The vampires in Zarekos octagonal casting chamber stood at ceremonial positions along the around the candle-lit walls, looking like monoliths in their dark, flowing robes. Instead of looming with quiet dignity, they stared in stunned disbelief at the empty pentagram where their emperor used to be. A large, orange-skinned female had appeared out of nowhere and abducted him, pulling him into a swirl of blue light before he - or they - could react. Only a few ethereal snowflakes remained, floating gently toward the engraved brass plate on the ground.
"What just- do you feel it? Do you feel it too?" a vampire whispered, blurting out the words as fast as she could in her excitement.
Shadow-like black fabric rustled next to her as a pale bloodsucker stepped out of the group, approaching the pentagram with slow, measured steps. His tongue darted over his lips, as if he was tasting the air. He was the first to put into words what the others all felt on an instinctual level. "The Master... is gone? But how did she-"
"Dead..." "Is he truly gone?" "Could it be?" "Gone!"
The dark crowd shifted as vampires left their spots, bringing their backs closer to the walls and slinking into the darkness. Suspicious glances were exchanged, but the initially cautious whispers in the back grew louder and more excited as time passed. After years of servitude, the undead found it hard to believe that the will of their sire, which had enslaved them for so long, was gone for good. Some of the pale figures let out whoops of joy, while the older vampires withdrew silently, trying not to draw attention to their movements. They had been around during the worst of the chaos after Mukrezar's fall, when everyone fought everyone else for the dwindling amount of food, territory and influence. Without Zarekos to provide stability, that war could very well restart, and this time it would be even worse, since there was no prey and much less infrastructure to be seized. Each of the other vampires had just become a potential enemy. With a flutter and a whoosh of inrushing air, a few of the fastest thinkers disappeared, causing the chatter of the others to die down.
"The dungeon hearts!" a shorter vampire with a receding chin cried out, his wide face lighting up with greed before he glowed red and disappeared. Some of the lurking bloodsuckers raised their eyebrows and shook their heads, frowned, or looked thoughtful. The casting chamber was emptying quickly.
Pressing himself close to the wall of the high room, the vampire Nuril observed his brethren while he hid behind the pillars where the shadows were thickest. He was not prone to rash action and preferred to think things through. Yes, on the surface, this looked like the opportunity of a lifetime for an ambitious vampire. If he was fast enough, he would be able to grab one of the late emperor's now unclaimed dungeon hearts and become its master. Speed was of supreme importance of course, since the others would have the same idea. However, what would he do after he became a dungeon keeper? He would be stuck in the same trap as Zarekos. Worse even. The powerful, penniless Keeper had been able to defend his hearts by calling upon a vast contingent of powerful, obedient spawn that was unable to refuse his orders. Nuril, in contrast, would be stuck with a dungeon heart and whatever ghosts and skeletons he could dominate and press into his service -which he could do just as well without a big, stationary artefact that would be nothing but a useless weakness without gold. He snickered as he imagined the faces of some of his more short-sighted brethren once realisation dawned, but too late. The smarter - or merely hungrier - vampires would have left by now to secure the remaining imps for themselves. Nuril's mouth watered involuntarily at the mere thought of the delicious, crimson liquid pulsating within the short, pathetic creatures' veins. His stomach writhed and growled like a furious beast, and it took all of his will to keep himself from teleporting to their pen and feasting like a glutton. Fifteen long, dry years could do that to a vampire. No, focus. He couldn't lose himself in bloodlust now! If his thoughts didn't remain clear, he was as good as dust! A brick in the wall cracked as his fingers dug into it while he fought to keep his feeding urge from overwhelming him. Only Zarekos' two main bases were worth fighting over, he concluded. Whoever held the graveyards would have a nigh-unbeatable advantage over the other vampires, who could not revive without them. Besides, they could be partially cannibalised for gold, thus covering the start-up cost for a new dungeon.
"Nurgil. Still here as well?" A clear, female voice startled the vampire, since it came from behind him and he had his back to the wall.
