Ami turned her head left and right, inspecting her reflection in a wall that resembled a jagged sheet of ice. Despite its appearance, the corrupted stone didn't feel cold to her touch, and one of its dark surfaces was mirror-smooth. She traced the thin red lines marring her chin and throat with two fingers, their fingertips glowing a soft green. When she pulled them away, they were stained red, but the tiny cuts were gone.

“Finally.” She stepped out of the pile of coarse blue hair at her feet. It was time to eliminate the last traces of her struggle against the Thing That Should Not Have Been. “You,” she told the two imps who were chasing each other around her legs, ”stop that and get rid off the rest!”

With disappointed squeals, the little servants dropped their hair whips and scuttled off to get brooms and buckets.

Satisfied, Ami returned her attention to her reflection in the mirror. She looked like a stranger to herself. Long blue hair cascaded down her back and reached to the floor, the strands in front tucked away behind her shoulders so they didn't block her sight. Fortunately, their weight kept them from sliding back to annoy her.

”Cathy, are you free for the moment?” she sent a telepathic message toward the swordswoman. While Ami wasn't entirely displeased by her new look, tripping over her own hair was unacceptable.

”The soldiers won't hurt themselves much training for a while without my supervision,” Cathy's distorted voice answered in Ami's head. ”That's a yes. What do you need?”

”I'll tell you in person. Transport impending.” Ami reached through space, picked up the blonde, and set her down a few metres away.

“Hiding out in an unfinished tunnel?” The armour-clad woman commented after a brief glance at her surroundings. One already raised eyebrow crept higher when she focused properly on Ami. “The beard thing was true, then? Imagine.”

Ami twitched. “I had hoped I had left before too many people could get a good look,” she commented sourly.

“Only takes a single goblin to talk. They do love to talk.” Cathy walked around the younger girl, inspecting her untamed mane. “Right now, your minions are speculating about why you'd want to make yourself look more appealing to dwarfs.”

Ami groaned. “It was just a spell accident!”

“Female dwarfs at that,” Cathy continued mercilessly, the play of the muscles around her eyes betraying her amusement.

“Please, stop,” Ami said, holding up her palms. As if the corruption remodelling her dungeon wouldn't cause enough new and embarrassing rumours already. “Cathy, can you cut my hair please?” She asked, producing a pair of scissors from thin air.

“I'm not much of a barber,” the blonde cautioned.

“Well, I don't think the imps could do a good job, and I'd prefer not to have any of my other subordinates get too close to me with sharp tools.”

That I can understand. Okay, sit down,” the swordswoman said as she removed her gauntlets.

Ami took a seat on a conveniently-sized boulder, glad that it wasn't as cold as its ice-like appearance would lead one to believe.

“How do you want it?” Cathy asked as she dragged her fingers through Ami's hair.

Ami hesitated. Sometimes, she had thought herself rather plain-looking in comparison to Usagi and Rei, and had wished her hair was as long as theirs. Would Jadeite like her better with long hair? She had no idea because she knew distressingly little about him. Come to think of it, did Beryl have long hair? Vanity aside, her primary motivation for keeping her hair short hadn't really changed. Long hair took a lot of time and effort to take care of, which she could spend better elsewhere – especially now that she was busier than ever. “Please cut it the same as it was before,” she requested.

“Really? It's a shame to get rid of it all,” Cathy muttered as she stepped to the side, her reflection distorting because she was no longer in front of the flat part of the wall. “Don't you think you'd look nice with braids or a ponytail?”

“Ah, everyone is used to my regular look now,” Ami objected. “I don't think my non-human subordinates are good at telling humans apart by their faces, either.”

“Yeah, it's not as if you have a distinctive hair colour or glowing eyes or anything,” Cathy agreed in a deadpan voice. “Still, you can just grow it out again whenever you want.” With a snip, a long lock of blue hair dropped to the ground. “So, what are you currently working on?”

