“...and then they started taking the probe apart,” Ami said as the playback ended. Clad in her best Keeper outfit, she looked expectantly at her audience like a student waiting for the verdict of her professors,

Abbot Durval furrowed his brow as he stared at the canvas, his wrinkles more prominent than usual. If he had leaned forward any further, he would have been in serious risk of falling off his bench.

In contrast, Camilla sat next to him at the corner table with a very straight back and a minimum amount of fidgeting. From time to time, she threw an awestruck glance at the impassive face of the Avatar in the crystal ball before her. When neither of the other two was looking at her, she tried to straighten out an imaginary wrinkle in her ambassadorial robes.

Ami wondered briefly whether the blonde was pale and nervous for the right reasons.

Her own advisers at their separate table seemed less impressed by the footage than her visitors, since all aside from Jered had seen it before. Tiger in particular was paying more attention to the snacks than to the presentation, her appetite undiminished by Jadeite's disapproving stares.

“That is a shocking discovery,” Durval spoke first, shaking his head. “Undead dungeon hearts, Light preserve us all!”

“It's alarming news indeed,” Amadeus agreed. “It looks as if someone got inspired by your iceberg, doesn't it?” he asked, directing a dark look at Ami.

“With all due respect, it has to be far older than her Majesty's design,” Snyder came to Ami's defence. He was sitting closest to the group of visitors, but addressed his words mostly at the Avatar. “The sizeable amount of skeletons indicates that the death god has been gathering these minions for a long time. The metal coating for preserving and strengthening the bones supports this interpretation, as does the wear on the fortress' crenellations.”

Amadeus inclined his head in a barely perceptible nod, and turned toward Ami. “Are you still tracking that vessel?” he asked in a more business-like tone of voice.

Ami nodded. “Yes. It changed course after they capture my probe, but I sent down replacements to keep it under observation.” Which meant in practice that she had hidden two visors on the enemy vessel's hull. She hoped that she wouldn't need the power committed to maintaining two more transformations any time soon.

“Good. Do you know where is it going?”

“It seems to let itself drift on the currents most of the time, but I haven't been following its movements for more than a few hours yet.”

“Continue monitoring it!” the Avatar ordered, causing Durval to look at him sideways and Camilla to suck in a startled breath.

The fairy's eyes darted over to Mercury, and she slid further away from the crystal ball hurriedly.

Fortunately, Ami didn't take offence. “I was intending to,” she said. “Do you have a plan on how to deal with that thing, then?” she asked, hope swinging in her voice. “With its ability to move unseen and its horde of aquatic abominations, it represents a terrible danger to shipping and to coastal settlements.”

“I dare disagree with that assessment,” Durval corrected her. “It's too big. It would beach itself long before reaching most shores.”

“Actually, the undead sea creatures could serve as ferries,” Ami pointed out.

The abbot twirled his white beard around his index finger as he considered this. “Hmm, so they could.” He sat down more comfortably. “Nevertheless, a fleet of smaller, faster vessels would be more suitable for raids. If this thing attacked a city, its neighbours would be warned long before it reached the next one.”

“If it can't fly,” Jadeite stated in a flat tone of voice. “Remember the death priests and their pet?”

“Um, if our enemy had enough of those to lift something that heavy, we would have never managed to stop the sacrifice,” Ami said into the sudden silence, bringing some confidence back onto the faces looking at her.

“Well, it sounds as if the vessel would be best suited for establishing a beachhead in hostile territory or for achieving naval dominance, then,” Cathy said. “If it sent its zombie critters roaming, it could sink enemy ships in a wide perimeter around itself.”

“A major headache on a strategic level, but it's not exactly going to bring nations to their knees by itself.” Jered was leaning against Cathy and occasionally perusing her notes. The wavy-haired man had dark rings under his eyes, and the sleeves of his shirt had slight scorch marks from the summoning circle Ami had used to retrieve him in a hurry.

“Well, I'm still worried plenty about those possibilities!” Camilla spoke up for the first time, almost snarling at the man.

