"Eeeee!" an imp darted into the room, its feet screeching over the floor tiles as it tried to come to a stop from a full out sprint. The little brownish-green creature waved its arms to keep its balance, an effort that proved futile when it skidded onward and collided with Cathy's legs. With an annoyed squeal, it tilted its head and looked up at the blonde with huge black eyes.

The startled swordswoman felt a passing urge to kick the excited little thing when she realised that it was sitting in the perfect position to look up her much-too-short skirt. As if feeling the impending danger, the imp jumped to its feet and started hopping up and down in front of the blonde, gesticulating with its three-fingered hands, and chattering away with a quick cadence.

"I don't understand a word you are saying," the adventuress said, "can't it wait until the Keeper gets back?"

In response, the imp stomped on her blue boot with all its weight before leaping again, snatching her hand and pulling toward the exit. Its little feet were kicking up dust as it futilely struggled to pull along the much larger woman.

"I think it wants you to come along," Snyder guessed.

"Why, I would have never figured that out," Cathy replied. "Oh well, let's see what has it so up in arms." She moved to follow the small minion, jogging easily alongside it. Snyder and Jered followed her out of curiosity.

The sounds of their footsteps echoed through the dungeon's bright white and aquamarine corridors. Naturally, people running drew attention, and soon the trio and the imp had picked up a trail of bored goblins who didn't know what the fuss was all about, but who wanted in on the action anyway. After a short rush through the tunnels, which were stabilised by stone arches resting on thick pillars, the group came to a stop in a little used, but still familiar corner of the dungeon. A tray with untouched food sat forgotten at the edge of a pit, but it went ignored in favour of the bent bars over the hole in the ground.

"Damn it all, no!" Cathy ran up to the edge of the pit and stared down in dismay. As expected, there was no trace of Boris. "Argh! Raise the alarm! We must find him before he does something stupid! You, goblins! Go there! You others, that tunnel! You, the chicken farm! On the double!"

The green creatures hastily obeyed and got out of her sight, while she turned to her smarter companions and paced up and down. "I don't believe it! How could he get out?"

"Well, it appears to me that there was a certain amount of slime involved. Now, I may not be an expert in dungeon fauna, but I do think there is only one creature within these vaults which has that property," Snyder ventured after kneeling down and examining the glistening residue on the metal bars.

"What does the tentacle monster want with him?" Jered wondered. "No, don't answer that, I certainly don't need to know. Let's just find them before something unfortunate happens."

High in the air, the wind was refreshingly cool despite the endless-seeming expanse of yellow dunes far below. Ami felt herself sink lower, her light imp body carried easily by the makeshift parachute. On the ground, she could see her shadow as a black dot moving over the windswept sands. This expedition was actually a lot of fun, she thought, and continued to analyse and record the landscape through her goggles. The one thing tainting her enjoyment of the experience was the escort she had picked up. A handful of scruffy vultures was circling her. From time to time, one of the more adventurous of the birds concluded that he didn't like waiting for his meal and dived at her, which necessitated a quick teleport to relocate, after which it took the animals a short while to catch up again. It was more of a nuisance than a danger, but it disrupted her routine. A quick spell would probably have gotten rid of them, but she didn't know from how far away the enemy Keeper could pick them up, and she didn't want to give him an early warning unnecessarily.

During the last few jumps, the desert below had been gradually changing, so slowly she had not even been consciously aware of it. The rich ochre tones of the sand had turned into pale faded greys, and the occasional cactuses were gnarled, corkscrewing things with barbed thorns. The dust on the surface was in constant motion, hovering in the air like a fog cloud, forming swirling eddies and whirlpools over the heat-flickering surface. This had to be the corrupting influence of the enemy dungeon heart. Finding her target should be easy now! She looked around to find the borders of the tainted lands. The expanse of ashen dunes stretched to the horizon in every direction except the one she had arrived from. The imp-body scratched its head. This might take a bit longer than she thought.

"I feel so violated."

