Greetings, everyone.

A lot has happened since I posted Colors of Madness chapter three- I mean, quite a lot. Boyfriends were met, new projects were started, restaurants were eaten at, chickens were raised, and Pokemon X and Y were released.

Also I got the offer to start this fanfic. This story is set in Backwater, and runs parallel with 7th Librarian's "Knightfall". It should be possible to figure out when each chapter of "Encounters" takes place in relation to that story through contextual clues. Encounters is, in many ways, a very personal fanfic for me. Naturally I still welcome your criticism.

Special thanks to 7th Librarian, for giving me permission to do this. Also to my beta-reader and best sister ever, Mika; and to my boyfriend whom I love.

All characters are property of nobody in particular because I don't hold an actual copyright, but I like them a lot and if you misuse them I will be cross at you for months and won't invite you to my birthday party. Kastleneid and all cast members of Knightfall were donated by 7th Librarian and the San Antonio zoo. No actual chimeras were harmed during the writing of this story, except for a very mean one that we mistook for a manticore during the redraft. It was, however, a Manticore of Darkness and simply came back to the field during the standby phase.

All homebrewed cards are open game unless contextually implied to be unique in some fashion. Hint hint.

This story has no connection to Burning Red.

Encounter 1

"First Sight"

Achan Seventh had a problem.

The problem wasn't the fact that he hadn't made much money that day at all, and what he had made he had mostly procured by tilting vending machines, leaving him with pockets full of quarters that weighed about six tons more than they really should. The problem wasn't the fact that his camp was kind of a shitty place to return home to, located as it was in the middle of a dense forest on the outskirts of Backwater. The problem wasn't that said forest happened to be filled with endangered magical species most humans didn't even know existed. The problem also wasn't fact that his 'camp' currently consisted of a rusted-out junker of a frame that might have passed for a D-Wheel at some point in the distant past, a tent made from sewn-together canvas, and a campfire circle minus enough wood for a decent fire.

No, the problem was the bear-sized, six-legged, crocodile-headed chimera sniffing around in the middle of the camp when he got back. The one that had lunged at him as soon as he had come home.

"Shitshitshitshit-"

The chimera's claws rent the air. Achan stumbled backward, barely avoiding the blow. The beast hissed, moving forward. All six of its eyes glared at him. The creature was vicious, massive, and covered from head to toe in thick, natural armor that protected it from both physical and magical assault. Achan was a scrawny kid clad in a blue hoodie who barely stood above five feet.

The chimera's advantage was obvious.

Achan crawled backward, not even bothering to get up from the ground, until he felt his back pinned against a tree. "shiiit-" he moaned. "Shit, shit-"

The lizard reared up on its hind legs, its four forelimbs extended outward and its maw wide open.

It lunged for him and he rolled to the side, barely avoiding it. It occurred to him that the monster was probably being slowed a bit by the unusually cold weather that evening. If it was moving at full speed, he would probably have been dead by now.

The thought spurred an instant reaction.

Survive.

Achan reached down, pulling up the left sleeve of his hoodie to reveal his forearm- wrapped in white strips of cloth. "Sorry, Devi. I know I promised you could sleep while we camped out but..."

The lizard charged again.

"I don't think you wanna die either."

Achan tugged and the cloth came away, revealing the intricate designs tattooed onto his arm. He lifted it just as the lizard was upon him. "Lock!"

The creature roared in shock as its movements were arrested in the air, a red halo of light drawing itself around the center of its body. Achan ran forward, putting a safe distance between himself and the monster before the creature pounded its prison multiple times, breaking it to pieces.

Of all the things, it had to be magic-resistant.

Achan lifted his arm again, waving it outward. "Invisible Stair!"

The air under his feet solidified as he moved, carrying him higher with each footstep. The creature lunged, but the barriers Achan created vanished as soon as his feet lifted from them, leaving it ground bound. The monster's roars continued, changing to almost pitiful whines as Achan settled a comfortable distance away from it- apparently it didn't want to climb the nearby trees. With a sigh of relief, Achan sat, a barrier instantly forming beneath him and allowing him to dangle his legs off into thin air. "Sorry 'bout that, Devi."

A murky shape, only visible to him, materialized. [And once again, I bail you out. Tell me, did you really need my help for seals that basic?]

"I'm almost there! I can do 'invisible stair' and the rest of the cantrips just fine by now!" Achan defended himself. "I just needed a little extra-"

[Rest easy. You have been working hard, I do not hold it against you. And had we died there, it would have-] "Devi" turned his entire body- small enough that even in his indistinct state it was obvious he wasn't much bigger than Achan's head- [Achan. Correct me if I am wrong, but is that chimera wagging its tail?]

Achan looked down. The lizard monster's pitiful whines continued as it did, indeed, wag its scaly tail and look up at him, all six eyes aglow with desire. It stood on its hindmost legs, the other four paddling the air as it attempted to find some way to climb up to him. Almost as if it were-

That was when he caught sight of the collar. It had been patterned to match the chimera's skin, so even if the thing had not possessed such distracting features as six eyes, six legs, and a pair of vestigial bat-like wings it would have been hard to notice. "...That thing is a pet," Achan muttered to Devi. "Somebody was trying to breed a guard chimera or something, screwed up, and let it loose out here. It's a freakin' Labrador."

Devi chuckled. [Castoffs certainly gravitate to you.]

Achan smiled, playfully punching at the misty form of his partner. "Guess that explains you, doesn't it?"

