In the small cavern, heat radiated from the rocky ground and from the man-sized pipe piercing both floor and ceiling. Despite the furnace-like conditions, three figures worked within the chamber.
Cord-like muscles rippled under green skin, and the head of a hammer hit a square plate of metal attached to the pipe. For a moment, the loud clang drowned out even the hissing of the steam venting from underneath the patch's edge. The troll smith took a step back and flipped open his fogged-up face shield. “Gotten too cold,” he declared and shot an expectant look over his shoulder at the violet-clad warlock waiting behind him.
With swishing robes, the magic user approached and levelled his staff at the welded plate. Mumbling some words through the scarf covering his nose and mouth, he let loose with a thin lance of white-coloured flame.
The troll waited, leaning on the long handle of his hammer. “That's enough,” he said when the metal glowed a dull red. The sweating creature went back to hammering the seal into shape. With each blow, less steam escaped from the leak. He continued even after the hissing had stopped and only a dull roar. “All done.”
“Good work.” Snyder, crouching over a circle of carved runes that surrounded the pipe, rose. He pulled three card-shaped pieces of metal out of a leather bag and carefully positioned them around the repaired spot. With metallic clangs, the magnetic plates shot toward the pipe and adhered to its surface. “Now that the place is properly warded, this is one power plant that will not suddenly give out on us, at least.”
“Glad to hear it. Now let's leave before our protective enchantments run out, yes?” the warlock requested, already waiting at the doorstep.
Snyder nodded. “Our further presence here would be superfluous.”
“Good, I need a drink.” The troll leaned his impressive weight against the stone door and pushed it open, grunting from the effort. He was the first to enter the spiral staircase and enjoy the cool draft wafting down from above. A moment later he cried out in alarm and made a desperate grab for the railing when one of the stone steps crumbled under his foot. “Damn it! When is the Empress going to put a stop to this crap?”
“She is working on a solution,” Snyder said, well aware that the warlock was listening in on the conversation with great interest.
“She better hurry up,” the green creature huffed.
Snyder followed him through one of the many doors leading out of the staircase and into a wider tunnel, while the warlock split away from the group and continued ascending the stairs. In the absence of electrical light, smokeless torches burnt along the brick walls, turning the familiar surroundings into a darker and more foreboding place.
“What's up with all of those prisoners loose and gawking at things in places they have no business being? It's just not right!” The smith lifted his elbow in the direction of a human couple sitting on the ground, with a small child hiding behind the man's back. All three were wearing the toga-like, improvised garb of the local civilians.
“Our Empress has tasked them with keeping an eye on various structures of middling importance, such as an aqueduct in this case,” Snyder explained. “The corruption effects seem more reluctant to manifest on objects that are actively being observed.”
The troll approached the humans, who shied away from him, and followed their gaze. Through an iron wall grate, he could see a water-filled channel passing perpendicularly underneath the tunnel they were in. “Doesn't look as if it's working to me. There's rubble at the bottom.”
“Ah, yes, the countermeasures are somewhat hampered by current lighting conditions. Humans don't see very well in the dark,” Snyder admitted. Wandering attention was another issue, but that could be mitigated by using more observers.
“Bloody useless,” the smith decided, shrugged, and followed the acolyte. “You need more metalworking done for your warding?”
“No, I'm headed to the infirmary. My considerable skills will be put to better use dealing with the various unpleasant ailments that keep springing up.”
“That so?” The troll grinned, showing his large, crooked teeth. “Good, you can start with my toothache right now.”
“...and that's why I need help,” Ami said, her hands clasped in front of her chest as she looked at the crystal ball with large, hopeful eyes.
The Avatar scratched his bearded chin and creased his brows. “So Crowned Death has managed to corner you. And is wrecking my lands even more in the process.”
Ami thought that he sounded more upset by the latter than by the former. “That's correct, yes.” She couldn't help wonder if she had caught him at a bad time. Splashes of blood covered his shiny suit of heavy plate mail, though none of it seemed to be his own. From what she could tell of his surroundings, he was inside a large tent.
The Avatar's eyes lit up, turning a solid, glowing white. “We will help you if you come to one of our temples. Elsewhere, Our influence is not strong enough to stop what is happening. However, if you do, then it would be irresponsible of Us to allow you to leave again.”
