Ami walked slowly through the vast new wing she had added to the dungeon during the journey back from the undead-infested island, her nose buried in the new section's blueprints. For a rush job, designed while she was busy caring for too many patients, it was functional enough. There was, however, a huge difference between functional and good, she thought as her eyes wandered over the dull and featureless grey walls of the corridor. With its rectangular angles and bright lamps in regular intervals, this place exuded all the cheerfulness of a military bunker.
Still, a few children ahead defied the place's drabness by playing tag to pass time, and Ami smiled as she watched them over the upper edge of her reading material. She heard the footsteps of Cathy, Jered, and Tiger stop a moment after hers did.
"Hey! Some warning next time before you stop for no good reason!" Tiger complained from very close behind Ami, and a hand with striped skin briefly steadied itself against her shoulder as the youma tried to avoid bumping into her.
Reacting to the youma's loud protest, the playing children looked up from their game, noticed the approaching group. A boy who looked about seven years old briefly met Ami's eyes, and she could see the colour flee from his face. With a frightened yelp, he grabbed his younger friends by the arms and pulled them along as he ran off.
Ami's shoulders sagged as she watched them flee toward the steady stream of adults commuting between the bath and their accommodations.
"Don't take it too hard," Cathy said gently. "They haven't gotten to know you yet and don't know any better."
"Thanks." Ami directed a brief smile at the taller blonde standing to her right, grateful for the comforting words. She approached one of the doors branching off from the straight corridor and opened it a hand's width, revealing a room the size of sports hall and supported by massive pillars. Since she didn't want to disturb the groups of people sitting around the blankets on the ground within, chatting softly with each other, so she only took a brief look. She couldn't make out more than sentence fragments in the general murmuring, but the tone of the conversations seemed fearful and depressed. With a quiet sigh, she closed the door.
"I'm a bit unsure why you have us inspect the place manually, rather than simply using your Keeper Sight," Jered pointed out. "Certainly, that would be faster?"
"I need to know what actually walking around down here is like in order to better understand what these people might need," Ami explained as she started walking down the corridor again. "I might also miss non-obvious things if I only viewed the place remotely."
"Ah, like the smell," Cathy said with a grimace.
Tiger pinched her nose shut with an exaggerated gesture. "I wouldn't mind missing the smell."
"Yes, that's one of the problems I might not have noticed," Ami said. "I'm already trying to figure out how to best improve air circulation. Fortunately, the dungeon heart makes sure that there's no risk of asphyxiation, no matter the air quality." Designing improved ventilation wasn't exactly an easy task, as Ami wasn't a proper architect and had to figure things out as she went along. Perhaps there was a real one among the abductees who could assist her?
She returned to her initial train of thought, the slapdash nature of this part of the dungeon. The huge halls were a suitable emergency sleeping place for blind people, but they had never been intended as long-term solution. Before she could decide on a suitable replacement, however, she would have to ask the recently 'cured' patients what they wanted and needed. Among other things. "I need an amphitheatre or similar room where I can see and address them all at once," she said, deep in thought.
"Get them to the surface and sit on a big rock. Quick, cheap, effective," Jered suggested.
"I don't want to use the surface," Ami said, shaking her head. "If someone attacked, I wouldn't be able to get everyone out of danger fast enough. Keeper transport works fine when I only have to move a handful of my warriors, but it's too slow to move eight thousand individuals. Remember, it took me hours just to get them from the cargo holds to the underground chambers."
"Well, they are healthier now. You wouldn't have to treat them like fragile little eggs this time," Tiger pointed out.
"There's also a different problem," Ami said, actually putting down her reading material and looking around before she continued in a hushed voice. "Because they are not locked up and regained their sight, the dungeon heart no longer considers them captives. While that's a good thing, it also means that I can't act directly on them any more."
Jered shifted his weight into a more alert stance, his right hand brushing over his dagger-filled bandoleer reassuringly. "Joy. That means you can't even keep track of them unless you are paying attention to the area, right? Someone could potentially launch some kind of surprise attack at us."
"I think they are still too weak and intimidated to consider something like that," Ami said.
"You are underestimating the risks that desperate people are willing to take," Jered said, his eyes alert. "You are using your Keeper Sight on this area, right? I mean, how else would you be walking and reading at the same time without bumping into anything?" the wavy-haired man asked.
"Practice," Ami said with a mischievous smile.
"Don't worry, I'll protect you!" Cathy joked, wrapping an arm around Jered's shoulder before he could say anything else. "I'm all better now that I'm back in this frilly uniform!" She tugged at the hem of her very short skirt playfully. "Though I think I preferred your outfit when it was white and blue, Mercury. Oh, by the way," the playfulness disappeared from the blonde's features, "I have to report an incident with one of the new recruits that happened yesterday. One of the orcs tried to kill me during a spar to take my place."
Ami stumbled and turned to look at Cathy. Wide-eyed, she let her gaze wander up and down the tall woman's body, searching for traces of injury. "Are you all right? What happened?"
