Jered opened the leather-bound book on the table to a bookmark, tracing the rows and columns on the page with his index finger. Two female faces peered curiously over his shoulder, one blue-haired, the other blonde. "Well, budget-wise, you could squeeze in your two planned dungeon hearts while remaining able to pay all wages for two-and a half months. After that, you will be broke," The weasel-featured man determined. Deep in thought, he rubbed the stubble on his cheeks with an ink-stained hand. "Man, those things are expensive."

Ami leaned closer, peering at the numbers with a displeased frown. "It might be for the best to give this dungeon up completely, dismiss most of the minions, and keep only the research staff around," she thought out loud.

"That seems unwise. This place is still protected by most of Malleus' traps and fake dungeon hearts, making it very safe. Besides, you don't know how to replicate most of the rooms with the crystal heart design yet," Cathy objected.

"I know," the blue-haired girl stepped back from Jered and walked halfway around the table, where she sat down in front of her computer. "The problem is that this dungeon is also a huge liability. It's powered with an organic heart, and the dark gods could send another plague whenever they feel like it. Everyone in it is a potential hostage."

"Yes, it's not an easy decision," the swordswoman conceded, shuddering and wrapping her arms around herself as she remembered lying in bed with a high fever, unable to move and feeling sore all over.

"Actually, it should be," Snyder commented, participating in the conversation for the first time. The white-and-red dressed acolyte sat on the couch, his chin resting on his folded hands. "The question is not whether the dark gods will use their power against Mercury again, but when. First, Azzathra has already made it clear that he is trying to get her killed with the way he stacked the deck against her. If she doesn't participate in the duel-"

"Which is the only sane choice, despite our preparations," Jered interrupted. He looked at Ami, who nodded once.

"Exactly. As I was saying, the moment Mercury makes it clear she has no intention of going through with that suicidal battle, the plague will be back. So the longest she will be able to hold onto this dungeon is until the deadline passes. Less than two months," the acolyte continued.

"Unless I won the duel," Ami proposed an alternative, the corners of her mouth turning downwards at the thought. "But even then, I couldn't trust Azzathra to keep his word. He has made it clear that he only helped me because he wanted to see me die in an amusing way instead of the plague killing me," she stated tensely.

"Is there a way to replace the current dungeon heart with a crystal one?" Cathy fished for options.

The teenage Keeper typing away at her keyboard shook her head. "No. The infrastructure and traps all run on mana. The systems are incompatible." Her gaze unfocused as she searched for a good analogy and looked upward, letting her head rest on the back of her chair. "It's... kind of like ripping the heart out of a human and attempting to replace it with a spring taken from a large mechanical clock. It's just not going to work."

Silence reigned as the others contemplated this gruesome imagery. Jered broke it first, harrumphing as he drew a conclusion. "We will have to move. This location is too well-known for us to remain here without the protection of the traps." He swivelled in his chair to face Mercury as he continued "So, on to the logistics side. Where do we go and what do we take?"

Pristine snow and ice shone in the light of the low-hanging sun, blanketing hills and plains with their whiteness. The shadowy flanks of the frozen hills shimmered blue, reflecting the colour of the sky.

A sudden gust of wind ripped snowflakes from the ground, making them dance as if trapped in a whirlwind. They surrounded a flash of blue that deposited two slender figures onto the frozen ground.

The shorter, black-clad female released her grip on the taller one, who squinted, blinded by the sunlight reflecting off of the pristine, unbroken snow cover. "It's cooooold! What is this, the North Pole?" Cathy danced from one foot to the other to warm up and tightened the cord keeping her fur-lined mantle shut, breath condensing into a cloud in front of her lips. She turned toward the blue ocean, where the brightness was more bearable.

"Close." Ami let her gaze wander over the surrounding whiteness up to the point where it suddenly turned into a cliff face against which the waves broke. "We are in the northern Arctic regions, on an iceberg, to be precise."

"This thing is made of ice? It's huge," the long-haired blond tapped her boots against the snow-covered ground experimentally, grimacing as if she was expecting it to crack and swallow her any moment now. "Are you sure this is safe?"

"Don't worry, the ice is hundreds of metres thick," the blue-haired girl reassured her. With her index finger outstretched, she pointed at the line where ice and water met, and traced its contours as she slowly turned around. "See how big it is? And the visible part over water is only one seventh of the whole mass!"

"Oh, good." Cathy calmed down, but stayed alert. "Err, it's not going to suddenly turn over, is it?"

With a violet shimmer, a grey-uniformed man suddenly stood next to the duo. "Cease your whining. Why did you insist on coming along, anyway?" Jadeite asked while loading a large sack off of his shoulders. It jingled when he put it on the ground.

"Well, I wanted to get back into the fresh air and see the sun again," the shivering swordwoman huffed, "without all the desert dust and the heat, that is. However, this," she spread her arms and glared at the dim, glowing disk close above the horizon," goes way too far in the opposite direction! Besides, I'm not going to miss the chance to see what creating a dungeon heart looks like!"

"Whatever. I'll go get the rest," the dark general disappeared into thin air, leaving only a few shadowy lines that faded upward in his wake.

Cathy jostled the bag of gold with her toes, and turned to Mercury, who had her visor up and was focusing her attention on her palmtop. "What are you doing?" the blonde asked, seeing nothing out of ordinary on the iceberg. Above water, it was elongated and flat, except for a hump that protruded on one side like a hill.

"I'm calculating where its centre of mass is, and where I should put the engines," the young Keeper replied, not looking up from her work. Suddenly, she smiled. "Ah! There! Let's get started."

Ami raised her hand, and an imp sprang forth from a cloud of green motes that danced around her fingers. It somersaulted before landing in the snow and let out a delighted squeak before gazing at Ami with big, black eyes, waiting for an order.

"That way," the blue-haired girl commanded, and the little brownish-green humanoid ran into the indicated direction, leaving odd two-toed imprints in the snow. It didn't seem bothered by the cold despite wearing nothing but a loincloth and a backpack. In contrast, Cathy was rubbing her hands together for warmth as she plodded after the creature that was only half her size. It suddenly stopped, unslung its pick from its shoulders, and brought it down onto the snow with a soft thudding sound. Glittering shards went flying in all directions as the magical pick bit deeply into the ground, chipping away at the ice with surprising speed. When the blonde's head peaked out over the edge of the newly-dug opening, a steep ramp leading below the surface was already waiting, and the clanging of metal against ice reverberated from the depths.

