Ami's head jerked aside, out of the way of the fist-sized white projectile that passed so close to her left ear that she could hear its whistle even through the woollen cap she was wearing. She lowered her altitude until her boots nearly brushed against the snow covering the steep-sloped hill beside her. With its flank protecting her back, she searched the sky for her opponent. Four white streaks against the blue background darted toward her, their movement drawing her gaze as they curved around to come at her from different angles. With a faint splash, the first of the snowballs struck a large floating hand, sending ripples over its surface. The human-sized disembodied limb swerved through the air in an arc and slapped two more of the incoming balls aside, then disappeared. It intercepted the last of the snowballs just before it struck Ami, and she watched its powdery mass break apart and dissolve in the clear water.
A chuckle drew her gaze back down to eye level. Jadeite shimmered into existence about a stone's throw away, hovering in the air. "Not bad, not bad." His grin widened, and he curved the fingers of his left hand upward. Globs of snow lifted from the ground, gathering into a set of five snowballs that levitated in a horizontal line in front of him. "But can you stop this, too?"
Ami stared at his projectiles, waiting for the slightest twitch that would give away their course, and held her watery hand at ready to her right. Faint clouds of condensed breath appeared in front of her face as she leaned forward, prepared to dodge or block at a moments notice. She only noticed the faint rumbling from above when a shadow fell over her, and then it was too late. "Gah!"
The miniature avalanche flowing down the hill rose like a wave breaking on the shore before crashing down on the blue-haired girl and swallowing her, carrying her along. Jadeite watched with amusement as the mass of snow continued on its way down, with one of Mercury's arms or legs sticking out of the main cloud from time to time as she rolled downhill. She finally came to a rest in a large bank of churned snow at the foot of the slope.
Ami's back parted the snow as she surfaced from beneath the thin layer covering her and pulled herself to her knees and elbows. She frowned at the floating blond through the wet bangs dangling in front of her eyes. "Why you!"
With a gurgling noise, rivulets of glittering water rose from the wet snowdrift around her, reforming into the large, liquid hand. Without hesitation, it slapped the piled up snow with its back, spraying a cold sheet of whiteness into Jadeite's direction. The curly-haired blond chuckled as he teleported out of its path, reappearing on top of the hill.
"Better luck next time!" the dark general floated above the ground with his hands behind his back, puffing out his chest and smirking down at the snow-covered girl. His cheerful expression wavered a little as the giant hand scooped up a ball of snow fit for its size and tossed it up and down, as if to measure its weight. "If you think you can hit me with that, then-"
Something white emerging from a flash of blue directly in front of him, growing until it filled his entire field of vision within a split second. Sparkling red eyes glowed above a victorious smile as the freezing cold impacted his face and filled his half-open mouth. Flailing his arms, he toppled over and landed with his rear in a snowdrift. He coughed and sputtered as he sat up. Seeing the steely-blue eyes blinking at her through a mask of snow, Ami couldn't help herself and started giggling, hiding her mouth behind her hand.
With a swipe of his grey sleeve, Jadeite wiped himself clean, revealing furrowed brows and clenched teeth. His skin was red, either from contact with the cold ice, or from the anger. He glared up at the girl, prompting another fit of giggles. His expression mellowed as he stared at her extended hand. The corners of his lips twitched as he gripped it and let the girl help him to his feet, and a short laugh managed to escape. "Stole my distraction trick? Well, they do say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery." He stood, and Ami suddenly noticed how close they were to each other, and backed away with a faint blush. "However, we should probably get back to work."
"Yes, we should," Ami agreed, and her feet lost contact with the ground as she followed the dark general higher into the frigid air. She still couldn't quite believe that she was flying under her own power, despite having done it several times before. There was a large difference between floating within a cavern and doing the same under the clear sky, though, and the view of the sunlit Arctic was breathtaking from up here. She would have to share this skill with her friends when she got home! With a wistful smile, she decided that Usagi's instruction would have to take place indoors to take her clumsiness into account.
"That one looks as if it could fit our needs," Jadeite called to her, shouting over the wind rushing past as they flew.
