Ami slowly walked around the dungeon heart in the fortified centre of her underground complex, her eyes covered by her visor. She cautiously stepped around an invisible obstacle on the ground, her frown deepening as she typed away on her computer. “Snyder, here is another leak. I'll need another set of clean-up wards,” she said in the pause between two rumbling heartbeats.
“Understood, I shall prepare them at once,” the acolyte replied. He threw an uneasy look at the brightening and dimming orb before he pulled several thin sheets of obsidian and a silver chisel from his satchel.
“This hole isn't as big as the other one," Ami declared after staring silently at the data scrolling over her screen for a few seconds. "It's not hard to fix."
"I am glad that the deterioration is limited to that very-rarely used part of the heart." The acolyte started chiselling arcane symbols into his stone plates. "Nevertheless, it is fortunate that you detected it in time. I am afraid that your uniform would not flatter my physique at all. I simply do not have the legs to pull off that look."
Ami giggled at the thought of the pudgy redhead in a miniskirt and nodded. "Yes, I see what you mean." Her face fell as she was reminded of what had caused the damage in the first place. Even diluted, the caustic energies she had sucked out of Crowned Death's pet monster had not been kind to the circuits intended to shunt waste magic into the dark gods' realm. "It's a good thing that I only used my transformation twice since the battle at the island," she said as she made a floating brush trace an irregular outline on the floor. "Otherwise, the spill could have become much larger."
"Ah yes. I imagine inundating the room with chaotic mana would have played havoc with your traps." Snyder peered down at the floor from the balcony that Ami had erected for his benefit, as if he was able to somehow detect the lethal devices hidden underneath the innocent-looking floor tiles if he only searched long enough.
Ami finished drawing and looked up at Snyder. "I marked the last of the contaminated zones. Just throw one of the absorption wards in when you are ready, please. Two for the larger ones. I have to go check on my other dungeon hearts. I aimed the energy at this one, but better safe than sorry."
"That won't be a problem at all," the acolyte said, bringing down his tiny hammer with cautious, precise blows as he carved out a particularly branching rune. "See you later." He didn't even look up when a bluish flash lit up the room, visible even during the dungeon heart's bright phase.
Hieron of the Plains could think of better things to do with his time than troubling a young girl who hadn't done anything wrong aside from being outsmarted by a great evil. Not that the latter should be taken lightly, since it could lead to disaster, but still.
The blonde girl standing in the centre of the crystalline floor had dark rings under her eyes, and the wings protruding from the circular hole in her turtleneck shirt hung down limply. She kept her gaze low and avoided meeting the eyes of any of the seven Oracles sitting in a semi-circle before her. It was a shame, really, since he found her golden eyes quite enchanting.
The countless chimes and bells hanging like loose curtains from the circular roof of the open pavilion chimed gently in the warm breeze, hiding the creaking of his joints as he shifted his weight. Not for the first time, he wished that being an Oracle of the Empire would not involve long periods of sitting still in a cross-legged position. Perhaps he should start considering retirement? Ah well, it looked as if his colleagues, four of which were only present as colourless, ghostly outlines, had finally come to a decision. He had given his opinion hours ago.
"Camilla, formerly of the Full-Fairy Aerial Reconnaissance Force," the central and highest-ranking of the figures began.
Hieron almost snorted at Jogar of the Forest's pompous tone. His fellow Oracle had always had an overinflated opinion of his own importance, even before his green robes had gained the golden leaf pattern denoting his rank as High Seer. That pointy-chinned old drama queen probably had intentionally delayed delivering the verdict until now, just so the setting sun would frame him when he did. Backlit by the orange disc and framed by marble pillars, he must have been an impressive sight to the young fairy. Waste of effort, really, since the poor thing looked intimidated enough already after her hour-long examination.
Camilla winced at the reminder of her lost status and raised her head to squint at the green-robed Oracle.
"Concerning the suspicions of treason, this council has found, after thorough examination of the facts, assisted by divination and interrogation of the witnesses, that you are not guilty. Your transgression was rooted in ignorance, rather than voluntary misconduct. Remember that, as former minion of a Keeper, you are banned from all military, administrative, and magical professions."
