Feeling that the living room should remain a place for rest and relaxation, Ami had built a separate war room for her strategic planning. It didn't differ much from the former, holding just a central round table with five chairs around it. In a nod to aesthetics, Ami had constructed a fake fireplace around the heater, which helped give the small chamber a cosier feel. Instead of wallpaper, a huge world map covered the left wall, and the middle one was hidden by a blank white screen. On the right stood shelves for paper and books, empty except for a floor plan of the dungeon. The accounting book normally located there was lying open in front of Jered, who had a pencil in his hand. He was ignoring it in favour of staring with fascination at the small, electrically powered projector that Mercury had just deposited onto the centre of the table. Once plugged in, a light in its bottom shone through a transparent sheet of paper located above it, and a mirror reflected the image onto the screen on the wall, enlarged and visible for everyone.
"As you can see, these are my current long-term goals," Ami said, taking position to the left of the projection as she addressed her companions seated around the table. The white sling holding her left arm formed a sharp contrast to the black of her suit-like outfit, and a stick floated next to her, pointing at each of the three statements preceded by bullet points for a short moment.
"Get your soul back, get home, destroy the other Keepers," Cathy summarised aloud. "You aren't thinking small."
"Are these listed in order of priority?" Jered wanted to know.
Ami answered with a light shrug. "They are all important to me. Emotionally, I would rate getting home the most urgent, but not owning my own soul has the most terrifying implications. And, logically speaking, destroying the other Keepers is the most pressing of the three, because they are out there, hurting people even now."
"It appears to me that finding a way home would also give you physical access to Metallia," Snyder said. "If she really is as weak right now as Jadeite reported, you might be able to coerce her into releasing your soul, provided that you obtain some power that could threaten a dark god."
"Threaten Queen Metallia? Hah! You have no idea what you are talking about, acolyte." Jadeite said, crossing his arms and shooting the white-and-red robed man a sour look. "She has Queen Beryl and all the forces of the Dark Kingdom to protect her. Getting into her good graces would be far wiser. The Great Ruler's power is insurmountable."
"Which is, of course, why she is in a comatose state right now, relying on others to scavenge energy for her so she can subsist like a leech," the priest-in-training taunted back with a triumphant smile.
"Why, you-" Jadeite balled his fists and glowered at the much shorter man sitting across from him.
Ami raised her right hand pleading for silence. "Jadeite, Snyder, please! Let's keep this discussion civil." Looking at the redhead questioningly, she asked "Do you know of anything that would be effective against a dark god?"
"Well, not directly," the redhead admitted, "the Light could do it, naturally, but channelling its power directly does not seem an option that is open to you. If there is lore that would allow someone to do so indirectly, it has not come to my attention yet."
"The Avatar was the Light's most favoured hero," Cathy said while gesturing at the red and black continent on the map, "maybe some of his knowledge is still present on the Avatar Islands?"
"That would depend on how thorough the Keepers were in searching for those kinds of secrets and destroying them," Jered said. "Given the sheer size of the continent, and the quality of their hired help, it's not impossible that some hidden caches yet remain." The green-shirted man leaned back in his chair, "Of course, the starvation hitting after resources ran out might have been a great motivator for their troops to find what treasures were still left."
"I don't think they would have outright destroyed such things if they found them. It always pays to have some insurance around to keep their patrons honest," Jadeite said, his steel blue eyes narrowing.
"It stands to reason that great heroes of the lands have also learned the best ways to defeat the Darkness," Snyder said, "and of course, there are the various monastic orders." He scratched his chin. "Or maybe the Shining Concord Empire on the southern continent would be able to help. Rumour has it that its lands are protected by powerful white magic and remain untainted by Keeper attacks to this day."
Ami stepped over to the map and looked at the elongated shape of the southern lands, of which only parts of the coast were outlined in any detail. "The ship I encountered was from there," she reminded her companions. "They would have been very successful in stopping me if I had been in a living body at the time."
"They are also infuriatingly secretive and isolationist," Cathy pointed out. "I don't think they would be interested in sharing their secrets, particularly not with us."
"It seems we missed an opportunity when we didn't interrogate those fairies," Jadeite said. "They can't have gotten far yet. I should be able to recapture them, if you wish?"
