Ami's blue hair, still damp from a recent shower, glistened in the glare of the spotlight illuminating the workbench before her. With a skip in her step, she moved closer and opened one of the six cages cut directly into the wall behind it. The plumage of the chicken inside felt soft under her hands as she picked the drowsy-looking bird up.
"Now, now, you seem to be in a rather good, Mercury," Snyder commented. The acolyte waited a few steps behind her, his white-and-red robes standing out bright against the background of the dimly-lit laboratory. "I confess that this surprises me, since I expected you to feel rather miserable due to the treatment. You did, after all, vanish into thin air so quickly that you took your tentacled assistant with you."
With the hen in her arms, Ami smiled over her shoulder at him. "Thanks for your concern, but I was feeling fine, if a bit slimy. I only wanted to get away from the Light magic residue in the room as quickly as possible. All of this gave me a great idea, too!"
Ami put the chicken on the metal surface before her, gently keeping one hand on the animal's back until it sat down. "Yes, I think I know how to cure cursed wounds now," she said. "I got good scans of Crowned Death's poisonous power in action, as well as of your healing spells." She put her palmtop on the table and called two different graphs up onto the screen. Her fingers touched a button, and another image joined the curves already being displayed. "And this is Metallia's power. Can you see the similarities and differences here?"
"I'm afraid this is beyond my area of expertise," Snyder commented in a dry tone of voice. "However, the chicken seems to be showing a keen interest."
Ami quickly pushed the hen's head aside before it could peck at the keyboard. "Well, in short, I believe that it may be possible to transform one type of energy into another. This would allow me to make a healing version of Crowned Death's poison that would feast on the curse." Her smile became more predatory as she imagined how the dark god would react to having the damage he caused undone by his own trick. "No matter how much the curse resists, the healing spell will grow stronger and stronger until it overwhelms it." She deflated and clasped her hands together before her chest. "Unfortunately, I'll have to research how to create such a spell step by step first, which is why I need your aid. I don't want the results tainted by me being unfamiliar with any actual Light healing spells, so I'll stick to the basics. I convert some energy, you use it to cast the spell."
"You believe that emulating the power of the Light will be the easiest of these steps?" Snyder asked, raising one eyebrow.
Ami nodded. "I'll start with life energy as a base, since both have very similar base qualities," Ami said. She briefly touched the chicken with two fingers and drew forth a pale white thread of light.
The animal toppled sideways without a sound.
Ami gathered the life energy into a tiny, glowing ball that floated between her palms, barely visible in front of her black leotard.
Snyder crossed his arms and watched her intently as her fingers started a spider-like dance around the immaterial sphere, keeping his face neutral.
Eyes narrowed in concentration, she barely noticed the inside of her visor taking on a violet tint as the crimson light shining through it grew in intensity. The fine manipulation required for restructuring the hen's life force with weak pulses of Metallia's dark power tested the limits of her casting skills. After about ten minutes of work, she looked up at Snyder with pearls of sweat glittering on her brow. "I did it!" She exclaimed, a bright smile on her face, and held out the now whiter ball for the acolyte to see.
"Not to sound overly sceptical, but I can't help notice that you are not shying away from that little clump of magic."
"I consider that an unintended feature," Ami said. "It's impossible for me to emulate every little fluctuation, so I focused on getting the important properties correct. According to my scanner, this altered ball of energy is almost identical to the power of the Light gods. Here, take it!"
Ami held out the glowing marble for Snyder, who extended his thumb and index finger to form a crescent-shaped arc. With a jerk, the ball of magical power snapped into place between the two digits.
The acolyte lifted it to eye height and peered at it curiously. "Ah, well, it seems to feel right, at least. I am unsure whether to feel amazed or worried. Copying the magic of the Light by using a chicken seems rather, well, disrespectful. I would expect there to be a rule against it, had anyone considered the possibility." He shook his head and sighed. "Very well. How do we proceed?"
"Well, it's supposed to go into a healing spell, so..." Ami leaned over the unconscious chicken. While it was ultimately destined to end up in a cooking pot, she didn't want to seriously hurt it. Thus, she parted the animal's plumage until she could see its skin, and then deftly plucked out a single feather. "Can you heal that, please?" she asked, pointing at the spot from which a single drop of blood was welling up.
"All right." Snyder stepped up to the table and thrust out the hand holding the white glow. "I am starting to shape the spell now."
Ami held still, eager to record every little detail of the process.
