Sitting at the round table of her planning room with her companions, Ami was giving an account of her past battles to Marda, illustrating the high points by projecting recordings taken with her computer onto the room's back wall with the help of a crystal ball. She had to smile at the green creature's expression of childlike wonder when she realised at least part of the capabilities of the Mercury computer. She seems to grasp its usefulness much faster than Cathy, Jered, and Snyder did. However, to Ami's chagrin, the troll's face became longer and longer the more she heard about the girl's exploits.
"Keeper, if you wanted to raise my confidence in your ability to wage a proper war, then you have failed." Marda was resting her elbows on the wooden table and covering her face with her palms. "You tend to act like a hero, not a Keeper with minions at her disposal," the troll drawled. "Your victories so far? Using your personal power to lead from the front and hit enemies with some trick they were not prepared for."
"Hey! What's so bad about her keeping her underlings away from danger? She has always come through in the end!" Cathy came to the blue-haired girl's defence, slamming her fist on the table.
"Oh? And what would you call her first go at Zarekos, then? Testing the waters? A little setback?" The armour-wearing troll stared coldly into the blonde's eyes, while Ami looked at the floor at the reminder of her painful failure. "The only silver lining there is that it is an object lesson in what happens when she can't engage on her own terms, at a time of her own choosing, and with her usual tactics," Marda underlined each point by rapping her knuckles on the table, "utter, unmitigated disaster!"
"I'd call that more of an intelligence-gathering failure," Jered interrupted the greenskin's tirade. "If she had known more about the supernatural abilities and limitations of the vampires, they wouldn't have made it to the dungeon heart at all." The weasel-featured man's voice lacked any friendliness, but Ami suspected that this had less to do with the troll's criticism and more with the fact that she had beaten up his girlfriend.
"That doesn't matter!" Marda declared loudly. "It's indicative of short-sighted planning." Turning to meet Ami's faintly-glowing eyes, she continued "You tend to think on a tactical level, rather than a strategic one. You are a skirmisher and your inexperience running a proper war effort for any prolonged amount of time is probably going to get us all killed!"
"Don't you think you are being a bit harsh in your assessment? She hasn't used larger forces yet because it was not necessary!" Unexpected, but not unwelcome, support came from Jadeite, whose expression had darkened more and more while he had been sitting beside the troll.
"Oh, you are a good one to judge, 'general'. When was the last time you have led an army to victory? Well? I'm waiting." Exaggeratedly tapping her foot, which took some effort to be audible on the thick carpet, the troll grinned at the curly-haired blond with contempt.
The dark general's narrow eyes gleamed cold like ice as he balled his fists. "Why you-"
"Jadeite, don't." While Ami's voice sounded tired, her cheeks coloured a bit in secret pleasure at Jadeite coming to her defence. "Marda is right. While her-"
"His," Marda corrected, furrowing her brows.
"-while his style of criticism is very direct, he raises valid points. However," Ami's red-glowing eyes bored into Marda's, "not everyone here has my patience. Please try to take their feelings into account when you formulate your thoughts, Marda."
"Is that an order?" the troll challenged.
Ami hesitated for a moment, and then her lips turned into a thin, determined line as she nodded. "Yes. No more unnecessary provocations."
"Hm." Marda crossed her arms and turned away, pouting. Her gaze brushed over Snyder, who was sitting at Ami's left and nervously smoothing his bowl cut, hoping that the unfriendly and dangerous troll would continue treating him as if he didn't exist. The acolyte got the feeling that Mercury's newest addition to the team didn't like him very much, as she hadn't deigned to say a single word to him, not even a greeting.
"Very well. Let's talk about logistics instead. Given the capabilities of a dungeon heart, the most important question are your finances. How much gold exactly do you have in your treasury to even think you could operate your automatons at the predicted cost?" Marda's tone became more business-like, and she tugged the piece of paper and ink-tipped quill in front of her closer.
"I have a fairly steady income that is not linked to natural resources, but I am not willing to divulge the source." Ami answered. She wasn't about to share that she could just make gems and convert them to gold in her treasury. Not only would she never hear the end of pay raise demands, she also didn't know if changing gold prices would affect the dungeon heart or not. Magic seemed to have a bit of a mind of its own, so it wasn't impossible, even if it made no logical sense. But neither did a corruption effect that made the plants in images wither when nobody was looking. Let Marda think that the source of the wealth was some trading operation in another part of the world."Daily income varies, but at the current rate, if I spend no gold on anything else, it would be enough to operate around five to ten of my creations."
