Alarmed by Snyder's mental shout, Ami immediately focused her attention on the redhead, using her Keeper sight to sense his surroundings. The image of a large hall with a high ceiling carried by a few thick stone pillars crystallised in her mind. At first, she thought that she was looking at the grey interior walls of a castle, but rejected that hypothesis when she noticed the high, vertical windows through which daylight flooded into the room. It illuminating the bleak stone floor with which the acolyte was currently getting acquainted. A tall woman in gleaming white plate mail stood over his prone form, her right fist still extended from her punch. A few trickles of red marred the silvery metal of the gauntlet. Startled figures wearing brown cowls and sitting around low tables looked up from their reading material at the sudden sound of violence, and chairs started scraping over the ground as the monks rose from their seats. This was a monastery, Ami realised belatedly as she noticed several alcoves containing angelic statues, lit by multi-pronged candlesticks that resembled a stag's antlers.
"What was that spell just now, you traitorous bastard? TALK!" Snyder felt himself pulled up by the lapels of his robe and cringed away from the angry face covered in red tattoos that was shouting at him. The woman's black ponytail bobbed angrily up and down as she lifted the shorter man off his feet and slammed his back into a shelf with a thunderous bang. The rickety wooden construction swayed under the blow, spilling books from its sides.
"Ow! Lady, I wasn't- oof!"
One of the monks approached with rapid steps, the cord holding his robe together whipping around his legs as he snapped "Stop this at once! How dare you break the peace of the Scriptorium? Let go of that man!" He frowned when two well-muscled men, one bald and wearing gold earrings, the other with a red moustache whose ends dangled down past his wide chin, stepped in his way. The taller of the two spread his arms and blocked the monk's path, preventing him from coming to the harried acolyte's aid. Small black eyes peering out from underneath protruding eyebrows met the robed monk's furious gaze without flinching, even when their owner found himself outnumbered by the angrily-muttering row of brown-hooded figures taking up position behind their leader.
The moustached thug, the only of the martial trio who was wearing leather armour rather than plate mail, produced a rolled-up scroll from a bag slung over his shoulder and unfurled it, thrusting it toward the outraged group with the readable side toward them. "Do not interfere! This man," he pointed at Snyder, whose arms were currently being twisted behind his back by his female attacker, "is a confirmed Keeper spy, and as such an enemy of the Crown! This warrant proves it!"
Paper rustled as the head monk ripped the scroll from his grasp with a surly gesture and started reading. He paid especial attention to the sketch that bore a great resemblance to the redhead, and inspected the royal wax seal dangling from the document. "It does look authentic," he conceded, raising his hand as he motioned to his subordinates to stand down. Now their glares focused on the white-and-red robed man groaning in the woman's grasp. Cold metal restraints snapped shut around his wrists, pinching his skin in the process. Immediately, he could feel the draining sensation of his mana being dispersed by the ward worked into the handcuffs. "Bounty hunters." The monk shook his head in disapproval. "I do not appreciate you disturbing the peace within these hallowed halls."
"Whatever, old man," the leather-armoured man turned to his black-haired companion. "Sheila, you got the target secured?"
"Yes, but be careful! he got at least one spell off! What did you do?" The tattooed woman bared her teeth at the redhead, who blinked at her through a partially swollen left eyelid. "Talk, or do you need more encouragement?" She raised her fist again.
"Now wait a minute!" the monk protested, moving forward as if intending to shove the brute blocking his path out of the way.
Ami had seen enough. With a thought, she summoned her two-hander, easily wielding the massive blade in her single good hand, and disappeared within a column of swirling snowflakes. Not that she had any intention of actually stabbing anyone, but it paid to be prepared. With a blue flash, she rematerialised within the monastery, hovering close beneath the ceiling, and keeping one of the pillars to her back. Despite the distraction caused by the bounty hunters and their prisoner, a few of the monks noticed the faint blue reflections in the glass showcases that contained the rarer tomes. They turned into Ami direction, their eyes widening in alarm when they spotted her floating, black-clad form. Her cry of "Shabon Spray!" alerted the less perceptive occupants of the room to her presence, but at this point, a burst of gleaming bubbles already streamed from her fingers, shooting toward the group below before spreading out and covering the tables, books and alcoves. The candles in the room went out as the spheres dispersed thick, clammy fog throughout the chamber. Immediately, Ami could hear spooked cries from below.
"We are under attack!"
"Guard the prisoner!"
The blue-haired girl, who had no trouble seeing through her own spell, teleported to a new position straight above Snyder. This turned out to be a wise decision, as mere moments later, a hail of prayer strips, not unlike the ones that Rei used, shot through the air where she had just been. The thrown wards did appear to pack some serious power, as they carved channels of clear air with the diameter of a pumpkin through the fog as they flew. Ami didn't have time to admire the monks' prowess though. From her vantage point, she could see the acolyte's red bowl cut from above, with the black ponytail of the woman right behind him. With her back to the wall, the bounty hunter was using the redhead as a human shield and had drawn her sword, pressing its edge against his Adam's apple. Snyder was trying very hard not to swallow.
