The pillar of blue flame around Abbot Durval fell away like a sheet of water, granting him a first glimpse at his new environment. It was hot and bright, contrary to what he had come to expect from the typical dark and damp dungeon. His heart started beating faster when he took in the five figures standing in a row before him, and his grip on his wooden staff tightened. He could only make out their dark silhouettes against the white backdrop, because spots were dancing in front of his eyes from the brightness of the harmless fire he had been immersed in. He thought himself lucky that nothing worse had happened, giving that the obviously inexperienced caster had needed two attempts to get the spell right.
“Welcome to my realm, Abbot Durval,” the central and shortest figure greeted him.
Durval hadn't expected to come face to face with the dark empress so soon, and he suppressed the reflex to take a step back. By now, he was able to discern the bright red glow in her eyes. “Empress Mercury.” He inclined his head. Empress or not, he was not going to kneel before a Keeper. An insane act of defiance, perhaps, but he had lived a long life resisting and defying Keepers, and he wasn't going to stop in his old age. To his relief, Mercury did not seem to take offence. He inspected the girl in front of him closer. Aside from her uniform and the much brighter glow in her eyes, she didn't look much different from when she had infiltrated the force assaulting Arachne's dungeon. She seemed perhaps a bit paler and a fitter than before, too. He hadn't been able to get a good enough look at her back then to tell whether or not she had grown in the meantime. The continued presence of her old tiara on her forehead puzzled him. If she had gone through all that effort to seize the title of Empress, then why wasn't she wearing the proper regalia?
“This is general Jadeite,” Mercury introduced the curly-haired man standing to her right, interrupting his musings.
“We have met,” Durval said neutrally. He'd be hard-pressed to forget the warlock who had single-handedly kidnapped Baron Leopold. The experience may have been colouring the abbot's perceptions, but to him, the man in the strange uniform seemed more dangerous than the empress herself. In comparison, the blonde woman standing to the blue-haired girl's left didn't quite manage to instil the same uneasiness, despite being taller than Jadeite and clad in a menacing suit of black armour. It took the abbot a moment to recognise her as the unremarkable mercenary who had been accompanying Mercury. If not for the vertical scar on her right cheek, he might not have remembered her at all.
“Cathy, the commander of my local troops,” the empress introduced the swordswoman, who smiled briefly in the abbot's direction. “Perhaps you still remember Snyder too?”
Durval spared a glance in the direction of the portly man in red and white robes. “Acolyte Snyder,” he greeted him, not bothering to hide his sneer. “I hope you have served the Empress just as well as you have served your instructors.”
The short redhead winced at that, and the awkward smile on his face wavered.
“Oh, his skills have grown to be almost half as good as his opinion of them,” commented the being about whom the holy man was most curious. She strongly resembled Mercury, but was taller, curvier, and more muscular than the teenage Keeper. Tiny horns and black stripes on her skin identified her as a creature with some kind of demonic origin.
“And finally, my sister Tiger,” the empress finished her introduction, with perhaps a hint of exasperation in her voice.
“Sister?” Inwardly, Durval groaned. Light, there's another one. So much for Dumat's summoning plan.
“Is the resemblance so hard to see?” A distortion that reminded him of heat haze surrounded the creature for an instant, and then all traces of her inhuman heritage were gone. The abbot blinked in surprise at the woman, who now looked like Mercury's older twin. His gaze went back to the young empress. Hmm. Maybe I was wrong about the chances of the summoning plan, after all.
“I'm really happy you agreed to come here,” Mercury said, still smiling. “I assure you that you have nothing to fear from me.”
“I'm glad to hear that,” Durval said drily. Since the girl had been speaking the truth, as far as he could detect it, he felt rather relieved. Now he'd at least be able to rest easily at night, provided the headache he'd get from using the Judge's Eye gift would let him.
“I will have some imps take your luggage to your quarters, if that is all right with you,” Empress Mercury continued, pointing at the large bag resting near the old man's feet. “Your will be lodged in the embassy building until I officially turn it over to the Shining Concord Empire.”
“You call that a building?” Tiger mocked. “I call it a glorified construction site!”
“A few rooms are habitable,” the dark empress replied. “Ambassador Camilla has not complained yet. You may even run into her, Abbot. She is easily recognisable, being the only fairy in the area.”
Durval was too surprised about the news that both empires had established successful diplomatic contact to protest about his living arrangements, not that he found any fault with them.
“If the room isn't to your liking, then I apologise,” the black-clad girl said, “but it's currently the safest place for you. Most of my employees will not take kindly to a priest of the Light in good standing.”
“Present company excluded?” the abbot asked. He glanced curiously at Jadeite and the demonic woman, wondering how they'd react. He could defend himself against most common threats, but those two were decidedly uncommon.
