"Dumat, what exactly is she doing?" King Albrecht leaned over the shoulder of his court wizard to get a better look at the image in the glowing crystal ball.
"My liege, would you terribly mind backing off a bit? That ermine trimming of your mantle tickles something terrible in my neck," the twitching magician stooped over the scrying device complained.
"Yes, I would. Your pointy hat is obstructing my view." Despite the elderly monarch's protest, he took a step away from the blue-clad wizard's chair. He opted to shove a swaying pile of books aside to make room next to the magic user. "You could have the apprentices tidy up your laboratory from time to time, old friend," he commented with a sideways glance at the cramped study, where bookshelves, alembics, and bubbling glasses left barely enough room to walk. His royal mantle had gotten caught twice on some corner or other when he had entered, for the Light's sake!
"Ah, you know how the youngsters are. Always giving a test tube here a shake and twirling a wand there, and then wondering why their knees suddenly bend backwards or their beard turned green. Besides, I know exactly where everything is that I need. However, to get back to your question," he peered deeper into the cloudy glass, "I think Mercury is trying to attract some vampires."
"Think some will bite?" the king said, grinning at his own joke. His face fell when he got a better look at the vision within the arcane sphere. A fly as big as a man, with a fanged maw instead of the mouthparts of its smaller cousins, zoomed across a blasted wasteland underneath a rust-red sky. A spray of crimson rained down from two tiny buckets strapped to its limbs. On the ground, the dark liquid almost blended in with the ashen tones, except where it painted red dots onto a white-and-blue-tiled path that ran straight like an arrow over the uneven landscape. "That's blood, isn't it? Not very subtle. Fresh, too. What kind of atrocities is she performing to get that much?"
Dumat waved his long-fingered hand over the crystal ball. "Show us," he muttered to the artifact. "See for yourself, my liege."
In the crystal ball, a large round trough appeared, with a red-eyed female silhouette looming behind it. Keeper Mercury herself, King Albrecht realised with a start. A bug-eyed little creature sprang from the villainess' hand, somersaulted above the half-filled container, and stopped in mid-air. Mercury closed her raised hand into a fist, cruelly squeezing the lifeblood out of the hovering imp. She flung the crushed corpse aside like so much dirt. It rolled down a short slope, where a few waiting goblins dragged the clump of mangled flesh and broken bones away.
"That's vile," Albrecht said, almost spitting. To bring a servant into the world, only to kill it the moment it came to life? Fortunately, his glimpse of the disgusting proceedings remained short, because the crystal ball fogged up from within. "Looks like she is onto your spying."
Dumat let out a long sigh. "She does not like being observed at all. The moment she notices me, she conjures up a mist that stymies my best efforts to see through it. It is incredibly frustrating."
"Perhaps he should leave the spying to me," a third voice intruded from behind the two elderly man. Faint notes of amusement swung in the spymaster's voice, belying the harshness of the statement. "My liege," the hooded and cloaked man said in greeting as he bowed to Albrecht. "Dumat." Another bow, less deeply than to the monarch. "I brought the dossiers you requested." With soundless steps, he navigated through the maze of shelves and magical trinkets, searching for a sufficiently empty spot to sit down on.
"Ah, there you are. You just missed Keeper Mercury making imp juice," King Albrecht said, having expected his chief informant's arrival. "Should that go into her file?" he asked with a questioning glance at Dumat.
The wizard rubbed his chin and frowned. "I don't think it's all that important. I find that her rats are a much more alarming development."
"Rats?" Albrecht raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, my King. I think it will be easiest if I show you." The wizard concentrated and coaxed his scrying glass to show a filthy pit in Mercury's dungeon. A moment later, the two observers were treated to another sight of the lifeless imp whose unfortunate fate they had witnessed earlier. Thankfully, not much could be seen under the carpet of feeding rodents covering it.
"Disgusting." Albrecht stared at the pile of grey fur and wriggling pink tails with distaste. "Now, why would the Keeper's puzzling choice to surround herself with vermin be a cause for concern?"
"This is not what I wanted to show you," Dumat said, frowning. He picked up a long tin wand from a stuffed, half-open drawer and whacked the orb in front of him. The picture within wobbled and switched to an outside shot. Tiny rodents hopped over scorched and cracked ground, pausing from time to time to perform a short dance on their hind legs. In their wake, they left a straight and even road covered with white and blue tiles. "She can make them do imp's work!", the magician said, drawing out the last two words to stress how important this was.