"Something feels off here," the redhead commented as the glow slowly seeped back into the hen. "Is this really working?"
"I can see the puncture in the skin closing underneath the scab," Ami confirmed. "The remaining energy is being reabsorbed back into the body just fine, too."
The hen twitched and opened one eye. Startled, it pecked at Snyder's hand, causing the rotund man to take a step back.
"I must say that I did not actually expect you to succeed on the first try," the redhead admitted. "The bird does look rather lethargic, though."
"No change from before, then," Ami said, beaming. "Now, with the first step done, I should repeat the process and try to do it myself. You used-"
She stopped when her computer started beeping.
The hen batted her wings and hopped away from the noisy object even as Ami whirled around to look at the screen.
Gaze focused on the red numbers scrolling across the display, she started typing furiously before suddenly looking up at the bird. Her eyes went round. "Duck!"
"What is-" was as far as the redhead got before Ami tackled him to the ground and shoved him underneath the table.
Above them, the chicken tilted its head to the side and clucked questioningly as its body swelled.
Ami heard a sound not unlike a balloon popping, and then feathers and less savoury chunks started raining down onto the ground around them and making pattering noises on the surface above. She grimaced and blinked, then went cross-eyed when a red-tipped feather landed on her nose.
From underneath the table, Snyder stared at the grisly display, brown eyes wide and jaw agape. After a while, he gulped and said "It- it seems that your declaration of success was somewhat premature."
Ami nodded quietly, her face pale. "That's one way to put it." Shock at her experiment failing so spectacularly almost paralysed her.
While she pondered what could have gone wrong, rats emerged from the shadows and started feasting on the remains of the unlucky test subject.
Ami didn't put a stop to their clean-up efforts. With an exertion of will, she transported herself and Snyder to a spot outside of the mess so they could stand up. She carefully avoided looking too closely at the sights, and ordered two imps to show up with mops and buckets of water. "I was so sure I had it right, too." She was grateful for her uniform's gloves when one of the imps fetched her Mercury computer from the table and handed it to her after wiping it clean. "Hmm, perhaps if I..."
"Excuse me for being pessimistic, but after seeing the results of the first try, I think it would make more sense to develop your spell first and then teach it to someone who can use the true power of the Light, rather than your substitute."
Ami's typing paused, and she met his gaze. "The problem with that is twofold. For one, some of the necessary interactions will most likely require having access to two different flavours of magical power. I was using Metallia's magic to shape the life energy during this experiment. The second issue is one of skill. Not to disparage your abilities, but I was using the dungeon heart to flawlessly repeat fine manipulation and stabilise the process. You would find this exceedingly hard to duplicate."
Snyder scratched his chin. "Perhaps that is the source of the problem. The dungeon heart is an evil artefact and wellspring of corruption, after all."
"The corruption shouldn't interfere with the function of anything I do," Ami said. "Then again, I was trying to create something that is diametrically opposed to it." Some of her confidence returned. "I'll keep an eye on that potential interference for my next try."
"You are still determined to follow this course of action, despite what happened?"
"Well, some setbacks are to be expected-"
At that point, one of the rats nibbling on the chicken remains popped exploded into a cloud of grey fur and reddish bits.
Ami blinked. "-but perhaps I should try making some tools for letting someone else work with Metallia's power first," she finished. Something like that potentially happening to her patients was not something she wanted to think about.
Three different chimes rang in rapid succession, their sound echoing and rebounding between the catwalks and bare walls of Ami's vast laboratory.
Its owner raised her head in surprise. She needed a moment to recognised the noise as the doorbell in the antechamber of her study. In theory, her employees could use it when they wanted an audience with her, but in practice, this was the first time she had heard it. The people she interacted with on a daily bases could either teleport or contact her telepathically.
Her Keeper sight showed her a small green figure covered with a hooded leather coat one size too large for it. One of the goblin's hands remained around the cord for ringing the doorbell as his head twisted left and right and his gaze darted about the brightly-lit waiting room. It brushed over the unoccupied, padded chairs lining the walls, but lingered on the ornate wooden door before him most of the time.
If the water dripping off his raincoat and onto the marble floor was any identification, then the jittery and panting creature had run all the way from the surface to get to this chamber. Ami closed the copper-bound tome in front of her and transported herself to her study, wondering what the little creature wanted to tell her so urgently. She gestured, causing the double door to swing open.
