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XXIV: Shadow Delver
"Oi, how much more do we have to walk, Shimotsuki?" I asked. We had been going on for a while and the skies were already lightening as the foliage thinned to a forest that was more magical than terrifying.
"We're following the river," Shimotsuki growled. "Unless, of course, you would rather go your own way."
"Hmph," I growled but did not answer. The forest was really magical, more of the fairy-dust and sunlight streaming through like a curtain and everything. If only the company was more agreeable.
Leaves shifted, and from bushes there was a beige man and shining armour on a quadrupedal thing and oh, it's a lion in a bloody forest we're so dead-
"What are humans doing in this Ancient Forest?" the lion growled.
A talking lion. Fantastic. This was Narnia all over again.
"Regulus." Shimotsuki identified. "You are familiar with the one named Ruka, yes?"
"Who are you to speak of Ruka?" The lion growled at Shimotsuki, who was still in a school uniform of sorts despite the change in scenery.
"I am Shimotsuki Setsuka," Shimotsuki introduced herself. "The boy beside me is Chase Princeton. We came with a group to rescue one of our friends who have strayed to the Spirit world, and we appear to be lost. The Ancient Forest, you say?"
"Lost?" the lion repeated sceptically.
"Erm, do you know someone called Misawa Nowaki?" I asked, feeling slightly dumb. "I'm sorry, but it's important we find him... oh, and the Professor as well..."
"I have not heard of such a human," Regulus duly answered. "You are familiar with Ruka, Setsuka? Ancient Fairy Sama will be glad. She is well?"
"Very much so," Shimotsuki answered. "She is grown up, and has found employment. She remembers Ancient Fairy Dragon and you fondly, as do the people of our city."
"Ancient Fairy Dragon?" I repeated with some trepidation.
When the 5Ds Monuments had been unveiled across Neo Domino, the dragon that had graced the Tops district had been Ancient Fairy. Big butterfly wings, the air of grace, sunlight shimmering about it with the promise of life... utter beauty. Not the excitement from seeing Stardust, or the awe of Red Demon's Dragon, or the terror from standing before the Black Rose, or the freedom from seeing Black Feather take flight, nor even fascination of the blocky figure, half-shattered to show the process of Power Tool growing up into Life Stream tucked around the city centre, but something graceful and enduring, serene and beautiful.
"We came here with a few others," Shimotsuki observed. "Then, have you met any other humans?" She frowned. "Pardon the expression, but do humans exist in this world?"
"I suppose those closest to the humans you are familiar with within this world would be Oppressed People, People Running About and Organized Resistance," Regulus grumbled. "Humans are rare in a world of monsters, that is why I recognised both of you as unfamiliar humans at once. Both of you have that mortality about you. Of course, Duel Monsters have emotions as well, we both know pain and sorrow and joy and family. It is a different perspective."
"It's not like you guys are immortal, right?" I drawled.
"We will certainly live longer than humans," Regulus growled in answer as we broke through the forest cover to a sunlit plain covered in grassy rolling fields. "Watch out. Someone is coming."
"As much as I can't stand the humans, I think I loathe tourists even more," footsteps sounded as an old man in dark robes ambled over, muttering. "Brats, no respect for the older generation nowadays... but that other boy was nice, though..."
"Dark Sage," Regulus broke through. "Is there a matter?"
"Ah, Regulus-dono," the Dark Sage greeted. "Oh, humans! You don't see mortals everyday. To come to the Spirit World unaccompanied is very dangerous!"
"My spirit companions are presumably not in this dimension," Shimotsuki smoothly answered. "As for my friend here, he has none. May I enquire, is there a settlement nearby? Our friends may be present there."
"What a polite child," the Dark Sage smiled serenely at us. "Who is your spirit companion?"
Both monsters tensed immediately at the mention of the name.
"Shimotsuki, you can see Duel Spirits?" I asked.
"It is not a skill I publicise," Shimotsuki answered. "It was never relevant, was it? But, it was because of this curse that I met those that would never let me be alone."
