"You know, Hairy, you're not half-bad at this."
Mulch didn't answer right away. For one thing, it was hard to hear past the sound of his body digesting clay, and for another, Bakura was staying a long way back. They were in the tunnel under the actor's house, and Mulch judged they were about halfway back to where they had started. But when he finally registered Bakura's voice, he turned. In the darkness of the tunnel, the white hair still stood out like a ghostly crown. "In fact, I have a little present for you."
"Prth…" Mulch swallowed, coughed, and tried again. "Present?" The pressure in his gut was building. He should be tunneling, not stand around chatting with Bakura, who was clearly a conniving, back-stabbing son of a pixie. But Mulch was intrigued. "What kind of present?"
Bakura took a few steps closer, and something glimmered the dim light. As Mulch peered at it, it resolved itself into a bracelet, of pure, perfect gold, emblazoned with the image of a Mud Man lifting a hand to cast a spell.
"Gold," Bakura purred. "You like gold, don't you, Stinky?"
Mulch did like gold. His fingers twitched and reached out of their own accord. And then…tingling rushed up Mulch's arm. He tried to step back, but his legs refused to work. His head swam, something was pressing on his ears, there was laughter ringing in his head. Then he blinked, and the world went back into focus. Mulch looked down; a strange bracelet was in his hand.
Bakura laughed. "Consider it an advance."
"Advance?" Mulch said dazedly. "Advance of what?"
Bakura smirked, and Mulch felt his beard hairs bristle. "Oh," he said. "We have some unfinished business, you and I."
The FedEx box sat oh-so-innocently on the corner of his desk. But Kaiba was not taken in by its sweet innocent demeanor; he knew it was a vicious predator, waiting for him to turn his back so it could pounce.
He was going to kill Marik Ishtar.
He stretched. A contract was on the computer in front of him, waiting for his approval, but he did not lean forward to read it. The three weeks since the Ritual had been kind to him; he'd slept and eaten and at Mokuba's…um…insistence, he had stayed at home. But nothing could erase the way his eyes had aged.
"Come in, Roland."
There was a startled pause, and then the door opened. The bodyguard came in, carrying a stack of design schematics, which he set down next to Kaiba's elbow. He paused.
Kaiba sighed, and looked up. "Was there something else?"
The bodyguard looked uncomfortable. "If you don't mind me asking, sir…I hadn't knocked."
Kaiba paused, and a flood of emotions flickered across the usually expressionless face. Realization, irritation, hesitation, resolution. And then, for the first time that Roland could ever remember, a kind of peace.
"Magic, Roland." He went back to typing, the mask firmly back in place. "Magic."
Artemis had spent the last few days planning what he was going to tell his parents when they returned from France. As it turned out, he needn't have worried. He had just opened his mouth when his mother crushed him to her chest, and he inhaled the smell of her perfume. "Oh Arty, are you alright?"
"I am fine," he managed. Angeline Fowl didn't let him go. If anything, she held him tighter.
"Are you sure you're alright?"
"Yes, Mother. I was not in the house."
"I thought I told you to stop calling me 'Mother'." She released him, visibly trying to calm herself. "It sounds so formal."
Artemis sighed in relief. "Sorry, Moth…Mom."
"What happened?" a deeper voice rumbled. Artemis almost unconsciously straightened as his father stepped into view.
"The police are still trying to determine the facts," he said, clearing his throat and trying his best to meet Fowl Sr.'s eyes. "I'm sorry, Father. The insurance will cover most of the damage, but the irreplaceable items…"
His eyes widened in surprise as his father enfolded him in a hug. "It's just a house. And they're just things. You're safe; that's all that matters."
I intend to seize the day. Be the hero that every father should be.
Behind his father's back, Artemis held tightly to the check that had come the day before. Half a billion dollars, courtesy of Seto Kaiba.
It's just a house. And they're just things.
He still had to deal with Kaiba, and potentially with the LEP as well. Tomorrow he would have to start rebuilding. Going legitimate was going to be difficult.
But today, Artemis allowed himself to relax in his father's arms.
Three weeks after the "Magic Mud Men" problem had finally been resolved, Commander Julius Root sent two of his best operatives to the surface on another top secret mission requiring absolute radio silence.
"I love my job." Holly lay on the hill overlooking the water, the same hill they had been on before the whole mess started. Trouble was sprawled out a few feet away.
