"Good morning, Cathy," Jered called when the door opened and his girlfriend strode in. The dark circles under her eyes told him that her sleep hadn't been as restful as she would have liked. "Bad night?"
"Yeah," the blonde nodded and hid a yawn behind her hand. "As if the worry about a bolt from the blue while asleep wasn't enough to keep me awake, the goblins snore, too. A lot. Besides, having a warlock stand over your bed is creepy."
"I'm not looking forward to it, either," Jered said. Mercury had decreed that during this time of danger, everyone had to sleep in shifts and in common dorms. He agreed with the decision, since it meant that groups of warlocks could stand guard and ward off enemy attack spells, but it wasn't what he would consider pleasant. It didn't help his mood either that the rooms were gender-segregated.
"I didn't get much rest at all," his girlfriend continued.
"At least you got to sleep during the actual night shift," the brown-haired man comforted her.
"I suppose that's something." She paused as her sleep-addled brain caught up with processing the unusual visual input it was receiving. Blinking, she moved up closer, put her hand on his chest, and tapped with her knuckles against the silvery plate that had replaced his usual green shirt. "Nice armour."
"Indeed, but I have no idea how I'm supposed to sneak around in this," Jered grumbled while Cathy walked around him, inspecting him from all sides. "It was Mercury's idea to provide everyone with protective equipment."
"Everyone? Sounds expensive."
Jered briefly looked left and right to see if they were alone in the corridor. "Very. Don't worry, she can afford it. The latest batch of gems was a big one."
"I see." Cathy took a step back and looked the man in front of her up and down once more. "Well, aren't you the dashing knight now? You look almost respectable," the blonde teased, then giggled.
"Eh, I don't think any respected knightly order would go for a bone motif," the wavy-haired man pointed at the skeletal protrusions decorating the full plate mail. "Mercury says it's insulated against lightning and can move in synch with the wearer when activated. Boosts strength and speed in that case, but it's a cheap knock-off of her earlier model. Not too much protection besides the obvious, either. Its fairly light and thin, as you can see."
"No other enchantments?"
"Hah, no. She's running the warlocks ragged as is. Guard duty, helping out in the workshop, staffing the command centre, forging magical trinkets and consumables- that reminds me..." He rummaged in a satchel he had affixed to his ever-present bandoleer of daggers, and pulled out a ceramic disc with three embossed runes. "Here, that's for you. I acquired an extra."
Cathy looked at the ceramic amulet resting on her open palm and traced the golden lines with one finger. "Magical? What does it do?"
"One-use shield charm. Crack it to release the spell. It's meant as an emergency defence. We should also go to the workshop so we can get you properly armoured up, too."
"Sweet. This thing is getting a bit old," the blonde banged her fist against the breastplate covering the chest part of her Sailor Mercury uniform. "Let's go there-" she paused when her stomach growled, and adjusted her plans slightly, "after breakfast."
Sitting across a small table from the lanky, dark-robed vampire she had just hired, Ami felt unsettled by his proximity. Her eyes kept flitting to the faint smear of red around his thin lips. For her own safety, she had hired him by using her communication spell for the purpose it had originally been developed - enticing enemies to change sides. In this particular case, not much convincing had been required, since his former Keeper had obviously managed to anger him sufficiently to let him overcome his minion bond. Even knowing that he could not harm her as long as he served her, his intense stare made her feel as if he wished to eat her next. However, she wasn't going to pass up an opportunity to get some first-hand intelligence about her more remote opponent just because the pale figure made her hackles rise, and especially after going through all that trouble to attract him in the first place. "Well then, Nurgil, I am very interested in what your former Keeper is doing. What is behind that door he is trying to break down?"
The seated vampire refilled the red-tinted stein in his hand with imp blood from the open barrel next to him before he spoke. "That would be Zarekos' temple."
"A temple to the dark gods?" Ami couldn't entirely keep the disappointment from her voice. She had rather hoped that the vial with her blood wasn't in such a place.
"You misunderstand. It is a temple to himself. Quite the grandiose construction, indeed. His statue alone is thirteen stories high. It took thousands of minions almost fifteen years to painstakingly carve it from the rock, and it was not yet entirely finished when you invaded."
"He thought he was a god?" Ami asked, intrigued by the new information. She had only exchanged a few words with the late emperor of the Avatar Islands, but his actions had given her no reason to doubt his sanity.
Nurgil took a long sip of blood before answering. "No, Keeper, he was not that delusional. Planning to become one, perhaps, but well aware of his own limitations."
The tiger-striped girl's eyes widened. "Ascend to godhood? Is that even possible?" Was that a way to get her soul back, and did it involve anything she would want no part of?
