Ami sat on the throne in the back of her command centre, wrapped in a warm blanket. The unoccupied goblin capsules framing the central path gaped like open sarcophagi, and with only three warlocks and her inner circle present, the vast chamber felt empty. A blurry figure was approaching, reminding her of a white-stemmed mushroom with a red cap. With a supreme effort of will, she raised eyebrows that felt as heavy as lead and focused properly. The stem of the mushroom became the white part of Snyder's robe, the red cap the stole draped over his upper body and shoulders.
"Here, drink this."
Ami squinted at the steaming cup being shoved in her face and let out a soft whimper. "Another one? But-"
"Drink it. This tea is proven to get survivors of ghost attacks back on their feet in no time." His tone mellowed a bit as he took in her expression. "Please do it, even if you are feeling lethargic. I know you probably want nothing more than to curl up in your bed and sleep for a week right now." He looked up and frowned at the fuku-clad blonde standing behind the throne. "And Cathy, that pillow is not helping."
"She shouldn't even be here in her condition! She may as well sit comfortably," the fuku-clad woman replied as she stuffed the large cushion into the gap between Mercury's body and the backrest of the throne.
Ami secretly agreed with the red-haired healer because she felt herself getting sleepier by the minute. However, her reluctance to drink the warm liquid was not due to the heaviness of her limbs. Her stomach already felt bloated from all the previous cups, and she could hear it slosh around when she shifted her weight. With a slowness that had nothing to do with her state of health, she reached for the proffered cup. The tea did seem to help, after all. Initially, her skin had glittered as if it has been dusted with diamond where the ghost's skeletal hands had touched her. Thanks to the tea, the disturbing handprints were slowly fading away, despite having resisted her necromantic healing spells. She had already treated the bruises and scrapes she had carried away from her recent plunge, but couldn't do anything to get rid of the lingering coldness in her bones. Ami braved another sip, grimacing at the bitter taste. If it kept her awake, she was willing to deal with it. There were questions that needed to be addressed sooner rather than later. She put the cup down and looked around.
"I need to know how the enemy could keep tracking me even after I teleported, and what I can do about it. Does anyone have any ideas?"
A grey-bearded warlock turned away from the scrying window set into the wall and raised his hand. "I have a theory, my Lady. If I may ask a question first?"
Ami nodded. "Yes, go ahead."
"Is it possible that Zarekos has obtained a personal item or a piece of your body, such as hair, during your battle? If not, my theory is inapplicable," the wizard said.
"Yes, he did take some of my blood, even if it was mixed with the youma's."
The warlock stroked the end of his bushy moustache. "Blood would work. Blood would work very well indeed. I believe he may have forged an arcane link through the use of sympathetic magic, as described in Ribald's 'Harmonics and Exsanguination'. A most enlightening read, I might add. Your library does hold a copy, in case you want to check it out yourself. I did find the illustrations very enlightening, even though the prose was-"
"Get to the point you meandering old fool!" Marda, sitting on one of the goblin capsules, raised her hand as if to ward off the flood of words coming from the wrinkly man's mouth. "We aren't here to listen to your ramblings! What does it do, and how can it be stopped?"
"Philistine," the warlock muttered, shooting the troll a poisonous glance. "In any case, this would enable him to track where the rest of Lady Mercury's blood is. One would have to destroy the sample he used as a focus of his ritual to sunder the connection." He rolled his, eyes skywards, thinking. "Well, pumping out all of her blood would work too, of course, but... anyway, there is a caveat. Given the intricately-linked nature of Keepers and their hearts, the magical signature of her territory should be sufficiently close to her own to mask her precise location, for what it is worth."
"So I blend in with my surroundings as long as I stay here," Ami deduced. "All right, that is helpful." She closed her eyes and fell still, as if she had dozed off. Just as Cathy reached out to gently shake the blue-haired girl's arm, her eyes flew open, burning a bright red as they focused on the warlock. "If Zarekos can trace my blood with his sample, I should be able to locate his sample using my own blood. I won't allow him to keep it, whether or not that was what he was using to find me! Please prepare a set of instructions on how to perform this spell for me immediately!"
"A-as you wish, my Keeper." He bowed deeply, sweeping the floor with the tip of his beard. "If it isn't too much trouble, I humbly request to be deposited in the library."
The wood of the chair the man had just occupied creaked as his weight vanished along with his body into thin air. Ami could transport her underlings with no physical effort and only had to briefly focus her will - something that was easy even while she was recovering.
Marda made a grumbling noise in the back of her throat that sounded like approval. "Turn the old bat's trick back on himself. I like it."
The brown-haired man who had so far kept in the background, leaning against the map table with a neutral expression, said "With some luck, this could even lead us directly to his main hideout, or at least to some place that isn't just an empty dungeon full of traps!"
"Since when is luck on our side?" his girlfriend muttered from behind Ami's seat.
"Let's hope it is this time," Ami said, and a faint smile played around her lips. It disappeared with her next statement. "However, there is still more to do. I need to see the four locations where our forces were ambushed!"
