Three arguing warlocks stood around a waist-high pedestal covered in schematics. One kept tapping the blackboard behind him with his index finger, smearing the scrawled runes on it in the process. The other held up an open book like a ward against ignorance, pointing at a certain passage. While the two shouted at each other, the third covered his forehead with one palm while glaring at the wax dripping onto his notes from a toppled candelabra.
Undisturbed by the heated argument taking place behind a spell of silence, other dark magicians continued with their own work. Some leaned over instruments made of lenses, twisted wires, and glass to examine glowing sparks trapped within, others carved wards or took notes. The largest group had gathered in a half-circle at the centre of the room, their backs forming a wall of mismatched robes in all colours of the rainbow.
All work came to a sudden stop when a flash of icy blue lit up the chamber, reflecting off the scorch-marked steel plates that covered one wall of the laboratory.
A short, blue-haired figure stepped out of a swirl of snowflakes, her crimson eyes narrowed into blazing slits.“Torian! What is the meaning of this?”
Startled, the black-bearded warlock winced and whirled around to look at Ami. His panicked expression disappeared behind a smile so quickly that it was hardly noticeable, and he bowed deeply. “Your Imperial Highness, what a honour to-”
“I had given you explicit orders not to bring that thing into my dungeon!” Ami accused, pointing at the three-pronged staff of spiralling bone that stood in the centre of the room, its bottom end jabbed into a block of rock. She was angry and she didn't bother to hide it.
Torian suddenly found himself alone as the other warlocks scattered like a flock of frightened chickens. “Well, err, please forgive me if I may sound insolent, but I did not go against your orders,” he defended himself. Beads of sweat were glittering on his pale forehead. “It is not the same staff!”
Ami kept staring at him. In her opinion, that didn't change the situation much, even if it should be true. Until proven otherwise, she would assume that battle staves of Calarine were dangerous. However, she wasn't only worried about Crowned Death being able to use the artefact to inflict harm on her or her dungeon. Torian had also blatantly circumvented the spirit of her rules while adhering to their words. The creatures under her command starting to challenge her authority was a nightmare scenario. It would force her to re-establish discipline through measures that she couldn't condone. She still lacked the means to implement her plan for dealing with a situation like that in a more gentle way.
“It's the truth!” Torian continued, apparently feeling the need to fill the silence and justify himself. “We all” he spared a short glare at the other warlocks, who were attempting to look as if they had never met him, “found it when we investigated your wondrous air-faring vessels. It was not far from where you had struck down the death priest who dared board your flagship!”
Ami was fairly certain it hadn't been there when she remodelled the dirigible so that it could carry more patients, and wasn't reassured at all. “If you were so confident that you were doing nothing wrong, then why did you remodel this room into a laboratory without telling me about it?” she asked.
“That was his idea!” Torian squeaked, pointing at a warlock whose violet robes strained at the waist. “He started it as a hideout from Commander Cathy, in order to evade her thinly-disguised torture sessions and still get some work done! We simply took advantage of the additional space!” He wiped the sweat from his brow and looked at Ami, his face pale.
“I am not happy with this at all.” Ami crossed her arms and glowered at the Calarine staff, as if the force of her disapproval could make it go away. She thrust her black-gloved palms toward the artefact. “Shabon. Spray. Freezing,” she intoned slowly, giving her magic time to supply the needs of the technique.
Cheerful squeals echoed through the room as a blast of aquamarine light and bubbles shot toward the staff and encased it within a thick shell of ice.
Surprised, Ami turned her head and spotted three tied-up imps lying in the corner of the room. She hadn't even noticed them before, and scowled.
“Your Majesty, please don't!” Torian threw himself between her and the artefact and fell to his knees. “We were making progress! Fascinating progress! Nothing bad has happened any time we used it! Please have a look at the results before doing anything rash!”
Against her better judgement, Ami hesitated, her curiosity getting the better of her. What exactly were they making progress with?
Torian took the continued presence of the ice-covered staff as encouragement and jumped to his feet. “It's really quite fascinating, your Majesty,” he began eagerly. “The capacity of the staff to enhance spells seems to be unrelated to its user's capability.” With quick, determined steps he strode over the warding symbols inscribed in circles around the staff and touched the metal-reinforced back wall. His fingers stroked over a scorched depression that had been melted into the surface. “An imp did this.”
