Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect;
and in thy book all my members were written,
which in continuance were fashioned,
when as yet there was none of them.
– The Book of Psalms, Chapter 139, Verse 16, KJV
The rough asphalt pierced through her shirt and into the skin of her back. The buzzing hum of neon signs was all that she could hear. She could not move her body.
A trickle of blood tickled the back of her skull. She must have fallen, and hit the unrelenting surface of the alleyway around her. Strange symbols leered either side of her, plastered on the walls like eerie faces, looking down at her, gloating at how she had fallen.
Cards littered the whole space, and Koutsu Masumi saw them, out of the corner of her eye. Instantly she knew what had happened, though not—
" … Why?"
The single word came almost against her will, croaked from a dry mouth, all but unheard over the continuous, piercing beep of a Life Point counter—her own—long since dwindled to zero.
"Why … are you … doing this?"
Masumi could see very little from where she lay in the alley, spread-eagled, unable to move a muscle. Two shadows, at the other end of the lane, gazed at the defeated forms of the Duelists around them—one tall, thin, and humanoid; another vast, winged, and currently dissolving into nothingness, leaving only the first shadow behind.
The shadow spoke, and the hiss of a voice that wormed its way past Masumi's ears and into her mind was enigma in its purest form—somewhere between male and female, between human and alien. But there was no mistaking the malice in its tone. Just hearing each individual syllable felt like razor-thin shards of ice were slicing her apart.
"So you know what's coming," it responded, walking towards her form with hardly a sound, "and that there is nothing you can do to stop it." Its feet never seemed to touch the pavement as it loomed over Masumi.
The neon signs around her flickered. For a moment Masumi's gaze left the shadow, and saw the wall off to her left—heavily vandalized, chipped and covered in spray-painted tags that meant who-only-knew-what. In the midst of all that incomprehensible mess, a single word seemed to leap out from the chaos all around it, as if its mere presence was designed to establish some semblance of order to its surroundings:
"Do you really think you're safe, with the Lancers out there?" breathed the shadow. "You have been blinded by lies. Wake up from your pathetic dream, and see the world around you for what it really is! Wake up!"
Masumi had no time to scream. The shadow closed in around her as it raised an arm, and Masumi was only aware of the device on its wrist for a small fraction of a moment before a flash of purple light consumed the world around her—
Masumi buried her face into the pillow of her bed, trying to will the sudden pounding in her head to stop. Her skull felt about two sizes two small for her brain. A spot of drool had formed where she'd been resting her head.
"Masumi? Masumi, wake up!"
She cracked open an eye. That was a mistake; she moaned like a trodden-down cat as the sunlight shining through her window nearly blinded her. Any chance of reclaiming her much-needed sleep was ruined after—
Masumi sat bolt upright in bed with a yelp most unlike her as everything registered in her head at once. The sun should not be shining from her window so early in the day, never mind so brightly; further, the pounding she was hearing wasn't just in her head, but the insistent fist on the door to her bedroom, which could only mean—
"I'm late for class!"
Masumi leapt out of bed with such speed that she rushed down her bedroom door in almost the same movement, sending her father sprawling as he attempted to knock once more. By the time he'd gotten back up to his feet, his daughter was already in the bathroom—breakfast can wait until later, she thought—and then she'd rushed past him again to change into her clothes.
Whatever her father had to say, however, Masumi wasn't listening. She absolutely had to get dressed and cleaned up—or could that wait, too, her mind idly wondered as she wriggled into her shirt; maybe I can use the showers in the locker room … yes … maybe even change after that …
"—oh, I can't believe I slept in!" she shouted as she retrieved the belt where her Duel Disk was holstered, and dashed out of the house as she attempted to secure it to her waist at breakneck speed.
But she'd already rounded the next block by the time her father called after her.
Fifteen minutes and three stitches in her chest later, Masumi's luck had turned from bad to worse—and in the worst possible place for it.
"Oh—come on!" she howled at the stubbornly locked front doors to the Leo Duel School, panting between breaths and futile pounds on the unyielding glass. "Why—won't—you—open?!"
Her Duel Disk suddenly chimed—someone was calling her. Though Masumi knew who it must be, her mind was elsewhere at the time. Please, please let this be another bad dream, she thought—
"No time to talk right now, Father, I'm late for class!" she yelled into the receiver without stopping to breathe—or ceasing her assault on the once-spotless panes, now smudged all over with the evidence of her desperation. "I'll call you back at lunchtime!"
"There isn't any class today, Masumi!"
