Ami twitched on the ground, feeling the coldness of the gondola's floor bite into her right cheek. Her heart was beating rapidly, but despite the adrenaline racing through her veins, her jelly-like arms did no marshal enough strength to get up. Mukrezar. Crowned Death had revived the Keeper who had been responsible for wiping out the Avatar Islands! Nevertheless, Ami felt nothing but relief at the news. She couldn't have handled a second horror like that death spectre in her current state. Keepers were at least a known quantity.
"Bwahahaha, didn't think I'd ever hear the Avatar go berserk like that," Keeper Midori's voice came from the covered crystal ball. "So that really was Mukrezar. I didn't see that one coming, but I bet so did nobody else. Got to go, have to sell the news before it's old, time's money, you know how it is," the Keeper said cheerfully. "Don't worry, I won't forget about asking for my payment later!"
Ami didn't waste effort on a response. Instead, she used her Keeper powers to lift herself off the ground and used the suit of black armour lying next to her as an improvised seat. Her body cried out for sleep, but she couldn't give in. She wasn't done here yet, not by a long shot. Her Keeper sight dove into the underground and easily found the weak captives lying in their own filth in the corridors, flinching away even from the soft footsteps of her imps passing by. Silent tears ran down the blue-haired girl's face when she spotted a blind child fumble around with tiny, shaking hands and calling out for her mother. If anything, defeating the bad guys had been the easy part. Exhausted from the combat or not, she had to provide help to all those people trapped in the catacomb-like tunnels below.
Tiger appeared in a column of earth that disintegrated into rapidly fading pebbles with a grinding noise. "Whoa, you look like something that clawed its way out of the grave and started shambling around," the youma commented. "Good thing, I brought our healer, isn't it?" She opened her arms, letting the red-and-white clad acolyte drop to the ground.
Snyder looked back and forth between the two blue-haired females, his brow scrunching up in confusion. The incomprehension on his rounded features faded away when he finally recognised the pale girl sitting hunched-over on Mercury's black suit of armour. "You, you are Mercury in her non-powered state. However, that would make you," he looked back over his shoulder at the disguised youma, "an imposter?"
Tiger shrugged, reverting to her own appearance. "More like a double. Now fix what's wrong with her, she looks as if a slight breeze could blow her over."
"The accuracy of that mimicry is rather unsettling," the acolyte commented. He approached Ami. "Empress, are you injured?"
"I'm not hurt, only exhausted. Conserve your power for helping the captives," the schoolgirl replied, her voice strained and quivering from fighting back her tears. "They are worse off than me."
"We shall see about that," Jadeite said, his voice arriving before his body as he shimmered into sight at her side. The dark general bowed down and put a hand on the blue-haired girl's shoulder, staring intently at her the whole time. "You are suffering from severe energy drain," he diagnosed. "I'm surprised you managed to stay awake for so long. What caused this?"
"That's not important right now," Ami said, her voice almost inaudible. Energy drained? Perhaps she could fix that problem. "Mercury Power, Make up," she breathed tentatively, which was enough to initiate her transformation sequence. In an instant, blue streamers and light gathered around her, leaving her clad in her uniform.
She felt invigorated by the transformation removing dirt, sweat, and tears just as much as by the actual magical enchantments strengthening her. She was still far from fine, but with new power flowing into her, she no longer needed to concentrate just on keeping her eyes open. With a jerky movement of her hand, she started creating imps and sending them into the tunnels below. "Snyder, I'm excavating a large, clean area to gather the victims in." The island's surface, being exposed to the elements and littered with stinking dead flesh, was no place for a field hospital. "I'll send you down there as soon as the terrain is claimed."
"While I have had extensive medical training, I fear that my stamina will not be up to the task of treating that many patients," the red-and-white robed man admitted.
"Focus on strengthening them, in that case. I will be joining you and treating injuries as soon as I have secured a supply of fresh water," Ami said. Which was something of an ironic problem, given that both she and Mareki could simply conjure the substance. Unfortunately, the liquid produced by either of them was unsuitable for drinking, since it would inevitably fade away after a while. That couldn't be good for the body that had ingested it. While the youma's water could at least be used to clean the prisoners, Ami's own was too cold for even that purpose. Not that she couldn't heat it, but why waste magic on something like that when it wouldn't solve the problem of drinking water. There were no sources of fresh water on the island, and the ocean around here was too salty to drink, not to mention thoroughly contaminated with rotting bits of carrion. Fortunately, Ami had already come up with a solution. Seawater and lightning spells were all she needed to turn one of the huge, airtight tarpaulins intended for airship repair into a hydrogen-filled balloon. Not cost-effective in the least, but burning the gas would produce pure, clean, and real water for the prisoners to drink.
