Electricity crackled in the air, and the ice floe Ami was standing on shuddered from a thudding impact. Wincing, she whirled to the source of the noise and found a network of cracks spreading outward from a large metal sphere resting on the ground. “Careful with that!” she said, worried about how far the noise would travel underwater.
“S-sorry, your Majesty,” the bald youma trying her best to hide – unsuccessfully - behind the medicine ball-sized container replied, flattening her fin-like ears against her head. Her eyes darted left and right. “I'll just-”
“At ease, Lishika, nothing bad happened,” Ami said quickly. “Don't move! Just return to the dungeon at once!”
“Yes Empress! Of course, Empress!” Lishika bowed in a manner reminiscent of Jadeite, with one arm across her chest, and dissolved into a cloud of crackling sparks in that position.
The young Keeper let out a relieved breath when the short youma disappeared without causing more trouble while frantically trying to make up for her mistake. Lishika was terrified of her for reasons she assumed to be related to the youma's long imprisonment in Eternal Sleep, but her teleportation ability was very useful right now.
The fog darkened for a heartbeat, and Ami heard the sound of scattering pebbles. Umbra and Tiger had arrived, carrying more of the metal containers.
“Whew, finally the last one,” Tiger said as she put her burden down on the pile held together by a net. She glanced at the sphere partially embedded in the gently rocking ice. “I see scaredy cat was at it again. Are the fishes all right?”
Ami inspected the interior of the metal aquarium with her Keeper sight. “They appear unharmed.” She lifted the sphere with her Keeper powers and hovered it over to the others.
“Right. We are really going to do this, then?” the tiger-striped youma said, looking through the fog.
“Yes. Crowned Death's temple is moving through a trench below, so its course will be predictable for the next hour or so – if we aren't noticed.” Ami took a more broad-legged stance as the ice floe shifted underneath her, rocked by a larger wave. “It's an almost perfect opportunity.” Her armoured fingers nervously played with the tiny crystal ball hanging from her necklace as she calmed her nerves. She was about to launch a multi-national operation whose success or failure would rest almost entirely on her shoulders. In addition, she would be measuring her strength against an evil god. No pressure.
“You all right?” Tiger asked, peering down at Ami. “You spaced out for a moment.”
“Yes, I was just thinking,” Ami said. This wasn't the time to be hesitating, but the time to make Crowned Death pay for the evil he had instigated. Her voice steadier, she lifted the crystal ball in front of her eyes. She concentrated, and the scrying device started glowing. As she collected her thoughts, her black-armoured form stood completely still before the swirling backdrop of the fog. Some foam from the waves splattered over her, and she opened her crimson-glowing eyes. “Everyone, this is Empress Mercury,“ she stated clearly. “Begin the operation,” she brought down her right arm in one swift gesture, “now!”
To her side, the metal spheres shifted as if struck by an invisible hammer, and rolled into the sea.
Dumat stifled a yawn as a procession of robed and hooded figures emerged from the main gate and marched down the hill in an orderly double row. He briefly tried to recognise familiar faces in the group, but quickly gave up. Despite the rainbow-coloured orb of light orbiting each apprentice, he could barely make out the jutting towers of Praiselight Academy in the rain and darkness, much less facial features. Not that he needed to see the students' expressions to know that they were grumbling about being roused from their beds for reasons that hadn't been explained to them.
Being the court wizard, Dumat knew how to protect himself from inclement weather, of course. The umbrella hovering above his tall and pointy hat took care of the torrential downpour as he waited on the elevated wooden tribune. Nevertheless, he was mildly displeased by the dark empress' timing. Couldn't she have waited for a more pleasant night? He shook his head, casting the thought aside as unworthy of the gravity of the situation.
In the courtyard below, faculty members clad in various shades of blue directed the apprentices towards positions on an elevated wooden platform. Since it was roofed, there were no objections from the crowd.
Dumat heard the wooden stairs behind him creak and turned around.
A tall hat rose from below, preceding its wearer by almost half a meter. The man climbing the staircase looked as if he was around fifty years old, but his impressive beard and mane had not lost any of their vivid red colour yet.
