Ami's group was eating in the same corner of the inn's dining room as the evening before. Despite her lack of appetite, the young Keeper had already devoured half of her breakfast over the course of the meal. Meanwhile, Cathy and the others had been chatting about the weather in general, and Mercury's pet storm in particular.
"Someone is spying on us," Snyder said in a low voice, throwing a significant glance down at the ward dangling from his neck. Ami reflexively looked at her bandaged left arm, but her own wristwatch-like warning amulet was currently missing for medical reasons.
Outside, the short, blonde fairy pressing herself against the wall underneath the windowsill started sweating. Had they noticed her?
"I'll check on it," Ami said quietly as she stood up, "I'll have to go to my room for a moment. Excuse me." Cathy, who had been sitting left of the fake blonde, obligingly slid aside on the bench to let the smaller girl pass. "Please be careful."
Camilla, still listening in, ducked down deeper when a shadow appeared behind the curtains. A moment later, it passed, and the fae let out the breath she had been holding. The small mirror in her hand rose, twisting left and right as she surveyed the interior of the building through the gap in the drapery. She's gone! Lucky! The girl rose and bumped her head on the protruding windowsill. Grimacing, she waved toward the stables, where her sisters were lurking on the thatched roof. With the index fingers of both hands, she mimed horns on her head, switched to making walking motions with two fingers, pointed in the direction of the inn's guest rooms, and folded her hands together and rested her cheek on it.
"The Keeper is returning to her room! Now is our chance!" Dandel whispered, interpreting her sister's hand signals. The indigo-haired fairy looked down from the roof at the bald, short-bearded man waiting beside the stable below. "Healer Taleth, her room was the third from the left on the upper floor, right?"
The priest, who was making shooing motions at a particularly intrusive goat, looked up and nodded blearily. The animal took advantage of his distraction to take a bite out of his white-and-golden robes.
"Good. We'll deal with her while you distract her team! Go!" At Dandel's command, she and three of her sister rose into the air. With a faint humming noise, the four fairies left a trail of glitter in the air as they whooshed around the corner of the inn and out of sight. With a disgusted frown, Taleth put a boot on the goat's forehead and pushed, tearing his robe free from the chewing animal's maw. Moments later, he fled towards the building's entrance, his flabby backside ahead of the beast's horns only by the smallest of margins.
A few blades of yellow straw fell past the window as Ami opened the door to her room. She didn't notice the upside-down face that appeared for a moment at the upper edge of the glass, peering into the rented chamber before withdrawing again. Roselle's wings beat furiously to keep the orange-haired girl up on the roof, where two of her sisters were waiting. "She's in there, all right!"
"Good," Dandel nodded, "you blast the window out of the way and I storm in. Remember to aim for the door so the path is clear for Anise and Tilia, too!"
"Understood," the orange-eyed fae nodded. "That monster won't know what hit her!"
Straw rustled underneath Melissa's thick brush as the blue-haired fairy squatted down and finished painting a large warding scheme onto the thatched roof. "The moment you give the signal, I'll activate the anti-mana ward. Make sure to beat her quickly!"
The door slammed shut behind the newest guest, just a moment before something banged against it from outside. Startled patrons sank back into their seats and smiled when they recognised the rotund white-and-gold robed figure leaning with his back against the wood, wiping his forehead with his sleeve as he panted.
"Ah, Father Taleth. Ran afoul of Old Billy again, did you?" the innkeeper teased good-naturedly, prompting friendly snickers from the regulars.
"By the Light, I swear that scraggy old beast has it in for me," the healer complained. He remembered his mission, and put on a fake smile as he weaved past the intervening tables and moved toward the group sitting in the corner of the room. "Hello again. How are you?"
"Healer Taleth," Snyder greeted politely, standing up and bowing to the superior-ranked holy man. "We are all fine, thank you. What brings you here?"
"Oh, I wanted to check up on my patient while I was around," he said, looking around the table as if searching for the girl.
"You just missed her," Jadeite spoke up, pointing at Mercury's plate with his fork, "she should be back in a few minutes."
"She seems to be fine. You did good work," Jered acknowledged. "Take a seat and join us, I'm sure she'll want to thank you personally."
"Ah, yes, excellent," the priest said quickly.
"Is something the matter? You look a bit ill yourself," Cathy wondered, fixing the drops of perspiration on the man's brow with a concerned stare.
"No, no, I'm just exhausted from running from that goat. Say, would you mind if I had some of that bacon?" Chair legs scratched over the wooden floor as the healer accepted Jered's offer and pulled his seat closer to the food-laden table. It's one of my favourites, you see, and..."
