Two male figures walked leisurely along a roofed balustrade that overlooked a neatly trimmed and designed garden. The duo differed as much in attitude as it differed attire. While the elder of the two, clad in blue finery and wearing a golden crown, glanced frequently down at the marble fountains and bird baths sitting amidst the flower arrangements, his companion skulked close to the wall, keeping in the shadows cast by the rounded pillars upholding the roof.
"So you are telling me that Keeper Mercury has been spotted at the monastery of Thrice-Martyred Theobald, personally, to get one of her minions out of a dicey situation?" The white-haired man began, raising his voice to be heard over the tweeting sounds of newborn swallows fighting over a worm in their nest.
"Yes, your Majesty, if the reports of the White Hawks mercenaries are to be believed. Which they usually are," came the muffled answer from underneath the other man's dark hood. The masked spymaster kept his back very straight, and each of his steps was exactly as long as the previous one.
"She was able to appear and disappear at will. Does she have a dungeon in the area?" the wrinkly-faced king asked, tapping his gold ring worriedly against the white marble of the railing.
"I find this unlikely in the extreme. We already know that she is an accomplished sorceress and able to teleport on her own. Besides, if she had territory in the area, then she could have just removed her minion without ever getting close enough to put herself in danger."
"Unless she wanted us to believe that."
"A possibility, albeit an unlikely one. Besides, even if she had a dungeon there, the direct threat posed by her would be lower than usual."
"You will have to explain that to me," the king said as he turned to face his servant directly, demonstrating that he was giving him his full attention now. From the palace wing ahead, faint music drifted through the air while the dark-clad agent formulated his reply.
"I took the liberty to have my agents investigate the reports from Evercalm more closely," he said, and his monarch faltered in mid-step, spearing his spymaster with the stern gaze of his maroon eyes. "There is no need to be alarmed, your Majesty. Their actions went unnoticed by Queen Astrid's men. Even if some of their activities came to light, they would not be traceable back to us."
"Very well, I trust in your competence. I just hope I won't have to deal with that harpy throwing yet another tantrum in my old age," the king commented and resumed his regular pace.
The cowled man walking at his side grinned under the scarf hiding his face from the nose down, or at least, that was the impression that Albrecht got from the spy's tone of voice. "I'm afraid you aren't quite old enough to avoid living through the next one, my Liege. However, I am rather certain that it won't be related to any of my work. To get back on topic, my men conducted some interviews that brought to light some surprising findings."
"Beyond what Astrid deigned to share with us?" Albrecht asked, frowning.
"Definitely," the spymaster answered, ignoring his king's hushed mutterings about an angry old hag. "You will find it highly interesting to know that Keeper Mercury not only fought on the grounds of the town's temple, but entered the building itself."
Albrecht's eyebrows rose until they almost met the white curls of his wig. "She is powerful enough to withstand the Light? I find that extraordinarily difficult to believe!"
"Nevertheless, that is what the priest on duty at the time reported," his advisor insisted. "He did not recognise her as a Keeper, obviously. He ascribed her difficulty to enter the premises to his perception that she has demonic taint somewhere in her lineage, as far as four or five generations back."
The spymaster shrugged. "There's not enough information to tell for sure. Judging by the fact that she has demonstrated both superhuman abilities and is still close enough to being human to fool a healer, the theory might well contain a grain of truth. In any case, the priest reports that she was thrown out after conferring with the Light for a while."
"Thrown out? Not destroyed? The Gods could have put her out of our collective misery!" the King barked.
"The Light wouldn't harm someone who came in peace," his advisor reminded the red-faced monarch matter-of-factly. "I find it more interesting that she felt desperate enough to even attempt something like this. I assume that this meeting was the reason for the Light's request to capture her if she surrenders, rather than killing her outright."
"Well, I suppose putting her on trial for her crimes and then properly executing her would be more just, at that," Albrecht said, creasing his brow as he thought. "That still doesn't explain why you'd think that one of her dungeons in the area would pose less risk than usual."
"I was getting to that. The Light Gods revealed that she has little interest in conquering or destroying the surface world. I speculate that this is what landed her in hot water with the dark gods in the first place."
"So she would be content to just remain underground, wallowing in decadence, if no external were acting on her? That sounds too good to be true."
"Not exactly. The Light indicates that she would rather research or attack other Keepers if left to her own devices."
