A/N: This is the part that didn't make it within the limits of the deadline. Because I felt that "For some reason I thought the deadline was on the 7th and didn't bother to double-check" was not a viable/acceptable reason to ask for an extension. Also, I feel it's safe to post it now, as the voting has ended and nobody can be influenced by this part, derailing the actual contest entry.
Disclaimer: Kazuki Takahashi and all associated companies are the rightful owners of the Yuugiou! franchise and I claim no association with any of them. No copyright infringement intended with this and no money is being made from this. Please support the creator by purchasing the official releases.
Warnings: worksafe for the most part; contains some slightly disturbing imagery.
So Swings the Wheel Forth
At one point the sand stops falling through from the top half into the bottom part. It takes Bakura a while to notice, but once he does, he turns to inspect it, to find the reason why. A single blonde curl hangs down the narrow opening – golden like threaded sand suspended by higher forces, as if Ra's thousand hands reaching down from the sky to touch everything on the ground in his mercy. (How ironic it is, then, that the Sun god himself is the reason why this woman is trapped here – she who dared to call forth a deity without believing it. It makes Bakura think back on how similar they are – challenging things they had no faith in.) Pulled down with the weight of the sand, coerced through the narrow opening by the sifting grains to stop their ceaseless flow altogether – it hangs there as a significant meaning, as a hyperbole and premonition.
Bakura can see Mai's shins atop the reversed pyramidal pile of sand, a dusty golden hue covering them. The sand has sagged, bringing her soul down with its weight. It must be uncomfortable, being bent and contorted like that, a thought flashes across Bakura's mind before he frowns. She has stopped the time with a single strand of golden hair. She has defied the cycle of spirals and all forward motion. She makes things stagnate and Bakura snarls. He can't turn the angular hourglass back around – time doesn't go backwards – and he can't break it – can't destroy the time itself like this. (If he does, Malik will know instantly; will feel that his little piece of dominion has been broken and will come looking. Bakura doesn't want that child poking around.) Instead, he turns back around, leans against the shimmering glass and taps.
Tap. Tap tap. Tap tap tap. Tap. Ta-tap. Tap tap. Ta-ta-tap.
He knows that Mai can feel it, as he can feel the rhythm reverberate across the glass and down his own ghostly spine. Mai hasn't realised that she is just a soul in this world of Shadows. She clings to her humanity and that humanity now keeps her in an illusion – an illusion that she can't breathe, that she can't see, that she is unconscious, that she is dead.
Tap. Ta-tap. Tap tap tap. Ta-ta-ta-ta-tap.
It's a melody from Bakura's past, what he's drumming out for her, for continuity, for time – to make it move forward again. He heard it once in his life and he doesn't remember the words, but he does remember the tone and the beat. It isn't a song for the dead, or the living. In fact, it isn't a song at all. It is – was – is, again, a prayer. (La-aa. La la-aa la. La la la-aa-a.) In its time, priestesses sang it to their goddess; sang, and sang, and sang, moments before Bakura and his men pillaged the temple, turning songs of glory and worship into screams of anguish, pain, and despair. (La-aa. La-aa. La-aa-aa-a.) They took gold, jewels, and slaves, tearing the yet-untainted women away from their sanctuary; and the song was never heard again in this world or any other. (La la. La-aa. La-aa la-aa-a.) Until now.
The rhythm breaks, derails, and for a moment is just a flurry of wild raps, as Bakura remembers. The memory is so brittle that it shatters from his vengeance and bloodthirst, distorting the melody. He doesn't hasten to straighten it out again, fuming for the glory taken away from him by a foolish pharaoh.
Ta-tap. Tap ta-tap.
Finally, there is motion behind him. Slow and sluggish at first, weighed down by the sand, and barely noticeable, but it soon grows erratic. Desperate. There come thumps and bumps, and weak scratching. The golden lock slowly pulls back upwards (Ra retracting his hands, his mercy), permitting the flow of sand, of time, at long last. There come coughs, and wheezes, and chokes, and Mai claws her way up through the sand. A monstrous effort that is – digging herself out in that narrow space between five walls of shimmering glass. For her, it's like crawling out of a grave. She hits her head on the glass above, becoming completely disoriented again. She hurts, aches all over, can't breathe, can't breathe, can't breathe. Sand is still heavy against her face and rough against her skin.