[Revision. Castoffs gravitate to me.]

Ignoring Devi's parting shot, Achan began to descend, his barrier stairway rebuilding itself as he climbed down. He opened his arms wide to the lizard monster. "Hey, big guy. You just wanted to play?"

In response the chimera leaped on Achan, pinned him to the ground, opened up its cavernous jaws and-

-playfully began licking him with a surprisingly warm forked tongue. Achan found himself giggling involuntarily. "H-hey, quit it!" He reached up, trying to keep the monster's tongue from pulling his matted red hair away from where it fell over his right eye. "That's-"

The monster fell off of Achan and let out a bloodcurdling yelp.

Achan scrambled to his feet, his hood falling away and exposing slightly spiky red hair and bangs combed to cover up his right eye. "Hey, what the hell-"

The monster was currently trapped underneath a girl who was just a bit taller than Achan. He stared at her in a mixture of awe and shock. Her movements had taken him completely by surprise. One moment she hadn't been there, and the next she had leaped down on the monster he'd befriended.

She was like an animal. A beautiful, feral animal.

In a minute he had drunk her appearance in. Her clothing was ornate and obviously hand picked for her. A dark blue dress coat of some kind, trimmed in gold, hid her body from her chest down to her knees, and beneath that he caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a cloth catsuit of some kind- designed for function over form, allowing for ease of movement without clinging too tightly to the body and accentuating her features. Her skin was pale- too pale for a human. Her body had developed- quite a bit, in fact. The face of a younger girl, a body that couldn't decide if it was that or a woman's yet. He needed some kind of phrase to describe her, some-

[Frozen in adolescence,] Devi suggested.

"That," Achan murmured, half-enthralled. The girl had raised her hand, her snow-white hair giving off a pale shine in the moonlight, and-

[That blow is meant to kill.]

Achan leaped forward as soon as his partner's words entered his mind. His right arm extended, and the girl's hand was arrested in mid-air by a red halo that bound it in place. She turned, her the expression on her face a mixture of surprise and frustration. "...Why and how have you bound me?" she asked. Her voice seemed strange to Achan- her accent was pronounced, probably Slavic. More than that, it was the tone of the question. Frustration ran through it, but so did curiosity. She was genuinely interested in hearing his answer.

"He's safe," Achan answered, pointing to the monster. "He's-"

He took a closer look. He had been wondering why his new friend hadn't thrown the girl off.

Now he knew.

The ice crystals had not been there a moment ago, but they were now. And they pinned the chimera's legs and tail to the ground as effectively as the girl's hand was arrested by Achan's binding. The monster whimpered as more ice grew up, threatening to encase its head. "I told you, stop!" Achan shouted, starting to panic. "He's harmless! He was just playing with me!"

"I must feed," the girl said, making no effort to interrupt the flow of her magic. "I am sorry but I must feed. And he is the only non-human creature I have encountered today."

[Vampire], Devi surmised, observing her. [And probably something else before she became that. I am not sure what.]

Achan looked at the chimera, then up at the girl. Then he made his decision. He raised his left hand into the air and clenched his fist. A sound like shattering glass rang out as a seal broke, and a silver-plated shield appeared on his right arm. With a whirring sound the "shield's" outer rim split away into five separate pieces. A deck and graveyard slot opened. Achan reached down to his belt and, almost reverently, removed a deck and inserted it into the duel disk's slot. "Devi-"

[Understood. Remember, I won't be able to help you directly in there until you draw my vessel. You're on your own.]

Achan nodded. "Right."

The murky shape of Devi began to coalesce, its features growing more defined. [By my title as Count, I invoke the rite of the Shadow Game!]

Two circles, one within the other, carved themselves onto the ground and caged Achan and the girl within them. Runes traced themselves between the two circles as the world outside the boundary, chimera included, faded away into darkness. The girl blinked in surprise as a duel disk of her own materialized on her left arm. "This is surprising." she announced, taking in her new surroundings. "Moder informs me that the Rare Hunters were disbanded and that for the most part, only minions of darkness possessed such powers. But Mama says that I have a rare instinct for spotting intent. I do not sense dark intent from you."

"I don't belong to anyone like that."

Achan's voice was harsh. A far cry from his earlier tone. "I am me. My name is Achan Seventh, and I won't let you hurt something that can't help what it is!"

The girl stiffened. "...I am Kastleneid. I, too, cannot help what I am'." She tilted her head to the side. "Why do you wish to hurt me?"

Achan shook his head. "I don't. This Shadow Game isn't on the same level of a Duel of Darkness. It's more like a second cousin." He scratched the back of his head. "Um... to put it bluntly, all I did was lock us in a room that won't open until we finish dueling. The loser is traditionally subjected to a penalty decided on by the winner but... my penalty will be 'nothing'."

"I... see." Kastleneid steeled herself. "...then my penalty will be-"

"Nothing?"

"Blood."

Achan blinked. "...Or that."

"I do not hunt humans. But if I do not feed soon, I run the risk of losing control later. If I drink tonight, I will be able to stop myself from taking too much. Therefore, If I win, I ask that you allow me to feed." Kastleneid lifted her duel disk. "...That is all."

"I understand." Achan lifted his own duel disk. "I'm not a vampire, but I wouldn't want to go hungry either if it meant I'd start eating people."

Both combatants looked each other in the eye. And then, as if in unspoken agreement, their voices rang out. "Duel!"

