Ami sat in the living room, looking down at the wooden table before her and wringing her hands. "Do you think I overreacted?"
"All you did was dump her in a cell," Cathy said. The blonde was sitting sideways on her own chair and tapping the glass of water in front of her with her fingertips, making soft ringing noises. "If it had been up to me, I'd have done that a long time ago, for her attitude alone." The scar-faced woman took a long sip before continuing "But then, I'm not a Keeper. I'm sure other Keepers would have been much more merciful and lenient."
"Sarcasm aside, you made sure that everyone in a command position learned the spell for communicating telepathically," Jered pointed out, looking at Mercury while his fingers unconsciously played with his dagger-filled bandoleer. "If she wants her troops to break her out, they probably will. Justified imprisonment or not, this situation could turn volatile quickly."
Ami sighed. "I know. We should have some time to resolve this peacefully, at least. Most of the trolls have gone through the new portal to buy provisions in the Underworld. They won't be back for a while yet." Her Keeper sight revealed that the band of greenskins was in no particular hurry to complete their task, and she could hardly blame them for being sidetracked and wanting to spend their wages after living in complete poverty for over a decade. Even less so since their distraction worked to her advantage. Two bone tankards met with a loud clatter, spilling beer over the green fingers holding them before emptying the yellow liquid into wide-open mouths. Three more trolls were sitting on a bench, holding their own drinks and rocking left and right as they bellowed a bawdy song together with the other patrons. In a different establishment, the trolls were leering at dancers of various species shedding their clothes on stage. Ami's ears burned from just the few bits of conversation she picked up. The inebriated trolls were enthusiastically comparing the assets of the trollish dancers to those of Marda, in a way that would have earned them at least a beating from their leader. With a light cough, Ami continued "I just hope they don't forget to bring the food I sent them out for. In any case, they won't get in the way right now."
"A good enough reason to talk with Marda right now," Cathy suggested. "No time like the present."
"Would you mind getting a little closer to the door? Pretty please?"
Eline pressed her back harder against the wall, keeping well out of range of the probing appendages reaching for her through the metal bars blocking the exit from her cell. "Not a chance! Go away!"
Tserk rattled the bars a bit for effect and quivered as he slid across the corridor and toward Marda's cell. The chainmail-clad troll didn't even look up. "Don't even think about it." The appendages slithering in the direction of the female troll hesitated, then froze as three pairs of eyes focused on the warhammer resting at her side. The pulsating mass of tentacles let out a disappointed bubbling noise and slumped down into a flatter shape.
"Sooo," Eline said, looking at Marda, "is that thing just going to stay there?"
"Don't know. Don't care."
For some reason, the dark elf took the troll's grunt as encouragement. "Say, you are one of Mercury's minions, right? What did you do to piss her off?"
"Oh, some lip here, some insubordination there. I think what really ticked her off was destroying an unclaimed dungeon heart recently."
"What? You have to be kidding me! Morrigan would have you flayed for any of those offences! How comes you aren't in a torture chamber right now?" the dark elf shouted, almost taking a step forward. Only the presence of the tentacle monster lying in front of the cell like a guard dog held her back.
Marda shrugged her shoulders. "Eh. She doesn't have one. Seems a bit light on enforcing discipline, to be honest. I haven't even seen her slap anyone yet. I get the feeling that she isn't really enjoying most of the Keeper perks. She seems more suited for a warlock role, if you ask me. Always reading and tinkering with strange things when nothing else demands her attention."
"Why did she become a Keeper, then?"
"Nepotism, I assume. Some relative probably wanted her out of his hair and sent her over here to the Avatar Islands. She has a regular income that I haven't managed to track to its source yet - a stipend from some patron would explain it handily." Marda furrowed her huge brows, irritated at her lack of accurate information.
"Well, I wouldn't want to be in your place, anyway." Eline fell silent for a bit. "Err, do know what she has planned for me?"
At that moment, the conversation was interrupted by four annoyed-looking goblins coming around the corner, green skins glistening wet with foam and water. They were carrying cleaning utensils and zeroed in on the inert form on Tserk.
"You!" the foremost goblin yelled, pointing an angry finger at the wriggling mass with enough enthusiasm that water splashed out of the bucket he was holding in the other hand.
Three eyes half-opened, expressing mild interest. "Me?"
"You got slime all over floor! We just cleaned, too!"
"We got to clean again!"
"Yeah. Not fun!"
"Not my problem."
"Yes, is! We scrub you clean now so no more drip slime!"
Tserk let out a snort as the first goblin charged him with a maniac grin, holding soap in one hand and a wet sponge in the other. Did they really think they could challenge him? A closer look at the sullied mop that one of the rearmost humanoids was holding like a lance made him reconsider. They had just finished washing the bile demons with that equipment, right? That water in their buckets didn't look all that fresh any more, either. Yes, victory was almost assured, but it would be a thoroughly disgusting experience. Sometimes, discretion was the better part of valour.
