This is where I feel that this mini-arc of mine starts to hit its stride. I should note here that the five chapters I've allotted for this experiment won't comprise an entire story, because that's not really the point. The point of this project is to work with snapshots, rather than extensive plot arcs. After all, that's what the core story is for.
Nonetheless, I'm going to make sure that whatever it is I end up doing with the remaining two chapters, it will come to a satisfactory conclusion. It might not end the campaign, but it will end a section of it. And who knows? Maybe we'll come back to this at some point in the future, if that's something you'd be interested in seeing.
Now, then. We've an audience with the queen.
She was ravishing.
It was difficult to come up with another word to describe the woman who rose, like a winter goddess, at their approach. She stepped forward, resplendent in a silken gown that looked like someone had reached up into midnight and pulled down the sky for fabric. Her hair, blacker than the onyxes set into her throne, lovingly framed her face and tumbled down her back. Tall and shapely, with the bearing of someone only vaguely human, this could only be the queen.
As the gorgeous young monarch descended the small steps onto the marble floor of the castle's meeting chamber, a pair of guards fell into step on either side of her. In direct and striking contrast to their charge, the men were simply garbed, in chainmail shirts and boiled leather plates. They had unadorned, rough steel weapons hanging from hooks on their wide belts. The only decoration they wore were the half-capes covering their right shoulders, which were an oceanic shade of blue, with a silver crescent moon stitched into the center.
They were big men, and may as well have been twins . . . at least at first glance. A second, more critical look revealed that there was nothing even superficially similar about their appearance to each other; it was only their expressions that made them seem so. They were not scowling, nor did they even seem grim, but just the same even Jonah—whose huge and hulking avatar towered over the both of them—knew better than to test them.
All had the distinct and lasting impression that, if danger caught the barest glimpse of their queen, these men would tear a new bowel into hell.
Seto approached the three figures, completely at ease, and bowed deeply at the waist. "My lady," he said; an unreadable emotion choked his voice for a moment, but it was gone before anyone (even his brother) could figure out what it was.
Queen Meyari smiled graciously, and she spread out her arms. Before the elder Kaiba could step back, he was caught in a sudden hug. The five players all exchanged looks, each of them understanding the awkwardness of the scene in front of them.
It was funny to think that, even though this was a virtual world, and even though Seto himself had constructed it, he still balked at being touched. The game master gingerly returned the young woman's embrace, and when he finally managed to extricate himself from it, and the party got a good look at his face, they realized that he was blushing.
"It's so wonderful to see you safe," Meyari said to Seto, with laughter in her voice. "And as always, you have kept your word." She swept her arms out in a grand gesture of welcome as she let her lofty, bright violet gaze take in the party. "Welcome, noble adventurers, to Lorat. Fabled gem of Heaven, the City of the Moon." Then she giggled, a deceptively girlish sound. She added, self-consciously: "I'm obligated to say that. Please, don't think me arrogant. Now, then! I understand that you lovely people have volunteered to . . ."
There was a moment of stunned silence. Rebecca looked at Connor, Connor looked at Megan, Megan looked at Seto.
Jonah looked at himself. "This City of the Moon isn't racist, is it?" he asked no one in particular. "Should I not have made an orc? I like orcs."
Nobody answered. The queen wasn't looking at him.
Her gaze was locked on Althor Pendraeg, servant of Bahamut.
Meyari whispered: ". . . Mokuba?"
The young Kaiba blinked. The paladin's face went slack. "Huh?"
"Is that . . . ? It is!" Meyari whirled on Seto. "Sethos! You . . . you've brought me . . . ?"
Seto had a calculating look on his face. Then he remembered his role and said, "A thousand pardons, my lady, but . . . do you know this man?"
"Know him?" Meyari echoed incredulously. "Do I know—Sethos, my dear man, do you have any idea what you've done?"
"So, um . . ." Rebecca murmured under her breath. "This is getting off on a grand note."
