A tide of undead animals poured from the portal's orange glow into the empty entrance hall of Ami's dungeon. The zombies crawled, slithered, and flopped towards a square opening in the ground, proceeding down the ramp in a less than orderly fashion.
On both sides of the procession, newly-repaired reaperbots stood guard, staying as close to the walls and as far away from the wriggling, smelly carpet as possible.
Through a thick glass window high up in the ceiling, Cathy grimaced at the new arrivals “Ugh. We'll have to clean the entire room later. And all the reaperbots too. Burning everything sounds good to me.”
Near the front of the smelly, shambling horde, a walrus pulled its rotting body forward. With each ungainly bound, lose skin hanging off its frame whipped around, slapping the creatures next to it. The monster pushed its way through the surrounding zombies, crunching a crab under
its flipper without even noticing. Smears and flattened remains stained the formerly clean tiles in its wake. Finally, it disappeared into the hole, speeding up as it skidded down the steep ramp.
The swordswoman winced when she heard a loud, wet thumping noise from below. “Eww.” She placed her hands on her hips and turned towards Ami, who was watching the proceedings through a different window. “Are you sure you are feeling all right? Not hearing voices or feeling the strange urge to, oh, convert people into your undead minions?”
Ami looked at her across the observation spot, mildly irritated by the nagging. It wasn't as if she was particularly happy about having the horrid things in her dungeon, either. “Cathy, I'm not under the influence of Crowned Death,” she stated with conviction.
“Well, excuse me for feeling a little concerned when you return from your trip with your chief warlock unconscious, a horde of zombies on your heels, and that thing trailing you like a shadow,” Cathy said, narrowing her eyes at the spirit hovering a few steps to Ami's left.
The creature had taken on a visible form and looked like a tall, crowned skeleton made of black fire. Hundreds of chains hung off its arms and chest, forming a kind of indistinct robe that moved like smoke. The ends of the chains faded into invisibility, so it was hard to judge how far the spirit could lash out with them if it felt the inclination.
Cathy obviously didn't take any chances and stayed on the opposite site of the room.
“The spirit is completely under my control,” Ami assured the blonde, “and since I want it to stay that way, I'm not going to weaken its magical bonds even a little by letting it get farther away from me.”
“All right, but are you absolutely, positively sure that having it so close to it is safe?”
Ami nodded absently, busy with construction work in a different part of the dungeon. “I would assume so. At least, having it out here has to be safer than having it stuck in my head.” She was rather happy about figuring out how to force the spirit to manifest. It would give her a target to aim at if it ever got free.
“In your head?” Cathy threw her hands up in the air. “That's it, I'm getting Snyder to poke you with some Light magic to clean-”
“NO!” Ami took a quick step back and shook her head violently at the thought of having to endure the repulsive sensation.
“Now that's a reassuring reaction,” Cathy stated, crossing her arms. Despite the sarcasm, a hint of worry had crept into her voice.
Ami hurried to clarify the problem. “Look, I need to concentrate to keep the spirit subjugated, and Snyder's magic would be too distracting.” Which was putting things mildly. “Besides, you know that I was planning to return with a bunch of controlled zombies.”
“That burning ghost wasn't part of the plan! You have already admitted that it's hard to control, and I'm suspecting that you are understating the difficulty. Just look at your eyes, they are glowing bright enough to read by.” Cathy took a deep breath. “That thing is terrifying, and I don't understand why you don't just get rid of it.”
“That's not as easy as it sounds. Now that it's in one piece, it reintegrates the power released when I kill a body.”
Cathy frowned. “Aren't you supposed to have complete control over it?”
“I do, but I can't control its automatic process any better than you can control the function of your liver,” Ami pointed out quite reasonably.
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“I still need it to maintain control over the zombies,” Ami pointed out the obvious. “Once I have no more use for it, I'll send it into a temple of the Light.”
“I am now trying to imagine the expression on the priests' faces when that thing walks in.” Cathy chuckled a little, mollified. “All right, but I still have no idea what you want with that batch of rotten seafood down below.”
“Well, I have an idea for getting some use out of the zombies,” Ami said.
“Oh, yes, they look so very useful,” the swordswoman said, her voice dripping with exasperation. “All right, I can almost see how the crocodiles and seals and even the turtles could, maybe, make the dwarfs hesitate, but the vast majority...” she gestured towards the window.
Below, an undead fish slipped off the back of the alligator it had ridden in on. With a powerful slap of its tail fin, it catapulted itself into the air. Metal clanged as it smacked against the chest of a reaperbot and flopped onto the floor. Additional strikes of its fin only managed to make it bounce in random directions.
