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10,167 words. I might recut it so the chapters are shorter eventually, but for now, I'm calling this a first chapter done. If you see anything that needs editing, feel free to speak up!

"Beheading Beautiful Woman attacks you directly!" Satomi Kai declared, eyes bright with victory as her monster swept across the field to slash through the last of Marufuji Shou's lifepoints.

Shou slumped back as the counter fell to zero. He managed a small smile, one that wasn't quite as pouty and upset as he wanted it. "You win again."

Kai just smiled, gathering up her cards and turning off her duel disk. "I guess that's it for today." Both of them glanced at the clock on the wall, ticking the time away. Shou nodded, putting his own cards away.

"I'll see you tomorrow, I guess." Shou thought he might 'forget' to bring his deck. Sixteen losses in a row were seventeen too many in his opinion.

Before Kai could say anything else, a mocking laugh sounded from the sidelines. "Lost again, Marufuji?" The tone wasn't one of a question. "You suck as a duelist."

Shou took a deep breath and tried not to listen. It wasn't easy. Fukazawa Taiki knew just where to strike with his words.

"I don't see how someone with a brother as good as yours can be so lousy at dueling." Fukazawa shook his head, leaning back on the wall, eyes full of mockery. "Didn't you learn anything from him?"

He's just trying to make me mad! The problem with Shou knowing that was a simple one, however: it was working. He looked up as Kai laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Don't worry about him. Dueling's fun, but it's not the only thing in the world. You've got talents of your own." She offered him a warm smile. "You don't need to be like your brother."

Shou tried to smile back, but it wasn't a very good smile and he knew it. It didn't help when Fukazawa strolled closer, every move lazy and arrogant at the same time.

"You know, we're starting high school next year." Something gleamed in the depths of his eyes, something that made Shou wish he'd gotten the height genetics in the family. "And I'm going to Duel Academia. I sent in my application last week."

Kai rolled her eyes. "So? What's that got to do with anything?" She started to turn away, encouraging Shou to go along with her.

"Oh, nothing much. I just think that I'm going to go there and become a world-famous Pro Duelist and little Marufuji here isn't going to do anything at all with his life except maybe bag groceries and if he's really lucky he might grow up to own the whole grocery store one day!"

Shou spun to stare Fukazawa in the eyes, tilting his head back to glare up at the taller teen. "That's where you're wrong! I'm going to apply to Duel Academia too! In fact, I'm going home right now to finish my application!"

Kai's eyes widened and she started to shake her head, even as Fukazawa laughed. "Oh, really? This is the first I heard about it. I thought you applied already: to a normal high school."

Red crept up Shou's cheeks but he stood his ground. "Well, I changed my mind."

"I'm sure you did: right now." Fukazawa shrugged casually, starting to stroll away. "But it'll be fun seeing you at the practicals: if you make it that far. You'll have to pass the written exam first. You know that, right?"

"Of course I do!" Shou's fists clenched as he stared at Fukazawa's retreating back. "And I'm going to pass it! Just you wait and see!"

The only reply was amused laughter as Fukazawa headed out of the schoolyard. Shou slumped down, some of his anger draining away. "I'm an idiot."

"Yes, you are." Kai thwacked him on the shoulder, glowering down at him. "What do you think you're doing? Do you really think you can pass that test?"

Shou didn't reply right away, finding the tips of his shoes far more interesting than anything else. Then he slowly lifted his head. "I don't know. But I know if I don't try, I'm always going to wonder if I could have."

Kai watched him for a few moments, a thousand thoughts coursing through her mind. Then she smiled. "If that's what you want, then, all right. Good luck. Need any help getting ready for it?"

"Probably." Shou admitted, his cheeks tinged a faint red still. "I think I remember everything, but I don't know what they're going to have on the exam."

"I don't suppose it would do any good to ask your brother?" Kai suggested, tilting her head back a little. Shou shook his head.

"He wouldn't tell me even if he'd ever taken it." It wouldn't be fair that way. It would be almost like cheating, and Ryou would never do anything like that.

Sometimes Shou hated his brother for how fair and honest he was. For how perfect he was. Then he hated himself for even thinking that.

He pushed all of those thoughts away for now, though. "I should go get the application." KaibaCorp had minature offices scattered throughout Japan (and probably the world) where junior high students could pick up applications. Shou'd seen a long line of people outside the nearest one just the other day. He hadn't even dared to walk on the same side of the street, not wanting to tempt himself into doing something he wasn't sure if he could do.

Now was different, though. Now he was going to try.

"Let's go, then!" Kai stuffed her duel disk into her backpack and swung the pack over her shoulders, pulling her long dark hairout back into a ponytail as she did. She always took her hair down when she dueled, liking how it blew around her in the breeze. Shou had to admit he kind of liked her hair like that too, but the thought of saying it out loud terrified him more than the thought of what his brother might say when he found out he was going to apply to Duel Academia.

What is he going to say? Shivers ran down Shou's back at the thought. He'd have to tell him, and their parents. Mom had even asked the other day if he wanted to apply, and he'd told them no. He wasn't sure how to explain his change of plans just yet. He'd figure something out. Sooner or later.

Together the two of them headed off for the office, Shou going over everything about dueling and Duel Monsters that he could remember, and hoping they didn't ask something hard, like to name every archetype or what a field spell could do.

The application itself was easy to fill out; just putting in his name, address, the type of deck he used, and other personal information. The offices were set up so the applicants could finish it there and turn it in; they would be informed later where the written exam would be held, and if they made it through that, the practicals were always at the KaibaDome in Domino City.

"We could have another duel," Kai suggested, standing at the corner of the street that led to where she lived. "See if you're all brushed up for it."

"I need to get home." Shou wished he could, but his stomach screamed at him to put something in it. He dueled badly enough when he wasn't hungry; he only got worse if he couldn't think for being starved. "But thanks for coming with me."

