Ami was smart, but she had delivered her ultimatum with all the oratory talent of a shy Japanese schoolgirl. Her body, being that of a slender naked ice statue, did nothing to increase the intimidation factor.

"Don't worry about her, worry about what I'll do to you if I catch you not following my orders!" Malleus roared, and his minions shrunk back and shuffled their feet nervously on the marble floor. "What do you take me for, an easily cowed novice? I know very well that there is no way you can maintain more than a limited number of those things! Troops, capture, rather than kill them! Mutilate them first if that's what it takes!"

A few of the bile demons were already moving toward Ami's group, fatty red folds wobbling in concert with the gleaming morningstars hanging from their horns. Less than a third of the underlings were advancing on Ami's icy dozen in a wave of red, consisting for the most part of the near-spherical bile demons and crimson-skinned orcs. The heavy warhammers the latter were wielding looked particularly troublesome to the increasingly desperate girl. She also saw that the main mass of the enemy Keeper's minions was still undecided, while the warlocks and other more intelligent ones were edging furtively toward the exits. A rain of arrows unleashed by the albino archers shot toward Ami, and she instinctively held up her hand and flinched away, but the poisoned barbs just pinged uselessly off her glittering skin.

Slaps echoed through the large hall, and trolls reeled as the Keeper smacked them around, using his invisible hold on them to whip them into action. For the cowards, he had a special treat. "Thinking about being dead weight? Then do it properly!"

Ami deciphered his meaning a moment before those whom it concerned found out, and her team of transparent golems was already scattering when the first hapless underlings appeared above and started to rain down on her group. Looking up to the ceiling to watch out for plummeting monsters while keeping the advancing wave of enemies in sight proved difficult, and she had her forces retreat into the hallway she had come from. It was away from her target, but had to be better than facing the horde in the open and getting surrounded, and the traps were already neutralised. Someone trying to capture her golems so she couldn't make new ones hadn't even crossed her mind yet! She staggered over the body of a wizard who had flopped to the ground in front of her and waved her arms to keep her balance, stepping on his stomach for the same reason. While the man let out a pained groan, one of her companions ran into a troll, who had just fallen into her path, and bowled him over. Both went down in a tangled heap. Malleus, finding his tactic sufficiently successful, intensified the bombardment, and Ami could barely move a step without tripping or having to swerve around a suddenly appearing obstacle as more and more creatures fell from the ceiling like raindrops. Worse, some of the more loyal creatures had been dropped further ahead in the corridor, and the fat demons were getting up and blocking the retreat route.

The richly-decorated hallway was more and more resembling the interior of a cramped train, except that the other passengers were monstrous, bad-tempered, and actively obstructing any progress. In such an environment, the golems were inevitably grabbed or slammed to the ground one after the other, and Malleus gleefully kept throwing more minions onto the pile. Burrowed under the hostile masses, Ami found to her surprise that her opponent's excessive malice had led him to commit something of a tactical blunder. She and her soldiers were made of ice and difficult to grapple under the best of circumstances, and close-in fighting played to her golems' strengths, literally. Frozen hands closed around necks and exerted pressure that nobody would have thought these delicate fingers capable of, resulting in sickening crunches and snapping sounds. The intelligences animating the statues were not picky about what they grabbed, and leathery green bellies were squeezed open as easily as pinkish arms were pinched off. Slick with blood, the ice constructs were even harder to get a hold on, and often just shot out of a strong grip.

The hostile creatures within the pile, having the misfortune of being the smartest of the bunch, immediately realised that being snuggled in the lethal embrace of the attractive enemy minions was something to be avoided at all costs, and they pushed against their neighbours, stubby legs and clawed feet attempting to propel their owners away from the danger. The pressure of monsters struggling to move into opposite directions with no space for anyone to go clogged up traffic in the area and stopped them from coordinating, which would have allowed them to take down their slippery targets with a few well-aimed swings. Despite the chaos, a few enemies got lucky, and Ami heard the tinkling of breaking ice as one of her minions shattered. She could see another being dragged away spread-eagled between four orcs, the pointy business end of a warhammer anchored within each limb. Ami tried to send the captive to the surface, but to her horror, her Keeper grip just slid powerlessly over the immobilised form. Once again, her ignorance about the basic rules governing her new powers threatened to destroy her plans at the worst possible time.