“I rest my case.”
Ami could certainly see why Cathy seemed underwhelmed by their combat potential. “Ah, but I don't intend on having them fight,” she replied.
Gleaming new knives, tongs, and pliers hung from the brick walls, competing for space with chains and manacles. Below them, hot coals glowed within tall, goblet-shaped metal basins. Spaced evenly along the walls, they cast the room in a reddish light.
A woman with her hair tied back in an oiled braid stirred the embers with an iron rod, heating the tool to incandescence. She didn't seem to mind that she was risking severe burns, as her form-fitting black leather outfit left generous amounts of skin unprotected. Only her face was well fully covered by a long-beaked plague doctor's mask that fended off the stench of carrion permeating the air.
Other dark mistresses dressed in a similar way moved with purpose between racks, chairs with spike-covered seats, and similar torture devices. Their sadistic giggles filled the air, occasionally drowned out by the moans of their victims.
Whether or not the zombies were moaning because of their torturers' efforts remained unclear.
One of the dark mistresses in particular was not getting a sound out of the targets of her ministrations. The crabs and lobsters she was lowering into boiling oil simply didn't have the capacity to make noises other than the cracking and hissing of their flesh.
In contrast, one of her colleagues a few racks to the left was coaxing strangled gasps from the seal zombie she had strapped to a wheel. When she caressed it with the arcs of lightning flowing from her fingers, its muscles twitched, contracted and drove air through the animal's throat. She was also rapidly searing away her victim's remaining flesh, so her chosen method would not be working for much longer.
She would get a replacement soon, as an imp was already cranking a small winch and raising a squirming bag filled with more undead from the dark pit in the centre of the room.
An ice golem sat at a desk near the exit, the glow of her eyes tinted violet from passing through her visor. Ami was taking notes on the proceedings, hoping to find a pattern to the results that made sense. Her sense of touch being off made typing slightly harder, but that drawback was well worth it in exchange for not having to perceive the smell of decay and burnt rotting flesh.
Her involuntary assistant for the experiments was hovering to her left. The spirit remained motionless, its form partially intersecting one of the burning basins without negative effects.
She wasn't surprised, since the thing didn't seem to interact with physical objects. It had only reacted once, when she had poked it with her adamantine dagger. The spirit had been flung away by the soft stab as if it weighted nothing at all. While satisfying to watch, that didn't exactly provide her with a means to contain the creature.
Through her awareness of the spirit, she noticed it feeling a brief pricking sensation, not unlike a hair being pulled out.
She recognised the sensation, having felt it a few times before. A piece of the creature's power had been plucked away from it. She sat up straighter, waiting for one of the dark mistress to approach and show off her success.
“Your Majesty, I have another one,” one of the women called out, pushing up her mask so that her grinning face was visible. She turned and looked over her shoulder at something on the ground. “Hurry up, you!”
A large turtle that was missing its lower jaw shuffled after the woman as she walked towards the desk.
Ami blinked, her eyebrows rising as she stared at the impossible sight of the zombie with a minion bond. “H-how did you manage that? I know for a fact that they can't feel pain!”
In fact, the spirit didn't even notice damage to its bodies that wasn't crippling or fatal. Even the latter only registered as discomfort on the level of a mild itch. It was the only reason why Ami consider torturing the undead creatures to be a moral grey area at worst.
If she had been wrong about that, then- well, she still wouldn't be guilty of anything more evil than animal cruelty, she comforted herself. Anxiously, she waited for her employee's explanation.
“Yes, I had to get creative,” the woman laughed, leaning forward and putting her elbows on Ami's desk. “Such a challenge can be quite satisfying, if you know what I mean,” she added in a throaty voice, almost shoving her chest in the seated girl's face.
To Ami's chagrin, the dark mistresses weren't following the trend of conjured cloaks, unlike the rest of the magic users in her employ. Their usual outfits already had little to fear from her dungeon's corruption.
“So what did you do?” she asked as she backed away from the awkward invasion of her personal space.
“Well, since pain wasn't working, I was going for full immersion in things opposed to the death god's sphere of influence,” the mistress began.
Extrapolating from the themes of her dungeon's corruption, Ami already had an inkling of where this was going. “Continue,” she said with a sinking feeling.
“First, I jabbed long needles deep into the zombie's flesh, implanting various kinds of plant seeds. Then, I seeded every inch of its body with mushroom spores. After forcing it to swallow a few handfuls of white, lively maggots, I placed it in a box full of randy fruit flies looking for a mate,” the woman reported, almost purring. “And then I spoke blasphemous words talking about the pleasures of pen-”
“Uh, yes, I get it,” Ami interrupted quickly, unwilling to listen to the sordid details. “I can see how that would be a torment to a creature of death.” She couldn't help feel impressed by the effort the dark mistress had put into making the zombie miserable. Impressed and horrified. “This is certainly, um, outstanding work, and I commend your dedication, but, well, you needn't have gone through all that trouble.”
