“I will have no part in this!” With a furious swipe, abbot Durval flung a pair of dark gauntlets off the table before him.
Eyes widening, Ami made an upward motion with her left, telekinetically catching the objects an instant before they could slam into the laboratory's wall. Heart beating rapidly, she reeled them in and inspected the egg-shaped gems set into the gauntlets' backs. No cracks, she noted with relief.
“Please be more careful with these,” she said, her voice wavering as she struggled to keep it calm. She presented the clear ovoids to the red-faced abbot, who was watching her with his arms crossed. One of her fingers slid over the smooth surface of the largest jewel, disturbing the smoke-like substance trapped within. “These gems are somewhat fragile and store a large amount of dark energy,” she explained softly. “If you break them, they could explode!”
Durval's eyebrows twitched in surprise, and the part of his cheeks that wasn't covered by his white beard and moustache lost some of its redness. “Then it is for the best that I am not going to touch them again,” he declared.
”But why?” Ami asked. She looked Durval straight in the eyes. “Don't you want to help all those people?”
“You want me to twist the Light's power according to your own designs, using the energy of your dark god,” Durval stated with conviction. He eyed the gloves that Ami was still holding up as if they were venomous snakes. “I fail to see how anything good could arise from such blasphemy!”
“Oh. I see that I'll need to explain myself better.” Unperturbed, Ami summoned a large diagram she had prepared for just that occasion and unrolled it. She held it up so that the abbot could easily see the different representations on paper. “I got this idea when I noticed that Crowned Death can convert other energies into more of his own, so I sought to emulate the technique and-”
“Hold it!” Durval threw his hands up in the air, interrupting Ami's lecture before she could even get started. “You want to incorporate the methods of a dark god into a spell of healing? The Living Evils are no good at it, and the Death god doubly so!”
“Technically, it's not so much about healing the subject as it is about destroying the curse,” the blue-haired girl corrected. “As such, it's a healing spell only in the sense that the target is better off afterwards.”
“So in essence, you want me to pervert the Light's power into a destructive spell,” Durval said.
“That's really not the way you should be looking at it,” Ami said, trying to maintain her enthusiasm in the face of the holy man's implacable hostility. “It's still meant for a good purpose, one that I'm sure the Light would approve of! I also assure you that I have no intention of using it as a weapon.”
The abbot's gaze bored into Ami as he stared at her, not speaking a word. His one raised eyebrow expressed eloquently enough what he thought of that statement.
Ami hung her head. “Fine. The idea of using the spell against the dark gods has crossed my mind,” she admitted. “Unfortunately, it wouldn't work on them. They have so much power that the fine structures that needs to be introduced into the invading energy would be crushed upon contact. Besides, it only works in the presence of life energy,” she explained. She didn't bother hiding her disappointment.
“In other words, it would work just fine on good people who have had no reason to develop a shield against it.”
Ami looked up, her eyes flashing furiously. “Look, all I want that spell for is healing these people so they can finally go home! I wouldn't need you to make it dangerous! The hard part is getting the spell right so it isn't lethal!”
“I imagine basing it on something you saw Crowned Death do would have that effect,” the abbot nodded. He didn't sound entirely hostile any more, but was still far from convinced.
“My own theory is that the dungeon heart's corruption is the culprit,” Ami said.
“Since you brought up corruption, Empress,” the abbot gestured at the gauntlets that the teenager had placed back on the table, “you want me to channel power you received directly from that Metallia goddess you worship. There is very little in the world that I consider more dangerous than working with things derived directly from a dark god. Your plan involves two of them.”
“I have designed the gloves so that your contact with dark energy will be kept to a strict minimum,” Ami said. “The main contact area would be the fingernails.” She pointed at the small silver plates at the fingertips of the gloves. “It's just enough to draw power from the gemstone reservoirs through that web of wires that connects to them. Almost all of the actual manipulation will happen outside of your body.”
“I am more concerned about the soul.” Durval's arms remained crossed.
“Look, even if there should be some side effects, the Light gods should be able to fix them, right?” Ami pleaded. “And you would be developing a better cure for cursed wounds! If you showed the Light the finished pattern, then they could probably replicate it! The terror of cursed wounds could fade into the past entirely! Isn't that worth it?”
The old man looked at Ami's face again, his gaze so piercing that her smile wavered. He asked “Curing cursed wounds is really your only goal here, and you would let me spread the knowledge afterwards?”
