Low-hanging clouds wafted past the massive tower that had appeared on the peak of Whitemountain. Together with the constant drizzle, they made it hard to identify the details of the distant structure, such as the crenellations topping the many balconies. The entire building resembled a step pyramid that had been stretched until it pointed into the sky like an accusing finger.
Iton lowered his telescope and automatically started cleaning its lens as he retreated from the arrow slit. “That thing gives me the creeps,” his whisper echoed through the cave, addressed to the other dwarf within the watch post. “When did she even build it?”
“It was just suddenly there after a big cloud passed,” Datan answered with a shrug. He had the tanned look of someone who spent a lot of time outside. “Had to look twice to make sure I wasn't imagining things.”
“I wonder what she's planning. What good does a fortress do her all the way up there? She's underground; we aren't going to make a detour just to besiege it.” Having wiped the raindrops off his telescope to his satisfaction, he approached the narrow window to the outside again.
“Hell if I know what she needs it for. Though...”
“You have an idea?” Iton asked as he tried to bring the dark structure into better focus.
“Nah, it's probably nothing. Doesn't make sense,” his fellow scout said. “It was a silly idea.”
“Humour me. I could use a good laugh,” Iton insisted.
“It's not exactly a funny thought,” Datan said with a sigh. “All right. Do you see that staircase spiralling its way up there on the outside of the building?”
He zoomed in on one of the corners of the building, where rainwater fountained out of a drain in the wall. He could see some wide steps rounding the corner there, where the wall serving as their railing didn't hide them. “Hmm, yeah, I see it. What about it?”
“Well, together with the general shape of the building, it kind of reminds me of the death god's ziggurats.”
“What? Yeah, you were right. That's not funny at all. I hope that's not really some kind of dark temple.” With jerky motions, Iton swept his telescope left and right. “At least I don't see any- wait, what the- get over here and look at this!”
“Did you actually spot some walking dead?” Datan asked, a hint of nervousness in his voice as he approached.
“No, look up there, at the sky above the tower!”
A large, vaguely fish-shaped object descended through the storm clouds, its cylindrical hull only a shade lighter than the darkness above. Taut chains with links as thick as fists anchored the vessel to the top of the looming building.
“That- nothing that big should be able to fly!” Datan exclaimed.
“Tell that to that thing,” Iton grumbled. “What the hell is it? Some kind of weird dragon?”
“I have heard rumours that Keeper Mercury has some flying transports. Could be one of those,” Datan replied.
The vessel continued its descent, shaking in the wind. Large winches reeled it in closer as they spooled up the chains. Within a few minutes, its cabin touched down on the tower's top floor.
A hatch in the cabins side opened, disgorging indistinct figures. They spread out until most of them were hidden by the building's walls, but some remained visible over the crenellations.
“Filthy orcs!” Datan exclaimed. “I'd recognise those hunched-over silhouettes anywhere!”
“Oh crap, she wasn't supposed to get reinforcements past us! We need to warn Count Ornish at once!”
“You write the message, I prepare the dog,” Datan offered. A hunter in civilian life, he was used to working with trained animals. He whistled once and started rummaging around in his backpack.
Loud barks answered his call, approaching rapidly. A grey terrier, not much bigger than a cat, emerged from the opening leading deeper into the mountain. The floppy-eared animal dashed straight towards Datan, tail swishing.
“That's a good dog,” he said as he patted the animal on the head. “Sit. Good boy.”
“A flying object docked at the new tower, bypassing our siege line. Delivered an unknown number and type of soldiers. Orcs identified among them,” Iton read the message he had composed out loud. “Do you think that's enough?”
“It's succinct and accurate,” the other dwarf answered while affixing a small barrel to the dog's collar. “The Count will have his wizards take a closer look, anyway.”
“I suppose so. Here.” He handed over the message to Datan, ignoring the terrier's growling as he approached.
