and discovering other peoples' weaknesses.
Mercury was once again panicking.
It had been only a couple of days since Vandrad had been attacked and the series of events that had stemmed from the incident, including Mercury going rogue from her enslavement, murdering an entire royal line of Midians, confessing the truth of who she was to Vandrad, and subsequently becoming engaged to him. It had been an absolute roller coaster of emotions between rage, fear, sorrow, hope, and joy, and the few days since then had been some of the happiest that Mercury had ever experienced in her life, despite the situation. Vandrad was still without magic and he was definitely struggling to move forward, but he was moving forward bit by bit, refusing to bend the knee to the prognosis the doctors had given him, and so far he had already astonished them tremendously with his progress – despite the insistence of his loved ones that he slow down and take it easy.
Their engagement had been well received by everyone, nearly all of them giving well wishes somewhere in the realm of “It’s about damn time”. The ring that he’d given her so long ago – Yuna’s ring, as it turned out – had been moved over a finger on her hand to the appropriate place that Earthlanders used to indicate their marital status. Even though Mercury had been wearing it for over a year at this point, she had still caught herself looking at the piece of jewelry and smiling at it softly from time to time. In truth, she didn’t really feel free yet. She had removed her tracking device and pledged to fight against what was coming, no matter what it took, but that didn’t change the fact that Khelben and the Nazru were still out there, and someday they would catch up to her. Vandrad had promised she would never be a slave again, had promised that together they would meet the Nazru head on and liberate what was left of her people, but in order to do that they were going to need help from the others around them.
Mercury was extremely nervous about having to go over her history from scratch with nearly everyone and reveal her dirty, shocking secrets. A part of her was convinced that someone was bound to be upset with her and unwilling to tolerate the truth. She knew that Vandrad’s family loved her and already considered her family, but there was no way of knowing if that would last after they learned that her entire purpose for being on the planet to begin with was to get all of them killed. Statistically speaking, someone was going to take serious offense to it, and to her, as much as she tried to let herself be reassured by Vandrad that they would understand. But she was still scared, and for that reason, as well as a few more altruistic ones, she had asked that they wait a few days before gathering everyone just so they would all have the chance to calm down from and cope with one crisis before moving on to another. In fact, that meeting was planned for tomorrow night.
However, something was wrong. The day had started off like any other. Mercury had been staying with Vandrad every night since the start of his recovery, helping him as needed and doing what she could to get him to a point where he could start working out again. Like his family, she had cautioned him not to push himself too hard, but she had not been as firm on the matter as everyone else. She had faith that he knew his limits, even now, and her only request had been that he not push himself to the point of risking reinjury. Today, however, she’d needed to take care of a few things at Silver Wolf so once they were both up and running she’d given him a kiss and teleported over to the Phoenix Mountains, leaving him to his own devices for a time and knowing that she wouldn’t hear from him for at least an hour or two. One of his own proteges, Saffron, had stepped up almost immediately following the news to work out with Vandrad regularly to help get him back in shape. Mercury had only met her a few times, but she was a delightful and sexy young woman whose magic was also tied in with ethernano, so it seemed fitting that she be the one to work with the prince when Mercury wasn’t around.
Since Saffron was going to be spending some time with Vandrad that morning, Mercury didn’t think anything of it until she got a concerning text from the blonde. Hey, did Vandrad have something to take care of before hitting the training room today?
Mercury frowned as she read the message in her internal HUD. No, he went straight there this morning after we woke up. He wanted to get an hour or so in by himself before you got there. Is he not there?
He was at some point. His shirt is here. But I’ve been here for about thirty minutes and there’s no sign of him. I already asked around with Mura and a few others. No one has seen him today, and he didn’t leave a message with anyone.
That was not like Vandrad. Pulling up his contact information, she dialed his number and gave it a call. It rang twice before it answered, but it was not Vandrad on the other line. “It’s Saff. Looks like he left his phone here, too. It was under his shirt along with his wallet and shit.”
