In a warehouse, an unremarkable wooden barrel stood in a row with other of its kind, ready to receive a filling of salted fish. The container shook and belched out a small cloud of snowflakes that dissipated rapidly in the dry air. Its lid rose a hand's width, allowing a pair of glowing red eyes to peer out through the dark gap. Ami listened into the room, holding her breath to stay quieter. Her heartbeat sounded inordinately loud to her own ears, but the noise of the workers and of the waves, even dampened by passing through the pine wooden walls, was louder still. The girl's blue-haired head emerged from her cover, glancing left and right and confirming her computer's assessment: she was alone in the building, for now. This was just as well, because uninvited, black clad intruders with large backpacks tended to be universally regarded with suspicion.
Ami extricated herself from the narrow barrel by floating straight upward, rather than trying to awkwardly put a leg over the edge. Magic was convenient at times. She alighted on the dusty ground without making a sound, throwing a cautious glance toward the main door that was slightly ajar and surrounded by thin bands of sunlight. Footsteps on the pier outside prompted her to retreat deeper into the hall. She really hoped that nobody would observe the next phase of her plan, as they would inevitably jump to the wrong conclusions. She slipped off her leather backpack and deposited the large, rectangular shape softly on the ground. Now she had only one more obstacle to neutralise. Red eyes narrowed at a dark corner from which poison-green eyes peered at her suspiciously around the stacked crates. Ami squatted down, leaning forward and rubbing the fingers of her extended right hand together. "Here, kitty kitty!" she whispered.
A minute later, the warehouse's mouser was curled up safely in her arms, purring like a well-oiled engine as his white tummy got rubbed. Ami undid the clasp holding the backpack on the floor shut, and a grey flood poured out. The carpet of grey bodies and pinkish tails assembled in a semi-circle in front of her. Ignoring their survival instincts, the rats gazed up at their mistress, ignoring the struggling cat pawing at the air, unable to squirm from her grasp. With a mental command, Ami instructed her rodent spies to disperse through the city and provide her with visibility of the area that way. The ground rustled under the stampede of many tiny feet as the rats scurried away, disappearing into corners and shadows. It was too bad they couldn't fly, Ami pondered, scratching the white tomcat she was holding behind the ears. They would be able to cover much more territory that way. Yes. She would have to look into acquiring a flock of birds, or possibly bats. People noticed the swarm of rats spilling out from underneath the door, and their alarmed shouts told her that it was time to leave.
A flash of blue light deposited two figures in a cluttered corner behind a shed, shielded from sight by a withered wooden fence whose planks were taller than Ami and her companion. The area had been determined clear by one of Ami's scouts, who worked out quite well so far, aside from a few unfortunate incidents with the local cats. The blue-haired girl hadn't realised just how many bored felines were on the prowl in a coastal town. "
The man she had transported let go of her waist and stepped away, straightening his peasant garb and smoothing his greying, wavy hair. A cane and a stubby, glued-on moustache completed Jered's disguise, transforming him from a shifty-looking adventurer into a poorly-groomed, elderly farmer. "Ah, sunlight," he commented, looking at the reddening disc that was hanging low in the afternoon sky. "Need to take advantage of any opportunity to enjoy it that I can."
"It's too bad we have to hide underground so much," Ami agreed. "Are you sure you'll be safe? Don't stay too long, the mercenaries-"
"Don't worry, I'll be back when the hourglass is empty," the disguised agent promised, tugging the small device hanging from a chain around his neck over the brim of his collar so that Ami could see the falling sand within. "That's too short for the White Hawks to scry on us, find out where we are, and get the descriptions out to their field agents, especially if we keep moving. We'll be gone before they can react."
"I hope so. Please be careful!"
Jered smiled. "I'm always careful. I'm actually more worried about your plan. Are you sure it's wise to stray so close to the temple grounds?"
"It's something I have to do. I won't leave Jadeite high and dry," she said with conviction. "I need to know what will and what won't work before we start our operation."
"Well, at least they'll be expecting us already, so you tripping some alarms won't make the situation worse," Jered said as he started moving toward the gate leading onto the cobblestone-covered street, tapping his cane on the ground and walking with a hunch. "See you later."
