Ami sat on a tree branch, taking care to keep her icy body in the shade of the leafy canopy. Not from any fear of melting, but out of concern for stealth. Her skin and the frozen ringmail she was wearing would glitter like pale diamonds in direct sunlight, and she didn't want to alert anyone to her presence before she had taken stock of the situation. The oak she had chosen as perch was ancient and tall, looming high above the other trees even within this untouched forest. It was the perfect spot from which to observe the dust cloud denoting the location of the approaching army. The Baron clearly felt it unnecessary to hide his presence and was riding on a bright white horse at the top of the column, flanked by knights on both sides. Next to him, on a pony, she could make out a bent-over form in embroidered robes that could only be abbot Durval. The old man looked out of place among the heavily-armoured figures and would have fit in much better with the wizards riding to the back, holding long staves with jewels set into their ends. Numerous triangular banners waved above the formation, proudly displaying the fact that the lord of the land had arrived.

Ami did a few quick mental calculations. The dirt road was wide enough for five knights to ride comfortably next to each other, but there were only five rows of them, and a trail of regular men at arms and wagons carrying supply followed them. All in all, it looked as if the Baron had brought about three-hundred warriors, not counting the servants, squires, and assorted menials necessary for such an operation. With them, the total number was probably closer to five-hundred. For a moment, she felt herself reminded of a similar column making its way through a sandstorm on camels, unaware of the waiting ambush underneath the sand. She shook her head to clear the image away, dimly aware of the strange ringing sound her hairs of ice made from the motion. This flashback had been shorter and less defined than the ones before, which raised her hopes that the after-effects of sifting through Malleus' brain would fade on their own at some point.

Ami returned her attention to the marching troops, who seemed in no particular hurry to reach the village. Upon closer inspection, she saw that the flying forms she could make out against the background of the blue sky were not birds, as she had initially assumed. They were short, lightly built women wearing white and flying with wings that looked like those of dragonflies. Faeries? The senshi noted that they were flying a search pattern. Advanced scouts, then. Maybe the Baron wasn't relying entirely on his show of force for protection. Ami doubted she could have taken his forces on in a straight battle, not even with her golems. She had seen the wizards in combat, and they were no slouches. The abbot was an unknown, but from the ease with which he had wielded large-scale holy magic, she could conclude that he was very dangerous. The Baron himself, of course, was a Reaper-level threat in that magical armour of his. Even if he had been fighting a lazy and rusty horned reaper, the fact remained that he could go toe-to-toe with the monster and come out unharmed.

Given those facts, she was glad that she didn't have to fight. Her best chance would have been some kind of guerilla warfare, striking at the enemy before he had a chance to get closer. Now, however, it was in her best interest that he found her dungeon as quickly and easily as possible. The freed slaves within needed help, and the shorter they had to wait, the better. She tried to not to dwell on them too much, afraid that another sign of corruption would manifest. There was no real need for her to pay attention, anyway, she told herself. After all, she had left a few golems to watch over the women, with very precise instructions making sure that they would not come to harm. Nodding to herself, Ami disappeared from the tree branch, which snapped back into its original position when her weight was suddenly gone. She had to see if she could speed things up.

A hoarse voice called loudly and with increasing despair "Keeper! KEEPER! You are making a huge mistake! I am more valuable than any boon you could possibly gain from leaving me to my enemies!" Tasbaal's meaty hands were wrapped around the cold metal bars of his cell, and his shouts echoed through the dungeon's dimly-lit halls. He wondered who of his many enemies had offered the Keeper a deal sweet enough that she would even consider handing him over. "Keeper! You will never again find anyone with my expertise and experience who is willing to work for you! You are cutting your own throat!" He was, of course, too familiar with Keepers to expect any gratefulness or loyalty from them. His only chance was convincing Mercury that he was irreplaceable. "I have learned secrets that you couldn't even dream off! My knowledge of the Dark Gods is matched only by a handful of other high priests! Whoever has convinced you that he could offer you something more valuable is tricking you!"

"I told you I heard something! We aren't alone down here with these creepy ice things," a female voice whispered. The woman it belonged to cautiously looked around the corner at the bottom of the spiral staircase, one green eye peeking out from beyond the wall as she leaned to the right.

Her companions higher up on the stairs followed with reluctant steps, hindered by the looted clothing that was several sizes too big. The shiny, flowing cloth had a propensity to get underfoot and made descending stairs difficult.

"We shouldn't go there," one of the others whispered, "what if it is a monster?"

The smaller girls behind her nodded fearfully and huddled closer together.

"It could be another prisoner, just like us," the first one speculated, "I'll scout ahead," she whispered and pulled up her too long, magenta pants as she tiptoed forward, heedless of the pleas for her to stay back. She could see one of the strange transparent statues skulking about from the corner of her eyes, but the thing seemed uninterested in getting closer. Thus, the ex-slave sneaked forward, toward the source of the noise. It didn't take her long to reach the end of the corridor that was blocked off by vertical bars reaching from the floor to the ceiling. They were spaced widely, but there was not a chance that the short figure behind them could escape. The sheer amount of fat that strained to burst out of the tattered, gold-embroidered monk robes confining them made sure of that. The prisoner fell silent as he spotted the redhead, whose form was hard to make out with the way she clung to the shadows. He got the impression that she was pretty thin under that oversized tunic of hers. The garment looked somewhat familiar, though. Maybe this was someone he could dupe into rescuing him?

