"Damn it, Camilla! Stop nodding off already!" a fairy with short red hair snarled as she trapped her sister under her right arm with a quick lunge, preventing her from sliding off the flying carpet.
The youngest of the fairy sisters groaned, her roundish right cheek resting against the fabric she was pinned against. She raised one eyelid as if it was made of lead. "Too early. Want my hammock," she whined, half-asleep. Under different circumstances, Anise might have found the sight adorable. However, such behaviour only irritated her while racing at high speed over the moonlit ocean on a woven rectangle that lacked railings. The ruby-eyed woman wasn't even worried for the blonde's safety. If she dropped off, then she would start flying on instinct long before she could hit the dark waves below, like any falling fairy would. However, slowing down, circling around, and picking her up would cost valuable time that the Elite Full-Faery Aerial Recon Force didn't have.
"I'll handle this," the calm tone of the fae sitting cross-legged in the foremost position interrupted. Anise's indigo-haired eldest sibling looked back over her shoulder and put a slender hand onto Camilla's hair, as if to pet her.
An instant later, the blonde's indignant screech echoed through the air. The girl's now thoroughly drenched head jerked upwards. With her yellow eyes wide-open, she blinked at her eldest sister's back. "Dandel! You didn't have to use ice water!" Camilla sputtered, sounding betrayed.
"Thank you, Dandel," the fiery-haired fae wearing two short swords at her belt said with a smug grin, pleased with the blonde's state of enforced wakefulness.
"So, what's going on, anyway?" the round-faced fairy asked, shivering as the cold night air rushed through her wet tresses. "Everything between being shaken awake and ushered onto this carpet is kind of blurry to me," she admitted.
"Oh, is that why you went on a mission in your nightshirt?" A voice from above asked.
"Eep!" Camilla looked down at her herself and found that she was wearing the same white, swimsuit-like uniform as her sisters. She shot a glare up at the orange-haired girl grinning down at her from a second flying carpet. "Roselle! No fair teasing me like that! Light, I hate night missions," she sighed.
"To answer your question from earlier," Dandel spoke up, keeping her tone professional, "Command sensed something escaping from the Avatar Islands and heading straight toward the west at great speed." The indigo-haired fairy narrowed her turquoise eyes at a point in the distance. "Initial scrying could not locate the target in this darkness. Given its speed and magical signature, it's probably too small to spot with scrying alone."
Anise leaned forward. "Thus, it's time for some good old-fashioned manual reconnaissance."
"Right. Couldn't they have sent someone else to do it?" Camilla whined, trying to pat her hair dry.
"Well, it's kind of our job," Roselle teased from the other carpet.
"Besides, since we are almost certainly dealing with Empress Mercury here, we are the obvious team for this task," Dandel continued.
"We got out of our encounters with her alive and unharmed so far," the violet-haired fairy elaborated, "so our superiors are hoping that the trend holds."
"Empress Mercury," the blonde muttered to herself, as if contemplating the meaning of the title. Her lips pursed into a pout, and she crossed her arms. "She should have picked a better time for staging an escape!"
Anise was glad to hear that her sister didn't sound as intimidated by the Keeper as her list of exploits could merit. Then again, they had already fought her before - twice - and gotten away fine. A small part of the redhead's brain insisted that this was all due to Mercury being rather less bloodthirsty than the regular Keepers, but she pushed that thought aside. "Well then, start looking already. Even if she rendered whatever vessel she's using invisible, we should still be able to sense the magic used to hide it." She waved up at the other flying carpet. "Hey, Melissa! Have you spotted anything yet?"
"I cannot feel anything unnatural in the depths," the blue-haired fairy replied in a trance-like voice, never opening her eyes.
"Ah well, keep looking. Personally, I think the target is going to be flying. Nothing's going to be swimming that fast."
For a while, all was quiet as the fairies let their gazes sweep over the horizon, where the sea's calm surface reflected the crescent moon.
"Are you sure we are in the right place?" Anise spoke up, causing Dandel in front of her to wince.
"Please, not so loud when I'm augmenting my hearing," the indigo-haired fae protested in a hushed whisper.
"Perfectly so," Tilia called out from the other carpet. The green-haired fairy raised a sextant. "If you don't believe me, just check the stars yourself!" she said, pointing up at the sky. Suddenly, she froze, and a frown appeared on her brow. "Are those stars winking out?"
Anise followed her sister's gaze, and her jaw dropped. A wedge-shaped formation of five enormous shadows with the general contours of a shark were gliding noiselessly along the sky, almost invisible where they didn't blot out the starlight. The paling redhead closed her mouth with an audible click. "Th-they are each bigger than the Emperor's Fist!" she sputtered, referring to the crown jewel of the Shining Concord's navy.
