The woman lay exhausted on the pallet that had been laid on the floor for her - which was just now stained with blood and other bodily fluids. She had been in labor since sometime in the early afternoon, and now it was dark enough that the inside of her cabin had to be lit by candles. It was by their flickering light that her first child, a son, came into the world. Her husband watched anxiously as his wife lifted up the child and began inspecting him. The baby did not cry as he was lifted up, but only fidgeted a bit and whimpered slightly.
"Is he all right?" the father asked. He had been praying for a boy, a healthy one to help him tend his animals and assist in his work, but there was something about this child that struck him as odd.
"He seems healthy enough," the mother replied. "Yet I sense something wrong..."
She laid his hand on his chest, feeling his breathing. Her expression clouded.
"He has no heartbeat," she said. "He lives, yet he has no heartbeat."
There was a weighty pause as they digested that information. Both of them had heard the stories - everyone had - of the children born with no pulse or blood. They were called Halves, after the old folk stories that said that such children possessed only half a soul, and lived by magic alone. No one knew if this was true or not, but the fact was that Half children always turned out strange, sometimes dangerous. Many considered them to be more monster than human.
"We should kill it now," said the father.
"No!" the woman gasped. "You can't! He's our son!"
"He's not a real child. We ought to get rid of him before he causes any damage. If we let him grow up, he'll be a danger to everyone around us."
"He hasn't done anything yet. He's just an innocent baby. You can't be sure he'll grow up to be a monster."
"I can be sure of what the other people will do when they find out about him. It's dangerous for us to keep him. It will be better for everyone if we just put him down quietly."
"I won't let you!" She tried to get up, but she was still too sore and weak to stand, and she fell with a gasp. The baby began to cry, a piercing high-pitched wail that seemed to resonate off every glass and metal object in the room. It was an eerie sound, and she cringed in spite of her determination.
"You hear that?" her husband replied. "That's not a sound a normal child makes. Let's just kill it and be done with it!"
He snatched the baby out of his wife's hands and began carrying it out the back door. Upon arriving at his destination, however, he found he could go no further, because there was an elderly man standing on his doorstep.
"I think," said the man, "that before any killing is done, I might like to take a look at the matter myself."
"Sugoroku!" the man exclaimed. Sugoroku was the local wizard who lived in the next village. He very seldom appeared in their town at all, and when he did, it was usually to the accompaniment of many strange goings-on. "What are you doing here?"
"I read in the cards that a magical child would be born here tonight," he replied. "I wanted to have a look at it for myself. It looks like I got here just in time, too. Let me have a look at the baby. Is it a boy or a girl?"
"It's a Half," said the father brusquely.
"Yes, but Half of what? Let me see."
He caught the man's arm and pulled the baby into view, studied it intently a moment, and then picked it up and looked at it some more. The crying baby quieted at his touch.
"Yes, I see," said Sugoroku. "A Half, just as you say. A child with magic in his veins instead of blood. You were planning on killing him, weren't you?"
The father nodded.
"That would be a terrible waste, I think. If you don't want him, let me have him. I'll look after him for you - raise him as my own grandson. You'll never have to see or hear from him again. You can tell everyone else that your son was dead at birth, and no one will be the wiser."
"What do you think?" asked the husband, looking back at his wife. "Will this make you happy?"
She nodded silently. The wizard Sugoroku had a reputation as a kindly man, wise in the white arts of healing and divination. She felt sure he would keep his word when he said that he would care for her child as if he were the old man's own grandson. If it would protect her son, she was willing to pass the boy along to someone better able to raise him than she.
"Well, I guess a wizard would know how to raise a Half boy, if anyone can," the husband said. He looked down at the child in his arms for a moment, then sighed. "All right. Take him. He's yours."
"I knew you'd see reason," said Sugoroku. "Thank you for the gift. Good luck to you both."
Then he turned and walked away, taking the baby with him into the shadows.
Though the journey from the small mountain village where the child had been born to the larger town where the wizard lived would have normally taken several hours, Sugoroku arrived home with his burden in a matter of minutes. He let himself into his house - a tottery stone building that had once been a windmill before it had broken down beyond repair. Now the building was full of assorted wizardly paraphernalia. Dried bunches of herbs and pots filled with live plants hung from the ceiling, while every table and shelf was cluttered with arcane odds and ends. Cards, dice, and boards with assorted strange symbols figured largely into his collection of belongings. He moved a few of these out of the way and set the baby down on a cushion that had once held his crystal ball before he'd gotten rid of it. The baby was whimpering fitfully again.
"It's been a long time," Sugoroku muttered, "but I think I still remember how to deal with a baby. I imagine the first thing to do is feed you. Wait a moment."
He left the room for a moment, in search of milk and something to put it in that a baby was capable of drinking from. When he returned, he found that the child had worked one eye open, and was having a look around at his first glimpse of the world. Tentatively, the boy put out a hand and began batting at a stack of cards that rested nearby. Finding he couldn't reach them, he turned his attention to a pair of dice and managed to push them off the table. Sugoroku chuckled.
"Getting into things already, hmm?" he said. "I'm going to have to do some cleaning if I'm going to have a child in the house again. You're a little too young to play those kinds of games, little fellow. Hmm..."
