The cosy room that served as Ami's command centre felt very full with the six people sitting in a semi-circle around the central table, watching the image on the white-painted back wall. In washed-out colours, the projection pictured a pyramid-shaped mountain rising from a sea of blood originating from the crystal ball in front of the blue-haired girl. She was sitting in the central chair, directly across from the projection, and slid her hands over the glowing orb's smooth surface as she tried to bring both the island and the continent behind it into focus. Snyder's arm bumped into her left elbow as he edged away further from Mareki, feeling unease at sitting so close to the green-dressed youma, even if she had taken the guise of a red-haired human woman for the moment. Tails and heavy wooden chairs didn't mix. Ironically, the monster was unknowingly emulating the acolyte, leaning as far away from Jadeite as the limited space allowed. The dark general, who sat with his arms crossed at the outermost left of the group, cast a shadow over the wallpaper-like map behind him. He smirked as the youma cringed upon noticing his gaze shift toward her for a moment and avoided looking him in the eyes. As soon as Mercury had left the creature in his care, he had shown her exactly why youma did not attempt to attack dark generals, and the lesson was still fresh in her mind.
Ami remained blissfully unaware of the dynamics to her left because she had enough space on her right. Cathy's and Jered's seats were so close that they touched each other, leaving plenty of room for the blue-haired girl. Jered sat on the outer right, where the bookshelves were within arms reach. He wasn't doing the budget though, but looking at the dirty-looking beach in the picture. "Can you zoom in closer, please? I'd like to see that footprint for myself," he asked, sounding curious.
Ami nodded and brought the thin strip of muddy grey sand into focus, moving the point of view around for a while as she sought the tracks. At first, she got side-tracked by a strange, slimy algae that somewhat resembled the shape of a foot, then an odd rock, and a bit later a dead fish. After long enough for her companions to become restless, she finally located the depression in the ground, much closer to the rising tide than it had been the last time she had seen it.
The weasel-featured man only threw a short glance at the eroding imprint. "Troll footprint," he declared without hesitation. "They are rather easy to distinguish. Slightly crooked, weight resting near the toes."
"What's a troll?" Mareki whispered, poking Snyder in the side with a finger as to get his attention. The redhead looked comically uncomfortable as her breath stroked over his ear, but he was the only available option. She shuddered at the idea of questioning Jadeite, especially when he looked tired enough to have dark rings under his eyes after working at the temple, doing whatever it was that Mercury had told him to do. Drawing the Keeper's attention by raising her voice seemed likewise a bad idea. If the blond general was taking orders from the young-looking girl, she had to be even more powerful than him.
Snyder inched away from the youma, stood up with swishing robes and brought the chair between himself and the unholy creature. " I shall get you a book," he blurted out, pointing at the shelf he hurried toward in an attempt to make his retreat look more dignified. He stopped as another thought entered his mind. Looking at Mercury and pointing at the map on the wall, he said
"Ahem. It would appear as if there is no portal anywhere on that island." He scratched his chin. "None that we know about, in any case. This leads me to wonder what a troll would be doing in an inhospitable place like that."
"Declining the privilege of becoming a vampire snack, maybe," Cathy guessed. The scar-faced blonde leaned back in her chair, putting her hands behind her head as she stretched. Her gaze met that of the youma. "What is it? You keep throwing glances at me when you think I'm not looking!" she challenged.
Caught red-handed, Mareki decided that she might as well ask what she wanted to know directly. "I'm trying to figure out what exactly you are. You dress like a sailor senshi, and I can feel some similar magic from you, but I'm not familiar with any celestial object that's called 'Cathy'."
The blonde warrior looked to Mercury, unsure how much she could tell the youma.
"There is no need for secrecy, she is going to find out when I take her along later anyway," Ami said, removing her hands from the crystal ball. The image on the wall faded away, and the lights came back on at the flick of a switch. "Cathy is currently borrowing my powers," Ami continued, drawing a confused look from the disguised youma. "That uniform is the one I usually wear as Sailor Mercury."
