Ami sat silently on her throne and let her gaze wander over the twelve dark-robed vampires that remained after she had sorted out the guilty ones. Nurgil was no longer among the group, and her eyes narrowed slightly at the memories of the atrocities the monster had confessed to easily in his own mind. Lined up some distance away from her, the four women and six men started fidgeting and looked as if they wanted nothing more than to slink away into the shadows. They were not involved, Ami repeated in her mind and concentrated on breathing calmly and steadily to get her emotions under control. She didn't want to scare her new employees. Or rather, she didn't want to scare them more. She didn't like them looking at her with fear in their eyes, but could understand it, given the fact that she had made most of the others disappear without a trace.
They weren't the only ones ill at easy, though Ami tried to hide her discomfort at being in the presence of the undead creatures. Superficially, they looked human enough, even somewhat attractive. However, that just made their unnatural traits more disturbing. Their unnatural pallor, hungry expressions, long fangs, and lack of breathing made her skin crawl. Still, now that she had recruited them, she had best put them to work. "I have a task for you," she began.
Some of the vampires let their stances relax, while the more cautious ones only watched her with carefully neutral and respectful expressions. "It is a longer-term occupation. Since you can dominate ghosts and other undead, I want you to gather those that are still free and to herd them toward Rabixtrel. That's my horned reaper," she explained.
"Why? Wouldn't they make good minions?" one of the females, a short-haired blonde asked. The vampires standing to her left and right drifted away from her and still somehow managing to look as if they weren't moving at all.
"No, they would not," Ami said firmly. "I have no use for mindless undead." Which was partially true. She had no use for them since the fact that they were the bound, suffering spirits of the deceased horrified her, and the faster she could free them from their tormented state, the better.
A taller vampire glanced over at the buxom vampiress who had dared question the Keeper, then back at Ami. "Your Imperial Majesty," he said, bowing very deeply, "are we to do this even during the day, in sunlight?"
Ami considered the question. It was a valid one, since the fiery sky spiral had disappeared wherever Zarekos' dungeon hearts were no longer pumping his particular flavour of corruption into the environment. The orange cloud cover still remained in some regions, since she hadn't located and smashed all of the vampire lord's former hearts yet. Finding those should be a priority. I don't want any more Keepers popping up here! The scientist in her looked forward to recovering some of these artefacts intact so that she could disassemble and analyse them properly. Her own storm clouds did not cover the entire continent yet, only the comparatively small regions that she had claimed. Interestingly enough, these regions had started to slowly expand on their own since she had become empress, without any action from her imps or rats. Rather convenient. In any case, her goal was controlling the corruption so that the land could return to a more or less normal state. "You may stick to the overcast regions during the day," Ami said, "or do research during that time. One of my former employees was working on the blueprints for a proper vampire graveyard. You could finish his project, perhaps by using his notes or by reverse-engineer Wemos' graveyard."
"Thank you, your Majesty," the vampire who had spoken said quickly.
"You are also strictly forbidden from harming any of my other employees. That includes drinking their blood. If you are hungry, use the room with the dead imps." Ami glared at the undead, making any protests die unsaid on their lips. "That is non-negotiable."
"We hear and obey," the vampires chorused, bowing.
Ami blinked. It was probably a mannerism that had been trained into them under their former masters. To end the audience on a friendlier note, she directed a weak smile at them. "Good. Dismissed."
Once the last of the group had teleported out with a flash of red, her rigid posture relaxed. She was glad that she had found some useful work for the creatures far away from her. If they were out in the field, then any Underworld denizens scrying on her dungeon would have a much harder time finding out how many of them she had left alive.
Ami pondered the huge eyeball undulating on top of a reddish, muscle-like stalk before her. The grotesque arcane device had not originally been intended for communication as such, even though her warlocks had come up with her communication spell by studying it. Originally, artefacts like this one were meant to incite treason by whispering seductive promises into the thoughts of enemies and inciting them to change sides. The blue-haired girl thought that with a bit more power and no concern for secrecy, it could double as a propaganda tool.
