Ami glanced through the padded bars into Tiger's comfortable cell and felt a twinge of guilt at the sight of the mentally damaged youma, who was lying on the bed and letting out a soft groan from time to time. One of the few imps Ami had stolen from the other Keepers darted inside at the noise. Following her standing orders, it fed a piece of conjured apple to the patient. The magically copied piece of fruit disappeared between the orange lips with a loud smacking noise.
Cathy cocked her head as she watched the spectacle. "She's so faking it," the swordswoman declared after a while.
Ami remained dubious. "Ah, I' don't think she has the mental capacity for deception."
"Doesn't take much intelligence. We had a dog who used to do that all the time," the blonde said. "You healed her up, right? No cursed wounds or anything, so she should be completely fine."
"I'm going to let her rest anyway," Ami decided. "Mareki will do just as well, even if I'm clumsier in that form. I'll make sure to be back before the enemy has a chance to react!"
Mareki's body floated back and forth in front of the scrying windows that lined the walls of Ami's command centre. Her burning, crimson-coloured eyes took in the various black screens targeting the interior of the vault as Ami tried to get a good grip on the situation.
"This is so embarrassing," an unhappy voice in the back of Ami's mind muttered as she caught a partial reflection of her senshi-uniformed body in the glass.
Instead of paying attention to the youma's complaint, Ami floated up behind one of the warlocks operating the vertical divining pools and looked over his head at the picture within. The man's shoulders stiffened as she drifted closer, and he quickly leaned aside on his chair so she had a better view. An enormous portcullis gleamed metallic in the torchlight. Ami assumed that the wide cavern in front of it had been dug out by imps only recently in order to make room for a ram. The siege engine was as long as a bus and looked as if it weighted about as much. Even as she watched, vampires and skeletons gripped the handles of the massive device and moved it forward, breaking into a run. Ami's eyes widened slightly as the flames of the torches flickered from the power of the impact, and small pebbles trickled from the ceiling. The ram bounced back, dragging robed bloodsuckers along, and revealed that the gate had merely been dented by the violent assault.
"They should just dig through the walls." Mareki declared from somewhere inside Ami's skull.
"They look like fortified dungeon walls," the young Keeper answered, accompanying the thought with a mental picture of sad-looking imps having their picks bounce ineffectually off of masonry engraved with demonic grimaces. "I haven't been able to test yet whether crystal hearts produce stronger walls, or whether they simply provide their imps with weaker picks. In any case, there's no getting through." Ami didn't miss that this implied an active dungeon heart somewhere within the sealed chambers, possibly with its own defenders. One not aligned with the undead who were trying to force their way in. She held out her left hand, and her clawed fingers closed around a crystal ball that popped into existence.
"Were the images sufficiently accurate for you to fix the target location firmly in your mind, my Keeper?" one of the warlocks asked with a sycophantic smile.
Ami ignored him and looked down at her crystal ball, which showed the ram being readied for another blow. Judging from the size of the dent that the previous one had made, Ami concluded that it would take hours for them to break down the gate. She would have no trouble locating the chamber, since the vial of blood stolen from her was inside. "Yes, I'm all set to go."
"Joy," the voice in her head muttered quietly, "I hope she won't break my record of being the only youma in her employ who hasn't been mangled in some way yet. Thank the Great Ruler for my tail that keeps her away from me most of the time."
Ami noticed the appendage in question swish around behind her, forcing one of the seated warlocks to duck lest it slap him on the cheek. "I'm going to be excessively cautious," she promised.
"Ack! You heard that? I meant no disrespect, my Lady! I'll try to think quieter from now on!"
Ami could feel the consciousness of the youma curl up into a ball that radiated nervousness and worry. As far as she could tell, it had just occurred to Mareki that she should definitely not think about anything that she didn't want her current employer to know, with predictable success.
"Sorry for the inconvenience, but you are my only choice right now, Ami apologised, trying to distract her. She didn't really want to know that one of the trolls reminded the youma of an old boyfriend, and she already knew that Mareki didn't do much more than hanging around and being lazy all day.
"How so, if I may ask? You have lots of other minions."
