Ami felt her ward vibrate from the impact and saw the temple jerk. She had to strike now! Wasting no time, she brought the undead-dominating spell to her mind and lashed out with her will, ramming it into the rotten dungeon heart like a pickaxe. It felt like running head-first into a wall.
With spots dancing before her vision, she blinked, dazed by the unyielding resistance she had encountered. At least I got his attention, she thought, shuddering at the memory of the dark god's cold, emotionless voice. Belatedly, she noticed that Tiger had grabbed her around the shoulders and was holding her aloft. She quickly renewed her failing flight spell and returned her attention to the temple. Her eyes widened in horror when she saw it floating undisturbed, the ward ripped from its moorings still stuck to prow. What had gone wrong? She had seen it tumble upon impact!
It lurched from shedding weight! she realised when she saw undead sea creatures swarming out in every direction, leaving the temple bereft of its tentacles. But how can it still be swimming? The ward is- Then she saw what the intricate metal structure was actually touching. “Ice!” she gasped in dismay.
No reason to panic yet. She could still fix this! Drawing power from her treasury, she focused several tremor spells into the contact points, rattling the ice. Sharp-edged splinters came loose and lodged within the undead latching onto the ward.
One of the fishes Ami used to observe the temple and aim her spells died, ripped apart by frenzied zombies, and so did a second.
Re-centring her Keeper sight, she saw that the ice was growing faster than she was destroying it. Water flooding into the cracks froze instantly, preventing the ward from getting any closer. She changed her approach. A curtain of steam-filled bubbles exploded outwards, intermingled with boiled pieces of grasping tentacles. Yet, the ward did not move. Given its nature, she cold not target it directly with spells, otherwise she would have tried rendering it white-hot. By now, the ice carapace encasing the entire temple was thick enough that parts of the ward were trapped within it, making it impossible to budge.
“Death priests! Empress, there are death priests teleporting around the area, searching for us!” Umbra interrupted her. The cloaked youma's arm pointed toward the west, where a shadowy figure swung its staff at a cloud, producing a shockwave that blasted it apart.
“Avoid them!” the blue-haired girl ordered, refusing to give in to despair or to be distracted. Her mind raced as she tried to decide just how to salvage the situation. If she tried to force the ward into contact with the vessel any more violently, it would simply become collateral damage. Should she focus on distracting Crowned Death from what her warlocks were doing instead?
The last of her many terrified fishes observing the temple died, squished by an octopus that missed half of its tentacles. The loss of her ability to accurately aim her spells at the outside of the vessel made the choice for her.
Snyder sucked in a startled breath as the teenage freely drew upon the power of Metallia, surrounding herself with a nimbus of dark energy to make a serious attempt at wresting control from Crowned Death. She unleashed the spell, letting out a short cry. Will clashed against will, and Ami almost blacked out as she was swept aside like a mote of dust.
“JUST KEEP HURTING YOURSELF.”
Ami held her head with both hands, grimacing. The vicious satisfaction the entity radiated had almost been more painful than the attempt. Apparently, it didn't take much to amuse that particular dark god. She gritted her teeth as her own dungeon heart started to vacuum up gold from the treasury, providing her with an ever-increasing stream of magic.
“Mercury! That's dangerous!” Snyder warned.
Ami ignored him. If she didn't make her attempts convincing, then Crowned Death would clue in to what was really happening. She attacked again, focusing more magic into a single spell than she had ever before. When she pitted her will against that of the dark god this time, she felt him recoil like a man whose pet kitten had just unexpectedly swatted him on the noise. He did not taunt her this time as he kicked her out.
“...do something! She's bleeding from her ears!” Ami heard as she was jolted awake by the horrid sensation of holy magic being used on her.
“I'm awake, I'm awake!” she protested as she struggled to get away from the healing spell, upright, and out of Tiger's arms all at the same time. Her head felt as if it had been used as a football for an hour.
