Mukrezar languished on his throne with a glass of wine in his hand, flanked by two loyal mistresses who were moving large, feather-covered fans up and down. He had put the half-starved former leader of the Underworld city to good use dancing for him. That would teach the silly orc chief to drag out the inevitable capitulation for so long. It was a shame that the lesson wouldn't have any lasting impact, since the 'dance' involved a floor of glowing coals and severed vocal chords.
Mukrezar regretted the necessity, he really did. The screams were the most relaxing part, but they would have interfered with his current business. “High priest, you know what she did to your temple,” he told the jewel-encrusted skull in the crystal ball. “In fact, you know it better than me, since I only have second-hand accounts. So much fire! Are you absolutely sure she doesn't worship Isubiar?”
“The god of flames was not involved,” the skeleton replied. It had no facial expression to read, but it sounded irritated.
How unfortunate. For that kind of power, he'd have converted in a heartbeat. “Well, if she did it all on her own, it's even worse! How do you expect me to fight something like that with my current means?”
“Satisfactorily,” the bone priest quipped. “Make it work, or you shall incur our Lord's wrath.”
Now that doesn't take much these days, the pink-haired elf thought. “Yes, well, I was hoping for some support. Make that a lot of support. I already have a plan for avoiding sudden, fiery death, of course. I'm not the greatest Keeper in the world for nothing. What I need is your very best troops to make it work.”
“Out of the question. Use your own,” the high priest replied immediately. “It shouldn't be that hard for the greatest Keeper in the world to acquire some well-trained minions.”
“I don't have the time to whip my wretched new recruits into shape,” Mukrezar pointed out sourly. “That's a simple consequence of giving me a deadline.”
“Tell me about this plan,” the voice from the scrying device demanded.
“And have you steal it to claim the credit? It's not going to be that easy.” Mukrezar smirked and crossed his arms, staring into the death priest's empty eye sockets defiantly.
“You will have to manage with what you have, then. A pity.”
“Oh?” The pink-haired Keeper narrowed his eyes. “Guess whose head would be on the line if I tried, failed, and it was obvious that my plan would have worked splendidly if I only had obtained the forces I requested. Let me give you a hint. The unfortunate fool who could have easily provided them is going to regret his decision for a long, long time.”
“I remain sceptical that you could achieve something with our troops that we couldn't on our own,” the high priest argued.
“Oh, are you questioning Crowned Death's wisdom in bringing me back now?” Mukrezar said with a smug grin. “He certainly saw some potential in me that he didn't see in you, or I wouldn't be here right now.”
“I would not-”
“That's it, isn't it? You are going against his wishes out of petty jealousy!” Mukrezar hid his glee as he heard the high priest grind his teeth.
After a moment of silence, the skeleton asked with barely concealed frustration “What do you need?”
“Any dark angels and skeletal mages you can get me. Dragons would be nice, too. No vampires, I'll not be able to get them across the ocean. Death priests, as many as possible. A bunch of shock troops, such as undead knights and mummies. It's important that they are all intelligent. Anything that cannot think for itself will be more of a hindrance than it will help.”
The high priest's skull was an unreadable mask. “Do you have anything else to convince me that your secret plan has a chance of working?”
“Well, let's just say that I've come upon a number of useful artefacts during my successful career, and hadn't stashed them all on the Avatar islands. I am not going to tell you anything more, because the plan relies on surprise. Empress Mercury has already proven that she is able to figure out even the greatest of your secrets.”
“I shall commune with our Master on this,” the high priests stated, and the crystal ball went blank.
Slow clapping came from behind the throne, and the butler imp walked into sight. “A convincing performance, your Greediness. Would you have gotten on your knees and begged if he had been more stubborn, Master?”
“I am perfectly willing to forego dignity where it serves my needs,” Mukrezar said. “Coincidentally, one of my particular needs is not being set on fire by an Avatar-stomping, inventive menace of a scheming Keeper. Or anyone else.” He sniffed the air, which smelled of smoke and burnt flesh. “Something at which my tiresome prisoner sadly failed.”
“You missed some hilarious spasms and jerks, Master,” the butler commented, circling the pit in which a prone body sizzled and burnt on the coals. With his hands crossed behind his back, the suit-wearing imp returned to Mukrezar's throne. “Your Deviousness, do you think the high priest will give you the troops?”
