A flash of blue light briefly illuminated the interior of the eight-sided tower, crept up its glyph-encrusted brick walls, and faded away long before reaching the distant roof. In the light's wake, a twister of snowflakes dispersed, revealing two female silhouettes standing on the floor.
Ami let go of Camilla's arm and took a step away from the blonde. She gestured upwards at the enormous statue that loomed between a galaxy of ever-burning braziers, which in turn dangled from horizontal support beams. "Well?" she asked. "What do you have to say now?"
"Um, can I have some clothes, please?" Camilla asked meekly, clasping the blanket wrapped around herself tighter.
Ami paused. That was not the reaction that she had expected. Blinking, she took note of the fae's state of relative undress, and one hand rose to cover her mouth. "Oh! Of course." Mildly embarrassed, she conjured a few articles of clothing for the ambassador, whose own wardrobe was still in the wash after her goblin-induced crash in the mud. The teenage Keeper turned away while the fairy got dressed. The other girl's intimidated expression made it hard for her to maintain her initial righteous indignation. She shouldn't have forgotten that Camilla was just a glorified messenger.
"It itches a bit," the fairy commented as she adjusted her blue pants. Aside from the hole for the wings in the blouse's back, the outfit was similar to what Ami used to conjure for herself.
"I'm not a tailor, sorry," Ami apologised. "Now, I repeat. What do you have to say about this?"
Camilla looked around, taking in her surroundings properly for the first time since arriving here. Her eyes went round as she leaned back and gazed upwards. "Two things immediately come to mind," she said after a while. "First, why do you have an oracle tower?" She dared meet Ami's crimson-glowing eyes and looked at her accusingly. "This one is even bigger than the one at the Imperial Palace!"
"I didn't build it, I took it from Zarekos. A more interesting question would be why the Shining Concord is trying to trick me into equipping its embassy with a temple."
"Eh?" Camilla blinked several times and tilted her head to the side. "You think this is a temple?"
"Are you telling me it isn't?"
"No! It's just a common and traditional part of official buildings! It provides a place for visiting Oracles to ply their trade!" the fairy insisted. "We don't worship there. Which would be pretty difficult in the first place, since normally only Oracles or higher are allowed in there!"
Ami crossed her arms. "I have personally seen it work like a temple. Zarekos was trying to use it to ascend to godhood."
"For real?" Camilla gaped, as if she couldn't reconcile what she had just heard with what she knew. She shook her head. "That's- that's absurd! He must have been insane! Or altered the design! For one, we don't put giant statues into our towers! That was the second thing that came to mind, actually. That's an impressively ugly statue, especially with that giant sword stuck in its forehead."
"Zarekos wasn't any more attractive in person, and the statue is magically inert." Ami commented.
"Well, there's a really easy way to prove if this is a temple or not," Camilla said. "I'll just cast a holy spell, and-" she paused and looked at Ami, whose red eyes were very visible in the dim light. "- err, that is, if I'm allowed to?"
The blue-haired girl nodded. "Go on."
"Well, I'm going to cast it, and if this is a good temple, it should be stronger than usual. Or weaker if it's an evil one. Now then." The fairy folded her hands, palms together, and pulled them slowly apart. Her face scrunched up in concentration, and her brow furrowed. Finally, a tiny white speck appeared in the gap.
"That looked as if it took a lot of effort," Ami said.
"Err, yes." Camilla looked at the ground and scratched her head. "Maybe this particular place is really a dark temple, but," she looked up suddenly and continued loudly " that doesn't mean anything! This Keeper must have altered it! It's a twisted variation!"
Ami summoned her computer and turned it so that the blonde could see the screen. "Aside from the statue and its scale, it matches the embassy blueprints. They are identical! See, this is what it's going to look like when finished." She called up the three-dimensional model her computer had rendered. "Ignore the missing colours of the model, just focus on the shape."
Camilla leaned forward until her nose almost touched the screen, her eyes big. "What is this magic?" she wondered out loud even as she narrowed her eyes and searched for any observable differences. "Hah! Got it now!" she declared triumphantly. "These plans don't show all the bells and chimes that a normal oracle tower is filled with, since they are furniture!" She pointed at the ceiling with her index finger. "This building is missing them too, so its purpose must be different!"
