"The troops are as ready as they can possibly be," Cathy reported, her hair waving horizontally in the storm like a golden banner.
Ami narrowed her eyes because of the sleet spraying into her face and looked past the blonde, out into the churning sea and to the dark cliffs of the Avatar islands. Even with the fiery red clouds of her predecessor displaced by the sheet lightning of her tempest, the continent looked only slightly less foreboding than before. Distant lightning reflected off black metal carapace as reaper automatons emerged from behind a towering ice spike, making crunching noises with each step as they approached.
"We don't expect problems with vampires during the transfer over the ocean," Cathy added as she followed Mercury's gaze. "There aren't enough ghosts in the immediate vicinity to mass up into dangerous quantities, either." Her smile became vicious. "Your new hireling is doing his work with frightening enthusiasm. Likewise, the reaperbots and patrolling warlocks should be able to handle any enemy forces that might teleport in."
"I'm most concerned about taking spell damage from enemy Keepers," Ami said, "but we should have at least some warning due to my computer, and Jadeite stands ready to negate any structural damage, should it become necessary." She looked down at the ice underneath her feet, which lit up and dimmed in concert with a slow and regular heartbeat that rumbled deep below. "All right! Let's get the dungeon heart to its new position!"
Cathy nodded and put her helmet on as she turned around, unhampered by the sleek black armour she was wearing. The design mirrored Ami's own, and with its black lacquer and rib-like protrusions, it showed an unmistakable family resemblance to the reaperbots. In performance though, it was much closer to the model the young Keeper had used during the Azzathra-sponsored duel than to the huge robots. The power requirements were commensurately higher, necessitating its fuel to be carried as sapphires, rather than gold. Due to the miniature treasure chamber Ami had built into the suits, they could gradually convert the gems into many times their weight in gold, which in turn sated the enchantments' hunger. To her disappointment, using the technology to make an army of higher-powered bots had turned out a pipe dream. Even if she had the gems to spare, she wouldn't be able to use these creations to attack, since the treasure chamber-derived designs just stopped working when out of contact with the dungeon for too long. For Ami herself, this was not a problem, since she was a mobile piece of her own territory. Cathy, however, would be in trouble if she left the dungeon for more than a few minutes.
Ami had no intention to use the swordswoman on the front lines if it could be avoided, so she did not consider that limitation too daunting. With a smile, she spread her arms, and the flank of her iceberg facing the continent started to change. She enjoyed building with her Keeper powers much more than unleashing destruction. A bulge appeared in its side, and whenever the foam-tipped waves breaking against the massive wall of ice retreated, they left behind an additional layer of ice, helping the protrusion grow. Puffs of blue light rose up from its wet surface as the imps within laboured at a breakneck speed to claim it as new territory before the next waves washed over it. Under Ami's control, a dam-like foundation was growing, acting as support for the massive, glittering arches that held up the bridge she was building. She saw Cathy shout something, and a few of the scythe-wielding automatons stepped from the deck onto the first section of the construction. The bridge continued growing, sloping down slightly toward the shore, which was still almost a kilometre away.
Cathy watched the tall black figures become smaller in the distance as they marched down the wide structure. "Can you really afford to spend so much on a bridge just to move the dungeon heart?"
Ami shook her head. "This costs me almost nothing. I'm using the seawater as raw material, not creating new matter from gold, and ice magic has always come easily to me. I also don't have to build this to last."
"Oh, that's good. It would be a shame if you had nothing left over to recreate our rooms. I'm already missing the hot water." She let her teeth chatter for emphasis.
Ami covered her mouth with her right hand and laughed. "I think the climate will be much more to your liking when I remodel the corruption effects. Since we are on land now, the storm has to go. The environment won't be able to recover as long as it's going on."
"But your windmills?"
"They are above ground and therefore a liability. If I change to a lava-based effect, I should be able to power the generators with steam instead. As a side effect, we should have as much warm water as you like. I could even add a heated swimming pool."
"Ohhh. I can't wait!"
