Ami could barely contain her curiosity as she waited for the Avatar’s servant to open the cloth bag he had brought. He was taking a long time to undo the latches with his lumpy fingers, and she fidgeted in her seat as she waited. While the large man was fairly easy on the eyes and still hadn’t put a shirt on, Ami spared neither attention nor thought for anything but the contents of the bag. What gifts had the Light thought suitable for helping her?
“Here, Empress. The simplest of the tools granted to you.” Olon produced an unadorned white wand from his bag and offered it to Ami.
She leaned forward and took it with two fingers, wary that she would shy away in revulsion from the power hidden within. Her caution proved superfluous, since the tapering stick didn't even make her skin tingle.
“That's a weapon,” Olon clarified. “Three shots. Use on dark angels. Wasted on anything stronger. Flashy.”
“I see.” Ami felt a little underwhelmed. Well, in a way the gift could be useful. It would be beyond terrible if she managed to evade Crowned Death only to be captured by one of his minions. Still, she had been hoping for something a little more impressive. Perhaps the next object would be better?
“A guidance and retrieval tool,” Olon stated as he dropped a ball of barely-visible rope on the table. “Looks like separate cords, but is the same one.”
“Um...” Ami wasn’t sure what to make of that statement. Lying on the white tablecloth before her were several separate rolls of transparent string.
“Same rope, occupying different locations. You have to let it dangle down into the realm of the dark gods. It grabs you on the way down, so you climb it back up and come out from one of your remaining hearts, since it’s all the same rope.”
Ami blinked and tried to wrap her head around that. When the explanation still didn’t make sense after she had thought it over, she summoned her Mercury computer to have a closer look at the items. The scan only added to her confusion. It confirmed that something was there, but couldn't get a proper visual on it. That was a point in favour of the Light's sensory shielding abilities, really, but also frustrating. “How does that even work?”
“Magic.” Olon's bored tone told Ami that he considered that an entirely sufficient explanation.
Ami took one of the coils, which felt solid to the touch, and tugged at it experimentally. It stretched like a rubber band. So she'd essentially be bungee-jumping into the dark gods' realm? Well, aside from sounding slightly silly, that might actually work. Yet... “Can the Light figure out where that rope is? I mean, wouldn't this procedure tell them the exact location of each of my dungeon hearts?”
The mountains of muscle on Olon's arms bulged as he shrugged. “Not my problem.” He pulled out a box filled with sawdust and removed a cloth-wrapped object from it. After removing the padding, he put a small flask filled with luminous liquid onto the table. “Final item. An invisibility potion. Short duration. The longest it can be without revulsion becoming completely debilitating. Inert until voluntarily triggered. Drink as soon as possible.”
Ami uncorked the bottle and sniffed at its opening. The potion smelled spicy, but it wasn't any aroma she could recognize. Her computer was being just as unhelpful as with the rope. Should she really imbibe something she couldn't identify? In the end, it was a matter of trust. She put the flask back on the table. There was simply no way that anything the Light did to her would be worse than what Crowned Death was planning.
Her body shifted and flickered when something black flew out of its back, reverting into an ice statue. The red-eyed cloud of dark energy that was Ami coalesced into a crimson-eyed teenager wearing a black senshi uniform. From behind the dark-clad golem in her likeness, she raised one hand, and the potion rose into the air and approached her. She snatched the floating flask out of the air and emptied it in a single, long gulp.
Olon raised an eyebrow at her. “You are an odd one, for a Keeper. Or desperate.”
“But I don't want to leeeave! We got a really nice house here!” a small boy protested, holding onto a pillar with one hand. He didn't seem to notice that the brittle stone stained his fingers with chalky powder. A few of the other villagers waiting for their turn either grinned or frowned as they stood in the slowly-moving line.
The adult man who held the child’s other hand gently pulled him along. “Come now, Yorik. You are going to annoy the guards.” He looked around as if expecting one of the orcs to step forward with ill intent. Quickly, he moved along toward the more reassuring figure of Abbot Durval.
