Luna dashed down the corridor, her soft paws making no sound on the smoothed wooden floor. She arrived in front of the door to Rei's room, which had been left slightly ajar for just that occasion. Quickly, the black mooncat squeezed her way in through the gap and whispered "Everyone, grandpa Hino is coming! Drop your transformations, quickly!"
The eyes of the three sailor senshi within the chamber widened slightly at the warning. Sailor Jupiter, standing next to the door, nodded and slid it shut. An instant later, her green skirt and white leotard dissolved into invisibility and were replaced by Kino Makoto's regular white and brown school uniform. She looked ahead, past the low table, where pink ribbons fluttered briefly around Sailor Moon as she turned back into her civilian form. This left Sailor Mars, who was currently floating horizontally in the air, facing the ceiling and making swimming motions.
A red flash later, Rei looked like a normal shrine maiden again. Her violet eyes widened in alarm when she realised that she was still hanging in the air like a gas-filled balloon, with no indication that the flying spell she was trying to master would wear off any time soon. She concentrated and tried to lower her altitude, but only managed to do a somersault in mid air. "Get me down!" she hissed urgently.
Already hearing footsteps approaching outside, Makoto dashed forward and jumped. At the apex of her leap, she managed to encircle the raven-haired girl's waist with her arms. Holding on tightly, she let her weight drag the two of them back to the ground. With the help of a quick throw, the shrine maiden landed right on a pillow in front of the table and winced slightly from the impact. "Sorry," Makoto whispered as she hurried over to her own seat.
Across the table from the pony-tailed brunette, Usagi gasped in dismay when she looked over at her long-haired friend. Rei was in a kneeling position, but rising off the ground again, even though she was gripping the edge of the table with both hands.
A squat silhouette holding a tablet became visible through the paper door. "Girls? I brought you some tea," grandpa Hino called. He tilted his bald head to the side curiously when nobody answered him and sounds of a scuffle came from within room insted. "I'm coming in," he announced after waiting for a moment.
The door slid aside, and his bushy eyebrows crept up his forehead at the sight within. His granddaughter was sprawled out on the floor, with her friend Usagi sitting on her legs. What was going on? He met the green eyes of Makoto, who was sitting in front of the homework-covered table and looking at him over her shoulder with a slightly nervous expression.
"USAGI! I told you that you can't have this manga!" Rei screeched, hiding something under her back with one hand while trying to shove the blonde off with the other.
The look of confusion on her grandfather's face dissolved into a smile as he recognised the familiar pattern. "I see you girls are having fun, but shouldn't you be doing your homework?"
"Ah, that..." Usagi said, sitting up and looking at him with a sheepish expression.
Makoto suddenly loomed before the short priest. "Thank you for the tea," she said, bowing briefly before taking the tablet from him.
"It's the least I can do for such nice young ladies like you," he answered, smiling back at her. A slight frown creased his forehead as he leaned to the side to see past her, sweeping his gaze over the room as if searching for something. "Oh well. I have to get back to the customers. Are you sure that none of you want to become assistant shrine maidens here?"
"Grandpa!" Rei raised her voice, managing to sound both exasperated and irate at the same time.
Chuckling, the elderly man departed, sliding the door shut behind him.
The three girls and one cat remained quiet until they could hear his footsteps fade in the distance, then simultaneously let out a relieved breath.
"Whew. That was a close one," Usagi said, wiping a light sheen of perspiration from her brow.
"Usagi." Rei began.
"Get off me! You are heavy!"
The blonde sitting on the shrine maiden's red-clad legs looked down, suddenly remembering where she was. "Oh, sorry!" Her embarrassed expression soon turned into a pout. "Wait, are you calling me fat?"
"Just get off!" Rei ordered, backing up the command with a shove. She managed to dislodge the pigtailed girl from her perch, but couldn't stop herself from zooming off into the air again from the recoil.
As Makoto hurriedly chased after the black-haired girl before she could bump into the wall, Luna emerged from her hiding place under the bed. "I believe he's suspecting something," the cat muttered, "he's interrupting us more frequently than he used to."
"He might be able to sense the magic we are using," Rei speculated. "Given the spell's origin, it might feel evil." She was currently anchored in place courtesy of Makoto holding onto her leg, and looked longingly down at the floor. "How long is it supposed to last again?"
"It usually wore off after around five minutes for me, before I learned how to cancel it myself," a new voice said.
"Gah!" Usagi jumped, her pigtails whipping around as she searched for the speaker.