"Cease your yammering, wretched hellspawn!" Boris whispered angrily. The huge man was tiptoeing onwards into the direction of the slow but regular heartbeats vibrating through the underground. His looming form was wrapped entirely with green tentacles, some of which looked as if they were trying desperately to wriggle out of the main mass.

"You know that I'm not really going to hide you from her sight, do you? Oh, and watch out for that trap, I don't want you to land on me again," the mind-voice whined.

"Shut up unless I ask for directions!", the barbarian hissed back.

"But- No! Not the beard again! I've still got hair in- Gack!"

With his slithering coat suitably subdued, Boris ducked into a side passage when he heard the pitter-patter of rapidly moving feet. From far away, he heard orders being barked by a female voice he knew well. Cathy, that traitor-bitch, was coordinating the search for him. How deep she and her companions had fallen, but they would get their just reward. The main fault, of course, lay with that witch of a Keeper who had engineered this entire situation in order to spread corruption. But he'd stop her, oh yes he would! The blasphemous rumbling of the dungeon heart was close, and with his cunning disguise, he'd be upon it before that thrice-cursed demon witch would know what was going on. His grip tightened around the heft of the spear he had liberated from a goblin den close to his escape route.

"This is an extremely unwise course of action! The Keeper said the traps in the Heart Chamber are indiscriminate! Ow! Not the eye!"

"I'm not afraid of more pits!" Not heading the warning, the large barbarian moved on, listening for any approaching guards. The task was made more difficult by the loud beating of the dungeon heart which had to be somewhere very close. It was only a matter of time before his pursuers deduced his destination, and he was in a hurry. Quickly, he ascended the slope of a tunnel that was narrower than the previous ones. A heavy portcullis, completely solid rather than just consisting of grating, blocked his route.

"Turn back now! I have no idea what's behind that gate!

Boris snorted in annoyance as he once again failed to heed the panicked advice. He wasn't going to be stopped by a glorified door, not when he was so close to his target! He jabbed the head of his spear into the small gap between the door and the ground, using the weapon as a lever. Once he could fit his fingers underneath the widening opening, he did just that. His arm muscles bulged as he started lifting the heavy weight with a grunt, and slowly but certainly, the massive rock slab budged upward, sliding into the ceiling with a grinding noise. The knotted tentacles of the monster wrapped around the giant's torso started twitching in a frenzy as their owner tried to get loose. In contrast with its wearer, it hadn't missed the brightening azure glare spilling out from the widening horizontal slit, and let out a telepathic whimper.

Something glittery and blue shot out from the opening when Boris had lifted the portcullis to the height of his knees, bounced off the ground between his boots with a pinging noise, and shot off diagonally toward the ceiling. For no readily apparent reason, the trail of sparkles then turned around and headed straight for the large man's back.

Several large red dots flashed on Ami's map, denoting knots of evil energy that she had been able to locate underneath the grey sands. Streamers of animated dust wafted over the dunes like smoke, and a strong soot smell permeated the air. Now that Ami's parachute was sinking lower, she saw that the sky seemingly changed colour when seen through the contaminated air which acted like a stained glass window. Instead of blue sky, the tones above turned greenish, and the clouds appeared in a poisonous yellow colour. Charming.

A jolt went through the legs of her imp body as she landed in the fine sand. Her feet sank deeply into the yielding substance, and she nearly yelped when the heat stored in the sun-scorched surface seared her like a hot plate. She scrambled to get the cloth of her parachute between herself and the ground, and considered her best plan of attack. Keeper Malleus' underground complex was extensive, from what the energy readings told her. Minor tunnels extended for kilometres, as far as she could tell from up here. From the vibrations of the ground, her computer had calculated the presence of at least ten distant beating dungeon hearts, a number that was completely inconsistent with the amount of dark power flowing through the area. Fakes to lure more enemies into the prepared traps, perhaps? With a sigh, she closed the palmtop. She couldn't get any clear information from up here. There didn't seem to be any entrance into the complex from above, which explained why the terrain she was standing on felt unclaimed. Taking possession of an area required a continuous path of claimed territory to the dungeon heart, at least in the first phase, and without exits, this was not possible.

