Maggie opened her eyes, feeling drowsy. Confused by the softness of her mattress, she blinked as bright light blinded her. This isn't my bed, she realised with a start, and her heartbeat quickened. Her leg muscles felt as if they were burning up, and she felt thirsty enough that drinking directly from a filthy pond sounded like an attractive option. Where was she? Jumbled, terrifying memories of the past hours returned . The monsters! The vampire! Paling, she struggled to sit up, wishing her eyes would adjust faster to the brightness. Light, please let Johann and the children be safe!
The peasant woman's head whipped left and right, surveying the blurry shapes in the room. There! That wild mop of brown hair in the bed next to hers belonged to her husband! The momentary relief at finding a family member was washed away by the realisation that something was leaning over him. Something dark-coloured with crimson, glowing eyes that had its black hands on his blood-drenched chest. Maggie's scream sounded hoarse as it forced its way out of her dry, sandpaper-like throat. Panicking, she grabbed the first thing she got her hands on and hurled it at the monster threatening her husband.
"Wha-" The blur's startled red eyes widened in surprise just before the pillow smacked into its face.
Maggie heard a satisfying thud as Johann's attacker toppled backward. She could see better now and fought to free herself from the linens so she could rush to her husband's aid. Suddenly, hands grabbed her shoulder from behind, restraining her movement.
"Empress! Are you all right?" a male voice called from behind her.
Empress? There was no empress, the Shining Concord's Emperor remained unmarried so far, Maggie thought. She tried to rip herself loose from her captor's grip and repeatedly rammed the back of her skull into his chest. Unfortunately, she couldn't see him to aim properly, and she was feeling as weak as a tired kitten.
A blue-haired head popped up from behind her husband's bed, belonging to a girl who blinked at the one-sided struggle with large, crimson-glowing eyes. "I'm fine, Snyder."
Blue hair? Wait. Oh no, no, NO! Maggie remembered in what context she had heard the combination of 'blue hair' and 'empress' before, and the red eyes only served to confirm her terrible suspicion. So did the scandalously short skirt she could see once the teenager got up.I just whacked the Dark Empress herself in the face with a pillow! Maggie's mind gibbered in terror. She fainted.
Ten minutes later, Ami and Snyder appeared in the planning room, where Cathy, Jered, and Jadeite were already sitting around the round central table.
"I hate this," Ami said, hanging her head. "I'm not a monster."
"That family was under a lot of stress recently. The poor woman was not thinking straight," Snyder comforted her as he pulled out his chair and sat down next to Jadeite. "I am sure she would not have acted the way she did under better circumstances."
"What happened?" Cathy wanted to know and leaned forward, peering at the sullen-looking girl with interest.
"The older female patient woke up while Mercury was closing her husband's wounds, misjudged the situation, and attacked her with a pillow," Snyder reported with a blank face.
"A pillow?" Jered raised an eyebrow, grinning, and Ami heard a snort from Jadeite's direction.
"Is that family going to make a full recovery?" Cathy asked, referring to the prisoners Jered had liberated.
Ami nodded with a weak smile. "A little rest and they should be fine. The father lost a lot of blood, but the others are only overexerted and dehydrated." Her expression soured, and one black-gloved hand closed into a fist. "That vampire had them walk with no regard for their health, even the children." Her brows still furrowed, she focused her attention on the green-shirted man sitting across the table from her. "Jered, you have news about Crowned Death's plans?"
"Yes. In short, we are in trouble," he answered. "The vampire mentioned that his captives only needed to last two or three days longer. That gives us a definite deadline for when Crowned Death wants to conduct this desecration ritual."
"Two days? He can gather that many innocents in that little time?" Ami felt like crying. She was just a schoolgirl, and now, several thousand people would live or die by her decisions. It was not an easy burden to shoulder. She sighed and brushed a lock of blue hair out of her face. Feeling sorry for herself would not save those poor people. Her expression became one of determination as she opened her palmtop computer, ready to develop a plan that maximised their chances of survival. "Please tell me you have found out where they are going to conduct the ceremony."
The wavy-haired man fidgeted, moving his fingers over his bandoleer of daggers. "Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get a precise location. Sacrifices are being brought to the Crowned Death temples and to Nirnak, Geruune, and Blackmine, which are three of the major Underworld cities."
"They cannot perform the ritual at any of those places," Snyder spoke up suddenly. "It has to take place from sundown to midnight, and there is no sun in the Underworld."
"That's an excellent point," Ami said, looking up from her computer. "That cuts down dramatically on the number of potential locations." Her fingers started to race over the keyboard, producing a continuous rattling sound.
