"You are looking different today, Keeper." Marda pulled herself to her full height, straightening her spine in order to avoid having to look up at Ami's face. For a troll meant to stand hunched-over, this meant thrusting forward her belly comically. The ever-present furrow between the armoured creature's protruding eyebrows deepened as she pursed her lips in disapproval. "Too much orange."
The teenager couldn't help but agree with Marda's assessment upon spotting her reflection sliding across the smooth ice walls. Like Mareki's body before, that of the unknown youma whom Ami was possessing right now had changed in appearance to become more similar to the young Keeper's original form. She speculated that the effect had been even more pronounced because the youma's mind was all but blank. Using possession for mental therapy could theoretically work, at least if she could find a mind operating on more than animal-level intelligence. Which wasn't the case with this victim of the eternal sleep, at least not without delving deeper into her brain than Ami deemed safe.
Unfortunately, the adaptation had proven insufficient to get rid of the youma's garish colouration. Ami's blue hair had mixed with the being's straw-like blond spikes, painting the bangs green. She looked a bit like a tiger-striped carrot right now, she thought resignedly. Ami hadn't found out yet whether her current host had any special powers beyond being huge and muscular, but she still preferred this body to Mareki's. It had no tail and was much closer to her natural shape, aside from the size. While she now sported goat-like horns, those were the youma's only inhuman features, and they weren't affecting her balance nearly as much as the increased weight on her chest that bounced with each step. Noting Jered's fascinated stare, she looked down and discovered that sailor senshi uniforms did reveal quite a lot of cleavage, provided it existed in the first place. She frowned and resisted the urge to cross her arms and cover herself. If the brown-haired man's girlfriend had been present right now, he would have earned himself another elbow to the rips. "Jered, were there any difficulties with the preparations?"
With reluctance, the weasel-featured man's gaze wandered upward until he met her red-glowing eyes. "Nothing, everything you wanted is waiting right here." He turned sideways, indicating the stack of crates waiting in the back of the room along with a triple row of automatons. Even squatting inactive on the ground with their knees pulled up to their wide, skeleton-patterned chest, the reaperbots made for an imposing sight.
"The landing ship is ready as well," Jadeite said as his grey-uniformed form peeled itself from the shadows. The curly-haired blond lowered his head in a court nod as he approached. Ami never noticed the dark general's gaze stray lower than her neck, but she wasn't entirely sure if she felt pleased or irritated about that. On one hand, this wasn't her body, but on the other, he never seemed to pay much attention to her even when she was herself. Or anyone else, as far as she could tell, though the only other human-looking females around were Cathy and Mareki's human form. It was frustratingly difficult to determine whether he was interested or not. Maybe she needed to be more aggressive? Glad that her orange skin hid her blush, she dismissed the conjured mental images that popped up involuntarily. She should be concentrating on the mission instead.
The green-haired girl focused her mental gaze to the immediate surroundings of her iceberg, where a much smaller, elongated vessel swayed on the waves. Submerged almost completely in the violent sea, the cigar-shaped vessel had been fashioned from a hollowed-out piece of ice, and its smoothed hull showed no hatches or other entrances that would allow seawater inside. The interior, all owned territory claimed before the vessel had been chiselled loose from the main ship, provided all the cargo-moving capability that Ami could possibly need. Lacking a direct connection to her dungeon heart, the claim would revert quickly once the ship moved further away, but at that point, its hold would already be filled with troops and gear. Since Ami had last checked on the boat, its clear ice walls had changed due to Jadeite's work. Rough, transparent surfaces now showed the dull sheen of curving metal, making it resemble a modern submarine in appearance. It had no engines, but according to the curly-haired blond, his glamour would make it move exactly like one anyway. Trying to wrap her head around the magic just knowing what to do, with no discernible mechanism for how it worked, gave Ami a headache. Was mere intent enough? In any case it was an intellectual problem she suspected she would have to dedicate some time to in the future. A short glance to the left, where a delightful frost pattern embellished the wall, was enough to confirm that. The corruption flowing into the world through her dungeon heart twisted and remodelled the environment in a way that seemed almost intelligent in the way it avoided disturbing the functionality of her dungeon. If there was intent involved here, she wondered just whose.
