One of the six crystal balls positioned around Ami activated itself, showing her the Avatar's tired and grim-looking face.
“Crowned Death's cultists are bringing my mantle back into this world at this moment. The Light will lock it in place and prevent them from throwing it back into the temple's pool.” He scowled as fiercely as he could while suffering from a blocked, red-skinned nose. “The enemy will figure out how to break the lock sooner or later, so hurry and recover it! This is the only chance you will get! Do not fail!”
“I do not intend to,” Ami replied, looking directly into his eyes through the orb resting on a pedestal before her. Her helmet covered her face, but her voice was more than enough to convey her determination. While her first glimpse into the temple proper had been cut short by the destruction of her golems, it had been enough to strengthen her resolve. She had not been impressed by the polished obsidian skulls leering down from the walls, but the sight of the butcher knives arranged around the high altar had shaken her. She imagined that the empty basin underneath the metal grid at its centre was supposed to hold the Avatar's mantle and receive the victims' blood raining down from above. Her mind mercilessly analysed the rest of the arrangement, and concluded that the poor sacrifices would be ushered up the shallow ramp to the right, murdered, and then tossed off the balcony and into the pit to the left once they were used up. Ami gritted her teeth. She would save them from that ignoble fate!
"Avatar, I have a question. I saw a crown made of black-flame above the temple's central basin just before I lost contact with my ice golems. Could Crowned Death himself be present in that temple?"
"Unless the ground is belching forth demons, the ocean is turning into poison, and the dead are rising from their graves, I'd claim with confidence that he isn't," Amadeus dismissed the notion.
Ami quickly surveyed the battlefield through the eyes of her creatures. "Um, I'm not so sure about that last point you listed yet," she said, sounding a bit taken aback.
The water around the island shore was frothing, bubbling and disgorging various examples of dead aquatic life.
The young empress' eyes widened at the sight of a half-rotten shark flopping onto the shore at the forefront of the undead swarm, heading for her troops.
The oily-shimmering liquid in the central basin of Crowned Death's temple quivered and bulged upwards. Its surface burst with a spitting noise, and something so white it glowed in the gloom shot up into the air.
A death priest wearing richly-embroidered robes stood at the edge of the basin and swept his battle stuff upwards, intent on catching the Avatar's mantle as it came tumbling back down. With the holy artefact draped over his casting implement, he swivelled around in place and raised a foot to walk toward the altar on the opposite side of the room.
At that moment, the silver runes sewn into the seam of the white garment pulsed with light, and a physical force catapulted the ornately-dressed skeleton backwards. The mantle remaining floating in place, fluttering as if carried by an unseen breeze.
The death priest unfortunate death priest, his weapon and bones coated with a strange golden glow, flailed his arms as his purchase-seeking foot stepped into emptiness. Toppling backwards, the dark cultist dropped into the temple's basin, causing no splash as he disappeared underneath the surface.
"Idiot," the Incarnation of Extinction commented, managing to make even an exasperated hiss sound menacing. It looked down at the mantle, whose pure glow lit up the place with unseemly brightness "What is this?" An almost invisible hand attached to an emaciated arm closed around the glowing artefact as the hulking towering Incarnate reached down. Floor tiles cracked underneath the bulky shadow as it tugged and pulled at the garment. The creature's efforts stamped deep indentations in the shape of bird feet into the ground before it decided that brute force wasn't going to budge the thing.
"Troublesome, meddling Light gods," the demonic entity growled, letting go and taking a step away from the obstinate mantle. The shadow of its hand brushed over the liquid within the temple's central basin, causing the oily sheen on its surface to move around in a spiral pattern. The spectre brought its decaying face close to the whirlpool and stated "Come."
Instantly, three dark shapes appeared below, growing larger rapidly as they shot toward the surface. Propelled by black-feathered wings, the grey-skinned dark angels erupted from the basin and alighted on the ground before the pool. Folding up their wings, they inclined their heads toward the transparent monstrosity looming before them. "Honoured Incarnation of Extinction. What are your orders?"
"Break through those protections," their employer ordered, stabbing a claw at the glowing mantle floating in mid-air.
Three sets of dull red eyes peered at the Avatar's mantle curiously for a moment, then met each other. Without further words, the shirtless angels took positions around the holy artefact, each one standing at the points of an equilateral triangle. They spread their wings, braced themselves, and pointed their palms at the garment.