Kai brushed one finger past his ear, not quite smacking him, but the next thing to it. "Hey, we're friends, right? Even when you're a famous Pro Duelist and I'm not."

Yeah, like that'll happen. Shou only managed a small smile and lifted one hand to wave at her. "I'll see you tomorrow."

He turned the other way as she hurried down the road, still a block away from his own home. For all that he was hungry, he didn't actually hurry home. One thought burned through his mind: what his brother would say about this.

While he still had a week of school to suffer through, Duel Academia'd already let out, so when he finally stepped inside the house, he knew he wouldn't be able to put off telling Ryou either.

"Is that you, Shou?" Mom's voice came from the kitchen and she peered out even as she spoke. "You're a little late."

"Kai and I were talking." Shou decided he didn't want to let his family know about what he'd decided just yet. I should find out about the exam soon. All that needed to happen for that was for his application to process, which wouldn't take long.

"Oh, I see." Marufuji Airi nodded, a hint of an amused smile twitching her lips upward. Shou scuttled toward his room without another word, not wanting to face any questions, especially ones that might deal with Kai. Moms!

He passed Ryou's room along the way and didn't stop, though he did see his brother seated in his chair, his attention on the laptop before him. There would be time enough later to try and figure out what to say and how to say it.

Shou dumped his bag in one corner of his room and changed out his uniform as fast as he could. The wonderful scents of what Mom had on the stove floated in to tease at his nose and his stomach rumbled fiercely, demanding attention.

"Boys! Dinner'll be ready in twenty minutes!" Just the words Shou wanted to hear. Well, he would've probably preferred 'dinner is ready, come and get it', but he wasn't going to argue.

He heard nothing from Ryou's room but that wasn't surprising. Ryou spoke when he had something to say, and acknowledging dinner didn't come under that category. Shou sank down into his own chair and stared at his bag for a moment. He could spend those twenty minutes trying to study for the last history test of the year or he could go for his deck and try to work out new strategies. The practical exam would be the tough part of getting in. Not to mention, Kai'd come up with a new combo that he wondered if he could beat at all.

Twenty minutes later, his mother's voice rang out again. "Time to eat!" Shou groaned; he'd just managed to come up with something he thought might work! But his stomach roared once again, putting everything else to one side.

What are they going to do when I tell them? Shou tried not to look nervous as he entered the kitchen a few steps behind Ryou. Maybe they'll be proud of me? But what if I fail? The thought sent more chills down his spine.

"Ready for summer vacation?" Dad asked, settling into his own chair. Ryou gave a quiet nod in reply, while Shou mumbled something he thought made some sort of sense. "I hear you and Satomi Kai have been hanging around each other a lot?"

Shou stared down at his chopsticks, wondering when they'd become so fascinating. "Something like that."

"I suppose it happens to everyone." Marufuji Hotaka chuckled indulgently in the time-honored way that fathers around the globe have.

Shou darted his gaze around the room and for once didn't feel inadequate when looking at his brother. Ryou wouldn't say anything about Kai, much less insinuate they might be...whatever it was his parents were insinuating.

"Satomi Kai." Ryou spoke thoughtfully, his attention on the cup of green tea before him. Shou's heart sank. Even his big brother? "She plays that female warrior deck with Beheading Beautiful Woman, doesn't she?"

Shou let out a quiet breath. "That's right." He should've known Ryou would be more interested in what deck Kai played. "She beat me again today." That was hardly news. Shou couldn't remember the last time he'd won a duel.

"Again?" Mom bent a quiet look at him and Shou distracted himself with his dinner. He could almost hear the looks going on between the other three and kept his lips sealed. They didn't need to know. Not yet, anyway. Not until he knew more.

"Has there been any word at all?" Five more or less silent minutes passed before Hotaka asked the question of Ryou, who shook his head in negation. "It's just as well they closed that dorm down. I'd hate to think what would happen if you'd vanished."

The thought wasn't one that appealed to Shou either; the idea of being without his big brother wasn't one he relished. As much as Ryou could annoy him just by existing, he couldn't imagine life without him. He didn't want to, either.

"Asuka's starting Duel Academia next year, isn't she?" Airi wanted to know. Ryou nodded, Shou catching the movement out of the corner of one eye. He hadn't met Tenjoin Asuka himself, but he'd heard about her from the few words Ryou dropped now and then, mostly about how good of a duelist she was.

"She said she'd be at the practical exams." Ryou spoke quietly. "I plan to watch them this year."

"Checking out the new blood?" Hotaka asked, a hint of pride in his smile. He didn't duel himself, but Shou knew just how thrilled he was about Ryou being the Kaiser of Duel Academia.

"I want to see if any of them could duel me at the end of the year." Shou knew from the tone in Ryou's voice how he looked, even without looking at him. Head tilted back, that hint of a superior smile on his lips.

How can he be so perfect? Shou didn't think his brother had ever done anything wrong in his entire life. He'd probably been born toilet-trained and knowing how to dress himself correctly.

Airi nibbled a little on her rice. "We'll be there for your graduation duel. I can hardly believe there's only a year to go before you'll be in the Pro Leagues." She chuckled for a moment. "I suppose you're going to want your own apartment?"

"Maybe." Ryou's shoulders tilted in a small shrug. Shou kept on staring at his own dwindling amount of food. He couldn't have said on a bet what any of it tasted like. The thought of Duel Academia hovered in the back of his mind, every word Ryou'd ever said about it, every picture he'd ever seen.

I wonder what dorm I'll be in. He knew if he'd attended the junior high, then just like his brother, he would have been in Obelisk Blue. I think I could manage being in Yellow. I think. That assumed he even made it in there in the first place.

"Shou?" He looked up to see his mother looking at him, concern in her dark eyes. "Are you all right?"

"Huh?" Shou blinked, trying to get why she asked that. He realized only then that she'd called him more than once already and he hadn't heard a thing. "Oh, yes. I'm fine." He couldn't keep looking at them, though.