"Y-Yeah, they are huge!" Camilla declared, once she got over her stunned surprise. "How's that Keeper keeping them aloft?" She wondered. "I can't sense any flying spells!"
"More importantly," Dandel said in a sombre voice, "that's not a mere escape, that's a full-blown invasion force. Oracle!"
Summoned by the woman's words, the ghostly image of a long-bearded man sitting in the lotus position appeared in the air between the flying carpets, easily keeping pace with them. The silvery lines making up the bald sage's contours spread out around him for a short distance before fading, surrounding him with sets of chimes and hanging bells. "Yes?" he asked simply, fixating the eldest of the sisters with his stare.
"We have located the targets," Dandel reported, and pointed at the sky. "As you can see, they are much larger than we were led to believe. Troop carriers, potentially." The bald man followed the direction she was pointing up, and she saw his eyebrows rise in surprise.
"Most unexpected. It is worrisome that she can cloak that much magic from my sight." A gnarled hand appeared from the wide sleeves of his robe, holding a thin pendulum. He glanced at it expectantly, and his brow creased when it remained inert even after he waited for several seconds. "Most worrisome indeed. You are to keep an eye on those vessels from a safe distance. I must warn the nations that are in the path of this new threat."
"But we didn't pack for a long-term mission!" Anise objected.
"So fish and create your own water," the echoing voice of the oracle said, unimpressed. "It is important that we do not lose track of this force again."
"Estimed Oracle," Dandel said, "the course of that fleet will take it straight through the Dreadfog Island exclusion zone. Can we risk that?"
"I imagine that whatever makes ships disappear without a trace will direct its attentions toward the dark empress's fleet long before it even notices you," the oracle replied. "Should her vessels disappear too, you are to return. Farewell." Chimes rang in the background as his image dissolved into the silver dust that hung in the air for a moment, not unlike the golden glitter.
"Dreadfog Island, eh?" Anise said into the ensuing silence. She had heard the stories, of course.
The fairies looked at each other unhappily.
"No sleep for me," Camilla whined.
When using Keeper sight, Ami could almost forget that she was sitting in her flagship's command seat, possessing a golem body clad in her senshi uniform. Her current point of view was inside a new, amphitheatre-like room she had dug out in her home dungeon. Over the previous day, she had made her warlocks scry on the enemy island using a systematic search pattern. Starting at the top of the highest mountain and going deeper layer by layer, they had explored every nook and cranny of the surface and of the dungeon below. Ami had recorded their efforts on her Mercury computer and painstakingly compiled them into a single, three-dimensional map. This had allowed her to create a glass model of the site the death cultists had chosen for their ritual. The vast sculpture of coloured glass and hollow spaces that had taken form through her Keeper powers now occupied the entirety of the circular arena below.
"I still can hardly believe that a Keeper would be so blatant," Cathy's voice came from one of the six crystal balls resting in front of Ami's seat. The swordswoman was standing on the highest of the tiers that circled the glass map, her arms akimbo. Due to the depths of the tunnels represented by the map, her face was level with the surface of the island, and its most defining feature.
Glittering under the harsh glare of the spotlights, a mountain carved into the shape of a leering skull grinned at the blonde.
"It is rather unusual," Ami replied, "but it might be a corruption effect. He does worship a death god. In any case, he does not seem to have any neighbours who could complain about it."
Ami's attempt at levity had little effect on the swordswoman, but a few of the warlocks seated below, staring into crystal balls, started snickered.
"You, stop eavesdropping and get back to doing your job!" Cathy shouted at the loudest of the sycophants. For good measure, she bounced a piece of scrunched-up paper from her desk off the back of his head. It rebounded off his high, violet collar, and found its way down his robes.
The goblins seated on the ranks below the warlocks approved, snickering and pointing their fingers as the unfortunate target twisted and turned in an attempt to fish the itchy bit of paper back out again.
"Yes, Commander! It won't happen again, Commander!" The chastised shouted, ducking his head. His hands started moving more quickly as he performed low-powered spells that pushed figurines of skeletal warriors through the glass tunnels. Soon, their positions corresponded to those of the undead he was watching in the scrying device before him.
Cathy smirked, visibly pleased with her aim. "Anyway, have you figured out which one is the real one yet?" she asked, waving her hand toward the glass map. Five reddish knots surrounded by stone arches indicated the potential positions of the enemy dungeon heart, deep within the tunnels.
"Just about," Ami said. "I'm waiting for additional data from my spy."
