Stupid! How could I have been so stupid? Ami needed to run damage control, but how? She had better consult with the others. She almost teleported to the command centre, but changed her mind at the last moment. This wasn't something she wanted to discuss in front of just anyone. Instead, she transported herself to the living room, appearing a few centimetres above the ground in her haste. She stumbled when her feet hit the carpet with a muffled thud, and a shattering noise came from her hands. Surprised, she looked at her fists. She had actually clenched them hard enough to break the ice fingers within the black gloves. She really needed to calm down.
In the blink of an eye, a shadow-like column materialised to the golem's left, turning into the blue-haired Keeper when colour flowed back into her. Ami took a deep, calming breath, something that would have had no effect had she still been possessing the regenerating statue, and sought out her advisers.
A group of creatures, the majority of them trolls, lounged on the floor in front of the closed door leading to Jered's temporary office. The section of hallway they had turned into a temporary waiting room was suffering from their presence, since contact with their unwashed backs left dirty stains on the brightly-coloured walls. To pass time, the bored creatures waiting for their turn to be called in were playing marbles.
One of the troll players flinched when an angry female screech from behind the door startled him, causing his green finger to hit the marble at the wrong angle and miss its target. He grunted in anger as he lost his lead. He had just scored big the round before by bouncing one of the polished spheres into his opponent's eye, too!
Within the office, Cathy stood beside Jered behind a tall, black desk, pinching his right ear between her fingers. She shot a glare at the drying ink on the pages before him, then at the leather-clad floozy posturing in front of the desk. "...why are you even writing this down?" she asked her boyfriend, who was currently clad in a suit of elbow-to-the-ribs-proof armour.
The wavy-haired man shot a chagrined look to the back corner of the room, where the imp in charge of calling in the next visitors hopped up and down, snickering at his misfortune. "Well, it is my job to note down the applicants' special talents."
"Oh, yes. The Empress is going to jump for joy when she reads this list and finds 'exhaustive repertoire of courtesan skills' on it," the blonde said sarcastically.
"I can always hope," the wavy-haired man answered unwisely. "Ow!"
"Excuse me," the dark mistress watching the assault on Jered's earlobe said, raising a finger covered in shiny black leather as she tried to catch the swordswoman's attention. "If I may, I could demonstrate much more effective ways of inflicting pain than-"
"You shut up!" Cathy interrupted. Before Jered could give his own opinion, both of them disappeared into thin air, leaving the other woman to blink bemusedly at the spot the two had just vacated.
"But Snyder, we really should get to know each other better," the pale-skinned dark elf leaning over the redhead's workbench said in a sing-song voice, almost thrusting her cleavage in his face.
Cornered, the acolyte pressed his back into the bookshelf behind him, wishing the obstacle would disappear. "But, um, I feel flattered, Venna, really, but, well, um..." the acolyte stuttered, his eyes glued to her chest despite his best efforts.
Her current attire, a strapless dress of purplish cloth, managed to stay in place only by virtue of its tightness. It was a huge step up in modesty from the barely-there belts of leather she had worn while still suffering from Keeper Morrigan's mental conditioning. It also remained skimpy enough to make the young man uncomfortable. The fact that she had apparently mugged a warlock for his robes and fashioned them into her tiny outfit was a warning sign, though.
Snyder wondered how he'd get out of this situation. He felt like a mouse in front of a hungry cat as Venna licked her lips. It wasn't that he found the curvaceous woman unattractive, quite the contrary. Since her mind was no longer messed up, it wouldn't even be morally wrong to indulge a little. He was actually surprised she still seemed interested in him, but why wouldn't she be? He was, after all, good-looking, competent, cultured, and had Mercury's favour. However, he just didn't know how to deal with that much aggressiveness. He also doubted he could hide the fact that he remained a Light worshipper from her if the two of them got that close. But mostly, the dark elf's friend Eline standing silently in the door frame, juggling two curved daggers and shooting him death glares, kind of killed the mood.
