Ami sat alone on her side of the long table, pleading her case to the seven fairies sitting across from her. “I'm more than willing to pay the dwarfs for the land I'm using, but I don't have any negotiators I could send aside from you,” she said. “The dwarfs won't listen to anyone associated with a Keeper. You are diplomats from a third party, they will have to at least hear you out!”
“Before they lock us up and throw away the key,” the redhead sitting furthest from Ami muttered under her breath. She was looking dishevelled and had dark rings under her eyes.
“If I may, your Majesty?” Dandel, the oldest of the fairy sisters, raised her hand. “Ordering an ambassador from an independent nation to act as your messenger is highly irregular,” The indigo-haired fairy had yet to touch the steaming cup of tea before her.
“But it's not forbidden either, right?” Ami asked, turning to her. “You wouldn't get into trouble if you did this for me?”
“Technically, if we went travelling while we were supposed to be here, we could be accused of dereliction of duty,” Cerasse pointed out, demonstrating that she was paying attention despite being busy arranging cookie crumbs in a neat circle.
“That would mean someone had to replace us, and I can't think of anyone who would want the job,” Tilia commented. Arms crossed behind her head, she was leaning back so far with her chair that Ami expected her to tip over any moment now. The fairy's emerald eyes suddenly went wide as her brain caught up with her mouth. “No offence intended, your Imperial Majesty!” she added in a hurry, sitting down straighter.
“We could ask for permission,” Roselle suggested.
Ami smiled gratefully at the orange-haired girl. “Could you perhaps do so while on the move?” she asked, worried about additional delays. “The dwarfs are coming here now!” She had been dismayed to see how many soldiers were moving through the gates of the closest towns, both arriving from the nearest villages and departing in the general direction of her dungeon.
“I'm a little sceptical about getting authorization to act on your behalf,” Dandel cautioned.
“People could die needlessly, and not just because they are forcing me to defend myself!” Ami said, looking directly into Ambassador Camilla's eyes. “Nomadic orcs live in the mountains. Look!” A map appeared before her and dropped onto the table. It wasn't as good as what she could have produced using her computer, but her employees had done accurate enough work.
The fairies leaned forward, even Anise curious enough to stop attempting to burn holes into Ami with her glower. She had been doing that ever since catching a glimpse of Ami's imitation uniform when her cloak had opened a little.
“We are here,” Ami indicated one particular mountain with little regard for secrecy, since the dwarfs already knew where to find her. “Here, here and here,” she indicated thick red dots to the west, south-west, and north-east of her dungeon, “are the major towns in the area.” Initially, they had looked about three days of travel away from her location, but the dwarfs were crossing the mountainous terrain faster than she had anticipated.
“The map looks really empty,” Camilla noted, her gaze darting from one blank area to the next.
“Most of it is mountains and wilderness,” Ami explained, “with the dwarfs preferring to settle in the valleys.” She gestured at the sparse small dots in the narrow green-coloured zones of the map. Her voice grew more concerned. “Since most soldiers are gathering at the towns for a strike against me, they can't protect all those villages. I don't want them to find their homes pillaged and their loved ones dead when they get back!”
Camilla's fingers whitened as she gripped her teacup tighter, and she looked at her sisters for help.
“Empress, can't you just hire the orcs and keep them under control?” Melissa suggested, tilting her head to the side.
“I already have people trying to track down and contact the different clans,” Ami answered, “but they are hard to find. Please, talk to the dwarfs for me! Do you really want to stand by idly when you could prevent much unnecessary misery, Ambassador?”
The blonde swallowed and inclined her head with a sigh. “Fine. We'll do it.”
Her sisters didn’t look happy, but they did they contradict her.
“Thank you so much!” Ami stood with a brilliant smile. “I don't want to sound pushy, but could you please get ready to depart as soon as possible?” She felt her cheeks flush a little, feeling uncomfortably about being so insistent. Unfortunately, she had a lot of work waiting for her.
“Can we keep the map?” the green-haired fairy asked as she and her sisters got up.
Ami hesitated. “Yes, but it would be easier if you simply flew west until you found the river and then followed it to the town downstream. It's not the closest one, but you also won’t lose time getting lost. ”
“Hey, we aren’t that bad!” Anise snapped.
