Within an undersea ice grotto, Ami watched her imps splash through the ankle-high water towards the dark opening in the wet-glistening wall. No new water had poured in since she had sealed the gaps between her vessel and the continental shelf it was resting on, which had required a few freezing spells, and now her minions were tirelessly driving a tunnel toward dry land. This place was at the lowest point of her iceberg and formed a sort of diving bell, so even if the seams weren't perfectly tight, the rest of her ship wouldn't be flooded. Ami smiled at everything proceeding as it should. At this rate, the diggers should reach the mainland by morning, and in the meantime, they wouldn't need new orders. She hadn't seen any trace of the blockade ship yet, either, so her dungeon heart should be safe for now. Her face fell a bit at the thought of the soldiers, as it reminded her of the seven captives whom she had reluctantly imprisoned. With their energy restored, they should be awake by now. "I owe them an explanation, at least, Ami thought, aware that she had been postponing that uncomfortable task. A quick check with Keeper sight to see if they were all ready, and- The blue-haired girl's eyes seemed to bug out at the sight, and her jaw dropped. A moment later, she disappeared into thin air in a hurry.
The room Ami appeared in resembled a battlefield. The table was overturned, the curtain that had once covered the entrance burned in the fireplace, and the young Keeper tripped over what looked like pieces of a broken chair when she took a step back while looking at the main attraction. Appalled, the teenager stared at the seven shapely female figures restrained in uncomfortable-looking positions by slimy tentacles. The fairies were so completely wrapped up that she could barely make out more than their heads and occasional glimpses of skin. Many of the pseudopodia showed the signs of a great struggle, such as bite marks and charred skin. They twitched and writhed as the trapped women struggled against their bonds, all the while complaining loudly or moaning and grunting from the effort.
"Let go, damn you!"
"This is so gross!"
"Arghhh! When I get loose you are so dead!"
"Ow! Don't squeeze that!"
"Rook to D4."
Wait, what? Ami's expression of outrage turned into one of puzzled confusion as she blinked at the one detail of the tableau that made no sense in context. The violet-haired fairy was sitting cross-legged on the floor, wrapped up like the others, but seemed in no way alarmed or even uncomfortable. Instead, she was calmly looking at the chess board in front of her, where one of the tentacles slid a pawn forward in response to her move.
Ami took a deep breath, then shouted at the top of her lungs "What is going on here? Release them at once!"
Startled, a few tentacles shot into Ami's direction, but froze the moment the monster recognised its Keeper. As if in embarrassment, they lowered and hid in the main mass. All heads turned to the new arrival, and reactions were mixed.
"Ahh! It's the evil sorceress!"
The tentacle monster's answer was the least expected. "I can't! They'll hurt me!"
Ami's eyes narrowed, and the thing suddenly found itself squeezed by a large, invisible hand. "I'm sure you gave them ample reason to!" She put her arms akimbo as she chided the minion "What were you thinking, molesting the prisoners? You reproduce by budding! You don't even have a gender!"
"Well, they don't know that. Didn't know that," the monster defended itself.
"Actually, I knew that," the violet-haired fairy butted in from her position on the floor.
"Argh! You could have explained that a bit better than just 'Oh, don't worry girls, it just wants to cuddle', Cerasse!" the irritated red-headed fairy complained, imitating the chess-playing fae's breathy tone of voice.
Ami tapped her foot impatiently. "Let them go. Now!"
Reluctantly, the tentacles loosened around their prey and then withdraw quickly as if burned. The monster shifted its bulk rapidly as it covered behind Ami. "You don't know what they did to me! It was terrible! They tied my tentacles to the chairs and used me as a trampoline! It was only after a monumental struggle that I manage to free myself and-"
"You still haven't explained what you were doing here in the first place," Ami interrupted, not turning around to look at the blob of pseudopodia and eyes now hiding behind her from the angry fairies glaring in its direction. The seven dishevelled and thoroughly disgusted girls were taking up a defensive position at the other side of the room. It was an unconvincing manoeuvre, because they were at the same time attempting to brush off the slime coating them and to re-adjust their swimsuits where the tentacle beast's efforts had shifted their fabric.
"Oh, I just like fondling prisoners," the thought-voice of the monster explained, "It's the tasty salt in their sweat, you see, made all more delicious by their fear and revulsion." Oblivious to the Keeper's darkening expression, it continued "also, they feel nice and warm and smooth. No horrid hair. Brrr, I hate hair. That former one was so-"
Ami felt something slimy creep up her lower leg, underneath her black trousers, and her eyebrow started to twitch. With an audible pop of inrushing air, the monster disappeared.