She'd have to make her own entrance, then. Hopefully, this meant that she would be bypassing most of the enemy's network of traps, which was most likely positioned to fend off a subterranean attack. Still, she didn't think that what had apparently been an experienced Keeper would leave himself completely open to such an obvious avenue of attack. In any case, she'd need more workers to dig her way down into the enemy stronghold. With a by now familiar mental exertion, she grabbed an imp from her dungeon and brought it to her side - at least that was her intention. She could feel the imp de-materialise and shoot toward her, but the further away it got from her dungeon heart, the more a resistance started to build, as if the creature was affixed to a rubber band. After a distance of about sixty kilometres, the being in transit slipped from her grasp, similar to what had happened to the beetle she had once tried to move past the border of her dungeon's territory. The difference here was that the imp had been travelling a lot faster, and she sensed it expire almost immediately after she lost hold of it. What the...?

The body Ami was possessing was well-suited to staring in bemused bewilderment. There was a range limit on her transportation powers? Since when? She had already teleported creatures further than that when she had been in Arachne's dungeon! What had been different then? She briefly entertained the notion that Malleus' presence was interfering, but dismissed that idea. The imp had come from her own dungeon, which wasn't anywhere close to him. Besides, she hadn't had any trouble transporting herself. Then again, she had only been making short hops of a few kilometres. Hmm. Further tests were required, but in a safer location. With a thought, she disappeared from the patch of blighted land. Landscapes blinked past her in quick succession as she went through a sequence of rapid relocations, until she reappeared on a green meadow that she had surveyed from above during her journey. It was an oasis of wilderness close to the edge of the desert.

Ami concentrated for a brief moment, muttering an incantation. With a plopping sound, an imp coalesced from pure, greenish mana, and somersaulted to the ground. Good. The imp creation spell still worked. She tried moving the creature just a step to the right. The minor teleportation went with its usual smoothness. She tried again, this time over several kilometres. She could feel the same kind of resistance build up as before, but her connection did not snap, and the minion arrived safely. The hop had been shorter than what she had attempted before. Maybe it was related to the distance of the movement? She tried again, flinging the imp further away from her in, the same direction as before. The resistance became stronger and stronger. Ami nodded to herself. So distance travelled didn't figure into it, only distance from her or from the dungeon heart. When she had been underneath the capital, the two safe radii must have partly overlapped, extending the range of teleportation to nearly twice its usual limit.

With the mystery explained to her satisfaction, Ami started working on a way to get past this inconvenience. If she counted as the anchor, could she simply possess a creature and 'follow' along to get past the limitation? She looked down at her borrowed body. Only one way to find out. Taking a deep breath, she launched herself straight upwards.

"AAaaaAhhhHHHhhh!" The skin of her imp-cheeks fluttered in the wind and tried to crawl to the back of her skull, and the airflow stung in her eyes as the world spun like a top around her. Had she been capable of a coherent thought aside from "Eject! Eject!" it would probably have been along the lines of 'Darn it!' at the failure of this workaround.

"I hate you so much!" The mental voice of the tentacle monster was dripping with venom. The creature had just been subjected to sparkles, random spinning in different directions, heaps and heaps of ribbons, bands of cloth forming along its appendages before falling off because they didn't fit, all while similar things happened to the barbarian it was wrapped around. Oh, and to add injury to insult, the heavy portcullis had dropped down during the chaos, pinning three of its sensitive tentacles with its weight. For once, the outburst didn't result in immediate violence from Boris's side. Either the brute was pinned down by the mountain of white and blue uniforms filling part of the tunnel, or, more likely, he was too busy emptying his stomach. To make matters worse, voices and rapid footsteps were approaching.

"...came from there!"

