A mess of tubes, pipes, and cables crisscrossed just underneath the ceiling, blocking the view of carved crystals, rune-covered gears, and colourful glass spheres. Suspended bowls of dry ice dispensed clouds of grey fog that slowly drifted towards the tall metal cylinders lining the catwalk below.
The double row of looming, barrel-shaped devices had an unexpected gap. A dozen imps with clear gems stuck in their foreheads were crawling over a half-disassembled furnace, working with blank expressions.
Three-fingered hands simultaneously traced a double line of arcane glyphs across a metal cover, finishing at the same time. Silently, the steel split apart as if the symbols were a seam, and the detached piece dropped towards the fog-covered floor.
Three more imps near the base of the furnace raised their hands and caught the fallen piece without interrupting their attempts to unscrew the hatch in front of them. Without apparent communication, they left the fallen part to the middle one, who stuffed it into his bag. He somersaulted and disappeared with a green swirl. A few seconds later, green motes gathered in the same spot, and the imp reappeared with an empty bag.
Above them on the catwalk, two more imps with clipboards were making sketches of the disassembling process in meticulous detail, never looking up from their sheets.
A loud, single heartbeat thundered in the distance.
From the direction of the treasury, a female voice exclaimed, “Uh-oh!”
In complete unison, the imps turned their heads towards the lights that were turning on behind an invisible, fast-moving border that was racing in their direction.
When it passed them, a loud siren started blaring, drowning out the distant thumping of the heart. Two coil-wrapped protrusions concealed between the pipes and tubes on the ceiling started humming, and the smell of ozone permeated the air.
The imps reacted immediately. Two of them grabbed a third and hurled him at the activating trap.
The ballistic imp reached for the coil-wrapped rods as he hurtled through the air, his unblinking black eyeballs reflecting the glow of the lightning building between the two protrusions. He was almost touching them when it discharged, firing a blinding bolt straight into his head.
The imp burst apart, his pieces dispersing into green mana vapour that smelled of fried meat and burning cloth. A finger-sized spike of clear crystal briefly continued on its trajectory before it clattered down somewhere among the furnaces.
The lightning trap’s hum was building again when the second thrown imp reached it. With one hand, the small creature grabbed onto one of the hanging tubes that had concealed the trap. While swinging, he dragged the digits of his other hand across the base of the device.
A jagged gash tore open in the wake of the imp’s fingers, and the trap went dead with a final crackling zap.
As one, the remaining imps turned towards the far part of the catwalk. They opened their mouths and started squeaking individual sounds that somehow synchronized up into words. “Midori. You assured me that she would not recover.”
“Bartholomeus didn’t when his heart was in this state!” the female voice from the nearby treasury shouted back. “I was under the impression that we had to grab everything we could before the dwarfs get here!”
“One example does not make a pattern. I wish to investigate. Attend me!” the imps replied in their eerie chorus as they swivelled back towards the partially disassembled furnace.
“Seriously?” came the annoyed reply. With a puff of pale sparks, a female figure clad entirely in tight black leather appeared in front of the imps. Red light spilled from the eyeholes of her mask, and the large bag slung over her shoulder clattered as she finished her pirouette. A few sapphires spilled from a scorched hole in the brown fabric. “You want to investigate now? As opposed to getting out with the loot while we still can?”
Green motes flashed into existence, and a girl made of ice teleported into the middle of the group. Without hesitation, she launched a punch at the closest large-eyed face.
The targeted imp bent backwards to let the attack pass overhead. Simultaneously, another imp kicked the ice golem in the back of her knee.
The animated statue shifted her weight on her other leg, only to trip over a third imp who had sneaked into her blind spot. While falling, she thrust her elbow at her assailant, only to have him yanked aside by the imp who had kicked her.
“Case in point,” the possessed dark mistress said as the ice golem struck the ground.
The imp dangling from the tube above swung his legs and let go, plummeting towards the prone figure. With a loud crack, his pick stabbed through one of the golem’s hip joints, spraying his allies with water.
Even prone and pinned in place, the statue wasn’t helpless. She raised one hand towards Midori, curving her fingers into a claw-like shape.
Anticipating a ranged attack, the dark mistress turned into a blurry streak. When the golem’s fingers detached with popping noises, she was already moving. The icicle-like projectiles pierced the illusory afterimages she left in her wake, and then she stomped on the statue’s wrist with her hard-soled boot.
An instant later, a prone chicken lay where the prone ice golem had been.