The hunter quickly slipped the rolled-up note into the empty container hanging from his dog's neck and screwed it shut. “Good. Now go find Dolon. Understand me? Go to Dolon!”
With a happy woof, the animal darted away, its claws clicking on the rock floor.
“Do you think the Count will be able to stop those reinforcements?” Iton asked as he resumed watching the tower.
“Maybe if he figures out where the ships pick them up,” Datan answered. “If not, we'll have to pray that the elves arrive soon.”
Tiger was in her room when her wristband flashed a warning. Someone was scrying on her.
Her mother perhaps? For a split second, she wished she was wearing something more substantial. Surprised, she wondered why she was feeling that way. Her lack of shyness was something she cherished. It was one of the few personality traits entirely her own, something she could be sure she hadn't inherited from Ami. Mum probably wouldn't approve of her showing that much skin in public, though.
Satisfied that she had solved the mystery, she arrived at her desk and removed a crystal ball from her drawer. The scrying alarm usually meant that someone from her home world was trying to contact her, but it wasn't always the case. Sometimes, she spotted unknown and usually bearded individuals when she checked.
The orb in her hand quickly tracked the person scrying on her. The familiar girl with long black hair was definitely no wizard, dwarf, or enemy Keeper.
“Mars! Hi!” Tiger said with a smile, happy to see the sailor senshi's face. She immediately recognised Rei's room at the Hikawa shrine, having seen it several times while teaching the other girls flight spells.
“Hello, Tiger,” Mars greeted her. She wasn't alone.
Another face pushed itself into the view from the side. Sailor Jupiter, kneeling next to the red-skirted sailor senshi at the low table, smiled and waved her hand. “Hello!” the taller girl greeted.
“Hi,” Tiger answered, her own smile growing wider. Makoto had a special place in her heart. Of the senshi, she was the only one that Ami had never met in person. In fact, Tiger was pretty sure that she had interacted more with the brunette than her sister, even if it was only by talking through the crystal ball.
It was pretty nice to have at least one friendly relationship that she had built all by herself. One she could be sure hadn't started out as pity over her being a partial memory-clone of Ami.
She tried to push those thoughts aside. Her friendship with Usagi, Rei, and Luna was a good thing, even if she wondered about its origins when she was in a thinking mood.
She hadn't been thinking way too much for her tastes since the battle.
“Sailor Moon was supposed to be here too,” Mars said apologetically, “but she managed to get detention. Again.” She wasn't actually rolling her eyes as she explained Usagi's absence, but her tone indicated that it was a close thing.
“She'll probably arrive later,” Sailor Jupiter said quickly. “But, is everything all right over there?” She asked looking straight at Tiger and doing a poor job at hiding her worry.
Apparently, her face had been betraying some of her less than pleasant thoughts. “I'm fine, just thinking about some unpleasant things,” she said. “We had a lot of trouble earlier. The dwarfs attacked, we had to beat them back, and, well, there were losses on both sides,” she said, her shoulders slumping.
“Oh no,” Mars said, lowering her eyes. “I hope you didn't lose anyone important to you.”
Jupiter's eyes went wide, and she gasped. “That's horrible! Are you hurt? What happened? How is Ami?” She leaned forward, her face filling out the crystal ball as she tried to inspect Tiger for injuries.
“I'm fine, I was helping out in the infirmary, not fighting at the front lines,” Tiger assured them, feeling a little overwhelmed by the deluge of questions. “Ami wasn't in any danger either because she coordinated the battle from her command centre.” She scratched her head. “And, uh, I didn't really know any of the minions who died on our side.”
The ghost of a smile flitted over Jupiter's face. “That's a relief. Not exactly good, but at least you aren't grieving.”
“Well, I think Ami is taking the deaths pretty hard, even though she did everything she could to avoid them and it's the dwarfs' own fault for attacking us,” Tiger admitted.
“Do you think she needs someone to talk about it?” Mars asked, sounding concerned.