"You exchanged clothes?" she asked, alternating between looking at the blue-haired girl and at the blonde, and trying to account for the size difference.
"No, that's not it," Ami quickly shook her head. "The clothes are generated by the transformation into sailor senshi form, which also gives her the same enchantments and the ability to draw on my power source. The easiest way to think of it is her currently being a deputy senshi of Mercury."
"You can endow others with your power like that?" The amazed youma's yellow eyes flashed with greed as she remembered the Keeper's statement of her finding out anyway. "Are you going to empower me?"
"I'm afraid it's not that easy," Ami answered, suppressing an instinctive flinch as Mareki stared at her like a hungry dog would stare at a succulent piece of meat. "You'll learn more about it later. But first, let's get back on topic." Ami gestured, and the lights dimmed, allowing a projection of the island, seen from the air, to become visible on the wall.
Jered was the first to speak as Ami looked into the round. "I concur with Cathy. I think the fact that the footsteps were on the side furthest away from the mainland supports her theory."
"There is also the possibility that the troll is a lookout, searching for ships," Snyder brought up. "Maybe whoever is there is just shipwrecked."
"Yes, because a lookout is going to stand at the beach, rather than on top of the mountain from where he could see much farther," Cathy sighed. The redhead shot her an irritated glance from the corner of his brown eyes, but didn't try to defend his assumption. He had yet to return to his seat.
"We shouldn't forget that there are living plants on the island," Ami pointed out. "That wouldn't be the case if whoever is on the island was tehre by accident, or even worse, aligned with Zarekos. I just have to go check it out!"
Cathy frowned, tightening her grip on Jered's right wrist. "Personally? I don't like the idea of you putting yourself into danger again. We could just keep scrying the place," the female warrior suggested.
"The island is a bit too big for that to be practical, especially if the survivor is hiding underground." Ami objected. The ragged mountain was a bit less than ten kilometres long and wide, but it would still take ages to check every foggy valley and deep crack in the mountainside. "My visor has a much better chance of discovering any survivors looking for."
The blonde inclined her head in defeat. "Very well. But be careful, okay?"
"Don't worry, I'll take her along." Ami turned to Mareki, smiling. Now it was the youma's turn to feel uncomfortable as those crimson lights bored into her. "Mareki, can you teleport?"
"I have never studied it," the fake redhead replied, hoping that this wouldn't lead to some kind of arbitrary punishment. So far, this Sailor Mercury didn't seem as intense as Beryl, and she didn't have the queen's intimidating presence, but Mareki hadn't been around her long enough to make any judgement.
Jadeite, hand still in front of his mouth from stifling a yawn, understood what Mercury wanted to know. "She's a youma. There's no risk of her exploding from trying to channel dark magic the wrong way."
"Thank you. Well, Mareki," Ami put the crystal ball aside and grinned mischievously over the table at the creature, "you were interested in obtaining my powers, weren't you? I'll need to possess you, is that fine with you?"
"P-possess?" the youma's eyes widened in alarm.
"Don't worry, it's not harmful. I'll just be borrowing your body for some time. You'll still be watching from the back of your mind," Ami promised.
Mareki knew of course what possession was. Nephrite was rumoured to have the ability, after all. "And she did that to you too?" She asked, pointing her index finger at Cathy, who nodded.
"Just do it," Jadeite ordered, too tired to have a reluctant youma waste any more of his time.
"Yes, Sir," Mareki replied on ingrained reflex and noted that Sailor Mercury was throwing the dark general a reproachful look.
