The crowd inside the stadium simmered as a boiling cauldron, their expectations bubbling higher with each passing second. They stared down at the empty arena beneath them as if the two great duelists already waged their war for the supreme reputation. Already they cheered for their future combatants, divided into camps of die-hard fans locked against each other as two opposing armies. They waved their crude signs and number one gloves as if they could send missiles to obliterate the opposing team.
For Maya waiting just outside the arena, it was boring. The audience had simple expectations. They wanted something big and loud, a duel lasting between five to twenty minutes so it looked like a real struggle. The crowd would guzzle down their corn dogs and beer and slug at each other when things got really out of hand. Maya had satisfied them with a spectacle of death a million times already. And all this over children’s trading card game.
Could be worse. Could’ve been about a bunch of sweaty, road-rage beef-heads having a public orgy. They did it because they needed to fumble over some pigskin. It had something to do with playing a children’s game also.
Maya’s head throbbed in pain. It felt like a migraine but she knew it really wasn’t. She had woken up on top of Jolene in her cheap apartment. Some random guy slumbered under their bed. Everyone looked like they were dead, and incriminating evidence of Maya’s deeds were everywhere. The guy’s body was riddled with whiplashes and bites so hard they had drawn blood. Jolene’s body was less savaged but was smeared with red lipstick everywhere. Maya herself looked horrifying, her makeup smeared and blurred all over her face so much she liked the Joker from the Dark Knight.
A sudden sick urge had overwhelmed Maya and before she knew it she threw up all over the random guy. She whispered a soft, meek apology, but he snored on. My God! The time! She quickly god dressed and could only wash some of the makeup off. She found her duel disk, suspiciously placed somewhere else than when she last remembered it, but she didn’t have time to consider it.
Maximus, the familiar tournament commentator, short and stout, flashing a rich mop if dyed golden hair, brandished a special silver trophy just for the occasion. “Today, we hold the premier match to the AMERICAN DUEL MONSTERS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP, the gala for glory, the appetizer to whet you’re appetites!” The crowd swerved in a lecherous frenzy. “On the left, we have AKIRA RYU! JAPANESE NATIONAL CHAMPION AND CURRENT WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP!!! And who has he graciously stooped down to duel with his generosity? NONE OTHER THAN THE AMERICAN NATIONAL CHAMPION MARINA BOZOVIC!!!!!!!”
Maya and Akira finally entered the stage together, shuffled each other’s decks, and took their stances opposing each other. The formalities and bombastic titles were finally over.
“READY!!!! GET SET!!!! DUEEEEEEEEEL!!!!!!”
Akira: 4000 || Maya: 4000
AKIRA: “Even now I regret stooping this low to duel against you. You probably won’t satisfy me even as a curiosity. I activate Qliphort Scout and Qliphort Monolith!” Two cylinderous beams of light, pure and immaculate, descend from the sky. Inside them float two similar monsters opposing each other, a long, thin machine that looked like a tall hermit crab’s shell, and another machine shaped like a monolith. “I pay 800 Life Points to use Scout’s pendulum effect: I search for Laser Qlip and activate it.” (LP: 4000 à 3200) The whole field takes on a sickly, purple-pink hue from the spell.
“Scout has a Pendulum Scale of 9 and Monolith has a pendulum scale of 1, so I can summon all monsters between those levels! PENDULUM SUMMON!!” Lines crisscross in the sky in the shape of a multisided star. A celestial gatewats opens! Spirits pour forth and take shape into a train of husk-like machines: Qliphot Carrier, Qliphort Helix, Qliphort Stealth, and Qliphort Shell.
But Akira is nowhere near done yet. I tribute Stealth and Shell to summon Qliphort Disk!” Two of the alien machines return to their celestial source, not the graveyard, their place taken by a saucer-shaped machine. “And because I tribute summoned Disk, I special summon two Qliphort Carriers from my deck.” And surely enough two new machines appear. “Now I tribute two carriers and Helix to summon Apoqliphort Towers, which I can due because of my field spell!” His three machines ascend far above. Now a gargantuan, imposing monster with four towering legs loomed ahead.
“I use Towers’ effect. Throw away one monster from your hand.” Maya does so. “As my turn ends I use Monolith’s pendulum effect to draw five cards! Take my advice, ‘Maya’. Don’t fight against the system. You might as well play along with it.”
MAYA: “Thanks for the useless advice.” Pegasus must be running out of ideas to rip off of Evangelion. Qliphorts are as tough as they are generic in this metagame. Qliphort Tower is especially bad. It can only be destroyed by battle. And Akira has five more Qliphorts in his extra deck, which he would summon next turn. She faced these gamebreaker monstrosities before. It will be difficult but she has a plan. “I summon Unizombie!”
