With closed eyes, Mukrezar swayed through the empty room, turning left and right with no discernible pattern. His motions resembled an awkward dance to inaudible music, and sometimes he waved his arms to touch things only he could see.
“Your Druggedness, the high priest wishes to talk to you,” his butler interrupted him, his voice echoing off the meticulously smoothed walls.
Mukrezar's eyelids opened to reveal two red-glowing slits. “My hallucinations are the result of very precise and sophisticated magic and not lowly drugs.”
“If you say so, Master.” The bearded imp tilted his head to the side. “That is a lot of effort for an effect that can be achieved by chewing on a few mushrooms.”
“A mere fungus would not allow me to process and react to valuable strategic information in the secure privacy of my own head. Say, why aren't you supervising your goblin Keeper?”
“He is still making a very spirited effort to turn the approximate shape of a bile demon, Master. I am eagerly awaiting the day his gluttony catches up with him. Death can only improve his smell. If I may remind you,” the suit-wearing imp rolled his eyes toward the ceiling, “the high priest is still waiting for you.”
“Ah, yes, him. Well, I guess I should check what he has to say.“ Mukrezar stripped the eight rings he was wearing from his fingers and dropped them into a golden bowl. He disappeared from the empty chamber, reappearing above a leather armchair in his throne room. The decorative dragon wings jutting from its sides rustled as he dropped into the cushioned seat. With a snip of his fingers, the coal-filled braziers to his left and right lit up, and a huge roll of red fabric rolled down the wall as it unfurled into a banner. Satisfied with the ambience, he summoned the active crystal ball into his presence, letting it bob up and down in the air before him.
The elf's eyes widened into an exaggerated expression of surprise. “High priest!” he interrupted the jewel-studded skull. “I am amazed to see you! I was expecting your successor by now!”
The skeletal figure was quiet for a moment, taking time to select its words. “Our Lord has given me instructions concerning your request,” it said, sounding as if every word pained him.
“Oh, what prompted this? No, wait, let me guess.” Mukrezar rested his chin on his hands. “You tried to attack the Empress and she set you all on fire again, didn't she?”
“No. No, she did not!” the high priest disagreed.
“But everyone's still dead – well, deader – and Crowned Death is pissed at you?”
The high priest somehow managed to glare at Mukrezar without eyes or a face. Almost inaudibly, he muttered “Yes.”
“And that's why you leave this kind of thing to the professionals,” Mukrezar said, his smug grin threatening to split his face in two.
“Anyway, I shall be arriving shortly with the troops you begged me for.” There was no emotion in the skeleton's voice, but its staff cracked as if it was being gripped too hard.
“And it only took utter disaster to make you see reason.”
“We drove her off the Avatar Islands! She ran from us! Retreated!” The skeleton roared and swept its arm to the left, as if wiping everything off an imaginary table.
Mukrezar hesitated. “Really? Are you she didn't just leave on her own? I certainly wanted to get away from that place, too,” Mukrezar mocked.
Through gritted teeth, the high priest said “Find her. Adjust your vaunted plan accordingly. Oh,” his voice suddenly became almost cheerful, “and our Lord insists that you take her alive! Have fun with that!”
The image in the crystal ball extinguished itself, cutting off the skeleton's hollow laughter.
Mukrezar leaned back, resting his head on his hands. “Alive?” He said tentatively, as if testing the word. “The Light gods have a similar standing order for her. Interesting.”
Soap-smelling steam crept into the small changing room through the open doorway and pooled around the legs of the two towel-wrapped girls inside. Both of them were looking at the stone ledge along one wall that served both as bench and as table.
“W-well, it looks worse than it is, Cathy,” Ami said, hiding her mouth behind one hand. “Technically, it's still functional.” Why couldn't this particular complication have gone away along with the lethal corruption?
“Functional? You call this functional?” Wrapped in a towel, Cathy picked up the shredded remains of her Sailor Mercury uniform and waved them around like a flag. The last remaining piece of the skirt tore off the tattered garment and fluttered to the ground.