"Ready?" the blue-haired girl asked, smiling encouragingly. At the youma's near imperceptible nod, she changed into a mass of black lightning that struck the creature head on and rippled over its skin for a moment before sinking in. Mareki's eyes glowed like red coals, and her posture became less tense as Ami gained a feel for the body. She immediately knew that something was wrong when she felt her skin crawl and her muscles shift around her bones, which were making audible grinding noises while they deformed, too. Pupils not her own turned into little, frightened pinpricks as she staggered from the changes. She was certain that she had cast the possession spell perfectly, the same way she had many times before an exactly as she had studied it. While the young Keeper's experience with inhabiting different bodies was limited, she was certain that this wasn't supposed to happen. With an effort of will, she cancelled the spell, turning into a tar-like blob of black lightning that shot from the youma's chest. In Ami's haste to get out, the semi-solid shape turning back into her own body slammed into the edge of the wooden table, leaving her bent over at the waist. She resumed a fully material state with her face plastered to the various maps of the Avatar islands strewn about the round table's surface. Four pairs of eyes blinked down at the blue-haired girl whose upper body was lying between their notes, and Ami could hear a soft, amused snort from Jered's direction. With a groan, she stood up and brushed away a map that had adhered to the sweaty skin of her left cheek. She had no time for distractions like that. Whirling around so fast that she bumped into the table again, she focused her worried gaze on the youma, whose frame was stretching.
"Mareki, what happened? Are you all right? I'm very sorry about this!" Ami hoped that she hadn't inadvertently hurt her newest hireling.
"...feeling woozy..." the scratchy voice of the youma replied. She swayed, but looked already much the same grey-skinned, green-haired reptilian monster as she had before. Only her fingertips were still changing, growing back into vicious claws.
"If you ask me, it looked as if she was transforming to become more like you," Cathy commented, recovering quicker from her surprise than the others.
Ami didn't take her eyes off the youma, who no longer had to lean on a chair to steady herself. Relieved that the change hadn't been permanent, the blue-haired girl asked. "But why did this happen?"
"A youma's body is made of magic and as much defined by its spirit as by its composition," Jadeite explained, "I guess that when a new spirit is in the body, it changes to match. Though it's hard to tell if the result is what you would look like as a youma, or a hybrid form."
"Is it harmful?" the blue-haired girl wanted to know.
"It shouldn't be. Youma shapes are fairly malleable. Have another go," the curly-haired blond suggested, gesturing toward the recovering monster with a white-gloved hand. "Mareki, get ready."
"Yes, sir", the youma drawled, standing at attention with a mock salute as she shot the dark general a rebellious glare behind Mercury's back. The blue-haired girl nodded once and smiled in Jadeite's direction. The muscles around her jaw firmed in determination as she prepared to brave the strange the disconcerting sensation of her flesh crawling and her legs feeling as if they had turned to putty once more. A heartbeat later, she turned into coal-coloured lightning that crawled over the youma, looking like cracks on her gypsum-coloured skin before seeping into the tissues below.
With Mareki's eyes, Ami watched the faces of her advisers as they observed her transformation. She tried to keep her breathing even and her muscles relaxed even as they writhed around in her limbs. An amused grin played around Jered's lips, Jadeite cocked his head as he watched, Cathy leaned forward curiously, and Snyder's eyebrows were rising. To Ami's relief, none of their features displayed disgust or alarm, which meant that she wasn't mutating into something horrible. After a bit less than ten seconds, the odd tugs and twitches stopped, and she dared move again. Her first action was summoning a full-length mirror from her room. The polished glass rattled in its frame as it landed on the ground in an upright position, but the impact wasn't hard enough to make the mirror shatter and spray sharp shards all over the maroon carpet.
Ami peered at her reflection. The body she was wearing was an odd fusion of her and Mareki's features. She was shorter than the youma had been, and her eyes were the usual glowing red pools she had come to expect. The cheekbones were softer, the face more rounded and younger looking. "Very intersh- ow!" Ami grimaced, sliding the tongue she had just bitten over the two long fangs protruding from her gums. These would take some getting used to. Shouldn't the youma's knowledge of the body prevent such mistakes?
"I have no experience with this particular form either," a voice in the back of her mind pointed out. "And I'd appreciate it if you didn't injure my body while you are using it! I felt that, too!" the youma added acidly.
