"You have to make sure you are safe first and foremost," Cathy snapped at her pale Keeper, who was stepping from one foot on the other and shifting her weight as if she couldn't decide in which direction she should dash off first. "Go possess something!"
Ami paused, her panicked train of thought momentarily derailed. Egotistically prioritising her own well-being didn't come naturally to her, but in this case, her scar-faced adviser had a point. If she died, those she was responsible for would be overrun by the enemy in short order. Who should she- Tiger! She would be helpless if targeted within her cell, and letting the unstable youma just mix freely with the others was a recipe for disaster. "Right," she nodded, and grabbed the orange-skinned creature from her bed and gently landed her next to her. It's creepy how much she's starting to resemble me, she noted with some uneasiness for the short moment she could see the black-striped, muscular body from the outside. An instant later, her perspective shifted and her consciousness settled within the borrowed form that welcomed her like a familiar, well-worn glove. With the lack of adrenaline flooding this body's system, a measure of calmness returned to her. Was anyone outside the areas she had remotely flooded with her protective mist? She quickly plucked Jadeite from Metallia's temple, where he was fishing for more youma minions, and deposited him in the library. The giant flies were vacating the clammy, foggy areas on purpose, but she wasn't worried about them. As mere animals, they were low-priority targets. The trolls working the forges in the mainland parts of her dungeon should be able to detect hostile scrying on their own, given their particular abilities. They only needed to know that there was actual danger. Ami concentrated, feeling her left eye tingle as she activated her communication spell and projected a broadcast to all creatures within the dungeon. "Attention everyone! The dungeon is under magical attack! Immediately vacate an area as soon as you detect scrying! Please find the nearest group of warlocks able to cast strong shielding spells and remain with them. Seek out mist-shrouded rooms for additional protection!"
"That will work, I think. Leopold's wizards were able to protect his advancing troops against Arachne's bombardment when they were working together." Cathy's blue eyes glanced at Mercury's wrist that lacked a warning bracelet in the new body. "We should get Snyder to craft some more of those!"
"He's busy right now," Ami said tensely. In her mental view, the redhead was leaning over Marda and trying to remove her blood-drenched chain mail, but the troll wasn't being all that cooperative. At least he had some assistance in the form of Venna, who was steadying her arms on the recalcitrant patient's head and pressing it down into the pillow. A bare instant later, the vacant expression on her face was replaced by a grimace of pain, and she hopped through the room, waving her bitten fingers. With all the bouncing and the occasional nervous looks at the ceiling, it was no wonder that the poor acolyte wasn't making much progress.
"Ow! Dolt! Leave me alone, I will fix it myself!" Marda howled when he poked a tender spot by accident.
"Now, now. I assure you that- "
"Shut up! Mercury, I know you are watching! That reaper wasn't alone in those tunnels. If I was you, I'd check them to see if you can't find whoever is attacking."
"Will do," Mercury confirmed, forgetting for the moment that the troll couldn't hear her. She directed her Keeper sight back to the command centre and checked on the warlocks who had been near her when the bolt of lightning struck. To her relief, everyone was still moving. Nevertheless, the magicians were not unharmed. She could see the angry red patterns of light burns on exposed skin,with more injuries bound to be hidden underneath those voluminous robes. They needed care, but Snyder had his hands full. Hmm. With a blue flash, Ami appeared in her workshop, where the sweltering heat of the forges immediately melted the snowflakes accompanying her teleport. She had no trouble seeing through the banks of conjured fog that shone orange from all the fires. If she had more time, she would have admired the criss-crossing shadows cast by the multiple light sources and the stone pillars supporting the vaults. Instead, she floated quickly over to a troll wearing a thick leather apron, who was hammering red-hot metal on an anvil. Ami had to actually poke him in the shoulder to get his attention over all the noise, and motioned for him to follow her into a quieter corner. "Do some of you know how to treat burn wounds? Snyder needs some help in the infirmary. Marda is in there, too."
The troll glanced over at the many open fires and searing hot melting pots. "We sure do. What's happening?"
"Please point out who," Ami continued quickly, "so I can move them immediately. I'll send you along so you can explain to them why. I can't tell you right now, I need to defend the dungeon!"
"All right, Keeper," the greenskin said and pointed with a sausage-like finger at various of the pot-bellied workers. Each one disappeared, and swirls of mist rushed into the humanoid vacuums they left behind.
After acquiring about half a dozen assistants for Snyder, Ami gathered up the wounded and hoped the new "nurses" knew what they were doing. She wiped the sweat from her brow, glad that no further attack had been reported so far. Focusing her will, she transported herself back to the command centre, bringing Cathy along. She stopped in front of the command chair and addressed the remaining warlocks through the wafting clouds of Shabon Spray. "Half of you, prepare to raise a shield in case of further attack. The other half, help me find our attacker." Ami stabbed a claw-tipped finger down onto the map table, piercing the paper on a spot at the border of her territory. "Start searching the underground here! Cathy, activate the visor and warn us if you notice anything out of the ordinary!"
