In Dante's Divine Comedy, part of the inscription on the entrance to Hell read "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here".

It may have well said same the thing on the Thousand Year Door… Very little hope remained for those inside it. Most of the folks there were prisoners, including its dark mistress. Should she escape, hope would likely be extinguished in most everyone else in Arcadia.

Still, a small measure of hope does exist outside the Palace of Shadow… Especially now…

It's all come full circle, and the time has arrived…

BOOK TWO

0000000000

DUEL THIRTY-SIX

0000000000

The Dark Door

0000000000

00000

Midnight.

The first level of the Shadow Queen's prison was likely the least harsh. Prisoners here were only restrained, and were not tortured. The Shadow Queen often kept them in line with threats that they'd be moved to a lower level if they didn't behave.

The demonic jailers here considered guarding the prisoners a mind-numbingly boring job. No prisoner had ever managed to escape from here, and simply watching them was about as interesting to them as watching paint dry. However, the Queen had threatened them with a situation worse than the prisoners on the fifth level if they hurt anyone they were responsible for, so they could only hope for promotion to one of the lower levels, where the guards had a far more satisfying – to a demon's standards – job.

This was where the six Shadow Spawn were, still in their cell, still chained to the wall.

All of them but Vladimir were asleep, their dreams full of unsettling nightmares (those threats that the Queen used to keep the other prisoners in line applied to them too). Vladimir was trying his hardest to sleep too…

Then he heard something… A soft voice calling his name…

He opened his eyes, and saw someone walk into the cell… The same strange man who had met Merlow on the road.

This didn't make sense… This man was clearly not one of his mother's jailers or anyone else who was authorized to be here… The thought that someone could have gotten in here unauthorized made even less sense.

He looked around. There were no actual jailers around.

Likely sleeping on the job… he thought.

"Hello, Vladimir…" said the man.

"Who are you?" asked the Shadow Spawn of Darkness.

"An enemy of your mother," he replied, "but that doesn't mean you and I have to be foes…"

The man took a single Duel Monsters card out of his cloak. He looked at it, and then placed it in Vladimir's inner jacket pocket.

"What…" said Vladimir.

"We'll get a chance to talk later…" said the man. "I assure you, I'll explain when I have the chance… I simply don't have the chance now…"

Then he simply vanished into a wisp of dark smoke.

Then a very familiar voice shouted "WAKE UP!"

All of the siblings woke up with a start as their mother entered the cell.

"M-mom…" said Melissa.

"Quiet!" ordered the Shadow Queen.

She took a key from her dress, and quickly unlocked the chains holding her. Melissa slumped to the ground and let out a cry of pain as the circulation rushed back through her limbs.

"You're letting us go?" asked Kurtis, as she started to free him too.

"Sure looks that way, doesn't it?" she replied.

Once she had released all of them, she looked at the six of them and crossed her arms.

"Stan, Andy, and Francesca will be here soon…" she said. "I need my best servants in top form… So you all get a second chance… Be glad I'm giving you one…

"Go and get some proper sleep… And try to dream of success…"

They all sighed, and walked out of the cell. Vladimir took the card out of his pocket and looked at it strangely…

0000000000

One AM.

Below Rogueport were the sewers… An extensive system built in the late Nineteenth Century, quite a marvel of engineering for a time when even the flush toilet was new. These old drainage systems carried waste through sewage lines and eventually deposited it into the ocean.

These cavernous passageways were dark and foreboding. It was rare that anyone ever came down here; usually the only folks that did were the workers who came when there was a problem with the sewage lines that needed to be addressed, and even then, they tended to do their jobs quickly and leave as soon as possible. Folks couldn't shake the feeling that something unpleasant was living in these very old tunnels.

Through one of the old tunnels, a lone figure cautiously walked, using a flashlight to guide his way.

He found his goal quickly, an unassuming metal door. He knocked on it once.

A small slot opened and two eyes peered out.

"Glory to Queen Morwel," he said.

There was a click, and the door opened. The doorman – Rawk Hawk, actually, not as identifiable due to the fact that he was wearing a t-shirt and jeans instead of his wrestling costume – let the figure into a lighted room, where it was now obvious that he was Tutankoopa.

