“What the- ?” Gulver shouted when the crystal ball he was stooped over erupted with light. He hopped backwards and squinted into the glare. “Dumat! Dumat, come over here and watch this, quickly!”
Hearing the urgency in the redhead's voice, the court wizard moved fast, careful not to step on the lines of the intricate diagrams covering the ground. As he headed over to the archmage, trailed by his floating umbrella, the younger students' made no attempt to hide their curiosity.
“I hope this is important,” he said as he sidled up to the red-bearded wizard. “We have to be ready for the second phase, you know.” Not that there would be a great need to hurry if everything went according to the plan, since the target would be immobile in that case.
“Just take a look. I hope a huge seething fireball fits into the plan,” The blue-clad wizard said as he picked up the scrying device and thrust it at Dumat's face.
From the vantage point of the crystal ball, the sky was both falling and on fire.
Dumat's eyes opened wide as he saw the avalanche of black, flame-wreathed masonry drop toward him at alarming speeds, and he bit back a curse. “By all the fires of the Underworld, what was that thing carrying?” As he stared into the descending bonfire, the court wizard mentally went through a list of spells and substances that could cause accidents like that if magical containment failed.
The flaming wreckage tumbled through his position, but he only caught brief glimpses of disconnected floors and walls, explosions, and flames almost too bright to look at. Wait, were those stones burning? Now that he saw the temple from above, he became aware of the full extent of its damage. It's top parts no longer existed, revealing a hollowed-out interior that looked like a brazier filled with white-hot coals. Awed, Dumat kept staring into the conflagration as the structure sank deeper and deeper and broke up into multiple parts.
Next to him, the archmage gulped as he watched the fireball descend. “Was that a giant octopus?” he asked as one of the shadows caught in the temple's wake drifted past nearby. “Light, all those little dots flitting about - th-those aren't just tiny fishes! How big is that fire?”
“Likely as big as the academy grounds,” Dumat replied, not taking his eyes of the crystal ball.“And I still have no idea what caused it.” He shuddered. The idea of the death god – or possibly the dark empress - being able to cause such devastation was terrifying.
In silence, the two men watched the remains of the temple crash into the ocean floor and go to pieces. Sections that still remained more or less whole shattered into rubble, causing another flare-up of the flames.
“So, are you allowed to tell me what that thing is – or rather was - now?” Gulver asked.
Dumat straightened as the sludge fountaining up from the impact formed billowing clouds around the fires, hiding them from view. “Hight temple of Crowned Death,” he said simply.
The archmage coughed and whirled to look at him, eyes wide. “Seriously?”
“That,” Dumat pointed at the crystal ball, “wasn't really part of the plan, but on the positive side, we won't be needing the second phase of the operation. That thing is already well and truly destroyed.”
“A bit of an understatement there.” Gulver slapped Dumat on the shoulder and grinned. “I'm sure there will be a victory celebration of some kind tomorrow. Now come along.”
The court wizard felt himself being yanked by the arm and almost lost his balance as the other mage dragged him along. With hurried footsteps he followed Gulver toward the courtyard's gates “Slow down! Are you that eager to get to the tavern?”
“Forget the tavern!” Gulver said. “We are headed to the temple to set up some containment wards! We can't miss the opportunity to summon some of that burning stuff and study it!”
“Move it! We don't have much time, so get through those damn portals already!” Cathy's shout echoed within the reaperbot command centre. The blonde, wearing a full suit of armour, leaned on the railing of a raised balcony at one end of the cylindrical room.
A mosaic of viewscreens covered the remote wall, showing her the situation through the eyes of the reaperbots. In rapid succession, individual displays gained an orange tint as their automaton rushed into the glow of a portal. Once through, they changed again to display the dark caverns of the Underworld.
“Demon Group, ignore the locals,” Cathy ordered as some trolls with torches gaped at the steel warriors pouring into their realm. “The same goes for Chaos Group.”
From underneath the fog-covered ground came a few disappointed sighs. “Aw, want fight!” one of the green-skinned pilots in his capsule complained.
“Cut the chatter!” the swordswoman demanded.
“Anger group in position,” an even female voice informed Cathy, drawing her eyes to the slender form of Eline pacing on the ground floor. On her pointy-eared head, the bald albino was wearing a cap with a large, stylised 'A' emblazoned on its front.
