A loud smacking noise rang through the cargo hold, followed by an outraged scream. Startled by the noise, Melissa looked up from her blue-haired reflection in the water-filled bowl before her. She saw Anise holding a large, slippery fish in her right hand while rubbing a wet spot on the back of her head with the other.
The red-faced redhead shot a glare at a snickering imp standing on top of a hill of recently-caught sea creatures, her teeth bared in a furious snarl. "That's it, you little bastard," she shouted, swinging the dead animal by its tail fin as if she was imagining beating the coverall-clad worker to death with it. "You are so going to get it now!" With a flutter of her wings, she took off and shot toward the nuisance.
The imp's eyes widened, and she let out a squeak that sounded a lot like “Uh oh.” With some quick rummaging, she extracted a rounded shape from the slippery heap and flung it at the rapidly-approaching fairy.
Anise dodged the snapping pincers of the lobster with an elegant swerve to the right and kept coming, prompting the imp to dart away.
Melissa shook her head and tried to tune out the noise of her sister chasing the impudent little creature around the gondola. She glanced down at the bowl of water before her, but couldn't marshal the inner calm required to work her scrying magic. This vessel was bringing them straight to the dark empress, who had defeated the Avatar himself. What could she and her sisters do to defend themselves against her? Certain captivity waited at the end of this journey. She flinched at the unbidden mental picture of herself and her sisters manacled to a wall while a hooded figure heated knives over a coal fire. Sure, nothing like that had happened the last time, but Mercury was a Keeper, empress or not. Melissa shivered. “Dandel, how are we going to get out of this one?”
The indigo-haired fairy stood at the front window and looked outside in the direction of Dreadfog Island. She turned around, sighing. “I don't know. We'll have to find our carpets and make a run for it when the opportunity presents itself, I suppose.”
“Shouldn't we be doing something instead of just letting ourselves be led like lambs to the slaughter?” Melissa asked.
“It's better we arrive well-rested,” the eldest of the fairy sisters explained. “We'll jump off this craft only when we are close to the island; otherwise we'll be too tired to fight.”
“Gyah!” Anise shouted somewhere behind Melissa. Judging by the splattering sounds, she had just discovered the rest of the imps with their buckets full of fish guts. “You filthy little- Ack!”
“Maybe it won't be that bad?” Roselle said, letting her legs dangle off the roll of tarpaulin she was sitting on. “Last time, she didn't treat us too badly.”
“Ack! Anise! I was just done cleaning that!” Cerasse's irate voice echoed through the cabin from behind the group. The purple-haired fairy stared in dismay at the mess that had moments before been her personal island of cleanliness and order in the chaos that was the cargo hold.
"Aside from that gross tentacle monster,” Melissa commented. She couldn't understand how her cleanliness-obsessed sister could stand the slimy thing.
“The decent treatment is what worries me,” Dandel said. “We got away last time before she could implement her plans. Given the scope and unpredictability of her last great scheme, I'm really worried about what she wants us for.”
The orange-haired fairy shrugged her shoulders. “I don't think there's much harm she could do with us seven. It's not as if we were high-ranked or knew important secrets. This might be more her looking for entertainment.”
"Not reassuring, Roselle. Not reassuring at all! Have you forgotten about her reputation?" Melissa said. She suddenly wished her uniform was more covering.
"She is looking for a healer," Camilla reminded them. The young blonde was sitting cross-legged on the floor, curling and relaxing her toes rapidly, which Melissa recognised as a sign of nervousness. "Do you think we should help her?"
The sounds of something metal toppling over came from behind the group. "You can help her to an early grave if she lets you get that close," Anise's voice drifted over from behind the group, changing position as rapidly as the excited squeals of the imps.
"Anise, stop picking on the imps," Dandel ordered when a fiery orange glow flared up behind the hill of fish.
"I'm picking on them?" the redhead's incredulous voice protested. A spinning piece of fish innards briefly crested the obstruction. "Eww! I'll kill you little creeps!"
Melissa felt space warp, and her blue eyes shot open. "Scatter!" she shrieked, already moving when a hand made of water as tall as she was popped into existence.
The disembodied limb made a grab for Dandel, who folded up her wings and cartwheeled backwards, narrowly avoiding the swipe. Undeterred, the hand rose upwards and gave chase until a blast from the left turned it into a cloud of droplets.
"Hah, how's that?" Cerasse asked with a triumphant smile, lowering the battle staff of Calarine she was wielding by a few degrees.
