Ami watched with bated breath as an imp slipped through the bars into Tiger's padded cell. The servant carried the Avatar's folded up mantle as she approached the striped youma. Ami prepared to transport the mentally-damaged creature away at the first sign that the artefact was causing her harm.
For her part, the youma remained lying on her bed, her eyes following the approaching imp with a bored expression. When the small minion had come within arms reach, Tiger pounced. With a quick grab, she snatched the little creature up and held her under her nose, sniffing as if trying to decide whether the imp was edible or not.
Frightened, the imp forgot about her orders, threw the mantle over the youma's horned head, and used the moment of blindness and confusion to escape.
Tiger ripped the silver-runed piece of cloth off her head and tossed it aside. Ami winced at the irreverent treatment of the holy artefact, but couldn't fault the horned youma for what she was doing. She didn't know better. Even as Ami watched, the being's furious scowl changed into an expression of shock as she looked down. "GYAAAAAAH!"
Ami flinched from the intensity of Tiger's screech, and her eyebrows crept up her forehead as the the youma started frantically patting herself down. That certainly hadn't be the reaction Ami had been expecting. "Is- is something wrong?"
The youma's head whipped into the blue-haired girl's direction."Is something wrong?" she repeated in a mocking, derisive way. "Of course something's wrong! I have shrunk! I'm pale! What happened to my beautiful muscles?" She glowered at the blue-haired girl, teal eyes narrowing. "I look almost as wimpy as you!"
Ami blinked, feeling vaguely insulted. "Well, there's a good explanat-"
"I can't bear it!" The youma cut her off. "Need to fix this!"
Ami's eyes almost popped out of their sockets when the youma's body blurred as if heat haze was covering it, and then appeared changed under a glamour.
"Why are you staring at me like that?" Tiger challenged.
Even the sound of the youma's voice had changed and put Ami on edge. "Why," she asked with a strained smile, "are you looking like me?"
Behind the bars, the glamoured copy of Mizuno Ami, perfect right down to the school uniform, tilted her head and conjured a mineral shard polished to reflectiveness. "Bwah? Are you dumb or just blind? I look nothing like you!"
"But-" Oh, right, senshi recognition block. Ami decided that convincing the youma could wait. There were more important things she had to find out first. "Why did you pick that form in the first place?"
"Dunno. It just felt right, I suppose."
"Even though it is even wimpier," Ami carefully imitated the youma's previous pronunciation of the word, "than before?"
"That is strange, now that you mention it." The being wearing Ami's civilian face scowled. "Wait, I always looked like this. No, that's wrong, I never did that. Argh! Why do I have these weird memory fragments shoved into my head?"
"Sorry, I fear that's my fault," Ami said, shuffling her feet.
"Yours?" the youma hissed. Her face scrunched up, and she chewed on her lower lip as she sorted her thoughts. "Hmm, yes, I think I remember. This has potential." In an instant, she struck a familiar pose that Ami found very disconcerting to see from the outside. "Mercury Power, Make Up!"
Absolutely nothing happened, and Ami let out a breath of relief. "I'm fairly certain that only works for me."
"A pity." The Ami in the cell got a mischievous expression on her face. "Oh well, I'll console myself with all that awesome mind control magic in the library." A pause. "Wait, did I say that out loud?"
Ami nodded slowly.
"Crap, now you are going to keep me away from that, won't you? You have some pretty messed up views in your head," the youma commented. "It's crazy to just dump all of those wonderful tomes into a restricted section. Just think how useful that kind of magic that would be. You want to jump general Jadeite's bones, don't you? Yuck, that's an idea I could have done without."
Ami blushed furiously, and her eyes narrowed. "Don't be so crass!"
"Aaanyway, aside from the fact that you have no taste in men, just think! One little spell, and you could put your hands all over him."
"I want love, not instant gratification," Ami snapped, her cheeks colouring deeper.
"Tough. The meek way you are trying to catch his attention isn't going to work." Tiger cackled, a sound that Ami found deeply disturbing when it was her own voice that produced it. "The guy has no clue what you want from him, and even if he did, he'd be too worried to offend you! Seriously, you'd be doing him a favour if you took advantage of your position and ordered him into your bed."