"...it just wouldn't work," he finished lamely, quite aware that by now, she had probably forgotten the beginning of his sentence already. Really smooth there, he mentally reprimanded himself. He hoped she would handle the rejection well. Maybe he should see if he could manage to draw a repulsion ward behind his back?
Venna lowered her head.
For a moment Snyder felt pity for her. An instant later, he realised with a start that she was merely tensing her muscles in preparation for vaulting over his workbench. "Light, I could really use some help here! Please?" he prayed.
Venna pounced, then let out a very frustrated huff as the young man disappeared from underneath her while she was tackling him to the ground.
Ami's hand went up to her mouth in surprise when Jered and Cathy appeared before her. Even through the transport, the swordswoman had maintained her grip on her boyfriend's ear. Fortunately for the weasel-featured man, she had the presence of mind to let go before he succumbed to gravity, his rear no longer supported by a chair.
The clanging noise of Jered's armour hitting the ground almost masked the simultaneous appearance of Jadeite and Snyder next to each other. Ami's eyes went wide when a pinkish light detonated between the two.
"What do you think you are doing?" the curly-haired blonde growled at the prone acolyte, staggering back a step. He shot an icy look at the redhead from underneath his protectively-raised right forearm.
"Huh, wha-" Confused by his changed surroundings, Snyder blinked, his extended left arm tingling from the discharged repulsion ward. He paled slightly when he noticed that it was pointed straight at Mercury's most powerful sorcerer. "It was an accident! I did not intend to-"
"Ow, that was abrupt," Jered whined, taking Cathy's hand to pull himself to his feet.
"Enough, everyone!" Ami shouted, only to cough shyly when all eyes turned on her. "Sorry about summoning you so brusquely, but we have an emergency!"
"Who's attacking?" Cathy asked, all business as she focused her full attention on the blue-haired girl.
Likewise, the others fell quiet as they watched the teenager, who was wringing her hands as an outward sign of her nervousness. Only the black-fukued ice golem standing to her side seemed amused at the recent chaos and bounced from one foot to the other, making her short blue skirt sway around her hips.
Deciding that anything but the most direct approach would waste valuable time, Ami concentrated on the essentials. "The envoy from Crowned Death managed to steal the Avatar's mantle from me and get away."
"What?" Snyder's exclamation was high-pitched, filled with horror. "You have to get it back!"
"Damn! You aren't even kidding," Cathy shouted. "How'd that bastard manage that?"
"I'd like to know that too," Jadeite said in a calmer tone of voice. Of course, he had no emotional attachment to the thing, and only the slight downward curve of his lips showed his displeasure.
"He made unacceptable demands and then attacked me when it became clear that I would not fulfil them," Ami reported. "I immediately escaped from the room and struck back, and since he showed he could teleport, I-"
"Hold on! Teleport?" Cathy interrupted. "Can he potentially get back here and cause havoc, and is he personally dangerous?"
"Yes to both," Ami said, sounding wary.
"Everyone on high alert, follow the procedures we had established during the war against Nero. The threat is a well-armed teleporter, rather than remote spell bombardment this time," Cathy broadcast telepathically. A flicker of green light played around her left eyeball from the communication spell, one of the few magical tricks she had bothered to learn. "Eline, Tserk, Brugli, gather the new recruits and tell them what that means!" She turned back to Ami. "I hope you approve?"
The young Keeper nodded. "Yes. I assume he already has what he came from, but it's better to err on the side of caution."
"The Avatar's mantle," Snyder urged, "how did you lose it again?"
"I encased Taleth - that's what that skeleton priest called himself - in a block of ice, but he used an illusion to make me think he escaped using Zarekos' dematerialisation technique, and that he couldn't use magic while immaterial." Ami closed her eyes, looking pained. "Since I'm so used to automatically seeing through that kind of effect with my visor, I didn't even consider the possibility that he might be trying to trick me." She sighed. "I was too busy slinging spell after spell at him so he had no time to teleport that I couldn't properly think things through. Since Zarekos was vulnerable to holy power, I deployed a golem with the mantle against the priest. He faked his death, then sneaked up on the golem while invisible, seized the mantle, and teleported out."
