AN: Hi everyone...so it's been like forever; years really... First off, I must apologize for my absence.
Heart of the Cards was my first experiment into FanFiction and has lead the way into my developing into the writer I am today—vastly different from the one I started as all those years ago. It was also written at a very transitional time in my life. I'm now done with college and nursing school and am working as pediatric nurse on a childhood oncology unit. All those changes culminated in a way that made it very difficult to finish writing this story but, by the same token, I knew I couldn't abandon it for good, or God forbid, delete it. I've been on the receiving end of both those situations and I know how awful it can feel. So, in short, here I am, years later, a totally different person and a vastly different writer, finally biting the bullet and attempting to finish my first FanFiction.
Though my subject matter has completely switched, my plot devices have turned much darker, my preferred pairings has evolved from purely cannon het couples into the realm of yaoi and from my T-rated material into full lemons, I feel it is my duty to keep Heart of the Cards as close to the magical story all my fans fell in love with years ago as possible. So aside from length (60 pages isn't anything too crazy for me now in the way of chapter length) if there are any parts of this update that seem completely different from the Heart of the Cards you all know and love, please let me know so I can work through the bugs. Finishing this story the way I started it is very important to me.
Okay, as to future updates. Some of you may already know that Heart of the Cards is my 2013 NaNoWriMo entry (50,000 words in the month of November). That means updates should be coming a lot faster than they used to and that this story should be finished by the end of November (if not I will continue updates throughout December until it is complete). However, chapters won't be posted as soon as they are finished because, unlike my story last year, Heart of the Cards is an established FF that I'm not comfortable just throwing updates out for without significant fine tuning. Currently, I'm still basically on schedule and the next chapter is almost finished. It'll just be a while before you actually see it posted.
That's about all I can think of in the way of updates for now. If you have questions and/or concerns, you know how to get in contact with me.
One last thing before we continue. Let me again say, I'm truly sorry for the ridiculously long wait and any frustrations it may have caused you. I hope we can enjoy the final chapters of this story together. Thank you for your patience and continued support.
What I'm Willing to Lose
Atem felt merciless ice crystallize around his heart as his horrified eyes locked onto Mana's blank unseeing ones. Her once vibrant aquamarine orbs that always danced with excitement and boundless joy were now clouded over with an opaque sheen that reminded the Pharaoh of death—a topic the Ancient Egyptian ruler had grown much too familiar with. And despite seeing the lightless eyes of so many of his past friends, seeing Mana's so dim was perhaps the most earth shattering blow he could have ever received.
The sinister words of the twisted spirit could not be denied; Mana was under the complete control of the Dark Lord's herald.
"Well, what do you say, Pharaoh?" taunted the demon possessing Marik's body. "Do you want to duel for your pretty little servant girl's soul or not?" A long nailed finger stroked her unresponsive cheek as he spoke.
The combination of Malik's words and actions caused the shaking Mahad to barely restrain his body from lunging at the monster holding his apprentice hostage. "Release Mana at once you filthy beast!" he roared, almost on the verge of desperation. "If you need a bargaining chip for your twisted game than use me, just leave her out of it, she is of no threat to you!"
Atem couldn't force a single one of the muscles holding his body rigidly in place to move. He couldn't even rebuke Mahad's brash request. He was frozen completely where he stood by indomitable fear and uncertainty. The images from five thousand years ago filled his racing mind, depicting in horrific detail how everyone he cared about had fallen one-by-one to the Dark Lord's infinitely extending black shadow.
Malik laughed. "Such a brave little lap dog we are, eh Mahad? Offering to take her place and all; so sweet, wouldn't you agree Aknadin?" teased Malik, sending Mahad deeper into his blind rage. The thought of losing his apprentice and closest friend, someone he'd sworn to protect was unimaginable. He couldn't, no he wouldn't allow it.
"Think about it, Malik!" yelled the master magician, half seething half begging. "You'd be getting the more powerful mage. You'd be that much more likely to win the duel."
As Mahad knew and as Atem's horrified mind was beginning to realize, if they were to keep a hold of the God Cards—which they must in order to even have a chance in defeating Zorc—Atem had to win this duel. The way it was set up, that would also mean destroying whichever mage was ensnared by Malik's Change of Heart. The choice didn't even take a second of deliberation on Mahad's part. He would take Mana's place, Atem would defeat Malik, and he would die again. There was no other way.
"Hmm..." mused Malik tapping Mana's Spirit Door carelessly on his upturned chin. "I don't know... What do you think Aknadin?" he asked turning mockingly to Seto's possessed form. "Personally I like the apprentice over the master; much easier on the eyes wouldn't you say?"
"I couldn't agree more," hissed Aknadin. "After we've won she'll be much more...entertaining than her master would ever be."
"Demon!" spat Mahad in horror. "You won't touch her!"
Malik grinned wickedly. "Honestly, Mahad, did you really think I'd agree to such a request? The reason I will win is not due to sheer strength, it is because I Pharaoh won't be able to bring himself to hurt this charming little bed-warmer. Because he loves her," scoffed Malik. "Look at him," and the dark spirit gestured over to the shaking frozen King of Egypt, "he can't bare the thought that he'll never see this perky little body in one piece ever again," he laughed free hand squeezing her left breast enthralled by how much the simple gesture drove the opposing side mad. "It's pathetic really, but I'll use whatever means I can to win," his last words were spoken as a deadly hiss.
Unable to control his anger any longer, Mahad sent a blast from his staff aimed directly at the demon in possession of the youngest Ishtar's body.
Right before the powerful blast of energy made contact with Malik's still manically smiling face, Mana's limp body was pulled like a lifeless puppet on strings to intercept the attack; the force of the blast knocking her backwards onto the ground where she laid for a few moments before shakily getting to her feet in that same marionette-like way.
"MANA!" cried the Pharaoh and Mahad in unison—seeing his best friend being thrown to ground being enough to snap Atem out of his frozen state.
"Ooo," winced Malik, "that looked like it hurt...a lot. You alright, sweety?" he faked crooned to the trembling magician's apprentice.
The fact that Mana was still able stand shaking before them after withstanding a direct attack filled with pure rage and hatred from her appalled master was a miracle in and of itself. It was now blatantly apparent that if Malik carried out his plan, there was no way that she would survive the duel.
"Mana..." Mahad repeated quietly, falling to his hand and knees. I've done the unthinkable. I...I h-hurt her. I'm supposed to protect her... I can't...I don't know how to save her...I'm sorry...I'm so sorry, Mana...I failed you.
Malik laughed seeing the defeated way Mahad had slumped to the floor. "Come now Pharaoh, that wasn't really fair; getting in such an early blow. She's all hurt now," he pouted gesturing to Mana's scorched form. "How will she ever be able to fight in this state?"
Malik's little demonstration had the desired effect; all hope vanished from the opposing side. Mahad remained shaking on his hands and knees, gray eyes wide and staring blankly at the ground, and the Pharaoh tried to force his panicking mind to deal with the situation.
Though Malik had been originally pleased with the severity of this effect, he was beginning to grow impatient with Atem's prolonged silence in regard to his "request" for a duel. His terrible, perfectly schemed out game would be no fun if it was never played.
"What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?" spat Malik.
The lack of response from his opponent was not as amusing as one would have imagined striking the Pharaoh so utterly immobile with fear would have been to Malik.
"Look, Pharaoh," sighed the dark spirit in annoyance, "I don't have all day and my patience with you is wearing rather thin." He held out Mana's Spirit Door, pinching it between his between his left and right thumbs and forefingers, the white card bending slightly from the pressure he was exerting on it.
"Now I'm not exactly sure what will happen if I rip this thing in two, but I'm fairly certain it won't be good," he mused lazily. "Duel me now, or we'll find out," Malik hissed, his voice suddenly becoming icy.
'Yami!' Yugi called to his still terror stricken Spirit Partner. 'Come on! We have to do something! If we don't she'll die!'
'I know Yugi!' came Atem's panicked response. 'But even if we duel him there is no positive outcome! If we win she will die when her life points reach zero, and if we lose, we forfeit the God Cards—not that I even care right now—and he'll probably—no, he will kill her anyways!'
'I know it looks hopeless!' cried Yugi, almost floored to see such desperation in the duelist who no matter the odds always came out on top and always found a way out of impossible situations like this. He glanced over at Malik who was looking almost like he would make good on his threat to rip Mana's Spirit Door in two. 'But you can't think about that right now! You just have to start the duel! We'll figure something out I promise!'
Yugi's private words to Atem might have been enough to snap him out of his defeated stupor if Mahad had not managed to pull himself to his feet and, in a practically dead voice, confirmed the Pharaoh's worst fears.
"Fight him, Pharaoh. It's the only way. If...if Mana must pass, let it be at our hands, not by the hands of that monster." He could not meet Atem's wide eyes as he spoke, instead still casting his gaze earthward. "The Gods and our Ancestors will welcome her warmly to the Afterlife..." his last words were barely forced out in a whisper and the master magician would never forgive himself for letting them slip pass though his lips. Saying them hurt even more than the accidental blow he had inflicted on his apprentice, but in Mahad's mind, they were the cold hard truth.
Mahad's words sent a bolt of ice right though Atem's heart. 'I...I can't...I can't lose her...'
At that moment, Yugi knew that there was no way his Yami could recover in time to save the young spellcaster.
'Well if you can't save her, Yami, than I will!' In an instant, Yugi did something he hadn't done in years. He forced control away from his Yami, activated their duel disk, and shoved his deck into place.
"You want a duel, Malik!" called Yugi his voice uncharacteristically hard, "than you've got it! But I promise you, you won't walk away with the God Cards or with Mana's soul! We're going to save her!"
"B-but Yugi how," stuttered Mahad almost as shocked as Malik at this recent change in events. "It's impossible, Malik has thought of everything! There's nothing I can do-"
Yugi then turned his attention to the shocked magician on his left. "I don't know how Mahad, but I know she'd never give up on us, or on you. We'll find a way to do it. So either help me, or stay out of the way."
Yugi's strangely harsh words brought some glimmer of hope to Mahad's eyes and caused the magician to rise to his full height. "I'm not sure what you're planning Yugi," said the magician raising his staff, "but I will help you in any way that I can."
Malik's hysterical laughter brought their attention back to the darkness at the other end of the field. "Wow, you've gotten pretty bold for a pipsqueak. You just tell me when the Pharaoh's ready to kiss the apprentice goodbye. In the mean time," Malik slipped his duel disk over Man's limp arm, "Let's get started shall we?"
Instantly dark shadows began to pool around them, swirling upwards until they had engulfed the dueling field, covering it in an impenetrable layer of darkness and half concealed grotesque, disturbing images and shapes. The Shadow Duel for Mana's soul and the ownership of the God Cards had begun.
Kisara somehow managed to push her trembling body to its feet, some of the rubble caused by the blast from Seto's Blue Eyes White Dragon falling from her as she rose. For a while it was all she could do to was just stand there as shock weighed heavily down around her. It had all happened so fast. One moment he'd been here...right here—she numbly walked over and moved her hand through the chilled air, still thick with black magic where Seto had moments ago stood—and the next he'd been gone, taken away in moments by the very thing she'd sacrificed everything to protect him from millennia ago. Her shaking hands clutched around her trembling arms and she fought exhaustion and desperation to stay standing. How could she have let this happen? How could she have failed him so miserably. He was all she had and she just...she'd let him...
