"How long until she turns back?" Jered asked, pressing the mottled chicken in his arms closer to his chest. The hen in question clucked and turned her head so that one beady eye was staring directly at Ami's face.
Small, glowing numbers scrolled over the transparent visor covering the blue-haired girl's face, and a sequence of rapid clicking noises echoed off of the surrounding ice as telekinetic fingers danced invisibly over the Mercury computer's keyboard. "Going by the data here," Ami said, looking at the outline of a woman superimposed over that of a chicken, "right about-"
The wavy-haired man's head jerked backwards in surprise when the quickly-expanding form of the hen pushed his arms apart and gained in size, curves, and weight. With a startled yelp, the mass clinging to his chest toppled him.
"-now. Are you all right?" Ami's good hand went to her mouth as she blinked down at the two figures on the ground.
Cathy slid off of her boyfriend's chest, pulling herself to her feet with the aid of the teenager's outstretched arm. "I'm fine."
"Ow. That's twice today," Jered groaned. Little puffs of condensing breath escaped from behind Ami's hand as she giggled lightly at his predicament. "Yeah, I'm fine too, but the ground is cold. Thanks, Cathy." He stood with the woman's help and rolled his shoulders to work the cricks out of the muscles.
"You know, this wasn't so bad," Cathy said, throwing a wistful glance at the weasel-featured man as she shivered. "At least it was warm with all those feathers and enveloped in big arms. A frown appeared on her brow. "And now, someone tell me what the hell was going on back there!"
"Mercury was ambushed by the fairies she had taken prisoner earlier, and from the looks of it, another Keeper was trying something too," Jered said. "Apparently, they got into each other's way. Lucky for us."
"The fairy interference was my fault. I would not have chosen to return to that location if I had expected them to stick around for a while. My apologies, Mercury," Jadeite said, bowing his head.
"Some of them got hurt badly." Ami let out a sigh. "I hope nobody blames them for what happened. Or blames the priest for healing me." She remembered the face of the portly man as he had stared at her, looking appalled as he faced her to protect the injured fairy on the ground. "I don't think we should return to normal towns unless it's unavoidable, if it leads to people getting hurt."
Cathy's gaze swept over the surrounding ice with disapproval, and she wrapped her arms tighter around herself. "Joy."
"Actually, I would like to bring up that the enemy could only have located us by scrying on us. Finding the location shown in the scrying glass, assuming no prior knowledge of it, is non-trivial," Snyder said, smoothing out his red hair. "I believe that simply not staying in the same location for more than a short time will effectively make it impossible for an enemy to track us down. In any case, they shouldn't be able to pin-point an iceberg surrounded by featureless ocean accurately enough to transport troops here."
"That's a good point," Jered said, "some kind of anti-scrying measure would be useful."
"Can't say I like the thought of Keepers spying on us," Cathy said and wrapped her arm around the brown-haired man's waist, seeking warmth. She alternated from looking at Snyder and Mercury when she asked "Can it be done?"
"It is not impossible," the redhead said, "Azzathra was able to do it for his temple, but he is a dark god."
"It is strange that the dark gods haven't shared those secrets with their followers yet." Jered scratched his chin, which was starting to show signs of stubble.
"Maybe they can't see into scrying-protected regions either and therefore don't let their worshippers know how to do cast that kind of spell?" Cathy said as she leaned heavier against him. "So, can you come up with something, Mercury?"
"Illusions," Ami replied, already typing away at her computer without touching it. The answer drew confused stares from her companions. Looking up and making her visor disappear, she elaborated "there should be no way to distinguish illusions from reality when seen through a scrying device. There is no sound and no touch, so a spy could be deceived." Her enthusiasm waned a bit with her next sentence. "Unfortunately, I don't know how to work large-scale illusions. My Shabon Spray could work for personal protection, but..."
"It would also make everything cold, humid, and slippery in this environment, " Cathy finished for the blue-haired girl, who closed her mouth and decided not to mention other problems, such as sustainability.
"Yes, that too. I will- " Ami paused. "Actually, Snyder and Jadeite, could you please work on that? I will have my hands full with designing rooms and researching the corruption effect."
The acolyte and the dark general exchanged a look. Neither of the two looked too enthused about working together. "Very well."
"What about us?" Cathy asked, nestling up against Jered. Her blue eyes swept over the miniature dungeon, which only consisted of three rooms so far. The dungeon heart chamber, forming the centre of the complex, the treasury holding Ami's modest pile of remaining gold, and the storage room that the group was currently in. The many crates containing the Keeper's books could double as improvised furniture, at least.
