"That's him!" a light blue youma with bird wings for ears hissed when she spotted a grey-uniformed, long-haired man in the distant haze. Traffic on the wide street winding underneath a dim, close, and violet sky froze as more of the beings turned their head in the indicated direction. Conversations ceased and expressions turned carefully neutral as the youma recognised the dark general and his companions. He had visited this part of the Dark Kingdom a lot recently.
"Inquisitors with him. Again." a figure in the shadows said, but the first speaker had already vacated the premises, slinking away into one of the anthill-like buildings made of strangely organic-looking rock that lined this part of the road.
With a cold expression on his face, Nephrite strode through the crowd that gave him a wide berth. He was all too aware of the furtive glances and fearful whispers that accompanied him wherever he went. Most of the youma retreated from the circles of light surrounding the crystal-topped columns that framed the avenue like trees, thinking that he could not see them scowling at him from the shadows. The dark general frowned. He was not here for them today. Perhaps soon. "That way," he ordered his companions, whose varied and mismatched clothing fit right in with regular Dark Kingdom fashion, except for the red tiaras that all of them were wearing. He was pointing at the entrance of a cave that led to the dwellings below and resembled the open mouth of a dragon. With its irregular, flowing lines, the architecture almost looked as if it was carved from runny wax. "The stars know everything," the long-haired general intoned. "In particular, they know that conspirators are meeting in this building right now. Drag them out for me, will you?"
Immediately, the five winged females and one male saluted and rushed up the narrow staircase leading up to the entrance, disciplined enough to not get in each others way and moving in complete silence.
The lamp, a milky crystal set into the blue-shimmering rock of the ceiling, was barely bright enough to illuminate the three figures sitting around the table directly underneath it. Its light faded away even before it could reach the walls, which was just what trio wanted. No faint glowing line underneath the door would betray their presence.
"No, it's true! They aren't just investigating people at random. I have collected the data and discerned a pattern," a green-skinned youma said, slamming her palm down on the table. Her blue eyes were too large for her face and gave her a bug-like appearance. "Those arseholes are targeting us specifically!"
"Us? You mean those who served in general Jadeite's forces?" a broad youma who resembled a humanoid toad asked. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
"Of course that's what I mean! What else would the three of us have in common?"
"You may be on to sssomething. Have any of you heard from Myak and Terussse lately? I think they may have disssappeared too!" the third youma hissed. She couldn't help it, since her forked tongue and protruding fangs didn't allow her to form the words properly.
"That settles it," the first speaker said. "We need to do something to protect ourselves! I don't want to be questioned by Nephrite's goons just because we have no more general to look out for us!"
The frog-like youma's yellow eyes shone as he spoke. "You have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide," he repeated the official position of the kingdom in regard to the inquisition, sounding dubious. Nobody had ever accused him of anything, least of all of being smart.
"Yeaaaah, right," the first youma drawled. Even if it was true by some miracle, what youma wouldn't be involved in something he or she didn't want to come out? "Oh, sure, they may return you when they are done with you," the large-eyed creature conceded, "but I have spoken with some of the prisoners they released. Their personality was nothing like it was before! It's like talking to completely different person!"
The room's occupants fell quiet, brooding in sombre silence. Finally, the scaly youma spoke up. "Sssso, what can we do? We can't jussst sssit quietly until they come for usss."
"I agree completely. We need to fight back, but we can't do it alone. We-"
She was rudely interrupted by the door shattering, perforated in three spots by large, electrically-charged tentacles that flashed toward the sitting youma. As soon as the green attack coming for her struck, she convulsed and turned into dust.
"Dammit, Galli! Too much power! Nephrite wanted all of them alive!" One of the shadowy youma that had accompanied the dark general shouted, glaring at her companion.
The target of her ire shrugged her shoulders, which sent a ripple through her elongated arms that were still wrapped around the pile of youma dust. "Bah, at least we got the others." She glared at the unconscious figures hanging limply in the rubber-like arms of the other members of the inquisitorial team. "Secure them and take them back. I want to get to the fun part!"
"Oh, yes," a youma in the back giggled. "Want to bet whether or not they'll still be alive after the Queen is done with them?"
The six figures left, taking their unfortunate captives with them. Long after they were gone, the forgotten pile of dust shuddered and shifted, and a tiny hand poked out through its side. A miniature version of the green-skinned youma crawled out, hatred gleaming in her too-large eyes.