The girl's shoulders slumped. "I understand, revered High Seer," she said in a quiet voice.
Hieron didn't particularly like doing this to the girl. It didn't seem fair, especially since the fiend who had tricked her was smart enough to force even the Light gods to the negotiation table. Which, unfortunately, made such caution all the more vital when dealing with her. "However," he spoke up, interrupting his colleague's undoubtedly well-rehearsed speech, "there is an additional option in your case." He gave Jogar a meaningful look and received a mildly annoyed one in return.
Camilla tilted her head to the side, a glimmer of curiosity lightening up her gloomy expression.
"Ah, yes, that highly irregular suggestion brought up by the Keeper Empress herself," the High Seer said, pinching the tip of his pointy white beard between his fingers. "Very irregular indeed."
"It went through the Augur Council already?" the blonde blurted out, her eyebrows creeping upwards in surprise.
Hieron would have been baffled in her place too if he hadn't already been informed. If there was something the Augurs were famous for, then it was the glacial pace at which they reached consensus.
"Since the suggestion is illegal by our laws, only the Emperor could have authorised it in spite of that," the blue-robed Oracle sitting to the left of the High Seer said. "Thus, the Council unanimously voted to leave the decision up to him."
Every possible decision had potentially career-ending risks, so they reacted as if they had been handed a live scorpion, Hieron translated in his mind. He wouldn't have hesitated phrasing it like that either, but Kanif of the Southern Seas was still young enough to put great stock in etiquette and dignity. And he probably wasn't playing with the idea of retirement yet, either.
The orange-robed Oracle started from his thoughts to find the other six dignitaries look at him disapprovingly.
"If you are quite done chuckling into your beard," Jogar said, sounding as pompous as ever, "then produce the document already!"
"Yeah, yeah. Don't rush me, I'm an old man." Hieron's wrinkled hand seized a wooden scroll case from the ornate chest behind him. It was an opportunity to exercise his legs after sitting for so long, and he wouldn't let it be cut short by his superior getting a little impatient. Taking things further, he - slowly - got up and walked over to the young girl to hand her the Emperor's letter. His colleagues frowned upon this breach of protocol, quite literally in some cases, but he didn't care. They didn't have to deal with his old bones. "There you go," he said warmly to the former soldier, who was staring up at him with wide eyes. She kept blinking as he shuffled back to his mat.
"As I was saying," Jogar didn't even try to mask his irritation now, "the Emperor has tentatively agreed to making you the ambassador to the Avatar Islands, no doubt because you will be less of a security risk there than here."
Hieron frowned. Sure, they had all been thinking that, but to actually say it out loud...
Camilla's face reddened, but she kept quiet. She did look a bit more hopeful than before, though.
"However," the green-robed Oracle continued, "the Emperor, in his infinite wisdom, has listed a number of conditions that must be fulfilled in order to show that the Dark Empress is acting in good faith. I suggest you have a look at your document."
Intrigued, Camilla opened the container and unrolled the scroll. As she read, her face turned paler and paler. "She- she's not going to like that," the fairy stammered after a while. "Do you really think she will agree to this?"
"There is the possibility that she will be reacting violently, yes," one of the Oracles not here in person said.
"Which is why you may decide by yourself whether to take the post or not. It is your choice alone," Hieron said, figuring that the girl was stressed enough already.
"However, your presence there would be an asset to the Empire, since it would allow us to keep a closer eye on the Dark Empress' abilities and give us a base for covert operations," Kanif stated neutrally, folding his arms.
"In addition, the conditions imposed should hamper her for a while," another of the ghostly Oracles said.
Hieron had a bit of trouble telling them apart without being able to see the colour of their robes.
"Finally, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Jogar added in a disdainful voice, "considering your recent history." Subtle as always.
Camilla didn't have to think for long. "I'll do it! For the Shining Concord!" she said, standing ramrod straight. Only the tiniest quiver in her voice betraying her doubt. She almost completed a salute before she remembered that she was no longer in the military, and lowered the raised arm sheepishly.
