Accompanied by the sound of tearing silk, Ami's Keeper hand ripped the last clump of tied-up spiders from the ceiling. They slowly rotated around their own axis as they plummeted into the lava-filled depths, shooting strings in all directions. Unfortunately for the arachnids, their combined weight was too much for any single life line, and each one snapped almost as soon as it made contact with the side walls. Ami didn't even wait for them to land and teleported herself back to the dungeon, announcing her return to the torch-lit cavern with a flash of blue, snowflake-spewing brigthtness. Hovering in the air, she looked down at the many heads that turned in her direction, their gazes meeting her red-glowing eyes. Not enough. So many dead, Ami thought and closed her eye, taking a deep breath. She didn't have time to feel sorry for the lost, though. That would come later. She would not waste the opportunity that the fallen had bought with their deaths. Her eyes opened, gleaming fiery red with determination. She would make sure this couldn't happen again! She needed a defence against that terrifying spell, or, failing that, to make sure that Nero would no longer be around to use it once more. "Everyone! I'm glad to see that you made it through alive, but our task isn't done yet. While banished for the moment, the enemy Keeper, Nero, is still alive! We will change that."
The reaction of the crowd was mixed. A few nasty, eager grins spread on green faces at the thought of striking back at the enemy on their own terms. The more cautious or tired creatures just looked weary and let their ears droop or shoulders slump.
"There is no time to lose! We must strike before he can recover from his banishment!" At this point, Ami noticed that Jered and Cathy weren't here. A flex of mental exertion fixed the problem, transporting them before her.
The blonde swordswoman appeared in a stooped pose, her arms extended as if she was climbing up something. Bereft of that perch, she staggered, but Jered was quick enough to grab her by the shoulder and prevent her from falling. She straightened, and upon spotting Mercury, extended her arm and pointed down the cave. "That. You." She looked back at Mercury. "Dragon. How?"
"Oh, you found that?" Ami put her hands together nervously. She wasn't all that eager to explain how she had almost unleashed Metallia by accident. "I'll explain later!" she blurted out. "For now, we need to get ready to strike back at Nero! Goblins!"
The greenskins, most in some variation of the reaper outfit, looked startled at being addressed so suddenly by their Keeper.
"All surviving pilots, to the right wall!" Ami pointed with her clawed index finger. About a third of the group shuffled over. "All those of you who want to become pilots, over there!"
Shouts of protest came from the crowd as the enthusiastic goblins stampeded through it, pushing and jostling each other in their haste. Ami blinked when only their cook remained sitting before her, balancing a ladle on her fat belly and slurping down the contents of a severed spider leg.
"Cathy, please take them all to the new automaton control centre I showed you earlier. Follow that imp." Ami mentally ordered one of the scavenged little workers to dig a new passage leading to the underground tunnel connecting her iceberg to the mainland. That done, she addressed the robed magicians waiting before her. "Warlocks! Since I cannot enter an area I have been previously banished from, the responsibility for the logistics of this operation will rest upon your shoulders." She saw some cross their arms in response to that declaration, indicating that they weren't too happy about it, but there was no grumbling. At this point, the fact that she was supposed to be an absolute monarch was rather useful. She summoned her visor and used it to distinguish the four most battered members of the flock. "You, you, you, and you," Her pointed index finger stabbed in the individuals' direction, "you four will be on scrying duty, and will keep me updated on enemy troop compositions, locations, and so on." She took paused. "Jadeite! Umbra!"
The grey-uniformed general shimmered into existence with a cocky smile, looking none the worse for wear from the recent combat. Ami returned a more polite smile and watched Umbra condense out of a veil of sudden darkness. The youma's silhouette was bent due to her baby-sized, regenerating arm, which she hid underneath her blood-spattered black coat. She inclined her head respectfully. "Lady Mercury?"
"Jadeite, Umbra. I need your teleportation powers to get some warlocks close to the enemy dungeon so that they can summon the rest of the forces. Jadeite, you will have to prepare a safe chamber for them to conduct the rituals. Defend them in case they are detected. Without Nero around to command his imps, the enemy should not be able to dig his way in before all automatons are in position. Nevertheless, I want everyone to remain on guard, since Arachne may still be active in the area."
"Sounds reasonable," Jadeite said. "Will I be joining the assault?"