“Chaos Group in position,” the second of the five dark elves observing separate sections of the wall screens said barely a heartbeat later. Her own cap was decorated with a 'C'.
”Demon Group in position.”
“Evil Group in position, Commander.”
The fifth figure didn't join in, since she was too busy darting about between different pilot sarcophagi, stomping on their lids, and hissing angry instructions at the goblins within.
Cathy frowned at Venna, whose green uniform shirt strained to contain her assets as she squatted down next to one of the pilot capsule hatches. “Bane Group, stop being slower than snails, or I'm going to put you through remedial training! The others, invade as soon as the portals are ready!”
“Yes, Commander!” an enthusiastic, if not particularly harmonic chorus of goblin voices confirmed.
In contrast to the green-skinned pilots in their underground capsules, the blonde was terribly worried. In addition to this being her first solo command, she also didn't know if going ahead with the invasion had been the right decision. I hope Mercury can get Crowned Death out of her head, or we are all screwed.
“Bane Group in position,” Venna blurted out, having finally cajoled her goblins into some semblance of order. “Orcs are re-calibrating the portal now.” The dark elf didn't take her eyes off the view screens in her sector as she spoke. “I'm sure we'll catch up!”
“I'll believe that when I see it,” Cathy said. “Everyone, go for the inactive dungeon hearts first and protect your imps! They'll dig you a path straight to the target, so keep them alive!”
On the screens, the scenes became more hectic as the troops stepped through the orange glow once more. In a dust-filled tunnel strewn with the debris of tiling, a foreign orc who had been about to use the portal boggled in wide-eyed surprise as he found himself suddenly face to face with a metallic reaper. Behind him, other shadows that had been running skidded to a halt, turned around, and departed the way they had come.
“Minimal resistance,” Eline commented.
“Enemies are not engaging,” another dark elf said, “aside from the mindless undead.”
Her section of the screens briefly showed a legless skeleton flying past and impacting with the frozen cave wall, shattering both its bones and the ice. In the background, another reaperbot skidded past on the slippery floor, bowling over three of its opponents in the process.
“Bane Group not encountering any resistance,” Venna reported. Scratching her head, she added “Also, Rabixtrel ran off on his own. The two may be related.”
“Well, that's just-”
The door to the chamber flew open with a thud. “Cathy!”
The swordswoman whirled around to find Jered striding towards her, beaming.
“We won! The high temple of Crowned Death is nothing more than burning wreckage!”
The blonde felt as if a heavy burden head been lifted from her shoulders, and smiled. “Great! Wait, burning? Never mind.” She figured that Crowned Death jealously guarding his secrets with a self-destruct mechanism was well within the realm of the possible. Mercury herself certainly made sure that none of her more dangerous inventions could be propagated. Of more immediate concern were her goblins.
Their cheers and hollers swelled until they drowned out every other sound in the chamber as they celebrated.
“Quiet! Shut up, you are still fighting!” Cathy shouted at the top of her lungs in an effort to reassert control.
It took quite a while for the rhythmic banging of fists and feet against metal and the whoops and chants of “Empress!” to die down enough for her to make herself heard.
“You are on a mission, you dim-witted, undersized morons! Get to it!” Red in the face from the exertion, she turned to her boyfriend. “Argh, I wish Mercury was here. I could use her authority, not to mention her spells. Where is she, anyway?”
The wavy-haired man scratched the back of his neck, his face falling. “Well, there seems to be a tiny bit of a problem...”
Jadeite found Tiger bragging to the warlocks, who watched her with expressions that vacillated between amazement and fascination, but also caution and suspicion. The latter two were quite appropriate, since her appearance had changed a lot since the dark general had last seen her.
Torian, that sycophant of a head warlock, stood right behind her, nodding gravely to confirm her words. His testimony was responsible for the other mages' predominantly respectful reaction, together with the fresh memory of the devastation unleashed upon the temple and the fact that she still resembled herself and Mercury.
This version of the carrot-coloured youma had brushed off all traces of immaturity she had picked up from Mercury and was as tall as Jadeite. At first glance, she seemed to be wearing a tight-fitting bodysuit with sparse black stripes, but closer inspection revealed that her limbs had seams at the joints.