"It fleeing! Get it!"
As the tentacle monster started to retreat, a blue flash lit up the dungeon, reflecting off of the slimy layer covering the smooth floor tiles where the creature had passed. A slender silhouette appeared, not much taller than the goblins, and veiled by the swirling snow in the air. None of the four lunging greenskins managed to react to the obstacle that had so unexpectedly appeared in their path in time. Stopping was never an option.
"Mard- Ack!" Ami had barely opened her mouth when something barrelled into her. Soap stung in her eyes as a gush of water washed over her, preventing her from bracing for the following bumps and jostles. With each goblin crashing into her, she felt herself slide faster away from the cell. Equipment clattered to the ground around her as she put a foot forward to steady herself, but her boots found no purchase on the floor that was slick with soapy water and slime.
Eline blinked as the girl who had appeared out of nowhere skidded toward the tentacle monster after colliding with the 'health inspectors', waving her arms as she fought to maintain her balance. The beast, while surprised by this development, did not seem displeased. It stopped and extended a few of its appendages to catch the teenager, serving as a kind of cushion. The dark elf snickered when the girl's upper body disappeared within the mass of pseudopodia. The snickers increased into full-blown laughter when she sank in up to her rump, which wasn't covered at all by that ridiculously short blue skirt in this position, and her legs started kicking as she struggled to get out. The dark elf didn't even notice the expressions of pure terror that had appeared on the goblins' faces as they dropped whatever they were holding and sprinted in the opposite direction. By now, the girl had managed to disentangle herself from the tentacle monster somehow - it had disappeared, at any rate. "Bwahaha, nice helmet, girl!" Eline pointed at the bucket put over Ami's head that blocked her sight. "Hey troll," she snorted, "who's that clumsy sorceress? She should try for a career as a comedian!" The pointy-eared woman's sharp eyes could make out a series of symbols along the collar of the girl's strange outfit when she raised both arms to lift the bucket off of her head. Let's see, a large black skull with horns - advanced necromancy, it seemed. Matching it on the other side was a black disc with eight tiny flames arranged around it in a regular pattern. A dark sun? Not a symbol she was familiar with. There was the elongated u-shape resembling a beaker that stood for a master alchemist, and the spiral for an initiate of space-warping magic. Eline nodded. She had seen the girl teleport in, and it explained what had happened to the monster hugging her. It looked as if there were even more symbols, past the shoulders and on the back, but the dark elf couldn't see them from her position. In any case, despite her unimposing stature, this young woman had to be a nasty piece of work if she knew that much magic.
"Oh. Her. That's just Keeper Mercury," Marda stated in a deadpan tone of voice.
"Wha- oh crap." Eline choked on her laughter, and her knees shook so hard that they clattered together when Ami lifted the bucket high enough that her red-blazing eyes became visible underneath the rim. They shone bright enough to remain visible even through the roaring pillar of water that appeared and enveloped Mercury like a swirling aura. The rotating column of water washed off the filth and slime and disappeared as abruptly as it had arrived.
Dripping wet, Ami brushed her blue bangs out of her face and shot a dark look in the elven prisoner's direction. Even if the scantily-clad woman couldn't pale because her skin was almost snow-white already, she looked as if she'd faint any moment now. Ami turned to Marda, her frown deepening. A moment later, both she and the armoured troll were gone, but the creature's weapon remained behind.
Eline's back slid down the wall as her legs gave out under her. Staring at the puddle of water outside in horror, she muttered "Damn it! Me and my big mouth!"
Possession was such a useful spell, but Ami had never expected that she would be using it to solve the comparatively minor problem of being wet and cold and not having time to get changed. Out of Tiger's eyes she glared at Marda, who was occupying the mentally damaged youma's cell for the moment.
"Well, this is certainly an upgrade from my previous quarters," the broad-nosed troll said while brushing her fingers over the padded wall curtains.
"Marda. I want some answers," Ami began without preamble, ignoring the mutter that sounded suspiciously like 'no doubt'. "What were you doing out there on the continent?"
"Removing temptation. I can't allow you to make the mistake of claiming dungeon hearts that I have to smash to lift my curse, can I?" Marda smiled with fake innocence.
"You should have consulted me first! I wasn't going to claim any of those dungeon hearts anyway! Not only didn't you have the authority to make that decision for me, going out there on your own was also dangerous!"
