In the quiet command centre, Ami leaned over the stone table littered with various maps of the Avatar Islands. From time to time, her fingers danced over the Mercury computer that rested on the left corner of the polished plate, and enter some piece of data that had caught her attention. Occasionally, the handful of warlocks on active duty in the room craned their necks to throw curious glances at the wondrous device she was using. Paper rustled as she quickly flipped through a few of the note-covered sheets before she looked up in confusion. "Jered, have you seen the observation sheets with the scrying results from twelve and fourteen hours ago?"
The wavy-haired man standing to her right ducked and grabbed a few sheets that had slid off the table. "These?"
"Yes, that's them, thank you." Ami's index finger briefly traced some of the red dots jotted down near a half-moon shaped bay, and diligently fed the information into her program. On the wall at the far end of the room, the enlarged projection of the palmtop's display changed to reflect her updates.
"Got it," Cathy commented from behind Ami. The blonde was sitting on the armrest of the command chair, which provided her with a good, elevated vantage point. "Can you play back the changes in sequence again, please?"
Ami touched a few buttons, and three splotches of colour expanded on the grey-scale map like spilled paint. On the north-western coast, thin tendrils grew fast from the aquamarine blot denoting her own territory. They represented the narrow, straight 'highways' of land that she had her rats claim in order to cover as much distance as possible. She would backfill the rest later. For the moment, she wanted a fast transport network. Near the centre of the map, about ninety kilometres south of the ruined former seat of the Avatar, Skybird Trill, a near circular red spot expanded its blurry edges in a spiral pattern.
Cathy pointed at that mark. "All right. From the invariant rate at which that claim grows, I conclude that the number of imps is remaining constant. That would indicate that it belongs to one of the vampires who grabbed a heart for themselves."
"A brilliant deduction, Commander," Jadeite sneered, "as if the various ghosts and skeletons weren't a dead giveaway."
"That pun was awful," Cathy commented cheerfully. "Whoever it is should be working under the same limitation as Zarekos. I think that the guy to the south is going to be more of a problem." She extended her index finger, pointing at the expanse of green at the south-western coast, geographically much closer to the dungeon's position. "Not only is he using a similar expansion strategy to our own, he's doing it underground, and the rate is increasing. Whoever it is has gold."
"Hmm." Ami felt a shiver of apprehension when she looked at the point of origin of that sprawling green mess. She knew it well. It was where Zarekos had crushed her first invasion and destroyed her dungeon heart. She and her power had been banished from the land henceforth, and should she get too close to it, the realm of the dark gods dark realm would swallow her as they did before. Ami trembled. She had no desire to encounter Azzathra again. Which meant that any troops she employed there would be on their own, with neither Keeper transport nor support magic to assist them. What a headache. The only glimmer of hope in this disastrous situation was that the enemy dungeon heart had to be the one she had extensively studied to develop her own, for what this was worth. "We'll have to contain that one somehow. A direct assault is currently out of the question."
"Can we increase our own claiming speed for that purpose?" Jered asked, drawing several lines on the map that intersected the estimated future enemy expansion.
"Not without getting more rats," Ami informed him. "In fact, we will probably slow down, since the feral ghosts won't leave them alone."
"I'll see what I can do about organising better escorts for them," Cathy offered, "Do you think the Keeper to the south is that other Azzathra-worshipper that the elves talked-"
Blackness enveloped the room for an instant, as if the lights had suffered from fluctuations in the power supply. A deformed, black-cloaked body hit the table with a loud thump, prompting Ami to jump away with a startled shriek. The blue-haired girl blinked rapidly as she recognised the creature writhing sluggishly among the scattering papers. "Umbra?" On the other side of the table, Jered slid an unused dagger back into his bandoleer as he realised that they were not under attack.
"Ow! Ow! Dammit! Argh!" the youma groaned, and Ami's eyes went wide when she realised what looked so off about her spy. Her entire left arm was missing, including a part of the shoulder. Green blood seeped through the fingers pressed against the open wound and spilled onto the maps.
"SNYDER!" Ami was at the injured youma's side in an instant, hands glowing green with necromantic magic as she focused on stemming the flow of blood.
The redhead appeared in the room, looking confused. "Yes, what- oh!"
"This isn't working at all," Ami shouted in a near panic when her necromancy failed to affect the injury at all. Motes of magic coalesced into a roll of white bandages as she prepared to apply a more mundane solution. "Jadeite, is this normal for youma? Snyder, see what you can do!"