"I know it's supposed to be 'ladies first', but in a Shadow Game it's traditional for the initiator to take the first move," Achan declared. "Draw!" After surveying his hand, he selected a card. "I summon Vagabond Hero Jill, in attack position." A tall, dark-haired woman clad in a tattered cloak and wide-brimmed hat materialized in front of Achan, two prominent scars running down the sides of her face. Throwing aside her cloak to reveal the piecemeal uniform beneath, she drew a rapier and mock-saluted Kastleneid, glaring at her. (1800/1200)

Achan continued. "Vagabond Hero Jill's effect lets me lower her attack points by five hundred until my next Standby Phase. And when her attack points are lower than her original attack points, once per turn I can negate her destruction by battle or card effect." He raised out a hand. "I'll use the effect that lowers her attack now! Battle scars!" Jill sheathed her rapier with a grimace, pulling her tattered cloak tight around her body once more. (1300/1200)

Achan slid a card into his duel disk. "I'll set this, and that's it for my turn."

Kastleneid looked at the monster. "...it can't be destroyed. I see. Draw." She fumbled with the cards in her hand, looking through them one by one.

"Bad hand?" Achan asked sympathetically.

"...No. It is satisfactory." Kastleneid lifted a card and placed it on her duel disk. "I will summon Rose Veiler, in attack position." A large, red rose burst from the ground in front of Kastleneid, its petals unfurling to reveal a beautiful, androgynous figure with long red hair inside. (1200/0) "Then, I will activate Rose Veiler's effect. By tributing it, I can special summon two level four plant-type monsters from my hand." Kastleneid nodded to her monster as the flower it had emerged from closed up around it and burst, creating a whirlwind of scarlet petals. "Rose scatter."

Achan clenched his teeth. "...uh-oh-"

"The monsters I summon will be... Botanical Lion in attack position, and Sunflower Emissary." As Kastleneid carefully placed each card on the disk her monsters appeared- first a fierce-looking lion whose body was made from wood and whose mane consisted of flower petals (1600/2000), and then a young girl dressed in yellow whose green hair was interwoven with sunflowers (0/2000).

Achan grimaced, but didn't touch his set card.

"Botanical Lion gains 300 attack points for each plant type on my field. There are two." Kastleneid pointed at Achan's battle-scarred hero. "Battle. Lion attacks Jill. Timber Crush." With a roar, the wooden lion leaped at Jill, flowers blooming from its body as it lunged. (1600 + 300 + 300 = 2200 Atk) (2200 vs. 1300)

Jill raised her rapier, catching Botanical Lion's fangs just as they would have ground her head into a pulp and forcing him back with a grunt. "Jill's effect will save her from being destroyed by battle," Achan grimaced as the life point counter on his duel disk fell. "But I still take the damage." (8000 – 900 = 7100 LP)

"I set one card, and end my turn." Kastleneid lifted Sunflower Emissary from her duel disk. "And during my end phase, Sunflower Emissary may be tributed in order to summon Marina, Princess of Sunflowers from my hand-"

As the young girl dissolved into a spray of golden petals that began to drift upward, an imposing female figure's silhouette appearing between them, Achan grinned. "Gotcha! Trap card, Time Slip!"

Just as Marina's form solidified, the figure dissolved into mist. Kastleneid frowned as her duel disk began rejecting the card, beeping until she had removed it from the monster card zone. Achan smiled. "I don't have anything to deal with a monster that big now, but that won't matter if it's not around. Time Slip sends a monster two turns into the future, removing it from play until your second standby phase after I activated it. That leaves you with one monster, one card in your hand, and one set. Not a lot left for me to break through."

Kastleneid let out a small "ah" as she looked at her field. It was true- tributing two monsters in a row had left her with a much smaller field and hand presence than Achan, even if her monster was more powerful. Botanical Lion growled as some of the flowers on its body began to wilt without the presence of another plant-type monster to draw on. (2200- 300 = 1900 Atk)

"Time Slip has a second effect." Achan surveyed his hand, selecting a copy of Blackwing, Bora the Spear and slipping it into his graveyard slot. "After it resolves, I can send a card from my hand to the graveyard to draw one card from my deck. And then we're back to my turn, so draw! And during my standby phase, Jill's attack points return to normal!" Jill stood up, throwing back her cloak and drawing her rapier once more. (1800/1200)Achan twirled his next card on his fingertip – a miracle of physics made possible only by a pair of well-directed barriers keeping it in place- before allowing it to fall onto his monster card zone. "I summon Jain, Lightsworn Paladin!"

The monster who took shape beside Jill was a far cry from Achan's tattered warrior- he was a proud and noble knight, clad in silver armor with a red-trimmed cape. (1800/1200). "Let's do this," Achan pointed at Botanical Lion, who still stood between him and Kastleneid. "Jain, attack Botanical Lion! Shining Slash!" With a battle cry, the knight lunged into the air and bringing his broadsword down upon Botanical Lion with a massive overhand slash.

"That monster is weaker than..." Kastleneid stepped back as Jain's blade slashed Botanical Lion neatly in half, her monster exploding as Jain leapt back to Achan's field. "What?" (8000 – 200 = 7800 LP)

"When Jain attacks a monster, he gets three hundred attack points for that battle." Achan nodded to Jill, who brandished her rapier. "Next, my Vagabond Hero will attack your life points directly!" Jill lunged forward at Achan's command, her rapier aimed at Kastleneid's heart. "Brilliant Point!"

