The orcs released their iron grip on Iden's upper arms, allowing her to stop.
She tensed, listening into the darkness behind the blindfold.
The footsteps of the guards retreated, and her mineral sense reported their metal armours lining up behind her.
Together, the orcs dropped to one knee and lowered their heads.
Iden swallowed. She was in the same room as the dark empress. Was it a torture chamber? She sniffed the air, almost sick with worry.
No blood. The air smelt humid, but with a hint of smoke.
Torches? Braziers? A basin filled with red-hot irons? Iden took a long breath and concentrated on suppressing her shivers. She would not besmirch her honour by showing fear in front of the enemy.
“Rise,” a young-sounding female voice said from somewhere ahead. It echoed faintly, indicating that the room was large and open.
The dark empress herself? Iden didn't find the voice intimidating. She shook her head – those were dangerous thoughts when dealing with a Keeper.
“Captain Lugot, you and your squad may leave after taking off her blindfold,” the voice continued.
One of the shapes behind Iden raised its metal gauntlet towards its helmet, saluting. The collection of metal pieces moved on to approach her from behind. A moment later, the knot of her blindfold came loose, and the piece of dark cloth fell off.
Iden took a blind step away from the orc, unable to see in the sudden brightness. Squinting, she spotted two braziers burning at the end of a long hall. Between them, gilded stairs drew her gaze upwards.
On a throne concealed by the glare, two spots of crimson glowed at head-height.
Iden froze as if she had spotted a poisonous snake. Not daring to look away from the figure on the throne, she wished her eyes would adapt to the light faster. Every gesture, every expression and every twitch of the enemy's face could prove vital to her continued survival. She didn't know what the Keeper wanted from her yet, but she was determined not to give it to her.
Behind her, the orc bellowed “Dwarf, you are in the presence of her Imperial Majesty Sailor Mercury, Empress of the Avatar Islands! Introduce yourself!”
She twitched at the volume and reflexively stood straight as she processed his words. Her mouth was already opening before she managed to remind herself that Mercury was foreign nobility, and a Keeper to boot.
Nevertheless, her title was real and demanded a minimum of courtesy and respect.
Reluctantly, she inclined her head. “Iden Sodnil,” she said, proud to keep her voice unwavering, “second daughter of Baron Sodnil.”
The indistinct silhouette of the dark empress nodded once. “Welcome. You are the first dwarven leader I have the opportunity to hold a civil conversation with,” she said.
That was a distinction Iden could have lived without. At least, she could comfort herself with the knowledge that none of her fellow nobles had been captured.
The two red glows in Mercury's face narrowed. “Of course, I would have preferred someone who wasn't involved in slaughtering the helpless wounded,” she continued in a cold voice.
Iden didn't flinch, but it was a near thing. Then, she got angry at the hypocrisy of a Keeper complaining about unsavoury combat tactics.
After Mercury's revelation, displeased muttering came from – above?
She allowed herself a brief look around while trying to come up with an answer that wouldn't get her killed or tortured in a fit of pique. Right now, she couldn't see the empress well enough to discern her body language anyway.
There were balconies to the left and right on the hall, with minions on top. Shoddy architecture in comparison with dwarven work, held up by tasteless pillars. Below, in the shadows, skulked more trolls and orcs and even a few dwarfs.
Her heart skipped a beat, and it took all of her hard-earned discipline to not gape like some common yokel. Those, those rotten traitors! How dare they? Didn't they remember- no. She couldn't get worked up now. The dark empress was waiting for an answer.
She could almost feel the expectant gazes of the audience on her, urging her on. “I do not have to justify my tactical decisions to the enemy,” she snapped, unable to contain her anger.
The words hung in the room, which fell silent.
Realising just how confrontational that had sounded, she quickly added “With all due respect.”
Mercury's scowl deepened.
Iden almost regretted being able to see her properly now. “However, if I had to justify my actions, then I would point out that leaving active enemies in my back would have been suicidal. Especially with no way to secure prisoners.”
Mercury's lips pressed closer together, forming a thin line. One of her hands tightened its grip on the armrest of her throne briefly before relaxing.