"Show yourself!" one of the male bounty hunters bellowed. The leather-clad one was holding a crackling fireball in his hands and squinting into the fog in a near panic, while the monks were fanning out in a circular search pattern. Ami's priority was getting Snyder to safety, and the woman with the red-striped face was her main obstacle right now. Taking a deep breath, the blue-haired girl concentrated. The greatest danger was the blade threatening to cut the acolyte's throat at the merest hint of trouble. The weapon had to be removed first. It was a longsword, so its tip was protruding beyond Snyder's neck and shoulders a fair bit. Ami's heart beat thunderously. She had to handle this correctly, or Snyder would pay the price for it.
"Open the windows! Get this fog out of here," someone in the murk below bellowed, and a few monks broke from their search to follow the instructions.
With a faint gurgle, a giant had made of water shimmered into existence and swatted at the exposed bit of the weapon threatening Snyder's life, the part that was furthest away from his captor's hand. The woman's eyes went round in surprise at the sudden jolt, and the force of the blow slapped the blade away. She was too well-trained to lose hold of the weapon completely, though. Aghast, the acolyte saw the sharp edge approach his neck, too fast to be a mere return to its previous position, and let out a whimper. Metal clanged as Ami's own blade stabbed vertically down from above, right in front of the Acolyte's face, stopping the enemy's swing. The crossed blades hovered right in front of the shivering man's neck. Baffled, the tattooed tilted her head back to look up and search for the source of the sword. She gasped as she came face to face with burning red eyes that belonged to a black-and-gold dressed girl who was hanging head-first in the air and was throwing her a chilling glare. An instant later, something huge and wet slammed into the bounty hunter from the side, sending her and her hostage sprawling onto the ground.
"Sorry about that," the woman heard a soft voice through the fog, but before she could pull herself back to her feet and collect her fallen weapon, something huge and transparent lunged at her from out of the murk. With a strangled cry, she rolled out of the things' path. Her armour made loud scraping noises as she slid over the stone floor. Slightly dazed, she sat up, and it took all her discipline to not freeze up as she got the first good glimpse at her attacker. A giant hand made of water burst from the rolling clouds, moving its fingers like spider legs as it scuttled toward her. When it had picked up enough speed, it balled into a fist and lunged. Not being able to dodge in time, the black-haired woman closed her eyes and clenched her teeth, her entire body tensing up as she awaited the brutal impact. Nothing happened. Opening her eyes in surprise, she saw that the giant fist was floating within arm's reach, no longer advancing. Through its wavering form and obscured by the fog, she could just make out the hazy silhouette of the black-clad girl bending down over the equally hazy outline of that traitor apostate. With a snarl, she jumped to her feet - only for the fist to snip a finger at her, catching her in the chest with its index finger. The hard blow lifted her off of her feet and sent her flying backward in an arc, and she crashed into a bookshelf that rained its content onto her. Each book seemed to make a different pinging noise as it struck her armour, and something blue flashed in the mist, disappearing with the enemy shapes. The traitor scum had escaped!
Back in the safe confines of the dungeon's common room - the private one in the section of the ship that was off-limits to the warlocks and goblins - Ami was pressing a green-glowing hand to Snyder's face, channelling necromantic magic to mend his split lip. "What happened? Who were those people?"
"Ah well, I'm afraid they were members of the Silver Hawks," the redhead said, prodding his healed skin experimentally.
"The Silver Hawks? And they were after you? That's just great," Cathy said in a tone that revealed that it was anything but.
"Indeed. I didn't think we would end up on their list. I assume our latest encounter with the fairies was the straw that broke the camel's back," Jered said, twirling the handcuffs he had freed Snyder from around one finger.
"Would anyone care to tell us what the 'Silver Hawks' are?" Jadeite asked with a significant glance at Mercury, whose face showed the same incomprehension that he felt. The curly-haired blond crossed his arms in irritation as he waited for an explanation.
"Oh, right, sometimes I forget that you two aren't aware of stuff that is common knowledge here," the wavy-haired man said. "In short, they are an organisation of bounty hunters that operates internationally," he explained.
"And most of them are mercenary scum," Cathy added.
"Their methods can be unsavoury," Jered elaborated. "Don't make the mistake of thinking of them as something as structured as a guild. They are not. It is more like a service that members can opt into for an annual fee, no questions asked. They hire wizards to search for the locations of wanted criminals, and if they find them, they pass on the information to members in the area so they can attempt a capture."
"Ahem. The important part is that they go after lucrative high-profile targets that the Crown has taken a special interest in," Snyder explained. "It would be too much of a hassle to search for every wanted criminal. The disturbing implication is that we have made it onto that exclusive list. Not only does this mean that someone high up is willing to pay a lot just to ask us some very pointed questions, it will also add considerable risk to our future operations in the surface lands."
"So now you are on a list of special enemies of the state? I'm so sorry. I never wanted that," Ami apologised, looking at the ground.