Nurgil shrugged his shoulders. "Who knows? Zarekos was a genius in the fields of thaumaturgy and sorcery. I won't pretend that I understand even half of his research. Whether his actions were based on well-founded theory, or simply the desperate flailing of a madman trying to free himself from this blasted wasteland, I cannot tell." He took another sip from his glass. "Demented as the idea may seem, he was indeed able to derive some power from the prayers of the lesser undead he kept within the structure. Perhaps, given time, he might have achieved his goal."
Ami remained silent for a while as she pondered the news and wondered about the implications of apotheosis. Even if it was possible, was it something she would want? She didn't know all that much about the gods, but there was one thing she was sure they were not: human. In any case, she had more pressing concerns. "Is your former Keeper seeking the temple's power?"
"I rather doubt it would work for anyone else without rebuilding it from the ground up," Nurgil said, waving his bony fingers dismissively. "As for Wemos' motives - well, I suppose he intends to plunder it. The late Master used it as a repository for things he wanted to keep out of our hands, since the interior is surrounded by a water-filled trench. He may also wish to add the worshippers to his forces."
"How many does the temple hold?"
"I do not know precisely, but it is filled to the brim with the lesser undead. Skeletons kneel in supplication before the statues, and the air is thick with densely-packed ghosts. Low thousands, I would estimate."
Ami gasped involuntarily at the vampire's dispassionate description. The numbers involved were higher than she had expected.
"I wouldn't worry about them just yet," Nurgil continued, "since Wemos will be busy for quite some time pressing them all into his service and keeping them from simply wandering off. Which reminds me," he put the stein down and pushed it aside, "Have you started working on the graveyard I require?"
"I did set a room aside for it in the eastern part of the dungeon," Ami said, suppressing a wince at the reminder that her conversation partner was, in fact, one of the living dead. "However, I suspect that there is more to it than just a tomb and a few coffins?"
The vampire nodded gravely. "Indeed there is. I shall reproduce the necessary schematics for you, if given access to a suitably-stocked library. While I am only familiar with the design in general, I have no doubt that I can reproduce its entirety if I can consult the literature for some of the finer details."
"That's agreeable. I'll construct a small workroom here in the water-free part of the dungeon." Ami paused, and looked almost embarrassed before she continued. If she had been an outside observer, she would have been vaguely amused at the sight of a tall youma putting her hands together in front of herself like a fidgeting schoolgirl. "Um, I'm afraid you'll have to work on your own, though. The warlocks don't like vampires for some reason, and won't agree to help."
"Not unexpected. They are jealous of the magical gifts that come naturally to us, and which they waste most of their mortal lifespan in pursuit of."
"That sounds like a weak reason," Ami said, not taking her eyes of the creature's spindly fingers that never ceased moving. I find it more likely that they take offence to the hungry predator feeling that you are giving off, she thought, but didn't say.
"Well, I suppose it doesn't help that the brainy types taste better," Nurgil allowed. "Of course, as per our agreement, I shall restrain my appetite," he added with a winning grin that made his fangs gleam.
Somehow, Ami didn't feel very reassured.
Jered and Cathy walked past the various dimly-lit alcoves that lined the walls of Mercury's workshop much like small shops would line a busy street. Hammering noises, hissing, and odd smells assaulted the wavy-haired man's senses as the various greenskins inside worked with metal. He also spotted the violet hues of warlock robes moving about in the smoke and mist as the magicians mixed alchemical substances or cast spells over crucibles. He clanked along on his way, still trying to get used to his new suit of armour, and almost bumped into his girlfriend when she stopped to have a longer look into one of the smithies. "What's up?"
"I'm wondering how they make those individual suits of armour so fast," the blonde said. "It's not like one size fits all." Within the cluttered alcove stood one of the dark elves, her white skin contrasting strongly with the sooty walls. She was in her undies and pulling down the hem of her brown shirt, glaring all the while at a warlock standing close enough to violate her personal space. However, it turned out that his interest in her bare legs was at least partly professional. He muttered a few incantations and wriggled his fingers, and the piece of armour that the troll kneeling in front of her was affixing to her legs changed shape to better fit around her calves. This didn't stop her from glaring at him, though.
"Transformation magic? Won't they revert back?" Cathy whispered.
Jered shook his head. "That's not the final armour, just a conjured place holder. Look!"
The troll unfastened the boots and greaves and disassembled them into several pieces, which he handed over to an assistant. The other troll placed each individual part into a separate container full of viscous potter's clay and covered them with the substance, taking great care to fill in all holes and to remove any air bubbles. Meanwhile, the warlock murmured a spell over a finished suit of plate mail that stood against the back wall and produced a copy of a different part.