He quickly walked to another room where many other people were already gathered: Pennington, Jolene, Ivan, Mad Jack, and General White, among others.

"I'm here folks," he said. "We can…"

Then he let out a cry of shock. He looked at the one who had startled him, the Shy Guy General.

"Must you always wear that stupid mask?" he snapped. "How do I know you're not making a face at me under it?"

"Focus people…" said Jolene. "If we're discovered, our goose is as good as cooked!"

"You're the one who put Rawk in charge of guarding the door," said Mad Jack. "He's not the sharpest tool in the bin… Heck, Vladimir could likely bluff his way by that lug if his only disguise was a gag nose and glasses!"

"Calm down, Jack," said Jolene. "Rawk has no more reason to rat on us than anyone else here, and he promised me ten times that he wouldn't even let his own mother in if she didn't know the password, and even if one of the Queen's servants knew it, he'd never dare say it."

"So are we all here?" asked White.

"Captain Syrup won't be coming," sighed Pennington. "She sent an RSVP wishing us good luck, but saying that she won't risk coming here anymore."

"I don't blame her…" muttered Ivan. "After what happened three weeks ago in Keelhaul Key, I heard that the bounty on her head has doubled."

"So all the regulars are here except Merlow," continued Pennington. "But he called to say he was going to be late and to start without him. But I think someone new is coming."

Then they heard the door close again. Another man walked in. It was Hyde.

"Well, I got here, people…" he said. "Despite the fact that I had no idea why I was invited…"

He looked around.

"And I have to say that when I was told that this was some sort of meeting of insurrection leaders, I had expected a more impressive-looking group…"

"You aren't the first one to say that," said Pennington. "The fact remains that a vital opportunity has arisen.

"The eight finalists are heading for the Thousand Year Door soon, and among them are the three that truly count. The Shadow Queen will likely be far too preoccupied with the matters inside the Palace of Shadow to give much attention to the matters on the outside…"

"We're going to need more than a few volunteers to make a difference," said Ivan. "We're going to need an army. And in that we're sadly lacking."

Everyone looked at White. He sighed.

"People, as I've said before," he said. "I probably still have enough clout in the Arcadian Guard to convince the current leadership to turn against the Shadow Queen if they were assured that she could be beaten…

"The thing is, the Arcadian Guard is a symbolic army at best… You ever hear the old joke about how Imperial Stormtroopers likely all flunked basic marksmanship? The soldiers in the Arcadian Guard rarely even take it.

"The only people in the Guard with any actual military experience in recent years have been me and, at most, five other officers. Arcadia has never had a real army ever since the…"

He shuddered.

"…Company of Malice was banished… Those guys were for offensive maneuvers only, and the Queen has… other ways to defend this place.

"To give an example… During the second World War, Hitler sent some people along with a regiment of troops to 'appraise' the art collections and relics of Arcadia, as they did with many small countries during that time…

"Berlin didn't hear from them until three months later on Christmas, when the Shadow Queen sent the commander's head back to the Führer in a gift-wrapped package, with a holiday greeting and a not-too-subtle hint that she didn't take kindly to thieves. After that, the Third Reich decided to put all projects involving Arcadia on hold."

"If it's an army you need, General White, then we'll have to build one," said a voice.

Merlow walked into the room. A bandage was on his forehead, and he looked a little fatigued, but he seemed otherwise okay.

"Merlow, what…" said Mad Jack.

"Never you mind!" replied Merlow. "We have more important things to discuss…

"As I said, if it's an army you need, then we'll have to recruit one, and that's why I invited Mr. Vayne…"

"ME?" gasped Hyde.

"With the eight Crystal Stars claimed, the Queen has no use for the remaining contestants of the Thousand Year Door Tournament," said Merlow. "Very soon, her Duel Spirit minions will begin hunting them for sport. Her officials have already conveniently 'lost' all documents that prove they came here to begin with in case anyone asks about them, so it's safe to assume that she's burning all her bridges at this point.