“It is downright bizarre how quickly some people forget that they are living under a Keeper,” Roselle said, looking at the boy. Only the upper body of the orange-haired fairy was visible; the rest disappeared behind the wafting hero gate she was leaning through. “Or maybe it's because he's still a child. Isn't that right, Sir Olon?”
The large, muscular man standing next to her with his arms crossed over his bare chest simply grunted non-committally.
“It has to be so amazing, working directly under the Avatar,” the orange-haired fairy continued, batting her eyelashes at him. “Have you known him for long?”
Olon inclined his head, causing his black mane to fall over his eyes.
Roselle took a blindfolded civilian by the hand and gently guided the pale-looking woman through the hero gate. After barely a second, she reappeared from the portal. “So what does it feel like, being back here? If that isn't too personal a question?”
The hero gate operator shrugged. “Not a native.”
“Hey fairy! Stop slowing things down with your flirting!” a familiar, unwelcome voice called.
A hush fell over the room when the Empress herself stepped through the doorway, a scowl on her face. Many nervous eyes watched the black-uniformed teenager warily as their owners tried to make themselves unnoticeable.
Roselle sputtered, her cheeks colouring. “But I'm not slowing- I mean flirt- um-”
“Everyone, at ease and back to evacuating. Don't mind me being here.” Mercury's red-glowing gaze swept over the room, coming to a rest on an elderly, white-robed figure. “Durval. I heard there was some trouble here?”
The abbot was massaging the region around the eyes of a male patient with his wrinkly hands, and barely glanced over his shoulder when she addressed him. “A wall has collapsed over at Snyder's station. Now,” he said, turning back to his patient “can you still feel my touch? No? Good. Go, get yourself a bandage, and join the line moving through the portal.”
Some of the civilians and a few of the guards stared in amazement at the old man who had dared treat the dark empress like a minor distraction. One leather-clad mistress in particular backed away until her back hit the none-too-solid masonry, her teeth clattering.
“What are you looking at? I can find some more physically demanding work for you if keeping the peace without being distracted is too much for you!” The empress scolded. Without a further word, she turned on her heel and walked out.
“She seems to be... in a bad mood today?” Roselle speculated as she listened to the retreating footsteps, which were soon drowned out by the sound of construction.
”Tiger? I'm going to bring you to my lab,” Ami's voice rang out in the youma's mind, distorted by her communication spell.
In an instant, the fresh new brickwork in front of Tiger disappeared, and she found herself looking at the blue-haired girl. “Think I should mirror the dark circles under your eyes too if I'm supposed to be your double?” she teased, patting her black and golden uniform.
“No, no. I've got a different task for you now,” Ami said in a harried tone, not reacting to the quip.
”Aww. Walking around and terrorising the minions was kind of fun. I just wish there had been less repair work involved. That's not what my earth-shaping spells were meant for. So what's up?” Tiger found an empty spot between the stacks of paper on the table and sat down.
“Well, since the space rat experiment confirmed that one of my ideas is viable-” Her computer beeped, prompting her to pause and swivel on her chair in order to enter a few commands. She turned back to Tiger. “Sorry about that. Anyway, I need to figure out a very specific glamour spell, and you know how bad I am at those.”
“And since I am a lot better at that, you want me to do it instead and then possess me and pick the skill from my head?” Tiger guessed.
Ami blinked. “That's exactly right.”
“Why me and not Jadeite?” the youma asked, reverting to her tiger-striped real form. “Since you have no time to lose, you'd better get the best person on the job.” She grimaced. “As much as it pains me to say, he's much better at glamour than me, being a dark general and all.”
“Technically, I'm a dark general too,” Ami pointed out. “Anyway, I think you are uniquely qualified for this. Here,” She tossed a small notebook over at her adopted sister, “I've already written up everything you need to know.”
Tiger skimmed the first few lines and raised an eyebrow. “Huh. Yeah, I see where you are coming from.”
“But can you do it?” Ami asked, her hands clutched before her chest.