"Oh, I see. They use them to bake moulds," Cathy said as she watched the prepared clay trays being shoved into a kiln.
"Yeah, when the conjured pieces have dissipated, they only need to pour steel into the hollows," Jered said. "Assembly and making sure all the joints and enchantments work properly takes a while, though."
"So where can I get my own?" the blonde asked, hooked her arm around Jered's, and pulled him along when the dark elf shot a nasty look at the two uninvited observers.
"Over there." Jered pointed further down the hall at one of the reddish-glowing openings in the back. "That's where I got mine."
"Back already? Does the armour need some adjustments?" a cranky troll wearing a leather apron frowned at Jered's when the knight-like figure approached.
"No, we are here for Cathy," the weasel-featured man said, nodding toward the tall woman standing next to him.
The troll cocked his head as he took in the blonde's senshi outfit. "Nah. No armour for her."
"Excuse me?" The swordswoman's voice could have cut steel, and she underlined her very vocal protest by putting her arms akimbo and glowering down on the shorter creature.
Unimpressed, the pot-bellied greenskin picked his nose. "You heard me. Keeper's orders."
With a sigh, the troll stopped his disgusting activity. "Because you are supposed to get a copy of her own version, whenever that's done. Something about it putting too much strain on the average creature, though I don't see why some silly skirt," he pointed with his dirty index finger at Cathy's blue fuku, "would help with that. Anyway, I'm not working on that, so go away."
"You don't look as if you are particularly busy right now, though," the swordswoman said, not mollified in the least. Suddenly, she perked up. "Did Mercury say anything about weapons?"
The troll suddenly looked uncertain. "No?"
"Good!" Cathy rubbed her hands and grinned. "I need a new sword. Two-hander, with as many enchantments as you can handle!"
"Everyone always wants a magic weapon," the broad-nosed creature grumbled and turned toward the doorway leading into his personal workspace. "Fine, follow me and-"
"NO! No, no, no. Venna, stop badgering that poor troll! You can't have form-fitting armour!" a loud female voice echoed through the hall, and heads turned in its direction.
Jered recognised the speaker as one of the dark elf prisoners whom Mercury had recruited. She was already wearing a suit of plate mail similar to his own. However, his gaze was irresistibly drawn to her companion, who was leaning down toward one of the smiths and putting her hands onto his anvil to steady herself. Her pose accentuated her long legs and shapely, white-skinned backside that was covered only by a few tiny straps of black leather.
"Ow!" Cathy's exclamation was accompanied by a clanging noise, and she rubbed her elbow while sending a death glare at the piece of metal covering Jered's ribs. He grinned. This armour idea just might have some merits, after all.
"Form-fitting armour. Hah, who'd even want a stupid thing like that, anyway?" the troll smith standing behind the anvil commented, leaning on his hammer and raising an eyebrow at the nearly nude elf.
"Me! And it's easy, too! A quick fire-immunity spell and a short dip in the molten metal would be all it takes!"
"Are you daft, woman? How would you breathe once the metal hardened? Or, you know, take it off?"
"Do I look like a smith to you? It's your job to make it work!"
"Forget it." The troll shook his head as Venna stomped off, and turned to the other dark elf. "Is she always like this?"
"Unfortunately. Just prepare the normal armour for her, she'll-"
A subdued splashing noise, followed by the troll's half-startled, half-angry shout interrupted Eline. "Argh! Someone, get that fool elf out of the smelter!"
Eline burrowed her face in her palm, then hurried after her unstable companion. "Venna! Come back here before the metal hardens!"
Cathy stared after the metal-coated female sprinting off into the distance, chased by several irate greenskins and leaving molten footprints in her wake. "Does this kind of thing happen often around here?"
"Not since we banned the goblins from the premises. You wanted a sword, yes? If so, come along and..."
"Hey Mercury, could you come over here and help with a little problem?"
Ami appeared next to Cathy in a flash of blue, still in Tiger's fuku-clad body. In her left hand, she held a wrench, and a spot of grease marred her left cheek. "Hello Cathy. What do you need help with?"
The blonde pointed at the ground. "One of your underlings got a bit stuck."
The young Keeper gasped and covered her mouth with one hand when she spotted Venna's head topping what looked like a well-endowed metal statue. The albino was starting to look bluish in the face.
"...told you so," Eline didn't even attempt to hide the smugness in her voice as she berated her incapacitated companion. "So did everyone else."
"Can you get her out of there?" the blonde swordswoman asked. "The trolls looked pretty eager to use some of their larger pliers and cutters to get her out of her self-inflicted confinement."
