The sound of three male voices chanting in eerie unison resonated through the high and bare chamber as a hair-rising tension built up in the air. The trio of warlocks stood at the points of an isometric triangle that surrounded a magical circle etched into the ground, and purplish arcs of lightning crept across their raised hands. Ami squinted, protecting her eyes against the glare of a ring of blue flames blazing within the arcane diagram, glad that the black-painted wall of the casting chambers swallowed the brilliant light, rather than reflecting it back. In front of each of the backlit silhouettes of the wizards stood a pedestal with an open tome on top. The gale blowing outward from the magical circle rattled the chains that kept the books opened to the right pages, and made the warlocks elaborate robes flutter around their legs.
Ami was watching the procedure with great interest, ready to interfere at a moment's notice if something went wrong. She could cast this transportation spell without assistance and from memory alone, but had no need for it. Instead, she would teleport to a small city on the western continent and extradite the employee on a mission there personally if her warlocks failed to perform the retrieval spell properly. Under her alert gaze, a rotating pillar of flame rose up in the centre of the diagram, sucking in the blue fire forming the circle. It spun, shot upward like a fountain, and expanded violently when the voices of the mages reached a crescendo. Ami felt a blast of hot air wash over her face and arms where they weren't protected by her Keeper outfit, and blinked to clear away the phantom specks spinning across her vision. Through the transparent curtain formed by the rapidly fading flames, she could see a new arrival. Wrapped from head to toe in dark leathers that were now even darker from the residual soot, he was carrying a bag nearly as tall as himself and didn't look important enough to warrant all this effort. His green face swivelled back and forth as he stared at the taller wizards surrounding him, and his noise twitched at the smell of burning incense.
"Welcome back," Ami greeted the disoriented goblin, waving her hand to catch his attention. Addressing the warlocks, she continued "Good work everyone. I'm very satisfied with your progress. You may take the rest of the day off, I have no more need for your services right now."
All three warlocks bowed their heads and turned to walk toward the exit, which left the goblin free to deliver his report. "Mission successful!" he squealed, bringing his right hand in a sloppy salute that barely failed to crush his ear.
Ami nodded, but froze suddenly and called "Watch out, your bag!"
The large, squirming bag slung over the goblin's shoulder, no longer secured by a two-handed grip, slid down the greenskin's back as the coarse fabric slipped through his grasp. Hindered by bite-covered leather gauntlets, his fingers were too stiff to get a hold of the sack before it hit the ground with a muffled thud. Even before it touched the floor, a pressure from within enlarged its opening. Panicked rats popped out of the top, fleeing their claustrophobic prison in a wave of grey, bald-tailed bodies.
"Oops! Rats fleeing!" the goblin shouted, putting his hands on his head and somehow managing not to prick them on the two short horns on his helmet. Dismayed, he leaned down and made a grab for the fast and frightened animals. "Oh no, you go back into- Argh!" A furry form leapt with an angry hiss, and the goblin staggered backward, now with a rat chewing on his nose. A moment later, he lost his balance when more of the rodents got underfoot, and disappeared under the wriggling grey carpet. Half-crazed by the smell of fire and the unfamiliar surroundings, the pink-tailed rodents scattered in all directions, spilling over the lines of the arcane diagram and onwards. Then, they spotted Ami, who was watching the minor disaster with widened red eyes and both hands covering her mouth. As one, they turned tail and fled in the opposite direction, toward the warlocks who were already half-way to the door. Alerted by the rapid pitter-patter noise that the rat swarm's feet made on the smoothed stone, the powerful magic users turned their heads and caught a glimpse of the fuzzy tide sweeping in their direction. Dignity forgotten, they lifted their robes and sprinted for the exit, chased by the squeaking mass that smelled like frightened animals.