He bent to pick up the dice. These were no ordinary dice; instead of pips, they had an assortment of mystic symbols engraved on them. They were meant to be used in determining the true nature of things, and now he looked at the way they had fallen with the same care he gave all his magical devices.
"Perhaps this is a portent," he said. "Very well. I'll give you a name, little playful one - the ancient word for game: Yugi."
"Grandpa! I'm going out for a walk!"
"All right, Yugi! Just stay out of trouble, and try not to get hurt!"
"I won't! Bye, Grandpa!"
Yugi ran out the door of the old windmill and into the afternoon sunshine. He had been spending most of the day helping his grandfather with his experiments, which was always interesting, at least to Yugi. He had never quite gotten the knack of seeing the future the way his grandfather could, or any of the other small magics that the old man could perform, but he loved to watch anyway. However, there was only so much of that kind of thing a young man could take before he grew restless. Now he was happy to be outside in the warmth of a late summer day, feeling the wind in his unruly hair.
Yugi had grown up to be, in most respects, a fairly ordinary sixteen year old boy. He was small for his age, with round, innocent eyes - hardly the monster his father had been expecting when he'd been born. The only obviously odd thing about him was his hair, which had a dismaying tendency to stick up in all directions no matter how much he brushed it down. It also couldn't seem to make up its mind what color it wanted to be: it started out black at the roots, and shaded to red at the tips, except in the front where it was blonde and wavy, as if he had been missing some hair there and replaced it with someone else's. Otherwise, the only strange thing about him physically was that he, like every other Half, had no blood or heartbeat. If he was cut, he bled some peculiar shimmery-pink liquid, something that beaded and ran like mercury. He had lived his whole life being exhorted not to hurt himself, lest anyone see that strange ichor and realize what he really was.
Still, that left him plenty to do, as long as he was careful. He ambled up the road that led to town, whistling to himself. As he neared the village, he found a few of the other boys sitting on a large smooth rock, playing a card game. Yugi trotted over to join them.
"Hi!" he said. "What are you playing? Can I join in?"
"Go away," said one of the boys.
"Yeah, leave us alone," another said. "You can't play. You cheat!"
Yugi cringed. "I do not!"
"Of course you do. Don't be stupid," said the oldest of the boys, with authority. His name was Ushio, and all the other boys answered to him. "Did you think we wouldn't figure it out sooner or later? When a guy wins every game he plays, no matter what, he must be cheating. You probably learned it from that creepy grandfather of yours."
"My grandfather is not creepy," said Yugi, "and he doesn't know anything about cheating at cards. He only uses them for fortune telling and things, not playing card games."
"Sure he does," said the first boy sarcastically. "Nobody wins all the time. Heck, last time we played, I had cards hidden up my sleeve, and you still beat me!"
Ushio cuffed him. "You weren't supposed to tell him that!"
Yugi just scuffed his feet in the dust and said nothing. He couldn't really argue with the boys - after all, they were telling the truth. Perhaps because he had been barred from the rough sports that the other boys played, Yugi had excelled at table games from an early age. If it had to do with cards or dice or any kind of board game, Yugi never lost. He didn't know how he did it, but he knew he wasn't cheating.
"If you were a real man," said Ushio, "you wouldn't waste your time playing games, anyway. Why don't you come hunting with us later today? Prove you're good enough to run with the rest of us."
"I can't," said Yugi, backing away. "Grandpa doesn't allow me to hunt. You know that."
"Coward," Ushio spat. "You're just too weak to do anything!"
"Yeah, you can't go hunting 'cause you're still just a little baby!" another boy taunted. "Wahh, my grandpa won't let me go out in the dark! Wahh!"
Yugi fled, hearing the other boys' jeers ringing after him. He rushed right out of town as fast as he trusted himself to run without tripping. It was always the same, lately. Once, the boys had been his friends, back when they were children and could play harmless games together. Now they taunted him because he couldn't hunt and fish and play the rougher games that they enjoyed. Even if his grandfather allowed it, Yugi knew he wasn't strong or fast and wouldn't have been able to make a good showing, and they would still have laughed at him. There was just no choice but to leave them alone and be by himself.
It's not fair, he thought miserably. It's all because I was born a Half. If I was just a normal boy like them, I wouldn't have to worry...
He shook his head. He had voiced that complaint to his grandfather before, and gotten a stern talking to. "Why do you want to be just like those arrogant musclebound clods? No, you were born special, Yugi. That means you have special pains, but you have special talents, too. You were born the way you were for a reason, and someday you will learn it." Yugi supposed he was right, but still, it was hard to feel special when nobody in the village would give him the time of day.
I don't want much, he told himself. I just don't want to be so alone. Please, all I want is a friend, just one friend...