“The vessel's offensive capabilities are irrelevant in the big picture,” the Avatar said in a voice not his own, his eyes glowing white.

Round-eyed, the fairy flinched and bowed her head even as her cheeks started reddening. “Um, I-”

“That was not meant as an admonishment, child. You are simply not taking Crowned Death's objectives into account.”

Camilla's chagrined expression brightened. Like everyone else, she waited for the Light's next words with bated breath.

“The important part is that Crowned Death can act in this world without intermediaries. With the undead dungeon hearts, he has no more need for Keepers who squander their resources on their own selfish goals. He is undoubtedly using the vessel to collect enough power to erupt into this world.”

Ami's heart skipped a beat.

Camilla reeled as if slapped, Durval coughed in surprise, and a chorus of gasps came from Ami's advisers.

“I need to contact my superiors!”

“This is a disaster! What-”

“We need to stop him!”

“What are you planning to-”

“How long-”

“Please sit down and be quiet,” the gender-neutral voice of the Light thundered over the noise of everyone talking at once. “There is no cause for alarm just yet,” it filled the sudden silence. “Crowned Death's stealthy approach has a significant drawback. Imagine Keeper-corrupted lands as a hole through which a dark god may wriggle into this world. The smaller the hole, the more effort it takes for the entity to squeeze through. Crowned Death's swimming temple barely qualifies as a pinprick. He will have to gather power for a long time.”

“Sounds as if a huge wasteland ruled by the undead would have fit right into his plans, then,” Tiger interrupted. “Gather enough power, then have your priests approach a certain vampire with the offer of gold in exchange for a service...”

“It does make you wonder how much of Mukrezar's fall was his own fault, doesn't it?” Jered said, his eyes half-closed.

A low growl echoed through the room, and Camilla looked around for its source, startled. When she spotted the Avatar grinding his teeth, her eyes widened, and a frown struggled for predominance with a raised eyebrow.

Worried, Ami typed away at her Mercury computer. “Could the death god have claimed the bottom of the sea to open a large enough entrance?” she asked, looking at the Avatar.

Within the crystal ball, the man's angry features calmed as the warm light returned to his eyes. “That would do him no good. The moving water would carry away too much of the corruption for this to work,” the Light gods explained. Forestalling her next question, the voice continued “He could not use your territory either, unless you suddenly started worshipping him for some reason.”

“That is never going to happen,” Ami said with conviction.

“How fortunate,” Durval noted. “However, there are many other regions that are both above ground and poorly guarded, such as deserts and the polar ice caps. I shall recommend to his Majesty King Albrecht that he and his allies commence surveys of such areas.”

“That's, er, probably a good idea,” Ami agreed with some apprehension. Since she had a hideout in the northern Arctic circle, she wasn't entirely happy about the suggestion.

“How much time do we have?” Jadeite asked.

“If it helps, my information suggests that he has between twenty to thirty undead dungeon hearts active on that ship,” Ami added quickly, drawing a startled gasp from her guests. “I can't tell how much power he has already gathered, though.”

“Less than a third of what he needs to enter the world without a prepared territory, if her,” the Avatar's white-glowing eyes briefly shifted toward Tiger, “speculation is correct. It should take him decades to gather the rest, at the very least.”

“Well, that's a relief.” Durval seemed to shrink as the tension left his old body and he sank into a more comfortable position on his bench.

Ami, however, was typing away furiously on her palmtop computer. “Does this take into account him mining the ocean floor for gold? And what if he adds more dungeon hearts?”

“He doesn't have enough gold in that damn temple of his to make much of a difference,” Amadeus replied in his own voice. “I can tell by it not being embedded in the ocean ground like a lead weight.”

“I shall take your word for it, Lord Avatar,” Durval said, and then turned to Ami. “I imagine that finding salvageable dungeon hearts is harder than it sounds. Keepers tend to claim and re-purpose the dungeon heart chambers of their defeated opponents, and we consider the sight of such an artefact burning to be rather heart-warming.”

