Kisara wakes in an unfamiliar room. A spartan brick-and-mortar affair, it has no furniture apart from the wooden pallet on which she lies. Metal bars make up the room's door and window, but in one corner, an oil lamp burns, indicating that she has not been jailed; prisoners are not allowed light. Nor are they allowed blankets, and the one covering her is finer than any textile she has ever touched. Kisara spends a few minutes simply running her fingers over the linen, memorizing its softness so that she can take comfort in the recollection later.
She holds up her arm to observe a fading bruise. Licking it, Kisara tastes honey and aloe. Someone has treated her injuries, and indeed, she feels hardly any pain. Her tongue is no longer dry and swollen with thirst, either. Confusion washes over her. Who has given her water and care? Who has helped her? That she remembers nothing about being saved troubles her; this unprecedented stroke of luck will likely run out soon, but memories endure beyond misfortune. Kisara would have as many good ones as possible to stand as bulwarks against her usual harsh existence.
Glancing about, Kisara notices a small plate on the ground next to her pallet and instinctively snatches a bread roll off it (There are two rolls on the plate. Two! What madness afforded her two portions of bread?). Driven by stray-dog hunger, she eats it without enjoying the bread's fine texture or flavor. She feels almost worse after she finishes, her starvation re-awakened in a woozy rush of adrenaline. Experience warns her against eating the second roll too soon. She drains the cool water from an adjacent clay cup instead, sitting up on the pallet so as not to spill a drop.
She resolves with effort to save the second piece of bread. Reverently, she moves the plate and cup onto the end of her cot and stares at the oil lamp, trying to remember.
A man's authoritative voice, half drowned out by the pain coursing through Kisara's body: "Give her water! Make sure you're extra careful with her."
No one has treated Kisara carefully in her entire life. Well, no, that can't be true; someone must have when she was a baby, or she wouldn't have survived past infancy. She simply can't recall any such carefulness. Though Kisara has long since given up on self-pity, she can't help but marvel at the unlikelihood of it all.
Whoever helped me must have the noblest heart in the world, she thinks, to pity what everyone else hates and fears.
The creak of rusty hinges draws her attention to the opening door. A guard with a spear stands in the hall beyond.
"Have you finished eating? Get up," says the guardsman, beckoning stonily.
Kisara obeys. She doesn't expect a response, but asks anyhow, "Where am I?"
"The hospital wing of the palace," answers the guard. He speaks with his back to Kisara, leading her down the dim corridor. "You were so weak when they found you, you slept for four days. A special doctor took care of you while you were unconscious--did everything he could to make you well."
Kisara knows about doctors the way most people know about wizards or prophets; the guard may as well have told her a magic potion cured her ailments. Still, she believes him, for what reason would he have to lie to someone as insignificant as her?
The guard continues, "It was all on the orders of High Priest Set. You owe him your life."
"High Priest Set," whispers Kisara, committing the title to memory. High Priest Set saved me.
She does not ask where the guard means to take her. The two descend through many winding passages. After an unknowable stretch of time, they come to a long chamber lined with cells on either side. The people in the cells jeer and weep, pressing themselves to the bars and reaching blindly for the newcomers. The prisoners' faces are crazed and wretched. They shout horrible things at Kisara and the guard, who takes her by the upper arm and has her walk before him, as far from the prisoners' grasping fingers as possible. Kisara isn't precisely afraid, because she knows a free citizen can inflict far more harm than a caged criminal, but she doesn't protest the precautionary measure, either.
Toward the last of the cells, the guard lets her go. It's only when he pulls his hand away from her arm like it's burned him that Kisara realizes the guard fears her as much as the rock-throwing townsfolk did--perhaps even more.
I am still cursed, still a bad omen, even in this dark place, she thinks.
"This is as far as I go," says the guard. "I must fetch more men to take you on. Do not move from here."
He retrieves a torch from the wall and departs down a short side-passage, presumably to find his replacements. Left in shadow, Kisara keeps her eyes lowered. Somehow, the empty cells on either side of her feel more sinister than the occupied ones; she does not wish to look in them.
"Hey. Hey! White Dragon!"
Not quite empty, it seems: a skinny man with a big nose looks out from the cell on Kisara's left, a bucktoothed smile splitting his face.
"You did it! I knew you would!" the skinny man exclaims. "You found the second piece of your soul but quick, didn't you? Almost makes the trouble of getting that first piece worth it..."
Kisara regards him in mute confusion.
"Oh, I forgot, you don't know me in this form, do you? Maybe this will help." Before Kisara's eyes, the man's body blurs and changes. His ears and limbs lengthen. His linen rags morph into a bright blue suit, and a crooked purple hat blooms from the top of his head. Most altered, however, are his facial features: his eyes, nose and mouth swim like fish across his countenance, bouncing off one another until they come to an equilibrium at the front of his moon-white head. His violet lips stretch to reveal pointed teeth.
"It's Saggi! You remember ol' Saggi, don'tcha, White Dragon?"