The dark-clad vampire tilted his head backward and looked up. A black-haired female, half a head shorter than him, hung upside-down from the ceiling like an overgrown bat, waving her paper fan. Neither she nor the group of three more vampires that surrounded her had a hair or a drape of cloth out of place, as if gravity was completely optional. "Nali. I see you and your associates are also wary of rushed decisions."
"Oh ho ho ho. Quite right, my dear brother. " The fanged woman's laugh would have sounded shrill and grating if a mortal throat had produced it. Coming from her undead lips, it sounded sinister and seductive.
"And what course of action did you settle on?" he asked, genuinely curious as he walked up the wall to join her and her circle.
"Weeeeell, we would love to just go to the nearest portal and flee into the Underworld, but our dead, late, inconsiderate Master smashed them all a long time ago," she pouted.
That was a surprisingly smart suggestion from his sister. One of her companions had to have come up with it. "That new Keeper restored a portal to bring his troops in, but it is guarded by both monsters and water," Nuril pointed out. "Still, in bat form, we might make it past unnoticed..."
"I would prefer to wait until one of the intruders has come out on top and his alertness has waned. In the meantime, we have something more important to do."
"Rescuing our coffins from the graveyard while the others are battling it out for the privilege of whom gets to be ground into the dirt by the invaders?" Nuril was sure now that the charismatic but scatterbrained women was letting someone else do the thinking for her. In all the time he had known her, she had never once showed any concern about the non-immediate future.
The vampiress waved her fan, as if she wanted to shoo away his suggestion. "Indeed, yes, that would be on the list too, later. But first, we should find Zarekos' stash of magical items before someone else does. I have some idea of where to start looking..." she prattled on, while her brother suppressed the urge to hide his face in his palms. He would be better off without her and her posse, after all. Turning into a bat and making a break for the portal was starting to sound more and more attractive. However, getting shot when he wasn't entirely sure that he would still be able to resurrect himself wasn't his idea of a good plan, and those dark elves could be awfully accurate with a crossbow. Maybe he should instead see if the victorious Keeper was willing to hire him.
"Ha! We did it!" Cathy cheered, thrusting her fist into the air. The grinning warlocks powering the scrying window whooped as they watched the enemy dungeon heart crumble during its death throes. A maelstrom of black energies spiralled inward, sucking a ghostly, spinning figure down into the pit. It disappeared into the bottomless darkness underneath visible through a deep gash in organic heart's membrane, too fast for the blonde to make out anything but a male-looking silhouette. As if sated after devouring the enemy Keeper, the black rip in space sealed up while the dungeon heart's superstructure collapsed, burying the ruined artefact underneath a pile of dust and rubble. The reaperbots, some dented and burned, others sprouting crossbow bolts from many shallow punctures all over their metal shells, raised their scythes in triumph. They jumped, waved their hands, and capered around like a bunch of overexcited goblins. In the command centre, the pilot capsules shook from the volume of the pilots' victory cries.
"We the best! We the best!" "We smash enemy Keeper!" "Yeeeaahhhh!"
On her throne, Ami smiled brightly. The goblin's enthusiasm was infectious, and she sat up straight and clapped her hands together, almost forgetting about the leaden tiredness she felt after being drained by ghosts and throwing spells all night. "Great work, everyone. I will be sure to take your performance into account next pay-day."
The goblins' cheering cut off abruptly. "What she said?" one of them asked after a moment, sounding suspicious.
"She said she'll pay you more because you did well," Cathy translated, which caused an even louder outburst of cheers.
"Whee!" "We get nice toys and nice pay!"
"However," Ami interrupted them, though she had to try twice to make herself heard over the noise, "we are not done yet. Please gather the injured opponents who didn't make it to the portal," she ordered.
"Yay! Prisoners!" the goblins shouted. On the screen, two reaperbots ran into each other as both tried to sprint out through the doorway at the same time, both eager to be the one who collected the most captives.
"And make sure to handle them carefully!" Ami blurted out upon noting their zeal.
