-Seven rose from his seat, grabbing a bullhorn as he watched the vessel slide closer to him and the five other boats that constituted his patrol of the northern coast of Academia. Two men to a boat—one to steer, the other to Duel, and both with orders to bar any trespassers from entering this area.
The bullhorn emitted a static-laced squeal as Beta-Seven switched it on, and brought it to his lips. "Attention, unidentified vessel!" he barked in his best authoritarian voice. "You are approaching restricted waters. Disengage from your present course or be subject to military action!"
What comes to mind when you think of home?
Maybe it was your mother's favorite food? The Duels you'd have with your best friend? That's not to say I don't remember them both; my mother's lamb stew with those oranges she grew at home was the talk of the village. And Sophia was always the better Duelist when we were little, I can count the Duels I won against her on one hand.
I try not to anymore. Think about it, I mean. It helps keep me sane when I'm sailing if I just don't think at all.
But the voice I'm now hearing over the noise of the sea is something I can't help but think about. Just one word is bringing back a whole lot of memories about my home. Some of them are good, even happy … others, not so much.
For me … when I think about home, that same voice is what I remember more than anything else. Partly because, for a time, it was all I ever heard. It was everywhere we went … everywhere we fled.
But more than that, it was because … when the voice had finally left my memory … there was nothing left of home to fill in the holes.
Beta-Seven stood there, his focus trained squarely on the pilot of the other ship as he analyzed the impending reaction to the warning he'd given.
But the pilot did not move, and for a moment, the agent wondered if he might be asleep at the helm. But the robed sleeve with the would-be Duel Disk moved suddenly. Not a large amount of movement, just a shift in position—but it was too sudden and too obvious a shift to make in one's sleep.
He heard us, all right. He's just not responding.
The agent looked down to the pilot of his boat, busy with his earpiece, himself listening for any prospective answer from the approaching vessel. After a few seconds' pause, the pilot turned, and shook his head. No response.
He snorted. It looks like we'll have to do this the hard way, then.
He brought a gloved finger up to his mask, feeling along the edges of the right cheek until he felt the slight indentation of a hidden switch. A twitch of his finger was enough to toggle it, and no sooner had he done so than the agent began to speak again.
"Headquarters, this is patrol seven," he reported with practiced efficiency into the multi-frequency channel. "A vessel of unknown origin has just entered sector theta-two-five. The pilot has refused identification and is maintaining course for landfall. Sending visual feed now."
He pressed another finger to the smooth blue gem atop the forehead of his mask, activating a hidden camera inside, adjusting its magnification to frame the pilot and his ship, and finally streaming the live feed to campus security.
Roughly two nautical miles away, the controller on the other end of the transmission studied the video feed with a frown on his face. Like the agent, he could not make heads from tails of what he was seeing here. He decided, however, that it was better to be cautious. The Professor was a powerful man, after all, and there were many people in many places—even here, in this place—who no doubt wanted to see him deposed from his position, or worse. Letting just one boat through their security web could make all that possible.
The controller clicked his fingers as his supervisor walked past him, calling the willow switch of a woman over just as Agent Beta-Seven was saying, "Permission to intercept and detain the pilot and any passengers on board, over."
"Stand by, patrol," said the controller. Without wasting a move or a breath, he turned to his supervisor and related the situation at hand. It only took him five seconds before mentioning Beta-Seven's request for detention.
Five seconds of analytical silence later, his supervisor gave her response, and the controller was back in his chair. "Patrol seven, this is headquarters," he said. "Permission to intercept and detain has been granted. Proceed at your discretion, over."
Beta-Seven did not bother to conceal the grin as he received his response. "Acknowledged, HQ," he replied. "Out."
Setting the bullhorn down, the agent looked over the flotilla of six "Duel-Boats" that compromised patrol seven, idling at the ready in an inverted V—a classic flanking position. He touched his earpiece again, broadcasting to the entire squadron under his command.
"All right, men—attack pattern lambda-three. Stagger formation, prepare to engage target."
As the engines of all half-dozen vessels whined to life, Beta-Seven clamped a Duel Disk to his arm at the push of a button. The silver-blue trim of the shield-shaped apparatus, normally polished to a mirror finish, was crusted with sea spray, but not to the extent of interfering with the inner workings. These Duel Disks, after all, were designed for the long haul. The bigger shell over the frame made it slightly bulkier, but the shell was tougher as well, and resistant to all but the most extreme of elements and stresses—dimensional travel, for instance.
His Duel Disk secured, Beta-Seven motioned to the rest of the fleet, sailing alongside in the same V formation. The other five agents of the Obelisk Force were in position, having readied their own identical Disks and standing on a special section of black glass that ran the width of the entire boat—below which lay the Solid Vision generators. A faint vibration beneath Beta-Seven's feet informed him these were nearly finished calibrating.
He smirked. He almost pitied the poor pilot for having brought what was about to happen on his own self.
I can hear him.
His voice sounds like the waves, and for a moment, I don't hear anything else. But I don't simply hear his words. I feel them—feel him—beating against my heart, trying to break out.
He says they're coming for me. They want to capture me.
A part of me wants to be scared. After all, I know what happens to the unlucky souls they "capture." I've seen it happen more times than I can count—and I know that it wasn't even a drop in the bucket compared to everything else they did.
That was before the Summoning.
Before I met him.
Now, I don't feel scared anymore. There's a reason I was chosen. There's a reason I am who I am.
My only hope is that I can live long enough to understand why.
Unbeknownst to the approaching patrol, unseen by the otherwise occupied eye of Beta-Seven and the rest of the squad under his command, the pilot of the ship finally moved.
The large, mirrored pendant swung briefly from his neck as he drew back the sleeve of his robe—only slightly, but enough to fully reveal the device strapped to his left arm: a semicircular construction of dark blue plastic, barely a foot in length, with a circular glass orb in the middle, polished to a mirror-shine and lined with a ring of gold. A pair of golden spikes curved along the edges, terminating in sharp points redolent of threshing blades.
At a hidden signal, the semicircle now split down the middle, unfolding outward like a clamshell around the orb; a gap in the exposed innards of the device then produced a deck of cards. The orb glowed with cold light as the Duel Disk was activated, and a black V shape materialized along the pilot's forearm, the edge of the perfect right angle glowing a brilliant sky-blue.
