Monteraine descended the winding staircase, hating every moment of it. She hated that the steps were so tall she had to sit down and let her legs dangle over the edge. She hated how the cold stone scraped her skin when she gave herself a push and slid down onto the next step. She hated how every such slide brought her closer to Morrigan's dungeon, and she especially hated that she couldn't loudly curse the one responsible for this.
Tiny rodent claws pricked her neck as the dark empress held on tighter, hidden underneath the sorceress' long hair.
Monteraine shivered and bit her tongue. Voicing her annoyance would be suicidal. Instead, she continued counting the steps. By her count, she should be arriving at the bottom any moment now. That meant that a few metres below her, the walls retreated to form a large cavern, leaving the impractical staircase standing free like a pillar in its centre. She pre-emptively started hating how exposed that would leave her to the crossbowwomen stationed behind the arrow slits in the cavern walls. Dark elves or not, Monteraine doubted they would be able to correctly tell friend from foe in the light of the single torch on the bottom.
She took a deep breath shouted “Head warlock Monteraine approaching! If any bolts happen to accidentally fly my way, I'll make your digestive tract operate in reverse from now on!” There. She had announced herself, and now only needed to worry about being shot intentionally. Somehow, that was less reassuring than she would have liked.
“...that even mean?” a female orcish voice drifted up from below.
“...means you'd have to stuff food up your...” another woman explained, not loud enough for Monteraine to catch everything.
“Sounds like her all right,” the first voice declared.
”Could you really do that?” the dark empress voice appeared in Monteraine's mind, sounding a little queasy.
“Probably,” Monteraine answered, keeping her voice low. “Flipping the whole squishy mess around and reattaching the tubes and rewiring the nerves should do it,” she added, more focused on getting safely down the final steps than on analysing the problem. She peered around the circular chamber, looking for the entrance to the dungeon. Even in the dark, she had no trouble finding it. Morrigan had heard of subtlety but saw little reason to apply it. He liked building big. Big rock blocks, big statues, big pillars, or in this case, a big entrance gate.
Nervously, Monteraine approached the solid metal portcullis that was at least four times her height and stared up at the balcony above it. Would acid come pouring down on her from the grate-covered openings underneath it? “Well, what are you waiting for? Let me in!”
“The door would open automatically for minions,” the same female voice who had explained things to the orc commented, sounding suspicious.
Monteraine heard the sounds of crossbows being cranked, and her heart rate quickened. She could feel the mouse on her shoulder go still. “Which obviously means that I need to be re-hired, having been too close to the Master's dungeon heart when it was destroyed,” she answered, managing to sound dismissive. “You did notice that he is currently banished, right?”
“Yeah, we aren't stupid,” the unseen dark elf replied. “What happened over there, anyway?”
Monteraine shrugged. “Big explosions and vampires. It was a trap and pretty much over before we could do something about it.”
“How'd you get back here, then?” the orc asked, sounding more curious than clever. “The Avatar Islands are pretty far away.”
“I beat down a vampire, forced it into bat form and turned it big enough to ride,” Monteraine lied easily, knowing very well that Morrigan didn't hire minions who were knowledgeable enough to spot any of the impossibilities in that statement. She scratched her chin.
“I'm surprised that you bothered to come back at all,” the dark elf said, her voice smug. “If I had as many failures under my belt, I'd have been smart enough to avoid this place.”
The orc chuckled as if her companion had said something funny.
“What, and lose all of my research notes?” Monteraine shouted, crossing her arms. “That's crazy.”
“Magicians. They are all screwed up in the head,” the dark elf muttered.
Monteraine decided to hurt her if she got the opportunity. She was getting rather tired of talking at a door. “Enough inane questions. Take me to the heart already!” she demanded. “The Master will be expecting my report the moment he returns!”
“Gulba, start cranking,” the orc ordered after a moment of silence.
“Damn, why me? You are stronger than me!” the elven woman answered.
“Exactly!” the orc replied in a tone that left no doubt that she was grinning. “Get to work!”
Judging from the declining volume of the elf woman's curses, she was moving away. A moment later, the portcullis started to rise at an agonisingly low pace.
Monteraine waited, her apprehension rising along with the gate. Her thoughts were returning again and again to her job interview an hour ago. She had managed to fast-talk herself out of trouble, but that had been more luck than planning. She lacked vital information about Mercury's quirks and pet issues. How was she supposed to lie convincingly when she didn't know what she needed to lie about in the first place? Damn it, the gate was already open.
Monteraine stepped forward, hoping desperately she wouldn’t run into any talkative acquaintances. They might say things that didn’t mesh with her somewhat misleading presentation of her situation under Morrigan.