Ami didn't let herself be distracted by Cathy's groan and the old man's grin. “Well, what if he simply empowers more Keepers and has them killed to steal their hearts?”

“Expensive, and potential Keepers don't grow on trees,” the Avatar commented.

“All right,” Ami nodded. “So everyone agrees that Crowned Death is trying to play the long game here, and his swimming fortress is not a pressing threat?” She looked at Durval and the Avatar, since they seemed the closest she had to experts in this room.

“It will take him decades to get ready, in my opinion. Years at the very least,” the abbot said.

“Nevertheless,” the Light's clear voice echoed through the room like the sound of a bell, “He must be stopped. The faster, the better.”

“I will do what is within my power, exalted Divines,” Durval agreed, bowing deeply.

Camilla followed his lead after an instant. She blinked when she looked over at the other table and saw that Jadeite hadn't.

“Oh, I agree completely,” Ami said with a small smile.

“Nobody in his right mind would have any objections,” Jered said. “And I'm sure even most Keepers would cooperate to get rid of that swimming doomsday clock. At least, they wouldn't get in the way.”

“Are you suggesting that we should work together with other Keepers on this?” the Avatar growled.

Camilla leaned in close to Durval and indicated Mercury with a glance. “He's objecting about working with Keepers now?” she whispered quietly, sounding confused.

Amadeus' smouldering gaze swivelled from Jered to her. “What was that, Ambassador?”

“Nothing!” the fairy squeaked, hanging her head.

“Well, we already know of one Keeper who is currently at war with the priesthood of Crowned Death,” Jadeite said. He looked at Ami expectantly. “One who seems competent enough, and is already trying to get into your good graces.”

“I don't know,” Ami said. Making use of Midori's resources would be strategically sound, but she felt filthy even thinking about working together with someone as evil as most Keepers. Her feelings on the issue mirrored the Avatar's. “Let's first try to find a solution that doesn't involve them, all right?”

“Yeah, how hard could it be to destroy a dark temple deep underwater? It only has dungeon-grade structural reinforcements, invisible zones of killing magic, monsters outside, skeletons inside, and a Death aspect roaming the halls. Piece of cake,” Cathy summarised the obstacles and let out a long sigh.

“It's a fortress meant to protect Crowned Death's most critical assets,” Tiger said. “Of course it's going to be a pain to attack! Does anyone have any ideas on where to even begin?”

“Before we start planning, I'd like to know why Mercury was poking around in the middle of the ocean in the first place,” Amadeus said.

“Oh, that? I was trying to find the power source of the battle staves of Calarine that those death priests are using,” Ami explained.

“I surmise that you succeeded, Empress,” Durval said.

The Avatar's eyes turned white. “The building that is the recipient of all those pipes is built in the style of ancient Calarine,” the Light confirmed.

“All right! We can hit our original objective and ruin the death gods plan as a bonus! Lucky!” Tiger declared cheerfully and slammed her palm onto the table. The empty snack bowl next to her hand clattered from the impact.

“Tiger...” Ami said softly, wringing her hands. The youma hadn't exactly breached the non-existant protocol, but the young Keeper couldn't help feel slightly embarrassed by her adopted sister's unrefined behaviour. Couldn't she see that this was a somewhat official occasion, with high-ranking visitors and at least one dark general in the room?

“What? At least one of us has to be positive! You are all as glum as if you were attending a funeral!”

The Light ignored the byplay. “Disabling the Calarine staves should greatly hamper the ability of his slaves to recover dead dungeon hearts. Without them, they will not have enough power to teleport with the pieces.”

“Good,” Ami was glad to hear that a success here would be crippling to the dark god's efforts, ”but we still need a plan to bring that temple down.” Her expectant gaze rested on the Avatar.

Amadeus raised an eyebrow. “What are you looking at me for? Do you expecting me to swim down there and tear it apart by myself?”

“Err, I was hoping for some suggestion from either you or the Light,” the blue-haired girl admitted.

