"What is going on, Captain?" Ami asked as soon as she had appeared on the bridge of her iceberg, addressing the short goblin pressing his face against the window and tugging at a string. The squeaked in surprise, and the back of his head jerked, making his ill-fitting cap slide to the side.
"Ow!" With a ripping noise, the captain's nose came loose from the ice it had been stuck to, and he whirled around. Saluting with one hand and rubbing the sore skin on his face with the other, he shouted "Keeper! Water glowing! Look! Look! Over there!"
"You can stop sounding the alarm now," Ami said softly as she joined the creature in front of the wall of metre-thick, transparent ice that served as the window. The goblin let the rope slide from his grasp, and the noise of a bell ringing in the distance abated. The tired girl turned into the direction that the goblin was pointing at and peered through the raindrops that the storm was whipping against the screen. On the horizon, the continent appeared like a black, uneven band that separated the sea from the spiralling clouds. Even now, at the onset of night, the bands of red flickering deep within the clouds the made the sky looked as if it was trapped in a perpetual sunset. More alarming was the thin band of white fog that flowed down the hills and onto the coast. Like a waterfall of glowing milk, it spilled into the sea, drifting on the tides like an oil carpet. The phenomenon crept forward, defying both the storm and the water currents on its silent journey. It's coming here, Ami realised as she watched the strange light emanating from the phenomenon glitter on the waves.
Lightning flashed, briefly banishing Ami's pale reflection in the ice. In the glare, she didn't even need her visor to determine the true nature of the incoming mass. Like individual snowflakes forming an avalanche, hundreds - no, there have to be thousands - of ghosts swarmed across the water, each one surrounded by a pale nimbus. The sight of their inexorable advance made Ami's blood run cold.
"You did well to call me," she blurted out, making the goblin jump in joy at being praised. A shudder went through the girl's weary muscles, and her left knee buckled. She steadied herself against the ice as she staggered forward. I can't fight like this. Maybe.. The short-haired girl turned to the goblin, eyes burning bright red. With one knee on the ground her face was level with his. "I will have to borrow your body for a while, please don't be afraid." She leaned forward, extending her arms as if to embrace the suddenly nervous Captain. As her arms wrapped around him, they were already dark shadows and sank through his green skin and into his body. A black aura crackled around the triangular-eared creature as Ami's form melded into his own. He straightened, standing more upright than before, and his large, round eyes glowed red.
Ami's throne was too large for the short body she was wearing, but that was the last thought on her mind right now. Quickly, her throne room filled with creatures that looked confused at appearing with no warning in the great, mirror-floored hall. Most had not gone to sleep yet after the exciting operations of the day, but one of the goblins arrived still clutching a pillow. A warlock froze in surprise at the sudden disappearance of his bowl of soup, his arm still holding a spoon extended. Recognising the pillar-framed hall of carved ice, he slowly turned toward the throne as more of his colleagues appeared around him in rapid succession. The sight of the lanky green figure occupying the regal, high-backed seat wrought in the semblance of a Mercury symbol was unexpected, but a second glance at the goblin's red-glowing eyes convinced them that he had a right to be there. Whispers sounded through the room, echoing underneath the high ceiling as the occupants wondered why the Keeper was summoning all of them here and why she had chosen such an undignified form.
Ami's gaze darted left and right over the assembled masses. Had she forgotten anyone? She had sorted her employees according to size, with the short goblins in the front row and the trolls behind them. Their slouching posture allowed the warlocks standing in the back a good view of the throne, even if the slick-bearded mage standing behind Marda had to stand on tiptoes to see over the armoured troll's head. Cathy, Jadeite, Jered, and Snyder were an exception to the rule and stood closest to Ami's throne, while Marda remained with her own troops. Ami wondered where Mareki had gone before spotting her floating between the pillars on the left side of the room, keeping in a shadow that looked deeper than the rest. Umbra, the young Keeper thought, recognising the dimming effect that the stealth-based youma had on the illumination. I guess even youma like to keep each other company. I'll have to ask for her report when time is less of an issue. Tserk, the tentacle monster, was lurking underneath, tracking the lizard-tailed creature with fully half of its large number of eyes. Aside from Tiger, who was too unstable to take or comprehend orders, everyone was here, directing curious glances at her. All the attention made her want to sink into the ground, but she shook the feeling off. "Everyone, the ship is about to be attacked!" she shouted, rising and standing on the seat of her throne to make more of an impression. "A flood of Zarekos' ghosts is crossing the ocean, and I need all of you to prepare for battle at once!"
The volume of the muttering increased, and Ami could smell the excitement and apprehension of the crowd. She hadn't known goblin noses were that sensitive.
"What would you have us do, Keeper?" Erasmus, the purple-robed warlock she was most familiar with, asked.
"My men shall be guarding the main entrance," Marda spoke up before Ami could answer, her rough voice cutting through the background noise.