Marda's eyebrows rose. "That's quite a lucrative source, whatever it is, Keeper. How odd that your dungeon does not reflect your affluence. I think I even saw a few rats flit about. Oh well." She shrugged her shoulders. "Given that we will have time to build reserves before each battle, that should be enough gold. Are you sure your supply can't suddenly be cut off?"
"Very." Ami confirmed.
"I'll take your word for it. Now then, we will have to get you used to thinking strategically. Fortunately, I do have something that should help with that." Marda's armour clanked as she reached under the table and retrieved a leather bag, tied shut with a string. It rattled when it hit the table's surface, and Ami leaned forward in wonder.
Her eyes widened in surprise at the unexpected sight. "A board game?"
"It's called Kingdoms," Jered said, recognizing the small figures carved like castles, monsters, and soldiers that Marda pulled out of her bag. "It's a game of the nobility and also played in some taverns. I was never very good at it."
"No way to cheat, eh?" Marda asked, grinning like the cat that ate the canary as she positioned the pieces. "Now, winning requires careful long-term planning from the start, as well as some tactical skill. Let me explain the rules..."
Rows of goblins sat at the long tables of Ami's dining hall, chattering and snarling at each other when their elbows bumped into each other. The loud clatter of cutlery against tableware permeated the room, and so did the smell of fresh vegetable soup. In stark contrast to the loud and messy creatures, the trolls from the Avatar islands spooned out their bowls with great haste, quietly, and without spilling a drop. Stacks of clean-licked dishes piled up next to them, and still they .
"Boss? You look kind of down." One of the hunchbacked creatures sitting opposite of Marda commented. "Was the Keeper that disappointing?"
Marda muttered something into her bowl, not looking up.
"Sorry Boss, I didn't get that?"
"I said there is no way she never played that game before," Marda hissed, glowering at the underling pestering her, who completely failed to get the hint.
"So she won a game?"
"Five. In a row. Without losing once," a cheerful new voice intruded.
Marda's spoon bent under her grip as she gritted her teeth and looked up. "What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be eating with the Keeper?"
"More food for the kitchen." Cathy grinned, pointing her thumb over her shoulder at the wooden cart behind her, filled to the brim with various farm products and pushed by a team of four goblins. "You wouldn't believe how little of it would actually make it there if I didn't keep an eye on it." Her sheathed sword smacked down on a hand sneaking behind her back toward a large salt water fish, and it hastily withdrew as the struck goblin let out a wail. Others, who had been eyeing the cargo greedily too, pulled back, clearly impressed by the blonde's ability to sense what was going on behind her. They would have been disappointed to learn that she was merely watching their reflections in one of the water glasses.
"Bah. I maintain that she can't have been a beginner. She just tried to lure me into a false sense of security." Marda seemed unwilling to let the point go.
"You keep thinking that, then. Doesn't change the fact that she's still better at this than you." Cathy was very much enjoying seeing the armoured troll sulk. "Hey, at least you'll be reassured by the knowledge that she has this strategy thing down pat."
"There is a huge difference between winning at a game with clearly defined rules and winning a war," Marda snarled. "I was trying to teach her the basics. As she already knew them, this was nothing but a waste of time!"
"Whatever. You are just a sore loser." Cathy turned to leave, but the sudden weight of the troll's gauntlet on her right shoulder stopped her.
"Wait. There's something I want to know. How comes the Keeper is using goblins for so many menial tasks? Why isn't she using imps? Come to think of it, I haven't seen a single one around yet."
The cheerfulness left Cathy's blue eyes as she brushed the hand away. "It's a precaution. She isn't on the best terms with some of the dark gods right now, and therefore she's playing it safe."
Marda followed the blonde's retreating back until the kitchen doors swallowed her and the rumbling cart. "Hmm. There's got to be more to it than that. I don't like it."
"She's got food, and a lot of it, and no vampires. Good enough for me," one of her underlings mumbled with a full mouth, earning himself a glare from his leader.
"Yeah, anything's better than that island," another troll agreed, leaning closer to Marda. He didn't go so far as risking his hand by patting the female troll on the back reassuringly, but his tone was cheerful. "You worry too much, Boss. One of the warlocks told me that this place has a temple, so she can't be on bad terms with all of the Dark Ones. We'll be fine!"
Marda continued glowering into her soup, large brows furrowing deeper.
