Disguised with her hat and cloak, Ami slowly walked through the cluttered passage between towering bookshelves. To her left, four goblins squealed as they wobbled on a ladder and passed books upwards from hand to hand.
“No, the top left, you illiterate morons!” a red-faced warlock shouted at them from the ground, his back turned toward Ami.
She could see glimpses of his pale flesh through the bursting seams of his robe, which looked as if it had shrunk in the wash until it clung skin-tight to his body. The corruption's effects were spreading at an alarming rate, she pondered, cheeks flushing behind the high collar. At least the goblins seemed immune, mostly because they weren't wearing much more than loincloths anyway.
Ami stepped past the magic user without a word and ducked into a gap between book piles when a corpulent warlock rushed past. A file of goblins ran after him like harried ducklings, wheezing and carrying heavy grimoires.
She reached the shelf she was looking for and pouted in disappointment when she could see the bare wall of the library through the large gaps between the books. The spell she was looking for was missing. She glanced over to her right, where more of the greenskins were chatting among themselves while packing tomes into a crate. A haggard warlock with a permanently furrowed brow was circling them and watching them like a hawk.
Ami hoped the list in his hands could tell her where the book currently was. She approached the group just when the goblins were lifting the crate on their shoulders. “Excuse me-”
The greenskins turned their heads to face her, and one of them spotted the red glow between the edge of her hat and the top of her cloak's collar. He whirled around to salute her, taking his hands off the crate. Caught off guard by the sudden change in weight distribution, the other goblins stumbled and lost their grip on the wood.
With a loud clatter, the heavy box landed on the supervisor's foot and broke apart, spilling books all over the carpet. He howled in pain and started hopping on one leg. A lot of loud cursing later, he finally noticed that the goblins weren't jeering at his misfortune. Instead, they were saluting a shortish figure standing nearby.
“Y-Your Majesty?” he asked, a pained expression on his face. His bow was shallow and crooked from favouring his good leg.
“At ease, everyone,” Ami said to the group. She looked at the books littering the ground. “Are those from the shelf behind me?”
The magician nodded, biting his lips.
“Thank you. You should have that foot looked at,” she informed him. “Wait, don't walk. I will send you to Snyder.” With a wave of her hand, she transferred him to the large hall that passed as the dungeon's infirmary for the moment. “The rest of you, go help the other warlocks,” she told the goblins.
The triangle-eared creatures ran off, leaving her alone with the broken crate and disorderly pile of books and scrolls on the ground.
She sighed, her shoulders slumping. How was she going to find the spell she needed in that mess?
“Your Majesty!” Torian swept around a corner at a fast but dignified pace, his face flushed as if he had been running. “I am happy to see that you are back from your,” his wide smile faltered for a moment, “excursion, and none the worse for wear!”
Ami winced a little at that. Snyder had strongly objected to her being up and about half a day after having her wounds healed, in particular since she hadn't gone to bed at all in the first place. “I'm very glad to be back, too,” she answered honestly.
Torian nodded and clapped his hands. “Now, what can I help you with, Empress? Please excuse the noise and disorder but,” he shrugged “goblins. Not exactly the first, or second, or even third choice of assistants I would pick when it comes to moving and indexing books. If I may ask, did we displease you in some way to get them as help?”
“I need all my imps for urgent construction work,” Ami explained. Having both her minions and the townspeople in prolonged proximity to each other was a recipe for disaster. Thus, her imps were currently hard at work at expanding the formerly undead-infested gold mine with sufficient living space for more than eight-thousand inhabitants.
“That's too bad, really.” Behind him, a goblin yelled as she fell from a ladder, but his only reaction was a resigned sigh. “Would it, perhaps, be possible to delay the reorganisation until your imps are free?” he asked hopefully.
“No, this move is the perfect opportunity to get everything done in one go,” Ami dashed his hopes. That didn't really answer his question, but she doubted he would appreciate learning that she simply wanted to keep her employees too busy to start trouble with the civilians. It wasn't as if she was assigning make-work – she really wanted a more efficient filing system for her library, and she did need all those doors the trolls were constructing, and the dark elves were a big help in the kitchen, and – well, suffice it to say that there were a lot of time-consuming tasks that could keep her creatures occupied, even if they wouldn't normally be considered urgent.
Torian knew better than to question his Keeper's decisions. “As you wish, your Majesty. Is there anything I can assist you with?”
“Um, I wanted to look at a specific spell, but apparently, the scroll is somewhere inside this pile.” She indicated the mess on the ground.
“Well, that won't do at all. Allow me.” Torian spread his arms, wide sleeves swishing, and closed his eyes. The heap quaked and trembled as he muttered under his breath, and a number of scrolls rose to the surface and floated up into the air. “Is the spell you need among these?”
Ami rapidly scanned the labels of the rolled-up parchments arranged in grid formation in the air before her. They weren't organised according to any system she could recognise, but after a short search, she snatched one of them out of the air.
“An interesting choice,” Torian said, leaning over her shoulder. When had he gotten behind her, anyway? “Very niche. Will you allow me to know what undoubtedly devious plans you will be using it in?“
“I am currently dissatisfied with the length of my hair.” Ami patted her hat demonstratively.