"Behind you!" Melissa warned, too late to save the purple-haired fae from the hail of fish pelting her back.
With weak battle cries, the imps charged down the hill, launching themselves at the stumbling girl and climbing all over her.
Distracted by the sight, Melissa only noticed the second hand that had appeared when its wet coldness enveloped her. Through the liquid covering her eyes, she saw Cerasse in a tug of war over the battle staff with no less than four of the vaguely female imps. She felt a brief squeezing sensation, and her surroundings changed.
Water splashed when a giant hand appeared within the dimly lit-room, opened, and dropped its prisoner to the ground. Melissa immediately dashed over to her thoroughly drenched sister, grabbed her wrist, and pulled her to her feet. "Cerasse! Are you all right?"
The purple-haired fairy coughed up some water. "The indignity! Those terrible little imps!" she sputtered. An red mark in the shape of a fish covered her right cheek. "My precious, beautiful staff," she lamented.
"See? They are evil little things. You should have let me teach them a lesson," the voice of an angry and dripping wet redhead intruded.
"Anise, she got you too?" Cerasse asked, blinking at the ruby-eyed fairy who was wrapping her arms around herself and whose skin was covered in goosebumps from the cold. She started pouting when she spotted the twin swords at the redhead's belt, which the dark empress obviously had not deemed a threat.
"She got all of us," Dandel's tense voice answered from the shadows. She and the other fairies were standing guard near the single empty doorway leading into the chamber, through which large, horned shadows fell into the room.
Melissa scratched with her fingernails over the engraving of a stylized skull on the wall. "Nope, can't find any secret doors or traps," she reported. "I still think we should take our chances with those stupid-looking metal guards."
"Please don't," a female voice from outside requested. An ice golem clad in a black leotard and a short blue skirt strode past the hulking forms of the reaperbots. Crimson eyes swept over the seven women in the cell, who gasped and took combat stances.
"Empress Mercury!" Roselle said, making it sound like an accusation.
"What do you want from us?" Dandel asked, stepping protectively in front of the group.
"Dandel," Melissa whispered, "be more respectful. She is an empress." She hoped the Keeper wouldn't do anything horrible to her elder sister for the perceived disrespect. The blue-haired fairy would have considered the menacing red glow in the golem's eyes intimidating even if she hadn't had an intuitive understanding of human body language. Out of the movements of the surprisingly lifelike statue, she could read that empress Mercury was feeling rather frustrated and angry about something right now, and probably eager to lash out. Melissa swallowed and hoped that the more impulsive of her sisters would behave themselves. Silently, she shuffled closer to Anise and Roselle so that she could intervene if necessary.
"I want you to heal someone. Follow me, please," empress Mercury said. Fortunately, she didn't seem offended. "I apologise for bringing you here like this, but I could not simply wait for the airships' arrival and transported you as soon as you were in range."
Melissa stared at the back of the ice statue that strode briskly toward the exit. Uncertain about what to do, she glanced over at Dandel and noticed Tilia and Camilla do the same.
Noticing Melissa's stare, the eldest sister shrugged and took a step forward, following the dark empress. With their leader having reached a decision, the other girls fell into step behind her, glancing around nervously as the automatons parted before them.
What could they do but follow, anyway? They were deep underground in a dark, unknown, and cold dungeon, their drenched wings malleable and clinging to their scantily-clad bodies.
Camilla sneezed, prompting Mercury to look back over her shoulder. "Oh, you must be freezing," she said, sounding distracted. She raised a gloved hand, and a few sections of rough grey fabric appeared in the air in front of the fairies. "I don't have any proper towels around here, but this should help. Feel free to keep them."
Melissa remained suspicious of the nice gesture, but not suspicious enough to remain cold and wet. Cloth rustled as she and the other girls dried themselves off while following their captor. With her sight momentarily obstructed by the fabric when she dried her short hair, she followed the others by sound alone. Were those moans in the distance? "Excuse me," she said, alarmed. "All the remaining undead around here are yours, right?"
"No." The empress' lips tightened into a thin line. "I do not raise undead creatures," she added with unexpected vehemence.
Melissa wondered if she had accidentally hit upon a sore spot and ducked her head, trying to make herself a smaller target. Silently, she continued worrying about the moans. With her gaze downcast, she almost missed the group entering a new room. Fortunately, the clattering footsteps of the golem stopped, which alerted her before she bumped into someone. She looked around and wasn't reassured at all by the motionless figure lying on a few folds of fabric in the corner, dressed in a red and white acolyte's robe. Used up and discarded, she thought. Sapphire eyes focused on her youngest sister, and she feared that the Keeper was planning the same fate for the blonde healer.