"Now that IS alarming," Albrecht concurred. "Not as worrisome as Arachne's damned spiders, though. Blasted pipe-crawling little monsters. I still can't go to the bathroom without fearing that one of those accursed things is going to jump at me from underneath again!" With a scowl, he turned to the spymaster, who had sat down on a trunk that nearly spilled over with papers. "Has Leopold found her newest hideout yet?" The cloaked man shook his head in the negative. "Too bad. Anyway, make a note to acquire more cats, will you? That will make my granddaughter happy, at least. She loves kittens."
"Noted," the spymaster confirmed. "Her use of rats seems consistent with her latest appearance in the Eastern Barony. Villagers reported a tide of rats before the debacle at the temple, if you remember."
"How could I ever forget the humiliation of a contingent of guards and an entire temple full of priests failing to stop a single tentacle monster?" Albrecht growled. "She's a sly one, that Mercury. At least now we have an inkling of why she wanted that particular creature back so badly that she was willing to let Leopold go for it."
"Truly a paragon of its kind," Dumat muttered. "To think we assumed that she was using it merely to sate her deviant appetites."
"So, how much of your time with the crystal ball did you spend trying to catch her sating said appetites?" the spymaster teased.
"None," Dumat sputtered.
Albrecht knew his old comrade to be a very honest man, who had great trouble squeezing a lie through his throat. The resulting higher pitch sounded much like what had just come from the man's lips. "Well, by all accounts, she is a pretty young woman," the king waggled his eyebrows knowingly at the wizard.
Dumat cleared his throat. "I don't like what you are implying," he squeaked. "Besides, I caught a glimpse of her true form once." He shuddered. "It's nothing to drool over."
"Oh?" Interested, Albrecht leaned in closer, and he could see his spymaster do the same.
Paper rustled as the cloaked man opened his notes to a certain page. "A true form you say? She answered that she was human when on trial, according to the copies of the recordings that I was able to acquire from the neighbouring country," the spymaster contradicted. "The divine truth detection confirmed her statement."
"A cunning deception. She is human, but only partly so," the white-bearded man crowed.
Albrecht nodded his head slowly. This kind of half-truth was one aspect where the magic could have problems with. "So what does she really look like?"
"She is much more demon than we thought, my liege," Dumat answered. He raised his hands to the sides of his head and made arcing motions. "She has horns, and greenish-blue tinted hair, coarse like the bristles of a boar. She is also taller and more muscular than the disguise she wears most of the time, with reddish skin and black stripes covering parts of her face."
A pen scratched over paper as the spymaster scribbled the new information down under the rumours section of his file. "Are you sure she wasn't just possessing some minion?" he asked.
"Please, what do you take me for, a wet-behind-the ears initiate? That was my first thought, but her face didn't change much at all." Dumat crossed his arms, allowing the glow in the crystal ball to dim and go out.
"That does not sound particularly like any kind of demon that I'm familiar with," King Albrecht said, rubbing his chin. "Hmm. See if you can't develop some summoning spell, specifically for her, will you? She might just be sufficiently demonic for it to work." He snickered inwardly at the thought of Mercury's face when she would suddenly find herself bound within a ritual circle, surrounded by a whole score of brave knights and battle monks. There was a reason why the demonic races were not particularly successful as Keepers.
"As you wish, my liege. I will need permission to study the forbidden archives, of course." Even as the court wizard, Dumat did not have the authority to freely study the more sinister lores, and demon summoning was as dark an art as it got.
"I'll make the necessary arrangements with the church," Albrecht promised. "Now, what about our main worry? Is Mercury trying to control the weather?"
"It's hard to tell, your Majesty." Dumat shrugged his lanky shoulders. "Where her domain expands, storm and flooding follows. For the most part, her lands are veiled with steam clouds resulting from torrential rain pouring into open lava. I cannot discern whether this is intentional or not."
"Hmm." Albrecht rapped his knuckles against the wood of the table as he thought. "Is this going to increase the corruption levels, and should we expect any repercussions over here?"
"Actually, the maelstrom of fire in the sky is at the faintest it has been since it first appeared. At this rate, it might even disappear completely. The skirmishing Keepers must be destroying dungeon hearts left and right." The spymaster looked up from his papers, and the "It vexes me that I have not been able to determine the identity of the other two primary Keepers yet." "I am more worried about my subjects doing something stupid," Albrecht said. "Since Zarekos' defeat, many of the refugees from the Avatar Islands have become restless, and there is talk in certain circles about returning home and reclaiming the land. Never mind that they'd have to contend with the remaining undead, the inhospitable wasteland, and whatever Keeper comes out on top." The King returned his gaze onto the inert crystal ball. "Who do you think that will be, Dumat?"