Shaken from her musings, Ami followed his outstretched index finger with her gaze, and found a tongue of ice protruding into the sea like a peninsula. From up here, the iceberg looked tiny amidst the bobbing ice floes surrounding it. She touched her right ear, fumbling through the fabric of her blue cap before managing to hit the earring, and her visor appeared. "It's slightly less voluminous than the other base," she concluded upon reading the measurements flickering across the glass. "Longer but narrower, and with less draught."
"Less space, but much closer to the shape of a ship's keel."
"Let's have a closer look at it," Ami suggested before disappearing within a twister of snow that enveloped her form. Jadeite saw a small blue flash in the distance below, signifying her arrival on the iceberg, and followed.
When the dark general shimmered into existence next to the young Keeper, she had her computer out already. The giant water fist was back and punched the ground, making a loud banging noise, only slightly muffled by the layer of snow blanketing the underlying ice. On Ami's computer screen, concentric red circles expanded outward, denoting the tremors caused by the impact. "No internal weaknesses," she said, registering Jadeite's arrival in passing. "It will be suitable for our purposes, once we have cut it loose from the mainland." She peered over the upper edge of her screen toward the imaginary line where the peninsula connected to the continuous ice shell that covered the northern polar region.
"Are you going to start out by creating a new dungeon heart?" Jadeite was standing so closely behind Ami now that she could feel his body heat as he looked over her shoulder at the display. Feeling the blood rush to her cheeks, she shook her head. "No, the iceberg is not balanced yet. I'm sure it will rock and turn once it's swimming freely, and I don't want to end up with the heart stuck in the ceiling."
"Makes sense. How are you going to get it loose?"
"Digging and blasting," the blue-haired girl said, "it's going to take a lot of work, though." She smiled up at the curly-haired blond. "I'll need your glamour magic to create some of the equipment. Are you familiar with bucket-wheel excavators?" Ahead, the hand made of water was gathering up snow and carving it into a sculpture that vaguely resembled a scaled-down version of the machine in question. At the dark general's nod, she brought up some schematics on her palmtop and turned it so he could see the screen better. "Now, can you make the wheel more like a buzz saw? If we affix imp picks to it, we won't need to take care of loosened ice, which should speed things up."
"Hmm. Could work." The grey-clad man narrowed his eyes at the snow model of the excavator. "You want me to use that as a base object? It won't last long."
"It only needs to last long enough."
Wasting no more words, the dark general spread his arms, and a pillar of snow shot from the ground, rising high into the air and momentarily hiding the rough sculpture from sight. Groans of shifting metal could be heard from within, and when the spiralling cloud peeled away, it revealed shadowy, strutted structures looming like the skeletons of long-necked dinosaurs in the murk.
"Amazing!" Ami gaped as the drifting snowflakes settled and more of the machinery became visible. After staring in silence for a moment, she closed her mouth and nodded. "Thank you. I'll make the picks now. Please set it to work along that line." At her gesture, the floating hand stabbed a finger down into the ice where she had indicated, and dragged the digit rapidly across the surface of the iceberg. Snow fountained out behind it like the wake behind a speedboat, and the furrow it cut into the white layer couldn't be missed.
"Nephrite. Once again, you disappoint." Beryl's voice sounded calm and bored, but the brown-haired general knew enough to detect the undercurrent of steel it hid.
He clenched his teeth and stood very rigid. The throne room's air felt cold on his sweat-soaked forehead, and he knew that he was pale like a sheet. To any of the many courtiers skulking about just outside the light radius surrounding the queen, he would appear quite terrified. From the corners of his eyes, he could see that snake Zoisite hover in the air not far away, looking insufferably smug at his fellow general's misfortune. In truth, the only thing Nephrite feared right now was covering the throne room's finely polished tiles with vomit. He couldn't imagine his Queen reacting well to that. His stomach felt as if it was full of stones, and he could taste the bile rising in the back of his throat. In short, he felt sick like a dog and was trying not to show it. So much for that brilliant plan.
As usual, the stars had chosen his newest victim, some short-haired teenager with a passion for cooking. Sounded easy, right? Just smile at her, put the evil mark on a spoon, and leave. Except the plan had backfired. Sure, the girl had been so impressed with his gentle encouragement that she had thrown herself into the work like a girl possessed - hah! However, the problems had started when her family confronted him with dark glowers on their faces as they heard the noises coming from the kitchen. They had politely but insistingly prevented him from leaving. He could still hear the words of the middle sister in his mind "Oh no, after what you have done, it would be horribly impolite to just send you away without treating you to what our little sister is preparing." The evil monster must have been smirking at him inwardly the whole time. Then, surprisingly strong hands had pushed him back into the kitchen. Where his 'victim' had enthusiastically force-fed him her creations, despite his protests. Did he mention that she was actually a horrible cook? Thank you, stars. Thank you so much. In hindsight, getting away might have been worth blowing his disguise as Masato Sanjouin.
