Ami could feel her exhaustion catch up with her despite the golem body she was possessing. While it had no muscles or organs that could tire, the fatigue still rendered her thoughts sluggish and her movements mechanical. Being made of ice did have the advantage of not being able to perceive the smell permeating the airships, though. Even frequent ventilation could not get rid of the stench of too many people crammed into too little space.
Of course, that didn't help all the poor people she had transported onto her ship. Ami sighed as she walked past the unfortunates lying on the ground, packed like sardines in a can. She had to duck her head so she wouldn't bump into the low-hanging ceiling above. Not stepping on someone was becoming a challenge. Finding room for all these people on the vessels had required extensive remodelling and getting rid of anything that was not necessary. She had partitioned the cabin of each airship into six different floors, and her reaperbots were travelling on an ice floe she had created from ocean water with several applications of her Shabon Spray Freezing spell.
Despite the multiple available floors, space remained uncomfortably scarce. Even the children were barely able to move around on their assigned spots. The less said about the sanitation problems this posed, the better. Ami was glad that the imps would do any job with little complaint, no matter how dirty. They could also take over simple tasks, like bringing food and drink to the blinded patients, and were small enough to not be hindered too much by the claustrophobic conditions.
Ami lowered herself to one knee so that she could adjust the bandage covering a little brown-haired boy's eyes.
"Eep! Your hands are cold!" the child protested, shying away from the touch.
"Sorry about that. Don't scratch, it will make things worse." Ami gently pushed the small hands away from the bandages, and patted the child on the head reassuringly.
"Where is my momma? I want my momma!"
"I'm doing my best to find her," Ami said, glad that he couldn't see the sad expression on her face. "Now, where do you come from?"
She noted down the child's answer on her computer and went to the next patient. Finding out where people were from geographically and reuniting them was one of the few things she could do to ease their pain. Therefore, it was a project that she eagerly dedicated what little time she could spare to. Which wasn't a lot, given that she had to care for thousands of people almost on her own. In addition, she had to make sure that the airships groaning under their burden maintained a steady flight and didn't jerk or tilt to the side, frightening the passengers in the process. A panic breaking out within these cramped quarters would lead to hundreds of injured or dead. It was a nightmarish possibility. Without Jadeite's sleep spells and his magic supporting the dirigibles, it might already have happened by now.
Jadeite. Ami hung her head and stared at the floor. Disappointment stabbed like a knife at her heart whenever she thought about him. Yes, now that she had been able to dwell on the situation for some time, she realised that she was being unfair to him. Jered had supported the dark general's view too, stating that there was no way that the surfacers would let her reach their lands uncontested. If she tried anyway, she would be risking the lives of everyone on board. Nevertheless, she found it hard to forgive Jadeite for forcing her to put her own good over that of the many people she had rescued. It was irrational, but emotions didn't care about logic, and she had no way to simply turn them off.
Ami closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. Oh, he hadn't said anything, but he knew she couldn't leave the crippled hostages where they were any longer. Her only option had been going along with his suggestion. Even if he had meant well, getting her choice taken away like that hurt. She was almost glad that she would be drowning in work and be to distracted for idle musings during the rest of the journey back to the Avatar Island. She did not want to think about him right now.
"Empress?" a reluctant whisper at her side startled her out of her task. She looked up and found the blonde fairy she had accidentally hired staring at her, pouting unhappily.
"Yes? Is something wrong?" Ami whispered back, wondering what Camilla wanted. The yellow-eyed girl was not pleased with her situation, but she was nevertheless a dedicated worker. Ami noted the dark circles around the fae's eyes, and decided that she would order her to take a break soon. She honestly didn't know how she would manage without her help, or without that of the other fairies who had decided to stick around.
"I'm wondering how you are treating their eyes," Camilla asked, moving closer so she could speak in a hushed voice. She gestured down at the patient surrounding them on all sides.
"Aside from the bandages, I haven't dared to touch them yet. I don't know how to regrow eyes, since I have no spell for it. It would be terrible closing the wounds with necromancy now would make it impossible to restore the eyes later."
"You don't need to worry about that," the fairy said, a haunted look in her eyes.
Ami immediately realised that Camilla hadn't meant this as medical advice, and felt her stomach drop. "Is something wrong?"
"Um, no, nothing," the round-face girl said quickly, shaking her head. She turned around. "I'll be going back to work no-"
"Wait!" Ami might not be the best at social interaction, but the fairy was a horrible liar. "Out with it! If there's something seriously wrong with these people that I don't know about yet, then you have to tell me!"
"Ah, err," Camilla began when she suddenly found herself face to face with the dark empress again. Defiance played across her features before melting away in the glare of Mercury's crimson-glowing eyes. "Um, you wouldn't throw them out of the airship or something if it turned out that they won't be as useful to you as you thought, right?"
"Of course not!" Ami protested. "I don't expect them to work for me. Most of them are children!"