"Avatar? Avatar Amadeus?" Ami focused on the black crystal ball that the man had been using earlier, all the while transporting clean water into an ice-lined basin she had created underground.
The crystal ball lit up, but instead of the champion of Light, a harried-looking old face showed up. "You! I should have known you were involved somehow! What did you tell the Avatar to make him run off like that?" The secretary's eyes glanced sideways when a door slammed in the distance, followed by a faint splintering noise. "Never mind that, I've got more important things to do than rant at a Keeper!" She dropped the scrying device back on her desk as she stood up and hurried toward the door.
"Wait!" Ami called out, but it was too late. The crystal ball went black, cutting her off from the one person with enough trust and influence on the surface to send assistance. "Darn it!" Her shoulders slumped. Oh well, she could always try again later. Right now, there were people who needed her help. She gulped, since she was now faced with the prospect of judging the state of each of the hungry captives and deciding who would receive help first, and who would need to suffer for a while longer. This wasn't how she had imagined working as a doctor would be like.
Mukrezar appeared in a swirling vortex of red light, his long, pink mane wafting around him like a cape. He stood still for a moment and then fell over like a felled tree. His chin hit the marble floor with a dull thud. Interrupted by occasional dry heaves, he cussed up a storm while he patted down his naked body with his hands. After a while, he was satisfied that everything was still attached and where it belonged, and his stomach started to calm down. "Note to self: vampire teleportation is unsuited for living elves." He wondered what other unpleasant surprises were hidden away in the arcane lore that Crowned Death had crammed - painfully - into his head before tossing him back into this world. That new type of dungeon heart sounded intriguing...
A huge shadow, almost as broad as it was tall, moved across the mildewy wall as its owner approached with quiet footsteps. The being that stepped into the weak torchlight was much shorter and less imposing than the menacing shadow it cast. An eyebrow rose curiously over half-lidded, fist-sized imp eyes. "Master Mukrezar?" a surprisingly deep and cultivated voice asked.
The pink-haired elf lying on the ground looked up and frowned, unsurprised at being addressed by a talking imp in a tailored suit. "Who else would know about this little hidey-hole?" he snapped. He blinked twice when the imp got closer to the light and he could see it properly. "You grew a beard?"
The imp took his hand off the tiny rapier at his hip and moved a finger across the black tuft of hair adorning his chin. "It has been fifteen years, Master," he said, tilting his head to the side. "Fifteen years without being kicked, stomped on, set on fire, stabbed, chased by your pets, bitten, electrified, poisoned, poked, and being punished for slights I did not commit." The imp took a deep breath, slowly walking closer. An odd gleam entered its huge black eyes. "Fifteen utterly peaceful years," the tiny servant continued, now looming before the weakened Keeper. The imp-butler's face was hidden in shadow except for the white of his crooked teeth. Suddenly, he continued in a high-pitched whine "It was horrible, your Heinousness! I missed you, Master!"
"If you hug me, I will boil your toes," Mukrezar warned, his face wary.
"A show of affection? From me?" The imp shuddered, his voice full of disdain. "You insult my professional standards."
"Yes, yes. Now be a good professional and bring me some clothes, will you?" Mukrezar ordered, making a shooing motion with his right hand. He pulled himself to his feet and gave the room a once over. His servant certainly hadn't raised a hand to stave off the ravages of time.
"Of course, your Maliciousness." The imp strode over to a chest, stood on tiptoes so he could see inside, and started rummaging within. "If I may ask, what was being dead like?"
"It is an experience that I would warmly recommend to all of my enemies," Mukrezar quipped.
"How droll." The imp draped a neatly-folded burgundy pair of trousers over his arm. "I do confess to some curiosity about how you managed to claw your way back to life."
"Crowned Death," Mukrezar looked left and right, as if expecting the dark god to burst from the shadows at the mention of his name, "saw it fit to reconstruct my body, shove my soul into it, and leave me some vague orders."
"Orders, your Rebelliousness? What kind of hold does he have over you?"
