SC: Good God. It has officially taken me a year to post this chapter. (Well, I started it in November of last year...) I suppose my only rationale is that this chapter was basically one hundred percent generated by me, with almost nothing taken straight from the game.
The other problem is that this is one of those chapters where I've had the idea forever, meaning that when I write it, I tend to want to write it as near to my original idea as possible. Then it sucks, because I came up with the idea years ago, and I have to fix it to match the existing story, and so on. Basically, this one's like Counterattack: since I've had the idea for so long, portions of preceding chapters actually include things that lead up to it. Thus, I have to make sure it fits with the seeds I've already planted, while planting new seeds, and making sure the style of the whole thing is acceptable and doesn't sound like a starry-eyed ninth-grade fangirl wrote it.
Point being: I spent a lot of time changing the angles in this chapter, to make it the best I could for you readers. So, while I do apologize for the lateness, I argue the point that I did it for y'all.
Warning: Moderate amounts of goriness to follow.
Spellcaster, Part II
When Yugi finally returned to the ruins, the others were standing outside, waiting for him in an impatient semicircle.
"Fans? Am I really that popular?" he asked as Seiyaryu landed.
"You were gone a long time," said Mai. "This place isn't exactly a resort. We just want to get the heck out of here." With those words Yugi looked immediately to Fizdis, and felt a pang of guilt when pain flashed on her face. Before he could even give her an apologetic look the walls in her eyes had gone up, mortared with scorn.
Mai went on: "So? Did a grand plan make its way into your head while you were out there, or not?"
Yugi turned to Shimon wearily. "Shimon, what is the name of the nearest town?"
"I believe we are the closest to Phostenn, of the Enno region," he said. "It is southwest of the Badlands."
"All right." Yugi sighed and closed his eyes briefly, and for a moment exhaustion drew into his features, like a burden gathered up in one's arms. "We can't stay out here forever," Yugi said, and Mai nodded fiercely. "We need to get back to civilization. We'll split up and travel separately, just like we did in coming to the Badlands. We'll meet in the woods outside of town; from there we'll see what we can do about sneaking in and getting supplies."
"And then what?" asked Tristan.
"For now, that's all we can do: sneak around and eke out an existence. Until we hear news of one of our friends, we'll have to lie low."
"Lie low by sleeping on the ground every night," Mai muttered, stepping forward with her dragon's gem in hand. "After this crash course of Badlands, I am one for leaving. Fizdis, you coming?"
The two of them clambered onto Curse of Dragon's back and took off without even looking back. The morning was already slipping into afternoon, and the blazing sun overhead choked off the flow of air below, tethering its stagnant heat to the earth with shimmering ropes of warped air. Tristan watched Shimon and Yugi ready their dragons for flight with distant scrutiny. He had noticed something off about the look in Yugi's eyes while he had been speaking. He was sure that Yugi was trying to dampen it, but it was nonetheless present and gleaming like a keen edge revealed in a flicker of candlelight: Yugi had the look of battle in his eyes.
Tristan's red flags of suspicion started waving in his head again. What was Yugi doing lingering on the prospect of battle? There shouldn't be any chance of fighting an enemy: certainly he wasn't expecting a fight when they regrouped outside Enno, or that there could be some sort of ambush on the way there (they were still in the Badlands, after all). Unless…
Crap. Yugi's gonna' pull a solo act.
Tristan remained quiet with his observation. Shimon and Yugi took off in separate directions, and he waited a little bit before spurring Gazelle in a trajectory alongside Yugi's. He stayed out of sight, letting Yugi gain distance until he and his dragon were a pink and black spot far ahead of him. Keeping to the edges of hills in case Yugi turned around to see him, he watched. Inwardly he chided himself for being paranoid, untrusting of his friend – but he didn't want to take a chance that Yugi might kill himself doing something foolish.
Suddenly Seiyaryu flapped upward, as if Yugi had pulled back on the reins. Tristan urged Gazelle to a stop and quickly hid in the shadows of some nearby rocks. He watched them hang in the sky, Seiyaryu's wings beating rhythmically. Yugi paused, seemed to look around him for any sign of activity, and then quickly, almost fiercely, spurred Seiyaryu into motion. With a distant echo of a roar the rose-colored dragon took off in a new direction, back toward the heart of the Badlands.
"I knew it!" Tristan urged Gazelle to chase after him. "That idiot… What's he planning to do?" He no longer cared about secrecy. If Yugi was going to do something stupid, he needed to stop him. Gazelle's paws pounded up clouds of dust as it poured on strength. Slowly they gained on the secretive pair in the sky.
"Hey!" Tristan hollered when he was close enough to be heard. "Are you gonna' come down here and explain yourself or what?"
Yugi snarled atop his dragon; it seemed he hadn't made it away from the others as easily as he had hoped. A growl threatened his vocal chords as Seiyaryu dipped and began spiraling toward the ground. He didn't have time to deal with interrogation – not with so little time until moonrise.
Tristan gulped as he jogged toward where his friend had landed, for Yugi's face radiated a fierce irritation that set his stomach back against his spine. He decided that if Yugi was already angry, he had nothing to risk by being blunt. "What the hell are you doing? Deliberately going the opposite way as the rest of us?"
"What I do is none of your concern," he countered immediately. "Yet I could ask you the same thing; you went away from everyone else, too."
"Yes, but not of my own intention. I followed you."
"And why did you follow me? Am I not to be trusted? Even after everything we've been through, you have to keep me under surveillance?"
Tristan shivered under his glare. It was true: he felt guilty for being so suspicious; yet the rash anger in his friend's voice evinced the knowledge that Tristan's suspicions were dead on. Yugi was irate at being caught in the act. Whatever guilt Tristan felt sank beneath his reinforced superstition.
Verbal attack was the wrong approach. Calm down, and speak to him in a way that'll get him to ease off. "Look, I was just worried about you, okay?" said Tristan. "It's not like you to make snap decisions like that, so I thought there might be something up."
It had seemed too easy, that quick relay of Yugi's plan to the others. If that was all there was to it, then why had he needed all that time alone to come up with it? Not only that, but Yugi had forgone his stubborn defense of the idea that the Imperials in their castle were up to no good. Much as everyone labeled Joey to be the stubborn rock head of the group, Yugi was just as obstinate, if not more so. To forgo his previous attitude about the Imperials was unlike him, as unnatural as it would be for him to give up the game of Duel Monsters, and to Tristan it was highly suspicious. He was up to something, and judging by the unnatural anger in his actions right now, it was a big deal.
"No, you mean to say that you didn't believe my acquiescence to the idea of leaving," Yugi snapped. "You knew there was no way I'd leave without knowing the true aims of the Imperials."
Tristan gaped. Yugi had taken the thoughts right out of his head. That was something Yugi did with definite accuracy: he could figure out whatever you were thinking, based on the most logical process of thought. It was a skill that had certainly proven invaluable in defeating their enemies throughout their escapades, but it was also possible to use it to Yugi's disadvantage. Yugi's skill with the logic of thought derived from the fact that he always did the most logical thing. If you could work back from what his predictions of the most logical thoughts would be, you could figure out what he was up to.
Fact: Yugi thought that Tristan didn't believe his resolution to leaving. That meant that he really didn't want to leave, and the most logical reason that could be deduced for why he didn't want to leave was that he still thought Téa was in the castle; which, in turn, meant that Yugi really did think that. (1)
Not only that, thought Tristan dryly, if Téa were involved in the picture, it would certainly explain why Yugi was so worked up over his interruption. Anything that would upset a mission to rescue her would surely set him off.
He opened his mouth to pin Yugi with what he knew, but Yugi cut him off, "I don't have time for you. Go back the way you were supposed to go, and don't follow me again. That's an order."
Tristan flinched at his tone, but also jumped on the words. Yugi never used his position as resistance leader to order people around. That only made his current actions more alarming in Tristan's mind. As he turned away to remount his dragon Tristan also noticed a jerk in his shoulders, a wince that could only have come from some spasm of internal pain. Now, what had been nagging at him since they had arrived in the Badlands clamped down on his brain: something was wrong with Yugi.