"Thanks, Jadeite. Everything looks all right." Ami smiled in the taller man's direction, and piece by piece, the inventory in the room disappeared as she stowed it away neatly on the even decks of the the landing ship.
"We are going to attack at noon, then?" Loud footsteps made by the blond's boots echoed through the emptying chamber as he a paced around, brimming with energy in anticipation of getting out and doing something.
Ami nodded while loading the final pieces on the vessel. The bundle of long, golden rods intended to fuel her mechanical army glittered in the light before vanishing from sight. "Yes, from what we know vampires prefer to be active at night, and the skeletons and ghosts don't have eyes, so I doubt darkness would help us avoid their senses."
"Zarekos won't know what hit him," Jadeite boasted, baring his teeth in a cruel smile before vanishing into vertical black streaks.
Ami's new command centre was slightly smaller than the one she had constructed in Malleus' old dungeon, mainly because it didn't have to accommodate a huge, self-updating map of the combat area. Ami missed having the aquarium filled with liquid golems in all colours of the rainbow around, but as long as she wasn't able to create imps, she would be unable to replicate it.
"The invasion craft departed a moment ago, and I am taking command of this operation while Mercury is out in the field. Do not disappoint the Keeper!" Cathy throned on the elevated command chair at the very back of the rectangular room, looming above a disgruntled Marda, who muttered about being much better suited for that job, not for just a lousy advisory role. In reaction to the blonde warrior's announcement, the screens along the sides of the room lit up, illuminating the waiting black silhouettes sitting in front of them. Waxy-skinned faces that looked sculpted from light and shadow leaned in closer to the magical mirrors as the warlocks started their incantations. Like the facets of an insect's eye, each of the flat, arcane devices showed a slightly different perspective of the scorched land that was the enemy's location. The images flickered and moved as viewpoints drifted apart and each spellcaster searched for potential dangers.
"Goblins, get ready to disembark at my command!"
A chorus of short, muffled affirmations came from the double row of child-sized, coffin-like capsules that lined Cathy's seat on both sides. One after the other, the lids snapped shut with metallic clangs, hiding the large-eared green occupants within. With a satisfied grunt, the tall woman wearing a Sailor Mercury uniform let herself sink into the chair and looked up to the canvas on the opposite wall of the chamber, where the projection of a metallic-looking cylinder was burrowing through the crimson waves as it headed for the shore in a straight line.
The horizon looked as if it was on fire where it met with the maelstrom of reddish-orange clouds spiralling in the sky. Even Ami's visor, which filtered the tones and overlaid them with sensor data, could not dispel the illusion completely. The currently green-haired teenager's heart was hammering in her chest as she surveyed her surroundings, hovering a metre above the desiccated black dust. The knowledge that a single mistake, a single overlooked ghost lurking about invisibly, could jeopardise the entire assault injected much unwanted excitement into the otherwise boring chore. Satisfied that none of the undead beings was hiding within a fissure or within the frothing pools of stinking yellow fog that seeped like pus from the underground, she teleported back a short distance to where her metal behemoths were crouching in a shallow depression, keeping their horned heads down.
Ami cast a quick spell on her right eye and formed the word "Report!" in her mind. Moments later, the dreamlike mental voices of the scrying team back on the iceberg updated her on the situation.
"Skeletons milling about in the valley north of your destination, but they have no line of sight."
"All clear near map sector B-four."
"No unusual activity from the ghost village to the east.
Ami let out a relieved breath. Without constant supervision, ghosts seemed to congregate in places that had been dear to them in life, even if they were nothing more than scorched ruins and rubble by now. That, or the creatures simply preferred places that were less exposed to the caustic rain. Whatever the reason, Ami was glad that the spectres stayed out of the way for the most part. Avoiding Zarekos' notice until it was too late was the key part of her plan. From the point where her scythe-wielding automatons had cracked open the hull of their transport like an eggshell to the time they reached the enemy dungeon heart, stealth was vital. If caught in the open where the vampire lord could bring the numerical superiority of his undead hordes to bear, her troops would be annihilated, regardless of any qualitative superiority. And we might not even have that, if the vampires join the fray personally. That bleak thought resting heavily in her mind, Ami scanned the hilly countryside once more before waving her reaperbots forward. The band of around thirty hulking monstrosities followed the trail of a stream of lava, close enough that its heat blistered the black lacquer covering their frames. The roaring and hissing of the molten metal masked the splintering noise of pebbles being ground to dust underneath steel feet, and the procession moved onward in apparent silence, unimpeded by the weight of the crates that the automatons were carrying.
