Similar to mushrooms forming a fairy ring, tall iron cylinders stood in a circle, clicking faintly as the cogs within their upper sections turned like clockwork, slowly screwing the huge crucibles into the vaulting ceiling of the glittering cavern. Furiously glowing heating coils wound around each of the eight furnaces, banishing the shadows with their orange light. To the wavy-haired man standing on the round platform within the centre of the circle, it appeared as if it was raining inside the cave. Droplets of melt water fell like gleaming threads of rain, splashing onto to the stone ground and merging into tiny reddish-shimmering runlets.
Even if Jered had been inclined to pay attention to the drumming of the precipitation on the umbrella-like roof keeping his position dry, he wouldn't have worried about the stability of the place. A grid of finger-deep trenches hewn into the even floor collected the water and channelled it away, proving that the waning of the ice under the radiated heat was expected and accounted for. Darker structures and winding cables lurked within the glittering material that formed the ceiling, and they constituted the framework maintaining the integrity of this room, ice or no ice. No, the weasel-featured man had entirely unrelated problems. Sweat gleamed on his brow as he hurried between the eight control consoles positioned symmetrically around the edge of the platform, each one bristling with levers and controls. Jered glanced back at the open Mercury computer enthroned on a pedestal at the very centre of the platform, and yanked on the lever indicated in red on the palmtop's display. He didn't even notice the coils around the furnace facing the desk dim slightly in reaction, because a beep from Mercury's infernal contraption drew his gaze. He took a look at the new screen, which showed a sequence of three buttons flashing repeatedly, along with a large number three. A red seven as big as his head emblazoned the console he was standing in front of, so he dashed across the platform to the opposite side. Four quick steps carried him to the correct control panel, and he hit the indicated keys so hard that the foremost knuckle of his index finger whitened. "It always has to be the one farthest away, hasn't it?" he lamented as a trill from the computer alerted him to the next set of parameters that needed adjustment. "Oh, come on!"
Before he could trip over his own feet making a dash for the indicated console, he felt a short burst of displaced air cool his sweaty skin, the movement out of place in the stale atmosphere of the chamber. "On it," a soft voice reassured him, and as he looked to his side, he saw that Mercury had transported herself onto the platform. The indicated levers creaked into position, moving despite nobody being near them.
"Oh. Hi Mercury. Thanks. I wish I could do that. Less running around."
The blue-haired girl smiled, keeping an eye on the controls. "No, thank you for keeping an eye on the gem production. Isn't it giving you too much trouble?" she asked, noticing that the green-dressed man was gasping for breath.
"No, it's fine," Jered waved her concerns away. "I can handle it. It's good training after sitting around so much, and that thing's making all the decisions anyway." He indicated the Mercury computer, pointing with his thumb over his shoulder. The device was still beeping in what seemed like random intervals, but Ami was well on top of the work. Controls clicked into position and buttons depressed themselves almost as soon as they appeared on the screen.
"No problems with the program I wrote? I can change the settings so it supervises fewer of the crucibles, if eight is too much." She had written a program that simulated her furnace and its controls, and with the aid of the ancient device's sensor suite, it could even measure the temperature within one of the crucibles and list the appropriate actions to maintain it. Expanding the software so that it could oversee a variable amount of the gem-growing machines had taken only minor adjustments. There shouldn't be any problems, but Ami was still feeling ill-at-ease as she stared at the computer sitting underneath a protective glass shell. I don't like being separated from it, she decided after a moment of reflection, during which she continued following the instructions appearing on the screen.
"No, I can handle it," Jered promised, his breath going easier now that he had been able to rest for a moment. All around, the controls clicked into place without his contribution. "We'll need all the wealth we can possibly get. I'll have to remember to bring something to drink next time, though." A bottle of water appeared out of thin air, hovering next to him. The lanky man plucked it from its spot with a rapid motion and poured the cool liquid down his throat. "Thanks! You are the most considerate Keeper ever! Say, how's Cathy doing with your goblins?"
"All right, listen up!" The blonde soldier stood at the front of what looked like a shabby classroom, putting her arms akimbo. The tall woman was wearing a breastplate over a blue shirt and long trousers of equal colour, having foregone the usual Sailor Mercury uniform. This could have had something to do with the fact that she was tall, the goblins were short, and the uniform's pleated skirt even shorter. The green creatures were giving her their undivided attention, for lack of other options. When Cathy wanted a captive audience, she got one. Chains rattled from time to time as the trussed-up greenskins sitting at the rows of wooden benches shifted or tested their restraints.