He hustled after him to keep up with his long strides. "Hey, don't think I'm done with you yet!" He reached out to grab Yugi's shoulder.
Snap-snap-snap! Before he had even made contact, the force of static electricity ripped up his hand. He jerked his hand back; he was certain he had seen actual sparks bridge the air between them.
Yugi stopped walking, but didn't turn around to face him. There were definitely the beginnings of anger in his voice – not normal-people anger, but Yugi's own special brand of get-the-hell-out-of-my-way-or-that's-where-you'll-be – as he said, "I don't have time for you. Leave."
"I'm not leaving. Not until you open up about what you're really doing out here."
This time Yugi actually growled, that grating sound that caused the hairs on the back of Tristan's neck to prickle. "I said go."
"Yugi, you are a wreck. You've been moody and tense and – dare I say it," Tristan almost spat the next words as he took a step forward, "downright vicious. You're acting irrationally and impulsively, and if you don't fess up to the cause, I'll force it out of you. The hard way."
There was a heavy pause of silence. Yugi turned back to look at him, eyes sharp as talons; for a moment Tristan didn't know what to think, because the way Yugi was looking at him was a mix of unsettling fierceness and rational consideration of his words.
Something changed. The way the air felt, the way time moved – Tristan didn't know how he was sure of this. There wasn't really anything he could feel that was different, he just knew. Like someone had turned on a big magnet, and electro-magnetic forces were blasting through him and everything around him even though the science teachers always told him such things were undetectable by human senses.
It was definitely real, though. Whatever it was that was different happened at the exact same time that Yugi decided rationality was defunct and his anger was in the right.
"I told you to leave," he thundered, "and I meant what I said about forcing you!"
Tristan took a step back in alarm. Seiyaryu started growling, though he couldn't be sure if the sound was directed at him or at its master's ferocity. His eyes caught on red scales as Yugi's tail curled with tension; he prayed it was an unconscious action and not because Yugi was actively considering using it.
"What the hell is wrong with you? You've gone crazy!" Tristan found himself hollering back despite his fears that angering him further was not the best idea. The current situation was making every impulse in him scream that Yugi was dangerous. It was a feeling he had never associated with Yugi, not in this way, only in the way that dangerous meant impossible strategies and the determination to see them through by any means. Now it meant the danger of confrontation, and a rising fear that at his current rate Yugi might actually attack him.
He had to talk the sense back into him. "You can't be serious about this..." – he decided to go forward with his inferred knowledge – "...you can't be serious about Téa being here!"
Yugi seemed momentarily taken aback by this accusation but nonetheless snarled back: "Téa is here – not that you seem to care!"
"I do care! But you don't know that it's her! You just can't get over the fact that you might be wrong about this! Listen to me: let it go. When we find her, we will save her. All of us, together. You don't have to run off playing hero at the slightest murmur of her name!"
Tristan thought he had been convincing enough, yet Yugi's eyes were smoldering, steadily burning more strongly, like dried brush slowly cresting into a forest fire. "Fine. I get it. I won't try anything." Mentally Tristan breathed a sigh of relief. "Now, if you don't mind, leave me alone."
He stopped his mental cheering. Yugi's voice had taken on a terse anger with those last words, and it was enough to send Tristan's stomach plummeting in fear again. It was plain as day that he hadn't deterred his friend's rash goal in the slightest. He looked into Yugi's eyes and saw bitterness hidden along the edges of his eyes. Yugi had blatantly lied to him... and he showed no resentment for having done so.
Tristan forced himself to remain peaceable. "Wait!" he called as Yugi turned to remount his dragon. "We're still in the Badlands. We don't have to split up until we get close to settled areas. I'll stay with you for the time being."
A snarl rose abruptly in Yugi's throat, such that Tristan recoiled from the sudden viciousness of the sound. "What, so now you don't trust me?"he spat, not bothering to turn around and look at him. "You have to follow me more than you already have?"
"I'd say so, given how untrustworthy you're being right now!" Tristan was nearly frantic. Yugi had never acted like this before; he was not only casting off rational judgment of the situation, but also disregarding his friends. The iconic personality that Tristan admired greatly, that he had even defended the inherent goodness of to Yugi himself the night before, had been cast aside. If in the next few moments Kaiba appeared with a plate full of freshly baked cookies and started giving out hugs, he would give himself a good, hard pinch to wake himself up from this impossible dream-world scenario...
But it was real. Yugi really and truly was eroding right in front of him.
"Untrustworthy? Me?" Yugi laughed spitefully. "Ironic of you to say that. I didn't even do anything wrong, and yet you tailed me all the way out here. If I'm untrustworthy, what does that make you? A wretch that seeks naught but to tear down his own companions?"
Tristan felt an internal pang of sickness at that last part. Yugi's words were becoming more and more venomous – and he couldn't help but feel that he had heard this tone somewhere before. "No. It makes me your friend."
"Friend? Ha." Fang points glinted in the shadows of his bangs as he glanced back. "If you're a friend, then allies are but enemies."
It was now official: Yugi was not himself. This wasn't even a Yugi moved by anger; no, this just simply was not Yugi. No matter how much he would want to save Téa, the Yugi he knew would never just abandon the caring of his friends, nor the rational thought that drove so many of his strategies. He could never become a monster such as this. Something bigger was going on that was driving him over the brink.
"Something's wrong with you." Tristan set his stance, bracing for the much worse shades of Yugi's temper to rise with the accusation. "Whatever it is, it's got you seriously screwed up."
Yugi bristled at that. "Nothing's wrong. Now leave."
"Yes." Yugi jerked back to face him, fangs exposed in a snarl. A rock plunked inside Tristan's stomach as his fear solidified there. Yugi was moving away from human anger and was quickly nearing the fangs-and-claws anger his half-dragon physiology allowed. If Tristan didn't do something to turn the tables now, in the next few minutes he could end up slashed open and bleeding on the ground.
Without warning Tristan shoved him back against the nearby rocks, pinning him by the shoulders. Sparks snapped up his hands and bit painfully into his skin – but he maintained his grip. "I don't know what's gotten into you, but it has to stop! Even if you were passionate about a cause, you were never so, so rash! It's not like you!"
Yugi didn't answer, snarling again with a sound that was purely bestial. Though he raised no physical resistance, his eyes shone almost red with unnatural anger. The current running up Tristan's arms was starting to burn with sickening heat as he stood over his friend, and still Yugi showed no signs of relenting in his viciousness.
"Yugi!" he tried again. "Snap out of it!" He didn't understand what was going on. It was like Yugi had lost control of his anger. What was making him go haywire?
Haywire. Enough electricity surging up Tristan's arms that his hair was looking more and more like Yugi's each second. A crackle of red sparks shifting over sinuous leather and scales.
Wait. Red sparks?
Tristan tightened his grip. "Yugi, calm down," he said, keeping his voice level. "You're covered in magic. You have to make it go away."
Finally something in Yugi's anger ebbed, though his eyes still burned abnormally. He slackened into Tristan's grip, suddenly looking pained, as shadows welled under his eyes. "I... I can't. I can't get it to go away."
"Yes you can. I know you. Just breathe."
The heat was so blistering that Tristan felt as though he would soon be cooked from the inside out, yet he dared not release his grip for the sake of his friend. Yugi closed his eyes, taking in a shuddering breath of air. After endless moments of silence he could feel the biting static begin to weaken. A gust of wind rippled around them and for a moment he thought he could hear a furious hiss carried faintly with it.
Yugi was breathing heavily, not quite panting, but with a steadiness that signified he was clearing himself of his prior tumult. Tristan lessened his grip so it was more of a touch than a hold, and looked down at him levelly. "What's going on with you?" he asked. "I thought you said the static was residual from Scott's spell. Shouldn't it have gone away by now?"
Eyes still closed, Yugi answered in a puff of air: "Yes. No. I don't..." He hesitated. "...I said that it was from Scott. It was the explanation that made the most sense."
"The magic... didn't feel right." A tendril of static rippled across his form, cracking the air and causing Yugi to flinch. "You can see it yourself... It isn't the same as any of his prior spells."