"That would be improper and demean-"
"Once you had him there, it should be easy enough to convince him that he's in love with you." The conviction in the glamour double's voice waned a bit as she gave the fuming young Keeper the once-over. "Well, maybe not with that body. Or Inexperience. You know what? If you need some helpful hints, there's this interesting thing you could do with your tongue that-"
Ami covered her ears with her hands. "I'm not listening to any more of this!" She disappeared, greatly annoyed at the youma. How dare she... I'm not that unattractive, am I? Ami decided that letting the creature stew in the cell for a while could only teach her to better consider her words in the future.
"Hey! HEY!" Tiger rattled the bars of her cell. "Come back! Let me out!" When it became obvious that the teenager was out of hearing distance, she concentrated for a moment, then slumped in disappointment. "No Keeper powers for me, either. Darn it!" A pause. That didn't sound right. "I mean, Darkness take it! Darn it, she really made a mess out of my mind!"
Hidden by the foliage behind the Hikawa shrine, Rei squatted in front of a glazed tile. She moved cautiously so that her red and white shrine maiden robes wouldn't get stained by the grass. Above her, Luna was lying on a tree branch. The raven-haired girl hoped that the black cat was taking her job as a lookout seriously. She didn't want to have to come up with an awkward explanation for what she was doing here in case her grandfather caught her. Spotting movement in front of herself, she shot a warning glare at the blonde crouching across the tile from her and made a shooing motion. "Usagi, your pigtails! Don't get any closer!" the raven-haired girl whispered.
The blonde froze, her eyes going wide in understanding as she looked at the intricate pattern drawn in powdery, easily-smudged flour onto the tile. With a nod of understanding, Usagi backed away slowly.
"I think there's a spot missing," Makoto said to Rei's left. The pony-tailed brunette was peering over a set square at the network of lines, holding a pair of compasses in her other hand.
Rei consulted the schematics on the paper before her and nodded. She took another pinch of floor from the bag at her feet and carefully let it trickle onto the stone, adding a new line.
"Great! I think we are done!"
Rei couldn't find fault with the taller girl's assessment. "Luna, is anyone nearby?"
The cat raised her head, ears twitching as she scanned the surroundings. "Nobody. Are you going to start now?"
"Yes! We'll be able to talk with Ami again soon now!" Usagi cheered.
Rei felt herself smile, infected by the blonde's enthusiasm.
"Please be careful. Stop immediately if something feels wrong, yes? I'm worried about you using foreign magic," Luna cautioned.
Makoto inclined her head, agreeing with the feline's words.
"Ami wouldn't send us something dangerous," Usagi defended her missing friend.
"I know that." Luna's tail twitched in irritation, "but that doesn't mean she can't be deceived. She is surrounded by evil everywhere." A few leaves rustled when the black cat jumped off her perch and landed in front of Rei, sat down, and looked her straight in the eyes. "Promise me that you'll be careful!"
The shrine maiden felt slight irritation at being mothered like that, but fought it down. The moon cat meant well. "I will. Makoto, the incense sticks, please." Her nose caught a whiff of aromatic smoke as she unrolled a mat and knelt down on it. With her eyes half-closed, Rei mumbled the seemingly nonsensical syllables of the spell she had memorised. She felt strange, but similar to when she was meditating in front of the sacred flame.
Two sentences into the ritual, she brought one of the incense sticks close to the diagram. The flour caught fire unnaturally fast, burning with constant brightness as she continued with the second half of the spell. She heard her friends gasp when the flames produced more smoke than they should be able to, but didn't let that break her concentration. When she got to the end of the fourth sentence, the smoke had formed a bell-shaped tent over the tile and was so dense she could no longer see the flames. She intoned the final syllables and slumped down, feeling drained.
"It worked!" Usagi cheered, leaning in closer as the grey cloud dispersed and something glittered within.
"Of course it did!" Rei was too satisfied with her accomplishment - on the first try, too - to reprimand her friend for being a bit louder than secrecy demanded. Together with the other girls, she leaned forward to look at the crystal sphere that had appeared in the centre of the sooty diagram. It was about twice as big as her fist and rested on a low base decorated with golden flames. Rei felt a soft nudge against her knee and tore her gaze away from the device she had summoned.