The pilot heard a rumble of thunder as he got to his feet, feeling the rime-encrusted wrappings beneath his shoe-less soles hit the rough wood of the deck, and he thought it might be starting to rain.
Any minute now, he thought, as he pressed a button on his Duel Disk …
Back at Academia, the controller who had received Beta-Seven's radio transmission was continuing to stare at the footage being broadcast to his screen.
He saw the pilot move at that moment, and produce … what in the world was that? It looked like a Duel Disk—but the design was most unlike the standard "sword and boards" used throughout the school. At the very least, it was heavily customized, with a great deal more ornamentation than was usually found on Duel Disks these days.
At most, it was unlike any such device the controller had ever seen—perhaps even unique to the pilot alone.
He would have reflected on this further, but a sudden flicker of movement had distracted him; the shabby-looking robes worn by the pilot had fluttered in the wind, and for a moment he had seen a portion of the pilot's face. Strangely, he thought, that face almost seemed to be looking right at him.
A moment later, the controller almost jumped out of his seat as static suddenly filled the whole screen, and the face of the pilot was lost to sight. He recovered quickly, however, and as soon as he was back in his chair, his earpiece to hand, "Patrol seven, HQ has lost visual. Acknowledge, over."
His only response was grainy white noise.
"Patrol seven, sound off," said the controller, more urgently this time—but still nothing. "Patrol seven, report!"
"It's no good," said his supervisor, who had walked up behind him at the sound of his raised voice. "The weather outside is getting worse by the minute. I'm surprised it took this long for the communication lines to cut out."
Cut out?! "But … " the controller said, as his mind started to put two and two together, "but that means—!"
"I wouldn't worry," she replied back. "The Obelisk Force can handle one errant sailor."
The controller wasn't so sure. Something about the sliver of face he'd seen wasn't sitting right with him—especially since the footage had cut out right at that exact moment. And the worsening weather … there was no way this was simple coincidence.
Something's not right.
Unaware of the recent developments taking place back home at Academia, patrol seven continued to sail northward.
They were less than three hundred feet off the bow of the vessel ahead, and the waters were beginning to get choppy. Stabilizers built into the boats ensured that Beta-Seven and the others with him did not suffer from the rigors of sea travel; nonetheless, the agent did his best to focus on the approaching vessel, rather than the waves around him, so as not to get seasick in the middle of apprehending an intruder.
Suddenly, the pilot leaned inward, apparently confused by something on his screen. "That's funny," he said to Beta-Seven, though the other eleven people on the same patrol heard the same thing over their earpieces. "I'm getting a signal from the oncoming ship."
He paused, his consternation nearly doubling with each passing second. "Sir," he exclaimed, "if I'm reading this right … the pilot's trying to force a Duel with us!"
"What?!" Beta-Seven was flabbergasted—no Duelist in their right mind would do such a thing. And he wasn't the only one surprised at this; from the static-filled radio chatter of the rest of patrol seven, no one had been expecting something like this to happen.
"One of him against the six of us?" another agent, Rho-Seven, was heard to say from the next boat.
"What in the world is he thinking?" a third, Upsilon-Seven, murmured in disbelief.
"It doesn't matter," Beta-Seven called out, doing his best to restore order among his squad. "We have the odds in our favor—and that's all we need!"
He slotted his Deck—standard-issue among all Obelisk Force agents—into his Duel Disk. "We'll play his game," he instructed, "let him make the first move."
He smirked. "And then, we're going to teach this troublemaker a lesson … teach him exactly who he's dealing with. All units, assume standard Dueling formation. Bring SV generators online and signal full stop."
As patrol seven shuddered to a halt, the section of black glass under Beta-Seven's feet hummed to life, and glowed a dull yellow-white as the Solid Vision generators underneath were activated. Then, a black swordblade, glowing with red light, materialized across his forearm …
Sophia was the first to fall.
I didn't understand until later why she was taken so quickly. I thought we'd both just been as unlucky as it was possible to be—a small patrol, lying in ambush as she bathed in the lake on the outskirts of our village, and me … as far from her as I could possibly be, unable to save her, or know she was gone until it was too late.
And the sad thing was, it never should have happened. It never needed to. Perhaps if it hadn't, we might have lived the rest of our lives in peace, blissfully ignorant of the dark force that would soon be loosed upon us.
The news of Sophia's kidnapping reached far and wide. Her mother was among the most respected members of our village, and I knew firsthand how fiercely protective of Sophia she was. The anger that suddenly gripped the land was greatest inside her, and filled her with a mindless rage that spread through our hearts and souls like wildfire.
The spark was born—and just as suddenly, the spark was dead. But Sophia had not been forgotten.
For in that brief moment when that spark had blazed in our minds … her mother made the decision to go to war.
"You should have turned back while you still had the chance!" Rho-Seven called out, the microphone in his Duel Disk amplifying his voice to the point where radio transmission was rendered unnecessary. "You have no idea what you're dealing with."
"Neither do you."
The voice stunned Beta-Seven—this pilot was indeed quite young, barely into his teens, yet the control behind that voice was considerable: emotionless and unwavering, the eye of the storm. But more than that, there was something familiar about that voice to Beta-Seven; he could almost swear he'd heard it before.
"You may face me as one, or one at a time," continued the young pilot, "I do not care. Either way, if you Duel me, you will have no chance of victory. Withdraw your boats, and direct me to the nearest port, and I may spare you."
Patrol seven's only response to this was for all six of their Duelists to heft their Duel Disks, already activated, and assume the stance of a Duelist at the ready, letting the pilot know where he could take his ultimatum.
But if his next words were any indication, he did not seem ruffled by this in the slightest. "As you wish," he said, hefting his own Duel Disk, whose blue blade sparkled against the stormy sky like a sapphire in a pile of gravel. "Battle Royale rules, six against one. No one may draw or attack on their first turn. Will this suffice?"
