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The Decision

Yami stepped lightly and nervously through the rapidly darkening streets of the city. Worry had begun its serpentine wrap around his stomach, as it always did at this time every moon-cycle. Where would she be this time? And why did his Sight seem so dull? He should have at least sensed her by now. It was as if Cora was... blocked from him somehow. All he could sense was... cold... 

"Halt! Show yourself!" 

The shout from the sentry at the city gate caused only a momentary falter of Yami's progress. Maintaining his momentum, he continued towards the sentry and the shadows withdrew from his face as he approached the torch-lit gate. The sentry's eyes widened, and he dropped immediately to one knee. 

"High Magician. Forgive me. I did not see that it was you." 

Yami swept by him, not responding, and he exited the city gates, which creaked and clunked shut behind him. His steps came more rapidly as he neared the wilderness that fringed the Nile plain, his apprehension mounting with the pace of his heart. Something was not right. Why couldn't he sense her? 

As the torchlights of the city walls grew dimmer with distance, Yami broke into a run. He crashed into the thickening vegetation, pushing it out of his way, and the acrid smells of rot and fungus flew into his face. He coughed and advanced further, his feet now squelching on the spongy ground, and at a sudden bend in the River, he found himself in a man-made clearing on the bush-lined shore where a large copse of trees had been felled. He stopped running abruptly at a sense of danger and his head tilted upward to the sky. The pale white stars stared back at him like so many million eyes. As his eyes traveled across the small patch of night visible through the hole in the treetops, a movement drew his gaze. 

There was something billowing, towering over the trees at the other end of the clearing. Something that blacked out the blue-black sky behind it, something that blotted out the stars. Something that was stifling - physically and spiritually glacial... 

"No," he breathed, "a Soul-Sucker..." 

What in hell was a Soul-Sucker doing here? 

He could see no Spell Circle, no magic-users. A Soul-Sucker-roaming about this close to the city... Yami could not even begin to comprehend the danger... 

Instinctively, Yami began weaving a spell to protect himself. But the Soul-Sucker had already sensed him, had probably come here for him. Hungrily, the shadow monster lunged at Yami, drawing something from within itself and flinging it at him. That something sliced through the air in front of him. He felt it - pressure, coldness, pure darkness... 

...No! I'm not finished...! 

He dropped, rolling, on the ground, his spell uncompleted. The something blew over him like a frost wind, and his arm, still extended, passed through it. He screamed as a thousand white-hot knives seared through him. Somehow, he completed his roll. Hunched over the pain, he stood and faced the creature. 

No time... no... time...! 

He tried to summon the power to attack, tried to draw his hands together, but his arm... his arm would not move... 

Oh, god... Cora... where are you...? 

Furious, Yami dragged his mind away from Cora and back to the Soul-Sucker. The darkness was there again - flying at him like a swarm of locusts. Again, he dropped, rolling... 

Missed... 

Damn, he cursed in helpless fury at his arm, damn you - WORK!! 

Sheer willpower caused his arm to move. He couldn't feel it, but it was moving. He made a gesture, tried to summon the spell he needed - and he felt the energy drain from him alarmingly fast. 

No, he thought, the wound... 

His shadow injury was causing his magic to draw ten times the amount of power it usually did. Cursing, furious, helpless, he could only watch as the life-sucking monster fixed its faceless face on him and gathered itself for another strike... 

Then he thought of Cora... 

Cora has to be here, he thought frantically, or the Soul-Sucker wouldn't be. This thing would go after her next... 

He had to stop it. He would... NOT... be... helpless! 

No, Cora... for you... I will fight... for you... 

Defiantly, he drew his hands together - one still unfeeling and numb - as the creature's attack became a black, pounding force before it. He had to create a defence for himself or he would never be able to gather himself for an attack. 

"Seta Mesneh!" 

It was a simple spell - a Game spell. He prayed it would be enough. Just to buy some time... 

The spell didn't withstand the attack. He didn't expect it to. The glass-like wall that shot up in front of him shattered under its force, unable to even perform its function of repelling the attack back at the creature. But the Sucker's attack never reached Yami, and that was all he needed. Ignoring the pains that shot from his arm through his chest, pushing himself beyond the weakness that was turning the rest of his limbs to cotton, he drew his hands together, focusing, summoning... 

"Hesek!" 

The power flew from his hands and struck the heart of the Soul-Sucker. It felt like it took his own life force with it. He resisted the wave of nausea that accompanied the debilitating weakness, hung on until he heard the voiceless scream and knew the creature had been banished back into the netherworld ... 

He felt the ground hit his knees, and he knew his legs had collapsed. He sat, clutching his arm, which was now beginning to crawl with hundreds of needle-sharp pricks. The Sucker was gone, but where was Cora...? 

