Stars and planets circled on their orbits in a simulation of the night sky. It occupied the illusory space that extended further than there was room underneath the roof of Nephrite's ill-lighted mansion. The dark general stood on the ground with closed eyes as a thin beam of light from the largest celestial object made contact with his forehead. The luminescent sphere pulsed in bluish-grey colours while images flashed through the brown-haired general's mind. The stars, he knew, could provide answers to many questions, but would not necessarily do so. In addition, the answers were often cryptic, and it was up to the astrologer to interpret them. Take, for example, the current image that had appeared in response to his request to see the cause behind Jadeite's freedom. The planets of the solar system turned in his mind, and the view zoomed in on the tiny planet that was closest to the sun, but wreathed in darkness despite its proximity to the brightly-shining star. How odd. What could it mean? Was this the outsiders' stronghold? Their world of origin? Or was the image meant symbolically? Maybe he should be more specific with his questions. "The stars know everything! Show me how Jadeite was freed from Eternal Sleep!"
The mirage of a star-filled sky wavered under the dark general's bellowed command, rearranging into different constellations. This time, he had no trouble interpreting the resulting image. A short-looking girl in blue garb pushed her hand right through the crystal of his fellow dark general's prison, remained still for a while, then stepped back, and Jadeite flopped onto the floor before her. Her most striking feature were the crimson-glowing eyes. Maybe he should focus his inquiries on her instead? The man intoned more incantations, but the answers he got from the stars were confusing, to say the least. It was as if the sorceress - for what else could she be? - had powerful protections that veiled her past and future from his gaze. But what about her associates? Closing his eyes as the column of light struck his forehead once more, Nephrite meditated. Suddenly, his eyelids opened, showing pupils widened in surprise. Many of the faces he had seen had been complete unknowns, but he had recognised two of them all too well. The sailor senshi in question had foiled too many of his plans for his liking. Queen Beryl would want to hear about this immediately!
"Zoisite, you failed to gather the energy you promised to acquire for our Great Ruler. Not only that, but you allowed another sailor senshi to join the rest of the pests. How do you explain these blunders?" Queen Beryl's orange eyes narrowed into slits as she glared at the effeminate man
Put on the spot, the dark general sweated, while the courtiers wrapped in shadow started whispering, like sharks that smelled blood in the water. "A temporary setback. Just give me more time! I already have a new plan!"
"Will this one consist of something more elaborate than having a youma run through the city and drain random passers-by?" a male voice mocked from behind him as a long-haired figure stepped into the circle of pale light surrounding Beryl's monstrosity of a throne, smirking.
Zoisite let out a low growl. "Shut up, Nephrite! At least I wasn't laid low by some human food for days. My plan would have worked too if the senshi hadn't been in the area!"
Nephrite walked to the younger general's side, facing Beryl and completely ignoring the younger man. In a gesture designed to infuriate his rival even more, he nonchalantly tossed his brown hair back over his shoulder with a brush of his left hand before lowering his upper body in a shallow and suave bow to his ruler.
"Nephrite." The red-haired woman said, acknowledging his presence in a cold tone that indicated that she was merely tolerating him right now.
"My Queen, I have completed my current objective. Successfully, I might add," he said, looking at the shorter dark general to his right from the corner of his eyes. Zoisite immediately understood the meaning of the short glance, which amounted to an implicit "not like someone else here." As the effeminate general had no idea what Nephrite's current assignment was, he could do nothing but seethe silently and pout.
"Oh?" The evil queen drawled, waving her long fingernails above the gleaming black surface of her crystal ball. "Good. Report to me in private. Zoisite!" Her glare re-appeared as she returned her attention to the younger general. "I will leave the energy collection to you. Do not fail me." Like an immaterial ghost, Beryl sank down through the bluish-purple stone that formed her throne, leaving no doubt that the audience was over. With a triumphant chuckle, Nephrite watched his rival grit his teeth and disappear, filling the air where he had been with an entirely needless swirl of flower petals. No doubt to find and whine to Kunzite. Oh, but it felt good to get under the little snake's skin, especially now that he had usurped Nephrite's position. Still grinning, the dark general faded from the room, following his queen.