Ami considered the threads of formerly molten metal running down from the impact point like tear tracks, and made a brief mental calculation. No imp should have enough power to spare for a spell like that, meaning that the suspicious artefact would have contributed most of it. Alarmed, she activated her visor to scan for possible contamination with Crowned Death's energies. “That would contradict the established lore that the staff helps experts more than beginners,” she said thoughtfully.
“Well, some apprentice wouldn't have the skill or concentration to cast spells that require all that much power. Besides, I assume that there is some sort of mental block. They lack the experience to really understand the force at their fingertips, and therefore fail to use it. Additionally, there is a slight risk involved with using the staff.” He walked toward one of the imps and started unchaining her, more confident now. “Allow me to demonstrate.”
“You want to show me why the artefact is dangerous?” Ami's face reflected her doubt and reluctance.
“Yes, my Empress. The experiment itself should be perfectly safe, even more so now that you and your incomparable skills are here, your Majesty. There is no reason to worry. We have done this experiment before,” Torian hurried to reassure her. “It only involves a lighting and a firespark spell, nothing stronger. If your Majesty would be so kind to release the staff from its block of ice?”
“Why don't you just tell me first?” Ami asked when she saw how much the imp struggled against being pulled toward the glittering block.
“But-” Momentarily distracted by Ami's question, Torian gave the imp the opening she needed to chomp down hard on his hand. With a pained yelp, he let go and reflexively pulled the hand upwards. When he looked at it, a half-moon shaped imprint of uneven teeth marred its back. He glared at the creature who had sought shelter behind empress Mercury's legs and was making rude gestures at him. Straightening, he pulled down his gold-trimmed sleeves as he attempted to recover his dignity. “As always, you are of course right, my Empress. Especially in light of current technical difficulties.” He frowned when a mocking snicker came from the imp's direction. “Very well. First, I would have made that nasty little good-for-nothing hold the battle staff of Calarine and cast a lighting spell.”
“Wait, you managed to teach the imp a spell?” Ami asked, looking down at the helmeted servant capering behind her.
“It was a tedious process, unpleasant for everyone involved and not worth the effort, I assure you,” Torian explained, provoking a general mutter of agreement from the various other warlocks in the room. “As I was saying, I would have made it cast a lighting spell, which even an imp with its meagre reserves could manage once or twice without the staff. Then, I would have made it throw a firespark at the target,” he pointed with his thumb over his shoulder, indicating the metal-clad wall. “Normally impossible for such a pathetic and ugly creature.”
The imp let out an angry squeal and thrust her hand forward, pointing the middle of her three fingers at the unimpressed warlock. With a hiss, a greyish cloud of sulphurous smoke rose from the digit. Wobbling and panting, the coverall-clad minion stared at her fingertip, which had done nothing more than turn sooty.
“And that is pretty much the expected result without an amplifier,” Torian explained, grinning smugly at the black-eyed being. “With the staff, however, the spell would have succeeded, and succeeded very well indeed. If questioned about the difference in energy drain between the two spells, the imp would have been unable to tell which one required more. The battle staff makes casting it just that easy. Now, consider this.” Torian fished out an amulet from his deep pockets and held it up for Ami to see.
She immediately recognised the ward inlaid into the silver disc, since she had been forced to wear a similar piece of jewellery some time ago. The design stopped spellcasting by sucking the mana out of its wearer and dispersing it.
“In the next phase of the experiment, I would have put this ward on the imp and asked it to cast the lighting spell again. The result would have been a working spell, a bright flash, this,” he produced a dirty, glittering clump that Ami identified with some trouble as a molten amulet, “and a dead imp.”
“You have been killing my imps in your experiments?” Ami gasped, horrified. Just when she had decided to treat them better, too! No wonder the tired creature sitting at her side had been terrified.
Torian made a dismissive gesture with his hand and quickly continued “The important thing,” he pointed at the frozen staff, “is that this weapon compensates for the caster's limits. Enough to overcome the drain of the ward. Enough to get the spell done. No strain, no traps, no effort. No safeties. It will gleefully provide more magical energy than its user can handle. The imp would have been dead even before the slagged amulet burned itself through its flesh!”
Wincing at the mental picture, the blue-haired girl snapped “You should have cleared all of this with me before you tried it!”