Luna removed her paw from the shrine maiden's red-clad leg and looked up at her. "Are you all right, Rei? Is that thing safe?"
"I'm just a bit tired." Rei glanced back at the crystal ball and reached for it. "I don't sense any evil."
Suddenly, she felt Usagi's hand on the arm grasping at the crystal ball. "Ami said we should transform before using it if we want to reach her," the blond reminded her friend.
"I know that. I wasn't going to-"
Makoto parted the bushes and looked out into the court. "Guys, Rei's grandfather is coming straight for us! He's walking pretty quickly," the tall brunette whispered urgently.
"Argh!" Rei did not want to lie to him about her extracurricular activities. She gathered up the mat and the crystal ball as she jumped to her feet. "Grab everything and run!"
"Wah! It's still hot!" Usagi let go of the warm tile, which dropped back into the grass with a soft thud.
"Just turn it over and leave it," Rei snapped, looking back over her shoulder. Makoto was already on the job, delivering a deft kick to the square stone. It flipped over, covering the pattern burnt into its surface. "Now run! Hurry!"
Grandpa Hino didn't take long to find the recently-vacated, hidden spot behind his shrine. His eyes narrowed as he inspected the flattened grass. He knew he had felt something very strange from this direction a few minutes ago, and this place had to be the origin. The short, bald man scratched his head and sniffed the air. He had been a priest long enough to recognise the faint scent of incense sticks mixed with the burnt smell lingering in the air.
He could distinguish three distinct sets of shallow footprints, left by small, delicate feet. His grey eyebrows rose when he spotted a familiar-looking imprint of a shoe sole in the faintly humid soil. He had seen a similar pattern only a short while ago when Rei walked through the court after stepping into a puddle. What have the girls been up to? he wondered, squatting down to have a closer look at the fine ash next to a stone tile lying on the ground.
He hoped this wasn't what he suspected it was. He had taught his granddaughter better than that! Teenagers could be troublesome and rebellious though, a little voice nagged in the back of his head. His finger brushed against the tile. Warm. Had they covered something up? Tipping the stone plate over, he immediately spotted the strange network of black lines burned into its surface. Relief flooded him.They aren't experimenting with drugs, after all! But this design is most ominous. What was his darling granddaughter doing? This didn't look like a Shinto ritual to him. And why the secrecy?
He was glad that his granddaughter seemed happier since she had made friends with those pretty other girls, but he wondered if they weren't a bad influence on her. He hadn't missed the fact that, since meeting Usagi, she had come home more than once sporting bruises, even if she had tried to hide them. He had wondered once if the blonde hadn't dragged his granddaughter into some kind of girl gang, but had dismissed the notion as absurd. Usagi seemed too nice and cheerful to fit into a group like that. Makoto matched the bad girl stereotype more, being tall, strong, and wearing long skirts, but it would be wrong to judge her by her appearance. Still, the strange little things were adding up. Rei smelling of smoke the day the news reported about a freak fire that had burned down an abandoned mansion. The bruises. Now something that triggered his mystical senses.
The elderly man straighten suddenly and shivered. That poor Mizuno girl who had disappeared without a trace had also been friends with Usagi. Perhaps he should tell Rei to keep away from her? Oh yes, that would go over well. He shuddered when he imagined the black-haired girl's reaction. His granddaughter had quite the temper, and a sharp tongue to match. Just like her mother. The bald priest lowered his head. He wouldn't confront Rei just yet, but he would keep a closer eye on the group. A grin appeared on his wrinkly face. He had no problem with that, since they were all easy on the eyes.
Ami flipped a page of the heavy tome lying on her desk when the bracelet around her left wrist lit up, alerting her to a foreign scrying attempt. In what had almost become a routine reaction, she folded her arms and thrust her hands forward. "Shabon Spray!"
Scintillating bubbles shot from her fingers and concealed the room with a dense mist. The blue-haired girl got up from her chair and moved to the side, calling a crystal ball to her hand. She concentrated on tracing the spy, and the orb resting in her black-gloved palm lit up. It's taking more power than tracking down the locals. Could it be...?