The melee continued, and with nobody having his full range of movement, her fighters were causing a bloodbath. Out of the corner of an eye, she saw one of the tough and resilient bile demons die when one of her golems ripped open the skin covering the protective layers of fat, shoved her fragile-looking arm into the wound up to the elbow, and fired her finger-projectiles. It was a good thing that Ami didn't have a stomach that could turn right now. A knee coming down on her eye obstructed her view of the grisly sight. Another golem fractured somewhere out of her sight, diluting the mixture of blood and water on the ground. She was inflicting casualties, but couldn't take this attrition rate. If she wanted to turn this battle around somehow, she needed time to regroup and reassess her options. A large metal boot entered her field of vision, becoming larger and larger at a rapid rate, reinforcing her decision.

Ami ripped herself and her soldiers through space, trading ground for not suffering more irreplaceable casualties. Improbable victory later was better than certain defeat right now, but things didn't look good, she worried. She and six of her soldiers appeared in the narrow tunnel leading toward the second breach. If she counted herself, that left her with nine golems to work with, two of which were on duty chasing off enemy imps. She was still feeling mentally exhausted as she surveyed her troops, all of which had a coating of dark red clinging to their curvy forms. The ones who had taken the most damage were notably smaller than their companions, and all had lost their armour early in the battle.

The senshi possessing one of the ice bodies clenched her fists as she re-assessed the situation. She was so tired she was only good for a few more spells. On the positive side, a path to the enemy dungeon heart had been cleared of traps, eliminating that danger, she also knew the route to get there, and the Keeper seemed to lack the power to throw offensive spells. At least he hadn't used any of those yet. On the negative side, she was more or less out of reinforcements, her opponent was alert and aware of how to defeat her, outnumbered her with higher-quality troops, had his one weakness well-defended now, and seemed unwilling to submit. What were her options? Retreating and admitting defeat would not gain her anything, but she would not necessarily lose a lot except time from it. There were still two more Keepers that she could try to subjugate. Then again, she didn't know how long it would take Malleus to re-build his portal and spread the news, or for her to fully recover from the exertion of casting so many spells. She must have already lost more ice golems to the automated defences than Malleus had total creatures. She would only retreat once she was down to her last unit, Ami decided. She couldn't risk being stuck as a fleeting shadow for hours again while she travelled home.

She consulted her computer once more, re-calculating Malleus' position. He hadn't moved yet, so she felt confident that he wouldn't unless something forced him to. A single golem sneaking in and assassinating him while the rest held his attention elsewhere would allow her to claim his dungeon heart for herself, which would at least provide a sanctuary from the Baron's forces. However, this meant that the intruder had to get past an unknown number of traps all while remaining undetected, as the slightest hint of danger would cause the target to teleport away. In addition, she'd have to make it physically to the now unclaimed heart before any other ambitious denizen of the dungeon did. Which pretty much required her to fight her way through his troops so she could be at the heart the moment he died. Which led her to her last option: reach the heart and hold it hostage so Malleus had to cooperate. Easier said than done, but still more achievable than the assassination option. She'd have to reach the heart in both cases, except in the former one she'd be attempting to do it one golem down, with less of a potential pay-off.

Ami nodded to herself as she closed her palmtop, making the device disappear back into its subspace pocket. Reaching the dungeon heart was the most beneficial option, in addition to being the easiest one. Where 'easy' meant 'near-impossible' in the current situation, she pondered anxiously. But if her troops were no longer replaceable, she should make the most of the ones she had. Maybe she could upgrade them all with the senshi transformation? It had worked wonders for Cathy, and the initial golem body she had taken into combat had felt more powerful than the current ones. She should at least give it a try. With any luck, transforming wouldn't tire her out as much as casting another golem creation spell. Blurting out her transformation phrase resulted in the familiar feeling of her transformation sequence that looked like a short flash of blue light to any observers. She possessed the largest of the remaining golems, repeating the procedure. The strain was bearable so far. She did it again, twice, bringing the number of pseudo-senshi up to four. However, this time something went definitely wrong. She could feel the combined power requirements of maintaining the golems and the transformation burn through her reserves at an alarming rate. Suddenly, the pool of mana stored within her dungeon heart was empty. The two smallest golems became inert ice statues surrounded by a fading halo of green sparkles as their enchantment gave out.