"Well, I would have to be a completely black-hearted fiend to not feel some gratitude and loyalty to someone who raised me from the dead and returned my soul, wouldn't I?"
"Ah, I see." The small butler nodded. "I shall go collect a few pamphlets from the others priesthoods at once."
"First, clothe me," Mukrezar commanded. "Afterwards, we shall have to acquire some funds. I am a Keeper with no dungeon heart. This must not stand. You still have your pick, do you?"
"It would be faster to just request some funds from the death cult, Master," the imp said, straightening the lapels of the Keeper's jacket.
"And deal with the endless sermons about the beauty of death, the end of existence, and the blight that is life again? While I can appreciate the artistry of the torment it inflicts on a captive audience, I am less appreciative of this happening to myself. Let me tell you, that nonsense is especially jarring when you are already dead." Mukrezar stepped in front of a full-body mirror, snipped his fingers to peel the dust off its surface, and admired his reflection. "If their lord likes death so much, then he should just kill himself. But no, he hates all life so much that he needs to make sure it is all gone before he can enjoy sweet oblivion. Excuses, excuses." He turned back to his butler. "In any case, serving him has no future in the long run."
"And if there is something you are good at, Master, it is thinking about the long term."
The elf glowered at him. "Just because I can't afford to punish you right now does not mean I will not happily squish you like a bug later."
"As you say, your Torturousness. Maybe you could extort some gold from your subordinate Keepers, then? They have grown fat, lazy, and cautious in your absence. True disgraces to the cause of Evil."
"Unfortunately for me and fortunately for them, death thoroughly severed those bonds. Now start digging, and tell me about how the world changed while I was out of action."
Ami walked quickly through the hall filled with constant sobs and moans, taking care to remain on claimed land at all times so her presence stabilised her local territory. Her face fell when the injured peasant woman before her curled up into a shivering ball at the sound of her approach. "Please don't be afraid," the blue-haired girl said, gently reaching out for the woman's shoulder. "The monsters who abducted you were defeated. I'm here to treat your injuries. Please, let me help you. There are many other patients who require assistance, too." As she waited for the woman to lower the arm held protectively over the wound above her left hip, Ami watched her imps run around, carrying water to those who needed it in small ice bottles. She heard splashes from the back, where ice golems were cleaning some of the saved people.
Now and again, the loud, metallic stomping of a reaperbot on patrol caused the complaints and the pained murmuring of the rescued sacrifices to become quieter and more frightened. Unfortunately, the patrols were necessary. Who knew how many of those teleporting priests Crowned Death still had in reserve?
The woman nodded almost imperceptibly and allowed Ami to access her injury. The future medical doctor saw that the wound encrusted with old, congealed blood was a simple cut, swollen with a badly-smelling infection.
The woman jerked when Ami brushed away the contaminated flesh far faster and more recklessly than she would have done under less pressing circumstances. "Ow! What are you doing?" she complained when fresh blood started oozing from the wound.
"I'm sorry," Ami apologised, "I do not have traditional healer training, so I could not dull the pain first." With a quick spell, she indiscriminately killed the bacteria around the cut and then knitted the flesh together.
The woman, who had gasped at the admission, turned her blinded face toward where she suspected the younger woman was. "Then what kind of healer are you?"
"Can't chat now, I need to treat the other patients," Ami excused herself as she hurried over to a muscular man clad in rags lying at the woman's side. If there was one thing she didn't want, it was scaring the terrified victims even more by revealing her identity. A blind boy was hiding behind the soldier, small arms wrapped around the blood-stained larger torso.
"There are imps around," the man accused when Ami leaned over him. His upper body showed old combat scars. "I may be blind, but I'd recognise their footsteps everywhere! I'm not sure what you are trying to pull, but there's still a Keeper around. If you really wanted to help us, you'd just let us die before they can hurt us more!"
"Please be quiet, you are scaring the others," Ami said, wincing. "Nobody is going to hurt you."
"As if I'd believe anyone working for a Keeper," he snorted. "You stay the hell away from me!"
"I do not work for a Keeper," Ami protested truthfully. "Unfortunately, I cannot waste time trying to convince you, since other patients require my help, too. Call me if you change your mind," she continued as she turned away. She hated being so cold, but what else could she do in this situation? What she hated even more was how little she could actually do herself to alleviate these people's misery. Her necromancy could provide first aid, but it couldn't do anything about lost eyes. Her hands clenched into fists as she passed two tiny girls pressing themselves against the wall, their eyelids hanging loose over the hollows underneath.
