Tonight, thought Manjoume, as he scooped up a fresh glass of punch, is my night!
He circulated, smiling at the other members of the crowd, enjoying the thought that they were noticing him. And why shouldn't they? He had just carried off the tournament's grand prize. He had been in the zone - every card had been there exactly when he'd wanted it, every play had come off flawlessly. It was as though he could read his opponents' thoughts. It was rare to experience such a perfect performance, and he was planning on enjoying it for all it was worth. Today, apparently, it was worth a hefty cash prize, a trophy with his name engraved on it, and an invitation to tonight's party.
He circulated, pausing to chat for a moment with a female reporter who was writing the society column, and graciously signed some autographs for a few of the other partygoers. Anyone observing him might have guessed that the party had been thrown in his honor.
In truth, he was lucky simply to be there. The party was a celebration thrown by Pegasus in honor of his scientific team, to celebrate the unveiling of their latest interdimensional transportation machine. He had sunk a considerable share of his fortune into creating stable portals to the world of monsters, and all progress in that regard was seen as something to celebrate. Or it was possible that he just liked parties - who could tell with Pegasus? The portal generator itself was on prominent display at the far side of the room, awaiting a demonstration later that evening. Several operators, looking highly scientific in their white lab coats, were milling around it, preparing it for the big moment. Manjoume ambled over to have a better look.
"It beats waving cards around," he observed.
"It does tend to be a fraction more precise, yes," one of the scientists said. He smiled and walked over to shake Manjoume's hand. "I saw your duel on television. Well played. You've improved since your school days, I must say."
"You're not kidding. I was on fire," Manjoume boasted. "Looks like you've been keeping busy over here, in your own little way."
Misawa looked amused, but then, he was used to Manjoume. The truth was that in the last two years, while Manjoume had been winning his way through various tournaments, Misawa had been dividing his time between developing the portal at the Industrial Illusions lab and doing fieldwork in the Duel Monster worlds. Manjoume noted that he was looking more suntanned than he had during his days at Duel Academia, and had grown his hair out some, presumably because he spent most of his time in the field these days and wasn't bothering to have it cut. He also looked happier, Manjoume thought.
A commotion behind him drew his attention, and he turned to see that the host of the party was approaching, sunny smile on his face and wineglass in hand.
"Well, if it isn't our young champion!" said Pegasus pleasantly. "Beautiful dueling today, my boy. It was a joy to behold."
"Oh, ah..." said Manjoume.
"I hope you will bring us many more entertaining duels in the future," said Pegasus. "I'll be watching you."
Manjoume groped for an answer. It was odd how he could boast and brag in front of just about anyone, but Pegasus had a way of robbing people of their words by his simple existence. It might have had something to do with the lopsided way he looked out at people from behind that curtain of hair. It might have had something to do with him being one of the most influential men in the world, but Manjoume was used to dealing with powerful people, and felt that it was probably just Pegasus's general oddness.
He was saved from having to answer by the arrival of a black-suited man.
"Excuse me, sir," he said, "but there's been a slight disturbance."
"What sort of disturbance?" asked Pegasus.
"Apparently someone has been offended by your behavior at some point," said the security guard.
"Well, that does narrow down the field," said Pegasus dryly. "I'll take care of it. Pardon me, gentlemen - duty calls."
He bowed politely to Manjoume and Misawa, and hurried off to see what the guard wanted.
"What was that all about?" Manjoume wondered aloud.
Misawa shrugged. "There has been a bit of backlash over this project. Some people seem to think that we're wasting our time trying to establish contact with other worlds when we could be... oh, I don't know, curing cancer or some such thing. Not that a physicist would know anything about curing cancer, but try telling that to some people."
"It's Pegasus's money," said Manjoume. "He can spend it on whatever he wants."
"That seems to be his opinion, too," said Misawa. "Others may differ."
Manjoume continued to circulate. There was a colorful crowd there that night, since the guest list consisted primarily of whoever Pegasus found interesting at the moment. Manjoume noted a scattering of movie stars and pop idols, a wide selection of duelists, representatives from a few charities Pegasus supported, various businessmen, and a few politicians looking for hands to shake. Manjoume made small talk with a gaggle of American duelists, reflecting that none of them would have lasted long against some of his old schoolmates. Or Manjoume himself. Many of the people at the party were carrying Duel Disks, including Manjoume himself, and Pegasus had cordoned off an area for the duelists to show their skills. Manjoume was on the verge of throwing down the gauntlet and seeing who was brave enough to face him, when he noticed a pair of familiar faces. He scowled and stalked across the room.
"What are you guys doing here?" he demanded.
Chosaku gave him a lofty look. "For your information, we were invited."