"And she's tall and strong and she just tackled the youma without even knowing she was a sailor senshi first," Ami read from the sheet of note paper covered in Usagi's enthusiastic but near-illegible scrawl. The crystal ball resting on the desk in front of her winked out in a carefully timed pause, during which Rei would jot down another symbol of the transmitted message. From the way Ami could see the shrine maiden turning up her nose at the blonde in the cloudy glow of the scrying device, her friends still hadn't made up. At least, the fact that a new senshi had been found - Sailor Jupiter - seemed to have eased the tension between them. The blue-haired girl felt as if a huge load had been lifted from her shoulders, now that she knew that the others were no longer on their own. She hadn't caught a glimpse of the new girl yet, because she wasn't present in the shrine right now, but from Usagi's description, Sailor Jupiter sounded like a fighter. Hopefully, she would be able to keep the others and herself safe. Upon obtaining the news, the young Keeper had experienced a moment of brief, irrational fear that she would be replaced in the hearts of her friends. That had passed quickly when she had seen how Usagi's face had brightened once Rei had told her about Ami making contact once again. Right now, the blonde was still scribbling away furiously, with the tip of her pink tongue peeking out of the left corner of her mouth, and her long pigtails draped over the table. Ami felt almost guilty for doubting her. She did, however, feel real guilt over saddling them with a decision that should be hers to make. As she finished her transmission, she reminded herself once again that she was too biased to think straight here, so she needed a second opinion.
Hunched deeply over the glowing orb, Ami stared into it. Through space and dimensions, she watched as the faces of her friends became both worried and interested as they translated the dots and lines of Morse code into letters. The end of Luna's tail twitched while the black cat read the message, sitting next to Usagi's left elbow on the table. Rei was at right, putting aside her quarrel with the blonde for the moment as she peered at the translation, her mouth turning into a small circle of surprise. Done with their lecture, the three immediately started talking animatedly, gesticulating and interrupting each other as they discussed Ami's plan. The blue-haired girl couldn't hear what they were saying, but it looked as if the shrine maiden was disagreeing more with Luna than with Usagi. After a while, the raven-haired girl grabbed a pen and wrote down a short question.
"The amount of energy you are planning to offer to Metallia is much less than what the dark generals are gathering on each mission, right?"
'Yes' was a very short reply, and Rei didn't even have to put it on paper to translate it.
"And you aren't going to take enough energy from anyone to harm them?"
Ami answered in the affirmative again.
"And Jadeite wasn't the one to suggest this plan, correct?"
"And you could really use the additional help?"
"And the victims are suffering right now and are going to continue suffering forever unless you help them?"
Once more, Ami confirmed Rei's query.
"Then why are you even asking us if you should go ahead? Even if they are youma, just leaving them where they are would be inhumane! Aren't you supposed to be the smart one of us?"
"Yes, don't sweat it Ami, go right ahead! We will work harder than ever to stop the Dark Kingdom so they won't get any more energy, so we are all safe," Usagi added with a smile, having pushed aside Rei in her bid for the writing tools. Only Luna was hanging her head, and flattening her ears against it.
Ami couldn't understand what the black moon cat was saying, but figured it had to be something along the lines of "Just be careful."
"Thank you." Ami sent back, feeling much more secure in her idea now.
"Treason." Queen Beryl slammed the end of her grey staff into the ground in anger, causing a loud bang to echo through her chambers as its flaring bottom barely failed to shatter the floor tiles. The sound reminded Nephrite of a coffin lid slamming shut, especially when he took the icy expression on his ruler's sharp features into account. He wasn't about to interrupt and draw attention to himself when she was in a bad enough mood that her long, red hair rose upward like grasping tentacles of an undersea creatures as they swayed in the power she was radiating. "Of course. The red-eyed girl is Sailor Mercury, that's why that spell looked familiar. The one that Jadeite told me was dead! They must have plotted against me since the very start!" The queen sneered while she thought out loud, and Nephrite was sure that she would have stalked around the room like a caged tiger if the tightness of her violet dress had not constricted her ankles so much.
"It all makes sense now. It explains why the sailor senshi can always find our operations before they can get off the ground." Beryl trailed off, thinking. "This means the conspiracy hasn't been rooted out yet, despite Jadeite's removal. Someone is still funnelling information to those pests." Quick like a snake, she turned her head toward Nephrite, eyes flashing in anger. "Nephrite! I want these traitors rooted out! Find them and purge them! Start with the remains of Jadeite's division! They will learn what it means to defy me!" She raised her right hand, palm facing the ceiling, and made a crushing motion with her fingers.
The long-haired general, who had hoped she had forgotten about his presence, gulped and bowed deeply. "Of course, my Queen," he said before using the opportunity to make an exit. Frowning, he reappeared in his mansion. This would be unpleasant business, but maybe some good could come out of it. If he could implicate Zoisite somehow...
