Ami awoke feeling well-rested, and enjoyed the comfortable sensation of soft, warm covers surrounding her. Something nagged in the back of her mind, and it didn't take her long to figure out what. My bedroom? I don't remember going to bed! Too quickly, the memories of the previous night returned, and her eyes flew open in alarm. It was darker than usual in her chamber, and the corrupted picture of withered trees on the wall seemed to writhe with unholy life. Right, torchlight. I haven't fixed the windmills yet, she reminded herself before the sight could creep her out. She brushed the covers aside and put her feet over the edge of the bed, where they bumped into the boots of her Sailor Mercury uniform. The right one toppled, struck by her toes. Ami blinked in surprise and looked down at herself. She was still wearing the rest of the rumpled uniform that showed that it had been slept in. The blue-haired girl wrinkled her nose. Clearly, she hadn't taken a bath either.
"Mercury Power, Make Up!"
Aquamarine light flashed and whirled like ribbons around her as the transformation sequence compressed half an hour of personal hygiene and make-up into less than a second and replaced her worn uniform with a pristine new one. Ami stepped in front of the mirror to verify that she was presentable, hid a yawn behind her hand, and focused on where to find her advisers. Jadeite was in his room, sleeping. The blue-haired girl resisted the urge to take a closer look and searched for Cathy instead. She found the woman sitting together with Jered and Snyder around the table in the small living room, which was located in a part of the dungeon that was off-limits to the rank and file. Ami transported herself to its entrance and rapped her knuckles against the wooden door frame to announce herself. "Good morning," she greeted, smiling as she stepped inside.
The three faces that turned to look at her had dark rings under their eyes, indicating that their owners had gotten less sleep than the young Keeper. Snyder nodded a greeting in her direction, and Jered raised his hand for a little wave.
"Morning, Mercury," Cathy said as she looked up from the plate on the table before her, which she had been staring at with a frown on her face. "Although it's almost time for lunch already, if you want some."
Ami didn't recognise the lump of whitish meat resting before the blonde. Steam rose from the warm chunk, condensing immediately into white droplets in the chill air. It didn't smell like fish or anything else that she was familiar with, though she could identify a hint of garlic in the aroma. "Um, what is it? I thought the larder was still flooded?"
"It is," the wavy-haired man sitting at his girlfriend's side said and gestured toward the food. "That is spider meat. The goblins are roasting the things on a spit up there in the entrance hall."
"Spider meat? Seriously?" Ami asked, inspecting the food more closely. A quick mental check of the wide entrance revealed that a bunch of green-skinned creatures had moved some benches up to the room and lit a large bonfire in the centre. A huge, sizzling spider rotated slowly over the flame as three goblins turned a crank. Others watched from the sidelines, lounging on chairs or on the ground, cheering, and jostling each other. They were fuelling the fire with pieces of smashed furniture, Ami saw. No other minions were anywhere close, which she suspected had something to do with the thick smoke that filled the room despite the storm howling outside, above the open hatch in the ceiling. Since the fat-dripping husk of the spider had been extremely hairy before being roasted, the smell in there had to be breathtaking right now.
"Yes. Spider. They assure me that it tastes just like crab. I am currently trying to decide whether or not I am hungry enough to find out if this is true." Jered prodded at the hunk of wobbly substance with the tip of one of his daggers experimentally.
"I don't think goblins are very discerning about what they eat," Cathy said, shuddering and drawing the blanket she had draped around her shoulders tighter. "I had to shoo that fat cook Brugli out of the cell block. She was there with two of the 'health inspectors', carrying a butcher knife, and trying to decide which of the prisoners looked the most tender."
"Oh, you had a run-in with her too?" Snyder said, looking a bit green around the nose. "She showed up in the infirmary and asked me if I had performed any amputations lately, and if so, if she could have the severed parts."
"I- I'm not hungry any more," Jered commented as he shoved the plate with the meat away from him.
"Neither am I," Cathy added, while Snyder just nodded.
