The pale orc took a step back, his eyes darting left and right - from the knives and corkscrews affixed to the walls over to the wooden shelves, where colourful liquids bubbled within skull-emblazoned glass beakers. Reluctantly, his wide-eyed gaze returned to the dominant feature of the chamber. Underneath the highest point of its vaulting ceiling loomed a steel contraption that resembled a high-backed chair with chains hanging off it. Backlit by a basin of glowing coals, it cast long shadows over the pink-skinned creature.
The orc gulped at the sight of two slender girls with identically-shaped faces flanking the worrisome piece of furniture to its left and right. One of them was made of ice, and the other frowned at him with eyes that glowed like the fiery pits of the Underworld. “Empress, I-”
“Silence!” Ami cut him off. “Ulag, was it? You disobeyed a direct order when you attacked Commander Cathy. Be glad that you did not manage to kill or hurt her, or you would be in an even worse position now!”
The pink-skinned underling stooped down even further than natural for his kind, making himself appear smaller. His wide lips curved downwards, revealing a few crooked teeth.
“Until now, I have been too busy with important things to deal with you,” Ami continued, hoping that she sounded menacing. She had very little experience with intimidating and bullying people, and the hardest part about this performance was pretending that she was enjoying it. “Unfortunately for you, I don't want to encourage the mistaken impression that I tolerate insubordination. Guards!” she called out to the five goblins that stood behind Ulag, blocking the exit.
While she had been speaking to the orc, the short, large-eared creatures in troll-forged breastplates had started grinning. At her call, they stood at attention.
“Tie the prisoners to the chair,” Ami ordered.
The orc started struggling as the greenskins grabbed him and dragged him forward, his unruly, white hair whipping left and right as he jerked. “No, this is all wrong!” he protested, the pitch of his voice rising as he realised that Keeper powers restrained him just as securely as chains would. “I am stronger than her! I should be leading the troops!”
“Strength has little to do with leadership ability,” Ami said, milder than she should have. She banished the pity she felt for the frightened creature by reminding herself that he had tried to murder Cathy for personal gain. “Or are you suggesting that I don't know what I'm doing?”
The orc gaped at her, at a loss for words, causing the goblins to giggle.
One of them managed to snap a manacle of the modified dentist chair shut around one of Ulag's wrists. After that initial success, the greenskins had little trouble restraining the orc's other limbs too.
Ami could have simply moved the orc with her Keeper hand at any time. The ice golem, who stood motionless nearby like a glittering nurse, would also have been strong enough to handle the warrior by herself too. In truth, Ami had the goblins assist her only so that they would later gossip about what they had seen. Soon enough, rumours that something horrible had happened to the orc who had defied her will would reach every corner of her dungeon. Still, she didn't want the goblins to know exactly what she had in store for the prisoner, and it was time to shoo them out. “Thank you. You may leave now.”
None of them moved toward the doorway. On the contrary, a variety of other curious denizens were congregating around the doorway and peeking in.
“We want watch!” one of the guards declared, rubbing his hands in anticipation.
“Great fun!” a second agreed. Ami couldn't help notice that he was drooling at the corner of his mouth.
A third sat down on the ground “We help! Fetch knives!”
“Or chickens!” the fourth said, poking one finger through the bars of a bird cage that contained a rooster. “Why need chickens?”
Ami blinked. “I may not have been clear enough. Out!” she pointed at the exit.
“Unless you want to join him?” she asked sweetly, indicating the sweating orc with her thumb.
“Not that curious!” the first goblin said, shaking his head so fast that his helmet slid down over one eye.
The green creatures muttered in disappointment as they fled, looking back over their shoulders.
“I'll take you up on that offer,” a throaty female voice said from outside.
Surprised, Ami looked over at doorway, then blinked at the sight of a woman dressed from head to toe in black leather. Reflexively, she double-checked if this was indeed one of her minions. “Who are you? I didn't request for any dark mistresses to be hired.”
“I am Isolda, your Imperial Majesty. I joined as an infiltration specialist instead.”
“Infiltration specialist?” Ami asked, eyeing the woman's attention-grabbing outfit. The hood that covered the upper half of her face made it difficult to judge what she would look like without it.
“Well, I managed to get myself hired, didn't I?” the dark mistress said. “Owning more than one set of clothing helps. And I can fight just as well as your other minions, obviously.”