The thought of her name set off a reaction inside him, as if something was turning on, tuning in. His Sight was setting warnings off - the warnings he hadn't heard before... 

Of course she wasn't here... 

...she was somewhere else... 

They had sent a decoy... 

* * *
 

Yami fought his way through the dense vegetation towards the Nile, his stomach churning with worry and his mind still reeling over what the dark ones had done. They had sent a Soul-Sucker as a decoy - just turned it loose to do what it would. He had never fathomed that even the dark ones would have become so reckless... 

And they had targeted him for a spell as well-they had somehow used the Soul-Sucker to shield Cora from his senses. He should have known they would try this! He should have been watching them... 

Furious with himself and sick over what could have happened to the city, and what might be happening to Cora, he ran through the bushes and leaves that slapped and scratched him and the sharp saw grasses that slashed and cut his arms and legs. Shaking with weakness and frustration, crouched over his arm, he stumbled and ran, and stumbled again. Damn... damn... damn... I know she's here... I can sense her... but... where... damn... Cora, WHERE ARE YOU... DAMN IT...! 

STOP THIS!! 

He stopped running so abruptly that he almost fell over; he stood still, one branch brushing up and down against his cheek. Harnessing the near hysteria that was flooding his mind, he forced himself to calm, to listen to the power, to the energy that told him everything, that also connected him to Cora... 

Eyes closed, he listened... felt the forest around him breathing with its own life, felt the magic in it, felt Cora... 

...felt something else - something horribly familiar... 

Electrified into action, Yami was running again, his heart trying frantically to hammer its way out of his chest. The trees and bushes ended abruptly by the wide plain of the Nile River, and Yami burst out onto the level, grassy ground. In the distance, the water rippled softly at the edge of the plain, dark as blood under the inky black sky. 

The deep, sucking cold suddenly struck him full in the face, shooting another volley of frost arrows through his arm. Stifling a cry, he looked wildly around and found the source of the soul-numbing cold. 

The Spell Circle was drawn a little ways from him. Already, he could see the ugly black cloud forming in the centre of it - could see it growing, solidifying. There were two magicians around the circle: one, he didn't recognize; the other - 

"Samekh!!" 

Yami's voice burst out of him before he could stop it. Samekh turned around, and Yami saw him falter. The image in the circle flickered, and then Yami's gaze caught the shimmer of silver on the ground below it. 

Oh, no... 

...Cora... 

"Yami," Samekh's unsteady, but menacing voice shook its way to Yami, "I must admit, I'm surprised. Did you like my gift?" He made a ghost of a gesture towards his own Spell Circle. "I have one for each of you." 

Yami looked desperately at Cora. She was standing, hand outstretched towards the conjuration that was writhing, twisting and growing before her. Yami's appearance had caused Samekh and his accomplice enough distraction to halt their spell, and the creature was suffering for it, trapped and stretched between worlds. Yami could feel its anger, and - fear iced his stomach - it would direct it towards Cora. Cora was mortal now. She was a powerful magic-user, but what could she do against an angry Soul-Sucker...? And it seemed that Samekh did not mind letting the creature suffer and build its anger. He remained still, smiling a very unpleasant smile at Yami, while the other magician - obviously the weaker - trembled slightly as he tried to maintain control of the spell. 

Yami forgot about his weakness and his injury as he tried to control the rage that was suddenly pounding in his head with enough force to make it difficult to see. Carelessly, he drew on his power again, almost not feeling the numbness and the pain that was increasing with every fraction of a second of exposure to the Soul-Sucker. Everything, everything he had within himself, he directed at the creature... 

"Hesek!" 

...but his power, which would normally have shot in rope-like forks of light with enough force to banish the creature back to the Shadow Realm, flickered and Yami's heart sank as he saw the failure of his own spell. And when it did reach the Spell Circle, Yami cried out as his power only struck the edge of the circle... and disappeared. Samekh's high-pitched laugh crackled from the Spell-Circle. 

"You're slipping, Yami!" Yami barely heard Samekh's sneering drawl as he fell again to his knees, quivering with weakness and pain. "Do you think I would have your little spirit helper here in the Circle if I hadn't Enclosed it?" 

Yami clenched his fists in fury - more at himself than at Samekh. Of course he had walled in his Spell Circle. That's why Cora was not moving from within its boundaries. Enraged, Yami could have kicked himself for not seeing it sooner. And he would have seen it, he reproved himself, if he had not been so blinded by fear for Cora's safety... 

"Yes, she was relatively easy to catch," Samekh was rambling on, "once you know what to look for." 