Ami grimaced. These were wild rats, plucked fresh from city sewers, and they hadn't been long enough in the dungeon to fall under her influence. Thinking fast, she transported herself and reappeared in the open door frame. Immediately, the animals at the front sensed the great evil lurking suddenly ahead and reversed direction, slamming into the ones behind them. Rodents tried to climb over each other, tripping and squeaking in protest as the two groups moving in opposite directions collided. The chaos lasted only for the few heartbeats that the rats needed to reassess the situation, and soon enough, all of them were fleeing away from the door, heading for the corners of the room that put the most distance between them and the blue-haired girl. Ami smiled, satisfied that this problem had been nipped in the bud, but then let out a squawk and flattened herself against the door frame as the three hurried warlocks barrelled past, beards trailing behind them.
In the centre of the room, the goblin stirred and groaned as he pulled himself to his feet, glancing cautiously at the rats huddling against the far wall, and then to the opposite side of the room, where the Keeper was slowly going through a sequence of arm movements that ended with both palms close together and extended in his direction. The creature's ears drooped, and he gulped in fright.
"Shabon. Spray. Freezing." Ami went through the motions of her strongest sailor senshi spell with deliberate slowness, gathering sufficient power for the magic by stretching out its casting time. Shimmering bubbles shot from her hands and in the direction of the leather-clad goblin, who eeped and shielded his face. Hearing a faint clinking noise, he cautiously reopened one eye and peered past his raised arm. A hip-high barrier of ice now blocked the exit from the room, trapping the escaped rodents within. Standing behind the glittering wall, Ami shouted at the goblin "You! Go tell the Beastmaster about this, and help her collect the escaped rats!"
"Yes, Keeper," the green humanoid answered with a resigned sigh, rubbing the tooth marks on his nose. A brief moment of concentration on Ami's part yanked him through space and deposited him in the straw-covered chamber full of stacked cages, saving him the trip. Returning her attention to the local room, she watched the covering rats for a while, and mused out loud "That could have gone much worse."
Footsteps echoed through the corridor, announcing Jered's approach. "Conclusion: always expect the goblins to screw up an otherwise flawless mission."
"Only one out of the five dropped his bag," Ami pointed out, shaking her head in mild disapproval. "You are starting to sound like Marda," she teased, lips curving upward in a small smile when the wavy-haired man faltered in his step.
"Oh, that was a low blow." Jered clasped his heart theatrically. "Still, while I can see the wisdom in stocking up on more rats before we invade, why use the warlocks? Wouldn't it have been much faster for you to just retrieve the goblins and their cargo yourself?"
Ami nodded. "Of course, but the point was for the warlocks to get some practice casting that spell. I want them to be able to use it in the coming battles."
"For simplifying logistics over disconnected territories, you mean?"
"That's one application, but I would prefer it if all of the conquered territories remained contiguous. Defending more than one dungeon heart without the benefit of being able to call in reinforcements with Keeper transport is something I want to avoid, if at all possible." Ami fell in step beside the wavy-haired man as she continued her explanation. "I want to use the spell against the enemy directly."
Jered scratched his chin. "How? The magic needs to build up at the retrieval location for a few minutes, and the gathering energies are very obvious. Blindingly so", he said, referring to the fiery light show.
"True. But tell me, where do vampires sleep?"
"Coffins. Oh, I see!" Jered's mouth split into a grin that mirrored Ami's own. "Not much light or wind getting into those, and sleeping vampires don't move." His brows furrowed into a frown. "Still, isn't that risky? Even if you treat them to a free sunbath, you'd still need to kill them before they can get at the warlocks."
"Not a problem," Ami said, stomping her foot on the ground a few times demonstratively. "Remember where we are?"
The new planning room that Ami had built during the last few days of the journey was dominated by a map of the Avatar islands and their surroundings, which alone took up as much space as her entire living room. It rested on a square table that modelled areas of the continent that Ami had accurate information about by mimicking the terrain and its colours. The parts that were not rust red, black, or ocean blue denoted regions that her warlocks had not yet scryed on, and they took up much of the inland.
"That's the last dungeon location that I know of," Marda said as she jabbed a small blue flag with a black bat on it into one of the grey regions. Ami counted eleven markers distributed all over the map, concentrated more densely around the southwest. Which made sense, as she had found the trolls in that region.
