This chapter marks the beginning of a huge story arc, which will be the focus of this book. I wrote this between bouts of my recent work, but I think it remains strong in its message and its focus. Not to intimate that there's some deep, far-reaching meaning in this chapter, specifically. But I like to think that this project has a lot of meaning to it, as a whole, and this chapter pushes forward to the precipice of something I've been waiting to get to for years.
This juncture is where I really started having fun with "Shifting Images," and I'm sure it will be worth the wait to finally give it proper treatment in this version.
Let us begin.
"Excuse me. Mister Kaiba?"
Seto turned, raising an eyebrow in silent inquiry, as was his habit. Kisara Mayer stepped up to him with a sort of quiet confidence that he wasn't used to seeing. Some part of him found this curious, but he figured that—having grown up with a prominent politician—she was used to dealing with people "in the spotlight."
"Yes?" Seto asked mildly, forcing down his bad mood by reminding himself that this woman, of her own accord, had put herself in the line of fire for no better reason than it was right to do it. She owed nothing to him, yet she had faced down his greatest, most cataclysmic failure.
Whether that was bravery or insanity, he had yet to determine. He supposed he respected both.
"Do you believe in this?" she asked, gesturing randomly. "All this Millennium Item business."
"I find myself with little in the way of an alternative," Seto said, lifting up the golden rod that felt so much like a set of shackles.
Kisara stared at it. "That…creature that had hold of you. The one everyone keeps calling an ancient spirit. It's in there?"
Seto smirked. Creature, indeed. "Evidently."
"And it's the same sort of thing that lives in Yugi Mutou's…puzzle."
Seto's smirk widened. "'Thing' is as good a descriptor as any."
"Do all of these artifacts have ghosts inside them? I heard something about there being another one inside something that Mister Bakura has."
"The Millennium Ring," Seto said, scowling when he felt that twinge of something that resembled longing again. He could feel the ring, feel its power and its tainted glory, singing out to him. "So I am told, yes. I don't know enough to say for sure about the others. I suppose I'll leave it at this: it wouldn't surprise me."
"Is…Seti quiet? Is he listening to your brother? Staying out of things?"
"So far, yes."
Kisara nodded. "Good. That's good. About as much as we can hope for right now, I guess. You know, I thought I was just coming along with a couple friends for fall break. Now we're invading your home because of haunted jewelry."
Seto shrugged. "Mokuba seems to enjoy having the extra company. I trust he hasn't bothered you."
Something passed Kisara's face, as though she might be wondering whether this was a test of some kind. Eventually, she said, "Not at all. Actually, to be honest, I haven't seen too much of him. He's asked a couple of times whether I'm comfortable, but that's about it."
"He prefers to play host, rather than permit me to do it." Seto chuckled. "I suspect he doesn't think I could do it. He may be right."
This sparked curiosity in Kisara's face. She said, hesitantly this time, "I've heard…um, Renie tells me that you raised Mokuba all by yourself?"
"You sound incredulous."
"Oh! Oh, no, I don't mean it like that. It's just…well, I'm sure you know how much she and Katie admire you. I've started to wonder if they don't exaggerate sometimes. You know. Sing your praises a bit too fervently."
Seto inclined his head, as if to cede the point. "In this case, she was entirely correct."
Kisara seemed to consider something. "This is going to sound really weird, but…I'm taking a child development course? I have a project due in a couple of months, for the end of the semester. Do you think I might…interview you? About your—you know. Experiences as a single parent." She gestured randomly. "When and if this all calms down, of course."
Seto raised an eyebrow. "When and if this all calms down," he repeated, somehow managing to keep the sour look from his face as he wondered whether that would happen at all. "Truth be told, Miss Mayer, it's not often I'm asked to speak about my brother during interviews. Most outlets tend to be less than interested." He paused a moment. "Very well. I'll sit for an interview with you."
A beaming grin, surprisingly childlike, spread on the young woman's face. "Excellent! Thank you, Mister Kaiba! I really appreciate this."
She hesitated a moment, then held out her hand.
Seto shook it.
Again, he repeated: "When this all calms down."
Kisara nodded. "Of course!"
Seto turned, and spied Noa approaching from the other end of the hall. His expression turned grim. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to see about accelerating that."
Kisara followed his gaze, saw Noa, and nodded. "I see. All right, then. Thank you again!"