Acting on the implicit command, the two remaining warlocks focused on the upright divining pools, mumbling a repetitive sequence of short syllables. Behind the glass windows, the water swirled and glowed, its colours darkening into the black and red tones of the nearby continent's devastated landscape.
Pale skeletons crawled like ants over the battlefield, dragging huge pieces of scrap metal toward a pair of black-cloaked vampires. Maggot-like fingers accepted each part, twisting and turning the heavy pieces as if they weighted no more than feathers. Once inspected, most parts were discarded onto a growing pile of useless debris that towered like a mound of corpses in the centre of the battlefield. Others were handed to the first vampire's partner, who peeled the armour away like tinfoil. When his arms emerged from the wreckage, Ami could spot the distinctive glitter of gold.
"I suppose them not noticing the fuel was too much to hope for," Cathy sighed. "We ought to do something about that." She glared at the small pile of precious metal that was building up at the enemy's feet, as if she could will it to go away. Surprisingly, it disappeared, no doubt gone directly into Zarekos' coffers.
Ami nodded. "We can't really stop them, but perhaps we can slow them down. Jadeite!"
"Yes?" The dark general, who was sitting on thin air rather than using one of the coffin-shaped pilot capsules as a bench, drifted closer.
Ami got up, brushing off the blanket, and stood on wobbly legs. Instead of her battered Keeper outfit, she was wearing her original senshi uniform. "I need you to teleport me around while I attack the salvage operations."
"What? You can barely walk!You can't go out in your condition, especially not if the enemy Keeper can immediately find you!" Cathy put her arms akimbo, stepping in front of the teenager as if to bar her path.
"Jadeite will be doing most of the work. We'll not stay long enough for Zarekos to strike at me. Just a quick hit and run! Now, we will go here first, then here..." Ami pointed out the different spots on the map, glancing at the scrying devices to plan her assault. "Jadeite, can you handle four rapid succession teleports with a passenger?"
"Of course," the curly haired dark general nodded, stepping closer. "I am ready to go as soon as you command."
Ami could feel her cheeks heat up when he put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer. It's all completely professional, she reminded herself as her heart rate picked up. "R-Right. On my mark. Three. Two. One. Go!"
Ami and Jadeite shimmered into existence as a single speck of dark violet light that solidified into their shapes in less time than it took her to blink. Immediately, she could feel the parched, ash-laden air brush over her skin and smell the stench of sulphur. Below, the rattle of metal striking metal echoed across the rocks as the undead continued their triage.
"Shabonspray!" In Ami's haste to blurt out the spell, she nearly struck Jadeite in the face with her flailing arm motions. The blonde ducked his head and let out a startled grunt as he adjusted his grip around the smaller girl's waist and shoulders. Before the bubbles shooting from Ami's fingers could expand into a proper fog bank, she compressed them, turning them into her gurgling Keeper hand. Alerted by the blue light flickering across the landscape, the two vampires darted apart even before they could hear the whistle of the liquid hand that was streaking toward them. Transparent fingers as thick as their legs dug into the sooty soil, which quaked from the violence of the impact. As the two pale creatures glided through the air toward their attackers, trailed by fluttering cloaks, Ami shouted "Out!" and both she and Jadeite disappeared with his signature effect of black lines shooting upward. The vampires stopped, turning around as they heard a loud crunching noise from behind. The sight of the liquid fist crushing their pile of recovered gold between its fingers and disappearing with it made their dead eyes widen. Both gulped. Zarekos wouldn't like this.
"Shabon Spray Freezing!" hovering in the uncomfortably hot updraught above a seething river of lava, Ami directed her spell straight down, rather than at the skeletons and ghosts labouring at their shore. The creatures, undaunted by their close proximity to the fiery stream, turned as one and stared up at her with hollow eyes that looked like bottomless pits in the orange light. "Out, now!" Ami shouted, feeling her vision swim from forcing a quick Shabon Spray Freezing. That was easier when I was in the youma body, her thoughts strayed. Jadeite tensed in surprise at her command - they hadn't even attacked yet - but complied. The scintillating shot of ice and water descended toward the plates of condensing rock drifting on the surface of the roaring lava. It plunged through the molten surface and flash-vaporised from the furnace-like heat. The cloud of pressurised steam expanded with a howl, pushing a fountaining wall of lava outward as it violently made more room. Not understanding what was going on, the skeletons were caught by the hip-high wave of red-hot stone that spilled over the shore. The vampire overseers cleared the danger zone easily enough by flying straight up, weaving around flying globs of molten rock and abandoning their servants to their fate. They gnashed their elongated teeth in anger when they looked down and realised that their salvage was disappearing underneath small puddles of cooling lava.
Jadeite could feel Mercury slump against him, relying on him to keep her aloft. Nevertheless, as soon as they arrived at their third destination, he could feel his hackles rise when the soft body he was carrying crackled with static energy. Mercury's blue bangs moved independently of the breeze, and he could feel the power she was summoning from her dungeon heart. Which made sense, as there was no convenient natural hazard she could exploit. With a bang and a flash that hurt and blinded eyes used to the twilight, an enormous fireball blossomed amidst the field of debris, scattering scrap and gold far over the landscape. "To the final location," Ami demanded, red eyes burning brightly.
