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Yuma sobs so hard that she can’t breathe, and she can’t make a sound. Every part of her is telling her to turn back, go home and go to bed, just stay there until the world ends. Watching Alit and Gilag die was horrific, it will haunt her for the rest of her life, and the worst part is that she has to face their murderer for all of this to end.

Ryoga holds her, trying to calm her down. “There was nothing you could have done.”

Yuma knows that, she does, and that’s not the worst part—the worst part is the pain she saw on their faces before they were absorbed by that thing.

Lost in her misery as she is, she can’t miss the light that suddenly surrounds the airship. For a heart stopping moment she thinks it’s another attack, but this light is soft and golden, and it winds around and around the ship until it takes shape—the shape of a truly enormous dragon.

The dragon’s glowing head lowers to the ship’s deck. Slowly the light fades, and someone steps down from the dragon’s head.

“Kite,” Yuma gasps.

He’s beautiful, and he’s alive. The dragon lets out a roar and fades away. Yuma gets to her feet and hugs Kite as tightly as she can.

“I did it,” Kite murmurs, “I won, I’ve got the key to the Numeron code.”

Yuma sobs again. “Kite, I’m so sorry, I don’t…don’t think I can do this.”

Kite leans back slightly. “What happened?”

Yuma shakes her head—she can’t say it. Kotori is equally as hysterical, Rio is trying to comfort her. Durbe ends up breaking the news.

“Alit and Gilag were here. We got through to them, but Don Thousand…he attacked them. He killed them.”

Yuma gags, but she has nothing left to throw up.

Kite’s hold on Yuma tightens. “Are you hurt?”

How can she answer that?

Astral says, “She’s in shock. She watched them die…it was horrific.”

Kite cups his hands around Yuma's cheeks. “Listen to me,” he says, “I know you want to give up now, and you can. No one is forcing you to do this, and sure you feel like you have to, but the fact is that you’ve had free will this whole time. You’ve chosen, time after time, to put the fate of the world in your own hands. This time you’re not alone. I’m here, Astral is here, Ryoga and Rio and Durbe are here. We’re going on, so if you want to go home, you can, and I mean that.”

Yuma inhales deeply, and lets it out slow. She could go home, but she won’t. She wipes her face and shakes her head. “I’m not going home,” she says. “I’m going to fight Don Thousand with you.”

Kite smiles. “That’s right.” He holds out one hand to Ryoga, taking Yuma’s hand with the other. Ryoga comes over and takes Kite’s offered hand, and Yuma’s other.

“Just like how we faced Don Thousand last time,” Ryoga says.

“I thought that was Vector?” Kite asks.

“I’m not convinced of that,” Ryoga says.

On the other side of the deck, Kotori stands. Yuma abandons the boys and runs to her.

“How are you feeling?” She asks Kotori.

Kotori is clinging to Rio, but she puts on a brave face. “I’ll be okay,” she vows.

So Yuma looks to Astral. “Let’s continue on our way.”

This ship moves once more, and Yuma turns to Kite. “Where’s Orbital?”

“With Lillybot I imagine,” Kite says. “By the way, I promised him I’d make robot babies for them.”

Yuma gasps. “Oh that would be the cutest thing ever!”

 


 

Barian world is nothing like Astral world, but Yum has a feeling that it isn’t always full of lightening, dark clouds, and the overwhelming feeling of despair. Or maybe that last thing is just Yuma’s paranoia.

“So, here you are.”

Yuma jumps and looks over to where the voice came from—it’s Mizael.

“Made it alright, then?” Kite asks.

“Sure,” Mizael says with a shrug. “It’s only the end of the world, you know.”

The Barian emperors greet each other, and Yuma looks back at Kite. “You didn’t mention Mizael was alive.”

“What did you think, I had absorbed him?” Kite asks.

Actually, it wouldn’t have surprised her.

“Yuma,” Ryoga says, “Go look around.”

“Excuse me?” She asks.

“You wanted to understand Barian world before you built your kingdom, didn’t you?” Ryoga asks. “Go have a look at my kingdom.”

“What about Vector?” Yuma asks.

Ryoga looks to Rio, Mizael, and Durbe. “He belongs to us.”

So Yuma turns to Kotori, Astral, and Kite. “You three feel like coming?”

They agree, and Yuma digs a flashlight and her taser out of her bag. She gives the taser to Kotori and holds the flashlight like it’s a lifeline as the ship beams them down to the land. The Barians are able to fly off, and none of them say goodbye—it’s not goodbye.

Yuma leads the way through the land. The ground is red, and just like in Astral world there are growths of crystal shooting out of the ground randomly. But this crystal is red and looks like frozen fire. In its own way, the world is just as beautiful as Astral world, but it feels horrible.

