Ami heard a wooden snap from outside her study, followed by a loud string of obscenities that made her cheeks heat up. With footsteps silenced by the thick carpet, she walked over to the ornate door leading out of the room and pushed the gilded wood open a hand's width. Through the gap, she saw a red-faced dark elf sitting in front of a writing desk, grinding her teeth.
Eline was glaring at the broken pen she held in her ink-splattered fingers. Black dots covered the paper underneath her hands, ruining the rows of neat calligraphy she had been working on. A few droplets had even landed on her green blouse and trousers. With another muttered curse, the dark elf hurled the splintered half of the pen at the wall, hitting one of the rectangular pillars and leaving a black spot on its snowflake-shaped engravings.
“What happened?” Ami asked as she approached to see what the problem was.
Eline flinched, and her mouth closed with an audible click. She turned and looked over her shoulder at the approaching teenager, her fingers crumpling up the stained letter to the dwarfs. “E-Empress! Forgive me, I did not intend to disturb you! The pen- it just broke, and...” She shrugged.
Ami inspected the damage. It didn't look as if the splinters had pierced the dark elf's delicate white skin. “The pen just broke?”
“Y-yes! I didn't do anything wrong!” Eline declared, squirming in her seat. “I wasn't even putting much pressure on it. I couldn't have, since I wouldn't have been able to write properly that way.”
Ami briefly glanced at the neat, flowing characters that had earned Eline her current position as a scribe. “So the pen was faulty?” The half of the writing implement that was rolling across the polished floor disappeared, only to reappear on top of her palm. Upon closer inspection, she smelled rotten wood. Strange, her dungeon heart had created the utensil along with the room. Perhaps the ink's had reacted poorly with the wooden shell? Snapping out of her thoughts, she focused on the worried dark elf. “It seems you are right,” she agreed, and Eline's posture relaxed slightly. “I apologise for the inconvenience.”
The woman's eyes widened slightly. “N-no need to apologise to me, your Majesty,” she said with a deep bow. “I shall start over at once.” She hesitated upon seeing the state of the drafts, which had been sprinkled with ink too. “After cleaning my hands and obtaining a new, legible version of the draft from Lord Jered, if that is alright with you?”
Ami nodded, somewhat bemused by Eline treating the adventurer like a noble. It made sense, in a way, since he occupied a high position in her court – as strange as it felt for her to have a court in the first place. She should really get around to formalising everything and bestowing a real title upon him one of these days, but there were just so many more pressing issues. Besides, she had the vague notion that she should have a proper coronation ceremony before she started handing out titles. Perhaps after the negotiations with the dwarfs were successful?
While Ami pondered, Eline reached the antechamber's exit and almost bumped into Torian at the door.
“Empress! Do you have a moment?” the short-bearded warlock said with a winning smile, leaning aside to let the dark elf pass.
Ami blinked at the huge mushroom hat that grew from the top of his staff and which he held over his head like an umbrella. “What is that?” she asked, pointing at the white-dotted red fungus.
“Lab accident,” Torian commented as he opened both wings of the door so he could step inside with his cumbersome burden. “A potion shelf broke and spilled its contents. Irritating, but we'll fix it later.” He waved one hand dismissively. “I'm here to inform you that the death god's aquatic troops have stopped advancing. Perhaps he has finally calmed down enough to realise that an attack would be futile?”
“Or he is waiting for reinforcements,” Ami pondered. She had learned to be pessimistic about anything that involved the dark gods.
“That is also a possibility,” Torian agreed. “I am certainly not suggesting that we become less vigilant. Now,” he adjusted the tiny golden chain holding shut his high collar with his free hand, “I couldn't help notice that... well... may I speak freely?”
“Why did you waste a dungeon heart on a rat?” the black-haired man blurted out. “I mean, I can see the advantages of a subordinate who literally can't think on his own, but wouldn't someone smart and loyal have been a better choice for the job? Someone like me?” The warlock patted his chest. “Your Majesty, I beg you! Please consider giving one of the conquered dungeon hearts to me!”
“Have I not served you well? I would make a great subordinate Keeper!”
“What could a ruddy rat possibly be more qualified for than me?” the warlock spat out in frustration.
“Dying,” Ami stated flatly, causing the man to stiffen. “I am researching the effects of destroying dungeon hearts on the Keeper. The test subjects are not expected to survive.”
