Ami's fingers brushed against the uneven rock to her right as she moved down the stairs, leaving three bright white streaks on the wall even though this place was no older than the rest of her dungeon. Dark grey dust covered her fingertips, clinging to her black gloves. The unnaturally plentiful substance dimmed the torchlight here, rendering the chamber ahead even darker than it already was.
She felt like someone in a horror movie and felt her hackles rise, even though she knew she was not in danger here. Cold, stagnant fog covered the floor up to her knees, making goosebumps appear on her legs. Her expression hardened with distaste when she spotted the real skulls affixed to the corners of the tomb-like room. Ahead of her, the resident vampire stood like an obsidian pillar, staring down at the open tome on the lectern in front of him. He was so silent and motionless that Ami might have mistaken him for a statue if she didn't know better.
"Your Imperial Majesty," Nurgil greeted her in an even voice devoid of emotion.
"Nurgil. I need the names of the other vampires who worked under Zarekos," Ami said. This was her first step for dealing with the vampire situation that was weighing heavily on her mind.
The black-robed vampire swiveled around to face her without moving any of his body parts. "You wish to hire my former comrades?" Despite the animated corpse's lack of expressive body language, Ami thought she detected a hint of disapproval.
"I want to be able to find them with scrying, at the very least. I am not going to put up with the hassle they could cause me if they felt like it!" Ami shuddered inwardly at the thought of ending up in a guerilla war against creatures that could teleport and change shape at will. Yes, she could keep them out of critical areas with water barriers easily enough, but nowhere else would be safe.
"Very well." Nurgil's eyes bored into her, as if he was trying to see straight into her head. After what happened during her last encounter with Zarekos, she did not dare meet the hungry gaze. "I shall prepare a list for you. Be aware, though, that the Underworld will not look favourably on you granting them asylum. They may ignore a handful, but more than that... "
"Just do it, please. I'll think of something," Ami said.
"As you wish." The vampire turned back to his work. Behind him, Ami disappeared, drawing streamers of mist into the void her sudden absence left behind.
Ami reappeared in her room and sat down on her bed. She wrapped her arms around herself as she shivered. These vampires were creepy. She hoped that didn't influence her ability to make rational decisions about them. Hunting them down promised to be troublesome, and allowing an Underworld party onto her continent to do it for her would be even worse. For that reason, she had dismissed these two possibilities. If she wanted a speedy resolution, she needed to get them to join her forces.
But then what? She was a warrior of love and justice! If the monsters had participated in the genocide of this continent's population, then they deserved, no, needed to be punished! Ami let out a long sigh and rested her forehead on her palms. It was very simple, in theory. In practice, she had a responsibility to keep those who worked for her safe, and the vampires represented an enormous amount of power. They were some of the most dangerous creatures in this world, as far as she knew. She wouldn't be surprised if five or so of the strongest ones could take down Rabixtrel without too much of a struggle if they worked together well. Besides, wouldn't it be hypocritical to punish the vampires when she carefully made no inquiries into the past of her other hirelings? Unfortunately, that didn't change that they were wanted criminals both on the surface and in the Underworld, her conscience reminded her.
Ami eyed the inert crystal ball resting on her chest of drawers with longing. Three sheets of parchment inscribed with precise letters and symbols in golden ink nestled up to the transparent orb. The young Keeper had recovered them from underneath the Avatar's mantle. She hoped the Light hadn't minded her using a very long stick to move the silver-runed garment, fighting her revulsion to interact with it all the way. Her agreement with them only concerned the Avatar, after all
While the Light gods probably wouldn't hurt her even if she touched the mantle, having her Keeper powers suppressed for some time was not something she was going to risk. In any case, the beautiful golden script on the sheets spelled out instructions for a ritual that she should transmit to her friends. Once performed, it would pull a crystal ball out of a certain spot in inter-dimensional space that the Light had placed it into.
The directions looked simple enough for even Usagi to get right - on the second or third try, at least, Ami allowed with a smile.She almost couldn't wait to hear her friends' voices again. The problem was that the ritual was long, and it would take her at least half a day to transmit it correctly. As much as she wished to, she simply couldn't take the necessary time out of her day right now. Besides, why should she burden her friends with her problems? She would be the one who had to make a decision in the end. What would they think about her situation?