"They have one advantage… Duel Spirits traditionally use Duel Monsters as a form of combat, but the downside is, they often play for terrible stakes. Alone, the duelists on Arcadia will eventually be overwhelmed… But if we unite them together, we will have an army that stands a chance of bringing Arcadia under our control while the Queen is preoccupied with what happens inside her Palace…

"They're scattered over Arcadia, but getting the message to them all will be easier if I had help…"

Hyde looked at him.

"I'm gonna need a vacation to recover from this vacation…" he said with a sigh.

0000000000

Andy woke up.

He didn't quite remember falling asleep, nor did he recognize the room he was in.

The Ruby Star was on his bedside table. He picked it up. He vaguely remembered Jolene giving it to him.

"Where am I?" he asked.

"Rogueport," said Merlow's voice.

Andy looked up, and saw the old man sitting in a chair on the other side of the room.

"Tell me, Mr. Markova…" he said. "How committed are you to going through with this?"

"Completely…" replied Andy.

Merlow nodded.

"Stan and Francesca said the same thing…" he said. "Once you meet up with them, the innkeeper downstairs will tell you where to go…

"It's time you learned more about what you're up against…"

He got up, and walked out the door.

0000000000

"So, uh…" said Stan, as they walked down the street, "what do you think Merlow means by 'more about what we're up against'?"

"Beats me…" sighed Andy. "Why is it that fonts of great wisdom never just come out and tell you the answer? Why do they always have to hide the meaning behind riddles and vague stories?"

"Maybe it's their way of encouraging you to learn on your own…" said Francesca.

They came to the address that the innkeeper had directed them to.

"This…" said Andy. "This is a card store!"

Slowly they opened the door, causing a small bell to ring. As they walked in, a smiling, blonde-haired teenager was behind the counter.

"Uh, hi…" said Andy. "Uh… Merlow sent us…"

The girl's expression quickly turned serious.

"I see…" she said. "Does this Merlow have a card that he's overly fond of?"

"You mean Noble Knight Artorigus?" asked Francesca.

The teenager nodded. She opened a door behind her.

"Just checking," she said. "Follow me…"

Not knowing what else to do, they followed her through the door, which led down a staircase into a basement. Classical music was playing, and the smell of cigarette smoke was in the air.

"Grandma?" said the girl. "Some folks came… Merlow sent them…"

An old woman dressed in an old-fashioned grey dress was sitting on an armchair, listening to a radio. She looked at them, and then took a drag on a cigarette. She coughed slightly.

"I see…" she said. "You can go, Cleo…"

The young girl walked back up the stairs as the old woman looked at them strangely.

"Merlow sent you?" she said with a tired voice. "Then I guess you came to hear the truth about the Shadow Queen..."

"Uhm, I suppose so, Ms..." said Stan.

"Call me Rudwilla," she replied.

Again, she took a drag on the cigarette, and then coughed again. She turned off the radio.

"Ma'am, you really shouldn't smoke..." said Francesca.

"Young lady..." said Rudwilla, "the knowledge I'm about to share could cause me to suffer a far more horrid fate than any that smoking could do.

"You want to hear the truth about the Shadow Queen? If you don't fear knives in the dark, then listen well..."

She paused, possibly waiting to see if they would stay or leave. They clearly weren't going to leave, so she crushed out the cigarette in an ashtray, and went on.

"So many people think that the Shadow Queen simply appeared one day out of a flaming crack that led to Hell," she began, "that she was born evil and was unleashed on the unsuspecting world with murder on her mind…

"No one is ever evil for no reason… Some have poor reasons, some have reasons that make little sense, but no-one ever has no reason…

"It was long, long ago... Eleven-hundred years ago, give or take… It started with three siblings and a city whose name has been forgotten... The oldest of the siblings was a girl named Iris, who was no older than you three, and her two younger brothers were named Seth and Lars. They were refugees fleeing from a bloody revolution that had thrown their home into chaos and killed their parents. They arrived in a new land, in this city, starving, malnourished, and with nothing but the moldering clothes on their backs.

"They found little sympathy in this place… The city had been having problems with refugees for a while, and didn't want any more. Trying to beg for food only got them cold glares at best, and even the hospice turned them away.

