The rolling, ash-coloured dunes stretched out like an ocean before Ami, their tips protruding from the ever-present swirls of floating dust like the backs of diving whales. The girl was standing on top of one of the hills of sand, close to the well-like bricked shaft whose spiral staircase led down to her domain. She had not used it, of course - her movements were still lethargic from fighting of the disease. Unlike the late Malleus, she had chosen to let her imps claim the surface above her dungeon instead of relying on the instability of the sand to stop intruders, and thus had simply appeared out of thin air on the crest she had chosen. With a short, shouted incantation, she uncrossed her arms, sending an azure spray of bubbles into the landscape. Hardly aiming, she repeated the spell again and again.
"Uhm, Mercury? What exactly are you doing?" Jered's head poked out from the round stone-encircled hole in the ground. He had been silently observing the girl fire spells into the haze for a while now, watching her slender body move under the tight-fitting white and blue clothes. It was a good thing that Cathy was busy elsewhere, or she would have elbowed him in the rips already. It felt like being jabbed with an iron rod while she was under Mercury's enchantments, too, he winced at the remembered pain. It hadn't been his intention to spy on the girl; it just wasn't in his nature to draw attention to himself, and he had no intention to get into the blazing sun. Why the Keeper was exercising in the heat under the poison-green sky was an enigma to him, and seeing spell after spell disappear into the sneeze-inducing dust clouds lost its shine after the first few times.
Ami wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand and turned toward the brown-haired man, seeming unsurprised at his presence. "Oh, I'm experimenting with my powers, and what I'm trying to do has at least the potential to go violently wrong, so I'm doing it outside."
"Should I be worried?" the muscles in Jered's neck tensed as he ducked a bit deeper into the hole.
With a smile, Ami shook her head. "No, there's no reason to, at least not right now. The results are quite encouraging," the girl exclaimed, proud in her work. "It occurred to me that if I can move my own creatures around, why not magical attacks too? They aren't too big, made of pure magic, and certainly belong to me. And it works, but the tricky part is catching them."
The weasel-featured man briefly considered the possibilities."Hmm, so you can redirect missed attacks. That is useful."
"That, too," Ami answered, sounding excited, "but that's not the real benefit." Ami pointed to a large neighbouring dune. "Observe."
Obediently, Jered looked past the Keeper at the large hill of ash-like sand. Only a slight widening of Ami's red-glowing eyes gave away what was about to come. No activation phrase, motion, or other warning preceded the multiple near-simultaneous blue flashes along the dune's length. The entire side of the hill disappeared under a thick crust of ice, from which streams of condensing water vapour flowed downwards, carried along by the sinking cool air.
"Whoa. I am impressed," Jered whistled, "that could take out a small force by itself. Way to go!"
Blushing slightly at the praise, Ami hurried to add some qualifiers to her achievement. "Thank you, but this is a demonstration in optimal conditions," she pointed out. "The main limitation is that the attacks keep going in the same direction that they were initially fired. I can put them into 'storage', but I need to remember which way they were going, if I want to use them effectively. Also, I expect that I will not be able to manifest them inside enemy territory, same as the imps."
"Oh. I assume it would be rather difficult to keep track of that while spinning and turning around in a heated battle. Still, it is a dangerous technique," Jered re-evaluated his initial estimation of the rapid fire attack. "Plus, you can strike from a distance, without putting yourself into danger. That's worth a lot."
"Remembering which attack goes which way isn't so difficult. Look," the blue-haired girl said, concentrating hard on using the so far not particularly useful trick of bringing transported objects back into the real world without releasing them. Suddenly, the grey dunes took on a bluish hue as a bright azure light washed over them. Hearing a faint crackling noise, Jered shifted his gaze upwards, and stared at the breath-taking formation hanging in the air. Scintillating, rotating clumps of bubbles glowed like stars, forming eight straight lines that radiated outward from Ami's location like the spokes of a horizontal wheel.
"Each of those sparkly lights is a prepared attack, and they are going in the same direction as the line they are part of, and away from you?" the man guessed.
"That is correct," Ami confirmed. "Their position remains static in relation to the world, not me, though, so I need a bit of time to pick the right ones and aim them. Just about as much as if they were marbles that I wanted to throw, but it's a noticeable delay." With a flick of her wrist, the held spells disappeared back into the strange storage space provided by the dungeon heart.
Jered sat down on the wall surrounding the rim of the dungeon entrance, braving the heat of the direct sunlight. "Is there any particular reason why you are doing these experiments now? I thought you would be busy with more time-critical things."
Ami disappeared from her position and plopped down next to him, her boots sinking into the fine-grained sand. "Yes. This is something I cannot delegate. I trust Cathy to come up with a suitable battle plan against the east coast Keeper, and Snyder is very busy healing selected underlings and warding my new dungeon heart. I will have to rely on my golems again, and I want to be able to freely upgrade them to senshi form if necessary. Therefore, I can't proceed until he is done."
