A large grey rat stood on its hind legs within a glass cylinder, steadying its forepaws against the curved surface. Its furry noise twitched nervously as it spotted the white-clad figure approaching through the tidy lab.
"Don't worry, nobody is going to hurt you." Wearing a lab coat over her dark clothing, Ami leaned over the transparent prison, and the creature trapped within redoubled its frantic escape attempts. Tiny claws hammered against the glass, making soft clinking noises. The smell of scared animal wafted up to Ami's nose from below.
To the rodent's increasing terror, it found itself lifted into the air and flipped on its back by an invisible grip. Admiring the lighter-coloured underside of the animal for a moment, the Keeper resisted the urge to stroke the fuzzy-looking pelt. That would just get her fingers nipped. Instead, she lifted a pair of tweezers and brought them close to the rat's neck, keeping them out of range of the animal's flailing limbs. The smooth, bald tail whipped across her wrist as the animal wiggled in her telekinetic grasp, but she didn't even twitch. Her attention was focused on the small metal loop that she was manoeuvring over the rodent's head, moving it gently past the animal's small, round ears. With the tweezers, she tugged at one end of the collar, tightening it around the creature's neck. As if a flip had been switched, it ceased its struggles and went as rigid as if it had just undergone taxidermy. Ami put the rat onto her workbench, where it stood motionless. Only the faint quivering of its nose as it breathed betrayed the fact that it was still alive. Now that she no longer had to restrain the animal, she quickly managed to strap a short leather belt around its midsection and used it to hold a rectangular stone the size of two cubes of sugar in place on the rodent's back.
"My King." The page wearing a red tabard decorated with a stylized white lion bowed toward the elderly man sitting in a gilded chair in front of the cold fireplace. Cushions in royal purple managed to rendered the angular and intricately-carved piece of furniture comfortable. "Your guests have arrived."
"Send them in, send them in." King Albrecht made an inviting gesture with the gnarled fingers of his left hand, showing off a slender, gem-studded ring as he did. The armoured guards standing to his left and right did not stir when the servant stepped aside and seven young woman - fairies - filed into Albrecht's study. If Albrecht hadn't known his bodyguards for years, he would have missed the small signs that betrayed their increased watchfulness, such as the tightening grip on their halberds or the faint turn of their winged helmets. He could be sure that they would be keeping their eyes on the group, and so would he. The visitors were rather shapely, after all, and their tight-fitting white dresses were rather more daring than what the people of his realm wore, bordering on the scandalous. Of course, the relative skimpiness of the garments was very practical. Being back-free was necessary for the wings, and the shortness of the dresses would make sure they wouldn't get in the way when flying.
"King Albrecht, the Sixth Full-Fairy Aerial Recon Force of the Shining Concord Empire," the page introduced the girls, who lined up in a row, sorted by height, and stood at attention. The king noted with some amusement that despite their military demeanour, their eyes were sweeping all over the room, taking in the bookshelves along the wall, the raised wooden panels covering the walls, and the long polished table in passing. They remained far longer on Albrecht himself. While he knew that he was no longer the muscle-bound hero of his youth, he figured that he still cut an imposing figure with his golden crown, the curled white hair, and the deep blue mantle lined with ermine fur. To his secret chagrin, the gaze of the younger girls especially seemed to linger longer on the two other men sitting near the window. "At ease."
"King Albrecht," the tallest of the fairies greeted, curtsying in front of the monarch with a certain lack of grace that spoke of unfamiliarity with the movements. Her companions quickly followed her example. "Thank you for taking the time to grant us an audience."
The king nodded at the indigo-haired fae and gestured for her to rise. He noted that the hair colours of the girls each corresponded to one colour of the rainbow, but not to its order. "I would be remiss in my duty if I did not listen to Keeper-related news first hand. Rise and be welcome. It is not everyday that I have the pleasure of meeting visitors from the Shining Concord Empire. Do take a seat and partake of the food, if you wish." He motioned toward the large glass bowl containing various fruits of his land, and the redhead was especially quick to take advantage of his offer.