Signs of barely-restrained anger, Iden suspected. Of course, the dark empress was an evil mastermind and could be an accomplished actress. Then again, she was also an upstart commoner raised to the ranks of nobility. She wouldn't have had a proper education, so she might be betraying her real emotions here.
The brighter red glow in Mercury's eyes hinted at the latter possibility. “You should not have attacked, then,” the girl said, her voice no longer calm.
Iden simply couldn't stop herself. “Neither should you,” she quipped, a hint of smugness in her voice. Inwardly, she cringed. Was she actually trying to goad the Keeper into killing her? While a good way to avoid torture, suicide was shameful cowardice.
Mercury blinked, perhaps taken aback by Iden's boldness.
Iden secretly scoffed at the reaction, which she would have expected from a mere commoner. It fit with Mercury's general appearance. Her dress was of similar quality to what the daughter of a mildly successful merchant would wear – before the guards dragged her away for indecent exposure. That Keeper was insulting proper nobles everywhere by wearing something so scandalously short and clingy in front of her court!
“I did not attack you,” Mercury said, some of the heat leaving her voice.
That clinched it for Iden. Only an amateur would be put so easily on the defensive. “You have violated the borders of Nimbadnur,” she elaborated. “As a noble sworn to protect this land, I demand that you and your troops withdraw from our territory at once!”
“Impossible,” Mercury replied immediately.
Well, it had been worth a try. Being in a position where she had very little to lose was making her feel bolder.
“However, I am not the one who is to blame for the current situation,” the dark empress continued, her voice accusatory. “By your own laws, I should have been listened to when I asked to negotiate. It is my right as an empress.”
“Those laws weren't written with Keepers in mind,” Iden stated the obvious.
“Why would that change anything?” the dark empress asked. She didn't sound angry, merely curious. Curious and eager.
Iden's hackles rose. If she wasn't completely wrong, then Mercury was about to spring some kind of rhetorical trap on her. Obviously, she couldn't trust a word the enemy said. No matter what, she wouldn't betray her country! “Anyone who serves a Keeper is considered insane. Someone like that is not entitled to the usual privileges of nobility,” she summarised the relevant parts she remembered.
“Anyone serving Keepers. Your laws make no provisions for nobles who are Keepers. I had people research this issue,” the dark empress stated confidently.
If that was all that Mercury was betting on, then Iden had nothing to fear. “Are you implying that Keepers aren't inherently self-serving?”
If the dark empress was offended, she didn't show it. A faint smile played around her lips. “Ah, but answer me a simple question. Does or doesn't your law derive its legitimacy from the Light?”
“It does,” she answered after a brief moment of hesitation. It was a simple, undeniable fact.
“Now, did or didn't the Light gods know that I was a Keeper when they made me the Empress of the Avatar Islands?”
Iden's thoughts ground to a halt. She could already see where the dark empress was going with this, and she didn't like the direction at all. “They did,” she grumbled.
Mercury smiled. “And would the Light gods knowingly bestow a noble title on someone who wasn't fit to rule?”
”They clearly did,” Iden thought rebelliously. On some level, Mercury herself had to be aware of this, since she wasn't wearing a proper crown - merely a tiara with a large sapphire set in its centre. Was some last shred of decency stopping her from donning all of the trappings of the title she didn't deserve? “I do not presume to understand the motivations behind the actions of the gods,” she answered diplomatically.
“Well then, do you think that your laws are more important than the wishes of the Light, from whom they derive their legitimacy?” Mercury insisted.
Dangerous terrain. Iden clenched her teeth and stared straight ahead. She didn't have an acceptable reply. Obviously, the law wasn't above the will of the gods. On the other hand, she couldn't state in good conscience that the Light really wanted for Mercury to be an empress.
“Please answer the question,” the dark empress demanded when the silence stretched.
Unfortunately, Mercury was within her rights to expect an answer. Tradition demanded that she respect fellow nobles, especially those of higher rank. Even if they were foreign and evil. On the other hand, the law mandated that Keepers had to be destroyed, and any cooperation with them was forbidden.