Nephrite was quite satisfied with himself. His powers of astrology made uncovering clandestine plots easy. While he hadn't uncovered any treason involving Jadeite or the sailor senshi yet, he had managed to foil a plot to assassinate one of Queen Beryl's favourite youma. That had put him back in the evil monarch's good books, much to the displeasure of Zoisite. Oh yes, life was good. Except for one nagging little detail. The dark general blasted a bottle of ink that hadn't been on his desk when he had left, and was entirely unsurprised when the resulting splash of dark liquid frothed and bubbled, releasing toxic fumes as it ate its way through his paperwork. The constant assassination attempts since he had taken this job were becoming tiresome. As an investigator who was actually competent at discovering out power-grabbing schemes and intrigues, he was giving most of the youma nightmares. The less scrupulous or simply more terrified ones felt that the best solution was getting rid of him, and made more work for him in the process. Fortunately, he could avoid all of this trouble simply by hanging out in his Tokyo mansion, as most youma were unable to reach Earth under their own power. With a smug grin, the wavy-haired general disappeared for some rest and relaxation.
Zoisite was in a foul mood. Not only had he not been able to locate Kunzite for some days now, but Nephrite had somehow weaselled his way Queen Beryl's good graces, and to top it all off, Sailor Moon was currently trying her best to take his head off with her moon tiara. The dark general dove behind the counter, almost losing his ponytail to the spinning disc. Behind him, a large banner proclaiming 'Grand Opening' tumbled to the ground, cut in two by the magical projectile. "Hey! Aren't you supposed to give some sort of speech before you attack?"
"You don't deserve a speech!" the angry voice of Sailor Moon shouted back. "You are the lowest of the low! I was so looking forward to free ice cream, too, but you had to ruin it! In the name of the Moon, I will punish you!"
"Uh," the carrot-themed youma, who had previously been masquerading as a waitress, chimed in. "I think I still have some around here. If you want some, you can have it!"
Sailor Moon let her gaze wander slowly over the interior of the parlour, which was littered with unconscious customers, before staring at the cone-headed youma through half-lidded eyes. "I may not be the quickest thinker around, but just how stupid do you think I am? Moon Tiara Action!"
The youma darted out of the way, coming face to face with her superior as she joined him behind cover. "What do we do now? Should we attack?"
"What do you think?" Zoisite muttered as a glowing disc tore like a buzz saw through the obstacle behind which they were hiding. It pinged off of one of the metal vats holding ice cream, dislodging it and dropping it on the cowering monster's head. Note to self: ice-cream parlours are off the target list from now on.
The dazed youma actually had to consider the question for a while, prompting the brownish-blonde-haired general to lower his opinion of his current underling even more. "Um. No?" She said, blissfully ignorant that her superior seriously contemplated just shoving her out into the senshi's line of fire to get it over with.
Zoisite pouted. Why was he forced to work with morons like this? Oh, right, because Queen Beryl thought that it was a splendid idea to assign him a youma at random just before the mission in order to make sure it wasn't compromised by the traitors. That kind of harebrained scheme had to be one of Nephrite's suggestions. He just knew it.
The automatic doorbell rung twice as the other two rushed in, which meant that this energy harvesting operation was thoroughly ruined. By now, Zoisite was almost willing to believe in that pro-senshi conspiracy that Queen Beryl assumed to exist. How else could they keep discovering his plots so easily? Fortunately, the Queen was cutting him some slack due to the additional difficulties the traitors introduced. Still, she wouldn't put up with his failures forever. There was only so much that Kunzite could do to deflect her wrath, when he was around in the first place. It was so unfair! The pony-tailed general pouted some more until a brilliant idea flickered through his brain. He would prove that he was better than Nephrite by unravelling this conspiracy first! His rival was approaching the problem entirely the wrong way. Why interrogate countless youma if you only had to interrogate one senshi? Of course, catching one could be a bit tricky, the youngest of the four generals admitted. Fortunately, Nephrite would unwittingly help him with that. Zoisite smiled as his newest scheme crystallised in his mind. Even if it failed, it would inconvenience his rival, which was a net benefit in his book. He turned to the youma. "New plan. On my signal, you get out of here and run in that direction. Keep going that way and don't deviate, or I won't be able to find you to and pick you up later. Do you understand? You can run, right?"
