At Ami's approach, the seven prisoners within separate cells turned their heads to look at her, some with interest, some with terror. The latter emotion was most evident on the faces of the long-eared dark elves, who had no doubt caught parts of Cathy's and Snyder's conversation. Since their skin was naturally as white as the arches of ice that formed the ceiling, it was impossible for her to tell whether or not they had paled at her approach. In contrast, the two lobster-red bile demons barely looked up, even when her small form obscured a torch on the wall and cast a long, flickering shadow over them. Both of the near-spherical lumps of fat and muscle were huddling in the far corners of their respective cells, careful not to sit in one of the drying puddles of soapy bathwater left over from their involuntary cleaning. Only one of the two met Ami's crimson eyes, and the wobbly demon let out a startled snort as she straightened so quickly that ripples wobbled over the ocean of fat girding her non-existent waist. Ami heard Jered let out a gasp of pain as his girlfriend tagged him in the side with a well-aimed elbow jab. He must have been leering at the dark elf females, who were wearing the same sort of uniform as the bile demons. It consisted of belt-like bands of black leather that covered the essentials and not much more, criss-crossing asymmetrically along the torso and legs. If the Keeper had ordered the plump bile demons to get into that outfit for any other reason than to evoke revulsion and nausea in his enemies, the blue-haired girl certainly did not want to know. Suppressing a shudder, she averted her gaze and inspected the more attractive dark elves instead. Clinging to their lithe forms, the outfit looked so daring and provocative that Ami could feel her cheeks heat up at the mere thought of wearing something like that in public. But Jadeite certainly would notice me if... Ami stamped down hard on that treacherous train of thought before it could fully form, her ears burning. To make matters worse, one of the dark elves had misinterpreted her prolonged inspection and was stretching herself in a way that highlighted her figure, arching her back as her tongue wetted her lips. Jered let out a whistle, which abruptly ended with another hiss of pain.
"Stop that," Ami demanded, mortified and exasperated at the same time. At least she didn't hide her face in her hands. That would have given the wrong impression.
The hairless elf gulped and stood straight, wondering why everything she did just served to annoy Mercury more. Eline's heart raced in her chest as those crimson eyes scowled at her. Did the Keeper remember her laughing at the mishaps with the tentacle monster? No, there was no recognition in her eyes. "O-of course."
"Now," Ami said, sweeping her gaze over the waiting prisoners."As those of you who were conscious at the time may know, I have already defeated your employer." Some of the elves nodded, but two of them looked startled, Eline among them. "Who was it, anyway?"
"We were working for Keeper Morrigan," the elf in the cell to the right answered eagerly, attempting to be useful.
"Morrigan." Ami repeated, but the name did not ring any bells. In any case, she would leave it to Cathy and Jered to question the captives more in-depth later and get all the details. "What you probably don't know is that I destroyed Zarekos first."
The wide-eyed chorus of disbelieving gasps was quite satisfying. "That's- we never had a chance, did we?" one of the prisoners whispered, sounding sullen.
"That makes you the remaining loose end." Now, Ami had the prisoners' complete and undivided attention. They almost didn't dare to breathe for fear of missing her next words. All of them broke into cold sweat as they imagined their possible fates.. In the case of the bile demons, the liquid exuded from their pores was a sickly yellow colour and smelled of sulphur. Ami hated seeing the fear in the prisoners' eyes, brought out by the knowledge that she could have them killed or tortured at a whim. She abruptly decided that maintaining her evil image was not worth making them suffer like that for no reason, and deviated from her intended script. Instead of going into a long spiel intended to make them fear for their lives (more), she simply asked "Do any of you have any useful skills?"
The prisoners were quick to grasp at the proffered lifeline, and erupted into a cacophony of loud shouts. "I'm an elite markswoman!" "Me too!" "Stealth and- ""Infiltr-" "Poisons!""Seduction!" "Thrown daggers and accuracy spells!" "I can put a bolt into someone's eyes at seventy cubits!"
Ami held up her hand with her palm facing outward in a defensive gesture, causing them to quiet down. "I am willing to hire you, on one condition." She looked at the bile demons in particular. "You have to wash and remain clean. Can you agree to that?"
The red demons looked at her in horror, and she could have sworn their horizontal horns had sagged upon hearing her condition. Neither of the two made a sound.
"No. Of course you can't." Ami inclined her head and shook it, and the two bloated demons disappeared with a slight popping noise. The air quality in the narrow hall improved dramatically the moment they were gone.
The bravest of the dark elf women raised a shaking hand. "Er, w-what did you do to them?"