Outside the window, Camilla smiled as she listened in. Father Taleth was in position. Now what were her sisters waiting for? The round-cheeked fairy twirled her hand mirror between her fingers as she waited with bated breath. The blonde cringed, and her heart skipped a beat when she heard a raspy voice to her right.
"You are in my way."
Before the startled fae could let out a squeal of fright, something touched her side. Turning, she found herself face to face with huge, bulbous red eyes. They grew larger and larger in the ugly green-brownish face, until the girl realised with horror that it was her who was shrinking. The terrified shriek finally escaped her throat, coming out as loud clucking. Even that protest cut off when three fingers clamped shut around her neck like a vice, strangling the fairy-turned-hen. Keeper Morrigan considered the chicken in its hands for a moment, rejoicing in the desperate flapping of its wings as it struggled in vain against his grasp. Wring its neck or have some fun? The imp stretched, standing on tiptoes so it could see over the windowsill, barely. No sign of his quarry. "Well," the creature hissed, glowering at the panicked bird dangling from his grasp, "aren't you the lucky one? It looks as if I need something to amuse myself while I wait."
The window exploded inward, strewing glass shards and shreds of curtain all over the room. Continuing on its path, the bright bolt of electricity struck the rooms's door too, which shook under the impact and bulged into the corridor before tearing off around its hinges. Before the debris came to a rest, a curvy blur holding two short swords bounded in through the opening, hopping over the still-bouncing wood. A second fairy was right behind the first, head ducked low as she darted in at her sisters side. At the same time, what remained of the ragged curtains flew aside as Dandel shot in through the window feet first, stirring up the dust with her rapid wing beat.
"MERCURY, YOUR EVIL WILL END TOD- where is she?" Ansise's angry declaration died on her lips as she surveyed the room. The tips of the redhead's swords followed her gaze, moving from the scratched wardrobe left of the door, over the uncovered bed littered with glass shards, to the destroyed window across the room. Instead of a cornered Keeper caught in an anti-magic ward and trapped between attackers blocking every available exit, there was only dusty air that smelled of singed pine in the bedroom.
"Dammit! She must have magicked herself away just before we came in! Move to the walls, we may still be able to salvage this," Dandel ordered, positioning herself on top of the bed. "The moment she comes back, we'll pounce, and..."
"She had better come back soon," Tilia commented, even as she took an ambush position, "I can already hear people run up the stairs to find out what made this noise!"
"It can't be helped! Stay ready!"
Two black-gloved hands parted the thick, green foliage of a thorny hedge, allowing the scarred spy hidden within to peek through the gap at the backside of the inn. To the left, across the garden, was that fool Keeper Morrigan, possessing a lowly imp and plucking a live hen in between peering in through the window from time to time. What was the cretin up to now? Spying like this was beneath her, Dark Mistress Juzint, greatest assassin of Keeper Alphel! Of course, if the Master ordered her, she had to obey. Still, this task would have been unbearably boring without at least the thorns pricking her flesh.
A loud bang, followed by the rattling impacts of debris striking the ground, caused the imp's head to whip around. The hidden observer and an old goat munching on the cabbages were no less startled, and raised their gaze to the upper floor windows, where a plume of dust was escaping from a breach. Was that some white-clothed fairy fluttering in the air? It didn't matter to Juzint. She had just spotted something far more important, something that stupid Morrigan couldn't see from his spot so close to the wall. Razor-sharp blades sprang from the woman's fingertips as she searched the sunlit roof for the nearest shadow. The chimney was casting a line of darkness onto the straw, which would suit her needs just fine.
Glass and tableware clinked from the sudden crash that shook the building, making everything on the tables that wasn't weighed down vibrate.
"Shit! What was that?" Cathy shouted as she jumped to her feet.
"That sounded as if it had come from above," Jered said, sliding his chair backward. Throughout the room, conversations ceased and heads turned in the direction of the noise.
"I'll check on it," Jadeite said, and disappeared from his spot in a blur of vertical lines. Father Taleth, who had been just about to call for calm, paled. That hadn't been part of the plan! How was he supposed to do his part now?
Cathy wasn't dissuaded from taking action yet. Over the rising noise level caused by tables and chairs being shuffled, she shouted "All right, we better go after him! Snyder, don't be so slow!" Other patrons had the same idea. Fearing for their belongings, they stampeded toward the staircase, the innkeeper at their head. At the sight of the crowd of people pressing against each other, shouting, and congesting the passage, the scar-faced blonde hesitated. "It's probably faster if we go around! Follow me!" The tall woman reversed direction and hurried toward the nearby window instead, ripping the curtains aside as she raised her knee and put her boot on the windowsill.
