A/N: I own neither Dungeon Keeper nor Honor Harrington.
I do credit Pusakuronu for large chunks of the world I'm writing in, I've stolen them shamelessly from his awesome fic Dungeon Keeper Ami.
Reviews are the lifeblood of fanfic authors, please leave some!
N.B. - indicates scene change, x-o-x indicates brief passage of time in the same scene.
Far Leaper's ears flattened themselves in fear and awe, but he didn't let his concentration waver. Instead he continued to focus on the point in space three meters in front of him, the focal point for the humming machinery in the room. There! No mistaking it! Emerging from that point in nothingness, a flash of information that screamed out to his telepathic senses. It was gone too fast for him to comprehend, but that wasn't the point. For the first time, after centuries of research, the two-legs had succeeded in reaching out directly to the People's telepathy. Far Leaper, still concentrating, slowly raised a true-hand and made a sign. A simple sign, which simply meant "Yes" in the sign language that was the usual method of communication between the People and the two-legs. The various white-coated two-legs in the room starting chattering with excitement. Far Leaper could have followed their conversation easily – the People had no difficulty learning two-legged speech – but he continued to focus on the point.
The moment of truth was here – the research project had stalled for months, but now the two-legs thought they had a way of controlling and stabilizing the effect. The hum of the machinery reached a new pitch. A strange taste of copper filled Far Leaper's mouth, and he crouched low on his stool, tail-tip twitching in nervousness. He could feel the apprehension of the researchers, and at least they were shielded by triple-reinforced aliglass. Far Leaper was seated right in the same chamber as the target point, to minimize interference. Now, there was a definite visual effect, to match the increased outpouring of chaotic mental images. A tiny ball of nothingness formed on the point. The air around the darkness seemed to waver and twist in ways that made Far Leaper's eyes water. The apprehension in the mind-glow of the two-legs was changing to excitement. Some sort of decision point was approaching, and Far Leaper tensed himself in anticipation. Any moment now...
Unknown to the human researchers and their treecat volunteers, the Mesan Alignment's Operation Oyster Bay had gone into its final stages ten minutes previously. Already, over 5 million Manticorans were dead, as the massive space stations orbiting the planets of Manticore and Sphinx were shredded by graser missiles that had drifted in under stealth over several months. Now, thousands of tons of wreckage plummeted towards the planets below. Manticore, capital of the Star Empire, had the ground-to-space defences and search-and-rescue craft necessary to fend off the worst of the impromptu orbital bombardment. Sphinx, home of the treecats, did not. Tidal waves and meteor strikes added millions of human lives to the death toll. Treecats, living largely inland, would be spared, with one notable exception. A single chunk of space debris would impact dead center on the territory of the Brightwater clan, wiping them out to the last treecat. The strike would also wreck an obscure research station on the edge of the clan's territory. The lab's heavy construction would allow a good chunk of the humans and treecats in residence to escape with their lives. Far Leaper would be declared missing, presumed dead. The research would be indefinitely suspended, and the surviving scientists and engineers would be reassigned to the more immediate needs of an empire with its back to the wall.
The Horned Reaper (who called himself Burzum when he had someone to introduce himself to) blinked his eyes to clear the dancing spots left by the sudden flash of light after decades of darkness. As his darkvision reasserted itself, he stared at the new addition to his prison. Resting on top of the inactive dungeon heart was a... cat? It certainly looked like an oversized cat, except it had six legs instead of the standard four. Was it dead? No, still breathing. How did it get here? Considering it was no creature the reaper had seen before, it was probably a magical summoning gone wrong. Burzum got to his feet, stretching the kinks out of his 9-foot bulk. His mouthful of sharp fangs stretched his face into a permanent grin. Now that grin grew even broader. After seventy years of killing nothing but spiders, beetles, and earthworms, he finally had something substantial to get his scythe into. Even better, the creature was now stirring. Burzum decided to let the creature run for a bit. After all, it wasn't like there was anywhere for it to run to.
