Mulch Diggums was not a complicated dwarf. He just wanted a hole to live in, some peace and quiet with lots of beetles, and the occasional Lord of the Rings marathon on his giant plasma screen TV. And gold of course. He always wanted gold. And generally the best way to get that gold was to take it away from other people.
Which was why he was now crouched outside the window of a seventeen-year-old boy, carefully melting a hole in the glass with a bottle of dwarf rock-polisher. Normally, Mulch wouldn’t do a job like this, no matter what the payoff was. Too easy. Mulch delighted in breaking through high-tech security systems to steal his prizes. This kid didn’t even have any dogs, for Haven’s sake!
But tonight it was different. He had heard from a couple of sources that this particular boy had something of great value worth taking. He had even heard that this item was under surveillance by the LEP, though the fairy police had not raided the house yet. That meant it had value to Julius Root.
Mulch slipped through the hole in the glass, carefully avoiding any noise. A current of damp air filtered through the space, and the boy turned restlessly in his sleep. Mulch cursed under his breath. He hated English weather! He drew the curtains softly over the hole to keep out future drafts and turned to the bed.
The boy was deeply asleep. His tousled white hair was sprawled across the pillow, wreathing his head in a tangled halo. He was wearing a pair of pajamas that Mulch could swear were actually printed with fluffy white bunny rabbits. The Mud Boy’s chest rose and fell with a rhythmic motion, and his soft, open face seemed entirely innocent.
The dwarf snorted. This guy is a complete loser, even for a Mud Boy, he thought, but he limited himself to that comment. He wasn’t here to criticize the boy’s fashion sense, or lack thereof. He was here for the loot.
And then he saw it. A golden ring, about the size of a small plate, marked in the center by the Egyptian eye of Horus and studded with a number of golden spikes, hung on a thick chain around the Mud Boy’s neck. Mulch noticed that even asleep, the boy’s hand crept towards the necklace every few minutes, touching it as though to reassure himself that it was there. Taking the thing might be a bit tricky.
Mulch grinned. From his pocket, he pulled out a small package. He opened it softly and pulled out…silly putty. Working silently, he started to mold the putty into the crude shape of the ring around the boy’s neck. He made little spikes and even carved an extremely bad illustration of the eye of Horus. Then, just for fun, he drew a smiley face beneath.
Finally satisfied with his creation, Mulch dribbled a single drop of rock polish on the chain and watched it eat away at the metal. None spilled over onto the boy himself. Within moments, the ring was free. Mulch’s smile widened and he reached for the prize.
It was then that the boy spoke. “I wouldn’t touch that if I were you,” he said, eyes still closed. His voice was different than Mulch would have expected. It was unbelievably harsh, cruel, and cold.
Slowly, the boy let his eyes flicker open. Mulch found himself staring into the calculating gaze of a cobra about to strike. If the eyes were the windows to the soul, then this boy’s soul was a barren wasteland. Even the bunnies were starting to look threatening.
“What are you?” the boy asked, voice still quiet and calm. He didn’t seem the least bit alarmed that he had a short, very hairy mythological creature squatting on his bedspread.
Mulch couldn’t answer. His jaw had locked up. A dangerous situation for a dwarf. The boy grinned lazily as he sat up in bed. “You need to learn to respect your elders,” he said.
The dwarf’s paralysis broke. “Come off it,” he snorted. “You’re what? Twelve?” It was only then that he realized he probably should have kept his big mouth shut. The boy’s eyes glittered dangerously. He raised a hand.
Mulch dove for the window. There was a bright flare of light, and the dwarf felt his trousers smoldering. The boy threw the covers aside and bounded after the dwarf. He moved surprisingly fast. Mulch ran.
He tore the curtains from the window as he jumped through the hole, falling several feet onto the pavement below. Before his brain could inform him what a painful decision he had just made, he was up and running. He heard a wheezing moan from just behind him. Mulch glanced back. To his horror, he saw a monster dropping from the sill towards him, complete with slavering jaws. The Mud Boy was at the window, his dark eyes narrowed with anger.