Ami's shoulders slumped, even if she had expected that condition. “I understand. How much time do I have to explore other options before I commit to something that irreversible?”
“We can save you as long as you arrive before you are banished to the realm of the dark gods,” the Light stated with confidence. “Though We would prefer it if you saw reason and came to Us sooner rather than later.”
“I'm not willing to give up on getting home just yet. My friends need me, and Metallia needs to be stopped!”
“You are a Keeper!” Amadeus said in his own voice. “Your presence would just make things worse! Haven't you dealt with the dark gods enough by now to understand that?”
“I have learned enough about them to know that the only chance for my world is reaching and destroying Metallia before she regains her strength! My friends can't do it on their own! They don't have an army to counter the forces of the Dark Kingdom!”
The Avatar crossed his arms. “And how, pray tell, do you intend to strike the fiend down for good even if you get there?”
“I-I'll think of something,” Ami said. She shifted uneasily from one foot onto the other. “I don't want to be rude, but that discussion is not something I have the time for right now.”
Amadeus acknowledged this with a slight incline of his head, but his expression told her that he was far from pleased.
“To be honest, I was hoping that you could help me some other way,” Ami continued. “Did you learn anything useful from my notes on dungeon hearts? Some way to stop me from being banished to the dark gods' realm? Perhaps some kind of anchor, or a way to seal the rip in space, or to stabilise my body before it can get sucked through?” she pleaded.
The Avatar's face went slack as the white light returned to his eyes. “The most practical of these suggestions is closing the rift into the dark realm. However, this requires a lengthy ritual. More importantly, the gash must be closed on both sides at the same time. Even if you managed to delay your banishment long enough and convinced some beings in the dark realm to assist you, Crowned Death would certainly sabotage the effort. We know of no way for you to avoid banishment, short of coming to Our temple.”
Ami's face fell along with her hopes, and she shivered as her fear returned with full force. “Can you at least offer me advice on how to evade Crowned Death if I should get banished?”
“That would be difficult. For what it is worth, he must observe your dungeon hearts to determine where you will enter his realm. If you lost more than one, he would remain uncertain through which rift you would enter - until the moment you arrive. This might gain you a brief window of opportunity.”
Ami nodded as she analysed the situation. She had three dungeon hearts right now, so she could sacrifice at most two. The one she lost to Zarekos counted as another rift. In total, the chance that Crowned Death would wait at the wrong one was two thirds. Those weren't reassuring odds. Should she create more hearts? Each one would be another access point for the corruption, lowering her time limit. Her gold reserves were another issue, since gem production was down.
“Second, there is suicide.”
“Excuse me?” Ami blinked, taken aback. They couldn't seriously mean- ?
“It is an option mentioned for completeness' sake,” the Light explained. “In the brief moment before a Keeper is devoured by his destroyed dungeon heart, he no longer interacts with the world – which includes his other dungeon hearts. Were you to die during that interval, your soul would simply stop projecting your consciousness into your body. You would effectively find yourself at the location of your soul. You would also be dead and at the mercy of whoever owns it, of course.”
Well, that was a way to evade the death god, but... “I think I'll pass on that option,” Ami said. “Please, do you know of a way to return faster? Zarekos was back much earlier than I anticipated.”
Amadeus' lips curved downwards before the Light answered “It is likely that he could use his temple as a navigation beacon to find his way back faster. As an undead creature, the lifeless state of his body in the realm of the dark gods would have hindered him much less than a living Keeper.”
Ami nodded. That information could potentially be useful, but would require more research to properly exploit. “But is there anything else? Perhaps some spell or weapon you could give me that would be useful against a dark god?”
The Avatar snorted, his eyes returning to normal before the Light spoke through him once more. “You do realise that anything charged with Our power would be as debilitating to you as to the enemy, right?”
Ami cringed at a brief mental image of herself wielding a luminous sword while at the same time trying to stay as far away from it as possible.
“Besides,” the Light continued, “the merest glimpse of Our power would attract every evil creature in the vicinity. Not the best way to avoid attention.”
Ami hung her head. “All right,” she said, defeated. With such drawbacks, any gifts from the Light would hurt more than they helped. “Thank you for-”
“Hold. We do not want you to suffer at the hands of the dark gods, and are masters of protection and shielding. Isolating a tiny piece of Our own power so that it cannot be sensed is well within Our capabilities.”
