Note: This was written for the Yu-Gi-Oh Fanfiction Pairings Contest, for the prompt "Outcastshipping (Thief King Bakura/Kisara)"
Bakura stared down at the still body of the man in front of him. He was still breathing, and there were no visible marks on him. To all outward appearances, there was nothing wrong with him at all. Bakura was quite proud of the job he'd done on him. Tomorrow, the man would wake up feeling perhaps a bit tired and fuzzy-headed, but he'd soon shake that off and feel almost as good as new. If he felt a bit, well, hollow inside, if his friends noticed he was acting just a little different, no one was ever going to know exactly why. Certainly no one was ever going to trace the event back to Bakura.
He smiled a little as he turned away. Lord Seth had been a good man, known as a firm but fair ruler. It would be interesting to see how that changed.
It was time to go. With reluctance, Bakura forced himself to leave behind the tempting gewgaws that ornamented the young lord's bedchamber. He had already helped himself to several of those sorts of valuables, during his stay here under the guise of an itinerant laborer. Tonight, he had come to take something far more precious, and he couldn't risk getting caught at the task. Perhaps in a month or so, when he'd had a chance to see how things turned out...
He slipped out the window and began making his way across the grounds of the manor and into the woods. This was Lord Seth's country home, his summer retreat, far removed from the bustle of the city. There would be no one around to see Bakura make his escape.
As a child, Bakura had been told by priests of multiple divinities that he was going to be punished by the gods someday if he didn't change his ways. Since then, Bakura had dabbled in enough mysticism to be convinced that there was probably some truth to this. However, it seemed to him that the gods didn't bother to punish or reward anybody until after they'd died. Until then, a wicked man could live quite happily without any gods ever bothering to trouble him, while a good man might live an ascetic life of service and sacrifice and never get anything tangible for his pains. To Bakura, the obvious deduction was not that he should learn to live a better life, but that he should learn how to not die.
He had learned. There were ways to do it, if you were determined enough and you had the knack for it. As far as anyone looking at him could tell, Bakura was twenty-five, and had been for centuries. That was time enough to get very good at what he did. When he'd started out, he'd done his work by killing someone and taking their soul, using their life force to supplement his own. That had worked, but it had been messy and left inconvenient bodies lying around to deal with. The breakthrough had come when he'd discovered that there were some people in the world whose bodies contained more than one soul. There weren't many of them, but he only needed one every few years to keep himself in prime condition. Once he found one, it was simplicity itself to get close to them while they were drunk or asleep and gently tease the spare soul out of its shell, leaving the other to carry on without it. Often the two souls were so much alike that no one noticed that one of them was missing. Still, there were always differences, and Bakura relished selecting the brightest, purest souls for his own. That was the second part of his exit strategy. In the event that he did finally did die, he hoped that by that time, he would have absorbed enough pure souls that his own tarnished one might be balanced out. He was a believer in hedging his bets when he could. Also, it was amusing to see what became of good people after their better halves were removed. It was all part of the fun.
He reached the road that cut through the forest and paused there, weighing his options.
We should stay in the woods, a voice in his head suggested. It's cooler here.
The woods are dark and full of bugs, a second voice complained. We should go back to the city.
The city is too crowded. Someone will notice us there. We should turn towards the mountains...
The voices continued to chatter, piping up with aggressive cheerfulness and shouting out increasingly improbable suggestions. Bakura smacked the side of his head.
"All of you shut up!" he snapped.
The voices snickered. Bakura snarled and kept walking. All right, so stealing souls had some drawbacks. Most of the souls he'd stolen over the years had faded into silence, but a few of the stronger ones had hung on, either out of sheer stubbornness or a desire for revenge. Bakura could compel them to share their knowledge and expertise with him. They were also capable of sharing complaints, insults, unsolicited advice, and personal anecdotes about parts of their lives he would much rather have remained unacquainted with. There were days when he had to remind himself that this was better than dying.
"I'm not listening to any of you," said Bakura said firmly. The voices just snickered some more. Snarling, he stomped off into the underbrush.
A week's worth of wandering put Bakura in a bustling village he didn't remember visiting before. Of course, he might have been there fifty years ago and known it as not much more than a well and an inn, but he assumed that if he didn't remember the place, no one there was likely to remember him. That made this a good enough place to pause for a while.
Just now, he was sitting at a table beneath a tree outside the inn, sipping thoughtfully at what had turned out to be a surprisingly passable red wine, and pondering his next move. This was a fine prosperous town, and probably had plenty of wealth worth looting, and it was big enough that he could hide there for a while. It would be a nice place to stop for a while. He could never stay in once place for too long, of course, or people would start noticing that he never aged, but he could enjoy living in comfort for about five years before people started to catch on. Even if he didn't stay quite that long, it would be nice to relax for a day or two.
Without meaning to, he found his eyes being drawn to a woman walking up the street in front of him, her arms filled with an assortment of parcels. Apparently at least one member of his personal peanut gallery found her attractive. After a moment of contemplation, Bakura decided that whichever one it was, they had the right idea. She was a striking specimen, with silver-white hair that fell nearly to her feet, a delicate figure, and smooth fair skin. That alone should have suggested a person of wealth, perhaps even nobility, if there was any of that sort of thing around here, but the clothing she was wearing was nothing more than an undyed gown tied with a rope belt. Ordinarily that would have meant Bakura would have filed her under "too poor to rob" or "too poor to be likely to turn him down if he offered enough money in exchange for her company" depending on what he was looking for that day. However, there was one other factor in play that made this woman special. If Bakura looked at her just right, he could make out the faintly glowing outline that signified a double soul. He smiled. This was incredibly lucky - two in less than a month! True, he didn't need that extra power after having absorbed a soul so recently, but why pass up such a chance when it practically fell into his lap?
