Ami stood in front of a desk, her arms steadied left and right of the crystal ball before her. The light from the glowing orb illuminated the lower parts of her worried face as she searched for any trace of potential intruders. Was the Dark Kingdom already here? Could they attack her any moment now? She considered the most likely point of entry, and immediately paid a mental visit to Metallia's temple on her iceberg. She found only Rabixtrel walking among the purplish-blue pillars, the sound of his hooves echoing loudly through the frozen caverns. With the ill-tempered horned reaper stalking the deserted halls and scaring away prospective worshippers, it was unlikely that any youma had gotten past unnoticed.
Ami tried to clear her head after the first fright by forcing her breathing to slow. Panic wouldn't help her. How could she best detect what the enemy was doing? Check what the leaders are up to! First, she had her scrying device show her queen Beryl.
The red-haired sorceress sat on her throne as usual, and her gaze almost immediately shifted toward the spot from which Ami was watching.
Ami cut the connection, having assured herself that Queen Beryl was still where she belonged. I hope I'm not expected to sit on my throne all day too as an empress, the teenager mused. I'd never get anything done.” She concentrated on Nephrite, and the dark general appeared in the crystal ball before her, wearing sunglasses and a business suit as he moved through a crowd of salary-men in a busy Tokyo street. Worrisome, but unrelated to her current fears.
Ami concentrated again, and the image in the crystal ball blurred and showed her the face of Zoisite. She bit her lips when she saw him leaning against a pillar of dark rock within a cave that wouldn't have looked out-of-place in the Underworld. Was he already here? She paid closer attention to the dark ellipse he was maintaining with one hand and with a petulant pout on his bored face. Maybe he – she flinched, and her heart skipped a beat when the dungeon heart sent her a warning. An outsider was attacking one of her creatures!
“You! Let go of that imp right now!”
“Gyah!” Camilla jumped half her own height into the air at the sound of Ami's angry voice, coming from right behind the young fairy. Fluttering her wings reflexively, the blonde managed to whirl around in mid air. Her grip slackened, and the imp she had been holding up by the collar dropped to the ground.
Ami was glad she hadn't blasted the attacker with a Shabon Spray Freezing retrieved from storage the moment her Keeper senses had informed her of the situation. If she had taken any less time to verify who she would be hurling it at... Pushing that disconcerting thought aside, she glanced briefly at the imp, who had wandered off to seek her helmet while nursing the bumps on her head. The blue-haired empress put her arms akimbo and glared at Camilla. That fairy had certainly picked the worst time to make trouble! “What do you think you are doing? Do you have any idea how close you just came to being turned into an icicle? Explain yourself!”
“I-icicle?” Paling, the blonde fairy took a step backwards and clutched her folded-up raincoat to her chest as if it was a piece of protective armour. “That imp glued me to the floor!” she defended herself, pointing to her left. Her cheeks coloured despite her pallor.
Ami stared at the pair of elegant shoes stuck to the ground somewhere in front of the first row of desks, then back at the bare-footed ambassador. She became also aware of the goblins and imps watching with rapt attention, and shook her head. “I don't have time to deal with this distraction right now,” she said in a voice dripping with exasperation. The Dark Kingdom could be gathering life energy to revive Metallia right now! “Imps! Stop it with the pranks! You!” She addressed the orc behind the teacher's desk. “Please escort the Ambassador back to her room!” Minor emergency dealt with, she teleported out to deal with the greater danger.
Camilla blinked at the whirl of snowflakes slowly drifting to the ground where Keeper Mercury had just stood, and let out a breath of relief. “That was scary!”
The imps sniggered.
Camilla ignored them and took a more dignified pose as she addressed the orc. “Shall we go, then?”
“Sure, but...” he gestured in the direction of his backside.
“Oh, right you are still glued to your chair!” Camilla chuckled nervously and snipped her fingers, letting a few sparks of magic flicker across them. “I'm not sure what spell will actually work here, but don't worry! I'm really good at healing spells!”
