"Cave-in spell!" cried a warlock, staring in wide-eyed horror at the screen that showed Zarekos going through the final gestures of his spells. Alerted by his shrill voice, Ami rushed to his side to see what had him so frightened. She didn't know exactly what a cave-in spell did, but the name seemed self-explanatory. The warlock putting his hands on his head and diving underneath his chair, tearing his robe on one of the edges in his haste, gave her a fairly precise idea of what to expect. The command centre turned very quiet after the dark wizard's outburst as everyone looked up at the ceiling. Only Marda kept staring at the crimson-glowing figure of Zarekos on the divining screen and grinding her teeth. Just as Ami's visor slid over her eyes, adapting to the narrow contours of the goblin face, the attack stuck. The walls quivered, humming as their stone bumped into the ice they covered.
Lightning flashed, and it appeared as if lightning had hit the tip of the high ridge in the back third of Ami's iceberg. Small, glittering splinters fountained into the air as a circular disc of ice simply shattered, ripped apart by the force of the spell. With a noise like rolling thunder, deep fissures ate their way outward from ground zero, zigzagging nearly halfway down the hillside. Their branching side fractures tapered out faster, but not before the top of the iceberg crumbled inward like a hollowed-out eggshell. Multi-ton plates of ice rained down into the vessel's bridge, crushing the fake steering wheel underneath their mass.
"The bridge!" Ami blurted out, her borrowed skin blanching to a yellowish green when the instinctive knowledge that her dungeon had been breached slammed into her brain. In her mind's view, the avalanche of debris slid down the ridge's flanks, sheering off the jutting ice thorns protruding from its surface. Worst of all, the closest tendril of ghosts extending from the main mass pushed itself over the damaged section, clamping down like the maw of a giant worm. "We are being invaded," she shouted as she tried to keep track of the spectral forms floating in through the breach. She needed to get troops there to defend them! She needed to fix the walls! What should she do first? She needed to prevent them from penetrating deeper into her fortress! Ami slammed down the solid portcullises in the main hallway leading up to the bridge just as the first smoke-like white wisps cleared the debris and dashed for it. With angry roars, the transparent faces bared their teeth as they flailed at the thick metal with spectral chains and limbs. This isn't working, Ami thought in horror as she realised that more of the malleable creatures were seeping in through the vast networks of fissures. Some of these cracks couldn't be any wider than the gap underneath a door! She needed troops there, now. Reaperbots first. Have them draw the initial attacks before risking flesh and blood employees. Yes. Even as three black metal automatons slammed down in a compromised intersection, Ami's Keeper hand was already racing down a third corridor, holding up its palm as if signalling 'stop' to the undead horde. The watery limb shoved the invaders forward like a bulldozer, squeezing them out through the same fissure they had slipped in. Since the sharp-edged crack in the fortified wall was too narrow to accommodate them all, a fountain of over-pressured ectoplasm gushed out the other side. The hand covering the breach flared with azure light, crystallising into a frozen patch when Ami used a shored Shabon Spray Freezing to seal the entrance. One down, many to go, she though. At that moment, the electrical lights died. The final windmill tumbled off the deck, hanging for an instant from its taut steel cables before they snapped with a loud twang and scythed through the mass of ghosts.
Lit only by flickering orange torchlight, the stone-cased tunnels appeared much more sinister and alien than before. Wait, there is no wind, why are the flames - invisibility! "Darn it!" The overextended teenager blanketed the corridor with her fog and immediately spotted a few empty spots moving through it, larger than the other ghosts. They have already gotten further than I thought! Just how many are already in here? The Keeper hand fell on the foremost creature, gurgling as it squashed it's prey against the ground. A burst of bubbles later, and a barrier of ice cut off that path into her dungeon. Ami pulled away a few trolls from their guard position at the entrance and positioned them in groups of two around choke points that led further inside from the invaded territory. Where now? There! Her hand crushed more spectres, but she felt as if she was trying to stop a flood with a sieve. At least the fog billowing outward and getting into the cracks seemed to confuse the ghosts. I hope the soldiers can handle this, I need to fix the breaches! A hail of Shabon Spray Freezings from her storage plastered the damaged zone like an artillery barrage, clogging up the largest fissures and freezing the rain in its tracks. The smaller ones remained a problem. Maybe if she-
Ami twitched as she felt a hand touch her shoulder. Whipping her head around so fast that little droplets of sweat went flying, the stressed-out Keeper bared her sharp goblin teeth. "WHAT?"