Besides, he enjoyed it.
I wonder who she is, he mused, as he watched her weave her way through the crowds.
Her name is Kisara, said an unfamiliar voice in his head, and Bakura jumped and nearly spilled his wine.
"Don't do that!" he muttered. A few people at nearby tables turned to look at him, then turned away when he didn't do anything else interesting. He tried not to scowl. It had been so long since there had been a new voice in his head that he'd almost forgotten this one was there.
Actually, he was a little surprised that this one was speaking to him at all. The majority of his collected souls tended to stay quiet, whether out of a lack of interest in talking to him or a lack of strength to do it. He hadn't heard a peep out of Lord Seth's soul since he'd claimed it, and he'd assumed that it wasn't interested in socializing.
You know her? he asked now. Perhaps the name had been offered up out of surprise at seeing her, but now that Seth had revealed himself as a source of knowledge, Bakura was going to press him for more information.
I know her. She was a runaway slave. My men and I found her wandering in the wilderness, and we hunted her slavers down and captured them. After that, all she wanted was to be left in peace, so I gave her the use of an abandoned temple in the hills near here. She lives there as a shrine maiden, worshiping her god and tending the land.
Is she well liked by the locals? Has she got friends, a lover? Bakura persisted.
No. She tends to the poor and sick in the village, and gives shelter to a traveler from time to time, but she mostly keeps to herself. I was probably her only friend.
Bakura could feel the spirit trying to glare at him, but he only grinned.
Excellent. No one to miss her, then. If she keeps to herself so much, what's she doing in the village now?
Tonight is one of her holy feasts. She'll be serving food to anyone who cares to come to her temple. Not many people will, though. The locals are afraid of the place. They know there's something unusual about her, and believe she's possessed by a spirit.
Perfect! It was all Bakura could do not to cackle with glee, which would have drawn unwanted attention. Instead, he stifled his grin behind his wineglass. He tossed down the last of the drink, left the glass behind, and went to trail after the young woman.
"That's a heavy burden you're carrying," he said to her, as he drew alongside her.
She ducked her head. "It's not so very heavy. I'm accustomed to it."
"Still, it would be ungentlemanly of me not to offer to help," he said smoothly, "particularly as we seem to be going the same way."
"Where are you going?" she asked warily.
"Out of town," he said. "I'm a traveler. I haven't got money for an inn right now, so I thought I'd look for an unused barn somewhere I could bed down for the night. Unless you know of somewhere better...?"
He let the question dangle. She took the bait.
"The temple of the White Dragon is open to those seeking shelter," she said. "I can show you the way."
"That's very kind of you," he said. "And now I have even less excuse not to help you carry things, don't I?"
His attempts at charm seemed to be working. She offered him a shy smile and let him take some of her bundles. He was a little surprised at how heavy they were - she was obviously stronger than she looked. Still, she had been a slave, and would have been accustomed to hard work, even if she seemed fragile.
"So, where are you going?" she asked. It was an awkward attempt to make small talk, and he guessed that she was unused to talking to people in general. The idea appealed to him. She was even more attractive up close than he'd realized, with huge blue eyes that were practically luminous against her pale skin. A shy, lonely, vulnerable girl would respond readily to the appearance of friendship, and if Seth had been her friend, it would be easy enough to raid his memories and learn what sorts of things she liked. He could win her over and have her eating out of his hand in no time at all. He could enjoy the use of her body as well as her soul, if he cared to. A willing, submissive girl to take care of him sounded very pleasant, and a temple no one ever went to would make the perfect hideaway. It sounded as though it would be worthwhile to convince her to let him stay a while.
He decided the truth would win him the most sympathy.
"I'm just traveling," he said, with a world-weary shrug. "My home was destroyed a long time ago, and I've never really settled anywhere else."
"I'm sorry," she said.
"I'm used to it," he said. After all, he'd had centuries to get over it. His home had been destroyed, by a wizard his people had managed to irritate. Granted, it had probably been quite justified irritation, since his clan hadn't been the most law-abiding. He had only survived because he'd gotten in trouble with his parents earlier, and had slipped out the window and run into the desert to avoid punishment. Everyone else had been wiped out, but he'd survived, and he'd remembered what power magic held.
"I don't have any family or home either," Kisara said quietly. "Only the temple."
"Then I'm grateful you'll be letting me stay there," he said.
"It will be nice to have a guest," she replied. "I get so few visitors."
He allowed himself a smile. "In that case, I don't mind staying as long as you like."
She blushed a little. "That might be nice."
"I think it might be," he said. "You seem like the kind of woman I could spend a long, long time with."
The rest of his life, in fact - just not in the way she would have thought.
They reached the temple just as dusk was falling. He was impressed in spite of himself. He'd pictured a tiny little nook, without much more than an altar and a place in back for her to sleep, but this was almost like a palace. It was made of white marble, and the walls were carved with dragons in relief, their sinuous bodies casting sharp shadows in the light of the setting sun. Kisara led him up a small flight of steps that led to the sanctuary, and his appreciation grew. It was a beautiful room, with windows of white and blue stained glass showing dragons in various poses, and a high ceiling set with clear panes that would let in sun and moonlight, but all his attention was on the relics on display at the altar and in niches around the room. He calculated their worth in his head and came up with a tidy sum, enough to keep him happy for quite some time even if he didn't bother to go out and steal anything.