"Why is she- never mind." Ami nodded. "This shouldn't be too different from extracting someone from a crystal." She concentrated on the immobilised woman lying before her, and focused on transporting her - and only her - to a position a few meters to the right of where she was.
"Yargh!" Venna yelped when she appeared, separate from her metal coating."Ow! Ow! Ouch!"
"Is something wrong?" Ami asked worriedly as she gave the elf a quick once-over. She couldn't see any injuries, even if the elf's pale skin was reddening all over, and conjured a blanket to preserve the woman's non-existent modesty.
Eline giggled. "Add 'all body hair gets ripped out, painfully' to the list of reasons never to do this again." More serious, she bowed in Mercury's direction. "Thank you for your assistance, Keeper. I'm sure she will be quite happy with the standard armour from now on."
"Um, right. Try to keep her out of trouble."
"Hey, where did the metal go?" Cathy asked when she looked at the spot where the Venna-shaped armour should have been.
Three goblins walking on tiptoes, with the statue held over their heads, froze like deer in the headlight as the others became aware of their presence. Thinking quickly, the big-eared creatures dashed for the exit, not letting go of their prize.
"Eh? What was that all about?" the scar-faced blonde wondered.
Ami just shrugged her shoulders. "I'm already happy as long as they don't loot anything important. Is Jered already done teaching them about spider anatomy, then?" the currently teal-haired Keeper wanted to know.
"I think he called it a day once he got it into their heads that they should aim for the narrow part and stay away from the poisonous end. Say, are they going to get armour too?"
Ami shook her head. "No, I wouldn't be able to equip all of them. Besides, I need them as pilots, not as front line troops. Each of them has a few of the shield charms for personal protection, though. I am mainly focusing on making the new pilot hall safer. "
"New pilot hall?" Cathy asked.
"Oh, right, you haven't seen it yet." Ami said with a smile. "Hold on, I'll show you!"
A moment later, the two appeared in a large, domed room whose raw ice ceiling glittered in blue tones.
"Whoa, you have been busy," the swordswoman said as she took in the spacious hall that hadn't been there the day before. She took a few steps through the hip-deep clouds of fog that drifted silently through the room. The hexagons covering the floor like honeycombs caught her attention, and she tapped against one with her foot.
"Having some captured imps helps a lot," Ami said. Noting the blonde's interest, she made an upward gesture with her fingers, and the six-sided metal column whose top Cathy had prodded rose out of the floor. "This are the new pilot pods," Ami explained as the capsule's door swung open. "They retract into the ground so they are safe from wide-area spells, and there are so many that the enemy shouldn't be able to easily target the occupied ones. The fog adds another layer of safety. I hope Jadeite can put up some illusions to fool scrying attempts, too, once we start using this place."
"Any idea when that will be?"
"Nero has been quiet and only fortifying his dungeon so far," Ami said, noticing how the blonde's hand went to the pommel of her sword at his name. "It will be either when he attempts to move out, or when we can afford to run the entire force of reaperbots. Can you go think up some assault plans in the meantime, please?" Ami lifted her wrench, "I don't have the time to spare between harassing his forces and maintaining the gem furnaces."
"Hah, there goes another one! Pay up," a black-bearded warlock thrust his fist in the air victoriously. He swivelled on his chair, away from his scrying window and toward the bald magician sitting to his left.
"That one doesn't count! It's still holding onto the ledge," the other man protested, pointing at the imp on the screen. The bug-eyed creature was dangling precariously over a deep, dark chasm that glowed red at the bottom. It shuddered and gritted its teeth while it desperately dug its fingertips into the gaps between the cobblestones and held on for dear life.
"Oh." The first warlock's face fell. "Let go already, you cretinous little piece of filth! Your life isn't worth anything!" He hissed at the screen as if the imp could hear him.
"No, hold on little one! Don't give up," the other contradicted as he zoomed in on the life-and-death struggle.
"Don't cheer on the enemy, you moron!" the first warlock shouted. "That's treason!"
"I'll cheer on whoever I want if it makes me win the bet!"
"It won't," the other warlock said, sounding smug. "Look, the Keeper's going to finish what she started!"
On the screen, Ami's hand of water appeared over the bridge, approaching the imp it had previously failed to properly send tumbling to its doom. To the surprise of everyone involved, the disembodied limb billowed and shot off to the side, where it smashed into the yellow dungeon wall and dispersed.
"Hah, I win!" The pro-imp warlock grinned as a pale figure glided into the scene, trailing a waving black cloak. Standing on a cloud that obscured his feet, the vampire floated toward the dangling form and plucked it off its perch.
