Chapter 41: The End of Duel Academy

Bryan always wished he could fly. The sky was so inviting and the air was clearer higher up. It would feel amazing, climbing and diving, the wind blowing in his face But if he ever flew into a storm, his frail, human body would suffer worse than an airplane ever did. Struck by lightning, battered by clouds, spun around and disoriented by powerful winds… all before he plummeted to the ground at terminal velocity.

Entering that stage bore little difference from flying into a storm. He walked into a rising storm and felt like he was being ripped apart. He could see nothing save an occasional flash of lightning, and he was deafened by the roaring of wind and the snapping of thunder. The air smelled of ozone, but the clouds tasted like charred flesh. Maybe getting involved in this shadow assault wasn't worth it. And then he felt guilty for thinking—even for a second—that Rory wasn't worth saving.

"Matt!" he choked out.

But Matt couldn't hear him, nor could the two see one another. Matt suffered the same ill effects, each passing second pulling him closer to the breaking point. He couldn't handle the physical abuse for much longer, but Rory's safety depended on him.

"If there's any kind of power inside me, I need it now," he gasped.

The voice came to him suddenly and from all directions:

My energy was conserved for this moment. Until the time of the true frashokereti, my capacity is limited. I cannot fully combat this darkness, but my power can provide an opportunity for you to fight back. Use your light to quell the darkness and protect your realm.

Matt recognized the voice. Simply hearing the voice of the Uncreated within him gave him warmth and seemed to dispel the barrage of storms.

"I don't know what power," Matt said. "How do I fight darkness itself?"

The cards act as a focal point for your power. Take cards in hand and give light to the images. The light of a god can restore the world.

Suddenly the storm let up. The clouds pushed back to the edge of the stage barrier, giving Bryan and Matt room to breathe. They could see one another again. Matt dropped to the floor to make sure Rory was still okay. He wished he could do something to help her wake right then, but the fact that she was breathing was a good start.

"What happened?" Bryan asked. "Why are the shadows receding?"

"The Uncreated," Matt replied. "He says I couldn't hear him until now because he was building up the power to fight back. But he can only weaken the Apocalypse: He needs me to fight it."

"You mean us. But how do we fight?"

Matt's Duel Disk slid into place as he activated it. "The same way we always do."

Bryan grinned and reached out to grab Matt's hand. Matt assumed it was just a show of solidarity, but then he realized Bryan put something in his hand. It was Bryan's spare deck box—the one he carried on his belt.

"If we're going to duel together, we need the proper chemistry. You remember how to use it, right?"

Matt peeked at the cards, and with a smile removed the Darklords from his Duel Disk. "Of course I do. You didn't understand them until I explained it to you."

"Yeah, whatever, bro. Let's do this."

"Yeah. Let's duel against an imaginary enemy that wants to destroy the world."

"It sounds dumb when you say it like that."

Matt chuckled nervously. "It keeps me from panicking." He and Bryan separated enough to give themselves field space. "So, who goes first?"

Suddenly an image appeared before them. As if an optical illusion, a gray, sickly horse rode in from a great distance, though the stage was only a few meters wide. When the horse came near, the bros could see a zombie riding the horse's back. This was Pestilence, Horseman of the Apocalypse (1/300/0).

"Got it," Bryan said, instantly accepting the move made by the Apocalypse and not dwelling on the idea of an invisible god of destruction playing along with Duel Monsters. "Mind if I start?" he asked Matt, who waved him on. "I'll start by playing Polymerization to fuse Avian and Burstinatrix into Elemental Hero Flame Wingman (6/2100/1200)!" His monsters began to swirl into a single spot in the air and merge into a bigger monster—a green warrior with one white wing and a red, dragonic arm that extend down his backside into a long tail. "Now Flame Wingman can eliminate the first Horseman." Flame Wingman made an impressive attack against the rider, but the zombie was not consumed by the flames.

"I guess it's got a special ability," Matt suggested. He watched Flame Wingman for a moment in awe. It was so much brighter than Evil Hero Inferno Wing, and its presence was warm and reassuring. "It's good to have you back, Bro."

"Good to be back, bro," Bryan returned. When Bryan ended his turn, it was the first time either guy actually looked at their Life Points.

Matt 32,000: Bryan 18,000: Apocalypse ? – 1800 = ?.

"Um… What's going on with the LP here?" Bryan wondered aloud. "They seem… higher… than normal."

"I don't know," Matt replied. "Just throwing this out there, but maybe, if we're actually fighting this duel on a spiritual level, our Life Points reflect the spiritual stamina we have inside."

Bryan frowned for a moment. "Why are you almost twice as durable as I am?"

"Well, I do have the spirit of an uncreated god living inside me."

"Ooo, cryptic. I like it."

"For now," Matt suggested, "let's worry about the fact that the Apocalypse has more points than the Life Point Counter can display. It can show five digits, so let's just see what I've got up my sleeve." He drew his hand and perused the cards Bryan gave him. "I'll summon Elemental Hero Neos Alius (4/1900/1300)," a warrior wearing a white, skin-tight outfit with a blue jewel on his chest, a yellow jewel on his forehead, and curved spikes on his elbows and the top of his head, "and I'll play Ancient Rules to summon the real Elemental Hero Neos (7/2500/2000)," a bigger, older version of his first monster. "They'll both knock down on your horseman." Both bladed warriors leaped across the field with their powerful legs and struck the rider with their elbow blades.