Ami seemed taken aback for a moment. "Well, I hadn't really given it much thought yet. Wait, let me try something." Ami waved her right hand, and the group could hear a low tinkle from the treasury as some coins disappeared, and others shifted into the void. A puff off magic sprang from her fingers, coalescing into a child-sized humanoid. It flopped to the ground, landing on its back with a thud, and stared with dim, lifeless black orbs at the ceiling. A pick fell out of the limp fingers and clattered onto the ice.
"Eh? I thought you were unable to make new imps," Cathy said, looking at the unmoving body on the floor. Its discarded pick rose into the air and flew to Ami's waiting hand.
"The evil spirit that should animate it can't get here from the realms of the dark gods," Ami said, "so I get nothing more than a dead body. Its tools are still magical, though. Here!" She took a step toward Cathy, who took the proffered pickaxe and weighed it in her hand, pouting.
"So we are glorified imps now?" she asked for clarification.
Ami nodded. "In a way. I'm sorry, but I don't have any more interesting tasks at the moment, and it's something that needs to be done."
"Oh well." Cathy shrugged and twirled the tool around in her hand. "I suppose digging will keep me warm at least. A pleasant, heated room had better be one of the first things you look into!" Seeing the blue haired girl nod rapidly, the female soldier prodded the dead imp on the ground with the tip of her fur-lined boot. "What about this thing?"
"I'll take it" Jadeite said with a grin, and a long, sturdy fishing pole appeared in his hands. "Let's see if I can't catch us something nice for lunch." Black lines flashed as the dark general disappeared with the corpse.
"Ahem. I don't know if I want to eat anything that would go for that kind of bait," Snyder said with a soft shudder, looking at the others, who had similarly queasy expressions on their faces.
Cathy was the first to come to terms with the idea. "Well, I don't know about you, but I'm not exactly in the mood to have chicken for lunch."
Usagi, wearing her school uniform, panted at the top of the stairs leading up to the Hikawa shrine. The black cat on the blonde's shoulder had to hold on tighter when Usagi bent over and steadied herself against her knees, waiting to catch her breath. "Rei! Any news yet?" she shouted upon spotting the raven-haired girl sweeping the court in front of the building with a broom.
The red and white clad shrine maiden shot her friend an annoyed glance as she shook her head. "You were supposed to be here twenty minutes ago!"
"Sorry! Ms. Haruna put me in detention again and I nearly missed lunch and then the bus left just before I could get on!"
"You are such a meatball head," Rei replied, her shoulders drooping as she followed Luna into the living area of the shrine. The moon cat walked past grandpa Hino, who was waving at Usagi with an enthusiastic smile on his face in between selling good-luck charms to shrine visitors.
"I hope Ami is all right," Usagi said when the two girls and one cat were alone. "I'm so worried about her! Can't you do another fire reading to see if she is all right? Pretty please?" the blonde asked before putting her school bag down in front of the low table.
"Usagi, Rei already tried that the day before yesterday. Can't you see how tired she looks?" Luna said, looking at her charge with as much disapproval as her feline face could express.
"But I'm so worried about her!" the blonde wailed, "I can't stand the thought that she's dead!"
Luna just sighed in agreement and sidled up to the schoolgirl, who was sniffing quietly as she sat sitting down on a mat on the floor.
"Quiet! Quick, get your paper out, I'm feeling something!" Rei shouted, prompting the blonde to turn her head so fast that she nearly gave herself whiplash. Luna barely managed to leap out of the way as Usagi leaned over without warning and started rummaging around in her school bag for a pen and a notebook.
"Ow! Paper cut!" the girl held up her index finger and looked at it, blue eyes going round and watery.
"Don't be such a crybaby! It's Ami!"
"She's alive?" Usagi's face lit up like a sunrise. Injuries forgotten, she launched herself at the red-and-white robed shrine maiden and caught her in a hug. "I'm so glad!"
Watching her friends' antics through her scrying ball, Ami smiled. It felt good to see them, even if she couldn't join them. In the tiny vision, a startled Rei squatting on the ground was berating Usagi for her sudden lunge, but her heart wasn't into it, and the two girls quickly dissolved into relieved laughter. Even Luna seemed elated and did a little leap of joy.
