Ami gently closed her fingers around the warm body of the grey bat sitting on her left palm, restraining the soft-furred animal. Its wings twitched weakly in her grip as she used tweezers with her other hand to remove a tiny golden tiara from the nervous animal's forehead. Next, she picked up a pair of scissors small as nail clippers and started cutting open the mockery of a black leotard covering the bat's body. Her senshi transformation had not been kind to the animal. A moment later, the armour-like black fabric joined the tiny blue skirt she had already freed the small animal from on the ground. Silently, she turned the bat around and admired her handiwork. Aside from the minuscule blue earrings, nothing created by her transformation sequence remained on its body. The jewellery had to stay, since it was needed to activate her visor.
"Jadeite, you know what to do?" she asked over her shoulder, where the dark general was watching her handle the animal with an amused smile.
"Of course," he said, inclining his head for a short nod. "That dark priest Taleth is in an area of the Underworld somewhere around here." He stabbed a white-gloved finger down at the map on the table before him. It landed on the blue-painted bit of the canvas denoting the ocean to the east of the Avatar Islands. "I can open a portal there without difficulty, but I can't guarantee that it will get you close to the target."
"That's fine, I'm rather hoping it won't," Ami said with a smile of her own. "I wouldn't want to enter the temple proper anyway. Taking scans from outside will have to suffice."
"Are you sure that personally going on a scouting mission is a wise use of your time?"
Ami nodded. "Yes. Even though the enemy might not be conducting the ceremony at that particular temple, I still need reliable scans of its interior. Even if scrying worked around that place, it wouldn't give me enough data to analyse the energy flows and defences within. I'll at least find out what to expect from similar structures," she stated. "Besides, I can remotely manage the dungeon from any location." She petted the bat with one finger to calm it down and took a step closer to the curly-haired blonde. "Are you ready, then?"
"We can start as soon as you wish," the grey-uniformed general replied.
In response, Ami gently threw the bat into the air. As soon as the animal spread its wings, the blue-headed girl turned into black lightning that was absorbed into the flying creature's body. From her new perspective, Jadeite looked like a giant. Nevertheless, she fluttered straight at him and landed on his palm, making herself comfortable on the soft glove. With a one-winged wave at the huge, bemused face looking down at her, she signalled that she was ready.
Jadeite teleported, taking Ami along. In an instant, the marble-like interior of the chamber was replaced by a clouded sky over the vast, open sea.
There were no landmarks anywhere in sight, but Ami could sense how far away she was from either of her two dungeon hearts and triangulate her position that way. They were in the right spot, and the magic that made Taleth's location stand out like a beacon in her mind confirmed her calculations, too.
"Go ahead?" Jadeite asked.
The tiny bat on his hand nodded, prompting him to thrust his right hand forward and rip a black, circular portal into space.
Slightly reluctant to leave her warm, comfy spot, Ami hopped off his fingers as if they were a springboard, circled him once, and hurled herself into the black ellipse.
An imp whistled through the air like a cannonball, its passing barely audible over the thundering explosion behind it. The magical servant's cheeks fluttered from the air resistance, distorting its expression into a skull-like grimace.
The shockwave sweeping the unfortunate creature along accelerated as it was focused by the tapering tunnel. For an instant, the bend at its end reflected in the shiny black eyes of the imp before it slammed into the masonry and dissipated into a shower of green motes, leaving cracks at its impact point. The dungeon continued shaking and vibrating for a few seconds longer, and then silence settled over the place, broken only by the sounds of tiny pieces of debris raining to the ground.
"Monteraine! You had better have a good explanation for this!" a male voice almost as loud as the previous explosion and quite a bit more menacing, echoed through the cavern.
Choking coughs came from the interior of the huge black cloud of smoke that filled the vast chamber, and a slender, vaguely female silhouette staggered out of it. "I'm - cough - still alive, Master!" The long-haired and soot-covered woman coughed a few more times into the smouldering fabric of her sleeve. For one of Morrigan's minions, the female warlock was dressed remarkably modestly, even if her robes barely reached to mid-thigh and revealed long, scratched legs.
The massive Keeper, clad only in a loose loincloth, appeared at the entrance to the cavern and stared down at his minion.
Accompanied by a loud smacking noise, the bruised woman flew backward, rolling back into the smoke.
"I can see that, you moron! You promised me you would make it work this time!"
