Foaly whistled. “Commander, look at this.”
Root paused to feel the brief surge of satisfaction that there was no familiarity in the centaur’s tone. It sounded brisk and professional. Then he had to stop to force down the feelings of nostalgia. He did not miss the centaur’s joking around!
Root snapped back into the real world. “What is it?” he asked, lighting a cigar and taking a deep breath. Foaly shot him a baleful look, but remembering the commander’s temper, decided not to comment. Root took another drag, slightly disappointed.
“Ancient Egyptian magic, á la nasty,” the centaur said, pointing at the screen. “That was a pretty brutal time in fairy history, you know. Looks like the humans followed suit.” He scrolled down a little and pointed at an image on the screen. It was the golden pendant that Yugi Mutou wore around his neck. “This is the thing in the poster.”
Root nodded, though it hadn’t really been a question.
Foaly continued. “It’s called the Millennium Puzzle, and it’s one of seven magical artifacts. The Millennium Puzzle, Eye, Key, Scales, Necklace, Rod, and Ring. Created using the blood and souls of an entire village.”
Root winced. Sometimes, the brutality of the Mud Men was absolutely appalling. “So how did a teenager in the twenty-first century get hold of an ancient Egyptian magical artifact?” He remembered the golden necklace around Ishizu Ishtar’s neck and the glint of gold at the waistband of Marik’s pants. “How did any of them get hold of this stuff?”
“I’m getting to that.” Foaly’s hairy fingers flew over the keys. “About five thousand years ago, there was a series of incredibly powerful Pharaohs. Shadowmancers.” Here Root winced again. Shadowmancy was an incredibly violent, destructive brand of magic. But what Foaly was saying sounded familiar.
“Aknankamon and Seth, right?” he asked.
“Wrong.” Foaly sounded smug. “There was a third king right between the two. The history books just don’t generally mention it because he didn’t have a grand pyramid or conquer territory or anything. And he didn’t reign for long: only a few years.”
“So why is this Pharaoh so important?” Root demanded impatiently.
Foaly held up his hands in a “calm down” gesture. “I’m getting there.” He took a deep breath. “He’s important because he was infinitely more powerful than the other two. He was only fifteen when he died. And because he didn’t have a name.”
Root drew in a startled breath. “No name?” To the Egyptians, your name was tantamount to existence. Without one, you could not be judged by Osiris and sent to the peace of the afterlife.
Foaly shook his head. “Nope. There’s a legend that says he sacrificed it, along with his life, to protect Egypt from some great evil.” He frowned at the screen. “Though exactly what that evil was is kind of vague.”
“So what does this have to do with Yugi and the other “Magic Mud Men?’” Root grimaced; the name sounded incredibly stupid when said out loud.
Foaly grinned in triumph. “Here is a stone tablet that was found recently in the Valley of the Kings. According to the inscription…” he said, leaning in close, “…it’s a depiction of a battle between the Nameless Pharaoh and his High Priest. That’s the Pharaoh on the right.”
Root stared at the picture, which Foaly seemed determined to keep as small as possible. A glare had the centaur hurriedly expanding the image to fill the entire screen. Root’s jaw dropped open, and the cigar dropped from his lips. He stared at the Egyptian king.
The man stood in a suitably dramatic pose, dressed in the rich clothes of a Pharaoh. His hand was outstretched, clearly in the middle of casting a spell. Another man in armor and carrying a staff floated above him; a wizard or a warlock of some kind. But it was not the Pharaoh’s dress, or his summoned minion, that caught Root’s attention.
It was his hair.
Yugi’s hair. It stood up in stiff spikes, the lightning bangs hanging casually in his face. The proud, angular face was the same, as well as the small regal smirk that graced his features. Confidence, pure and undiluted, shone from even the simple stone carving. Though the tablet had no color, Root could almost see the strange violet eyes.
“Are you telling me,” he hissed at Foaly, “that Yugi Mutou is actually the reincarnation of a long-dead Egyptian Pharaoh?!”