"Yes, you have the most experience fighting this kind of enemy." The possessed goblin nodded, and Ami's vision went black when the captain's hat she was wearing slid down over her eyes from the movement. She resolved to keep her replies verbal from now on. While she readjusted it, Marda barked orders, and the hunch-backed trolls jogged toward the exit, forcing the warlocks to jump aside to let the warriors pass. The robed spellcasters were next on Ami's list. "Warlocks, I need ten of you to return to the command centre and scry on Zarekos. Locate him if possible. If not, keep an eye on him to see if you can't deduce his plans from his surroundings and actions. You others, assist the trolls and keep them alive. Your magic will be ineffective when used directly on the ghosts, so each of you will have a squad of goblins assigned to keep you safe. Jered, you assign the squads and leaders. Six goblins to a team."
The wavy-haired man inclined his head in response and marched toward the creatures, who started shoving each other out of the way in their eagerness to get to the front of the group in order to be named a leader. Jered strode past them at a brisk pace, waving for them to follow him. "Come along. Let's follow the warlocks!" The green crowd trailed after him, reminding Ami of a file of unruly schoolchildren. Soon enough, their shouts and mangled grammar retreated to the corridors and disappeared into the distance.
So far, so good. Ami watched her troops, her thoughts racing as her mind came up with one battle plan after the other. She turned to the nearby blonde wearing a breastplate over her senshi uniform. "Cathy, take the rest of the goblin pilots and have them pilot our remaining automatons. Assign shifts, this battle may turn into a siege and last a long time."
"Of course." The female soldier turned to follow the others, but hesitated. Running in place, she said "If you don't mind me asking, what will you be doing during the battle? You aren't going to be at the front lines for this, right? It's your duty to sit in the safest spot you can find and make support everyone else."
"I agree with the human," Marda said, pointing her thumb at the scar-faced woman. "This is a battle on your own territory. There is nothing you can do in person that you can't do more effectively from a remote, unassailable position. Stop thinking like a hero and start thinking like a general!"
Ami winced inwardly. Taking the fight to the enemy was exactly what her senshi instincts were screaming at her to do. But her advisers had a point. "Very well, I shall remain in the command centre," she conceded. With the room devoid of regular employees now, she addressed Jadeite. "See what you can do to fend the ghosts off with your magic, but don't go outside! Have the youma assist you!"
That left Snyder, who was fidgeting and looking at her nervously, as if he was expecting to be deployed at the front. Ami smiled to reassure the redhead."Don't worry, I won't ask you to use your warding skills at the entrance," she said. Snyder's too-rigid posture relaxed. A faint blush crept onto his cheeks, but he did not try to excuse his lack of courage. "I'll need you in the infirmary," Ami continued. "Please stand ready to treat any wounded warriors whom I move there. I hope your services won't be needed at all, but..."
"Ah, yes, I understand perfectly. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. I must say that I have never healed trolls before. I am sure it will be a most fascinating experience." The red-and-white robed man's expression was sour, belying the strained cheerfulness of his voice. "Well, see you after this is over."
The wave of floating ghosts rose up from the ocean's surface, ready to break over the iceberg. Like a kraken, the main force of the assault extended three separate tendrils that wrapped around the gigantic vessel. Moaning ghosts streamed through the air, bellowing their anger into the storm. Ami didn't even need her night vision to observe this, as the ice spikes dotting the surface of her dungeon reflected the greenish light of the spectres at a thousand different angles, turning night to day. The entire iceberg seemed ablaze with the vengeful spirits' glow. St. Elmo's fire? Ami wondered when the huge windmills lining the deck blazed like torches. No, it's something different, she realised in horror as she watched the huge blue flames clinging to the metal structures flutter nearly horizontally in the breeze. Excitement and adrenaline made her host's heart flutter and her breath speed up, and she could feel the body step from one foot to the other on its own. But how do they intend to get in? Ghostly claws scratched over the hatch covering the entrance, finding no purchase on the blank steel. It required an entire team of strong creatures to lift even when it wasn't locked, and pulling it open from outside without getting a proper grip on it was all but impossible. Likewise, the surface of the glacier had been fortified into something stronger than mere ice by the power of the dungeon heart and the diligent, if reluctant, labour of her goblin force. Where fortifying claimed territory was concerned, the lack of imps was making itself painfully felt. There was only so much rats could do. Pulling her attention away from the screeches of fingernails over metal, she looked at her windmills. Ghosts covered the tall towers like a shell of angry clams, tugging and pushing at the structures that shook and bent under the stress. A glob of seawater turned into Ami's Keeper hand and batted at the semi-transparent attackers like a man trying to fend off ants crawling up his legs. Crushed ghosts dissipated under the blows, but her efforts were in vain. With a horrible groan, audible even over the raging storm, the first of the buildings broke in half. The three blades spinning at its top came loose, slashing through the air like an oversized shuriken and gouging the ice as they rolled across the until they crashed into the base of the next tower. A second mill followed the first's example even before noise of the debris sliding off the side of the iceberg had subsided.