"I feel I should mention right now that I have no fracking clue how to use this thing," Jonah said, reaching back and patting his axe. "If we get into a fight this early, I'm pretty sure we're doomed."
Meyari's guards glared accusingly at Jonah, putting their hands on the leather-wrapped grips of their own weapons. The one on the queen's left had a six-bladed mace, while the other sported a heavy, machete-styled blade with a wicked hook at the end.
Meyari's face split into a beaming grin, and she squealed as she threw herself at Mokuba.
"I knew you'd be back someday, Mokuba! Oh, welcome home!"
Mokuba, for his part, stared blankly over Meyari's shoulder at his brother.
Everyone expected the elder Kaiba to have a self-satisfied smirk on his face, or maybe to completely ignore the fact that his brother was embarrassed, and clearly wanted some sort of explanation.
Both Rebecca and Connor knew about Mokuba's first virtual gaming adventure; at least, they'd heard the broad strokes of it. They knew about the child queen who could have passed for their friend's twin sister. They knew about the five-headed dragon.
It should have been easy to explain. Clearly, Seto had designed this non-player character, an older version of that same child queen, to react to Mokuba's avatar as though she remembered him from that first adventure. But one look at Seto's face made it obvious that he hadn't done anything like that.
The game master's eyes were wide, almost feverish, and his hands twitched at his sides.
He whispered: ". . . How in the hell?"
Before any more niceties could be exchanged, a sudden, explosive noise rocked the foundations of the building.
And before the others, even the queen's guards, had a chance to react, Seto had tossed off his coat and drew out a pair of hand-scythes. His eyes were narrow, suspicious. He said, in an echoing voice that didn't match his bearing: "That wasn't an earthquake. Nor was it a siege weapon. Something else, something . . . unnatural . . . is upon us." He stared directly at the party. "What will you do?"
The air sang as Mokuba drew out his sword. He whipped the shield on his back onto his opposite arm, turned with his back to the queen, and took a slow, deliberate step backward. "We've known each other barely long enough to count ourselves as acquaintances," he said, "but I trust you to take my lead."
Connor put on a smirk that matched his avatar's face, but not his own. "Somebody thinks highly of himself," he said, with barely a note of the childish timbre they might have expected. He flipped a long knife into his right hand.
Mokuba returned the smirk; his eyes sparkled.
Megan leaned close to Jonah, still at her vigil on his broad shoulder. "What say, big man? Do we trust the tin bucket?"
Jonah's orc grinned toothily. "Why not?"
Rebecca gave a short nod.
Mokuba gestured to Jonah. "You two: up front. Face the doors." He looked at Rebecca. "Behind them, to one side." He looked at Connor. "Opposite side." He straightened, rolled his shoulders, and said without looking back: "On your guard, Meyari."
Seto quirked an eyebrow. "Then . . . begin."
Althor Pendraeg rushed forward, shield leading, as his allies fell into position.
The doors they had entered exploded inward.
"Get him," the queen said, before the dust had time to clear. One of her guards started to protest, but she reiterated, much more fiercely: "Get him! He was right! What more proof do you need? Bring him here! Now!"
The man with the mace rushed out of the throne room via a back entrance.
As the splintered corpses of the doors lay like abandoned dogs on the marbled floor, Mokuba tightened his grip on his weapon. At first glance, a young woman stood in the center of the retinue, a virgin on her wedding day, with a white gown and a soft blue veil. But a closer look revealed the truth: the gown was not a gown, but a funeral shroud. The veil was a ballet dance of spider's webs. The woman had no eyes, no lower jaw, and her fingers—reaching, ever reaching—were dirty, blood-streaked, and mangled.
Half of those fingers had no nails.
The rest of this gruesome bride's brigade were no more preserved than she, and many were even worse. Maggots nested in more than one face. Limbs lay splintered and useless against exposed ribcages. Groaning, gaping maws let out blackened death-rattles accompanied by a smell so ungodly that it could flay flesh from bone.
The bride bore its black, blank gaze on Mokuba, and screamed.
