The phone call came on a balmy Thursday morning a few weeks before Johan's twentieth birthday., when he'd just stepped outside for a walk with the Gem Beasts. He dug through his jacket with a frown and fished out his phone before it stopped ringing. Unknown number. That had better not be the press again.
"This is Johan Andersen."
"Johan? Oh, good," a man said. His voice sounded familiar, but Johan couldn't place it immediately. "This is Rolf, Rolf Selland. We studied at North together."
Johan had a brief flash of a tall boy who'd been a second year when he was in his first year. Their paths hadn't crossed often, especially not after Johan had left for Duel Academia, but he did know that Rolf's family didn't live too far from Bergen.
"Yes, I remember!" he replied. "How have you been? Anything I can help you with?"
“Good, yes. What I wanted to ask…” Rolf trailed off. Johan caught Cobalt Eagle’s questioning look and shrugged.
“What did you want to ask?” he prompted. On the other side of the line, Rolf took a deep breath.
“You see spirits, right?”
“I do, yes.” Johan narrowed his eyes. That question usually didn’t lead to anything good, and his reputation at North hadn’t always been the best. The last time someone had asked that question, it had been a reporter who needed some filler for whatever gossip magazine he wrote for. “Why do you need to know?”
“It’s my sister,” Rolf said quickly. “We don’t know what to do and mom and dad don’t believe her. She hasn’t slept properly in weeks.”
“Is she seeing spirits?” Johan asked. He glanced at the road ahead and sighed. He had been looking forward to spending some time outside with the Gem Beasts, especially now that it had stopped raining for the first time in days.
“I’m not sure, but she keeps saying there’s a monster under her bed.”
“Maybe she’s just having bad dreams?” Not that Johan didn’t want to help, but to help a toddler deal with her nightmares?
“She’s thirteen. She hasn’t had nightmares in years.”
… That did change things. Johan turned onto the forest path with a glance at the Gem Beasts. If the girl really had a spirit hiding under her bed, he should probably help out. “What kind of monster is it?”
“Ylva said it’s a wolf. I’m not sure what monster that would be, though.”
“Silver Fang? Flower Wolf?” There were plenty of wolf monster spirits, some of which hadn’t even been made into cards yet. And really, what did Rolf expect him to do? He didn’t feel comfortable having to exorcise a spirit, but maybe he could at least try to reason with it. He didn’t have anything better to do. “Tell you what, I’ll come over and see what I can do. Text me your address, okay? Are you home tomorrow?”
“After two, when mom and dad are out.” Rolf said. “Thanks. It means a lot. We’re completely thrown for a loop here.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Johan ended the call and pocketed his phone again. He sighed.
“Trouble?” Sapphire Pegasus asked. Johan grimaced.
“I’m not sure. Remember Rolf Selland? He was at North.”
“Not in the least,” said Topaz Tiger. “So what’s he want? What’s the deal with the wolves?”
“His sister apparently has one hiding under her bed,” Johan told him. The tiger bared his teeth.
“And you wanna go drag it out?”
Johan paused. He knew far more about monster spirits than most people, but he would freely admit that the Gem Beasts knew more. “Should I not?” he asked. He hadn’t dealt with wolves yet. No monster spirit should be able to cause him harm in this world, but words like ‘should’ had lost a lot of their meaning after hanging out with Judai too much. Speaking of which… “Would you feel better if I had backup?”
“Wolves are… Aggressive,” Amethyst Cat said, her mouth pulling into much the same sneer Topaz Tiger’s had. “We’re coming with you.”
Ruby chirped. Johan hadn’t even considered that they wouldn’t be coming along. “I can call Judai.”
“We would feel better if he’s around,” Amber Mammoth said. “Given last time…”
Johan shuddered. Last time he’d gone to look at a supposed spirit sighting, Paradox had stolen Rainbow Dragon from him. Over a year had passed already, and yet he still didn’t feel comfortable in places he didn’t know. He cast a glance at the Gem Beasts, who looked similarly subdued. Ruby chirped again and wrapped herself around his neck. Rainbow Dragon appeared in person, huge and imposing and very much out of place in the forest, but it was comforting to see him here anyway, with them, safe.
“I am fine,” the dragon announced. “You need not worry.”
Johan nodded and was about to reply when a woman appeared on the other side of the path. Johan hadn’t seen her here before, but tourists seemed to have an uncanny knack for finding the quieter spots in town. She brushed her long blonde hair over her shoulder, nodded at him when they passed her, and continued without so much as a second glance. Johan waited until she’d disappeared from sight before replying.