"Indeed," said Shoji. "Believe it or not, we do have a little bit of pull in the world."
"Yeah, well, you can go find some other party," said Manjoume. "I don't want anyone getting the idea I'm related to you two clowns."
"But we are related," Shoji pointed out.
"That doesn't mean I want people to notice," Manjoume replied.
"Hate to break it to you, little brother," said Chosaku, "but it's not up to you who gets to come to this party. Sounds to me like some people have gotten a swelled head, just because they've won a tournament or two..."
Manjoume was preparing a cutting comeback, but was interrupted by the sound of people shouting. Normally this wouldn't have bothered him, but it sounded as though they were coming closer, and it sounded as though one of them was Pegasus. Manjoume decided to move a bit nearer to the action, and his brothers, unfortunately, appeared to have the same idea.
"...ask you to calm down," Pegasus was saying, "or I'm afraid I am going to have to be forceful with you."
"You can't tell me what to do!" the other man shouted back. His voice was high-pitched with hysteria. "You're just prejudiced against me! You just don't want me telling people the truth!"
"Trust me, if you had any truth to tell, I would be happy to let you tell it," said Pegasus. "However, I have yet to hear you say anything that even begins to qualify, so please stop disturbing my party."
"You're committing crimes against nature!" the man screamed. "Don't you understand? If you open this portal and start letting monsters into this country, they'll start taking over! And you're encouraging them! I happen to know one of your scientists is committing unspeakable acts with a beast!"
Misawa looked uncomfortable. "Here, now, that's getting a little personal."
Manjoume smirked. "I'd like to see him call Taniya that to her face. He wouldn't say it more than once."
To tell the truth, he was enjoying the spectacle. Watching other people make fools of themselves was one of life's little pleasures. As far as he was concerned, this was just enlivening an otherwise ordinary party. It would give people something to talk about.
The man continued screaming, getting increasingly agitated - probably due in part to the fact that Pegasus apparently couldn't resist needling him. Security people were already moving forward to remove the man before he could disrupt things any further. Manjoume sighed, sensing things were about to go back to normal. He began to turn away, thinking to refill his drink.
Then the man made a sudden lunge. He dove around the security guard who had been trying to grab him, barged through a group of interested onlookers. They shrieked and backed away from him, spilling their cocktails in their haste to escape. The man ignored all of them and ran straight towards the portal.
"No, don't touch it!" Misawa shouted, but the man ignored him. He rushed towards the control panel, battering aside anyone who tried to get near him. Misawa made an abortive attempt to head him off, but it was clearly already too late.
Manjoume was hardly paying attention. He had just noticed that his brothers had wandered over to where the machine stood to get a better view of the action, and were standing just a few feet away from it, watching all the commotion with expressions that suggested that this was not the kind of behavior they were accustomed to, and they were considering going someplace with more class. They were standing too close.
"Damn it!" Manjoume snarled, and went racing towards them, knocking aside a server with a tray of canapes as he ran.
"Jun, what are you doing?" Shoji snapped. "You're making a mess!"
"You guys need to move!" Manjoume shouted back. "You're too close to the machine!"
"Relax," said Chosaku, tossing off the last of his drink. "Somebody will catch him in a minute."
"You don't understand!" said Manjoume. "Do you have any idea what that thing could do?"
"Sure," said Chosaku. "It's some kind of portal. I don't see what that's got to do with..."
He never got any further. The security guards had closed in on the man and had begun dragging him away, but with a last burst of determination, he reached out and managed to yank a switch. The machine gave a warning hum, and a sudden flare of light filled the room.
"Oh, great," Manjoume said, rolling his eyes. "Here we go again."
The light level continued to grow until there was nothing to see but pure white light. Then, with the suddenness of a rubber band snapping, the room went back to normal. People stood around blinking and rubbing their eyes.
"Is everyone all right?" Misawa called.
There were murmurs from the crowd. Somewhere in the background, Pegasus's bodyguards were wrestling the perpetrator to the ground, but no one was paying much attention to that. They seemed to be more concerned with making sure they were all in one piece. Misawa was the first to notice something was wrong.
"Wait a moment," he said, mostly to himself. "Where did Manjoume go?"
No one answered. Manjoume and his brothers had disappeared.
Manjoume's first impression was that there were birds calling somewhere, and was confused. He lived in a city apartment, where there were no birds but pigeons to disturb him. For a moment, he wondered if he had somehow found his way back to Duel Academia, but that didn't explain why there seemed to be a stick poking him in the back. He thought he had better open his eyes and see what was going on.
There were trees above him. They appeared to be some sort of palm species, with leaves edged in purple. While he was still looking up at these and blinking in confusion, a pair of birds with long trailing tails flew by, calling to each other.