Durval blinked twice, his mouth opening in surprise. He quickly closed it and let out a long sigh. “All right,” he said, sounding resigned. He gestured at the gloves lying on the steel table. “I'll give it a try. How do I use those things?”
“Thank you, you won't regret it!” Ami said, inclining her head briefly.
“I certainly hope so,” the abbot muttered, almost inaudibly.
“These gauntlets are not unlike a wand that has been pre-charged with magic, and they are triggered in a similar way,” Ami explained happily. She picked up one of the gloves and held it so that the abbot could see inside. “You put it on and make sure it fits right. Each fingertip acts like the tip of a wand and has variable output, so using it right may require some training.”
The abbot nodded along slowly, making no secret of his lack of enthusiasm.
“Do you see the smaller gems on the knuckles? They act as intermediary reservoirs so that drawing energy from one finger will not affect the output of the others. This is important, since the energy manipulation spell requires very precise control.”
“How precise are we talking here?”
“It's here on the diagram. That sequence over here.” Since her hands were full with the gloves, she had the paper unroll and float over to the abbot. “The thickness of the lines corresponds to the amount of power that needs to be put into them.”
Durval's head jerked back a slight distance as he saw the complex patterns. “That, frankly, looks like an unholy mess to me. Have you actually tried to perform this procedure yourself?”
Ami clutched the gloves to her chest. “Yes. Err, I may have had some help from the dungeon heart,” she admitted. Looking up, she said “However, there's no reason this couldn't work just by rote memorising the different motions and timings. All that's needed is fine control and a good memory.” She blinked as something occurred to her, and hesitated for a moment. Somewhat embarrassed, she asked “Um, your memory wouldn't be...”
“I'm old, not infirm, girl,” Durval snapped indignantly. He harrumphed. “Nevertheless, it would be helpful if you could figure out the proper incantations for simplifying the arcane gestures. That convergence of three lines over there, for example, looks as if it could be summarised by a properly pronounced Sul rune.”
“Well, I don't actually have any formal training in spell creation,” Ami admitted. When the abbot raised his eyebrows, she clasped her hands in front of herself. His teacher-like demeanour made her feel somewhat inadequate. “I can place some of the more common syllables, but I have never had the time to actually study how warlocks put chants and incantations together. For me, it's much easier to manipulate the magic directly using the dungeon heart. It is a fascinating subject though,” she hurried to reassure him.
“Well, I don't have a dungeon heart,” Durval noted.
Ami thought about the book containing her knowledge about the dark artefacts, which she had stuffed into the Avatar's mantle a while back. “Perhaps that-”
“And I am quite pleased with that state of things,” the old man interrupted, his voice brooking no contradiction.
“R-right.” One look at his dark expression convinced Ami that she would lose any progress she had made if she insisted on explaining what she had been meaning to say. She could return to the topic later, anyway. Instead, she pointed at the diagram. “Actually, I don't think the words for most of these operations have been invented yet. The spell's pattern has little in common with those I have encountered so far.”
“Possible,” Durval said, looking at the criss-crossing lines sideways. “Wizards rarely come up with something so convoluted.”
“It is much clearer than Crowned Death's original variant,” the teenage Keeper defended her work. She was proud of it, and it deserved more appreciation! “Unfortunately, I don't remember any books in my library describing how to actually derive the words,” Ami pondered out loud.
“That's because, at heart, it comes down to trial, error, and random chance.” Durval said. “The magical academies would insist that there is more to it, of course. However, the core element of a typical discovery would be an apprentice casting the spell while trying out words and observing what happens.”
Ami blinked. “Apprentice?” She would have expected research to be conducted by properly qualified magic users.
“More experienced wizards have long since learned not to do that,” the abbot explained. “The side effects of the wrong words are often dramatic and dangerous.” He shook his head and sighed. “The accidents I have had to fix...”
Ami knew well what uncontrolled magic could do, remembering the chickens exposed to the chaotic run-off from her original dungeon heart. “There has to be some kind of system behind it,” she speculated. Not that she would necessarily be able to discern it. She was still no step closer to being able to use Jadeite's glamour than when she started out.
“Perhaps. If so, nobody has discerned it yet. Meaningful sentences tend to work mildly better in general, or so most scholars agree.”