Tristan had a rising speculation in his head that he hoped was false. "If it isn't from Scott, then what is it?"
"I don't know. I've never felt anything like this..." More sparks crackled between them as Tristan shifted his grip, his fingers feeling the bite of electricity when they brushed the metal studs on Yugi's collar. "It... It burns, Tristan. It's inside me and it keeps burning hotter and hotter, until my vision goes red and I can't even stop myself from attacking my own friend–!"
"Hey," Tristan stopped him, "it's all right. I forgive you. You don't have to worry about this. It'll wear off eventually."
"No." He swallowed, looking up at Tristan, all the edge finally gone from his eyes. "It won't leave me alone. No matter where I go, I feel it. It's followed me ever since we left Sygh-Varths, never fading, never relenting. Whatever this magic is, I'm the source... but I don't know how that's even possible."
Tristan, however, did know, for the sight of red sparks had brought back quelled memories and set hissing laughter playing in his ears. In the back corners of his memory he could still see that auric color, and he had to will himself not to see it superimposed into Yugi's eyes. Yugi could easily be the source of this magic, because he had once housed it.
Gods. Yugi was feeling Slypher's magic.
It certainly explained Yugi's prior wrath. Slypher was the epitome of ferocity, and anyone with the essence of that inside him would be snarling whether or not he had fangs. And of course, there was no way Yugi would have recognized the energy, for he had been unconscious during Slypher's possession and so didn't recognize it as the god's. That part all made sense.
The real question was: why was it happening in the first place?
Where had it come from? Slypher was gone. He had been gone for a long time. How could a trace of his magic have returned now, when its caster was locked away on a different plane?
He blinked. He had zoned out with his thoughts – he hoped he hadn't shown any of the dismay rising quickly in his heart on his face. He wasn't about to tell Yugi what he thought about the magic belonging to Slypher; there was a chance it would make him more unstable, and worsen his bouts of anger. Silently he forgave Yugi for being so worked up these past few days: suppressing the feeling of Slypher was enough to drive anyone haywire.
"It's nothing." Yugi seemed to have recovered himself and Tristan pulled away from him. "The real question is, are you okay?"
The question startled Yugi, to which he quickly responded. "I'm fine."
"You're not fine. You nearly bit my head off."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say those things..."
"I know you didn't. It doesn't change the fact that you said them."
Yugi took in a breath, steeling himself. "We can't stay here. We have to get to the Imperial castle."
Tristan's jaw dropped. After all that Yugi had just told him, he was still obsessed with his secret mission. "Yugi, are you nuts? How could you possibly still want to go there?"
"I have my reasons," he said, but the candlelit edge in his eyes betrayed the intensity of his motives.
"Enough with the secretive act. You've been doing that this whole time, and look where it's gotten you. Tell me what you're really doing out here." Tristan looked down at him squarely. "Do you really think she's out there? Are you still on about that?"
A touch of an unreadable emotion flickered as his eyes narrowed. "Téa's here. She's in the castle right now…"
"You don't know that."
"I do." Yugi straightened, calling on weary strength to restore his determined posture. "The Illusory Gentleman confirmed it to me."
"When I flew off from the rest of you. He spoke to me in private, and he revealed that he had seen her. Now let me go…" He pushed free of Tristan's hold.
"Yugi!" Tristan caught his friend's shoulder again, ignoring the sparks snapping at his hand. "You're set on getting her out of there. I get that. But you're in no shape to do anything about it. I'll come with you so that at least you won't–"
"No." Yugi pushed off Tristan's hand forcefully, turning to face him, with sunlight sharp as a saber shining fully from violet-red eyes. "You can't come."
Frustration rose in Tristan's voice. "Look, if she's here, she's here! It's not like I don't believe you!"
Churning water, bone chilling, black and bitter as the currents of the deepest ocean trenches. He felt it at the edges of the land around him: eddies of magic wafting up from the horizon and seeping through the earth with the coming of night. The atmosphere, the whole mass of air covering the entire virtual world, jerked with tension, pitched up and down like a ship dipping among the waves. He felt it, and felt the stark fear from Mahado, and knew instantly what it was: the nascent stirrings of the curse calling.
Tristan saw the telltale distance in Yugi's eyes. "What is it? What did you feel?"
"I'm too late," he murmured. A deepwater chill spread through his senses, bitter as frostbite; the sensation of lolling waves tugged at his ankles. "It's already started… Seiyaryu!" In a flurry of pink feathers his dragon was by his side, and in the next instant the two were airborne.
Tristan, dumbfounded, stumbled after, haphazardly calling Gazelle into the pursuit. He felt a rising fear towing him, for in an instant he had seen the embers in Yugi's eyes turn stone cold. "Yugi!" he called upward. "What the heck's going on?"
There was no answer immediately. Yugi still had his attention beyond his surroundings. "I didn't expect so much so quickly… He warned me of its power, but – gods! – it's intense…"
"Yugi! I hate to interrupt whatever it is you're feeling, but what are you talking about?"
Yugi looked down at him as if unwilling to break the final veil of secrecy. Tristan glared up at him resolutely, and after a meeting of their gazes Yugi finally relented in his motive. "The Imperials have initiated the curse!" he called over the wind. "We don't have much time before it's completed!"
"Curse? What curse?" Tristan gave the question but in his steadily twisting stomach he knew already. This was what Yugi had been hiding from them. This was the real intent of his solo mission.
"The Imperials are invoking an incredibly destructive energy. They've been gathering the means necessary for the casting over the past two days. Now they're ready to unleash it…"
Yugi snarled into the wind such that even running on the ground beneath him Tristan could sense the loathing in the sound. "Scott must have planned this… It's too perfect. If the curse is successfully called, we'll be destroyed; or, we're lured out into the open trying to stop it, and put in a position where we could easily be crushed in battle. With this plan, he wins, either way it turns out..."
The look on Yugi's face – half panic and half center-of-a-storm intensity – was enough to tell Tristan that this curse was not anything like normal magic. Sinister, lucid with power; as he had already assessed, their descent into the dark folds of magic was only steepening. "Is it even possible to stop whatever this is?"
"I don't know. Mahado doesn't know what can be done in defense of such malicious magic. Right now it's churning, gathering momentum, until it becomes self-sufficient. If we arrive too late, we may be powerless…"
"What do we do?"
Yugi looked down at him, bangs whipping about his face like clanging swords. "You can't do anything. Only I can."
"What? How could you say that?"
His eyes narrowed: an intensity of emotion and not just of fear. "Tristan, listen to me. This curse consists of the vilest magic of this realm. It drains the energy of living creatures who would approach it. Souls attuned to magic can resist it… but those without magic have their lives slowly sucked away. Tristan, if you get too close to the source of this curse… you could die."
Ulp. That certainly wasn't comforting to hear. Before, Tristan had wished for minimal magical ability for the sake of his friends. Now, he wouldn't have minded it for the sake of protecting himself, too. "And you'll be safe? Are you sure of that?"
"I'll be safe from the initial waves. After that, I can't say." Yugi locked eyes with him, his gaze weary and grave. "This is why I sent the others away. I couldn't risk jeopardizing their safety. This is my task alone to face." He paused, turning dutifully back toward the horizon. "Tristan, you can't follow me."
Tristan gaped. Yugi had always been one to vie for solo acts, but this time he was willingly taking hold of his own life and raising it to the defense of countless other lives. He was doing it despite all the wear already on his shoulders, doing it despite the impossible odds against him. Tristan felt a pang of guilty awe, feeling ashamed of his prior accusations. He had thought Yugi was racing to the castle for selfish reasons… and here he was instead, forgoing his own self without hesitation.
Tristan's fingers burrowed more deeply into Gazelle's mane. "All right. I won't go with you." Yugi gave a grateful nod without looking at him and spurred Seiyaryu ahead. But I'll still follow you, he thought, letting Gazelle fall back out of Yugi's sight, and I'll do anything I can to help.