The Incarnation of Extinction turned away when beams of darkness started crawling across the fabric, sliding off it like water from a waxed surface. An impatient expression appeared on its face as it frowned at the empty and unstaffed altar. "Now what is taking these fools so long with my sacrifices?"
On the island's surface, the wall of metal that was Ami's reaperbot force clashed with the tide of undead flesh crawling, walking, and flopping out of the ocean. Most of the rotten and skeletal attackers did not pose much danger to her automatons individually, but they threatened to wear her troops away with sheer numbers. The teenager felt queasy at the sight of the abattoir her troops' whirling scythes were turning the battefield into.
In contrast, Rabixtrel was enjoying himself greatly as he moved across the gore-splattered ground like a bladed whirlwind of destruction. Wherever he turned, moaning and hissing monstrosities in all sizes came at him, almost as if they were eager to throw themselves on his curved blade.
Ami quickly pulled two of her reaperbots up to the safety of her airship when she noticed the decaying bulk of a whale trying to roll over them. A quick fireball, and the giant zombie exploded into a fountain of wet carrion and black smoke. The smell was horrible even from up here. Ami thought that most of it probably came from the grime-coated automatons she had just rescued, though, and she quickly moved them back down to the ends of the tubes dragging over the battlefield.
Her imps were suffering the most during this fighting, since they had working noses and could be harmed even by tiny nuisances that her other troops ignored. Having dead shrimp nibbling on one's toes had to be a miserable feeling.
"Tiger, raise some rock barriers around the excavation points," she ordered. "That should keep most of the maritime undead away."
"All right. Just keep the vampires off me, okay?" the youma acknowledged before teleporting away, leaving a column of crumbling dirt behind.
Vampires were pretty much the only serious danger to Ami's invasion as long as the death priests were busy elsewhere, and she made a point blasting them with lightning as soon as she spotted them. She thought that in a way, she should feel flattered that Crowned Death saw it fit to throw everything and the kitchen sink at her, even if it was more of an irritation. Things like that dead starfish chewing on a reaperbot's soles could only pose a danger if the automaton in question slipped while stepping on it. The sheer weirdness of some of his minions, however, was enough to make her scratch her head.
Well, I guess it's made of dead bodies, technically, but... Really, a coral reef? Ami shot a last look at the animated mass of calcium carbonate that crept up the beach like the world's largest caterpillar, shook her head, and decided to ignore it. At the speed it was going, it would reach her troops in an hour or so. Ami unleashed two more tremor spells into the tunnels below to both keep the death priests on their toes, and remove fortifications from the walls.
Her shabon spray - the normal version, since she would not use the corrupted acidic fog around innocent prisoners - flooded the catacomb-like tunnels of the dungeon in several locations, most of which were completely unrelated to her actual angle of attack. The mist was very noticeable and would make it harder for Clairmonte to guess where she would breach his walls first. As an added advantage, it hid the slight distortion that appeared in the air moments before her spells arrived and gave the enemy some warning.
Ami aimed a twice-empowered lightning bolt directly at one of the skeleton clerics maintaining the shield around the prisoners. Even blind, they had fled his unnatural presence, and so she dared take a shot at him. Just as his shield started wavering, she felt her territory being breached. A boarder! She immediately relocated from the front of her flagship's cabin to the back with her Keeper transport. "Mareki! More vampires!"
Instead of an answer, the tailed youma unhinged her jaw. Water gushed forth from her maw in a torrent, which she swept toward the two undead boarders.
Retreating before their weakness, the bat-like blurs hopped over toppled crates and through the empty cargo hold - right into an open hand made of ice that closed on one of them with a squelching and crunching noise. Even as the first vampire disappeared in a flash of blackness, the Keeper hand darted toward the other, delivering a punch that squished its target and dented the cabin's wall.
Shouting to make herself heard over the metal ringing like a gong, Mareki shouted "They are a pest! When are we going to be back over open water again?"