However, the impromptu celebration only lasted for a few moments, and then curiosity got the better of the two girls, and they nearly fell over each other in their haste to take their places on the mats around the table. Usagi's was the first to finish writing down a question and held it up for Ami to see. "How are you?"
"I'm fine now. My left hand is in a sling, but it will be healed in about two weeks." The message telegraphed across dimensions forced Rei to pause in her writing as she jotted down dots and lines on her paper. She shoved it over to Usagi for translation and continued writing on her own sheet, scribbling fast. The tip of her tongue protruded from the corner of her mouth as she moved the pen rapidly over the paper. Luna, who had jumped onto the table, wandered over to see what the long-haired shrine maiden was doing.
"WHAT?" The cat's sudden screech made Usagi cringe and look up from her translation. With her tail straight in the air and her fur standing on end, the black feline stared at the offending question and arched her back. "Rei, what is the meaning of this?"
"That's exactly what I'm asking an explanation for!" The long-haired girl said through gritted teeth.
"Huh? What's going on? Let me see!" Despite crowding Rei, Usagi couldn't get a good look at the question that had caused Luna to get all agitated and walk up and down in front of the sheet, shaking her head and muttering to herself. Fortunately, the black-haired girl raised up the paper so that her missing friend could see it in her scrying device.
"What's going on between you and Jadeite? I saw you sleep in the same bed!"
Ami nearly dropped the crystal ball upon reading the question, and blushed beet red. Had she been there in person, she would have avoided looking into her friends' eyes and stared at the ground while stammering in embarrassment. How did Rei even know about this? Possible denials like "It wasn't what it looked like!" and "Nothing happened!" went through the young Keeper's head, but none of them were precise enough to be worth spending the time to transmit.
Usagi's eyes seemed to bug out at getting that information. "Ami? In bed with Jadeite?" The blonde looked incredulously at the shrine maiden. "Rei, how did you know about this? Did you," Usagi flushed, "abuse the fire to spy on them?" "No! It was an accident!" Rei said, blushing too and scowling at the suggestion.
A moment later, Usagi was waving a new sheet around excitedly, making it hard to read. "Ami? Is that true?"
Luna tried in vain to get the blonde's attention, and had to resort to a quick prick with her claws to make the girl take notice of her. Ami could see the cat dictating something, which her friend noted down. The paper read:
"Ami, he's manipulating you! He is a dark general, and has already deceived you into allying with Metallia! You must resist his advances! Don't trust him!"
"Yes, you can't trust those dark generals! Nephrite is trying the same thing with poor Naru!"
A few minutes later, the two girls and one cat sat over Ami's answer, waiting impatiently for Rei to finish putting the last dots and lines on the paper, while Usagi was already translating the beginning, holding a book with Morse code in his hand.
"Jadeite is not at fault here," the first part read, causing Luna to snarl It's worse than I thought.. "I'm afraid at the time, he didn't even know that I," a large delay appeared before the next word, as if Ami was wrestling with herself to pick a proper term, "like him. I needed a lot of comforting at the time, and my magic instinctively retrieved him whenever he tried to get away."
Silence reigned in Rei's room as the others digested the message. "Oh Ami," Luna shook her head, "you were supposed to be the responsible one. She must be under so much pressure."
"I wish I had the power to just draw a boy I liked to me," Usagi said, daydreaming about Tuxedo Mask. No more mysterious vanishing for him!
"Of course, that would be the only way for you to keep a boyfriend," Rei teased.
"Girls, this is not the time!" Luna interrupted, warding off another brawl before it could start. Rei took the time to compose another message. "How could you fall for JADEITE?" She underlined the words twice on the paper.
"Well, I suppose he is good-looking, even though he's evil," Usagi pondered, seeing the question. "Not as good as Tuxedo Mask of course."
"Usagi, write this down for me," Luna said as she faced her 'owner' and dictated. "Ami, please be cautious. Try to act responsibly and don't do anything you will later regret! Don't let him trick you!"
"Guys? Can we change the topic? I need your help," Ami telegraphed, deeply embarrassed by having her love life, or lack thereof, discussed by her friends.
"Sure. What do you need, Ami?"
"Could you please go to the library and show me some books?" Usagi translated, and her face fell at the thought of spending the afternoon in the stuffy old building.
"What does she need all of this for?" Rei wondered, looking across the stack of books on the table to Usagi, who was sitting sideways on her chair and gazing out of the window. About every two seconds, she turned a page of the open book in front of her that she wasn't even looking at. None of Ami's requested works had all that many pictures in them.