“When I'm not adding more rooms to handle the needs of the population I'm expanding the power infrastructure,” Ami said. “The magma is a lot deeper down here than on the Avatar Islands. The imps will get there, eventually, but for the moment we are drawing on gold reserves.”

“I haven't heard anything about sending scouts to the surface yet, so I assume there are no windmills?” Cathy asked while she worked.

“Correct. I'm wary about adjusting the corruption for proper storms before the other problems with it are solved.”

“That's probably for the best,” the blonde agreed as she tilted Ami's head to the side. “Speaking of the corruption, Rabixtrel was distinctly unamused by what it was doing to his gear. I sent him back to the Islands to patrol the beaches for undead critters. Hope you don't mind.”

Angry reaper? That was one problem Ami was happy had been avoided. “That was the best decision you could take. I'm glad you got to him while he was still willing to listen.”

“So am I. Oh, I think he gave the prisoner a scare on the way out.”

“Oh, her.” Ami's Keeper sight darted over to the prison cell close to the portal. She was treated to some very inventive foul language as the captured sorceress swore at her guards. “Do you think Tiger would be qualified to interrogate her? I'd really like to learn what she knows about the attack, but I'm afraid my other subordinates would go too far.”

“She's your sister. I have no idea where she is or what she is currently doing, in any case,” Cathy replied. In the mirror, Ami's hair was beginning to resemble what she was used to.

“She's delivering mail and buying supplies in the surface kingdoms,” Ami informed the blonde. She sighed as a flash of a tavern interior arrived through her Keeper sight.”I don't expect to be seeing her for a while. Is there anything else I should be aware of?”

The movement of the scissors stopped for a moment. “Well, the Light's rope is gone,” Cathy said. “Just poof, vanished. Or maybe it's still there and we just can't find it. Either way, we don't have it any more.” Snip. “Also, the Avatar isn't talking to us since he's busy campaigning somewhere. Stop nodding or I'll cut your hair wrong.”


“Then, there's that dungeon of Clairmonte in the swamp. Surface troops moved in shortly after we withdrew our soldiers,” Cathy reported. “Should I send some back to the other three sites to keep them under our control?”

Ami pondered this for a moment. “No, they aren't worth the commitment right now. It's more important to keep this place secure. What's the status of our reaperbots?”

“Not so great. Most work, but they took some damage from the lethal corruption and need repairs. I have the detailed list on my desk, if you want to see it.”

“Yes, thank you. I'll have a look at it.” Ami pulled the indicated document through space and read through it for the rest of her hairdressing session.

“Get out here right now!” was the only warning Dolzene received before the door to her cave flew open and banged into the wall, causing one of its cobbled-together boards to fall off.

Startled, the rudely-awakened youma shot upright and almost fell out of her hammock. She jumped to her feet and glared at the slender silhouette in the doorway, easily recognising the other youma by the green flames she had for hair. “What the hell, Kuzza?” she hissed through wolf-like teeth. “You are going to fix that!” she added, pointing at the splinters.

“Not now!” Kuzza hissed. “Umuk wants all warriors at the village centre! We are about to be attacked!”

Dolzene quickly snatched a dress made of scaly leather from the hook on the wall. In her rush, she bent her antennas painfully as she pulled the garment over her head. “Enemies? Here?” she gasped as she stepped out on the steep hillside. Why would anyone want to attack this collection of hovels? Kar-Il-Beryl was a backwater. Yes, there was a spring of dark magic at the bottom of the valley, but it was neither strong nor rare enough to be worth fighting over. Perhaps deeper in the wastelands, but not here.

“Maybe Nashitaka wants to rule over more subjects?” Kuzza speculated, glancing suspiciously in the direction of the spindly peaks that separated Kar-Il-Beryl from the next-closest village.

Nothing moved up there aside from the dark clouds creeping along the mountainsides.

“Great Ruler preserve us from ambitious morons!” Dolzene spat a heart-felt curse. With a leap, she took to the air.