“I'll see what I can do about figuring out the right incantation,” Ami agreed. “I really want this project to succeed.” It could contribute significantly to some of the other research she still had on her to-do list, too.
“Don't lose too many warlocks on my behalf, your Majesty,” Durval said. The mocking curve of his lips indicated that he wouldn't mind terribly if she did.
“I don't intend to lose any,” the young empress replied. “Besides, they are already busy with other projects. Now, why don't you familiarise yourself with the gauntlets?”
Durval took one of the gloves and held it up with two fingers so he could glare at it from up close. His expression was that of a man forced to shove his hand into a heap of glass shards as he put the gauntlet on.
“How is the fit? I can adjust them for you if they are uncomfortable.”
The abbot's knobbly fingers twitched inside their new coverings. “They feel heavy,” he commented as he moved his hands through the air in experimental circles.
“It's full of metal wiring,” Ami explained. She touched her right earring, and a blue visor slid over her eyes. “Please try to direct some energy at the far wall. I need to see if I need to make any adjustments.”
Durval obediently drew his fingers through the air, leaving ten inky trails in their wake.
“Small tightening of the left middle finger valve required,” Ami muttered. “Right thumb output oscillates, but is within tolerances. Not bad.” She scribbled down some notes, pleased by what she was seeing.
The old man grumbled something into his beard.
“Now, how about an actual spell? Something inoffensive that you know well would be best,” Ami said, watching the abbot from the side.
“Would a shield dome suffice?”
“That would be perfect,” Ami confirmed with a smile.
Durval rubbed his fingers against each other as if they were itching before he took a battle stance and drew his hands through the air in a practised, elegant motion.
A semi-spherical black outline appeared around the holy man. With a shrill shattering noise, it collapsed before it could fully form, causing him to flinch.
Ami's eyes went round when the abbot's twitch released another pulse of dark energy. The fragments of his shield spell shot outwards like shrapnel, some coming her way. To her side, metal screamed as one of the shards buried itself within the table. Just before she could bring up her own shield, she felt a jolt of pain pass through her right upper arm. She staggered as her body suddenly felt lighter on that side, and she heard a thud next to herself on the floor.
Durval remained where he had been, motionless. Thin gashes covered the floor and walls around him, oozing wisps of darkness, but he paid them no mind. He was gaping at Ami as if he had just seen the invincible dark empress severely injured by a magical accident.
Ami followed his gaze to her severed arm on the ground, and she cringed. Overcoming the brief instant of panic at the sight of the limb, she said “I'm fine, really!” There was a little pain from the water-oozing stump growing from her shoulder, but the glamour that sent the nerve signals went only skin deep. “It doesn't feel worse than a paper cut!” Briefly, she pondered what it said about her mental health that she felt more distressed by the damage to her Keeper outfit than by the injury. Rationally speaking, she knew that a damaged ice golem would regenerate on its own, while her uniform might require the attention of a tailor, but still...
The abbot shut his mouth with an audible click. “Oh. Of course.”
“I try to avoid being in my own body when I'm around people whom I can't trust completely.” Ami's voice took on a more gurgling quality as Jadeite's glamour dissolved. To a certain degree, it could incorporate changes, but the body shrinking as it grew a new icy arm was beyond its adaptive abilities. “No offence intended.”
“I think I'd be more offended if you did trust me that much,” Durval said, his tone quiet. His eyes darted left and right, lingering on the shallow cuts in the stone. “That was not supposed to happen.”
“I agree completely.” Ami, her icy body now slightly too small for her Keeper outfit, used her regrown arm to tighten her belt. “From what I could tell, you were mixing traces of holy power into the spell, destabilising it even before it could fully form.”
Durval's brow furrowed. “Are you certain? I did not notice any such thing.”
Ami nodded and tapped the side of her visor. “You may be so used to channelling Light energies that you do it unconsciously. I think it would be best if you stuck to training exercises for the moment until you are more familiar with dark magic.”
The old man let out a sigh and stared at the melting arm on the ground. “That may be prudent.”
“I'll leave you to that, then.” Ami bowed politely. “If you require anything,” the living statue snapped one finger, and an imp rushed into the room and skidded to a halt before her, “just let her know, and she'll find me.” She patted the creature on the helmet. “You. Wait here until the Abbot requires your services.”
The look which the imp directed at the hunched-over old man was almost as sceptical as his own. She shrugged and nodded.
