Chapter 1: Intruder
A dull trickle filled the vast blackness beyond the boundaries of the universe where neither gods nor devils dwelled. It was the steady thunder of sand grains sifting through the hourglass of time. It was the noise which accompanied the forming of the worlds, the birth of civilisations and fall of empires. If one listened closely they could hear it in the chime of the tallest belfry as well as the ticking of the tiniest pocket watch.
Mercilessly the hands moved forward, driven by their little gears, drawing circle over circle around the clock face. Now the slimmest of them approached its larger brother and for a moment they met, before the slim one hurried on, leaving the other behind on the light green ground. For a blink the green disappeared, but it returned immediately, following the movements of its original on the other side of the glass. After the hand had passed a few seconds the eye blinked again.
Its owner was able to hear the flow of time. She had had more than enough of it to learn how to listen. She had stopped sighing long ago. It had been useless. Complaining didn’t change anything for her. That’s why she did nothing but lie on her hard bed and stare at the clock on the wall.
Aside from the bed and a little wardrobe it was the only thing filling the tiny room. There also was a window leading to a small yard which was planted with rose bushes. From time to time other students passed through it on their way to the next classroom or simply to spend their lunch break here.
Their merry laughter could be heard from the long corridors, though it was quickly drowned by the firm clacking of boots on stone. It was a ubiquitous sound at this place, resounding throughout the halls and stairways and even the classrooms when the teachers strode up and down in front of their students. It could be heard from the deepest vaults to the highest spires whose roofs glistened in the sunlight, sending a golden glow across the waves which engulfed the rocky island. That was the only thing which a watchful eye could see from the mainland.
Right now there was such a watchful eye. A torn black cape fluttered in the wind which blew over the roofs, tousling with a thatch of black and purplish hair.
He drew in a deep breath of the salty sea air and gazed grimly over to the island.
Finally… Finally he had come this far. Finally he could bring back the person who was most dear to him.
He felt as though the whole world was enveloped in it, a mocking contrast to the torn grey buildings around, the crooked street lights that lined the deserted road, as well as the scruffy figures who stood or squatted on the slanted remains of a car park.
They were less than twenty, all wearing dark, mostly ragged clothes. Here and there a red scarf shimmered beneath the cloaks. It was the sign they had given themselves. A sign for the blood that had been spilled already and for their will to survive, as Shun had put it.
But… survival was easier said than done. They all were aware of that.
They didn’t look at each other. He knew why. If they did, a terrible question popped up in their minds.
Will that person still be able to look at me tomorrow?
That question was followed by an even more terrible one.
Will I still be there to look at them?
They couldn’t fool themselves anymore. Some of them would disappear today. That was a fact. The only question left was… Who?
He wondered if he would ever be able to abandon asking himself these questions. Ruri had once said they would surely see Heartland the way it had been. It was a nice dream, but he couldn’t find the confidence to believe in it. Not the way it was today.
But… When he had looked into her face, he had still agreed. He hadn’t dared to be so cruel as to strip her of that delusion. She deserved whatever little piece of happiness came across her. In the meanwhile he would deal with the hard reality. With the gathering of food and water. With the fighting against academia. Whatever was necessary to survive.
Only those who survived could see a better future. A future without war. A future where people were free to laugh again, without having to fear for their lives.
Every creature has a will to live. When he grew up, he thought it was natural to think that way. Never had he imagined there could be people who didn’t understand that, who didn’t care about the lives of others.
They had attacked without provocation. They had killed without justification. Cold soldiers without the slightest willingness to talk. There had been a few people who tried, who wanted to negotiate with them, but… Well… None of them was ever seen again.
It hurt. Every comrade who disappeared hurt. Every face he knew he’d never see again left a little emptiness in his heart.
Their enemies on the other hand seemed to multiply with every week. As if there was an endless supply of soldiers they could send. Some said it was hopeless. That they couldn’t win. But… he believed if they started to think that way, they had lost already. Even if despair was the only thing that pushed them on, they would fight until the very end. And that was the reason they were here today.
He turned to the tall young man who approached him, his long blue coat wafting in the wind. His face was hidden beneath a military mask and the red scarf that was wrapped around his neck.
“What about the enemy?”
“Still no sign of them”, Yuto replied and took a deep breath. “It is quiet. Like always.”
The young man clenched his fist as he gazed down into the streets. “Damn. Where are they? They should’ve been here five minutes ago.”
“Don’t get so worked up, Shun. They’ll come.”
Shun sighed. “I don’t think I can be a leader like Kaito. He could keep his calm, even when something went wrong.”
Yuto allowed himself a weak smile.
He and Shun had been friends for as long as he was able to remember. They had done all kinds of things together, even before the war had forced them to. Even before their parents had been killed in the firestorm that had ravaged this city which they had called home and turned it into the drear wasteland it was today. Since then Shun and his little sister had taken him in. They had been his family in a world that was falling apart.
At least… until that day one month ago that had changed everything.
He felt a stab in his heart whenever Ruri’s smiling face flashed before his eyes. If only… If only he had been there in time. If only he had been able to protect her.
“Don’t blame yourself.”
Yuto started a little. Sometimes it was unsettling how well Shun could read his expression.
“It’s not your fault.”
“I… I know, but…”
“We’ll get her back”, Shun said firmly. “Even if we have to send every one of these bastards to hell to do it.”
“Yes. Yes, you’re right.”
Ruri… She was more than a friend to him. Maybe even more than a sister. Yes. If there was one thing that was certain in this messed up world, it was the fact that he’d see her again.
“Hey! Do you hear that?” Allen asked and Yuto felt how a sudden tension seized all of them.
And then he heard it, the distant roar of motors as well as the heavy pound of metallic feet that hit the road.
“Alright, everyone”, Shun said loudly. “You know the plan. Let’s make them pay for having set a foot in our city!”
The others agreed firmly and then everyone crouched down so the roof would shield them from their enemies’ gaze. Yuto silently counted the seconds. Before he reached twenty, the noise had approached far enough he dared to risk a look.
Below, flanked by a pack of mechanical hounds, drove a convoy of jeeps, each crammed with four or five soldiers. Some of them wore the blue uniform of the elite, but more wore the red or yellow of the lower ranks.
He could feel anger boiling up inside him. Anger at their presence here, anger at what they had done, at the countless people they had carded.
There wasn’t a way to end this conflict peacefully. He had realised that long ago. They didn’t spare anyone they found, neither man nor woman nor child. This war would not end before one side was entirely wiped out.
“And now attack!” Shun shouted as he straightened up. “Make them pay for our friends and families!”
Yuto let the grimness seep into his heart before he leapt over the edge. And once again the serenity before the storm was replaced by the madness of the battlefield.
He couldn’t remember how often he had felt it since that day, how often he had felt the mixture of dust and ashes burning in his eyes. It was a perpetual companion whose presence he had gotten used to. Even here, at this place that was farther away from his old home than any other he had been before, it was still by his side, embracing him like an old, but bitter friend.
“Antique Gear Hound Dog! Hit him with 600 points of damage! Hound Flame!”
Yuto leapt out of the way before the fire blast could hit him. Nevertheless he could feel the searing heat on his skin.
“Dark Rebellion Xyz Dragon! Counter attack! Lightning Disobey of the Rebellion!”
His black dragon let out a roar, thrust its fangs into the ground and flapped its wings, leaving a deep rift in the ground as it tore apart the hound. The soldier across him jumped back and flinched angrily. Still, Yuto didn’t have time to relax because a barrage of bullets zipped by and he ducked behind a piece of debris.
“You sure are skilled”, one of the three soldiers said with a wide grin. “But you should’ve surrendered when you still had the chance. I tribute two Antique Gear Soldiers and Advance Summon the mighty Antique Gear Golem.”
Yuto looked up as the ground began to shake and a giant of steel arose above him. Its eyes began to glow and they wandered around until they locked on him. The giant brought up its mechanical hands, interlacing them above his head. For a moment Yuto felt as though time was standing still. Then it brought down its fists, smashing Dark Rebellion into the ground. He leapt aside in time but was nevertheless enveloped by a cloud of dust and noticed the next attack too late.
The giant’s punch hit the ground in front of him and sent him crashing into a wall. Hot pain flooded through his body and when he coughed he felt the taste of blood in his mouth. Blinking away the tears in his eyes, he squinted up at the soldiers who approached him from all sides, triumphant smiles written all over their faces.
“And now for the final blow!” The golem raised its fist, ready to crush Yuto. He tried to move, but his body didn’t respond.
Was this it? Was it his turn to disappear now? Shun would surely be angry at him. And Ruri… He wished he could’ve seen her one last time.
“I am sorry”, he muttered, closed his eyes and prepared for the inevitable.
“Moonlight Blue Cat!”
The giant’s fist struck the ground, making stone and concrete fly in all directions and raised a huge cloud of dust.
Yuto opened his eyes, surprised that he was still able to, and gasped when his gaze fell on a feline face, covered entirely with light blue fur. One of the eyes was hidden beneath a golden, crescent-shaped mask. Then he noticed the strong arms that had grabbed him, pressing him tightly against a female-looking chest. Behind he heard angry shouts, but they faded quickly as the blue feline carried him away with wide leaps.
When she finally set him down again, his legs gave way beneath him and he slumped to the ground. Worried, he noticed the red stain that was spreading on his shirt.
“That’s all”, a foreign voice said.
The feline bowed her head and disappeared in a shower of sparks.
“Now to you”, the voice said again. It sounded cold and sharp and Yuto could hear a hint of hostility in it.
Darkness crept at the edge of his vision as his eyes darted around, trying to make out the owner of that voice. At last he heard footsteps and saw a figure approaching him, a girl as far as he could tell.
“Who… Who are you?” he rasped, a streak of pain blazing through his chest and making him choke.
She opened her mouth to answer, but then she hesitated, her eyes widening a little as she looked down at him.
“Who… Who…” Yuto tried again, but her face began to blur and he heard a faint ringing in his ears. Then his head sagged to the side and everything went black.
Damn! Damn Damn Damn! This was not how she had planned this out.
Xyz… Everything about him screamed out that word. From the shape of his duel disk to the dirty, tattered clothing he wore. She had been so excited the moment she saw him, being cornered by the guards. Finally her patience had paid off. Finally she had received a chance, a chance she must not waste.
But if she really wanted to prove herself, she had to fight him alone without any of the other soldiers. Then, if she handed him over to the professor, he would have no choice but to admit she was ready.
At least that was what she thought. This, however, was not what she had expected. First of all he was much younger than she had imagined, maybe fourteen of fifteen years old. Second, he was injured. There was a large red stain on his chest, his ribs had suffered a heavy blow and he was covered over and over with little scratches and bruises. He wasn’t even able to stand. A fight against someone in this condition would hardly serve to prove her strength.
So, what was she supposed to do? Should she let him go? No. This was a unique chance. The only chance she would get.
Suddenly an idea struck her. She could simply card him without a duel and tell everyone she defeated him in a fierce battle, right?
Her finger wandered to the button on her duel disk. It was so easy. Just one twitch of her finger and she’d be free to escape this boring cage and join the world of battle and glory she was craving for. Just one twitch…
After a while she sighed and lowered her hand. It simply didn’t feel right. She wanted to prove herself with this, wanted to prove her skill. Even if everyone else would believe her, she would still know it had been a lie. No. Only with an honest fight she’d be able to prove herself.
Her eyes wandered down to his messy, black hair, the battered cape of the same colour that was covering him like a burial shroud, his soot-stained, exhausted-looking face.
That meant she would have to make sure he didn’t die right away.
“Yes, professor. An Xyz. Apparently he reached the island as a stowaway on one of the supply ships. The squadron which discovered him managed to wound him, but he suddenly disappeared and we haven’t been able to find him.”
The man known as the professor leaned back in his arm chair and gazed up at the ceiling. “I see. If he’s an Xyz, he’s probably after one of the pieces. Increase the guards at the towers. And take a few squadrons to search the island. I want you to find this intruder.”
He wasn’t disturbed by the hardness in the professor’s voice. Even before he had come to academia, he had been a soldier for a long time. He had fought countless battles and served under many different commanders, but all of them had one thing in common. A voice which was used to giving orders.
The professor gave him an inquiring look. “Is there anything else, Barrett?”
“Umm… Yes, Sir”, he answered. “The soldiers believe the intruder has received help from inside. They say someone from academia has betrayed us and helped him to escape.”
The professor nodded slowly. “We’ve had a few runaway students lately. It is not unreasonable to assume that. Or… do you have a concrete suspicion already?”
This was the moment Barrett hadn’t prepared for. Should he tell the professor that Serena had been absent shortly after the alert and risk he would lock her away again? Or should he investigate this himself and try to convince her should it really be her who was behind this?
It wasn’t like he had started to like that girl, but he thought he had found a congenial spirit in her.
She had the courage, the determination as well as the discipline necessary to become a soldier. And she wanted to prove herself as badly as he had when he was younger.
“No, Sir. I haven’t”, he said. “I just wanted to know what was to happen with them should we be able to confirm it.”
“The same as what happens to the other runaways”, the professor said and turned around. The light of the Arc-V reactor sent a deep green shimmer over his face. “If they are willing to come back, bring them back. Otherwise…” He turned his head and gave Barrett a last glance over his shoulder. “…you know what to do.”
Chapter 2: A Day of Terror
When Yuto opened his eyes, he blinked confused at the contours before him. There was a ceiling he didn’t recognise. It was greyish, but without the cracks and holes that most buildings in Heartland showed nowadays. Beneath him was a thin mattress, not much softer than the ground would have been. When he turned his head he could also see an unsteady shelf, an old chair and a small table, all in the dim light of a tiny window in the upper quarter of the wall. On the table were a small bottle and a spool of bandages.
Yuto considered the room for a while, but nothing felt familiar to him. He pulled away the blanket that was spread over him and attempted to get up, when a searing wave of pain surged through his chest. A little groan escaped his lips and he sank back onto the mattress.
More carefully he craned his neck to look at his chest. His shirt was unbuttoned and he saw the white of a bandage shimmer beneath it.
Memories began to rise to the surface. He remembered fighting against academia soldiers. He remembered being knocked into a wall and then… A blue cat? No. That couldn’t be right. Or… had he been dreaming?
“I see you’re awake.”
He darted around, only to be once again struck with pain.
“Hey, hey. I just stitched you up, so don’t move already.”
Yuto clenched his teeth and forced himself to calm down, before he took a look at the girl.
She didn’t have blue fur, but a sway of indigo blue hair fell down her shoulders, held together in a ponytail by a yellow ribbon. But more striking was…
“Is something wrong?” she asked, piercing him with her light green eyes.
“You are not Ruri… right?” he said after a moment.
She raised a brow. It was strange to see such a familiar expression on a face which looked so much like that of his friend. And yet… Her eyes were totally different. Harder and without that kind gentleness which always managed to mesmerise him.
“My name’s Serena. I’m the one who brought you here.”
Yuto rested his head back on the mattress and sighed. “I’m sorry. You just look a lot like her.”
Ruri… He wondered how she was doing right now. Judging from how academia treated everyone else, probably not too well. And at a time like this he had to be confined to this bed.
“Funny you say that”, Serena muttered as she read something on the back of the small bottle. “There’s a student here who looks like you as well.”
Yuto suddenly felt very cold. His eyes flicked to the door through which the girl had entered. Beyond it there was another table. A shield-shaped duel disk was laid on top of it, next to a familiar red jacket. The jacket of an academia uniform.
Instinctively Yuto reached next to the mattress, but his fingers only met hard stone.
“Do not bother. I’ve taken care of your disk.”
“Does that mean you’re from academia?” he asked grimly and tried to back away, though it made him gasp in pain.
“Then… Then why did you save me? We are enemies!”
She glanced at him and her eyes were cold and without a hint of sympathy. “Indeed, we are. And I didn’t save you out of generosity.” She opened the bottle and poured some of the liquid into a small mug. “Here. Drink this.”
She offered him the mug, but Yuto slapped it out of her hand, sending it clattering against the wall.
“Why should I accept anything you offer me?! After what you and your people did to us?!”
The girl still looked at him without showing any sign of surprise of anger. Or any other emotion.
“You won’t be of use to me if you die. That’s why I’m keeping you alive. If you don’t want that, I can simply card you here and now. So? What will it be?”
Yuto held her gaze for several seconds. She wasn’t threatening him, he realised. She was simply offering him a choice. That was more than most academia scum did. And yet… He didn’t know anything about her, let alone what she was up to.
“It doesn’t matter what we have to do. All that does matters is that we survive. All of us.”
“You’ll stay with us, right, Yuto?”
Shun… Ruri… Right. It didn’t matter what this girl was planning. As long as he’d get a chance to see his friends again, he was going to endure it.
Glumly he cast down his eyes. “There are people whom I need to help. Thus, I must not die.”
“Fine”, Serena sighed, walked over to the wall and picked up the mug. “Then that’s settled. Now drink.”
Carefully, Serena peeked into the corridor. It was empty. She let out the breath she had been holding and sneaked out of the larder, closing the door behind her.