"Hmm. That would depend on what they are used for." Ami was not convinced that adding something would make the place less of a temple. In her opinion, the round-faced fairy really was unaware of the more sinister functions of this structure and grasping at straws here. Then again, she might be right. Ami had no proof that Zarekos hadn't modified the design in subtle ways. Or maybe he had simply used it differently? The Concord's population was unlikely to tolerate towers swamped with tormented ghosts. Her face hardened at the memories of this place before she had claimed it.
"Hey, there's no reason to look angry!" Camilla said, hiding her face behind her waving hands. "Oh, I think I can prove that this thing is different from our oracle towers!" The fairy spread her wings and darted upwards, leaving a trail of glitter in the air.
"Wait, what are you doing?" Ami asked, taking to the air herself and chasing after the blonde. Both girls gained altitude quickly as floor after floor rushed past them.
"I've got to go to the spot where the Oracle would be meditating," Camilla shouted downwards. She alighted on top of the statue's bald scalp. "That would be around here. Right there!" She pointed right at the pentagram painted on the sculpture's brow, not far above the point where the enormous sword blade had forced itself into the stone.
Having the fairy point out the location that Zarekos' shade had occupied did little to assuage Ami's suspicions. "What are you planning?"
"I remember the incantations from when I was being tested for oracle potential. Nobody in my family had enough to properly activate a tower, but I can manage the projection trance for a short time." Camilla started beaming. "It's perfect! See? I'll try the incantation, and then when nothing happens, you'll know this tower is different from ours!"
"Not exactly," Ami said, feeling a pang of homesickness upon hearing that piece of Usagi-like logic. "If nothing happens, it could also mean that you did not get the spell right, or simply misremembered it."
The fae's face fell. "Oh."
"You could give it a try anyway," Ami suggested, unable to stand up to Camilla's kicked-puppy look. At this point, the blonde probably wanted to reassure herself that her home nation wasn't - perhaps unwittingly - putting evil architecture everywhere important. The young Keeper didn't find that idea reassuring in the least, either. Curious about what would happen, she activated her visor. "Start whenever you are ready."
The blonde nodded. "Okay." She sat down cross-legged in the middle of the pentagram and fidgeted until she found the right spot, then closed her eyes and muttered three multisyllabic words.
For an instant, nothing happened aside from the young fairies voice echoing within the octagonal hollow, but then Ami realised that the echoes weren't fading away. Instead, they started overlapping more and more each time the walls reflected them. Finally, they blended into a single, indistinct hum that made Ami's hackles rise. For an instant, she felt as if the noise was pressing down on her from all sides, making her bones resonate. Then, it was suddenly gone.
"Oh no! This can't be working!" Camilla shouted, waving her transparent hands in front of her face. She seemed more distressed by the fact that her spell had succeeded than by her current ghost-like state.
With a sinking feeling, Ami noted the similarity that the immaterial fairy now bore to the late Zarekos. Almost without thinking, she transported herself in front of the blonde, who let out a startled squawk and recoiled. The young Keeper jabbed her index finger at the fae's right arm.
"Ow!"Camilla protested as a tiny spark jumped over, and she backed away, drifting through the air without using her wings. "What was that for?"
"Sorry, just a test. When I fought Zarekos, he was using a similar effect, though his version was more effective than yours," she explained. Her eyes narrowed at the wraith-like girl. "Nevertheless, we are going to have a very thorough discussion about what exactly it is your Oracles do with these buildings!"
"I'm not allowed to divulge state secrets," the blonde responded in a tiny voice and crossed her arms. She managed to return the Keeper's gaze impassively for several heartbeats before her projection trance guttered out, causing her to succumb to gravity with a startled gasp.
King Albrecht remained silent as he contemplated the wrinkly, hunched-over figure of abbot Durval sitting across from him at the table. His heart was heavy with the knowledge of what he would soon request of the pious man.
"With all due respect, your Majesty, I should be at the front with Baron Leopold, rather than having tea here with you," Durval spoke as he put his empty porcelain cup down on its plate.
"I know, I know," Albrecht sighed. "Unfortunately, I fear that the good Baron may have to do without your aid for a while. I have a different task for you."
"Spymaster, please show him the list."
A figure clad in black, concealing robes stepped out of the shadows behind the king's high-backed armchair and slid noiselessly toward one of the shelves. With a deft motion, the cowled man selected one thick scroll from a pile that held many, and handed it to Durval.
Parchment rustled as the abbot unrolled it. His eyes darted left and right as they skimmed over the columns. "Names?"
"Yes. They belong to hundreds of our citizens confirmed missing. Most of them disappeared during attacks on their villages by Underworld forces, others simply never arrived at their destination," the spymaster explained.
