He was not sure when it started. The ominous feeling that draped itself upon his shoulders like a cold black cloak. He lived each day with bated breath, like some malicious hand wrapped itself about his lungs to squeeze when he least expected it.
No, no, it was a lie. He knew . He knew when it started.
That day seven years ago, when he duped the man who'd taken him in. When he stole his company right from under his nose and seized back the reins to his destiny.
It had nearly not happened. There had been a split second where he nearly faltered.
But he came through victorious.
That weak old man couldn't take the defeat. He'd rather die than see the whelp he had taken in best him at his own game.
And now that shadow clung to Seto Kaiba's every pore like eternal cobwebs.
He held his hand over his eyes as he exited KaibaCorp Tower. This particular door was facing the west, and the setting sun blazed into his eyes with the dying intensity of its swan song.
He used to stay late into the night, until the city was long asleep and only the light of the moon and the streetlamps kept him company.
But now, he daren't leave after dark. Nearly every time he drove home under the cover of night, the animals were about. He couldn’t count how many times a deer had jumped out in front of his car and nearly resulting in a collision. A collision that would’ve most definitely taken his life. One time, it had been a bear, great and big and lumbering across the asphalt. Thankfully, it had been scared off by his car horn. Kaiba had irrationally feared it would accost the vehicle. But no, it had ambled off into the shadow-wreathed woods, had been swallowed hole by the black of night.
So, now, when he drove home, it was on roads dappled by the multi-colored light of the setting sun.
It started as a thrumming. Low, rhythmic. Rapid.
But then it got louder. Louder, louder.
No. No, closer .
Closer, closer . It was pounding now, though not quite as fast as his heart. Like rapid thunder, cannonfire.
He searched for the sound, but he was surrounded by the desolate gray of impenetrable fog.
Then he saw them. Two red beckons in the murkiness. That pounding sounded far too close.
A keen so loud and sharp it tore the night asunder and split his eardrums down the middle.
Kaiba jerked up, gasping.
The moonlit corners of his bedroom stared back. He panted, felt the cold sweat trickling down his face and slicking his clothes and the sheets to his trembling. He pressed a palm to his forehead.
“What the fuck?”
Residual quakes traced his nerves. A quick shower calmed him down, and the dream was but a hazy memory by the time his cheek touched the pillows again.
That ominous feeling seemed twice as strong the next day. Every few steps, it seemed like, he was looking over his shoulder. Each time, he’d shake his head at himself. It was understandable for someone of his position to be cautious, but even he thought he was being too paranoid.
When his meetings for the day were over, it was time to buckle down and grind through some paperwork. It distracted him from the strange feeling in his gut, and it wasn’t too long before he was immersed in emails and blueprint reviews and financial reports and other such things.
It wasn’t until his desk phone rang that he was startled from his robotic state.
“Kaiba,” he answered. He tucked the phone between his shoulder and ear so he could keep typing as he talked.
He suddenly straightened. “Mokuba? What’s the matter?”
“When are you coming home?” his little brother asked. “It’s already dark.” Mokuba knew about his… encounters and his developing habit of driving only during lighter hours.
Kaiba froze and looked over his shoulder. He’d closed the blinds; the light had been bothering him. He swiftly stood. Two long fingers parted the blinds.
It was pitch black outside.
“Holy fuck. Why is it so dark out already?”
“The time change, Seto. Daylight saving time ended this morning.”
Kaiba growled through his teeth. All of the clocks had either switched on their own or were reset by staff. He hadn’t even noticed. “I fucking hate daylight saving time. Fucking useless,” he growled. He turned back to his desk. “I’ll be on my way out right here in a minute.”
“Okay. Drive safe.”
“I’ll try,” Kaiba grumbled after he slammed the phone down in its cradle. “Sonuvabitch.”
He quickly finished what he had been doing and made his way to the parking garage. As soon as he stepped out in the chill of the evening, he paused.
That feeling came crashing down like an ice-cold bucket of water. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry and it just felt like razors skating down his throat. His knees shook beneath him.