"Cathy, wait!" Ami shouted, but the swordswoman had already set foot on the downward-leading slope, eager to get out of the chilly wind. Her head had barely disappeared from sight when the young Keeper heard a startled yelp that rapidly degenerated into shouted curses. A quick teleport brought Ami into the tunnel, just in time to float over and grab a hold of the blonde's arm as she slid past, her fingers scrambling ineffectively for purchase on the slippery ice. "That's what I wanted to tell you," the blue-haired girl explained, "no stairs yet."

Dangling from the younger girl's arm, Cathy gathered her smashed dignity and stood up. "I hate this place." She descended the rest of the way steadying herself against the floating girl's shoulder, walking with tiny little steps. "Please tell me we are not going to live here!"

"Sorry, but we might have to, if things go poorly," Ami apologised. "At the moment, this is just supposed to be a storeroom for gold and books and a mobile mining outpost. I plan for us to move to the Avatar Isles once I have conquered enough of them. They seem sparsely populated, and it's a good place to recover room designs and experiment with the corruption effect."

"I hope that pans out," Cathy commented, moving more steadily now that the tunnel had become horizontal again. Gratefully, she took a torch that Ami produced for her with a muttered incantation. The darkness underneath the snow and ice cover retreated from the flame's flickering light to reveal freshly-hewn walls. "This is creepy," the blonde said after taking a few steps in silence. She was referring to the multiple reflections of both girls that moved alongside them and shrank, grew and twisted as the uneven ice distorted them.

"It's not far now," Ami assured her companion. "The centre of the iceberg is just ahead, and my imp is already clearing a room. She waved her hand, and a second minion coalesced from a cloud of pure, glowing mana, looked at its surroundings in wide-eyed wonder, and then rushed out of the circle illuminated by the torchlight.

The two girls followed the new servant at their more sedate pace and caught up with it a minute later. They found it sitting right next to the first imp, standing in a large, square chamber that could have held a school bus. Cathy hesitated at the entrance, her eyes wandering up to the dome-shaped ceiling that resembled a giant bubble that had crystallised in the iceberg. "Whoa, the little critters do work fast."

Ami nodded her assent and hovered into the chamber. With little more than a thought, the gold that Jadeite was bringing from her home dungeon and leaving in the snow above appeared before her. "I wonder how other Keepers manage to get the gold in place," she wondered out loud, noting that her soft voice produced an echo in the vast emptiness of the chamber.

Cathy shrugged and kept out of the way, watching with eyes that got rounder and rounder the more gold piled up in the centre of the chamber. When the heap of coins was taller than she was, she gaped with her mouth open, the cold forgotten. "I hadn't realised those things were that expensive!"

"I still have a hard time believing that this all belongs to me," Ami said. "It's more than I expected to ever see in my life." She walked around the pile, watching as yet another bag appeared on top of it and coins rolled down the flanks. "That's the last one. It's time to get started." The blue-haired girl had memorised the instructions, of course, but she reread them another time on her palmtop just to be sure. Any mistake now was one she literally couldn't afford. "Cathy, wait in the entrance. I'm going to begin this."

My heart is beating as if I was going into a difficult exam, the blue-haired girl thought as she stood at the base of the heap of gold and raised her arms straight up. She inhaled deeply, gathering air for the first sentence of the magical chant, and channelled magic into her voice. Once the first syllables had left her mouth, the pile of gold slowly liquefied and spread out until it encountered an invisible, circular barrier. The cylinder of metal, molten despite a lack of heat, started seeping into the ground. Power tingled on Ami's skin while she continued directing the magic, watching the weakly-glowing tendrils of gold force their way down into the floor. Through the transparent ice, she could track their progress and see them branch again and again like the roots of a plant, but in a far more regular pattern. She tried to keep her breathing even as she intoned the next sentence. At this point, she was deviating from Malleus' knowledge and relying only on her own research, but there was no time to hesitate now. Feeling a drop of sweat run down her brow, Ami pressed on. Her next words sent light tremors through the ground, and in the corner, Cathy blinked in alarm when the vibrations of the room caused the ice to hum.

Movement drew the senshi's attention back to the centre of the room. Like mushrooms, four pillars of ice grew noiselessly upwards, each one encasing a helix of gold in their centre. They did not stop until they met the ceiling, the contact with which prompted a reaction. Suddenly, their substance was neither gold nor ice, but something that resembled marble and was far stronger. To Ami, the columns looked vaguely Greek in appearance, but instead of ionic capitals, they were topped by an arrangement of Mercury signs. A moment later, blinding arcs of lightning shot from each column, intersecting at the central point in the space between the pillars. Their brilliance illuminated the cavern brighter than day, and Ami was suddenly glad that she had memorised the text of the spell completely while she shielded her eyes from the glare. She wouldn't have been able to read them in this light that turned the world into an arrangement of stark black and whites. Concentrating so that she would not trip over the unfamiliar pronunciations, she diligently continued her work. With a tortured wail, reality ripped open where the four bolts of electricity met. A blast of thunder washed over Ami, blowing her hair out of her face and forcing her to shut her eyes. When she opened them again, the light was gone, and a sphere of blackness hung in the air, framed by the stone pillars. As if attracted by the eerie black ball, a dais rose from the ground with a groan.

The chanting girl felt drained, as if she had run at full speed for an hour when she commenced the last sentence of her spell. The wailing sphere shrunk and inverted itself, extruding a shell that had a white nacre sheen, and which grew larger and larger. What little of the gold had not been absorbed yet flowed upward, onto the dais, and reached for the orb. The entire structure glowed brightly for a final time, after which all the gold was gone and the ice forming the new dungeon heart had turned into the same marble-looking substance that the pillars were made of. Ami belatedly noticed that the dais had grown a staircase from each of its sides before she found herself feeling strangely weightless. An inexorable force lifted her off of her feet and dragged her toward the large crystal sphere.