“Crap! The ward is all bent out of shape now!” Jered's voice came from the fiery ring above. “Also, that wavy line on the screen over here is getting all spiky and orange!”
“That's good, it means the plan is working!” Ami caught her breath, fighting through her headache on pure determination. Streamers of dark energy collected in her hands as she prepared a repeat performance.
“Again? Are you crazy or just a masochist? ” her adopted sister screamed into her ear and grabbed her by her shoulders. “That last attempt almost killed you!”
“Which is why I'm not going to add much more power,” Ami said, already focusing. Knowing what to expect, she forged her will into a spear point, ready to pierce through the dark god's defences. Knowing that she was doing this to protect the world only boosted her determination.
And encountered no resistance.
For one baffled instant, she perceived the entirety of the floating vessel. She caught a glimpse of thirteen ruby Calarine staves submerged within liquefied mana in a central chamber. Intricate magical constructs defied her comprehension, and the riches stashed away in the cargo holds dwarfed her own. Before she could react, the clarity was gone. Utter darkness descended upon her as Crowned Death's will hit her like an avalanche, crushing her into the ground of the unreal chamber and preventing her from doing as much as blink.
“SURPRISE! KEEPER, DID YOU PLAN FOR SUCCESS?”
Ami shivered and fought to get free. She might as well have tried to move a mountain by breathing on it. Had the death god let her take over the dungeon heart just so he could get a stronger connection to her mind? “W-what happened?” she asked meekly, trying to get him to talk. This wasn't how she had planned to distract him, but if her theory was right, then she would be freed the moment the dominated dungeon heart was destroyed.
A vast crown of dark fire descended from above, bringing with it a chorus of tormented screams that trailed off into crackling gurgles. As the grotesque apparition got closer, the appalled girl could see that it was made of people burning alive, melting away and reforming in an unending loop of agony.
“YOU WANTED THE HEART. NOW YOU HAVE IT. AND I HAVE YOU.” For as long as the abomination spoke, the screams of its victims fell quiet.
The crown settled on the ground with a thunderous thud, surrounding the teenager like a flaming barrier. Wherever she looked, agonized faces and burning hands protruded pleadingly from the blaze, only to be slowly consumed.
“NOW TELL ME WHERE YOU GET SO MUCH GOLD FROM THAT YOU CAN WASTE IT FRIVOLOUSLY ON SPELLS.”
Ami's fear redoubled, not just for herself, but for the world. If the death god learned how she produced her gems, he could enter the world within months! She'd have to hold out until her warlocks succeeded!
“STILL DEFIANT? DO YOU REALLY THINK YOU CAN OUTWIT DEATH?” Crowned Death waited for an answer while the victims writhing inside his chosen form filled the silence.
Ami remained quiet. She really didn't like where this was going.
“TRYING TO BEFUDDLE THE SENSES OF MY DUNGEON HEARTS WITH ILLUSIONS AND HAVING THEM UNWITTINGLY TEAM UP AGAINST EACH OTHER IS CLEVER. FOR MORTALS.”
Paralysed as she was, Ami couldn't flinch in response. Mission completely and utterly failed. She was getting out of here right now! Concentration as hard as she could, she sent the self-destruct signal for the transmitter on the heart.
“OH, THAT.” The smugness radiating off the burning crown was almost unbearable as it let her catch a glimpse of the outside. The Incarnation of Extinction, crouching above the dungeon heart and pressing its hand onto Ami's device.
“That can't be good,” Mareki said as she stared at the unconscious girl draped over Tiger's arm. Or more precisely, at her head.
“You think so? Gee, we have a certified genius here!” the striped youma shouted, her voice shrill. “Now get the healer over here so he can do something about this!” She didn't have a hand free to gesture at the source of her panic, but everyone else would have to be blind to not notice the crown of black fire that was floating above Mercury's blue hair. Oh Metallia! I hope she doesn't move her head and makes that thing touch me! “Snyder! HURRY!”