A few uneventful, but still nerve-wracking hours later, Ami nearly jumped for joy when the terrain feature that had made her choose this target over its alternative came into sight. Like a gaping wound in the rock, a straight and fairly recent crevasse lay before her. She floated closer and let herself sink into the dark abyss, drifting down past layers of differently-coloured rock until she spotted the first artificial tunnel that had been neatly bisected by the fissure. Any Keeper could feel when their dungeon was breached, so the pre-existing damage was a godsend. Feeling grateful for the additional strength and reach that her borrowed body provided, Ami helped her bulky automatons with the difficult descent down the near-vertical incline. Secured by ropes and the Keeper's telekinetic powers, the steel warriors walked down the wall one after the other, with the floating girl flitting about and giving the goblin-piloted devices a hand whenever one of them stumbled. A loud scraping noise startled the sweat-drenched teenager when brittle rock shattered beneath one of the metal soles and showered her with dust and pebbles. The reaperbot in question lost its footing, and Ami reached it just before the heavy automaton, dangling from its rope like a wrecking ball, could slam into the flank of the crevasse and cause a landslide. With muscles aching from grabbing the thing by its arm and slowing its swing enough that the impact merely caused a loud clang, she watched as the first of her soldiers reached the brick-framed gap leading into the enemy dungeon. The pauldrons guarding its shoulders scraped over stone as the machine squeezed through the opening, dislodging a few bricks and caking its black exterior with flour-like dust as it pushed through the rubble blocking its path.
"That way." Ami was at the head of her forces, leading them toward the source of the slow, rhythmic thumping that echoed through the underground, coming from deeper within the dungeon. The young Keeper had her troops move at a rapid pace. For one, her large and stomping warriors were controlled by goblins and poor at moving quietly, for the other, Zarekos could decide to focus his attention here at any moment and discover them. Granted, the danger was vanishingly small, as there was no reason for the vampire to check up on the empty corridors that had been abandoned for so long that even some of the magical torches that lit the place had dropped from their holsters. Ami hoped not to provide him with one. She cautiously stepped around a pool of greenish liquid gathering at the left side of the slightly inclined floor, having spotted the discoloured gauges that the substance had etched into the bricks and murals where it trickled out of the ceiling and ran down the wall. Some of the caustic precipitation on this hellish island must have seeped into the ground deeply enough to reach these tunnels, she figured. Peering ahead, she spotted more of the pools glistening in the wavering twilight, dispensing an acrid stench as they slowly ate into the red-patterned floor tiles. It probably wouldn't be strong enough to harm her steel warriors.
"Step lightly so you don't splash this stuff around, and keep the crates dry," she ordered the pilots back at the base before continuing onward, followed by the scythe-armed behemoths tiptoeing after her. The group moved through an empty hall with an arched ceiling, where lighter spots on the floor and walls still showed where furniture had once been. If Ami's guess was correct, then the room had at one point been a barracks for the guards of the nearby dungeon heart, which should be at the end of the long, trap-filled corridor behind this place. However, an obstacle in the form of a sturdy iron door impeded their progress. Just battering it down, while perfectly within her capabilities, would have drawn Zarekos' attention instantaneously.
"Jered, please take care of this." As Ami gave the mental command, she pointed at one of the wooden crates carried by her reaperbots, motioning for it to be placed in front of the door. Like a jack-in-the-box, a much smaller, fragile-looking automaton with long, articulate fingers popped out and leaned forward to inspect the lock. Picking up a set of jingling lockpicks, it started poking at the rusty keyhole. Immediately, sparks raced down the automatons arm, and the smell of ozone filled the room when the touch set off a trap. Unimpressed by the voltage that would have floored a regular thief, the automaton continued its work, eliciting clicking noises from the lock.