Matt 32,000: Bryan 18,000: Apocalypse ? – 1600 – 2200 = ?

Now a second horse—this one was a small white horse—with a stout rider came from the darkness to the field. This was Famine, Horseman of the Apocalypse (2/800/0).

Suddenly a massive fissure opened on the ground and drew all three Elemental Heroes on the field inside. As soon as they fell below the surface, the fissure resealed, and both Horsemen attacked Bryan directly by trampling over him with their horses. Bryan fell back when he was struck, surprised that he was able to feel physical pain here.

Famine held its hand forward, and the shadows began to swirl in his palm until they became a heavy, compact ball of energy the size of a volleyball. Famine threw the energy ball at Bryan, who let out a mighty scream as the shadows attacked his personal energy store. Famine repeated the process with Matt, whose scream was equally terrible.

Matt 32,000 – 5000 = 27,000: Bryan 18,000 – 300 – 800 – 5000 = 11,900: Apocalypse ? – 3000 – 20,000 = ?.

Bryan took a moment to shake off the burning sensation that permeated his body. Each and every organ tissue felt like it was inflamed. "What was that?" Bryan grunted through the pain.

Matt took a deep breath to shake it off. Steam was coming off his ears. "I think we're tied to the game. As our Life Points decrease, so will our spiritual power. No spiritual power probably means no life force. And it seems like that second Horseman has an effect that allows for a lot of Effect Damage."

"Then let's get rid of him." Bryan slapped down another card. "I'll summon Elemental Hero Bubbleman (4/800/1200) and draw two cards by his effect." Bryan summoned a caped crusader, adorned in blue armor with a white cape, wearing two water tanks on his back connected to hoses on his forearms. He aimed the nozzles at his sides and produced two giant bubbles, each carrying a card. "Now I'll play Bubble Shuffle; this changes the attack position of Bubbleman (1200) and Pestilence (0)." Bubbleman began to spin and cover the field in a torrential spray of bubbles. "Next I get to Tribute Bubbleman for another Hero in my hand—Elemental Hero Bladedge (7/2600/1800)," a gold-plated warrior with curved blades on his elbows and tail wings on his back. "I'll have Bladedge attack Pestilence (0), and when he attacks a monster in defense mode, he does Piercing damage." His gold Hero flew across the field and slashed through the zombie, but the wound was temporary as the zombie reassembled itself.

"I'll put a card facedown, and I'll let my bro take care of Famine."

Matt 27,000: Bryan 11,900: Apocalypse ? – 2600 = ?.

"I'll try. First, Convert Contact lets me discard a Neo-Spacian from my hand and from my deck to draw two cards. I'll summon Elemental Hero Stratos (4/1800/300)." A blue-skinned man with white pants, a blue breastplate, and wings with two gyros on his back swooped from the sky and hovered over the floor. "I get to take an additional Hero from my deck to my hand. Stratos will attack Famine (800)." The blue Hero buzzed across the field and bombed the spell casting horseman.

"Yes!" Matt shouted when the horseman disappeared. "Only one of them is invincible. Maybe we've got a shot at this fight after all."

Matt 27,000: Bryan 11,900: Apocalypse ? – 1000 = ?.

Now a third horseman rode in from the distant nowhere. This one was an armored creature riding a red horse. This was War, Horseman of the Apocalypse (3/1600/0). Pestilence (300) switched to attack position and began to glow. Stratos and Bladedge both disappeared into a reopened fissure, just like the other monsters. Both Horsemen targeted Matt this time.

Matt 27,000 – 1600 – 300 = 25,100: Bryan 11,900: Apocalypse ? – 3000 = ?.

"How much power does this entity have?" Bryan wondered as Matt struggled back to his feet. The Life Point Counter was still unable to put a number on the opponent's overall power, despite the 15,000 LP already struck against the darkness.

"Maybe it's boundless," Matt suggested grimly.

"It can't be boundless," Bryan argued. "It hasn't brought forth the full Apocalypse yet. Your Uncreated friend is still able to hold it back. And it still hasn't taken Rory yet. It can't have that much power."

Matt took in a deep breath and nodded with renewed energy at Bryan's logic and hopefulness. Hearing his friend speak the way he used to gave him hope. "You're right, Bro. We have a shot. But first we need to get rid of that Pestilence card. It keeps destroying our monsters. If you can't do it, I can. I just need you to set me up."

"You got it, bro. I'll summon my Elemental Hero Stratos (4/1800/300) and use his effect to bring another Hero to my hand." Another copy of the blue Hero, a slightly darker shade than the other, flew onto the field. "I'll also put a card facedown and attack War (+2600)." Stratos buzzed the field, but the rider of the red horse very suddenly grew in size, endured Stratos's bombing, and hurled a sword through the air, impaling Stratos. "What happened?" Bryan asked.

"It looks like War gains points when he's in battle," Matt suggested. "An effect we couldn't predict because of the circumstances of this duel."