Two years ago a young student had stolen some food for the first time and the professor had deployed a guard in front of it. That prompted Serena and a few of her classmates to make it a game of breaking into the chamber and escape without being detected. Of course she always came out fastest. After a while one of the others was caught and the whole thing was uncovered.
Although the professor hadn’t been too angry about this kind of training, he had arrested all of them for half a month. After that the guard was replaced with an electronic lock. Maybe he had thought that would improve the security, but for Serena fooling a machine was too easy to really satisfy her and so she stopped. At least until now.
She took a deep breath and walked firmly into the corridor as though she had every reason to be there. She passed an older student who merely gave her an uninterested glance and turned around a corner… bumping almost into the tall, bulky man who suddenly appeared before her.
“Ah, Serena. I’ve been looking for you.”
“What is it, Barrett?” she asked, trying not to show how him much he had startled her.
“Oh, I have good news for you. An Xyz has been spotted here on the island and the professor has ordered me to assemble a squad and track him down. I’m asking you to be part of it.”
Suddenly Serena’s throat felt awfully dry.
“Umm… I think I’ll pass.”
“Really? If you were the one who caught him, the professor would certainly acknowledge you. I thought that was what you always wanted.”
Her brain was running at top speed. Did Barrett suspect her, or was this his way of being nice to her? What did he expect her to say? Whatever it was, she mustn’t let anything slip.
“Thank you. But chasing a single Xyz doesn’t sound any interesting. Tell me when you’ve caught him.”
“I understand”, he said and made a step past her, placing his large hand on her shoulder. “Be careful, Serena. I’ve heard there might be someone among us who helps the intruder. I guess you know what happens to traitors.”
“W-Why are you telling me that?”
Barrett’s grip tightened just a little.
“Oh, I just wanted you to know. If you notice anyone who acts odd, please tell me. Well then, goodbye.”
He knew it. Or at least he guessed something. She was sure of it. He had wanted to determine whether he was right. Had she accepted his offer, maybe she would’ve diverted his suspicion, but… it would’ve become impossible to take care of the Xyz.
It took her a lot of effort to start moving again and even more to keep herself from running. This game had just become a lot riskier for her.
“I’m back”, the girl said as she came into the room. She placed the little bag on the table and pulled out a few cans with dried vegetables and a package of crackers. Then she turned to Yuto who was staring up at the ceiling.
When he didn’t answer, an angry scowl crept on her face.
“I’ve asked you something.”
Slowly he drew in a long breath. “Why did you save me?” he asked then without looking at her. “You don’t care about me, right? I mean… You haven’t even asked for my name.”
For a moment none of them said a word.
“There’s no reason for me to ask for your name. It’s irrelevant.”
Yuto sighed. “So you are no different either. What do you need me for? One of your little hunting games?”
“Huh? What are you talking about?”
“Don’t play dumb. You know very well what I mean. You and the other Fusion scum have attacked us, have hunted us like animals. It’s all just a game for you, right?”
Her lip quirked a little. Judging from her usual expressions it was probably meant to be amusement.
“A game?” she asked. “Certainly not. This is a glorious struggle to unite the four worlds. Of course people don’t like to submit to such an ideal, but in the end you are going to thank us.”
Yuto stared at her, unable to believe his ears.
“Thank you? Don’t you dare say that!” he hissed, curling his hand into a fist. “Don’t you dare claim that you are doing this for us!”
“Maybe you don’t want to acknowledge this, but it is the truth. You have resisted us. That’s the reason for your suffering.”
Yuto needed a moment to regain his composure. “Are you saying that we should have surrendered just like that? Are you saying that when your army showed up, we should have just leaned back and let ourselves be carded?”
“Those who fought back have no right to complain.”
“What about those who didn’t fight back? What about the thousands of innocent people you have attacked? People who couldn’t run? People who couldn’t defend themselves?”
“What? That’s absurd. You’re trying to fool me, aren’t you?”
He cracked a smile, although it didn’t carry any happiness. “Tell me, why should I lie to you? You’re the one holding the reigns here.”
“But… But that’s impossible. You’re saying we attacked innocent people?”
Yuto’s gaze softened a little and he leaned back onto his mattress. “Have you ever been in Heartland?” he asked.
Serena shook her head. For the first time her hard façade cracked and he could see insecurity beneath it.
“No. The professor kept me here all my life, locked up on this goddamn island. That’s… That’s why I need you. If I can show him that I’m capable of fighting on my own, he’ll have no other choice but to allow me join my classmates on the battlefield.”
“To become a part of this genocide?”
Serena opened her mouth to reply, but then she hesitated. With an angry twitch she bit the bottom of her lip and cast down her eyes.
“Do you want me to tell you?” he asked.
Her gaze met his for a beat, but she immediately looked away. It wasn’t a yes, but it wasn’t a no either. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
“I’m not sure where exactly it began. Actually it had been just a normal day. The sun was shining. People were going to school or work as usual. Kids were playing in the parks. Birds were filling the air with their song. A day like any other. That was what made the horror that followed even worse.
Maybe it began with the first wave of soldiers appearing on the market place. Maybe it began with the first people being turned into cards. Or maybe it began with the terrified scream which heralded the panic.
For me it began when I picked up the first card on the ground. It showed a little girl who had just walked past me a minute ago. She was making a surprised face. Probably she had been gaping at the strange people who had simply appeared out of thin air.
I was suddenly standing in the middle of a stampede on this just so peaceful place. Violet beams of light flashed up. Cards fell to the ground where people had been standing or running moments ago. It was then that my best friend pulled me away from there. Probably I would’ve ended just like all the others, if he hadn’t.
As we ran, we heard explosions from everywhere. The soldiers must’ve appeared in other places as well. We saw the first houses being crushed by the huge giants which suddenly loomed over the smaller buildings. The entire street quaked when one of them crossed a junction and a moment later a wave of fire rolled through the street, shattering glass and concrete and leaving behind a streak of molten asphalt. As I stared up at its huge single eye scanning the ruins for survivors, I think I realised what was happening. I realised there was nothing we could do.
The fire was all around us. The very air was filled with ashes and screams and the sounds of a mechanical army marching through the streets. We saw a few duellists who tried to fight back, but they were overwhelmed by the sheer number of enemies.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. A simple victory wasn’t enough for your soldiers. They needed to give their victims a chance to run so they could prolong their suffering in hunting them down. I will never forget their laughing faces as they whooped duellists who had lost already, but still clung to that tiny hope for escape.
Only those who ran away and managed to find some place to hide survived that first day. Heartland, the peaceful and shining city we knew, had been turned into a grey wasteland of crumbling ruins and debris, the beautiful parks burned to cinder. There was not a bird which could be seen, not a sound which could be heard. All who remained were too frightened to speak, too frightened the soldiers might find them if they did.”
“And this is the glorious struggle you wish to join?”
Serena swallowed. While he spoke, her expression had changed gradually, from self-confidence over incredulity to shock and horror. “No, I… I… I’m sorry”, she said with a hoarse voice, casting down her eyes. “This… This is not what I’ve been told.”
“Nevertheless it is the truth.”
Her eyes flicked at him and back at the ground.
“I need some time to think about this”, she muttered and stood up from her chair. In the door she stopped, turning her head back at him. “Umm… You… Your name… What is it?”
Yuto stared at her for a moment. She fumbled with the hem of her uniform. Looking… somewhat uncomfortable.
“I am Yuto.”
She nodded. “Okay… Yuto. I am going to come back once I’ve thought this over.”
She closed the door and Yuto was alone again. He sighed and rested his head back on the hard mattress. Maybe this girl was a little more like Ruri than he had thought.
Chapter 3: Hazy
The sifting of the grains never stopped, an endless roar of absolute silence. And yet, although they were in continuous flux, they remained on the spot as well, forming the forever frozen land called the past.
Serena shot up from her chair and stood at attention. The man walked over to her, sizing her up with his expressionless eyes.
“I have received your test results. You’ve earned the highest score again.”
“Yes, professor”, she replied, trying to conceal her excited smile. She had been waiting for this moment, waiting to hear him praise her for that accomplishment.
“Nevertheless your teacher told me you’re lacking social skills. You get into fights with others and you fail at teamwork.”
“T-That’s because the others are just stupid idiots. I’m way better than they are. And I’m way better on my own.”
“Then maybe you’d like to be taught alone as well?”
Serena hesitated. His voice was as cold as usual, impossible to read. She realised she might have gotten herself in trouble.
“Professor?” she asked tentatively.
He turned to her and she shivered under his gaze. Although she already was much shorter than he was, he knew perfectly how to make her feel even smaller.
“I’m offering you to take private lessons with me.”
Serena’s eyes grew wide. “You… You want to teach me yourself?”
“Is that a yes?”
For a moment Serena couldn’t help but stare. Then she nodded happily. “Yes, sir! It is.”
“Good. Then I’m expecting you tomorrow at eight o’clock in my office.”
He turned and walked away. When he stepped through the door, Serena called out to him.
“Professor, does… does that mean I’ll be ready for the conquest of Xyz?”
He stopped abruptly, turning his head to her. The evening sun sent a confusing maze of light and shadow over his tanned face.
“This is not a question of being ready. It is a matter of fact that you are staying here.”
“But professor! I’m the best duellist of my grade! I can’t understand why you won’t-”
He raised his hand and she fell silent. With a shock she realised she had gone too far.
“I assure you, the day when I need you will come. However, it is too early for you to concern yourself with that. Have you understood?”
“Yes, sir”, she answered glumly.
He held her gaze for a few seconds before he finally left. The sound of his footsteps faded away and still Serena remained standing there, unmoving.
He was giving her private lessons, which was a huge honour. So why? Why did she feel so unsatisfied?
Angrily she slammed her fist on the desk in front of her and slumped down on her chair. She was the best. She had defeated anyone else in her grade. Why couldn’t he acknowledge her? Why did he treat her so differently?
Maybe the rumours were true. Serena knew what the others were whispering behind her back when they thought she couldn’t hear them. That she was an illegitimate child of him and that was why she was always treated with kid gloves. She couldn’t even deny that. She didn’t have any memories of her family or a life before academia. But one thing she could say for sure. Not once had he given her a look of kindness or a single word of praise.
Since that day the hands had rounded the clock face thousands of times. And here she was now, sitting in her room, watching the seconds tick by.
She wasn’t scared. Just… a little uncomfortable. It wasn’t easy to acknowledge what Yuto had said. It didn’t feel right to question what the professor, what everyone at academia had told her all her life.
And yet, his face had been so full of anger and pain. It wasn’t something she was able to ignore.
Someone knocked at the door. She didn’t answer, knowing that whoever it was they would come in regardless.
“Serena? The professor has sent for you.”
She grumbled affirmative, rolling from her bed after a moment.
“How’s your search going?” she asked as they walked down the maze of corridors leading to the professor’s office.
“It’s going well”, Barrett said, giving her an attentive glance. “We’ve finished the northern half of the island and are going to start in the south tomorrow. However we haven’t found a trace of the intruder yet. There’s still time for you to join us.”
She was aware of the wary tone in his voice and so she kept her face as neutral as she could.
“Thanks, but I’m not interested.”
They continued their way silently until suddenly Serena stopped. He turned to her and gave her an inquiring look.
Serena fumbled with the sleeve of her jacket.
“The scar on your face”, she muttered and his hand instinctively flicked up to his eye-latch. “You received it in Xyz, right?”
She ducked her head. “Do you… regret going there?”
Barrett cast down his remaining eye as well, thinking for a while before he answered.
“Sometimes I regret my own carelessness. Back then my decision endangered the life of my comrades as well as the success of our mission. But… going there? No. I don’t regret that. What we achieved there is more important than the face of an old soldier.”
“Oh really?” she muttered quietly. “Did we really do something glorious there?”
“What do you mean by that?”
She took a deep breath before she met his mistrustful gaze. “I’m saying that hunting down people who can’t defend themselves is no honourable battle, is it?”
Barrett’s eye narrowed. “Who has told you about that?”
“I… I heard some of the older students talk about it”, she muttered and paused for a second. “Tell me, is it true? Is that what we’ve been doing there?”
He examined her closely. Serena could see suspicion, but also esteem in his look.
His expression was calm, without a sign of guilt or regret or even pride. Anger stirred deep within her.
“How can you… How can you say that so calmly? How can you just stand there and say that we’ve been attacking innocent and helpless people as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world?!”
“Because it doesn’t change anything”, Barrett said, throwing her off the track. “Our goal remains the same. If this is what it takes to reach it, then I am going to do it.”
He turned away and his gaze trailed off into the distance. “Let me tell you something, Serena. I have fought many battles already and none of them was as glorious as it has been told afterwards. This is what it means to be a soldier.”
“I… I understand”, she said after a few seconds, uncurling her fist, ignoring the painful marks which her nails had left in her palms.
Barrett nodded and they continued their way until they stopped in front of the professor’s office.
“Do not let this get to you”, Barrett muttered.
Serena didn’t answer as she reached for the handle and stepped in.
He rather fell than walked down the little stairs that led to the old cellar. A stone slab had been torn out of the wall above and was now blocking the upper half of the doorway, but the room behind it was large enough to give shelter to fifteen or more people, at least if they weren’t too fastidious about private space.
He leaned against the stone slab and knocked, two times, then a short pause, then three times and after a longer pause a last time, the signal for ‘everything’s alright’.
After a moment the young, round face of a girl appeared in the opening below. When she saw him, she started in dismay.
“Oh god! Shun! What… What happened to you?”
“It’s nothing”, he brushed her off and knelt down so he could fit through the hole. After he slipped in, Sayaka immediately tried to examine the bloody, torn spot on his sleeve, but he turned away before she could touch him.
“I told you it’s nothing. I’ve already dressed it.”
He let his gaze wander around in the small room. Of the thirteen people who had fled here after academia’s attack on the stadium only five were left.
“You shouldn’t go out on your own every day. He’s been gone for four days now. I… I don’t think you should wait for him any longer.”
“What?” he snapped and she started in fright.
“I… I’m only saying that… no one has returned after such a long time.”
He scowled and she let out a quiet shriek.
“Yuto is still alive”, he said. “He would never lose to that Fusion scum. Maybe he has fallen into a hole somewhere and broken his leg. I’m sure there’s a good reason he doesn’t come back.” He nodded. “Yes, he’s got to be somewhere out there.”
Then he noticed Sayaka was still looking at him like he was going to explode any moment.
“I’m sorry”, he sighed. “I didn’t mean to snap at you. I guess I’m… just a little worn out.”
He sat down on the matt he used to sleep on and closed his eyes. Just… Just a moment.
Suddenly he felt a blanket being spread over him. He raised one eyelid a little, causing her to jump surprised.
“Thanks”, he mumbled tiredly and tried to put on a smile. It only worked partially.
Sayaka had been a friend of his sister and since her disappearance she had done everything to take care of him. Another bond that had been woven by grief. He wondered if he’d live to see a day when it would be different again.
“Say, have you heard anything about Kaito?”
She cast down her eyes and shook her head.
“No. Not since Haruto has been…”
She fell silent and he couldn’t help but feel sorry for the woeful expression on her face.
Sayaka’s eyes flicked back to him and she gave him an encouraging look. “Don’t worry”, she said in her quiet voice. “I’m sure we’ll see Yuto again. We just have to believe in him.”
Shun gave out a bitter snort. “That stupid fool. He’s supposed to stop me when I grow too reckless. And now he’s the one who went off without saying a word. I’m so going to give him a pasting when he’s back.”
Sayaka smiled and turned away.
Shun felt the exhaustion of the day weigh down on him and he laid down on the hard matt, closing his eyes and embracing the gentle slumber that welcomed him.
It was after nightfall already when Serena sneaked into the abandoned dorm where she had accommodated Yuto. Of course all students were supposed to be in bed at this time of the day, but since most of the other students as well as the teachers tried to stay away from her it was unlikely someone would notice her absence.
Yuto looked up when she entered. “You’ve come back.” It wasn’t a question.
Serena took a deep breath and met his gaze as firmly as she could. “You were right. Someone has confirmed what you told me. That we did… horrible things to you and the other people from Xyz. I am sorry.”
“It wasn’t your fault”, he replied, giving her a sympathetic smile. “There was no way you could’ve known.”
She sighed and handed him his duel disk. “You are no longer a prisoner.”
He looked mildly surprised as he took it and attached it to his arm.
“I have to admit, I thought it would be harder to convince you.”
“It’s not like I like this place very much”, she muttered and a faint smile tugged at her lips. “I hate it in fact.” She took her own duel disk and put it on as well. “It’s just that… it’s the only home I’ve ever known. I still can’t imagine what it is like to live somewhere else.” She took a deep breath. “Well… It’s time to find out.”
Her finger already hovered over the button of her disk when suddenly Yuto grabbed her wrist, bending it down firmly.
“What are you doing there?!” he asked incensed and she actually took a step back, baffled by how suddenly he had appeared in front of her, seemingly without crossing the space between them. And that with the injuries he had. It was remarkable.
“The guards are searching the entire island for you. They will come here as well soon. That’s why I’m bringing you back to Xyz.”
