Somehow, Cathy and Jered had managed to manoeuvre Mercury to the victory party without the young Keeper vanishing from their grasp. The huge cavern left by the dragon's invasion provided more than enough room for festivities, and Ami had quickly provided furniture and a stone floor for the opportunity. Her employees had arranged the tables in a square that missed one side and framed a huge bonfire. As the Keeper, she got the seat of honour on the side opposite the open one, right in the middle. From there, she had a good view of the roast pig that Brugli was turning over the central fire, and of the creatures seated at the tables to her left and right. All around her, the trolls, warlocks, and goblins clinked glasses, laughing and exchanging boasts about their exploits in the recent battle. Ami was a bit surprised about the cheerful atmosphere despite the recent losses. She didn't think it was the right way to honour the dead, but perhaps the culture in this world was simply different. Or perhaps the servants of evil simply didn't form emotional attachments between each other and didn't care about the lost. Ami let her gaze wander over the drinking and singing creatures from the left to the right, feeling a pang of guilt when she realised how many were absent and not even missed. It was so sad. To hide the wetness in her eyes, she looked down at the frothy liquid in the mug before her. It was the same ale that the others were all guzzling down with relish. A finger tapped Ami on her right shoulder.
"Oh, come on, you can't be going on about this 'too young to drink' thing again," Cathy said as she noticed Mercury's untouched drink. "Look, if you mature enough to lead all of us into battle, you are mature enough to drink! Just try it." The rosy-cheeked woman raised her own mug to her lips and leaned back, chugging down half its contents in one go, and then put her arm around Jered to her right and skidded closer to him.
Ami experimentally lifted her mug. In a way, she was responsible for all of the deaths this day, wasn't she? From what she had heard, alcohol helped to forget. Besides, the ale was conjured and would disappear from her system soon enough, so having some was fine, right? She certainly could use some cheering up. Closing her eyes, Ami took a deep sip. She didn't much care for the taste, to be honest, but she was clearly in the minority. She did feel a bit warmer when she put her half-emptied glass down, but not significantly different. Maybe she should try more? The next, larger gulp went down her throat too quickly, and she choked on the strong brew. As she coughed, she felt a strong hand reach over from the left and pat her on the back. Jadeite! She giggled as the coughing fit subsided. Having him so close was one redeeming quality of this situation, and with a delighted sigh, she leaned to the left until her head was resting against his shoulder. To her disappointment, he didn't really react, aside from sparing a glance at her blackened uniform. In fact, she felt his muscles tense at the contact. Why didn't he appreciate her? Was she too plain for him? Or was he interested in someone else? A horrible thought almost made her gasp out loud. Could it be that he was gay? She needed another drink! A moment later, she settled back against him, her thirst slaked. This required some careful observation.
Jadeite couldn't have been more nervous if someone had dumped a ticking time bomb onto his lap. The comparison was uncharitable to the red-faced girl who was using his legs as a pillow, but he found it fitting. It wasn't even the presence of Metallia's power radiating from her body, stronger than from anyone short of Beryl herself, that set him on edge. He was curious about how that had happened, but assumed that it was related to her senshi uniform blackening. A favourable development, all things considered, and not too alarming. The intense aura even helped him suppress the strange impulse to brush with his hand through that soft-looking blue hair. No, what had him worried for life and limb was the fact that Mercury's large eyes were watching him very intently, despite her obvious inebriation. He couldn't help notice that her attention increased whenever his gaze wandered toward one of the other females in the room. Now, the Dark Kingdom wasn't the right place to learn about love. Jealousy, however, was an emotion Jadeite was very familiar with. Thus, he exerted considerable willpower to not watch the enticing sight of the crazy dark elf undulating to goblin music and slowly doffing her clothes, accompanied by wolf whistles. He also carefully failed to look to the right, where Cathy was showing a considerable amount of leg. Under the current circumstances, it was fortunate that there weren't too many attractive females in the dungeon. Mareki in human form was the third and last, and she was seated safely amidst a group of warlocks. The magicians in question were listening intently to one of their members who was spreading his arms to communicate huge size and gesturing repeatedly toward the back of the cave. Not that Jadeite was interested in her anyway. She was a redhead, just like queen Beryl. It was not by chance that most of the youma he chose to boss around and send on missions had been redheads. Petty, yes, but he was evil. In any case, he felt justified in his belief that his continued well-being depended on not showing any interest in any of the three. His secret research indicated that jealous human women were no less prone to vicious and irrational actions than jealous youma. He shuddered at what his fellow generals would say if they found out that he read romance novels in his spare time, even if it was purely for research purposes. The things were more confusing than helpful, anyway, and didn't exactly shed light on what he should do with regard to Mercury's interest in him. Somehow, he didn't think she would be impressed if he serenaded her from below a balcony. Not that she had a balcony in this dungeon. Besides, he couldn't sing. For now, he just hoped she'd fall asleep before his legs did.