"Jadeite, that's-" Ami's eyes flashed brighter, and she frowned at him in disapproval. However, her features softened as she gave the suggestion more thought. "The Shining Concord Empire is isolationist, you say?" she asked Cathy, and the scar-faced blonde nodded. "The fairies won't be able to easily make their way home, then?"
The woman nodded again. "There is very little trade between the continents."
"So I put them into a situation similar to my own." The blue-haired girl looked at the ground and sighed. "All right, I owe it to them to help them get back to their own people. Jadeite, you have my permission to find them, but only after we have secured a second base of operations. And don't harm them, they have suffered enough already!"
"As you wish." The dark general inclined his head and smirked in satisfaction. Not that he expected to get anything useful out of those girls, but having a suggestion approved was always a good thing.
Ami closed that tangent and moved on to the next objective. "All right. Getting me back to my own world, then. Any suggestions?" She looked at the faces of her advisers, hoping that one might have an answer.
"I have not been able to open a portal to the Dark Kingdom yet," Jadeite reported, "all of them ended up connecting either to the Underworld or to chaotic nothingness."
"Don't look at me, I'm a fighter, not a wizard," Cathy said, rolling her eyes.
"Most major cities do have a Wizard's College," Jered pointed out. The weasel-featured man adjusted the dagger-filled bandoleer that was pressing uncomfortably into his shoulder as he strained to keep Mercury, who was standing nearly directly behind him, in his sight. "That's where most of the more exotic research takes place. Of course, with you being a Keeper, you'd have to trick them in order to get anything of use out of them."
"Or simply conquer them," Jadeite suggested.
"That might work too," Jered conceded, "but I wouldn't put it past them to destroy their knowledge, rather than let it fall into evil hands."
"Ah, yes, that is also common procedure for the followers of the Light," Snyder said, "not that I have heard anything about the kind of magic you are searching for. Quite to the contrary, really. Wards are, after all, intended to strengthen barriers, such as those between worlds, not tear them down."
Ami shook her head. "I'm not going on a conquering spree and starting a reign of terror if I can help it." The blue-haired teeneager sighed. "It sounds as if I'll have to research a way to get home myself, unless Beryl sends us an unexpected windfall." The pencil lying in front of her unoccupied seat took down a note regarding this. "That leaves destroying other Keepers as the most achievable and most pressing goal."
Cathy snickered. "Says a lot about the others, doesn't it?"
Jered ignored the blonde and nodded in Mercury's direction. "You are actually in a fairly strong position. The only dark god you need to care about is in no shape to interfere, your current location is untraceable, you have an unlimited source of wealth, and you have the food problem solved. And that's not even mentioning the strange stuff you are doing with this 'electricity' thing."
"All of which is kind of counteracted by her total lack of an army," his girlfriend interrupted.
"She has the logistics and is a Keeper. Attracting an army should be simple for her."
Ami stepped forward and walked around the table. "I'm not so sure about that. I don't want any creatures that will gleefully kill or murder innocents. That really cuts down on the available options."
"Ask Metallia for youma," Jadeite suggested. "She may need a few gifts as encouragement, but youma are pretty much superior to any of the creatures we have encountered so far."
Ami wasn't so sure about that. To her, the horned reaper and the dragon seemed to have been much harder to injure down than any youma she had encountered here. Then again, her powers were not that destructive. For a brief moment, she imagined Sailor Moon's tiara bisecting the red monstrosity, and felt a fierce satisfaction at the mental picture.
"They are also smart enough to follow your orders to the letter, and can use their abilities non-lethally, if you so desire," Jadeite continued.
"I disagree. Depending so much on the favour of a dark god, that you are not particularly serious about serving in the first place, is a recipe for disaster. I would suggest that you adapt your research into animated armour and make weaker but mass-producible models." Snyder glowered at the dark general as he spoke, unhappy with the direction the evil man was trying to coax Mercury into.
"Those sound both like viable options," Ami said, looking at the desk as she continued in a thoughtful tone of voice "but the armours would still need operators, and I don't want to do anything that would cause Metallia to awaken faster. Sorry, Jadeite."
"Beryl will have no such qualms," the dark general said, crossing his arms as he looked at her.
"Let's exhaust the other options first," the young Keeper said, not meeting the man's gaze. "Jered, what do you think?"
