Queen Beryl knelt on the rock ledge that pointed at the softly-pulsing cocoon floating in the void before it. "Queen Metallia?" the red-haired monarch asked in a hopeful, almost joyous tone. Unfortunately, the huge sack streaked with orange veins remained as silent as the deformed stone skull out of whose maw it hung like a grotesque tongue.
Frowning, Beryl glanced at the crystal ball on the tip of the staff lying before her. She could feel the energy of the Great Ruler still playing around it, more vital than ever since she had fallen into a coma. Disappointed by the lack of reaction, Beryl tried again. "My Queen, are you aware? What is going on?"
Nothing. A flicker of movement drew the evil redhead's gaze down to the crystal ball. An image of that vile blue-haired conspirator had appeared, kneeling next to some scaly, blue pillar. With great satisfaction, Beryl took in the battered and bloody appearance of the soot-covered brat. Served that sailor senshi right. Too bad that whatever had inflicted the damage didn't finish the job. Oh, those black tendrils wrapping around Sailor Mercury had to be Queen Metallia's power. Yes! Crush her! Beryl felt giddy that her Great Ruler's first conscious action would remove this thorn in her side. Her mood came crashing down once events in the crystal ball unfolded further. She gnashed her teeth as she watched the power seep into the girl's body, leaving her unharmed and marking her as one of Metallia's own. The redhead's breath froze at this confirmation of how far the traitors had come in their plan to usurp her position. It made perfect sense for these Silver Millenium fools, of course. Without their precious Moon Princess, they would be powerless against Queen Metallia, and therefore wanted her on their side. Beryl nodded to herself. It was what she would have tried, had their positions be reversed. She suppressed her jealousy, since snapping at the Dark Kingdom's goddess would neither further her agenda, nor be appreciated. Instead, she waited quietly for her ruler to address her. She waited until the energised orange veins of the cocoon dimmed and the pulses within the membranes slowed down. After several quiet minutes, a horrible suspicion sneaked up on her. "Queen Metallia? It is me, your loyal servant! Let me know your will!"
As the silence stretched longer and longer, the dark queen realised that no answer would be forthcoming. Queen Metallia had gone quiescent again. Beryl growled under her breath. The Great Ruler spoke to that- that usurper before going back to sleep? Why did she waste her moment of lucidity on that brat, rather than her, Queen Beryl, who had served her loyally for centuries? She would not stand for it! She would not be replaced! The dark queen rose and turned her back on the cocoon so swiftly that her deep violet dress swished around her, gritting her teeth "Nephrite! To me at once! NEPHRITE!"
Ami was pleasantly surprised to find four of her abducted imps hiding in the rubble of her dungeon, still alive and well after the invasion. On her orders, the little creatures started reclaiming her territory, all of which had slipped from her grasp when she was forced to sink the dungeon heart into its emergency shelter. Her green-glowing hands rose to her throat, erasing some of the damage that Nero's attack had inflicted on her borrowed body. The healing necromancy did nothing to remove the unpleasant taste of the youma's blue blood, though. With the destruction of the enemy dungeon heart, Ami felt her transportation powers return and immediately set out to put them to good use. Her troops dangling from the ceiling wouldn't be able to hold on forever, especially the physically weaker ones. She had to get them back on safe ground as soon as possible, starting with those who looked most likely to slip and fall into the lava deep below. Checking on the status of her dungeon, Ami saw that the imps had only reclaimed part of the giant cave melted into the iceberg by Alphel's dragon yet. It would have to do as a drop-off location. Quickly, she started plucking the weaker members of her forces from their perches. Snyder's armoured gauntlets came lose from the white silk with a wet ripping sound when she sent him away. Sticky? Jadeite's work, then. Ami felt a burst of intense gratefulness toward the dark general. Without him, her losses would have been even more horrible. She was also glad that Snyder had remembered to activate the physical enhancements that his suit of plate mail could provide, when he had to climb the rope. She probably should prioritise the armour-wearing soldiers, since the added weight could only be a hindrance in this situation. With a thought, Jered disappeared from his spot in the middle of a rope, far away from the bottom and also from the trapped giant spiders in their nest on the ceiling. One dark elf, two dark elves, three dark elves- Ami checked again, but to her chagrin, she couldn't find the remaining two. On to the armoured trolls then.
"Aahhhhhh!" A warlock slipped and dropped into the abyss, his purple robes fluttering around him as his beard trailed him like a comet's tail.
Eyes widening slightly, Ami made him disappear and put him into storage. She'd have to bleed off his momentum somehow when she retrieved him, which had the potential to be rather unpleasant for the man in question. Not as unpleasant as a violent collision with the lava at the bottom of the shaft, though. Back to the armoured trolls. She found Marda right at the top of a strand and glaring at the nearby spiders, who shrank back and tried to look very small and harmless. She'd probably be fine there for a while. Ami wasn't comfortable with the idea of the somewhat rebellious troll anywhere near her dungeon heart while most of the army was away, and decided to send her back last. She sent the five other trolls who had opted to make armour for themselves back, though. Hopefully, that was the same amount that had been summoned to Nero's dungeon heart. The warlocks came next. Ami sighed when she only found sixteen of them, the one she had caught earlier included. The alchemist, one of her first hirelings, was among the missing. Understandable, since he hadn't been very good at spellcasting and specialised in the theoretical fields, but still saddening.
