Seagull cries echoed through the air, competing against the noise of the waves and the hubbub caused by the vendors at the fish market, who were loudly proclaiming the merits of their wares. Camilla wrinkled her nose as the morning breeze carried the smell of the merchandise up the hill overlooking both the busy stalls and the nearby piers, over to her table in front of a small tavern. "Eww. Anise, when will our ship finally be ready?" the blonde fairy asked, resting her chin in her palms as she watched crates being loaded onto the high-masted vessels anchored in the harbour.
The redhead sitting across from her chewed rapidly, gulping down a huge mouthful before answering "Two more days. The King probably didn't take our wings into account when he estimated our travel time. Hey, are you still eating that?" Anise pointed at her sister's platter with her fork, where a few golden-brown fried potatoes yet remained uneaten. Without a word, the blonde shoved the plate over and leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms behind her head and closing her eyes. "This place is sooo boring."
The ambient temperature seemed to fall as a shadow fell over her face. "Maybe I can help with that," a friendly male voice offered.
Camilla opened her eyes and stared at the silhouette blotting out the sunlight. Her pupils widened at the sight of the handsome man in the local white and blue uniform naval officer's uniform. Curly blond bangs peeked out from underneath his cap, underlining his roguish grin.
"May I show you lovely ladies around the city to alleviate your boredom?" he asked, revealing gleaming white teeth as he smiled.
The youngest fae's golden eyes sparkled as she leaned forward, clasping her hands together and fluttering her eyelashes. "May you ever!"
Even the green-haired third fairy sister, who had up to now happily ignored her siblings while she spooned out her soup, looked rather flushed as she pondered the confident-looking stranger's offer. The trio of girls put their heads together, whispering and giggling. "All right, we will take you up on your offer, Mr. ?"
"Jason. Jason Dayte," the man said, introducing himself to the trio with a polite, militarily precise bow.
The emerald-eyed fairy smiled back. "My name is Tilia. This are my sisters Camilla," she pointed at the blushing blonde, "and Anise." The redhead waved a short greeting, not letting go of her knife as she redoubled her efforts to annihilate her meal with haste. Tilia pushed her chair back and stood up, fluttering her dragonfly-like wings and dispersing some glitter that was almost invisible in the sunlight. "I'll be right back, just have to pay our bill." A moment later, she had disappeared into the white-façaded building, nearly running down a guest who was just leaving. Her sisters leaned over the table until their faces nearly touched and exchanged a few hushed words, laughing.
When Jadeite, master of disguise, was sure they weren't looking at him, his eyes narrowed, turning his smile altogether more sinister. So far, phase one of his plan had gone without a hitch. He would lead the foolish girls around, hand them a few energy-draining presents, and take a 'shortcut' through a back alley, from which they were never going to return. Later he would pick up the rest of them the same way. This was going to be easy.
Tilia was having a good time touring the town with their self-styled guide, even though the sights were nothing all of them hadn't seen many times over in other harbour cities. Of course, none of the fairies had expected anything different. This was, after all, just an excuse to hang out with a good-looking guy, or hang off of him, as her siblings were doing right now. Even tomboyish Anise had not let go of Jason's left arm since he had gifted each of the sisters with a white crocus flower, eliciting a squeal of delight from Camilla. Tilia inspected the petals of her own present, rotating it slowly by twirling its stem as she followed behind the three. Crocus, in late summer. Really? She fell behind a few steps as she removed her thin gloves and stroked the stem between two fingers that dripped with golden glitter. Sure enough, she could feel her skin prickle where it touched the plant, and this wasn't the good kind of magic, either. The fairy's eyes seemed to bore into the man's back as she wondered what this meant. Her sisters were oblivious to the danger, lost in polite conversation with the hunk. Maybe she was reading too much into this? Only one way to find out. With a grim smile gracing her lips, the short-haired fae fluttered her wings to catch up with the group.