With some reluctance - it was a huge, slimy eyeball, after all - she reached toward the smooth orb. Even with her fingertips touching its cold wetness, she still hesitated. Public speaking didn't come easily to the shy girl, and so she had kept her script short and to the point. She cast out her attention into the direction of the Underworld army and focused on reaching all minds in the area with her mental broadcast. Soldiers of the Underworld, hear me! I am Sailor Mercury, Empress of the Avatar Islands, and I have disposed of the Keeper who attacked your city, as well as his minions. Your goals are already accomplished, and you have no more reason to attack my lands. If greed is your motivation, however, it would be much easier and safer for you if you came to work for me.
The Underworld army had halted, and an emergency meeting between the heads of the forces from the different cities was taking place in a tent filled with unhappy voices.
"Damn Mercury and her subversive message!" a huge orc bellowed. "Now, it will become even harder to keep the soldiers in line! Over a fifth of my goblins have already deserted, the cowards!"
"Hah," a bile demon wearing ornate armour over his spherical bulk grunted, messily chewing on sheep's leg. "Doesn't speak highly of you if your troops are less afraid of you than of the enemy!"
"They must have been inspired by your great example. You were near the portal during her counter-attack, and all you did was play dead!" the dark elf sitting farthest away from the rotund monster pointed out in a sickeningly sweet voice.
The bile demon sputtered. "Wench, come here and say-"
Two blue-skinned fists impacted the head of the table with a loud bang. Wood splintered as its legs gave way, and the toppled goblets on its surface started sliding down the incline toward the dark angel who had just made his irritation known. The one-eyed crone, who had spent most of the conversation with her elbows resting on its surface and her face buried in her palms, looked up and shot an annoyed glare at him. Likewise, the violent interruption had drawn all gazes to the black-winged figure whose fists were still buried in the wood. "All of you, be silent! This is no time to be quarrelling over childish insults!" He gestured at the orc. "We'll just have to keep your men too tired to run away. How fast do you think we could be at the next undamaged portal if we remove breaks?"
"Well," the orc began, and suddenly stopped with a confused expression when no sound escaped from his moving lips.
The wrinkled woman in warlock robes lowered her right hand, crooked fingers still glowing faintly with dissipating mana. She shook her head slowly. "I tire of this nonsense."
"And what would you suggest, oh wise one?" The sarcasm in the dark angel's voice could have cut through armour. His expression suggested that she had better pick her next words very carefully.
"Sure," she cackled. "I say we declare victory and go home."
"Fool! How dare you suggest something like that! The loss of face would be unbearable! We have not struck a single blow against anyone! We would be ridiculed throughout the Underworld!" the dark angel roared.
"Oh yeah?" The crone cackled. "The Keeper who defeated the Avatar himself was so intimidated by us that she wiped out those who had offended us, desperate to placate us. That were enough vampires to take on an entire city, you know. She threw away that much power, rather than face us in battle. We are scary like that."
Around the ruined table, thoughtful and grinning expressions appeared as this interpretation of the facts was considered.
"You are all treacherous cowards!" the dark angel accused loud enough to make the tent vibrate. "She released the Avatar! The AVATAR. The greatest enemy of us all! She even worked with him! We must punish her insolenc-" Murderous rage flared up in his eyes when his lips mouth opened and closed, but no words formed. He looked about ready jump at the insolent old woman and wring her neck with his bare hands.
"Eh, he's going to go after Keepers, not us." The crone grinned, showing the many gaps between her teeth. "One would think you had some personal interest in this, eh? If at first you don't succeed, use a bigger army. How very Azzathra of you, Matthia."
The dark angel's glare hardened, and he wove a counterspell to the hex muting him. "What are you talking about now, you crazy old hag?"
She cackled once more. "This army isn't your personal force, as much as your master would like it to be." Her left hand sneaked to a magical amulet on her belt that would yank her to safety when broken. "Or are you currently controlling this body yourself, Keeper Morrigan?"
Cathy poked her head in through the door to Ami's laboratory. Like many of the rooms that the young Keeper was relocating from the iceberg to the mainland, it was still in a provisional state and consisted mostly of blank stone walls and a few shelves. "Mercury, can I have the crystal ball? That friend of yours should be back from school by now, and I'm going to transmit the rest of your message if you don't have something more pressing for me to do," the long-haired blonde announced.