“Yes, my advisers here, as well as Jered, are well aware that I have no interest in furthering the cause of evil,” the teenager said firmly.
Surprisingly enough, she wasn't lying. Her words more or less confirmed the Light gods' briefing on her, though They had cautioned him that she had converted to the worship of a dark god since the last time They had been in her head. “In that case, I have a warning to you from the Light.”
Mercury's eyes widened, and her stance became more guarded. “Yes?”
“I am supposed to tell you that your old enemy, the Dark Kingdom, has found a way here.” Message delivered, he had the dubious pleasure of seeing the Dark Empress, defeater of the Avatar, go white as a sheet.
Youma Kaliki kept her eyes straight on Kunzite's cape as she stayed behind him. The garment waved slightly while he walked, but was otherwise completely ordinary. In Kaliki's opinion, this made it vastly preferable to the group's current surroundings. Tunnels shouldn't shift and writhe with every step. They shouldn't criss-cross and branch with no discernible pattern. Most of all, their walls shouldn't be made of some cloud-like grey stuff that never seemed to hold entirely still. She wondered how the mist-like material could even provide enough resistance for the dark general to step on, since it seemed no more substantial than fog. His boots never sank in deeper than a hand's width, though. Regardless, she would continue hovering, thank you very much.
“Don't wander off the path!” the white-haired figure in front of her barked. “That means you, Zandu!”
Kaliki risked a look and saw that a greenish youma covered in metal discs had moved ahead, demonstrating either initiative or insufficient respect for the dangers of this odd environment. She also noted that the grey tunnel walls had turned into an equally grey sky that extended in all directions, including below. When had that happened? A brief glance down told her that the group was still moving on a free-floating band of cloud stuff.
“General Kunzite, we can take a shortcut!” Zandu responded to the reprimand. She gestured ahead into the wide expanse, where the narrow path meandered and curved pointlessly. “If we jump down there,” she indicated a section of the path that was passing underneath them, having looped back, “then we can avoid that entire convoluted mess!”
“No. We stay on the path.” Kunzite didn't even look up from the blood-red gem in his hand that pulsed from within in regular intervals. He was considered the Dark Kingdom's foremost expert on the chaotic space between dimensions, even if he had much more experience sending things here than actually navigating the place.
Nevertheless, Kaliki felt inclined to do exactly what he said while she was here.
“Fine. I'll be waiting for you.” Zandu proved that she was too stupid to live by doing exactly what she had suggested, namely jumping off the edge of the path. She hadn't even moved more than a metre before her form distorted and bent like a pretzel and from sight.
Of the half dozen remaining youma, only one didn't stand and gasp. The creature clicked the spider mandibles she had for ears and thrust one of her six brown-furred arm forwards. A line of white web shot towards where Zandu had disappeared. Instead of cutting through the air in a straight line, it performed the same contortions as Zandu had, and then the far end faded from sight. The youma kept a grip on her rope, which went taut after a few seconds. She quickly started reeling in her catch.
Zandu reappeared in a sickening inversion of the previous distortion, looking physically intact as she hit the ground.
“Quick thinking, Ilanko,” Kunzite congratulated the spider youma. He glanced over at the groaning heap sprawled out on the wafting floor. “Get that fool up and resume walking,” he ordered. “No more breaking formation!”
Being at the front of the group, Kaliki was one of the helpers who pulled the dazed Zandu to her feet and supported her as she stumbled back to her spot. Curious, she took the opportunity to ask “What happened? What did you see?”
“The inside of my eyes,” the metal-covered youma muttered, still out of it.
Right. Why again had she thought asking would be a good idea? She really should have known better. No, she was going to go back to staring at Kunzite's cape and ignoring everything else. That would be much healthier for her sanity.
“Hey, is it just me, or is it getting brighter here?” Someone in the group asked loudly.
I'm not looking, Kaliki thought, stubbornly keeping her gaze on the cloth covering Kunzite's back. Even so, she had to agree that the light reflecting off the white cloth was slowly getting uncomfortably intense.
Kunzite raised his right arm, motioning for the strike force to stop. “Something isn't right,” he muttered as he searched his surroundings with narrowed eyes.
“This is far enough,” a voice came from no distinguishable source. It was impossible to tell whether the speaker was male or female.
“Who are you? Show yourself!” Kunzite demanded. An orb of darkness appeared in his free hand.
Kaliki couldn't ignore the dark general preparing for battle, no matter how much she wanted to. She extended claws from her fingers. To her right, a red-skinned youma to her left summoned a fiery aura, and another to her left drew a sword with a glass-like blade.
The unseen voice didn't hesitate to respond to Kunzite's challenge. “As you wish.”
Not far ahead of the group, golden globs appeared in mid-air, quivering like bubbles ascending through water. They gathered into a column, which coalesced into a softly-glowing figure that could have passed as human, if not for the white, feathery wings protruding from its back.
