As soon as Ami appeared, frigid winds whipped her short skirt around her legs and ripped away the snowflakes surrounding her. She flinched from the sudden drop in temperature and hoped that the surrounding storm clouds had sufficiently dampened the blue flash of her arrival. Since the turbulent weather prevented her from seeing the ocean below, she hoped that whatever dwelt beneath the waves remained unaware of her presence.
”Any reaction down there?” she asked her assistants back in the dungeon, thousands of kilometres away.
”Negative. No changes.” Torian's dream-like voice rang in her mind.
The blue-haired girl let go of the large cylinder she was cradling in her arms. Without the aid of her Keeper powers, she would have been barely able to even lift the torpedo-shaped device. For the moment though, she used it as an improvised bench floating in mid-air.
”Inform me when the wind dies down near the surface,” she instructed the remote warlock.
”As you wish, your Majesty.”
Ami figured that there was a temple to Crowned Death somewhere below the surface. To her chagrin, she lacked accurate - or any – information on it. Crystal balls couldn't penetrate the darkness in the ocean trench below. However, they had shown her a number of seagulls in the sky, too far away from any land to survive.
“Wind seems low right now. No zombie birds either,” Torian informed her.
“All right.” Ami reached for a couple of Shabon Sprays she had put into Keeper storage and released them directly at their destination.
The blasts of bubbles struck the water below and instantly burst into a thick bank of sound-devouring fog. No sooner than the mist had appeared, it billowed outwards and frayed at the edges.
Ami didn't lose any time. She slid off the cylinder, wrapped her arms around it, and teleported into her fog below. Only a faint splash announced to the world that she had dropped her cargo into the waves. Payload delivered, the teenager winked out of existence once more, returning to her hideout in the clouds. Only a few foamy droplets running down her black leotard revealed how close she had just gotten to the surface of the sea.
”An admirable performance, as expected of your Majesty” Torian commented. ”I would have missed it if I had blinked!”
Ami didn't answer and concentrated on her computer screen. It showed her a bluish-grey panorama that grew darker while her probe sank deeper. She bit her lip as she tapped some keys and waited for the result. When the image tilted to the side, she let out the breath she had been holding. Remote control was still working fine. She hadn't been too sure of its tolerances, since she had assembled the entire fish-like automaton in a rather slap-dash manner.
With her Keeper powers, she reached into the remote probe and deactivated the propeller at its tail end in order to conserve battery power. She would simply push the automaton through the water manually until it encountered claimed territory. That way, everything aside from the magical visor at the tip of the device could remain passive until it was really needed.
She pulled the probe to the left, adjusting its course toward a trench on the ocean floor. So far, her vehicle seemed to deal well with the rising water pressure, but a degree of uncertainty remained. She couldn't see the probe with her Keeper powers, only feel it, and so she relied on its camera to navigate.
On her computer screen, grey pictures of the ocean floor scrolled upwards as the probe sank deeper into the trench. The visor she had built into the machine could not only see in the dark, it also routed the signals from the Mercury computer to the rest of the machinery. She didn't feel entirely confident about that feat of improvised engineering; her goggles weren't really meant to interface with anything, at least not using wires. Acquiring a visor in the right shape for the streamlined underwater vehicle had been a minor hurdle in comparison. With a quick possession and transformation, she had produced one set of appropriately-shaped goggles and one very confused shark.
A tiny deep sea fish investigated the probe from up close, startling Ami by filling the screen with a set of fangs that even Rabixtrel would have envied. She got a good reading on the grotesque creature before it darted away, revealing it to be alive, if ugly. This proved to be the last moment of excitement during her search for the next twenty minutes. ”Torian, are you sure this is the right location? I haven't found anything unusual so far.”
”Positive, your Majesty! It looked as if the stars had fallen into the abyss. My colleagues will confirm that! Perhaps you need to go deeper?”