“Good. Oh, and feel free to use up all the dark energy stored in the gloves. I can provide you with more whenever you wish.”
“Joy,” Durval commented. “Very well, Empress. I shall see to this task.”
As Ami walked toward the door, she pondered if his own bow being shallower than hers meant anything.
Behind her back, the imp waved at Durval with the severed arm.
Ami decided to tackle the problem currently locked into her bedroom. She appeared within the chamber and immediately spotted the green and black mass of tentacles piled up next to her bed.
In turn, an eye at the top of the mound opened and swivelled to stare at her. ”Empress,” the being greeted her as it uncoiled like a mass of writhing snakes.
“Tserk. You have recently learned something that I would have preferred to keep a secret,” Ami began.
”That acolyte and his continued allegiance to the Light? You are asking for trouble there, your Majesty.”
“Nevertheless, I want it to remain a secret.” Ami crossed her arms and directed a stern look at the creature. Properly staring the monster down proved more difficult than expected, since her gaze kept wandering from one group of randomly-placed eyes to the next.
”You are not going to do anything rash about it, right?” The tentacle monster's mental voice sounded understandably nervous. ”I'm at least as useful as he is!”
“I only want you to keep quiet about it. I intend to keep him in my service, and I don't want him to be bothered!”
“Well, I could be convinced to keep that secret...” Tserk let the statement trail, the tips of his tentacles twitching as if grasping at things in his imagination.
“I think so, too,” Ami said, keeping her voice friendly. “Let me give it a try. First, I'm a Keeper. Second, if the secret gets out, I'll know exactly who talked.”
“I'm convinced! I'm convinced!” Tserk backed down immediately and slithered a short distance further away from her. ”No need to become unpleasant.” The creature hesitated for a moment. ”Nevertheless, I haven't been able to indulge properly in my particular tastes for a while. Are you sure there is nobody who needs a massage?”
A tentacle monster shouldn't try the puppy-dog eye look, Ami thought. Sheer quantity of eyes couldn't quite make up for the lack of inherent cuteness. Still, she gave the proposal some thought. She hadn't scheduled anything that needed to be done right this moment, and she had been feeling awfully tense lately. She could afford some time to rest and relax.
“What am I doing here?” Tiger asked, her fists resting on her towel-clad waist. The tiger-striped youma sat down on the raised edge of the huge marble bathtub, well out of reach of the tentacles further ahead.
Ami let her book sink onto the bench she was lying on. Tserk's tentacles obligingly ceased kneading her back as she twisted her upper body to look at her adopted sister. “It's your fault that Tserk learned about Snyder in the first place. Thus, it's only fair that you do your part in keeping it happy.” She used the hand she wasn't using to clutch her towel to her chest to indicate the free bench to her side.
“Bribery? Really?” The youma scratched her chin.“And what is she doing here?”
“You wouldn't believe how sore muscles can get after a day of training with the various beasties,” Cathy commented from the third bench. She had foregone a towel, opting to wear the essential parts of the reaper outfit as an improvised swimsuit instead. “Jered isn't back yet, so Tserk is an acceptable substitute. A bit higher up the calves,” she instructed the many-limbed masseur.
“If you say so.” Tiger's mildly disapproving frown disappeared as she clapped her hands together and beamed at Ami. “I'd have expected you to invite a different blonde for something like this, really,” she said with a leer.
Ami's brief satisfaction about getting Tiger back for her teasing died quickly as blood rushed to her face. “Jadeite is busy interrogating the two new youma he recently fished out of the temple!” she blurted out. While part of her found the combination of Jadeite and massage fascinating, she wasn't nearly bold enough to act on it. Never mind the highly distracting fantasies her imagination provided as it ran with the idea. How would she even approach him about something like that? Awkward. She shoved the uncomfortable and yet tantalising thoughts aside to snap at the giggling youma “Now get over here!”
“I don't really feel like it,” the youma protested.
Please? Tserk begged.
“Hmm. Well, I suppose it would be a shame to disappoint the tentacle monster,” Tiger said with a grin. Then she disappeared, leaving an empty shell of stone to crumble onto the white floor tiles.
”Why that lying-”
A rock appeared in mid-air over the basin and burst apart, sending small fountains upwards as its debris hit the warm water. Tiger had returned, carrying a slender figure wearing a nightgown. “Here, have a substitute instead!”