A strangled cry escaped her lips, muffled by her hand as she fell to her knees, the broken ground digging through already torn denim into her skin, but she barely felt the pain. Hopelessness and despair were running rampant through her body and spirit, leaving her numb to all else.
What was she going to do now?
A stifled moan from behind her snapped her back to reality. Pegasus. Joey. They had been caught in the blast too. What if they were seriously hurt or worse...?
Again Kisara pulled herself to her feet and moved jerkily over to the piles of rubble at the back of the room, trying to see her companions through the thick cloud of dust still swirling through the air. "Pega...sus!" she called out, choking on the heavy air. "J-Joey!"
At first she received no answer making her think the worst. She may have looked small and weak by comparison to the others, but being a dragon, she could take much more of a beating than most. If she was this badly off... She shook her head. They had to be alright. She couldn't take much more bad news before she'd break.
"Pegasus...Joey! Where are you? Please answer me!" she cried, her fear growing.
It was at this point that she tripped over something much more giving and soft than the hard cracked tiles and concrete she'd been stumbling over. She was so relieved to hear the sharp "ow!" that followed she didn't even have time to feel bad that she'd just stepped on someone. They were alive. Wasting no time, she dropped down beside the partially covered individual and pulled at the rubble until a very dusty but miraculous unharmed blonde was revealed—his hair actually looking more gray due to the large amount of dust.
"Joey!" she exclaimed pulling him up out of the destruction. "Are you okay?" When she didn't get an immediate response she began to gently shake his shoulders back and fourth. "Please say something!"
Joey yelped at all the sudden movement and at the jolts of pain it caused to shoot through his aching body—not surprising since he'd been blasted across the room by a giant dragon and then buried in falling debris. "Ah! Jeeze! I'm okay! Jus' quit shakin' me!"
Kisara immediately let go of his shoulders, allowing him to slump forwards. "I'm sorry...I thought..." She shook her head, partially matted icy hair falling in front of her eyes. "I'm glad you are alright."
"Alright's a relative term," muttered Joey taking stock of the injuries covering his aching form. Nothing too serious, but damn he hurt. "I never knew the Blue Eyes packed such a big punch." Which reminded him of why he was in so much pain in the first place. "What the hell was that anyways?!" he cried jerking to attention. "I mean he just turned around and...and attacked us! For no reason! Dammit Kaiba, that son of a-" Joey stopped mid sentence as a small sob erupted from the woman before him.
"I-I'm so sorry," she whispered through her tears. "Th-this...this is all my fault. I should have k-known Aknadin would..." She just further lowered her head, beginning to curl in on herself as more tears came down.
Joey stared horrified at the sobbing woman before him. "Ah...hey...um...it's okay..." He tried awkwardly, patting her shoulder in a similar fashion. "I'm...uh...sure it wasn't your fault...Kaiba just...he uh..."
Joey looked around the room frantically for some assistance. Dealing with crying girls was not his strong point. His sister was bad enough when she got like this—thank God she was visiting their mom several hundred miles away from this madness—but he didn't really even know this girl. ...Kisara right? Yeah, that's what rich boy had called her... Anyways, all he knew about Kisara was that she had come to help rescue him and that by some miracle she was involved with that rich snob, Kaiba...oh, yeah...that would be why she was crying. Dammit Kaiba! Not only did you randomly go psycho on us and leave with the bad guy you broke this poor girl's heart!
A loud bang drew his attention away from Kisara as what had once been a heavily laden trophy case was knocked over by a very disgruntled looking Pegasus who'd been trapped behind it. "Great tact Wheeler..." he grunted as he shoved several more pieces off the ruined entrance hall off of him. "It's no wonder that Valentine girl still won't go out with you." A pause. "I'm fine by the way. You know just some broken ribs here and there and I'm not sure I can walk, but I'm just fine."
Joey glared. "Hey what the hell, man? I'm not the one who just blasted us, his girlfriend, and half the school down with his Blue Eyes!" He quickly shot a glance down at the still trembling girl and instantly regretted his choice of words. "I uh... Oh man..."
Pegasus scowled, and wincing, pushed himself to his feet. After safe guarding his balance, he limped over to the both of them where he knelt down next to Kisara and wrapped an arm around her. Though the gesture was appreciated by the woman, it did nothing to improve her spirits or the dreadful situation they now found themselves in.
"That wasn't Kaiba-Boy," he shot at Joey. "Someone or something possessed him."
"Seriously?" questioned the blond in shock. "How do you know?"
Pegasus nodded grimly and pointed at the Millennium Item embedded in the left side of his face. "Having an ancient hunk of metal embedded in your head has its perks from time to time."
"Shit..." muttered Joey. "I guess that makes more sense. I mean, Kaiba's an asshole, but..."
"Aknadin," Kisara whispered, her hands clenching into fists by her side. "Aknadin did this."
"Wait, I thought Marik—er, ah, Malik was the one behind everything," blinked Joey.
"If we're not counting Zorc, whom Malik is trying to resurrect, thus bringing about the end of the world..." The look on Joey's face caused Pegasus to leave the explanation of the true evil they were up against at that. "Yes, Malik is behind all this."
"Okay...so who's Ak-nod...whatever?" asked Joey feeling like he'd come in in the middle of some epic saga and had a lot of catching up to do.
"He's," Kisara swallowed hard. "Seto's father."
Joey's jaw dropped, feeling that this was getting a little too Star Wars for his tastes. "His wha?"
"Back in Egypt, thousands of years ago..." She let out a shaky breath. "He tried to convince Seto to use my power to steal the throne from the Pharaoh. When Seto refused he attempted to possess him; to force him to take the power. I stopped him last time but...but it cost me my life." She paused. "I-I should have known that wouldn't be the end of it. I should have protected him. And now he's..." She covered her mouth again with a trembling hand.
"Well my day just got a whole lot worse," muttered Joey with a sigh before getting to his feet. "Okay, let's get this over with."
Pegasus blinked. "Get what over with?"
"Savin' Rich Boy a' course," announced Joey with a "well duh" expression. "I mean someone should tell him that the first rule of a rescue mission is not ta need rescuin', but since it means I'll get ta return the favor, I guess I won't hold it against him too much."
"And how exactly are we supposed to rescue him?" questioned Pegasus doubtfully. "Malik's probably taken him to the Shadow Realm by now."
Joey's face fell. "Sheesh...this day just keeps getting better an' better," he grumbled. "Well then, I guess that means we'll have ta take a trip ta the Shadow Realm—not looking forward ta that..."
"You just want to waltz right in to Malik's domain and what? Kidnap a possessed Kaiba?" Pegasus asked incredulously. "Forgive me if I'm not thrilled by your master strategy."
Kisara raised her head, a fierce kind of determination once again lit in her eyes. "No, Joey's right. We can't just sit here and do nothing. Malik won't be expecting retaliation so soon and not at his own front door."
Pegasus gave her a doubtful look. "Darling, that's because it would be extremely stupid of us to do so."
"And it would be stupider lettin' the bad guys keep someone as powerful as Kaiba on their side?" countered the blonde. "No offense, but I'd rather not get blasted with an angry Blue Eyes twice in one day." Joey shrugged. "Besides, it won't be that hard. I've seen you start a shadow duel with that creepy eye before, so gettin' us over there should be no problem, right?"
"It's actually much more complicated than..." Pegasus sighed, realizing both that arguing was pointless and that somehow they were going to have to save Kaiba. "Fine, but can we at least get some reinforcements first? Seeing as Yugi-Boy is the only one here who can successfully best Kaiba, possessed or no, we might as well let him tag along."
"Ah yeah!" exclaimed Joey. "With Yug on our side we can't loose." Joey then extended a hand down to Kisara. "Come on," he urged with a grin, "Let's go save your complete jerk of a boyfriend."
The duel was not going well.
Yugi shielded his eyes as yet another one of his monsters were wiped from the field once again leaving his life points open for a direct attack, one that came down with electrifying pain as the Elemental Magician under Mana's control sent a slash of magic into his defenseless form. The sensation was so real, it felt as though the white hot magic had actually sliced through his body, rending muscle, bone and sinew as it cut through him. Yugi cried out, gripping his shoulder and chest in agony as he went down to one knee and watched one thousand five hundred of his life points vanish. At the moment, he was down to five thousand six hundred while Mana still sat at a perfect eight thousand.
If he didn't start playing this game differently, they weren't going to last much longer.
Thus far he'd just been buying time, trying to protect himself behind defense position monsters and non-life point damaging trap cards while he attempted to think his way out of this. The strategy wasn't working very well.
Malik yawned from atop the giant shadow throne he'd erected for himself and from where he'd been watching the progress below. "Please...can you get any more pathetic? Are you even trying?" He rolled his wild eyes. "It's no wonder you usually let the Pharaoh play for you," he mocked drumming his fingers over the black arm rest. "Look I know you're going to die here in a few minutes, but can you at least try to make this interesting? Or if you aren't going to fight at all, at least have the decency to just surrender," Malik drawled with a bored wave of his hand.
Mahad shot a nervous glance at his pharaoh's still wincing Spirit Partner as he dragged himself to his feet, trying to ignore the hungry shadows licking icily around his ankles. "Yugi, we can't go on like this. If we don't fight back at all this will be over in a few minutes." He looked down. "As long as...as long as Mana's life points don't hit zero we can still save her and you need time to come up with a way out of this."
Yugi nodded grimly, looking down at his seemingly useless hand. Useless in that he couldn't think of a way to manipulate the cards in order to save Mana, not as in he couldn't use them to turn the tide of battle. Suddenly his goal seemed impossible. How could you win a duel without defeating your opponent? Maybe if he could win without decimating her life points...She'd have to forfeit if she ran out of cards, but Yugi didn't see a way of making that happen. Maybe if their life points both hit zero at the same time? Unlikely, and knowing Shadow Games they'd probably both end up dead.
"Ticktock Yugi... Are you going to play a card or what?" taunted Malik, leaning dangerously over his throne to jeer at him.
Yugi winced his eyes shut before throwing down his next card. Sorry Mana.
Domino City was absolute chaos. Monsters were running rampant in the streets causing panic, death, and mayhem everywhere they were summoned. Conventional weapons had little to no effect on these Shadow Beasts meaning that whatever law enforcement was left standing were completely helpless to stem the black tide. As a result, the only course of action had been to barricade off the city and evacuate as many people possible. This only worked because, thus far, Malik had yet to advance his dark armies beyond the city's borders. As far as Ishizu was concerned, this was only because everything the deranged spirit wanted was here. If Malik succeeded in defeating the Pharaoh and resurrecting Zorc, it wouldn't just be Domino City that fell. The entire world would succumb to the all consuming darkness.
Ishizu shuttered and instinctively reached for the necklace that was usually clasped around her throat. She felt blind without it. She knew it was foolish to rely on things as temperamental and fleeting as the possible futures it sometimes would choose to reveal, but even the slightest glimpse of light in this madness would have been welcome. Things certainly couldn't get any darker.
