"Where did they go? How did they escape?" In the temple, Camilla stared at the empty cell in confusion. "Melissa, find them!" The short blonde fae turned to face the hallway, hearing the sound of running footsteps closing in.
"Camilla, Melissa, Roselle! Did the tentacle monster come this way?" Dandel, the indigo-haired fairy sister, was in the lead and spotted the deserted cell behind the guards first. Her jaw dropped. "What? Where's the prisoner?"
While a soldier unlocked the cell door and pulled the squeaking metal gate open, the other fairies formed a half circle around the three who had been here all the time, exchanging baffled glances as they spotted the empty grey uniform lying on the bed.
"Gone," Roselle answered, shrugging her shoulders and looking apologetic. "We don't really know how. One moment, we were guarding the cell, the next, there was a tentacle monster in there and it shouted something and there was a hole going through the walls and both disappeared and then Keeper Mercury showed up and we blasted her, but it didn't work!"
"Slow down, slow down. It had an invisibility wand, we think." Dandel peered past the orange-haired fae, who was catching her breath after her long outburst, and inspected the interior of the cell. "The prisoner was still unconscious, right? If so, he might still be nearby. Melissa, go find a scrying pool and track him! Tilia, what's that stuff there on the floor?"
While the oldest fairy informed her sisters about what had happened during the chase, the green-haired, winged girl entered the room and squatted down, taking a look at the objects that remained in a vague circle where the intruder had disappeared. It was a collection of various bags and flasks, slightly slimy from being attached to the tentacle monster. A flicker of movement behind her made her whirl around, but it was just the circular hole in the wall becoming visible once more and showing three shallow and scorched indentations where the sisters' attacks had failed to strike at the enemy Keeper.
Tilia resumed her scrutiny of the tentacle monster's belongings, prodding at the different containers with all due caution. One never knew what kinds of booby traps or dangerous substances the servants of evil carried with them. Most of the oiled leather bags appeared to be empty. A strange white powder trickled out of one, while a heavier one contained a golden flask, also empty. As the green-haired girl raised the expensive bottle to her nose and sniffed, wondering what would warrant an expensive receptacle like that, she heard one of her sisters join her, walking with soft-soled steps. The violet-haired fae picked up the monster's wand and scrutinised it. "Hmm, not particularly convincing work. Looks like one of those illegal artefacts you'd find on the black market, crafted on the sly by apprentices trying to make a few quick coins on the side."
"Or by a Keeper's warlock minions working with little supervision and even less regulation," Anise harrumphed. "How could we lose to that disgusting creature? I can't believe it!" She punched the wall in anger, right next to where it bore the scars of the lightning attack. "Hey Camilla, what are you doing with that uniform?"
The cute blonde stopped folding up the grey garment in question. "I was just going to keep it safe for when we save him again! He'll probably want it back, it's made of very nice cloth."
"Silly, our ship leaves tomorrow! We won't be seeing him again if everything goes right!"
"Oh." The youngest sister's face fell, but a moment later, she resumed her work, smiling brightly. "I'll keep this as a souvenir, then!"
"That's a brazen Keeper, to dare operate so close to a temple," one of the armoured guards commented. The helmet concealed his face, but his tone of voice sounded worried.
"Either that, or the prisoner was more valuable to her than we assumed," one of the old priests, who had arrived just in time to catch the tail end of the conversation, shared his interpretation.
"Well, she mentioned that she was in love with him," Roselle said, remembering the conversion she and her sister had had with the blue-haired villain when they had been her 'guests'. "Obsession is probably more like it. So, did you find out how the tentacle thing got in here yet?" The orange-haired fairy asked Dandel, who was chatting with the unhappy-looking holy men.
"Not yet, we have a greater problem. The priests confirm that she used Keeper transport to get her minions out once she had line of sight!"
"That means she has some territory in the area that's big enough to deposit them on!"
"You mean there's a dungeon in the vicinity?" One of the guards asked with sudden dread.
"That is what the evidence points to," a grey-bearded priest in white and golden robes confirmed, his grandfatherly face looking chagrined.