"Promise?" The fairy took a deep breath when the golem before her nodded. Still looking worried, she continued "You really haven't noticed yet? The death priests must have used their ceremonial knives to pry out their eyes," the fairy whispered, looking queasy.
"I don't quite follow," Ami admitted, not getting the significance.
"Those tools were tainted by the many evil rites they were used in. Those are cursed wounds! I can't do anything about them!"
Ami gasped and would have paled had she been in her real body. Given the location of the injuries, cutting away the affected flesh was not an option. "But someone more powerful could? They aren't going to be stuck like this?"
"Someone like an abbot can break the curse on a wound within a temple, but he wouldn't be much good for a few days or so afterwards. Fixing the eyes with a regeneration spell later would be easy, though. I think you had one cast on your hand a while back," the blonde continued. She grimaced at the unpleasant memories this brought up.
Ami didn't need to be a genius to figure out that curing all of the injured could take up to years within those limitations. "Why does it take that long? Aren't the Light gods just as strong as the dark ones?" There went her plan of just asking for a proper healer or two to be sent over to her realm.
"Destroying is much easier than healing," Camilla said with a weary sigh. Suddenly, she looked nervous again. "So, um, you are still not going to harm the patients, right?"
"There has to be a better way," Ami said, more to herself than to the fairy. "And if there isn't, then I'll have to find one!" Maybe there was a different approach to this that required a more scientific mindset? She'd have to analyse the curse first, to see how it prevented healing. Maybe it was meant to suppress magical healing only? Possibilities raced through her head. How was the evil magic maintained? Did it draw its power from an outside source, or did it leech from its victim like a parasite? She would-
A child started crying nearby, bringing Ami back to the present. Camilla was looking at her oddly, probably wondering why she had frozen up like that. The insisting complaints of the toddler pushed thoughts of developing a cure for cursed wounds back for the moment. Hurrying over to the child to see what she needed, Ami wished she was back at the Avatar Islands already so she could properly start her research.
The airships were moving too fast for a fairy to keep up with using only her wings, and so Dandel used her flying carpet to manoeuvre across the flank of the streamlined flagship. She squinted against the wind as she directed her carpet upwards, toward the grey-uniformed sorcerer standing on top of the hull. He hadn't been hard to find, since the awe-inspiring power with which he calmed the air around the fleet radiated outwards like a beacon.
Trailing glitter, the indigo-haired fairy swerved into his field of vision, slowing down until she was flying at his side.
"What are you doing utside?" the curly-haired blonde asked when he spotted the woman in her swimsuit-like uniform, drenched by the falling rain. The dark general himself remained completely dry, since the raindrops avoided him. "I thought your kind didn't like getting wet."
"We don't, but I wanted to talk to you," the indigo-haired fairy said, "without someone overhearing us." She looked down at the dirigible's envelope, as if she could see through the canvas into the gondola below.
"Oh, great. Is this another attempt to talk me into committing treason? Besides, why are you still hanging out with the fleet? The Empress set you free, you know."
"We can't just abandon our sister after the evil empress tricked her like that! " Dandel protested, not letting herself be discouraged by his gruff manner. Not that she enjoyed being here. In fact, staying near the dark empress voluntarily when you weren't working for her had to be some sign of insanity. Fortunately, the evil monarch didn't seem to mind their presence, probably since they were lending a hand with caring for the hostages. If left to shoulder the burden on her own, Camilla would probably work until she passed out from exhaustion. Dandel only hoped that they'd have some warning before they reached the limits of Mercury's tolerance.
"I don't see what's so bad about that. My Empress did not want to hire her in the first place, so she will just terminate the contract when she no longer needs her help."
"It's not that simple," Dandel said with a sigh. "Camilla's career is basically over. In our nation, having worked for a Keeper automatically disqualifies you from any further service in the military or any other position of authority. You are no longer considered trustworthy."
"Even if it was an honest mistake?" Jadeite asked, raising an eyebrow.
"It's a mistake of rather huge magnitude," Dandel said sadly. "Someone who can be tricked or coerced like that... It's not fair, but there's a reason why there has never been a successful Keeper incursion in our lands."
Jadeite shrugged. "Whatever. Just don't tell anybody about it. Problem solved."
"The oracles will already know. There are precautions against exactly that kind of thing. Infiltration attempts happen more often than you would think."
"Hmm. You'll have to tell me all about how exactly your realm managed to remain Keeper-free for so long at one point," Jadeite said.
Dandel didn't like his predatory expression and narrowed her eyes at him. In an attempt to guide the conversation back to the original reason why she had been looking for him, she said "Don't be like that! We have proof that you are not as evil as you pretend to be!"
"Not this again. What strange fantasies have you constructed now?" he asked, unimpressed.
"Well, Camilla overheard part of your argument with the dark empress! She told us that you called her plan wrong and would have no part in it!"
The dark general narrowed his eyes, and he raised his right hand. A few angry blue sparks played around the white glove. "It seems someone needs to demonstrate to her that eavesdropping isn't appreciated around here."