“Your Imperial Majesty, please hear me out! I have not even gotten to the most interesting part yet!” Torian replied. “The artefact does something the moment its user dies!”
“So it is a trap!” Ami decided. With a wave of her hand, both ice block and weapon trapped within disappeared, causing Torian to groan. “What exactly does it do?”
The warlock's confident expression wavered slightly. “Well, we were still trying to research this, so we aren't sure yet. What we observed was actually very weak, almost as if the effect aborted before it could really get started. It's really hard to tell from the limited datam but we believe that it may be the beginning of a necromantic spell of some sort.”
Ami could believe that. This was a tool of Crowned Death's servants, after all. She wouldn't be surprised if it could raise the dead body holding the staff as an undead creature. “What did you do with the imps' corpses?”
“Incinerated them. We weren't going to take any risks,” Torian said.
“Aside from conducting this research without my knowledge,” Ami reminded him. Her thoughts still circled about what she had just learned. The staff wasn't trapped as such. It simply worked too well in some cases. This should get it through the security checks of anyone who acquired it, and it was normally only dangerous to spellcasters who were already powerful to begin with. Combine this with some kind of selective necromantic effect... It wasn't difficult for the young Keeper to imagine a scenario in which one of these artefacts was “lost” and ended up in the hands of a wizard powerful enough to kill himself with it, only to end up an undead puppet. The battle staves of Calarine were recruitment devices!
“...wouldn't have thought of it if the stupid thing hadn't stumbled and stepped on the warding circle delimiting the testing area.” Ami's chief warlock had apparently continued his report on the research approach while she had been thinking.
“I think I will have to do a few tests of my own,” the teenage empress decided. At this point, the battle staff had been used several times within her dungeon, so if something bad was going to happen, it already had. She had no excuse not to scan the thing while it went active.
Torian clapped his hands and smiled. “I am so glad that you changed your mind. Now that your Majesty is here, we can use better test subjects and-”
“Please shut up,” Ami said coldly. Better test subjects! It was a good thing she had discovered this operation when she had.
Torian flinched away from her menacing scowl and ducked his head deeper into the shelter of his high collar, not unlike a turtle withdrawing into its shell.
“For further reference,” Ami elaborated in a voice like ice, “You will not use any living subjects in your experiments without clearing it with me first!” She let her gaze wander over the assembled warlocks. “That concerns all of you, as well as any of your colleagues who are not currently here, or who I may hire in the future. No exceptions! Is that understood?”
“Yes, your Majesty,” the chorus of cowed warlocks answered her.
Ami took a few calming breaths while the magic users watched her in silence, looking both puzzled and intimidated. “Now then, I have a test to conduct.” The hardened line of her mouth relaxed into a reassuring smile as she looked at the imp at her feet.
The creature let out a frightened whine as she instantly understood what the young Keeper wanted from her.
“Don't worry, there won't be any amulets involved,” Ami told her.
Not reassured, the imp hung her shoulders and shuffled to the position that Torian had attempted to drag her towards earlier, looking back over her shoulder several times. Once she stood in the centre of the chalk-marked circle on the ground, she raised her arms into the air to catch the staff with her upwards-turned hands. Her fist-sized eyes went even wider when instead, a block of ice appeared in the air a few steps to her left, crashed to the ground, and shattered. Muttering, she moved to pick the spiralling bone staff out of the heap of ice shards. The child-sized creature almost fell over as she levelled the weapon and swung it in Torian's direction.
The chief warlock quickly darted behind one of the telescope-like instruments pointed directly at the chalk circle.
“None of that,” Ami chided. Her field of vision was already tinted bluish by the visor covering her eyes, and she pulled out her computer to fine-tune the settings of her sensors. “Now, let's have a closer look at this. The lighting spell, please.”
The imp stopped grimacing at Torian and thrust the staff high in the air. A sickly green orb appeared over its three prongs, outshining the candles arranged haphazardly around the room.
On the Mercury computer's display, the battle staff of Calarine lit up like a sun, and she hurriedly tuned down the sensitivity of her sensors. With new respect for the amount of energy stored in the deceptively slender weapon, she almost instinctively weaved a shield spell around herself. All around the room, she heard the warlocks hurriedly take cover or edge away further.
The imp simply looked at her with a resigned expression.
“Please repeat the spell,” Ami encouraged as she concentrated on the readout.
