When Ami thought of a lair, she did not normally imagine a comfortable living room. Nevertheless, that was exactly what the chamber had turned into when she had manipulated it into a comfortable meeting place for the debriefing. Sure, the aquamarine-coloured upholstery ended in some jagged, frost-patterned ornamentations, and some of the seats had proportions not entirely suitable for human occupants, but in general, the place looked surprisingly cosy and refined.
The crude pillar of rock that suddenly appeared on the carpet therefore looked out-of-place in this environment. With a soft rumbling noise, it grew to the size of a man before its surface cracked and shattered, leaving a carrot-coloured youma standing amidst the fading debris from her teleportation effect. Grey powder stuck briefly to the black fabric of Tiger's leotard-like outfit as she stepped out of the brief-lived dust cloud.
Ami self-consciously adjusted the collar of her recently re-conjured cloak. The gashes Tiger had cut into her outfit to show off her stripes rendered it a little more daring than the blue-haired teenager was comfortable with.
Tiger looked around curiously until she spotted Ami sitting on the L-shaped couch in the corner and froze when she noticed the other occupant of the room. “What's up with Lizard Girl?” she blurted out, her gaze focused on Ami's right hand.
The limb rested on the bald head of Lishika, who was also lying on the couch, covered by a blanket and motionless except for one of her fin-shaped ears twitching occasionally.
Ami glanced over at the unconscious youma. “She overextended herself when powering the electromagnets. I'm maintaining a low-powered healing spell so she can absorb its mana.”
“Really?” Tiger's expression grew speculative. “And here I was hoping it had something to do with how you somehow convinced your corruption to forego its more perverted expressions. Suspicious.” She grinned and demonstratively studied the pieces of furniture one by one, as if expecting the various comfortable armchairs and stools to hide scenes of debauchery and deviance.
Ami felt her cheeks heat up, and she reluctantly pointed her index finger up at the thick cloud of Shabon Spray fog that concealed the ceiling. “Up there. I didn't put that mist there only to make scrying on us difficult,” she admitted.
Tiger faced the ceiling. “I'm almost curious enough to fly up and have a look,” she said. Instead, she approached Ami and plopped down next to her on the couch, making the cushions bounce. “So, what's up?”
“I was happy to see you helping out in the infirmary,” Ami said, trying to keep the trickle of magic going to Lishika steady. “Did Abbot Durval tell you what to do?”
“Nah, I know how to heal. I know the same healing spells you do,” Tiger said, pointing at her head. “Admittedly, I'm not as good at using them, since I don't have a really awesome dungeon heart doing all the hard parts for me.” With a grin, she added in a teasing voice. “You dirty little cheater, you.”
“Um.” Ami didn't really know how to handle mild sisterly ribbing and settled on not reacting at all. “Well, I think it's really nice that you are helping people,” she said. “I didn't know you were interested in healing.”
Tiger rubbed the back of her head. “Ah, well, I thought Mum might like it.”
Ami smiled. “I'm sure she'll be proud of you! I'm proud of you too. Did you study up on surgery by yourself? The transplants idea-”
Tiger flinched, her face taking on a greenish tint. “Ugh, don't remind me.” She pulled her legs up and encircled them with her arms. “That was pretty much Monteraine going 'Hey you, teleporter! Fetch me some spare parts!' and handing me a scalpel and a list. If I ever have to cut and carve around in gross, wobbly, sticky cadavers again... urk.” She shuddered and pressed her eyes shut.
Ami blinked “Oh.” With her recently gained healing experience, she could all too easily imagine how queasy something like that would have made her. If Tiger felt the same as her, which wasn't much of a stretch since Tiger was partly her, then she needed some comfort. Tentatively, Ami reached with her left arm around her sister and patted her on her shoulder.
Tiger's muscles tensed under Ami's touch, and she froze in surprise. A moment later, she uncoiled and moved quick like a snake.
Ami suddenly found herself yanked into a strong hug, with her sister holding onto her for dear life. Surprised, she hesitated for an instant before reciprocating and putting her arms around the other girl. Not the kind of reaction she had been expecting, but, well, it felt nice and seemed to make Tiger feel better.