A snort from the other corner of the room drew her gaze to the tall figure she had at first mistaken for a large mummy. But no, its chest was moving up and down slowly. She took a closer look. Was that red skin visible between bandages at points? And up there, horns! A horned reaper! Instinctively, she backed away from the murderous demon, even though it probably couldn't even move in its current state. Old rumours about the Empress that she had previously dismissed returned to her mind with insisting urgency.
Camilla had followed her gaze, and her yellow eyes widened. "You- you want us to heal your pet over there?"
The Mercury-golem looked puzzled. "Rabixtrel? No, he'll heal fine on his own." She pulled aside a makeshift curtain, revealing a door frame carved to resemble skeletal arms. "I want you to help me save them!" she said, pointing through the gap.
Melissa couldn't help gasping as she spotted the rows upon rows of people on the ground. She was sure there were more in the darkness not reached by the light spilling from the doorway. So the pained moans came from here! The fairy felt her stomach lurch when she got a better look at the faces. "Their eyes. They have no eyes!"
"I'm going to be sick," Roselle said in a queasy voice, muffled by her left hand pressed over her mouth.
"That's monstrous!" Anise shouted. "How could you do something like that to them?" Her hands were on the grips of her swords, and she looked ready to lunge at the dark empress, expendable ice body or no.
"I am not responsible for this!" Empress Mercury snapped back, sounding angry enough that the redhead retreated a step. "I destroyed the death priests who wanted to use them as sacrifices!"
Melissa hadn't seen Camilla move, but she must have, because she was now peeking out cautiously from behind Dandel's wings. The blue-haired fairy admitted to herself that the Keeper's lamp-like red glare was terrifying to behold. "She didn't mean it!" she heard herself blurt out, having stepped in front of Anise protectively without consciously thinking about it.
The dark empress straightened her posture as she regained her composure. Her expression almost pleading, she said "Just- please help them. There are too many of them for me to treat on my own. Ignore their eyes for the moment, stabilising them so that they don't die is the most important thing right now."
"What's wrong with them?" Camilla asked, her voice steadier than Melissa had expected after seeing her take cover behind her eldest sister.
"My imps are dealing with the dehydration and hunger issues right now," the statue stated, gesturing towards the tiny servants running around with trays. The aroma of cooked fish mixed with the smell of unwashed, frightened humans. "Complications from the eye injuries are the main issue, but most of the healthy adults are not in immediate danger. The younger children and those who were injured when they were captured however..." Mercury trailed off, her grim face bringing across her meaning adequately. "I brought the ones most in need of help closest, to this door, just proceed down the rows. You will help, yes?" She leaned forward and whispered "Also, please don't mention my name. The additional excitement would be detrimental to their health."
"All right," Camilla said, taking charge. "I'm the healer of our group. I'll help, but since you obviously need us, I want something in return first!" the shortest of the fairies challenged the possessed simulacrum.
"You want to hold the lives of these people hostage?" Sailor Mercury replied, sounding surprised and thoroughly displeased.
The round-cheeked blonde winced, but stood her ground. "It's our only chance to get out of here! You don't expect us to just give up, do you?"
Melissa could hear a slight squeaky undertone in the blonde's voice, but it was so well-hidden that she doubted the Keeper could perceive it. Camilla had to be scared out of her mind, but she was facing down one of the most powerful creatures of darkness anyway.
"I would have let-" the dark empress began, but stopped. "Fine, let's not waste vital time with arguing. What do you want?"
"I want our magic carpets back and freedom for the others! I'm the only healer of our group, so they are no use to you!"
"Camilla, this is not a good-" Cerasse tried to interrupt, but her sister ignored her.
"Well?" she asked, her arms akimbo as she stared straight into the dark empress' crimson eyes.
Melissa was so proud of her little sister that she wanted to hug her. At the same time, she felt like slapping the blonde repeatedly for trying something so outrageously dangerous. Watching with bated breath, she absently noticed that the ice statue was no taller than the blonde. How odd. In her mind, the dark empress had been taller.
"I can't fault you for wanting to save your comrades," Keeper Mercury said after a moment. "Very well, it's a deal." Two rolled-up carpets dropped into the young fairies's arms. "Now please go-" she trailed off and blinked when the spot she was looking at was suddenly empty.