"I got rid of them," the teenager replied in an impassive tone of voice, trying to pretend being the kind of person that they would not want to disobey. It was fairly hard to project an unfeeling mask, if she was honest with herself. A large part of her only wanted to provide them with some blankets, since their skin was starting to look blue from the cold. She obviously hadn't killed the bile demons either, only tossed them into the portal and given them a hard shove to help them through. If her prospective employees opted to misunderstand her, so be it.
"The rest of you are hired," Ami continued before they could change their minds. She handed each of the women a coin in a symbolic gesture, which forged their link with the dungeon heart, severing the tattered one that had bound them to Morrigan. "Cathy and Jered here will get you settled in. You will obey them as you would obey me. For your own safety, don't enter any corridors that are marked with a band of black and red chequerboard tiles along the walls. The traps within are indiscriminate." All the cell doors swung open at once, creaking as they did. Ami pointed at her advisers. "Now go and tell them everything you know about Keeper Morrigan," the blue-haired girl ordered before disappearing in a swirl of flashing blue.
It was payday, which was an opportunity to hold court. Ami's throne room was packed with the various creatures that dwelt in her dungeon, who chatted with each other to pass the time until the Keeper showed up. The different species stuck together in small groups that intermingled with the others only at the edges, and the team of five dark elves drew almost as much attention as the heaps of glittering gold arranged around the throne. The new arrivals had secured one of the tablets with Underworld snacks for themselves and stood segregated from the other minions, almost as if there was an invisible barrier between them. They returned any suspicious stares with glares of their own, but most of the time, they were just gaping at the sights. Especially the scythe-wielding goblins walking through the room with a proud gait were cause for some raised eyebrows. Four of the pointy-eared women had already taken the opportunity to slip into more concealing linen shirts and trousers, but a fifth was still wearing her revealing black garb. As a result, she was suffering less from the isolation that came from being the newbies, and more from the clumsy attempts of the usually aloof warlocks who tried to hit on her. Just as she was considering pulling her dagger and stabbing one of the more persistent old lechers in the kidneys, a bright blue flash from the throne drew everyone's attention. The conversations died down as Keeper Mercury appeared on her throne, clad in her black and golden ensemble, and took a seat in between the two braziers that rested on slender pedestals to both sides of her. She had arranged these lights in such a way that they illuminated the assembled masses while keeping herself veiled in shadows. A cheap trick to add an air of mystery to herself, but then, subtlety was not what her audience expected from a Keeper.
Ami's large eyes were two glowing red coals in her dark silhouette as she addressed her employees. "Hello everyone. I am very satisfied with your work for me so far, and thus, I am not going to torment you with a long and dry speech." Her attempt at levity drew a few cautious chuckles, but not many. The combination of the words 'torment' and 'you' had a chilling effect on most creatures when uttered by a Keeper. "When your name is read from the list, come to the front to receive your pay." She waved her hand, and a big-headed goblin holding a huge scroll hurried out of the crowd. He could read, and therefore, Ami had named him a herald for this kind of gatherings. Since the job came with a fancy red coat and a floppy hat, he was the envy of his peers. He took a deep breath, greedily sucking air into his tiny chest, and shouted the first name on the list. The named warlock stepped forward, bowed to Mercury, and approached the table in front of the stairs leading up to her throne. Jered, seated at this improvised desk, consulted his ledger and started counting coins into the dark wizard's hands.
Jadeite floated in the relative darkness just underneath the high ceiling of the wall, watching the routine procession of creatures walking up to the throne, receiving their pay from the shrinking heaps of gold, and returning to their places. He found the proceeding exceedingly boring, but then, he was used to pointless ceremonies from Queen Beryl's court. He almost hoped that Mercury's little surprise would backfire. In that case, he would have some excitement to look forward to.
Ami tensed when the last of the goblins turned his back to her and disappeared back into the masses, happily swinging his bulging leather purse. With no more intelligent denizens of her dungeon to pay, it was time for the second part of this gathering. She just hoped that this plan to ensure obedience and discipline wouldn't blow up in her face. Jadeite and Jered thought that it would work, but she felt less confident about predicting how Marda would react. The teenager sat up straighter to make herself appear bigger.
"Everyone," she said and waited for the chatter to die down. "I have an announcement to make!" The room was quiet now, all faces turned toward her and away from the snacks. "Now that all of you have gold in your pockets, you must be painfully aware that this dungeon lacks opportunities to actually spend it. Since we currently have access to a portal, I have decided to authorise visits to the Underworld. However-" Ami had to raise the voice to make herself heard over the sudden cheering, "we are still at war, and therefore, only five of you may go at the same time. Commander Cathy has prepared a list where you can apply for shore leave, so to speak. It will work on a first come, first served bases." She saw several creatures inch toward the exit immediately, but none of them dared disrespect her by dashing toward that list just yet. The next part would be the critical one. "Make sure that everything is in order before you leave. We wouldn't want any unauthorised escapades, would we?" Ami's gaze focused on a chainmail-clad figure in a sea of smaller, green-skinned humanoids. "Isn't that right, Marda?"
