“This is getting out of hand.”
“As much as I hate to agree with my ‘esteemed’ colleague,” Councilwoman Vinyáya said, “I’m afraid Councilman Vox is right. This new development is not to my liking.”
The projection of Commander Julius Root shifted a little. “Nor to mine, Councilwoman.”
“These Mud Men must be eliminated!” Hagen burst out angrily. “The knowledge of our existence is becoming public fact!”
“We could simply wipe their memories,” Root said, a bit sharply. “There’s no need for extremes.”
There was a moment of silence. “You forget your place, Commander,” Brug said coldly. “It is up to us to decide on an appropriate course of action.”
Root visibly clenched his teeth. “Of course. I apologize.” He did not sound sorry.
Vinyáya’s face softened. “Commander, be well assured we understand the gravity of the situation. We will do the utmost in our power to save as many innocent lives as we possibly can.”
“Don’t make us remind you that at least three of these “Magic Mud Men” are Shadowmancers,” Vox said. “Shadowmancy is an abominable brand of magic, used only for taking lives and stealing souls.”
Root twitched. “Three?”
Hagen glanced at a sheet of paper on the table before him. “Yes. Yugi Mutou, Seto Kaiba, and Ryou Bakura.”
“The three, of course, who know about our existence,” Brug finished sharply.
I’m going to kill that centaur, Root thought. “Have the others been…classified?”
“We have reason to believe that the others manifest the same powers,” Hagen said. “But it has not been ascertained. Are you keeping them under surveillance?”
“Yes. One of my best officers is on the job. Captain Trouble Kelp.”
Vinyáya nodded approvingly. “A fine officer. I applaud your selection.”
“The issue at hand is what we are to do with these Mud Men,” Vox interrupted. “They pose a very serious threat to the People.”
“Before you make your decision,” Root said, his face beet-red, though he struggled to keep his voice level, “I want you to know this. These aren’t just numbers you’re dealing with. These are children, with names, personalities, hopes and fears. Just remember that when you’re deciding what to do.” Root was astonished at the level of his own passion. “They’re Mud Men, but their lives still deserve some kind of consideration.”
Several of the council members sat in stunned silence with mouths hanging open. “Eloquence” was not usually associated with Commander Julius Root. Nor was defending Mud Men.
“We will take your comments under consideration,” Brug said weakly and cut the connection.
They eyed each other in silence for awhile.
“Well,” said Vinyáya finally. “What do we do now?”
We eliminate the threat to the People, Vox thought. Whatever it takes.
On the other side of the world, Commander Julius Root stared at Holly. His face was grim and determined. She recognized the look. He got it just before he did something monumentally risky and/or stupid.
“Captain Short, suit up,” he said. Mulch was watching them both, wide-eyed. “We’re going back to the game shop.”
His eyes narrowed, and Holly felt a little chill run up her spine. “We’re going to go introduce ourselves to Pharaoh.”
“Why do you want to talk to me?” The man’s voice over the telephone was wary, but Artemis detected a flicker of excitement, as though Mr. Harten already knew what he was about to say.
“Mr. Harten, I want to talk with you about Seto Kaiba.”
The man laughed bitterly. “The police already investigated. They said he didn’t do anything. Why are you bringing it up now?”
Artemis gripped the phone tightly. “Mr. Harten, I believe that I can get you justice.”
There was a long moment of silence on the other end of the phone. Finally, Mr. Harten spoke. “How?”
“Tell me what happened. Why do you think you can link your assault to Mr. Kaiba?”
He was almost physically repulsed by the hatred in Mr. Harten’s voice. “He came to me a few days before it happened….
“Thank you for agreeing to see me, Mr. Harten.” Seto Kaiba laid a silver briefcase on the table and sat on the couch where his host indicated. Even seated, he oozed a sense of danger, like a coiled rattlesnake. Mr. Harten felt a shiver of fear run down his spine. It was hard to believe that the heir to the Kaiba fortune was not yet fourteen.
“Now, if we can get down to business,” Kaiba continued. “I have heard that you are the owner of a Blue Eyes White Dragon.”
Harten nodded. “I am.” He couldn’t help but smile. “It’s my most prized possession.”
“May I see it?” Kaiba asked, leaning forward. The eagerness on his face made him look more like the child he was.
Perhaps it was that look that gave Harten courage. “Of course.” Carefully, he reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and pulled out a thin wooden box. He opened it and held it out for Kaiba’s inspection.
The Blue Eyes lay on a bed of satin. The massive head was tilted at a proud angle, the wings half-spread as though preparing any moment to spring into action. Holding the box in his hands, Kaiba thought he could almost hear the roar.