"This went extremely well," Jered said in a low voice as he approached the blue-haired girl, who was settling more comfortably in her command chair. "How could you be so sure that Zarekos wouldn't interfere while you went after the other Keeper? Just a good guess, or did you manage to seriously mess him up?" the wavy-haired man asked.
Ami blinked. "Oh. Right, I didn't get the time to tell you yet. Zarekos is gone. He won't be coming back."
"What?" Cathy, who had overheard them, stepped closer with long, fast strides. "You mean you just beat two enemy Keepers in less than an hour? One of which controlled a continent full of the undead? That's unbelievable!" she said, raising her voice enough to draw surprised glances.
Ami inclined her head upon hearing the blonde's awed tone. "Well, I didn't really do that much," she said, feeling that she didn't really deserve the amazed looks that her employees were sending her way. "I simply took him to a sunlit spot over the ocean on the other side of the planet, where it's day now. If he had relied on possession to keep himself alive, rather than on his vampiric resurrection, I wouldn't have been able to do it at all."
"Still, that means we already won the war!" Cathy said, smiling from ear to ear. "Aside from the mop-up operations, that is, but with nobody to unify the enemy forces..." Her tone became more businesslike as she started pacing around. "Hmm, we'll have to make sure other Keepers won't pre-empt us, but... Hey Marda, what do you think about this?" The blonde looked around, searching for the distinctive gleam of the troll's chainmail.
"She isn't here," Jered said. "Hasn't been here for a while, actually."
Cathy put a finger to her chin and furrowed her brow. "Now that I think about it, I haven't seen her since I got back. Mercury, do you know what she's up to?"
Ami didn't answer. The teenager sat slumped in her seat with closed eyes. Her chin had sunken onto her collarbone, having not risen since she had last inclined her head.
The female warrior leaned over the younger girl and took a closer look, noting the gently rise and fall of the blue bow on Mercury's chest with some relief. "Huh, she has fallen asleep, just like that. Do you think I should get Snyder?"
"Well, let's see. We have all been awake for almost a full day, she has been drained by ghosts, cast spells all night, and teleported halfway around the world. Twice." Jered said, raising a finger at each point. "That's not even mentioning you pulling power from her while you were patching up the damage to the iceberg. I think sleep is a pretty normal reaction to all of that. Frankly, I'm surprised she didn't collapse from exhaustion any earlier."
"We probably should let her rest, then, unless some new emergency comes up." Cathy said. "There are no issues that she would have to address right this moment, but we need to find out what exactly got destroyed by the boarders, which rooms are flooded, and who got hurt and whether we took casualties." The tall woman paused. "Oh, and we need to gather the prisoners and put them somewhere safe. Jadeite, can you handle getting them to the ship?"
The dark general was sitting on one of the chairs intended for the warlocks, leaning forward and supporting his head with his hands, which were in turn supported by the elbows resting on his knees. At the mention of his name, half-closed eyelids rose, and steel-blue irises focused on the long-haired blonde.
"I suppose someone has to do it," he drawled tiredly. The day's struggle had taken its toll on him, too.
"Well, you could also tuck her into bed, if you want an easier task," Jered grinned and pointed his thumb at Mercury, who was sleeping peacefully on her oversized throne.
Jadeite faded out of sight without a word, no longer blocking the view of the inert scrying window behind him that showed nothing but the water behind its glass.
"I suppose that's up to me, then," Cathy commented as she gathered the sleeping girl into her arms, managing to do so without waking her up. "Maybe I'll encounter Marda on the way."
Kaion, a haggard-looking vampire and freshly-minted dungeon keeper, ducked his head as a throwing knife whistled past. Normally, he wouldn't even have bothered evading the tiny projectile, but without his coffin, an unfortunate hit would end him permanently. He floated upwards in a blur as two vampires rushed in his direction, exchanging furious blows and claw swipes as they did. The low wall surrounding the outer perimeter of the graveyard was brushed aside as if it was a mere hedge, and exploded into flying brick fragments. From out of the hip-high, wafting mist, a blue-glowing projectile streaked toward the two combatants, forcing them to jump apart. Neither seemed inclined to continue the brawl, and both sped away to seek easier targets. Kaion had trouble tracking each and every participant in the huge free-for-all above the burial site, which made the already paranoid vampire even twitchier. Unfortunately, he couldn't leave. He just had to make it to his coffin and extract it before someone else claimed the graveyard, or even worse, it got destroyed in the fighting! There could be nothing more important!