”The probe can't go any deeper without burrowing into the ground,” Ami replied. Her scans showed the ocean floor to be a gooey plain devoid of vegetation. “There's no sign of a structure of the size you described.”
Torian remained quiet for a while. ”Your Majesty, I am loath to suggest this, but could your artefact have been carried off its intended course by a treacherous current without you noticing?”
”It's unlikely, but I can try to get a look from a higher vantage point.” Ami started lifting the probe toward the surface. On her computer, she called up a map to verify that she was really searching the right area. Comparing the green dot on the representation of the underwater trench with her own position, she noted that she was indeed looking in the right place. She stared at the map she had constructed from her scans for a while, seeking nooks and crannies she might have missed. Her eyes narrowed, and she zoomed in on one of the slopes. ”I think I may have been too close,” she pondered.
”I'm going to look at a different spot,” she replied. ”I spotted something odd higher up.”
She dragged the probe further upwards until it was about a kilometre off the ground, directing it towards the narrowest part of the underwater trench. As it got closer to its destination, she had to start correcting for the currents speeding up as they flowed through the choke point. Nevertheless, she managed to keep the camera steady on the one feature that interested her.
Seen from afar, the wide groove in the otherwise smooth layer of dirt coating the flanks of the trench stood out far more distinctly than it had from up close. Due to its size, Ami had mistaken it for the natural result of a mudslide when her probe had first passed over it. It hadn't occurred to her that the sludge layer of the surrounding slopes remained intact. Some of them were even steeper than the one she was looking at right now. She swerved the probe to the left, sweeping with the camera over the straight, horizontal line that separated sludge from bared rock.
”Torian, what is the largest creature that lives in the sea?” To her, this looked suspiciously as if something huge had brushed the ooze away.
”Err, I will have to get back to you on that, your Majesty. I don't deal with beasts.”
Ami formed a theory as she waited. With the way the trench tapered at this point, the currents would become faster, making it harder to manoeuvre. Something could have been pushed against the walls, unable to correct its course in time. Experimentally, she loosened her grip on the probe to observe where it would be carried. Yes, the flow direction seemed about right. She started typing, analysing the shape of the abrasion to figure out from which direction it had been created.
”Empress, there are rumours of sea serpents that can grow to twice the length of the undead octopus you defeated so decisively. However, when judging by volume, the latter might still count as the larger of the two.” Some of the eagerness disappeared from Torian's dream-like voice. ”Unfortunately, the depths of the ocean are not a well-researched topic; there may yet be larger creatures completely unknown to us.”
”Thank you.” Ami shuddered at the memory of the eight-armed monster and compared its size to the abrasion. Such a beast could have created it, if it had bumped against the slope fairly solidly. “I'm going after it,” she decided.
”Excuse me? Our crystal balls cannot see in the dark, your Imperial Majesty,” Torian reminded her.
Ami reconfigured the sensors of the remote visor. Scanning only for objects the size of a giant octopus and upwards would vastly increase its detection range, at the cost of missing smaller details. ”Some kind of giant creature passed through here. If it was responsible for the lights you observed, then it shouldn't have too much of a lead,” she explained.
Deep below, the probe shot forward with a speed it hadn't demonstrated before as the young Keeper shoved it much more forcefully through the water.
Ami teleported from one towering cloud to the next, taking care to stay hidden while following her probe. By now, she had draped a conjured woollen mantle over herself and added a scarf to her outfit; she had been freezing in her leg-baring senshi uniform. However, she no longer noticed the cold that made her breath condense in the air before her. All the attention she could spare was on a slow-moving red dot on the Mercury computer's screen. “Impossible!” She didn't have a visual yet, but the incoming sensor data was enough to make her gape at the readout in disbelief.
The target was enormous, easily dwarfing even the zombie octopus. She shook her head. Forget about the octopus. This thing read as big enough to house several container ships with room to spare! The teenager wondered how something that big could hold together, let alone manoeuvre under its own power. Her apprehension, as well as her curiosity, grew the closer her probe got to the source of the signal.