One of the two leather-clad mistresses draped lasciviously around Morrigan smirked at the sight and caressed his bare pectorals, obvious delight playing around her lips.
"I- that is," Monteraine stammered, clenching her teeth as she pulled herself to her feet. Behind her, a burst metal pipe loomed into the air like a grasping polyp, releasing more sulphurous smoke into the air. "I was sure we had it right this time," she managed to choke out between pained groans. "I copied the setup exactly, and even if the symbolism is still beyond-"
"Shut up! I have no patience for your excuses! I don't enjoy wasting valuable mana on failures like this, either. The costs will come out of your pay," Morrigan continued.
"Y-yes, Master," the female magician said, her head bowed. "If you allow me, I'll go get my wounds treated and discuss the problem with the rest of the staff to see what went wrong this time," she blurted out with great haste, not daring to look at the Keeper. "I'm sure we duplicated the pattern of pipes and regulators perfectly this time, so there has to be some component of the mana-guiding apparatus we are missing. If I could only have a closer look at those wires..." She clapped her hands together, hiding the pain that simple motion was causing her. "In any case, I'm sure that we'll figure out how Mercury can extract magical power from magma soon. There are only so many valid runic configurations that-"
"No." Morrigan's answer echoed through the smoke-filled cave like a death sentence.
"M-Master?" Monteraine asked, suppressing a shiver. Was he going to kill her for this failure, or worse, turn her into one of his compliant little dolls? She tensed, unwilling to go out without a fight, no matter how one-sided it would be.
"You will not be getting a rest. Since you are just too stupid to figure out what that bitch of an empress is doing by looking at the end result, you'll just have to figure out how she puts them together. You are in luck, she's building something right now." The Keeper's bald head gleamed from the oil covering his skin as he smirked at her, narrowing his red-glowing eyes. "Do not fail me again!"
With a nauseating twist of space, the researcher found herself flung into a dimly lit chamber, landing almost upside down. The coarse orange carpet absorbed some of the impact, but she still bruised her already hurting shoulders. Curse Morrigan and his impatient, childish punishments. Still dazed, she became aware of nasty snickers around her. What? Oh, of course. The hem of her robe had succumbed to gravity and slid down up all the way to her navel, exposing her underwear and backside.
Quickly, the mage flipped onto her belly and pulled herself to her feet. With two quick motions, she smoothed out her tattered clothing and glared into the round, as if daring anyone to say a word. Several sets of teeth gleamed back at her from the twilight, bared as their owners grinned. They clearly hadn't missed the way she had arrived, and had correctly concluded that her standing with Morrigan was quite precarious right now. Like sharks smelling blood in the water, she thought.
One of the warlocks answered her challenging look. "Why, Monteraine, have your many failures finally riled the Master-" That was as far as he got, because at that point, the tip of his tongue turned to stone.
Monteraine snipped her fingers, extinguishing the purple glow around them. She had been aiming for the eyes, but was quite satisfied with the results. "Does anyone else want to voice an opinion? No? Good. I'm still the head warlock here, and until our Keeper sees it fit to change that, you'll do what I tell you! Now get me a crystal ball and some wound salve over here!"
As the underlings moved to follow her orders, Monteraine let herself drop onto a large pillow with a sigh of contentment. She had better start working on what Morrigan wanted, or her situation could become even more untenable. Any moment she wasted right now could make her miss the one important facet of Empress Mercury's work that would make every other piece of the puzzle fall into place. It wasn't just the fear of her Keeper that drove her on, but also curiosity. This was another chance to decipher the mysterious empress' secrets, and she wasn't going to let it slip through her fingers! "Calibrate the crystal ball for that new excavation she is doing," she ordered in a deceptively relaxed tone of voice.
With no further ado, the glowing orb was set down in front of her, affixed to a block of marble covered in iron runes.
The warlock adjusted her position until she was sitting sideways on the pillow to go easy on the tender muscles in her legs, and leaned forward. What she saw was quite interesting.
Rock crumbled into debris as a hordes of dust-caked imps worked the stone, swinging their picks down hard enough that their feet left the ground. Monteraine idly took note that these were more of Keeper Mercury's special imps - vaguely female, and wearing strange overalls and helmets. If they merited additional protective garb over regular imps, then they had to be more valuable. Not that the scrying warlock could see them doing anything unusual while she tried to make out every detail she could through the wafting dust.
