Ami appeared in the small cell that served as her current host's abode. With the comfortable bed in the corner and the beige wall curtains that covered all of the underlying brickwork, it didn't look much like a prison. However, the thick, monochromatic weaves were not meant for decoration. They would keep the tiger-striped creature from injuring herself in the case that she started banging her head against the wall in a fit of insanity. Likewise, the soft carpet that covered the floor was meant to preserve the youma's health. But I had still had to go and get her hurt anyway, Ami thought, making a chagrined face as she lay down on the bed's covers. The blood-soaked ribbon on her chest dissolved into blue sparkles, looking transparent for a moment as the sailor senshi uniform faded away. The detransformation left the youma clad in her own garb, a two-piece ensemble of ankle-long loincloth and shoulder-free top that bared her belly button. Its green cloth was veined with black lines designed to mesh seamlessly with the stripes that covered her skin. A tar-coloured shadow shot out of the youma's forehead and landed next to the bed, where its undefined outline turned into Ami's silhouette. For the brief instant before colour returned to the short-haired girl's body, she looked as if she was a red-eyed statue carved from a block of pure darkness.
"Argh!" Feeling a sudden flare of pain around her heart, Ami stumbled forward, bending over and steadying herself against the mattress just before her knees could give out. The bed springs creaked, but she couldn't hear them over the sound of her gurgling cough. The back of her throat tasted coppery, and the dark red droplets sprinkling onto the blanket. Blood? After the coughing fit subsided, the dizzy teenager reached out for the wall and pulled herself upright, not trusting her wobbly legs to support her on their own just. The pain had subsided, turning into a dull ache. Panting heavily, Ami dragged the back of her hand over her lips and stared at the resulting red smear on her skin in confusion. Her thoughts raced as she glanced over at the still form on the bed. That pain had felt familiar. In fact, she had felt exactly the same thing when Zarekos had attacked her during the battle. Just what did he do to me? Unbuttoning the collar of her black and gold shirt, she glanced down. Her skin was unbroken, but paler than usual. Relief at not finding a wound flooded Ami, and she closed the shirt, fumbling with the buttons. A speck of green on the bed that she had been too distracted to notice caught her eye. The youma's hair hasn't gone back to its original yellow?
Alarmed, Ami looked closer and saw that the creature's face remained almost a mirror image of her own, at least if one disregarded the bristly green hair and the orange skin. She should have reverted to her original shape once I stopped possessing her! Blinking to clear her swimming vision, the young Keeper flipped open the Mercury computer and started looking for answers. Why had the pain of Zarekos' spell echoed in her own body? Was it related to the muscle-bound youma still looking like a larger version of herself? Weighing the potential risks of ignoring the situation against the urgency of leading her troops into battle, Ami decided that she needed a second opinion.
White robes swished as Snyder turned away from the patient on the bed and faced Ami, who leaned back in her chair and looked up at him with interest. Answering the unspoken question in her eyes, the redhead shook his head. "I must admit that this is entirely outside of my area of expertise. I have never even heard of magic that could wound a host and also strike the possessing entity. Admittedly, such knowledge would have had no place on the seminary's curriculum." He kneaded his round chin between his fingers as he stared at the red-eyed girl intently. "Nevertheless, it might be wise to purge away any residual dark magic, just in case that a curse yet lingers."
With a nod, Ami gave her permission. "Go ahead." She sat up straighter, blushing faintly when he put his right hand on her sternum, pressing down on the limb with his left. She felt the heat of his palm through the fabric of her shirt and let out a startled hiss when the sensation changed into a chill. She cringed in revulsion as the divine magic coursed through her body, and grabbed the armrests of her chair so tightly that her knuckles turned white. The urge to lash out at the red-and-white dressed man became nearly overpowering, but Ami gritted her teeth and fought it down. She was shaking from the tenseness in her muscles and sweating heavily when the white light enveloping her finally died down after what had felt like an eternity. In reality, no more than five heartbeats could have passed.
"Are you all right?" The short man took a step back and cocked his head, raising his eyebrows at the sight of the Keeper shivering as if she was freezing.
"I'm fine, thanks," Ami breathed. "Contact with light magic just feels really bad for me," she explained, sounding sad. "Could you do the same for the youma over there, please? Don't worry, I'll use my power to hold her down so she won't get violent."
"Very well. We really ought to find a name for her," Snyder commented while he plodded over to the motionless body. "Always referring to her as 'the unknown youma' is becoming tiresome."
Ami looked at the resting figure. "Um. Tiger, perhaps?" Given the stripes and orange skin, the name suggested itself, even if there was nothing feline about the muscular youma.
"That will do." Snyder brushed through his neat bowl cut before reaching for the youma. Even with his body blocking Ami's view, she wanted to look away from the pristine white glow that flared up behind him. "You described the blood that Zarekos drew from you as purple, correct?" Snyder asked, his back facing Ami as he continued his ministrations.
"Well, that is strange," the acolyte said. "It has come to my attention that Tiger's blood is blue. Which means..."
"Red plus blue," Ami continued his sentence. "Zarekos somehow stole blood from both of us at the same time. How is that even possible?"