"Um. Run. That way. Sure thing." The creature pointed one triangular finger in the indicated direction, noting with relief that it wasn't taking her toward the sailor-suited menaces.
"Good. I'll leave the rest to you. Now go!" Zoisite said before disappearing in a swirl of flower petals, leaving his mentally challenged accomplice to fend for herself.
"Hey! Come back here!" Sailor Moon whined, panting as she looked at the back of the fleeing monster who had remembered that she could fly after being chased for several blocks, and was now taking a shortcut over a building.
"This isn't working! It's too fast!" Sailor Mars wheezed in the back of the formation. Since she had neither Sailor Jupiter's physique nor Sailor Moon's daily running training, which consisted of a mad dash to school, she was trailing a bit behind. "But the thing just made a mistake. While it's flying, I wont have to worry about accidentally hitting a bystander. Jupiter, give me a hand!"
"All right!" Following the red-skirted senshis lead, the brunette stopped and extended a lightning rod from her tiara. Both magical girls took aim and combined their powers, sending a swirling comet of fire interlaced with electricity after their foe, who obligingly kept moving in a straight line. The projectile struck true and exploded like a ground to air missile.
"Yes!" "We did it!" Moon took Jupiter by the hands and jumped up and down cheerfully before a voice from near her feet interrupted.
"Look again!" Luna said, staring intently at the dissipating cloud of smoke. The youma, catapulted forward by the explosion, spun out of control and descended in a ballistic curve, leaving a spiralling trail of smoke behind.
"It can't survive that landing. Can it?" Jupiter asked, looking questioningly at Sailor Moon, who had much more experience in fighting youma than her.
Moon scratched her cheek in confusion. "Well, uh..."
"We have to go check and make sure!" Luna insisted, already sprinting ahead as fast as her little cat legs allowed. "At least it seems to have crashed in a small forest, well away from people!"
"This place is creepy," Sailor Jupiter said as the trio walked past the trees. The forest, little more than a private estate covered in pine trees, was so dark that the trio almost forgot that they were within a large city. The eerie grey fog that wafted between the sickly-looking plants turned each harmless bush into a menacing-looking silhouette.
"I wish Sailor Mercury was here,with us," Sailor Moon said wistfully, prompting Mars to look sad and nod. "She could have found the youma with her computer!"
"Don't worry, we will get her back somehow," Luna said from a tree branch above their heads. "There is a scorch mark in the clearing ahead. Sailor Mars, can you go check if there's any dark energy in it?"
"Okay." The long-haired girl stepped through the undergrowth and paused for a moment as she spotted the large mansion looming ahead, looking almost like a ruin with its faded colours and dark windows.
"Whoa. That looks like a haunted house at the amusement park," Jupiter said, stepping past Mars.
"G-g-ghosts?" Sailor Moon asked, her lower lip quivering as she peered into the twilight, already nervous from the surroundings.
"Don't be stupid! There are no ghosts here. Hey, isn't that..." she pointed at a red vehicle parked in the driveway in front of the imposing building.
"That's Nephrite's car!" Sailor Moon exclaimed.
The three girls exchanged looks, and without having to say a word, nodded at each other, jaws set in determination.
The entrance door to Nephrite's mansion exploded off of its hinges, bolts of lightning crackling around the smoking wood as it toppled into the dimly-lit hall room. The startled dark general reclining on a pale green stone throne within almost spilled red wine on his immaculate uniform and squinted at the doorway, from which daylight poured in. Three female, short-skirted silhouettes stood - no, posed - in the doorframe. A blonde with a blue skirt and long pigtails was in the centre, framed by one red and one green-skirted girl who presented themselves in profile, their backs facing the gesticulating blonde.
For a moment, Sailor Moon seemed at a loss for words, awed by the illusion of the night sky that hovered beneath the ceiling of the mansion's cathedral-like interior. Too soon for Nephrite's liking, she recovered and glared at him. "Nephrite! I won't forgive you for toying with the heart of innocent girls and for turning a cheerful estate into a spooky Dark Kingdom base! In the name of the Moon-"
"-and Mars -"
"- and Jupiter -"
"- we will punish you!" the trio finished together, uncrossing their arms and taking up battle stances as they entered the mansion and formed a half-circle around the long-haired dark general.
Nephrite let out an exasperated sigh. "Just what I needed. How did you even find this place? Oh, whatever. Fighting you isn't currently my job." The wavy-haired general's form became translucent as he faded away, leaving only his seat behind. Outside, a car door slammed shut, and its motor purred when the key turned in the ignition.