Ami took that as her cue to see to her own duties, and departed in an aquamarine whirl of snow. When she rematerialised, she felt branches poke and prod into her skin through the black cloth of her shirt and trousers, but a few scratches were an acceptable price for the concealment that her current environment offered. The tree's heavily-leafed crown overlooked the white-painted wall enclosing the temple grounds. The building itself resembled the one Ami had visited in Evercalm, having a main dome from which a high clock tower grew. Walls, statues, and side buildings had all been constructed from the same white marble, and gleamed enticingly in the sunlight. Its surroundings seemed to double as the city's park, and she could see a few couples strolling across the gravel-covered paths that led past flower beds and ponds thick with water lilies. It was a place where Ami would have enjoyed sitting down with a good book underneath one of the trees and spending a relaxing afternoon. Unfortunately, she had a job to do.
Even this close to the temple, she couldn't locate Jadeite with her Keeper sight, but at least she could feel that he was still alive if she concentrated on him. In fact, she could see further into the building with her own eyes than with the tainted magic. She suppressed a sneeze as a broad leaf brushed past her nostrils, summoned her visor, and zoomed in on the building's entrance, which was framed by two stone angels. Their sculpted wings touched at the tips, forming an arch above the doorway that could protect passers-by from rain. One of the rats hiding in the recently-mown grass scuttled toward the building at Ami's behest. She closed her eyes, following its progress entirely with her Keeper powers. The animal reached the white façade and twitched its nose, waiting for further instructions. She directed it toward the highly-polished brass gate of the temple, where it could hide between the toes of the left statue until one of the visitors pushed open the door's wings.
Soon, an opportunity presented itself, and the little beast hopped up the three steps and into the temple's inner hallway, just as it had been instructed. As soon as the rat crossed the temple's threshold, Ami's mental sight went dark. Opening her eyes to look at the creature through purely mundane means, she could see it flitting about the feet of two visitors who were kicking and shouting at it while trying to shoo it outside. The rat circled around their feet in blind animal panic, finding neither a hiding spot in the brightly-lit hall nor the will to defy its Keeper's instructions. Taking pity on her pet, Ami tugged at it telekinetically as it passed the gap between the door's wings through which she was watching. The small body zipped toward the door as if yanked by a chain, prompting elated cries from within. Ami, for her part, felt satisfied with what she had learned. Her powers still worked on her subordinates, provided that she could perceive them. She didn't have to test whether her Keeper magic, empowered by gold, would work inside or not, because she couldn't even finish concentrating in the right way to deploy a spell within the sacred building. Past experience from fighting the Reaper on top of the roof of a different temple hat taught her that her personal spells, independent of the dungeon heart, were still an option. This was just as well, because she didn't dare getting any closer than she already was. Leaving behind a few grains of wheat as a reward for her brave, grey-furred minion, the blue-haired girl disappeared from her perch.
"I managed to appropriate a floor plan of the place from the city hall," Jered announced, proffering a rolled-up bundle of scrolls.
Ami took the papers from him and winced inwardly as she parsed his statement, translating the euphemism into the more blunt 'steal'. Well, it wasn't so much stealing as it was borrowing without permission, she excused her employees action to herself. They would return it when they no longer needed it, and it was for a good cause. Looking over the lines and numbers drawn by the skilled hand of an architect, she said "Thanks, that will help. My rats were successful in mapping out the sewer system, but couldn't get into the temple proper. Hmm, from the looks of it, a few of the larger pipes run very close to the building's basement. Perfect for a stealthy entry."
"Unfortunately, that's entirely the wrong area of the building," the weasel-featured man dashed her hopes while he made his way over to the living room's couch. "Jadeite isn't being held near the basement, but in one of the cells on the third floor."
Ami flipped pages until she was looking at the right one, inspecting it with interest. "How did you find that out?"
"Met someone at a tavern. Inebriated soldiers are prone to gossip."
"Um, am I right in that the place was not originally intended to have prison cells?" the teenage Keeper asked as she identified the row of smaller rooms that could serve as a holding area. "They aren't located very deeply within the building. In fact, I can't see a single one that has more than two walls separating the inmates from freedom."
"Naturally. They are intended to restrain people under the influence of evil magic until they can be cured, not as a permanent residence." Jered scratched his chin, looking at the red-eyed girl warily. "I hope you aren't planning to go through the walls. They are rather thick."
Ami shook her head. "Not if I can avoid it," she said, raising her right hand to her mouth as she started considering her options. Her thoughts were racing when the first pieces of a plan started to take shape in her mind. Her eyes lit up eagerly. "I'll have to talk to the warlocks. Feel free to take a rest before the operation this night."