"So, what did you do today that was interesting?" Hotaka leaned toward him, his own worry evident in the set of his shoulders.

Shou didn't like worrying his parents. He didn't like worrying anyone, really. But after endless minutes of worrying and praise over his brother and his own nervousness, his mouth opened and his voice spoke without clearance from his brain.

"I applied to Duel Academia."

Utter silence fell from all three. The way his parents looked at him was more than shocked enough, but Shou could feel the weight of Ryou's gaze on him. He took a breath and looked up, meeting those cool, remote eyes.

"Kai's going to help me study so I can pass the test. And practice for the practical, too." How he was going to do that when he had yet to win a duel against her, he didn't know, but he would try nevertheless.

His mother nodded, exchanging a swift glance with his father. Shou could read them both fairly well and saw the worry reflected there, even just catching it from the corner of one eye. Ryou's opinion mattered to him most, not what his parents thought.

"Will you use Power Bond?" Ryou's question fell soft and strong from his lips. Shou dropped his gaze, cheeks flushing.

"No. You haven't said I could yet." He knew better than to even think about doing it without that permission.

Long silent moments stretched out between them, moments in which anything at all could've been said and yet nothing was. Finally Ryou spoke, nodding his head at the same moment. "One opens the path of a duelist with one's own strength or not at all. Do you think you can?"

Bag groceries! Fukazawa's voice echoed in Shou's memory and he steeled himself, staring once more up at his brother. "I can."

Ryou nodded again, then turned back to finish his dinner. Shou swallowed hard, reaching for his cup and hoping that he could somehow get the rest of dinner past the huge lump of relief in his throat.

Hitoka glanced at Airi again, then back at Shou. "I have to admit, that was pretty interesting."

Asuka ran through her deck one more time. Cyber Prima, Cyber Tutu, Cyber Gymnast, all the rest. I'll find you, big brother.

One more summer to live through before she finally made it to Duel Academia. Just a few weeks until she was able to stand where he'd stood, go to the classes he'd taken, talk to students and teachers who knew him, and find out what they hadn't yet told her.

There has to be more. He wouldn't just vanish. She remembered that day as easily as if it only just happened. Fubuki'd sent her an e-mail the night before promising to come home for winter break. She'd hoped he would remember when it was and not try to get home early. Or late.

Full of the thrill of victory after winning another duel, she'd entered their home, hoping to find something from Fubuki in her e-mail box. He usually e-mailed her at least once a day, sometimes even more, telling her about his classes and how boring most of them were and about the friends he'd met there.

"Dad? Mom?" Normally when she came home, dinner was already cooking. On that day, no scents at all came from the kitche, or sounds of anyone moving.

She might well have thought her parents were only out for an evening without warning; it wouldn't have been the first time they'd randomly decided to go somewhere. They normally left her a note, and she'd headed into the kitchen, certain of finding it.

What she found instead were her parents, seated at the kitchen table, her father's hand clutched in her mother's, a paper of some kind there between them. All she could see of it from the doorway was the seal of Duel Academia.

"Mom? Dad?" Asuka's voice seemed to startle them, two heads coming up and turning to stare at her. "What's wrong?" She didn't think it was something like a bad report card. Fubuki's grades, regardless of all else, were good. Better than good, really. He wasn't one of the elites for nothing. Something else was going on.

Tenjoin Takehiro lifted red-rimmed eyes, the sight of which sent chills down Asuka's spine. His voice was rough with unshed tears as he spoke. "Fubuki's vanished."

"What?" The words made no sense. Fubuki didn't do things like that. Turn up at odd hours and for odder reasons, yes. He did that on a regular basis. But he didn't vanish.

Tears streaked her mother's cheeks. "It happened three or four days ago. They're not certain of when. He finished his classes for the day but he never came back to his dorm. The last person who saw him was one of his professors." She glanced at the paper with obvious relucatance. "Daitoukuji."

Asuka remembered that name; Fubuki'd complained more than once about how alchemy could have been interesting but since it consisted not of turning lead into gold but blowing up things, it really wasn't. Fubuki declared more than once he wouldn't have minded a class project involving love potions, if only so he could find out if his charm could be bottled and spread out to everyone instead of being confined to him.

"Vanished?" Asuka couldn't wrap her mind about this concept, no matter how hard she tried. She took a few steps forward, attention focusing on the paper. Her father handed it to her, as reluctant to touch it as if doing so would make him vanish.

Asuka scanned it quickly; formal words from Principal Samejima informing them of what little they knew, reassurances that they would continue looking, welcoming them to call or visit if they wished.

She never quite remembered what happened the rest of that night. What she did remember was that her parents visited Duel Academia for three days and returned in not much better shape than they'd left.

"They want us to tell people he's studying in America." Bewilderment touched her father's words. "They're going to keep looking, but until they find him or the others..."

That made it even worse. Fubuki wasn't the only person to vanish. She didn't know how many others, but enough that the school wished this kept secret from the general public. Asuka heard her parents more than once talking about how the place should've been closed down instead. She didn't want that. Not at all. From the moment she fully realized he'd vanished, she wanted only one thing: to go to Duel Academia herself and find her brother.

Searching through his room and the papers he'd left behind dealing with his subjects for that doomed first year told her that she had almost the same classes he did. Only one was different, a class dealing with the mystical history of dueling. THat one wasn't offered anymore, not since the elite dorm closed down. Other than that, she would follow in his footsteps as close as possible.

"Asuka?" Her mother stood in the doorway, hair damp from a recent shower, no longer wearing her painting outfit. "Dinner's almost ready." Her gaze fell on the deck, pain flickering through her eyes at the sight. "You still want to go there."

"I'm going to bring him home." Asuka refused to think otherwise. Her parents hadn't given up hope, but Fubuki wasn't a subject they talked about. He was more like a ghost no one wanted to admit was there.