"Feh. I'm not one of your wimpy goblins or warlocks. Without having to worry about Zarekos throwing groups of vampires at me at once, I can pretty much do what I want. Also, let's be perfectly clear about something here." Marda's face went stony, all friendliness fleeing from her features. "I have all the authority I need to make my own decisions. My trolls are loyal to me, not you, and are all highly-skilled veterans. Your sorry band of goblins and warlocks would be no match for them. And even if you somehow did the impossible and fended them off, you would be left with almost no forces in hostile territory, rife for the picking by any of your enemies. So don't try to intimidate or pull rank on me. You need me, and we both know it. I cooperate because it benefits me, not out of fear."
Ami tried to hide her worry behind an emotionless mask. This wasn't going as she had hoped. Well, she had a trump card to play. She just hoped this worked. Failing that, she'd only have the option to resort to one of Jadeite's mind-control headbands, and that would end all hopes of trying to resolve this situation peacefully. Trying to sound confident, she said. "Are you aware that most of those warriors you are relying on as insurance are currently in the Underworld and nowhere near my dungeon?"
The female troll barked out a short laugh. "A temporary condition, at best. Besides, you wouldn't want them to leak that you only have a flawed dungeon heart, do you?"
Now it was Ami's turn to blink. "Flawed? What do you mean?"
"Oh, come on. It's obvious to anyone who is smarter than a goblin that you cannot make imps. The warlocks may not care as long as you pay their wages and keep them comfortable and busy, but others? Some creatures really like their servants, and who in their right mind would want to work for a crippled Keeper if there was a better alternative? If this gets out, you are finished." Marda allowed herself a smug grin as Mercury clenched her teeth. "Thus, you'll also have to excuse me for not believing you when you say you wouldn't love to get your hands on one of Zarekos' dungeon hearts. Why wouldn't you attempt to remove such a deficiency if you had the opportunity?"
"I got myself into more trouble than you could imagine for claiming dungeon hearts that belonged to other Keepers," Ami said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "There is no way that I would risk that again. Besides, you are assuming that I cannot fix that so-called flaw on my own. I could create a standard dungeon heart just fine if I cared to, but I have reasons not to. Anyway, this isn't about me. How did you even get to the coast that fast?"
"You aren't the only one who knows how to use travelling magic."
"That doesn't answer my question."
"I think it does."
Both stared at each other through the bars, crimson eyes meeting cold black ones. After a while, Ami asked "Does it have anything to do with that portal on your island?"
That drew a startled blink from the armoured troll, and she gripped the bars of the cell with both hands. "How did- Oh, whatever. So how does it feel knowing that the most potent military force in this place isn't under your direct control and can rapidly move about in mysterious ways, maybe even into places you don't want them to?" The troll's grin was back in full force now. "So why don't you let me out of here, and we decide to forget about this unpleasantness? Except for the part where you are stuck with me until my curse is lifted, naturally. I did nothing more than ensure that you kept to your part of our agreement, after all." From the expression on the teenager's face, Marda concluded that she was about to cave in.
A sudden inversion of the lighting in a corner of the room, similar to a flash of darkness, deposited a new arrival in the room and broke the tense silence.
"Lady Mercury," Umbra said, bowing her head and sinking to one knee. If it disturbed her that Mercury was possessing a fellow youma, she didn't show. "Please excuse me for listening in, but this creature is not forthcoming with the whole truth."
"Umbra?" Ami motioned the youma to get up. "What are you talking about?"
The hooded youma pointed her thumb at Marda. "Since you seemed interested in her and did not assign me any other tasks, I decided to spy on her after our audience. I learned some interesting things, at great risk. Someone even threw a hammer at me."
"Oh?" Ami glanced over at Marda. Did she look nervous all of a sudden? "Please go on."
"As you wish, my Lady. That troll was searching for something she identified as a 'mantle' within the ruins, turning her attention to the dungeon heart only as a secondary concern."
"Why, you sneaky little-" the prisoner growled, glaring at the black form of the youma. "I won't forget this."
"Mantle? What is she talking about?" Ami asked.
Marda pondered the question for a while. "Very well, since I stand to learn something from this as well, I shall answer. The magical mantle Zarekos was wearing. What happened to it?"
"Zarekos' mantle?" What does she want with that? "It was red with runes, right?" At Marda's nod, she continued. "I think he was wearing it when I attacked him, but I can't be sure. I wasn't too concerned with his wardrobe at the time."
"What happened to it?"
"I don't know, he just caught fire the moment we appeared over the ocean. Maybe it burnt?"
"I doubt that. It's more durable than that," the chainmail-clad troll dismissed the possibility out of hand. "It should have remained behind. He must have put some arcane trigger on it that retrieved if it got lost."
For a moment, Ami could hear the troll's teeth grind in anger, but the look of fury on the creature's face passed as soon as it had come. Its intensity was enough to make the young Keeper very uncomfortable, though. "Um, I'm sure we can retrieve it somehow," she said in an attempt to calm Marda down. "What do you need it for?"