"It's also barred from the other side," the voice of a warlock informed the currently orange-skinned girl.
"I'm on it," Ami declared. In her mind, she visualised the scrying mirror that the warlock in question was using and summoned her Keeper hand made of water. Controlling it without a direct line of sight proved difficult, but opening the massive bar that kept the door shut didn't need precise manipulation. Of course, the fake wall exploding into a shower of shards and releasing a round boulder that smashed the liquid limb into a useless puddle made even imprecise manipulation difficult. Startled, Ami took a step back, waiting for the rumbling to subside as the heavy boulder rolled back and forth behind the door, up and down the ramps placed to guide its course and turn the bodies of any intruders caught in the trap into a fine pulp. Finally, the thing came to rest, and Ami repeated her efforts, unimpeded this time. With a loud scraping noise, the bolt slid back and the gate swung open, revealing the corridor behind it and the boulder that filled it near completely. The young Keeper contemplated the obstacle for a moment, raising her clawed left hand to her lips. "Are there any alarm traps I can't see from here behind it?" she asked her warlocks.
"Checking," came the whisper-like reply, and Ami had to wait for a few minutes as the magic users intensified their scrying efforts. "None that we can detect, Keeper."
Ami smiled, revealing her borrowed form's sharp fangs. "All right, everyone. Start pushing that thing down the hallway!"
Its surface peppered with craters, deep gauges, and red-glowing scorch marks, the boulder shuddered to a halt and broke apart, weakened too much by the multitude of mangled blades and bent spikes sticking out of it. No longer absorbed by the rolling shield, a bolt of lightning struck the foremost of the metal soldiers, melting its elbow joint with a hiss. Ami darted out from behind the broad-shouldered automaton and thrust out her hands, palms facing forward. A scintillating stream of bubbles shot toward the crackling aperture in the ceiling, covering it in a thick layer of ice just before the white glow within built up and discharged with a blinding flash. Ice cracked, and hissing blasts of steam shot through the fissures, but the plug held long enough for the device to expend its remaining charges. Less winded from casting the quick Shabon Spray Freezing than she had expected, Ami peered over her cover and ahead toward where the chamber widened. In regular intervals, the shadows within retreated before the white glare of the pulsing dungeon heart it contained, revealing the gargoyle-heavy decorations that snaked up the support pillars. Too bad that it was hard to appreciate their artistic value through all the red outlines denoting traps that her visor overlaid her view with. "Shabon Spray!"
Like a blanket being scrunched up, the banks of conjured mist pulled together and concentrated in one spot. The myriads of tiny water droplets in the air flowed together, forming a single body of liquid that sprouted five fingers. Ami's Keeper hand, as big as herself, lowered itself to the floor, pointing at the ground. Walking on middle and index finger, it launched itself forward into the killing zone. Just like the cowardly goblins that piloted them, the horned automatons cringed away as explosions and whirring blades filled the hallway, ripping into the decoy. The corridor flashed and rumbled as if a miniature thunderstorm was raging within, with blasts of flame and electricity taking the role of lightning, stabbing spikes providing the sound of hail, and hissing poison gas valves that of howling storms. Upon noticing the toxic clouds, Ami retreated to a safer distance behind her warriors. She had to replace the animated hand every few seconds, whenever it was blasted apart, vaporised, or frozen solid by the relentless assault. With each twitch of its fingers, the traps seemed to redouble their efforts, until they had spent their fury several long minutes later. Covering several pitfalls that hadn't been triggered by her decoy with ice, Ami motioned for her fireworks-watching troops to advance and surround the enemy dungeon heart. "Cathy, they are all yours while I make the final preparations. Make sure none of them touch the dungeon heart before I'm ready!"