"That's the way to the Heart Chamber! How could he have gotten there so fast?" the voice belonged to that other traitor, Jered, Boris thought, feeling the onset of a familiar rage. Well, so be it. They wouldn't take him without a fight. With a mighty heave, he shook off the garments weighing on his back, erupting from the pile like a Jack-In-the-Box. His roar of fury took on a surprised higher pitch toward the end when he felt himself pulled down by his left shoulder, and slammed with his back against the closed gate. He glared at his arm, which was covered in pulsating green appendages. "Cease your interference, wretched thing!"

"I didn't do anything! You pulled on me, you dolt! Let go already!"

"There he is! Boris, give up!" Cathy rounded the corner, with Jered and Snyder not far behind her. Huffing and puffing loudly, the white-haired alchemist appeared a moment later.

Boris was not in the right frame of mind to cooperate. He lifted his right arm to pull off the monster holding on to his left shoulder, but stopped half-way through the motion. Something felt off. The onlookers let out a gasp as the limb appeared out of the mound of uniforms that the giant was standing in. The exclamation from the Alchemist sounded more like "Dibs!" though.

Starting from the elbow, the barbarian's arm bore no resemblance to a human one. Tanned skin turned to slimy green, and the appendage divided into a set of four long tentacles that coiled and glistened like snakes. The brute turned his head, looking at his shoulder again, and his perception shifted. That was not his arm covered in the creature's pseudopods, that was the thing's body growing out of his shoulder! It was at this point that he started gibbering into his beard.

"I told you so! This is all your fault! Also, that explains how I ended up with this!" A hand like a shovel emerged from the scattered fukus on the ground, rising on three winding stalks. It twitched before slowly balling into a fist. Moments later, it shot forward as if the tendrils it was attached to were uncoiling springs, and smacked right into the unresisting barbarian's face, punching him out.

"Ouch! This isn't fair! I finally get to hit someone, and I feel it too!"

Cathy looked nauseous. "That's what Mercury meant by indiscriminate traps? I hadn't expected something quite as strange."

"Certainly an interesting use of denatured magic," a cold voice from behind her commented. The round bulk of Tasbaal waddled down the corridor, too dignified to do something as demeaning as running. "Analysing this subject will certainly be an interesting research project. Get it to my lab!"

A pillar of black speared down from above onto an unsuspecting imp, making it wobble on its feet. A moment later, a shape devoid of light shot from its forehead, quickly growing in size and solidifying into Ami. The girl wobbled unsteadily from one leg to the other, steadying herself against the wall. She was so woozy that her own dungeon seemed to spin around her, and thus she was glad when she made it to her room, where she could flop down on her bed. She closed her eyes and adjusted her battle plan in light of the new information. The first implication was that she wouldn't be able to bring in her trained golems from here, and would have to create new ones as required directly at the battlefield. This wasn't a huge problem. However, it meant that she would lose an engagement if the opponent managed to destroy all the local minions she could inhabit. She could just possess another imp and move it back to the combat site within a span of ten minutes or so, but the trip back home to the dungeon in the first place took a lot longer. The shadowy form she shifted into before seeping into a new body seemed to require actual travel, and she had been aware of landscape zooming past for what felt like hours on the way back. Long enough for a Keeper to heal up his minions, repair the traps, and plug any holes, certainly. Not to mention the fact that she was operating on a time limit. She had better get up and try again.

Before she departed to start the attack for real, she should drop in to inform the others of her progress. She had been away for longer than expected, after all. She transported herself to the adventurers, who were all conveniently congregating in the same area. Strangely enough, even her new hirelings were with them. "Hello all, I'm back. The scouting mission was successful and- WHAT IS THAT?"

Her short blue hair seemed to stand on end as she spotted the grotesque tentacle-covered monstrosity strapped to a table. The various denizens milling about it looked up and turned around, startled at her sudden arrival and outburst.

"It seems that this intruder ran afoul of one of your traps, Keeper. A commendably twisted effort," the monk with eyes of solid black informed and congratulated her.

"B-but I never installed anything like that!"