The orc started sweating at the sight, while the sniggering of the imps redoubled.
Leaning over her crystal ball once again, Ami searched for the last unaccounted-for dark general. When Kunzite finally appeared in the sphere, her eyebrows rose as she tried to parse the sights.
With his flowing cape and white hair, Kunzite was easily recognisable. His current occupation wasn't. For the moment, he seemed to be scolding a youma with glasses, who was holding a huge abacus and looking as if she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
A bit behind the two, the black oval of a portal hung in the formless grey void, wavering like a drop of oil on turbulent water as it slowly slid away. It passed in front of another youma with a charcoal-coloured shell, who inhaled deeply and then snorted out a thick, black column of smoke. The miasma quickly enveloped the dark general and the crowd of about a dozen other youma floating there.
Ami watched the edges of the expanding cloud fray and twist into tendril-like shapes that were too intertwined to really make sense of. Any parts of the smoke that passed the boundaries of an irregularly-shaped volume of space faded away. It didn't take the teenager long to figure out that the sooty fog was used to render the bizarre geometry of the space surrounding the Dark Kingdom expedition visible. To her, the phenomenon looked frighteningly familiar. Metallia's spell for retrieving youma from eternal sleep required navigating a similar dimension.
In the crystal ball, the youma with the abacus inspected the smoky volume for a while, during which the beads on her tool moved so fast that they were a blur. She clenched her eyes shut for a moment, rubbed her greyish temples, and then slowly raised her arm. Her index finger wavered uncertainly between two locations before settling on one.
Kunzite, his arms crossed, said something in her direction, and the youma nodded. He turned to his other troops and gave an order, prompting them all to move over to the spot that the abacus-wielder had indicated.
Ami noted that none of the youma looked very enthusiastic as they positioned themselves in a vertical grid pattern, each one connected to four others with a long rope. She wondered what they were up to when they adjusted their speed so that they were motionless relative to the portal.
Kunzite hit the assembled youma with a carefully-aimed pulse of energy, flinging them past the borders of visible space and revealing the reason for their lack of enthusiasm. He lowered his arm and waited, quietly observing the contorting strings leading to the spots where they had vanished.
After a few minutes, the first of the youma reappeared, unfolding like an origami flower as she drifted past the slackened rope she was attached to.
The white-haired general teleported to the spot where the lizard-like creature had appeared and opened a portal. He let it fade away only an instant later when a second black ellipse appeared right next to him, and nodded at a six-armed underling.
The youma, who was holding the ends of the different ropes, started reeling in all the youma who had yet to reappear.
Next, Kunzite signalled to the smoke-making youma, who started sucking air into her lungs. Apparently, he wanted to start the cycle all over again.
Ami felt it safe to assume that the entire procedure was for the purpose of navigation, though she hadn't the slightest clue how it worked. Nevertheless, she felt reassured by what she was seeing. If the Dark Kingdom had to resort to such makeshift-looking methods, then it had not managed to find a route here yet. She studied Kunzite's features, searching for any hint of boredom or lack of resolve, and found none. So much for the hope that he would get fed up with slow but steady progress and abandon the mission.
She let the crystal ball go dark and wished that it could tell her how close the enemy already was. As it stood, she couldn't even make a rough estimation about when the Dark Kingdom would arrive. The best she could do was assigning a warlock to keep an eye on their progress. In the meantime, she'd have to prepare as well. She'd have to ask Jadeite if there was a way to track and prevent Dark Kingdom portals. With three dark generals able to open them on the enemy side, she needed a way to cut off their reinforcements if she wanted to succeed.
Abbot Durval gripped the railing, the skin over his gnarled fingers whitening as he applied more pressure than necessary. “I almost wish we had taken the staircase,” he muttered as the floor boards trembled slightly and chains rattled somewhere above.