"What in...?" Manjoume began, and then he remembered: the portal machine, the madman, the flash of light. He sighed. "Great. Just peachy."
Still, he had been in worse situations. At least there was nothing here that wanted to kill him specifically, as far as he knew. He stirred a little, trying to remember which way his limbs were supposed to go. As he did so, he heard a groan.
"Who's there?" he called.
He got up and looked around. A few yards away, his brothers were lying sprawled across the leafy ground, looking incongruous in their expensively tailored suits. Manjoume stared at them a moment, and then looked imploringly up at the sky.
"What did I do to deserve this?" he demanded.
His only answer was another groan. Shoji pressed a hand over his face.
"Damn, what did I drink?" he muttered.
"You're not that lucky," said Manjoume. "Come on, get up! Both of you on your feet! We're in a situation here."
"Shut up," said Chosaku into the leaves.
Manjoume flipped him over with one foot.
"I said up," he said.
Shoji was already sitting up and looking around. He frowned, rubbed his eyes, and looked again. Manjoume sighed.
"Hate to break it to you, but this is real," he said. "We've gotten ourselves zapped into the Duel Monsters worlds. One of them, anyway."
"You mean we're on another planet?" asked Shoji.
Manjoume started to say it wasn't exactly like that, and then realized that he wasn't exactly sure whether that was true or not.
"Sure," he said. "Call it another planet. Might as well."
"Right, tell me another one," said Chosaku.
Manjoume glared at him. "Does this look like Earth to you? Look, maybe you missed it, but we're in the middle of a freaking jungle. We can't just call a cab and go home. This is serious."
"What are you worried about?" Chosaku scoffed. "It's not like you care what happens to us..."
"Oh, for the love of..." Manjoume muttered. "Look, ordinarily I be happy to let you two do your own thing and leave me alone, but this is different. I've been to this place before, and you two can't handle it. If you don't want to get eaten by a monster, you're going to have to stick with me and do as I say."
"Yeah? Well, fat chance of that happening," said Chosaku. He got up and dusted himself. "I wouldn't trust you if you said the sky was blue. You're just trying to frighten us, and it won't work."
"Ah, Chosaku..." said Shoji, looking around uneasily, "Jun might have a point. This place doesn't look right..."
"You're letting him get to you," said Chosaku. "I don't know how we got here, but I'm going back to civilization and then I'm going home, and you can either come with me or stay here."
He began walking away. Shoji glanced from his little brother to Chosaku and back again before reluctantly following.
"You'll be sorry!" Manjoume shouted at them.
They didn't listen. Manjoume sighed and began trudging behind them.
They were about ten yards ahead of him when there was a sudden crunching in the underbrush. The next thing any of them knew, an enormous tiger leapt out of the shrubbery and pounced on the two elder brothers, pinning them to the ground with its front paws.
"Trespassers!" it snarled. "Explain yourselves before I break your necks."
"Jun!" Shoji shouted. "Help! Get this crazy animal off of us!"
Manjoume sauntered into the clearing and sized up the situation. He looked at the tiger. The tiger looked at him.
"Oh, hey, Taniya," he said. "Long time no see."
"Hello," said the tiger. "I remember you. One of Misawa's friends. Manjoume, wasn't it?"
"That's me," he agreed. "Sorry I missed the wedding."
"Oh, don't worry. It was a small private affair."
"Gotcha," said Manjoume. "I was just talking to your husband at the party earlier. Looks like you're taking good care of him."
"Wait a minute, wait a minute," said Chosaku. "Are you telling me that Dr. Misawa is married to a tiger?"
Taniya dug her claws into his back. "Did you have something to say about that?"
"Er... only that he's obviously a discriminating gentleman with very good taste."
"I thought so," she said.
"Anyway, do you think you could let these guys go?" asked Manjoume. "As a personal favor."
"Oh, are they yours?" asked Taniya. "Are you sure you want them back? They look useless."
"They are," Manjoume agreed, "but they're family. What can I do?"
"Hm, well, I suppose you have to look out for your clan, no matter how useless they are," said Taniya.
She stepped aside, and the two men gasped as the weight of several hundred pounds of tiger was removed from their backs. While the brothers sat up and dusted themselves off, Taniya threw back her head and rose onto her hind paws. An aura of golden light surrounded her, and suddenly there was no longer a tiger, but a shapely woman. The brothers stared openly.
"I can see why he married the tiger," said Chosaku, giving Shoji a nudge.
Taniya gripped his chin and jerked it upwards.
"Eyes up here," she said.
"Don't pay any attention to them," said Manjoume. "Anyway, do you think you could put us in touch with Misawa? He's probably the only one who can tell us how to get home right now."
