It was dark. Or rather, nothing by which to see. Bakura supposed he deserved that – trading the world’s never-ending darkness for his own.
He could tell, vaguely, the eddies of the world that were connected to him. Viewing the world had become dimmer since his death; his original death, not the long and drawn-out whittling that was existence within the Millennium Items. Immediately after his mortal death, there were quick, battering waves of influence that came from Pharaoh Atem’s nexus point.
Then, silence. Bakura didn’t know, even with the brief surfacing of consciousness with each temporary holder of the Ring, how much time had passed until his landlord had inherited his Item.
Thousands of years. Not merely one generation, nor a handful. Eons – long enough for his home to crumble and wither and be replaced by successive generations of conquerors. Had he a heart – hell, had he been living, had he been able to witness that destruction in real time – it would have most certainly quivered in fragile emotion within his chest.
It was not enough that his beloved village, already scraped clean of family, had been wiped off the map. No, the entire kingdom had to succumb, too.
Never mind the fact that Zorc intended to subsume the mortal realm. That was different from the short tempers and relatable foibles of mortal rulers – men could be defeated, devils… less so.
(Atem had managed it. By the skin of his teeth and naught more than sheer determination that powered through ripping one’s soul into shreds and casting them to Items and corners of the world alike. He could admit, that if things had been different, that the pharaoh could have been a king he followed.
It was too late for that; Bakura never liked to deal in questioning what could have been. He had not been the first to make a deal with a devil, and he heavily doubted he would be the last.)
As it were, the kingdom the pharaoh fought so desperately for eroded into a shade of itself, something that made the ever-present ember of fury in the pit of his stomach flare with renewed vigour. He cast himself further into Zorc’s thrall, parceling the tattered remnants of his ka into favours that would further his soul-owner’s plans. Vengeance had not been enough.
Grief, though. Grief, he could do.
And so Bakura emulated Ryou’s mannerisms, created and paid debts in a complex system of economy that landed them first in Duelist Kingdom and near the first Item he could reasonably take. Had he a heart, it might have echoed with the man’s grief of his lost lover. But there were no gods he trusted to carve ear after ear in supplication to – only a swift blade, and a vague hope that perhaps this man’s wayward heart would reunite with its match.
That island held its own unique blend of curses, and he was glad to be rid of it, hiding away in the coiled maze of the Items until he could next surface. The darkness had curled around him, a suffocating haze that choked his long-dead lungs.
He could scarcely believe Atem’s court, in all their reincarnated glory, scheming for another tournament on the heels of the first. The Priestess, in her vain hope to settle karmic and dharmic debts, chasing after Shadows her family was leaching out into the mortal realm. The Priest, his pride swayed by his greed for the familiar trappings of power, a spell woven by the desperate cunning of the Ishtar m’then, drawing inky lines along the halls of their blended soul chambers.
Zorc had lurked, a perpetual shadow out of the corner of his eye, crooning at the chaos the pharaoh and his court were inciting. It hadn’t eased the chill carved down his back – a lightning strike that itched with enthralled purpose. He could feel himself fading away, and so clung to the m’then, twining the flagging remnants of their souls together in a bid to remain connected to the mortal realm.
The Priest’s well of ego threatened to drown them all, staticky webs of layered reality as they were dragged into his modern childhood. Were it not for the explosive exit, still tasting faintly of bygone insanity, he would have scoffed at dichotomy of their experience at orphanage.
He had tittered to himself and the creeping shadows, wallowing in the irony of subtle cursing. It was not enough that the Priest had risen to pharaoh in the past from a quiet life, no, he was to suffer the same expulsed offense as a wandering, home-less child around hostile peers.
Were it not for the other child, lashed to a sinking ship kept afloat by sheer will, he would have deemed it fair.
As things stood, fate and priests and the demon lurking behind them all conspired to ruin the original, tightly-held goal he began this trek with. The shadows around him shifted at the shard of memory, shades of indistinguishable black sliding across his deadened senses.
Once – before the liquid streams of gold, before the screams, before the hemorrhaging heart covering his footsteps – he could remember the sound of laughter, buffeted by carefully-shaped adobe and dyed canopies rippling in the wind. The smell of bread, its grains sifted in the air, ground carefully under experienced hands and idle chatter. Prayers and gossip alike floated to his ears, dancing its way between the notes of absently-played music.