“Oh, it was no trouble at all,” the dark mistress said. “I so enjoyed every little bit of progress.”
Had the woman leaned in even closer? Ami squirmed on her seat, inching a little further away. “Still, I have no use for converted zombies. They are unhygienic, smelly, and leave pieces behind when they move.” She pointed at the undead turtle that had almost reached them by now. “Please take it back and,” her voice lowered as she almost stumbled over the words “torture it to death properly.”
“Of course, Empress. If I may, it's a real honour to have you down here with us,” the dark mistress continued, giving no indication that she was about to move away. “We are both amazed and curious about your work.” She indicated Isolda, who was working in the corner the furthest away from Ami.
At the reminded, she grew aware of the weight of the enchanted amulet hanging from her neck, but she managed not to look down at it. “That's quite flattering, but could you-”
“We would be greatly honoured by a demonstration of your skill. I, for one, would also relish some more personal lessons directly underneath you.”
Ami barely stopped herself from disappearing on the spot. She was smart enough to recognise double entendres, not that the leather-clad woman's tone and body language were hard to misunderstand. Being not interested at all in the offer, Ami felt completely embarrassed by the aggressive flirtation. Somehow, she managed to get the words “Back. To. Work.” out without stammering.
The dark mistress looked disappointed as she nodded. “Of course, your Majesty.”
When she left, Ami let out a sigh of relief and shook her head. She had barely enough time to move her chair back closer to her desk before another female silhouette approached.
The woman pointed her right thumb at the pale white glow that floated above her bare shoulder. “I got this one from some fish,” she said in a bored voice. “Any better than the last?”
On closer inspection, the almost transparent apparition swimming through the air had indeed the stream-lined shape of a fish. To be more precise, it was the the front half of a fish. Everything behind the main fins dissolved into a trail of indistinct mist.
Ami inspected the ghost through her visor before standing up and softly flicking her finger through the pale shape.
The ghost popped like a soap bubble, leaving nothing but a cold breeze behind.
“I'm afraid it's still not strong enough,“ she replied to the question. “At least, this latest result confirms that the size of the zombie's body affects the ghost that results from its death.” She wasn't actually sure that the destruction of an undead creature was a real death, but at least her torture chamber considered it to be one.
Since the evil magic inherent in the room's design probably wasn't meant to turn one kind of undead into another, the ghosts produced so far were decidedly substandard. The chamber wasn't working very well without agony to catalyse the victim's transformation into a ghost, and getting it to properly recognise the moment of a zombie's “death” and trigger the process also remained more art than science.
Ami suspected that success would be impossible without the spirit's forced cooperation. By ordering it to keep the part of itself that was animating a body together for as long as possible, she gave the torture chamber enough time to bind the emulated soul and turn it into an angry ghost. In theory.
In practice, Ami wasn't sure she was really creating animal ghosts. It was possible that she was merely ripping parts of the spirit off and turning them into mini-spirits bound to her direct control. Still, as long as the individual pieces remained sub-sapient, the difference was mainly academic.
Or at least it would be once she had refined the process.
“Oh well, I guess back to work then,” the dark mistress said, pulling Ami out of her thoughts. “I'd honestly prefer to be working on a few of the prisoners,” she stated.
“You have your orders,” Ami answered sharply, feeling sickened as she imagined a dwarf instead of a zombie on one of the spiky torture devices. She wished she didn't have to interact with the dark mistresses, as she found everything about them repulsive.
In the back of the room, boiling oil fountained upwards as one of the crabs within burst apart. It failed to produce a ghost.
Right, back to optimisation. The main problem, according to her partial model of the process, was the lack of density of spirit-stuff within the undead bodies. This, at least, was something she could easily adjust. ”Rabixtrel, continue the extermination,” she mentally ordered her horned reaper.
The red-scaled demon was currently on the Avatar Islands , patrolling the shore and gathering small, beached zombies into a large barrel. At her command, he perked up and raced over to a a huge cylinder-shaped device with a long lever sticking horizontally out from one side.
In principle, the metal construction was a mill of the kind usually turned by draft animals walking around it. Of course, Rabixtrel wasn't using it to grind grains. He lifted his barrel up over his shoulder and dumped its smelly, writhing content into the funnel above the grinder. Dust clouds fountained around his hooves as he sprinted over to the lever in his eagerness to start turning the zombies into mincemeat.