“You mean...” Ami perked up, a tentative smile on her face.
“We will think about which tools to grant you in order to assist your escape, but We would prefer it if you did not take such a risk at all.”
“Thank you! Thank you so much!” Ami said, her forehead almost touching the table as she bowed deeply.
Amadeus reached for his own crystal ball. “Hmm. Well, if that is all, I'll go and see if the orcs have gathered their courage for another attack, Empress.”
“Wait! Avatar, I have another request!” Ami called out as the armoured man turned to leave.
“What?” Amadeus snapped. “I have a Keeper to exterminate here!”
“The hero gates. I may have to evacuate the civilians to a safer place quickly. With everything that's going on, I can no longer guarantee their safety inside my dungeon!”
Amadeus narrowed his eyes at her for several seconds. “A valid concern. I will send you someone who can activate them.” He turned toward the left and shouted “Olon!”
A few seconds later, a large hand moved aside the tent flap, and a bare-chested man with bulging muscles stooped down to enter. On one shoulder, he carried a heavy mace, and wild black hair dangled down over his prominent nose. “Lord Avatar?”
“I have a mission for you on the Avatar Islands.”
The man's eyes widened a fraction, and he glanced over at the crystal ball.
“You will be operating the hero gates when Empress Mercury requests it, but only for transporting the civilians,” Amadeus instructed.
Ami directed a reassuring smile at the man. Having a safe way to move the citizens out of harm's way was a great relief. Particularly since she'd have to turn them into prisoners first if she wanted to ferry them around with Keeper powers.
Olon shrugged, apparently undaunted by the assignment. “Sure, if that's what you wish, Lord Avatar.”
Amadeus stepped toward the tent's exit. “Empress, you'll have to arrange for his transport yourself. I am sure your warlocks will be up to it. Olon will be waiting here until they are ready. Farewell.” He raised his hand and waved once before he walked out into the sunlight.
A long line of people stood in front of the receptionist's desk, backing up into the street through the wide-open doors of the hospital's entrance hall. Crying children and impatient adults filled the air with complaints, pained groans, and an unpleasant smell.
In one corner of the room, imps had cordoned off an area, contributing to the general lack of space in the crowded room. They were using a small winding tackle to raise one of its six pillars back to where it belonged, glaring at any of the toga-clad individuals that got too close.
Behind the desk, a bald dark elf consulted a list of symptoms that helped her quickly decide where to send the patients. Her forehead creased as she glowered at a toothless crone who disagreed with her assessment.
“End of the waiting line is way back there!” an angry male voice shouted.
The albino woman took the commotion as an opportunity to ignore the obstinate hag and looked for the source of the disturbance. There, in the back, people were swaying to the side as someone pushed his way through the crowd.
“Why aren't the guards doing anything about this?” a hunchbacked man hissed, staring at one of the goblins leaning against the wall and picking her nose.
The triangle-eared creature poked her tongue out at him and slowly pointed a wet-gleaming digit at a spot behind the wavy-haired man clearing himself a path through the crowd.
The hunchback blinked as he spotted the two well-armoured goblins following in the green-shirted man's wake, unable to stay at his side in the limited space.
“Hey! Who do you think you are?” a boy of about ten shouted as he stepped into Jered's path.
“Shush! That's one of the Dark Empress' advisers!” the woman standing behind him said as she draped her arm around him and pulled him back.
Jered arrived in front of the desk, feeling slightly amused by the glower an old woman directed at him as the receptionist ignored her in his favour. “Venna. Where is the Ambassador?” He made no great effort to prevent his gaze from drifting down to the dark elf's chest, which strained enticingly against its confinement within her white smock.
“The blonde fairy?” Venna's eyes moved sideways toward a map of the building “One floor up, room seven. Up the stairs and to the left.”
“Thank you.” Jered stepped around her desk and entered a door marked 'Staff only'. “You stay outside,” he instructed the goblins. Inside, his nose picked up the smell of alcohol – the horrid stuff that Mercury insisted kept illnesses at bay, not the kind he was more fond of. He had barely taken a dozen steps when a procession of imps marched past, carrying towering heaps of dirty bandages in their arms.
A fairy with short-cropped red hair marched behind them, stomping her feet. When she spotted Jered, she froze and pointed an accusing finger at him!
“Hold it! You are one of the dark empress' chief minions!”