Cathy let out a cry of alarm when Mercury suddenly flew toward the freshly-created orb that formed the centrepiece of the new dungeon heart. Instead of breaking her neck from the high speed impact, the girl simply disappeared within the dull sphere. An instant later, it flared up with bright white light, and the blonde heard a deep rumble reverberate through the very essence of the iceberg - the artefact's first heartbeat. She broke into a run, taking the five steps leading up to the dais in a single go, and stopped in front of the large, pulsating sphere that rested on the golden backs of three bent-over, life-sized troll statues. She reached for the smooth, glowing surface of the orb and hesitated. "Mercury? Are you in there?"

"DON'T TOUCH THAT! Mercury's voice screeched in the blonde's head, loud enough to stun her for a moment. She jerked her hand back as if burnt. "Wait, give me a moment," the mental voice continued.

Cathy thought she saw a flicker of shadow underneath the glass-like surface, moving sideways. Following it with her eyes, she was only mildly surprised when the blue-haired head of the Keeper appeared and moved through the shell as if it wasn't there. Ami stepped out of the artefact and floated to the ground, smiling widely at Cathy and cocking her head. "I didn't expect that last part, but I feel that everything went all right!" Behind her, several gold-coloured bands slid into place around the orb, one after the other. In the end, a huge sapphire appeared on top of the sphere where all the golden bands met. It rotated around its own axis once with the sound of a key being turned in a lock. "Good, it's safe to touch now," Ami said. "Go ahead if you like."

"It's beautiful," Cathy breathed, her face illuminated by the light coming from the orb. "It's hard to believe that something like that is an evil artefact." Her fingers made contact with the smooth surface. "It's warm," she stated in surprise. "So what would have happened if I had touched it earlier?"

Ami looked at the floor. "I'm not sure. Best case scenario, it would have been destroyed. Worst case, you would have become a Keeper, like me," she pointed out. "I'm sorry, I didn't want to put you into danger."

"Whew, looks like I dodged an arrow there," the swordswoman agreed cheerfully. "Don't worry about it, nothing bad happened. Also, I think the little guys agree with your assessment that everything went well."

Ami's gaze followed Cathy's outstretched arm to where both imps had started tiling the floor and fortifying the ice of the walls. "Yes! I did it!" she shouted in an uncharacteristic burst of excitement, thrusting her right fist in the air. "I won't have to fight the Reaper! I'm so relieved!" She laughed happily, ran up to Cathy and grabbed her hands. "I won't have to fight him! Yes!" The bemused blonde found herself dragged along as the blue-haired girl bounced up and down in a way that would have done Usagi proud. The swordwoman smiled and ruffled the teenager's hair. "Well done!"

Ami looked over the desolate landscape, where plains of ash and smoking lakes of fire stretched as far as the eye could see. A sudden gust of wind prompted her to seek shelter deeper underneath the jagged black rock overhang that protected her from the rain. Acidic yellow droplets fell from the red-coloured sky, hissing and bubbling on the ground, and poisoning any life that might have dared eke out an existence on this cursed continent. As usual, the clouds looked like trails of fire and spiralled slowly around a point that was out of Ami's sight range, but that her scrying attempts had revealed to be the highest mountain of this realm. The eye of the storm sat right above the blackened citadel that had once been known as Skybird Trill, the fortress of the late Avatar. The ruin was so haunted that it seemed to glow from all the ghosts flitting in and out of the windows and circling the scorched towers. To the blue-haired girl, the sacked city seemed the obvious location for the main base of the most powerful Keeper of the islands. Not only was the corruption of the land centred on it, it also dominated the landscape and was a symbol for the triumph of darkness over light. The senshi's eyebrows formed a v-shape as she frowned. She fully intended to rectify this before the deadline for the duel. The enemy Keeper or Keepers had to be miserly with their limited gold, while she could simply make more golems as long as she still had organic dungeon hearts. The wind intensity increased, and more of the caustic raindrops splashed onto the ground close to Ami's boots. She had seen enough, and disappeared within a storm of snowflakes.

With a flash of blue light that cast the brickwork of the vaulting tunnel into stark relief, Ami reappeared in the only area of the Avatar Islands that she was sure did not belong to enemies: her own. The stone corridors and walls had the fresh look of recently-erected masonry. No moss or lichen marred their bricks, and no rust stained the iron mountings holding the blazing torches that illuminated the place. They would continue to do so for as long as the vaults were connected to the dungeon heart on her ice ship. The vessel still rested safely off-shore beneath the waves, impervious to attack by the hero warship - or at least that was what Ami hoped. Imps scurried out of her way as she walked through the halls of the complex that bore little resemblance to the simple tunnel it had started out as. With the aid of a veritable army of imps, she had transformed it into a labyrinth of meandering hallways and dead ends, with only a single path leading to the deepest chamber. Ami stopped at one of the rooms, empty like all of the others. Only because she knew what to look for did she notice that the seams surrounding one of the floor tiles were deeper than those of its neighbours. Stepping on it would trigger one of the many, many mechanical traps that defended this place. This particular one would result in a boulder weighing about a ton dropping on the intruder.

With a somewhat displeased frown, the girl stepped back. Mechanical traps were the whole purpose of this place, but their brutality was not something she relished. At least, they did not need power and would still be functional when she switched this place from the organic heart to a crystal one. An imp peered at her out of one of the hidden slits in the wall as she went by. Recognising her, it did not pull the lever that would trigger the floor folding away to send passers-by into the deep pit below. She passed more of the well-concealed obstacles on her way to the source of the clanging noise that resounded through the dungeon. Ahead, blades flashed and screeched against each other as figures in full plate mail, female in build, duelled each other with massive two-handed swords. Ami smiled at the sight, as it once again reminded her that she would not have to battle the Reaper. All the combat training she had done could still benefit her golems, at least for as long as she was still able to use them. Her eyes flashed a little redder when she thought back to the horned monster currently chained up in her main base. She couldn't just get rid of him, that would give away the game to Azzathra before the time was right. No, she would have to stand his presence for a while longer.