"I'm unhurt," the blonde reassured the teenager, "but the bastard who attacked me isn't. Snyder thinks he has about a fifty-fifty chance of surviving. I thought you should know in case he stays alive and you need to decide on a punishment."
"I see," Ami said quietly, dreading the prospect. Why couldn't her employees just do as they were told and not fight each other? "I better remind everyone about the rules." Closing her eyes, she focused on broadcasting a telepathic message with her communication spell. She hesitated at the last moment. Would her guests receive it too? Probably. Non-targeted messages were a bit like shouting loudly at some destination area. "This is Empress Mercury speaking," she introduced herself. "I was recently made aware of the fact that some of you seem to have forgotten the rules. I am reminding everyone that I disapprove of infighting. To clarify: attacking or killing your superiors will not get you their position, but a punishment instead."
"Oh, really convincing," Tiger commented. "A punishment. That's going to scare them straight. You need to be more forceful! Tell them that you'll make them wish they hadn't broken your rules! That's just as vague, but at least it sounds as if you had a clue about what you were going to do to them!"
Ami frowned at the blue-haired youma. "I actually have an idea about how to deal with disciplinary problems, but I still need to research the details. Later. When the people here are comfortable."
"Oh, really?" Tiger crossed her arms. "That, I'm looking forward to see."
Ignoring the mockery, Ami turned back to Cathy. "I'm sorry something like that happened."
"Don't worry about it, no lasting harm was done. Well, unless you count the clothes I was wearing at the time. Actually, with all the magic outfit-changing, I'm down to one regular set. Do you think we could go shopping or get some local production going?"
"Maybe you should go see that dark elf tailor in the mushroom city," Jered suggested with a leer, jumping aside even before his girlfriend could elbow him in the ribs.
Ami almost blushed at the reminder of Underworld fashion. "Local production sounds like a good idea. I'll see what I can do." She looked back to her blueprints. "Maybe if I put the congress hall here-"
"Watch out!" someone shouted behind the group.
"Snyder?" Startled, Ami turned her head to look back over her shoulder. Her eyes widened when she saw a group of imps bearing down on her, brandishing huge paintbrushes and pulling a rattling cart filled with buckets. "Gah!" She jumped aside and pressed herself flat against the wall, seeing Cathy and Tiger do the same on the opposite side of the corridor.
The cart rushed through between them, leaving a trail of colourful paint splatters in its wake.
To Ami's left, Jered stared at his shoes with a cranky expression. "What are those imps up to?" he asked Ami, who was still staring after the rocking contraption, blinking and hiding her mouth behind her hand. "Um, they are supposed to paint street signs so the people here can navigate the corridors more easily."
"They certainly are enthusiastic," Tiger commented, apparently not caring about the droplet of red paint that had struck the tip of her nose.
"They are a menace, that is what they are!" Snyder said as he approached rapidly. The folds of his robe were swishing around his legs with each step, making the colourful blotches marring the white cloth sway wildly.
Ami took one look at the acolyte's sour expression and said "I'll make sure to give them more instructions about how I want things done next time. Usually, I don't have to worry about work safety with them, but this bunch seems more aggressive than what I am used to." Could this be a side effect of using Metallia's energy to create them? Perhaps I need to calibrate the amount of dark power that goes into them even more finely to get more stable results? "I hope they didn't give you too much trouble."
"Yeah, you look pretty terrible," Tiger commented on the dark rings underneath the redhead's eyes, apparently feeling no need to be polite. It earned her a reproachful look from Ami.
Snyder, however, didn't seem to care. "Indeed, indeed. However, that has very little to do with the imps and very much with my work. None of the Dreadfog survivors I have asked so far have enough training in the ways of the Light to assist me, and I am beginning to suspect that the undead murdered all those who did."
Ami hung her head upon receiving the bad news. "I'm sorry to hear that. I'll- I'll have to contact the Avatar and see if he can find some volunteers who would agree to help out here. In the meantime, please keep doing your best, and," her cheeks coloured a little as she remembered her previous behaviour, "don't be afraid to take a break when you need one."
"Ah, in that case, could you transport me to my room, please?" Snyder requested.
"Of course." Ami easily sent him to his destination and stared at the empty air where he had stood. She contemplated the crime Crowned Death and his minions had committed. In retrospect, it was something she should have expected, but it still hit her hard. Naturally, there would have been casualties when the monsters abducted their victims. Nevertheless, she would neither forgive nor forget these evil deeds. Perhaps Keeper Midori had the right idea about how to deal with that cult? Nevertheless, she would have to see to the comfort of the death god's victims first before she decided on an offensive course of action.
"Ouch! Gargh! That bloody bastard!" a loud voice echoed through the underground cave. The pink-haired elf whom it belonged to writhed on his bed like a worm, holding his neck.
Mukrezar's butler stood at his bedside, the very picture of dignity and restraint. "Would Master like a tonic for his sore throat?" he asked, earning himself a glare from his employer.