She left, with a noticeable spring in her step, tempered only slightly by the pensiveness in her eyes.
"Okay, look, Aniki," Noa was saying, before he'd even closed the door behind himself, as he strode into Seto's office. "I know your tactic right now's to study up as much as you can on these things, but I think we gotta move. Quick-like."
Seto scowled; it wasn't often that the middle Kaiba spoke so darkly, and it had his attention. "Something sparked this urgency. What is it? Is this about Bakura?"
Noa shook his head. "No." He stopped, lowered his head, seeming to gather his thoughts.
Another thing that Noa didn't do often.
Eventually, he managed to articulate himself: "Something contacted me. Some kind of spirit. It was just this figure, black and smoky like one of the fuckin' Nazgûl or something. They're in the house."
Seto's fists clenched. "What did it want?"
"To scare me," Noa said dismissively. "Forced some kind of vision on me. Whatever. I don't care. I trust magic as much as I trust just about anything. Look, you remember what that god said, same as I do. It was talking in Mokuba's voice. I couldn't forget if I tried." Seto didn't respond. "It said you're tempered. It said you've been tested. Whatever the hell that's supposed to mean, apparently they think you're ready. I don't know what you're going to learn about these trinkets that you don't already know, but my guess ain't much. I say we kick this off. Go find one of the others. 'Challenge' them."
"One of the other 'holders of the Golden Seven,'" Seto said disdainfully.
"Crawford," Noa said, ticking off his fingers, "Ishtar, Mutou, Ryou. We know four of them already. As to the last two…"
"The Ankh and the Scales are held by one man," Seto said, seeming to growl, as though the fact that he knew this information were offensive. "Shadi. At least, that is the name that's been given to him."
"So you did find something in your excavation," Noa said, some hint of his usual joviality coming back.
"…In a sense," Seto replied. At Noa's questioning look, Seto shook his head and turned his attention to the wall. "I don't want Pegasus Crawford in this house," he muttered. "I also don't want Mokuba going to him. Not again." He turned his spitfire glare back to Noa, who straightened. "I'm going alone. If I'm to act now, then I intend to even an old score."
Noa smirked devilishly. "I think I like your style."
"It's obvious that I'm going to find no valuable information here. If these spirits have already seeped their way onto the grounds, there's no point in stalling any longer." He sighed. "I had better break this to Mokuba. If I leave without telling him, he'll just follow me. And you would probably let him."
Noa blinked. "Why, Aniki. Do you think me so rash?"
Seto pushed past his adoptive sibling. "At least if I tell him, I'll have a chance to put some modicum of sanity into this…this…"
"Cosmic stage show," Noa said slowly.
Seto stopped, stared at the floor for a moment, then wrenched open the door and stalked out into the hall.
"Hi, guys. What's up?"
Something about the chipper tone in Mokuba's voice stopped both his brothers short, and they were both hit by identical expressions of sudden agony that disappeared as quickly as they'd arrived; they looked more like twins than ever in that moment.
Seto's face hardened first, and he cleared his throat. "I intend to throw the gauntlet," he said, which made Noa flinch. Mokuba quirked an eyebrow. "No more studying or researching. I intend to act. Which means I must…challenge the other holders of Millennium Items directly."
"Okay…" Mokuba said slowly.
"I'm going alone," Seto said with quiet finality. "Noa will stay here. You will stay here." Mokuba opened his mouth to protest, but Seto held up a hand. "Mokuba. This is not a negotiation. You're staying here. Go to school, go to your mythology class. Play videogames, talk to Eubank, whatever. But you will not follow me. Am I clear?"
"Am I clear?"
Mokuba searched his brother's eyes, frowned, and lowered his head. Looking up again, almost pouting but not quite, he added, "Promise you'll be okay."
Seto most pointedly did not smirk; his face showed nothing. He said, "I promise you, on everything I have ever believed, that I will. These artifacts will not claim me. I will conquer this, and I'll be back. Wait for me."
Mokuba stared sulkily.
"I mean it, Mokuba. Wait for me."
Something passed over the black-haired boy's face that looked suspiciously like offense, but it passed quickly. The youngest Kaiba leaned back in his chair, crossed one leg over the other, and tented his fingers over his lap. A sudden, mischievous twinkle sparked in his eyes. "…I might be convinced to do what you're asking. If you make it…worth my while."