Upon seeing the Keeper, the animated statues ceased their training and lined up in a box formation seven man wide and five deep. Directed by the single golem standing proudly in front of them, they all raised their visors and saluted. Ami stared into the transparent ice faces that mimicked her own down to the last detail, surprised at the action They really like getting into their roles, she thought. Her eyes took in the metal-clad forms, all using troll-forged equipment that had been put together with great haste. These were about all the golems she could support if she empowered one of them with her senshi powers to serve as leader and as her host. While her fighters' equipment was a bit on the shoddy side, it wasn't as if a stab through one of the gaps would be able to seriously injure their frozen bodies.

"Carry on," she ordered as she continued on her way. Arming the golems was an unfortunate necessity because ice alone just wouldn't be enough to harm the inorganic matter of the crystal-type dungeon hearts. Neither would just freezing them with her Shabon Spray Freezing. Jadeite pouring lava on them through a portal might work, but considering that she had read multiple accounts of one of them growing out of a pool of magma, she had her doubts. Ami stopped before the large multi-ton block that completely obstructed the entrance leading into the deepest chamber, both to collect her thoughts and to see whether the opening mechanism was working properly. With loud creaking and rattling noises, a team of imps turned the massive, many-handled winch located inside the locked chamber that slowly lifted the obstacle out of her path. She allowed herself another smile when the lower edge of the stone cleared her line of sight, revealing the glittering pile within the room. Any invader without heavy equipment would be stumped by that door for a while.

"Everything is in place as you ordered," Jadeite greeted her from within, bowing politely. The grey-uniformed general was hovering in the air above the gold, looking down on it with a hint of disapproval. "Are you sure this," he gestured toward the riches on the ground, "isn't a bit premature?"

Ami was grateful for the question. Maybe convincing him would help her convince herself that creating the second crystal heart here was the right decision. Besides, the discussion would distract her from how handsome he looked. "The situation is such that there is nothing to be gained from waiting. The land is just too big to find out all about the enemy force composition by scrying, and I won't be able to make more golems or create more rooms and obstacles than I already have."

The curly-haired blond nodded, accepting that reasoning. "Still, there are other options, like continuing to run this place with the ship's heart, or to strike at the surrounding dungeon hearts first before making your own."

"I don't want to risk the ship's heart. If I sail it into remote waters, far away from any living thing, I should be able to keep it, whether the dark gods hate me or not. There will be nobody for them to vent their anger on, and I will be able to continue drawing on its mana. The thing is just irreplaceable. In contrast, all I risk losing with the crystal heart is time and gold."

"You are assuming that the dark gods can't just taint the mana," Jadeite pointed out, crossing his arms. "But why have the dungeon heart here at all if you can't properly make use of it yet?"

"Bait," Ami explained. Seeing the dark general's single raised eyebrow, she elaborated "Well, that, and I want to have an unassailable position before the enemies becomes aware of me. By all accounts of what happened during the famine fifteen years back, they shouldn't be able to afford to lose troops to traps, and a dungeon with no heart is not going to tempt them inside. Unfortunately, all of Avatar Island is currently claimed by some Keeper or other, so enemy minions can be transported in from all over the continent in an instant. If I tried to set up shop only after destroying a dungeon heart, the enemy would be warned and alert, and I would be swarmed before I could set enough traps."

"I remain unconvinced," Jadeite objected, touching down on the ground next to Ami and looking at her with a measuring glance.

The girl lowered her head. "I also need claimed terrain to send prisoners to, and to experiment with the heart's corruption effects," she added. "I'm not really sure how that works for crystal hearts, as supposedly dark mana is the source of the corruption. Hmm, maybe the mana just serves as some kind of distributing agent? But I digress. This plan is also the one with the highest calculated probability of success. Attacking first without a local base already established results in only half the chance of successfully seizing lore and room designs from the local Keepers," she lectured in her 'explain the exercise to Usagi' voice.

"Hmmph. Numbers are not everything. I have a bad feeling about this," the dark general voiced his opinion and walked away, blending into one of the shadowy corners, "but it's your decision in the end, and I will help you to make it work out as well as possible."

Blushing faintly, Ami nodded and turned her attention toward the small mountain of gold waiting for her as she approached it with firm, determined steps.

Clad in black and gold, Ami slid out of the crystal orb of the newly created dungeon heart, whose frame locked into place the moment its Keeper had fully emerged from it. With a smile, she turned to Jadeite, who frowned at her. An instant later, she flinched and felt an ache directly behind the bridge of her nose, painful enough to make her grit her teeth. "Ungh," she groaned, "what is going on?"

"Is it supposed to do that?" the curly-haired general stared at the newly-born dungeon heart in alarm.

Fighting against the splitting headache that made her eyes tear up, Ami turned and saw emerald motes and lightning of the same colour dance around the pillars and dais. What? It can't channel mana! That means- her eyes widened in alarm when the crystal pulsed bright white, banishing the ephemeral lights creeping along its edges. Floor tiles sprang out of their places and settled again. The motion expanded outward from the crystal heart, like a ripple through a pond. The ache in Ami's head redoubled. "The dungeon hearts! They are fighting for dominance! ARGH!" The blue-haired girl stumbled, dropping to one knee. In her mind, an image of the organic heart on the ice ship formed. A crack in its outer wall crept forward a finger's length with each pulse of the crystal artefact. Every time the damage worsened, Ami felt as if someone had stabbed her in the chest with a knife. Pressing her hands between her breasts, she disappeared from Jadeite's sight - a normal Keeper transport, not the teleportation he had taught her.

Ami landed on top of the organic dungeon heart and leaned heavily on the wall surrounding its central pit. She nearly fell into it and onto the sick-looking, fast-beating membrane when another wave of sympathetic pain went through her. I have to shut it down before it dies! Hurriedly, she started extracting the part of the heart that was her from the rumbling artefact. The floor dropped out beneath her as the dungeon heart retracted into the ground, and she landed hard on the already formed protective stone cover. Breathing laboriously, she pulled herself to her knees in relief. The phantom pain was gone as if it had never been, but she was uncomfortably aware of how close the crack had managed to get to central pit. Now that the panicked beating of the heart had stopped, she noticed the faint clinking noises coming from all around. Dazedly, she thought she heard water gurgle somewhere in the submarine.