Midori kicked at the bird but missed. Surprised, the Keeper glared at the imp who was stuffing the struggling chicken into his bag.
Without comment, the worker climbed back onto the partially deconstructed furnace, joining his comrades.
“Didn’t you hear me? We have to leave!” Midori said, addressing the turned backs of the imps.
“Denied,” replied their synchronised squeaks as they pried loose more pieces of metal. “I am not finished here. My curiosity is not yet satisfied.”
“But you are hearing the alarms, right?” the dark mistress said, her crimson gaze pointed back over her shoulder. “More enemies are on the way.”
“Unacceptable. I require more time,” the imps objected as they cautiously unscrewed a smaller cylinder within the device.
The leather-clad woman sighed and raised her hands, showing the razor-sharp blades tipping her gloves. “Well, I can’t exactly take on a dungeon with a single mistress.”
“Understood.” Four imps hopped back onto the catwalk, their feet touching the metal at the same instant. “New experiment. Evaluating the battle performance of perfect teamwork against a numerically superior foe.”
Crimson eyes narrowing, Midori grabbed the two closest workers by their backpacks as they moved past. “Those are my best imps you want to risk there!”
“I shall assemble some adequate replacements for any that are lost.” The short workers rolled their shoulders, easily slipping out of their restraints.
“Wait! What about the traps?”
The imps stopped as one, raising their gazes towards the ceiling. Among the distracting forest of pipes, lights, and metal boxes, any dangers would be almost impossible to spot before they claimed a victim.
“Let’s just leave,” Midori urged, patting the bag of loot. “Your greater self would be quite annoyed if you lost all your gathered information while you took a needless risk.”
The imps remained quiet for a few seconds. “Agreed,” they finally replied with audible dissatisfaction. Each of them jumped at the same time, disappearing with a green flash at the apex of his leap.
Left behind, Midori scowled. “Damn irritating tag-alongs complicating a straightforward plan.”
Ami woke to the sensation of being dragged by her armpits. Cold and hard hands were pulling her backwards, lifting her upper body off the ground in the process.
Confused and alarmed, she opened her eyes.
Immediately, bright and colourful light assaulted them.
She winced, lowered her eyelids, and tried to make sense of the blurry sights with her sleep-addled mind. Squinting, she made out spinning, flickering movements. Fire? No, it didn’t burn her legs, which protruded through the curved curtain. A magical diagram.
Her heart started beating faster as awareness of her current situation returned. She tensed. Who was pulling her out of that circle? The Duke?
Flinching at the thought, she raised her head to look up.
Hair –the underside of a huge black beard – occupied most of her field of view. She caught a glimpse of an ornate breastplate before the man behind her jumped backwards, out of her line of sight.
Without the support of his hands, she flopped to the ground and barely managed to prevent the back of her head from hitting the floor. Scraping her right elbow, she rolled on her side so she could keep him in her sight.
The unmistakable figure of Duke Libasheshtan was staring at her from a few steps away, the metal parts of his armour fogged over. He looked tense, ready to move, but his gauntleted hands weren’t near the weapons on his belt.
“Mercury, there’s no need to attack him!” Cathy called out in her mind.
What? Oh, with her Keeper powers returned, she would be able to defend herself if she felt threatened. Which she did, a little, since the Duke was free and armed. Still, he could have killed her while she was helpless. Why hadn’t he? Did he want her as a prisoner, a hostage? No, that didn’t make sense. He would have kept her within easy reach of his weapons in that case.
For the moment, he seemed content with keeping his distance while watching her with a wary expression.
“What’s going on, Cathy?” She asked as she sat up.
“We tried to recover you as soon as we were able to scry on you again, but he broke free from the ice before the ritual finished,” the swordswoman reported. “Tiger shouted at him mentally, trying to convince him not to hurt you. He seems to have listened, but he kept pulling you out of the circles.” She paused. “Which might actually have been a good thing.”
She glanced around, taking in her surroundings. She was still in the trap room, with a large puddle in one corner and the mace stuck to the adamantine.
Unlike before, the room was brightly lit by the blue flames of five burning magical diagrams that were partially overlapping. They were summoning spells, easily identified by the thirteen runes dancing around their circular perimeters. Her allies wouldn’t have needed to use more than one, which meant someone else was trying to claim her.
Her thoughts felt sluggish and her limbs as heavy as lead. Her short bout of unconsciousness had not been enough to clear up the lethargy from her self-inflicted energy drain. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to affect her dungeon heart.
