The cylindrical cake loomed within a cage of scaffolding, reaching halfway up to the cave’s ceiling. Its white icing glittered invitingly in the torchlight, which shone from the mouths and eyes of demon masks carved into the walls.
Several imps scuttled across the three distinct levels of the scaffolding, each of which corresponded to one tier of the vast confection. The wooden boards creaked underneath their feet as they dipped their brushes into bowls filled with liquid chocolate and painted fanged grimaces onto the cake’s exterior.
Other imps hung suspended head-first from the cave ceiling and decorated the top of the confection with globs of whipped cream. It was slow work, since every move shifted their weight, making the chains they were suspended from swing and rattle.
In the back of the room, Mukrezar stood on the stone arch that formed the top of an enormous oven. The aroma escaping from its opening pleased his nose, and he didn’t mind the heat warming up the damp cave either.
"Master, it appears that your visitors are getting impatient," his butler’s voice whined to his right.
The pink-haired elf looked past where the cake rested on an oversized mine cart and quickly found the delegation in question. “Why, exactly, would I care?”
“Well, your Gluttonousness, you are missing some delightful expressions of irritation and longing. Take, for example, the bile demon to the left. Observe how his beady yellow eyes water as they stare at the delicious cake, so close and yet forbidden and unattainable. Relish the sight of him chewing his lower lip bloody in order to distract himself from his famished desire.” The bearded imp moved his extended index finger to the right. “Witness his partner, whose tongue is hanging down onto his bulbous, swollen belly! Enjoy the twitching of his facial muscles as his fear of you wars with his hunger!” The butler pointed at the third figure, covered entirely with black, angular armour. “Now, imagine the disgusting feeling of standing between those other two while their drool pools on the ground and your armour is not waterproof!”
Mukrezar took a closer look. “That is mildly amusing,” he admitted. “However, that puddle is going to touch the tracks soon. I don’t want them to rust.”
The butler blinked and followed the steel tracks leading from the oven to the cake and further ahead with his eyes. “You could charge them for a replacement, Master!” he suggested.
Mukrezar smirked. “I think I’ll make them go away instead.” He disappeared from his perch. To his satisfaction, all three of his visitors visibly flinched when he appeared in the air before them, piercing them with his crimson gaze. “Speak. What do you want?”
“G-great Keeper Mukrezar,” the dark knight began, his shaking voice sounding tinny through his helmet. We are the official delegation from-“
“Why aren’t you kneeling yet?” the Keeper interrupted him with a sneer.
“Ah- of course. Please excuse our impertinence!” the knight said quickly. His knees hit the wet ground with a metallic splash.
To Mukrezar’s great pleasure, the bile demons exchanged confused and dismayed looks. Without legs, they had obvious trouble following the implied command. In the end, they let themselves roll forward, prostrating themselves before him.
“I guess that will have to suffice,” The red-eyed elf said in a long-suffering tone. He fell silent and let his visitors stay in their uncomfortable positions until he got bored. “Rise. Why does the city of Nightsewers send me three expendable envoys?”
“Well, this is about your recent purchases, your Greatness,” the dark knight began. His gauntlets made odd clinking noises as he wrung his hands.
“Oh? I hope, for your sake, that there is nothing wrong with them. I paid an exorbitant amount of gold, as you are obviously aware of.”
“N-no! No, there’s nothing wrong with the goods. Of course not. But, well, the price you offered was perhaps too high, and therefore-”
“You are here to return my money?” Mukrezar asked, just to be difficult. Making people squirm never got old.
“That- would be accurate if one looks at it from a certain angle. You see, your prices made our citizens a tiny bit too greedy, so nobody paid attention to what the others were doing, and now-”
“The granaries are empty? The larders contain only moths? Even the rats go hungry?” The butler asked in a singsong voice as he arrived and took up position behind his master. It earned him surprised looks and glares from the delegation.
“Shush. I'm sure that isn't the case, even if my purchases had somehow cleaned out the existing stocks. After all, they have enough gold now to resupply from their usual sources.”
“Err, about that,” the bile demon to the left growled, “our usual source would be Keeper Dantieu, whom you are currently besieging. Would you perhaps be willing to let us pass through the portal and...”
Mukrezar shot the fat creature a flat look that caused his hopeful words to get stuck in his throat, where they died with a croak.
“No, didn't think so, either,” the demon said after a moment, shaking his head and rattling the morning stars attached to his horns.
“Nothing personal, but I'm afraid I'm unwilling to let anything or anyone through to my dear, former minion who cowardly neglected to assist his Master when he was stuck on the Avatar Islands with no gold.” Mukrezar said with an insincere smile. “Operational security, you understand. You'll just have to raid the surface yourself, I'm afraid.”
“Master, the troops of Keeper Jalnor applied scorched earth tactics here when the surfacer forces drove them back,” the reproachful voice of the butler intruded. “I did include that detail in my report on his recent demise!”
“Indeed? What an unfortunate coincidence. I suppose that means you want to buy some of your food back?” he asked, addressing the delegation.