Mukrezar stretched on his padded seat, his smile widening. “If Crowned Death wants Mercury gone as much as I think he does, then yes. And once I have them... believe me, this plan is going to be one for the history books!”
“What did you drag me all the way over here for?” Tiger complained, rolling her bloodshot eyes as she crossed her arms. ”It's too hot, the flies are making too much noise, and my head hurts!”
“How did you even manage to get a hangover?” Jadeite asked through the small crystal ball that Ami wore as a necklace. ”I didn't even know youma could get drunk!”
“Wasn't easy,” the tiger-striped being grumbled. She pointed at the blue-haired girl walking next to her. “I blame her. Stupid more human-like body.”
“Sorry?” Ami said, side-stepping a fungus-covered root that protruded into the crypt-like halls from the ceiling.
“Serves you right. Getting drunk at parties is not really appropriate behaviour for princesses,” Jadeite mocked.
“Well it should be!” Tiger contradicted. “Can't you make it a law, little sister?”
“It wouldn't hurt if you acted more dignified occasionally,” Ami answered.
“I'm not the one who put a crystal ball right over her cleavage,” Tiger retorted, indicating Ami's necklace with a nod.
The teenager's red-glowing eyes flitted downwards to her chest, which was, of course, adequately covered by the black fabric of her leotard and her ribbon. She'd have to do some unlikely acrobatics to have the sphere catch a glimpse of something it wasn't supposed to. Nevertheless, she felt her cheeks heat up at her adopted sister's words. “Tiger!” she shouted, scandalised.
“Ow. Not so loud!” the youma whimpered as the echoes faded into the deeper catacombs.
“In any case, I need your help with an experiment.” Ami reached into the small basket she was carrying and pulled out one of her lab rats.
The large rodent puffed out its black fur and bared its lower teeth as she thrust it toward the youma.
“Hostile little fleabag.”
“It's the biggest, most vicious one I could find,” Ami confirmed as she strapped a control block the size of two sugar cubes to the animal's back. “It will need to be tough for this.”
“And where do I come in?” Tiger asked wile the rat watched her with unconcealed suspicion.
Ami told her.
“Wait, what?” the black-striped youma leaned down, bringing her face very close to Ami's.
Confused, the younger girl blinked and drew away. “What are you doing?”
Tiger sniffed. “Strange, your breath doesn't smell as if you had been drinking.” She put her arms akimbo. “Now run that by me again. Particularly the part why you'd want me to glamour the fuzzball into a magic-using rat.”
“Not a magic-using rat, exactly,” Ami corrected. “Having a large reservoir of magical power is one of the requirements for bonding with a dungeon heart.”
“So I did hear right the first time.” Tiger pointed her index finger at the animal, who struggled to wriggle free from her sister's grasp and nip at the digit. “You want to turn that into a Keeper?”
“Well, I have four inert dungeon hearts that I need to get rid off. I might as well learn all I can from them, and that's the only way I can study the bonding process,” Ami explained, sounding more confident than she really was. She had no idea if this could work. Did rats have a soul? Was one required in the first place? Would the process work if the animal didn't know what it was doing, even if the routines inscribed into its backpack would tell it how to proceed? Only one way to find out, really. “So, if you could please meld the rat with this?” she asked, holding up a gem filled to the brim with dark energy.
Tiger snickered. “A rat Keeper.” She shook her head, then shrugged. “Oh well, the faster we are done here, the faster I can get out of this stinking, sweltering jungle ruin. Let's do it. What's the worst that could happen?”
“Shut up! Shut up shutupshutup!” Tiger rapid-fired stone shards from both hands, alternating between left and right.“Cease that infernal screeching! And stop laughing, Jadeite!”
One of her inaccurate projectiles finally found its mark, punching a hole through the head of one of the four berserk imps defending their master's territory. The creature dissolved into green motes that rejoined the swirling column rising from the dungeon heart's central pit.
“Watch out!” Ami called from above. Her eyes covered with her visor, she floated between the three arches that formed the reactivated heart's superstructure.
Tiger stepped aside just in time to avoid an overhead blow from a pick that would have pinned her foot to the floor. She spun quickly and kicked the sneaky offender back into the pit.
“Don't kill them!” Ami advised. “New ones will spawn if you do. Eep!” She swerved to the side, narrowly avoiding a thrown pick that would have knocked her computer from her hands.