"Well, tell her to hurry. It's going to take some time to drill the attack plan into the heads of that sorry bunch." The swordswomen pointed at the goblins, who were, according to temper and social standing, hitting each other, trying not to get hit, and in some cases, taste-testing their own earwax.
As if responding to the sense of urgency in Cathy's words, a lithe figure appeared in the air in front of Ami, surrounded by a burst of greenish motes. The fuku-clad ice statue let out a happy squeal and unfolded from its somersault, managing a perfect landing on the ground.
This particular statue was one of a set of five that Ami had created a while ago and then empowered with her own senshi transformation. The senshi figured that having five well-trained and powerful golems would be more effective than just creating a batch of replaceable cannon fodder. However, so far only the simulacrum in front of her had managed to acquire the teleportation ability of the imps it was based on. Learning that trick had been its only task for most of its existence.
Ami was rather glad she had thought of that experiment. It might just save innocent lives now.
Without the need for verbal communication, the golem touched its right ear, deactivated its visor and stepped closer to her red-eyed double. With a deft motion, it removed its earrings and dropped them into Ami's open palm.
The young Keeper wasted no time and replaced her own earrings with the jewellery she had just received. She opened her Mercury computer and took a look at the footage of pale, transparent figures floating above the foggy shore. She ignored the shaking of the camera, which was due to the golem bobbing up and down on the waves as it scanned the enemy stronghold, and focused on the sensor information instead. A few keystrokes to enhance the minion links, and she could start triangulating their common point of origin. With a bright smile, she looked up at the crystal ball displaying Cathy's face. "That one!"
At the same time, four of the five dungeon heart models in the glass map shattered, leaving only the most central and deepest one.
"Excellent," the blonde replied with an answering grin. She turned to the goblin pilots lounging in their seats. "You heard the Empress! Start memorising the routes leading to the target!"
The unruly mob of green-skinned creatures calmed down and started looking at the glass construct attentively, while one of the warlocks helpfully used his magic to colour the relevant tunnels and rooms in a bright greenish tone.
"How many of them do you want for that assault?" Cathy asked into her own crystal ball.
"More than half," Ami said without hesitation, since she had been pondering tactics for most of the journey. "I'd prefer focusing completely on the temple, really, but an active Keeper opposing us needs to be dealt with as soon as possible." She sighed as her Keeper sight focused on the large black blotch in the construct that denoted an absence of scrying information. "I'm glad Clairmonte is using the organic heart version. At least I won't have to worry about his magic striking the airships while I approach."
"Speaking of which, the death priests have started moving prisoners to the island," Cathy said with a sideways glance at the map that kept being updated.
Ami quickly consulted the position of the sun for reassurance. The orange disc her airships were racing towards hung low over the horizon, where the island had just become visible as a blurry spot in the distance. It would still take a bit more than an hour until the sun disappeared behind the red-stained waves. "So they want all the sacrifices present before they commit to the ritual," Ami pondered, sliding one finger across her frozen chin.
"Just as you predicted. They are evidently worried about someone cutting the supply lines while they conduct the ceremony."
"And moving around eight thousand prisoners will take some time," Ami agreed. A chill went through her body at the thought of their survival resting entirely in her hands. "That makes taking down the Keeper first even more important. I won't be able to keep the priests from massacring them if Clairmont can just transport them into the temple."
"You'll just have to keep the bastard too busy defending himself to spare attention for the ritual," Cathy commented. "In fact-"
A column of darkness materialised in front of Ami, causing the fuku-clad simulacrum already there to jump aside with a startled squeal. The shadows collapsed in on themselves, revealing Umbra's dark-robed silhouette. Down on one knee, the youma reported "Your Majesty, excuse me for interrupting, but we are being intercepted!"
"Already?" Ami's grip on the armrests of her chair tightened. I had rather hoped we wouldn't be noticed this early.
"Pilots, to battle stations!" Cathy's voice came from the glowing orb in front the young Keeper.
"Angle of approach?" Ami asked and transported herself to the front of the cabin, where she stared out through one of the windows and scanned the ocean ahead.
"Ahead and below," Umbra reported, prompting the crimson-eyed girl to look down at the surface of the sea over a kilometre below.
Ami narrowed her eyes as she searched for the enemy. Behind her, she could hear metallic scraping noises as the reaperbots came alive in the cargo hold and sat up. At first she almost didn't notice the white spectres rising like foam bubbles from the water below. Ghosts. After facing Zarekos' near endless hordes, the cloud of howling, murderous faces didn't impress her nearly as much as it could have. Still, she wasn't safely hidden away inside a sturdy iceberg this time. Jadeite, Mareki, Umbra! We are under attack! Get ready to repel ghosts! Protect one ship each! I'll release Rabixtrel on the remaining one! She transmitted mentally. "Tiger, you are with me. I need you to create hard stone boulders."