There was a patch of dirt a few feet from the window. Without hesitation, Mulch unsnapped his bum flap, unhinged his jaw, and dived into the cool earth. A rotting hand brushed his foot, but could not catch hold. The dirt tasted metallic and sour, probably a consequence of too many Mud Men in too small an area. But Mulch didn’t care. His confidence was returning. Nothing could catch a dwarf underground. He was safe.
He was just beginning to angle the tunnel upwards in preparation for returning to his apartment when the full significance of what he had seen hit him.
Mud Men had discovered magic.
Captain Trouble Kelp landed on the grounds of Fowl Manor, feeling distinctly nervous. The last time he had set foot here, his entire unit had been decimated by Fowl’s massive bodyguard. Still, there was no help for it. Only a few hours before, a coded signal had been picked up by fairy sensors. Root and the others had recognized it, and all had moaned inwardly at what it meant.
Artemis Fowl wanted to talk.
Commander Root had grumbled angrily and said some very explicit things about Fowl’s mother and a chimpanzee, but in the end, he had given in. The Fowl boy had caused the People, and Root in particular, no end of irritation, but he was a link to Seto Kaiba, and he had helped them in the past. It wouldn’t hurt to talk with him.
Which was why Trouble Kelp was now walking up the drive to Fowl Manor, cursing the moment he had ever decided to join the LEP.
His hand strayed towards the Neutrino holstered at his belt. He didn’t think he’d need it, though he dearly wanted to sink a few well-placed charges into Fowl’s behind. But he liked its comforting weight. He was a soldier, first and foremost.
Trouble began to run his gaze over the front of the house, searching for a means of quiet entry into the dwelling. Then he caught himself doing it and laughed. If this was the same Artemis Fowl that he remembered (and he couldn’t imagine Fowl had changed that much), the Mud Boy could already know he was here, despite his shield. Plus, as a fairy, Trouble needed an invitation to enter the house. He remembered the last time he had entered Fowl’s house without permission, and winced. The suit he had been wearing at the time ended up being burned, and the helmet had been tossed in the recycler.
The smell of vomit does not wash out.
Trouble hesitated for a moment on the front door step. No guards had appeared to challenge him, and there was no sign of Fowl. So Captain Trouble Kelp did the thing that was the most likely to spark an immediate reaction. He unshielded.
Within moments, he heard footsteps, and the door before him opened. In the doorway, partially shielded from potential gunfire by the heavy oak door, stood the giant who had demolished the LEP Retrieval Squad. Butler. Trouble planted his feet firmly and gazed up at the man, determined to appear confident and in control. He refused to acknowledge, even to himself, how intimidating the bodyguard’s monstrous bulk really was.
“What do you want?” the giant demanded.
“I’m here to see Fowl,” Trouble said. He was pleased to hear that his voice did not tremble.
“Move aside, Butler,” came a soft, cool voice from inside the house. “I wish to properly greet our guest.” As the bodyguard moved aside, Artemis himself stepped into view. Just looking at the Mud Boy gave Trouble Kelp the shivers. Artemis’ dark hair and pale skin reminded him of a vampire, and the predatory smile did nothing to detract from that image.
When Artemis caught sight of Trouble, a moment of surprise flitted across his face, but it was gone almost before Trouble could be sure it had appeared.
“I give you permission to enter my home,” he said, gesturing towards the elaborate foyer beyond. Trouble took a few steps inside, keeping an eye on Butler as he did so. The furnishings were lush, and the gigantic marble staircase was grander than any Trouble had seen before. But rather than awe him, these signs of wealth did nothing more than irritate Trouble. This kid was sitting on millions of dollars in wall hangings while there were hundreds of better uses for that kind of cash.
“I must confess,” Artemis said, as he led down the hall and into his study. “I had expected Captain Short or Commander Root.”