Tiger looked up from the instructions, meeting Ami's pleading eyes. “I don't see why not. It's pretty close to what I do anyway. Kind of morbid, though.”
A rope cordon split the cavern in front of the Underworld portal into two. On one side, a steady procession of civilians with blood-stained blindfolds stumbled slowly into the orange glow, one hand on the rope. On the other, plate-armoured orcs and scythe-wielding goblins escorted imp-pulled carts laden with crates. Like the civilians, the little workers were heading out into the Underworld with their cargo.
“Careful with that! Watch out for that pot-hole!” Cathy called as she hurried across the cavern with loudly ringing footsteps.
Her warning came just a moment to late. One of the carts tipped over when its left wheel lost contact with the ground and spilled a large metal-clad box on the ground. Making “Uh oh” noises, the imp crew scattered as the container bounced a few times, ringing like a bell.
Cathy muttered curses under her breath when pebbles and stones rained down from the ceiling, loosened by the noise. Stupid Corruption! “Caravan, stop!” the swordswoman ordered, a deep scowl visible through her open visor. “You over there! The imps loading the carts! Stop what you are doing and fix that hole!” She slowed her pace and walked around the fallen crate, inspecting its metal-plated exterior for damage. She didn't see any, but was still worried. “I hope that didn't damage the gems,” she muttered to herself.
“How can you tell what's in that chest, boss?” One of the orc guards assigned to the toppled vehicle asked. “They all look the same to me.” He pointed at the pile of similar containers stacked close to the portal, gleaming faintly in the hazy light.
“It would be harder if they didn't all contain the same thing,” Cathy explained absently. With the enhanced strength her armour provided, she flipped the wooden cart back on its wheels and dragged it away from the pothole.
“All- ? But- Lots?” the guard stuttered, momentarily speechless as his eyes widened underneath his jutting brow. He settled on staring slack-jawed at the amount of wealth stashed in this chamber.
“Well, the Empress is rich,” the blonde explained. The gems carried by the caravan represented an absurd amount of wealth, which was part of the reason why she was overseeing things personally. The other was the security of the civilians, but she didn't think anyone would try to steal those. Even with all the guards, a number of reaperbots, and all the youma on standby, she felt incredibly nervous about crossing the short section of Underworld between the portals. She should have asked Mercury to unleash Rabixtrel there, dammit! “Guard the crates with your life,” she snapped at the orc. “You don't want to disappoint her Majesty here!”
“Commander! Commander!” a squeaky voice shouted, drawing the swordswoman's gaze toward the stairs leading to the surface. A goblin was sprinting toward her, using his small size to weave through small gaps between soldiers and vehicles.
With a sideways glance at the blind civilians being led from the hero gate to the portal, she moved towards the panting warrior. “No need to shout, I'm right here,” she said. If this was bad news, she didn't want the crowd to overhear them and panic.
“Spotted something,” the wheezing creature reported. “Must come see immediately! Movement!”
Cathy frowned and followed after the greenskin, easily keeping pace at a light jog. Enemies here? This particular portal was about eighty kilometres away from the main dungeon, and far less fortified. It was the only one leading to the gold mine, though. “What is it? The undead?”
“Ghosts! Is huge! Call Empress!”
Okay, that did sound like an emergency. Cathy pulled ahead and left the goblin behind as she bounded up the stairs as fast as she could. Mercury? A goblin tells me we might have a situation here!
Ami enjoyed the rare luxury of sunlight warming her skin as she surveyed the landscape, searching the fields of drying mud for any signs of the so-called ghosts. Briefly, her gaze wandered up to the shimmering surface of the hero gate hovering a few metres above the landscape, surrounded by a ring of ruins. More civilians kept emerging from the wafting gateway and stepping onto the newly-built ramp leading down and underground. She felt a little queasy seeing them step out of the gate and immediately grasping at the bandage covering their eyes.
One of the fairies accompanying the civilians down to safer terrain glared at Ami for a moment before disappearing underground with the two little girls she was leading by the hand.