"They are in the hands of Empress Mercury," Albrecht said. He barely resisted the urge to grit his teeth in anger, both at having his subjects in danger and at having to debase the title of "Empress" by using it for such a vile creature. "She sent this list along with a letter. The gist of it is that she liberated them from Dreadfog Island, but that they unfortunately won't be able to leave her realm without complications that resulted from her method of healing them." The king's voice was dripping with sarcasm.
"Complications?" Durval asked, raising his eyebrows.
"Spontaneous eyeball disintegration," the spymaster informed him.
Durval blinked several times. "I see. In other words, she is holding them hostage. Has she made any demands yet?"
Albrecht nodded. "Not that she had the decency to outright call them demands. Instead, she's respectfully requesting supplies that her guests will need in daily life, such as clothes. Or schoolbooks."
"Subtly reminding us that the majority of her captives are still children," Durval interjected, his brow furrowed.
King Albrecht's shoulders slumped. "There is one bigger request, however. She wants a light priest with at least an Abbot's skill level to deal with cursed wounds."
Durval's breath caught. "You are thinking of acquiescing, then. Me?"
The monarch nodded gravely. "I know it is a dangerous and terrifying task, and I apologise for imposing it on you. However, I need to think of the good of my subjects. All of my subjects. Having at least one representant of the Light over there to lessen their suffering would go a long way."
The abbot closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "And since I no longer have an abbey to lead after Arachne murdered my flock, I am the logical choice," he said bitterly.
"If it consoles you, Keeper Arachne was recently destroyed by Keeper Alphel," the spymaster said. "Quite surprising, actually, since she was believed to have been drastically weakened after her defeat at Mercury's hands."
"Durval, I wouldn't be asking this of you if I didn't think it was the best course of action," Albrecht said, feeling old. "Spymaster, tell him about your theory."
"Of course, Sire. While the dark empress ostensibly needs a priest to look after her captives, this is very uncharacteristic behaviour for a Keeper. Yet, the part about needing help with cursed wounds may be true. She did wrestle with a lesser aspect of a dark god recently. There is no good reason to assume that she escaped unscathed."
The holy man sat up straight. "You think it might be herself who is afflicted by incurable wounds? That would indeed explain her request for a skilled healer." His eyes narrowed. "It would be an unprecedented chance to get close to her real body."
Albrecht nodded. "I see you understand. It could be an opportunity to achieve what even the Avatar couldn't."
"A fat lot of use he has been so far," Durval grumbled. "Since his foray into the Underworld, terrified denizens are lining up for a chance to be recruited by Keepers."
"Now, now, credit where credit is due. He drove off Keepers Balcarn, Ruletta, and Trenor almost single-handedly," the king admonished mildly. While he was mildly disappointed by the champion of the Light's almost single-minded focus on bringing low the resurrected Mukrezar, he couldn't fault the man's combat prowess.
"Actually, Balcarn's forces were back-stabbed by Keeper Tagleos during the battle," the spymaster pointed out.
"Tagleos? I have not heard of him," Durval commented, looking confused.
"He's one of those minor Keepers that crawl out of the woodwork from time to time," the masked man explained. "So far only notable for his cowardice and mutated rats."
"Rats. One thing he has in common with Mercury. I had forgotten about those." Durval grimaced. "I hate rats." He let out a long sigh. "But I will do what is necessary. Sire, by your leave? I have prayers and travel preparations to make." He rose, his richly-embroidered robe swishing around him.
Albrecht got up too, and took his hand. "Thank you for agreeing to this," the king said. "You are a courageous man, and will, of course, be rewarded richly for your service. I only wish there was more I could do to ensure your safety."
"I trust in the Light to guide my path." Durval bowed and left the room, leaning on his staff.
"Shoo! Go away!"
An imp shot out of the doorway, her speedy retreat assisted by a light swat on the bottom with the bristly end of a broom. The door slammed shut behind the helmeted creature, stopping the smell of freshly-baked bread from leaking out into the corridor. Only an orange glow kept seeping out from under the door.
"And stay out!" The broom-wielding man leaned the cleaning implement against the wall and turned to his guest. "Sorry about that. The obsessed little bastard keeps trying to sneak in and mess up the place. Didn't pay attention just once, and now I've got that ugly gargoyle picture engraved on one side of my oven." He pointed at the large brick construction that resembled the top half of an egg. "Hey, what are you doing?"
