Ami swept her gaze over the churning sea toward the east, where a red slice of sun peeked out over the curvature of the horizon. Clouds like candyfloss surrounded the glowing disk, forming stripes of orange and pink in the light blue morning sky. A few strands of blue hair peeked out from underneath her woollen cap and whipped in the winds, the same way as the ends of her scarf did. The girl's gaze rose higher, lingering for a moment on the darker tones where a handful of stars still twinkled faintly between the increasingly dense cloud cover. She could almost make out the border upon crossing which the individual puffs of water vapour piled onto each other, turning malevolent shades of deep purple and shadowy blacks as they got close to her iceberg.
"Mercury?" a bleary voice asked from behind. Cathy approached, leaving deep depressions in the snow with her fur-lined boots. Like the blue-haired girl, she was wrapped in a thick winter mantle, and she leaned into the storm as she approached. "What were you thinking, just leaving a message in your room back at the inn and teleporting here? It's too early and too cold!"
"I couldn't sleep," Ami mumbled through the pink cloth of her scarf, having to raise her voice to be heard over the howling of the gale. "So I came back here and worked."
Cathy's expression softened, even though her eyes still squinted to protect themselves against the fast-moving snowflakes that the tempest was pelting her face with. "Bad dreams?"
Ami nodded and hung her head, and the blonde soldier standing to her left could see the dark circles underneath the young Keeper's eyes when the dim sunlight struck her face head-on during the motion.
"Well," Cathy continued after an awkward pause, "that still doesn't explain what you are doing out here, especially in this weather! Jadeite took one look at it and decided to remain indoors."
If the blonde had hoped that the mention of Ami's crush would entice the younger girl to return to the subterranean safety of her dungeon, she was sorely disappointed. "I am trying to remodel the corruption effect, so I'm checking out how well it is working," the blue-haired girl replied.
Cathy looked around and moved aside, seeking shelter from the storm in the lee of one of the many pointy, tooth-like ice crystals that protruded from the ground everywhere, as if the iceberg had sprouted a forest of stalagmites overnight. "Ah. I had been wondering about those things." She put a gloved hand on one of the smooth facets of the structure, which loomed about twice as tall as she was. Her reflection, bent and twisted within the ice, returned the gesture. Behind it, she could see the distorted disk of the rising sun through the thick ice as if she was looking through violet-stained glass. "However-" she was interrupted by a bright flash of light flaring up within the low-hanging clouds. For a moment, it seemed to suck the colour from the world, turning the landscape into jagged and contrasting black and white contours. Rolling thunder competed against the roar of waves as tall as a house breaking on the shore. Startled, the blonde gulped and settled on a court "Better luck with the next try, then."
Ami's red-glowing eyes lit up with a smile, recognisable even behind her scarf. "Actually, this is an improvement", the girl commented cheerfully.
Cathy grimaced and cocked her head. "I don't think I want to know what it was like before the iceberg decided that it should be a hedgehog and have a pet storm," she said after a moment of deliberation.
"Calmer," Ami admitted. "But I think I got what I wanted. Well, not the ice spikes. They are more of a side effect, and I'm not even sure yet why they showed up," she said, peering at the offending tree-high outgrowths bemusedly, "but the tempest is almost what I was trying for."
"An active defensive measure?" the blonde in winter clothing asked, pulling her mantle shut tighter around herself.
"Oh, I suppose it does that too," the senshi muttered, "but that wasn't my goal."
"Well, what is the point of having a storm overhead making this patch of ice even more inhospitable?" Cathy wondered, pulling her cap deeper into her face and wishing she could go back to the nice, windless tunnels, or even better, back to the heated inn.
Ami didn't notice the blonde's discomfort and gesticulated with her healthy right hand at the sky as she explained "It's more of a side effect. In the first place, I just wanted to stop the corruption from poisoning vegetation, people, and animals. Unfortunately, there is no way to just turn it off, even with my improved dungeon heart, so I had to redirect it so it manifests as something else instead."