The castle stood on the lip of the canyon, which cut through the badlands like a pitch-black fosse. Disparate fragments buried deep in Yugi's memory brought snippets of familiarity; an uneasy tension from Mahado drew up the knowledge that this was the same castle where the magician had been previously imprisoned. Around its perimeter, tall outcroppings of rock served as perfect hiding places for Yugi as he crept near the entrance. He slinked carefully, pressing against the jutting rocks, wary of the Imperial soldiers guarding the premises. One pair watched the entrance, and a few more paced short lengths of the perimeter at various intervals: five soldiers, in all. Even with stealth, there were too many for him to make it through the front door unnoticed. He would have to find another way in.
A few feet ahead of him was a ring of freshly overturned soil. Even without going near it he felt faint heat prickle under his skin: the anti-monster barrier that the Imperial guards had constructed. From this point on, he wouldn't be able to call his monsters.
The only plausible way he saw of getting in was a window on the far side of the castle. One of the roaming guards passed it on his circuit, but after that it was unattended. Yugi crept toward it, making sure he knew where the guards were going before slipping to the next hiding place. Once the guard had cleared, he hustled forward.
Let's hope this works. He reached up and dug his claws into the groove between two stones. He pulled himself up as swiftly as he could, thankful that the years of wear on the castle had left him substantial footholds. Soon he reached the window and heaved himself in, then moved quickly away from the opening. Fortunately it seemed the Imperials had concentrated their manpower on guarding the perimeter, leaving the interior mostly devoid of life.
Now that he was inside the castle, he could much better feel the curse-magic's chill, a numbness that clung to his shoulders like a spectral hand. He shivered and caught sight of his own breath as creeping, stagnant mist. The Illusory Gentleman had said that the curse casting was being done on the roof. Given his current position, Yugi had five floors to breach before he reached it. That meant bypassing five floors of Imperial soldiers without being seen. His hand brushed Mahado's gem. 'Mahado? Anything?'
Mahado tested the heft of the curse waters, wary of disrupting the tides of energy. Even one ripple added to its pool could tip its instability into a maelstrom. 'I don't detect any major activity in the curse yet. It is building energy, but that energy is not actively malignant.'
Yugi nodded and slipped outside into the hallway. The castle was dark and mostly unlit, with a few sputtering torches left at uneven intervals. Whenever he was without of meager torchlight, he had to feel his way along the passages, walking on tiptoe to minimize the sound of his boot heels clicking on stone. The stones were as cold as marble; even without the curse magic lapping against them, the Badlands' chill never left the castle halls.
After traveling for a few minutes in the quiet darkness, Yugi jumped at the sound of footsteps coming towards him. An Imperial guard! With nowhere to go, Yugi pressed against the side of the passageway in the hopes of being passed by in the darkness. He narrowed his eyes, held his breath: the guard advanced with no sign of having noticed the intruder.
Yugi held frozen, his heart pounding. Should he be discovered, without his monsters, he would be hard pressed to escape. The soldier walked past him – no reaction. Yugi almost breathed a sigh of relief when goose bumps flew up his spine: the soldier had brushed against his tail, further behind him. A hand shot out to grasp at scales and found the undeniable warmth of a living being.
Yugi paled and took off down the hallway. The soldier chased after him, shouting incoherently, as Yugi ran blindly through the maze of passages. He had no idea which way to go to reach the roof. His nerves were too overwhelmed with the sheer size of the curse energy for him to sense the exact location. All he felt was a vague smear of ice water far above him, and the steady tension from Mahado and Mana as they tracked its progression. As he tried to gauge the correct direction in which to proceed Yugi's foot caught against an uneven stone in the floor and he fell.
He scrambled to get back on his feet but the soldier was already on him, shoving him back to the floor. He snarled, but the sound choked as the soldier's boot dug into the back of his neck. The soldier kept shouting the presence of an intruder down the hallway as he stooped low to hold his captive. Reinforcements would surely hear the noise and come running. If Yugi didn't get away now, he'd be outnumbered…
The will to survive flared in him, a flash fire of strength. He twisted his head sideways in the soldier's grip and, sighting an exposed area of flesh, bit down on his arm. The soldier yowled: twin fangs pierced through the skin to the muscle tissue beneath. He jerked free of Yugi's bite and stumbled back; Yugi instantly scrambled to his feet and took off running again.
I can't believe I just did that…! He kept his mouth open as he ran, to avoid tasting the blood staining his fangs. Ignoring the part of him that was appalled with himself, he listened over his shoulder. He couldn't hear the soldier pursuing him. Had he managed to shake him? In any case, surely someone had heard the commotion, and would come down to investigate. He kept running, searching for a staircase that would lead to the roof.
'Soulmaster,' Mahado suddenly warned. 'The curse is gathering strength much more quickly now.' Indeed, Yugi could feel a swell in the icy magic, like a rising tide. 'It is near its crux. At that point, the sacrifice will be made to unleash its fury…'
Yugi increased his speed. Up ahead he saw a faint light flickering down from above. "Stairs!"
"There! The intruder!" A pair of soldiers trundled down the staircase, one carrying a torch to light the dark passage. Each was big and broad with muscle, with long arms and hunched necks, like twin bears. In the orange and black of the flickering torchlight they looked grotesque and malformed with uneven slabs of muscle on their limbs. Compared to them, Yugi was like a stick, with a few thorns to prick the unwary hand that would snap him in half.
'Imperials!' cried Mana. 'Let us cast a spell to help…'
'No time!' Yugi was too close; the soldiers had started rushing at him the moment they saw him. There was no way Yugi could fight these men on his own: physical confrontation was certainly not one of his strong suits. His only hope was that his thorns might prove an effective weapon. He drew his tail into an arc, snarling, bracing for the oncoming fight.
"It's that demon rebel!" hollered one of the guards. "Don't let him escape!" The one with the torch charged him, fist recoiled for a crushing blow. Yugi, smaller and more agile, twisted out of the way and retaliated with a raking sweep of his claws. The guard dropped the torch and fell to his knees; Yugi pounced, aimed to bite his exposed hand –
Teeth clenched on clean air, as the other soldier seized his tail from behind and yanked him back before he could sink in his fangs. Yugi landed hard on his chest, prostrate on the stone between them. Wind and shadow rustled his hair: he opened his eyes and saw another punch coming at him. He rolled, swung his tail, drew a red line down a length of forearm – but he didn't see the kick also coming at him, and took the blow to the side. Well aimed, the kick knocked the wind out of him, stunning him for a moment.
Before he could recover, one of the soldiers grabbed the crowning points of his wings, having sensed them to be Yugi's weak point. Pain lanced down the limbs into his shoulders; the soldier used this grip to yank Yugi to his feet. Yugi's back arched with the pull, and he was unable to wrench himself free. Trapped in this hold, Yugi shuddered with internal pain. The adrenaline of the fight seared his already static-tinged nerves, like a wash of salt water over an open wound.
A throb from the curse energies above panged within him. The thought of what would happen if he didn't stop the curse from being unleashed burned in his mind. The whole of the virtual world would be destroyed… and Téa... Téa...
Compressed heat gleamed in violet-red eyes as a surge of electricity coursed within him. He would die before he lost her!
With a vicious snarl Yugi roared back to life. He thrashed against his captor, as would a snake trapped in the talons of a hawk. His tail, which was still free, lashed against the soldier's shins, slicing blood and bone. He released Yugi instantly; and Yugi, rage curdling in his eyes, leapt at the approaching second soldier with all the speed of a recoiled panther.
"AAAARGH!" the soldier yelled as mass collided with him. Yugi clawed anything he could reach, in an attempt to fell his much larger adversary. Rows of cuts on the soldier's arms, chest, and face welled with blood. The smell of blood soon clouded the air like a dense fog. "The demon!" he cried. "Get it off!" For once Yugi didn't care about being called a demon; rather, he played along with the role, letting fear aid in subverting his enemy.
The first soldier limped forward to try to save his companion. Yugi was distracted, enthralled, focused on subduing the now heavily bleeding guard. He didn't turn around and instead whipped his tail in defense of the other soldier's approach. Only when he heard a gurgling cry and a heavy thud behind him did he turn away to see the one he had ignored. He was lying on the ground, motionless, and in the petering light of the forgotten torch Yugi saw shining red pooling around him, seeping from a gash in his throat.