The tiger-striped youma lying on top of a stack of folded-up fabric sat up. "So you basically want to chuck rocks at them?" She shrugged, which did interesting things to her generous chest. "Suit yourself." She held out her hand, and a stalagmite-like column of jagged marble rose from the floor with a grinding noise.
"Something like that. They are very resistant to direct magical attacks," Ami explained. She moved her Keeper sight to the rightmost dirigible, where a red and horned figure was suspended from the ceiling by a chain looped around his waist.
The horned reaper's legs pumped as if he was on solid ground, and from time, he swung his scythe and let out a contented growl. He suddenly went still when the reaperbot control headset and visor disappeared from his brow, effectively disconnecting him from his entertainment system and giving him a free few of the airship's cabin.
"Rabixtrel, kill any undead you can reach!" Ami ordered telepathically as she lowered him to the ground and the chain settled around his hooves with a rattle. Since he would be naturally inclined to do just that, she returned her attention back to the attackers.
The spread-out swarm of a hundred or so ghosts was ascending rapidly, glowing like fireflies with the onset of twilight. Easily-spotted targets.
Ami hesitated and activated her visor, not wanting to be taken by surprise again. To her relief, the additional sensor data didn't reveal any invisible or illusionary foes, though it did hint at more activity below the waves. Quickly, she transported one of the stone columns Tiger had made down into the group of approaching spectres and immediately followed it up with a fireball that turned the harmless rock into an expanding blast of whistling shrapnel. The sharp-edged shards thinned out the ghosts a bit, but less so than Ami would have liked. This would probably work better if I had real rock, she pondered. Oh well, it wasn't as if she had left her airships unarmed.
She turned away from the window and shot a glance at a bunch of imps just waiting in the main cargo hold. Across her vessels, several of the tiny minions disappeared into hatches in the bottom of the cabin, and Ami could hear metallic rummaging and grinding noises start up below. Cannons weren't unknown in this world, and so she had no qualms about making some for herself. However, she doubted that any other warships mounted theirs on turrets. "Hold your fire," she ordered even as the weapons swivelled downwards.
For now, she would conserve ammo. She had a considerably more low-tech solution to this problem, even if it was more labour-intensive. Outside of the airship, she formed her Keeper hand, flexing its watery fingers. I wonder if others think that this is a special ability granted by my dark god? she mused as the hand closed around the handle of an enormous flyswatter attached to the side of the gondola. In a way, they would even be right. She wouldn't be able to do this without Jadeite's instructions for using telekinesis.
With a flick of the giant wrist, the grid of steel rods whistled through the swarm of ghosts. In its wake remained only rapidly-dispersing chunks of ghosts the same sizes as the apertures in the grille.
Ami allowed herself a smile as she brought her weapon around for another go through the scattering attackers. Half of the spectres were gone already. At the rate she was destroying them, none would even make it to her fleet.
A straight ray of darkness that looked like inverted lightning shot up from the sea below and cut through the grip of her flyswatter, sending its head spinning downwards in an uncontrolled fall. Ami's eyes widened even as her visor pinpointed the source of the attack. She spotted a miraculously dry figure wearing a fluttering black robe adorned with animal skulls on the shoulders, and a similar clasp at the neck. It slowly rose from the frothing sea, standing on a wooden rod that pierced the waves from below and rose higher and higher. A tattered flag came into sight next, its colours long dulled into a dirty grey by exposure to salt water. In the death priest's raised right hand, he held a spiralling bone rod with three prongs, still aimed at the sky.
Ami struck immediately. Her water hand appeared behind the cloaked enemy without traversing the intervening distance, but before it could pulverise the undead creature, a pulse of force blasted it into a fine mist that glittered with rainbows in the light of the setting sun. That had come from below, the teenager realised.
The half-rotten mast the priest was standing on burst into greenish St. Elmo's fire and kept rising. Surprised, Ami watched as an algae-covered wreck with decayed sails surfaced from the ocean. Salt water ran backwards over its deck, away from the prow pointed at the sky at an angle, and sloshed past the skeletal legs of the crew holding onto the railing. Behind the steering wheel of the ghost ship, she spotted another of the death priests, this one more broad-shouldered and in a robe of deeper purple.
"Open fire!" Ami, commanded even as she transported her golem body into her waiting suit of battle armour. One of the sapphires studding its shoulders disappeared with a plop, and she felt a wave of magical power rush into her. Without hesitation, she hurled it at the wreck emerging from the sea.