“I don’t think that Yugi is a just a reincarnation.” Foaly said. “I think he’s the actual Pharaoh.”
All Root could think about was, Well, that would explain the whole “I’m king of the universe” attitude.
“The Nameless Pharaoh supposedly sealed his soul away in the Millennium Puzzle as part of his sacrifice,” Foaly continued. “The Puzzle broke. I think Yugi found it and reassembled it.”
The implications of that were simply staggering. Not only did the People have to contend with Mud Men with magic, they had to deal with a Shadowmancer, and a Pharaoh to boot…
“By the way,” Root said, trying and failing to sound casual, “When you say this Nameless Pharaoh was ‘infinitely’ more powerful than the other two Pharaohs, how much is ‘infinitely’?”
“Let’s just say that we don’t want this guy getting angry,” Foaly said. “Most of the power that’s ascribed to Seth actually belonged to his predecessor.”
Root’s heart sank into his boots. Seth was considered by many to have been the last human king with magic, and legends of his powers and exploits were…intimidating.
“It gets better,” Foaly said. “Take a look at the High Priest.”
Root leaned in. He hadn’t paid much attention to the other man; he had been sidetracked by the image of the Nameless Pharaoh. For a moment he froze, unable to say anything at all. After thirty seconds of dead silence, during which Foaly was tempted to call the paramedics to make sure the commander hadn’t died, Root reverted to form.
“Alright,” he growled, after ten minutes of unprintable profanity had passed and his face had returned to a slightly more healthy shade of red, “So we have the Nameless Pharaoh and his High Priest running around…”
“Seth,” Foaly injected helpfully.
“I don’t give a damn what his name is. At least you said he didn’t have that much magic…” He trailed off, sounding unconvinced.
“Oh, he didn’t after he became Pharaoh,” the centaur said almost cheerfully. “But as a priest, he was obscenely powerful. There’s a time recorded here…”
“Foaly?” Root said with forced calm. “Shut up.”
The centaur gulped and nodded.
“Find out what you can about the Millennium Items,” Root continued briskly. “And for Haven’s sake, find out everything there is to know about the other “Magic Mud Men.” He frowned. “And while you’re at it, make up a new name for them. I feel stupid saying it.” He gritted his teeth and cracked his knuckles. “If any of the rest of them are ancient Egyptian Shadowmancers, heads are going to roll.”
For once, Foaly bit his tongue. He could always tell Root about the Tomb Robber at a…um…later date.
“Bakura!” Yugi called cheerfully as his friend walked into the classroom. The white-haired boy winced slightly as a large group of rowdy football players shoved past him. He winced again as the place where the Millennium Ring hung bubbled slightly. But with Yugi looking, the Thief King could not punish the teenagers as he clearly desired. Ryou forced the feeling down, feeling sick.
Yugi’s smile faded. “Are you okay?”
Ryou forced a smile. “I’m fine, Yugi. I’m just not looking forward to starting classes again.”
“I know what you mean,” Yugi said, relieved, though Bakura could sense that the spirit of the Pharaoh was still observing him closely. “It’s hard coming back from a vacation.” He laughed. “At least we never do anything in this class.”
‘This class’ was history, and Yugi was right. Nothing ever happened, except the occasional student who pretended to faint from boredom. Or actually fainted, sometimes. Even Kaiba, who aced every exam, sat in his chair with his eyes hooded and arms crossed.
As Bakura sat down, however, Kaiba’s eyes opened and he sat up a little in his chair. There was a faint tingling sensation at the base of his spine as he looked at the white-haired boy, like someone was running their fingers over his skin. It was so similar to the feeling he had had in his office in Ireland that he fidgeted slightly, trying to get rid of it, but it was no use. Kaiba felt his throat tighten as though something was trying to force its way out.
He eyed the other boy closely from behind. There was nothing in Bakura’s appearance or manner that suggested magic. In all honesty, Kaiba had never paid much attention to him before. Sure, Bakura had participated in the Battle City tournament, but he had been eliminated in the first round, along with Ishizu, so Kaiba had summarily dismissed him as insignificant. Now he wasn’t so sure. Bakura seemed quiet, anxious, and stereotypically British, the sort of person who would wear tweed in later years and frequently say “Oh my” over cups of tea.