The thunderstorm howled around the huge barb of ice that protruded horizontally out of the prow of Ami's iceberg. A darker cube could be seen through the layers of clear ice, suspended over the boiling sea within the spike. Ami stood inside in the new room she had created at the very tip of her territory, about as far from her dungeon heart as was possible. Well-lit and entirely-composed of ochre sandstone blocks, her new temple looked deceptively simple and innocent. Nothing in the mostly empty room appeared sophisticated, because it hadn't been consecrated to a particular god yet. The only feature of interest was a square well in its centre, constructed from the same stone as the rest of the chamber. Four crude columns loomed over the hip-high wall forming the basin, also failing to justify the expense that had gone into the construction of this temple. The room had cost more than all of the others of the dungeon, excluding the dungeon heart, put together. The true complexity that the primitive interior of this place was hiding only became apparent when Ami looked into the swirling depths of the central pool. The water gurgled and shimmered near hypnotically, and the blue-haired girl couldn't make out the bottom even with her visor. This was doubly disconcerting to her because she knew that there was nothing but a metre of air and three metres of ice underneath the stone floor.
The teenager took a step back from the pool, feeling no desire to stay close to it, despite the seductive idea that it could potentially be a gateway home. Not when it whispered to her in strange, unsettling voices that bypassed the ears completely and resonated inside of her skull, making her teeth vibrate. With a shudder, Ami turned and walked out of her room, her boots hitting the cobblestones covering the ground in such rapid succession that to an observer, it would have looked as if she was running away. Once outside, she eagerly pressed a panel set into the bare ice of the corridor, and with loud grinding noises, the open doorway seemed to grow shorter. The temple, suspended from above by strong iron chains, slowly sank deeper into the ground until it came to a stop with a rumbling thud. Ami could still have entered through the doorway if she had crawled on all fours, but that was not necessary. She saw that the light inside had gone out, and with her Keeper sight, she confirmed that the pool was nothing but an empty depression at the moment. Now that the room was resting on a piece of ground that she had left unclaimed on purpose, it was no longer connected to her dungeon, and therefore inert. She intended to leave it that way any time she wasn't actually using it.
A sudden hiss prompted her to focus on the black, paper-thin oval that was opening in mid-air, hovering in the corridor. A blonde head appeared, followed by the rest of Jadeite's body as he dived through, ahead of a roaring orange flame that licked out of the portal and melted away the wall it touched. The dark general's somersault brought his back out of the path of the conflagration by the barest of margins, at the cost of slamming into the hard ground with an audible impact. The stream of flames cut off abruptly as the portal contracted and disappeared.
"Jadeite! Are you all right? What happened?" Ami's feet splashed through the puddle of hot melt water as she raced through the cloud of steam toward the curly-haired blond.
Before she could kneel down at his side, he offered a groaned "Dragon" by way of explanation.
"Dragon?!" Ami screeched in surprise. "Are you all- who's that?" Ami froze as she spotted the long-haired woman with pointy ears in the dark general's arms. Distracted by the flames, she had failed to spot the curvy figure clad in a stained shift, especially as Jadeite's larger body had hidden her smaller frame from view.
"Unhand me, peasant!" the brunette demanded as she sat up, sneering down at the man who had cushioned her fall. "I am of royal blood!"
Ami leaned in closer to examine the two for injuries, still confused by the exchange, and got a palm to her chest for her trouble. The newcomer pushed her away without even looking. "This is no way to treat a princess! And you, what were you thinking, trying to get so close to my illustrious self?" She turned her head, getting a first glimpse of the dark-clad girl sitting on the floor, blinking up at her in confusion. With two crimson eyes that glowed like the pits of hell. "AAAAHHHH-"
The princess' scream of terror cut off when she slumped over, having fallen unconscious without warning. "And elf," Jadeite said, removing his hand from her shoulder, and presenting a second pulsating ball of life energy to Mercury. The blue-haired girl was still gaping at him. "Heard about a dragon's lair in a tavern. Went to investigate. Found her chained to the entrance. Guess someone didn't like her charming personality." The dark general was panting, keeping his explanations short and to the point while he recovered his breath. "Spotted the ears, wanted to take a sample. Dragon disapproved. Managed to drain some energy from it anyway. Now here we are."
"Um." Ami looked at the sleeping form sprawled on the ground. "Saving her was a very heroic thing to do, I approve," she decided finally, smiling at her employee and prospective boyfriend.
"Whatever. I need a shower." Jadeite stood up, patting the dust and ash off of his scorch-marked uniform. "What should I do with her?"
Ami removed a green-glowing hand from the woman's back, having found nothing seriously wrong with her. "Put her into a cell for the moment. I want to ask her some questions when she wakes up."