After a while of silence, Tiger started shifting and sheepishly muttered into Ami's shoulder. “She's not watching this, is she?” Her eyes were peering into Lishika's direction.
Ami shook her head. “She's unconscious.”
Despite that reassurance, Tiger let go and sat up straighter, putting one leg over the other as she leaned back. “Small mercies,” she commented. “Oh well, you have to take the good with the bad. “At least the dwarfs were somewhat amusing.”
“What?” Now that was a little alarming. Ami couldn't think of anything funny about injured people.
“Well, one moment they were all-” Tiger scowled exaggeratedly and made her voice deeper “- away with your foul necromancy, demon slattern!” In her normal voice, she continued “And then someone would shout at them for being rude to the Dark Princess,” she helpfully pointed her thumb at her chest, “and then they'd completely change their attitude.” In her dwarf voice, she whined “No, please, your Highness, couldn't you reconsider?”
“Really? That seems odd, given their stubbornness so far.” Ami made a mental note of it for later. Perhaps she could get better results if she left the negotiations to Tiger? Speaking of negotiations, that reminded her of the youma's previous mission. “So what did the lawyer say about being able to help us?”
“Oh, that slimy bastard said he was willing to consult with colleagues and compile a list of the various laws governing interaction between ruling entities for us - for a substantially higher fee than normal, of course.” Tiger didn't sound too impressed. “He also admitted that dwarven law wasn't exactly his area of expertise.”
“Maybe we could get some of the dwarf prisoners to help with that instead?” Ami said, wondering what it would take to get them to cooperate. Distorted information could be worse than useless. “It's a start, at least.”
“Oh, I did learn something else, too. The king of Nimbadnur has called on Baron Leopold's assistance to defend his country against you. Apparently, they are allies or something.”
“The dwarfs are taking me that seriously already?” Ami wasn't too concerned about Leopold showing up. He was a powerful fighter, but no match for Jadeite, Rabixtrel, or even Cathy. She found it more alarming that the dwarfs felt so threatened by her that they were willing to call upon alliances already.
“Apparently. Hey, it sounds as if the others are about to show up.”
Outside in the corridor, voices and footsteps approached. A moment later, someone knocked on the door.
“Come in!” Ami said and made the door swing open.
A palanquin stopped in front of the door, and the four trolls carrying it lowered it so its occupant could get off. Cathy sat up with a motion that was surprisingly smooth for someone wrapped in enough bandages that only a few sections of skin remained exposed. She came in and pulled the door shut behind herself, blocking the view of the curious underlings.“Empress,” she greeted.
Ami's eyes widened a little as she took in the blonde's appearance. Why wasn't she back to full health? “Cathy, are you still hurt? Do I need to heal you?”
Cathy held up one hand and backed away in mock fright. “Don't you dare! As long as I have my bruises, my bandages are safe from the corruption!”
“Don't worry, I'm mostly joking. I simply wanted the healers to conserve their strength for serious injuries.” She looked down at herself. “Though I'm not complaining about being able to wear something without parts flaking off.”
“I'm not a fan of the mummy chic,” Tiger commented.
Cathy glanced over at her and stopped when she spotted Lishika next to Ami. She raised an eyebrow.
“Lishika powered the electromagnets until she fell unconscious,” Ami explained. “I'm restoring her reserves with my healing spell. You can talk freely, I'll notify you if she wakes up.”
“I'll make sure to thank her later.” Cathy selected the softest-looking armchair opposite from Ami and let herself drop into it. “Speaking of exhaustion, Snyder is excusing himself from this meeting. He wouldn't be able to contribute anything worthwhile to the debriefing anyway.”
Ami did have questions for him, but they had answers she would need to ponder in peace anyway. “That's all right. But, um, do you know if the Avatar approved of what the dwarfs were doing? Killing everyone, I mean.”
Cathy shrugged. “He didn't talk all that much before he attacked me.” She paused. “Wait. He told me that I was too dangerous for him to hold back, so he'd have to heal me enough that I wouldn't die after he defeated me. I guess that means he wasn't entirely on board with plan 'exterminate'.”