"So now it's going to rip out trees by the roots instead and remodelling the landscape. Excellent work," Cathy drawled. Her deadpan tone indicated that this was not necessarily an improvement.
"I think it would have done the latter anyway," Ami pondered, "remember what the Avatar islands looked like? All of that lava didn't appear on its own. This way, the corruption is at least not killing anything directly."
"Emphasis on 'directly'," the swordswoman snorted and let her gaze wander over the windswept ocean. "Can you use it as a weapon?"
The blue-haired girl shook her head. "No. Maybe. I'm sure that I have only scratched the surface of what is possible, but there is a lot about this corruption that I don't understand yet. The more I try to control one particular aspect, the less other aspects do what I expect. I mean, the ice thorns only appeared after I started messing with the poisoning effect, and none of my calculations predicted any of that. Also, I am not willing to perform risky experiments here on the iceberg holding my last dungeon heart to find out. "
"Okay, but I don't understand why you started out working on the corruption, rather than trying to get some rooms up and running. It's damn cold in this place," Cathy complained with chattering teeth. "I feel like there's icicles growing on my nose! Oh, sure, it's progress, but something more immediately useful would have been preferable."
"Ah, but I did get something useful out of this," Ami corrected her. Both girls felt a momentary disorientation as the young Keeper moved them to the foot of the swimming island's hill. Cathy was briefly distracted by her boots sinking deep into the local snowdrift, and waved her arms to keep her balance. A glance over at Mercury showed that the girl was avoiding that difficulty by floating a hand's width above the ground.
"It's useful for that!" Ami shouted, her mantle fluttering in the wind, and lifted her right hand over her head to point up the hills's flank. Lightning flashed in the clouds above, turning the flying girl into a frayed black silhouette against the brightness of the sky. Some larger shadows moved further up on the icy mound.
Cathy blinked while the thunder rumbled, taking in the unexpected sight in front of her. Sounding underwhelmed, she muttered. "Oh. Great. You made a storm, so you decided to build a windmill to go with it. I'm sure it will come in handy if we find ourselves in possession of a large amount of grain for some reason."
"Oh, right, I had forgotten that's what you use them for in this world," Ami sounded amused, rather than annoyed at the casual dismissal of her achievement. Above, the massive blades of ice rotated rapidly in the gale, affixed to a base that protruded like a rounded bunker from the hillside. "Let's go inside, I'll show you what I need it for."
The swordswoman brightened at the prospect of getting out of the freezing wind, even if Mercury's statement left her confused. What else would you use a windmill for? With rising curiosity, she waited for the familiar jerking sensation that signified a Keeper transport. The moment she felt solid ground under her feet, she also noticed the short-haired girl's right hand clamping down hard on her left upper arm.
"Please don't move from this spot, this place can be dangerous," Ami warned, speaking up to be heard over the rattling and grinding of the machinery that occupied the upper parts of the cylinder-shaped room.
"Whoa!" Cathy had expected the interior of the windmill to be cold and dark. Instead, it was warm enough that meltwater was running down the ice walls of the building, and lit bright as day. The colour of the flickering light reflecting off of the chamber's curved surfaces was harsher than torchlight, or even natural sunlight. The blonde looked up toward the source of the light and noise. She saw the expected cogs and gears, spinning rapidly and making a racket, but they only registered as a pale distraction next to the more unexpected feature of the room. A massive bolt of crackling lightning arced between two iron studs, which were connected to a strange whirring metal device with gleaming cables. What amazed her most was the fact that the phenomenon persisted in place, not going away like natural lightning - or even the bolts fired by trigger-happy Keepers - would. "You are somehow extracting magic from the storm with this windmill?" she asked after closing her gaping mouth.
"Not magic, just power," Ami explained, her face pale in the quivering light. Outside, the rotating blades of the windmill were faint shadows visible through the transparent walls behind her. "Electricity. Much less flexible than mana, but essentially free. This place is more of a proof of concept design though, and it won't be able to take the stress for much longer. I built it using my fabrication spell and brittle materials, such as shaped ice, to keep the costs down. It's also not connected to anything right now."