Puffs of colourful smoke came from the walls and floor where the workers fortified it. Monteraine discovered the typical metallic filaments that the enemy Keeper incorporated almost everywhere underneath the wall cladding. "You! Copy those designs as accurately as you can before they get covered up!" she bellowed at two of the other warlocks.
The arcane significance of the wire patterns still escaped her, but it had to be there. She already knew that they seemed to have some affinity for lightning-aspected mana. Perhaps some kind of ward? It didn't resemble any she had seen, though. According to known theory, nothing that haphazardly-looking should be functional. Perhaps the fact that the wires moved around corners was significant? Any arcane symbols she knew about were limited to flat surfaces. If Keeper Mercury had learned how to design new ones that extended into the third dimension, then she had to be a genius of the highest calibre. The possibilities this opened were really exciting!
Now, what were those imps doing, emptying out sack of brownish-red stones into the new cavern? Some sort of reagent, or just raw materials to drive down the price of whatever the enemy Keeper was about to construct? "Blott, identify that mineral for me!"
"At a glance, looks like iron ore to me," one of the shadowed figures replied.
"Make sure it really is," Monteraine barked. "Now what is Mercury up to?" She watched in fascination as some of the piles of stones melted away to form rows upon rows of steel tubs. Wiring from the walls snaked forward like vines to connect with them. She bit back a curse when she noticed that many of the constructs were filled with blocks of a whitish, ice-like substance that disgorged a thick, grey mist. Visibility in the room was dropping rapidly, even as the complexity of Mercury's construction work increased. The warlock did what she could, flicking from one perspective to the next to get good close-ups of the internal structures, but the fog was making things difficult.
The tubs grew higher, interconnecting with glass tubes and sprouting strange clusters of crystals and vials. The glass knots filled with bubbling liquid of various colours were rather fascinating. Oh, and there were runes forming, too.
I know those, the injured warlock realised as the individual symbols inscribed themselves into the metal. Some kind of alarm ward. And those over there will be scrying detectors when finished. I wonder what that array over there connecting to the lightning-wires does. She was staring intently into her crystal ball when she found out. The moment the spy-detecting wards finished, they lit up. Not with the soft, whitish glow she was expecting, but with a harsh glare bright as the sun, fuelled by the activating array. She flinched away from the suddenly-radiant crystal ball, shielding her face with her sleeves.
Muttered expletives echoed through the room as the sudden brightness startled her assistants. Needless to say, with the fog veiling the little that Monteraine could still see as she squinted against the blinding light, further observation became pointless. She could vaguely make out long rows of identical shapes throwing shadows onto the glowing fog, but not more. What in the world did the dark empress want with that many alchemical apparatuses?
Ami found the sensation of cold air flowing around her wings rather exhilarating as she fluttered around in a bat body. Flapping the membrane-covered appendages in regular intervals was almost like swimming through the air, and the experience was enjoyable in a similar way. Whoops! She let out a startled squeak too high-pitched for human hearing as she clumsily dodged a low-hanging stalactite, clearing it by scant centimetres. I need more practice with this form, she mused as she loosened her control of the body a bit, letting the animal's instincts guide her movements more. She shifted her huge ears, marvelling at the precision with which her tiny body corrected for the change in air resistance, and produced ultrasonic noises through the structures in her nose.
The echoes reflected back at her from the cavern walls formed a picture of her environment in her mind, almost as accurate sight. Being able to sense her surroundings from the echoes alone felt odd, particularly since she couldn't even perceive how she was doing it. It was simply happening naturally somewhere in the brain, without her doing anything. Nevertheless, the ability was supremely useful in this dark cavernous environment, and so was her current form. Being a bat here is a perfect disguise, she pondered and concentrated on the faint pull in her mind that told her in which direction she needed to go to find Taleth, and how far he was away. Another branch in the tunnels ahead. She had better go right if she wanted to get closer to him.
Ami swerved into the jagged fissure that crossed the main cavern here, keeping close to the ceiling of the skewed crevasse. She was a bat right now, yes, but she still preferred to stay out of sight. With a temple of Crowned Death in the vicinity, bats might be given more scrutiny than usual, on the off chance of them being transformed vampires. The young Keeper didn't want the red light in her tiny eyes to give her away in that situation. While this part of the Underworld seemed deserted so far, she remained cautious. The enemy priest was less than a kilometre ahead, and her sensitive ears were now picking up signs of life - or at least movement - at the end of the tunnel.