Makoto shifted into a combat stance for a moment, but relaxed after remembering where she had heard the girl's voice before. She idly noted Luna arching her back, looking as bushy as a regular startled cat.
Warned by her mystical senses, Rei was the only one not surprised. She simply pointed at her chest of drawers. "The crystal ball is in the top drawer. Hello, Sailor Mercury."
Ami sat in front of her desk, a smile on her face as she watched her friends through the glowing orb before her. Their own crystal ball now rested on the table, amidst various textbooks and sheets. The blue-haired girl suppressed a wince as she spotted two errors in one of Usagi's math exercises at first glance. "Hello, everyone!"
Luna jumped on the table and sat down right in front of the glowing orb. "Hello," she replied for the others.
"Um, is something wrong?" Ami asked, her smile fading a bit at the mooncat's unusually serious tone. Her friends looked less happy to see her than she would have expected. Makoto was crossing her arms and sitting with her back straight, Usagi's face wavered between happy and worried, and Rei looked annoyed. However, in the latter's case, her irritation seemed to be directed more at the large stack of books on her lap necessary to keep her from floating away.
"Yes," Luna said simply. "Who are you really?"
Ami blinked, getting a sinking feeling about this. Why would Luna ask her a question like that? "I'm Sailor Mercury. You know me!"
"Liar! We used the crystal ball to look at your dungeon and saw that you kept the real Ami in prison! Let her go!" Sailor Moon demanded heatedly.
Ami boggled for a moment at the absurdity of the statement before she realised what they were talking about. "You mean Tiger," she stated, more to herself.
An instant later, a figure that looked like Mizuno Ami appeared next to the Keeper, Dressed in a rumpled and dusty school uniform. She looked around, confused at first, but then her gaze focused on the crystal ball and the people shown within. Recognition flitted over her features.
The real Ami pointed at the newcomer. "She's-"
"Help!" the second Ami interrupted in a piteous tone of voice "She's making me work in the mines!"
The faces of the teenage Keeper's friends turned from suspicious to outright hostile. Ami's heart ached from seeing Usagi glare at her with such intensity.
"So you are evil!" Luna declared, swishing her tail.
Ami buried her face in her hands. "It's not true! She's a youma! Show them!" she ordered, turning to the glamoured copy of her civilian form.
Tiger said nothing, tilted her head to the side, and frowned at her.
"Right. She's the youma," Rei commented, letting her gaze wander from the pale, glowing-eyed and black-clad Keeper to the tired-looking schoolgirl and back. It didn't take a genius to figure out how believable she thought that story was.
Ami felt the urge to bash her head into her desk repeatedly. Why did Tiger have to be difficult now when she was already strapped for time? "Shabon Spray!" she shouted, going through the arm movements for the spell. A scintillating beam of bubbles shot forth, filling the room with mist. Ami ended the spell after a few seconds and addressed the crystal ball. "I believe this demonstrates that I am, in fact the real Sailor Mercury. The copy cannot even transform."
"That's because you stole my power!" the youma accused, pointing with her index finger at the real Ami.
"That's not possible, and you know it!" Ami snapped back at her double. "Why are you doing this? This isn't funny! Stop using that glamour!"
Rather than complying, the youma asked "If I'm not Mizuno Ami, then who am I?"
"Well, you-" Ami hesitated and became immediately aware of how bad that pause would look. "I call you Tiger, but that's because you refuse to give your real name." Inwardly, she winced. If this had actually been an excuse, it would have sounded rather lame. That it was the truth didn't make things better, unfortunately.
"You have already shown us that you can give Sailor Mercury's powers to other people!" Makoto said, remaining sceptical.
"Well, we can test your statements easily enough," Luna said. "If she's really just a youma, she won't know our names."
"Usagi, Rei, Luna, Makoto," Tiger stated, not missing a beat.
The hostility of the glares directed at Ami increased.
Briefly, the young Keeper considered just possessing the uncooperative youma and forcibly using her own skills against her. Unfortunately, from the other senshi's perspective, that would look as if she was simply turning their friend into a monster. "She's really just a youma," she tried to explain again. "Some of my memories imprinted on her when I possessed her body while her real personality lay dormant. I put her to work digging tunnels since her powers are earth-based. Besides, she just made a mistake."
The glamoured creature's eyes widened slightly, and she looked puzzled.
"If she was really me and had been imprisoned up to now, she wouldn't know Sailor Jupiter's name!" Ami finished.