"Did you track him?" Jered asked immediately. "Maybe you can still take it back!"
Through the distant rock, they could hear the muffled footsteps of creatures running through the hallways as Cathy's instructions sank in.
"I did," Ami said, looking down. "He let me watch as he threw it into the pool of a dark temple. I'm at a loss at how to get it out from there."
"Do you know what he needs it for?" Jadeite asked pragmatically. "I mean, yes, this is an annoyance, but it isn't as if you need the thing. However, you should still punish this impertinence."
"We cannot let a dark god keep the Avatar's mantle!" Snyder shot back immediately, glowering at the grey-uniformed general.
"Oh, and how do you propose we get it back, acolyte?" the curly-haired blonde snapped. "It's not as if we can just fish it back out!"
"It comes worse," Ami interrupted, her clear voice cutting through the argument. "They are going to kill thousands of people to desecrate the mantle again." She clenched her fists "We have to stop them, or at least get the mantle back. I don't want to be responsible for so many deaths just because I made such a blunder!"
"You can't hold yourself responsible for the evil that others do!" Cathy objected immediately. "What the followers of the dark gods do is all on their own conscience. Still, I agree that we need to do something."
"Agreed. We cannot let this attack and theft go unpunished," Jadeite said, crossing his arms. "Useful or not, letting the artefact slip through our fingers like that would make us look weak."
"Wait, if they want to desecrate it, they need to remove it from the basin at some point," Jered pointed out, slamming his fist into his palm. "We could probably get a lead on where they will be conducting the dark ritual if we tracked the sacrifices. I doubt they can gather that many without drawing attention to their activities. Someone would definitely notice this."
"And once we know where it is happening, we can show up and stop them," Ami said with a grim smile. "Jered, your talents are most suited for this. Use as many of your spies and Underworld contacts as necessary. You have, hmm," Ami frowned in concentration as she thought, "five times the usual budget for bribes and expenses as usual before it starts cutting into other projects."
The wavy-haired man nodded. "I'll get right on it. I'll also see what information I can find on Crowned Death and his goons while I'm at it!" He saluted sloppily and waited for Mercury to transport him to his office, which she did with a grateful smile.
Ami turned to Jadeite. "We might have to assault a dark temple. Since the enemy troops will be dangerous enough without their god being able to interfere directly, I need you and the youma to come up with ways to inflict disruptive damage on such a structure. Keep in mind that there will be innocent hostages who must not be harmed, though!"
"I won't disappoint you, Empress," Jadeite said with a confident smirk and bowed, holding his right arm across his chest. With a shimmer of violet lines, he disappeared.
"Cathy, Snyder. Do you have any suggestions?" Ami asked the two advisers remaining with her in the room.
"You should ask the Avatar for assistance," the red-and-white-clad acolyte said after a moment of reflection. "He cannot be happy with his mantle being back in enemy hands."
Technically, my hands are enemy hands too from his point of view, Ami thought sadly. "All right, any help would be welcome. I'm not looking forward to telling him that I lost the mantle, though."
Snyder smiled and inclined his head silently. "I am sure he will understand."
Cathy took a step forward. "You should also keep the larger strategical situation in mind. This location must remain secure while you act." The blonde spread her arms and turned in a circle, as if trying to encompass the entire Avatar Islands with her gesture. "You could win the battle and lose the war if your dungeon heart here is targeted while you have your forces deployed elsewhere. Besides, we'll almost certainly have to deal with retaliation from the death priests and their allies after our attack."