"Ah, yes. Speaking of Snyder and the results of his often flawed work, what happened to Boris? I didn't see him in the sick bay?"
"Oh, he's fine, he didn't even get sick. From what I could tell, the chaos magic in his blood just integrated the disease into him, the same way it combined his body and that tentacle monster." Ami looked a bit green around the nose. "I fear other organisms he comes in contact with might fare the same, despite all efforts to find a cure for him."
Jered shuddered a bit at the mental pictures this conjured. "Right. I suggest you take him to a Light temple, explain the situation, and let them deal with it. They are more qualified, and he'd be out of your hair."
That was a solution that Ami had already considered, but it felt a bit like shirking her responsibility, which left a bad taste in her mouth. Nevertheless, it was the best possibility for a cure for the unfortunate berserker. "Maybe you are right. But could you go back underground, please?" Ami asked. "I'm going to try figuring out what triggered the corrupted versions of my spells, and that could be dangerous to you."
The willowy man shrugged his shoulders, looking disappointed. "Sure. If only it wasn't so boring down there with everyone either occupied or resting from the disease."
Ami gave him an apologetic look. "Sorry, but I don't really have a job for you until the portal is rebuilt, and I can't get started with that until at least the warlocks have recovered."
"Yes, I know," Jered sighed. "I guess I will be back to searching for info on Azzathra in the library, or supervising the 'nurses', then. They can get frighteningly enthusiastic at times. Could you move me over to the sick bay, please?"
"Certainly," the blue haired Keeper nodded, and suddenly the wavy-haired man disappeared as if he had been nothing but a mirage. Alone again, Ami teleported on to top of the highest dune, getting ready to test her theory. The only occasion on which the blackened versions of her magic had manifested had been a high-stress situation in which her magical abilities were taxed to the limit. At first, Ami had thought that they were the result of some corruption seeping in from the dungeon heart while her senshi powers were too strained to keep it out, but recent experiences with being cut off from her Keeper powers for a while had lead her down a different track.
While weakened such, using her Shabon Spray Freezing spell had been intensely draining, while the regular Shabon spray had not been. The same was true when Cathy, who did not have the benefit of a dungeon heart, used the same spells. This indicated that the Freezing version used more power than Sailor Mercury could easily access, regardless of whom was currently using the transformation. Combined with the observation from Malleus' memories that Ami's dungeon heart was regenerating mana at an astonishing rate, this led her to a hypothesis: Shabon Spray Freezing used more energy than being a senshi continuously provided, but less than the dungeon heart could hold. It was easiest to think about it like a lake fed by a river and a brook. The lake was the dungeon heart, basically a large reservoir that gathered the inflowing magic for later use. The river was her sailor senshi transformation and provided a steady stream of mana at a constant rate, without being able to adjust for times of higher power consumption. Finally, the brook was the trickle of dark power that would usually fill the dungeon heart, nearly insignificant when compared to the river. When Ami used Shabon Spray Freezing, she exceeded the capacity of the 'river', but the difference was made up by the power stored in the 'lake', which refilled when she wasn't using the spell.
Now, when she had assaulted Malleus' dungeon, she had empowered several golems with her senshi transformation, which must have committed all the incoming senshi power, basically drying up the river. Thus, the lake had refilled very slowly from the brook source only. Which meant that instead of her Mercury magic, she had been fuelling these spells with evil energy pooling in the dungeon heart. They certainly had felt evil. Ami stretched, preparing for the task at hand. She would have to dump all the magic currently in her dungeon heart, but at the moment, she couldn't just transform a few golems to get rid of the inrushing Mercury power. She'd have to discharge it the hard way, by casting Shabon Sprays repeatedly and as fast as she could, until the dungeon heart had sufficiently filled with dark magic.
Ami looked wide-eyed at her handiwork. She had to peer through a dense cloud of chilly fog, the by-product of her efforts, to see the results of her dark magic powered version of the Shabon Spray Freezing. Half-buried in the sandy flank of the targeted dune was an arrow-shaped wedge of obsidian-black ice, bristling with sharp ridges and spikes. The jagged projectile seemed more suited to impaling and shredding a target than to actually freezing it, Ami found, panting from the exertion of keeping up a barrage of spells continuously for several minutes. The sand under the gleaming black ice slipped away, and with a shudder, the dark bolt came loose and rolled down the slope. Hard but brittle spines snapped with clinking noises, littering the sand with cutting shards. When the remains of the attack came to a rest in a cloud of powdery sound, Ami teleported herself close to it. From the field of shards, her own visor-covered face stared back at her from a thousand reflections on the black ice. It was disappearing quickly, evaporating, rather than melting into water. Her analysis confirmed that the cold substance was unsuited for trapping something within, as it tended to break into lethal splinters at the lightest provocation. This, Ami pondered, was a spell intended mainly for killing.