“They never taught us at the abbey how to handle something like that!” The acolyte complained as he dutifully reached for the teenage girl, gathering white light in his palms. “An exorcism would perhaps be appropriate?”
As soon as his fingertips touched Ami's forehead, the previously limp girl went rigid and snarled. Not opening her eyes, she lashed out at the young man with an open-handed slap, her fingers covered in crackling, necrotic energy.
The redhead yelped in terror and dropped downwards, saved by Mareki's quick reaction. Above their heads, the swipe cut a gash into the mist for several metres.
Mercury snarled again when Tiger jumped on her back and pinned her arms to her sides. Even with the youma's greater size and more muscular build, she struggled to maintain a solid grip on the younger girl.“Someone, do something, quickly! I don't know how long I can hold her! Don't just stand there making stupid faces!” One of her hands found Ami's crystal ball necklace. “Torian! What do your books say about getting a dark god out of a Keeper?”
Torian wasn't the only one who had overheard the Dark Princess. Shocked by her words, he stood frozen as other warlocks lost their concentration and the ritual disintegrated, random discharges of magic filling the air with colourful fireworks. “Stop! Concentrate!” he shouted, but quickly gave up as it was obviously too late to salvage the situation. The Empress would have his head for this, if Crowned Death didn't get it first!
He chewed on his overly-long nails as he watched his colleagues rush towards the crystal balls to see what was going on. He was so screwed. Wait, he was a brilliant warlock! With his surpassing intellect, he should be able to come up with a way to save himself. To summarise the situation, the ritual he was responsible for had failed, and the Empress was currently in great danger and possibly possessed by a dark god, which didn't make much of a difference since either would kill him. Maybe he should just end it all now and spare himself the suffering?
No, wait, if he saved the Empress, he would not only be pardoned for his failure, he might even grow in favour! It was dangerous, certainly, but in the current situation, everyone here was living on borrowed time anyway. Now, how would he go about it? Of course! Torian turned on his heel and pushed his way past the other warlocks as he walked toward a pillar.
“Lishika!” he called.
The youma's face peeked out from behind her hiding spot. “Y-yes, Sir?”
“Take me to the Empress right now.”
“Yes Sir. Um, can I climb on your back?”
Torian obligingly turned around. “Just hurry and don't drop me! Go!”
“O-okay!” With a crackle, both disappeared, leaving nothing but the smell of ozone behind.
“Yaarg!” Torian shouted as he reappeared, his entire body tingling from the small electrical discharge that had passed through it. His hair stood on end, and he was glad that he kept his oiled beard short.
“I tried to warn you, Sir!” Lishika said meekly.
“Whatever.” Torian scanned his surroundings, and then the horizon.
“Are you here to help?” Mareki asked, but he ignored her. He also did his best to ignore the hissing, snarling noises of the Empress as she tried to get loose and eviscerate her sister. No human throat should have been able to produce such noises, he thought, shuddering. Finally, he spotted his quarry near a rapidly disintegrating cloud.
“Lishika, that death priest over there. Bring me right behind him! Touch range!”
“Are you sure? You'll be jolt-”
“Stop questioning my orders!”
In a shower of sparks, both disappeared from sight. This time, Torian was better prepared for the experience, and managed to suppress his yelp. The gem set into the top of his staff shone red as he rammed it into the back of the undead wizard's skull. Barking out the words for Torians Amazing Undead Dominator while suffering from muscle spasms was hard, but he somehow managed.
The black-robed death priest did not submit to the warlock's control and struggled mightily, bringing up his battle staff of Calarine. Torian put an end to that nonsense by whacking him with his own staff again, shattering both animal skulls adorning the creature's shoulders. As it went motionless, he let out a relieved sigh. “Right. Hard part done.”
“Can we go home now? You are heavy!”
“Soon. Very soon,” Torian said, his pearly-white teeth bared in a nasty grin. He was riding in the back of the death priest's mind, seeing through its eyes and whispering suggestions. Following his instructions, the skeleton wizard disappeared and reappeared within Clairmonte's air bubble.