Nothing! The monster doesn’t appear! She slaps the card on the duel disk again! Nothing! She tries again, and again, smacking the duel disk she’s almost hitting it. It couldn’t be broken! The crowd boos and jeers at her. Even her “fans”, who just waved their sloppy signs for her a few minutes ago, don’t bother to hide their derision.
Akira can barely contain a smug grin of satisfaction. “Forgot to fix your duel disk? Sounds like a bold strategy to me. I knew you had tricks up your sleeve but I had no idea you’d do this.” He keeps shuffling his hand, making a very loud and obnoxious slip – slip – slip sound. Most duelists do this. They think it makes them look like a pro but it really makes them look like douche bags. To Maya it always sounds like jacking off, and in the end that’s all it amounts to.
The fire inside Maya stars to cook at a higher pressure, her suspicions aroused to paranoia. “You did this! You tampered with my duel disk while I was out you cheat!! I swear I will crucify you upside down over the Chicago Skyline Bridge!”
Akira merely laughs at her threats. The crowd now mocks her in crude chants and throws food at her, especially her former fans. Maya, feeling only impotent, drops her head low in shame. The crowd hits her with a few corndogs and a box of cheesy nachos. One guy on a front row seat hits her head with a beer bottle. A serious mistake.
Duel over. Maya clenched her fists. She seized the silver trophy and pelted it at the offender, striking him on the head and knocking him out cold. The crowd instantly changed its tune from mockery to panic. People fled the arena in droves, throwing each other under and stumbling on top of one another.
Akira was already on his cell phone. “HELP! HELP! Things are getting out of hand! Send the cops over right now!”
That was soon, a little too soon. But Maya had no time to ponder the situation. Akira already disappeared, replaced by a ring of cops tightening their grip on her. Maya cursed. “Cops! Again! What is this, a pigsty!?” She tried to break through but the cops hit her with their nightsticks and before she knew it she was pinned to the floor, handcuffed.
Maya had no choice but to slump on the wall of the jail cell. The adrenaline was gone. But the pain wasn’t. Her head still felt bruised and cut from the beer bottle. She was at least thankful no glass got into her eyes. But there were few blessings to count. If Maya paid for her bail she would be completely broke. That one banker at the party would breath down her neck worse than a dragon and would make sure within all his power to have her locked up for good. She didn’t want to become a statistic, but it seemed she had no other choice.
Either way the guard couldn’t care less. He just lounged on his chair, cross-legged, his feet on the desk, reading a newspaper while sipping a cup of coffee. His potbelly protruded from his body like a swollen abscess. He wasn’t smug or cruel like Akira was so much as apathetic, which was even worse. At least spite was a passion.
The cop flipped through his newspaper. He echoed her worries. “I hope you got friends to help you out, or you’ll be stuck here for a long time. Not like you can pay for anything anyway. Well, that’s what you get for going crazy like Mike Tyson at the stadium. Problem is, I don’t think you’re a superstar with an army of lawyers like Mike Tyson, are you? Bet you’re on drugs all the same.”
“Correction, the pig in a wig is smug.”
“What was that?” The cop had enough of her but then the door slammed open and a man threw a briefcase full of cash on the cop’s lap. He was modest in height and well built, with a short, well-groomed beard and mustache that complemented a serious face. “My name is Hassan. Get in the car. I’ll explain everything there.”
For the next few minutes Hassan delivered what seemed more like the exposition of an outlandish fanfic than anything that happened in the real world. Maya’s head swam at all the news being doused at her at once. Her world was shot. “You want me to save Egypt from you’re father and the Ghouls. And you think I’m the one for the job because… you dreamt about me.”
Hassan nodded. “You are one of the three serpents. Forgive me for prying into your personal life, but I know you battled against the Ghouls before. You wanted to research crime in the inner city for your undergraduate thesis, but wound up in the middle of two Ghoul gangs fighting for turf. You even befriended the leader of one gang… before he was killed. Point is, you already dug deep into the Ghouls as a whole, but you stopped. I hear rumors the next World Championship is taking place in Egypt and you need the money. You can kill two birds with one stone.”
Maya was in no mood to hear about this closed case, or to open old wounds. She still could smell the gang leader’s entrails and feel her soaked hands push them back into his body as he lay dying. “No! One, I’m not going to the World Championship! I’m not good enough! Two, there’s no way I can stop the Ghouls! If Yugi couldn’t do it what makes you think I could?”
Hassan reached the Chicago O’Hare International Airport. “What choice do you have? I believe in Fate, Maya, and I know dreams say something deeply important.” He took out two suitcases for he packed all of Maya’s things and handed her a one-way ticket to Iceland. “May Horus protect you on your journey. May he vindicate the righteous and annihilate the wicked.”