One thing was for certain: there were no potential friends out here. He had left the village behind him, and with it, some of his bad feelings. It was hard to feel down when he was out among the trees, or standing in a meadow looking up at the clear blue sky and the soaring mountain peaks. He may not have had it in him to be a hunter, but he did like to walk, and spent most of his free time roaming around the countryside, just daydreaming. He dreamed and dreamed of meeting someone out here, someone like himself who needed a companion. Sometimes he dreamed of rescuing a damsel in distress and falling in love - he was, after all, a teenaged boy, with the same feelings as any other teenaged boy, even if he was a Half. He imagined beating a villain by a trial of wits and being hailed as a hero. He imagined running away to the city and embracing a great destiny, the likes of which he couldn't begin to comprehend. He dreamed of meeting an aged hermit who would teach him to become a great wizard or warrior. He dreamed of finding a mythical sword and becoming a mighty monster hunter. He dreamed and dreamed until the sun set and the stars appeared in the sky.
Yugi stopped walking. He had meant to be closer to the village by now, but night came quickly in the mountains, and he had been deeply lost in thought. Now he was realizing that he didn't know exactly where he was. Somewhere nearby, there was supposed to be a path - hardly more than a deer trail, but frequented by hunters and easy enough to find in broad daylight. He must have missed it in the deepening shadows.
I need to get out where there's some light, he decided.
Right now, all he could see above him were tree branches and specks of sky, hardly enough to do him any good. If he got to where he could see the sky clearly, it would be a different story. His grandfather, like any good wizard, knew the heavens as well as he knew the streets through the town, and had taught Yugi all the positions of the stars and the movements of the constellations. If he could just come to a place where he could see the sky, he would be able to get a rough idea which way the village was and find his way back. With that thought in mind, he picked the direction that felt best to him and set off.
He decided almost immediately that he had picked the wrong direction. He recognized nothing around him, and the ground showed no signs of being traversed by anything, human or animal. Perhaps there was something dangerous about this area? Yugi had never heard of such a thing anywhere near his village, but then, it looked like nobody ever came this way. If it was dangerous enough that even the animals kept well away from it, what could a boy who didn't even have a pocketknife to protect himself do if he got into trouble? He began to feel nervous.
Just before he could completely lose his nerve, he sighted a clearing up ahead and ran towards it. Then he stopped, because he knew for a fact that he had never seen this place before. The earth was covered with spongy, pale green deer-moss, looking almost white in the moonlight, and in the exact center of the clearing stood a broken tree. It was too tall to be called a stump, having been snapped off at about four feet above its base, leaving jagged shards of wood thrusting up at the sky. Its bark had long since worn away, leaving it bare and gleaming. It looked like a tombstone, or a broken bone thrust into the earth. There appeared to be something hanging from a knot on the side of the tree.
"What in the world?" he said aloud. His voice sounded strangely hushed.
Wondering if he could still be imagining things, he tiptoed into the clearing, inching towards the strange tree. Up close, he could see that the object he'd glimpsed was a piece of jewelry hanging from a chain. The chain was rusted, but the pendant seemed to be in good condition, though he could not make out its exact nature under years of grime. Maybe his grandfather could identify it, once it had been cleaned up a bit. He reached for the chain and lifted it down from where it hung.
Darkness swallowed him.
Yugi screamed as the shadows surrounded him, engulfing him like a fog or a hot smoke. He tried to fight it off, but nothing he could do would make it go away; it was like trying to push away the air around him.
Don't be afraid, said the fog. I'm not going to hurt you. I can't hurt you.
"What are you?" Yugi asked.
I am a Wraith. I am the spirit of a monster hunter who died in this place many years ago, while I was hunting in these mountains. With my body destroyed, my soul is doomed to haunt this place for all time. There was a whispery sigh, like the wind blowing through faraway trees. You are the first human to have visited this place in many, many years, more than I have been able to count.
"That's so sad," said Yugi. "Aren't you lonely?"
There was a long pause.
Yes, said the voice wistfully. Even the animals fear my presence, and no hunters will come where there is no game. You are the first person I have spoken to since my death.
"I'm lonely, too," Yugi admitted. "I don't have any friends. Everyone back in the village picks on me because I never play with them anymore."
Why don't you?
"Because... if I do, I might get hurt, and everyone will find out I'm a Half."
Are you? the voice asked. That is interesting, because I, too, was a Half while I lived. What is your name?
Yugi. My true name, I gave up many years ago, but my comrades observed how I moved in the darkness and hunted in the night, and named me as such. I am called Yami.
"Yami. Our names are almost the same," said Yugi thoughtfully.
Yes. They begin and end the same way - alike on the outside, but different on the inside. I find this interesting. You see, you look very much like I did in my youth. Almost exactly.
"Maybe you're my other half?" said Yugi, only partly joking.
Perhaps. How did you find me here, Yugi? I had thought this place was abandoned long ago.
"I got lost," Yugi admitted. "I was out walking and lost track of where I was. I have to find my way back soon, though. My grandfather will be worried sick about me... but I think I can remember how to get back here again. Maybe I can come back and visit you sometime?"
If that is what you would like, I would be more than happy to have someone to talk to again, said Yami graciously, but it may be that you can do more for me than that. They say that Halves have only half a soul in their bodies. Perhaps you have room to house my soul as well. Yugi, listen. I know a little bit about magic. If you permit it, I can transfer my soul into your body, so that my mind will live alongside your own. I once knew every tree and rock on these mountains; I can guide you safely home. I can protect you from the boys who torment you. If you choose to do this, however, the two of us will be inseparable from that point on - two minds as one.
