Vampire Darius could say with perfect certainty that he hated travelling by sea. In the form of a large bat, he was alive enough to survive crossing the ocean without ill effects. Unfortunately, being alive also meant he had to put up with the natural frailties of the living. Shivering in discomfort, he tightened his wings around himself and curled up into a ball. He wished the scraps of old curtain he had padded this wooden box with were warmer. While he was at it, he also wished that the tar pitch he had caulked the small container with would stop assaulting his nose with its stench. At least, it was keeping out the salty spray pattering against the walls of his tiny abode.
"Why can't these useless ghosts pull harder?" he asked nobody in particular. The five dominated spectres were already dragging his improvised raft toward the west as fast as they could. Well, he shouldn't complain, he thought. With the death of his sire, Zarekos, he was free of the vampire lord's command to remain within his realm, and he had even found a way off the Avatar Islands on his own. Keeper Mercury had unwittingly shown him how when she arrived on her iceberg. He couldn't find enough wood to make a real ship, but could manage freezing spells just fine. Crossing the ocean within a crate on top of a bobbing ice floe wasn't fun, but he could deal with temporary discomfort if it meant his freedom and independence, not to mention escaping from the Underworld forces out for his blood.
His feeling of satisfaction came crashing down when a flying object entered the range of his echolocation. A Shining Concord flying carpet, here? That couldn't be coincidence! He screeched out a stream of vile curses when smaller, insect-winged forms detached from it. He didn't know how they could have found him, but he didn't believe in coincidences. With a sudden flurry of activity, he forced his way through the hatch built into the top of his box and flapped his wings furiously, darting away from his vessel at the best speed his tiny form could manage.
Cowardly? Yes. Well-justified? Very. The fairies made a beeline for the icy raft. Flickering blue light lit up the wave crests between which he was hiding as the attackers quickly dispatched his ghostly minions with lightning. He didn't even look back. A few loud booms, hisses, and orange flashes later, he knew that the blockade team was very thorough. If he had still been hiding in his box in the hopes of being overlooked, the attackers' fireballs would have incinerated him when they melted the ice vessel into nothingness.
Scared and frustrated, he set course back to the Avatar Islands. His existence could have ended there! Even if they didn't chase him, he was still in peril. He hoped that this body had enough stamina to make it back to the mainland. If he fell prey to exhaustion and drowned in this form, he would be just as dead as if he tried to cross the waters in his natural form. His plans thwarted, he considered his future options during the long journey back to safe land. Maybe he should respond to Keeper Mercury's recruitment offer if he made it back in one piece?
"Your Majesty, a representative from the Silver Hawks is requesting an audience to discuss some contracts," an aide wearing a red livery embroidered with roaring lions announced, bowing in front of King Albrecht's throne.
The wizened Monarch stroked his beard in thought and raised a grey eyebrow. "Unusual. I am unaware of any bounties that the kingdom placed recently."
"He mentioned that it was urgent, Sire."
"It always is," Albrecht said, chuckling into his beard. "Very well, let's hear him out."
The man who entered through the double doors, flanked by two halberd-wielding guards, was wearing a long leather coat emblazoned with a flying hawk on the chest. The ends of his thin black moustache whipped toward the ground as he bowed crisply some distance from the throne. "Your Majesty. I am Vernol, Grand Secretary of the Silver Hawks."
"Rise." Albrecht motioned the man closer and held out his open hand to receive the documents that the other was removing from his scroll case. "What brings you here?"
"Well," The man looked somewhat uncomfortable. "My employers found it prudent, in light of recent events, to suspend these contracts," he handed them over, "until you had the opportunity to review them."
"That is highly irregular," Albrecht said in a gruff tone of voice as he unrolled the scrolls. "Why would- oh my." His eyes widened slightly, and he grimaced. "Yes, the political and legal implications of a bounty on the head of an empress and her associates would be cause for concern, even if she is also a Keeper. Thanks for bringing this to my attention."
Jered smirked when he strode in through the door. "We have lured in three more vampires, your Majesty. They are outside, waiting to be hired."
"Please, call me Mercury when we are in private," Ami said. He imagined that she would have blushed if she hadn't been possessing an ice body at the moment. "I don't feel like an empress." She took three gold coins from the stack resting next to her Mercury computer and disappeared from her seat.
Jered could sympathise with the feeling. He hadn't properly internalised yet that he was now working directly underneath an empress. Him! To think that the strange, naive Keeper who had hired him almost on accident would come so far. He shook his head in wonder, making his wavy hair brush against his cheeks. He would have to be extra nice to Cathy to reward her for convincing him to stick with Mercury in the beginning. Maybe a present?
