"Still, attacking immediately without some kind of grace period would be bad form," Amadeus continued, gritting his teeth somewhere close to Ami's right ear. With Keeper sight, she could see his facial muscles twitch as he struggled to reign in his temper, even though his face was behind her. "I apologise for my rudeness, but I can barely tolerate the presence of a Keeper on an emotional level, even though I intellectually know that you are not the one responsible for what happened to my homeland."
The cold metal of his elbow guard pressing into the underside of Ami's chin disappeared as he lowered his arm. She let out a breath of relief, and immediately regretted the action when her slight change in posture caused an angular piece of his armour to poke her back harder. She may not have been in her own body, but even Zarekos had been able to hurt her while she was possessing someone, and nothing she had seen so far convinced her that the Avatar was any less powerful than the late Keeper. "I'm glad you didn't force-" She stopped and blinked in surprise when a dark blur whooshed out of Jadeite's closing portal, buffeting the cloth of his uniform with its slipstream.
The curly-haired general backed off from the black ellipse when something detached from the blur and hurtled in his direction. "What-" wide-eyed, he twisted aside just before the venomous green blast could tear a hole into his stomach. His concentration broken, he let the portal close.
"Jadeite!" Ami shouted in fright. She tracked the attacker flitting like a shadow over the waves, seeing wide-spread black wings supporting a humanoid body with dark skin. She dropped into a combat stance, swaying as the Avatar's weight on her back hindered her balance, and glance back at Jadeite from the corners of her eyes. Her breath caught when she spotted a growing gash fester on his uniform shirt, growing larger as the corrosive magic rotted away its threads. "Are you-"
"Dodge now, gawk later!" Amadeus demanded from her back.
The harried tone of his voice prompted her to pay more attention to the dark angel rocketing high into the air. Wings wrapped tightly around himself, he was leaving strange, apple-sized spiky balls in his wake. Ami was reminded of Halloween decorations when yellow eyes and toothed maws lit up on the spheres. The lowest of them had stopped falling and were hurling themselves at her, letting out a high-pitched squealing noise. Somewhat confused, she swatted at the closest one with her Keeper hand. With a loud bang and a cloud of smoke, the hand detonated into a rain of droplets. Ami's hair stood on end as the rest of the missiles fanned out and streaked toward her. With a flash of circling snowflakes, she disappeared, reappearing a hundred metres above. She wasn't going to attempt any fancy dodging with the weight of the Avatar still on her back. An instant later, Jadeite did the same, reappearing at her side in a flash of purple light. Absently, she noted that he had discarded his damaged uniform jacket.
Two powerful wing beats brought the red-eyed dark angel level with her. "Well, Keeper Mercury," the sword-wielding figure spat, "you have escaped my army for now, but don't believe for a moment that I will let you humiliate me by getting away completely unscathed!"
"Who are you?" Ami asked, her hands raised defensively. "You can't hope to defeat us on your own!"
"Who is this 'us' you speak of?" the dark angel mocked, ignoring her question. "The Avatar and that reaper are useless here, and I am not afraid of any human warlock." He shot a glare at Jadeite, prompting Ami to drift closer to the shirtless dark general. "This is a simple matter of you against me."
"Careful," Amadeus muttered in a low voice, "his spells are still circling below us."
Ami glanced down, where the tiny explosives were ascending in a spiral pattern. "Shabon Spray!" A thrusting motion with her hands, and fog-filled bubbles shot down toward the enemy projectiles, bursting to release a blanket of clammy mist in their path. Her lips curved up when lights flickered within the turbulent murk as if a thunderstorm was raging inside, accompanied by the bangs of explosions. Her satisfaction was short-lived, however. While she was distracted, the dark angel had pointed his black sword straight down. A brilliant flash of bright light drowned out all colour for a heartbeat, reflected and amplified by the waves. Crackling arcs of electricity stabbed straight down through Ami's fog and into the ocean's surface, causing steam to billow up with a hiss.
With a pained roar, Rabixtrel started sinking.