The warlock shrank back, resembling a turtle as his head retreated into his collar. A shaking finger pointed at the screen. "H-he's doing it again!"
On the divining pool, now supported by the personal power of three closed-eyed warlocks holding hands in front of it, Zarekos was surrounded by an arcane corona once again, his orb of gold much smaller than before. Ami immediately forgot about the man who had interrupted her and focused her full attention on the readout of her visor. If the last spell had... where was... "The storage area!" she shouted as the device displayed the probabilities. The crew let out a collective breath, relieved that the spell wasn't going to strike them. That was where the second arm of Zarekos's ghost force was, Ami realised. The ship shook, rattling her teeth, and the ice conducted a loud gurgling noise even down here to the command centre. Clenching her teeth, Ami checked out the damage. Her enemy had learned from her countermeasures, and the new opening was a single, massive gash that went vertically down deep below the waterline. It's too wide to properly plaster over with my freezing spell! Scimitar-wielding skeletons standing on the bodies of their spectral comrades surfed down the cascade of seawater that was streaming inside through the breach even as she inspected it. More defenders! She needed more defenders there, and she had to block the branching tunnels! Slam down the floodgates, too. Where were the other ghosts? And how were the warlocks holding up? And she had almost used up her supply of stored spells! She needed more power! "I'll be right back," she said, crimson-blazing eyes unfocused as she aimed more of her senshi magic at the flood. Water was good. If she could freeze water to block passages, she didn't have to conjure it wholesale. A moment of concentration, and a glittering dam impeded the progress of the flood in one tunnel, but there were others. Brilliant blue light flared, and the foremost of the ghostss, flash-frozen within pillars of gleaming ice, blocked the path of their companions. Undeterred, more crawled in through the finer cracks, but at least Ami had slowed their advance for the moment. The red glow in the goblin captain's eyes died down, and his shoulders slumped.
Zarekos' self-satisfied smirk threatened to split his maggoty-pale face. His exasperating enemy was frivolously taxing her magical resources in a mad, nay, suicidal deluge of water and ice-based thaumaturgy, but failing to fortify the hastily-conjured obstacles with her imps. His hordes would soon haunt the hallways of her dwelling, hacking and hewing their way through the ice. Insulting inexperience showed starkly in each harried move of her frantic defence. Her determination was not lacking, but the delicious dilemma of having to defend a dozen directions from the diligent depredations of his minions divided her attention and slowed her responses. Succinctly stated, she was too slow. The vampire considered the much diminished weight of the valuable ball of gold in his palm. He was already winning, why waste it? Yet, he had known many Keepers who took a devilish delight in the despair of a soon-to-be-defeated opponent. Vain and certain of victory, they played with their target, prolonging its torment as they slackened their pressure. He had seen all of them crushed, many by his own hands. The frown on his bald forehead disappeared, and the sallow skin around his narrow lips tightened, revealing elongated canines. He would not make that mistake. Lifting the glittering sphere high in the air, he flared red, and the worthless minions behind him collapsed once more, groaning as they hit the ground with meaty thuds. Let her deal with a third ingress and become even more confused!
Before the others could worry where Mercury had gone, an orange-skinned and black-striped figure with glowing eyes reappeared in the room. The captain goblin blinked and jumped off the throne as if it had burned him, bowing several times in Tiger's direction as he backed away. Ami hoped that the youma body's own magic, when added to her own, would allow her to cast the Shabon Spray Freezing without straining herself. While she didn't like using the injured youma that way, the creature was undeniably safer here than locked in her prison cell while hostiles prowled around on the ship. She would have used Mareki, but the youma was more useful acting independently, as a brief mental glimpse confirmed.