With the assistance of Keeper telekinesis, she pulled herself to her feet and then summoned her transformation pen. She hesitated at the last moment. “I’m going to reapply my protective enchantments now. There will be a flash of light,” she warned the Duke in order not to jeopardise their uneasy truce. Her voice sounded weak when she continued, “Mercury Power, Make Up!”
Magic surrounded her in a rush of blue and aquamarine light, energising her weary muscles. She felt refreshed and cleaned, as if all the accumulated sweat and dirt on her skin had been washed away. In the blink of an eye, her transformation finished, leaving her standing under her own strength. Instead of her customary pose though, she was covering a yawn with her hand. Despite being able to move her body effortlessly with her enhanced strength, she remained exhausted.
The Duke had taken a step back and was blinking rapidly at her, his gaze darting from her tiara down to her blue miniskirt and back up, lingering for a moment on the symbols decorating the collar of her black leotard. Finally, he focused on her face again. “Empress Mercury, I believe I owe you an apology.”
Surprised, she perked up. That was a better start than she had dared to suspect.
“Your ability to shape the adamantine proves without a shadow of a doubt that you were telling the truth about having good intentions,” he continued with his head bowed. “Your Majesty, I formally apologise for the disrespect shown to your title and person, and for the harm I may have unwittingly caused by refusing to hear you out.”
For a moment, she stared at him with her mouth agape before breaking into a wide smile. Finally, progress on the way to a peaceful solution! “I accept your apology,” she said, hoping there wasn’t some protocol she was expected to know. Should she bow? It would probably be polite to return his bow. Grasping one hand with the other, she inclined her head. “I’m just glad we can finally try to end this needless conflict without anyone else getting hurt!”
The Duke sighed. “You probably shouldn’t get your hopes up. I doubt that I still have much influence now that others have observed me not killing you when I had the chance.” He gestured at the surplus summoning circles in the area.
“I’m very grateful you didn’t,” she blurted out with a faint tremble in her voice. She didn’t even want to think of what would happen to her if she died while she was a Keeper. “Thank you for giving me a chance.”
He shrugged. “I am not the kind of villain who would cold-bloodedly murder a child Empress appointed directly by the Light and of sufficient moral integrity to work adamantine.” He paused. “Not that anyone’s going to believe me when they see those burning eyes of yours.”
“Sorry, but they are a side effect-”
“Never mind that now,” the Duke interrupted her, his expression turning serious. “What’s going on in my city? A female voice begging me not to hurt her sister,” he shot her a questioning look, “also told me that I would at the very least need you alive for damage control.”
“I’ll have to ask someone. Please excuse me for a moment while I contact my advisers,” she replied.
She concentrated on her dungeon and could immediately tell that there was no fighting currently going on. Nevertheless, there could have been trouble while - or due - to her disconnection from it. “Cathy? Is everything all right back at the dungeon?”
“Everything is currently under control here. There was a robbery and we had to scare off a dwarven assault, but there were no casualties,” Cathy summarised.
Ami briefly wondered how somebody could have gotten into her dungeon and past the traps to steal from her, but the aborted invasion seemed more important. “How did you prevent- no, tell me about the city first. What’s going on?”
“It’s bad,” the swordswoman began. “I’m not even going to try to sugar coat it. Short version: evil magic has turned almost everyone into monsters. I’ll show you on my crystal ball.”
Ami paled. She had expected the magic that couldn’t reach her to cause problems, but nothing on that scale. Hurriedly, she focused her Keeper sight on the crystal ball Cathy was using.
It showed her youma-like creatures populating a subterranean marketplace with a floor that was glistening with moisture. The viewpoint changed, switching to the outside of a temple with barricaded doors and windows. A swarm of hissing monsters circled the building, keeping just enough distance to avoid the lit area surrounding it.
The view changed again, moving above ground. On the surface, the city looked like a ghost town. Empty streets glistened wetly, and clouds of strange fog drifted in the breeze.
“Everyone still normal has fled into the surrounding countryside,” Cathy commented. “Aside from the dwarfs hiding in the various temples, and I don’t know how long they can hold out.”
Ami gaped in horror and really, really hoped that the victims could be saved. She didn’t want to be responsible for wiping out a city! She couldn’t possibly have predicted this outcome, but it would still have been impossible without her actions, so was it her fault?