"Keeper Lightning!" Amadeus shouted next to Ami's ear, making her wince from the noise. Her hearing was already ringing from the thunderclap following her opponent's unmistakable spell. "Get us closer!"
"Please stop squirming like that," the young Keeper requested when she felt the Avatar's grip shift again. It almost felt as if he was trying to climb over her in his sudden eagerness to get at the enemy. Transposed by a blue flash, they appeared behind the short-horned creature. Ami felt herself spun around involuntarily by the momentum of Amadeus swinging his blade at the dark angel's neck. Thrown off-course by the tumbling, the blow went wide. It wouldn't have hit either way, since their opponent had quick reflexes and was diving toward the surface of the ocean already. Ami's Keeper hand appeared in his path, palm facing outward as if she was signalling for him to stop. The blackish blur that was their opponent rolled in the air until his wings were almost vertical and veered off to the right, nearly at a right angle to his previous course.
"He's fast!" Ami exclaimed as her disembodied hand swiped at him and was just as easily avoided at the first time.
"This is not the time to be impressed Dodge those bombs!" Amadeus urged.
"Eh? Where?" Ami's head reared back in shock as she spotted the twin missiles bearing down on her from above. Her sly opponent must have hurled them up there when he spun for his evasion, hiding them behind his outstretched wings. Before she could teleport, the first of the magical projectiles exploded nearby. Through the flash, she could see the Avatar's blade move like quicksilver, somehow cutting the explosion in half. The gale of hot air remained strong enough to buffet her and sent her spinning head over heels. That would have been nauseating enough even without the Avatar's weight clinging to her, constricting her chest with the death-grip of his powerful arms. Not waiting for the second explosion, Ami disappeared in a swirl of snow, reappearing much closer to the ocean's surface. Still in the process of steadying herself, she searched for her enemy. Where- another explosion drew her gaze upward to Jadeite, who was smirking as he somehow bounced his enemy's explosives off his shield and sent them into random directions, where they detonated after a few seconds. A moment later, his eyebrows shot up, and he hurriedly dropped out of the path of a greenish blast that tore through one of the expanding fireballs straight at him. Alerted to the dark angel's position, Ami transported her Keeper hand around him, ready to close its fingers on his upright form.
The transparent hand grew milky white as it froze solid before Ami could form a fist, and the elusive angel shot out of the confinement with a single, rapid wing beat.
Ami had about enough of his game, and focused on a stashed-away Shabon Spray Freezing from her storage. So he thought he could dodge everything? The quivering ball of freezing energy appeared a hair's width in front of his face, lighting up his blue skin for the short instant before he passed straight through it.
Ami blinked. An illusion? Alarmed, she raised her hand to touch her right earring and activate her visor, and inadvertently bopped the Avatar in the nose. "Sorry," she shouted, embarrassed that this was the one solid blow anyone had managed on him so far. Her visor appeared, and a second image of the dark angel appeared near the first. So that's why he's mostly using those indirect attacks, he doesn't want to give away his real position. "Jadeite, aim to the-"
Both the real angel and his imaginary double closed their eyes and raised their hands, palms facing each other, and crackling with electricity. Ami stared right into the twin blinding flashes when they erupted simultaneously, temporarily robbing her of her vision. "Arhh! Darn it!"
Opening and closing her eyes rapidly to clear away the specks obstructing her vision, Ami squinted at the sky, frowning deeply. Two could play that game. "Shabon Spray!" Magical fog spread through the air, impairing the vision of her enemies but not her allies. Since Jadeite remained in the area, her Keeper sight had no trouble making out the human-shaped blob of clear air zigzagging through the otherwise dense grey murk. Underneath her, water gurgled, and the blade of a scythe broke the surface like a periscope. Rapidly, horns, a red-skinned head, and wide, pauldron-armoured shoulders appeared as the young Keeper lifted her horned reaper from the sea. Steaming water shot from the monster's nose as he took a deep breath.
"Rabixtrel, he's all yours!" Ami called out, pointing at the moving clear dot speeding through the mist.
