ryuujitsu & co.
[chapter twenty: para bellum]
Disclaimer: Saying we own Yuugiou is like saying Chopin was an ace Gundam pilot. Maybe in another life.
A/N: Right-o, it is currently early January. I have high hopes for completing this monstrosity by the end of April.
"I wish I had one, too, but the wheel fell off"
-schleicher the elder
"Shaadi is beset," Isis said. "I must go to him." She was already moving, the outline of her body dissolving into pixels.
"Like hell you're going alone," Marikku said.
"Stay where it's safe," Isis said, pixilated to her knees. Ryou heard what was left unspoken: Stay with Bakura. Don't let him out of your sight.
"Don't worry," Bakura said flatly. "I'll behave. Unless you'd rather I came along?"
"You'll stay here," Isis said, through gritted teeth. "I won't be but a moment."
"You can't manage," Bakura said. There was a faint mad glimmer in his eyes now. "Not the two of you. Not against a legion of angelics."
"I'll go," Malik said. "I can help."
Marikku and Isis turned on him in a single movement. "Like hell!" they said together. They were blurry to their necks, heads afloat in a cloud of pixels—then their heads, too, had gone, the intense blue of their eyes fragmenting and dispersing.
Bakura stepped dreamily forward, and the whirlwind closed around him.
He'll die, Ryou thought, and he lunged. His arms slipped through glittering pixels. For a moment he thought he had missed, that he was too late, and then he heard Mana's cry of alarm, felt the sharp burning pain of displacement—
Mana's hand around his wrist was like a deadweight, dragging him into the deeps. Tearing free of her, he was about to shout—but at the look in her eyes the sound slipped and slid and ended in a gurgle.
"Sorry, Mana-doll," he whispered, and then he was breaking into ten thousand pieces.
There had been, in all, four hundred and twenty-six successful revolts in the long imperial history of the underworld (seven hundred and twenty-seven when one included usurpations, and the actual number of attempts? as numerous as the stars in the sky). Throughout all of these the strange and shadowy hand of the Twelve, was a constant and heavy presence behind the scenes, guiding many a hapless Shaitan to an untimely and often bloody death. What could you say, really? Centralization had its risks.
It had, therefore, come as a real shock to Shaadi, to stroll boldly into the hall of the Council and find the authorizers of assassination themselves assassinated. The killers had done their best to match the right heads with the right bodies, though there were, oddly enough, quite a few misplaced limbs. Surely, Shaadi thought, identifying pairs of arms and legs could not be so difficult?
Since the atrocities of Elna very little could faze him. Walking alongside the bodies, he counted—seven. The Crown Prince was not among them. Perhaps he had been cut into pieces too small and pulpy to be put back together.
"Bless," Shaadi said. "And twelve minus seven leaves. . .well. Bless." There was a vague, slow sadness welling up in his body. He exhaled and turned, creaking, to face the angels who had gathered behind him.
They were watching him, empty-eyed, the frozen set of their faces all the more impressive against the wild flickering of their scimitars. He did a few more calculations. Six score angels. Numbers alone made up for the dearth of mages in their ranks. This was not a fight he would be surviving.
Silently, Shaadi threw his first attack, a basic, brutal slice that parted their ranks and cut open the chest of its intended target. There was no use throwing explosions or calling down the elements—considering the circumstances, such extravagance would be pure idiocy—better to take them down one by one, two by two, until it became desperate. He would save ostentatious display for the final blow. It would be a blast to level the building, and he would die with it. They were not engaging; they meant to overwhelm him with sheer numbers and take him alive. He would not give them the satisfaction, and he would not drag Isis into this.
He would have liked to see her again. . .
In his dream, Jou was walking through a sandcastle. He could hear the ocean booming beyond the wet sandy walls. The whole thing was shaking with the rushing of the waves, and the falling sand was gritty in his eyes. He knew this was a castle he and Shizuka had built, long ago, and he also knew, absurdly, that he had not shrunk—the world had simply grown and grown, the ocean become as vast as outer space, an expanding universe.
Inside it smelled of salt and old shells. The walls went on and on, dank and dark, but at the end of them was Otogi.
"Really, now," the vampire said. "You're late."
"You bloodsucking bastard," Jou said, "where did you go?"
Otogi waved a pale hand. "Oh, here and there. Popped off to Russia for a bit, saw some family. Revisited my roots and all. It was awfully warm in Turkey, I must say."