Far Leaper came awake to a pounding headache. Memory quickly returned. The last thing he remembered was the experiment to simulate telepathy with two-leg machinery. Clearly, something had gone wrong. Darkness all around, which meant he was either blind or buried alive. Luckily, he had other senses... Far Leaper found himself running headlong in the darkness. His claws skittered on stone as he halted his panicked dash, and his brain caught up with his instincts. There was a mind-glow behind him, so bright and powerful it could only belong to a two-leg. While two-legs couldn't perform telepathy, their emotional state was easy to read. In this case, the emotions were so clear they might as well have been words – Rend. Tear. Kill. Far Leaper had sensed less bloodlust from the Death Fangs of the Sphinxian jungle. Even worse, this two-leg did not seem troubled by the total darkness. All Far Leaper could see was two glowing orbs far off the ground, and a faint glow that flashed through the air towards him. Far Leaper leaped to one side, and felt the glowing object smash into the stone where he'd been standing. With a yowl of distress that echoed from the walls, he started running, relying on his ears, nose, and whiskers, to keep from running into anything. Why was this two-leg trying to kill him? Where was everyone else? As far as his mind sense was concerned, there was no one around save Far Leaper and this murderous two-leg.
A new thought came to Far Leaper. All treecats had known that the two-legs of their world had been locked in combat with other two-legs for many winters now. Could this be one of the enemy? Certainly, its blood-drenched mind-glow explained how the war had lasted so long. But if it was one of the enemy, then the silence from his comrades – indeed the whole disaster – took on a more sinister cast. Clearly, then, their world was under attack. His companions were either dead or captive, and now one of the enemy troops had him in his sights. This changed things. Far Leaper might have been here as a research assistant, but he was first and foremost a warrior. And treecat warriors do not run when an enemy has obligingly placed himself within reach of their claws.
Far Leaper stopped. He could hear the two-legs screech to a halt behind him. He could feel the breeze as the two-leg's weapon came whistling down. He could pinpoint the enemy's location through smell – and idly noted the strange odor, a lot less sweat and a lot more sulphur. And then he leaped once more, ducking clean under the strike, and running between the enemy's legs. Then he launched himself straight up, and each of the four fingers on his six limbs unsheathed a claw as the tearing-canvas battle cry of an enraged treecat left Far Leaper's throat. A treecat's claws are an inch long, broad at the base, with razor-sharp edges optimized for tearing and rending, more in common to swords than to the claws of Earthly predators. With twenty-four unsheathed scimitars, Far Leaper went to work on the reaper's instep.
Horned Reapers are tough. Supernaturally so. They are living constructs created to be the ultimate warriors by Crassus, aka the Tyrant, dark god of brute strength and wanton slaughter. Burzum's human master had found it simpler to abandon the dungeon and bury him alive rather than kill him when he became a liability. A whole clan of treecats could do no more than inconvenience a reaper. But just because an injury is minor, doesn't mean it can't be painful. With a roar of anger and pain, Burzum backhanded Far Leaper, who by this time had worked his way up to the reaper's thigh and was vainly digging for the femoral artery. The yowling treecat was flung several feet, coincidentally landing right where he had started, on a smooth stone slab carved with arcane runes. As Far Leaper struggled to his feet, blood from his injured shoulder dripped onto the stone, which absorbed them like a sponge, and started to glow.