Still, maybe she should store a few away for later use. She wanted to have as many advantages and fail-safes at her beck and call when she confronted Jadeite, in case he was feeling uncooperative. Since she couldn't attack that other Keeper right now, freeing him had moved up on the list of things to address as soon as possible. While it was dangerous, leaving him to suffer in total sensory deprivation any longer than strictly necessary would have been callous. Besides, she was curious how he had ended up in the crystal in the first place and yearning for news about her friends. With any luck, he would even be able to get her home! The faster she was reunited with her friends the better, and she had already missed nearly two precious weeks of school, too! However, that still wouldn't get her soul back, or let her survive the fight against the Reaper. Ami deflated. Her future looked bleak, but she would just have to tackle one problem after the other. Starting with the dark general currently trapped in a transparent shell.
The cell that contained the crystal-encased prisoner resembled a cage at the zoo. It's vertical bars spanned the distance between floor and ceiling of an otherwise empty room, forming a square in the centre of the chamber. Ami walked around it once, scanning the immobile object inside. When she was satisfied that nothing had changed, she nodded to her troop of transparent golems. The twenty simulacrums distributed themselves evenly around the cage, five warriors in ice chainmail facing the bars on each side. If Jadeite made trouble, he would be surrounded and at a great disadvantage. At least she hoped so. The slender girl stopped at the front of the cell, and three bars retracted into the ceiling to let her enter. The foreign memories she had stolen from Malleus informed her that dungeon prisons were about as shielded against unauthorised magical transport as they could get, so at least she wouldn't have to worry about him teleporting out. She took a step forward, putting a hand on one of the smooth facets entrapping the man. It felt cold to the touch, like glass. Within the crystal, the dark general was cringing away in frozen movement. The pupils of his steel-blue eyes were fear-filled pinpricks beneath his blonde curls, and his mouth was half-open in protest. Whatever had happened to him obviously hadn't been his own choice. Ami briefly entertained the notion that the dark god who had enjoyed her sacrifice had rewarded her by eliminating an enemy. She shook her head. That went beyond what she assumed them to be capable of.
Ami wished that more of her army was healthy and recovered, but she had to work with what she had. She patted the large minion to her left once, her mouth turning into a wry smile. Aside from him, her army of golems and Jered would have to do, neither of which looked very intimidating. Oh well. Lips becoming a line of determination, Ami concentrated. The hand resting on the block darkened until its skin was a light-devouring black, and with a soft push, the limb sank into the crystal. Within the reflections on its transparent surface, she could see Jered raise an eyebrow and take half a step back. She was giving herself the creeps, so she could understand his reaction. It was silly, of course. This was just a slight modification of the possession spell, which, if one stopped to think about it, was much scarier than what she was currently attempting to do. Jadeite wasn't her underling, so she couldn't possess him, but she hoped that she could at least talk to him like this. The shadow-like hand sank deeper into the glassy material, until it touched the man's forehead, and kept going.
"... six-hundred forty nine thousand and three, six-hundred forty nine thousand and four, six - Huh?"
"Jadeite, can you hear me?"
"I'm not dreaming?" Jadeite's voice turned from bored out of his mind to complete attention in an instant. "Who is this? Has Queen Beryl decided to give me another chance?"
Ami could feel the desperate hope that accompanied the question, laced with a hint of resentful anger. "I'm afraid I don't know this Queen Beryl you are talking about." she answered. Dark Kingdom. Queen Beryl. Had he offended his ruler somehow?
"You don't...? Never mind. Get me out of here, please!" He sounded slightly confused, but eager. When Ami failed to respond because she was thinking, he continued "Hello? Are you still there? Please don't go away! Don't leave me here!"
"I'm still here," the blue-haired girl tried to calm him. The dark general seemed terrified of the possibility that she could just go away. His need and fear gave her some leverage. Maybe enough? "I think I could get you out of there," she offered. "However, my powers only allow me to teleport people who serve me, so..."
"You want my allegiance?" Jadeite asked, instantly suspicious. "You haven't even told me who you are!"
"Well, your other options are me taking a pick to the crystal you are trapped in and hoping that you are in a somewhat recognisable shape when I'm done, or just staying trapped in there like a fly in amber," Ami explained in her best impression of an 'I'm an evil Keeper who doesn't care one way or another' voice. It wasn't very convincing, in her opinion.