The goblin jumped a step back as the door wings parted, splitting the largest of the Mercury symbols carved into the portal in two. He blinked up at Ami's red-eyed silhouette blocking the doorway, and dropped to one knee.
"Your Majesty!" he blurted out, spittle flying from his tongue. "We did well! We caught spy!"
"A spy?" Ami felt alarmed. Were other Keepers scouting her lands? "Who, where, and what happened?" she asked. "Oh, and you may rise."
The green creature jumped to its feet. "Spy circling windmills. Zoom! Zoom!" the goblin reported spinning around his own axis as he mimed the action with one extended arm. "We rode flies to force down! Orcs pounced, and now dragging here with loot!"
"A spy with loot?" The teenage empress turned toward the entrance, where the sound of mixed footsteps approached from outside.
Two pink-skinned orcs wearing leather raincoats similar to the goblin's walked in, their grins showing off large, crooked teeth underneath knobbly noses. Each of them held one end of an elongated, roughly human-sized bag that wriggled in their grip.
Behind these leaders, a sturdy chest with a rounded lid wobbled in, carried by a gaggle of imps. Even the mud splatters coating it couldn't entirely hide the intricately-crafted silver insets that decorated the dark wood.
"Your Imperial Majesty," the orc to the left spoke while he saluted with his free hand. "We present the prisoner!" He let go of his side of the bag, and his partner upended it by raising the other end over his head.
A slight figure half-slid, half fell out of the opening. The mud-stained and soaking wet girl let out a muffled grunt through her gag when she hit the floor tiles. Yellow eyes glared up at Ami from underneath a diadem that sat askew on its shivering owner's brow.
"Camilla? Let her go!" In an instant, Ami was kneeling in front of the girl and untying the cloth draped over the blonde fairy's mouth. Had her guards just roughed up the new ambassador from the Shining Concord Empire? Ami's eyes took in the magnificent blue, red, and white feather pattern of the fae's open-backed dress. It certainly looked like it. "Are you all right?"
Camilla spat out the piece of cloth in her mouth and grimaced. "C-c-cold," the drenched fairy stuttered, then sneezed.
Diplomacy was off to a great start.
"...and then, as if the sleet wasn't enough already, your stupid goblins jumped off those horrible flies and onto my carpet," Camilla said, far more lively now that she was wrapped in a warm blanket and had her feet submerged in a tub filled with hot water. "It's not meant to carry that much weight! What did they think would happen?"
"I'm very sorry about this," Ami said, lowering her head. "No offence was intended. I could heal those bruises for you," she offered, reaching toward the sitting fairy with a hand that glowed green at the fingertips.
Her guest shied away, as if she had just remembered both titles of the harmless-looking girl sitting to the left of the fireplace. Or possibly her reputation. "N- no, that's all right," she replied, pulling the blanket more tightly around her body. "Your Majesty. I can deal with that myself later."
"Very well." The cushioning of Ami's wooden chair creaked as she settled back in place. "What I don't understand is why you kept circling outside in the storm, rather than announcing yourself."
"How? Your dungeon doesn't exactly have a big front door I could have walked up to! If it wasn't for the iceberg, I wouldn't even have been able to find my way back to it!"
"Oh. Yes, I see how that would be a problem," Ami conceded. "Actually, I didn't expect you back here so soon."
"Passenger summoning spells," Camilla explained.
"Ah." Ami perked up when her Keeper senses informed her of what her minions were doing. "Good news! The imps have just found your flying carpet too. I'll have them wash it, as well as your robes of office, if that's fine with you."
The young fairy glanced to her left, where three imps in blue coveralls were crawling over her ornate wooden chest, wielding cleaning rags. Its metal parts glittered dimly in the wavering, artificial light. Camilla's gaze wandered briefly upwards, toward the strange lamps concealed by the banks of fog wafting underneath the high ceiling. "I guess they know what they are doing. Sure. What's up with those clouds, if you don't mind me asking?"
"They offer a measure of privacy by hindering scrying attempts, Ambassador. As you are here, I assume that's your correct title now?"
The blonde crossed her arms and seemed to sink into her seat. "Well, provisional Ambassador, anyway," she said. "Whether or not a proper embassy will be established here depends on you complying with several demands, your Majesty."
Ami didn't miss that the fairy was suddenly starting to fidget. "What are those demands?"
"Ah, they are all listed in great detail in one of the scrolls in my chest. I'll get it-"
The chest opened by itself, and a large scroll case floated out. "Is that the correct one?"