Seeing the unsure expressions on the other girls' faces, the double quipped "That would perhaps be true if you didn't like gloating about your plans so much!"
Ami was getting really frustrated now. She didn't have time to deal with this. "Jadeite! Come to my room please!"
The dark general appeared in a column of purplish light and looked momentarily confused by the presence of a second blue-haired girl. Ami's crimson eyes told him who was who, though. "Yes, your Majesty?" he addressed her, though he did throw an interested glance sideways at the active crystal ball.
"If you want to convince us, then Jadeite is not exactly the most trustworthy witness," Rei's voice came from the scrying device.
Ami ignored her in favour of the grey-uniformed man. "How do you make a youma revert back to her true form when she refuses to?" she asked, pointing a black-gloved thumb at the youma standing at her side.
"Oh, that's easy," the grey-uniformed blonde said and thrust his palm forward, causing the fake Ami to pale and take a step back.
"Now wait just- eeep!"
A ripple of force slammed into the Ami-lookalike, lifting her off her feet and hurling her toward the wall at breakneck speed.
Horrified, high-pitched screams of "Ami!," "No!" and "Jadeite, you bastard!" came from the crystal ball as the fake slammed into the masonry hard enough to make a picture frame rattle. The other senshi quieted down when they saw what slid down the wall and landed with a thud on the carpet.
"Ow! Ouch!" Tiger groaned as she glowered at them from the ground. She now looked somewhat like Ami would if she gained a head in height, sprouted short horns, took up body building, and developed a strange skin condition. The black-striped youma whose school uniform now strained at the seams pulled herself to her feet and rubbed the back of her head. "You are no fun at all!"
Jadeite smirked at Ami. "A pleasure to be of service."
Ami turned back to the crystal ball, where her friends were looking rather sheepish.
"We are sorry, Sailor Mercury," Luna said, "but we are worried about you. When it looked as if you had been taken prisoner..."
"I understand," the blue-haired girl said, smiling at them. "I'd have reacted the same way in that situation, and it looked pretty bad." She turned to the culprit and glared at her youma. "Tiger! What got into you? Why did you do this?"
"It seemed funny at the time," the youma said with a shrug. "Besides, I know how your head works." she put an index finger to her forehead. "You aren't going to do something horrible to me just because of a practical joke!"
"I'm starting to see why Beryl put you into Eternal Sleep," Jadeite commented dryly, then grinned. "However, you are forgetting something important. Just because she won't punish you properly doesn't mean that I have the same inhibitions against teaching you your proper place!" Dark energy crackled around his right hand as it gathered into a black sphere.
"Ack!" Tiger took cover behind Ami, putting her hands on the smaller girl's shoulders as she put her into the potential line of fire. "You aren't going to let him hurt me, right, little sister?"
"Little sister?" Ami asked, flabbergasted at the sudden change in the creature's attitude.
"Well, I remember having the same parents as you, and since I didn't have any before..."
Ami blinked. That strange leap of logic even made a tiny amount of sense, in a twisted way. "That's not really how it works," she said, still irritated.
"That's enough from you," Jadeite commented, though Ami thought he was masking some amusement. "Time to face the music."
"Wait, I have something to say in my defence," the muscular youma hiding behind Ami blurted out, keeping her head ducked safely behind her human shield.
"Oh?" Jadeite hesitated, raising an eyebrow.
Tiger nodded, her expression grave. "Yes. One word: CATCH!"
Two strong hands grabbed Ami under the shoulders, and suddenly, she was hurtling like a missile towards the startled dark general. She saw his steel-blue eyes widen in surprise and his arms come up in reflex before she slammed into him. He was strong enough that her impact merely rocked him backwards, rather than sending both of them tumbling to the floor.
Ami heard the youma's laughter fade out behind her and turned around. Where Tiger had been, a stalagmite-like pillar of rock crumbled into gravel where she had teleported away. The teenager had to admire the being's tactics. Pressed against Jadeite's warm chest and with his arms wrapped around her, she felt remarkably disinclined to immediately do something about the annoyance.
A second or two later, faint cheering in Usagi's voice reminded her that they were not really alone in the room. While she didn't teleport, she moved quickly enough to make it look as if she had when she put two steps of distance between herself and her crush. Too bad, that was really comfy, she thought, as disappointed as she was embarrassed.
"I'll go find that pest," Jadeite broke the awkward silence.