Seven carved dragon heads decorated the vast chamber, disgorging tamed, clear waterfalls from their open maws. Three identical pairs faced each other from opposite sides of the room, while the seventh, largest statue loomed high up in the back wall and twinkled down at the bottom with eyes that were fist-sized rubies. As if competing with their brilliance, the water running down the gold-panelled walls glittered like diamonds where it splashed onto balconies set in its path and disgorged a fine mist into the perfumed air, causing rainbows to appear around the bright lighting crystals suspended from the ceiling. Dominating the opulent place, however, was a huge mountain of purple silk pillows, piled so high that three men standing on the shoulders of each other would not be able to reach its top, and spilling outward so that barely any of the expensive carpets were still visible. In a depression at the top of the mound throned the ruler of this place - as much as one could throne when one was lying half-sunken in this softness and smoking intoxicating incenses from a silver pipe. Surprisingly, it wasn't the man's belly that bulged grossly outwards, but the huge muscles lining his arms and legs, cast into stark relief by the light of the two crystal balls floating above him.
Ignoring the moans and smacks from below, as well as the associated curvy bodies writhing around on several of the lower levels of his pillow pile, the man snapped his fingers, causing the dimmer of the two spheres to light up. A voice, distorted and tinny, piped up from the object. "Who dares - dammit, Morrigan!Would it kill you to put some clothes on before you call me?"
"Why, dear Alphel, does the sight of my magnificent body offend your poor, innocent eyes?"
The huge red orbs surrounded by darkness within the crystal ball narrowed. "No, but it makes me hungry."
"I don't mind," a dreamy voice that sounded like hundreds of insect legs scratching across chitin - which was exactly what it was - commented from the second crystal ball.
"What, you called Arachne too?" Alphel's crystal ball seemed to rotate as she faced the other orb, which showed something like a red-eyed, moving mosaic. "Hormonal as always. How do you do it without even having a body any more?"
"That's beside the point," Morrigan interrupted, stretching. "Actually, it was her who contacted me first."
"Yes," the scratchy, inhuman voice replied. "This is about Keeper Mercury. Keeper Midori must have contacted you too by now."
Morrigan just nodded, while Alphel let out an angry growl. "That peddler approached me, yes. Her information sounded outlandish, at best."
"I have, however, verified it. I found an iceberg wreathed in storms that has been converted into a floating dungeon not far from the location she indicated." Arachne's voice, consisting only of dry scratches, sounded smug.
"Huh? Wonder how he found that out," Alphel's deep voice sounded from her sphere.
"Arachne, get to the point. I was in the middle of something pleasant," the muscle-bound colossus muttered, gesturing below.
"Of course. While I'm confident that old 'Emperor' Zarekos will beat back her incursion, she'll always have a secure retreat as long as her swimming fortress exists. We can't have that."
"You want to attack the thing? Even without a portal, it's pretty huge and could hold a lot of troops. Whoever assailed it would be working under the same limitation and have to get through its traps, too. " Alphel pointed out.
"Which is, of course, why I propose that we do it together." A chorus of insects speaking in a sing-song voice was one of the more disturbing things that Morrigan had heard during his long existence. "She won't be able to fend off our combined forces."
"Let's assume that I was - hypothetically - willing to agree to this," Morrigan said as he took a deep breath from his pipe, "how would we even get our troops there? Even I don't have enough teleport-capable minions."
"We ship them in, you dolt. We don't have to destroy the dungeon right away. What's important is that is will no longer be a safe hideout for her." Alphel pointed out. "We'll just have to make our own icebergs, load them full of troops, and strike at her at the same time!"
"That's stupid. If we make icebergs, we should just crash them into hers and mop up the survivors," Morrigan said with a sneer.
"Spoken like a true worshipper of Azzathra. Brawn over brain."
The muscular Keeper's face reddened in anger. "Watch your tongue, vermin!"
"I don't have one, you fool," the cloud of insects in the crystal ball chirped mockingly.
"Children. Can we get back on topic? I do, in principle, agree that we should team up on that blue-haired brat, but the plan needs some more-" Alphel's voice stopped abruptly when the orb transmitting it shattered into a cloud of fine splinters that spontaneously combusted before they could reach Morrigan's skin. A moment later, Arachne's sphere shared its fate. The Keeper pulled back his extended index finger, blowing the smoke off of its fingertip.
Soft arms wrapped in black leather bands snaked around his chest from behind, and a female voice breathed into his ear. "Master? You didn't hear them out?"
"Any plan that involves either Alphel or Arachne is a bad plan," he said as his left hand wrapped around the woman's much smaller one. "I will crush this Mercury myself!" A squeeze, and sharp snapping noises came from his closing fist. The body draped around him went rigid from the sudden pain, and its owner moaned, half in agony and half in delight. "But for now, I shall indulge myself."
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