A loud "Eeehhh?" came from the sick bay, and everyone turned to stare at the winged girl who had appeared next to the closest patient, holding two carpet rolls.
"What happened?" Camilla asked, a question that was mirrored by the empress' confused expression.
"Camilla, you poor fool," Cerasse said, shaking her head. "That's what I wanted to warn you about. You offered to work for her, she accepted, you took her payment," the purple-haired fae lectured. "In short, you got yourself hired."
"What? Noooooo!" the appalled blonde wailed, her yellow eyes huge.
"Human shields," Baron Leopold declared, slamming a fist on the polished wooden table and rattling the wine glasses on the elongated piece of furniture. "That's the reason she is caring for those soldiers."
The assembled councillors and nobles exchanged concerned glances. "Your Majesty?" One of them asked, addressing the crowned figure sitting at the head of the table.
"I concur with that assessment," the hooded figure standing in King Albrecht's shadow replied in the monarch's place. "Our informants suggest that her ships are at least partially floating due to interaction with the air. That would make them vulnerable to the elves' crashing spell. She needs the hostages to guard against that form of attack."
"In that case, we must warn her that we will shoot her vessels down if she approaches our coast, hostages or not," a greying noble with a high forehead and a thin moustache said. "Those people were dead the moment they fell into Keeper hands; the fact that still draw breath is but a detail!"
"Baron Mildorn! Surely you aren't suggesting that we kill those innocent people!"
"Calm yourself, councillor. I suggest nothing of the sort. I fully support recovering our abducted subjects alive and well, and as soon as we can. However, the evil empress will not know that we are bluffing. She is a Keeper, and such reasoning will make sense to such a black-hearted fiend."
"What do we do if she calls our bluff?" another councillor called out.
"Then," King Albrecht said, "we shall try our best to save those hostages once her vessels are within reach." He took a deep sip of wine from his glass. "For now, I have instructed the wizard guilds to strengthen our air defences." He sat up straighter as he put down his drink and smoothed the ermine seam of his robe. "Unfortunately, the antics of Empress Mercury are not our only concern at the moment. An even more disturbing piece of news has reached me."
"Your Majesty, how could it be more disturbing than the dark empress' machinations? She can transport an army strong enough to take out an established dungeon over the ocean in less than a week! That's terrifying! Even if she leaves us alone, another Keeper aping her achievement and deploying a fast-moving raiding force could be a disaster!"
"The Avatar recently burst into my throne room, much to the dismay of my guards," Albrecht began, smiling as he saw the entire council lean forward, following his words with interest. "He informed me, using most uncouth turns of phrase, that Keeper Mukrezar is back from the dead, resurrected by the dark god Crowned Death with an unrepeatable ritual." He paused to wait for the inevitable noise that would follow his words, and was not disappointed when the room erupted with exclamations and questions.
"Mukrezar, eh? I wouldn't mind putting a sword through that bastard's stomach, myself," Baron Leopold's voice boomed, his huge moustache quivering with every word he spoke.
"Silence, please," the King continued. "Furthermore, the Avatar asked me to put a bounty on the villain's head as a personal favour. I gladly complied. However, dear Amadeus must have been presenting this issue to other heads of state too. As the Silver Hawks informed me, the current total price on Mukrezar's head is over two million gold pieces."
In the ensuing silence, the buzzing of a fly seemed overly loud. Someone let out an impressed whistle. "That has to be the highest bounty on a single person in recorded history. For that amount of gold, every monster in the Underworld is going to hound him!"
"Especially the dragons!" someone else cheered.
Relieved chatter picked up in the hall as the nobles reassured each other that the bogeyman from the Avatar Islands would not be able to return to power.
"That's one problem that will correct itself," Baron Mildorn agreed with them. "My King, is there any information as to why Crowned Death, of all the dark gods, would bring Mukrezar back to life?"
Other dignitaries close to the man fell quiet, waiting with interest for Albrecht's reply.
"That part of the Avatar's report was rather unintelligible. He made it sound as if the Lesser Aspect that Crowned Death was originally intending to send through got itself devoured by the dark empress."
The King was forced to stop when the room, stunned into silence for an instant, exploded with noise. Questions shouted by red-faced councillors all at the same time made it impossible to understand any of them. Toppling chairs added to the noise level as people jumped to their feet and attempted to make themselves heard.
"Quiet! QUIET!" Albrecht ordered, to no avail. "Dumat!" He had to grip the sleeve of his court wizard to get him to take notice. With a few quick finger signs, he explained what he wanted.