Ami's rapid heartbeat thundered in her ears as her anticipation rose. An endless second later, she saw three faces and one cat in the scrying device's cloudy interior. A smile like a sunrise appeared on the young Keeper's face, and she released a breath she hadn't noticed she had been holding. "Everyone," she shouted into the crystal ball, barely able to contain her excitement. "Can you hear me?"
"Sailor Mercury!" Sailor Mars replied.
Hearing a familiar voice from her own world almost brought tears of happiness to Ami's face.
"Yes! We can hear you! This thing works!" Sailor Moon exclaimed as she brought her face closer to the curved glass, dragging its focus from Mars to herself. "Um, you can hear our answers, right?"
"Yes," Ami nodded, "I'm so glad we can finally talk again!"
"Hi there. How are you doing?" The third girl spoke up, sounding more reserved than her jubilant companions.
Ami started upon hearing the unknown voice. She had never met Sailor Jupiter in person, and it was the first time she heard the tall brunette talk.
"Hello. Sailor Jupiter? It's nice to meet you," Ami said, bowing politely. "I'm doing fine, thank you."
A large, black cat face with a crescent moon on its forehead filled Ami's crystal ball. "Are you really all right? You look exhausted," Luna said, sounding worried.
Ami shrugged, and her smile faltered a little. "I have been under a lot of stress lately. With everything that has been going on, I couldn't maintain a regular sleep schedule. I don't get to see daylight underground, either." When her friends' faces fell, she quickly added "Don't worry, the immediate danger has passed, and I should be able to get more rest soon." She really hoped that no other urgent problems would surface now that she felt more or less on top of things.
"Take care," Luna cautioned. "Can you hold still for a moment, please? I want to have a better look at that new uniform of yours."
Ami complied with the moon cat's request, feeling slightly self-conscious as she imagined the crystal ball's viewpoint circling her body.
"I don't recognise any of those symbols on your collar," Luna muttered, "do they have any particular significance?"
"They are used in the local Underworld," the blue-haired girl explained, "they show one's rankings in the local schools of magic. However, most of them only denote a beginner's proficiency. Only skimming a magical text is often enough to pick one up, and I read a lot."
Sailor Mars and Sailor Moon nodded in unison as they heard that. "And her books don't even have pictures in it!"
"Well, I can't see anything particular alarming from here, aside from the colour change and the bat-like bows and ribbons. Are you sure there's nothing more nefarious happening, Sailor Mercury?" Luna was done circling the crystal ball on the table and jumped onto Sailor Moon's left shoulder.
"I'm fairly certain the changes are only cosmetic," Ami said, "none of my senshi powers have been adversely affected, and my computer can't detect any harmful effects."
"Well, your outfit makes you look kind of scary, especially with your red eyes," Sailor Moon said, giggling to take the sting out of her words.
"Yes. Doesn't the glow hurt?" Sailor Jupiter asked curiously.
"I don't really notice it when I'm not in front of a mirror," Ami said. "I hope it goes away when I get home." Internally, Ami winced. She looked scary? Was that why Jadeite didn't show much interest in her?
"We'll find a way to turn you back to normal, I promise!" Sailor moon declared, causing Ami to smile and forget her momentary anxiety.
The young Keeper took a look at her friends' surroundings. The three sailor senshi were sitting around a low table in a small living room, lit by lamplight because the shutters in front of the window were closed. "Um, this isn't Sailor Mars' room?" she asked when she failed to recognise the place.
"We are in my apartment," Sailor Jupiter explained. "I live alone, so nobody is going to barge in on us here."
"Ah." Ami noted that the pony-tailed brunette had to be very good at housekeeping.
"Wait a minute, you can see the room?" Sailor Mars asked in amazement. "All we see is you and some grey clouds!"
"Oh, I forgot!" Ami's cheeks turned a light pink, and she dispelled her magical fog with a wave of her free hand. "There, you should be able to see me properly now!"
"Ohhh," Usagi's eyes widened in appreciation as she suddenly had a much better view of the bookshelves along the room's walls. "Hey, why don't you give us a tour of your place?"