Ami found that rather unfair. It wasn't her fault that the civilians had to be evacuated, and it wasn't as if she wanted to re-open their wounds. Unfortunately, Jadeite couldn't be in more than one place at the same time like the Light's weird rope. Maybe she should-
“What the hell is that?” Cathy shouted.
Ami turned to face the blonde and found her staring up at the sky. She followed the swordswoman's gaze up to the edge of a distant cloud of volcanic ash. “Oh. So that's why Rabixtrel is annoyed.”
“He can't find any ghosts to kill if they are all up there,” Ami elaborated, not taking her eyes off the giant swarm of spectral figures whirling tornado-like around the central object. It really did look as if someone had collected all the remaining ghosts on the Avatar Islands they could find.
“Worrying about your reaper's peace of mind is not the right reaction to a giant – well, whatever that is - surrounded by enough ghosts to make it hard to see!” Cathy squinted as she tried to see through the multiple layers of flying undead.
“It looks like a giant wasp nest to me,” Ami said. She had gotten herself a crystal ball and was peering into it. With the orb's closer point of view, she could discern more details. Many of the ghosts were chained to the structure, holding it aloft. “I think there's a dungeon heart inside,” she added after a moment and passed on the crystal ball.
“What? Aren't wasp nests made from paper? Who makes a dungeon from something like that?” Cathy asked and stared into the sphere too.
“Someone who figures that it needs to be lightweight and able to hide out above the clouds?” The permanent thunderstorms that had covered the land before she had changed the corruption settings would have shielded the thing from detection. It wasn't much larger than her own airships, but without any of the space being dedicated to providing lift, that meant there was a lot of room inside. “I assume the paper is just thick enough that it can be fortified by imps.”
“Right. How about you set the thing on fire?”
“On it.” Ami concentrated briefly, drawing on some of the gold still in her treasury.
High up in the air, a spark of fire detonated right next to the ash-coated skin of the enemy vessel. The firestorm spell expanded outwards a short distance before being smothered by the ghosts that flowed like water around the flying base. When the glow faded, the hull remained intact.
“It seems we aren't the only ones who know a fire immunity spell,” Ami commented when she saw that the attack hadn't done anything aside from wiping away some of the volcanic soot sticking to the paper-like substance.
“Well, they do say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. Speaking of which, don't those rolled-up things at the sides look suspiciously like the tubes you used on Dreadfog to get your troops to the ground?”
“I think you are right.” Ami summoned a map and compared the position of the object with the terrain features. “Hmm. It's not moving toward the dungeon directly. I think it might try to seize territory somewhere over there.” She indicated a region to the north-east of her main dungeon.
Cathy's face darkened. “Looks about right. That would be just out of range of your dungeon heart, and there are three portals in the area for calling in reinforcements.”
“A fairly conservative strategy,” Ami noted.
“Yeah, what with the whole flying dungeon and all. I assume you are working on stopping it?” the blonde looked at Ami expectantly.
“Well, lightning bolts would be pointless. I'd just hit some ghosts. This is just like Zarekos' ablative ghost armour, except ship-sized. Hmm, perhaps... ” Ami decided to try something new. Remotely, she cast Shabon Spray multiple times, aiming almost a kilometre above the vessel. When she was satisfied with the size of the mist she had created, she started drawing its droplets together. She didn't form a hand from water as she usually did. Instead, she sculpted a large ice spike from the liquid and hurled it at the mass of ghosts below. Aiming was problematic at this distance, even if the air was relatively calm today. Nearly a ton of fast-moving ice reacted only sluggishly to telekinetic course corrections.
The icicle hit the layer of ghosts and passed through it as if it wasn't even there, struck the vessel itself, and disappeared inside.
“Yes!” Cathy thrust her fist in the air, grinning at the crystal ball. “You poked a hole in it! Keep doing whatever you did!”
Ami smiled. She hadn't done much damage, but now that she knew that her idea worked, she could simply use a larger projectile. The red glow in her eyes intensified as a cloud appeared above the ghost vessel, big enough to be visible unassisted even from down here.