A fist that felt like hot, moving rock caught her around the ankle and yanked her back to the ground. “Stay down, idiot! No flying! Do you want to make yourself a target?”

“Yeah, well, jogging next to someone whose main power is glowing in the dark isn't much safer!” Dolzene protested out of habit. Keeping in cover was good advice, actually. Almost everyone she knew had some sort of ranged attack. She swept her nervous gaze over the slope. How could she be sure there weren't already enemies lurking behind the greenish rocks or hiding in between the thorny mushrooms? They'd be almost impossible to spot in this twilight. She broke into a run, quietly following the other youma downhill to the village centre.

“There you two stragglers are. About time!” Umuk's harsh voice greeted them when they hopped over the squat wall that enclosed the village centre.

Dolzene suddenly found herself wishing the corral-like barrier was higher. It did a pretty good job at keeping the wind from filling the cracks in the ground with dust, but it wouldn't inconvenience even minimally motivated invaders. “Sorry, boss,” she blurted out. Umuk was the leader, mainly because she'd stomp flat anyone who disagreed. So far, she hadn't given the others a reason yet to risk ganging up on her, which made her competent enough in Dolzene's opinion.

“Don’t waste your breath! Get over there with the others and feed! We’ll need to be at our best!” Green eyes set in a noseless face swerved towards the other youma huddling around the fissures in the ground.

The nine figures kept close to the crevices, soaking up the Great Ruler's power that seeped up from below.

Dolzene gladly joined the group and noticed that Kuzza settled down closer to the others than she normally did. Perhaps everyone was instinctively looking for safety in numbers? She certainly was feeling a little less nervous with others between her and a potentially fatal energy blast. A long sip from the magical source helped calm her nerves further. It would have been tastier if processed before consumption, but it was nourishing nonetheless.

“So what’s going on?” someone asked, voicing Dolzene's own most pressing question.

Umak shrugged, the soft spines on her shoulders quaking. “We got orders from up high. All the way from the top, really. General Kunzite himself.”

A gasp went through the crowd. None of the youma here had ever seen one of the generals – or even Queen Beryl's palace – with their own eyes, and now they were getting orders from there?

“Anyway, we are supposed to destroy a bunch of invaders that are coming our way, then report in at Keshlanfall's stronghold,” Umuk continued.

Dolzene groaned. Combat. Also, Keshlanfall was about two days travel away. Oh well. Trying to look on the bright side, she hoped that whatever they had been drafted for would already be over by the time they reached the fortress and its teleport gate.

“Invaders?” Kuzza spoke up.

“A herd of weird rampaging beasts,” Umuk said. “Some of them can apparently get pretty big and dangerous. Oh yeah, and I’m also supposed to show all of you how to do this, so watch closely!” She clapped her hands together. When she pulled them apart, a small sphere of light floated between her palms, humming softly as it shivered in the air. At a wave of Umuk’s wrist, the bluish spark flew off, tumbling randomly through the air like a butterfly.

“What's that?” Dolzene asked as she tracked the slow-moving light.

Umuk shrugged. “Fuck if I know. Palace sent the spell along with our orders. We are supposed to keep some close to us at all times while we fight.” She put her hands on the top of the wall and looked toward the east. “Now start practising it until you have it down! I’ll be on the lookout for the enemy.”

“No, you absolutely have to give them clear guidelines,” Cathy explained, her voice echoing off the stone walls, the stone pillars, and the stone furniture. Even the elevated throne at the back of the room was made of the same smoothly-polished material.

It sounds like an empty room, Ami thought. Hopefully, hard stone would remain unchanged by the corruption for the duration of the gathering she had planned. “Why is defining a protocol so important?” she asked absently, watching her imps work from the edge of the dais she was standing on.

One of the black-eyes minions had just run out of padded mats. Unable to render the last of the twenty chairs around her assigned table less cold and uncomfortable, she stepped from one foot on the other and made confused noises.