"Really? Doesn't bother anyone and likes to attack Keepers? Now if she only paid taxes on time, she'd almost be a model citizen," the king said, following his sentence up with a cough-like laugh. "Makes one think about replacing one of those more headstrong Barons, no?"
The spymaster fished a leather-bound book out of his flowing grey robes and flipped it open to a bookmarked page, glancing at the writing from behind his mask. "She did offer to pay taxes to Baron Leopold in order to be left alone, if these notes are correct. However I would still advise against-"
"It was a jest!" the king blurted out angrily. "Of course I wouldn't want a Keeper vassal. Aside from it being a dangerous precedent, the corruption issue, and being a terrible idea in general, the diplomatic implications alone would be bad enough to give me nightmares!"
The masked man's tone never changed as he said "Questioning your decisions is not part of my duties, your Majesty."
Albrecht waved his right hand up and down as if swatting a fly, dismissing the comment. "Yes, yes, yes, always the impeccably dutiful stick-in-the-mud. Of course, that's what makes you so valuable."
The spymaster inclined his head, acknowledging the compliment. "Thank you. In any case, such a hypothetical endorsement of Keeper Mercury would be premature. Not only were the powers of the Light adamant on the fact that her research must be stopped, but it also seems that she has changed since their meeting."
"How so?" the King asked, lowering his voice at the sight of the open door leading to the crowded interior of the palace, where eavesdroppers would be able to hide behind long, crimson drapes and opulent armour stands.
"Keeper Mercury was a containable problem because she did not have the ability to make new dungeon hearts. Her recent actions, however, show that she has acquired this capability by now. As you well know, it is rather unlikely that she has somehow compressed several decades of research into just a few weeks. Which leaves..."
"...her having found a dark god to sponsor her, invalidating our previous knowledge, or rendering it dubious at best." Albrecht finished, pulling his ermine coat tighter around himself as if the wind had become chillier. The music that drifted toward him from within the palace seemed to almost mock his mood with its cheerfulness. "Very well. I will take this into consideration." Cloth rustled like dry grass behind the king, and the spymaster was gone, leaving Albrecht to mingle with high society without the questions that the man's presence would have undoubtedly drawn.
Ami's plan to free the victims of Beryl's Eternal Sleep punishment had run into an unexpected snag. "Metallia isn't powerful enough to send them to me on her own?" Ami looked up from her tiny computer, blinking at Jadeite with wide eyes.
The dark general nodded once, touching his left hand to his elbow as he scratched his chin with his right. "Yes. You did mention that I arrived here through an existing temple to the dark gods. Our Great Ruler must have used the existing weakness in space to send me through."
Ami wrapped her arms around herself as she remembered the strange, hypnotic rainbow patterns playing over the pool of Malleus' temple. The eerie basin had looked deceptively beautiful, betraying nothing of all the stomach-turning sacrifices that had been performed in the richly-decorated room. Jadeite's theory that the quiet waters had been a gateway to the dark realms made an uncomfortable amount of sense. Despite the shadowy pool having been less than three metres deep, it had appeared like a bottomless abyss to her. "So you think I need a new temple?"
Jadeite nodded. "Or something equivalent. My portals will not work, I have no destination location to lock on to."
The blue-haired girl inclined her head as she thought, clenching her teeth. "The idea of opening an access point for the dark gods after going through all the trouble to get rid of the one in the dungeon hearts doesn't sit well with me."
Jadeite shrugged his shoulders, making the grey fabric of his uniform rustle. "As you wish. They are just trapped youma, anyway. They would be useful, but we will manage without them."
Leaving them where they were would be the easy way out, Ami considered, and immediately felt guilty for even thinking about leaving them to their torment. "I'll have to consult with Snyder and the warlocks about this," Ami said, leaning back in her chair. "I know how Malleus created his temple, but the god whom it was dedicated to no longer exists." She sighed and rubbed her eyes. "I don't know whether the design would still work, even if I translated it for the crystal type dungeon heart."
"Could you use a temple dedicated to a different dark god?" her dark general suggested. "We might be able to negotiate for the use of one."
Ami shook her head. "I wouldn't want to risk that, even if it could be done. I have had enough encounters with Azzathra to last for a lifetime." She shuddered and continued in a determined tone of voice "I need to maintain as much control over the situation as possible, and using a foreign temple is out of the question. I will investigate what I can do about this. Can you please begin gathering the various energy samples that we will need in the meantime?"