"It is good to see that you maintain a sense of duty," Jogar said. "Now, here are your instructions. A room has been prepared for you at the Spinning Mirrors Inn. You will find your uniform, rank insignia, and other useful equipment there. Have a good night's rest, but do not leave the room after sunrise. The wizards on our ship closest to Empress Mercury's dungeon will cast a calling circle to your chamber in the morning. You will enter it and continue to your destination on a flying carpet. There, you willdeliver the Emperor's message. Did you get all that?"
The blonde fae nodded.
"Good. Then I congratulate you on your new position, Ambassador." The High Seer inclined his head slightly, keeping his expression carefully neutral. "I hereby officially conclude this session. You may leave whenever you wish."
The ghostly Oracles were the first to disappear, simply fading away from their spots after bowing to each other.
Camilla followed their lead, formally taking her leave from the three remaining Oracles.
Hieron kept watching her as she spread her wings and took to the air, passing over the flower beds arranged in the shape of a wreath of laurels encircling three crossed swords. She seemed to pay no attention to the blooming gardens, instead heading straight for the marble spires in the distance, whose lit windows shone like tiny stars in the twilight. "Well, she's a brave little girl. I hope she survives," he said.
"Not that little," Kanif objected with a small leer.
"From my perspective, all of you look like children," the orange-robed Oracle said. With a relieved sigh, he stood up and started walking up and down to get the blood flowing properly again.
"Are you quite done complaining about your age? We have some details to iron out," Jogar said. He was the only one of the three who remained stubbornly seated in his cross-legged position.
"What about her sisters?" Hieron asked. "Being a Rainbow, they will be miserable with one of them missing." The old man wriggled his toes, letting out a sound between a sigh and a groan.
"We could assign them to the young ambassador as guards," Jogar suggested after briefly thinking the matter over. "If this undertaking doesn't immediately end in bloodshed, we will need additional staff for the embassy anyway."
"That might be condemning them to death, though, given the nature of the host nation," Kanif cautioned.
"They have come out of their multiple encounters with the Dark Empress unharmed so far," Jogar countered. "She might have taken a liking to them. Which is also grounds for at least some suspicion. In any case, they are the most likely to survive the experience."
"They were captured before. If we sent them, we would not be feeding her someone with new secrets to extract," the blue-robed Oracle pondered. "We will give them the choice, just like her sister," she declared.
"Pfff. That's not a real choice at all," Hieron complained. "As if they would abandon each other."
"Nevertheless, it is the least distasteful of our options in this situation. This discussion is closed."
Ami's visit to her dungeon heart hidden in the Arctic ice remained short. Not enough of Crowned Death's power had ended up here to seriously erode its inner warding. She used up a few of the gold coins kept in reserve here to patch up the minor blemishes she could spot. The damage would have fixed itself in time, but why put it off if she was here already? Secrecy was the main protection of this dungeon heart, and she didn't want it compromised by strange magical phenomenons. She'd definitely have to add additional precautions once she had some spare time. For the moment though, it seemed safe enough, being located far from any inhabitation or distinguishing geographical features. With a whirl of snowflakes, Ami teleported to her third dungeon.
When she spotted her advanced-model dungeon heart, she gasped at the drastic changes in its appearance and covered her mouth with her hands. The vines around the artefacts pillars had withered away, leaving bony structures that resembled the human spine in its place, and its vibrant crimson colour had darkened to the reddish black of coagulated blood.
Immediately, Ami summoned the Mercury computer and started analysing the data she received from her visor. She started with the pile of bluish-purple stone skulls that the pulsing orb was resting on, and worked her way up to the beating heart itself. There, her search algorithms outlined a hole in the containment wards in red. She quickly repeated her scan of the surrounding area, but could find no trace of chaotic energy. Perhaps it had discharged itself on the dungeon heart and caused the changes in appearance? This model deliberately left the interior of the dungeon more malleable to corruption effects, after all. It could very well be what had happened, but it did not explain the alarming death theme. Unable to solve the mystery even after thoroughly scanning the structure for a third time, she focused on patching up the hole instead.
"A death theme, you say? I find this disturbing." Snyder removed his dust-covered gloves and narrowed his eyes at Mercury. The blue-haired girl was inspecting the warding tablets lying inside the contours she had drawn on the ground earlier.