The drain on the young Keeper's reserves now maintained balance with the influx of fresh power, and she felt that her dungeon heart was neither filling or emptying. Ami turned to look at the three still untransformed statues. They would not make much of a difference in the coming battle, so she took a chance and tried to upgrade one of the remainders too, willing to stop maintaining the spares. A flash of azure later, she felt the drain again, more intensively than before. The two remaining golems stopped moving, and she could feel the control over her own limbs fade. With panicked haste, she released the latest transformation and shot back into one of the safe bodies, but the damage had been done already. There was no trace of life left in her latest experiment, despite the fact that her energy pool was regenerating slowly now. She should have gotten an imp to write a message to Cathy! If the blonde had released her senshi form, Ami could have empowered a fifth statue here where it counted. No use crying over spilled milk, though. She looked up at her three companions, all of which were filled with a blue light from within because the Mercury symbol floating within their chest cavity blazed brightly. They were as ready as they possibly could be.

Voices and grunts approached, Ami's location. Malleus was going on the offence and still trying to claim her tunnels, it seemed. She'd have to get past this group of enemies first if she wanted to get back toward the huge Heart Chamber. Gritting her teeth (just into how much detail did the golems go when they replicated her body?), she crossed and then spread her arms, unleashing a Shabon Spray. Dark bubbles shot down the hall, momentarily illuminating the unfinished rock where they rushed past with their paradoxical white glare, until they impacted behind the breach and turned into a black miasma. Ami faltered in her step and stared, perplexed and feeling like screaming. Why were her own powers acting up now? Getting the spell out had felt like nails scratching over a chalkboard, and the reserves in her still half-empty mana reservoir had dropped noticeably.

The oscillating darkness of the corrupted spell wafted over the first enemies, eliciting short gasps of surprise and irritation. A moment later, they turned into howls of pain and terror when the dark magic performed the same task of blinding and disorienting the targets that Mercury's usual chilly fog would have. Sailor Mercury's first spell usually only made an opponent scream when he stumbled over something and stubbed his toe. This however... Ami covered her mouth ineffectually with a transparent hand as she saw monsters claw at their eyes in the darkness. Blood was flowing from their ears and noses, and Ami had serious misgivings about entering the area. While one part of her mind was repulsed and appalled at the suffering her spell was causing, the cold, analytical soldier part was urging her to take advantage of the situation and hurry onwards. She could try to figure out what had gone wrong - or was that right? - later.

Feet of ice clattered on the ground as the golem group burst into action. The blood-coated female forms leaned forward deeply as they sprinted through the tunnel, ignoring the distracted enemy creatures wherever possible. An elbow jab threw a muscular orc out of the way and against the wall. Ami could hear the impacts of her soldiers alighting on the ground behind her after they cleared the body writhing on the ground.

"Stop them you fools! Do I really have to do everything myself?" Malleus' voice thundered through the vaults. A massive, blob-like shape with long horns, its scarred eyeballs flaring like burning coals, positioned itself in front of the jagged hole that Ami's imps had dug through the wall earlier. She leaped backward as the demon jerked its head around, the attached morningstar whirring in an arc toward her. Without exchanging a word, the minions behind her picked up on her intentions, and the right one caught the chain behind the spiked ball and pulled, partly dragging the demon out of position as it was forced to lean forward. The left statue lunged, body near-horizontal as her leap carried her through the small gap between the monster's bulk and the wall. A quick kick to the back of the head later sent the already imbalanced demon toppling face-first into the dirt. Ami and the others wasted no time with trying to put it down for good and just jumped over it as they made their way into the dungeon.