She pushed the automaton forward as fast as she could, encountering less and less fish swarms as she got closer to her quarry.
It still took several minutes until the device transmitted its first monochromatic image of the target.
”You were right,” she thought in Torian's direction, blinking several times as she gazed at the picture, ”It does look as if a piece of the night sky had fallen into the water.”
”Where should we scry for it, your Majesty?” The warlock replied, a hint of his satisfaction and curiosity contaminating his telepathic message.
”From my position, move in a straight line about sixteen dot seven degrees from the North. It's about halfway between the top and the bottom of the trench.” Ami sent the probe forward more slowly than before and had it stay close to the ground. She resumed looking at the picture of the clearly artificial target. Its shape reminded her a bit of a jellyfish, with a domed top part and a narrow stalk that trailed long tendrils. Admittedly, the comparison was somewhat flawed, since the top was more of a staggered pyramid and the tendrils didn't trail, but were wound tightly around the tapering stalk. Perhaps a mushroom would be a more apt comparison?
”We can see some light if we scry from a distance,” Torian intruded into her thoughts. ”Nothing from the top, and if we move the vantage point too close, the image goes dark. You clearly found some sort of dark temple, your Majesty. I trust you will proceed with all due prudence.”
Ami didn't need the warning. She wasn't going to take risks approaching an enemy stronghold like that one. Given the sheer scale of the underwater vessel, it had to be important to Crowned Death. With that size, she would be justified called it floating city. Perhaps she was even looking at the death god's main temple? She had no doubt that the construct was capable of housing the power source of the Calarine staves. "I'm not personally getting any closer to that thing if I can help it," she messaged back.
More and more of the vessel filled her screen as her probe crept closer. The pinpricks of light visible from afar seemed to be openings in its surface. Windows or doors perhaps? Ami studied the hull constructed from black stone. She would have expected something travelling through the ocean to be covered in algae or mussels, but no discolourations hinted at any such passengers. Her gaze moved downwards, toward the appendages hanging down from the octagonal main mass and clinging to the stem.
The teenager gasped and covered her mouth with one hand. They were made of corpses! Large and small squids, crustaceans, and fishes were holding onto each other, forming fleshy tendrils that drifted limply in the current.
Ami forced herself to study the macabre sight more closely. She could discern fatal wounds on some of the larger bodies, but couldn't find any signs of decomposition. Some of those corpses looked ancient too, all dark and wrinkly and mummified. The temple was dragging its own army of undead monsters along!
Even more cautious now, Ami circled the gargantuan vessel with her camera drone. Approaching in a spiral pattern, she got a good look at the upper side of the dome. Obelisks studded its surface like beard stubble, flanking paths, terraces and jutting towers. Of more immediate interest to her were the crenellations, worn smooth over time by the flowing water. They wouldn't make much sense unless this thing could actually surface. Ami suddenly felt a lot less comfortable about having built her dungeon close to the coast. "Torian, get someone to compile me a list of recent and historical references to a black fortress rising from the sea," she instructed.
"Err, of course, your Majesty. Immediately. I take it your exploration is going well?"
"I'm not seeing much from the outside." While her scanner provided her with some information about the general magical signature of the temple-ship, she'd have to get inside to learn anything useful. For example, she would love to know where all the magic that the ship was using for propulsion was coming from. The amount required was far in excess of anything she could produce without dipping deeply into her gold reserves.
She considered the implications of her probe falling into enemy hands. Aside from the visor, nothing inside was particularly advanced. Dungeon traps already could produce electricity, so her batteries were nothing new. The motor was a bit more problematic, but didn't introduce anything that couldn't also be accomplished by magic already. If worst came to worst, she could simply dispell the sensor goggles by possessing the shark again and cancelling her Sailor Mercury transformation. Nodding to herself, she let the probe sink lower so it could get to one of the lit openings on the temple's underside. It was worth the risk.
