Ami let out a sharp breath as Cathy's training sword clashed with her own, pressing down from above with enough force to make her knees buckle. White-knuckled fingers tightened around the handle of the blue-haired girl's two-handed weapon as she resisted the blonde's attempt to overpower her, causing a fierce grin to appear on her opponent's face. Leg muscles moved under the sweat-covered skin of the gym short wearing girl as she realised that she was not going to win this contest of strength, getting ready to propel her to the side. With a sinking feeling, Ami noticed the scar running down the female soldier's right cheek bend outward when her grin widened. Despite the warning, the young Keeper reacted a moment too slow when the weight of the blonde's weapon suddenly disappeared. No longer encountering resistance, Ami's blade shifted upward, giving her larger opponent the opening she needed. An unexpected impact just below Ami's ribcage drove the breath from her lungs, and a moment later, her backside crashed into the sand covering the arena floor. "Stop!" she shouted, putting a stop to this bout. Wheezing, she put down her weapon and straightened her white shirt that now sported a sand-coloured footprint directly above her stomach, slowly rising back to her feet. "That was more intense than usual," the teenager commented, frowning at the wooden weapon in Cathy's hands.
The blonde's grin turned sheepish as she followed the young Keeper's gaze and spotted the many dents and splintery craters marring the edge of the battered training implement. She let out a short, embarrassed laugh as she brushed her hair out of her face. "Ah. I guess I'm still a bit annoyed at Marda," she admitted. "I find losing to a troll rather humiliating, so I may have overdone it a bit." Seeing that the younger girl's weapon was in the same condition as her own, she added "I think that's enough for today."
While Ami wasn't the greatest fan of physical exertion, she could see the value of Cathy's insistence not to let the teenager's combat skills atrophy from disuse. Still, without the constant looming threat of an approaching duel to the death, she was always glad when their exhausting training sessions came to an end. At least it was good exercise, and working on her reflexes would also benefit her when she fought using her magical powers. "Thank you for the lesson," Ami said, bowing shallowly in her opponent's direction, and then summoned two towels, one of which she handed to Cathy. The blonde was neither sweating as much nor breathing as hard as Ami, but she was still in need of a shower.
"Thanks." Cathy stretched after drying her face and grimaced, grasping her left upper arm with her left hand. "Yeah, I overdid it. I'm feeling pretty sore."
"Me too," Ami admitted.
"Is that so? Then I have something that might help," a mental voice intruded.
Both girls turned toward the slightly ajar door, where what looked like a green and black lump of wriggling tentacles was spilling in through the gap. "Yes, Tserk?" Ami asked warily.
"Well, I figure that I still deserve a special reward after my outstanding performance retrieving your favourite minion, so...
Ami's red eyes widened, and she blinked sceptically as the tentacle monster presented its suggestion, while Cathy cocked her head and frowned at the monster, the corners of her mouth turning down in suspicion.
"Eeeeek!" A meaty thud followed upon Cathy's outraged scream when she kicked the sack-like main bulk of Tserk's body. Her bare foot sank deeply into the limp, slimy mass, which quivered like jello from the impact.
"What?" the creature blubbered, sounding offended and confused.
The blue-eyed blonde sitting on the white-padded bench right next to the twitching pseudopods took a deep breath, which loosened the towel she was wearing. Annoyed, she pulled it tauter around her chest and glared at the black and green monster, whose many eyes stared back, unblinking. "Don't touch me with those cold things! Did you dip them into ice water or what?"
Ami was lying a similar bench as the blonde and looked up from her book, blinking at the sudden violence. She rolled onto her side to face Cathy, resting the weight of her upper body on her elbow. Like the warrior, she was only wearing a towel. Despite having her own misgivings about the creature's idea, she thought that it deserved at least a chance after it had retrieved Jadeite for her. "Tserk is amphibious and well insulated against losing heat," Ami explained as she peered through the surrounding steam. "That's why its limbs feel cold. You should take a dip in the warm pool before we start," she said to the tentacle monster, who obediently slithered to the smaller of the basins and slid inside without making a noise.
Cathy kept glaring at the bubbles rising from the pool. "See that this doesn't happen again! And if you touch anything you shouldn't, I'm going to boil you and make soup out of you!"
