"Don't say a word!" Cathy glared at Jered, threatening him with her pick. The brown-haired man was pressing his hands to his lips, containing a snort that was trying to escape from his inflated cheeks. With an audible hiss, the pent up laughter escaped through his nose instead, and the scar-faced blonde let out a little growl.
"Fine, fine," The brown-eyed man said, raising his hands in a placating gesture, "If it annoys you so much, I'll do the little dance next so you can have a laugh at my expense too."
"It's just so ridiculous," the female soldier said, turning her head with a huff, "but sure. Go right ahead!" She stepped aside, pressing her back against the uneven ice of the freshly hewn-out tunnel. At least it was too cold in here for the ice to melt. Being cold and wet was the last thing she needed.
Little splinters of lose ice crunched under the lean man's boot as he moved forward into the unfinished end of the new excavation. "At least it worked. Look!" He pointed at the ground, toward the border between smooth floor tiles and raw ice. Under the pair's gaze, bumps in the ice melted down and pits filled up until the surface was level, turning into more tiles as the border of claimed terrain crept forward.
"Now it's your turn." Cathy crossed her arms and grinned at Jered, who moved to the end of the tunnel with a resigned look.
"Well, let's get started." He took a broad-legged stance in the centre of the hallway as he faced the wall in front of him. Throwing first his left, then his right knee high into the air, he went through the motions of what looked like a jig, waving his arms in the air as his torso swung back and forth. Soon, he heard the giggles of his girlfriend behind him as he continued with the short ritual, which was designed to draw the magic of the dungeon heart through him as his feet stomped it into the ground, solidifying Mercury's claim on the place. While passably optimised for imp use, the process looked rather ridiculous when performed by a grown human, he thought. Aquamarine-coloured haze rose around his feet as the heart's influence saturated the area and brought it completely into the Keeper's influence. "I could see myself reflected in the wall," the wavy haired man said, grimacing. "I was flinching at the sight the whole time. We need to get Mercury to find us a better way to do this!"
"Oh, but remember that I did have to demonstrate it for you," a voice from the other end of the short tunnel said, startling the two occupants. They turned around in mortification to see Mercury's face peeking around the corner, backlit by the brighter room behind her. She stood in the opening, hiding a light-hearted smile beneath her hand. "But I agree, the procedure looks rather awkward. I think I might be able to design a tool to expand the claim with instead of the dance. A roller, perhaps."
"Mercury! I didn't see you arrive. Are you done consulting your friends for help?" Cathy, who hadn't been the one to do the strange imp-dance when the Keeper arrived, was more amused than embarrassed.
Ami nodded. "Yes, but we were interrupted by one of our enemies." I wish I had known that he had fled by car, then I could have tracked him back to his base. Too bad that the crystal ball doesn't get sound. The concept of a dark general using mundane transport like that seemed odd to her, too. Teleportation was so much more convenient, as she had found out. If she didn't pay attention, she'd get fat and lazy from the lack of exercise. Turning her attention back to the half-finished excavation site, she let her gaze wander over the partly-smoothed walls of the new tunnel. The brickwork looked less precise than the one her imps had worked on, but was quite serviceable. Ami's gaze was drawn to the large bas-relief of a spiralling frost pattern that broke up the repetitive rectangles of the ice blocks. The little triangular scales forming it shimmered purplish, in contrast to the more bluish-green tones of the surrounding ice.
"This is very elaborate. I didn't know either of you was artistically inclined," Ami said, amazement swinging in her voice. To her surprise, Cathy and Jered exchanged a confused look at her praise.
"I thought you designed that?" the blonde asked, raising an eyebrow at the younger girl.
"It just appeared there after we smoothed the wall, like the bricks. I take it that isn't working as intended, then?" Jered inspected the glittering decoration more closely. "Seems to be harmless. Kind of pretty even, in a creepy way."
Ami touched her right earring, dismissing the visor through which she had just taken a closer look at the design. "It's not magical. Maybe it's related to the corruption spikes that showed up on the surface? Well, it shouldn't be a problem..." Ami trailed off, hoping that the patterns growing on the walls like strange mildew wouldn't interfere with the functionality she intended to create.
"So, what's planned for the cave we are digging right now?" Cathy asked, swinging her imp-pick at the ice while Jered compared her progress with the floor plan he was holding. A spray of ice shards crumbled away under the impact of the tool, clattering to the ground and dissolving.
"A provisional living area. Chairs, couches, a dining table, a workbench along the wall," Ami said, and continued with a smile at Cathy, who was shivering despite her thick winter clothing, " and heated, once I get the wiring done."