"D- Dewloren, the prince of the Ice Barrier tribe?" Dark Sage coughed uneasily. "I see..."
"Ancient Fairy Sama would be pleased to see you all," Regulus intoned once we have bid the Dark Sage goodbye. "How is the prince, by the way, my lady?"
"King Dewloren now," Shimotsuki answered. "So he says. Dewloren usually demands that I play him more often, yet his power is destructive to an extreme."
"Is it?" Regulus considered. "If I know of him, he would flaunt his power like that... ah."
Giggles could be heard from far off, the sun shining and yet the air crisp and cool, Duel Monsters rushing about one of the largest creatures I have ever seen. A slender serpentine body curled around itself like a snake, blue-scaled and lightly armoured, the Monster had wrist guards of red and gold and a helm of the same colour over sea-green hair. Large butterfly wings spread out behind it as it blinked large amber eyes at us in curiosity.
"Ancient Fairy Sama, this humble servant brings two mortals to you," Regulus spoke, his voice low and respectful. "The girl is familiar with Ruka, she claims."
"Nice to meet you," Shimotsuki bowed. "My name is Shimotsuki Setsuka. The boy beside me is Chase Princeton. Ignore his rudeness, it's his first time meeting a legend face-to-face."
Words have completely failed me now. "A- Ancient F- Fairy... Dragon..."
"Welcome to our humble abode," the dragon's voice rang pleasantly. "Forgive us, but it has been a long time since I was able to expect company. I am the guardian of this realm, alongside many others. It is curious, how mortals managed to enter the realm of spirits."
"Even in our human world we have heard of Ancient Fairy Dragon, one of the Signer Dragons," Shimotsuki answered. "Ruka is fine, and sends her regards to Ancient Fairy and Regulus, as well as many of the others of the spirit world. It is sad to say that it was by no accident that we ended up in the spirit world."
"I see," the wise dragon murmured once Shimotsuki had relayed everything pertinent. "Humans..."
"Hardly," Shimotsuki disagreed. "Chase Princeton, you still bear the marks."
Obligingly, I lifted my hand to show the nearest readily available, and the dragon recoiled from the sight of it.
"I see," the dragon murmured. "My apologies for being unable to assist you, yet perhaps we may still be of assistance. Fudo Ryuusei is not unknown in our world, and we would not wish for another child to be cursed with the burden of all twelve dimensions."
The Duel Monsters, mostly Fairy-types, had gathered about and were now listening intently.
"Dancing Fairies, go carry the word of the children," the dragon called. "Regulus, dearest. Before your hunt, could you escort these children to Schwank? Perhaps they would be able to find their friends there."
"Of course," Regulus gravely agreed. "Are they carrying anything of importance, Setsuka?"
"Fudo Ryuusei has Black Rose Dragon," Shimotsuki stated. "Rex Atlas has Red Demon's Dragon. Kujaku Satsuki has in her possession the Black Feather Dragon."
"My companions," Ancient Fairy murmured. "Black Rose... Red Demon's... Black Feather... I feel them, yes, and they are close. Presumably you would find your companions in Schwank."
"We should go, then," I got up from my seat on the grass reluctantly, wishing for the cool weather to continue. I was pushed back down by a horde of tiny midget spirits as they carried platters of some fruit and assorted foods over.
The stare of Ancient Fairy was implacable yet mischievous. "Why not stay for lunch? It has been a while, so let us observe the rules of hospitality."
"Well..." Shimotsuki considered.
"We accept," I interrupted. "It's rude to reject, right?"
The Duel Monsters laughed, and a green-haired imp with white wings took a flute and began to play as they began the midday meal. It was one of those oddly peppy, yet peaceful sounds, and the scene was made even more idyllic as a soft breeze blew over the rolling plains... a forest that remained eternal. They took turns with the music, the flute-player identified as a Lucky Pied Piper giving way to a Spirit of the Harp who then gave the stage to a drummer and Dancing Fairies that chattered about.