"Right. I wouldn't want a repeat of what happened with Azzathra, only with an entire batch of Crowned Death-worshipping Keepers out for my blood this time." The red glow in her eyes increased to new heights. "That means stopping the ceremony is only the first step. We'll have to do lasting, crippling damage to his cult, if possible. But I can't plan an entire campaign with as little information as I have available right now."
"Err, I was thinking more about shoring up the defences here," Cathy said, somewhat taken aback by the sudden enthusiasm in the blue-haired girl's voice.
"Yes, that would necessarily be part of it," Ami said, her thoughts preoccupied more with coming up with a plan of action. "I'll have more alarm wards spread all over the claimed territory. With the aid of the youma to deal with water barriers, the vampires will be able to jump any dungeon that pops up and deal with it before it becomes a large problem. Provided it is detected early enough, and that the vampires remain loyal against an opponent like Crowned Death, of course."
"I'll make sure that's handled correctly," Cathy offered. "I'll pay special attention to sending some teams to the area where you lost a dungeon heart."
That place remained an annoying thorn in Ami's side, but so far, she had no idea how to reclaim it without being sucked into the dark gods' realm. "Please do. Also, I need you to organise the new recruits and assign them jobs. Prioritise manufacturing over combat training. Reaperbots are easier to replace than recruits."
"Will do," the blonde confirmed.
"Snyder, look up ways to fight the undead and wards against necromancy, please. Pick some of the new warlocks and form a research team, if you think that will help. I'll speak with Torian and the others and find out what they know about the enemy."
At first glance, Torian's workroom resembled a comfortable reading room, complete with a high-backed armchair in front of a blazing fireplace that flooded the place with warm light. A closer look at the titles of the books filling the shelves, or at the warning labels adorning the bottles within a wooden cabinet, revealed that the chamber's usual tenant was no kindly grandfather.
The head warlock had respectfully ceded his armchair to Ami and was now sitting across the table from her, looking very pleased at being able to answer her questions. The rest of his team stood behind him, forming a backdrop of garish purple robes and beards of various lengths.
"I need to know of whom I would make enemies if I struck at the priesthood of Crowned Death," Ami asked. The smell in the room, a strange mix of musty paper, firewood, and acid fumes, made her nose itch.
"Of course, your Imperial Highness. The dark god himself would object to such activities, obviously. I am unaware of how many Keepers worship that particular deity, but most of the intelligent undead do. This might include your vampires," the short-bearded man said with disdain. "You may want to get rid of them."
Some of the other warlocks crowding around him nodded in agreement, attempting to contribute.
"The rest of the Underworld wouldn't make a fuss if you moved against him, though I cannot see any immediate benefit in doing so. Not that I'm questioning you, your Highness," he added quickly. "Crowned Death is unpopular among the living, since he would love to see everyone dead."
Ami perked up at that. "Go on. Could we find allies willing to move against him?"
Torian's shoulders sagged, and his perpetual smile waned. "Ah, my Empress, you must understand that nobody likes fighting him," the warlock said. "Any soldiers lost rise against you. He grants his followers the power to ignore the normal limits of necromancy, so his most feared ability is raising undead monsters from corpses, rather than transforming one of the living into a new minion."
"Undead from corpses?" If they weren't more dangerous than the regular skeletons and ghosts, then she could handle them. Suddenly, she paled. "I need guards around the dragon corpse, now!" At the same time, she was already scanning the area of the iceberg that contained the huge, well-preserved carcass, and started dropping reaperbots into position.
"Your Majesty?" Torian asked, looking puzzled as he stroked his oiled beard.
"At least one of his priests is a hostile magic user who can teleport," Ami explained, "I need you warlocks to detach the dragon's limbs, head, and tail from the body so it cannot possibly be used against us!" She narrowed her eyes at the group when she heard a few unhappy mutters. "I don't care how many potential reagents will be lost that way! Torian, you are responsible for seeing this through! Be aware that this enemy is fond of using illusions and invisibility. Use smoke and fog to counter this if you have no better option."