"Out of desperation, Seth broke into the city's chapel and stole its holy relics, but was caught by the town guard trying to fence them.

"There was no doubt of his guilt, and the magistrate that he was brought before was now in quite a bind. He knew it was Seth's first offense, and he also knew that the siblings were starving. He also knew that they weren't really criminals, just victims of circumstance. But on the other hand, sacrilege was serious in those days, and the populace demanded justice.

"In the end, he chose clemency, and rather than have Seth flogged or worse, sentenced him to one week of hard labor at the House of Punishment. But even this lenient sentence proved too much for Seth's poor health. He died the first night.

"Iris was heartbroken, but the worst was yet to come.

"Some called it fate, a few even called it divine retribution. Most called it a tragedy, but it was nothing compared to what happened when Iris and Lars came to collect Seth's body. Something spooked the draft horse hitched to the wagon holding his coffin. The horse bolted down the road, dragging half the broken wagon behind. Iris managed to jump clear in time, but Lars wasn't so lucky.

"The witnesses could only watch with horror as he was dragged behind and torn apart. It wasn't quick… Only the cruelest would have wished such a fate on anybody…

"Iris's grief turned to rage. It had all been an accident, but she didn't see it that way. She turned to the assembled townsfolk and cursed them, accusing them of having killed her brothers on purpose. Nothing they said could convince her otherwise, not even the now-sympathetic words of the deacon from the chapel that Seth had robbed.

"Iris fled into the forests surrounding the city... And that was the last they saw of her...

"...at least as a human..."

"She became the Shadow Queen, didn't she?" said Andy, gravely.

"The Shadow Queen has never called herself by the name Iris," said Rudwilla. "But one year later, to the day, the Shadow Queen first appeared, leading an army of demons. She didn't even call herself the Shadow Queen at that point... That would come later. But that city was her first target.

"She slaughtered every man, woman, and child... All but one...

"The one survivor was a fifteen-year-old girl named Basil. She hid in a garbage bin, and miraculously went unnoticed. At one point, she dared to peak from her hiding place and saw the commander of the dark army. At first, she had no idea who this wicked sorceress was...

"But then, the clouds parted and the light of the moon shone... For one brief instant, Basil saw the woman in just the right light, at a certain angle... And her resemblance to the refugee who had cursed the city for the loss of her brothers could not be denied..."

Rudwilla paused for a minute. Then she went on.

"Basil had no idea how the starving beggar had become a powerful dark sorceress, but there was no way to find out. She was a smart girl, and realized her life was in danger. She knew that Iris' thirst for revenge would likely not be slaked until every citizen lay dead.

"So when the coast was clear, she ran, and ran for three days nonstop. Exhaustion forced her to stop at a town on the third day, and they fed her and took her in, but she didn't breathe a word about the fate that had befallen her city. Once she got her strength back she fled in the dead of night, hoping to spare this town the same fate.

"She ran from town to town in this way, for three months. During this time, news of the dark sorceress and her merciless campaign of conquest was spreading quickly. Basil realized that she was in even more danger, as she knew the true identity of the villain...

"But after three months, she realized that not even her death would likely appease the Shadow Queen. The stories of her atrocities made clear that the attack on her city had only widened the scope of her evil...

"She found a small farming community, and they accepted her. She eventually married, and while she spent the rest of her life making sure she kept to groups and sitting with her back to a wall, the Shadow Queen never came to that town...

"She never told her husband what had happened... She only told one person, the son that she bore him. She made him swear never to write the story down, and to share the information only with his own firstborn child, or with anyone with the courage to fight the Shadow Queen..."

Rudwilla sighed.

"The Three Heroes were told this story by Basil's grandson... But when he learned that they defeated her without killing her, he still told his son, and the story has been passed down from generation to generation... For one-thousand years…

"Four-hundred years ago, the member of the family line who knew the secret shared it with one more person. Apparently, the Shadow Queen finally discovered that someone knew her secret. That was the only possible reason the dark assassin would have come after the young milkmaid who held the secret at the time. The poor woman stood no chance, but was rescued by the man whom you know as Merlow."

"Merlow is four-hundred years old?" asked Francesca in surprise.

