"I hate waiting like this!" Cathy underlined her exclamation by hitting the wood of the table with her open palm, making the upside down playing cards arrayed before her jump.
"Nothing you can do about it," Jered replied, flipping through his deck. His chair was in constant danger of tipping over, rocking on its back legs in rhythm with the brown-haired man's foot pushing against the edge of the table. To his right, between him and his girlfriend, sat Snyder, straight-backed and looking out of place in his red and white acolyte robes. He frowned at the cards in his hand, brown eyes narrowing. Across from him, the fourth player, a slim goblin with skeletally thin arms and wild eyes, giggled madly to herself. She was counting the pile of coins resting before her, easily the largest one on the table.
"I'm sure Mercury will do her best," Snyder said, putting down a card and then smoothing his hair with the same hand in an unconscious gesture. "She seems the diligent type."
"Still, it has been a long time! Battles don't usually take this long! Is she trying to turn this into a siege?" the blonde harrumphed.
"Keeper enjoying spoils of battle," the goblin suggested with a grin, her eyebrows wiggling suggestively.
The acolyte shook his head "I rather doubt that. Her reputation is based on a misunder-"
A black bolt of lightning shot from the ceiling, struck an imp in the forehead, and bounced. The targeted creature squealed and staggered, while the blob of darkness expanded into Ami, who landed flat on her back on the ground with a little "Oof."
Chairs scraped on the floor as the players shot to their feet. "Mercury! You are back!" Cathy approached with a few steps until she stood over the prone blue-haired figure, who was massaging her temples. Taking in the charred state of the Keeper's boots and her unusual arrival, she came to the obvious conclusion, and sighed. "It didn't go well, did it?"
Ami blinked a few times, to bring the blonde figure looming over her into focus, and slowly sat up. "Actually, I won. I'm just too tired to do anything much." She underlined the statement with a yawn, which she quickly hid behind a hand.
"So why are you here if you won? I thought you'd be busy organising things over there," Jered asked.
"In short, there were a number of unpredictable complications, and I didn't want to stay over there all alone and unable to use my magic. I can keep an eye on things through Keeper powers though," she added sleepily when she saw the alarmed faces of her companions.
"No- no more magic? How did that happen?" Snyder asked, looking at the soles of her boots, which were disintegrating. "Is that why you haven't healed up your feet yet?"
"And why were you even in a position where you could get hurt? The swordswoman demanded, Keepers aren't supposed to fight in person!"
"I don't think she can hear you,“ Jered pointed down, where Ami had sunk back on the ground, closed her eyes, and wasn't moving. One of the imps scuttled over and draped a blanket over her.
"Sheesh, what did she do? You, imp, go fetch a mattress!" Cathy pointed at one of the omnipresent servants, who looked up at her with big, black eyes and a questioning expression, but then disappeared in the direction of the bedrooms.
Jered stepped to her side and looked down at the girl for a while. He briefly considered that if he wanted to clear his name, now would be the best opportunity to kill the Keeper that he'd ever get. Then again, she wasn't really the bad sort, and murdering her would be needless and distasteful, especially if she had managed to acquire a safe haven. Besides, being in the employ of a non-evil Keeper certainly had the potential to be profitable. No, he'd better forget about this idea. "Snyder, see if you can heal her. We'll need her back in top shape as soon as possible!"
Ami didn't know how long she had slept when she woke from her - fortunately dreamless - sleep, but she felt well rested and hungry. Maybe now she could get started on benefiting from her earlier victory, if her magic was back. She had just told Malleus to heal up his wounded creatures before she left. Of course, what Ami hadn't counted on was being ambushed by nearly all of her employees as soon as she left the room. The magicians and adventurers were waiting around the door in a semi-circle and started to talk all at once, making it impossible to understand any of them.