For a moment, she imagined their faces and realized that she already knew their answer in her heart. With renewed energy, she stood up, hands balled into fists. No more acting against her principles! She had gone far enough already just to survive, forced by circumstances. Right now, she was in no immediate danger. Keeping the vampires would be taking the easy path instead of the right one. She would not forgive those who acted like monsters!
On the other hand, she didn't know if all of them were guilty of atrocities. Her momentary enthusiasm waned as fast as it had come. It was likely, but she just didn't know. If she simply exterminated all of them, she would never find out, either. Thus, she was back to needing to secure them and interrogate them. Hiring them just for that reason felt perfidious, as if she was betraying some trust, but she didn't really have a choice. What worried her more was how the rest of her employees and the Underworld would react. Would new recruits still want to join up with her if she was willing to turn against even such powerful servants? Nobody would still feel safe from her. Unless she could spin the situation as if she was doing the right thing for the wrong reason, of course.
Oh, she was making excuses again. If the employees didn't like it, so what? Her continent, her rules. No new recruits? She would manage somehow. She had before. Jadeite was already fishing for more youma. She could also find a way to construct more golems. Mercenaries, perhaps? She was an empress now - something that was almost as hard to adjust to as being a magical girl - and would soon be able to offer much better wages than anyone else. She had a feeling that at least the warlocks would cheer her on if she was forced to dispose of the bloodsuckers. They really did not like each other.
In a ship's galley, seven females wearing white uniforms that resembled hardened smimsuits sat around a big bin filled with yellowish bulbs.
"Argh, I hate this!" A fiery-headed young fairy with ruby eyes glared at the half-peeled potato in her hand and shifted uncomfortably on the hard wooden bench. "Ouch! Not again!"
"Are you hurt, Anise?" the blue-haired fae sitting next to her sister asked. "Camilla, Anise cut her finger again! Can you fix it, please?" She let her own finished potato drop into the bin and grabbed her redheaded sister by the wrist, tugging at the limb and shoving it practically in the younger blonde's face.
"You'd think she would have learned to do something this simple properly by now, with all the time we have been doing this," the violet-haired young woman sitting opposite from them said in a breathy tone of voice. Not only had she folded her wings neatly behind her back, even the discarded potato peels at her side rested in tidy layers.
"Shut up, Cerasse," Anise shot back while Camilla healed her finger. "I don't need to take that from someone who baulks at preparing calamari!" The redhead put her good hand over the silver tiara on her head, swaying as if she was about to faint as she imitated her sister's voice and bearing. "Oh, I can't! The poor little tentacles!"
"Girls, less bickering and more peeling," Dandel, the indigo-haired eldest of the group spoke up in a tone of voice that brooked no protest. "Act professionally, or do you want to be stuck in this place forever?"
Six heads shook in unison.
"Bah, I want to go out on missions again!" orange-haired Roselle whined, "this is all Keeper Mercury's fault!"
"Yeah, we totally didn't deserve that demotion for getting captured by someone like her," Tilia agreed.
"Oh, is that so?" A male voice asked from behind them, speaking loud enough to be heard over the sound of the door creaking open. The seven startled fairies turned to look at their visitor.
"Gah! Sir? I didn't mean-" Roselle backpedalled quickly. At the last moment, she remembered that saluting with the peeling knife still in her hand would be a bad idea.
"At ease." The silvery-blue-haired man was wearing the male variant of the white fae uniform, which was even more revealing than its female counterpart and left his chest bare. In the fairy sisters' opinion, it compared poorly to that of Keeper Mercury's curly-haired servant. Despite being about twice as old as them, the male fae looked boyish, being neither of heavier build nor taller than Dandel. The large jade earrings decorating his slightly pointed ears underlined his effeminate look even more. "You are in luck. It seems the higher-ups really did underestimate her, and are now coming around to your view. Which means that you will be debriefed once again. In exhaustive detail." He waited until the chorus of exasperated groans died down, and added with a smirk "at the Emperor's court."
Shouts of "What?" "Seriously?" and startled gasps echoed through the small room. While the others stared with their mouths open, Tilia took the opportunity to ask "Keeper Mercury did something spectacular?"
"You could say that. By the way, it's 'Empress Mercury' now." The male fae visibly enjoyed the slack-jawed expressions his statement produced.
