Ulrich sat in a chair with his head bowed, thinking. There was little else he could do, trapped and blinded as he was. In his mind, he kept reliving the horrible night when the undead came to his village. Had his sister escaped, or had the monsters gotten her too? His rolling pin had been no match for the skeletons pouring into his bakery, and in the confusion, he had only been able to catch a short glimpse of her helping his nephew out through the window. Her panicked face remained etched into his memory, since it was perhaps the last thing he had ever seen in his life.
A strange sensation shook him from his morose thoughts. It took the blind baker a few seconds to realise that the dull ache in his empty eye sockets had disappeared. He raised his shaking hands up to his face, hesitant to destroy the glimmer of hope that had blossomed in his heart. Overcome by his curiosity, he dared to brush his fingertips over the bandages covering his face. They encountered resistance where none had been before, and he could feel soft pressure in his eyeballs. Eyeballs? How did that happen? Did the dark empress...
No, better not think of the creature that had captured him and many others. Blood thundered through his veins as he fumbled with the bandages in his excitement, unable to unfasten the knot in the back properly. Losing his patience, he simply tugged at the fabric until he heard a soft tearing noise. A glimmer of light squeezing past the skewed bandage rewarded his efforts. He was no longer blind! He could really see again! With a jubilant cry, he ripped off the rest of the bandage to get a first look at his surroundings, even though he expected them to be dreadful.
He winced when bright light stung in his eyes, forcing them to close mere instants after opening. He could still perceive the brightness outside through his eyelids as a red glimmer. With some effort, he tried to blink. Painful or not, he was yearning to see again after spending the past three days in total, nightmarish darkness. Squinting, he tried once more to make out the indistinct shape before him.
"Gah!" A girlish scream escaped his lips at the sight of two horrible red slits glowing like hellish coals just in front of his face. He jerked backwards, almost toppling his chair, and waved his arms to maintain his balance. The Keeper! The Keeper was here! Of course she would be. She was experimenting on him! Eyes didn't just regrow on their own!
The blue-haired girl in front of him straightened out of her forward-leaning position and covered her mouth with one hand, her crimson eyes wide in surprise. "Oh. Sorry for startling you!"
"I- it's nothing," Ulrich managed to blurt out through clattering teeth, avoiding eye contact. "Y-your Majesty," he added quickly, remembering the title the Keeper had extorted from the Light. His shivering increased.
"Please don't be alarmed, I am simply trying to get a better look at the state of your eyes," the dark empress said in a soothing tone of voice. "You are the first to remove your bandages."
"I am?" Ulrich dared spare a glance sideways. Now that his new eyes had adapted to the light level, he could make out the other people in the room. A few unshaven men and unkempt women in tattered clothes, as well as half a dozen children, were occupying the various cushioned couches and seats arranged around the walls of the room. Their sparse conversation had guttered out the moment they had heard the Keeper's voice, but all of them were in various stages of removing their bandages.
"Is it true? We are really healed?" a woman in the back asked in a shaky voice.
"I hope so, but I'm still trying to properly determine that," Empress Mercury answered. "Can you see me properly?" she asked Ulrich. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
The man returned his attention to the deceptively harmless-looking girl in front of him. If he focused only on her voice, he could associate it with the healer who had been caring for all of them during the journey. It helped him block out somewhat how much of a threat the black and golden-clad girl really was. Oh, she was waiting for an answer. "F-four, your Majesty."
She smiled, nodding once. "Good! Now, what about depth perception? Um, what could I use..."
While she turned her head to search the spacious chamber for something appropriate, Ulrich dared take a closer look at her. She was shorter than her reputation would have led him to believe, and for some reason, her face was almost as red as her eyes. It was hard to believe that someone like her could defeat the Avatar, or even a horned reaper. Shuddering again, he surveyed the room. He twisted his neck slowly and tried to avoid drawing attention to himself, not unlike a man locked into a room with a large and hungry dragon. Cold sweat ran down his neck as he remembered that the dark empress was much more dangerous than any such beast.
The room didn't help set Ulrich's mind at ease, either. He thought that the designer had gone for a warm, cosy feel, only to struggle mightily with the concept and suffer defeat. The rounded forms of the furniture and the thick, soft carpet were a good start, yes, but the problem was its pattern. Large, dark red splotches that looked like pools of spilled blood did not make for a friendly, relaxing atmosphere. Not to mention that they clashed horribly with the blue and white colour scheme of the walls. At least, the general brightness of the room was comforting - or it would have been, had not the flower-shaped lamp bristled with icicle-like spikes. The huge thing looked ready to pounce on the first person incautious enough to step underneath it.
"Oh, pay no mind to the decoration, please," the dark empress' voice interrupted his inspection, making his heart skip a beat. She had been following his gaze. "The dungeon heart has its own ideas about how things should look like, and keeping these cosmetic adjustments at bay is more effort than it is worth. In any case, you seem to be able to see just fine."