“I’ll call Judai. He’ll like this.”
Judai was more than happy to come along and, in fact, arrived about two minutes after Johan had called him. After three years of intermittent visits, Johan had long stopped being surprised. He just swept Judai into a hug and ushered him and Yubel inside. Good thing he kept the guest room ready at all times now.
“So, where to?” Judai asked once he’d settled in, greeted the Gem Beasts, and raided Johan’s fridge. He was still wearing a sleeveless tank top that looked very much out of place in May— He’d regret it the moment he spent more than a few minutes outside. But, Judai had explained between bites, he and Yubel had been in Libya when Johan had called them.
“Rolf lives in Førde. It’s about three hours by car.” Johan enlarged the map on his laptop screen. “We can leave tomorrow after breakfast and be there in time for lunch. Unless you want to eat in the car?”
“Or Judai could just teleport us there,” Yubel cut in. Johan ran a hand through his hair. Right. He probably should have thought of that.
“It’ll save on gas, at least,” he conceded.
Judai grinned and nodded enthusiastically, leaning back in his chair. “What’ve you been up to?”
Way to change the subject. Johan mirrored his pose, balancing on the back legs of his own chair. “Nothing, really. There’s the Scandinavian Tournament in a few months. I’m thinking of participating.”
“You don’t sound very enthusiastic,” Yubel said. Johan shrugged as best as he could with his unbalanced chair.
“I’m getting a bit bored of the circuit, to be honest. But what else is there?”
Ruby chirped sadly. Johan could almost feel the disappointment radiating off the Gem Beasts in waves, but really, what else was there? He was a duelist.
“There’s gotta be something else.” Judai frowned and leaned forward. “I mean, look at me! I thought I was going to be a Pro Duelist and look what I’m doing now!”
Johan landed his chair back on its front legs with a thud. He snorted. “When I suddenly discover darkness powers, you’ll be the first to know.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll find something. I’m not even twenty yet!”
Judai didn’t look satisfied with that answer, and Johan knew the Gem Beasts definitely weren’t, but he really didn’t have a better answer for them. He’d figure something out soon, right?
Thankfully, Judai let the subject drop soon afterwards. They spent the rest of the evening catching up and teleported into Førde a little before two the next day. Johan stumbled once they hit solid ground. Judai and Yubel didn’t even have a hair out of place. Being darkness incarnate probably helped, and Johan didn’t think he’d ever feel comfortable with the teleportation thing Judai and Yubel did so often. The darkness they used to travel wasn’t oppressive, exactly, but he still didn’t feel as comfortable with it as Judai did.
“This is it?” Judai asked, looking around. He had landed them in the middle of a wide street lined with houses. A look at the street sign even told Johan they had ended up in the right one.
“Yep! You’re getting better at this.”
“A week ago he landed us into a river again,” Yubel said. Johan snorted. Judai gave them both a betrayed look.
“It was right next to where we had to be!” he protested. Johan slung an arm around his shoulders.
“Just don’t do that when we have to go back. Come on, it’s number 24.”
Number 24 was a small two-story house with a front lawn in desperate need of mowing. “We’ll be here if you need us,” Emerald Turtle whispered somewhere in the back of Johan’s mind. Probably for the best too. If Rolf’s sister could really see spirits, it would be better not to overwhelm her.
Rolf greeted them at the door. He had grown even taller than Johan remembered him being, and his dark hair, once close-cropped, now almost reached his shoulders. He smiled in relief when he saw them.
“Glad you made it. Come in.” His eyes lingered for a second on Judai. Johan nodded at him.
“This is Judai, a friend of mine from Duel Academia. He knows a lot about spirits too.”
“Nice meeting you,” Judai said in perfect Norwegian. That was never not going to be weird. At least Judai usually stuck to Japanese when talking to him, not the weird telepathic version of Norwegian he used with other people.
“You too. Ylva’s in the living room. Mom and dad aren’t home… I figured it’d be better if they weren’t around. They’ve been very edgy about the whole thing.” Rolf closed the door behind them and led them through the house, to the living room, where a girl with the same brown hair as Rolf was watching TV. She barely looked up when they came in. Johan winced at the bags under her eyes. How long had it been since she’d slept properly? He hoped they’d be able to get the spirit out of here without any trouble, but if not… He was suddenly really glad for Judai’s presence.
Ruby appeared on his shoulder and chirped reassuringly. Ylva didn’t seem to notice the new spirit. Johan frowned. Interesting.
“I’m Johan Andersen, a classmate of your brother,” he said. Ylva turned her head and nodded. “You said there’s a monster in your room?”