Yugi went cold.
He dropped back from the guard he was attacking and stood numb. He stared at the soldier on the ground, now dead. Lifeless. Ice clenched up in his throat: he hadn't meant to, he had aimed without thinking – and his tail, sharp as a dagger at its tip, had cut open flesh and vein and had slain the man instantly.
He had killed.
Yugi's balance wavered as the fire vanished from his eyes. "No. No, I didn't…"
The bleeding soldier, breathing heavily, saw his companion lying there dead. He picked up the remains of the torch and pointed the hot smoldering end at Yugi. "Demon rebel! I'll kill you!" He charged, the torch thrust forward as a lance with which to slay the dragon. Yugi jerked free of his stupor, automatically swinging his tail around – then his breath left him an instant too late. The already wounded soldier plowed into it, and the blade and surrounding spikes pierced through skin and spilled blood.
"No!" Yugi cried, but the man was already dead, blood pouring profusely from his impaled gut. He jerked his tail free and the soldier's body crumpled to the floor. Slowly he lifted the end of his tail in front of him. He saw the glint of scales, and smeared atop them a stain, dark and indelible like sin, of glistening, wet blood.
He sank slowly to his knees, shaking. "No. I didn't mean to…"
'Soulmaster!' came Mahado's voice from somewhere far away. 'Quickly; the curse strengthens!'
Yugi did not move. He was in shock. "I killed them… I didn't mean to… I didn't mean to…"
'Soulmaster, please!' Mahado pleaded. 'We haven't much time! Their souls are no loss!'
Souls. Just then a blazing pain hitched in Yugi's chest. In one swift blow it had him doubled over, his arms wound around himself.
"Ahgh!" He was in a vise; a giant fist was gripping him and constricting his ribs. The pain had come from nowhere at all! Yugi felt like his ribs were going to crack from the pressure as the muscles in his chest tightened like a snake around its prey.
"Is this… the power of the curse?" Yugi choked out. Had he failed to reach the roof in time and stop the unleashing of its fury? Was this pain his soul being wrenched out of his heart?
It stopped. Just like that, the pain abated, leaving nothing but residual soreness in his chest and shoulders. Each breath felt raw in his lungs like the feeling of breathing in cold winter air, but on the whole he was fine. For a moment he didn't move, wondering if it would return unexpectedly to strike him down. When it didn't, he stood shakily with a crackle of static electricity over shifting leather.
'Soulmaster!' Mahado radiated a frantic worry from his gem.
Yugi fought to steady his breathing. 'What was that?'
'We don't know!' cried Mana. 'It disappeared before we could discern what it was. Are you all right, Yugi?'
With that last bout of pain his nerves were on fire, ablaze with adrenaline and electricity. He was still shaking, but not so badly that he couldn't stand. When he brought a hand to his chest it was still sore enough to make him wince. 'I'll be okay.' He had to reach the roof before it was too late. He forced his eyes to focus on the staircase, to keep them from looking down at the two fallen soldiers as he ran past.
'Soulmaster,' Mahado said quietly, 'you should not hate yourself for killing those guards. The goal you seek is much higher than their lives.' That didn't exactly comfort Yugi, and he felt a peal of guilt in his heart for diminishing the value of human life.
'Think of it this way: if you didn't kill them, they would have just been killed by the curse,' said Mana. 'They would have died either way. At least this way you still have the chance to save others.'
He hadn't thought of it like that. She was right; if he couldn't stop the curse, then it would wipe out all existence in this realm. It didn't make him feel any better guilt-wise, but the logical half of his brain understood. They would have died anyway, said logic; sparing two men isn't worth losing the whole of this world.
Logical or not, said his heart, the fact that I did it still hurts. But in the end Yugi knew that it simplified down to them or us: them, or everyone else in this world.
The stairs ascended one, two, three flights. Now Yugi was on the fourth floor, in what he judged to be the center of the castle. He escaped the staircase into a wide, open hall, completely empty. Across from him were the stairs to the next level, which he dashed for determinedly. Now that he was closer to the roof, he could better feel the churning ice water above his head. It felt almost solid, less like a sensation created by magic and more like he were bobbing in an ocean of the real thing.
"There!" cried a voice. A gaggle of soldiers burst in through a door to the left and moved to block his way to the stairs.
'Soulmaster, we don't have time to fight all of these men,' urged Mahado as Yugi backed away from them. 'There is little time before the curse reaches its crux. When it does, the offering will be made.' Yugi nodded and felt rage and pain smolder in his eyes. He knew he was left with no other option. He knew what he would have to do if he couldn't escape this fight.
"There's only one rebel! Hardly a challenge!" scoffed one of them.
Yugi took in a steeling breath and smirked. "Really? I wouldn't be too sure of that," he countered. He raised his tail and waved it, blood still visible on its tip. "I'm challenge enough to cost you your life if you lose."
Another guard gasped. "He's killed one of our men!"
"Two, actually." He was trying to intimidate these guards into backing down. If they didn't do so, he would be forced to fight them... and to use his last option.
Yugi flashed the edges of his fangs. "That's what they call me."
The head soldier glared at him. "You really are an evil creature. Forget what Emperor Scott said about keeping you alive: I'll kill you with my own two hands!"
Yugi's eyes widened. Keep me alive? Before he could think on the matter further the soldier surged forward. Yugi stood his ground, like a bullfighter waiting for the bull to draw near before –
"Arhlg!" A crimson-edged sword slashed his chest, and a new coat of blood splashed onto Yugi's tail blade. The guard pitched backward with the force of the blow, and, after wild movement in his eyes, died. Yugi felt his stomach overturn at the sight. He had had no choice. He had to do it. He knew this, but suddenly an incredible sickness had risen in him and made him lose his nerve. I can't do this; I can't kill like this–!
The other soldiers were enraged by this cold murder. "Demon rebel! We'll kill you!" They came at him, and Yugi stood shaking before the man he had killed.
'Yugi, move! You have to fight!' cried Mana.
'I can't do it! I can't!'
Mana began conjuring a spell to hold back his assailants. 'You have to! There's no other way!'
'Soulmaster, if you do not get past these soldiers, the whole of this continent will be engulfed with destruction! You must not let that happen!' The soldiers running at him slowed, orange glitter tugging at their clothes. Mana's charm resisted their advance but could not stop them altogether. The two magicians continued to holler at Yugi, but he would not budge.
Just then the constricting pain clamped its teeth down upon his chest. Yugi choked and his balance gave out, knocking him down to all fours. He snarled as the vise returned to tauten his muscles around his still sore rib cage. Static surged through his nerves, searing his already injured chest and shoulders, burning with the heat of lightning strikes. He looked up with pain-hazed eyes and saw three blurry shadows looming over him, arms like grasping tree branches, slowly drawing near enough to strike.
Instinct to live took him, and his tail lifted high above his head. They were bearing down on him; Mana couldn't keep them from reaching for his throat–
And then everything in him burned red.
He did it without thinking. Maybe his tail had done it of its own accord. Either way, it had snapped around and jerked, and in one swift action had cut clean through three throats. The soldiers were still moving at him in slow motion, but the magic didn't slow the flow of blood from their wounds, which gushed at an accelerated pace. Yugi watched with livid terror as the three men's eyes flickered at the same time, before they collapsed in front of him.
Color left Yugi's face. He backed away from them quickly, still on all fours, breath hissing through his teeth. The smell of blood was overwhelming. It clogged his nose and drugged all of his other senses. All he could do was stare at the bodies of the four men he had slain. Electricity flared in his nerves, more alive than it had ever been.