"He's running away again!" The three girls dashed for the mansion's door. Outside, Sailor moon steadied herself against the porch's railing, her pigtails whipping around as she searched for their quarry in the creepy surrounding woods. On the driveway to her left, Nephrite's red sport scar was moving. The dark general within raised his right hand from the steering wheel in a mocking wave.
Sailor Mars shouldered past Sailor Moon and put her index fingers together, leading her target. "Oh no, you don't! Fire Soul!"
Nephrite's eyes widened in alarm when the lighting within his car turned orange, becoming brighter by the second as a spiralling fireball approached the passenger seat's window. The motor howled and the wheels squealed as his foot slammed down hard on the gas pedal. Accelerating too quickly, the car jerked forward, leaving black tire marks on the ground. It made it almost to the safety of the trees before the fireball slammed into its back, rocking the chassis, instantly melting the wheels' rubber, and shoving it off the road. Out of control, the burning vehicle spun in a half-circle. The driver's door flew open and Nephrite jumped out, protecting his face with his arm as he rolled to a stop between the smouldering car and the team of senshi. Before he could get back to his feet, the flames reached the car's fuel tank, and a loud explosion shoved him into the dirt once more.
"Eeep." With closed eyes, Sailor Moon ducked and covered her head with both hands when the detonation assaulted her eardrums, pigtails fluttering nearly horizontally in the shockwave.
"Careful, Mars!" The tallest of the girls flattened herself against the wall, grabbed the red-skirted senshi by the shoulders and pulled her into safety too as sharp shards from the mansion's shattering windows started to rain down around them.
"Whoops." The raven-haired girl's eyes were wide, and she let out a nervous chuckle as she surveyed the results of her attack. "Well, at least I stopped him from getting away!"
Singed and with rips in his uniform, but no worse for wear, Nephrite got up and gaped at the bonfire consuming the creaking remains of his favourite mode of transportation. "You... you blew up my car!"
Sailor Mars gulped and took an unintentional step back when the dark general snarled and shot her a furious glare, eyes glowing with power. Backlit by the flaming wreckage, he rolled up his sleeves and advanced on the group of senshi, his long hair floating around him as if carried by undersea currents. "You brats are so going to get it now!"
Nero, the newly-ascended Keeper, froze as a faint roar echoed through his tunnels. The arachnid body he was possessing remained motionless as he listened, trying to make out the noise again over the distant clucking of the chickens in their pen and the regular thumping of his dungeon heart. His giant spiders didn't have the best sense of hearing, but he wouldn't let himself been caught in his real body while he was here on the Avatar islands. The very concept that some Keeper could throw spells at you in your own domain took some getting used to. As far as he knew, he was out of range of Mercury's dungeon hearts, but he was paranoid enough to not entrust his life to possibly faulty intelligence. Ah, but there was the noise again. He hadn't imagined it. The rock vibrated underneath the eight sensitive feet of his body. Quickly, the spider scuttled in the direction the roar had come from, following it deeper and deeper into the tunnels below. A decade-old layer of mold and dust covered the ground, undisturbed except for the footprints of the imp who had recently claimed these abandoned caverns. It took some time for Nero to locate the most likely point of origin of the sound in this forgotten maze, which happened to be a small chamber with a caved-in ceiling. The spider poked at the rubble. On closer inspection, this wasn't a chamber at all, but a shaft that led straight down, filled with debris and detritus.
The eight red pinpricks in the arachnid's face went dark, and the wraith-like form of the former warlock emerged from its back, only to wrap around a rapidly-summoned imp. Nero would need hands for the next part of his investigation. While the confused spider skittered off into the torch-lit darkness, the Keeper lifted a crystal ball and concentrated. The swirling mist in the ball disappeared and went black, and the possessed creature saw only its own crimson-eyed face in the reflective glass. "Too dark. Bah." Well, this was a point where the crystal heart could come in handy. The former warlock concentrated, draining a single gold coin from his treasury as he gathered a minuscule amount of magical power and projected it at the location shown in the pitch-black orb. In the rectangular room connected to the bottom of the blocked shaft, the darkness parted before the conjured mote of light. The imp's lips parted into a small circle as it let out an appreciative "Ohhhhh!" before widening into an evil grin.
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