There was a general murmur of assent from patrol seven on radio chatter, but Beta-Seven wasn't listening; he was busy taking note of the pilot's Duel Disk through his mask, zooming in on the details. The device wasn't like any he'd seen before—customized, certainly, or perhaps stolen? At any rate, the mere appearance of such a modern, if haphazardly constructed, piece of technology was quite at odds with the primitive nature of the pilot's vessel.
But Beta-Seven could ponder this after he'd been detained and brought to Academia. Right now, it was time to—
As the soldier drew five cards from his deck, the telemetry in his eyepiece flickered and changed, now displaying standard information on the clash that had just commenced: seven Life Point counters (each set to 4000), and blank readouts for individual monsters when they came, including their strengths in attack and defense, their Level—and the energy they radiated when they were Summoned.
Beta-Seven took one look at the cards he had drawn and immediately did his best to stifle a smirk—he could not have asked for a better opening hand than this. Though he doubted the pilot could see him from this distance, it wouldn't do to betray any loss of composure.
Then again, he thought, as a strategy began to form in his head, it might not matter either way.
"I'll go first," declared the rogue pilot, reaching for the five cards in his own hand—none of which was the card he was looking for, but he had ways of retrieving it.
For now, though, it was time to give them a glimpse of his potential.
"I activate the Ritual Spell Card Necloth Exomirror from my hand," he said, swiping the card in question from his hand, and displaying it for his opponents to see—not that really they'd be able to, with the distance and weather between them. "By Releasing monsters from my hand or my field, I can Ritual Summon a Ritual Monster from my hand whose Level is equal to that of the monsters I Release!"
Almost as soon as he'd slotted the Spell into his Graveyard, he selected a monster from his hand—this would do. "I choose to Release the Level 5 Exa, Warrior of the Necloth from my hand, and Ritual Summon a Level 5 monster!"
Something twitched beneath his chest at that moment, and in that moment, he became distracted; the pendant under his robe had moved as if an invisible cat had batted it with a curious paw. He looked down, and saw a pale light beginning to glow beneath his robes, and was vexed at this.
Getting restless already, is he? The pilot grimaced as he brought his attention back to the Duel. He can sense what's coming—it's just like back then. He turned his gaze to the worsening weather for an instant, and frowned.
I'd better get this over with quick.
This odd behavior, meanwhile, was lost on patrol seven, who to a one had been muttering in confused voices since the declaration of the Duelist opposite their boats, unable to believe a single word of what they'd heard.
He's a Ritual user? Beta-Seven wondered. That was indeed rare—rare enough that the soldier, while he'd certainly learned the theory behind it in his training, had never once before seen it in practice. And not to mention …
He bit his lip, wondering if the thought that had just sprang into his mind might possibly be true.
Suddenly, his attention was diverted to the length of open ocean that separated them from the pilot; a circular ring had appeared within the waves, covered in glyphs of light that shone through the dark water with ease.
"Resolute dragon who wields the ancient tools of justice, I humbly invoke your name! Ritual Summon!"
As the pilot continued to chant, something leapt from that ring of light with hardly a ripple of water: a muscular, blue-scaled lizard-man. White light appeared on his limbs, and solidified into gleaming armor. Foot-long golden claws slashed into being, sharp enough to cut through metal, and red energy shimmered along their length.
"Surge from the seas! Level 5, The Necloth of Catastor!"
The monster, thus Summoned, struck an intimidating pose as it hovered into place on the field, and a gauge blipped into existence over its form: (Level 5: ATK 2200/DEF 1200)
If hearing about Ritual Summoning was enough to provoke confusion within the ranks of patrol seven, seeing a monster actually Summoned in such a way with their own eyes was downright bewildering.
"A Ritual Monster?" one of them, Gamma-Seven, asked nobody in particular. "How'd he pull that off? No one's used Ritual Monsters for a very long time!"
For a very good reason, Beta-Seven knew: it wasn't that no one could Ritual Summon, it was that no one often did. Ritual Monsters were slow to utilize in most Duels these days, and even before Academia had asserted their authority over the land, few Duelists encountered them outside of museums and curiosity shops—and even then, it was only for the occasional dose of nostalgia. Even in their heyday, Ritual Monsters had never quite achieved the Summoning potential of Fusion, and over the years, they had slowly faded into the annals of Dueling history.
Until today, it would seem, mused Beta-Seven. He felt an ounce of grudging respect for the pilot they were Dueling now; for all intents and purposes, he was an historical relic, of an age in Dueling long since passed.
That respect did not last long, however; Beta-Seven and his patrol were soldiers, first and foremost. Their primary instinct right now was to defeat this interloper and detain him, and learn what they could from there.
He checked the telemetry of the monster before him, and was surprised to see that the energy readings were much higher than he'd expected—nothing to particularly worry about, but unexpected nonetheless, especially from a monster like the one that had just been Summoned.
This is no ordinary Ritual Monster, Beta-Seven thought, which means this is no ordinary Duelist.
"I end my turn," the pilot declared. Not being able to attack, and not bothering to Set any cards, he therefore settled for crossing his arms, waiting for the Obelisk Force to make their move.
Beta-Seven was only too happy to be the first of them to do so.
"My turn!" he declared, as he placed a monster on his blade. "First, I Normal Summon Antique Gear Hound Dog in Attack Position!" Within seconds, a mechanical dog had leapt onto his field as if from nowhere, loosing a distorted growl at the monster opposite as the readout above it displayed (Level 3: ATK 1000/DEF 1000).
"Antique Gear Hound Dog's effect activates!" Beta-Seven went on. "Once per turn, if my opponent controls a monster, I can inflict 600 damage to them! Hound Flame!"
No sooner had he said this than a jet of fire erupted from a nozzle built into the Hound Dog's mouth, rushing for the pilot with deadly accuracy. An explosion rocked the primitive craft, and Beta-Seven smirked as he watched the intruder's LP fall to 3400.
"Next, I activate the Continuous Spell Card Antique Gear Castle!" A surge of water erupted behind the boat, but he was not perturbed; Beta-Seven knew without even turning around that this was only the Solid Vision accepting his card, and replicating it into hard light. He saw that replication in the reflection of the Duel-Boat's windscreen: an amalgamation of weathered stone ramparts and mechanical turrets, with toothed gears wide as a man was tall embedded in the construction.