The woman froze in recognition when she got a good look at him. For a moment, her face was slack-jawed and pale, but then it twisted into a mask of fury. With her teeth bared in a snarl and the deep, angry frown lines on her brow, she looked nearly demonic. Spittle flew as she shouted "You! I remember you!"

Tasbaal couldn't say that the converse was true, so he just raised an eyebrow and stared silently.

"You sick freak! You killed my baby!"

Oh. That- that actually didn't narrow it down all that much. Great. Now he'd be stuck in this empty cell with that hysterical shrew shrieking at him. This day had just become even worse. "Ouch!" A sudden pain flared on his temple, just below the hairline. Instinctively, he reached for it, and was surprised to find his fingers wet with blood. A look through the bars showed him that the woman was bowing down, with tears running down her cheeks, to pick another piece of debris from the ground. He barely moved aside when another sharp-edged piece of rock whistled past him. "Hey! Stop that at once!"

"Ruby? We heard you shouting, are you all right?" more women were filing down the corridor, sticking together in a large group.

"Look! It's him! That murderous bastard!" a venom-filled voice in the crowd called out. "Let's get him!" Approving noises greeted the proclamation, and Tasbaal could see more of the haggard girls arming themselves with stones. The walls in this part of the dungeon were unfinished rock, so there was no lack of appropriate projectiles. The evil monk heard a faint crack as pain blossomed on his nose. He let out a curse, which rebounded off the bars and blackened the walls of his cells. The women, who had backed away at the sight of him using magic, were encouraged by the display and resumed their efforts. Their furious shouts and accusations drowned out the fat ex-high priest's howls of pain that slowly turned into whimpers.

"Huh, what have got there?" Baron Leopold asked, looking at the glittering ice sculpture that had appeared in the middle of the road. The sunlight breaking on the smooth rings that made up the figure's armour added a few rainbow-like refractions to the otherwise colourless construct. The knights flanking him raised their shields, and a shout of warning went through the formation as it stopped.

"It appears that the Keeper has appeared for the time-honoured tradition of pre-battle taunting," Durval croaked out next to him. The abbot's grip around his staff had tightened, and the runes carved into its ivory head were filling with white light.

"Awfully sparkly for a Keeper," the noble said, "though it does resemble that blue-haired witch that was with the horned reaper."

"Indulging in the sin of vanity, no doubt," his elderly companion replied in a deadpan tone of voice.

Ami fidgeted at being the centre of attention. Being stared at was one thing. Being stared at by men on horses, who towered quite a bit over her and who were also hostile was another entirely. Fortunately, she didn't suffer from any unexpected memory flashes. Probably due to the fact that Malleus knew better than to get into this kind of situations in the first place, she thought wryly.

"You, villain! If you wanted to be impress us, you should have come in the body of the Reaper," the Baron roared.

Ami blinked. That certainly hadn't been the opening she had expected. "Sorry, he isn't here," she apologised.

"Not here? I'm insulted! Do you take me so lightly that you expect to win without him?" the ends of the Baron's moustache twitched angrily as he spoke.

"I was actually hoping we could negotiate," the ice golem replied, eliciting several disbelieving snorts from the soldiers, "There isn't any need to fight me. I didn't want to be a Keeper in the first place, and I'm not going to do anything bad."

The Baron laughed in her face. "Now that's a good joke! You should have become a jester rather than am evil blight upon the face of the world!"

"I'm serious! Can't I just pay taxes on the land I'm using, and you leave me alone?"

"Do you think I'm a fool? I will not have a Keeper defile my country, gathering power while I sit idly by doing nothing! Your evil ends today!"

Ami sighed. At least the try hadn't cost her anything. "Looks as if I have no choice, then," she said. The knights shifted nervously on their mounts. "I surrender. The dungeon is that way." she helpfully extended a transparent arm and pointed into the forest, in the direction of the blighted land above her dungeon.

"You are expecting us to believe that you are giving up?" the Baron asked, voice dripping with disbelief, "I didn't come here all the way to not fight! Especially if there's a horned reaper afoot!"

"Has to be some kind of ruse or trap, my Lord," one of the knights murmured. Ami didn't miss that soldiers were trying to move through the bushes inconspicuously in order to surround her.

"It's not. I do not intent to waste time or resources on a battle I cannot win. The dungeon is empty except for the imprisoned ex-high priest of Murdrul and twenty recently freed slave girls who could use medical care. Also, the Reaper ran away," Ami added.

"You are not going to lull us into a false sense of security, fiend!" the Baron said, corners of his mouth lowering as he turned toward the abbot. "This has been a pointless waste of time. Remove that thing from my sight!"