In compliance with Cathy's telepathic orders, a group of Ami's new recruits had congregated at one of the designated safe points. They were rather happy to see that it was the dungeon's dining room. Three of the Keeper's warlocks were marching up and down along the rows of unevenly-sized tables, their gem-tipped staves glowing faintly with crackling arcs of magic. If a teleporting intruder showed up here, he would have to deal with the wary mages' shields and readied spells.
Secure in the knowledge that they were well protected, the five orcs, two trolls, and three giant salamanders had little qualms about seizing chairs and footstools as appropriate for their size and shape, and taking a seat at one of the free tables. Soon enough, they were gorging themselves on the food and drink carried in by the imps.
"Thish chicken tashtesh rasher burnt," one of the orcs said with his mouth full.
Kner wouldn't know, since he hadn't touched the food yet. Instead, the pink-skinned orc was intently watching his companion chew and swallow. Only when the latter didn't choke or keel over, he filled his bowl from the same pot as the speaker. Paranoid? Perhaps, but why take unnecessary risks?
"I blame the goblinsss," one of the lizards hissed, showing his forked tongue. "I hear the chef iss a particularly fat and nasssty one!"
"Goblins. No wonder they can't even get chicken right!" the female of the two trolls sitting at the same table agreed, her voice haughty. "You'd think an Empress would have a proper chef!"
Kner shot her an odd look, since he remembered seeing the leathery-skinned creature devour a chicken raw only a few days ago, without even bothering to pluck it first. Suffice it to say, he was rather sceptical about her being able to appreciate good food. Not that the complaints about the rather crunchy meat were entirely unjustified.
"Hey! We not got chicken room before Empress stomp Nero!" one of the pointy-eared goblins seated at a different table protested. Evidence enough for Kner that their every word was being monitored. "Brugli just not have enough time to practice yet!"
"No chickensss?" one of the salamanders asked, its fiery orange scales glinting as it turned its head to look over at the goblin. "What did you eat before?" it asked, sounding as if it was dreading the answer.
"Fish and baked stuff, from farms," the goblin replied. "Also had spiders once. Were yummy." The tiny greenskin rubbed his belly.
"Empress Mercury may be powerful, but she's clearly has skewed priorities," the haughty troll jumped on the opportunity to badmouth her new boss.
Kner was actively starting to look for a different table to sit at now. He'd rather not be associated with that rather dim-witted creature. How unfortunate, he rather liked this nice, secure seat in an inaccessible corner. Maybe he could make some profit from this situation by tattling on her? What was her name again? Uzig? Uzil. Yes, that sounded right.
"Watch what you are saying," one of the patrolling warlocks passing the table said, stopping to glare at the loudmouthed troll. "Our Empress simply didn't see the need to waste her brilliance on mere poultry!"
"Not being able to get a hatchery up on her own is a sign of brilliance now?" the troll shot back.
"It is when you are busy coming up with a way to blackmail the Light gods themselves instead," the warlock answered smugly. "Successfully, I might add."
The troll - Uzil - had no answer to that and huffed, chewing her crunchy chicken in silence. Unfortunately, as far as Kner was concerned, that state didn't last very long.
"Well, I'm not impressed so far," Uzil commented. "I might not stick around for much longer than the next payday if things continue like that." Her massive brows furrowed as she noticed the empty pot on the table. "You bastards," she complained, gesturing at the empty plate before her, "you should have left something for me!"
"Should have talked less and eaten more," the orc sitting opposed from her grunted, finding Kner's silent approval.
"Where in darkness' name are those lazy imps? I want a refill!" the troll continued, undaunted by the glares she was receiving. She stood up from the seat so she could oversee the hall better and shouted "Hey! Service!" into the room, ignoring the glares in her direction.
The lone imp hurrying about, balancing a stack of plates, continued to ignore her.
"Hey! I'm talking to you," Uzil shouted, and tossed her empty plate at the back of the tiny creature's head.
The piece of earthen tableware accurately whistled through the air and shattered upon impact with the imp's helmet. Predictably, the startled worker lost her balance and toppled forward, sending an avalanche of dirty dishes over the tables in front of her. The creatures sitting in the way of the cascade of splintering gashes shouted in surprise, winced as they were struck by plates and pieces, and tried to jump out of their path. Chairs toppled, beer spilled, and monsters went sprawling, their shouts mixing with the noise of shards trickling to the floor.