Jered stopped. “What about it?”
Anise came closer until she stood before him, her arms akimbo. It would have been more intimidating if she hadn't been the second-shortest of the seven sisters. “You are pretty well informed, aren't you?”
“You could say that,” Jered replied, curious and a little wary. He could make out the shape of two short swords underneath the open lab coat she was wearing, after all.
“I want to know what Mercury did to Camilla that was so bad she had to censor her letter!” Anise hissed, staring at Jered intently.
He had to think for a moment before he remembered the massage incident. Raising an eyebrow, he said “Well, I can guess what you are imagining.”
“What?” Anise snapped, blushing. “Are you trying to imply something?”
“That you have a dirty mind,” the wavy-haired man teased.
The agitated fae growled. “Just tell me already!” she demanded.
Jered found the redhead's indignation rather cute. He might as well have a little more fun at her expense. Light knew his mood needed lifting with everything that was going on. “Sure, sure. Now put that fire away, there's no need for that.”
Anise looked at the tiny flames licking up from her clenched fists, then resumed scowling at Jered as she let the magic dissipate.
“Now, your theories are probably based on dear Mercury's less than stellar reputation.”
The fairy snorted. “That's putting it mildly.”
“However! Anyone who spends some time around her knows that she is easily mortified or embarrassed.” He suppressed a grin at the fairy's incredulous look. “Ah, but how to reconcile that with her image?” Jered leaned down and waved her closer, speaking in a low, conspirational voice. “Well, there's something very important that you need to know about the Empress.”
Anise narrowed her eyes at him suspiciously before she took a hesitant step forward. “And that is?”
“She has a mischievous sister who can turn into an exact duplicate of her. Camilla might even have mentioned her. Perhaps you should think about the implications.” Jered stepped away as Anise's face scrunched up in thought, confident that the seed of the idea he had planted would lead to amusing antics eventually. He wasn't too fond of Tiger, really.
“Hey! You haven't answered my question!” Anise shouted, running the few steps needed to catch up to him.
“And I'm not going to. I'm here for official business with the Ambassador,” he said while he kept walking. “Now, don't you have a job to do too?” He pointed at the row of limps blinking owlishly at them.
“I'm volunteering!” the redhead clarified. “I'm supposed to be a guard, not a nurse! What kind of poorly organised dungeon is this anyway that you never have enough staff? Besides, it's falling apart!” To illustrate, she rapped the wall with her knuckles, and the plaster crumbled obligingly.
“We are aware of that, no need to poke holes in it,” Jered replied, saving his breath to climb the stairs. Now- ah, Ambassador, there you are!” He spotted the youngest fairy's blonde hair from afar. “Could I have a moment of your time? It's official business on behalf of Empress Mercury.”
Leaning over an occupied cot along with abbot Durval, Camilla looked up in surprise. She briefly met the old man's eyes as if seeking permission to leave, and the abbot inclined his head. “Very well.” A grumpy-looking imp took her blood-stained white gloves, and she motioned for Jered to follow her. With Anise trailing them like a suspicious watchdog, the young ambassador led him to a small room partitioned off by a curtain from the busier part of the building.
Jered let himself drop into one of the simple but functional chairs. “Well, to get straight to the point: the Empress wishes to know if the Shining Concord Empire has a way to get the civilians here off the Islands within the next two or three days.”
“What, now she suddenly wants them gone?” Anise almost shouted. “After all the trouble of getting them here?”
“You did point out the lamentable state of the dungeon yourself just before,” Jered said.
Camilla shook her head. “That's true enough, but we can't get enough ships here that quickly. Even if it was possible, it wouldn't help; for the same reason the Empress doesn't just make an iceberg.” Camilla's nose scrunched up in disgust. “Too many zombie sea monsters besieging this place!”
“The empress has flying ships! She should just use them!” Anise suggested the obvious.
“Why do you think the airships are faring any better than the rest of the dungeon?” Jered asked, stretching his legs. “While you might board one, secure in the knowledge that you have wings, I certainly wouldn't.”
Anise frowned and crossed her arms, silently conceding his point.
“So it's getting bad enough that she needs to evacuate the inhabitants?” Camilla wondered.
“Well, nobody has died yet,” Jered said cautiously and waved his hand toward the curtain, “but you only have to take a look at the people outside to understand that staying here isn't exactly healthy at the moment.”