"That's not what I meant," Jou said. He was tiny in the palm of Otogi's hand, and Otogi was looking down at him, smiling beatifically, his incisors shining in the darkness.
"I'm not coming back, kiddo," Otogi said. "I'm going to nice places, where the sun don't ever shine."
The moon was drawing silvery lines along Kaiba's back. The shadowy imprint of Otogi's teeth remained, leering down at him, opening wide to swallow. He breathed out, reached out to trace the line of light on Kaiba's body—and stopped himself, wavering.
"Can't sleep, mutt?" Kaiba said, low.
Jou flushed. "Bad dream, I guess." He wondered what Kaiba had been dreaming about—nothing, maybe. Maybe demons didn't dream.
"Sleep," Kaiba told him. "You'll need it."
"Damn it," Jou said; "I can't. You can't, either. 'S not like I woke you up."
Kaiba sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed with a creak. The indent he had left in the mattress began to warm—slow, crawling, uncomfortable heat. Jou wondered when it was exactly that he had grown used to the cold.
"Get up, then," Kaiba said. He was holding the door open.
Jou clambered out of bed and pulled on his shirt with twitching fingers, and they went silently down the stairs and into the cold. Snow lay in thick gray heaps across the city, stinking of sewage and ash.
"Scared, mutt?" Kaiba said.
The cold was piercing through him, familiar knives in his lungs. He took a deep breath and said, "Yeah, I'm scared. Whatever has your brother—I don't think they're letting him go so easily. We have a box of bombs—they have a castle. And who are we kidding? I can't fucking fight with a sword."
"Mm." Kaiba wasn't looking at him; he was staring up into the sky, into the crisscrossing blue lights.
"Listen," Jou said, "if—" He swallowed. "If something happens to you—tomorrow—Kaiba—I want you to know I've got your brother, okay? I'll look after him. Long as I can. Until I die. Even after I die. I got him. So don't worry about that, okay?"
Kaiba said dryly, "My brother in your hands? Now I'm worried."
"Bastard." Jou followed the demon's gaze up through the clear cold air.
"If anything happens to you," Kaiba said, "your sister—"
"Shizuka," Jou said, and there was a sharp, bitter pain in his chest. He tried to smile. "That's my sister—Shizuka." Shizuka—bright hair like cinnamon. And eyes like—
He realized he couldn't remember.
"If anything happens to you, she will be cared for," Kaiba said. "You have my word on that."
Jou's eyes were burning. He said tightly, "Cool, Kaiba. Thanks."
Shaadi knew pain. He'd had every bone in his back broken in the past. Fingers snapped, feet beaten and crushed, a kneecap ritually removed (he and Isis' father had retrieved it the next week, putting an end to a series of mutilations and sacrifices). The hamstringing was—new, let's say—and as he lay there bleeding out he realized the next strike was probably going to take off an arm. He was fairly sure he could ride out the pain. But losing an arm was problematic—it meant they would take him alive after all.
He closed his eyes and started to hum, and he thought of very hot things—sunlight, red sand, burning slums. All of Elna aflame at his feet and the hot black fury of the avenger, the crackling syllables: Murderer.
There were blisters forming and blood running molten down his throat when the south wall exploded.
Dust rained down. The flaming scimitar about to do away with Shaadi's right arm extinguished and fell to the ground with a clatter; the charred body of its bearer fell beside it and disintegrated.
Isis came walking through the debris like a queen, arms spread wide, black hair billowing. Every word that dropped from her lips was magic, burning the air.
At her shoulder, Marikku Ishtar glittered gold. In three clenched fists he held a crackling dagger formed of light; in three others, tumbling fireballs. He ducked a swinging blade—
—and Bekhara leapt from behind him, silver and black, bisecting Marikku's attacker with a hoarse exclamation. His fingers were twisting in every direction, knuckles curling grotesquely backward. He was battle-mad already, the eyes brilliantly crimson, shaking with laughter and magic, reeking of blood and myrrh. There was blood trembling already at the corners of his mouth.
"Shaadi," Isis said, serene. "Sorry to be late."
"You should not have come," Shaadi snapped up at her. "You have endangered—"
"Marikku and I," Isis said, "can look after ourselves. You, on the other hand, seem to be having some difficulty."