"I see," Jadeite said. "Are there any temples to Crowned Death in this world?"
"They would not exist independently of some enemy dungeon, I think," Cathy said, "since they'd need the additional protection. In the Underworld, they can more or less rely on their worshippers."
"Unfortunately, looking for temples alone won't do," Ami explained in a chagrined tone of voice. "I was asked to perform the ceremony, and I don't have a temple dedicated to him. So that's not a requirement."
"They'll need to get the mantle out of a temple's basin, though," Cathy protested.
"They can do this at any time and at any location," Jadeite said, "their vampires and priests can teleport with it to the final destination. I'm not surprised that didn't occur to a violent woman such as you, though."
"Jadeite, don't needlessly antagonise the others." Ami shot a reproachful look in the man's direction.
He nodded once, completely ignoring the swordwoman's angry look.
"A temple would, however, provide several key strategic advantages to ensure an undisrupted ceremony," Snyder said. "Such as the power of Crowned Death himself to defend the mantle, as well as scrying protection to prevent Mercury from simply grabbing the garment with her ice hand."
"Right. Not necessary, but very desirable," Jered said. "Does that help narrow things down, Mercury?"
The blue-haired girl looked up from her work. "It does help me adjust the probabilities for different locations somewhat," she said with a sigh, "but so many possibilities still remain."
"I think the sacrifices will be the key in finding the location of the rite," Jadeite said. "Even with portals, moving thousands of people won't be easy."
Ami nodded. "You are right." She raised her hand, and a large world map dropped onto the table and unfolded before them. With a glance at the display of her computer and back, she summoned a pencil and quickly made a series of adjustments to the annotations on the canvas.
"All right, let's talk logistics," Cathy said, glaring at the dotted lines in red ink blossoming outwards from a spot in the ocean. They corresponded to the movements of Taleth's dust that Ami was able to track.
Ami shoved her palmtop aside and joined the others in studying the patterns. Straight lines between two dots denoted a direct portal connection. Put together, these segments formed longer chains that reached outwards from where she had destroyed the dark priest, branching at some points. Some of the routes led to locations underneath the ocean, and a few even to spots in her realm.
"What's here?" the swordswoman asked, pointing at the dots in question. "Should we do something about that?"
"I had the warlocks scry on those first," Ami replied. "They found only tiny settlements or lone portals. I sent a few imps to keep an eye on them anyway, but I don't expect problems from those." She returned her attention to the lines spreading like a distorted spider web. The vast majority of routes went off to the more populated western continent. In contrast, not a single one got even close to the shore of the Shining Concord Empire to the south, the blue-haired girl noted with interest.
"The lines in thicker ink represent more frequently-travelled paths?" Jered asked, moving his finger along one of the bolder east-west connections.
"It means that more of Taleth's remains ended up moving that way," Ami said, "which I hope means the same thing."
Cathy was silently counting the red dots in the meantime. "If I interpret this correctly, then it's possible to travel halfway around the world by taking less than thirty portals," the scar-faced blonde said after a while, sounding awed. She turned to Mercury. "With that kind of mobility, you could deploy forces anywhere within a few hours. Makes me wonder why Keeper Mukrezar didn't conquer the entire world after he was done with the Avatar Islands."
"He couldn't have used them. About half of the portals marked here are claimed by Keepers and can probably be rendered impassable at a moment's notice," Ami said. "All the ones not in the Underworld, in fact."
"And yet they let the death priests pass?" Snyder asked in a worried tone of voice.
Jered shrugged. "A few vampires or skeletons passing through with prisoners aren't worth the hassle of getting one of the dark gods mad at you, I guess."
"They wouldn't let us pass if we freed the captives," Ami said quietly. She looked at Jadeite, meeting his eyes in a silent plea for help.
The curly-haired blonde shook his head. "I can't transport that many people to the surface, sorry," he dashed her hopes. "Besides, you shouldn't be thinking about rescuing the sacrifices, but rather about reclaiming that mantle."
The dark general held up his white-gloved palm, interrupting the scowling girl. "The enemy will simply abduct more surfacers to replace the lost ones. You need to get to the root of the problem, and that's not going to happen if you pre-empt the ritual."
Ami's lips turned into a thin line as she frowned and lowered her head, but she couldn't argue with his logic.
Cathy broke the oppressive silence. "Anyway, they'll have to get all the sacrifices to a single location when the time is right. They'll want to make sure that no Keeper will bar them passage on a whim and ruin everything, so they'll only use portals belonging to allies."