"Let me introduce you to my assistants, who will be quite interested in your report. Dumat, my court wizard," the king nodded at the white-bearded man wearing the standard blue robes and pointy hat of an academy-trained professional magician, "and the charming fellow in the brown robes and the face-concealing hood is my spymaster, whom I won't name, for obvious reasons." Albrecht waited patiently as the fairies introduced themselves and got settled around the table. Once the scraping of the chairs over the ground had ended, he continued. "Now then, I understand that your presence here is the direct consequence of a Keeper's action?"
"Yes, your Majesty. We were originally stationed on a ship that maintained the blockade around the Avatar Islands. We were sent out to investigate a strong feeling of evil that radiated out from a small iceberg approaching the Avatar Islands. As we spotted only a single being that looked like a woman made of ice on it, we chose to engage."
"That was Keeper Mercury?" the spymaster interrupted.
Dandel nodded. "Yes, but not her true form, as we learned later."
The wizard rose from his armchair and walked over to the bookshelf. "Mercury... ah, here is M." his finger wandered across the backs of the books and came to a stop at a newer-looking one. He pulled it out and opened it, already flipping through the pages before he arrived at his seat. "Girl made of ice, yes. That matches Baron Leopold's description of the creature that confronted him."
"How did the Keeper react to your attack?" the King asked.
Returning her attention from the wizard to the monarch, Dandel said "She told us to go away. However, we were unaware at the time that she was a Keeper."
"Another match with how she was trying to dissuade the Baron from attacking her," Dumat said. "I would have expected a Keeper to relish conflict more."
"She may be working under the maxim that an unnecessary battle avoided is a battle won," the spymaster voiced his opinion. "That shows some understanding of long-term strategy."
"How dangerous would you say that she is in combat, having faced her directly?" the King asked, sounding more interested in that aspect of their tale.
"Very. We achieved nothing," the indigo-haired Fae answered solemnly.
"Quiet, Anise. Let Dandel talk," green-haired Tilia shushed the redhead.
"Four of us launching lightning at her had little to no effect, and she overpowered one of our sealing techniques. Even with a Keeper's mana pool, that shouldn't have been possible." She heard the scratching of a quill over paper, and saw that the spymaster was taking notes. "She was toying with us the whole time, though. When she got serious, she immobilised our team within moments with some sort of ice spell, and then knocked us out with a touch spell."
"Yes, but we found out her weakness," Roselle chimed in excitedly, which drew raised eyebrows from the men. "When the ice creature was splashed with item-suppressing water, it just dissolved, and Mercury was ejected from it. She isn't so dangerous in her real form, I nailed her with a lightning bolt and she fled! You can use that to beat her!" The orange-haired fairy looked around, a hopeful smile on her face.
"Item-suppressing water. The ice creature is some form of conjuration then, it seems," the wizard mumbled.
"However, your assessment about her lack of toughness is faulty," the spymaster said from beneath his cowl. "Unconfirmed rumour has it that stabbing her in the neck did nothing."
"Well, there you have it. Unconfirmed." Cerasse declared in support of her sister.
The brown-robed man steepled his fingers in front of his hidden face. "However, I also have confirmed information from several independent sources that she recently fought in an Azzathra-sponsored duel, and felled a horned reaper with her bare hands and with a single punch."
"Wait wait what?"
"You are telling us that she beat a horned reaper to death? She's scrawny!"
The fairies were shouting all at once now, until Dandel stood up and spread her arms, making shooing motions toward her sisters. When order was restored, she turned to the King apologetically. "I'm sorry about that, but it just sounds so unbelievable. She looks smaller and younger than even Camilla over there." The blonde in question pouted at being singled out as the youngest member of the team.
"Appearances can be deceiving, especially where Evil is concerned," the King said with a sage nod.
"In any case, she defeated us, and then she brought us to another location somehow, where she kept us as prisoners. She didn't appear too interested in torturing or maltreating us, though."
"Well, there was that tentacle monster," Anise pointed out.
"Ahem. She does have a reputation for indulging in disgusting and deviant behaviours that are too vile to mention in polite company. She might have wanted to keep you around for those purposes, disturbing as it may be." The wizard informed them after consulting the notes on Keeper Mercury again. His eyes had gone wide, and his face looked rather red.
"In any case, one of her minions rescued us before she could do anything too bad to us," Camilla said. "I hope she doesn't find out it was him. He didn't look like the evil type with his nice blond hair." "Yes, he looked rather fetching in that grey uniform."