"A tour?" Ami pondered the idea for a moment. "Sure, why not? Well, this is my study," she said, gesturing toward the desk next to a formulae-covered whiteboard on the wall. "It's where I do most of my reading and planning."
"A chandelier?" Luna wondered as she spotted the garish, eight-pronged light source hanging from the vaulted ceiling.
"Well, the dungeon's intrinsic corruption seem to interfere less with objects that adhere to certain themes and aesthetics," Ami explained.
"I need to change the light bulbs less often if I make the lamps look creepy, Sailor Moon," Ami clarified. "Also, since I spend so much time here, people come here to find me. The room effectively doubles as my office, so it may as well look nice."
"I see," Luna said.
"Do you do all your research here?" Sailor Jupiter asked.
"No, I also have a laboratory. I'd never get the scorch marks out of the carpet if I performed my experiments here," Ami said, hiding a giggle behind her right hand.
"Magical experiments? That sounds exciting. Could you show us your lab?" Sailor Mars requested.
Ami nodded. "Sure, we can start the tour there. Just focus on me to find it," she instructed. With a flash of blue light, she disappeared in a funnel of whirling snowflakes. She reappeared on top of a balcony overlooking a deep drop down into wafting banks of dry-ice-generated mist. Like the shadow of a prehistoric beast, an unfinished prototype gem furnace loomed from the depths, and only a few spotlights illuminated the otherwise dark chamber.
"Greetings, Mercury," a red-and-white robed silhouette called from one of the platforms jutting into the cavernous void.
"Oh, hello Snyder," Ami greeted the redhead.
"I regret to inform you that my work on the warding scheme of Zarekos' temple has not produced any tangible results yet." An engraved brick was floating on the workbench behind the young man, lit from below by a blue-glowing pattern of inscriptions. "On a more positive note, your imps have located the blood sample taken from you. They already disposed of it in a pool of lava."
"That's great!" Ami acknowledged. "Don't let me distract you from your work, then. I'm only here to show my friends the dungeon!"
"...oh, there she is," Sailor Jupiter's voice came from the crystal ball that Ami held in her left hand.
The Acolyte looked rather interested. "Friends from your own world?"
"Huh, who's tha-"
"Wow, being able to teleport must be so great," Sailor Moon exclaimed, interrupting Mars. "I wish I could do that! I'd never be late for school again!" the blonde said wistfully.
"You'd just sleep in even longer and still be late," Mars teased good-naturedly.
"Mercury, do you think you could teach the girls how to teleport?" Luna asked, sounding intrigued by the possibilities. The three senshi perked up at the thought.
"NO!" Ami's outburst was loud enough to make the cat flatten her ears against her skull and cause the other girls to look up in alarm. "I refuse to teach that spell as long as I'm not there personally to supervise," she said sternly, putting her arms akimbo. "Don't even try to experiment with that kind of magic. If you do it wrong, or before your system had the opportunity to adapt to the necessary energies, you will die!"
"Oh." Usagi paled, and Ami was glad she didn't have to go into the disturbing, graphical detail.
Meanwhile, Snyder had made his way across one of the catwalks, gripping the metal railing tightly all the way, and gotten close enough to throw a look into Ami's crystal ball.
"Oh, everyone, this is Snyder. He's an acolyte from the surface, and not one of the bad guys," Ami introduced him. "Snyder, my friends Sailor Moon, Sailor Mars, Sailor Jupiter, and Luna."
Each girl in the crystal ball waved when her name was mentioned, and even Luna raised a paw. All four of them leaned in closer to get a better look, and Ami was starting to worry that their heads would collide if they kept it up. They returned the greeting, not really sure what to make of the short man.
"He's one of the few guys I can trust to not use my research for evil ends, so he can assist me with projects that I'd rather keep out of others' hands."
"So what are you doing for our Sailor Mercury?" Sailor Mars asked, sounding curious. The red and white outfit of the portly acolyte, identical in colour to shrine maiden robes, had drawn her attention.
"Typically, I have healing duties, but right now, I am exerting my warding expertise investigating a possible way to shield against enemy scrying. A project whose value you can certainly appreciate."
"Yeah, everyone needs some privacy," Usagi agreed, grimacing. She could clearly empathise with Ami's situation.