Jadeite shimmered into existence, and looked around at the network of fissures creeping through the ice forming the walls. "Your new creation seems rather spirited," he commented. His steely-blue eyes focused on something on the ground. "Vengeful too. We have to get out of here!"

Before the curly-haired general's words could really sink in, he had already grabbed Ami's left upper arm and dragged her to her feet. From the corner of her eyes, she saw an entire cascade of cracks approach the stone disc covering the inert dungeon heart, before Jadeite dragged her into a teleport. The two appeared on a hill overlooking the coast, where yellowish waves broke against the jagged cliffs on the shore. Thankfully, it had stopped raining.

"I- I didn't expect that," Ami stammered, still pale from the experience. "There was absolutely nothing in any of the texts or simulations that would have prepared me for this. I mean, who would think that artefacts could be territorial? They both belong to me! I hope we can recover-"

Out in the ocean, not far from the shore, a sizzling column of water rose into the sky. Up and up it climbed until it had reached the height of a small skyscraper, glowing with a verdant brilliance that illuminated the region like a lighthouse. A few seconds later, it collapsed back into the frothing sea.

"What the hell?" Jadeite exclaimed, his grip on Mercury's arm tightening.

With a voice that lacked any inflection, the shell-shocked girl replied "Ruptured mana reservoir explosively discharging." She stood silently and stared at the ocean with wide eyes, unwilling to believe that her most valuable asset had just blown up. When the realisation finally hit fully home, she stomped her foot in frustration and cursed "Darn it!" Next to her, Jadeite tensed. This was the point where Beryl would be assigning blame. Mercury remained silent and swallowed several times before addressing the dark general with a faint smile. "T-Thank you for getting me out of there," she inclined her head. "You can let go of my arm now," she added as her cheeks reddened, but Jadeite was not looking at her.

"We got company, look," he pointed at a nearby hillside just beyond the girl's claimed territory.

Ami's head whipped in the indicated direction. At first, she thought she was looking at an approaching fog bank, but then she realised that the light of the smouldering sky did not stain the phenomenon's whiteness orange, like it did everything else. "Ghosts," she muttered after observing the luminescent avalanche for a few seconds. Gaunt, nearly skeletal faces warped into masks of hate and agony blazed over the landscape like pale comets, extending grasping hands forward from the ethereal banners that were their bodies. "They must have seen the glare of the explosion," she drew the obvious conclusion. The cries of the vengeful spectres drifted over on the wind. Ami could not only hear the awful howls, but also feel them as an awful vibration in her bones that raised the hair on the back of her neck and made her want to hide under her bed. Some days, it just doesn't pay to get up in the morning.

A small star made of darkness, looking too tiny to be of any use against the inrushing tide of spectral creatures, crossed the distance and met one of the foremost undead head on, only to be sucked into the semi-transparent body and changing direction as it passed through.

"Magic is useless against them," Ami cried out, "use your telekinesis! Their bodies are easily disrupted by physical impacts!"

Jadeite gave the blue-haired girl, who touched her ear and summoned her visor, an odd look. Hitting a ghost to kill it seemed strange to him, but she was the one with the tactical computer. Shrugging, he raised his right hand, palm facing upward. A sheet of blackened rubble followed the motion, rising off the ground in a dust cloud, and then shot toward the incoming wave of enemies like pellets fired from a shotgun. The spectres swerved aside and streaked into the sky to get out of the path of the projectiles. Huh, so she was right.

"Look out, it's only a distraction!" Ami shouted in alert when her visor indicated threats outside of the visible spectrum arriving from behind. She kicked backward, feeling her foot impact something that gave way after resisting the first push. Fingers cold like the grave brushed across her extended leg, leaving it numb where they touched her. Over her shoulder, she caught a glimpse of stringy, rotting hair surrounding a disintegrating face. The visage with a foot print in it dissolved. With her leg not yet retracted, she transported herself and Jadeite to the crystal heart chamber and out of the ambush.

"What?" the blond general asked in confusion at the sudden change of scenery.

Ami put her numbed leg back on the ground and waved her arms to not lose her balance, and immediately felt silly once she remembered that she could fly. "There was another wave of ghosts sneaking up on us, cloaked," she explained while massaging her shin where the spectre had touched it. Slowly, the feeling was returning, causing her skin to itch. "We'll have a better chance stopping them when they enter the dungeon. You stay here and defend the heart," the young Keeper ordered. She was already positioning her golem guardians at choice choke points along the route that the invaders would have to take. "Shabon Spray!"

A bank of magical fog that did nothing to impede her vision suddenly filled the inner sanctum, then disappeared as she moved it over to the entrance. "Cathy! Emergency! Get the scrying crew to the command centre and keep me informed about enemy movements!" the blue-haired girl commanded telepathically, her system full of adrenaline. She hadn't expected her defences to be tested this early. "Imps, to your battle stations!" With an excited nod to Jadeite, she turned into a black shadow that shot into the lead golem, who had just dropped out of thin air and landed with a clatter. The grille of its visor lit up with red light when the Keeper assumed control of the frozen body within.

Fog billowed out of the rectangular entrance to Ami's dungeon, making the invisible ghosts stand out as clear impressions in the greyish mist. This was enough for the two guards waiting behind the narrow gap to cleave the spectral beings asunder. Metal rattled against barbed chains wrapped around the arms of a transparent woman whose face looked as if she had been flayed alive. The ghost let out a horrible screech when the merciless blade stabbed her in the forehead and sent her to the release of true death. More of the wrathful spirits appeared around the entrance, but kept out of reach of the two armoured figures, circling the opening like hungry wolves.

"Enemy Keeper approaching the front gate," one of the warlocks alerted Mercury, his voice distorted by the distance. The senshi focused her vision there, just in time to see a shockwave part her fog, barrel down on her guards like a freight train and pick them up. They tumbled like leaves in the wind until they slammed into a wall and clattered down as a disorderly pile of armour. From the water seeping out of the joints, Ami could already see that the golems within had been shattered, and she created two more to take their place. In front of the entrance stood a tall, deathly pale and bald figure, clad in a simple black robe that flowed around him like liquid shadow. He lowered his outstretched arm and grinned, revealing two massively elongated canines in his upper jaw. An inverted pentagram shone forth on his forehead, between two eyes that glowed like burning embers from Keeper possession.