Oh, Beryl was still berating him. He didn't even know what had happened to his youma, but assumed that the senshi had gotten to her. It fit the usual pattern. He certainly hadn't received any energy from this endeavour. Hmm, wasn't it getting a bit hot in here? And when had the Queen installed something that made her throne blurry and rock back and forth?
"...and therefore-" Beryl stopped in mid-sentence, orange eyes widening in surprise. The background murmuring ceased briefly before redoubling in volume. It didn't happen every day that a dark general just keeled over in the middle of an audience for no discernible reason. "Nephrite? What is the meaning of this?"
No answer came forth from the man sprawled out on the ground. Awkward silence followed her question, and the assembled youma courtiers shifted nervously in the shadows. There was no protocol for handling this type of events.
Zoisite took the opportunity to float down and land next to the inert form of his rival. He didn't bother checking if the other general was still alive - the fact that his body wasn't dissolving was proof enough of that, unfortunately. He prodded Nephrite with the tip of his left shoe, hard, but did not manage to elicit a reaction from the prone general. The effeminate man bowed to Beryl, who was watching him with her head cocked to the right. The fingers that were perpetually hovering over her black orb were still for the moment. "My Queen, I think this demonstrates that general Nephrite is unfit for his current responsibilities. I would be glad to collect energy for our Great Ruler in his stead. You should punish him for being such a failure."
"Are you presuming to tell me what I should do?" Beryl asked sharply, furrowing her brows underneath her boomerang-shaped black tiara.
The ponytailed general snapped to attention, "No, my Queen, I was just thinking that-"
The ruler of the dark kingdom raised her palm, motioning for him to be quiet. Her gaze returned to the body lying on the floor and remained there while she thought. Now it was Zoisite's turn to sweat as he waited for his liege's decision. Her crystal ball flared black, and Nephrite sank into a pool of darkness that opened underneath him.
"Very well. Zoisite, you will take over Nephrite's duties. I shall assign him a less straining task," she said, stressing the last word disdainfully. Maybe his astrological divinations will be useful for solving my other problem, at least.
"Watch out, it's going to break off soon!" Ami's shout echoed over the icy landscape, carrying over to Jadeite, who was floating over the deep trench that their combined efforts had dug into the ice. A bright flash from its depths lit up the ice from below, and the sight of the white jet of froth rising into the air coincided with the sound of Ami's explosion spell reaching her ear. The excavator hunkered over the narrow abyss swayed dangerously when the ground trembled.
"I see what you mean," Jadeite replied, rising higher into the air. Below, the tremors intensified, and the incline of the iceberg steepened, accompanied by a cacophony of loud cracking and bursting sounds. With a flash of blue, Ami joined the flying dark general in the air and watched as the last land bridge connecting the peninsula with the mainland splintered with deafening noise. As the gap underneath the digging machine widened, the ice underneath its tracks crumbled, and the groaning mass of metal tumbled toward the dark waters below, spinning as it fell. As if in slow motion, the enormous block of ice tilted forward, submerging itself in the ocean. Ami saw the inrushing water sweep its surface clean, carrying away the dozens of imp corpses that Ami had divested of their tools, making them disappear as if they were mere dust. The frothing, bubbly water closed over the iceberg, sucking in the surrounding ice floes, and fountained upwards. Carried by its buoyancy, the gigantic piece of ice reascended, breaking the surface like the back of an enormous whale and sending house-sized waves in all directions. As Ami had predicted, it was now presenting its smooth, bluish-white underside to the air. "We did it!" She cheered, admiring the majestic form of what would be her warship's hull through the blue-tinted glass of her visor. Now to turn it into a proper dungeon.