After the Pharaoh and Bakura had left Egypt, Ishizu had desperately wanted to follow them; to do whatever she could to save her brother, but at the time, there had been another sibling who'd needed her more. Odion had still been badly injured and she couldn't have just left him. He had been so unstable, sometimes she'd feared he'd never open his eyes again. No matter what, She couldn't have let him die alone. Marik wouldn't have wanted that.
Only hours after she'd convinced herself of this; made peace with the fact that she'd done all she could in this battle, everything had changed. Odion had suddenly and quite miraculously took a turn for the better, his recovery faster than any of the doctors could explain. But this wonderful news had been laced with a sinister aftertaste. After the final round of diagnostic tests that had still baffled the attending doctors, when Ishizu had come in to gently throw her arms around her somehow awake and healing adopted brother, a certain glimmering set of golden scales had halted whatever merrymaking was about to ensue.
Once again a Millennium Item had found its way into their lives. Ishizu had to assume that somehow the Millennium Scales were behind Odion's unlikely recovery for which she was infinitely grateful. But still, it meant that they were far from out of danger and that their roles in the upcoming battle between the light and darkness that had always surrounded their family was only beginning. This reality had only been strengthened by the reappearance of the mysterious spirit Shadi a few hours later, Millennium Key gleaming from the cord around his neck.
In all honestly, she knew that, once Odion was no longer in danger of passing, neither he or herself would have been able to sit by when their brother was in such danger, Millennium Items and guardian spirit or not. There was no question they were going to Domino City, the hard part had been getting there.
For obvious reasons, all airfare both in and out of the city had been grounded not to mention every other conceivable entrance had been blocked off. Ishizu usually didn't like to flaunt the resources granted her by being the owner of the most successful Egyptian excavation team and curator of some of Egypt's most profitable museums, but such things like a private jet and the pilot to operate it, certainly came in handy from time to time. It wasn't as though there had been guards or the like preventing them from entering the city's airspace or landing. Any and all civilian and military forces were being used to evacuate the city and keep the Shadow Creatures trapped inside.
Ishizu had heard things were bad but no report could have made clear the magnitude of what was really going on within the city limits. Looking out the window of the helicopter they'd "borrowed" from the abandoned airstrip, down at the smoke, fire, and pandemonium below, Ishizu found herself chilled to the core. How had things escalated so quickly? Was it too late to save anyone? Was it too late to save Marik?
She nearly jumped when she felt Odion's strong, rough hand wrap around hers, but, once she realized what the contact was, she instantly felt a little bit better.
"It will be okay, Sister," Odion assured her in his deep but gentle tones. "Remember the vision you told me of."
She nodded her head but it was an unconvincing gesture. "I remember, Brother, but that was only one of many possibilities. If there is anything this world has taught me, it is that the future is as unreadable to me as it is to everyone else." She looked back out the window at the besieged city below. "And even if I was correct, and Bakura can indeed help the Pharaoh to stop this, I saw..." She took a deep breath. "I saw nothing of Marik."
Odion's expression was grim, instantly reminded of the horrific scene he'd been trying but unable to forget: The dark spirit taking over his brother, forcing Marik's body to stab that knife deeply into his chest. Odion tried not to think about the pain, free hand moving up to the bandages covering the not quite healed wound. "Marik is strong. He has defeated the darkness within himself in the past. He will do it again." Odion squeezed her hand almost painfully but comfortingly tight, his words not only spoken to convince her, but himself as well. He needed them to be true. He needed to believe in his brother. "Besides, no matter what happens, there is no force on earth that will keep us from helping to pull him back out."
Ishizu allowed a small smile to pull at her lips. If Odion could be so strong after what happened; if he could sit here talking of battle when he wasn't even fully recovered from the deadly wound Malik had inflicted upon him, than she could be strong too. Marik's life may very well depend upon it.
The sudden cry from the unusually silent spirit who had accompanied them from Egypt startled both Odion and Ishizu, Odion wincing slightly from the pain the little jump had caused to his bandaged chest. Both siblings looked out the window in the direction of Shadi's pointing finger, their eyes settling on the smoking structure of Domino City High School.
"How do you know?" asked Odion. "They could be anywhere."
Shadi fixed them with his strange stare. "Do you not feel the power emanating from below?" He closed his eyes as if concentrating. "A great battle between light and darkness rages beneath us. I can feel the presence of both the Pharaoh's and Malik's spirits."
That was certainly all the incentive the Ishtars needed. "Take us down!" Ishizu ordered the pilot.
We're coming Marik...
"Awe, come on!" cried Joey in dismay as the large purple dome over the parking lot came into view. "Please don't tell me that's a Shadow Duel! 'Cause if it is you know who's gonna be right in the middle of it!"
"Alright," huffed Pegasus as he tried to keep up with their fast pace on what he was sure was at the very least a severely sprained ankle, "I won't tell you."
"It's a Shadow Duel," confirmed Kisara, slightly confused at why they were arguing over the obvious. "And I sense the Pharaoh's spirit...and Malik within," Kisara hissed the last part vehemently.
"Great..." sighed Joey. "Just friggin' wonderful."
"It may mean that Aknadin has not taken Seto to the Shadow Realm yet, so perhaps," called Kisara over her shoulder, her icy hair streaming behind her as she hurdled down the front steps.
Joey blinked. "That's not what I... Oh, never mind."
As they approached, the ominous swirling mass of shadows on a path that was surprisingly and thankfully clear of any Hunters and their Shadow Beasts, the trio began pick of the sound of voices, raised and heated as they yelled at one another.
"I told you, the Pharaoh has ordered me to prevent any and all from interfering with this duel!"
Seto! Well, not exactly Seto, but close enough. She still had a chance. Kisara increased her speed, quickly lengthening the distance between her and her companions.
"Kaiba tell us what is going on! Why is our Pharaoh in a Shadow Duel where we can no longer assist him?! And why are you holding Bakura hostage?!"
"Ishizu! Get back! A dark spirit possesses this man! He is not who you think he is!"
At this moment, Kisara rounded the edge of the giant mass of shifting shadows making up the tear between their world and the Shadow Realm. She could now see five figures. Three of them she did not know but they somehow seemed very familiar. They all had bronze colored skin and the two that had spoken had heavy Egyptian accents, though not from the dialect she was used to. The other two were instantly familiar. One was the Thief King Bakura, hands and mouth bound with shadow magic, standing in defeat before the other man; the creature possessing Seto's body.
Perhaps her next actions were a bit brash but she needed to save him, to exorcize the dark presence within Seto. Now. Every second she allowed that twisted parasite to dwell within her love's body was absolute torture. So she acted, completely on instinct.
With a very uncharacteristic and highly draconic snarl she sent a giant blast of white lightning at the monster's feet. "Get out of his body, now! Or I swear to the gods I will tear you out myself!"
The force of the blast knocked all the individuals present to the ground, including her target. While it was certain that Kisara would never do such a thing to Seto's body for fear of the damage such an action would surely cause, the look on the possessed man's face said he believed the threat. The downed man raised the Millennium Rod and pointed it at the woman racing towards him, white sparks crackling in her hands.
The result wasn't perfect. The rod was designed to control humans, not dragons in human form, especially those as powerful as the Blue Eyes. However, Kisara was human enough that her steps slowed and faltered, causing her to go down hard on the cement and tumble painfully most the way towards Aknadin.
Instantly he was on his feet and straddling her, pinning her arms over her head with one hand while raising the unsheathed Millennium Rod with the other intending to plunge it deep into the woman's chest. "You little witch!" he spat in a voice that was too filled with contempt to even belong to Seto Kaiba. "I am done with you and your interference with my son!"
Kisara was still too stunned by the momentary partial control the rod had had on her to react in time, but a certain snowy haired thief wasn't. Bakura threw his already screaming left shoulder into the demon about to extinguish one of their last powerful allies. Compared to what they were up against Kisara wasn't much, but hey, what else could he possibly have to loose?
The blade slammed jarringly into the concrete instead of Kisara's breast and Aknadin's stolen body tumbled off the stunned woman, replaced instead by the thief who fell painfully hard across her no longer having the ability to keep his balance nor enough strength or will to move again any time soon. He never knew one appendage could hurt so much. It was so intense and all consuming that he probably would have attempted to hack it off regardless of effectiveness had he had the power to do so.
"Gods damn you, Thief!" screamed the Aknadin in rage. "I will make sure that this time, your death is the so excruciating you won't even consider coming back into this wretched world ever again!"
Before he could make good on any of his threats Aknadin noticed that both Pegasus and Joey had rounded the corner and were in the process of summoning their monsters, as well as Odion, Ishizu, and Shadi who had gotten to their feet and all seemed to be of the same mind set. He gritted his teeth. There was no way he could win this fight. Not against six duelists, two of which were sporting Millennium Items.
"This is not over," his words were pure venom as he yanked Bakura up by his hair and then vanished into a small explosion of shadows.
"Seto!" Kisara's scream was much more the shrill cry of her Ka than that of a human. How could she be so inept at doing the one thing she was put into this world to do? She was so furious with herself that the fist she drive into the ground actually left a dent, the asphalt digging into her now bleeding knuckles.
Ishizu blinked in shock at the blue haired woman before her. At first she'd been unsure as to her identity, but after such a display, the woman's Ka practically radiating through her skin, it was clear who she was. "You're the spirit of the Blue Eyes White Dragon..." she whispered in awe, lowering the Duel Disk she'd been about to utilize. "But...how are you here?"
"L-long story..." panted Pegasus, removing his Blue Eyes Toon Dragon from the field.
"Ishizu? What are you an' Odion doin' here?" asked Joey in confusion. "Nyya!" Joey shrunk back when he laid eyes on Shadi. "Him too?" Sure he knew from past experience that Shadi was on their side, but that didn't make the weird ghost any less creepy.
"We came to assist the Pharaoh and his companions in this great battle," Shadi informed them, his voice nigh monotone.
"What exactly happened?" Ishizu asked, gesturing to the Shadow Duel taking place a few meters away, though she might as well have pointed to everything around them.
Pegasus shrugged, doing his best to push his rather worse for wear hair out of his face. "Your guess is as good as mine. I suppose you could say we walked willingly into a trap and things...well," he laughed, "let's just say they went about as well as could be expected."
"We..." Kisara rose to her feet. "We have to go after them." By the determination in her voice it was clear that she would entertain no arguments about the matter.
"Back to plan A, huh?" sighed Joey. "Oookay! Shadow Realm here we come!"
Ishizu shook her head in disbelief. "You can't be serious." Her voice became more urgent when she realized they actually were. "You can't enter Malik's domain. You'll be killed! At the very least you won't return."
Kisara met her eyes with a gaze as intent as Seto Kaiba's. "I am going after him and I will bring him back. There are no other options."
"Well there you have it," laughed Pegasus trying to dispel some of the tension. "We waltzed right into a trap, Yugi-Boy and his two magician friends are obviously predisposed with Malik in some sort of Shadow Duel, Kaiba got himself possessed and kidnapped—funny it's usually the smaller one who does that—and Joey and I are following a very angry Blue Eyes on a rescue mission." He paused for a moment, thinking. "Actually if Malik's all tied up with Yugi than now might be a perfect time to storm the castle."