"Well, what are you waiting for? Get to work!" the blonde barked, using the same tone of voice that she had used while drilling Ami for her upcoming duel. The conditioning held, and with a startled squeak, the blue-haired girl snapped to attention and disappeared into a flash of blue.
No shadowy figures were stirring just outside the wide circle of light centred on the Dark Kingdom's throne. Queen Beryl had dismissed her courtiers and was sitting alone on the seat, her face as expressionless as that of the carved monstrous skull dominating the back wall of the room. The dark queen's purplish-blue dress blended in with the organic-looking rock outgrowths that formed her throne, leaving the brooding queen nearly invisible in the shadows. Only her fiery red hair provided more of a contrast, cascading around her shoulders as she gazed at the staff floating vertically in front of her. A black crystal ball set into its top glowed from within as she moved her hands over it and gazed into its depths.
Soon enough, her lips distorted into a downward curve before she bared her teeth at the sight, revealing two pointy fangs.
The smell of cooked fish permeated the dungeon air, escaping from the recently-added kitchen. Like the living room, it hid the fact that it was hewn out of ice behind a layer of stone bricks that covered every surface. They also covered the electrical cables that powered the stove that dominated the tiny place.
At first, Ami had considered just letting the thick bundle of cables run openly through the corridors, but her natural tidiness and concern for the safety of her companions had convinced her otherwise. Besides, she predicted that she would still be spending some time here, so the gold expense required to clad the walls with an additional layer of stone containing hollows for pipes and cables had been worth it. In fact, it was such an elementary component of all her plans for new rooms that programming it into the dungeon heart had been an obvious first step. The only thing irking her a bit were the strange frost pattern decorations that showed up even on the freshly-created stone. They did provide a certain elegance to the place, but the fact that they appeared without her input was worrisome.
The group of people sitting around the table were displaying various degrees of reluctance in loading their plates with slices cut from the large, steaming slab of meat resting on the central platter.
"I don't know. Shark?" Jered commented, eyeing the morsel impaled on the tip of his fork dubiously.
"It was the first thing that went for the bait," Jadeite said as he cut himself a slice. "A huge one, too. Had to blast it to subdue it. The head alone was this big!" With the pride of a successful fisherman, he spread his arms wide, indicating the size of the body part in question. As he was still holding the knife, Snyder, who was sitting to his right, jerked backward in fear of being accidentally stabbed, and nearly toppled his chair in the process.
"Now, now. Watch the pointy bits!" the acolyte complained.
"Eat before it gets cold," Cathy chided, already chewing on her own piece and rolling it around on her tongue. The female soldier was sitting closest to the heater, a big rectangle of stone with a slider to regulate temperature. Naturally, it was set to maximum, and she was basking in the heat radiating outward from it which she could feel on her back. "Salty," she commented on the quality of the food, "stringy too."
"Well, excuse me for only working with what I had available," Snyder said. "In any case, there is enough left in the larder to try again later."
Ami cut away at her own portion using her good hand and keeping the piece of shark in place with her telekinetic powers. A brief fantasy of Jadeite helping her by feeding her the pieces flitted through her mind, and she hung her head as her cheeks flushed. I really have to talk with him about this. Even if it was only to assuage the fears of her friends. By now, it should have been impossible for him to have missed that she had taken a liking to him, which made working with him feel very awkward. She'd have to bring things out into the open, but the mere thought of that made her palms and forehead feel sweaty and her heart beat faster. If love letters already caused her to panic, how should she deal with something like that?
As she chewed on the unappealing meat, she ignored the banter of the others, eyes still downcast. The blinking glow of the amulet around her bandaged wrist was therefore right in her line of sight. Conversation around the table came to a halt as she sat up and summoned her crystal ball, shoving her helping aside to make room for the scrying device. It was a bit too soon for Rei to be looking in again, she thought, aware of the sudden, tense silence as the others watched her movements. She focused on finding whoever was seeing her, and immediately, the clouds within the clear orb fractured into a multitude of perspectives. In all but one of them, she recognised the brightly-lit greyish tones of this room. She focused on promoting the one remaining view into taking up the whole sphere, and immediately felt the heavier drain on her magic that indicated that she was bridging the distance between dimensions. Her friends, then? Happy that she wasn't being spied on by an enemy Keeper, she was rather surprised to see an unfamiliar woman with long, crimson hair and orange eyes. Two horns jutting from her shoulders revealed, together with pointed ears and small fangs gleaming between deep red lips, that the observer was not completely human.
Jadeite, who was leaning in like the others to get a better look, gasped as soon as he made out the distinctive boomerang-shaped black tiara crowning his former queen's head. "Beryl!"