“Is that the palace?” Kotori whispers.

A huge structure looms on the horizon, all dark red and purple. Half of it is crumbling, and Yuma sure hopes that the damage is recent, and the Barians weren’t living in a ruined palace for the Aesthetic.

“Let’s go find out,” Yuma says.

As they walk, they start to hear the beginnings of a duel in the distance. Yuma ignores it outwardly, though her heart picks up speed as she thinks of her friends, even Durbe, facing Vector.

They climb to the entrance of the palace. There’s a huge throne in the first room, it’s made entirely of crystal and looks wretchedly uncomfortable. There’s two hallways leading off the room, and the one on the left seems to tug at Yuma’s attention a little more, so she heads that way. She keeps walking past doors and open rooms, turning corners, and finally she ends up at a staircase that leads down.

“Where are we going?” Kite finally asks.

Yuma shrugs and flicks on her flashlight. “I’ll know when I get there.”

This feels awfully familiar. The air is cold, the stairs are dark, and there’s a dampness surrounding this place, though the air outside was bone dry. The staircase spirals down, down, and Yuma reaches out to trail her fingers along the walls. She expected them to be as wet and cold as the air, but they’re actually kind of warm and definitely dry.

Suddenly Yuma feels something under her fingers and she looks at the wall. Something is etched into it. She turns her flashlight on the wall and gasps—there are claw marks in the stone, and they spell something out.

“I’m sorry,” Yuma reads.

It’s written in dozens of languages, most of which Yuma can’t read, but she can sense the sentiment.

“This is creepy,” Kotori says.

Yuma goes down further—drawings soon join the writings. Crude stick figures with X’s for eyes, some of them wearing what looks like armor, some smaller, some seemingly torn in half.

Eventually the stairs lead into a huge cavern, where even more figures have been left on the walls. Some etched in, some painted on. Yuma turns in a circle, aiming her flashlight all around and as high as the light will go. The walls are covered, and the drawings get increasingly abstract, sloppy, and indecipherable, but it seems like all the pictures tell the same story, over and over.

Yuma starts at the series of paintings she can most readily see. “There’s a King,” she says, staring at the figure with a crown. The figure is joined by a woman. “He has a queen.”

The queen has tears drawn on her face. “She’s unhappy.”

The queen holds a baby and smiles. The baby, a boy, grows up, and the queen is always by the child’s side. Occasionally the king is drawn near the queen and prince. The King is angry, the king seems to beat the queen while the prince hides. The king hands the prince a sword. The king puts the prince on a horse. The prince falls off the horse and is hurt, but while the queen cries, the king looks angry.

The king leaves the kingdom. The prince and the queen are alone, and they’re happy. They play together, and the queen shows the prince how to find stars, how to heal injured animals, and how to talk to people. The prince grows up.

The King is injured and returns, confined to his bed. The prince is handed a crown. The prince stands on a tower, surrounded by people. Yuma pauses by that scene. The Prince smiles, the people are smiling. It seems to be a happy scene. Ships are shown on the ocean, with the word ‘home’ scrawled under them.

“The prince ended the war that his father started,” Yuma says. “He called the soldiers home.”

In the next scene, the prince and queen stand beside the king. The drawings become chaotic, in one it seems like the king takes the prince’s sword, but in the other the prince stands above his father with the sword. In one, the king stabs the queen, but in the other the prince stands, covered in blood, above the bodies of the king and queen.

In the next scenes, stick figures lie covered in red paint, and there are horrible words scrawled over the pictures. ‘Die, all die, bleed into the ground, take it all, mine, all mine.’

But then on the next stretch of wall, the words change. ‘My fault, cursed child, born to ruin, my fault, sorry, sorry, I’m sorry…’

Yuma drops her flashlight and presses both of her hands to the wall. She closes her eyes. “Tell me,” she begs, “What happened?”

Yuma feels herself being jerked forward. She braces herself to fall, but nothing happens. She opens her eyes and finds herself in a dark room, with Vector standing in front of her in his human form.

Yuma jumps, but she then realizes that this Vector isn’t the one she knows—this one wears loose fitting pants and has rings of metal strung across his chest, and he wears a purple circlet around his head. This must be Vector in his past.

“I will not allow any more of our men to die,” Vector says.

Yuma turns and stumbles back. A man looms over her and the past-Vector. “Fool,” the king hisses. “One more fight and we could have won. You are like a woman, you are weak and you have no ambition. You’re as worthless as your mother, a disgrace to my name. You were not born of my loins, and now I will do to you what I should have done when you were born!”