Taniya nodded. "I suppose it's the least I can do for an old friend." She turned to Shoji and Chosaku. "You two follow and stay out of trouble. Don't wander off."
"Do I look crazy to you?" asked Shoji. He was already looking around nervously, as if expecting more tigers to manifest. "I'm not going anywhere alone!"
Chosaku gave a vague grunt, but he obviously realized that he was not going to get out of this situation on his own. He fell into step behind Taniya and the others as she led the way through the forest. Manjoume was rather pleased to note that his brothers were having difficulty navigating through the foliage. They were dressed in their party best, right down to their expensive Italian shoes, which were not at all meant for walking any distance on rough ground. Manjoume was wearing the same comfortable shoes and tattered black jacket that he wore everywhere and wasn't worried about getting it any more dirty and threadbare than it already was, so he simply barged through whatever was in his way while his brothers tried to avoid snagging themselves on anything.
After they had covered some distance, they eventually came to a wide clearing, which was dominated by a tree stump the size of a three storey building at its center. Someone had come along at some point and hollowed it out, adding a door and several windows. Manjoume could see a thin wisp of smoke trailing out of a chimney. A small patch of ground had been cleared off to one side, and a garden full of neatly tended vegetables grew there.
"The garden is Misawa's," said Taniya conversationally, as she ushered them inside. "He says it gives him something to do with his hands besides write on the walls. You should hear him, lecturing the runner beans on physics. We must have the most educated vegetables in the world."
Manjoume snorted. "I can imagine."
The inside of the house was sparse but comfortable. The front door opened into a sitting area with a large fireplace and a few wooden chairs and large cushions arranged around it, with the skin of some large shaggy animal providing a rug. Beyond that was a kitchen with a potbellied stove and bunches of fragrant herbs hanging from the ceiling. Taniya led them past all that to a staircase leading up to the second floor. From there, she escorted them down a narrow hallway and through a door at the end.
"This is Misawa's workroom," she said. "I don't go in here very often, but there's a machine I'm supposed to use to call him if I need him..."
There were machines. They looked out of place amid the wooden ambiance of the hollow tree. They were piled everywhere, haphazardly, trailing wires and bits of circuitry, as though begun and then forgotten. What wasn't covered in machine parts was strewn with papers covered in arcane-looking equations. Manjoume wasn't surprised to see that there were equations on the walls as well.
"He hasn't changed a bit," he said.
"Ah, here it is," said Taniya.
She pulled out something that looked like an old-fashioned radio, one that had been somewhat inexpertly repaired. She unfolded a complex weblike structure, which seemed to be some sort of antenna, and twiddled some knobs. The machine gave off a spurt of static. She twitched a different knob until the static subsided, and then pressed a button, prompting the machine to give off a gentle hum. Then there was an abrupt click.
"Hello?" said Misawa's voice, echoing tinnily.
"Oh, good it works," said Taniya.
"Ah, Taniya. It's good to hear your voice," said Misawa, "but I've got a bit of a situation on my hands at the moment. I trust this is important?"
"I think so. Are you missing some humans?" she replied.
"As a matter of fact, I am. Three of them, to be precise. Have you found them, then?"
"It looks that way," said Taniya.
"Well, thank heavens for that. I was worried," Misawa replied, relief clear in his voice. "Is Manjoume with you? Can you put him on the line?"
"I'm here," said Manjoume. "I hope you're working on a way to get us back home!"
"Ah, yes, about that," said Misawa. "Whatever that fellow did to set the machine off, he didn't do it very well. None of the security measures were in place, and when he threw the switch, it caused a power surge. Half our systems are completely shut down."
"So, what does that mean?" asked Manjoume, feeling his stomach sink.
"The good news is, not everything is completely non-operational," said Misawa. "The bad news is, the rig I use to transport from where you are now is only a very small system, and it can't provide enough power on its own to safely send someone. The machines on this end of things will have to be repaired before it can be used."
"And how long is that going to take?" Chosaku demanded.
"Judging by what we know of the damage at the moment, I'd say... about two weeks."
"Two weeks?" Shoji yelped. "I can't stay here two weeks! I've got a business to run."
"Settle down and let me finish," said Misawa patiently. "My home rig isn't powerful enough to bring you home, but it's not the only rig I have set up. Before I built that one, I had another system at a place called Tempest Top, and it's much more powerful because it has its own generator. I haven't used it in months, but it's probably still there and still functioning."
"Tempest Top is about three days' walk from here," Taniya explained. "I haven't patrolled that way recently, but I don't think there should be too many monsters in that direction - nothing you can't handle, at least."
"Three days," Chosaku muttered. "Well, it's better than two weeks..."