“No. I cannot go yet. Not since I’ve made it to this island already.” He glared at her, his grey eyes hard as stone and for a brief moment Serena felt afraid of him. “There’s a friend of me, here at academia. She’s been captured by the soldiers. I can’t go without her.”
“You… You must be insane”, she said, pulling free of his grip. “You’ve already risked your life by coming to the island. And look what it has brought you.”
“But I am still alive. And as long as I am, I’m going to give everything I can to rescue her.”
Serena stared at him. Deep furrows of conviction had appeared on his forehead and his eyes had narrowed with determination. A determination stronger than anything she had ever seen before.
“Why… Why do you go this far for her?”
Yuto held her gaze for a beat. Then he looked down at his hand. Slowly he curled his fingers into a fist. “Because you – no, academia has taken everything from us. All we have left is each other. And we will never leave behind a comrade. That’s simply who we are.” His eyes flicked back to her. “Serena… Will you help me? Will you help me rescue her?”
She made a step back, until her back touched the wall, and ducked her head.
Could she do this? This wasn’t just running away like she had tried to when she had been younger. This was actual rebellion. Against academia… against the professor… against everything that had mattered in her life until now.
“If I say no, what would you do then?”
“I would go alone, of course.”
“But you’d get yourself killed.”
“Maybe. But you can’t know that unless you’ve tried.”
Serena gazed at him for a few seconds. Then she snorted and turned away her head. “You’re crazy, idiot. You’d really be killed without me.”
Yuto’s lips curved into a smile. “Then I guess you’ll have to take good care of me.”
She sighed. “Alright. But still, you can’t stay here unless you want to be found.”
“So what do we do?”
She gave him a scrutinising look.
“Well… If you can stand this firmly already, it might be possible.”
“Say, Serena… Wasn’t there any other way you could’ve come up with?”
“Stop complaining and move faster.”
Yuto made a grimace. He knew it was a good idea, but that didn’t change anything about his disgust. It simply felt wrong wearing one of the uniforms that carried so many bad memories. Memories of pain and fire… Still, Ruri was more important and so he swallowed the uneasy feeling and forced himself to walk on, down another one of these dark corridors which looked all the same to him. His ribs still hurt and with every step his chest wheezed as he breathed.
“Where are we going, anyway?” he asked to distract himself from the pain.
“A warehouse near the harbour.”
“Huh? But that’s where I came from.”
She gave him a slightly mocking look over her shoulder. “You really don’t know anything about strategy. How did you manage to survive that long?”
Yuto didn’t answer.
“The best place to hide is a place that has already been searched”, she continued calmly.
“That… makes sense”, he replied after a moment.
“Hey! You!” a commanding voice shouted behind them and they turned around. Yuto felt a jab of anger when he saw the man approaching them over the courtyard. He recognised the blue uniform and silver helmet which omitted only the man’s mouth.
Obelisk Force… academia’s elite soldiers. Yuto remembered seeing a few of them on the first day. They had been the ones who caused the greatest destruction in Heartland, razing entire blocks like houses of cards. And it were cards that fell to the ground wherever they passed.
“What are you doing here?” the man asked when he had almost reached them. “It’s past nightfall already.”
Serena immediately snapped to attention and Yuto tried his best to imitate her.
“We know, Sir”, she replied. “We have heard about the invader here at the island and are on our way to Captain Barrett to request him allow us join the hunt.”
“Ah, I see.” His lips curved into a smirk. “I guess in that case I can make an exception. We can always use bold soldiers like you at the front. You better not waste this chance.”
“Yes, sir. We won’t”, Serena said and continued. Yuto followed her.
“Wait a moment”, the man called them back when they were about to leave the courtyard and enter one of the long hallways. “You there, come back.”
Though his eyes were hidden beneath the helmet, Yuto could feel his gaze resting on him. He swallowed and turned back.
“I think I know you from somewhere”, the man said thoughtfully. “What’s your name?”
“Alex Parker, sir. Third Year, Class Four”, he replied as Serena had instructed him.
“Hmm…” The soldier examined him for a few seconds, before he shrugged. “Never mind. But fix that collar of yours. Show a little more neatness. We’re not a group of scouts.”
“Yes, sir. My apology”, Yuto muttered, trying not to show how fast his heart was beating. The soldier gave him a nod and left to the other end of the yard.
After he was gone, Serena let out a sigh of relief. “Wow. That was close.”
“Yes”, Yuto muttered. Then he hesitated. “Umm… What do you mean? You were the one who came up with this story.”
“Yes, but I didn’t think it would work.”
Before he had any time to get worked up, she grabbed his wrist and pulled him on.
They passed a few more people, some of them students of higher grades, some of them soldiers already, but none of them stopped them or asked what they were doing here.
It was strange, Yuto thought, to walk so casually through these halls that every one of their enemies had roamed, without fighting them, without being recognised as an alien.
It made Heartland and the invasion appear… so very far away. As if it had been just a bad dream. Of course he knew it was real, as real as the calm ire that was still smouldering in his chest, waiting for its moment to blaze up. But… he began to see the other side of this war.
No matter how cruel it was, to the students here academia was their home. They weren’t born evil, but formed. Formed by the strict discipline of this school and the person who headed it.
The professor… Yuto couldn’t imagine what was going on in the head of someone like him, someone who willingly mutilated children, robbed them of their future by turning them into heartless monsters. As long as he was alive, the war would go on.
A strange idea began to grow in his head. He was here. He had come as far as nobody else had. Maybe, if he… No. No, Ruri’s safety was more important. He mustn’t forget his priorities.
Serena held out her hand and they stopped.
“Okay, from here on it’s going to get serious”, she said as she stepped to the door that led outside. “If we are caught out there, no story is going to help us.”
She nodded and proceeded to open the door. It had an electronic lock, but she needed less than a minute to crack it.
They stepped outside and Yuto felt like they had entered a whole different world. The cold sea air brushed over his skin and sharpened his senses. His thoughts calmed down and left only serene vigilance. His body began to tense up. It was the same tension he always felt when he knew he was going to risk his life.
His eyes flicked over to Serena who drew in a deep breath before she met his gaze. As if on a silent signal they began to run. Not fast because with every step a fiery throb flashed through Yuto’s chest, but it would’ve been hard to make them out in the dark.
From the door the land was even for about seventy feet before it made a one hundred and fifty feet drop to the sea. Serena led him to a narrow path that wound down the cliff. The steps were steep and polished and it was difficult to climb down without seeing anything.
When he asked Serena why they took this path instead of going to the harbour directly, she replied all other ways were under video surveillance. This path however was an old remain from a time before academia had been built and it was only sporadically being used for physical training anymore. About halfway down they had to make a stop as the pain in Yuto’s chest grew worse. He didn’t feel any blood leaking through the bandages, but he didn’t dare to take off his clothes to take a look at them. Although he hated it, this uniform was the only thing which protected him here.
“Do you think you can move on?” Serena asked nervously, after he had been resting against the cold cliff for a few minutes. He took another breath, listening to the crashing of the waves below. Then he nodded and braced himself up.
When he was about to continue, he thought he must be hallucinating for a moment. A little down the cliff, not far below them was a small light, hopping up and down. He blinked and looked again, but the light was still there. Then he suddenly felt cold as he understood.
Someone was coming up here!
Serena realised almost at the same time, judging from how she suddenly tensed up. Panicking, Yuto’s eyes darted around.
Quickly he grabbed Serena’s hand and pulled her behind a small rock. Then he reached for the bag with his belongings which she had been carrying, nestled with the zip for an awfully long moment before he managed to open it.
She seemed to understand what he intended to do and reached into the bag, pulling out his old, torn-up black cape which they spread over themselves. Then they waited, tightly pressed against each other, trying to breathe as calmly as they could.
They didn’t need to wait long. After less than half a minute a faint shimmer fell through the cloth, followed by the sound of footsteps which calmly ascended the steep stairs.
Yuto could’ve sworn his heart was beating louder than a thunderbolt as the figure approached the spot where they were hiding.
If they noticed them, it would be over. Even if they just accidentally brushed against the coat. For a moment he wondered if he should jump up and push them from the cliff. But… no. It would be wrong. And besides, if they let out a scream, every single person on the island would know they were here. As much as he wished to do something, he forced himself to remain still, although with every step his body tensed up more.
Then the figure passed them. They didn’t even slow down. It appeared they were in a merry mood, humming a little tune as they walked away, up the path he and Serena had come.
When the light had faded enough, Yuto lifted the cape just a little to take a look. In the flickering light of the lantern he thought he could see the tall, slender shape of a man, clad in a long, dark coat. Slowly he went higher, eventually turning around a curve and disappearing out of sight.
Yuto let out a sigh of deep relief, pulling away the cape entirely. For some strange reason he suddenly felt the strong urge to laugh. He looked at Serena and found it was the same with her. Their gazes met and suddenly Yuto became strongly aware of how pretty she was, how intense her light green eyes shone. They were unbelievably alluring, inviting him to immerse himself in them. He noticed how close they were, only a few inches separated him from the smooth curve of her cheek. Strands of her blueish hair stuck to it, her ponytail having come partially undone. He felt her chest rise and fall with every breath, gaped at the softness of her lips when they parted. And then, driven by a strange fascination which he didn’t dare to feel out, he leaned forward and kissed her.
She tasted sweet, of honey and a hint of lemon. His entire mind had grown hazy, aside from that taste and the feeling of her lips against his. Serena tensed up and backed away a little, too surprised to answer the kiss or to push him away.
After a few seconds Yuto released her, his mind still fuzzy, and a fluttering sensation arose in his chest.
“What… What was that?” Serena stuttered, her eyes wide with confusion.
Yuto blinked a few times, before he realised what he had actually just done.
“Oh! I-I’m sorry!” he muttered and backed away from her, landing hardly on his backside. “I… I don’t know what came over me. S-Sorry.”
She stared at him for another two seconds. Then she shook her head. “Come. We need to get down”, she said, slowly getting to her feet. Absently she picked up the bag and led the way.
Yuto followed her, utterly aghast at what he had done.
They reached the warehouse approximately half an hour later. During that time the scene had been permanently replaying in his head.
She must hate him now. Of course she did. He had simply kissed her out of nowhere. Seriously, how could he have done that?!
“Here. You can stay behind these boxes”, Serena said and shoved them to the side, enough for him to fit through between them. “This equipment won’t be needed in months.” Then she turned back to him. “Is… Is something wrong?”
Yuto made a grimace and cast down his eyes. “Look”, he began. “What I did just then… It was stupid of me and I very much apologise for it. I… didn’t know what I was doing.”
“I see”, she said, still with that strange, emotionless voice he wasn’t really able to read. “I accept your apology. Now then, if you need anything else…?”
He sighed and shook his head. Even if she forgave him, he wondered if he’d ever be able to forgive himself.
“Alright. I’ll be back in the afternoon. And, Yuto?”
He looked up and suddenly his eyes widened as he felt her lips moving against his. He tried to pull away, but Serena didn’t let him. Her arms went around his neck, pulling his face against hers. After a thrillingly long moment he gave in, kissed her back with a similar passion he had earlier, drowned in the sensation of their touch.
Finally, they broke apart, breaths tangled, staring at each other like they had just been struck by a high electric discharge.
“Why did you do that?” Yuto asked confused.
“Why… Because I wanted to know how it feels”, Serena said slowly and gave him a roguish smile. It was one of the most beautiful things Yuto had ever seen.
“Oh”, he said, unable to come up with any other remark.
“I guess you’ve never kissed anyone before too, have you?” she asked, thoughtfully examining his face.
Yuto sensed the redness creep over his cheeks. There had been Ruri. He had dreamed about kissing her. But that had been before the invasion, before their lives had fallen apart. “Uh… Well… No. Not really.”
“I see”, she muttered and stepped past him. “Then consider us quit.” He turned around and saw her giving him a last look over her shoulder. “At least for now.”
She gave him another smile and then she was gone.
Chapter 4: At Odds
Serena was so confused. No matter what she tried to focus on, her thoughts always drifted back to him, to the way he had kissed her. So mature… So demanding… She found herself brushing her finger over her lips to recall the sensation of his lips moving against them. It… It was so terribly distracting.
Of course she knew what a kiss was. Even the strict code of conduct wasn’t able to suppress the little crushes the students had on each other. She had never been able to do anything with it though. A few boys had tried to come on to her, but she had dismissed them quickly as soon as she realised they couldn’t keep up with her. She had always thought just how stupid they were. And now it turned out she was no different.
When she had seen him for the first time, she had already known he would change her life.
At first he had been nothing but a footstep for her, a chance to break free of this cage and become a soldier like she had always wanted. Then he had told her about the suffering of his people, about what academia had done to them, and it had turned her life upside down. All of a sudden she had felt so… wrong at this place, as if her mere presence here was sullying her. And now he had even thrown her feelings into turmoil.
She didn’t know what it was that made him affect her like that. Maybe it was the righteousness of his gaze, the firmness of his voice… The gentleness of his touch…
Hell! What was she thinking?!
It was frustrating to have been stripped of the collectedness she had been able to rely on for her entire life. But on the other hand it was even more unsettling how much she longed to feel him beside her and see his friendly smile again, how much she craved for him to hold her like he had.
It was stupid and she knew it, but… there wasn’t anything she could do about it, right?
“What’s wrong with you, Serena? You’re not as focused as usual.”
Startled, she looked up. “I’m sorry, professor.”
He gave her an intent glance, his brows narrowing slightly, and she averted her eyes. She didn’t like that kind of gaze. It made her feel like he could see right through her, like he knew her even better than she knew herself.
“Professor?” she asked nervously, trying to make him stop looking at her like that. “Have… Have you ever had a wife?”
“Yes, I did.”
She ducked her head further, digging her fingers into the fabric of her uniform. “What did you feel for her?”
The professor stayed quiet for a long while, absently staring into space, probably looking into a time long ago. Then his eyes returned from the depths of his memories.
“I would have done everything for her”, he said and let out a sigh. “However, she’s dead for a long time now. Why do you ask me these questions?”
Serena met his curious gaze for a moment before she averted her eyes again. “I… I think, maybe… I’m starting to have the same kind of feelings…”
For the first time in forever she felt a tiny crack in his emotionless façade, a hint of discontent.
“You need to understand that you are different from other people, Serena”, he said strictly. “None of the students here would be fitting for you.”
Only he isn’t from here, she added silently.
The professor drew in a long breath and straightened up. “Maybe we should quit the training for today”, he said, gaze trailing out of the window. “But I’m expecting you at full concentration tomorrow.”
When Serena didn’t move, he raised a brow. “Is there anything else?”
Serena started. “No, sir”, she replied and saluted before she turned around and left.
He reached out and his fingers touched a smooth strand of dark hair. The girl turned around and her amethyst-like eyes sparkled with joy when she met his gaze.
He put his arms around her waist and pulled her against him. She smiled as she placed a hand on his shoulder, slowly leaning into the kiss.
“And? Does it feel better?” she asked when they parted.
Yuto raised a brow. “Better?”
The girl cast down her eyes, uncomfortably looking at his chest. “I mean… Do… Do I kiss better than her?”
Yuto suddenly noticed a tear was rolling over her cheek. “Ruri, what…?”
She looked back at him and the terrible sadness in her eyes gave his heart a stab. “I… I thought you liked me, Yuto. I thought you liked me the way I like you… Guess I was wrong, huh?” She broke away from him and slowly faded into the blackness.
“What… Ruri, wait!”
Suddenly a strong hand grabbed his shoulder and whirled him around. Shun was glaring at him with a fury he usually reserved for their enemies. “Let me tell you one thing, Yuto. My sister is the most important thing in this world for me. If you hurt her, I will never forgive you.”
“I’m… I’m sorry, Shun” he muttered, wincing when Shun’s fingers dug into his shoulder. “I’m so sorry.”
“Yuto… Yuto… Yuto!”
Startled, he opened his eyes. For a moment he saw Ruri’s worried face above him, but then her eyes turned green.
A hint of relief flashed over her face. “Is everything okay with you? You’ve groaned in sleep.”
Confused he looked around. “I… Yes, I’m fine. It was just… a dream.”
He was lying in a corner of the warehouse, tucked behind a few boxes. His back felt a little stiff, but aside from that his injuries didn’t hurt too much. Carefully he got up and noticed he was still wearing that loathsome red uniform. Apparently he had been too tired to change back into his own clothes yesterday. Or too confused.
He tried not to look at Serena. Just the fact she was right next to him was… distracting in a way.
He could feel his thoughts drifting over to her, to the beautiful sway of her ponytail, the soft curve of her cheek, the vibrant fire in her eyes. It didn’t take him much effort to imagine running his fingers through her hair or trailing her skin with light kisses. And yet, he knew he wasn’t supposed to think this way. And the feelings he still harboured for Ruri didn’t make it any easier.
“Here”, Serena said and handed him a piece of bread.
“Thank you”, he replied without meeting her gaze.
She watched him silently while he ate. He could see her finger draw little circles over the ground. It was long and slender and for a moment he was tempted to reach out and brush his own against it.
Crap! he thought and focused on the bread in front of him. Wasn’t he able to form a clear thought without thinking of her?! He sighed and took a sip from the bottle of water she had brought him as well.