Iden wondered if she should escape the situation by dashing forward, grabbing one of the braziers, and bashing the Keeper's head in. She dismissed that idea a split-second after considering it. Even if she wasn't tackled on the way or incinerated by foul magic, the dark empress could reportedly defeat a horned reaper in hand-to-hand combat. Still, a quick death might be better than whatever the Keeper had in store for her.
The gazes of the other dwarfs bored into her back, silent and disapproving.
Iden wasn't keen on dying, and she was embarrassing herself with her inability to answer. “The Light has more authority, but They would have taken action with the expectation that we will keep following our laws,” she spoke.
The dark empress smiled. “Well, then there is no problem. Your laws don't cover my specific situation, and your gods have expressed their will on this issue. I am a noble, and you would have to abide by any agreements I made with your leaders.”
Iden gritted her teeth so hard she feared she would chip them. Looking at the floor, she said “I cannot spot the flaw in your argumentation,” she admitted in defeat. Was this how Mercury had started grinding down the resolve of the other dwarfs? Her presence was a lot more intimidating when she couldn't simply be dismissed as an insane maniac with no right to rule.
“Thank you. With that out of the way, I think you would be of sufficient rank to make yourself heard if I used you as a go-between for negotiations?” Mercury asked, suddenly all business.
“What is there to negotiate?” she asked in surprise.
“Ceasefires, cessation of hostilities and hostage exchanges, to start with.”
“That's not going to happen. None of it,” she said with conviction, staring straight into Mercury's eyes. Keeper Bartholomeus – cursed be his name - had demonstrated only fifteen years ago how much harm a Keeper who wasn't stopped quickly could do. “Your continued presence in our lands is intolerable.”
The disappointment creeping on Mercury's face did much to lift Iden's mood.
“What about the prisoners I took during the assault? I can't imagine that you don't want them back,” the Empress asked, sounding almost pleading.
Iden thought about her father, who was probably worrying about her being tortured right now. Her throat constricting as she said “There's nothing to be gained from ransoming hostages from a Keeper. We either free them or bury them,” she explained. It painted a bleak picture of her own future, she realised.
“That's horrible!” the dark empress exclaimed and shifted on her throne uneasily.
Who was she trying to kid? “Keepers are even more horrible! It's the only sane approach to take!”
Mercury sighed and lowered her head. “You have given me much to think about. For the moment, you are dismissed.”
An instant later, Iden found herself back in a cell, though it was a more comfortable one than her previous one.
Six burning candles decorated the small shrine to the Light travelling through the tunnel, riding on a wheelbarrow. A dwarven priest was pushing the vehicle forwards at a steady pace, carefully keeping the shrine from scraping against the roughly hewn walls.
Behind him, two guards in full plate armour marched in lock-step, carrying heavy coils of warding chain. A similar pair moved at the end of the procession, following the palanquin of a white-haired wizard holding a crystal ball within his shaky grasp.
In the middle of all these precautions, the commanders of the forces besieging Whitemountain were walking alongside a rolling map table.
“We have to rescue the hostages right now,” a bald dwarf with a rusty red beard said. “Those large torture chambers she built don't leave us much of a choice, and-”
Baron Lolok raised his hand. “Baron Sodnil, I understand that you want to save your daughter, but caution-”
Sodnil glared at him so fiercely that the other man swallowed.
Count Ornish sympathised with the red-bearded baron's anger. He didn't want to imagine what it would feel like if one of his own children was about to be tortured by a Keeper.
“This isn't only about Iden!” Sodnil said loudly, his brow furrowed. “This isn't even only about our men captured by that monster!” He slammed his palm onto one of the floor plans of the dungeon. “Have you forgotten all about her other hostages?”
Ornish recognised the map as one of the dungeon's lower layers, where the human prisoners of the dark empress dwelt. He'd seen them briefly in the crystal ball and pitied them. Children and teenagers clad in barely decent rags, forced to live in a den of evil and immorality. Without enough adults to guide them on the right path, they had little hopes of resisting the Keeper's corrupting influence. “You believe she will no longer be satisfied with turning them to her side slowly?”