Ami reappeared between her crystal balls, splashing through one of the puddles left behind by the youma's attack. "We'll be over a small lake in less than ten seconds now. Until then, stay vigilant!" Unfortunately, she couldn't just fly out over the ocean again. The tubes hanging down from the airship needed to remain in contact with the ground her imps were claiming as they dug access tunnels to the enemy dungeon. Even with Tiger's ring-shaped blockades around the entrances, the workers remained a favoured target for the enemy Keeper. Perhaps she could let them have a go at that coral reef if the battle took long enough. Having an enemy they were designed to defeat might cheer them up.
Speaking of defeating the enemy, she needed to get rid of the death cultists and recover that mantle. Brute force was impractical given the presence of hostages, but perhaps an unexpected melee attack would work?
Reading the Keeper's intent, her most experienced golem somersaulted, teleporting itself into the tunnels below. It appeared behind a sarcophagus just as the ceiling shook and crumbled, forcing three of the skeletal creatures to raise their staves to deflect a few falling bricks. An instant later, lightning flashed down from a distortion in the air, and the empowered simulacrum made its move. Darting out from behind its cover with its skirt and ribbons fluttering, it lunged for the closest of the evil clerics.
Ami watched it slam into the purple-glowing barrier and slow down, but without stopping completely. In her head, she was cheering the ice statue on as it fought to break through the shield, struggling as if it was moving through syrup. She didn't expect the priests to drop their protective field with no warning whatsoever.
With the resistance gone, the simulacrum shot forward, slamming into one of the robed figures. Its punch lashed out at the monster, who yanked its head to the side in a move that would have killed any living creature. The icy fist still managed to graze the priest's jaw and took it clean off. The flying jawbone almost clipping one of the blind sacrifices whimpering on the floor as it skidded across the ground.
Before the golem could finish the dark priest off, one of his companions teleported, catching both Ami and the ice statue by surprise. With the three-pronged end of its battle staff jabbed into the simulacrum's sailor collar, there was no dodging the crackling black beam that shot from the artefact's tip.
Ami had a split second to feel a sucking sensation, and then everything went black.
"Crap!" Mareki shouted when the empress toppled without warning, her armour clattering loudly as it hit the ground.
"Mercury? Cathy just collapsed!" came Snyder's slightly panicked voice from the crystal ball. "Her transformation dissolved! Did something happen?"
The human's whine grated on the tailed youma's nerves. Couldn't he see that they had more important things happening here? "Shut up! She's not available right now!"
Tiger appeared in the room amidst a cloud of dust, scowling. "Dammit, that last vamp almost got me! Your stupid bots aren't helping, just standing around and- " she paused and blinked when she spotted the slight figure sprawled out on the ground. "Lord Jadeite, what happened here?"
The dark general rushed to Ami's side, turned her on her back, and started removing her helmet. "I don't know! She just fell over!" He managed to tear the helmet off, breaking a few strands of icy hair in the process, and stared down at the frozen face. “No tiara,” he remarked, his voice unsure.
Mareki could understand why he was hesitating. How was one supposed to take the life signs of an ice golem, or treat its injuries? From the crystal balls, she heard shouts and excited goblin babble. It sounded as if the operation was quickly descending into chaos at the home base too. At least two or three of the warlocks were giving conflicting orders. Just great, with them confusing the pilots, we'll all be neck-deep in bloodsuckers and ghosts here!
Jadeite managed to pry open one of the armoured statue's eyelids, revealing a faint red glow underneath. "She's still alive," he said, and some of the tension faded from his posture.
"You figure out how to wake her up, I'll make sure that things don't fall apart back at the dungeon," Tiger said, and spread her arms. Her form shrank and her features softened until she was a perfect copy of the unconscious Keeper. "You others, keep the assault going. The imps have their destinations and will breach the enemy dungeon. We'll just have to win this without magical support!"
Mareki would have snapped at the other youma, if she hadn't already teleported away. Who did she think she was, giving orders to her and even a dark general? "Lord Jadeite?" she asked, her lips pursed into a pout.
The curly-haired blond glanced at her from the corners of his narrow eyes, but immediately moved his gaze back to the cold head resting on his knees. "It's better than the alternatives. Do it."
Melicdor had lost track of the number of centuries she had been in the service of Crowned Death. She considered herself a master of all things arcane, as far above mortal archmages as they were above their apprentices. With the additional power granted to her by her sacred staff, few could call themselves her equal in the magical arts. Therefore, she was quite certain that she was not at fault for the unprecedented malfunctioning of the aeons-in-an-instant spell she had hit the enemy Keeper's minion with. Even had she botched the spell, the results couldn't have been anything like this.