"Touché," Shaadi said, and he broke the spine of a lunging angel with a sharp blast while Isis sealed the wounds in his legs. "My thanks—Lady Ishtal."
"Most welcome, Lord Shaadi." She hauled him up with one arm. "These seals will not last, and you've lost a good deal of blood already. Have you strength left to fight?"
"Magic enough, but—" He broke off and stared at her, horror growing in his gut. "Isis, we cannot possibly win. Don't tell me you mean to stay—"
Over the whirring of wings Bekhara's mad laughter sounded again and again. Two hundred years ago a younger, more idiotic Shaadi might have laughed in the same crazed way and thought, Oh, she loves me after all. Now he looked at Isis, drinking in the sight of her, every fiber of him suffused with remorse. Shaitan. Her father asked me to look after her, and now she's come to die for me—
"I realize the odds are against us," Isis said. "But I am hardly suicidal—"
"I beg to differ! You've come waltzing into a legion of angelics without so much as an escape plan—"
"Shaadi," she said sharply. "You are not listening. I know the pain has addled your brains, but listen to me and think. I would not have brought Marikku on a suicide mission! There is an escape plan, but it involves some labor and effort on our part. They have put a seal on the area—we cannot switch out until we are beyond the wards. We must make our way to the street. Marikku—the wall, and quickly!"
Hamstringing had rather negative consequences for normal movement, Shaadi discovered. With Isis gripping him by the elbow on one side and Marikku—sprouting an additional set of arms to keep him steady—on the other, he managed a hobbling gait through the broken wall and into the long hall beyond.
"Shaitan, I'm too old for this," Shaadi gasped.
"Oh, spare me," Isis said. "You'll outlive us yet."
"Careful," Shaadi said, grimacing. "Spoken from your mouth those words may prove prophetic."
The angelics were not so much pursuing as closing in front of them, one rank after another—yet each time Shaadi became certain they would be overwhelmed, Marikku would send forth another blast, Isis another devastating six syllables. Shaadi put his hands on their shoulders, let his magic flow into them, even as he whispered words for swiftness and strength.
"Blast," he heard Isis mutter—just as Bekhara materialized before them, darting out from the darkness.
No, not Bekhara at all—the doppelganger.
"Get back!" Isis shouted at him. "Bekhara will come."
"He won't," the boy said simply. "We'll catch up, Lady Ishtal."
At that moment the seals in Shaadi's legs flickered and collapsed, and he with them, and as Isis bent to minister to him and Marikku circled closer, the boy ran past them and vanished into shadow once more.
There was a chance he might arrive somewhere else entirely. There was a chance he might dissolve—
When he came to he was sprawled across cold stone. Everything ached. The gate of a building loomed ahead, and beyond it rose a yawning black mouth: a hole blasted through the sandstone wall, three figures stepping swiftly through.
"W-wait—" A pathetic little wheeze. The jump had winded him, and wasn't that just bloody perfect? Magic with enough soul enough to love and thought enough to make idiotic decisions and lungs enough to keep him from standing. He could pass his hands through solid objects; he could sink inches into the floor; and he couldn't bloody stand.
So he crawled, and kept crawling, faster and faster, until he was on his knees teetering forward, scrabbling at the ground—and finally he hauled himself through the broken wall with his very useless hands, scoring raw lines across his forearms.
Yes! he thought, and hissed as his legs buckled, sending his knees smashing into stone. Up again, get up, don't think, don't breathe—
There is a distinct possibility, said a voice in his mind, that you are running to your death.
Ryou realized he didn't care. He was completely, horribly aware of the burning in his thighs, the sudden weakness in his arms.
It was true he had had a life once: mother, father, sister, Katsuya Jounouchi and the scars to prove their friendship—a tangible body, a home, a bed, city of humans walled by earth. All of it an enchantment; none of it real. But Bakura—
Bakura, shouting in the kitchen, eyes black and angry—the insistent press of lips, the gentle red curiosity that first morning on the auctioning grounds, the long slim hand curling against his cheek, slipping so sweetly down to stroke his neck—Bakura with the mad patched cloak flying, Bakura crumpled on the ground, bleeding from the eyes and nose and mouth—Bakura sitting quietly in the dark, watching him and saying nothing at all. Bakura—
Bakura is everything.
Mana will hate me for this.
Light flying outward: the light of countless angelic scimitars, raised and moving forward in a blazing flood, and standing against them was Bakura, a single figure cloaked in black, spinning, gleaming, curling his fingers and shouting through the blood in his throat.