Ylva drew up her shoulders and ducked her head. “It’s under the bed. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it’s been there for so long and it won’t leave.”
“Does it hurt you?” Johan asked. Ylva shook her head.
“It usually doesn’t even come out. It’s just… there.”
Johan exchanged a look with Judai. That was far from normal spirit behavior. “Can we take a look in your room?” he asked. Ylva didn’t reply. Instead, she got up and walked towards the stairs. Rolf motioned after her.
“Go on, she’ll take you.”
Judai shrugged and followed the girl up the stairs. Johan followed. In front of him, Judai and Yubel were exchanging meaningful glances, clearly in the middle of a conversation that Johan couldn’t hear. They glanced back at Johan and Johan raised an eyebrow. Judai mouthed: “Later.”
Ylva paused in front of a door at the very end of the corridor. “It’s in there,” she said, stepping aside to let them through. Johan took a breath and went in. The room had the messy look about it of someone who couldn’t be bothered to clean it anymore. The blankets were strewn haphazardly on top of the bed, evidence of nights of tossing and turning. Poor kid. Johan dropped into a crouch. He really hoped there was a spirit here, because he didn’t know how to help her otherwi—
Johan reeled back involuntarily. Okay, wow. If the growls that came from under the bed were any indication, there was indeed a spirit there. He caught a look of two glowing eyes, one blue and one red, shining almost unnaturally against the darkness underneath Ylva’s bed. The spirit growled low in its throat, a clear warning. Judai got down next to him.
“That’s a spirit, alright,” he muttered. “Any idea which one?”
Johan had just been about to ask the same question to Judai. He shook his head. If the spirit didn’t come out from under the bed, they couldn’t find out. So they’d have to get it out from under there…
“So there’s really a spirit there?” Rolf asked. Johan nodded, distracted. It clearly didn’t trust them in the least, but… Well, it never hurt to ask.
“Hello there, I’m Johan,” he said softly. Behind him, Ylva shifted uncomfortably. “Can you come out? We’d like to see you.”
The blue-and-red eyes focused on him, unblinking. Johan swallowed. Slowly, ever so slowly, the spirit started moving, its eyes never straying from Johan. Ylva took a step back as paws appeared from under the bed, emaciated and dirty. The skin was torn and loose in places, showing the underlying bone.
“Zombie,” Judai whispered. Johan went over his mental catalogue of monsters. Which undead monsters were animals? Not Nightmare Horse, with paws like that. Not Gerunia either, and Ylva’s description of a wolf seemed accurate… Very slowly, the monster stuck its head out from under the bed. If its paws had been a gruesome sight, its head was even moreso. The monster’s very spirit seemed to be escaping it in wisps of blue fire that somehow failed to light the bed it was hiding under.
“Plague Wolf,” he realized. “Is that your name? Plague Wolf?”
The monster whined sharply. It looked up at Ylva, who shrank away behind her brother, then lowered its head onto its paws. Very interesting. If Johan was right…
A door slammed downstairs. The Plague Wolf ducked back underneath the bed with a loud growl and both Rolf and Ylva flinched.
“Mom and dad,” Rolf said. “I’ll distract them. Can you get that monster out of here soon?”
“I’ll do what I can,” Johan said. Rolf disappeared downstairs, leaving Johan and Judai with a monster under the bed and a very scared thirteen-year-old. The Plague Wolf’s growl turned into a whine. Johan glanced at Judai and Yubel. “What do you know about them?” he asked.
“Not much.” Judai glanced up at Yubel. “Haven’t come across them very often. Usually they stay away from other people.”
“Why’s it here, then?” Ylva asked, an edge to her voice. It was the first full sentence she’d said since they’d entered her room. The Plague Wolf whined again, louder this time. It slowly reappeared from underneath the bed and stared at Ylva. Johan glanced at Ruby to confirm his hunch.
“Ylva, have you ever seen any other spirits in this room?” he asked.
“Only that one.”
Johan glanced around. Ruby had been in the room this entire time, as had Yubel. “No other spirits, right? Not now, not before…”
“No. Why do you ask?” Ylva said in clipped tones. She pushed away from the wall. “Only that one. It just sits there all the time!”
“I don’t think it’s trying to hurt you,” Johan tried. The wolf’s ears perked up. Johan carefully reached out his left hand, but just when the Plague Wolf started to come out from under the bed entirely, loud voices reached them, coming up the stairs and getting progressively angrier.
“Oh no,” Ylva whispered. The Plague Wolf disappeared again with a low bark, its eyes now solely fixed on the door. Judai looked at him and got up.