The short-bearded man's eyes widened as the task was thrust upon him, and he flinched back as if hit. "A- as you wish, my esteemed Empress. There should be a few suitable detection spells in the grimoires. I also humbly request the assistance of at least thirty imps for this task."
"Granted," Ami agreed immediately. Her little workers were idle most of the time anyway. "Before you go, do you know the range and scale of Crowned Death's undead-raising abilities?"
"I do," an older warlock with hollow cheeks said. "Unless one of his followers appears in person, he will not be able to make use of the dead bodies in the ground," the grey-haired magic user said. "It would be rather inconvenient for us if one of the Keepers worshipping him could establish a foothold here, though. Any dead on his claimed land would be his to command."
"Then I'll work on preventing just that," Ami said. "Your information has been helpful, thank you. Now please get to your assigned tasks. Dismissed."
Ami sat in front of her desk, her computer out and her visor active as she reshuffled her priorities and catalogued the different problems at hand, trying to come up with a proper schedule.
Her research into adamantine would, sadly, have to be delayed until the current crisis was dealt with. Finding a dwarf who knew how to work with it could be delegated to someone else, however, so the time would not be totally lost. She also needed to fix her throne room, or, even better, prepare a special room just for receiving visitors outside of the main dungeon - stuffed full of as many anti-magical wards as she could. Not exactly high priority right now.
The rest of the Avatar Islands needed to be better protected against Keepers setting up shop, too. She could fortify her claim on the land with additional dungeon hearts, but then she'd have to defend these too. Still, she had been planning on making new ones anyway, since her current model didn't allow her to control the corruption it produced to nearly the degree she desired. Yes, I guess I'll be able to try out my new design earlier than I thought.
Briefly, Ami considered the possibility of using the corruption as a weapon, guiding it - she'd need to figure out how to do so - through a portal and into one of Crowned Death's temples. Wouldn't work, that would be rather like trying to drown a fish, she decided. Discovering how the scrying-blocking properties of Zarekos' temple worked would be a better use of her time. She appended that task to her list with a few deft keystrokes.
Now, what could she actually deploy against the undead? She could ask her friends for more chemistry books. Her dungeon heart was a chemist's dream made true. Given sufficient motivation, she could use it to cook up some truly horrible concoctions. The question was, would she be able to keep her weapons from falling into enemy hands? If she was only facing another Keeper, she would feel confident that sufficiently volatile compounds couldn't be recovered and analysed. Unfortunately, she couldn't be sure that the same would be true in a temple to the dark gods. In any case, it probably wouldn't hurt if she studied some formulas. She didn't have to actually use them, but it would be good to have the option. Yes, she'd contact her friends later, she decided. For now, she would do some intelligence-gathering of her own.
With a blue flash, the black-clad girl appeared in her ruined throne room, hovering above the debris-strewn floor. The puddles of muddy, rust-coloured melt water around the ice shards gleamed in the light of the toppled braziers as she floated closer to her destination. She gestured with her right hand, and the soggy black fabric of Taleth's discarded cloak rose from the ground.
The young Keeper telekinetically spread out the garment, inspecting it in silence as water dripped down from it. Judging from the large tear in its centre, the skeleton had found it more expedient to slip out of his robe than to try and rip it from the ice encasing it. After a few minutes of scanning, a mirthless smile that didn't reach her eyes appeared on Ami's face. When she had frozen the flying dark priest solid, the impact of his prison with the floor had not left the skeleton unscarred. Dear Taleth had left little bone splinters behind.
With meticulous care, Ami started collecting the tiny pieces. She inspected each one with her visor to make sure it really belonged to the undead priest, and not to one of the animal skulls decorating his outfit. After several minutes of concentrated work, she had almost a thimble full of bleached, powdery bone bits. She allowed herself an evil grin. Zarekos had used a vial of her blood to track her. Bone was as much part of the body as blood, and she knew which spell the vampire lord had used.
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