“Look, I know you don't insist on formalities, but the villagers? They don't. They are used to rules for interacting with the nobility and will be lost without them. I doubt you'll get them to be of any use while they are busy worrying about when you are going to punish them for not scraping and bowing at the right time.”

“The troops from the Underworld don't seem to have that issue.” Now where had the imp's last padded mat gone? Ami's quick check of the other four tables didn't reveal it.

Cathy crossed her arms, looking a little annoyed. “That's because they are different. Mercenaries, not vassals. Besides,” she pointed at Ami, “Keeper. They kind of expect you to just punish them whenever you feel like it, no matter how much they adhere to protocol. They obviously try not to annoy you, but since you haven't given any specific instructions about how to go about their grovelling, they just do whatever they think is appropriate.”

“Is that so?” That was certainly a little irritating and also something Ami hadn't thought about in quite those terms. “So the civilians expect there to be rules that protect them as long as they don't break them, but my soldiers don't?”

“That's the gist of it.”

“All right, I can see why a protocol would make them feel safer,” Ami said with a nod. She also made a mental note to clarify things for her underlings later, once she had figured out how to go about it. “Can you please set something up, but keep it simple? Nothing lengthy or complicated. They'd probably get scared too if I didn't act as expected because I forgot the appropriate response.”

“You won't have to do much,” Cathy assured her. “I'll simply cover how to greet and address you, seating order, and similar things concerning their conduct.“ She paused and stared at the ceiling. “Also, that's one lazy imp.”

Ami followed the blonde's gaze and spotted the missing mat, draped over one of the lamps hanging above each of the tables. On it slept an imp, curled around the wire. Ami blinked, surprised by an imp shirking her duties. She glanced at the table that had been assigned to the servant in question. All paddings and notepads already were in place. Not so much shirking duties as stealing from her fellows, then. How should she handle this?

The double door at the other end of the room swung open, interrupting her train of thought.

“Ah, Mercury, I see you are back to normal,” Jered said as he entered the room, carrying a large packet wrapped in brown cloth in his arms. “Looking good.”

Behind him, Jadeite paused and peered at the blue-haired girl more closely. “Back to normal from what?” he asked, sounding alarmed.

“I got a haircut,” Ami answered quickly, sparing him – and herself - the grisly details.

“Oh.” The dark general took a closer look at her head and nodded, his expression returning to polite disinterest.

“On that note, we need to address the issue of your wardrobe for your meeting with the civilians,” Jered brought up.

Ami looked down at herself. With her hair restored, she had discarded the cloak, leaving her clad in her black, gold-embroidered Keeper uniform. “I can just keep wearing this,” she said. Sure, the patterns might have shifted a little, and it was clinging tighter to her chest and hips than it used to, but the corruption hadn't managed anything worse yet. “It's not conjured, so it's holding up well, and I can hide further problems with magic for the duration of the meeting.”

“I believe that would be missing a great opportunity,” Jered said, “People will be upset about the styles that the corruption imposes on us.” His teeth clenched as his brown eyes briefly darted down to his open shirt. All of the garment's buttons were missing, leaving his bare chest visible.

Ami nodded, agreeing so far. She wasn't exactly happy about what was going on either, to put it mildly.

“Well, there's a way to make them less upset. If they get the impression that you are humiliating them by forcing this garb on them, that will be bad,” Jered continued. “If they realise they are in it with you together? Much less resistance and discontent. Therefore, you should be wearing one of the altered things for the meeting.”

“What?” Ami's stomach plummeted at the mere thought of addressing a room full of people while wearing something that revealing. She still had Tiger's distressingly accurate summary of the available styles in mind.“We don't have any adjusted outfits, though,” she pointed out with great relief. “The dwarfs will need at least a few days to finish them.” Which was one of the reasons for the assembly in the first place. She needed the local artisans to come up with stopgap solutions until the commissioned designs were ready.

“I have taken that into account.” Jered unpacked his cargo onto one of room's tables, spreading out a varied selection of garments. “I asked Jadeite to conjure a large number of different outfits and then waited for the corruption to make its adjustments. These are the passable ones.”