"As if the Keeper would let you," the mental voice muttered, low enough that whether or not Tserk had wanted to be heard remained questionable.
"What was that?" the blonde bared her teeth at one of the eye-covered appendages that protruded from the basin like a periscope.
"Yes, commander," came the louder reply, sounding exasperated.
Barely mollified, Cathy lay down on the bench, looking up at the swirling clouds of fog and steam that filled the room and gathered most densely right underneath the low ceiling. The baths weren't particularly hot or damp, but Ami had created a few mist generators to ensure privacy just in case someone decided to scry on her at the wrong time.
"This had better be worth it," Cathy muttered. "Why again did I let myself talk into this?"
"Ahhh, this feels great," Cathy sighed in bliss at the sensation of strong appendages kneading her sore muscles. If she was a cat, she would have been purring.
On the bench next to her, Ami was still lying on her belly, with one arm dangling over the edge and the other flipping a page in her book, looking completely relaxed. Even the red glow had retreated from her eyes for the moment, leaving them their natural blue. She let out a contented sigh when one pseudopod applied pressure to just the right point between her shoulder blades, prompting her strained muscles to loosen up. "Tserk, where did you learn how to massage people like that?" Ami asked as she enjoyed the tentacle monster's ministrations. "That's not a skill that I would have expected from someone like you."
"One of your fairy prisoners insisted on teaching me," the large creature positioned between the two benches explained while its multiple tentacles continued their work. "There was some trial and error involved, but unfortunately, her sisters did not-"
Ami's head suddenly shot upwards when the light emitted by the warding bracelet around her left wrist startled her. "Someone is scrying on us," she said, sounding irritated, and sat up, brushing aside Tserk's tentacles and making sure that her towel was still in place. "Shabon Spray!"
"Gah! COLD! Don't do that!" Cathy screeched when the low-temperature magical fog mingled with the already existing steam, hiding the room's features with wafting banks of faded grey. Ami ignored the soldier and stared into the already glowing crystal ball that had landed in her lap, focusing on tracing whoever was spying on her. With practised ease, she discarded the useless perspectives, leaving only an image of the culprit in the cloudy interior. From the minor drain on her magic, she could already deduce that this were neither her friends nor Beryl. A local, then, and an enemy Keeper too, if the red-glowing eyes were any indication. As the image became clearer, she realised that she knew these haughty features, accentuated by pointy ears. "Princess Julia," she said to herself as she recognised the elf sorceress who had visited her ship for a short time.
"I see my minion made a lasting impression," the woman in the crystal ball spoke with a strangely monotone voice, startling Ami and nearly causing the surprised girl to drop the fragile orb. "However, you are currently talking to Keeper Midori."
"What do you want?" Ami asked, unable to keep some hostility from her voice as her body instinctively took on a more guarded stance. This was an enemy Keeper, after all, no matter whom she looked like.
"Right to the point, with no taunts and no banter? Did I interrupt something... fun?" The red-eyed elf woman shifted her head in the crystal ball, as if she was trying to peer past Ami. "Very impolite that, you know. And that fog takes all the fun out of watching. Keeper Morrigan's much more easy-going about that kind of thing."
"Um," Ami was at a loss for words as she looked at the mischievous smile that seemed wrong on elfin features entirely unused to that expression.
Seeing the look of confusion on the blue-haired girl's face, Midori continued "Don't understand? Well, I have pictures!" The Keeper in the brunette body snapped her fingers, and the perspective in Ami's crystal ball changed to a scene that consisted predominantly of flesh tones.
The teenager's eyes widened in surprise, and she quickly covered her eyes with her fingers, turning beet red. "Not interested!" she squeaked.
"No? I would have thought someone of your reputation would enjoy this kind of thing. Oh well." Midori's voice remained more cheerful than its lack of inflections should have allowed.
Peering experimentally through the gaps between her fingers, Ami noted with relief that the crystal ball was showing the face of Princess Julia again. Uncovering her eyes, she frowned at the picture. "Why did you contact me?"
"Because I thought you might want to know that I sold the information about your current whereabouts to Keepers Morrigan, Alphel, and Arachne," the other Keeper said.