Torian gulped, the enthusiasm wiped from his face. “I... see. So you are just going to destroy all of the seized hearts? Can you afford that? It feels unbelievably wasteful.” He shook his head slowly.
“None of them are safe to use while the dark gods are angry at you,” Ami informed him.
“Oh.” Torian showed his disappointment by hanging his head. “Well, if you are ever in need of a subordinate-”
There was a knock at the door. “Your Majesty?” a trollish voice called. “The Ambassador wants to see you urgently!”
“Hurry!” a fairy's voice echoed through the corridor, accompanied by the sound of many rapid but soft footsteps.
“I can't lead you any faster, Dandel! Mercury's guiding gem doesn't work instantly!” Camilla protested. The short blonde hovered in front of an intersection, holding out a round amulet to see if it would change temperature to discourage her from proceeding. She was the only of the sisters to fly in the air, despite the high ceilings. “No traps,” she concluded after a moment and pointed at the right hallway.
Her sisters started running in the indicated direction, their rain-drenched wings hanging limply from the back openings in their equally wet swimsuit-like uniforms.
“Are you sure we can't go meet abbot Durval first?” Camilla asked as she flew after them. She hadn't expected their reunion to turn out quite that stressful.
“Do you want to lead a reaper to the town full of civilians?” Tilia asked rhetorically.
“No!” Some glitter trickled off Camilla's wings as she shook her head. “Why is he chasing you, anyway?”
“It's a reaper! It doesn't need a reason to kill!” Roselle huffed. Her orange eyes widened when an imp stepped out of an alcove in front of her and froze in surprise. With a grunt of effort, she vaulted over the startled creature.
“The stupid thing spotted us when we were flying along the coast,” Anise explained as she ran. “He's been following us ever since!”
“That slowing spell is such a pain! I almost dropped off the carpet when he first used it!” Tilia added.
“I still can't believe he's fast enough to almost keep up with a flying carpet!” Melissa said plaintively.
“He is clearly speeding himself up with magic,” Cerasse commented. “Also, this means we should move faster.”
“Do you think he can track us in this labyrinth?” Dandel asked and peered down a side passage as she rushed past. Inside, a few orcs turned their heads to stare after her.
“He only needs to follow the wet footprints,” the violet-haired fairy answered.
“Great. Not only does the empress' stupid weather make us miserable and cold, it also makes us easier to track,” Anise grumbled.
Camilla, for her part, found the temperature rather pleasant and even a bit on the hot side, but her ambassadorial dress was still dry. “We need to go right at the next intersection. Watch out, the floor is rather smooth here!”
“Got it!” Melissa shouted. The blue-haired sister was currently in the lead, and instead of slowing down, she kept close to the wall. Her right arm lashed out, latching on to the square column that decorated the corner. Carried by her momentum, she pivoted around the bend in a graceful arc up until the stone gave with a loud crack. The fairy suddenly found herself holding a small chunk of masonry and hurtling towards the far wall.
“Melissa!” Camilla shouted when her sister crashed shoulder-first into the hard surface and slid to the ground. Pieces of broken murals landed around and on top of her.
“Anise, Cerasse, help her up,” Dandel told the two fairies closest to Melissa. She creased her forehead as a distant roar reached her. “He's getting closer! We need to get to the Empress quickly!”
“Are you all right?” Cerasse asked as she bent over the prone girl.
“Ow, that's going to leave a bruise,” Melissa answered with a dazed expression. “The ground is nice and warm, though.”
“Stop lying around and get up!” Anise said as she grabbed one of Melissa's arms and yanked her to her feet. The redhead kicked one of the pieces of debris and frowned at the cracks spreading outward from the destroyed mural. “What kind of crappy architecture crumbles that easily, anyway?”
Tilia put a hand on Anise's back and pushed gently. “Keep moving! Those trolls up there don't look too happy about the damage!” She pointed at a balcony from which a handful of green faces were glowering down at them.
“Official Ambassadorial business! We need to see the Empress right now!” Camilla shouted in their direction as the group of fairies ran past.
The most muscular of the large-nosed creatures narrowed his eyes at her retreating back and disappeared through a doorway.
“Which way now?” Anise shouted as the group arrived at another intersection. She let go of Melissa's arm and looked over her shoulder. “I think I hear the stomping of hooves!”
There was a blue flash, and a blast of cold air filled with snowflakes momentarily displaced the dungeon's heat.