"They explode if I try to use a Dark Kingdom style teleport while in their bodies. They simply aren't conditioned the right way to deal with that power. With Umbra and Tiger hurt, you remain as the only available option."
'"That's not true, you know,' Mareki contradicted. "General Jadeite is a perfectly viable alternative!"
"What? I couldn't! That would be- well- " Ami blurted out in her mind, feeling blood rush to her cheeks.
"Mercury, are you all right?" Jered asked, eyeing the whitening knuckles around Ami's grip on the crystal ball curiously.
"F-fine." Ami took a deep breath, glad that Mareki wasn't asking any further questions. From the corner of her mind that contained the youma, she could feel exasperated disapproval gushing outward.
"...should just jump his bones and get it over with already..." the teenager could make out from Mareki's train of thought, and the accompanying mental pictures were enough to make her choke in absolute mortification.
"Don't be so crude!"
"Are you sure you are all right, Mercury?" Jered asked at the sight of the startled young Keeper bobbing up and down in the air as if she had just missed a step.
"It's nothing. Mareki just thought something startling. There will be no further problems."
Ami got the impression that her co-inhabitant gulped. "Please," the youma said, "I didn't mean to offend! I can't help thinking what I think!"
'"Let's just get this over with as quickly as possible," Ami said, trying to cut the awkwardness short. In response, Mareki radiated heart-felt approval.
With her fire-protection spell at full power, Ami appeared within the flaming cloud cover. She couldn't see the ground through the burning gases all around her, but that was fine with her. The fiery clouds would hide her from any ground-based observation with their glow, especially here near the centre of the continent-spanning spiral. While she had to perceive a target to direct a remote spell at it, she didn't have to do so with her own eyes. Squinting because of the glare and holding her breath to avoid breathing in whatever fuelled the flames, she concentrated on the crystal ball in her hand. What mattered was that she was close enough to affect the dungeon directly below. Resisting the urge to laugh because of the flames tickling her skin, she shifted the image to the vault door and then through it. As expected, the scrying device went dark, mirroring the state of the room beyond. With a theatrical snap of her fingers, Ami channelled magic and projected a light spell into the chamber.
"Shouldn't something happen?" Mareki asked when the crystal ball stubbornly remained black.
Only a few seconds had passed, and Ami wasted a few more by blinking at the image.
"Maybe there's something in the way from this angle that blocks sight?" She rapidly tested this theory by casting a random scatter of light spells in the general area and moving the crystal ball's vantage point, with similarly underwhelming results.
The scrying device remained stubbornly inert. Ami was in problem-analysing mode now. "Either it's solid rock, which is unlikely, since the door is buckling inwards under the ram's blows, or my magic doesn't get through, or it is shielded against scrying. Wait, my magic does get through. I was able to locate the blood vial within."
"As long as all of my blood remains within my body," Mareki grumbled just on the threshold of where Ami could listen in to her thoughts.
"That means it must be shielded against scrying somehow." That left two possibilities. This could be a temple to the dark gods, in which case she needed to get in and retrieve the blood as soon as possible. Who knew what those evil and powerful creatures could do if they had a link like that? Ami shivered at the thought of someone like Azzathra being able to track down her soul somehow. The other possibility was that someone from the mortal world had figured out how to stop magical spying, in which case she needed to get in there and learn the secret! Attracting one of the vampires to her side and questioning it became more and more pressing. In any case, she would have to focus her war effort on this opponent first. With a thought, she disappeared out of the inferno in the sky.
The clinking of coins drew Keeper Nero to his portal. If his current arachnid body would have permitted it, he would have grinned and rubbed his hands at the sight of the large cocoon filled with gold that was being dragged in by a trio of strong-legged black spiders. One of the sheep-sized arachnids hissed a warning in his direction and clicked its mandibles, only to be kicked aside by the largest one, who turned to stare at Nero with blood-red eyes.
"Mistress Arachne! What an honour."
"Take a proper form when you are talking to me!" Arachne growled from a throat that was not intended to produce human noises. To Nero, it sounded like an asthmatic tuba.
"Yes Mistress! Of course, Mistress!" Showing off his newest trick, he detached from the spider he had possessed and turned into a black swarm of insects. His myriad of tiny bodies converged into a single column until it mimicked his human appearance like a wriggling mosaic. It bowed with a flourish, taking off a pointy hat that also consisted of crawling insects.