The dark angel glanced down through the fog, unable to see the reaper's fanged grin put any shark to shame. An instant later, the world around the crimson-eyed warrior seemed to speed up, and his wings no longer supported his flight. With a growl, he twisted a ruby ring on his left hand, and an egg-shaped cocoon of black feathers formed around him. When the wind blew it apart, starting at the tip, no trace of him remained within.
"Invisible again?" Jadeite asked as he
"No, he escaped," Ami said, sounding disappointed. Her frown deepened. "Darn it! His army destroyed our reaperbots still stuck in the Underworld while he delayed us."
"How many did we lose?" the dark general asked, crossing his arms in front of his chest. Which remained shirtless for the moment, much to Ami's secret delight.
"Fifteen." She snapped her fingers, and five glittering ice statues in her likeness appeared on the small floe bobbing on the waves below. Synchronised, they took an elegant header into the water, glittering in the sun as they arced through the air. "They'll march the sunken automatons toward the shore, for as long as their energy reserves hold out," Ami explained, pointing toward the east. "I'll have to fish them out later. Let's go home."
Two teleports with passengers later, everyone was back at the dungeon. Ami was dripping wet from having to grab Rabixtrel, which wasn't something she had enjoyed doing. She'd have to be insane to like getting any closer to the demonic killing machine than necessary. "Cathy, what's the status on the Underworld army? Are we still in danger?" she asked, rubbing the soot and salt water off her face with a towel. Jadeite was nowhere to be seen, and she assumed that he had returned to his room.
"Their portal is impassable, just as planned," Cathy stated. "They have started tearing down their tents and are preparing to move." She grimaced. "I hope it's a long march to the next portal so we have time to recover and replace our bots."
Jered leaned over the map table, his wavy hair hanging down past his cheeks as he watched the markers. "You didn't fight in any part of the Underworld we have mapped yet, but if the pattern for portal distribution holds, the closest one should be at least two days travel away, at a minimum. Three is more likely."
"More than enough time to disable the other gates their magic re-opened," Ami said, smiling as some of her worries disappeared.
Cathy smiled too. "Three days? By that time, there might not even be an army any more. Their soldiers don't look too happy about what you did to them. I bet those who can will slip away during the walk will, if their leaders don't call off the operation in the first place."
Torian approached from his seat, his robe swishing around his legs from his rapid stride. His ingratiating smile wavered when he spotted the Avatar walk up to Mercury, and the warlock turned to the right and hurried toward the map desk, as if that had been his destination in the first place.
"Well, you seem to be out of danger for the moment. I shall take my leave, then," the Avatar declared with an air of finality.
"You don't have to leave if you don't want to. I'm not going to banish you from your own-"
Amadeus held up his palm to forestall her protests. "I am not going to stay here where everything is a reminder of what I lost," he growled. "Besides," his eyes filled with a bright white glow, and Torian dropped all pretences and dove into cover behind the command chair, "We have already arranged for the necessary transport. Empress Mercury, you will find instructions regarding the second part of Our concessions underneath the mantle."
"I see. What-"
"EMPRESS? That's true?" Cathy stared at Mercury, her blue eyes wide. She wasn't the only one.
"Later, Cathy," Ami waved her off. "Avatar, what about your trolls?" she asked the man who had turned his back on her and was walking toward the hero gate still wafting in the air in the back of the command centre.
"I will take them with me, of course. I do not abandon loyal soldiers," Amadeus said before jumping into the glowing two-dimensional tear in space.
"My Empress, I have tracked him and the traitors!" Torian acted as if he hadn't just crawled out from his hiding place, and thrust his crooked index finger against the glass of his scrying screen. Blue-burning summoning circles blazed on the ground, one for each of the figures waiting within the tunnels of the troll island.
Ami recognised the arcane effects as the several minute long summoning ritual she had used to good effect a few times before. These must have been cast by a great many wizards on a different continent.
"Now is the time to strike! How are you going to destroy them? Lightning? Fire? Perhaps crush them in your hand like the ants they are? Or are you going to slowly rend them-"
Ami interrupted his stream of suggestions, shooting a red-eyed glare in the warlock's direction. "I am not going to interfere."