As the automaton got closer to the edge of the claimed area, it became harder and harder to move with Ami's Keeper powers. She wished she had included one of her rats as a passenger. The camera feed alone didn't give her a precise enough idea of the probe's location to cast spells at it. A telekinetic Keeper hand would have been just what she needed in this situation. Instead, she reached inside the device and flicked the power switch before her control slipped entirely. With a faint vibration, the motor started up. From now on, she'd have to drive by remote control, making an already complicated task even harder.
Acutely aware that she was on a time limit, Ami had the probe head for one of the more isolated openings. It stayed far away from the grotesque tendrils and hid between pieces of wall-like protruding masonry. Just as it approached its destination, something emerged from the rectangular hatch, and Ami let out a startled hiss. Biting her lip, she swerved to the side and stopped the motor, already resigned to the fact that inertia was working against her and that she'd never reach a hiding spot in time.
Snout first, a deathly pale shark descended out of the opening, carrying a metal-coated skeleton that glittered in the shaft of light.
Ami's heart hammered in her chest as mount and rider completely ignored the floating cylinder not five metres to their side. Couldn't they detect it?
Apparently not. The shark swam off, dragging a pallet laden with black stone plates on a chain. Its rider turned its head, cones of light shining from its hollow eye sockets. Its gaze wandered over the vessel's hull, illuminating parts of it like a spotlight.
Ami waited for them to disappear behind a wall and wiped the sweat from her brow. What had happened here? She considered the facts. First, her probe wasn't alive. Second, it only used active magic for communication. Third, it had stayed in the dark. Was it possible that undead couldn't see in complete darkness? It would explain the lights. Not questioning her luck, she had the probe press onwards. It's batteries wouldn't get any fuller from waiting. She concentrated entirely on her task and managed to steer the device into the narrow passage with the first try.
The Mercury computer howled a warning, and Ami jerked in surprise.
Wide-eyed, she stared at the red letters flashing on the screen. They ordered her to turn back right this moment, since she was heading into a field of lethal magical energies. Since the message was meant for her probe, she felt free to ignore it. Perhaps it was for the best that she hadn't placed an animal into the device, after all.
Calming down after both unpleasant surprises, she got her first uninterrupted look at the temple's insides. They were filled with water, reducing sight range despite the adequate illumination. Nevertheless, Ami would have had to be blind to miss that the corridor was more elaborately decorated than the temple's austere exterior. Unfortunately, she found neither the skull motives on the wall nor the giant gaping maw that formed a doorway to be in good taste. She hurriedly steered the probe forward, searching for some place where it would have more cover.
It passed in between two larger-than-life statues of skeletal kings staring at each other and emerged into a larger chamber.
The horrible face of the Incarnation of Extinction covered the ceiling, its left nostril providing just enough space for the probe to hide from a group of metal-coated skeletons that emerged from a side chamber, carrying shiny rocks.
A quick scan taught Ami that it was gold ore. She briefly wondered what need the undead had for it, but put the thought aside for the moment. It was more important to get her little mechanical spy deeper into the fortress while its power lasted. Only one collision with the wall later, she had managed to get the drone into the next corridor.
The place's décor consisted of nothing but skulls, piled across each other and sorted meticulously by size until they covered every available surface.
They were real too, Ami thought with revulsion. At the next intersection, she could see more tunnels branching off. She wondered just how long these catacomb-like corridors were, and if they were all stuffed with mortal remains.
Since she didn't have any kind of map, she was forced to rely on the information relayed by her sensors instead. She opted to head for the strongest energy sources she could detect, reasoning that doing so would lead her to something important eventually. She kept following the maze-like tunnels, staying close to the ceiling to avoid running into patrols and workers.