Seto blinked, stared, then sighed. He gestured dismissively. "What do you want?"
"A DS Lite. And Pokémon Diamond." A pause. "Make that Diamond and Pearl. I can use my old DS to trade with myself."
Seto remained stone-faced; he stole a glance at Noa as though he might find some answer in his pseudo-sibling's face as to what he should do, or say. Sighing again, Seto crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. "Anything else?" he asked, exasperated.
Mokuba smiled devilishly. "A hug."
Seto rolled his eyes and strode forward. Mokuba stood up, wrapped his arms around his brother's neck. The strength of his grip belied the glibness in his voice. He whispered: "You have to come back, Niisama. You have to."
"I will," Seto replied.
This ritual completed, Seto turned toward the door. He glanced at Noa again. "I'm leaving immediately. I believe you have some shopping to do."
Noa raised an eyebrow. "Caving to his demands, are you?"
Seto's expression insulted the very idea of speaking.
"All right. All right. What Mokuba-sama wants, Mokuba-sama gets. I hear you."
Mokuba looked suddenly terrified. "Wait. Seriously? You're gonna get me a—I was just joking! I'll stay here, Niisama! I'll stay right here, I promise!"
Seto left the room without responding. The look in his eyes just before he disappeared into the hallway, however, looked something suspiciously like an apology. Noa quirked an eyebrow at his young sibling. "If it makes you feel any better, how about I take one of 'em off your hands? You can trade with me."
"…Thanks. I guess. Where's he going?" His voice hitched into something high-pitched and pitiful. "Who's he…challenging first?"
Noa stepped toward the doorway, following his elder's path for a moment before saying: "Best not to ask that one, kiddo. Leave something to the imagination. We'll find out when he comes back with the spoils of war. Now c'mon. We got ourselves a mall to conquer."
"…I really was joking, Noa. Niisama doesn't just randomly buy me things 'cuz I ask him. I mean, I know we're not hurting for money or anything, but seriously. This is—why would he…?"
"If he was going to be randomly generous to anyone, at any point in his personal history, I'm pretty sure it would be to you, right now. But if you want to be cynical about it, there's a pretty obvious reason: he's serious about you staying home. Wherever he's off to, whatever he's gonna do, he doesn't want you involved."
"If it's that dangerous, then I should be there!" Noa sighed, and started walking down the hall; Mokuba trotted to catch up to him. "Noa! I'm serious! I should—"
"Mokuba…" There was something in the way the middle Kaiba said his brother's name that stopped Mokuba short. "Don't forget who you're talking to. I know pretty damn well the kind of support system you've got with your Niisama, okay? Some people, they'd ask what you really think you're gonna do to help him. I know better than to ask. Still, I'm gonna lay some truth on you, here: you'll be more of a help to him if you stay out of harm's way, and let him focus. If this was something even halfway normal, maybe you'd convince me. But this is magic. If you're with him, he'll spend every ounce of effort on making sure you're safe, instead of taking care of himself. Don't try to tell me he won't, either, 'cuz he's been doing it his entire life."
Mokuba flinched. "But…"
"I don't say this. I've never said this—it's insulting—but have faith in the man. I mean, it's not like he hasn't earned it." Noa smirked. "Now, then, let's go buy something shiny to distract you for a while."
Mokuba followed his brother, but couldn't quite banish his sense of foreboding.
They sat across from each other at a lavish table, and made eye contact for the first time in years. Ever the gracious host, Pegasus Crawford had laid out enough food to feed a small country. Seto had yet to touch a single bite of it.
"I was given to understand you're something of a traditionalist," Pegasus offered by way of conversation. "Did you know that Crouquet has been trained by some of the best chefs in Japan? Are you certain you wouldn't like to partake?"
"Don't insult me, Crawford," Seto said scathingly, though his facial expression was entirely noncommittal. "I'm not here to share lunch with you, to say nothing of a lunch so thoroughly clichéd. I've taken you for many things, but an idiot has never been one of them."
Pegasus shrugged. "True. Business executives conversing over sushi and miso soup is rather trite. Still, I'd hope you wouldn't insult my intelligence. I know very well that you have a fondness for the, ah, subtle alchemy of Japanese cooking." Pegasus shifted his weight slightly, and a glint of gold shimmered through his hair. "Or did you forget what this eye of mine can do?"