Baron Sodnil nodded. “Yes, my liege. She needs troops, therefore she will not ignore such a resource!”
“Now wait a moment,” the third baron objected. Zonbal was a heavily-built dwarf whose beard resembled the puffy cheeks of a hamster. “That's not a conclusion we should jump to lightly. Yes, she tried to deceive us about getting orc support,” he inclined his head briefly towards the wizard with his crystal ball, “but that doesn't mean her dungeon is undermanned right now!”
“Let's see,” Sodnil said, raising his hand. “She tried to talk us into not attacking, she took prisoners rather than killing our soldiers, she built torture chambers, she tried to deceive us about her troop strength, and she is fortifying her position. With each point, he had raised one finger. “The conclusion is clear: she is not ready for an all-out assault. If we use all of our troops this time-”
“We are much weaker than we started out, too!” Zonbal interrupted, raising his voice. “The men we had to evacuate through the hero gate are still at the capital, and so is the Avatar!”
“Great help that he was,” Lolok muttered into his beard, crossing his arms.
Count Ornish weighted the arguments. If he gave up on maintaining a secure perimeter, he could mount an assault with one and a half again as many soldiers as the first one. By focusing on reaching the hostages, rather than generalised demolition, he should be able to rescue them and then beat a hasty retreat. “I am inclined to side with Baron Sodnil here,” he said. “Inaction will not serve us.”
“But my liege!” Zonbal said, his face pale. “It would be wiser to wait for the Duke's reinforcements! The dark empress may deploy more lethal measures if we press her too hard!”
“Coward,” Sodnil shouted. “We will be forced to fight our own people if we wait a few days! Do you want that?”
Zonbal ignored him and continued pleading with Count Ornish. “It's too dangerous! What about the recent quakes?” He moved his index finger over a map that showed the surface. The digit hovered briefly over the red-circled epicentres located around the dungeon.
Ornish turned is head towards the wizard, who was resting on his pillows.
“Sorry, it's dark. Can't see a thing,” the elderly dwarf said, waving his hand over the crystal ball.
“Perhaps I can shed some light on this,” Baron Lolok said. “I took the liberty of sending some scouts to take a closer look.”
“Dangerous,” Zonbal commented, scratching his chin.
“It's neutral territory, the risks were minimal,” Lolok contradicted.
“Well, what did they find?” Baron Sodnil asked impatiently.
“Zones where the underground has been smashed into rubble by some kind of magic. Basically, we have to dig through a zone of loose rock to get into the dungeon.”
Count Ornish scoffed. “Is that all? It sounds like something our engineers can handle easily.”
Lolok shrugged. “It would pose a significant obstacle to imps and lesser miners,” he said. “The dark empress may not be fully aware of our capabilities.”
Ornish smiled. “That would be a welcome advantage,” he thought out loud. “If we could surprise her by attacking from a direction she isn't expecting...”
Baron Zonbal sighed and lowered his head in defeat.
A new sound could be heard over the synchronised footsteps of the marching soldiers. Someone was running towards the group, only to be stopped by the rearmost guards.
“Quick, let me through,” the new arrival said as he caught his breath. With his body concealed underneath a cloak that shifted colours to adapt to its environment, it looked as if his head was floating. “I have urgent news for the Lords!”
“Let him pass,” Ornish ordered, both curious and worried. Surprises, in his experience, were rarely a good thing during war.
“Ghosts,” the scout said between panting breaths. “In the fissures!”
“Ghosts?” Sodnil said incredulously, raising an eyebrow. “Are you sure? Everyone knows about her feud with the dark god of the undead.”
“One of them bit my partner,” the scout said flatly, shooting the baron a dark look.
Ornish didn't like where this was going. “Explain. Where did you spot the ghosts?”
The scout “River. Near the quake-damaged areas. Azok – that's my partner – wanted to check out a fissure near the waterline.”
Someone arrived with a full mug and proffered it to the tired dwarf.
He grabbed it and chugged it down in one go. “Ah, that's better.” He blinked at the waiting nobles. “Right. So Azok wanted to check how much water was draining into the underground, but he slipped. Water was pretty deep there. Gave me a good fright when he went under. Not as much as the ghost, though.”