“Greetings, Archmage,” Dumat said with a smile.
The man grinned back. “Hah, I'll never get used to you calling me by your old title, Dumat. I still feel like an eager young student whenever I see you.”
“Eager? For some ale, perhaps,” the older wizard quipped. “Come on, I stepped down over twelve years ago. Do you want to make me feel old?” He stroked his long, grey beard demonstratively.
“Certainly not. You don't look one day over a hundred,” Dumat's former apprentice teased, prompting him to shake his staff in mock outrage.
“Youth these days...” he commented and looked back at the preparations below. “However, I can't find fault with the discipline you have instilled in your students, Gulver.”
“High praise indeed, coming from you,” the archmage replied.
Falling silent, the two men watched the student wizards move toward their positions with a minimum amount of wasted motion. Arranged in a semi-circle around a raised dais, they resembled an orchestra waiting for its conductor.
“Now, could you find it in your certainly-not-old heart to tell me what this is all about? What's so important that the Light saw it fit to even call wizards back from the front? I'm dying of curiosity here!”
“Sorry, that's classified by royal decree,” Dumat answered, sighing. “We are making a delivery as part of a special anti-Keeper operation. I'm not at liberty to tell you more until it has been completed successfully,” he added, and leaned in closer. “Among us, I almost wish I didn't know what this was all about. I'd sleep better at night.”
“That bad, eh?” Gulver said in a deadpan tone of voice. He glanced down at the square section of interwoven metal bars that covered most of the courtyard. “That weird thing was a pain to shape, you know, especially given the specified tolerances. It's clearly a piece of a greater ward, but figuring out what you'd use one that big for defeats me. The lines are thicker than my arm, for crying out loud! Can't you give me a hint?”
“What about confirming or denying a guess? I've got a bet going with the Dean that it's going to be used against the dark empress. He insists that the target is Mukrezar.”
Dumat just shook is head slowly. “Shouldn't we be getting started? It looks as if the apprentices have sufficiently harmonised their energies to provide power for the spell.”
“All right, all right,” Gulver said. He muttered a short incantation, and a tremor went through his clothes. Starting at the collar of his robe, it travelled downwards, wringing the rainwater from the sky-coloured cloth. “That's better. Now let's get started! The sooner we are done here, the sooner you will be answering all of my questions over a beer!”
A green filigree pattern, flat and almost the size of a small ship, announced the imminent arrival of yet another piece of the great ward.
Ami already evaluated where it would go before it could switch position with the water filling the curving green volume. Not having to rely on cameras was quite a boon when she had to work with haste and accuracy. Up in the clouds, a smile flitted over her face as her Keeper sight briefly centred on one of the repulsive deep sea fishes that allowed her to see what she was doing, serving a similar role as her tame rats on land.
The particular spiny creature she caught a glimpse of was still underneath one half of the metal sphere that had served as its pressurised aquarium in her dungeon. The slight vibrations and the fountaining black sludge whenever a ward piece landed on the ocean floor weren't making the animal any more inclined to leave its hiding place.
Ami returned her attention to the giant puzzle she had to assemble. She had, of course, memorised the number and position of each piece and knew exactly where it had to go. The slightly brighter paint on each part's backside reduced the complexity of the problem again. Nevertheless, the huge pieces were individually close to the weight limit on what her Keeper powers could move, and she sweated from the effort. The effort of precisely aligning each part of the arcane symbol was as critical to the success of this operation as it was time consuming. Ami resisted the urge to check up on Crowned Death's temple, which was getting closer with each passing second. Her welding work needed her full concentration. As a stream of steamy bubbles rose from the red-glowing ends of the bars she was fitting together, she was glad that she had practised this beforehand.
Golden chimes rang softly in the darkened room, as if a gentle wind was stirring them. The noise was faint enough to not disturb the conversation of the two figures watching a silver fire burn within a waist-high marble tub.
The taller of the two pointed at the flickering landscape formed by the flames, where objects moved seemingly on their own. “There. Another part attached. My evil counterpart seems competent, at least.”