Tiger shrugged. “She's already back to planning and travelling around working on stuff. If you contacted her now, you'd probably interrupt her during something important.”
“Oh.” Mars looked disappointed. “Are you sure she isn't just keeping herself busy so she doesn't have to think about the deaths?”
“Yes, we aren't out of danger yet and she can't waste time,” she answered with conviction. She paused as she reconsidered. Just because Ami really needed to be busy right now didn't mean she wasn't using her work as a convenient distraction. Huh. “I suppose she could be doing what you said, but there really is a lot of work she can't put off until later.”
“Well, tell her to contact us as soon as possible, okay?” Mars said.
“So, you were helping people in the infirmary?” Jupiter asked. “Are you interested in becoming a doctor too?”
Tiger's stomach churned at the memories. “Not any more,” she admitted, suppressing a shudder at the thought of having to bear the screams of the wounded and the blood and the stench for hours each day. Even if her adopted mother would have been proud of her. “I learned that it's not a job for me. I- I don't understand why Ami wants to subject herself to something like that all the time.”
“Helping people can be very satisfying,” Jupiter said.
Tiger pondered this. “Maybe if those people don't want you dead,” she allowed after a moment.
Jupiter's face fell, and she visibly lacked a good answer.
Mars broke the awkward silence. “Well, most of a doctor's work isn't about dealing with the aftermath of a battle. Perhaps you could give it a try again when things are more peaceful.”
“Perhaps,” Tiger said and sighed. “This entire situation with the dwarfs is so annoying. I wish I could do something about it. All this sitting around and hoping that Ami will fix things is so frustrating!”
“I know the feeling,” Jupiter said, nodding. “Er, not waiting for Mercury in particular, of course, but wanting to go out there and stopping the evildoers.” She scratched the back of her head. “Though I guess the dwarfs aren't really evildoers.”
“They are ruthless enough,” Tiger answered. “You know what gets me most?” she asked in a quiet voice. “I think I could do it. Drive them off, I mean.”
Both other girls leaned in closer, their eyes large.
“Really? How?” Jupiter asked.
“But there's some kind of problem with your idea, right?” Mars asked, showing more insight than her taller friend.
Tiger looked down. “Ami wouldn't like it. At all,” she admitted. “I, I could possess her and use her powers to wipe out enough of the dwarfs that the rest run for their lives.”
Mars' and Jupiter's eyes were still wide, but now their faces looked appalled.
“It could work! I mean, she would have to be unconscious and normally the dungeon heart wouldn't let me, but since it's for her own good it should make an exception!” she pressed on before she lost her courage, the words spilling out of her.
“No! Don't do that!” Jupiter said, waving her hands frantically as if she had to stop Tiger from leaving and implementing her plan right this moment.
“That's a terrible idea!” Mars agreed, shaking her head. She narrowed her eyes at the crystal ball. “There are so many things wrong with it, I don't even know where to start!”
“But it would keep us safe and most of the dwarfs too and Mum wouldn't have to worry and Ami wouldn't be responsible so she wouldn't need to blame herself!” Tiger protested.
“You can't kill innocent people! Do you think your Mum wants you to kill innocent people?” Jupiter asked, wringing her hands.
Tiger flinched. She didn't want to do anything that would make her mother see her any less as her real daughter. Being not even human, she already had a poor start. She hated that she cared so much about this, those weren't even her own memories! “T-they aren't really innocent if they want to attack us,” she objected weakly.
“They think you invaded them first,” Mars said. “And while Ami might not blame herself,” she sounded rather dubious about that, “she would rightly blame you!”
“I know. I expect it, but she's smart enough that she will eventually realise that there weren't any better options.”
Mars' violet eyes stared straight into Tiger's. “I don't believe that, but let's assume that's true. What about trust, then? Do you really want to lose her trust?”
She swallowed. No, she really didn't, which was as much of a reason for her she hadn't gone through with her idea yet than the possible disapproval of those she didn't care about.