Tenjoin Yuzuki smiled, though it wasn't a very strong smile. "If anyone can, I'm sure you can." There was much she didn't say. She didn't need to; Asuka'd heard it all before. Neither of them wanted her to go there. They wanted her to go to a normal high school.

Asuka stood up, gaze falling briefly to the package set to one side of the bed. Everyone in her class who intended to proceed to Duel Academia had received one of those, consisting of a personalized electronic planner, maps of the school building, the dorms, and the island itself, and several school uniforms. Her duel disk leaned against the wall beside the package, ready for use at a moment's notice.

"He would be proud of you." Her father stood beside her mother now. "I know we are."

"Thank you." Those were the only words Asuka could find at the moment. She'd spent most of the last year and a half focused on the thought of finding Fubuki. Nothing else even came close to mattering except doing what she needed to do to pass her classes so she could go there and find them. Momoe and Junko complained more than once that she spent too much time studying and not enough hanging out with them.

Hanging out with them wouldn't find her brother. They would just have to deal with it.

Half-hidden behind the buildings, the sun slipped closer and closer to the horizon. Ryou paid little attention to it as he strolled along. His thoughts circled more around Shou and his announcement at dinner than anything else right now.

If he can't respect his opponents and their duels, he won't survive. That was the simple truth of the matter. Perhaps attending Duel Academia would help his brother realize that. If he made it in, of course. Shou had talent; Ryou knew that. He'd seen it in every duel he'd ever watched Shou play.

What he didn't have was control. Shou could get himself into an advantageous position, and the moment he realized victory was in his grasp, he took to mocking his opponent, failing to adapt to what that opponent might do. And so he lost. Constantly.

Only Shou could overcome his own problems. Ryou knew he couldn't do it for him. If Shou couldn't do it, then it would be better if he didn't duel at all.

He turned his thoughts outward, watching for a particular sign flickering in the gathering gloom.

Royal Magical Library. A small smile briefly bent Ryou's lips at the sight of the dueling club. Here teenagers and even a few pre-teens and young adults gathered every night for duels. A step up from street dueling, nowhere near the level of Pro Dueling, but a pleasant enough way to pass the time for a few hours.

He could almost hear Fubuki complaining that he spent too much time dueling and should do something else with his spare time, such as go to the beach or to a 'real' club. So far as Ryou cared, this was the only club that mattered.

Several teenagers he knew on a very minor level stood outside the door, bragging about how incredible their dueling was. He'd attended school with some of them. He knew exactly how true, or false, their bragging was. As soon as he drew close enough for them to realize who he was, all the bragging stopped.

"Who's this guy?" That came from one person he didn't know, a brunet nearly as tall as he was, duel disk set on one arm ready to fight.

One of the others nudged the stranger. "Watch your mouth. That's the Kaiser. He can wipe the floor with all of us at the same time." Respect, and a tinge or two of fear, filled his tone. Ryou recognized the speaker as Hamada Kichirou; he played a spellcaster deck, though he enjoyed dueling more for the fun of it than anything else, not having attended Duel Academia's junior high.

The newcomer slowly looked Ryou up and down. "Is that so? Well, Kaiser, I'm Murakami Itsuki." He grinned a grin that Ryou presumed was meant to irritate and intimidate him. "Want to duel?"

Camula slipped her way through the teenagers at the club, a hint of dissatisfaction about her lips. All of these children! Loud, crass, ill-mannered, without a single shred of respect for their elders!

It didn't matter that she scarcely looked of mature age herself, at least not by her own personal standards. She withdrew to a dark corner, relaxing into the shadows, and closed her eyes, wanting a few moments of peace.

Coming here might not have been the best idea. It was too bright, for one thing. Tonight she didn't look very out of place, though she couldn't shake the feeling she was. Instead of her usual tight-fitting gown, she wore what would be classified as young adult attire; a flowing blood-red skirt, a blouse a few shades darker, and red leather boots with a slight heel to them.

Granted, given how self-absorbed these children were, she could very well have worn her preferred outfit and still blended in. Even her hair wasn't unusual, not with various shades of blue and green cropping up here and there.

As people in general, she wasn't impressed by any of them. None of them had the strength or the drive she desired. As duelists, she was even less impressed, since she hadn't yet seen a single one who could so much as give her a decent fight.

The one use any of them could be good for was feeding from. She took in a deep breath, enjoying the scent of their lives. So much of it, and they squandered it on anything and everything.

Once my people have risen again, things will change. Once the proud vampire race remained in the shadows, willing to let the humans rule most of the world, while they contented themselves with a few villages and towns. That led to their downfall; they were too easily split apart and defeated.

It would not happen again. Camula would see to it herself. When her people lived, she would lead them into a new Golden Age. Humans would live in fear of them, when they didn't live in pens, waiting for their masters to have need of them.

She let herself dream of this for a few moments, anticipating not only the return of her people but the new world they would forge. Once she had the Mythic Demons under her control, there would be no one and nothing who could stand in her way.

"Hey, everyone!" A clear sharp voice cut through her fantasy and she snapped her head up, hissing in annoyance. No one was near enough to notice, though, nor might they have even if they'd been close enough, not with what else the shouter said. "Kaiser's going to duel!"

Kaiser? She'd come here at least once a week for the last month and had heard that name whispered about. Yet no one seemed to know when he'd actually be there.

She moved carefully through the crowds, working toward where everyone's attention focused. Soon she stood on the edge of one of the dueling arenas the Royal Magical Library enjoyed, a spot with an excellent view of whatever duel might be going on there.

Not that far away stood a tall young man she'd seen here before a few times. He had an interesting deck theme, though she held no doubts she could defeat him should the occasion arise. He also had reasonably tasty blood, enough so she'd sampled him at least twice. No more than that; she never enjoyed taking to much from the same person these days. It could lead to discovery and she refused to let herself be uncovered like that.

The other duelist stepped into place and Camula checked him out. Dark blue hair, a cool, distant look to his eyes, and something more. Her lips thinned in delight.