"Consider it done, Mercury." Jadeite bowed curtly, displaying a confident grin before dissolving into vertical black lines that disappeared from sight.
The air of the torch-lit natural cavern smelled of smoke and strong alcohol, but none of the figures sitting around the shabby wooden tables cared. At one of them that stood in the shadow of a towering stalagmite, bone dice clattered. An argument broke out over the results when a green-skinned troll insisted that the roll shouldn't count because the dice got stuck in a puddle of spilled beer. A thrown ceramic mug collided with his leathery forehead and exploded into a rain of shards, causing the humanoid to stagger backward. He glared at his attacker with his tiny black eyes before lunging over the table, his knotty fingers making a grab for the pinkish-skinned orc's neck. Mugs and glasses clattered to the floor as the white-haired defender's chair toppled backward, sending both combatants rolling over the ground and through the shards, still wrestling with each other as they disappeared underneath a rickety table. Much jeering and cheering accompanied the battle while other creatures moved in closer to get a better look, and gold coins jingled as bets were made on the outcome.
The cheerful clamour was a welcome distraction for a certain curly-haired blond, who was playing a game of cards with a trio of other creatures. The strangest of the three was an orange-scaled lizard with a forked tongue, who somehow managed to hold its deck with its forepaws despite a lack of thumbs. To its right sat another troll, wrapped in shaggy furs, and the last gambler was an orc. A crooked grin appeared on the muscular female's face, showing off the blunt tusks in her lower jaw as she pulled a stack of gold coins closer to herself. None of the players paid the least attention to the fight, instead keeping their eyes on their opponents. Nobody trusted the others to not cheat if given half the opportunity. They were so enraptured with throwing suspicious glances at each other that they failed to spot the faint white glow that had appeared around the cards in their hands, snaking around the paper like colourless flame. A moment later, the trio's heads hit the worm-eaten wood of the table with loud thuds that were completely drowned out by the roaring of the crowd. Hiding his smile behind his own deck of cards, Jadeite faded out of sight, disappearing from the gambling den.
Ami leaned forward on her throne, her slender upper body framed by the aquamarine loop of the huge Mercury symbol that formed the back of the opulent seat, and fixated her crimson gaze on the elderly warlock standing in front of her. Lifting her chin from the hand it was resting on, she asked "And you are absolutely sure about that? Snyder, can you confirm this?"
The white-and-red robed acolyte standing to her left nodded slowly. "A place of worship sacred to a dead god would, in fact, not be dedicated to any particular one."
"Meaning that any of the dark gods could use it to reach out into the world at will?" The red glow in Ami's eyes intensified, demonstrating her displeasure at that frightening thought.
"Not exac-" "To the contrar-" Both Snyder and the warlock spoke up at the same time, pausing to throw irritated glances at each other. The redhead flinched under the taller magic user's glare, and took a step back, inviting the other to speak first.
The purple-robed man spoke in a harsh whisper. "The Gods may only act upon places and people within this world they have a claim on. Not unlike yourself, Keeper. The mere presence of a weak point between this world and the next is no sufficient." Snyder just nodded along, voicing no objections.
"I can act fine even outside of my dungeon," Ami protested. The inflection she used made it clear that she expected an explanation.
"Ah, but you are physically present in this plane and can therefore bring your power to bear directly," the warlock pointed out, holding his index finger up and wagging it left and right, as if lecturing a child. From the perspective of the white-bearded men, Ami probably still counted as one. "I can only theorize that, should one of the Gods manage to get here, Its limitations would be similarly lifted."
The blue-haired girl's face lost some colour as she contemplated the most likely results. As far as she knew, Metallia's much-diminished presence was not confined to the dark void that Azzathra and the other dark gods dwelt in. That information made her nervous and scared for her own world. "So you both agree that one dark god cannot act through a temple dedicated to a different one?"
"Yes." "That is so."
Ami sank deeper into her throne, falling silent. The black fabric of her right sleeve rustled as it brushed over the crystal edge of the armrest. "I do have a piece of evidence that does not fit into the picture," she said, sounding dubious. "When I was pleading with the dark gods to remove the plague they had placed on my minions, Azzathra was able to reach out and destroy Malleus' temple despite having no claim on it."
The warlock shifted his weight from one leg to the other, looking as if he was going to say something, but didn't quite dare to. His eyes went up to the large metal gauntlet affixed to the ice wall above Mercury's throne and fit for the size of her water hand.