Masumi's clenched fist froze an inch away from the window, less than a second before impact. In fifteen years of living, her father had never once shouted at her before.
"I was trying to tell you," he was saying, panting almost as hard as she was. "Didn't you check your email last night?"
Masumi felt a sudden rush of embarrassment envelop her fatigue. She had not checked her email, in fact; she'd gone straight to bed after helping out her father with an exceptionally difficult order for work.
" … Oh. Right," she mumbled, almost mechanically. "Cancelled." Again.
There was silence over the line for a long moment. When her father next spoke, it was with no small degree of hesitation. " … Should I come pick you up?"
"No … no, it's fine," said Masumi, feeling her legs throb and wobble as the fatigue redoubled in its intensity. "I'll … I can walk back."
She closed the line without waiting for a reply; then, feeling exceptionally foolish—but much too tired to care—Masumi turned away from LDS with a massive yawn, and started on her way home.
She did not take the direct route back. There was simply too much on her mind to handle right now; she needed some time with her thoughts before she could worry about going back to bed to sleep off her exhaustion.
Most people who knew Koutsu Masumi would agree that she was normally more attentive about things like whether or not class was in session or cancelled. Every day she lived had an order to it—an hour spent doing this; another two hours, fifteen minutes spent going there—precisely and professionally planned as if on a time sheet. Professionalism, though, had little to do with her attitude on life—well, perhaps more than a little, Masumi thought.
She'd been fascinated by jewels and precious stones ever since the age of two, when her father had shown her a cut ruby the size of her tiny fist. From the vividness of their color, to the sparkle of their facets—and finally, the evenness and flawlessness of a polished, truly perfect gemstone—they had rapidly formed the backbone of her life and memories. It ran in the family, too—her father was a jeweler who often requested Masumi's sharper, much younger eyes for a second opinion. Masumi was looking forward to working under him when she wasn't studying Dueling at LDS, and perhaps even beyond.
At four, she could identify and distinguish between most varieties of sapphires. At seven, she could tell a natural diamond apart from a simulated one. After being accepted to LDS at ten, Masumi had then received her Gem-Knight deck as a birthday present from her mother, who made a living guarding museums around the world whenever they hosted rare jewels—and who'd used that same deck to do it. The gift had been a bittersweet one, as the job prevented her mother from coming home much during the year except for holidays and vacation time.
The next year saw the beginning of a meteoric rise to the top of LDS' Fusion circuit. Even then, more than two years before her thirteenth birthday, Masumi had already planned out her path to adulthood almost to the day, under the belief that she should strive to be as flawless as the gems her father regularly inspected as part of his job. Now fast approaching fifteen, she'd been the circuit representative for almost a year; in that time, she'd done her absolute best to cultivate a sense of time management between her schooling and her occasional work alongside her father and—she hoped—eventual employer.
Unfortunately, even the most meticulous of schedules could be undone by chance—a fact that Masumi knew well.
With everything that had happened during the ill-fated Maiami Championship, it was hard to believe that only a week had passed since its cancellation. Masumi had seen just about every kind of Duel imaginable over those two days. Some matches had been memorable; others, not so much—and some, she was more than aware, would be remembered for all the wrong reasons. The worst of these events had been so unprecedented that Akaba Himika, the chairwoman of LDS, had personally brought the tournament to a close on the spot. All classes since had been cancelled, and all examinations postponed, in light of the tragedies that had befallen the unfortunate victims.
The event that had left Masumi most shaken of all, however, hadn't even taken place inside the stadium.
She had been so absorbed in her thoughts that she wasn't immediately paying attention to where she was walking—or indeed, for how long she had been walking. Had it been mere minutes, or even hours?
But the question died in her mind as swiftly as it had been posed. For the first time since starting back from LDS, she was aware of her surroundings, and where she was standing right now. Her eyes drifted, almost without her doing so, towards the alleyway on her right.
The lane was narrow enough to admit a car, maybe two side by side—not that any drivers would dare attempt to navigate such a decrepit place. Rubbish bins lined the rough bricks, dotting the curb here and there with about ten feet to spare between them. Nearly every square foot of space was covered in graffiti. It made Masumi shiver just looking at it.
Had this been where it happened?