“—Telling you, there is no such thing!” a woman said. Johan heard Rolf protesting as footsteps neared the room.
“Mom, just let them do this! Ylva hasn’t slept in weeks!”
“She’d be fine if she took her sleeping pills!”
Ylva ducked her head. Something ugly crossed Judai’s face and Johan barely suppressed a frown. The wolf’s growls got louder as the door reopened and Ylva and Rolf’s parents entered. Johan pulled himself up.
“Mr. Selland, Mrs. Selland, nice to meet you. I’m Johan Andersen, a former classmate of Rolf.” He held out a hand. Neither of them took it.
“Andersen?” Mr. Selland said. “Oh, you’re that one duelist. I’m sorry you had to make the trip, but we’d appreciate it if you left now. Our daughter’s having problems enough without believing in some hokey spirit stuff.”
“Really?” Judai said. Johan turned his head, just in time to see Judai’s eyes change color.
“Judai, no, don’t—“
Too late. Yubel appeared, as did Ruby on Johan’s shoulder and the Plague Wolf under the bed. Johan took a shuddering breath as Rolf and Ylva’s parents backed away, eyes wide in shock. Even Rolf swayed unsteadily at the sight of the spirits. Dammit, Judai.
“Mr. Selland, Mrs. Selland, these are spirits,” Judai said coldly. “Yubel here, Ruby Carbuncle there on Johan’s shoulder and of course, the wolf that’s been hiding under your daughter’s bed for the last few weeks.”
“What are those things doing in our house?” Mrs. Selland said, her voice reaching a hysterical pitch. “Ylva, come here! Get away from them!”
But when she reached out to her daughter, the Plague Wolf finally reacted, jumping out from under the bed, past Johan, and in front of Ylva. In the full light of day and fully solid, the sight of it was even more gruesome than Johan had initially imagined. Large swathes of its skin were missing, the bones of its ribs and vertebrae clearly visible. It growled loudly at Rolf and Ylva’s parents, who backed out of the room in a panic.
“Judai!” Johan said sharply. Judai glanced at him, then at Yubel, who merely looked amused. His eyes finally returned to their normal brown and the monsters disappeared from view. Time for damage control.
“I am sorry for that,” Johan said in his best reasonable voice. “I’m sure you can see now that your daughter didn’t make anything up, though.”
Mr. Selland nodded shakily, eyes still focused on the place where the Plague Wolf had been. It had now, unseen to Rolf and his parents, moved to stand next to Ylva, hackles raised. Ylva glanced at it uncertainly.
“How do we get it out?” Mrs. Selland asked. Johan sighed.
“I’m not entirely sure if that’s necessary. Ylva, you told me you only saw the Plague Wolf before, right? Do you see Ruby or Yubel now?”
Ylva looked around, her eyes unfocused even when they passed over Yubel and Ruby. She shook her head.
“You think she’s like Manjoume used to be?” Judai asked. Johan nodded.
“Some people can see all monster spirits, like Judai and I,” he explained carefully. Everyone was already freaked out enough as it was. “But some people only see the spirits of their own monsters. Their partners. This Plague Wolf is very protective over you, Ylva.”
The Plague Wolf wagged its tail. Ylva ever-so-slowly reached out a trembling hand. The Plague Wolf raised its head, its red-and-blue eyes staring at her. Ylva almost pulled her hand back, but as she glanced at her parents, her face hardened and she put a hand on the wolf’s head.
“This is so weird,” she muttered, scratching the wolf between its ears. “I don’t even duel.”
“Plague Wolf? I think I got a few zombies out of a booster a while back. Is that how it got here?” Rolf asked.
“Yeah, I believe so. It probably felt safe in Ylva’s room,” Johan said. Monsters did sometimes get attached to cards and travel with them to new owners. Ylva slowly patted the wolf on its back, her movements becoming more confident with every passing iteration, even though she still avoided the parts where the wolf’s vertebrae were sticking out through its skin. For a first introduction to spirits, Plague Wolf probably hadn’t been the best choice. Johan glanced at Ruby, now nestled comfortably around his neck. It would be far easier if kids like her could be introduced to spirits like Ruby first.
“What did you do with the card?” Ylva asked, attention still on the Plague Wolf, which was now wagging its tail in slow arcs. Rolf shrugged.
“It didn’t fit in my deck, so I put it with the rest of the cards I’m not using. It’s got to be in my room somewhere.”
“I want it,” Ylva told her brother. Her mother’s face darkened.