"Well, if he wants to get into a magic duel..." Ami's grin, hidden underneath her helmet, resembled that of a predator. Without warning, the enemy was suddenly encased within a block of ice - and just as suddenly gone, leaving nothing but a human-shaped impression in the ice. The wave of ghosts flooding in through the doors like a milky stream did not care, and advanced past the first bend, moving directly into the line of fire of half a dozen golems waiting behind arrow slits. With loud pops, icicle-like fingers detached and scythed down the front ranks of the ghosts. The torrent of tormented spirits hesitated, which was enough for Ami to pick up a boulder with her Keeper powers and roll it down the incline leading down to the entrance. She frowned when most of the evil spectres just flattened themselves against the walls or levitated up to the ceiling and avoided it. Her next surprise came when a swarm of bats flew down the corridor, right through the ghosts and into the firing range crewed by her golems. Against such small, madly fluttering targets, the finger barrage failed to hit even once, and the flying creatures poured in through the arrow slits.

"Crap! Vampire!" one of the warlocks shouted with alarm. In the small space between the golems, the swarm of bats coalesced into a pale, black-haired and unarmed female. With a blurred punch, she dented one golem's breast plate and sent the armoured figure flying into its companions, then rebounded its falling two-hander off of her heel, caught it by the grip, and impaled the entire wiggling pile on the long weapon, cackling all the while. An instant later, one of Ami's lightning bolt fried her head, and she exploded into a swirl of blackness. "Got that one!"

"There's more of them! The traps aren't slowing them down much!"

Ami bit back a curse. While she had been aiming, the ghosts had poured deeper into the corridors paving the way for their vampire masters. Two black shapes were dashing down the hall, legs blurring as they pumped. The floor dropped out under the first, but he just jumped to the right wall and continued sprinting along that. The second vampire turned into bats that mingled with the still incoming ghosts. At the speeds they were going, the effectiveness of blades popping out at chest height was perfectly satisfying and took care of that problem. "Collapse tunnels three to seven, they are coming in too quickly," Ami ordered. Nothing happened, with the next transmission informing her of the reason.

Watch out! The ghosts have squeezed into the imps' observation posts!

Incoming Keeper! Incoming Keeper!

Feeling harried, Mercury manually slapped away the supports that prevented the closest access tunnels from collapsing. With a rumble, the ceiling crumbled, stirring up a cloud of dust. That should slow them down. She turned her attention to her main enemy, who was floating down the corridor, surrounded by an unholy halo of spectres. Ami threw another lightning bolt at him, but the ablative layer of howling, distorted faces chained to the vampire absorbed the magic. She heard the enemy snicker at her and wave his clawed hands in a mock greeting. The eight armoured golems suddenly popping up all around him and hacking away with their greatswords provoked a different reaction. "BEGONE!" the monster hissed and snipped his fingers. A red-glowing ring of concussive force erupted from his body, catapulting his attackers away and slamming them into the walls. From the cracking noises alone, Ami knew they wouldn't get up again.

"Mercury, there are at least five vampires active in the dungeon!"

The senshi ignored the warning. The blast wave had divested the enemy Keeper of his protective shell, and she took the opportunity to take another shot at him. Impossibly, the possessed vampire spun out of the way at the last moment, turning the certain kill into a graze that incinerated his arm. To Ami's consternation, it regrew from shadows even as his ghostly protection flowed back over him. The enemy Keeper gave a mock bow. "Aww, missed me. Would you like to try again?"

"Golems are holding the line against the ghosts, but some invisible ones are slipping past and triggering traps!"

"Vampires got lost in labyrinth, currently pose limited threat!"

Three of the lords of the undead were currently rushing down a long, straight corridor, weaving between falling boulders as they advanced. The opportunity was too good to pass up. Ami withdrew one of her stored up dark Shabon Spray Freezings from storage and sent the tunnel-filling blast of sharp-edged black ice whistling into the fiends' direction. Their pupils barely had the time to shrink to pinpricks in shock before the spell slammed into them. Ami was treated to the sickening sight of the walls and floor being painted red with blood and gore. It turned into black goo that evaporated only moments later, but the teenager was glad that her current golem body had no stomach that could turn.

"All access tunnels collapsed, Keeper is still approaching." one of the warlocks informed Ami, who took advantage of the lull in battle that these roadblocks provided, and spied on the enemy leader again. The smug bastard was still floating within his protective cloud of enslaved, screaming ghosts. Her anger grew when she saw that some of those agonised, twisted spirits were those of children, who could only have died in the Keeper's torture chambers. Oh yes, she was going to take another shot at him. He was walking past just the right trap. Its imp operator was long dead, but she had no trouble manipulating it from a distance. A wall panel slid aside with a soft click that was masked by the thunder of another lightning bolt slamming ineffectively into the possessed vampire's defences.

"I'd thought you had learned your lesson now, you sorry excuse for a - GACK!" the enemy taunted only to be rudely interrupted by a ballista bolt to the stomach. Pinned like an insect to the flagpole-sized arrow, he whooshed down the corridor until the iron head buried itself in the wall with a jolt that made the shaft vibrate. The vampire's teeth clattered as the vibrations shook his body, and he looked down at the weapon impaling him with a mildly surprised frown. Ami targeted another spell at the wood lodged within the monster, bypassing his defences. A blast of unbearable brightness consumed the animated corpse from within, changing into orange and later red as it turned into a firewall that raced down the tunnel.

"Enemy advance has halted, they seem unable to bypass the collapsed corridors," Ami's faithful minions reported. Finally. It was about time she got this situation under control. She had been terrified for a while, thinking she was in over her head. "We still have ghosts milling about in every room, and two vampires too- wait, the Keeper just possessed one of them! She's going for the golems!"