"While this card is on the field," he explained, "all Antique Gear monsters gain 300 ATK." Not very strong on its own, he knew, watching his Hound Dog's ATK creep upwards to 1300, but the lack of individuality within the Obelisk Force was not limited to simply their appearance.
"And I'm not done!" cried the soldier. "I now activate the spell card Fusion! I fuse the Antique Gear Hound Dog on my field with the two Hound Dogs in my hand!"
The cybernetic canine began to shift in its stance, mechanical plates unfolding along its length as it seemed to grow before his eyes. Two heads, one from each shoulder, sprouted into being—and all three heads of the forming hound began to growl with an unearthly noise as Beta-Seven began to chant:
"Mechanical hounds who carry on the ancient spirits, flock together and become one with new power!"
"Fusion Summon! Appear now! Level 7! Antique Gear Triple Bite Hound Dog!"
As the massive, multi-headed hound (ATK 1800 » 2100/DEF 1000) took its place on his field with a mighty leap—its strength augmented by the castle behind it, Beta-Seven quietly ended his turn, having used up his entire hand. He wasn't worried for himself, though—and neither was he worried that this Ritual Monster had the edge in raw strength; it wouldn't stay that way for very long.
For now, he had done his part, and his comrades would support him from here on out until his next turn.
Then, they would show this fool just how powerful the Obelisk Force really was.
Our 'war' didn't last long. Fiery fervor can only carry you so far against a vastly stronger foe.
The first wave of the assault came without warning, and without mercy. So many of us fell in the initial assault that their second wave was little more than cleaning house. What they could not capture, they looted or destroyed.
I remember seeing those mechanical dogs for the first time, and how wide my eyes were as I saw the flames that gushed from their snapping jaws. The thatched roofs and wooden walls stood no chance against the flame.
We could only flee before the seething, growling, laughing enemy. The dogs and their masters chased us into the mountains far to the north of our village, knowing full well we could not survive there for long.
Yet that was exactly what we did. We made the mountains our new home, and delved into their depths, where we would never be discovered again. And slowly but surely, we began to rebuild.
But the fire that had blazed inside our hearts ever since Sophia was lost to us … to me … had not died out yet. And for all the power they possessed, I came to learn that our enemy had made a grievous error.
He had always known the odds would be against him.
Even as the pilot watched his opponents proceed to Summon a grand total of six Antique Gear Hound Dogs between them, and supplement them with their own Antique Gear Castle; even as his body ached with the aftereffects of the damage their monsters had inflicted on him; even as he watched his LP counter fall to a scant 400 as the sixth and last of the soldiers declared Hound Flame, then Fusion Summon his own Triple Bite Hound Dog—which, coupled with the five Castles of his comrades as well as his own, rose all six Triple Bite Hound Dogs like it to a near-insurmountable 3600 ATK—even then, he had always known that he'd never hold the advantage in numbers.
But even through the pain, he could not help but scoff at the annoyingly repetitive tactics of the soldiers, and the incredibly—impossibly—long odds that had to have existed to make sure all six of them had the exact same opening hand. As one, they might have been invincible—that was how the Obelisk Force attacked, after all: a coordinated force where each member could support his comrade as well as his own self.
But split the group apart—engage them all individually—and the chance of success was far greater.
If you can defeat one of them, he thought—or was it truly his thoughts?—you can defeat them all. That wasn't him trying to cheer himself on—that was the pure, unfiltered truth.
"Those Hounds you use," he called out to the soldiers, not caring if the rising winds of the gathering storm made it impossible for his words to be heard. "I know them well. I remember how you used them to prey on the weak and helpless of my people! I can still hear the screams they made as your dogs attacked our villages!
"And I learned why you attacked us in the first place," he said, his voice filled with the purest of loathing. "We were just a test, weren't we? You destroyed my entire civilization just so you could play with your new toys!"
The words carried over the water, the malediction punctuated by rumbles of thunder. None of it, however, was registered by patrol seven, who were talking amongst themselves in hushed voices that radiated confusion.
And in the thick of the speculation, a thought wormed into Beta-Seven's mind. Could he be—?
"You don't deserve to even think of yourselves as Duelists," the pilot continued to spit at them. "I'd call you dogs if it didn't do them a disservice! You all act more like cockroaches than dogs, let alone proper Duelists! Get enough of you together, and you'll leave behind nothing but filth—just like you did with my dimension!"
"Dimension?" The single word felt as if a light bulb had been flicked on in Beta-Seven's brain. "No … how is that possible?!" he stammered in disbelief. "I thought we captured them all!"
"When we knew hope was lost," said the pilot, "we went underground. Slowly, surely, silently, we began to carry out our revenge. We took our Summoning prowess to heights we'd never dreamed possible—and as you're about to find out, our plan worked ... all too well."
His hand flew to his deck, and tensed. "My turn!"
When the enemy finally left—when nothing was left of our land to rape and destroy—someone was left behind.
I never knew what had happened to him. I never even asked for his name when I caught him as I scouted for food—wandering about the blasted forests between the mountains and what gutted wreckage remained of our village, calling for help that would never come. I'm not sure he was inclined to give his name, anyway.
I sat there, in the final hours of his existence, as he told me everything about why he had come here—why Sophia had been taken, why this devastating attack had happened at all. There was no smile on his face, no laughter in his voice. It had all been burned out of him.
He never apologized for what he'd taken part in. When I look back on it, I don't think he needed to.
The device on his arm caught my eye. I knew little about the forces that made it possible, but I knew enough to know that some part of it had been damaged. Perhaps it was the reason why he could not come home. The soldier took it from his wrist, and tossed it into the forest as if he'd tossed away his own arm. He never spared a second glance.
Then he slumped against a tree, his eyes misting over. The last thing he said to me, before his soul sailed for whatever life beyond he believed in, was that I looked like someone he knew …
He looked at the card, and felt a smile begin to creep over his face. This would do.
"I discard a second Necloth of Catastor from my hand to activate its effect!" he called out, sending the card he had just drawn to his Graveyard. "When I discard this card, I can Special Summon a Necloth monster from my Graveyard! I Special Summon Exa, Warrior of the Necloth from my Graveyard to my field in Attack Position!"