"Keeper, there is something that needs to be dealt with urgently," Tasbaal managed to make himself heard by using his massive belly like a ram that pushed aside the competitor's for Ami's attention. "During your absence, there was a huge build-up of denatured magic around your dungeon heart, a lot more severe than the last time. It is imperative that it be funnelled off safely, as it might detonate at any moment if left to its own devices," the evil monk continued.
Ami got a sinking feeling. "This is going to be complicated?" she asked, and was unsurprised by the answer.
"Unfortunately so. I will need the assistance of you and my colleagues here. I have already drawn up the diagrams for the necessary wards and equipment to make sure that the process goes smoothly and safely. However, you will need to create a channel to the outside so the chaotic energies can vent, and-"
"AHEM," someone interrupted, "none of that's necessary. Already dealt with it," the Alchemist looked smugly at his more arcanely inclined rival.
"You? You are nothing but a glorified cook! You want me to believe that you safely set up the mystical wards to drain the heart chamber of dangerous mana? On your own, no less?" the fat man's cold reply left no doubt about how ridiculous he found that idea.
"Nah, tossed some chickens in. Pretty fireworks when the magic went after them, too. You might want to have someone clean the chamber, though, Keeper," the mad professor said with a nod toward Ami, enjoying every second of this exchange and making the ex high-priest sputter and look like a complete fool.
"Good work," Ami praised him, glad that she wouldn't have to lose time dealing with that problem. "While we are on the topic of chaotic magic, could you please tell me what happened to the previous victims?"
"Unfortunately, we only just managed to stabilise their state. It is a highly interesting outcome though, worthy of further study. Really, it is a shame to cure it rather than using it as the fascinating research opportunity it is," Tasbaal reported.
"I will be the judge of that," Ami reprimanded him, offended by the veiled suggestion. "In fact, if there is no other pressing problem, I want all of you to go back to work on it, please."
"As you wish, Keeper." Slowly, the trio of assistants scuffled away, their curiosity unsatisfied. Ami turned toward the trio of adventurers still present, who looked all to eager to ask their own questions. Very well, taking time for an after-action report and lunch was something she should be able to afford to do. For what she had planned, she wanted to be as fit as possible. Her stomach growled its agreement.
"I was out for a whole day?" Ami's eyes widened, and she nearly dropped her knife. She hadn't thought that she had been that tired.
The others around the table nodded. "You had us worried there for a time," Jered confessed, waving his gnawed-on chicken leg by the bone to punctuate his statement.
"Let's go over this battle again," Cathy said, giving the blue-haired girl enough time to chew and swallow. "First, you arrived, spread out your troops, and created cover with your fog spell. Nothing I would object against yet, aside from maybe leaving the spread-out golems vulnerable to being wiped out by superior numbers, but you were sure there weren't any enemies on the surface." The blonde had actually taken down notes when Ami had told them about the assault on Malleus' fortress, and was now staring at them with concentration. "However, the way you handled the intrusion. Sloppy. You should have tried to avoid the traps, not thrown everything into the meatgrinder."
Ami looked up from her rapidly emptying plate. "That's obvious, in hindsight. However, at that point, I did not know yet that I would eventually run out of reinforcements," she defended herself. "Yes, I could have made them avoid the traps. Some of them, at least, as most were positioned in a way to be unavoidable with what I had. It would have cost me all of the momentum of my attack, though, and the longer I lingered, the more likely it would have been that the enemy could have figured out a counter."
"Very well, I will not linger on that point. Just make sure to test all your new abilities properly before you use them in a major battle in the future."
The young Keeper nodded. "Time permitting, of course."
Cathy wasn't done yet "I am also disappointed by the combat performance of the golems. You said your fog was up, but they still got their arse handed to them?"
"My fog didn't help much because the Keeper often transported his troops right next to them, and his creatures were well trained for close combat. Much better than me, really," Ami admitted.
