Dolzene threw herself flat to the ground and grunted when her chin hit the rock. A spiny, hook-covered limb whipped through the space she had just occupied, passing close enough that she could feel the air moving in its wake. Pushing with one arm, she flipped herself on her side and pointed her free hand at the monstrosity looming over her, twice as tall as she was. Her open palm glowed blue as she lifted, and the beast's four hind legs lost contact with the ground. Unable to advance, the scaled monster reached for her, multi-jointed limbs flailing and grasping.
Dolzene crawled backwards, the arm pointing at her attacker wavering under the strain of keeping the heavy creature afloat. “Kuzza, kill it! Kill it before it spits acid! Kuzza!” she shouted, her voice shrill and high-pitched. Still backing away, she risked a brief glance over her shoulder, searching for the other youma. Finger-long insect remains dotted the landscape like glowing coals, burning with a ghostly white flame. “Damn it, Kuzza, hurry!”
A head with green flame for hair popped out from a ditch behind Dolzene. “I can't! The big ones don't burn!” Kuzza complained, her wide-open eyes never lingering on one point for more than an instant.
Dolzene cursed. “Then get up there and hit it with a rock!” she jerked her head in the direction of the cliff face looming behind them. Above it, endless flashes of lightning illuminated a buzzing black cloud that blotted out the sky.
Kuzza looked upwards, her expression dubious. One of the dead insects raining like embers from above almost hit her in the eye. Flinching, she ducked and created a white-glowing sphere between her hands. She jumped, her mineral skin gleaming almost exactly like the shells of the invaders in the light of the humming sphere at her side. Like the spells already up in the air, it lashed any bug that got too close with lightning. Protected by the crackling sphere, Kuzza squatted down next to a boulder and wrapped her arms around it. Grunting with effort, she heaved it up to chest height, spun around her own axis for momentum, and hurled it down the cliff.
The plummeting boulder would miss, Dolzene realized. The muscles in her arm screamed in pain as she yanked it to the side, dragging the levitating monstrosity into the path of the falling boulder.
With a resounding crack, the rock struck the hunching monster's neck. Shell fragments went flying, and the creature's head came off as if hit by a guillotine. Slumping, the body crashed to the ground.
Dolzene hadn't aimed for the neck, but she wasn't questioning the bout of good luck. She turned away from the grotesque corpse when she heard Kuzza land at her side.
“I got stung,” the other youma complained, rubbing her thigh.
“And I almost dislocated my shoulder,” Dolzene shot right back, scanning the battlefield. “Did you see anything coming our way while you were up there?”
“The big slimy thing near Geldra's cave is dragging itself this way,” Kuzza reported.
“You said it was dead!”
“Looked dead to me!”
“We need to- “
A shadow fell over them. Something huge that resembled a cross between a shark and a centipede descended through the insect cloud, pushing apart the wall of bug-zapping spheres. It bucked and jerked, twisting into pretzel-like shapes, yellow ichor seeping from gashes in its carapace.
On the creature’s back, anchored between two segments of the elongated body, a tall youma swung her two-handed sword. The blade left a glowing after-image in the air that expanded outwards and cut deeply into the monster’s body.
“Hack it to pieces, Umuk!” Kuzza cheered as three leg-shaped fins tumbled to the ground.
The ground shook. It shook way too much for the vibrations to have resulted from the impacts. Eyes widening, Dolzene grabbed Kuzza’s arm and pulled. “RUN! It’s that fucking worm again!”
Behind them, a set of pincers large enough to pinch someone in half exploded from the cliff face. Rubble and dust parted like water as a skeletal, snake-like form shot from its tunnel and headed straight for the fleeing youma. On the creature’s back, a large blister inflated with a hissing noise.
Kuzza lunged, tackling Dolzene to the ground mid-sprint. She didn’t let go until the two of them had rolled behind the cover of a crumbled wall.