"Sorry," Ami answered, brushing through her hair in embarrassment. The thick bristles felt like wet seaweed and had the same colour, but nevertheless managed to stay in the shape of Ami's preferred hairstyle. Something else caught the teenager's attention. She had a tail! She threw a glance over her shoulder at the smooth, tapering appendage that curled upwards so she could see it better. None of the bodies she had borrowed before had sported a tail. She curled it around herself, catching the serpentine tip in her left hand and stroked it in wonder.
"Yes, yes, it's a tail. Not as good for striking as my original, if I may say so. Now can we get to the island already? I'm not enjoying this. Being unable to move reminds me of being stuck in Beryl's accursed crystal!"
If Mareki was trying to make Ami feel guilty, she was succeeding. "I don't intend to put you into danger," the blue-haired girl replied softly and took an experimental step forward. Immediately, she stumbled, taken off-guard by the changed proportions of her legs, and flailed her arms to maintain her balance. The instinctive and unaccounted-for counter-balancing of the tail foiled her efforts, and she tumbled forward.
"Watch those claws!" Cathy shouted, eyes going wide as she ducked out of reach of the grasping fingers seeking for a handhold.
"Sorry!" Ami's feet left the ground as she arrested her fall by floating, hanging diagonally in the air before tilting back into an upright position. Green blood shot to her cheeks as she lowered her head, embarrassed by her awkward movements. "Um, I think I'll settle for flying for now."
"Safer all around," the youma's voice agreed.
The smoothness of the transition from Ami's floating dungeon to a location just in sight of the Avatar Islands' shore was a pleasant surprise for the dabbling dark magic user. The youma body she was inhabiting had to be a lot better attuned to the energies that fuelled the teleport spell than her own. The competitive aspect of her personality, which drove her to excel in intellectual pursuits - which magic definitely fell under - felt irked by that observation and started planning how to best remedy this perceived inadequacy. Ami blinked. What was she thinking? Not being as corrupted as the youma was a good thing! So are more lessons with Jadeite, a much less logical part of her brain commented. Scepticism radiated from the passenger in the back of her mind and informed her that Mareki had caught at least a glimpse of this train of thought, and Ami dropped it like a hot potato to survey her surroundings instead. She was hovering a few metres above the ocean, high enough that the spraying froth of the water couldn't reach the soles of her boots. From her position, she could see that the tides were not really red, they only reflected the colour of the clouds above, which covered the sky like a persistent, rolling explosion. She had expected the sulphurous and slightly sooty smell of the air, but the tropical temperatures took her by surprise. The island isn't that far south, though? she pondered idly, looking at the distant isle that protruded like a gigantic shark fin from the sea, and prepared for some serious investigation. First, she needed her equipment. "Mercury Power, Make Up!"
The soothing familiarity of the transformation washing over her reminded her of home for the brief moment it took the ribbons of water to coalesce around her curves and form her uniform, replacing the high-slitted green dress that Mareki had been wearing. Ami felt clean and refreshed, as if the magic could compress a bath, styling, and manicuring session into a timeless instant. With a slight smile, she looked down at herself to see how being a youma had affected her outfit. Most everything looked like she had come to expect, but there were some differences. She raised her right hand, inspecting the fingers. There were holes in the glove to let the long claws through, which was entirely practical. Putting aquamarine nail polish on them was not. Ami shook her head at the sight and twisted to look over her shoulder at her backside, which felt a bit draughtier than she was used to. The transformation magic had not handled the unexpected presence of a tail very intelligently. Yes, there was a hole for the appendage in the white fabric of her leotard, but her already short skirt rode up until it rested on the base of her tail bone and did nothing to cover her backside. "Hmm."
"Just remove it completely. We look ridiculous like this," the co-driver in Ami's mind suggested.
"Aren't you afraid that the leotard on its own would be too revealing?"
"Not by Dark Kingdom standards. If there's something to be embarrassed about, it's all those ribbons."