Ami perked up. “So the Light doesn't approve of that kind of behaviour?”
“You aren't supposed to hurt the helpless, no,” the blonde confirmed. “I get the feeling he and the dwarfs don't see eye to eye-”
“Because they are too short?” Tiger interjected, earning herself a reproachful look from both Ami and the swordswoman.
“As I was saying,” Cathy continued, “he broke their morale by throwing the fight and got them to prematurely deploy their hero gate by not telling them he was a fake. So there.”
“Are you sure about all of that?” Ami asked. Faking a defeat wouldn't serve any purpose if he wanted the dwarfs to win. If he wanted them to break off their attack, however, it would work very well.
“No, it's perfectly normal to fall unconscious after being head-butted in the invisible shield protecting your face,” the swordswoman muttered. She poked at the bandage around her forehead and grimaced a little. “So yeah, I'm pretty sure he was faking it.”
“And him not being the real one?”
“Well, that's harder to say. He sounded and acted and fought like the real one, but didn't have the power to back it up. I'm pretty confident I could have beaten him eventually if I had started the battle uninjured.”
“Let's hope we won't have to put that statement to the test,” Tiger said.
“Well, is he going to come back? What's the situation like?” Cathy asked, leaning forward in her seat.
“The dwarfs are resting, same as our troops,” Ami said. “They lost proportionally more soldiers than we did, but they still outnumber us.”
“Who did we lose?” Cathy asked with a serious expression.
“I don't have precise numbers yet, but the majority of our permanent casualties were goblins,” Ami answered, lowering her head as her thoughts went to the morgue. “I hoped you'd talk to your subordinate officers -” Ami hesitated, not having had the time to familiarise herself with them yet.
“Algot, Brom, and Kalres,” Cathy supplied.
“Thank you, yes. Get the details from them later. And pass them on to me, please.”
“The dragons are all fine, but most of the reaperbots need repairs, so we'd have to manage without those somehow if we were attacked right now. Oh, and your own armour is in bad shape, too.”
Cathy snorted. “I can't imagine why.”
“Damage to the dungeon isn't too bad,” Ami continued. “We lost the outer perimeter tunnels, but those were designed to be expendable. I hope we'll be able to replace them before the dwarfs are ready to attack again. Right now, the imps are still busy fixing the bombardment holes in the core areas.”
“Empress Mercury, may I come in?” a female voice sounded in Ami's head.
Ami gave her permission, and for a moment, the lights went out.
When they came back on, a cloaked figure wearing a hood was kneeling in front of Ami. “Your Majesty.”
“At ease, Umbra,” Ami said. “Have a seat while we wait for the others to arrive.”
“Congrats on returning with all your limbs still attached this time!” Tiger teased as the other youma rose in a smooth motion.
The door opened at that point, drawing Ami's attention and making her miss Umbra's reply. Both Jadeite and Torian stepped in at the same time, with the result that they bumped into each other and got stuck in the doorway. They glared at each other, neither willing to let the other pass first. In the end, Jadeite used his superior strength to muscle his way past the warlock, who stumbled and hurried to rush in after the dark general.
Ami's eyes were mostly on Jadeite, who had recently re-summoned his uniform as it showed no sign of wear and tear yet.
“Your Majesty,” he said with a confident grin as he bowed, one arm held over his chest.
“Jadeite,” she returned the greeting. “Please have a seat.”
Tiger poked her in the shoulder, drawing her attention. “Do you want me to move so he can sit here?” she asked with a wink.
Ami felt her face grow hot and gripped her collar nervously. “N-no, I-”
“At this point, an elbow to the ribs is the appropriate course of action,” Cathy advised in a deadpan tone of voice.
“Congratulations to your inspiring victory, your Imperial Majesty!” Torian said as he bowed deeply. His fingers were gripping his staff so hard his knuckles showed brighter.
“Thank you,” Ami answered, grateful for a reason to ignore Tiger. “Feel free to join the others.” She gestured towards the seated people.