“Would you take off your shirt?”
Yuto almost choked and set down the bottle. “W-What?”
She didn’t even blink as she met his stare. “Your injuries”, she said calmly. “I’d like to take a look at them.”
Oh. So that was what she had meant.
He nodded and after he had finished up, he took off his shirt and the bandages. He waited patiently as she examined the wound, carefully palpated his skin, making him draw in a sharp gasp whenever she touched a sore spot.
Yuto was amazed by how determined she operated. She couldn’t be any older than he was and yet it was obvious she knew exactly what she was doing. Probably she had undergone at least a rudimentary medical education. For the first time he was actually glad about something academia had done.
“And?” he asked when she began to apply new bandages.
She reached for the tape and fixated one of them. “They’re healing well. What bothers me most are your bones. I think it’ll take a week at minimum before you can start walking normally.”
“I see.” Then he noticed the uneasy look on her face. “Is there something wrong?”
She lowered her gaze, slowly running her finger across his back.
“There are a few older scars. Is… Is academia responsible for them?”
Yuto took a long breath before he answered. “Yes. For most of them.”
Serena looked at them for a few seconds, then she leaned closer and kissed his lips. Although his heart still made a leap, he couldn’t bring himself to answer. She pulled away and gave him a confused look.
He closed his eyes and slowly shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
Serena made a sulky face and averted her eyes. “You’re the one who started this, you know?”
“Yes. But… Ruri… As long as she’s being held captive, I’m not sure what to think of this.”
“I see. Then we are going to rescue her, of course.” A faint smile tugged at her lips. “But first… you’ll have to get well again”, she said and gave his ribs a playful jab, sending a blazing flash of pain through his chest.
He choked and convulsed. “The two of you couldn’t be more different”, he muttered quietly.
“Man… Is he really serious about this?” one of the two young women said as they passed Barrett and walked down the corridor. “That’s the most boring job he’s ever given us.”
“Stop complaining, Grace” the other woman said. “An order is an order. Especially when it’s his order.”
“Oh come on, you’re angry too, aren’t you?”
Barrett let out a quiet sigh and stepped into the office. The professor was standing in front of the window which led to the reactor, absently staring down at the green swirl of light. When Barrett clicked his heels, he turned around.
“No, sir”, Barrett replied firmly. “We’ve searched nearly the entire island, but we haven’t found a trace of the intruder.”
The professor nodded thoughtfully.
“Sir?” Barrett asked carefully. “Do you consider the possibility the intruder has returned to Xyz after he’s been injured?”
The professor gave him a brief glance. “You mean they gave up after coming this far? No. If that was how they think, we wouldn’t have this much trouble in breaking their resistance. Whether they are going for my life or one of the girls, they are still here.”
“Yes, sir”, Barrett replied obediently.
The professor had proven more than once that he was capable of predicting their enemies’ actions and Barrett had no intention to question him.
“Three of the key stones are here on this island. My life is irrelevant, but we mustn’t lose any of them. Barrett. You will act as Serena’s bodyguard from now on. Don’t let her out of your sight.”
“But, professor, what about the search?”
“I’m going to assign it to someone else.”
“As you wish.”
“Concerning the other two…” The professor made a thoughtful face.
“You need not worry about them”, an oily voice said from behind them.
Barrett turned around and he felt a bitter taste in his mouth when he saw the haggard shape in the door.
“Doktor. What do you mean by that?” the professor asked.
“Well, I’m saying that I have the solution to your problem.”
It took Barrett a lot of discipline to conceal his dislike for that man. His lean, pale face looked like he had died already without taking notice of it and he seemed to be smiling permanently as if someone had made a joke only he got. Everything about him seemed to mock the ideal of an honourable battle. Barrett was unable to understand why the professor had an aide like him.
“I have found a method which is perfect to protect the keystones”, the doktor said as he casually stalked towards the professor’s desk. “And it would even allow us to easily retrieve them in case one of them is lost. If you like, I can show you.”
The professor considered him for a few seconds before he nodded. “Fine. Barrett, you may go now.”
“As you wish, sir”, Barrett said and saluted. Then he turned around and left, grateful he didn’t have to breathe the same air as that sick man any longer.
So, he was Serena’s bodyguard now. She was not going to like this. That was for sure. But duty was duty. Although he would’ve preferred not to be the one, he would protect her, even if that was protecting her from herself.
There were various places at academia which were off limits for students. The prison block was not among those, but after just a little survey Serena was able to tell that Yuto’s comrade wasn’t there. All of the people in the cells were either students or soldiers who had broken the rules in some way.
It didn’t surprise her. The professor would never allow anyone but his most loyal soldiers to get in touch with someone who was able to tell the dangerous truth about their invasion on Heartland.
So what remained were the areas where access was limited to high-ranking soldiers. The only two capable of holding a prisoner were the towers in the west and east of the island.
Serena had been observing them over the course of the past few days. In the morning and evening a guard entered them with a small bag and left shortly after, probably bringing food. Now she only needed to find out if the girl she was looking for was in any of them.
The security there was too tight for her to slip through unnoticed, but… maybe she would be lucky. She tried to look as unsuspicious as she could as the guard came down the path back to academia.
“Hey, you. What are you doing here?”
Crap! So much for that.
She turned around to the woman who approached her firmly.
“I’ve just been wondering about that tower”, she answered innocently. “Everybody knows it’s here, but nobody actually seems to know what it’s for.”
“That’s none of your concern, student”, the woman answered coldly.
“It’s a prison, isn’t it?” Serena asked. The woman’s silence was enough of an answer. “But for whom?”
“I am not allowed to tell you that.”
“Oh come on”, she said in an annoyed voice. “I just want to know who’s in there.”
“You’d need to be at least sergeant to learn about that.”
“Oh really? The professor said he was going to promote me to sergeant in two days.”
That was a lie, of course, but if it would just be enough to…
The woman gave her a thin-lipped smile. “Then I’m sure you can wait two days longer.”
Years of discipline allowed Serena to maintain a neutral face, but inwardly she wished she could challenge that woman to a duel. Then she would wipe that arrogant smile from her face and show her that she was more worthy of her rank than the woman was.
The guard proceeded to walk past her, not without briefly patting her shoulder. “Get back to your classroom and focus on training, kid.”
Serena’s hand curled into a fist.
“Her name’s Kurosaki Ruri.”
Serena started twice. Once when she heard the familiar voice behind her and a second time when her mind processed the words that reached her ears.
Ruri… That was the name that Yuto had mentioned. So that meant it was indeed the right tower.
“But… Captain Barrett!” the woman said shocked. “We’re not allowed to tell students about-”
“It’s okay, Diana”, Barrett interrupted her. “That girl’s a close intimate of the professor. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if we tell her.”
Diana turned around and gave her a doubtful look. “Well, if you say so”, she muttered and continued her way, giving Barrett a sidelong glance. He looked back firmly until she was out of earshot. Then he turned to Serena.
She needed a few seconds to find her tongue. “What… What are you doing here, Barrett?” she asked insecure.
“I’ve been looking for you”, the old soldier replied.
“For me? Why?”
Barrett considered her for a moment before he answered. “The professor has assigned me as your bodyguard.”
Serena stared at him. “My… My bodyguard?! Is this supposed to be a joke?”
“You know very well I’m not the type of person to make jokes.”
Serena swore inwardly. This was a terrible development. With Barrett following her on her heels, she wouldn’t be able to get close to Yuto without arousing suspicion. And it would be even more impossible to make a plan to rescue his comrade under these circumstances.
Damn! Did the professor sense something? And if she tried to get away from him? No. That would be the same as admitting she had something to hide. She decided to try a different strategy and put on a boastful smile.
“And I thought the professor had given up on detailing a nanny for me.”
“Apparently he has changed his opinion.” Barrett gave her a mellow look. “He’s deeply concerned about your security.”
Serena snorted noisily. “About my security, yeah? Don’t make me laugh. He doesn’t want to acknowledge that I’m capable of fighting on my own.”
Barrett hesitated for a moment and Serena could see she had hit the nail on the head.
“I don’t need a bodyguard, Barrett.”
He nodded. “Yes, I know that. But still, the professor’s orders are absolute.”
Crap! There had to be a way she could get rid of him. Think, Serena! Think!
“I’m not very keen on someone following my every step”, she said. “How about this? If I manage to beat you in a duel, you will leave me alone when I say so.”
Barrett shook his head. “This is not how it works.”
“Oh yeah?” she asked with a smirk. “You’re just afraid you could lose, am I right?”
The soldier gave her an admonishing look. “This isn’t a game, Serena. If the professor tells you to run, you run. If the professor tells you to fight, you fight. If the professor says you get a bodyguard, you accept it without ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’.”
Serena ducked her head and mumbled a “Yes, sir”. Satisfied, Barrett turned around. Behind his back she gritted her teeth.
I know that, Barrett. I know that.
When Yuto’s face flashed in front of her eye for just a beat, she felt a bitter taste in her mouth.
Hang on. Until I find a way to get to you.
It’s been two days since Serena’s last visit. His water had run out in the morning and he felt his throat getting drier with every hour.
He wondered if something had happened to her. Maybe she had been caught and put under arrest when she tried to get here. Or maybe she had had an accident and was lying in whatever hospital this place might have.
Yuto didn’t dare to think of that other possibility. That she had abandoned him. It just couldn’t be. The feelings on her face when he had told her about his homeland… That hadn’t been fake. He was certain she had been honest when she said she was going to help him.
And yet, she was academia. Was she really any different from the monsters this school had spawned? The same monsters that hunted down his friends and comrades without the tiniest bit of mercy?
Yuto hated himself for these thoughts and tried to block them out, but beyond the walls of his alert mind he could sense them, waiting for their chance to seep in and corrupt him from inside.
Shun, is this what has become of us? People who aren’t even able to have faith in their comrades?
After a moment he smiled. Shun would never accept her as his comrade, would he?
But whatever the reason might be, Serena’s absence was a fact. That meant he would have to take care of himself now.
Carefully he sat up, clenched his teeth when he felt the familiar stab in his chest, and stood. He needed a few seconds to squeeze himself through the gap between the heavy boxes, but then he stumbled out on the other side and took a deep breath. He just turned to the exit when a sudden noise made him freeze on the spot.
The door to the warehouse opened.
Yuto’s heart made a leap. At first he thought Serena had shown up after all, but… no. These calm and casual footsteps weren’t hers. He quickly hid in the shadow of a shelf and held his breath as he peeked through a small gap. After a few seconds a lean, tall figure came into view.
He wasn’t entirely sure, but he thought he recognised that long, dark grey coat. It was the man who had passed Serena and him when they came down here from the cliff.
He stalked through the aisles, stopped here and there, taking a look at the boxes. With sudden panic Yuto wondered what he was supposed to do if the man entered the aisle he was hiding in. He cast a glance at the gap in the boxes behind him, but… no. The risk to make a noise was too high. He couldn’t do anything but stay here and hope that man would find what he was looking for before he came here.
He had left Yuto’s view, but his footsteps told Yuto he was getting closer. The man entered the aisle next to his. Yuto didn’t dare to breathe as he approached him, his shoes clicking on the ground like a clock, counting down the seconds to Yuto’s discovery. Then they stopped.
“Ah, here you are.”
Yuto’s blood froze in his veins and, alarmed, his eyes darted around. He didn’t see anyone. How could that man have…?
Then he heard a shuffling sound and something was put down on the ground. Carefully, Yuto leaned forward and glanced into the aisle. The man in the long coat was standing with his back to him, pulling a second box from the shelf.
Yuto let out a silent sigh of relief. The man had only been talking to himself.
Slowly he pulled back his head, intending to wait until the man was gone, when suddenly his sleeve caught on the edge of a small box. Yuto watched shocked as the box slid to the edge of the shelf, hovered there for a moment before it sloped towards the ground.
Then the loud clinking of screws clattering on the floor filled the warehouse.
Chapter 5: Exposure
Serena was lying on the hard mattress of her bed and counted her breaths. Much to her consternation Barrett was staying in her room. In order to protect her, he had said, though that was ridiculous. There was nothing on this island that could harm her. Even if Yuto still was her enemy, there was no chance he could defeat her.
Or… maybe he could? He had survived the invasion and everything afterwards, so he had to be skilled. At least more than all the other students around here.
Yuto… She craved to go to him, but premature actions would only ruin everything. She turned her attention back to the sound of Barrett’s breath. It was surprisingly soft for a man with his physique, calm and yet watchful.
He wasn’t asleep yet. No. He wouldn’t make it this easy for her. After all he was a captain of academia and he was proud of fulfilling his duty, even if it was babysitting a girl like her.
She gave out a sleepy moan and turned around. A smile tugged at her lips. Barrett hadn’t made a sound, but she could sense his vigilance, could hear him listen.
So both of them lay there, quietly, as the minutes dripped by, their breaths forming regular patterns in the velvet silence of the night. From time to time Serena pinched herself to push away the gentle touch of sleep which alluringly knocked at the doors of her mind. She mustn’t give into it. Not now. This may be the only chance she would get.
Patiently she waited. Like she always had. She had waited for classes to begin, waited for any worthy opponents to show up, waited for the day the professor would acknowledge her. Waited for the day she could finally get out of here. It appeared her whole life had been one of waiting.
Somehow she envied Yuto and his friends. They had had a life that was worth living. They could go where they wanted and do what they liked, free of the hard restrictions Serena had lived under.
And then academia had taken that freedom away. They had destroyed that insouciance and replaced it with sorrow and pain. How could they ever make up for that? How could she make up for that?
She let out a quiet sigh and opened her eyes, staring up at the moon that was shining through the window. It was almost full now, bathing the roofs of the towers in its silvery light. She didn’t know why, but somehow its sight had always managed to soothe her. It was in a state of continuous change and yet it always remained the same.
When she listened closely, she sometimes thought she could hear a voice, the faintest of whisper. It didn’t speak with words, but rather with… sensations and vague meaning. Just like now. Serena listened, tried to understand, tried to feel…
She blinked. She heard… nothing. The silence was still there, only disrupted by her and Barrett’s breaths, but it wasn’t the same silence as before. There was no sharpness in it, no vigilance.
Serena’s heart beat a little faster and she sat up, glancing over at Barrett. His eyes were closed and his breath was going slow and steady. He… He was asleep.
The sheets rustled as she shifted, reaching for her jacket and the duel disk beside her bed. Carefully she stepped on the sill, sending a last look back at the sleeping soldier before she leapt into the night.
She didn’t think as she sneaked over the courtyard. If you started to think on the battlefield, you fall. That was a saying Barrett had told her. Just stay behind the bushes and watch the movement patterns of the guards. Since Yuto had arrived, there was a lot more of them, but Serena knew how to evade them. She had done it enough times before.
It was almost too easy, she thought as she reached the shadow of the hallway on the other side. The corridors lay quiet and empty as she walked through them. Apparently the professor had decided to deploy the guards on the outside grounds and rely on his cameras on the inside.
Fortunately Serena knew how to avoid being seen. Ten minutes later she was standing on the cliff, felt the rough sea wind tug at her clothes and heard the crashing of the waves beneath. She took a deep breath, clasped the bag with food and water she had picked up on the way and began the descent of the long stairs.
This time nobody came her way and she reached the warehouse without problems. Her heart beat faster as she pulled open the door and walked down the aisles.
“Yuto? It’s me”, she whispered as she reached the gap in the boxes.
The boy didn’t answer.
“Hey, Yuto? What’s wrong?”
When she still didn’t get a reply, she squeezed herself through the gap.
Yuto wasn’t there.
His ragged clothes were still lying on the ground as well as two empty bottles of water, but he was missing. With a lump of panic in her throat she crawled back into the warehouse, fearfully glancing around.
“Yuto? Are you there?” she asked, loud enough to be heard, but quiet enough to not cause too much noise. “Please, say something.”
“It appears he’s not here”, a deep voice said after a few seconds.
Serena darted around to the figure that was standing at the end of the aisle.
No way! This was…
“Barrett? But you were…”
Barrett’s remaining eye looked sad as he approached her. “So, it is you. All this time I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to believe my hunch was wrong, that you would never betray us. What has become of your wish to fight for the glory of our noble goal?”
Serena gritted her teeth.
“Our noble goal?” she spat and it would’ve been hard to put any more disgust in her voice. “How noble can a goal be that is achieved by hunting innocent and helpless people? By taking their lives and laughing at their misery like sick murderers? I’m ashamed of having the wish to be one of you, Barrett. I didn’t betray you. You have betrayed me.”
Barrett closed his eye for a brief moment and nodded. “I see. So he was the one who told you about it. In that case you don’t leave me any other choice.”
He activated his duel disk and made a step towards her. The blade of Serena’s disk shimmered in response.
“What have you done to Yuto?” she hissed, refusing to back away from him.
“The Xyz? I haven’t done anything to him.”
“As if I’d believe that!”
He sighed as he gave her a disappointed look. “It doesn’t matter what you believe or not. The rules of academia are clear. But it’s not too late for you. If you surrender now, the professor might still forgive you. Otherwise…”
He stopped. It was unnecessary to speak on. There was only one punishment for those who betrayed the professor.
