Ami sat in her throne, shifting left and right in order to find a more comfortable position on the large seat that was almost too big for her. With the way the armrests flared outward to mimic the crossbar section of the Mercury symbol, they could almost serve as desks. The blue-haired girl grinned for a moment as she played with the idea of storing books or sandwiches there, but that would ruin the dignified and intimidating impression it was supposed to evoke. The ostentatious piece of furniture was designed to draw attention to its occupant, something which Ami tended to avoid in normal circumstances. A small sigh escaped her lips as she leaned against the throne's rounded back, which was topped with two horn-like protrusions. Unfortunately, sometimes, appearances had to be maintained, in particular when dealing with youma. Idly, she worried whether she shouldn't change into her Keeper garb. The shortness of her senshi uniform's skirt felt as if it would draw attention of a different kind when she was sitting down. Ami decided that it didn't really matter, since the spacious throne room was empty right now and ready for a private audience. "Umbra. Appear before me!"
A poorly-defined volume of air in front of the throne went pitch-black, appearing as if all light had been sucked out of it. When the localised darkness lifted, it revealed a hooded figure that knelt in front of Ami. With her flowing black cloak and lanky build, Umbra resembled the vampires that haunted the continent. However, the blue skin and green eyes visible underneath the youma's hood made mistaking her for one unlikely. "Lady Mercury. I await your command."
If the youma noted the fine layer of dusty footprints, scratches, and dried blood that covered the mirrored floor and took away from the grandiose ambience, she didn't show. Here, the trolls and other minions had fought to prevent Zarekos' forces from advancing toward the reinforced door behind the throne, which lead to the critical parts of the dungeon, and the room still showed its battle scars. Ami wished she still had imps that would clean up those blemishes. "Rise," she ordered, keeping her voice gentle. "Please report what you found out about the trolls."
"As you wish." Umbra's voice sounded like a whisper, but could be clearly heard and understood. "I managed to infiltrate their complex with little difficulty, since I could just teleport past the alarm wards hidden almost everywhere. From what I was able to observe, I conclude that their daily routine is rather bland. They spend most of their time praying over tiny gardens that are distributed throughout the caverns, usually where light seeps in through cracks in the ceiling."
"Praying? Are you sure about that?" Ami asked. It seemed like an uncharacteristic thing for trolls to do. But then, so was farming.
"That was what it sounded like. They kept muttering mantras as they worked. It could be that they were using a kind of magic that I am not familiar with to make the plants grow. I don't think the ground would be able to support as much greenery if their efforts didn't have some kind of effect."
"Go on," Ami encouraged the youma, her face thoughtful.
"As I said, that's what they spend most of their time with. That, training, and patrolling their domain. At mealtimes, there is frequent grumbling about the size of the rations. I assume that their community is barely able to sustain itself, though apparently the size of the portions increased recently. I assume that is because two thirds of the inhabitants are working for you now."
"Two thirds? Did you count them?"
"No, I but for every occupied cot, there seemed to be two empty ones." The youma wrinkled her nose. "Filthy things they were, made of stone, straw, and rags."
"Did you hear anything about Marda or me while you were listening in? Does it look as if they are hiding something?" So far, Ami hadn't heard anything too alarming yet. Interesting, perhaps, but not alarming.
"The ones left behind envy those that you have taken into your service. Understandable, since they are living in filth and poverty. Your dungeon is a palace in comparison, my Lady. They resent Marda for ordering them to remain behind and tend to the gardens, yet there is nary any mention of rebellion. They seem resigned to their fate, as if they were terrified of the consequences of turning against their leader."
"Terrified? I got the impression they respect her," Ami said.
Umbra blinked. "That's the same thing, isn't it? They treat her like youma would treat any of the dark generals."
"That's not really- never mind." Ami wasn't about to let herself be sidetracked by explaining the difference, even if it implied that the creature felt the same way about her. The reminder that many of her employees probably feared her did not sit well with her. "So they are not hiding anything?"