"Very funny." The ex-Keeper sat up, the springs of the cheap mattress squeaking as he did. "Gah, getting decapitated hurts! I hate not disconnecting from a double fast enough to avoid the unpleasantness."
"You are certainly putting a lot of yourself into this project, your Possessiveness," the bearded imp commented, his tone impassive. "Such a pity about that speech you prepared for the loathsome Avatar, though."
"Yes." Mukrezar sighed. "The past years have not been kind to his sense of style. A shame, really."
"It saddens me to see that standards for heroes have fallen so far," the butler agreed, hanging his head. "I will miss their proud and defiant posturing and self-righteous condemnations. But most of all, I will miss seeing their disbelieving, shocked faces when you ambush them during the pre-battle formalities, your Unexpectedness."
"Ah, those were the good times."
"By the way, Master," the imp said, staring at a magic mirror set into the wall, "it appears that Keeper Sinistra is growing annoyed with the unresponsive state of your puppet."
"Hmm?" Mukrezar's eyes dulled for an instant as he reflexively checked on the state of the double in question. "Arggghhhh!" His face contorted into a grimace of pain, and he doubled over, clutching his stomach. After a few seconds of groaning and wheezing, he managed to sit up again by steadying himself against the frame of his bed. Fingers twitching, he glowered at his bug-eyed servant. "I hate you so much."
"Thank you, Master."
Mukrezar sat up, trying to get his breathing under control, and started straightening out his long pink mane. He muttered a few words, and a multi-coloured illusion wavered in front of his face before dispelling. "Ah. I love it when a plan comes together."
"I confess that I still have no idea what it is that you are trying to accomplish, Master. I approve of the agony your plan has caused so far on general principles, but I can't help thinking that it would be more productive if it wasn't all inflicted on yourself."
"That part couldn't be avoided, unfortunately," the elf said sourly, but his smirk returned as quickly as it had disappeared. "Surely, my plan can't be that hard to figure out?"
"The part about you putting your mind into your duplicates is easy enough," the tiny butler stated. "It confuses enemies about your real location, since scrying will reveal the closest one. However, I do not see the point. You are not doing anything with the distraction."
"Ah, but you have to look at the greater picture. Consider the locations where I had you drop off those cursed rings. What do they all have in common?"
The room went silent as the well-dressed imp thought. "Keepers who would torture and humiliate you in various degrading ways before killing you, rather than killing you outright?"
Mukrezar scowled, and his voice went frosty. "The main qualities I was looking for were greed, caution, and a willingness to seize any opportunity that presents itself, actually. That is, however, not what I was alluding to. Try again."
"Pass. It would take a mind more twisted than mine to unravel your schemes, your Deviousness."
"Well," Mukrezar said, spreading his arms dramatically, "it so happens that all of these locations are within easy travelling distance of the main Silver Hawk branch offices. I figured that I might as well make this enormous bounty on my head work for me. As I was spotted in the area, all their hunters and mercenaries - in fact, everyone who can tell the pointy end of a spear from its blunt end - would be on my trail." His grin widened. "Out there, hunting my doubles, and not guarding their vaults. Naturally, smart and proactive Keepers like the ones I visited would realise this too and take appropriate action."
The butler let out a whistle. "Oh, of course! Why merely collect a bounty if you can take the part stashed there and then demand the full payment elsewhere? You are counting on the other Keepers' greed to remove the threat of the bounty! I find myself mildly impressed." His expression turned sour. "Alas, it is regrettable that your rivals will be adequately compensated for their efforts."
Mukrezar lay back on his bed and rested his head on his hands. He closed his eyes and started chuckling.
"Oh, I was just considering what would happen if a less-than-loyal minion managed to get into those Keepers' treasure chambers under the guise of returning loot."
"Their vast profit from this operation would be imperceptibly diminished? Gold is heavy, Master, in case you have never carried a bag of the stuff around." The butler stared at Mukrezar's prone form through half-lowered eyelids. "There is another layer to your plan, isn't there?"
"A fine question, but there are several better ones that you should be asking yourself instead," Mukrezar said in a smug tone of voice. "Let me give you a few examples." In a reasonable, but exaggeratedly snivelling imitation of his servant's voice, he continued "What is harder to make, a ring that turns its wearer into a copy of my brilliant and dashing Master and lets him take over the body, or a ring that merely lets him take over the body? Could the latter ring lie dormant until the incomparable Mukrezar deems activating it useful? And does he know any magic that consumes a painfully vast amount of gold?"
The butler-imp froze, realising at once what the elf was talking about, and he started rubbing his hands together in anticipation. "And since you are, effectively, in several places at once-" He was suddenly ripped off his feet and lifted into the air. Dangling upside down, he came face to face with his prone employer.
"-some Keepers who committed ill-advised transgressions against my person are now gnashing their teeth in frustration. And I," Mukrezar's eyes opened abruptly, glowing like red-hot metal from within, "am back in business!"
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