"I will inform our Baron at once," another guard said, "there's no time to lose, we must get the search organised at once! Excuse me," shouldering past the gawkers who were gathering in the hallway, she left at a run. The heavy footsteps clattering on the marble floor tiles sent ripples through the water-filled bowl that Melissa was murmuring and making hand signs over, and caused the blue-haired fairy to frown at the disturbance. While she waited for the surface to calm, the more curious onlookers approached, crowding around her and the wooden pedestal that the porcelain bowl was resting on.
"Got anything yet?" Anise asked as she fluttered her wings, climbing to a point just underneath the ceiling to get a better view of the scrying attempt, straight over the heads of the others. Thus, when the liquid changed to no longer show a reflection of the rafters, she was one of the first to notice. "Eeek! That's gross!"
A mutter went through the crowd as the watchers, caught off-guard by the unexpected scene, processed what they were seeing. The water showed the prisoner, of course, and also the intruder and dread Keeper Mercury herself. The latter demonstrating that her reputation for deviance was well-deserved, as she was locked in a three-way embrace with the tentacle monster and the poor prisoner, who wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing. Cheeks burning, Melissa jostled the basin, disrupting the vision. "Oh. Oh Light, that poor man." Whatever else she said was lost in the noises of revulsion, shock, and outrage coming from the crowd.
Queen Beryl stared at the black crystal ball hovering in front of her, brows furrowed in displeasure. She had not been able to spy on Jadeite for some time now, and since she prided herself on her skill with the scrying device, this vexed her greatly. With angrily-clenched teeth, she waved her long, pale fingers over the magical sphere once again, and this time, an image appeared within. With a triumphant grin, the redhead relaxed and narrowed her eyes at the scene. What had her traitorous dark general felt so important to hide from her? Curious, Beryl leaned closer over the glowing orb. Orange eyes blinked once before widening in disbelief at the sight of Jadeite, without a stitch of clothing, wrapped in a bundle of what looked like squirming tentacles. A mop of short blue hair that could only belong to Sailor Mercury poked out from the bottom of the pile, buried underneath both the bare-skinned blond, and whatever the wriggling, slimy monstrosity was. A brief shudder of revulsion went through the Queen's body, starting at the spike-sporting shoulders and travelling down. That was more than she had ever wanted to learn about that traitor. She let the picture fade away and decided that she was going to check again at a later time. Much, much later.
Ami, who hadn't counted on the transformation potion to be this short-lived, even knowing that each pill contained just a minor dose, let out a squeal of surprise when the weight of the tentacle beast and Jadeite suddenly pinned her back to the carpet. With the breath knocked out of her, she didn't react for a moment, disoriented by the fall. Which promptly led to her discovery by Snyder, Jered and Cathy, whose eyes seemed to bug out at the display.
"Already started the welcome back party, have you?" Jered teased with a wink, which snapped the blue-haired girl out of her daze and allowed her to realize just what the situation was looking like.
"Eeeep!" The skin of her cheeks suddenly felt hot like a furnace, and she knew that their redness would have put a tomato to shame right now. Fortunately, being a Keeper had its advantages, and the naked Jadeite disappeared from the pile, ferried into his bed by her transportation ability. With the body of the dark general gone, Tserk dropped onto her stomach, but this was a blow she had anticipated. She levitated the tentacled beast off of herself before tucking the curly-haired blond in properly. If she took a bit longer than necessary to pull the covers over his sleeping form to protect his modesty, well, that was all professional concern for his well-being. She had to check if he was uninjured, right? With a groan, Ami got up, taking Cathy's helpfully-extended hand, and prepared to face her advisers inevitable teasing.
"Mercury? Jadeite has just awakened, you can stop fretting now," Snyder said, opening the door to the dark general's bedroom from within and poking his head out through the gap.
Ami stopped pacing up and down the corridor and turned around so fast that she barely avoided giving herself whiplash. "Really? Is he all right?" A radiant smile blossomed on her face as she stepped closer, and a slight blush appeared on her cheeks. "Good work keeping an eye on him like that for hours." She put her hands together in front of her legs and inclined her head slightly. "I apologise for being such a pain and asking about his health every few minutes. Thank you for remaining calm and patient."
Snyder waved his hand dismissively. "Ahem, there's no need to apologize. I can understand that you were worried about him, but nothing at the temple-"
"Augh! What in the Great Ruler's name did these fools do to me?" Jadeite's angry shout penetrated the walls, startling them both. Snyder blinked as he suddenly could no longer see Mercury, then realised that she had transported herself upon hearing the voice.