Snyder, his red-and-white robes covered by a grey coat similar to the one the abbot was hiding his gold-trimmed vestments with, smiled faintly. “Ah, actually, I am fairly certain you would be wishing the reverse if we had taken the stairs,” the redhead said. “The city is distributed over eight different floors, after all.”
Durval's muttered as an archway blocked by a grate slid downwards on the wall. “This feels like a lot more than eight floors.”
“Well, the rock layers separating each floor are fairly thick in order to accommodate sewers and maintenance tunnels,” Snyder was happy to explain. “Of course, the main reason this ascent is taking longer than normal is that we started out in the dungeon proper, below the city.”
“How regrettable.” The abbot grimaced when the moving cabin creaked louder than before. “The people here have to put up with this kind of travel regularly?”
“I assure you that this contraption is perfectly safe,” Snyder said. “Her Majesty designed it so that it gets stuck if it moves faster than a certain speed. Even if the chains should break, the elevator would not fall.”
“I'd say being stuck in a bottomless shaft is a mildly more comforting concept than falling screaming to one's death,” the abbot commented as the platform ground to a halt. Without hesitation, he pushed open the double-winged door that had appeared in the wall and fled outside. He froze, mildly taken aback by the bright illumination. Squinting, he turned in a circle and peered at his surroundings.
None of the three or four toga-clad people walking paid special attention to him, but a dark elf with Mercury's coat-of-arms on her armour stopped and looked him up and down from a distance. When Snyder stepped out of the elevator behind the abbot, she nodded slightly in the redhead's direction and disappeared into the entrance of one of the dwellings.
The building caught Durval's interest because it had glass-covered windows, one to the left and one to the right of the stone doorway. He normally wouldn't have considered this entirely practical within a cave, but the Empress' wasteful magical lights shining down from the vaulting ceiling made a good effort at simulating daylight. All in all, if the structure had been topped by a roof, rather than a stone arch that merged with the cave ceiling, it could have passed as a normal house.
“The patients whom her Majesty wants you to see are that way,” Snyder said behind him.
Durval, who had moved on to watching the few visible people – none of which seemed to be in immediate distress – spared a glance back at the acolyte. “How do you find your way around this place, anyway? All the buildings look exactly alike.” He gestured toward the four façades facing the cross-shaped plaza he was on. If it wasn't for the elevator building behind him, he would have already forgotten which way he had been turned when he first arrived here.
“Ah, right, the architecture is still rather bland. Empress Mercury has not allowed her imps to fortify the walls, since doing so would make it impossible for the inhabitants to customise the houses to their liking. Which they, unfortunately, haven't gotten around to yet. In the meantime, the maps in every plaza are fairly helpful.” Snyder stepped around the elevator building and pointed at a large design drawn onto its side.
Durval had at first taken the regular pattern for a decoration of some sort. “This is a map? It looks like a ring made of smaller rings that are in turn made of smaller rings.” Ring was not exactly the right word, since all of the shapes were formed of right angles, but that was the easiest description he could come up with.
“The smallest rings are blocks of four houses surrounding an inner backyard,” Snyder explained. “Those blocks, in turn, surround small spaces like the one we are on right now. The Empress is filling those as required, for example with fountains, stairs, or elevators like the one we are looking at.”
Durval briefly paid attention to a large counterweight rising from the depths before taking another look at the map, making use of what he had just learned. “So we would logically be in this single green-coloured space now?” “Yes, and the maps are all on the south side of buildings, so we are looking towards the north at the moment. We need to make our way over there toward the largest space in the centre,” the redhead said. “That's where the hospital is, along with the other municipal buildings.”
“Very well.” Durval fell in step behind the renegade acolyte, content for now to let him lead. With no need to find his own route, he felt free to study the details of his environment. He noted that less than half of the buildings had curtains in their windows. “How big is this city, anyway?”
“Four houses to a small block, sixteen small blocks to a ring, sixteen rings composing the central ring,” Snyder replied. “Slightly more than one thousand apartments per city floor, of which there are eight.”
