"Nooo! Not want into coffin! Not dead yet!" the goblin gibbered, arching his spine as he struggled in vain against the leather manacles that restrained his wrists and ankles, tying him down to the interior of the sarcophagus-shaped device. "Stupid troll!"

"Oh, shut up," Marda grunted, giving the coffin's lid a one-handed shove and letting gravity do the rest. With a loud, echoing bang, the container snapped shut, muffling the terrified cries of the slender, green creature trapped within.

"Marda! What are you doing?" Ami, who had just appeared within the brightly-lit side chamber of her laboratory, glared at the armoured troll, arms akimbo. Her frown deepened as she took in the pile of bruised and unconscious goblins close to the door. They were lying on the cold floor as if someone - Ami had little doubt who - had just dumped them there as like a bunch of inanimate logs.

"You wanted half a dozen of your best goblins in those coffin things." Marda raised her thumb, pointing in the direction of the grey metal containers arranged along the walls like beds in a dormitory. The troll crossed her arms, unimpressed by the angry red glow intensifying in the girl's eyes.

"After I briefed them! You weren't supposed to beat them unconscious, or at all! That was completely out of line!" Ami did not enjoy confrontations, and this one was no different. She hoped that the muscular troll didn't realise just how nervous she was. What was she supposed to do to punish her? She needed the troll leader's support.

"Eh, how else was I supposed to figure out which of them sucked the least?" Marda said, sounding bored with the argument.

"You could just have asked their instructor, Cathy!" Ami snapped as she knelt down next to the goblins and checked their injuries.

"Nah. I knocked her out first."

"What?!" Ami stopped arranging the sprawled-out bodies in more comfortable positions and looked up, eyes flashing. "What for?" Immediately, she focused on the blonde warrior's location and was relieved to find out that Snyder was already taking care of her bruises.

"She tried to stop me from testing the runts," Marda smirked, gesturing toward the unconscious goblins.

"That- that's it?!" Ami's face was flush with anger now. "I explicitly ordered you not to antagonise my other employees any more!" Clenching her teeth, Ami stalked toward the sole closed coffin and yanked open the lid, giving herself a few seconds to think. She's testing the limits of my tolerance. I have to punish her for defying my authority, but I can't risk her or the other trolls rebelling. What do I do? A look at the troll's smug grin caused her frown to deepen. Impulsively, she lashed out with her Keeper power against the armoured figure, slamming her back into the wall with a loud clang and pinning her down. "I won't tolerate bullying or insubordination," the blue-haired girl stated coldly. Marda cocked her head and rolled her eyes, despite the pressure bearing down on her. "You keep telling me to consider the long term," Ami continued. "You should take your own advice! Do you really think I will have need of your services forever?" Even when angered, intimidation was something Ami had to struggle with, and she had no idea if she sounded convincing enough. Thus, she simply kept staring into the troll's coal-black eyes, hoping that she was coming across as more threatening than she felt.

After a tense half a minute, Marda looked away first. "A fair point," the broad-nosed troll conceded, and Mercury released her telekinetic grip, turning toward the bathtub-shaped device in front of her.

"Me not disobey! Me not do anything wrong! No torture me!" The tied-up goblin within the re-opened coffin blurted out, shaking like a leaf at the sight of the Keeper towering over him with a dark expression on her face and eyes that shone a solid red.

Ami blinked and looked down, remembering his presence. "You aren't going to be tortured," she said, lowering her eyelids and taking a deep breath as she tried to calm down. "Don't worry, you aren't in any trouble. It's Marda who messed up."

"Then you free me now?" The large-eared creature asked, his expression brightening as he pulled demonstratively at his restraints.

"Actually, it would be better if you stayed like that for now," Ami said with a smile that she hoped would reassure the slim goblin. "Don't worry, you are not going to be hurt or harmed. You and the others are going to assist me with a very important experiment. I could untie you, but then I'd have to tie you down again once we get properly started." Noticing the captive creature's face fall, she quickly added "I'm sure you will enjoy the result, though!"

The dubious goblin seemed to think about what kind of 'experiment' could be performed with him lying down in a fairly well-padded coffin, restrained with leather bands, and wearing nothing but a loincloth. After a few seconds, his eyes bugged out as he remembered Mercury's reputation, and he started sweating. "Me is sorry, Keeper, but me think my girlfriend no like that!"

Ami first looked perplexed and then winced once she managed to follow the greenskin's train of thought. "It's nothing like that!" she blurted out, cheeks colouring as she heard Marda snicker behind her. The irritating noise cut off abruptly when the troll disappeared into thin air, evicted from the room by the blue-haired girl's magic. "This is all about making you a more powerful warrior." A metallic headband rose into the air from a wooden bench and drifted into Ami's outstretched hand. Her fingers glowed greenish as she cautiously put the device on the goblin's head, making sure to heal his bumps before she exerted any pressure. "I'll just wake the others first so I won't have to explain this multiple times. Wait a bit, please."