"Possibly older..." replied Rudwilla. "She never asked him to reveal his secrets, but she gladly told him hers, and since that day, he has sworn to protect the family. He's succeeded so far... I have no idea how many attempts on my family's life there have been... But he's prevented them all..."

"So then, you're..." said Stan.

Rudwilla nodded.

"I am Basil's descendent..." she replied. "Cleo and her mother know the tale already, but we don't know how long Merlow can keep the assassins at bay. We're risking everything by living here. I'm telling you for the same reason Basil's grandson told your ancestors... You need to know the truth...

"I'm not suggesting to you that Iris isn't evil, because she is... Or that what she did has any justification... Or that she has any hope for redemption… And I have no more clue than Basil did how she became the Shadow Queen...

"I'm just telling you this because you likely thought that she was evil just for evil's sake... She isn't... Everybody has a story, people... Many of them are tragic...

"Now leave me be…"

0000000000

The three of them slowly walked up the stairs, back up to the store. It had been a lot to take in.

"Uh…" said Andy, looking at Cleo. "As long as we're here, maybe we could see what you have?"

"Actually…" said Cleo, slowly. "Some men came by last night with a notice saying that I could only sell my general merchandise to someone with a permit from the Arcadian Parliament…"

"Seems that the Queen's pledge of hospitality is officially over," sighed Stan.

"There's probably some law on the books that says she owns everything in Arcadia," said Francesca. "And now she's trying to keep merchants from selling anything that could be used against her…"

"Of course…" said Cleo.

She reached behind the counter. Then she lifted up a large card binder, and set it on the counter.

She smirked.

"The cards in here aren't my 'general merchandise'…" she whispered. "I don't show them to just any customers either…

"Take a look…"

They smiled back at her as she opened the binder…

0000000000

Half an hour later, the three of them exited the store.

"Thanks a million, Cleo!" said Francesca.

"Well done, children," said Merlow's voice.

"You show up in the most unlikely places," said Stan, as they turned towards him. "So, I'm guessing you're… Immortal?"

Merlow sighed.

"I guess there's no denying it now…" he said. "When I told you that my wife, Ivanna, died of illness, I wasn't being truthful… She died of old age."

"I take it that eternal life didn't come with eternal youth," said Francesca.

Merlow chuckled a little, as if he found that rather funny.

"Children…" he said. "You ever hear the stale old joke about the guy with the genie and the twelve-inch pianist?"

"Uh… yeah…" said Stan.

"That joke has more truth to it than you might believe," said Merlow, with a tone of warning. "Remember it if you ever come across a being capable of granting you a wish. Be as thorough as possible. Another good idea might be to make your request in writing. Because all too often, wishes are perverted, and have their meanings twisted. Most such beings do their best to make sure that the wisher regrets making his request. The genie that Aladdin knew was the exception to the rule.

"I came upon such a being, and wished to live forever. My wish was granted, but I didn't find out until years later that I was growing old just like any other man.

"I realized I might have ended up like the cursed struldbrugs from Gulliver's Travels, humans born with immortality but not eternal youth, who eventually become crippled, senile, feeble old men. I poured into books of alchemy and magic, trying to find a way to keep from aging further. I eventually found a way, but by then I was seventy years old. I had lost most of my physical abilities, but at least my discovery came in time to keep from turning senile and crippled.

"So I gave up on my martial skills, and focused solely on my mental ones. I studied, and during my long lifespan, I was able to devour whole libraries, learning secrets of the universe that few men know…

"All to prepare for when I'd eventually meet you…"

"But why?" asked Stan. "What exactly is your stake in this?"

"Hopefully, you'll find that out eventually," replied Merlow. "For now…

"…it's time to go to the Thousand Year Door…"

He let out a long sigh.

"Take the road due north of Rogueport. Your goal is almost impossible to miss. The Crystal Stars you have will grant you access. I fear that they will not allow you to leave once you are inside.

"I'm afraid that this is where we must part company for the foreseeable future. I cannot help you from this point on due to some… Complications… I might be able to before it's over…

"However, there is someone else who will help you once you're there…"

They waited for him to continue, but he didn't.