The instant he had said this, the card he'd Released for his Ritual Summon jutted out from his Graveyard slot, and as he placed it on the blade of his Disk, another blue-skinned reptile-man—though minus the golden claws and white armor—soared from the water and struck a pose as its gauge shone brightly above its scaled head (Level 5: ATK 2000/DEF 1000).
"Now I activate the Spell Card Preparations for the Ritual!" continued the pilot. "With this card, I can add a Level 7 or lower Ritual Monster from my Deck to my hand, and then add a Ritual Spell Card from my Graveyard to my hand! I add Necloth Exomirror to my hand!"
A second card jutted out from his Graveyard, at the same time another one was ejected from his Deck by an inch; the pilot snatched up both cards a moment later. He saw the latter card, and though he knew he had intended to add it to his hand from the beginning—as was preferably the case in every Duel he'd fought—to see it, feel it in his hand, feel the warmth it exuded on his rime-encrusted skin, was the greatest of blessings.
"The rites are now in their proper place," he murmured, almost to himself, before raising his voice and bellowing:
"I banish the Ritual Spell Necloth Exomirror from my hand, Exa, Warrior of the Necloth from my field, and The Necloth of Catastor from my Graveyard—so that I can Ritual Summon this!"
At that moment, the controller's monitor suddenly flared white, and klaxons began to blare throughout all of Academia.
Instantly, the control center became a hive of activity. "Reading massive pressure drops in sector theta-two-five!" someone cried out.
"Ninety-eight kilopascals and falling rapidly!" shouted someone else. "Sensor buoys in sectors zeta-one-nine through kappa-two-eight confirm wind speeds excess of ninety km/h!"
The controller was stunned. A storm that strong had formed so quickly—and almost out of nowhere?! There was no way nature was capable of such a sudden shift in weather on its own. Especially since—
"Recall all patrols and evacuate the campus!" his supervisor yelled above the din. "That storm will be a full-on typhoon in a few minutes if we don't act quickly! Let's go—everyone out! Now!"
As if to punctuate her words, a crash of thunder split their world in two, blowing out several windows and letting in the gusts of wind from outside. The controller thus decided discretion might be the better part of valor after all, and quickly began shutting down his instrumentation as the deafening alarms continued to sound in his ears …
The declaration hit patrol seven like a kick to the gut, and for none more so than their commanding officer.
"A Ritual Summon … without activating a Ritual Spell?!" Beta-Seven stammered numbly, hearing the cries of disbelief and shock from his teammates over the radio. Forget legal … is such a thing even physically possible?!
The storm was starting to get worse, now; the swirling wind and churning water was creating so much noise together that if it hadn't been for the multi-duel voice network, the two-way microphones that automatically linked to opponents when a Duel was initiated, Beta-Seven might never have heard him at all.
Then, as if from the bottomless waters beneath his feet, there came a voice that needed no two-way microphone to amplify. All of patrol seven could hear the words being chanted, and feel their bones thrum with every syllable as if plucked like the strings of a harp.
"From the darkest reaches of the deep, rise up from the crushing void!
With this forbidden incantation, manifest before these unworthy souls!"
The waves were getting bigger, and Beta-Seven had to slightly adjust his footing as a particularly large one broke over his boat, washing harmlessly over the waterproof surface of the Solid Vision generator, but nonetheless nearly tossing him to the deck.
Without warning, a wall of water—higher than most of the towers at Academia—erupted right in front of them, and this time Beta-Seven really did stumble to the deck, utterly floored by the spectacle unfolding before his eyes.
And he knew, deep down, that it wasn't over yet; something was moving beyond that water wall … something big.
"Appear in all your glory! Level 7 … Shining Scale Ritual Dragon!"
A blast of wind dispelled the liquid barrier, and revealed the form that languished within: a serpentine creature the size of a large house, bluish-gray in color, and every inch of its smooth, glossy body rippling with sinew as it leapt into the air. A pair of fins longer than any Duel-boat the Obelisk Force possessed unfurled along the creature's length. Golden spines, taller than a man at their longest, studded its back from tip to tail. Its wide mouth, crowned by a pair of curved horns, exposed dozens of fangs that gleamed like polished pearls even in the murky gray of the storm—but even these paled to the twin points of yellow light that burned with unmistakable, unquenchable hatred.
Looking right at him.
That's a Duel Monster?! Beta-Seven thought madly as he continued to stare at the creature as it came to hover several feet above the water. Sure enough, when he checked the telemetry on his visor, he saw a gauge reading (Level 7: ATK 2500/DEF 2000).
It was almost enough to make him balk at the readout—all that trouble, all that flair, just to end up Summoning one monster—a slightly stronger monster, yes, but one that was still weaker than the Hounds they controlled? Beta-Seven hadn't become the leader of his squad for nothing, though; he knew, somehow, that there was a method behind this madness—and a sudden alarm from yet more telemetry confirmed his suspicions.
"This energy … " he murmured—the readout was simply unlike anything he'd seen before. Ritual Monsters were hardly ever seen today; how was it possible that this monster possessed such an absurdly high degree of Summoning energy? It was higher than even most Fusion Monsters he had seen!
He felt himself taking a step backwards, though no one appeared to notice; every single member of patrol seven stood there, transfixed by the deadly beauty of the impossible Duel Monster.
"Shining Scale Ritual Dragon's effect activates!" cried the Duelist. "If this monster was Special Summoned by banishing a Level 5 or higher Ritual Monster, it gains ATK equal to that monster's ATK until the end of the turn!"
Beta-Seven remembered The Necloth of Catastor had been Level 5, and had 2200 ATK, so … 4700, he thought, frowning as he saw the ATK gauge of the dragon climb to the considerably more respectable number. It was now strong enough to destroy any one of his team's monsters this turn, he knew—but that was exactly what was bothering him; just one out of six on the field, before becoming just as weak as it had been before?
What was he planning to do?
"Then," shouted the Duelist, "I can banish all other monsters on the field whose Levels are equal to or higher than that banished Ritual Monster until the End Phase of the turn!"