"Not the vampires, my liege. The red Keeper has been losing territory in each altercation with either of the invaders, and has no income. It is only a matter of time before he will either be destroyed or subjugated by one of the others. It will come down to either Mercury or the yellow Keeper. Neither is putting much pressure on the other right now, though it seems that Yellow is slightly more competent at claiming and holding territory."
"I see." Albrecht was the one who had suggested referring to the unknown Keepers by the colour of the tiling they used for their dungeons. "Very well. Let's check on the dangers closer to home now."
Ami's heart skipped a beat when the knowledge that her dungeon had been breached poured like a bucketful of ice water into her brain. She immediately knew where - one of the long, remote tendrils of her territory extending to the south was under attack by Arachne's imps. Again. This kind of interruption had become distressingly common over the last day. Couldn't she leave her in peace for a while? With exasperation, Ami took note of the assortment of spiders behind the bug-eyed enemy digger. The crawlers were covering the ground with thick, gluey webbing that would spell doom to any rats she sent to reclaim the area. An annoying and efficient tactic. With a sigh, the weary young Keeper yanked two of her reaperbots through space to deal with the problem. Both clanking automatons landed on the strip of blue tiles that the imp was just about to convert to the ochre yellow of its own master. With a startled squeal, the creature sprinted away, leaving the arachnids to face their momentarily disoriented metal foes on their own. Ami could almost imagine the gleeful expressions on the faces of her goblin pilots as they made their towering machines stomp toward their much smaller targets. A sudden movement behind her troops startled her. A mound of ash that had looked like all the others exploded upward, and a red blur lunged out of the resulting dust cloud. Almost too fast for the young Keeper' mental sight to follow, and certainly too fast for the automatons to turn toward the danger, a diagonal strike bisected the right of her reaperbots from the shoulders to the hips. Its metal parted with a surprisingly low amount of noise before the preternaturally sharp scythe that tore through it.
"Darn it!" Ami yanked the other reaperbot through space as soon as her mind caught up with the action, but it was almost too late already. The frightening weapon of Arachne's horned reaper whistled through the air, cutting a nick into the remaining automaton's shell just as she made it disappear.
Deprived of his victim, the rabid-looking monster opened his fanged mouth and bellowed his rage at the fiery sky.
Still shaken by the ambush, Ami gritted her teeth. If only the battle had taken place closer to her or her dungeon heart, then she could have targeted the murderous being with a spell. Unfortunately, the narrow path of territory that her rats had secured extended far outside of the effective range of her dungeon heart. The evil monster wasn't stupid enough to step on that strip of claimed territory, or she could have targeted it anyway. Ami wanted him gone, since he had disrupted her efforts to blockade Arachne's expansion again and again. With a swirl of snowflakes, she disappeared from her dungeon and reappeared high in the sky above the site of the battle, where she hovered in Tiger's body. Since the enemy creature was not on her territory, she couldn't keep track of it with her Keeper sight, but a quick sweep of the landscape with her visor located the white-eyed demon easily enough. An instant later, she hit him with a stored Shabon Spray Freezing that materialised right in front of him, giving him no chance to defend himself. Almost as soon as the prison of ice encased the scaly monster's lean body, it went milky and opaque from the sheer amount of fractures that spread from within. With a roar that shattered the encasing ice, the reaper stepped out of the cloud of shards - and right into the path of a giant fist of water that slammed into him like a freight train and embedded him into the ground hard enough to make cracks run through the dry soil metres away. For good measure, Ami hit the monster with a searing lightning bolt from her fingers that was bright enough to almost blind her. When the dark spots before her eyes cleared, the area around the empty imprint of the reaper in the soil below was glowing like embers. Still, the creature was gone, no doubt withdrawn by its Keeper. Her fists clenched in disappointed frustration. Well aware that she had just given away her position, she cleared away the remains of the destroyed reaperbot and directed her watery hand to go after the fleeing enemy imp. At least she would get something out of this, she thought as she teleported away with a flare of blue light.
The imp let out a high-pitched squeal of fright as Ami's animated hand released it from its grip and dropped it into a cage-like prison. Immediately, the stench of blood assaulted the tiny, brownish-green-skinned creature's nose. It ducked its head and glanced left and right with wide-open, fist-sized eyes. It wasn't alone in its cell. Three more imps, one in the colour of its master, two wearing the red rags of the hated enemy in the east, were huddling together and shaking like leaves. The trio was staring fixedly at something outside of the cage. Reluctantly, the new arrival turned its head and followed their gaze. It fell upon clean-nibbled imp bones being carried past by a pair of goblins. A few rats with red-stained snouts were dancing around their feet and jumping toward the grisly remains from time to time, squeaking hungrily. The imp whimpered, already imagining itself devoured alive by the rodents.