Ami took her eyes off of the scrying device for a moment, watching his face. Pale from the initial surprise, his expression soon turned into a smug grin that looked rather malicious on his angular features, and he waved at the air mockingly with a white-gloved hand. His other hand, hidden underneath the table, was balling into a fist. In reaction, Beryl - That's the queen of the Dark Kingdom? Why is she watching us? - gritted her teeth and frowned.
"Shabon Spray!" Mercury put an end to Beryl's observation with a spray of bubbles that immediately filled the chamber with rolling fog. The evil queen's scowl deepened as her own crystal ball suddenly showed nothing but greyish-white, and Ami could see the redhead lean back and put her hands on the armrests of her throne as she started thinking.
"Oh great. Now the food is cold," Cathy said from within the cold cloud.
"Beryl has found out that I am still alive. This could be a problem, Mercury," Jadeite said, catching the blue-haired girl's gaze with her own.
"How so? Can she control you in some way?" Ami's worried tone reflected her concern for the curly-haired blond's well-being.
"No, I'm more worried that she will try to interfere. She can be vindictive that way," the dark general said, grimacing at the thought. "If she finds out how to reach this world, she might even send youma after us. While I can deal with them individually easily enough, you probably know already that they can be more dangerous than even the vampires we encountered a short while ago."
Ami sighed and poked at the shark meat in front of her. "We will just have to deal with it as best as we can if it happens." She perked up and smiled with determination, making her eyes flash red as she continued "but if she does, we will use the opportunity to learn the way back home from the intruders!"
Beryl, in the seclusion of her throne room, let out a growl of anger. The information she had been given was right. Jadeite was free. That should have been impossible. Nobody could escape the Eternal Sleep under their own power! He must have had outside help. Maybe that red-eyed sorceress? She was skilled, Beryl admitted, to be able to detect her scrying so rapidly. Who was she, and what did she want with her failure of a general? And how had she known where to find him? And, most importantly, what was Jadeite up to now? This entire debacle reeked of treason. If only Queen Metallia was awake! Something about the spell that the little red-eyed girl had used to hide from her view nagged at the back of her mind, but she couldn't quite remember what it was. Fingers with long nails clawed at the stone of the armrest as Beryl's eyes gleamed dangerously. "How dare he defy me? ZOISITE! Appear before me!"
With barely any delay, a swirl of flower petals materialised in the air, revealing the hovering form of the long-haired dark general. He floated gently to the ground and inclined his head. "My Queen?" A faint smile played around the man's lips as he noted the unusually empty surroundings. A secret mission for him? He could already imagine what this would be about.
"Zoisite. I have verified your information. I want you to question the youma of Jadeite's division and find out what they know. Get to it."
"Queen Beryl, I think it would be beneficial to interrogate Nephrite too," Zoisite said, taking a calculated risk.
Beryl's eyes narrowed. "Explain."
The effeminate-looking dark general straightened. "I know for a fact that he knows about Jadeite's escape. Yet he has not approached you about this, has he?" Zoisite carefully gauged Beryl's reaction. She cocked her head and shifted her weight forward, but did not contradict him. So he had predicted his colleague's reaction, or lack thereof, accurately, and dared continue "Well, he isn't doing so well with collecting energy for our Great Ruler either, despite facing only two senshi. Maybe he doesn't want to succeed? It might be wise to replace-"
"No." Beryl's eyes were near-closed now. "Do as you were told."
"Very well." Zoisite bowed, the motion hiding his pout.
"My, she has been busy," Cathy said as she wiped the sweat from her brow and rested her pick on her right shoulder. She walked past a window carved entirely from polished ice and looked out onto the iceberg's spiny surface. The bare ground, bereft of its snow cover by the constant storm that howled across it, reflected the black thunderclouds racing across the sky. Whenever lightning flashed, the entire area lit up blindingly bright, casting the constructions outside into stark relief. The swordswoman easily recognised the windmills built of solid stone and anchored deeply in the ice for what they were, but the newest construction closest to the window left her puzzled. "I wonder what that strange tower on metal stilts is for?" The woman opened the door leading to the bridge that spanned the short distance between the iceberg's hill and the new building, from whose top steam rose. Icicles hung like stalactites from the hollow tube made of ice that clinked with every step she took. They were met on the ground by stalagmites, and together, they made the whole arching bridge resemble a giant, fanged maw.
"Mercury? What are you doing?" the blonde asked, pulling the metal door behind her with a squeak as she surveyed the room. It was small, but well-heated, and she found the younger girl sitting on a chair, with a C-shaped desk around her. The piece of furniture stood in front of an internal window and bristled with strange levers and cranks, which the young Keeper adjusted from time to time.
Ami answered without looking up from her computer. "Basically, this is a kind of furnace. I didn't want to build it underground because I don't believe that walls of ice, even if they are fortified dungeon walls, could survive that kind of temperature."