"Torian here," a male voice called in Ami's mind, and the amusement disappeared from her features. Her mental perspective shifted to look at the warlock seated on a stone bench between two polished granite columns decorated with frost patterns. A cloudy glow from the rectangular pool at his feet illuminated his stubbly chin. "Wemos' forces are about to breach the temple gate.
With an eardrum-splitting bang, the vampire-propelled ram struck the massive vault door and bent it further inwards. The gate's tortured metal, already concave from the repeated previous impacts, groaned as it tore lose from its bracing and toppled into the room behind it. To the watching vampire Wemos, its slow descent, cushioned by the pressure of the ghosts behind it, couldn't finish fast enough. He was almost drooling in anticipation of the troops and powerful objects he would get out of this endeavour, which would boost him in power enough to weather the retribution that the Underworld cities would attempt to visit upon him. Zarekos was a pathetic fool, too cowardly to seize the opportunities he had, and too chained down to this continent with his many dungeon hearts. Not so him! He would use his new-found armies to swarm through the portals into the Underworld, sack a few cities before they could form a proper response, and then create a new heart in a secret location. What did he care if this one was lost? He would be back from banishment before his new one could be found! Keeper Mercury was welcome to this worthless wasteland if she wanted it, he thought magnanimously. After all, when she destroyed the former Lord of this realm, she had created this opportunity for him to step out of Zarekos' overbearing shadow and show off his true brilliance.
A vampire left the black or red-clad semicircle of robed beings surrounding the opening, which howled with the haunting voices of the spectres, and turned to face Wemos. "Keeper! There's someth-" With a loud smack, the pale creature who had spoken up flew backwards and crashed into the wall, right next to the open gate from which white, glowing matter was oozing out.
"Call me Emperor, you fool!" Wemos shouted, slapping the speaker remotely a second time as soon as the victim in question had lifted himself back to his knees. "Now get back to dominating the ghosts and having them lower the bridge!"
With his face hidden behind the high collar of his cloak, the struck vampire dared glaring back at his master. "That was what I was talking about! It's not working!"
"WHAT? That's nonsense, there's no way for simple wraiths to-" A tide of ghosts oozed forth from the opening, moving more like a mass of viscous, white-glowing syrup than a swarm of half-rotten, floating faces surrounded by a pale nimbus. The hands reaching out from the densely-packed conglomeration of moaning spectres swiped at the waiting vampires, bony claws glistening with ghostly viscerae. The dark-robed bloodsuckers drifted away from the blows like fog on a breeze, more confused than threatened. Wemos' eyes flared crimson as he, too, attempted to assert his will over the undead horde and found its grip slide off their feeble minds. Livid, he bellowed with rage. The ghosts' disobedience could only mean one thing: someone had gotten into the temple before him and enslaved them already! How could this have happened, and why didn't the occupants tear the intruder to shreds? This was completely unacceptable! It also made his current strategic situation quite precarious.
"Kee- Emperor, the ghosts are pulling back!"
"I can see that!" Wemos snarled at his sycophantic underling. With great effort, he attempted to reign in his temper, but then slapped her anyway since she wasn't worth the trouble. The brow of his borrowed body furrowed as the ghosts flattened themselves against each other, their mass parting to form a narrow passage that started at the ram. Over their moans and screeches, he could hear the rattling of thick chains as the drawbridge was lowered, bridging the water-filled channel that prevented him and his brethren from simply teleporting in. The gesture could be nothing but an invitation. Without thinking twice, Wemos rose from the ground, floating on a cloud of grey fog that swirled around his feet. He felt no concern for his safety as he darted toward the opening and through the cordon of ghosts, propelled by the anger he was feeling in the back of his mind. He wasn't risking his own body, and even his host would revive in his coffin if something happened to him. Soon, soon he would confront the fool who had dared take what was rightfully his!