Ami raised her hands. “I didn’t mean to imply that. While using the crystal ball, I noticed that mountains are hard to recognise from above, and I can’t imagine it getting any simpler when you are travelling between them. Now excuse me please,” she bowed, “but I really have to return to my preparations.”
Ami sat in the centre of an ever-expanding pile of discarded papers and sketches, alternating between jotting down notes, staring blankly into space, and shouting short, precise instructions. To her left, a sandwich missing only a single bite hid underneath a few pages of schematics, and a little further away, her lunch had been lost under a paper avalanche. The imps that would normally have cleaned up around her were busy elsewhere in the dungeon.
“Your Majesty,” an unkempt man with large earrings said as he approached Ami's raised platform, “three more warlocks have collapsed.”
Ami twitched and looked up from her work. Her command centre was arranged like an upside-down, hollow step pyramid, with each floor easily visible from her elevated position. She shook her aching fingers as her gaze swept over the stair-like ranks, quickly locating a row of blank mirrors, with three hunched-over bodies on the chairs before them. Mana exhaustion from having to suddenly power the devices from their own reserves was the most likely cause of their unconsciousness. “I'll fix it in a moment,” she said, transporting the unconscious figures to the infirmary. “Torian!” she called, looking down from her perch. “Are the rainfall configurations done yet?”
The warlock working on the lowest and closest floor glanced up from his wet desk, sweating. “Very soon, your Majesty! Very soon!” he assured her with a smile that bared his gleaming white teeth. “In the meantime, I have mitigated some load on the system by having your dragons power your smelters instead!”
Ami's Keeper sight showed her the forges, and she quickly spotted the two dragons breathing fire into the furnaces. Goblins with a small pot full of molten metal crawled over them, coating the dragons' scales with a layer of molten steel.
“I see.” Ami approved of the power savings, even if it meant she'd have to take into account the changed loads. “Good initiative, but I really need the adjustments as soon as possible,” she told him. ”I'd do them myself if I could delegate the dungeon expansion instead.”
“Understood, my Empress,” Torian confirmed.
Ami wished she still had the near-surface heat sources that made geothermal power so practical on the Avatar islands. Here, she had a few windmills, which were currently hooked up to her gem furnaces. The rest of her electricity came from water-powered turbines. Water that ran down the mountainside courtesy of the corruption she had let loose on the surface when she learned that the dwarfs were coming. Now if only it would stop giving her snow or hail instead of rain occasionally, thereby causing unpredictable fluctuations in her power grid. That would be much easier on the rats claiming surface terrain for her as fast as they could too.
“Empress Mercury, we have to talk!” Cathy called out loudly as she stalked into the room, surrounded by a swarm of excited goblins. The brushes and paint buckets they were holding did not bode well for anyone. When the blonde stopped, they began – or rather continued – doodling on her armour.
“Those, um, drawings...” Ami began, staring at Cathy's armour. With a lot of imagination, she could make out distorted worms, centipedes, and ticks. The parasites were too crudely drawn to look really disturbing, at least.
“Yeah, well, I figure it's better than getting distracted in the middle of the battle by my breastplate suddenly deciding that it should really look as if it was carved from clear ice,” the swordswoman explained, shooing a too insistent goblin out of her way. “Also, stop building stuff while I'm talking to you and pay attention, because this is important!”
The red glow in Ami's eyes became more pronounced as she focused fully on Cathy, and the gaggle of goblins around the blonde took a collective step away from her.
“Yes?” Ami asked, a hint of her irritation seeping into her voice to mask her trepidation. Not more problems.
“To summarise, your plans for rapid response squads? They don't work,” the blonde said.
“Look, I know it should work in theory, but in practice, your troops can't do it. With more time to train and maps that don't become obsolete the moment we get them? Sure. As things are? No. ”
“The coordinates-” Ami protested.
“Only tell us where to go, not how to get there.“ Cathy sighed. “I've run some drills with the best orcs, and even they got lost. You have to add something to the new corridors that will helps us navigate them, or all the fancy mirrors in the world will be of no use,” She made a sweeping gesture with her arm that encompassed the scrying devices on the walls.”
“Darn it! All right, I'll see what I can do.” Ami muttered in frustration.