"Would you care for a bath?" Kisara asked. "There's a pool fed from a mountain hot spring. I'm sure you're tired from your journey, and the warm water does wonders for sore muscles."
"That sounds like exactly what I need," he said, quite honestly.
"If you will leave your clothes at the door, I'll bring you a clean robe," she said, "and I'll have your things washed and mended for tomorrow. I'd do it tonight, but I need to finish dinner..."
He smiled. Yes, he had definitely made a good choice in coming here.
An hour or so later, he was thoroughly clean, dressed in fresh clothing, and feeling ready to impress anyone who might need impressing. He considered himself an attractive man - any number of women had told him so - and he was sure he could impress an isolated young shrine maiden.
When he reached the sanctuary, however, he found a surprise in store. Kisara had been busy while he was bathing, and had set up tables laden with food. It looked as though she'd expected the whole village to show up and join them.
"Is someone else coming?" he asked her warily as she showed him to a seat.
"Probably not," she said, looking downcast. "I invite the villagers every year, but they seem to find this place frightening. Still, I always hope." She summoned up a smile for him. "But at least you're here. Please, help yourself. I don't want it all to go to waste."
He was content enough to do as she suggested. The food was delicious, as was the honey- wine she filled and refilled his cup with. While he ate, he watched her as she went about her holy rites. Her movements were graceful, almost dancelike, and he felt his blood stirring at the sight. Soon he'd be doing much more than just watching...
But not tonight, he soon realized. After the long walk, the hot bath, and the heavy meal, not to mention a great deal of wine, he was feeling sluggish. There was no way on earth he would be able to maintain the concentration he would need to make the soul transfer successfully. He wasn't entirely certain that he would be able to walk out of the room without help. How much wine had he drunk, anyway? She had kept refilling his cup when it was only partially empty, and he hadn't been keeping close track of how many times she'd done so. For a fleeting moment, he experienced a sense of paranoia. Had she been trying to get him drunk on purpose? He had done that same trick himself many times in the past, on people he intended on robbing later. Was it possible that she had designs of her own on him? Had he allowed himself to fall into a trap?
Then he had to laugh at himself. What was he thinking? This was a holy woman, not a highway robber. No, it was just drunkenness making him paranoid.
Well, there was nothing to worry about. He'd enjoy tonight, get a good night's sleep, and tomorrow he'd be rested and refreshed, ready to do what he needed to do. All he had to do was wait.
In his dreams that night, he found himself standing among the ruined stones of what had once been a thriving town, the image of the one where Bakura had been born so long ago. The sky was dim, without moon or stars, but there was a strange luminance over everything, and a haze hung around the borders of the village that he had never seen in his waking life. Amid the dusty streets, shadows flitted, remnants of people who had lived long ago. Some of them were the lost halves of people who had died of old age long ago; many had died by Bakura's hand; a few still had their counterparts walking around in the waking world, not knowing what they were missing. Bakura stood in the shadows and watched them. From where he could, he could see the spiky-haired boy who had been so fond of games and riddles, playing a game of dice with the handsome green-eyed gambler whose throat Bakura had slit. A pair of young man, one blond and the other dark-haired and tanned, stood on the sidelines - two guards that Bakura had killed during a getaway and whose souls he'd hated to waste. They were chatting in a desultory fashion to a shade Bakura recognized as his own brother and first victim. Other shades, less brave or less able to hold on to their own identities, flitted around in the background, vague and indistinct.
"What am I doing here?" Bakura demanded. He had vaguely known that all the souls he'd collected ended up somewhere, but he hadn't thought it was a place he could visit.
"You're in a holy temple," said a voice behind him. Bakura turned to see Seth standing behind him, leaning against a wall and looking as arrogant as ever. "We're stronger here. Also, you've drunk enough consecrated wine to practically qualify as a sacred vessel, which is enough to make anybody see things. Don't expect any sympathy for the hangover you're going to have tomorrow."
"Nobody asked you for any," Bakura retorted. "Why are you bothering me now? Don't you have anything better to do?"
"No. You made sure of that," said Seth. "I have nothing better to do for the rest of eternity than to interfere in your sorry life, so I'm doing it. And I'm warning you - Kisara is still under my protection, and you shouldn't be toying with her. Go find someone else to harass, but leave her alone."
"I'd like to see you make me," said Bakura.
Seth smiled. "Was that a challenge? Well, then. So be it."
Then the world fell away, and Bakura was, with great relief, allowed to get some sleep.
When Bakura woke up, he found that the predicted hangover had indeed come to pass. He rolled over with a groan and squeezed his eyes shut tight. It didn't help.
"What was in that stuff?" he mumbled.
He took stock of his situation. His head was throbbing, his eyes felt sore, and his stomach was feeling the after-effects of too much wine and rich food. He was lying on a thin mattress over a stone floor. The sun was streaming through a window onto his face, and the birds outside were singing at a volume he would not have normally believed was possible. He pulled the blankets over his head and tried to remind himself why he'd thought it was a good idea to arrange things so that he couldn't die.
He heard the sound of a door opening.
"Sir?" said Kisara's soft voice. "I brought you your breakfast."
"I don't want it," he mumbled into the pallet.
"You should eat," she said. "It's not good for you to skip breakfast."
Reluctantly, Bakura rolled over to see that she'd set a bowl of cooked grains in front of him. He scowled at it.
"What's this?" he demanded.
"Oats and crushed nuts," she said.
"What happened to the food we had last night?" he demanded. Even if the thought of eating at the moment made him ill, the thought of being handed a bowl of gruel when he knew there was real food available rankled.