"I wouldn't be able to tell you. However, did I understand you right? He stole blood from you?" Snyder looked over his shoulder, a frown marring his face.
"Well, the fight was really chaotic with the lights flashing and water spraying everywhere, but I think the droplets flew off toward him," Ami explained.
The priest in training let out a sigh. "Unfortunate. It's not impossible that he knows enough blood magic to use it against you. However, I am hazy on the details and suspect that your libraries know more about this subject than I do."
"Oh." Now that was most unwelcome news, and Ami lowered her head as she contemplated the implications. She sprang to her feet. "I'll delegate looking into that to one of the warlocks. For now, I have to lead my troops! This makes beating him as fast as possible even more urgent!"
"Ahem, are you sure you want to go out like that?" Snyder's nasal voice sounded dubious, as the way the slender girl was swaying wasn't filling him with confidence. "It is my professional opinion as a healer that you should sit this one out."
The black-clad girl fell silent for long moment, considering the leaden feeling in her limbs. "Hmm, I suppose I don't have to be with my squad until they reach the target. I'll use that time to recover, but I need to supervise the actual assault. This is too good an opportunity to pass up."
Three energetic knocks against the oaken wood of Ami's bedroom door roused her from her slumber. She sat up and rubbed her eyes, feeling as if she had closed them only moments before.
"Mercury, I need you in the command centre. I think there's something you should see." Cathy's voice came from the other side of the closed door, muffled by the thick oaken wood.
Stifling a yawn, Ami slipped out from underneath the covers. "All right, I'll be over there in a minute," she called, gesturing with her left. Cloth rustled as her black trousers with gold adornments came sailing into her open grasp, followed by a matching shirt. Feeling presentable enough given the circumstances, Ami transported herself into the command centre without fanfare. The few warlocks who noticed her arrival murmured a polite greeting and resumed their work. She could see Jered paint markings onto the large map resting on the central table, his pale green tunic standing out brightly in the spotlight.
"Ah, there you are," Cathy said, striding through the double row of occupied pilot capsules and past the blue-haired girl, joining her wavy-haired boyfriend next to the map. She motioned Ami to come closer. Addressing the two goblins waiting nearby, she ordered "You! Show us the situation as it was an hour ago!" The greenskins saluted and started turning cranks protruding from two rolls that had been affixed to the opposing edges of the table. The transparent sheet spanned between them moved, and the red dots jotted down on it crept over the painted landscape. As the current drawings overlaid over the map were rolled up, older ones replaced them, showing notes that had been taken earlier. "Stop, that's the one. Mercury, what do you think of this?"
It was immediately obvious to Ami that the number of red dots had increased relative to the previous state, and she frowned. "Since I find it a bit hard to believe that we eliminated a fourth of the known enemy troops while I slept, this means they are moving?"
"That's what I thought, too" Cathy confirmed. "The ghost village over there? Empty. So is this one. And that over there, too." The tall blonde's finger stabbed down at the offending map squares. "Something's up."
"They are reinforcing the surrounding dungeon hearts, then?" Ami asked, jumping to the obvious conclusion.
"If they are, they aren't taking the direct route," Cathy said. "At least, the warlocks haven't spotted them moving down any of the obvious paths, and the target dungeons remain empty."
"Maybe they took the opportunity to get the hell out of there now that Zarekos isn't looking over their shoulder any more?" Jered suggested.
"That's not in their nature," the blonde disagreed, shaking her head. "If they are migrating, then they have orders."
"Please show the current situation," Ami demanded. The goblins turned their cranks, and her eyes filled with worry as she watched the update slide across the table's surface. From time to time, she tapped a few keys on the keyboard of her computer. When she looked up from her work, her expression was grim. "I just correlated the disappearances with the paths our troops are taking. The enemies are only disappearing from locations that none of the teams can see!"
Cathy slammed her fist in her palm. "So they don't want us to know what they are up to? That screams 'ambush' to me!"
"Its worse than that," Ami said, feeling her hackles rise. "They are reacting to our actions. That means they aren't just acting out a pre-planned set of moves!"
"All right. So there may be a few commanders out there giving orders. We can deal with that," the female warrior said confidently. "Zarekos would just move troops in from other parts of the continent and not give us a chance to notice his preparations at all."
"Maybe not. Keepers can transport something instantly, but picking it up and dropping it off still takes a small amount of time. When moving large numbers of troops, it can be faster to just send them on their own if the distance is short enough. Especially if they can fly," Ami pointed out.
"It's a good thing he's banished, then. Ghosts may be fast, but I doubt they are as fast as your reaperbots. Man, those buckets can run." Jered snickered. "I wonder how Marda keeps up with them."
Ami concentrated briefly, and an image of the troll clinging to the back of one of the metallic behemoths popped into her mind. She had her legs wrapped around its waist and was clutching the horns like handles, sounding like a rattle as her chainmail jingled with each rapid bound. "Piggyback ride."
"That can't be comfortable," the wavy-haired man said with a pleased smile. "In any case, our warriors should be able to get to the targets before the defenders do, so all is fine."
"Unless enemies teleport in and slow them down," Cathy retorted.