"That would be the self-proclaimed dark general Jadeite," the spymaster said. "Despite his appearance, he should be considered extremely dangerous. He did manage to abduct Baron Leopold, who is know as one of the greater heroes of our land, from his own castle."
"Oh? What happened to him?" Melissa, the blue-haired fae, asked, dreading the answer.
"Well, it turned out that he was acting on his own. Mercury ransomed him back in exchange for curing her pet tentacle beast."
"It was quite a blow to poor Leopold's ego," Albrecht said, "he brings it up at least once any time I meet him, and demands we take action against her."
"She seems to have a knack for attracting powerful minions she can't control," the wizard commented.
Dandel turned to face him. "Oh? What do you mean?"
"Well, she used to have a horned reaper, but it turned on her. That happened outside of the kingdom though, so reports are a bit sketchy, but the facts seem to agree that she strung it up on top of the city's temple." The spymaster didn't think that bringing up the accounts of public nudity would do anything but distract from the matter at hand. "But please do continue your tale."
"Well, the next time we ran into her was in a small town not far from here. Her minions had tricked a local priest into healing her hand, and we learned about that and tried to ambush her. If what we heard about her right now is correct, then we were rather lucky that she wasn't around when we attacked."
"But she's plotting something terrible," Melissa interjected excitedly, "I overheard her henchmen talk about her plans! She is trying to control the weather and to tame lightning storms!"
"Alarming if true," the king said. "Dumat, how likely is she to succeed?"
"That is hard to tell. Weather magic is the domain of the gods, for the most part. I do not know where she would even start trying to decipher its inner workings. Certainly not in the Underworld."
"The logical assumption would be the Avatar Islands," the spymaster said. "The Avatar's mages were very advanced in some areas, and I cannot see another reason why she would be interested in that wasteland."
"That does make sense," the king agreed. "We may have to stop her before she reaches her goal, then. Do increase the surveillance personnel assigned to her." Turning to the fairies, he said "Your empire controls the seas. Could you inform your own superiors about this threat, so that we may strike at it together? I will arrange speedy transport to your homeland for you, naturally."
The fairies cheered and nodded their heads enthusiastically. "We would be honoured, your Majesty," Dandel spoke for them all.
"I find it odd that Keeper Mercury would go for a plan like that," the court wizard said. "In all honesty, she sounds like the kind of small fry Keeper who's in it for the perks, but lacks real ambition and generally wants to avoid trouble. Her recent actions only make sense in the light of her gaining the negative attention of one of the movers and shakers and trying to save her own skin by any means necessary."
"A small-fry Keeper couldn't have taken out Keeper Malleus' stronghold," Dumat contradicted.
"Malleus was weakened at the time. She may have just pounced on a dying opponent like a hyena."
"Then how do you explain what she did to Arachne's new dungeon? The troops reported that it was a burnt-out ruin when they arrived."
"Besides, she is also some powerful creature that can masquerade as a human well enough to fool a healer!"
"But not powerful enough to avoid getting hurt in the first place!"
"By a reaper!"
The king wisely decided to bail from the conversation before his two most trusted advisers could start shouting at each other, again. "I will now leave you and the ladies to examine every aspect of their recent experiences in more detail," he said, rising from his seat. "Dumat, Spymaster, Ladies, do your best to shed some light onto this mystery."
Cathy and Jered were expanding the swimming dungeon, using some of the new equipment that Mercury had provided them with. The hand-held, self-moving drill was a marvel, as long as its cable was plugged into one of the outlets in the finished wall sections further down the corridor.
The blonde moved the former imp pick along the wall, which gave and evaporated under her attentions. This was much less tiring than hacking away at the ice, in the female soldier's opinion. She lowered the boring machine and compared her handiwork with the blueprints. Unexpectedly, she spotted something move on the ground that wasn't one of the rolling ice splinters. "Eww! We have rats! Shabon. Spray. Freez-"
"Wait!" Jered stepped to his girlfriends side and blocked her line of fire with his left arm, causing her to halt in mid-spell. "I think it's supposed to be here. Look at it more closely."
Cathy lowered her crossed arms and examined the large rodent approaching the end of the tunnel more closely, spotting something she had missed on first glance. "What the- ? A backpack?"