“What ghost?” Baron Sodnil interrupted.
Ornish shot him a glare and raised his hand in a shushing motion.
“The one attached to his leg when I pulled him out,” the scout said, shivering. “Looked horrible. Frozen blood on its fangs, mist drifting from its face. Anyway, Azok was screaming and thrashing, so I poked the thing with my sword. It let go, thank the Light, but then more started popping out of the water like mushrooms. We ran. Had to carry him half the way.”
“Good work, soldier,” Count Ornish complimented the exhausted man. “Go take a rest and have another drink. I'll send someone to take a more detailed report later.”
“Thank you, my Liege.” The scout bowed deeply and departed, at a much more sedate pace than he had come.
The assembled nobles looked at each other as they digested the new information.
“So. Ghosts,” Count Ornish began. “Thoughts?”
“How?” Baron Sodnil asked, his voice shrill. “It should be impossible, the god of the undead hates her!”
Baron Lolok shrugged. “Nevertheless, there they are. Hmm.” His haggard features grew thoughtful. “No bones nor bodies for us to sense. They'd be perfect for an ambush.”
“Trap.” Zonbal stated, slamming his fist into his palm. “She wants us to attack! The torture chambers, the fake reinforcements – it's all part of her plan to make us charge in recklessly!”
Count Ornish felt his hackles rise. Zonbal's words made too much sense. He had been about to lead his men straight to their doom.
The vampire stood transfixed, unable to tear his gaze from the expanding puddle of blood on the floor of Ami's lab.
“Believe me, you don't want any of that,” Tiger commented with a smirk, jolting the undead monster from his stupor.
He turned to look at the youma in confusion, his expression urging her to elaborate.
Ami cleared her throat, reminding him of her presence. “I believe you were here to report on something?”
The black-robed figure jerked upright, the tip of his tongue darting back into his mouth. “Yes, your Majesty, please forgive my lapse of attention. Golga informs me that the ghosts have all been returned to their lair, without further incidents. Do you have additional orders that require my particular skills?”
“No, I am satisfied with your current achievements,” she replied. “And please stop staring at the experiment.”
“Apologies, your Majesty.” He swivelled to face Ami directly, without moving any of his limbs.
“You did great work luring those scouts to where they were needed,” she continued. “Are you certain they won't suspect foul play?”
“Almost completely. I projected only a hint of movement in the corner of an eye here, the warning cry of a disturbed animal there...” The vampire shrugged. “Small nudges, but enough to guide them in the right direction.”
“Wait, you can do that with the scavenger room?” Tiger asked.
“It would be a poor tool for corrupting the weak-minded if couldn't influence them without being blatantly obvious.”
Ami nodded slowly, feeling a little uncomfortable. Personally, she had never practised enough with the giant bobbing eyes to send anything more complex than words, so she had to trust in him knowing what he was doing.
“As for your Majesty's own contribution, I don't believe they noticed,” the unnaturally still figure continued. “Indeed, under the circumstances, they would have had no time to wonder about why a stone came loose under a foot.”
Ami winced. She hadn't enjoyed making the dwarf fall into the cold river in the first place, but him getting bitten by an overly aggressive ghost hadn't been part of the plan. “Oh, and tell Golga that I don't blame her for the bite. That was due to the spirit's interference,” she said.
The evil thing was in bad shape from the repeated ghost extractions and more irate than ever. At some point, it had dropped below the threshold of power necessary to maintain sapience, rendering it unable to comprehend complex orders. This gave it more leeway than Ami would have liked.
The vampire's gaze lingered briefly on the floor tile underneath which she had temporarily stored the angry spirit. “She will be relieved to hear that, I'm sure, and I shall inform her forthwith. By your leave?”
“Dismissed,” Ami confirmed.
With a last, longing look at the blood on the floor, the creature floated toward the exit.
By now, the puddle had expanded enough that it threatened to touch Tiger’s toes.