"You mean you'll never leave me? No matter what?" asked Yugi. "Yes! That would make me so happy, to have a real friend..."
Yami chuckled. I think we will get along with each other. I am sure we will become great friends. So, will you agree to this?
Then put on my necklace.
Yugi did as he was told, lifting up the heavy pendant and lowering the chain around his neck. For a moment, the fog became darker and hotter than ever, making him feel as if he were burning up inside. Then everything cleared, and he found himself looking at a clear sky and a moonlight glade.
"Yami?" he called. "Are you there?"
A voice in his mind replied, I am here. With you. Always.
Yugi felt himself smiling. "I'm glad you're here, Yami."
I am thankful I met you as well. Now, tell me where you live, and I will guide you home.
"In the old windmill at the edge of town."
I remember that windmill. It was still a windmill, when I was alive. No matter; I know how to get there from here. Let's run!
Yugi felt something shift, and suddenly his body was moving without him telling it to, and he knew that Yami had taken over control, and he had nothing to do but ride along. He felt his legs pumping, his feet pounding against the soft forest floor, and felt his lungs drawing in great gulps of balmy summer air, and he realized he was running. He had never allowed himself to run at full speed like this, always fearing that he would fall and hurt himself, but Yami knew exactly what he was doing, and every footfall was perfectly placed. He would not fall, and he didn't fear hurting himself. With the hunter's mind next to his, Yugi could sense that Yami had never been afraid of pain or injury, or anything else. He had lived a life without fear, and now his life was Yugi's life. For the first time since his birth, Yugi felt completely free. Yami threw back his head and laughed with the joy of being able to run again, and Yugi echoed his laughter.
They arrived at the windmill flushed and sweaty and out of breath, because Yugi's body wasn't accustomed to such strenuous activity. His grandfather was waiting for him at the door as he arrived, his expression saying clearly that he was just waiting to see whether he was going to have to give a scolding or provide comfort from some traumatic experience.
"Grandpa, you're never going to believe what happened to me!" Yugi exclaimed.
"I should hope I would believe it," Sugoroku replied. "After all my years of being a wizard, I think I'd believe almost anything."
"This, I believe, is going to be somewhat outside your realms of experience."
Sugoroku blinked. The voice had been Yugi's, but something about it was still not Yugi's speech. It sounded more confident, more adult than Yugi's, and there was a slight accent and inflection to it that Yugi did not have. It sounded like someone else was using Yugi's voice.
"I have a new friend," said Yugi to his startled grandfather. "His name is Yami. He's going to be living with us from now on," and then, in his different voice, "living with Yugi, actually. We've worked out an agreement."
"I think you're going to have to explain this more thoroughly," said Sugoroku. "Come in and have a cup of tea, er, both of you."
They all went inside, and Sugoroku set about making a cup of tea for himself and one for his grandson. On second thought, he made an extra cup and set two in front of Yugi, while he kept the third for himself. Yugi didn't protest; after all, he'd run a long way, and he was thirsty.
"Now," said his grandfather, "explain everything from the beginning."
So Yugi and his new friend explained everything. Yugi did most of the talking, with Yami putting in only the occasional comment, making Sugoroku jump a little every time he spoke. When the tale was wrapped up, the old man sat back, staring up at the ceiling in thought.
"Well, I must say, this is highly unusual," he said. "I'm familiar with Halves; I've seen quite a few of them in my day. Just three times in my long lifetime, I've seen a Half meet up with his other Half. When that happens, strange and marvelous things have been known to occur. A Half alone is powerful magic, and two together multiply the effect many times over. For two Halves to occupy the same body... I don't think such a thing has happened in all recorded history. Even I might not be able to predict what will come of this. Perhaps I should do a card reading."
He got up and went to his desk, taking out a battered old set of cards. They had been shuffled so many times, the corners were worn to tatters and the centers were creased. He placed them in front of his grandson.
"Shuffle these, both of you," he said.
Yugi did so, and so did his other Half. When they were done, the wizard took the cards and set them out on the table in a particular pattern. He stared at it long and hard.
"Hmm," he said. "I see... a long journey, and many trials. The rest is unclear, but it's plain to me that you two will do great things together. Welcome to our home, Yami. I'm sure you will fit in here, for as long as you stay."
"Thank you," said the spirit. "I am grateful for your hospitality."
Sugoroku waved a dismissive hand. "Think nothing of it. I'm sure the two of you together won't eat much more than just Yugi." He chuckled a little.
"Thanks, Grandpa!" said Yugi. "I know Yami won't be any trouble for you."
"Don't bother to thank me," his grandfather replied. "I can't very well turn him away now without turning you away, too, and that is one thing I'll never do. And now," he said briskly, "I think it is well past your bedtime. You look tired from your trip."
Yugi nodded. He hadn't felt tired at all while Yami was in control of his body, but now that Yami had stepped aside, he realized he was exhausted.
"I think we need some sleep," he decided. "Goodnight, Grandpa."
"Goodnight, Yugi. Goodnight, Yami."
Yugi shuffled up the stairs to his rooms, yawning widely. He kicked off his boots, and, not even bothering to undress, crawled into bed. Just as he was dropping off to sleep, he heard a voice whisper, Rest now. I will watch over you.
"Aren't you sleepy, Yami?"