The standing youma's stance did not change, but she exuded less confidence than during the first part of her report. "There seems to be a part of the island that I was unable to enter," she confessed after a brief pause. "There is a dead end tunnel branching off from one of the deepest caves of the islands. It leads to a mural that consists of geometrical patterns, which is made from a brighter stone than the surrounding rock. Sometimes, there is a strange phenomenon wavering in the air in front of it. I find it hard to describe." The youma clicked her tongue as she searched for words. "It looks a bit like a keyhole-shaped mirror, but transparent and surrounded with intricate streamers, and it billows as if it had been drawn on an invisible sail."
"Was it some kind of portal?" Ami guessed from the context.
"Yes," Umbra nodded quickly. "I watched two trolls disappear into it. I waited until they returned, and then touched the same stones and recited the same formula as they had. However, the portal wouldn't let me in. I simply passed through it as if it wasn't even there. I apologise for my failure."
"Don't worry about it," Ami quickly reassured the youma, who was bowing her head. "I can hardly expected you to be able to activate unknown artefacts. Can you describe the patterns on the wall?"
"I can do better than that," the relieved creature said and produced a scroll that couldn't possibly have fitted underneath her black cloak. Ami thought it was a roll of wallpaper at first, and in a way, she was right. "Here," Umbra said while she unrolled the paper, revealing a pattern in black and grey tones. "I used some charcoal and paper to make a print of it."
"Excellent." Ami's bright smile seemed to light up the room. "Good initiative, I like that!" The design reminded her of some of the warding patterns that she had seen Snyder draw, but these were unfamiliar to her. She found herself growing more excited. Unknown magic, especially magic related to travelling, was one of the things she hoped to discover on the Avatar Islands. Perhaps this discovery would be the first step in getting her home? She would have to quiz Marda about this eventually. "Umbra, did you discover anything else of interest?"
"Not much, my Lady, unless you are interested in the details of troll personal hygiene, or lack thereof. I noticed that in the absence of their leader, much of their discipline seems forgotten. They do not wash, they do not tidy their rooms, and they get into scuffles with the others near constantly, though it has never degenerated into violence while I watched."
"I see. Thank you for your report, Umbra." Ami dismissed the youma, who bowed as she disappeared back into the shadows. So Marda bullies her troops into submission? The teenager considered this unlikely. Yes, the chainmail-clad troll was probably strong enough to do so, but her underlings didn't act as if she ruled by strength alone. There had to be something else that unified them. Maybe that mysterious portal had something to do with it. And making plants grow by magic? So far, Ami hadn't thought of trolls as a species that was particularly adept at using magic, though Marda's warriors all seemed to know an acceleration spell, at least. Ami frowned as she let her eyes wander over the patterns on the scroll that the youma had left behind. Her fingers tapped an impatient rhythm on the stone of her left armrest. Perhaps the best way to sate her curiosity would be to ask Marda directly. What was her wayward underling up to at the moment, anyway? A brief moment of concentration revealed her and her warriors still running through dark, undead-infested tunnels. Ami's stomach growled, reminding her that she had not eaten anything since she opted to forego the spider stew. Marda could wait a bit longer, she decided. Food would become a problem if she didn't do something soon, since the farms needed a few days to get producing, and the corrupted sea around here contained almost no fish. Bringing in food from a settlement on the western continent was the first thought that came to mind, but upon further reflection, she realised that she had an option that was more in line with her current plans. At once, a goblin with bandaged fingers appeared before her. Shifty eyes darted left and right in surprise at the suddenly changed environment before they focused on the friendly smile of the girl on the throne. "Beastmaster! Prepare to unleash the rats!"
Attention everyone! In a few moments, the dungeon will brush against the bottom of the ocean. Everyone brace for impact and hold on tight until the shaking subsides! Ami's mental warning rang loudly through the minds of everyone on the iceberg, alerting them to the jolts that were about to come.