"Fucking bloodsuckers," the other warlock grumbled and crossed his arms in front of his weedy chest. His sour expression suddenly turned into a grin. "Well, will you look at that!"
On screen, the vampire turned the imp head-over, ripped its neck open, and guzzled down the blood as if he was chugging from a bottle.
"The imp's dead. I win!"
"No way! The Keeper didn't kill it, and now she never will! Pay up!"
"Like hell I will!"
The two glared at each other, moustaches quivering in anger. Their hands slowly inched toward their staves, but before they could resolve their conflict in a more violent way, the door to the command centre banged open. In an instant, the two sat with rigid backs on their chairs and stared intently into the glass panes.
Jadeite strode into the room, uncaring that the closing door wings behind him almost smacked Cathy in the face. "Give it a rest already! No matter how much you beg, I can't do it! It's not possible to portal magma into his dungeon if there isn't any in the local Underworld!"
"Aw, that's too bad," Cathy pouted "I really wanted to see that bastard roast again, even if he can survive it!"
"Take a look at the screens," Jered said as he walked in past the two. "He'd probably like it if you poured more lava into his dungeon, since he's doing such a good job of it all by himself." The wavy-haired man nodded in the direction of one of the active displays, where a red-glowing waterfall of molten rock poured from an open floodgate set in the wall. "He's currently draining one of the lava lakes on the surface into his complex."
"You call that a complex? It's just a giant pit!" The blonde swordswoman scratched her head as she followed the plummeting lava with her eyes. It plunged down into the darkness until it hit the bottom of the basin, where it pooled. "Any idea why he's trying to turn his dungeon into a fake volcano crater?"
"Defensibility," Jered guessed. "I'd say assaulting the dungeon heart over one of those rickety bridges would be pretty damn dangerous for anything that can't fly." The artefact in question stood on a steep rock spire that protruded like a stalagmite from the centre of the fiery lake.
"And he's adding lava because a drop like that obviously wouldn't be deadly enough on its own," Cathy criticised.
"Ah, I can shed some light on that, if you don't mind, Commander," one of the warlocks who had been fighting earlier offered.
"Well, the Keeper was here earlier, and when she spotted that spire, her eyes kind of lit up. Turned out she couldn't just use her water hand and a pick to send the entire central platform tumbling down, though, since the enemy imps fortified the slopes. She looked pretty frustrated when she found out that the lava stopped her from getting at it from below, too."
"Yes, I'm glad she's sensible and doesn't take it out on us valuable minions," the other mage interjected quickly.
"Okay, so there's a point to it," Cathy said as she walked over to the command chair. "Which leaves us with the pleasure of having to assault the dungeon heart over the narrow bridges with no railings, and with enemy vampires owning the airspace - count those for me, will you-"
"We have so far identified nine different vampires working for that Keeper," the evil wizard reported.
"- and an entire colony worth of giant spiders hangs from the ceiling. Joy." Cathy finished.
"Those are only the obvious dangers," Jered said. "Don't forget the traps. The dungeon heart's platform isn't flat, but a dome, and it looks excessively slippery. Nero has also installed hidden blades and who-knows-what else in the ground. Oh, and we shouldn't forget about his reaper, either."
Cathy sighed. "Okay, so he's a paranoid bastard. We better start working on- hey, is the dungeon heart supposed to glow that colour?"
The novice Keeper flinched at the happy tone of voice his master was using. It usually was a harbinger of bad news. His swarm-body levitated down from his first dungeon heart and bowed to the red-eyed spider that had wandered in through the portal.
"I really like what you have done with your other dungeon. Who knows, I might still be able to make good use of you after this is over!"
"I certainly hope so, Mistress," he said, meaning it. The alternative implied him being dead.
"I'm sure you do. Go ahead and cast the spell," Arachne ordered, all cheerfulness gone from her voice.
Bad news indeed. "Now?"
"No time like the present."
"But I am broke right now! Can't you donate some-"
"Yes, mistress." With hanging shoulders, the unfortunate minion summoned the gold-plated tome. It floated in the air in front of the humanoid insect swarm and let out a soft hum as the Nero spread his arms and turned a sizeable amount of gold into raw power. Its pages seemed to vibrate with eagerness as the warlock slowly intoned the words, feeling as if he was proclaiming his own death sentence. With each syllable, the magic built up further and reached out toward his remote dungeon.
Far away, the slow and steady heartbeat of his second dungeon heart stopped for an instant, its glow neither waxing nor waning its colour changed from white to red. The moment of stillness passed, and a pulse of power rushed outward from the crystal orb, invisible except for the dust it disturbed and the cobwebs it rustled in passing. The artefact's heartbeat resumed, quicker and more excited than before.