“Can't be helped! Hurry up and find that bastard rat already!” Tiger demanded as she jumped backwards, avoiding a swipe from the newest imp. A quick moment of concentration, and a stone plate crashed down on the creature. With a pained squeal, it collapsed under the weight, giving Tiger the opportunity to snatch its pick from its grasp. “You just stay there,” she ordered as she looked for the other three opponents.
Two remained where Ami had frozen them to the floor, while the third was trying to get around her and retrieve the weapon it had thrown.
With a deft lunge, Tiger threw herself onto the imp. Some wrestling and rolling around on the floor later, she was sitting down on the little creature's back with a smug expression. “Found your fugitive Keeper yet?”
“Yes, right here,” Ami said. Her blue hair rose from behind the partial wall that surrounded the dungeon heart as she stood up. She held up a jar with a perforated lid, within which the black rat pawed furiously at the glass.
“Well, I'm glad that's over,” the orange-skinned youma said as she wiped the sweat from her brow. “That little guy sure has the right temper for the job.”
Ami nodded wearily. “Let's just quickly get him to the next heart before he figures out how to use Keeper transport.”
“Wait, you want to go through this again?”
“Yes, he needs a second dungeon heart so he won't die when I destroy the first one. It's the only way I can observe more closely what happens when a Keeper is banished.” Ami clapped her hands. “Perhaps he will even manage to come back, and I can run additional experiments!” she said with a happy smile.
Tiger groaned. “You won't need me for that part, do you? The critter is already magical.”
“I will be able to handle the rest on my own,” Ami confirmed. The main question was which of the three other hearts she should use. The gold mine under a glacier to the north was out. It was in dwarven territory, and reactivating the heart – or at least its destruction – might alert them to her presence. The same went for the swamp dungeon full of spider webs that looked as if Clairmonte had taken it from another Keeper. If she activated a dungeon heart there, the surfacer army camped out nearby would probably attack at once.
She sighed as she considered the most depressing of her new acquisitions. An expanse of dying forests, burnt fields, and ruined villages that Clairmonte must have been using as recruiting area for his undead troops. Only recently conquered, it was far behind the ill-defined front line where the newest Keeper forays into surface lands had been stalled by the defenders. Ami had her giant flies patrol the sky to look for any survivors hiding out in the wilds, but she had little hope of finding any. The area would have been ideal for her current experiment, had its dungeon heart not been claimed by a vampire and subsequently destroyed.
That left the dungeon deep underneath the eastern forests. The maps denoted it as elven territory, though she didn't know about any nearby settlements. It would do, especially since the interval between activation and destruction of the dungeon heart would be very brief. “I'll see you back in the dungeon, Tiger,” she said before she teleported away with her lab rat.
A dark angel with sunken eyes and corpse-like complexion flew over a landscape composed of angular geometrical shapes arranged in fractal patterns. “Unraveller,” the starved-looking creature roared, louder than its sickly body should be capable of, “I am displeased!”
“That is your basic state of existence,” the other dark god's emotionless voice replied, seemingly coming from everywhere around. Bluish lightning flickered through crystalline veins lining the jagged structure, pulsing with each word.
“About that so-called solution of yours,” the furious voice of Crowned Death specified through his emissary.
“It doesn't work!”
“I assure you that any problem is entirely your fault. My design is flawless and will do exactly what you specified, given a sufficient concentration of power on this side. I cam hardly be blamed for you being inadequate”.
“Nobody has that much power, and you knew that from the start!” the dark angel accused. His frightened facial expression didn't match the fury in his words.
“So? I turned the impossible merely impractical. It was quite an interesting problem to pick apart.”
“Make something I can use, or I and Azzathra will to destroy you!”
“I advise against that. The working is very delicate and could deteriorate if, for example, you fruitlessly chased me around instead of tending to it.”
“What do I care? It's useless!”
“Incorrect. Cooperate with Azzathra. I know it's a novel concept, but combined, you have enough spiritual weight to pass the activation threshold.“
Crowned Death thought the suggestion over. “That would be tremendously unpleasant.”
“If you wanted to not be uncomfortable, you should have been more specific with your instructions. At least you will be able to bond with your new ally by commiserating about all the times you had to put up with beings smarter than you. I'm sure neither of you will lack for material.”