"We will work on remedying that," the swordswoman promised in a tone that made the hair on the teenager's neck rise. It was the scolding voice of an angry teacher, something that Ami was very unfamiliar with being directed at herself. "You did trick your way past some of the troops though, even despite the Keeper?"
"I think he was busy searching for my non-existing dungeon by that point," Ami guessed. "I'd have to ask him."
"In other words, you were lucky," Jered interjected, having finished off his meal.
"Now, now, don't be too hard on her. She did win in the end," Snyder felt it necessary to point out.
"We can't keep relying on luck! That point where Malleus got cocky and buried you under creatures? Luck! Getting that black mist instead of your regular one? Luck! Surviving his big fireball? Luck again! Even the fact that you are still alive now was pure luck! What were you thinking, trying to fight a dragon in your own body? If it hadn't been for that lucky icicle landing next to you... Luck, luck, and more luck! By any reasonable expectations, you should have lost that battle," Cathy trailed off, calming down a bit after the short rant. Her frown deepened. "And then there's the worrisome fact that your powers seem to become more and more unreliable. First, your ability to use magic fades, then those corrupted spells, and finally one of your creations even turns on you!"
"That last one might not actually have been Mercury's fault," Snyder came to Ami's defence, "there are rumours about Keepers being able to hex heroes into attacking their own allies, and then letting them face the consequences."
Cathy paused to re-evaluate. “Well, I guess that would be the least damning interpretation of what happened. I hope that's what the problem was. But it still doesn't explain the other weirdness! And of course, there was still more foolishness. Experimenting on your golems when you already knew that it could lead to you losing more of your irreplaceable forces?”
Ami hung her head. “The regular golems were nearly useless in the situation anyway, and therefore I thought the potential benefits would warrant the risk,” the girl explained her tactical decision.
“At which point again did we decide on the brilliant idea of going to war with largely untested equipment and abilities again, against the most difficult target we could find?” the blonde sighed.
“It is not as if we had much choice,” Snyder objected once more, “we were on a tight schedule. In fact, we still are. Mercury still doesn't have a second dungeon heart.”
“I'll listen to your opinion on untested equipment once you mange to make a ward that doesn't malfunction in some way,” the swordswoman turned to the redhead, who ducked under her glare. Satisfied that the interloper was suitably cowed, she fixed Ami with her stare again. “And then, there was this final and worst blunder. What in the name of all that's good possessed you to press on and risk everything when the last golem was destroyed? There were two other potential targets! There is some point at which persistence becomes a vice, rather than a virtue!”
Ami set her cutlery down, having finished her meal. “But it worked!”
“Yes. It worked,” Cathy looked nearly chagrined to admit it, “but only through dumb luck! If anything had gone only a little bit worse, you'd be dead and at the dark gods non-existing mercy, and all of us here would be doomed, too. You have a responsibility to not risk your life like that! No more reckless plans for you!”
Ami blushed slightly “Um, I'm afraid you won't like what I have to do next then, either.” She explained about what the Reaper had told her she would be necessary.
“You are right, I don't like it,” Cathy said, arms akimbo.
“I'm not a fan of the idea of you sifting through some Keeper's deranged mind, especially on the suggestion of the Reaper. You haven't been entirely happy with the outcome of any of his plans yet,” Jered commented, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
Even Snyder did not seem enthused by the idea. “What if he fights it and you end up in the wrong body again?”
“Sorry, but it's really the only way,” Ami insisted. “Even if Malleus was willing to talk, which I doubt, I wouldn't have the time to learn all of this the regular way. The Baron's going to arrive any day now. I'm afraid there simply is no other option.” She gave the acolyte a faint smile. “Don't worry, I have a lot more practice with the possession spell now. I'm confident that complications like that are a thing of the past.”
“Very well,” Cathy said, letting her shoulders droop, “but we will go over this battle again later in much more detail. You should also think about how to replace your golems' water during combat to give them enhanced durability, and possibly other improvements as well."