Ami blanched, her face going from deep red to parchment white in the span of seconds."You-?Why tell me this?" This is bad. My security relies for the most part on secrecy.
"So you'll put up a good fight, of course. A one-sided battle isn't much fun to watch. Besides, you'll want to buy information on some of them from me sooner or later, so the first warning is free!"
"Information? You sell my location to my enemies, and then you expect me to be willing to buy something from you?" Ami let some of her irritation seep into her voice. Getting angry was better than focusing on the sudden, nagging worry that made her heartbeat speed up.
"If it's any consolation, I'm willing to sell out the others just as fast as you," Midori said, feeling no remorse at all.
Ami's jaw clenched and she took a calming breath. From a pragmatic point of view, not considering the opportunity offered by the other Keeper at all would be stupid. "All right. What are your prices?" she asked with some curiosity.
"Nothing as banal as mere gold," Midori answered immediately. "You see, I am a collector of sorts. I collect interesting creatures as well as those with exotic skills. From what I have seen so far, you do have an interesting sorcerer for whom I'd be willing to offer-"
"No way!" Ami interrupted, outraged at the suggestion that she would trade her employees like slaves.
A pout appeared on the brunette's red-painted lips. "Don't be so quick to overlook the benefit of accurate intelligence on your enemies, especially if it comes at such a low price. You can simply replace-"
"This conversation is over," Ami declared as she cut power to the crystal ball, which went dark.
"I'll organise the goblins so they'll patrol the ship constantly, and assign more warlocks to scrying on the surrounding waters," Cathy offered, all business as she hurried toward the exit. Her haste might have had to do something with the goose bumps that formed on the exposed parts of her skin due to the now frigid air.
"Thank you," Ami nodded. "That's a good start. I'll have the ship change course, too." Frowning worriedly, she slid off the bench and disappeared in a flash of blue.
"That was incredibly poor timing," Tserk, now alone in the baths, sulked. Three main eyes swivelled in the direction of the forgotten crystal ball that rested inertly on the bench Mercury had occupied moments before. A tentacle rose into the air, its end curled to resemble a fist. "Keeper Midori, I shall have my revenge!"
Time passed, but despite Midori's warning, no enemies had shown up over the following days to disrupt the dungeon's war preparations while it journeyed towards the Avatar Islands, wrapped in a perpetual thunderstorm. Ami was still nervous, but it was more of a general feeling of wariness, rather than the dread she had felt the first evening after Midori's announcement. During that night, she had tossed and turned in her sleep and woken several times from nightmares that featured assassins teleporting on board, killing her and sending her back to Azzathra. She had been sorely tempted to summon Jadeite as a reassuring teddy bear again - it would have been so easy with her Keeper powers, too - but the knowledge of how embarrassed she would have been in the morning helped her fight down that urge, if barely. With dark rings under her eyes, she had gathered her more intelligent employees in the throne room and inquired about possible security improvements. The alarm traps that Marda's trolls had suggested and later crafted had gone a long way to disperse her fears about being caught unaware and helpless by potential intruders. However, the fairly simple devices were not the reason why she was now standing on a catwalk overlooking a long, hot, and red-lit room.
One of the labouring trolls below looked up and spotted her, and his maw split into a wide, crooked grin."Keeper!" he shouted loudly in order to be heard over the din of hammers slamming down on red-hot metal. "Best forge ever!"
Ami smiled at the sentiment and waved a greeting. The greenskins approved of her new, electricity-powered furnaces that needed no back-breaking labour to keep the flames going hot enough, which also cut down on the fumes that would otherwise have filled the air with choking soot. Likewise, they were getting good use out of the electromagnet-equipped cranes that she had introduced. She hadn't come here to chat with the trolls, though. Her gaze swept over the assembly line, where hollow mechanical figures of black metal were slowly taking shape as skilled, muscular workers hammered out their component parts and welded them together. Ignoring the line of unfinished automatons, she continued seeking for her quarry. It didn't take her long to locate the sole purple robe moving around between the busy workbenches. Without hesitation, she disappeared from her perch and teleported in front of the black-haired warlock, who shielded his face with both arms when she suddenly appeared in front of him. "Hello Erasmus." She inclined her head in greeting and smiled apologetically. "Sorry for the inconvenience, but you need to stop the production of the Mark I gold-to-magic adapter immediately and destroy the already finished specimen."