The king lunges forward and grabs Vector’s sword. Vector screams, but suddenly the queen is there, and she throws herself between her husband and her child.

Vector lets out an agonized scream as the sword slices through his mother. He catches her as she falls, her head lolling towards the ground—he screams again, her head is half separated from her neck.

“Mother, mother!” he screams, pressing his hands to her neck, but it’s too late. Blood bubbles out of her mouth, and her eyes are dead. “What have you done?!” Vector screams at the king.

“You did this,” the king gasps, falling to his knees. He clutches his chest and keels over to one side.

“You did this,” a voice echoes around the room, repeating the king’s words. “You horrible child, you killed your own parents.”

“No!” Vector screams, covering his ears with his bloody hands. “It wasn’t me!”

“No?” The voice asks. “Was it not your sword that killed her? Is her blood not on your hands?”

A shadow emerges from behind Vector, a silhouette that Yuma recognizes.

“Don’t look!” Yuma screams, but of course Vector can’t hear her. He turns and meets the terrible eye of Don Thousand.

“You will feed my ambition,” Don Thousand says. “The purer the heart, the greater the turmoil in the universe from its’ corruption. You will blame the death of the king and queen on the very kingdoms you tried to broker peace with. You will slaughter all. You will fill the seas with the blood of the innocent, and you will fill Barian world with unfulfilled and wronged souls.”

“The seas will fill with blood,” Vector intones. “I will kill them all.”

“No!” Yuma screams.

She opens her eyes and staggers back from the wall.

“Yuma!” Kite and Astral shout.

“Are you okay?!” Kotori asks, catching Yuma as she nearly falls.

“We have to go,” Yuma cries, “We have to get to Vector, it wasn’t his fault, I have to tell him!”

Yuma runs. She runs up the stairs, out of the palace, and across the Barian world towards the duel in the distance.

The purer the heart, the greater the turmoil in the universe. Don Thousand corrupted Vector because it would cause the most chaos, by taking Vector’s heart he killed three other future Barians, and in the end Vector killed himself when he realized what he had done. It didn’t have to happen that way, Vector could have been a good king, he could have lead his people to peace, it really wasn’t his fault.

Yuma can see the duel. She can see Mizael, Rio, and Durbe lying on the ground. She sees Ryoga, and he throws his arm out.

“No!” Yuma screams.

Ryoga attacks. Vector is blown backwards, and his life points drop to zero.

Yuma bursts on to the field just as the dust settles. Vector lies motionless on the ground, and she kneels next to him. “No, no, no,” she gasps, “Wake up, Vector, wake up! I saw the truth, I saw it all, it wasn’t your fault!”

“Yuma…” Ryoga says.

“Wake up!” Yuma pleads with Vector’s unresponsive body. “It was all a trick, even now you’re being manipulated!”

“Yuma, we saw it all!” Ryoga shouts.

Yuma finally looks over at him. He shakes his head. “Vector discarded everything. He said it himself, he regrets nothing, because he’s more powerful now than he ever was before. He absorbed Rio, Mizael and Durbe’s souls. He killed them.”

Yuma backs away from Vector. “No,” she cries. They can’t truly be gone! They’ve just been knocked out, they’ll be fine…

“It’s true,” Vector says. He opens his eyes and sneers at Yuma. “You silly little wretch. You think I’m impressed by your little Kingdom? I’ve got my own kingdom and my own power, and it’s more than you’ll ever have!”

He pushes Yuma away and staggers to his feet. “I am a god here!” He screams. “I’ll tear this universe apart with my bare hands and remake it as I see fit, and then I’ll go across dimensions and time and make everything mine and mine alone!”

“VECTOR, LOOK OUT!” Yuma screams.

For as he’s been talking, his shadow has grown and taken on a new form. As Vector finally turns, Don Thousand emerges in his full, horrible, corporeal form.

“How?” Vector gasps. “I killed you!”

“No,” Don Thousand booms, “I let you think it, while secretly I siphoned your life away. You think you could outsmart me? I made you, everything you are. I have known every inch of your mind since the moment you were born. And now I will absorb you, and finally be at my most powerful!”

A hole opens up in the middle of Don Thousand’s abdomen, a red light shining from it, and a great wind begins to suck everything towards that light.

Kite grabs Kotori and runs behind a large stone pillar. Ryoga grabs Rio and Durbe’s bodies. Vector is pulled like a ragdoll, tumbling across the floor, screaming the whole way.

“No, no!” He shouts. “I can’t die like this! Stop it!”

Yuma runs after Vector. She sinks one hand into a crack in the ground and snatches Vector’s wrist with her other.