"I have to hide or camouflage everything I want to keep secret," Ami elaborated on the redhead's words. "That's why I keep important places dark or fogged up."
"Oh, I had been wondering about why your lab was so dark," Sailor Jupiter said, comprehension flashing across her face.
Sailor Moon eeped when a transformer behind Ami discharged arcs of flickering lightning. "Good reasons or not, your lab is creepy, Mercury."
Luna let out an exasperated sigh. "I guess that means she won't have to change light bulbs any time soon. So, what kind of experiments are you performing, Sailor Mercury?"
"Designing equipment, working with the power grid, and testing out ideas." She thought for a moment before her face lit up with enthusiasm. "Wait, I'll just show you one!" A quick teleport brought her to the ground floor of the cavernous chamber, where a few ice golems were sparring in a pool of water. In the crystal ball, the three girls gaped at the animated statues whose scythes clashed against each other.
"Are they the golems you told us about? They look just like you!" Usagi commented.
"I wish they didn't. Really, I do," Ami said in a much put-upon tone of voice.
"They sure do show a lot of skin," Sailor Jupiter mused, scratching her head at the sight of the sparse chains and plates of metal that constituted the statues' reaper's outfit.
The blue-haired girl blushed faintly. "Technical reasons. It's much better than nothing, though. In any case, they don't really need armour." Her enthusiasm returned she walked past the training ice creatures. "I'll show you one of the ideas I'm working on right now. Over here!" With a spring in her step, Ami approached a pit and brought a large lever down with an energetic yank, using both hands.
Sparks flew from thick, vine-like cables that snaked down into the hole, connecting to a slender, female figure lying on a metal table. Gradually, the body started radiating heat and red light, illuminating the scorched walls and the small globs of metal littering the floor. The simulacrum's eyes opened. Glowing in tones ranging from red along the more rigid parts of its limbs, to yellow around its joints, it slowly sat up with a deliberate, stiff motion.
Ami jumped and thrust her fist into the air. "Yes! It's finally working!"
"It's ALIVE!" Sailor Moon intoned in a very hammed up tone of voice, then broke into a fit of giggles when Mercury tilted her head and looked at her oddly. "What? Someone had to say it! All you are missing is some cheesy music!"
The girls all froze when they heard off-tune pipe music. Ami blinked and slowly turned toward the sound. Dumbfounded, she stared at the imp sitting on top of a workbench, playing a simple melody on her crudely-carved bone flute. Huge, black eyes met Ami's gaze, and the imp let out a cheeky squeal.
Ami gave her a stern look. "Don't you start, too!"
Sailor Jupiter 's green eyes were sparkling with mirth. "You even have your own diminutive hunchback! Do you call her Igor?"
Ami pouted. "Now even my imps are making fun of me. But I'll show them! I'll show you all!" She held a determined pose with her fist in the air, then dissolved into laughter, joining the others. Oh, how good it felt to be able to talk with them and joke around!
"Um, Sailor Mercury?" Luna spoke up loudly to make herself heard over the amused sounds. "Your creature isn't looking well."
"Hmm?" Ami quickly turned back to her newest golem, which wasn't looking so hot, figuratively speaking. The statue was spurting molten metal from her knuckles, and her neck bent like heated wax. "Oh. It's- well, the temperature control spells still need a little adjustment," Ami said, scratching her head."I'm trying to make a golem that works on the same principles as the ice ones, replacing water with molten metal and the ice shell with a metal one. The whole system is much more energetic, which makes it much harder to control and keep together. Even just preventing it from losing to much of its start-up heat into the environment is-"
The glowing golem's left leg fell off at the hip, causing the figure to topple and bleed a large glob of bright, almost white-hot molten metal from the wound.
Ami put a hand in front of her mouth and blinked. "Correction. It still needs a lot of adjustment." Her shoulders drooped.
"At least it looked spectacular," Sailor Mars tried to comfort her friend.
"Yes, that was really neat," Sailor Moon chimed in.
"I'm happy you liked it," Ami said. "Don't worry, I'm not too disappointed. While the idea is simple, ironing out the problems will be more of a long term project." She smiled. "So what do you want to see next?"
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