Ami stood on the peak of one of the craggy mountains in the eastern half of her realm, the transparent ice forming her current body almost invisible against the bare rock. Even from this elevated vantage point, she could not yet see any trace of the dark band of storm clouds that covered her claimed territory far to the west. She closed her eyes so she could better concentrate on her Keeper senses, and focused on feeling the ground. I wonder why this works even though my eyelids are transparent, she pondered bemusedly as her vision went dark. She let her attention sink through the dry, windswept ash and dust covering the surrounding wastelands, directing it deeper and deeper into the underground.
Her supernatural senses couldn't directly see the various layers of soil and rock, but instead perceived vibrations. Ami's brain interpreted the signals as sounds, and so she roamed the depths, listening for the trickling noises of water in underground crevices and the roaring of subterranean magma. A while later, the ice statue opened her red-glowing eyes and nodded in satisfaction. Her survey had confirmed that this area was geologically inert down to a depth of at least three kilometres. She wouldn't have to worry about magma flows, caverns, or shifting tectonics creating unplanned access points to the new dungeon she was planning.
Ami retrieved her Mercury computer and summoned her visor. She snapped her glowing fingers three times, adjusting her aim with each tremor her sensors detected deep underground. Her third weakened cave-in spell had gotten close enough to where she intended to place her new dungeon. Her probing complete, she prepared to cast the attack spell again. Black, flame-like tendrils sheathed the ice golem as Ami collected power for the fourth rock-crushing spell. She detonated the spell precisely two and a half kilometres underground, and was rewarded by the thin red curve moving over her palmtop's monitor spiking off the edges of the screen. With her Keeper powers, she reached deep into the underground and took hold of some of the loose rubble she had just produced. A mental yank sent it into storage. Repeating the process, she quickly excavated a hollow large enough for an imp to swing a pick in, then delegated the digging work to a newly-created minion.
A few minutes later, Ami teleported down to the roughly-hewn cavern. The glow from her eyes was almost as bright as the light of the tiny lamp on the imp's helmet, and together, they barely managed to drive the shadows back to the furthest edges of the grotto. As soon as Ami arrived, she could feel droplets of melt water form on her exterior shell. Just as she had planned, the rock this deep underground was hotter than human body temperature, but not life-threateningly so. Feeling sorry for the sweat-drenched imp who had dug out the place in this suffocating environment, the young Keeper sent the magical creature back to the surface so she could cool off.
Ami scanned her surrounding once again to make sure she had not missed any potentially detrimental terrain features, and then concentrated on her treasury back at the iceberg's landing point. A thin strip of claimed territory, not much wider than a dirt trail and connected to Wemos' former territories, ended thirty kilometres to the west, well within the range of her transport power. A constant shower of gold coins jingled down on her frozen body as she moved them to the end of that claimed path and then used herself as target territory to get the precious metal into this cave. I wouldn't recommend repeating this in my own body, she mused when she noticed small chips and dents where the heavy pieces of yellow-glimmering currency struck her.
It didn't take too long for the teenager to fill the bottom of the room with the funds she had set aside for the creation of her new dungeon heart. She glanced down at her left wrist, where the warding armband would be glittering if someone was currently scrying on her. Finding the greenish disc inert, she nodded in satisfaction. Using her Keeper sight, she quickly located Tiger in the library. The youma was glamoured to look like her, complete with crimson-glowing eyes, and was studying a spellbook under the stern and vigilant gaze of Jadeite. So far, the decoy seemed to keep curious onlookers distracted well enough. Ami called up the schematics of her modified dungeon heart, re-reading the words for the spell a final time, and stepped over jingling gold coins into the centre of the cave. She didn't feel as nervous as the first time she had created a dungeon heart, but retained a healthy respect for the meticulous precision that the task required. With only the tiniest bit of hesitation, she spread her arms and gathered her magic. It was time to begin.
Far away, power hummed through Ami's existing dungeon hearts as she started her chant. Each syllable of her long incantation coaxed the remote artefacts through a sequence of complex instructions, helping her to give the new dungeon heart form. Underneath the ice statue's feet, the gold liquefied into a cool, white-glowing mass that gathered in a dome-like blob before her. A vast network of reddish veins glowed within Ami's frozen body as magic passed through it, but she couldn't see it as she was concentration fully on her arcane labour. Her changes to the way the dungeon heart handled corruption would result in changes to its appearance, she knew.
As predicted by her calculations, the dais that grew from the ground lacked stairs and resembled the base of a pyramid whose top had been cut off. She also had expected the four pillars surrounding regular dungeon hearts to lean toward the centre and form horizontal connections with each other at the top, similar to what the superstructure of the organic hearts looked like. Within the frame formed by the interconnected columns, lightning flared, and a dark ripple blossomed in the empty space at its centre.
