An imp sprinted through the trembling tunnels, trying to out-race the wrath of the dark empress. Behind it, the rock groaned like a wounded animal. The brown-skinned minion risked a look back over its shoulder when it heard an earth-shaking rumble, and immediately wished it hadn't. A thick cloud of ash-coloured dust was barrelling down on its position. Moving its little legs so fast that they were almost a blur, the minion put all of its strength into getting away. Alarmed, it heard a series of regular cracks get closer, but it's survival instinct was stronger than its curiosity, and it didn't dare take a peek and potentially stumble.

It didn't have to, either, since the noise was getting closer and closer, threatening to overtake the fleeing creature. When it did, the imp saw the twin row of columns lining the corridor topple like dominoes, forming the leading edge of the destruction unleashed by Keeper Mercury.

Speaking of which, the ground was now only vibrating a little, and the noise was quieting down. Well, aside from the sound of more pillars toppling ahead. Perhaps she was finally running out of power? The imp stopped and turned around, just in time to receive a face full of floating dust. It sneezed and blinked back down the way it had come. While it was hard to see through the swirling dust particles in the air, one thing was certain. The dungeon's portal had disappeared under tons and tons of rubble and debris, leaving a gaping hole in the ceiling.

Almost as soon as the imp realised what had happened, it felt its Keeper desire to have the entrance dug out again. Right now. Curses. Painted grey from the tip of its drooping ears to its toes, the tiny minion made its way back toward the dangerously unstable disaster area. It shivered whenever loose debris shifted under its feet and caused more dust to trickle down from the split-open ceiling. Muttering, the worker lifted its pick over its head to take a swing at a boulder that looked as if its disappearance would not cause an avalanche.

Out of a blue-greenish flash, a lightly-armoured, definitely female form made of ice appeared in the path of the strike.

The imp looked up at the creature looming over it, then at the small trickle of water seeping out of the injury. To the boggling minion's horror, the length of metal now embedded in the newly-created golem's stomach did not seem to inconvenience the intruder at all.

A glittering hand reached toward the minion with hostile intent.

Clad in her battle armour, Ami stood in front of her command chair with her arms outstretched. Power coursed inside her transparent golem body as she channelled spell after spell, causing light to pour from the gaps between the pieces of her harness. Only low growls escaping from between her clenched teeth from time to time betrayed her fury. Hammering the enemy dungeon with Zarekos' fortification-destroying cave-in spell was rather therapeutic, so she did it again and again and again. Of course, she wasn't picking targets at random. The enemy portal had been the first to disappear under the collapsing ceiling. Now Clairmonte's subordinate Keepers would not be able to send reinforcements, and neither would the death priests be able to flee with their prisoners.

"Losing altitude on vessel four," Cathy's voice reported from one of the six crystal balls forming a hexagon around the teenage senshi.

Ami frowned, unhappy that the necessary task required her to divert her attention from the assault. She hadn't bothered naming her vessels, instead numbering them for expediency's sake. Cathy had mentioned an even number, so the airship in question was to the right side of her centrally-located flagship. Since the given numbers increased with distance, she immediately knew to refill the outermost vessel from the helium bottles she had brought for just that purpose. In passing, she noticed that the imps crawling across the designated vessel's tattered envelope with hammers, nails, and large spools of fabric sounded even squeakier than usual from the escaping lifting gas.

Ami wished she had a dungeon heart with the fleet so that patching over the tears in the envelopes and sealing the holes in the gondolas would have been easy. Instead, she had to dedicate another part of her valuable attention to transporting boards and other repair materials to her swarm of workers. While the sound of their hammers echoed through the damaged cabin, Ami spied with her Keeper sight on the glass map at the home dungeon, which was being updated in real time by her warlocks.

There were enemy troops dropping in to get rid of the golem preventing the portal from being unearthed. Good, the simulacrum still lived. As long as it did, she only needed to focus on it to see its location, eliminating the need to scry. She could deal with the situation without delay, then.