"That depends on the enemy forces," Ami said. "Actually, where did you send the enemy reaper? He'd be the greatest danger there, short of any traps."
"I sent him to the Underworld," the blond general replied. "Even if he somehow finds his way back to his master, he'll never make it there in time on foot."
Ami inclined her head in a quick nod. "Good." She let her gaze sweep over the assembled troops, wondering whether she should send Marda and the trolls along on the assault. She decided against it. It wouldn't do to leave her home entirely undefended if Wemos chose to attack. Nurgil wouldn't do either, since Nero wouldn't have lasted this long if he hadn't protected his dungeon against vampires. "Oh, and Jadeite, don't forget to incorporate a water-filled trench into the warlocks' defences."
"Good! Everyone, you know what to do! Please get started!" Ami let herself drift to the ground as her various employees dashed off to follow her instructions. She'd have to sit this battle out, but that didn't mean that she could be idle. There was a lot of battle damage to her dungeon to fix.
"Sailor Moon, move!"
Warned, the pig-tailed blonde lunged to the right, landing flat in the grass just as a vertical arc of greyish-white power hurtled past and dug a furrow into the ground. Standing up, she got as fat as lifting herself to one knee when part of Nephrite's mansion came crashing down behind her. With a yelp, she threw herself back into the leaves and covered her head with both hands. When the dust cleared, she risked craning her neck and peering left and right to search for her opponent. She found him above. In the red twilight lit by burning trees, Nephrite flowed like a demonic spectre. His eyes shone white with power and his long hair waved around him like seaweed as he intoned his next spell "I ask for power from the stars!"
Sailor Moon watched as a great swirl of light gathered in his cupped hands and shot forward like a shower of shooting stars before she could fully get up. Still on all fours, she froze, staring wide-eyed at the incoming attack.
"Sailor Moon!" Mars shouted in fright, gripping the pillar of the veranda she was steadying herself against harder.
"Supreme Thunder!" Arcs of lightning sprang from Sailor Jupiters arms, flashing toward the dark general's attack. To the pony-tailed girl's horror, the individual components of Nephrite's attack scattered, flowing around the flickering stream of bolts.
Sailor Moon clenched her eyelids shut, bracing for a hit. Miniature explosions around her stirred up blossoming fountains of dirt that hit her with stinging shards all over. A moment later, the chain of booms stopped, and all was silent except for the crackling of burning wood. She risked opening an eye, and saw that she was sitting on a small patch of grass surrounded by cratered earth. Miraculously, none of the tiny energy blasts had hit her directly.
"Whoa," the tall brunette in the green skirt commented as she limped over to Moon's side and helped her to her feet, "his aim just can't be that bad! It's almost as if even the stars hate his guts!"
If looks could kill, Sailor Jupiter would have keeled over dead from the offended glare that the hovering dark general directed at her.
"Fire Soul!" Sailor Mars took the initiative, prompting him to fade away before the spiralling fireball could hit him.
"Were did he go now?" Sailor Moon asked. Standing back to back with the other battered girls, she stared into the surrounding walls of flame, looking for motion.
"On the roof!" Luna's voice called out, warning the soldiers about their opponent's new location.
Nephrite stood on the highest gable of his mansion, heedless of the tongues of fire licking out of the round window underneath. In his grey uniform, he looked like a shadow against the backdrop of the sky. He didn't bother with astrology this time and raised his right hand. A widening black twister shot down from it, catching the three girls in its area.
"Argh! I can't move!" Sailor Mars complained.
Jupiter frantically batted at one of the many smouldering leaves caught with them in the dark torrent. "Ow! Guys, do you have a plan?"
Next to her, Sailor Moon cringed with her arms raised to shield her face against the onslaught of dark energy. "I wish Mercury was here to give us some cover!"
On the rooftop, Nephrite started laughing as he watched black energy arc between the sailor senshi trapped in his attack. The sight was almost enough to make up for the loss of his car. Almost.
"Nephrite! To me at once"
What? Now? Queen Beryl had the worst timing. Oh well, she would excuse him for making her wait for a bit if he returned with news of complete victory.
To his dismay, the dark general found himself tugged irresistibly back to the Dark Kingdom by his impatient Queen's power. "This isn't over yet!" he shouted at the girls on the ground before he sank into a dark ellipse.
"He ran away?" Sailor Moon blinked at the empty rooftop, baffled at the opponents inexplicable retreat. "Why?"