"Please speak," Ami said after watching him fidget for several seconds. "I am not going to punish anyone for telling me that I am wrong," she assured him, correctly guessing the source of her employee's unease.
"Indeed? Well, you, as the owner of the temple, did make your plea to all of the Dark Gods, correct? In that case, the place became available to all of them, if it had been unclaimed before. However, I am a bit at a loss to explain why none of the other Dark Gods would have prevented The Mighty Tyrant from wrecking the structure. They should have objected to him smashing their new toy, even if they never intended to use it."
"They did, I think." Ami remembered the angry, disembodied voices that had reverberated through the clammy air of the chamber, their indistinct words making the walls vibrate and plaster trickle from the ceiling. "I heard them argue about it, I think, but Azzathra came out on top."
"If I may venture a guess, the others may have backed down because the temple was not worth fighting over," Snyder pointed out when he noticed the faint beads of cold sweat that had appeared on Mercury's forehead. "It is not as if he can take on the entire other dark pantheon and win, or he would have already done so."
"That makes sense," Ami agreed. "However, I was under the impression that dedicating a temple to a dark god required the assistance of their priesthood and expensive rituals?" That was another memory from Malleus that had been thankfully dulled since her contact with the light gods, leaving nothing but impressions of blood, ominous chanting, ripping noises, and tortured screams, which were on their own already more than enough reason for the teenager to never think about what was involved voluntarily.
Perhaps her revulsion showed on her face, because the warlock raised a thin eyebrow as he answered "That is more of a buy-in. Naturally, no Dark God would want to provide benefits to a Keeper who wasn't willing to commit to the God's cause, and prove it by investing quite a bit of wealth and effort into flattering the deity in question." He revealed yellowed teeth as he grinned. "Of course, the clergy would put it into much more flowery and dignified terms if you asked them, but that's basically how it works. Right, acolyte?"
Snyder pouted as the dark mage sneered at him, but managed to bite back a sharp-tongued retort about how the Light didn't need to be bribed to provide help to the needy. Getting into a theological debate right now wouldn't help.
"All right." having reached a decision, Ami stood up from her throne. With a plop of displaced air, a purple tome as thick as her arm appeared before her, hovering with no support. The metal hinges of its covers creaked as it opened, paper rustling as pages flipped themselves. The blue-haired girl inspected the script in front of her, looking for a specific passage before placing a cloth bookmark. "Take this," she said to the curious warlock while the book slammed shut and glided toward him. "At the bookmarked section, you will find instructions on how to build a temple. I need it redesigned so that it will work with gold-based dungeon hearts. Please get together with he teams working on doing the same for the jail and hatchery rooms, their progress should be applicable to this problem, too."
The warlock caught the book easily and bowed. "Of course, Keeper. You have found religion, then? Probably wise in the long run." He turned away, his long robe sweeping over the mirrored floor as he walked toward the exit, past the slender ice pillars framing Merury's throne room.
Snyder's lips turned into a thin line as he watched the bowed warlock's retreating back until he was out of hearing distance. Stepping closer to Mercury's throne, he said in a frosty tone of voice "He is right, is he not? You are actually going to worship that Metallia fiend seriously!"
Ami wilted under his accusing stare. "That's not true! I just want to use her to my benefit!"
"That's exactly why Keepers worship dark gods! You are going down a dangerous path. Jadeite is a terrible influence on you! Turn back while you still can!"
The acolyte's passionate words seemed to cut directly into Ami's heart, resonating with her own fears. She felt a brief flare of anger at his accusation of Jadeite, but had to admit to herself that it was a justified one. The dark general, despite what she felt for him, was not a good person. Breaking eye contact, she looked at the ground. "I have to do this. There are people suffering whom nobody can help but me." The blue-haired girl didn't even notice that she had started to think of the trapped youma as people, having spent so much time surrounded by even worse monsters. "I just have to free them. Nobody else will!"
Snyder looked as if he had just bitten into a lemon. "Very well. I cannot find fault with your motivation or stop you, only beg you to find a better way instead. Your good intentions may well lead us all to ruin." Having spoken his words of warning, he turned on his heel and followed the warlock outside, leaving Ami to brood by herself.
|Previous chapter:||Next chapter:|
|Chapter 68: Seaworthy||Chapter 70: Sacrifice|