Bryan huffed and said, "Sorry, bro. I couldn't set you up right."

Matt 25,100: Bryan 11,900 – 800 = 11,100: Apocalypse ?.

"Let's see if I can pull something, anyway," Matt said reassuringly. "Well, well. This deck has provided me with Neo-Spacian Dark Panther (3/1000/500)." With a fierce roar, a black panther leaped onto the field, trailing a red-lined black cape. The panther hissed and began to thin—almost appearing skeletal. "Once per turn, Dark Panther can mimic the abilities of an opposing monster: I've chosen Pestilence." Finally, Matt had the opportunity to read the full effect of the most dangerous Horseman. "It seems that if I pay LP by the thousand, I can destroy all opposing monsters with fewer attack points than my paid Life Points. I'll pay 2000 points to destroy both Pestilence and War!" Dark Panther roared—a hollow, screeching roar—and opened a deep fissure in the ground. Riders and their horses both stumbled into the fissure.

"An attack from Dark Panther will end my turn." The panther leaped across the field and pounced on an invisible enemy, but the Life Points fell, and that was all Matt needed.

Matt 25,100 – 2000 = 23,100: Bryan 11,100: Apocalypse ? – 1000 = ?.

Suddenly a fourth horse came riding from the illusionist distance. It was a jet-black horse with a demon riding its back. This was Death, Horseman of the Apocalypse (4/2100/0). Carrying by its side a scythe three sizes too big for its body to carry, it first attacked Bryan, and then swung a second time without backing off. With each stroke, he let out a bloodcurdling cry.

"Bryan!" Matt screamed, but he couldn't move any closer. The air was keeping him separate from Bryan, and if he fought it, he might leave Rory vulnerable.

Bryan lay still for almost a minute. Finally, he uttered, "I'm okay… using the loosest possible definition, of course." He used his Duel Disk as a crutch and climbed to his feet as he spat—no blood, but he felt like he was cut in two. "We can't quit now. We've got to keep going."

Matt 24,200; Bryan 11,100 – 2100 – 2100 = 6900: Apocalypse ?.

"Bro…" Matt uttered. "Your Life Points…"

Bryan shook his head and smiled. "I know I'm not as strong as you, Matt. Your duel energy and your sheer luck factor dwarf mine. You've got a type of support that other people will never be able to understand. That's why I gave in to Potter's promises of power. I wanted to be your equal again. But I realized that greed for power eventually conquers you. Power given by someone else can easily disappear. That's why I'm okay now, being just my own above-average self. Maybe I'll never be your equal, and maybe we'll all die here, but I'll be damned if I'm going down easy!"

Even though he bore no special source of spiritual energy, Bryan gave off a strong energy wave. It was still weak relative to the shadows around him, but it was growing. Matt felt the essence of darkness inhabiting Bryan during their last confrontation. This was different. Bryan's energy felt warm and strong—like a flickering fire.

"I'll summon Elemental Hero Burstinatrix (3/1200/800)," a woman wearing a scanty red leotard and spouting fire from her palms, "and I'll play Mask Change."

"Mask Change?"

Bryan grinned. "Just watch."

Burstinatrix extinguished her flames and lifted her hands to her face as if to remove a mask. Suddenly her whole body turned into a brilliant light, unrelenting until a new mask was placed. Now Bryan's monster had transformed from the flaming woman into a man decked out in red and black leather armor, with shoulder guards like exploding flames and a mask completely covering his face.

"Meet Masked Hero Goka (6/2200/1800)."

Matt's eyes lit up at the sight. "Dude! That's awesome! Where did you get a new Hero?"

"A gift for my performance in Santa Barbara. It is pretty sweet, and Goka gains an additional 100 points for every Hero in my Graveyard." Goka (+2900) exploded in flames and dashed across the field to strike Death (2100). With one fiery punch, Bryan's Hero broke the black horseman and allowed the flames to consume it completely.

"Your turn," he said with a smirk.

Matt 24,200: Bryan 6900: Apocalypse ? – 800 = ?.

That play renewed Matt's energy and gave him a second wind. "I'll play Cocoon Party. It lets me summon a Chrysalis monster for each Neo-Spacian in my Graveyard. I choose Chrysalis Pinny (2/100/700) and Chrysalis Chicky (2/600/400)," a child-like alien and a red chick, each wrapped in a chrysalis cocoon. "Maybe it's not much, but I'll attack with both of them, plus Dark Panther (1000). I'll set one card and end my turn."

Matt 24,200: Bryan 6900: Apocalypse ? – 600 – 1000 – 100 = ?.

The clouds began shifting wildly. The roar of wind sounded like a groaning voice: "The Four Horsemen."

The scythe-wielding Death (2100) reappeared riding its jet-black horse, and the stout Famine (800) horseman reappeared on its white horse. Famine immediately charged swirling shadow power in each palm.

"Not this time," Matt said. "I'll play Cocoon Veil." Chrysalis Pinny's cocoon burst into a protective wall, absorbing the impact of the swirling shadows. "By Tributing my Chrysalis monster, Effect Damage is negated for the turn, plus Pinny evolves into Neo-Spacian Glow Moss (3/300/900)," an alien figure with a shimmering body.