Yami looked wildly at the other magician. He didn't know how much power he could muster... 

"...really, Yami, you must be feeling a little off," Samekh crooned sarcastically. "You're being very careless - but I counted on your stupidity to work in my favour..." 

Yami forced his mind to shut everything out but his spell. Cora's shadow powers would be weakened by the Enclosure spell. She was focusing all of her power on the creature confined in the Circle with her, and he didn't know how much longer she could do it... 

"...you just didn't realize what you were getting yourself into when you decided to control the Game. You're playing with things far bigger than you..." 

One spell. Just one spell. Such a small spell. So much pain and weakness. But... the Game... 

...Cora... 

He was disturbed - but not surprised - that it was the thought of Cora that provoked the most powerful reaction. 

"...so maybe you just didn't think things through, Yami. But here's where you pay - " 

"Wesef!" 

Exquisite pain sliced through the centre of Yami's forehead and the power resonating from his outstretched hands was threatening to tear his arms from their sockets, but the spell reached the other magician. In an instant, he went rigid and fell motionless to the ground. 

Samekh wheeled around, his tirade ending in a cat-like hiss. Yami used what strength he had to remain standing as every breath he took set fire to his throat and lungs and every muscle in his body quivered with fatigue. The monster inside the Spell Circle flickered again, and on some plane Yami knew it was screaming. Samekh ran to the Circle, trying to take up the spell from where he had left off, trying to complete the conjuration. 

"Cora!" Yami tried to shout, but all that came out was a hoarse whisper - one that Cora only could hear. "Cora - " 

I cannot break out of an Enclosed Spell Circle... 

Cora's voice slid through his mind, and he closed his eyes. No... 

Work with me, Yami... 

Yami's eyes opened again. What? 

Break down the wall... 

Oh, Cora, Yami thought, I've tried... 

No, you haven't. 

His eyes shot up to Cora. No, he hadn't. He had tried to banish the creature within it, but he hadn't attacked the walls... 

But, Yami thought desperately, my strength... 

I will strengthen you... 

He felt it. 

Somehow, Cora was using their bond - his connection to her - to transmit her strength to him. He felt it like a silver flood vibrating through his heart, streaming out to every limb, felt her life in him... 

But that must mean, Yami thought with a stab of fear, that Cora is being drained. With the Soul-Sucker... 

Break down the wall, Yami... 

Her voice sounded so much weaker... 

"You're forgetting that my powers aren't as weak as yours, Yami!" 

Yami heard Samekh's gleeful crow over the suddenly horrific sounds coming from within the Spell Circle. Samekh had completed the conjuration. 

Yami sprang to his feet in the strength Cora had given to him. The wall. He had to break the wall...but how? 

Instinctively, mind suddenly crystal clear, he knew: a summon. A temporary helper - a helper that would use its power to destroy the wall. It would use a small amount of his magic, and he would be able to conserve it for the Soul-Sucker. 

His eyes flew to the Spell Circle. The faceless vacuum of blackness loomed ominously over what was now a crumpled heap of silver shimmer - Cora. Yami felt its hate and wrath, saw it look first at Samekh and then, as though realizing it was Enclosed, begin to turn its attention towards Cora... 

For the first time, Yami felt no fear. In this fresh strength, he could feel the confidence he always felt when he was working his magic soaring through him, giving him wings, for this was who he was; this was what he was. And this was the Game. 

"A'nen Siege Dragon!" 

The air in front of him thrummed, then split to reveal a monstrous lizard-like beast with iridescent purple scales, and a row of spikes down its long neck and back. It towered over Yami, waiting expectantly for his command. To the beast, Yami cried, pointing to the Enclosed Spell Circle: 

"Destroy the wall!" 

The beast faced the Circle with blazing yellow eyes. Rearing its gigantic head back, its cavernous mouth opened and it spat a flaming ball at the Circle. There was a sound like glass exploding... and the wall was gone. The Enclosure Spell was destroyed. 

Samekh cried out, but the sound was lost in the screech from the now-open Spell Circle. Seeing its freedom, the Soul-Sucker rounded on the Siege Dragon. It drew something from inside itself - something black and cold - and Yami felt a shiver in his arm. It flung the black coldness at Yami's summoned monster. With a terrible shriek, the monster disintegrated. 

The Soul-Sucker then slowly turned, not to Cora, but towards... Samekh

Samekh - weakened from the effort of conjuring the beast - fell to his knees, cursing Yami with every oath he knew with what breath he had left. Yami would have loved to let the beast take Samekh - suck whatever soul Samekh had into its vacuum. But he knew it wouldn't stop there - and a soul would only make the beast stronger. Focusing, gathering his power before it was too late, Yami took what strength Cora had given him and flung all of it at the angry Soul-Sucker. 