Ami's first impression was one of moth-eaten fabric, stains, and general ragged crudeness. “That's, um, nice,” she said without conviction as she approached the table, peering at the various ensembles with morbid curiosity. She skipped the variants that resembled two-piece swimwear and examined the more substantial specimen. Between plunging necklines, snug leather, and fabric thin enough to be see-through, there wasn't a single one that hadn't her cheeks heating up.

Well, perhaps she was overreacting a little. Some of these outfits could conceivably be worn by someone in her world going out partying. Someone much more confident than her. Someone who wouldn't mind the disapproving looks and whispers from her elders.

And then there was the stuff like the wizard robe that rattled when Cathy lifted it. “This doesn't look very comfortable,” the swordswoman commented as she inspected the mosaic of crystal shards interconnected by bits of fabric. She draped one of its sleeves over her eyes. “Not to mention that it doesn't hide anything! I'm sure you can see me scowling at you right through it, Jered!”

“The pattern is opaque in strategic locations,” the brown-haired man answered, taking a step back and out of her elbow range.

Ami noted that none of the garments before her would be particularly warm or protective. “Where are the raincoats, winter mantles, thick tunics, and similar things?” Her dungeon heart prohibited the corruption from impeding function, so warm clothes should have been safe. Their absence was unexpected.

“We eliminated those,” Jadeite spoke up. “They developed patterns ranging from the obscene to the disgusting and obscene.”

“Besides, it's too warm down here for those,” Jered added. He stepped up to Cathy's side and rapped his knuckles against her armour. “You better watch out for that pattern effect too, because I don't remember your breastplate starting out with sculpted nipples.”

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me!” his girlfriend explained after a look down at herself.

Ami ignored the byplay in favour of paying more attention to Jadeite. His grey uniform was just the right colour to blend in with the walls like some kind of camouflage pattern. “Jadeite, you helped pick out the outfits, then?”

The dark general nodded. Was that a faint blush on his cheeks or just wishful thinking on Ami's part?

Miraculously, the clothes didn't seem so bad any more. Ami reached for a blue dress that looked passable, aside from the vines caressing the chest area. She got the impression that it was one size too small for her, but at least the hem came down lower than on her Sailor Mercury uniform. That slit at the side would probably go up all the way to her waist, though.

“Cathy, what do you think about all of this?” Ami requested an unbiased second opinion.

“About the suggestion or the clothes?” the blond asked. “Jered's idea is unpleasant, but it has a tiny bit of merit. People often try to emulate the ruling classes if they can afford it. As for those...” she gestured at the clothes, nose wrinkled in disdain. “Well, obviously I don't like them. Still, they are comparable to the reaper outfit or your Mercury uniform, and-”

Ami whipped her head sideways and she stared at Cathy with wide eyes. “You seriously think my uniform is similar to the reaper's tiny rags?”

Cathy shrugged. “Well, they are both out of my comfort zone and cover too little.”

“But, that...” This vicious slander against Ami's costume had her momentarily speechless. Her uniform certainly wasn't as bad as the things on the table or the demon's garb! Different cultures, she reminded herself. Okay, so what if the skirt was tiny and the rest could masquerade successfully as a swimsuit? It was still much better than- she clenched her teeth when she realised that this description would also fit a few of the outfits she was looking at. “The reaper armour shows a lot more skin than my sailor uniform!” she focused on the core of the issue.

“And yet you have worn them both in public,” the swordswoman said, her eyelids half-closed.

Ami couldn't tell if Cathy was arguing seriously or just teasing her at this point. What she could discern was that Jadeite had suddenly looked up and was staring at her, his eyes widened in mild surprise.

“Only in the Underworld!” she hurried to clarify. “It fits right in there! The denizens would even expect a Keeper to wear something like it!”

“And the civilians here would expect you to be some kind of horrible tyrant who torments and humiliates them for her own amusement,” Jered took the opening.