The insect-winged girl he was talking to was on all fours and peering curiously into the red-glowing opening underneath the oven. "This is so strange. There's no fire and I can sense no magic, and yet it burns! How does it work?" Camilla didn't usually try to figure out how strange artefacts functioned, but it was a way to occupy her mind that didn't involve thinking about what the empress had shown her at that tower.
The baker shrugged. "Beats me. I try not to think too much about how the dark empress accomplishes things." He wiped his hands on his apron. "Convenient, admittedly. No more fooling around with wood or coal."
"Sounds great." Camilla got up from the floor and smiled. "You must be happy about that."
"I'd be a lot happier if I didn't know where the flour comes from," Ulrich said.
The fairy's hand stopped halfway toward a crate full of delicious-smelling fresh buns. "What do you mean?"
"Well, they harvest the wheat from these odd little chambers." He shook his head in a mixture of amazement and disapproval. "Portcullis opens and steam pours out, along with a stench like you wouldn't believe. And inside, you have rows of pots on shelves, with the plants stretching like supplicants towards menacing sun faces on the walls and ceiling." The large man made a reaching gesture with his arms to illustrate the shape of the plants.
"I have seen some imps drag bags of grain around," Camilla said. "So it's grown here, underground?"
"Yeah, she has a bunch of the other villagers working as farmers. They harvest it, and her bug-eyed little beasts bring it over to the miller, who sends the flour to me."
"Wait a moment, how can there be a harvest already? This dungeon hasn't existed long enough to give the plants enough time to grow!"
Ulrich shuddered. "Don't remind me. Some guy in the second dorm was stupid enough to ask the empress how that works."
"Did she hurt him?"
"Worse. She answered the question."
"It's the fertiliser?" Camilla guessed and gulped. Her sisters would have recognised her tone as the same one she'd use as a child when they were exchanging scary stories around a camp fire."Does she grind up-"
"No, no, nothing like that. At least, compost would be natural. It's worse! Necromancy! She's somehow shortening the crop's life so it matures in a few days! Who knows how much of that vileness sticks around after the harvest? Not me, certainly, I'm just a baker. It's unnatural, I tell you! I can't even look at dough any more without worrying if it's going to turn into some horrible thing that's going to attack me!" He frowned at the large bowl sitting on the table.
Camilla glanced at the pasty-looking dough within and batted her wings instinctively, ready to take to the air at a moment's notice while she evaluated the threat. After a moment, she shook her head, and her features relaxed. "If what I remember from magical theory classes is correct, then there shouldn't be a problem." She stepped up to the bowl and grinned teasingly at the baker. "But if it makes you feel better, I can cast a healing spell on it!" She reached out over the opening, but then spotted movement below. Reflexively, her gaze flitted downward, just in time to spot the dough turn into a crude, slimy hand that grasped at her own. With a high-pitched scream, the young fairy darted backwards and tripped over a bag of flour. As she landed on the pile of bags and stirred up a white cloud, she could hear a male scream of fright that mirrored her own and - laughter?
Confused, Camilla sat up and blinked to get the flour out of her eyelashes.
The hand made of dough was hanging half over the edge of the bowl, already melting back into a shapeless mass, and the guffawing was coming from the door.
A man built like a bear filled the doorway, doubled over from laughter. "Oh wow! You- ha! You should have seen your faces!" He managed to cough out between laughs. He wriggled the fingers of his right hand, and the dough followed the motion like a glove.
"Robin! You are such an arsehole!" Ulrich bellowed, his arms akimbo.
"You are mean!" Camilla declared. She pouted and crossed her arms, two angry red spots appearing on her cheeks.
"Sorry, the opportunity was too good to pass up," the huge man apologised and wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes. "No hard feelings?"
"This goat-bearded fool is Robin, who was once a wizard's apprentice, but got kicked out for some inexplicable reason," Ulrich introduced the giant of a man.
"And who are you, young lady?" Robin asked. "Haven't seen you here before. I would have remembered a fairy."
"That's the Ambassador from the Shining Concord Empire you just scared to death there," Ulrich said, still glaring.
"An Ambassador? Her?" Robin peered at the fairy with interest, looking her up and down. His eyebrows rose. "They probably couldn't find some pompous old geezer willing to fill the position here, eh? Though you aren't exactly dressed for the job, your Excellency."
"My proper robes of office are in the wash due to goblins being stupid," the fairy snapped. "I got these from the Empress until mine are ready!" she stated, throwing the man a haughty look.