The rustling, burning tide took a single step forward. Scimitars lifted and drew back in unison. Mages raised their arms above their perfect porcelain skulls; their mouths opened in chants. Bakura threw his head back and howled.
He came to a wild, spinning halt in front of the glittering scimitars and lunged for the demon, for the eager red smile, the white fingers raised high.
It was silly and maudlin to shout I love you—not to mention impractical—You wretched idiot was inappropriate and not at all what he meant—and he could not quite get the breath for it anyway—
"Hey!" he screamed, and Bakura heard—and Bakura reached—
It burst from their clasped hands in curling tendrils, wrapping all about them, obliterating Ryou's vision. He heard Bakura laugh, shrill and savage; he heard his own mouth echo. And the gold was all around.
The light of the streetlamps was becoming apparent, harsh and yellow on the rubble before them. Marikku let go abruptly—surprised, Isis let her grip loosen as well. Shaadi sagged to the ground.
"Marikku!" said Isis sharply.
Marikku was frowning. "I'm going back for them."
"I won't leave him, Sister," Marikku said, obstinate. "He's saved my life more times than I can—"
"Wait," Shaadi said. The gasp as he had fallen had drawn new, strange air into his body—air that felt charged. There was nausea rising in his gut, and it was from the taste of the air and not his wounds. He pitched his voice until it carried over Marikku's protests: "Wait, Marikku—"
Marikku and Isis fell silent. Their mouths parted as they tested the air like serpents—and Isis' eyes began to shine with wonder.
The taste of the magic had shifted, had somehow clarified, grown rounder, a whole note.
And it was huge.
"Unholy Shaitan," Marikku breathed, and swore.
"Get down—get down—" There was a muffled thump as Isis hooked an arm around her brother's back and forced him into the dust. Her hand was unyielding against Shaadi's neck, holding him where he had fallen; her mouth whispered against his ear, hot and damp, and the shield rose glowing around them.
In an instant it had been engulfed.
Isis' lips were clammy from the effort of keeping the shield; the hand on Shaadi's neck was trembling and cold with sweat. Marikku had rolled sideways and pressed his body into the ward, funneling strength into it. The light had faded, but the magic, the thick, queasy feel of it, stayed heavy around them.
Shaadi twisted around and saw Bekhara and his doppelganger walking hand in hand, graceful, deliberate steps.
Their very skin was shining with it—liquid, molten, gold.
Behind them stood not one angelic soldier. There were—pieces—pieces and little else: cold, extinguished scimitars, snapped metallic wings. The walls had been reduced to rubble—everything obliterated in that single hellish blast. The streetlamps had been blown apart and were sputtering their last in the gutters. Everything dust! Amazing that Isis' shield had held—amazing that they had lived through it!
"No," Shaadi said. "No, I can't believe it." He tried to steady his breathing. " My. . .Shaitan."
Isis began to laugh. "Realization dawns!" she said, lunging at the wall of the shield to preserve it. "Isn't it marvelous! Shaitan below—if we aren't dust already they'll have killed us with the light of it—"
"Turn it off, Bakura!" Marikku yelled, eyes screwed shut against the glare. "Fuck's sake!"
Bekhara and his doppelganger laughed with a single voice.
"Sorry, darling," they said.
The light flared again, a smaller, white-hot blast—and winked out, drowning them in spotty darkness. Then Shaadi heard laughter. Shuffling steps. They came into the street leaning on each other, Bekhara slumped over his doppelganger's shoulders, laughing fit to burst.
The last of the streetlamps died with a pop and bright flash.
"Help," came the doppelganger's voice, faint and smiling. "Help—seriously—he's heavier than he looks—"
"Fucking lunatic!" Marikku said. "What a stunt! Scared me half to death."
"What's that?" Bakura said lightly. "The lord of the western lands, quaking in his sandals? Did you offer down a prayer to Lucifer on my behalf?"
Marikku swore. "I'm serious, Bakura. There was no need for you to stay behind—"
"Just leaving them something to remember. . ."
"There aren't any of them left to remember it, now!"
"Hardly a problem about that, now is there, my love. . ."