Torian blinked. “Ah.” He only stared at her blankly for a split-second before his smile returned. “I feel that I should warn you that this spell, as its nickname - the Beastly Beard Booster - implies, is meant for growing facial hair only.”
Ami's shoulders drooped. Things never could be simple, could they?
“However,” Torian held up a finger, “I am quite skilled at adapting existing spells to new purposes. Changing the target region should be a rather simple manipulation. If I may?” He held out his open hand.
Ami relinquished the scroll to him. It wasn't as if she had much to lose here.
Torian walked over to a wooden bookstand and removed a feather from its inkwell.“Yes, as I suspected, this is rather standard fare. Let's see, scratch this rune, carry the two, switch words around here...”
With scholarly interest, Ami watched her head warlock work. Unfortunately, his handwriting made observing anything useful a little difficult.
“... and done!” With a bow, he thrust the annotated scroll to her. “Please go ahead, your Majesty!”
Ami shrank back in the face of so much enthusiasm. “Ah, I'm not in the habit of just using untested new spells on myself.”
“Of course not, that would be foolish,” Torian agreed. “I erroneously assumed you would like to perform the tests yourself, your Majesty. I regret my mistake.” Before Ami could stop him, he pointed both hands at a passing goblin.
The greenskin stumbled in mid-step when his head sprouted coarse stubble in a lovely moss-green shade.
“That- but you can't just-” Ami protested. “Goblins normally don't even have hair!”
Torian clapped his hands. “Perfect proof that the spell is working as intended!”
“That's not what I mean! You can't just go and test magic on my other employees, especially if it might harm them!”
“The creature does not look overly distressed to me,” Torian said.
In fact, other goblins had stopped to gawk at their unusual comrade, who was prancing about and enjoying his new-found celebrity status. His expression only turned sour after the first curious yank on his mane.
Ami slowly lowered the arm with which she had been pointing at the goblin and glared at her head warlock.
“Very well. I shall use a prisoner next time,” he conceded.
“No experiments on anyone at all unless I approve it,” Ami snapped. “That goes for everyone else too!”
“As you wish, Empress.” Torian lowered his head, sounding mildly confused. “Would you like to peruse my modified spell now?”
After a deep and calming breath, Ami nodded and took the scroll from him, her mood brightening. She could finally get rid of her baldness and stop wearing this ridiculous pointy hat! Her gaze darted over the adjusted text of the spell. She still had trouble reading Torian's scribbles, but since the scroll was inside of her library, the knowledge of how to cast the spell appeared in the back of her mind anyway. “It seems easy enough,” she said as she raised one hand, green sparks dancing around its digits.
Moments later, she could feel her scalp tingle. A sudden burst of growth swept her hat away, and her vision went dark. Ami called a mirror to her hand and brushed aside a strand of blue hair so she could see her reflection.
“And that, my Empress, is what happens when you put too much power into the spell.” Torian lectured.
“Torian,” Ami began in a voice that had the warlock edge away from her. She turned towards him, one eyebrow that now hung down to her chin twitching. “Did you, by any chance, only expand the target region?”
A marble-sized void forced the arcs of energy whipping around it into a tightening spiral. Whenever they discharged into the black orb,a resulting flash pierced the twilight.
“Steady now!” Kunzite ordered, eyes aglow with power. Through his hands, he sent dark energy down the crystalline stalk of the pedestal before him. He held his breath when the eighth out of initially ten capacitor pillars shattered, crumbling into a pile of ash and glass dust.
Behind the central pedestal, Zoisite hissed through clenched teeth, beads of perspiration gleaming on his forehead.
“Nephrite, cancel out that fluctuation,” Kunzite instructed with a sideways glance.
The third dark general frowned, and the high-pitched whine coming from the two remaining capacitors subsided after a moment.
“I have broken through!” Zoisite shouted in triumph. His long hair waved behind him as he thrust his hand at the fault in space.With a noise like shattering glass, the phenomenon collapsed in on itself before flaring out into a dark tunnel entrance.
Kunzite kept his face implacable, but inwardly, he let out a sigh of relief. Queen Beryl's reaction to another failure would not have been pleasant.
“That's weird. Zoisite, you messed up!” Nephrite said, pointing at specks of gold that swirled in the outer perimeter of the portal.
Kunzite glanced at the phenomenon. “Remains of the barrier,” he interrupted before the others could start one of their frequent squabbles. He smiled in satisfaction as Nephrite crossed his arms and dropped the matter, and he turned to face the two dozen youma waiting around the portal. “Troops, advance and secure a beachhead on the-”
Startled shouts interrupted him as fog the colour of clotted blood rushed out of the black ellipse, creeping along the floor like an unrolling carpet.
Most of the surrounding youma leapt away before the miasma covered more than their ankles. Tar-like tendrils stuck to their feet before snapping back into the main mass of the fog.
The slower youma winced and cursed, batting at their legs as they followed their companions into the air. Strange vermin made of thorns and gleaming shells skittered up their legs, joints and mandibles clicking.