"Hesek!" 

Spidery webs of lightning shot far out from Yami's hands. He felt his power, Cora's power, pulsing through it, felt it as it struck the beast fully, felt it first draw his power then overload on it. The beast was screaming again - and it was gone. 

Yami's arms dropped, hands on his knees. Relief washed over him... it was gone... 

A bloodthirsty scream shook Yami out of his moment's pause. Samekh had hauled himself to his feet in a frenzy, trying to cast any spell power he had at Yami. But it was Cora that stopped the onslaught. She had raised herself on one arm, and pointing her finger at Samekh, cried "Shem en hewet!" With the one motion, both Samekh and the magician paralysed by Yami's spell evaporated in a cloud of white mist. 

Both Yami and Cora collapsed. The two of them remained motionless for a long moment, Yami on his knees and Cora on her back in the abandoned Spell Circle. The only sound was their breathing in the silent night air. Even the waters of the Nile were silent. 

"I only sent them home," Cora whispered finally. "It was the last strength I had..." 

Yami didn't answer. 

"Yami..." 

"FOOL!" 

The word exploded out of Yami in pent-up anguish and anger. Cora looked sharply at him - she realized he was not berating her, but himself. 

"I couldn't see... couldn't see the most simple traps. I fell into everything. Everything!" Yami clenched his fists, and his words hissed out through gritted teeth. "I was so... so worried about you. All I could see... all I cared about..." Yami's tortured eyes flew to Cora. "I wasted... so much power! So many times... because of my own... FOOLISHNESS! Cora - I can't... I... can't..." 

Yami's eyes slammed shut, tears burning paths down his cheeks. There was silence again. Somewhere, an eerie cry echoed to them on the breeze. Then... 

Cora had said something, and he didn't think he had heard her properly. 

"What?" 

It came again. Her voice was soft, but deathly firm. 

"Bind the Game, Yami." 

He had heard her. He slowly brought his eyes around to focus on Cora, his brain hurting as it tried to bend around what she was saying. He could not believe what she had asked him to do. 

"No," he said tightly. 

"Why?" 

He looked incredulous. How could you say that? "Because... because we've worked too hard, for so long... We have attained so much..." 

"They have attained more. They have succumbed to the poison power always gives to the sons of men..." 

"We only have to maintain control..." 

"It's out of control!" Cora snapped, cutting him off. "We have failed. They know my weakness, Yami! They are conjuring Soul-Suckers quite competently now - but they have no understanding of the danger. A Soul-Sucker is not a Game spirit, Yami. It has neither respect for humanity, nor regard for life. All it does is consume souls. And every soul it consumes only increases its hunger for more. Do you realize what this could do to your race? They conjured two this time. What if they conjure three the next? They keep growing stronger. If we don't bind the Game - bind them - and they defeat us..." 

"They have to have some weakness..." 

"They do!" Cora was shouting now. "Bind the Game, Yami! They can be bound. That is their weakness." 

Silence-thick with tension... and terrible finality. Yami sat motionless, for the moment oblivious even to Cora as her words sank into him. His eyes seemed to be fixed on something far away. 

"If I bind the Game, I have to bind all the Game," he finally said quietly. "Everything that has to do with it." 

Cora's voice was barely a whisper. "I know." 

Yami abruptly turned on Cora, his eyes blazing with torment. 

"Damn it, Cora, I will have to bind you as well! I will have to bind you and banish you to the Shadow Realm!" 

"I know what it means, Yami!" 

He turned away, tears of frustration and anger glittering in his dark eyes. He slammed his fist into the ground, welcoming the pain that shot up his arm to his heart. Cora said nothing, unmoving, her silver-green gaze resting on him with alarming gentleness. Yami closed his eyes, and the tears were forced out of them. 

"I will bind myself, as well," Yami said finally. 

Cora's firm tenacity seemed to falter at Yami's statement, and she shivered as though she had suddenly become very cold. 

"No, Yami..." 

"If someone should ever find the binding items," he stormed over her words, "it could be released. Someone has to be able to bind the power again!" 

"I will be there." 

Yami took her shoulders, forcing her to look into his eyes. 

"And I will be with you. Always. Remember?" 

Tears filled her eyes now, and one escaped, falling onto Yami's arm. 

"I have always been a Shadow Realm spirit, Yami. You gave me what I have now. If you bind yourself, you will be neither Shadow Realm spirit, nor will you be human" - she paused, then continued, her voice shaking - "What will you be?" 

The smile on his face was mirthless, but undeniable love filled the dark eyes that rested on Cora. 

"I will be with you," he answered. 

* * *

 

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