As expected, the giant floating chunk of ice shuddered and groaned when its bottom burrowed into the sludge covering the gently ascending slope underneath the waves. The ice jerked several more times as the perpetual storm above it pushed it mercilessly ahead, albeit at a leisurely pace. Within the corridors, goblins stumbled and held onto the walls while in the library, books clattered on their shelves. With a final jerk, the dungeon came to a stop, wedged in place against the bottom of the sea by its own weight, not far from the coast of the Avatar Islands. Just as planned. Ami rubbed her hands together in anticipation. Just because she didn't have the funds to create a new dungeon heart didn't mean she couldn't use her existing one to grab some land. With a quick teleport, she appeared within the deepest chamber of her dungeon. The place was nothing but a bare, round chamber whose ice walls flared blue with the reflections of her teleport flash. Startled by the bright light, the hundreds of rats trapped within cages stashed all around the place squeaked and whimpered as snowflakes whirled through the room.
"Keeper! Me brought them all, like you said!" the Beastmaster greeted, sitting on top of one of the cages and keeping her feet well out of range of the nipping snouts of the animals. "What we going to do?"
"I'm going to expand the dungeon to the mainland," Ami said as she walked to the centre of the room. "Your rats will help me claim the territory."
She raised her hand, and an imp appeared out of thin air, somersaulted, and flopped to the ground like a marionette with its strings cut. Its magical pick slipped from its limp fingers and clattered to the floor. Ami turned a few degrees to the left and repeated the procedure, producing another lifeless corpse. While the fuku-clad Keeper proceeded with creating more of the imp bodies in a circular pattern around her position, the Beastmaster slid off of her perch and approached one of the bug-eyed bodies to prod it cautiously with a toe. "Err, Keeper? Me not think this is working."
"Don't worry, I only need their picks," Ami assured him calmly. She raised both of her arms over her head and gestured, and all twelve tools rose into the air, circling her.
The watching goblin's eyes went wide. "Ohhhhh!" She cocked her head, and prodded the corpse once more. "I can have bodies, then? Feed pets, yes?"
Ami flinched at the suggestion and at the unbidden mental pictures it conjured up, and nearly lost her telekinetic control over the digging implements that were lining up in front of her. Still, rat chew was a better use of the corpses than just throwing them over board. "Okay, but do it somewhere where nobody will have to watch, please."
Ami waved her hands as if she was conducting an orchestra, and the floating picks started biting into the ground as if they were being swung by a dozen skilled miners. The sounds of ice splintering and cracking underneath their strikes took on a wet, muffled quality when they ran out of iceberg and dug into the ocean floor. The smell of mud and decay wafted up from the growing spiral ramp that Ami was driving into the earth. She would have to keep going deeper until she struck solid rock, and then she could dig a connection directly to the mainland with no fear of her tunnel collapsing.
"Please release the first cage full of rats," she ordered before floating upward to let the tide of grey-furred rodents pass. Excited to be free of their confinement, the animals scuttled around before diving into the newly dug-out passage. Programmed by their little backpacks, they performed a short dance on their hind legs whenever they encountered unclaimed territory. Each time, a few blue and white floor tiles formed on the newly-claimed area in a puff of smoke, expanding Ami's territory a tiny bit further. The teenager's lips curved upward in satisfaction at the rats' performance. As soon as her tunnel reached the former dungeon of the Keeper she had defeated earlier, she would release the rest of the animals and let them roam free so they could first claim the remaining infrastructure, and later the surrounding lands. The magic of the rooms wouldn't work for her incompatible dungeon heart, of course, but she could still recycle them to make a nice profit. Perhaps there would even be a library with some new books for her to pilfer before she sold it off. Most importantly, she would claim the local portal, which would allow her access to reinforcements, as well as to Underworld settlements where she could acquire food without all the logistical difficulties that inter-continental teleportation entailed.
Wielding her sledgehammer-like weapon like a golf club, Marda swung it a final time. The hammer's head struck the shrunken dungeon heart on the side with a loud pinging noise, ripped the damaged, head-sized artefact entirely off of its dais and hurled it against a pillar, where it burst into sharp-edged shards. Almost immediately, the remaining pillars groaned and shuddered as lightning arced away from the shattered sphere, striking them. Underneath the chainmail-clad troll's boots, the dungeon heart's dais crumbled. The tall creature kept her balance and raised her weapon in triumph as she rode down on the avalanche of crumbling stone, heedless of the lightning and billowing dust behind her. "Ha, yes! One more down! I am feeling better already!"