The cocoon of crackling black magic enveloping the ice golem disappeared from one instant to the other, only for the simulacrum's back to explode. A twisted mockery of the human form hatched from the icy shell like history's ugliest dragon, growing to twice the golem's size in the blink of an eye. The icy creature appeared female, even if it was not immediately obvious with the way she was crouching. The spiked hunch forming her back reached up higher than the crown of horns decorating her head. Her face still bore a surprising resemblance to the dark empress, at least until she grinned like a very happy, fang-toothed frog.
Melicdor noted that, like some other newborn creatures, the frost-plated abomination appeared to be rather hungry. Unlike most natural creatures however, it seemed to consider High Priest Karmalun, who had dropped to the ground after the golem had let him go, edible and tasty.
A blue-veined tongue shot out of the female monster's grotesquely distended maw, wrapped itself around the skeleton priest on the ground, and yanked him in whole. There were some crunching noises, but somehow, the beast managed to make him fit.
Well, if at first you don't succeed, you can at least not be an idiot who tries the same spell again, Melicdor thought. Had she still possessed a functional survival instinct, she would have shuddered at the hungry look the beast's yellow eyes were shooting her. Instead, she calmly warped space with one hand while channelling fire through her staff. Both spells combined into an arrow-shaped bolt of burning and tearing destruction. She hurled it at the enemy, only to watch her spell dwindle away into nothing as it approached the monster. Was that a burp escaping from the creature's throat? A tactical retreat was in order, the death priest decided. A quick teleport later, she found that something cold had wrapped around her waist, constricting her voluminous robe to a hourglass shape. Oh, of course a threat of that calibre can teleport too, she realised as she felt the magic that animated her body drain away. I should have- CRUNCH.
The abomination swallowed and let out a demented giggle. Resting on all fours, she pointed her nose upwards and sucked in air through her nostrils like a wolf catching a scent. An instant later, she picked a direction, raised her large, shovel-like hands, and darted forward. Her claws bit into the reinforced brickwork like imp picks, quickly clearing a passage. Soon enough, the corridor was empty except for the sound of rock collapsing in the distance coming from the hole.
Tiger, glamoured to look like Sailor Mercury, floated in front of the three dimensional glass map in the home dungeon. She didn't have Keeper sight, but the frequently-updated map was an adequate replacement for tactical operation purposes. Besides, she could glance at the warlocks' crystal ball to get a more direct idea of what was going on.
So far, the reaperbots were jumping after the imps into the tunnels, abandoning the useless surface to the roving packs of undead vermin. Tiger felt like cackling maniacally as the automatons stormed forward, the pilots obeying her every command. Mercury didn't know how to appreciate this! What could be better than watching her metal-clad hordes charge at her command, slam into the defending line of skeletons outnumbering them twenty to one, and smash them to tiny bits. Especially when their enemy's weapons did little more than dent the armour of the huge automatons.
Tiger actually let out a whoop of joy as one of the metal warriors picked up a skeleton by the legs and used it as a flailing bludgeon, making bone chips fly with every blow. When its victim went completely to pieces, it used the two separate legs it was still holding as throwing implements and decapitated a zombie wearing a pointy wizard hat.
"Scatter!" the youma suddenly shouted, and an instant later, Keeper lightning stabbed down from the ceiling, hitting the centre of her formation and arcing around the different metal soldiers.
Molten steel ran down the hulking forms in small rivulets like a mockery of blood, but the damage seemed superficial in most cases. Two of the warriors remained motionless after the attack, most likely due to internal damage to their gold-to-power converter.
No matter! The vast majority of the troops was still in great fighting shape, and aside from some speedy vampires inflicting unavoidable losses, she didn't think Clairmonte had anything else that was a serious threat.
Ahead in the tunnel, a huge stone boulder trembled and started rumbling toward the invaders massing up within its narrow confines. A few metres further ahead, it encountered a sudden explosion to its side that pushed it off course, making it crash into the dungeon wall. A secondary explosion sent red-glowing fissures through part of it and removed a fourth of its mass. No longer round, it skidded to a shuddering stop long before reaching the scythe-wielding soldiers.