Snyder gently but firmly shoved her aside so he could get a better look at the injury. He grimaced almost the moment he caught sight of the rent flesh. "That is a cursed wound. It cannot be healed through normal means."
"How do we fix it?" Ami asked as she pried away Umbra's fingers so she could dress the large and lethal-looking injury.
"YARGH! Watch it, humans, that hurts!" Umbra's reflexive swipe might have been dangerous if it had not come in slow motion. Neither Ami nor Snyder had to even hurry to pull their hands out of the path of the clawed fingers.
"Normally, I would recommend blessings and attaching prayer strips to the stump to draw the black magic out. Given the demonic nature of the patient, I suspect that such a treatment would cause more harm than good," the acolyte replied to the teenager's question. "She also seems to be under a second curse, which slows her down. If it also affects her blood flow, she might very well have died already without it."
Ami put her hands to her mouth in fright, and immediately regretted doing so when she felt the wetness of youma blood still clinging to her digits. Hearing footsteps approach from behind, she turned her head. Jadeite was approaching with purposeful steps. "Jadeite! Can you help her? Um. What are you planning to do with that sword?" She eyed the sharp weapon that the dark general had produced out of nowhere with wary caution. Putting Umbra out of her misery was not a solution she was willing to apply, or even contemplate.
"I am going to slice the cursed part off," Jadeite explained. "Hold her down so she doesn't move and stand ready to close the wound."
"Wait, wait, WHAT?" Umbra screeched, redoubling her thrashing, which looked more like a gentle undulation at the speed she was going. Her emerald eyes darted around in their sockets like those of a frightened animal.
"We really should apply anaesthesia first," Ami said as she grabbed the curly-haired man's sword arm with both hands and held it down.
"Yes! Yes, you should!" the injured youma agreed, sounding fainter by the minute.
"Do you know any that work on youma?" Jadeite asked and stared into Ami's eyes.
The teenager had to look away and shake her head after realising that no, in this situation a life drain would be an incredibly bad idea. If it even worked on youma at all. "Snyder?"
"Ah, well, I suppose the general's suggestion could work, if his proposed cure doesn't kill her first," the acolyte murmured. "Unfortunately, my training did not include any spells appropriate for this particular situation."
Jadeite shrugged Ami's grip off and positioned himself next to the cringing youma. "There you have it. Make sure she doesn't move, and get ready to heal her!" He proceeded to raise the blade, which gleamed bluish in the light of the corrupted lamps on the ceiling.
Wincing internally, Ami reached out with her Keeper power, pressing Umbra onto the blood-slick surface of the table hard enough that she could barely shiver, let alone move. Jadeite wasted no time, and the weapon flashed downwards. A meaty thud followed, accompanied with a hoarse scream from the youma. Ami felt hot green blood splash her. She shuddered and suppressed the urge to vomit, or to waste time with brushing the warm liquid off. It would turn into dust soon enough, just like that slice of flesh and bone covered with green-stained bandages just did. She hoped. She put her horror at the procedure out of her mind by laying her hands on the fresh wound and concentrating on weaving the flesh together. To her relief, the necromancy took hold this time, and soon, she had to concentrate too much on sewing muscles together, mending blood vessels, and smoothing sharp-edged bones to think about how grossed-out she felt. "All done." Ami wiped the sweat from her forehead with her sleeve when the last of the wound had disappeared beneath fresh scar tissue and looked at her handiwork. Umbra's left arm, shoulder, and part of the collarbone was just gone, leaving her shape hideously asymmetric. A human would have been dead from the damage alone, but the youma was still alive and grinding her teeth together, sucking in air through her nostrils as she fought to resist the pain. "I- I am very sorry that you got injured like that in my service," the blue-haired girl said, hanging her head and wringing her hands as she searched for words of comfort that wouldn't sound trite.
"Don't be. She's a youma," Jadeite said harshly, stepping to Ami's side. She looked up at him questioningly. "She will fully recover from anything that doesn't outright kill her, eventually."
"Oh." Ami's mouth went round in astonishment, before turning into a faint little smile. Since Umbra wasn't maimed for life, the teenager allowed herself to enjoy the fact that she had actually saved a patient. Doing some good for a change felt great! Of course, it helped that the grime from the 'operation' was cleaning itself up by disintegrating into silvery dust.
"Thank you so much for your concern," Umbra gasped in pain and exhaustion as she frowned at Jadeite.
"Lip so soon after almost dying?" The dark general took a step forward, glaring darkly at the crippled creature. Ami reached around him and put a hand on his shoulder to hold him back and stop him from pressuring the weakened patient too much.