Ami was glad the reaper didn't mind destroying them in an impersonal, industrial fashion. She needed the useless bodies destroyed as quickly as possible so the concentration of the spirit's power within the remaining ones increased.
Since she didn't have the logistics to transport masses of aquatic undead, it had been trivially simple to decide which ones she would keep. She had simply ordered all of them to climb on land. The ones that got stuck on the beach were automatically disqualified.
It meant that the prison-pits below her torture chamber were now mostly filled with amphibious creatures such as turtles, walruses, crabs, alligators, newts, giant frogs, and even squids.
As Rabixtrel eliminated more of the leftovers, the power readings of the zombies inside the chamber slowly changed.
Another dark mistress was bringing her a ghost. This one had a shark's face and was large enough to swallow someone's head whole.
Ami briefly wondered how a shark had even managed to get here. The undead didn't need to breathe, so she supposed it wasn't impossible for a strong enough fish to slither across the ground like a stiff snake, but it couldn't have been easy. In any case, this ghost looked more promising than the previous ones.
As the mist-like head of the animal approached, the air went noticeably colder.
Ami smiled at the dark mistress. “Good work. This one has the kind of presence I was looking for. Leave it here with me, please.”
“Of course, Empress.” the woman bowed and left, leaving the fish hovering above Ami's desk.
The young Keeper could already tell that the being counted as one of her minions, but to be absolutely certain, she ordered the spirit to make the ghost shark turn around.
The tooth-filled maw kept stubbornly facing her, and she felt a pulse of intensified loathing from the minion of Crowned Death.
With her curiosity satisfied, the turned to a dark corner. “Golga, please come here.”
In the shadows, a statue-still silhouette wrapped in a black cloak suddenly moved. It slid closer without making a sound, moving into the light of the glowing coals. Pale skin shone almost red and fangs poked out over bloodless lips as the vampire revealed herself. “Your Majesty?”
She pointed at the tooth-filled face of the animal ghost. “Do your ghost-wrangling techniques work on it?”
Golga's blood-coloured eyes flashed once, and she made a beckoning gesture with her arm. The rest of her body remained still like a corpse.
The ghost shark approached the vampire and started to circle her. At one point, in floated over to a rack, took one of its chains into its mouth, pulled on it, and then returned to Golga.
“It responds to my orders about as well as Zarekos' minions did, as long as I can picture its task properly,” the vampire reported. “It does not understand orders that I cannot show it.”
“That's good to know,” Ami nodded. When she had accepted the vampires into her service, she hadn't expected their expertise at ghost handling to turn out useful. “I will be putting you in charge of commanding a number of the new ghosts,” she decided.
“Of course, your Majesty.” Golga smiled, which didn't make her look any livelier.
“Be aware that I will hold you responsible for anything the ghosts do wrong under your command,” Ami warned, trying to sound intimidating. She didn't dare deploy them on their own, given their lack of intelligence, so their handler needed to follow her orders to the letter.
Golga bowed. “I would not have expected anything different. Zarekos had the same policy.”
Ami felt a brief moment of doubt. Should she be doing things the same way as another Keeper? In this particular case, she probably didn't need to worry. Trying to maintain discipline was not inherently evil. “Well, I'm glad I won't have to explain further, then.” Mainly because she didn't have to specify the consequences for failure. “Oh, and one more thing, Golga.”
She shifted her view to the chamber where cloaked figures stood around pumpkin-sized eyeballs on stalks. “I need someone who can handle the scavenger room with subtlety. Send me the best expert of your group.”
“It shall be done.” Golga bowed again and slid back into the darkness, recognising the dismissal.
Water dripped in irregular intervals from the ceiling of the warm, humid prison. A few of the drops landed in the shallow drain running down the length of the corridor, with louder splashes. The rest splattered onto the floor tiles and made them slippery, occasionally providing entertainment for the dwarven prisoners at the expense of the patrolling goblins.
Confined within separate and dry cells, the dwarfs had nothing to fear from the drizzle. Nevertheless, they did not look particularly amused at the moment. Most of them were wearing only in whatever they had been wearing underneath their armour, and neither the battle nor the dungeon's corruption had been kind to their outfits. Nevertheless, they stood right in front of the bars, watching the confrontation taking place a few empty cells further down the corridor.
“...besides, you are not even a real princess!” a loud, female shout echoed off the prison's damp walls.
“I'm too! I am the heiress to an empire, you potato-nosed snob!” Tiger's voice shouted back. She grabbed the bars of the dwarf's cells, the metal ringing from the impact. “That trumps whatever shabby little fief you are a princess of!”