"Huh? Where'd it go?" the redhead fairy asked, shaking her fist. Anise, if Ami remembered her name right. The fairies standing left and right of the brash one looked more worried and put restraining hands on the aggressive fae's shoulders.
With an unpleasant smile, the blue-haired girl answered "Somewhere that should be to its tastes."
Tserk the tentacle monster was briefly stunned by its sudden change of location. One of its eyeballs showed that it was in a prison cell (possibly good), wrapped around someone warm (good), hairless (very good), and scantily dressed (good). However, this initial positive assessment was somewhat ruined by the angrily-blazing yellow eyes (worrisome) set in a red face (meh) over a mouth that bared finger-long fangs (dainty fairy teeth were bad enough). Combine these features with the long, straight horns protruding from the head, however, and the situation went from 'promising' straight into 'oh dark gods save me'-territory.
Note to self: check whether Keeper is in the right mood first next time.
"I'm terribly sorry about this," Ami began, "I didn't know it could squeeze in through the bars." She had her hands clasped in front of her chest while she looked at the wall of hostile faces staring at her with suspicion and distrust from the opposite side of the chamber.
"That thing belongs to you?" the blonde fairy asked unnecessarily.
"Whoever you are, capturing and abducting us could be considered an act of war against the Shining Concord Empire, especially in light of you already trying to run the blockade around the Avatar Islands" the indigo-haired fairy took the lead, "you had better release us before our people come looking for us!"
"Oh, my name is Sailor Mercury," Ami introduced herself, lowering her head in a polite bow, "and I'm afraid that I can't allow you to go. I apologise for the inconvenience."
"Hold on, hold on. I know I have heard that name somewhere before," the green-haired fairy mentioned, rolling up her emerald eyes as she concentrated. A heartbeat later, she went pale and gasped. "Sailor Mercury, as in super-deviant Keeper Mercury?"
Ami massaged her temples, feeling a headache coming, and coloured slightly. "Just Keeper Mercury, please. Those rumours were all based on misunderstandings."
"You are a Keeper! We have been captured by a Keeper," the orange fairy yelped, and promptly burst into tears, prompting the orange one to embrace the shaking girl. The other women paled too.
"Monster! You won't get anything from us, even if you try to bribe us with nice accommodations!" Red shouted.
"Anise, don't make her angry," Cerasse cautioned, putting a hand over her more impulsive sister's face.
"No, she's right," Indigo contradicted, and narrowed her eyes at Ami. "We won't betray our comrades or join you!"
Ami felt that she was rapidly losing control of the conversation. "Calm down! Please! The only reason you are here is that you have learned the weakness of my most important weapon. If it wasn't for that, I would have let you go."
"You are lying! You'd just have killed us if that was the case! Why would you give us a nice room like this and heal us up if all you wanted was to keep a secret? Unless- oh no..." Tilia trailed off, going even paler, and cringed away.
"What? What?" the others wanted to know, voices tinged with horrified fascination.
"Y-you know how she's know for her deviance? W-well, how could she p-possibly resist such luscious, beautiful girls like us?"
"Y-you mean...?" Blue fairy gulped, getting the implication faster than her sisters.
The green-haired fairy nodded sadly. "That tentacle monster? Totally not an accident!"
"Now wait a minute!" Ami shouted, face red like a tomato, "you have it all wrong, there is nothing-" she stopped when a ward affixed to her left hand started flashing. "Oh no, why now? Look, I need to go, we'll talk later!"
The scared fairies, two of which were crying and had to be held comfortingly by the others, stayed behind in the devastated room when the blue-haired girl disappeared without an explanation, alone to ponder their bleak-looking future.
Ami appeared in her private chambers, which she had redecorated so that they resembled her room at home as much as possible, even going as far as putting a large picture of what she could remember of the city's skyline where the window would have been. She ignored it and sat down in front of the crystal ball on her desk, which changed to a view of the sacred fire room at the Hikawa shrine. Immediately, she could make out her friends kneeling in front of the fire. Raven-haired Rei in her red-and white shrine maiden robes had her eyes closed and her index fingers put together as she meditated. Usagi was behind her to the right, and wearing her school uniform, staring intently at the flames. Ami's heart leapt in joy when she spotted the sheet of paper covered in large letters on the blonde's lap, and the stack resting next to her. They had caught on to the signalling idea!
Immediately, Ami summoned one of her prepared signs, which indicated that her friends should learn Morse code that so she could send signals by scrying on Rei in different-length intervals, which the other girl would be able to sense without straining herself. She saw Luna whack Usagi with a paw to remind her about taking notes, and read the questions on their board.
"How are you?"
"Where are you?"