Ami looked over her shoulder and smiled at the thought of being able to talk to her friends soon. "Of course, here it is." The cloud-filled sphere dropped out of thin air into the swordswoman's hand.
When Cathy left, the blue-haired girl returned her attention to her current project, poking the small cube in front of her with a metal engraving needle. An ice golem sat on the table in front of her, shifting its weight from time to time. One of the imps she had seized from the enemy Keepers stood next to the statue, blinking at her with huge black eyes. Behind her, she heard soft footsteps approach. "Jered," Ami greeted him, not looking up from her work. "Is there something you need?"
"Not in particular," the wavy-haired man said as he looked around the room. "I'd just thought finding out what you are working on would be more interesting than watching Cathy stare into a crystal ball for hours." He let his gaze wander up and down the curves of Ami's icy double appreciatively. "I like the new outfit."
The blue-haired girl blushed slightly, since the golem was wearing the reaper outfit she had somehow managed to modify while drunk. Even with the addition of a skimpy metal bikini, it was still too revealing for her tastes.I always wore one-piece swimsuits, not bikinis, she thought as she considered that the metal greaves, boots, small loincloth, and shoulder pauldrons did not hide much of the statue's - her - figure. "At least this won't be shattered and come off in combat like the ice chainmails," she said.
"Well, unless they take too much damage and shrink right out of it," Jered answered, amused. He was walking around the animated ice figure, looking at it from all angles.
"Yes..." Ami hung her head. She got the feeling that he was staring a bit too hard at the golem. Was he trying to see through the transparent surfaces to the covered spots? Embarrassed and faintly irritated, Ami started explaining what she was doing. "The main benefit, as I see it, is the scythe. It's a metal weapon and makes them much more dangerous than they would be unarmed, or armed with an ice weapon."
"You included that spell in their skillset?"
Ami nodded. "I figured if goblins can use it, why not give it a try? The problem was that the golems don't have much capacity for magic. The first variants sucked the mana right out of themselves when trying to conjure the equipment, and turned into inert statues." She pointed with her thumb at a large puddle in the corner, where a few sad remains were melting away. "I found out that it works if I invest more magic than necessary into the spell that creates them."
"Sounds easy enough." Jered examined the weapon held by the sculpture's slender fingers. "I take it you are going to replace that with a sword, since you are more familiar with it?"
"I wish. The scythe is the main focal point of the spell, and if I tried to modify that, I might as well create an entirely new one from scratch." Ami wasn't about to admit that she didn't remember how exactly her inebriated self had managed to make the previous adjustments. "Oh, and I think if I use gold to create them, rather than my personal mana, I can get around their two main weaknesses. That temple water should no longer dissolve them, and I should be able to make more."
"Unlimited troops?" Jered asked, his expression lighting up.
"I doubt it," Ami said. "Like the imps, they are running on Metallia's power, and I can only channel a certain amount of that. Unfortunately, I can't waste gold on making enough golems to determine the limit right now."
Jered nodded. "No more using them as disposable fodder if they are expensive," he said with a grin, wagging a finger as if he was chiding a child. "Well, I'll leave you to your experiments. I'll see if I can't find anyone who is willing to sell us some adamantine."
"Okay." Ami nodded as he left and looked at the imp before her. "Now, little guy, let's find out why some of the other Keeper's imps could teleport, and what that means for my golems."
"Oh my. You do look a bit sooty, granny," an amused female voice sounded from the crystal ball.
"Don't call me that," the one-eyed crone snapped, leaning on her slightly charred staff.
The woman shown by the scrying device giggled. "Morrigan's temper always had a tendency to flare."
"You'd think he would have learned patience by now. Anyway, your evidence was useful as always, Midori."
"Happy to hear it, granny. Just don't forget to pay up, yes?"
"As if you'd ever let me forget," the crone said, shaking her head.
Ami held a tear-shaped blue crystal about the size of her iris against the light and frowned. Inclusions, she thought as she spotted a few impurities marring the interior of the glittering sapphire. The treasury's magic would need to split it into much smaller and less valuable jewels than usual. With a soft sigh, she dismissed the still warm product of her gem furnaces, sending it to her coffers. As predicted, gold coins jingled when the bluish bulb split into a small mound of cut gems. A quick look at the dirty walls inside the furnaces with her Keeper sight confirmed her suspicion about the source of the pollutants. Her new gem furnaces did not need supervision, but apparently, they weren't maintenance-free, either. With a flash, she appeared on the throne in her command centre. The armchair-like seat creaked when her weight settled in it, alerting the sole warlock not on reaperbot-retrieval duty to her presence.