The weasel-featured man's thoughts drifted for a moment as he considered some options before returning to his reason for his good mood. While Mercury was hated and feared as a Keeper, her title was as legitimate as it could get. Any titles she chose to bestow unto her subjects once she got around to formalise the structure of her empire would be just as legitimate. He'd have to gently make her aware that she had that option. He was effectively fulfilling the role of her treasurer, and if any of Mercury's subjects deserved the title of Baron, it was Cathy. And here he had thought that all his ambitions had died an abrupt death when he had become associated with the blue-haired girl. Things were looking up, he thought. Now if Mercury would only manage to do something about the near-constant mortal peril that followed her wherever she went...
"...so you see, I feel that they have to be punished for their crimes, but I don't want to be judge jury and executioner," Ami finished explaining to Snyder, Cathy, and Jered, who sat across her from the table in the living room. Now that the vampires were actually wandering around in a catacomb-like section of her dungeon, her earlier determination had been replaced by nagging insecurity. "It's not that I don't want to bring them to justice, it's that I don't feel comfortable deciding what should happen to them. Killing an enemy in battle is one thing, but sentencing prisoners..." Ami trailed off and took a long sip from the cup of tea standing before her as she collected her thoughts. "Besides, when I hired them, they couldn't have know that I would disapprove of their past misdeeds."
"Which does not excuse their crimes in the slightest. Seriously, I don't see why you are having an attack of bad conscience over this. Sure, you deceived a bunch monsters to lure them into a trap. Good job! You just prevented unnecessary losses among the good guys and stopped them from going into hiding, just as you wanted." Jered sounded genuinely confused by Mercury's misgivings.
"All of them were eager to join up, even after being first in Zarekos', then Wemos' employ?" Cathy asked, her voice dubious.
"About half of them were reluctant before Mercury transmitted them a message of her own," the wavy-haired man said with a grin. "She told them that she wasn't going to tolerate any free agents on her lands, and that she would send the vampires who did join up after those individuals that didn't. They trickled in fairly quickly after she started reading the missing names from a list."
"Good thinking. It's so comforting to know they are no longer roaming the countryside, and roaming this dungeon instead."
Snyder paid no attention to the blonde's sarcasm and looked into Ami's eyes. "Mercury, there is a rather simple solution to your problem. You do not want to set arbitrary or whimsical punishments, and you do not need to. You can simply apply the appropriate punishments that existed for their crimes at the time they were committed. The vampires would most certainly have broken the laws of this land during the invasion. Technically, you have inherited this realm, and they would still be in effect since you never adjusted them."
"Hmm." Ami's expression brightened as she figuratively leapt at the offered solution. "That isn't a bad idea at all. If I got a copy of the Avatar Islands' code of laws from somewhere, I could officially reinstate-"
"No. That's a horrible idea," Jered interrupted immediately, holding up both hands. "We want to get the Underworlders off our back, not give them more reasons to go after you! Applying surface law here would definitely be seen as defection!"
"I think coming up with a code of laws of your own would be a good idea, now that you are an Empress," Cathy said quickly when Mercury's face fell. "If your laws remained focused mainly on maintaining order in your lands, you could get away with a lot while keeping the impression that they are value-neutral."
Ami nodded along slowly, but she was only half-listening to the blonde's words. In her mind, a new plan was taking shape. Now, what had been the name of that magical peddler who had contacted her during her first days in this world. Nicodemus something?
"... and we'd suspend them upside down so the blood would shoot to their heads and keep them conscious longer. Good times." the vampire's mental voice was tinged with nostalgia as he failed to pick up on the horror and searing rage that the tales of his exploits were evoking in the passenger possessing his body.
"BE QUIET! I have heard enough! Ami bellowed in his mind, feeling sickened already after his first three sentences. Nothing was embellished or exaggerated either, she knew. While she didn't have any truth-finding arcane patterns, it wasn't possible to lie to her within the suspect's mind itself. She only wished this vampire and his many predecessors had been lying. At least, I don't have to see the relevant memories this way, she thought as she fought to reign in both her temper and the urge to slay this monster on the spot. Someone harming children always was the fastest way to make her seethe with anger. However, she would stick to the plan, and not impulsively stuff this beast down the Avatar's mantle as it rightly deserved. With the mental equivalent of a brutal shove, she pushed the vampire's control over his body aside and turned into a bat. Even with the instinctive knowledge how to do it, it was an incredibly weird sensation, no matter how often she repeated that transformation. From experimentation, she knew that the bloodsucking monstrosities didn't have access to their powers as long as they were in this living form, and she blocked out the vampire's babbling in the back of her mind as she transported their shared body into a tiny cage surrounded by water.
An instant later, she had left the small mammal behind and was back on her stone throne. Now in her true form, she gulped in air with deep, calming breaths, clutching her hands to keep them from shaking in anger. Only three more to go, she reminded herself.