First blood went to Connor, as a thin knife whooshed past Mokuba's head and landed with a hollow thunk in one of the corpses' foreheads. The air sizzled on the younger Kaiba's other side, announcing a flash of lightning that slammed into another shambling, shuffling body and sent it reeling backward.
Mokuba drew in a sharp breath, then threw himself into the fray. As more spells, and more knives, flew about his head, Mokuba's sword danced in the squalid air. He whipped an arm around and felt a sudden stuttering jerk as his shield met, and nearly shattered, a creature's skull.
As the melee continued, Seto's voice rolled over them like a winter storm: "They fall, like sacrilegious leaves from a tree in a cemetery." Looking over, one by one, the player characters couldn't help but watch as Seto's avatar wove through the growing crowd of bodies; his small, hooked blades sent ribbons of black blood about himself. "The queen . . . is strangely calm," Seto declared.
Mokuba turned to glance back at Meyari, and found this statement to be true. While her remaining bodyguard whipped his machete around with sharp, quick strikes, the queen herself stood stolid; her face was drawn, but composed; pale, but stalwart. She barely moved. When one of them slipped past the other players and barreled past the guard, Meyari slipped a dagger from the folds of her gown and drove it cleanly into the thing's eye socket.
"Does she know something?" Seto asked. His voice was slow, methodical, and the most important thing in the room. His words pushed past the groans of the creatures, the shrieking of the dead bride, and the grunts of exertion from the players. "Why is she not terrified? Why is she not surprised? Who is she calling here?"
Completely lost in the moment as he was, Mokuba barely paid attention to his brother's narration. Nonetheless, he felt the sentiments in his bones, as though Seto's story had been hard-coded into the pods themselves.
He was barely able to contain his excitement, in direct spite of the gruesome sight around him, and when he stole a glance at Jonah—who belted out barbaric war-cries in sequence with the monsters, like he was trying to communicate with them—he could tell that his friend was similarly rapturous.
They could feel the thrill of the moment, the thrum of the hunt. There were no cushions beneath them, no visors over their heads. There were no speakers set against their ears. There was only this magnificent throne room, blasphemed by the hulking damned, and the voice of their game master.
When Seto let out a sudden, primal howl of pain, Mokuba's entire body went ramrod stiff, and he nearly dropped his weapon. When he turned, and saw the dead bride gnawing on his brother's forearm, digging her broken fingers into his flesh, Mokuba almost fainted.
Jonah Townsend didn't like to think of himself as a heartless bastard, but the thought had crossed his mind more than once, thanks to certain . . . contingencies.
To wit, he didn't have an older sibling, but he'd grown up with any number of older cousins, and aunts and uncles to go with them, and he'd never once felt the kind of connection that his young friend obviously had with his brother. It had neared the point, during certain periods of general pessimism, that Jonah wondered whether or not Mokuba played it up for the camera. This didn't mean to say that the younger Kaiba didn't love the elder; Jonah wasn't that cynical. But sometimes he wondered whether it was fully authentic.
Sometimes he felt guilty for that.
Like the moment when Mokuba—wearing the body of a holy warrior—watched his brother—wearing the body of a royal retainer—being eaten.
It was a game. It was virtual. It was glorified Dungeons & Dragons without the imagination part. They were standing in a castle fighting zombies, probably the most clichéd fantasy monster in all of creation. He was an orc, and he had an overgrown pixie perched on his shoulder. It was the most ridiculous, and the most magical, moment of his life. There was no doubting Seto's genius. But all the same, it was a freaking game.
Yet looking at Mokuba's face, you wouldn't have known that.
Breaking character for the first time, Mokuba gasped out "Niisama!" in a very quiet, very childish voice.
Seto, for his part, quickly brought one of his weapons to bear, split the banshee's head in two, and watched the body crumple to the floor with a savage sense of triumph. The elder Kaiba breathed heavily, stared hatefully at the grisly wound on his arm, and moved toward his next target.