Three sword-wielding skeletons looked up just before a fireball exploding out of a suddenly-appearing distortion in the air reduced them to scattered piles of blackened bones.

Ami remotely created another ice golem to replace the one she had just melted, dropping it on top of the mountain of unstable rubble.

Her icy twin picked up on her plan and kicked lose an avalanche of boulders that thundered down the shifting heap, right toward the additional undead pouring into the room.

Ami frowned after checking the battle map back home again. Clairmonte clearly wasn't busy enough if he had time to send more imps toward the tunnels she had just collapsed. His efforts to clear the way to the temple needed to be stopped.

"Tiger, crystal ball! Temple level, sector five, south-west, fourteen degrees!" Ami barked out.

"Right!" The striped youma grabbed the foremost orb and concentrated on bringing the called-out location into focus.

Ami selected the corrupted version of her Shabon Spray Freezing for this task, and hurled the spell at the rubble the imps were trying to clear. In the crystal ball, she saw the sharp-edged black shards ricochet around the tunnel, tearing apart the diggers and dissolving them back into greenish motes. She winced when she spotted some of the wretched-looking captives further back cower in fright when they heard the noise. Even through the purple shimmer of the death priests' shield, she could see the black tracks running down their cheeks from their empty eye sockets. Her expression soured. Clairmonte needed an extra-vicious reminder to worry about his own safety first.

An ice golem clad in Sailor Mercury's uniform approached the figure wreathed in magical energies and wrapped her arms around the large ice container that appeared before her, retrieved from its padded and cooled storage box. The statue jumped upwards and disappeared in a burst of green light halfway through its somersault. It reappeared in a chamber filled with a green glow and a sinister heartbeat, close to the enemy dungeon heart - the real one.

Ami would have preferred for the experienced simulacrum to appear right on top of the arches decorated with skeletal snakes that surrounded the central pit. Unfortunately, here at the centre of the artefact's power, its presence was strong enough to prevent even her from remotely casting spells directly into its vicinity. Transportation based on the travel spell of mere imps did not stand a chance.

The golem, forced to appear some distance away, threw the flask like an oversized basketball. It spun, reflecting the glow of the green twister of mana swirling above the central pit, and descended towards its target.

Ami snatched her trained and empowered golem back to the airship as soon as the projectile had left its hands to save her from the attentions of the guards.

One of the black blurs that could only be sped-up vampires interposed itself between the descending container and its target at the last moment. His hands lashed out, snatching the thin walled-container out of the air - only for it to burst apart and splash him with its liquid contents. As the vampire went down with a shriek, some of the glittering droplets continued past him and disappeared behind the low wall circling the heart's pit. As soon as they touched the beating, fleshy membrane at its bottom, the dim light in the enemy dungeon flickered for a moment.

Ami felt that a small measure of justice had been done when the membrane quivered and twitched in agony, and fumes started rising from the frothing acid burns. A successful distraction, she concluded when the enemy Keeper immediately dropped more undead troops into the room to defend his heart. However, a glance outside at the sun disappearing behind the skull-shaped mountain of the island wiped her satisfaction away, replacing it with worry. Her fleet would reach the island with only minutes to spare before the edge of the orange-red disc touched the horizon, and the time for the captives ran out.

Dandel squinted against the setting sun. Its brightness had dimmed enough that she could keep her telescope pointed at the dark empress' diminished fleet without harming her eyes. With interest, she noted the constant gunpowder flashes flaring up along the four surviving vessel's keel. Cannon fire, she deduced. Unfortunately, her telescope just wasn't good enough to make out the targets through the mists that gave Dreadfog Island its name. In the crimson light, they looked as if a billowing tide of blood was pouring forth from the maw of the skull-shaped hill at its centre. Hiding her shudder, the indigo-haired fairy muttered in a deadpan tone of voice "Well, we seem to have found out what makes ships disappear in these waters, at least."

"What made them disappear," Cerasse corrected from the other flying carpet, pointing down at the pieces of decaying, pale flesh bobbing on the waves below. "I must say that I find this unwholesome mess disquieting."