It was time to dive into the mind of Keeper Malleus to retrieve the all-important knowledge about how to create new dungeon hearts, and whatever other salient information she could get while she was at it. She was currently inhabiting an imp body that she had teleport-hopped across the continent until it was close to the conquered dungeon. She would travel the rest of the way via possession spell, as she felt no need to announce her presence. She had the link binding Malleus clearly in the mind, feeling like a heavy chain that was under constant tension. Following it to its destination would not be difficult at all.
Malleus was in the process of sulking about his recent defeat when tendrils of black lightning shot through the wall from above and wrapped around him. His true form was that of a human male, black-haired, with a tanned skin tone, and a face and a build that would have made a classical statue envious. The result of magic, of course. He wouldn't lift a finger if it wasn't absolutely necessary. Exercise? Him? No, that was for lesser beings. The sudden pressure on his mind interrupted a pleasant fantasy about the Keeper who had beaten him being devoured piece by piece by her own ice golems. The little bitch, she hadn't even found it necessary to introduce herself before ordering him - him - around and then leaving. He had, of course, chosen to interpret the command in his own way. Heal up his minions? Oh, he would. Eventually. Right now, they could suffer for their failure. But he'd better repel this insolent invader now ”You! You may have extorted vassalage from me, but my mind and body are my own! BEGONE!”
The willpower barrier around the Keeper's mind hardened as he sucked in mana from his dungeon heart, nearly emptying it in the process. If that overconfident twit wanted to slam into his protections hard enough that the impact would leave her a drooling vegetable, well, he certainly wouldn't complain. Ami's first experience with a resisted possession had been a horned reaper, and she put just as much effort in the current attempt as she had then. Malleus was powerful, but he was no Reaper. He reeled under the initial clash of wills, irritated and quite vexed that the enemy had put just as much strength into her blow as he had put into his defence. The feeling quickly turned to dismay when the icy pressure kept up as strongly as it had arrived, while his own resistance ran out of steam and ripped apart under the assault like wet paper.
"Get out! Get out get OUT! Hate you! Hate, hate hate you!"
Ami could hear the the Keeper throw a temper tantrum in his mind, but she was in control of the body, which was sitting in a comfy armchair, wearing what seemed to be a gold-studded bathrobe, with its legs raised and lying on fluffy footrest. She pushed the annoying presence deeper, until its rage-filled stream of consciousness was nothing but an impotent distraction, and prepared the next step. Now that she had control of the body, she'd have to observe the mind, which needed a soft touch if she didn't want to cause irreversible damage. She let herself sink deeper into the core of Malleus' being until she touched some random memories that she could use to orient herself.
... demons dragging people out of houses made from baked mud bricks into streets that ran red with blood, while the city burned all around them, and embers and tortured screams rose into the night. She hovered across the chaos, revelling in the suffering she had unleashed on her home country...
Not this. This certainly wasn't what she was looking for! Shaken, Ami skipped past the horrors, looking for the memories that interested her. It seemed to be impossible to experience them from a detached third-person viewpoint. Distantly, she could hear Malleus mock her for her weakness.
Had any creatures been in the inner sanctum, they would have witnessed the most unusual sight of Malleus' face going deep red in apoplectic rage even as tears streamed from his eyes and his hands balled into fists so hard that the nails bit into the skin.
... laughing as the villagers of the hamlet above resorting to cannibalism after she had ordered them all thrown into a giant pit, faces distorted into expressions of greatest despair...
The body sitting in the armchair was violently sick, which lead to unpleasant choking and coughing when it proved to be incompatible with the gnashing of teeth that was already going on. By now, Ami was moving through Malleus' mind with no care for what it would do to him, allegorically ripping open the drawers containing memories as she plundered the mansion that was his mind. If only he had shown some remorse, some indication that he was feeling bad about what he'd done. Instead, the only thing she sensed from the direction of his consciousness was a faint sense of nostalgia, and amusement at her reaction to what she was seeing.