Jadeite shimmered into existence in front of Mercury's room, finding its door missing. Through the gap, he could see right through the splinter-coated room and out of the empty space where the window used to be. Of more immediate concern were the three females within the chamber, none of which looked like Sailor Mercury. With a start, he recognised the white-clad, winged women as three of the fairies he had released the day before. The widening of their eyes when they spotted him proved that the recognition was mutual. Maybe I shouldn't have chosen a town so close to that meadow. "You again? Put down your weapons and explain this," the dark general demanded in an icy tone of voice, gesturing at the ruined room.
Dandel took a step forward. "We wanted to help you break free from the Keeper!"
"Yes, come with us before she returns," Tilia added with a winning smile, brushing some of the dust out of her green hair. "She will find out eventually that you helped us escape and then-"
Blue light flashed between the three fairies, and a wave of snow-carrying frost brushed over the exposed skin of their limbs. Within the swirl of snowflakes, Ami materialised, holding a crystal ball in her right hand. She blinked in surprise at the state of her room. Only a split-second later, movement seen from the corner of her eye made her leap backwards with a start. Anise's downward-slashing blow passed right in front of her face, reflecting the glow of Mercury's bright-red eyes. Wait, red? Before Ami could regain her footing, her back slammed hard into something that shouldn't have been there. The indigo-haired obstacle gasped in pain as her lunge ended with her chin colliding with Mercury's spine.
"Mercury, down!" Jadeite warned, somewhat unnecessary, because both she and Dandel were already falling over each other and tumbling to the floor. A moment later, she heard a gasp from the redhead and from the green-haired fairy, and two large blurs shot past overhead. Twin cries of pain accompanied the cracking of wood as both slender bodies smashed hard into the wall opposite the door, one on each side of the broken window.
The indigo-haired fae heard the two bodies bounce and drop to the floor behind her. She redoubled her struggles to get out from underneath Mercury's weight. Her heart sank when she caught a glimpse of the curly-haired blonde man standing in the doorway. With his palm pointing at her and his eyes glowing a cold white, he looked more frightening than handsome. The realisation that he was outside the room, and therefore beyond the area of affect of Melissa's ward, came too late. Behind her, Tilia and Anise groaned and whimpered. This was going all wrong, Dandel cursed inwardly. If only she could reach her knife!
Ami couldn't see the woman squirming underneath her back, and rolled to her right in order to cushion her weight on her good arm. With only one hand to use, her options were extremely limited. Her magic wasn't responding, and it had only been luck that Jadeite had been here to foil this ambush. She could see metal gleaming, and her hand shot up just in time to grab the wrist bringing down a wicked-looking dagger toward her neck. Both girls reared up as they pitted strength against strength, and the sharp point of the weapon wavered too close to Ami's skin for comfort. Her opponent was pressing down with both hands now, glaring at her over the handle of the weapon with a look that was half hate and half despair, but making no headway against Mercury's senshi strength. Ami now recognised the scraped face, and couldn't help but feel sorry for the fairy, who was acting on good but misguided intentions.
"Melissa, WATCH OUT!" came a frightened shout from outside the window, followed by a flash and the smell of ozone. Ami could see her opponent's pupils contract as the fairy tensed up in fright.
Keeper Morrigan, distracted by the loud banging noise from somewhere higher up in the building, didn't notice the window flying open above him in time to avoid the heavy boot stamping down on his head.
"Whoa!" Cathy hadn't expected to encounter an obstacle while climbing out of the window, and hit her rump onto the ledge when the unstable footing gave out under her. "Ow! What the - oh crap!" A glance down revealed what exactly had ruined her smooth exit from the room. The blonde stomped down harder, grinding the wriggling imp's face deeper into the mixture of dust and chicken feathers on the ground. Glaring, she saw the poor animal whom the feathers belonged to struggle weakly, its throat caught in the critter's grasp. The hen was lacking most of its plumage, and bloody depressions dotted her skin where the imp had pulled the feathers out .
"Cathy, what's going on?" Jered appeared behind the blonde while she was drawing her sword, intent on putting the imp to a quick end.