The empty street at a corner of the temple's enclosure flashed with blue light for an instant before fading back into the drab grey tones of a cloudy night. Guided by the rats hiding all around the city, Ami had chosen an arrival point away from the senses of both the citizens and the dogs they kept. Standing on top of the wall overlooking the small park, she turned to face the other figure who had arrived with her. Seeing a black silhouette move past one of the many lit windows, she ducked deeper behind the vegetation. With her visor, the blue-haired girl tracked movement in the garden. "There's the patrol. Wait until it is past and then hurry!" she whispered.
Both figures remained still and silent, watching the two guards and one monk from their hidden vantage point. After a while, Ami fidgeted and said tersely "You can let go of me now. Especially with the tentacle crawling up inside my trouser leg."
"Sorry. Habit." Tserk the tentacle monster shifted its bulk, unwrapping the slimy pseudopods that had been coiled around the slender girl's legs up to her waist since she had teleported both of them to this place.
Ami tensed, still watching the retreating back of the guards. "Now! Go!" Without further ado, she lifted the creature into the air, where it hung like a clump of nasty green-and black spaghetti from her telekinetic grip. Holding it close to the ground, she hovered it toward one of the ponds on temple grounds, much faster than it could have moved on its own. That was about as close as she dared go for fear of alerting the residents to their presence. Tserk oozed through the grass and toward the basin, slipping into the water without disturbing its surface much. A few heartbeats later, Ami could see the reeds move on the other side of the lily pond, but she had trouble picking out the flat, multi-limbed form of the monster due to its pattern and colouration. Its greenish-black surface was perfect camouflage for this kind of territory.
Tserk approached the walls of the temple, whose whiteness stood out starkly in the darkness. While the slimy creature's dark tones were perfect for scurrying unseen from bush to bush, they would make its smooth skin stand out like a beacon during the next phase of the plan. Hiding behind a statue, the tentacle monster unfastened one of the many waterproof bags attached to its limbs, closed its eyes, and ripped it open. An energetic shake later, the creature was engulfed in a powdery white cloud of flour that adhered to its slime-coated body, painting it white. Ignoring the slight itching, Tserk stretched and extended its tendrils upwards, wrapping them around the neck of the statue. Blending in with the marble, the creature crept up the wall like an octopus prowling the ocean floor, using its tentacles to reach for footholds that would have been spaced too far apart for any normal climber. Without incident, the malleable creature pulled itself over the edge onto the domed roof and kept ascending toward the bell tower. The gap in the wall that allowed the massive bell to swing freely was wide enough for the tentacle monster to slip in. It wriggled forward until it was directly underneath the huge instrument suspended from a thick wooden bar. More interesting was the shaft directly underneath it, barely wide enough for a man to move along the handholds set into the wall. Of course it was blocked, but the cover was a simple grate, so that the rope used to ring the bell could dangle down through the gaps into the building below.
Mercury had planned for this, and her minion fished out two gold flasks from its bags. The tentacles handled these containers with great care, pouring some of the caustic liquid they contained onto the ends of the grate's bars, and then retreated to a safe distance. The iron frothed and bubbled under the action of the acid, and Tserk waited until enough of the metal had dissolved and pried the bars aside. Cautiously, the tentacle beast sprinkled a neutralising agent on the acid before squeezing itself through the gap, descending into the temple proper. It was doing rather well, it thought. Nobody was aware of its presence, for now, and the night was still young. There was the third floor - yes! An opening!
Like a snail emerging from its shell, the boneless monster emerged from a vent, preceded by a few grasping white pseudopods. It flopped onto the tiled floor, making a noise like a wet bag hitting the ground, and stretched a tentacle with an eye at its tip around the corner, scanning for guards. Finding none, Tserk continued on its way. It was on the right floor, now it just needed to find the general. A tremendously loud, shrill noise startled the creature, making the tips of its tentacles twitch. As it looked around frantically for the source, it saw that the eyes of a small idol sitting on a pedestal were glowing golden, tracking the monster's progress while whistling the alarm. How unfair!
The sound of armoured boots striking the ground in rapid succession thundered through the temple's corridors, waking those inhabitants who had slept through the alarm. Intermingled with the heavy footfalls were the lighter steps of four of the fairies, who were hot on the heels of the guards. Behind the light-footed girls ran the priests, huffing and wheezing as they lifted their white and gold robes in order to keep up. Despite their best efforts, they remained at the back of the chase.
"Look up! It's underneath the ceiling!" a male voice shouted, and the soldier pointed at the multi-limbed, tentacled form that was brachiating through the rafters with the aid of its long limbs, swaying left and right like a pendulum as it swung from bar to bar, making itself a difficult target for the sporadic spells that were thrown at it.
"Damn, it's fast! How did it even get in here?" the lead guard asked, keeping an eye on the intruder even as a wall curtain came fluttering down, ripped of by a hasty tendril when the creature fled past it.