Then, without warning, a circular hole appeared in the mist, expanding outwards until all of it was gone.
“Darn it! What happened?” the blue-haired senshi blinked in confusion.
“There's a Keeper standing on top of the nest,” Cathy informed her, pointing at the crystal ball. “Looks as if he's possessing a death priest. He's just staring at the sky and has a weird spinning pattern in his eyesocke-” She stopped when the scrying device in her hand blanked out for a moment. “Huh, weird. It did that when he was looking directly at me.”
“That sounds like Azzathra's anti-magic spell. It's weird that one of his Keepers is working together with the undead, though.” Ami turned away from the enemy. “That will prevent most easy forms of attack. Change of plans: we speed up the evacuation. Get everyone and everything to the new dungeon as soon as possible.”
“What, we are running away without a fight?” Cathy sounded upset. “What if that thing follows us?”
“Then we will at least face it without the handicap of our best tools falling apart from lethal corruption.”
“What about your research? I'd have thought you'd be more upset about not being able to search for a better solution.”
The blonde sounded worried, so Ami smiled reassuringly. “I- well, by now I'm pretty sure that there isn't one. I may as well get things over with now and catch Crowned Death ahead of schedule.” She shivered despite the hot day. “Besides,” she faced the flying dungeon and frowned at it, “its presence here gives me some options I didn't have before.”
The winged silhouettes of the fairies and of Olon's broad back disappeared into the portal's orange glow, leaving Ami, Jadeite, and Tiger alone in the cavern.
“That's the last of them. Finally,” the Tiger-striped girl said. “We are the only ones still here.”
Ami nodded, sweating underneath her new armour now that the time to actually implement her risky plan had come. It was hot in the outfit, which resembled an ancient diving suit. It was also heavy. The troll smiths fortunately hadn't asked too many questions about Ami wanting a suit made of pure gold. Perhaps such requests were expected from a Keeper. In any case, she would have felt awkward wearing something so ostentuous if the situation wasn't so serious. “Remember, install the ropes fifteen minutes from now and have the youma use the appropriate precautions,” she said, mostly to distract herself from her nervousness.
Jadeite looked irritated for a moment. “Of course. As if I would forget something that important.”
Ami inclined her head, her cheeks reddening. “Yes, I'm just- well- I hope I'll be seeing you again. And if I don't-”
He raised a hand. “Don't even consider the possibility. I have confidence that you will pull this off.”
“I- right!” She replied with a small smile, her spirit lifted. “I'll be seeing you all again very soon!” Her face fell as she turned to Tiger. “Still, you know what to do if I shouldn't come back. Mother and my friends-”
“Yeah, yeah, that's not going to happen anyway,” the tiger-striped girl said. “No need to get overly emotional. We'll all be joking about this soon enough.” Then, she surprised Ami by taking a step forward and gathering her into a brief, strong hug. “Take care, little sister!” Tiger let go and turned to the portal. She winked at Ami “And not a word about this to anyone!”
“Until later,” Jadeite said, saluting before he followed Tiger into the glow.
Once they were gone, Ami gulped and turned to the small cage that stood on the ground. “All right. Now it's only the two of us,” she said as she freed a small bat from its cage.
The animal fluttered out and grew, morphing into a pale young man wearing a wide-sleeved black robe. He immediately dropped to one knee and lowered his head.
“Ilian, please rise,” Ami instructed, uncomfortable with his gesture of submission. “I'm glad you volunteered for this assignment despite knowing what is about to happen. I'm aware that I have been neglecting you vampires somewhat, but with the death god out to get me...”
“We are grateful that your Majesty simply chose to lock us away, rather than picking a more permanent solution,” the vampire said. He got to his feet in a single, flowing motion.
“Still, I appreciate what you are doing. Don't worry, we will take good care of your coffin. Good luck!”
“To you as well, your Majesty.”
Ami put on her helmet, connected her oxygen tanks, and used her scanner to see if her space suit was ready to go. Everything came up green. Half eager and half resigned, she took a last look at her surroundings and breathed out heavily. It was time to be off.