What a powerful warrior's spirit he has. She hadn't seen many like his and certainly never one this close up. He wasn't hard on the eyes, either, which made the experience even better.

A third teen stepped forward, clearing his throat. She recognized him at once as the one who'd first spread the word. "In this corner, we have a newcomer to the Royal Magical Library this summer, Murakami Itsuki! He's won three out of five of his duels so far. Is this going to be four out of six? Let's find out, because he's going up against the Kaiser! Marufuji Ryou, just returned from his second year at Duel Academia, where he won last year's school duel against North School. We all know his record: not a single loss in five years! Will his record remain unbroken?"

"Place your bets," Murakami suggested with a wry twist to his lips.

Camula evaulated both of them and placed a mental bet on this Kaiser. His soul shone far stronger than any or all of the others combined. The duel would make it plain on if that strength rang true or not.

She hoped it would.

"I'll take the first turn." Murakami declared with a flourish of his duel disk. Ryou nodded; he preferred the second, anyway. It gave him a chance to perform one of his better moves. He could already hear some of the spectators murmuring to themselves about this. Some of them knew his style quite well.

Murakami fanned the six cards he drew and slipped one into his disk. "I summon Goblin Assassination Force!" A small group of green-skinned, armored warriors appeared, armed with a variety of weapons all seemingly crafted to do the most harm before their victim actually died. "I also place one card face-down and end my turn."

Ryou knew well what the effect of Goblin Assassination Force was: the ability to attack an opponent directly. He eyed the face-down, calculating in a heartbeat the odds of what it was, then made up his mind on his move.

"I draw! Because you have a monster on your field, I'm able to Special Summon Cyber Dragon from my hand without a sacrifice." A mighty roar echoed around the arena as the silver-armored dragon rose up before him, staring down at the opposing goblins.

Murakami grinned, one hand flashing out before him. "I activate Gravity Bind! No monsters level four or over can attack! And since your Cyber Dragon is level five, there's not really anything you can do, is there?"

Ryou's lips curved upward for a brief moment. "I set one card facedown and end my turn." Oh, but there was: and he'd just done it.

His opponent drew his next card, eyes lighting up. "Oh, I'm going to enjoy this. I summon Grudge!" Next to the Goblin Assassination Force there now rose a strange amorphous red blob, a glowing core, and a few veins running here and there. "Both of my monsters can attack my opponent directly. Grudge has a special effect beyond that, though. Every time I inflict battle damage to you with it, Grudge's attack points go up by a thousand in the standby phase."

Ryou nodded; he'd seen the monster mentioned on tests, though this was his first time facing it in battle. "But right now, it doesn't have any attack points at all."

"That's right. But that's about to change." Murakami flipped two cards from his hand. "First I equip Grudge with Horn of the Unicorn, increasing its attack and defense by seven hundred!" A long slender horn affixed itself to the top of the blob, the base of it sliding inward a little, and the whole creature glowed a soft gold for a single heartbeat.

He waited less than a moment to reveal the second card he'd played. "I also equip Grudge with Black Pendant, increasing its attack by another five hundred points!" A quick smile flashed across his lips as with an audible slurp, the blob swallowed the pendant, letting it float around within. "And when Black Pendant goes to the graveyard, you take five hundred points of damage."

Ryou only nodded; he knew the card's effect. This wasn't all, though. He knew it coudn't be.

"And now, it's time for battle!" Murakami declared, and yet another card flipped around. "It would be rude just to let my Goblin Assassination Force stand here and do nothing, so I play Quick Attack! This allows them to attack, even with Gravity Bind on the field! So! Goblin Assassination Force! Grudge! Attack Kaiser directly!"

The goblins shimmered out of sight, appearing behind Ryou to drive their holographic weapons through him at half a dozen points. He didn't even blink, but instead waited for the second attack. Grudge glowed a mix of gold, black, and red once, twice, three times before a blast of energy hot across the field and knocked another twelve hundred points from his life.

"Goblin Assassination Force goes into defense mode after it attacks," Murakami said, even as the goblins knelt before him, arms crossed over their chests. One card remained in his hand and he wasted no time in getting it out to play. "Lastly, I use Fissure to destroy your Cyber Dragon!"

Rumbling rose up from the floor beneath them, which cracked open to reveal a wide gap directly beneath Cyber Dragon. The metallic monster shrieked once, more from pride than fear Ryou knew, and then exploded. The hole vanished and Murakami nodded in satisfaction.

"Turn end."

"My turn. I draw." For all Ryou showed, Murakami's entire turn might not have happened. "Once again, by its own effect, I summon Cyber Dragon, set one card, and end my turn."

With Gravity Bind on the field still, he couldn't attack yet. But he had plans already on how to deal with that. He just needed the right moment to arrive.

Murakami glanced toward Hamada, head tilted to the side. "I thought you said this guy was something special. All he keeps doing is summoning the same monster over and over again."

Hamada shook his head. "You are walking right into his trap. Don't say we didn't warn you."

That got a snort of disbelief as Murakami drew his card for the turn, playing it at once. "Banner of Courage will increase my monsters' attack strength by two hundred during my Battle Phase. Not that they need it, since Grudge now has two thousand and two hundred attack points." Murakami gestured lazily. "Grudge, finish him off!"

Before Grudge could so much as twitch a veiny bit of itself, Ryou acted. "Trap, activate! Attack Reflector Unit! By tributing my Cyber Dragon, I Special Summon Cyber Barrier Dragon!" Murmurs of excitement rushed around the room; this was one of the moves experienced watchers of his duels expected. "Cyber Barrier Dragon's special effect is this: once per turn I can negate an attack from my opponent."

Murakami hissed between his teeth before ending his turn with a quick slash of one hand. Without Quick Attack, his Goblin Assassination Force couldn't make it past Gravity Bind's effect, which left him with no other options.

