King Albrecht massaged his temples, wrinkling his forehead as if in pain. “My dear Durval, I find it amazing how news from the Avatar Islands manages to instill mind-numbing terror without fail. First, a Keeper strong enough to beat the Avatar with mantle appears, and now a dark god is preparing the end of the world.”
Durval, sitting in a comfortable wooden armchair, chuckled into his beard. “Oh, be fair. This is hardly an issue that is native to that continent. Not that it detracts from the seriousness of the situation.”
“Indeed.” The spymaster agreed, lurking behind the king like a grey shadow. Surrounded by the temple's white marble surfaces, he stood out almost as much as the monarch in his bright purple mantle. “I gather that you discussed potential solutions with Empress Mercury?”
“So I did,” the old abbot said. He looked left and right, as if checking for the unlikely possibility that someone was listening in on them in this holy place. “It is of the utmost importance that none of the details are leaked to the agents of Crowned Death, since the plan relies on catching the target unaware.”
“I see. That would explain why you insisted on meeting here. Now, what can you tell us-”
“Spymaster, please.” Albrecht held up his hand. “I am, for the moment, more interested in whether or not my old friend is well. What was the Empress' hospitality like?” he asked, leaning forward in his seat.
“Mercury did not treat me badly, if you are worried about that,” Durval said. “I cannot say that she was the perfect host, but that seems to be more ignorance of the correct etiquette than purposeful action.”
“I'm relieved to hear that,” Albrecht said with a smile. “I felt guilty every day for sending you there.”
“Oh, I was relieved as well when I learned that she wanted me there for exactly the reason she stated. She seems to genuinely want her prisoners cured, and is treating them well.”
“Ah yes, our missing citizens.” Albrecht sighed. “Barely a day passes without one or more worried relatives demand that we organise a rescue effort. Having to disappoint them is getting so tiresome. They are becoming almost as bad as those young fools who want to attack the Avatar Islands and reinstate the Avatar as its rightful ruler.”
“A movement that is gaining much support among the survivors of Mukrezar's campaign,” the spymaster added.
“Yes, yes, no need to remind me,” the King said, waving his hand in annoyance.
“I'll try to finish Mercury's potential cure for cursed wounds as quickly as possible then,” Durval said, grinning wryly. “That should at least get the first problem out of your hair.”
“She really has developed a cure like that?” Albrecht said, his eyes widening. “Her knowledge of the magical arts must be impressively vast.”
“Oh, actually, I was surprised to learn that this is not the case, ” the abbot contradicted. He twirled his beard around one finger absently. “She – spymaster, you may find this very useful – seems to depend mostly on a small artefact, which she consults regularly on various topics. I'm sure that she would be considerably weakened without it.”
“An intriguing possibility,” the man said through the cloth covering his mouth.
“We want her at her best until Crowned Death is stopped,” the King reminded them. “Now, what was it she suggested we do about him?”
“Sisters!” Dandel called out as she stepped onto the sunlit deck, drawing only a passing glance from the other sailors. “It's a letter from Camilla!” she shouted, brandishing a rolled-up scroll.
“Eh? Really?” Tilia's upside-down face dropped into the indigo-haired fairy's field of view from above. The green-haired was hanging from a tow by her angled legs.
Wings hummed, and four slender figures clad in swimsuit-like white uniforms descended onto Dandel like a flock of starving pigeons upon a bread crumb.
“Let me see it!”
“What does she say?”
“Is she all right?”
“I haven't read it yet,” the eldest of the fairy sisters said as she was crowded by her siblings.“It just arrived in the summoning circle together with an official letter addressed to the Oracles. Now give me some room, please.”
The other faeries relocated behind her as she unrolled the scroll, trying to peek over her shoulder.
“Roselle, stop flying! You are going to blow the letter out of my hands!”
“Aww, but I want to see!” The orange-haired girl zipped left and right, her glitter filling the air.