Marda's snicker faded away when the large troll suddenly found herself in a large and cold room close to the surface of the iceberg. She could see faint daylight seep in through the clear ice that formed the domed ceiling, enabling her to take in the unfinished appearance of the round grotto. Only the floor tiles were made of grey stone whose colour contrasted strongly with the glittering ice that formed the walls. The troll leader wondered if being locked into such a boring place was Mercury's idea of punishment. She didn't quite know what to think of the teenager yet. On one hand, she was a dungeon keeper, and a fairly intelligent and ambitious one to boot. On the other, she was polite and so timid she had to force herself to act authoritatively, if her body language was anything to go by. Her reluctance to mete out punishment at the slightest provocation was puzzling too, if not unwelcome. Still, the blue-haired Keeper's behaviour was something of an enigma for Marda, and she let out an irritated growl. Mysteries were bad. They could get you killed.

Slowly, the troll's eyes were adjusting to the poor lighting, and she could make out a row of six broad-shouldered forms lying on their backs at the opposite end of the room. Each of the identical figures was at least one and a half times as tall as Marda and gaunt enough that ribs were showing through the metallic skin covering their chests. With a start, the troll leader recognised them as the automatons that Mercury had been working on. While she digested that new information, one of the things started to stir, raising a huge, clawed hand into the air in a probing motion, like a mime trying to find his way out of an invisible box. There was a sound like a sword sliding from its sheath when another of the automatons sat up, moving as smoothly as a suit of master-crafted full plate mail. It was Marda's first glimpse of the whole construct, complete with head, and she took an involuntary step back. The dark silhouette with the v-shaped pair of horns could only have been modelled in the image of a horned reaper. If there had been any doubt about that, then the long scythe with a crooked blade that the automaton was wielding would have eliminated it at once. More of the automatons twitched and stirred like ancient behemoths waking from an aeon of hibernation. Horned, faceless heads turned to gaze at the chainmail-clad troll with pairs of bluish-glowing discs where their eyes should have been.

Ami strode through the room holding the six sarcophagi containing the restrained goblins, all of which were currently closed and occupied. "Are the screens working in there?" she asked loudly.

"Yes." "Yep." "This magical window is screen?" "Me no have window! All dark!" "View is strange!" "Mine moving!"

"No window?" Ami stepped toward the closed capsule whose occupant had complained about darkness and used her Keeper sight to see inside. Indeed, the interior section of the tub-shaped lid around the goblin's head remained an inert and reflective surface.

"Can't see!" confirmed a muffled call from within the container.

Ami walked around the device with her Mercury computer in her hand while she searched for the problem. "Oh, got it!" One of the electrical cables going into the side of the capsule wasn't plugged in properly and hissed from time to time as it threw sparks. No wonder it wasn't working if it wasn't getting power. There was no way a goblin had enough magic to activate a large scrying pool on its own. Or should I call it a scrying aquarium instead? After all, the thin layer of water was behind a curved plate of smooth glass that surrounded the goblins' heads in such a way that it simulated their natural field of vision. The shape was a bit of successful improvisation, as none of her library books had mentioned using containers other than bowls or wells, which could only provide flat, horizontal surfaces. The lore only stressed that the water had to be calm. I'll have to teach my friends the required spells and take some of the pressure off of Rei, Ami decided, even if she had to figure out how to transmit the prerequisite magical diagrams via Morse code somehow.

"Still dark here, Keeper!" the goblin reminded her, drawing her attention back to the situation at hand.

A quick shove, and the plug slid into its socket, re-establishing the connection. With a faint hum, the electricity-to-magic adapter hidden within the coffin-like machinery hummed to life. "Can you see now?"

"Wish me couldn't. Can see ugly face of stupid troll now!"

That was a 'yes' then. With the point of view of each screen permanently linked to the eyes of one of the reaperbots, the goblins should be able to see Marda, who was in the same room as the automatons.

"Why we chained up?" one of the goblins piped up, and Ami suppressed a sigh. That very same creature had asked that same question already a few minutes ago.

"So your real bodies don't move when you move the remote bodies," she explained patiently. "You wouldn't want to bash your head into the coffin lid, right?"

"Would hurt," the goblin's vacant voice agreed. Ami suspected that he would have forgotten her answer in another minute or too.

"Limbs feeling odd!" another tiny voice complained from underneath a closed lid.

"That's normal. You aren't only feeling your own limbs, but the headband is also making you know the position of your automaton's body. You should get used to it soon enough," Ami addressed the greenskin's concern. "Now, does anyone else have problems?" Nobody replied, and she nodded in satisfaction. "Good. Please try to walk around for a bit and get used to your new weight and size. Oh, and don't trip on the cables - never mind." The blue-haired girl was watching her pilots' progress remotely and winced when one of the large automatons crashed to the ground, the impact of its knee cracking a floor tile. "All right, don't get discouraged. In real combat, you won't have to deal with those wires." Under Ami's watchful gaze, the lumbering figures pulled themselves slowly to their feet and staggered around on wobbly legs. This could take a while, she pondered. It was a good thing she didn't have to power the automatons with gold during training. Speaking of which...