Startled, Camilla's head whipped right to look at the blue-haired figure now barring their way. She heard a soft gasp from her side as her sisters reflexively dropped into battle stances.
“Ambassador?” Mercury spoke, letting her gaze wander over the six wary fairies before focusing it on the blonde. “You wanted to speak to me?”
“Your horned reaper is hunting my sisters here, you have to stop him!” she blurted out. “Your Majesty,” she remembered to add after a moment.
“Rabixtrel?” the dark empress sounded surprised and covered her mouth with one hand. “Now where- oh!” She gestured, space to her right twisted, and Camilla suddenly found herself staring at the red-scaled back of the reaper.
The demon's hooves hit the ground with thunderous noise and struck sparks as he skidded onwards for a short distance while he turned to face the fairies. He lunged forward, scythe raised, and came to a sudden stop.
Camilla gulped. She could see the monster's muscles strain as it tried to push through some invisible force until its solid white eyes spotted his Keeper.
“Rabixtrel, they are guests. You aren't allowed to kill them. Limit yourself to the undead until I give you different orders, please,” the blue-haired empress spoke.
The horned demon snorted, blowing steam from his nose slits, and glared at the winged girls. “Fine,” he growled out through finger-long teeth, his scaled fingers shifting their grip on his scythe.
“Good,” Mercury nodded. “Now, please continue exterminating the ghosts.” An instant later, the red monster was gone.
“He didn't sound as if he meant it, if you ask me,” Roselle muttered quietly.
Mercury still heard her. “I transported him half a continent away. You are safe from him.” She briefly met the eyes of each of the fairy girls and inclined her head lightly.“Welcome to my realm, by the way.”
Dandel straightened and bowed with military precision. A quick sideways glare prompted her sisters to do the same. “Empress Mercury. We are honoured that you would welcome us personally. Thank you for restraining your minion.”
“Please get up, there's no need for that. I'm just glad this was a problem that could be resolved easily.” The empress smiled. “I suppose you would prefer to return to the guest quarters now and recover from your journey?” she continued, alluding to the drenched state of six of the fairy sisters.
“That is an excellent suggestion, your Imperial Majesty,” Dandel replied, recognising the dismissal for what it was.
“Wait, the same guest quarters that have a hole in the roof large enough to fly a flying carpet through?” Anise piped up.
The two red glows in Mercury's shadowed face winked out briefly as she blinked. “There... is a hole in the embassy roof? What made it?” She looked at Camilla as if she thought the Ambassador had something to do with it.
“Lightning! It got hit by Lightning!” the blonde explained quickly. “Didn't you know?”
“Lightning...” The empress lowered her head, resting her chin on one hand. “But I don't allow lightning to- excuse me, I have to go check something!” She disappeared, but reappeared for a moment to add “Oh, and don't worry about the roof, I'll send some imps to fix it.”
Ami felt a tug at the hem of her skirt and looked down.
From underneath a yellow hard helmet, the fist-sized black eyes of an imp stared back at her.
“Yes?” she asked, wondering what the little worker wanted.
The imp waved her fingers toward herself several times and then jumped into the air, pulling her knees up to her chest. In the middle of her somersault, she shrunk into a tiny green sphere and disappeared, leaving nothing but a swarm of dissipating green motes behind.
Ami blinked. She wants me to follow? With a thought, she retrieved the new position of the underling from her dungeon heart and pulled herself through space. With a metallic clang, her boots touched down on a high walkway suspended between rows of barrel-like contraptions. Underneath the ceiling, a thicket of interwoven glass pipes, crystals, and pendulums formed a deliberately confusing canopy. Ami stepped around one of the cold pillars of fog cascading down from a bowl of dry ice above and faced the three imps standing around a tiny cart. “Well?”
The imps squeaked and hissed unhappily as they opened the cart's lid so Ami could see the glittering pile of raw artificial gems inside.
She spotted the problem at first glance, and got a little fright. The heap of blue gems was smaller than it should be. At a rough estimation, about a third of the expected harvest was missing. Was someone stealing from her?
One of the imps let out a squeal and beckoned her to follow. The creature scurried down a ramp and led her to the base of a gem furnace, then disappeared into the real access hatch at the bottom of the structure.
Ami brushed aside the cables and panels inscribed with useless occult symbols and examined the mechanism hidden behind the distractions. With her hand, she brushed over one of its metallic surfaces and frowned at the reddish-brown residue that stuck to her fingertips. “Rust?”