The huge, horned suit of armour stormed ahead, foregoing the use of its scythe and leaning forward as it barrelled down the walkway between the looming pipes and lattice-work cluttering up the workshop. With each step, the calf-high seawater splashed up around its legs as if struck by a cannonball, forming a frothy wake behind the speeding automaton. Its steel chest plate rang each time it barrelled into a ghost, adding it to the layer of flattened-out spectres covering the dented black ribcage. The climpacts were louder when it was a skeleton that couldn't get out of the way fast enough, and the clatter of flying bones usually accompanied it. A flash of orange howled down the gangway, its glow reflecting off of the workbenches before the projectile slammed into the reaperbot with a deafening bang, all in less time than it took to blink. Stopped cold, the automaton disappeared in a firey conflagration as a blossom of flame enveloped it, boiling the water around its feet - and incidentally, the ghosts stuck to its chest, too. As the automaton toppled forward, the slender form that had clung to its back pushed off of her ride's wide shoulders, somersaulting over its horns and out of the steam cloud. Mareki's green hair fluttered as her arcing trajectory brought her down like an arrow on the skeleton dressed in the frayed remains of a once colourful robe, its smoking, ruby-tipped staff still extended toward its burning target. The grey-skinned youma's fist crashed down on the undead wizard's skull with enough force to drive the spine into the hollow that had once been occupied by its brain. She spotted movement from the left - not the rotten-smelling waterfall streaming in through the gaps in the wall - and stopped her descent, letting a sharp icicle dart past underneath her feet. Floating over the inrushing water, she rotated in mid-air and unhinged her jaw. The jet of water shooting from her mouth moved in an arc, cutting two of the skeletons waiting there in ambush in half and pushing the third, armour-wearing one off of its feet. A single yellow eye glowered at her balefully from the fleshless skull as the creature sat up. Mareki whipped an approaching ghost out of the air with her reptilian tail, then dodged into cover behind an overturned table when the upper half of one skeletons gestured in her direction. With a splintering thud, the tip of an icicle burrowed through the wood. These guys were a bit more challenging than the pathetic spirits that were swarming the place like ants, she thought. Water splashed behind her, accompanied by a metallic scraping noise, and the youma grinned. Fortunately, the skeletons weren't the only ones who didn't know when to stay down.
Satisfied that her troops had the situation more or less in hand, Ami let the whole extent of the long large breach flash past her mind's eye. Just how deep did the fissure extend down beneath the surface? Grimacing, she flicked two goblins who had been cornered by a band of ghosts into Snyder's infirmary. They hadn't been supposed to be in that corridor! A quick blast here to seal in the blood-dripping spectres, and she checked back on the crack. Down it went along the surface of the iceberg, into the murky depth, branching only slightly. Peering deeper, she noticed a strand of strange, silvery algae. Wait, algae growing on ice? The feeling of three doors being bashed open at nearly the same time distracted her and required a frantic flurry of Keeper hand slaps to keep the incursion of skeletal-faced wraiths somewhat under control. Sweating, she went over a list of her troops who she could send to deal with-
"Warriors, fall back to defensive positions in the throne room and main corridor," Marda's loud voice rang distorted and dream-like within the skulls of the defenders, startling Ami.
Dumbfounded, Ami looked at the troll with widened eyes. "What? I didn't order that!" she shouted in a near panic, perceiving that the green creatures under Marda's command were abandoning their posts, letting the positions be overrun by the enemy. The silhouettes of the coarse humanoids were blurring with the same speed spell that their leader had used against the vampires earlier, and they rushing away from the front much faster than would have liked. "What are you doing? The ghosts are getting everywhere! There are goblins trapped in the kitchen, the farms are already overrun, we have skeletons moving toward the library, and-"
"So what? Zarekos' targets are your dungeon heart and your treasure chamber, and that's the only way to get there. Anything else is replaceable and not worth his while." Marda replied, crossing her arms. "Thus, defending those is all that counts."
"But there are other employees still cut off behind enemy lines, and the ghosts are vandalising everything they can find!" Ami shouted, her opposition less energetic as the cold logic of the troll's words started to sink in, cutting through the cloud of fear and worry clogging up her thoughts since the first breach had opened.
"So chuck them into the throne room if you can spare the time, rather than arguing with me!" Marda roared, her foul-smelling breath hot on Ami's skin.
"What about this room?" Cathy interrupted, pointing at the occupied pilot capsules lining the central gangway. "It's pretty important too, and should be defended." The warlocks behind her agreed completely and nodded, their long beards bobbing up and down in unison.
"This place is perfectly safe. I am in it," Marda stated and banged her fist against the ringing chainmail covering her chest, her other hand on the grip of her warhammer. This prompted the blonde to roll her eyes.