Ami floated in front of her gem-making apparatus and reached out to tighten another screw. Her arm froze in mid motion when a near-imperceptible shudder went through the machinery. What is going on? she wondered as the vibrating parts clinked against each other. A strange sensation, not unlike frozen claws drawing lines on her skin, washed over her. She let go of her screwdriver and was rather surprised when it clattered to the floor instead of vanishing into Keeper storage. Seriously worried now, she summoned her Mercury computer and vanished in a flash of blue.
"Mercury! W-what is this awful feeling?" Jered asked as soon as he spotted her step out of a swirl of snowflakes.
"I don't know! It feels like some sort of pressure is weighing on the entire dungeon." Ami was looking around with her visor in full scanning mode. "Did you notice anything unusual?"
"Well, Nero's dungeon heart started pulsing in red just before the feeling hit," Cathy said, her arms wrapped tightly around herself as if she was cold.
Ami spared the relevant scrying window a glance before focusing on the task of tracking down the disturbance again. "Hmm, it's coming from - my dungeon heart? Some kind of spell." Ami's eyes widened in shocked surprise as she adjusted some parameters and looked back and forth between the screen and her palmtop's display. "This is insane! Nero has somehow linked his dungeon heart to my own! Why would he-" she said mostly to herself while her fingers clattered over the keyboard of her Mercury computer at a breakneck pace. "They are fighting each other!" she concluded.
"That doesn't sound good," Cathy volunteered. "What can we do to make sure yours wins?"
"I'm looking into it," Ami blurted out. "There's more to the spell. Why are all of you feeling the effects too? If it target's the heart, I should be the only one affected." The blue-haired girl bit her lower lip and paled when the preliminary analysis flitted over her screen. "Oh! Both hearts are drawing strength from each underling linked to them."
"Is it going to drain us dry?" Jered's worried voice asked into the sudden silence that was only disturbed by Ami's furious typing.
"No," Ami answered, sounding relieved. "It's using everyone as a shield to block the attacks targeted at it. Since none of us are dungeon hearts it shouldn't be harmful, so why..." She frowned. "Oh, darn it! It's much worse than I thought! The magic is locking me out from my transportation powers, and it's amplifying in intensity with each reflection!"
"What's going to happen?"
Ami leaned deeper over her computer, giving her work her full attention. A clock counting from six minutes downwards appeared near the edge of the screen. With a defeated sigh, she let herself sink back into her chair. "It- it's going to continue building up until it can yank everyone connected to either dungeon heart over to Nero's fortress for a decisive battle! Whichever heart runs out of troops first will shatter!"
"WHAT? But it's full of traps and spiders over there!" Cathy screeched, instinctively grabbing her sword. The warlocks in the room didn't look too enthused either. "Can't you stop it?"
Ami shook her head, her throat feeling very dry all of a sudden. "Not in that short amount of time left."
"Can we evacuate? No, wait, if we do, your dungeon heart breaks and we are screwed anyway!" the blonde swordswoman said. "We'll have to fight!"
"I'm so sorry." Ami looked at the ground the corners of her eyes glittering wetly.
"Pull yourself together," Jadeite said, uncrossing his arms as he approached from his corner. "If Nero wants us over there, he's going to get more than he bargained for! I'm a general of the dark kingdom, and no lowly spiders are going to make lunch out of me! We will simply have to smash that uppity dungeon heart when we get there!"
"You are right." Ami ruthlessly brushed aside the encroaching despair. This wasn't the time for her to freeze up and feel sorry for herself. With three long strides, she was at the door leading out of the command centre and pushed it open hard enough that both wooden wings clattered against the walls outside. "Follow me! There's no time to lose!" "Everyone to my throne room, and I mean everyone! Drop whatever you are doing and come here if you want to live! Carry those who can't move on their own, if necessary! Gear up for battle and bring any combat equipment you can use!"
Tiger's long and muscular legs carried Ami at a brisk pace through the corridors, but her racing thoughts were far ahead of her. A moment later, Cathy jogged up alongside her.
The swordswoman had to dodge a door that suddenly flew open, revealing a warlock who had his staff wedged underneath his elbow and had his robe the wrong way on. He quickly hobbled after them. Unperturbed, she asked "What's your plan?"
"Prepare everyone for the battle as well as possible. You and Jered, bring the other minions up to speed. I'll cast the fire-protection spell on everyone. Everyone needs to know what to expect and how to react as soon as we arrive." The door of the throne room came into view. "Let's get ready!"