"What? No!" Dandel shouted, not liking the sorcerer's sinister expression. "Don't punish her! She only did it because she's worried about what the empress is going to do to all these helpless prisoners. And rightly so, if her plan was so evil that you were willing to risk your life by refusing to go along with it!"
"Ha, as if she would harm me. I'm much too valuable to her," Jadeite answered, but his voice lacked the satisfaction that should satisfy such a statement.
"Which is why you are hiding out here in the rain from her," Dandel countered. The blonde shot her a glare, which she ignored. Her voice became softer and almost pleading. "Look, we want to make sure nothing worse happens to these people, and out here, you are our only potential ally!"
Jadeite stared at the fairy and remained silent, his expression unreadable. Finally, he shook his head and spoke "Girls and their silly ideas. What would you have me do, potentially speaking?"
"Be our man on the inside," Dandel said immediately. Yes! She was getting through to him! "Or at least tell us what she's planning to do with them so we can do something about it!"
"That's no secret. She is taking them back to the Avatar Islands for now, since I wouldn't let her go with her original idea."
The indigo-haired fairy couldn't help shake the impression that the blonde man was amused by something, even if he was hiding it well. "Right. If she had to change her plans, then she might not have an immediate use for them. Given enough time, hmm, yes." The fae looked up, her gaze intense. "With inside help and a week or so of preparation time, we might just be able to steal the prisoners away from her before she can stop us!" Dandel was risking a lot by divulging so much, and so she was rather dismayed when Jadeite snorted and then started laughing out loudly.
"You burn down just one tiny little continent, and suddenly, someone sees it fit to put a bounty on your head." Mukrezar paced up and down as he pondered the news.
"People can be so unreasonable," the butler imp said, his form only faintly illuminated by the glow of the flickering phantasms surrounding the former Keeper.
"Two million gold on my head is somewhat excessive. If flattering, in a way."
"There is nothing wrong with excess, Master," the bearded imp reprimanded him.
Mukrezar ignored the creature and kept pacing, only occasionally glancing at the shifting net of multicoloured patterns that moved with him. After a while, his frown disappeared and he shrugged his shoulders in an exaggerated fashion. "Oh well. It's not as if this is the first time everyone wants me dead. There must be some way to exploit this situation!"
"That's the spirit! Are you going to claim the bounty yourself, your Greediness?" the butler suggested, rubbing his hands together.
"As much as that idea pleases me, any fool with a scrying ball could verify that I was still among the living," the pink-haired elf said. He glanced over at the imp in its fine suit, who was leaning on its pick. "Who allowed you to stop digging? Back to work!"
"Yes, Master," the butler said, sounding disappointed as he picked up his tool and turned toward the rock wall.
Rock splinters went flying as the pick clanged against the wall, and Mukrezar leaned down to pick up one of the pebbles hewn lose by his minion. He turned it between two fingers and smiled at the thin, yellowish pattern he could discern on its surface.
An odd white glow surrounded the index finger he deliberately placed on the metallic gleam. When he pulled the digit away, something viscous and honey-coloured seeped out from the cracks and pores in the raw ore and stuck to its tip.
"Not even enough for a gold coin," Mukrezar muttered as he inspected the thread of metal resting on his palm. He reshaped the substance into a solid loop and raised it before his eyes, his lips twisting into a grin.
"Oh, Master. Are you considering romance?" the butler asked and made gagging noises.
"What? Have you lost your mind? Of course not!" Mukrezar whirled around, his eyes flashing. "This," he held up the piece of jewellery between his thumb and index finger, "will, with the proper enchantments, become the foundation of my newest cunning plan!"
The imp's shoulders slumped. "I was afraid you would say that, your Manipulativeness. Are you sure you don't want to go with romance instead?" A sharp rock bounced off his forehead. "Ow! Thank you, Master!"
"Your lack of confidence in my abilities displeases me," the pink-haired elf stated as the dazed imp got back to his feet.
"I would, with the utmost respect, suggest that you re-examine your past success rate with plans that involved magical rings, Master," the imp suggested as he took cover behind a protruding rock.
"Well, there was- hmm, no. Maybe- no, neither. Wait! Starshine castle crumbled rather beautifully, if my memory doesn't deceive me!" Mukrezar said, his face brightening.
"That does tend to happen when a company of demon spawn scales the walls, Master. Your impatience in that particular siege was glorious to behold!"
"Details, details. The concept-"
"We even recovered the ring later from a magpie's nest in the nearby forest," the butler continued, drawing a glower from his employer.
"You realise that chance alone demands that it has to work one of these days, right?" Mukrezar said through clenched teeth.
"Your Wastefulness, with regard to your current financial situation," the butler pointed at a few sad and lonely coins in the corner, "I would suggest you rein in your ring obsession just this once."
The long-haired elf tossed the ring up and down as he thought. "Maybe you are right." He grinned. "I suppose I could go with romance instead."
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