Bakura laughs in hilarity, ceasing the tapping. He laughs, and laughs, and cannot stop. Behind him, Mai coughs and struggles to not sink back down in the sand. (In time and oblivion.) It takes a while for the shock of death and rebirth to wear off. It takes Mai a while to see and realise what this is, why this is, and the terror of memories strikes her like a double-edged swords. Strikes her and cleaves her apart. She remembers. (She remembers, remembers, remembers.)
Her fists rise through the sand to pound against the glass while a myriad of grains streams down her skin (she remembers doing this), but the sand is falling away from her, not onto her. She opens her mouth to scream and demand in fear: let me out, let me out, LET ME OUT! She remembers. The turned backs, the silent non-answers a clear indication of 'no' – she remembers that too. Memories of despair, of abandonment, and of impending death weigh her down heavily; and more so when her mind tells her that it's a perfect replay of what already was. Has been. Will be. Is. Sand is receding, uncovering her centimetre by precious centimetre, but she has already been tainted with its touch: her skin painted golden by dust, her hair full of miniature grains, and her bones leaden with its weight. She can't escape anymore.
"Look at me!" she demands, screams, cries, and her hands pound the glass where Bakura is leaning against it, but doesn't look at her. Doesn't look back. She's not even a second thought for him. (For anyone.)
Bakura laughs, but Mai doesn't understand why.
"You're awfully loud," he finally comments, his laughter ceasing, "for somebody dead."
"I'm not! I'm not! Let me out!" Mai argues. (She can't be! Can she?)
The sand keeps falling down undisturbed, if a little faster now because of her constant moving. The glass is slippery and she keeps sliding down it, sinking into the sand, until she wrestles herself into a position that is stable, but not comfortable in the slightest.
Her friends, she discovers, are still below her; still basking in each other's presence and hoisting their ignorance of her existence and her predicament high like a banner. But when Mai looks down at them, trying to see who they are – trying to remember them – their faces change. Their expressions morph, and twist, and reform. Where there was variety before, now there are heads with blonde curls and lithe bodies dressed in familiar purple: one, two three, four, five…
With a choked sob, Mai whips her head away from the sight so fiercely, violently, defiantly that she gets hair in her eyes and stars flash across the edges of her vision. That is good because she doesn't see. Doesn't have to see. Doesn't want to. But she sees, nevertheless. Against the glass; a wild array of blonde curls, a purple set of robes that's all too familiar, and a slender leg propped up against one sloping side, the high heel sharp and flawless. Light glints off that heel and it appears to be winking at her. Mai screams. She squeezes her eyes shut (tightly, tightly) and screams, screams, screams.
"I am you." It echoes across her mind. Across time. "And they are you too."
"Do you understand now?" Bakura asks, but his voice is distant and doesn't quite reach her.
Mai doesn't respond. Her scream has died out; her fists have been pulled away from the glass and are held against her chest instead – just in case the touch burns. Just in case touching the glass where she is leaning against it on the other side unravels something in time and makes it snap.
The sand is almost gone from the inversed pyramid when the Bakura-Mai finally shifts. The motion draws Mai's attention and she finds herself looking over, looking at herself up close. But if it's supposed to be her, if it's supposed to be a mirror reflection, then it's a nightmarish one, and the impossibility of it all steals her voice, breath, and mind. The face she is looking at – her own face – is a hideous mask of something inhuman.
What should have been flawless skin is an artwork of chipped paint and peeling tapestry, black-fried at its torn edges. Where her eyes should be, are two glaring black holes instead, wild red light burning in their depth while something slimy curls around the inside, illuminated by the eerie glow. A shark-toothed grin splits her face in two, trails of blood on the otherwise white teeth and shrivelled lips pulled back too tight, revealing bloody gums. Skin hangs off her chin in strips as if those ghastly triangular teeth clove their way into her mouth over it. Her nose – oh, her nose! – is what you only see on bare skulls – three bony strips and black holes for nostrils, the skin around them burnt and rotting, and oozing with something dark. Small white worms squirm in the raw cracks and Mai would throw up, but her throat is painfully constricted.
"Look at me!" this ghastly being demands. "Look!"
That word echoes through Mai's head like a drum. Look, look, look. Boom, boom, boom. Her lips part to let out a howl of terror. She pulls back even further, her entire body into the motion and she loses her precarious balance, sliding down the glass and landing painfully across the narrow space. Bony claw-like hands with long crooked nails slam into the top part of the hourglass directly above her face, toppling it over. Down.