"I see," Cathy lied, having no clue what persistent lightning could be used for, "so, what can you do with it that makes it more important than having proper rooms?"
"Well, you know that my crystal dungeon heart doesn't provide mana, right? So in order to move this iceberg to some place where I can mine more gold, I would first have to spend gold to power the magic. And this floating island is so large and heavy that I would run out of gold before we had even moved out of sight of our current location."
"It doesn't look that big," Cathy objected, sounding rather surprised.
Ami summoned her Mercury computer and held it in her right hand. Her bandaged left hand was still hidden under her mantle, itching while the healing magic she had received in the inn the evening before continued doing its work. It would take around two weeks to fully restore the appendage, or so she had been told. The palmtop snapped open, and unseen fingers hit the keys. Ami felt a guilty warmth in her chest as she thought of Jadeite and his telekinesis instructions, which allowed her to function well even with only a single working hand. She angled the display so that Cathy could easily see it. On the screen, a schema of the iceberg appeared, with a horizontal line indicating the water level. "Here, you can only see this part, the rest is under water," Ami said, indicating the seventh part of the drawing that was above the line. The entire thing weighs," more keys clicked without anyone touching them, "about two billion times more than you."
"No mistake?" the blonde wondered, her blue eyes going wide. The number was too high to register as anything but abstract knowledge, just a word far removed from anything she had ever experienced in normal life. However, the fact that Mercury's tool could figure out how much she weighed mildly offended the blonde's vanity.
Ignorant of her companion's thoughts, Ami elaborated "At first, I was only trying to work around the corruption somehow, but then I got the idea that I could harness it. Turning the Avatar Isles into the scorched wasteland it is today must have required an enormous amount of energy, and if I can tap into even a fraction of that, I'll be able to move this dungeon without consuming any of the gold at all." The blue-haired girl finally took notice of the blonde's long face, and scratched the back of her head with her right hand, dismissing the computer in the process. "I guess you want to hear about some less abstract benefits. How do running hot and cold water, smoke and smell-free lighting, and adjustable temperature for every room sound?"
"That's possible? Why didn't you say so right away? I approve completely!" the female soldier cheered and thrust her fist in the air.
"Well, I still need to actually design the rooms, but adding cables and pipes to the basic-" Ami tried to curb expectations, but was interrupted by an enthusiastic pat on her back that nearly toppled her.
"Worry about that later! Let's go back to the inn, we are missing breakfast!" Cathy suggested, tugging insistently on the smaller girl's sleeve.
"I can transport you back, but I'm still full from yesterday's celebration," Ami answered, lowering her gaze.
"Bullshit! You barely touched your meal. You didn't defeat that Reaper just so you could get done in by a lack of appetite! I'm making sure that you are eating right, and that's final!"
Within an open pavilion supported by eight slender marble pillars, a blue-haired woman wearing a knee-length white dress over a leotard of same colour moved her fingers in a circle above a basin filled with clear liquid. Golden dust dripped down with each movement. "There, yes. Concentrate... Got it!" Alerted by her exclamation, five similarly-dressed figures hurried to her side from all corners of the well-tended garden. The sixth hopped down from the edge of building's dome, beating her insect-like wings to soften her landing on the dew-covered lawn.
In front of the first fairy, the vision of Jadeite's face, hazy around the edges, appeared to ripple as the trembling of the flat pedestal sent waves through the water. Unaware of the surveillance, the dark general moved a piece of bacon impaled on a fork into his mouth and started chewing.
"Let me see!" Melissa, who was concentrating on the bowl of water resting between two lit red candles, shook when her sister Dandel bumped into her from behind. Only moments later, five more heads with similar high cheekbones and triangular faces leaned in and formed a circle above the scrying device.
"Oh, there he his! Cute!" Anise squealed in delight.