"It's possibly a shortcut for removing my curse," the troll admitted.
"Well, I don't know whether Zarekos has customised it to better suit his needs or not. In any case, it's an opportunity I don't intend to pass up."
"I can live with that," Ami said, inclining her head in a shallow nod. But you aren't getting your fingers on it before I have scanned it quite thoroughly.
"Ahem, there was another thing," Umbra interrupted, sounding almost gleeful. Marda narrowed her eyes at the cloaked creature. "She mentioned that she and the other trolls betrayed their dark gods," the youma proclaimed with a smirk of triumph on her face, head angled so that only Marda could see it.
"Marda! Wait! WAIT! I have no problem with that!" Ami shouted at the verge of panic when she felt the troll's connection to the dungeon heart strain and fray in reaction to Umbra's proclamation. "Calm down! You have nothing to fear from me!"
"Explain!"Marda's bond with the dungeon heart hummed from the tension, hovering at the edge of ripping apart.
The redhead, dressed in white robes with a red overcoat, blinked in surprise when he suddenly found himself in a different location. Bereft of the chair supporting his weight, he succumbed to gravity and crashed to the ground. "Ouch! Mercury? What is the emergency?" he asked as he looked up her towering orange-skinned and green-haired form. Well, not all that orange any more, and the strawy green hair looked more teal than it used to.
"Snyder. Sorry about that." Ami reached down and took the acolyte's hand, pulling him to his feet. "Quickly, show Marda."
Puzzled, Snyder turned in the direction that Mercury was pointing at, and boggled at the sight of an angry Marda behind bars. "Well, err, certainly. What am I supposed to show her?"
"Just demonstrate your healing spells. Make it flashy, please." Ami could feel Marda's grip on the dungeon heart link slacken somewhat as she peered at the acolyte's hands with interest, but she would still be able to snap it at a moment's notice. "Umbra, you are dismissed. Please go to the command centre and assist the warlocks with spying on my enemies."
The youma wrapped herself in darkness and disappeared, obviously glad to escape from the bright light that had appeared around Snyder's hands. Ami also cringed away from the glow, which was triggering her flight reflexes. With an exertion of will, she resisted and squinted through the glare and saw Marda watch, cocking her head in wonder.
"That's enough, Snyder," Ami instructed once she was sure that the troll was no longer trying to break her minion bond. "Thank you."
"You are welcome. What exactly was the purpose of this, if you do not mind me asking?"
"I was just demonstrating to Marda that I have no problem with Light worshippers working for me."
Snyder suddenly looked nervous. "Ah, is it wise to divulge that to...?" he asked with a sideways glance at the imprisoned greenskin.
"Don't worry, I'm sure Marda won't hold it against you." Ami paused and watched the thoughtful-looking troll intently. "Since she is one too."
Snyder sucked in a sharp breathe in surprise. "Wha- she is? But she is a troll!" The acolyte moved his hands up and down, indicating Marda's figure, as if that was necessary.
"So? You are not a fallen priest, and you are still serving a Keeper! In a dungeon that has a temple to the dark gods, no less! That's at least as unusual!" the armoured figure shot back.
"No, well, what I mean is, why is a troll - wait, she is not the only one is she? Why would trolls worship the Light?"
"You'd be surprised at what the threat of starvation and vampires sucking out your blood can motivate you to do," Marda answered.
"What I mean," Snyder started again, "how did you even know what to do? I cannot imagine that the proper code of conduct is taught wherever you come from."
"Oh, it's not as if the rules are particularly hard to figure out," the troll sneered, waving her gauntleted hand dismissively. "Pray a lot and figure out what you'd want to do in any given situation, then do the exact opposite!"
"Ah, I'm not sure this is the right attitude to-"
"Anyway," Ami interrupted, heading off the budding theological debate, "is there something you want to add now that you know that I won't hold it against you, Marda?" The cell door creaked as it opened to let the troll out.
"Fine, I suppose since you already know about us, it won't hurt to tell you," Marda conceded. "The mantle I'm looking for used to belong to the Avatar. It was supposed to act like a mobile temple to the Light gods, protecting the wearer as he carried their power even into the deepest darkness. With such a thing, even the temples of the dark gods themselves could have been assaulted directly."
"But Zarekos was wearing that. Why didn't it slay him instantly?" Ami asked.
"He desecrated it. I don't know what benefits he reaped from it, and I don't particularly care. I was hoping to purify it and use it to cure myself."
"I see." Ami nodded, and her borrowed features twisted into a friendly, short-fanged smile. "Very well then, I'll see if we can't find it for you. I hope we can work together better now that everything is out in the open!"
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