“That's all I ask,” Cathy said cheerfully. “I'll tell my subordinates the good news!” She left, surrounded by her posse of green-skinned artists.
Ami sighed deeply. As if she didn't have enough work already, creating and balancing a power grid with questionable inputs on the fly while expanding her dungeon. While also keeping it from interfering with the system of channels and pipes that collected water and guided it through the mountain for various tasks. Without sufficient time to plan it all out.
Ami rested her head in her palms. No, now she also needed to come up with some sort of colour-coding system to let her troops pick the right direction at intersections, and apply it correctly as she excavated more tunnels. She stared blearily at the screen of her Mercury computer before gritting her teeth and carrying on.
The winding mountain path had a deep ravine on one side and was barely enough for two mule-drawn wagons to pass each other, but large boulders and groups of crooked pine trees shielded most of it from view.
Ami suspected that it was this cover that had prompted a small band of dwarf soldiers to take this route. The moment she appeared before them on the middle of the road, someone yelped “Keeper!” in alarm. The foremost warrior grabbed a horn from his belt and blew into it, producing a deep, echoing sound.
“Excuse me! Can-”
One of the mules shied from the sudden noise and jerked sideways, rattling the cart it was dragging. Its passengers jumped off, metal boots ringing as they struck the ground. Their comrades were already scattering.
“- I talk to- ”
A hail of crossbow bolts cut off Ami's attempt at diplomacy, turning the front of her ice golem body into a pincushion.
“-yohhhhk- ” She blinked when her tongue refused to move, pinned to the back of her throat to by a bolt that had entered her open mouth. Surprised and annoyed by her sudden inability to talk, she darted into cover behind one of the pines. Back pressed against the tree, her attempts to pry loose the slick projectile became increasingly hectic as she heard someone shout orders and the dwarfs fanned out. Finally, she managed to dislodge the thing by hitting the back of her neck with her fist. “Please, I'm just here to negotiate!” she shouted as more bolts whistled past.
“That so?” A gruff voice came from the direction of the dwarfs. “Then stay where you are and don't move!”
Progress at last! “Very well. I can do that. I'm glad we-”
Something struck the ground close to her hiding spot and exploded. The detonation slammed the broken trunk of the pine into Ami, breaking part of her shell and sweeping her off the mountain path.
As she went tumbling down the ravine, bouncing off the steep incline every few metres, she caught brief glimpses of a line of bearded, cheering faces on the path above. She would have to find another way, it seemed.
“Focus on their leaders if you can,” Ami addressed the twelve motionless figures staring at her with blood- red eyes. She struggled to keep her gaze on them, rather than on the melon-sized eyeballs on fleshy stalks that protruded from the floor. Whenever her attention lapsed, she found her gaze drawn toward the undulating devices. “If they are somehow protected, find someone who isn't.”
“We shall be relentless,” a black-robed man confirmed, elongated fangs glittering in his mouth as he spoke. With his left, he reached over to the eyeball standing closest to him and brushed over its smooth, wet surface with his fingertips.
Ami found the way the device leaned into the caress rather disturbing. She may have derived her communication spell from the things, but that didn't make them any less creepy and gross.
A second vampire took a gliding step forward, this one a female. In as far as the undead had body language, hers seemed uncertain. “Your Majesty, can you offer us advice on the best approach here? Should we be intimidating? Select targets of the opposite gender?”
“We are not trying to seduce anyone into joining us,” Ami felt necessary to clarify, given the typical purpose of this kind of dungeon room. “Simply convince someone in charge to talk to me. No threats either. Be polite but insistent.”
“As you desire.” The vampire acknowledged, bowing. When she rose, she had a malevolent grin on her face. “We shall not give our targets even a moment of reprieve.”
While searching for idle employees she could assign to dungeon maintenance, Ami spotted Tiger talking to her mother with a crystal ball. Surprised, she almost forgot to drop her senshi transformation before she transported herself over to her adopted sister. “Hello Mum, Sailor Moon, Tiger!” she greeted everyone with a smile.
“Hi Ami!” Sailor Moon replied, waving cheerfully. She blinked. “Is it really hot at your place?” she added.
Hot? Oh, the clothes. Instead of going into a long-winded, embarrassing explanation, Ami simply went with part of the truth and nodded. “Yes.”