The next vampire dropped into the room, momentarily startled. Ami saw the red-robed figure cringe and drop to his knees the moment he spotted her expression. She wasn't particularly surprised by his reaction, since she could see the faint shadow the vampire was casting on the ground due to the crimson glow of her eyes. With the way the dark energy swirling around her was corroding the stone, she'd need to replace her throne once this was over. Before the vampire even dared raise his gaze to meet hers, she turned into crackling blackness and sank into his body.
"Name?" she asked in his mind.
"D-Darius," the vampire responded, taken aback by the sudden intrusion.
"Do you have a graveyard to revive in somewhere?"
"No, your Imperial Majesty," Darius replied quickly.
Ami felt no deception from him. "When did you arise from the grave?" As soon as she had asked the question, she felt a surge of panic from her host.
"D-during the g-great famine after Mukrezar's v-victory," he stuttered, his thoughts informing Ami that he thought she was only interested in old, experienced vampires.
In a way, that was even true. Ami ended the possession. "Thank you, I have heard enough." She felt slightly calmer now. This bloodsucker had not yet existed during the time of the massacres."You may feed on the dead imps in the next room if you are hungry."
"Thank you, yo-" Darius disappeared as Ami impatiently sent him away and plopped down back on her eroded throne, eager to get the rest of this draining series of interviews over with.
The muscular, short-bearded man lying on the beach and enjoying the afternoon sun felt the temperature drop when a shadow fell over him.
Amadeus opened one eye and let his gaze wander up the tanned legs before him until they disappeared underneath a slitted skirt coloured white and gold. The Kalegan priestess who had woken him was wearing much less than he was used to from clergy, but still more than most fairies he had known. Given the tropical climate, that didn't surprise him. He steadied his elbows in the sand and sat up slowly. "Yes? Sister Arika, was it?"
The black-haired woman nodded and wrung her hands. "I am so sorry to disturb your rest, Lord Avatar, but something came up that requires your attention. There is, well, a large crate was delivered magically, addressed to you." She looked over her shoulder back to the white marble tower crowning a cliff that jutted out into the sea. "It's from Kee- Empress Mercury," she blurted out in a hurry.
"I see. Not entirely unexpected, she was supposed to send something." The Avatar stood up and sipped from the goblet filled with cool fruit juice resting on a smoothed rock next to him. Though I would have thought she would simply send her dungeon heart notes to the nearest temple instead of bothering me. "It contains books?"
"No. I mean, probably not. If the note attached to it is to be believed." Arika wrung her hands again. "Err, it says, 'DANGER, READ THIS FIRST' in huge red letters," the priestess quoted. "'Contents: 31 ravenous vampires'."
Amadeus choked on his drink and spewed the reddish liquid from his nostrils. Once he had regained control over his breathing, he asked incredulously "Say what?"
"It goes on to read 'in bat form, caged, surrounded with walls of water'," the woman continued. "We weren't exactly eager to open it after reading that."
The Avatar was already stalking off toward the tower, motioning to the trolls lounging underneath the palm trees to follow him. "I'll have a look at this immediately. Oh, and if the conveyor of the package is still available, I have something I want to send back to Mercury."
"Your crate has been delivered and accepted, Great Empress," Nicodemus Asbraxe said to the glowing crystal ball on his table. Despite the ring of fat surrounding his stomach getting in the way, the smuggler was bowing so deeply that most of the mangy beard protruding from underneath his hood rested on his carpet, next to a coffee stain.
"Good. Here is the second part of your payment," the young-sounding female voice from the orb replied. Within the blossom-like summoning diagram decorating the trader's floor, a stack of gold coins appeared. He couldn't help but drool a little at the sight, momentarily ignoring the terror the deceptively innocent-looking creature, for whom he had just moved some cargo, inspired in him. It was almost enough to get him over his disappointment that she hadn't forgotten his existence.
While he was curious about what she had sent to the Avatar himself, he hadn't even attempted to find out. If someone who molested horned reapers and beat up the Avatar for fun told him that he would die if he messed with something, he listened like he had never listened before. It probably had been a trap for that do-gooder, anyway. He hoped nobody would try to track him down for his participation in this. "Your Imperial Majesty, there is something else. The Avatar," he gulped, "wanted you to have this object in return. I am transmitting it now."
With some sense of relief, he watched the small, bent piece of metal shimmer green and disappear. He had not detected any magic from the small item, and it seemed perfectly normal. Still, the mere fact that it was something the Avatar sent to a Keeper meant that Nicodemus wanted to be rid of it yesterday. Glancing at his crystal ball, he immediately saw that his caution had been warranted. For some reason not discernible to him, the dark empress had gone white as a sheet, staring at the horseshoe magnet as if it was a poisonous snake.
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