The world has, for the most part, beaten involuntary expressions of fear out of Kisara. Though she manages not to shriek at this particular horror, suppressing her instinctive yelp takes more conscious effort than she's had to apply in a while. She falls back a step, too frightened to look away from the creature.
"...Oops," says the creature--demon--Saggi? The unnatural curve of his mouth inverts. "You sacrificed your memories about the Shadow Realm when you entered the mortal world, didn't you? Because if you remember that you aren't completely human, you might not be able to stay in your human body... I remember that now! " Alarm seizes the demon's face, and he cringes back. "Oh, man, I didn't just screw up your rescue mission by telling you that, did I?!"
Abruptly, the demon reverts back into the guise of the bucktoothed man, who prostrates himself on the floor of his cell.
"Please don't kill me, White Dragon...I mean, Kisara! I'll give you the message you told me to deliver and get Penten to erase everything else I said! Just don't blast me into oblivion!" The man practically vibrates with fear, peeping up through one slitted eye to gauge her reaction.
"Message?" is all Kisara manages to whisper. She feels light-headed, like she might faint.
"Oh, uh, yeah! I'm supposed to tell you how to save your man. Since you gave up all your Shadow Realm memories for good, you won't remember how to help him even after you get all the pieces of your soul back. Hence, the message... What was it again?" The man taps his chin. "Something like, 'Don't let him die'? That's too obvious. 'Don't let him kill himself'? That sounds more like it, but..."
Kisara can see torch lights coming down the side corridor: new guards to bring her further than the first could go.
"The land of the dead!" cries the bucktoothed man in triumph. "'Don't let him return to the land of the dead!' That's what you told me to tell you! Yeah, I remember, you were worried that his soul was gonna get stuck between dimensions, or that evil spirits were gonna follow him back and, like, possess him--"
"Prisoner, do not speak to the guest of the High Priest!" snaps one of the guards as he emerges into the main hall.
"'Don't let him return to the land of the dead!'" repeats the prisoner, heedless of the frowning guardsmen. "Remember that! Nothing else I just said, though!" The little man turns his head about like he's looking for someone. "Penten! Penten, buddy, where'd you go? I need your help here!"
"Madman," mutters a second guard. Far rougher than her original minder, he seizes Kisara and pulls her away from the bucktoothed man. One of the other guards leads them onward with a torch. Another follows behind Kisara and the guard holding her.
"Also, maybe watch out for the Dark Magician! He's pretty pissed that you broke out of the Shadow Realm!" the prisoner calls after Kisara. He says more, but his words fade from her hearing like they do from her memory, growing less distinct as the guards hurry her along, down deeper into the dark.
Seto Kaiba frowned at the readouts on the hospital computer screen as though he could render the unfamiliar data more comprehensible through intimidation alone.
"What does it mean?" he finally snapped.
"It means she's fine. She's sleeping," answered the middle-aged woman seated in front of the monitor.
"Then why won't she wake up?"
"Perhaps she's very tired."
"'She's sleeping.' 'She's tired.' You're a credit to your profession, Doctor," scoffed Kaiba.
Dr. Vritika Dhawan, the world-renowned neurologist Kaiba had recently placed on personal retainer, shot him an amused glance. Her habitual refusal to be bullied into submission distinguished her from Kaiba's many employees; she acquiesced to the multi-billionaire's displeasure no better than the clunky medical software she utilized.
"The gentleman who came with her--Mr. Mutou?--said that your overzealous security measures might be to blame for her current state," she commented.
"I'll tell you the same thing I told him: the girl never touched my briefcase. None of its anti-theft protocols activated."
Aware of how little Seto Kaiba feared lawsuits or bad press, Dr. Dhawan accepted his explanation as most likely true. She peered at the computer monitor again, pressed a few keys, then murmured, "Interesting," after a second graph and data set appeared beside the original.
"I hope," said Kaiba, "for your sake, that you aren't going to make me ask what's so interesting."
"Her brain-wave patterns here and here..." Dr. Dhawan pointed out a few dips and rises in the first graph, "look awfully close to your most recent brain scans, Mr. Kaiba." She indicated matching sections of the second graph.
Frowning, Kaiba folded his arms. "Her mind is behaving similarly to mine? How so?"
"I can't say for certain from this data alone. You're certain she wasn't a Project Neurons test subject?"
"I would have remembered if she was," said Kaiba. He glanced through the office's one-way glass window into the adjacent exam room, where the girl called Aoi Shirogane lay unconscious on a hospital bed. A wire-studded, egg-shaped helmet enveloped the entire upper half of her head. Once used as a virtual reality simulator in the failed Project Neurons, the helmet had found new life in the healthcare sector as a medical monitoring device; Kaiba Corp. wasted no money-making opportunities. "Anyway, she's too old to have participated in the Duel Links experiment."
"Well, that's encouraging--it indicates that the changes in your own brain-wave patterns might not be due to reckless self-experimentation with VR tech, after all. Unless another company is developing something similar, and she's one of their test subjects?"