The large humanoid mound of tentacles and eyes on the table twitched in sudden anger. Did it have three hands? "You damn witch! COME HERE SO I CAN WRING YOUR NECK!" the abomination howled from two mouths at once, producing an odd, overlapping tone.

"Oh yes, go ahead and antagonise the Keeper more. Moron."

"Is that Boris?" Ami stared, visor already on her eyes as she approached the restrained figure cautiously.

"Yes, and it seems your tentacle monster is in there too," Cathy said, looking queasy. "We found them near the heart chamber, covered in a large heap of your uniforms. They have been slowly changing shape ever since. Can you undo it?" her voice became more demanding.

The young Keeper took a step back at the intensity of the gaze. "Sorry, I don't even know what could have caused that! There wasn't a single magical trap in the room!" Poor Boris. He might be annoying, but he wasn't really evil. She hoped she wasn't responsible for this.

The protest raised an eyebrow from the alchemist. "Are you saying your dungeon heart is leaking wild magic on its own? That is... unsafe, to say the least."

Ami gave the old man, who routinely carried within his chest pocket several fragile vials of chemicals that would result in a violent explosion when mixed, a wary glance. "It certainly didn't when I last checked on it. Wait, you mentioned uniforms?" her head turned to focus on the redhead in the room, eyes narrowing. "Snyder, could this have something to do with the ward I asked you to install?"

The acolyte swallowed as all eyes turned on him. "Well, there might be a tiny, hypothetical possibility that the grounding of the re-directed magic might not have been one-hundred percent effective. However, it was a complicated project that would typically require fully trained-"

"So yes," Cathy interrupted the answer that was about to degenerate into a string of excuses. "I remain unsurprised by your skills."

"Be that as it may," Ami held up her hands before an argument could break out, "I want all of you to search for a way to stop and possibly revert the mutation. I'm sorry to leave you like this, Boris, but I have an attack on another Keeper to execute, which really can't wait. I hope you'll be better soon! Oh, and until further notice, nobody enter the Heart Chamber again. I might need to do things that will cause another magic build-up!"

Given that there wasn't much that the people back at the dungeon could do to support the assault, their pre-battle briefing had been short and had consisted mainly of a map update. With that out of the way, Ami soon found herself back in the choking heat of Malleus' ash-coloured desert. She had tried to leave a few imps on her route as anchors that she could return to should she be defeated, but found that her connection with them just faded out when she got too far away. She truly had to succeed in one go.

With that thought firmly in mind, the senshi went to work. She was currently in one of the golem bodies, which was a strange and also familiar feeling at the same time. Due to its great resemblance to herself, she had no trouble moving the body, but there were some distracting differences, for example the lack of pain receptors, or the utter quiet when she was standing still. She hadn't ever realised how much background noise a fleshy body's normal operation caused until it was gone. Her modesty was protected by a suit of chain mail that glittered in the sunlight. Being made of interconnected rigid parts, it could be fashioned from ice and wouldn't be destroyed simply by the golem moving around. She had little doubt that it would be gone soon once combat started, but it was better than sending the animated facsimiles of herself into battle completely naked. Ami planted her feet into the hot, grey dust with determination, feeling a prickling sensation as more magic seeped to her soles in order to stop them from melting. "Mercury Power, Make Up! Shabon Spray!"

A cloud of chilly fog spread out to challenge the dominance of the swirling dust and blanketing out the sun. Immediately, the surrounding temperatures dropped dramatically. Ami didn't know whether she already had the attention of the enemy Keeper, but she didn't wait to find out. With a few quick incantations, balls of blue water shot from her fingers, one after another, and grew into glittering, transparent replicas of herself, dressed in icy mail. She herself was, of course, back in her unif- wait a minute! Why hadn't it formed? The transformation had banished her armour, but failed to summon her fuku? This had to be Snyder's fault, somehow! Ami would have blushed if her current body had been capable of the action. Alas, without the prerequisite blood vessels, she was reduced to just feeling embarrassed. She shook her head, putting the issue aside. She had more important things to do, and besides, she had already resigned herself to the fact that she'd end up leading the assault in what looked like a naked, transparent version of herself at some point. At least, without the fuku, consisting of smooth ice made her harder to spot in this fog. Maybe too hard to make out any details, she tried to cheer herself up.