Both wings of the door to Baron Leopold's office hit the walls with a bang as the armour-clad noble burst through the opening, blue cape waving behind him. His chest swelled as he sucked in air for a loud roar. "LEON! Ready the men! We ride out this afternoon!" His moustache whipped up and down in concert with his heavy footsteps as he hurried down the corridor. A courtier in red livery jumped out of the baron's path and flattened himself against the wall, right next to the window that was still vibrating from Leopold's shout. He almost didn't notice the cloaked figure moving noiselessly at the noble's side like a shadow.
"Aren't you interested at all to learn who gave us the location of three of Arachne's dungeons?" The Spymaster asked through the black cloth covering his face, using a much more reasonable volume than the tall man he was sharing intelligence with.
"Nah. Your wizards have verified the information, that's good enough!"
"Well, the hints were provided by an anonymous informant, but my contacts were able to trace them back to the source. Keeper Alphel. Interested yet?"
The cadence of Leopold's steps didn't change. "Keeper, huh?" He twisted the ends of his bushy moustache, frowning. "Alphel. The name sounds vaguely familiar."
"You may need to consult the history books for this one. She last showed her hand nearly two centuries ago."
"Huh, history? Oh, I remember. The one who turned tail and went into hiding after the elves shot down her unholy abomination of a dragon! That thing would have been a joy to hunt!"
"Provided one doesn't mind being on fire. The forests of Danai still haven't recovered their former glory, or so I have been told." There was no hint of overt disapproval in the Spymaster's guarded tone.
"They never found a corpse, if I recall correctly," Leopold pondered.
"Sorry to disappoint, but the beast perished yesterday during an assault on Keeper Mercury's dungeon. Our diviner tasked to observe her got a glimpse of the corpse. In any case, you have viler prey to hunt," the black-cloaked figure reminded him.
"Huh?" Leopold almost missed a step. "Mercury foiled me again?" His expression soured. "On the Avatar Islands?" He hadn't yet forgiven her for exchanging him for a tentacle monster, of all things. The loss of face! Not that he was in the habit of forgiving Keepers anything, anyway.
"Indeed. Our wizard didn't see how, since he was observing a different battle that took place at the same time, but her dungeon took considerable damage. I assume that it will please you to hear that she destroyed that oily warlock who had escaped from our custody and was elevated to full Keeper by Arachne."
"Good. One less Keeper in the world. Have you found out yet what's attracting them to that desolate place? They are over it like flies over-" The Baron fell silent and nodded a greeting as he passed two halberd-wielding guards, causing them to salute.
"Keeper Mercury, most likely. Morrigan and Alphel worship the Mighty Tyrant, and since she humiliated all he stands for in that duel..."
"Hah, pissed off a dark god and stomped four Keepers in less than that many days! If she wasn't an irredeemable monster and a blight upon the world, I'd almost admire her style!"
"As for Arachne, you can imagine why she would seek revenge against her," the spymaster said, ignoring the Baron's amused snort. "I assume that Alphel ratting Arachne out is vengeance for the loss of her pet. The two simultaneous attacks on Keeper Mercury cannot have been coincidence. As far as my analysts can tell, Arachne invested a mere pittance into her activities against Mercury."
"The more infighting between those fiends the better for us. So why did Mercury go to the Avatar Islands? That weather control thing you speculated about?"
The hooded man's shoulders moved in a shrug. "I assume we are going to find out soon. Since she is clearly much more powerful than we were led to believe, things don't bode well for her final opponent."
"Silence! Remember your place!" Queen Beryl shouted, causing the two generals standing before her throne to cringe and bow.
"I apologize." Nephrite, still smelling of smoke, bowed. Zoisite, standing to his left, mimicked the motion.