Morrigan had enough of tasting dirt. With a mighty growl - for an imp - the Keeper's borrowed body bucked underneath Cathy's feet. Before the swordswoman could stab down and put an end to his shenanigans, she noticed with horror that the blade in her hand was growing feathers, and she felt herself shrinking. Morrigan jumped to his feet, easily throwing off the now much-reduced weight of the transformed woman. He kicked at the mottled chicken, but even as a bird, Cathy was still a soldier, and Mercury's combat enchantments didn't just go away. She flapped her new wings, instinctively knowing how to use them, and bounded upwards. The leg sweep only clipped her tail feathers, and she used the passing limb as a foothold to hop forward and launch herself at the imp's face. Each of the lamp-like, baleful red eyes was as tall as her head - an easy target!
With a shrill squeak of fury, Keeper Morrigan backhanded Cathy away, sending her off spinning and trailing feathers. With its remaining eye, the imp saw the wavy-haired fool in the window draw his arm back, his teeth bared in anger. The dagger hummed as it parted the air, burying itself up to the heft into the ground where the possessed creature had just been standing. With a cry of defiance, Morrigan hurled the limp, maltreated hen in his hand at his attacker. Jered leaned aside to dodge the rotating poultry, and got struck in the face by a petite, blood-soaked shin when the Keeper's earlier victim expanded back into her natural form in mid-flight. So did the feathers strewn across the grass, transforming into pieces of white cloth sprinkled with blood. Normally, Jered wouldn't have minded a beautiful girl wearing nothing but a few scraps collapsing on him, but right now, his girlfriend was in danger. As gently as he could under the circumstances, he handed the bleeding fairy off to Snyder and Father Taleth, who were standing behind him.
They knelt down next to the choking fae sprawled out on the floor. The acolyte blushed at the sight of her mostly bare skin, scratched up and smeared as it may be, and draped a tablecloth over her. A soft moan and brief flicker in her tear-filled, amber eyes informed him that she appreciated the gesture. The older priest was more intent on dealing immediately with the black-and-blue bruises covering all of her neck, which seemed a more pressing problem than the small patches of missing skin.
Like a column of tar, Juzint's black-masked face and shoulders rose from the shadow that the red-bricked chimney was casting onto the inn's thatched roof. Unaware, her target stood with her back to the scarred assassin, channelling magical power into a diagram painted onto the straw. The dark mistress' tongue wetted her lips in anticipation of the kill. The sight of the girl neatly explained why her Master's rival, Morrigan, was here. But while that fool was lurking about in the garden, playing with farm animals, she had already located his quarry! The figure standing in the centre of the ward on the roof matched the description of that upstart Keeper whom both Morrigan and her own Master wanted dead: teenage girl, harmless-looking, blue hair. What a triumph it would be if she were to be the one to destroy this enemy, right under Morrigan's nose! She dragged the rest of her body out of the shadow without a sound and ducked behind the cover of the chimney. Throwing knives? Lightning? No, she would give this a personal touch. Razor blades gleamed at the end of her hands like overly long fingernails. Like a falcon swooping down on its prey, she darted out of her cover, clearing the crest of the roof with a single bound and letting her arc carry her toward the Keeper's winged back, claws extended.
"Melissa, WATCH OUT!" an orange-haired fairy fluttering somewhere ahead shouted, but Juzint didn't let herself be distracted. Whoever Melissa was didn't matter, only her target, Mercury, was important.
Bright light flew from Roselle's hand, crossing the distance between the orange-haired fairy and her sister's attacker in less than an eye blink. The pinkish-white arcs of lightning from the hurried shot fanned out, raking the left arm of the blurring shadow, just before she could reach her target. Juzint suppressed an exultant cry of joy at the pain, concentrating instead on the fact that her muscles had seized up for a moment and were slowing her down! Cursed interference, even if it felt so great! Her intended victim was whirling around to face her, but seemed to move so slowly. The twisted woman felt her perception speed up, and she could see the enemy's blue eyes go wide as she realised the danger she was in. As if in slow motion, the assassin saw the sudden tension of her target's arm muscles as she threw all of her weight backward, the delicious fear in her sapphire eyes, and then, finally, the disbelieving, agonised jerk as sharpened steel claws cut through yielding flesh. Darkness and Damnation! A spasm went through Juzint's leg, just at the wrong instant. The flow of time seemed to return to normal, but instead of intestines spilling out of the blue-haired girl's stomach, only blood surged from the four crimson lines drawn across her belly. Oh well, a second strike would-
Reacting violently to the disruption of Melissa's concentration, the magical diagram on the roof discharged a blast of verdant magic into the sky with a loud hiss. The shockwave tossed both opponents standing at its centre into the air like rag dolls.