“Many people wish she wasn't, Sire. May her competence actually be to our benefit this time,” Hieron of the Plains stated solemnly. The transparent shape of the oracle was as colourless as the images over the basin, which he was touching with both hands.
“Can you bring us closer?” the Emperor asked. Atypical for a fairy, he stood a bit taller than the average human. A vast laurel, its leaves carved from emerald, rested around his neck and shoulders as symbol of his office.
“I shall, my Liege, as soon as the whales have recovered their breath.”
“Very well. Do you think she will be done before the abominable craft reaches her?” His wings twitched, betraying his nervousness and disturbing the streamers of semi-transparent silk that hung down from his laurel like banners. Even more unusual than his coal-coloured hair were the pearly-white feathers that partially sheathed his dragonfly wings.
“I believe she will, your Majesty. Most pieces arrived exactly where they were supposed to.” He shifted his grip on the basin, and the flames briefly flared unconstrained before knotting into the octagonal, tentacle-trailing shape of Crowned Death's vessel.
“Impressive. Directional beacons can be a bit imprecise at the best of times. The enemy is staying well outside of their emission cones?”
“Yes, Sire. The undead would have to be specifically looking for them to detect them. Oh, and Kanif of the Southern Seas has just combined his perceptions with mine.”
The shaped flames above the basin became much crisper as the oracle spoke, and the emperor peered closer. “What are those little balls approaching the temple?” he asked, pointing at several spheres that seemed like specks of dust when compared to the floating structure.
Hieron slowly raised his nose, and the object in question grew in size. So did the enormous sucker-covered tentacle it was drifting past. “They look like some of Empress Mercury's aquariums,” he said. “It appears as if she wants to keep a closer eye on things.”
“That does not look like a fish to me,” the emperor said when the container split in half and revealed something that looked like a slender harpoon.
An unseen force placed attached the spear to another strange device with a propeller at the end, aimed it, and then sent it in the direction of the vessel passing overhead.
“A new weapon?” the oracle asked as he watched the projectile disappear within one of the structure's openings. “It seems too small to inflict significant damage.”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” the emperor said. “How is the ward coming along?”
The fire changed its shape into a flat disc consisting of intertwining lines and empty space. Only its bottom edge still rested on the ocean floor, because chains attached to the upper edge were pulling it upright.
“The dark empress seems to be lifting it into position as we speak. Well on schedule, if she can get the altitude right.”
The emperor tilted his head backwards and looked up at the other end of the chains, where rock-like objects slowly moved upwards. “I hope she knows precisely how much ice to use,” he said. “It would be a shame if she failed at this point. Show me the temple again.”
The oracle complied, producing a silvery model of the tentacled construct slowly drifting through an underwater valley.
“I am still vexed that we managed to miss something that huge for so long.” The monarch glared at the tiny model of the floating temple and crossed his arms, making his bracelets jingle.
“The abomination has stayed outside of our detection range so far, your Majesty,” the ghostly oracle replied.
“Yes, and I am displeased that a dark god knows enough about it to avoid it, ” the Emperor replied.
Hieron stopped watching the unchanging scene of the unholy structure moving and looked at his ruler directly. “It is a problem we could remedy once empress Mercury completes our embassy,” he suggested.
“If one of you Oracles is actually willing to go there.” A puzzled expression flitted briefly over the emperor's aristocratic features. “I am still surprised about how easily she acquiesced to my demands. It implies worrisome things about the depths of her coffers.”
“How is that girl we sent there as ambassador doing so far?” the oracle asked, sounding honestly concerned.
“About as well as one could expect from someone not trained for the job. Her grasp on the correct flowery official and time-wasting jargon remains atrocious,” the emperor commented. “She has not complained about being mistreated or threatened, in case your conscience is giving you trouble.”
The shaped flames briefly lost definition, informing the emperor that his speculation had been right on target.
“I'm happy to hear that, your Majesty,” the oracle said after a moment.
“I am rather glad I didn't send her to a needless death too.” His gaze focused on an object that appeared in the distance. “The ward! Maintain your concentration, I do not want to miss a single instant of this!”