With a loud roar, a white-hot fireball covered the ruined galleon, flattening the surrounding waves with the force of the explosion. Flames licked outwards like petals of a blossom as the detonation pressed against a dome of purplish force that surrounded the dripping vessel.
Ami scowled as she detected two more of the gaunt figures standing on the ship's bow, surrounded by a violet glow and crossing their battle staves of Calarine.
Didn't Torian say those things were supposed to be rare?" Ami thought as the two separated and dropped their shielding spell. Her imps weren't the most accurate gunners, she noted when small columns of water rose upwards around the mobile wreck. Which had now lost contact with the sea entirely and was ascending rapidly. It's a lot faster in the air! she realised and sent Keeper lightning after it.
To her chagrin, one of the skeletal priests waved his staff and bent the blinding arcs of electricity around the algae-trailing vessel.
Ami's eyes widened suddenly. "Tiger, more rocks!" she shouted, then grabbed one of the existing stone columns and threw it at the blindingly-white fireball that was rocketing toward her flagship, fired by the figure on the ship's crow's nest. The resulting blast sent the remaining ghosts careening aside like leaves in the wind. "Shabon Spray!"
At the speed her fleet and the wreck were racing toward the island, the cloud of fog was little more than a momentary distraction, soon left behind. It did give her a momentary breather, though.
A beam of blackness shot from the mist and speared one of her airships through the hull before coming out the other side. Nothing to be concerned about, the lifting gas was not under pressure, but she really needed to counterattack properly. Perhaps she could wear them down? Her Keeper hand appeared in front of the glowing enemy vessel, a spark of light forming at its fingertips. Lightning lashed at the water-soaked wreck, only to encounter a purplish barrier raised by one of the priests. Ami grit her teeth, and black tendrils licked around her suit of armour as she channelled Metallia's power into her attack too.
The barrier retreated, but a second death cultist teleported to the first's side, raising his staff and reinforcing the shield. Their hollow-eyed skulls glared impassively at the sun-bright spot bearing down on them, held at bay only by their magical power. Ami's eyes narrowed, and another jewel disappeared from her shoulder. The lightning increased in brightness yet again. It surged forward, and in an instant, the barrier buckled and burst. Before the undead could react, the torrent washed over them, cutting them in half as Ami swung the arcing electricity sideways like a whip.
Steam rose from blistering wood as the vessel lost its mast. The death priest behind the steering wheel disappeared in a cloud of darkness before Ami's spell could touch him. Immediately, the vessel started dropping like a rock, leaving the rest of its skeleton crew to hold on desperately to the railings and mussel-covered ropes.
Ami let out a whoop of joy, even though the remaining death priests reappeared and stopped the galleon's fall. Wood groaned and skeleton soldiers went flying across the deck from the sudden jerk, and a large piece of the brittle keel dropped out.
"Um, you are leaking," Tiger pointed out, gesturing at the pool of melt water Ami was standing in.
The Keeper blinked and looked down at the puddle that quivered when the dirigible's cannons discharged with a loud boom. "Right. Hard on the body, I'll remember that."
Outside, the enemy ship had gained altitude enough to bring its own rust-encrusted cannons to bear. Skeletons clad in rags darted across the slimy planks, loading ammunition into the metal pipes.
Ami made another grab for the enemy mages with her Keeper hand, but like before, a ripple of disruptive force scattered it before it could do any damage.
A quick Shabon Spray Freezing from storage, transported directly into the enemy's ribcage, materialised prematurely, but at least it forced the enemy to throw himself aside. A few cannonballs burrowed into the deck next to the sprawled out death priest, raining wet splinters down on him.
Just as Ami was about to finish him off with more lightning, the cabin of her vessel shook hard enough to throw her off her feet, and wind howled in through the new hole in its front, carrying metal debris along.
"More of them," Tiger shouted at the same time as Ami spotted the other three sailing ships diving at her fleet out of the setting sun.
"Darn it!" the young Keeper jumped back to her feet and used feet and launched a hasty Shabon Spray to create a wall of fog between her airships and the incoming vessel. This was bad. Her visor was detecting more of the undead priests on the new hostile contacts. Only four of them had already been trouble. From below and to the left, she heard a series of faint pops as the cannons on the vessel she had damaged fired. The approaching broadside swerved upwards, no doubt guided by the spells of the evil mages, and slammed unerringly into the envelope of two of her ships. Rather than exploding, however, they went right through and emerged on the other side.
