Ami had created the small room as a library and removed the bookshelves, leaving her with a brightly-lit chamber well suited for scholarly pursuits. After four desks across the footstep-muffling carpet to the centre of the room, covering them with a tablecloth, and hiding the uglier alcoves with wall drapes, it also served as an adequate place for conducting diplomacy.
Sitting across from her at the table, Jered talked into a black-painted crystal ball. “I think your reservations are baseless. Her Imperial Majesty is not requesting to purchase weapons, tools, or even knowledge from you. The other dwarven holds can hardly object to you selling us art.”
Ami nodded along with his words, even though she knew she couldn't be seen through the layer of paint covering the orb. She heard a chair move, followed shortly by a door closing, and waited patiently for the go-between to relay the message to his liege. Just because the dwarfs of Sirith Anlur were willing to trade with her didn't mean that they weren't paranoid about it.
She really hoped they would accept this deal, even if it wasn't about a crown. Having mutually beneficial trade relations with one of the dwarven groups might just keep the others from attacking at once when they learned about her dungeon. Diplomacy aside, Ami was eager to see how professional dwarven artisans would work around the dungeon's corruption. Her smile fell a little when she remembered what exactly they'd have to work with. Given the constraints, their masterful craftsmanship would be necessary to avoid complete disaster.
Unexpected movement in one corner of the room startled her from her thoughts, and she turned just in time to see Tiger step out of a teleport, surrounded by a cloud of dust. Quickly, she raised a finger to her lips and met the youma's eyes, shaking her head.
Tiger nodded, grinning like a madwoman, and sneaked towards the door. Behind it, she found Cathy sitting in full armour at a desk, chewing on a pen and scowling at her paperwork.
The blonde's expression brightened when the youma gave her a thumbs up, and she waved for her to come closer.
As the door closed, Ami briefly wondered that the two were up to and if it had something to do with the camera dangling from her sister's neck.
Footsteps approached, and a male dwarf said “Lord Jered? Could you please specify the theme that the commissioned designs must incorporate?”
“There are three, actually,” Ami spoke up. She heard the dwarf on the other end of the connection suck in a sharp breath. “One can be dominant, but there have to be at least traces of the others present, too.” Unfortunately.
“Please elaborate, your Imperial Majesty?” The messenger sounded young or intimidated, and possibly both.
“The first theme is fairly straightforward. Water and ice. Frost flowers, bluish colours, clear or mirrored surfaces, that kind of thing.” Ami felt confident that the theme represented her own powers. The origin of the second had stumped her for much longer.
“Understood, your Imperial Majesty.”
“The next theme is a little more complicated, as it doesn't seem very unified. I have come to the conclusion that it simply opposes the dark god Azzathra.” Apparently, her tweaks to deflect hostile influences in the corruption had caught whatever he had been doing along with Crowned Death's efforts. She hadn't even known he had been involved, which had made identifying the resulting aesthetics tricky.
“I – am sorry to say that I do not quite follow, Empress?”
“He promotes strength and abhors magic,” Ami elaborated. “Therefore, fragility and magic would make sense and fit the observed manifestations. Among them are filigree structures, arcane symbols, and crystals.”
“Ah. That sounds as if it would allow our artist a certain degree of freedom.” A feather scratched over parchment. “And the last theme, your Imperial Majesty?”
“Well, um-” Ami began, glad that the messenger couldn't see her face. She coughed. “That is – I think it would be easier to show you. I have a chamber with a good number of examples. I shall set up a second crystal ball there and remain in this room, if that is agreeable?”
Hushed whispers came from the covered scrying device. “Very well,” the go-between said finally, sounding uncertain.
Ami wondered why the dwarfs were so afraid of seeing her directly. She put the question aside for the moment and moved her Keeper sight to a small labyrinth made of upright stone plates. Getting a sufficient amount of samples to determine her dungeon's themes had been simple in the end. She had taken one empty chamber, filled it with standing rock slabs, and added a horde of imps. Under instructions that no two slabs should share the same motive, the imps had quickly fortified everything. The resulting engravings had been diverse as well as instructive.