Jupiter didn't even try to formulate a reasoned argument and went straight for begging. “Please, please don't try to do this.”
“A-all right.” Tiger hung her head in defeat. “I'll trust Ami to solve this her way.”
“Thank you,” Mars said, relief chasing her frown away.
“Actually, what is she doing?” Jupiter asked.
“Well, since we currently have some trouble recruiting more soldiers, she is planning to deceive the dwarfs,” Tiger gladly accepted the change of topic. “We pretend to have more troops than we really do so they are too scared to attack.”
“Makes sense,” Mars said, nodding once.
“How is she doing that?” Jupiter wanted to know.
“She built this huuuge tower on top of the mountain,” Tiger said, raising her arms over her head and putting her fingers together like a roof. “You have to take a look later, it's really impressive since it's meant to be impossible to miss. She's using it as an airport.”
“Airport?” Jupiter asked, a hint of distaste flickering over her face.
“For airships. She sends them out to some remote mountains with some inflatable orc dolls-”
“Inflatable orc dolls,” Mars repeated, a disbelieving expression on her face. From her deadpan tone of voice, it was clear she was imagining some kind of humanoid pink balloon.
“Jadeite enhanced them with a little glamour,” Tiger elaborated. “They look pretty realistic from afar and can twitch a little. Anyway, the airship comes back with what looks like a load full of orcs. It lands, some real orcs enter through a secret hatch below and pretend to disembark, and the dwarfs think we have more troops than we really do.”
“Is it working?” Jupiter asked, sounding interested. “It sounds as if a lot could go wrong.”
Tiger shrugged. “Who knows? The dwarfs have been hiding in their fortifications since the attack. Anyway, this isn't just to deceive them. It's also because Jadeite is stuck here in the dungeon.”
Both senshi blinked with puzzled looks on their faces.
“He can't accompany the airships and guide them with magic, so they need crews who know what they are doing. It's training,” she explained.
“Why didn't you just say that first?” Mars asked, frowning briefly.
“Anyway, Ami hasn't entirely given up on recruiting yet,” Tiger continued. “That's the part of her plan I don't like at all.”
The swimming ritual chamber didn't show that it had been hurriedly carved out of a block of frozen sea water. It formed a spherical bubble within the ice, serving as the frame for a huge gyroscope. In the centre of the gimbal, just above the huge rotor, rested the platform that the mechanism was designed to stabilise. Intricate wards covered the outer region of its surface, interspersed with sapphires intended to boost any spells cast within.
Ami stood on the disc-shaped surface, double-checking her rushed handiwork for flaws she might have missed.
Dimmed sunlight that fell through the part of the dome above the surface assisted her in her task, but the shifting gimbal rings cast soft shadows onto her.
The room grew even darker when a serpentine tentacle as thick as her torso rose from the ocean and loomed over the vessel. Water fountained as the tower of pale flesh hammered down on the dome.
Ami flinched instinctively away from the blow, even though she knew that there was a thick barrier between herself and the descending mass.
To her side, Torian let out a high-pitched, unmanly squeal.
The ceiling shook from the tentacle's impact and groaned under the pressure. Pushed downwards, the entire vessel dipped deeper into the water.
She stumbled as the ground dropped underneath her feet, put off-balance by the way the room tilted sideways around the platform.
Torian threw himself against the large vertical pipe shielding the gyroscope's spin axle, wrapping his arms around it to remain upright.
Ami cast a worried glance at him even as she compensated for the bobbing motion by taking a wider-legged stance. To her relief, he seemed to be overreacting. After all, the platform he shared with her remained completely horizontal, courtesy of the gyroscope.
“I-is this part of y-your plan, your Majesty?” the warlock stuttered, not taking his eyes off the ceiling. They bulged when a second tentacle joined the first, hand-sized suckers flattening themselves against the ice.
Muscles pulsed under tattered, black-veined skin, and the sea water rushed to cover the dome as the squid pulled more of it under the surface.