Most of the remote-controlled automatons dispersed throughout the scarred and smoking room and took up guard positions. Others lifted equipment from the crates, revealing magic wands and bulkier weapons than their scythes, which needed to be assembled on the spot. Ami busied herself by first creating a ring-shaped, hip-high ice fence around the dungeon heart and her troops, and then cast spell after spell, nearly shouting herself hoarse in the process of filling this improvised pool with water. Meanwhile, three of the reaper-looking automatons approached the steps leading up the dais where the enemy dungeon heart throned between four skull-topped pillars. The metal of their joints groaned as they aligned a drill as large as a young tree with the centre of the majestic crystal, holding it like a battering ram. On the other side of the glowing artefact, a second team of warriors was just done assembling an actual battering ram and getting ready to storm ahead. Another of the black metal beasts was exchanging his scythe for an oversized pick, while yet another affixed a giant axe head to the haft of his weapon. A bit behind them, two of the bots were putting up a desk that had a long row of finger-thick magic wands glued to its surface, all aimed directly at the enemy dungeon heart. They contained a few charges of various attack spells. Ami certainly wasn't going to test what worked best against those artefacts on one of her own.
Droplets of water dripped down from Ami's wet boots as she floated upwards, lifting herself out of the now knee-deep pool of ice-cold water surrounding the dungeon heart. Satisfied with the state of the preparations, she hardened her features and raised her hand. "BEGIN!" she ordered, bringing the arm down like a guillotine. With a shrill whine, the drill started spinning when one of the automatons inserted a rod of gold into its end. On the other side of the dungeon heart, water sloshed and sprayed as the battering-ram wielding fake reapers stormed up the stairs. Some of the other automatons stormed in the direction of the glowing orb, but most just raised their scythes, taking broad-legged ready stances. The tip of the first magic wand sparkled, unleashing a forking bolt of blue lightning. It struck the smooth surface of the orb at the same time that the drill's whine turned into a high pitched shriek. A split second later, the glowing crystal rang out like a bell when the iron goat face topping the battering ram slammed into it hard enough that even the golden troll statues supporting the heart shuddered. The dungeon heart's steady beat halted as if the object had been startled. A moment later, it picked up again, more intense than before. A thin white mist spiralled down from the top of the chamber. Not mist. Ghosts! Ami realised, her own heartbeat speeding up too. "Shabon Spray!" Her fog covered the pool like steam rising from a kettle, hopefully neutralising any invisibility shenanigans the enemy might be up to. Ami's head whipped around when she spotted fast movement from the corner of her eyes, accompanied by a furious scream that turned into surprised terror. She was just fast enough to see a robed form that had suddenly appeared among her troops burst into flame and turn into a tar-like ooze that left behind the stench of rotten corpses as it disappeared. A second vampire teleported in and nearly managed to complete his transformation into a bat before the effects of being over water disrupted his body.
Ami slashed with her Keeper hand through the cloud of ghosts above, managing to tag two or three as the rest drifted out of the way. She had time to spare a glance at the dungeon heart, which seemed to drink in the magical barrage from her wands. A droplet of water splashed against its semi-transparent shell and immediately started sizzling. Was the heart looking smaller already? Ami's attention was diverted by the sudden rain of skeletons that fell from the ceiling, already hacking around with their curved sabres and wicked hooks before dropping into the water. She ducked underneath a gleaming arc and dispatched her attacker with a slap, then had to teleport out of the way when two more of the undead menaces lunged at her from behind. The surrounding water frothed as if it was boiling when her reaperbots fell upon the animated piles of bone and sinew. A skull that still had a few strands of greying hair remaining burst into shard when two fists impacted its cheeks at the same time from opposing sides, pulverising the fleshless head between them. A scythe whistled through the air, and Ami heard bones splinter as it cleaved right through a corroded sabre and its wielder. Her goblins, being in the unfamiliar situation of fighting opponents smaller and weaker than themselves, fell upon the opposition with the rabid zeal of repressed bullies, hacking, slashing, and crushing relentlessly. Wherever Ami looked, bones splintered and blades lashed out at armoured shells. She jumped away to avoid the grasp of a skeleton that was little more than a ribcage with attached arms dragging itself her way, and took stock of the situation. Despite the fact that the skeletons were dying at a horrendous rate, their numbers were swelling. Zarekos was adding more, faster than her troops could kill them. She glanced worriedly over at the dungeon heart, where the whine of the drill cut off with a sudden snap. The sturdy crystal had shrunk and squeezed off the part stuck within, she saw. "Use your scythes instead!" she shouted at the automatons, who were staring dumbly at their now useless tool. Her Keeper hand flashed out once more, batting away a trio of skeletons coming her way, and then moved to help up an automaton that had slipped on a scattered bone. A sudden gust of wind ripped her fog apart and nearly bowled her over. Steadying herself against the force, she raised her left arm to shield her eyes against the droplets of water that shot toward her with the speed of bullets. A reaperbot flew past, spinning like a top as it ascended on a parabolic arc that ended violently at the opposite wall. Following the loud clang, metallic parts rained down on the battlefield. Ami lowered her arm and peered over it at the black-robed figure standing on dry ground behind the barrier of ice that delimited her pool. The bald, pale-skinned man was veiled in ghosts and still had his arm stretched out in the destroyed automaton's direction. Narrowed eyes like triangular torches stared back at Ami.