Kastleneid stumbled backward as the attack approached, and flinched. Her hand hesitated as she reached out to her duel disk. "Defense Draw negates the battle's damage-"

A wall of ice sprang up, and Jill cursed wordlessly as she was forced to retreat to avoid it. The ice shattered into crystals. "And as its secondary effect, I draw one card."

Achan selected a card from his hand and set it. "During my end phase, Jain's effect forces me to send the top two cards of my deck to the graveyard." He winced as he looked at the identity of each card- both Quick-Attack Scarecrow and Shock Draw would have been useful.

Kastleneid reached for her deck. "I draw-"

"This is your first duel, isn't it?"

Kastleneid hesitated, her fingertips already touching her card. "What?"

"This duel." Achan looked at her closely. "You've got a really powerful deck, but you seem unsure of every move- it takes you a minute to map them out. You tributed your cards recklessly without any real plan in mind beyond summoning the powerful monster in your hand. You keep handling your cards like they're fragile." He smiled at her, warmly. "No offense but it's easy to tell you aren't used to dueling like this. You probably just learned the game a little while ago, didn't you?"

"...it is not my first time playing." Kastleneid averted her eyes from Achan. "Mama and Moder... they have coached me in each game since my 'rebirth'. But this is my first time playing alone since- since I got away from-"

Achan's face softened. "I know what it's like to be on the run." He smiled at her. "It's going to be okay though. This is a low-stakes game, right? I just wanted to distract you to let that puppy-dog-chimera-thing get away, and you just want to feed. Just relax and duel. You'll find a way to pull through."

Kastleneid's silver-white hair shimmered as she drew. "I am grateful for your sympathy. As well as your encouragement. However, Moder would be disappointed if my appreciation caused me to give any less than my all. Draw." A third card entered her hand, and despite her empty field Kastleneid was smiling. "I activate the spell card, Tempo Change. If the number of cards on your field and in your hand exceeds my own by three or more, I can pay three thousand life points. The second effect of my card will activate during this turn's end phase." (7800- 3000 = 4800 LP)

Achan whistled appreciatively. "Hey, I know that card. Not a bad move!"

"I summon Phoenixian Seed, in attack position." The ground in front of Kastleneid's feet broke as a large, orange-brown plant blossom broke through, its center opening to reveal a large eye. (800/0). "Then I'll tribute it to activate its monster effect. Come forth from my hand, Phoenixian Cluster Amaryllis!"

The seed bulb burst into flames, and Achan winced- of all the things, he had really been hoping that Kastleneid's lowered hand didn't have the resources to summon another plant-type of this size. Instead he was now staring down a large cluster of orange stalks, each tipped with a brilliant red flower. The largest flower, shaped like a bird's head, stared him down as flames licked around the plant's base. (2200/0)

Kastleneid, for the first time in the duel, smiled. "I see you have discovered I am no amateur. Battle. Amaryliss, attack... hm!" Kastleneid's eyes shone with recognition. "I see, you never lowered your monster's attack points. Very well- Amaryllis, attack Vagabond Hero Jill." The Phoenixian cluster's heads zeroed in on Achan's warrior, who let out a wordless curse as she crouched into a defensive stance- a moment too late. The Phoenix heads sprang open, pelting her with flaming seeds until she burnt away to nothing. "Phoenix Shower."

Achan stumbled back from the attack's shockwave, his life points decreasing. (7100 – 400 = 6800) "And that's not all," he realized. "When Amaryllis battles-"

"It will be destroyed. And when it is destroyed, you will take eight hundred points of damage." The cluster's flames finally wrapped around it, consuming it. With a last cry, the burning cluster exploded. Achan stumbled backwards, using his arms to shield himself from the damage. (6800 – 800 = 6000)

"I end my turn. And during my end phase, the effect of Tempo Change activates." Kastleneid reached for her deck. "I draw three cards. In addition, I activate the effect of Phoenixian Cluster Amaryllis- by banishing Phoenixian Seed from the graveyard, it will be special summoned back to the field in face-up defense position." The cluster burst from the ground once more, this time crouching. (2200/0)

"Not bad. You evened up our life points, then rebuilt your entire hand in one move." Achan smiled at Kastleneid again as she studied her new hand. "For your first uncoached duel, you're doing great!"

"Achan?"

Achan blinked. "Yeah?"

Kastleneid looked up from her cards. "Your surname is Seventh. Why is that?"

Achan's face set for a moment. "I never got to know the other six. They were failures, so they were destroyed before they could even begin to live."

"Failures..." Kastleneid turned the word over in her head. "I sensed something about you when we first met. You were thrown away by people who created you?"

"Heh. Actually, I just ran.." Achan's smile became noticeably more forced as he reached for his deck. "I did it because I was their first success." The forced smile returned to a more natural one in the next moment. "Either way, that has nothing to do with our duel, right? My turn, draw!" Achan added a fourth card to his hand, then surveyed the contents. "...Hmmm. Here we go-"

He stopped himself. He could attack with the cards he had in mind, but at the end of his turn, Marina would return to play, and Amaryllis would revive. That would leave him completely exposed, and tear his combo to pieces. That left one other option.

"I switch Jain to defense position, then set a monster on the field face-down and end my turn!" Achan declared. Jain knelt on one knee, glaring at the Cluster in front of him in frustration. (1800/1200)

Sorry, Jain, Achan thought to himself. I know you wanted to fight, but right now we need to hold off just a bit longer. "During my end phase, Jain's effect sends two cards from the top of my deck to the graveyard." Achan smiled as he saw the two, then slipped Shield Crush and Quillbolt Hedgehog into his graveyard.