They were making their way slowly up the eastern staircase of the Ishtal castle. Marikku led the way, an orb of light held aloft in one hand. He was swearing at them—mostly at Bakura—with every step. Isis and Shaadi were a full story behind, moving cautiously to prevent the black magic seals in Shaadi's legs from rupturing again. They were quiet, but for the rustling of Isis' robes and the thumping of Shaadi's deadened feet.
Bakura's arm was light across Ryou's shoulders—calculatedly so ("Heavier than I look?" Bakura had said as they switched out from the ruined street. "What insolence! I'll have you beaten with iron rods!"), his fingers tapping a gentle staccato across Ryou's forearm. Every little touch brought with it a warm and heady rush of pleasure. It was a muted echo of what had happened before—nothing like the searing gold that had shot across Ryou's vision and burned through him the instant their hands joined.
The euphoria had faded soon enough to normalcy—ahh, Ryou had said, and Bakura with him, finally. Shall we? It had been child's play to lift their hands and blast the angels away—utterly, perfectly familiar.
It was only afterward, stumbling forward in the darkness with Bakura's arms about him and Bakura giggling helplessly against his throat that he felt a breathless giddiness. His eyes were smarting; his tongue felt burned and his palms raw and skinned—but they were alive. There was a building lying around him in broken pieces and they had done it and it had been easy. Laughter bubbled up. Bakura had stopped trying to walk; the demon had practically buckled, crowing with amusement. It had been all Ryou could do to keep moving—on legs that felt less and less like semi-solid constructs and more and more like water.
"You're mad," Ryou said. "You're absolutely mad. . ."
Bakura, still chortling, said, "Ohh, construct-boy, I love it—when you talk dirty. Hmm. 'Construct-boy' doesn't quite have—the same ring to it—"
"Shut up," Ryou said, and in the same breath, "I love you—don't laugh—"
"It is customary to laugh—when one is having—h-having—Shai. . .tan! Having hysterics," Bakura said, and he doubled over. Ryou faltered and nearly sank down, but then Marikku was beside them, hoisting Bakura up with one arm.
"Shaitan, the pair of you—let's get out of here."
As Marikku reached for the sitting room door, Mana burst from behind it. "Shaitan," she whispered. "I should kill you both."
"Well," Bakura began, "don't hit us, please. It's hardly productive and I cannot afford any more bruises—"
Mana's hands flexed as though she would like very much to do just that—hard and more than once with closed fists. "Don't do this to me again," she said instead. "I have been loyal, Master Bakura. But I am not a summoning. I am not an—an animated corpse. If you still see me as such I will leave your service."
The air around them seemed to crystallize.
"I certainly can't let you do that," Bakura said finally, mildly, "knowing you know what you know."
Mana looked shaken, then:
"Is that a threat, sir?"
Bakura's tone was smooth and courteous. "Not at all, Mistress Mana. Your services are valuable to me, and I would rather you remain in my household. Now, hush. No more scenes in the corridor, if you please."
Mana opened her mouth and seemed to think better of it. She glanced at Isis, who had reached them with Shaadi leaning heavily on her, and looked back at Bakura, silent.
Isis raised an eyebrow. "Shall we proceed inside?" she said. "Malik is no doubt waiting within for our safe return."
Malik was indeed waiting for them—he ran from behind the door and began to beat Marikku with a rolled up reed mat. "Motherfucker! What's the idea, huh? Think I can't hold my own? Just going to leave me here to rot? Fuck you! Seriously, fuck you!"
Isis moved smoothly past, leading Shaadi to the ornamented divan. Mana did not move. She was still watching Bakura—a level, steady gaze, her arms folded, her mouth tightly closed. Bakura looked blankly back.
"Mana," Ryou said. "Could you go in first?" He flinched as she turned her stare on him. "Please? We won't be long."
"Surely," Bakura said, "we're all friends here? Mistress Mana may stay if she wishes."
Ryou wound the torn hem of his shirt around and around his right index finger. "It's—we—"
"I already know what he wants to say," Mana said flatly. "There's no need for me to hear it again."
She went inside and closed the door quietly behind her.
Bakura chuckled. "My, my. I'd rather face ten angelic armies than Mana in a rage. All right, my darling soul-construct-thingummy, what have you been keeping from me? You know I don't like my servants keeping secrets."
"Ryou," Ryou said. "You never say my name."
"Would you prefer that I did?" Bakura said. "From what I gather, your name is as real as the rest of your history—which is to say, it is an appalling lie. Why keep it when you've shed everything else?"