"Why we tied up? Did nothing wrong!" a large-eyed member of their species complained from the front row, looking like a caterpillar because of all the chains wrapped around him.
"So you can't do anything but pay attention," the blonde explained. "I don't want to deal with this all day."
"And neither do I," a grumpy-looking warlock standing next to the blonde grumbled. He was wearing a purple and black robe of the simple, sloppy cut that betrayed it as a quick conjuration, rather than a competent tailor's work. His haggard, sparsely-bearded cheeks kept quivering, as if he was constantly moving his tongue around in his mouth. With an irritated glance at the woman to his right, who would be just as tall as him if he straightened his pose instead of slouching like a troll, he asked "Why don't you do this yourself? I know you can cast some magic! This is keeping me from my valuable research!"
"Because the stupid spell doesn't create a chest piece," Cathy pointed out acidly.
"As if anybody here would mind," the warlock said with a leer at the blonde's assets. "You wouldn't, right?" He addressed the goblins, who nodded in confusion. They didn't know what the warlock was talking about, but it seemed smart to agree with someone who could potentially turn you into a toad at a whim.
"Shut up and get to it," the female soldier commanded, gesturing imperiously toward the wall of green faces.
The warlock rolled reddish eyes up toward the skies and raised his hands, muttering "Why me?"
"Because Mercury found your dissertation very substandard, that's why," Cathy replied to the rhetorical question with undisguised relish.
"Yes, yes, yes. Mess up once and you get stuck teaching goblins," the warlock muttered into his beard. Louder, he said "All right. Now listen up you miserable wastes of flesh! I'm going to show you something that you are supposed to learn! The sooner you get it right, the sooner this farce will be over, so use those tiny little brains of yours for a change! This is a simple spellcasting routine. It's so simple that even someone like you could do it. Now observe!"
Cathy jumped aside when orange flames flared up around the warlocks feet and licked at her legs before drawing in close to the man and turning into quicksilver-like streamers that snaked their way up his limbs, leaving metal greaves in their wake. They slithered around his waist, condensing into a loincloth held by a chain, and continued creeping upward until they coalesced into enormous, spiked pauldrons. Chain links connected both pieces of shoulder armour together, with a thicker metal disc right in the centre like an amulet. The magician's hand closed around the heft of a large, sharp-looking scythe, whose blade gleamed because of the fading sparks. Proudly, the warlock struck a pose, subjecting everyone in the room to his pasty white chest. An eye blink later, the haggard man staggered and put a metal-clad foot forward to better balance the weight of the scythe, which was getting too much for his spindly arms. Derisive snickering came from the benches, revealing the goblins' opinion of the display. "Kruk think Kruk could break stick man in half! Stick man thinner than Kruk!"
"Is that so?" The warlock, whose hairless skin was starting to show goosebumps from the frigid dungeon air, furrowed his bushy eyebrows as he glared at the heckler. "Why don't you come forward and show us all how well you have internalised the lesson?" The man dropped the scythe and stretched out his hand, wriggling spidery fingers at the small greenskin in question. Chains rattled as they fell loose and pooled around the child-sized goblin, who folded his triangular ears close to his head at the display. "Well, what are you waiting for? Come up here! And you, stop grinning," he hissed at Cathy, who was leaning against the wall, blue eyes gleaming with amusement.
Kruk dragged his feet as he shuffled toward the front like a man condemned. Under the expert instruction of the warlock, it didn't take the green creature long to start up the first flames. With a loud screech, the goblin started running around in a circle, spreading the scent of scorched meat and kicking his feet up high to extinguish his burning toes.
"A good start," the black-bearded magician commented, unperturbed by the ash-coloured smoke drifting past him. "Next!"
"I must say that I remain entirely unconvinced that this is a wise idea," Snyder protested as his hands glowed white. "It feels somewhat blasphemous, to be completely honest."
Ami's stomach churned, and she felt the strong urge to recoil from the display of holy magic, but instead, she leaned in even closer, until her nose nearly touched the tip of the worried-looking acolyte's fingers. The data she was recording with her visor was well worth it, even if Jered still had her computer. She would properly analyse it later. "Snyder, believe me, I'm very grateful for what you are doing. All I want to do is see if I can't replicate the anti-vampire sunlight effect somehow. I don't think the Light gods would object to that. Besides, healing magic is fascinating." If I just managed to understand it before I got home, it could revolutionise medicine! But that's still in the future.