“Move,” A gruff voice spoke up behind the group. “You are all blocking the way, girls! Some people are trying to work here!” Two sailors carrying a soaked roll of fabric on their bare shoulders glowered at them.
“Oh, sorry!” Dandel jumped, batted her wings, and headed for the ship's highest mast. “Let's relocate, sisters!” Moments later, she alighted on the crow's nest and rested her back against its railing.
Her sisters followed her and sat down on the sail's crossbar. The seagulls who had been there first protested loudly as they were chased from their perch.
Dandel briefly followed the birds with her eyes as they sailed through the air, out over the open ocean. They could fly freely, unlike poor Camilla who was currently trapped underground. Unable to contain her curiosity any longer, she re-opened the scroll. Raising her voice to make herself heard over the flapping of the wind-filled sails, the indigo-eyed fairy began reading aloud.
How are you? I am alive and well. Today, Empress Mercury made me attend an important and scary meeting.”
“She has to be so frightened all alone in that dungeon,” Melissa said, her sapphire eyes gleaming wetly.
“It was so important that even the Avatar attended (in a crystal ball)!” Dandel continued.
“Ohhh. The Avatar himself? I'd like to see him too,” Tilia commented with a smile.
“Why is the dark empress talking with the Avatar?” purple-haired Cerasse wondered. “Do you think she's trying to wring even more concessions out of him?”
“Why would she invite Camilla to something like that?” The emerald-eyed girl shot down that theory.
“Shush! I want to hear the rest!” Anise complained, clinging to the crow's nest like a monkey as she manoeuvred behind Dandel to catch a glimpse of the message.
“I even got to talk to him! I'm not allowed to tell you about the details until our superiors (who are not secretly evil)-”
“Wait, what?” the climbing redhead interrupted.
Dandel shrugged. “That's what Camilla has written here,” she said.
“What kind of nonsense has that Keeper been filling her head with?” Tilia asked, frowning.
“Ahem.” The eldest of the fairies raised the scroll “ - about the details until our superiors have read my report. Also, I'm trying to represent the Shining Concord Empire with dignity, but it's hard!”
Cerasse snickered. “That sounds like her all right!”
“My books on protocol are completely useless, since Empress Mercury doesn't use any I can recognise. She even lets her advisers interrupt her! It's like walking on eggshells, since I have no idea what will offend her.”
“Well, Mercury is a glorified Keeper. She probably doesn't even have a protocol. Why would someone like her know what's proper?” Cerasse said, nodding sagely.
“Yeah, Keepers change their codes of conduct at a whim so they can punish their underlings more,” Melissa agreed. She paled. “Err, which isn't good for Camilla at all."
“I still don't know what to make of Jadeite (the dreamy blonde guy). On one hand, he didn't show respect to the Avatar, on the other, he managed to restore the eyes of all those people with cursed wounds! I still can't believe it!”
“He's that powerful?” Anise said, blinking rapidly.
“But healing like that should be good magic!” Melissa said, brushing with her fingers through her blue tresses in frustration. “Why is he loyal to Mercury?”
“Maybe he likes her?” Cerasse pondered.
“No, no, that can't be it!” Roselle protested, shaking her head rapidly. “Who would like a Keeper?”
“Girls, save the speculation for later,” Dandel interrupted. “There's also another visitor here in the dungeon; an abbot from the western lands. I haven't gotten the opportunity to talk to him much, even though he's also living here in the unfinished Embassy building. The Empress says she can't proceed with construction because she can't get some of the requested materials. My own room is really nice, though. Unfortunately, I can't use it right now because I'm currently hiding out with the abducted villagers.” Dandel frowned and read faster “That's because I kind of set the empress' sister on fire, and she seems the type to hold a grudge.”
“She did what?”
“Is she trying to get herself hurt?”
Dandel groaned. “Oh, Camilla, what trouble have you gotten yourself into now?”
“Wait, the dark empress has a sister?” Roselle asked.