“Surrender?” she asked. “Fuck! I’d rather die than go back into that cage, waiting for the day I become another mindless soldier for the professor!”
Barrett nodded sadly. “Yes, I figured you’d say that. You’ve always been stubborn. You would have made an excellent soldier, Serena.”
He raised his duel disk and Serena did the same.
“I guess it is time to be-“
He was interrupted by a loud thud and his eye rolled oddly. Something heavy clattered on the ground and then Barrett collapsed.
Serena stared shocked at the smaller person standing above him, their arms still raised from holding the metal box that had crashed against the back of Barrett’s skull.
“Y-Yuto?” she muttered in bewilderment.
He was breathing heavily, but he managed to crack a smile when his gaze met hers.
“It really is you…”
The next thing she knew she was standing in front of him, her arms wrapped around his back, their lips locked in a deep kiss.
He was here. She could feel him. He was here. He hadn’t disappeared.
After a few seconds they broke apart. Serena could feel tears of relief running over her cheeks as she gazed into his warm, grey eyes.
“Yes, I’m here.”
One hour ago
A high ringing sound filled the endless moment of shock as Yuto slumped backwards. The screws clattered all around him, gruffly tearing the fragile silence. For a second there was only the thunderous beat of Yuto’s heart. Then he heard footsteps and a lean face appeared in the gap in the shelf.
He stared down at Yuto. Yuto stared back. Then the man cracked a smile.
“Ah, great”, he said. “Would you lend me a hand, my boy?”
Yuto blinked. “W-What?”
“Your hands, boy”, the man repeated slowly. “I have a few things to carry and I could use some help right now. So how about you stop sitting there and get to your feet?”
Yuto needed a moment to regain his composure. Then he leapt to his feet and saluted. “Yes, sir.”
The man nodded. “Very well. But first…” He looked down at the screws which were scattered across the floor before he gave Yuto a lenient smile. “…I guess you should take care of this mess. Surely you don’t want to get in trouble with someone, don’t you?”
“No, sir”, Yuto replied and began picking up the screws.
Although a part of him revolted against acting like a loyal student, it appeared he didn’t have any other choice right now. He swallowed his anger and put the box with the screws back on the shelf.
“I’m done, sir”, he said as he joined the man on the other side.
The man gave him an absent glance before he turned back to the shelf. He tapped his finger against his lip a few times. Then he reached forward and pulled out a box which he immediately passed to Yuto. Then he pulled out a second one and placed it on top of the first.
“Alright”, he muttered and bent down. “You take those boxes and I take these. That way we won’t have to go twice.” He gave Yuto another smile and headed for the exit.
As Yuto followed him through the abandoned corridors of academia, he couldn’t help but notice how strange this was. He hadn’t asked Yuto for his name or class nor what he was doing in that warehouse in the middle of the night. Would anyone from academia act this carelessly? Or had that man already seen through his disguise? If yes, then this was a trap, or… or he was helping him. Could it be that man was an intruder like him?
“Ex… Excuse me, sir? If I may ask, who are you?”
The man turned his head and gave him a smirk. “I’m not surprised you don’t know me. I don’t get in contact with that many students. At least not with those who could tell about me.” He chuckled as if he had made a joke. “You can call me doktor if you like. Ah, here we are.”
The doktor stopped in front of a door and leaned his boxes against the wall as he fished a keycard out of his pocket.
“Voilà. My refuge”, he said as he stepped through the door. Yuto hesitated a moment before he followed him.
The room was long, the walls made of dark stone and only a row of headlights sent its faint glow across the ground. Most of them were turned off. It wasn’t hard to imagine torches hanging from the walls and rats scurrying over the floor.
As he walked on, Yuto noticed there were doors in the wall, provided with old-fashioned latches as well as modern electronic locks. In each of them there was a little glass window. Yuto gave the doktor a glance to make sure he wasn’t looking before he stopped and peeked inside.
The small room behind the door was like a padded cell, only lit by a single recessed ceiling lamp, entirely devoid of any furniture or anything else. Aside from a small lump on the floor.
It was a human, he realised as he looked closer, a girl not older than twelve, curled up tightly. Her face was hidden beneath a flood of unwashed black hair. For a moment he thought she was dead, but then he noticed the faint rise and fall of her chest.
He stared at her for another few seconds before he averted his eyes and walked over to the next door. This time it was a boy in his early twenties. He was sitting, his back resting against the wall, his arms wrapped around his legs, and stared up at Yuto with a more hateful glare than he had ever seen before. Not on the faces of his comrades. Not in the mirror. He didn’t doubt that boy would kill him the moment he got out of that cell.
Yuto couldn’t imagine what had happened to him that he had developed such bottomless hatred.
With every step he made, his horror of this place grew stronger. A hollow-eyed woman. A young boy, barely old enough to be in middle school. All of them were sitting in the same uniform cells, wearing the same brown clothing. Most of them were asleep. He saw only two more who were awake like that boy.
“Who… Who are all of these people, doktor?” he asked and was startled by the dry sound of his voice.
“Hmm? Oh, they! They are my precious test subjects.” A distant smile was apparent on the doktor’s face as he passed the doors. If his hands weren’t occupied, he probably would’ve stroked over them. “Some of them were runaways who were brought back for reeducation. Others have been deemed useless as regular soldiers. A few of them did even volunteer.”
They reached the end of the room and entered a larger, circular hall. Green glowing tanks were lining the walls and the centre was lowered a little. There were a lot of mechanical devices standing in the outer circle. The inner circle was occupied only by a workbench and a pallet. Leather straps were attached to it. Yuto didn’t need to be a clairvoyant to tell what it was used for.
The doktor put his boxes down on a chair and turned to Yuto.
“Whatever the reason, I take in everyone. Here they can be free of their fears, their worries, of the ambitions that hold them captive. Say, don’t you want to take part as well, my boy?”
“Umm… Take part in what?” Yuto asked carefully, setting down his boxes next to the others.
He sent a brief glance over to the door. Carrying the boxes all the way here had taken its toll on his ribs, but he thought he would still be fast enough if it would become necessary.
The doktor’s face twitched and he flicked his fingers.
“Oh, right! I haven’t told you.” He turned to the centre and spread his arms, encompassing the entire hall with his gesture. “What you behold here is the triumph of science over the human mind!”
He made a dramatic pause before he turned his head back to Yuto. “So?”
Yuto could feel a cold shiver running down his spine. That man wasn’t an intruder like him. And he wasn’t just creepy like he had thought when he looked into the cells. No. He was absolutely and utterly insane.
“Thank you, but I think I’ll reject your offer, sir.”
The doktor’s face turned from expectant to disappointed. “Oh. What a pity… Well, thank you for your help. You can go now.”
Relieved, Yuto turned his back to that man. While his feet carried him through the long room, he carefully checked the cells on the other side. Ruri wasn’t among them.
On the one hand that meant he would need to search on, but on the other he was glad she wasn’t here. He didn’t know if he would’ve been able to endure seeing her broken like these people.
When he had almost reached the door, a ghastly wail escaped one of the cells. It was muffled by the thick door, but nevertheless its intensity pierced Yuto to the core.
I’m sorry, he thought and tried to ignore the tears that were forming in his eyes. I can’t help you right now. But once we’ve conquered academia, we’re going to free all of you and raze this horrible place until nothing is left of it. I promise.
“How horrible”, Serena whispered. “I’ve seen the doktor a few times, but… I had no idea there was a place like that here.”
Yuto noticed her fingers were curling into a fist and uncurling again.
“However, you have been really lucky to get out of that this easily. Every other person would’ve put you under arrest for breaking the school rules and you would’ve been uncovered. You have to be more careful, Yuto.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you worry.”
“Err… what? No, that wasn’t what I meant…” She cast down her eyes, but Yuto thought he could see a faint blush on her cheeks. “You… You arrived just in time to save me. So… Thank you.”
He tilted his head and gave her a considering look. “Are you… embarrassed?”
Serena’s eyes widened for just a beat. Then she hastily turned away. “What?! Of course not. What makes you think that?”
He smiled and reached out, gently stroking over her hair. “You saved me first”, he said. “Consider this being even, if you like.”
“I told you it’s not like that”, she replied sulkily.
Yuto sighed. “Speaking of which”, he began and let his gaze wander over to the unconscious soldier. “What do we do with him?”
They had tied up Barrett with a few cables they found when they opened some of the boxes. Although he looked very strong, Yuto figured he wouldn’t be able to free himself.
Serena followed his gaze. Slowly she got up and reached for her duel disk.
“What… What are you up to?”
“We can’t allow him to tell anyone about us”, Serena replied and proceeded to activate her disk. She gasped when Yuto’s fingers closed around her arm.
“We can’t just card him, Serena”, he said dismayed.
The girl gave him a surprised look. “If he tells anyone about us, it’s over.”
“That’s not a reason!” Yuto shouted, louder than he had meant to. The echoes of terrified screams rang in his ears, desperate and helpless. “Even if he’s our enemy, we mustn’t act like that! If we do, we’re not better than him!”
Serena stared at him. He suddenly noticed how firmly he was clasping her arms and eased his grip.
“I… I’m sorry”, he muttered and took a step back. Slowly his breath calmed down again.
“Okay”, Serena said, giving the soldier another glance. “Either way, soon someone will notice his disappearance. We don’t have any more time. Can you walk?”
Yuto looked down at his chest. It still hurt from walking all the way to the doktor’s lab, but… “I think I can.”
“Good. Then we need to get going.”
“Wait a moment”, he said and grabbed her shoulder. “What does that mean?”
Serena calmly met his gaze. “I have found out where your friend is being held.”
Yuto’s heart made a leap. “You… You have found Ruri?”
She nodded. A tentative smile crept over his lips. Ruri… He would see her again… Finally!
Ruri… Don’t worry. I’m coming for you!
Chapter 6: Tower Guards
The first rays of the sun crept over the island, casting long shadows over the sea as Yuto and Serena climbed over the rocky shore.
Before they had gone off, Yuto had changed back into the dark green shirt and the ragged black cape Serena had found him in.
“When I’m going to face Ruri, I want her to see me like this”, he explained when he saw her blank look. “Not like another student of this school, but as the friend she knows.”
Serena still thought the school uniform would’ve been less of a risk, but she could see it was pointless to argue about that.
So here they were, climbing the rocks to the western tower. Of course it would’ve been faster to take the direct way through the tunnels, but at this time she didn’t dare being caught. If anyone stopped them or saw her without Barrett at her side, they’d have a whole squad on their heels in no time.
It was an exhausting walk for Yuto and Serena had to support him at the difficult parts, but after an hour the tall silhouette of the western tower loomed above them.
“Can you see it, Yuto?” she asked. “We’re almost there.”
Yuto smiled grimly and forced himself to cover the last thirty feet to its base.
“Are you alright?” Serena asked him as he leaned against the wall and gasped for breath. He nodded, although his face looked like he might have collapsed if this had gone on for much longer. She would have preferred to have had more time for him to recover properly before she dragged him here, but that was a luxury they couldn’t afford.
She offered him her support, but Yuto rejected it with a wave of his hand and straightened up. His eyes were shimmering with that firm determination again. The same determination that had captivated her before.
“You don’t have to wait much longer, Ruri”, he muttered.
She nodded. “Yes, let’s save her.”
“I’m afraid that’s not going to happen, kid.”
Both Serena and Yuto turned their heads at the sound of the cold, arrogant voice. A young woman was watching them from a small window not high above the ground. “Hey, Grace! How long do you want to keep sleeping?” she asked into the tower. “We’ve got work to do.”
Then she leapt out of the window, landing right in front of the entrance. “I’m sorry, but we cannot allow you to pass”, she said, swinging her long blonde hair over her shoulder.
Serena swore when she saw the woman’s insignia and activated her duel disk. She had expected there would be a guard, but she hadn’t thought it would be such a high-ranking one. This woman was practically an elite soldier.
“Huh? What’s wrong, Gloria?” another voice asked drowsily from above.
Serena looked up and saw a silver-haired woman in the window, not older than the first one. She blinked in the sunlight and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. Suddenly her eyes widened and an expression of utter excitement crept over her face. With a joyous squeal she jumped down as well and landed next to the first woman.
“Oh, finally! I’ve been bored silly.”
Damn! A second one. Originally she had planned to deal with the guard and give Yuto enough time to save his friend, but it seemed that wasn’t going to work now.
Nervously she glanced over to him. Yuto wasn’t really in the condition to fight, but they didn’t have any other choice.
“So…” the blonde woman growled slowly. “I guess you are the intruder we have heard of.” She looked at Yuto and her eyes narrowed. “Yes, you’re an Xyz. You have the same haunted eyes that all of you have.” Then her gaze wandered over to Serena. “But who are you?” she asked clueless. “You’re one of us. What are you doing at the side of that boy?”
“One of you?” Serena asked and clenched her teeth. “I’ll never be one of you.”
The blonde woman raised a brow. “Oh really? Well, if that’s how it is…”
“Hey… Hey Gloria”, the other woman muttered and nudged her. “I think I’ve seen that girl before. She looks like the one the professor has cast his eyes on.”
The blonde woman – Gloria – looked surprised as she examined Serena once again. “Umm… Yes, you could be right.”
“Enough talking”, Yuto said, quietly, but with such force Serena almost backed away from him. “Ruri is inside of that tower. And you are standing in my way.”
Gloria activated her disk and a fiendish smirk curved her lips. “You Xyz people really hold together like burs. That’s what makes it so easy to lure you in our little traps and crush you.”
Yuto didn’t show any reaction as he put on his own duel disk.
“You know”, the silver-haired woman began excited, “When the professor told us to guard this lame tower, I thought he had to be joking. But to think that we get to fight his precious treasure student…”
Gloria nodded. “So, for the rules: You two will face Grace and me in a two-vs-two duel. Each team’s field, graveyard and Life Points will be shared.”
Serena cast a nervous glance at Yuto. They had never fought together before. They hadn’t even seen each other’s deck. And now they were supposed to fight as a team? Judging from these rules, their opponents probably had designed their decks on team duels.
“Don’t worry”, Yuto muttered without looking at her. “We’re going to win. We don’t have any other option.”
After a moment Serena nodded.
DUEL: GLORIA and GRACE vs YUTO and SERENA
FORMAT: TAG DUEL
“Since this is a home match for us, we take the first turn if you don’t mind”, Gloria said, picking a card from her hand. “I start by playing Slow Life. As long as this card is on the field, players who have Normal Summoned or Set a monster cannot Special Summon on that turn and the other way around.”
So they were forcing them to choose between Normal and Special Summon. But why?
“Next…” Gloria almost caressingly let her finger wander over her cards. “…I activate the Spell Card Fusion. From my hand I fuse Amazoness Swords Woman and Amazoness Queen.”
Two scarcely dressed, but nevertheless muscular women appeared behind her and rose before merging in a swirling vortex of light.
“Queen of the jungle. Receive the power of the valiant swords-woman and build an empire that rules over everything! Fusion Summon! Appear! Level eight! Amazoness Empress!” (ATK: 2800)
Serena narrowed her eyes as she gazed at the dark-skinned woman wearing a long red robe and some sort of bony crown. Of course their opponents were Fusion users just like her, so she wasn’t surprised, but she had a bad feeling about that monster.
“And lastly I set one card face down and end my turn. Now show me what you’ve got, Xyz boy.”
“Very well”, Yuto replied and began his turn.
“Hey, Yuto”, Serena muttered. “Be careful about that…”
“Thank you, Serena, but I’m aware of that.”
Her breath caught for a moment. Even if it was him, it somehow bothered her to be brushed off like that. She hoped he knew what he was doing.
Yuto glanced over at Gloria’s monster and the face-down card. Then he closed his eyes.
“I set five cards face down. With that I end my turn.”
Damn! If he could just get… a little… farther…
He tucked his legs as hard as he could, but… no. He just couldn’t pull his arms out from behind his back. Barrett couldn’t fail to notice how excellently Serena had tied him up. Apparently he had taught her too well. The only thing he didn’t understand was why she had done it in the first place.
He growled through the tape that covered his mouth. Although he knew he had a thick skull, the back of his head hurt like hell. He assumed another person had struck him down from behind. Maybe it was the Xyz.
Yes, there was no way to deny it any longer. It was obvious that Serena had helped him. All the more surprising was the fact that he was still here. The Xyz would have carded him as soon as he could. Had Serena protected him? But she didn’t have any reason to. He had told her often enough to focus on her primary goal and she was collected enough to follow his advice. Normally.
He had been prepared to get carded should he fail. No, he had been certain. This situation was something he hadn’t reckoned with.
He tried to reach a nearby shelf to see if he could maybe rub the cable apart, but he all he managed to achieve was that he fell to the side. Damn! She was good. It was such a pity to lose her like that, but the professor would hardly show any mercy after such treason.
“Oh, hey. You look like you’re having trouble. Shall I lend you a hand?”
Barrett blinked and looked up. Long red curls framed the friendly smiling face of the boy who was bending over him.