This time, she could make out the complex patterns travelling through the carved bone spirals. There, that had to be the spell conducted through the staff. Here, energy flowing into the imp. There were many other things going on at each end, which she assumed was the power contained within the artefact being harmonised with that of its wielder. Very complex. One of those patterns could be a diagnostics spell, perhaps. Ami blinked when she spotted one particular variable. “Again, please?”
Another green flash. As before, there was a bright pulse around the staff, followed by energy travelling up and down, followed by sparkles at both ends of the weapon's layers.
Ami frowned. “Again.”
Flash. Pulse. Flowing magic.
Another green flash. No difference in the readout.
Ami started typing furiously, brows furrowed in concentration. Sure, the amount of mana contained within the staff was large and the needs of the lighting spell were low, but she should have been able to detect a small degree of depletion. Instead, any fluctuations in the staff's contents were well below the margin of error of her equipment. In other words, it was refilling its reservoir from somewhere, which was alarming. Now, how did this happen? “Firespark the metal wall,” she instructed, deep in thought.
The imp complied and pointed the weapon at the indicated target. A small dart of flame smashed into the metal and detonated, causing a gong-like sound. The room became noticeably warmer as tiny rivulets of molten metal pooled on the ground.
Ami glared at her display. Aside from a brighter initial pulse, nothing had changed. The battle staff of Calarine remained fully charged, despite the undoubtedly greater expenditure. “The light again. Try to make it weaker.” The recharge had to take place during the initial pulse that prevented her sensors from getting a proper look.
“Again, please. Weaker.” The sensors had almost been able to see through the glare this time. “Almost there. Once more, weaker still.”
This time, the glowing orb produced by the imp was barely stronger than that of an anaemic firefly.
“Good!” Ami's heart rate quickened as data flitted across her screen. That had almost looked like a tiny Underworld portal flickering into existence within the bone shaft, persisting for only an instant. She replayed the recording in slow motion. No, not a real portal, though the effect had properties of one. “Two more times, please.”
The fascinating patterns repeated exactly the same as they had before and left Ami none the wiser.
She looked at the imp, and suddenly her face brightened. Turning her head, she focused on an empty spot in the room. “I wonder...”
From one moment to the other, an imp filled the previously empty spot, appearing in the air halfway through a somersault. She landed on her feet, rested her pick on her shoulders, and looked at Ami with large, questioning black orbs.
“Yes!” Ami cheered as her computer indicated a match. “So that's what an incoming teleport looks like!” Her good mood faded as quickly as it had come. The battle staff of Calarine being able to serve as some kind of teleport beacon made her wish to get rid of it at once. Unfortunately, she had to find out something else first. “Move ten steps to the left and do the weak glowing spell again. Then move ten forward and repeat,” she instructed the imp.
The small being shrugged and waddled forward, taking the opportunity to whack one of the warlocks with her staff as she passed him.
Observing the inner workings of the active artefact again, Ami nodded softly to herself. Triangulation was possible, but not particularly accurate due to the minuscule differences she could observe after filtering out interferences and irrelevant data. Nevertheless, it should suffice. She closed her computer with a snap and looked at the warlocks, who were watching her in awe.
The imp squeaked in surprise when a huge hand made of water and ice appeared before her, ripped the battle staff from her grasp, and disappeared.
“I have ascertained that this type of weapon is too dangerous to leave within the dungeon,” Ami began, prompting sighs and disappointed groans from her audience. “Silence!” Having to play the stern tyrant didn't sit well with the teenager, but if it prevented her having to take much more unpleasant measures later, she was willing to give it a try.
Not one sound came from the assembled magicians as they waited for her next words.
Focusing inward, Ami moved a world map from elsewhere in the dungeon into her grasp. She unrolled it and marked an ocean area with a circle. “I have discerned that the staff is powered remotely from somewhere within this region. I want you to survey the area and find out from where exactly!”
“It will be done, your Majesty,” Torian said. He bowed and stepped forward to take the proffered map. “Locating something underwater will be difficult,” he cautioned.
“Nevertheless, I want the origin of the effect found. Oh, and Torian? I am deducing the gold cost of the imps you used from your pay.”