"Then neither of our current names have any value," Ryou said. "Bekhara bin Elna."
"Shock and horror," Bakura said, monotone. "You have discovered my true identity. I suppose I'd better run for my life before you inform the authorities! Come now, Ryou—the beautiful Lady Ishtal has already bludgeoned the issue to death. Surely you have a better reason to pull me aside."
"It's. . .related," Ryou said.
"Oh, by all means, speak in riddles," Bakura said. "I'll stand here and nod and smile, shall I? There is a limit to my patience, Ryou. What is it you want to say?"
Ryou sucked in a breath, and another—This is it, this is it, it ends now—
Shaadi might have been hobbling, but he was keenly aware of the urgency of the situation. Marikku and his half-crazed soul-slave had vanished out the door; Kismet's Mana remained within, sitting sullen and quiet in a corner. Bekhara and his doppelganger lurked just outside, their voices rising and falling in conversation. Very relaxed when one ignored the impending angelic invasion. And Isis wanted to heal his legs? There was no need! Weaker demons had commanded armies from their deathbeds, carried about in palanquins—
So perhaps he was being somewhat unreasonable.
There was a rich gleam in Isis' eyes as she eased him gently onto the divan and bade him to lie still.
"In a moment," she murmured, pushing back his torn shenti to get at the wounds. There was a sharp pain as she broke the seals; the blood was warm as it began to flow anew down his legs. This time Isis went slowly, creating structured, twelfth-level seals meant to hold.
"Now—" Shaadi hissed as she gave each healed wound a sharp tap "—sit up and tell me everything you know."
He began to relate, breathlessly, all that he had learned—the particulars of Akhenaden's death and his own investigations to the point. He glossed over the loss of the Crown Prince and came quickly to the most devastating piece of news—
"It's the Big Five," he said. "They're in league with the angelics, somehow—no telling if it's the government or just an exceptionally large band of mercenaries—they've assassinated the Council and tried to do away with me—though why I can't imagine."
"The usual suspects, bless them!" Isis said bitterly. She sat on the divan and leaned toward him, head bowed, whispering quick and low. "And I'll tell you why you became a target—you are a relic of the imperial age, and you have always held them in contempt. If you had fawned a bit more in the past they might have considered sparing you.
"I'll tell you another thing," she added. "Without a doubt they've gained the cooperation of the angelic government—or a body of their government. Covert ops perhaps. But no mercenary band ever holds such a large percentage of mages—certainly not so many trained in military formations. Were you aware Bekhara's castle has come under attack by angelic mages? I doubt it was an isolated incident. You've been sloppy, Shaadi."
"Heat of the moment," Shaadi protested. "Never mind it. I won't do it again. But we must act."
"How?" Isis said. "You may think I'm all for charging empty-handed into enemy ranks, but I tell you—we can hardly fight the whole angelic army. With what soldiers? With what funds? The great mages of the Council are dead, and the rest have scattered across the country and are no doubt occupied with their own troubles. There is no network, no means of contacting them, and no guarantee of their cooperation. They, too, have split into factions. It's possible the angelics have struck them, too, else some of them may be allies of the Big Five. We can trust no one but ourselves, and you and I are wounded and tired."
"There's no need to bring anyone else into this," Shaadi said swiftly. "Crump and his bunch will be expecting us to seek allies, to go underground. They're prepared to root us out. In terms of resources the Big Five can certainly outlast us in a long-term war. I say, surprise them—attack now, before they get a firm grasp on power. We need only strike once."
"With what means?" Isis repeated. "We are but two."
"We are six," Shaadi said. "Kismet's Mana and—I'm sorry, Isis, but we will need your brother—"
"That's four, Shaadi," Isis said, beginning to speak more slowly. "Are you perhaps still in pain? Do you need—"
"No, no," Shaadi said impatiently. "Don't you see? We have the ultimate weapon in our hands already."
Isis' nostrils flared. "What!" she snapped, and drew back, mouth thinning in displeasure. "Shaadi, that is insane. Bekhara? He is the berserker of eighty years ago! He cannot be controlled. His motives are questionable—hehas attacked you; he is a traitor to the throne!"
"Aren't we all, these days?" Shaadi said wryly. "Did he go into a rage today? He did not; he saved my life—my life and yours, and the life of your brother. Did he level the city? He did not. He did not because he had that boy beside him—"
"—because they are a pair, a matched set, the first Golden in centuries! The Big Five cannot possibly expect this. They cannot possibly counteract it."