Ami raised a hand, gesturing for him to wait. "We'll deal with her later," she said, smoothing out her clothes and taking a self-conscious step away from the curly-haired blond. Her cheeks felt as if they were on fire as she heard faint giggles from the crystal ball. "I'll need your assistance to make my idea work, so you might as well listen in now." She walked over to the glowing orb. "Everyone, I need your help. It's rather urgent."
"Sure thing," Usagi said. "Do you need some dating advice?" she added with a wink.
"I have about two days to move my troops to an island over three thousand kilometres away, or thousands of people are going to die," Ami said, not reacting to the good-natured teasing. Her statement wiped the mirth from Usagi's face at once, and the others now listened in rapt attention, too. "I need to see everything you can find in the library about airships. They are the only type of vessel I can think of that would have the required speed, range and transport capacity, while still being simple enough for me to construct without needing to do a lot of research first."
"You can count on us," Makoto said, and the others nodded. "Let's go, girls!"
"They don't look much like ships to me," Cathy commented as she leaned back to look up at the flagship of Mercury's new fleet of five dirigibles. The huge, cigar-shaped vessel strained against its chains as the wind changed direction. She had an umbrella, but left it closed since the airship's bulk protected her from the rain pattering against the dark-coloured hull.
"They are not supposed to," the ice golem Ami was currently possessing replied. "Their shape follows from the need to minimise air resistance." She was watching the rows of reaperbots wandering through the mud and up the ramps into the bare cargo holds of the other four vessels. The ramp of her own flagship was currently occupied by imps doing the terrain-claiming dance as they made the ship part of her dungeon.
"What is the purpose of making the cabin of that airship part of your territory?" Snyder asked, standing at Ami's left. "As I understand it, your claim will fade away soon after it lifts off and loses its connection to the rest of the dungeon. You are not planning to create a dungeon heart on board of that flimsy contraption too, are you?" the acolyte asked, observing the faint aquamarine smoke created by the imps' activity.
"No, I'll maintain the claim myself by acting as a kind of ersatz dungeon heart," Ami explained. "I'll have to remain in contact with the floor though, which means that I'll stay on board of the vessel for the entirety of the journey. My magic will be powering the fleet's machinery."
"Oh, so that's what the cables are for," Jered said, referring to the slack tubes loosely tethering all five dirigibles together. He frowned. "I'm no expert, but I'm not sure tying together huge, flying objects moving at impressive speed is a good idea."
"Everything is rather slapdash and primitive right now, yes, but my first priority is getting into the air and moving," Ami admitted. "There's just no time to lose. Jadeite's glamours can cheat physics while I refine the design. I'll take my battle armour with its mobile treasury and a box of sapphires along, so I 'll be able to do on-the-fly adjustments," she explained.
At the moment, her vessels were little more than hollow shells attached to rigid-framed, helium-filled balloons fitted with magical propellers and a rudder. There was vast room for improvement indeed.
"I see," Jered nodded. "Still, I'm glad I'll be staying on solid ground, no offence intended. I just hope nobody attacks while you and the bots are away."
"So do I," Ami said. "I feel terrible taking all the most powerful troops and leaving you in an exposed position like this, but..."
"Oh, don't worry. We won't exactly be helpless," Cathy said, taking her boyfriend's arm. "We have a bunch of regular soldiers and traps now, and we can hook up the pilots to any new automatons finished while you are travelling. I'm sure we'll be able to at least hold the line until you return."
Ami nodded, grateful for the blonde's confidence. "If there really is an emergency, then Jadeite, Umbra, Tiger, and me are all able to teleport with a passenger," Ami said, "so don't hesitate to call for help."
"We'll keep that in mind," Jered said. "Are you really going to create a second dungeon heart before you leave? Generating a second weak spot while our defences are so weak seems imprudent."
"It's necessary," Ami said. "Securing the entirety of the Avatar Islands in one week, rather than three, is worth it. Actually, the new heart will probably be safer than this one. My enemies would need to find out about its existence in the first place, and even then, they'd need to locate it before they could do something about it. Good luck tracking some new corruption here," she said, spreading her icy arms to gesture at the blasted wastelands spreading in every direction.
"Point," the wavy-haired man admitted. "Well, I guess we shouldn't delay you any longer, then. The others look about ready to depart." With a twist of his head, he indicated Mareki, who was sauntering past in her human guise, followed by a file of imps bent under the weight of the suitcases they were carrying.
|Previous chapter:||Next chapter:|
|Chapter 125: Deadline||Chapter 127: On the Move|