The more observant green-haired fairy ignored the red-head's exclamation. "He's not in the dungeon right now, is he? That looks like daylight. Melissa, zoom out a bit!"
"Yes, looks like some kind of tavern. Maybe he has already gotten away on his own after freeing us?" Roselle hoped, leaning in so closely that the left candle threatened to set her orange hair on fire.
"He has company," the blonde fairy pointed out.
"You are right. Hey, that short-haired blonde also looks to be about as tall as you, Camilla. Reminds me of someone - wait, that's the Keeper, except with different hair and eye colour!" Within the vision, Mercury was poking wearily at her food and glancing around nervously.
The flames of the candle flickered from the resulting shocked gasps. "See how she stares at him greedily whenever he's not looking at her?" the redhead whined, balling her fists in envy.
"Why does a Keeper disguise herself and eat in a tavern?" Tilia, the green-haired fae, wondered.
"Maybe she likes to eat out once in a while?" Camilla thought out loud. The youngest of the fairies eyed the milk, honey, bread, and slices of bacon spread out on the table within the vision with great interest, and could feel her mouth water.
"Don't be silly! She must be plotting something! We must warn the locals!" Dandel took the lead.
"And save that poor misguided hunk from her clutches," Roselle added, and shouts of 'yes' and 'indeed' resounded around the place.
"And the tentacle monster, too!"
In the sudden silence, the sound of fairies shuffling away further from their violet-haired sister was clearly audible. "Cerasse, you worry me sometimes," indigo-haired Dandel sighed.
"But I had just trained it to-"
"I don't want to hear it! That thing is disgusting!" Anise interrupted, pressing her hands over her ears. Never mind that there wasn't enough elbow room around the pedestal, which resulted in angry mutters from her jostled neighbours.
"Ladies, can we focus on the task at hand, please? Melissa, can you zoom out and see where this place is?" Dandel put a stop to the growing argument before it could further disrupt the proceedings.
"I can try, but everything in this land looks pretty much the same to me," the blue-haired fae replied. In the mirror-flat surface of the water, the vision of five people having breakfast around a table dropped downwards and was replaced first by a dusty attic and then by a straw-covered, pointed roof with a smoking chimney built from reddish brick. The vantage point in the water-filled basin rose higher, revealing a wooden stable attached to the right side of the building. Half-enclosed by the L-shape formed by the two structures was a courtyard with a well. It became smaller as the point of view shifted further upwards.
"Hold on," Cerasse scrunched up her brows as she looking down on the small town, consisting of about three dozen buildings with thatched roofs built haphazardly around a central marketplace. "They are here!" she concluded in a shrill tone of voice.
"Shush! Don't wake the priests, who were nice enough to let us stay overnight at this shrine," the indigo-haired leader of the group ordered. "Are you sure?"
"Yes! Look, that's us over there, in the garden," the violet-haired fairy pointed out, putting any doubt to rest.
"Can't argue with that evidence. What's the plan?" Tilia asked, brushing her green bangs back behind her triangular tiara.
"We need to act quickly, you know he can teleport!" Anise said immediately. "We can't let this opportunity pass!"
Exasperated, Dandel caught the redhead by the tip of her wings when she tried to storm off. "Not so fast. Keeper Mercury is with him, and we have all seen first-hand just how powerful she is."
"Ow! That hurts, you know! She won't be as strong without her home field advantage!"
"Yes, and we know her weakness! She was a lot less resistant after Camilla splashed her!" Roselle added, slamming her fist into her open palm. Her orange eyes sparkled with satisfaction as she remembered blasting the blue-haired devil with a surprise blast of lightning that had forced the monster to retreat.
"We have to enlist the help of the priests, too" Cerasse decided. "They can try to undo the brainwashing while we distract Mercury, or maybe stop him from escaping!"
"Sounds good!" The circle of fairies looked into each others eyes, finding their own determination mirrored within their sisters' gazes. They all nodded as one. "Let's do it!"
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