Ami sighed. “All right, you made your point. I'll wear one of them to the meeting.”

“Excellent. I suggest this one,” Jered said, holding up a two-piece outfit that made Ami blush just looking at it. While its frost flower patterns were very pretty, they were also made of tiny holes in the cloth. In addition, the flimsy thing somehow combined skimpiness with looking as if it would fall apart at the slightest provocation.

“Are you serious? That's the worst of the lot!”

“Not by a long shot. We sorted the really terrible ones out, remember?” Jered said, grinning.

Ami crossed her arms and shot him a dark look. “Please do explain that choice,” she said in a freezing tone of voice. “I'm sure that Cathy would love to hear your reasoning, too.”

To his credit, Jered didn't so much as flinch under the combined glare of the two females. “That's quite simple, actually. The villagers will accept the tamer designs more easily if they are aware that you could have asked for much worse. They'll be relieved that they won't have to go that far, even!”

“I'm. Not. Wearing. That.” Ami stated with finality. Jered's words made a certain twisted sense, but not enough to make her consider being seen in public like that.

“But think of the long term-”

“No! It's too embarrassing!” Ami interrupted.

“General Jadeite, back me up on this!” Jered called out to the man hiding out in a shadowy corner and trying not to be noticed. “What's your opinion?”

Put on the spot like that, the dark general coughed into his hand. “I'm afraid that to outside observers, it will appear as if Mercury is forcing her subjects to wear highly questionable garb. Whether or not she joins in is an unimportant detail of the bigger picture.”

“My reputation is ruined,” Ami groaned as she buried her head in her hands. She was never going to get rid of those nasty rumours about her at this rate. Why did those stupid dark gods have to give her so much trouble even after their plan had come to naught?

“That doesn't really help me convince her,” Jered complained. He turned back to Ami. “Well, actually, it does. I mean, if the reputation damage is pretty much the same either way, then you can commit with no regrets to not coming across as a whimsical tyrant!”

Ami looked at the proffered scraps of fabric again. She tried to imagine herself wearing them, blushed, and vigorously shook her head. “I'd rather wear the reaper armour than that!”


“How about I pick from one of those instead?” Ami compromised, pointing at a section of the pile that contained clothes she might actually consider wearing. At a beach. A beach where nobody knew her.

“Not perfect, but it will do,” the wavy-haired man said with a smile. “Also, that corruption-made look isn't really fit for an empress. We'll use your choice as a template for the proper costume, so we can make some adjustments.”

“There is certainly room for improvement.” Ami had no objections against trying to inject as much dignity as possible into this lamentable duty. Getting rid of the frayed seams and using clean, higher-quality cloth would certainly make the garments more presentable.

Jered's mouth widened into a rather smug grin as he collected the pieces Ami had chosen. “Also, did you notice that my suggested plan unquestionably works? I bet you wouldn't have taken any of these into closer consideration before I confronted you with the alternative!”

Ami's fingers twitched in irritation. She took a deep, calming breath and suppressed the sudden urge to throw the heap of so-called clothing at him. “I am going to wear a cloak over it,” she declared. “Come up with one that won't deteriorate too much from the corruption!”

“Sure, we can try some work on that too,” he agreed and clapped his hands. “That's settled then. When do you want the artisans to be here?”

“Not so fast!” Ami held up a palm. “We have to consider your wardrobe too, after all” she continued sweetly. “I'm not going out like that alone. It's well known that the larger a group of people does something, the more normal it appears!”

“That is, of course, correct,” Jered agreed after only a moment of hesitation. “We'll make the necessary arrangements and show-”

And,” Ami pressed on while her annoyance was still giving her enough boldness to do so, “I'm going to pick them out for you!”

Ami's heart hammered in her chest as Jadeite and Jered stared at her like deer in the headlight. In the background, she heard Cathy snickering.