Filing that bit of information away, Ami gripped the hem of her pleated skirt left and right of her tail and tugged. With a ripping sound, the cloth tore apart vertically, allowing it to cascade down to the sides of the appendage. A brief incantation of the fabrication spell later, and the garment looked as if it had been designed with said gash. Satisfied with her appearance, Ami brushed a few seaweed-coloured tresses out of the way as she reached for her pointed right ear, fumbling for the earring that would activate her visor. As soon as she felt the transparent display slide over her eyes, she teleported again, disappearing into a vortex of greenish-tinged blue. She reappeared over the beach close to where she had located the footprint, surrounded by a whirl of droplets rather than her usual snowflakes. From here at the foot of the craggy mountain, it loomed like an ancient, withered pyramid that some giant had vented his rage on with an axe, leaving deep fissures and valleys that threatened to split the mass into distinct slices. Ami tilted her head back to see better, adjusting her visor to compensate for the glowing sky that made the rock appear black in comparison. Before she could start her search, however, the device beeped a warning, drawing a red contour around a speck of empty air a few metres off the coast, about a stone's throw away. Ami sucked in a sharp breath as she recognised the invisible creature that was inching closer as a ghost.
"Enemy?" Mareki asked, noticing their shared muscles tense.
Ami adjusted more settings, and identified a thin, immaterial line connecting the undead with the mainland. Her mouth half-opened in a snarl, displaying her fangs. "Yes. One of Zarekos' ghosts. Dangerous if unnoticed, but fragile."
"It's coming toward us," the youma cautioned. "May I kill it?"
Ami could feel the excited creature struggle for dominance of the body, and opted to give way for the moment. Releasing the spirits bound to a tormented existence as ghosts was one of her reasons for taking over the Avatar Isles, and destroying the abominations was a simple way to achieve this. She furrowed her brow, her anger at Zarekos rekindled by the sight of what looked to be a young boy's transparent face, distorted into a perpetual hateful grimace. Hadn't the inhabitants of this place suffered enough in life already? Mareki burst into action. Ami's mouth opened wide, as if the lower jaw wasn't connected at all with the upper one, and she could feel a pressure build deep in the back of her throat. Hissing like a tea kettle, a blast of water shot forth, bursting into myriads of shiny droplets as it impacted the apparition's form and ripped into it, dispersing the ghost. On reflex, Ami seized back control of the body when she felt a burning sensation in her throat and mouth cavity, and pressed both hand on her lips, red eyes watering. "OW! That hurt! Why did you do that?" she complained mentally as the body doubled over in a coughing fit.
"It's not me, it's these changes you made to my body!" Mareki shifted the blame right back, her voice sounding not any more pleased than Ami's. "My own attack isn't supposed to harm me!"
"Okay," Ami conceded. "However, I think it would be best if I handled the fighting myself from now on." She straightened and let her gaze wander over the barren cliffs, making sure that no other spectres had taken the opportunity to sneak up on her while she was distracted. Her visor pointed out two more ghosts drifting like smoke around the twin peaks of the mountain, but they seemed content to watch from a distance and posed no immediate threat. Ami didn't feel any of the usual slight unease from being on a foreign Keeper's territory, but she thoroughly scanned the surrounding countryside anyway, just to be on the safe side. There was no reason to stick around in an area in which Zarekos could dump as many troops as he wanted straight on top of her. Sweeping her gaze over the barely existent vegetation and the sandy beach as she turned in a circle, she put the remains of that nagging worry to rest. There was no trace of a Keeper's influence here, and even the tendrils of corruption caressing the island from across the shallow sea seemed to have a hard time to take root in the dense stone. Reassured that she wasn't suddenly going to be drowned underneath a wave of animated dead bodies, the teenager focused on the two ghosts she had spotted. The wretched spirits died within instants, never knowing what hit them.
"Whoa. How did you do that, my Keeper?" the foreign voice in her mind piped up, sounding amazed and terrified at the same time. If the youma had been in control of her body she would have been gaping."That's a scary power. Bam, giant water fist out of nowhere stomping them flat! What kind of spell is this? If I may ask?" Mareki's last question sounded more cautious as she remembered whom she was talking to.