“What are you doing?!” Every sane person yells at Yuma. Even Vector looks shocked.

“I won’t let go,” Yuma vows. “I still believe in you, Vector!”

Don Thousand laughs. “Tsukumo Yuma, you are an even bigger fool than I thought.”

“Let go!” Astral screams, “You’ll be sucked in as well!”

But Yuma looks into Vector’s eyes. “There is a place for you in my kingdom, if only you believe that you can change,” she says. “It wasn’t your fault. You were tricked, you were abused. You were kind once, and I saw it when I knew you as Rei, I saw it when I looked into your past. That is who you are. You can start over, I believe in you!”

Vector gapes at her. “You’re an idiot! I’ll drag you to hell with me!”

“That’s okay,” Yuma says. She starts to cry. “It’ll be an adventure, right? And I’ll protect you.”

“Don’t stand up for me,” the little prince said to his mother. “Papa will only be angry. He’ll hurt you.”

“That’s okay,” the queen said. “Even if it’s hell, it’s better than seeing you suffer. I’ll protect you.”

Something shifts in Vector. Yuma can see it.

“No,” Vector says. “Not again. I can’t let it happen again.” He smiles. “You don’t have to protect me anymore.”

“Don’t!” Yuma cries, but she’s too late. Vector wrenches himself free of her hand, and he’s sucked into that horrendous light.

Yuma falls to her knees.

Don Thousand’s body cracks, more of that red light spilling through them. His skin splits apart, and from the monstrous silhouette emerges a humanoid being, one who looks remarkably like Eliphas. Well, Eliphas did say they were brothers.

“My power has returned to me,” Don Thousand says, staring down at his own hands. “Now all that’s left is to crush you, Ryoga, Kite, and Yuma. I will take the Numbers, Astral will vanish, and I will rule this universe and all others.”

Yuma activates her duel disk. “Fuck yourself with something hard and sandpaper-y,” she tells Don Thousand. She doesn’t think she’s ever been this angry before, not even in Sargasso. That feels petty, compared to this. Her blood feels like it’s boiling, her vision is literally turning red, and all she can think is that she wants to eviscerate this thing standing in front of her, she wants to cut him open and rip out the souls he’s absorbed with her bare hands. Never mind the duel, she might just grab her pocket knife and do that very thing…

Yuma finds herself standing on a crumbling ledge, facing a huge door that’s covered in chains.

“OH, NOT AGAIN!” Yuma screams.

“You have a chance,” a deep voice says. “A chance to unlock great power,”

“I know that!” Yuma shouts at the door, “I’ve been here before, I already accepted the deal!”

“But that power comes with a price,” The voice continues, as if Yuma hadn’t spoken. “You will have to give up that which is precious to you.”

And at that, Yuma pauses. She’s figured this out before, that it meant giving up Astral. But how could that still be the case, when Astral has already been lost and come back to her? How will killing Don Thousand mean losing Astral?

Then it hits her—she’s thinking about murder. She’s actually considering killing someone, how could she possibly be okay with that, even if that person is Don Thousand?

The deal she made with the door was never about Astral at all, because at the time she didn’t even know Astral. The thing she loved and stood to lose, through everything, was herself. If she takes this power and kills someone with it, what will that do to her? How will she live with herself after that?

There’s another way, there has to be another way…

There is. Yuma can duel, she can fight against Don Thousand, as long as she remembers that this is not about avenging the past, but protecting the future. She can’t save Don Thousand’s soul, but that’s okay, because it’s not her job to give salvation to those who don’t want it. And that’s the biggest thing she needs to remember—people who don’t want to change never will, and Don Thousand doesn’t want to change.

Yuma stares down the door. “Well, I’ve got news for you. I’m taking this power, and I’m keeping myself in the process. I’m not going to lose sight of who I am and what I stand for. I want to help people, and I’m going to start by helping myself.”

Yuma shoves her key into the lock on the door. A light explodes before her eyes…

Yuma stands in front of Don Thousand. Ryoga and Kite have already taken their turns, and they’re waiting for her.

Yuma raises her hand and looks at Astral. “I build the overlay network with myself and Astral!” She cries.

Astral smiles, and together they fly. Blue and red light collide, and Yuma feels her body rebuild into something beautiful.

They land lightly—holy cow, they have wings! Great big fluffy wings! And this time is much different from the last three times Yuma and Astral came together like this. For one thing, they don’t have a gender this time. They feel more stable, and confident. They feel…not powerful, but strong. And being strong is not the same thing as being powerful.

They draw their card. This is going to be the duel of a lifetime, and it’s time to get started.