"We don't know how it is triggered; we do not know how to control it or stop it. The boy is hardly stable—he isn't physically real. Their connection is tenuous, and Bekhara is half-mad! I will not expose my brother to—"
She stopped and drew a long, long breath.
"I admit we are pressed for time," she said, more gently, "but you have not convinced me—not in the least, Shaadi. You have told me the Big Five's movements, but you have not discovered their true motive. If it is to kill the Atemuyami, then why attack Bekhara? If it is to seize power, then why attack Bekhara? All our theories collapse when we add this single factor. There is more to this plan of the Big Five's than you think. Yes, time is short, but what we truly cannot afford is to act in haste and risk losing all."
From the corner of the room, Kismet's Mana cleared her throat and said, "Lady Ishtal, you're wrong."
The wounds in Mana's back throbbed—dull, nauseating pounding. She had tried to cast a cooling enchantment and had found she had not had the magic for it. There was a sick, sad lump in her stomach, and that had not come from the pain. All this time with Bakura—looking after him, fighting for him—well, she had never had any illusions about the nature of their relationship. He was flighty, quite nearly mad.
It had been a sensible decision. She could see that—she wasn't blind to that. She was weak and wounded and in no fit state to go marching against angelic legions. But Ryou wasn't even tangible. Shaitan, sitting there, watching Malik pace, twisting her fingers—useless fingers! all the time wondering if—
Shaitan, she could have killed him! Brainless—obsessed—
Isis and Shaadi were arguing and arguing. They were both wrong. She would have found it amusing were she not so exhausted and sickened—
"Lady Ishtal," she said, "you're wrong."
There was a lull.
"What?" Isis said at last. "How can that be?"
Fuck-bless Shaitan in a bronze hourglass I shouldn't have opened my mouth. But she started to explain anyway, slowly and deliberately, trying to work through the aches. "You know of the angelic attack on our castle, perhaps," she said. "But you cannot know—only Marikku knows—of the visit the Big Five paid us."
"Shaitan," Shaadi said, quiet, shocked, and for a moment Mana was viciously glad.
"They knew Bakura's identity; they confronted him," she said. "I was there when they came. I was there when they tried to kill him. They must have hoped he would join them. And if he refused, they knew already how to kill him."
"How, then?" Isis asked—a little too eagerly, Mana thought.
"The grave faerie," Mana said. Pretty little Sara. "They tore her from him—used her as a mirror to reflect his own power. And it would have killed him if he had been alone—"
"The doppelganger," said Shaadi.
"Their plan failed, so they sent the angelic brigade to deal with him. Right now, the only thing they cannot know for certain is that Bakura is still alive. But they will not take that chance. They can assume the blast killed us all—but they won't. It is far safer for them to treat the situation as though Bakura is still alive and hell-bent on revenge."
"So," Isis said, "a single offensive attack will be the worst thing we can do."
"No," Mana said. She looked between them, at Master Mahaado's friend and companion and at the demoness who had read Mahaado his fate—odd how they were speaking like equals—odd how she could see and understand so much more than they! And she ached. Mahaado would have managed this. He would have seen it right away, stopped the madness before it began.
Mahaado is not here. Mahaado is dead, and Bakura's library has blown up, and Mahaado will never come back—Shaitan, the blood Shaitan my back hurts. No.
"No," she repeated. "It's exactly what we should do. The Big Five have tried so many times to kill Bakura—why? He's an unknown; he's as good as dead—that's what I thought. But I realized the only reason they could ever want him dead is because they will be unable to deal with him at full strength. When all the parts of Bakura have been combined, the Big Five are powerless against him—and they know it. They have tried to strike the parts when those parts were still divided—beginning with Bakura, the only piece whose identity was certain. Ryou's existence and sudden reappearance in the underworld was something they could not have expected—as far as they knew, the other pieces of Bakura's magic had broken off and been destroyed.
"Bakura is powerful, but he's no hero. They think they have neutralized Bakura, weakened him for the time being. They think he will hide away to lick his wounds because he is that kind of demon. Nor do they know that we have come to you, Lady Ishtal. You must see it. The time to attack is now."