The knight nodded. He was probably grimacing underneath his helmet. “Warchief Molound has authorised me to pay what you paid for it and more, so-”
“But your Darkness, I haven't even-”
“Nope. I need it all for myself. Getting those cakes just right takes a huge amount of ingredients and experimentation, you know.”
“But we need food too!” the left bile demon blurted out. His stomach growled, as if to underline the urgency of the request.
“Your lack of foresight is hardly my fault!” Mukrezar declared, waving one hand dismissively. His glowing eyes narrowed. “I didn't force you to sell.” He hadn't needed to. Their greed had done that for him quite masterfully.
“Building your dungeon here in the Underworld is extremely irregular,” the other bile demon tried a different angle, unable to tear his gaze away from the almost-finished cake. “The priests won't be happy if you turn against the Underworld and cause its denizens to starve!”
“When are they ever happy?” The elf asked rhetorically. He landed, crossed his hands behind his back and started walking up and down. “Now, don't you worry. What reason could I possibly have to turn against a city such as Nightsewers? Why, I have fond memories of its scummy pits and stinky fissures as source of the finest bile demons in the land!”
His two red-skinned visitors started smiling in polite confusion at the compliment.
“Of course, that was a while back,” Mukrezar continued. “Now what were we talking about? Ah, right, imminent starvation. Oh, yes, I’m intimately familiar with starvation. Personally. Very sad story. Here I am, having destroyed the Champion of the Light. My power is unmatched, my forces are innumerable, and the Avatar Islands have been stripped bare to build up my unstoppable armies. My forces are ready to pour forth into the rest of the world and make it mine! Except,” his expression darkened, “I find out that all portals leading out of my domain have been mysteriously blocked from the outside. At the same time.”
In sharp contrast to the Keeper's expression, his voice remained cheerful. It only got a bit louder when the rattling of the knight shaking in his armour threatened to drown it out.
“Mysterious. And synchronous. Mysteriously synchronous. Now, do you know who has both the necessary maps to do this, and also the means to reach those portals?” Mukrezar stopped pacing and whirled around to stare at his guests. “If you guessed 'the Underworld cities' - then you guessed right!” His eyebrows crept up into his pink mane as he wriggled them. “A suspicious mind would be forced to draw certain conclusions.”
The bile demons, being somewhat slower on the uptake than their metal-clad companion, started paling all over their rounded bodies.
“But never mind that some envious, terrified worms have treacherously ruined my bid for world domination. I'm not bitter!” He leaned in closer. “I'm not bitter at all, because I know the story will have a happy end. For me, that is. For them... well, let's just say that the end will be suitable terrible and leave it at that. It's a cheerful thought, isn't it?”
His guests didn't seem inclined to agree. They were all trying to hide behind each other while also attempting to appear as if they weren't moving at all. As a result, the whole group was slowly inching in the general direction of the exit. The sickly smiles on their faces trembled the more Mukrezar's grin widened.
“I'm afraid I won't be selling you any food. Unless...” he made a show of looking thoughtful. “Well, I'm not an unreasonable man. Pragmatism can sometimes make me forget transgressions that I would be otherwise be disinclined to overlook,” he said. “If a city would, for example, recognise me as its complete and absolute ruler, it would make itself indispensable enough for me to consider lending some aid.”
“Now wait just a moment!” The bile demon to the right snorted, having somehow recovered his courage. He pulled himself straight, the muscles in his arm bulging underneath his leathery skin. “This is outrageous! You can't do this! The protection pacts between cities will kick in, and then you are finished!”
“Only if I actually attacked you,” Mukrezar looked at his fingernails, bored. “If some city was to request my protection on its own, however, there would be absolutely no reason for the others to intervene.”
The other bile demon, perhaps emboldened by the fact that nothing horrible had happened to his companion, crossed his arms. “As if that would ever happen.”
“Is that so? Well, I guess I'll just be over here then, eating cake.” Mukrezar turned his back to the delegation to admire the object in question. “By the way, you have heard that the Avatar was seen in the Underworld recently, right?”
“What does that have to do with anything?” the knight asked, his voice uncertain.
“I'm sure it's of no concern to you. It hardly ever happens. He only does that when he's looking for something.”
“Such as you, Master?” Mukrezar's servant piped up.
The Keeper's face brightened. “Why, yes, I believe you may be right.” He turned to smile straight at the knight. “How unfortunate for you that your city seems to be blocking the way to my dungeon.”
“Err, um, w-we could just let him pass?”
“Priests.” Mukrezar said. More wasn't required to point out the stupidity of that suggestion.
The other man's shoulders slumped in defeat. “I- right. We will inform the warlord of your dema-”
“Generous offer,” Mukrezar corrected.
“-of your generous offer. By your leave, your Darkness?”
Mukrezar nodded once, regally. “I am glad you are seeing things my way now. Oh, and would you like some cake?” With one hand, he indicated the well-decorated towering mass behind him.
The bile demons stopped bowing and looked at him with wide eyes. “Seriously?”
“Would I have made the offer if I didn't mean it? Enjoy.”
After a moment of stunned disbelief, the voracious demons stormed forwards with eager expressions on their wide-mouthed faces and more bounce than usual in their hops.