At that very moment, however, Bakura swiveled around in his seat. He caught Kaiba’s gaze and smiled. In that moment, he seemed to change. His wide brown eyes narrowed and became guarded and cold. His lips curled in a smirk, and the tingling at the base of Kaiba’s spine became a fully-fledged stinging. Then the expression was gone. Bakura turned around to face front as though nothing had happened. The entire thing occurred so suddenly that for a moment, Kaiba thought he had imagined it.
But he knew he hadn’t.
Unnerved, and unwilling to admit it, he stared at the back of Bakura’s head. With his belief in magic came a whole train of unpleasant thoughts. For example, what the hell was sharing a body with Bakura?
The LEP officer sighed. “Do I need to read you your rights, Diggums, or would you like to just recite them yourself?”
Mulch rolled his eyes. It was bad enough that he had collided with a shielded LEP officer when his arms were full of…um…liberated merchandise, but now he was stuck with one who wanted to be clever. What had he ever done to deserve this? He hadn’t even stolen anything interesting, just a few golden statues and a diamond necklace. Hardly worth raising such a fuss over.
He scratched his bum flap with his handcuffed hands and pretended to think about it. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself. I know the drill.” Instantly, he wished he had kept his big mouth shut.
The officer’s eyes narrowed dangerously. As he shoved Mulch towards his waiting vehicle, his buzz baton swung free and “accidentally” stung the seat of Mulch’s pants.
“Ouch!” the dwarf yelped, jumping nearly a foot into the air. “Hey, that’s assault!”
“Oops,” the LEP officer said, straight-faced. “Accident.”
Mulch just rubbed his bum flap gingerly and gave the elf a foul look. Not that he was in a position to make good on a threat right now. He waddled towards the rear of the shuttle and nearly fell as the officer “helped” him onto the hard narrow seat.
Why did I open my mouth? he thought.
The elf swung into his (padded) seat and opened the throttle. He hummed cheerily as he directed the shuttle into the tunnel leading down towards Haven, and Mulch leaned against the back of his seat in a huff. He had just resigned himself to another substandard lawyer and probably a century or two of prison time (it was hard to claim he had been returning the items to their owners, since one of them had been pursuing him with a broomstick) when he had an idea.
“Hey you,” he said to the officer. “I want to talk to Julius Root.”
The officer sighed. In his opinion, he was not being paid enough for this. “Quiet, convict, or you can sleep through the rest of the trip.”
“It might be worth it,” Mulch couldn’t help replying. “Dances with Pixies? Isn’t that a musical?”
The officer gripped the wheel tightly and gritted his teeth. “My daughter listens to it,” he said.
Mulch gave him a knowing look, even though the officer probably couldn’t see it while watching traffic. “Sure.” He waited a minute or two. Then, “I want to talk to Root.”
“And I want a pay-raise and a three-year sabbatical. Too bad, dwarf.”
“Fine,” Mulch said, leaning his head back and closing his eyes. “Just don’t blame me when my lawyer tears you to pieces on charges of assault, police brutality, and obstruction of justice.” He threw the last one in on a lark; he wasn’t quite sure what it was, but it sounded impressive.
The officer snorted. “What lawyer, Diggums?”
“I plan to hire Hera Winger,” Mulch said, as casually as possible.
Despite himself, the officer paled. Hera Winger was a defense lawyer also known as “Harpy.” She was caustic, confrontational, and worse, effective.
“You’re bluffing,” he said, though his tone was not as confident as before.
Well yes. I couldn’t afford to pay Hera Winger if I sold my soul and first-born child. You want to risk it?” He leaned forward slightly. “Just let me talk to Julius Root and I’ll forget the whole “accident” ever happened.”