"Good, that's useful information," the young Keeper said."Which ones belonged to Mukrezar?"
Marda shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. We'll just have to take out all of them."
"That's the plan," Ami agreed. "In any case, those markers should help us identify our first target. Our current location is around here." She placed a flag with an aquamarine Mercury symbol into the ocean, just off the north-west coast.
"Wait, we are this close to the shore already?" Cathy asked as she walked around the table and took position at Ami's side, staring down at the flag.
"Yes. We will get into sight distance of the continent any day now, which is why the topside entrance needs to be guarded around the clock."
"Are you expecting Zarekos to be able to detect us this far out?" Jadeite asked.
"He'd have to be blind to miss the thundercloud in the sky above us," Cathy pointed out. "An undetected approach is, sadly, out of the question."
"Yes. Fortunately, he could only attack us with ghosts at this distance, and without backup, we should be able to stop any number of those without too much trouble if we can hold a choke point, like the entrance," Ami explained with a forced smile. The prospect of fighting so many potential enemies was still daunting, despite the positional advantages offered by her floating dungeon.
"I concur with hat estimation," Marda chimed in. "We held off waves of them often enough with nothing but wards, narrow corridors, and a few blackpowder bombs. The only danger are invisible ones slipping past unnoticed and lying in wait until they can slip into some helpless sleeper's bed to suck the life out of him."
"Gee, I needed that mental image," Cathy complained, shuddering. "Just imagine grabbing for a blanket and getting one of those things instead!"
"Don't worry, I'll add a few mist generators to the gate to reveal the invisible spectres," Ami promised, patting the blonde on the back reassuringly.
"Actually, I would be interested in seeing the designs for those wards you mentioned, Marda. Perhaps I could assist in their construction with my not inconsiderable skills," Snyder said. When the armour-clad troll failed to react to the suggestion and continued acting as if the redhead wasn't present at all, he frowned in irritation. Turning to Mercury, he asked "What if they breach the walls instead and sneak on board that way? Ice is rather less solid than ground or stone, after all."
"I can sense when the dungeon is damaged," Ami assured him, "nobody will be able to get in unnoticed like that."
"We would lose the windmills if we faced a massed assault, though," Jadeite said, looking at a floor plan of the iceberg pinned to the wall. The tall towers with their spinning blades were marked in bright orange, denoting an exposed area, while the location of the dungeon heart was not indicated at all. "We don't have the means to properly defend against an attack from the air. Got any solutions, Mercury?"
The blue-headed girl walked over to her desk and summoned her Mercury computer. After typing away for a while, she shook her head in the negative. "I could increase the violence of the corruption storm, or I could slowly whittle away at a siege with my own power. In either case, we'd lose the windmills, either to storm damage or to enemy action."
"What would the consequences be?" Marda asked, her coarse features all business.
"Less gold to go around," Ami said, closing her palmtop. "I'd have to fix the windmills and have to run the dungeon's magic and defences on gold during the blackout. It would be a setback, but a recoverable one. Unless it happened too often in rapid succession."
"Right. We'll just have to hit Zarekos so hard that he won't even think of being able to spare troops for a counterattack, then!" Cathy punctuated her statement by slamming her fist down on the map.
"Indeed. Which brings us back to selecting a target for our attack," Marda grunted. "Any suggestions, Keeper?"
"Our first priority is destroying one of Zarekos' dungeon hearts before he realises that we are going after them," Ami pointed out and glanced at the map. "That will establish a zone where he can't simply drop reinforcements, and we can use the period during which he is banished to secure our foothold and strike at the neighbouring hearts!"
"We wouldn't have to go through that trouble if Marda and her trolls would just let you summon a dungeon heart on their island," Jered commented, shooting the broad-nosed creature a poisonous look.
"Out of the question," the troll snapped, frowning at the weasel-featured man. "It's our sanctuary and refuge in case something goes wrong, which we have bled to defend! It shall remain inviolate!" The weasel-featured man glowered while Ami and Jadeite exchanged a glance behind the broad troll's back.