I slept for years inside my pendant. I'll stay awake for a while, now. Goodnight, my friend.
"My friend," Yugi agreed, and then he slept.
A pheasant lay hidden in the underbrush, listening to the noises around it. Something was coming, something large. The noise came closer, and panic rose up inside the small bird. With a whirring of wings, it threw itself up into the safety of the air. A split second later, a stone whizzed by, narrowly missing its left wing.
"Ah, almost had it," said Yugi.
You are getting better, said Yami. You'll hit the next one.
Yugi nodded, feeling cheerful. It had been two weeks since Yami had come to live with him, and he'd never been happier. Though the two of them were never apart, Yugi found that he never tired of the spirit's presence, and was at his most content when the two were actively spending time together. They had even worked out ways to play games together, and had been known to spend most of a night playing cards or chess. At night, they would sit by the fire, and Yami would tell Yugi and his grandfather stories of his adventures as a monster hunter.
Yami was also keeping his word to protect Yugi from the negative attentions of the village boys. Knowing that Yugi wasn't likely to be able to defend himself in a head-on fight, he was managing instead by teaching Yugi how to fit in better. Yami had been a great hunter when he was alive, and now he was teaching Yugi the rudiments of how to trap and fish, and how to use a sling to take down small game. He was not very good at it yet, but Yami was patient with him, and so far their tally for the day was three squirrels, a rabbit, and a few assorted birds.
"I think this is enough for dinner," Yugi decided. "It's probably about time to be heading home, too. Grandpa will be mad if we're late for dinner again!" He mimicked his grandfather's voice. "Ho, ho, if you young rascals were much later, I would have eaten the tablecloth!"
Yami laughed. I would hate to let that happen. That would be a poor way for me to repay his hospitality.
They set out towards the village, carrying the sack with their catch. Yugi reflected as he walked that his grandfather's acceptance of Yami wasn't all altruism; they ate much better now that they had someone who could bring home fish and game for them. Before, they had been obliged to make do on what grew in their vegetable garden, plus whatever Sugoroku could buy or bargain for with what he made from his spells. Things were much easier with Yami around to pitch in.
As Yugi trudged up the road through the village, he encountered Ushio. He was leaning casually against a wall, whetting his hunting knife. His dark eyes followed Yugi curiously.
"What's in the bag?" he asked.
Yugi held it open to show him. Ushio studied the contents with a faintly disbelieving look.
"Where'd you get all this?" he demanded.
"I caught them," said Yugi proudly. "I have a new friend, and he's teaching me to hunt."
"Is that so?" Ushio said. "Huh. It's about time you stopped acting like such a little girl. Who's this friend of yours?"
"Um, you wouldn't know him. His name is Yami. He lives up in the mountains."
"I've never met him."
"Well, he's shy," said Yugi.
"Huh," said Ushio again. "No kidding. You know... some of us are getting together tomorrow and going on a camping trip. I might be able to convince them to let you come along. You can show us all what you've learned."
"Really? You mean it?" asked Yugi, eyes lighting up.
Ushio shrugged. "Sure. It's no big deal. Just meet us by the well tomorrow morning at sunup. Got it?"
"I'll be there, don't worry!" said Yugi eagerly.
"Great," said Ushio. He grinned broadly.
You realize he's setting you up, said Yami, as they parted company with Ushio.
Yugi nodded solemnly. I know. But I can't hide from him and the others forever. Sooner or later I'm going to have to try and stand up to them. I can do a lot better with you here to help me.
They aren't going to like you for it.
Of course not - not right away. But it might be the first step in making them change their minds about me. You'll help me, won't you?
You know I will.
Then I have nothing to worry about.
They returned home to find Sugoroku already setting things up for dinner.
"There you are," he said as Yugi arrived. "I was starting to think I'd have to start without you, if you were any later."
"I stopped to talk to someone," Yugi said. "Hey, Grandpa, can I go camping?"
"Camping?" his grandfather repeated.
"Yeah. Ushio from the village invited me to go camping with some of his friends. I can go, can't I? Please?"
"Well, now, I don't know about that," Sugoroku said. "You know what the risks are..."
"I'll be okay!" Yugi insisted. "Yami will look out for me. He'll keep me from getting into trouble. I promise! I just want... for a little while... to act like I'm normal for a change."
Sugoroku looked at him long and thoughtfully.
"I suppose I can't keep you wrapped in cotton-wool forever," he said at last. "All right. You can go, as long as you promise to be careful!"
"I will! I'll be really, really, really careful!" said Yugi. "Thanks, Grandpa! You're the best."
"That may be true," the old man answered, chuckling. "I'd be a whole lot better if I could get something to eat. Did you and your friend manage to catch anything today, or will I have to settle for eating the napkins? They might not be too bad, if we boiled them long enough..."
Yugi laughed. "We caught a whole bunch of things! Just look and see!"
For that evening, at any rate, all thoughts of Yugi's camping trip were set aside - not so much forgotten as simply not given any consideration. Yugi was privately thankful for that. He deeply wanted to believe that he was finally going to be accepted by the village boys, that they would at last recognize them as one of their own. Maybe they would even start playing games with him again. He took up trapping and fishing out of his respect for Yami, but what he really wanted was someone to play games with. Having Yami around was wonderful, but you could never have too many playmates.