"While I certainly don't have to explain my decisions to you, I shall indulge you this time," the purple-clad queen continued, shifting her weight. "You wondered why I ordered you to stop going after the sailor senshi?"
"The question did cross my mind," Nephrite admitted.
"Sailor Mercury and that traitor, Jadeite, are gathering energy for our Great Ruler to gain her favour for themselves," Beryl explained, waving her fingers over her crystal ball. She suppressed a smile at her underlings' baffled expressions. "We will let them. They operate without interference in a different world, so we cannot compete."
"But my Queen, why? We can't just give up!" Zoisite complained.
Now, the witch queen really smiled, showing her fangs. "Of course not. They are fools. In the end, what our Great Ruler desires above anything else is the Silver Crystal. We will focus all our efforts on that single goal while, without them disturbing our plans! Let them think they have won and do the menial work for us! It shall all be for naught!" And once I find a way to get to that world, Jadeite will wish he was back in Eternal Sleep. She leaned forward, orange eyes gleaming. "Nephrite! The black crystal you were developing - do you have it?"
The long-haired dark general took a confident step forward as he produced a six-sided elongated crystal and let it hover over his palm. "My finest creation yet. With its help, finding the Silver Crystal will only be a matter of time."
"Good. Give it to Zoisite."
"What? But-" Nephrite snapped in disbelief, while the younger general's sour expression turned into a smirk.
"Do it! You made one, you can make another," Beryl dismissed his protest. Zoisite smiled smugly.
"Yes, my Queen." Defeated, Nephrite gritted his teeth as he handed the elongated black device over to his rival.
"Zoisite. Bring me the Silver Crystal. Nephrite, go make a second dark crystal. Our Great Ruler counts on you!"
"I won't disappoint you," the effeminate general said and disappeared mid-bow, littering the floor with flower petals. Nephrite threw a dark look at his previous location and slowly faded from sight.
Beryl remained seated, alone with her thoughts. Her expression turned into a sneer. "Kunzite. How goes your special project?"
A tall man, slightly older than Nephrite, stepped from the shadows and stopped some distance from the throne. Kunzite wore his uniform with a white cape that matched his hair and visually distinguished him from the other dark generals, as befitting his position as the most powerful of the four. "Unfortunately, my efforts to follow Sailor Mercury have run into a seemingly insurmountable obstacle."
"Are you saying that you, who specialises in spatial manipulation, are unable to replicate Jadeite's feat?" Beryl screeched, frowning deeply underneath her boomerang-shaped tiara.
"Hardly." Even faced with Queen Beryl's anger, Kunzite stood calm and collected. "Give me a sailor senshi, and I can place her on that world with trivial effort." He saw his queen's nails dig into the stone of her armrests, and decided that he had better explain himself quickly. "From my analysis, the intrinsic energy signature of the target world is similar to our own, which means that there is a minimal degree of repulsion. While insignificant in almost every respect, the effect is enough to throw youma off course during transit through the chaotic inter-dimensional medium. Without some form of guidance, we will not be able to reach that world. In contrasts, our enemies would find travel easier than normal."
The black orb floating between Beryl's hands burst into life, almost blinding Kunzite as it projected pictures of Jadeite, Mareki, and Umbra into the air in rapid succession. "Then how do you explain them? They managed to cross just fine!"
Kunzite inclined his head in a placating gesture. "Queen Beryl, they could not have done so under their own power. I have gone through the records, and all of these individuals were in Eternal Sleep at the time."
Beryl hummed. "That senshi brat is freeing those I punished? Unacceptable! Still, there may be a way to use this to our advantage. Yes." She stared directly at Kunzite. "So it is guidance you need? Would a beacon do?"
Kunzite was confident enough in his position to remain quiet for a moment while he considered the idea. "Yes, I could work with that."
"Good. Then let me prepare some bait for that filthy little scavenger." In her crystal ball, the faces of several youma appeared. "Now which of these traitors that Nephrite discovered should I put into Eternal Sleep..."
The white-haired general dared interrupt his ruler's train of thought. "In light of the new information, have you considered the possibility that there may not be a conspiracy at all? Mercury's associates were hardly in a position to resist her call."