Then he heard it.
That thrumming. But different, sharper, like clapping.
Loud and close. Pounding and clattering, cacophonous.
It was coming form his right. He turned his head.
There was nothing, until suddenly, there was something, fading in, materializing from thin air.
A massive white horse, so pale and ethereal as if made of moonlight. Galloping full speed. Piercing red eyes glowed from just above -- a dark rider, cloak billowing.
But he could barely register any of what was happening before the pale horse and the dark rider were upon him, those muscular legs curling and arching as the beast leapt. That ear-splitting shriek -- a horse keening, he dimly realized, like the sound from his dreams. Kaiba cried out, falling backwards onto the pavement, arms up to shield himself.
Trembling, breathless, his heart pounding too loudly in his ears to hear anything anymore.
But it never came.
He slowly lowered his shaking arms.
No traces. No pale horse, no dark rider. Only a dimly-lit parking garage. The faint orange lights cast their sickly glow about the shadowed corners.
Seto Kaiba was alone.
Slowly, he stood up. His white suit was streaked with dirt and grime from the ground. He grimaced, brushed his hands over the spots.
“Damn,” he choked, his throat still tight with adrenaline. He ached all over from his collapse.
He gulped and frantically looked about. Had he just imagined all of that?
(But it had been so loud , so real .)
He needed to get home, get some food and some rest. Maybe he needed to lighten up on the coffee, too. The excess caffeine was clearly wreaking havoc on his already shot nerves. With a muttered curse, he cautiously made his way to the car.
The roads were quiet that night, but Kaiba still drove with the utmost caution. The moon was bright, and it splashed its silver light onto the road and the trees. Even through the glare of his headlights, it was still visible. A beautiful, calm night. And it only put Kaiba that much more on edge. A beautiful, calm night, perfect for strolling critters to throw themselves in front of his moving vehicle.
It was a trained habit for him, ever since he had started driving. His eyes would periodically flick to his rearview mirror, then quickly to each door mirror. It was but a split-second glance.
A red-stained shape hovering.
He looked back to the road, then stiffened and did a double-take.
He quickly fixed his eyes back to the road. With his shitty luck, the one moment he got distracted would be the one moment that a deer decided to take a quick jog across the road.
A few minutes, and he did it again.
And he saw it again. Again, he did a double-take. Nothing.
He gritted his teeth and hissed.
“What the fuck ?”
He let his foot off the gas and let the car decelerate on its own. He looked to the rearview mirror and didn’t take his eyes away for a long second.
In the dim red glow of his taillights, there the figure was.
A powerful chest pumping, blunt teeth gnashing at a bit.
Crimson eyes glared from where the dark figure was bent close to the beast’s neck.
Kaiba’s foot moved on instinct, and he slammed on the brakes. He felt the car jerk under him -- the brakes were locking up -- but he manged to bring the vehicle to a swift stop.
The loud thumps echoed across the car’s roof -- the flare of a cloak and a pale tail flashing in the windshield -- the horse had run right over the car .
He slammed the car into park and stared.
Now, much farther ahead, the white beast was coming about. Dark-clad hands pulled at the reins, and the beast’s neck arched, blunt white teeth snapping at the bit. Pale hooves pawed at the ground. The headlights reflected in the beady eyes. It was standing just within the reach of the lights.
Glowing red eyes from beneath an impossibly dark hood stared back.
The rider’s clothes were black and seemingly featureless, if only because -- no matter how much effort he put into it -- Kaiba could not seem to focus his eyes on the figure.
The horse moved again -- its pearlescent hide shifting over bunching muscles -- and slender gloved hands pulled the reins until the beast stilled again.
It wasn’t until the cold night air was clawing through his hair did Kaiba realize that he had opened the door and stepped out of the car.
An arm lifted, the cloak draped from it like a leathery wing, and a single slender finger pointed in his direction. It seemed as if cold lightning zapped from that finger, for a chilling jolt tore its way through Seto Kaiba’s nerves.