"There could still be more big monsters hidden down there," Dandel contradicted, still observing the distant battle.

"Then why are we getting closer to the surface?" Camilla protested, digging her fingers into the flying carpet's wool so she wouldn't slide down its steep incline.

“Yeah, why?" Anise agreed with her blonde sister. "It stinks. It really, really stinks,” the redhead commented, pinching her nose shut between her thumb and index finger.

"That's to be with rotting zombie chunks littering the area as far as the eye can see," Dandel replied. "In any case, we are going to investigate that." The eldest fairy gestured toward some wreckage drifting on the red-stained tides. "It's our best opportunity to learn more about Mercury's vessels without getting closer to them."

The two carpets carrying the seven short-haired fairies closed in on the tattered wreck of Keeper Mercury's airship, or at least the parts still drifting on the waves.

"It's hollow," Camilla commented as she spotted parts of tattered envelope clinging to remains of the framework. "Like some sort of giant balloon."

"So these things may be less dangerous than we first thought," Dandel commented.

"Less dangerous? Didn't you see what they did to that enemy fleet?" Roselle shouted. "One moment, white fog. The next moment, fwooosh!" the orange-haired fairy raised her hands over her head as she gesticulated. "Giant freaky blue flames and roast Kraken! First a cloud, then a flame! I'm never going to be able to at clouds the same way again!" she complained.

"What I meant," Dandel clarified, slightly irritated at her sister's excitement, "is that they are less dangerous than they would be if they were also stuffed to the brim with troops, in addition to also having the dark empress herself on board."

"Oh, that makes sense."

"Intriguing." Cerasse spread her wings and fluttered closer to the drifting objects, trailing golden glitter as she left the hovering carpet to get closer. "What do you think these metal cylinders are for?" She looked as if she was considering landing on the empty gas bottle.

"Cerasse, get back! It's dangerous!" Melissa shouted. "I think I saw a millipede as long as my forearm digging into that chunk of meat near you," Melissa said, scuttling backwards to the centre of her flying carpet.

The violet-eyed fae glanced over at the offending object contaminating the water and air with its foul excretions. "That's just a carrion eater. They don't go after the living."

"It taking a bite out of your leg and spitting it out once it realises its mistake wouldn't be much comfort! Did you see the mandibles on that thing?"

"Yes, yes," the fairy fluttering this way and that way replied, clearly not listening. "Hmm, this wood looks older than the rest."

"Well, there were other ships involved in the battle," Anise pointed out, her hands on the grips of her short swords as she nervously scanned the surface of the ocean. "Do we have to stick around here? As Dandel said, there could be more monsters underneath the surface."

"I sense magic from that direction," the soft-spoken diviner of the group said, opening her sapphire eyes. "Under that piece of tarpaulin."

"This?" Cerasse headed over and fished the elongated rod out of the water. Her nose twitched with disgust as she held it between two fingers and rinsed off the oily grime with a spray of summoned water. "I thought it was some driftwood, but this seems to be a magical staff," she commented and dragged one finger over the spiralling coils of the bone-coloured rod.

"Don't touch that! It's a Keeper artefact!" the blonde and youngest fairy warned. "It's probably evil! And unhygienic!"

"But if we study it, we might find out more about the dark empress and her methods," Cerasse pointed out reasonably. "Besides, it's just a magic staff. They- eeek!"

Dandel's head whipped around when she heard her sister's shrill, startled cry, and her indigo eyes opened in alarm when she saw the cause of the flying fairy's distress. A wet hand made of bone was crawling up her left calf like a spider, squeezing the skin and flesh painfully to get enough purchase on the smooth surface. "Hold still!" the fairly leader shouted at her frightened sister.

With admirable self-control, Cerasse stopped kicking the leg in question and became still, following her sister's order.

An instant later, a pale blue sphere of energy shot towards her, aimed with such precision that it would clip the animated hand without touching the purple-haired fairy.