In the chill gloom of a subterranean chamber, the Crown Prince of Hell was coming slowly back to himself. The madness was receding; guilt sat heavy in his stomach and the shackles were tight and cold around his wrists. There was a tingling numbness in his hands, bloodless now after so many hours chained above his head. He had seen these rooms before, long ago, from a rather different perspective—gazing down at the shattered feet of a prisoner—a would-be poisoner, Akhenaden had explained, leading him back up the winding staircase. They have broken every bone in her feet. They will begin with her fingers tomorrow.
Yami flexed his own stiff fingers and rubbed the tips together. Little flames crackled and licked at his fingernails. It was enough warmth to protect his hands from the cold. A snap could generate considerably more, and under normal circumstances would have melted his chains as well, but—
He tried again—barely a flicker. Bless. Well. It would have been wildly out of character for wily Shaitan to build a prison that did not mute his captives' magic.
He gave his chains a yank, on the off chance the links had rusted through. No luck.
The feeling of hands lingered: soft, fleshy finger pads forcing his wrists into manacles, snapping the shackles in place about his ankles—that was it. Grunts—laughter—light burning his eyes. Oh, he's coming round. What a puppy! Striking resemblance to his mother, don't you think?
Gansley—the Angelis general requests audience.
Be good, now, your highness.
Ah, that smile. The little bird man. Crump.
For a brief, absurd moment, Yami wondered what they had done to Yuugi. Maybe in the next cell—the thought of the plump little wrists chafing under those filthy cuffs—
Shame flooded him, hot and sick. Shaitan, he'd been out of his mind.
They were going to kill him. He'd deserve it, too. Yuugi—devils, Yuugi—
Yami slumped in his shackles and groaned.
"Will you quit it?" said a voice crossly. "Yeah, it really sucks, but crying about it isn't gonna help."
Yami pivoted as much as the chains would allow and saw the boy standing beyond the bars of his cell, physically unrestrained but practically glowing with magic in the darkness. He was slight of build, looking a bit starved, gray-eyed and black-haired and wearing a torn and dirty shift. There was something like biting frost in the gray stare. The jaw, childish and soft and shivering with the cold, was set, the teeth clenched—he had seen it all before, somewhere. Even the voice was familiar, though he couldn't place it.
"Seriously," the boy said. "We can talk if you want, but we need to keep it down. My brother will be here any minute."
Marikku's lover was stubborn. "You are fucking taking me with you this time," he said. "Got it, Marikku? Are we clear on this?"
"No," Marikku said.
"Don't be ridiculous," Isis said. "Against angelics you'd only be a liability."
"Lady Ishtal," the human boy said, "I love your brother. I love this bastard; I want to protect him; and I am fucking ace with knives." He turned to Marikku, his eyes deadly serious. "I'm going with. This time you're not going to get the jump on me. We're clear on this. We're clear as fucking crystal."
"If I may," Shaadi said lightly, "seven is better than six." He met Isis' stare without flinching. Shaitan! if looks could kill! "Isis, he may tip the scales in our favor."
"I'll look after him," said Mana suddenly. The doppelganger glanced at her—a timid little flick of the eyes—and reddened.
Isis started. "Kismet's Mana, this is a serious handicap—"
"She doesn't have to," the boy interrupted. "Look, I can handle myself. My father was a fucking sorcerer, okay? The last time was a fluke."
"We're wasting time," Bekhara said flatly. "Let the boy come."
"Well," Isis said finally, "if you have no objections, Bekhara—" She sounded rattled, Shaadi thought. It was clear she had been expecting vehement protest, an acerbic refusal—some form of bitter opposition from the berserker. They had both been expecting it. Shaadi had opened his speech with promise of a pardon—the erasing of records. The official death of Bekhara bin Elna.
I seem to have heard that somewhere before, Bekhara had said. Make your case, Shaadi. Save your promises. I promise nothing.
Now, there was no resistance. Bekhara looked out the window, quiescent. His lidded eyes were dull and soft as coal.
Something had changed—Shaadi had seen it the moment Bekhara and his doppelganger reentered the room. The berserker's entire demeanor had altered—the haughtiness vanquished. He seemed to be lost in thought, his fingers knotting absently in the folds of his cloak.
"Right, then," Shaadi said. He pushed away all thoughts of disaster. "Let's go to war."
A/N: That's that! It will probably be another three or four months before chapter twenty-one arrives. That said, we are very, very close to the grand finish. The Boss Battle, basically!