Kastleneid studied him intently as he finished his turn, then nodded. "I see. That is why your deck seems familiar."

Achan looked up. "Eh?"

"Your cards. I have not played long, but I could not understand the strategy you were using at all. I thought this was simply my inexperience. However, I believe I see it now. You do not have a proper deck, correct? This one is built primarily from packs meant to teach young duelists how to play. That is why your monsters are all useful, but do not form a cohesive whole. It is not unlike the cards my mothers taught me to play with."

Achan winced. "...Eh, got it in one."

"Are you then new to the game as well?" Kastleneid asked as she drew.

"I've been a duelist my entire life." Achan smiled, reminiscing. "But my monsters all came from bargain packs and cards people didn't want anymore. I can't afford more powerful cards, so I gave them a home."

"I see. In that case, I shall view your deck as a handicap." Kastleneid raised an arm into the air as yellow petals began to appear in the air around her. "During my standby phase, the card you banished using Time Slip returns to me. Marina, Princess of Sunflowers is summoned in attack position." The yellow petals joined together, forming a massive sunflower. From its center a beautiful woman wearing a sunflower-adorned headdress rose, her petal-like hair draping down to her back. (2800/1600). "I move Phoenixian Cluster Amaryllis into attack position." Kastleneid's monster sprang to attention, staring down Achan's field. (2200/0). "Then I will summon Lonefire Blossom."

Achan gulped. "Oh."

The ground beside Amaryllis burst open, revealing a frail of a plant which, nonetheless, seemed more than capable of withstanding the flames burning at its base. (500/1400) "By tributing Lonefire Blossom, I special summon a plant type monster from my deck." Almost as soon as it had sprouted, Kastleneid's monster burst into flames and faded away. "I will choose Talaya, Princess of Cherry Blossoms in attack position." From the ashes of Lonefire Blossom, a massive pink-petaled cherry blossom appeared, opening to reveal a regal woman in a violet kimono. Both plant princesses stared down at Achan, who shrunk back a bit. (2800/1200)

"Talaya gains one hundred extra attack points for each plant-type monster I control." (2800 + 300 = 3100) "In addition, plant-type monsters cannot be destroyed by card effects. And if a plant-type monster is destroyed by battle or effect, Marina will destroy one of your cards as retribution. And now..." Kastleneid closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. "Mama will be proud. I will finish you off this turn, with this card. I banish Emissary of Sunflowers in my graveyard to equip Mark of the Rose to your Jain!"

Achan's eyes widened- not just at Jain, who clawed at the burning rose-shape brand on his neck to no avail as its power compelled him to travel to Kastleneid's field, but also at Kastleneid herself. "Kastleneid- that's the first time you've spoken with that much emotion during this duel."

"I did?" Kastleneid blinked in surprise. "...I... I did. That is interesting. Abnormal for me."

"It shouldn't be." Achan shook his head. "I don't wanna tell you how to live your life, but it's the right of every duelist to be excited about a duel."

"Someone else has said similar things to me." Kastleneid smiled at Achan for the first time. "I like him. And I believe... yes." She switched Jain to attack position as she continued with her turn. "I believe I like you as well. You interrupted my feeding tonight, which was dangerous, but you did it to help- not even a friend. A stranger who you felt pity for. I am not opposed to forming a friendship with you."

Achan couldn't help blushing. "...That might actually be the sweetest thing anyone's said to me."

"I am quite pleased to hear that." Kastleneid's smile suddenly gained a mischievous edge. "However, do not expect me to show you mercy in this duel because of it. Jain, Lightsworn Paladin will attack your set monster. And when Jain attacks, it gains three hundred attack points. Shining Slash!"

Jain resisted the power of the Mark as much as he could, but it was to no avail. Achan braced himself as Jain leaped into the air, his shining sword gleaming as he brought down the blade-

-and was intercepted by the wings of Achan's defending monster, who repelled him with ease. "Nice try, but you won't finish me that easy. Shield Wing's effect keeps it from being destroyed by battle up to two times in a turn." Achan reached out, petting the head of the pterodactyl-like creature, who murred softly in approval. (0/900)

Jain seemed relieved that his attack hadn't hurt his comrade as he leaped back to standby position. Achan sighed in relief as well- only to notice Kastleneid's grin hadn't vanished. "That monster is face-up now, so the conditions for this card's activation are met. Quickplay spell, Rose Barrage!"

Shield Wing screamed in pain as a veritable tornado of red petals struck him, heavily scarring his body. Achan raised his arms to shield himself as well as the petals skirted straight past Shield Wing and began to strike him directly. "Rose Barrage negates the effect of one face-up monster, and deals eight hundred points of damage to its controller!" Kastleneid explained. (LP 6000 – 800 = 5200). "Next, Phoenixian Cluster Amaryllis will attack Shield Wing. Phoenix Shower!" Once more Amaryllis screeched as it released a hailstorm of flaming seeds, shattering Achan's monster. "And by Amarlyllis's effect, it is destroyed after that battle. And because it was destroyed, you take eight hundred points of damage!"

The flaming flowers attempted to burn to pieces, but a wave of mist washed over them, healing their stalks. Kastleneid's expression changed to one of confusion. "How?"