"Uh…" said Francesca. "Anything you can tell us about this person?"

"Sadly, no," said Merlow.

"May the power of Heaven guide you…"

0000000000

There was little left to say.

The three spoke little as the hiked the path north, which clearly wasn't used much. They quickly figured that most of the Queen's servants used magic to come and go from the place.

Slowly but surely, the large mountain that was visible in all parts of Arcadia got closer and closer. And as they made a sharp turn in the rocky path. It came upon them suddenly…

The Thousand Year Door. Stan, Andy, and Francesca had come a long way to see this, and they did not like the look of it at all.

As they stood before it, the words appeared on it that many folks saw who were capable of opening it:

There is no glory to be sought here. There is no treasure here. All that lies beyond this door is death and incredible evil. Do not proceed, lest you perish here and leave your loved ones mourning for you forever.

Slowly, they opened their knapsacks, and took the Sapphire Star, Citrine Star, and Ruby Star from where they had placed them…

And as they did, the message on the Thousand Year Door changed. It read something completely different now:

We are leaving this message to our own blood, if our lineage has survived this long, for only you can see this. We urge you never to give up, and not to let the horrors beyond this door deter you. Our job remains incomplete, but now it must be finished. The Shadow Queen's evil must be extinguished forever, and only you can make that happen.

Proceed. You, our heirs, are the Three Heroes now.

At that moment, the final ounce of skepticism left in the three of them vanished forever.

They held the three Crystal Stars up to the large door, and it slowly opened with a loud, ominous creek.

Slowly, they walked inside, and as they expected, the door swung closed behind them.

"Guess there's no going back…" sighed Stan.

They looked around.

They were in a very large, torch-lit chamber, with LOTS of doors on each wall except the one that had the door they entered. It seemed like there were a hundred exits from the room.

Each door seemed to have a label on it with a sequence of letters on it, but they didn't seem to make sense.

Then, the Life Point counters on their Duel Disks all set to 8,000.

"What's going on?" asked Francesca.

"Confusing, isn't it?" asked a voice.

Then there was a wisp of smoke, and a well-dressed man appeared before them. Stan recognized him right away; it was his first opponent in the tournament, the Witty Phantom.

"What do you want?" asked Stan.

"I'm here to explain the special house rules that will be in place for the Tournament from this point on…" said the Phantom. "However… You first have to pass a small test.

"Find out which of these doors I'm behind. If your Life Points hit zero before that happens, you're through. And no cards from your decks allowed.

"Sound simple? Good."

Then he just disappeared.

Andy looked at all the doors.

"Well, at least there doesn't seem to be a time limit…" he said.

"I guess the only thing we can do is try one…" said Stan.

He walked up to a door that was labeled "O-Fo-Fd-L".

"What the heck does that mean?" he muttered, as he opened it.

As he opened it, a frightening creature appeared to greet him, a ghostly specter made of mist with horns on its head. (1,500 ATK)

The specter raked him with a ghostly claw, knocking him down as his Life Points fell to 6,500.

Then it slammed the door shut.

"Okay, that was clearly the wrong door…" groaned Stan.

"That was a Theban Nightmare…" said Andy. "There's likely a nasty surprise waiting behind all of these doors except the right one…"

Francesca looked around.

"Let me try…" she said.

She walked over to the other side of the room, and looked at a door that was labeled S-Si-W-E.

She cautiously opened it.

Apparently, this was the wrong door too, because an even more powerful Monster was there. Goyo Guardian appeared (2,800 ATK) and Francesca shrieked as she was hit by its grapple.

She grunted as her Life Points tumbled to 5,200 and the Synchro Monster closed the door.

"People, we'd better stop guessing and start thinking…" said Andy. "Otherwise, our foray into the Palace of Shadow is going to be very short…"

0000000000

Crump slowly walked down the hallway towards the door to the Queen's alchemy lab, the same place where she had made the potion that had created the curse of doubt.

He nervously looked around. Then he started to jimmy the lock with a wire.

Can't believe I'm doing this… he thought. But I have GOT to find some way to show her that I'm not a big joke… Find something that will help me now that those brats are here…

The door opened with a click. He went inside and turned on a light.