Death charged Glow Moss and swung its scythe. Matt couldn't be sure exactly how the Apocalypse handled the effect, but he did feel it when the scythe passed directly through the monster and sliced through his chest. It felt like his body was cut in half without severing any nerves, and then the sensation occurred a second time. The pain was so intense, his scream came out voicelessly.

Matt 24,200 – 2100 – 2100 = 20,000: Bryan 6900: Apocalypse ? – 20,000 = 0.

"Still with me, bro?" Bryan asked.

Matt's breathing was deep and labored, but he was eventually able to get back up. "I guess so. I'm starting to feel like we're already dying."

"Not us." Bryan grinned widely. His teeth were bright in the darkness. "We'll find a way to fight back. Here's an esteem booster for you: Card of Sanctity." Gold coins rained from the sky. "Now we all draw full hands. For me, that means I can play Polymerization to fuse Sparkman, Wildheart, and Lady Heat into another of my new cards: Vision Hero Trinity (8/+5000/2000)!" A giant dropped from the sky and pounded the ground in front of Bryan. The warrior wore bulky red armor, with a propulsion unit in his back, powered by an energy core in his chest. "For this turn, Trinity's power is doubled, and he'll get to attack both of your monsters." The powerful warrior released a burst of power from his armored boots to leap across the field, landing on top of Famine (800) and pounding it straight into the ground. He leaped again and crushed Death and its horse with a single fist.

Matt 20,000: Bryan 6900: Apocalypse ? – 4200 – 2900 = ?.

"We're not doing anything to it," Matt pointed out. "The Uncreated said something about a god. I don't suppose you've got a way to summon Uria."

"No. I've left Uria out of my deck since Thelema."


Matt took a deep breath and lightly touched his fingers to the deck. He reached inward and sought counsel from his inner god. If you have any power at all, please give me what I need. Taking a leap of faith, he lifted his card.

"A fusion card?" he asked. "What am I supposed to…?" He took a moment to review the cards in his hand. "Oh, right! I'll play Miracle Contact! This lets me fuse Neos in my Graveyard with Flare Scarab and Grand Mole to summon Elemental Hero Magma Neos (9/3000/2500)!" Magma Neos erupted from the Graveyard like a volcano. His arms looked like he jammed his hands into lava and allowed it to harden. Magma Neos crashed back onto the field and created a massive crater. Small fires erupted all over the field as he absorbed power from every single card. "Step 1: Blast the field. Go, Magma Neos (+5400)!" His strong warrior built a ball of molten lava in his hands and hurled it into the darkness like a shot put. The explosion spread fire in all directions.

"Crap!" Matt exclaimed as he dropped to the ground and covered Rory from the flames. He wasn't expecting such a reaction from a card. Somehow this space amplified duel energy and turned it real.

"Nice hit," Bryan said. "You still good?"

Matt checked Rory's pulse again—identical to before. "For now." He got back to his feet and added, "I'm not done, though, if that's what you're asking.

"I'll play Super Polymerization. By discarding one card in my hand, I can fuse Magma Neos, Dark Panther, Glow Moss, Trinity, and Goka into Elemental Hero Divine Neos (12/2500/2500)!" Five lights combined in the sky and split the billowing clouds. A being of pure light descended slowly to the earth, and its light shone in all directions to illuminate the area. With white muscles accented by golden armor and angelic wings, Divine Neos shirked the darkness.

Bryan smiled. "I knew we'd find a way."

"Right you were. Divine Neos will strike a direct attack on the darkness!" With a divine presence, Neos exploded with intense light, blinding to the bros but scalding to the darkness. But as intense as the light was, when it faded, the darkness rolled back in, hardly fazed. "Well, that was disappointing, but I'll put one card down and end my turn."

Matt 20,000: Bryan 6900: Apocalypse ? – 5400 – 2500 = 46,300.

Bryan stared at his Duel Disk silently for a moment. He peeked over at Matt, who was staring at his Duel Disk the same way. "Are you seeing what I'm seeing?"

"A limit on the life force of the Apocalypse?"

"Sure. And he's got more points than the two of us combined. What caused it? Divine Neos?"

"Maybe the Uncreated," Matt suggested. He huffed. "Maybe some combination of the two. Either way, it looks like we are putting a dent in it." He winced under the pain he still felt from earlier.

But the darkness was still going strong. The wind roared again, deafening the bros to all but the groan: "Age of Apocalypse." The black rider Death (2100) reappeared on the field again, and another red rider War (1600) was close behind it. Matt got nervous as War (+2600) bore down on Divine Neos (2500), but Death seemed to target Bryan. War grew in size to become Divine Neos's equal, and he hurled a sword across the field as easily as a baseball. Matt immediately panicked, worried that destroying Divine Neos would cause the Apocalypse to regain its boundless Life Points.

"You can't break our light," Matt protested. "I play Mirror Force to negate your attack and destroy your monsters." A reflective wall appeared in front of Divine Neos, defending him against the attack from the red rider. The wall shattered from the attack and shrapnel embedded in War and in Death…

But neither monster fell.