A wall of flying darts swept past them, rattling their cover with a staccato of impacts and cutting of Dolzene’s protest. “Gah. Didn’t think it would try that so soon.” She listened but could no longer hear the noise of pebbles being ground into dust under the worm’s slithering advance.
“It stopped?” Kuzza asked, surprised. On all fours, she moved to peek past the wall. “They are all staring at the sky!”
Still on her back, Dolzene had a good view of the swarm above going still. As if reacting to an unseen signal, it suddenly resumed motion, ascending at a rapid pace.
“What’s going on? Can you feel that?” Kuzza asked, her voice low.
Dolzene nodded. There was a heavy, charged quality to the air that grew stronger with every passing second. It felt familiar, like something that she had always perceived on an unconscious level being amplified far beyond normal. Eyes widening, she turned towards the settlement’s source of dark magic. “Kuzza, the spring!”
The Great Ruler’s power was fountaining from the crevasses, gathering into a bubbling, upwards-flowing stream. It scattered the insect cloud as it passed through, and Dolzene could just make out four figures floating high, high above them. At this distance, she could only distinguish the barest details, but that was enough. The sheer power gathering around the group left no doubt about the identity of its tallest member.
“The Queen!” Kuzza said in an awed whisper. “We are saved!”
Nephrite hovered near Queen Beryl, far more interested in the landscape than in watching his displeased monarch. She really needn't have bothered coming all the way out here only to stare into her crystal ball the whole time. Not that he intended to voice that thought. None of the dark generals were currently in her good graces.
His gaze wandered to the irregular cloud that towered on the horizon like a setting black sun. Hidden underneath, the hijacked portal was spewing out more invaders. From up here, it looked as if trails of ants were marching forth into the countryside. Bored, Nephrite checked if Queen Beryl's expression had changed in the meantime. Nope. Her face remained frozen in a disdainful frown, lips pressed tightly together. What was so interesting about that crystal ball anyway?
He peered at the black orb and saw two youma sprinting. Queen Beryl's fingers moved, and the image changed. It now showed another youma, writhing and screaming soundlessly as the invaders devoured her alive, starting from her extremities.
Nephrite looked away.
“They are so pitifully weak,” Zoisite said, pursing his lips. “Those things are doing us a favour, cleaning out the incompetents.”
Queen Beryl glanced at him sideways, moving only her eyes. Her look spoke volumes, but Zoisite didn’t pick up on that, the fool.
“I am not concerned about the situation,” Kunzite said in a firm, almost bored voice. That successfully drew the Queen's attention away from the younger general, but it meant that he was now the target of her piercing stare. “The enemies are no match for all but your weakest youma,” he elaborated. “They are large but uncoordinated. Little more than beasts.”
“There are a whole lot of them,” Nephrite couldn't help point out, “and they are smart enough to head towards more populated areas.”
Kunzite turned to face him, his cape fluttering. “Which is exactly how we are going to draw them into a trap and offer their energy to our Great Ruler.”
Queen Beryl showed no outward sign that she had heard the white-haired general, causing his superior smirk to fade away a little.
Nephrite, while amused to see his senior general ignored, felt that he needed to contribute to show off his worth. “In the meantime, we can use this external threat to promote greater unity in your Kingdom. In times of war, the dissenters disgruntled by recent security measures will be seen as the traitors they are.”
“Vermin,” Queen Beryl snarled, voice dripping with disdain. The orb-tipped staff floating before her flared white.
Nephrite flinched away, fearing for his life as he stared into the glare.
Kunzite and Zoisite looked similarly alarmed, backing off as more and more power gathered within the crystal sphere. Tendrils of magic rose like black threads from the surrounding landscape, flowing towards the orb.
Beryl wasn’t looking at them, Nephrite realised. Her hair stood upright, dancing like a candle flame around her head, which was facing the battle on the ground.
In the small valley below, the fighting stopped. Nephrite could see dark forms starting to ascend towards him.