Her minions were already scattering in different directions so a potential surprise attack couldn't get all of them, and Ami switched to creating new imps and setting them to dig a tunnel down. At this point, the first difficulty reared its ugly head. The sand was much too fine and loose and immediately slid into any opened hole, filling it in. Trying to dig down from above without some sort of large, dedicated equipment would be futile, Ami understood. So this was why Malleus felt that he could neglect the surface: it defended itself on its own just fine. Well, unless the opponent could do this: "Shabon Spray Freezing!"

Sailor Mercury assisted her imps by freezing the sand that was giving way, stabilising the sides of the shaft with a wall of ice. Under their combined efforts, the tunnel grew, going down deeper and deeper. The sand reached depths that Ami considered unlikely to occur naturally. Maybe Malleus had filled in some previously existing crater? The creaks of the ice above as it strained against the pressure were less than reassuring, and she quickly send more spells upward, filling the shaft with a solid core that held the sand back. She just hoped it wouldn't come crashing down on her and her workforce at some point. Being in this tunnel was much like being in a deep, dark well, and if she had suffered from claustrophobia, she would have been unable to function. Finally, the picks of her imps struck rock with loud, metallic clangs, and she could take a break from freezing the walls. Progress now became much smoother, if not faster. At least, she was now able to split up her forces again, with there being no need for her to keep the tunnels from collapsing personally. Four of her imps started to dig diagonally downwards in a cross spread while Ami scanned the underground.

At first, the pattern of glowing lines appearing on her visor didn't seem to make any sense, but a few quick keystrokes on the Mercury computer helped sort out the random noise from the flows of evil energy that permeated Malleus' underground tunnels. Little by little, the picture became clearer, showing that the main bulk of the Keeper's complex was still lower and had a nearly cube-shaped layout. Myriads of loosely collected hallways spiralled around the central complex, which contained large halls and open spaces. She thought that when unwound and lined up in a row, the total length of the tunnel network would exceed a hundred kilometres. In their current arrangement, they formed an impenetrable labyrinth, bound to confuse any intruders.

Before Ami could start plotting the best course to her destination, she had to find out where exactly the destination was. Thirteen angry red dots, labelled by her computer as 'dungeon heart', blinked on the screen. Despite her best efforts, she was unable to tell the real one from the convincing fakes through all the obstructions. She needed more data, and she could only get it by forcing her way into the enemy fortress and taking it! Without further ado, she ordered one of the imps to set a course toward the closest target, and had the other three continue to spread their tunnels into different directions. Then, she created an escort of nine golems, distributing the other ones on the surface or positioning them with the other diggers.

The clanging of her miner's pick took on a different note when it struck the wall of enchanted stone isolating Malleus' dungeon from its surroundings. The imp's progress slowed to a crawl as the magic in its pick was neutralised and it had to chip the rock away the hard way. Within the dungeon, she could hear shrill noises as alarms sounded. Now, Malleus was definitely aware of her presence. She ordered her other golems to help the imp, pushing against the blocks forming the wall. After what felt like an eternity, the obstruction crumbled inward, rumbling to the floor. Ami's troops darted forward over the debris, limbs of ice making grinding sounds as they moved. Preceded by an impenetrable cloud of fog, her army surged into the corridor.