Who next? Cathy, albeit in no danger of falling, was sent back so Jered wouldn't worry about her. The twelve giant flies zipping about would last longer without the goblin passengers they carried, so Ami relieved them of their burden. She did the same for Mareki, who looked as if she was about to toss the quivering, probing mound of tentacles in her arms down into the lava in a fit of disgust. That left the remaining, unarmoured trolls. Ami was relieved to find that all twenty of the veteran fighters were hanging from the strands, almost unhurt. However, her face fell when she plucked the goblins off their strings. ... thirty-two, thirty-three. Is that all? In the hopes of finding more surviving greenskins, Ami searched the strings and cave walls that shone reddish in the light from the lava below again, but it was futile. Only about half of her goblin force had survived the confrontation, then. She clenched her fists, feeling guilty for having failed them so. Only the few giant beetles she had hired had fared worse. Ami knew that she shouldn't think badly about the dead, even if they were mere giant beetles, but the strategic part in her mind mercilessly pointed out that the things must have been almost useless. None had survived despite having wings, and hiring more would probably be a waste. Ami sighed. She hated having to evaluate so ruthlessly. Well, that left only the various fliers. A few seconds of concentration later, the huge cave was empty except for the spiders trapped against the ceiling, secure for the moment. Ami scratched her head as she looked up at the mass of wriggling legs and bulbous bodies. What should she do about them? They could become a problem if they returned to Nero's side or escaped into the wild, where they'd either pester her creatures or starve. "Shabon Spray!"
With a quiet gurgle, the summoned fog condensed into her Keeper hand, which she set to loosening the threads fixing the entire sticky mass of spiders to the ceiling.
Cathy's muscles tensed when the cold air brushing over her skin informed her that she had arrived in a new location, but she couldn't see. Dropping into a combat stance, she turned around her own axis and listened into the darkness while her eyes adjusted to the twilight. Is this Mercury's dungeon? She could hear the chatter and groans of goblins all around her, their gruff voices echoing off the far-away walls. The sparse torches lining those glittery ice surfaces that bent and curved like molten wax gave her an idea of the vast scale of this cave. "Where was she hiding a room that big?"
By now, her eyes had adjusted to the dark conditions, and she was able to make out the grey-looking silhouettes of the closest creatures.
One of the larger and blockier ones made a beeline for her, clattering as it almost lost its balance on the slippery ground. "Cathy? Cathy!" Jered swept his girlfriend into a hug, relieved at finding her unharmed.
"Eeek! Cold!" the blonde squealed when the metal of his armour suddenly pressed against her bare torso, and she struggled to get loose. "Not that I'm not happy to see you too," she said with a wink when the arm encircling her waist let go, "but that thing you are wearing isn't very comfortable from the outside."
"Whoops, sorry." The wavy-haired man scratched the back of his head as he smiled at Cathy. His gaze soon dropped lower though, fixating on the patches of brighter skin where drying mud was flaking off.
Noticing his stare, Cathy covered her chest with her left hand. With reddening cheeks, she looked around to see whether anyone else was ogling her. "I had almost forgotten about this with all the excitement." She sighed. "I hope Mercury's bad luck isn't contagious. You wouldn't happen to have a spare shirt?"
Jered shook his head, not at all unhappy about being able to enjoy the sights a while longer. "I'm afraid not."
"Right. Could you please get me one from my room? I have to check who else made it."
"I would, but I have no idea where we are." Jered shrugged his shoulders, waving the pauldrons of his plate mail up and down with the gesture. "The cave is leading down deeper into the dungeon, and there's a huge pool of freezing water blocking the other way out."
Cathy looked around, trying to spot something familiar and get her bearings. Through her condensing breath, she could see feint, sizzling sparks in the darkness above. Unlike real stars, she couldn't use them for orientation. "Great." With two swift steps, she approached one of the warlocks and tapped him on the shoulder. To her annoyance, the bushy-bearded wizard's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets when he turned around and noticed her state of undress."Your overcoat. I require it!"
"Uhh. What? But-"
"Now!" Impatiently, Cathy reached for the man's collar and undid the clasp that held the garment together. Before he knew what was happening, she had pulled it off his shoulders, turned her back on him, and draped it over herself. Even though the piece of purple cloth looked half-shredded by the recent battle, it would protect her modesty for the moment. She was still cold though, and looked the warlock up and down over her shoulder. Fumbling with his staff, the black-robed mage frowned, probably pondering whether he should protest at the treatment. "You look unhurt," Cathy snapped. "Magic up a bonfire or something and bring it along. I'll need the light and heat!"