"Good point," grinned Joey. "Though I wouldn't mind a chance to pay that bastard back for Battle City."
Pegasus wasn't even going to comment on how absurd such an idea was.
"If you're looking for something to do," ventured the Creator of Duel Monsters slowly, "You could tag along with us. We could certainly use the back up."
Ishizu glanced nervously at the purple dome to her left where she knew her brother, or at the very least, his body was located, trapped in some twisted duel he had no control over—something so familiar it felt like a nightmare. She didn't know what the right move was. It was true she couldn't do anything here, trapped outside the battle contained within the swirling dark mists, but she wasn't sure she could walk away from whatever was left of her brother either. Again her fingertips brushed against her neck. She wished she knew what to do.
Ishizu's eyes shot over to the woman who had used her past life's name. "How did you...?"
"You are the keeper of the Millennium Necklace, are you not?" asked Kisara, her voice much less hard but still firm.
"Yes," nodded Ishizu, but I gave the artifact to the Pharaoh and Bakura for safe keeping.
Kisara nodded and reached deeply into the inner pockets of the white, fur trimmed parka she'd been using for the past few days. "Here." Kisara held out the gleaming artifact to Ishizu. After much debate it had been decided that it wasn't safe for Mokuba or Yugi's grandfather to leave them alone with any of the items should Malik come for them while they were away at the school. And since the Pharaoh had wanted it as far away from the Thief King as possible and neither Seto or Pegasus had really wanted to deal with another of the crazy artifacts, Kisara had volunteered to guard it. A good choice, dragons aren't known for parting with treasure easily. But it was of no use to her. In the hands of its guardian, it might do some good.
Ishizu instantly reached for the artifact, praying it would give her some kind of sign. As soon as her fingers touched it the Millennium Necklace glowed brightly and Ishizu stumbled as she was taken by a powerful vision. It was intense and dark, a dire warning of what was about to come to pass; of what would happen if they lost. They were running out of time to turn things around.
Moments later Ishizu came to in Odion's arms. No longer did the shadow's of doubt cover her features, she knew what must be done.
"Sister, are you alright?" Odion's voice was one of concern but that was something they didn't have time for.
She waved his hands off, eyes locking with Kisara's. "Th-there is an active portal to...the Shadow Realm in the mansion where...you were...staying. In...the attic. Malik was...using it to...keep contact with...Bakura." She took a long shaking breath trying to blot out the images of fire and death that had consumed her moments earlier. "You can use it to...take you to Malik's...summoning chamber." She winced as the screams she'd heard moments ago filled her mind. "Go. Take the helicopter. We are needed here."
Kisara nodded gravely. "Thank you." She was about to turn to leave when Ishizu firmly grabbed her arm. The woman's expression was as intense as Kisara's had been moments ago when she swore to rescue Seto. "Save him." Her voice was nothing sort of commanding. "If he falls, so do we all."
Kisara met the woman's stare equally. "I will not fail."
Ishizu allowed a herself a fraction of relief and momentarily let the exhaustion the vision had caused over come her, releasing the girl to keep her promise.
Ishizu would soon come to regret not making it clear that it was Bakura not Seto whom Kisara needed to save.
Shadi watched as the three ran towards the helicopter and seconds later were born into the smoky sky. Once they'd affectingly disappeared from site, he turned to Ishizu who was currently fastening the Millennium Item around her neck. "You said your vision indicated that the three of us are needed here? Do you know what it is we must do to assist the Pharaoh?"
Ishizu shook her head. "My vision was not clear, but I know...we must be here for the Pharaoh." The statement was vague but resolute.
While that explanation would have been unsatisfactory to most, Shadi seemed completely unbothered by it. "Very well," he spoke calmly. "Then we stand sentinel until the Pharaoh emerges from this battle. Until then we will pray for his swift-" The guardian spirit's words were suddenly cut off when the Millennium Key around his neck glowed and rose, jerking suddenly to the right where it embedded itself in the now very agitated mass of shadows, pulling a very shocked Shadi along with it.
"Shadi!" gasped Ishizu in shock. Both she and Odion grabbed a hold of his shoulders fearing that he would somehow be sucked into the pulsating darkness. Nothing quite so extraordinary happened, though with a flash of gold, the key turned as if opening a lock. Then as suddenly as the strange occurrences had started, they ceased. Whatever force had grabbed a hold of the millennium key vanished, releasing the three Egyptians and leaving them to fall in a tangled heap on the ground, all highly confused about what had just occurred.
Odion's face was set in a painful grimace, hand clasped over his aching chest as they each struggled to their feet. "What, in Ra's name was that?" he bit out through the sharp throbbing.
Shadi stared down at the key, quizzical look painting his usually unemotional features. "I am not sure." He looked up at the two Ishtars. "It is true that at times, the Millennium Items seem to have a mind of their own." He moved to further inspect the unmarred shining surface of the item he held.
"Do you think that," Ishizu swallowed in preparation for the vile word she was about to utter, "Malik had anything to do with it?"
Shadi shook his head. "No. I felt no dark intention behind the action."
"I guess we'll just have to wait and see," huffed Odion gruffly.
Mana curled further in on herself, wishing that her body could somehow melt into the small shadowy corner of the closet where she was hiding. Another explosion shook the ground and she clapped her little hands over her ears trying desperately to drowned out the screams of her neighbors and her friends...screams that may have even belonged to her parents.
It's gonna be okay...It's gonna be okay... She winced as the ground shook again and the little hut groaned around her. It's gonna be okay!
Over and over Mana mentally repeated the words her mother had told her before quickly kissing her forehead and locking her inside the tiny closet. It's gonna be okay... No matter how hard she tried she couldn't really make herself believe it. Mana may have been too young to understand exactly what was going on or why she was in danger, but the look of panic and barely contained tears on her mother's face told her with absolute certainty that things were not going to be okay.
Please, gods please let everything be okay! She prayed desperately.
That's when she heard the footsteps. They were too loud and heavy to be her mother's and her father...he was already. Mana shook her hear frantically, trying not to start crying for fear of the noise it would make. No...no you just saw it wrong. Daddy's fine he just... She forced herself into a tighter ball. It's gonna be okay!
Suddenly the reed door of her hiding place was ripped off it's hinges and a dark creature made of shadows with no definite shape reached down towards her with a misshapen hand.
It seemed that the gods were not merciful today.
Mana screamed as the attack tore through her Elemental Magician, blasting it from the field and taking a chunk of her life points along with it. Even though she'd only lost six hundred of her life points in the attack, a mere fraction of her eight thousand, the results were too painful to watch. Mana fell to the ground on her hands and knees, body smoking slightly from the supernatural blast. Her eyes stared blankly at the ground, but white hot pain etched her features and salty tears trickled down her tan cheeks. For a while she just stayed there, shaking and crying before finally rising to her trebling feet. She looked absolutely terrified as she faced the opposing side of the battle field, arms clutching around her as though they could protect her from the grisly fate she had been forced into
At first Yugi though he'd just been hearing things. The muttered words where so quiet they were no more than a whisper dancing across the dark arena. Then he saw Mana's lips moving and he knew he hadn't imagined it.
"It's...gonna be...okay." She whispered to herself through tears, eyes still clouded over, seeing something that no one else could but feeling everything that was happening to her, unable to understand or stop it.
Yugi felt sick and a cold chill spread down his spine all the way to his heart. He felt like the worst creature imaginable because he was the one causing this helpless magician, his friend who had done nothing wrong, to go through this agony. It had been bad enough knowing that Mana would be hurt by the actions intended to save her. But knowing that she wasn't completely unaware of what was going on around her and that she was suffering from some twisted hell probably much worse than whatever was happening within the duel every time her life points were damaged made it almost impossible to continue in this madness.
Yugi briefly wondered if there was anyway to surrender now and negotiate her safe return but the absolutely diabolical look on Malik's face told him there would be no way out. He had constructed this perfect little hell flawlessly in order to make everyone present hurt as much as humanly possible and he wasn't going to give up this fun for anything, not even the God Cards. He was assured to win them anyways.
The look of anguish covering Mahad's usually stoic features made it clear who was winning this Shadow Game. No matter what Yugi did he'd be one step closer to defeat and he felt icy despair wash over him. He didn't know what to do.
His first instinct was to reach for the Pharaoh's Spirit, even though he knew Atem was probably far more broken than he was right now. They were playing for the soul of the person he loved. He couldn't imagine his yami could function right now let alone come up with some brilliant answer to an impossible question that had no solution.
He remembered how he had felt when Marik had made him duel Joey and how Téa had also been put in such grave danger by his actions. Back then they had only been rescued by their friends and the strength of the bond Yugi and Joey shared. But this time they were alone. No one was coming to the rescue. Maybe Atem could break through to Mana and...well even then Yugi wasn't sure what they were going to do but it would be a step in the right direction. First he'd have to get through to the Pharaoh though...
More determined now, Yugi felt for his connection to the ancient spirit, knowing that no matter what, he had to get him back into the game.
Suddenly Yugi caught at flash of gold out of the corner of his eye. It was hardly discernible. Malik and Mahad didn't even seem to have noticed. Yugi would have written it off as nothing as well but what happened next made it impossible to do so. The sudden jolt running through his body followed by a loud snap he felt rather than heard resonating through every tendon and anatomical connection in his body shook him to the core. It was as though someone had poured liquid electricity into his brain.
Yugi's vision went black and then spotted white like a burning film reel all in a matter of seconds before just as quickly returning to normal. His body was humming with a sort of energy...or rather and absence of energy.
Horror filled Yugi as he realized the cause of all the awful sensations he's just felt shoot though his body. The connection had been cut, dangling like a severed artery in the world of the Millennium Puzzle, all of Yugi's hope bleeding out of the tear.
The Spirit of the Pharaoh was gone.
Atem's breath left him as his sudden fall through a whirlwind of golden light and silky shadows deposited him hard onto the hot sand. It took him several long seconds for him to get his lungs to remember how to pump in air and then several more to catch his breath from the combination of the strange fall and the coughing caused by the blowing desert dust.
It was a good long while before he could made heads or tails of all the strange new stimuli surrounding him and flooding his senses, but in time, Atem couldn't deny the intense familiarity of anything and everything around him. He was back in Ancient Egypt. He was home.
"What did you, do!" screamed Yugi once he could get his mouth to work again. Everything was wrong. He felt like he'd been poisoned. Half of him was missing and all of him refused to function without it. Cold emptiness was filling him up where once another entity used to be and he felt more alone then he ever recalled feeling in his life. Was this really what it felt like without the Pharaoh? And if so, how had he lived without his second half for so long?
"Oh come on," scoffed Malik in disgust. "Did you really think I'd make it so easy on you? She's not going to just stand there when you hit her and take it. I'm going to make sure she feels it. Every little assault to her being. Every step you force her to take towards painful oblivion. She's going experience all of it. She's going to scream." His last words were spoken like a demonic chant: Pure evil seeping from every single syllable. "How does that make you feel Pharaoh?" He taunted. "Are you ready to come out here and save your little girlfriend?" He suddenly frowned. "Oh, that's right, you can't!" Insane laughter filled the shadows, seeming to echo from everywhere around them.