"Please come back to us!"
"Why are you working for Jadeite?"
"What happened to your eyes, and why are youma obeying you?"
At the moment, Usagi was scribbling down another question, making Ami squint at the handwriting. "Who were those winged girls earlier? Please don't be evil, remember who you are."
Before answering, Ami showed a few prepared signs of her own "Is everyone all right? How is the fight against the Dark Kingdom going? How is my mother holding up?"
Then, as quickly as she could, she started painting her answers, going over their questions in order. She noted that Rei was already starting to look tired.
"I'm not in immediate danger at the moment, I seem to be in another world, and I'm still searching for a way home. Jadeite was banished from the Dark Kingdom for his failures and is working for me now. The red eyes are because I accidentally bonded with an evil artefact, which gave me the powers and position of -" she paused in her writing for a moment and searched for a simile that her friends would be familiar with "a dark lord, like Sauron. I don't know how to get rid of it yet, and it has come in useful from time to time. The downside is that heroes, like those fairies I was forced to lock up, are trying to kill me, and no amount of arguing will convince them that I'm not evil."
"We are all right, thanks to Tuxedo Mask," Usagi scribbled on her own paper, barely able to concentrate on it between glances at the vision in the fire, "he's helping us out a lot more now, but we really need it! Please try to get back soon! The youma are working differently now and only going after single targets only. Naru was attacked again! I also went to your mother as Sailor Moon and told her you disappeared during one of our fights, and that we are searching for you! She looked so sad. Do you want me to take a message?" At that point, the pig-tailed blonde ran out of space on her sheet and scrambled for a new one. Ami noticed that beads of sweat had formed on Rei's brow, and she was visibly straining under the effort of maintaining the connection for so long. As much as Ami yearned to continue receiving updates on her loved ones' situation, she had important information that she needed to get across, and reached for a few signs she had prepared in advance. "Here is what I learned about the Dark Kingdom from Jadeite. Their goal is finding something called the 'Ginzuishou', a crystal which will allow them to revive their evil goddess, Queen Metallia, and conquer the Earth. Gathering energy serves the same goal, but it's much less effective. The leader of the Dark Kingdom is Queen Beryl, and she has four generals: Jadeite, whom you know. Nephrite's speciality is monsters and attacks derived from astrology, and he has a rivalry with the third general, Zoisite. Jadeite considers the latter the weakest and most vicious of the generals, but he often works together with Kunzite, who is the strongest. Zoisite uses sharp crystals and likes to teleport around a lot, while Kunzite specialises in barriers, reflecting attacks, and manipulating space. The entrance to the Dark Kingdom is apparently located at the North Pole. I'm sorry I can't be of more help right now."
Ami saw Luna's black tail shoot up in excitement at the information, and she said something to Usagi, who scribbled "Luna says that helps a lot and thanks you! Rei's weakening, but we'll get the book you mentioned, I promise! Take care!"
Seeing the transparent picture in the fire fading out, Ami waved with a smile, and then let out an uncharacteristic whoop of joy. She had done it! She had been able to make contact with her friends! Things were looking up. Elated, she was nearly skipping down the corridor when a voice shook her out of her happy thoughts. "Mercury. You are looking happy. Good news?"
Ami froze, then turned around and looked into the handsome face of Jadeite, who gave her a winning smile. Her heart started beating rapidly. Argh. This silly crush! Not meeting his eyes, she answered rather brusquely "Yes. I finally managed to communicate with my friends. Was there anything else?"
"No, my Lady, I simply wanted to know what brought such a radiant smile to your face."
"I see. Please get back to your work finding a work home, then," the blue-haired girl answered, turning away so the man couldn't see her rosy cheeks.
"As you wish," Jadeite bowed and disappeared in a flash of vertical black lines. When the curly-haired dark general reappeared in his own quarters, the pleasant smile on his face was chased away by a vicious snarl that distorted his features. "Dammit!" A black blast of dark energy vaporised an innocent vase as he vented his anger.
Breathing heavily, he balled his fists. Why was he dropping out of favour? A few days ago, Mercury had started avoiding and ignoring him, turning increasingly to her other underlings for assistance and becoming more and more short-spoken during her lessons. Even being at his most polite and charming these last few days had not helped. He had hoped that approaching her while she was in a cheerful mood would make her more receptive to his attempts at re-establishing his position, but there had been no improvement in her reaction. Try as he might, he could not think of anything he had done to earn her ire. The girl struck him as much less whimsical and prone to mood swings than Beryl though, so there had to be some reason for her behaviour. Well, if this wasn't his fault, and not her fault, there remained only one possibility. Someone else was poisoning her mind against him. The dark general furrowed his brows. There weren't that many candidates that had her trust, so finding whoever was responsible shouldn't be too hard. Oh yes, he would get to the bottom of this, and then somebody would pay.