A small black cat darted out of her hiding place in the rubble."Everyone! We have to leave before the fire fighters arrive," Luna shouted. In the distance, the sound of sirens was getting louder.
"Right!" Panting, Sailor Mars was looking for a safe way through the burning wood when she spotted a blurring motion above. A black cloak fluttered, and she whirled to face it, only to see a sharp crystal spike thud into the ground where Sailor Moon had just been standing. The icicle-like weapon hummed from the force of the impact and remained standing.
The blonde let out a squeal when she was suddenly gathered up into strong arms, but she settled down once she recognised the white mask and formal wear of her saviour. "Tuxedo Mask!"
Sailor Mars felt a twinge of jealousy at seeing her blonde friend in Mamoru's arms, but she focused on the more important aspect of the situation: locating their attacker. Not too hard, since she only had to back-track the path of the projectile and follow the trail of cherry blossoms to find the effeminate man sitting on thin air, chuckling quietly to himself. "Zoisite!"
"I don't know why Nephrite opted to not finish you off, but I'm not going to pass up an opportunity like this!" the dark general conjured another sharp crystal and grinned down at the exhausted girls.
Not even Ami's Keeper sight worked in the region she had lost one of her dungeon hearts in, but that didn't mean that she was reduced to watching the battle in a crystal ball. Her remote vision worked perfectly fine within her own dungeon, and she could look at the screens inside the pilot capsules and observe events from the perspective of the automatons. Nevertheless, she had joined the four scrying warlocks in the small replica of the command centre she had created on the mainland. The dragon's rampage had taken out the original's power cables, rendering its wall windows unsuitable for prolonged use with only her magician's personal mana supply.
"Haha, look at that bot go! Like a bowling ball!" one of the trolls commented the gruesome demise of eight spiders that got underfoot a reaperbot charging down a straight hallway. He raised his fist in a cheer, and almost hit Ami's floating form in the leg.
Maybe she should have made the new chamber larger. In hindsight, it should have been obvious that all the troops who had nothing else to do would congregate here to follow the battle, filling the room with the smell of sweaty creatures. She didn't have the heart to throw them out, since they were enjoying the sight of the one-sided slaughter immensely. It was just what was needed to raise morale after the costly battle two hours ago. The enthusiastic roaring of the crowd was infectious, and she noticed that she was grinning just like them when the tide of black, scythe-wielding metal hacked apart Nero's few remaining forces that couldn't get away fast enough. The enemy Keeper had obviously bet everything on his spell succeeding, cannibalising many of his rooms to fund his other dungeon. His defences were woefully inadequate to stop her bots, which were largely impervious to the sparse spiders and skeletons that milled about the place. Only the traps were a serious problem. The reaperbot closest to the enemy dungeon heart was holding the broken shells of two shattered companions in front of itself like a shield as it moved down the corridor, where spiked steel pendulums the size of its torso whistled across the path in completely random intervals. With a courageous jump, it moved past one of those darks gaps in the wall, only for bolts of lightning to flash down on the metal warrior from studs in the ceiling. Red-hot metal flowed like blood from the impact points. Ami heard the crowd gasp as a large, round boulder dropped from a hatch in the ceiling and barrelled toward the largest concentration of automatons, who had no room in the confined quarters to dodge. The gasps turned into an awed murmur when the grey-uniformed blonde floating behind the broad-shouldered bots extended his right arm, stopping the corridor-filling projectile cold. Jadeite cackled and flicked his wrist. With a shimmer of distorted air, the boulder reversed direction and bounced away through the trap-filled hallway, crashing through the swinging giant maces as it went. The remaining defences didn't even slow down Ami's soldiers, and it didn't take long for them to reach the enemy dungeon heart and face the last line of defence. Ami cringed at the pitiful sight of imps throwing themselves at the horned automatons, swinging their picks with desperate zeal. "Cathy, have the goblins ignore the imps until the dungeon heart is down! They'll be useful if we can capture them!"
"Understood. Take that Nero, you bastard!"