"Ehe." Achan pointed to Talaya, who snapped shut her fan and bowed. "It's Talaya's effect. While she's on the field, other plant-type monsters can't be destroyed by card effects- either player's card effects."

"I see." Kastleneid's confusion vanished, and her grin returned. "I apologize. It appears I was not experienced enough to read that interaction. Though I am afraid that will not change the result of this duel."

"I wouldn't count on that." Achan tapped his duel disk. "I activate the effect of my set card, Devil Pipes! By this spell card's effect, I'll search my deck for a Devil Kuriboh and add it to my hand." Achan's deck automatically shuffled itself, spitting out the required card. He held it up just long enough for Kastleneid to see that the art was identical to the garden-variety Kuriboh, sans the addition of bat-like wings.

"Simply adding a monster card to your hand will not save you." Kastleneid nodded to her monsters. "My flower princesses have yet to attack. First, Marina- attack Achan directly, with Morning Sunburst!" Marina rose up from the center of her sunflower blossom, clapping her hands together. A large, red ball of flame gathered above her head before swooping down toward Achan, who brought his duel disk up to block. The fireball exploded as soon as it hit, sending him stumbling backwards several steps until his back hit the boundary of the Shadow Game's circle. (5200- 2800 = 2600)

Talaya opened her fan as Kastleneid pointed at Achan. "Sorry, but this is 'game over'. Talaya, finish this duel! Dance of Spring!"

Talaya waved the fan outward, and a a tornado filled with cherry blossoms hurtled toward Achan. He smiled, reaching for a card in his hand. "Not bad for your first time, Kastle. But remember-"

" 'Kastle'?" Kastleneid tilted her head slightly, surprised by the use of the nickname.

"You're still a new player!" Achan slipped the card into his graveyard slot. "Devil Kuriboh's monster effect activates. Come on, partner, let's show her what we've got!"

Just as the attack was about to impact Achan, the Kuriboh he had searched for earlier appeared, folding its bat-like wings in to catch the brunt of Talaya's attack. As the flower petals dispersed, a white aura appeared around its body. [And once again, it falls to me to save you. You'd be dead by now if I weren't around.]

"And you wouldn't want it any other way, Devi." Turning his attention away from his monster, Achan stared down Kastleneid. "Devil Kuriboh works a bit differently than the Kuriboh family you're used to. First, its effect reduces battle damage from an attack to zero. But afterward? That's when things get interesting." The white aura surrounding Devi began to pulse, and the brown puffball's bat wings- originally almost vestigial- expanded until they dwarfed its entire body. "Now we both take effect damage equal to half the battle damage I would have received. And since I would have taken three thousand points of damage..."

"Both of us will receive one thousand five hundred points of damage from the effect." Kastleneid stepped back. "But that means-"

"That means I'll be barely hanging on. But more importantly, you're going to have thirty-three hundred life points left. And trust me- next turn that's going to make a big difference. Devi, do it!" Achan clenched his right hand into a fist, thrusting it outward. "Seal Impact!"

Devi's wings burned with light as he flapped them once, releasing a shockwave of white energy. Achan and Kastleneid were both forced back several steps as the impact struck. (2600 – 1500 = 1100 LP) (4800 – 1500 = 3300)

Kastleneid recovered first. "A move that cripples your own life points but saves you from defeat." Her smile returned. "I have only dueled a few people so far. But you are different from all of them." She sighed, nodding to Jain. "During the end phase, Mark of the Rose returns the equipped monster to your control." Achan's paladin leaped back to his side of the field, angrily scratching at the brand on his neck.

"I appreciate that endorsement." Achan stood as well, having been thrown onto his back by Devi's release of energy. "Incidentally, I know it's bad form to correct a new player, but you made one mistake there, Kastle."

"Kastle. I... hmm. Yes, I like this nickname." Kastleneid tilted her head to the side again. "I admit, I have only played this game a short time, but I could not find any flaws in my strategy last turn. Why do you say I had them?"

"You forgot Marina's effect," Achan explained. "If you had thought things through you could have summoned a different flower princess than Talaya and used Marina's effect when Amaryllis was destroyed to destroy my face-up Shield Wing. Then you could have attacked directly with all three of your face-up monsters to win the duel. But now even though you've devastated my life points, I can take you out with one blow. It's my turn." He closed his eyes, resting his fingers lightly on the top card of his deck. One more card, that's all I need...

"Draw!"

Achan's face lit up at the sight of his draw. "Alright, this is it! First things first." He placed a monster on his duel disk. "I summon Junk Synchron!" A squat, orange-clothed figure appeared beside Jain, glaring across the field at Kastleneid's monsters . (1300/500). "By his effect, I can summon a level two or lower monster from the graveyard. Come on, Devil Kuriboh!" Devi's card emerged from the graveyard slot, and Achan placed him on the duel disk next to Jain as well.

[I see you intend to finish this in style.] Devi noted as he settled down next to the Lightsworn. (300/100). [I am sure Jain will approve of this move.]

"Won't he though," Achan whispered to Devi, nodding in approval. He tapped his duel disk again. "Junk Synchron is a tuner monster, so I'll activate the effect of the Quillbolt Hedgehog in my graveyard, special summoning it to the field!" The sound of digging could be heard, and then an orange hedgehog emerged from the ground, large bolts replacing its quills. (800/0)

"Level one, level three tuner, level four, and level two... a level ten synchro summon? I do not know any monsters that could counter my field with that description," Kastleneid observed. Achan detected a note of nervousness in her voice as she did so.