Those uninvolved laughed uproariously and pointed at the victims, compounding the chaos. Someone kicked the innocent imp as she tried to get out unnoticed, and she disappeared between some table legs with a yelp.
Three orcs covered in light cuts slowly got up and moved in Uzil's direction, their faces murderous. Forks and knives weren't the most intimidating weapons, but held within the sinewy fists of the warriors, they looked quite able to return the pain and inconvenience the troll's reckless actions had caused.
Before the vengeance-minded pinkskins could reach the instigator of the whole mess, rapid footsteps echoed through the hall. "Hey, you over there! Break it up!" a clear female voice shouted, making itself heard over the growls and jeers. "No brawling in here!"
Kner thought the blonde human in the short blue skirt was rather brave to get between three semi-armed trolls and the target of their ire, even if there was a sword dangling from her belt. Brave, but stupid.
"She ruined our meal. Now we are going to ruin her face!" the tallest of the orcs disagreed, a shard of pottery still stuck in the crease between his frowning brows. He took another step forward.
"Last warning," the blonde hissed, putting her hand on the heft of her weapon.
"I'm not going to take orders from some wiry human worm playing at being a warrior," the orc replied, looking as if he was about to charge ahead anyway. "Bring it, if you think you can take us on!"
"Ahem," a warlock interrupted, stepping up behind him. The mage leaned down to the orc's ear, grinning like the cat that ate the canary. "Congratulations, you just managed to insult our Empress' second in command and challenge her to a fight. By the way, she quite recently and single-handedly stalled the Avatar's progress by fighting him in single combat."
Kner would always cherish the other orc's look of abject terror and sudden pallor when he realised in just how much trouble he had landed himself.
Cathy, for her part, was already advancing on him, a humourless smile on her face.
Ami fluttered from stalactite to stalactite as she slowly made her way around the gloomy-looking step pyramid in the distance. It wasn't the same one that she had seen in her crystal ball, but similar obelisks lead up to it, and the space around it had the same greenish-tinted, distorted quality.
The Keeper in the body of a bat attached herself to the cavern ceiling, right above one of the tiny huts on the outskirts of the temple complex. Upside down, she managed to touch her ear with the tiny claws on her right wing, and her visor slid over her eyes. Contrary to her expectations, it turned out that bat eyes were fairly sharp and complemented the tiny animals' echolocation. Satisfied that nobody was looking in her direction, she scanned the temple once more, as she had done multiple times from other locations before.
As usual, her sensors immediately warned her of the dark column of suffocating, contaminated mana that poured out of the central basin and suffused the air within the temple. She tentatively classified it as the oppressive power of the dark god, omnipresent within the foreboding structure, but quickly dwindling into nothingness once it spilled over its borders. Only a few concentrated, isolated knots persisted outside of the profane complex, all matching the location of an undead creature. As an unexpected benefit, this helped Ami easily distinguish the few vampires patrolling the area in the shape of bats from real animals. For the moment, she seemed safe. Only a few skeletons were milling about on the dirt paths below, and they rarely looked up.
She went back to the strategic concerns. The death god's power reminded her of the corruption produced by her dungeon heart, only more tangible and less of this world. If she calibrated her visor just right, she could see the strain it put on the very fabric of space here, twisting and distending it even more than usual for the Underworld. The effect was at least partly intentional, since it meant that the temple had no underside that an enthusiastic attacker could dig into. The underground still existed, obviously, since the temple wasn't dropping into some bottomless abyss, but it wasn't where anyone would look for it. Anyone who didn't have the computational power of the Mercury computer at her fingertips, at least.
Ami would have grinned, but her current anatomy was not up to it. She was fairly certain that, with the aid of the data she had recorded, she would be able to find out where she would have to go to attack the place from below. In any case, she would need to do something about Crowned Death's influence within his temples first if she was going to assault them. He would, at the very least, have as much control over the area as any Keeper, and none of the limitations of a finite mana pool. When she got home, she would properly analyse the architecture and geomancy of this one and search for exploitable weakpoints, perhaps by cross-referencing it with her own temple to Metallia.
Ami batted her wings and flew off when one of the skeletal lizards running along the walls seemed to take an interest in her. It made her turn her attention toward the troops guarding the temple. She liked her chances against them. Ghost, skeletons, and a few vampires. In essence, the same troop composition she had soundly defeated on the Avatar Islands in much greater numbers. The only unknown quantity were the death priests.