Ulrich heard a few of his fellow prisoners gasp at the mention of a dungeon heart. He didn't react though, since having the Keeper staring at him as if he was an insect under a magnifying glass was much worse than a reminder that he really was in a dungeon. As he watched, the Empress did something to her right ear, summoning strange glasses. Looking closer, he saw unknown runes slide over their insides.
"Please hold still."
The baker froze, terrified by the slight frown that had appeared on the dark empress' face.
"Strange, this-" She paused and looked up, her expression turning into one of plain annoyance. "Oh, no." A wave of her hand later, an ugly imp in blue coveralls appeared before her, missing its helmet and rubbing the bumps on its forehead.
Or is that her forehead? From Ulrich's point of view, the tiny worker looked vaguely female. Not that he was an expert on imp anatomy.
"Everyone, leave the imps alone!"
Mercury's voice echoed through Ulrich's mind, and presumably through the minds of everyone else, too. He could see some of the children look around wide-eyed to find the source of the reprimand, while the adults were quietly backing away from the blue-haired girl, their faces pale.
"I understand that you are scared and angry, but taking it out on the imps is not a solution! They bring you food and drink and have orders not to bother you!" With a sigh, the Empress returned her attention to Ulrich. "I hope they will listen to me. The imps can get rather nasty when provoked."
The tiny creature at her feet nodded vigorously, baring dull teeth in a crooked grin.
"We w-wouldn't think of disobeying you, Empress Mercury-"
Startled, Ulrich turned in the direction of the frightened scream to see a tiny girl in the process of trying to crawl under a table. Since she was looking wide-eyed in his direction, she bumped her head into one of its legs.
The dark empress blinked at the child in surprise. "Are you-"
The child froze like a startled deer as she noticed her stare, and burst into tears. "Whaaaah! S-stay away!" the little redhead sobbed. "I have been good! Don't eat me!"
Mercury twitched as if she wanted to walk over there, but apparently thought better of it. She slumped slightly, a movement betrayed only by the slight swaying of the golden bands hanging from her epaulettes. It looked as if she was letting out a toneless sigh, nonplussed and annoyed.
Ulrich stared. Was she actually taking offence to parents telling their children she would come and eat them if they didn't behave?
"I'm not going to eat you. Or anyone," the empress tried, her voice more gentle than the recently-healed baker would have thought possible. Not that it helped. The frightened girl remained stubbornly under the table, staring at her with scared eyes.
"Do you want some cookies?" Mercury tried again. A few seconds later, an earthenware plate with a few golden-brown sweets on it appeared before the child, who scuttled backwards in surprise and didn't touch them.
Ulrich couldn't fault her for that. He'd never have sold such shoddy-looking pastries at his shop.
Looking sad, Mercury turned back to her patient. "Where were we? Ah, right. Please don't blink, I need to analyse your eyes."
Ulrich felt his eyes starting to water as he strained to comply with her instructions. Who knew that not blinking could be so hard when your life depended on it?
"Hmm, that's strange," the dark empress muttered, frowning more deeply now.
"Is something wrong with your spell, your Majesty?" Ulrich asked, his worry about losing his sight again overriding his self-preservation instinct for the moment. "N-not that I'm not grateful for you healing all of us!"
"Oh, that wasn't me, that was one of my subordinates," Mercury explained, her cheeks flushing again for some inexplicable reason."I'm currently trying to find out what exactly he did."
An underling did this? Ulrich boggled. Restoring so many eyes at once would give even the most powerful priests some trouble, and one of her servants was able to do it? Had she corrupted a mighty servant of the Light? Or, given that she didn't know how he had done it, had an undercover agent just given himself away in order to help him and the other victims?
"This could be trouble," Mercury muttered before deactivating her visor. "Thanks for your cooperation, I have to go talk to him now." She inclined her head and disappeared.
Ulrich let out a relieved breath and slumped into his chair like a boneless heap.
"Hey! You all right over there?" a large man in slightly tattered peasant garb asked. When the baker did not react, he continued in a hushed voice "Was that really the Dark Empress herself?"
Ulrich nodded mutely.
"Her looks sure don't match her reputation. Glad it wasn't me she was staring at like that." The fluffy-bearded brute approached with a few deft steps. "She looked like she wanted to carve you up like a pig to see how you work," he added as he extended one hand. "Robin."
Ulrich shook his hand with little enthusiasm. "Ulrich. I know what you mean," he answered, throwing a cautious glance back at the empty spot where the Keeper had stood. "I'm glad that's over."
"So, where do you come from? My home village-"
"Hey!" an indignant childish voice called out. "That's mine!"
Both men stopped what they were doing to look at the speaker. The imp had scuttled over to the redheaded girl underneath the table, and was now engaged in a tug of war with her. Both had their hands on the plate of cookies and refused to let go.
