Of all the possible things Midori could ask for, Ami hadn't expected a request for a noble title. "Make you a Grand Duke?" she repeated, her face incredulous. On one side, it would cost her nothing. On the other, this could have implications she wasn't aware of.
Across the table, both Cathy and Jered were shaking their heads silently, apparently in agreement with her thoughts.
She would need to discuss the situation with them later, in particular since it had not occurred to her yet that she even could hand out noble titles. Time to get rid of Midori, then. "First, your unsolicited services hardly merit a reward such as the one you are asking for,” Ami said. “Second,” she gestured toward the devastation shown by the crystal ball, “you have already profited greatly from me weakening Crowned Death's forces. And third, why should I even give you such a high position?”
Princess Julia's face split into a shark-like grin. “You should pay me because the cost of doing so is always smaller than of not doing so.”
A snort came from Cathy's side of the table. “Oh no, another Keeper is threatening us. Whatever shall we do?”
Midori completely ignored the blonde. “This is particularly true when the cost to you is absolutely nothing, such as in this case. Don't worry about granting land to go with my title. I am completely capable of acquiring that myself. In addition, I may even be inclined to act like a proper vassal in order to keep my title. A net profit for you. Sweet deal, isn't it?”
Ami remained sceptical. The thought of having another Keeper working under her left a bad taste in her mouth. She had seen no evidence so far that Midori wasn't a total monster like all the others. During their first conversation, Midori had asked for interesting people in exchange for information, which hinted at quite the opposite. Besides, taking even partial responsibility for the actions of someone like that was not something she wanted to do. On the more pragmatic side of the equation, she couldn't deny that Midori's cooperation would be a strategic asset. Not with a ruined temple of the death god as evidence. And perhaps she could protect people by curbing the other Keeper's excesses?
“As for the reason why you should give me the highest noble title, well,” the elven princess in the crystal ball stapled her fingers, “it's pretty simple. You are not going to find anyone more competent than me!”
“What about Mukrezar?” Jered asked, leaning forward so he could better see the princess shown by the scrying device. Ami could tell from his tone that he wasn't serious and merely making life difficult for the possessed woman.
“Oh, please. As if he'd ever work for someone else,” the Keeper dismissed the notion. “And Empress, you really need to teach your minions some manners. Interfering in a conversation with their betters like that, it's the height of-”
“Keeper Midori,” the blue-haired girl interrupted, “I will not be pressured into making an important decision without analysing all aspects first. Consider our conversation here over.”
“Aww, not going to barter some more, Empress?” Midori's inflection added subtle mockery to the title. “Very well. Take all the time you want. Not my problem if information you could have acted on reaches you too late.” Chuckling, the red-eyed elf disappeared from the sphere, which went inert.
Ami kept staring at the orb in silence, feeling unsettled by the other Keeper's parting words.
“What was that about?” Cathy asked, her face mirroring Ami's unease.
“Mind games, most likely,” Tiger commented. The striped youma raised herself half out of her chair and narrowed her eyes at the black-clad teenager. “Mercury,” she began in an insincerely sweet tone of voice, “why would you be expecting 'Mom' to appear in the crystal ball? Have you been in contact with her?”
Ami turned her head to look at the youma and blinked. “Yes, actually,” she said with a happy smile, “Sailor Moon assisted her with her crystal ball earlier, and-”
“And you didn't say anything?” Tiger all but screamed.
Ami paused. Belatedly, she remembered that Tiger shared a large part of her memories. “Oh, sorry. Did you want to talk to her too? I'could explain-”
“No! Let's talk about the more pressing things first!” Tiger said and sat down at once.
Rather confused now, Ami blinked again. The youma was definitely sending mixed signals. “But-”
“Mukrezar, for example! You haven't done anything about him yet, even though he was important enough for Crowned Death to raise him from the dead!”
“Um, okay.” Ami grabbed the crystal ball, deciding that the youma had a valid point. She focused on the pink-haired elf she had briefly encountered on Dreadfog Island, prompting the crystal ball to glow brightly as she searched for him.
"Recent surveillance of him has been pretty boring," Tiger continued. "So far, he has just been moping around in a cave underneath the ocean somewhere on the other side of the planet."
"This doesn't look like a cave," Ami said while peering into the crystal ball.
Chair legs scraped over the floor as her comment prompted the others to get up and crowd around her. Within moments, the wall of curious advisers around her cast a shadow over her.
“Well, that's new,” Jered commented, scratching his chin as he watched the long-haired elf climb over the flank of a white-scaled dragon with eyes like burning coals.
"He seems to be enjoying himself tremendously," Cathy commented, snickering.
The look on Mukrezar's face could have curdled milk as he moved a metal-toothed comb across the beast's scales, prying out moss and lichen.
"Is that an icicle hanging from his nose?" Jadeite asked, clearly amused by the sight of the shivering ex-Keeper.