“It still covers all the important parts,” Ami pointed out, her cheeks flushed mildly as she inspected what was left of the uniform. The frayed sailor collar was the largest remaining piece of continuous fabric.
“So does underwear, but you wouldn't wear that in public!”
“Wear what?” Tiger strode into the room, her towel fashioned into an improvised bag she had slung over her shoulder. “Oh! Neat!” She dropped her squirming burden, eliciting two pained groans from it as it hit the floor.
Alarmed, Ami squatted down when two dazed looking imps crawled out from the dropped towel and checked them for injuries.
Meanwhile, Tiger snatched the net-like collection of loosely connected holes from Cathy's hand. “Hmm, a bit tight around the chest,” the orange-skinned youma commented as she wiggled into the outfit, which earned her a glare from Cathy. Tiger turned and twisted, admiring her reflection in a section of the wall that resembled smooth ice. “Not too bad.”
“Maybe if you like the barbarian-in-rags look,” Cathy said, “I, however, don't want to make people think I'm looting ancient tombs for my wardrobe! Besides, there are still pieces flaking off!”
Ami finished healing the bumps on the heads of the imps. Satisfied that Tiger hadn't seriously harmed them, she ordered them to fetch their clothes and join the rest of the workforce. When she looked up and caught sight of her adopted sister, she reflexively covered her eyes with her hands and peered through the fingers. “Um, Tiger, do you realise that it's really hard to tell where the black of the outfit ends and your stripes begin?”
“Amazing, isn't it? Oh, stop looking at me like that. We have skimpier swimwear back home!”
“Because modesty is so greatly valued in the Underworlds,” Cathy remarked.
“I was talking about Tokyo, actually,” Tiger elaborated.
The blonde looked at Ami, raising an eyebrow. “I don't think I want to know. Anyway, you can't tell me those scraps,” she pointed one finger at Tiger's chest, “are still functional. You'd freeze to death wearing that!”
The youma shrugged. “It's hot enough in here right now. Besides, have you considered the starting material? That senshi uniform clearly prioritises looking attractive over everything else!”
“And you think simply showing more skin is the best way to optimize attractiveness? That's crude and- “ Cathy burrowed her face in her palm. “Actually, that's exactly what I'd expect from the dark gods,” she finished, grimacing. “Mercury?”
Ami scratched her head. “Well, it's not impossible that the corruption effects take the environment into account. When faced with mutually exclusive options, they may preserve only the non-redundant ones.” Her shoulders slumped. “Of course, considering what we are talking about here, it's more likely that they are simply picking the path of most destruction.”
The swordswoman crossed her arms. “I don't like a best case scenario in which my clothes fall apart whenever I enter a warm room. Why is it going after clothes, anyway?”
“It's not,” Ami explained, “but the senshi uniform is conjured and therefore has less resistance to the changes than real matter, meaning-”
“Wait, wait, back up a moment. Less resistance? So everything else around,” Cathy spread her arms and turned in a circle “is going to change too, eventually?”
“Sorry, but I didn't have a lot of time or wiggle room when I redesigned the dungeon heart,” Ami defended herself. “It was either this or death!” To be fair, she hadn't expected this exact effect. Still, some embarrassment was infinitely preferable to whatever the dark gods would have done to her.
“Great.” Cathy threw her hands up in disgust. “Guess I'll be wearing armour from now on.”
Ami was getting a little irritated. Yes, this had the potential to get inconvenient and annoying, but the alternative had been much worse. Besides, it wasn't as if she didn't have ideas to deal with it already. “Look, there is a very simple way to avoid unwanted changes. If something already incorporates the corruption's preferred aesthetics, then it won't be modified.” Much.
Cathy considered this for a moment. “So what you are saying is that my gear needs to be all black and spiky and covered in skulls to stay all right?”
Ami nodded. “While that's not accurate on the details, you got the gist of it.”
“Eh, I suppose I can live with that.”
“What are the correct aesthetics, then?” Tiger asked, tearing her gaze from her mirror image.