Trouble stopped dead, forcing Artemis to turn and face him. “Look, Fowl,” he said. “Let’s get something straight. The LEP is not your own personal police force. You might be useful, so here I am, but Holly and the Commander are too busy to cater to your private needs.”
Artemis did not seem fazed by this speech. “I’m afraid we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot,” he said smoothly. “We should begin with introductions. I am Artemis Fowl II, as you undoubtedly know.”
“Captain Trouble Kelp,” Trouble said gruffly.
Artemis inclined his head in a slightly regal gesture. “A pleasure.”
Mud Boys his age should be wandering around with headphones stuck in their ears and thinking about girls, Trouble thought. Not running a mansion and meeting with fairy police officers.
That reminded Trouble of the reason for his visit. By this time, they had made their way into an elaborate sitting room. Artemis sank gracefully into a high-backed chair, gesturing for his guest to sit on the sofa opposite him. Trouble, after eying the couch and noting how much he would sink down if he sat on it, remained standing, arms crossed. Hopefully, this would encourage Fowl to speed up the proceedings.
“Well, Fowl?” he asked, voice as cool and even as he could make it. “You wanted to talk. Here’s your chance.”
Fowl smirked. “You’ve begun all wrong, Captain,” he said. “Never betray your impatience to your opponent. Otherwise you give him the advantage.”
Trouble was in no mood for this. “I’m not here to play mind games with you, Mud Boy,” he said. “If you have something to say, say it. If not, I have more important things to do.”
A spasm of…was that…worry? passed across Artemis’ blank features. The Mud Boy leaned forward slightly in his chair. “I sincerely doubt that,” he said quietly.
Trouble’s stomach sank. “What are your plans for getting the information back from Kaiba?” he demanded. “I presume you have a plan?”
Artemis nodded. “By setting up a feed at the KaibaCorp building, similar to the technology utilized by the first spy bug, I should be able to restore the connection and access Mr. Kaiba’s computer systems again, despite the security measures he has doubtless upgraded. But it will require some fairy technology.”
Trouble frowned. “I don’t want you in possession of more fairy technology, Mud Boy,” he said. “You’ve caused enough trouble.” It was only then that Trouble noticed the faint circles under the Mud Boy’s eyes.
“Believe me, trouble is the last thing on my mind.”
“I’ll have to clear this with the Commander,” Trouble warned him. He turned, about to find a private place in which to contact Root. But something made him turn back.
“Fowl,” he said hesitantly. “How much of a danger do you think Kaiba really is?”
Artemis met his eyes squarely. “I think he has the potential to be one of the most dangerous threats the People have ever faced.”
Trouble Kelp felt his heart sink.
It took the Mud Boy the rest of the morning to assemble the second spy bug. After what seemed like an eternity of tinkering and careful calculations, Artemis held it up, his pale face flushed with the thrill of success. Trouble merely grunted and held the tiny creation up so that Foaly, who was monitoring the entire conversation via helmet monitor, could examine it.
“Some of this stuff should be in the recycling bin,” Foaly grumbled, his hairy face filling Trouble’s entire field of vision as he zoomed in on the spy bug. Trouble fought the urge to close his eyes before he was permanently blinded. “Still, for a Mud Boy, it’s not bad.”
Commander Root stepped into the screen, shoving the centaur unceremoniously aside. With the touch of a button, the helmet began to project an image of the LEP officer into Fowl’s study so that Root could address Artemis directly.
“So, Fowl,” he growled, his face beet- red as usual. “What’s the plan?”
Artemis rubbed his forehead. Trouble saw that the circles under his eyes had deepened. “I will need access to KaibaCorp for my spy bug to work,” he said. “So, I must find some reason for going there.”
“I don’t think Kaiba will be pleased to see you, Artemis,” Butler pointed out.
Artemis smirked as a plan began to fall into place. “No, but he wants the safe return of his files. If I were to sell them to his rivals, the entire company would lose billions of dollars. Such a move might be enough to put even Kaiba out of business.”
“What are you suggesting?” Root demanded.