The warlock flinched. “Your Imperial Majesty, I would never question the wisdom behind your decisions, but I must point out that I was not the only one to decide on this course of action. Certainly, the others-”
“You are the chief warlock,” Ami interrupted him. From the occasional grumbling around the room, she concluded that his colleagues hadn't received his objection any better than she had. “As such, you are responsible for keeping the others in line. You failed at this.”
“Very well, your Majesty.” Torian sounded pained, and his well-groomed beard quivered as if he was chewing on something.
“In addition, all of you will attend Cathy's training sessions from now on until further notice. Unauthorised absences will have to be explained to me personally. I will not be pleased about having to take time out of my busy schedule to deal with something like that.” The young Keeper made sure to meet the eyes of each of the robed magic users as she slowly turned in a circle.
The crowd's browbeaten response of “Yes, your Majesty!” was intermingled with groans and sighs.
“That is all. She should currently be waiting for you in the training room. Get moving.”
The dark wizards shuffled toward the exit with all the speed and enthusiasm of a snail heading into a salt plain.
Ami watched the sad procession, her expression going darker and darker when the magicians invented different reasons to stall, such as properly turning off delicate apparatuses, making sure that chemicals were safely stored in their containers, and finding important notes they had dropped somewhere. After more than three minutes of this blatant testing of her tolerance, she had enough. She turned toward the imp with a mischievous smile and asked “I get the impression that those guys are not moving very quickly.”
The startled imp blinked at her, then at the group of warlocks, and nodded. Her disdainful hiss was clearly audible in the sudden, tense silence.
“Do you think they would move faster with the reaper chasing them?”
The imp squealed gleefully and hopped up and down, nodding so hard that it almost made Ami dizzy. Thus, she instead watched the group of warlocks stampeding towards the exit, cursing each other as they shoved and pushed to get through the doorway first.
Ami, wearing her best set of gold-trimmed Keeper garb, was chanting the spell that could summon one being over a long distance to her side. The echo accompanying her words wasn't caused by any kind of mystical effect and merely a consequence of the room being high and almost empty. Not even a sound-absorbing carpet covered the aquamarine floor tiles, which made sense when one considered the circle of blue flame burning on the polished floor. Only a few benches placed symmetrically along the left and right wall broke up the monotony of the place. While its emptiness had a certain simple elegance, Ami nevertheless wondered if she shouldn't be investing in some potted plants.
“Careful, Mercury!” Snyder' voice came from the left, alerting her to the fact that the summoning circle was wavering.
The teenager, her blue hair waving in the wind emanating from the fiery diagram, chided herself for letting her mind wander, and redoubled her concentration on the spell. Normally, she would have made three warlocks cast it, but she had to do it herself this time for the purpose of secrecy. Only Snyder, Jadeite, Cathy, and Tiger were present, since they would remain unsurprised by the arrival of an abbot in good standing with the Light. She would have included Jered too in the group she had assembled here to welcome the holy man, but he was away on a mission.
Tiger, who had changed into a black dress, let out a bored sigh and said “You know what I have been wondering, Snyder?” she cupped her chin in her hand and rolled her eyes upward, putting on a pensive expression. “What's the correct title for the sister of an Empress, anyway? Princess?”
“Well, yes, that would historically be the most common approach,” the redhead confirmed, glancing sideways to see if the chatter wasn't disturbing Mercury.
“That means you,” the youma thrust her index finger at Jadeite triumphantly, “have to call me 'Highness' now!”
The dark general furrowed his brow. “What? You've got to be kidding me.”
Tiger shook her head. “Last time I checked, a princess was higher than a general!” She rubbed her hands. “That means I outrank you now, and there's nothing you can do about it!”
Jadeite's fingers twitched at his side. He turned on his heel and crossed his arms as he resumed staring at the fiery circle on the ground.
“Sure he can.” Cathy lounged on one of the benches, and pretended to inspect her fingernails. Certain that she had the full attention of both the dark general and the youma, she grinned. “He could just marry the Empress.”
Ami made a choked noise, and the circle of fire before her flared up high before collapsing. “Oh no!” Covering her bright red cheeks with her hands, she watched the floating symbols wink out of existence and the counter-rotating rings of flame go out. What would the abbot waiting at the other end of the connection think, seeing the spell being botched like that? What a way to make a first impression. This was almost as embarrassing as the swordswoman's comment. “Cathy! Don't distract me like that!” Mortified, she prepared to start anew.
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