"You appear young, for a Keeper," Marda commented, looking down on the black-dressed girl's blue hair as she walked alongside her. Ami had to take two steps for each of the larger troll's long strides to keep up, and their combined footsteps echoed through the glittering ice corridors of Ami's dungeon. Loud clangs of metal weapons banging against each other or into the unmoving wood of training targets sounded from their destination.

Ami suppressed an amused smile as she remembered the wide-eyed expression on the troll woman's face when she first saw the Keeper's true form, momentarily shaking her unflappable façade. "It's a long and strange story. I'll tell you some other time. You wanted to see my troops first, right?" The double-winged door barring her way swung open as if on its own volition, and a wave of hot, sweat-smelling air washed over the two figures standing in front of it.

The doorway before them opened into a wide cavern, lit by electrical light bulbs in the ceiling whose glass had been twisted into irregular shapes by corruption patterns. Their dimmed brilliance cast a network of light and shadows over the room that reminded Ami of sunlight falling through a forest canopy, especially in combination with the rows of wooden training dummies that stood vertically like tree trunks. Goblins with big, triangular ears stabbed and swiped at the moving targets dangling from the turning contractions with their scythes, producing clinks when they missed and struck the dangling chains instead.

Marda blinked as if she couldn't quite believe what she was seeing. "Goblins. You are trying to assault the Avatar Islands with goblins."

Her voice attracted the attention of the loincloth-wearing minions, whose few pieces of armour consisted of large, spiked pauldrons and metal greaves protecting their shins. Heads turned toward the doorway as their owners momentarily forgot their creaking sparring partners. One of the short minions suffered for his momentary lapse in attention when a horizontal arm of his training dummy swung back and slammed into the side of his head, sending him sprawling to the floor among the snickers of his peers.

The troll let out a long breath, swallowing a much more caustic remark before reformulating her verdict. "Keeper, even if you use a horned reaper's standard equipment as their uniform, I seriously doubt that they will be much use in battle. Worse, even. Scythes. Really?."

"She calling us weak?" "Yes, I think she calling us weak!" Goblins weren't the brightest creatures around, but they were not deaf. Many of them bared their teeth at Marda and glowered at her. "We fight you! Show you who the wimpy one!"

"Poor threat assessment abilities, too. Please tell me you have some real troops elsewhere." A vein above the troll's right eyebrow was twitching as she turned toward the blue-haired girl, ignoring the posturing goblins as if they weren't worth her attention.

"Well, there's Mareki, and I hope to employ more of her kind soon, and I also have many warlocks working for me. Besides, the goblins-" Ami started to explain.

"Are useless! You could at least give them proper weapons." The burly troll waved her outstretched hand in the direction of the training soldiers, waving it as if she was trying to shake some dirt off.

"Keeper, we can hit stupid troll now, yes?" the most angry-looking of the goblins interrupted, while more congregated around him, nodding.

"No, don't fight," Ami said sourly, her patience sorely tested by her companion's lack of tact.

"What is going on here?" A blonde figure towering over the green crowd pushed through the throng of scythe wielding goblins, shoving those out of her way that didn't clear a path fast enough. Her face lit up with a smile when she spotted Ami's blue hair in the doorway. "Oh, hello Mercury. Who's that?"

"Cathy, that's Marda, the leader of the trolls I hired. Marda, this is Cathy, my combat instructor."

"A human?" The chainmail-wearing troll looked the scar-faced blonde up and down, her gaze lingering on the very short blue skirt for a moment. Her face became even more chagrined as she recognised the outfit as the same that possessed Mareki had worn. "That had better not be your uniform for the female staff, Keeper! "

"This?" Cathy tugged at the seams answered, and a mischievous grin appeared parted her lips. "I'll have you know that Mercury is very fond of them. You'll probably end up wearing one too sooner or later!" she teased.

"Out of the question. It looks more like something suited for dancing on a table in a cheap tavern than like suitable garb for teaching. Although," the troll hesitated and let her gaze wander over the gathered warriors theatrically, "from what I have seen, they would have benefited more from a table dance than from your instruction."

The blonde looked through half-lidded eyes down at the green creature who had just insulted her abilities, the skills of her troops, and Mercury's fashion sense in one fell swoop. "Great, we have a comedian. You really know how to pick them, Mercury."

Ami nodded. "That's a bit harsh, Marda," she said in a reproachful tone of voice.

"It's the truth. She sucks, and so do your troops," the large-nosed creature said unapologetically, meeting the glares of the growling and glowering crowd with no outward sign of feeling intimidated.

Ami was starting to seriously reconsider the value of hiring the troll leader. "Marda. They have all proven their usefulness to me already - which is more than I can say for you, so please stop insulting them."