She was fortunate she hadn’t known about this when the adamantine had confronted her with things to feel guilty about. A moment later, she felt bad about being relieved to have unwittingly deceived the divine metal.
She closed her mouth with an audible click and shook her head. No, this was no time to feel conflicted. She had to go fix things, now!
“That bad?” the Duke asked, reading her expression.
She swallowed when she realised she had to tell him that the people he was responsible for had almost all been turned into monsters. Would he be furious and regret his decision to leave her alive? “Y-yes. Very. Everyone turned into monsters!” she blurted out before her courage could leave her.
His eyes bulged. “What?” he asked, taking a step forwards. “Explain!”
“I- I’ll have someone tell you the details while I go get rid of the evil energy!” she promised, deciding to delegate the unpleasant task. “Cathy? I need you to tell the Duke what’s happening outside. Gently. Also, have the warlocks ready to cast the summoning ritual on him when I raise my hands.”
“Got it,” came the quick reply.
She met the Duke’s eyes. “This prison is currently buried underneath a mountain of ice,” she told him with a sideways look at the multiple burning diagrams on the floor. “My warlocks will get you out of here. They’ll start their spell when I gesture with both hands, so you will be sure it’s them and not anyone else.”
“Fine, it’s not like I have a choice,” the dwarf grumbled, crossing his arms.
She lowered her head. “Sorry, but I really need to try and fix this as soon as possible,” she answered. “The spell should appear right now.” She lifted both hands up to shoulder height.
On cue, a glowing blue light appeared underneath the Duke’s feet and expanded into concentric circles.
At the same time, she mentally instructed one of her imps to teleport into a tunnel near the ice-covered prison. “I’ll talk to you later!”
The Duke nodded once, scowling, but he didn’t step out of the summoning circle.
Ami used her possession spell and turned into shadowy black lightning. Like smoke, her immaterial body passed through the almost imperceptibly tiny hole in the adamantine wall. As the obstacle slowed her down, the dungeon heart alerted her to her imp being attacked.
A gust of wind ripped flakes of hoarfrost off the masonry as a child-sized shape blurred past, letting out a drawn-out squeal. The imp was using speed-enhancing magic as she ran, her body leaning forward and her short legs moving like pistons.
Her pursuer resembled a small lion and was moving on all fours, propelling its skeleton-thin body forward with bounding leaps. It had a mane made of long quills that ran down its back to the tip of its tail. With each leap, the jostled spikes clattered against each other.
Ami heard this bony rattle when she shot out of the wall and into the fleeing imp’s body. She stumbled, unprepared for seizing control in mid-sprint, and the noise got a lot closer. Alarmed, she turned her head.
The monster’s ears flattened when it caught sight of her glowing eyes, and it hesitated in mid-pounce. Unable to stop while in mid-air, it crashed into her. While it was only about the same weight as the imp, it was going fast enough to topple her.
With the creature on her back, Ami skidded across the floor for a meter or so before her imp body came to a stop. Immediately, she bucked, trying to shake off the monster and expecting to feel its teeth dig into her neck any moment now.
Instead, she hear a noise that reminded her of a rusty chainsaw. An instant later, she felt a new minion link snap into place. The purring monster on top of her now counted as her underling.
She went still, blinking in surprise. She hadn’t tried to hire the creature, so it must have decided to join her on its own. The influence of Metallia’s dark magic, perhaps? She doubted it was just because of her back being such a nice, warm resting spot, even if the cat-like being showed no intention to vacate it.
“Shoo! Get off!” She squeaked, getting absolutely no reaction. She had to lift the creature with her Keeper hand in order to get up. Finally back on her feet, she activated her senshi transformation and summoned her visor.
The monster arched its back when the imp in front of it was suddenly wearing a Sailor Mercury uniform, its quills standing on end. It squinted suspiciously at her and sniffed the air.
Meanwhile, Ami was trying to figure out what exactly she was looking at here. On her screen, she saw a wireframe model of the creature superimposed over a much smaller outline of an ordinary house cat. She let out a breath of relief. At least, she wasn’t dealing with a dwarf who had been driven insane.
Where had she and the imp ended up, anyway? She looked up from her screen to check her surroundings more closely. The masonry had an odd violet tint to it, and the corners looked smoothed and distorted. Darker veins passed through several bricks like vines that had grown wild. Overall, it didn’t look like typical dwarven architecture.
Her computer beeped when it finished figuring out where she was in relation to the adamantine prison. She only had to follow down the corridor to reach the enormous cave that hadn’t been there before her visit.