Her friend's face brightened. “Then how about you introduce ice cream to that world?”
Mrs Mizuno concentrated more on the important issues. “Ami! Are you all right?” she asked, her concerned face growing larger within the scrying device as she pulled it closer. “You look exhausted.”
“I'm under a lot of pressure right now,” Ami understated the situation. She glanced over at her grinning sister. “Tiger, why didn't you tell me you are back?”
“Because everyone said you shouldn't be disturbed,” the black-striped girl answered. “Besides, I don’t think checking the mail for the civilians is a priority for you right now.”
“It would still have been nice to know,” Ami answered, though she privately agreed.
“Also, I needed an opportunity to tell them about your rapid descent into foulest evil,” Tiger said, pointing her thumb at the crystal ball.
Ami's heart skipped a beat. “What? What did you -”
“You sent me out to make arrangements so you can consort with,” Tiger looked sideways and brought her face closer to the crystal ball, “lawyers!” Pointing an accusing finger at her nonplussed sister, she continued “And just a bit earlier, you sicked tireless, bloodthirsty telemarketers on people! Evil! Evil I tell you!”
A faint smile played around Mrs. Mizuno's lips, but it disappeared when she saw that Ami had tensed and was only now relaxing.
“That wasn't very nice, Tiger,” Sailor Moon chided.
“Come on, it was hilarious! Did you see her face?”
“She looked scared that you had done something hurtful,” the pig-tailed blonde contradicted. Her frown implied the unsaid word “Again.”
Tiger crossed her arms and turned away. “W-well, it's not my fault she can’t take a joke!”
Before the ensuing silence could become awkward, Mrs Mizuno asked “Lawyers, Ami?”
“Um, yes.” Ami confirmed. “I thought it would be easier to make diplomatic progress if I knew the local laws and customs and could act within their framework,” she explained. “I was trying to hold off on contact with the dwarfs until I completely understood the legal situation, but...” She shrugged her shoulders and hung her head. Some of her frustration must have leaked into her voice, because a worried crease appeared on her mother's brow.
“Ami? What's wrong?” Mrs Mizuno asked in a small voice.
Ami didn't want to burden her mother with the knowledge about the impending attack, but on the other hand, leaving her in the dark would worry her just as much. In the end, she didn’t want to hide even more things from her mother. “Oh Mum, they are coming here! They are going to attack me and I can't run and I don't want to hurt them but they think I'm evil and don't talk to me and they won't stop and I don't know what to do and it feels horrible!” She blurted out everything that had been weighing on her mind and then gasped for breath.
“Ami. Ami! Calm down,” Mrs Mizuno called out in a comforting voice. “It's all right. We'll find a solution together,” she said.
Ami doubted that, but she was grateful for the support. With some effort, she brought her breathing back under control and suppressed the sob that was threatening to spill from her throat.
“Let's approach this methodically. You said they aren't talking to you,” Mrs Mizuno continued in the calm, clinical voice she used when diagnosing a patient. “What have you tried already?”
“I sent diplomats from a third party to talk to the dwarfs. I'm trying to get their neighbours, who are willing to negotiate, to initiate contact on my behalf. I tried meeting them in person, but they threw a bomb at me.”
Her mother gasped.
“I wasn't in any danger! I was using an artificial body,” Ami hurriedly reassured her. “Anyway, I have employees trying to talk to them telepathically right now, and I have also tried dropping a bunch of letters on them, but they are treating them like landmines.”
That last attempt had at least slowed down the enemy advance a little, though Mareki disapproved of having to get so close to their crossbows.
“I have nothing to add off the top of my head,” Mrs Mizuno said, “That seems fairly thorough.”
“I could try talking to them too? With the crystal ball?” Sailor Moon offered.
Ami didn't think they would believe a random stranger more than her, and was about to say so, but reconsidered when she saw Usagi's hopeful expression. “Thank you,” she said instead. It wasn't as if Sailor Moon could make them want to talk to her any less.
Mrs Mizuno's lips were a thin line. “In that case, are you adequately prepared to fend them off?”
“I hope so. I'm turning my dungeon into a fortress and am preparing for a siege,” Ami replied. “Tunnels and seismographs to spot enemy miners early, guard rooms full of troops on rotating shifts, barricades to seal off compromised sections, and lots of non-lethal traps.” A bit more subdued, she added “I'm also building more accelerated farms, but I fear I won't be able to adequately feed everyone for the first three days if I end up with many prisoners.”