"Good tidings," Ancient Fairy murmured in farewell as we finally left. "We will meet again."
"Bye!" I waved back, giving up only as we were out of sight. "Well, she was nice."
"Not all Duel Monsters will be immediately nice," Regulus warned. "This is one of the dimensions with more light. The darker dimensions have some of the darkest monsters of legend, real threats to the two worlds. Of course, occasionally time has proven that humans may be even more monstrous..."
"That I may have to agree," Shimotsuki nodded. "This Schwank... what is it?"
"It's a town of Duel Monsters, my lady," Regulus answered. "Monsters there have lived in harmony with very little interruption, save for that one time when the Demonic Monkey King Zeman invaded and captured us all for sacrifices, imprisoning Ancient Fairy Sama in a cliff in the process. We persevered, and Ancient Fairy Sama was eventually released and defeated the beast with Ruka. It has been peaceful since then, but occasionally Zeman continues to make himself a nuisance with his... eccentricities."
"Eccentricities?" I repeated.
"Zeman professes love for Ancient Fairy Sama," Regulus confessed, as if the very thought pained him. "Of course, being an offshoot of the Earthbound Cusillu, perhaps Zeman may have inherited a form of lust, but winter shall come to Pandemonium before anyone would believe that Zeman is capable of that emotion. Up and down the Forest, no one believes him, not even the Closed Forest over which he rules that borders the lands."
I frowned too, and Regulus nodded with approval.
"Are all the Forests interconnected?" Shimotsuki enquired.
"We are in Forest proper now, my lady," Regulus indicated as the scene had changed back to a regular, well lit forest of the day. "Having just left the Ancient Forest, we met in Closed Forest. In a way, all forests are linked, and all Forests lead here. There is a saying that if one is lucky, one will find the Spiritual Forest, but it is rarely seen."
"There are no forests where we are," Shimotsuki murmured, almost sadly. "Does winter ever come?"
"Perhaps you misunderstand, but our world of forests is a fortunate one that forever enjoys a transition of spring and summer," Regulus explained. "The worst weather experiences are in the form of rains, and even then those drizzles are ones of mercy. Of course, this dimension also experiences its wars, and bloodsheds and disasters, but otherwise it is comparatively mild."
"A dimension with near-perfect weather... I guess we should be glad of no humans present," I muttered.
"A fairytale world, this place," Shimotsuki remarked as we approached a small pre-European settlement, the houses and roads built with stone and mostly quaint. I blinked as a Dreamsprite fluttered past, before I went after the talking armoured lion and Shimotsuki.
Of course, Shimotsuki chose then to walk into a tavern called the Spotted Wing, from which a diminutive monkey chose then to fly out of the door.
"What an interesting exit," Shimotsuki remarked, dead-pan.
"What?" Regulus growled as a tall blond man marched out, familiar in every way... Rex Atlas.
"One shot is for all you did to everyone here… And all the rest are because you messed up my clothing!" Rex yelled at the monkey high-tailing it out.
"Rex!" I greeted in surprise.
"Chase!" Rex brightened. "I got lost and separated with only that girl and I don't know where's Ryuusei-"
"Thank you, customer!" the Jerry Beans Man waved as Regulus marched in. "Oh, Regulus-dono!"
"This man is a guest of Ancient Fairy Sama," Regulus informed the barkeep. "Place it on our tab."
"Ah, thank you, Regulus-dono!" the Jerry Beans Man brightened. "Looks like you're lucky, girl!"
"Che!" Feet propped up, Satsuki scowled as she down half a mug of something. "What... a talking lion?"
Shimotsuki coughed. "This is Regulus, a retainer of Ancient Fairy Dragon. In the local customs, I suppose that he would be the prince consort or the captain of the guard."
"Regulus?" Rex was paying attention now. "Ah, I remember, Aunt Ruka's lion! I'm Rex Atlas!"