"They have orders to not bother you," Robin repeated the words of the dark empress in a sarcastic tone of voice. "They aren't very good at following orders, are they?"
"That's not terribly reassuring," Ulrich said, wiping the sweat from his brow. His mood brightened slightly when the child suddenly gathered up the cookies with one hand and let go, causing the bug-eyed creature to fall on its backside.
The imp let out an angry squeal when the girl scampered with her prize, and gave chase.
"Let's do something about this before it gets out of hand," Robin said, dragging the reluctant baker toward the enraged creature.
"Jadeite? Jadeite! Ah, here you are!" Ami said when she found the dark general in the living room. She could feel her cheeks heat up when she remembered the kiss she had stolen, and didn't meet his eyes. No, pull yourself together! You have more important things to think about!
"Yes, your Majesty?" the curly-haired blond answered as he got up from the couch and inclined his head in greeting.
"Jadeite, your glamour solution is not permanent! Those restored eyes aren't real and need constant upkeep, or they'll fade away!"
"I know," Jadeite answered, surprising Ami with how unconcerned he sounded. "Don't worry, it won't be a problem. Even though the number of eyes is high, the total volume the glamour affects is so low that it won't be much of a strain for me. I'll just maintain it for a few days until their bodies have replaced all the glamour stuff with regular matter, and then they'll be good as new. Youma sometimes do a similar thing to survive life-threatening wounds."
"Um, Jadeite," Ami said, discouraged by what she was hearing, "did you take into account that humans heal much more slowly than youma?"
"Not really, no. How much longer does it take?"
"I have no exact data, but I would say that the general timescale would be measured in years," Ami said. She almost cringed when Jadeite's eyes widened in shock.
"Are you serious?" The grey uniformed man started pacing around, looking alarmed."Pathetic humans. Can't they do anything right?"
Ami was more concerned with the health of her, for lack of a better word, guests. "For how long can you keep maintaining the glamour?" The idea of all of these recently-restored eyes popping into non-existence at the same time was nausea-inducing.
"Forever. Duration is not the problem," Jadeite said, sounding irritated. "Range is. If they wander too far away from me, the spell will unravel after a while."
Ami perked up. "How long a distance are we talking about here?"
"A few kilometres. That will be limiting my mobility and usefulness by quite a lot. Should I make arrangements to end the spell in a controlled way?"
"NO!" Ami blurted out. "That would be cruel! Don't even think about it!" A bit more calmly, she added "I'll try to find a different solution for this. Perhaps I can speed up their metabolism in the affected areas, or find a way to remove the curse. There must be some kind of solution!"
"As you wish. However, that means you will have to keep them from leaving," Jadeite pointed out, crossing his arms.
"Yes, they would lose their eyes if they returned home, unless you- no, that wouldn't work. They aren't all from the same town, or even the same country." The blue-haired girl looked at the ground, saddened by the new complication. "Oh, and don't worry, I won't consider you less useful just because you will need to remain here," Ami said with a reassuring smile. "I consider what you are doing right now extremely important. Besides, you can work on recovering more youma from the temple in the meantime."
Jadeite's expression softened, and he nodded once. "There is also the problem of the fairies trying to rescue your so-called prisoners. They asked for my cooperation during the journey, but it's possible that they would try even without it."
"And you didn't think to tell me about that before?" Ami asked a bit louder than normal.
"You weren't particularly interested in hearing anything that didn't directly relate to healing the captives at the time," the grey-uniformed man pointed out in a level voice.
He had a point there, Ami had to admit. "Yes. I was really making your life difficult then, wasn't I? I apologise."
"No need," Jadeite answered quickly, although she could discern the faint surprise in his tone. "The fairies' plan actually consists of asking the Avatar to link them into the hero gate network on this continent so they can transport the captives to waiting ships or flying carpets."
"I see." Ami thought about his words for a few seconds. Thanks to Jadeite's glamour, none of the remaining problems were really urgent. "I think it might be best to properly discuss the implications of all this with the others. Oh, and the recent mission too."
"Now that is something I can get fully behind," Jadeite said with a faint smile.
"Ah, Keeper Sinistra," Mukrezar said. He snorted once as blood from his split upper lip ran down into his right nostril. "Not coming to visit me in person?"
The dark mistress with red-glowing eyes furrowed her brow at the figure chained upside-down to a wheel-shaped torture device against the wall. "After your dummy blew up the troops I sent after you? Dream on."
"I think your smirk is making her angry, Master!"
The bare-chested elf coughed as the smoke from his long, pink hair burning in the basin of coals below him itched within his lungs. "Ah, well. You did make me wait for hours. I had to amuse myself somehow. It was a nice sneak attack though. Very professional, well-trained underlings. Well, they were, anyway. Ouch!"