"Hey, did you hear that too?" One of the other trolls, his skin grey from the dirt drifting through the air, pointed into the darkest corner of the room. His neighbour blurred into action and threw his hammer, which whirred as it spun through the air. The weapon embedded itself in the plaster of the wall, its haft humming from the impact.
The thrower walked over and pulled it out with a jerk. "Nothing here. Must have been one of the ghosts outside, here's a crack in the wall." The loincloth-clad warrior shoved a piece of rubble into the gap to make sure that nothing would sneak up on them and spat on the ground, shaking his head as he looked at the ruined dungeon heart. "Feels like such a waste."
Marda glowered at him, baring her uneven teeth. "All of Mukrezar's hearts must be destroyed. That is not debatable!"
"Yes, my Lord," the troll grumbled, looking away and muttering something through clenched teeth.
Unfortunately for him, his leader had good ears. "What was that?"
"I said we should just slip away back to the Underworld and get away from this mess," the creature said, crossing his arms and throwing a challenging look in Marda's direction.
Her answering laugh was a loud, unmelodious noise that rose from the back of her throat.
"Hey, it wouldn't be hard now," the troll continued, feeling more relieved than insulted by her reaction. "Zarekos' traps have died with him! We could get to a portal, fix it, and slip away before Mercury or anyone else notices!"
The female troll's laughter ceased abruptly. "You are a fool. Have you forgotten how you managed to survive these last fifteen years? How long do you think you could last in the Underworld before being found out?"
"Hmph. We'd just go back to how we lived before. Much more fun that way. Nobody would ever know."
"Fine. Let's assume that you are not found out. You live out an interesting and 'fun' life. And then you die. And the dark gods won't have forgotten," Marda stated slowly, relishing the other trolls suddenly frozen expression. "They won't care that you betrayed them out of necessity. Mercy has never been one of their strong points."
The reprimanded warrior's face paled into a yellowish green as certain unpleasant truths flickered through his mind, and his wide mouth became a thin, angry line.
"Why the sour face?" Marda mocked. "You knew that you would never be able to go back when you chose to follow me instead of starving miserably. You are mine, and nothing will change that!"
The troll's knuckles went white around the handle of his hammer, and for an instant, it looked as if he would lunge forward and try to punch Marda. The moment passed, and he seemed to deflate, slumping his shoulders in defeat. "It is as you say, my Lord."
"I still don't see how that mantle will help us," another troll broke the awkward silence. "Why are we even out here looking for it? Shouldn't we fall in line and avoid drawing Mercury's attention? She's not going to be any more pleased than-"
"Quiet!" Marda let her right arm whistle through the air in a horizontal arc as she shushed the others, and looked up at the ceiling. "She has just decided to turn her attention this way once more. Hello, Keeper. I took the liberty of advancing your agenda for you." The broad-nosed troll's waving right hand closed into a fist whose thumb pointed at the ruins behind her. "While you are listening in, do you think you could spare me the effort of walking back on my own?"
When Eline woke up, her head hurt as if her brain was trying to burst out through her forehead. Cold, rough floor tiles pressed into the alabaster skin of her legs and belly, adding to her discomfort. She did not open her eyes just yet. Instead, her pointed ears twitched as she listened into the darkness and tried to figure out where she was and what was going on. The last thing she remembered was her brief and one-sided confrontation with the steel monstrosity that had fallen from the sky. Wait, there was one even newer memory: a hazy glimpse of the fiery clouds in the sky while ash and stone scraped her back and something strong dragged her across the wasteland. She was pretty sure that hadn't been a vampire, since her heart was still pumping blood through her veins. She must have been healed in the meantime, she figured, since her skin wasn't broken. It hadn't been a very thorough job though, considering her headache and the soreness of her muscles. Not that being healed was a good sign. Morrigan only did so for his most favoured minions, since he enjoyed seeing others in pain. Thus, logic stated that she had been captured by Keeper Mercury.