"Allies who will get to use the corrupted mantle in return for protecting the access routes?" Jered pondered.
Ami straightened her back and met their eyes, suddenly looking eager. "That means I can filter out most locations simply by checking which ones can't be reached in a few portal transits from each of Crowned Death's four temples and the three cities Jered mentioned!" She quickly entered the new data into her computer, and many potential nodes faded out. "Still too many. I'll need more information about the Keepers who hold those portals."
As of its own volition, her pencil started circling several dots on the map.
Ami waved her hand, and a short-bearded warlock appeared in the room, looking rather startled. "Torian, I have a new task for your warlocks."
The black-bearded man immediately bowed deeply, fumbling around with his wide sleeves while the gesture of respect hid his hands. "I hear and obey, my Empress."
"Wait, what was that rectangular thing that just disappeared down your left sleeve?" Jered interrupted, tilting his head to the side. He had a better view of the warlock's action from his side of the round table.
"That?" Torian sweated a bit, but smiled winningly. He shook his right arm, and something whitish and almost square dropped into his hand "Oh, that's just a sandwich," he said with a grin, "I did not want to appear unprofessional." Seeing Jered's suspicious look, he demonstratively took a large bite out of the object in question. Small droplets of sweat appeared on his brow as he chewed, making crunching noises.
"I do not expect perfect adherence to protocol when I summon you without prior warning," Ami said to cut the discussion short. She quite liked sandwiches herself. "Now, have a look at this map, please. I need you and your warlocks to find out which Keepers have laid claim to these portals, as well as with whom said Keepers are allied and which deities they worship. This is urgent."
The purple-robed warlock simply bowed in reply, and the map rolled up and flew over to him. Without a further word, he strode out of the room.
Ami turned to the others. "Jadeite, Jered, assist him with the investigation, please. We really need that information as soon as possible. I will be asking the Avatar for help."
Once Torian was out of sight, he stopped, looked carefully left and right, and spat out a wad of pulpy mass. With a sour expression on his face, he looked at the sandwich in his hand. It wavered and reverted back to its true form, which was a magical tome on partial amphibian transformations. A large, bite-shaped section was missing from the book. That had been a close call. With an angry growl, he tossed the damaged tome to the ground, pointed a finger at it, and let loose a fist-sized bolt of fire. Oh well, he'd better hurry and finish his newly assigned task.
"Oh joy, another Keeper," the severe-looking woman in the crystal ball said, looking decidedly unimpressed.
Ami blinked, rather taken aback by the fact that her attempt to contact the Avatar had been redirected to this grey-haired, elderly priestess. Somehow, the idea of the Avatar having an uncooperative secretary taking his calls had never occurred to her. "Who are you? I need to talk to the Avatar. It's urgent!"
"You wouldn't believe how often I get to hear that every day," the woman sighed. "He is currently unavailable and not going to take time out of his busy schedule to exchange banter with someone such as you, Keeper. Unless you are on his list of targets, of course. If not, you'll have to make an appointment like everyone else. In the meantime, I'll be happy to note down any curses, death threats, and oaths of vengeance you may wish to leave for him," the secretary said in a long-suffering tone of voice.
Ami gaped at her audacity. "None of that! I really need to talk to him! Thousands of innocent lives are at stake!"
The secretary's sardonic smile turned to disgust. "Oh, it's a blackmail attempt, then? I am not even supposed to pass those along, you are wasting your time."
"No!" Ami took a deep breath to calm herself, trying not to let her irritation show. "I am Sailor Mercury, current Empress of the Avatar Islands, and I only want to talk to the Avatar."
"I'm sure you are, your Majesty" the priestess quipped. She peered a bit closer at her own crystal ball. "Well, at least you did your research and got the hairstyle and colour right. You'd be surprised how many other Keepers already fail at that basic step. All that dark magic rots the brain, if you ask me."
Ami was getting frustrated with the wrinkled woman's openly antagonistic attitude. "Shouldn't you be more helpful as the Avatar's secretary?" she asked, not rising to the bait.
"Not really. The opportunity to taunt horrible people is one of the perks of this job. Oh, and what you are seeing here is a disguise, so I'm not particularly worried about you tracking me down," the woman said, adding a spiteful giggle. "In any case, if you were the real one, you would have know that Empress Mercury is the last person he wants to talk with right now, Keeper."
"Actually, that is the real Mercury," a cold, wheezing voice said from somewhere to the left, outside of Ami's field of view.
The secretary turned her head in the speaker's direction and gasped. "Lord Avatar? You should not be out of bed!"