Beryl pointed her staff in their direction and launched the ball of darkness that had formed at its tip. The spell moved downwards at a constant rate, white light spilling from cracks in its surface. The sphere grew in size as it fell, which made its descent look slower than it really was.
“I want them dealt with,” Beryl stated, her orange eyes narrowed. “Handle it!” Without waiting for an answer, she turned on her heel and faded from sight.
Nephrite stared at the spot she had just vacated. He wished she had been a little more specific about how she wanted them to 'handle' the situation. Or that she had at least thrown her tantrum at the portal instead.
A bright flash from below illuminated the landscape as the explosion swallowed the contested valley.
Up on the stage, Ami sat on a simple throne, her fingers digging into its armrests as she looked at the five large tables in the hall before her. Soon, they would be filled with people, all staring up at her. She touched her collar, willing her thin, semi-transparent cloak to stay closed. Underneath, she was wearing what Jadeite had jokingly referred to as a 'formal bikini', a tiny black thing decorated with gold trim and hexagons that resembled snow flakes.
The dark general himself was wearing shorts that looked like someone had spilled sticky black oil on him, going so far as modelling fake droplets trickling down his legs. His upper body remained bare, showing off his well-defined muscles and -
Ami gulped and managed to tear her gaze away before he could notice her stare. Jered was safer to look at, not that his Ancient Egyptian-looking loincloth hid much more than Jadeite's outfit. She simply wasn't interested in him that way.
On the other side of Ami's throne stood her female moral support. Venna was wrapped in a numerous interconnected leather belts, something that she had picked for herself. It showed even more skin than Ami's outfit, but the dark elf wore it with the same carefree, confident attitude as if she had been covered head to toe in full plate armour.
Somewhat guiltily, Ami hoped the dark elf's smooth white skin and voluptuous curves would draw most attention away from her. For the last member of her entourage, she had played with the thought of just bringing Isolda. However, a dark mistress who was terrified of her would in no way reassure her audience. Instead, she had decided to go with someone else who was guaranteed to draw attention.
Landra, the last youma Jadeite had rescued from Eternal Sleep, was on the very bottom of youma power scale, having nothing but enhanced strength and speed to her name. She was also fairly good-looking by human standards, resembling an elf who was trying to disguise herself as a goblin. Wearing a back-free dress that went to mid thigh, she was the most conservatively dressed female up on the stage. Nevertheless, her green skin, button-like purple eyes, and cyan-coloured hair were exotic features that would distract from Ami.
“I'm calling them in now,” she said, having prepared herself mentally as much as she could. Before she could lose her courage, she remotely opened the doors at the other end of the hall.
Civilians waiting in five orderly lines filed into the room. They moved smoothly at first, but steps faltered as the people in the front row saw what was waiting for them inside the room.
Ami saw a well-muscled man's mouth fall open as his eyes widened, and he missed a step before he averted his eyes. A younger man, looking to be in his twenties, turned red like a tomato and stopped until someone bumped into him. To the right, an older woman made a face as if she had just bitten into a lemon and glared at everyone on the stage, while a younger one went pale as a sheet.
Despite the initial hesitation, people quickly found the right colour-coded tables and moved toward them as protocol demanded. Soon enough, a hundred pale and worried face were looking at Ami, displaying various degrees of anger, embarrassment, and disgust.
Ami noted that the civilian's clothes were already suffering from initial stages of corruption, and winced in sympathy. Showing up to the audience wearing tattered, discoloured rags had to make her guests even more apprehensive than they would usually be.
Jadeite raised his hand, and the civilians bowed deeply on his signal.
“At ease,” Ami spoke up. Her voice sounded weak to even her, and she resolved to continue louder. “Please, have a seat.” She rose and approached the front of the raised stage, her cloak opening slightly from the movement. Even though she knew her top covered everything important, feeling a breeze brush the underside of her breasts through its gauzy parts made her want to flee the stage. It didn't help that a boy about her own age was most definitely not gaping at her face.