Kaiba snorted. "Don't make stupid assumptions. Kaiba Corporation is leagues ahead of even its closest competitors."
"In which case, I'm going to run all the same tests on her that I ran on you, just to rule out tumors, seizures, or any other medical abnormalities. I assume she'll remain here long enough to undergo them?"
"She will," promised Kaiba darkly.
As he spoke, Mokuba Kaiba entered the exam room and made his way into the attached office.
"Hey, nii-sama. Hey, Dr. Dhawan," he said, brightening as he addressed the neurologist.
"Konnichiwa, Mokuba-kun." Dr. Dhawan greeted the younger Kaiba in his native language before switching to her own, a rapid steam of Punjabi. Mokuba replied enthusiastically, if haltingly, in the same tongue, then turned to English when he got stuck:
"Uh, 'stubborn'? 'Pig-headed'? I don't know the word in Punjabi."
"I can tell you're talking about me," Seto told them flatly in English, the language he generally spoke with Dr. Dhawan.
The neurologist failed to suppress a smirk. "We are practicing languages," she said with dignity. "Mokuba-kun is a fast learner."
"Go do your job before I fire you," Seto threatened, and felt irked when Dr. Dhawan responded simply by laughing. On her way out of the office, she low-fived Mokuba and stage-whispered,
"It's 'zidī,' Mokuba-kun."
"I'll remember," promised Mokuba. He smiled as he watched Dr. Dhawan leave, but his grin faded when Seto turned a cold look on him. "Nii-sama, I..."
"I don't care if you make friends with our employees, Mokuba, but you shouldn't encourage them to act insubordinately," said his elder brother, turning back to the computer and frowning at its screen.
"Dr. Dhawan was only joking. She didn't mean it to be disrespectful."
"You know her so well?"
"We talk sometimes," admitted Mokuba. "She's nice, and she doesn't condescend to me."
Seto made a skeptical noise. Bad enough that Dr. Dhawan was privvy to his most confidential medical information--now she was cozying up to his little brother, too? His extensive background checks had all painted Dr. Dhawan as a discrete and dutiful physician, but "good" people had attempted to take advantage of the Kaibas in the past.
"She might be using you," he told Mokuba.
"I know that!"
The stridency of Mokuba's tone surprised Seto, though he gave no sign. The thirteen-year-old stared down at his loafers, red-faced.
"I get it," said Mokuba. "Everyone wants a piece of us, we can't let our guard down..."
"It's true. Everyone is a potential enemy," affirmed Seto.
Mokuba's hands curled into fists at his sides. "If I can't make my own decisions about who to trust, then you shouldn't have left me alone for weeks on end," he muttered resentfully.
Seto sent a sharp glance in his little brother's direction. "I thought you understood why I had to go," he said.
Words spilled from Mokuba with such force that Seto realized he must have been holding them back for a while: "I know why you thought you had to do it, but you didn't actually need to hurl yourself into the literal afterlife using untested technology just to duel the stupid Pharaoh! It was reckless. You could have died for nothing, and now your brain's all weird and no one knows why!"
"Not for nothing!" Seto snapped. "You're saying I should have hung my head and accepted my defeats? Losers die in every way that matters, Mokuba. You know that!"
"I've messed up and lost plenty of times, and I'm okay--" Mokuba began.
"Because you have me to do better for us both," Seto finished cruelly.
Mokuba jerked back like Seto had physically struck him. His expression hovered between abject hurt and rage. Seto braced himself for an emotional eruption. After a heavy moment, however, the boy's face smoothed into a neutral mask that shocked Seto more than any outburst could have.
"I shouldn't have questioned it. I apologize," Mokuba said calmly, his voice gone as stoic as his countenance.
Seto stared at his little brother. He shouldn't know how to do that, he reflected. I knew how to when I was his age, but that was because of...
"Your report," he ordered, rather than allow himself to finish the thought.
Visibly tucking away the remnants of his discontent, Mokuba drew out his prototype Kaiba Corp. smartphone and called up a file. The device's holographic function projected the report into the air above its screen. Mokuba summarized flatly,
"She doesn't exist--not as 'Shirogane Aoi' or as anyone else. Our facial recognition program couldn't find a match for her in any government registries or medical databases. Her name returned a few hits online, mostly as pseudonyms used by various people; there may be an actual Shirogane Aoi living in Hokkaido, but she's fifty years old and runs a convenience store. We're checking into her, but..."
"Fine. What about the DNA analysis?"
"That's the weirdest part: we couldn't map her genetics. I mean, obviously she has DNA, and individually her genes seem normal, but whenever we try to profile her ancestry on a macro level, we just get a bunch of inconclusive results. The geneticists think the mapping software's broken and the software engineers think the geneticists screwed up the program somehow." Though he normally relished a good nerd fight, Mokuba did not smile at this, but asked his brother without much genuine curiosity, "So who is she?"
Seto turned his back on his little brother in order to stare into the exam room, his mind alight with confusion and wariness as he studied the sleeping girl.
"A potential enemy," he answered.