Yugi gasped in air, a horrible noise threatening to escape him, but was cut off by a swell in his pain. "Ahgh!" Agony crashed down on him; he jerked and his arms gave out from beneath him. He crashed to the stone floor; the fresh, seeping blood from the dead men curled in around his hand and forearm as his claws dug into the grooved stone. Mahado and Mana hollered incoherent things to him that were lost under his racing heart. To draw breath was to incite fire into his lungs; the strange crunching of his muscles moved beyond his chest to overtake his shoulders and wings as well. He screeched as he felt the pressure surge against the obstinate ligaments in his wings, which he felt for sure would snap under the stress. All this while he had no idea what was happening, no idea what was causing it…
He cringed as the pressure swelled again. Noise like green-stick cracking; several joints in his wings and shoulders popped from the strain. After that everything began to slowly recede. His muscles relaxed their tension and the pressure died away, though the pain did not fully disappear. It was enough: enough that Yugi was able to recover his bearings. A thin sheen of sudor glistening on his brow, he pushed himself up from the blood-soaked stone. The whole of his chest and wings throbbed demandingly with each beat of his heart. He felt dizzy and about to pass out, and even the extra air he drew from his panting breaths did little to alleviate the drugged feeling on his senses. The wear of the static on his body over the past few days added up to his barely being able to get back on his feet.
'Yugi…' Mana murmured as he stepped unsteadily past the dead soldiers and started back for the staircase.
'…I believe I am beginning to understand this affliction,' said Mahado faintly. 'It is a reactionary response, either to the act of killing, or to your aversion to it…'
Yugi stepped unsteadily onto the staircase. Blood from the dead soldiers ran down his palms in rivulets and dripped from his claws. He was still in shock, still on autopilot. It went unnoticed that the unending static in his nerves, which had been plaguing him for days, flickered and faded from his system.
Now his nerves were free to realize just how strong the curse had become. He could feel its icy tides tugging him in different directions as it swirled and ebbed above. He was close now, close enough that he could feel the faint tremors of the castle in response to the overwhelming forces gathering on the roof. Slowly, this reality pierced his hazy brain. His fog of pain began to dissipate as he remembered what was due to happen, and the color of emotion returned to his eyes.
"No…" He picked up his pace; the arched opening to the roof was just above him. "No! Téa!"
He burst onto the roof. The sky at the horizon bled dyes of orange and scarlet into each other. He saw the evil red sun like a lidded dragon's eye staring back at him as it rolled its stare back into night. His breath escaped him as black mist as he looked up and gasped. Dank matter drifted above him, swirling like cloth in water. It was not incorporeal magic. It was solid, fetid, rank like decaying plant matter, and undulating like the motions of some deep trench-dwelling invertebrate. It was the essence of the curse, and he could see in the fading light that it was growing bigger.
Both Mahado and Mana went livid. 'It has grown too powerful!' Mahado cried. 'We are too late!'
Yugi couldn't take his eyes off of the mass. It seemed to draw his very soul unto its depths. It radiated an aura of perfect destruction, aptest ability; it was the most invulnerable thing to have ever existed. 'Is there nothing you can do?'
Mahado stirred forth his greatest magics, blazing like comets within his spirit. 'Mana, you must lend me all aid that you can!' Her own magic linked with his as the two gems around Yugi's neck began to burn with energy. 'Soulmaster, cast us into the heart of the curse!'
Yugi pulled them from his neck and flung them hard into the center of the swirling cloud. The two glowing stones disappeared into the mass. Yugi couldn't see them; their light had vanished within the blackness, yet now the blackness was churning with agitation, as an oyster itches against its grain of sand.
He looked around the rooftop frantically. There was nothing he could do to help his magicians combat the curse, but maybe there was something he could do to weaken it from the outside. Beneath the cloud was a spell circle drawn of fine silver powder. Yugi dashed forward and started smearing the dust with his feet in an effort to damage the sigil.
"That won't be enough to weaken it. The curse has grown beyond yours or my control. It is sentient, and won't tolerate being disrupted."
Yugi froze. He recognized that voice, a voice that brought with it the haunting image of abyss eyes and the intense pain of a broken heart. Anger bubbled up from the very depths of its bones as he whirled around with a snarl. "Scott!"
There was a figure across from him, near the edge of the roof, veiled in the shadow of the whirling curse matter. Yugi bared his fangs and growled fiercely, advancing towards it with a vengeance. "I'll kill you!"
"I wouldn't be so hasty. I doubt you will want to kill me once you see my shield." The figure stepped forward and the bleeding sunlight struck its face. Yugi's stomach dropped out of him.
She smirked evilly. "Not quite," said Scott's voice through her. "She is my puppet right now, my program written to cast this curse." Laughter rang like the rumbling of the castle beneath his feet. "She is also quite useful for tormenting you."
Yugi seethed with rage. "Get out of her! Your fight is with me!"
She waved her finger back and forth. "Just because she's in my control is no reason to get jealous." Her eyes were dulled by Scott's personality rewrite, an emotionless, blank gray, as if winter clouds had rolled in against their original sky blue. She looked like a life-sized doll, made of delicate white porcelain and propped up against the wavering horizon behind her. "I can make her do anything I want to, you know," Scott went on casually. "Maybe I'll have her give you a kiss."
By now Yugi was bristling, every hair on edge. He started growling like a wolf in the brambles, his tail slashing air behind him. "So vicious," Scott noted. "I doubt your precious girl would enjoy seeing you like this."
"I don't care what you say," he spat. "I'll rip your influence from her so hard you'll feel it all the way back in your posh little throne room!"
"That won't be necessary. I was about to relinquish her." She sneered, "The curse is almost ready for its sacrifice; and you, pathetic demon," – Yugi snarled angrily – "you will lose your heart again."
She took a step back, an eerie move that kept her upper body still, perfectly balanced on her dancer's legs. She was as a phantom, looking pale and ghostly in the deepening night. "I have no further use for her alive. Now, Yugi, watch her die." With that she whirled, and threw herself from the parapets into the ravine beyond.
When Tristan first laid eyes on the castle, he felt for the first time like he was going to die.
The object was in his sights, perched along the canyon rim, and all of a sudden everything in him twisted. His vision, his balance, everything spun and petered in and out of function. He collapsed in darkness; his mind was screaming in panic as the lights came on and off. They were going to stay off and he would be trapped forever in darkness–
He blinked. His eyes were back on. He sat up shaking and wiped the sweat from his eyes. Tristan felt his way back to his feet and faced the castle on rubbery legs, Gazelle staring at him as if he were a walking ghost. He swallowed dry air. That had been what Yugi had warned him about: his life, being sucked away by the malignant energies of the curse.
And Yugi's in there somewhere fighting it. Tristan felt as if he had stepped into some different plane of being. He wasn't used to feeling magic, wasn't used to feeling something so powerful and physical within his body that didn't affect at all his physical senses. His body felt both reeling from the impact and nonplussed as if nothing had happened at all. There were no words to describe this duality of opposite sensations except damn creepy.
Now he was inside the castle, feeling his way through the dark, trying to follow the muffled shouts that could lead him to Yugi. Every so often his heart would clench and he would stagger against the wall, gasping, as another wave of the curse washed over him. With each wave he felt weaker and dizzier. For sure there was one lesson he'd learned: he would never think lightly about Yugi and Ryou feeling magic again. He staggered down the hallway until he stumbled on something in his path.
In the dark Tristan felt down to see what it was. It was warm and pliable, and groaned when he prodded it. A soldier! Tristan recoiled, but realized when the man didn't move that he must have been unconscious. He reached again to feel for some sort of weapon he could take from him when his fingers brushed warm liquid. Blood? He felt the wound, finding two depressions in the arm. The equation lined up in his head. Two holes plus an unconscious guard…
"…Equals a bite from Yugi." Tristan habitually rubbed his own arm where Slypher had bitten him. When they had told Yugi of what happened with Slypher, they hadn't told him about the venom, thinking that it was a trivial detail that would only depress him further. That meant that Yugi had bitten this guard in a confrontation without knowledge that his bite would subdue his foe, and that he must have been desperate to do so. Tristan stood and jogged as quickly as he could down the hallway. Now that he knew Yugi was fighting these guys physically, he needed to catch up and help.
So he had thought.
When he came across the two dead soldiers before the stairwell, he nearly freaked. His shoe splashed in the puddle of blood on the floor and his breath left him. No way. They weren't dead. Were they? He checked, both of them. They were dead.
The lacerations on both of the bodies – gashes that looked as though they had been mauled by a tiger – meant only one thing. Yugi had been the one that killed them.