"Well, the good news is I'm not going to synchro summon." Achan tapped his duel disk's extra deck slot and it opened, revealing that it was completely empty. "Kinda hard without synchro monsters. But with this, my field's filled up. And next, three spell cards that'll bring this game to a close!" Achan slipped the remaining three cards in his hand into his duel disk, one after another. "I activate United We Stand and Mage Power equipped to Jain, as well as Blustering Winds, designating Jain as the target!"

A golden aura shone around Jain as the paladin closed his eyes and began to rise into the air. Golden streams of light connected him to each of Achan's other monsters while rings of green energy flowed from the two face-up equip cards on his field to his sword. A windstorm kicked up as Jain's eyes snapped open, his sudden overwhelming presence causing Kastleneid's monsters to flinch back. Kastleneid looked up at Achan's suddenly empowered monster. "What is this...?"

"The effects of my spell cards." Achan grinned, throwing up his now-empty hands in a gesture of apology. "Sorry I had to pull this in your first solo duel, but my friends here would be pretty embarrassed if I lost to a first-timer. First, United We Stand gives Jain eight hundred attack points for each monster I control- that's four right now. Then Mage Power gives it five hundred attack points for each of my spell and trap cards- that's two. Then Blustering Winds raises the attack points of its target by one thousand until my next standby phase. Or in other words..."

"Your monster's total attack power is-" Kastleneid let out a small "-ah" as she worked out the exact number.

"Seven thousand!" Achan confirmed. (1800 + 3200 + 1000 + 1000 = 7000) Jain raised his blade, returning to earth as he prepared his final attack. "And since Jain gets a three hundred point attack boost when he battles an opponent's monster, that's more than enough attack points to finish you off... Jain, let's bring this duel to a close! Attack Marina, Princess of Sunflowers!" The aura which had surrounded Jain flowed into his sword, transforming it into a blade of light that towered over the battlefield. Marina stared back at it, filled with resolve. "Brave... BLADE!"

Kastleneid looked up at the attack as it rushed down toward her monster. "...I have lost..."

In the next moment the blade connected, and the entire battlefield was consumed in a blinding flash of light.

When it cleared, the two had been returned to Achan's camp in the center of the forest. Both were laid out flat on the ground. (LP 3300 – 4500 = 0)

With a pitiful whine, the chimera Achan had saved rushed to his side, frantically licking his face. "ahaha, it's okay, it's okay big guy! I'm fine, see?" Achan protested. The chimera pulled back, allowing him to get up. "You alright, Kastle?"

"I lost..." Kastleneid pulled herself to her feet, dusting off her coat. "And I am disappointed with that. However." A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. "However even my mothers have not made me that excited during a duel. I believe I finally understand what the term 'duelist spirit' means. For that, you have my thanks." She turned, preparing to leap away.

"Wait!" Achan grabbed Kastleneid's shoulder.

Reflexively she flipped him over her back and pinned him to the ground, pulling back one of her hands as if to deliver a killing blow. "Do not touch me there-" she hissed, before noticing her position. "...I... ah...I apologize, that is..."

Achan's hair had fallen away from his right eye, revealing the fact that its iris not only did not match the color of his left one but completely lacked a pupil. When he looked at her, he began to understand as, unbidden, his revealed eye began to take in new details about her. Traces of duel energy here. Aura there. Pathways and spells and more importantly-

"...It's okay. I understand why," he said, and he meant it.

Kastleneid moved back, allowing Achan to stand. "You wished for me to wait? I am afraid that if you are developing a crush on me of some kind, I must inform you that-"

[The possibilities of this occurring in the near future are distinct,] Devi taunted.

Achan resisted the urge to tell his better half where he could stuff his wings if he wanted to talk like that. "Not a crush. Not anything like that. You mentioned you needed to feed tonight, and even if it was to protect another castoff I did interrupt you. So..."

Achan removed his hooded sweatshirt, revealing a plain white T-shirt beneath. Long bandages covered his left arm, though his right arm- now unbound- was completely tattooed over with mysterious and arcane symbols. He reached up, pulling his shirt back from his neck. "Go ahead and feed on me."

Kastleneid blinked. "You are sure? I am newly turned. I focused on feeding on animals to prevent the risk of accidents. Are you quite certain this is what you want?"

"I trust you," Achan said, motioning to his neck.

"We have only just met," Kastleneid reminded him.

"We're both castoffs." Achan smiled at her. "Tools who rebelled against their purpose and found new life. At least... that's what I sense about you. And if we can't trust each other, who can we trust?"

Kastleneid thought it over and nodded. "You are a skilled duelist, but my mothers would call you naive. Even so, I appreciate your kindness." She stepped forward, gripping Achan's shoulders gently. "I apologize for the pain... my friend."

Then she sank her fangs into his neck.

Achan closed his eyes and counted backwards from a hundred twice in the pale moonlight. He was still counting when he passed out on his feet.

"You are awake."

Achan yawned and blinked as he stood up. The sun was not quite up, but it was obvious that night was close to ending. "Mornin'... Kastle?"

Kastleneid sat beside Achan, who she had covered with a blanket while he slept. "You became unconscious while I was feeding," she explained. "I was worried, so I stayed with you tonight to protect you." The six-legged chimera wandered over, nuzzling Achan. "He helped."

"Thanks Kastle. And thank you too, big guy." Achan scratched the chimera on the nose, which resulted in it wagging its meter-long tail with glee.