Unfortunately, the skeletal hand was fast. It leapt just before the burst of freezing magic could tag it. As soon as it slammed against the three-pronged bone staff, it clenched into a fist around its end.

Cerasse looked relieved that the cold, dead thing was off her leg, even though its strong grip had left some bruises. Her face fell when she noticed the additional weight on the bottom of her loot, and she started swinging the priceless artefact around like a golf club as she tried to dislodge the disembodied limb. "Get off! I found that first!"

As if to answer her, the water frothed and fountained upwards, dislodging an upward-moving hail of bones. The whirring pieces aligned themselves in mid-air and moved toward the wrist. Each one made a clacking noise as it snapped into place, reassembling the arm like a jigsaw puzzle. In an instant, the shoulder followed, then the ribcage, and then the remaining parts of the skeleton appeared in a blur of flying pieces.

The violet-haired fairy shrieked as the bone cloud whirled around her and raised one arm to protect herself from the shards slamming into her body on their way to their destination. Among the cries of dismay of her siblings, she heard the noise stop and dared lower the arm. With the obstruction gone, she found herself to skeletal face with a robed and hooded figure that had animal skulls adorning its shoulders.

Before Dandel could take another shot at the creature, she saw Cerasse put her weight on the contested staff and use it like a lever, ramming it between the death priest's legs in a move that obviously caught the undead mage by surprise. The indigo-haired fae felt a burst of pride as the skeleton suddenly found itself upside-down, the malevolent black magic forming around its free hand dissipating as it had to stop its own levitation spell from dragging it down. Her little sister had reacted like the professional soldier she was! The eldest of the fairy sisters gathered her own magic between her hands. She wasn't going to pass up an opportunity like that, either! She shot a ball of freezing energy at the falling monster. Around her, she could hear her sisters invoke their own magic, lighting up the twilight with rainbow flashes.

The death priest, seeing the colourful wave of destruction closing in around him, let go of the staff and teleported.

"Above!" Melissa shouted, blue eyes going wide.

Dandel could understand her sister's awe at the sight. The monster was calling up fire in its left hand, black lightning in its right, and chanting the incantation for a shield spell at the same time. An incredible display of magical skill. Before she could finish her next spell, a blinding cone of lightning leapt up at the robed being, turning twilight into noon for an instant. When her vision cleared, she spotted Cerasse stare at the three-pronged tip of the staff with her jaw open.

The smoking ashes of the death priest drifted away on the breeze, and the purple-haired fairy's dumbfounded expression slowly turned into a smile. "Whoo-hoo! We shall keep this thing!" she cheered, waving the spiralling bone staff over her head.

"Um, Cerasse, not that I want to rain on your parade," Dandel began, still opening and closing her eyes to get rid of the sparks dancing before them, "but you just gave away our position with that flash."

Down in Clairmonte's dungeon, magical energy coalesced into a frozen copy of empress Mercury. The fleet-footed construct immediately started dashing down the spacious, column-lined corridors, past the gargoyle-headed sarcophagi standing along the greyish walls, and toward the one area of the enemy dungeon that remained uncharted. It made it almost thirty metres down the hallway to Crowned Death's temple before a black-cloaked blur tackled it. Both went sliding over the smooth, blue-glazed floor tiles. The ice golem's hands reached for the vampire's neck as it skidded across the ground and bounced off a pillar, its shell fracturing with a clinking noise.

The vampire on top of the prone statue put his clawed hand through its chest, wincing as water fountained from the hole. His blood-shot eyes widened as the ice shell attempted to seal itself around the limb, closing like manacles around his wrist. In a flurry of panicked activity, the bloodsucker brought his other arm around in a scything arc, snapping off the golem's head with a single blow. His eyes almost popped out of their sockets when the statue underneath him shrank and started growing a new head. Relying on his superior strength, he drew himself back to his feet, lifting the golem off the ground with his stuck-in arm. With a fluid swing, he slammed the statue into the brick wall hard enough to shatter the icy construct completely, sending a spray of shards and clear fluids across the hallway.