“That's what the letter says,” Anise confirmed. “And Camilla set her on fire. I'm not sure if I should be proud of her or call her a moron.”
“Oh, I hope Mercury will respect her status enough to not do something horrible to her,” Melissa said, shuddering.
“Quiet, there's more,” Dandel said. “She totally had it coming though, because she dragged me out of bed and...” the fairy trailed off.
“And what?” Melissa's outraged exclamation was loud enough that some of the sailors on the deck looked up at her. “What did they do to our baby sister?”
“I- Is it so horrible you can't tell us? Oh, I can't listen!” Roselle clamped her hands over her ears and almost fell of her perch when a sudden gust of wind buffeted her orange hair.
“That- that deviant monster! What did she do to her?”Anise demanded to know, her cheeks matching her eyes in colour.
“I don't know.” Dandel turned over the scroll, revealing two blackened lines where she had been reading. “Someone has censored that part of the letter. Oh, and there's an annotation in a different handwriting.” The fae stared at the much neater characters. “This part was not factually correct and based on a misunderstanding. Nothing untoward was planned nor occurred,” she read.
“Yeah, right, who'd believe that?” Tilia snorted.
“We need to get Camilla out of there!” Roselle said, garnering approving murmurs from her sisters.
Dandel herself was feeling very concerned for the young blonde and hurriedly read on. “In any case, I showed her! By the way, Anise, you were correct about the imps. They are horribly annoying little things!”
The redhead grinned triumphantly. “Told you so!”
“Anyway, it's surprisingly boring in the Embassy most of the time, so I spend most of my free time in the village of the abducted people. Did you know that Mercury built them an entire town underground? It's kind of weirdly regular, but not too bad once you get used to it.”
“I'm glad she doesn't sound traumatised about the experience,” Cerasse said.
“The food is good, but consists mostly of chicken. What I don't like is the weather here. When it's not raining, it's sleeting, and I can't go flying because my wings get wet and soggy in no time at all. Aside from that, this position isn't worse than any other we have had before. I miss you all.
“We miss you too,” Melissa said, and her sisters nodded.
“Wait, there's more!” Dandel told them. “PS: I probably shouldn't have written about being bored, because Empress Mercury read my letter and 'suggested' that I could help teach in the school she has opened for the children. It passes time, but some of them are right little brats! I swear they are encouraging the imps!”
“She's a schoolteacher now?” Tilia's brow furrowed in deep concentration before relaxing. “Nope, I can't imagine that, no matter how hard I try!”
“Don't be like that. She should be able to handle the course material for the smaller children just fine,” Roselle reprimanded.
“This is good news,” Cerasse said. “If Mercury is educating the children, then she doesn't want to eventually kill them.”
“Do you think she is trying to raise herself a loyal population?” Dandel asked after pondering this for a moment.
“It's possible, if she is serious about wanting to be treated like a legitimate Empress. Adults will always have the fact that she's a Keeper in the back of their mind, but the children growing up there wouldn't know it was wrong!”
“Arrgh, I hate the thought of Camilla being all alone over there!” Anise said.
Melissa nodded rapidly. “Yeah, me too! I wish we could do something to help her! I worry about her. That letter just sounds...” she waved one hand in the air as she searched for the right words to describe her feelings.
“As if she isn't respecting the physical and spiritual dangers of her environment enough?” Dandel offered.
“Yes! Exactly! She could end up dead or corrupt at this rate!” the blue-haired fae agreed.
“If only she had never accepted that carpet when Mercury gave it to her!” Roselle muttered. “Sometimes I wonder if having a prestigious office is really worth the danger.”
“But if she leaves, her career is over,” Tilia said sadly. “She's bound to that place now.” “I want to help her, but I don't know how! We can't do much while we are here!” Roselle exclaimed, flapping her wings as if she was about to lift off.
“Well, the embassy is going to need staff when it officially opens,” Cerasse pondered, shifting uneasily. “We could volunteer to be stationed there. I'm sure we wouldn't have any competition.”