"Don't worry about it. What's done is done, and you were only doing what you thought was best," Cathy reassured the teenager. "However," her tone became sharper, "what were you thinking, going after Snyder alone? Within an entire monastery full of monks, no less! You can't just go out and risk your life like that! Jadeite could have handled this!"
"But they were hurting him right that moment!" Ami protested. Logically speaking, she knew that the woman was right, of course. "I'm sorry, but I couldn't just stand by idly and watch."
"And I am extremely grateful for that," Snyder butted in while Cathy was taking a deep breath to prepare chastising the blue-haired girl some more. "Additionally, I think you may be interested in the results of my investigation. The monks of Thrice-Martyred Theobald are renowned for their exploits fighting the occasional vampire that pops up. I had the opportunity to study some of their more accessible tomes on that particular kind of undead."
Ami's face brightened as she turned to look at him directly. "Really? That's great! What can we use?" Her palmtop appeared before her, snapping open seemingly on its own.
"I will get to that. Let me begin with stating that there are many different rumours about how to deal with vampires floating about, but only a few hold even a grain of truth. Take the ancient belief about garlic repelling vampires - it is completely baseless. They are not even physically able to smell plants. I can only assume that Keepers and vampire minions alike perpetuate and spread such rumours in order to leave aspiring vampire slayers ill-prepared for battle."
"Oh really? That tells us sooo much about how to get rid of the bloodsuckers," Cathy said drily.
Snyder cleared his throat. "Very well, I shall give you the summarised version, rather than going into the details. The most glaring weakness of the vampire is its inability to cross water, either by going above, below, or underneath it, and this extends even to teleportation. The exact size of the body of water required remains undetermined, but brooks have been know to give vampires pause."
"This does explain why Zarekos and his brood aren't raiding the surrounding continents," Jered pondered.
"Does this inability extend to Keeper transport, and do they have a way to get around it?" Ami asked while the keys on her computer's keyboard clattered. "
"Unknown, and yes," Snyder said. "Vampires are able to transform into a creature that seems alive, having the choice between either a bat or a wolf. Singular. They cannot turn into a swarm for this purpose. In this state of fake vitality, water poses no barrier for them, but they are unable to use their abilities until they revert to their true form."
"Not the most impressive opponents, those animals," Cathy said. "I guess you will be building all your dungeon hearts in a pool from now on, right?" She winked at Ami, who nodded absently, all business as she continued taking notes.
"A secondary weakness is direct sunlight," Snyder said.
"It turns them into ash?" Ami asked, not being entirely unfamiliar with her world's vampire stories.
The acolyte looked at her oddly. "If only it was that easy. It does not affect them directly, but a vampire that is killed while exposed to daylight does not revive. That's why vampires generally don't come out during the day."
"Oh. But they could if they wanted to?" Ami's mind raced. "Still, that could be useful if we could capture and contain them for later disposal, rather than destroying them outright."
Snyder thought about this for a moment. "Assuming that you can find a way to contain something that can't be rendered unconscious, can rip through steel with its claws, escape through the gap by transforming into something small, teleport away, or commit suicide as a way to escape, yes. It is a theoretical possibility."
"Um, there is no direct sunlight on the Avatar Islands any more," Cathy pointed out, "only fiery clouds all day and all night."
"Oh, yes. That had not occurred to me." Ami faced the acolyte again. "Um, how well does artificial sunlight work?"
"Artificial sunlight?" Snyder looked at Ami as if she had just grown a second head. "You can't make artificial sunlight. If it doesn't come from the sun, it's not sunlight. I thought this would be self-evident."
"Well, I had thought it might be a specific frequency or wavelength within the spectrum that..." she trailed of when she saw the look of blank incomprehension on the locals' faces.
"Magic does not work that way," the acolyte said slowly, as if speaking to a child. "Sunlight works because it is such a strong symbol of the Light gods that They can channel a minuscule amount of Their radiance through the sunshine. There is nothing special about the light itself."
"That is how the monks would go about permanently destroying a vampire, too. Channel some of the Light's power into the finishing blow. It doesn't even have to be a real spell, only the fact that the energy is derived from the Light gods counts." The Acolyte scratched his head nervously. "Hypothetically speaking, even I could permanently destroy a vampire. Theoretically. Not that I'm volunteering to go near one of those things. They are terrifying."
"I understand. Are there any other weaknesses that I should know about?"
"Unfortunately, there is only one other. No vampire on record has ever returned from the seventh death inflicted in a single night," Snyder reported dutifully.
"Hmm." Ami stared at her screen. "Where do vampires rise again when they die? From the battle I remember," she tensed at the memories, "the bodies just turned to darkness and disappeared, and the vampires returned a while later from somewhere."
"I- I don't know. The monks had not considered the problem from that angle, I think. They do have the ability to easily make death stick on the first try, after all."
"Very good. That sounds like something that would be well worth investigating," Jadeite said with a nasty grin. And so is finding out just how much I can make her blush just by talking to her, he thought as he watched Mercury's cheeks colour faintly.
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