Prompted such to give an opinion, the man spoke "I think hiring the regular monsters from the Underworld would be the most efficient course of action. Trolls and orcs are smart enough to follow orders, and if you can keep them entertained and well-fed, they won't feel all that bloodthirsty."
"Ahem. I foresee some problems when they notice the lack of imps. They may not be willing to follow such a deficient-appearing Keeper." Snyder said. The acolyte put his hands on the table, pushing his chair backward so he had more room. He gestured toward the world map. "We will also need to seize locations close to Underworld portals."
"Unless we can handle transport differently," Ami said as she summoned her computer and flipped open its cover. "Is there a pattern to the portals' occurrence?" Taking into account the knowledge she had plundered from the late Keeper Malleus' mind, she expected the answer to be negative.
The others confirmed her suspicions with mute shakes of their heads. "There are none recorded in undersea areas, but that's the only immediately obvious conclusion that has been drawn about their distribution in the literature that I have been exposed to," Snyder amended.
"Is that because none have been found, because nobody has built any there, or because no appropriate locations exist?" Ami asked for clarification, but got only a shrug from the redhead in response. "Something to investigate, then." She jotted a note down on her list. "That leaves selecting a proper staging area."
"Well..." the others focused their attention on the world map.
Following their gazes, Ami said with a pained expression "I can't go to inhabited lands. As long as I don't have full control over the corruption, I will be doing as much long-term damage as the Keepers I will be defeating would have done."
"I don't see the problem. Just turn off the dungeon heart once you have beaten the enemy," Cathy suggested dismissively.
"I can't," Ami confessed, "the crystal type heart doesn't have a sleep mode like the organic type. As with all of its magic, its connection to the Keeper is much more solid than for the organic type."
"What? Why didn't you take care of that when you designed it?" the scar-faced blonde all but shouted as she half-rose from her seat.
The blue-haired girl cringed. "Please realise that the dungeon hearts are incredibly complex artefacts and that I have no formal magical education. Yes, I made a few adjustments to the design I managed to reproduce, but it's basically a copy! I know how to create it and how to modify some of its easier accessible properties, but most of its internals remain enigmatic to me. And the connection to the Keeper is one of its most deepest-rooted functions."
"Great." Cathy muttered, sinking back down into her chair.
"This makes the hearts a huge liability," Jered said, tapping his pen against the table repeatedly as he digested the new information.
"Um, it's not impossible for me to shield myself against the effects of being banished into the dark gods' realm when one of the hearts is destroyed," Ami said, raising her healthy hand in a placating gesture even as she paled, "at least theoretically speaking. I will need more data to work with, though."
"Ah, yes. As I can hardly imagine that you would be willing to experiment on yourself, that would mean crushing the hearts of other Keepers. That is a plan that I have not the slightest objection against," Snyder said, relaxing.
"Well, that doesn't leave many choices. Useful choices, that is. The North and South Pole are not inhabited, and neither is the ocean, but they are also far from anything useful." Jered analysed, his eyes still on the map.
"My wind power plants won't work underwater," Ami added.
"I can't believe I'm suggesting this," Cathy said with a fake shiver, "but what about another iceberg? Rather than have it as a secret hideout and treasure chamber, make it a warship, and dock wherever you need a portal or want to experiment with corruption."
"That's the best idea so far," the teenager nodded. "Yes, I think that's what we'll do."
"That leaves another important decision, though," Jadeite said, "where do we strike first?"
The question took Ami by surprise, and she covered her mouth with her hand and stared at the map. After a minute of silence, she decided "Zarekos. I need the secrets of the Avatar Isles, there are no innocents that could be caught in the crossfire, he's using the same type of dungeon heart as I am, and my corruption cannot ruin the country any further." Taking a deep breath, she added in a more resigned tone of voice "It will also provide enough space to lock any prisoners away in humane conditions when the misguided defenders of the land inevitably attack me. Darn it."
"Quite a difficult target." Jadeite paled at the memory of the swarm of frenzied bloodsuckers and rubbed his neck without consciously noticing that he did.
With red-flashing eyes, Ami promised "We will be better prepared this time. Much better."
"Indeed. I shall get in contact with my old associates and see what I can find out about killing vampires," Snyder said as he stood up.
Rising as well, Jered offered "Give me the crystal ball and I shall see if I can find your old minions and rehire them."
"Not the mistresses!" Ami and Snyder shouted as one, then looked at each other in surprise.