Ami hid behind Monteraine’s neck from the four orcs escorting the sorceress deeper into the dungeon. With every jostling step, her paws threatened to come loose from the strap of the woman’s dress, and the hair tickling Ami’s nose made her want to sneeze. She suppressed the urge and kept very still, watching her environment. Through the curtain of Monteraine’s long black hair, she caught glimpses of wide, artless pillars tinted orange by the light from fire pits and coal-filled pots.
“So, Monty, Julur has been rifling through your stuff while you were gone,” one of the orcs said.
Ami peered at the speaker. The pinkish creature was wearing an outfit that resembled Monteraine's, made of loose strips of black cloth, but it failed to cover her chest. Perhaps she didn't see much use for modesty because Morrigan hired almost exclusively female minions? Curious about the differences between orc and human anatomy, Ami took a closer look. What she saw reminded her of an obese human male torso, but more leathery and pinker. She quickly averted her gaze from the unpleasant sight. Morrigan had some decidedly odd tastes if he forced everyone to dress up like that.
“I don't care. That moron isn't bright enough to do anything with it,” Monteraine grumbled, frowning and keeping her gaze straight ahead.
The orc grinned and added in a teasing voice “That so? He's been crowing about how he's finally going to have your job now that he has proof-” She made a wet gurgling noise, and her white mane shook as she coughed violently, trying to clear her throat. She stopped, droplets of greenish froth shooting from her mouth. They splattered on the floor, adding the smell of vomit to the ambient aroma of sweat and burning coal.
Monteraine let the hand raised in the coughing woman's direction drop. ”Lirne, If I wanted to hear more about someone who doesn't concern me, then I would ask. Now kindly shut up, I have important issues to think about.”
The orc wiped her lips clean and glowered. “Fuck you! I hope the Master fires you anyway for screwing up again!”
Pressed up against the sorceress' carotid, Ami could feel the woman's pulse rate spike. Her calm, superior demeanour was only a mask, then. The deception was working on the orcs, though, as they were keeping a greater distance from Monteraine. Ami was a little impressed herself. She would be hard-pressed to cast a debilitating spell that quickly even with the dungeon heart backing her up. Whatever Monteraine was hiding from Morrigan, it certainly wasn't a lack of skill. It was too bad that the orcs seemed too intimidated to continue chatting.
As the small group moved on in uneasy silence, Ami had nothing to distract herself from paying attention to her surroundings. She almost fell from Monteraine's shoulder when she spotted a crude statue - both in craftsmanship and motif. It depicted the entwined bodies of an elf and a bile demon, both unclothed. Even that short glimpse made Ami doubt that the depraved activity they were engaged in was anatomically possible, enjoyable, or even survivable.
Turning her attention to the walls only brought marginal reprieve from the tasteless deviance. The imp-made engravings had nudity and intertwined bodies too, but they were more stylized and alternated with gory battle scenes. Ami winced a little when she spotted an engraving that mixed both themes. She winced again when she remembered that her own dungeon's décor was headed in a similar direction, minus the glorification of violence. She really needed to stop that in its tracks. In the meantime, she kept her gaze fixated on the least offensive sights in this place. Surprisingly enough, those were the inhabitants in their barely-there outfits.
Through an open doorway, Ami could see a bunch of creatures of various races lifting weights, their skins gleaming in the light of the torches. The dark elves and humans among them certainly did have the athletic physiques required to make the oiled-up barbarian look work. The resulting aesthetics weren't all bad, she admitted to herself. Perhaps that was an option for her own people if she wanted to make the best of a bad situation? No, most of them weren't anywhere near fit enough to wear clothes like that with dignity. She shook her head sadly, tickling Monteraine in the process and causing her to twitch. None of the guards commented on it, fortunately.
About fifteen minutes of quiet walk through winding tunnels later, the group came to a stop in a large hall. By now, Ami had resigned herself to the fact she wasn't going to learn anything useful from this expedition. She had also come to the conclusion that Morrigan's antics were to blame for the fact that people were so willing to believe any silly rumours about her supposed deviance. Oh yes, she was greatly looking forward to what she was about to do to him.
Monteraine stopped in front of what looked like a solid wall and whirled around to face her escort “Finally. Now go, fetch me a chair, a desk, paper and ink so I can begin my report, then stay here!”
“You can sit on the floor you uppity bitch! What do we look like, imps?” Lirne snapped.
“You aren't even a minion right now. You are in no position to give us orders,” the largest of the pinkish women said, a little more calmly.
“I'll be again soon enough,” the sorceress answered, making a dismissive gesture. “Now hurry up, I don't want to be here unprepared when the Master returns from his banishment.”