Camilla nodded, her expression grim and worried. “Are things going to get worse?”
“Potentially. You may want to think about moving from the embassy building to somewhere less exposed to the elements.”
“I'd have thought it would be safer on the surface than down here,” Camilla pondered. “No ceiling that could fall on one's head, for one.”
“Have you seen the windmills outside lately?” Jered asked.
Both fairies shook their heads.
“Neither have I. However, what I did see was a large area littered with fallen towers and half-melted metal struts where they used to be. The weather has become a little unpleasant lately.”
“She's being entirely unreasonable about this,” the voice from the crystal ball complained. ”I've been watching her – and I'm sure I'm not the only one. When she isn't hiding in her fog fooling around with a dungeon heart, she's walking through the halls fixing damage. She's got to have figured out by now that neither will help!”
“Midori, don't you have anything better to do than pestering me?” Cathy answered, her eyelids half-closed.
“And here I thought you'd appreciate my advice. You'll perish along with her when her dungeon falls to corruption or enemies. Which won't be too long now, since she has already wasted an entire day with her futile efforts! Go convince her that accepting my offer is in her best interest!”
Cathy had about enough of princess Julia's cocky voice and played with the thought of finding the nearest sewage pit so she could drop the crystal ball into it. Instead, she swivelled her chair to the side, stood up, and leaned on the balcony's railing.
Below her, under a security net that caught debris falling from above, a crowd of warlocks observed the dungeon through various scrying mirrors. Occasionally, one of them would move over to the pens where teams of four imps waited with construction materials and send them out for emergency repairs.
“Torian, take over here for a while, will you?” she shouted down into the room below. Not waiting for the black-bearded warlock to climb up the stairs, she left the busy room.
“...making a mistake! Come back here!” the crystal ball called after her.
The swordswoman shook her head. Let the head warlock deal with Midori. That Keeper didn't know when to shut up when he didn't have anything of value to say. He had been right about one thing though. It had indeed been almost a day since Mercury had buried herself in her research.
With that thought in mind, she walked down a side corridor that led to where Jadeite should be busy overseeing the acquisition of more food for the dungeon. As she approached the storage room's simple wooden door, she heard the dark general's voice from inside.
“...will no longer be transporting anything flammable until you get the side effects of your teleport under control!”
Curious, Cathy opened the door and peered inside. On the ground, she saw a bald, fin-eared youma lying in a puddle on the ground, looking sooty.
“Sorry, general Jadeite,” Lishika said to the dark general, who was glowering at her with his arms crossed.
Seated on one of the bags of flour lined up against the wall, Mareki giggled at her misfortune. Further back in the room, a black-haired woman in charcoal-coloured robes stacked bins full of fruit, moving them as if they were half their real weight. Once done, she took a small bag of gold pieces from a table, saluted in Jadeite's direction, and disappeared into collapsing column of purest darkness.
“Jadeite, have you seen Mercury lately?” Cathy made her presence known.
Jadeite glanced over at the blonde. “Should I have? As far as I know, she's busy researching.”
Lishika used the distraction to scramble out of the dark general's sight. Still dripping wet, the youma shimmered and took on the appearance of a young teenager, as appropriate for her short size.
“That's what I thought.” Cathy approached the crates and picked up a fresh-looking apple. It wouldn't be the first time that the blue-haired girl had neglected to feed herself while distracted by her books. ”Hey Mercury! Get over here and eat something!” the swordswoman called out mentally. “You aren't doing yourself a favour by starving yourself!”
After a moment, there was a flash of aquamarine light, and the teenager appeared in the midst of a whirl of snowflakes.
“I suppose I could use a break,” the blue-haired girl conceded. Her stomach growled in agreement, prompting her cheeks to colour lightly.
Cathy stared wide-eyed at the uneven holes and rips in Ami's senshi uniform. “Why are your clothes rotting off? Are you all right?”
“Just some corruption effects over at the other heart,” Ami said tiredly. A piece of discoloured fabric flaked off from her gloves flopped to the ground when she reached for an apple. ”Nothing to worry about.”
“If you say so.” Dubious, Cathy inspected the pale skin she could see through the holes, but there was nothing obviously wrong with it. “Are you making progress?” she asked, curious.