The vampire Keeper easily manoeuvred through the thin space the ghosts had left free for him. He entirely ignored the skeletons milling about the floor of the octagonal chamber, which was more of a hollow subterranean tower than anything else. Even if he could have seen its smoothed and polished walls through the dense clouds of semi-transparent ghosts, he would have ignored them. Just like the other vampires, he had been forced to toil and work here for endless hours over the years, etching elaborate inlays and frescoes into the stone. If he never saw them again, it would still be too soon. Sudden motion before him drew his attention. The pathway through the ghosts tapered and closed before him. A lesser being than him might have been intimidated by the stare of hundreds of hostile faces with sunken eyes, but he was merely irritated and put his arms akimbo, returning their gaze without flinching. He wouldn't be shaken by any mind games the thief who had taken control of this place wanted to play with him! The vampire and ghosts remained frozen and unmoving like the dead things they were, neither side willing to show weakness. It took Wemos almost a minute to realise that the shimmering spectres weren't blocking his path, but that he had merely reached a bend in the route they had selected for him. Above him, a spirit-free area lead up for a long way, almost to the ceiling of the twenty-five story high room. Gritting his teeth in anger at having made himself look like a simpleton, the vampire shot upwards, past the many struts stabilising the cavernous chamber. Everlasting incense burners hung from these supports, the flames inside illuminating the ridiculously tall monument to Zarekos' pride alongside which Wemos was ascending. As if the glow from all those ghosts wasn't more than enough to shed light on his foolish statue.
About three-fourths of the way up, the irritated vampire flew through the gap in between the cupped hands of the enormous sculpture, each of whose fingers were larger than himself. From this point on, the ghost density in the air gradually diminished. When he was level with the shiny marble of the statue's forehead, there was no longer anything blocking his line of sight or his view of the pentagram graven into the statue's brow. A figure floated right in the centre of the design, with its back to him.
Silently, Wemos drifted closer, considering whether a swift surprise attack would be enough to get rid of this unexpected rival. His features were calm and unmoving, masking the simmering rage he felt. It threatened to boil over once he recognised the red cloak the intruder was wearing. The Avatar's mantle! It should rightfully be his! A moment later, the vampire's fury abated and a subdued smirk appeared on his bloodless lips. His host had to be insane to be wearing it when there was no need, or was at least unaware of the dangers. Either way, it looked as if his problem would soon resolve itself. Feeling quite a bit more cheerful than before, he called out "If you go through the trouble of inviting me in, you should at least be polite enough to not let me wait!"
"How impatient." With a rustle of heavy cloth, the floating figure turned around, revealing a transparent body behind the mantle.
Wemos gaped. A ghost, lucid and powerful enough to control the others? This was unheard of! He involuntarily took a closer look and met the creature's eyes, not recognising the trap until it was too late. A familiar and unwanted influence seeped into his mind, filling a void that he had been unaware of. An echo of this power within his own blood responded to the foreign touch, squashing even the possibility of rebellious thoughts. "M-Master?"
The ghost of Zarekos, looking disturbingly unfamiliar without the red light shining in his eyes, laughed. "Yes, Wemos. Surprised to see me yet survive?"
"How is this possible? You died! You have no dungeon hearts!" Wemos' voice became shriller and shriller as he processed what he was seeing. "How can you be a ghost? You were a vampire already! You should be gone!"
"Preparations, plans and plots, perfected and performed with precision," Zarekos stated, his cold voice reverberating through the tower. "I have discarded the destiny of all that lives and defeated death itself, and divinity is my destination! You, imbecile and ingrate though you may be, shall be instrumental to implementing my next proper incarnation. Now listen to my orders and obey!"
Ami watched the thick, straight bridge she had constructed. Calling the structure a bridge was perhaps giving it too much credit, since it implied a degree of architectural finesse that simply wasn't present. The construct was nothing more than a massive tube of solid ice, held aloft by smooth, organic-looking pillars that reached like pincers out of the ocean. In regular intervals, the bridge's middle pulsed with faint bluish light that was visible for a long way in the night. The glow originated from her dungeon heart, which she was slowly moving toward the mainland. Having it out in the open like that was rather nerve-wracking, and she'd be glad once it reached the shore and she could burrow it properly within the solid ground. Of course, once there, it would be moving much slower through the ground than it was currently sliding through the ice. This was the main reason why Ami hadn't simply performed the entire transfer underneath the sea. The bridge shaved off almost an entire day from the slow relocation process. That was one day earlier that she could focus on defeating the final Keeper. I should be happy I got the dungeon heart to move at all, she thought, it's not as if it was meant to.