Torian smiled, showing his teeth, and immediately went for the armchair closest to her.
A group of two orcs and one troll in high-quality metal armour waited in front of the door. The troll was tall and narrow for someone of his species, and might not have fit through the doorway if he had been standing straight.
“Come in you three,” Cathy called. “Empress, these are my sub-commanders Brom-”
One of the orcs, short but broad-shouldered and built like a barrel, saluted.
“- Algot- ”
The tall troll saluted.
“- and Kalres.”
The lone female of the trio had her white hair in a tight bun, which shook from the crispness of her salute.
“At ease,” Ami told them. “Ah, and there are the final participants.”
The dark elves Eline and Venna strode in through the door with steps so light Ami almost couldn't hear them. They turned towards her and stopped at a respectful distance. “Your Majesty,” both of them said as they bowed simultaneously. What really drew Ami's attention was the black eye that Venna sported, contrasting sharply with her milk-white skin.
Had she been in a fight? She shouldn't have been safe deep inside the dungeon, looking after the civilians. Ami's gaze swept over the small crowd standing more or less tense before her. “Don't worry about protocol, this is an informal meeting,” she told them. “Please, have a seat. To start with, does anyone know of urgent issues I need to be made aware of?”
The orcs and the troll exchanged glances, and then the widest member of the trio took a small, reluctant step forward.
Ami smiled at the orc. “Yes, Brom, was it?”
The pink-skinned creature nodded. “Uh, I'm not sure it's really urgent or if you don't know already, your Majesty,” he said, fidgeting. “Bunch of the guys weren't happy with the restrictions they had to fight under and are talking about leaving. They say fighting with one hand tied is too dangerous. A dozen or so already took their gold and left.”
Ami had been expecting something along those lines, but still found it alarming. With the dwarven numerical advantage, she couldn't really afford her own numbers to deplete much further. On the other hand, she didn't think that coercing her soldiers to stay and fight for her would result in a satisfying performance, even if she had been willing to do that.
Little beads of sweat formed on Brom's forehead as Ami pondered the problem in silence. “I obviously know they are wrong! They aren't thinking far enough ahead. All those prisoners we took will make us stronger once you torture them into joining us!”
Ami clenched her teeth, trying hard to keep her expression neutral. That was certainly not the plan. How would he react to learning that?
“Do any of you have suggestions for making sure we don't lose more troops in the short run?” Jadeite asked before she could think of a good reply.
“Um, Maybe, um, offer a bounty for each live prisoner brought in?” Brom asked, looking at Ami for guidance.
“Your Majesty, I must object!” Torian said, rising from his seat. “Such an incentive would simply lead to backstabbing as the brutes would try to claim the most bounties for themselves!”
“He has a point,” Cathy agreed.
“Pool the bounties, split the pool evenly,” Kalres suggested, her eyes darting from person to person.
“That might work,” Ami said. In a way, having those of her underlings who didn't want to play by her rules leave was a good thing. “We'll replace those who left,” she decided. “Jered is already contacting the local orc tribes, but we can step up recruitment efforts in the Underworld too.”
She only had one portal, but there were other options.
“We can use the portals on the Avatar Islands, too. As long as people are merely passing through quickly, the corruption won't harm them too much.” She looked Brom over more closely.
His equipment was in good shape, his hair was fairly clean for an orc, and he had shown some responsibility by bringing the unwelcome news of discontent to her attention.
“Can I entrust this recruitment mission to you?” Ami asked him with a short sideways glance at Cathy.
The blonde nodded once in approval.
“Yes, your Majesty!” Brom saluted and stood as straight as his bent stature would allow him. “The hirelings will want to see gold, though,” he added after a moment. “And I'll need an escort to secure the way. And workers to raise the portal monoliths back into position.”
“Granted.” Ami remotely moved some gold from her treasury around and placed it in a locked room not far from the portal. She held up her hand, and a key appeared in front of Brom. “An imp will direct you to the room holding the required funds,” she said.
The orc dropped on one knee as he snatched the key out of the air under the envious looks of his companions. “Thank you, my Empress.”