Ami chewed and swallowed. “Some. While calibrating my dungeon hearts to better inhibit the corruption manifestations, I have even made a minor breakthrough!” She smiled a little. “I have figured out how to make a dungeon heart that can handle even actively hostile corruption!” She looked back at the floor. “Still, that doesn't help me with the existing dungeon hearts.”
“That is still a huge success. It means you can survive this, no matter what happens to the other hearts!” Jadeite said, stepping out of the shadows next to the pile of crates he had been leaning against.
Ami jumped and whirled to face him. “Jadeite! I didn't see you there!” She smoothed her skirt, apparently more self-conscious about the state of her clothing with him in the room, and tore off a small piece of blue fabric in the process.
“You should immediately create a replacement heart so you can disconnect the harmful ones from your territory.” Jadeite smiled confidently. “That way, we can defend the dungeon without having to worry about damage control, letting you research in peace.“
Ami wiped her bangs out of her face and sighed. “It's not that simple, unfortunately. The uncontrolled corruption that's already here won't recede back to harmless levels in less than two decades.”
“Wait,” Cathy said, blinking as she considered the tactical implications. “That means you can't build your safe dungeon heart here, and the Avatar Islands are already lost! Mercury, you have to tell me about things like that the moment you learn about them, so I can adjust our strategies!”
“I wanted to be sure that I couldn't come up with a solution first,” Ami admitted, sounding uncharacteristically sulky.
“It can't be helped now.” Cathy started walking up and down. “The first order of business is to figure out where we can move to. It can't be anywhere too inhospitable or we won't be able to bring the troops and civilians. Leaving the troops behind simply isn't an option with Crowned Death hunting you and his undead having the advantage in pretty much any hostile environment. So, that means the Underworld portals.“ She threw a suspicious look at Ami. “Unless you can surprise me with some novel way of mass transport?”
Ami shook her head.
“On short notice, that leaves Clairmonte's former dungeons as the only logical options,” Jadeite said. “We have already secured them, after all.”
“But I promised not to use them,” Ami protested, but not very loudly.
Cathy threw her hands up in the air. “Seriously? That's irrelevant. At that point, you couldn't know this would happen. Now, what would be the best spot? Maps! I need maps!”
Paper rustled as coloured squared appeared from thin air and floated over to the swordswoman. A second set drifted toward Jadeite, while Ami kept the final one for herself.
“The jungle there near the west coast seems good,” Jadeite muttered. “Isolated, warm climate, no neighbours.”
“Unknown territory, elves live there, diseases, full of stinging insects,” Cathy countered. “We don't know anything about other Keepers in the area, either.”
“Well, the swamp is right out, seeing how it's already besieged by a surface army,” the dark general said, tossing one of the maps away.
“It would be a good location to get the civilians back to their people, though,” Ami pondered.
“You don't need to build a dungeon there for that, and once again, I'm staying with you and not going with them,” Jadeite cut off that line of thought.
The blue-haired girl frowned, but didn't look too unhappy about his answer.
“Next up, the Keeper-conquered territory over there.” Cathy held up her map. “It's already devastated, so of little interest to either the surface or other Keepers.”
“Aside from its neighbours,” Jadeite contradicted. “Clairmonte's former minions, and therefore Crowned Death worshippers. They aren't bothering us right now because we aren't doing anything, but I'd prefer not to find out what would happen if we settled down behind their front lines.”
Cathy shrugged. “Well, they definitely need killing. Okay, what about the one in the south-west? Wilderness, nice climate.”
“It's in the middle of a nation and not far enough from all settlements,” Ami objected. “The side effects of forcing control onto the corruption are not exactly subtle. I don't want to fight good people.”
“Well, that leaves the glacier,” Cathy held up the last map.
“It's a gold mine. Resources are good. It's also in the middle of nowhere, which is even better,” Jadeite evaluated.
“That's dwarven territory,” Cathy contradicted, “so that would be shooting our diplomatic efforts in the foot. It's also cold!” Goosebumps formed on her skin from merely imagining the snowstorms.
The dark general wasn't willing to let it go. “There's no dwarven settlement nearby-”
“-that we know of,” Cathy interrupted.
“- and besides, we could mine our own adamantine there. It's the best choice, in my opinion.”
Both of the advisers looked at Ami.