I'll need to fix the punctures later, Ami noted, staring with trepidation at the warnings flashing across her visor. Energy was arcing between the three approaching wrecks in an inverted triangle, channelled by a pair of the staff-wielding figures at their prows. With barely a pause, she unleashed short bursts of lightning at the charging opponents, not at all surprised when they slammed into a purplish barrier.
Jadeite, guide our shots as they do theirs! Ami ordered mentally, too pressed for time to be polite about it. Five ice golems appeared before her for the time it took her to blink, and then they found themselves raining down on the enemy vessels. Ami could already see the swirling magic around the flying wrecks concentrate into a more powerful ball when the golems landed on the three separate ships.
Three of them slammed into shields before they could make it onto the deck, and the other two immediately disappeared under a dogpile of sabre-wielding skeletons. However, one of the ice golems managed to point its fingers at one of the casting priests even as the stained weapons hacked its icy chain mail apart. With five pops, the icicle like fingers detached and thudded into the back of the chanting skeleton's hooded skull. It toppled forward like a marionette with its strings cut, releasing the energy it had helped gather.
Unfortunately for Ami, the other priests proved to be able to handle the sudden imbalance. With a simultaneous wave of their staves, their spell flashed blue and hurled itself forward as a vortex of gale-like forces that hit Ami's fleet like a fist. Her cabin rocked around her and filled with tumbling reaperbots, gas bottles, and airship maintenance gear as the dirigibles spun out of control. Ami threw herself out of the path of a crate that came bearing down on her and tried to stop the rotating motions of her airships. Tethered together by hollow tubes her imps had used to claim each of them as her territory, they couldn't be scattered too far from each other. Unfortunately, the violent tugs still resulted in disorienting jerks, abrupt changes of direction, and screams of strained metal.
Ami crawled over a fallen reaperbot to regain her footing and ducked her head when a series of loud bangs sounded outside. The enemy ships were among her fleet! They'd be much more manoeuvrable than her own tied-together behemoths, so she needed to do something, fast!
"Mercury, behind you!" Tiger shouted, her horned head peaking out from underneath one of the rolls of fabric that had fallen on top of her.
Ami whirled around to see one of the death priests levelling his battle staff at her, still surrounded by the black flicker of a recent teleport. She reacted instantly and transported herself behind him. Instincts honed in preparation for fighting a reaper in an arena duel made her draw her sword, and the creature's head and arm went flying under her augmented strike. Under her helmet, she let out a sigh of relief as the creature collapsed, only to be jostled again when a patch of metal on the left side of the cabin turned red-hot. "Darn it!" She turned away from the corpse and unleashed a barrage of lightning at the vessel that had pulled up at her side - it looked like a Shining Concord warship that had sunk a long time ago, if memory of the one she had seen served her right. The spells were intercepted, but at least it kept the priests busy while her own cannons returned fire.
One of the six crystal balls placed around the command chair suddenly lit up."You are doing it wrong! You have to go for the skulls!"
Ami needed a moment to place the haughty female voice. When she recognised it, she felt a hint of apprehension. "What? Keeper Midori?" she blurted out when she could spare a moment to look at the red-eyed face of the elven princess Julia in the glowing sphere. Was she in on Crowned Death's plan?
"Killing Crowned Death's priests. You have to destroy their skulls, including those they are wearing," the other Keeper instructed. "Better finish the one over there off before he gets up as if nothing happened."
"Why are you telling me this?" Ami asked suspiciously, most of her attention caught up in the raging battle. If the other Keeper was trying to trick her, she couldn't see how. She was already dedicating her efforts to swatting down those undead magic users. Argh, there were skeleton pirates swinging over to her ships using grappling hooks now! Did that one have a skeletal parrot on its shoulder? Behind her, she could hear cracking noises as a pair of reaperbots stomped the remains of the death priest into dust. Good, reliable Cathy!
"Because we are going to discuss how you are going to repay me for that information later," Midori answered. "In the meanwhile, keep wiping out as much of Crowned Death's high clergy as you can for me, yes?" The smooth-skinned woman in the crystal ball winked and waved before the orb went dark.
Ami was too busy interposing Tiger's rock between her ships and overpowered magical attacks to reply. Something needed to change, and soon! Her airships were taking more than cosmetic damage here! Hmm, it looked as if the two attacking casters on the closest warship were winding up for another big spell. She needed something they wouldn't know how to defend against. Perhaps... yes!
With her keeper powers, she reached inside one of the bottles of liquid hydrogen lying in a jumbled mess between the more numerous helium cylinders and flung the super-cooled liquid at the enemy vessel. Immediately, it splashed down on the casting figures, not inconveniencing them much aside from obstructing their vision with a thick, white fog. An instant later, they lost their footing as the wet deck frosted over.