“Yeah, no. You only want a few warm bodies between you and his anger when he arrives. We are out of here! Have fun! Not!”
“Shouldn't we keep an eye on her?” the smallest of the orcs asked as the other three moved toward the stone archway leading out.
The largest orc stopped. “Yes, clearly she's going to dig through sixteen cubits of near-indestructible rock, avoid the alarms, and attack the dungeon heart by herself, all without anybody noticing,” she said sneering. “Just to be clear, that means 'no', 'you are a moron', and 'that's their job'.” She pointed up at a crenellated balcony.
Ami followed the pointed digit and spotted two dark elves standing motionless in the shadows.
“You don't have to be an arsehole about it!” the cautious orc complained as she hurried after the others.
Monteraine leaned against the wall, facing away from the guards on the balcony, and waited in silence. A few minutes after the footsteps of the orcs had faded in the distance, she asked in a barely audible whisper “Now what, your Imperial Majesty? We are as alone as we are going to get.”
Ami had already been told that Morrigan's protections for his dungeon heart were as simplistic as they were effective. Sticking with his preferences, he had built big. The wall Monteraine was leaning against was actually a gate the size and volume of a small house, fortified by imps. As if that wasn't enough, seven metal clamps locked it in place, each one operated by a lever in a different and remote part of the dungeon. Unfortunately, Morrigan hadn't neglected to make the rest of the walls just as solid as the entrance. The dungeon heart itself, directly behind the gate, prevented spellcasting or teleportation into its chamber. All in all, the security measures would successfully prevent forceful intrusion until help could arrive.
”We break in,” Ami answered telepathically. ”First, I will have to neutralise the guards.”
“Please do remember that alarms will go off if someone who isn't meant to be here touches the ground,” Monteraine whispered back.
”Thanks for the reminder. Please hold me so I don't fall,” Ami requested. ”I'll need my front paws free for this.”
Monteraine grabbed the mouse on her shoulder, making it look as if she was brushing through her hair. She interposed her body between herself and the rodent, helping the latter to stand on its hind legs by holding it up with two fingers.
Ami's whiskers twitched as she concentrated and moved her forelegs through the air. Casting a spell undetected was difficult enough when you had the appropriate limbs. Proceeding cautiously, she projected an energy-draining spell at the dark elves, going slowly and alternating between the two.
It didn't take long for the first of the white-skinned women to lean heavily on the crenelations. The other was in no shape to notice, as she was unable to keep her eyes eyelids from closing.
Ami intensified the drain, and the albinos slumped over in quick succession. ”The guards are unconscious,” she informed Monteraine. ”I am going to create an imp. Stand ready to catch her.”
A flash of green motes later, the sorceress staggered from the impact of a coverall-clad large-eyed creature landing in her arms.
The imp giggled as Ami raced up Monteraine's arm, ordered the mouse to stay put, and turned into an arc of black lightning. She struck the worker between her bulbous black eyes, which lit up with a red light.
The imp flashed blue for an instant, and Monteraine blinked repeatedly. Her mouth opened half-way as she stared at the tiara, the black leotard, and the extremely short blue skirt the imp was now wearing.
“Shabon Spray Freezing!” Ami said in a low, squeaky voice, thrusting her three-fingered hands towards the ground. With the stream of fog-filled bubbles that shot from her palms, she coated the floor in a thin layer of ice. Belatedly, she noticed that she had not needed to cast the spell slowly to gather the required power. “It should be safe to let me down now, since I won't be touching the ground directly,” she said.
Monteraine complied a little too quickly, almost dropping Ami. “I am eager to see how we are going to get past the defences, your Majesty,” she whispered, leaning in closer. “Preferably without alerting announcing your presence to the rest of the dungeon,” she added, looking over her shoulder at the doorway.
Ami summoned her visor and observed the metal clamps hidden within the rock. “I think it will be easiest to just open the door the way it is meant to open, more or less,” she answered. “Please retreat to the far wall for your own safety.”
Monteraine obeyed without hesitation, not taking her eyes off Ami as she created a large metal bar with her fabrication spell and levitated it in front of herself.
Ami used a second instance of the spell to wrap the bar with coil. Now she only needed to add a little Keeper lightning and she had a workable electromagnet. Just like- eek!
Startled, Ami jumped back and slipped on the ice when something struck her magnet with a loud clang. The dark elves' crossbow bolts, she realised as she picked herself off the floor. With bated breath, she listened for approaching footsteps or cries of alarm, but everything remained silent. Phew. She risked returning to work, directing an encouraging smile at the pale Monteraine.