The rat scuttled onward without giving the two onlookers a second glance. Upon reaching a spot of uneven ice, it stopped and started swaying. It raised both legs on its left side at the same time, put them down again, then repeated the same for its right legs, and continued alternating between sides.
"What is it doing?"
The rodent rose, standing on its hindquarters, and made grasping motions with its forelegs while it slowly turned in a circle. Beady red eyes came into sight when its nose faced its audience.
"Mercury, is that you?"
The rat finished its odd dance amidst a puff of aquamarine smoke and sank back to its natural pose on all fours. A black halo crackled around it and shot upward like a fast-growing mushroom, solidifying into a red-eyed female form. Colour crept back into the tar-like figure, and she became recognisable as Ami, who raised her right hand and waved a greeting. "Hello, all."
"What were you doing with that rat?" Cathy asked, tilting her head and nodding toward the rodent sitting next to Mercury's boots, which was rubbing its snout with its paws.
"Claiming terrain," the blue-haired girl said courtly. "I am looking for a replacement for imps, and while rats can't do regular work, they should be able to enlarge my territory with the right equipment."
"You are trying to teach rats how to perform a ritual?" Jered's tone of voice made it clear that he doubted the feasibility of this plan, and possibly Mercury's sanity too.
"It's not as strange as it sounds," the young Keeper defended her current project. "The magical power for claiming territory is provided by the dungeon heart. Any minion should be able to do it."
The brown-haired man blinked. "Minion? You hired a rat? How does that work?"
"I didn't hire it. Keepers can command the mindless little creatures that live in their dungeon if they bother to. That's why most natural creatures instinctively flee from dungeons. Usually, controlling them is pretty pointless, but some Keepers, like for example Arachne with her spiders, find a use for them."
"I see. Next time a gnat is keeping me awake at night, I'll know who to complain to," Cathy said with a grin.
"But, it's a rat," Jered drawled, frowning at the grey-furred beast. "I'm still a bit sceptical about a tiny animal being smart enough to pull off a somewhat elaborate magical procedure like that on its own. Its brain can't be any bigger than a cherry."
"It won't need to know what it is doing," Ami said, "That's what the backpack and collar are for. See that stone? It's the same one I used to imprint my combat skills on for the ice golems. Except this time I'm going to store the imp dance skill within, translated into rat body language."
"So we won't have to do the silly dance, but instead there will be rat droppings all over the place? Charming." Cathy was definitely not impressed.
"They will be house-trained rats," Ami said with a sigh. "You know, keeping the dungeon clean without imps could be a problem. I'm already regretting installing that mirror in the throne room's floor. Every little piece of dirt on it shows."
"Tie a little brush to your rat's tail while you are at it," Jered suggested only half-seriously.
"Brr, rats. I find them gross," Cathy said with a mock shudder. "Oh well. If they can do part of my work, I will put up with a horde of rats bustling about the dungeon. However, I see a minor problem." The blonde winked at Ami and grinned.
"All hail the Queen of Rats!" The blonde snickered. "Rodents aren't exactly the most impressive of animals. Do you really want to be associated with them?"
Wincing at the nickname, Ami nodded thoughtfully. "There is that." Although that might still be a step up from my current reputation. "Bats would be the more traditional choice, wouldn't they? Still, the rats are willing to work for grain," she joked.
"You could have snakes. Very creepy, snakes," Jered played along.
"Nonsense, they have no feet to dance with. Now rabbits, that's where it's at," Cathy suggested. "Not intimidating, but very tasty."
"I don't know, having my workers end up in my soldiers' pots sounds counter-productive."
"Maybe we are approaching this from the wrong angle," Jered said. "Consider butterflies! No self-respecting adventurer would want to be known for vanquishing the dreaded," he struck a pose, pointing his finger into the air, and continued in a pompous tone of voice "Cave of Butterflies!" His theatrics prompted the two girls to break into giggles.
"More seriously, I need this to work," Ami said, lowering her hand from where it had hidden her mouth. "I won't be able to beat Zarekos if he is able to claim my territory faster than I can claim his. Besides, I don't want to put you two in danger doing that."
"It's much appreciated," Jered answered honestly.
|Previous chapter:||Next chapter:|
|Chapter 64: Construction Work||Chapter 66: More Recruits|