Tiger grinned. Good. Umbra was obviously putting her stealthiness to good use sabotaging the enemy traps. At the rate her troops were advancing, she'd seize the temple and the enemy dungeon heart before Mercury even regained consciousness. Taunting material for ages! Now if only the imps would get with the program and stop running away from the completely harmless wall they were supposed to dig through. The disguised youma scowled at the crystal ball, narrowing her eyes at the shivering workers shown within. If she could only give them instructions herself! Something needed to be done here. Maybe those wall decorations weren't as innocuous as they looked? "Pilots, smash those ugly statuettes!" she ordered, indicating the crude figurines of narrow-headed monsters sitting in little alcoves.
A few moments of gleeful vandalism later, the imps were approaching the wall with no difficulties at all.
Those statues had been some kind of subtle, mind-affecting trap, then. Good to know, Tiger thought. "Keep destroying those things if you see them! Oh, and try not to step on the prisoners in the next room. I have plans for them that require them alive," she proclaimed. Internally, she felt nervous. In the next hall, the troops would be facing death priests, which had little trouble dispatching reaperbots. She just hoped that swamping them with too many targets to destroy would work. In any case, they were the sole remaining serious danger aside from the Keeper's sporadic spells and Crowned Death's temple.
At that moment, a hulking, armour-plated abomination exploded out of the right wall, sending dust and flying debris at bullet-like speeds through the hallway.
"Shit! Medic! Medic!" a pillar of blackness gasped in pain as it appeared on the flagship. It quickly resolved itself into the floating figure of Umbra - with a very noticeable absence.
"What happened?" Mareki asked, taking her gaze off Jadeite trying to shock the Empress awake with a weak current in order to stare at the other youma's new injury.
"A fucking monster burst out of the wall and bit off my leg, that's what!" the masked youma snapped. And I was just finished regenerating my arm too! Fuck, this hurts!" She finally spotted Mercury on the floor, and let out a groan. "Just great, now I'll have to teleport all the way back to the dungeon, too. Ouch!"
"This thing?" the tailed, grey-skinned youma held up a crystal ball. “Be glad it only took your leg. It ate a reaperbot that got too close, and didn't even chew much!”
"What did?" A soft voice from the ground asked. Ami's eyes were open, and she looked up at the ceiling in confusion. Her crimson eyes widened as she remembered the situation, and she sat up abruptly. "The attack! How long was I out?"
"Don't panic, it was only for a few minutes," Jadeite tried to calm her. "Your troops were advancing all the time, so things are still proceeding as planned."
Ami's mind flashed through various locations with her Keeper sight, lingering briefly on piles of smashed skeletons and on her imps starting to claim territory for her in the catacombs below. Her reaperbots were in the dungeon proper, which confirmed the dark general's words. With her fear of having failed the prisoners abating, she pulled herself to her feet, noting that her armour felt much heavier than usual.
"Excuse me, wounded here!" Umbra intruded, drawing attention to her leg stump.
Ami touched her right ear and looked at the youma, only to find that her visor wouldn't appear. I'm no longer transformed, she realised with a start. She removed her gauntlet from her right hand and transported herself to the injured youma's side. "It's not cursed this time, is it?" she asked as she wove a necromantic healing spell. She had to switch to the power granted to her by Metallia to make it even work, though. What is going on here? "All right, I have stopped the bleeding. Mareki, put some bandages on her! We still have a battle to win!"
"Empress, do you know what knocked you out?" Jadeite asked, sounding worried.
Ami shook her head. "The last thing I remember is one of the death priests hitting my trained golem with their rapid-ageing beam. I lost consciousness an instant later." She pondered how to proceed. First, no crisis needed to be addressed right this moment, so she should make sure she wasn't at any less than full power for the rest of the operation. Standing straight, she locked her armour's limbs in a stable position and then transported herself out of the suit. It wouldn't do to lose her mobile treasury to her senshi transformation. "Mercury Power, Make Up!" The swirls of blue light she was expecting failed to materialise, and she remained an unclad ice statue standing with her arm raised into the air. She blinked. "I- I can't transform?" Quickly, she popped back into her armour. "Why can't I transform?"
"Oh, you are back," Tiger's voice came from the crystal ball reserved for communication with the home dungeon, sounding less than thrilled. "What's with that weird monstrosity bursting through walls? That wasn't in the plan!"