Jadeite was not having a good time. Sure, the plan was moving along without a hitch, but maintaining his pleasant and caring mask while the three clingy airheads pulled him this way and that way became harder by the minute. They kept talking about petty things like fashion, for example, asking for his opinion on the strangest things. Why did they even bother? As far as he could tell, they were all wearing the same things anyway: back-free white leotards, to which they had added knee-length trousers in order to not offend local sensibilities. They only differed in their accessories, so why were they making a big deal out of this? The disguised dark general sighed inwardly as he complimented the blue ribbon in the blonde's hair. The girls constantly shooting off their mouths really made him appreciate Sailor Mercury's quietness and deliberation, which contrasted with the incessant chattering of the fairy trio like night and day. These fairies were so pushy. At least the green-haired one's hand had ceased wandering across his backside for the time being. Fortunately, it would all be over soon.
He suppressed a grin as he led the group around a corner and into a narrow but clean back alley. The sounds of the city receded, muffled by the high brick walls enclosing the winding passage on both sides. The curly-haired blond looked back over his shoulder, verifying that the visible part of the path behind him was as devoid of life as the part ahead. Only a grey alley cat noticed his gaze, hissing at him before jumping over a wall and disappearing out of sight. Perfect. With an ugly grin, he commanded his flowers to drain energy from his unsuspecting targets, which would render them unconscious, and would finally, finally shut them up. All of a sudden, his knees felt weak and his vision went blurry. What in the name of the Great Ruler...? As he staggered, steadying himself against the wall with his left hand, he noticed that his companions had let go of him.
"I knew it! Get him, girls!" called the offensively jolly voice of Tilia from behind him, completely unaffected by the energy drain. With a jolt, Jadeite cut power to the spell, feeling some of his vitality return. He whirled around, just in time to see the green and the blond girls both dash toward him, one to his left, one to his right. Two smooth-skinned legs whistled toward his face in scything arcs, the horizontal kicks only separated by a hand's width of space between them. The dark general raised his left arm in a block, but moved still too sluggish to protect himself. The double impact catapulted the steely-eyed blond backward, bouncing him off the wall. With a furious snarl, made all the more vicious-looking by the blood trickling from his split lip, he started drawing dark power to his hands as he jumped back to his feet. With a loud thud, the third fairy brought a wooden plank down on the back of his head with an overhead blow, jumping to put all of her weight behind it. The crackling black lightning playing around the dark general's hands faded out as he slumped like a puppet with its strings cut.
"Bastard," the redhead said, looking down at the unconscious form lying prone on the ground, and dropped the dented plank.
"Is he still alive?" Camilla asked in a small voice, grabbing his wrist and searching for a pulse.
"Don't worry, he's still breathing," Tilia poined out. "Told you he was evil," the green-haired fairy added smugly, removing the three flowers from the unconscious man's back pocket.
"Hey, he's changing! Look!" Anise said, her dark ruby eyes going wide as Jadeite's glamour faded away.
"It's him again!"
"Good! It would be so horrible if there were two evil cuties!"
"What do we do with him now?"
"He's some kind of wizard, let's take him to the temple and get some wards on him," Tilia ordered.
"And to get his face healed!"
"Yes, Camilla, and to get his face healed," the green-haired fairy agreed exasperatedly. "I'll grab the legs, you take a shoulder each!"
A narrow, withered staircase of smoothed basalt stood freely in the centre of a vast cavern, leading up to a pitch black hole in the wall just below the fang-like stalactites hanging from the ceiling. The slippery steps lead straight upwards, with no railing to keep an unwary traveller from falling to a swift doom on the hard, fog-blanketed rocks below. Within the rectangular darkness at the top, two crimson slits burned hatefully, focusing their gaze on the black-robed figure kneeling at the bottom. "Tyris, I want a progress report on the armour Lord Azzathra sent me," a cold, female voice hissed, making the torches lining the ground level of the cave sputter.
"It is quite ingenious," the bow-legged warlock gushed, "I mean, look at the spellwork alone, the intricate-"
A loud smacking noise echoed through the tomb-like hall, flipping the bearded wizard over and sending him rolling through the puddles of brackish water dotting the ground in irregular intervals. "Get to the point, idiot! I didn't call you here to comment on the craftsmanship. How do we make it work?"