“What about fresh water?” her mother asked, examining a different, just as vital angle.
“I have a magical storm providing a steady supply,” Ami was happy to tell her. With more area under her control, the corruption effects were increasing in magnitude. If she shifted her perspective outside of the dungeon, she could see a massive column-shaped cloud towering in the sky, its tapering bottom pointing directly at her mountain. It was raining so heavily now that she was actually worried about causing inundations further away.
“And troop numbers?” Mrs Mizuno asked.
“Um, from preliminary sightings, I believe that my troops are outnumbered perhaps four to one,” Ami admitted.
Mrs Mizuno winced a little before she schooled her features into a cautiously optimistic expression. “Ah, that isn't so bad. If I recall correctly, well-trained and disciplined medieval forces could hold a fortress against such odds for as long as they had supplies.”
Ami didn't have the heart to tell her that more than a third of her soldiers were goblins, which were the exact opposite of disciplined and well-trained. “It still doesn't feel right. I mean, those dwarfs are trying to do the right thing. I don't want their blood on my hands!”
Mrs Mizuno remained deep in thought for a moment before she spoke “ Ami, the common soldiers. Do they know they don't have to fight you?”
Ami shook her head. “I don't know. I have been trying to talk to their leaders.”
“Well, then you will have to let them know. Can you magic up,” she waved her hand through the air, “something along the lines of a loudspeaker or megaphone? Let them know that you don't want to harm them and that you are simply defending yourself. Constantly. Make it completely clear that they have nothing to fear from you if they just leave you alone.”
Ami nodded. It made sense to her, but she privately worried how her evil underlings would react to that.
“If they still keep coming, then you will have done all you can and won't have to feel guilty for defending yourself! Don't let them hurt you, Ami!” Mrs Mizuno exclaimed, her voice fiercer than Ami had ever heard her before.
“Tiger, give your sister a hug from me,” Mrs. Mizuno ordered, making both the older girl and Ami start.
The two looked at each other, their eyes wide, then looked at the crystal ball.
Sailor Moon was smiling and giving them a thumbs up, and Mrs Mizuno gave no indication that she was joking.
Tiger raised an eyebrow and shrugged, then took a step forward.
Ami went stiff as muscular arms enveloped her. It felt a little awkward at first, but not all that bad. Warm and comforting, even. Ami's fists slowly unclenched, and before she knew it, she was returning the hug, clinging to Tiger as if her life depended on it. A hand was patting her on the head in an unpractised, somewhat embarrassing way, and she felt something wet on her cheeks.
“Do your best, Ami. I believe in you,” her mother said.
“You'll find a solution, Ami. You always do!” Sailor Moon added.
Their declaration of confidence didn't change the situation, but in Tiger's arms, Ami smiled and felt more confident than she had for a long time.
Half a day later, Tiger was bored as she chewed on the bland chicken leg she had bought from a market stall. Baron Leopold's city was dreadfully uninteresting. She hadn't gone through great effort to make her human disguise look considerably different from Mercury and only changed her hair black. The mischievous part of her that had pushed her to make an appointment here hoped that some citizens would notice her resemblance to the dark empress and jump to the right conclusions. The resulting shouts, panic, and fleeing townsfolk would have been a welcome distraction from waiting for her contact.
Where was that lousy lawyer anyway? He should have met her near the fountain almost half an hour ago. Tiger scanned the crowd and noticed that people were gravitating towards the main street. Hoofbeats and the noise of clanging metal were approaching from the direction from the castle. A parade? Soldiers riding out for a mission?
Curious, the disguised youma pushed her way through the gaggle of cheering people until she had a front row position. Which, should the group include Baron Leopold, carried a not inconsiderable risk of him recognising her and an exhilarating chase ensuing. So sad. Ami would be quite disappointed if that happened. Well, actually she was busy protecting the furthest out imps from snipers, so she would hardly notice. Or want to talk to a lawyer. Changing circumstances had turned this whole lawyer idea into something of a waste of time, in Tiger's opinion.