"If you make good time, yes," said Misawa. "There's a communicator set up there that you can use to call me, and I'll explain how to set up the transportation system on your end. If I haven't heard from you in five days, I'll send for help." He was quiet for a moment. "I suppose if worst comes to worst, we could always try to get hold of Juudai..."
"I'm not calling him," said Manjoume. "Not unless it's a choice between that and the world coming to an end."
"Suit yourself," said Misawa. "Taniya will be able to give you directions to Tempest Top. I'll be doing everything I can on my end to be ready when you get there."
"We'll make it," Manjoume promised.
After he had signed off, Taniya chased them all downstairs again. She ordered them to sit down in the sitting area, which they did with some relief - it had been a bit of a trek to get this far, and all of them were glad to have a chance to rest their feet. While they were relaxing, Taniya rattled around in the kitchen. After a few minutes, she reappeared carrying a canvas bag, which contained several mysterious bulges.
"Here," she said, plunking it in front of Manjoume. "This is the best I can do for you. There's enough food here to last you for three days if you don't waste it, and some supplies you might need. You can return the bag to Misawa when you get home."
"Thanks," said Manjoume, sincerely. It meant something when someone gave you enough food to last three people for three days, when she was obviously living on what she could hunt or harvest.
"You'll need this, too," she said, and spread a roll of paper on the coffee table in front of him. He leaned forward get a better look. Taniya had sketched a rough map, with the tree stump marked in the bottom corner and Tempest Top inked in red near the top.
"Here is where we are now," she said, pointing. "You walk north until you come to the river, and follow it upstream. Eventually you'll come to a place where the river widens, and you'll see an island in the middle. When you reach that, turn and head west and you'll come to a road. Just keep following that to the northwest. It will take you to a village where you can buy or barter for more supplies, if you need them. From there, just keep following the road until you come to a fork, and take the rightmost path. You should be able to see Tempest Top after you've followed that for a while. It's the tallest hill in the range, and there's a big watchtower on top. You can't miss it."
Manjoume nodded and rolled up the map, tucking it into the bag with the supplies.
"Guess we'd better hit the road," he said, shouldering the bag. "Come on, you two. Let's make tracks."
"I'm not going anywhere yet," said Chosaku. "We just got here!"
"And now we're leaving," said Manjoume.
"Oh, it's all right," said Taniya, winking at him. "If they want to stay here, I'm sure I can find work for them to do. With Misawa at the lab, someone is going to have to weed the garden. Oh, and I have a lot of pelts that need scraping, and the chimney is going to need cleaning again soon..."
"We're going, we're going!" said Shoji. He leapt to his feet and dragged Chosaku after him.
"I had a feeling," said Taniya, visibly amused. "If you want my advice... stick together, don't stray away from the route I showed you, and keep your cards handy. Other than that, you're on your own."
Manjoume dragged his brothers out of the house, and, after a final goodbye to their erstwhile hostess, herded them away in the direction of the river. He tried to ignore their grumbling.
"Three days. I can't believe it," Shoji was complaining. "Do you know how much can happen in three days?"
"I have an important dinner meeting tomorrow," Chosaku groused.
"Yeah, well, I have work too, you know," said Manjoume. "My agent is going to kill me for this. Not to mention what my sponsors are going to do..."
"Hmph. You can play it off," said Chosaku. "The great duelist Manjoume Thunder, battling monsters in the other world. Your fans will love it."
Manjoume gave him a look. "You're a politician through and through."
"So what else is new?" Chosaku replied.
There was a small puff of smoke by Manjoume's ear, and something appeared next to him. His elder brothers jumped in surprise, but Manjoume didn't even flinch. He was used to it by now.
"Oh, boy, oh, boy," said Ojama Yellow, dancing in excitement. "This is going to be great! A band of brothers off on a whirlwind adventure!"
"What the hell is that?" Chosaku exclaimed.
"It's... an Ojama," said Shoji, leaning forward for a better look. "I think it's real."
Manjoume rolled his eyes. "No, genius, it's a figment of your imagination. We're in the monster world, remember? So you're going to see monsters!"
"Well, make it go away!" said Chosaku.
"No can do," said Manjoume. "Believe me, I've tried. Sorry, the Ojamas go where I go, and that's all there is to it."
"Aw, we love you too," said Ojama Yellow.
"Wait, wait, hold it," said Shoji. "You're acting like these things follow you around on a regular basis."
"I've never seen them before," said Shoji.
"You wouldn't," said Manjoume. "Not everybody can see them. At least, not in our world."
"Now you're just talking nonsense," Chosaku scoffed.
Manjoume scowled. On the one hand, it was embarrassing having to discuss his relationship with the Ojamas in front of his brothers (all three of the little monsters were there now, hovering over his shoulders to hear what he'd say about them), but on the other hand, he didn't want them thinking he was completely off his rocker, either.