"I'm well aware," Seto said slowly.
"And are you aware of why you're here, specifically?" Pegasus asked. "Something to do with challenging those of us with Millennium Items, I believe. So, do you know what that means?"
"I was hoping it would involve digging that eye out of your skull with a grapefruit spoon," Seto muttered.
Pegasus laughed. "Unfortunately, no. I suppose, since you've come to me first of all, it is my particular honor to give you the details. We wouldn't want you going into this blind, after all. You've been chosen by the gods, Kaiba-boy. It's quite an honor."
"Spare me. I'm not some new convert. I have just as little use for gods as I always have. I'm jumping through hoops because I've been left with no other workable alternative. So if you intend to crack a whip and make me dance, then get on with it." Seto's eyes glittered with something that might have been amusement. "Just think: you won't even have to use my brother as leverage this time."
Pegasus flinched violently, and he closed his visible eye for a moment. When he opened it again, his gaze was sharp, hard, and the amusement had left him. "I won't insult you by apologizing for my conduct on the island, nor by wasting your time any longer." He stood up. "The Millennium Items are more than jewelry, more than artifacts. They are conduits into a deeper consciousness, a wider power, than most people understand. Let us take the Egyptian pantheon at face value, as an exercise. Shall we?"
Seto gestured. "Fine."
"You could do worse than to think of the Items as tethering us to them," Pegasus continued. "We six, we happy six, are lucky enough to have a direct line to the gods, and your task is to use that fact as…well, a roadmap."
"And my destination…?"
"That, Kaiba-boy, is your choice. You might elect to mimic your predecessor, and put them to sleep. Or you might take the other path and wake them up. If you complete the tasks laid out for you, and prove to the Items that you deserve to make that choice, of course."
"So the Items themselves are sentient." Seto looked disgusted. "Plenty of 'theorists' have posited that idea."
"It would seem that they are, yes." Pegasus reached up, and tucked his curtain of hair behind his ear, revealing the Millennium Eye. "They will not simply come to you, Kaiba-boy. You must prove to them that you are better fit to claim them than their chosen owners."
"And how would you suggest I do that?"
"You must prove, in thought, word, and action, that you are fit to shoulder the burden they represent. Yugi-boy did this the old-fashioned way." Pegasus flipped a Magic & Wizards card from a pocket into his hand. "But I hear you've retired. So we'll be doing things differently this time around." He put the card away and gestured to his golden eye. "This eye of mine represents desire. Through it, we see what we wish to see, so intimately that people often cannot notice the difference. It does this to teach, to mold, to test. That is what I will do. I will show you what you wish to see, and you will be required to act…accordingly. If you pass this test, my eye is yours. Simple, isn't it?"
Seto's eyes narrowed. "Deceptively so."
Pegasus's eyes twinkled. "Don't misread me, Kaiba-boy. Just because it's simple doesn't mean it will be easy. The Millennium Eye is rather demanding. So, do you understand? You will be given a test, a task to complete, by each of us. Each will teach a new lesson, that you must learn in order to take the Golden Seven in hand. It's something like a Shadow Game. Only…without the game."
Seto sighed heavily, shook his head, and ran a hand through his hair. "I highly doubt that I do understand, Crawford. Where magic is concerned, my perspective has always been rather…skewed. Let's just get started. I'm getting tired of waiting." He glared hotly at his old enemy. "The welfare of my family hinges on this," he added before Pegasus had a chance to speak. "If you tell me that I have to learn patience before I am to succeed in this, I'll go back to my first plan and find serrated cutlery."
Pegasus chuckled. "I would never be so presumptuous. Let us begin."
The air was lit aflame with golden fire, and Seto felt the deepest core of himself twitch with sudden, magnificent anticipation. Then everything went black, and he knew nothing.
I'll admit to having some difficulty when it comes to writing Pegasus. I don't have much experience with him, particularly when he's being his very peculiar version of friendly. One has to wonder what he has up his sleeve for this "test."
Next chapter, we'll find out together. Knowing this particular tycoon, it won't be easy, and it certainly won't be anything resembling normal. Seto has drawn a line in the sand with his old enemy, and now all we can do is watch, and wait, to see what happens.
Until next time, be good to one another.