With a blue, snowflake-spraying flash, Ami appeared next to Marda, who had been watching the automatons take their first steps.

"Everyone, listen up!" Ami shouted, and the six metal constructs turned to face her, their movements already more secure than only moments before. "I think a little practical combat training would be best, given that these automatons are meant for fighting. Thus, you are going to spar with Marda here," she said, gesturing toward the armoured troll. Startled, the large creature swivelled her head to her right and stared at the Keeper.

"After all, they deserve a rematch," the blue-haired girl said with a wink before vanishing within a swirl of snow. Marda blinked rapidly at the six scythe-wielding behemoths stomping slowly towards her. If their faceless helmets had mouths, they would have been grinning evilly.

"Ow, that was brutal," Jered commented while observing the raging battle through a transparent ice wall. "Pass the cookies, please?" Without taking his eyes off the fight, the weasel-featured man reached for the plate that his girlfriend was holding, only to feel the last two snacks slip through his fingers and rise into the air. Puzzled, he looked up and spotted them hovering toward the extended hand of the grey-uniformed figure leaning against the wall in the back of the room.

Jadeite caught one of the pastries in a white-gloved hand and took a bite out of it. Before Jered could complain, metal rattled loudly in the chamber below. "Hmm. It looks like Marda can move pretty fast when she has to."

"I suppose that's one way to disarm someone," Cathy commented as a severed metallic arm flew past their observation spot, the scythe caught in its frozen grip spinning like a propeller.

"...hmm, stress factor of the steel not holding up," Ami muttered as she appeared out of a flash of blue, fingers nearly blurring as she typed away at the Mercury computer's keyboard. "Unfortunately, I didn't get a good angle on tha- eek!" Ami's head rocked back and her eyes widened when something round, golden-brown, and bumpy suddenly filled her visor's field of view, much closer than the expected battlefield.

"Cookie?" Jadeite asked, smirking as the startled girl focused on the pastry waiting a few centimetres in front of her nose, held by a white-gloved hand.

"Um, thanks. I- oh, they are circling again!" With a swirl of snowflakes, Ami was gone, reappearing at the opposite side of the battlefield, which offered her a better angle for recording the ongoing fight.

Shrugging, the curly-haired blond shifted his attention back to the entertainment in the arena-like room when a particularly tormented-sounding screech of metal against metal echoed through the chamber.

"Whoa, she shoved its own scythe up its..." Jered blanched slightly as he watched in horrified fascination.

"Unconventional, but it certainly stopped the bot." Cathy sounded impressed despite herself. "Good thing Mercury is taking note- Shit! Did she just hammer that last reaperbot straight through the wall?"

"Well, yes, but the wall was made of ice," Snyder pointed out, nervously backing away as Marda's stocky silhouette strode through the new opening. The last falling ice splinters still in the air pinged off of her chainmail shoulder guards as she followed her victim outside. A quick tug, and the already rising automaton sank back to the ground, bereft of its power cable.

"So much for that," Marda said, wiping away the blood that was trickling down into her right eye from a cut in her brow. "I do enjoy a mildly challenging workout from time to time. We should do this again some time, Keeper." She grinned crookedly at Mercury, revealing unnaturally white-looking teeth. It was not a friendly grin, and Ami understood its meaning immediately. "Is that all you can do?" it seemed to say. Ami's idea for punishing Marda had backfired, due to the young Keeper underestimating what the troll was capable off. With a self-satisfied smirk on her face, the armoured creature wandered off. Ami sighed as her gaze wandered over the battlefield littered with mangled steel.

"Scary," Cathy commented, blue eyes wandering from the automaton that was cocooned in its own cable to the one that was stumbling around without its head and bumping into walls.

"I'm not too impressed. She's stronger than we thought, but the Reaper could have done that. Much faster too." Jered's evaluation cheered Ami up a bit.

She nodded to let the wavy-haired man know that she agreed with his assessment. "That is true. The automatons may look like him, but they have only a fraction of his power. Besides, they were controlled by very inexperienced pilots."

Cathy shook her head as she surveyed the now quiet battlefield. "I think she was still holding back."

"Why? What makes you say that?" Ami asked, looking at the blonde woman with a sudden sinking feeling.

"She could have ended the fight nearly instantaneously by severing the power cords, but instead, she played around and got creative dispatching them. Someone who is feeling seriously threatened doesn't do that. I suggest that you investigate your footage very carefully."

"She's nothing to worry about," Jadeite said, puffing out his chest. "I can take her easily. So can Mercury when she doesn't have the deck stacked absurdly against her."

"Thanks." The blue-haired girl blushed lightly at the vote of confidence from her love interest.

"However, you should keep your water hand technique secret from her, just in case," the dark general continued. "That way, you can surprise her if she decides to turn on you." Jadeite proved that his evil grin was at least as sinister as Marda's, and with a start, Ami realised that it was infectious. One of these days, I'll be laughing maniacally without realising it.

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Chapter 80: A Call from Home Chapter 82: Invasion Planning

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