A buzzing noise that got louder and louder drew its attention to the right. A large fly with a sea-blue carapace descended from above, approaching through a row of pillars. The wind from its rapidly-beating wings almost toppled the captured imp. The insect carried two buckets like a honeybee would carry gathered pollen. It pulled into a shallow dive, aiming straight for a large trough whose contents were not visible from the tiny minion's vantage point. Never stopping, the insect dipped its legs and the buckets into the container and pulled up again, with its limbs painted red and its buckets full. Its wings fanned a sickening, coppery smell toward the prisoners.
The quivering imp didn't even follow the giant fly with its eyes as it swerved around and returned the way it had come, leaving a thin trail of red droplets in its wake. The worker had spotted something far more terrifying standing behind the blood-filled vat. The horned, red-eyed female with striped skin could only be Keeper Mercury herself, and she was hovering an imp upside-down over the grisly tub. The newest prisoner hadn't even noticed when it had scuttled over and joined the other imps in their huddle, but their body heat felt somewhat comforting. Not nearly enough. It quaked as the enemy looked straight at it when the bones of her unfortunate victim cracked and fresh blood splashed down into the trough. To the imp's horror, she flung the wrung-out body aside and approached, floating unnaturally through the air.
"You have a choice, my little prisoners," she spoke. "You can join me and serve me alive, or," she raised her thumb over her shoulder and pointed at the bloody vat, "you can serve me in death. Which will it be?"
The imps that had already been in the cell rushed forward, extending their hands through the bars toward the approaching Keeper. An imp's life was hard, no matter whom they served, and they held little loyalty to their employers. It came as no surprise that they eagerly took the offered opportunity to remain among the living. All but the newest arrival, who pressed itself against the back of the cage and let out a wail of deepest despair. It knew what was coming next when it felt its backpack grow hot.
Deafening thunder robbed Ami of her sense of hearing, and she found herself flung backwards as something in the cell with her newest prospective minions exploded. As if frozen in time, she saw parts of the metal bars zoom past her face, and then a bone-crushing impact drove the breath from her borrowed lungs as she crashed through the wooden wall of the blood vat. Everything went black.
"Mercury! Mercury! Are you all right?"
Ami felt a hand on her right shoulder, gently shaking her. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes. Cathy's face, framed by blonde hair, hovered over her, surrounded by nothing but various shades of blood-red.
The teenager in the body of a youma opened her mouth to talk, but could only produce a gurgle. With a disgusted cough, she spat out the cold blood that filled her mouth and tried again. "Eww!" Seeing the swordswoman's alarmed expression, Ami groaned and quickly added "Don't worry, it isn't mine. That would be blue."
"Oh." Cathy's eyes lingered on the walls coated entirely in red, much like the possessed youma lying in front of her. The heavy footsteps of the troop of reaperbots taking guard positions around the two females sent ripples through the shallow pool of blood covering the ground.
"Ow!" Ami winced as she tried to get up and her borrowed body protested. Reluctantly, she let herself sink back into the sticky red wetness. "Poor Tiger. I'm really abusing her body."
"Be glad she's tough and that it wasn't your real body instead," Jered said. The weasel-featured man was advancing only slowly, since he contemplated each individual footstep in order to minimise the contact of his shoes with the red liquid on the ground.
"Well, what happened?" the blonde wanted to know. "Were you attacked? This place looks like an abattoir that has been hit by trollish explosive!"
"Arachne got tired of Mercury stealing her imps," Jered answered in Ami's place, half-guessing. "So she hid a little surprise on that last one."
"Yes," Ami confirmed with another groan. "I really should have seen that one coming."
"Oh well, no permanent harm done. Jadeite said that youma recover from anything that doesn't kill them outright. There's other good news too!" Jered paused as he waited for Mercury to get up, but instead of pulling herself painfully to her feet with the aid of Cathy's offered hand, the girl simply levitated off the ground and remained lying in mid-air.
"Yes?" The bluish-green-haired girl directed a hopeful smile at Jered.
"The warlocks have found out what the vampire Keeper is up to. His minions are manning a giant ram and trying to smash through a huge fortified door in the depths of his dungeon."
"What's behind it?" Ami wanted to know, her interest piqued.
"The interior is dark, the scrying does not reveal anything. We'll need your help there. Are you feeling up to it?" Jered asked with a grin. "It's bound to be valuable."
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