She started running, and the wind on her face felt cooler and cooler the closer she got to the end of the widening passage. She stopped at its exit to take in the sights before her.
Ice covered the cavern’s ground, rising before her into a cone-shaped hill. Craters and spiky protrusions dotted its surface where strong magical currents had discharged themselves against the obstacle. The prison itself was buried too deeply to be visible through the mass of ice covering it, but Ami’s computer insisted that it was there.
The cat mewled next to her and batted at one of the tiny motes of blackish mana that drifted through the air like soap bubbles. It dispersed into multiple smaller bubbles like a raindrop, confusing the transformed animal.
According to Ami’s visor, the glowing phenomenon sparkling in the air wasn’t dangerous, but simply a side effect of the elevated mana levels in the room. However, it did print out a few warnings in bright red letters about the Metallia-like nature of the residual magic.
The conclusion here was clear. Most of the evil energy had been able to flow freely into the city’s channels, and without a source adding more, its concentration here had dropped.
She paused, reconsidered the cavern, started typing, and quickly ran into the limitations of having only three fingers on each hand. One teleporting ice golem, switch of possession targets, dismissed imp, applied glamour, hissing cat, and one senshi transformation later, she looked like herself again. Now equipped with the required number of digits, she felt ready to analyse the location efficiently.
It certainly looked vastly different from before her imprisonment, with wider spaces, fungal-looking rock formations, and a blueish-violet colour theme. Chaotic magic, in her limited experience, generally didn’t react easily with pure rock and stone. How much magic would have been necessary to create these results in the available time?
The result of her calculations appeared on the screen, and she stared at it in disbelief. There had to be a mistake somewhere. She didn’t have that much magic to draw upon. Even if she did, she would explode trying to use that much! What was she missing?
Luna had mentioned about her senshi powers still maturing. Theoretically, that could mean that there was some regulation mechanism linked to her body that limited inflow so she couldn’t hurt herself. If the body were disconnected somehow, then the mana would be able to flow at full blast.
She shook her head and closed her palmtop. That was mere speculation. It was much more likely that she wasn’t taking into account some unknown factor. Like the fact that she wasn’t dealing with dungeon architecture here, or that Metallia’s dark magic was involved.
The cat-monster got bored and approached her, lowering its head.
Quickly raising her hands, she managed to block an affectionate head-bump from the mutated animal at the last moment. “No! Watch the quills!” she protested.
Prickly fate averted, she considered the mini-lion. Its minion link was evidence for her having some influence over the dark magic that contaminated the city. If she could use this connection to draw the spread-out magic back to herself, she could stop it from doing more damage.
She nodded to herself. It was her best plan for the moment, and she could even use the dwarven ritual chamber for her idea, since it was built for drawing in magic.
Ami hadn’t taken into account that she would find the casting chamber occupied. Its entrance door hadn’t been replaced yet, and splashes, loud screeches, and brawling noises came from the open doorway. Sporadic flashes of colour lit the corridor outside, accompanied by hisses and booms. There was shouting, but it consisted of disconnected words that did not really make sense.
She pressed herself flat against the wall near the entrance, not wanting to be noticed by the creatures yet. “Cathy? What’s going on?” she asked, knowing that her warlocks were tracking her with their crystal balls.
“The monsters have all been steadily getting more aggressive and territorial for a while now,” the swordswoman replied. “I don’t know why.”
Crossing her arms, Ami whispered, “Shabon Spray,” thrust her palms forward, and launched a stream of bubbles past the doorway.
They collided with the corridor’s wall, bursting into a tide of grey mist that billowed outwards. The thick cloud rolled through the entrance into the ritual chamber.
The noises from the chamber changed, and not just because the expanding fog muted sounds. Creatures, visible as roughly humanoid shadows past the edge of the cloud, retreated with small, reluctant steps.
One red, rotund individual hesitated, sniffing as he waited for the mist to envelop him. Solid yellow eyes narrowed as he turned his head and looked around, unable to see. With an angry snort, he went down on all fours and catapulted himself out of the cloud with a frog-like leap.
After she was fairly certain that the creatures wouldn’t just charge into her fog, she felt secure enough to enter the chamber. Unhindered by her own fog, she could get a proper view of the room and its occupants, who she was already calling “youma” in her head.
Some of them were wrestling, rolling around on the ground as they grappled, punched, and bit each other. Water fountained as the fighting creatures struggled within shallow puddles.