“Not at this time,” the short-bearded man replied. “Besides, you are the one famous for her devious plans.”

“I may need some help with this one,” Ami admitted freely. “The sheer scale of that ship and its inaccessible location limit my options a lot.”

“Same for us,” Durval stated. “What about you, Ambassador?” he asked the fairy sitting to his left.

Camilla scratched the back of her head. “Sorry, but I don't exactly have the security clearance to know all about the Empire's heavy-duty attack magic. It would be hard to target something that deep underneath the waves, though.”

“The visibility problem could be partially remedied with strong light spells,” Ami thought out loud. “If we don't mind alerting the target about the incoming attack.”

“Which leaves the problem of getting close enough to actually do some damage. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to throw any spells at long ranges,” the fairy pointed out. “Any ship getting that close would be committing suicide by undead sea monster.”

Ami thought about that for a moment. “My airships can bypass those easily enough.”

Durval crossed his arms. “You cannot reasonably expect the Light-aligned forces to willingly travel on a Keeper's flying transport. If you want us to use devices like that, you will have to release the construction plans to us,” the abbot said sternly.

“Well, that's-”

“Something her Majesty is going to think long and hard about,” Jered interrupted, standing up. “We are not pressed for time here.”

Ami closed her mouth, surprised and a little annoyed. Still, the wavy-haired man had a point. This wasn't a decision to be made lightly. She'd have to carefully consider who would profit most from the introduction of that technology. After a moment of silence, she nodded in Jered's direction. “Yes. Let us explore other possibilities first.”

“What about brute force?” Camilla suggested, sounding slightly disappointed. “Could Empress Mercury just blast the temple with spells until it's riddled with holes?”

“It's already full of water,” Tiger drawled with a hostile look towards the winged girl. “A few more holes won't make it sink.”

“Aside from that, the vessel is also going to be almost impervious to damage if it is reinforced with the same magic as dungeon heart walls. And I see no reason why it wouldn't be,” Ami elaborated, shaking her head.

“That's not a problem that can't be overcome by simply using more force,” the Avatar stated.

“I don't have a way to apply that much force underwater,” Ami stated blandly. “Well, unless Crowned Death was kind enough to let me pile up a giant heap of explosives in the path of his vessel and didn't take evasive action.”

“What about simply letting the water supply the force?” Cathy suggested, spreading her arms. “Get a bunch of wizards to all summon some water out of the temple at the same time, and,” she clapped her hands together, “squish! Nobody would even have to get close to the temple!”

“We could get together enough magicians for this task,” the Light stated, speaking through the Avatar, “but such an attempt would be blindingly obvious and easily evaded unless the target was rendered immobile beforehand.” The glowing white eyes in the crystal ball focused on Ami, as if expecting her to come up with a solution.

“Maybe ice?” The teenager blurted out. “No, there's no way I can produce enough to trap something that big.”

Durval's face brightened suddenly.“Lord Avatar, could the elves use their dragon-crashing spell for this?”

“No. It couldn't pierce the water.”

“Well, then I am all out of ideas,” the old man said and proceeded to adjust the cushion he was sitting on.

The room fell quiet as its occupants tried to come up with ideas. Finally, Jered raised his head. “How about a more insidious approach? Poison won't work on the undead, but what about holy water?”

“Any amount of holy water we could produce would literally just be a drop in the ocean before it gets to the right depth,” the Avatar said.

“What if I freeze it first?” Ami asked.

“Hmm.” The Avatar tugged at his short beard absently. “That could work. It's not going to do much damage on its own, though.”

“Well, I like the idea of harpooning undead sea monsters with spears of holy water,” Jadeite said with a smile, which Ami returned.

“Okay, so we have one plan that could maybe work. A bit. On secondary targets,” Tiger said. “So, since the direct approach isn't looking great, how about sabotage to make the stupid thing hold still long enough?”

“If you have a plan on how to get past the death fields, the undead, and the Incarnation, let's hear it,” Jadeite stated with a frown.