...the baby in her hands screamed. The dark gods rewarded sacrifices well, in proportion to their value. And what sacrifice could be more valuable than an own son? Now, Murdrul the Devourer liked his sacrifices to be in agony, so the knife crept downwards, moving inexorably toward the child's wide-open, tear-filled eyes...
Ami saw red. Malleus was going to die! He'd be dead the moment she had everything useful she could get out of him, she promised herself when she finished dry-heaving. The worst part was that everything felt as if she was committing these atrocities herself. Reluctantly, Ami forced herself to continue tearing through the monster's mind at even greater speed, determined to get what she wanted so she could stop digging through these obscenities.
...a king sank to his knees in despair, after she had enchanted him into slaughtering his whole family...
...and so, what had once been a rich and fertile nation became a forsaken desert...
...slavery and abuse of all kinds...
Ami finally finished the excruciating, stomach-turning journey through the slaughter-filled madhouse that was Malleus' eight hundred years of existence. By the end of it, she was too numb to feel much of anything, and the mind-voice of the Keeper had become three different speakers, each one gibbering incomprehensible things. Still within the foreign body, Ami slowly stood up. She was probably in shock, she thought. That meant she would most likely repress most of what she had seen, which was a blessing, really. However, she couldn't afford to lose any of the skill and knowledge she had acquired so painfully from the evil thing - she was unwilling to classify Malleus as human any more. Well, there was a simple solution. On her mental command, the imps in her own dungeon started to dig out a new room for a library where she could store all the pilfered magical lore, something that was laughably easy with the stolen experience. Especially the relevant parts about dungeon hearts needed to be preserved. That way, all knowledge should survive any self-healing her psyche was hopefully going to undertake.
The great hall with the golden pyramid was empty, except for a few imps, when what looked like the Keeper appeared out of thin air, looking pale, shaking, and clad in expensive silks stained with vomit. He stood on top of the pyramid, before the beating heart. A flash of black later, a smaller, more slender figure stood next to him, dressed in a very short skirt and form-fitting leotard with ribbons. The instant colour fully returned to Ami's re-materialising shape, a loud crack came from her left. Malleus was looking backward without having turned his torso, neck unceremoniously snapped by a swift application of Ami's power to move her underlings. With clinical detachment, she watched the body fall over backward like a puppet with its strings cut. The moment the Keeper died, the rumbling beat of the dungeon heart ceased, and its superstructure started to dissolve into a curtain of green motes, as did Malleus' imps. While his corpse rolled down the stairs, the lights in the dungeon went out one by one, and the blue-haired girl could feel her awareness of the surroundings fade as the dark artefact sank into inertness. Already, she could hear alarmed voices from elsewhere as the vaults lost power.
With a sound like a closing coffin lid, a circular stone plate slid into place above the sleeping heart. Ami wasted no time and knelt down, took her right glove off and rubbed her knuckles over the uneven surface until they bled. The necessary will to use the dungeon heart was there in spades. She didn't only want this, she needed it! A magical power source to re-activate the dark artefact was no problem at all, as she was already connected to a different one. She rose and took a step back, shielding her face as the plate exploded upward and the heartbeat started up again. From afar, she heard gasps and shouts. Those of Malleus' creatures who were mostly healthy had arrived and were staring at the limp body at the bottom of the pyramid. Backlit by the pillar of azure light shining from the pit of the dungeon heart, Ami glowered down at them, and created golem after golem, until six of the mail-clad icy simulacrums knelt to both sides of her.
"He," she gestured toward the corpse in a strange, inflectionless tone of voice, "had angered me greatly." At the last word, her eyes blazed bright enough red to rival the brilliance behind her, and the intruders cowered. "Does anyone of you have a problem with serving me instead?"
The minions looked at each other, unsure about what to make of her neutral tone of voice. Without a portal, it would be a long trek through the desert. Besides, once power returned to the traps...