A single, sharp spike of pain in his chest forced him to re-evaluate this assessment. He knew in some part of his mind that it could only have been sent by his dungeon heart. The vampire disappeared from the battle, reappearing within the empty chamber that held the pulsating, spherical object. The sight of the room made him want to tear out his hair in frustration and despair. What a great dungeon he lorded over. No rooms, no traps, and not even hallways belonged to him. Only the artefact itself was undeniably his, but without imps, he hadn't even managed to claim the territory around its pedestals. More importantly, he needed to find the intruder who had damaged the arcane device. The dungeon heart pulsed, entering its bright phase, and he almost shuddered when a shadow in the shape of a spider filled the entire ceiling, standing out sharply against the parts lit by the white glow. He whirled around and looked up at the crystal orb. A hairy, dog-sized spider lounged on top of the sphere, watching him through eight tiny eyes that glittered like rubies. Outraged, the Keeper transported aside the beast - the heart was his only territory, so he might as well use it - and kicked the offending thing off of its perch. The arachnid spun as it sailed through the air, but never made it to the ground. Suspended by a silk thread, it remained swinging from the ceiling like a pendulum.
"I must congratulate you for being the first of your brood to correctly identify the only dungeon heart here that matters," a hissing voice cut through the darkness when the red eyes focused on Kaion once more.
"What? Who are you, creature, and why did you defile my dungeon heart?"
"To summon you, of course," the possessed spider chirped, sounding amused despite the damage it had taken.
The vampire seemed mesmerized by the droplets of ichor that were running down its body and dripping onto the floor. "Why? And how did you get here?" Kaion demanded, still fuming quietly.
"To talk to you, of course, and I took a whale. Tell me, little Keeper, do you have any idea how to use that dungeon heart, or did you just rush into this headlong without stopping to think?" the eight-legged monster asked while Kaion was still trying to make sense of the second part of its answer.
"Of course I do! The Empe- Zarekos never made much of a secret about how he worked his magic. What do you take me for, a fool?"
The silence before the spider's answer was just a bit too long to be polite. "I see. Good. I propose an alliance, my dear. You look as if you could use all the help you can get."
Suddenly, the vampire was right in front of the monstrous creature, baring his fangs in anger. "Your attitude irks me greatly. Tell me why I shouldn't strike you down on the spot and feast on your blood instead!"
"I have money," the spider said simply.
Kaion lowered the clawed hand he had raised for an eviscerating strike, grimacing as if he'd just swallowed something vile. "I... see. We may be able to work out a deal."
"Most excellent!" the spider said, wriggling its legs. "Unfortunately, we will have to continue this discussion at a later date, since something has come up that requires my attention. In the meantime, feel free to sate your thirst on my minions." A black blur came loose from the arachnid, and the red glow in its eyes faded into a dull grey. Kaion thought he heard the shadow mutter the words 'bloody Baron' as it sped away, unimpeded by the walls.
Minions? What had it meant?
The vampire's ears picked up a soft rustling noise. A spider, just as big as the first one, skittered in from the entrance tunnel. A second crept out of the shadows near the ceiling, climbing down the wall. A third and a fourth lowered themselves on thin threads, coming out from behind the pillars that had hidden them. Pitter-patter noises from the tunnels alerted him that more of the creatures were pouring in, and soon, he found himself with his back to his dungeon heart, surrounded on all sides by a sea of hairy, wriggling limbs and bulbous bodies. The spiders formed a circle around the artefact, as if afraid to advance fully into its light. The stare of their expressionless eyes never once strayed from the newly-minted Keeper as they clicked their mandibles in unison.
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