Gasping in pain and dripping green-stained water from his beard and drenched robes, Tyris pulled himself back to his knees. "I'm sorry, Lady Alphel," he grovelled. "Using it should be easy, if we find a power source."
Silence, in which only horrible wet grinding noises could be heard from the Keeper's hideout. "How did Mercury power it?"
"There are fittings for mana batteries inside, but I cannot imagine that they would last as long as the battle did. She must have powered it directly."
"So what you are saying that it can draw its power from whoever is wearing it?" Alphel sounded intrigued, and the disturbing noises from the lightless hole she resided in stopped.
"Not exactly, my Lady," the warlock said, shivering. "It is likely that she used her dungeon heart to provide the power. There is no interface for the wearer to directly channel magic into it."
"But you do have a solution?" the Keeper's voice rumbled, leaving little doubt that a negative answer would not do wonders for her minion's life expectancy.
"Blood," Tyris blurted out, "The mana within is easily assimilated, and the suit can hold nine bodies worth of it, allowing it to operate for nearly fifteen minutes at full power!"
"That is all? How useless." Alphel's voice quivered with disdain. More bones cracked in the darkness while the Keeper thought things over. "As usual, the burden of putting this boon to good use lies entirely on me. The armour's most important innovation is the control scheme, anyway. It has already become clear to me that an external source of mana will not work. Now listen, this is what you will do: you will make a copy of this armour, cast from an alloy that has as many ghosts bound within as it takes to satisfy the power requirements. Do you understand?"
"Of course, Lady Alphel, b-but that would be hundreds of sacrifices per suit," the warlock pointed out with a gulp.
"Yes. Simple, cheap, and efficient, isn't it? Now begone, and do not disappoint me!"
Alphel missed her minion's hurried exit. In her daydream, a haunted army of steel behemoths, each one with the strength to fight a horned reaper on even terms, was cutting a bloody swath through her enemies. Soon, the world would burn.
"Ugh. What the- " Bright white light stung in Jadeite's eyes as he came to. He lifted his head and attempted to shield his eyes against the brilliance, but found his arms restrained behind his back. Cold, metallic bands cut into his wrists as he yanked experimentally, causing his chains to rattle. His legs were tied to his chair in a similar way. Even more worrisome was the sucking sensation that ripped away all his magic before he could channel it into something useful. As his eyes adjusted to the brightness, he took in his surroundings. A small room with white marble walls and pillars, engraved with angular geometrical patterns. Not your regular prison. The only dots of colour were a few potted plants sprouting from round pails, and of course, the rainbow-coloured hair of his seven captors, arranged in a half-circle in front of him. No, that wasn't true, he realised. There were other people - two helmeted guards with halberds, wearing breastplates over their purple liveries and guarding the only door he could see. He belatedly noticed the three priests, whose white-and gold robes acted like camouflage in this environment. How many candles did they light to make it so bright in here, anyway? He gave up counting after the first two dozen, and wondered how exactly his plan had turned so horribly wrong.
"Ah, you are awake." The indigo-haired fairy, who was the tallest of the seven, stepped right in front of him, arms akimbo. "I remember you. You helped us escape from Keeper Mercury's dungeon. Why are you after us now? Explain!"
Jadeite shrugged his shoulders. "Well, she wanted you back."
"Why?" Melissa, the blue-haired sister, asked in a worried tone of voice, alarmed at the idea that a Keeper was after her personally.
"She wants to ask you some questions about the Shining Concord Empire and then transport you over there," Jadeite divulged with good grace.
Dandel raised an eyebrow at the answer and looked at something behind Jadeite. Her sceptical expression turned into one of surprise.
"See? See? She has to feed him lies like that to keep him working for her, I knew it!" Anise was jumping up and down now, drawing irate glances from her more dignified siblings. Jadeite, for his part, wondered how they had jumped to that conclusion, but he wasn't complaining. The less inclined they were to do something permanent to him, the better. He just hoped that Mercury would get him out of this dangerous and annoying situation soon.