Kaliki couldn't tell if the strange visuals were a teleportation side effect or if they resulted from the being simply moving through the senseless geometry of this place.
The man – a look at his bare chest revealed what his voice could not – spoke again. “The guardians of the world you seek object to your presence. Begone.”
“Who are you that you presume commanding me?” The black orb in Kunzite's left crackled as the dark general glared at the apparition.
“I am but a humble servant of the Light,” the angelic figure replied. He didn't draw the sword hanging from his belt, even though the youma were fanning out to flank him. Perhaps he was trusting in the narrowness of the path to foil their manoeuvre. “I will not allow you to pass.”
“How do you intend to stop us? Fight? You are heavily outnumbered.” Kunzite didn't look as if he was even considering backing down. He would have had to justify that decision to Queen Beryl, after all.
“Violence is not necessary where obfuscation and obstruction will work just as well,” the man spoke. His outline wavered, and for an instant, he seemed to be nothing more than a hole in space through which an unbearably bright glare poured in.
Kaliki reflexively averted her eyes and muttered a curse. While blinded, she could hear similar pained protests from all around her, and even Kunzite let out an angry grunt. When her eyes recovered from the brightness, she risked another glance and immediately regretted it.
The winged figure had disappeared without a trace, and so had the path. Now, the force from the Dark Kingdom was drifting in an enormous grey expanse with no visible features.
Kaliki missed the familiar grip of gravity that had, up to now, always been there to help her discern up from down. Not that those concepts made any difference in this vast emptiness. She looked to Kunzite for a clue about what to do.
The dark general was scowling at the gem in his right hand and waving the other over it with circular motions. Aside from his scowl deepening, nothing seemed to change. The stone remained inert, not pulsing even once. “Darkness!” he cursed. “That winged interloper has somehow disrupted our tracking signal!”
Kaliki was much more concerned about the path back, which had disappeared along with everything else. She didn't want to be lost in this strange and inhospitable place forever!
“We weren't too far from our target,” the dark general pondered out loud, visibly calming himself as he brushed one hand through his white hair. “We could find the rest of the way on our own. Ilanko!”
“Yes, Lord Kunzite?” The multi-armed youma floated closer to him.
“Attach strings to the others and extend them as necessary. You others,” he addressed the remaining youma, “move out in random directions and pull on your string if you find something interesting!”
What, go out into this world that doesn't make sense all alone? Kaliki's thoughts raced as she tried to find a way to weasel out of this. “Lord Kunzite, wait!” she called out. “What if we are currently drifting away from our target without even noticing? We can't tell in an environment like this!” She gestured outwards at the lead-coloured blankness spreading in every direction. “Without correcting for that, we could be searching for all eternity!”
Kunzite looked at her, his eyes calculating. “You raise a very good point. We will need a static point of reference.” He moved his right arm to the side, brushing his cape aside. With a flick of his fingers, he called a black ellipse into existence that was a bit taller than he was. “Return to the Dark Kingdom and ask Zoisite to open a portal to my location!”
“Immediately!” Kaliki saluted, cheering inwardly as she approached the gate to safety.
“After that, inform Queen Beryl about this complication.”
The youma's success suddenly tasted like ashes.
Camilla could scarcely believe it, but being the Ambassador to a monster-filled wasteland ruled by the most terrifying Keeper of her generation was turning out to be quite boring in practice. Mind-numbingly so. Her problem was that she hadn't been given any actual duties. She had already tried to compose a message home, but aborted the attempt. How did one diplomatically ask if the traditional architecture used by almost all of the high-ranking government officials was secretly evil? She missed her sisters. They would have known what to do.
The fairy decided that brooding in her living room wasn't going to alleviate her boredom, and headed to the entrance hall. There, she picked a raincoat from the massive wardrobe blocking the front door. Immediately after arriving here, the slight fairy had taken almost a quarter of an hour to painstakingly slide the heavy piece of furniture in front of the doorway. The peace of mind she had gained from the knowledge that no evil creature could simply sneak into her home had been well worth the effort. For a short while, anyway. She hadn't been happy when she found out that her quarters were far from finished, and that her dining room was missing two exterior walls.
She pulled the raincoat's hood over her head and left through the gaping hole, stepping out into the construction site. Immediately, strong winds tore at her, threatening to throw her into the deep pits that were beginning to fill with muddy ash and rainwater. She darted toward the narrow entrance to the dungeon, avoiding the worst puddles and keeping her head low to keep the heavy raindrops from striking her face. “Hey! Open up already! It's cold and wet out here!” She called as she hammered with her fists against the block of massive steel that pretended to be a portcullis.
"Who's there?" An unseen guard called from within.
“Ambassador Camilla! Who else? Nobody but me lives out here! Hurry up, it's wet and cold out here!”