After relaying Mercury's orders, Cathy laughed in glee at the sight of heavy blows raining down on the artefact anchoring the former torturer to life. One of the animated constructs actually took damage from an imp when it tripped over the big-eyed creature and collided with the stairs leading up to the shrinking crystal orb. Despite the dents in its helmet, it got up again. The worker smeared over its breastplate was not so lucky. Soon enough, the enemy dungeon heart had shrunk to the size of a pumpkin and pulsed so rapidly that it looked bright white. Lightning arced from the cracks in its surface as if the light within was trying to escape, and then the entire construct shattered. The reaperbots stumbled as the dais supporting the dungeon heart turned to rubble and its surrounding pillars collapsed, and the dungeon shook and groaned around them, making the ornamentations on the wall flake off like dead leaves. Ami thought she could hear Cathy's whoop of joy even through the metres of rock that separated the two chambers and over the cheering of the crowd. She, too, was smiling brightly in satisfaction, revealing the fangs of her youma body. The most difficult to dislodge enemy was gone! On the whole, the assault had been extremely anti-climactic, which suited her just fine. It meant that everything had gone right, for once. "Good work, everyone!" Now she only hoped that the scavenging teams would be able to retrieve Nero's spellbooks from the ruins.
"Zoi!" A large shard of crystal flew from Zoisite's left hand, forcing Sailor Mars to leap aside. With his right, the strawberry-blonde general hacked at Tuxedo Mask with a crystalline sword. His target parried with his cane and counter-attacked. The rapid-fire impacts of the weapons echoed across the clearing as the duellists circled each other. Out of easy striking distance, Sailor Moon, Mars, and Jupiter stood and watched the two fighters who were half-obstructed by Tuxedo Mask's waving cloak, their poses tense. As much as they wanted to, the girls didn't risk taking a shot at Zoisite for fear of hitting their ally. Someone else didn't have these reservations, though. A blast of ghostly white struck the dark general in the back and catapulted him away. Immediately, the effeminate man retreated into the air and looked for his attacker. When he recognised the figure, the surprise almost rendered him speechless. The senshi mirrored his wide-eyed expression when Nephrite walked out of the burning woods, grinning.
"Nephrite, you traitor!" Zoisite shouted in outrage as he retreated into the air and brushed some blood from his lips. His expression turned into a malevolent smirk. "Queen Beryl will have your head for this," he said cheerfully.
"I don't think so," Nephrite said, looking smug. "Queen Beryl has declared that the Sailor senshi are not to be harmed. I was just making sure that you wouldn't accidentally break her command."
"WHAT?" Zoisite shouted, echoed by the three girls on the ground. "Why? I don't believe you!"
"You are welcome to ask her yourself," Nephrite said and waved his hand dismissively, since he knew how much it irritated the younger general. He didn't quite understand his Queen's sudden change of heart either, but there was no reason to let his rival know that.
"Oh, I will." With a pout, Zoisite disappeared, leaving nothing but a shower of cherry blossoms behind.
The three senshi turned to face Nephrite, taking defensive stances. None of their expressions were very friendly.
"Nephrite! What is the meaning of this?" Mars was the first to speak up.
"Just what I said," the long-haired man said, crossing his arms. "Queen Beryl was so impressed by Sailor Mercury's work that she is willing to negotiate with you, as long as you cease your interference and subversive actions."
"Subversive what?" Mars blinked.
"And let you get away with preying on the innocent? Ne-" The rest of Sailor Moon's exclamation became an indistinguishable mumble when a slender hand covered her mouth.
Mars leaned in close to her friend's ear and whispered "Wait, this could be part of some plan that Mercury arranged. We shouldn't just throw the opportunity away before we have asked her what's going on!"
"Just what did Sailor Mercury do?" Jupiter asked.
Nephrite shrugged his shoulders at the tall brunette's question. "My Queen didn't see it fit to share. I'm just the messenger." His eyes darted over to the burnt-out wreck of his sports car for an instant. "Believe me, I'm not all that happy about this arrangement."
"We'll need some time to consult about this," Mars stepped forward and took the initiative, not letting Sailor Moon get another word in. "We'll leave a message here if we are interested." She pointed with her thumb at the ruins of Nephrite's mansion.
"Whatever. I have delivered her offer. Take it or leave it, I don't care." Nephrite turned transparent and vanished from sight, leaving the confused senshi alone.
Back in her own body, Ami tuned out the sounds of goblin music, which consisted for the most part of somewhat rhythmic drumming, and contemplated her next steps. She'd have to secure her dungeon heart properly, since the makeshift wall she had hidden it and the dragon corpse behind just wouldn't help much in case of an attack. That also meant that she had to get rid of the enormous cadaver somehow. Given its enormous mass, it might be easier to move the heart instead. Taking recent events into account, she was getting serious misgivings about the security of her iceberg.