"Keeper, he's doing it again," one of the violet-robed magic users keeping an eye on the scrying windows shouted before the argument could escalate. "Where- "
"Main deck, between the windmills," Ami said before the spell was even finished, and she evacuated an errant warlock from the area. "That's where the third arm of ghosts is." A few seconds later, the loud cracking noises caused by the ice above shaking and quaking proved her right. Ami winced as one of the cylindrical gem furnaces toppled, struck by a piece of debris tumbling down from the ceiling, and spilled the hot, gooey contents onto the floor. Hissing steam filled the air as the molten mass melted its way deeper down into the iceberg. Above, the shroud-like whiteness of the ghosts shone through the cracks, growing brighter with each instant.
Right, no personnel in the immediately threatened area, no direct routes to the treasury or dungeon heart. Where was she? "Shabon Spray!" The spell, cast remotely, filled the furnace hall, confusing the intruders. More than one let out a strangled howl that suddenly cut off as he stumbled blindly against one of the great cylinders that still retained its heat. Ami backtracked to the last thing she had been doing before being distracted. Algae. A mental change of perspective. Those... were not algae. Puzzled, she followed the rope-like strings downward, getting a worse and worse feeling about this as she spotted the huge, tent-like structure of silvery thread protruding from the bottom of her vessel like a bloated pustule. Something underneath seemed to be quivering. Intrigued and worried by what she would find, she pressed on - and let out a small gasp of revulsion at the sight of uncountable wriggling legs interlocking with each other as they crawled over a huge, half-devoured hunk of decomposing meat. Spiders?! Stunned by the sight, Ami still analysed what her mental senses were reporting from inside the trapped air bubble. The huge spine and ribs poking out of the gory mess could only have belonged to a whale, and there were a few reddish lizards burrowing through the mess. Arachne. She's the one who likes to use spiders. Shocked at the unexpected find, the stressed teenager wondered what to do, until she hit on a crazy idea. "Jadeite!"
Summoned by the mental call, the dark general shimmered into existence, his raised right hand covered in a black nimbus that slowly faded away. Strands of wet, curly hair hung into his face, and his grey uniform showed damp spots. "Yes?" He asked upon identifying Mercury, who was marked by the crimson eyes glowing in the face of the orange-skinned youma body.
"Look at this," Ami said without preamble, and one of the blank, oval screens on the wall changed to show the spider silk tent located underneath the ship. "Help me tug at this when I ask you to, please!"
The taste of impeding victory was sweet indeed. Zarekos smiled as his opponent's resistance withered before the violent wave of wraiths he was pouring through the wrecked walls of her frozen vessel. She was not even trying now, letting the lowlife living in her swimming lair leave their posts. All that was required now was patience. Patience until his troops were victorious and he could plunder her pathetic playground. Certainly, her minions were manning the defences still, but how long could they last? Mortal flesh would tire eventually, and he had no shortage of ghosts. While he was loathe to take losses like these, he knew that his fate hung in the balance. With luck, the secrets he could dredge out of the ruin would allow him to recover his strength, in particular the puppetry. But for now, a bit of a celebration was in order. The vampire lord snapped his fingers, and an imp appeared before him. The bug-eyed creature's ears drooped as it approached. Producing a knife, it slashed its own underarm and let the red liquid drip into a crystal wine glass. Shaking like a leaf in the wind, the imp offered the drink to its master, well aware of the hungry stares of all the other bloodsuckers in the room, who were looking at the tiny creatures like starving wolves would look at a steak. Some of them were actually slavering.