A warlock stepped forward first. "I shall serve you, Keeper, if you will have me."
Ami nodded. "Good. All of you who want to join me, line up in a row and commune with the heart, please, one after the other. As for the others..." how could she get them to clear out fast? She didn't want any potential hostiles around. The knowledge of the departed Malleus came to her rescue, and for a moment, she sounded eerily like the late Keeper "...well, getting a head start would be in their best interest."
The creatures who had previously been undecided were suddenly in a hurry to get in line. As they were evil, there was much pushing and vying for position, but Ami's golems did a good job of maintaining order. Just to be on the safe side, she added another dozen. A last urgent and sad task remained.
Ami appeared in what couldn't really been called Malleus' harem. A harem implied that the owner felt at least some appreciation or attachment toward the women in it. To Malleus, the poor girls chained naked to the walls were nothing but objects of convenience, there to sate his lusts and produce offspring. Despite the gluttony that his dark god had favoured so, the late Keeper had preferred his mates extremely thin, near anorexic. Ami looked over the long row of broken, dim-eyed, and unresponsive victims, and felt like crying. She could see bones under the skin of the underfed girls, and even thought she recognised a few of them from some of the more embarrassing scenes that she had lived in Malleus memory. To her surprise and mortification, she felt her body react to the remembered stimuli and the sights. She whirled around, blushing, and looking at the blank wall of the chamber, rather than the unclad forms. She was sure that if her emotions weren't inhibited at the moment and she was thinking clearly, she would be really freaking out at the implications. Instead, she snapped her fingers, causing all the manacles to open. The captives slid or staggered to the floor, unsure of what was going on.
Awkwardly, Ami stammered an explanation. "I- err, Keeper Malleus is dead. Um. I'm sorry that I have no way to get you back to your homes, but I'll send you to his inner sanctum instead, where the monsters can't get in. Please feel free to take anything you need and eat as much as you want. I'll try to help more when I know how. Just try to get better for now, yes?"
There was discouragingly little response from the freed slaves, and Ami hoped some rest and better treatment would get them to recover. She really had no idea how to best help them, so she just went with what she had told them before transporting herself back to the pyramid. Her collection of Malleus' ex-minions was growing nicely and steadily, and she felt that she could return to her original dungeon in order to come to terms with what she had learned. She stepped into the dungeon heart, using a tidbit of information she had gleaned from the cesspit that was the dead Keeper's mind, and bridged the distance in an instant, with none of the inconvenient hopping involved.
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|Chapter 29: Desperation Move||Chapter 31: Moving On|
- so the fact she had to relieve it all in first person and go through it in almost complete fashion was a suprise yet again
A bit of an exageration. The guy was eight-hundred years old, and she wasn't busy that long ;)
- Another great episode Pusa! You're quite prolific, aren't you? Having long-term plotlines in mind must help a great deal. I always look forward to seeing a new ep of this thread, knowing it will be well-written, interesting, and long enough for me to really sit down, relax and give it my full attention.
My long term planning is actually rather sketchy. I have a general destination and some set-pieces in mind, but make the details up as I go along. There are a lot of things in this story even I didn't predict (keeps me motivated, really). I also take ideas from the comments into account, provided that I like them and they aren't incompatible with what I'm trying to do.
- However, putting the knowledge into books is explicitely a safeguard against forgetting (wouldn't do to lose the prize), so that plan is slightly flawed ;)
Also, it seems as if I have to clarify a bit in the next episode just how much (or how little) Ami was exposed to the Keeper's memories, as it seems to have come across as rather more than I intended. She certainly didn't re-live all his life, or even a fraction of it. In fact, I don't think there would be anything of her personality left if she experienced even 1/20th of it - that would still be 40 years as Malleus as opposed to the ten or so of her own life that she can remember. What she got was more or less the summary, with flashes of clarity at moments.