"You must be the child of the Atlas man," Regulus noted. "It is a pleasure to meet you face-to-face in this rare opportunity. And the young lady... I do believe your description was once discussed amongst the Harpie Ladies. Kujaku Mai, that is."
"That's my grandmother," Satsuki corrected. "I'm Kujaku Satsuki."
"My mistake," Regulus admitted. "Are these all of your friends, my lady? I would bring all of you before Ancient Fairy Sama should I be able."
"Ah, we still haven't found Ryuusei, Ayame, Ryuuki or Kaido," Rex counted off. "I think Johan came along as well."
"Johan Andersen?" I blinked. "Huh..."
"Ah, Regulus-dono!" the door burst open as a swarm of Duel spirits charged in. "Something's happened! T- There's a duel outside!"
"A duel?" Regulus growled as we ran out after the king of fairytale beasts. "The only one capable of the Duel within miles is Ancient Fairy Sama...!"
We all skidded to a stop, right as a gale of rose petals blew over.
"Chilling flames engulf the entire world," Ryuusei's words swept through. "Pitch-dark flower, set in bloom! Appear now, Black Rose-!"
"Stop!" Shimotsuki barked. "Ryuusei, do not destroy this town!"
Ryuusei looked up in surprise, his opponent of the monkey shivering at his brush with the dragon of destruction.
"Go," Regulus bared his impressive fangs at the monkey, who took off running.
"Rex? Chase?" Ryuusei blinked.
"Oh, nice to see you made it, Boss," Kaido acknowledged.
"Rex San, Princeton-san," Ayame greeted. "Shimotsuki-san, what a surprise!"
"Not exactly," Shimotsuki answered. "Are any of you injured?"
"No, just a few brushes with monsters," Kaido was smiling happily as he hauled a teal-haired man I recognised as Johan along. "I think Andersen got frightened out of his wits."
"B- Battle Ox..." Johan was mumbling.
"We ran into real monsters!" Ryuuki was sparkling.
"Too soft," Shimotsuki noted. "Have you eaten? Is there anything wrong?"
"D- Duel Monsters are real here," Ayame shivered. "Just now, Lady Heat spoke to me... it's strange, yet so warm."
"So all of you are Duellists," Regulus murmured. "And that wind... the scent of Black Rose Sama..."
"You're Regulus, right?" Ryuusei easily greeted. "Nice to meet you, I'm Fudo Ryuusei. Thank you for leading our friends here."
"Think nothing of it, Fudo Ryuusei," Regulus answered. "You are a guest of Ancient Fairy Sama. It is only as expected that we assist." The lion grumbled, a low rumble. "We should get some food and rest, before bringing all of you to Ancient Fairy Sama. You must be tired."
"Not really," Ryuusei neutrally answered. "But don't mind if I take you on that offer."
"A talking lion..." Johan mumbled as a blue-furred cat curled up on his shoulder. "Amethyst would find you interesting."
"I am familiar with you, Johan Andersen, holder of the Crystal Beasts," Regulus answered. "I am Regulus, a humble servant of the Signer Dragon, Ancient Fairy. Much of you has travelled through the twelve dimensions."
"Really?" Johan repeated, dazed.
"As the primary reason why Haou nearly destroyed all twelve dimensions of the Spirit world with himself, yes you are remembered," Regulus flippantly answered as its amber eyes penetrated on Johan. "There are spirits like myself with long memories. Doubtless that they would remember you."
"Haou?" Ayame repeated.
"It is not a tale to be repeated in public," the White Lion answered. "Come, that meal and rest, before we arrive to Ancient Fairy Sama."
"Ancient Fairy..." Ryuusei bowed before the great dragon.
"So you are the new holder of Black Rose," Ancient Fairy spread her wings out. "Ryuusei Fudo... what a reliable face."
"Huh?" we all blinked.