The solid portcullis retreated into the ceiling with a loud scraping noise. Hot and humid air escaped from the opening, carrying with it the earthy smell of ripe wheat in fall. Cathy stood in front of the chamber, a scythe slung over her shoulder, and peered through the fog that condensed out of the air as soon as it met the cooler environment of the corridor. "Well, it doesn't look as if our first harvest burned to death," she said, peering across the vast, domed chamber that was filled with rows of golden-brown ears just begging to be harvested.
Jered, who entered behind her, looked up at the vaulting ceiling that held the powerful lamps which had baked the soil into parched, cracked wasteland wherever the subterranean pipes weren't pumping water directly to the plants' roots. He frowned at the decoration framing the huge bulbs. "Well, that doesn't look only a little bit creepy."
Curious, Cathy followed his gaze and saw that a vast bas-relief of a sun sat at the highest point of the dome. The disc, surrounded by a serrated edge, showed a face, which wasn't that unusual for artwork. The fact that it was furrowing its brows and had its mouth wide-open in a vicious snarl was more out of the ordinary. The carved sunrays radiating outward in a star pattern, layered above each other, resembled an octopus' tentacles and were at least as disturbing as the face's four bared fangs. "Huh, doesn't look like her style," the blonde said and shrugged. With a look at the plants, she snickered. "Kind of makes me wish we still had the Reaper around. Imagine his expression if Mercury put him to work reaping wheat."
That got a chuckle out of her brown-haired boyfriend. "Don't let her hear that. She probably doesn't want to remember that monster." He took an experimental swing at the crops with his own scythe.
"You'd be surprised. I think she made these blades with his spell. They have the same balance."
"Really?" Jered stopped in surprise. "She actually learned that- ah, what am I saying. It's in a book. Of course she learned how to cast that thing. Can't be that difficult if the horned reaper can use it." His expression turned more lecherous. "Hey, do you think you could learn that spell with a bit of study? That would be a sight to s- Ow! No elbowing in the ribs while at work! I could have cut one of my toes off, you know?"
"Oh, you poor baby," the blond giggled. "Who knows, it couldn't hurt to know some magic." She bent down to gather up a bundle of cut ears and threw them into a wicker basket. "I wish we still had imps for this. Haven't you been able to hire some minions to delegate tasks to yet?"
The weasel-featured man shook his head as he mowed down more wheat. "I didn't have much luck so far. Most of the magicians were happy to come back, but the orcs and trolls had already found new employment. The bile demons I didn't ask, for obvious reasons, and I couldn't locate the dragon. So it looks as if we are on our own for the moment."
Ami's new dungeon heart, as well as her private quarters and those of her companions, were located in what would be the rear of the ship once she got around to creating the engine room. In short, it would contain all the portions of her mobile dungeon that she didn't want the hired help to wander around in. Her new throne room formed the junction between the high-security tract of the new complex and the regular one. This audience hall was much more pompous than Ami would have wished for herself, but Jadeite had urged her to project the image of an all-powerful warlord if she was serious about hiring and keeping troops. Thus, the room was much longer and taller than necessary, and felt empty despite the score of black and purple-robed men sporting long beards and oiled hair, who were staring at their surroundings in awe.
Ami admitted that the cathedral-like hall with its pillar-framed, polished ice walls looked rather grandiose. They glittered like crystal in the light of the electrical braziers standing left and right of her throne. As if that wasn't enough, the floor was a single smooth mirror that reflected the ceiling above, giving anyone who walked across it the daunting impression of being suspended above a hollow abyss, even if they were able to feel the solid ground underneath their feet. The blue-haired girl smiled as she remembered Cathy's reaction to the room. "Well, I'm certainly not wearing a skirt in here," the blonde had said after spotting her mirror image on the floor.
Sitting on her massive throne that was carved to resemble the Mercury symbol - its back was round and crowned with two projecting horns - Ami felt slightly silly in her costume. It was one of her better Keeper outfits, with black trousers, golden buttons on her blouse, and many filigree decorations. The black cape, draped strategically over her left arm to hide the sling, was new, and her Mercury tiara clashed slightly with the ensemble. Nevertheless, the assembled magicians slowly approaching her seemed properly intimidated, if their furtive glances and refusal to meet her glowing eyes was any indication.