"Hey Cerasse, isn't that your special friend?"
"Do not worry, the second group will wait at its destination." a priest with half-closed eyes intoned, his voice vibrating with strange undertones.
Tserk unslung one of its remaining bags and hurled its content at its pursuers while maintaining its speed. A hail of small spherical objects pattered off of the breastplates and helmets of the front warriors, bouncing in all directions and doing no damage. One of the projectiles struck Dandel right in the forehead, causing her to cry out in pain and raise a hand to her indigo-coloured hair. "What the-? Marbles? CAREFUL!"
A moment after the warning, arms flailed and armour rattled as the tiny orbs got underfoot, causing soldiers to trip and fall, who in turn tripped up more of the pursuers. From one instant to another, the group of hunters was a mess of angry bodies sprawled over each other.
"Ow! Once we catch that thing, we will have words with it!" Dandel promised, extricating her face from the armoured back of the guard who had broken her fall. A pre-emptive furious glare at her violet-haired sister silenced the incoming objection.
"Stop tarrying! After it!" A quickly uttered incantation from one of the grey-haired priests cleared the marbles away, and the chase resumed. The pursuers redoubled their efforts to shorten the distance that the tentacle-bristling creature had gained on them.
Lightning crackled around Anise's fingers. "Alright, I got a clear sho-"
Green-haired Tilia tackled the redhead to the ground. "Watch out, it's got a magic wand!" she screamed loudly enough for the others to hear. Forewarned, their formation spread out while their tentacled foe pointed a short, bone-like stick in their direction, using a few of the eyes in its back to aim. Working in much the same way as magical traps, these devices could store a few instances of a prepared spell and release it when a trigger condition was met. This particular wand released a blue pulse of light that widened as it raced down the corridor, but the monster's aim was off. Dandel's indigo eyes bugged out as a large section of the floor just ceased to exist, vanishing without fanfare and not even leaving smoke in its wake. The hunt came to a screeching stop, in some cases literally when metal-clad boots scratched over the ground, causing sparks. The foremost soldier's momentum carried him to the very edge of the hole, and he flailed with his arms for balance as he threatened to join the flabbergasted onlookers on the floor below by means of a four metre fall. Only the quick reaction of a companion saved him, pulling him back before he could topple completely.
"Light! What kind of spell can do that?" Anise asked in a small voice, eyes wide as she stared at the destruction.
"One we shouldn't let hit us! Keep going sisters! You others, find a different way!" Dandel spread her wings, clearing the obstacle, and hit the ground running. There just wasn't enough space to keep flying. The distinct humming noise of fairy glitter informed her that her sisters were right behind her, dashing after their elusive - and heavily armed - quarry. As if on cue, the tendril holding the wand took aim again. "SCATTER!" The indigo-haired fairy threw herself aside, diving behind a wooden bench on the left side of the hallway. Her sisters mirrored her action, flattening themselves against the wall and the floor. Except for one. "Cerasse, what are you doing?!"
"Don't worry, it wouldn't harm me!" the indigo-haired fae shouted self-confidently as she followed the tentacle monster, turning right at the corner around which the thing had just disappeared.
"You fool, it-"
Dandel could see a pulse of blue cross her path, coming from around the bend. A circular area of the wall, curtains included, just disappeared where the cold, azure glow struck it. Except for one section that remained intact, shaped like a cardboard cut-out of Cerasse's upper body. "NOOOOO!"
Feeling ill, the oldest of the fairies dashed forward to confirm her fears, her mind numb with worry and growing anger. She peered around the corner, and saw a lower body on the ground, legs still twitching as blood spurted forward. "N-no!" As her knees went weak, she heard a gagging noise behind her, followed by a whimper and Anise losing her lunch.
"What's going on? Why haven't they caught the intruder yet?" Camilla paced up and down in front of Jadeite's cell, throwing a glance from time to time at the unconscious form lying on the bed.
"I don't know, but the noises are coming our way," Roselle commented. "Don't worry, he's not going to get past us and the guards! And when the sorcerer here wakes up, he'll finally be free of that evil Keeper's influence and grateful to us for saving him! It will be great!"
The two fully-armoured soldiers standing at attention to each side of the cell's door didn't indicate that they were paying any attention to the girls' chatter, keeping the narrow field of vision granted by the visor of their helmets pointed at the entrance.
"Say, why is there a wet trail on the ground?" blue-haired Melissa asked, pointing to the moisture glistening on the ivory-coloured tiles. She straightened her back and listened into the room. "Shush! Can you hear that?"