"Jadeite, wha-"Ami appeared at Jadeite's side and quickly turned around when she saw that he was sitting up in his bed, bare chested and with his covers pooling around him, and holding his head with both hands. "What happened?" she asked, blushing and feeling her heart beat rapidly.
"I have a horrible headache from those stupid priest's cleansing ritual," the dark general complained, sounding almost whiny.
"A cleansing ritual? What for?"
"Oh, those scatterbrained fairies were going on about how you were mind-controlling me and how I needed to be freed from your evil influence. So the priests had a look at me and detected my conditioning for Dark Kingdom style dark magic. You know, what you had to build up to learn how to teleport, too. Of course, the imbeciles mistook it for evidence of a mind control spell and went ahead with their ceremony."
"Are you all right?"
"My magical pathways are clogged with light magic residue, which is causing my headache and generally making a mess of things, but I should be able to clear that out soon enough."
"I'm relieved to hear that." Ami was silent for a moment, keeping her features neutral, "Um, did their ritual break any evil spells on you?" Hearing Jadeite snort, she quickly added "What I mean is that Beryl could have put some controls on you, or maybe someone else in the Dark Kingdom...?" Part of her hoped that the answer was 'yes' and that the curly-haired blond wasn't evil by choice. That would make things so much easier. Another part feared that he might no longer be himself, if that was the case.
"You are asking whether Beryl brainwashed me?" Jadeite sounded more amused than offended by the notion and shrugged, not that Ami could see the motion with her back turned. "I suppose it's possible, but I don't feel any different. I have been a general of the Dark Kingdom for so long that I probably wouldn't remember a time before it even if some spell was broken. So don't expect me to suddenly turn into a knight in shining armour."
"Not going to rescue any more princesses from dragons, then?" Ami joked, hiding her unease at the reminder of just how old Jadeite was when compared to her. Yet another point on the list of reasons why falling in love with a dark general was a bad idea. "So you can't remember your childhood? That's so sad."
Cloth rustled behind her, and she heard the bed's springs squeak. "I'm decent now," the dark general said, opting to ignore her comment. Ami turned around and saw that he was dressed in his regular grey uniform again - which must have been conjured, as his old one had been left behind at the temple. Not that there was anything wrong with conjured clothing, of course, provided that the conjurer had enough skill to make it look good. Unless it came into contact with Snyder's enchanted water, which had already happened twice to Ami, resulting in absolute mortification for the shy teenager. She should spare him such an experience if it was in her power. "I think you need to see a tailor in the near future," she said thoughtfully, prompting the blond to raise his eyebrows because of the sudden change of topic and implicit criticism of his apparel.
"No, leave them alone," Ami decided, walking swiftly through the corridor that led to the temple at the very prow of the iceberg. "If the fairies are already waiting for a ship home, there's no need to bother them any more than we already did. I have caused them enough trouble already."
"As you wish. I'm sure we will run into more blockade ships from the Shining Concord Empire on the way. We will find others to interrogate." Jadeite said, pausing in his stride to let her walk through an arched door to narrow for them to enter side-by-side.
"Wow. This place has sure changed," Ami said letting her crimson gaze wander over the twisting, murals that covered the walls of her temple, forming spirals that looked like a mix between frost patterns and bones. Where sandstone tones had dominated before, now the walls shimmered dark grey, blue, and violet, and were covered with an oily sheen. The most dramatic change had to be the large, hollow-eyed skull that grew organically from the back wall, looking twisted and wrong, as if it belonged to some prehistoric monstrosity. The crude formation reminded Ami of the sculpture above Metallia's cocoon, which she had seen through the crystal ball, and she felt her hackles rise.
Jadeite didn't seem nearly as intimidated by the ambience. He even stopped to look at his dim reflection in the vein-infused floor tiles. "Reminds me of home," he commented as he walked in after Mercury. Two pairs of eyes turned toward the square pool in the centre of the room. While the stone basin now matched the general theme of the room, the watery depths remained completely unchanged, emitting a faint glow and hypnotic, barely audible whispers.