"They're not destroyed," Bryan noted. He braced himself for Death's attack as the enormous scythe bore down on him again. He cried out from a pain like no other. Even the previous strikes felt innocuous by comparison. His face hit the ground after the first strike and he thought he'd never feel pain like that again. When the scythe tore through his heart, the border between life and death became blurry. Bryan wasn't sure which side he fell.

Matt only saw Bryan fall. He was still breathing, but the pattern was erratic and he sounded like he was choking on his own breath. As the two Horsemen settled back onto their side of the field, Matt hurried to Bryan's side and checked him for wounds.

Matt 20,000: Bryan 6900 – 2100 – 2100 = 2700: Apocalypse 46,300.

Finally, Bryan let out a long, breathy sigh. "I don't know how much more I've got," he uttered.

"We're so close," Matt reminded him. "We've already dished out 40,000 points. We can do it again."

"He says after witnessing two Horsemen immune to destruction," Bryan said difficultly, but sarcastically. He was still having trouble even sitting up.

Matt put his hand to his chin. "Yeah, I'm not fond of that, either. Maybe it's just Trap Cards that can't destroy them anymore. We are in the Age of Apocalypse now."

"Oh, yeah," Bryan gasped as he finally got one leg under his chest. His weight shifted just enough for him to swing his other leg around so he could sit up. After the initial shock of such a grand movement, the pain actually lessened in that position. "If the monsters weren't bad enough, now the entity trying to end the world is using Spells."

"Let's beat him before we encounter Traps," Matt suggested. "Can you stand?"

"Probably not. But I can duel sitting down."

"I know you can. You're the only guy I've ever seen accept a Duel Disk challenge while he's on the crapper."

"Good times…" Bryan's voice trailed off.

Matt placed his hand on Bryan's shoulder again. "We'll have more good times. This is not a movie. The engaged guy is not going to die here: You're going home. Show him how you're going to do it."

With another labored breath, Bryan said, "Okay. Here goes: A facedown card!" Matt made a face, and so Bryan replied, "I'm just getting warmed up. Monster Reborn to summon Bladedge (2600) back from the Graveyard." Bryan hacked heavily as his gold-plated warrior climbed back to the field. "Go get Death (2100)!" Bladedge dashed across the field and sliced straight through the fiendish rider and its black horse, but the cut resealed itself almost instantly, and Bladedge returned without having finished the job. "Just Traps, huh?"

"I said 'maybe,'" Matt shrugged. Unfortunately, Age of Apocalypse seemed to make the Horsemen immune to all destruction.

Matt 20,000: Bryan 2700: Apocalypse 46,300 – 500 = 45,800.

"That was an awesome effort," Bryan moaned, falling on his back to stare at the endless midnight in the sky. "You see how much damage I did just then? We'll have this duel won in no time."

"You're starting to fade on me," Matt pointed out.

Bryan sighed. "I know. It just feels hopeless."

"Not like facing three Sacred Beasts, or Armityle."

"Well… Yeah, but…"

"You work through your funk quickly. I'm going to play Cocoon Party." The remaining three zones on his field began to spew cocoon silk. "For each Neo-Spacian in my Graveyard, I get to summon a Chrysalis monster, I'll take Chrysalis Mole (2/700/100) and Chrysalis Larva (2/300/300)." Both monsters were small, underdeveloped Neo-Spacians wrapped in metamorphic cocoons, just like the Chrysalis Chicky (400) already on the field. "That definitely thins my deck, but the important thing is the cards on the field. By removing Magma Neos from play, his ability goes straight to Divine Neos (+6900)." The brilliant light began to shine with fire as Divine Neos grew ever stronger.

"For good measure, I'll add Instant Neo Space for another 400 points. That won't let me destroy his monsters, but Death is sure going to feel this attack!" A focused blast of light into the shadows illuminated and nearly incinerated the black horse, but the darkness ensured Death was unharmed by the attack. "That ends my turn."

Matt 20,000: Bryan 2700: Apocalypse 45,800 – 5200 = 41,600.

Now we see what else lurks in the darkness…

Within seconds, two more Horsemen appeared on the field: the skeletal form of Pestilence and the hooded form of Famine. But then the roaring winds croaked the words "Rise of the Apocalypse" and all four Horsemen turned into shadows themselves. The darkness collected in the center of the field and billowed upward, cloud piling on top of cloud ad infinitum until they finally took a humanoid form. The Apocalypse (12/5000/5000) itself was indistinguishable behind the veil of darkness, but its eyes shone brightly through like headlights.

"This is it," Bryan uttered. "That's what attacked us before your spirit started fighting back. That means it's stronger than you are."

Bryan was giving up, and Matt couldn't blame him. Apocalypse (+7600) reached out to Bryan's monster and gripped it completely with a single fist. The creature was simply too big to fight.

"If he's stronger than you," Bryan continued, "then I'll have to do it myself. I'll activate Edge Hammer." Bladedge suddenly drew a massive warhammer into his hands and swung it around fiercely, dissipating the fingers that bound him. He followed through by diving at full speed into the fray and swinging the warhammer as easily as a baton. "By Tributing Bladedge, I get to destroy any opposing monster." The shadows faded—headlights and all—with the swinging of Bladedge and his hammer. Worn out, the Hero fell into the Graveyard.