Now Ryou's turn began. "I activate Call of the Living Dead, summoning one Cyber Dragon back from the graveyard!" Murakami just rolled his eyes. Ryou kept going. "Next, I summon Proto-Cyber Dragon from my hand. This card's effect has it treated as being 'Cyber Dragon' while it's face-up on the field."

More murmurs rushed up and down, people beginning to guess what he had in mind.

"I play Fusion! Cyber Dragon and Proto-Cyber Dragon merge to become Cyber Twin Dragon!" The two chosen monsters spun around one another rapidly until they could no longer be seen. In their place emerged a much larger two-headed creature, with a double echoing roar.

"Okay, so you have a tough monster." Murakami blustered, eyeing the two thousand and eight hundred attack points. "But it still can't attack with Gravity Bind out there."

"How true. Which is why I now play Cyclone, destroying Gravity Bind." Ryou chose the next to last card in his hand, sending a whirlwind of dark energies across the field to wrap around Gravity Bind and send it exploding into the graveyard. "Cyber Twin Dragon, attack his Goblin Assassination Force!"

Though no damage would come to his life points because of being in defense mode, Murakami still twitched at his monster's destruction. But Ryou's Battle Phase wasn't over yet.

"Cyber Twin Dragon can attack twice in a Battle Phase! Take out Grudge!" Ryou ordered, and the two-headed beast obeyed, blasting toward the red blob at full power. As it and the two equip spells on it vanished, energy slashed across the field, slicing into Ryou's life points. Black Pendant extracted its price.

Murakami caught his breath. He still had over three thousand life points left and every monster in his deck could attack directly. Ryou only had a thousand life points left. It wasn't over yet.

"Now, Cyber Barrier Dragon, take your shot." The second monster rose upward, the ring of spikes around its neck extending before it blasted toward Murakami's unprotected life points.

"He has twenty-six hundred life points left." Hamada breathed the words out just enough for everyone else to hear him. "Can the Kaiser do it? Can he finish it on this turn?"

Ryou's lips thinned in a brief smile before he turned around the last card in his hand. "Fusion Cancel." At those words, Cyber Twin Dragon shrieked and separated once more into Cyber Dragon and Proto-Cyber Dragon. Murakami swallowed and stared at the two of them, seeing his loss in their arrival. "Attack!"

Two streaks of brilliant energy blasted Murakami hard enough to knock him down to one knee, ending the duel in Ryou's favor. Murakami took a few deep breaths and slowly looked up, grinning.

"That was incredible. How did you do that?"

"You have an interesting style. You should expand your deck more, however." Relying on one mode of battle wouldn't make it in the long run, no matter what one's reasons for dueling.

Murakami just shrugged. "Hey, you want a soda? It's on me. Then you can answer my question about how you did that."

Ryou carefully gathered his deck together and nodded agreement to the soda. The duel had indeed been interesting and he looked forward to spending the summer having more like it. Even if they couldn't quite compare to the one he hoped to end his final year with.

Camula faded back into the shadows, listening to the excited murmurs all around her. Everything she'd seen supported her initial idea: this Kaiser, this Ryou, was indeed everything that she'd searched for all these years.

A strong duelist. More than strong, fantastic. Other whispers came to her ears and she nodded to herself. Perfect. That was exactly what he was.

The perfect duelist, of course. But being a human meant being imperfect inherently, unlike her. I can fix that.

She licked her lips at the thought. To have such a one kneeling at her feet for all eternity, even as she remade the world in the image of the vampires? She could think of little that would satisfy her more.

The first step was to learn as much as she could about Marufuji Ryou. Taking him without knowing who he was and the deepest weakneses and strengths of his heart would never end well. She had to know who he was before he no longer became that person.

Besides, someone with a powerful will like that would likely enough resist her inducements, unless she knew just the right methods to squirm into his soul.

She turned her attention outward again, looking over the varied teenagers here. No one else seemed inclined to duel at the moment. After what the Kaiser showed them, anything else would be unsatisfying. But that thrilled her all the more. It meant she would be able to locate someone who could give her what she wanted.

Silently she moved through the club, seeking out the one he wanted. She wasn't surprised to find him near Kaiser and his former opponent, chatting with the two of them.

Thin blood. Very unsatisfying. But for once, Camula found herself more interested in someone's mind than in the liquid coursing through their veins. She concentrated, reaching out toward him.

Hamada Kichirou. She whispered his own name in the vaults of his mind, twitching at his thoughts. Hamada Kichirou.

He lifted his head and looked around, the drink in his hand forgotten for the moment. Camula bent her power on him just a fraction harder. Come. Come to me.

Her lip curled as he set his drink down and turned to the other two. "I'll be back, there's something I need to do." An excuse made that neither of them listened to made, he slipped off his stool and headed outside into the waiting darkness.

Camula took only a few moments to get outside herself; she had ways of going here and there which were far swifter than having to walk. By the time Hamada stood outside, she was there herself. Again she reached out to him, tugging on strings she wove easily through his thoughts. Human minds, especially those of human teenage males, were so easy to toy with.

She brushed her fingers across the side of his cheek, more from the thrill of having a temporary playtoy than anything else. Not in blood nor in flesh was he her type.

"Tell me about Kaiser. Tell me everything you know." Stronger minds could resist her. She anticipated matching her wits against Kaiser's when the time came. But Hamada's will crumbled before hers and he spoke.

He spoke and she listened, memorizing all of it rapidly. Called the Kaiser for his impressive winning streak, known also as the perfect duelist, going into his final year at Duel Academia when the new year began.

Camula smiled at that. "Duel Academia?" Could it really be?

"Yes." Hamada nodded, eyes glazed and dull from the force of her will dominating his. "He'll graduate at the end of this year. Everyone knows he's going into the Pro Leagues then."

Her smile widened a fraction. Perhaps he would. Perhaps he would not. "What else do you know?" She could see Hamada racking his brains in the effort to tell anything else that she might want to know. Good boy. She wouldn't kill him. Not tonight, anyway.