"I was worried I had taken too much from you," Kastleneid said as Achan pulled himself to his feet and disappeared into his tent, emerging after a few minutes in a fresh shirt and trousers. "That you would not make it. I should have taken you to a hospital, but I panicked..."

"It'll be fine. I'm not that flimsy." As Achan pulled his sweatshirt on once more, he tapped the markings on his right arm. "My body's... it's hard to explain, but it's not really a human one. I still feel pain and walk and talk and look human, but when it comes down to it I'm just a very good imitation. Case in point, no matter how much blood I lose whatever spells animate me will kick in and do the hard work of keeping me alive." He tapped the markings on his arm. "When I passed out it was probably them just temporarily turning my conscious thought off to get to work repairing the damage to my 'system'."

"...Thank goodness." Kastleneid looked at the rising sun. "...it is morning. My mothers will miss me if I stay. I should return home." She gave Achan a small bow. "Thank you for making this evening interesting."

"I could say the same thing to you," Achan replied, holding out a hand to her. "I don't get to meet people my age much, so it's nice to know there's someone around here I can talk to."

"...Likewise." Kastleneid accepted the handshake, and her smile grew again. "I often hunt in this forest. If you would like, I will visit you again. And perhaps sometime, you could visit me as well? I am sure my mothers would be interested in meeting you."

Achan nodded. "Yeah. That sounds good."

"In that case, goodbye until later, Achan Seventh. We will see each other again soon." Kastleneid tensed, and then leaped. In the next instant she was moving from tree to tree with blinding speed.

Achan watched her go, then returned his attention to the chimera, who was still wagging his tail. "You gonna stick with me a while longer, big guy?"

The chimera's response was to pounce on Achan and lick him again.

"Right, so that's a yes. Great, now I need to think of a name..."

-First Encounter: End-

Deck Profiling!

Achan's Deck: "Just Me and My Friends"

Somewhere in that thin line that separates Billy Deck from toolbox, Achan's frantic mish-mash of cards exists. Achan's duel disk was taken from the ADAM Project, as well as Devil Kuriboh and his support card, but the remainder of her cards are all pulled from various packs intended for Sealed Play. As a net result each of her monsters is individually useful in some way, but there's very little cohesion in the overall aims of her deck. Each turn is made frantic because of the vast array of decisions she has to make, and the odd mix of cards she has to string together to make them. This is complicated further by her lack of an extra deck, which prevents her from even toolboxing into a consistent base of Xyz or Synchro monsters. Achan isn't untalented, however, and as she acquires cards her deck takes on a more and more defined shape. Together with her monsters, she'll aim for the top.

...wait, her? She? What's going on here...?

Ace Card: Devil Kuriboh is Achan's ace card and partner for her first deck. Devil Kuriboh can be tutored using a quickplay spell, much like Winged Kuriboh and the garden-variety version, and possesses a more punishing version of Kuriboh's ability. Devil Kuriboh can only halve battle damage from incoming attacks, but used properly it can remove massive chunks of an opponent's life points and place them in a more vulnerable position during their next turn. Since Achan's deck often forces her to bet everything on a single, focused attack, Devil Kuriboh is a central card in her deck as well as being her partner. As a card outside her deck, it's dark-attribute and has several combination plays available as a result. It can be discarded with its effect to set up for Dark Armed Dragon, Dark Nephtys, or The Dark Creator, and it can also be recovered from the graveyard with Dark Eruption. Since it's level one, it can also be returned to the field with Junk Synchron, Limit Reverse, or Graceful Rebirth.

No seriously, what the hell is with these female pronouns?

Homebrew Card Listing

Vagabond Hero, Jill

EARTH/Warrior/Effect/4*

Atk 1800/Def 1200

During your turn before your battle phase, you can decrease this card's Atk by 500 until your next standby phase. When this card's Atk is lower than its original Atk, once per turn, when it would be destroyed by battle or a card effect you can negate that destruction.

Tempo Change

Normal Spell

When the total number of cards in your opponent's hand on on their field is three or more higher than the amount of cards on your field and in your hand (excluding tokens), you can pay 3000 life points to activate this card. During your end phase this turn, draw three cards.

Time Slip

Normal Trap

When your opponent summons a monster, you can activate this card. Send one card from your hand to the graveyard and then banish that monster, and if you do, draw a card. The banished monster is returned to the field during your opponent's second standby phase after this card's activation.

Devil Pipes

Quickplay Spell

Add 1 "Devil Kuriboh" in your deck to your hand.

Devil Kuriboh

DARK/Fiend/Effect/1*

Atk 300/Def 100

When you would receive battle damage, you can discard this card from your hand. Reduce that battle damage to 0, then deal damage to both players equal to half the damage you would have received.

Rose Veiler

WIND/Plant/Effect/3*

Atk 1200/Def 0

This card cannot be special summoned. When you summon this card, you can tribute it in order to special summon two level four Plant-type monsters from your hand. Those cards cannot be used for an Xyz or Synchro summon this turn.

Emissary of Sunflowers

FIRE/Plant/Effect/4*

Atk 0/Def 2000

During your turn's end phase, you can tribute this face-up monster in order to special summon "Marina, Princess of Sunflowers" from your hand.

Rose Barrage

Quickplay Spell

You can activate this card if you have a level seven or higher plant-type monster on your field. Negate the effect of a face-up monster and deal eight hundred life points of damage to that monster's controller.