"Those rags?" The fluffy-bearded man raised an eyebrow. "You know, she may be subtly trying to tell you something. You pissed her off recently?"
"Something like that," Camilla admitted, and her posture slumped. Mercury had not been happy with her refusal to provide details about what Oracles did in their towers. Which she didn't want to think about. Even if it related to national security. Which she, in light of recent revelations, really didn't want to think about. She was missing her sisters already. Cerasse would be able to tell her what she was missing here, she was sure of it.
"I bet that's why you are currently mingling with us commoners, then," Robin said in a reconciliatory tone of voice. "Now, now, don't look so glum. We aren't that bad."
"Robin, don't you have a job to get back to?" Ulrich reminded the hulking brute.
"Alas, you would send me back there?" Robin clutched his heart, as if shot. "Truly, you are as cold-hearted as the Empress, whose cruelty knows no limit!"
"What does he do?" Camilla asked, turning to the baker.
"I risk my health and sanity dealing with-"
"He's a teacher," Ulrich ruined Robin's spiel. "For the younger children, to be precise. Though in his case, he's doing more clowning around with magical tricks than teaching."
"Teaching the children?" Camilla said. That didn't make sense, unless..."That means the Empress wants to keep you all here for a long time!" she blurted out.
"As if that hadn't been obvious the moment she rigged our eyes to disappear if we try to leave!" Robin growled. He looked dead serious for a change.
"She what?" Camilla paled. "But that's - that's..." she trailed off, feeling stupid. Evil. Obviously. Mercury was an evil Keeper, even if she didn't flaunt it openly. To Camilla's horror, she found that she had come to think of her as just another monarch, if a strange and unusually approachable one. The dark empress' gentle façade was insidious. To think that she would find a cure for cursed blindness, only to taint it such!
"She put a spell on you that destroys your eyes if you get too far away? That's so cruel! Is there a way to remove it?"
Robin shook his head. "It's not that simple, she already thought of that possibility. There's no spell on our eyes, our eyes are the enchantment. If we get out of range, it will cease to affect us."
Camilla clenched her fists. That made breaking their chains impossible. Unless... as an ambassador, she should be able to move around more freely than these poor victims. Perhaps she could do some spying, rather than being a useless figurehead? Yes! She would help those people by finding the anchor of the enchantment and then help them escape with it!
Kunzite entered the circle of relative brightness surrounding queen Beryl's throne and bowed his head before his ruler, who barely reacted to his arrival. Instead, her stony-faced gaze remained fixated on Nephrite and Zoisite.
"His dark crystal is reacting to targets that mine isn't!" the effeminate-looking blonde hovering in the air accused, and produced an elongated black device. "He must have sabotaged it!"
"You had me give you the original," Nephrite pointed out, looking rather smug. "Why would I sabotage my own crystal? It's not my fault that you don't have the skill to use it correctly."
"No amount of skill will overcome the limitations of flawed equipment!" Zoisite snapped. He landed and addressed Queen Beryl directly. "My Queen, in the interest of finding the silver crystal quickly, please order him to exchange crystals with me!"
"In the interest of finding the silver crystal, you should be doing your job, rather than spying on me!"
"Enough with this bickering!" the evil queen's eyes flashed dangerously, and her mane of red hair blew upwards as she awed her generals into silence with a burst of power. "I am not interested in your excuses. Report what progress you have made!"
The wavy-haired general was the first to step forward. "Queen Beryl. The incidents of insubordination and rebellion among the youma have fallen to almost nothing, thanks to the efforts of the Inquisition and of the decisive example you made of the discovered traitors."
Kunzite thought that this was more due to the stop of the arbitrary arrests, but wisely kept his mouth shut.
Queen Beryl nodded slowly, apparently satisfied by Nephrite's barely-disguised flattery. She looked at Zoisite.
Since Kunzite was well aware of his boyfriend's lack of progress in his search, he took the opportunity to interrupt. Cape waving behind him, he stepped in front of the fidgeting general, confident that his news would monopolise his queen's attention. "Your Majesty, my special project has come to fruition."
Beryl's fingers stopped gliding over the surface of the black crystal ball topping her staff, and she leaned forward, a hungry look on her face. "Tell me more."
"One of the prepared youma is now with the traitor Jadeite." Kunzite's smile was that of a predator spotting wounded prey. "We can send forces after him whenever you desire."
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