The three ice constructs might as well not have defended themselves, for all the good their struggles availed them. The monster unleashed a flurry of barely visible punches and kicks at her opponents. The helmeted head of one of the statues came right off from a spinning kick and bounced off of the brick wall with a clang, and the vampire's claws tore straight through the breastplate of the second and ripped out the control cube as if it was a heart. For the third, she had other plans. She pounced, tackling the simulacrum to the floor, and knelt down on its chest. Both disappeared under a protective cocoon of ghostly slaves, and Ami saw the bloodsucker pull off the golem's helmet to take a look at its face. The vampire leaned in as if to kiss the ice creature, guiding its chin with her thumb and index finger. The icy servant's struggles ceased when it made eye contact with the enemy Keeper, who stared unblinkingly into the golems eyes for a few heartbeats. "I see," she declared, and let go of her victim. Its head dropped down limply, its mind gone. All of a sudden, what remained of the invasion force disappeared from Ami's dungeon, vanishing into thin air.

"We won? Just like that?" the teenage Keeper asked, perplexed at the sudden resolution. "What was that all about?"

"I don't know what you are talking about," Jadeite declared, feeling left out of the loop. All he knew was that the sounds of battle outside had suddenly stopped for no reason. "We won?"

"Hardly," a male voice intruded from behind them. Both the senshi-powered ice golem and Jadeite whirled around with similar expression of surprise and shock, dropping into combat stances.

"I-Impossible! I destroyed you!" Ami protested meekly at the sight of the vampire she had incinerated earlier, who was standing much too close for comfort to her dungeon heart. The pentagram on his bald head glowed in the same crimson colour as his possessed eyes. "How did you get in here?"

"This has to be the most half-assed invasion attempt that I ever had to waste my time crushing," the enemy Keeper replied, ignoring the question. "You didn't even have the courtesy to bring tasty snacks, only those lame bags of water. Not even gold. Pitiful." He seemed decidedly unimpressed by the sight of the golems that Ami was interposing as quickly as she could recall them between his borrowed body and the dungeon heart. "Oh well, I will just eat blondie over there once I have gotten rid of that eyesore," the pointy-eared vampire added, gesturing toward the artefact.

"Who are you, anyway?" Ami asked, trying to buy time so she could position her army better and find out what was going on. It didn't look as if his magical defences were still up, at least.

The vampire sighed. "Emperor Zarekos, the Keeper who has crushed all his competitors into dust and is now the undisputed ruler of the Avatar Isles. Definitely not pleased to meet you."

"Likewise," Jadeite replied in a deadpan tone of voice. He scowled at the intruder in disgust.

"I tire of this conversation. To me, my fledglings, to vict-"

A stored Shabon Spray Freezing interrupted the vampire's speech, burying him under a layer of ice before he could react. The lightning bolt shattering his prison at the very same moment definitely did not miss and turned the monster into a blazing humanoid torch. Ami's elation was short-lived, however. Before the vampire had finished burning to ash, a wave of red, consisting of many individual teleportation flares, illuminated the room during one of the dim phases of the glowing dungeon heart. In its wake remained rows of grinning, pale individuals dressed in flowing robes of black and red. All had prominent fangs protruding over their lower lips. The blue-haired girl felt a nauseating wave of sheer mind-numbing terror upon seeing the forces arrayed against her. Her visor beeped and provided their count: 72, helpfully pointing out exactly how hopelessly outclassed she really was.

The vampires didn't leave her time to let the shock sink in. Some glided through the air and toward the pulsating heart of the dungeon, bypassing her troops completely, but a larger group simply stormed forward at the wall of golems. Animated statues went flying and shattered underneath the charge, doing nothing to slow the enemy down. In a desperate bid for time, Ami unleashed all of her stored freezing spells at her own dungeon heart, encasing it and any vampires that had been too close at the time in a massive pillar of glittering ice. Her troops were already gone, mowed down by the blindingly fast undead. Only Jadeite remained, bouncing vampires off of his bluish-glowing shield when they swooped at him like birds of prey. He was gritting his teeth and spreading his arms, palms facing outward. Ami thought fast. The golems were useless here. Another firestorm spell was the only option she could see as even marginally helpful. Bracing herself for the pain that repeating the spell so soon after the first cast would inflict on her, she picked her target area well. The expanding fireball incinerated a good number of the vampires chipping away at her dungeon heart's ice shell while not melting too much of it. The resulting ring of fire ignited a few more as it washed over them, and their pained howls permeated the air, along with black smoke and the scent of burning human flesh.

Not enough. Still not enough. Her head felt as if it was on fire too, and if she even attempted another of these spells, she would simply pass out. Jadeite faded in next to her and swatted a vampire out of the way with a wall of black energy. "Mercury, this is not working," he sputtered. His eyes rolled around wildly in their sockets as he tried to keep track of the black and red blurs that were the enemy, and which were striking from any conceivable angle, "I can't get an attack in like this!"

Ami opened her mouth to cast a fog, but at that moment, she heard a tinging noise and felt as if a tiny needle had pierced her racing heart. A hole gaped in the armour of ice, and that had been the first strike at her dungeon heart! "Shabon Spray Freezing!"

Another stab. Before she could see the results of her spell, she spotted a flash of red to her right, just behind the curly-haired blond floating next to her. "JADEITE! NO!"

The dark general's eyes widened in sudden pain as Zarekos' fangs pierced his jugular. The vampire - still alive - had appeared just behind the dark general and latched onto his back. Three more stabs and accompanying tinging noises, in the space of less than a second. The emperor let out an enraged hiss when Ami bodily slammed into him, jabbing her armoured elbow into his rips. It wasn't enough to completely dislodge him from his victim, but sufficient to contest Jadeite's status as his captive. That sufficed for Ami's purposes. Ting. Pain. In one of the blocked corridors far removed from the invading force, two figures appeared. The armoured golem toppled backward as a black, shadowy silhouette stepped out of it, catching the limp larger form in her tar-like arms. Ting. PAIN! Ami's green-glowing hand went to the man's blood-spurting neck wound. There was so much red! Wincing, she pressed her hand on the wet gash and mended the worst of the flesh. Another pang made her knees buckle. She couldn't continue on like this. Was he still breathing? Please be still alive! OW! Shivering in dread, the blue-haired girl concentrated. With a flash of blue and a flurry of snow, both crossed the distance between continents and landed at Snyder's feet. The young acolyte started in fright at the sight, but was instantly all business when he noticed the amount of blood. "Who's hurt?"