"I'm in - wheeze - too much - cough - pain to care right now!"
"Jadeite, is there anything we can do to speed up her recovery?" Ami's hand remained on the man's shoulder. Maybe she should remove it? Nah, he did not seem to mind.
The dark general scratched his head. "I'm not a healer. You probably just need to feed her a lot so her body has what it needs to regenerate."
"Feed? You mean with life energy? I have never seen Mareki or Tiger touch any normal food." Ami said, intrigued about learning something new, but also worried about the possible dietary requirements.
Jadeite chuckled. "Life energy? If that was the case, they would all have long since starved in the Dark Kingdom." He let out another amused chuckle. "Youma don't have to eat, though many enjoy it. They subsist on the ambient magic in the Dark Kingdom, most of which is radiated by our Great Ruler. Those youma who do have a preference for eating normally usually find a package of more concentrated energies in the form of the local fauna and flora and glamour it into a meal."
Ami digested this new information as she watched Umbra, whose chest was rising and lowering rapidly. "So if I give her normal food, it won't help her much, but if I copied the meal with magic and gave her that, it would strengthen her?"
The curly-haired blond nodded. "You have the gist of it. I think you also provide them with a huge snack whenever you possess them, but I'd advise against that in this case. The shape-changing side effects could re-open the wound. Besides, being in that body right now sounds like a poor idea." He smirked when Umbra scowled at him and let out a pained hiss. It stopped abruptly when Ami conjured a piece of fish and stuffed it in her mouth.
"Is that better?" the teenage Keeper asked as she watched the youma struggle to chew and swallow the food. "Actually, you have given me a great idea!" Ami let go of Jadeite and skipped over to her computer, where she called up her research file and typed a quick note. Cathy, who was positioned just right to catch a glimpse on the screen past the enthusiastic girl's back, could read a single sentence fragment. Her eyebrows rose up to her hairline at the words. Conjured alcohol - no long term side effects?
"What I'm most interested in is what happened to you, Umbra," Jered said, approaching the improvised operation table. "Where and how did you get hurt?"
Ami closed her computer and listened in. With all the excitement, she had almost forgotten to consider that question. She had the sudden, dreadful premonition that this was Marda's fault somehow.
By now, the youma had forced the lump of food down her throat and stopped twitching so much. "Was spying on that southern Keeper. Some of the deeper tunnels. Tried- tried lifting some gold from his treasury. Something jumped me from behind." She wheezed in pain some more. "Heard a whistle and dodged, but not fast enough..."
"Something snuck up on you?" Jadeite asked in disbelief.
"Yeah, rub it in," Umbra replied, visibly angry at herself.
"Is there anything else you need?" Ami asked the youma lying on top of the ruined maps. "If not, I'll send you somewhere more comfortable. The slowing curse should fall apart on its own soon enough."
"That would be nice, my Lady," Umbra replied and found herself whisked away into a soft bed from one moment to the other. On the drawer to her right, more of the pieces of fish waited for her on a plate.
Back in the command centre, Ami turned to the warlocks, who had been silently watching all the time, but made no move to interfere. "You saw what happened," Ami addressed them, "I want a thorough survey of that dungeon's lower levels. See if you can find any creatures that could be responsible for this."
"Yes, Keeper!" the purple-robed magicians confirmed and hurried to their seats. The window-like scrying devices set in the wall in front of them lit up. As the chanting of the warlocks increased, they changed their appearance from empty aquariums into true windows that showed foggy vistas of distant tunnels.
"Check on the accommodations and training areas you mapped during the earlier surveys, then start your search at the bottom," Ami advised. "Let's see if whoever is running that place has managed to attract something other than skeletons and ghosts by now."
"I got something," one of the magicians called, stroking his beard.
Ami hurried over, followed by the others. "That quickly?"
"I just followed the trail of blood," the gangly wizard answered, gesturing at the screen with a gnarled hand. He soon felt crowded when everyone leaned in around him to get a better view of the cavernous hall he had found.
"Charming," Cathy said, resorting to sarcasm to cope with the charnel house she saw. Dead, dismembered spiders were everywhere. They hung from the ceiling like macabre garlands. They stuck to the walls, impaled on meat hooks. Piles of them covered the floor, leaving only a thin, bloody path that led to the centre of the room. Perhaps more disturbing was the painstaking care that had been taken to organise this mess. The corpses were sorted by size and colour, arranged so that they would form a framework that drew the eye to the centrepiece of this hall of horrors: a throne constructed from the gleaming shells of the spiders. Their chitin had been cut into fine bands, polished, and assembled like a demented jigsaw puzzle to form a high-backed chair with massive armrests. It was occupied.