Ami herself was feeling queasy too. "I will get us something later," she promised, "In the meantime, is there something I should know about? What about those prisoners?"
"Not many. A few dark elves and bile demons that were too slow or too injured to flee through the portal when the dungeon heart went down." The blonde rummaged in the pockets of the blue trousers she was wearing underneath her version of the Sailor Mercury uniform, which was starting to show some wear and tear by now, and produced a jingling set of keys. "Without these, neither Brugli nor Tserk can get at them, so they should be safe for now."
"We have not been attacked either while you slept. Jadeite made a ferry for the reaperbots and the prisoners, but since the workshops are flooded too, we stashed them near the entrance. The goblin pilots are currently crawling over them, decorating them with war paint, and getting into brawls over whose reaperbot is best and who killed the most invaders. I'm just glad we don't have any alcohol to make the situation worse."
"That doesn't make sense," Ami said as she remotely watched the small green creatures climb over the bulky bodies, holding onto the smooth metal in ways that looked neither safe nor solid, and drew swirls and whiskers onto the black lacquer. Even as she watched, one goblin's fingers slid off of the rib they had been clinging to, and he dropped to the ground, landing with his head in the bucket of home-made red paint he had been holding with his teeth. "They are all identical, and we link them to capsules at random! Didn't you tell them?"
"Let them have their fun. We need to patch those things up anyway, so anything those little bastards do to them will be fixed too," Jered said, sounding unconcerned. "Who knows, if they feel that a particular automaton belongs to them, they might take better care of it."
"It's not the automatons that I'm worried about," Ami said, watching as one goblin stepped onto the shoulders of another, who was in turn standing on a third's shoulders. This allowed his brush to reach the face of a particular damaged-looking reaperbot, but the entire tower was wobbling so much that most lines completely missed their target. The child-sized monster persevered, furrowing his brow in concentration and poking the tip of his tongue out as he swung the painting utensil. "I suppose letting them personalise their automatons won't hurt. I'll see to it that they'll be stored lying down and easily accessible in the future," Ami conceded. "Snyder, what about our wounded? Did we lose anyone?"
"No," the redhead shook his head, "but it was close in some cases. I treated three goblins and one warlock who had fallen victim to the ghost's life leeching attack, in addition to other combat-related injuries. There were also a number of trolls who had been clawed or cut, but those were surprisingly easy to fix. They appear to be hardy creatures and took well to the treatment. One goblin showed burn marks and refused to tell me where he got them, and some of the pilots have minor abrasions from their restraints. I assume that they were overzealous in their efforts to move the remote bodies."
"That's a relief," Ami said, and meant it. She didn't like the idea of someone dying in her service or to defend her. "I'll make sure to adjust the capsule design so this won't happen again. Good work! So everyone is out of danger now?"
"Well, yes, I would assume so. Nobody else requested my assistance after the fighting had ceased, therefore, they should all be in acceptable health, unless you are missing someone."
"While we are on the topic of missing people, do you know where Marda is, Mercury? I haven't been able to find her since the battle ended," Cathy said. "Neither has anyone else."
"Marda is missing?" Well, that mystery could be solved easily enough. Ami concentrated on the female troll, focusing on discerning her location. The girl's expression turned into one of wide-eyed bewilderment. "Why is she on the mainland?"
Marda's metal-clad boots clattered loudly as she stomped through a darkened hall. Eight warhammer-wielding trolls followed in a double row behind their chainmail-clad leader, blurring like her from some kind of acceleration magic. "Someone is watching," the tall female growled through clenched teeth, raising her hand and prompting the others to follow her example and stop.
Does she mean me? Ami thought, observing with her Keeper powers.
"You have good senses, but then, all vermin does!" a female voice echoed through the hall, coming from the floor above. A pair of red eyes opened on the balcony overlooking part of the room. Pale hands rose from the railing, which had been decorated with vines. The vampire spread her arms, opening her cloak and appearing like a dark, slender silhouette before the brighter fabric of its interior. "I so rarely get visitors. You just have to stay for lunch."