Almost immediately, the clouds of darkness began swarming again, and the Apocalypse (5000) built up once again, towering over the field.

Matt 20,000: Bryan 2700: Apocalypse 41,600 – 5000 = 36,600.

"Maybe my last chance here for a good play," Bryan said. "I'll play Fifth Hope. By sending five of my Heroes back to the deck, I can draw two cards." He looked through his cards for an extra moment because of his seated position. "First, I'll use Fusion Recovery to return Polymerization and Bubbleman to my hand. Now since we're not sure what kinds of Spells or Traps are being played, I'll summon Bubbleman to the field and play Mask Change again: This act lets Bubbleman removed his mask and exchange it to become Masked Hero Acid (8/2600/2100)." Bubbleman lifted his mask and his face began to shine as he put on another mask. His armor, still blue, now looked sleeker with a pointed mask and a gun holster by his side. "When Acid is summoned, all the opponent's Spell and Traps are destroyed." The masked Hero drew his gun rapidly and took three acidic shots.

"I can't tell if anything changed," Matt said. The clouds continued to billow around them relentlessly.

"I see a change," Bryan replied, staring at the Apocalypse (-4700). Acid's third shot hit the cloudy monstrosity and weakened the intense roaring of the wind.

But suddenly the ground opened up and a cavalry erupted in an array of shadows: white, red, pale, and black. Pestilence (300), Famine (800), War (1600) and Death (2100) all armed themselves for battle.

"Come the Apocalypse," groaned the roaring winds. Like a falling curtain, the clouds fell directly on top of both Bryan and Matt, pounding them both into the ground and smothering them in ash. Their cries were completely drowned out by the laughter riding on the winds.

"Papa Luther? Some of the other kids said you're not my real dad."

With a hefty, garbled laugh, the lush replied, "That's for damn sure. My real kid would never be such a crybaby, and he'd know how to take a punch." Matt remembered getting punched yesterday. He deserved it, though. He was the one too stupid to refill the water pitcher after emptying it.

"Who are my real parents?"

"What difference does it make? They didn't want you, anyway. You're some kind of freak kid. I still don't know why you don't have a bruise on your chest. Your parents were probably freaks, too."

Quietly, Matt asked, "Can I meet them?"

"They're dead, kid. Get over it. You're stuck with me. Now get out there and finish cleaning out the gutters."

"It's raining."

"So you'd better be quick. If the water backs up into the window well, you'll regret it."

"Matt! Are you okay?"

Opening his eyes felt like waging war on gravity. Getting them open didn't serve much purpose either, given the endless cycle of clouds rolling in and out above him. He felt hit by a truck with a sharp tailpipe. His entire left side felt sliced clean; he wasn't bleeding but he felt the extreme itch and sting of limbs being severed.

"Am I dead yet?"

"You wish. You've still got to get us out of this mess. All those Horsemen and the Apocalypse itself just attacked you directly. Not really sure how or why, but it seems to have done a number on you."

"That explains the pain." Talking helped the pain subside, but Matt still felt wiped out. Sitting up was the most difficult thing he ever had to do. "At least you're safe."

"Yeah. They targeted you. My best bet is they were trying to get to that spirit of yours. The darkness seems thicker since the attack."

"I guess that means we'd better stop fooling around. Is it my turn?"

Bryan answered, "Not yet. I just wouldn't continue my turn until you awoke. Take a break for a moment and figure out a winning play. In the meantime, I'm going to knock the pins down for you to set you up."

That sounded like a tall order, but Bryan sounded certain. "First, Call of the Haunted brings Elemental Hero Stratos (1800) back to the field, and his effect brings Necroshade to my hand." His blue bomber flew out of the Graveyard and hovered back to the field. "Now Polymerization fuses those two into Elemental Hero Great Tornado (8/2800/2200)." A vortex of fusion energy merged Bryan's monsters until the result had green skin, white armor, and a black cape covering most of its body… until the wind began to blow. Beginning as a zephyr and growing into a mighty cyclone, wind whipped around the field so fiercely the darkness turned into a tornado with Bryan and Matt unharmed in the eye.

The monsters on the opponent's field all shrank down as the winds chipped away at the shadows. "Great Tornado's effect cuts all those monsters in half, and for good measure, I'll add Miracle Fusion to combine me and Bladedge into Elemental Hero Wildedge (8/2600/2300)!"

"You?" Matt repeated curiously. He turned his neck to get a look at Bryan. He had almost forgotten he and Bryan were wearing Duel Monsters costumes: Bryan was dressed like Wildheart. "Oh, right."

Bryan's monsters fused into a man of enormous size and musculature, barely clad save for golden greaves on his right leg, a golden gauntlet on his left arm, and a cowl helmet. He carried on his back a sword big enough to cleave a school in a single strike. "Here's the kicker: Wildedge can attack every monster on the opponent's field." Wildedge lifted the sword in his bare hand and primed his gauntlet, and then he charged into the fray. Swinging and slashing as if dancing through the darkness, Wildedge sliced Famine (-400) in half, pummeled War (+1800), temporarily wounded Pestilence (-150), and punched holes in Death (-1050).