This was the critical part, Ami knew, and banished all distractions from her mind. She felt relief when a crystalline eggshell formed around the distortion, slowly growing in size and volume as it gobbled up the liquefied gold that rose to meet it. However, the usual three golden statues of kneeling trolls that were supposed to carry the huge central orb on their back failed to form. Instead, the tall sphere rested on a stem that flowed like molten wax, unwilling to settle into a final form even though Ami was already approaching the final sentences of the incantation. The ruby-coloured vines slithering up along the gilded surface of the columns, glittering as if red blood was rushing through them, had not shown up in any of Ami's models either. Before she could really worry about it, she felt an irresistible pull drag her out of her current body and into the dark orb. Inside, she waited out the final phase of the construction process, during which the new artefact properly bonded with her.
Golden bands slid in place on top of the orb, signalling the end of the attuning procedure. Even if they hadn't, the ice golem remembering its imp-based origins and starting to claim the cavern would have tipped Ami off to the successful conclusion of her efforts.
"Why is it red?" the teenage Keeper wondered when the first rumbling heartbeat made the rock tremble, accompanied by a fiery orange pulse from the new dungeon heart. She appeared before the artefact, giving it a once-over. The central stalk on which the pulsating orb rested still hadn't settled on a final shape, and Ami was starting to wonder if it ever would. Covered in twisted, almost baroque decorations, the artefact bore a disturbing resemblance to the organic dungeon heart type. A hasty check with Ami's visor dispelled her awful suspicion that the dark gods had interfered in some way. From what she could tell, the changes was purely cosmetic. Manifestations of the corruption effect, now that she had loosened some of its restraints, perhaps?
She briefly swept her gaze over the walls that her golem was claiming, taking in the familiar frost patterns that had appeared. Larger and much more dominant than she was used to, they actually deformed the underlying walls and crystallised into sharp-edged protrusions of amethyst-coloured quartz. I'll need to keep an eye on this - from a safe distance, Ami decided. If she had made a mistake in the corruption-regulating mechanism somewhere, then she didn't need to find out by it twisting her own body. She had to hurry and get her fleet into the air, anyway, and now that the new heart was beating steadily, she could expand its dungeon from wherever she chose to.
On board of Ami's flagship, the young Keeper sat on a seat grown straight from the claimed floor. She kept one hand on the many-spoked steering wheel in front of her, over which she could look down at the cluttered cargo hold. Three crystal balls flanked her to her left and right, standing on separate pedestals. "Yes, Torian, I am, in fact, aware that this will keep you busy for most of the two days it will take me to get to our target. Do this well, and I'll let you have the two following days off," she addressed one of the glowing spheres.
The short-bearded face of the warlock within the curved glass brighten a bit. "Very well, your Majesty. Do you want me to grind up a particular imp?"
Ami shook her head. "I have already prepared one of the corpses my vampires fed on. Careful, I'm going to send it over now."
A large bucket filled with a greyish, blood-soaked mass appeared before him. Torian jumped backwards, pressing his hands tightly against his robes to keep the cloth from fluttering into the mess. He grimaced as the smell of the mulched imp corpse hit him. "That's it? All right. I'll prepare the tracking spell on it."
On the airship, Ami nodded. "Good. Umbra and the Beastmaster will deal with the rest. You just keep the maps updated if anything starts moving."
"Very well, my Empress."
Ami withdrew her Keeper sight from his workshops when the door flew open and a leather-clad goblin entered, staggering under the weight of a large cage stuffed with squeaking rats. She didn't need to supervise the rats being painted with the disgusting mass, although it might have proved amusing. She would get involved again when the time came for Umbra to teleport the little beasts to the Underworld. At that point, she would have to make the rats find and brush against the death cult's prisoners so some of the marked gunk would adhere to them. While Ami was fairly certain where the ritual would take place, she wanted to have warning in case the victims were being dragged to some other location.
"I have finished mapping the enemy portal locations to points on the surface world," a male voice spoke up to Ami's left.
"Thanks, Jadeite," Ami said, directing a smile at the dark general who had just appeared out of a column of purplish light. She looked down into the cargo hold, where several gas cylinders marked H2 stood separate from the much more numerous helium tanks. Intended as emergency fuel for the airship's machinery, the hydrogen contained within the gas bottles could also detonate with enough force to damage a portal. The teenager felt a lot better now that she knew she could potentially stop prisoner transit and delay Crowned Death's ritual that way if she was flying to the wrong location. "I must commend you for the smooth ride."
"Parting the air before our vessels is child's play for one such as me," the curly haired blonde said, sounding pleased with the praise. "However, I do not need to do very much at all. These airships are fairing rather well on their own."
"I'm glad to hear it," Ami said. "I haven't gotten around to properly analysing their aerodynamic properties yet, since I'm still constructing traps in the new dungeon, but that's next on my list. Feel free to take a rest if you need one. According to my projections, we will arrive at our destination in around thirty-one hours, give or take six hours depending on wind conditions."
Jadeite inclined his head. "Good. I shall be well rested before the battle, then. What about your own body, though? While this" he gestured toward Ami's black-striped form, " is a great way to keep Tiger from causing more trouble, even youma will eventually get tired."
"I'll switch with one of the ice golems later," Ami decided. "After what she pulled earlier, I want her to be too tired for mischief before I let go of the body."
"Understandable," Jadeite said, "I shall see you in the morning."