The door to her study flew open with a bang, letting the discordant singing of trolls and warlocks drunk on conjured ale pour into the room, along with the smell of roasted meat. Ami didn't begrudge the creatures their victory celebration, but it was all a bit too rough and unrefined for her to join in. Startled, she looked at the tiny green intruder that was standing in the entrance.
The panting goblin was shivering and so pale that its skin was almost yellow. "K-Keeper! The portal! Need to look quick!"
Ami's eyes widened as she focused her Keeper power on the indicated location. "Darn it!" In the time it took the goblin to blink, she turned into a black shadow that sunk into his body, seizing control. Eyes flaring red, the tiny creature appeared before the dungeon's Underworld portal, accompanied by Ami's largest water hand to date. In the orange glow between the four megaliths forming the portal's frame towered a red, horned figure with a grin that was nothing but teeth. Nero's reaper. His presence alarmed Ami, but she was confident she could beat him.With her powers fully functional, it was only a matter of time until she could put him down for good.The only question is how many he will kill before I can stop him, she thought with a wince. It took her a moment to notice that the white-eyed demon was not really there. His image in the portal wavered as if underwater and looked slightly transparent. He was clearly standing before another portal, but Ami didn't know where, which made targeting him a bit difficult. The ball of summoned lightning in her green-skinned hands crackled with nowhere to go.
"Ah, Keepers," the demon spoke in a rumbling voice that was rusty from long disuse. He turned his head slightly to the left, and Ami got the feeling that he wasn't talking to her alone. "Make me an offer! What is my allegiance worth to you?"
Ami cocked her head. The monster was seeking employment? She didn't want a murderous psychopathic beast like him! He had slaughtered so many of her goblins! The more rational part of her insisted that she wanted to see him in Wemos' employ even less. She furrowed her brows. What could she offer him that he wanted and that wouldn't be too distasteful? Gold? She doubted the demon would go for that. From what she knew about reaper demons, there was only one thing they truly cherished. Actually, there was one task on her long list of things to do that his talents were almost ideal for. She saw the reaper turn to the left, apparently listening to something she couldn't hear. "All right," she began, hoping that she had judged him correctly. "If you serve me, then my first order to you will be to kill every ghost and skeleton on this continent!"
"DEAL!" The speed with which the scythe-wielding monstrosity darted through the portal and grabbed her hand was almost frightening. In the back of her mind, she could feel the goblin she was possessing pass out. If it hadn't been for the forming minion link, Ami would have transported herself away in an instant.
"Um. Well. You know what to do. Only the ghosts and skeletons, though! Get started. I'll have a room ready for you later," she ordered, and transported the monster to the surface. As soon as he was gone, she let out a long, relieved breath, and almost fell over. Controlling a possessed body when the owner was unconscious and unable to do all the subconscious stuff was more trouble than it was worth, as she was finding out. With a crackling pop, she darted out of the goblin, catching his slumping form before colour had fully returned to her tar-like form. In the corridor behind her, she heard two pairs of footsteps approach at a run.
Wheezing, Jered skidded to a halt. He was out of his plate armour and back in his usual green shirt and trouser combination. The red tip of his nose was new though. He pointed at the spot the reaper had just occupied. "Mercury? W-was that-?"
Ami nodded as she gently deposited the unconscious goblin on the ground. "What are you two doing here?"
"An odd goblin ran through the hall a minute or so ago, gibbering about the portal and making a racket, so we came to check." Cathy's face was flushed, but not from exertion. She was still in senshi form, after all. "So, you really hired-?"
Ami nodded again, hoping they wouldn't be too angry about that rather questionable decision.
"Fuck. I need another drink," Cathy said, and glanced over at the blue-haired girl. "Actually, so do you. Have some fun once in a while!"
Ami didn't like the gleam in the blonde's eyes as she advanced on her. "But-"
"I concur," Jered said from behind the young Keeper. When had he gotten there?
"Eeek!" Ami suddenly found herself between her two slightly inebriated companions, supported by one arm under each shoulder, and being dragged bodily toward the sounds of the festivities. She hung her head. At least they hadn't asked about why her uniform had changed colour yet.
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