"This place … " she murmured, "was this where … Hokuto … "
She could almost see the Xyz Duelist inside the multicolored spray paint, his purple hair standing out amidst the chaos as he prepared to Duel his unknown assailant—
And then a chill raced down her spine as the vivid shade of purple spread out around the space before her eyes, enveloping the painted walls, the cracked pavement—even the neon lights buzzing along the lane to make a horribly familiar scene—all that was missing was that strange assortment of letters … or was it a word—
" … no … was it me?" The Fusion Duelist's voice had been reduced to a bare whisper. "My dream … "
A distorted shadow, horribly familiar, was spreading its black wings from end to end, filling the alley completely; she could not tear her eyes away from the sight—the graffiti was wriggling into pointed, angular shapes—
The familiar voice snapped her out of her reverie with a jolt, and Masumi gasped as she heard footsteps rapidly approaching her. She turned to see the first familiar face of the day run up to her, looking out of breath and more concerned than Masumi had ever seen him.
"Oh … Yaiba," she sighed, putting a hand over her breast to calm her suddenly racing heart. "I thought you were practicing."
She'd come to that conclusion upon seeing the normally spiky brown hair of her counterpart slicked liberally with sweat, and the Synchro representative of LDS was panting with every breath he took. Not all of this was the result of fatigue—Toudou Yaiba's recent one-sided loss to Kachidoki Isao, last year's Junior Youth runner-up and ace Duelist of the infamous Ryouzanpaku School, had left him with a number of bruises all over his body.
Yaiba was a tough sort in spite of his small size, thankfully—a brief stay in the infirmary had helped with the worst of the damage—but the pain of the wounds he'd suffered in that Duel still lingered. He'd been medically ordered to avoid extensive physical activity for a while longer—an order which, to his dismay, had included participating in Action Duels. In the words of the medics, he'd been "lucky to avoid anything worse" that day.
"I was until about an hour ago," he said. "Your dad called, asked me to look for you. He sounded pretty worried. Lucky me I found you so quickly."
Masumi's hand automatically whipped to her Duel Disk. A push of a button revealed no less than two missed calls and twice as many texts in the past two hours. "Oh … " was all she could say, feeling more foolish by the moment.
Yaiba stared at her for a full five seconds before he spoke up. "All right—what's wrong?" he asked, not a little bit pointedly. Masumi knew he'd mellowed out recently, but even though his concern was genuine, there was still no disguising the small bit of annoyance Yaiba obviously felt at seeing his best friend act this way.
"First you dash off to school and somehow manage to forget that it's been cancelled for the whole entire week," he continued, "then you blow off your dad just so you can wander around town? This isn't the Koutsu Masumi I know," he said, leaning on his ubiquitous bamboo shinai as a crutch while he continued to catch his breath. "Come on—what's bothering you?"
I had a nightmare last night where I nearly got sealed into a card in a dark alley I think I just found that alley and now I'm wondering if our friend was here when the same thing happened to him if he even had a fighting chance
" … It's nothing," Masumi said after a long, deep breath in and out. "I've … had a lot on my mind. Didn't sleep all that well last night." As if on cue, her next deep breath turned into a monstrous yawn that left her feeling dazed and disorientated for a few seconds.
Yaiba looked round, perhaps to make sure no one was listening, and leaned in to speak one word. "Hokuto?"
Masumi felt like she'd been hit in the gut by Yaiba's shinai. For a boy who liked swords and sabers as much as he did, Yaiba could certainly be blunt sometimes.
With the Synchro Duelist's simple question, a flood of memories had opened in her mind, of watching with bated breath in LDS Centre Court, the stadium beneath the enormous edifice of the school, of sitting in the light of the setting sun as the lucky finalists returned from a full day of Dueling, never suspecting that their world would soon be turned upside down …
"ALL OF YOU, SHUT UP!"
… or that Sawatari Shingo, of all people, would have been the one to start it off.
She and Yaiba had sat there, completely nonplussed, as a boy that should not have been among the Duelists in the championship's twenty-four hour Battle Royale ripped the MC's microphone out of his grip and proceed to talk about how none other than Akaba Reiji had given him a pass into the competition despite his loss in the first round. From there, so he had claimed, he'd won, advanced, and fought his way here as a so-called "Lancer."
Masumi and Yaiba had looked each other's confusion at the strange word—but this hadn't lasted long; soon after, Akaba Himika had delivered the announcement that stunned the world:
"As of noon today, the Maiami Championship will be discontinued … "
The next few minutes had been a blur for Masumi. She had barely listened to Himika's tales of invaders from another dimension, who used the game of Duel Monsters as a weapon with their own Real Solid Vision. Masumi hadn't even paid any attention to her explanation of the loss of video coverage, and how it had all been an attempt to avoid worldwide panic. She was too busy concentrating on how there seemed to be fewer Duelists standing before the crowds than had started yesterday—some of whom, like Sawatari, ought not to have been there in the first place. Even Hiiragi Yuzu, who had beaten Masumi in the first round—who Masumi knew for a fact had advanced to the Battle Royale—was nowhere to be seen.