Flashbacks to the aftermath of Slypher reared up in him; he imagined with stark clarity Yugi doing this, yellow-eyed, with lethal accuracy to his strokes and the hiss of laughter in his throat.
"Get a grip!" he yelled at himself, though the weighted presence of the bodies in front of him tightened his voice to a shrill. "It's not like that!" Yugi had had reason to do this: it was more important that he stop the curse than it was for him to battle soldiers.
Then again, snapped his memories, back in the badlands Yugi had nearly succumbed to the snarling rage brought on by a spark of Slypher's magic. Could these deaths have been acts of rage over being interrupted, rather than of necessity to save the rest of the virtual world...?
No. Yugi was not like that. Slypher may have been a coldhearted killer, but Yugi was his friend. He dashed off before he could doubt any of his own thoughts. As he followed Yugi's path to the rooftop staircase it took more and more of his willpower to maintain his stance. Six people, he counted in his head as he passed their bodies. Our Yugi killed six people. Please, oh please let it be worth something in the end.
He was almost to the top of the staircase when a wave of sickness came over him. It came so suddenly that he stumbled on the last step and landed flat on his face on the roof. Warped heat and a feeling of his organs churning in a washing machine surged through him and made him gag. He had stumbled into the direct presence of the curse. It was unbearable: the malaise of oncoming death. He was sure he was going to die here. He was so stupid – Yugi had warned him! He knew this magic would kill him! Why the hell did Tristan have to be so gallant as to ignore such bold truth?
The sickness was getting weaker, and he thought for sure it was because he was fading from life. Only when he realized he could still hear himself breathing did he think that maybe the curse was the one weakening, not him. He looked up at the swirling blackness – his body threatened to pass out just from the sight of it – and saw within it two glowing points, vibrant purple, surrounded by an ocean blue aura. The black was writhing against this color, giving off sparks, raving, dying. The poison of good magic had entered its system and was slowly killing it from the inside.
Tristan felt some strength return to him and he pushed himself to his feet. He could only watch as the curse matter began dissolving into the light, its solidity dissipating like cloth ripped to pieces and dispersed by the wind. He sucked in a sharp breath as he felt something within him jolt; suddenly he felt well as if in his prime, warm as if having just downed a mug of hot chocolate. The life the curse stole… being returned?
There came a roar like ocean waves crashing over rocks. The churning black thing collapsed inward, suddenly dense, before being blown apart by a thrust of energy from the two amethyst glows. It dissipated into black wind-blown mist, which brushed his cheek like sea foam as it faded, leaving a lingering touch of malevolence as dark water droplets sliding down his face.
Tristan resumed breathing.
Was that it? Had it been destroyed? Tristan looked around, searching for Yugi. He didn't see his friend anywhere on the rooftop. His attention was distracted by the two amethyst lights floating in front of him. They fell to the stone with a clatter, no longer supported by glowing magic. The light surrounding them faded, and Tristan saw that they were two jewels, the same purple as Yugi's soul gem. His Magicians? He took a hesitant step forward. He could have sworn that they were moving, sliding across the stones toward the parapets... toward the chasm that lay beyond.
It was another several moments before Tristan realized what this implied. Yugi had to have been here – how else could the Magicians have reached this place to combat the curse? – yet at present he was nowhere to be seen. Tristan hadn't run into him while within the castle, and there were no other ways off the roof... Supposedly, Téa was also present within the castle. Surely Scott would have used her against Yugi, as a means to thwart his efforts, or at least stall him while the curse continued to strengthen. If, during their face off, it had become apparent that Yugi was going to prevail...
"Crap," Tristan said, the sickness quickly returning to his stomach that had not yet recovered from the curse-throes. He took a few more steps forward, toward the low wall edging the roof. "He couldn't, he didn't..." The grating scratch of amethysts sliding across roof-stones tingled high and ethereal in his ears. They confirmed his plummeting fear.
Scott had forced Téa to jump off the roof. And Yugi, without any other option, had followed.
Later, Yugi wouldn't remember why he had done it. All he knew was that the instant he had sensed Scott's intentions he was moving forward against the wind. It wasn't until he felt the pitch of gravity in his stomach and cold darkness in his face that he realized he had jumped after her.
He vaguely wondered why he wasn't panicking. The wind stung his face, his stomach writhed in a mass of knots, but mentally he remained eerily calm. He knew he was still within the bounds of the anti-monster barrier, and so couldn't call Seiyaryu to save him. Above him he felt the curse beginning to falter and knew that Mahado and Mana were too involved with dismantling it to lend any aid. There was no hope for him: he was going to die.
Why, then, wasn't he afraid of falling?
Truth be told, he didn't feel like he was falling at all. It wasn't anything like it had been the first time, when he fell free of his dragon at Enno. Gravity had seemed like a living entity then, driven to draw him into the ground. Maybe it was his body's method of coping with impending death... because, in a way that felt too unnatural to be of his own conscious, he felt within him a strange peace with being airborne. He wondered how this could be; what the circumstance was that made this fall so different from his last.
Because, a disparate part of him realized, you're not falling.
Not falling? Yugi was plummeting straight down into a gaping ravine; it certainly seemed like falling to him. It couldn't be anything except falling, unless…
Yugi jerked free of his becalmed state. "Diving?" he cried over the wind. He twisted and stared back at his shoulder. It was barely visible in the darkness, but he felt with his shoulders what his eyes couldn't reveal: scales glinting in a line far to his side, along a path of bone and leather.
Yugi gaped. It couldn't be possible. His wings were stretched open against the wind, steering him down on a course for the bottom of the ravine. He knew it was impossible; no matter what he had tried, he had never been able to make them move... Slowly, eyes watching the appendage, Yugi focused on drawing his wing in to his side. It resisted, then slowly gave in, bone and leather pulling back from its full size. A raw pain, stiff and burning like frostbite, flared from the joints of his wing as it moved. His fall became choppier without it stabilizing him and he let it unfurl again.
It was impossible, but it was true. "I… I'm flying?" he breathed. Flying, no – "falling with style" was a term he had heard somewhere – but the opportunity certainly now seemed possible, something within reach. Yugi was numb with this knowledge. He had cast off the idea of flying long ago, in the name of rejecting as much as he could of his now partly-dragon physiology. Since then, he had never given it a second thought...
Now, it was his only hope of survival. His monsters were powerless to save him, and he had only one option left besides certain death. He had to fly to save himself – and Téa.
He could barely make out Téa's form ahead of him. She appeared to be unconscious with the removal of Scott's influence, tumbling limply below him, just out of arm's reach. Yugi hissed and reached with his tail, trying to grab hold without cutting her. He carefully coiled it around her ankle and pulled her up to his level. When he had straightened her out he wrapped his arms around her and held her close to his chest.
Now reality caught up with him: Yugi suddenly realized that he had absolutely no idea how to fly. He tested his wings again, feeling the soreness return as he experimented with the motor controls. He tried moving his wings back in preparation for a downstroke, but nothing happened. He craned his neck over his shoulder and saw the shrinking opening to the canyon above him, faint stars twinkling within it like teeth in a grinning maw. Already it looked too far away for him to reach...
He steeled himself against the panic rising in his heart. He had to try. Gripping Téa tightly, he twisted himself and swung upward out of the dive. Automatically something clenched in his chest – and for the first time Yugi felt a surge run through his blood as his wings beat downward against the air. Almost instantly pain ripped through him; his wings nearly crumpled under the strain of his and Téa's combined weight. It took all his focus to maintain himself and concentrate on moving up. The muscles in his chest powering his flapping pulled tight with pain after only a few strokes, flaring with each flap; the muscles were raw, not ready for flight; Yugi was forcing too much upon them too soon.