Not one to miss an opportunity, Ami quickly set fire to the expanding cloud of gas. The darting flame that ripped off the entire deck with a loud hiss warmed her heart.
The steaming vessel flipped over and started spiralling down, taking one threat out of the equation.
She let her attention quickly flick over her other vessels so she could reassign her priorities. Rabixtrel was chasing boarders around with a huge grin. Mareki and Umbra were darting through the air outside, cutting off grappling hooks and taking pot-shots at the enemy ships. Propellers missing on ship number three, number four losing gas rapidly.
More explosions filled the air as both sides exchanged fire. Where was Jadeite? Ami felt a moment of panic when she couldn't find him on any of her dirigibles. Where- Oh!
One of the enemy flying ships, this one a thick-bellied galleon with two masts, seemed to be having trouble. An ostentatiously-robed priest tugged at the steering wheel of the vessel in a way that expressed, with body language alone, that he had no idea what was going on and didn't like it one bit. Neither did the captain of the flying wreck he was on a collision course with, and which was leaning sideways as it took evasive measures.
On the underside of the out-of-control vessel, Jadeite stood upside-down with his arms crossed, breaking into a maniacal laugh as he adjusted the ship's course the final few degrees that aimed it straight at the keel of its companion vessel. His form wavered and disappeared just before the two wooden wrecks crashed into each other, disintegrating into a cloud of pulped wood, and falling planks..
One enemy ship remaining. Ami quickly focused her attention back on the first vessel, the one whose crew she had crippled earlier. She trusted her warriors to handle whatever ghosts and boarders had managed to make it onto her airships, and could now take the time to simply overpower the death priests' shield again.
Lightning flared through the twilight, but this time, the enemy magic users abandoned ship, rather than daring to pit their strength against that of Empress Mercury for the second time. Without them, the sailing vessel succumbed to gravity and quickly became smaller in the distance.
Ami watched the vessel plummet, her spirit lifted by the victory. She was therefore in the perfect position to see two long, snake-like things break through the surface of the sea and catch the wreck. Even as her jaw dropped, the two sucker-covered tendrils reared back.
"You've got to be kidding me!" Ami shouted, her eyes as wide as saucers when the tentacles whipped forward and derelict vessel grew rapidly larger and larger in her view. "Tiger! Out, now!"
Another sapphire on her armour's shoulder dissolved into gold to fuel Ami's desperate counter-strike.
Her fireball blew the mass of compressed wood apart, but its momentum kept it going. Rather than ripping a giant hole into the hull, a rain of shards tore through the flagship's fabric like a shotgun blast, causing it to lose gas and altitude rapidly.
"Oh no! JADEITE!"
"On it!" the dark general appeared above the damaged airship, looking tiny against its enormous bulk. The whistle of helium escaping into the atmosphere stopped as his power sealed in the lifting gas.
Ami did what she could with her repair supplies, throwing them to her imps so they could patch the biggest holes while she kept an eye on the creature below.
A bulbous head rose from the depths, its pale skin mottled and brittle. Milky, unmoving eyes larger than Ami appeared above the water line.
Giant octopus. No, giant octopus zombie! Ami realised a moment before its vile stench assaulted her nose. The creature's head alone was about as big as the ships she had fought earlier!
Eight dark-robed figure with bone-armoured shoulders stood distributed over the pale, undead bulk of the behemoth as greenish fire flared around it. To Ami's horror, it took to the sky just like the wrecks before, flailing its grasping tentacles wildly. The death priests were back for round two.
Her visor informed her that no less than four of the undead clergymen were maintaining the defensive spells this time, but it took the combined efforts of the other four to keep their abomination airborne.
It doesn't have ranged attacks, Ami thought, Unfortunately, it's faster than my battered ships, so it doesn't need any with those tentacles! What could she do?
An attempt to simply overcome the augmented power of the four undead defenders met with failure and allowed the monstrosity to draw closer. A more dispersed pattern of fireballs and lightning bolts she threw at the creature were swatted down by the experienced magic users riding on its back.
Could she send the reaperbots after the skeletons? No, they couldn't survive a drop from this height, and she needed them for the real assault.
With a purplish flash, Jadeite appeared at Ami's side. Like her, he was staring at the incoming monstrosity extending its grasping tentacles toward the ship. "Any idea-" he squaked, then stopped, mortified by the sound of his high-pitched, helium-altered voice.
The armoured ice golem had her computer out and was typing away furiously. "So far, the only half-way viable plan I can come up with is roasting it. I'll need you to keep the air windless in the area between the fleet and the monster," she said in a business-like tone of voice.
"Tiring," the dark general squeaked sourly, but nodded.