Sadly, Arachne seemed less than impressed. "You built a temple? Do you really have the spare coin to waste on such frivolousness?"
"It keeps him happy. Happier," the neophyte Keeper explained with a nervous glance down a corridor. "Speaking of him, I'd appreciate it if you kept your voice down," the swarm of vermin that was Nero hummed quietly.
"Ah, yes, your reaper. Quite the find. It will make the next phase of our plan much easier."
Insects skittered up the composite's brow as it raised an eyebrow. Nero wasn't aware that his mission statement was more complex than 'assassinate Mercury'. "I'm all ears."
"I'm sure you are." Arachne waved one of her black spider legs, and a tome with golden covers appeared before her and floated toward Nero. "Have a look at this. I got it cheaply off Midori."
The former warlock flipped through the pages, using his Keeper powers rather than his simulated fingers. "Hmm. I can see why. This spell is powerful, but much too risky to use."
"Uh-huh. That's exactly what I thought about it, too," the huge spider chirped cheerfully. "That's why you are going to cast it for me!"
"Wha-?" The book clattered to the floor as it slipped from Nero's grasp, taking a finger composed of ant-like beetles along. "But Mistress! There is no need for that yet! My plans are progressing well, and I almost got Mercury with a bomb a little earlier today. Just grant me some more time to-"
"Silence. This plan has a much higher chance of success than anything you'd come up with on your own. You'll do it, or I'll simply replace you with someone who will."
"Yes, Mistress." Nero hung his head. Possible death later beat certain death right now. Now the huge sack of gold, much larger than Arachne's usual contribution, made sense too. It was fuel for that accursed spell.
"That's a good little minion. Fret not, I have also provided you with additional troops. Seven whale carcasses filled with my darling spiders are washing up at the shore as we speak." The master Keeper's voice remained much too cheerful for Nero's liking, but he perked up a bit at this news.
This could work, if he went smartly about mitigating the dangers. Considering his reaper, he would even end up in a position of strength afterwards. Provided that he survived, of course. Sounding more bitter than was advisable to let on when addressing his superior, he asked "I assume you have the next steps already planned out too?"
Fortunately, Arachne didn't seem to be in one of her more tyrannical moods. "How nice of you to ask! As a matter of fact, I do. First, you will have to send your imps..."
"Ah, yes, I must say that this went well indeed," Snyder said, shouting to make himself heard over the loud hammering, hissing, and clanking that came from the doorway behind him. "Not that there was any doubt that a demonstration of my considerable abilities would win them over, of course, but for a moment, I feared that they would not grant us sufficient time to explain."
Ami's satisfied smile didn't waver. "In retrospect, the trolls might have felt threatened when I removed the warlocks and goblins from the room and closed the doors." She glanced over her shoulder at the sturdy iron door that lead to her new forges deep underground. "They must have thought it was a prelude to some sort of purge."
Snyder nodded. "I am only glad that I managed to demonstrate your sincerity about your religious tolerance before they decided that they should use your shiny new cranes and equipment to pour a vat full of molten metal on us."
"And damage their shiny new forges and smelters? Fat chance!" Ami only half-joked, hiding a giggle behind her hand. The greenskins seemed very enamoured with her the new, larger assembly line and spent most of their free time around the anvils and workshops.
"True, true. I suppose-"
Suddenly, Ami noticed her long shadow on the ground grow even longer as something blocked the orange light pouring in through the doorway. Thus, she had a split-second warning before something pounced on her from behind, but she certainly hadn't expected long, slender arm to snake around her and pull her into a crushing hug. The two large, soft mounds pressing into the back of her head and the vacant squeal of "Cuuuuuuuuute!" were also incongruous with an attack. Ami was too stunned to react, and Snyder was no help at all. The redhead just gaped open-mouthed, his brown eyes going wide. Utterly confused, the blue-haired teenager didn't react until she felt her assailant's hands wander upwards to less innocent places, accompanied by a happy sigh. That did it. With an outraged choking yelp, Ami transported herself out of the fondling embrace and to the other end of the hallway. With her face as red as a tomato, she whirled around, ready to give the half-naked albino who had just groped her a piece of her mind. Before she could utter the first word, someone roughly pulled the statuesque dark elf back by the black leather strap that struggled to protect her chest area's decency.