"It can't be!"
"But- you- you can't mean-" Camilla went white as a ghost as her golden eyes teared up. "How did she manage to marry our Emperor? Wahhhh!"
The officer twitched, and his wings buzzed in agitation, spraying golden glitter against the walls. Wide-eyed, he stared at the young blonde. " Huh? What? No! Don't be stupid! She didn't! What gave you that silly idea?"
Camilla stopped her wailing. "No? But that would be the only way for someone like her to get the title, and His Imperial Majesty is the only-"
"Nonsense. It had to do with her plan on the Avatar Islands," the man interrupted.
"Oh? What did she want to do there?" Cerasse asked with interest. Her sisters fell silent, waiting just as attentively as her for a reply.
"Bring back the Avatar. She succeeded." Oh, this was so much fun, he thought, suppressing his grin as he watched the fairies freeze up again. He could almost hear their thoughts grind to a halt.
"The Avatar is back?"
"Why would she-"
"How does that make her- "
"And then she beat him down with a single spell," the male fae continued. This time, he ignored the inevitable outbursts that followed his words. Inwardly, he chuckled as the redhead's potato dropped from her suddenly limp fingers. All of the girls were paling rapidly. "You can imagine why we are extremely interested in her right now. She then ransomed him back to the Light gods in return for her new title," he continued, forestalling more questions. "Now follow me. I'm sure you are all sick of potatoes by now."
"Cathy! Are you free right now?" Ami stepped out of the cloud of fading snowflakes her sudden arrival in the command centre had created.
Lounging on the command chair with one leg across the other and her arms crossed behind her head, the swordswoman wouldn't have been able to look busy even if she had wanted to pretend she was. "Sure. We have already finished disabling the portals that the Underworlders restored. Are the warlocks available for training now?"
Ami's Keeper sight shifted over to the iceberg, where trios of dark magicians stood around glowing magic circles on the ground, chanting with their arms raised. At the bottom of the ocean to the west, blue flames burned despite the water surrounding them. As Ami watched, two of her ice golems broke through the curtain of bubbles rising up from the ghostly flame, dragging an inert reaperbot between them. Without fanfare, they dumped the metal construct into the centre of the counter-rotating rings of fire and swam away.
Back on the iceberg, the faces of the warlocks became strained and nervous as their chant built toward a crescendo and their robes billowed in an unfelt wind. One fountaining burst of fire later, the magical circle was no longer empty. A cylinder of seawater replaced the air within the confines of the circle, containing the recovered reaperbot. The column of water instantly lost its shape, collapsing in on itself and rushing outward with a loud gurgle. The warlocks were already running, their shoes making loud clanging noises as they sprinted over the metal grates surrounding the ritual site. They had barely taken a few steps when the flood swept them away, dragging them along for a few meters before it could all drain away through the grates below them.
The young Keeper shook her head. "I'm afraid they will still be busy for a while. I wanted to ask your help with something else, though. You know how to use a crystal ball?"
"I know the basics. Wouldn't it be better to get one of the professionals?"
"Not in this case. The reason is that." Ami pointed at Cathy's worn sailor Mercury uniform, still its original white colour. "I need to transmit something to my friends across dimensions, but I don't have the time. Since you can cast my Shabon Spray, it stands to reason that you have at least partial access to my mana supply. Thus, you should be able to contact them without passing out from the strain."
Cathy nodded. "That sounds so encouraging. Anyway, what do I have to do?"
"I'll show you what you need," Ami said. She pulled out her Mercury computer, which had already translated the Light's scanned instruction into Morse code for her. A few quick applications of the fabrication spell, and the swordswoman held paper copies of the screen's content in her hands. "Now, my friend Rei can detect when someone is scrying on her, and..."
Ami continued her explanations. Now she only needed to get Snyder, Jered, and the dark elves into the communication room. There, they should use the giant eyes on stalks to whisper convincing enticements directly into the minds of the free-roaming vampires on the continent and get them to join her forces. I'm slowly getting the hang of delegating things, she thought with a smile.
King Albrecht stood on the balcony of his palace and smiled down at the music-filled city sprawling at the foot of the hill below. He could hear temple bells ring loudly, as if they were competing with the instruments of the entertainers gathered around the feast in the marketplace. If he was younger, he would probably have joined the people dancing in the streets and celebrating the Avatar's return to the world.