Kunzite smelled sulphur and other stenches that he could even begin to identify. A burning sensation in the back of his throat made him cough. Was the fog toxic? He hadn't had to deal with a poison that could get through his magical protections for a long time now. Scowling, he covered his nose and mouth with his cape and gestured in the direction of the portal.
A shimmering cylinder of force appeared around the gateway, trapping the two closest youma within. Their slit-shaped pupils contracted in surprise as they slammed into the barrier, which was quickly filling with the vile fog. Waves of blue raced along the curved surface as they hammered against it with their fist, mouths opening and closing as it absorbed their pleas to be let out.
Dispassionately, Kunzite watched them writhe as the misshapen pests stung and bit. It didn't look as if the fog was killing the youma quickly, toxic or not. “Zoisite, connect the portal to somewhere safer!” he ordered, maintaining the shield.
“I'm - trying!” his boyfriend wheezed out between coughs. He twitched and slapped a finger-long spiky thing off his trouser leg. “Ow! Something bit me!”
“The portal, you fool,” Nephrite reminded him.
This time, Kunzite didn't reprimand the other general. Not only because he was getting a little impatient too , but also because he was finding it increasingly difficult to maintain his barrier. His vision was swimming. “Youma, get rid of the vermin that got through! Zoisite, what are you waiting for?”
“It's not responding to my commands!” the other dark general complained. Pouting, he alternated between glancing at his hand and at the dark ellipse.
Kunzite frowned and spared a moment of attention for the youma, despite the building pressure behind the shield. Fans of flame, blue explosions, and bursts of dark energy were reducing the spiny vermin to shreds with little trouble. That situation, at least, seemed under control.
“So, what exactly did we drill into there?” Nephrite broke the sudden silence. He walked out from behind his console and approached the barrier, smoking carapaces crunching underneath his feet.
Kunzite shrugged. “I don't particularly care. We finally reached the target world, that is all that matters.” His gaze wandered back to the two youma still trapped behind his force field.
One of them was twitching on the ground, covered in welts and bites. The other stood with her back to the barrier and dispensed sprays of acid from her fingers, protected by a layer of radiant blue slime. She might have looked a little sickly – it was hard to tell her skin tone through the layer of acid and dissolving critters – but she seemed fine otherwise.
Kunzite furrowed his brow. “Anchor the containment field.” He didn't feel like maintaining the barrier on his own all day.
The youma shuffled their feet, and some glanced over at the two figures still trapped in the fog. Still, none dared speak out against his order. “Yes, Lord Kunzite.” Working in pairs, they carried cone-shaped stones to the barrier and placed them on the floor. One after the other, they shoved them closer until they touched the force field in six equidistant spots.
Yellow symbols flared up on the anchor stones, and Kunzite felt the drain on his power dwindle to nothing. With his magic now freed to assist his recovery, he was feeling healthier by the second.
“But Kunzite, what about the portal?” Zoisite asked, the sweat on his brow now running down his face.
That was a good question, the white-haired general pondered. The anchor stones had been intended to stabilise the gateway. With the barrier in the way though, it would be difficult to impossible to properly apply them. Still, Queen Beryl would not be happy with further delays...
Within the fog-filled cylinder, the youma twitching on the floor stopped moving and disintegrated into fine dust.
Well, it did look as if the troops could survive long enough within that damnable atmosphere to get the job done. He could just drop the barrier, and-
A large limb shot from the portal, aimed straight at the acid-coated youma. The bony knob at its end unfolded like a sea anemone, and segmented digits wrapped around her torso. With a brutal yank, the appendage disappeared back into the black ellipse, taking the youma with it.
“What in the Great Ruler's name was that?” one of the other youma shrieked, backing away from the fog-filled barrier.
Kunzite hadn't gotten a good look at the limb in the split-second that it had been visible either. Whatever it was, it made simply dropping the shield a much less appealing proposition. With a sigh, he turned to Zoisite. “You can stop maintaining the portal.”
“What? After all this effort, we just give up?”
“Do you wish to explain to Queen Beryl why we lost youma before the invasion even began? We'll try a different spot later.” Kunzite walked away, his cape swishing behind him. “Under the circumstances, we can't properly stabilise this gate.”
“What a grand waste of time,” Nephrite commented with a much put-upon expression before he faded out of sight.
“What is... it's not closing!” Zoisite shouted. “Something on the other side is keeping it open!”
The sound of alarm in the other dark general's voice prompted Kunzite to whirl around and return to his side. “Enemy action,” he muttered. Just hitting a bad location could have been an accident, but maintaining a portal required deliberate interference. He narrowed his eyes at the golden particles still swirling around the edge of the black ellipse. “I'll close it myself.” He raised one hand, palm facing outwards, and prepared to crush the gateway out of existence by compressing the shield.
The portal chose that moment to grow larger and larger, its edges passing through the barrier with no resistance. Soon, a light-devouring black pane whose borders disappeared into the surrounding rock bisected the room.
Kunzite took an involuntary step back when shrieking wails pierced the air and the first freakish invaders charged forth from the portal.
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