Ami made an obelisk-shaped podium rise before her and tried not to give the impression that she was hiding behind it. “First, I gathered you here because I need your skills as craftsmen,” she began. A good start, as she saw some of her guests relax marginally. “In an effort to get to the heart of the matter quickly, I won't mince words. The contamination that forced us out of the Avatar Islands is causing another issue.”
A faint murmur rose from the crowd as people sucked in breaths and turned even paler.
“It's not dangerous!” Ami hurried to add, raising her hands in a placating gesture. “It's, um offensive and inconvenient, but nobody is in danger. It may look as if things are falling apart,” she gestured vaguely in the direction of their clothes, “but they aren't. That's not what's happening. Not exactly. Non-living objects are being remodelled so that they look more pleasing to the dark gods. Meaning obscene and unacceptable.”
Ami noticed a renewed interest in the apparel of the people on stage and wondered if her audience hadn't gotten the wrong impression.
“To clarify, our outfits are not the end result of this process. I, um, don't like them much, but they were designed specifically to prevent even worse!” Great, now she sounded as if she was trying to justify herself. Perhaps she should backtrack a little. “What I was about to say is, the changes can be prevented by purposefully designing items along certain aesthetics. Which is where I hope your combined skills will be able to help.”
A large man at the closest table raised his hand.
“Your Imperial Majesty, am I understanding correctly that everyone will have to dress like that?” he asked, pointing at Ami's employees up on the stage.
“W-well yes, I'm afraid so,” Ami confirmed, unhappy that she hadn't been able to soften the blow first.
This time, the murmur around the tables was a bit louder, and she saw frowns and downright rebellious faces. A fat man with a large moustache groaned, and one of the women even started crying.
Ami cringed, feeling terrible. “There's still hope you can come up with more acceptable designs that work!” she tried to comfort her listeners. Perhaps she should have started off with her presentation instead? None of this was raising her confidence in her public speaking skills.
“...yes, waterfalls could hide unwanted elements,” the voice of the dark empress drifted over from two tables away. “I think it's a good idea. If you could sketch something, then I could test it right away.”
Kevan didn't recognise the architect she was talking to, since most of the people in this room were strangers. The one exception was his son and apprentice Kellen, sitting next to him at the table. Most of its other occupants were currently walking around the hall, inspecting a variety of partial rooms that the dark empress had created. It made a honest mason's gall rise to see her build with the wave of a hand what he and his boy would need days to construct. That wasn't the reason he wasn't participating, though. He worked according to other people's plans, he didn't make them.
The dark empress was approaching, but stopped at a closer table and joined a discussion about flowers, and how they were technically plant genitals. Ugh. Leave it to a Keeper to even ruin looking at pure and innocent things. One of her hands moved towards her midriff, but stopped mid-motion and dropped down again. It looked as if she had been about to pull her cloak shut, almost as if she was embarrassed by her attire.
As if people wouldn't be able to see right through the flimsy thing anyway, Kevan thought. Who was she trying to fool? With her reputation, she couldn't be concerned about decency or the dignity of her extorted title. Still, she moved with her shoulders tucked in as if she wanted to cover herself, and her voice lacked confidence. Perhaps she had been saying the truth about not liking this any more than they did?
Kevan looked at his son and found him occupied with sneaking poorly-concealed glances at the empress' backside. He kicked the boy's foot in alarm and whispered “Eyes front!”
Kellen twitched and suddenly seemed to find the surface of the table fascinating.
As the boy's ears turned red, Kevan started sweating. Stupid boy, didn’t he consider what could have happened if she had caught him staring? You'd think he didn't have even half a working brain. When Kevan was at that age he would never have - never have passed up an opportunity to ogle a girl dressed like that, he realised with a sinking feeling. Was the demon empress enacting an elaborate plan to corrupt the youth here? He watched her more closely.
“... shift the context in which way?” she asked, smiling faintly at a leatherworker.
The elderly man failed to meet her eyes. “Well, rather than emphasizing the fertility of the wearer, one could show things living off the wearer. Parasite fertility.”