"I am merely expressing my disappointed with the lack of combat-readiness of your forces." The troll's nasty grin revealed her teeth. "But if you want to test my skills, I could beat up this roomful of rabble for you. No problem." The boast did nothing to endear the troll to the goblins, and their grumbling redoubled.

"Could you all just-"

"All right!" Cathy interrupted Mercury's attempt to calm everyone down, matching Marda's sneer with an equally malicious one. "Let's got to the ring over there and see whether you can put your money where your mouth is!"

In the blink of an eye, the sand-filled square area delimited by ropes was surrounded by a rowdy mass of half-naked goblins who cheered and jostled each other. Ami kept in the back, well away from the bobbing scythes, fearing for her limbs. "Cathy, I don't think that beating each other up over-"

"Don't worry, I haven't had an exciting fight for a while. This should be fun. I'll make sure not to do anything permanent to her," the blonde said, pointing with her thumb at the chainmail-wearing troll.

"Likewise," Marda said, already walking through the crowd and climbing into the ring. The war hammer usually dangling from her belt rested loosely on her shoulder as she settled into a relaxed stance and waited for her opponent to draw her sword.

"Ready?" Cathy's eyes narrowed as she took a quick step forward, aiming a probing stab at the troll's chest to test her skill. With a quiet shing noise, the chainmail rippled as its wearer swivelled on her heel, manoeuvring out of the path of the blow. A slight shift in weight, and the creature was leaning toward Cathy. "Her left arm!" the woman thought as an open-handed blow blurred toward the elbow of her sword arm. Drawing on the speed granted by the enchantments that Mercury had bestowed on her, she managed to withdraw the limb before the lightning-quick attack could break her joint. Instead, the armoured gauntlet shrieked over the withdrawing sword's metal surface, knocking the weapon off balance. Marda's brow furrowed at the sudden quickening of her opponent's movements, and her dispassionate expression turned into a scowl. She dashed forward, bringing her gleaming hammer around in a diagonal swing.

"She's nearly as fast as I am!" Cathy's blonde hair waved as she ducked, momentarily obscuring her view of her opponent's weapon even as she brought up her blade to block the strike. The weapon rang like a bell as the heavier hammer smashed into it, and was given no time to fall silent as parries and counter-attacks were exchanged in rapid succession. Cathy's eyes widened suddenly when a heavy weight stomped down on her right foot, pinning it in place just when her latest dodge required her to move it. "Oh cra-"

With a loud crack, the troll's left elbow smashed into the blonde's face, dislodging a spray of sweat as her head jerked backwards.

"Cathy!" Ami' shouted in fright, and the blonde disappeared from the ring, reappearing in front of the blue-haired girl, who stumbled from catching the larger woman in her arms. "That's enough!"

"Ow," the female warrior said, lifting her free hand to her face and touching her nose experimentally. She winced and crossed her eyes to look at the red blood now coating her fingers. "I think it's broken."

"Please hold still for a moment," Ami asked as she wrapped her right hand in the green glow of her healing spell. Around the ring, the goblins were pouting and muttering in disappointment, both at the quick end of the fight and at Marda's victory.

The armour-clad troll was not even breathing hard. "Hmmph. Just your average mercenary in skill. Above militia, below trained knights. Nothing to get excited about, except for the unusual strength and speed. She's not a vampire, is she?"

Startled, Ami pulled her glowing fingers back when Cathy turned her head to roll her eyes at the troll. "Yeah, clearly I'm a bloodsucker. Notice how I have a heartbeat, no fangs, and my injuries don't heal on their own. The signs are unmistakable!"

"Well, you move like one," Marda muttered, crossing her arms. "Not a very powerful one of course, and you lack their reflexes, but still faster than a regular human could do without casting any spells."

"Her enchantments remain always active," Ami offered as explanation, taking the opportunity to patch up Cathy's nose before the blonde got tired of glaring at Marda.

"In any case, her instructions are pathetic. She's teaching them moves that would only be effective if they had similar physical abilities to her own."

"On my orders," Ami clarified as she wiped her blood-stained fingers on a towel she had summoned from elsewhere in the dungeon. "You didn't let me finish when I tried to explain to you what I was planning for the goblins. Actually, I think it's easier if I just show you."

Ami hadn't intend for her laboratory to look like a mad scientist's lab, but somehow, that was exactly what the spacious hall ended up like. Some clutter was unavoidable when she was working on several different projects at once, especially when their completion was dependent on the outcome of her warlock's research. Still, she prided herself on at least keeping her workroom tidy. Her precious books were neatly stashed away in their dedicated shelves taking up an entire corner of the room, all the tools were hanging from their places on the walls, and even the glowing balls of life energy trapped in a church organ-like line-up of test tubes were all properly labelled and arranged in alphabetical order. Her guests were looking suitably impressed by their surroundings, at least. Especially the lightning crackling between the coils of her transformator in the back of the room drew a few awed glances as its stroboscobic light briefly cast the strange silhouettes lurking within the darkness into stark relief. Marda and Cathy shuffled closer to each other, their bodies tense as their gaze as they took in the strange sights and noises. Ami sympathised with the feeling. To be completely honest, the room tended to make her uneasy too, despite her being able to see in the dark. Only a few islands of light stood out in the surrounding twilight, illuminated by spotlights in the ceiling aimed at the places where she usually worked. This wasn't her preferred room configuration, but it kept the corruption from forcing her to constantly change light bulbs. She would find out how this obstinate effect worked and deal with it, though. Oh yes, she would.