The oily-haired man reared back as if struck, shock on his face. "What? He'll get away if you don't betray him now! Do you want that? He's the Avatar, the enemy of all we stand for! You have exploited his naivety admirably, but you can't just let him go!" Mutters that sounded like agreement came from the other magicians in the room.
"Can't I?" Ami answered, frowning at the robed man in a haughty way. She hoped she managed to put some menace into her tone. Who would have known that playing an evil overlord required so much acting? Maybe she should ask her friends for a textbook on it.
The warlock fidgeted under her silent stare and took a step back. "Err, that is, I didn't mean-"
"Silence. I shall explain my reasons. First, I have obtained from him what I came here for. Second, he also knows that I can defeat him, and will not bother me again. Third, my rivals," her lips parted in a grin that was backed with genuine glee, displaying Tiger's sharp incisors, "enjoy no such protection."
"Ah, I see." Torian's face lit up with understanding. "Forgive me, your Imperial Majesty. My hatred for the forces of Good blinded me to the greater picture. I bow before your brilliance." The short-bearded man did just that, leaning on his staff as he bowed deeply at the waist.
Ami felt a bit embarrassed by the gesture. "Rise."
"My Empress, if I may I ask, what other concessions did you squeeze out of these sorry excuses for gods?" the dark wizard asked, voice dripping with curiosity.
Ami raised her index finger and waved it back and forth as if chiding a child, but her voice was cold. "You may not. Some secrets remain my own."
"Forgive me for my insolence," Torian bowed once again, his face paler than before.
Ami inclined her head in a nod, then addressed the room. "Everyone, good work. Take a break for now, we will have a proper debriefing later."
Ami sat sideways in front of her desk in her bookshelf-filled study, facing a captive audience consisting of Jered, his girlfriend, Snyder, and Jadeite. "...and that's why they named me Empress of the Avatar Islands," Ami finished her tale.
"Empress Mercury," Jadeite chuckled. "I like the sound of that. I wonder what dear Queen Beryl will make of it?"
Ami blushed slightly. She was more worried about how her friends would react once they learned about it. She expected some good-natured teasing in the near future. In a way, she was almost looking forward to it. "Well, it was just a ruse to keep my enemies off my back. So you see, it's not a big deal."
"I disagree. It is definitely a big deal," Jered contradicted and shook his head. "I'd have thought that, as a Keeper, you would have realised how important territorial claims are. The land knows its master. I expect you will have an easier time here than normal."
"Oh?" that idea hadn't occurred to her yet. "I will have to perform some experiments," she acknowledged.
The wavy-haired man wasn't done yet. "In addition, it will give you more political clout than any Keeper in history has ever had. The other royals will have to at least pretend that they are paying attention to your diplomatic suggestions. They can't simply ignore your title without undermining their own legitimacy. "
"That sounds useful," Ami pondered.
"It means that when they declare war on you, they'll have to be polite about it," Cathy drawled.
"Ah, well, there might be an additional benefit," Snyder said. The redhead straightened his hair with an unconscious gesture. "While most codes of law do not allow for trading with a Keeper, there are no laws against trading with Empresses. Since it is customary for higher titles to override lower ones - and Empress is as high as you can get short of Avatar - some enterprising merchants with a poorly-developed sense of morality may consider your Empress status to override your Keeper status. At least until the courts decide to close that particular loophole, if they ever do. I do not envy the ones who will be tasked to resolve that legalistic tangle."
"Well, that sounds as if you need to get yourself a proper crown soon, Empress," Jered said with a wink.
"On the other hand, we have more pressing troubles," Cathy pointed out, her face grim. "With the loss of the trolls and the automatons, our military power is at an all-time low. Thank the Light we aren't facing any organised resistance right now. I strongly suggest that you cut the research time of your warlocks in half and send them to me for combat training. With our current troop shortage, we can't afford to have non-combatants." The swordswoman grinned at Snyder. "That includes you."
"They won't like it, but it will help in case of more unpleasant surprises, too" Ami said. "All right."
Snyder gulped. The redhead could predict great discomfort in his future from the mischievous glint in Cathy's eyes.