Yugi admitted to himself that he had no idea what he was doing, aware by his rapidly dwindling strength that he was probably being very inefficient and sloppy with the motions. His breathing quickly became labored. His chest was burning from the exertion, tightening, threatening to give out at any moment. It was beginning to crush his ribs and strangle his lungs, but he had to keep going; he couldn't let them both die. His vision was starting to spin but he couldn't give up... The canyon lip was above him, closer now, he could almost see it…
Tristan couldn't recall ever having his knees give out from under him. He had always felt that was something that only happened in movies, a symbolic action that was meant to convey an emotion to the audience rather than to mimic reality. When sharp stings lanced up from both kneecaps he realized that that emotion was actually possible to have. A combination of panic and dread and stark introduction to life's cold truth that overwhelmed the mind so greatly that the body just turned off.
"You idiot!" he yelled down into the ravine in a voice choked with saltwater. "You stupid suicidal idiot!" Why in Hell did Yugi have to be so damn chivalrous?
A chivalrous, scarlet splat on slabs of stone.
Flabbergasted, feeling like he might puke, Tristan slumped back against his palms. He didn't know what to do. It was clearly evident that pain and injuries were as real in this world as they were in the outside one... a death here, then, would be just as final. His hand skittered on the ground behind him without his own intent, fumbling for the stones containing Yugi's magicians. He found one, lifting it in front of him. Without knowing which one was which, he knew somehow that this one was the Dark Magician; the gem moved on his palm, scooting towards the parapets. Tristan didn't know what to make of this gesture, closing his fingers around it so it wouldn't slide off his hand.
Maybe they had hit bottom already. Maybe Téa and Yugi were already...
"Damn it, Yugi," he muttered, then crescendoed to a yell. "Damn it, Yugi! You let yourself get killed by something as dumb as this? What the hell's wrong with you?"
He sat back numbly. Then, from the stirring breeze settling under the blanket of night, he heard an answer.
"Hey! How about instead of mourning my death you lend me a hand here?"
Tristan threw himself onto the castle wall. He peered into the shadows of the ravine below: first nothing, then stirrings of shapes, sketches of movement, puffs of air that could only be wingbeats. Tristan was beside himself with relief – Yugi had actually managed to do it! He had jumped after Téa and managed to call Seiyaryu in the nick of time.
Except… No. The movement rose from the darkness and took on blood-scaled wings under the penetrating starlight. As one jaw was clenched to the breaking point under the effort, another fell ajar.
"Yugi, are you flying?"
"No, I'm swimming! Just stop gawking and help me out here!"
Yugi had Téa in his clutches, his tail wrapped around her for extra support. As they came closer Tristan could see the strain on Yugi's face from the exertion of keeping them airborne, as if each wingbeat took all of his focus. There were scratch marks on Téa's arms from Yugi's grip tightening with tension. Tristan dangled his arm towards them. "Just a little higher! I can almost reach her!"
He felt the air rush past him as Yugi forced his way up. Without hesitating he leaned forward and pulled Téa out of Yugi's coiled grip. A moment she was free above the ravine – a moment in which she could have fallen back toward death without wings – and he lifted her onto the castle roof.
Tristan bent over her, and wind and shadow sailed over his shoulder. Free of his burden, Yugi flapped once to get over the wall and then collapsed onto the roof from midair. He lay flat on his back, his chest heaving with breath that sounded like the grinding of a deep-lung cough.
Yugi cracked one eye open, clearly stating that breathing was more important than explaining right now. Tristan gave a reciprocating nod and turned back to Téa. Save the marks of her rescue she appeared to be unharmed. Was she free of Scott's control? Only Yugi could tell it if she were. The last of the curse was finally leaving Tristan, sweeping the dust from his first encounter with magic sense from his body. He was normal again. Now it would be like before: Yugi would be the only one to feel magic, the only one to react when bitter black things stirred in different planes.
Tristan preferred it that way.
"Hurt?" Yugi huffed, still breathless.
"Nah, she's fine. A little scrape here and there is nothin' compared to almost being a pancake."
He grinned open-mouthed, fangs throwing back starlight. Tristan saw faint pink at their points and thought back to the soldiers in the castle, the ones who had confronted Yugi and paid the price for doing so. He understood that Yugi had had no choice. He knew what the curse would have done to those guards, what it had almost done to him. That didn't stop the feeling from rising in him, tucked neatly under his arm: one last parcel that he hadn't handed over to the owner yet. A burden he didn't want to pass on to its heir.
Yugi had partially regained his breath and was no longer completely winded. He craned his neck to look at Téa, her upper body supported by Tristan. "She's okay," he murmured between gulps of air. "We got her back, Tristan. We saved her from Scott."
Tristan mentally noted that he had done very little and that Yugi had done most of the saving – though he wasn't going to say anything about it and ruin the relief radiating from Yugi's face. Right now, to him, all of the resistance's problems were trivial. Regaining Téa had lifted all the recent misfortunes from him and opened his heart. Tristan saw how looking at her brought the glimmer of happiness back to his eyes, so darkened by despair and the shadows of exhaustion.
"She's okay," he said again, eyelids drooping under the exhaustion of rescue. "She's here with us again…" He slid slowly into unconsciousness, a smile still on his face.
"Dang." Tristan sighed, but also expected it: after all, Yugi had just performed an amazing feat of physical strength, something quite out of his league despite his impeccable skill. Tristan was still numbed by it all. He hadn't thought that it was possible for Yugi to fly… He looked down at Yugi's wings, sprawled out half-open on either side of him from his faulty landing. Seeing them open, with black leather stretched between spread digits of his wing, it was more evident that they were living appendages rather than just fixed attachments. Tristan gasped when he noticed the bones leading to Yugi's shoulder blades. Where they had been thin and spindly before had now thickened with layers of muscle; and on his chest, the contours of the flight muscles necessary for flapping were clearly visible, like divisions on a slab of chocolate.
Tristan gaped. Yugi had definitely not had a chest like that before. He had changed again… but how?
Then, all of the pieces came together. One word, one concept, made everything fit, and despite his sickness at the thought he knew that everything came back to it:
There had definitely been a spark of Slypher's magic within Yugi. If one of Slypher's spells had been left behind on him… Tristan remembered the mixed up feeling he had had after being affected by Scott's controlling magic. If it had mixed up Yugi too, then a hidden remnant of the god's magic could have been uncovered, explaining why it had remained dormant, unfelt by Yugi, for so long…
So the magic had been there the whole time. And when Yugi…
Pools of blood splashed against his feet. The bodies were still warm.
Yugi had killed those men. It had been out of necessity, but it didn't change the fact that he had.
"I used the energy from those I killed to make these additions when I instead could have strengthened my own power. Even so, I cannot fly just yet… Though you mortals may be enough to remedy that."
Slypher killed to gain power. He had used the energy from the lives he took to transform Yugi's body, but had left the wings unfinished. The remnant spell… Yugi killing the guards… all added up to completing what Slypher had left undone.
Yugi's gruesome act had been the catalyst for saving both his and Téa's lives. This shook Tristan deeply. Had Yugi not killed those men, he and Téa would be dead…
You would have been dead, too, he reminded himself, had Yugi not reached the curse in time. So many lives had been taken and saved, and the decision had come in an instant. Much as Tristan was appalled and shaken by what Yugi had done, what struck him the most deeply was that were he given the same situation, he didn't think he would be able to go through with it.
Tristan looked down at Yugi again. Guess he'll have a memento of this day for a long time. He sighed, watching the moon rise gracefully on the horizon, when suddenly a thought struck him.
"How am I supposed to carry two people out of here?"
(One) – Did that… even make any sense at all?
SC: So, were any of you guys like... "Geez! Why can't Yugi fly? Why the crud did you even bother to give him wings at all?"
THIS IS WHY. So that Spellcaster actually has relevance, other than "We couldn't think of a better plot, so we decided to just have another rescue-Téa mission." Seriously, it's like the programmers are stuck in one frame of mind – kinda' like how Mokuba always gets kidnapped.
It's also because we have some major issues coming soon. Major. (Yeah, I know... Like we don't have enough of that already, right?) It's hard to really see what any of them are right now, but I promise that later on, some things of great importance will have spurned from this chapter. There are lots of little things thrown in there... I'll give you a hint: the fact that Yugi seriously freaked out over killing the soldiers is a big deal.
I won't say anything more; if I give away everything, it takes away the fun for you readers. I ask that you please read and review, if you're still there.
Word Count: 13, 451