The female troll's head jerked up sharply, and her eyes met Mercury. The broad-nosed creature's brows furrowed, but not before Ami saw surprise flicker across Marda's features. The other dungeon denizens edged away from the singled-out female, who suddenly found herself in a spacious circle. In a show of solidarity, her warriors closed in, filling up the space around her. "Naturally," Marda answered after a moment, voice dripping with sarcasm.
"Oh, don't worry, I'm not going to put a stop to that. In fact, since you seem to like charging into unknown territory full of hungry vampires, ghosts, and other hazards so much that you went out to smite my enemies without consulting me first, I task you with doing so again," Ami said with false sweetness.
"Your kindness truly knows no limits," Marda drawled, drawing surprised gasps at her impudence from the onlookers. They were amazed to find that Mercury let her continue without some kind of retribution "Do you have a specific target in mind?"
"Use your own judgement," Ami said, "I'll tell you when to come back."
"Very well. I shall select my finest warriors and-"
"Oh, you don't get any help," Ami interrupted with the same fake friendliness as before. "Off you go!"
As the troll disappeared into thin air, the blue-haired girl watched the faces of her employees very carefully, judging their reactions. Most seemed stunned at this course of events, but not for long. The smarter ones nodded to themselves as the world made sense again. They certainly wouldn't want to be sent out into a barren wasteland full of ravenous undead alone. Calling the punishment something else just added insult to injury. Most of Ami's attention was focused on Marda's loyal warriors though. While they did not look happy, they also seemed less upset than they should. In fact, the blue-haired Keeper could make out a few contemptuous smirks with her Keeper sight that would have been concealed if she had only used her eyes. They clearly believed that she was underestimating their leader, or at least unaware that she could call up independent reinforcements from their island stronghold. Ami let out a relieved breath. If they thought that Marda had pulled the wool over her eyes, then they wouldn't rise up against her. Just as planned. The ruse wouldn't annoy or even inconvenience Marda much, but to the others, it would look as if she had just been sent on a suicide mission without a moment to prepare. Ami checked on the troll woman whom she had deposited at the very edge of her territory. She found it necessary to correct her assessment, at least about causing annoyance to the troll.
Water and fire were warring in the sky where Ami's thunderclouds encroached on the fiery cloud banks that circled over the Avatar Islands. Above her new territory, the black storm front wedged its way into the red-coloured clouds like an expanding scorch mark on a paper map. The border of her territory literally smouldered where the storm ripped deep gashes into the local cloud cover, exposing the burning gases raging within. Deep below that inferno, the torrential rainfalls had turned the ground into a syrupy, disgusting mess of soaked ash and mud. Marda's metal boots sank up to the ankles into the slimy muck with each step, while the gusts of wind were only too happy to fling the clingy dirt into her face. Caked all over with the grey and black grime, the troll resembled a moving statue. Marda demonstrated once more that she could sense when Ami was watching, and raised her right in a rude gesture, dramatically backlit by a brilliant bolt of lightning. She kind of ruined the effect though when she aborted the pose to cover her ears when deafening thunder followed the flash almost instantly.
Back in the throne room, the crowd was silent as it waited for the Keeper's next action. Ami folded her hands and looked at the warlocks. "Given your current preoccupation with the war effort, you can delay your weekly reports on your research progress until next week. Does anyone want to bring up some other issue?" She let her gaze wander over the rows of mismatched faces, but nobody stepped forward. "Good. Dismissed."
Ami waited one more minute after the underlings had filed out of the room before she allowed her rigid posture to relax. Her lips curved upward, turning her serious expression into a relieved smile. "That went better than expected," she declared, prompting Jered to look up from his ledger, and Jadeite to drift down from his observation spot up in the air.
"Well done," the curly-haired blond praised her efforts. "To be honest, I was a bit worried about your performance after seeing the way you handled hiring those dark elves. You didn't even make them beg for the privilege of working for you. However, you acted this out well. The giggling after you sent Marda away was a particularly nice touch."
"G-giggling? I didn't giggle. Did I?" Ami looked into the round, and Jered nodded slowly in confirmation. "Oh" Ami hid her mouth behind her hands. "I didn't realise. I think all the stress must be catching up with me."
"Don't worry about it. I think it scared the troops more than anything you could have said," Jadeite tried to comfort her.
Ami winced. "I see. At least I didn't have to hurt anyone." She was silent for a while. "Well, I suppose I should stop moping about how I don't really want to be feared, and put more effort into taking over the rest of this continent."
"That's the spirit," Jered agreed. "I think the warlocks are done with the sample scryings in the pattern you ordered, and..."
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