Before Ami's widened eyes, the yellowish sandstone that the small temple was built from darkened in tone, colour leaching out of it as its surface took on a shinier, more polished gleam. The ground shifted under the soles of her boots while cobblestones smoothed into a single solid plate, but she didn't dare take her eyes off of the bright motes of life energy hanging motionless in the air, for fear of missing something. I hope the Mercury computer is recording all of this. The opened device was sitting on a low pedestal in the left back corner of the room, watching silently as the chamber trembled from the corruption that was flowing into it, creeping along the walls like black, wriggling maggots. Then, the first swirl of energy moved, hurling itself into the gaping maw that was the central basin. The glow from the spinning whirlpool within brightened like a camp fire that had been fed a new log, hissing until it returned to its previous luminance. Ami glanced at the metal name plate that identified the first sample that Metallia had devoured. Dragon.
Keeping her expression passive, the blue-haired girl pondered the implications. Dragons were huge, smart, and powerful. Blue whale or bile demon next, then. To Ami's surprise, none of the swirls of pale light harvested from massive creatures budged. A dim-looking globe was the next to vanish within the watery abyss. The young Keeper checked the name plate and was surprised to read 'goblin', which smashed her first tentative hypothesis into dust. She failed to immediately identify some obvious similarity between large, fire-breathing, winged lizards and small, numerous, and wimpy humanoids. They are both green, but...
The next diffuse orb of energy that drowned within the temple's turbulent well left her even more perplexed. That hadn't even been life energy at all, but a bit of Snyder's Light magic! The frozen ball of volatile magic was a dead end outcome of her research into making the permanent destruction of vampires easier. Unfortunately, it had proven too ephemeral to work with, and when released from its storage, it simply faded away. She had only put it with the other energy on a whim, as she had no better use for it. While the positive energy displayed some similarities to life energy, Ami hadn't expected Metallia to accept it at all, much less to consider it a favoured choice!
While blinking at the well in confusion, Ami nearly missed the next sequence of glowing motes that plunged into the waiting basin in rapid succession. Troll, human, dwarf, both varieties of elf, then fairy were the ones she could identify before the miniature stars threw themselves into the central basin too fast for her to read all the names. The comatose goddess seemed to feast indiscriminately, not caring particularly about the properties of the rest of the remaining orbs of life energy she was devouring. No, that was wrong, Ami realised. The rush slowed, and two particular glowing orbs moved only reluctantly toward the basin. Skeleton and ghost energy, Ami could tell from the pale, tattered appearance of the shining spheres alone. The faint blue light shining from underneath the rumbling whirlpool reddened, giving the well the appearance of blood as the energy of the undead disappeared, too. That's not good, is it?
Ami took a cautious step away from the central well. The square of red light washing over the ceiling gave its protruding stone veins the disturbing appearance of pulsing with life. The teenage Keeper felt her muscles relax when the light returned to its regular hue, and looked to what remained of the star field of life energy suspended in mid-air. A quick glance revealed that all of them originated from aquatic, mythical, and regular fauna. So far, none of them were moving. Didn't Metallia want energy from non-sentient sources? The teenager listened as the ethereal murmurs emanating from the profane pool quieted down, and she felt her heartbeat speed up in anticipation. As she waited for the first of the trapped youma to appear from the whirlpool, she grasped her left hand with her right, palpitating the limb that still hadn't fully recovered yet.
Wait, the remaining life energy was moving. Ami assumed that Metallia had decided that beggars couldn't be choosers and watched all of the animal-derived samples being drawn toward the central well. Its yellowish sandstone had turned into something darker that resembled marble over the course of the ceremony. The swirling orbs gathered in the square pool, but did not descend into it. Instead, they floated like luminous cherry blossoms on the turbulent surface. Slowly, their glow withered away, turning black, until it looked as if the glowing pool was covered in sunspots. Ami took a step forward to get a better look when the individual dark smears converged into a single oily-looking film. It bulged upward, turning into an opaque black bubble that detached itself from the water. With wide-open eyes, Ami tracked its rise to just above eye level, unsure of what to expect. With a crackling noise, the black energy turned into a net of twisting dark lightning that darted toward the nervous girl, striking true despite her startled backward lunge. For a split second, it felt as if liquid fire was forcing itself through her nervous system, creeping toward a spot in the centre of her forehead. The world went black.