"To be honest, I'm surprised we still have a job," he said. "I mean, after the thing with the Council. They usually don't take so kindly to disobeying orders."
Holly was quiet for a long time. "There was something about him," she said, unusually contemplative. "The Pharaoh, I mean. Something that made it impossible not to try and help him."
Trouble chuckled. "Hey, from what you said, he made even Fowl behave. I'm perfectly willing to believe he's magical."
Holly grinned too. "Magic Mud Men."
"Don't say that around the Commander."
They both laughed, followed by a comfortable silence.
At that very moment, Holly's helmet began to beep.
"Commander, would it kill you to smoke outside?"
Root exhaled. "You know what, Foaly? I've worked my butt off over the past couple of weeks. I stopped a bio-bomb…"
"That was Pharaoh."
"I defeated Bakura…"
"I was alone in a shuttle for eight hours with Mulch Diggums."
"Okay," Foaly said after a moment. "Good point. But that was three weeks ago, Julius…"
"And then," Root said, overriding him. "I had to deal with the Council trying to get me to join them, if you can believe it, and they don't like being told no."
Foaly's jaw dropped. "You…you refused the promotion?"
"I'm not Councilman material," Root mumbled. "I like it here."
Though he would never admit it, Foaly was touched. "Commander…"
"All in all…" Root added, breaking what threatened to be a sentimental moment, "I deserveto smoke my cigars wherever I darn well please." Then he smirked, and it was a terrifying thing. "Besides, someone has to keep all you misfits in line."
"Never figured you for a mother hen, Julius."
Root's beefy face went even redder. "Don't call me Julius!"
Foaly hid a grin. Apparently, things were back to normal. "About those screens…"
"With what we pay you, you can certainly afford to replace a few screens." He was using that "don't screw with me or I will personally wrap you in aluminum foil and send you to ride a magma flare" tone, and for once, Foaly heeded his common sense. He went back to typing, and Root went back to smoking…and breathing that smoke on the horrendously expensive screens.
"There's just one thing that bothers me," Root said, and Foaly looked up from his work.
"That you have no sense of humor?"
Root's face went the color of an eggplant. "Shut up, Centaur!" he roared, eyes narrowing dangerously. Foaly smirked. It was almost not worth baiting him.
"I'm all ears."
"Ears don't blabber."
Foaly heaved a martyred sigh. "It's an expression, Julius." So literal.
For a moment, Root's hands twitched, as though he was seriously considering strangling the centaur right now with his own two hands. Fortunately for Foaly (and for Root; the paperwork would have been horrendous), he restrained the impulse.
"Why was the file about the treaty blank?" he asked instead. "If Vox didn't do it…"
"It was Naeglith."
The name wasn't familiar. "Who?"
Foaly sighed again for dramatic effect. "One of the fairy representatives who helped sign the treaty with the Pharaoh."
Root was nonplussed. "Why did he erase it?"
"Don't look at me," Foaly said, raising his hands. "Maybe he didn't really trust the Pharaoh, and wanted to make sure the People's hands weren't tied if they ever had a problem with the Magic Mud Men. Maybe he didn't want to relieve painful memories. Maybe he figured with the Pharaoh's death it just didn't matter anymore."
"Maybe he didn't like his successor."
Foaly shrugged. "Who knows? He's been dead for five thousand years."
"That's it?" Root asked incredulously. "You thought it was important to tell me that a five-thousand-year-old dead guy deleted the files?" (He had heard about the face-planting incident).
Foaly was offended. "You said you wanted to know the instant I found anything."
"Don't quote my own words back at me, Pony."
Foaly opened his mouth for an incredibly witty comeback, but a beeping from one of the computers distracted him. He accessed the surface camera.
"Uh oh. We've got a runner."
Root glanced at the screens. "A troll," he muttered. "It has to be a troll."
Foaly was already typing things and checking screens. "Heading towards Dublin. It'll take hours to get an operative up there…"
"No need," Root said, airily waving a hand. "Holly and Trouble are topside as we speak."
"Another special black-ops mission?" Foaly asked.
"None of your business," Root snapped. "Can you open a channel?"
"Can a dwarf…"
Root reached over and pushed the button himself. "Party's over, boys and girls," he barked. "Back to work." He drew in a deep mouthful of smoke and exhaled with a contented sigh. "I love happy endings."