Nightmare and blissful dream alike were fainter than the shadows clinging to his skin in sticky reminder of what had transpired. Intellectually, he knew that these were wisps of his past carried over, what with the shimmer of memory brighter with some of their presences his only indicator of something not virulently hostile to his existence, but he knew better than to take true comfort from it.
The RPG he had brokered his landlord into creating had mixed results. He achieved none of the long-awaited revenge fomenting in the eddies of Zorc’s spanning influence, and the scraps did little to satisfy him. That the pharaoh and his courts inherited and assembled defeated the demon he had sold himself to was awe-striking, taking the shadows from the mortal world and chaining him to the languishing hell that their people believed him was inexplicably believable.
It was only in death that the pharaoh garnered his respect. The debts were settled, and while the pharaoh now feasted with the gods for eternity, he himself drifted in the shadows twelve realms to never see the light again.
His own soul, rich as it had been with a holy ka, had been stripped from him and its enforced twining with Zorc. The bid had been lost, and now he lain fractured as the pharaoh’s own soul had been.
Those thoughts led him to the prince. Yugi Mouto had brought the dead back to life, after a fashion, and paid for it in blood. That, and his stubborn attachment to his friends and family was admirable. Naïve, but it had imbued the boy with an iron will to accomplish his goals that made him the best successor to the pharaoh’s plans.
His life, like the rest of those from his ancient, eroded world who had been dragged into newly-revised modernity, had been irrevocably altered. The taste, he knew, sat bitter on the boy’s tongue – it had on his own.
With a sigh of non-extant lungs, he settled back into the silty banks at the facsimile of the Nile. It teemed with creatures scarcely known to mortals, but his indeterminable length of time here granted him familiarity. His new routine was stultifying, interspersed with moments of sheer terror at the otherworldly creatures here, and he supposed that the gods knew exactly how scarring of a punishment it was for mortals.
Deciding to take refuge in the intercession, his eyes drifted closed, fingers curling loosely into the red cloak crumpled around him. The section of the river he inhabited was closer to dawn, a gloomy fog of eternally-distant sunshine as company against the swathes of inky night connecting him from the twilight of Duat’s meandering route.
So close, yet so far, he mused idly. It paralleled the rest of his existence; never quite reaching his goal, for all that it was in sight. He tucked the cloak closer, thin protection against creature and thoughts both, and threw an arm over his eyes.
The intervening time as he mimicked a doze dragged on, interminable exhaustion to the honed habit of corralling the more malicious of his memories masking the creeping light hidden from him. His life lived as a veritable prisoner, to spend eternity imitating the living and yearning for the realms of the blessed dead, buffed at the finer skills of his awareness.
It was not until water splashed, lapping across the banks in rhythmic motion, that he was dragged from the cycle of musing memories. He scrambled further upwards, not bothering to immediately identify what had disturbed the river’s placid pace so.
The barge of Ra, incandescent with its own power, blinded him upon first glimpse. He hissed, shutting his eyes and looking away for good measure. It seemed prudent to ignore the way silt shifted at its docking – better to pretend no such thing occurred.
Admittedly, this was not the first time the barge had passed – and why should it have been? But lingering for an eyeful of the gods aboard the ship, empty of mortals destined to be deified in their own right, was a danger he had done without.
There had been enough to worry about over the millennia to find himself in the crux of monsters fleeing the spears of Ra’s protectors. So into the rushes he scrambled, peeking between them with trepidatiously slitted eyes.
At first glance, the Atet was blinding in its typical brilliance, gods milling around the deck where Ra sat in the center, a spear of his own resting upon the gold-dotted wesekh decorating the god’s collar. He dared not meet their eyes, in case they felt it necessary to exact more judgment upon him – the trial of the Items had been more than enough, he thought, absently rubbing at the faded notches on his chest transferred to him from the Ring.
Between one contemplative blink and the next, the barge was banked, a pinch of people disembarking. The idea was disturbing enough by itself, but to witness it set a tremble upon his limbs, and he sucked in a useless breath.
The sound of feet upon the Duat’s earth was muffled, obscured by the lapping waves of the holy barge. For once it was quiet, as if the peace was upheld by the sheer presence of holy light. Idly, he wondered if the mundane realm thought the delayment of dawn was unusual.
“Bakura,” A familiar voice intoned. His head shot up, recognizing the familiar garb of the younger pharaoh. Atem stretched out his hand, a relaxed set to his smile that had him dropping the wary pose of his shoulders.