"I understand that," the redhead said, letting out a long sigh. "Unfortunately, showing off the secrets of the Light gods to a Keeper, even if it is you, is so completely against everything I was taught since my earliest childhood that I can't help feeling that I'm betraying the Light."
Ami retreated, deactivating the visor, and the transparent blue sheet withdraw back into her earring. "I'm sorry about that. I didn't intend to make you uncomfortable."
"It is all right, I was not holding it against you," Snyder said as he leaned back, sinking deeper into his armchair as his hands stopped glowing. "Did you learn anything useful, at least?"
Ami adjusted the collar of her black jacket as she wandered up and down, her footsteps making soft thuds on the thick carpet. "The influence of the Light gods, if I identified it correctly, bears a very strong resemblance to what Jadeite calls 'life energy'," she said, sounding thoughtful. Noticing the acolyte's raised eyebrow, she continued. "They are clearly different things, but seem to share many properties. I can't really explain it without going into the technical details, and that wouldn't help you understand, I'm afraid."
"I'll take your word for it, then," Snyder agreed, creasing the white cloth of his robe absently as he kneaded it with his fingers. "By the way, how is your hand now that the arm is out of its sling?"
Ami raised the slender limb in question from her side, showing the pale, pinkish new skin that covered the limply-flopping fingers. "Itchy," she said, "aside from that, I can't feel or move anything."
"That's a good sign," the acolyte said warmly, "the itching means that the nerves are regenerating. You should regain full control of it in a few days time, hopefully."
The blue-haired girl's face lit up with delight, the red glow of her eyes receding until they shimmered merely violet. "I'm so happy about that! I feared that it might never get to use it again!"
Seen from above, Ami's gleaming iceberg resembled modern ships with its elongated cigar shape. Even with the thorn-like spikes covering its surface like pox, it was an island of calm in the storm-grey ocean, its flanks unperturbed by the house-sized waves that the howling storm whipped them with. A double row how high, three-bladed windmills stretched from the middle of the frozen vessel to almost the tip of its bow, which ploughed through the foamy sea. The rapidly-spinning generators whirred and buzzed, their tall iron frames producing resonating groans whenever a stronger gust bent the struts.
At about the rear third of the mobile dungeon, a high ridge of ice ran perpendicularly to the ship's length, straight as an arrow. The artificial mountain was the highest point of the iceberg, towering twice as high as the windmills. Despite appearances, Ami hadn't fallen back on Jadeite's abilities to raise this hill just so she could place the bridge of the ship in it. While the metre-thick window of polished ice that formed the entire front side of the room offered an amazing view of the surroundings, that was but a side benefit. The young Keeper turned away from her reflection on the clear surface. Her silhouette was nothing but a black shape backlit by the leaden grey of the windswept clouds as she faced the other being in the room, crossed her arms, and focused the gaze of her red-glowing eyes on the small figure. "No difficulties, Captain?" Lightning flashed behind her, its light penetrating deeply into the ice and making it glow from within.
"N-no, Mistress! Gazok good captain! Gazok keeps ship going great!" The large goblin couldn't decide whether he should prostrate himself before the Keeper or salute stiffly, so he tried to do both. He dropped to his knees in front of the blue-haired girl and brought his green hand up to his oversized captain's hat so vehemently that he nearly knocked the white garment off of his head, and it ended up dangling from his left ear.
"Rise," Ami said gently, trying not to laugh. "You don't have to do that. Keep up the good work." The captain's position was largely ornamental, and so it was a great motivational tool to rouse the goblins' ambition. By making it the grand prize of a regular fighting tournament, she could get her little employees to actually give their all when training. Sure, the winner got to lord his authority over the other goblins, but his actual duties were those of a lookout. Even the huge steering wheel made of polished wood set into a console in front of the captain's chair would do nothing but alert her to someone turning it. While irresponsible on the surface, such a system did not actually have any drawbacks. Once a block of ice weighing millions of metric tons was moving in a certain direction, it tended to keep going that way. Slowing it down would take just as much time as accelerating it, and its turn radius could be measured in kilometres.