"Spare me the melodrama, bloodsucker. Where is the mantle?" Marda interrupted,
The fabric draped over the vampire's limbs fluttered like bat wings as she jumped over the railing and descended, coming to a stop in mid-air. "You finally left your bolt-hole and came out all the way here for that? Fool! Your Keeper should have taken it off of Zarekos. No matter. This will be the last mistake you ever made!"
"Useless. Destroy her!" Marda ordered, leaping high to meet her female opponent in mid-air, hammer held high over her head. Her muscular soldiers spread out, attempting to flank the flying monster. A metal fan snapped open in the vampiric woman's hand, blocking the descent of the warhammer with a loud clang. Her dainty fingers didn't as much as budge under the impact, but the heavy head of her opponent's weapon bounced back as if it had struck a wall. Unperturbed, Marda used the spin imparted by the bounce to somersault backward and lash out with an armoured boot at the monster's face. The vampire spat out a few syllables and erupted into a flare of red light that spread outward in a star shape from her body, slamming into her attackers like a tidal wave and flinging them into the walls.
Worried, Ami wondered whether or not she would have to intervene. Those trolls didn't join up with me! she realised when she attempted to pull one of the blurry shapes to its feet and couldn't.
"Oh ho ho ho! You do not match up to your reputation," the vampire gloated at the prone form on the ground, her cloak and black hair fluttering around her in an illusory breeze. "I don't see why Zarekos was so worri- Huh?" The fan lashed out, batting a rock aside that whistled toward her face. "Up for round two already? Fine, if you wish to die tired, I will be happy to oblige!" The bat-like female smirked at the troll who was barrelling down on her with her head held low, lightly-scorched chainmail jingling with each step. The following exchange of blows was more even, with the heft of the warhammer blocking claw swipes intended to maim and disembowel, and the war fan ringing out like a bell again and again as it blocked a hail of stikes and kicks. As a ground-based fighter, Marda was at a slight disadvantage compared to the floating vampire, who would retreat upward out of striking distance each time the troll's speed threatened to overwhelm her. "Why don't you give up already? Your resistance is futile. You will never be able to defeat me."
Marda glowered at her opponent, putting her enormous brows to good use frowning as she redoubled her efforts and forced the vampire to retreat higher up into the air once more. "I don't have to. I have allies."
Alarmed, the vampire spared the time to glance around, to see where the other trolls were - three back on their feet, three groaning on the floor, one- behind her! The fan swished through the air as the vampire spun like a top and blocked the jumping green creature's hammer blow in the nick of time. The bat-like creature laughed. "You moron! That could have worked if you hadn't given-" A meaty crack sounded through the room as the eighth troll, jumping down from the balcony, smashed the floating woman's spine at the base of the neck.
"They can fly and still never look up," Marda commented as the body hit the floor, burst into smokeless flame and turned to ash. "Onwards. That one looked as if she had a dungeon heart. Let's find it."
"My Lord, do you think she was telling the truth?" one of the warriors asked as he fell in step behind his leader.
"Mercury doesn't have it. We would have known," the armoured greenskin said, grunting as she batted an attacking skeleton over the edge of a descending spiral staircase, where it disappeared into the darkness. "Keep looking."
Back in the dungeon, Ami frowned as she thought about the battle. Why had that vampire been utterly destroyed, rather than turning into the black sludge that faded away once the monster revived inside its coffin? She would need to find out. In addition, the kind of stone blocks constituting the complex that the trolls were rampaging through seemed familiar. When Ami checked its geographical location, she realised why. Zarekos' casting chamber was in the same place, which wasn't particularly far from the shore. Still, she doubted that Marda had just swum over there, through the stormy sea and wearing her armour.
"She's on the mainland? What is she doing there? And how did she get there?" Cathy shouted, taken aback by the new information long enough to forget about the cold.