"Look," he said. "It's like... there's our world, and then there's this place."
"Obviously," said Shoji.
"Right. And then there's the cards. They're like windows between the two worlds, and sometimes a monster gets through to our side. Only in our place, they're just spirits, so not everybody can see them."
"But you can," said Chosaku, doubtfully.
"It's a gift," said Manjoume, raising his chin a little. "Or a curse. It just so happens I'm good at it. Juudai can do it too. And Johan Anderson, and Fujiwara Yusuke. Oh, and Maeda Hayato - he works for Industrial Illusions now. Probably some other people I don't know. It's a real thing - ask around."
"So, what, you're some kind of psychic or something?" asked Shoji.
"No, it's more like... You know, just forget it," said Manjoume. "You never listen to me anyway."
"You're talking about seeing invisible monsters," said Chosaku.
Manjoume simply pointed to the creatures hovering over his shoulder, who were watching the exchange like spectators at a tennis match. Chosaku scowled and turned his attention to the ground in front of him.
A few moments later, Shoji nudged Manjoume in the ribs.
"Where can I get an invisible monster?" he whispered.
Manjoume was so surprised that for a moment, all he could do was stare.
"They aren't worth the bother," he said. "But if one wants you, it will find you."
They trudged in silence for a while. They were walking through forest, but it wasn't dense here, and plenty of sunshine was slanting down on them as they walked. It was odd to be traveling in broad daylight when it had been night not long ago, at least where Manjoume had been last. Thankfully, he was used to keeping odd hours, what with all the traveling he was obligated to do as a duelist. He wondered if his big brothers were up to spending a whole day walking after they had already been up all day. He suspected they weren't.
"So," said Chosaku, after some time had passed, "explain to me one thing."
"What?" asked Manjoume warily.
"Explain to me how a noted scientist ended up married to a tiger."
"It's a long story, and you probably wouldn't believe it anyway."
Chosaku turned to scowl at him. "I'm stranded in a jungle. I just got done talking to a woman who turns into a giant cat. There are little googly-eyed monsters following us around. I think I can suspend my disbelief just a little. And apparently I have a three-day hike ahead of me, so I don't care what you tell me, as long as it's interesting enough to take my mind off my aching feet."
"Fine, then," said Manjoume. He paused a moment, gathering his thoughts. "Okay, Duel Academia is built over this chamber, and there are these cards sealed inside, and if they ever get used, it's a really, really bad thing. But there was this crazy old guy who wanted to use them anyway, so..."
He trudged along, relating the story as best he could remember it. He played down the business about swiping the keys to get Asuka to duel with him, but otherwise kept the story as accurate as possible. It was amazing, really: his brothers listened and didn't interrupt him, except to ask the occasional question. Possibly it was only because they were too tired from all the hiking they were doing (they certainly did sound out of breath), but it was still a novel experience to have their undivided attention.
I could get used to this, he thought.
As the sun began to redden with the onset of evening, Chosaku threw himself down onto the ground.
"That's it," he said. "I can't go another step."
Shoji sighed and leaned heavily against a tree, letting himself slump into a heap. "You can say that again."
"You guys are amateurs," said Manjoume.
Truth be told, he was feeling a bit run down himself, but he wasn't going to admit that now. Instead, he crouched down and let the pack he'd been carrying slide off his shoulders. He hadn't actually taken the time to see what Taniya had given them before, so now he opened the bag to see what was inside. A quick investigation showed that she had been quite generous. There was a packet of smoked meat, some kind of flat bread, a bundle of potato-like vegetables, and some dried fruit, as well as a bottle of herbed oil to soften the bread and meat. She'd also given them a small but sharp knife, a little cooking pot, a flint and a piece of steel, a compass, a length of rope, some strong twine and few fish-hooks. He made a mental note to send her something very nice as a thank-you as soon as he got back.
"Big Brother, I'm hungry!" Ojama Yellow whined.
"I'm hungry too!" Ojama Green chimed in.
"Me three!" Ojama Black agreed.
"All right, all right! We'll eat something," said Manjoume.
Chosaku gave him a glare. "You aren't thinking of giving our food to those things, were you?"
"You weren't thinking of not sharing with them, were you?" Manjoume retorted, an edge of danger in his voice.
"We only have enough food for the three of us," Shoji, always the economical one, pointed out. "And that's assuming we make it to Tempest Top in three days. We can't afford to be feeding them, too. They're natives here - they should know how to find their own food."
"Actually, we've never been to this part of the world before," said Ojama Black helpfully.
"There, you see?" said Manjoume. "Anyway, it's not your decision, it's mine, and I say they get a share."