Sighing, Ami resigned herself to replacing the destroyed power generators once the battle was over. Their loss was irritating, but not dangerous. It wasn't as if the ghosts could creep inside through the power lines. Rather than defending what was already lost, the teenager focused on destroying the attackers more efficiently. Her watery hand flashed across the sky, spreading inhumanly long fingers to sweep the ghosts in its path out of the air. Weightless, barely corporal wisps of ectoplasm burst into evaporating streamers as the hand moved through them. Neither ghosts nor rain drops survived their collisions with the Keeper hand, but there were always more to take their place. Ami did not feel as if she was making any progress, despite destroying four or five ghosts with each sweeping pass. What was Zarekos planning? He couldn't be content with just letting her destroy his minions with no danger to herself. It made no sense! The feeling of unease in the back of the young Keeper's mind grew with each passing moment.
"Keeper, you should see this!" a warlock shouted, turning to the goblin in the command chair whose red-glowing eyes had glazed over. They cleared as Ami focused her attention onto the indicated screen, where a familiar figure was up to no good.
Zarekos stood in the exact centre of an octagonal, vaulted chamber and directed a well-practised sneer at the ground. Immediately, the blanket of dust around his feet peeled back, billowing up in an expanding circle as a strong gust of wind blew it away. The spineless worms that were his thralls choked and mewled in disgust as the grey dirt clouds engulfed them, but he tuned out their unworthy noises. Instead, he inspected the neat grooves of the pentagram that the past decade's parting dust had revealed. Satisfied with the state of the symbol that had been etched with painstaking precision into the smoothed brass disc covering the floor, he beckoned forth two servants with the index finger of his left hand. Two black-clad females stepped out of the indistinct mass of craven bloodsuckers lurking in the shadows and approached, carrying a folded-up garment between them. Meanwhile, the ritual chamber brightened as other vampires flowed around the eight granite pillars supporting the ceiling, lighting the candles spiralling up the sides of the round columns.
Paying no attention to the preparations, the vampire lord spread his arms, and the grooves in the ground lit up with a harsh red light. Mirages and illusions fluttered around him, showing him glances of the interior of his enemy's frozen dungeon. His dreadful thoughts darkened at the sight of the wicked girl's floating abode drifting in the stormy sea. Such gall, to strike at him not once, but twice! Familiar fury bubbled up in the red-eyed monster's mind at the memories of the dungeon heart he had lost to her perfidious attack. That part of his holdings was now a deep wound in the flawless defences of his realm, one it would bear forever since his coffers lacked the coin to see to its removal. What was it that the hateful harridan in her fortress of frozen water desired? Whatever dire schemes her mind was concocting were a riddle to him. The burning coals that were the bald vampire's eyes narrowed as he reflected on the battle that had cost him so much. Had his heart still been beating, it would have skipped a beat the moment he first laid sight upon the horned silhouettes in the shape of the fiends most foul attacking. But no, they were just another kind of puppet that the master puppeteer had concocted. More powerful for certain than the ambulant monuments to her own vanity that she had deployed on her ill-fated first incursion, indeed, but they were merely pale imitations of the real thing. It was fitting, in a way, that a Keeper who opted to look like a little girl would enjoy playing with dolls so much, infuriating as their lack of vitae might be. Truth be told, it had been most courteous of her to fill their repellent shells with the soft and glimmering precious metal that fuelled the flames of magic, adding financial reward to the pure and undiluted joy of destruction meted out without restraint. Just for that, he might show her a mercy she did not deserve and turn her into one of his thralls. After she had spent the rest of her natural lifespan atoning for her sins by nurturing him with the delicious nectar that raced through her veins, of course.
Zarekos dismissed the pleasant fantasy - which wouldn't remain a daydream for long, if he had his way. The two female vampires stepped into the corona of red light surrounding him. Both knelt and draped a red cape covered in elaborate silver runes around his shoulders. Their lord closed its golden clasp fashioned in the shape of an eye, exulting in the feel of the artefacts profane power resonating with his own magic. The cloak of the former Avatar, originally an artefact of the accursed Light gods, had been thoroughly desecrated, its pure and pristine white soaked in the blood of their champion and stained beyond recovery.
Summoning a ball of stolen gold and cupping it in both hands, he watched his troops fly all around the enemy's fortress. The purpose of the windmills was as nebulous to him as the thick fog exuded by the swarming mass of his wretched minions, but that did not matter. They existed, and thus, they had to go. For a while, the Keeper was content with just watching his unprepared enemy empty her coffers by summoning her watery hand of evil with reckless abandon to deal with the worthless spectres mowing down her forest of towering mills. He got bored of it soon enough. Gold dust detached from the solid sphere in his grasp, forming rings that circled the dark figure. "All of you, give me your power!" he demanded, his voice echoing through the room. As the vampires started dropping to their knees and collapsing, the red aura around their master swelled into a bonfire, consuming the gold swirling around him. Zarekos grinned, his eyes the same colour as the power burning around him. It was time to show the impudent upstart her place. Which was at the bottom of the ocean. With a maniac cackle, the vampire raised his remaining, smaller sphere of gold high over his head and unleashed the gathered energies, aiming for the highest point of the unsuspecting ice vessel. The magic was designed to bring a localised earthquake into existence to grind solid rock to rubble and bury enemies under falling boulders. He would enjoy observing exactly how much worse the spell would ravage a structure made of mere ice.
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