"He has a younger brother, Shou, and his best friend disappeared from Duel Academia a couple of years ago: Tenjoin Fubuki."

Something about that name tripped in the recesses of her mind. She'd heard it somewhere before, perhaps? Someone she'd fed from? Killed? Knew somehow?

"What else?" Her fingers slid under Hamada's jaw to grip it with more force. "What else do you know of him?"

The other shook his head, disappointment flickering through his eyes. "Nothing. He doesn't talk to many people."

Camula hissed for a moment in frustration. As much as she'd learned, it still wasn't enough. Time. I have time. She didn't need to take him tonight. She could afford to wait, and it would likely be better if she did. That didn't stop her from being annoyed because she wanted to know more anyway.

Blocking or destroying memories was a skill beyond her power. She'd noticed Darkness had a knack for it, but she wouldn't ask for his help. Besides, he tended to avoid places where humans congregated in large numbers. Something about how people shouldn't live crammed together like that.

But Camula wasn't utterly without ways to deal with situations like this. She couldn't get rid of them, but she could change them, just a little. Just enough so that no one would look askance if he happened to mention anything about a secret meeting in the alley behind the club with a strange woman.

She found a convenient niche and dropped Hamada into it, already passing into unconsciousnes with a single word from her. He would wake up in another hour or so, convinced that the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen invited him out there for a quick tryst. A few questions might be bandied about when no one remembered her, but she had one more weapon in her arsenal: no one knew that one vampire still walked the world and thus no one would look for her.

Once she'd dealt with him, she slipped into her bat form and wended her way through the skies, deep in thought. Her bats would be able to follow Ryou by night, or she could herself. But a human lived in daylight and darkness both. She needed someone who could walk in the light.

I think I know just who to ask. One should always be grateful for the contacts one made in the line of business, her father told her once upon a time. Camula could not disagree.

Ryou glanced at the clock, then finished his drink and set it down. "I'm going."

"What?" Murakami stared at him. "It's not that late, is it?" He took a look at the time himself, then looked again. "Maybe it is." The clock revealed it lacked but fifteen minute until midnight. Ryou's parents didn't set a curfew, not during the summer and not for him, but he liked getting home before it was too late.

Once he would've had to pull Fubuki away from whatever nonsense he was involved with. Now he simply nodded to Murakami and Hamada, the other having stumbled up just a few minutes earlier, mumbling something about a beautiful woman and her sweet kisses. Ryou personally suspected other excuses for Hamada's absence, ones that had a bit more of a chemical origin.

Still, the other looked more or less comptenet to make it home on his own, so Ryou headed for the door, already dismissing the situation from his mind.

This wasn't very late at night, not by the standards of this part of town, so several of the other clubs in the area still had lights and noise echoing from them. Ryou paid them no attention, turning his steps toward home. All in all, it hadn't been such a bad evening. An interesting duel, a good talk with his opponent (who he'd just managed to convince to try some monsters in his deck that weren't all direct attack ones), and a couple of decent drinks. A satisfying enough start for his last summer as a student.

The club district fell behind him the farther he walked, darkness closing in, the streetlights now the only way to see where he was going. He didn't need them; he'd walked this road many times before, sometimes alone, sometimes with Fubuki.

And sometimes...

His steps faltered for a single heartbeat. Someone else? He'd walked it with someone who wasn't Fubuki?

Ryou frowned, then dismissed the thought. If such a person existed, he'd remember them, and since he didn't, they didn't. He wasn't in the habit of forgetting people.

But the thought didn't dismiss so easily. For the space of a few heartbeats, pale violet eyes surfaced in his mind, along with seaweed-like hair. A name flickered, not quite on his lips, but just behind them, where he couldn't shape it, but he knew it anyway.

Knew it, until all of that faded and he would've glared at himself if he could. He didn't have fantasies like that. He never did.

It's late. He checked his watch, then stepped along more briskly than before. He'd obviously been up far too long if he let himself fall into daydreams of people who never even existed.

Ahead of him, something dark and small fluttered across his path. Ryou barely gave it more than a moment's thought, just enough to dismiss it as either a late-night bird or possibly a bat. He had no idea if bats even lived in this part of the city, but so long as they didn't bother him, he genuinely didn't care if they did or didn't.

Behind him now, red eyes glowed in the darkness, watching, waiting.

At this hour, Shou usually found himself completely wrapped up in the bonds of slumber. He had school the next day, after all, and his parents tended to insist that he end up in bed at what they called a reasonable hour.

That would be something good about Duel Academia, he decided. His parent wouldn't be there to tell him when he had to go to bed. He'd probably have to pull several all-nighters just to keep his grades up anyway.

Tonight, instead of sleeping, he found himself staring up into the shadows above his bed. His room lay on the darker side of the house, where no streetlights shone in the windows. He almost wished it were the other way around; at least then he'd have something interesting to watch. This wasn't a busy neighborhood after dark, but anything was better than nothing.

He didn't know what kept him awake, at least not all of it. Ryou not yet being home didn't help. He slept decently when Ryou wasn't there at all, off at Duel Academia. But when his brother was home, yet not actually in the house, it always seemed to take a little extra time for him to fall asleep.

The front door groaned open and Shou recognized Ryou's familiar step. Tension he'd hardly known existed slipped out of him and he closed his eyes.

I have to make him proud of me. His parents didn't understand dueling, not like Ryou did, and not like he tried to. Going over his deck that night, he'd remembered how good it felt when he'd first built the deck, finding the 'Roid monsters, learning how they fit together, teaching himself all the ins and outs by endless repeats of staring at the instruction manual, and then watching as Ryou dueled.

It hadn't helped when Ryou'd left to attend the Cyber Dojo, either. He'd hardly spoken to Shou about that place, either. He'd only learned the barest essentials, and only after Ryou'd returned, wielding the mighty Cyber End Dragon.