Black, parched earth bulged upward like a molehill, and then burst apart. The metal of a pick peeked out from below, and then a short labourer poked its bug-eyed head out of the hole it had made and hacked away, widening the tunnel exit. Only moments later, Ami appeared, and the imp respectfully scuttled out of the way. The blue-haired girl took in a deep breath of the morning air and immediately wished she hadn't. The atmosphere was foul - that was really the only way to put it. With a snort, Ami put it out of her mind. After her last conversation with the fairies, she needed to put her energy into something more constructive to distract herself. The seven girls were fearful and distrusted her, and even the offer to let them write to their loved ones had done nothing to make them feel better. With a sigh, Ami put these thoughts aside, and her shadow on the ground separated from her feet when she started levitating. She rose high into the air to see beyond the low ledge that hid this entrance to her dungeon, which was centred on her submarine about five kilometres off the coast to the west.
Floating, Ami got her first good view of the Avatar islands from this elevated vantage point. What she saw shocked her. She had thought that the references to Boris' homeland being an outpost of hell now had been hyperbole. She was surrounded on all sides by sulphurous wastelands and blackened rock formations, broken up only by patches and rivulets of lava that gaped like open, bloody wounds in the landscape. Far away in the distance, she could make out the scorched ruins of a once proud aqueduct, looking surprisingly intact even after fifteen years. But then, there was no vegetation, no nature trying to reclaim the land. Even the cawing of the crows had fallen silent over the years, and Ami couldn't spot a living thing as far as the eye could see. Her gaze wandered upward to the sky that looked like a smouldering furnace. The clouds glowed in tones ranging from rust-red to a poisonous yellow, and swirled around in a giant spiral whose eye was located over some feature of the island that she couldn't see due to the dust. It was everywhere, but more pronounced in the valleys, where it formed impenetrable fog banks.
The senshi boggled. This was what the corruption from dungeon hearts would lead to in the end? Not even the ocean was spared! Its waves were yellow and brackish, and its ground rose to form jagged, needle-like reefs. This was terrible! She needed a way to control or work around this, or otherwise, she would do as much damage as the regular Keepers when she went after them. Finding out how hero dungeon hearts worked had become more important than ever. She still didn't know where to find one, but the abandoned-looking dungeon that her minions had located nearby - the reason for this choice of landing location - was a good starting point.
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|Chapter 49: Dealing with the Blockade Ship||Chapter 51: Dungeon Discoveries|
- though I'm curious how Ami was able to scout out and discover a dungeon on the Avatar isles before even setting foot there.
I was mentioning in one of the previous chapters that she had the warlocks in use the array of crystal balls in the command centre for it.
- , she'd never go for trying to conquer the world.
Actually, she's planning to go after the other Keepers (while looking for a way home), which means conquering the underground. So she's already halfway there ;)
I'll try to address the rest more in future episodes.
- What are the limits [of combining senshi and Keeper soft- and hardware]?
Knowledge, money, skill, scale, and time. Knowledge is self-evident, as Ami can't design something if she doesn't know how. There are, of course, workarounds, as she now has the option to ask her friends at home for help. Money is just the cost in gold that the dungeon heart needs to consume to create the desired room. This goes up with both complexity and raw material value of the created room. Skill (of the ones who create the basic patterns) is more of a subset of knowledge - even if one theoretically knows how to do something, one doesn't necessarily know how to do it well. As an example, a poorly-designed chair may end up wobbly. Scale affects cost. The bigger, the more expensive. Conversely, the same is true for making very small things, as dungeon hearts are optimised for infrastructure creation and maintenance. Finally, time is what's required to research, design, and test a new pattern. It has a tendency to be in short supply for Ami.
Ex: A tube & shell, conjure the inside with her Keeper powers base on chemistry mixing + 1 diagram recorded, instant Mortar & Shell Artillery?
Possible, but inefficient. She would be better off creating an assembly line for it and having them produced the regular way.
Ex: Ship Engines connect to a crude screw propeller system?
That's what her ship is currently using, though it's powered indirectly by the dungeon heart - it fuels the lightning traps which provide the engine with electricity.
I think way back in her spells the book mentions, 'Ever Full Sails', modify if possible, Helium? Keeper made Zeppelin O' Doom? Heh, now thinking of the 'Iron Vulture' in the cartoon 'Tail Spin', Jadeite as the Number One with a crew of Mistresses, armed with Keeper Mercury's reject weapons.