As a dark general, Jadeite was well aware that youma could possess objects. With a sinking feeling, he realised that thickened parts of Tiger's shell reminded him of Mercury's armour. As if he needed any more confirmation about the missing teenager's fate, the crystal ball she had worn as a necklace gleamed like a gem in the centre of the youma's collarbone.
Jadeite's feet were carrying him forward before he realised what he was doing. How dare Tiger twist poor Mercury into this - well, monstrosity wasn't quite the right term, he had to admit as his eyes slid unbidden over the youma's curvy exterior. If this was a promise of what Mercury would look like when she was fully grown, then he had something to look forward to. He blinked and banished the stray thought from his mind. Reaching the circle of warlocks surrounding the youma, he sent two of them sprawling as he pushed his way through without slowing down. He fixed Tiger with a hot glare. “Explain yourself!”
With deliberate slowness, the tiger-striped creature with Mercury's face turned her head into his direction. “Oh? I have been talking this entire time,” she said in a teasing voice. “Haven't you been listening to me?”
Why that impudent little... Jadeite didn't dignify her question with an answer. Instead, he turned in a circle, glowering at each warlock in turn. “You! What are you fools still lingering around here for? There is still an invasion to support! Find Cathy and make yourselves useful!”
The robed magicians shifted uneasily, exchanging nervous glances with each other and alternating between looking at him and at Tiger. “But-” one of them began.
“Now!” the dark general shouted, his eyes blazing white with power.
The warlocks backed away from the grey-uniformed man, reacting as much to the authority in his voice as to the oppressive amount of dark magic he was radiating. Making acquiescing noises, they whirled around, their robes swishing, and headed for the exit like a flock of frightened geese.
Only one of them had remained behind. “Now wait just a moment,” Torian said, his nose raised high and his tone indignant. “Show some respect to the Princess, lest she strike you down just as she did to Crowned Death's temple!” The tip of his staff crackled with electricity, and his grip left no doubt that the weapon could be levelled at the dark general at a moments notice.
“You should listen to him, he's a smart one,” Tiger commented, showing her teeth.
“Smart enough to still remain behind me in case the situation turns violent, I notice,” the youma continued, her tone taking on a mocking quality.
“That- um, but Princess,” the warlock sputtered. “I didn't-”
Jadeite's patience for the fool was at an end. “Sleep!” he commanded, waving his gloved fingers at his side and focused on Tiger. “Now tell me what happened to Mercury!”
Tiger raised an eyebrow, not reacting to the soft thud behind her. “Awww, are you worried about her? That's so adorable!” She dragged out the last word. “Or at least, she would think so. Which she can't. Which you have undoubtedly guessed by now.” She demonstratively patted down her rigid sides.
Jadeite reined in the fury he felt rising. “Answer my question! Why in Metallia's name did you possess her?”
The youma grinned at him without a hint of fear, perhaps not noticing his clenching fists. “Oh, that? Well, she got herself into a bit of trouble by letting a dark god into her head. Big sister Tiger to the rescue! I kicked him out, stomped his temple, and dragged her home! Aren't I awesome?”
The dark general suspected that there was a grain of truth in all of this, hidden underneath layers of exaggeration. He crossed his arms and nodded once. It did sound like sufficient justification for what she had done, in any case. “Very well. Release her at once.”
“Hmm, let me consider that for a moment.” The horned creature rested her chin on her fist in the classical thinker pose for a few seconds. “I refuse. I quite like having power!” she said, an insufferable grin appearing on her face. She leaned forward, her hands steadied challengingly on her armoured hips. “She's sleeping and useless right now anyway. I'll be staying this way!”
Jadeite could feel the youma's breath on his skin, so close was her face to his. “I was not making a request,” he growled, tensing up.
“Heh, bring it!” Tiger replied, her blue eyes flooding with power that matched his own. “I may not have gotten all of her Keeper powers, but I can use Queen Metallia's blessing just fine. I'm in charge now, Jadeite, and you had better get used to it!”
The curly-haired blonde fought to keep his calm. He didn't agree with the upstart's assessment of their relative power, but a fight would have been more even than he would have liked. Fortunately, he still had a more effective option than resorting to violence. Standing straighter, he pointed his index finger at the crystal ball within her collarbone. “Should I call her mother and friends to inform them of your decision?”