“Most of her captives are children, who will not live alone,” Durval pointed out. At least he hoped that this was the case. There was no telling what a Keeper might do. “Is she planning to acquire additional residents?”
Snyder shrugged. “I am fairly certain that she isn't planning anything along those lines. If I was to guess, I would say that she simply liked the regular pattern and had imp-power to spare.” The acolyte's brown eyes darted left and right briefly. In a lower voice, he added “All that digging keeps the imps busy. They tend to get unpleasant when they have nothing to do.”
“Delightful.” Had there been a pick-wielding silhouette moving in the shadows? No, it had probably been his imagination. Durval continued onwards, only to stagger when he passed a grate, and a gust of wind tore at his clothes. He let out a displeased grunt as he leaned more heavily onto his staff.
“Oh, sorry about that. We are having slight problems with regulating the ventilation, since not all of the ducts are finished yet.”
“I'm feeling sorry for the people living here already. More sorry.” In truth, he had seen much worse settlements. Here, at least the building were all solid and not draughty, the smell of livestock was absent, and the streets were wide and well-kept. If it wasn't for the evil creatures patrolling the streets, never seeing the sunlight, the dungeon underfoot, and the landlord being a Keeper, then it might actually have been an adequate place to live.
“Now, now, we are having some difficulties, but for most people, the accommodations should be an improvement over what they had before. Each house has access to running hot and cold water, and the lair-type magic on their rooms allows the inhabitants to adapt the furniture more to their needs. Within limits, of course.”
“Ah, yes.” Snyder scratched the back of his head. “You may have noticed the unusual wrappings that most inhabitants are clad in? We lack well-made clothes and other common commodities that require skilful labour to make. There are some people who have the prerequisite skills, but little incentive to use them. Nobody here arrived with money, and there aren't many goods for bartering either.”
“The Empress could simply pay them,” Durval pointed out the obvious.
“Yes, she could, as long as those she pays would not be averse to being hired by a Keeper and considered minions by the dungeon heart. The process seems to be automatic.” He let out a sigh. “Suffice it to say, most find the prospect unpalatable. She also cannot simply give the people money, since that would make her creatures unhappy.”
“The standard Keeper response to such a dilemma would be the vigorous application of threats and violence,” the abbot pointed out. He had heard about things like that happening too often to feel at ease, even if such a course of action would be incongruous with first building a city like this.
”Mercury does not use such methods,” Snyder dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand. “We are currently looking into different options. Jered brought up the strange notion of paying the inhabitants money, but filing it as tax returns.”
“Tax... returns?” Durval struggled with the alien concept for a moment.
“Well, it involved declaring the income tax rate to be one hundred percent and services rendered to the Crown to be of a certain value, with some easily-met conditions for tax deductions, so that the state would end up owing the taxpayers money. I think.” Snyder shrugged his shoulders, looking lost as he watched Durval's expression become more and more dubious. “It seemed all rather convoluted to me. Please don't ask me to explain the details, I would not be able to. Also, the hospital is just ahead.” Snyder pointed past the receding houses at a larger hall.
“Very well. I admit that I am rather curious about seeing this strange cure for cursed wounds for myself.” Durval put his thoughts about the dark empire's strange fiscal notions aside as he prepared to see if he could help the people who needed it.
Ami transported herself to the hospital and found Durval poking a warding stone with his staff, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. Since the necromantic glyph engraved into the stone tile was designed to kill one variant of the common cold virus, his misgivings were understandable. She cleared her throat, causing the old man to whirl around, the ivory top of his staff pointing in her direction.
“Oh. Your Majesty,” he said in a deadpan tone of voice, returning the implement slowly to a more vertical position.
Ami directed a weak smile at him. “Sorry for leaving in the middle of welcoming you, but I had to react immediately to your warning.”
“Did you deal with the threat to your satisfaction?”
“Not exactly, but I am now reasonably certain that we aren't moments from being ambushed by an army of creatures roughly equivalent to dark angels,” Ami said quietly.