With the aid of her visor, she tracked the first clamp inside the rock while she manipulated it with her magnet. Click. Easy enough. She was vaguely aware of Monteraine craning her neck and frowning as she watched, a baffled expression on her face. It quickly turned to amazement as six more clicks followed the first one in rapid succession, indicating that the clamps were loose.
“Your Majesty, that was amazing! What kind of unlocking wand can work that close to a dungeon heart?”
“Later,” Ami said, dismissing the conjured object and dissolving it into a storm of green sparks. “That large wheel over there is what the minions use to lift the gate?” She pointed at a round, horizontal contraption that had many grips sticking out at waist height.
“Indeed, Empress. It takes almost half of the dungeon's inhabitants to turn it. Even Morrigan's Keeper power is too weak by itself,” she pointed out.
“That's helpful to know,” Ami muttered. Undeterred, she summoned fog and condensed it into a Keeper hand. Missing strength could be compensated for by using pulleys and counterweights, which were only a few fabrication spells away.
Monteraine watched the possessed imp work, alternating between gaping and frowning. “This... this is not what I expected,” she commented when the wheel slowly creaked into motion, pulled by the frozen Keeper hand and an assortment of hastily-conjured tools. “It's ingenious but mundane.”
“It works and it's subtle,” Ami answered while the heavy gate rose millimetre by millimetre. She stopped when the gap underneath it was high enough to accommodate an imp. Again, she froze the ground to circumvent the alarms, and then created another imp.
The creature held out an open bag in front of Ami, who moved her hands over the opening. Dark-coloured dust trickled into the container, rapidly filling it. Once it was full, the imp hurried through the tunnel to the enemy dungeon heart, emptied the sack into its pit, and returned.
Monteraine watched the imp come and go several times before she approached, the ice under her feet cracking slightly. “May I ask what you are doing, your Majesty?”
“Are you familiar with black powder?” Ami answered.
“One of the many means alchemists blow themselves up with, yes,” Monteraine confirmed, glancing at the empty bag of the returning imp. “Oh.” She took a step back from the creature. “I suppose that will work, in sufficient amounts.” She backed off a little further.
“Exactly.” Ami shook her head at the imp when the servant waited for her with the empty sack again. “No, we are done here.”
“We are?” Monteraine asked, raising an eyebrow as Ami started dissolving her conjured tools.
“Yes.” Ami closed her eyes and mentally called out to the youma Umbra back at her home base. ”You have been tracking us, correct? Bring the body, but don't touch the ground.”
A pillar of darkness appeared in the room just as the gate leading to Morrigan's dungeon heart slammed shut, causing Monteraine to jump. “She's here to transport us back?” she asked when Umbra, wrapped in her customary robes, appeared from the fading column of shadows. It took the sorceress a moment to spot the burnt human figure the youma was carrying. “Is that supposed to be me?”
Ami nodded, sickened by the smell of burnt flesh despite knowing that it wasn't real. She quickly looked away. The corpse was a duplicate of herself, made with the same glamour spell she had used to trick Crowned Death. Wearing a replica of Monteraine's dress and then burned beyond recognition, it should keep the locals distracted with a murder mystery long enough that the rest of Ami's plan could fall into place.
“A bit short if that is supposed to be me,” Monteraine noted. “Though I suppose the orcs are dumb enough to miss that detail. I confess that I'm still a little confused as to why you didn't destroy the dungeon yet?”
“There is a lightning trap down there with the black powder,” Ami explained. “Once the heart starts beating again-”
“Boom. That's brilliant,” Monteraine finished, clapping her hands. “The moment Morrigan returns, he is banished once more, and there's nothing he can do about it. You might even kill him if he reappears at this particular heart! How delightfully spiteful, your Majesty!”
“It will keep him out of my way for a while longer, in any case,” Ami answered. Hopefully, she would be able to deal the time gained to deal with some of the other issues plaguing her. Issues that were more pressing than attacking his better-defended dungeons. “Now, Monteraine, since your information was good, I will hold up my end of the bargain and hire you. I think I even have a project where your particular skills will come in useful. Umbra, teleport us home!”
Monteraine stared at her so-called research assistant, wondering if the Dark Empress was still testing her.
Noticing her attention, the tentacle monster waved a few of its appendages.
“You are the one who has experience with hybridization and body parts attached to unusual places?” she verified, staring straight into two of the creature's eyes.
“I'm afraid so,” Tserk answered. ”Uncomfortable, personal experience.”
Monteraine sighed and stomped on a tentacle that had been snaking in her direction. “You will have to tell me all about it in exhaustive detail. Later.” Her gaze came to rest on a row of cages filled with rats. She sighed again. “For now, make yourself useful and start shaving the test subjects.”
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