He...doesn't know...? But if Malik hadn't ripped Atem's spirit from him, who had, and why? More importantly, how was he going to get him back? And in the mean time, how was he going to re-learn to function on his own long enough to save Mana and defeat Malik all without any help for the spirit that had become such a part of him that without him, Yugi felt half way to death's doorstep?
"Don't you get it?" Malik called down from his black throne, eyes so wide and wild that he didn't even look human anymore. "I've won! No matter what you do, I win! Now writhe in my trap, Pharaoh!" There wasn't even anything human left about the creature thrashing back and fourth in glee above them. His voice didn't even sound right any more. It was twisting like he was, taking on a darker quality, as though there were someone else speaking behind him. "I'm not letting you out until you wish you were dead and then when you do I'll kill you but not before I kill this little bitch here and cover you in her blood!"
Oh that's right. Yugi wasn't supposed to do any of those things, because Malik was right. He'd already lost.
Atem pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the ache in his legs he felt from falling down from only Ra knew where...actually, now that he thought about it, it had felt like he'd been falling upwards and crashed through the dunes. He certainly had enough sand clinging to his hair and finding its way into every crevice of his now highly inappropriate clothing to support the theory.
Regardless of how he'd gotten here, he had to find out where he was. He doubted he'd last very long in the blazing desert with the Egyptian sun burning down on his back. Not to mention, he desperately needed to get back. He could still hear Mana's screams in his ears—a sound he had never wanted to hear again. He didn't know how to help her or even if it was possible, but he had to try. He'd felt Yugi reaching for him and he knew now how wrong it had been to shove this burden onto his hikari's shoulders. This was his responsibility to bear, or at the very least, his to help bear. Yugi, Mana and Mahad needed him. He'd be damned if he was going to let them down while he wondered around aimlessly in a desert of a world that no longer even existed.
At first Atem could see nothing but sand, sand, and more sand, but then, like a mirage, the smoking ruins of a town materialized in the distance, except it couldn't be a mirage because they showed you tantalizing lies, not horrible truths from a day millennia ago that you'd wished never to see again. Atem's eyes widened in horror and he started off at a full sprint towards the little desert village.
"Yugi what's wrong?" Mahad's voice was desperate as he saw his last hope of somehow saving Mana falter. It wasn't as if the magician believed what had happened wouldn't affect Yugi. Quite the contrary. He himself was still reeling from Mana's reaction to their first attack. But this went beyond shock and horror. There was something physically wrong with Yugi. He couldn't stand straight, he was shaking like a leaf and it seemed as though his body had forgotten what balance was.
"...No..." muttered Yugi, quietly enough so that Malik couldn't possibly hear though his inhuman laughter. "The Pharaoh...he's gone...I can't feel him or our connection."
Mahad had to stop himself from acting too surprised as so not to alert Malik that anything else was wrong. It was obvious the believed the Atem was still present meaning that Malik had no part in...whatever was going on. But how could the Pharaoh just be gone? It didn't make any sense.
"What do you mean he's gone?" Mahad asked as loudly as he dared.
"I don't know!" hissed a very distraught Yugi. "All I know is suddenly I can't feel his spirit anymore."
They didn't have more time to discuss what was going on because Mana was making her move and it was clear that she hadn't taken too kindly to being attacked
Atem could smell smoke and what a part of his mind that he was trying to ignore recognized as burning flesh as he approached the smoldering village. Screams from the villagers assaulted his ears, but he was only listening for one scream: Mana's. Ever since he'd seen the hauntingly familiar village memories had come flooding back to him, memories of the day he'd first met Mana:
Atem had been ten years old at the time. As a reward for doing so well in his studies with Mahad and the rest of his instructors—something that was well deserving of a prize due to its rarity—Atem had been allowed to accompany his father on one of the regime's customary rides to various villages around the kingdom. Most of Aknamkanon's royal advisers were against these trips, calling them risky and unsafe, but the Pharaoh had believed they that they gave hope to the people and built support and were therefore well worth the risk. Not to mention the sheer number of guards that he brought along made any sort of attack highly unlikely to succeed.
Atem hadn't really cared why they were going. It was an excuse to get out of the palace and spend time with his father so Atem had happily accepted. Foolish, young, and wishing for excitement, he'd actually hoped they'd be attacked by thieves or the like. What had actually happened was much worse.
The little village they were riding to had been under attack by soldiers from a neighboring one. Though technically all of Egypt was under the control of the Pharaoh, factions would sometimes rise up and squabble with one another. This was especially true in these small outlying towns where the kingdom's guards could not easily intervene.
Of course, once they'd seen the smoke, Atem was instructed to stay behind with Mahad while his father and the guards left to try and stop the senseless killings.
At that age, Atem had never been very good at listening and the danger and horror hadn't been real until he was standing on the ridge of a sand dune overlooking the slaughter and seen how his father and the guards, despite their intentions, only added to the madness as both sides, in the confusion and panic, forced their would be saviors to add their blades to the fray.
All Atem had been able to do was stare frozen in fear down at massacre beneath them. Never in his short life had he been so afraid as when he saw his father slaughtering the poorly armed men who attempted to attack him.
By the time Mahad had caught up to him and shielded his eyes in his cloak, the damage had already been done. Everything he'd seen, it had been so awful and it had changed Atem's outlook on both his father and his own role in succeeding him as the Pharaoh forever.
It hadn't been until later that Atem had met Mana. The scared little girl hidden away in one of the half collapsed houses that had been the soul survivor in the attack. Ever after that she'd always said that he'd saved her due to the fact it had been he who had found her hiding place and then convinced his father to let her come back with them, and then later, Mahad to take her on as his apprentice.
Now he knew with certainty what a small subconscious part of him always had. It had been the exact opposite. Mana had saved him. Her unstoppable positive outlook, permanent smile, and bubbly laughter even in the grimmest of times had been the light that always prevented him from falling into the darkness that seemed to hound him his entire life.
As he looked down on the empty shadow of the smoking town, this time assaulted by dark demons instead of enraged people, Atem saw this for what it really was. He supposed he knew it all along. Everything from the wind, to the sand, to the sun felt familiar in a way that only Mana could. Everything that is, except the dark blot of Shadow Magic before him.
Atem was somehow in Mana's mind, in the prison Malik had created for her while he commanded her body to battle in the Shadow Duel. This was the miracle he'd been praying to the gods for. This was his chance to return all her favors and save her as she'd been saving him for all these years.
The spell card Black Hole was thrown down on the field and suddenly all of Yugi's defenses and both of Mana's monsters were sucked down into the swirling vortex of dark energy at the center of the field. Yugi winced, both from the realization that he was, once again, wide open to attack and that it was still Mana's turn. He was now down to four thousand life points. Mana was at six thousand two hundred. A few more good attacks and he was finished. They'd all be finished...
Blank expression still in place, Mana then played the card, Ancient Rules and via the affect, produced a monster card from her hand which she then special summoned onto the field in attack position.
"Ooo, good choice," giggled Malik as the Dark Magician Girl appeared with a flourish of magical sparks onto the field.
It wasn't her Spirit Door that had been played, that still rested firmly within Malik's duel disk. Still the summoned magician looked so much like Mana—disregarding hair and skin color—that they could have been sisters, twins even.
As expected, Mana directed her monster to attack. If Yugi and Mahad had expected any sort of hesitation or mercy from the creature who served as Mana's Ka, they received none. The Dark Magician Girl flew towards Yugi's side of the field and unleashed a magical attack that decimated half of Yugi's remaining life points and sent him flying backwards onto the ground.
"Yugi!" cried Mahad, desperately wanting to go to his side but sure that Malik would count such and act as interference and that they wouldn't like the consequences.
Yugi slowly pushed himself up in time to see the Dark Magician Girl float gracefully down to Mana's side of the field and offer her master a smile and giggle that was not even close to returned.
Mana then followed up the attack by normal summoning Royal Magical Library in defense mode and then adding on Horn of Light to up its defense too two thousand eight hundred.
In one move, Mana had him one turn away from losing and had protected her own life points firmly behind a powerful defensive wall of books. Yugi stared fitfully down at his hand which didn't improve with his draw despite needing the heart of the cards in his favor more than ever. He had no monsters, no clever traps to stop Mana's next attack. All he had was...
"Use it," said Mahad resolutely. His face was stone and his eyes unreadable.
"Are you sure," asked Yugi even though he knew like the magician next to him that they had no other choice in the matter.
"Yes," answered Mahad, no emotion whatsoever in his voice. "We can't lose. We can't stop until we...find a way to save her." He said the words and forced himself to believe in their truth even when all logic said it was impossible and all hope seemed lost. They had no plan, Atem was gone, and no matter what they tried, Mana's life still seemed minutes away from over, but still, the master magician forced himself to have faith. Faith in nothing in particular, not the heart of the cards or the gods, not even in Yugi or his Pharaoh, just to believe that somehow, some way, this would all turn out all right.
"Okay," Yugi nodded, pushing himself to his feet. "Let's do this." He turned resolutly back to the battle at hand. "I play the magic card Dark Magic Curtain!"
The spell card was dropped onto the field, Yugi's Life points dropped down to one thousand, and a dark flowing curtain held by a skeletal figure materialized onto the field. A split second later, a glowing white card appeared out of Yugi'd deck and dropped itself onto the field. Next to him, Mahad's form glowed for a moment before he vanished only to reappear from behind the curtain in the same golden and violet spender he had materialized in when defending his king what now seemed like a life time ago. Only this time, it wasn't a Shadow Creature he was facing down, it was his own apprentice.
Mana fled as quickly as she could away from her now burning house and the monstrous being within it, her scream cuting though the cacophony of horrible noises around her sounding unrealistically loud in her own ears. It should have just blended into all the other terrible sounds echoing through the darkened, twisted streets, but somehow, it seemed that her cry of anguish and terror was, for an instance, the loudest and only shout in the entire desert. Unfortunately, every demon and hideous creature ripping its way through the town she'd once called home was of the same impression. Instantly she was being hunted by all the monsters from her nastiest nightmares as she made her mad dash through what was left of the once lively streets and alleyways as fast as her tiny legs could carry her.
Maybe she was wrong and each abomination that had glided out of the shadows wasn't after her, hounding her every move, cutting her off every time she'd almost made it out of this cursed village. If this was in fact the truth that meant that everyone else was dead. Impossible since she still heard their screams; screams that chilled her blood even in this scorching heat. Then again, so far she hadn't seen a single soul, just undulating black things that clawed and snapped at her as she ran by them, blocking her path, ripping at her arms and legs, and occasionally sending a blast of horrible pain wracking energy into her, but never killing her. Oh no, they were enjoying this far too much to silence her cries.
Mana begged the gods, begged her parents, her friends, the Pharaoh, anyone and anything she could think of to make the torture stop; not even to necessarily save her anymore, just to let this twisted game end. It was too much.
Another one of the tendrils that looked like shadows but turned out to be so much more tangled itself around her legs like a nasty bramble of thorns, the barbed ends digging painfully into her already bleeding legs. With a cry that was silenced the second she hit the ground as the wind was knocked out of her already aching lungs, Mana when down, her hands knees and elbows skidding jarringly over the rocky ground.