Her gaze went down to the shanty town below, where old and decrepit-looking cultists milled about. As far as Ami could tell from their garb, all of them had been magicians of some sort in their heyday. Now, close to the end of their natural lifespan, they were currying favour with Crowned Death's clergy in the hopes of continuing their existence as sentient, magic-using undead. In which case it would be unwise to dismiss the skeletons as a threat. Something else to ponder, Ami thought.
She spread her wings and followed the tunnel down to the lone portal not far from the temple. She had found out pretty much everything she could without entering the enemy structure, which she wouldn't risk. There was one more thing she could do, however. Taleth's presence burned in her mind, and she knew exactly where the undead priest was relative to her location. Well within range of her Keeper powers. For a moment, she considered leaving him alone, but decided against it. She needed to send a strong message, even if she gave away her presence. Besides, he was a critical component for the next phase of her plan.
In bat form, Ami landed between the four megaliths forming the portal and started conjuring small amounts of sticky mud, dampening the stone floor. The next part had to be performed too fast for him or his dark god to react. Preparing herself by mentally going through the necessary sequence of steps four times, Ami concentrated. She took off and burst into a flurry of magical activity. First, force a shabon spray through space into Taleth's location. Grab hold of the mist in the air before it can expand into the available room. Shape it into a fist, grab hold of the treacherous skeleton. Freeze. Initiate Keeper transport on the prisoner. And done!
Ami was now the proud owner of a frozen, captured death priest. She didn't have any claimed terrain nearby to drop him off, though. However, that didn't mean he was stuck forever. In one of her earliest experiments with her powers, Ami had tried to move a giant beetle into neutral territory. At the border of her claimed land, it had reappeared and hurtled through space, continuing in the direction she had been trying to pull it. Likewise, if Taleth, currently trapped invisibly next to this portal, left the effective range of her Keeper powers, he would by necessity be shunted out of the transport. The fastest way for this to happen would be for Ami to activate the portal and move through. She picked a random, deserted destination and did so rather gleefully. The feeling in the back of her mind that she associated with her Keeper powers hiccuped, alerting her that something unfortunate had just happened.
She flew back through the portal and saw that Taleth and his icy prison had reappeared, smeared out over an area of roughly ten square metres. The bat's eyes glowed crimson as Ami followed up with a strong energy drain on the unholy priest's powdered remains, which coated every surface of the portal. The spell was likely overkill, but she wasn't going to take any chances here. A few weak wisps of greyish flame gathered before her. She thought she heard an ethereal scream as she flapped her wings, dispersing the small wisp like a candle's flame. By now, her ears were picking up the loud ringing of a gong echoing through the tunnels. Time to get out of here. Huh, what's this?
Ami's gaze fell onto a blackened stick that stuck out of the rock at an oblique angle, smoking slightly. It took her a moment to identify its spiralling structure. His staff survived even this? With a quick spell, a glistening ice golem stood before her.
The animated statue grabbed the artefact, using much of her hydraulically-enhanced strength to pull it out of the rock. When it finally came loose, she fell on her behind from the sudden lack of resistance.
In the meantime, Ami had already picked one of the portal's destinations that led to a non-Underworld location, from where she could teleport herself, the staff-carrying golem, and the tired bat back to her dungeon. Her scouting mission successfully completed, she sent the ice simulacrum ahead through the portal and followed it. At the last moment before she crossed the threshold, she released a strong fireball spell, making it look as if the bat was spitting fire. The conflagration washed over Taleth's remains, filling the air with steam and fine ash particles.
The complete destruction of the skeleton was not Ami's intention, no matter what it looked like. No, this was the final step of her plan. The spell that let her feel where Taleth was remained active, now pointing her to the cloud of ash and dust intermixed with dirt that was all that was left of him. Anyone visiting or leaving the temple through that portal would drag bits of the contaminated dirt along, allowing her to track their movements. The intelligence she'd gather on the portal network alone was almost invaluable, and she felt confident that this would complement Jered's information-gathering efforts quite nicely.
Back in her dungeon and with her windfall stashed away in a safe vault, Ami was preparing to announce her return when she was disturbed by loud noises. A quick teleport later, she poked her head around a corner and blinked at the sight of a room that looked like a battlefield.
A grey-uniformed figure stood in front of the settling dust clouds, floating at knee height above the ground.
She blinked at the bodies strewn across the floor. "Jadeite? What's going on here?"