“I, um, don't actually know that yet,” Ami admitted. Prudence suggested that she should fill this gap in her knowledge before she started more complex projects. “We'll have to wait and see, I think.”
“So, conjured stuff suffers faster,” Cathy pondered, switching the topic. “I wonder what the reaper armour would end up like. Actually, hmm.” Her face suddenly brightened.“Oh well, might as well make the best out of the situation.” With two quick steps, she was at Tiger's side, grabbed her arm, and pulled her closer. “Listen up, I have an idea, but it needs some preparation!”
The youma blinked, but her confused expression was slowly replaced by a grin as Cathy rapidly whispered into her ear. Her eyes darted over to Ami with a calculating look.
This did not bode well, the young Keeper thought.
A dozen imps filled the air with the clanging of picks against rock as they excavated a new room. Stirred up by the construction work, dust swirled through the air and into the adjacent corridor, where it settled as a white coating on the sarcophagi and bone-like decorations.
The wafting clouds parted, making room for vertical streaks of blackness that converged into two figures pressed close against each other. The smaller one wasted no time pushing the larger away.
“We are back, so let go of me already!” Camilla slipped out of the arm Jadeite had looped around her waist and took to the air, pouting.
The dark general rolled his eyes, unconcerned with the ambassador's mood. He had been successful – twice - and that was what counted. A quick glance at the crypt-like ambience told him that he was in a part of the conquered dungeon that had yet to be remodelled. Unfortunately, he didn't know where he should go – why memorise the dungeon's layout when Mercury was busy rebuilding the place anyway? Still, that was a problem that was easily fixed.
Camilla followed him just out of arms reach, her angry wing beat whipping dust into his hair. She had to be doing that on purpose.
He approached one of the imps from the side, taking care to stay out of the path of its swinging pick, and prodded the creature with the tip of his boot. “You. Lead me to the Empress,” he ordered when the startled imp looked up at him.
“Why do you keep following me?” Jadeite asked when the persistent hum of fairy wings kept hounding him.
“Because I'm not about to wander randomly through a dungeon on my own,” the fairy snapped.
The imp lead them through wide corridors with freshly-hewn, undecorated walls. Finally, the tiny worker tugged on Jadeite's trouser leg, pointed at a closed door, and rushed off the way they had come.
“...stop obsessing over this and go to bed,” he heard Tiger's voice from inside.
“Can't, too much work,” Mercury replied.
He knocked against the door, whose blank wood was starting to ripple in odd places. “Your Majesty? I have returned,” he said confidently.
“Jadeite?” Mercury sounded surprised, but happy. “Eep! One moment please! Don't come in!”
That wasn't quite the reaction Jadeite had expected for his triumphant return.
Inside, Mercury added in a harried voice. “Tiger, quickly!”
“Uh uh. You are being silly. Just deal with it, sheesh. Or try a hat.” The amusement in the youma's voice coming from the room indicated that there was nothing dangerous going on, to the dark general's relief.
He heard a giggle, followed a crumbling noise and lots of small stones pattering to the floor. The youma must have just teleported away. Quick footsteps within the chamber hurried this way and that way with no clear destination in mind.
Camilla turned to look at him, combining a frown with a smug grin. “Barely back and already hiding things from you,” she whispered, her arms crossed over her chest.
All things considered, Jadeite liked her better when she was still fawning over him. “Empress? Is everything all right?” he asked, deciding to ignore the irritating fairy.
“Yes, yes, I'm fine! You can come in now!”
The door opened inwards, creaking softly as it revealed a well-lit chamber. Schematics and maps covered the walls instead of wallpaper and rustled when Jadeite took a step inside.
He almost didn't recognise Mercury when she stepped around the paper-laden central table and approached him with quick steps. Not only was she possessing an ice golem, but the wide-brimmed wizards hat she was wearing concealed the upper half of her face with shadows while her high-collared cloak hid most of the rest. Between the two, only the huge smile on the lower part of her face remained visible.