Beryl waved her long fingers in a dismissive gesture downwards. "Nephrite discovered them in the act of conspiring. Whatever their goal, it means they were going against my will. That is reason enough to punish them. Don't you agree, Kunzite?"
He crossed his arms and wisely kept his opinion to himself. "If I may, our enemy may not go for the bait. If she is really going after Eternal Sleep prisoners to bolster her forces, then she does have an ample selection to chose from."
"That is an excellent point," Queen Beryl agreed. "I should use more bait. Bring me all of the accused!"
In the privacy of her bedroom, Ami twirled around her own axis in front of a wall mirror, watching as quicksilver-like flames caressed her body and solidified into a variation of the reaper outfit. With a critical eye, she surveyed the results of her experimentation and giggled. Perfect! Now to find Jadeite and- Ami froze when something green flashed within her veins, and her head felt suddenly much clearer. She blinked at her reflection, and poked the small metal bra she was wearing experimentally. No, no, no, that was a terrible idea With a suddenly sober mind and a blossoming blush, she wondered what she had been thinking. The memories of her train of thought weren't hard to call up, and her blush grew to encompass her whole body. Right. Alcohol also lowers inhibitions. Good to know. Now if she only remembered why she had been spending time modifying the reaper's equipment-generating spell, rather than just using her fabrication spell to make an outfit that showed more skin. For some reason, it had seemed like a good idea at the time. Ami decided to consider her questionable choice of project as a blessing. It had at least occupied her long enough to sober up before the artificial boldness bestowed by the alcohol could convince her to go out in public like this, or do something extremely mortifying. So improper! It had been a close thing, too, she remembered as she stepped over the previous experimental result on the ground. Technically, the discarded outfit had already provided support for the chest area, but the chains had neither been comfortable nor provided much modesty. Ami shrugged and seated herself at her desk. She had better write down how she managed this version before the memories disappeared completely in the ale-induced haze. Maybe Cathy could get some use out of this version of the spell, at least. Ami had just finished changing back into her black sailor uniform - her Keeper outfit had been lost to dragonfire when the beast had incinerated her sleeping quarters on the way to the dungeon heart - when the bracelet on her desk glowed softly and chimed like a bell. "Shabon Spray!"
Usagi blinked when Sailor Mercury disappeared from the vision in the sacred fire as soon as she had appeared, leaving an empty and mostly bare room behind.
"Did she look more skittish than usual to you?" Makoto whispered, leaning down toward the blonde with the two long pigtails.
Usagi nodded enthusiastically, but her eyes were still on Ami's room. That was an odd costume lying on her bed, she thought, wondering what she could possibly use it for. That metal had to be cold in uncomfortable places. A moment later, the blonde was distracted when Ami returned with a crystal ball in her hand and rubbing the back of her head sheepishly. To Usagi's right, Luna hissed as she spotted her missing soldier's new colour scheme, and her hair stood on end. The cat bounded away, and soon, Usagi could hear the furious sound of paws slamming down on a typewriter. Well, that certainly didn't look good, but she'd trust her friend to know what she was doing. Smiling, Usagi waved at Ami's transparent image in the flame and was rewarded when the blue-haired girl looked relieved and waved back. Meanwhile, Makoto raised the first of the sheets holding their questions.
"...and then Mom grounded me because all my clothes were sooty and smelled of fire."
Ami's lips curved upwards as she finished reading Usagi's account of their fight against Nephrite and Zoisite. She was slowly communicating recent events to her friends. The admission that she had almost unleashed Metallia by accident had gone over surprisingly well. Makoto and Usagi had paled when they read her battle report, and then congratulated her for making it out of that dangerous situation alive and unscathed. Only Luna paced worriedly around in a circle, tail pointing straight into the air. When Ami added that her outfit had changed because Metallia empowered her as a reward, the poor moon cat fell over in shock.
Usagi, however, took the news in stride. "Cool! What can you do now?"
That was a good question that Ami would have to discuss with Jadeite, and soon. She felt oddly pleased by the prospect. For now though, she enjoyed her time chatting with her friends. She could do nothing about Wemos before her imps and rats had managed to reclaim the roads she had extended toward his territory and which had been lost when she was forced to disconnect the dungeon heart, so she had some time to rest and prepare her next steps. The first priority, she already knew, would be moving her dungeon heart to the mainland somehow, and then she would have to deal with the giant dragon carcass.
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