Averting her gaze, Ami transported a crystal ball to the centre of the art gallery. “All right, it's ready.” Immediately, she heard a choking noise, probably from the wizard handling the dwarf's crystal ball.
“By Urmak's anvil!” the messenger exclaimed at the same time. “That's- I'm not sure-”
“I can't help it that the theme most opposed to a death god is fertility! Or that the corruption is putting its own spin on it!” Ami shouted, her cheeks feeling as if they were on fire.
“Ah, quite, your Majesty,” the dwarf said, gulping.
“Just – aim for something classy, please!” Ami blurted out. Privately, she was willing to settle for something that wouldn't get her arrested on indecency charges. “I'll do what I can to shift the manifestations more towards plants.”
“Do try to minimise the occurrence of mushrooms, though,” Jered added.
“I don't see any mush- oh. Yes. Well, I shall report this to my liege, but I have no doubt that our craftsmen would be able to handle this highly unusual challenge.”
Ami could feel the heat radiating from her face. “Good. Jered will work out the financial details of the transaction with you.” She stood and nodded at the wavy-haired man before fleeing the embarrassing conversation.
In the office next door, she stumbled upon Tiger and Cathy. The former sat on the blonde's desk, holding rectangles that looked suspiciously like photos.
Cathy slapped her leg, making the armour ring. “... his face! Hah! And the fairies!”
“That was a stroke of good luck,” Tiger agreed, sniggering.
“What exactly are you two doing?” Ami asked, narrowing her eyes at the images as she got closer.
“Oh, Cathy here tipped me off about who here wears conjured clothes aside from you. I just had to wait for the right moment, and-”
The door to the corridor flew open and banged against the wall. “Where is she?” Jadeite, wild-eyed and clad in a pristine new uniform, blocked the doorway.
“Eeep!” With a quick leap, Tiger rolled off the table and into cover behind Ami.
Scowling, the dark general snapped his fingers, causing every photograph in the room to burst into flame.
“My reports!” Cathy screamed as the smell of burnt paper rose from her desk. Thinking quickly, she threw herself on the tiny fires, quenching them.
“Mercury. Your sister needs to be disciplined,” Jadeite stated, dark power crackling around him as he stared at the youma.
“Protect me, little sister!” Tiger said, holding Ami like a shield. She leaned down and whispered into the younger girl's ear “I can make copies for you!”
Ami froze for a moment as her mind speculated on what those images could have shown. Darn it, she had just stopped blushing! “No fighting,” she declared. “Jadeite, stand down. Tiger, hand over that camera.”
“Spoilsport.” Tiger pouted and tossed the offending object to Jadeite.
A bolt of blackness from the curly-haired blonde reduced the object to tiny pieces in mid-flight. Clay shards clattered to the floor as the glamour on them faded.
“Tiger, that was a mean prank. Cathy, shame on you for encouraging her,” Ami scolded the older girls.
“Sorry, I thought we all could use a good laugh after all that has happened,” the swordswoman said. Seeing Ami's unamused expression, she continued “Seriously, it's not as if someone was hurt. In fact, consider it a preview of what will happen to everyone if you don't get the corruption thing managed. How did your negotiations about that go, anyway?” she blatantly changed the topic.
“I think the dwarfs will accept the deal. I was afraid they'd just abort the talks when I got to the part about that theme, though.”
“Understandable,” Cathy nodded.
Ami caught Jadeite staring intently at a spot on her forehead. “Jadeite? Is something wrong?” She asked, suddenly feeling very self-conscious.
“Well, it it looks as if your hair is starting to go grey,” the dark general said.
Ami twitched. “What?” Wait, she was wearing a conjured wig. Corruption, then. “That must be ash from earlier!” she blurted out. Judging from his sceptical expression, he didn't quite believe her.