"Yes, Commander." Suitably cowed by her tone, he cast a spell that turned the skull-shaped tip of his staff into a blue-burning torch and followed after her.
With the comforting glow of the light source radiating heat at her back, Cathy did a preliminary survey of the troops sitting around in the cavern. At first glance, none of them seemed seriously hurt, which was less encouraging than it sounded. Those who had been seriously hurt wouldn't have made it to the spider threads, the swordswoman thought. With a shudder, she remembered these terrible moments when the ground seemed to drop away under her feet while she ran for one of the life-saving strings. Next to her, an orderly file of goblins with various bleeding scratches and similar ailments was slowly moving forward toward a short figure whose armour rattled as if an entire nest of hyperactive rats was running around within. Red hair in a bowl cut topped the portly face that appeared above the armoured breastplate.
Snyder stopped concentrating on his current green-skinned patient when he spotted Cathy and Jered approach, and forced a small smile through his chattering teeth. "I am glad to see that you all survived the recent debacle. T-that was an experience I do not wish to ever repeat," he said in a small voice. "I do not like heights. I like them even less when all that separates me from a long, fatal drop is a thin thread and a suit of armour whose enchantments could give out at any moment." He sat down. "Even remembering it makes my knees weak."
"Good to see you are still in one piece," Jered grinned. "I was a bit worried there. You aren't really a fighter."
"Oh, well, th-the trolls and dark elves guarded me well," the acolyte replied, "having a c-competent healer like me nearby is a great boon in any battle!"
"I see you are recovering from the fright already," Cathy snorted. "We are going to follow this cavern to see if it leads back to the main dungeon. You just stay here until Mercury returns, okay?"
"That was my intention all along," Snyder confirmed and waved the next goblin closer.
"All right, then." The swordswoman held onto her scythe for balance when she walked down the shallow incline leading deeper into the tunnel-like cavern. "Stupid reapers and their stupid outfits," she muttered when her armoured boots slipped on wet ice and almost sent her stumbling into an oddly-shaped pool of ice water. "And you, shut up!" she glowered at the warlock snickering behind her.
"That's one strange puddle," Jered commented as he peered into depression. "It almost looks like a four-fingered hand."
"Not a hand." Cathy said, paling as she stepped over one of the cracks extending outward from the hole. "That's a footprint."
"What? That would mean that the owner's toes are longer than you are!" Jered said. He fell silent, and Cathy could see the furrows on his brow that always appeared when he was deep in thought. "Given the size of this footprint, the entire creature must have been..." he looked up at the ceiling, where sparks erupted from broken cables in some spots, and gulped. "I- I think this place is the familiar part of the dungeon."
"That big?" the warlock said behind them and coughed into his hand. "I just remembered that I have something important to do back the way we came!" He turned around, but before he could take the first step, the wicked curve of Cathy's scythe appeared in his path, right at neck height.
Holding the weapon by the haft, the blonde shook her head. "You stay. Since the dungeon is still here, Mercury must have gotten rid of whatever made these prints. Knowing her, I wouldn't even be surprised if she faked them to scare off other invaders!"
"R-right you are," the warlock conceded, his eyes crossing as he watched the cutting edge of the weapon gleam in the light of his torch.
With each step that the trio took deeper into the cavern, the slow and steady rumble of the dungeon heart became louder. More and more pools of water and scattered, tiny holes lined their route through the unnaturally smooth tunnel. Cathy knelt down and peered into the transparent ground. "Do you see all those tiny black clumps at the bottom of shafts of clearer ice? I think they are fragments of hot metal that burned their path down. Don't you agree? Hello? Guys?" When the warlock's staff clattered to the floor, barely missing her, she looked up in irritation - only to see her companions stand still like statues and gape at something further down the cave, where meter-wide cracks and broken shards surrounded a small hill that blocked the way. Then, as if a switch had been flicked in her brain, she recognised the hill as the tail end of an absolutely huge dragon, and she joined the others in slack-jawed amazement. "She killed THAT, on her own, and was still back in time for the conclusion of the battle against Nero? HOW?" the blonde screeched.
"That size. It must have been truly ancient," Jered said in awe.
"The eldest." The warlock wobbled on his legs as if he might faint any moment now. He was rubbing his hands so hard that his wide sleeves swayed around his lanky arms, and muttered almost to himself "So huge. Normal dragons don't get old enough to grow that big. And blue scales. It's unique." His tone was almost reverent when he looked at the others with a gleam in his eyes. "Do you know what that means?"
"That Mercury is seriously scary?" Jered ventured.
"No! Well, that too," the dark mage granted, "but most of all, it means that this carcass is worth a fortune! Do you have any idea how much magic it must have incorporated into its body during the millennia?"
Cathy and Snyder answered with identical blank looks.
"No, of course you wouldn't have the necessary education. Philistines." the warlock shook his head sadly. "Long story short, it's an artificer's dream come true!"
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