"It's gone," she said.
He sat up straighter. "Gone? Gone where?" His memory of the previous night was a little fuzzy, but he was certain there had been more food there than the two of them could possibly have eaten.
"I didn't want it to go to waste," she said, "so early this morning I packed it onto the cart and took it into the village to distribute to the poor and needy."
It was on his tongue to say that he thought that sounded like a waste of good food to him, but he swallowed the reaction. He wanted to stay on her good side, at least for a little while longer.
"I see," he managed.
"Anyway, you should eat," she said. "Lord Seth will be here soon."
He gave a start. He'd been preoccupied enough with the soul he'd stolen from Seth that he'd forgotten that the other one was still out walking around in the world. He should have realized that if he was a friend of Kisara's, there was a chance that he would check in on her at some point. It came as a rude shock to realize it was going to happen so soon.
"When?" he asked.
"Soon," she repeated. "He always comes to check on me after festival days. He's my primary patron, so after events like last night, he always makes sure I'm not running short of anything I might need."
It made a certain amount of sense. Bakura resisted the urge to scowl.
Damn you, you knew about this! he accused. The spirits in his head were snickering again.
I warned you, said Seth calmly. It's not my fault you didn't pay enough attention.
You should have been more explicit!
Why? Seth drawled. What are you going to do, kill me?
There wasn't any answer for that, so Bakura didn't even bother trying. Instead, he began thinking very quickly about how he was going to handle this unexpected development. The last thing he wanted was for Seth to notice him - or worse yet, recognize him - and start wondering what he was doing lurking around this place, and possibly connect him to the several small but valuable objects that had disappeared during the course of Bakura's visit. Bakura cursed his habit of always removing the purer and better of the two souls. Just this once, couldn't he have taken the soul less likely to arrest him on general principle?
He could run away, but he wasn't certain that was the best or safest option. For one thing, it went against his nature to simply give up on a target. For another, running away would draw attention to him, and then Seth and his men really would get suspicious and come looking for him. No, the best thing to do was to lay low and act like he had nothing to hide.
"I'm not sure I know how to conduct myself in front of nobility," he said. "Perhaps I should just stay out of your way. If he's a friend, I wouldn't want to intrude."
"I see," she said. "Well, if you want to make yourself useful, I haven't had time to clean the kitchen yet..."
Without quite knowing how he got there, Bakura found himself herded into the kitchen, where the dishes from the previous night's lavish feast were waiting to be washed. He stared at them in dismay. It looked as though every dish for miles around had been used in the preparation.
"Just hide in here," she said. "And if you run out of dishes, you can clean the floors and counters."
After that, there was nothing for it but to do as he was told. He might have found some way around it, except that she kept showing up at irregular intervals, wanting to know how he was coming along and if he needed more water or firewood, and generally trying his patience. It wasn't long before he found himself soaked with sweat and dishwater, aching with the effort of scrubbing. He gritted his teeth and bore down out of sheer stubbornness, fantasizing about what he was going to do to the woman once she was alone with him.
I'll make her suffer for this! I'll kill her and have both her souls! He scrubbed vigorously, spraying soapy water in all directions.
It didn't help that, from time to time, he could hear the sound of her talking to her patron in nearby rooms. The walls were too thick for him to catch more than the occasional word, but from the breathy pauses and awkward coughs he heard, he guessed that if Seth had been telling the truth about whether or not the woman had a lover, it was only because Seth considered himself above marrying a mere penniless shrine maiden and was too much of a prig for anything else. The knowledge only reinforced Bakura's desire to stick around and carry out his plans. It would please him immensely to steal something that Lord Seth so clearly wanted and was yet unwilling to actually take.
Now I know why you were warning me away from her, he mocked the spirit. You just didn't want me to get to her first, did you?
The voice in his head was gratifyingly silent.
For a moment, he toyed with the idea of simply going out, killing both of them, and leaving. Regretfully, he rejected the idea. Lord Seth was known for his skill in fighting and there were rumors he had some knowledge at magic as well. In this consecrated place, Bakura's usual spells would be unreliable, and he preferred to pick his fights when the odds were in his favor - usually when his opponents were asleep, drunk, or otherwise distracted. Perhaps later he'd go back and repay Seth for causing him all this trouble, but for now...
By the time Seth was gone, the sun had set, the kitchen was sparkling clean, and Bakura was an exhausted, sweaty mess. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he almost had to be impressed by the knowledge that if he hadn't been there, Kisara probably would have been handling all the washing-up herself. He had no idea how she did it. Still, she was appropriately grateful and insisted on preparing dinner while he cleaned himself up. He was almost in a good mood again by the time he'd finished eating. When he declared himself to be tired and ready to sleep, Kisara said that she would take care of the rest of the evening chores.
Satisfied that everything was under control, Bakura went to his room - but not to sleep. Instead, he sat quietly on his pallet with the lights out, listening for the distant sounds of Kisara moving around in the kitchen, then of her opening and closing the door to her room. He waited a while longer, marking the passage of time by the movement of the moonbeams that crept across the floor. Once he was completely certain that she would be asleep, he got silently to his feet, eased his door open, and slipped into the hall.
Kisara's door was unlocked. He smirked a little; trusting thing, so sure that she was safe in the walls of her temple. He pushed it open a crack and peered inside. The room was the mirror of his own: a cell of a room no more than twelve by twelve feet, with a pallet bed in one corner, a little table next to it with a bowl and ewer of water. A modest chest of drawers was pushed against the opposite wall. In pride of place beneath the window was a small table with a statue of her dragon god, some candles, and a little incense burner resting atop it. A strong smell of incense in the air suggested that she'd performed some sort of ceremony before she'd gone to sleep.