The iron door slammed shut behind Mukrezar with enough force to shake dust off its frame. His footsteps echoed loudly off the damp, cold stone walls as he stomped across the torch-lit chamber.
“Bad news, your Frownyness?” the cheerful voice of his butler came from behind him as the imp moved his legs rapidly in order to catch up.
The pink-haired elf stopped and waited for the suit-wearing creature to reach his side. His face twisted into a grimace of rage, and he kicked the imp hard enough to send him flying.
The butler bounced off the far wall and landed face-first on the floor.
“No, I always look like this when I'm happy, imbecile!”
“As you say, Master,” the imp groaned. A few seconds later, he jumped up as if nothing had happened and brushed the dirt off his black suit.
Mukrezar took a deep breath. “That spineless worm of a high priest is denying me the troops I want!”
“How abominably prudent of him.” The imp stroked his beard, keeping well away from the pacing Keeper. “Why?”
“Something about Crowned Death weakening the enemy so much that -I quote – you'd have to try to fail to mess it up,” Mukrezar muttered, waving his hand dismissively. “His success rate so far doesn't exactly fill me with confidence.”
“But Master, who cares about a few failures here and there? Just look at your own-”
“Quiet! I am thinking,” the crimson-eyed elf interrupted. “This pointless distraction is taking up valuable time I could instead be using to figure out where the Avatar's new mantle is being created.”
“That disgusting champion of all that is nice and good,” the imp shuddered, “will soon have collected a force able to challenge you here, Master.”
“I am aware of that. I might have to move at that point. Now, how do I get out of- ah!” He slammed a fist into his open palm. “I got a solution!”
“Does it involve rings, your Nefariousness?” the butler asked, his expression blank.
“Not this time, unfortunately. Well, it might. Purely for the amusement value. Hmm, if I married them off and told them...”
“Master! You were about to tell me about an actually useful idea!” the butler interrupted as Mukrezar's gaze became unfocused.
“Right. It's simple, really. How's dear old Groll doing these days?”
“Your admirably treacherous and selfish former subordinate remains in the torture chamber. We put him into an iron maiden built from his own teeth,” the butler proclaimed, rubbing his hands with glee. “I hope you don't need to ask him anything, Master. His pronunciation has deteriorated quite a bit since we put ants in his mouth.”
“That doesn't even begin to cover what he deserves for abandoning me. Unfortunately, I see myself forced to release him from his suffering.”
“Master?” The butler sounded appalled and looked up at Mukrezar, his big black eyes wide.
“Well, it would be completely pointless of me to send troops against Mercury only to be banished in mid-assault because Groll escaped under mysterious circumstances and took the opportunity to attack my semi-abandoned dungeon.” Mukrezar chuckled. “I'm afraid we'll be under siege here until whatever Crowned Death is trying finishes blowing up in his face.”
“I see. Who are you going to promote to Groll's role? Perhaps a warlock with a heart as black as pitch, or a mistress with no heart at all?” the butler suggested. “Or a bloodthirsty vampire?”
“I was thinking about a goblin,” the elf said in a deadpan voice.
“A goblin Keeper.” The butler half-closed his eyes and scratched his chin. “That was a terrible joke, your Humourlessness.”
“I am completely serious!” Mukrezar replied with a grin.
The bearded imp groaned. “That's what I was afraid of, Master. Oh well. Far be it from me to stop you from wasting your time leading a complete moron by the hand.”
Mukrezar raised his index finger and waggled it left and right. “Actually, it's not me who is going to keep an eye on him.” His crimson gaze bored into the butler, his grin unwavering.
The butler's shoulders slumped.
Ami appeared on the mat-covered floor of one of the smaller training rooms. A dripping noise made her look over to the shooting range, where the targets were coated in melting ice. She returned her gaze to the tall woman sitting on one of the mats and dipping her hands into a pot filled with warm water. “Cathy? You wanted to see me?”
The swordswoman looked up, the right half of her face reddened and covered in tiny welts around her scar. “Hello, Mercury.” She rose, brushing off the thick blanket she was wearing over her Sailor Mercury uniform. “ Yes, I- whoa, you look about as exhausted as I feel!”