"Point taken," the dark general conceded. Did it really matter what he promised that strange woman? If she was weak, he could adjust this situation easily to be more to his liking. In the unlikely case that she was stronger than him, the choice was out of his hands either way. Anything had to be better than rotting here in this prison, motionless, unable to see, hear, or touch, with nothing but his own mind for company. Curse Beryl for throwing him away like that! "All right. I agree to serve you, if you rescue me from this imprisonment!" He had barely uttered the words when he felt the strange sensation of foreign magic flowing into him, locking in place in some way he couldn't quite define. He wondered if he hadn't just made a huge mistake.
As soon as Ami had the man's resigned agreement, she poured as much power as she could into forging the link between her dungeon heart and the dark general. From Malleus, she knew that those bonds couldn't be trivially broken. It required a huge exertion of will, and the unfaithful creature had to be rightly furious at the Keeper to even attempt the act. If she didn't go out of her way to antagonise Jadeite, then they should hold. With the Reaper, it was different. The demon got angry at pretty much everything, and his whole personality was diametrically opposed to her own. It was pretty much inevitable that he would get annoyed enough with her to free himself eventually. Jadeite would hopefully be more compatible. She pulled her shade-like hand out of the crystal without causing a noise, and backed away to provide some room. It was time to hold up her end of the bargain. From one moment to the other, the crystal changed to contain nothing but a man-shaped hollow, and Jadeite appeared in front of it, still in the same pose, but only for a moment. The shock of suddenly being able to see and having to support his own weight again made him stumble. Muscles cramped from staying in the same position for too long refused cooperation, and the inevitable happened. The blond man toppled forward and landed flat on his belly.
Ami's hand went up to her mouth as she watched the dark general's face meet the ground. That was not how she had expected this meeting to play out. Had she been of a more brash disposition, like Rei for example, she might have commented on how kissing her boots was unnecessary. Jadeite, for his part, would have been annoyed at making such an undignified first impression, if he hadn't been busy suppressing a wince at the prickling sensations running through his stiff limbs as blood rushed into them. He lifted his chin from the floor - rough stone, he noted, not in the dark tones of Beryl's throne room - and turned his gaze upward. The first he saw of the person who had freed him, at least that was who he assumed she was, were small boots, covered in traces of ash-like dust. His gaze wandered higher, taking in the blue trousers. The best that could be said about those was that they were functional, the dark general noted with some disdain. A white leotard covered the slender figure's torso, bulging at the chest. A short, open jacket that looked as if it contained some armour hung from the girls' shoulders. Finally, his gaze reached her head. The lower part of her face was hidden behind a hand raised in surprise, and she had short blue hair. The large, red-glowing eyes however revealed that this wasn't just some random waif, but a being of some power.
Later, he would blame the lack of blood going to his brain after his taxing imprisonment for the first sentence he uttered in astonishment "You are a little girl!" The red glow in Ami's eyes intensified as her expression turned into a frown, and Jadeite found himself lifted by an invisible force and deposited roughly on his feet. This time, he managed to keep his balance, and quickly batted the dirt from his grey uniform. Where were his manners? He put his right arm across his chest, partly covering the red line that ran down the right side of his jacket, and gave a bow that brought him to about eye-level with the strangely familiar looking sorceress. "Please excuse my initial rudeness, I was not thinking clearly. You already know my name, but I cannot quite place you, Milady. Have we met?"
Ami blinked several times, taken aback by his abrupt change in attitude. "You don't remember me?" The dark general's scratched face remained politely blank. On second thought, they probably hadn't met often enough for him to recognise her out of her uniform. "I'm Sailor Mercury!"
Jadeite went slack jawed as his brain tried to reconcile the ember-eyed girl in front of him with the short-skirted, bubble-throwing defender of love and justice he knew. It was disturbingly easy, now that he knew where to place her. His brow furrowed. "You! I thought I had killed you! You tricked me into agreeing to serve a sailor senshi!" He took a threatening step forward, but the girl didn't flinch. He even thought the corners of her mouth twisted up a bit, which prompted him to stop and take in his surroundings - something that he should have done the moment he was free, he chided himself. He took note of the bars blocking any escape route, and the group of - were those Mercury lookalikes made of ice? Oh, they moved. Still, they were outside the cage, and the senshi girl was in here with him. Not much to worry about. "Why are you grinning? Do you think your bubbles can stop me, a general of the Dark Kingdom?" He heard a heavy thud behind him and felt a little tremor beneath his feet, so he quickly spun around. Only to stare into a huge, fanged maw, large enough to swallow his head whole. His usually curly blond hair stood on end and then was promptly blown backwards when the dragon roared. Startled, he bounded away on still wobbly legs, botched his landing, and found himself falling over backwards. What in the Great Ruler's name? Senshi weren't supposed to have giant monsters! Unexpectedly, his descent stopped, and he hung uncomfortably in an imbalanced position.
Sailor Mercury was smiling faintly. "You will find that I have graduated from using bubbles. Now lets have a civilised talk, please." It wasn't a suggestion. "I have many questions."
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