But when the massive sword came down on the formless Apocalypse (+5100), Wildedge lost his grip as his sword was pulled into the shadows completely. Apocalypse clapped both hands slowly around Wildedge's body, colliding into a deluge of shadows that poured over the field with no trace of the strong Hero left behind. Bryan cried out as the shadows smothered him and threatened to cut off his oxygen.

"Bryan!" Matt shouted, but his sworn brother wouldn't respond. He was wounded, almost permanently. Somehow, the Apocalypse gained Wildedge's attack power during that battle—an effect, no doubt. "I hate to leave you there, but you rest for a minute. The best thing I can do for you is end this fight."

Matt 20,000 – 300 – 800 – 1600 – 2100 – 5000 = 10,200: Bryan 2700 – 2500 = 200: Apocalypse 36,600 – 2450 – 2200 – 800 – 1550 = 29,600.

With a deep breath, Matt silently prayed as fervently as he could to the Uncreated. He just needed one magical card strong enough to eliminate the Apocalypse and prevent the End of Days.

"Neos? Figures, I guess. What else could be the trump card of a Neos deck?" He spent almost a full minute considering all the possible moves he could make, the roar of the winds growing stronger with each passing second, threatening to overtake him if he didn't make a move. Finally, he settled on a strategy.

"I'll activate Neo Space." The air remained completely dark, unable to display the effect of the card, but its effect still lingered as it powered up Divine Neos (+3500). "Within the Neo Space, I can Tribute my Chrysalis Chicky to summon Neo-Spacian Air Hummingbird (3/800/600)." An anthropomorphic hummingbird appeared with red feathers thick like armor and white wings angelic in appearance. "I'll summon Elemental Hero Neos (7/+3000/2100) by offering Mole and Larva as Tributes." Two of his cocooned monsters disappeared as the powerful Hero in white took their place on the field. His presence was reassuring—familiarity in the face of devastation.

"Here goes: First, Neos and Air Neos fuse into Elemental Hero Air Neos (7/+3000/2000)." Upon contact with the Hummingbird, Neos's armor turned sleek red and sprouted steel wings from the shoulders. Air Neos spread his wings wide while he focused power into his body. "When my Life Points are lower than yours, my warrior gains power equal to the difference, giving Air Neos (+22,400) one hell of a power boost. But that's not all.

"By removing Neo-Spacian Dark Panther from play, Divine Neos (+4000) gains another 500 points and Dark Panther's ability. By selecting Pestilence on your side of the field, Divine Neos gains the effect of that skeletal horseman. If I remember correctly, that means I can pay 5000 Life Points to destroy all your monsters with 5000 points or fewer original attack points." Divine Neos charged his power and then stamped his foot on the ground, opening a grand fissure wide enough to pull Pestilence and Apocalypse beneath the field and trap them in the underworld. Matt knew Apocalypse wouldn't stay gone, though. It was temporary…

…or would be if not for Neos.

"This ends the duel," Matt declared. Air Neos (+27,400) flew high into the sky and whipped up a whirlwind with his wings. Flapping slowly at first and gradually beating his wings until they were invisible, the shadows receded tremendously as the whirlwind grew in speed and intensity, finally exploding in a concussive force. Divine Neos (4000) focused increasing light into his body—so much Matt thought he could see the sky again. Light exploded from Divine Neos and consumed every shadow in sight.

The intensity of the light overwhelmed Matt, and the boundary between the stage and the world dissipated, spreading light to all onlookers who wondered about the swirling shadows in the middle of campus. The light seemed to spread all the way to the sky, and when Divine Neos faded from view, the sun bore down on campus once more, returning its light and warmth to the people.

Matt 10,200 – 5000 = 5200: Bryan 200: Apocalypse 29,100 – 27,400 – 4000 = 0.

"There it is," a female voice said. "Looks like he's coming around."

Matt's eyes fluttered a bit, but he found they weighed very little this time. His head was ringing off the hook and his back felt like lead, but overall he felt surprisingly alive. "Mmmarry?" That didn't out right.

"No, I won't marry you," Cary said as she patted Matt on the shoulder. She might have shot him for how much it hurt. "But I am glad you're alive. I got… slightly… concerned when you jumped into that tornado. You were gone a long time."

"What happened?" he asked, better able to open his mouth this time.

"Well, we're all still here, so either you beat the Apocalypse, or we're all terrible sinners forced to live on this wicked planet until we die." She leaned in next to his ear and whispered, "For the record, I'm okay with it either way." She patted him closer to the heart and added, "Thank you."

Matt rubbed his head. "I'm confused. That hardly sounded like an insult."

She shrugged and stood away from him. "Yeah, well. A brush with death can give anyone an off day." She held out a hand and offered him help getting up, but he almost pulled her over, and so his roommate Maikeru offered a second hand with considerably more weight behind it. Pained as he looked during the procedure, Matt eventually got to his feet, continuing to use both friends as crutches.

"Does this train go by the health center?" Matt asked.

"There are EMTs on site," Maikeru told him. He summarized their first examination of Matt, saying his vital signs were okay and he was breathing normally, so they left him momentarily to deal with more severe injuries. "Thank god, too. Bryan's way too damn heavy to carry."

"Is he okay? What about Rory?"