Tiger jerked back as if slapped, her cocky smirk turning into a glower. “Don't you dare!” She blurted out, her voice hitching. She whirled around so she was facing away from him. “I mean, it would be a waste of time anyway! Why should I care about what they think? Now stop bringing up stupid stuff and go kill some skeletons or something!” Without a further word, she teleported away.
Jadeite blinked at the crumbling icicle where the irritating creature had just stood. His momentary satisfaction at striking a telling blow crumbled as he remembered that she'd taken Mercury along. With a muffled curse, he too disappeared.
“Status report!” Tiger shouted as she appeared next to Cathy on the balcony.
The blonde's eyes widened and her hand went to her sword. “Who- ah, right, Jered warned me about your new appearance.” The swordswoman relaxed and turned back to the screens.
The brown-haired man to her right demonstrated more of an interest in the youma's new shape, in a way that would have earned him an elbow to the rips by his girlfriend if she had noticed.
Tiger vaguely felt as if she should cover up as his gaze roamed over her armoured body - which was a fairly irritating feeling when she didn't even have any parts that needed to be covered. More importantly, she was not getting the respect she deserved!
Before she could say anything, however, Cathy started answering her question. “Two dungeons secured while their inhabitants were still fighting over who would get to claim their dungeon hearts. Bane Group was too slow, and now we are dealing with a newly-minted vampire Keeper.” Grimacing, she gestured at a section of the wall where several of the screens now looked like regular mirrors. “He's cracking the bots' crystal balls with some sort of sound-based spell if they venture too close to the dungeon heart.”
Tiger used her Keeper sight to have a closer look at the situation, just in time to see a reaperbot decapitate an imp peeking out from a short, claimed tunnel. From the arrangement of the troops, she concluded that the few rooms the enemy owned were completely surrounded. “He seems contained for now,” she decided.
Cathy nodded. “Fourth dungeon, the reaperbots are being stymied by a ghost-filled crevasse surrounding the dungeon heart, but the other creatures have been chased off and the portals destroyed. The last territory is being invaded by one of Clairmonte's former subordinates who had the same idea as we did. He's sending in zombies-”
A few of the screens displayed a fiery flash just before one of them went blank.
“Graahhh! No-skill cheater! Not fair! Coward rot-worm son of a pig! I kill you next time!” one of the goblins squeaked within his pod.
“-stuffed with explosives,” Cathy finished more loudly to make herself understood over the noise of the goblin's tantrum. “In short, we need Mercury to block up the portal they are coming through, to ferry the reaperbots over the chasm, and to order Rabixtrel to stop messing around with the imps and go kill that fucking vampire!” She put her arms akimbo and looked at Tiger expectantly. “Well?
“Why does everyone want her? I can deal with this just fine!” the youma said, thrusting one fist into the air.
Cathy and Jered exchanged a dubious glance, the latter shrugging his shoulder lightly.
“What? I'll show you!” Tiger declared. She leapt over the railing, drifting slowly down to the ground floor.
A warlock who had just been about to enter the room stopped to gawk in surprise, causing his colleagues to walk into him.
“Took you all long enough to get here,” Tiger addressed the stumbling group still out in the corridor and heading off the brewing argument. “The bunch of you, head over to Anger Group and levitate the reaperbots over that chasm. Oh, and kill the ghosts while you are at it. Eline, show them the way!”
“As you wish, Princess,” the warlock closest to her said, bowing his head respectfully.
She'd make sure to remember his fluffy-bearded face for later. After all, those who showed proper deference to her needed to be rewarded. That dark elf who was even now looking for confirmation to Cathy before heading over would definitely not be among that group. With a quick teleport, she reappeared at the swordwoman's side. “That's one down. The vampire situation will fix itself on its own once Rabixtrel gets bored, so no need to do anything there.”
“We should not be taking chanc-”
“Finally,” Tiger ignored the protest, “I'll have the other youma deal with that incursion. As a group, they'll be able to take down the portal no problem.”