"Poor form. Her swinging technique has nothing on yours, your Violence!
"I could- ow - manage very well without your commentary."
Sinistra struck him again, the impact of the metal bar leaving a sizeable bruise on his skin. "And then you led the next group into that horde of blood-thirsty bounty hunters," the Keeper hissed.
"That is hardly my fault," the captured elf replied when his eyes focused again. "If someone hadn't wasted my time like tha- Ow!"
"You were really asking for it this time."
"Didn't I tell you to shut up?"
"You are so very lucky that I want to learn all of your secrets before I hand in your broken body," the woman clad in black leather said, leaning forward as she dipped her metal rod into the glowing coals.
"Oh, it's looking as if she is getting serious now. This is the greatest entertainment I have had in years, Master!"
"No pain, no gain. Though it doesn't need to be quite this much pain."
"I am, however, surprised that you indeed showed up to this little date you arranged." She frowned when the pink-haired man's eyes went glassy, and slapped his cheek.
"Uh, huh, what?" he stuttered. "Sorry, drifted off there. The agony, you know..." Mukrezar's voice was somewhat strained.
"I said that I am surprised that a former Keeper of your reputation would be stupid enough to show up in person! What did you expect would happen?"
"This, pretty much. Actually, things are all going according to my plan." Despite Mukrezar's battered state, the grin that appeared on his face caused the other Keeper to take a step back. "Would you like to know what it is?"
"Sorry for being late," Cathy said as she stormed in through the door of the briefing room, panting. "I was just up on the surface. Do you know that one of your airships is missing? The warlocks asked me for permission to have a look at them earlier, and now one is gone!"
"What?" Ami looked at the ceiling, even though her Keeper sight required no such motion to see straight to the land above. What were they thinking? They didn't know the first thing about flying a dirigible!
"Don't worry about it," the striped youma sitting between Jadeite and Jered at the round table said. "I sent it back to Dreadfog Island yesterday. No reason not to properly loot the place."
"You did that without asking me first?" Ami asked, staring in surprise at the youma that resembled her like a sister.
Tiger steadied her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her hands as she returned the stare. "You did delegate the day-to-day operation of the dungeon to me, remember? Thus, I allocated resources where they were the most useful."
"All right," Ami nodded, "give me a list of who and what you sent, and then-"
She was interrupted by the crystal ball on the table starting to light up, and eagerly summoned it to her side. "Mom?" she muttered softly under her breath.
Tiger, sitting on the other side of the table, still overheard her and went rigid, giving the brightening sphere her full attention.
Ami's face fell when the scrying device revealed the features of the user at the other end of the connection. "Keeper Midori."
"How nice of you to remember me! Were you expecting someone else?" the Keeper wearing the elvish face of Princess Julia replied.
"What do you want?" Ami asked bluntly, hoping that the nosy woman would leave her alone if she ignored her questions.
"To chat and brag, mostly. Oh, and to demand my payment. Don't worry, it won't cost you much at all! But first, have a look at this! Isn't it a pretty sight?"
The viewpoint on the crystal ball zoomed out, revealing more of the elven princess. She was lounging on a set of green pillows padding the interior of a huge open clam on top of a long set of stairs.
The perspective shifted away even further, and Ami realised that the roof above the other Keeper was formed by the neck and chin of an enormous statue that reminded her of the Egyptian sphinx. Unlike its ancient counterpart, this sculpture was standing and had the body of a dragon. The mouth of its human face opened into a wide, round yawn. "It certainly looks unique," Ami said, too well-behaved to comment about the strange proportions of the thing. Her eyes widened a bit when the cave walls moved. Looking lower, she saw a veritable army of orcs pulling the construct with thick chains. "It's mobile?"
"I do like travelling in style," Midori said, "but I assume the sights over there will be of more interest to you."
The image in the crystal ball changed again, this time to show various creatures, most of them imps, swarm like ants over a large hill of dark-coloured debris. Gold and silver gleamed in the bags of the returning ones. Had Midori destroyed some kind of underground stronghold? The young empress gasped when she spotted a broken obsidian skull in the rubble. Suddenly, she recognised the demolished ziggurat, even though it looked very different without green light falling in from the ceiling. "You destroyed a temple of Crowned Death?"
"I'm not one to pass up a great opportunity when it presents itself. However, let's talk about my payment first." Midori rubbed her hands together.
"I neither asked for your help, nor did I agree to-"
"You have a great thing going there with being an Empress and everything. I want in on it," the crimson-eyed elf said, paying no mind to Ami's objection.
"Excuse me?" Ami raised an eyebrow in response. "What, exactly, do you mean with that?"
"Award me a nice, legitimate noble title, Empress!" Midori replied with a wide grin. "It's well within your rights to do so, I checked. I have always wanted to be a King, but a Grand Duke will do too, for now!"
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