Jadeite blinked. If he had to guess at the purpose of the cloak, he'd say that Mercury didn't find the ice armour of her golems modest enough. He had no explanation for why she had apparently stolen a warlock's hat, though.
“Welcome back, Jadeite! Thank you so much for getting me out of there!” Mercury said. When she spotted the fairy behind him, her steps faltered, and the smile on her face became more reserved. “Ambassador. Greetings to you too,” she said, inclining her head.
For some reason, Jadeite felt mildly disappointed when she stopped. It wasn't as if she was going to throw herself into his arms and kiss him again like the last time he had made her overjoyed. Besides, with those icy lips... Anyway, stupid fairy. He bowed, one arm held across his chest. “I apologise for the delay in returning here. I took the liberty to remove the remaining invaders from your realm with the aid of your vampires,” he explained.
“Oh. Good,” Mercury said after a moment. “Did you run into any trouble?”
“Aside from imps, the enemy only had one minion left. She managed to turn two vampires into stone before I knocked her out, though. The others are dragging her back here as we speak.”
Mercury swivelled to the right and grabbed one of the numbered plans from the table. “I'll have to add a prison cell, here, close to the portal,” the teenage Keeper commented absently.
Jadeite glanced around. Most of the papers seemed to show a mountain from several angles, with an anthill-like thicket of rooms and tunnels filling its upper third.
Camilla cleared her throat.
“Yes, Ambassador?” The red eyes glowing in the shadows underneath the hat fixated on the blonde fairy.
“I'd like to lodge a formal complaint!” Camilla put her hands on her hips and almost managed to keep her voice steady. “Your subordinate,” she pointed at Jadeite, “abducted me and forced me to participate in a dark ritual!”
Jadeite stared at the spiteful little fairy, taken off-guard. Try to ruin his moment of triumph, did she?
Now it was Mercury's turn to blink. Her crimson eyes sought out Jadeite's, begging for an explanation.
“I convinced her to assist with channelling power to you. The chances of getting you back were higher with her aid,” the dark general said. “I may have brought her to the Avatar Islands and implied some things, but didn't threaten or coerce her in any way.”
“You've got to be kidding me! That was outright blackmail!” Camilla protested.
Mercury clasped her hands, her gaze moving from Camilla to Jadeite and back several times. Finally, it settled on the fairy. ”I- well, you have my deepest apologies for his actions,” she said, bowing. “It, um, would help if I knew what exactly happened.”
“He just grabbed me and-”
Jadeite and Camilla stopped in mid-sentence to glare at each other.
“I will listen to the Ambassador's accusations first,” Mercury broke the deadlock, adding an apologetic look in Jadeite's direction.
“He just appeared out of nowhere and grabbed me from behind, and then we were in that creepy Oracle tower back on the Avatar Islands,” Camilla began. “No word of warning or a request for me to come along,” she continued indignantly. “Just bam- abduction!”
Jadeite shrugged. Did that ambassador really think she would achieve anything aside from annoying him when he was currently so highly in Mercury's favour? It was clear she was no trained diplomat. “There was no time to lose.”
“You don't know how right you are,” Mercury muttered, shuddering.
Jadeite felt a moment of concern, but Camilla's expression becoming more worried distracted him.
When the fairy continued, her voice was shriller than before. “He dragged me off to a sinister location I can't possibly survive in on my own, surrounded me with vampires, and told me he'd kill all your captives if I didn't help him! For a moment, I even thought he was planning to use me as a sacrifice!”
Mercury gasped. “Jadeite?”
“That is not at all what I said, your Majesty. I simply told her that the life force I was using might run out before you came back if she didn't help. Of course, since I only brought what I had already taken from the civilians – which obviously didn't kill them - she was jumping to conclusions.” Mercury looked happy to hear that, so he wasn't going to tell her that he had been prepared to tell a youma to get more, if necessary.