"Please use a painful spell when you destroy it, your Majesty," Umbra requested, lying on the ground. She twitched as Mareki poked at her wound, ready to apply some clean white cloth to the stump.
"Monstrosity?" Ami searched with her Keeper sight, quickly locating the hulking, spike-covered abomination that was responsible for wounding the shadow-using youma. Her eyebrows shot upwards when senses expanded by her dungeon heart reported something else. "What? It's mine? Where did that thing come from?"
"If I may venture a guess," Jadeite said as he approached her position, "I think that used to be your golem. Being hit with that time-acceleration magic must have given the bit of Metallia's power animating it enough time to develop into a full youma. With your senshi transformation, it would have had enough magic to not starve." He scratched the back of his head. "The creature wouldn't be socialised like normal youma, having been frozen in complete isolation for who knows how long, though."
"That would explain why it has a minion link," Ami agreed. She narrowed her eyes. "It would have been draining magic from my source at an alarming rate while caught in the aging-acceleration spell," she pondered.
Jadeite nodded. "Yes, it draining you dry probably knocked you out."
"But why would power flow from me towards it? We should all be drawing from the same source," the armoured teenager pondered.
"Maybe your source ran dry?" the dark general speculated. "Your senshi powers could be fuelled from a huge but exhaustible reservoir. In that case, we'd be dealing with one extremely powerful wild youma here."
Ami cringed. "Let's assume for now that my inability to transform is simply a consequence of it still monopolising the entire output, okay?" The idea of being permanently blocked from becoming Sailor Mercury scared her, and not only because she would lose access to her computer. "What is a feral youma going to do?"
"Find more food, most likely," Mareki answered. "Growing youma are very voracious."
"So it would be looking for magic," Ami guessed. Suddenly, her eyes lit up with glee. “And what's the most obvious big source of magic around?”
Tiger's grin in the crystal ball mirrored her own. "I get it! Pilots, follow that monster!" she shouted, pointing at the arrow-straight tunnel the youma-golem had disappeared into.
The ice-plated monstrosity was heading straight toward Clairmonte's dungeon heart with no regard for the intervening terrain, a fact that was causing great distress to the Keeper. His most devastating spells were being absorbed harmlessly into the hulking mass of spikes, and the thing was making lunch out of his greatest vampires. Where had that upstart Mercury found a beast like that?
Keeper Clairmonte raged, far away in another dungeon. His allies were useless. His subordinate Keepers could not enter the blocked portal, and the death clergy was still trying to conduct their ceremony instead of pitching in for the battle. If he had those dark angels defending his fortress instead of poking at the mantle, then he could turn the tide of the battle! Probably. That monstrous ice creature was awfully strong. It seemed to still be vulnerable to physical attacks, but throwing monsters into its path was about as useful as throwing them at a horned reaper. One of which that so-called empress had brought too, accursed witch. Things were looking rather bleak, even if the horned demon remained on the island's surface, cheerfully dismembering zombies. Oh well, he wouldn't give up without a fight.
At his mental command, heavy iron latches undid themselves in the remote dungeon heart chamber, and salty seawater flooded the room. Let's see how well the intruders fared against the most dangerous aquatic creatures in their own element!
It didn't take long for the death-worshipping Keeper to be disappointed by his trap. In a burst of bubbles and floating rocks, Mercury's abomination broke through the ceiling of his dungeon heart chamber. Around it, some of her soulless metal fighters lost their footing and sank like rocks, only to be squished like the tin cans they were by grasping tentacles. His creatures that went for the biggest threat, however, just fell apart as the magic animating them was digested upon touching the beast.
The abominable fiend reached the edge of the dungeon heart's pit, sat down on all fours, and crossed her eyes as she admired the green column of swirling mana streaming upwards like glowing air bubbles from the membrane below. Then, her neck elongated, and her horn-covered head disappeared in the depths below.
The water turned red.
Clairmonte panicked as he felt a stabbing sensation in his chest, followed by his mana being forcefully ripped away from him. What felt like a pain-filled eternity later, but couldn't have been more than several seconds, he felt himself being dragged across space by the death throes of his dungeon heart. The last thing he saw as he was flushed down into the realm of the dark gods was the face of the thrice-damned monstrosity chewing happily on a piece of his dungeon heart's membrane.
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