“I see.” Ami suspected that she should have a talk with Jered about his hiring practices – or better yet, get Cathy do it. “And now, you want to suffer his-” she pointed at the orc, trying to hide her discomfort “punishment too?”
“You wouldn't enjoy it, no matter your tastes,” the teenager said, feeling queasy.
Isolda laughed. “I’ll take that as a challenge.”
Ami was about to throw her out when an idea flashed through her mind. Perhaps she could make this work in her favour? Slowly, she nodded. “Very well, if that's what you really want. But don't complain about it later!”
“I won't, your Majesty!” the leather-clad woman said with a lecherous grin.
“So be it.” The portcullis leading to the rest of the dungeon slammed shut, sending a weak tremor through the ground and blocking out the speculations of the onlookers outside.
Ami turned her attention to the wards in each of the four corners of the chamber. Upon activation, a soft purple glow spread out from the magical diagrams, creeping across floor tiles and bricks like a new layer of paint. “Shabon Spray!”
“What are you doing, your Majesty?” the dark mistress asked, squinting as the thick, cold mist reduced visibility in the room to about an arm's length.
“I'm ensuring privacy so nobody can spy on me.”
“Oh, it's going to be one of those sessions,” the woman said, licking her lips.
“What?” the orc shrieked, breaking his morose silence.
Ami felt her cheeks heat up. Annoyed at the misunderstanding, she clarified in an icy voice “No. Nothing of the sort. You will understand later.” She walked over to the two and touched both with one hand each.
The orc went limp. At the same time, the statue-like ice golem suddenly moved, catching the dark mistress in her arms as she collapsed.
With two faint spheres of light now floating above Ami's palms, she let out a long breath as she dropped the act and her entire posture relaxed. She put the two specks of life energy into storage and removed two red-hot needles from the burning brazier. While they floated in the air before her, cooling down, she verified that neither of her unconscious “victims” were in danger of choking on their tongue. She took the orc's hand, pricked him in a finger with one of the sterilised needles, and collected a drop of blood. Since Isolda's hands were covered by leather gloves, Ami pricked her in the chin instead. Armed with two red droplets, she approached her workbench and removed a disc-shaped amulet from a drawer.
She split both drops of blood into two and applied one half to the thin rod she pulled out of the piece of jewellery. Then, she glanced over at the spell in the open necromantic tome before her and placed the remaining blood into one bucket each. Reciting an incantation for temporarily counteracting blood loss on the battlefield, she waved her hand over the buckets. Within them, the drops of blood swelled and expanded. Ami only stopped the spell when the red liquid threatened to overflow from its containers. It would fade away eventually, but it would last long enough for her purposes.
Using Keeper transport, she summoned a trio brush-wielding imps and pointed at the coppery-smelling liquid. “You know what to do. Be creative.”
As the little minions worked to distribute the blood in disturbing patterns all over the place, she sat down at the desk and pulled out her Mercury Computer. During the two hours she planned to spend in the privacy of this misty chamber, she would continue with her dungeon heart research.
On the screen, the Keeper rat twitched in slow motion within its cage before being lifted by an unseen force and slamming against the bars. The animal remained stuck there for a moment, squeaking and waving its paws.
Ami leaned forward as the rodent's body suddenly passed through the obstacle and sped down a corridor, moving through several glass panes of variable thickness without shattering them. At that point during the recording, she had teleported to capture the view straight down at the pierced membrane of the rat's recently-destroyed dungeon heart. Ami paused the playback as the animal was just about to be sucked into the black abyss underneath the blood-gushing membrane, and a layer filled with additional data appeared on the screen. She stared at the numbers, frowned, and started jotting down notes.
Camilla knocked on the wooden door with her knuckles. “Abbot Durval? May I have a few minutes of your time?”
“Ambassador? Yes, please come in, the door is open.”
The blonde fairy entered and stopped in the doorway, surprised by the bleakness of the chamber. Aside from a low table and a chair that currently carried the weight of the old man, the room lacked furniture or wallpapers. She spotted a number of scars criss-crossing the bare brickwork, and the smell of stone dust filled the air.
“Tea?” Durval asked, nodding at the tankard that stood on the table. Next to it rested a gauntlet studded with black gems whose glint made her hackles rise for some reason.
“No, thank you,” Camilla declined, watching the abbot's hands as he finished removing the second gauntlet.