"You can still feel her watching us, right?" the blonde asked, observing the people pass below in the small park in front of the library.
Rei nodded, turning a page of the manual in front of her. "Yes, or she couldn't be recording copies."
A bag on the floor, resting next to one of the book-filled shelves, rustled, and two cat eyes glittered in its unzipped opening. "The electrical engineering and chemistry ones are easy enough to interpret," Luna said, keeping her voice hushed. "She wants to build something, and that world has no modern technology to speak of. I'm not sure what the benefit of the geological and climatological books are, though."
Rei sighed. "I still think Jadeite used some evil mind tricks on her. What do you think, Usagi? Usagi, are you listening?" Before the long-haired girl could get annoyed, she noticed the tense look on the blonde's face. "What's up?"
"I think I just saw Nephrite," the blonde said, not taking her eyes from the window. Both girls quietly looked around the room, finding that they were currently its only occupants.
"Moon Prism Power, Make Up!"
"Mars Power, Make Up!"
"Hold it right there!"
Nephrite, in his guise of Masato Sanjouin, had just struck up a pleasant conversation with his intended victim, and frowned in irritation at the interruption. He hadn't even gotten around to planting his youma yet. The young woman he had been talking to was wearing a yellow hat and matching summer dress, and now looked up at the nearby tree where the voice had come from. On its branches, to the left and right of the trunk, posed two teenagers in very short skirts, one red, one blue.
"Nephrite! The park is a place for people to rest and find romance, not for you to prey on innocent women! I'm the sailor senshi of love and justice, Sailor Moon!"
"And I am Sailor Mars!"
"In the name of the Moon, we will punish you!" the two senshi said together and jumped off of their perch, landing in the grass to both sides of the brown-haired man, who glared at them. He walked backward to bring both of them in his field of vision without having to turn his head.
"You dark generals are the worst! Isn't Naru enough for you? And here you are, already hitting on another woman! Tell me, are you copying Jadeite, or did you come up with that plan first?"
Nephrite cocked his head at the mention of his unfortunate predecessor. "Oh? That doesn't sound like any of his plans that I have heard about. Do tell me more," Nephrite said, crossing his arms. He was honestly curious about what half-baked scheme his late colleague had pursued that had riled up the senshi of fire like this. With a hint of annoyance, he noted that his conversation partner had the good sense of fleeing from the soon-to-be battlefield. Maybe he should have tried denying their accusations?
"Don't play so innocent!" Sailor Mars pointed her index finger at the dark general, feeling her temper flare at the smug expression on his face. "He's doing the same thing as you, trying to seduce innocent girls! FIRE SOUL!"
The dark general jumped straight into the air to avoid the roaring fireball that shot from the red-skirted senshi's pressed-together index fingers. He stayed there, hovering and tossing his hair as he smirked at her. She talks about him in the present? Did Beryl forgive him? The very notion was ridiculous. "Bah, you are not worth my time, little girls." His floating figure shimmered as he disappeared. A moment later, the two senshi could hear tires squeal as his red sports car sped down the road and vanished into the distance.
Within the cathedral-like interior of Nephrite's mansion, the dark general lifted his chin from his fist and rose from his throne. While he was sure that Sailor Mars had been mistaken, her words left him anxious. What if Jadeite really was back? His position could be in danger. "The stars know everything," he intoned, and the ceiling of his mansion faded into darkness, showing a replica of the night sky. Stars and planets circled on their orbits around a larger sphere at the centre. Nephrite closed his eyes as he focused his astrological powers, and a pencil-thin beam lanced out from the central orb and struck him in the forehead. In the dark general's mind, images flashed past. Jadeite, bowing before a short haired teenage girl with glowing red eyes. Him again, instructing the same young woman. A final image of the dark general, floating in the air over alien, spiny ice, his curly blond hair waving in the wind.
"So Jadeite is free," the long-haired dark general muttered with some surprise as he opened his eyes. Not only free, but also under new employment, if the visions were anything to go by. "Looks as if Queen Beryl is losing her touch. Well, good on him!" Now what should he do with that information?
Jadeite escaped his punishment? Kunzite will want to know about this! Zoisite thought and retreated back into the shadows without revealing himself. His usual round of taunting could wait for now. Who would have thought that spying on his rival would reveal such juicy news? Beryl wouldn't be happy, that was for sure. The youngest of the dark generals giggled as he disappeared in a cloud of flower petals.
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