He peered over his shoulder, past the huge, starched collar of his robe. His eyes widened in surprise, and he bowed deeply. "Your Imperial Majesty! Your orders?"
"At ease. What is the Underworld army doing?"
The warlock glanced back at his scrying screen. "Disintegrating, your Majesty," he grinned. "Shortly following your proclamation, there was a bunch of explosions and flashes from one of the tents. Some fights broke out, and groups of soldiers started leaving after that."
"Really? That's great news!" Ami said with a wide smile. "Try to keep track of their leaders, if you can. I want to know who was involved in this."
"Of course, your Majesty."
Ami reclined in her chair and closed her eyelids halfway, leaving only two narrow, red-glowing slits open as she returned her attention to the state of her gem production. Right, maintenance. Fortunately, her Keeper powers meant that she didn't need to personally climb through the mess of cables, glowing tubes, beakers, and pendulums that camouflaged the real apparatuses. The corners of her lips curved upwards in faint amusement as she went to work. Some empress I am, scrubbing soot off furnace walls.
It was hard and time-consuming work, as she found out to her chagrin. The next generation design needs access hatches for imps, she decided. She would upgrade the current furnaces too, once they had completed their current production cycle and finished cooling down. The mechanical act of cleaning was not enough to occupy her thoughts, and she pulled out her Mercury computer. She needed to figure out into what she should remodel the corruption effects of her dungeon heart. Access to magma was required for power, and the surface shouldn't suffer for it. It would also be advantageous if she could integrate the more blatant manifestations somehow into her dungeon's defences, which definitely needed to be improved in light of recent threats. Unbidden, her specifications conjured up an image of a dark, steel-clad fortress perched precariously over a volcano in her mind. She smirked. That would be what was expected of a dark lord, wouldn't it? It was right out, of course, since her dungeon was underground, but it was a starting point. She'd have to see if she couldn't find some iron ore, conjuring up steel was expensive. Her fingers raced over the keyboard as she went to work on the equations.
Frustrated with her lack of progress with the corruption problem, Ami took a break by conducting an experiment that was entirely unrelated. From a safe distance at the other end of the hallway, her sensors focused on one particular imp standing on top of a chalk cross drawn onto the ground. The imp eyed the closed hatch in the ceiling above her head and fidgeted, pouting. Other overall-clad imps stood not too far away, pointing and snickering.
The hatch opened, and the imp closed her eyes and ducked her head when something large and white dropped toward her. Ami watched with great interest as the tiny humanoid disappeared underneath the silver-runed cloth. Before she could risk using the Avatar's mantle to treat youma, she needed to know whether or not contact with the holy artefact would harm them. Jadeite had been unaffected by being taken into a temple of the Light, but he wasn't a youma and had been taken there under false assumptions. Besides, he isn't particularly evil by local standards. Her new imps, being animated by Metallia's dark energy, were probably the closest thing to real youma she could safely conduct tests on.
A bulge moved underneath the white cloth, sliding toward its edge. The imp was obviously still alive, but her squeals sounded vaguely irritated. She poked her head out from underneath the cover and looked back over her shoulder, blinking wide-eyed at the silver-runed garment An instant later, a greedy expression flitted over her bug-eyed face. With a swish, she gathered the mantle up and wrapped it tightly around her shoulders. Ami hid a chuckle behind one hand when the imp started to strut around with her nose pointing high into the air, trailing the overly large mantle behind her on the ground. She swung her pick around imperiously as if it was a royal sceptre, then stepped on the cloth, tripped, and smashed face-first into the floor tiles. The other imps snickered loudly, prompting the fallen one to growl, jump to her feet, and lunge for the closest mocker's throat, tiny teeth bared.
There don't seem to be any adverse effects, at least, Ami mused as her experiment devolved into a brawl. It's probably safe enough to help Tiger, then. With a swirl of snowflakes, she disappeared to retrieve the mentally damaged youma.
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