"Who says it's your decision?" Chosaku snapped. "In case you've forgotten, I am the head of this family and I make the decisions around here!"
"Screw that!" said Manjoume. "You don't tell me what to do! I've got my own life and you're not part of it. Do you understand? Or do you want me to say it slower so it'll sink into your thick head?"
"Don't you talk to me like that!" Chosaku shouted.
"I'll talk to you however the hell I want! It's not like you give me any respect."
"Well, maybe you don't deserve any!"
"As if! Are you forgetting I'm the one who's keeping you safe in this crazy place? If it weren't for me, you'd be tiger food by now. I ought to just walk off and leave you two to fend for yourself for a while. Then maybe you'd be grateful for my help, if there's anything left of you by the time I get back."
"And how much of us is going to be left if you feed all our food to those little monsters?" Shoji demanded.
"You won't starve to death in three days!" Manjoume snapped. "And frankly, these monsters have done me more good than you two slobs have ever done, so if you two have to starve for them then I don't care."
"That's no way to talk to your family," said Chosaku.
"If you two were family, maybe I'd talk to you better," said Manjoume, turning his back on them. "But you two disowned me, remember? So you don't have any right to tell me anything. Come on, guys," he said to the Ojamas. "Let's go look for some firewood."
"Don't you turn your back on me!" Chosaku shouted after him.
"Let him go," said Shoji. "We're not going to get anywhere if we start trying to throttle each other now."
If Manjoume had been in a more forgiving mood, he might have been grateful to Shoji for that mild show of support. As it was, he stomped off into the forest, ignoring the Ojamas hovering worriedly behind him. He could hear Chosaku complaining, but at least now he was complaining to Shoji instead.
"You know, we really don't eat that much," said Ojama Green.
"Don't worry about it," Manjoume muttered. "Those guys are just being jerks. I ought to just walk off and leave them to fend for themselves. It's not like they like me."
"But they're your brothers!" Ojama Yellow protested.
"Yeah, well, just because I'm related to them doesn't mean I have to like them," said Manjoume. He began gathering up an armload of dry sticks. "They were okay when we were all kids... Then they grew up and got jobs and got all stuffy."
He finished gathering up all the wood he could carry and retraced his steps back to their makeshift campsite. His brothers appeared to have gotten bored waiting for him, or were too exhausted to care one way or the other; they were lying still with their eyes closed. Manjoume thought they were both asleep, but when he started setting up the campfire, Shoji opened his eyes and watched him silently. Manjoume ignored him. He swept an area of ground clear of leaves and twigs, and laid down some stones in a rough circle. In the center of the ring, he piled some dry grasses and crumpled leaves, along with a bit of fluff he'd scooped from the bottom of his pockets. He used the flint and steel to send a few sparks into the pile and blew on it gently until it began to flame, and then began feeding it twigs.
"I didn't know you knew how to do that," Shoji remarked.
"I picked it up at North School," said Manjoume. "It's cold up there. Knowing how to build a fire is useful." He fed a few more twigs to the fire, and decided that it was burning well enough to pile some thicker sticks on. He arranged them carefully, avoiding meeting his brother's eyes.
"You're serious about protecting those little monsters, aren't you?" asked Shoji.
"Oh, so you're finally catching on."
Shoji shrugged. "If we have to, we can probably buy more supplies when we get to the village."
"So suddenly you're on my side?" asked Manjoume suspiciously.
"I'm just being rational. You said it yourself - we aren't going to starve in three days. And frankly, I'm too tired to fight over it."
Shoji glanced over at his older brother, who had begun to snore softly, before turning back to Manjoume.
"Don't be too hard on Chosaku," he said. "He hates not knowing what to do."
"That explains why he's cranky all the time."
"Listen to you. You think you're so special," Shoji scoffed. "Manjoume Thunder, pro duelist, hero to the masses. Did you ever stop to think that you're not easy to get along with yourself? Face it, you're a spoiled brat."
"Who are you calling a spoiled brat?" asked Manjoume indignantly. "Do you have any idea what I've been through while you've been sitting on your butt counting your money?"
"It doesn't matter what you've been through. You're still a spoiled brat. Everything is all about you, you, you. You've never once stopped to think about our feelings."
"You kicked me out. You called me a disgrace. Why should I give you any sympathy?"
"Maybe because you made fools of us in front of millions of people? Maybe because you could have won that stupid duel if you had just listened to us? Maybe because thanks to you, our group has broken up?"
"I wasn't the one who told you to get lost."
"You as good as said it when you stopped listening to us," said Shoji. "Why couldn't you have just done like we told you? Then everything would be all right..."
"I just found something different, that's all," said Manjoume.
"Was it more important than your family?"