Empress Mercury grimaced and turned green, apparently suffering from a vivid imagination. “That, er, yes,” she began lamely, “that could work. It would be in line with evil aesthetics, at least. Thank you for the idea. Perhaps you could come up with some preliminary ideas?”
She didn't sound any more enthusiastic about the suggestion than Kevan felt, thankfully. He could live without ever seeing anything prominently featuring tapeworms as part of its design. Shaking his head, he returned to his suspicions. There were many teenagers among the captives, having been too convinced of their own invincibility to do the smart thing and flee when the undead came. Like Kellen. He loved the boy dearly but wished he had gotten away with Sophia. Light, children that age were dumb.
Kevan briefly longed for his absent wife before further dissecting the problem. Boys and girls too hooked on depravity to integrate into decent society would grow up as loyal minions for the dark empress by default. If she wanted citizens that were truly hers, serving even without the threat of blindness hanging over their head, then sullying their morals would be the way to start.
The mason closed his eyes, wishing his conclusions would go away. Short of protecting Kellen, there was not much he could do about them. Except – yes. Despite the danger, he would do his duty as a good patriot, write down his suspicions in his journal, and leave it open where the voice in his head told him to.
Ami closed the door and let herself sink against it while releasing a long, relieved breath. Finally! That was finally over! Her cheeks coloured as she wrapped her cloak tightly around herself. Her strategy of fighting down her embarrassment by likening her situation to participating in a public swimming competition had only been partially successful. The main flaw was that she had never owned any swimsuits this racy. She felt a pang of homesickness, but the prospect of changing into something more modest cheered her right up again.
“Your Majesty!” Torian’s voice called from the end of the corridor, stopping her before she could teleport to her chambers.
“Yes?” She spotted her head warlock getting up from a bench and looking in her direction. He took a step towards her, only to jump back with a startled cry. A roaring blast of flame barred his path, casting orange light over the corridor.
The stream of fire cut off, and a rumbling voice declared “We had agreed that I would go first!” From around the bend, the large reptilian head of the speaker appeared, blocking Ami’s view of Torian's face.
“Unilateral agreements are invalid! Know your place!” Torian shouted, bringing his jewel-tipped staff down on the dragon’s skull. Blue sparks flew from the impact, and the creature’s head dipped downwards. “Back, uppity lizard! Back!”
Ami blinked at the sight, wondering if she needed to interfere. She didn't remember hiring a dragon, but its minion bond was in place. Hopefully, her advisers had kept accurate records of everything they had let in while she was distracted.
Torian stepped past his dazed opponent. “Sorry about that, your Majesty,” he said, shaking his head. “New recruits. Now, I have-”
That was as far as he got before the dragon growled and swung his snout against the warlock’s shoulder.
Tossed aside like a rag doll, Torian stumbled into the wall. Before he could catch his balance, the dragon scrambled fully into the corridor, using the bulk of his scaly body to pin the warlock against the wall.
“No fighting!” Ami ordered, overcoming her surprise.
“I am merely expressing my affection. Like a cat,” the dragon stated as it leaned against Torian and brushed past him.
Sharp scales bit into the warlocks robe with ripping noises, and he gasped for breath.
“Stop it! Right now!” Ami shouted, scowling and crossing her arms.
“Oh very well, Keeper,” the dragon rumbled, sounding disappointed. “Or do you prefer Empress now?” He backed away from Torian and sat down.
“I do,” Ami confirmed. The term had less unfortunate associations than ‘Keeper’, and she needed any advantage she could get. She spared a worried glance at Torian, who was on all fours and wheezing, but seemed uninjured.
“Then I shall address you as Majesty from now on, Keeper,” the dragon drawled.
Satisfied that Torian didn’t need medical help, Ami inspected the dragon more closely. She recognised the patterns around his mouth and realised why he seemed so familiar: he was her old sparring partner! While not all of her memories about him were happy ones - being covered in dragon drool came to mind - she was, on the whole, glad to have him back. Spirits lifted enough to ignore the little brawl, she said “Welcome back. You wanted to talk to me?”