“I was hoping for smaller targets,” she admitted, her gaze transfixed on the zombie squid. She was pretty sure that the groping tentacles weren't strong enough to crack the dome, but she didn't feel quite so confident about the animal's beak.
“I'm getting seasick,” Torian complained as he clutched the pipe like a limpet. “Please, can't you remove that thing somehow?”
Splashes of black liquid splattered onto the dome, blotting out another patch of the sky.
For a moment, Ami thought it was ink, but then she saw that the first tentacle had gone limp.
Like an avalanche, the maggot-coloured appendage slid downwards, waves fountaining around it as it slid underwater. Tar-like, rotten blood continued spilling from the amputated stump.
A reddish blur shot towards the other limb wrapped around the vessel. Rabixtrel brought his scythe down in a flash, severing the tentacle. With steam billowing around his pumping hooves, he raced toward the bulk of his enemy. He jumped, barrelling straight through a small wave to hit the animal horns-first.
Ami blinked as she stared at the hoof prints melted into the ice in her reaper's wake. “Never mind. It won't be a problem for much longer.”
She had no idea how her horned reaper had managed to remain on the rolling vessel's surface, but she had no doubt that he would swiftly dispatch the enemy.
“I- I see.” Torian seemed a little calmer without the aquatic monster rocking the ship. At least he had finally let go of the pipe.
Seeing the spin axle reminded Ami to keep the gyroscope's rotor turning. A few cranks with her keeper hand, and she could hear the spinning noise grow higher-pitched as the rotor increased its speed. Good. It wouldn't do for the platform to tip over at a critical moment. Or at all.
“Haven't we attracted sufficient attention yet?” the warlock asked, his nervous gaze darting across the ocean's surface. “They are pushing us away from the coast!”
She glanced in the direction he indicated.
The dune-like clouds of poisoned dust drifting across the beaches of the Avatar Islands looked smaller than they had before.
Outside, the water was darkening with the sheer amount of zombies that were flocking towards the vessel. The largest of them was a young whale with only the ribcage remaining of its chest cavity. Despite its size, it was still only slightly larger than the chunks of giant squid currently sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
It was probably for the best that Torian didn't have Keeper sight. He was already nervous enough. While the animated corpses assembled here represented only a small fraction of those that had been at the high temple of Crowned Death, there were still enough to threaten any conventional fleet.
“Yes, I believe there are more than enough targets,” Ami confirmed.
“Oh. Great,” the warlock muttered with little conviction. He had good reason to be afraid. His undead control spell must have put him quite high on the list of people whom the death god disapproved of.
Ami hoped that Crowned Death wasn't personally paying attention right now. She also wished she knew how much influence and oversight the dark god had over existing undead. If it went beyond what she estimated, her entire plan was doomed to failure from the start. Still, the fact that the vampires back in her dungeon hadn't betrayed her yet was good sign. Trying to keep her voice calm and confident, she asked “Are you ready to cast the spell?”
“Yes, I believe so, your Majesty.” His gaze moved over the outer circle of the stable platform, where intricate magical designs covered the floor. “Depending on the amount of subjects within range, you may need to provide me with additional power,” he cautioned.
Ami approached and put one hand on his staff, ready to channel more of her mana into the device, should it become necessary. “All right, I'm ready.”
With a nervous shudder, he glanced at the multiple shadows moving around the vessel, scratching, hammering and biting at the ice. “If I may ask, do we have a good escape route in case this doesn't work?”
“Yes, of course,” Ami answered. “I thought you were confident about your modifications allowing your spell to maintain control of more than a single target?”
He gulped. “Well, the theory is sound, but the tests were on a smaller scale than this.” Quieter, he added “Much smaller.”
“If there's anyone who can do this, it's you. You invented the undead-control spell, after all,” she said. “There's no one better than you to cast its area version.” He was the greatest expert on this new ritual she had, but that wasn't the main reason she wasn't casting it herself. She wanted to be able to observe everything with her visor in case Crowned Death took notice of what they were doing.