At first she tried to get up, then both her body and terrorized mind thought better of it. She couldn't make her trembling, red stained arms push her up, or her battered legs support her for one more frantic step. She was done. Mana could almost feel the the shadows pooling towards her, drowning out the light as they prepared to drag her down to whatever dark place they'd seeped from but she couldn't bring herself to care. She was still terrified, too terrified to look and see if the monsters really were coming to eat her up, but too exhausted to run away anymore.
"It's gonna be okay..." she whispered to herself even though she knew it wasn't true. It didn't even feel comforting to say, but at this point, it was all she had left.
The second she'd resigned herself to the awful fate she didn't deserve but could no longer fight, her prayers were answered. It wasn't until the promise her mother had made her felt like nothing more than ash and lies in her mouth that it became nothing short of the truth.
The voice was like a bell, clear, and strong enough to cut through all the dark whispers and laughter of the shadows around her. Not looking up to see the source of that call despite all the horrors she might see would have gone against her very nature.
She was not disappointed. The second she raised her eyes from the blacked sand and stone beneath her they were greeted with a powerful light, stronger than and more potent than the consuming darkness that had hounded her. Like the voice it sliced through the shadows, burning them away until they were nothing; until they had fled back to the dark corners where they belonged.
The figure was sprinting towards her now, driving the last of the darkness away. Whoever it was was still to bright to really see and Mana found herself wondering if the sun god himself had come down to save her. Funny though, if that was the case, she didn't feel scared or unworthy as she aught to in the presence of such a being. Quite the opposite. She felt a warm familiarity wash over her like she was home, safe, and incredibly happy all at the same time. By the time the sprinting figure had reaching her and wrapped his arms around her, she was certain this wasn't a god. He felt like her best and oldest friend even though she was quite sure they'd never met before. As such she had no qualms about returning the embrace and burying her dirty tear stained face in his neck, unmindful of the stiff strands of hair that prodded her as she did so.
All too soon for her tastes, her savior pulled back, scrutinizing her battered form like a concerned parent would. The blinding brightness had faded down to a dim golden glow, but even though she could completely make him out and every feature from his tricolored hair, to his amethyst eyes, far too full of wisdom for such a youthful face, to his nose, everything—accept for his very very strange attire—looked unmistakable familiar to her, she still could not place him. It was infuriating to think that she couldn't recall someone who felt like such an integral part of her life.
"Mana..." spoke the Pharaoh, relief filling his voice. "Are you alright?" She didn't look unscathed and the cuts covering her bare arms and legs made him ache inside, but at least it seemed as if nothing was too serious. Then there was of course the issue that she looked exactly the same age as when they'd originally met. This wasn't the first time the strange things had happened when he was trapped in someone else's head (first and foremost his own), or the world of one of the Millennium artifacts and he was sure this wouldn't be the last.
"I'm...I'm okay..." she answered meekly, seeming surprised by her own words. "Who...who are you? Please tell me!" Suddenly she seemed desperate. "I feel like I've known you all my life but I can't..." She looked away. "I just can't remember."
Atem took a deep breath, unsure how exactly they were going to make this work. They needed to get out of here, back to the real world so that they could stop this Shadow Game—how was a conundrum in and of itself—but first he'd have to get Mana to remember. Atem recalled having to regain a significant amount of his own memories before he was ready to leave the world they'd created. Perhaps it was the same here. Mana always did have a high capacity for believing the fantastical. Atem certainly hoped that trait wouldn't fail him now.
"My name is Atem," he started slowly, looking the little girl that was currently Mana directly in her wide aquamarine eyes, "and you feel that way because we have. I've known you since I was thirteen. We grew up together. Technically I guess you could say we've known each other for thousands of years," he tried adding in with a smirk.
Mana's brows knitted together in confusion and doubt. "Sir...ah...Atem, I'm only ten. How could I have known you for thousands of years!" At any other time, Atem would have found the unguarded incredulity covering her childish features adorable, but right now he needed desperately for her to believe him and remember.
"I know...I know it sounds crazy but it's true Mana," he tried again. "This," he gestured around him and then griped her small shoulders firmly for affect. "None of this is real. You've been put under a powerful spell to lock you in this...nightmare. Outside, in the real world, you and I and all our friends are in grave danger. I need you to remember, Mana. I need you to wake up."
Perhaps he'd been a little too forward with her because suddenly she pulled back looking scared. "I don't...I don't know what you're talking about. I'm, I'm just a kid. I can't help anyone. And my mommy and daddy..." tears started to spring to her eyes. "They're...they're d-dead aren't they? How am I supposed to help you? I couldn't even help them!" She turned to leave and Atem couldn't help but notice how the shadows were beginning to spring up again, pushing past their natural barriers, pulsating and becoming more solid. It seemed this nightmare was more linked to Mana than he'd first anticipated and that included her opinion of him. If she lost faith in him, then it was likely he wouldn't be able to keep the shadows at bay as he had when he'd first entered.
Atem reached out and grabbed her arm as gently as he could while still keeping her from running away. He absolutely hated the way she winced at the contact and hoped to the gods it was only because her arm hurt her.
"Mana please. I know this is scary and difficult for you, but you aren't helpless. You're one of the most powerful mages I've ever seen and you're Ka is incredibly powerful. The Dark Magician Girl. Do you remember her?"
She shook her head, but at the very least she wasn't trying to pull back anymore. "The...Dark Magician Girl?" she questioned hesitantly. "Who's she?"
Atem smiled warmly. "Technically she's you."
Mana gave him a look that clearly told him she thought he was crazy.
"She's a powerful spirit that lives inside of you." He paused trying to figure out the best way to word this, remembering the first time Mahad had tried to explain to him about his Ka. Though his issue had been less with thinking it wasn't physically possible and more disbelief about his particular Ka. Kuriboh hadn't exactly been what he'd imagined when he was picturing the mighty Ka of the future Pharaoh.
"Like your guardian," he finally decided on. "She's there to help you when you're in trouble or scared or even if your friends are in danger and you need help to protect them."
Wrong choice of words.
Mana suddenly pulled her hand free. "If that's true, why didn't she come save me? Why didn't she save my mom and dad?" She was crying again. "I told you, I can't save anybody!"
"Mana...I'm sorry," desperation was clear in his voice. "It's not...so simple. You have to believe in her. You have to believe in yourself, as well."
Suddenly it felt like the very air shook and Atem and Mana watched in horror as a dark shadow fell across the very sun, the shadows around them dancing in sick glee as bolt of dark magic shot from the ally behind Mana slamming into her and throwing her mercilessly forwards.
"Mana!" Atem cried, moving forward to catch the falling girl in his arms. Unlike before when she seemed only moderately worse for ware, this time the attack seemed to have done significant damage.
Tears slipped down both their cheeks as Atem held her trembling body protectively to his, very aware of how dark it had gotten and how close the circling shadow's were looming. Such and occurrence could only mean one thing. He was running out of time to save her.
"Mana, please listen to me," he begged the child. "You are the only one who can get us out of this. I know you can do it. I'm...I'm not sure how but I believe in you. I believe in you with everything I have."
"W-why?" she asked through her tears, trying to only look at his face and not the wickedly grinning creatures moving ever closer by the second. "I've never...I've n-never saved a-anybody. Why would you...b-believe so hard in m-me?"
Atem somehow managed to smile. "That's not true, Mana. You saved me."
She blinked in shock at his comment that was so strong she almost forgot about the shadows. This man...he was so powerful. She'd seen how he'd obliterated her tormentors a few minutes ago but her conviction in his abilities went beyond that. She knew he was the most powerful individual she'd ever meant just like she knew that he was right about them knowing each other for too many years for it to be possible. How could she have saved someone like him? It was ludicrous to even think such a thing could occur.
"H-how?" she managed, disbelief apparent in every inch of her face.
"Mana," Atem started, gently putting his hands on both sides of her face, forcing her to withstand his intense gaze, "How could you ask that?" and suddenly his words were no longer directed at the child before him, looking desperately for a savior, but to the Mana he'd known and loved for years; the Mana he needed right now.
"You've saved me every day of my life since our paths crossed with your smile, and your laughter, and just you, always being there every step of the way, forcing me to look on the bright side, to see that things aren't so bad. I have never met anyone in the five thousand years my spirit has been forced to walk this earth that has believed in me as much as you have. Even when I didn't know it, you were always right there beside me. You are the light that has guided me through the darkness. And Mana," he stared deeply into those familiar sparkling, blue green eyes he could never see enough of, noting the way they and the tears leaking from them were changing with his words from fear and anguish to something different, something beautiful, "Mana, I love you."
Saying though four little words; to finally be able to admit it to her without fear or hesitation was perhaps the most wonderful thing that the Pharaoh could ever remember happening to him. Then he saw the look in her eyes that told him without a doubt that she felt the same and then that became the most wonderful event in his existence.
The gentle but firm colliding of their lips that occurred a split second later was so natural neither of them had to think about it.
Neither of them felt the attack of the shadow creatures fall nor the rush of warmth and light as Malik's dark spell was broken, the rush of feelings and emotions that surged through them was so much greater than anything happening around them.
When Atem pulled back he wasn't surprised to see that the scared child had been replaced by the Mana he knew and loved, though he hadn't exactly been expecting the bright red blush he found spreading rapidly across her face. "Wow..." she muttered. "I uh...I had no idea you felt..." she just looked away. "Wow."
Atem took her hand and pulled her gently to her feet. "Actually, I'm fairly certain you did," he teased though he meant it in all honestly. "But Mana. We can't stay here," his voice had become much more serious. "We need to-"
"Right!" she cried, cutting him off. "We have to go save Yugi and Mahad! Good thing too because I'm not sure if you can blush to death but we might have just found out if..." She shook her head rapidly. "Okay! On task! Let's go."
Atem was barely holding back a full grin having lost the battle with his smile a few moments ago. "Do you know how?"
"You know, to get out of here?"
"Oh, right," she looked around, tapping her wand on her hand as she did so. "We're in my head right? I think, since Malik's out," the happy momentarily dropped out of her voice at the name, "I'm in change again, so I'm guessing I just have to want it."
Atem certainly hoped it was that simple.
Mana grabbed Atem's hand, a small blush returning despite her best efforts to the contrary. "Okay, here goes nothing."
He was going to attack her; the Ka of his own beloved apprentice. It felt wrong. It felt like the worst thing he'd ever done in his life, but it was more than that, he knew the attack would not only obliterate the fearful looking magical spirit before him, it would inflict five hundred points of direct damage to Mana. The idea of attacking her went against ever fiber of his being. It made him want to rip his hair out, slam his head repeatedly against a wall and then turn his own attack on himself. But what choice did he have? Malik had taken away all other options. At least that's what he was telling himself. But none of that helped to ease the burning pain building inside his chest.
He tried believing that they would find a way; that in some insane and backwards manner this attack would help them save her, but he couldn't believe that; not when every bit of him knew it was a lie. There was no plan. They were losing. They had no way to save Mana and they were past buying time. Yugi was just trying to stay alive.