"...and if you manage to set yourself on fire somehow, give the nearest spider a hug," a warlock advised as he distributed magic wands to the scythe-wielding goblins, whose automatons would most certainly not be available in the coming battle.
Ami pulled her attention from the scene and let her gaze wander over the nervous troops, her forehead covered with cold sweat. All was said and done, and now she just had to wait for the inevitable. Nurgil, in the form of a large, amulet-wearing bat, circled over her head. Multi-coloured lights flashed as the warlocks cast protective spells on themselves and waved their staves. One of the armoured dark elves stopped checking her crossbow and put a reassuring hand on the shoulders of a smaller, portlier figure in plate armour, who was shaking in fear. Snyder, his pallor hidden behind his helmet, had not taken the news well. Ami hoped that his bag of wards would keep him safe. The trolls, only some of whom had opted to make armour for themselves, were the only ones who seemed largely unaffected by the atmosphere of nervousness.
Ami's lips clenched into a thin line as the countdown inexorably approached zero. "Everyone, get ready! It is time. Three. Two. One. NOW!"
The pressure weighting down on her seemed to intensify a hundredfold, and space twisted. For an instant, she saw her reflection in the curved crystal of a dungeon heart as it spat her out and sent her hurtling through the air. The world spinning around her was filled with flailing limbs and flying bodies while the enemy dungeon heart continued spewing out friend and foe in all directions. Ami instinctively teleported higher up before hitting the sloping ground, letting the fat green spider behind her smack into the yellow tiles instead. Her heart skipped a beat at the chaotic mess she saw from the air. There was no hope of establishing clean, separate formations or protective perimeters with the way the warriors were arriving. From the huge crystal orb occupying the highest point of the rock spire, an expanding circle of troops rolled and skidded down the slopes and toward the edge of the platform. Fighting both gravity and the enemies they were tangled with, the soldiers had little hope of slowing their descent.
"Jadeite! Do it!"Ami called as she zoomed toward the edge of the hundreds of meters deep abyss, ready to catch as many of her warriors as she could. To her relief, the dark general must have heard her over the cacophony of pained yells and angry chirps, since the hill's slippery surface turned into a thick, sticky swamp that killed the avalanche's forward momentum. Phew. That's one trap reversed. Now where is everyone?
"Shabon Spray!" Thick mist rose from behind the dungeon heart, giving Ami a good hint as to where Cathy had landed. By now, the young Keeper had spotted the hundreds of white strings shooting toward the ceiling from the melee. Spiders, some covered in mud, others with red-painted mandibles, pulled themselves up toward the curtain of cobwebs above. Makes sense that Nero has a way to escape his own trap. Her anger grew when she saw a warlock struggle briefly in the grasp of one of the ascending beasts and then go still.
The spiders weren't the only ones rising above the battle, which was starting in earnest now that the combatants had pulled themselves to their feet. Nine black-coated figures standing on tiny clouds circled the airspace like vultures, occasionally casting spells at their enemies below. The sight of three dozen giant flies making it into the air to escape from their mortal enemies was much more heartening to Ami, as were Mareki and Jadeite appearing above the crowd. She felt like cheering when the green-tressed youma unhinged her jaw and swept the torrent of water shooting from her mouth around in a full circle, cutting through the silk lines that the spiders were hanging from.
Ami's earlier outcry hadn't just drawn a reaction from Jadeite, though. One of the enemy vampires was blurring towards her, and she dove out of his path with an undignified squeal when her Keeper hand failed to manifest. Right, my transportation powers are still knocked out! A quick Shabon Spray Freezing to the face punished the returning bloodsucker for his all-too-predictable attack vector, sending his ice-encased body tumbling into the lava-filled abyss below. Naturally, the monster simply teleported out of his confinement during the fall, and Ami muttered a curse as she lost track of him.
"Crap! Move it, Jered!" Cathy shouted as she threw herself aside, narrowly dodging a vampire who was swooping down on her like a bird of prey. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her boyfriend land on a spider and ram a dagger into its body before it could get out from underneath his armoured bulk.
The spiders with their spindly legs had much more trouble with the swamp than their outnumbered opponents, which gave the latter a fighting chance. Nevertheless, the things remained too dangerous for Cathy's tastes. The swordswoman ducked under the snapping mandibles of the arachnid that had tried to jump on her back and rammed her sword through its thorax up to its heft. As she hurried to kick the corpse off of her ichor-splattered weapon, she searched for the vampire. Over there, floating and glowering down at her and the scythe-wielding goblins doing their best to establish a perimeter around her and keep the spiders at bay. Two of the small green forms were already down, looking like deflated puppets from the poison dissolving their organs. The blonde shuddered.