But she was sleeping now, unaware that anyone was in her room. He smiled and eased his way closer to her bed, kneeling down next to her. From beneath the folds of his robe, he produced a dagger of dark metal, a gray so deep it was black in the moonlight. He'd made it himself to his own highly exact specifications, and while it would not be the most ideal of weapons in a real fight, it performed its intended task admirably. With careful movements, he pressed the knife against her chest. It passed through her without meeting any obvious resistance. Gently, he used it to sever the bindings between her body and soul. Then, before the newly freed soul could slip away, he seized on it and reeled it in. Within seconds, it had vanished away to that inner place - wherever it was that his souls went when he wasn't using them. Through it all, Kisara never stirred. Bakura smiled down at her sleeping figure. His business was accomplished. Now he could amuse himself. Merely seducing her wasn't good enough anymore, not after the way she'd treated him, making him work like a common servant. No, he was going to drag her out of this building, away from its sphere of holy influence, and then he was going to show her what his own magic could do. He'd bind her so tightly to him that she'd never even be able to think of disobeying him. Then they'd see how she liked serving a real master instead of some pointless dragon god.
But the instant he touched her, her eyes flew open. They were glowing. Bakura reeled back in surprise.
Now look what you've done, said Seth's exasperated voice in his head.
Kisara rose slowly, going from sitting to kneeling to standing in a series of dreamlike movements, her expression blank and eyes unseeing. She threw back her head, making her long hair fan around her, and... and...
And suddenly it wasn't hair he was seeing as it fanned out, but a pair of spreading wings, and her white skin and white chemise blurred and roughened to become scales. Within seconds, the only part of her that was still recognizable as Kisara were her intent blue eyes, which were still fastened on him.
Bakura was backed into a corner. The little room was now filled to capacity by a dragon, one whose teeth were now inches from his nose. He stared into its blue eyes and wondered what had just happened.
It spoke to him, in a voice he could hear both inside and outside his head.
Poor thief, she said, her tone genuinely regretful. Did you think that all souls were human?
Somehow, Bakura had fallen asleep - not an easy thing to do when there was a dragon outside your door. She'd herded him in there, nudging him with her nose and tail, and then slammed the door behind him. With a dragon at the only door and the window too narrow for him to squeeze through, he'd ended up sitting and mulling over his situation until he'd finally dropped off into an uneasy doze.
Immediately, he found himself back into the village of lost souls. Amid a cluster of buildings, the Black Magician he had stolen most of his spells from was putting on a show for a cluster of other spirits. The two soldiers had found a pair of wooden practice swords and were busy swinging them at each other, with the magician's flashing spells casting odd blue and green lights over them as they fought. Bakura ignored all of them, scanning the shadows of his twilit inner world until he found the pale figure he was searching for. Kisara was sitting on a slab of broken stone, swinging her bare feet and combing out her hair with her fingers. Bakura stormed up to her.
"I want an explanation!" he said.
She gave him a sorrowful look. "You were my guest. I fed you, sheltered you, mended your things. You violated the laws of hospitality. What explanation do I owe you?"
"Why the hell are you a dragon?" he demanded.
"I am a half-dragon," she said. "My father enjoyed taking human form, the better to study humanity. My mother was a human woman and unable to bear a dragon-form child, so I was born in human shape, but half of me has always been a dragon. You removed my human self, so only the dragon remains." She looked at him pointedly. "You brought this on yourself."
He scowled. "So what is this dragon of yours going to do now?"
She smiled serenely. "I don't know. I've never truly been a dragon before. I'm as curious as you are."
Bakura scowled. Somehow he doubted that was the case.
The next day, Bakura was awakened at dawn by Kisara knocking on his door. She was in human shape again, but he wasn't fooled. She still had that oddly distant look in her eyes, and she did not speak, only indicated by gestures what she wanted from him.
And what she wanted, apparently, was to turn him into a virtual slave. Under her watchful eye, he washed and scrubbed, weeded the garden, hung out the laundry, and chopped the firewood. The ornamental items he'd lusted after lost some of their luster when he was forced to spend an hour every day polishing them until they gleamed. Likewise, the graceful stained glass windows were less appealing when he was balanced precariously on a ladder, getting soaked as he tried to keep his footing while managing a bucket and rag at the same time. Every night, he slept on his thin pallet on the floor of a cold room, and every day, he was served meals of vegetables, oat porridge, and herbal tea.
All the while, the dragon watched him. Bakura, in turn, watched the dragon, and tried to figure out how he was going to get it out of the way. He had weapons - she hadn't bothered to confiscate them - but none of them had the reach it would take to slay a dragon. He wasn't even certain his soul knife would work on a dragon, and he wasn't sure he could get close enough to try. Within the limits of the holy temple, his magic, drawing on the powers of darkness as it did, probably wouldn't work well enough to give him an edge over something that powerful. There was only one thing for it: he was going to have to escape.
After about three days, he realized his chance. There were beehives at the edge of the temple grounds, which supplied the honey Kisara had used to make the wine he'd been swilling down on his first night there. This was one task that she would not entrust to him. The bees knew her and would tolerate her presence, but his presence agitated them. Apparently even he didn't merit being stung to death by a swarm of bees - or, more likely, Kisara didn't want to let perfectly good bees die because of him. While she tended her beehives, she left him alone to weed the garden.