“It may very well be your last meal,” the butler giggled, rubbing his hands.
The bile demons froze and turned around to stare at him with wide eyes.
“Since your city is out of food and all that,” Mukrezar explained calmly. “No, really, go ahead.”
More hesitantly than before, the demons dragged themselves forward.
”It's not like it's poisoned or anything,” the imp added helpfully.
The rotund demons stopped again and exchanged nervous looks.
“Come on now. It's not going to kill you.”
The braver of the two demons slowly extended an arm toward the heavenly-smelling wall of sugary goodness.
“Quickly.” The suit-wearing imp added in a stage whisper.
The arm froze.
“I baked it myself. My culinary skills are held in high esteem,” Mukrezar added, crossing his arms.
“Especially in the torture chambaarghh!” Lifted by an unseen force, the butler hurtled through the air in a high arc that carried him over the cake and out of sight. An instant later, a thud followed by sizzling noises came from the direction of the oven, accompanied by more pained screams.
“Well?” Mukrezar raised an eyebrow at the bile demon whose extended arm still hadn't touched the cake.
“Actually, I-I'm not r-really hungry,” the first bile demon said, slowly lowering the limb.
“Y-yeah, me neither,” the second agreed. “Thank you for the offer, but we should really get going now!”
Slowly, but getting faster and faster as they got closer to the exit, the two fled. Their knightly companion was nowhere in sight.
Mukrezar stood in silence as he watched them leave. As the regular thumping noises of their hops grew fainter in the distance, he shook his head. “Imagine that. Bile demons declining an offer of food.” He shrugged his shoulders, and a tablet with a large piece of cake appeared before him. “Weird.” Layers of various colours glittered moistly as he raised the slice to his mouth and took a big bite. His chewing motions gradually slowed until they ceased completely, and tiny tears started glittering at the corner's of the Keeper's red-glowing eyes.
“Oh, Master,” the sooty form of his butler said as he came walking around the cake-bearing platform. He patted his beard to extinguish some smouldering hairs and shook his head sadly when he saw the elf's pained expression. “You never learn.”
Side by side, Ami and her new sister walked toward the young Keeper's study, casting long shadows on the engraved corridor walls. The outline of a sailor collar, ribbons, and a tiny skirt broke up the shorter silhouette sliding across the white stone. The taller shadow, however, was a disturbingly accurate representation of the female form.
"The part about me being drunk was bad enough! You didn't have to demonstrate, too!" Ami complained.
“Just be glad I didn't show off the original version.” Tiger snickered. “That would have been a laugh!”
Ami felt mortified even thinking about that possibility. “I had nothing to do with that one! And change back to normal already!”
Tiger continued on as if she hadn't heard her. “Or I could have mentioned the leather, and the reason for it. What would mother think if she knew you had a spell like that?”
“It was for science! I had to verify!” Ami insisted, raising her voice. Inwardly, she wondered if it would be terribly immature of her if Tiger suddenly found herself taking a bath in the ocean outside. She was already dressed for the occasion, after all.
“Not going to fly. I got your memories, remember?” Tiger grinned and tapped her forehead with her index finger.
Ami hung her head, recognising an argument she couldn't win.
“Then there's your little crush on Jadeite, of course,” Tiger continued, causing Ami to clench her teeth. “Maybe if you dressed like this more often,” she rapped her knuckles against her metal bra, making soft pinging noises, “you'd have an easier time catching his eye. Though I suppose the unmodified variant would be even more-"
"Stop it!" Ami shouted, hiding her mouth behind her fists. Underneath her fingers, she could feel her cheeks heat up. The worst part was that the suggestion mirrored trains of thought that had gone through her mind in some unguarded moments. Her lack of progress with Jadeite was becoming rather frustrating. Fortunately, she was saved from having to continue the awkward conversation when the door to a side passage flew open with a bang.
"Mercury! There you are!" Cathy stormed in, a deep frown on her face. “I need your help!”
Ami stopped walking and looked up at the tall woman with surprise. "Has something happened, Cathy?" She started preparing herself mentally to hear about the latest catastrophe.
"Those warlocks are driving me crazy!”
“The ones from your experiment?” Ami asked, wondering where this was going.
“Experiment?” Tiger asked, drawing the blonde's attention to herself.
The swordswoman raised an eyebrow when she noticed the striped youma's attire, but didn't react otherwise. “We are testing whether or not an increase in physical fitness entails a corresponding increase in magical power,” she explained.
Tiger blinked and then laughed. “In other words, you are forcing those scrawny nerds get some exercise?”
“Yes! Or at least, that's what I would be doing if I could actually find those sneaky bastards!” She let out a growl of frustration and threw her hands up in the air. “I can't even get them to finish a single lap before all of them have turned invisible and run off to who-knows-where!" She glared at Tiger, who had started snickering. "It's not funny!”
Ami smiled, relieved that nothing worse was going on. “I believe I will be able to locate them for you, she said. Focusing inward, she requested the location of her magic users from the dungeon heart. "Ah, over there." Her crimson eyes flew open wide in alarm. "What are they doing?"
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