He could barely close his eyes as he settled down to sleep that night. He tossed and turned, trying to settle down, telling himself that he had a big day tomorrow and would need his rest. It was no use; his mind continued to spin with plans and hopes and apprehensions.
"I'm not keeping you awake, am I?" he asked his ever-present companion.
No, Yugi. You never keep me awake - or rather, I never feel tired unless you do. Since you are wide awake tonight, so am I. I prefer it this way. I am a creature of the night, by name and nature.
"No, you're not. Night things are bad, like monsters and ghosts."
Laughter. I am a ghost, Yugi. And darkness isn't bad in itself. It is comfort after days of blistering heat, and refuge for the hunted. It is a protector and a secret-keeper.
"Yeah, that sounds like you. No wonder they named you Yami."
Yes, that is one reason why. But night is also for sleeping, and that is what you need to do. Rest.
Yugi felt something come over him, a great lassitude that couldn't have been natural in his current state of nerves. He remembered suddenly that Yami had told him at their first meeting that he knew magic.
"That's not fair," he protested. He didn't get any more say in the matter than that, because no sooner had he said it, he fell asleep.
The next morning, Yugi snapped awake with a jolt. It was nearly always like that; Yami's instincts were so highly trained that he knew exactly what time it was, asleep or awake, and woke Yugi up accordingly. It was false dawn; the sky was lightening, but there was as yet no sign of the sun itself. All was misty gray, both in the sky and on the earth. Yugi yawned and rubbed at his eyes.
"Do I really have to get up?" he mumbled.
Yes, if you really want to go camping, Yami told him.
Yugi thought it over and decided that even if he felt like sleeping for a few more weeks now, he would regret it if he missed this chance. He dragged himself out of bed and shuffled downstairs to find something for breakfast. His grandfather wouldn't wake up for quite some time - he was getting old, after all, and enjoyed sleeping in when he could - but Yugi was used to cooking for himself from time to time. He cobbled together a quick meal, threw a few things in a pack, and struck out for the road just as the sun's rim began peering over the horizon.
A part of him had suspected that this camping trip was just a trick hatched by Ushio to see if he would get up at the crack of dawn for nothing, so he was almost surprised to see the town boys gathered around the well just as he'd said they would be. Yugi picked up his pace and trotted up to join them, smiling shyly. Ushio laughed to see him, and gave him a clap on the back that nearly sent him sprawling.
"So you made it after all!" he boomed. "Didn't really think you would!"
Yugi managed to look determined, an expression that didn't sit easily on his childish face. "I said I'd be here, and I am! I'm ready to go whenever you are!"
"Ha, ha! Well, I guess we'd better get going!" said Ushio. "Wouldn't want to make little Yugi wait, would we?"
Everyone laughingly agreed that they wouldn't want to make Yugi wait, and they set out on their journey. It was an easy enough trip, even for Yugi, who had shorter legs than most of the boys there. They passed the time singing songs and telling stories, something that Yugi knew how to do well enough (most of the stories he told were Yami's) and which no one would get jealous of him for doing, so the time passed pleasantly. It was easy for him to forget that things had changed between them - it felt just like the days when they were all much younger, and had been, if not close friends, than at least good playfellows. At last, just before noon, they came to the banks of a fair-sized stream, and there Ushio declared they would pitch their camp.
"We're going to go fishing," Ushio declared to his followers. "What do you think, Yugi? Do you like fishing?"
Yugi nodded, eager to please. "Yes. I like fishing."
"Well, let's see you do it, then!"
Yugi did. He cut himself a whippy branch for a pole, and took from his pocket a long bit of string with a fishhook tied to the end. His grandfather had found it in a drawer, along with a jumble of halfpenny nails, a buttonhook, a number of darning needles, some dead bugs, and other inexplicable odds and ends of the sort a wizard would accumulate. Being too old to want to sit on the muddy banks of a river himself, he had happily passed it along to Yugi. Yugi wouldn't have known what to do with it under ordinary circumstances, but Yami had taught him a great deal. Now he went through some nearby weeds until he found a healthy cricket, and slipped it onto his hook and cast it into the water.
"Huh," said Ushio. "Guess you do know a little bit... but any kid could do that."
Yugi said nothing, and the rest of the group spread themselves along the banks to attempt to catch fish. It was the wrong time of day for the fish to be truly hungry, but they managed to hook a few anyway, and Yugi did no worse than anyone else. In the meantime, they sat in companionable silence, sharing a quiet lunch and trying not to scare the fish.
The day wore on, night fell, and Ushio called a halt to the day's activity. Two of the boys set up a campfire, and they settled around it to cook their fish (they had jointly agreed to share everything equally) and return to their pastime of singing and storytelling. After dinner, however, they grew a bit bored with this, and a few of the boys started up a game of dice. Yugi didn't mind dice - they weren't the most interesting game in the world, to him, requiring more luck than strategy - but he felt a bit uneasy when he realized they were playing for stakes now. It had always been in fun before, but now he watched as the boys bet coins or various small items on the game's outcome.
"You feel like playing?"