“Ylva, dear, are you sure you want a monster like that—“
“You didn’t believe me before and I was right.” Ylva kneeled down next to the Plague Wolf, who, unseen, bared its teeth. “You don’t know anything about it.”
“Neither do you,” Mr. Selland said. “An hour ago, you didn’t want anything to do with it.”
“I changed my mind.” Ylva’s eyes hardened as she looked down at the Plague Wolf. Johan and Judai exchanged uncomfortable looks. They’d come here to help out with a spirit, not to solve a family dispute.
Rolf shifted from foot to foot, looking between his parents and his sister. “I think it’s up to Ylva,” he said finally.
“She doesn’t know anything about those monsters!”
Judai’s head snapped up. He shared a quick look and an unspoken conversation with Yubel, which ended with both of them looking at Johan. Johan raised an eyebrow. Judai shot him a quick grin that really didn’t instill any confidence in Johan. This was definitely Judai’s bad idea face.
“Actually, I have a suggestion,” he said. “Johan knows a lot about spirits. If Ylva needs help, I’m sure he can provide it!”
“Sure, why not!” Judai slung an arm over his shoulder. “You’ve seen spirits for ages, right? Longer than I have!”
“You and Yubel know more about them.”
“Not really, and we’re never around anyway.” Judai’s arm tightened around his shoulders. He leaned closer and whispered: “You were looking for something to do, right?”
“Well, yeah, but—“
“What about becoming the bridge between humans and spirits?” Yubel said. Johan started. That had been so long ago… Right when he’d only just met Judai. Yubel had heard even that? But on the other hand, he had said that, hadn’t he? He had always wanted to help people forge closer connections, make people aware of the existence of spirits. Maybe children like Ylva were the best place to start.
“I guess you’re right,” he said with a grin, dislodging Judai’s arm. He turned to Ylva. “If you have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer them. You don’t need to come to Bergen. I’ll give you my phone number and e-mail address, if you want.”
Ylva got up and nodded. The Plague Wolf dropped down at her feet.
“She won’t be making those monsters appear, right?” Mr. Selland asked. Johan snorted, as did Yubel. They grinned at each other over the head of a mildly offended-looking Judai.
“No, that’s just Judai. Spirits don’t usually appear like that.” He sincerely hoped they wouldn’t ask for clarification. Explaining Judai’s powers was something best left to Judai himself, and even he didn’t always seem to know what he could do.
Thankfully, no one asked. Ylva was too concerned with her new spirit partner, while her parents still looked very uncomfortable with the idea. Rolf, for his part, just looked relieved that the issue had been resolved. “Thanks, Johan,” he said. “I’ll pay you back for the gas.”
“Don’t bother, we’re not here by car,” Johan told him. He shook his head when Rolf looked confused. “Judai. Just go with it, I’ve found that that works best.”
Yubel laughed, and Johan couldn’t help but join in. Ylva seemed fine dealing with the Plague Wolf. It was still lying at her feet, keeping a close eye on her parents. Maybe those two would need some time to come to terms with Ylva’s new partner and find a way to restore their children’s trust… Johan resolved to keep in touch with Rolf even if Ylva didn’t contact him. He hoped they’d work through it, but he was barely even qualified to help people with their spirit partners, let alone with their family problems.
“Take care,” he told Ylva as they were leaving. “If there’s anything, just let me know, okay?”
“Yeah, thanks.” Ylva still moved around the Plague Wolf with care, but at least she wasn’t terrified anymore. Maybe she’d get a proper night’s rest now. Johan left the house, Judai in tow. The minute Rolf closed the door behind them, the other Gem Beasts appeared.
“That sure was interesting. So what are you gonna do?” Topaz Tiger asked. Johan shrugged.
“Help her if she needs my help. Other than that…”
“There are always going to be more kids,” Judai said. “Maybe not in Bergen, or in Norway, but people will always need help with spirits.”
Johan bit his lower lip. “Yeah, but if it’s not in Norway, how am I going to get to them?” He was reasonably well off, and his time in the tournament circuit wasn’t at an end yet, but he could hardly go jetting all across the world like Judai did.
Judai nudged him. “That’s what you have us for, isn’t it? Anywhere in the world, or… or out of this world, you know.”
“Let’s stay on the planet for now,” Johan said, to what felt like the Gem Beasts’ great relief. “But yeah, why not?”
There would always be people like Ylva who didn’t understand what they were seeing. There would always be spirits looking for a partner. And how could he refuse them help when he knew so much more than most people? After all, finally helping people and spirits connect? He could think of no better way to live his life.