Behind them, Cathy giggled. "I'll try to make us some money in the meantime. As for you, Jadeite," she winked at the grey-uniformed man, "I believe it's your turn to cook."
Sitting at the table in the warm living room, between piles of books that surrounded her like ramparts, Ami worked at her palmtop, refining the blueprints for the rooms her dungeon heart could construct.
"Mercury? Can I talk to you for a moment?"
"Yes, Jadeite? What can I do for you?" Ami put away her computer and swivelled in her chair, blushing lightly at the sight of the curly-haired blonde. It was uncommon for him to seek her out alone. What could he want?
"Actually, I wanted you to continue your magic lessons. Beryl might try something, and you are quite vulnerable with neither your freezing spell nor the golems to protect you."
He's concerned for my safety! Ami's heart made a joyous leap. Of course he is, the less hormonal part of her mind chimed in, you are his only chance at survival and revenge.
"Thank you for worrying about me, Jadeite," the blue-haired girl said with a smile, "but you are partially wrong. I can still cast the Shabon Spray Freezing, I just have to draw it out over several seconds."
"That is too slow to be useful in combat," the dark general cautioned and stepped closer.
"I pre-cast the spell and put some instances into storage for later use," Ami said and stood up. "I have also developed a new trick. Do you want to see it?" the blue-haired girl's smile was positively impish now.
"Oh?" Jadeite raised his eyebrows and made a "go ahead" gesture with his gloved hand.
"All right. Shabon Spray!" The senshi spun in place, tumbling a bit to the side due to having her left arm immobilised, and released a spray of azure bubbles from her right hand.
The bubbles burst, filling the air with an impenetrable greyish-white fog that spilled out into the corridors. Jadeite felt the temperature drop, and could only make the short girl out as an indistinct silhouette standing less than three steps away. "I already know that-" he began with a smirk, but stopped when he felt a draft. Before his eyes, the fog billowed and streamed toward Mercury, becoming less dense as more and more airborne moisture gathered to her left. In the time it took him to blink, all of the murk had disappeared and coalesced into a gurgling, transparent hand. The disembodied limb stood on its fingers, resembling a watery spider that reached up to the blue-haired girl's waist. He took a step back when the thing rose into the air, wavering as it did. "What is that?"
"It's my Shabon Spray, compressed into that shape with my Keeper powers and the telekinesis you taught me," Ami said and made the fingers of the hand curl. "In essence, it's just water, but I use it as an intermediary to apply my Keeper powers even to things that don't belong to me." Some of the happiness faded from her face. "I came up with the idea when going over the battle with the Reaper. Instead of controlling a weapon, I could control something that can't be taken away." Her cheeks coloured a bit from remembering that he the curly-haired blonde had seen her topless during that situation, so she hastily continued. "I don't have perfect control yet, but..." the liquid hand flashed into position before her without crossing the intervening space, fingers held up and palm facing the dark general. He could see her black-clad form through the obstacle, distorted by the clear water. "... it's enough to protect myself with." The hand formed into a giant fist and slammed into the ground, shattering the thin layer of stone and cracking the ice underneath. Ami stared at the debris-strewn crater sheepishly and scratched her head. "Oh. I overdid it a little."
"Intriguing," Jadeite said, his ears ringing from the noise of the impact as the rising dust cloud coated the bottom of his trousers with grey. "But how well does it work outside of your own territory?"
"It's made entirely by magic, so I can store and retrieve it at will on neutral territory. I won't be able to do that on enemy land, but other than that, it should work fine. The crystal heart's arcane might is higher than that of the organic type, and it should be able to brute-force most spells even into hostile territory."
"Ah. So you don't want to continue the lessons, then?"
Was that a hint of disappointment in the blond's voice? "I didn't say that," Ami replied quickly. "I'd be grateful if you continued teaching me. I still have a lot of questions concerning the finer points of telekinesis."
"That's good to hear," Jadeite said, and the corners of his mouth curved upwards just a hint. It was a small smile, but it still made Ami's heart flutter, as it was the first one that had reached his eyes. "Well then," he said with a mock bow, holding his right arm over his chest, "let's go and assess what you can do with your newly discovered ability!"
|Previous chapter:||Next chapter:|
|Chapter 62: An Awkward Talk||Chapter 64: Construction Work|