"Makes sense," Cathy nodded and stepped closer, which allowed her to see a large upright cylinder through the glass, resting in the room below. A red-glowing spiral wound around it, and she could see turning cogs, like the ones found in a giant clock, powered by weighs that lowered slowly as they turned the upper part of the opaque cylinder. "What is it for?"
"I'm trying to provide us with an income," Ami said. "First, I tried simply conjuring gold with my fabrication spell, but the dungeon heart didn't accept it as the real thing. If we are limited to using mined gold, we will run out eventually, and then it's going to be the Avatar Isles all over again." The blue-haired girl shuddered a bit at the thought. "Even gold from trade would run out after some time. I'm not surprised that most Keepers are using organic dungeon hearts." She took a look through her visor, frowned, and fiddled with a lever, glancing back at the heated cylinder from time to time until she was satisfied.
"So what you doing about it?" Cathy asked, sounding more impatient at the lack of an explanation.
"I'm trying to grow some gems the non-magical way," the young Keeper replied, causing the blonde standing beside her to raise her eyebrows.
"Wait, what? Grow gems? You mean like plants? How does that work?"
"By simulating the conditions under which gems naturally form. In my world, the process I'm using here has been around for about half a century, but it's not easy to replicate. To put it simply, if you melt down the substances that constitute a gem, keep them pure and at just the right temperature, and then suspend an already existing seed gem into the raw materials, the gem will grow slowly." She pointed at the clockwork. "This mechanism is turning the top part of the cylinder, raising it into the ceiling at a constant speed, and lifting the seed crystal hanging from it as it moves. The tricky part is keeping the temperature just right, which is why I am personally overseeing the process."
"And that works?" Cathy sounded dubious.
"I hope so. I have the advantage that I'm working with higher purity base materials than we have on my world, as we lack the magic to just synthesize substances from gold. However, I can't be sure that my makeshift apparatus is going to work."
"What are you growing, anyway?"
"Sapphires. I crushed the one in my tiara into splinters to use as seeds," the blue-haired girl said as she adjusted the temperature controls. "While it's conjured, everything that grows from it should be real."
Cathy watched the moving parts of the furnace slowly turn around their own axis, and got bored of it rapidly. "Sooo, how long will this take?"
"At least two more hours. I'm afraid it wont get any more interesting than this," Ami answered, returning her attention to her computer.
The tension in the treasury could almost be cut with a knife. Ami and her companions were standing along the walls of the place, looking at the black and white chequerboard pattern of the ground. Only a handful of gold bags remained in the corner of the room, as recent infrastructure construction had made quite the dent in the senshi's finances. It was still more money than Ami had ever seen in one place in her own world, but not enough for a Keeper's war chest. Constructing the furnace had been particularly pricey. Thus, she was anticipating the result of her experiment with trepidation. She couldn't even put her hands together in front of herself like she wanted to, because her left arm was still in a sling.
"All right, I'm going to retrieve the results from the furnace now," she announced and focused on seeing the interior of the crucible with her Keeper sight. Her face fell at what she found. Only four of the splinters, arranged in a ten-by-ten grid, had expanded in size and length. The others were gone, dissolved by the heat. With a sigh, she plucked the four unappealing-looking cones of blue crystal from their sockets and transported the still hot gems onto the floor in front of her. As soon as the round objects touched the chequered ground, they cracked and shattered, causing Ami to jump back in fright and mutter "Darn it!" as she watched the small piles of gleaming shards scatter and roll apart.
"Wait, I think it worked!" Jered shouted over the tinkling noises. "Look how they glitter and sparkle!"
In the same way that the treasury transformed sufficiently pure raw gold into minted coins, it had reacted to the presence of the bars of synthetic sapphire by splitting them up into smaller, cut gems, Ami now realised, and her expression brightened.
Quick like a magpie, the wavy-haired man knelt down and picked up one of the pea-sized, multifaceted jewels. "Not a flaw that I can make out with the bare eye," he said as he inspected the blue gem from all angles. These things must be worth a fortune!"
"Whoo-hoo! That means we are back in business!" Cathy rejoiced. She patted Mercury, who was now smiling brightly, on the back, startling the smaller girl and making her take a step forward in order to maintain her balance. "So, I take it you have some spare cash to start working on proper bedrooms now?" She said with a wink.
Ami nodded happily - at least until Jered winked too and said "and if you want to cut down on the costs, you can just room with Jadeite over there,"
"Jered!" his girlfriend chided, putting her arms akimbo. Ami went red like a tomato and looked at the curly-haired blond out of the corner of her eyes. Gods, he was looking back. The talk she dreaded was becoming more and more inevitable.
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