She could see the foremost riders now, and yes, one of them had an absolutely massive moustache, fancy armour, and a purple plume on his helmet. That just had to be the famed Baron Leopold. He was talking with... “Huh? What in the Great Ruler's name is he doing here?”
The figure riding on a white horse next to Baron Leopold was unmistakeably the Avatar.
“...failed too. So did the wedding band plan. Lord Shinehame is spanking your subordinates pretty well in the south too, and -”
“Shut it. I don't care about those losers anyway,” Mukrezar grumbled, steadying himself on a table as he glared at a crystal ball.
“Far be it from me to suggest that you are stretching your forces too thin, your Ambitiousness, but...”
A growl sound came from the pink-haired elf. “I hate him hate him hate him HATE HIM sooo much! He's cheating!” he shouted, pounding the table with his fist.
“What's wrong, your Hypocrisy?” the imp butler asked as he approached, carrying a tray with a steaming kettle and a cup full off black liquid. “Underhandedness is to be approved of!”
“He stole my trick!” The pink-haired Keeper struck the table again, making the crystal ball on it jump. The composite picture of the Avatar being in various places at once dispersed as Mukrezar whirled around and glared at his minion. He snatched the cup from the tray and drowned it in one go, after which the dark circles around his red-blazing eyes faded a little.
“Aw, it must be so tragic to have another plan backfire on you,” the imp replied, dodging the cup tossed at his head by leaning to the side.
“How am I supposed to find where he is making his new mantle when I don't know where he is?” Mukrezar asked rhetorically.
“Basic deduction, your Sleeplessness?” the butler asked as he poured his master another cup.
“Worth another try.” Mukrezar snapped his fingers, and a world map carved from stone lowered itself from the ceiling, dangling from rattling chains. “Here we go.” He pointed at the Avatar Islands, and its carved landscape crumbled to dust. “Not there, courtesy of yours truly.”
His finger moved on to the Shining Concord Empire and hovered there as he thought aloud. “Here? Nah. Can't have the silly fairies get all high on magic and fly into trees or stab themselves on a unicorn or something. Even though a mangled pile of glittery sky vermin would be a public service, really.”
“Truly a missed opportunity,” his butler chimed in.
“Anyway, not there either.” The boomerang-shaped continent crumbled away. “But do take a note that if I ever end up with more magic than I know what to do with, I'll dump the excess over there.”
“As if you would ever run out of bad ideas before you run out of power, your Ingeniousness.”
“My ideas are perfectly fine.”
“Impeccable as your aim, Master,” the imp mocked, standing still as the crystal ball missed him by a solid two metres. “Perhaps you may wish to try some actual sleep for a change, your Twitchyness?”
“Be quiet.” Mukrezar's finger moved on. “Next! Deserts, no. Ice, no. Ocean, unsuitable too,” he continued, “ leaving,” his eyes narrowed, “pretty much everywhere else. Well, I'm stumped.” He threw up his arms, and a bolt of lightning shattered the map. “And too tired for this!”
The butler imp took cover behind his tray as stone shards pelted it and shrugged. “More potion, Master?” he asked, holding the kettle forward with his other hand.
The pink-haired elf ignored him. “Oh well, when in doubt, just kill everyone. If I just eliminate all the fakes, I'll have to find the right one sooner or later!”
“This entire attack is ill advised, Count Ornish“, the Avatar said, looking over the troops assembled in the rough cave. A solid wall of rune-covered shields glowed dimly, hiding most of the plate-armoured dwarfs behind them. “Empress Mercury did not come to conquer your lands. There is absolutely no reason to attack her at this time.”
A group of engineers assembling a large drill nodded a silent greeting at them as they walked past.
Ornish's jaw made chewing motions as he frowned. “Lord Avatar, you are a peerless warrior, and I greatly value your assistance, even in limited form.” He glanced briefly at the man's left ring finger, covered by an armoured gauntlet. “Nevertheless – and with no disrespect intended – neither you or the Light have a convincing track record when it comes to conducting campaigns.” He was speaking hesitantly, as if every word was costing him greatly, and his eyes were on the ground before him.
The sound of gritting teeth came from the Avatar.
“Your advice goes against traditional doctrine that demands Keepers to be engaged and destroyed without delay,” Ornish continued. “Our nation remains deeply scarred from the one time we ignored it. We attack in the morning.”
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