A creaking ceiling lamp clattered to the ground as the last nail holding it up came lose. It's impact elicited a muffled yelp of protest from one of the trolls sprawled out on the cold stone.
"There was a slight discipline problem with the newcomers. I'm sure they have learned their lesson and won't ignore me again when I tell them to stop brawling." The dark general smirked at the softly-groaning creatures draped over pieces of smashed furniture.
"They aren't moving much," Ami noted with concern. "That- you drained them of their energy!" she realised and brought her right hand in front of her mouth.
"They clearly had too much of it," Jadeite quipped. Seeing that the blue-haired girl was unamused, he drifted closer, floating over a pair of pink legs that poked out from underneath a broken table.
"What-" Ami began, tilting back her head to look up at the curly-haired blond who landed softly in her personal space.
"Here." Instead of an answer, Jadeite pulled out a round amulet from his pocket and held it up for Mercury to see. "May I?" He asked, clearly intending to put it around her neck.
He got me a present? Ami thought, freezing up as her glowing eyes widened. She could feel heat rush to her cheeks and inclined her head in embarrassment.
Jadeite interpreted the motion as a nod, and for a moment, she felt his hands brush past her hair as he slipped the amulet's chain over her head, causing her blush to intensify.
"Thank you," Ami said, still surprised. She lifted brass-coloured disc with the Mercury symbol engraved on it and stared at in wonder. It took her a moment to notice the soft glow around the smooth design, and then she almost dropped the innocent-looking object. "You put their energy in there?" she asked in a somewhat squeaky tone of voice. The realisation felt like someone had poured a bucket of cold water over her head.
Jadeite, however, was nodding in satisfaction, and his smile even reached his steel-blue eyes. "It wasn't easy to get it stored like that, but I think it will remain with you even in case you lose another dungeon heart and get pulled into the dark god's realm. If it works like last time, you'll have something to jump-start your escape."
"I- um," Ami felt conflicted. On one hand, him stealing someone's life energy so she could use it felt all kinds of wrong. On the other, him being concerned for her safety made her feel really warm, and it was the first present he had ever given her. And having a way out of the dark god's realm was something she really, really wanted. In the end, she settled on being polite. "Thank you very much, Jadeite. I appreciate the gesture." And she did, really. Still, life energy...
"I am glad you like it," Jadeite said, acting as if he wasn't even noticing her blush. His expression turned serious, and he pointed at the semi-conscious underlings. "However, I don't think that this will remain an isolated incident. Cathy told me she already had to put a few of the newcomers on ice for being too rowdy and not following her orders."
"Insubordination?" Ami asked, rubbing her chin with the back of her hand. That was a problem she hadn't encountered since 'Marda'. She had rather hoped it would remain that way, since she'd be forced to devise appropriate punishments that even the evil beings working for her would respect. "What is causing this?"
"I'd say that the new batch of minions is simply more unruly than the rest," Jadeite answered with a shrug.
"More unruly than goblins?" Ami asked, shaking her head as she remembered some of the trouble the hyperactive green beings could get themselves into.
"Goblins are used to being bossed around. I think you have been lucky with your servants so far. I rather suspect that these new recruits," he gestured toward the groaning monsters on the ground, "are more representative of what you can expect from typical Underworld hirelings."
"Why would that be the case?" Ami asked, intrigued, but at the same time hoping he was wrong.
"Ignore the goblins, who are easily cowed, and the warlocks, who are quiet and studious by nature," Jadeite began. "The Avatar's trolls were a well-disciplined special case too. Now, aside from them, did you actually have any servants that you didn't beat respect into by defeating them in battle before you hired them?"
Ami pondered this. "Well, there were the bugs and spiders and flies," she said.
Jadeite only waved his hand impatiently at the mention of the simple-minded animals, indicating that they didn't count.
"Oh, yes, actually. Tserk." She paused, briefly recalling the antics of the often troublesome and stubborn tentacle monster. "You know, you might be on to something there," she admitted.
The blond general smiled. "Indeed. This brings up the question of appropriate punishments, of course. I would suggest more energy drains. It won't do lasting harm, is quick to rectify in an emergency, and will provide you with a useful resource."
Ami could almost hear the implied 'for bribing Metallia with'. She lifted the amulet again, looking at it in silence. A gentle smile sneaked onto her face as she contemplated the gift. "I will consider it."
|Previous chapter:||Next chapter:|
|Chapter 122: Formulating a Response||Chapter 124: Investigation|