“I believe you are selling your own talents too short, my Empress,” Torian said, a hint of excitement creeping into his voice. “Well then, I suppose it is time to show these zombies who's boss.” He gripped his staff in both hands, closed his eyes, and started chanting.
Ami could feel magic flow through the implement as the spell's energies built up in the air around them and concentrated in the magic circle around the edge of the platform.
The arcane inscriptions lit up briefly before discharging in a single pulse when Torian stopped chanting.
From one moment to the other, the zombies swarming around the ship went limp.
“Did it work?” she asked him.
Torian opened his eyes and slowly looked at the zombies suspended motionless in the water. “I- yes, I think so?” he said, frowning.
“That doesn't sound entirely reassuring,” she said cautiously.
Her Keeper sight showed her that all zombies out to a good distance around the vessel had gone completely still, only moving from the effects of currents and gravity.
“Could you be more specific, please?”
“I'm not sure. My control feels off. Numb. It's different from the single target spell, and I feel as if I should be able to command them, but- ah, here we go.”
Ami summoned her computer and started typing, switching through the vision modes of her visor. “Keep telling me what's going on so I can make sense of these readings,” she instructed.
“I got some of them to move. Over there, on the hull, that big ugly crab.” He pointed at large crustacean with only one scissor, which it was using to wave at them. “I'm getting more of them to follow my orders now,” he continued, sounding a little more confident. “It's strange though, there's nothing in the ritual design that would account for time-delayed effects.”
“I think I can see what's happening,” Ami said as she stared at the readout on the screen. She had been expecting to see connections going out from Torian to all of the creatures affected by his spell, similar to the way her dungeon heart linked to her underlings.
However, only a single connection went from the warlock to the closest crab. In turn, the crab was connected to a rotten shark, said shark was connected to a smaller fish, and so on. The zombies were lined up on the single connection like pearls on a string.
From the unconnected zombies, half-formed links reached like feelers toward the last element of the chain. Whenever one made contact, it attached itself. This prompted the remaining free-floating links to dart toward the new end of the chain.
“Your spell is giving you control of one creature after the other,” she informed Torian. “I assume that the test group wasn't large enough for you to notice the effect.”
“Figures that the vampires still managed to be worthless even when they were good for something,” the warlock grumbled. “Hmm. I suppose this explains why it's growing gradually harder to suppress their wills.”
Ami looked up with alarm. “Are you having trouble?”
Torian shook his head. “No, they are only animals, after all. It's like holding up a weight with my mind that's slowly growing heavier. Hmm, doesn't really feel like a bunch of animals struggling individually. More like a school of fish moving in unison? When did that happen?”
“It looks as if some of the control magic is getting trapped in the link, propagating back and forth between the zombies and causing them to synch up,” she reported what she was seeing on her screen.
“What? Animals shouldn't be able to do that, you need a caster to-” Torian reeled as if struck. He blinked and shook his head. Frowning, he briefly inspected his hand before turning towards her and narrowing his eyes. “What is this blasphemy, Keeper?”
Ami's heart skipped a beat, and she stared at him with her mouth open. Had she heard that correctly? She shifted into a more defensive stance as her thoughts raced to figure out what was going on. His inflection had been that of a stranger. Had he somehow been possessed?
On her palmtop' screen, all of the zombies were pulsing in synch now. More disturbingly, each and everyone had turned to look directly at her.
“Um, could you clarify?” she asked warily. The worst-case scenario – Crowned Death having somehow taken control of her chief warlock – seemed unlikely. He was looking at her as if he didn't recognise her, rather than cursing her or trying to kill her. He had called her 'Keeper', but her glowing red eyes made that obvious to anyone.
“I am talking about this,” the warlock said, sweeping his arm towards the undead creatures surrounding the vessel.