"So do I," Ami agreed. "It does not make much sense either, since any chaotic magic escaping from my transformation sequence should have completely random effects." She briefly thought back to what had happened to Boris, Tserk, and the chickens, and looked queasy. "If they are following a theme, then perhaps the corruption effects themselves have changed? They are derived from the dark gods' realm, after all." She looked up suddenly, her eyes wide "Do you think Crowned Death might be lurking nearby, metaphysically speaking?"
The acolyte blinked once. "While I am fairly well informed on the divine, the effects of the dark gods on dungeon hearts are slightly outside of my area of expertise. It is not impossible, but I do imagine the dark one would wish to spend his time more productively."
"I suppose you are right." Ami scratched her chin. There had to be something she was missing. "What about one of his creatures, though? Could the power of the Minor Aspect have coalesced back into a living being?" Even dissolved to a tenth of its original potency, the dark energy she had sucked from the monster had still tried to stick together.
"Ah, Mercury, I think you are missing the obvious here. You report not finding any residue of the Aspect's energy anywhere, but you have not checked all the vital components of your dungeon heart system yet."
"Um?" Ami thought for a moment, then pointed a thumb at herself. "You mean me? But I'm feeling fine! Believe me, when that dark power was passing through me, I felt every moment of it!" The idea that something that had burned so much could yet remain undetected within her body seemed absurd.
Snyder kept looking at her expectantly. "You personally handled more of that dread power than any single of your dungeon hearts, and they are more sturdy than you are, yet you expect to have remained unaffected?"
Well, when he puts it that way... "I suppose being thorough won't hurt." Ami concentrated on locating Cathy and found her walking through the empty barracks, scrutinising the state of the swords and maces stashed in the weapon racks. Ami used her Keeper powers to knock against the door a few times to avoid startling the swordswoman, and then transported her, herself, and Snyder to the infirmary. "Cathy, I need your assistance briefly. Do you remember how to activate the visor?"
The ersatz-senshi tapper her right earlobe, making the transparent device slide over her eyes. "Sure thing. What do you need?"
"Just keep looking at me," Ami said, bringing out her palmtop computer. She pushed a few buttons. "Okay, I'm getting the data feed from your visor now instead of mine. Let me make a few adjustments..."
Cathy raised an eyebrow as letters, symbols, and diagrams appeared in her field of vision, but gave no indication that she understood anything that she was seeing.
Ami, on the other hand, could make sense of the annotations surrounding the outline of her body. As she had expected, there was no sign of- wait, what was that? Her fingers danced over the keyboard, bringing the various energy channels running through her body into clearer focus. She made those relevant only to her senshi powers and the dungeon heart fade into the background and lit up the vein-like network conducting Dark Kingdom energy. Had she imagined the anomaly? No, there it was again, a brief fluctuation in intensity that shouldn't have been there. She zoomed in closer. That tiny speck of darkness, cloaked with a mantle of Metallia's power, unmistakably exuded the taint of the death god. "You were right," she muttered, stunned.
"How bad is it?" the acolyte asked, stepping closer to the paling girl who kept staring unblinkingly at the display.
"Is something wrong?" Cathy asked. The various red dots slowly appearing within the silhouette of Mercury's body couldn't mean anything good.
Ami's typing reached a frantic speed. "It's different from before," she said, scared by what she was seeing. "It's almost like a slow-acting poison now." She ran more projections. "I didn't notice because my sailor senshi enchantments are compensating for the damage it has caused so far. Eh?" The blue-haired girl looked up in surprise as her data source went out of focus.
Cathy rushed to Ami's side and put her hand on the younger girl's shoulders. "Poison? How bad is it? Snyder, get over here and do something!"
Ami blinked and focused on bringing her breathing back under control. "Calm down," she told the blonde. "It's not as bad as it sounds!" Having to explain the situation helped her put things into perspective. "The foreign energy within my body is very weak, but it's dangerous because it's insidious. Snyder should have no trouble neutralising it. It seems to work a bit like an infection, slowly converting some of my own powers into more of itself. Left unchecked, the process would eventually have accelerated at an exponential rate. At the time I would have noticed the effects without my scanner, it would have been too late." She wrapped her arms around herself and shuddered.