The fighting looked brutal, and so she was happy that she couldn’t see any traces of blood in the water. Then again, she wasn’t entirely sure if youma blood didn’t turn into dust outside of the body.
A ball of pink fire sailed past a meter above, having missed its intended target. It hit the side of one of the terrace-like platforms, prompting a nearby monkey-like creature to shake its yellow-furred fist in the direction of the offender.
Ami let her gaze move around, noting with some relief that not everybody was fighting. Dozens of the creatures were hanging back on various platforms and pillars, watching the fights. Others were merely snarling and hissing at their opponents, displaying sharp teeth and claws in order to scare them off.
“Jadeite, do you know why they are fighting each other? Is this normal youma behaviour?” she mentally directed a question at the member of her team most knowledgeable about the topic.
“They may be establishing a hierarchy,” the dark general replied. “They are also naturally vicious, so perhaps they are just bored. I haven’t ever had to deal with youma who weren’t already under someone’s command yet.”
She could imagine him shrugging, judging from his tone. Since he had no immediately helpful information, she had to gather more herself. Was the concentrated evil energy in the air perhaps riling them up?
She tapped a few keys on her computer, and a new overlay appeared on her visor. Architecture and living beings faded into a dull grey, while concentrations of magical energy appeared in vibrant colours. The brightest knots and streams showed up in the youma and in the runic patterns forming the chamber’s arcane diagrams, followed closely by the water pooling on the ground.
Seeing the numbers on the energy’s composition, she frowned. The balance was wrong, consisting of a vast majority of Metallia’s dark energy, rather than of her own, or even of chaotic unbound mana. There shouldn’t have been that much of the dark goddess’ power in the mix.
The numbers shifted by a minuscule amount even as Ami analysed the interplay between the various energies, and she suddenly understood what was happening. Metallia’s energy was slowly absorbing the other types, turning it into more of itself in the process.
Unbidden, her mind imagined the conversion process continuing for as long as it found available magic, sweeping out from the city like a tide of darkness that engulfed the planet.
Paling, she started typing as quickly as she could, running the numbers. To her relief, her worries were baseless. The conversion process wasn’t very efficient, at least without a guiding intelligence directing it to absorb magical power on purpose. In all but a very high mana environment, the evil energy would dissipate faster than it could reproduce.
She let out the breath she had been holding. In the short run, having a larger proportion of Metallia’s power in the mix instead of chaotic mana had even been beneficial. Instead of turning into jumbles of randomly arranged limbs and organs, the afflicted dwarfs had turned into functional creatures.
A closer scan had her correct herself. Mostly functional creatures. They weren’t exactly pure youma and used magic to make up for some deficiencies in their anatomy.
That discovery prompted another train of thought that made her narrow her eyes in suspicion. Focusing on her Keeper sight, she stumbled as her point of view moved outside of her body. From higher up, she could observe the youma’s behaviour as a whole.
There was definitely a pattern to their actions. The most intense fighting was happening near the pools of water and the mana-gathering nodes, with the strongest creatures defending their spots. Even as she watched, a huge, gargoyle-like creature grabbed two challengers at once and smashed them into each other repeatedly before tossing them into the crowd.
Her bad feeling intensified. They were fighting over the most mana-rich locations in the chamber. All youma needed magic to sustain themselves, and the massive influx of magical power pouring into the city had stopped when she broke out of her prison. They were turning on each other because they were hungry!
She directed her attention to the losers of those battles. They stood or sat some distance away, licking their wounds. In some cases literally so. Scratches and bruises were fading quickly, but regenerating wounds also cost them mana and worsened their hunger.
Looking at their focused, covetous expressions, she feared that they would get desperate enough to try again eventually and get hurt again. She didn’t want to see the results of them no longer having enough mana to heal or to keep their bodies going. They were still innocent dwarfs caught in this disaster, after all.
She needed to step in to prevent more injury and death. The mist concealing her came apart as she willed it to go away, blowing away as if a cold storm was coming from her body. “STOP FIGHTING!” she shouted, her voice echoing through the chamber.
The closest creatures whirled to face her, crouched, ready to either attack or run. Those further away turned more slowly, some only moving their misshapen heads. There was some hopping, shuffling, and pushing in the back rows as some youma tried to get a better look at her.
With everyone staring at her, her cheeks heated up under all the attention. On the positive side, her shout had interrupted the ongoing fights, as the combatants were focused on her now. Belatedly, she realised that she hadn’t really planned what she would do once she had stopped the violence.