Dumat nodded and raised his arms. A painfully loud thunderclap rolled through the room, rattling the empty suits of armour near the walls and echoing between the pillars before it faded away.
"Ah, nothing like beating people over the head with sheer volume to quiet down a room," Albrecht commented while he removed his fingers from his ears. "Abbot, I will let you explain this."
An elderly man in gold-embroidered white robes leaned on his staff as he rose from his seat. For once, everyone was hanging onto his every word. "Ah, yes, your Majesty." He drew himself to his full height and cleared his throat. Using his preaching voice, he began "Fear not. As the Light assures me, Empress Mercury did at no point handle an intact, viable, or even significant fraction of the Lesser Aspect's power. What she did could be likened to putting a straw into a glass and sucking. Only the tiny bit of liquid coming out of the straw needs to be handled at any point in time. She was never facing the full power of the entity, but merely tiny portions that any prepared and competent wizard could have handled with the aid of the right wards."
The frightened faces around the table regained some colour as the holy man's explanation lifted their spirits.
"Guess she did us a favour there," Leopold grunted, "of course, she was saving her own skin there, first and foremost."
A dissenting voice cut through the relieved chatter, directed at the abbot. "But the Light does not contest that she did consume the entity's power, all of it, even if it took her some time?"
The elderly man blinked. "Uh, well, yes, I suppose she did?"
As shrieks and loud shouts echoed through the room once more, Albrecht sighed and lowered his head. He waved his court wizard closer. "Well, Dumat, how is your little summoning spell coming along? We might actually need to use it before it is too late."
The white-bearded man paled underneath his pointy blue hat.
"Jadeite, please be reasonable. The captives can't stay here! The place it too cold, has no fresh water, and with all that rotting flesh around, it will only be a matter of time until diseases will make their lives hell!" Ami pleaded, looking into the dark general's steel-blue eyes.
"No. It's a stupid idea, and I refuse to help you with it."
Ami stared at Jadeite, her eyes wide. She felt betrayed. How could he? "Those people need help! Help that I can't give them! Help they can't get here!"
"Nevertheless, ferrying them over to the Light worshippers is out of the question. Going through all the trouble of keeping them alive and healthy and then just releasing them for free is not something a Keeper would do. Do you want more dark gods to send their followers after you?" The grey-uniformed man was presenting his arguments in a cold, unemotional tone of voice.
"But they are suffering! I can't look at all those blind children and not help them!" Ami insisted, her cheeks reddening with anger. The eyeless faces of the victims in the tunnels below haunted her. They would follow her into her nightmares, she was sure.
"Take them to our base and pretend to ransom them back, at least. Those humans being unable to see for a few weeks more or less doesn't matter one bit in the big picture, while you blowing your cover will ruin everything!" Jadeite shot back. He crossed his arms over his chest, narrowing his eyes as he met her glare.
"How can you be so heartless?" the blue-haired girl shouted, tears brimming in the corners of her eyes. Why couldn't he understand? Had she been so wrong about him?
"I'm simply being practical," he replied, raising his own voice too. "You are tired, overstressed, and recovering from almost killing yourself a short while ago! You are simply not thinking straight!"
"I'm not?" Her conviction wavered for a moment as she briefly considered going with his plan. Then, the memory of a little boy rubbing helplessly at the wounds that were his eye sockets flashed through her mind. His salty tears were making the injuries itch, and the rubbing made them hurt worse in a vicious circle. Ami's determination returned. She would get a priest to make him happy again! Him and all the others! "Fine, I will just manage without you! It will be difficult, but with a three-to-two child to adult ratio, I should be able to lift them all with the airships, even without your magic. I'll just have to expand their envelopes with the remaining repair materials. I'm responsible for these people now, and I wont let them be hurt any more!"
"Until your overloaded airships hit a bad weather zone, crash, and kill everyone," Jadeite said, almost smirking as he poked a hole into her plan. "You do need my assistance if you want to move them!"
Ami's knuckles went white as her hands balled into fists. She had no comeback to that. Why, why, why was he doing this to her? "Jadeite! This is something I need to do! Help me with this!" she shouted.
"Ask anyone, it's the completely wrong thing to do!" the dark general shouted back. "I won't have a part in it, even if you order me to!"
Ami turned away as she felt hot tears on her cheeks and, hung her head. "Then get out of my sight," she ordered in a bitter whisper.
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