“Reasonably certain?” Durval repeated, both eyebrows crawling up his wrinkly forehead. Colour was quickly leaving his face.
“For the moment, they seem to be lost, so there isn't much that I can do about them directly,” Ami replied. “Now, you were investigating the eyes of some volunteers. Did you learn anything that could help cure them permanently?”
Durval frowned. “You have certainly stumbled upon a novel method for treating cursed wounds,” the abbot said. “Nevertheless, it does not do anything about the curse itself, which remains as strong and malevolent as before. I have attempted to use my healing powers on the artificial eyeballs, with undesirable results.”
“What happened?” Ami asked, looking more alert.
“Any real tissue that my spells coaxed to grow within the eyeball quickly withered and died, and I had to clear it out” the holy man stated plainly.
“Was anyone hurt?” the teenage Keeper asked, now seriously alarmed.
“No, the illusory tissue responded fine to my treatment,” the white-bearded man continued. “However, I am fairly certain that no permanent cure will be possible as long as the curse remains.”
“Oh.” Ami looked at the ground, her lips pressed together into a thin line as her loathing for Crowned Death and his servants grew. She hoped that her warlocks or Jered would return with useful intelligence soon. “What about natural regeneration?” she asked, looking up with hope in her crimson-glowing eyes.
“It is hard to tell right now, but I tend to expect the worst outcome wherever curses are concerned,” Durval said mildly.
Ami made an effort to control her emotions when she noticed that the elderly man had brought the table between himself and her, and replaced her frigid expression with a forced smile. Perhaps a change of topic was in order. “Abbot Durval, I am curious about something, but it is a somewhat personal question.” She clasped her hands in front of herself as she looked at him.
“Ask away, but I don't promise that I will answer,” the abbot said after a moment.
“Ah, you obviously have extraordinary healing powers, and yet you are walking bent and use your staff as a walking stick. I was wondering why you aren't curing your ailments.”
“There is only so much that my magic can do about the effects of old age,” Durval replied. With a slight smirk, he added “I'll have you know that I am still feeling pretty spry for someone well past his second century.”
“Second-” Ami reflexively hid her mouth behind her palm as she gaped at him. That explained a few things, except... “You serve the Light gods directly. Why don't they do something about your ageing, then?”
“The Light has stopped extending life indefinitely a long time ago, because They were only able to do so for a limited number of people. No matter whom They selected, the fact that there were only a lucky few individuals bred nothing but envy and misery. Aside from the normal jealousy, there were always those who wished to obtain one of the limited slots by any means necessary. With no new openings becoming available due to the current holder ageing and dying, well...” Durval shrugged his shoulders. “The mighty were especially prone to feeling entitled about getting on the list. Not that seeing your family and friends all grow old and die is really such a great thing, in hindsight. After thorough evaluation, the Light decided that the practice did more harm than good. They are, however, not preventing anyone from researching their own solutions to the problem.”
Ami remained quiet as she pondered his words. Put that way, immortality really sounded like something that could tear families apart and bring misery to everyone involved. She felt her hackles rise when she realised that she may very well be in that situation, and was suddenly very aware of her dungeon heart's heartbeat.
As if divining her thoughts, Durval explained “The dark gods have have little qualms about granting immortality, for much the same reasons as the Light does have them. Fortunately, they aren't very good at it, aside from undeath and dungeon hearts.”
“You don't seem very anxious about the prospect of death,” Ami stated, more to herself.
“I have it on good authority that the afterlife isn't so bad, and even another go at life may be possible,” the abbot said with a wink. “But now, I also have a question for you.” The momentary playfulness disappeared from his voice as he locked his inquisitive gaze on her. “You did not bring me here just to have a look at your patients, did you? There must be something more to it.”
Ami nodded. “You are right. The main reason why I needed someone of your skill is somewhat different,” she said. Allowing herself a mischievous smile, she asked “How good are you at manipulating dark energies?”
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