“If you honestly think a cosmic force is parochial enough to privilege a small tribe of apes on a small dust ball in a small suburb of the universe, then you, sir, are lost.” But Maya wasn’t oblivious to Hassan’s generosity, so she grudgingly thanked him. She thought of taking a cab right back to the city as soon as he left… but then what?
Jolene greeted her, but after that they kept looking at each other awkwardly. Jolene didn’t say anything but the embarrassed red flush on her cheeks and the look in her eyes said everything. Two people accompanied Jolene. One was JC, a tall and corpulent man, sporting a bristling black goatee and thick glasses. Maya, glad to break the spell, greeted him. He, in turn, paid his grudging respect. The other person… she was a small and slim woman with long, black hair and porcelain features, doll-like. Jiao Yi.
Hassan wasn’t going to leave either. “If I can’t convince you, then she will.”
Maya was sore enough but Jiao smiled sweetly and offered her seafood sushi. Maya was starving! She ate her morsel gratefully and so her irritation was pacified a bit. Jiao offered that they all sit at a nearby Japanese restaurant. Maya’s flight wasn’t until another four hours.
Jiao showed Maya an interesting painting of an ancient, ruined castle deep in the woods. Between Jolene and Maya, Jolene was the painter, but Maya could tell the brush strokes were thick and broad, and of dark colors, to create the impression of something untamed and obscure at the same time. “You painted this?”
“Yes, with my feet.” Jiao even playfully took her foot out of her slipper to wiggle her toes. They indeed were especially dexterous. Jiao seemed to have read Maya’s mind because she then said, “There was a time in my life where I felt completely free yet safe in the same way. I felt a raw, primeval feeling, and at home in the world.”
Maya needed to change the subject. “I appreciate your favors but cut to chase. What is your argument?”
Jiao chuckled lightly. “Oh yes, arguments, to ingratiate the rationales of irrational animals. But fine. Here is the most obvious.” She took Maya to the third floor of the restaurant and pointed to the dark horizon. “Look over there.”
Maya saw the stadium where she had her humiliating duel just half a day ago. It shone brightly like a green lighthouse but in doing so allowed her to see the projects not too far off. A Ghoul gang used one of the abandoned buildings as a home base. Then it was raided by the rival gang, and the leader Maya joined sides with died in the attack. “It reminds me that the dueling world… didn’t change at all.” She bit down her bitter disappointment. “Four years later, it’s still all the same. My dueling didn’t make any of their lives better.”
“And I’m sure you know why.” Jiao was sympathetic but damning all the same.
“Because I played within ‘the system’. The dueling world is run by ‘The Man’ as it were. I wanted to help the ‘littleman’ but just to exist I needed to follow ‘The Man’s’ rules. The rules rigged, so it’s impossible to actually do anything. The worst thing is that even the people who are screwed over the most either don’t know about or don’t care. Their spirits are so crushed they can only look for a narcotic, like reality TV, the Superbowl, or dueling.” Maya glared at the stadium far away with burning envy and hatred. “If only I could just burn the whole damn world to the ground!”
Jiao looked out to the horizon as Maya did. “Well, you could do the next best thing. If you win the World Championship you’ll get about three million dollars prize money. Even more important you’ll get the power to change the system. I mean, let’s be honest here, you’ll still have to navigate through the corporations, especially KaibaCorp or Industrial Illusions, but it’s better than nothing. Or perhaps you’d rather go to jail.”
“There’s one more thing. The funny thing about the Ghouls is that after I got to a certain point I just went up against a wall. Separate bosses run big Ghoul syndicates, or that’s how it appears.” Maya mused. “But beyond there seems to be a person, or persons, who have control over the bosses behind closed doors. Heishin is the boss of the Ghouls in Egypt right now, but I’m sure he’s dealing with someone else. Question is: who are these people and what are they up to?”
“Would you like to know?” Jiao prodded.
Maya at last conceded. “Fine. I’m going. Hassan gave me a big present and he doesn’t seem like a shady guy. He’s either naïve or desperate to the point of being stupid. I’ll give him that. The World Championship is my last shot as a pro.”
“You’ll meet Yukio, you’re old friend, in Iceland. Hassan, Jolene, JC, and I will stay here. We’ll be you and Yukio’s base, your line of support. In Iceland you’ll also meet Team Stella, who you’ve worked with in the past before…”
“And there I’ll register for the World Championship. I’m pretty sure America banned me from the tournament scene by now. But… answer me, Jiao. Why do you even care? I know what Hassan gets out of this, but what about you?”
“Because I recognize a worthy creative spirit when I see one and I want to see it nurtured.” Jiao’s reply was plain and simple. “And frankly, I’m sick of ‘the system’ too.”