The rest of the battle went well; Jonah quickly realized that this first combat encounter wasn't meant to challenge the player, but to stress the system. Scores upon scores of the things piled into the room, but one solid strike by any weapon was enough to destroy them. Aside from Seto's rather grievous injury—he was sweating, and pale, and his flesh was already turning a rather unnatural shade—none of the others were even hurt. Not even the queen's guard, who was obviously the most flustered of the group.
As the last of the zombies fell to the floor, Seto caught his brother's eye and gestured him over. The queen, belying her earlier behavior, seemed to ignore Mokuba's existence as she started to speak to the others. Jonah focused on the next leg of the story, as much as he could, but he couldn't help but look back at Mokuba's avatar every handful of seconds.
He thought he'd never seen his friend looking quite so vulnerable, and thought it was rather cosmically hilarious that it took seeing him in a fully-grown body to remind Jonah that Mokuba Kaiba was still a little boy.
". . . Hey," Mokuba said sheepishly as he approached Seto's character. "Um . . . what's up?"
Seto raised an eyebrow. "We talked about this," he said. "I warned you, specifically told you how this scenario was going to pan out. Remember? I play an NPC until the first major combat encounter, and then . . ." Seto ran a finger across his throat.
"I didn't know you were going to let a zombie eat your arm," Mokuba protested. "I wasn't even sure if this was the campaign you've been working on. I just . . . I wasn't expecting that."
Seto gave his brother a rare smile. "I know." He lifted up his wounded arm and snapped the fingers of his opposite hand; the bite disappeared. He snapped again, and it came back. "Remember, Mokuba. It's a game. Smoke and mirrors."
Mokuba nodded. "Sure. Yeah. Okay."
"Now present yourself to the queen, Ser Pendraeg," Seto said, as he affected a sickly look and half-walked, half-limped in Meyari's direction. "The day is young."
"Hey, um . . . Niisama?"
Mokuba straightened, sheathed his sword, and said, "Next time we run through this part, could you, um . . . not look and sound so much like, you know, you?"
Seto smirked as Mokuba put an arm around his shoulders and helped him walk. "Duly noted."
Meyari turned her attention back to Mokuba as his character helped Seto's to approach the throne. She looked resigned. ". . . I'm so sorry, Sethos," she said. There was no denial in her voice, no shock. There was no real feeling at all. "We . . . we thought he was lying. We thought he was a drunken madman. A witch-fixer from the East, peddling in myths and legends."
Seto scrunched up his face; when he spoke, his voice was soft and raspy. He said, through clenched teeth, ". . . He? Of whom do you speak, my lady?"
"A traveler. He came into the city three nights ago. We caught him. desecrating coffins in the cemetery! He was . . . he was smashing them open, and burning the bodies inside. Fighting off anyone who tried to stop him, threatening them with his torch. We sent out a Sister to apprehend him, but he went with her without a fight. But he said . . . he said that the dead would rise from their long sleep. Soon. He said we would come to regret . . . not listening to him."
She stopped, looked down at her feet, and sighed.
Jonah spoke up, in his quiet rumble: "This traveler say anything else?"
Meyari shook her head. "No. He hasn't spoken since . . . since we put him in his cell."
"Is that the one you sent your guard off to find?" Rebecca asked, leaning against her staff. Meyari nodded. "Will he know what to do? Or . . . what's going on?"
"We can only hope he does."
Another guard, without the half-cape worn by the queen's personal attendants, tumbled into the throne room after a few moments of absolute silence. He gasped out: "My queen! They—they've—they're rising! They're eating people! They—!" He saw the bodies strewn about the room and vomited.
Looking suddenly terrified, Meyari looked at the party. "Please!" she pleaded. "Go, and use your talents out in my city! Help my people! I beg of you!"
"Will you go?" Seto asked, with less force to his voice but no less inherent charisma. "Will you meet unholy flesh with steel and spell? Or will you wait for this mysterious prisoner?"
Jonah growled. "Not much for waiting," he said.