Manjoume glared. "Look, it's not about something being more important. I've just got my own way of doing things."
"Why do you have to do it that way?" asked Shoji, sounding close to whining.
"Because it's my way," Manjoume replied. "It's my way, and I have to do it that way because no other way is going to work."
"Couldn't you at least make an effort?"
Manjoume glared. "What do you care?"
"We used to be friends, Jun. We still could be. Chosaku would be willing to let bygones be bygones if you'd just show a little more willingness to cooperate."
"Some things are not negotiable," said Manjoume. He stood up and dusted himself off. "I don't know about you, but I'm getting something to eat... and so are they!" he added, pointing at the Ojamas.
"Have it your way," said Shoji.
They shared a meager meal. The food was good, what little Manjoume allowed them to have, particularly after it had been warmed over the fire. He made sure his Ojamas had all they wanted, while watching out of the corner of his eye as his big brothers bolted their meager shares. As they ate, the sun sank out of sight and plunged the forest into darkness. The thick canopy of leaves above their heads did not let even a shred of moonlight pass. The only point of light in the forest was their campfire.
"I guess we'd better get some sleep," said Manjoume. "Either of you two want to take first watch?"
"Watch?" repeated Shoji.
"Yeah. To make sure nothing comes out of the forest and eats us while we sleep," said Manjoume.
"What would we do if something did come to eat us?" asked Chosaku with a slight sneer. "Ask it politely to leave us alone?"
"I don't know what you would do," said Manjoume. "I'd summon a monster and kick the crap out of it. You can do that in this world." He tapped his Duel Disk significantly.
"You just play the card and it comes to life?" asked Choskau, showing a flicker of interest.
"You catch on quick," Manjoume retorted.
"Fine. I'll take first watch, then. Loan me your Disk," said Chosaku.
Manjoume stared at him, taken by surprise. "What are you going to put in it?"
"This," said Chosaku. He reached into his pocket and took out a deck of cards; Manjoume recognized them as the jewel dragons that his brothers had offered him once before - the same ones Chosaku had used when Manjoume had dueled him for the school. "You didn't want it, so I kept it."
"Why are you carrying it around?" asked Manjoume.
"I was just at a party hosted by the inventor of Duel Monsters. Do you know what a card with his signature is worth?"
"Right. Should have known," Manjoume said.
On the other hand, he was tired, and Chosaku was the only one of them who had gotten any sleep, and the monsters in that deck should be strong enough to handle anything that came their way. Taniya had said they weren't likely to run into anything too dangerous, after all. Besides, if something bad did happen, the screaming would probably wake Manjoume up in time to do something about it.
"Okay, then," he said, placing his Disk in his brother's hands. "But don't do anything stupid. And don't let the fire go out."
Chosaku looked like he might say something in response, but instead he simply nodded and locked the Disk in place, slotting his cards into it. Manjoume couldn't help but notice that his movements were clumsy compared to the practiced motions he saw in the people he dueled, but he didn't say anything about it. Instead, he stretched out on the ground and tugged his jacket around him. The air had been sultry all day, but now that the sun was down, it was growing rapidly cooler. He ignored the Ojamas as they snuggled down alongside him. They may not have been the most impressive of companions, but they were keeping his back warm, and that was worth something. On the other side of the fire, Shoji stretched out and attempted to make himself comfortable.
"This suit isn't going to be fit to wear after this," he muttered.
"Buy a new suit," said Manjoume. "You can afford it."
"Is this why you always wear that ridiculous black jacket?" Shoji asked.
"I like my jacket. It's comfortable," Manjoume replied. "It's practical. It doesn't show stains."
"Since when do you worry about that?"
"Since I started living in Osiris Red," said Manjoume, "and had to do my own laundry."
"That would explain the smell."
Manjoume decided not to dignify that remark with an explanation. Instead, he rolled over on his back, scattering Ojamas, and stared up at the leafy canopy. The only sounds were the crackle of the fire, the chirping of some sort of night creatures, and the steady trudge of Chosaku walking around and around the campsite.
Keeping away monsters, he thought drowsily. That had been a long time ago, when he had been a little boy and still convinced that there were Things living in his closet and under his bed. He'd lived in a big house, after all, and he had a big closet and a big bed. You could hide some scary monsters in there. Of course, now he was grown up and well aware that the monsters under his bed and in his closet were pretty harmless, but it had been different when he was young and his parents were rarely around. Back then, there had been no one but his big brother to run to. And every time, Chosaku would roll his eyes and set his homework aside and shine a flashlight into the dark places to show him that there were definitely no monsters...
Somewhere in the midst of these memories, Manjoume fell asleep with the sound of his brother's footsteps beating a rhythmic pulse in the background.
To Be Continued...