Okay, let's see here… he thought, looking at the various potions and elixirs on the table.

One of them said Potion of Bull's Strength.

No, not very good as far as Duel Monsters is concerned… he thought.

Another was a Potion of Cat's Grace.

Even less useful… he thought.

Potion of Invisibility.

Oh, I don't think so! he thought.

Crump had learned the hard way, as many people who use such potions do, that being invisible is not as fun as a lot of people think it is. Try walking down a stairway when you aren't able to see your feet, and you'd understand. Even worse is when more than one person uses them and tries to act as a team. Idiots who do that always seem to forget that being invisible doesn't make you able to see allies who are invisible.

Then his eyes fell on one. A vial of lime green liquid.

The label said Potion of Bravery.

Hey… he thought.

He picked it up.

This may be just the thing!

He quickly uncorked it, and put it to his lips, drinking it in three gulps.

"YUCK!" he shouted. "That tastes like my unwashed socked!"

Then he held his chest.

"Hold on a minute…"

He felt a surge of energy going through him.

"Think it may be working…" he said.

Then he laughed evilly.

"All RIGHT!" he shouted.

He marched out of the lab.

"Gonna blow those three all the way into next Tuesday!"

0000000000

As he was making this plan, his intended victims were looking closely at the two doors that they knew had Theban Nightmare and Goyo Guardian lurking behind.

"Wait…" said Andy. "I think I see it…"

"Yeah?" said Stan.

"Here…" he said, pointing to Theban Nightmare's door. "The letters on the labels all stand for information about the Monster that's behind it.

"For Theban Nightmare, we have O-Fo-Fd-L, and for Goyo Guardian we have S-Si-W-E. The first letter must stand for the color of the background of the Monster's card. Orange for Theban Nightmare, because it's an Effect Monster, and Silver for Goyo Guardian, because it's a Synchro.

"The second means its Level. Fo means 4, while Si means 6.

"The third means the Monster's Type, Fiend for Theban Nightmare and Warrior for Goyo Guardian."

"And the last one means Attribute!" exclaimed Francesca. "Light for Nightmare, Earth for Guardian!"

"So then…" said Stan. "We have to find the label that matches Witty Phantom, who's a Normal Monster, meaning a yellow background, Level 4, a Fiend, and Dark…

"Everyone spread out…"

They each took one wall, and started looking at the labels on the doors.

"I think I found it, guys!" shouted Francesca.

Stan and Andy ran to the door she was looking at. Sure enough, the label said "Y-Fo-Fd-D".

"Better let me open it," said Andy. "Just in case, I have all of my Life Points."

He slowly opened the door. Fortunately, nothing attacked him. They walked into the room, and the Witty Phantom appeared, looking at a pocket watch.

"Well, you all survived, and it took you seventeen minutes to get here…" he grumbled. "Guess I don't win the pool…"

"You creeps bet in a pool over our success?" shouted Stan.

Witty Phantom grinned and nodded.

They looked at him.

"Uh… Who won?" asked Stan.

"Vampire Lady," replied the Phantom, as he placed the watch back in his pocket, "but anyway, onto business… I'm here to explain the special rules that all duelists must follow in the Palace of Shadow.

"Quite simply, we observe a new rule called the Deckmaster system…"

"I've heard about that…" said Stan.

"Mmm-hmm," said the Phantom. "The system was invented by Noah Kaiba, the true son of Gozaburo Kaiba. Noah thought that this unique way of playing Duel Monsters would help him in his goal of proving himself superior to Gozaburo's adoptive son Kaiba, at least in his father's eyes.

"He failed miserably, as did Gozaburo for that matter, but in theory, his idea was still a good one.

"Here's how it works. Before each duel starts, you select one Monster in your main deck to serve as a Deckmaster. You might want to increase the size of your deck to forty-one cards because of this, but because the Deckmaster still counts as being part of your deck, but that is optional.

"The Deckmaster does not occupy any slot in any of your Zones unless you decide to summon it – which I do not recommend doing unless you must. In this state, it is immortal, and impervious to all attacks and card effects. However, it cannot attack itself or use its regular effect.