“Dennis?” Barrett asked after the boy had removed the tape on his mouth. “What… What are you doing here? I didn’t hear you were coming back.”
“Oh, he told me to come back to help him find someone”, Dennis said and pointed behind him. Barrett followed his thumb and his eyes grew wide.
“Y-You! But why…?”
The dim light which fell through the door of the warehouse revealed only a fraction of that face, but a glance from these eyes was enough to make him feel uncomfortable.
“I grew bored of chasing the vermin in Heartland”, a smooth voice muttered. “I heard there was an intruder at this island who has managed to evade the guards as well as the search parties for more than a week. And I also heard rumours there might be a traitor who helps them. That has caught my interest.” The voice paused for a moment and when it spoke on, there was an enraptured tone in it. “They would serve for a most intriguing hunt, don’t you think?”
The unsettling eyes examined him closely and Barrett felt as though they were trying to scan his mind. “Say… Have you searched for them as well?”
Barrett cast down his eye. “I did.”
“I see. Then I guess that is also the reason for the… position you’re in. Where did they go?”
“I… I don’t know”, Barrett replied. “They knocked me out. When I came back to my senses, they were already gone.”
The eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Barrett didn’t even want to imagine what was going on in the head of someone who looked at others like this. Like they were just insignificant disturbances in their way, interesting toys at the best and worthless vermin at the worst.
“I see.” The figure turned around and approached the exit. “You are no longer of any use for me. Untie him, Dennis, and then come. I want to find them before anybody else does.”
“If… If you allow me a request”, Barrett said loudly and the figure stopped. “Please… spare the girl. At least until the professor decides what’s supposed to happen to her.”
The figure’s head turned back just a little, watching him from the corner of their eye. Barrett could see an utterly amused grin on their lips.
“Spare? What do you mean by that?”
“Five face-down cards? What kind of a strategy is that?!” Serena stared at him as if he had lost his mind.
“Please trust me, Serena”, he muttered quietly. Then he turned his attention back to their opponents.
“Are… Are you making fun of us, Xyz?” the blonde woman asked, gritting her teeth. “This is a battle with your life on the line. How can you not take this serious?”
“Who says I’m not taking this serious?” Yuto replied calmly.
“Piece of crap! Don’t you dare…” She stopped when the silver-haired woman raised her hand.
“Cut it out, Gloria. This is my turn.” She considered him thoughtfully. After a moment a wide smirk grew over her face. “Hmm… You’re pretty cool about your fate. It’s almost as if you were begging to be defeated.” She licked over her lips. “If so, I’ll gladly do you that favour.”
She drew a card from her deck, gave it a brief look and inserted it in her duel disk. “I activate the Continuous Spell Amazoness Magic Mirror. As long as this card is on the field, every effect damage we would take is redirected to you. And next I play Fusion Recovery. This lets me add Fusion as well as one monster that was used for a Fusion Summon from my graveyard to my hand.” She gave her partner a brief glance. “Thank you for your support, sister.”
“You’re welcome”, the blonde-haired one replied with a smile.
“And now…” She raised the card so Yuto could see it clearly and sudden anger flashed through his mind. “…I activate Fusion to fuse Amazoness Swords Woman and Amazoness Pet Tiger. Wild beast of the jungle with vicious fangs. Obtain the ferocity of the valiant swords-woman, become a new savage beast and appear! Fusion Summon! Come before us! Level seven! Amazoness Pet Liger!” (ATK: 2500)
A huge one-eyed feline landed in front of the young woman and it didn’t leave any doubt it would tear apart anything that served to become its prey. In this case… him.
“I activate my Trap Card”, Yuto said. “Phantom Knights Dark Gauntlet. This card lets me send a Phantom Spell or Trap from my deck to the graveyard. I select Phantom Knights Shadow Veil.”
“And I thought you’d play a card that would actually change something”, the woman said mockingly. “Seriously, are you even trying?”
Yuto responded with a bored look. “You talk big. Why don’t you actually try to show me a little of your superiority?”
The woman’s eyes narrowed and the grin vanished from her face. “You want me to show you?” she asked syrupy. “Then I’m going to! Amazoness Pet Liger! Attack him directly!”
Pride and overconfidence. If academia soldiers had any weaknesses, it was these. But it wasn’t that easy.
“I activate the effects of Dark Gauntlet and Shadow Veil in my graveyard. When I’m attacked directly, these cards Special Summon themselves as monsters, but they are banished when they leave the field. Also, I activate Phantom Knights Shade Brigandine which also Special Summons itself as a monster.”
The liger stopped its attack as three ghastly sets of armour appeared in front of Yuto (Dark Gauntlet ATK: 300/DEF: 600; Shadow Veil ATK: 0/DEF: 300; Shade Brigandine ATK: 0/DEF: 300).
The silver-haired woman nodded. “Yes, I know. I activate Amazoness Audience Room. Whenever you Special Summon a monster, we gain Life Points equal to those monsters’ ATK.” (Gloria and Grace: 4000 – 4300 LP)
So that was why they had imposed that restriction on Summoning.
“Alright. Pet Liger! Attack Dark Gauntlet! And I activate Pet Liger’s effect. Once per turn, if it attacks, its ATK goes up by 500 during this battle (ATK: 2500 – 3000). Also, the effect of Amazoness Empress allows all Amazoness monsters to inflict piercing damage.”
Yuto smiled as his monster was torn to shreds (Yuto and Serena: 4000 – 1600 LP).
“Since I have taken battle damage, I activate Phantom Knights Double Badge. Now I can use my remaining Phantom Knights for an Xyz Summon.”
Shadow Veil and Shade Brigandine turned into violet lights which rose into the air, before spiralling into the galaxy-shaped portal that opened in the ground. Yuto could feel his dragon’s eagerness, its desire to be on the battlefield. It was a desire he knew all too well. Although he didn’t like fighting, it was far more terrible to stay behind while his loved ones went into battle. At least here he was able to do something. And he knew his dragon felt the same.
“Formed from pitch-black darkness to fight those foolish enough to oppose it with its treacherous fangs! Now descend! Xyz Summon! Rank four! Dark Rebellion Xyz Dragon!” (ATK: 2500)
Dark Rebellion let out a loud howl as it set its eyes on their enemies who looked unsettled for a moment. Then the silver-haired cracked a broad smile.
“Thanks for granting us more Life Points”, she said and she and her sister were enveloped by a golden shimmer as their Life Points went up to 6800. “Let me guess. That thing’s your ace, right? Then I’m going to show you how powerless it really is!”
Her Pet Liger roared as it stepped up to face the new foe. Dark Rebellion hissed in response.
“Now that battle ended, Pet Liger’s ATK returns to normal (ATK: 3000 – 2500). And now her second effect strikes. After an Amazoness monster attacked, it reduces the ATK of one of your monsters by 800.”
The feline’s scarred eye opened, revealing a red vortex and a sick glow swallowed Dark Rebellion (ATK: 2500 – 1700).
The woman’s smirk grew wider and she looked almost malicious now, the same expression he had seen in Heartland over and over… right before he lost another one of his comrades.
“And now for its demise. Amazoness Empress! Strike down his pathetic lizard!” Empress raised her curved blade and charged at Yuto’s dragon.
“I activate Phantom Wing to increase my dragon’s ATK by 500 and save it from destruction once this turn.”
Dark Rebellion’s wings glowed with blue fire and it leapt forward, clashing its fangs with the woman’s blade (ATK: 1700 – 2200) (Yuto and Serena: 1600 – 1000 LP).
“Was that all you have got?” the woman asked softly. “Then let us show you despair. Pet Liger’s effect activates again, stealing another 800 of your dragon’s ATK.” (ATK: 2200 – 1400)
Yuto clenched his hand into a fist. Their opponents were strong. There was no denying that.
“I set a card face down and let you take over. You better don’t disappoint us.”
“Now that the turn has ended”, Yuto said quietly, “Phantom Wing’s effect expires.” (Dark Rebellion ATK: 1400 – 900)
It hurt to see Dark Rebellion like that, hanging its head, its wings lolling powerlessly to the ground. He reached out to stroke over the monster’s leg. Suddenly a hand grabbed his collar and turned him around, making him stare into Serena’s angry face.
“What the hell are you doing there, Yuto? We need to win this duel in order to rescue your comrade. So why do you risk so much for that useless monster?!”
When he looked at her firm, burning eyes, Yuto was able to forget for a moment everything that had happened between them. What he saw were the deadly eyes of a soldier with no intention to hold back or show mercy. A soldier with a spirit of iron.
“Serena”, he muttered distantly. “Say, do you have any idea how much it angers me to fight side by side with a Fusion Summoner?”
Confusion crept over her face. “What… What do you mean by that?” she asked and behind that restrained voice he could sense her ire boiling up even further.
He grabbed the wrist of the hand which held his collar and met her gaze with all the firmness he had. “What I’m saying is that, despite that, I still consider you a comrade, just like Ruri, Shun, or even Dark Rebellion. I will protect my comrades no matter what. That’s who I am. And… I know they’re worth it.”
Chapter 7: The Value of Trust
For a few seconds Serena was unsure what to say or think. Thoughts were swirling in her head like a flock of alarmed birds.
A comrade… Yuto’s hatred at academia and everything that had to do with it… Her dismay when he revealed the truth to her… The tingling sensation left on her lips after he had kissed her… His vow to protect his comrades. And yet, above all was that deep conviction in his grey eyes.
A comrade… Maybe she was disappointed. Maybe she wanted to be more to him, but… for now it was enough. It was enough to be acknowledged, something she had yearned for for years.
“I… I… I see”, she managed to bring out and let go of his collar. “Then let’s win this.”
“Hey, you love birdies! Are you done now?”
They turned back at their opponents as one man. Yuto gave her hand a light squeeze before he let go. “I trust you”, he whispered.
Serena felt the heat creep on her cheeks and tried to focus her thoughts back on the duel. “Alright”, she muttered. “I draw.”
Arrogance. It was written all over their opponents’ faces. They thought they had won already. If there was one thing which truly angered her, it was not being taken serious.
“I activate the Spell Card Fusion. From my hand I fuse Moonlight Kaleido Chick and Moonlight Purple Butterfly.”
The two girls in their gym-like suits appeared beside Serena, one yellow with a translucent cape she wielded like wings, the other one violet and with beautiful blueish wings with a yellow dot. Although they were just cards, Serena shared a deep bond with them, like the only friends she had ever had at this school. Like comrades, maybe.
“Stealthy chick that floats through the nightly sky! Butterfly with violet poison! Spiral into the moon’s gravity and become a new power! Fusion Summon! Come to me! Dance in the moonlight, my beautiful beast! Moonlight Cat Dancer!” (ATK: 2400)
“Then that’s more Life Points for us”, Grace remarked with a smile and the sisters were covered in a golden shimmer once more (Gloria and Grace: 6800 – 9200 LP).
Serena couldn’t help but smile as well. Enjoy that feeling while it lasts.
“Kaleido Chick’s effect activates. Since she was sent to the graveyard by a card effect, I can add Fusion from my graveyard back to my hand.”
Her disk vomited the card and she placed it in her hand. Right now her Cat Dancer couldn’t beat any of their monsters and because of Slow Life she couldn’t Normal Summon. But that wasn’t the only way to bring out a monster.
“I activate the effect of Purple Butterfly from my graveyard. By banishing her, I can Special Summon Moonlight Blue Cat from my hand.” (ATK: 1600)
The blue-furred feline jumped in front of her and took a fighting stance (Gloria and Grace: 9200 – 10800 LP). She was one of Serena’s favourites and there was a good reason for that.
“I activate Blue Cat’s effect. When she is Special Summoned, I can double the ATK of another Moonlight monster I control. And of course I select Cat Dancer.”
The elegant dancer gave her opponents a sharp-toothed grin as her ATK went up to 4800.
“And next I activate Cat Dancer’s effect. By releasing Blue Cat, she can attack every monster you control twice this turn.”
A hint of worry flickered over their opponents’ faces. How do you like this, huh?
“Serena. Use my power too.”
Yuto was giving her an encouraging look and she nodded. “I activate Dark Rebellion Xyz Dragon’s effect.”
“By detaching two of its Xyz Materials Dark Rebellion can half the ATK of one of your monsters and gain ATK equal to that loss”, Yuto explained as Dark Rebellion slashed the two glowing orbs that floated around it. Blue lightning began to lick over its wings. “The monster we choose is Amazoness Empress. Treason Discharge!”
With a roar Dark Rebellion unleashed the charge at Empress who let out a scream when the lightning struck her (Empress: 2800 – 1400; Dark Rebellion: 900 – 2300).
“Well, well”, Grace interjected. “But you should know a thing. As long as Pet Liger is on my field, you aren’t allowed to attack any other Amazoness monster on our field.”
“Then that just means we have to get rid of it first”, Serena replied. “Cat Dancer! Take care of that ugly kitten.”
Cat Dancer smiled before she leapt into the air, lashing out at Pet Liger.
“When Cat Dancer attacks, she inflicts one hundred points of damage to your Life Points.”
Grace smirked. “But as you know, thanks to Amazoness Magic Mirror you will take that damage instead of us.”
A mirror materialised in front of the women and Cat Dancer scratched Serena’s reflexion instead (Yuto and Serena: 1000 – 900 LP). Then she jumped back before charging at Pet Liger again (Gloria and Grace: 10800 – 8500 LP).
“The first time your Liger isn’t destroyed, but that’s not going to help you.”
“Hey”, Yuto interrupted her. “If you attack, we’ll take further damage.”
She made a grimace. “You wasted three thousand of our life Points already. I do not need to hear this from you.” She turned back to their opponents. “Cat Dancer! Strike down that Liger for good!”
The Magic Mirror appeared again, but Serena didn’t care about their Life Points dropping to 800. Pet Liger let out a roar and the two felines clashed again. Serena’s monster evaded its paws effortlessly before she dug her claws into Pet Liger’s flesh (Gloria and Grace: 8500 – 6200 LP).
“Great”, Serena muttered. “And now for your other…”
She gasped when Pet Liger trotted in front of Empress, seemingly unscathed.
“But… But how…?”
A quiet laugh reached her ears.
“That wasn’t bad. Really”, Gloria said with a grin. “As expected from the professor’s pet student. But it appears you didn’t know that Amazoness Empress protects all Amazoness monsters on our field from destruction.”
Serena swore. One monster saved the other from being attacked and the other made it impossible to destroy them. Along with Magic Mirror which shielded them from effect damage and Audience Room which continually increased the Life Points, it would be really difficult to defeat them.
“I set one card face down and end my turn”, she muttered chagrined.
“Oh, then let us add the next piece to your despair”, Grace interjected and revealed the face-down card in front of her. “Since we’ve taken battle damage this turn, we can activate Amazoness Curse Mirror. This card allows us to negate one instance of battle damage per turn.”
Damn! Just when she thought it couldn’t get any more difficult.
“Now Moonlight Blue Cat’s effect wears off and Cat Dancer’s ATK returns to normal”, she said through clenched teeth (Cat Dancer ATK: 4800 – 2400).
“I’m surprised, professor. Isn’t that girl one of your favourites? You don’t seem to be surprised about her betrayal.”
The man did not answer, silently staring at the monitor in front of them.
“She’s all yours, Gloria”
“Thanks, Grace. I draw.”
As he watched the professor, he noticed it wasn’t the girl he was looking at, but the Xyz boy. Somehow his face looked familiar.
“That boy”, the professor muttered distantly. “He is… dangerous.”
“You know him?”
Again, the professor didn’t answer although his expression seemed to be darkening with every second.
“Amazoness Pet Liger, attack Moonlight Cat Dancer!”
Well, it didn’t really matter how this duel would end. They would be the winners anyway, so he might simply enjoy the show.
“I activate Pet Liger’s effect, increasing its ATK by 500.” (ATK: 2500 – 3000)
Cat Dancer flinched when she parried the mighty strike of the Liger.
“Guess what”, Serena muttered. “Your monsters aren’t the only ones that cannot be destroyed in battle.”
Still, it was alarming their Life Points had already dropped to 200 while their opponents’ were 6000 higher.
“Then I activate Pet Liger’s second effect to reduce your kitty’s ATK by 800.”
The liger opened its dead eye and Cat Dancer was covered by that sick aura as her ATK fell to 1600. Still, she was stronger than that woman’s Empress.
“I know what you think”, Gloria said with a smirk. “Amazoness Empress, attack her Cat Dancer!”
Serena gasped. If she had a card that would increase Empress’ ATK, they’d lose.
“Thanks to Amazoness Curse Mirror the battle damage is negated. And of course, Empress cannot be destroyed in battle.”
Cat Dancer parried the woman’s blade with her claws. Serena swore inwardly when she realised.
“And now Pet Liger’s effect will steal another 800 ATK from your cat (ATK: 1600 – 800). With that I end my turn.”
Angrily Serena bit the bottom of her lip. It frustrated her. It frustrated her to be unable to do anything.
“She attacked although she knew she couldn’t win, just to weaken our monster”, Yuto commented.
Serena sighed before she turned to him. “I’m sorry. I wish I could’ve done more.”