Ami's heart beat rapidly as the temple approached the trap. Would it remain at the right altitude? For the sixth time, she checked the taut chains that kept the huge ward in position for the sixth time. The one anchoring the intricate metal pattern to the ground looked as pristine as it had five seconds ago. She would have to put some effort into cutting it if she needed the trap to float up at the last moment. Neither had anything gone wrong with the ice blocks lifting the construct, and which she could cut to make it sink. Ami felt a bit like a spider trying to catch a very large fly with a very small net.
“No change in the target's course or speed,” Jered's voice came from a ring of blue fire rotating in the air above, calming her nerves somewhat.
“Mareki, Umbra, Tiger, Lishika,” she said, addressing the four youma floating around her in a square formation. “I may be too distracted during the attack to react to events up here. Make sure to move Snyder and me to a new location if it looks as if the enemy has spotted us!”
“Yes, your Majesty!” the four youma replied in unison.
Only Mareki abstained from bowing, since she was carrying Snyder in her arms. Neither the acolyte nor the monstrous creature looked very happy about the arrangement.
“Please attempt to not channel physically damaging amounts of magic if you can avoid it, even if you have a healer on stand-by,” the redhead said. His eyes never strayed toward the ocean far, far below.
“I'm not making any promises,” Ami said, staring worriedly at the spot on the waves underneath which she knew the death god's temple to be moving. Some elements of the plan were not in position yet.
Above, a spray of bubbles shot out of the burning magical circle, bursting and filling the air with fog. However, the mist didn't impair the vision of anyone present.
“Cloud was thinning out a bit,” Cathy's distant voice came from the circle.
Ami nodded. She was waiting for a signal from the spears she had propelled into the temple's openings earlier. Still nothing. Had she misjudged the dosage? It had worked in the tests, but perhaps real-life conditions were different. Could water pressure and salinity have an effect on duration? She should have run more experiments! The temple would be slamming into the ward soon!
Finally, she perceived what she had been waiting for, and sighed in relief. One of the spears had reverted back into a fish. The tiny animal was alive, and most importantly, had passed unharmed through the field of killing magic covering the entrance while transformed into a lifeless object. Quickly, she instructed the fish to hide in the shadows of the catacomb-like tunnels while it hurried ahead. Her Keeper sight, centred on the little creature, could detect enemies further out than it could see. It didn't take long at all for her to spot a skeletal worker. Perfect. She remotely cast Torian's undead-dominating spell on the animated construct of metal-sheathed bones. To her pleasant surprise, it offered much less resistance than the ghosts she had practised on; it was as if it had no will of its own.
Ami hid her scaled minion within the skull of the skeleton and sent the creature onwards, only occasionally having to check her palmtop computer for the right route. She had committed as much of the unholy structure's layout to memory as she knew about it, which was limited to what she had been able to deduce from her probe's expedition. That knowledge was allowing her skeletal thrall to save time now as it navigated through the maze.
Since the undead creature did not have a solid body, it dealt with the resistance of the surrounding water quite well and moved faster than Ami had expected. Unfortunately, the need to protect the fish by circumventing other death fields within the vessel meant that it could not take the most direct route. When it finally arrived in the central hollow, Ami was sweating despite the cold air surrounding her.
She sent the unresisting minion toward the unfinished cylinder looming like a black tower in the distance. Its builders had made progress, but its roof still wasn't done. She assumed that Crowned Death found it more economical to use his undead forces for construction than to make the dungeon heart spend gold. In particular if the latter could be used to fuel his arrival in this world instead.
The skeleton she controlled moved into a corner underneath a bridge and hid. Meanwhile, she concentrated on a spell that her warlocks had developed in parallel with the undead-controlling one, with some input from Jadeite. As she ran the complex pattern through the dungeon heart and empowered it with some of Metallia's energy, an object formed in front of the hiding skeleton.
The undead creature leaned down and picked up the device that resembled a stone manhole cover and resumed its jog toward the construction site.