In the darkness of space, the stars were brighter than even the darkest night. After a dozen teleports, the planet from which Ami had come looked only barely brighter than the other luminous dots. Its moon was also visible, but only barely. The sun alone remained almost as bright as she was used to.
Ami didn't spend much time admiring her surroundings. She would have enough time for that on the way back. According to her calculations, she should arrive exactly twenty minutes after destroying her dungeon hearts. Enough time for her preparations, but not enough for her air to run out - but only if she didn't procrastinate. It was time to deal with the issue of the invaders trying to take her land. They would learn why it was a bad idea to corner her.
Ami's jaw set in a determined expression, and the unholy light in her eyes flared bright. She would take a page out of Nero's book – literally.
On the distant planet, underneath a glacier, a looted magical tome flew from its shelf and opened itself.
Morrigan's laughter was carrying far through the air, even if it had to compete with the endless moaning and howling of the ghosts and the rattling of their chains. “Her troops are abandoning her! There's nothing but traps to slow us down, and they are falling apart!”
Monteraine, for her part, didn't share his good mood. Sure, she knew that her idea with the ghost-powered flying dungeon accounted for any countermeasures that Empress Mercury could deploy against it, but the enemy Keeper had a reputation for springing nasty and fatal surprises on her enemies. Then, she felt a very odd sensation. With the fluidity borne from long practice, she uttered the syllables of a divination spell to figure out what had just happened.
“Oh. Oh crap!” Monteraine's crystal ball dropped from her grasp, struck the paper floor, and rolled away. Mercury had indeed surprised her, but it wasn't with any trick that had never been seen before. This was very old magic indeed. On the bright side, it should guarantee Morrigan a victory. On the other, it would most certainly kill her.
With an audible clink, the discarded orb collided with the skeletal toe of the death priest possessed by Morrigan. Immediately, its skull turned its glowing eye sockets in the sorceress' direction. “What is it, witch?” the Keeper hissed.
“M-Mercury has decided to force a decision right now! She's going to drag everyone to her dungeon heart for a final battle!”
”Why would she do that?” Morrigan's loud and boisterous voice sounded mildly confused. “Does she want me to put her out of her misery that badly? We outnumber her by an outrageous- the ghosts!” The black-robed figure lost some of its dignity as it waved its arms and shouted at the spectres “Land! Bring us down right now!”
Monteraine stumbled as the floor seemed to drop away underneath her.
“As for you...” Morrigan whirled around and pointed at the scantily-clad sorceress. A red spark sprang from the tip of his bony fingertip and sped towards her.
The frightened woman jumped aside, but was too slow. In mid-lunge, magic washed over her, and she could feel her skin crawl as her limbs started to shorten.
Ami's spell went off after six minutes counted down, stripping Morrigan's dungeon of its ghost. It also picked up roving bands of zombies that she had been unaware of, and crammed all of the undead into the spacious vault holding her dungeon heart. Before the wrathful creatures had time to attack either the artefact or the single vampire that had been brought here along with them, the explosives went off.
It wasn't as impressive as a chlorine trifluoride fire, but the detonation was still big enough that the surface above the dungeon lurched before sinking back and forming a depression in the ground. Tiger would have been proud of her sister.
After the brief but intense flash of pain caused by the loss of the three dungeons hearts that had become a liability, Ami felt a sharp jerk that sent her hurtling back toward the planet. No going back now. Instead, she had to make sure that Crowned Death would not be waiting for her when she arrived.
With full concentration, Ami began to weave the glamour that Tiger had developed for her, fuelling the spell with the gold from her armour. That should give it enough reality to stand up to a cursory inspection, even if it would still dissipate after a few hours.
In front of her, a human-shaped lump formed and slowly gained more definition.
The trick was giving the death god what he wanted. Her decoy slowly turned into a perfect copy of her civilian form – the one she would revert to once she entered the dark realm. Of course, no glamour would be able to make it convincingly act like her, even if the copy was accurate down to the organs.