Torian carefully lined up his thrall's weapon, pointing it downward in a line that went through the catatonic Keeper. Useful collateral damage, really. His real target was further down. Not the receiver device, since it was too close to the dungeon heart to be affected anyway. Besides, he didn't want to accidentally hit the Empress too. No, his prey was the Incarnation of Extinction still crouched over the pit. It was a part of Crowned Death, and, well, getting trapped in a spell for subjective aeons had to be disruptive to his efforts to control her Majesty, right?
Torian was laughing maniacally at the point where the Calarine staff discharged its black beam, reducing Clairmonte to a mummified husk that crumbled into dust. The sinister ray moved onward, striking the demonic spirit in the back.
He choked on his laugh when the Incarnation slowly turned its head while the ray was still active and washing over it.
“It almost looked at me!” Torian whined, his voice hysterical. “The death priest's mind was already crumbling away around me when I got out! I almost died!”
“Yeah, yeah, but it didn't help!” Tiger said, all of her limbs wrapped around Ami. “Ow, she just kicked me! Do you have any other plan?”
The warlock hung his head. “Sadly, no. I am all out of suggestions.”
“At least you got Clairmonte,” Lishika comforted the man she was holding up by his shoulders. “Also, you are still heavy!”
“Crap. Anyone else? Snyder? Jered?”
“I do not know what to do.”
The striped youma shrugged. “Well, I guess only one option left.” She deftly shifted her grip, putting her hand around Ami's throat.
“Wait, what are you-”
“You can't mean to-”
A rune appeared on the back of Tiger's hand, flaring white and sucking in the light at the same time. For an instant, black and white flashes obscured both her and her captive. When the miniature thunderstorm ended, only a single figure remained. Taller than either Ami or Tiger, it bore a much stronger resemblance to the youma, sporting both deep black stripes and curved horns. However, Ami's armour seemed to have fused with the curvy body.
The figure laughed at the dumbfounded expression of the humans present. “What? I'm a youma! Sometimes, we possess people!” She put her arms akimbo when the silence continued. “Come on now. Is it really that surprising?”
“Err, well, that-” Torian gulped and pointed with his index finger at a spot above Tiger's head.
She rolled up her eyes and caught a glimpse of a black flame. “Crown's still there? Well, it doesn't seem to affect me. I guess it's only for Mercury. She didn't try to keep me out, by the way. Now- ohhh, what do we have here?”
Tiger turned her attention inward. A brief inventory of her host body showed her that she had access to all of Ami's senses, including the Keeper ones – but not the powers, curses! It did make it easier to find her sister's missing mind, though. Oh. Oh dear. She could see poor Ami corralled by a horrid burning crown. However, she could also see that it was only a minuscule extrusion of an unbelievably greater mass somewhere outside the confines of her mind. She didn't look too closely, since she valued her sanity, but it seemed to her as if Crowned Death and some rigid, angular entity of similar dimensions were exchanging unenthusiastic blows. She wanted no part of this. Nope.
Staying as far away from the crown as she could and moving on metaphorical tiptoes, she experimented with the Keeper senses some more and found to her surprise that they covered the – sadly unharmed – temple below. Could it be that Ami had somehow succeeded in taking over a heart? Remembering the unfathomably powerful entities fighting in the background, she adjusted her estimation of the teenager's abilities upwards a whole lot. Anyway, a dominated heart would – yes! Yes! The domination magic didn't care one bit that she wasn't actually her sister! She had her Keeper powers back!
Gleefully, the youma rubbed her hands. She'd probably end up like Ami the moment she executed a command and Crowned Death noticed her, so she'd better go for maximum carnage and mayhem. Fortunately, both mana pool and treasuries seemed to be filled to the brim. What should she do? Blow up that Calarine pool-thingy in the vessel's centre? Sell off the temple's hull? Fill all available space with a hugely expensive room to empty the death god's coffers? Nah, he could just sell it off again, and it wouldn't help with freeing Ami and potentially herself.