“Well, what about that guy they are torturing? He's already inside and might be able to help if he was freed. Just get another probe inside and use it for aiming!”

“Who is he, anyway?” Jered wanted to know.

Ami rewound the recording. “We aren't sure.”

Camilla blinked several times as the pictures on the screen moved backwards before they froze completely.

“Wait, go forward again,” Cathy requested. “Stop. He's got his eyes open in that frame,” she said, pointing at the figure writhing in pain.

“A Keeper,” Durval observed as he spotted the red glow. The muscles around his mouth lost their tension as his sympathy visibly melted away.

“My best guess is that this is Keeper Clairmonte, then,” Ami said. “I only saw him for an instant when he got sucked into his destroyed dungeon heart, but the overall build and height would fit.”

“Makes sense,” Cathy agreed. “I'm sure Crowned Death was positively delighted about his performance defending the Mantle.”

None of Ami's guests seemed inclined to comment, though the Avatar's face briefly twisted into a mask of anger.

“All right, so he's someone whose fate we don't give a damn about,” Jered said.

Ami couldn't help but agree with him, even if her vicious satisfaction at seeing the eye-gouging monster reduced to this state made her feel ashamed.

“The question is: can we use him?” the brown-haired man continued.

“Or at least kill him?” Camilla wanted to know. She was openly scowling at the picture, an expression her rounded features were ill-suited for.

The young woman had helped treat the Keeper's victims, Ami remembered. “I think we could contact him telepathically, but I don't know what he could do for us right now.” Looking at Camilla, she said “He is unlikely to survive the destruction of the ship in any case.”

“If that really is Clairmonte, then I should get someone to attack his remaining territories,” the Avatar commented. “That would serve the villain right.”

“Right. No significant progress on the sabotage idea, then,” Jered said as he took a note. “Unless someone has something to add?”

“Perhaps. Empress Mercury, could your metal golems board the enemy vessel?” Durval asked. “To me, it seems as if they would be able to deal well with the various hazards within the temple.”

“They can't swim,” Ami replied. Her reaperbots would also be blind on the unholy ground, since their eyes were based on crystal balls.

“I see. That would indeed make their use underwater difficult.”

“Ahem, I may have an idea,” Snyder spoke up.

Ami had almost forgotten the redhead's presence, since he had been so quiet all throughout the discussion. “Yes?”

“We could use a ward. Since the enemy vessel is only kept afloat by active magic, it would sink like a rock if it was brought into contact with a strong enough mana-draining ward.”

“A sound plan in theory, Acolyte,” Durval said. “In practice, a ward large enough to drain the mana from several dozen dungeon hearts at once, without being blasted into oblivion by the energies involved... well, it would rival the floating temple in size.”

“Too big to finish anywhere near the enemy ship while it's still there, too heavy to manoeuvre,” Camilla evaluated the plan. “Wait, what if- no, anti-magical ward. Can't transform it into something else.”

“I think we shouldn't dismiss this option yet,” Ami contradicted. Her fingers were tapping the keys of her palmtop rapidly. “The surrounding water would provide some cooling, reducing the overall size required. If... hmmm...” She trailed off as she ran the numbers and considered lifting gases, pressures, and temperatures.

Around her, the room fell quiet as the others watched her work.

She stopped typing and turned to the crystal ball. “How many wizards would be available for action against Crowned Death's ship?”

“With sufficient advance warning, We could count on the cooperation of almost every magic user who worships Us,” the Light replied with a curious undertone.

“Then it could be possible!” Ami stated. She was so excited about having found a possible solution she didn't even feel intimidated by everyone staring at her. “The ward can be prepared in separate pieces and locations and sent to me by the wizards. I'll simply weld it together right in the temple's path!”

“Technically feasible with some preparation of the receiving area, but difficult to coordinate,” the Light gods' voice came from the crystal ball. “How are you going to get the heavy ward off the ocean floor?”