He met her gaze and for a moment a warm smile played around his lips. “What are you talking about? You’ve done more than enough.”
Serena’s eyes widened a little. “Thank you” she muttered and took a step back.
Yuto glanced over at their opponents and his face grew serious again. “Alright. Then it’s my turn. I draw.” He took a look at the card and a smile tugged at his lips.
“I activate the Spell Card Foolish Burial to send Phantom Knights Fragile Armor from my deck to the graveyard. Then I banish Phantom Wing from my graveyard to activate its effect and Special Summon Fragile Armor in defence position.” (ATK: 1000, DEF: 2000)
Blue fire shimmered through the gaps of the ragged suit of armour which appeared in front of him (Gloria and Grace: 6200 – 7200 LP).
“Next, I activate my face-down Phantom Knights Lost Vambrace. This card reduces the ATK of Fragile Armor by 600, changes its level to two and Special Summons itself in defence position.” (Fragile Armor ATK: 1000 – 400, Level: 4 – 2; Lost Vambrace ATK: 600/DEF: 0)
Another ghastly phantom appeared in front of Yuto. Once again Amazoness Audience Room bathed the field in its golden light as their opponents’ Life Points rose to 7800.
Serena grew more and more confused by Yuto’s fighting style. It was so completely unlike everything that was taught here at academia. Summon strong monsters to overwhelm your opponent or control the field with restrictive effects. That were the basic tactics that everyone here followed. Yuto’s deck was entirely different. She wondered if the other duellists from Xyz duelled that way as well. If they did, she wanted to see them with her own eyes. No. She had to see them with her own eyes.
“Now, I overlay the level two monsters Fragile Armor and Lost Vambrace. Piercing through ten thousand warriors, cursed spear of rebellion entombed in darkness, descend now! Xyz Summon! Come forth! Rank two! Phantom Knights Cursed Javelin!” (ATK: 1600) (Gloria and Grace: 7800 – 9400 LP)
Black mist gathered in front of Yuto. Inside it a blue fire began to glow, revealing a gloomy warrior, wielding a large round shield as well as a dark spear adorned with skulls.
“I switch Moonlight Cat Dancer to defence position. Then I play a card face down and end my turn.”
Serena heard a noisy snort and looked over at Gloria who was glaring at Yuto, her face spotting a scornful smile.
“Again, you end your turn without attacking? You Xyz scum really are cowards. Your partner has done a lot more than you.”
“That may be right”, Yuto replied. “But… I don’t care about credit or glory like you do. I merely do what it takes to ensure our victory.”
“Tsk. Victory? You must be insane.”
“Why don’t you prove me wrong then?”
Serena hadn’t been able to imagine that woman’s glare could grow any more sinister. “Do it, Grace”, she growled deadly.
“With pleasure”, the other woman said in a honeyed voice. She drew and took a brief glance at her card before she added it to her hand.
“Amazoness Pet Liger! Attack Dark Rebellion Xyz Dragon!”
“Futile. I activate Cursed Javelin’s effect. By detaching one Xyz Material it can negate the effects of an opponent’s monster and reduce its ATK to 0 until the end of this turn.”
Grace gasped in shock as Cursed Javelin raised its spear and fired a streak of light at her monster. Pet Liger’s roar turned into a wail as the effect drained all of its strength (ATK: 2500 – 0). When it was about to bob up, Dark Rebellion was over it, slashing it with its long, sharp fangs. Grace gritted her teeth as her monster hit the ground in front of her.
“You little… Don’t forget, as long as Amazoness Empress is on our field, Pet Liger can’t be destroyed. And thanks to Cursed Mirror we don’t take any battle damage.”
“Of course”, Yuro replied calmly. “You still have an attack left, haven’t you? Now, what are you going to do?”
Grace’s face turned into a scowl. “I end my turn. Now Pet Liger’s ATK and effects return.” (ATK: 0 – 2500)
Gloria raised her hand, slowly, until her finger pointed directly at Yuto.
“Now I’m certain of it. I despise the way you fight, Xyz boy. You’re using roundabout tactics to prolong the fight. A true duellist would fight with all their soul to defeat their enemy in an honest battle. You don’t have that soul.”
Her voice was so full of disgust it made Serena shiver, but Yuto met her gaze calmly, without the slightest hint of insecurity. It was breathtaking.
“All I did was protecting my monsters, protecting my comrades.” He paused for a moment and took a deep breath, before he continued. “Earlier, you taunted me for it and called it a weakness that I’m clinging to my comrades. You may be right. But you know what? It is because of that same reason that we’re going to win in the end.”
He turned to Serena and held out his fist.
“I’ve set up a path to victory. Now I’ll leave the rest to you, okay?”
Confused, Serena looked down at his hand and back at his face. Then she smiled.
“Yeah. Let’s win this”, she said, boxing her fist against his. She felt as though a light spark was jumping over to her, running up her arm and filling her from inside. She sensed the depth of his determination, the warmth of his trust. Even though they were on the edge of losing and up against an almost unbreakable defence, she felt as if she could take on two hundred duellists at once.
“It’s my turn. Draw.”
She took a brief glance at her card. Then her gaze wandered to the face-down card Yuto had left for her. Suddenly she realised and a smile spread over her face.
There was a way to win.
“From my hand I activate Fusion, fusing Moonlight Cat Dancer on my field with Moonlight White Rabbit in my hand. Beautiful beast dancing in the moonlight. Lively white rabbit illuminated by moonlight! Swarm in the vortex of moon’s gravity and become a new power! Fusion Summon! Come forth! Elegant beast dancing in the moonlit wilderness! Moonlight Panther Dancer!” (ATK: 2800)
The elegant woman in the light-blue dress and the young white-furred girl with the rabbit ears took each other’s hand and ascended into the air, merging in a spiralling whirl before revealing a dark-skinned woman with a predatory grin (Gloria and Grace: 9400 – 12200 LP).
“Then I activate Moon Light Perfume to revive Blue Cat from my graveyard.”
A portal opened in the ground and Blue Cat jumped out of it (Gloria and Grace: 12200 – 13800 LP).
“And with her effect I double the ATK of my Panther Dancer.” (ATK: 2800 – 5600)
“I have no idea what you’re doing there”, Grace purred as the golden shimmer faded away. “But thank you for giving us even more Life Points.”
A quiet laugh followed her words. To her surprise Serena noticed it was coming from Yuto.
“You fools. Can’t you see defeat when it stares you in the face?” He gave Serena a sidelong glance.
She nodded. “I activate our face-down card Phantom Sword. This card increases the ATK of one monster on the field by 800.”
“So you’re increasing your Dancer’s ATK?”
Yes, probably she would’ve done that a week ago. Now though…
“My Dancer? Why do you think that?” Serena asked in feigned bewilderment. “No, the monster I choose is Amazoness Empress.”
The muscular woman made a baffled face when her curved blade turned into a straight sword (ATK: 1400 – 2200).
“You’re increasing our monster’s ATK?” Gloria muttered. “But why?”
“You’ll see soon enough”, Serena replied. “I activate the effect of Cursed Javelin. I detach one Xyz Material to reduce the ATK of Empress to 0 and negate her effects until the end of this turn.”
The Phantom Knight raised its spear and fired a streak of light at Empress. Gloria’s monster gasped in pain and swayed, holding her side (ATK: 2200 – 0). A spark of realisation flashed over the blonde woman’s face and she shot Serena an angry glare.
“I don’t know what your problem is? I thought you didn’t want me to disappoint you.” She paused and took a breath. Alright. “Last, I activate Panther Dancer’s effect. This turn she can attack all of your monsters twice.”
“But thanks to Pet Liger’s effect you cannot attack any other monster on our field”, Grace replied with a smile. “And we have more than enough Life Points.”
“Are you so sure about that?” Serena asked. “Panther Dancer, attack Amazoness Pet Liger!”
The elegant woman leapt into the air, drawing an arc over Pet Liger’s head, before she landed behind it and slashed it with her sharp claws (Gloria and Grace: 13800 – 10700 LP). The feline roared angrily and tried to strike back, but Panther Dancer was already gone, whirling behind its back and slashing it again.
Grace’s finger flicked to her duel disk, but she froze abruptly when Gloria caught her wrist.
“Since Amazoness Empress’s effects are negated, Pet Liger is no longer invincible”, Serena explained as the monster vanished with a sustained wail (Gloria and Grace 10700 – 7600 LP). “And now, since Panther Dancer has destroyed a monster in battle, her ATK goes up by 200 for the rest of the battle.” (ATK: 5600 – 5800)
“Gloria, what…?” Grace asked confused, but Gloria gave her a serious look.
“Leave it to me, Grace, okay?”
She nodded and both of them turned back to Serena.
“Panther Dancer, attack Amazoness Empress”, Serena ordered and only a flash of purple could be seen before Empress swayed as Panther Dancer appeared behind her.
“We use the effect of Cursed Mirror to negate the battle damage”, Gloria said and her monster came back to her feet, a sinister scowl on her face.
“Then now Panther Dancer attacks Empress a second time.”
Panther Dancer materialised in front of the battered ruler and slashed her before she could even raise her sword (Gloria and Grace 7600 – 1800 LP).
“Then now that Empress has fallen, I can activate her effect and revive Amazoness Queen from my grave-”
She gasped when Empress staggered back to her feet, her face a mask of pain and anger.
“What… But… But how?”
“You want to know?” Yuto asked calmly. “It was because of Phantom Sword. When the monster wielding it would be destroyed, we can destroy Phantom Sword instead. So since your Empress never left the field, her effect can’t activate.”
He made a step towards the two women who were staring at him like he had just announced their deaths.
“You said you could see in my eyes that I’m from Heartland”, he continued. “So it’s superfluous to ask whether you were there too. And it’s as obvious you’ve hunted my comrades as well. Let me ask you one question.” He paused for a moment and closed his eyes. “Did you… enjoy it?”
When he opened his eyes again, Gloria and Grace were staring fearfully at him. Even Serena shuddered at the hardness of his face, at the overwhelming anger in his eyes.
“Yes”, he said calmly. “I can see in your eyes that you did. In that case I don’t have any reason to spare you.”
He raised his hand into the air and a serpentine neck appeared above him. A pair of yellow eyes glared fiercely down at the two women.
“Dark Rebellion Xyz Dragon! Attack Amazoness Empress! Lightning Disobey of Rebellion!”
The dragon let out a roar and thrust its fangs into the ground. With a beat of its mighty wings it leapt forward, tearing a cleft into the ground and cutting the warrior in half.
“I can’t believe it”, Gloria muttered faintly. “We are…”
“…losing” Grace whispered and dropped to her knees (Gloria and Grace 1800 – 0 LP).
Both of them glanced at Yuto when he stepped in front of them, his hand hovering over his duel disk.
“Go on”, Gloria pressed out. “Do it quick.” Tears of anger and self-hatred glistened in her eyes.
Yuto held her gaze for a few seconds. Then he lowered his hands.
“W-What?! But… we have lost! And… you have every reason to hate us!”
“You are right. I do hate you”, Yuto answered calmly and turned around. “But I am not like you.”
Gloria curled her hands into fists and her face grew even angrier. “You coward!” she shouted. “Do you want to deny us an honourable end?!”
Yuto stopped and cast a glance over his shoulder. “You consider it an honour to die?” he asked. Then he continued his way. “Keep your lives and atone for what you’ve done. Maybe one day I will stop hating you.”
Chapter 8: Escape
“It seems they’ve won”, he said, turning his eyes to the man beside him.
The professor was sitting upright in his chair, his fingers tightly clasped around the arms. He reached out and pressed a button on his desk.
“All remaining units, go in”, he ordered without taking his eyes off the monitor. “They mustn’t enter the tower. Capture them alive at any cost.”
“Oh, professor, you are far too tense. All of this is unnecessary. In a few minutes you will witness the terror of my little children.”
“You won’t do anything unless I tell you, doktor”, the man said and gave him a strict glare.
“Of course, professor. I am at your service”, he replied with a light bow.
“Good.” The professor’s eyes flicked back to the monitor and his expression darkened. “That boy… He must be eliminated.”
It wasn’t new to hear his old colleague say things like that. He was waging war against the other worlds after all. But this fierceness was something he’d never seen on him before. Yes… It was the first time that untouchable man was actually worried about something.
“Say, professor”, he asked. “Why does that boy distress you like that?”
Yuto sighed as he left the women behind and walked back to Serena.
“We… We did it”, she muttered, casting her eyes at the ground.
“Yes”, he replied and gave her a smile. “Thank you.”
“You… You don’t need to thank me. I’m sure you could’ve won alone too.”
“Maybe, yes. But that wasn’t what I meant.” Her eyes flicked up, surprised. “Regardless of whether I could’ve won alone, I am glad you were by my side.”
She held his gaze for a few seconds before she cracked a smile as well. Yuto looked up at the tower looming above them. “Let’s go.”
“You won’t go anywhere”, a foreign voice said.
He darted around and felt a stab of anger when he met the masked faces of the Obelisk Force. Five – no – eight of them approached them and all spotted the same boastful smirk.
Damn! It appeared their duel with the tower guards hadn’t remained unnoticed. By the time they’d have defeated all of them the entire island would be here.
“Go”, Serena repeated calmly. “I’ll take care of them.”
Yuto gasped. “But Serena… You can’t win against all of them!”
“I can and I will.”
He fell quiet when she gave him a piercing glance. “Do you trust me?” she asked.
After a moment he realised she really was serious about this. Just as serious as he was about finding Ruri.
“Yes, I do”, he answered.
“Then… Would you please close your eyes?”
“W-What? Why should I…?”
“Just do it.”
He stared at her for a few seconds. “Okay”, he said and closed his eyes.
Suddenly something soft touched his lips. He involuntarily opened his eyes, and when he saw Serena’s face right in front of his own, he attempted to back away, but her hand grabbed his shoulder and held him in place. A moment later she pulled away and opened her shimmering green eyes.
“And now go. Rescue your friend.”
He nodded, too confused to answer. He felt reluctant to leave her side, but at the same time the thought of seeing Ruri again drew him away.
Serena… Please hang on, he thought as he stumbled through the door and began climbing the steps as fast as he could. He swore when his ribs started to throb again, but nevertheless he forced himself to go on. He had come this far already. There was no way he could be stopped here by something like that.
“Which one of you wants to get beaten first?” Serena’s voice shouted from below.
A smile crept on Yuto’s lips and he realised there was no need to worry about her. He needed to only look forward now.
Ruri, I’m almost there.
Finally the upper end of the stairway came in view. It was blocked by a massive-looking wooden door.
“I don’t have time for that”, he said and activated his duel disk. “Phantom Knights Crack Helm! Attack!”
A ghastly helmet appeared along with a pair of gauntlets, both shimmering with blue fire, and with a loud clonk the Phantom Knight threw itself against the door. Dust fell on the ground as the lock broke and the heavy door smacked against the wall. However, Yuto didn’t care about any of that. He only had eyes for the surprised face that met him from inside.
“Y-Yuto?” she muttered, standing up from her bed. “I-Is that really you?”
Yuto stopped in the doorway and gasped for breath. Then he gave her a smile.
“Yes. It’s me.”
One moment they were gazing at each other. The next Ruri was throwing her arms around him, her dark, silken hair flowing around his neck.
“Oh, Yuto! I’m so glad!”
“Ouch! Ruri! You’re hurting me…” he coughed.
She started and backed away, making a worried face. “I’m so sorry, Yuto! Are you hurt?” Her eyes widened when she saw the bandages beneath his shirt.
“It’s not that bad”, he gasped and tried to conceal the pain in his chest.
Ruri sighed relieved. Then she carefully touched him and he allowed her to rest her head against his shoulder, wrapping his arms around her back.
“Ruri… You can’t tell how much I missed you.”
He heard a quiet sniff and noticed Ruri was trembling faintly.
“Yeah… Me to.”
After a moment she pulled away. Tears were glistening in her eyes.
“Let’s go home”, he said and took her hand.
She smiled warmly and nodded. Then a loud explosion reached them from below. Right.
“There’s someone we need to pick up before that”, he muttered and they began to descend the stairway.
“Pick someone up?” Ruri asked bewildered.
“Yes. She’s helped me a lot. I can’t leave her here.”
There was another blast and then a moment of silence.
“You fucking bastards! Panther Dancer! Attack all of them at once!”
Yuto couldn’t help but smile as he listened to the series of explosions and incredulous shouts. When they stepped outside, they saw Serena standing in front of the door. Her jacket had a long tear and she was breathing heavily. The ground in front of her was covered with unconscious soldiers.
She turned around and a smile flashed over her face. “There you are.”
Then she froze as her gaze fell at Ruri and at the same moment Yuto felt how Ruri’s grip on his hand tightened.
“How can this…?”
The two girls stared at each other like they were seeing a ghost. Yuto couldn’t blame them. He had been surprised too and of course it was a whole different thing to actually be the one.
“Yuto, what… What does this mean?” Ruri muttered. She was clasping his arm like it was some kind of anchor now.
“I don’t know what it means”, he answered. “But could we please discuss this after we’ve escaped. There could be more guards showing up any minute.”