Shou couldn't help but sigh at the thought of such a monster. All of his 'Roids couldn't begin to compare to that gleaming work of art and power. Even Super Vehicroid Stealth Union wasn't in that creature's league.

I'm not sure if the God Cards would be that impressive. Not that he'd ever actually seen a God Card being played, but how could they be better than Cyber End Dragon?

Ryou moved down the hallway toward his own room, directly across from Shou's. Shou wanted to get up and ask him how his evening had been, if he'd had any good duels, or done anything interesting. He'd never gone to one of those dueling clubs before. He didn't think he'd ever have the nerve.

If I can't go to one of those, how am I ever going to make it in the Pros? Shou tried not to think about that. The Pros were years and years away, if he ever managed to reach them at all. He'd worry about getting there after getting into Duel Academia.

If he got into Duel Academia.

Three days; that was how much time he had. The e-mail had arrived just before he'd started to get ready for bed, informing him of when and where the written exam would be held and which seat he was assigned to. If he didn't make it, then he wouldn't be allowed to take the practical exam. If he failed entirely, he wouldn't take the practical. If he failed his practical, he would not enter the school at all.

Perhaps he knew why he couldn't sleep after all.

Maybe I should've tried the junior high anyway. He wouldn't be laying here worrying about the test, that was for certain. Everyone who attended the junior high found themselves in Obelisk Blue, so long as they passed their final exams. He couldn't forget the day Ryou'd come home with his new uniform. He'd scored so highly that he'd been granted immediate entry into the elite Blue dorm. More than just high marks; he'd scored perfectly on the written test and defeated a highly ranked Pro duelist hired just to duel him for the final practical.

Shou pulled his pillow over his head. I've got to do this. I've got to make it in and I've got to pass everything.

He closed his eyes and forced himself not to move, not to think, not to do anything at all but let sleep fold itself around him, no matter how much he wanted to get up and go through his deck one more time, check out that one combo again, and what was that ploy he'd thought about but couldn't remember, it would be important, but only if he forgot it...

Camula entered the high-vaulted hallway through a small opening installed just for her. She'd managed to persuade Kagemaru to leave these places in their various strongholds, giving her much easier ways to get in and out of them. It had only taken her five years to convince him.

She slipped back into her normal form once inside, plans for how to track Marufuji Ryou by day tumbling over in her mind. Already one of her bats followed him, gathering all the information possible at this hour. By sunrise she would know where he lived, if nothing else. Her little informant at the club's mention of a brother also caught her attention. She didn't yet know if he could be useful to her cause or not, but Camula liked to plan for everything.

A short distance from where she entered, another hallway branched off from the one she'd entered in. Nine doors, four to each side and one at the end, led off that corridor. She paused outside the first one to the right, touching it with the tips of her fingers before she pulled away. No, it was too late, by Taniya's standards, to knock. She would speak to the Amazon the next afternoon, after she woke from her daily rest.

Camula glanced at the door opposite to Taniya's; she had every right to go there, but she hadn't yet decided if she wanted to do so tonight. Behind that door, she knew, descended a series of stairs that led deeper underneath the hideout, to several arenas where their duel training took place. She'd spent untold hours there herself, learning how this new way of fighting took place.

She hadn't ever dueled against any of the others who'd earned the right to join their band. Everyone was under orders not to duel Abidos; Kagemaru claimed he was being saved for their actual strike against the Key-Keepers later that year. Camula suspected it was because he was such a pathetic duelist that any of them could send him to the afterlife with hardly a breath of effort.

She had dueled against their prisoners, most of them students Kagemaru had captured and brought there somehow. More than once she'd fed thoroughly and well on those she defeated. She didn't bite every one of them she defeated, but at least one out of three of them found their way to her larder. It did save her from having to hunt her own now and then.

At the moment, her larder didn't need stocking at all. She headed down the hallway to her own door, next to Darkness and across from Amnael. At least she'd been told that was where Amnael lived; she'd yet to see him emerge from there.

"You're back early." Darkness's door didn't open but he stood outside of it anyway, where he hadn't a moment before. He leaned against it, one leg crossed over the other.

"I didn't realize I had to check with you." Camula frowned at him, but he barely seemed to notice. That was one of the points about him she hated the most.

He only smiled, if one could call the way his lips moved upward a smile. She couldn't name it, but there was something off about it, something empty and soulless.

She took another step toward her door, intent on ignoring him. She had more to do with her time than bandy words about with someone who had nothing that resembled an interest in anything but their goal. At least Abidos had a reason for wanting the Mythic Demons. Darkness had to have one as well, but she had never heard him speak of it.

His eyes never left her back as she entered her room. Whatever thoughts he had, he kept them well hidden behind his mask. Who are you under that? Camula wondered that a little more every time she crossed paths with him. Vampires and darkness were connected to one another in multiple ways, yet that didn't make her any more comfortable around him. If anything, she was far less so.

She would find out one day, though. Their time drew closer and she would keep a watch on him, as she did all of the others. Most of them were human, or had been human, and Camula trusted no one with that blood.

Juudai jumped to his feet and paced around his room one more time. He couldn't remember being this excited in his entire life. Another three days (Did it count as two days now? He wasn't sure.) until the written exam for Duel Academia!

It wasn't the written test he really wanted, though. Written tests bored him. The practicals, that was where it was at! That was where he'd shine!

He could recite his deck from heart now, just from how many times he'd looked through it since he'd first sent the application in. Not that he couldn't have before, but he could do it even better now. He knew most of his major strategies without having to look at the cards and he trusted in the way he'd built the deck and in his Elemental Heroes to bring him the best duels.

This is so awesome. I'm going to go to Duel Academia! Strictly speaking, he didn't know that yet. But Juudai'd never been one to make petty distinctions between points such as 'might' and 'will'. He'd wanted to go there for his entire life. Nothing was going to get in his way.

Nothing could stop him now.

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