"Alas, young lady, outward appearances may be deceiving. Sometimes, a pretty face may hide inner ugliness." One of the priests, sporting a grandfatherly white beard, stepped forward, tapping his wooden staff on the ground as he walked. "I fear that this is one of these cases."
"No, Father, I don't believe that he is evil by choice!" The orange-haired fae objected loudly as she pointed right at the dark general's face, which earned her an irritated glance from the prisoner in question. "Look, he can't be a dark wizard! His eyes are glowing bluish-white, not red!"
"And yet, he is working for a Keeper," the old man said tiredly.
"Keeper Mercury is not evil," Jadeite said experimentally, testing a theory. The seven girls looked at him, then at something behind him, and gaped. The right guard raised one finger to his forehead and moved it in a circle, giving his opinion of Jadeite's mental state. That confirmed it, then. He was sitting in front of one of those truth detector things that Mercury had warned him about.
"He really believes that!"
"Now we know that he must be under some form of mind control," Camilla said immediately. "Please perform a cleansing ritual on him! I'm sure he will be all better after it!" The short blonde stared at the holy men with wide-open, pleading eyes, putting her child-like features to good use.
The three robed priests exchanged glances, first among themselves, then with the guards. The taller of the armoured men shrugged. "The King said to accommodate their wishes, if reasonably practical. I don't see any harm in going along with this. He'll still be around to interrogate afterwards."
The fairies cheered at the decision, completely failing to notice the worried expression that had appeared on Jadeite's face. What had he gotten into now?
Ami collapsed to her knees in fright after mentally checking on Jadeite, having just returned from her ill-fated interrogation of princess Julia. Upon realizing that the blond general had been captured, she had retrieved her advisers from their current tasks by way of Keeper transport, producing a classroom full of confused goblins wondering where there instructor had gone, and a bunch of furnaces filled with a ruined gem harvest in the process.
"Mercury, I know you are worried, but I don't really see how walking a furrow into the carpet will help," Jered said, sitting on the couch and watching the blue-haired girl stalk up and down the length of the living room. "You'll have ample opportunity to rescue him. It's not as if another Keeper has him. I really fail to see what you are so worked up about here."
"I can't go get him! I can't even see him! He has been brought into a temple of the Light!" Ami's answer was very close to a sob, and reminded the weasel-featured man that the teenager had a crush on the missing general, which meant she probably wasn't thinking too clearly right now.
"The first thing you need to do is to calm down," Cathy instructed. "They aren't going to hurt him. At least not until he had a proper trial. You have enough time to think of something. Calm down I said!" She repeated more forcefully, using the same commanding tone of voice she had used during the blue-haired girl's battle training, and it showed some effect.
Ami stopped pacing and stood rigidly, taking a deep breath. "But what if just being in there hurts him or kills him? He isn't really human, you know!" She really wished that she could see what was going on. When had being able to check up on him whenever she wished become so natural for her that she took the ability for granted? Instead, her over-active imagination taunted her with the terrifying image of him screaming and turning to dust like a youma upon being brought inside the temple.
Jered and Cathy both turned to look at Snyder, who was undoubtedly the most qualified to address these concerns. "Actually, I doubt that he is in any danger. The Light gods do not inflict harm lightly, even on those deserving it. Unless he is much, much more evil than you think he is, he should be fine."
"Are you sure?" At the acolyte's nod, some of the pale teenager's tense muscles relaxed. "I'm being really silly right now, aren't I?" Ami asked, brushing over her eyes with the back of her right hand and attempting a smile, which ended up a bit bent. "All right. Jadeite has been captured, we need to save him."
"Whatever we do, we should do it at night. The guards will be less alert, and there won't be many innocent bystanders," Jered suggested, going from reassuring to business-like without transition. "They won't take him outside the temple, given that you rescued Snyder a while ago by teleporting in."
"I may not be able to go personally, but I'll do my best to plan this rescue," Ami said, opening her Mercury computer, and furrowing her brow in determination. "All right, we need to decide whom to send and..."
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