Mahad didn't blame him for it. It made logical sense. Perhaps, even still he was trying to come up with a plan to turn this around; hoping and praying to the heart of the cards, but that didn't matter. Mahad had lost all hope. In his mind there was no way to turn this around, no way to make it better. They were down to one thousand life points, his Pharaoh had abandoned them, Mahad had failed his apprentice in every possible sense of the word, and now he was going to assist in continuing her torture and perhaps ending her life.
Were the God Cards even worth that? Logic said yes, his heart and everything else screamed no. If they won and Mana died, that would be it for him. He couldn't function and he wouldn't be able to live with himself afterward knowing he had been a part of her death. Maybe he'd be able to make it through their final battle with Zorc. Maybe, if the gods were merciful, he wouldn't. Either way, the only way he could go on was to just shut down; to lock emotion behind and impenetrable wall and act.
He only hoped Mana would be kind enough to forgive him in the afterlife, because he certainly never would grant himself that mercy for the heinous act he was about to commit.
Mahad raised his staff on Yugi's orders, orders that were given with at least most of the pain it was causing Mahad to carry them out. He charged.
Seconds before he unleashed the attack she changed. The Dark Magician Girl before him became her. The blond messy hair turned brown, her sparkling blue eyes took on a greenish hue, and her very presence transformed into that of his bubbly apprentice. At first Mahad thought he was seeing things; thought that the emotional pain such actions were causing him had warped his vision. Then she looked at him, looked right into his eyes and he knew. He didn't even need to see the spirit of his Pharaoh standing next to her to understand the truth of the situation.
He was about to murder his apprentice.
The master magician didn't even have seconds to react. It was too late to take back the attack, but it wasn't too late to direct it. A sad, apologetic smile was all he had time to offer her before he redirected his blast at the Magical Royal Library. The defense of the card was of course too high resulting in the powerful attack being redirected at the magician who'd sent it. He didn't even hear Mana's scream or the cries of his Pharaoh and Yugi as the blast hit him, obliterating his world faster than he ever thought was possible. It didn't really even hurt. Just a millisecond of searing heat and then nothing. His last thoughts as his world went black were of Mana, how glad he was that she was going to be alright, and how he was so terribly sorry for ever losing faith in the most powerful magician he'd lived to meet.
"MAHAD!" screamed Mana in anguish as the Dark Magician was obliterated, swallowed up by his own attack. She dropped to her knees, tears making her vision swim when she saw her master's body fall, crumpled and smoking onto the floor of the shadow arena. He was gone. Just like that, just like he'd died thousands of years ago in Egypt. And it had been for her, he'd sacrificed himself for her.
Rage filled her them, burning up the sorrow and hurt like tinder as it consumed her. Never before had she felt like this, not even back in Egypt. Her master had just died in some stupid card game being played for her life because this madman behind her liked messing with people's heads! It was pointless, a meaningless death, killed by a gigantic library she was going to pull from her deck and rip to shreds as soon as she got the chance, but first...first there was a certain psychopath who desperately needed his sick game to end.
"What in the hell?!"
"You!" spat Malik pointing an accusing finger at the magician's apprentice who'd just lost her master. "You are not supposed to be here! You are mine to control you little witch, you-"
"No!" screamed Mana so loudly and defiantly she actually caused him to jump. Her eyes were streaming with tears, but it was rage that danced in them. "Your game is over! Your spell is broken!"
As if in confirmation of Mana's words the blackened change of heart appeared on the field before ripping itself to shreds before its irate user. Then, like a freed bird, Mana's spirit door shot off Malik's duel disk and landed at the Pharaoh's feet. Atem was currently bent over Mahad's body, confirming moments ago what everyone already knew to be true, but he immediately bent over to retrieve the fallen card for fear it would vanish again.
"How dare you?!" shrieked Malik, hatred twisted his features in the most disturbing of ways. "How dare you defy me?! You are nothing! Nothing!"
"I'm not yours to control! I never was!" Mana yelled back, not an ounce of fear showing on her rage filled features. "I'm not nothing either!" she continued, starting to walk off the field towards her immobile body. "I'm Mana, apprentice to Mahad: The greatest magician to ever cast a spell, I'm the companion of Pharaoh Atem: The greatest king Egypt has ever known and the one who's going to destroy you, and I'm wielder of the Dark Magician Girl!" Her Ka's energy glowed brightly around her with her last words before she stepped effortlessly into her vessel. The Dark Magician Girl reappeared on the field once Mana's spirit had safely left her, but this time she was facing Malik instead of an awestruck Yugi, her wand raised and usually laughing features set.
"And I, Mana, am ending this duel." With that Mana placed her hand over her deck, officially forfeiting the match and ending their shadow game.
"Nooooo!" screamed Malik in rage as he watched his perfect game vanish around him, the shadows giving way to a clear sky speckled with stars. Even his twisted black throne vanished, disposing the hysterical spirit onto the ground before them.
"It's over, Malik," hissed the Pharaoh, standing and moving away from his oldest friend's body to stand next to Mana. He couldn't help but feel that Mahad would be exceedingly proud if he could see her now. Perhaps he was watching over them even now.
The sick giggling that bubbled up from the cloaked spirit curled up on the ground cast doubts on the Pharaoh's words of finality.
"Do..." more giggles, "...do you r-really...think so, Pharaoh?" His slow drawl suddenly became a fast paced shout. "Well do you really?!" The rapid change in speed and volume of his voice as he jerked his head up to grin demonically at the three caused everyone present to jump back. He looked positively insane. It was disturbing. Malik rose jerkily to his feet, shadows gathering smoothly behind him. "Did you really think it would be. That. Easy?!"
A whole new barrier of shadows sprung up around the dueling arena locking Atem, Yugi, Mana, and what was left of Mahad away from the three Egyptians they had yet to notice who were attempting to come to their sides.
More diabolical laughter ensued and it looked as though he was trying to laugh himself to death the way his body was shaking. "I don't need the God Cards! I don't need the Millennium Items either!" He stopped, smiling almost sweetly at them, his face occasionally being hidden by the swirling shadows he'd gathered to him. "I just, you know, kinda wanted them."
Atem, Mana, and Yugi who had joined their sides as soon as the battle had ended all stared in disbelief at the creature before them, unsure if they could trust anything he said at this point. His sanity had obviously flown right out the window and if he hadn't wanted the items or the God Cards, what had been the point? What had they been fighting? He needed them to resurrect Zorc didn't he?
"You just, 'wanted them?'" repeated Yugi in confusion. "What do you mean?!"
"Hmm," Malik tapped sporadically at his chin. "Last time I looked up the definition it meant a desire that is not necessarily required...or something like that." He shrugged. "Basically I was bored while I waited for Zorc to get ready for his big opening night so I needed something to do in the mean time. Nothing special."
"But..." Mana looked slightly panicked now. "I thought you needed them to bring him back."
That single word, spoken in a low hiss put dread in the hearts of all present.
"Then what have we been doing all this time?!" yelled Atem in anger. "Playing games?!"
"Oh my dear Pharaoh," Malik's voice was now as silky as the shadows he was cloaked in. "That is exactly what we've been doing."
It felt like ice ran down the Pharaoh's spine.
"Midnight tonight," grinned Malik, his eyes actually glowing red. "There's nothing you can do to stop it this time. There never was. The only one who knew was your despised little thief and between your hatred and distrust and my special little mark, the poor wretch never had a chance to warn you." There was no laughter in him now, just a pure dark evil that felt all too familiar to everyone who'd been in Egypt the last time Zorc had walked the earth. "This whole time you've all just been chasing your tails. It was all meaningless. All for nothing. Well, except my amusement." He began to walk off nonchalantly. "See you at the end of the world Pharaoh. I'd tell you not to miss it but...that doesn't really apply to this case."
Mana felt everything that had been holding her up and giving her courage die. They were too late. They'd been though so much...they'd lost Mahad...for nothing? In a mix of her dying rage and her frantic attempt to make any of this mean something, Mana sent a powerful blast of magic towards the retreating spirit.
The attack only went right through him, the shadows reforming and knitting together again. He didn't even react.
Mana felt tears prickling behind her eyes again, all earlier strength leaving her. Her master was dead and she couldn't even get the revenge on the monster who'd only done it to amuse himself.
"Oh, and one more thing," Malik called smoothly over his shoulder. "I'll be keeping this." He reached up into a particularity dark mess of shadows and began pulling something out. Mana screamed when she saw what it was.
Malik was gleefully holding up Mahad's broken damaged spirit by his throat, the wounded magician clawing weakly at the long nailed hand digging into his throat. "It may not be as fun to play with as you would have been, Mana, schoolgirl to has-been magician Mahad, harem girl to the Pharaoh, master of the weakest magician card I've ever seen...blah blah blah, something like that, but he'll have to do. Screams are screams."
"Let him go, you bastard!" Mana screamed only held back by Yugi who was just as horrified at the latest turn of events as Mana and his spirit partner were.
Mana was sobbing now as she watched her master's struggles lessen. "P-please...Atem...I don't...I can't lose him like this..." She went slack against Yugi's arms. "Please."
Atem looked from Mana's pleading eyes to her master's. It was clear he was aware of what was going on and that he was trying to tell them something, but Malik's vice grip prevented any and all communication from him.
Atem balled his fists together so tightly they would have drawn blood had he not been a spirit. He had had it with these games. These were is friends' lives, they weren't playing pieces on a twisted chest board, and that's when it just clicked. If there was one thing Yugi, Mana, his friends and all his years dueling had taught him, it was this.
Atem turned and moved over to Yugi. 'May I take things from here Abiou?'
Yugi nodded, almost desperate for the full return of their lost connection he'd felt growing ever since Atem returned from Mana's Spirit World.
Atem's spirit returning to the Millennium Puzzle wasn't near as jarring as his leaving had been, but it certainly wasn't unnoticeable. After everything that had just come to pass, Yugi welcomed his yami taking control. He'd done more than enough already.
'I'm sorry, Yami...I just couldn't think of a way...I tried...' He took a deep breath, abandoning his false starts. 'I'm sorry. I should have held out longer. If I had known where you were, what you were doing, I would have stalled longer. I just thought you were gone. And now...Mahad's..'
'It's alright, Yugi,' answered the Pharaoh soothingly. 'You stood when I could not and fought in the battle I forced you into by my own weakness. You did better than I ever could have in that situation. You have nothing to apologize for.'
That may have all been true, but Yugi still felt awful. 'But if I hadn't of forced Mahad to attack than-'
'Don't worry about Mahad,' The Pharaoh's voice was suddenly fierce. 'We're not losing our friends anymore to this madness.'
Before Yugi could ask what he meant, Atem released Mana who stumbled slightly at the sudden lack of support, but not before he whispered, "Heal his body as much as you can," in her ear.
Mana blinked in confusion but then nodded and moved to the lifeless body at their feet. What she was doing felt strange and went against everything Mahad had taught her, bordering on necromancy, but if this would, dare she think it, get her master back, she'd happily cross that line.
Atem then grabbed his deck from his duel disk. It only took him a moment of searching to find them, like the heart of the cards was telling him what he already knew: He was making the right move.
"Malik, Wait!" the Pharaoh commanded firmly. "I want to make a deal."