The wizard stroked his oiled beard, which was barely longer than his nose. "Indeed? Is something wrong with it?" he asked, sounding worried. As the lead designer of the complicated device, he carried responsibility for the project, and his employer was a Keeper. Sure, she had been pleasant enough to work with so far, but... At least she didn't look angry.
Ami shook her head. "No, it's working fine, but I have decided to switch to a one-way power cell design," she explained, unfolding a number of sheets covered with schematics for him to see.
The man's eyes flitted over the diagrams and numbers. "Hmm, cylindrical, takes up around twenty percent more space than mine. Advantages?"
Ami gripped her right hand with her left and let them dangle down in front of her legs in the way she was used to. "Security. I don't want my enemies to get their hands on this technology. The contained gold is a secondary concern."
The papers blocking her view of the warlock's head rustled. "Self-dissolution mechanisms?"
"Yes, worked into the mantle."
"Power drain going below or above specified ranges once activated, exposure to air, exposure to light."
"Risky. This rune could be replaced by..."
As Ami continued talking shop with the wizard, she felt more of her remaining anxiety drain away. Her minions were competent - or at least motivated, in the case of the goblins, her treasury was filling by the day, and her preparations were even a bit ahead of schedule. Perhaps everything would work out well in the end.
Underneath the surface of the sea, the huge, torpedo-shaped body of a whale parted the waters, unimpeded by the vagaries of the storms raging above. Its horizontal tail fin propelled it easily through the greenish-blue darkness, and small bubbles surrounded the large animal like pearls. Its curiosity prompted it to advance toward the enormous shadow that hung in the water, over a dozen times longer than the whale. Faint lights shimmered within the enormous mass, gleaming and glittering underneath the ice and looking brighter than they really were by contrast to their surroundings. The whale approached, diving in an elegant arc past a jutting protrusion that shone particularly bright. The pale light that momentarily illuminated its skin revealed that the graceful aquatic mammal was in worse shape than it appeared at first glance. Thick veins pulsed under patches of skin that showed deep fissures, and the creature's left eye looked as if it had been filled with milk that was long past its use-by date. A few more tail strokes carried it underneath the iceberg, where it swam upwards until its back bumped into the uneven ice above. Thick air bubbles streamed from its blowhole before something clogged it from within. The inflamed flesh around the opening bulged and distended as a white and silky cone forced its way through, accompanied by blackish blood mixing with the water. The animal twitched and jerked, beating its fins for a final time and went still, except for strange squirming motions underneath its skin that looked as if worms were tunnelling through the cooling flesh. With a sickening ripping sound, the blowhole burst apart when the insect limb reaching through it toward the ice forced its way through, gluing the sticky silk attached to its tip to the frozen surface. With the dead whale tentatively anchored to the iceberg, the huge black spider living within the animal's mouth emerged through the widened opening in the whale's back, moving easily in the bloody liquid as it crawled across the giant corpse. Soon enough, more threads tied the deceased animal to the ice, but the spider was not satisfied with its work until the body had disappeared completely under an upside-down silk tent.
Far away, the malevolent intelligence that was Keeper Arachne cackled in anticipation as her minion secured the recently expired carcass to the unclaimed underside of her enemy's floating dungeon. The corpse would provide food for the thousands of spider eggs stored within the thin tunnels that had been driven into the dumb animal's flesh, consuming it slowly from within as they matured. That would take a while, of course, but the vermin-loving Keeper was nothing if not patient, especially if a plan didn't cost her anything aside from some attention now and then to send more food toward her growing underlings. Oh yes, Keeper Mercury would pay for her transgressions in time. Waves went through the flying cloud of insects that formed Arachne's body as she laughed while the ice dungeon continued on its course, its inhabitants unaware of the deadly stowaways lurking in the depths below.
|Previous chapter:||Next chapter:|
|Chapter 78: Strategy?||Chapter 80: A Call from Home|