Ami found the gesture pompous and arrogant, but that was admittedly not entirely unexpected from Torian.
“If you need an undead army, then there are easier and less unwise ways to gain one, Keeper,” Torian – or whoever was possessing him – said.
“Are you trying to convert me?” Ami blurted out, unable to keep some of her surprise from seeping into her voice.
“Ambitious, controls a horned reaper, and quick on the uptake,” the warlock said, nodding. “The great Crowned Death, Lord of the Undead and Master of Unlife, could always use more worshippers like you.”
If the situation had been different, she would have found it funny. Instead, she stared with horror at Torian's face, worried about its mask-like stiffness. “Hold on,” she stalled. “First, I wish to know whom I am talking to.”
Obviously, attempting to seize control of a huge group of zombies had awakened something. Had it been a trap, someone noticing and intervening, or merely an unexpected side effect? She didn't know how Crowned Death animated bodies that were already dead. Perhaps he had cut up some powerful entity and was using its pieces instead of souls? Mentally connecting enough zombies might be enough to bring back part of the original being, in that case.
She really hoped she wasn't dealing with a fragment of an Incarnation here.
“I am merely a manifestation of my Lord's power; the faint reflection of His unsurpassed glory in the vessels that serve Him,” the creature moving Torian's body said.
Ami thought this sounded a little too humble for an Incarnation, but was the creature telling the truth? A bead of sweat ran down her forehead as she tried to read its stolen features. At least, she could be fairly certain that it had been created before she had come into conflict with Crowned Death, otherwise they wouldn't be having a civil conversation right now.
How could she save Torian? “I see. I am interested, but you would put me in a more amenable mood if you stopped puppeteering my warlock.”
“No. Consider his loss the first part of your atonement for this transgression,” the creature answered.
“Are you seriously expecting forgiveness from my Lord?” the creature asked tilting its head to the side. “Still, I can see that you seem determined to insist on this point.” Torian's right hand rose, a sickly glow at the tip of his index finger. “Let me make it moot.”
Eyes widening, Ami slapped the digit aside with a telekinetic blow.
A thin ray of shadowy energy shot from the finger, narrowly missing the warlock's head.
Ami recognised it as a necromantic killing spell. “What are you doing?” she shouted at the possessed man. At the same time, she accessed her storage and loosened one of her stashed Shabon Spray Freezing spells at him.
The blue-tinted magic slammed into the warlock and encased him in a block of ice. She had aimed low enough that his head remained free, but everything below the neck was effectively immobilised.
“I thought that was obvious. Stopping you from wasting time on discussing something I will not budge on while also eliminating an irritant,” the death god's minion replied without a hint of regret in its voice.
In fact, he sounded smug enough that Ami was sure he had more tricks up his sleeve. She was, therefore, not surprised when a ghostly outline of black flames formed around Torian.
They didn't melt the ice, but Torian's eyes shot wide open, and he started gasping for breath.
“Stop it!” she shouted, spurred on by her visor's readout. The entity was killing Torian, sucking out his life energy and dispersing it. She still didn't know what kind of creature she was dealing with, but she had seen something like its black flame before.
When the Avatar had cleansed his mantle, a similar creature had emerged from the tainted garment, smashing through multiple layers of wards with each attack.
Unfortunately, this didn't tell her how to save Torian. The Avatar had purified his mantle with powerful holy magic, which was something she simply didn't have access to.
According to her visor, Torian was running out of time. He would not survive the next few seconds if she didn't intervene. She needed to act, now!
Destroy all the zombies outside in the hopes it would disrupt her enemy? She couldn't do it fast enough to save him. Knock him out? She doubted the monster would be affected. Possess him? Impossible, he counted as captured by an enemy. What did she have that could free him from the monster's grasp?
The thing chuckled coldly, obviously enjoying her increasingly desperate expression.
She looked at her visor again. The amount of magic trapped in the links between the zombies was about the same as she had channelled into Torian's staff.