"They're in bad shape," Cary confessed, "but they should be fine. Dr. Nagell said they're stable, but they're on their way to the Kazuki hospital and they won't be leaving for a few days at least. But they'll survive a little hospital food considering you just saved their lives from Armageddon."

Maikeru chuckled nervously. "Do you think saving the world warrants you an automatic A in your classes?"

"I'll settle for tuition remission," Matt replied. He felt incredibly hot, and that's when he remembered he was wearing leather armor. "And thanks to me, I better never hear anyone say the Celtic Guardian is anything less than a guardian of the entire world."

"It wasn't the Celtic Guardian," Cary argued. "It was you dressed as the Celtic Guardian."

"Yeah, but it was…" Suddenly he swooned and would have hit the ground hard if not for Cary and Maikeru holding him up. EMS returned to check him out a second time. Who can be sure how much of it Matt was aware of before he passed out?

When Matt opened his eyes, he was surrounded by a white light. There was nothing as far as he could see—not even a floor—except white. Slowly, his eyes adjusted to the white surroundings and he noticed the feathers of a giant bird, blending almost perfectly with the white backdrop, save minor shadows. Actually, it was more like the being appeared out of nowhere. Atop the bird was the face of an elderly man with eyes bluer than the clear sky.

"You're still here," Matt said, surprised.

"With your help."

Matt shook his head. "No. I owe you. Thank you for stopping the Apocalypse."

The man blinked slowly. "My part was minimal. You and your brother are the ones who defeated the spirit. I have rarely seen such strength of spirit in humans, yet you seem to draw to you the strongest of all humans."

"We'll fight fiercely to protect our world."

"More than I ever predicted." He blinked heavily again and his breathing sped up.

"Will you tell me where you came from?"

"My honor is to share this life with you, in time. Soon, perhaps? I beg your forgiveness, but this confrontation and expenditure of my strength has left me in need of a nap."

"You and me both."

News reports continued to provide footage of the sudden and unexpected solar eclipse—one astronomers deemed a "perfect eclipse"—that baffled scientists. Media personnel went wild with speculation as to the cause, purpose, and explanation of what was almost universally considered to be an omen of ill will to come.

Ren Bacon was not bothered by it at all. A thin man just shorter than six feet tall, with tousled hair and a hard chin, he was rarely scary, opting instead to give in to his childish desires. After all, a man with his kind of power could afford to let loose. With a giddy laugh, he spun around in his office chair and jerked to a stop, checking yet another report to see the pandemonium that resulted.

"Oo hoo! You were right! That really was a sign of the End of Days, wasn't it?"


With an excited giggle, Ren said, "Oooo! You've exceeded all my expectations, Oscar! Money just can't buy your level of service!"

Oscar stood behind the excited, younger man. He wore a charcoal suit with no tie, and dark sunglasses altered his appearance enough that he wouldn't be recognizable without close contact. He remained expressionless at the level of joy his cohort showed when the entire world could have been incinerated in the Rapture only moments ago, though he had hardly been able to contain a smile when he learned Matt survived his encounter with absolute darkness.

Ren lifted a dueling card and his giggling became more intense. The face of the blue card began to shimmer, and wisps of darkness dripped off of it. "Now that the embodiment of the Shadow Realm has been released, the darkness will grow one hundredfold. Of course, someone needed to rein in the Shadow Realm before it killed us all, but you made sure there was someone present for that, too, didn't you, Oscar?"


"And your plan was perfect." He made an exaggerated frown at the TV reports. "Unfortunately, that much darkness can't just up and disappear, can it? No! It will spread throughout the world and strengthen anything powered by the Shadow Realm. That means all of our precious god cards will regain their full power, and my empire will thrive with Obelisk the Tormentor leading the way."

He showed Obelisk to Oscar and said, "All we have to do is collect them all. Do you think Operation Pokémon is too on-the-nose?"

"Your cohorts may find the name a bit childish," Oscar suggested.

The man's expression hardened. His giddy grin turned instantly into a fierce snarl. "They are welcome to voice their concerns through the proper channels."

"With no intended criticism," Oscar said, unfazed by the change in demeanor, "please allow me to voice my concern once more with moving up the plan so soon. We still have not located all the god cards, and there is a possibility of a greater darkness emerging in a place we never expected."

Now the grin returned, wide and wicked. "I do hope so. All the more power behind my army. Hellfire is about to rain down on this world, Oscar. You'd better put on a hat."

Author's notes:
And another cycle comes to a close. This arc was much stronger than the last, but I hope to dwarf it with the next one. It will focus more on characters and story and have fewer duels written only to fill space. A new villain, development in the spiritual god, and a worldwide search for all twelve god cards are things to look forward to. Look for it soon: In Search of a God.

I thank all of you who read all the way through this part of the story, and extra thanks (and a spiritual medal) go to the people who have read the other three arcs, too. Two more arcs to go before I finish this story I dreamed up more than seven years ago. It wouldn't have been as much fun without all of you here with me. I hope all of you will follow me to the end as it's sure to be an exciting view of the human condition using the connection to a god as the plot device.

Trivia: One of my first dueling daydreams ever was using the Celtic Guardian to take down a Black Skull Dragon. I love the Celtic Guardian.