Harten was unnerved by the look of longing and avarice that briefly crossed Kaiba’s face as he held the box possessively. Then the expression disappeared and the boy handed the box back.
Harten nodded and slipped the box back inside his jacket. “You’re welcome.”
Kaiba leaned forward again. “Mr. Harten, I am prepared to pay a great deal of money for your Blue Eyes. In fact, name your price.”
Harten hesitated. The offer was generous, exceedingly so. But…
“I’m sorry, but I can’t sell it to you,” he told Kaiba as firmly as he could.
Kaiba’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Well, if you won’t sell it to me, perhaps you’ll trade for it.” He opened the silver briefcase and slid it around for Harten to see. Harten gasped. The case was full of rare cards. He had never seen so many in his entire life. Some of these cards were worth a fortune, and with all of them together…
“You’ll trade me all these for my Blue Eyes?” he asked in awe. Kaiba nodded. “But…why?”
“Let’s just say it’s a dream of mine,” Kaiba said coolly. “So, Mr. Harten, do we have a deal?”
The rare cards were like a siren’s song. With an effort, Harten thought about his Blue Eyes. The temptation disappeared.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Kaiba,” he said again. “The Blue Eyes is worth more to me than anything you can pay me.”
Kaiba closed the case with a snap. Despite his determination, Harten felt a surge of regret as the rare cards disappeared from view. Kaiba stood with a smooth motion and stood for a moment staring down at Harten, who was suddenly afraid. The coldness in the boy’s eyes was palpable.
It’s death, Harten thought irrationally. This boy’s looking at me with death in his eyes.
“You will not give me the Blue Eyes?” Kaiba asked quietly, his tone even. “Think my offer over carefully, Mr. Harten.”
Harten shook his head. “Thank you for your generosity, but no.”
Kaiba smiled, the way Harten imagined a great white shark would smile at a seal just before it clamped it in its jaws. “Pity.”
At the door he stopped and turned around. “I hope you reconsider, Mr. Harten.”
Then without another word, he walked out, and Harten sank back in his chair with a ragged breath. The wooden box in his coat had never felt heavier.
Artemis smiled as he thanked Mr. Harten and hung up the phone. “Contact the Board of Child Services,” he said to Butler. “I have everything I need.”
Yugi halted a few steps from the game shop’s front door and turned around. It was dark and he could see no one nearby. The mysterious voice was undeniably male, but as hard as he searched, he could not see the speaker.
“Who are you?” he asked, comforted by the square patch of light behind him emanating from his kitchen window. His hand rested on the Millennium Puzzle. He could feel the Pharaoh stirring awake in his golden prison, and the familiar feel of magic bubbling up inside, the familiar tightness in the throat.
Slowly, a boy appeared out of the darkness. At least in stature he resembled a boy, being about three feet tall. Yugi knew better than to judge someone’s age based on height. His face was that of a man, with dark eyes and a beet-red coloring. Something told Yugi that this man, whoever he was, was not human.
Yugi… warned the Pharaoh’s voice. Yugi could feel it too, an aura of magic that oozed out of the stranger’s pores. It didn’t feel evil or anything, just…different. Natural, like it was as much a part of this man as his pointed ears and…wait, pointed ears? Yugi’s conversation with Kaiba came back to him in a flash. Inside him, Pharaoh tensed.
“My name is Julius Root,” the fairy said. “We need to talk.”
“Now’s not exactly a good time.” Yugi forced himself to sound casual, just as he forced himself to turn and head for the front door of the game shop, senses alert for any sound behind him.
Yugi stopped dead and turned around. Root was impressed by how little emotion he showed; his young face was suddenly like stone.
“You know me.” It wasn’t a question.
Root spread his hands. “Like I said, we need to talk.”
Yugi nodded his head cautiously. “I think we do.”
Root gestured towards the game shop. “May we come in?”
Yugi’s skin prickled. “We?”
A second figure materialized besides the first. This one was female. Yugi’s first thought, a product of being a teenage boy, was that she was very pretty. The second, more pragmatic, was And dangerous. This fairy was roughly the same height as the first. She was dressed the same way as Root too: black combat uniform. She had hazel eyes and an auburn crew cut. Despite her slightly intimidating appearance, Yugi could feel evidence of a good soul in the magic surrounding her. And if there was one thing Shadowmancers did well, it was judge souls.
“Holly Short,” she said, and smiled. Despite himself, Yugi felt himself smiling back. She had a warm smile. Finally, he nodded and led the way towards the house.
“We can talk in my room.”
As he approached the door, it was suddenly flung wide open. Yugi’s grandpa stood in the doorway, his expression a mixture of anger and relief.