"Venna, no! Let go of the Keeper this instant!" The second dark elf, who was dressed in a much more modest outfit consisting of a linen shirt and leggings, hesitated. Partly because she had just noticed that Mercury had already freed herself, partly because her tug had caused the under-dressed elven barnacle to stagger against her. She flinched when she saw Mercury stare at them with crossed arms, crimson eyes glowing brightly.
"Forgive her, Keeper," the bald woman sputtered. A few drops of sweat shone on her forehead. She raised her right index finger to her forehead and made circling motions. "Venna can't help it! She hasn't been all there since Morrigan experimented on her to make her more to his liking," she continued in the same breath. Completely misinterpreting the Keeper's deepening scowl, she elaborated "That doesn't mean she's useless! She's absolutely fierce in combat! He only removed her grasp of social mores and her fashion sense!"
"Hey!" the dark elf in question threw an offended glance at the other woman, then pulled herself loose with a deft sidestep.
"Morrigan did that to her?" Ami's expression softened as her perception of the scantily-clad dark elf shifted from scary molester to victim of a Keeper's depravity. "That's monstrous. Snyder, see what you can do to help her."
"I'll- gah, please stop that, Miss- eek!" The acolyte had trouble talking, since Venna was leaning over him, pinching his cheek and mussing up his bowl cut affectionately. He blushed and backed away into the wall until he finally managed to snag one of her wrists. At once, he started dragging her away almost at a run, attempting to maximise the distance between himself and the white-skinned woman without letting go. "Please follow me to my workroom!"
"A splendid idea," Venna purred.
Ami took pity on him and transported both of them to the infirmary, separating them in the process, and turned to the remaining warrior. "Well, Eline, was it?"
The albino elf nodded so fast that her pointy ears wiggled. "Yes, my Keeper."
"Will he be safe with her?"
"I think so. She's not violent, just clingy. She tends to go for the short ones, so just put her into a tall team to avoid most of her quirks," Eline advised. "Or into one with members of a sufficiently different-looking species."
"I see." Ami felt a bit of relief at the last part. She had been worried for her goblins there for a moment. "She's a good friend of yours, then?"
"We- we watch out for each other occasionally," the dark elf admitted, shifting from one foot to the other as if she had been caught doing something inappropriate.
Recognising the woman's discomfort with the topic, Ami changed the subject. "Anyway, what were the two of you doing down here?"
"Visiting the trolls to see if we could score some better equipment," the dark elf explained and patted the crossbow slung over her back. "Maybe a few magical daggers or bolts, or a few pieces of armour that they cobble together in their free time."
Ami blinked. "Is there something wrong with the standard issue gear?"
"Oh, it's fine, but, well. It never hurts to have the qualitative edge, and I'm not too comfortable entrusting my safety to goblins, even if those remote armours they are using are totally sweet!" Eline paused and swallowed once. Ami thought she was gathering her courage before going on. "Err, would it be possible to have one of those made for me? One for wearing, that is, not a remote model. I heard you used a similar one when you duelled a horned reaper, and I think it would be a good idea to equip all of your important soldiers like that. Morrigan may be banished for now, but he does have a few minions who can teleport, and he just loves using them to assassinate important enemy underlings. Or traitors."
"Well, my version needs too much power to be used by someone who isn't a Keeper," Ami answered. On the other hand, the amount of reaperbots her trolls were churning out was already past the limit of what she could simultaneously operate with the current output of her gem production. Using their skill to better outfit her regular troops instead wasn't a bad option at all. With all the practise her workers had putting together the standard model, variants fitted for individuals shouldn't be too much trouble. "Hmm. They'd have to be mundane ,except during emergencies. Weaker too, since the wearer has to be able to move comfortably under his own power, and there's not much room for the fuel." She focused her gaze back on Eline, who had silently waited for Mercury to finish thinking out aloud. "Yes, I think there's-"
"Argh! Some help here, quick!" A telepathic message interrupted.
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