“Y-Yeah”, Serena mumbled, tearing her eyes away from the other girl’s face. She pressed a few buttons on her duel disk. Then she looked around and irritation crept over her face.
Again she pressed a button on her disk, without effect.
“What’s wrong?” Yuto asked worried.
“I’m not sure”, she replied. “It’s not working.”
Suddenly they heard a hoarse laugh from the ground. “Do not bother. There’s no way for you to flee”, one of the soldiers said and gave them a gloating smirk.
Serena gave out a deep growl. “Damn professor! Somehow he must be blocking it.”
Yuto gasped. That would mean they couldn’t use the travel function. Crap!
“Isn’t there any other way? Think, Serena!”
“I’m trying to!” she snapped and made a concentrated face. “Taking a boat won’t be possible now that we’ve been found… Hiding? No…” Deep furrows formed on her forehead. Suddenly her brows flicked up. “That’s it. There’s a stationary travel machine in an old research laboratory. Maybe it isn’t affected. Come on!”
She turned on her heels and ran towards the tunnel. Yuto followed her, pulling Ruri with him.
“She… She’s from academia”, Ruri said quietly. “Can we really trust her, Yuto?”
Despite the graveness of the situation, Yuto couldn’t help but smile as he watched the blueish ponytail flapping up and down in front of them.
“Yes, we can. I would entrust her with my life. After all she’s my comrade.”
Serena turned around as few times as she could. They didn’t have any time to waste if they wanted to make it out in one piece, but first of all it frightened her to look at Yuto’s comrade.
Aside from the dark lilac, almost black hair and the magenta eyes, they looked exactly alike. She made Serena feel as if she was looking into a mirror. It was an unsettling feeling and that was the least she could use now.
Just focus on the here and now, she told herself. Down the stairway and then left. Past a training room and then all the way down the corridor. A few times she caught a glimpse of red or yellow, students who were on their way to their first classes, but none of them had the presence of mind to stop them. They whipped around a corner and some teacher shouted at them for running in the corridor. She couldn’t help but grin at how ridiculous it was.
There it was. The stairway that led down to the laboratory. She sent a brief glance over her shoulder. Yuto and Ruri were still behind her. Good.
Taking two steps at a time she flew down the stairs, whipping around on the landing and running down to the bottom. If she remembered correctly, it must be somewhere… There! On the right, behind the corner at the end of the corridor.
She had almost crossed half the distance when she heard a noise and a pained gasp behind her. With a swear she came to a stop and ran back.
Yuto had tripped and was lying on the floor, holding his chest. Ruri was kneeling over him, a worried look on her face.
“We have to go on”, Serena said as she reached them.
Ruri opened her mouth to protest, but Yuto held her back. “I know”, he gasped. “You have to go without me. Get yourself to safety.”
“But Yuto…” Ruri began, but stopped when Serena squatted down.
“The fuck I’m leaving you behind now”, she said and pulled his arm over her shoulder. “It’s not far. Just around that corner. Don’t you dare trip again.”
For a moment both Yuto and Ruri stared at her. Then Yuto cracked a wry smile. “I guess I have no choice, then.”
Ruri supported his other side and together they staggered on. With each step she heard Yuto’s strained breath as well as Ruri’s and her own. A strange feeling began to form somewhere deep inside of her. Something warm. Something she had never felt before. It was not like the feeling when they had kissed. It was… milder… gentler.
Whatever it was, she wanted to hold it as deeply as she could. She wanted… She wanted all three of them to get out of here and be able to live someplace far, far away from here. To do that they just needed to make it around that corner and into the trave-
Ruri gasped and from one moment to the next Serena felt as though her spirit had faded. A heavy fence was blocking their path.
“I… I don’t understand”, she whispered in disbelief. “This wasn’t here before.”
“Take a step back”, Yuto muttered and straightened up. “I can tear it away with Dark Rebellion.”
“Trying to break straight through the wall? That’s hardly your style, Yuto, isn’t it?”
Serena darted around at the soft, almost joking voice behind them. A boy with fire-red curls was standing in the corridor, giving them a playful smile.
“D-Dennis?” Ruri stuttered in shock. “What… What are you doing here?”
“Hello, Ruri. It’s nice to see you.” He sighed dreamily. “Ah… This brings back so many pleasant memories. I never thought I’d see you getting captured twice.”
A growl escaped Serena’s throat. Something about that boy was annoying her to the core. “Hey, you! Are you behind this?” she asked and pointed at the fence behind her. “Open it now unless you want me to force you to.”
“Serena, isn’t it? I’ve heard much about your hot temper already.” He paused for a moment and his smile widened a little as he examined her. “As you can see, I am in front of it, just like you are.”
“Cut your damn jokes! If you don’t want to open it, then I’ll make you after I thrash you.”
The boy reached for his forehead and tilted back his head in an absurdly exaggerated manner. “Oh, I’d love to duel you. Really. But that would be very rude of me. After all I’ve brought you someone who’s even more eager to fight you.”
She heard calm footsteps and then Dennis stepped aside as another figure appeared from a side corridor. Yuto gasped and Ruri let out a quiet whimper when the boy turned to them.
“Damn! Why did he have to show up now?!”
“Professor?” he asked surprised.
The professor didn’t respond. Cold anger was burning in his eyes as he silently watched the monitor.
“Why are you so upset?” he muttered gently as he stepped behind his colleague. “Are you afraid he might hurt the girls?”
Suddenly the man whirled around and he involuntarily backed away under the fierceness of his glare.
“We have to stop this before it gets out of hands. Doktor, retrieve the girls. All soldiers are to detain Yuri.” He paused for a moment and a bitter seriousness crept over his face. “If we fail here, it might be the end to our ambitions.”
With blowing cape the professor left the room. The doktor looked after him for a few seconds. Then a smile spread over his lips. “I can’t understand your worries, professor. We still hold all the cards.”
A shrill giggle rose in his chest and he didn’t bother suppressing it. He would get what he wanted anyway.
Serena could feel how her fighting instincts began to take over as these cold eyes examined her. When his gaze wandered to Yuto, the boy’s lips twitched a little. Then he burst into wild laughter.
“I’ve tried to imagine how the person who managed to break through academia’s security and even rescue one of the pieces I’ve hunted down for the professor would be. How strange that I didn’t even consider it would be you. That has to be fate.”
With a smile he activated his duel disk.
“No, Yuri!” Serena said and made a step forward. “He’s injured. I’m going to be your opponent.”
He gave out an amused snort. “You cannot beat me. A match against you wouldn’t be any fun.”
A flame of hot-burning anger rose inside of her. How could he simply brush her off like some insignificant disturbance?!
“Yuri, you…” She stopped surprised, when a hand touched her shoulder.
“It’s okay, Serena. This is something I have to do alone.”
He gave her a warm smile. “I’ll be fine. Trust me. And besides…” His expression darkened when he looked over at Yuri. “…I still have a score to settle with that creep.”
Serena’s gaze wandered to Ruri who had sunken to the ground, her face a mask of silent dread.
“O-Okay”, she said and swallowed. “Don’t you lose. Got that?”
“Yes, sir”, he replied quietly before he activated his disk as well.
“Great”, Yuri said excited. “Then we can get started. Should you manage to win, I’ll open the lockdown. Does that sound fair to you?”
“I guess I don’t need to ask what happens if I lose”, Yuto answered grimly.
“Oh, you’re funny”, Yuri remarked with a smile.
DUEL: YURI vs YUTO
FORMAT: STANDARD DUEL
“I think I’ll set a card face down. And then a monster in defence position too”, Yuri said. “That’s all.”
Serena took a seat next to Ruri. After a moment she placed an arm around the shaking girl.
“It’s okay. Everything’s okay.”
Ruri stared at her as if she had just claimed the sky was green. Then she turned her eyes forward and began rocking back and forth.
Awkwardly Serena stroked over her back. Although she had just met that girl she suddenly felt deep sympathy for her. “I-I’m sorry.”
She had heard of soldiers who came back from the front in a state of mental disorder, just staring at the walls, not recognising the things that were happening around them. There wasn’t much they could do for these people, the doctors had told her. Nevertheless it felt awful to not be able to do anything for this terrified, shaking girl beside her.
“Soul of knights who fell on the battlefield. Revive here and now and become the light that breaks the darkness! Xyz Summon! Appear! Rank three! Phantom Knights Break Sword (ATK: 2000)! And I also activate its effect. By detaching one Xyz Material it can destroy one card on each of our fields. I destroy Break Sword as well as your face-down monster.”
Yuri doubled over with laughter. “But why would you sacrifice your own monster for that?”
“Because now that Break Sword has been destroyed, its effect lets me revive the Dusty Robe and Silent Boots in my graveyard and increase their level by one.”
Two Phantom Knights in ragged clothing appeared in front of Yuto, sending a blue shimmer over the columns that lined the corridor (Dusty Robe ATK: 800, Level: 3 – 4; Silent Boots ATK: 200, Level: 3 – 4).
“And now I overlay my two level four Phantom Knights. Formed from pitch-black darkness, to fight those foolish enough to oppose it with its treacherous fangs! Now descend! Xyz Summon! Rank four! Dark Rebellion Xyz Dragon!” (ATK: 2500)
Like a black cloud Yuto’s dragon hovered above him and after a moment Ruri calmed down and her eyes regained a faint shimmer of awareness.
“If you fight one of us, you have to face all of us, Yuri. And if you hurt one of us, you are going to feel the combined wrath of each and every one of us.” Yuto glanced back at Ruri and her and his face hardened. “You have hurt one of the most important people in my life. I am not going to forgive you for that! Dark Rebellion Xyz Dragon! Unleash your fury!”
With a flash of lightning Dark Rebellion charged forward, tearing up the ground, and covered the corridor in a choking cloud of dust.
Serena coughed and tried to blink away the tears as she squinted through the dust. She could see the dark shapes of Yuto and his dragon. He stood a little crooked as he held his chest. A cough beside her told her that Ruri was alright as well.
Suddenly a rhythmic sound came from beyond the cloud. “That was brilliant!” Yuri said and applauded ecstatically. “But I’m afraid it was all in vain. I activated my Trap Card Predator Plants Reborn and revived Predator Plants Pterapenthes to take your attack.”
Serena couldn’t say she was surprised. There was a good reason Yuri was known as the most fearsome duellist of academia. The professor had never allowed her to duel him, but she had watched him a few times. He didn’t fight for glory or acknowledgement, but for the joy of mercilessly crushing his opponents.
“I set two cards face down and end my turn”, Yuto said with an angry face, inserting the cards into his disk.
“Well then. I Normal Summon Predator Plants Ophrys Scorpio (ATK: 1200). When it is summoned, I can discard a Predator Plants monster to Special Summon another Predator Plants monster from my deck. Come forth! Darling Cobra!” (ATK: 1000)
A split-stemmed serpentine plant appeared in front of Yuri, giving out a quiet hiss.
“And when Darling Cobra has been Special Summoned, it allows me to add Fusion from my deck to my hand.”
Suddenly Ruri reached for Serena’s hand, squeezing it so tightly it almost hurt. Her eyes were wide with horror as she stared at the ground in front of her, slowly rocking her head back and forth.
“Our true duel starts now”, Yuri whispered with a soft smirk. “From my hand I activate the Spell Card Fusion. And I fuse Predator Plants Ophrys Scorpio and Darling Cobra. Two beautiful flowers with an insect-alluring fragrance! Now become one and from the hell beneath your petals give birth to a new terror! Fusion Summon! Appear! Poisonous dragon with hungry fangs! Level eight! Starve Venom Fusion Dragon!” (ATK: 2800)
Ruri let out a quiet wail and Serena couldn’t blame her. The deathly gaunt dragon that reared up behind Yuri was more of a monster than anything else she had ever seen. Its several mouths opened, revealing rows of long dagger-like teeth and it moved more sleekly than any serpent would ever be able to. It gave out a roar and Dark Rebellion answered. Suddenly Serena felt as if the air between the two dragons was burning.
“Starve Venom is dying to fight your dragon, so I don’t want to hold it back any longer”, Yuri muttered. “I activate its effect, allowing it to gain the ATK of your Dark Rebellion until the end of this turn.”
The ghastly dragon’s eyes flashed up and a malign aura enveloped it (ATK: 2800 – 5300).
“Now, Starve Venom Fusion Dragon, attack Dark Rebellion Xyz Dragon! Wreak havoc to your heart’s content!”
He let out a wild laugh as his dragon charged forwards.
“I activate the Trap Phantom Knights Dark Gauntlet and send Phantom Spear to the graveyard.”
Yuto’s dragon met the brutal onslaught without faltering, slashing for Starve Venom’s horns. One of Starve Venom’s mouths found its way past the dragon’s defence and long, sharp teeth dug into its skin. Dark Rebellion let out a roar and slashed its opponent’s shoulder, making the purplish dragon leap back. Then both dragons attacked each other head on again, with fangs and claws. And over this savage battle Yuri was laughing like a maniac.
“This is great!” he shouted. “You can’t tell how long I’ve waited for a fight like this!”
His dragon roared and lightning began to lick over its body, forming a tree-shaped structure behind it. It grew to an almost dazzling intensity, before unleashing a powerful bolt that struck Yuto’s dragon.
“By banishing Phantom Spear from my graveyard I can prevent the destruction of a dark-attribute monster.”
Dark Rebellion leapt aside and a large blast shook the entire corridor. When Serena looked up again, she blinked surprised at the hole in the fence that had blocked their way.
“Yes, it worked”, Yuto muttered relieved as he turned to her. “Serena. Take Ruri and get out of here. I’ll keep this guy busy.”
For a moment she was tempted to just nod, but then anger began to boil up inside of her again.
“Didn’t I tell you I’m not leaving you behind, you jerk?”
Yuto let out a sigh. “You’re really stubborn, Serena. I do intend to catch up later, but for now, please take care of her. This is most important to me.”
She could see the pleading look in his warm grey eyes, remembered the touch of his lips when she had stolen that last kiss from him before she sent him to rescue Ruri. This was the same situation, she realised.
“Don’t you dare disappoint me!” she spat, before she turned to Ruri. “Can you walk?”
The Xyz girl gave her a blank stare. Then she nodded tentatively and took her hand. Serena helped her to her feet and they passed through the hole. The hole that would hopefully lead to freedom.
Yuto! Don’t lose! Don’t die!
Every step brought her farther away from this place, the cage that had held her for so long. But… What was this? Why were there tears in her eyes?
This… This was stupid. She had wanted to leave for so long, so why? Why did she feel like her feet were getting heavier with every step? Like something inside of her told her to turn back?
Sensations were swirling in her chest, continually forming new patterns she couldn’t see any sense in. But… The deeper she listened, a certain feeling grew stronger, outshining all the others that rambled on inside of her. And then she realised.
She stopped and turned around.
“I love you, Yuto!”
She could see his head turn, surprise creeping over his features. She felt strangely light, as if she had just found the answer to a problem that had bothered her for weeks.
“I’ve fallen in love with you. So don’t die here. I’m going to wait for you in Heartland, no matter how long it takes. So…” She curled her hand into a fist. “So come back after you’ve won!”
After a moment she could see him smile, raising his thumb into the air. She smiled as well, grabbed Ruri’s hand again and pulled her on.
Yes, she would wait. She would fulfil his wish and wait for him.
“It’s not far, Ruri. We’re almost the-“
Her words turned into a scream as a lance of pain flashed through her hip, incinerating every fibre of her body. The momentum carried her on and she crashed hardly onto the floor. There was a metallic taste in her mouth, but she didn’t care as she tried to turn her head.
She could clearly see the girl’s face above her, but… everything about her seemed wrong, from the sardonic smirk on her face to the laid-back expression in her eyes.
“I… I don’t… understand”, Serena panted.
The girl bent down next to her and she could see the rectangular shape of a stun gun in her hand.
“Oh, Serena… The two of us are so alike. We have the same face. We have fallen in love with the same boy…” She chuckled when she noticed Serena’s glance. “Oh, how cute. But… No, that isn’t the reason. For me, that is all in the past for a long time.” She laughed quietly. “You’ve been such a naughty girl, Serena, betraying the professor like that. But he still has some use for us.”
“But… But Ruri… Don’t you remember… what he has done… to your homeland?”
An eerie grin crept over Ruri’s face as she brushed a finger over Serena’s cheek.
“Oh yes. I do remember. But that doesn’t have any relevance for me anymore. My life belongs to the professor now.” She bent a little closer. “It’s funny, isn’t it? Once I was the one who hated him and you followed him. Now our roles are switched. But in the end all of us will serve his purpose.”
Crap! So this had been… a trap from the start?
“Yu… Yuto…” she tried to shout, but only a faint whisper escaped her lips. It was as though a heavy weight was tugging at her, pulling her irresistibly into a pitch-black sea of nothingness.
“Serena! Ruri, what are you…?”
“I’m the one you should focus on! Our battle has just begun!”
“Shut your fucking trap! Serena!!”
Darkness enshrouded her, cold and lonely. Then, piercing through it, she heard a roar of deep, bottomless fury. A roar that wasn’t any human anymore.
And the last sand grain fell.