"In that case, we should not lose any time and remove the problem before it can get worse," Snyder said as he came closer. "What do I have to do?"
"Simply inundating my body with the power of the Light should disrupt any dark energy in there," Ami said. "Crowned Death's power will be gone for good, since it can't replenish itself from an outside source. My own will be almost unaffected."
"I see." Snyder nodded once and brought his right arm up, palm facing outward, and reached out to touch the teenager's shoulder.
"Eeep!" Ami jerked away from the white-glowing hand, jumping halfway across the room in reaction to the wave of revulsion that shot through her body.
Snyder blinked, as did Cathy.
"I'm fine," Ami said, wringing her hands in embarrassment. "It's just that the feel of that Light energy makes me shy away." She took a deep breath and walked back to her initial position, right in front of the acolyte. "I'm prepared for it now."
"Eeek!" Ami squealed again as soon as the glow touched her. She just couldn't help herself. Belatedly, she noticed that she had leapt away again.
"Did I hurt you?" Snyder asked, sounding worried.
Ami shook her head. "No, it doesn't hurt, it's just a very unpleasant sensation. Imagine being touched with the coldest hands you can imagine, or a light electric jolt, or a tickling sensation that doesn't feel good in the least. It's not that bad on a conscious level, but my body simply tries to get away."
"Ah." Snyder scratched his head. "All right, how do we proceed?"
The door to the infirmary flew open. "What's with all this racket? Some people are trying to sleep here!" Tiger poked her head in, her expression halfway between worry and irritation. She listened with crossed arms as she was informed about what was going on. "Is that all?" A mischievous grin appeared on her face. "You only need someone to hold you down, then! I'll go and get Jadeite-"
"NO!" Ami was blushing heavily. "Not him!"
"And here I thought you'd rather enjoy that," the striped youma said, prompting the teenager to hide her tomato-red cheeks within her hands.
"I can do it," Cathy suggested.
"No, I need you to keep scanning me to make sure everything harmful is really gone," Ami objected, peeking through her fingers.
"Oh, I know just the right person for the job! I'll be right back!" Tiger announced and started cackling.
"Wait!" Ami shouted, but it was too late. Only a shattering pillar of stone remained where Tiger had teleported out.
Nef the goblin was calmly scrubbing the floor with his mob when a large, irregular shadow fell over him. He whirled around and now faced a huge, writhing blob of black and green tentacles.
"Hurry! Hurry up already! This is going to be so much fun!" a female voice came from the forest of pseudopodia.
Nef wondered since when tentacle monsters could talk out loud. This distracted him so much that he almost forgot to throw himself out of the path of the beast's slurping advance. Fortunately, instinct moved his body even without his conscious effort. Standing with his back pressed against the wall and with his feet in a puddle of dirt water, courtesy of his overturned bucket, he watched the beast slither past. In its wake followed a muscular creature, who had to be the one who had talked earlier.
The strange humanoid with short bluish hair and faded black stripes showed a surprising resemblance to the Keeper, although she was taller than the latter. She kept cackling all the way as she chased the Empress' pet into the infirmary.
Nef looked at the ground to locate his dropped mop and growled as he spotted the mess. Nobody respected his work! He wouldn't let himself be treated like that just because he was a goblin any more! He'd tell that thoughtless creature off for ruining all his hard work, yes, he would! After stomping about half the way to the infirmary door, he heard a loud yelp and hesitated. Well, nothing too unusual. This was an infirmary after all, some pain was to be expected.
Another piercing scream echoed through the corridor, followed by a squeal and a strangled gasp.
In the brief silence, Nef thought he heard the creature from before chuckling loudly. Then, the girlish screams continued. Very slowly and quietly, the goblin turned around and tiptoed away. Perhaps confronting that thing wasn't a good idea, after all. None of the other creatures who were poking their head curiously out of doorways seemed inclined to go investigate either, so he didn't feel like a complete coward.