On the other hand, she had the nagging suspicion that she could have turned up in a clown suit, and still nobody would have dared laughing at the Keeper who had allegedly beaten a horned reaper to death with her bare hands. And even if she wasn't scary enough by herself, then the giant gauntlet clinging to the wall above her throne like a metallic spider, moving its fingers from time to time, would discourage any disrespect.
"I am glad to see that so many of you have decided to return into my service, and I think I see even some new faces among you." Ami let her gaze wander over the assembly of universally pale warlocks and magic users. They suspended their hushed conversations as she spoke up and gave her their undivided attention. "So let's not waste time with idle speeches. I have several research projects for you. If the warlocks who researched my fire immunity spell would please step forward?"
Three of the robed figures separated from the group and approached, lining up in a respectful distance in front of the Keeper. With their hoods up to protect themselves against the cold, the haggard men resembled black cones. Ami nodded at them in recognition. "I have a task here that will draw on your previous experience with the fire immunity spell. I want you to adjust it so that I can determine a certain temperature at which the immunity will kick in."
"Could you clarify your objective please, Keeper? I'm not sure I understand the goal of this research," the left warlock spoke up.
"Of course. I need a spell that is able to prevent further heating once a certain temperature has been reached. For example, imagine a kettle full of water. The fire immunity spell would normally prevent it from getting much warmer than room temperature. I want the heat limit to be adjustable, so that I could put said kettle on a fire and specify that I want to keep the water just below boiling temperature, no matter how hot the fire becomes."
"I think I understand you now. Thank you for the clarification." The warlock bowed. "However, if I may ask, what use would such a spell have?"
"You would be surprised," Ami said, and her eyebrows rose in amusement. Some of the more sinister-minded dark wizards in the back shuddered. "Dismissed." The three minions bowed deeply and slunk back into the waiting group.
Ami raised her voice, and three stacks of papers appeared before her, floating in the air. "I will not single out anyone for the other three projects, as they vary in scale and difficulty. Choose them according to your talents and knowledge." The instructions flew forward, fanning out as they took up a hovering position in the middle of the room. Immediately, warlocks congregated around the sheets and started reading them with interest. "The first project is about developing a small device that can power magical items. It is supposed to use gold as fuel, in a similar way as dungeon hearts do."
Immediately, a few of the magicians turned toward the floating project descriptions she was pointing at. "Sounds like something that is right up my alley," the alchemist said, standing out among the mass in his stained white lab coat.
Ami gave him a court smile. "The second project is a variation of this device. Instead of gold, it should turn lightning into magical power." One of the warlocks raised his hand and looked at her questioningly over his shaggy white beard. "Yes, I know that casting a lightning spell just to use it as fuel would be hideously inefficient. Please do not concern yourself with that." The raised hand sank down.
"Lastly, I need warding schemes that block scrying and teleportation. I am aware that this is a difficult task with barely any solid foundations to start from. I will therefore not punish failure to achieve tangible results while conducting that research." A few warlocks that had eyed said project with interest, but seemed hesitant to approach it, overcame their reluctance after hearing that proclamation. Soon thereafter, all the minions filed out of the room with their instruction sheets, leaving Ami alone on her massive throne. She let out a breath of relief and slumped her shoulders. Holding a regal pose all the time was hard work!
A black ellipse appeared in the air before her, startling her and interrupting her break. Jadeite hopped out, carrying a small cage in his gloved hand. "I found some rats for you," he greeted, holding them as far away from himself as is arms would let him. Upon noticing the blue-haired girl, the grey rodents' angry squeaking died down, and they huddled against the bars furthest away from her, quaking in terror. "An old recruit found me, too. Unfortunately."
Something black and green squeezed through the ebony portal, dropping to the floor like a wet sack. Ami looked away from her new pets and down at the unfolding mound of wriggling tentacles sliming up her floor. "Oh. It's you. Welcome back." She shook one of the extending tendrils, accepting the creature's allegiance once again, and wondered what to do with it.
"Keeper Mercury. It is good to see you again. I do like what you have done with the place. It's a bit cold though.
"You have grown, haven't you? Just how dexterous are you with those tentacles of yours?" Ami asked, giving the nest of eyes and writhing pseudopods a curious once-over.
"Very. I assure you that I would be able to fulfil any request to your fullest satisfaction."
"Really?" The blue-haired girl smiled at the slime-covered creature, and her teeth gleamed white in the light. "I think I have just the job for you."
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