The ice statue disappeared moments before a bolt of light from the sky smote the street where she had been standing. Ami had learned from Malleus that being in a possessed body when it died did bad things to one's ability to channel mana, one of the reasons why she had had so many difficulties with exhaustion when assaulting his dungeon.

Leopold took the escape with surprising calmness. "Well, that was anticlimactic. No ambushes, no spells, curses, or even foul language. It's as if she wasn't even trying. What manner of creature was that, anyway?"

"Some kind of golem, I assume," Durval responded, slinging his staff back over his bent back.

"Huh. Thought those were bigger. Did you sense anything useful from the Keeper while we were talking, Abbot?" The Baron still kept an eye on the surroundings, as if unwilling to believe that something horrible wouldn't be tearing its way out of the bushes any moment now.

"I'm afraid not. The Keeper's thoughts were in turmoil. Surprisingly enough, it appears that she was mostly honest, though she does intend to deceive us," the old mystic said, after careful consideration.

"I could have told you that," Leopold snorted. "Onwards, men! Today, a Keeper is going to be banished forever from this land!"

The talk could have gone better, Ami figured, but she wasn't feeling too disappointed. Her expectations had been low in the first place, and she had achieved what she set out to do. The women in her dungeon would have a shorter time to wait before someone rescued them, as the Baron would be obliged to at least check on her hint, which would necessarily lead to the discovery of the afflicted forest above her territory. She would have sent the girls to the surface already, but they seemed in too poor shape for the long walk to the village, having gotten no exercise chained to the walls in Malleus' dungeon, and some over-eager hero might mistake them for an enemy and shoot them. Aside from the anxiety about whether or not the intruders would find the hidden heart, Ami also had a bad feeling about something else she couldn't quite put a finger on. After a few moments of reflection, her glass-like eyes widened in realisation. "Tasbaal!" The connection linking him to her mind was no longer there. How had he done that without her noticing? Panicked, she teleported herself in front of his cell to see if she could still capture him. What she didn't expect was the mob of enraged women, still in the process of chucking rocks at the mound of bloody and unmoving flesh toward the back of the cell. The former slaves let out startled squeals as she arrived in their midst, and Ami felt a stone bounce off of her frozen shell.

"What happened here? Why did you do that?" Sure, she had felt nothing but disgust for the evil monk after learning what he had been capable of, but being stoned to death was a horrible way to die, and she felt sick that it had happened while she was technically responsible for him. It was her fault for not anticipating that the abused women would be out for revenge, but she instinctively avoided thinking about them as much as possible to protect herself from the reactions their sight could evoke in her.

"That bastard deserved it!" one of the girls shouted, less intimidated than the others by the sudden appearance of the talking ice statue. She was somewhat pretty-looking, if emaciated, Ami noted. Looking at the girl also didn't cause any of the strange sensations that were so terrifying to her. Maybe being in a body of ice helped?

"But, but I wanted him to face a trial, not a lynch mob!" Ami shouted back.

"The monster killed our children! He deserves worse! I regret nothing!" Someone else shouted, outside of Ami's field of vision.

Well, what could one answer to something like that? "I'm sorry, I didn't know," she finally breathed, shoulders drooping. "Some heroes are on the way here, please avoid any threatening gestures. You should be free soon. I hope you can all get on with your lives somehow. I wish you the best of luck for the future." After these words, Ami disappeared, retreating to her dungeon heart hidden deep below the fake.

For a change, Ami's plan went off without a hitch. Soldiers cautiously entered the dungeon and encountered no resistance. When they found the freed slaves, the latter immediately surrendered when ordered to and were led toward the entrance that the dwarves had dug. The abbot had a look at them and verified that suspicious to chivalrous. There was only one dicey situation when the intruders destroyed the fake dungeon heart and Ami disconnected the real one, triggering the collapse of the dungeon heart chamber in the process. It looked for a moment as if three of the slower men-at arms would be crushed by a heavy slab of stone dropping from above, but Baron Leopold darted in and actually caught the massive rock, holding it up over his head like a body builder would a weight before tossing it aside. It gave his men time to escape the avalanche of dust and falling debris. Before Ami's claim on the land faded completely, she could see that the ground under the armoured noble's feet had cracked from absorbing the blow, and she felt a new respect for his strength. Her golems would have broken like matchsticks under an impact like that. What was his secret?

Previous chapter: Next chapter:
Chapter 31: Moving On Chapter 33: Oh Gods!



Attached comments:

  • Possible reason why upworlders are totally against anyone "dark" is...
    Actually, I think they are being unreasonably tolerant, even taking prisoners if enemies surrender. It's important to keep in mind that Keepers aren't misunderstood or edgy or grey or any such thing. They are, as a rule, completely, utterly, cheerfully evil to the core, aware of that fact, and revelling in it.
  • Can the Heart be moved before being reclaimed?
    Yes, but it's the size of a large room and weighs several tons.
  • What I mean is, she has one Heart, it goes, she goes, correct?
    Two. One in the desert, one hidden. The hidden one is inert at the moment, but going to be activated again when the danger is over. It wouldn't do for some other poor fool to stumble over it and claim it accidentally. Thus, she currently has one active heart, and if that one goes, she goes, correct.