But there'd been no time to dwell on this. Soon after that, Himika had shown the damning footage of the Duels that had happened over the last twenty-four hours—of men in masks and uniforms, with Duel Disks she didn't recognize, that vivid purple light—
Then … panic.
"Don't tell me that's why Hokuto's been missing!"
"Turned into a card … just like that?"
People all throughout the stadium, young and old, were shouting, screaming, holding each other, numb with shock—all of it lost on Masumi and Yaiba, who had up until this point been at a loss as to the whereabouts of their friend. Hokuto had failed to show up for his match the previous day, and so had been disqualified. That alone had concerned them both—Shijima Hokuto would never do such a thing, they'd reasoned; something must be wrong.
And just like that, their suspicions had been confirmed in the worst way possible …
" … Hokuto," Masumi nodded, feeling her legs giving way—whether from fatigue or grief, she did not know—and she sat down on the curb, hands on ankles, curled up into a ball.
"I was an idiot," she mumbled into her knees, mentally kicking herself.
Yaiba was close enough to hear. Masumi felt a tough, calloused hand on her shoulder as he bent down alongside her. "There wasn't anything you could have done for him," Yaiba told her, in one of the softest voices she'd ever heard him use. "We didn't know. The thought didn't occur to us. Don't beat yourself up any more about it."
But Masumi shook him off. "I'm not talking about that!" she said hotly, rising to her feet so quickly that Yaiba took a step backward. "I'm talking about today. I went out alone; I didn't tell anyone where I was going!"
The Synchro Duelist stared wild-eyed back at her as she continued to speak, hearing her voice grow shriller by the second. "Who's to say you'd be the first to find me, Yaiba?!" she cried. "What if someone else had found me first—like one of those awful invaders?! Then I'd be—I'd be … I'd … " But she could not finish her sentence; a lump had risen in her throat, and she was fighting tears.
Yaiba was on her in a heartbeat. "Masumi, calm down!" he shouted, grasping her hard by both shoulders and leaning in so close to her that his face was all she could see. "The fact is, I did find you first! The fact is, no one around us is going to turn you into a card!"
He leaned back. "And the fact is, as long as you're with someone you know and trust, no one ever will. Okay?"
It was a long time before Masumi could bring herself to speak; she was staring at Yaiba as if seeing him for the first time. He certainly wasn't heartless, but he'd never acted this way to anyone for as long as Masumi had known him! Was this really the same Duelist she'd once called a fool after he'd been shouted down by Akaba Reiji himself?
He really does care about us … about Hokuto, she thought, as her initial shock finally gave way. Finally, slowly, she shook her head yes, wiping away the wetness that had begun to gather under her eyes.
"Good," Yaiba nodded, but the concerned look had not faded from his face. "Call your dad right now, let him know where you are." Then, perhaps upon further consideration: "I can walk you home if you want."
That was also a first, and it was enough to almost make Masumi laugh in spite of herself. "Yaiba, the gentleman?" she said with a wry smirk, blinking away any stray moisture. "Are you sure you're not from another dimension?"
"That's not funny." And indeed, Yaiba wasn't smiling at her attempted joke. "I'm doing this because I just saw one of my best friends come within two steps of falling to pieces. As soon as you're feeling better about yourself, I'll be the same old Toudou Yaiba you know and love."
After what I just saw? wondered Masumi. Something was definitely different about this boy, and she knew that wasn't simply her being paranoid. It must have been then, she thought—ever since he'd drawn against that kid from You Show's highly unorthodox Deck and strategy; then later on, when that same boy had come to Yaiba on bended knee—
"Before or after you started training Gongenzaka?" she asked him.
Yaiba balked at the unexpected response. "Um … yes?"
Masumi smiled. So he really has changed, she thought. I wonder how much he knows that—or if he knows it at all.
She started walking—then, just as suddenly, stopped to look back at Yaiba. "Didn't you say you were going to walk me home?" she asked, feeling a little smile creep onto her face.
Yaiba spluttered behind her. "W-wait!" he called out, running in her wake as Masumi resumed her trek towards home.
Yu-Gi-Oh! and Yu-Gi-Oh! ARC-V are © 1996 and © 2014 by Kazuki Takahashi and the Konami Corporation; all original characters and content herein are mine.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy! - K