“Yes, I need your permission to use your treasury as my lair,” he answered, his tail writhing like an excited snake.
Ami considered the request. She didn’t really have a problem with a dragon guarding her gold, but… “That was urgent enough to shove my head warlock aside for?” she asked, frowning.
“Naturally. I had to get to you before the other dragons can.”
“What other dragons?” Calling upon her dungeon heart, Ami checked if she had somehow managed to miss more than one dragon joining her forces. She had not.
“The news that you moved crates upon crates of gems to your dungeon is spreading like a wildfire through the Underworld. It is only a matter of time until they arrive, looking for a seizable hoard to nest on,” the dragon replied.
“I- right,” Ami said quietly, still digesting the notion that the rumour mill could be working in her favour for once. Dragons were comparatively unproblematic creatures, in her limited experience, though she might have to expand a few corridors. She nodded and smiled briefly. “Well, I see no immediate reason to deny your request, so you can go ahead.”
“Thank you. I will be off furnishing my new home.” In a display of agility that had Torian ducking for cover, the dragon wriggled until he had turned around in the empty corridor.
“A disrespectful beast,” Torian grumbled as his opponent stomped off. His scowl deepened as he brushed the dust from the tatters of his robe. He mumbled a quick spell that patched the gashes in his robe with stiff, bone-like plates. His expression changed into a servile smile as he faced Ami. “In any case, I have news that may be of interest to you, your Majesty. A lesser Keeper than you might even find them concerning.”
“Go on?” Ami encouraged, her arms crossed over her chest. She felt insecure in her thin cloak, and the warlock's words weren't exactly raising her expectaions.
“The subordinates you set to the task of contacting the Avatar,” he furrowed his brow for a moment, “were successful. For a certain value of success. Snyder seemed less than pleased when the Avatar covered his crystal ball after the words, I quote,” Torian distorted his face into a haughty sneer and continued in a mocking imitation of the Avatar's voice “I have nothing to say to you or your Empress!”
“That is somewhat concerning, yes,” Ami agreed, trying not to show her disappointment. Inwardly, she was yelling in frustration. Why did he always have to make things so difficult? So many problems could be solved by just talking about them!
Torian scratched the back of his head. “Well, it is certainly unwise of him to ignore his betters, but I was talking more about the fact that he's here in Nimbadnur.”
Ami felt as if she had been punched in the gut. He was here? She hadn't done anything that warranted him coming after her! Yes, she was no longer on the Avatar Islands, but he had to know that wasn't by choice. The Light Gods had even helped her escape! She bit her lip. That actually made the situation worse, since they would know exactly where to find her current dungeon. What happened to keeping to the spirit of the agreement? She wasn't going to hurt anyone! There had to be more worthwhile uses of the Avatar's time than sealing her away!
Ami forced herself to breathe normally. She didn't know for certain that he was going to attack her. His refusal to talk to her didn't bode well, but it wasn't irrefutable proof that he was here for her. She needed to confirm his precise location, the disposition of his forces, and, most importantly, she needed to get answers out of him. If he declined to communicate by crystal ball, then she would have to send messengers instead. Preferably someone whom the dwarfs wouldn't immediately throw into prison for associating with her.
“Torian. Inform the fairies that I want to see them in my study as soon as possible,” she said after going over the short list of potential candidates.
“As you wish, my Empress,” the warlock replied, inclining his head.
Ami transported him close to the guest housing and considered her immediate next steps. Caution demanded that she assumed the Avatar to be hostile, so she needed to fortify her dungeon further. If its location was no longer secret, then she could sacrifice secrecy for improved defensibility. If not – well, she would have to figure out if that was the case and then evaluate her options.
A warm breeze made her cloak billow, and she looked down at her bare legs. She would ponder that problem while changing into clothes more suited for a diplomatic meeting, she decided.
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