"We have a problem," Jadeite announced himself as he shimmered into sight. Draped over his right shoulder, he carried the still form of Snyder.
Ami's eyes widened. "What happened to him?"
"He pushed himself too far," the dark general explained, "so he just keeled over. He'll need a while to recover."
Ami hung her head, her blue bangs falling over eyes that were reddened not only from the crimson light they emitted. "I- I can't handle this alone!"
"I have a suggestion," Jadeite said. "You remember that flash of lightning out over the ocean during the battle?"
"Dandel! Hey, Dandel!" Anise said, poking the back of her indigo-haired older sister with her index finger. "Have you figured out what those two balloon-things are doing yet?" The redhead pointed at the two elongated airships hanging low over the ocean's surface, almost invisible in the night. "We have been following them over an hour now!"
"I think so, yes," the exasperated fairy leader answered as she put down her telescope. "Fishing."
"Fishing?" The fae with twin short swords affixed to her belt blinked.
"Well, there's a huge net spanning the distance between them, which they dipped into the sea and are now dragging behind themselves," Dandel explained.
"How huge are we talking here?" Camilla's wanted to know. The blonde stared out at the dark ocean with a worried expression. "Giant octopus huge?"
"No, it would be far to flimsy for something like that," the eldest sister said with a calming smile. "There's no need to worry. Melissa will warn us about anything approaching underwater."
"But apparently not from elsewhere," a menacing male voice sounded from behind them.
As one, the startled fairies took to the air, the glitter from their wings describing glowing arcs in the darkness as they whirled to face the voice. Seven sets of rainbow-coloured eyes focused on the grey-uniformed figure hovering not far away.
"It's you!" Green-haired Tilia shouted.
"Have you finally decided to run away from the Keeper?" Camilla asked with more optimism than she really felt.
"What do you want?" Dandel asked, wings fluttering in a pattern that would allow her to dart aside at a moment's notice.
"My Empress wants to see you," Jadeite answered simply.
"Yeah, right. Why should we care?" Anise spat, her swords drawn.
"Is there a healer among you?" the dark general continued, ignored, ignoring the redhead.
"Are you hurt?" Melissa asked, some of the wariness fading from her expression.
"Or are you going to hurt one of us and abduct her so we have to follow you back to the island if we say yes?" Cerasse suspected, bringing up the spiralling bone staff she had found into a combat-ready position.
"Not a bad plan," Jadeite said, as if actually considering it.
"Was the dark empress wounded during the fighting?" Roselle wanted to know, not bothering to disguise her hopeful expression.
"No, she is simply feeling a bit sick from eating something that disagreed with her," Jadeite replied, a hint of amusement playing around his eyes. "In any case, you will be coming with me one way or another."
"To think that such a handsome face could hide such a rotten attitude," Cerasse said. "Anyway, with me having this," she raised the three-pronged staff, "you won't be able to lay a hand on us!"
"Oh, please. Empress Mercury defeated twelve ancient sorcerers wielding those staves during the battle." The curly-haired blond waved a white-gloved hand dismissively.
"But you aren't her," Anise pointed out, a dangerous gleam in her ruby eyes.
"Please, can't you reconsider your evil ways?" Tilia pleaded. "We don't have to fight!"
"But if we do, we are going to kick your arse! You may be powerful, but you will not be able to stand against all seven of us," Roselle declared.
"Ah, it's a good thing I am the distraction, then," Jadeite stated with a smug grin. It widened when the alarmed fairies instantly took a defensive formation, their eyes darting around as they scanned for the real threat. Which was when he hit them with a gust of air that sent them tumbling and off-balance, though they recovered quickly. He even had to dodge a pulsing ball of blue energy that came at him with surprising accuracy when taking into account that his indigo-haired attacker was currently upside down. Chuckling, he raised both hands in a grabbing motion.
"Gah!" Melissa let out a startled yelp when her flying carpet darted out from underneath her, rolling itself up as it sped toward the dark general. From the corner of her sapphire eyes, she could see the second carpet do the same.
Jadeite caught both rolls, gave a mocking bow in the direction of his stunned and dismayed opponents, and disappeared with a violet flash of upwards-shooting lines.
"He- he stole our flying carpets! That thief!" Camilla sputtered, her cheeks puffed up in anger.