"Fighting vampires and looking for some kind of mantle, it seems. As for the rest..." Ami shrugged. "I have no idea. I hope she doesn't want to claim a dungeon heart for herself. Do you think I should retrieve her?"
"I'd say you should observe her for a while longer and prepare a nice cell. That way, the two of you can have a long chat, without the rest of her troops finding out immediately," Jered advised. "I'm not sure we could handle a troll rebellion right now."
Ami nodded reluctantly, seeing the wisdom in preparing for the worst. "I'll only act if she tries to seize a dungeon heart then, or when I have learned enough. I really shouldn't put off that talk with Umbra much longer."
"Aw, can't that wait?" Cathy piped up in a pleading tone of voice. "I'd really appreciate it if you fixed the heating first!"
The blonde swordswoman had a good point, Ami considered as she appeared in the vaults of her treasury. Marda wasn't an immediate problem, and the dungeon was in dire need of repair. It was cold in this cave of ice, whose polished walls reflected the shine of the riches stored within a thousandfold. The blue-haired girl considered the contents of her treasury carefully over the clouds of condensing air escaping from her mouth. The piles of twinkling gold coins were smaller than she would have liked, despite the defeated Keeper's generous 'donation', and it would keep dwindling if the dungeon kept using it for basic warmth, lighting, and maintenance. Restoring electricity should be her first priority, then. Ami closed her red-glowing eyes and concentrated. On top of the iceberg, the stumps of the broken windmills shuddered and liquefied, turning into a greyish ooze that coalesced into a modest number of golden coins. The young Keeper quickly moved them to the treasury before the storm could blow them off the deck and into the raging sea. She snatched one of the round pieces out of the waterfall-like shower of coins in front of her, and inspected it more closely. Her face, proudly glittering on one of its sides, had its eyes closed and was frozen in the expression that she had displayed when the coin had been minted, so to speak. It was inconvenient that dungeon hearts could only convert structures that they had created back into gold - she had a lot of iceberg that she could have remodelled and sold off, otherwise - but in truth, it was a blessing in disguise. A Keeper who could simply disintegrate the landscape, fortifications, or even people, and turn them into more gold would be a nightmare. I wonder if the hearts infuse what they make with their corruption in order to break it up later?
While that wasn't a comforting thought, Ami had no choice but to rely on the tools she was given. Like the corruption, she would just have to make the best of it and work around the limitations somehow. Gold disappeared from the chamber, and in turn, a single steel pillar mushroomed upward on the vessel's deck, sprouting three long blades that started rotating in the harsh winds. Satisfied with the way that the dungeon heart had implemented the stored pattern, Ami reconnected the broken cables with the new generator and waited. The electrical lights flickered for a moment and went out. "Darn it!" Where could the problem be? Oh, yes, short-circuit from all the rooms that were still underwater. Ami summoned her Mercury computer to have a look at the circuit layout, but stashed it away unopened after a moment of thought. Pumping all of the water out of the flooded rooms would take much time and effort. There was an easier solution if she just wanted to get rid of the problem with the wiring. The seawater that had seeped into the bowels of the ship started to froth and bubble as the furniture within the caverns disappeared along with the thin layer of stone that masked the ice and contained the wiring. Only bare, water-filled spaces and a few wet coins of gold remained, which quickly found their way into Ami's coffers. Unfortunately, their contents would not be enough to buy a new dungeon heart on the mainland. That meant she would have to fix the gem furnaces, which had taken quite a beating from the invading forces. The big metal cylinders had weathered the invasion almost intact, but the delicate machinery to heat, turn, and control them was littering the floor in broken, twisted pieces. I'll have to salvage them and replace them, Ami thought, that will empty out my reserves even more. Will I even have enough left to run the reaperbots in case Marda's band turns on me? The lonely girl dearly wished she was at home with her friends, or that she at least didn't have to worry about potential traitors. It will take Jered a while to cook up a new batch of sapphires, so I - wait! Ami hit her forehead with a smack. I can just ask Jadeite to do it! If he can fix an entire ship with his glamour magic, a few furnaces shouldn't be a problem. Grewing more exited, she continued that train of thought. And if he can adjust things to his wishes, it shouldn't be hard for him to keep them at a specific temperature either! Maybe we can even up production! I hope he won't mind me asking that. Blushing faintly, the teenager risked another mental gaze into the dark general's bedroom, where only a patch of curly blond hair poked out from underneath the covers. I suppose I should let him get his well-deserved rest first. Time to visit Umbra.