It was all the opening he needed. As soon as she was out of sight, Bakura got to his feet and began edging his way out of the garden. As soon as he reached the border of the forest, he broke into a lope, trying to put as much ground between himself and the temple as he could. From what little he'd learned of dragons, they were sight hunters. Once he was well beneath the trees, she wouldn't be able to track him from the air, and he would be safe. Then he could come back later when he was prepared and sort everything out properly. Perhaps there was some way he could switch the girl's soul for the dragon's...
Abruptly, he stopped short, as though he'd reached the end of a tether tied to his waist. He gave a little gasp as he was brought up short.
"What in the hell?" he swore.
I'm a shrine maiden, said the calm voice in his head. I pledged my soul to the service of my god and to the care of this temple, and sealed my vows with holy rites. Moving my soul from my body to yours didn't sever those ties. My soul is still bound to this place, unless my physical body dies, or I perform the rites that would sever them again - and I cannot, because I would need to be in my own body to do them.
"But you leave the temple! I saw you in the village!"
On temple business, as part of my devotions. That is the only reason I can leave, and even then, never for very long.
Bakura felt as if a wall had fallen on him.
"You mean I'm trapped here?" he shouted.
It would seem so, she answered. She didn't sound displeased about it. Why should she? She didn't have to leave the temple she so clearly valued, and all the work was still getting done, but now he was the one who had to perform all the backbreaking labor. She was free to relax at her leisure in the village of lost souls, in the company of a man she'd desired but never could have had in the real world. He wasn't exactly sure what they'd be doing in there, and frankly didn't want to think about it too hard, but obviously the souls in there at least talked to each other and enjoyed each other's companionship. And meanwhile, he would be trapped in this miserable temple with his magic draining away from disuse and the holy building's own purifying effects, doing a slave's work under the watchful eye of a draconian guard.
For the first time, a sense of hopelessness stole over him. Up until that point, he had been annoyed at the delays and setbacks and indignities, but still convinced that ultimately his own power and cunning would see him through. Now doubt was beginning to overshadow his confidence. He didn't trust his magic to see him through against an enemy who was so cocooned in holy energy. He couldn't escape the temple grounds as long as Kisara's soul held him there. He didn't have the weapons to tackle a dragon in a head-on fight, and he wasn't sure he dared risk killing her at all. She'd said that she would be free of her vows if she died, but if she was now living in his body, the terms of the deal might very well extend to the duration of his life. That wouldn't be forever, not with as many souls as he'd already stolen, but it would probably be an intolerably long time. It wasn't something he was willing to chance. Some mistakes might be undone, but killing someone was a difficult thing to rectify.
Wait a minute...
Some mistakes might be rectified. Might that not include the mistake of stealing? Surely something, once taken, could be put back, or at least cast aside, if it was no longer wanted. He wasn't entirely sure that he could put a soul back into its body, but then, he wouldn't need to. All he needed to do was sever the connection between Kisara's soul and his own. Then he would be free to leave this accursed place. Once he was out of this temple, he would have more freedom to move. He could wait for Kisara to venture down to the village again, where she would be less protected by her temple's holy energies. Perhaps he'd even try intercepting Lord Seth on his next visit, and seeing what she would do to keep her patron safe. One thing was certain: he was not going to let this indignity pass.
But first things first. The first thing he needed to do was work out whether or not he'd be able to cut the connection at all, and if so, then how he could do it. That would take some thought.
If he didn't get back to the garden soon, though, the dragon would notice he was gone and come looking for him. The last thing he wanted was to put her more on guard than she already was. Regretfully, he began making his way back to his weeding and harvesting. At least, he thought, pulling weeds and collecting vegetables would offer him plenty of time for his mind to work on his problem.
That night, Bakura did not go to sleep right away, even though fatigue weighed him down like a lead cloak. He had worked hard that day, doing his best to seem neither too eagerly cooperative nor too rebellious - merely resigned to his fate. The last thing he needed was for the dragon to get suspicious and start guarding him while he slept.
But now he was safe in his room, and she was outside his door, asleep in the hallway in her dragon shape. She had told him what she was planning. She was going to keep him captive until Lord Seth made another of his visits, and then turn Bakura over to the law. That was one insult he would never stand for. He would rather die trying to fight his way free than to let himself be hauled away and executed like a common criminal.
But now he thought he had the secret to his escape worked out. He lay on his back atop his pallet, holding his soul dagger in both hands. It had taken him some trial and error to rearrange the spells he'd placed on it, and he was not altogether certain that he could ever make the dagger work like it once had when this was all over with. No matter; he could make a new one, and had done before. This one was going to serve a more immediate purpose. Carefully, he set its tip against his heart, then pressed it down just enough to prick his skin.
With no transition, he found himself in the village of lost souls. He frowned a bit as he looked around. It was strangely empty there, though he could dimly sense the movements of other souls flitting around in the distance. Had they known he was coming? Were they hiding from him? He frowned a little, sensing mischief.
Still, one thing had worked. He had his knife with him, which he never had before when he'd walked in this place. It was secure in his hand, feeling solid and warm with power. That was reassuring. This village had boundaries, and nothing could really hurt him here. One way or another, he would find his quarry and put everything to rights. He started walking, searching for some sign of where she had gone.
He was dimly aware that the scenery around him was shifting, the walls and fallen stones closing in, cutting off his avenues of escape. He could only keep going in one direction if he didn't want to retreat. Bakura tensed, sensing a trap. He wasn't at all surprised when, a moment later, the two guards leaped down from the roofs on either side of him, blocking his path.
"Get out of my way!" he snarled at them. "It's the girl that I want, not you!"