Under Ami's spell, the hallway looked like something out of a nightmare. The darkness over-exaggerated the height of the square pillars reinforcing the wall like wooden supports in a mine, and the top of the Gothic arches they formed disappeared in the shifting darkness. Fingers of turquoise light stabbed down from the crystals in the ceiling, illuminating small circular spots of the mosaic on the ground. From time to time, one of the monsters whimpering in the shadows would stumble through it on its way to take a wild swing at the intruders, flashing up brightly in the process. The team of fast-moving statues had little trouble avoiding them, being much speedier than before. Behind them, they heard the Keeper roar angrily. Ami risked a glance over her shoulder and ducked just in time when a giant axe blade that had formerly been a trap component whooshed past overhead. The half-moon shaped arc of metal was as wide as she was tall and made a loud clang when it buried itself in a wall. Furniture, broken traps, candelabras, even incapacitated minions lifted off the ground as if carried onward by a giant wave while Malleus' invisible presence thundered down the corridor behind the intruder, using all of these objects as projectiles. Ami's black fog parted before the incoming form and washed over something that appeared like a giant skull with a wide-open maw, visible only due to the blackness streaming around it like veils. It provided ample motivation to run faster.

As if throwing large, unwieldy things at the golem party wasn't enough, the enemy Keeper resumed his earlier tactic of dropping minions in their way. In senshi form, the golems had better reflexes and much higher durability, and even if one tripped over an obstacle and rolled forward over the floor, another was quickly at its side and pulled her back to her feet roughly before speeding up again. The simple fact of the matter was that with doors already smashed, traps disabled, and enemies disoriented, the small group was moving too fast for the opponents to throw up an efficient blockade, Ami thought as she punched a troll who had appeared in her path in the gut. A zone of brightness ahead alerted her to incoming danger, but a comet-like ball of fire still clipped her. It melted her right arm off close to the shoulder even as she tried to twist out of the way. A trio of warlocks stood in a wide triangle that was free of the sense-attacking magic, looking as if two were preparing more attack spells, while the third hooded wizard kept turning his staff in a circle, keeping the eagerly-seeking tendrils of dark magic at bay. "Fire!" Two of the statues flanking Ami shot their fingers into the mages' direction, and one let out a shriek of pain as he went down. The other two had magical shields up, and the ice ricochetted off of the purplish planes. It kept them from attacking though, which was enough for the intruders to run right past them and disappear into the thinning haze. Ami felt herself shrink as the arm regrew.

Guardhouse. Turn right. Those wall curtains like giant peacock feathers - left. Close to the main chamber now. A surge of ambient mana gave Ami a split second warning of the fact that Malleus had scraped together enough power to throw a magical attack of his own. She jumped backward, but it was not nearly enough time to get out of the way. The leading golem glowed bright as the midday sun, its outline white from the heat contained within, before exploding outward into a sphere of eye-searing brightness. One of the statues tackled Ami, interposing herself between the Keeper and the incoming wall of fire. As if in slow motion, the senshi could see the shockwave lift tiles from their spots, rip curtains off the walls and snap solid pillars like twigs as it inexorably rolled toward her, shifting to a deeper orange as it expanded. Through the transparent ice body of the golem shielding her, she could observe the moment when the flames touched her protector and the ice and water contained within flash-vaporised. The resulting jet of steam propelled her away from the explosion with great force, and she hurtled through the air, barely ahead of the creeping destruction. Quick-witted, she held on to one of the pillars as she flew past, letting the momentum yank her around. After a quarter turn, she let go, having changed her trajectory enough to land in the wind shadow of a swanky fireplace. An instant later, the explosion roared past, its heat still great enough to make steam rise from her chest and face.

Ami let herself relax, her back losing contact with the wall she had been hugging. She looked down at herself to see a number of long stone shards embedded in her shell like daggers. A quick head count revealed that only one other golem had survived the inferno, following her example. Not enough. She had to risk two more spells, one to turn the room back from its furnace-like condition to something she could actually traverse, the other to replace at least one of her soldiers. Once again, the corrupted version of the Shabon Spray appeared instead of the regular one, but fortunately the darkness also eagerly sucked in the heat. Her replacement golem suffered from a similar problem, looking more like a jagged piece of obsidian than the smooth and slender statue Ami had come to expect. Its shape was somewhat what the senshi thought she'd have looked like if she had born as a youma, all fangs and horns, claws and spines. She had no way to try again though, as she could barely concentrate, so she resigned herself to empowering that abomination too before moving on. Maybe one more spell at most, and she'd be all out! Fortunately, the entrance to Malleus' heart chamber should be right across the next bend.