A brownish-green imp squeaked in terror when it suddenly came face to face with a set of eight red-glowing eyes set over mandibles as long as its pickaxe. With a high-pitched scream, it dropped its backpack and sprinted away, with the giant spider in hot pursuit. It moved unlike a normal spider would, hopping with a strange, hound-like gait that four-legged animals would use, and stayed hot on the heels of the tiny, bug-eyed humanoid. The chase went through a library, where a shelf wobbled precariously after the arachnid bumped into it, past an empty treasury, and came to a sudden stop in front of a hen house. An unbelievably strong hand clamped down on the jumping spider's extended hind leg and lifted it into the air until the creatures was dangling upside-down and waving its hairy limbs.
"Arachne. Is there some particular reason why you are terrifying my minions?" Kaion asked, standing still like a statue amidst the chaos of flying feathers and clucking hens flapping their wings.
"Do I need one?" the upside-down spider chirped and clicked its mandibles, which probably was its equivalent to a laugh. "However, I like what you have done with my gold," an eerie, hissing voice came from the throat of the huge spider. "Nice design. Frugal and utilitarian. I particularly like the torture chamber. Very well equipped. You like knives, don't you? However, I can't help noticing that your portal has not attracted any creatures yet. And didn't you want a graveyard? I have not spotted one anywhere here."
"Zarekos never saw the need to expand the existing one in my presence," Kaion excused his failure, "so I never learned how to make one. I will be able to remedy this as soon as I seize one of his former bases from my erstwhile companions."
"I see. I may have a simpler solution," Arachne said, her tone suddenly serious. "Listen well, I hate repeating myself."
"Oh?" the vampire leaned in closer, baring his fangs in a sceptical smirk as he cocked his head. "Is that so, my valued ally?"
"Yes. It goes like this: Electrum Deus."
Cowering underneath a layer of frightened chickens, the imp quaked in terror as the room flashed with bright, bluish light, and loud thunder shook the walls.
"I don't have allies. I have minions," the spider hissed as it dropped into the pile of smoking ashes that was all that remained of Kaion's short career as a Keeper, the tip of one of its forelimbs still surrounded by crackling arcs of lightning. "Isn't that right, Nero?"
From the direction of the portal, a lanky man wearing a high-collared purple robes with a skull motif approached, followed by a large chest that walked on four human arms that had been nailed to its wood. His black goatee glistened oily in the torchlight as he bowed to the spider. "Of course, Mistress Arachne. This is the place? Quaint."
"I'm sure your assessment would hurt poor Kaion's feelings after he went through so much effort sparing us the trouble of researching all those rooms ourselves."
"My heart is bleeding for him. That's the dungeon heart?" the warlock asked, pointing at the pillar-framed crystal orb that had gone completely dark.
"Indeed. Why the sour face? This is your long-awaited promotion to subordinate Keeper. You should enjoy it! You are rising up in the Underworld!"
"For as long as you chose to support me, in a location that you don't feel like defending yourself," Nero muttered.
"Indeed! I always knew you were a smart boy. But fret not, if you manage to complete your task and assassinate that wretched Mercury, I will reward you with a real dungeon heart, not this ancient relic. Feel free to claim others if it serves you. Should you fail... well, you won't have to worry about me any longer."
"Delightful." Nero said in a deadpan tone of voice, staring with greedy eyes at the inert orb he would soon bond with.
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