There were no enemies in sight, but Ami's minions had barely taken a few steps when long blades scythed out of the ground and chopped through legs and torsos. Water splashed and ice broke, and several of her golems dropped from the sudden attack. Startled, Ami took a step back. Fortunately, none of her minions were down for the count, even if some were shrinking a lot. She could see shattered hollow arms and legs melting on the floor. Treading more carefully, she stepped through the corridor after her underlings had bent the traps into uselessness with vicious kicks. Shiiiing! Ami suddenly experienced the disconcerting feeling of being pinned to the floor by a large spike through the back of her skull when a portcullis came down on her. There was no pain, only the horrid realisation that she'd be dead if this was her real body, and a disturbing feeling of leaking. The fact that the trap had let some of her underlings pass and waited for her specifically meant that the Keeper must have identified her as the most important enemy already. Metal squealed as the golems used their hydraulically enhanced strength to lift the portcullis off of her. She sat up, just in time to be blown into smithereens by three cannons popping out of the ground a bit further ahead. Disoriented, her shadowy form screeched out of the mess of ice and water and shot toward the nearest spare body, while disembodied laugh of Malleus echoed through the halls. She was starting to see why no sane Keeper would have his army put one foot into that maze.

His laugh only stopped when a new wave of slender, scantily clad ice figures burst in through the opening, with the lead one freezing the gun turrets before they could fire. The attack team continued onward, smashing any traps to bits that they came across. Most of them were more of a nuisance than any real threat to the golems' unique physiology, but they slowed progress down, and from time to time, the group lost a member for good. Ami refrained from re-casting the golem spell within the Keeper's territory, as she didn't want to tip him off to the fact that the only way to win was to eliminate all of her units on the battlefield. Right now, he must have been frantically searching for her own dungeon to strike back at- a trapdoor opened under her, and she could see the red glow of the lava at the bottom of the pit shine through her clear body. Well, that was a novel way to go, she reflected while she fell, feeling a bit like the coyote from these Western cartoons.

Once again in a spare body, Ami spotted something she had been waiting for: enemy movement. Malleus was dropping imps into her freshly dug-out passages, searching for the source of the near-endless intrusions. With a smile on her sparkling features, the statue-girl went to work, scanning the incoming transportation events. Now that she knew that there was a relation between dungeon heart and Keeper proximity and ease of movement, she could observe minuscule differences in the patterns. Deploying a few of her soldiers to chase off the enemy imps - it wouldn't do if they claimed her territory, she couldn't move her troops there - she continued with her calculations. The fact that both the Keeper and the real heart were in the same area was complicating things. However, as one of the two solutions of her equations didn't correspond to a heart location, the result was solid. "Got it!" Ami shouted happily with a voice like glass. She deployed two teams of cannon fodder to renew their assault through the breach. Meanwhile, her imps were digging toward the real dungeon heart until they ran out of rock and were forced to once again break into the enemy dungeon.

What followed was a long and arduous battle as Malleus threw everything he had at the intruders. In between being blown up, flattened by enormous rolling rocks, buried under cave-ins, turned into a chicken, impaled, bisected, shot, stabbed, electrified, and crushed between closing walls, Ami had little time to marvel at the sheer opulence of the enemy dungeon. The colours were predominantly silver and amethyst, and statues (bows fully functional), tapestries (hiding swinging axe blades), and expensive furniture (full of poison gas) were everywhere she looked. The light came from glowing crystals set into magnificent chandeliers (which tried to crush her), rather than normal candles. Everywhere, the crafts were of finest gold and marble, and had intricate carvings, such as that fireplace (with hidden flamethrower) over there.

The real problem were the enemy troops. Despite the fog, her creations just tended to get smashed, clobbered, and reduced to ice water if they didn't outnumber the enemy at least three to one. Ahead of her, a massive red bile demon had grabbed one of the artificial girls by the ankle and was swinging her around like a club, smashing her against the wall. She burst into shards of ice and released a flood of water. Sure, Ami's own presence helped to even the odds, but she was beginning to feel that she wasn't as immune to attrition as she had thought. She ducked under a swing of a troll's hammer that smashed a fragile marble pillar, making a film of white dust stick to her bared curves. The green creature's eyes went wide in surprise, which she took as an opportunity to punch it in the face and take it out of the battle. Oh, she wasn't running out of power or anything like that, but she was getting tired. It was a mental fatigue, the sort that had nothing to do with physical exertion. Nevertheless, it was real and impairing her ability to channel magic and create new troops. Even maintaining possession of a body was becoming a chore, and twice already, she had nearly slipped and returned to her real body, which could very well be fatal under present circumstances.