"Ah, Spymaster," he said, sniffing the breeze audibly. "Does the smell of the roast make you hungry too?"
"I can't say it does, your Majesty." The other man, who had most certainly not been there a moment before, sounded astonished and just a bit frustrated.
Albrecht grinned into his beard. "Well, old friend, one of these days you might actually manage to sneak up on me. Twenty years of unsuccessful tries is no excuse to give up."
"You are in a good mood today, Sire."
"Of course I am!" Albrecht let go of the railing and faced the cowled spy. "I'm just as happy as everyone else that the Avatar is back. More so, since I'm aware of what really happened over there. I almost had a heart attack when Keeper Mercury just flung him into the wall with a simple gesture."
"If that had happened, you would have been in a room filled with high-ranking priests, at least," the spymaster said in a dry tone of voice. Tiny wrinkles visible around his eyes denoted that he was speaking in jest.
"True. The conclusion to their altercation was almost as much of a shock. Empress. A Keeper." Albrecht shook his head as if in disbelief. "And they remained on good enough terms that he assisted her with the defence of her dungeon, too."
"That might have been part of the extorted agreement," the spymaster speculated. "In any case, a certain degree of pragmatism is to be expected from someone who teams up with trolls."
King Albrecht went inside and drew the red curtains shut behind him. "He managed to convert those trolls, too. I wonder how they are enjoying the beaches of Kalega?" He lifted a sleeping kitten out of his armchair before sitting down. The animal blinked, meowed once, and settled down on his lap, purring as he started stroking its back.
"Kalega, your Majesty?" Court wizard Dumat, who had only caught the tail end of the conversation, was perusing the bookshelves in the back of the room.
Albrecht nodded. "A tropical island nation just off the east coast. Famous for sun, beaches, fruit, and friendly locals. It also has a minor Keeper problem."
"Nothing that would at first glance warrant the Avatar's attention. Keeper Peran has made a petty nuisance out of himself for the last fifty years, but the local forces never had much trouble with his incursions." The spymaster was flipping through his notes as he continued. "If I was prone to speculation, I would assume that the Light decided that he needs a vacation."
"If anyone does, it's him," Albrecht nodded and let out a long breath. "Well, with Mercury now holding the title of Empress of the Avatar Islands, the Light has made it pretty much official that they consider the place lost to the darkness for good. At least her reason for traveling to that wasteland is now in the open. I certainly didn't expect anything as stunningly brash as that."
"I could not have predicted this either, which worries me," the spymaster pointed out. "We had no indication that the Avatar's power still existed, or that he was still alive. Yet, the dark empress' knowledge was solid enough for her to commit to that course of action. That indicates that she has an information network even better than our own.Worst of all, it remains completely undiscovered by my sources so far. I also have not yet been able to discover how she finances her expansion."
"She probably just conjures all her wealth up from thin air," Dumat said. "We already know that her magical reserves are insane from the amount of golems she was able to deploy."
"All in all, that paints a fairly terrifying picture." Albrecht gently stopped the kitten from climbing up his ermine pelt stole. "Still, she has rendered us a great service by returning the Avatar into play."
"She probably doesn't think that way, since she can easily defeat him," the court wizard said, shuddering. "This makes me question whether working on a spell to summon her is a wise idea. Should I cancel that project, your Majesty?"
Pages rustled as the masked man consulted his ever-present notes. "My agents interrogated many witnesses of the Avatar's intrusion into the dark empress' dungeon. While none of the diviners were able to see through the magical darkness that obscured part of the battle, the end was observed by all. An analysis of the data suggests that engaging her in combat remains feasible. She kept pointing her palm at the Avatar while she pinned him to the wall, indicating that this power requires constant concentration. It is very likely that she cannot maintain it on more targets than she has limbs, so superior numbers should definitely work."
"Unless she keeps her tentacle monster around for more than the obvious reasons," Dumat interjected.
"I see." Albrecht sat up in his chair. "Given how dangerous she is, even a spell that would merely summon her away and prevent her from personally defending her dungeon hearts could be invaluable. It might, in fact, be the only way to stop her. Dumat, continue your research with all due haste."
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