In the room below the failing ward, Ami felt energised as her magic stopped being torn from her body. In contrast, the indigo-haired fairy fighting to overcome the young Keeper's grip on her dagger-wielding hands faltered, and an expression of fright flitted over her features. With a feeling of triumph, Ami channelled magic into the hand blocking Dandel's downward stab, causing the limb to glow black. Immediately, the pressure let up. Perhaps realising what was happening, the fairy tried to draw back, but it was too late. With her life energy drained, she slumped to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut, joining her two sisters.
"Jadeite, what's happening?" Ami asked, her heart beating rapidly in her chest as she jumped to her feet and surveyed the room for any signs of more attackers.
The dark general took a step forward. "I have no idea. I suggest we get out of here, there could be four more of them around!"
The loud rumbling of a mob of people running quickly over a wooden floor resounded through the hallway. "Look ahead, that's the place!" "The door's gone!" "Get the burglars!" "My inn! Make those vandals pay!"
Ami and the curly-haired blond exchanged a quick look and faded out of sight, just as the first angry faces peered into the room.
Running as fast as the one-eyed imp's legs could carry him, Morrigan alternated between cursing the stupidity of rural companion animals, and wishing a slow, painful death on the fool who had set off this explosion and ruined a whole night of work. He didn't particularly enjoy going over atlas after atlas in pain-staking detail, just to locate an insignificant town he had seen through his scrying glass.
The noise of clattering hooves right behind him reminded him that his pursuers were catching up. Stupid goat! Didn't it know that he was one of the Lords of the Underworld? Truly a supremely imbecile beast! Nevertheless, it did have sharp horns, and so Morrigan kept running, staying barely ahead of the animal's aggressively-lowered head. The fact that the chicken riding on its back sounded as if it was laughing did nothing to calm the Keeper's temper. A flash of light and movement in the sky momentarily drew his attention. Two glitter-dripping fairies, one carrying the wounded other, entered his field of vision. Irrelevant. The third shape arcing through the sky, clad only in a few bands of black, was much more infuriating. "ALPHEL! So this is your doing!" the imp bellowed as the dark mistress plummeted toward him.
The mottled hen on the goat's back, being neither occupied with running nor with giving chase, could immediately see where this was going, and flapped her wings. She abandoned ship just in time for the scarred woman to smash into the ground, trip up the fleeing one-eyed imp, and subsequently being bowled over by the goat charging into both of them. The resulting ball of flailing limbs ploughed a trail through the cabbage field, spraying leaves and dirt into the air. A vile mixture of bleating, ecstatic moans, and shouted curses accompanied its advance. The obscenities suddenly cut off, and Cathy-the-Hen had the impression of something dark and red-eyed shooting off into the sky like a thundercloud. Yes, much better washing her hands of this mess. While chickens weren't very good fliers, it was enough for her to make it back to the open ground floor window. Behind it, she could see Jered gesticulating wildly at Mercury, who was edging away from him. No wonder, as he still had his daggers in hand. As she swooped in, Cathy could hear the tail end of their conversation.
"...understand. We must find her! - oh, there she is!" Jered tucked his daggers away and caught his transformed girlfriend as she made an end run toward his chest. Pressing the large bird gently against his green shirt, the weasel-featured man whirled back to Ami. "All right, let's get out of here!"
"I'm really very sorry about this," the blue haired girl said while bowing to Father Taleth, smiling sadly. The portly healer, pale, shivering, and clearly terrified of the red-eyed Keeper, had nevertheless taken a combat stance between her and the injured fairy resting on the ground. "Thank you again for healing me. I did not mean any harm. We will leave you in peace now." With a flash of blue, two people and one bird vanished into a swirl of snow.
"Camilla, I'm so sorry. I should have never positioned you there alone," Dandel apologised, holding her youngest sister's hands.
The blonde raised her head from Tilia's lap, and bared her teeth in a weak smile. "Don't worry about it too much," she whispered hoarsely, "Father Taleth fixed us all up almost as good as new."
"Yes, if anyone has to take the blame, it should be me," Cerasse pointed out. "I should have predicted that she would have hidden guards around! It's only logical!"
"This was such a disaster! Complete and total failure," Anise raged, kicking one of the inn's chairs in anger.
"Anise! Calm yourself! We don't have enough money to waste it frivolously after paying for the repairs, so leave the furniture alone!" Soft-spoken Melissa protested, holding her belly as she sat up.
"Not a complete failure," Camilla breathed quietly. The blonde swallowed a few times to loosen her sore throat, and continued. "I- I overheard her minions talk about her plan. It's bad! She is making some progress controlling storms!"
The others blanched. "A Keeper with power over the weather - it would be a disaster! The Lord of the Land needs to know about this!"
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