"What concerns me is that we can't replace the automatons without the trolls. Who, by the way, know how to build them," Jered brought up his concerns.
"They cannot replicate the enchantments without a properly programmed dungeon heart," Ami said, shaking her head. "They know how to construct them, but not how to properly animate or synch them up with a wearer. They may be able to copy the lightning protection though, since that's just physics."
"Ah, that's good to know. What's the status of the treasury, by the way?" the weasel-featured man continued.
"I wouldn't want to face another siege right now, but wages are secured for the next two paydays," Ami answered. "The unsupervised gem furnace model is working about as well as expected, and I could theoretically add more at an exponential rate. If we are left in peace for about a week, budget troubles could be a thing of the past. I will have to ramp up the decoys and misdirection surrounding the gem production facility even more, though."
"I certainly couldn't make any sense of that mess of tubes, glowing crystals, and bubbling crucibles when I had a look at it a while ago," Cathy said. "However, all the money in the world still won't help us with a lack of troops. I can just see the hostile Underworlders jump at the chance to let new recruits through to us. Provided we even dare leave some portals open."
"Maybe we should throw them a bone?" Jered offered.
"What do you suggest?" Ami asked, turning to look at the wavy-haired man.
"The vampires who plundered that city are still at large. Their destruction should satisfy the Underworld's need to save face," the brown-haired man said evenly.
"I- I don't like using lives as bargaining chips." Ami crossed her arms, an expression of distaste on her face.
"Keep in mind all of them are mass murderers, not only of other Underworld denizens, but also of the former inhabitants of this continent. They would only be getting their just reward. In fact, I am slightly surprised that the Avatar didn't go after them himself."
Ami closed her eyes, pondering this. That would include Nurgil too, wouldn't it? Being a ruler and making this kind of decisions was hard. "I will think about it," she offered.
Later, when the others had left, Jadeite returned and glanced curiously at the spellbooks and hidebound tomes piled on Mercury's desk. They looked like the kind of arcane lore that surface dwellers would burn on sight - after checking thrice to make sure that doing so wouldn't land them with a nasty curse or ten. "Your Imperial Majesty, I'm surprised at your choice of lecture," he said, sounding amused.
"You can keep calling me Mercury," Ami said quickly. "There's no need to be formal."
"As you wish, Mercury." The grey-uniformed general took one of the books, flipping it open to a page marked with a green bookmark. His eyebrows shot up. "Demon summoning? An interesting way to deal with our current lack of warriors."
"No, that's not what I need it for," Ami looked like a child caught with her hand in the cookie jar. "I'm doing some research on getting my soul back!"
"Oh. Any progress so far?"
"I have a plan already, but," she looked at the floor for a moment, "nobody here would like it."
"Oh?" Jadeite sounded intrigued."Something that would manage to rile up both Light and Dark?"
"Well," Ami explained in a quiet voice, "part of the first step involves summoning Queen Metallia to this world."
"Yes, I can see how your surfacer allies would have a problem with that," Jadeite commented. "So far, I still like the plan."
"Right into an adamantine container to imprison her," Ami continued.
Jadeite sucked in his breath.
"And then chucking it into a temple of the Light so they can dispose of her," the blue-haired girl continued.
The dark general winced.
"I don't actually know if it would work. She might not have my soul with her," Ami pointed out. "It might not even be in a physical location. This would be a gamble."
Jadeite cleared his throat and crossed his arms. "I'm not convinced the Light would be able to defeat our Great Ruler," he pointed out.
"I assume that they could figure that out before opening the prison," Ami answered. "In that case they could keep it somewhere safe and lock her up forever."
"Did you consider that, if she has your soul, and you put her into a goddess-proof prison, whatever tenuous connection keeps you alive might be severed? This could kill you!" He found the idea upsetting for some reason.
"I thought about that, too" Ami admitted, "but at least the worlds would be safe. It's a risk I'm willing to take."
"It's still not a very intelligent thing to do," Jadeite said, clenching his white-gloved fists. "I strongly suggest you come up with a better alternative."
Ami thought he seemed upset enough, and decided not to tell him about her backup plan. Even she didn't approve of that one.
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