The youma took a hasty step backwards and turned towards Ami, putting her hands on her hips. “What a mess. I told you to ask Jadeite for help!”
“I couldn’t, not for something like this,” Ami protested, covering her cheeks with her hands as she shook her head.
“What's the problem? I'm sure he wouldn't mind,” Tiger said, her tone turning mischievous. “He might even see something that gives him ideas,” she added with a wink.
Ami flushed. “Tiger! D-don’t imply improper things like that,” she said in a scandalised voice. Turning away from her adopted sister, she pointed at the third occupant of the room. “Can’t you fix that instead?”
A bleeding figure that could have been Ami’s twin stood in the spotlight, leaking blood from many long gashes in her skin.
Ami’s stomach twisted just from looking at the wounds. She focused on the figure’s right elbow, where a ragged slit ran almost all the way around the joint. Through the gaping tear in the skin, she could see the blood-smeared ice below.
“It’s difficult,” Tiger whined.
A small patch of skin flaked off the animated statue and landed in the puddle on the ground, sending ripples through the red liquid.
“J-just dispel it already,” Ami instructed, looking away. She was extremely grateful that the disguised golem’s face remained serene and expressionless. Glamour could simulate senses, and the statue looked as if it should have been in excruciating pain.
“Fine. This is pretty gross,” the youma agreed.
The blood on the floor turned into water, and the ice golem’s skin faded away, turning smooth and reflective. Within moments, all of the gashes on her body had filled, leaving her looking none the worse for wear.
“I don’t understand why this is so difficult for you,” Ami said, honestly puzzled. “You already taught me that corpse decoy glamour. Shouldn’t this be extremely similar?”
“Asks the girl who isn’t able to cast even the simplest glamour without possessing someone and having them demonstrate it over and over again until she can copy it,” Tiger answered, visibly satisfied about excelling in an area that Ami was weak in.
Ami clenched her teeth. The fact that Tiger was basically correct stung her pride. Sure, she could go through the motions, shape her magic in the right way and get the expected result, but she had to work by pure rote memory. “It just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said heatedly.
Tiger patted her on the head. “Well, being the smart big sister that I am, I shall explain the problem. This is something completely different from the corpse since I don’t have the luxury of creating something from a blank slate. I need to keep the base alive and working correctly while melding it seamlessly into the glamour. Also, the glamour itself isn’t just some dead matter, which- “
“I get it,” Ami said, looking at the floor. “My assumptions were wrong and I shouldn’t have been too embarrassed to ask Jadeite for help with this.”
“True, but I think I’ve got this now,” Tiger said, approaching the golem and putting one finger on her forehead. “If I make the skin stick better to the ice underneath, that should stop it from getting overstretched and tearing. Let’s see…”
With a shimmer that looked like heat haze, the statue's surface turned soft and flesh-coloured. Strands of ice transformed into blue hair, and clear irises gained a shade of blue that Ami used to see in the mirror. The result of Tiger's glamour looked good so far, but so had the previous one at the start.
“Now we just need to check if it will burst open again,” the orange-skinned girl said as she took a few steps back. “Golem, copy my movements!” she commanded as she started doing jumping jacks.
The statue diligently mirrored Tiger's actions, without causing any disturbing tearing noises or spurting blood.
Encouraged, the youma moved on to more challenging stretching exercises that Ami recognised from gym class.
So far, the golem’s skin seemed to remain intact even as she explored the limits of human motion range. When she tried to mimic Tiger balancing on one leg, she fell over since she had a different centre of gravity, but even her scrapes looked realistic.
“Yeah, I think that’s enough,” Tiger said, stopping with the exercises. “Looks like a success to me.”
“It would be good if the glamour did something about changing the clothes too,” Ami suggested, her cheeks burning. She didn't want to find out what wearing ice chainmail on bare skin felt like.
“And add even more complexity to the spell? Remember, you still have to learn it. Just transform before you use it or get changed the normal way.”
Ami nodded. That was a solution she could live with.
“I still don’t get why you don’t just have Jadeite apply the glamour before you leave,” her adopted sister continued.
“He won't be around when I go visit the duke of Salthalls,” Ami answered.
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