“All right, all right.”
With a metallic grinding noise that was audible even over the rumbling of the thunderstorm, the gate started to lift.
Camilla darted inside as soon as the metal block had risen high enough for her to get through. Once inside, she removed her hood so that the guards on the other side of a narrow window could see her face.
"It's her," an orc in fancier armour than the others declared, and the second portcullis opened to let the fairy enter the dungeon.
Camilla started exploring with no particular destination in mind. At one intersection, the spherical amulet around her neck heated up rapidly, informing her that she had approached a location that was forbidden to her. She quickly picked a different passage, since she had no intention of falling victim to the dungeon's traps. She also didn't want the amulet to turn her into a turtle for entering an area that was off limits, even if she wasn't entirely sure whether or not the dark empress had been joking about that particular function. As she walked, she passed an open door, hesitated, and backtracked. That room had looked disturbingly like a classroom.
A closer look told her that the small creatures at the desks weren't children, but a mix of goblins and imps. In front of the class, a pink-skinned troll sat half-asleep at a larger desk and observed the creatures through half-closed eyelids. Camilla blinked. The huge-nosed pink creature with a tiny forehead even bore a striking resemblance to her old magic teacher, she thought uncharitably. Well, she had been bored, so she might as well investigate. Her ambassador status should protect her well enough. She stepped into the room and addressed the orc. “Hey, you!”
With a startled grunt, the heavily-built monster sat upright, taking his feet off the desk in the process. “I'm working! I'm working!” Then he took a closer look at his visitor, and his apologetic expression turned into a scowl. “Oh. You aren't anyone important.”
“I'm important enough to speak with the Empress on a regular basis!” Camilla retorted, embellishing the truth somewhat. It was something she could reasonably expect for the future, anyway, given the usual duties of an ambassador. Joy. “Now, what's going on here?”
Well, that explained the lack of actual teaching taking place.“What kind of test?”
“So, you are testing imps.” Camilla pointed at a big-eyed creature who was frowning as she tried to stuff a square block into a triangular hole.
“And goblins.” The fairy indicated a helmeted greenskin who looked at his exam sheet in confusion, unsure how to continue after eating his pen.
The blonde fairy looked back at the students and thought about that. Nope, still didn't make any sense. “Why?”
The orc shrugged. “Her Majesty told me to.”
“Well, one can't argue with that. Don't you have any idea why she'd want you to do that, though?”
The orc sounded unsure for the first time. “Because the first two tests were inconclusive?”
“First test, imps got a perfect score. Goblins did as well as you'd expect.”
Camilla frowned. “So how is that an inconclusive result?”
“Her Majesty was looking at the questions at the time.”
“I see.” She didn't entirely, but figured that it was some weird Keeper thing. “And the second try?”
“Imps got nothing, goblins did same as before.”
“Sounds pretty conclusive to me,” the young fairy stated.
“Turns out all the goblins got glued to their chairs during the test,” the orc elaborated.
“I see. So the imps simply had better things to do than the test?”
Camilla watched both kinds of the small creatures struggle with their tests for a while. It didn't seem as if anyone was slacking off or sneaking around pranking the others this time around. However... “They are cheating,” she noted after a while. Neither goblins nor imps were making any great efforts to conceal their glances at each others' sheets.
“Won't that render this test inconclusive too?”
“Shouldn't you be doing something about that, then?”
“So why aren't you?”
The orc muttered something that Camilla couldn't understand, but she got the impression that his cheeks had darkened somewhat.
She approached a step. “Sorry, I didn't catch that?”
“Got glued to my chair," he admitted a bit louder than before. "Don't laugh!” He barked when the fairy started to giggle quietly. “It's not funny!”
Camilla burst into full blown laughter.
“They can be very sneaky!”
“Sorry,” the blonde managed to say between laughs. “I'm sure they can.”
“Fine, be that way,” the orc growled, crossing his well-muscled arms. An ugly and sneer appeared on his face. "You are also going to look pretty stupid soon."
Camilla stopped laughing and narrowed her eyes at him. "What do you mean?"
The orc simply pointed at an empty seat in the back and chuckled, making a sound like two rocks grinding against each other.
"Heh? When did that happen?" She was pretty sure that nothing could have sneaked past her, even when she had been laughing.
"Teleport," the pinkskin explained, and his mouth widened into an ugly grin that showed off his teeth. They weren't those of a predator, but they were still quite large.
Camilla instinctively took a step back, or at least she attempted to. She waved her arms to regain her balance when her feet refused to budge from their spot. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me!" she complained as she tried to tear herself loose. Behind her, she could hear an imp giggle in a high-pitched voice. She was starting to see why Anise hated the wicked little things. "You could have warned me!" she accused the orc.
"Yep." He was looking insufferably smug now.
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