An orc charged the group with eyes like red magma pits, but a salvo of detaching fingers dispatched it before it could do damage. Of more concern was the pile of blinded minions blocking the entrance, with the Keeper dropping more out of thin air as Ami watched. The heap looked impressive, but was little more than a last ditch defence, she figured. And the base had to be larger than the top, which meant that, with a few key pieces gone, it should all come crashing down. A quick scan with her visor quickly identified the hapless monsters. She had her two companions move forward, avoiding another possessed bile demon in the process, and with united strength, they dragged two bedraggled looking orcs out of the heap, which collapsed in on itself. The top of the entrance became visible, and the three golems jumped simultaneously to get through the gap. When Ami's head crested the hill, she could see the darkened hall beyond, filled with moans and whimpers of creatures affected by her spell, and of course the pyramid with her target on top - and a giant, gaping maw straight ahead of her! With no way to correct her course in mid-air, she could only watch as her jump carried her higher. Something glowed in the throat of the beast, and then the monstrous-looking golem to her left was engulfed by a stream of dragonfire, and it melted away like a snowflake in the sun. She brought up her hands even as the statue to her left did the same, and the young dragon was hit by a salvo of a full twenty fingers. It didn't even flinch despite the icicles stuck in its scaly skin, and its possessed red eyes glared down on the surviving duo as they landed in a crouch on the other side of the obstacle.

The pyramid holding the enemy dungeon heart was less than a stone throw away, but every metre between here and there held an enemy that Ami had to get past if she wanted to reach it. Most of them were out of action, but not the dragon. Well, it couldn't go after two targets at once. She prepared to throw herself to the left, expecting the underling on her right to dodge to the other side - right about now! Not taking an eye of the scaled green monster towering over the both of them, she launched herself forward, waiting for the dragon to decide after whom it should go. The bolts of ice shearing through her right knee came as a complete surprise. As she fell, she turned to look back at the other statue with disbelief-widened eyes. Its arms were still extended, finger stumps already regrowing after firing. Before she could ask the traitor any questions, the dragon's tail slammed into her. It was only due to her senshi enchantments that the ice body survived the blow, being hardened to the point that breaking it required more force than just moving its weight. Instead of shattering into shards, she was swept across the floor and thrown into the masses of blindly milling soldiers, leaking water from a network of cracks. The dragon had already turned back to the other statue, who looked around with a blank expression. Crunch! The ice splintered between the jaws of the beast, without ever trying to get defend itself.

Ami used the distraction for an all-out sprint toward the dungeon heart. By now, she was small enough that the other creatures she was weaving around were all a head taller than her, hiding her from the great lizard's sight. Only a few more steps and then the stairs- a whooshing noise made her look up, just in time to see the green dragon spread its bat-like wings as it took off, flying in her direction. With the need for stealth gone, she leapt over the remaining crowd and started running up the golden stairs - only to come to a sudden stop when the dragon's flame washed over the steps directly in front of her. The wind of the monster's wingbeat fanned the flames upward as it dived at her in order to correct its near miss. Ami was determined to reach the heart before the beast could get her. She rushed up the stairs, and her feet lost traction when the still hot metal melted the ice beneath her soles. With an undignified "Eeep!", she fell backward, rolling down the stairs. The spinning stopped when a clawed hand stomped down on her, pinning her head-over to the side of the pyramid. The Keeper in the dragon's body smirked cruelly before belching up a gout of flame that shot toward the trapped figure. Feeling it disintegrate between his claws, he reared his head back and laughed.

Footsteps from above made him stop short. There, running up the stairs was a human girl who resembled the golems, dressed in a provocatively short skirt and a white bodysuit. With an angry growl, he shifted his mass to lunge after her.