Ami started at the proximity of his voice. So that was him leaning against the back of her chair. "He appears to be in some sort of dungeon. Wait, I'll see if I can locate it."
The viewpoint shifted, rising toward the ceiling of the chamber, past the smoothed walls covered with a veil of icicles. The picture went dark as its point of origin rose through solid ground. A while later, the image turned pure white.
"Snow," Ami said as she zoomed out further, discovering a wind-swept valley between two steep mountains. Going higher proved iuseless, since the cloud cover barred her view of the snow-covered mountain range below. "Does anyone recognise the area?" she asked with little hope for a positive answer.
"Looks like a place in the north, that's the only place you would find snow at this time of the year," Cathy said. "No idea where exactly, though," she added with a shrug.
"Jered, please get two warlocks to scry on the place to see if they can localise it more precisely," Ami decided as she shoved the crystal ball away.
"On it," the wavy-haired man agreed. His gaze unfocused and his right eye glowed faintly, indicating that he was using a communication spell to find the right people to assign to the task.
"Mukrezar doesn't look as if he's stirring up trouble right now, let's focus for the moment on problems closer to home, such as the patients." Ami continued. She dreaded having to inform them about the limitations of their cure.
"Oh, Mercury," Cathy said, pausing on the way back to her seat. "That reminds me. Could I have five of the warlocks assigned to me for an hour during one week, please?"
"What for?" Ami asked. Was there a mischievous gleam in the swordswoman's eyes?
"Well, I have an experiment in mind that could prove potentially useful," the blonde said.
Ami listened attentively as the blonde started to explain her theory.
Screams were nothing special in the Underworld, and most of the trolls, orcs, and goblins seated at the tavern's worn tables paid this one no mind. Fiz, a scruffy goblin well on the way to getting drunk, was an exception. He grinned and jabbed his right elbow into the side of the mummed figure sitting next to him at the counter.
The black-clad man, possibly a rogue of some sort, let out a startled "Wha?" at the touch, and his head rose from its lowered position.
Fiz cursed inwardly. Had he known that his neighbour had nodded off., he would have filched his purse. "Me said, hear that?" he grumbled, twitching his pointed ears in the direction of the scream. It had not cut off yet, and seemed to be getting closer.
"What about it?" his conversation partner muttered and tapped his fingers against the empty beer mug in front of him absently.
"Well, it long. And loud. And coming here."
"Your powers of observation are astounding," the man replied, sounding vaguely irritated.
While Fiz was still trying to figure out if he had just been insulted - he wasn't so good with the big words - the screamer reached the tavern. Its heavy door flew open, startling the dour barmaid, whom Fiz may have found attractive if she hadn't been two heads taller than him and human to boot.
The woman jumped backwards, narrowly avoiding the rapidly-moving wooden surface. It still managed to tag her serving tray and ripped it from her hands. If the shattering and splashing sounds weren't enough to rouse the drunks out of their stupor, then the loud bang of the door impacting the wall certainly was. "You!" the barmaid glowered at the troll whose scream was only now dying down for lack of breath.
Fiz giggled in anticipation. She was a dark mistress down on her luck, and would certainly give that fool with the blood-shot eyes a reason to scream even louder!
The greenskin completely ignored the glowering barmaid as he whirled in place, though. His feet splashed through the puddle of bad ale on the floor as he lunged for the door and slammed it shut. In the same motion, he grabbed the arm-thick iron latch affixed to the door frame and moved it across the entrance, barring it. That accomplished, he leaned with his back against the wood and stared into the chamber. Widened eyes rolled wildly as he addressed the room. "He's coming! He's coming!"
The dozen or so creatures within the establishment looked at him in silence, the flickering shadows cast by the torches on the walls the only movement within the room.
"Don't just sit there like fucking retards! Help me bar the door before he gets here!" the troll shouted, his voice high-pitched with panic. He darted over to the closest table and started dragging it toward the entrance, much to the dismay of the three orcs whose drinks he had just overturned.
"Who is coming?" the burly leader of the trio said as he got up slowly and deliberately, exuding menace with every movement.
"The damned Avatar himself!" the troll answered while he wedged the table in place by leaning a chair against it.
"The Avatar? You idiot! What would he want here?" The pink-skinned creature challenged.
Fiz found the possibility of the Avatar showing up here about as unlikely as it was terrifying. It couldn't be possible, could it? There was nothing in this backwater that would be worth his time. Especially since he could just go through the portal and find a proper Keeper to smite instead. Yet, the goblin's fine ears could make out alarming noises outside, even through the thick walls. "Wait! Listen!" he found himself saying.
To his surprise, the other creatures obeyed. In the silence, they could hear the muffled noises of doors slamming shut and creatures crying out in fear. The clientèle of the tavern exchanged nervous glances.
"Those are h-hoof-beats?" a nervous goblin asked.
"Nobody here uses horses!" one of the orcs blurted out, paling. "What should we do?"