"Good night," Ami called out as the dark general teleported away. Once he was gone, she settled Tiger's body more comfortably on her throne and directed her thoughts back to the minutiae of managing her remote dungeons.
Ami was still at work making adjustments to her vessels when the first rays of the rising sun caressed the underside of her dirigibles. "Whoops, careful out there!" she called, though the imp that had just been blown off the rope bridge now connecting her flagship to another vessel probably couldn't hear her.
Fortunately for the large-eyed minion, Ami caught her with her Keeper powers before she could plummet all the way down to the glittering waves below. The imp belly-flopped onto the bottom of the cabin and let out a pained squeak, but seemed otherwise unhurt.
Taking pity on the small creature, Ami fitted her with a security harness before she sent her back out onto the swinging bridge, which had so much slack that it sagged into an u-shape.
Her overall fluttering in the wind, the imp crawled back onto the swinging contraption. Reluctantly, she got to her feet and started the first steps of the terrain-claiming dance on the steep, unstable incline. To her total lack of surprise, she soon found herself dangling underneath the bridge, held only by her harness.
In hindsight, this might not have been one of my brightest ideas ever, Ami thought as she watched her servant struggle to climb back onto the bridge. Perhaps this body is finally getting too tired?
"Does that mean you are done abusing my body now?" Tiger's voice in the back of Ami's mind commented.
"You don't get to complain after what you did," Ami shot back, irritated by the self-pity she could feel from the youma's mind. "If I could trust you to behave reasonably, then I wouldn't have to do this!"
"Being stuck in here with you without control is punishment enough," Tiger replied. "Come on, let me go, I'll be good! I didn't even complain when you were thinking naughty thoughts about general Jadeite!" she finished, sounding vaguely disgusted.
Ami felt her borrowed face heat up. "Stay out of my head!"
"I wouldn't even be able to listen to your thoughts if you had stayed out of mine! It's not as if I want to overhear that kind of thing!" Tiger shot back.
"Right." Ami rubbed her temples. "Whatever possessed you to try and impersonate me, anyway? You had to know it would get you into trouble."
"I told you already, it seemed funny at the time," the youma muttered.
Tiger's voice and inflection were all correct, but Ami could feel the insincerity of the statement. Intrigued, she decided to probe deeper. "Is that so? You cannot lie to me here, you know. Why did you really do it?"
"You really want to know? Fine. Remember, you asked for this." The youma's emotions tasted bitter and angry, surprising Ami with their intensity. "In short, you really, really piss me off!"
"W-what? Ami didn't believe she had done anything to deserve that level of hostility from the youma, who would still be stuck in Eternal Sleep if it wasn't for her. "What is your problem?" she directed a harsh thought at the cohabitant of her mind.
"You are the problem!" the youma shouted mentally. "Just look at yourself! You have everything I could possibly wish for! Power! Loyal servants! Riches! Queen Metallia's favour! But are you happy about it? No! You endlessly feel sorry for yourself and never appreciate what you have! You don't even care about it! All you ever do is sit around worrying about getting home and protecting people!"
"There are more important things than wealth and power!" Ami replied with conviction.
"That's easy for you to say! I didn't ask to have your memories shoved into my head! Do you know what it is like, to have all your dreams come true and then find out that it was all a lie? Whoops, sorry, it was all a mistake. Nothing is yours even though you remember it being yours! Instead, it all belongs to someone who spits on its value! Tough luck!" Being a mental voice, Tiger had no need to catch her breath as she ranted. "You changed my body, changed my mind so that even thinking properly is a struggle, and then took everything from me!" the youma accused.
Ami was a bit taken aback by the venom in her voice. She hadn't considered the situation from that perspective yet. Still, something about the creature's accusations rang hollow despite the conviction in her words. Slightly unsettled, Ami replied "While I'm sorry this happened to you, you know as well as I that it wasn't intentional. Besides," she rallied behind a point she remained completely certain about, "that still doesn't give you the right to mess with my friends! What you did would have hurt them as well as me!" To her surprise she felt a wave of misery from the youma's direction.
"Friends? The friends I remember? Your. Friends. I'm just a silly youma to them. Nothing but target practice!" Tiger replied, radiating bitterness.
"You- you are jealous?" Ami asked, blinking in surprise with the other's body. "So since you can't have them, neither should I?"
Tiger remained silent, which confirmed to Ami that she had hit the nail on the head. "You are being silly," she chided the youma. "Even if you have only parts of my memories, you should have seen enough to know they wouldn't reject you just because of what you are!"
"I may have your memories, but I'm not you! I'm an entirely different person, Tiger protested. "They wouldn't like me! I don't think like you do! Arrgh! I'm not even supposed to care about stuff like this! You ruined me!" the youma complained, sounding both confused and frustrated.
"Ah, well..." Ami was at a loss about how to handle this. "You could have spared us all some trouble if you had just talked about this first, but I see where you are coming from, and, if it's worth anything to you, I'm sorry about what happened to you. However, I need to know whether or not I can count on your cooperation during this operation. Do you really want to see all of these people die?
"... guess not." the clump of confused depression replied after a while. "Fine, I'll help you out. Even though I don't know why. Annoying humans."
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