Ami remotely opened the container and summoned the rolled-up scroll within to her gloved hand. Curious about what was making the young blonde so nervous, she unrolled the scroll. Even though she would have liked to, she didn't skip the long-winded introductions, for fear of missing something important. At least, it was a treasure trove of formal phrases that she might find useful in the future. As she read, she could hear the faint hum caused by glitter flaking off the fairy. Was the girl actually holding her breath?
Ami finally got to the part that held the demands. A rather large plot of land to establish the embassy. Reasonable so far. Having her construct and furnish the embassy proper, according to the plans appended to the message. That shouldn't be a problem with the aid of the dungeon heart. Relinquishing her claim on the embassy area? She was willing to do that, yes. Was that the point that had Camilla so worried? She read on, expecting more demands, but the lengthy rest of the scroll was taken up by blueprints and exacting specifications. She paused. Had she just read that right?
A second glance confirmed that the document indeed listed the building material for the building's many support pillars as 'silver'. She read on and kept finding gems such as façade tiles carved from the crystal-like obsidian mined only from a specific dwarven quarry, and elaborate mosaics carves from certain common gemstones. And why would an embassy even need a swimming pool, let alone one like that? "I don't even have a golden bathtub," she mused out loud, causing Camilla to wince.
The scroll went on in the same vein, listing furniture and items of daily use that had two things in common. They were both pretty to look at and outrageously expensive.
One of Ami's eyebrows started twitching as she kept reading. She looked up at the fairy, whose face was white as a sheet. "Are they serious? This isn't an embassy, it's a palace!"
"The Shining Concord Empire's splendour and glory must be accurately reflected in the embassy building that represent it," Camilla recited in a shaky monotone, looking as if she expected to be struck down any moment now for the perceived insult.
"This still strikes me as excessive."
"The Emperor considers this commitment a necessary token of good faith," the young fairy stated with no emotion, obviously repeating a memorised phrase.
Ami closed her eyes and forced herself to consider the situation in a calm and methodical fashion. It didn't take a genius to discern the real purpose of the pompous structure. While gauging the sincerity of her intentions was certainly one part of it, these demands were mainly meant to starve her war effort of resources. The finished embassy building would also force her to construct herself a residence that matched or exceeded its opulence, lest she lose face with her underlings.
Ami summoned her computer and started entering the numbers to get a more accurate estimate of how much this could cost her.
Camilla remained motionless and quiet while Ami's fingers danced over the keyboard, perhaps in the hopes of her presence being forgotten.
It didn't take the blue-haired girl long to compile the various expenditures into a price list. The embassy alone would cost her about as much as eight new dungeon hearts, a truly outrageous sum. However, when put into perspective with what she planned to spend on her adamantine dungeon heart, the numbers looked much less intolerable. She also felt reassured that her enemies apparently remained unaware of her gem production capabilities if they thought that targeting her wealth was an appropriate strategy for weakening her. She put her palmtop aside, a mischievous smile on her face. "Fine."
"The conditions are non-negoti- what?" Camilla opened the eyes she had clamped shut in fear and gaped at Ami.
"I said that I accept," Ami repeated.
"You mean it? You are not angry? I'm not going to die?" the fairy asked. When Ami nodded, the blonde visibly relaxed and let out a relieved breath.
Ami suspected that her easy acquiescence would cause sleepless nights to the people who had forced the poor girl into this situation. After all, why would the dark empress be willing to invest so much into this embassy if it didn't further her goals in some way they would all come to regret? "I wonder what the building will look like when it is done?"
"Oh, it resembles a scaled-down version of the Imperial Palace, from what I could see. Without the parks and mansions and pavilions, of course," Camilla said, more talkative now that she was miraculously still alive and in one piece.
"Hmm." Ami was already scanning the plans and arranging them three-dimensionally in space so that she could get a better idea of the building's layout. Something about the central tower struck her as familiar, and her eyes narrowed in suspicion. She rotated the view around its axis several times, but it took her zooming in and imagining the structure from the inside to make the connection. "What exactly are you trying to pull here?" she barked at Camilla.
Faced with the young Keeper's sudden hostility, the fairy flinched away, and her pupils turned into startled pinpricks. "Wh- what do you mean?"
Instead of a reply, Ami turned her computer so that Camilla could see the display. It was still centred on the blueprints of a tower that could have been a twin of Zarekos' temple.
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