“Bwah?” the fairy slung underneath Tiger's arm groaned sleepily, struggling in the youma's grip. “What's going on?”
“You are supposed to join them,” the youma said as she set the glitter-trailing girl down.
Camilla blinked and peered through the hot steam. Her golden eyes widened when she spotted Cathy in her current state of undress, and went even rounder when she recognised the tentacle monster. Then, she spotted the dark empress, face flushed, clad only in a towel, and enveloped by vigorously-moving tentacles. “Oh, no, no, NO!” she wailed in sudden understanding, scrambling backwards. Her back hit the basin's wall with an audible thud. “I want no part of this kind of sick activities!”
“Tiger, that's not funny!” Ami sat up and directed a glare at her laughing sister.
“Speak for yourself. I'm finding it hilarious!”
“Are you trying to get me into trouble with the Shining Concord Empire? You can't just break in and abduct an ambassador!”
“I didn't break in, it's your building until you officially hand it over. Until then, she isn't a proper ambassador either,” Tiger pointed out cheekily. “Besides, it's your reputation that has her terrified!”
“Which is all based on misunderstandings and false rumours!” Ami replied. “You should know how I feel about that,” she accused the youma, frowning deeply.
“Yeah, you get waaaay too worked up about it,” Tiger quipped.
“Is that so?” Ami's eyes narrowed. Why couldn't Tiger simply get it? “Perhaps you would like to find out what it is like? I'm sure some appropriate situations could be engineered easily enough...”
“Oh, I'm so scared!” Tiger's outline blurred, and she shrunk a head. When the flickering stopped, she was a mirror image of Ami, right down to the glowing eyes. “Downright terrified! Whoops, I seem to have dropped my towel!”
Ami blushed brightly. “Don't do that!”
Her double let out a frightened squawk as she disappeared underwater, dunked by an invisible force. Glamour broken, she reappeared, coughing up water. “That's cheating!”
Not to intrude, but the fairy is escaping, Tserk interrupted, pointing a pseudopod in the direction of Camilla, who was crawling on all fours toward the exit.
“Eep!” Giving up on stealth, the fairy abandoned her cover in favour of a desperate dash for the doorway.
A fast-moving tentacle whistled through the air and wrapped around her ankle, yanking her back.
“Let me go!” the winged blonde screamed as she dangled upside-down from the pseudopod.
“Let her go!” Ami shouted too.
Tserk let go.
Camilla squealed in surprise as she dropped into the pool, landing on Tiger with a loud splash.
Cathy started when the resulting spray of water hit her skin. “Hey, I'm trying to relax here. Keep it down, children!”
“I don't even want to be here!” Camilla complained as she surfaced, her wings wet and limp.
“Get your fat arse off me,” Tiger grumbled from below the fairy.
The slender blonde only now noticed her abductor. “Gyah! Get away from me, you striped freak!” She churned the water as she tried to disentangle herself from the youma.
“Who are you calling a- oof!” Tiger took a bony elbow to the nose. “Why you!” She lunged after the fleeing girl.
The splashing resumed with redoubled intensity.
“Watch it with the water already!” Cathy scolded in the general direction of the brawl. Another wave splashed over her, thoroughly drenching her.
“Not my only nightgown!” Camilla shouted.
“My hair! You set my hair on fire!” Tiger screeched.
Cathy sat up and shook herself like a dog. “Oh, let me help you with that,” she said sweetly, bringing her arms up in front of her chest. “Shabon Spray!”
Scintillating bubbles shot forwards from her hands, enveloping the girls in a freezing fog that billowed outwards. From within came piercing shrieks of protest. “Cold! Cold!” “Eeek!”
”Sigh. Why can't anything ever go right?” the tentacle monster lamented as the chilling mist washed over it.
Tserk's statement mirrored Ami's own feelings. The blue-haired teenager let herself sink back onto her bench, covering her eyes with her book and ignoring the sudden urge to repeatedly bang her head against something hard.
”My Empress?” Torian's voice came as a welcome distraction, even if Ami experienced a moment of embarrassed indignation before she realised that the warlock wasn't physically present.
”Yes?” She answered, a bit sterner than she had intended.
Torian hesitated for a moment. ”Did I contact your Majesty at a bad time? If so, I apologise,” he began nervously. ”We have spotted something strange that we really think you should have a look at.”
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