Dungeon Hearts are immensely complex magical artifacts, unsurprising as they were originally designed by Faustus, dark god of logical insanity and intellect unchained (for other forms of insanity, please apply to Deliria, also goddess of mind-affecting alchemy). Only a minority of Dungeon Keepers had the intellect necessary to unravel the mysteries of the dungeon heart. Those who were smart enough (or had minions smart enough, which came to the same thing) spent years researching them. The only simple thing about a dungeon heart is the process for activating a dormant one. It requires blood of the would-be keeper (check), the keeper isn't a direct agent of one of the divinities (check), some talent for magic (natural telepathy counts), and any strong negative emotion (rage and an implacable desire to destroy one's foes work just fine). A dull thud, the first beat of a gigantic heart, sent vibrations through the entire cavern. Far Leaper would have jumped off the vibrating stone, except some force kept his paws glued to the surface. A spike of blue-white light erupted from the dungeon heart, and Far Leaper screamed in agony and collapsed in a quivering heap as the light reached into the center of his being and tore out a fragment of soul to forge the final connection. The gigantic heartbeat, slow at first, increased in tempo to match Far Leaper's own adrenaline-fuelled pulse. The stone covering slid to one side, depositing Far Leaper on the edge of a pit about ten feet wide. From the center of the pit rose a crystal globe large enough to occupy the entire pit, containing an inner golden glow that expanded and contracted in time to the heartbeat of the dungeon. Four crystal pillars shot up from the ground, surrounding the central pit, then arched backwards to meet twenty feet above the beating crystal. Finally, a second perimeter of long thin pillars grew around the heart, reaching towards the ceiling. Each of these pillars glowed with a soft inner light. These lights did not waver, but instead shed steady illumination around the heart, on the battered treecat slowly standing up, and on a horned reaper standing still in an attitude of utter amazement.
Burzum spent several seconds scraping his jaw off the floor. That – thing – was a keeper? It was a cat! A six-legged cat! What was the world coming to, when six-legged cats could claim the key to limitless power and horned reapers couldn't? He had known, as a creation of Crassus, that he couldn't claim dungeon hearts for himself – part of the non-compete agreement between dark gods, violated often in spirit but usually adhered to in the letter. He had tried anyway, out of desperate boredom. No dice. But, apparently, six-legged cats were worthy. Well, a keeper wasn't necessarily a bad thing. The first thing a keeper would do is reactivate the dungeon's portal to the Underworld, which would be Burzum's way out. That was assuming the keeper didn't want to hire Burzum, and what right-thinking keeper wouldn't want to hire a Horned Reaper on the cheap? The new keeper was now getting back to its feet, and yes, its eyes were burning pools of balefire, the one unmistakeable symptom of Keeperhood. The keeper steadied itself, looked towards Burzum, and made a sound like the Reaper's scythe slicing through stone. It was not a happy sound. Burzum felt his own fighting spirit rise to the challenge, and had to work hard to keep from resuming combat. He wanted, very badly, to end this pathetic excuse for a keeper. But he wanted out of this hole even more. So, screwing up his courage, he ignored every instinct and prepared to perpetrate diplomacy. He realized he'd better talk fast, because the keeper was showing every sign of being about to do something drastic. "Wait... er...", Darkgodsdamnit, what was that human word? "...Parley?" That gave the keeper pause, and Burzum took the opportunity to keep talking. "Look, Keeper, I'm sorry we got off on the wrong hoof, but how was I to know, eh? But you are the Keeper, blessed by the Dark Gods and what not, and so how'd you like me as your first minion? Horned Reapers work cheap, all I ask is to bathe in the blood of your enemies."
The Keeper stared at him for a moment, and a faint whisper hovered on the edge of hearing "...what is he talking about." Burzum hadn't seen the keeper's lips move, but he took it in stride, telepathy was not that unusual. "What I'm saying is that we can help each other out instead of fighting -" "YOU HEARD ME?!" The Reaper clapped a hand to his head, in a futile effort to drive out the instant migraine. "YES, I HEARD! THERE'S NO NEED TO SHOUT!" he roared. Another brief pause, then a flurry of furious questions, this time at a reasonable power. "Why did you try to kill me? Where are my friends and the other two-legs? What are you doing here?" Burzum ignored the first question, since it was a silly thing to ask a reaper, and focused on the rest. "I don't know anything about your friends, I've never seen any creature such as you, Keeper. And I am here because this is where I have been trapped for the better part of a century." The keeper seemed to spend an unusually long time processing what were a couple of very simple sentences. Brain the size of a cat's, sneered Burzum to himself. "Why do you call me Keeper?" The cat finally asked. "Well, I don't know your name, but you are a Keeper." The reaper replied evenly. Another surprisingly long pause. "What is a 'keeper'?" Burzum felt his headache start to grow.