Beta-Seven's jaw dropped. "B-banish?" he spluttered, but it was too late. The dragon's maw was already opening to ridiculous lengths, unleashing a horrible, screeching roar that sent shockwaves throughout the area.
The soldier's Hound Dog never had a prayer; a swirling vortex appeared around it as the shockwave rippled through the ocean, blasting the Fusion Monster into a dimension that no one card in Beta-Seven's deck could reclaim it from.
Before he could process this, five more whirling cyclones of energy appeared around the five Hound Dogs of his cohorts, dismissing them all to the same unreachable space.
The Duelist raised his free hand, and pointed right at them. "Finally, for each of my opponents' monsters banished this way," he bellowed over the storm, "Shining Scale Ritual Dragon gains one additional attack this turn!"
Beta-Seven never knew who said that—for all he knew, the disbelieving voice might have been his own. But his mind was miles away as he stared with a rapidly growing horror for proof of what he already knew. The snakelike dragon leapt into the air with a graceful twirl, lost to his eyes in the churning iron-gray clouds within seconds.
As the tail whipped out of sight, Beta-Seven acted. "Break formation!" he roared into his earpiece. "All units take evasive action—get us out of here, now!"
He knew evading the attack was pointless; they were still locked into the Duel. The absolute best he could hope for was that his patrol wouldn't be bunched up too closely when it came—but even as the engine whined to life, the next words he heard were giving plenty of reason to doubt.
"There were six of your monsters banished by this effect … which means I can attack all of you slime at once!"
People far and wide had flocked to the great temple we had built among the mountains, where no invader could ever reach us again. Here, the priests had said, we would be safe from all harm, free to live out the rest of our lives in well-deserved peace.
But we knew that as long as the memories of the invasion still reigned in our hearts, we could never truly know peace.
And so, we were all gathered here, ready to bear witness to our culture's greatest triumph yet, the crux of our Summoning potential. I heard that the high priest had dedicated the ritual to his granddaughter, immortalizing the memory of Sophia forever for what was to come.
Everyone in the land was assembled in the temple, down to the last woman and child. The rites were all in place: the Songs were being sung, the candles were being lit, and their pleasing fragrances were drifting into my nostrils.
When all was said, chanted and sung, the priest grasped the final artifact—a flawless mirror of burnished metal blades, the one constant in all of our Rituals. As generations ebbed and flowed, the edges of the mirror would be melted down and forged once again into different shapes and sigils, but the polished surface inside remained the same so as to remind us of its purpose, and the significance of the Rituals to our culture; for the mirror reflected more than just our bodies, but our hearts and minds as well. If these were not pure, then neither would our reflections—our Rituals would become corrupted, and we would be driven to the evil that had nearly destroyed us.
The mirror was raised to the high heavens as the Ritual reached its climax. The skies—cloudless and sunny mere moments ago—darkened to a bluish-gray, and blessed rain, so very scarce in this part of the world, began to fall.
I knew something had gone horribly wrong as soon as I heard the thunder.
Beta-Seven could feel it in his boots—something was wrong.
"Why are we slowing down?" The gale-force winds made it so he had to shout the question at the pilot, who was bent over his console with a growing expression of panic.
"We're caught in a current!" the pilot yelled back. "I've never seen anything like it—it just came up out of nowhere!"
Beta-Seven turned round so fast he cricked his neck; at the same time, his Duel-Boat crested a particularly large wave, giving him a perfect view of what was happening behind them—and what was drawing them in.
He felt his jaw go slack, and all color leave his face. "Impossible … "
The two gigantic whirlpools that had been birthed into existence—one above, the other below—howled an unearthly dirge, growing louder and louder until the noise could be heard for miles around. Even the thunder and lightning that stitched the sky every other second hardly pierced the wall of sound.
The pilot clung fast to the rigging, knowing he had to hold on for dear life for just a little bit longer, or he might well suffer the same fate. His ship wasn't as close to the vortex, and so he was in considerably less danger, but he could still feel the first tendrils of the current caressing his ship, preparing to draw it closer—deeper.
"Obliterate them all, great dragon!" roared the pilot to the heavens.
A long, shrieking cry echoed from above, as if in reply. The wind and rain and lightning reached a crescendo, with multiple bolts and flashes every second, blinding the pilot. If he'd been willing to see it, he might have noticed that the bolts that struck the water appeared to be coming closer and closer together, as if meeting over a central point—
—until, without warning, it stopped … and a vast, glowing something hurtled down from the hole in the clouds.
"MAELSTROM THUNDER RAY!"
The priests had vastly underestimated the power released by their Rituals—and vastly overestimated the Rituals they had needed to get to this point. They had reached the pinnacle a long time ago, and simply kept on adding to the heights from there.
None of the priests had ever thought there might be something above that pinnacle—something sentient, and more than aware of the Rituals that had gradually stirred it from its slumber, and the one that was about to begin. None of the people had bothered to believe that they might be in terrible danger simply by being here today.
And so, when the Ritual was finally performed, and the lightning first rained down from the sky, he came with it, drawn by feral instinct to the mere lure of a sacrifice … and none of us had a prayer.
In the moment that followed, before all went black and I knew no more, I watched in helpless terror as his might was brought down upon us in full.
What happened next was what might be expected to happen when a hundred-foot long dragon wreathed in lightning plows into the open ocean at several dozen times the speed of sound.
Beta-Seven and his comrades were only aware of a blinding flash of light before their world was disintegrated around them. The waves became white foam in an instant, and the foam became scalding steam an instant after that. State-of-the-art Duel-Boats were splintered into twisted bits of metal and plastic in a matter of seconds, catapulting Beta-Seven and his pilot out of the vessel some fifty feet in the air before hitting the water with a sickening SMACK that felt like being slammed against concrete. Fragments of screams echoed from the officer's earpiece, and then were rapidly silenced as the circuitry finally shorted out.
Beta-Seven was only dimly aware of the telemetry showing the LP counters of him and his squad drop to zero before that, too, fizzled out due to the damage sustained. His survival instincts kicked in as he began to sink, and he immediately swam to the pitiful remains of his craft, looking for something—anything—to cling to.