“The Empress gave them to me,” Durval answered her unasked question. “She wants me to learn how to properly use them for fine manipulation of black magic.”
“What for?” the fairy’s gaze moved back to the gouges in the wall. “They feel evil.”
“They should. The gemstones are filled to the brim with dark energy," the elderly man explained, tapping the largest of the shiny round globes with his fingernail. "Apparently, she thinks that if holy power is restructured by dark magic in the right way, then it will be able to cure cursed wounds."
Camilla tilted her head to the side. "I- that sounds like a cover story to trick you into corrupting yourself." After remembering that she was talking to a man about ten times her elder, she added "No offence intended. I mean, using evil power for healing..."
Durval shrugged. “It's really more about destroying the source of the problem. She has shown me some interesting work on using a killing spell to cure diseases."
"What?" Camilla blanched.
"It makes sense in context. In any case, either she seems to believe that her idea will work, or she has managed to fool me." He took a sip of tea. "Now, there was a reason for your visit, Ambassador?"
“Oh, erm, yes.” Camilla folded her hands. “I was hoping you could give me some advice. I informed Empress Mercury that my sisters would be arriving here any day now, and she asked me about assisting her with some research, outside of my role as an Ambassador. I don't really want to help her gain more power, but I'm afraid of what she'll do if I deny her request!"
The abbot's white eyebrows rose. "Did she threaten you?"
"Not directly, but," the fairy wrung her hands, "But I asked for some time to think about it, and in the night, the embassy tower was hit by lightning! That was an implied threat!"
"Oh, it was?"
"What else could it be? I mean, the place where my siblings are going to live is struck by lightning while I'm pondering-"
"Sorry, I meant to express that the embassy being struck by lightning is news to me. I have been busy dealing with a few cases of mild food poisoning in the city down here,” Durval interrupted. "But I can certainly understand why you are worried under the circumstances."
"So what should I do?" Camilla asked.
"Well, do you know what she wants your help with?"
"Yes, she wants me to activate the underground tower she took from Zarekos a few times so she can see what happens," the blonde explained. She wrung her hands again. "I don't actually know what it does, so I can't judge the risks!"
Durval followed the pacing fairy with his eyes. "For the moment, I can only advise you to wait and find out more. If you wish, I will accompany you to your next audience with her and fish for information."
"You'd do that for me?" Camilla's eyes gleamed. "Thank you very much!"
The abbot returned her smile. "Don't mention it. From what I have learned so far, it seems that Mercury lacks much of the viciousness of regular Keepers, so your worries may be unfounded."
Ami was happy that it was time to get out of the chamber. The smell of blood drying on the ground was starting to make her sick. She moved over to the two unconscious figures, careful to step around the pools of clotting liquid. The imps had splashed it around like excited, finger-painting toddlers, but they had also gone a step further and redecorated the wall. Now, murals of faces twisted in agony silently screamed at Ami, and she was glad that her mist hid most of the details. The glimpses she got reminded her far too much of the unfortunate souls trapped within Crowned Death's fiery crown. At least, the new décor was fitting for a blood-splattered torture chamber, which would help maintain the illusion that cruel and unusual punishment had been meted out.
Ami opened the orc's manacles and gently lowered him to the floor before placing the dark mistress on the dentist's chair. For a moment, she worried about Isolda's black bodysuit. Would it be believable for the garment to have survived a torture session intact? Ami shrugged. She didn't feel like stripping the woman, nor like dealing with the inevitable misinterpretations that would arise if she did. Her underlings would come up with bizarre explanations for the intact clothing on their own, she was sure. After looking around to see if nothing else needed adjusting, she removed her imps from the chamber and verified that she was wearing her properly calibrated fear amulet. “Go ahead.”
Her ice golem stepped in between the two motionless bodies, grabbed their shoulders, and started shaking.
“Wake up!” Ami ordered and let some of the stolen life energy flow back into its owners. As soon as the bodies stirred, she cut off the flow.
Ulag regained consciousness first. His eyes opened slowly, as if the lids were heavy as lead, and his pupils shrank to pinprick-size as he got his first look at his surroundings. He sat up with a start, or at least tried to. His upper body lurched and sank back as his muscles failed him in his weakened state.