"What it can do is use a special Deckmaster effect. This is unique to each Monster. I'm afraid I cannot supply you with a manual, so you'll have to learn through trial and error what each one does.

"I should add that the Monster's power as a regular Monster does not always mean that it is especially powerful as a Deckmaster. Some Monsters that are very weak – or outright useless – in a regular duel make very useful Deckmasters.

"Now might be a good time to mention an added rule that Noah did not have. The Deckmasters determine who makes the first move in the duel. Whoever's Deckmaster has the lower Attack Score has the honor."

"And in the case of a tie?" asked Andy.

"Then flip for it," replied the Phantom. "Or rock-paper-scissors or however you want to decide it."

Andy frowned at him. He had a feeling these rules were more lax than he was making them sound…

"Now you can summon your Deckmaster to the field at any time," continued the Phantom, "and it counts as a Special Summon… You can even do this if the Deckmaster is a NOMI or something that you otherwise would not be able to Special Summon.

"The biggest drawback to doing this is, your Deckmaster is then as vulnerable as any other Monster, and a duelist who loses it loses the duel automatically."

He grinned evilly as he said this.

"Yeah, good safety tip…" said Andy, nervously.

"It can attack and use its regular effect, however," continued the Phantom. "This is also the only way you can change your Deckmaster. You can't use it for a Tribute Summon, but you can use it for a Fusion Summon, Ritual Summon, Synchro Summon, or Xyz Summon, in which case the newly summoned Monster assumes the role of the new Deckmaster.

"Now that we've gotten that out of the way…

"Your goal now that you've entered the Palace of Shadow is simple… Make it to the center of the Palace and survive. You do so by dueling, just as you did before. You don't gain Crystal Cards like you did before, but you might earn a few things that will benefit you in the long run, like game cards that will make the journey easier."

He looked at his watch again.

"One o'clock…" he said. "You three are probably hungry… Use the side door in the next room and you'll find a kiosk where a chef will provide lunch if you desire…

"I suggest you take advantage of it, because that is the last time anything will be given for free here. After that, everything will have to be earned.

"I may see you all again…"

He snapped his fingers, and vanished. Then the door in front of them opened.

0000000000

The place they entered did indeed seem to be a kiosk of some sort. Behind the counter was another Duel Spirit – a Battle Steer.

"Well…" said Andy. "I guess we can forget about hamburgers…"

"What, you want hamburgers?" asked the Beast-Warrior.

It opened a refrigerator and took out some hamburger patties.

"Heck, it's not like they're anyone I know…" he said, as he tossed them on a grill.

"There you are!" shouted a voice.

They turned around, just as Crump rushed into the room.

"Found you!" he shouted.

"Well, well," said Francesca, "if it isn't the little creep from the Twilight Town peach orchard…"

"The name is Lord Crump, bitch," said Crump.

"I'll teach you to talk to Francesca like that…" growled Andy.

Stan held Andy back.

"Listen, buddy…" said Stan, "if you want a duel, I'll be happy to oblige… Can you at least let us eat first?"

"I'll be waiting outside…" said Crump. "Don't even think about trying to slip past…"

As he walked back out, the Battle Steer watched with disgust.

"So he finally grew a spine," muttered the cook.

"Huh?" asked Stan.

"Every time that jerk comes in here," replied the Spirit, "he orders me around, eats half my inventory, and leaves a mess that I have to clean up.

"I think I speak for almost every Duel Spirit here when I say that I hope you kick his ass really good…"

Stan glanced towards the exit curiously….

0000000000

The stage is set, and Stan, Andy, and Francesca have survived the first challenge… But it was clearly just a warm-up for the gauntlet that lies ahead…

Next:

Stan: It seems the infamous Lord Crump has finally decided to show himself… No problem… This guy's bark seems worse than his bite (but not worse than his breath).

I hope… There is an old saying that looks can deceive, and I have to admit, this Deckmaster system is kind of new to me.

Vivian: Don't worry Stan, I'm right behind you! Uh, at least I think I am…

"Fiery Fervor" is coming soon…