Ami rested her chin on one hand as she thought. “Well, from a safety point of view, the glacier and the jungle seem best. However, Clairmonte's armoury in the jungle dungeon was similarly well-stocked to the one in the south-west, and he was definitely arming up for a war there.” She grimaced. “I think the dwarven territory would be the best option, even with the diplomatic problems that entails.”
“Right.” Cathy stretched, somewhat relieved that the decision hadn't taken much time. “The sooner you create a dungeon heart there, the more time I will have to send over soldiers and supplies without giving the game away to our enemies with large troop movements.”
“I'll make the teleport-capable youma help,” Jadeite offered. “A few illusions will go a long way to convince any enemies that we remain at full strength here.”
Ami took a long breath and opened her eyes. ”All right, you convinced me. I'll establish the core rooms as soon as possible. Give me a call when you and Jered have worked out the logistics and need someone or something transported.”
“Will do,” Cathy agreed, happy that she could do something to deal with this crisis now. “Does your research require you to remain undisturbed at certain times?”
“Now that you mention it, there's one experiment that I'd prefer to run uninterrupted.” The young empress held out her hand, palm facing upward, and a large glass box appeared on it. “Meet my newest lab assistant, soon to be promoted to Keeper!”
Inside the aquarium-like container, a rodent that was unremarkable aside from the layer of gold thread wrapped around its torso peered around curiously.
“Another Keeper rat?” Cathy asked, tilting her head to the side. “Did you learn anything useful from the first one, then?”
Ami rubbed the back of her head with her free hand. “Well, I have confirmed that banished Keepers attracted by destroyed dungeon hearts follow the normal laws of acceleration.”
“That means I can delay entering the dark god's realm for longer the further away I am from the dungeon heart,” Ami explained without missing a beat.
“Oh. That's usefu- wait, no, it's not. You got banished in mere instants last time, and you were on a different continent then. There's not enough room to get far enough away!” Cathy felt compelled to point out, hoping that Mercury wouldn't take it too hard. To her surprise, the blue-haired girl merely smiled and pointed upwards. The ceiling? No, the sky – oh!
“I'm going to investigate whether or not Keepers can still cast spells while they are being banished,” the short-haired teenager said, pointing at the gold thread around the rat. “Afterwards, I'll continue trying to save the existing dungeon hearts. Oh, by the way, I also think that it would be prudent to relocate everyone to the topmost layers of the dungeon while we get ready. I'm going to disconnect the local dungeon heart here, as Jadeite suggested. The remote one dominates the corruption better and will take over.”
“The one that makes everything weird and horrible?” Cathy wasn't too keen on adding bleeding walls and random sharp spikes to the serving of decay they already had to deal with.
“We'll be seeing only a little of that, I hope. That was an experiment in keeping the surrounding terrain safe, and I have already inverted those settings. Keeping the inside of the dungeon safe is more important right now,” Ami hurried to reassure her. “There, um, may be some tremors or increased volcanic activity though,” she added, “hence the relocation.”
“So it's really tearing up the landscape now,” Cathy concluded, imagining the land crumbling away into deep ravines.
“That should make life more difficult for any invaders, at least,” Jadeite said, smirking.
A raven-haired woman coughed until tears welled up in her eyes, doubling over from the effort.
“Aw, are a little smoke and ash too much for you, Monteraine?” a cold voice cut through the howling of the ghosts and the rattling of the chains.
The sorceress coughed once more and turned toward the tall figure standing next to the dungeon heart. A tattered black robe covered it head to toe, but skeletal fingers peeked out from its wide sleeves and gripped a spiralling bone wand tightly. Underneath the being's hood, wheel-like structures spun slowly within the red glow pouring from its empty eye sockets.
“N-no, master Morrigan,” Monteraine answered, shivering. Her dress – little more than an apron that struggled to cover the bare essentials – did nothing to protect her from the cold exuded by the ghosts. Backing away from the wall of hungry spectres that tracked her every move, she pressed herself against one of the dungeon heart's frigid pillars.
“I hope the same goes for this plan of yours.”
“The eruptions can only be to our advantage,” Monteraine hurried to assure her short-tempered Keeper.
“Do not dare fail me,” the possessed death priest threatened, “or you will wish I had never given you a second chance.”
|Previous chapter:||Next chapter:|
|Chapter 163: Creeping Degeneration||Chapter 165: Abandon Ship, Part 2|