“You!” came an angry screech from the direction of one of the mana nodes. A dragon-themed youma, covered from head to toes in red scales, took a step forward and gnashed her teeth.
The youma around her gave her room in deference. Then again, perhaps they simply knew to avoid the long, bat-like wings that snapped open with a whip-like crack.
The crimson youma launched herself into the air with a furious wingbeat and dived towards Ami, clawed fingers extended.
“Stop!” the blue-haired girl shouted even as she placed her feet wider apart, ready to dodge. Getting no reaction from her opponent, she hurriedly fired a Shabon Spray Freezing spell at the incoming target.
The slender youma rolled sideways with deceptive speed, wings almost vertical, gliding alongside the elongated blast of glowing aquamarine bubbles. Gem-like ruby eyes flashed angrily as red scales fogged over from the proximity of the freezing attack.
The manoeuvre didn’t leave Ami enough time to cast another spell. She wished she had restocked her Keeper storage after losing its contents during her imprisonment so she could use a readied attack from storage. Dodge? She didn’t want to look weak while she was surrounded by potential attackers. Instead, she intercepted the attacker’s clawed hands by catching them with her own.
The weight and momentum of the descending youma slammed against her palms, and needle-sharp claws dug into the skin of her wrists as their fingers intertwined. Nevertheless, while she looked like a blue-haired teenage girl, her body was an ice golem with senshi enchantments under her glamour.
Her arms were forced back, but not by much, and her knees bent as she cushioned the impact, but they didn’t buckle.
With a surprised yelp, the youma tried to arrest her forward motion, but something in her arms made a cracking noise. Barely slowed, she crashed into Ami headfirst.
The young Keeper’s boots squeaked as she skidded backwards, pushed by the force of the impact. Piercing pain came from the layer of fake skin right below her collarbone.
She gulped when she saw that the youma’s short, straight horns were buried in her chest down to their bases. Possessing a golem body was teaching her reckless, unhealthy combat habits.
Grabbing her attacker by the shoulders, she pushed.
The stuck horns came free with a soft popping noise, and water trickled out from the wound.
The dazed youma extended a long, prehensile tongue and started lapping up the clear liquid, to Ami’s disgusted embarrassment.
Grimacing, she shoved harder against the scaly creature’s shoulders, propelling her away and into the ring of other youma who had approached them while she was distracted. Warily, she slowly spun around to get a better look at the beings circling her.
Each of the individuals looked distinct from the rest, differing in size, colour, and number of limbs. Some were wearing remains of their armour or had partially melded with it, while others were clad in tatters of robes. A third group, mostly consisting of those who deviated most strongly from normal dwarven proportions, wore nothing at all. In most cases, fur, scales, feathers, crystals, or a combination thereof preserved their modesty, but Ami still tried not to look too closely.
In turn, the youma lowered their heads whenever she faced them, avoiding eye contact. They seemed scared to approach her, but also curious enough to get closer.
She watched them for hints of aggression, but didn’t spot any directed at herself. The dragon-girl must have been an exception. She shot a glance at her defeated attacker, who was slinking off into the crowd. “Wait!” she called after her. The red-scaled youma had talked, even if it had only been one word. Perhaps communication was possible.
Most of the creatures around her reacted to her exclamation, some freezing up, others stopping their sluggish approach.
Wide-eyed, she let her gaze sweep over the crowd she had unintentionally addressed. She had trouble reading the less human facial expressions, but sideways-tilted heads and raised eyebrows could be taken as signs that they were waiting for her to continue. “Can you understand me?” she asked, cautiously optimistic.
“Most of them can,” a voice that sounded as if the speaker’s throat was clogged-up with slime replied.
Following the sound, she spotted the speaker standing on one of the tallest pillars looming above the chamber’s terraces, some distance behind the crowd.
He was a squat figure wearing a robe that looked as if it had been stitched together from four huge, greasy-looking leaves. His long, dwarven beard consisted of slimy foam, its white colour contrasting sharply with his goblin-like complexion. Seeing that he had her attention, he continued, “Don’t expect them to hold a conversation, however. They aren’t smart enough to put more than a few words together. Frankly, I suspect they are merely accessing the memories of who they used to be to associate words with meaning.”
She noted that he obviously didn’t have that problem. He was also the only of the youma holding any kind of tool or weapon; in this case a long golden wizard’s staff. “Who are you?” she asked.