Ah, this was the unlife, Zarekos thought as he felt the coppery taste of the liquid on his tongue. Watching an enemy being crushed and drinking blood while his lessers looked on in helpless envy. Something white moving below the stormy waves around the iceberg caught his gaze. Whatever it was, it was surfacing rapidly. A kraken? Frozen in the motion of putting his glass to his lips, he gaped as the largest water hand he had seen to date emerged from the sea, dragging something limp and silvery behind it. The dripping object in its grip looked like a giant blanket, held together in such a way that it formed a bag. It unfolded as the hand threw it onto the deck before dissipating into a torrent of salty water that dropped back into the sea. Untold numbers of hound-sized arachnids ambled across the sheet of spider silk draped over the third ingress like a giant napkin, emerging from a revolting, rotten carcass. Confused at first by the sudden change in environment, the creepy crawlers moved sluggishly until they became aware of the glow closing in on them from all sides, after which they scattered. No! Moronic minions! Zarekos grit his long teeth as the spectres defied his will by diligently following his direct orders, inappropriate to the unpredicted situation as they may have been. The hungry ghosts descended upon the picnic spread out for them, eager to slake their thirst for life on the creatures scrambling around. The vampire lord felt like screaming. Yes, they were supposed to kill every living being on the ship, but they were supposed to go inside first. Inside! Tightening his grip around his glass, he watched helplessly as the stream of ghosts pouring into the iceberg's bowels diminished, with a third of his forces being diverted into a pointless battle against the agile and sharp-limbed spiders. Fools! Keep up the pressure! Ah well. Taking another sip from his glass, Zarekos relaxed slightly. He had already been winning when he was invading from two locations. Losing the third would not affect his plans too much, though the additional unnecessary casualties were infuriating.
"Now we have spiders fleeing into the ship through the fissures! Is this really an improvement?" Jered wrinkled his nose at the scryed scene, where the tips of long, spindly legs disappeared within a dark fissure.
"They won't fit through the smaller cracks, at least, and they don't get along with the ghosts. Not invisible either," Cathy pointed out, looking at the bright side. "Besides, the bloodsucker is grimacing as if he'd just tried to suck a lemon," the tall woman continued, pointing her thumb at the second screen. He's fresh out of gold, too."
"No more breaching spells from him, then?" Jadeite asked, popping up right next to the other blonde and causing her to jump.
"Yes, and don't do that!"
"Good." The dark general turned to Mercury, inclining his head lightly. "In that case, I will be able to provide us with some breathing room, at least for a short while. Should I go ahead?"
Ami, with half her attention occupied with her efforts to stem the advance of the boarders, nodded, her borrowed lips pressed tightly together.
Jadeite spread his arms, smirking as a white glow flared up in his eyes. "Let's see how the old bat likes this!"
The glass in Zarekos' hand shattered as his fingers closed around it, but none of the falling shards were able to dig through his skin. Craning his neck forward, opening his eyes as wide as his eyelids allowed, and staring slack-jawed did not improve his mental vision of the iceberg, but they were an instinctual reaction to his shock. "IMPOSSIBLE! What IS she?" he shouted. Dungeons didn't just mend their breaches from one moment to the other. Yes, he had heard of magic that could fortify walls in an instant, but this, this was ridiculous! Shattered walls did not just patch themselves! It had to be an illusion! It had to be! His face turned red, then purple as he watched his troops scratch uselessly at the ice, and he ground the shards still in his hand into powder. This couldn't be happening!
Cathy whistled. "I admit I'm impressed."
"Yes, yes. Now do some productive, such as getting rid of the invaders," Jadeite exclaimed as tiny droplets of perspiration ran down his face. His arms remained extended as he channelled dark energy. "I can't maintain this glamour forever! This iceberg is just too big!"
"Understood. Mercury, I'm going to use your spell to seal of the passages while you come up with a plan, okay?" Cathy offered, quietly going through the motions for the Shabon Spray Freezing as a warm-up.
"Right. Marda, you protect her! Jered, direct her to the worst damage." Ami took a moment to make sure none of her soldiers were in acute mortal danger, and then her computer appeared in her hand. Immediately, her fingers started hammering down on the keyboard as she reviewed the recordings of Zarekos' cave-in spells, filtering and sorting the data. He has to be nearby somewhere. None of his dungeon hearts are close enough for his spells to strike over here.
"Hey, I think the leech just got more bad news," the warlock in charge of observing Zarekos' actions said, snorting through his nose as he suppressed a giggle. On the display, Zarekos was bellowing in anger, his head tilted back and his jaw wide open as plaster rained down from the walls, dislodged by the sheer volume of the shout. The messenger prostrated in front of his master did his best to meld with the floor and make himself overlooked. For good reason, as the vampire lord stepped forward and kicked him in the face, then stomped down again and again before stalking onward. The assembled vampires scattered like birds before a cat as he approached, and he hammered his fists against the wall in mindless fury until he put one straight through the ancient blocks. "What a tantrum. He's not having a good day."
"It's about to get a lot worse," Ami said, her eyes a solid red underneath straw-like green bangs. "I just triangulated his position."
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