"Mercury! Mercury, wake up!"
Ami opened her eyes, prompted by the insisting shaking on her left shoulder, and saw three blurry shapes obscuring her view of her bedroom's ceiling. She blinked to clear her eyes and focused her gaze on the three lumps, and they resolved into the worried faces of Jadeite, Cathy, and Snyder looking down at her.
"Finally! Are you all right? What happened?" Cathy was sitting on the edge of the bed and had her hand on Mercury's shoulder, still shaking absently.
"Punishment for offering an unworthy sacrifice," Snyder declared, his red hair bouncing as he nodded sagely. "One of the dangers of dealing with temperamental and evil dark gods, as I have warned against."
"Um, no, I don't think so," Ami said as she sat up, feeling woozy. She had a light headache, and the skin on her brow prickled, but it wasn't anything worse than she would expect from a common cold. "I think it wasn't supposed to hurt, just a side effect from having to work with unsuitable energy." Seeing that she had been lying on top of the covers, she found herself still wearing her black Keeper garb, which indicated that she had only been unconscious for short time. It wouldn't hurt to verify this, though. "How long have I been out?"
"About a quarter of an hour," Jadeite reported. The dark general was standing at the head end of the bed, which meant that Ami had to turn around to look at him. The expression of relief on his face, presumably at seeing that she was all right, made her feel warm and comfortable. "So, what did our Great Ruler do to you?"
Ami rubbed her forehead, which still itched a little underneath the skin. "She wedged knowledge about a spell into my brain. It's... " she trailed off, rolling up her eyes as she gauged the new knowledge, "about the victims trapped in Eternal Sleep. I'm supposed to get them myself if I want them so badly."
"Oh." Jadeite looked slightly taken aback by the news.
"Is that dangerous? Do you have to go into the dark gods' realm?" Cathy asked, getting out of the way as Ami slid off the bed and stood on her feet, swaying only for a moment.
The blue-haired girl shook her head. "Not dangerous, just time-consuming. I will have to cast it at the temple, too."
"You could teach it to me," Jadeite offered. "I would be happy to take over that task while you work on more important things."
Ami smiled at him. "I'd like that. Hmm. It might be best if you retrieve those lost Fairies before I do. This work could potentially tie you down for weeks."
"As you wish," Jadeite said, holding his right arm horizontally across his chest as he gave a slight bow. "I have just the plan..."
Green eyes opened drowsily, crossing to fixate on the object twitching just in front of their owner's nose. Two quivering nostrils came into focus, attached to a whiskered grey snout. Beady black eyes stared back at the waking woman, reflecting her confused facial expression.
"EEEK!" A loud, feminine cry of outrage echoed through the cell block, which was located just underneath Ami's throne room, on the border between the restricted and unrestricted sections of the ship. The woman, who had identified herself as a noble earlier, somehow managed to go from lying flat on her belly to sitting up and scrambling backwards on all fours until her back slammed into a cold-hard wall. "Rats! What kind of vile, disgusting place is this?!" A thrown shoe bounced off of the carpeted ground just behind the tail of the fleeing rat, missing the startled rodent only by a finger's breadth on the rebound. With the immediate danger eliminated, the elf woman took stock of her situation. No dragon: good. Uncomfortable, substandard bed: barely acceptable. Bright ceiling lights that just had to be magical: tentatively good. They didn't mesh at all with the precisely-cut stone walls that had been left bare, of course. Sloppy work. Seriously, it looked like whoever had designed this place had run out of money after installing fanciful arcane lighting and therefore left the rest of the room plain and functional. Putting the thought aside, she took in the final feature of the room, half-hidden behind a drab grey curtain that dangled from the ceiling. Iron bars blocking the exit: very bad.