Nero chuckled into his crystal ball, spewing forth a few flies from his mouth with each breath. It was hilarious how Mercury's creatures scattered like frightened rabbits as soon as he looked into one of their rooms. He could be disruptive without casting a single harmful spell! That was a good thing, too, since he couldn't afford to go on the offensive right now, no matter how tempting it was. He'd take a shot if he spotted the brat in her true body once again, of course, but his hopes for that were low. He could barely see through the fog she was filling her dungeon with. Quite the annoyance, really. No, he needed to conserve his money. He still had the big bag of gold intended for that spell, of course, but he couldn't touch that for other purposes if he wanted to live. If he wasn't a human-shaped clump of crawling insects right now, he would probably have shuddered at the thought of living - briefly - through one of Arachne's more creative execution methods. No, for now, he had to go along with her quite possibly fatal plan, which meant that he needed to limit his spending only to ameliorating the dangers. He should have known that the chance to become a Keeper himself was too good to be true!
"Get on with it already," a voice at his feet hissed in irritation. His master was here, possessing a tiny spider that was barely larger than his foot. From time to time, the arachnid plucked a bug out of the former warlock's leg and devoured it, causing him to wince.
Nero shrugged his shoulders and turned to the huge dark orb standing on its dais in front of him. The inactive dungeon heart glittered in the sparse light shining forth from the dark wizard's crimson eye slits. He extended a hand that consisted only of chitinous bodies, and a goblet filled with red liquid appeared within. His own blood, necessary to claim the abandoned relic for himself. Extracting the vitae from the preserved corpse of his original body had been a more disturbing experience than he had expected. He didn't like being confronted with reminders of his own mortality. With a jerk, he poured the blood onto the dungeon heart, and the rumbling heartbeat that responded from the artefact was much more to his liking. One more thing that anchored him to sweet, wonderful life.
"Finally. Try not to lose this base before my own preparations are complete. I would be most cross with you." The red light faded from the eight eyes of the borrowed spider body as Arachne's presence left it.
With a scowl, Nero immediately stomped on the unfortunate animal, relishing in the crunching sensation underneath his heel. He took in his barren surroundings in the white, pulsing light coming from the dungeon heart, and shook his head. "This won't do at all. Imps! To me!"
"Found the target! And it's the fucking bastard who tortured Jered!" Cathy snarled as she spotted the pile of insects in the image of the warlock Nero. Her hands balled into fists, and she ground her teeth in anger as she let out a low growl. "Mercury, destroy him!"
The uncharacteristic venom in the blonde's shout drew Ami's attention as much as the words themselves. She stopped walking up and down the command centre and glancing at the scrying panes, where enemy imps were flitting through old tunnels and claiming them for a new master. That was Nero, wasn't it? Ami frowned, distorting the black stripes across Tiger's forehead. It took her a moment to identify the black insect swarm standing next to an active dungeon heart as Arachne's former head torturer, but when she did, she felt anger flare up at the horrid memories of what he had done. Her feelings toward him matched Cathy's. "With pleasure," she answered, and a hard look entered her crimson-glowing eyes. Gold disappeared from her treasury, and a wavering ball of brilliant flame formed between her cupped hands, lighting up the large chamber like a sunset. In the blink of an eye, the fiery orb disappeared. At the same time, the scrying window showing the enemy Keeper turned bright white and lighted the room with its glare. Ami leaned toward the dimming glass in anticipation, waiting for the flames to die down. She smiled when the scorched black surfaces of the chamber became visible through the smoke, with only a few red embers glowing where the fire storm had incinerated impurities. Even the dungeon heart had gone inactiv- wait. Ami's elation vanished before it could fully manifest when white light poured from crack-like patterns on the orb's surface. It hadn't gone dark, it was merely covered in a layer of soot that was flaking off now. Had Nero managed to dodge her spell? She peered closer at the beating orb. It should have been protected from the magic, but it looked as if it was bleeding? She observed the black stuff trickling down from the crystal and gathering in between the three statues on whose shoulders it rested. Suddenly, she realised that it was a bunch of black-carapaced insects. Once the swarm had gathered enough mass, it crawled out from underneath the dungeon heart and piled up into the form of the Keeper she had just incinerated. A superior smirk appeared on the warlock's simulated features, and he spread his arms and pirouetted on one leg, as if he wanted to rub in the futility of Mercury's attack. After the theatrical gesture, he floated upwards until the spherical dungeon heart shone behind him like a crystal sun, and drifted into it, disappearing entirely.
"Keeper, you'll want to see this!" a warlock shouted, craning his neck so he could see over his shoulder, past his jutting collar. His long fingers were pointing at the glass screen before him.
Ami was at his side in an instant and gasped. The landscape seemed to have come alive from all the eight-legged bodies moving in formation over the open wasteland. "Arachne's troops! Where?"
"They are coming from the coast and moving toward the location you indicated," the warlock explained, stroking his beard.