The elf considered, and Mulch held his breath. Finally, the LEP officer leaned forward and keyed in a confirmation code on his communications array. Mulch grinned in satisfaction, but kept his mouth shut. Now if he could just figure out exactly what to say…
When the officer got off the communication with Commander Root, he briefly took his eyes off his driving to smirk unpleasantly at the dwarf in the backseat.
“Alright, Convict, you’ll get five minutes with the Commander once we get to Haven. You just hope he’s in a better mood by then.”
Mulch snorted. He had never seen Root cheerful, and a smile was almost out of the question. What kind of mood had the officer predicted Root’d be in? Mulch settled himself against the uncomfortable back of his seat and decided to pass the rest of the journey imagining the color draining from Root’s face.
“Look at this,” Root drawled. “It’s almost a family reunion.”
Mulch shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Now he knew what the LEP officer had been referring to. The commander was almost frightening calm, and his normally beet-red face was not its usual color. But when he gripped the back of his chair, Mulch could see the tension in the elf’s fingers. His knuckles were almost white.
There were only three people in the room: Root, Foaly, and Mulch himself. Root would have liked to include Holly and perhaps Captain Kelp, but they were both on missions right now. Not that he expected this to be a very important meeting.
“I have to say, Julius, I’m somewhat disappointed,” Mulch told him. “I thought you’d be more curious about why I’m talking to you.”
Root shrugged. “Not really, Diggums. I have more important things to do.”
Mulch tried to raise a single eyebrow, the way he’d seen people do in the movies, but all he managed was a kind of abrupt levitation of the top half of his face. “I doubt it.”
Root’s forced calm was beginning to fray, and Mulch felt slightly relieved. “Tell me what this is about, Convict, so we can start finding you a nice comfy cell and a roommate.”
Mulch cleaned imaginary dust from beneath his fingernails. His wrists were cuffed in front of him. “Mud Men have discovered magic.”
To his utter surprise, Root didn’t flinch. “Is that all?” the elf asked with a patronizing edge. “Old news, Mulch. It’s under control.”
Mulch recovered his voice. “One of them tried to kill me.”
Root snorted. “I’ll have to remember to send him flowers.”
Foaly looked more interested. “Which one was it?” he asked.
Mulch scrunched up his forehead in a pantomime of deep thought, but everyone in the room knew it was an act. As for Mulch, he wouldn’t be able to forget that particular Mud Boy for a while.
“He had white hair. Absolutely no fashion sense. I mean, even for a Mud Boy…”
“Eyes?” Root asked.
Mulch rolled his eyes. “Of course he had eyes.”
Root heaved an exasperated sigh. “What color, Diggums?”
“Oh. Why didn’t you say that in the beginning? I don’t know. Brown maybe? I wasn’t looking at his eyes.”
“So you just happened to take a Mud Boy out to tea and coffee and it didn’t work out between you?” Root said. “Why was he trying to kill you?”
Mulch shrugged. “My dashing good looks sometimes make people jealous. It’s my curse.”
Root ground his teeth together, and Mulch was satisfied to see the commander’s face was slowly regaining its usual color.
Mulch shifted again. “I take the Fifth.”
“Wrong constitution, Convict. Now, answer my question before I dismantle that smug smile and use it to make a domino set.”
“What were you trying to steal?” Foaly asked before it could get any uglier.
“Steal? Me?” Mulch put on his most innocent face. It was about as convincing as a Rottweiler trying to pretend to be a squirrel.
Root was in no mood to put up with it. “Last chance, Diggums.”
Mulch pretended to hesitate. “It was a gold ring, about this big.” He held out his cuffed hands in the shape of a circle. It had little spikes on it, and the eye of Horus in the center.”
Root and Foaly exchanged a significant look. Mulch spread his hands. “I expect a little compensation in exchange for my help. Maybe a reduced sentence…” he trailed off hopefully.
Root seemed about to explode, but at the last minute, calmed himself down. Then a wicked grin spread over his face. Mulch felt his stomach lurch.
“Of course, Mulch,” the commander purred. “You deserve a little reward.” The smirk widened. “That’s why you’ll be coming on a little trip with me.”
“Where?” Mulch asked, trying not to let his voice squeak.