"All of the groups can handle a bunch of bloodsuckers. It's not as if the lot of them knew where to attack without their Keeper to guide them." Jered remained unconcerned. "There's no reason for you to go pale like that," he continued, winking at Ami.
The teenager gulped, cursing her imagination that conjured up images of Jadeite being torn apart by a savage flock of vampires that had appeared out of nowhere. She banished the pictures by looking back at the map, tracking the progress her teams had made during the last five hours. So far things were looking well. All four groups should reach their destinations within the next one to two hours if the automatons kept advancing at their current pace, which was about that of a sprinting human. That should be fast enough to outrun the undead pursuers.
"Big bad vampire not have servant Keepers to move stuff for him?" one of the goblins piped up. He hopped from one leg to the other in excitement when he noticed that all three bigwigs were staring at him now.
Cathy and Jered exchanged a horrified glance. "Oh crap!"
Ami remained calm though, and even directed a small smile at the creature. "No, subordinate Keepers don't work that w-"
"Mercury, skeletons are raining down on us from the sky!" Jadeite's voice suddenly popped into her mind. To her great irritation, he sounded more indignant about the inadequacy of the attack than alarmed. "Ack! Vampire!"
"WHAT? That shouldn't be- GET OUT OF THERE! Without offering an explanation, she disappeared within a swirl of snowflakes. Not that she needed to give one, as the warlocks in charge of each group started shouting about enemies popping up from everywhere.
A trap! My troops are too far away from my dungeon heart to pull them back! Ami realised as she reappeared in a flash of blue. Snowflakes drifted past her boots, continuing their journey down to the Avatar Islands far below while she kept hovering in the sky. She would save them anyway! By teleporting closer - something she wouldn't have been able to pull off without the teleport spell Jadeite had taught her, given that Zarekos had claimed the entire continent - she brought her troops into her personal zone of influence, which partially overlapped with that of the dungeon heart. With that kind of range extension, she could deposit them safely back on the ship, despite the vampire lord's machinations. How can he be back already?
Knowing that Jadeite could teleport out on his own, Ami reached out with her mind, checking on Marda first. She found the armoured troll blurring across a field of moving skeletons and shattered bones, exchanging blindingly fast blows with a pair of red-robed vampires. The combatants hopped and jumped across the battlefield, using rocks and the occasional reaperbot as steppingstones for their high-speed acrobatics. In the background, a group of flying ghosts was using grappling hooks to reel a flailing automaton up into the sky. One of the vampires lost his head to a golf-club-like swing of Marda's hammer just as Ami ripped the troll leader away from the fight. In her haste, she didn't aim for a particular landing location, nor did she ensure a soft landing. The creature flipped over twice before skidding into a wall. Even unmoving, her outline remained blurry.
Ami was already reaching for Mareki when she felt her veins turn to ice and her lungs lock up. The numbing sensation emanated from several hand-sized spots on her back, shoulder, and legs that felt as if burning fingers were sliding through her flesh. Invisible ghosts, she realised as she teleported away with a supreme effort of will, barely able to keep her eyes open. Seeing the parched ground rush for her and feeling the wind blow her bangs back, she realised that she had blacked out for a moment. She had no doubt that only her sailor senshi constitution had allowed her to survive that sneak attack. She controlled her fall just in time to prevent smashing into the rocks at full speed, but was too weak to avoid the impact altogether. Rolling over the ground like a crash test dummy ejected from a car window, she was almost glad for the numbness lingering after the attack of the life-draining spectres. Feeling dizzy, she tried to remember what she had come here to do. Oh, yes, Mareki. Lying on her back and looking at the spiralling bands of fiery clouds, she spotted something that looked like a bat out of hell coming right at her. The shapes multiplied as the sky seemed to spit out more. Her half-lidded eyes flew open. Vampires! MOVE!
Shaken by the sight of claw-like fingernails taking up her entire field of vision, Ami flashed into existence at a hidden spot a few kilometres away, still prone. Right. Mareki. She hurled the youma through space, going for speed over precision. Her eyes widened as a shadow fell over her. Already teleporting, she could hear claws cut the air as they whistled toward where she had been. How do they keep finding me so fast? Battered, bloody, and with her outfit in tatters, she appeared back in her command centre, in no state to extract the reaperbots too. Ignoring the alarmed shouts of her employees, she focused on watching the battle as she dropped to her knees. In about the time it took Cathy to rush over and catch her, too many vampires to count descended upon her remaining automatons and tore them to scraps, despite their spirited resistence. She could hear the goblins in their capsules protest loudly at the unfairness of it all. It was then that she realised that the trap had been meant for her, not for her forces. As soon as she had escaped, the enemy had crushed the bait with his full might.
That night, when the sun had set and only the faint light of the burning clouds above painted the surface of the ocean a dim red, banks of smooth, rolling fog poured down the cliffs. Like lava, they glowed from within as they moved over the water, setting it ablaze with green and yellow flame where they passed. Unperturbed by the perpetual storm surrounding the small iceberg off the coast, the spectral clouds stalked forward, moving against the wind total silence. The inhabitants of the floating fortress would soon learn what the missing ghosts were up to.
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