Far Leaper sat on the rim of the dungeon heart and considered the red-skinned nine-foot-tall, fang-mawed two-legged creature – this Horned Reaper Burzum - and everything the creature had told him over the last few hours. The Reaper stared back at him, boredom and barely restrained violence palpable in his mind-glow.
There was no doubt Burzum was telling the truth, at least as he saw it. From the beginning, Far Leaper had had no trouble sensing his emotions. Then, once Burzum had sworn fealty on the dungeon heart, the link had become even stronger. Earlier, Burzum could hear Far Leaper's mind-voice, but could only reply through words and emotions. Now, when Burzum spoke, Far Leaper caught images of the memories behind the words, hints of the unspoken assumptions. It was a crude version of treecat mind-speech, and Far Leaper was certain the 'dungeon heart' was responsible. His mind-glow had never felt so strong. It was like the rush that came when treecats consumed celery, only bigger. Now, if only what Burzum said made any sense!
First, he was apparently something called a Dungeon Keeper now. Never mind that he didn't want the post, he had it anyway. Being a Keeper meant that he could control Dungeon Hearts, and that creatures of some place called the Underworld would look to him as a leader and potential employer. There were humans in the underworld, but most of the denizens were creatures Far Leaper had never seen before, if the mental images were anything to go by. The position of Dungeon Keeper wasn't for life, it was for eternity. If his dungeon heart was ever destroyed, he would be sucked into the hole and banished to the realm of the dark gods, to join the piece of his soul he had already sacrificed to activate the dungeon heart.
There had been a lengthy digression here as Far Leaper clarified the definition of 'god' and 'soul'. He still wasn't sure he believed in either, but Burzum apparently did, and according to his memories so did everyone else.
Once he was banished to the dark gods' realm, the only way for him to come back was by crawling out of another dungeon heart that he owned. If he didn't own another heart, then the banishing was permanent. If he himself got physically killed, the banishing was permanent, spare dungeon hearts or no. Burzum's memories had been crystal clear on this point – the dark gods' realm was not a place even a native like him wanted to visit, let alone live there. But why, Far Leaper had asked, would anyone even want a dungeon heart? Because they could give you anything you wanted, provided you had the resources. They could even create servitor creatures called 'imps'. Given sufficient raw materials, a dungeon heart could replace an entire national industrial infrastructure. Treecats were not materialistic by nature, being barely removed from the Stone Age, but Far Leaper could understand the attraction. An attraction which would undoubtedly lead to other Keepers attempting to kill him for his Heart. This was leaving aside the surface inhabitants, most of who rightly despised Keepers and would attack him on general principles.
There had been a bit of a shouting match at this point. Far Leaper remembered the surface as being the domain of the People and humans, the latter being dominant but having arrived from the stars only a few hundred winters ago. Burzum had insisted that the surface was populated by humans, and some other two-legs called dwarves and elves, and these three species had always dominated the surface as far as history went, which was several thousand years. He had never heard of treecats, which meant if they even existed they were a marginal species at best. He had certainly never heard of humans crossing the stars, and had suggested that perhaps Far Leaper's people had either been blessed by a divine visitation, or suckered by con artists.
That last remark had resulted in a frosty silence, which Far Leaper now chose to break. "It doesn't matter who is right. We need to find a way out of here. You may not need to eat or drink, but I do."
"Finally! First sensible thing you've said yet! Make some imps and let's get digging. The surface is about four hundred yards straight up, and the portal is about a mile due east."
"I don't know how to make imps."
"Just give the dungeon heart a bit of gold or a gem."
"Where am I going to get any of that?"
"Well, you could just have imps mine for it..." the reaper trailed off. He suffered under Far Leaper's glare for a moment, then started pacing and waving his arms as he ranted. "Look, it's not my fault, it's the stupid dungeon heart. I mean, who builds a dungeon heart without a divine link? My former master used to complain about it all the time. " "Explain." "Look, each Keeper who figures out how to build their own dungeon hearts, they all have their own idea as to how to go about it. Most have a dungeon heart that has a direct link to a particular dark god's realm from which it can draw power. Not a lot, but enough for basic things like imp production. Whoever built this one though, was so dumb he couldn't figure out how to get a dark god's blessing. So it's fuelled entirely by gold and gems. Want to cast a spell? Gold. Want to make an imp? Gold! Want it to tell you the fucking time of day? Fucking gold! I mean, getting a dark god's blessing is the easiest thing in the world – just slaughter a few surface villages and dedicate them to your chosen deity – but whoever made this was apparently too stupid to manage it."