"Zarekos!" she shouted, recognising the vampire in the red-embroidered robe at once.
"That's Emperor Zarekos to you, upstart!" the enemy Keeper replied coldly, shedding frozen ghosts like a snake shedding its old skin when a hasty Shabon Spray Freezing struck him head-on. From the corner of her eyes, Ami saw that more bloodsuckers were following the example of their master and teleporting in beyond the edge of the pool. She gritted her teeth. If she wasn't on his territory, she would already have frozen them all with undodgeable spells retrieved from storage.
A sickly-looking female in a black dress walked uo too close to the edge of the water, and the closest reaperbot's scythe lashed out at her neck. With a maniac giggle, the vampire dodged, reached for the heft of the weapon with a blurring arm, and tugged. Caught off-balance, the automaton went over the barrier and landed in her lap. Ami winced at the loud crunch when the frail-looking woman broke the metal warrior in half over her knee. The moment of inattention cost Ami, as she doubled over from a sudden, intense pain above her heart. Disappearing in a swirl of snowflakes, she clutched at her chest. Warm wetness drenched the fabric of the ribbon attached there. The purplish blood crept over the skin of her hands and flew off sideway's toward the vampire lord, who was pointing at the position where she had just been. Shaking her head to clear away the dizziness, she teleported again in order to make herself a harder target. She felt wobbly and weak, but there didn't seem to be an actual wound. The dungeon heart had lost about half of its diameter by now and pulsated every second, giving the illusion that the battle raging around it was taking place in freeze-frame images. Bleached skeletons filled the pool so that it looked as if there were more bones than water, and they were driving back Ami's troops. Even more alarming were the clinking noises from the ice dam. The vampires had just shattered it in one spot, and the water that was warding them off started to pour out.
"Shabon Spray Freezing!"
The spell re-froze the breach, at the cost of making Ami the sole target of any remaining ghosts in the area. Chased by the life-sucking spectres, she had barely enough time to keep closing the gaps that the vampires were hacking into her barrier. She was losing more and more water! Her eyes widened as a red-robed monster balanced on the ice, dipping his right foot experimentally into the less than a palm deep liquid. When nothing happened aside from the shoe getting wet, he crowed in triumph and took to the air, heading straight for her with extended claws and ravenous hunger in his dead eyes. A punch with the Keeper fist flattened him against the ground, but Ami had to keep zigzagging wildly to lose her other pursuers. The strobe-like flicker of the damaged dungeon heart indicated that it was very small by now, but the other vampires were darting toward her troops, blurring as they stepped on the skulls of the skeletons in their way, or simply clearing the distance with long jumps. Metal screamed as it was torn apart by inhuman strength, but Ami could also hear the nauseating sound of steel cutting through flesh as the reaperbots lived up to their name. Still, Ami couldn't afford the current attrition rate. Well, she didn't need the ice barrier any more. Focusing inward, Ami could feel gold drain away in her treasury, transformed into arcane power as she put her index fingers together in a prayer-like gesture. With the energy throbbing in her veins, she shouted "Down, everybody!" and released her spell. A searingly-bright flash went off, accompanied by a boom that shook the foundations of the room. A spherical wall of fire exploded outwards from just above the dungeon heart, washing over the combatants. Only charred bones remained of the skeletons, while Ami's own troops, glowing a dull red in places, were scattered all over the place, lying in the steaming puddles that remained of her pool. The horrible screams of vampires running around with their robes on fire or rolling themselves on the floor seemed oddly subdued in comparison to the thunderous noise of the fireburst spell, but the pork-like smell rising from the creatures' burnt flesh was still enough to make their young opponent feel nauseous.