The word echoed, as if carried by the wind itself, a deep tone, like nighttime shadows given voice.
The horse snorted, then keened, shuddering excitedly beneath its rider.
Kaiba shivered again. His skin was drawn tight with tension and goosebumps.
Booming like thunder but yet unsubstantial like a breeze.
You will honor it, Seto Kaiba.
At hearing his own name, cold percolated into Kaiba’s bones.
Kaiba’s voice trembled, caught, in his throat, but the words surged forth. “Wh-What deal?”
Your father in hell, your brother alive and well. That for yours. You bear my reward yet.
He gulped. With the cold wind rushing upon him and his dry mouth, it felt like he had swallowed a thousand stinging wasps. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
A chuckle, resonating through the night, but it was soon muffled by the whinnying of the beast the rider straddled.
Do you not remember? Hmph.
Kaiba’s lips worked, but he had no idea what to say. There were no words in his head, just a jumble of feelings.
You do not want to this to end. But Death waits for no one, Seto Kaiba.
After his next blink, the rider was gone.
The sound of hooves pounding on pavement echoed into the night. They faded away like ripples on the surface of an abyssal pond. Then, those too were gone.
There was no trace of the mysterious dark rider.
He drifted through the fog of his dreams. All was still and silent here. Perhaps it was his one refuge from the cruel fate he had sealed himself to. Even still, he wanted nothing more than to cry.
I wish he were dead.
It echoed, like someone crying from far away.
I wish I could… I wish I could take care of Mokuba. I wish I could make him happy.
These thoughts that riddled his mind in wakefulness followed him into his sleep.
Another echo, but not his own.
“What would you do? What would you give up to have these things?”
He had barely a moment before his response surged forth, unbidden.
A hum, and it vibrated through the fog.
“Would you give your life? Your soul?”
He wanted to scream his response, but it was but a broken whimper.
A thoughtful pause, but so much louder than any of the echoes.
“Very well. Your soul for the man’s death. I will come to collect my prize when I see fit.”
But he was already drifting away on the waves of his subconscious. The only thing he heard were his own thoughts echoing back.
Anything. Anything. Anything.
I would give anything...
When he arose from his dream, it was a slow ascent, like some creature relaxedly emerging from the depths. He blinked up at the ceiling, striped with moonlight. A dream…
No, a memory, he realized with a blink.
That voice… the dark rider.
You will honor it, Seto Kaiba.
He shuddered and turned onto his side.
What would you do? What would you give up to have these things?
Would you give up your life? Your soul?
His long fingers curled into the sheets until his knuckles were white and aching. A deal with the devil…? What a bunch of bunk…
But if there was one thing Seto Kaiba trusted above all else, it was his eyes. What he had seen… what he had experienced…
There was no possible explanation that could support that he had hallucinated the whole thing. He didn’t do hallucinogenic drugs, and he did not have an illness that would invoke hallucinations. Nothing of the sort.
And they hadn’t been dreams, not the physical encounters at the parking garage and on the road.
With a long sigh, he slowly sat up. And his blood froze solid in his veins.
Red eyes peered from a dark corner. Unblinking. All-seeing. Vivid irises, the pupils consuming black holes.
How did you get in here? or perhaps he would alert security about the man trespassing into his goddamn bedroom.
“It was you,” he said instead. His throat was tight and the words simply croaked out.
No movement. Unmoving crimson beacons.
There had been a moment when Kaiba had almost failed. But a windfall of the most spectacular kind had fallen right into his lap. All because he had sold his soul to a horseman with red eyes.
“I had always thought it strange that the old man had killed himself. A stubborn bastard like him… I thought he’d fight back until his dying breath.”
His hands were large and wrinkled but wholly soft -- they’d never seen anything other than writing instruments, keyboards, and documents. And occasionally the backs of them met the cheeks of his impudent charity cases.
“Fucking brat. I’ll show him,” he snarled, fingers tightening around the railing of the balcony. “He might have won the battle, but he hasn’t won the war.”