Far Leaper carefully concealed the spike of fury that went through him at that last comment. He had already determined that Burzum would never see the light of the surface. Unfortunately, it was looking like he wouldn't, either. "So, without gold, we are still trapped."
"Well, maybe not. I just remembered something. Blood."
"All dungeon hearts can get power from the blood of the living. It's part of the basic design. It's why the activation needs you to bleed on it. Not many use that method though, because it's so inefficient. You need a lot of blood even for the simplest spells."
"How much blood to get an imp that can dig us out?"
"Quite a bit. More than you've got in you, I'll wager."
"I wasn't thinking about me."
Burzum's eyes widened as he snatched up his scythe. "Oh, no! You ain't sacrificing me!"
"Stop panicking. No one's killing anyone. You just need to donate some blood. So get over here already!" As Far Leaper issued the mental command, he felt a strange sensation – as if he'd picked something warm and wriggling with a true-hand, and dumped it somewhere else. Suddenly, the Reaper was standing on the edge of the pit, right next to Far Leaper. There was a bit of shouting and threatening before Burzum explained that transporting one's minions within claimed or neutral territory was a part of the Keeper's powers. Could he transport himself using that same power? Yes, he could. Far Leaper happily spent a minute bouncing himself and the reaper all over the dungeon before more threats of violence ended that entertainment. Finally, the reaper prepared to donate blood. He chewed into his left wrist using his teeth, and let the black fluid drip onto the central crystal, which absorbed it like a sponge.
"No, I'm not going to use my scythe, it's cursed!" he responded snappishly to Far Leaper's query. Far Leaper made a note.
As the blood dripped onto the crystal, Far Leaper could feel it. A slight increase in tension, in that part of his mind that he had come to associate with the dungeon heart. For over half an hour, Burzum stood over the central pit, repeatedly tearing at his arm to hold back the rapidly healing skin. Far Leaper felt the first change. It was like his mental picture of the dungeon heart suddenly gained an additional detail. It was like a symbol, and when he mentally touched it, he could feel it buzzing and crackling, and he just knew that if he chose to activate the symbol, lightning and thunder would appear wherever he chose. When he explained this feeling to the Reaper, Burzum just grunted. "Lightning. One of your basic attack spells. Might have been included as part of the original design of the heart, or it could have been added as a later feature. This means we're getting close, imp creation doesn't need much more mana than your basic lightning bolt."
The constant blood loss seemed to be affecting even the indefatigable reaper, when it finally happened. A new symbol was added to his mental connection to the heart, and Far Leaper instinctively knew it was the imp creation spell. In fact, when he focused on the spell, his mind was filled with details on imps, a full breakdown of their abilities and powers. Most convenient, as in this one vital thing he no longer needed to rely on Burzum's sketchy knowledge. Far Leaper activated the spell, and he could literally feel the mana drain out of the heart. The symbols for the imp and the lightning spell disappeared from his mind, as the heart could no longer power them. Green motes of light erupted from the heart, swirling together and then dissipating, leaving behind the imp.
Far Leaper stared. Burzum's mental image of an imp had been something as tall as a treecat's body was long, with bat-like ears and large black orbs for eyes, with a scaly skin and wearing a loincloth. The height, ears, and eyes were the same, but the imp was covered in soft gray fur, and had cat-like whiskers. At least it carried the magical pick and miner's sack. Far Leaper looked at Burzum with a raised eyebrow. The reaper shrugged. "Do we send him up or down? The surface is nearer..." "Down. The surface is hostile." It wasn't the real reason – Far Leaper wanted, more than anything, to feel the sun and the wind on his fur – but the Reaper accepted it. Aiming itself towards the portal, the imp started to dig.