Lacking any better ideas, she cast his own undead-controlling spell on him. She didn't know if it could affect her enemy, but-
Her opponent's will crashed into her own, and she sensed a spike of gleeful satisfaction from the creature. It felt like an echo of the time Crowned Death had lured her into a trap.
Had she just made a terrible mistake? Terrified, she drew upon her reserves and pushed back against the cold, corrosive mind trying to smother her. When she had faced her opponent's master before, she had lost utterly. This time, she wasn't fighting a dark god, she reminded herself.
Nevertheless, the consequences of fighting back with anything less than her best effort were too horrible to contemplate. She concentrated, focusing enough mana that she felt as if she'd burst, and unleashed it at her enemy.
A brief flicker of surprise came from her enemy when the tsunami of power slammed into it, washing away its defences.
Seeing her opponent's weakness, she struck again, strengthening the bonds the undead-controlling spell wrapped around her target's mind. It seethed and squirmed, trying to slip from her grasp, but she refused to fall for its feints and deceptions. She had enough of an advantage in power over her opponent that she could encircle it completely and squeeze, which was exactly what she did.
Torian's head lolled to the side, and her visor showed her that he was breathing more easily now.
Her relief almost cost her when her enemy bucked to break her control.
She redoubled her efforts to crush the creature's will, succeeding little by little. After what felt like an eternity, the last of its resistance crumbled, and she greedily took the chance to take complete control.
Her opponent's presence remained chained in a corner of her mind; an angry sun radiating cold fury. Even now, keeping the monster contained required continuous effort.
Tired, she let herself sink to the floor and plucked the warlock from his ice prison. She couldn't diagnose anything physically wrong with him that wasn't related to being encased in ice, but he remained unconscious. As she had no way to deal with his current lack of life energy, she opted to deal with his lack of warmth instead.
A few brief conjurations later, the unconscious man was lying in a tub of hot water, with his head secure on a headrest so it couldn't slide below the surface.
With his safety ensured as best as she could under the circumstances, she sped up the gyroscope's rotor once more and took stock of her situation.
The inside of the icy room had brightened, red light reflecting off its curving walls. Her eyes were glowing like crimson lamps, a testament to the large amount of mana she was channelling in order to keep her opponent suppressed.
She could understand how the creature had overwhelmed Torian in moments. It was powerful, far stronger than she would have expected from something cobbled together from a horde of zombies and an experimental mind control spell.
Then again, a zombie didn't move without a source of power. If the thing was responsible for animating each and every corpse caught in the spell, then it would by necessity have access to an intimidating amount of magical strength.
She stared at the army of dead animals floating around her vessel, trying to estimate their number. Her new thrall would have the information, and with some effort, she managed to wrestle the knowledge from it.
At first, she couldn't believe the number. According to the being's senses, it was currently controlling a little more than one hundred thousand separate bodies.
She blinked. That couldn't be right, could it? Investigating more closely, she noted that the vast majority of these bodies were relatively small, about the size of her boots. The total mass was less than that of one of the giant tentacles that had been attached to Crowned Death's high temple, then.
Satisfied that her mind-prisoner – she decided to call it a spirit, for convenience's sake – had not fed her false information somehow, she wondered how much of her original plan was salvageable.
Instead of obtaining an army of useful zombies under the control of her underlings, she had tied up much of her power in maintaining control over the collective consciousness of an undead swarm, most of whose members were utterly useless outside the water.
Simply releasing the spirit was obviously out of the question. Was the undead control spell at least working properly on it? She prodded the mass of rebellious hatred, instructing it to move a few of the zombie fishes sideways.
Outside the dome, a few of the closer corpses started moving their fins sluggishly and swimming in the indicated direction. While lying sideways in the water.
She resisted the urge to sigh and opted to concentrate on the fact that yes, she could probably work around this. Now she only needed to somehow prevent the spirit from slipping its leash the moment she got tired and needed to sleep.
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