"It's not a proper spell," Ami explained, her crimson eyes alert as she kept simultaneously scanning the countryside and typing away at her palmtop, which she had retrieved after remotely smashing the opponents into bits. "It is more of an indirect application of my Keeper powers, mixed in with some of the telekinesis that Jadeite has taught me. The interaction behind the different layers of magic is quite fascinating, really. You wouldn't happen to have a background in spellcrafting?"
Mareki caught a flitting glimpse of Mercury's thought processes, perceiving an intricate diagram that was to an aspiring mage apprentice what a page-long differential equation was to a mediocre mathematics student. Needless to say, she felt very out of her depth. "I get by on innate powers just fine." More interesting was the way that Mercury's heartbeat had sped up when she had mentioned Jadeite's name. Romantic feelings for the blond general? That was important to know. Mareki made a mental note to steer very clear of that proverbial minefield when she schemed to improve her own status. "What are these ghosts doing here?"
"From their positioning, I calculate a seventy percent likelihood that they were spies, not guards," Ami answered, entering more commands. "There weren't enough of them to form an effective combat force, and they remained invisible all of the time. Observers, not fighters." she explained her reasoning as she drifted across the shore, closer to a narrow crevasse that had caught her attention. The diagonal gap in the flat rock was wide enough for a grown man to squeeze into sideways, easy allowing her slight frame inside.
"Why are we contorting to fit into this fissure?" Mareki asked, concentrating on keeping their tail from getting squished against the wall. The Keeper constantly forgot about its existence.
"I haven't spotted our enigmatic survivor yet, but there's some kind of ward here somewhere, according to my sensors." Ami's claws brushed over the rock, scratching thin trails into the layer of soot before they caught on a near-invisible edge. With some effort, the possessed youma pried loose a thin stone plate that hid a narrow passage. On the cover's back, she found a many-pointed mark that was definitely artificial in nature.
"What does that do?"
"I'm not very familiar with warding magic, but I think it's supposed to prevent people from finding this secret door." Ami peered into the revealed tunnel entrance. Its interior shifted rapidly to grey tones as her visor compensated for the lack of light. She got the impression of a long, natural cave half-filled with water, with only the tops of a few stalagmites forming solid footholds directly underneath the surface. A long breath escaped her lips as she peered down at her computer screen for confirmation of what she was seeing. "That's a lot of traps."
"I don't sense anything," Mareki said, wishing she could understand the data presented by Mercury's devices better.
"They are mechanical in nature, not magical. Just look at these loose boulders in the ceiling, hooked up to wires camouflaged by the water. The lightest touch could bring them down on an intruder." With her index finger, she pointed at a natural pillar. "Those little holes in it contain spring-fired darts. I wouldn't be surprised either if even the water level in the cavern could be raised remotely."
"Whoever is living here doesn't like guests," Mareki concluded, somewhat superfluously.
Ami's lips curved upward in amusement. "I think that's forgiveable, considering the neighbours. Shall we go introduce ourselves?" Not waiting for an answer, she disappeared from her spot with a shimmer of distorted air. For someone who could float and teleport, a trap-filled corridor was not much of an obstacle. With a flash, the blue-skirted youma appeared at the end of the tunnel, where a much more formidable barrier barred the passage. A thick, solid plate of smoothed rock, round like a millstone, blocked her path and, more importantly, her line of sight. While teleporting blind was theoretically possible, it was also suicidal. Avoiding contact with anything that looked as if it might set off a trap by hovering in the air, she inspected the ancient-looking network of lines and runes engraved painstakingly into the massive door. It didn't take Ami's visor to determine that the angular lines, which never crossed each other, formed a magical pattern. They were glowing in unsubtle ochre tones, after all.
Faced with this gate that appeared to have weathered the centuries and which impeded her progress, Ami did the polite thing. She raised her hand and knocked. "Hello? Is anyone here?"
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