'Regulus, no matter how I see it, it's still this face that looks so reliable," the dragon actually used one long-fingered blue-skinned hand to poke at Ryuusei's cheek. "It's exactly the same as Fudo Yusei~ And the red bangs just accentuate what features you have. True, they say that 'looks lose their appeal after three days', but these regular features guarantee a timeless face."
"Ancient Fairy Sama, please do not make unfair comparisons," Regulus intoned sceptically.
"And that blond one..." the dragon paused before looking away. "Carbon copy."
"What was that for!" Rex raged.
"Johan Andersen..." Ancient Fairy had long moved on to the teal-haired Scandinavian Duellist. "Inadvertently, you have made yourself infamous. Where you would go, I cannot guarantee that you will be missed. There are many who remember Haou and the destruction of the Evil Heroes."
"I..." Johan fidgeted.
"Yuuki Ayame..." her butterfly wings fluttered. "Poor girl."
"Does this have anything to do with Papa?" Ayame asked the great dragon.
"The story is a long one with a long legacy," Ancient Fairy motioned as the Fairy monsters fluttering about her settled for this story. "It is a long and sad story... where to start... it happened recently, though in your human terms it would have been about thirty or forty years..."
"Thirty to forty years is pretty long," Ryuusei noted.
"For spirits, that is a very short time," Ancient Fairy clarified. "There was a power called the Light of Destruction, which spilled forth from a time when the Realms were just created from the everlasting dark and the dimensions were beginning to settle. Of course, to maintain the balance, the Dark of Right exists. It began in one of the most conflicted of dimensions, Yami, where the Dark World existed. Their Mad King sought to take human souls and energy, and fuse all worlds to himself using a card... Super Fusion. To achieve the power needed, many souls were sacrificed, Duel spirits and humans alike. The Mad King made the mistake of challenging the latest holder of the Dark of Right, and then... the darkness of the heart took over in a young defender that had lost his friend."
"S- So... Papa..." Ayame gasped.
"Yuuki Judai... that man, in his youth, was, for a very short time, known as the Haou Judai." Ancient Fairy answered. "With piercing eyes of gold and the truth of absolute justice, he indiscriminately used an army of Duel Monsters to kill villages and take sacrifices for Super Fusion... his darkness touched all dimensions and no one could stop him... except himself. Yuuki Judai managed to fight the darkness in his heart, but at a price; so many died for Super Fusion that he had to bear that sin for the rest of his life, and beyond. The Dark of Right, the Gentle Darkness... it is what gave life to these twelve dimensions, but it can also be so cruel..."
"Do you know about the Millennium Items, Ancient Fairy?" Shimotsuki demanded. "How to lift the curse...?"
"Ah, that," the dragon sighed. "It is the will of Ra-Horakhty. I am a Signer Dragon, but even I cannot succeed against the Illusory Gods. Come, follow, I shall guide you to the next dimension, and from there... who knows."
"How can you speak like that so cavalierly...?" Ayame sniffed. "You just told me... that my father..."
"One day a man had a dream," Ancient Fairy sighed. "He dreamed that he was a butterfly. He fluttered and fluttered, flew and flew. He so loved the feeling of freedom… That he decided that he was a butterfly. But when he woke up, he wasn't a butterfly. He was a human after all. Then the man thought… 'I wonder if I, The Man, dreamed that I was a butterfly… Or if this moment is truly the dream. Maybe the man I am now is a dream that a butterfly is having.'"
"Ah..." Ayame thought.
"The past is past, and even in the world of spirits, time cannot be turned back, and everything is a matter of perspective," Ancient Fairy explained. "So Yuuki Judai had a split personality of a mass-murderer. Yet, essentially he is a good man, no?"
"... true... yes," Ayame whispered.
"Instead of regretting what we cannot do, it is better to do what one can," the dragon explained. "Even for example, what you do has nothing to do with results, you must forge forward. Humans must think about living on. And, they must also understand death. Most importantly, they must learn to understand the truth."
As a breeze blew across once more, and like a veil of sleep had lifted into clarity, a great weight seemed to have lifted from us who have come to this strange dimension.