Constructed using white marble from a nearby quarry, the small city and its oracle tower gleamed in the sunlight. Said tower, being the tallest structure for as far as the eye could see, loomed three times higher than the flat roof of the next-tallest building. With the sun low in the sky, its shadow reached out to the untamed savannah just beyond the outermost ring of plantations.

On the wind-swept top of the structure, one male and one female fairy held unto a stone pole inlaid with angular runes. A fresh pair of fairies approached and put their hands on the magic-sucking obsidian. The sweat-drenched initial pair let go, expressions of relief on their faces. Both slumped down on a set of pillows that had been set aside for them, right next to a pitcher filled with cold juice.

Hieron of the Plains, sitting on a disc-shaped platform at the top of the obsidian pole, didn't pay any attention to the activities of the youngsters below. Doing so would be disrespecting their efforts to keep his crystal ball properly powered. Instead, he focused all of his attention on the images within the orb, occasionally moving his gnarled hands to change perspectives.

“Such a crude, ineffective way of scrying,” Jogar of the Forests muttered, his ghostly projection hovering above Hieron's shoulder.

The old man didn't look up. “I cannot help it that the dark empress took our embassy staff to a place outside of our range.”

“We really should be pressuring her more about finishing the embassy's oracle tower,” the higher-ranking seer noted. He glanced at the fairies shown by the crystal ball. “They are within dwarf territory now, are they not?”

“The kingdom of Nimbadnur, to be precise,” Hieron said.

“To me, our ambassador does not look too happy about it,” Jogar added after a moment.

“She is scowling and shouting at the others, oh masterful expert of body language,” Hieron said. “Unless you are also a master of lip-reading, you will not be able to tell me anything new there.”

“She is clearly immature if she takes her anger out on her staff,” the ghostly oracle commented, “even if her forced relocation is ample reason for a sinister mood. Why do you think the dark empress abandoned her realm in the first place?”

“It's a bit too early to tell. Her hurried departure and the loss of all her claimed territory would suggest bitter defeat,” Hieron of the Plains speculated.

“You don't say.”

“However, if we look at the bigger picture, it becomes a little harder to tell. Nobody has stepped up to fill the power vacuum on the Avatar Islands. At the very least, she took out her attackers too.” Hieron stretched his legs, their joints making soft popping noises. “Now, how many ghosts have you spotted in those wretched wastelands since she left?”

“I haven't been looking for them,” Jogar replied, waving his transparent hand dismissively.

“Well, I have, and I haven't found any with a cursory search. It seems that whatever else happened, the undead population of her realm went down dramatically. Perhaps enough to justify the losses she took abandoning the place.”

“Are you suggesting that this is simply a part of her longer-term strategy?” Jogar asked, alarmed.

“It's a possibility,” Hieron confirmed with a nod. “If she plans to return, then it would be convenient for her if she didn't have to worry about roving swarms of ghosts for decades to come.”

“If this move was part of her plans, then the dwarfs are in more danger than we thought. It is about time we warn them about the evil presence within their lands.”

Hieron frowned. “That is irregular. Does the Emperor approve?”

“His Imperial Majesty is currently unavailable. He has withdrawn into his inner sanctum, leaving strict orders not to disturb him for anything less than a dire emergency.”

“The timing is inconvenient. When will he return from his seclusion?” Hieron asked. It wasn't exactly unusual for powerful magicians to occasionally need peace and quiet for their work. He could feel the magical energies surrounding the Imperial Palace even from here.

“He did not say.” Jogar answered, his image shifting sideways.

“Indeed? That is very unusual.” Hieron tapped his wrinkled fingers against the crystal ball, which turned black. “I see his tower is active.”

“Yes. This decision is one that will be up to the councillors,” Jogar said.

“They'll simply follow our advice so they have someone to shift the blame to, as usual,” Hieron predicted.

“Naturally. In this particular situation, the dangers of inactions are larger than the potential costs of action. I shall advise them to inform the King of Nimbadnur about the trespassers in his realm.”

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Chapter 170: A Hairy Situation Chapter 172: Bad news

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