Her prudence was well-justified, since another group of the metal-coated skeletons threw long shadows down the corridor as they approached. Ami kept her spy motionless, hoping that the light of the green spheres set into the walls didn't reach it. She needn't have worried, as the procession of skeletons passed underneath without ever looking up. The probe's elevated vantage point also gave her a great view of the bier carried by the undead. More separate bones, but this time coated with a thin film of metal. Replacement parts for Crowned Death's soldiers?
The corridor took a sharp turn to the left and widened. It gave her more room to manoeuvre, and she gratefully took advantage of the shadows along the ceiling to hide from the fifty or so skeletons that were working the walls with hammers and chisels. She wasn't too far away from some of the energy sources now.
As she plotted a new course, a change went through the room, and her luck ran out. A large section of the wall slid aside, the undead workers threw themselves to the ground in supplication, and her camera feed dissolved into static as the Incarnation of Extinction stared straight at the probe.
Ami boggled and looked at her screen in dismay, hoping against hope that the “connection lost” messages were only a hallucination. She was shocked less by the sight of her defeated enemy – Crowned Death could probably make a new Incarnation whenever he wanted to – than by what the evil spirit had been able to do. Her probe wasn't even alive! It made no sense that it should have been affected by the death gaze! In her frustration, she almost missed the small, blinking line of text in the corner of the screen. It simply stated “periphery device rebooting...”
“Please work...” she whispered as she waited impatiently for the remote visor to come back online. Perhaps the probe could run and hide if the enemy believed it out of action?
Finally, the picture returned and immediately dashed her hopes. It swerved up and down as the probe moved, caught in the grip of the Incarnation.
The semi-transparent abomination was moving at a brisk pace, carrying the trapped device in a third arm it had grown specifically for that purpose. In contrast to Ami, it navigated the labyrinthine corridors with expert ease, but the shaking of the camera made it hard for her to catch more than the occasional glimpse of rooms filled with tightly-stacked skeletons.
Nevertheless, Ami recorded everything that got into the visor's field of view. She didn't know when the Incarnation would realise that the probe wasn't as dead as it assumed. Until it did, she was going to save as much footage as possible.
When the Incarnation of Extinction entered a vast hollow space within the vessel, Ami got to see more of the surroundings despite the camera swings. In what had to be the centre of the ship, she spotted a ziggurat-like structure that looked incongruous with the surrounding architecture, stylistically as well as due to the brighter stone used in its construction.
A curtain of bubbles blocked her view before she could make more than a preliminary analysis. The bubbles seemed to come from a row of egg-shaped buildings that were hot enough to make the surrounding water boil. At a guess, they were hollow and served as smithies.
The Incarnation crossed an overpass, turning slightly and providing Ami with another look at the central building.
This time, she noticed the pipes converging on the structure from all directions. Each of them began at a cylinder of dark stone about twenty metres in diameter and twice as tall. What really grabbed her attention was the readout of her sensors. Each power reading, aside from her probe's captor, seemed to originate within one of those black columns. She could barely contain her excitement when the Incarnation headed straight for an unfinished one, over which skeletal workers swarmed like ones.
Work came to a quick stop as the demonic being approached and the undead prostrated themselves before it. It ignored them and stepped through the entrance, and for a moment, Ami saw nothing but the hole where the ceiling of the bunker-like building was going to be. Then, the camera swerved much more violently than before, and she realised that the Incarnation had tossed her automaton towards a trio of kneeling skeletons. The many pockets of their tattered robes contained complicated-looking instruments and wands, she noted in the brief moment they were within view. However, she forgot all about the sorcerer-engineers as the probe continued spinning slowly in the water.
A man was trapped in a spherical bubble of air, screaming soundlessly as a death priest flayed skin off his back with a lash of dark magic.
Ami got the impression that she had seen the tortured stranger before, but even his gruesome fate was not enough to distract Ami from what was in the pit below him. She finally had the answer to one of her questions.
Grey and dead, its fleshy membrane ripped apart and savaged, the bloody ruin of a dungeon heart nevertheless beat in a steady rhythm.
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