"I'm sure Mercury put him up to it!" Roselle added.
"This is a problem," Dandel sighed, hanging her head. "We can't make it back to the ship without them. Getting back to the island will be exhausting enough." Using the star-lit sky as a guide, she looked toward the east, where Dreadfog Island lay hidden somewhere behind the horizon.
A transparent and larger-than-life image of Jadeite flickered into existence before her. The dark general ignored the death glares shot his way and said "You have no choice but to return to the island now. Since my Empress means you no harm-"
"-you may travel on the two returning airships. I shall be seeing you soon."
"So, Zarekos was defeated by a relatively unknown Keeper," Mukrezar mused, sitting on a boulder. He was talking loud enough to make himself heard over the noise of a pick striking rock. "Not sure why she would bother, though. Anyway, I'd have loved to destroy him myself, but what's done is done. Oh well. So this Keeper Mercury now holds my lands?"
The butler, covered in rock dust, nodded.
"I can't forgive her for undoing the results of my brilliance! All that plotting and scheming to remove the Avatar from the picture permanently, wasted!" Mukrezar grumbled, crossing his arms.
"You are referring to the time you were bedridden for a week after trying to eat his soul?" the bearded imp commented. "Ah, those sores were some of the best I have ever seen, and I fancy myself something of a connoiss-"
"Surely, you were talking about his corrupted mantle setting you on fire after you tried to claim its power, then?"
"But Master, how could I keep quiet about your genius plan to circumvent what remained of his defences by possessing his body? Never before have I seen dragons so traumati-"
"Continue talking, and I might actually feel motivated enough to research a way to get rid of you for good," Mukrezar threatened, and a vein above his right eyebrow twitched. He cleared his throat. "Ahem. While there were a few false starts-"
"-that shall never be mentioned again, I did manage to neutralise him for good eventually. Or at least until that dimwit of a Keeper allowed him to undo my transmutation, ruining all of my hard work!"
The digging imp swung his pick at the rock, giggling. "By providing an opportunity for him to recover his mantle, yes."
"What? Mukrezar cussed loudly and at great length, hammering the wall with his fist. When the limb was bloody, he finally slowed down. "Of all the stupid, disastrous outcomes! Well, at least she got to reap the fatal consequences her incredible incompetence has sowed!"
"Indeed, Master. The Avatar immediately went after her, wearing his mantle, and she faced him in," the bearded imp paused to spit at the ground in disgust, "honourable single combat."
Mukrezar groaned and rubbed his temples. "How did an idiot like that manage to survive that long?"
"By being powerful enough to take out the Avatar with a single spell, apparently," the butler said in an even voice.
"Impossible! You said he was wearing his mantle!" Mukrezar jumped to his feet, flailing his hands wildly. "It can't be done! He is-" He stopped and glared down at the top of the imp's bald skull. "You wouldn't have happened to grow a sense of humour while I was away, would you?" he asked suspiciously. "Teasing me like that. I will-"
"The events I reported were confirmed by several independent sources."
Mukrezar sat back down on a rock, resting his head in his hands. "You are not having me on?"
The imp shook his head.
Mukrezar remained quiet for a while and then sighed. "I suppose a little forgiveness, only once, won't hurt." He perked up. "At least, there is one silver lining to this. That disgustingly holy champion of the Light remains a non-issue!"
His butler opened his mouth, only to remain quiet when the former Keeper's hand shot up in a halting gesture.
"No, wait, don't say anything. Let me guess. She let him go."
"Actually, she ransomed him back in exchange for being named the rightful Empress of the lands by the Light gods, but close enough. How did you know, Master?"
"Rightful Empre-" The elf threw up his hands in the air. "You know what, stop talking about her. It's too depressing. As to how I knew... well, letting lose an uncontrollable, unstoppable death machine that isn't a danger to me personally is just what I would have done!" Mukrezar said. Suddenly, he paled. "Damn! Damn damn damn damn! He's going to come after me!" he started pacing up and down rapidly, beads of sweat forming on his brow.
"He might be harbouring some unreasonable resentment for your redecoration of that unsightly green eyesore he called his country, yes," the butler agreed. His face and tone remained impassive, but the corners of his wide mouth twitched.
"Then dig faster! We must prepare!" Mukrezar squeaked, delivering a kick to the imp's backside as an additional encouragement.
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