Yugi jumped; he had given all his attention to the game in front of him, and had not heard Ushio come up behind him.
"Er... I don't know," he said, uncertain whether or not that was actually what Ushio wanted.
"Oh, come on!" said Ushio, in his most cajoling tones. "It'll be fun! Don't tell me you're scared of a little wager!"
"I really don't have anything to bet," said Yugi. "Everything I brought with me is the stuff I need for camping."
"Everything?" A glint came into Ushio's eyes. "How about that necklace of yours, huh?"
Yugi felt a chill go down his spine. He had worn the necklace day and night since he got it, under Yami's warning never to take it off. It had been grimy at first, but now it was polished so brightly he could see his reflection in it, gleaming like the gold it most surely was.
"I can't part with this," he said, clutching it protectively.
"Why not? It's just a piece of metal," said Ushio. "It's not even solid all the way through, is it? It probably isn't even pure gold, I'll bet. It can't be worth that much."
That's not true, and he knows it, said Yami. He knows it's gold, and covets it.
"Besides," Ushio went on, "if you lose it, you can just play again and win it back. No big deal. We do things like that all the time. It's part of being friends. You want to be friends with us, don't you, Yugi?"
"I do," said Yugi, "but I don't want to give up this necklace, thanks just the same. I'll tell you what, I'll bet my pocketknife instead. How's that?"
"Listen, runt," said Ushio belligerently, "if you think you can walk around flaunting that necklace like you're something special, you better think again. We don't like people who act too good for us. If you're so casual about a huge hunk of gold like that, so you can wear it around all the time like you're the Duke or something, then you can be casual about betting it. And if you aren't going to bet it, you can very well share it with us!"
"No!" said Yugi. He backed away, clutching the pendant with both hands. "You can't have this! It's mine!"
"Not for long, it ain't!"
Ushio made a lunge for it, but Yugi was quicker - or rather, he wasn't, but he had Yami to show him how to move. He dodged and twisted, just barely avoiding Ushio's clutching hands, but the act cost him. His foot fell on a rounded stone that wobbled beneath him, and he fell hard. He flung out his hands to try to break his fall, and a sharp twig stabbed into his palm and sliced it open. Yugi hissed in pain as he scrambled to his feet. Nearby, Ushio was doing likewise, glaring at Yugi with murder in his eyes.
"Why, you little... How dare you?"
"Me? Look at you!" Yugi exclaimed, caution forgotten in the face of his anger. "You never wanted to be friends all along, did you? You lured me out here with your little gang just so you could steal my necklace from me!"
He pointed at Ushio in an accusing gesture, forgetting his wounded hand in the heat of his anger. A few drops fell from his bleeding palm. They sparkled like jewels in the firelight and puddled strangely on the ground, glittering softly pink. People stared. Yugi felt himself go pale as he opened his fist and looked at the cut, which was still freely leaking the pale shimmery substance that filled his veins.
"What the...?" one of the boys murmured.
"He's not human!" someone exclaimed.
"No wonder!" Ushio exclaimed. "He's a Half, that's what he is! No wonder he never does anything! He didn't want anyone to know he's really a monster!" His shocked expression melted into a grin. "Well, this is different! If you were a human, we mighta just roughed you up a little for not letting me take what I want, but since you're not... well, nobody will care if there's one less monster in the world!"
Trouble, said Yami, and Yugi felt him wrench control.
A second later, Ushio dove at him again, but this time, Yami was ready. He neatly sidestepped the attack this time, and then kicked him as he went by, striking at the back of one knee and causing his leg to buckle. Ushio stumbled and fell face-forward on the leafy ground. Yami leaped over his prone body and ran off into the woods. Behind him, he could hear the other boys yelling like hunting dogs in pursuit of game, but Yami was swifter and surer than any of them. He raced at top speed for as long as Yugi's body would bear it, and then slowed to a brisk walk until his breathing settled, and then ran again. On and on he went until he arrived, soaked with sweat, at Sugoroku's door. He pounded it with the last of his strength, and then dropped to his knees, gasping for air. He had been training Yugi as best he could, trying to help him build some muscle on his almost childlike body, but they had never run so many miles together before.
"Who goes there?" called Sugoroku's voice from inside.
"It is us," Yami replied.
The door was flung open, and there stood Sugoroku in his nightcap and gown, holding a candle. He looked down at the sweat-sodden figure kneeling on his doorstep, and grabbed the boy by the arm and hauled him inside with a strength that was surprising for such an old man.
"Sit right there," he said. "I won't be but a minute."
He went away and came back with a steaming mug of something-or-other - neither Yugi nor Yami could keep up with what into Sugoroku's herbal teas, and every time they thought they'd learned everything, he came up with something new. Whatever the stuff in the mug was this time, it was refreshing, and by the time it was all gone, Yugi was back to his normal self again.
"Feel better?" Sugoroku asked.
"Then tell me what happened."
Yugi did what he could to relate how Ushio had played a trick on him, and how Yugi had managed to injure himself and reveal his true nature. He finished on an apologetic note and waited, not knowing what his grandfather would do. Somehow, this all seemed to wrong for a mere scolding, though he was sure he deserved one.
"Hmm," said his grandfather. "I had a feeling something like this would happen... but yet, we knew we couldn't keep your secret forever. Perhaps this was fated. Let me see..."