"At least you are not the only one who has problems with difficult minions," Jered said, trying to find some aspect that made the sights less disturbing.
"A reaper?" Ami asked, blinking several times before narrowing her eyes at the image. "That is a reaper, right?" She did not sound entirely sure of her assessment. The red creature reclining on its throne was wearing the right outfit and had long, straight horns all right, but it was not even half as broad in the shoulders as her former Reaper. He had been a bundle of bulging muscles, nearly as wide as he was tall. This thing was lean and sinewy. It was like the difference between a body builder and a sprinter, only much more exaggerated. For a moment, Ami considered that she might be looking at a female of the species. The bare chest, covered only by a chain that held together the metal pauldrons on the monster's shoulders, was flat and disproved that theory quickly. Unless even the females of that kind of demon did not develop breasts, Ami amended in her mind. In which case the only certain way to tell would be checking underneath the hoofed beast's loincloth, which she had no intention of doing.
"It's all teeth," Cathy pointed out. She came very close to the truth. Most of the monster's face was taken up by a perpetual, frozen grin that bared fangs that were as long as the entire rest of the skull. The eyes above the impressive maw did not glow yellow. Instead, two featureless white eyes like bleached bones stared into the darkness, lacking pupils and iris completely. Two slits instead of a noise wiped all remaining traces of humanity from the face.
Ami felt her hackles rise. Her Reaper had looked much more human and, well, reliable than that. Charismatic too, in the sense that he looked like a leader around which troops could rally. With his large, jutting chin he had - and he would have hated this assessment - looked almost heroic. In contrast, this one looked as if it had rabies and wanted to hunt you down and kill you.
"I think we have a pretty good idea now about what happened to Umbra," Cathy said with a glance at the blood-encrusted scythe that rested upright against the red demon's shoulders.
"With all these spiders, this has to be Arachne," Jered declared. More nervously, he asked "We are going to assault this place only after we have built up a massive army, right? I, for one, would like to maintain a respectful distance between myself and Rabies over there at all times."
Ami nodded. "There's really no point in attempting an assault with less than an overwhelming amount of automatons."
"Why does Arachne have a reaper? I thought they were almost extinct!" Snyder whined.
"Looks like she dug it up," Jadeite said, pointing at the excavation shaft that led to the beast's lair. A new and sturdy-looking steel gate blocked the entrance.
"Yes, some other Keeper must have imprisoned it there," Jered agreed. "Look at all the rubble underneath the corpses and the mess of gauges in the wall. There's nothing of the original masonry left. It must have been down there a for long time."
Ami thought back to her arrival in this world. "Um, do Keepers often bury reapers in abandoned dungeons?"
"It's more common than one would think, apparently," a wrinkly warlock chimed in. "Doesn't surprise me much, though. By all accounts, they have quite the temper and a tendency to lose it. More trouble than they are worth in many cases."
"I know that I'd try to get rid of one as soon as I no longer needed it," Cathy agreed. "Would you want to keep something like that around if you didn't really have to, Mercury?" Cathy pointed at the grisly room to underline her point.
The blue-haired girl didn't answer, since she was following some other train of thought. "So the Keepers just seal them away in case they still need them later?"
"That, sacrificing them would anger the gods, and permanently killing them off can be tricky," the warlock said. "In fact, there's a theory that they disappeared not because they went extinct, but because they were too bloody annoying and got themselves buried alive. Just think of the opportunities if that's true! The underground in old Keeper territories could be full of them, all just waiting to be discovered!"
"What a cheerful thought." Cathy's tone left no doubt that she considered the idea less than reassuring.
"In light of the news that the enemy has a reaper she can deploy almost everywhere she wishes on her territory, we need to re-adjust our strategy," Ami said, putting her hands together as she walked up to the throne. "It's possible that I need to interfere personally against an opponent like that, and I have to be in range of my Keeper powers to do so. Unfortunately, I can't safely leave my dungeon until the blood sample Zarekos managed to steal from me has been retrieved."
Cathy nodded. "Makes sense. Do you know where it is?"
"Yes," Ami's watery Keeper hand appeared, glittering with colours as it moved through the light beams projecting the large Avatar Islands map onto the wall. "I traced its location using some of my blood. It's right there!" The ambulant limb's index finger stabbed down into the middle of the red Keeper territory.
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