"Hello? Is something wrong? I heard you scream." The concerned-sounding girl's voice came from outside, prompting the pointy-eared woman to raise her gaze from the shabby-looking carpet and toward the speaker. With a glance, she took in the strange apparel of the young woman. Well-tailored black trousers with golden trim that could have been worn by any prince, but were horribly unsuitable for a girl, worn with a similar jacket of military cut that was held together at the waist by a belt. Given her own soiled white shift, the princess wasn't really in any position to make caustic judgements about someone else's attire. Especially if that someone else had eyes that looked like the dying embers in a fireplace. Cringing at the sight, she recovered after a split-second and straightened her back, taking refuge in boldness. "You have got rats!" she declared haughtily, raising her nose disdainfully at the deceptively innocent-looking fiend in front of her cell.
The blue-haired girl raised her right hand to her mouth as she let out a giggle. "Indeed, but don't worry, they are very well-trained rats."
The brunette huffed. "A likely story. Rats. And these quarters are completely unsuitable for a person of my status! Just look at this moth-eaten carpet! It is an insult! And who are you, anyway, to address me so familiarly?"
"My name is Sailor Mercury," Ami informed the woman. "Is there's anything wrong that isn't related to your quarters?"
"Are you kidding? My clothes are filthy, I itch everywhere, there's no servant in sight, and I need a bath! You call that all right?" Trailing off, she tapped her long fingernails against the palm of her other hand as she though. "Sailor Mercury... Mercury... where have I heard that before?"
Ami had to admit that she was deriving some guilty pleasure from watching the blood leave the entitled-feeling woman's face as recognition hit home. Her satisfaction was short lived, as the princess' next proclamation caused her to grimace.
"Keeper Mercury the Deviant! That's it, isn't?" She narrowed her eyes. "Well, that explains the masculine garb." The elf cocked her head. "I'd thought you would be taller, really. Don't you dare touch me! I'm not going to participate in your vile and depraved activities!"
Not this again. Ami hung her head and raised both hands, palms facing outwards. "I assure you that I have no such intentions. My entire reputation is based on nothing but unfounded rumours and outright lies."
"Oh, so you never punched a horned reaper to death? Of course not. That would just be silly. Ohohohoho."
Slowly and deliberately, Ami lowered her eyelids, pressing them together hard and leaving them that way to deal with her growing irritation. "That particular rumour happens to be true," she stated neutrally.
"And you also employ a tentacle monster, is it not so?"
"Yes, but I don't see why tha-"
"I rest my case. The rumours are clearly sufficiently accurate!"
Ami sighed. "I am not going to convince you, am I? Nevertheless, it is the truth, and you have nothing to fear from me."
"All right. Let's work with this absurd notion that the rumours are false for the moment. What, then, are you planning to do with me? Speak!" the elf woman ordered imperiously, apparently not all that worried about addressing a Keeper that way.
"Nothing. One of my employees just happened to rescue you from a dragon. I don't even know who you are!" Ami said, trying hard to remain polite.
"I am princess Julia Morgana of Danai. And rescue? That's what you call pawing at me like that?" The elf princess waved a dainty hand dismissively, ignoring the incredulously-narrowed crimson eyes of her captor.
"Would you have preferred to stay with the dragon? I'm sure any so-called 'pawing' was entirely unintentional," Ami defended the curly-haired general, letting a hint of annoyance creep into her voice. "Danai is located in that forested area at the west border of King Albrecht's realm, isn't it?" she asked, drawing on her memory of the local geography. "Very well, I will just return you there."
"No! I mean, that won't be necessary," the princess said quickly, "just put me back where you found me."
"With the dragon? You can't be serious!" By now, Ami was looking at the princess as if she was crazy.
"A simple overgrown lizard couldn't dream of giving me trouble," the elf said, raising her head arrogantly. "I am an accomplished sorceress, you low-born Underworlder, and was trying to lure the monster out. Now do as you were told!"