"It's only for a short time," Ami promised, looking apologetic. She didn't like exhausting one of her greatest assets before the real invasion, but if it was the only way to get there in the first place, then she had no choice. As soon as the grey-uniformed general's eyes started shining bright with power, she started tossing her remaining cylinders of hydrogen into the space between her and the octopus crushed them, releasing the gas into the atmosphere.
As her calculations predicted, the white fog cloud caused by the intense cold billowed toward the giant zombie and its riders, enveloping them. A quick spark, and the flammable gas turned into a blazing inferno, shaking the airships with the thunderous violence of its ignition.
"You can release the spell now," she told Jadeite in a small voice. The curly-haired blonde gratefully let himself sink to the floor, staring into the conflagration.
The nauseating smell of cooking, rotten meat wafted over to them, and then the flames died down, their fuel consumed.
Except for the still burning, sucker-covered pseudopod that reached out and wrapped around the lowest-hanging airship. Acrid black smoke escaped from fissures in its seared, blackened skin, and liquefied fat oozed out of the burning appendage like lava, but it remained able to move. The giant octopus was a seared, eyeless mess, aside from a circular area the death priests occupied, but it kept coming.
Ami watched with horror as it latched onto the hull of the captured airship and squeezed. With a groan, the vessel dipped downwards, the frame underneath its envelope breaking apart.
"Darn it! What does it take to stop that thing?" Ami asked, dropping to her knees in despair. "No! I can't give up now! Those people need me!"
Jadeite took a step back as dark power flared around his Empress and she started casting spells like a woman possessed. Lightning bolts, waves of frost, hails of black shards, and firestorms hammered the death priests, lighting up the darkening sky like fireworks.
The eight priests within their shield dome were hard-pressed to keep up with protecting both themselves and the stretched-out bulk of their zombie pet at the same time, and occasionally, Ami managed to land a blow on the mass of char-coaled scar tissue. Half of a tentacle went flying after a telling hit, but she could feel exhaustion setting in. Mentally, she went over her assets again, searching for anything she could use to get at the skeleton mages. Her youma? None had the power to get through the barrier or teleport through it. Jadeite? Too exhausted. The reaperbots? They'd fall off the bucking tentacles before they could get anywhere useful. Rabixtrel? Ditto.
Of course, that was the moment the white-eyed demon burst out from underneath the octopus' skin like a gore-covered jack-in-the-box, right in the middle of the undead coven. The death priests were just as surprised as Ami about the reapers sudden appearance, and a quick round sweep of his blurring scythe separated closest four from their heads. They had been the group keeping the undead monstrosity in the air. One of remaining robed figures pointed its staff at the red-skinned demon, but decided that discretion was the better part of valour when his three colleagues disappeared with loud pops.
Covered in burning fat and blood, the horned reaper raised his scythe to the sky and bellowed in triumph even as the ground started dropping out from underneath him. He was still roaring when Ami transported him back to the ship, rescuing him from a kilometre-deep drop.
The zombie octopus was not that lucky. At the speed the mollusc hit the water, it felt as hard as concrete, and the creature disintegrated into a splashing mound of carrion, sending house-high waves rippling outwards from its impact point.
"Where did the death priests go now?" Ami asked, scanning around frantically. After all that had happened, she wouldn't put it past them to spring another surprise. She cut loose the airship their giant monster had ruined so it couldn't drag the others down, and started transporting its reaperbot cargo to her surviving vessels.
"They have retreated to the dungeon," Cathy's voice came from the crystal ball rolling across the floor. "They are raising shields around their captives. You are within spellcasting range of their dungeon now. Evidently, they expect you to destroy the sacrifices before they can make use of them," she reported.
Ami could see how that would be a concern if the death cult was fighting any other Keeper than her. In this particular case, however, it was to her advantage. "Well, that's convenient. That means I won't need to be as precise when I collapse the tunnels leading to the temple. But Cathy, is something wrong? You sound queasy."
"It's- well, the prisoners." Cathy's face had a sick, greenish sheen. "There's really no gentle way to say this. They all had their eyes plucked out so they couldn't make trouble."
Ami jerked as if hit, her mind shying away from the monstrosity of it all. She was sure that her bile would be rising if this golem body had any. "Th-the children too?"
Cathy closed her eyes and nodded once.
Cold rage simmered in Ami's heart as her bright crimson gaze focused on the fog-covered island, a dark stain against the setting sun. Crowned Death and his minons would pay, she promised herself. Her armoured gauntlets, balled tightly into fists, groaned as her fleet charged onwards into the blood-red sunset. They. Would. Pay.
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