"Help him! Please help him!" Ami implored with tears in her eyes. In her mind's eye view of the remote dungeon, the crystal was being hammered by blows, and she felt each one like a scratch to her own heart. The orb was compensating for damage in the same way that her golems did, by shrinking. As it lost in size, its heart rate increased. By now, it was emitting a near-constant light.

"I will." The white-and-red clad young man knelt down next to the patient and started a healing prayer even before he had settled down solidly.

Ami felt the exact moment that the dungeon heart shattered under the abuse. It was as if a strong breeze that only she could feel had picked up and was tearing at her body. She felt herself pulled away. Frightened, she grabbed onto the carpet, to no avail. Her knuckles went white from the strain as she clawed at the ground, but still she was dragged onward. Her fingers left a long, red-stained furrow in the fluffy woven fibres. Blood. Jadeite's blood. Snyder's brown eyes had gone round and were looking at Mercury with alarm. His hand reached out toward her, and she made a desperate grab for it, but her fingers went right through his, as if they had no substance at all. Too soon, she lost her grip completely and felt herself screaming across space. "NOOOOoooooo!"

In the command centre, Cathy stared in consternation at the main screen, which showed a projection of the destroyed dungeon heart. A solid oval of purest light-devouring blackness hovered above the shard-covered dais, lashing out at its surroundings with tendrils of white energy. Suddenly, a short female form plummeted toward it from above, to the jeers and cheers of the vampires still milling about. For a moment, Ami's wide-open eyes seemed to meet the swordswoman's, two blue pools filled with pure horror that pleaded for help that wouldn't come. Then, darkness swallowed them along with the rest of the girl.

Previous chapter: Next chapter:
Chapter 52: Research Breakthroughs Chapter 54: Into the Darkness



Attached comments:

  • I'm hoping the process is a bit more involved than 'I bite you, now your vampire'. Or else I'm guessing Vampires would be a lot more common in the underground.

It is. In the DK universe, the process involves special graveyards.

Either way though, not looking good for the rest of them. I've got a question though, did I miss something when Ami made the artificial heart? If her soul is still in the hands of the dark gods, why would she be out of her obligation to fight the Reaper?

It's not in their hands, just lost in their realm, which is a subtle but important difference. These gods are neither all-knowing nor all-powerful, so it will remain that way unless she starts worshipping one. That aside, their ability to affect the world is limited to specific areas, temples and servants. Using an organic dungeon heart of their own devising provides them with a convenient arcane link to deliver punishment.

So it's not as if Ami was out of her obligation, it's just that she now has the possibility to avoid the dark god's retribution for not upholding it.

The direct retribution, anyway ;)

  • I guess Mercury wasn't as tough as I first thought.

As a side note, experienced vampires in the DK universe are absolute beasts. They don't have the raw power or toughness of a horned reaper, but according to the game stats, they are even more skilled at fighting. They also have a vast arsenal of supernatural abilities, not the least of them teleportation. As if that wasn't enough, they also rise again when slain, but weakened.

  • Is the the Skeleton power also added to that Skeleton based armor?

No skeleton in the armour except for a bit of dust. Think of it as a machine that has to resemble a skeleton to work.

  • Now, which Dark Gods/Godesses are favoring(?) her?

Jadeite seems to think Metallia.

  • I'm still a little vague on the differences between crystal and organic DHs.

Organic dungeon hearts have a reservoir of mana that regenerates over time. Organic hearts do not. Both types use gold to construct infrastructure.

A less important difference is that organic dungeon hearts also have an inbuilt treasury to store gold. Crystal hearts require a separate one.

  • [Dungeon Hearts] can channel mana?

Organic hearts channel mana into their reservoir and into other mechanisms in the dungeon that consume it, such as magical traps. The Keeper also draws on this reservoir to work his magic.

Magical traps in crystal heart dungeons have a limited amount of charges that were filled in by the artisans who constructed them. No power from the crystal dungeon heart is used.

  • [regarding crystal dungeon hearts] No imps,

Organic dungeon hearts automatically provide four imps at no cost whenever there are less than four in the dungeon. The crystal type does not do this.

Both types also give access to the imp creation spell.

Ami's crystal hearts are nonstandard in that she modified them so that the dark gods wouldn't be able to exert power over her dungeon. As imps are servants provided by the dark gods (in my story at least), this modification means that she cannot cast the imp creation spell successfully with only her crystal hearts.

no spells...

Incorrect. A crystal heart allows for the same range of spellcasting as an organic one, with fewer limitations on where they can be cast. It powers the spells with gold, rather than mana, which makes them more grounded in reality and stronger.

do they do anything?

Aside from the aforementioned differences, crystal hearts do everything that organic hearts do - allow for Keeper transport of minions and objects, structural soundness of the dungeon walls, lighting, minion control and loyalty, mental map of the dungeon and remote vision, ability to move minions and prisoners, ...

CAN they even claim territory or anything else without imps to facilitate these actions?

Neither type of dungeon heart can claim territory on its own. In this story, claiming territory is something that other types of creatures can do too if they know how. (Hero dungeons in the game have claimed territory, but do not have imps)

The most important implications of the differences are the following:

Organic: -mana regenerates slowly -> effectively infinite resources

Crystal: -uses gold for everything, no mana -> limited resource

Ami-specific consequences:

-without the mana reservoir of an organic heart, she might no longer be able to cast Shabon Spray Freezing -her modified crystal hearts do not allow her to create imps. -her modified crystal hearts provide no means for the dark gods to affect her

  • He lost ghosts and vampires to Ami's defences, resources that I doubt he can replenish easily (if at all) due to the ravanged and nearly lifeless nature of the island. Meanwhile, he gained no prisoners to convert, nor any gold.

It's not that bad for him. He lost some ghosts, yes, but those are plentiful and made of mostly useless anyway, and he didn't lose any vampires - they rise again unless killed the right way.

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