"Ack! Something brushed against my hair!" Cathy yelped, batting at the air above her head as wings fluttered overhead.

"Oh, sorry." Ami put her hand in front of her mouth. "I think the bats got out again."

"What do you need bats for?"

"Well, I'm trying to train them to - DON'T TOUCH THAT!"

Marda, standing in one of the lighted circles, stood hunched over cylindrical glass tube that contained a chaotic swirl of reds and blues, and suddenly felt herself jerked backwards before her hand could make contact.

"Please don't touch anything that I haven't declared safe. Especially not the trap components." Ami said quickly, letting out a relieved breath.

"That thing's dangerous?" Cathy raised an eyebrow at the innocent-looking device lying on the table.

"Not as such, but if it breaks - well, you probably remember what happened to Boris."

Cathy gulped and gave the tube a wide berth.

"Anyway, I brought you here because of this," Ami said, hoping to forestall further potential accidents by keeping the demonstration here short. Her open palm pointed at a low gurney-like slab of stone covered with a white cloth that hung over its edge. Her visitors approached, stepping into the light and looking down at the huge, vaguely human-shaped lump hidden underneath the linen.

"Dabbling with necromancy, Keeper?" Marda asked, a note of distaste swinging in her voice.

"Only for healing," Ami muttered as she gripped one end of the cloth and pulled, revealing the gleaming form resting underneath. "This has never been alive in the first place."

"Hey, I think I recognise that thing. Isn't that the Reaper doll? It looks as if it didn't know when to stop dieting," Cathy said as

Ami smiled and rapped her knuckles against the construct's metallic chest that looked as if had been modelled to look like a starvation victim, with the ribcage showing through the skin. "This is actually a new prototype. It's much more compact than the original, as I won't need to cram as many batteries inside once the warlocks solve a few more technical problems."

"Doesn't it need a head?" Marda asked, scratching her chin. "I'm not entirely sure how this relates to your goblins. It is much too big for a suit of armour, even if it follows their general body plan."

"Ah, that's what this is for!" Ami said, suddenly in a different spot of the room as she raised a circlet wrought from shimmering metal into the light and put it on her head, ruining her hairstyle in the process. In the blink of an eye, she was gone, re-appearing within another spotlight, where she put her hand on a lever protruding from the wall. "Please step back from the automaton, there may be side effects." Waiting until the two other females had heeded her warning, she jerked down the lever. "You know, this would be much more fun if I shouted IT'S ALIVE and laughed maniacally," she stated with a giggle, which earned her odd looks from the visitors to her lab. She jumped into the air and remained floating there, taking a lying position matching that of the inert automaton. When she sat up, the headless metal body on the slab mimicked her action, accompanied by the shriek of poorly-oiled joints.

"Impressive." Marda walked around the construct, which was content to remain in its seating position and let itself be inspected. "You want to give these replacement bodies to your warriors, and therefore, you are training them in techniques that will work with their new size and strength. However, how do you intend to power that many golems? Unless..." Her eyes wandered to the thick, spark-spitting cable emerging from the floor and going into the automaton's back.

"It's not really a golem, it's more like a remote-controlled artificial skeleton," Ami explained. "And the extension cord won't be needed for the production model. I'm still waiting for my researchers to develop a working gold-to-magic adapter, rather than the electricity-to-magic adapter this model is using."

"That's good. I don't think it would be a viable weapon with such an obvious weak point like a cord," Cathy said. "Just how strong will this thing be?"

"Less powerful than my personal armour in order to keep operation costs down. Besides, I don't expect the goblins' reflexes would be quick enough to handle full speed." Ami was still hovering in her air and folded her arms together, a gesture that her creation aped without delay.

"Operation costs? What exactly are we talking about here?" Marda asked as she thought about the logistical implications.

"A rod of gold about as long as my foot and as thick as my thumb for six hours of continuous operation, as an early estimate." Ami said after teleporting her notes over from her dashboard and consulting them.

The troll made a choking noise and paled until her skin was a light green colour. "That's..." She held her hands apart the indicated distance, looking at it and then back at Ami in disbelief. "That's..." She covered her eyes with her palm and shook her head. "Keeper, we really, really need to discuss logistics and long-term planning!"

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Chapter 76: Strange Trolls Chapter 78: Strategy?

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