Eline dared opened her eyes. Keepers rarely healed their prisoners out of the goodness of their heart, in her experience, which meant that Mercury needed her strong enough to survive whatever tortures she had planned. A quick glance around revealed that she was alone in a barred cell, which was bare except for a bucket in the corner. The dark elf sat up silently, keeping her breathing even in order to avoid drawing attention, and tried to remember what she knew about the Keeper. Mercury's main claim to fame was defeating a horned reaper in single combat, even if Morrigan ranted often about how she had to have cheated. In Eline's head, the indistinct, blue-haired mental picture of the Keeper grew and gained bulging muscles, until it was nearly the equal of the reaper. What else did she know? Mercury had, according to rumours, had her way with the red-skinned beast against his will, which made her a terrifying and suicidal deviant. The red-eyed mental picture in the prisoner's mind gained a demented, lecherous grin. The Keeper's reported exhibitionist tendencies hardly mattered in comparison. Eline pinched the bridge of her nose as the brute in her imagination lost her clothes. Just great. She's basically a female clone of Morrigan. If the two were as similar as they sounded, then Eline's best option for getting out of this relatively unscathed would be taking off her bra and shoving her tits in the Keeper's face at the first opportunity. Her fingers played with the clasp that held the skimpy piece of clothing together, but retreated. Not out of any concern for her modesty, but because it was cold here. Unfortunately, the frigid air that could brush over her skin nearly unimpeded by the black straps of leather that constituted her outfit wasn't the most discomforting thing in this place. The horrible, offensive stench of bile demons wafted over from a cell that Eline couldn't see into, along with their deep, warbling voice.
"No, no. No. Nooo! Keep that away from me!" one of them whimpered, while the other started shaking so hard that Eline could hear the fat wobble all the way through the wall. This did nothing to put her worries to rest.
"So the rumours about Mercury were true!" the first voice continued through clattering teeth. "She really did that, and to her own minions, too! Truly, she is wicked to the core!"
"Shut up! Is just soap!" A squeaky voice interrupted, prompting a muffled sob from the bile demon, and chains rattled as if someone was trying desperately to get away. "Yuk, where bucket? Need more water!"
Eline could hear something slosh as light footsteps moved behind the corner. That sounded like goblins. What in the Darkness' name were they doing, trying to wash bile demons?"
"Stay away from me! Tell Mercury I'll talk," the second voice pleaded as poorly-oiled door hinges groaned. "I'll tell her everything I know!"
"Not her idea," the goblin said cherfully.
"Then why are you doing this?"
"We health inspectors!" four goblins proudly proclaimed at once.
"Also, we bored," one added. "Brugli not cooking in kitchen today."
"Are you even allowed to do this?" the first gravelly voice asked, desperate to find a way out of this.
"Asked Commander. She thought good idea. Even gave me key!"
"She hate filth," a different goblin confirmed. "Big ones all do. Chewed me out for silly thing like smearing earwax on tablecloth, even. Now you hold still!"
Loud splashes and maniac giggles, followed by scrubbing noises and howls of protest echoed through the cell block as the little creatures went to work. Eline wished them luck, and hoped that they would be very thorough. Bile demons were disgusting things, and anything that lessened their rotten smell was good in her book. Besides, the longer they were busy with the red bags of lard, the less likely it was that they'd come after her next.
A lost soap bubble drifted through the corridor outside of the dark elf's cell, and she watched it with great attention, hoping to catch a glimpse of her surroundings in the reflecting on the shimmering sphere. Even some information about the layout of this place could be useful if she ever got free. If Mercury let her minions have fun with her prisoners... A rattling noise in the previously unoccupied cell face-to-face with Eline's shook her out of her morose thoughts. The unusual sight of a large troll clad entirely in chainmail greeted her. The creature, sitting on the ground after an awkward landing, was holding a long-handled hammer in her right hand. She, for the armour bulged prominently in the chest area, surveyed her surroundings with a bemused expression, and didn't even have the good sense to look worried when she said, mostly to herself "Ah. I think I have just found the limits of the little Keeper's tolerance, then."
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