"Somehow, despite all the incompatibilities and rather wimpy magical potency, this dungeon heart type has a certain charm," Mukrezar said as he looked down at the pulsing membrane in the circular pit below him. He turned away from the artefact and started moving his index finger in the shape of a sideways figure eight. The digit left a green-glowing trail of dispersing motes of mana in the air.
The room before him was empty except for a corral in which four imps were looking fearfully up at the ceiling. Their fear proved justified when heavy bags filled with jingling gold coins formed from thin air and started dropping like deadly raindrops. In their panic, two of the tiny minions ran into each other and fell to the ground, only to be crushed into a bloody paste by the bag that dropped on top of them. Even as their remains dissolved back into mana, the nearby dungeon heart spat out two new imps to take their place.
"It is such a surprise that you would enjoy a dungeon heart that can compensate for myopic planning, Master," the butler imp said, sounding unimpressed. He calmy took a single step aside and didn't even look up when a bag crashed down on the spot where he had just stood, splitting open and spilling coins over the floor.
"Bah, out of mana again already." Mukrezar stopped casting the spell and stared through half-lidded eyes at the six bags of gold he had created. "I still prefer the firepower provided by the original type." The elf gestured, and the precious metal turned into a ghostly mist that streamed into the dungeon heart.
Before him, two glittering figurines rose from the floor. Built from precious gems, they represented him standing on the back of the pained-looking Avatar, striking a victorious pose.
Mukrezar picked the statuettes up and climbed the stairs leading over the dungeon heart's boundary wall. Without hesitation, he stepped into the emptiness, but instead of dropping into the pit, he remained afloat in the verdant whirlwind swirling above it. "Then again, nobody ever said-" he began as he turned into a black streak that shot downwards.
He reappeared out of a glowing sphere resting on the bent backs of three golden troll statues, solidified, and floated to the ground gently "-that I cannot have both!" As the Keeper stepped down the stairs of his crystalline dungeon heart's dais, he threw the figurines aside.
They landed on a large heap of gold coins and shattered into their component gems, which rolled downhill until they came to rest in a corner. A moment later, a wave of gold coins followed them, displaced by the weight of Mukrezar landing on top of the heap.
"Ah, that's the life!" The elven Keeper let out a content sigh as he lay down and summoned a book.
The crimson-eyed man calmly flipped a page of his tome.
He kept reading.
"MUKREZAR! Don't you dare ignore me!"
With a sigh, the Keeper pushed his hand into the loose gold and started rummaging below the surface. After a while, he fished out an active crystal ball. "Honoured High Priest," he said, his voice lacking any hint of enthusiasm, "what can I do for you? Congratulations on your very recent promotion, by the way."
The gilded skull in the scrying device managed to glower with the aid of an animated ruby mask that replaced portions of its long-gone face. "Why have you not contacted us yet?"
"I've been busy," Mukrezar quipped. "People to rob, dungeons to build, you know what it's like."
"None of that would have been necessary if you had just shown up in one of the temples to our Lord Crowned Death instead!"
"Ah, but that vampire teleportation spell that he equipped me with in his infinite wisdom rather disagrees with a living body. I simply could not risk using it again," Mukrezar drawled. "Besides, I thought you'd at least appreciate me not being a drain on the cult's finances."
"You owe Crowned Death!" the high priest boomed.
"And I am willing to show him the full extent of my gratitude," the pink-haired elf answered evenly.
The animated skeleton remained still as a statue for a few heartbeats, staring straight into the Keeper's glowing eyes. "See that you do. Our Lord demands that, for now, you focus your efforts on the worms that worship the Unraveller."
Mukrezar blinked. "Hmm? I'd have thought he would prioritise that interesting new Empress."
"That blasphemer is far beyond your ability to handle. You are, in fact, expressly forbidden from interfering with her. Now go and fulfil your orders!" The crystal ball went inert.
"Reverse psychology, or simply an honest assessment?" the butler asked, having climbed the gold hill behind Mukrezar. "Now, what are you going to do, your Audaciousness?"
The pink-haired elf clapped his hands together as he sat up. "I'm going to bake the biggest cake in the world."
Silence. "Cake, Master?" The butler tilted his head to the side. "Oh, I see. This is some kind of clever allegory, is it not?" His face fell when Mukrezar just grinned and shook his head.
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