Ami stood in front of the waters, gazing into the bottomless depths. Movement to her left informed her that Jadeite had taken position right next to her and was mirroring her actions. "All right. I am going to demonstrate Queen Metallia's spell." Here, in the temple dedicated to the dark goddess, Ami felt it safer to attach the 'Queen' honorific to her name. Comatose as Metallia might be, she had demonstrated a certain level of awareness, and Ami had had enough trouble with vexed deities to last her a lifetime. She took a deep breath and intoned the first syllables of the spell, not taking her eyes from the eldritch pool.
Immediately, she could feel her perception expand and experienced a brief sensation of vertigo as her point of view shifted, diving in free-fall into the well below. She beheld a chaotic vista that was incomprehensible to the human senses. They just weren't meant to function in a place where walking in a circle didn't mean that you ended up back at the point of origin. Ami didn't feel particularly concerned about her sanity, even though her mind was not able to make sense of the greyish geometry that danced before her, following the rules of the real world only loosely. The confusing sensory input simply made her dizzy, but she felt that, given enough time, she might be able to understand the patterns behind them, even if her senses would never be able to cope with them. Fortunately, her spell rendered navigating this space on her own unnecessary. A literal red thread was leading off in the distance, disappearing into cloudy fog. The young Keeper followed this guide for a few minutes until it lead her to a jagged crystal, slightly larger than a human, which contained a figure frozen within its transparent material. Ami's heart skipped a beat. The spell was working! Instinctively knowing what to do, she started tugging the object back the way she had come, moving it centimetre by centimetre through pure exertion of will.
A strong arm slipped around Ami's shoulders and steadied her in the real world, and she felt grateful for the gesture, even if the sensation of being in two places at once was novel and disorienting. After an indeterminate time of hard work, she was drenched in sweat and breathing hard. A final shove, and her point of view changed back to her own eyes - just in time to see the top of the crystal emerge from a spiralling whirlpool. With a determined telekinetic pull, she freed the slightly scorched, gem-like structure from the well and set it down on the ground.
"Are you all right?" Jadeite's question reminded Ami that he still had his arm around her, "you looked as if you were going to keel over for a moment there."
"I-I'm fine," the blue-haired girl panted. "This was more exhausting than I expected." She held onto one of the faded blue pillars as she caught her breath. With a tinge of disappointment, she felt the dark general let go of her and approach the crystal. He used one gloved hand to rub the soot off of its surface and looked at the prisoner inside. "Hey, I know this one! She was the last one I took on a mission before Beryl discarded me!"
"Oh?" Now curious, Ami took stock of the creature inside the crystal. The grey-skinned female looked rather lizard-like with her snake-like tail and the clawed feet. Like queen Beryl, she had red hair, but her fangs were much longer and her green dress much shorter.
"Her name is Mareki. She's a reasonable fighter, likes to go into close combat and can shoot jets of water from her mouth," the grey-uniformed man summarised her most distinguishing features. "She must have been imprisoned after me, so she should still be mostly sane."
"Very well. I'll free her, then." Ami's right hand turned shadowy, as if the limb was half-way through a possession spell, and she reached into the crystal. As soon as she touched the motionless figure within, she could hear the youma babble to herself, a long litany of anger and despair.
"Hate hate hate! Not my fault! Unfair unfair unfair! Will-
"Um, Excuse me?"
The senseless gibbering stopped, and there was surprised silence. "Ahaha! I'm starting to hallucinate already? I would have thought I'd last longer! Oh well, at least now I'll have someone to talk to!"
"I'm real, and I'm an enemy of Queen Beryl. Will you work for me in exchange for your freedom?" Ami felt a bit guilty at tricking the creature into binding herself to Ami's dungeon heart like that, as the teenager would have felt compelled to free her either way. The blue-haired girl calmed her conscience by reminding herself that the dungeon heart didn't actually force employees to obey her and just gave her a way to control such potentially dangerous creatures as youma.
"Yes! Of course! Of course I will!" Mareki pounced at the opportunity. "Too bad this is just a fantasy," she added wistfully. Her agreement was enough for the Keeper magic to seal the deal, and Ami transported the sceptical youma out of its prison. The monster staggered when she suddenly found herself free of the confining crystal. Gravity? She sank to all fours, crouching like an animal, with her tail raised high as her head whipped left and right, drinking in the sights. "I'm free? It's true? I'm free!" The creature's frantic head movements slowed down as her vision cleared, unaccustomed to the brightness after weeks of sensory deprivation. She spotted two figures with her in the room, and immediately dismissed the short, red-eyed female leaning against a pillar as unimportant. Her eyes widened as she recognised the curly-haired blond standing next to a wall with his arm crossed.