A bald silhouette with two short horns protruding from its head stood in front of a hideous stone face that took up the entire back wall of the chamber. Fires burned in the hollow eye sockets above the crooked nose of the idol, their light making the dark skin of the bare-chested man gleam like polished tin.
"Of course she was cheating, my Lord. It was obvious to all." He inclined his head and remained still for a while, as if listening to something only he could hear.
A leg clad in red trousers lashed out, kicking a black-lacquered, human-sized object on the floor. The shoe rattled the breastplate that was wrought to resemble a ribcage, causing the suit of armour to ring hollowly. "Yes. This just makes all of her accomplishments a fraud, not just most," the figure chuckled. The fires in the eyes of the statue burned brighter, and plaster trickled from the ceiling.
"Oh, I find it quite amusing actually, no disrespect intended." He waited, listening once more into the darkness.
"Yes, punishment must be meted out. Certainly. I suggest Alphel. She is the more mentally capable of the two, and may be able to figure out how this works. Morrigan may feel left out, however." The piece of armour disappeared with a popping noise, and the tightly-packed skulls that formed the entirety of the room's floor stared up from where it had been.
"A most formidable idea, my Lord." The man turned away from the statue, revealing the bright red eyes set in his face. "That should satisfy him. Both of them toil and try sooo hard, it's quite endearing, isn't it?" Feathers rustled as two massive black wings unfolded, and the dark angel leaned back, letting out a laugh that went on and on, swelling in volume until the walls of the compound were shaking. Outside, the black-robed and hooded priests of Azzathra ducked their heads and threw nervous glances toward the rumbling gate leading to the inner sanctum, gritting their teeth as the evil laughter shook their bones.
Ami stood silently in the darkened chamber, her pale face illuminated only by the glow of the swirls of light that hovered in front of her like miniature stars. The individual knots of life energy looked fairly similar to each other, but there were differences that even the bare eye could distinguish. For example, the spiralling orb of thumbnail-sized whiteness drained from a goblin looked smaller than a different from one that came from a human, which in turn was less dense than that from an orc. Nevertheless, were it not for the inscribed badges set into the floor above which the lights floated in place, Ami wouldn't have been able to identify their origin. The shine of the life energy glittered on the letters stamped into the metal of the markers, drawing her gaze as she read the listed species names. Goblin and human energy had been trivially easy to come by, while orc, troll, and dark elf had only been marginally harder, requiring a brief trip to an Underworld tavern. Bile demon energy, likewise, had been acquired with a bribe of food. Some of the more exotic samples, however, left her wondering where or how Jadeite had acquired them. The source for the tentacle monster was obvious, of course, but skeleton? She hadn't even know that there was such a thing as skeleton life energy before she had seen its sickly grey glow above its nameplate. The same went for ghost energy. The gaze of the Keeper's ember-like eyes swept over the stone table, searching for a plate that said 'vampire', but finding none.
She nodded with relief, glad to see that the dragon was the most dangerous creature that the dark general had gone after. An entire third of the collected energy came from non-sentient animals, like rats and cows, but also from more mystical creatures, such as gryphons and unicorns. All harvested in one fell swoop from a circus, Jadeite had reported. Ami wouldn't mind visiting one of its performances with him at her side. Blushing, she shook her head. This was no time for idle fantasies about dating. Once she went through with her request, the temple would be consecrated to Metallia, she understood.
The curve of her lips bent downward as she stared at the eerie well around which the life energy was arranged in concentric circles. Not all of it, of course. She had claimed about half of each sample for her own lab, as there were a number of experiments she wanted to run. The results might even be able to fix one of her many problems. A sinister-looking smile banished the sour expression from her face. Despite how much she hated having to feed more power to the dormant dark goddess, Ami knew that she had no other option for freeing the victims suffering through Beryl's punishment. A feint voice at the back of her mind insisted that those were only youma, not worth the risk of hastening Metallia's revival, but she brushed it aside, remembering her own terror and despair when she was trapped helplessly in Azzathra's clutches. She glanced back over her shoulder, where Jadeite was standing in the doorway with crossed arms. He met her eyes and nodded encouragingly, prompting Ami to take a deep breath and spread her arms. Focusing on the well, she called out "Queen Metallia! Hear me! I offer you samples of life energy from many different creatures! Please take them in order from most to least appealing, so that I shall know where to best focus my efforts in the future! In return, I beg you to send me the prisoners trapped in Eternal Sleep. They may be useless to Queen Beryl, but they could be of great assistance to your cause in my service!"
Her plea completed, Ami lowered her arms and waited. Inside the basin, the water brightened, drawing a wavering, lit rectangle onto the ceiling as the shadows in the room started crawling.
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