Even in death, the ice golem still served Ami's goals. "Recovered a finger. Umbra, tracking spell!"

The shadow-wrapped youma easily caught the icicle-like appendage that had only moments before pierced the vampire's skin. "It's as good as done!"

"Mareki, stand ready to get rid of the remaining vampires if they try to board," the young Keeper ordered telepathically even as she replaced another of the golems deep within Clairmonte's lair. "We'll be above the island any moment now!"

"Got it! Here!" Umbra tossed a short, wooden stick smeared with some of the vampire's blood back to Ami, who caught it in an armoured gauntlet.

Focusing on the hastily-enchanted charm, she could sense the location of the blood's owner below, and targeted it with a lightning bolt. She could feel the incinerated vampire's location change abruptly as he reappeared in his coffin, and she fired another spell at him.

The presence of the vampire remained in the same place, so she electrocuted him agai- no, wait, he had managed to dodge and teleport away. Hmm, he had dashed underneath the cover of one of the death priests' shields.

Ami dropped the charm to the ground, where an imp snatched it up and brought it to a small pile of similar objects. She didn't have time to wait until the bloodsucker poked his head out again. Her airships were now travelling over solid ground.

As the dirigibles flew overhead, tremors shook the ground of Dreadfog Island, weakening its fortifications and causing the skull mountain to lose of few stone teeth. The long tubes of claimed territory interconnecting the vessels suddenly snapped in the middle and dropped down like long tentacles, hitting the rock with a loud clapping sound. Even as the airships' forward motion dragged them along, reaperbots appeared out of thin air at their ends and jumped off, assembling into looming, scythe-wielding squads.

Weapons held high and ready to strike, the behemoths marched in eerie unison, their metallic steps sending vibrations through the ground with each step. Behind them, the landing imps hid in Sailor Mercury's protective mist, quaking in fright as groans and clawing noises coming out of the more natural fog challenged the invaders.

A death priest in purple-lined black robes prostrated itself in front of the large, square temple basin deep within the dungeon. Its bald skull reflected off the lustrous blue floor that had been smoothed to a mirror finish. It did not dare raise its gaze to look at the wheel-sized crown of black flame rotating slowly underneath the temple's ceiling.

Its wearer, an almost invisible shadow only slightly darker than its surroundings, had to stoop to fit its bulk into the cathedral-sized hall. When it moved, a shimmer in the air briefly rendered its features more clearly visible. Skin stretched over bone, without a layer of flesh in between to soften the contours of the cadaverous face, and yellow eyes with slitted pupils focused on the cleric before them. "Speak."

"Great and terrible Incarnation of Extinction," the skeleton priest intoned reverently, "the blasphemous Keeper Mercury has landed troops on the surface and is throwing truly ruinous amounts of magic at our defences."

"She is not holding anything back, because she knows that my success will be her end," the demonic entity replied, its voice a whisper like air moving through dead grass.

"Nevertheless, she could potentially disrupt the ceremony, your Unholiness. Keeper Clairmonte's current performance leaves much to be desired. He seems taken aback by the sheer intensity of the blasphemer's attack."

"It does not matter. We either use the resources assembled here or lose them, so we shall proceed as planned. Even if we are interrupted, we shall simply try again until we succeed. Death is infinitely patient," the being announced grandiosely. "Once I have a body that can exist in this world, this so-called empress shall be among the first lives I extinguish."

Rapid, clattering footsteps approached from outside, prompting the spectral being to unhurriedly turn its head toward the bejewelled double door. A smug grin appeared on its face, and the portal's wings parted on their own accorded, catching the two ice golems sprinting down the corridor by surprise. Its gaze lingered on their lithe forms for an instant.

Both fell over synchronously, cold and lifeless like the ice they were made from even before they hit the ground.

"Summon the Avatar's mantle. Nobody is going to be able to take it from me. Not Keeper Mercury. Not even the Avatar. Nobody."

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Chapter 128: Interception Chapter 130: Backfire - Part 1

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