“And they'll do what you say?” Jered asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Why would there be any doubt? I've got both the authority and the power to enforce it!” Tiger replied. “They were there when I burned down Crowned Death's temple! Only fools would oppose me!”
Jered shook his head, strands of wavy hair covering his mouth as he muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “Oh dear.”
“Well, I still want you to let your sister go! It's not right to take over her life like that!”
“She should be glad I saved her! She's unconscious anyway, so no harm done!”
“No harm done?” Cathy drew herself up to her full height, staring down at the youma. “She could need medical attention! Who knows what Crowned Death did to her?”
“I do. Now stop bothering me! I have more important things to do, such as arranging my victory party!” Cackling, the youma disappeared, prompting the blonde to bury her face in her palm.
The hooded figure of the spymaster stood in front of the tall window, a dark silhouette before the rising sun. He pulled the silk curtains close because the sunlight glinting off the silver tableware made his King squint uncomfortably. “... and we are still trying to reconstruct what exactly happened,” he reported. “Our information is vexingly incomplete.”
Albrecht picked at his breakfast, not paying much attention to the salmon-covered bread. “Seems to me that Dumat was right with his theory. Ward hits temple, enchantments go down, something dangerous is suddenly free to blow up. How is Dumat, by the way?”
“Nobody was killed in the accident, though our priests were very busy for a while. Some of the stained masonry will have to be restored, too.”
“There you have it,” the King said with a shrug. “Some really nasty stuff got out, destroyed the temple, and then our top wizards decided that summoning the leftovers was a really brilliant idea.”
“A simple and reassuring explanation,” the spymaster admitted. “The problem with it is that it simply couldn't have happened that way, my King. The Shining Concord Empire is absolutely sure that the giant ward did nothing and was destroyed before the explosion.”
Albrecht chewed on his meal. “I wonder how they could scry on a temple. Anyway, if not the ward, then what caused that explosion?”
“I wish I knew. I would feel much better if I did. The Shining Concord suspects sabotage, though some of our more pessimistic experts fear that Empress Mercury has developed a devastating new spell.”
“Good heavens!” Albrecht put down his fork and strode over to the spymaster. “Please tell me that they are wrong!”
The cowled man nodded. “I am almost certain that they are. It is a consequence of yet another mystery.”
“Empress Mercury disappeared a brief but noticeable time before she could have caused the explosion.”
“Disappeared? What do you mean?”
“Crystal balls could no longer show her. Or, to be more precise, they stopped showing the cloud she was conducting the operation from. Since her dungeon remains active, she is unlikely to be dead.”
Albrecht tugged at the white hair sprouting from his chin. “That sounds almost as if she was banished.”
“An enemy taking advantage of her distraction and destroying one of her dungeon hearts would be the most likely explanation, yes,” the spymaster admitted. “Personally, I don't believe it. She disappears during a giant distraction that required the attention of most of our wizards. Her troops begin aggressively advancing into Clairmonte's former territory. Crowned Death's temple is destroyed through some means independent of the plan. All coincidence?”
“Well, if you put it that way...” Albrecht's frown suddenly turned into a smile. “Oh well. The important thing is that the death god's temple was utterly destroyed! I assume the other evil cults have licked blood and will do their best to kick Crowned Death while he is down?”
The spymaster hesitated. “I'm afraid the opposite might happen, your Majesty,” he said, folding his hands.
“What? He lost an enormous amount of forces and troops! Why in the world wouldn't his rivals jump on the opportunity?”
“Sire, while he suffered a tremendous loss, it was a loss of assets nobody else previously knew about. As far as the balance of power is concerned, the death of Clairmonte weighs heavier than the destroyed temple. With the spectacular failure of this project, the other dark gods can be certain that he is now last in the race to seize the world. They may focus on interfering with their other rivals now, rather than risking their limited mortal resources against someone who is harmless for the foreseeable future.”
“Damn it all!” Scowling, Albrecht shooed a kitten off his throne that prevented him from letting himself drop dramatically onto the cushioned seat. “What does it take to get rid of one of those evil cults for good?”
The cloaked figure shrugged. “The dark empress might just be forced to find out. Crowned Death seems to be seeking vengeance for the ignoble end of his master plan. All of the remaining aquatic undead we are able to track are headed straight toward her coast, and are expected to arrive within four days.”
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