“Sooo,” Tiger ended the awkward silence, “we'll have exciting new fashion designed by dwarven master tailors soon? Compliant with the three newest trends in dungeon aesthetics?”
“It's very likely,” Ami agreed, not entirely sure where the youma was going with this. Her grin promised imminent discomfort.
“Good. So only one important question remains!” Tiger put her hands on Ami's shoulders and gently pushed her toward the dark general. “Jadeite, which of the three available corruption styles would you prefer her new clothes to favour? Transparent, lingerie, or barely there?”
A knight wearing a dented and scraped suit of full plate leaned against one of the hall's many pillars, chipping away at the floor tiles as he tapped his armoured foot. He had kept his gear in great shape when compared to that of the dozens of similar figures around him. His ancient armour even retained a few patches of its coat of black paint and didn't squeak at all when he jumped to the side.
A skeletal, clawed foot bigger than his torso slammed down on the spot where he had just been standing. It swivelled, grinding stone underneath its weight as a hind leg twice as tall as the knight repositioned itself.
Leaning back, the warrior flipped open his visor and spat a curse in the direction of the distant, horned skull at the end of the creature's arching spine.
The dragon skeleton continued to ignore his existence, or perhaps its head was simply too far away to hear him over the general chatter. Crouching so it didn't bump into the ceiling, it took another step forward and joined the animated discussion between a bandage-wrapped mummy and a skeleton in faded warlock robes.
Pursing parchment-like lips, the undead knight turned away and searched for a path that would get him closer to the front of the dense crowd. He knew better than to take a short-cut through the only empty space among the forest of pillars. The priests of Crowned Death, thirteen black-robed figures cordoning off an area around the high priest himself, would punish such disrespect.
He focused on the beetle-like throne that towered above the masses, walking around on six spindly bone legs. On it, the high priest himself lounged like a decadent monarch, wrapped in six layers of gold-trimmed black cloth. His mask of rubies and amber scowled and glittered coldly as he pointed his empty eye-sockets at the balcony high up the closest wall.
The air carried a faint trace of rot and ancient dust as Mukrezar stepped up to the balcony's railing and addressed the ghostly illusion floating before him. “High priest. Are your underlings done with applying the protective spells?”
“Yes, they have finished layering their wards over your own.” The projection crossed its arms. “Were this any other opponent, I would consider your precautions paranoid.”
“Yes, you have mentioned that before.” Mukrezar looked right through the transparent image, narrowing his eyes at the distant real body of the priest below. “So, are you satisfied with the preparations?”
“There should be no way for anyone to spy on us,” the high priest acknowledged grudgingly.
“Good!” Mukrezar clapped his hands, making his wide, gold-embroidered sleeves sway from the motion. “Then it is time to finally get started!”
Trumpets sounded and banners unrolled from the edge of his balcony, reaching almost to the floor. Between the proudly-displayed white reaper heads on red cloth, a portcullis screeched as it withdrew into the ceiling.
“Quiet!” Mukrezar raised his hands, his amplified voice rolling like thunder over his audience. When all empty eye-sockets and milky, decayed orbs focused on him, he continued “The moment you have all been waiting for approaches! It is time for me to reveal my grand plan!”
The hall fell silent, letting his words echo.
“High priest, why don't you lead the congregation in prayer while my imps bring in one of the vital components? I'm sure Crowned Death is as eager to get the details as all of you are.”
The high priest nodded, and the thirteen priests surrounding him raised their bone staves as he started chanting in a long-dead language.
All around them, the various undead sank to their knees, pressed their foreheads to the ground, and joined in the prayer. Meanwhile, imps emerged from the portcullis, chained to a wheeled platform carrying a large cube.
Mukrezar smirked as it advanced through the ranks of bowed backs, their owners unable to look up and satisfy their curiosity. The box's intricate golden leaf pattern and strong magical aura screamed “ancient magical artefact of elven make” to those in the know.