Mokuba nodded. "I say we go."
The others quickly agreed.
"I'll send the traveler out to meet you," Meyari said as they left, sounding hollow.
It was hard to believe that not minutes ago, she had been laughing.
Or that she had been beautiful.
The man's thick boots made loud, offensive reports. He was haggard, dirty, and there was no missing the fact that he had spent the last few days in a cell. His long coat looked like it had once been expensive, even noble; the cloth was thick, and embroidered. But it was frayed, like the rest of him. Nonetheless, he carried himself with the gravitas of a king returning to his own court.
The man looked around at the carnage that had once been a throne room with a kind of bored intensity. His dark grey eyes set themselves upon the queen. "So. Can I trust that the charges of charlatanism and general proselytizing will be dropped, Your Ladyship?"
Meyari frowned. "What is your name, stranger?" she asked grimly.
The man swept off his limp, wide-brimmed hat and bowed with a flourish, even though his hands were still clamped in iron shackles in front of him. "Trevahn Fremont, Son of Julian, Lord of the Landing and retired First Sentry of the Father's Army. Humbly at your transcendent majesty's whim."
Trevahn straightened, and the look on his scratched and bearded face had gone far past sardonic and had become purely offensive. He looked like he thought he was the only adult in a crowd of children, gathered 'round a street magician whose tricks he had long since forgotten to enjoy.
In the presence of a queen, this man had the temerity to not only look patronizing, but legitimately insulted.
Meyari either didn't notice this (unlikely), or simply chose to ignore it.
She said, "Well, then, Lord Fremont, permit me to apologize for our . . . rashness. If you would please tell us what—what damnation is upon us, I promise you that we will listen."
Trevahn let out a loud breath. "It's quite simple, Queen Meyari. The Serpent's Prophecy is invoked. The dead will not rest easy, and never long. They haunt the living. The Four Saints have tossed up their hands and given up. We are left to our own devices, and if you want my opinion, we're probably going to die. All of us. You, me, your lovely new mercenaries."
Seto had slumped to the floor, his back against a wall. He coughed, and stared around the room like he didn't recognize where he was. His eyes had gone almost milky, and his face was gaunt. The flesh of his wounded arm was already blackening, the veins standing out in stark relief as though he'd drawn them with thick, oily ink.
Trevahn shook his head. He looked down at his shackles. He held out his arms to one of the guards. "If any of us are to survive this, you're going to want my help."
The guard looked at the queen, who nodded slowly.
Once his hands were free, Trevahn rolled his shoulders and massaged his wrists. "Now, then," he said.
He strode forward, grabbing the other guard's hooked machete as he did. Before anyone had a chance to protest, he made his way over to Seto. "Have ye a final prayer, that ye would have Our Father in Heaven hear?" he asked, invoking an ancient rite that even the queen dared not interrupt.
Seto smirked. "Thanks for nothing," he said.
Trevahn actually laughed. "Not bad, retainer. Not bad at all."
He slammed the hooked end of the blade straight into Seto's skull.
A note: I don't know if I've mentioned this previously, but Queen Meyari is the Japanese name for the young Mokuba-like queen in Seto's virtual game. I went with it because, well, I like the sound of Queen Meyari more than I do Princess Adina.
I've mentioned in another chapter of this collection that this character's young appearance was modeled after an old photo of Seto's mother, Yuki, rather than a girl version of Mokuba like Yugi and the others assume. So, her adult appearance here is more than likely modeled after the Yuki that Seto remembers. So for those who have read the "Born to be a Mama's Boy" story of the original "Good Intentions," or "Lightbringer," however you envision an adult Yuki to look, that's how Meyari looks here. Except, you know, in a medieval gown.
Also, yes, zombies. Sue me. I love them, I've loved them for years, and I've been looking for a way to write them for quite some time now. Here's hoping it worked for you all. I certainly enjoyed it.
As to Trevahn Fremont, Son of et cetera . . . well, you'll see.
'Til next time, all.