"This mist is annoying," the pale undead declared, baring his fangs. "Begone!" He thrust both hands forward, releasing a gale of wind that hit everything in a cone in front of him.
Cathy felt as if she had been punched in the gut, and her feet lost contact with the ground. Her blue eyes widened in terror when the force of the wind carried her and the surrounding creatures over the edge of the platform in a ballistic trajectory. She screamed. Around her, the falling spiders threw silken lifelines and arrested their fall, leaving her and the goblins to plummet to their doom alone.
Suddenly, the air flashed blue, and a small hand closed around her Cathy's. The resulting jerk almost dislocated her left arm. "Mercury! I have never been so glad to see you."
Four giant flies buzzed past, grabbing a falling goblin each. "You are welcome." Ami nodded with a bitter smile when the remaining two goblins splashed into the lava below and she felt their deaths resonate through her Keeper link.
Snowflakes enveloped Cathy, and she was suddenly in a quieter zone of the battlefield, staring at the backs of three warlocks. The monstrous spiders trying to batter down the transparent forcefield that the magicians were maintaining felt much to close for comfort. Streamers of fire launched into the air, incinerating many of the spider webs that the mass of arachnids on the ceiling was raining down on the battle. Three of the protected wizards linked their hands and finished a chant, and a large fireball shot upwards. It slammed into the ceiling like an exploding comet and caused stone and charred spider bits to rain drop down the battlefield. "Why don't you have Jadeite turn the ground into oil, instead of this muck, and set it on fire? We are fireproof, they aren't."
"We'd asphyxiate," Ami said simply before she renewed the mist that offered cover for her troops.
"Okay." Cathy jumped high to stab an abseiling spider into the belly, and looked around. "Where's Marda? Aren't the trolls supposed to keep the vampires off our backs?"
Wincing, Ami pointed to a typhoon of carnage that raged in a different section of the battle and sent blood and goblin parts flying through the air. "Reaper defence."
In a lane filled with mutilated corpses, Marda and the reaper were locked in a deadly dance that neither opponent knew how to end quickly. Like her opponent, the female troll avoided sinking into the mud and maintained her mobility by hopping from corpse to corpse as she traded blows with her enemy. The surrounding goblins made the battle all the more frustrating for hers. Trapped between the reaper and too many spiders to count, the little creatures were firing their wands until they were empty. Sometimes, they even managed to zap a spider, but since they rightfully considered the reaper a greater threat, Marda had to swerve and weave between the multi-coloured beams of friendly fire. The reaper treated their attacks more like a game, interpreting any potshots at him as a "please kill me" sign. To Marda's great annoyance, the demon wasn't giving her his full attention, despite her constant interference. She was a difficult target, and the goblins were easy, so the murderous beast took any opportunity to gain some distance and crush, mutilate, or behead the short green warriors.
She blocked a furious scythe blow, making sure to parry the heft of the weapon, rather than the blade. The strength of the blow forced her to hop back into the cover of the Keeper's fog, which allowed the blood-soaked fiend to cut another goblin in half at the waist. Her fury grew with each kill. She troll felt little compassion for the green-skinned vermin, but each soldier struck down this way was a failure to do her duty, to stop the demonic killing machine. Marda hated nothing more than failure, and each hacked-apart goblin added to her rage. With a growl, she swung her blurring warhammer into the belly of an attacking spider, flipping it over. A short hop, and she was surfing the struggling body down the slope to have yet another go at her demonic enemy.
A twister of insects swirled around a glowing crystal ball sitting on a low pedestal. The swarms constant buzzing modulated itself into an excited voice as Arachne spoke. "It is time, my dear Alphel. My minion has just put the final phase of my plan into action. Mercury's end is near!"
"Remember, I will be the one to kill Mercury," the red-eyed darkness in the scrying orb rumbled in a gravelly voice.
"Yes, of course," Arachne granted. "I don't care who gets rid of her, as long as she's punished for her impertinence and out of my hair. Ah, how much do you think Morrigan will be kicking himself for not listening to my plan when he had the chance?"
"Who cares about that fool?" Alphel feigned disinterest. "Lord Azzathra will be waiting to snatch up the blue-haired worm when she passes through his realm. He will be rather cross with me if I wasted his time. You had better hope that does not happen, because if it does, I will take it out on you tenfold!"
"Oh, I'm shaking in my boots. Or I would be, if I had any. Or if I thought that there was any way that Mercury could wiggle out of this one," the cloud of insects mocked, contracting and expanding rapidly as it laughed.
"So you say. Let's get on with it, then!"
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