Ami re-evaluated her opinion of the curvy woman. She didn't look like sorceress material to her in that short white dress. Nor like a princess, or like anyone who wanted to be anywhere near a dragon, really. She also lacked the muscles one would expect from an adventurer. Then again, one couldn't always judge a book by its covers, especially where magical disguises were concerned. "But it wouldn't be any more trouble to get you home instead," Ami offered again. "In fact, the effort required would be exactly the same." She put a finger to her right earring, summoning the transparent blue surface of her visor.
"I insist," Julia snapped, "now respect my wishes and do as you were told!"
Ami audibly sucked in her breath at the readout flickering over the screen. The princess had magical reserves that far outstripped those of her warlocks, yes, but that wasn't what had set the blue haired girl on edge.
"Are you even listening to me? Don't you dare ignor- GAH!"
Princess Julia found herself yanked from her position, followed by a light touch on her shoulder. The world flashed blue for an instant and the atmosphere changed. Instead of a cool and somewhat dusty-smelling dungeon, she found herself surrounded by the smell of grass and leafy trees. Without the bed supporting it, her behind succumbed to gravity and got painfully acquainted with the dewy grass.
"You are working for another Keeper!" Ami accused the grimacing woman, glaring down at her through her visor from where she was hovering half a metre above the ground.
"So what?" the princess squinted through the bright sunlight that was a drastic change from her former location. "You are hardly in a position to condemn other people's career choices, Keeper," she said as she pulled herself to her feet with the aid of a nearby tree trunk and patted the dirt off of her shoulder.
"Wha-?" If it hadn't been for Ami's visor being already active, she would have missed the arcane gesture hidden within the casual-looking movement. Forewarned by the outlined glow gathering around the bending fingers, she barely managed to swerve out of the way of the near-invisible distortion that parted the air where her neck had just been, moving in absolute silence. Over the sound of her blood rushing through her veins, she heard a buzzing noise behind her as the imperceptible disc bit through a tree trunk. Wasting no time, she reacted to the attack by retrieving a stashed-away Shabon Spray Freezing from storage, which erupted into aquamarine light and bubbles between the would-be assassin's knees. The princess let out a loud gasp as the icy cold enveloped her up to the waist, immobilising the lower part of her body in a shell of ice and effectively freezing her to the tree standing behind her. Poisonous green eyes glared at Ami from a face distorted into an angry snarl that revealed perfect white teeth.
Warily, the blue-haired girl floated in an arc around the trapped elf, flanking her. Raising her voice to be heard over the cracking and crashing noise of the tree toppling behind her, she shouted "Stop that, or the next one isn't going to miss! Why did you attack me, and who are you working for? Was this all part of an elaborate scheme?"
"Don't flatter yourself, you foolish human monkey-thing. You were a target of opportunity, nothing more. I'm sure my liege will be delighted to go after a weak Keeper like you once I report back to him! Releasing a prisoner, what a joke!"
Before Ami could react, the woman's shape flattened and melted into the rough bark of the tree touching her back. Her condescending smirk was the last thing to disappear. Within the hollow of the ice, nothing but the crumpled piece of white cloth that was the stained shift the princess had been wearing remained. The blue-haired girl's visor confirmed that the sorceress was gone. "Darn it!"
What worried Ami most was the very real possibility that the enemy Keeper had checked up on his minion while she had been on the ship. In contrast to scrying, Ami could tell exactly where her employees were with her Keeper sense, even over vast distances. She had to assume that other Keepers had similar abilities, which meant that the secrecy of her ship's current location could be compromised. She didn't know of any easy ways that a Keeper could assault a swimming fortress, but that just meant that she was unaware of them, not that they didn't exist. She gritted her teeth, determined to tighten the defences of her dungeon. And then, there was the princess. For the sake of her friends back home, she hoped that the Moon Princess, should she ever be found, wasn't anything like that elf.
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