"Anyway," Ami interrupted the brewing squabble, "it has to be somewhere close to the coast. We need water to keep the vampires away. Optimally, it would be an area that our enemy has little reason to keep an eye on." She waved her hand, making yellow circles appear around the bases of three of the flags that denoted the presence of an enemy dungeon heart. "That leaves these."
"That one is out." Jered pointed at the southernmost of the blue and black flags. "That's where your previous invasion failed. Get too close to that region and you'll be banished again."
The girl's eyes widened, and her paling skin formed a stark contrast with her deep blue bangs. "Really? Yes, you are right," she said, shuddering at the memories. "I hadn't recognised the area from the map alone. Let's keep well away from that one. Jadeite, can you show us what the Underworld looks like around the remaining two locations? "
The curly-haired blonde nodded, and his eyes shone white from within as the light seemed to drain from the rest of the room, leaving only the map to glow unnaturally from within. Transparent pictures of bizarrely shaped islands floating freely in nothingness appeared above the two marked flags.
"That's what the Underworld looks like when mapped?" Cathy's blue eyes were very large as she leaned forward curiously, taking in the phantom sights. "It looks a bit like demented snowflakes."
"I'd have said puzzle pieces, myself," Jered commented. "Very interesting how there are connections between some. Wait." His eyes crossed as he looked closer. "Are those two places overlapping? How does that work?"
"If you think that's confusing, you should have been around while I was trying to map that," Jadeite smirked. "Space is just strange in that place. In any case, there are enough magma flows close to the northern location to make it susceptible to a portal-based lava attack. The southern one, not so much."
"Hmm, it might be better to keep our ability to do that a secret for now so we can use it when it really hurts the enemy." Cathy cautioned.
Ami closed her eyes as she pondered the advice. "I'll have the warlocks survey both locations thoroughly and calculate the odds for different strategies before making a decision," she declared. "For now, I need you to get the troops ready and the equipment prepared. Cathy, you are in charge of getting the goblins up to speed. Marda, you make sure that your trolls are combat ready, they may be needed to support the automatons, though it's more likely that they will remain here on guard duty. Snyder, please double-check the equipment in the new command centre. Jered, please prepare an up-to-date list of the traps and magical items we have in storage, and a few of each ready to be shipped. Jadeite, I will need a small, fast, and stealthy transport ship to get the troops to the coast."
"All right!" Cathy saluted, and so did Jered, albeit in a mocking way. Marda inclined her head acknowledging her orders, Snyder simply nodded, and Jadeite bowed, putting his arm across his chest.
"What about the youma?" the curly-haired blonde asked, not yet leaving.
Ami, who had just retrieved her palmtop, looked up. "Mareki is eager for battle, but won't need any lengthy preparation. Umbra is still recovering." That wasn't true, and she was well aware that Jadeite knew the veil-wearing youma was in perfect health. Her answer let him know that the creature was still away on her secret reconnaissance mission. Ami focused briefly on the youma's location deep within the bowels of Marda's island. Even knowing what to look for, she had trouble spotting the pool of darkness creeping along tracks in the ceiling. The two trolls it was trailing remained blissfully unaware of the youma's presence. "Finally," the blue-haired girl looked down sadly, "our unknown third guest is still in the cell block, alternating between staring into the air and attacking the bars in a berserk fury. I hope she'll snap out of it sooner or later."
"Hrm. That's a slight improvement over bashing her head into the wall constantly, at least. I think it's safe to say that she won't be participating in the assault." Jadeite nodded and walked away, leaving Ami to ponder the fate of the insane youma. It was a good thing that the dungeon heart could keep prisoners from teleporting, acting as an anchor of sorts. It was still theoretically possibly for a being that was such bound to teleport out, but only if it was powerful enough to take the entire dungeon along for the ride. Unfortunately, that method wasn't particularly useful for keeping someone out, or Ami would have a headache less. Putting that thought out of her mind, she opened her computer, staring in concentration as reflections of letters and numbers started racing across her red-glowing eyes.
|Previous chapter:||Next chapter:|
|Chapter 81: Equipment Test||Chapter 83: The Opening Strike|