She thought she was onto something with the construction idea, though. This was an organic heart, which meant that it could build huge rooms in one go. She'd be able to cover much more area that way than with a spell. Now, she only needed to build something tremendously harmful. Hmm. What was that amazing molecule again that her sister was too much of a worrywart to risk proliferating? It was some ridiculously simple formula. One chlorine and three – right! Oh, yes, this would be perfect. Construction chosen, area: any available free space. Go!
If there was any delay between completing her instruction and suffering – briefly - from the excruciating pain caused by a dungeon heart coming under attack, then Tiger was unable to measure it.
“Empress? Head warlock?” an excited voice came from the crystal ball that was currently part of Tiger's collarbone.
The youma frowned. That could get annoying really fast.
“What is it?” Torian replied, watching Tiger with a worried expression. Not too worried though, since her flaming crown had disappeared the moment she had doubled over in pain.
“The enemy temple! It's on fire!” the voice shouted.
“Huh?” He involuntarily looked down, and then kept looking, his eyes growing wider and wider. Something underneath the waves was burning bright enough to make them shine like the setting sun. “I- I can see that.” He looked up at Tiger, his expression begging for an explanation. “What are they burning?”
“Yes, you already told me that!”
“You don't understand! The stone is on fire! Underwater!”
Torian blinked. So did most of the youma.
“By all the dark gods, it just crashed and now the sand is burning too! Look at it!” another warlock shouted in the background.
“I think even the water is on fire,” the first one muttered in a voice that bordered on religious rapture.
“Don't be silly,” Tiger interrupted. “The water is too busy exploding to be on fire!”
“I... I stand corrected.”
Torian opened his mouth, then closed it again. Open. Close. And again. Finally, he managed to blurt out a single word. “How?”
“Do you really expect me to divulge my secrets? Let's just say that my sister can be a bit of a sissy at times. I'm not.”
The skeleton that teleported onto the battlements had a gilded skull covered partly by a ruby mask. “Mukrezar!”
The pointy-eared Keeper didn't turn around. “I'm busy,” he said, pointing across the tooth-shaped crenellations of his dungeon. “Those corpses won't poison themselves, High Priest.”
“Mukrezar, you must-”
On the blood-soaked battlefield, a white cave crow keeled over, a half-devoured eye in its beak.
“This would be so much easier if those fools just caved in to my imminently reasonable demands, but no! They prefer me killing them and turning to cannibalism.” He shook his head slowly, making disappointed noises.
“I have important instructions from-”
“Actually, since you are here, how about you zombify some of those corpses for me? The meal climbing out of the pot to wreak carnage upon the starving defenders would be deliciously ironic, in my opinion.”
Mukrezar finally turned around and looked his visitor up and down. Water dripped from the skeleton's richly-embroidered robes, creating a puddle around its feet. The elf looked pointedly at the garment's singed fringe, which was still steaming. “Bad day?”
“DO NOT STRAIN MY PATIENCE ANY FURTHER!” Crowned Death's voice blasted out of the priest's mouth, causing its jawbone to disintegrate.
“I'm listening,” the pink-haired man said, his face wary.
“PLANS HAVE CHANGED.” The skeleton's left arm fell off under the strain of directly channelling its master.
Mukrezar refrained from commenting.
“KEEPER MERCURY MUST BE DESTROYED.”
The elven Keeper watched in fascination as the priest seemed to shrink while bone dust trickled out from underneath the hem of his robe. “Your priests have expressed that sentiment before,” he said cautiously.
“DEAL WITH HER!”
As the other arm hit the ground, Mukrezar protested “Wait, what happened to me not being qualified for that job?”
“YOU HAVE YOUR ORDERS. DON'T DARE TO DEFY ME!”
With that, the rest of the skeleton withered away, leaving a wet and foul-smelling pile of rot on the floor. Mukrezar contemplated it in silence for a long time. “Huh. Butler! Go find out what Mercury did to piss him off this time!”
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