“It's not going to be anywhere near as massive as the floating temple,” Ami explained. “For one, it's flat. For the other, everything that would just be empty space in the design can be cut out to save weight. Here, see.” She walked over to the crystal ball and turned her computer so that the Avatar could see the screen.

On the display, a design that looked only somewhat more substantial than a spider web spun slowly in between a sea of numbers.

“Cutting away most of the superfluous material of the disc will eliminate about nine tenths of the weight,” Ami said. “I'll be able to lift the ward to the right height by attaching enough lighter-than-water materials to it.”

“And since it is completely passive until it makes contact, the vessel may not spot it in the darkness until it is too late,” the Light gods predicted the next part of her plan. “This course of action is the most viable so far. We agree with it.”

The white glow disappeared from Amadeus' eyes. “'Viable' doesn't mean 'likely to succeed'. I hope you will amend and improve your idea while the other kingdoms discuss the issue and come up with their own solutions.” His face in the crystal ball swivelled to Ami's guests. “Abbot Durval, Ambassador Camilla, I expect you to bring this to the attention of your superiors.”

The fairy bowed formally. “Of course, Lord Avatar.”

“Empress, I will be taking my leave now. I have Keepers to hunt.”

“Lord Avatar, wait!” Camilla called out, looking surprised at her own audacity. “Please, I have a question! The underground tower Empress Mercury took from Zarekos – is it dangerous?”

“The what? Oh, you mean the room with the big statue.” The Avatar closed his eyes as if conversing with himself. When he opened them again, they shone in a solid white tone. “To answer your real question, the towers of the Shining Concord Empire were built with Our permission. We have not been given reason to regret that decision yet. We will not go into further detail, because Empress Mercury has a knack for finding creative and distressing applications for things she understands.”

Ami, who had indeed been listening in curiously, didn't know if she should take this as an insult or a compliment.

“Thank you, honoured Divines! Lord Avatar!” the blonde fairy blurted out, beaming as she bowed so deeply to the crystal ball that her head almost disappeared underneath the table. When she came back up, the sphere was black.

“I think that concludes our meeting,” Ami said. “Thank you all for attending. I will let you all tend to your respective duties now.”

While Ami wandered through her library, searching the towering shelves for books on transfiguration techniques, she was approached by a figure in an elaborate purple robe.

“My Empress! I have just finished perusing the records of your recent meeting. May I offer a potentially helpful suggestion?” Torian said. His teeth gleamed white as he smiled and gestured invitingly toward a pedestal.

“Go right ahead.” Ami walked over to the thin book he had indicated, trying to decipher the scribbles that covered the open pages.

“This is my own original work, something I was working on before I got distracted by worthier pursuits,” the warlock explained. “It was intended as an ironic spell to use against vampires, horrible things that they are. In light of our current situation, I thought it might open up new avenues for the discarded sabotage plans.”

Ami squinted as she tried to decipher the atrocious handwriting. Some passages reminded her strongly of the more objectionable tomes in her library. “Some kind of necromancy spell?” she guessed as she glanced up at the taller man.

“Indeed. Its working title is 'Dominate Vampire', though I would like it to be known as something along the lines of 'Torian's Terrific Vampire Tamer' once it is perfected.”

“You have a spell to seize control of an undead creature?”

“Not exactly.” Torian adjusted his collar and put on his most winning smile. “It is limited to vampires for the moment and still not quite done, but it provides a strong foundation on which to build! I am sure that with a team of dedicated warlocks and sufficient funding, it could be expanded in scope in no time!”

Ami closed the booklet. “I'm not sure controlling an undead creature, or even several, would be of much value.” Anything up to and including a giant octopus would be of limited use. Hmm, did the Incarnation of Extinction qualify as an undead? Yeah right, as if that would ever work! “It could perhaps be useful for scouting purposes, but-” Her crimson eyes suddenly widened as a new idea hit her. “You'll have your research team!”

Previous chapter: Next chapter:
Chapter 152: The High Temple of Crowned Death Chapter 154: Outside Perspectives

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