He went and got his fortune-telling cards again and laid them out on the table, one after the other.
"I see, I see," he said. "Yes, it is as I thought. The boys are angry at you, Yugi - angry and frightened. They are convincing themselves you are a monster. Soon the whole village will know. If you stay here much longer, it will be very dangerous for you."
"What should I do?" asked Yugi, his voice very small.
"What can you do? You'll have to leave," his grandfather replied. "This is no home for you anymore. Perhaps it never was. You were always destined for great things, Yugi, and you'll accomplish them better out in the wide world than you will gathering dust in this little town. The time is right: you are a man now, and you have Yami to look after you and guide you. With him, you can take care of yourself as a man should. It's time at last for you to go out and seek your fortune."
"I can't leave you, Grandpa," said Yugi.
"Nonsense," said the old man grumpily. "I got along fine before you came along, and I can do it again. Oh, I will miss you, but that's something all families must go through, when the children are grown. I did it once, years and years ago, when my own son went out into the world. I'll get by. As for you... my advice is to take yourself to the Baron's city, three days walk to the east of here. You'll blend in more easily there, and find work to support yourself. That's where I'd start, anyway. Once you've earned a bit of money, you can go anywhere in the wide world that suits you."
There was a pause. Yugi heard Yami say, He is right. We can no longer stay here. If we do, Ushio and his friends might attack your grandfather as well as us. We must leave, for his safety as well as ours.
"You're right," said Yugi, to both of them. "It is time for me to leave, I guess. I just... I'll miss you, Grandpa."
"I will, too," Grandpa replied. "I promised when I took you in that I would treat you as my own grandson, and I have always loved you like one. But say! This isn't forever. Someday we'll find each other again, and you'll have a lot of good stories to tell me, I'll wager. Perhaps even a pretty wife to liven things up for us, eh? In the meantime, my cards will tell me how you're doing. We'll find each other."
Yugi managed to smile. "Thanks, grandpa. I love you, too."
Packing was the hardest thing he'd ever done. He couldn't imagine that from now on, he would be sleeping in some strange place that wasn't his comfortable nook in a broken-down windmill, with an elderly wizard snoring downstairs. There were so many comfortable things, here, and he knew he could only escape with the bare essentials, and only as many of those as he could carry on his back. He realized he was crying as he packed, and no matter what he did, he couldn't check the tears that spilled down his face. He did try to wipe his face clean and look unconcerned as he hugged his grandfather goodbye, but he broke down in the middle of it and sobbed all over again.
"Enough of that," said the old man gruffly. "Be off with you, now - you've wasted enough time!"
Yugi nodded, too choked with emotion to speak. He didn't know what else to do or say, so he turned and began trudging up the path that led to the Baron's city, many miles away. On a tall hill, he paused to take one look back at the old windmill, with its broken blades turning lazily in a vagrant breeze. There was one window alight in the top floor; someone was up there watching the road. Yugi waved one last time, and started down the hill.
I'll miss him too, said Yami. He was kind to me, when he had no reason to be. He was as much a grandfather to me, in the short time I knew him, as he was to you. But don't be afraid, Yugi. I will never leave you.
"I know," said Yugi. "Whever I go, there you are, even in the Baron's city!"
So let us go there, then.
"Let's," Yugi agreed, and they did.
The Baron, not knowing what kind of person was even then making his way towards him, was relaxing in his rooms, when a knock came on the door.
"I have a report for you, my lord," said the messenger. "Will you hear it?"
"Why should I?" the Baron snapped back.
"It concerns a report of a Half."
"Come in, then, and make it quick."
The servant came in and sized up his master. He was a young man, in his late teens, and had inherited his place not long ago, after the mysterious death of his father. How such a thing came to be, no one knew, though there were few who dared to say it was the fault of the Baron who now ruled them. There were many who said they didn't care either way, for the old Baron had been a ruthless man, and while this new one was fierce and proud, he didn't subject them to the degradations that the former Baron had. It helped that he was handsome, as well, with his intelligent face and deep blue eyes.
"My lord Baron," said the servant, "a report has come in that a young Half man was seen in a forest some three days' journey west of here. He attacked another young man of the village and stole an article of jewelry from him, and then fled when the boy and his friends tried to apprehend him."
"Any idea of his whereabouts now?"
"No, my lord."
"Very well. Bring me my hunters."
The hunters were sent for. They arrived moments later: two young men in light armor, bearing slim swords at their sides and crossbows slung on their backs. One had unruly blonde hair that seemed forever in danger of falling across his eyes and obscuring his vision; the other's hair was darker and more closely cropped. Both were tall, lean, muscular, and competent- looking.
"You have a job for us?" asked the blonde man eagerly.
"Yes," the Baron replied. "A monster for you to hunt. Go to the village west of here, and begin searching for any traces of a Half which was seen there. The trail may be a few days old, by now. Will that be a problem?"
"No, my lord," said the dark-haired one. "We'll find him, no matter how far he's gone."
"Good," said the Baron. "See to it. Remember, you will not receive any payment until I see that Half delivered to me personally."
Both hunters bowed.
"Yes, Baron Kaiba," they said.