"Set us free too!" said the blond one, the one who had been called Jonouchi when he was alive.
"Yeah," said the second one, who Bakura vaguely recalled had been named Honda. "We don't want to spend the rest of eternity cooped up in here. If you're letting her go, you have to let us go, too!"
"No chance," Bakura snarled at them.
"In that case," said a soft voice from somewhere above him, "you may run into a problem before too long."
Bakura looked up to see his younger brother, Ryou, looking down at him from his perch on a roof, swinging his legs over the edge.
"What do you mean?" he asked suspiciously. Ryou was probably the only soul here who remained more or less voluntarily. Bakura was under the impression that his little brother still held out hope of being able to coax him back onto the straight and narrow.
"The knife is your gateway here and back," he said. "As long as no one removes the knife from you in the real world, you're safe enough. But if someone takes that knife before you finish here and go back..."
He didn't finish that sentence, but then, he didn't have to. His feet swung back and forth a little faster with agitation he wasn't showing on his face. Bakura didn't bother trying not to scowl. Ryou was the one soul here he trusted not to lie to him, and he had no reason to doubt he was right. If the knife was taken away from him, he'd be trapped here within his own mind, and nothing anyone tried would wake him up. As long as he was lying undisturbed in his room, he was fine, but if morning came and he didn't respond to the knocking at his door, Kisara was likely to come in, see the knife, and take it away from him on general principle. She would doom him without ever realizing what she was doing.
And judging by the looks on the two guards' faces, they knew what was going to happen. Either he had to free them, or they would do everything in their power to block his passage, delaying him until morning. If he gave up tonight, they would just keep doing this again and again, every time he tried. They could rest all day, but he would only grow more tired if he had to work all day and spend all night wrapped up in magic. He had to finish this now, or else.
"Damn you!" he shouted, and flung himself at them.
He was a good fighter, good enough even to hold his own against two men at once. He fought dirty, too, clawing at faces, spitting in eyes, kicking and punching below the belt. His opponents, however, had nothing to lose, and they endured everything he threw at them. He wanted to howl in frustration. This was getting him nowhere, and wasting valuable time and effort. At last, he drew the soul dagger and slashed at both of them. It was only a superficial scratch, but the moment the blade touched them, they began to glow and fade around the edges, vanishing into whatever afterlife was waiting for them. Bakura watched them go, unsure whether to feel elated or defeated. He hadn't wanted to let them go, but..
But they were gone, which meant his path was clear now. More importantly, he knew now that the knife would work. All he had to do was find Kisara and his troubles would be over. He began to run down the street again.
Up ahead, the path divided. He thought little of it, only chose a direction and kept running. The road forked again, and once again he chose a direction at random. However, when the path branched a third time, he stopped to take stock of his situation. He knew the village of lost souls was not very big, and usually had only one main street and a few offshoots. Where had all these twists and turns come from?
He looked around, and at last saw the gambler and the boy who loved games and riddles lurking in the shadows.
"What are you two doing?" he demanded.
"We made a maze," said Yugi, the gamer. "This is only a dream world, after all. It's mostly based on your own memories, but we can influence it, too, if we try hard enough. And with two of us working together..."
The gambler, Otogi, nodded. "Take a chance - one way is the right way, the other puts you off-course. If you don't choose the right fork every time, you go back where you started."
"But you won't know if you've gone the wrong way until you're back at the start again," added Yugi helpfully.
That was an even more effective delaying tactic than being blocked by the two young guards. He could probably spend weeks running up and down branching paths without ever realizing where he'd gone wrong.
"Take me to the end," he said, grinding out the words, "and I'll set you both free. That's what you want, isn't it?"
Both of them nodded.
"Try to keep up, then," said the gambler, and the two men began to run.
Bakura raced after them, trying not to let them out of his sight. They were quicker on their feet than he would have expected, and he knew if he lost track of them, he could easily wander around in their maze forever without ever finding the way out. In fact, he was starting to think that was just what they were planning to do to him, when he finally rounded a jog in the path and found the two of them blocking the road. Behind them, he could see that the path began to widen, going in a straight smooth line without forks or bends.
"We had a deal," said Yugi.
Otogi nodded. "We showed you the way. Now let us go."
For a moment, Bakura considered just shoving them aside and moving on, but decided against it. They would just throw something else in his path, and next time they might not be so willing to help. He slashed his knife in a single arc, cutting both souls free at once. Then he continued racing up the road.
Just up ahead of him, he caught sight of a white flicker - Kisara's hair, flowing behind her as she ran. Bakura grinned and began running faster.
The road took him to what seemed to be a small village square - a ring of buildings encircling a large well at the center. Bakura watched Kisara run towards it. Then, somehow, she seemed to split into multiple copies of herself, and each one ran down a different avenue. Bakura stopped short and stared.
"What the hell?" he snarled.
Sparks emanated from the old well. The Black Magician appeared, balanced neatly on the edge, smiling knowingly down at the thief. Bakura rounded on him with a snarl.
"You did this!" he accused.
"I did," the magician answered, still smiling. "And I could tell you which way the dragon- girl went, for a price."
"Nothing doing," said Bakura. "I am not letting all of you escape!"
"Only the girl, then?" said the magician placidly. "As long as I am here, I can keep baffling your path with illusions for as long as necessary. I have had nothing to entertain myself with for centuries but putting on shows for your other prisoners. A challenge will be most amusing for me, but I would like even more to go to the afterlife to be with my king and my apprentice. Promise to set me free, and I'll promise to tell you which way the girl went."