Ami hurried. Her real body was at stake now, but she wouldn't give up so close to the target. One more the step. Her boots were hissing and smoking as they touched the hot metal. Ignore the pain. Another step. Leathery wingbeats behind her. The dragon shouldn't be able to breathe fire again so quickly after the last time, she hoped. Nearly at the plateau with the dungeon heart superstructure now. The pyramid vibrated under its anxious heartbeats, but her own felt a lot louder. A giant, winged shape rising behind her. One more step, leap! The senshi dived forward, passing the pillars surrounding the heart and, aimed at the pit within. The sound of the dragon sucking a deep breath into its lungs made her twist her torso around in mid-air. A bright glow surged up through the monster's gaping throat - pointed directly at her!

"Shabon Spray Freezing!"

A stream of jagged black ice shot from her palms, meeting the incoming burst of fire head on. Heat and cold clashed, and the stream of dark ice was pushed back, blossoming out into sharp spikes around the advancing pillar of fiery breath. During the struggle, Ami was still falling into the dungeon heart. The ice shooting from her hands returned to its regular colour a moment before the flames burned a circular hole into the barrier, turning it into a spiky black wreath. The counter-attack had done its job though, and had protected Ami long enough for her to drop below the path of the flames. They only roared past close enough to give her a new tan before she disappeared beneath the exterior walls ringing the dungeon heart's central pit. Gravity assessed itself, and what remained of the cored ice disk came crashing down around Ami, right after she had slammed into the rosy, beating membrane spanning the core of the dungeon heart. It was soft, but felt surprisingly resilient. Knowing that every second counted, she sat up, grabbed the largest obsidian-looked shard of ice she could find, and stabbed down at the beating heart again and again. With each blow, its colour turned more sickly, and she felt herself sink deeper, as if the flesh was going more flaccid.

The green light of the mana motes gathering above was suddenly blotted out by a large lizard head appearing in the circular field of vision she had from down here in the pit. Drool dripped from the opening maw. A final, frantic stab, and the membrane's resistance gave way. The red-eyed dragon above let out a pained mewl as the ice shard parted the now unprotected flesh, almost piercing through to the darkness below. The black icicle in Ami's shaking hands wavered as she looked up at the draconic face with defiance, but the sharp end stayed within the bleeding, oozing gash, and the slightest downward shove would puncture it completely. "Malleus! Your life is in my hands! Submit or die!"

"You- you wretched little- Had you faced me at my full power, this would have never happened! You are like a carrion-eating vulture! But yes, I surrender," the dragon deflated after its burst of anger, "you leave me no choice."

A surge of energy from the depths of the heart shot up into Ami, spiralling around her body in purplish streamers as it was absorbed into her. She could feel new links snapping into place in her mind, and suddenly, she had a map of Malleus' dungeon in her head. She could even feel the magic go taut around the defeated keeper, chaining his mind to her will. With a breath of relief, she carefully removed the icicle - it wouldn't do to destroy what she had fought so hard for by accident - and let herself sink backward onto the beating membrane in exhaustion.

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Chapter 28: Inhuman Waves Chapter 30: Knowledge Hard Earned



Attached comments:

  • Also, it was the 'youmaish' Golem, not one of her normal ones. We don't know _what's_ up with that
    The monstrous golem was the one incinerated by the dragon first, as it looked most dangerous.
  • Tasbaal mentioned earlier that the dark god that he and Malleus worshipped exclusively was slain by a rival, destroying his power base, which his enemies capitalised on. He didn't go down through any fault of his own.
  • [regarding using the spell Turncoat on that one golem to change loyalty] It's a spell that affects the senses with illusions, not mind-control.
  • Did I say anything about the mind?
    Assuming you are the same person
    The golem *minds* were based on Imps
    Yes, you did ;)
    In any case, there's no reason for them to be immune just because they are constructs. If anything, constructs should be even easier to re-program and deceive.
    Yet imps are immune [in-game].
    Duh? They don't fight, so of course the game won't let you use the spell on them. It would have no effect and be a waste of mana. In DK1, they are so disloyal they instantly convert when dropped into the torture chamber.