Zarekos didn't have to be a genius to figure out what Mercury was doing. When she and Jadeite appeared over the group of labouring skeletons, the air was crawling with ghosts that looked like softly glowing clouds. Worse, frayed shadows patrolled the airspace, resembling giant bats with their fluttering robes.
"Shabo- ugh!" Inertia drove Jadeite's forearm into Ami's stomach when he suddenly swerved backwards, driving the breath out of her lungs. Black and red bolts of power flashed past where the two of them had just been as some of the vampires demonstrated their mastery of the arcane arts. A barrage of magical projectiles slammed into the dark general's shield, sending ripples across the bluish field of force.
"Hurry," the blond hissed through clenched teeth, his eyes going wide as black and red blurs closed in from all directions.
"Yes, I-" Ami's heart skipped a beat when a pale figure appeared directly behind them, within Jadeite's shield bubble. Had she not been in his arms and looking over his shoulders, neither of them would have seen the well-dressed vampire appear. The eye slits that shone red like windows to hell removed any uncertainty about Zarekos still being banished or not. The vampire lord's hands were already moving, two clawed blurs that shot toward his enemies. With a speed born of desperation, Ami made a grab for the incoming wrists. Even with both of her arms slung around Jadeite in a hug-like hold and her hands already on his back, she was too late to get a grip on the vampire's limbs, and had to settle for striking at the inside of his arms, forcing them apart. In hindsight, this was the better course of action. She would have never been able to oppose the vampire's raw strength directly. The deflected blows whistled past Jadeite's shoulders on both sides, and Ami could feel Zarekos' carrion-smelling breath on her skin as she came face to face with the enemy Keeper. Wide-eyed, she hurled Jadeite and herself through space, fleeing toward her dungeon. Zarekos' arms closed like those of a praying mantis in a swipe that would have bisected his enemies if they had still been there.
The unannounced and hasty transport through space caught Jadeite unaware, and the grey-clad general stumbled as he arrived in the command centre. Half-spinning from the enforced teleportation, and with Mercury's weight clinging to him, he stood no chance of regaining his footing. He ended up on his back, with Mercury's warm body draped over him. Ami blinked, noted the dazed look in his steel-blue eyes, and realised with a start how close their faces were. Just a little closer, and-
"You have got to work on your landings, Keeper," Marda growled from her perch on the goblin capsule. "I got more bruises from your extrication than from the entire battle against the vampires," the troll continued. If she had injuries, then they were invisible underneath her chainmail.
Startled, Ami jumped and scrambled to get off of the prone general. "Jadeite! Are you all right?" she asked, trying to ignore her burning ears as she helped him to his feet.
"Fine," the curly-haired blond said, patting the dust of off his uniform.
Amy reluctantly tore her gaze away from the dark general and turned toward Marda, inclining her head. "I apologise for any inconveniences with the landing, but I was in a hurry," she explained, hoping the armoured troll would let the issue go.
"We saw everything, even your confrontation with Zarekos," Catyh interrupted, gesturing toward the divining windows. "Damn, I'm starting to see why the other Keepers consider it too much trouble to deal with him. Still, you managed to slow down his recovery of the gold and even managed to get some back! It's a shame you couldn't do anything at that fourth site."
"Actually," Ami said, her expression brightening considerably as she pulled something out of her left glove and held it up for everyone to see. "I managed to throw the other half of this into the gold pile before Zarekos attacked.
"What's that?" Jered approached, his nose twitching as he picked up the smell. "Half a garlic clove? How is that going to help? The bloodsuckers can't even smell it."
"Exactly!" Ami smiled. "I needed something to mark the gold, and the vampires would have sniffed out any blood immediately. But plant juice?"
"Wait, you want to use the blood-tracking spell on plant juice?" The wavy-haired man asked with a snort. "Plant juice. Plant blood? Well, it's worth a try. If that works, you might just be the first person to successfully employ garlic against vampires."
"Anyway," Ami continued, more sombre now that the adrenaline was wearing off, "what I really want to know is how Zarekos managed to return from his banishment so quickly."
"That's simple enough to find out," Jadeite said, drawing surprised looks from the others."Just keep your minions scrying on him while you destroy another dungeon heart." The dark general smirked, crossing his arms.
"Well said, oh general," Marda mocked. "Simple indeed."
Jered produced a ledger from somewhere within his tunic. "Let's delay further attacks until we know exactly how much this setback cost-" A bell started ringing, and he looked around, searching for the source of the noise in confusion. "What's that?"
"The Captain on the bridge must have spotted something," Ami said, grimacing. She had just been about to settle onto her throne and rest her legs. "I'll go check it out."
|Previous chapter:||Next chapter:|
|Chapter 84: Phase Two||Chapter 86: Retaliation|