Ami looked into her double's dead eyes for a moment and put her index finger to its temple. She hesitated, averted her gaze, and then fired a lightning spell that literally blew its brain out. There. Now it looked as if she had committed suicide in order to escape, like the Light had suggested.
Still not looking at the fake corpse lest her stomach rebel, the young Keeper prepared to teleport once more. She would adjust her course so that she would hit the Arctic rift half a minute after her decoy hit the one on the Avatar Islands.
The atmosphere shot past Ami in a dazzling blur, and she had barely time to blink before the ground rushed to meet her. On pure reflex, she kept her eyes closed, instinctively fearing a collision with the unavoidable obstacle.
Something struck her like a physical blow, and for a moment, she believed that she had slammed into the ground. It took her an instant to realise that the sensation rattling her bones was noise, its intensity doubly shocking after the soundless vacuum of space. What was causing it? She seemed to be moving away from the source of the cacophony at a breakneck pace, judging by the rate at which it receded in volume. Was she still going as fast as she had before the transition into the realm of the dark gods? The absence of light made it hard to judge distances.
From further away, the noise was only about as loud as a plane during lift-off, which allowed Ami to recognise it for what it was: roars of anger in a terrifyingly familiar voice. Crown- she slammed her hands over her mouth as she stopped herself from thinking the name. That wouldn't be safe in this realm. He must have caught her fake corpse and wasn't taking her presumed escape well at all, from the sound of it.
The teenager felt some tension leave her muscles. If the death god had fallen for the ruse, then he wasn't actively searching for her right now. It also meant that he had been able to rapidly hunt down the decoy and that she had been far, far closer to him than she ever wanted to be, but she preferred not to dwell on that. Now, she needed to get out of here fast, since she had no intention to explore the deeper regions of the dark gods' realm.
Her hands moved to her chest, patting down the blouse of her school uniform as she searched for a piece of cord. She found it clinging to her waist, feeling sticky like a strand of spider web. Her mood lifted some more. This gift from the Light gods had latched onto her the moment she entered through the rift, performing as advertised so far. It could eventually reel her in on its own just fine, but that would take time. More important was that it told her which way she should head.
With a destination firmly in mind, Ami reached for her beaded necklace, courtesy of Jadeite. Somewhat disappointingly, there had been nothing romantic about the present. Each of the beads contained a small amount of life energy, just enough to enable a spell. She crumpled one of them between thumb and index finger, yanked on the rope, and catapulted herself toward the world of the living.
The distorted mirror image of Cathy's face stared back at her from the smooth surface of the dungeon heart. Frozen in mid-pulse, the orb's glow remained a dull but steady red.
“I don't like the look of this thing,” she whispered as she waited for Mercury to return. The artefact resembled the girl's previous customised model, with the four pillars buckling about halfway up and meeting above the central sphere to form a pyramid. She didn't have an issue with that, but the patterns that decorated the black stone disturbed her. They were only abstract at first glance. If she looked at them for too long, then the edges and corners formed leering, demonic faces and horned skulls. “Do you think she will be all right?” She asked, choosing to look at the rope provided by the Light instead. Tied to one of the arches, it had gone taut a few seconds ago and disappeared straight into the centre of the red sphere.
With a sudden hiss and whip-like crack, the cord sprang from the dungeon heart. After smacking against the ceiling, it dropped down, swinging left and right.
Jadeite followed the frayed end of the rope with his eyes. “It- looks as if we will have to try that other plan she rejected.” He turned abruptly on his heel. “I'm going back to the Avatar Islands. Any missing minions will be with me.”
Snyder put a hand on his shoulder, causing him to stop. ”What about the civilians? She wouldn't want you to harm them.”
“Fortunately, I am not an overly idealistic teenager and can make the right choices, even if they upset her,” Jadeite replied.
“And their eyes?”
Above the dark general's upwards-facing palm, a swirling ball of energy appeared, its growing brightness making the rest of the room feel darker. “Haven't been restored yet. They will be unconscious now and unable to worry about them,” he stated coldly.
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