"Help me barricade the door, you worthless fools!" the troll who had burst in earlier shouted, struggling to drag a wall cupboard towards the door.
Stirred into action by fear, the Underworld denizens started piling up furniture in front of the entrance, cursing and shouting as they got into each other's way.
Fiz was about to do his part when he noticed that the man he was sitting next to was not reacting at all. Probably dozed off again. The goblin looked back at the door, then at the man. How could he sleep through this noise? Oh well, opportunity! Fiz's greedy fingers brushed softly over the coarse fabric of his neighbour's cloak, searching for the tell-tale bulge of a well-filled purse.
"That's the last of them," the orc leader said, brushing the sweat off his brow with the back of his calloused hand as he admired the pile of chairs and tables hiding the door. "Nobody's going to come in through there!"
Outside, a horse snorted, and the creatures hiding within the tavern could hear clanking armour. The trolls, orcs, and goblins retreated to the back of the now empty room, closer to the counter.
"Don't worry, lads, this is the sturdiest building in town! Nobody's getting in or out of here!"
"That," the mummed man said, startling Fiz and causing him to withdraw his hand as if burnt, "is extremely reassuring, with you blockading the exit like that. I dare say it would be a bit inconvenient if someone decided to, for example, set fire to this fine establishment."
Fiz didn't find that idea funny. Certainly not funny enough to start chuckling like that. He wondered if the man had been doing drugs, and if he would be willing to share.
One of the nervous trolls turned to glare at the dark-clad figure. "You think that's amusing? Shut up or I'll show you something really amusing!" He cracked his knuckles threateningly.
Fiz didn't want to be caught in a brawl and considered bailing behind the counter, but before he could, the wall exploded inwards. A fist-sized piece of spinning rock smacked him in the temple and knocked him off his seat. Lying on his back, he stared up at the cloud of dust that was spreading through the room and coating the surprised creatures with a fine, white layer. The goblin groaned, disoriented by the lights the pain made dance before his eyes. No, wait, the lights were real and coming from the horrible, armoured figure in red and yellow that was striding in through the opening.
Fiz heard a piteous noise, and noticed that he had started whimpering. It couldn't be! That was the Avatar! The almost invincible champion of the Light! Why did he have to come in here?
"WHERE IS HE?" the Avatar's voice boomed from underneath his pot helmet, making its metal vibrate from sheer volume. He stepped into the room, and the monsters in his path backed away.
The largest orc, whose knees were bumping against each other uncontrollably, bravely spoke up. "Err, who is it that you are..." he trailed off when he noticed the other armoured figures behind the Avatar.
One of the knights was holding a crystal ball and extended his index finger. The monsters in the room parted before the pointed digit as if it was the business end of an angry warlock's staff. Finally, the finger's clockwise motion came to a rest. "Over there."
Fiz thought he would faint when he saw that the knight was pointing right at him. Why? What had he done? He couldn't remember robbing or stabbing anyone important lately! It wasn't fair!
"Ah, you are finally here."
Fiz froze. That was the voice of the mummed man, coming from behind him. Reluctantly, he tore his gaze off the Avatar and looked up, just in time to see the bandages and cowl go flying, revealing an elvish face with pink hair. The goblin was now entirely sure that the man was crazy, because he was chuckling.
Mukrezar smirked "Just as I planned, you-"
That was as far as he got before the Avatar's two-handed sword cut off his words, along with his head. Hot blood splattered over the goblin on the ground.
Fiz gaped. He hadn't even seen the armoured man move. Just a blur, and suddenly blood everywhere. Frozen and shocked, he wished with all his might that the terrifying man would ignore him. From his perspective on the ground, he had a good view of the headless corpse slumping off its seat and dropping to the floor, almost landing on him. Despite his desire to remain quiet and unnoticed, he let out a strangled yelp when the bloody remains started moving and writhing like a nest of snakes.
Moving with supernatural speed, the champion of Light speared the corpse straight through the heart as soon as it started moving, pinning it to the floor with his sword.
The body kept shuddering and shrunk, its clothing slithering across its form as it merged with the skin, which started to take on a suspiciously green tint.
With a start, Fiz realised that what the sword was pinning to the ground had turned into a headless goblin. While he stared, a golden ring on the corpse's left hand flared and turned white-hot. Surrounded by a cloud of black smoke, it seared off the finger as it melted and turned into ash, leaving nothing but the sickening smell of charred flesh behind. An incoherent howl of absolute rage drew his attention back to the avatar looming above him, sword raised high in the air. The goblin's ears drooped.
The weapon came down on the corpse with a tearing sound, cutting deep into the wooden floor again and again as the Avatar vented his anger.
Fiz re-opened his eyes, surprised that he was still alive. Since playing dead while the Avatar was throwing a tantrum bad enough to make him hack apart a fallen opponent seemed suicidal, the goblin jumped to his feet and sprinted toward the hole in the wall. He didn't even look back when he raced past the stunned guards to see if they would pursue.
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