Above him on the chair, the dark mistress groaned. She moved her head slowly, blinking at the ceiling through the eye-holes in her mask. As she lowered her gaze, it fell on Ami, who was watching her from nearby. Immediately, the entire chair started shaking as its occupant began shivering violently.
Alerted by the noise of chains rattling, the orc turned his head just in time to see the leather-clad woman slide off the seat, almost landing on him. In her eagerness to get away from something, she bumped into him. He followed her gaze, spotted Mercury wearing a blood-stained apron over her short-skirted uniform, and let out a girlish shriek.
Ami kept her face expressionless as both of her victims started dragging themselves away from her across the tiled floor as fast as they could manage. Their wide, terrified eyes that didn't dare stray away from her were proof enough that her amulet was working as intended.
The orc's shoulders bumped into the wall, cutting off his escape route. “W-wh- w- at did y-you-” he began, sabotaged by his chattering teeth.
“What did I do to you?” Ami asked, smiling evilly. Getting the smile right had taken quite a bit of time in front of the mirror, not to mention a lot of teasing from Cathy and Jered until she managed to combine the frown and the curvature of the lips correctly. “Can't you remember?”
Both he and Isolda shook their heads.
Ami's smile widened. “Good. I could tell you, but that would make me wiping your memories a waste of time. I'd hate for my methods to get out and ruin the surprise. Besides, this way, every time can be as horrible as the first!”
“E-every-” The orc pressing his back against the wall gasped and looked as if he might start crying, and the dark mistress let out a gasp.
Ami turned away from them so they couldn't see her face. She reminded herself that she was doing this so she could avoid having to take more objectionable disciplinary measures. A little deception was positively benign in comparison. “Now get out!”
Stone scraped against stone as the heavy portcullis behind them opened. The gap underneath it was barely wide enough to fit a fist through when Ulag reached it and attempted to squeeze through. Isolda was right next to him, pushing and shoving the best she could manage.
“Look, it's opening!” the gravelly voice of a troll said outside.
“Hah, aren't they in a hurry?” someone else jeered when the heads of the apparent torture victims appeared in the opening and hands clawed at the ground, eliciting gleeful laughter.
“Hey, isn't that a dark mistress? I thought they liked pain!” someone called out.
Isolda planted an elbow in the orc's face and pushed past him, leaving a trail of blood on the ground as she dragged herself forward.
The onlookers quieted down for a moment before descending on the woman like vultures. “What she do? Tell us!” “What was the chicken for?” “Did she...”
Within the room that would now undoubtedly become known as her torture chamber, Ami nodded to herself. It certainly looked as if the rumour mill would be working itself into a frenzy over this. Good.
Reacting to her unspoken will, a group of imps filed in with mops and buckets to clean away the evidence of her deception.
“Kunzite, report!” Queen Beryl ordered, her long fingers caressing the black sphere between her hands. “Have you finally tracked down that upstart?”
The transparent projection of the dark general rose from its bow. “We have run into a wall, my Queen,” the white-haired man said with a frown.
“I do not want to hear excuses!” the red-haired monarch snapped, not even looking at him.
“It is a literal wall. A barrier impedes our progress. More interference from those who do not want us to reach that world.”
Beryl focused on the glowing image in the air before her for the first time. “Can you breach it?”
“It is proving resistant to direct attacks so far,” the dark general replied, sounding none too optimistic. “For now, I have sent out my youma to find out how far it extends and where its weak points are.”
The dark queen's eyelids lowered halfway, and she sank into the bluish-purple rock of her throne. Within the featureless grey expanse between worlds, space folded in stranger ways than usual, and then she stood next to the dark general.
“My queen?” Surprised, Kunzite turned, his white cape waving with the motion. She rarely left her throne, and only for things she felt strongly about. Failure here, he realised, would have decidedly unpleasant consequences.
Beryl ignored him and stared at the smooth barrier emitting a golden light, her staff topped by her omni-present crystal ball floating in front of her. The tall woman's long red hair and blue gown fluttered as power swirled around her, manifesting as arcs of lightning around the black orb.
As far as Kunzite could tell, she was not trying to force her way through the obstacle - not that he had expected her to try. One didn't survive to become a powerful sorceress by interacting rashly with unknown energy fields.
After what felt like minutes, the magic died down, and the queen of the Dark Kingdom turned away from the opaque surface. "She is on the other side of this barrier; I am certain," she stated. "Find a way to bypass it. I am getting impatient."
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