Mai falls as the hourglass falls and hits her head against the glass, cracking it open and spilling blood (but there is no blood), crumpling into a heap and twisting her neck. Her bones shatter from the impact with the glass wall (but she no longer has any bones), and her body burns with white-hot pain all over (but it's only an echo from the time when her soul still filled a physical body).
Sand falls down again. Sifts over her. Covers her. Makes it hard to breathe.
Mai struggles to get back upright. She strains and sprains her limbs, bruises her knees and elbows, hits her head over and over again, gets stuck no matter which way she turns, all the time wondering why the walls of the pyramid aren't caked in her blood yet. (Fine dusty sand silently covers everything, erasing all trace of what was, is, and would come to be.)
Once Mai is back to her initial kneeling position, the disfigured parody of her drops down opposite her on the other side of the glass, mimicking her perfectly. Claw-like fingers rest against the glass, red lights burn through black eye holes, and wind comes wheezing and bubbling through gaping nostrils. Her mouth opens in a sneer, letting out a split snake-tongue that curls and twists against the glass. Mai draws back in disgust. For some reason it seems to her that it wants to get in, that tongue, to touch her, to flick against her skin – one slow, saliva-dripping flick and…
The tongue draws back. After it, there comes a high-pitched voice.
"Let me in."
Mai gasps, pushes herself backwards even harder (but there's nowhere for her to go, there never was), and the creature on the outside pushes forward in a mirror action. The walls of the pyramid close in on Mai and she can't breathe.
"Let me in!" it demands in a whine, plastering itself against the glass. "You're dead, let me in."
"Let me in, let me in, let me in," it rails.
("Let me out, let me out, let me out," Mai's mind echoes, but she doesn't want out anymore. Doesn't want to be on the same side of the glass as that thing.)
"You drove me out, but I am you – the only you. The real you."
"No! No, no, no, no…" Mai's voice dies out in a broken whisper.
Sand streams down relentlessly, burying everything, but in no haste to erase the terrifying mask of what used to be Mai's own face. Mai passes out to the wailing of the hideous parody of herself long before the heavy gold of silence buries her. (And even in the silence there is that voice.) With the last grains falling down and joining the rest, Bakura pushes the sand clock over again. It swings like a wheel of Fortune (exchanging ups for downs, highs for lows), like a wheel of life (of time) – empty side down, living side up. (The half with the living being trapped in it, like his Ring.)
Bakura watches sand filter through the opening and gather in a neat little pile at the bottom, watches it steadily grow and feels immensely satisfied. As he observes the slow progress, biding his time for an opportunity, a crack appears near the corner of the pyramid. He hastily steps back, blending with the shadows when the crack stretches diagonally across the surface and many more spring up alongside it. The illusion of the sunny beach freezes mid-motion before eroding all at once in a wisp of smoky shadows. But Malik himself, as Bakura had expected, doesn't appear, which can only mean one thing.
The cobweb of cracks weaves over the glass - barely a quarter of the sand has sifted down at this point. Without a warning, the hourglass shatters, glittering splinters raining all around, and sand comes crashing down in torrents, pulled by imperceptible gravity. Amid it all, Mai falls down head-first, hair fanning out and arms unfolding to fall toward the ground. Her body is still in that same bent position, but it slowly stretches out due to the new momentum. Bakura moves forward faster than a shadow, faster than fading light, quicker than a glitter of colour across a broken glass, and in his hand is a shard; one shard that cuts Mai's skin and worms its way under, resealing the cut flawlessly. As Mai falls, the light flickers out and everything disappears.
Bakura stands alone in the darkness, shadows coiling around him. Another spiral, he thinks, has stretched further upward by a circle, a cycle. Time carries its flow onward infinitely, and the mighty come falling down while one body regains a soul.
But – Bakura sneers, as if it's the best joke he's heard in millennia (and to him, it might just be) – what kind of mindset has returned to its body? Shadows coil and slither around in silence and he is laughing, laughing, laughing…
He has just gained another ticket to crossing back over.
Ra's thousand hands – the traditional way of depicting the Sun god: a disc with a multitude of hands reaching out to touch everyone living in blessing.
Sources cited/referenced: "Der Bildhauer des Pharao" by Elisabeth Hering, and reproductions of ancient Egyptian artwork