Unbeknownst to him, the dark figure stalked close. Red eyes stared unblinking.
Black-clad hands settled on broad, tense shoulders.
Pale lips drifted close to a rage-red ear.
Glazed eyes. But then he shook his head.
Jump. You will win after all. He cannot defeat you when you are dead.
The thoughts sibilant, seductive. Like the dark figure clinging to his back.
He can never humiliate you again.
“I’ll never let him humiliate me again.”
Yes. You will be free of him.
“I’ll be free of him.”
All you have to do is jump.
“All I have to do is jump.”
With a strained grunt, he swung one thick leg over the railing. Then the other. He stood, not the least bit graceful, on the edge. And then he leaned forward.
He was plummeted, wind and city lights screaming by.
He didn’t even feel the impact.
Red blood and hot viscera splattered on the pavement.
Pedestrians screamed and cried.
But none noticed the horseman amongst them. Nor did they see Gozaburo stand, disconnected from his mortal, horribly disfigured body. He staggered to his feet, and gaped, utterly baffled, at what he saw before him.
Red eyes determined, a slender arm held out. Long fingers splayed out, cupping and grasping. Black metal gleamed, hungry and sharp, and the city lights glanced off the curved blade of the scythe. But a tensing of the rider’s legs, and the pale horse was moving forward. Fast, faster, galloping at full speed, hooves pounding on the pavement. Before he had even realized what happened, Gozaburo’s soul had been reaped.
Finally, the horseman spoke.
It had been a simple task. Gozaburo’s will was easy to manipulate. But a few words and he was climbing over that railing to plummet to his demise.
Seto Kaiba shuddered. How flippantly this being talked about… well, murder.
“And you did all of this for my soul?”
You were fated to die, with or without our deal. But, without… you would have been long buried by now.
“What?” Kaiba snapped, utterly confused and hating every minute of it.
Gozaburo would have killed you eventually, Seto Kaiba. It was escalating already. It would not have been a leap for him to take a beating too far and kill you.
“Then why a deal at all?” Kaiba hissed.
Souls past their fated reaping are that much riper. That much sweeter.
Children died as easily as they were born.
The babe, wrapped in his threadbare blanket, gave one last cough, his final breath, before his heart slowed to a stand still.
The shadowed figure knelt down. In tender arms, he scooped up that young soul. Perhaps, beneath the impossible darkness of the hood, a wistful frown was perched on pale lips.
As if only sleeping, the soul in his arms sighed, fingers curling into the dark material garbing the horseman’s chest. With slow steps, the horseman passed from room to room. Young faces. Everywhere in this place.
All but a few were to die relatively soon.
The horseman paused in a particular room. A boy, eyes as blue the sea or the sky, petted the wild dark hair of a smaller boy.
“I will always take care of you, Mokuba.”
Kaiba’s breath trembled in his throat. “I can’t die yet. Mokuba still needs me.”
He is no longer a boy. He is a man. He will now live a long, healthy life, whether or not you remain.
“What?” Kaiba growled, ferocious though something had broken inside him. “Are you saying that this was all pointless then?”
Hardly. When you gave up your soul, you changed his fate. Your sacrifice was not for nothing.
They were reunited for the first time in many long weeks. They embraced tightly. It was love, the love between brothers, even, arguably, the love that existed between father and son. After all, all the two ever had had been each other.
It was pure, the purest the horseman had seen in a long, long time. Neither of the two noticed the figure that rode away into the dark.
“I… I don’t want to die…” Seto murmured, and, for the first time in a long time, tears stung and gathered in his eyes. “I didn’t know that I had made a deal with you.”
What you’ve sold you cannot unsell, Seto Kaiba. Death comes for all sooner or later. And you have a debt you must pay.
It was not often that mortals could see him without his purposely revealing himself.
But this old woman had eyes unlike the others, eyes that could pierce the veil between life and death.
“Please,” she cried, voice cracking with nearly a century of use. “Anything! Anything for just one more day!”
Even in the glow of the gaslights, his face was not visible.
I make deals with no one.