The death priests, still standing, simply watched it approach as they continued their prayers. Soon enough, an oppressive presence weighted down on the chamber. The feeling was fainter than in a temple, but unmistakable.
“Lord Crowned Death,” Mukrezar said, bowing his head. “Welcome! Thank you for gracing us humble beings with your attention!” He straightened. “Now, without further ado - a little speech!”
His audience groaned, more so than was typical for the undead.
The pink-haired elf pointed at his chest with his thumb and grinned. “Evil, remember?”
Dead faces failed to reflect any kind of amusement.
“Tough crowd. Oh well.” He cleared his throat. “I guess I can let a small detail about my plan slip already to whet your appetite,” he said. “You'll be happy to learn that I'd be extremely surprised if it led to any of you being set on fire!”
A faint murmur of approval echoed through the hall, though the presence of the death god began to radiate annoyance, tinged with barely-controlled anger.
Mukrezar wisely decided to hurry up. “Servants of Crowned Death! You may be wondering why I asked for you specifically. That's simple: you are his best and his brightest! Not only are you vastly more powerful individually than the shambling hordes; more importantly, you are also smarter. Much smarter. You can follow complex instructions without supervision. You have the ability to effectively use magic. Surprises? They won't leave you stumped. Where other undead blindly follow orders, you can think on your feet, evaluate the situation, take the initiative and make decisions! Strategy and tactics are not beyond you. All of you are, dare I say it,” Mukrezar swept his pointed index finger over the group, ”qualified to lead. “And that,” Mukrezar raised both hands theatrically, “that is why I wanted, no, needed you all here! That is why I need you all- ”
Every single support pillar in the hall exploded outwards, and speeding rock shards scythed down the crowd. Domes of blue and purple lights flashed briefly where the rocks shattered against magical protections, while a thunderstorm of glowing lines flickered across every surface as wards overloaded and discharged. An instant later, the ceiling slammed down on the carnage, shaking the ground with its deafening impact.
Up on the balcony, the dusty blast of displaced air tossed Mukrezar against the wall.
Coughing, he climbed back to his feet and brushed the dirt from his robes. “- need you all to disappear.” He peered over the railing at the massive column of rock and debris that had replaced the room. “Yes, exactly like that. Thank you very much for your cooperation.” His mouth curved upwards as he addressed the stunned outrage and searing fury emanating from the general location of the debris. “By the way, I quit.”
The death god's fury turned into bloody-minded murderous intent.
Mukrezar put his hands on his head and cowered. “Oh dear, you want me dead. Woe is me! I shall be spending the brief remainder of my days in mortal terror, always looking over my shoulder and hiding from your cult!” He turned his head and glanced at the pile of rocks. ”Except I just decapitated it. Whoops. Well, never mind then. Guess I'm just going to mock you instead. Ahem.” He waved his hands as if scaring a bunch of chickens. “Shoo, go away. Don't you have more failures to oversee? I'm not afraid of a dark god with no minions to do his bidding!”
With the priests' chanting interrupted, Crowned Death's presence started to fade, but his searing hatred didn't. He must have been compensating for the poorer transmission with an increase in intensity.
“So, you probably want to know why I did it. Did I wish to avoid conflict with Mercury? Did I resent being ordered around? Did your enemies bribe me enough? Did another dark god offer me a better deal? Or did I find out about what happened fifteen years ago?”
He paused for effect. “All of those, actually. Still, that's not the important reason.”
A hint of curiosity briefly flickered through the death god's loathing.
“My true motive, of course, is pride!” the elf stated, beaming. “I had to remind the world that I am still the greatest Keeper, so I needed to one-up Empress Mercury. She merely ruined your master plan. Me? I wiped out your influence in this world on a whim!” Mukrezar thrust a fist in the air. “Today, your cult. Soon, the Avatar!”
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