The tall figure of the Avatar appeared, glowering at Ami. The furious gleam in his eyes almost managed to distract her from his gaunt appearance and the way he was leaning on the table for support. "What is it Mercury? Have you come to gloat about finding a way to attack me through the Mantle? Was our agreement so confining that you took the first opportunity to try and get rid of me for good?" he asked acidly.
Ami gaped, speechless for the moment as she processed his accusations.He thinks I attacked him?
"I should have known never to trust a Keeper! But you failed. The Light protects me from your efforts, and I shall recover in time. Then, there will be a reckoning!"
Ami bowed her head and folded her hands apologetically, deeply disturbed by what she had learned. "I'm sorry. Please believe me, this is the first I learned of your sickness. The mantle was stolen from me, and I was going to ask for your help to get it back! I didn't even know it could be used to harm you," she blurted out.
The Avatar stroked his beard. "Neither did I, obviously, or I would not have left it behind." His glare did not recede much, but he seemed to at least consider the possibility that she was telling the truth. He remained silent for a moment, perhaps conversing with the Light. "Stolen, you say?" he barked, then broke into a cough. "By whom, and how could you allow that to happen?"
Ami flushed with embarrassment. "A priest of Crowned Death tricked me when I attempted to use the artefact against him," she confessed.
Amadeus hissed. "Him again! He would be the dark god who knows my Mantle best, though."
"He is planning to conduct a ritual soon to corrupt it completely," Ami said, then continued sharing the details she had learned.
The Avatar listened, his face grim, and a faint white glow appeared in his eyes. When he spoke next, it was not in his own voice. "This is unfortunate. Our Avatar is not hale enough to assist you directly with the mantle's retrieval. However, the link between him and the garment cuts both ways. Once it is back from the dark ones' realm, We will be able to activate an echo of Our power within it. For a time, the Mantle will be unmoveable and inviolate. Our enemy's servants will not be able to flee with it. You must take that opportunity to seize it, as there will be no second chance."
No pressure, Ami thought. "Thank you, that will help a lot," she said sincerely. "I'll do my best to get it back, I promise!" Prompted by her curiosity, she asked "Do you know Crowned Death's goal? What can he do with the desecrated mantle?" Ami asked.
The Avatar spoke once more, his eyes still a pure white "His priest lied to you. The mantle cannot be desecrated without the blood of our Avatar. Instead, this ritual will consume it as fuel for a powerful summoning to bring one of the dark god's horrors into this world."
"Empress, you had better not screw this up," the Avatar said, now in his own voice. The sneeze that followed immediately thereafter ruined his haughty pose somewhat.
"Was there anything else, your Majesty?" the secretary asked, intruding into the crystal ball's field of view. Her expression was more bemused than calculating now.
Ami shook her head in the negative.
"Good." The crystal ball faded into darkness. Before the light within was completely gone, Ami could hear a reproachful "...and now let's get you back to bed, Lord Avatar."
A few hours later, everyone was back in the planning room, assembled around the table. All was silent as Ami typed on her palmtop, entering information about the Keepers into her program. The stack of sheets to her side grew smaller and smaller as she worked. Suddenly, her computer let out a loud beep, and her eyes widened as she saw the readout. "I got it!" She shouted, standing up and thrusting her fist into the air. "Here!" Her index finger stabbed down onto a tiny island not far from the western continent's east coast.
"Are you sure?" Jered said as he watched her lean forward to mark the seven routes connecting prisoner locations to the likely ritual site. "No, that can't be right. That portal over there belongs to Keeper Avernus, for example. He worships the Mighty Tyrant." His finger moved to another connection. "This one here is claimed by a follower of the Unraveller. He's an enemy of Crowned Death."
Ami's smile didn't waver. "It's misdirection. Both of those Keepers serve Keeper Clairmonte and will do whatever she wants them to do. As it turns out, the dungeon on the destination island belongs to her, too."
"I see," Jered nodded. "Objection retracted."
Cathy furrowed her brow in worry. "It's far away. How are we supposed to get our troops over there in less than two days? On the shortest path, we'd have to," she glanced at the map, "stomp six Keepers for their portals."
"I suppose we should get started, then," Jadeite said with a grin. "Those fools are nowhere as powerful as our former enemies, and will not stand long against the might of the Dark Kingdom!"
"Well, 'general', how are we going to beat all of them without any of the others on the same route noticing and shutting down their own gates?" Cathy replied.
Jadeite choked on his confident laugh, his cheeks reddening in anger as his miscalculation was pointed out.
"I have an idea," Ami said, "but I'll need the help of my friends."
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