With a sinking feeling, Ami realised that less than a third of her forces were still functional. Unharmed by the flames, they pulled themselves to their feet, but a few of the slain bloodsuckers were already reviving and teleporting in with red flashes, attacking the metal warriors closest to the dungeon heart. Still, with the enemy dungeon heart smaller than a volleyball already, her troops should be able to shatter it any moment now. A whooshing noise from behind caused the girl possessing the sailor-suited youma body to teleport away reflexively. Before her eyes, the troops fighting on the dais around the rapidly-beating heart, friend and foe alike, were blown away by a violent gust of wind, tumbling and trailing sparks as they skidded over the hard floor tiles. Zarekos again. Of course she hadn't actually managed to get the bastard with the explosion. Of course. Floating on a cloud that surrounded his feet and shielded by his ghosts, the master vampire looked entirely unimpressed and ready to call more of his forces in. This wasn't going we- Of course!
Zarekos smirked dismissively as Ami summoned her gurgling Keeper hand again, flinging it right at the him. Fully expecting his spectral shell to protect him from the spell, the vampire didn't even attempt to dodge. The bug-eyed expression on his arrogant face when the semi-physical attack's giant fingers closed into a fist around him nearly had her laugh out loud. His dumbfounded look of outraged disbelief vanished from sight when his head snapped back from sudden acceleration. The contact with the watery fist caused tiny tongues of flame to trail the vampire as Ami hurled him toward his dungeon heart with all the force she could muster, wielding the flaming body like a cudgel. The evil being had no time to realise what was going on before the violent impact smeared him all over the pulsating orb and its surroundings. The remains dissolved into a black mist and disappeared. Underneath the gore, the surface of the dungeon heart was covered in cracks and leaking strange, grasping tendrils of white lightning. With a final, ear-splitting bang, the evil artefact burst apart, sending out a shockwave of darkness that shattered its pedestal, the surrounding columns, and pushed the closest combatants off their feet. The entire dungeon quaked and groaned as shattering floor tiles jumped out of their positions and new cracks crept along the walls.
Ami wasted no time fighting the remaining vampires and hurled her remaining troops through space, depositing them back on the iceberg. She teleported out just as the dungeon let out a loud, final groan that sounded like the dying gurgle of an enormous animal. At the same time, a dark dust cloud that resembled a misshapen skull in the right light rose from its location.
"Good work!" Jadeite was grinning when Ami appeared out of a blue flash in the command centre.
She answered with an exhausted nod and walked over to the occupied command throne. "We don't have any time to lose before Phase Two! With Zarekos banished for the moment, his troops are unable to react to our attacks or to get reinforcements. We need to destroy as many dungeon hearts in that time as possible." She glanced over at a map spread out over a table, where four red arrows pointed out the locations of dungeons that could be reached from the coast with a half-day long run at a reaperbot's pace. "Jadeite, Mareki, Marda, you know where to take your squads. Move out as soon as you are ready. Crush any undead you encounter on the way!"
"Music to my ears," the armoured troll commented, already on her way to the door.
Mareki bowed deeply. "I won't disappoint you, Lady Mercury!"
"I will make sure to be the first to destroy the enemy for you," Jadeite promised, inclining his head before disappearing.
"Good. Everyone, do your best! Cathy, make sure to rotate the pilots every few hours. We don't need the best fighters for the journey."
"Will do," the blonde confirmed, standing up from the throne and offering it to Mercury. "Are you sure you want to lead the fourth squad yourself? You aren't looking too well." She pointed at the blood-soaked material between Ami's breasts.
"I'll be all right, I'll just switch bodies," the tiger-striped girl reassured the older woman. "But now I must be off! Let's see how many dungeon hearts we can destroy while we have the opportunity!"
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