It was very slow work; the Obelisk Force uniform was not made for swimming; the heavy wool jacket and epaulettes were cast off immediately so as to keep from sinking into the bottomless waters. A life jacket was underneath, but in such stormy waters it might as well be made out of lead.
Fortunately, the weather appeared to be calming down, and the waves were smaller and farther between. The clouds were clearing up, and by the time Beta-Seven found a sufficiently large piece of a Duel-Boat—latching on for it for dear life—all that was left of the storm was a few rumbles of thunder.
But the Obelisk Force agent continued to cling there, wondering if his comrades had been as lucky as he'd been. The prospect was dim—he knew not where the other boats might have possibly gone, or if they had somehow survived … or wiped out completely.
A shadow fell across his eyes, and with great effort Beta-Seven turned his bleeding body towards it … and felt something inside him sink with an awful finality as the primitive ship glided past him. It was close to him—so very close—maybe he could make for the craft instead, get back on his feet, and find out who—
The pilot was right there. Invisible eyes stared back at Beta-Seven from that bluish-black cloak. There was no trace of emotion in the way he stood, or the way he looked back at him. The agent felt a chill; this pilot … this boy … Dueled with a merciless ferocity he'd never before seen. An entire squad of elite Duelists, taken out by—
"Who … are … you?"
He was close enough to the pilot that the question—however faint his words—carried easily over the calming waters.
And now, finally, the pilot moved. A pair of hands, slim but rough, tanned yet smooth, reached out from the dark cape … and lowered the hood.
The sight beyond was enough for Beta-Seven to forget where he was, and the trouble he was in.
" … Y-Yuuri?"
But even as the word left his mouth, he already knew the answer.
The eyes were a slightly lighter purple, but the hair was completely wrong. The scalp bristled with shaven, citrus-colored fuzz that lengthened along the skull and sideburns, and split off either side of the neck in identical knots. At the temples lay twin masses of dark blue hair, styled in six spikes that swept in gentle arcs—two outward behind the ear; another pair across the shaven skull, one soaring over the other; the third pair slicked along the back of the neck, joining in a ponytail.
The strange boy shook his head, his gaze not wavering an inch from the helpless soldier as he continued to flounder. The thin lips peeled back, and spoke a single word.
… Yuukou …
My name echoed like thunder in the distance as the dragon spoke it, and that was the first moment I knew I was alive. I woke up, unsure of where I was, or how much time had passed—a minute, a month … a millennium?
Then I saw the scene that greeted me … and I came very, very close to wishing I had died.
The temple had been completely destroyed—unmade almost stone by stone. There were no bodies to be seen, not even a hint of blood. A part of me feared the worst, and knew, but it was quickly smothered; I was still enough of a child to believe things could still get better—that somehow, some way, someone might still be there.
No voice answered my cries but my own, echoing tenfold in the emptiness of the ruined space, the echoes shouting back as if determined to mock me for my plight. And each echo I heard made sure I knew that the thousands of people who had attended this ill-fated Ritual had been wiped out to a one. They were gone.
Except for one.
Except for me.
The young boy, hardly even fifteen, turned round and made to raise anchor. There was nothing more to be said to the soldier as he continued to fade in and out of consciousness … nothing more to be done. He and his comrades would be picked up later, perhaps—if the storm would allow their rescue. They had shown him no compassion in those dark days; nor would he for them.
His pendant swung briefly as the winds picked up for a moment, catching the light of the sun as it emerged from the clouds. The boy could feel the warmth of the dragon returning to the mirror where it made its home, guiding him towards his final destination. For a moment, the artifact glowed with a faint golden light, and then was as lifeless as it had been a second before.
He grunted as the anchor was replaced in its proper place, and then made for the tiller. A minute later, the tiny craft, guided by his hand, began sailing once more for his final destination.
Lightning arced from the dragon as he stared me down, floating in the center of the devastation—and I asked of him one simple question:
Why had he destroyed my people, my culture, my life … and all hope for peace that I knew? Why had he spared me from his wrath, leaving me here, alone and at his mercy? My rage and my grief were poured into that one single word, and I screamed it at him, again and again, as if hoping it could pierce those shining scales to the bone. I screamed until my throat was nearly torn in half, until my rage had finally given way to wordless, impotent grief, and there was nothing left to do but sob like a babe into the cracked stones beneath my feet.
Through it all, the dragon said nothing, but at length, yet more lightning erupted from his body, and a great light from its core blinded me such that I had to shield my gaze from the radiance. When it finally dimmed, I opened my eyes, and saw nothing.
Then, before my eyes, a single card fluttered in front of my face, blazing with light. I took it, and felt the warmth of a roaring fire beneath my fingers.
And all of a sudden—as if the answer had been clear to me all along—I knew.
I knew why he had come here, and why he had chosen to come to me.
I knew where I had to go … and I knew what I had to do.
I left the ruined temple, then, but not before I first retrieved the mirror that had been used in the Ritual. The artifact, aside from its new master, had been the only thing to survive the disaster unscathed. I fastened it to the tiny chain I wore around my neck, and felt its sudden warmth on my chest, and its weight against my neck as I continued on without a word, leaving behind a place that I'd never lived long enough to call my home.
The mountains sank behind my back, and not once did I look behind me, nor did I ever return to those lands again.
I walked on, alone yet not, and guided by a force I did not fully understand … but still I obeyed.
The dock was empty as he tied his boat off. There was no need to, really; the primitive craft had served its purpose. And if he himself still had some purpose beyond this, there were other boats here that he could use. The dragon had given him such knowledge before; it would do so again, so long as he remained faithful to his master.
The blue-black cloak, too, was cast aside, revealing a simple tunic and sarong cut from sky-blue cloth, fastened at the waist by a navy sash into which his Duel Disk had been tucked. He wore no shoes, and so felt the roughness of the concrete bite against the swaths of dirty linen that covered his feet.
The boy walked along the docks, and his lavender eyes stared defiantly back at the camera that rotated on its post, surveying the area around it—then coming to a halt, unmistakably, onto himself.
He remained there until he heard the first of the alarms, then walked on.
I went back to the forest—the same one where I had found that abandoned soldier.