“Obviously,” Anise snorted. “Who'd want to be stationed in a place like that?” She sighed. “Still, Camilla is stuck there.” She met the eyes of her sisters. “Do we really want to do this?”
“She's family,” Dandel stated, meet her sisters' eyes. “How is our little sister supposed to manage without us?”
“Well, I'm going to volunteer!” Melissa declared, clapping into her hands.
“Me too!” Anise agreed. “I can't leave the two of you without protection!”
Cerasse put one finger to her lip and looked at the clouds. “Hmm, I suppose being posted there would allow us to demand danger pay...” the purple-haired girl said airily. “I'm in.”
“Oh, you don't have to pretend you are doing it for the money,” Tilia said as she fluttered to the other fairy's side. “I'll come along, too. I wouldn't want to miss watching your tearful reunion – with the tentacle monster!” she teased.
“Hey! I'm doing this for Camilla!” Cerasse protested. “Though now that you mention it, it will be nice to have a capable opponent for board games again.”
“Did you just compare us unfavourably to a tentacle monster?” Roselle asked, her hands on her waist.
“I certainly did.” Cerasse pushed herself off the bar she was sitting on, dropping toward the deck before her dragonfly-like wings turned the fall into an elegant curve. “If you want to do something about it, you'll have to catch me first!”
“I'll chase you all the way to the Avatar Islands if I have to!” the orange-haired fairy called out as she gave chase.
Dandel's gaze followed the two as they darted through the salty-smelling air, zigzagging rapidly. She was proud of her sisters' willingness to brave mortal danger in order to help their younger sibling. “I will be coming along too, naturally,” she said. “Let's make the best of the situation and come up with a better plan to save Mercury's prisoners while we are there!”
Ami had claimed part of the library as her workroom and sat behind a table, a pile of books towering to her right and a stack of sandwiches to her left. More comfortable among bookshelves and wall-covering diagrams than in a formal conference hall, she explained the newest twist to the attack plan that she had come up with.
“Have you lost your mind?” Snyder exclaimed, staring at Ami as if she had grown a second head.
“Not yet,” Cathy said as she made a grab for the crystal ball that had started wobbling when the acolyte had jumped to his feet. She just caught it before it could fall off its pedestal. “But that idea sounds like the fastest way to do so. Seriously, it's terrible. Better discard it.”
“I... respectfully second the reservations of my colleagues,” Torian spoke up and avoided meeting Ami's eyes. “I would, of course, be the last person to accuse you of not having thought things through completely, your Imperial Majesty, but... I mean, yes, those dungeon hearts are undead, but I certainly don't need to remind you that the dungeon heart's mind and that of the Keeper are one and the same?”
“Yes, I am aware that I would effectively be targeting Crowned Death himself,” the teenager said in a carefully-controlled tone of voice. With her hands under the table, nobody could see her knuckles whiten whenever she allowed herself to really think about that. While Torian's jaw would drop if he learned just how much gold she could use to boost the strength of the spell, she didn't expect the attempt to be pleasant.
“Then,” the warlock looked up suddenly, his voice suddenly breathless, “you have come up with a way to succeed in spite of that?” If his eyes had gone any wider, they would have popped out of his head.
Ami shook her head. “It doesn't matter if I succeed or fail. While success would open up some interesting options, the only thing that's really important is keeping Crowned Death busy. I fear that the assault will fail if he is not distracted. Remember our attack on Dreadfog Island? He was keeping his temple together and in working condition long after it should have crumbled into a pile of debris!”
“But can he do that while affected by a ward?” Cathy asked, her eyes drawn to the miniature replica of the swimming temple that hung off the ceiling.
“In the best case scenario, no,” Ami said. “Worst case, the thing will self-repair like those Calarine staves.”
“He couldn't do that with the Dreadfog temple,” Snyder said.