“You really want me to hunt you down, don't you?”
”Of course not. I could not possibly have planned and prepared for that possibility. Though it would be amusing to see you waste your opportunity to strike back at the little Keeper that offended you.”
“I loathe you.” The dark angel looked panicked for a moment before a strange calm slackened his facial muscles, and he changed course to dive straight down at the patterns below.
“I approve. And I will be around. Observing you. This is turning out to be quite the fascinating experiment.”
Ami's fingers moved swiftly and accurately in the light of the narrow spotlight shining onto the workbench before her. Arcs of lightning danced between the digits, discharging regularly into the silver disc she was working on. Already, the palm-sized object glowed red in the spots she was welding different metals to it.
She shoved her protective goggles up to her forehead as she held up her work and compared it to the schematics pinned to the bulletin board to her right. Her critical stare could discern no great difference between the simple piece of jewellery and the plan, aside from the numerous annotations and formulas covering the blueprint. Ami furrowed her brow slightly at the stylised face of a reaper that stared back at her from the medallion, framed with a simple pattern of iron and coal-coloured gems. I wish the artwork didn't have to incorporate something like that, she thought.
Her mood improved quickly when she remembered that it was time to test her creation. “And now...“ With bated breath, she inserted a thin rod into the medallion through the edge. A few millimetres more, and- “Gahhhhh!”
In the blink of an eye, she was gone and had reappeared at the other end of her laboratory, her frightened scream still echoing off the walls. Pressing one hand to her racing heart, she waited for her pulse to slow down as she observed the object on her workbench. That tentatively counted as a successful experiment, though further tests were required.
With a clang, the heavy steel door to Ami's laboratory flew open, startling the blue-haired girl.
“Mercury?” Cathy stood in the doorway, peering into the dark chamber. She quickly found Ami, since her red-glowing eyes gave the young Keeper's position away in the darkness. “Are you all right? I heard you scream!”
“I'm fine, thanks.” Ami reassured the panting woman. “The outcome of an experiment startled me, nothing to worry about.”
“Must have been some failure to make you scream like that.” The blonde's footsteps seemed loud in the silence as she walked over the catwalks, turning her head rapidly as she peered at the different benches and tables. “Hmm, doesn't look as if anything exploded. Not that I can see much in this gloom. You'd expect all those lights,” she pointed at the various spotlight cones coming down from the ceiling, “to brighten the place more. So what were you doing?”
“I'was modifying an enchantment to put it to a different use,” Ami explained. “Could you please pick up the medallion on the workbench over there? Careful, it's still warm in spots.”
“This? Is that what made you scream?” The swordswoman eyed the medallion from a short distance, hands on her hips, before she slowly reached for it. She weighed it in her hand as she inspected it. “Interesting choice for a decoration,” she commented, raising an eyebrow.
“But you are not feeling anything odd?” Ami asked.
“You mean aside from some apprehension, which isn't helped by you asking questions like that? No.”
“Very good.” Ami nodded in satisfaction and reached out with her Keeper powers. “Please hold still for an instant, I need a hair from you.”
“Ow! I don't like where this is going,” the swordswoman commented. She was too far away to see Ami wrap the hair around a needle-thin metal rod.
“Sorry, I can't tell you exactly what's going on, because I need to gauge your natural reaction,” the crimson-eyed teenager explained.
Remotely, Ami pulled out the rod she had previously inserted into the medallion. “And now?”
Cathy watched the movement intently. “Still nothing.”
“Good.” So far, everything seemed to be working as intended. Ami started inserting the rod lined with Cathy's hair. “What about now?”
“No- gyah!” The blonde flung the disc away and leapt backwards several metres. With a loud pinging noise, the object hit the wall at the opposite side of the room. Cathy blinked, her face pale. “What in the Underworld was that?” the blonde shouted, looking at Ami accusingly “And how did I get over here?”
“Hmm, the intensity is still too high,” Ami noted. “It's a portable, selective fear trap. I based it on some of those the airship brought back with the Dreadfog Island loot.” She walked over to the medallion and tried to pry it loose from the wall it had gotten stuck in.
“You figure you needa new way to scare people?” the blonde asked, keeping well away from the device.
“Yes, exactly,” Ami said, smiling. “Let me explain what I intend to do...”
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