Malik looked away from the shadow portal he'd just created, stopping just short of tossing a beaten Mahad through it. "A deeeeal?" he whined. "Oh come on Pharaoh, don't you think we're a little deal-ed out?"
"Do you still want the God Cards or not?"
Malik dropped Mahad's spirit on the ground causing him to cry out in pain. "What was that?" No jokes, all seriousness, mixed with a dark sort of greed, the insatiable kind. He put his foot painfully down on the now pinned magician's spirit. "Please do go on, then."
Atem took a deep breath, preparing himself for what he was about to do and the consequences to follow. "Mahad's spirit for the God Cards."
Mahad's eyes widened in horror. "Pharaoh, No! You can't! Please, I'll be-"
Malik roughly kicked him in the head, effectively shutting him up for the time being. "You'll be quiet if you know what's good for you," he hissed.
"Are you sure...that's what you want?" asked Malik eagerly. "'Cause I'm all for it but...you know he'll still die if-" he shot a glance over at Mana. "Oh, that's why she's playing with his corpse."
Mahad sent his apprentice a desperate look which she resolutely ignored. She didn't care how mad he became at her or what kind of punishment he came up with for this. She was getting her master back.
"Okay then..." said Malik eventually. "How did you want to do this?"
Atem glared. "I give you Slifer and Obelisk first, then after you give us Mahad, you get Ra."
"Tsk tsk... You sure know how to keep things interesting..." He paused. "How about we start with Ra?"
"Nice try," snarled Atem. "That's the deal."
Malik's eyes narrowed. "And what if I said we do it my way or a take my new toy and walk?"
The Pharaoh didn't falter. "You won't. You may only 'want' the God Cards, but it's something you want badly."
At first it looked like Malik wasn't going to play, then he broke out in laughter that, coming from anyone else would have sounded pleasant. "You drive a hard bargain Pharaoh...actually...that one's pretty easy. Sure, you have a deal." He began to finger the Soul Dagger at his hip. "Wanna shake on it?" he asked in deadly tones.
Atem sent him a death glare. "You'll just have to take my word. Seeing as I've never gone back on it, I think it'll do."
Malik folded his arms. "You're no fun. Fine," he sighed. "Whenever you're ready."
Atem looked down to Mana who was still muttering over what was left of her master on the physical plane. "How much longer?"
Mana quickly finished up her last strangely worded healing spell. "I-I think I'm ready...I've never really done anything like this before but..." She took a deep breath and cast a look over to Mahad who was still silently pleading with her and Atem to stop this madness. She looked back at Atem. "As ready as I'll ever be," she confirmed resolutely.
Atem nodded and redirected his gaze back over to a sickly grinning Malik. "Let's get this over with." He began walking towards the dark spirit, God Cards gripped firmly in his hands. As he approached the creature holding his oldest friend captive, Atem searched Yugi's spirit for any sort of resistance to his latest actions. He firmly believed that what he was doing was the right choice; was the only choice, but if Yugi disagreed...
Did you really think I'd go against you here? asked Yugi incredulously.
I didn't know, responded the Pharaoh, resolve only strengthening with Yugi's support.
He felt Yugi's spirit smirk. Well now you do. His thoughts became firm. Now let's get our friend back.
Atem mentally nodded. Moments later he was face to face with the devilish construct. Malik was now holding a defeated looking, kneeling Mahad up by the scruff of his robes. The spirit of the master magician was now gagged with dark magic as a result of his recent attempts at protest after the Pharaoh had agreed to the final terms in the bargaining for his soul.
"I'll take my first two God Cards now, Pharaoh," sneered Malik.
Mahad shook his head violently, practically screaming to try and talk through the powerful gag. His struggling ended when Malik kneed him sharply and painfully in the spine, causing the magician to slump forwards, agony lacing his desperate features.
"You will not hurt him anymore!" yelled the Pharaoh.
Malik just sighed and held out his hand expectantly. "First of all, Pharaoh, that was never part of our little agreement, and secondly, if you have any ounce of intelligence underneath those extravagant spikes of yours you'll realize that I won't be able to hit him any more after you give me those two lovely cards in your hands. So maybe, instead of bitching about the way I treat my property, you should just—Oh well thank you very much, Pharaoh, it's just what I always wanted!" Malik stopped his little lecture as soon as Atem placed Slifer and Obelisk into the monster's waiting fingers.
"Give me Mahad," hissed Atem, desperate to free his friend from the gathering shadows.
"You sure I can't have Ra first?" asked Malik in a way that was supposed to sound innocent but couldn't due to who it was that had spoken those words. His wide eyes were glued to the two insanely powerful cards he held firmly in his hands.
Atem's glare couldn't have been stronger. "You will honor our agreement, Malik. You get Ra once Mahad is safely with us."
"Gods you really are no fun..." his voice became cruel. "Fine, keep the worthless mage." With that, Malik roughly shoved Mahad's damaged spirit towards them. As soon as he was free of both Malik and the swirling shadows surrounding the crazed man, his spirit lost all tangible shape, becoming nothing more than a darting beam of light which shot into the spirit door located in the graveyard section of Atem's duel disk.
"What kind of trickery is this?!" exclaimed the pharaoh leaning dangerously close to a scowling Malik.
"No tricks, Pharaoh," sighed Malik. "I'm not responsible for what happens to the suicidal mage's spirit after I give him back to you. His voice became poison. "I held up my end now Give. Me. Ra. Before you make me do something we'll both regret...actually mostly just you."
Atem hesitated but eventually relented, not really seeing that he had another option.
Ra, the most powerful of Egyptian God Cards, arguably the most powerful duel monsters card ever created was now in the hands of pure evil.
Atem quickly stepped back as agitated shadows shot up around their master like hoards of angry snakes, twisting around the dark spirit in a frightening display. "You fools!" laughed Malik hysterically. "The God Cards were the only weapons at your disposal even remotely capable of wounding the Dark One and you just handed them to me! And for what?! Some weak magician you happen to consider your friend! PATHETIC! It's a wonder your kind weren't wiped out five thousand years ago!" Malik turned to leave though his shadow portal. "It's not even worth personally seeking you out to kill you after the Dark One's resurrection. You can just burn with the rest of the world."
He vanished into the dark plane of shadows, the rest of the unnatural darkness being sucked in after him until they were left with nothing but the damaged school parking lot around them lit up by an unnatural red moon.
"Pharaoh!" Ishizu shouted as she, her brother, and Shadi ran towards their leader's side, finally able to get past the dark barrier that had separated them for so long "What happened? Are you alright? Where's Malik?" All of her questions came pouring out as soon as she'd reached her king's side, Odion and Shadi not far behind.
Before the Pharaoh could answer Ishizu with some questions of his own, Mana's anguished call brought him back to what was really important right now.
"It...it d-didn't work." Mana was on her knees, holding her master's still lifeless body in her shaking arms.
The scene caused Ishizu to freeze as a pain she couldn't quite explain came over her. The sight of this man dead somehow hurt her too deeply for words. She didn't know why nor how to help so she just held onto the Millennium Necklace in silence, eyes glued to the horrible image before her.
Atem quickly moved to inspect his duel disk. Mahad's Spirit door lay at the top of his graveyard, previously shimmering white surface a dull gray that was growing darker each passing moment. It seemed that though they'd saved Mahad from Malik, there was nothing they could do to save him from death for a second time.
"I'm sorry, Mana..." Atem whispered. "We...we tried."
Mana broke into sobs over her dead master. She didn't want to lose him, not again, not like this. "P-please...there...th-there has to be something! He..he was right here...He...he did this for m-me I can't just..." More tears flowed unhindered down her face. "Please..."
Atem felt awful. Everyone always looked to him for answers both five thousand years ago and today. It came with the territory of being the Pharaoh and the King of Games. That was great when he had them, but terrible when he didn't, especially when it was something like this. His friend was dead and there was nothing he could do to bring him back.
"I'm sorry, Mana..." was all he could manage.
Yugi felt both his guilt and the Pharaoh's crashing down around him, but he primarily blamed himself. If he hadn't forced Mahad to attack when he did, the Magician would still be alive. If only fixing this was as simple as it could be in a duel when just one silly magic card could have brought him back. Yugi froze.
What if it was?
Not wanting to wast any more time, especially since almost all the light had seeped out of Mahad's Spirit Door, Yugi didn't even bother explaining to Atem what he was doing. Instead he just took control of their body and started drawing cards. He didn't even have to go past one. The exact card he was looking for was waiting for him at the very top of his deck.
And who said the heart of the cards was just some silly fairy tale?
Yugi felt hope flood the Pharaoh's spirit when he saw the card and interpreted Yugi's actions.
Please let this work!
Yugi threw the spell card down on the duel disk thinking desperately of Mahad, the Dark Magician as he did so; the card that had always been his favorite; the one he depended on in the darkest of times, and the man who severed the Pharaoh just as faithfully as the magician card had served them all these years.
Yugi almost cried in relief as the spirit door began to glow nearly as brightly as the day Mahad had appeared rather dramatically through it for the first time. Then a bright beam of light shot from the card and into the lifeless body held firmly in Mana's arms.
At first, nothing happened, then the magician began to stir, coughing and gasping for air violently as his lungs and heart began to function again, pumping life into his previously dead body.
Mana shrieked in absolute joy, her tears turning instantly from hopeless sadness to pure unbelievable happiness and relief. Instantly she threw her arms around her still gasping master and tackled him back down to the ground. "Mahad!" she sobbed. "I'm...so happy...you're okay."
Mahad wanted to be happy, he wanted to smile and wrap his arms around his apprentice and then—very uncharacteristically—his Pharaoh, and then to never let Mana go again for fear some lunatic would try and use her in his evil plans again, but her couldn't. They'd lost the God Cards. They'd lost their last defense against Malik and Zorc and they'd done it for him. Why? Why? "...Why?" he eventually croaked out.
It didn't take a genius to tell what he was asking. Atem—once again in control after Yugi's spurt of pure brilliance—knelt down next to his two oldest friends. "My friend, if you believe your life is worth more to me than a few pieces of colored paper, you obviously don't know me as well as you should. If there is one thing that this world and all my years living in it, both in the past and now have taught me, it's that the power of the bond between my friends and I is more powerful than any monster or any darkness evil can throw at us." He smiled at the shocked Magician who'd used to be his teacher to. "I'd have thought your student would have just shown you that to be an absolute truth."
Since when did his Pharaoh; the little boy who used to slack off in his lessons and sneak off with his apprentice every other day to get out of any and all duties King of Egypt orientated become so wise?
It was them that Mahad did wrap both Mana and Atem in a strong hug, finally finding the strength to believe again in everything Malik and all the years of darkness and hardship had taken away from him. They could win this fight...no, they would win. All they had to do was never give up and believe in each other. Mahad knew with certainty that this was true, and even if it wasn't, that he would believe it without a single doubt until his dying breath.
AN: So there you have it. Heart of the Cards has been resurrected from the storage space on my computer. I hope this update was everything you've been waiting for. Whatever you do or even don't have to say in response to this addition, I'm ready for it. I hope we can have an awesome time during these last few chapters. To all who are still with me after so long, thank you.