With a tired sigh, she blew her bangs out of her face and resumed sliding the room forward. 'Sliding' was not really what she was doing, since to slide something forward, it couldn't be part of the surface it was sliding on. Neither was the artefact swimming or drifting. She was basically reconstructing its surroundings on the fly, ripping the walls in front of it open like a curtain and moving its matter around the dungeon heart until it was behind the artefact and pushed it forward centimetre by centimetre. It was slow, arduous work, but necessary in order to prevent breaking the connection between the dungeon heart and its territory. If she did that, her claimed regions on the continent would disappear once again, delaying her offensive against Wemos even more. Additionally, she didn't have a faster way to move the heavy thing anyway, and the time she spent on this wasn't entirely lost. While she was moving the heart, her rats were hopping over the surface toward the centre of the enemy Keeper's land, turning the ground underneath their dancing paws into tiled roads belonging to Ami's territory. Her employees weren't idle either and working without her supervision to butcher the giant carcass of the dragon. She was grateful for the coldness of her iceberg, which kept the mountain of flesh refrigerated, and for the fact that the bloody and disgusting work didn't require her personal oversight. She didn't want to imagine what it would smell like once the corpse started decomposing. There had been one unforeseen complication, though.
"Stop. It's no use! It won't budge!" the three purple-clad warlocks standing around the dark temple's pool lowered their arms, panting and letting the motes of power surrounding their staves dissipate. The dragon's limb, stuck within the depths of the shimmering liquid, hadn't moved upwards a hair's width, even with the combined power of three levitation tugging at it. The magicians looked unhappily at the emerald and blue scales that seemed to mock their efforts with their glitter.
"I suppose we'll just have to cut it off and make sure no more falls in," one of them said.
"Difficult. The flesh is rather tough. How close to the surface can we cut it off to minimise waste?"
"Well, I certainly don't want to get close enough to that water to risk touching it," the third said. "Maybe we should cut about here?" He reached out and touched the dead tissue with his index finger, making a glowing line circle the dragon's limb at around hip height. "Well, what do you think?" Someone bumped into him from behind, and he pushed back without looking. "Stop crowding me," he grunted. "Morons."
A gust of damp, hot air shot down on his neck, and he suddenly felt his hackles rise. Slowly, he raised his head until the face towering over him appeared upside-down in his field of view. He saw teeth. Many, many, finger-long and spike-like teeth. And a nose ring and red skin. With a girlish "Eeep," he ducked, lifted up his robe and darted away, almost soiling himself when he heard a scythe whistle through the air behind him. Blood splashed, and he opened his eyes, surprised to be still alive. When he turned around, he saw the demon hold a piece of dragon flesh in his hand like a melon slice, and move it toward his maw.
The warlock then proceeded to demonstrate that being highly intelligent did not necessarily imply being wise. He pointed at the chunk of meat. "H-hey, that's valuable!"
The reaper slowly turned his head into the dark mage's direction and stared at him with pupil-less white eyes. Bones cracked between his fangs as he bit it straight through them.
"I-I suppose we don't need that piece- EEEP!" The warlock sprinted off as fast as his gangly legs could carry him when the horned beast took a step toward him, scythe raised threateningly. His co-workers had already fled at the first sight of the monster.
Ami was now faced with a situation she didn't entirely like. Rabixtrel was in the temple, praying, or at least howling at the ceiling in a disturbing way. He didn't seem to care that the temple was consecrated to a dark deity he knew nothing about. Neither did the warlocks who felt inspired to follow his example. Hey, a god that was beneficial enough for a Keeper this smart was obviously good enough for them. The greater problem was that she did not want to see the demon's reaction if he returned from a hunting trip and did not find the building. Since he was a reaper, it was bound to be murderous rage. She wouldn't have hesitated to tear down the temple anyway if her scans had given her even the slightest indication that Metallia could derive life energy from their worship. There was no sign of energy drain, though. In fact, the worshippers left the place calmer and in a better-rested state than before. Ami shrugged and returned to her work. She would leave them be for the moment and keep an eye on things. Oh, and add a safety railing to the basin, just in case any goblins showed up, too.
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