Ami sighed, letting her weariness show. “I've been spending the last few hours replacing the anti-spying measures for the gem furnaces and doing various other repairs,” the blue-haired girl said, her shoulders slumping. “And when I was done with that, a water pipe burst in the civilian town, and I had to deal with that too. This sudden string of problems is unlikely and alarming.” She politely tried not to stare too much at the scratch marks on the blonde's cheek.
“Come to think of it, I heard some minions grumble about mildew and the food,” Cathy commented. “Anyway, I got the freezing spell more or less figured out right now. At the very least, I'm no longer freezing my own fingers, so that's progress. Do your thing and I'll show you.” She took a balanced stance and spread her arms.
Ami nodded and turned into a streak of black lightning that shot toward the blonde, hit the ribbon decorating her chest, and sunk into her body. When Cathy's eyes opened, they glowed red from within.
“Maybe you can do something about this infernal rash while you are at it,” the true owner of the body said mentally as Ami possessed her.
Ami stopped her – Cathy's – hand about half-way up to her face, fingers ready to scratch the distracting itch on her cheek. ”It is rather distracting. Do you know where you got it?”
”It woke me up this morning,” Cathy replied, radiating dissatisfaction and irritated confusion. ”I have no idea where it comes from.”
Ami concentrated on forming a necromantic healing spell and brushed over the rash with three fingers, restoring the inflamed skin to its proper state. It was only a fix for the symptoms, but she couldn't do more without knowing the deeper cause.
Cathy appreciated the relief from the itching. “Ah, much better! All right, pay attention now!”
Ami didn't resist when the swordswoman brushed her control aside and took moved the body. The teenager observed quietly how the blonde started to shape the borrowed magic.
Cathy crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Now, I get the feeling that your Shabon Spray Freezing isn't quite the right way to do this, but if you focus the flow like this, you can-
The electric light overhead flickered once and then went out, leaving the possessed ersatz-senshi standing in a pitch-black room.
Cathy blinked in surprise, not that it changed anything about the darkness. ”All right, something is seriously wrong with this dungeon.”
Sitting in a small circle of candlelight, Ami frowned at the screen of her palmtop computer and tried to figure out what was happening. Her fingers stopped typing when the crystal ball standing on the stack of books to her right activated and showed her an unwelcome face.
Princess Julia's features twisted into a cheerful smile. “Hello, Empress! Are you still looking for a solution to everything around you falling apart?” Midori opened the conversation.
The other Keeper's words intrigued and worried and Ami enough to prevent her from ending the conversation at once. Her heart sped up. If Midori had noticed her current troubles, then others might have too. “Greetings, Midori. Mentioning a solution implies that you know what's going on?” she asked guardedly.
“Oh, absolutely. It always pays to be informed.” The possessed elf paused for dramatic effect and leaned closer to the crystal ball. She raised a well-manicured hand, as if to shield her mouth from the view of invisible observers and whispered. “Would you like to know more?”
Of course I want to know more! Ami thought, though she would take everything she learned from a Keeper with a grain of salt. “What would that information cost me?” she asked instead of jumping at the offer.
“Oh, this one's free!” Midori said. “It's not as if you can do anything about it.”
Ami found the way the other Keeper was giggling outright disturbing. Such a good mood didn't bode well for her.
“Anyway, it's rather simple. Crowned Death is sitting like a big fat chunk of toxic sewage in the flow of corruption that eventually wells up from your dungeon hearts. In other words, your corruption hates you and wants you dead. Sucks to be you!”
Ami's eyes widened. Her dungeon no longer being safe from its own corruption would theoretically account for the observed effects. She massaged her temples. What could she do to prevent this? For the moment, she drew a blank. “Could you please stop giggling?” she snapped at Midori.
“Aw, is that any way to talk to someone who can save you? Unlike you, I do have allies in the realm of the Dark Gods who can do something about this. It will cost you, of course.”
“Of course.” Ami knew that she shouldn't be getting her hopes up. There was no way to ensure that Midori would keep his part of any potential bargain. Well, she could at least listen to what the other Keeper wanted. Knowing what he desired could turn out to be useful, even if she declined to meet the price. “I assume the title you wanted is part of the cost?”
“Oh, no.” Midori waved one hand like a fan. “Why would I go for something like that when I'm holding all the cards? No. Instead, you'll abdicate in my favour!”
Ami recoiled. “What? Out of the question!” she replied reflexively to the outrageous demand.
“Is that so?” Midori grinned, showing many pearly white teeth that did not belong to him. “Tell me, have you checked your dungeon hearts lately?”
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