Jadeite turned his head to stare at him, his eyes gleaming with a white light within. “Remember, responsibility for this mission lies with you. Do make sure to document your expenses, as I will be going over them later.”
Brom paled, and his shoulders drooped. “O-of course.”
Ami's smile turned a little strained. Her employees came from the Underworld, and assuming the worst of them was simply common sense. “Thank you, Jadeite.” She turned to the crowd. “Is there anything else that went wrong?”
Venna raised her hand. “Well, I have some good news and some bad news,” she said. “The bad news is that the civilians are getting unruly. For some unfathomable reason, they don't like the new fashions you devised. We had the beginnings of a riot on hands there,” she said, raising a hand to her black eye.
“What did you do?” Ami asked, dreading the answer.
“Well, before we could do something, the lights flickered and the farms shut down and disgorged a huge swarm of insects,” the dark elf said.
Ami raised her eyebrows. The farms' power failing during the battle was not unexpected, but their fading metabolism magic should not have resulted in accelerated insect growth. Oh, who was she kidding? She had a warm, damp dungeon and a corruption theme of fertility. An insect plague had probably been inevitable. She really needed to try and tweak those settings some more, and maybe give the dwarfs a hard time while she was at it.
“- buzzing and crawling everywhere, and then Eline got the bright idea of telling the civilians that the bugs were a warning from you, and that got them to back down, which is the good news,” Venna chattered on. “Except now we have huge piles of bugs all over the place. Can't move a step without making crunching noises.” She paused. “I guess that's bad news too?”
“Can we have them?” the troll officer - Algot - interrupted Ami's train of thought.
“The bugs,” the leathery-skinned being elaborated. “They'd go really well with chicken. Nice and crunchy. ” He was salivating.
“You want to eat the bugs,” Ami noted in a small voice. She glanced around the room and noted that neither Torian nor Eline or Venna looked surprised. Well, if the trolls wanted the insects, that would leave more of the real food for the rest. “Yes, sure, go right ahead. Anyone can take as many as they want.”
“Thank you, your Majesty!”
Not that she thought that a little predation would solve the problem. The insects couldn't stay in the living quarters, but she had no immediate plan to get rid of them. Sure, she could convey her wishes to the primitive minds inside her dungeon – one by one. That wasn't going to help with a swarm. “Torian, do you know any spells to get rid of insect infestations?”
“Certainly. Fireball works wonders,” the warlock commented dryly. “However, getting them to move under their own power and without leaving bits all over the place is more the Vermin Lord's area of expertise. Perhaps your hostage abbot knows some applicable crop preservation spells, too.”
Not a bad suggestion, Ami figured. “Anything else? Do you have a way to use sympathetic magic on one bug to affect the rest?”
“Despite our recent successes on the battlefield, I do not know of any spells that could be used to affect one living being through another,” the warlock said, shaking his head. “Obviously, if you wanted me to research something along those lines, I could initiate a project to- ”
“Your Majesty,” Kalres interrupted, “as we are under siege, I would prefer it if any magical resources were directed towards the war effort. How much magical support can we troops expect in the field?”
“That is a question of finances, really,” Ami answered, a little surprised by the orc taking charge.
In her Keeper sight, her rows of gem furnaces stood mostly inert, holding tiny, deformed sapphire growth. It looked as if the troubles with the electrical grid had not spared their current crop. It wasn't a total loss, as she would still get some gold from the partially grown sapphires, but the furnaces needed a good cleaning.
“When in doubt, I would rather spend gold on properly fortifying the dungeon rather than on spells,” she elaborated. Optimally, she would be able to seal off her dungeon with steel walls, foiling further invasion attempts.
“I, too, would prefer not to attack before our forces are stronger,” Kalres agreed readily.
“For now, any potential offensive operations against the dwarfs would be aimed only at crippling their ability to launch another invasion,” Ami assured her. She turned her attention to her two magical specialists. “Jadeite and Torian, do you have anything to add? Could you apply the way you countered the dwarfs in an offensive manner?”