Ami had already resigned herself to the fact that the warship would never be able to approach a coast closer than several dozen kilometres due to its limited manoeuvrability. Going any closer risked grounding it. Sure, the ship did have electrical engines and rudders to correct its course, but they were near negligible when compared to the real power driving the vessel forward: the very ridge this room was located in. The protruding mass of ice acted like a sail that caught the force of the storm, pushing the rest of the iceberg forward. Ami remembered the struggle to arrange for the wind to do what she wanted only too well. The manifestation of the corruption seemed to have a mind of its own, slipping out of her attempts to control it again and again. At times, it had felt as if she was trying to contain a blob of liquid quicksilver with nothing but a net. She had not given up though, spending hours and hours analysing the data with dogged persistence, and setting up new experiments. In the end, she had succeeded, relinquishing some control over one aspect of the corruption to determine the storm's direction instead. In exchange for harnessing the wind, the effects of the corruption would once again cause any plants on the surface to slowly wither and die, and even humans and animals would become frail and sickened if they stayed in the area for too long. Given that Ami's dungeon was located within an iceberg that couldn't sustain life in the first place, she didn't think that she came any worse out of this trade. Even better, in the process, she had learned new information that she could use to upgrade her next dungeon heart, making the corruption more manageable. She would show it! Oh yes, she would!
Had Ami been a more typical example of the mad scientist kind, she might have started laughing out maniacally at this point. Some of her emotion must have show on her face though, because when she finished setting a course for the Avatar Island, grinning widely, only an eye and a triangular ear were peeking out from behind the captain's seat, peering nervously in her direction. Ami coughed into her hand in embarrassment, and her eyes met the goblin's, shining like red searchlights. "Carry on," she instructed, before disappearing from his sight.
Some of the outfits Ami had bought in the dark elf city were rather daring, but the current one did make a good swimsuit, she thought while drifting on her back in the rectangular swimming pool. How she had missed swimming! Enjoying the feel of the warm water against her skin, she paddled experimentally with her injured arm, feeling no discomfort. She had put on some muscle while training for the Reaper duel, she observed critically. That had to be the reason why the strapless one-piece suit fit like a second skin, its dark violet fabric barely shifting even during her most energetic movements, and despite showing much more leg and back than she was used to. It had been a good purchase, after all. As she relaxed, she became suddenly aware of a grey-clad form that shimmered into existence above the pool, its blonde reflection wavering on the calm water.
"Mercury? Jered told me you were here!"
Startled, Ami sat up, splashing and causing ripples as she did. "Jadeite!"
The curly-haired blond's eyebrows rose as he took in her slender form, causing Ami to become suddenly aware of the skimpiness of her outfit, and she felt her cheeks heat up. In an instant, she was at the edge of the pool, her sudden absence leaving a hole in the water that immediately filled in.
"Am I interrupting your bath?" the dark general asked when he saw the girl face away from him, towelling herself off with a long piece of deep purple cloth that had suddenly appeared in her hands.
"No, no, it's fine, I was nearly done," Ami said, turning around when she heard his boots alight on the wet floor tiles nearby. She barely resisted the urge to cover her chest with her arms when a faint breeze cooled her humid skin, making her uncomfortably aware of each square centimetre that the garment exposed. Get a grip on yourself! Yes, it's a swimsuit, but you are entirely decent. It's something the dark elves would even wear normally. There's nothing to worry about! In addition, he has already seen much more of you! That last thought did nothing to ease her mind however, and her blush deepened. "What do you need me for?"
"Well, I wanted to discuss my plan for recapturing the fairies with you. Do you have a secure facility yet?" Jadeite asked, folding his arms behind his back.
"No, the prison design isn't translated to the crystal system yet," Ami said as she finished tying the towel around her waist and raised her gaze from the floor, looking at Jadeite directly. The dark general was facing away from her, but as if feeling her gaze, he turned around. The corners of his lips curved downward, and a frightening scowl flitted momentarily over his angular features as his eyes wandered over her form. Ami became acutely aware of her heartbeat as her blood seemed to freeze. What was that? Does he dislike what he sees? Now that was an unreasonably frightening idea for the timid girl. "Is- is something wrong?"
"What? No! With that towel around your hips, the outfit just reminded me of Beryl's dress," Jadeite said in a dismissive tone, before elaborating. "Similar colour, similar cut. She was always wearing that thing, as if it was the only gown she had. It was so tight that I doubt she could even walk in it!"
Relief flooded Ami's mind, and she quietly resolved to avoid purple from now on. Then she noticed how the taller man was balling his white-gloved hands into fists despite his impassive expression, and felt herself compelled to step closer.
"You really hate her," she observed quietly.