Root might not have been so happy if he could have seen what was currently happening in the holding cells.
Artemis Fowl watched as the data scrolled across the screen, the stolen KaibaCorp files being returned to their proper owner. Somewhat regretfully, he watched several billion dollars in profit go down the drain.
Kaiba sat at his desk, hands steepled under his chin, watching through his laptop as the transaction took place. He cleared his throat.
"Are you feeling alright?" Artemis asked. "Perhaps a cough drop?"
"Thank you," Kaiba said, and the smile he offered was drop-dead eerie. "My throat's just a little…tight."
Clearly, he was not a firm believer in subtlety. Artemis treated the CEO to his best vampiric smile. "It was a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Kaiba."
"I will of course require access to your computer systems to check for any remaining traces of my files."
Artemis raised an eyebrow. "You still don't trust me?"
The answering glare could have peeled paint. Artemis heaved a martyred sigh. "Very well."
Kaiba caught Artemis' gaze. It was like their first meeting; those eyes pierced him like daggers. A glint of gold flickered in their depths. "Listen, Fowl. I have agreed to this partnership, but if you attempt to cross me again, you will regret it."
Artemis sat forward too, and on the screen, Kaiba visibly tensed. "And if you attempt to betray me, I will take you down."
A slight smile flickered across Kaiba's face. "Just as long as we understand each other."
Artemis allowed himself a very small smile in return. "Oh yes, Mr. Kaiba. We understand each other perfectly."
Kaiba's face disappeared.
Artemis sat back in his chair with a satisfied smirk, and his hand went to the gold pendant hanging around his neck. Or at least, it looked like gold. In reality, the pendant contained a disk, painted over with a thin coat of gold leaf.
Inside the disk was a copy of the stolen files.
Just in case.
If it had been up to Commander Julius Root, Mulch Diggums would have rotted away in a jail cell for the next hundred years, the boredom occasionally punctuated by a roommate, which, if Root had any sway in the matter, would be a troll.
But for better or for worse, it was not up to Julius Root.
Which was why Mulch Diggums, kleptomaniac dwarf and housebreaker extraordinaire, was currently sitting in the Haven holding cells, awaiting the arrival of his next substandard, court-provided lawyer. Root had insisted on a babysitter though, something about "has a habit of stealing everything not welded down" and "chewing holes in walls" and "if he escapes, heads are going to roll."
At this point, the officer (as luck would have it, the same officer who had so recently contributed to Mulch's arrest) was starting to consider this to be a small price to pay.
"Hey, Officer. How about some music?"
The elf groaned. "For the last time, Convict, no music. Your lawyer should be here any minute…" He trailed off hopefully.
Mulch snorted. "He should have been here an hour ago. Face it, Pixie Dust, he's not coming."
The officer blanched. "No…" he stammered. "He'll come…he…" He trailed off again, and repressed the urge to just sit down and cry.
Mulch gave him his best wide-eyed earnest stare. "Don't worry. Julius probably won't leave us in here forever."
At the thought of an eternity trapped in here with Mulch, the officer's courage failed him. He stumbled from the room, clutching his stomach, muttering something about "lie down" and "be sick." The door slammed shut behind him.
Mulch grinned, and his dark eyes glittered gold.
"It was a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Kaiba."
Seto eyed his opponent narrowly. Just looking at Fowl's face made the magic stir. I give this partnership two months. Max. "I will of course require access to your computer systems to check for any remaining traces of my files." Then again, I hate most of the people I work with.
Fowl smirked. "You still don't trust me?"
You still think I'm an idiot?
Fowl sighed. "Very well."
Seto stared into the other boy's eyes, letting the magic rise. "Listen, Fowl. I have agreed to this partnership, but if you attempt to cross me again, you will regret it."
"And if you attempt to betray me, I will take you down."
Seto allowed a tiny smile to cross his face. "Just as long as we understand each other." Bring it on.
"Oh yes, Mr. Kaiba. We understand each other perfectly."
He cut the connection. And as he did so, a tiny virus was released into Fowl's computer. Unnoticed, undetectable by Fowl's security system – the quick peek Seto'd just gotten into Fowl's system had convinced him of that – it would remain inactive…unless of course one of the stolen KaibaCorp files was accessed.
At that point, the virus would awaken, erasing the offending file and the rest of Fowl's files for good measure.
Just in case.