“You utter bastard!” Camilla tensed as if she was about to hit him. “You tricked me! You...” She clenched her fists and took a few deep breaths. More collected, she faced Mercury. “Anyway, kidnapping me was still an inexcusable assault on a dignitary of the Shining Concord Empire! My superiors will be outraged by this insult! There will be consequences!”
Mercury winced. “Please don't tell them!” she blurted out. “My diplomatic situation is enough of a nightmare already after this emergency relocation. I'll be trying to smooth things over, but if people start believing that their diplomatic personnel isn't safe with me... ”
“Well, perhaps your underling there should have thought of that before he kidnapped me,” Camilla snapped, putting her arms akimbo. “It is my duty as ambassador to-”
“You never were in any danger,” Jadeite pointed out. Something about the fairy's behaviour felt off. Even if she was angry, she should be too scared of Mercury and him to be so confrontational. It didn't make much sense. In his experience, only youma with their back to the wall would dare- of course. “Ah, now I see. You are trying to wring out concessions from her Majesty before your superiors hear of this!”
Mercury's eyes widened in surprise, and Camilla whirled to face him.
“What? That's preposterous! Why would I-”
“You need something to reassure them of your loyalty, or at least your competence,” Jadeite pointed out. “First, you joined the service of her Majesty-”
“I didn't want to!”
“-then, she requested for you to be placed as ambassador, and now you helped bring her back from the dark realm. It will all add up in their minds.”
“I did it to save all those innocent people!” Camilla shouted, her face reddened with anger. “They can't fault me for that, right? They can't!”
Mercury took a step forward and put a frozen hand on the other girl's shoulder. “I'm sure we can find a solution that works out for everyone,” she said in a gentle voice.
Jadeite scowled in disapproval. How typical of her to be moved by the glitter of tears in the corners of the fae's eyes. “Well, she did save the civilians,” he spoke up, drawing surprised looks from both of the girls. “Without Empress Mercury to care for them, they would not have survived for long.”
Camilla hung her head. “They'd just point out that the Empress is simply keeping them alive to sacrifice them later, anyway.”
The young Keeper's eyes flashed. “That's what you think of me?”
“But-” the fairy's eyes widened in alarm when a hand made of ice grabbed her around the wrist.
With surprising strength, Mercury dragged Camilla toward one of the walls and gestured at the plans covering it. “Look! Look at those blueprints! Do you have any idea of the logistics and costs involved in properly caring for eight thousand individuals?” She waved at the sketch of a square room, broken up with pillars. “That's a dining hall with seats for about five hundred people. I need several of those just to feed everyone in a timely manner!”
To Jadeite, the design looked much like she had copied a self-service restaurant with multiple counters, although without cashiers.
“They also need water for proper hygiene, which means aqueducts and sewers, not to mention pumping it up or melting ice,” Mercury continued as she showed another series of pictures to Camilla. Some of them showed a labyrinthine network of pipes, while another seemed to be a new waterfall painted onto the flank of the mountain. “Bathrooms, pools, fountains.” Mercury pointed at a different row of drawings with each word.
The fairy followed her around, her eyes glazing over from seeing so many complicated blueprints in quick succession.
“Housing. Heating. Farms. Streets and corridors to easily move between all of those locations. Space for leisure or trade.” Mercury let go of the fairy, hesitating for a moment when she noticed the dazed expression on the blonde's face. “Look, the point is that keeping them alive, healthy, and happy involves much more effort than simply keeping them alive. Why would I go through the effort of building all this for them,” she spread her arms, indicating the blueprints surrounding them, ”if I wanted to use them as sacrifices? Why not just throw them into a hole instead and toss them some food as needed? And why give them back their sight? Think about it!”
A little slack-jawed, Camilla nodded tentatively, shrinking away from Mercury's intense stare.
After a moment, the red-eyed girl straightened and coughed into her fist. “Um, sorry about the rant, but I am getting a little frustrated about everything,” she said, sounding embarrassed. “Please, take some time to consider my words, and perhaps discuss things with your sisters before you decide on doing anything rash.” She raised her head. “Jadeite! Let's get started with waking the civilians in the meantime!”
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