Artemis shrugged. “Merely that I go to Kaiba and…negotiate. I’m sure we can come to some sort of satisfactory agreement. Perhaps I will not require the use of the spy bug at all. At any rate, it will get me into the building.”
“What makes you think that Kaiba will see you?” Root asked.
Artemis chuckled coldly. “Seto Kaiba is the sort of man who prefers to meet his enemies face-to-face. He will see me.”
Commander Root was silent for a moment. “One chance, Fowl,” he said finally. “That’s all you have.”
Artemis inclined his head in acknowledgement. Then a truly vampiric smile spread across his face. “Don’t you trust me, Commander?”
Thousands of miles underground, Commander Julius Root shivered and cut the connection.
Artemis ensured that KaibaCorp’s files were saved to a separate disk and carefully hidden before he followed Butler towards the doors of the manor. He was preoccupied with his thoughts, going over each stage of his plan and bemoaning the fact that almost everything in it had the potential to go wrong. But there was no time to think up a better solution.
One of the servants stood near the door of the dining room, a lit cigarette in one hand. Artemis frowned. Smoking was expressly forbidden in the manor; Artemis viewed it as a disgusting habit and disliked the odor it produced. Anyone caught doing it was often dismissed immediately without references. Apparently, the man realized this, for he quickly hid the cigarette behind his back and retreated.
Artemis pursed his lips. Disciplining the man would require more time than Artemis was willing to spend at the moment. He resumed his walk to the manor doors, his mind quickly becoming occupied with other things.
As Fowl disappeared, Necros smiled. Checking down the length of the quiet hallway, he clamped the cigarette between his teeth and headed for the study. He had work to do.
“Mr. Kaiba is not here.” The receptionist gave Artemis a pretty smile. She seemed more relaxed than the first time he had seen her. Probably it was due to her boss’ absence.
“Where is he?” Artemis demanded, trying to sound like an irritated businessman who believed that other people should rearrange their schedules to suit his needs. It had worked well in the past.
“He departed for Domino City the first thing this morning.”
Artemis stared at her, a horrible thought occurring to him. He spun on his heel and snapped at Butler, “To the car, quickly.”
Once back in the car, he tersely ordered the bodyguard to return to Fowl Manor immediately. Butler stamped on the gas, ignoring the indignant honking of a car that had been cut off behind them.
“How could I have been so stupid?” Artemis muttered.
“What is it, Artemis?” Butler said. He accelerated past an elderly woman who had to be going at least fifteen miles under the speed limit. He was now maneuvering the Bentley at nearly breakneck speeds, weaving through the traffic. But Artemis did not object.
“As we were leaving the manor, I saw a man smoking a cigarette,” Artemis explained. “I was distracted and assumed he was one of the new servants that Mother hired last week.”
Butler cast him a sideways glance. “Artemis, I ran extensive background checks on all of the servants coming to work at the house,” he said. “Not one of them smokes.”
“Exactly.” Artemis tapped his fingers on the dashboard impatiently. “Can’t you go any faster?”
They returned to find Fowl Manor in flames. Fireman worked busily beside it, spraying water on the blaze, but it had clearly raged too long. The house was all but destroyed. The side of the house where the study was located was the hardest hit. Almost nothing in that area was even recognizable as part of an elaborate manor.
Artemis extricated himself slowly from the car, his pale face flushing with the heat of the fire. “So,” he whispered, as the house groaned with distress. “It seems I have underestimated Mr. Kaiba. Believe me, I will not do so again.”
“What will you do?” Butler asked quietly. There was little doubt in Butler’s mind that Kaiba had arranged the whole thing, and he dearly wished he could somehow turn back time and prevent Artemis from breaking into those files. Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve, didn’t. And that was all that mattered. There was no point in looking back now. He could only be grateful that Mr. and Mrs. Fowl were not at home.
Artemis turned to look at him, and even the stoic bodyguard was slightly unnerved by the anger in the young boy’s eyes. “I’ll go to the source,” he said.