Ami hoped that the item would perform as intended, since she hadn't had the possibility to test all of its functions. The conjured crystal ball set into its centre would work fine and serve as a camera, bypassing the temple's scrying protections. She was also certain that the device's explosive self-destruct would work as advertised if it failed in its true mission, taking at least one dungeon heart with it. The untested part was derived from the circlet Jadeite had used to control Baron Leopold as well as from Torian's spell. Without an undead dungeon heart to try it out on, she simply had to hope that it would let her bypass the artefact's innate resistance against direct magic as planned.
She quickly checked the distance between ward and swimming temple again and started at how close they were to each other already. Impact was barely a dozen seconds away.
Since none of the skeletons swarming over the scaffolding and moving huge stone blocks paid any attention to Ami's thrall, she had it sprint ahead and dash in through the open door. As it ran toward the swirling column of green motes rising from the dungeon heart, several eyeless skulls slowly turned to track its weird behaviour. Before their owners could react, the skeleton threw its burden over the wall surrounding the round pit.
As the magical receiver sank toward the grey, stitched-together membrane pulsating below, Ami held out the Mercury computer to her right. “Lishika! Bring this to the warlocks right now!”
The device had barely left her hand when she grabbed one of the crystal balls attached to her necklace. “Torian, begin at them moment of impact!”
Sparing no more words, the young Keeper switched her view underwater, where the temple was barrelling down upon the much smaller ward. The collision would happen slightly off-centre, but it would happen. Pressing her lips together in determination, Ami gathered her magic to strip away the temple's last and most simplistic defence.
Seconds before impact, the building's non-magical outer shell jerked and trembled, sprouting deep cracks from the barrage of tremor spells ripping it to pieces. Black stone plates the size of a street crumbled and flaked off, brushed away by the water streaming past. Nothing remained to isolate the magical vessel from the power-draining ward mere metres away and approaching rapidly. Then, several things happened at once.
“Torian, begin at the moment of impact!”
The warlock's gaze jumped to the huge crystal ball hanging from the ceiling. It showed a view from the bottom of a circular hole that was framed by decaying arches. Above it, a column of swirling green motes partially obscured the air bubble even further above. Within the sphere, the warlock discerned a bloody figure curled up in foetal position. That had to be Clairmonte paying the usual price of failure. Torian's resolve to not fail redoubled.
Briefly, his eyes flitted down to the Mercury computer that rested on top of a chest-high pillar in front of him. The device was supposed to guide him through the ritual, telling him when and where to make adjustments. Oh, what he would give to know how the Empress had acquired such a wonder!
The grip of his hand on his staff tightened, pressing his rings hard into his flesh. This was it. This was the moment of truth, in which he would have to prove his skills to the empress. “Link up!” he barked, his voice echoing through the hall. He reached out with his left hand, putting it on the shoulder of the warlock to his side. At the same time, he felt a corresponding touch on his right shoulder as his neighbour in the circle did the same. Soon, the air crackled and smelled of iron as the gathered magic users prepared to unleash their power.
Torian glanced at the six chanting warlocks in the centre of the circle. Despite their location, they were not directly part of the ritual, and the jagged red diagram he had meticulously painted onto the floor did not allocate positions to them. With a critical eye, he inspected the counter-rotating flaming circles in their midst. They had better not mess up the transmission ring if they knew what was good for them! Finding no flaw with the modified summoning spell, he promptly ignored the figures in their flapping robes to observe the crystal ball.
Skulls had appeared above the hole, staring down with empty eye sockets lit from within. Despite the skeletons' expressionless faces, he could tell from their jerking and undecided movements that they were unhappy about the situation.
Torian suppressed a whimper of fear when a shadow fell over the pit and the huge, dead face of the Incarnation of Extinction suddenly stared straight at him. ”Can't kill me through the crystal ball. Can't kill me through the crystal ball,” he repeated in his mind when the apparition's transparent hand seemed to reach for him.
The limb froze when a sudden cacophony of distant breaking noises joined the deep beat of the dungeon heart. A split-second later, a metallic sound like the stroke of a gong drowned out all other noise. The Incarnation and its companions disappeared from view, flung aside as the vessel lurched violently.
Torian raised his flaring staff with a brisk motion. “Now!”
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