Tserk was in a bit of a bind. It had managed to enter the room and squeeze through the bars unnoticed, and was now hiding behind the dark general's bed, waiting for its invisibility to run out. Sure, zapping itself with the invisibility wand had allowed it to sneak past the guardians unnoticed, but doing so while relying only on its keen sense of smell and touch to avoid them had been slow and risky. The spell wasn't meant for use on living beings and caused blindness until it ran out, which it reliably did after a distressingly short time. More importantly, the tentacle monster couldn't see its compass, which it needed for the final phase of the rescue. So it waited, one tentacle holding a wand pointed at the back wall of Jadeite's cell, another holding the compass in front of a few eyes, a third hovering a finger's breadth above the blonde's lips, ready to shove a small pill down his throat, and a fourth holding a second pill above Tserk's own gaping maw.
On the second floor, priests and acolytes were staring up at the smooth-edged hole in the ceiling at which an armoured figure on all fours was prodding, apparently encountering resistance. Their muttering reached new heights when the missing piece slowly shimmered back into visibility and they realised how they had been tricked.
In the third floor corridor, Dandel, Anise, and Tilia were staring with various degrees of horror, relief, and queasiness at the strange apparition that crept around on the floor. Its lower body was that of their sister Cerasse, but the missing upper body was nothing but a grotesque network of pulsating veins and capillaries, with a bigger, beating knot where the heart should be. "Girls? Girls, what's going on? I can't see!"
A change went through the figure, and layers of bone and flesh appeared around the redness, transparent at first, but quickly solidifying. "Cerasse! You are alive and not some horrible undead monster! Thank the Light!" Before the confused violet-haired fae could make sense of the redhead's statement, she was caught in a hug that threatened to cut of her breath. It only got worse when her other sisters joined in.
As soon as Tserk noticed parts of his vision returning, it jammed the pill into the unconscious Jadeite's mouth, pushing down hard enough for the capsule to burst and disgorge its contents.
"Look!" A startled female cry went through the room, causing the others to turn around, just in time to see their patient's head jerk and a large, writhing heap of tentacles appear from out of nowhere.
Tserk fired his wand, turning a huge circle of the cell's wall invisible. Staring down at the compass, it mentally projected as loudly as it could "TWELVE DEGREES NORTH! HURRY" and bit down on its own capsule. If the guards staring in through the bar were startled by the sudden appearance of what looked like an alternate exit in the back wall of the cell, they didn't let it distract them and took aim. The ingested potion started to act on both Jadeite and his rescuer.
"What? No!" Melissa cried in alarm, seeing the dark grey uniform of the curly-haired hunk deflate, empty. She was rather less concerned for the well-being of the tentacled intruder, who disappeared from the path of her lightning bolt in a similar way, its equipment clattering to the ground. The next unwelcome surprise for the fairies came when the temple's exterior wall disappeared and they could see the night sky through the missing part of the cell. Most alarming was the black-dressed and blue-haired female figure floating in front of the opening, dropping a wand similar to the one that the monster had used, and staring at them. The crimson light from her eyes was somewhat muted by the glass-like visor covering the upper part of her face, but the fairies had no difficulties recognising her.
"Keeper Mercury!" Roselle shouted, glaring at the figure who clapped her hands together mockingly. Together with her sisters, the orange-haired fairy unleashed a brilliant lightning bolt, but instead of reaching the evil sorceress, the crackling electricity encountered an invisible obstacle where the wall should be, spraying the trio with hot dust. The enemy smiled at them briefly before disappearing in a twister of snowflakes and aquamarine light.
Tense like a bowstring, Ami teleported in front of the indicated location as soon as she heard her agent's mental cry, adrenaline racing through her veins. A quick shot from the bought wand turned a part of the temple's exterior marble invisible and revealed a section of the third floor. She immediately zeroed in on the round hole in one of the walls, setting her visor to maximum amplification as she searched the cell for her minions, completely ignoring the people beyond its bars. There! She cupped her hands, forming a small globe of her own territory, and transported her transformed minions inside. Only when she felt the weight of the two baby mice on her palm did she resume breathing. A radiant smile crept onto her features, caused by the relief that flooded like a warm infusion through every fibre of her being. Mission accomplished!
Wasting no time, Ami teleported back to her dungeon. "Cathy! Jered! Snyder! It worked!" she cried out in exultation - and was promptly buried in a heap of naked flesh and tentacles when the short-lived transformative potion wore off and its recipients resumed their normal shape and weight.
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