“Shabby little-” the dwarf woman went as red as her hair red and looked as if she would explode. With visible effort, she forced down her anger and crossed her arms. “Right now, you are just some random monster with no title at all,” she said, staring smugly at the youma. “Which makes you my social inferior. Commoner.”
The two goblins flanking Tiger glared at the insolent prisoner, and one of them let out an angry growl. The other took a step forward, stomping his boot in the drain and sending a spray of tepid water in the dwarf's direction.
Tiger shot him a glare, and he froze, hung his head, and returned to his place at the orange-skinned girl's side.
“Oh, at least you have trained your pets well. Or was that someone else, since you don't really look that competent?” the imprisoned dwarf asked.
“You should really watch your tongue,” Tiger said, frowning at the woman.
“Or what?” the prisoner challenged.
In the cell across the hallway from her, another dwarf shook his head silently, his beard whipping left and right as he put both hands over his mouth.
The intended target of his mimed advice never noticed it, as she kept her gaze firmly on Tiger. “Are you going to threaten me with dragging me off to the same fate as my valiant warriors?”
A number of nearby cells were open, still showing signs of recent occupation.
“Why would I threaten you with something that's going to happen soonish anyway?” Tiger asked, an ugly grin appearing on her face when the dwarf woman's pupils shrank in sudden fright.
“You will not break me, demon!” the dwarf stated, scowling.
“Well, yes, obviously,” Tiger said cheerfully.
“You- what?” The princess' defiant stance wavered at the admission.
“If you really want to know what happened to those other dwarfs,” the youma said, pointing at the empty cells, ”I can tell you.” She leaned in as if she was about to divulge a great secret. “The truth is that my sister, the Empress, is using them to refine her interrogation techniques.”
The dwarf's face went first slack, then pale, and finally settled on furious.
”Tiger, that is quite enough,” Ami intruded on the squabble with a telepathic message. ”I am ready to see her now, please move away from the cell.”
“Hah, and just now she told me she's about to take you away!” Tiger added as a parting shot, grinning as she turned to leave. A wave of her hand, and the goblin guards hurried after her.
Ami was displeased by Tiger's taunting of the prisoner. Insinuating that the woman was about to be tortured definitely went too far even if she had been needlessly antagonistic.
Four orcs turned the corned and entered the hallway, approaching the cell.
Ami could have used Keeper transport to bring the prisoner to her throne room instantly, but Snyder had suggested that she avoid reminding the dwarfs about her Keeper status as much as possible. Moving the prisoners in a way that resembled their own customs would make them feel as if they were meeting a legitimate ruler, rather than a Keeper.
The team of orcs took position around the cell with practised ease, two holding their clubs at the ready while a third hung back with a crossbow. The fourth unlocked the door and stepped aside to let his armed companions enter.
“You filthy savages! Don't you dare lay a hand on me!” the prisoner shouted, backing away against the wall of her cell.
The two orcs approached, unimpressed by the woman's raised fists.
“The Empress is watching,” one of them spoke in a gravelly voice. “You can either come quietly or come twitching and mildly scorched.”
The princess hesitated for a moment, cobalt eyes narrowed as she considered her options. Finally, she dropped her combat stance and stood ramrod straight. “Fine. Let none say that I did not meet my fate with dignity.”
“Blindfold,” the orc who had threatened her commanded, unimpressed.
As the pink-skinned soldiers readied the dwarf for transport, Ami took the opportunity to inspect her a little more closely in preparation for their impending conversation.
The princess was looking surprisingly good for someone who had been thrown into jail wearing nothing but battle-damaged undergarments. One of the other dwarfs had thrown her an shirt that was much larger than her own. It went down to just above her knees, and its sleeves had been removed and re-purposed as a sash and a few ribbons. Even without tools, the tailor had somehow managed to adjust the fabric so that even the damage looked like decorative frills.
Amazed, Ami noted that the improvised dress didn't need to fear a comparison with her own. The daring cut even seemed to be make concessions to the effects of her corruption. If dwarven craftsmanship could do this, then a few of their tailors would be able to do a lot about improving her dungeon's clothing situation.
The orcs were leading the blindfolded woman out of her cell now, keeping a loose grip on her upper arms. Not that she needed the guidance, as even blind, she didn't stumble.
Nevertheless, the blindfold gave Ami the opportunity to cast one of the spells she had found in Malleus' dungeon on the princess. It deceived the senses, and the late Keeper had named it 'Turncoat', since he had used it to make enemies attack their allies. Ami had a more benevolent use for it in mind – simulating peer pressure. She needed any advantage she could get if she wanted to convince the woman that the dwarfs should stop their attacks.
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