He grabbed the other man’s hand, letting himself be hauled up. “What-” His voice cracked, a croak of disuse. The steady presence of the pharaoh and attendant gods milling nearby was its own reassurance, and he tried again, “What is this?”
Atem’s smile briefly sharpened into a smirk. They both knew that the gods’ decisions were final, and despite the knowledge Kul Elna shared over the tombs, not even a wisp of thought prompted the idea that they would take back their judgment.
“Your soul was fractured as mine,” The pharaoh intoned, and his skin felt too tight in crackling disbelief dawning at the casual similitude. Swamped under a dissonance worthy of a dueling field, he was led to the barge, hand still confidently covered by the pharaoh’s own and surrounded by protectors of Ra. “A few matters required… settling.”
The barge felt thought-light under his bare feet, polished wood reminding him sharply of Battle City’s famed holograms. It felt like no time at all before he was sat on one of the few benches away from the gunwale, so close to their sun that hazy memories of midsummer heat was brought into crisp focus. His eyes shuttered without his permission, and he was scarcely aware of the pharaoh sat close by his side, as if he would keel over without the support.
Maybe he would, he didn’t know.
Hours, or years, later, Atem spoke, a murmur at his shoulder, “Your ka was holy, your cause righteous and just.” He was too weary to startle at the pronouncement, listening drowsily as the barge rocked them smoothly through the turbulent waters, “But we needed to make sure that the Items were truly at rest.”
It was a peculiar thought, that the gods he fought so doggedly against had ultimately agreed with him. Were he to open his eyes, they likely would have been cross-eyed at the words. Instead, he matched Atem’s susurrus of tone, “And are they?”
Atem shifted against him, and it was then that he realized his hand was still held. It was unexpectedly comforting, this note that he was not some package to be ferried across the night. His blearily blinking eyes caught the serene gaze of Ḫnsw, moonshine glimmering in his eyes as he dipped his head in a nod. It untangled the deeply-held knot of grief, loosening his ribs to draw in a habitual breath.
“Yes,” Atem replied gently, “Now they are.”
They rested, a reassuring squeeze of his hand at every noise of creatures who lurked in the river, always occurring before the swift strike of the gods’ spears. Time passed quickly in this manner, and though Ra – so far travelling this night’s perpetual path in relative silence – was given priority in debarking, the god’s retinue formed a guard around the pharaoh and himself with nary a murmur.
It was preoccupying, the static clinging to his limbs, a web of unease never far away. He resisted the urge to clutch at Atem, even knowing such an action would not be overruled by the compassionate man. The knowledge made his feet heavy, chest aching at the absence of his ib.
Only as they were exiting the oft-lauded Hall of Ma’at, an orderly procession of gods and one piecemeal mortal, did he shake himself out of the stupor that this blatant guidance had cast over him. He turned to Atem, the beginnings of confusion lighting across his face, but the question was answered before it could properly settle on his tongue.
“Did I not say your cause was righteous and just?” Atem’s eyes twinkled at the sly reminder, tugging him along when his steps faltered in gaping incredulity.
Anchored only by Atem’s blinding positivity, he did not notice that they had cleverly bypassed the second stretch of peril via an ostensibly unending corridor that he absently assumed was a shortcut for the gods to traverse the realms. A breath of dewy papyrus and fragrant lotus filled his lungs instead, and it was then he realized there were indeed lungs to draw breath with.
His heart thudded in his chest, warm and real, as they broached the entrance to Aaru, gods scattering to their various posts to await the next night. Still yet did Atem carve a path for him, its destination unknown but suspected. He followed mutely, wondering at the juxtaposition of body heat after so long with the deadening absence of temperature, the rings of Atem’s hand blood-warm in a way that didn’t prick at his nerves.
Chatter greeted them, laughter interspersing prayers and gossip, the smell of expertly-made bread wafting toward their noses. His ears picked up the faint strings of music, merriment evident in the plucked notes and patter of drums. His breath caught on an astonished sob, recognizing the village laid resplendently before their eyes.
Atem led him to a brightly-dyed canopy, rippling in the wind, where shocked greetings assailed his ears, rich in delight. The pharaoh disentangled from his white-knuckled grip, to be replaced with the buffeting of his family from all sides.
When he finally had time to glance back, his fingers tangled in the linen of those holding just as tightly to him, there was naught but the lingering ghost of a smile.