“My name is Mengolin. I used to be the court wizard of Salthalls before receiving this dark blessing,” he answered, inclining his head in a polite nod. “I came up with a clever plan when I realised that my defeat was inevitable. I protected only my mind and let my body change, certain that my unfortunate brethren would be unable to see through the ruse. I think I succeeded admirably.”
“I – um- congratulations?” she replied hesitantly, feeling that his proud grin and content demeanour contradicted his words. She would have expected a dwarf who had been transformed against his will to be more hostile and upset about it.
Among the youma surrounding her, some had turned their heads to listen when Mengolin spoke up. He wasn’t able to keep their interest, and they resumed staring at Ami with curious, hungry expressions.
Nervous about the creatures inching ever closer, she asked, “Do you know why they are acting the way they are?”
“Yes, of course,” Mengolin said. “You are a beacon of power and authority. As expected of an Empress. Of course they want to bask in your presence.”
She flushed, unsure how to react to the blatant flattery.
“Empress,” a nearby youma with long floppy ears picked out a single word from his sentence.
“Empress,” another repeated, with a hint of recognition in her voice.
“Empress?” three more youma asked simultaneously. “Empress!”
She suddenly realised that Mengolin might not have been trying to flatter her, but had been accurately describing how she felt to the youma’s senses. She was radiating more dark power than anything else in the area, and that included the drying-up mana nodes. Which was probably the reason why the cat had joined her, now that she thought about it. She had been feeding it.
“Empress! Empress! Empress!” More and more youma were joining in, their distinct voices melding into a deafening chant.
The eyes of a stocky youma who was the approximate shape of a penguin suddenly widened. His maw opened as a sudden flash of insight hit him, and his metal armour rattled when he dropped to one knee.
She could feel a new minion bond forming as he bowed his head.
His submissive gesture triggered a chain reaction. First, the creatures next to him aped the gesture, and then the movement spread outwards through the crowd like a wave, accompanied by the rumble of many knees hitting the ground.
Within moments, she was surrounded by a sea of kneeling youma and inundated by the feeling of minion bonds snapping into place.
Blinking, she turned in a circle and saw nothing but new underlings. Even Mengolin up on his pillar had joined her, much to her surprise. Concentrating, she sensed only one exception inside the chamber.
Her previous opponent, the red-scaled youma, was climbing one of the pillars. Body wrapped partially around the stone column, she snarled at Ami upon noticing her attention.
“That one’s different, your Majesty,” Mengolin commented, following the blue-haired teenager’s gaze. “Used to be a fairy. Doesn’t know how to behave in the presence of nobility.”
“Fairy? But-” The only fairies she could reasonably expect to be in the area were the diplomatic corps from the Shining Concord Empire, whom she had asked to talk with the dwarfs on her behalf. It made a certain amount of sense that a baron would send them on to his liege, rather than negotiating with them himself. “Oh no. They were here when this happened!”
Guiltily, she tried to figure out which one of the sisters she was looking at. Visually, there was little to identify her by. The redhead perhaps, judging from her colour? “Anise? Roselle? Dandel? Cerasse?” she tried.
The mutated fairy twitched when she heard the names. She swept her gaze over the crowd, batted her wings, and took to the air. Keeping close to the outer walls, she started flying in a lazy circle.
Ami didn’t know what to make of that reaction until the dragon-girl darted sideways, out through the doorway, and disappeared down the corridor. “And now she’s trying to find her sisters,” she speculated, resisting the urge to give chase. Her reason for coming to this chamber hadn’t become less urgent just because there was one more issue to deal with.
“Cathy, please have some warlocks locate the fairy sisters. Thanks!” she delegated, somewhat assuaging her conscience.
Right now, her first priority was stopping the dark energy from claiming more victims, and then she needed to keep the transformed dwarfs from hurting each other. “Mengolin, I need to use this casting chamber. Can you help me operate it?”
“Your wish is my command, Empress!” the former dwarf replied. “You, you and you!” he shouted, singling out three of the youma. “Start cleaning up the crystal lattices over there, the Empress demands it! All of you on the northern dais,” he shouted, whirling around to a different group. “Move! Get off there!”
Seeing that he had the situation well in hand, she mentally contacted the other specialist whose knowledge would be invaluable for the task. “Jadeite? What’s the best way to exert control over dark energy that has spread over a large area?”
She didn’t have to wait long for an answer. “Depends on what you want to achieve, but in general, you first need…”
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