“Doubtful, your Majesty,” Torian said, barely pre-empting Jadeite's answer. He shot the dark general a smug look. “We exploited a unique weakness that existed due to the dwarfs being in a rush. I would be incredibly surprised if they made the same mistake while constructing their home base.”
“In that case, I want you to focus our research more on defensive applications,” Ami instructed.
“Your wish is my command, my Empress.”
Ami addressed the corner of the room blanketed in unnatural darkness. “Umbra, you have been to the dwarven camps. Have you seen or heard anything particularly noteworthy?”
“Between smashing siege equipment, wards, and them being able to see me in the dark, I was not able to do a lot of spying,” Umbra said. “I overheard parts of a conversation about reinforcements and supplies arriving through the tunnels in the next few days.”
“Tunnels? They must have been talking about one of their towns.” Ami was certain that the dwarfs couldn't have dug a tunnel out to her location yet, even with their impressive digging speed. The dungeon was a few days walk away from their closest fortress. A pre-existing network perhaps? In any case, the presence of a hero gate above made reinforcements anywhere nearby something she couldn't afford to ignore. Reason enough to have a look. “Excuse me for a moment while I investigate.” She transported a crystal ball from the library and had it float above her lap.
Tiger leaned over her shoulder, looking on with curiosity as the sphere lit up and showed the outside the of the dungeon.
Ami decided to pick the closest dwarven town for her scrying. Most of it was underground, but there were two impressive walls surrounding the buildings and the fortress on the surface. As she zoomed in on the dwellings nestled between the inner and outer wall, she couldn't help feel some admiration for the masonry. The individual blocks were put together so neatly that one would have had trouble to put even a knife's blade between the gaps.
As she got closer to the fortress, a bell engraved with a fern-like pattern started ringing by itself on top of the fortifications. Nearby, a short, grey-bearded guard dozing with his back against the crenellations jolted upright. He looked around wide-eyed, his head whipping left and right. His pale face turned towards the sky briefly, eyebrows furrowed. After a last glance back at the rune-covered bell, he sprinted into the nearest tower and slammed the door closed behind him.
After the initial moment of surprise that she had triggered some kind of spying alarm, Ami felt a little guilty as she watched the frightened inhabitants.
Dwarfs disappeared into buildings, jumped down hatches, and slammed down shutters. Within moments, the streets had cleared of all living things aside from some cats and dogs.
That wasn't what she had intended at all. While it was good to know that the dwarfs had working scrying detection, she would have much preferred observing them without disturbing them. Well, since it was too late for that now, she might as well follow through and keep the disruption of their lives down to this single time. She propelled her perspective down the main street, which lead straight to the mountainside and ended at a set of large double doors.
The physical obstacle was no barrier to Ami's crystal ball, and her point of view entered a large hall. At least she assumed that it was a large hall, since it was too dark to see much beyond a pair of large, square pillars. Movement overhead at a grate-covered window drew her attention just in time to see a shutter descend, rendering the place even darker. Some distance away, a dwarf-shaped silhouette placed a hood over another light, decreasing visibility even more.
Ami clenched her teeth as she realised that they were extinguishing all light sources. Unlike the dwarfs, she couldn't see in the dark.
“Well, that's a whole lot of blackness,” Tiger commented, still leaning over Ami's shoulder.
Ami clenched her teeth and made her viewpoint hop from one fading light to the next, trying to stay ahead of the dwarfs as she chased the last vestiges of brightness.
A dropped torch got her further along the street, a patch of fluorescent fungus ahead a little deeper still. Then, a portcullis slammed down, cutting her off from all light. Still, the street had been straight and leading down at a constant angle so far.
Ami quickly rushed her point of view further in the same direction. For a few breathless seconds, she feared she had lost her opportunity, but then she saw the faintest hints of lights ahead.
Engravings that shone from within, already three-quarters hidden behind descending stone shutters, still provided enough illumination for her to confirm the presence of a large tunnel stretching off somewhere into the distance.
Wide-eyed, Ami stared at her crystal ball – or rather, at the parallel metal tracks visible on the tunnel floor within. “They have railways?”
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