The golem wave tactics were too draining, and she had to resort to fighting smarter, not harder. A large boulder rolling down the corridor met a hastily conjured ice ramp, and suddenly it was the enemy troops following behind it who were fleeing, not her golems. A bit further ahead, a group of monsters spotted ice soldier after ice soldier walk past a fog-filled fork in the corridor for minutes, marching in silent unison. They decided that discretion was the better part of valour, which was good, as their large number would have easily wiped out Ami's small team that was walking in a circle, passing again and again past the same opening. Finally, after tricking and fighting her way past a large amount of guards and traps, Ami arrived in a huge chamber with her nine remaining golems. In the centre of the circular hall stood a golden step pyramid, and on its top, the dungeon heart of Keeper Malleus was beating rapidly. Within its superstructure, a pinprick of mana glowed brighter and brighter until its green light filled the cavern like a miniature sun. When the glare receded, the cavern was full of creatures.

Rows upon rows of trolls and larger, red-skinned humanoids formed the front ranks, but Ami could also spot what had to be warlocks behind them. At least twenty of the bloated red demons with morning stars dangling from their long, horizontal horns formed the front row. A huge winged lizard - no, that had to be a young dragon, about twice as tall as a grown man - was skulking around the base of the pyramid, and on its steps, a dozen albino archers were grabbing poisoned arrows for their bows. Ami gulped. There had to be over a hundred enemies within the cavern, without counting the Keeper himself.

"Hear me, my minions! Defend the dungeon heart at all costs! The portal is gone, and my end will be yours! Now destroy the intruders!" Malleus' voice sounded calm, but the inflection had been off at certain words, most notably 'end', which revealed his false façade for what it was. He was scared and desperate, gambling all on one card. Too bad that would be enough to defeat her if she didn't do something soon. Besides, she needed him alive.

"Creatures of Malleus, listen to me!" Ami demanded as she stepped forward with flashing red eyes, drawing all gazes. It certainly helped that her icy ring mail had not survived the preceding violence.

"Nothing in this dungeon has managed to even slow me down yet. Not your traps, not your Keeper's spells, and certainly not you! OBSERVE!" the ice girl raised her left hand, and a new golem sprang from it. She repeated the motion with her right hand. The two new minions took flanking positions next to her.

A murmur went through the crowd, even as Ami desperately tried to hide how much these last two spells had taken out of her. Having an entirely transparent expression seemed to be useful for bluffing, though, especially at a distance.

"You see? My casualties are meaningless. Cut one of my creations down, and I will just replace it with another! But if you die, you are gone! I had already won the moment I decided to take this dungeon, and all you can do is flee or fall." She spread her arms. "But sadly, it seems that your Keeper, in his wisdom, has taken the former option from you. However, I am not without mercy. If you want to live, convince Malleus to surrender to me and to become my follower!"

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Chapter 27: Picking the First Target Chapter 29: Desperation Move



Attached comments:

  • Yet she totaly unable detect traps or avoid them?
    The ability to detect a trap is somewhat unhelpful when there are traps everywhere. She could have avoided them, sure, at the cost of advancing at a snails pace. Keep in mind that at that point, she was unaware of her limits.

    Even with the fog things seem scarily accurate in attacking her,
    The reason for that is OOC information: you can't blind a Keeper on his territory, he'll always be aware of what's going on if he's paying attention.

    they seem to not use their inborn powers to shoot ice spikes very often
    To be fair, there wasn't much to shoot at. Minion encounters were rather sparse.

    Ami didn't try to reclaim the water to 'heal them' when it was still on the floor or such?
    Well, how? It's wet ground. She doesn't have some telekinetic control over water, as far as I'm aware of.
  • Also, why not fogging the Heart room and just claiming the heart like Ami claimed her first heart? The other Golems could cover her by firing their spikes.
    Because it's active and in use, as opposed to the abandoned one she bonded with.