"Yes," the dark general hissed through clenched teeth. Upon seeing Ami's wide-eyed stare, he explained hotly "It's not only because she just threw me away after all my years of loyal service. It's also what she did to me! Have you ever considered what the Eternal Sleep punishment is like?" he asked, pressing his lips together as his features hardened.
Ami shook her head, dislodging a few droplets of water from her wet hair. They ran down her neck, over her collarbone, and deeper. The cold trace of the liquid made her uncomfortably aware of the near-indecent plunge of her swimsuit's neckline, but judging from Jadeite's clouded expression, his thoughts were entirely elsewhere. "I haven't," she admitted honestly.
"It's not just imprisonment," the dark general said, venom in his voice. "It's total sensory deprivation. It traps you in black nothingness, unable to feel, hear, see, or smell anything, with nothing to keep you entertained but yourself! Nothing!"
"That's terrible!" Ami gasped, paling as she considered the implications, but Jadeite was not done yet.
In a quieter tone of voice, he continued "All you can do is wait, wait until you lose your sanity, which you know all the time you will, but you also know that it won't be an escape, because the crystal will drag you back and keep you hale and functioning so it happens over and over again, forever and ever and eve-" The dark general's rant cut off when he felt slender arms encircle him, followed by a warmth against his chest as Mercury pressed herself against him, pulling him into a comforting hug. Looking down, he expected to see a mop of blue hair, but instead, he met large reddish-blue eyes that bristled with tears.
"I didn't know," Ami said gently. "That must have been terrible. It's... it sounds right in line with something Azzathra would do, just more subtle," she continued, anger creeping into her voice.
The sudden, close contact was not something Jadeite was used to, but he did feel better, come to think of it. At a loss of words, he remained silent for several heartbeats, frozen in the girl's gaze like a deer in the headlights. "Mercury, you..." he said finally.
"Yes?" Ami answered, her heart beating rapidly.
"...you are getting my uniform wet," he concluded, presenting a moist glove that had rested on the damp cloth near Ami's waist as evidence. How it had gotten there in the first place, he had no idea. The reaction was instantaneously, though. He saw the teenagers pupils shrink as she realized exactly what she was doing, and with a leap that made him think she might have accidentally teleported, she stood a few steps away from him, her face sporting a blush that would have made a tomato proud. She alternated between clasping her hands in front of herself and covering her mouth as she looked at the ground and stammered "Oh, yes, sorry, I didn't want to- I mean, I did, but I didn't think of-"
Jadeite watched her, feeling mildly disappointed for some reason, when she suddenly fell quiet and her posture became more rigid. "Jadeite," she said, looking directly at the blond's angular face, with not a single hint of embarrassment remaining in her voice. In fact, it sounded deadly serious. "You weren't the only victim of that spell, were you?"
He shook his head. "Beryl would use it occasionally to make an example of someone."
"We need to save them." It was a declaration, not a suggestion.
"How? I haven't heard of someone breaking free of that spell before. Well, aside from me, and that was all Queen- "
"Metallia," they concluded together.
"Not a bad plan, really. Those who are still sane could be a valuable asset," Jadeite said with interest as he thought things through, unaware that it was now Ami's turn to clench her fists as she wrestled with her conflicting emotions.
"I can't say I like begging Metallia for another boon," she said, following her statement with a deep sigh. "Still," her shoulders straightened, and she continued more firmly. "We have to help them. It would be too cruel to just leave them be. When I think back to when I was trapped with Azzathra, and imagine that there was someone who could have helped me and decided to do nothing - the though is unbearable!"
"A sacrifice would go a long way in assuring the Great Ruler's cooperativeness," Jadeite prompted in a neutral tone of voice.
"I know." Ami paced up and down along the edge of the pool, no longer concerned with her relative lack of clothing as her bare feet splashed through the water. Jadeite followed her with his steel-blue eyes while she organised her thoughts, until she drew to a stop. There was one experiment she had wanted to perform for a while now, but whose dubious benefit - not to mention the ethical implications - had made her delay it indefinitely. Now, however, was a golden opportunity to incorporate it into her actions.
"Jadeite, I need small samples of life energy from as many different species as possible. Trolls, orcs, bile demons, fairies, humans, animals... not enough to be dangerous, but clearly labelled. Can you do this for me?"
|Previous chapter:||Next chapter:|
|Chapter 67: Vampire Weaknesses||Chapter 69: A Minor Complication|