Bakura sighed in exasperation. "Fine. I'll set you free. Which way did she go?"
The magician conjured up a ball of light. "This will lead you as soon as I am gone."
"Is that so?" answered Bakura skeptically. "What if you're lying?"
"Then at least I won't be here to actively mislead you any longer. You still stand a better chance of finding her with me gone."
That much was true. Grudgingly, Bakura held out the knife. In a swift movement, the magician pressed his hand to the tip of the blade and vanished in a final spray of magical sparks. The orb he had left behind darted down one of the passages, flashed brightly once, and then vanished as well. That was all right; it was all the clue he needed. He ran as if his life depended on it, his footfalls echoing in the empty street.
At last, he came to the very edge of the village. A wall had crumbled and fallen on its side there, sinking into the sand. Perched on this wall were Seth and Kisara, speaking to each other in low voices. Bakura stepped up to them.
"Out of the way," he told Seth.
"No," the young lord replied. He folded his arms and looked stubborn. "She's not going."
Kisara stood and put a hand on his shoulder. "We've already agreed. It's better that I stay and you remain trapped in the temple, than it would be if I were free and so were you."
"I disagree," said Bakura. He hefted his knife. "You really can't fight me."
Seth raised a staff. "All I have to do is get that knife away from you."
He lunged at Bakura, swinging his staff, and Bakura raised the knife to block him. The two of them pushed each other apart, circling. Bakura made a few feints and stabs, dodging blows from his opponent. The man lived up to his reputation as a fighter, and Bakura could see the battle light coming into his eyes, drowning out thoughts of everything but beating his opponent. It was all Bakura could do not to smile. He increased the speed and ferocity of his attacks, lunging and stabbing with reckless abandon. He wanted Seth to forget that the aim of this battle was not for them to hurt each other, but for him to get to Kisara. All he needed to do was to get Seth distracted, to maneuver him around so that Bakura would have a clear path towards her. He kept attacking Seth's left side, slowly forcing him to turn.
Suddenly, Bakura made a feint. Seth dodged, and Bakura leaped like a cat towards Kisara, knife raised. He drove it at her, propelling it with all the pent up frustration and rage he felt towards her.
But she'd been expecting him. With a quick movement, she whipped off the cord belt she was wearing and raised it in front of his arm. It tangled his wrist, and she jerked it hard, forcing him to drop the knife. She kicked it and sent it spinning off into the desert.
He felt a pang of panic. Forgetting everything else, he leaped for it, scrabbling through the rocks and shadows. How did you find a black knife among a field of stones in the dark? Behind him, he could hear Seth approaching, and he knew if the man got close enough, he would make sure Bakura never had the chance to find it at all. Bakura seized a stone and hurled it at him, and it cut across Seth's forehead, stunning him temporarily. Blood began sheeting from the cut, getting in his eyes and further hindering him. It was enough to buy a few seconds. Bakura cast around frantically, and at last he saw a glint of light off one of his knife's tiny gems. He lunged forward and grabbed it.
Seth and Kisara apparently decided that a direct confrontation was not going to save them now. Moving as one, they both turned and fled, running for the desert and the rising sun.
Bakura blinked. The sun? Had it been that long? If the sun was rising, it meant he was out of time for dallying. He had to finish this, now, or admit defeat. He decided to take a gamble. Fixing his targets in his sight, he drew back and threw the knife as hard as he could.
It flew just as he'd hoped. First it struck Seth, whose heavy boots sank into the soft sand and slowed him down. He gave a cry as he vanished, and the blade passed through him without stopping. Hearing the cry, Kisara paused and turned, just in time for the knife to strike her. There was another flash of light, bright and blue, and then she was gone as well.
Triumph! Bakura bounded across the rocky ground and onto the dunes, where the black knife stood out clearly against the white-gold sand. He caught it up in both hands and drove it into his skin just as the rim of the sun rose above the horizon.
In an instant, he found himself back in his room. His room! He was never going to think of it like that again. Quickly, he gathered his personal belongings from where he'd stashed them, bundling them into his pack. Then, moving as quickly and quietly as he could, he slipped out of the room for good.
He crept out the back door and tramped through the garden, taking some pleasure in trampling the stupid vegetables he'd been tending all week. As revenge, it was petty, but he'd take what he would get.
Still, he reflected, it had been an interesting week. He had never before been outwitted and outmatched to such a degree. Certainly he'd never had a woman outmaneuver him to such an extent. She had seemed so frail and harmless, but he'd been wrong to think of her as just a pretty face. Well, that was one lesson he wouldn't forget in a hurry. The closer he got to freedom, the more he could look back at the events of the past few days with a measure of amusement, and even a degree of admiration for the woman who'd proven herself such a worthy adversary. He didn't meet someone like that every day.
Just as he was nearing the edge of the garden, he heard the door open again, and he looked back to see Kisara watching him. The two of them stared at each other for a moment.
"You're leaving," she said.
"You should be glad to be rid of me," he said.
"You'll bring nothing but evil into the world," said Kisara.
He grinned. "You should thank me. I'm giving you goody-two-shoes types something to keep you occupied. You'd be bored without people like me."
She didn't smile, quite. "Go, before I regret having mercy on you."
"You'll do that eventually," he said. "I'll be back. I'll have my revenge on you for everything, you wait and see."
"I'll be ready," she promised. "Oh, and Bakura?"
"Yes?" he said guardedly.
She smiled at him, her eyes briefly glowing. "Sometimes the gods decide to punish the wicked even while they're still alive. You might think about that."
Bakura felt a shiver run down his spine.