Ami quietly counted the rows and columns of the very spread-out enemy army to get some idea of their number. It wasn't easy to keep track of the hairy creatures in the craggy territory. Five lines at least, each one more than twenty arachnids long. Over a hundred total.
"There are more of them in the tunnels," another warlock alerted Ami to the presence of more enemies within Nero's new stronghold.
"We should intercept them," Cathy declared. "That bastard needs to be put down like the mad dog he is! This is almost at our border, right? Let's deploy the automatons!"
"They are close, but I don't want to deploy them on the surface." Ami summoned her computer and did a few quick calculations. "They are not going to hold up if Arachne uses the enlarging spell. We'll need to engage in the tunnels."
"Well, then do that! Or pick them off with your spells," the blonde demanded heatedly.
"I can't. They are too spread out for me to catch more than one in a spell, and I can't take the time to squish them all one by one right now."
"Oh? What's so important that it takes precedence over this?" Cathy put her arms akimbo and glared at Mercury, who gulped nervously under the intense stare and ducked her head.
"I have to upgrade the control devices," Ami justified herself, pointing at the coffin-like capsules for the goblins. "If the enemy struck again, they would be sitting ducks in there, since they can't move! I need to add some shielding! What good would it do if I deployed the reaperbots right now, only to have them all go inactive in enemy territory? I also have to dig some fortifications to stop Nero's imps from making inroads into my territory, and I have to organise everyone getting new equipment, and I also need to develop shelters! And the reaper is also running around somewhere!"
Cathy snorted, her cheeks an angry red, but nodded once. "Fine. I don't agree with waiting, but you are the boss. He's only going to get harder to dislodge the longer we wait, you know!"
Ami looked thoughtful, and addressed a long-nosed warlock in purple robes, who was striding along the scrying stations and taking notes. "Erasmus, what seems to be the enemy Keeper's plan?"
The black-haired man looked up from his sheets and stopped walking. "His imps are focusing on fortifying the dungeon and expanding the hallways, presumably in order to accommodate the enlargement spell you mentioned earlier. Additionally, some are digging deep pits. If I had to guess, I would say that they are intended to be used as natural barriers. That would be consistent with the amount of traps that the Keeper is producing, to the exclusion of anything else. We have not spotted any new rooms going up yet."
"And what do you think this means?" Ami asked when it became apparent that the man would not continue after summarising the facts.
"Either he is paranoid about you launching an immediate attack before he can get settled in, or he wants his dungeon protected so that his army remains free to launch attacks. I am no strategist, however, and defer to your wisdom on such matters."
"I will upgrade the border defences," Ami decided after a bit of thought. "He'll have to enter my territory to attack, and the reaperbots will be nearly unstoppable in narrow tunnels, where his spiders can't surround them. This will buy us some time for preparations."
"Nobody has ever won a war only by defending," Cathy pointed out, crossing her arms in front of her chest.
"The longer he waits, the more gold-generating infrastructure I can set up on the mainland," Ami directed a thought at the blonde, unwilling to divulge the source of her wealth to the other employees. "We grow stronger at a much faster rate than he does, and I get the feeling that we will need all the advantages we can get."
Nurgil flapped his bat wings, following the delicious scent of blood as he fluttered across the storm-darkened landscape. Never mind that the liquid smelled stale and weak in potency, it was better than nothing at all. His tiny body playfully dodged the heavy raindrops whipped around by the winds as he navigated closer to the source of the smell. He was in no hurry to get to his destination. In fact, he greatly suspected that this was some kind of trap. He probably wouldn't be taking the risk right now if his current Keeper, Wemos, wasn't an idiot. Nurgil had never intended to serve him, but, well, what could you do if a stronger enemy had you by the throat and you didn't have a coffin to revive in? Seething inside, the vampire reflected on his Keeper's suicidal stupidity that would no doubt get him and his underlings killed. No money? Well, there was an easy solution! Rebuild a portal and then go to the nearest Underworld city, plunder its riches and gorge yourself on the inhabitants.
The tiny bat shook its head in disgust. What a moron. A moron powerful enough to come out on top in the vampire free-for-all, but a moron no less. Not even Zarekos at the height of his power had dared do that, no matter how much he wished to. One did not mess with the Underworld settlements. Not only did they have the manpower and the mutual protection treaties to retaliate with overwhelming force against such transgressions, it also tended to piss off the gods. Besides, they could grant free passage to any heroes who wanted to use the portals as a back door into a Keeper's fortress.
The smarter vampires under Wemos' command were currently looking for better employment options among the local Keepers. Nurgil cursed under his breath. He couldn't even just flee through one of the portals now. After the dolt's actions, the best any vampire arriving through an Avatar Islands portal could hope for was a quick lynching. Which left two choices. Most of his compatriots were leaning toward the yellow Keeper, because he had a reaper under his command. Nurgil was heading toward the blue territory though, mainly because the yellow Keeper had a reaper under his command. He just hoped that all the blood was an invitation, rather than bait.
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