Why I had returned there, I did not know, and I could not think of how to pose the question to the dragon whose sealed form I now kept to hand. I had the distinct feeling that it was directing me here, for a reason I could not yet grasp. My path was set before me, this much I knew, but only a few stones at a time could be seen with my eyes.
For hours and hours I traipsed past the trees, always in search of something, but never knowing for what, or why—yet in my mind, as the seconds ticked by, I sensed I—we—were getting closer to whatever goal lay waiting for us.
I turned a corner—and instantly my question was answered even before the dragon confirmed it for me.
The device the soldier had taken from his arm had been thrown into a creek bed, dried up long before the invasions had ever taken place. It lay there on the mossy rocks, somehow unaffected by the ravages of earth, wind, and time.
I felt the warmth of the dragon in my hands as I reached for the device; I sensed it guiding my flesh and bones, commanding me to pick it up, to examine it more closely. But even as my fingers danced over the hard, unfamiliar surface, feeling into its crevices, and caressing its curves and edges, I sensed something more was happening.
Was the dragon trying to understand its function as well? I wondered. I knew this to be a weapon of devastating power, giving flesh and substance to mechanical monsters … but I began to wonder if it might be more.
Then the sealed dragon glowed again, and once more, I became enlightened with knowledge; I came to understand how this device worked in its entirety—and I came to understand how I could restore it back to working order.
But most importantly of all, I came to understand the next step of my journey.
The campus was eerily quiet. All the boy could hear were the sounds of his own footsteps. The alarms had long since dispersed, but he did not care. He knew what that meant—all that was left was when they would come.
Everyone I've ever known is gone.
He stopped, and drank in the surroundings with a renewed hunger in his eyes as he saw.
The tallest tower on the island loomed before him, scraping the clouds with its dizzying heights. What lay at its peak might as well have been on the other side of the world, for all the boy knew lay in his path—but he was no longer scared of what was to confront him.
Everyone I've ever known is here.
His final destination was, at long last, here before his eyes; he needed no dragon to sense this. He could feel the energy in that tower—was it the dragon's heart that felt its strength and intensity, even from here, or was it his own?
Everyone I've ever known is with me.
He could hear them, crying out for help, tortured endlessly with a thousand fates he cared not to imagine. But suddenly, the cries for mercy began to fade, and for a moment, he feared he had been too late.
And then, he heard a voice—the single, familiar voice of the same little girl he'd once used to Duel in happier days—and though he heard no words he could recognize, there was no mistaking the joy and relief in that voice.
Now that feeling of joy began to multiply, and the boy felt a weight on his heart with each voice he heard as they felt his presence here. For a moment, he thought about abandoning the mission he'd given himself, just so the happiness wouldn't ever leave his ears.
No matter what I do … they'll always be with me.
His heart thus steeled, he took a step forward—and every door, on every building around him, slammed open with a BANG that cut through the silent air like a gunshot.
The boy did not even blink, even as more of the hated soldiers he'd faced at sea streamed out, dozens at a time, until the courtyard through which he strode was teeming with their numbers.
I was the last.
Shouts of warning came from the rapidly swelling number of enemies, but these were nothing to the boy. He remained where he stood, apparently oblivious to the fact that he'd been hopelessly surrounded in seconds.
I am the last.
He had come out all this way, and faced insurmountable odds at every turn, and through it all he had wondered why it was even necessary. Only just now, as he stared the most daunting challenge yet in the perfectly drilled soldiers before him—platoons, brigades, perhaps even divisions' worth of them—did he finally understand why.
I will be the last.
The warmth from his body faded, and he sensed the dragon had paused; for the first time since they had known each other, it almost seemed surprised by the boy's thoughts.
That's who I am, isn't it? Your final sacrifice. That's why you chose me.
He gazed up at the tower once again, feeling the familiar energies wash over him, filling him like a warm meal. But just as suddenly, the feeling became ash in his mouth as he heard their pleading cries, and the truth of the situation washed over him like so many waves from the earlier storm.
… I was never going to make it, was I?
Beneath the familiar feelings lurked something unfamiliar: a force of powers unknown in their scope, but vast in their quantity. It was the unfamiliar that kept them imprisoned—the master of this place, of all the soldiers within.
It was too strong—even with his dragon by his side, he knew there was little hope of him emerging victorious today.
But he had come to terms with this truth long ago. Victory had never been the point of his journey.
I'll see them again …
He had known since leaving the ruins of the mountain temple that he would not be returning to his homeland. It had been a one-way trip from the beginning. There was nothing of home that was left to go back to, and even if he could make his own home, there was no one left who would come to make it their home as well.
From there, the choice he was to make had been clear.
… my people, my family …
He would come to them, and embrace them as he had embraced his inevitable fate. Until then, he would carve a swath of destruction alongside his dragon, that this dimension would know full well that they were not invincible. He would destroy all opposition he could face, and then move on without a word—just as they had destroyed his home, and moved on themselves, not even giving their macabre imitation of a playground a second glance …
… Sophia …
As the boy's heart suddenly blazed with a thousand emotions, the Duel Disk, cannibalized from the nameless soldier he'd found in that forest long ago, snarled to life as the clasp closed on his wrist. The sapphire V shimmered into being as he stared down the hundreds-strong force barring his way.
He saw the scarlet blades appearing along their arms, and prepared to draw.
But not now.
List of fic-exclusive cards:
Shining Scale Ritual Dragon (WATER/Dragon-Type/Ritual/Level 7/ATK 2500/DEF 2000)
Must be Special Summoned (from your hand) by banishing 1 Ritual Spell Card from your hand during your Main Phase, then banishing monsters from your field or Graveyard, including at least 1 Ritual Monster, whose total Levels are equal to or greater than this monster's Level, and cannot be Special Summoned by other ways. (This Special Summon is treated as a Ritual Summon.) When this card is Special Summoned this way, if the Ritual Monster(s) that was banished to Summon this card was Level 5 or higher: Target 1 of those banished monsters; this card gains ATK equal to that target's original ATK until the end of the turn, and if it does, banish all other monsters on the field whose original Level is equal to or higher than that target until the End Phase of this turn, and if you do, this card gains 1 additional attack this turn for every opponent's monster banished this way.