“Yugi! Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick!”
“Grandpa…” Yugi faltered slightly. “I went to visit Kaiba. He wanted to talk with me.”
His grandpa pursed his lips. “What’s wrong with the telephone?” he grumbled. “Why does he have to have you gallivanting across the city in the middle of the night?”
Yugi smiled, relieved that his grandfather wasn’t really angry. “You know Kaiba.”
Solomon Mutou nodded reluctantly. “I do.” He gestured towards the door. “Well, come on in. But go straight up to bed, understand?”
”Grandpa…” Yugi began, unsure how to introduce his mysterious companions. He looked at them for support and his eyes opened wide. They weren’t there! Where Root and Holly had stood was only empty air. Startled, Yugi reached out with his power. He could still feel them, just where they had been standing before. But for all intents and purposes, they were simply gone.
“Yugi?” His grandpa was looking at him quizzically.
“I’m glad you’re not angry,” Yugi improvised quickly as he trotted through the door his grandfather was holding open for him.
His grandpa sighed. “I’m not angry. I was just worried for you.” There was a hint of steel in his voice as he continued. “But I might have a thing or two to say to Mr. Kaiba.”
Yugi laughed. “I definitely want to see that. Well, goodnight.” He hugged the old man around the middle, then climbed the stairs to his room. He was acutely aware of the two fairies that he could still feel following him.
They know about Pharaoh.
He pushed open the door to his room, held it open for a few seconds, then retreated to his desk. Straining his eyes, he could just make out two faint heat smudges before the fairies materialized before him.
“What do you want?” Yugi asked slowly.
“We came to warn you,” Root said, standing stiffly near the door. “And to talk with you.”
“With Yugi? Or with me?” And just like that, Yugi changed. Appearance wise, he looked the same. Same crazy tri-colored hair, same violet eyes, same short stature. But Root could immediately tell the difference between the two. The Pharaoh’s angular face had the undeniable air of nobility and confidence that Root had seen before on the Battle City poster. His eyes were hard and alert, and the fairy commander could see a strange…shifting near the pupils, as though something alive, something separate from the Pharaoh himself, was walled up just inside.
The pharaoh inclined his head regally. “Then what did you wish to tell me?”
Root cleared his throat and began. “There are some among the Pe…our people who feel threatened by your power.”
“I don’t hurt those who don’t hurt me,” Pharaoh said coldly.
“That’s what we’re here to determine,” Holly said.
They glared at each other fiercely for a minute before the pharaoh shook his head slowly. “I don’t know what I can say to convince you,” he said. “I know whatever I offer as proof will just be taken as an unsupported excuse at best, a deliberate trick at worst.”
“Mud Me…Humans have not had magic in thousands of years,” Root said. “You can’t blame us for being careful.”
The Pharaoh shook his head again. “No, I cannot. But you understand my dilemma.” There was a moment of silence. “Why are you telling me this?”
“We don’t think that someone should be…threatened just because of something that cannot be controlled,” Holly said.
The pharaoh tensed. “What do your people plan to do to me?”
To, not with. Holly inwardly winced. Neither fairy had an answer to that. They simply didn’t know what the Council would do. And that was frightening.
Pharaoh was quiet for a long time. Then, “Can I count on you?”
“Yes,” Holly said without hesitation, then stopped, stunned. She’d just pledged her help to a human, even against her own people. Without the permission of her commander.
To her surprise, Root did not hesitate either. “Yes.”
For the first time, the Pharaoh smiled. The effect was radiant. His face was utterly beautiful when he smiled, almost unearthly.
“Thank you,” he said warmly. “From both of us.” .
The fairies shifted uncomfortably. “We need to go,” Root said brusquely. “We left a kleptomaniac dwarf handcuffed in the back of our shuttle.”
That startled a laugh out of the Pharaoh. “By all means, you should go.”
Holly and Root shielded and were gone almost before the words had left his mouth. Yami watched as a matching pair of heat shimmers floated across the room and the window opened and closed, apparently without aid.
He sat down on his bed and sighed heavily. “So once again, my presence has brought danger,” he murmured.
Yami, why didn’t you tell them we don’t know how to use most of our power? Yugi asked. Wouldn’t that have shown them we aren’t a threat?
We don’t know yet if we can trust them, aibou, Yami answered. And I don’t need to remember my past to remember this: never show weakness to an enemy.
An enemy? Yami, I can’t keep treating everyone like a potential threat.
Yami folded his hikari into his arms. I’m sorry, Yugi, he said, but for now, I think we have to accept that this may turn into a war.
And we’ll be in the middle of it.