“That one also wasn't externally powered at the time.” Ami sighed and continued “However, what I actually expect to happen in this case is for the vessel to crash, go to pieces, and Crowned Death saving all but the piece that's in contact with the ward.”
“That... would be unfortunate, my Empress,” Torian agreed quickly. “Yes. Now I can see the wisdom in your proposition. Even a gnat- no offence intended, of course – can prove extremely distracting to something many times its size and power. Indeed-”
With a click, the electrical lights turned off all at the same time, concealing the secrets of the room and its occupants within deepest blackness. Only Ami's eyes still glowed red in the darkness, along with the warning bracelet around her wrist.
A spherical pendant around Snyder's neck lit up, briefly illuminating his face as he lifted it to eye height.
“You'd think people would have something better to do than spying on us all the time,” Cathy grumbled. “Who is it now?”
The acolyte gazed into the miniature crystal ball as he tracked the scrying attempt back to its source. “An elderly elf with a beard, gazing into a forest pond,” the acolyte replied. “I don't recognise him.”
Space appeared to shift as Ami routinely transported all of them to a different room that resembled the one they had just been in, down to the schematics covering the walls. Redundancy, she had learned, was the best way to keep getting things done despite prying eyes. “That does not sound like a Keeper's minion, at least,” she pondered.
“Whoa, careful!” Cathy protested, waving her arms as the horde of imps tasked with keeping the contents of both rooms identical jostled her on the way out. She steadied herself against a bookshelf and looked at Ami. “To get back on topic, how long would you need to keep him distracted?”
“Until the ship has lost enough dungeon hearts and can no longer move under its own power,” she replied, back on familiar ground. “Cathy, I need you to have the troops geared up and ready around the same time that the attack starts.”
The swordswoman blinked, and Torian's pencil stopped scratching as he looked up from his work.
“If Keeper Clairmonte is still on the vessel, he's likely to die during the first stage of the attack, ” Ami elaborated. “We have to be ready to seize and defend his territories the moment that happens. I will need the strategic mobility offered by the portals once the Dark Kingdom arrives.”
The blonde whistled. “That's going to give a lot of people the wrong impression.”
“Unfortunately, that can't be helped,” Ami said. She'd try to explain things to the Avatar when she had the chance.
“At least your troops will be happy to see some action,” Cathy continued. “Perhaps they'll even stop being bored and unruly and making trouble for me.”
Ami nodded, feeling slightly guilty. She had been neglecting the denizens of her dungeon in favour of her prisoners and her research lately. It was just so much easier to let Tiger handle the routine details. “Good. You know where to find the maps, right? Please come up with some preliminary plans for the operation, I will go over them later. Ask Jadeite or Tiger to assist you.”
“As you wish.” Grinning, the swordswoman raised a hand in a mock salute before leaving.
Ami stepped in front of one of the large blueprints on the wall that depicted the fifty-three parts of the ward that to be used against the swimming temple. “Snyder, I need you to continue coordinating with the foreign wizards. All groups need to produce a second spare part.”
The redhead raised one eyebrow. “Ah, I thought we would be handling that?”
Ami shook her head. “Originally, yes, but with my new idea, the warlocks will not be available to send the parts.”
“Your Majesty?” Torian had stopped writing and watched her.
“I'll get to that soon,” she told him. “Snyder, make sure that every group of external wizards has three different parts ready, just in case some have trouble meeting the quality requirements.”
“Understood. What about the parts we have already forged locally?”
Ami hesitated for an instant. “Keep them and finish the whole set. Perhaps we can find a use for it later.”
“All right.” Snyder approached the pedestal with the crystal ball and pulled out his list of contacts and locations. “Now where has night not fallen yet?” he murmured as he consulted a map.
“Torian, please come along, I want to discuss this with all of the warlocks. You will be supporting me directly when I confront Crowned Death.”
The purple-robed warlock winced as he followed a few steps behind her and grimaced as if he had just bitten into a lemon. “I was afraid you would say something along those lines, my Empress.”
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