Jadeite's smirk turned into a startled frown as the youma pounced like a panther, extending her claws and snarling in rage. "You! My suffering is all the fault of your incompetence!"
To the youma's shock, her lunge came to a sudden stop when a giant hand made of water appeared out of nowhere and caught her in a vice-like grip. An instant later, the room blurred, and she felt her back smack hard into the wall, with the watery limb pressing down on her.
"I will have none of this! You are not allowed to hurt any of my employees! Is that understood?" The blue-haired human that Mareki had considered unimportant was glaring at her with eyes like red bonfires. The youma considered the crushing pressure on her chest, then the fact that keeping it up didn't seem to cost the girl any effort. "Err, sorry?"
"See that it doesn't happen again," Ami commanded firmly.
The youma recognised the voice as belonging to the one who had freed her. "It won't," she promised quickly. The hand disappeared, and the monster slid to the ground. "If you don't mind me asking, whom am I working for now?"
"I am Sailor Mercury."
Mareki stared, mouth agape. "Sailor Mercury? As in sailor senshi?"
Ami nodded, not taking her eyes off of the youma.
"I agreed to serve a sailor senshi?" the lizard-like youma's eyes darted to Jadeite. "Wait, he's working for you? I don't believe it." She snorted, then broke into a fit of laughter that had her gasping for breath.
"She does have the support of our Great Ruler, or neither of us would be here right now," Jadeite pointed out, which shut the youma up. He turned toward Ami, noticing the sheen of perspiration on her brow. "Mercury, you look tired. I'll get her settled in, why don't you rest for a while?"
Ami hesitated because she had a lot of work to do. Like finding out why Metallia favoured one kind of life energy over another. However, when her knees shook from weakness, she agreed that a short break would be the best course of action.
"Keeper, we have discovered something unexpected!" The elongated silhouette of one of Ami's warlocks blocked the arching doorway. He inclined his head respectfully, and the stiff collar of his robe remained standing, framing it like horns. The glowing crystal ball clutched to his chest illuminated the crumbs marring the purple robe. Clearly, this wizard had developed a taste for the sweet pastries that were an outcome of planting sugar beet in one of the accelerated farms.
Ami looked up from her reading material, startled by the unexpected intrusion into her workroom. She was sitting behind a desk that was half-buried in open tomes, but still managed to look neat despite the clutter. Blinking at the visitor and noticing the excitement on the his clean-shaved face, Ami cautiously smiled at him. "Yes? What did you find out?"
"May I come in?" At Ami's nod, he stepped in front of the wooden desk, searching in vain for a free spot to put the spherical device down. "See for yourself."
Ami removed one of the books and took the proffered crystal ball, feeling a tingle when her fingers closed around the smooth surface, which indicated that it was drawing on her magic now, rather than the warlock's. Within, she could see a landscape that belonged to the Avatar Islands, the fiery clouds reflecting on the surface of the ocean and making it look like a giant pool of blood let no doubt about that. At first glance, it looked just like one of the many smaller islands around the outskirts of the main continent. Given the vampires' difficulties with crossing water, digging the initial beachhead into one of those was a logical choice. Maybe this one was particularly suitable for some reason? Ami zoomed in closer onto the bleak rocks and greyish sand beaches. The place consisted almost completely of a ragged mountain pervaded by deep and winding crevasses. As usual, the lowest depressions were filled with thick, grey fog that flowed like chunky soup through the valleys. At a second glance, the island did look a bit less devastated than the rest of the region, as there was no lava. Ami could make out a few thorny bushes that stubbornly clung to life, sprouting green leaves that survived despite the ash covering that the persistent wind from the mainland kept reapplying. If this denoted that the enemy's power was weaker here, it was definitely worth a second look, but that sounded like a weak reason for one of the warlocks to disturb her. Ami inspected the vision in the crystal even closer, and her eyes widened as she spotted an overlooked detail. There, on the sandy beach, were footsteps. Not human ones, but recent, or the tide would have washed them away already. She looked up in amazement. "There are survivors?"
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