“I’ll be right there.” Pulling out her translocation ray, she set the coordinates to the Fairy Tail guildhall and moved swiftly toward the training room where Saffron awaited her near Vandrad’s things. Picking up the items and looking through them, a feeling of dread washed over her. “This isn’t right. He would never leave his stuff here like this.”
“Tell me about it. He’d never be this late, either. He grumbles at me if I’m even two minutes late to training.”
“And no one has seen or heard from him?”
Saffron shook her head. “I asked everyone. A couple people saw him enter the training room, but no one saw him leave. And if I’m being honest, this room is a bit cold. Usually it’s a fucking sauna in here from the sweat he works up, but it doesn’t feel like anyone has been in this room for a while.”
Mercury swapped her eyesight to infrared and did a scan of the room to find that Saffron was right. Once they started working out in there the air became much warmer and a bit more muggy, but the temperature of the room was still pretty cold, and the humidity was low. Her gaze snapped back to Saffron with a concerned expression. “You don’t think anyone could get in here, do you?”
The blonde frowned. “Like, someone that shouldn’t be in here? I seriously doubt it. Mura’s had this place wrapped up tighter than a hooker on the streets ever since that attack from Elysium. There’s no way anyone’s getting in and out of here unnoticed.” That did sound right. After all, Patty had said that not even the Dread Masters had been able to spy on them inside the guild halls, the magics on the buildings far too impenetrable for espionage. “You’re thinking someone got to him..? Like the ones that attacked him last time?”
“I’m not sure, but I’m going to find out. Thank you for contacting me, Saff. Can you put his things back in his room, please? And if you find him, let me know right away.”
“Will do. Same to you.”
A few hours later, she found herself at the main lobby of the Rune Knights. So far her search had been fruitless, and the more time that passed the more she was convinced that something treacherous was afoot. Her anxiety was overwhelming, yet still overshadowed by the unbridled fury that was simmering within her. After a quick argument with Valorie at the front desk, she finally got permission to go up to the top floor where Serilda’s office was. The Voidwalker was there to greet her, standing to her feet the moment she felt Mercury approach the door. Victoria sat up in her seat on the couch by the window, closing her book and setting it down.
“Have you found anything?” the voidwalker asked, lines of concerns etched in her face.
Mercury shook her head. “Not yet. You?”
“No. Mythal has the Knights mobilized in Magnolia and they are looking everywhere for clues, but so far no witnesses are stepping up about any strange activity in Magnolia.”
“Tara kambleng..!” Swearing under her breath, Mercury threw herself into one of the armchairs across from Victoria and buried her face in her hands, doing her best to control the torrent of anxiety and rage that was churning within her. Serilda frowned curiously at the odd language that Mercury used but otherwise said nothing as she let her future sister-in-law express herself. “It’s like he just… disappeared into thin air! Maybe if he still had his magic that’d be believable, but..”
Serilda sat down gently in the other armchair. “You think someone got to him. The Dread Masters..?”
“Who else would it be? They already tried to kill him once and nearly succeeded. He’s vulnerable right now, and they know it. It’s the perfect opportunity to finish what they started…” Her hands were clenched into tight fists. All she could think was that she shouldn’t have left him alone. The last time she had left him alone was when the Dread Masters had gotten an opportunity to attack him in the first place, and now she was convinced they had struck again. “I just wish I had more to go off. It’s infuriating that I can’t find next to anything on them, even with all the stuff I’ve gathered so far.”
“Did you tell Themmy..?”
Mercury nodded. “Yes, I messaged her and Gren the same time I messaged you and Mythal, to see if they’d heard from him. They’re both pulling in their own resources to investigate, but we’ve still got nothing.”
There was silence for a long, tense moment, the three women each processing the situation differently in their own minds. Ultimately, it was Victoria who shook her head. “The Midian girl that attacked Vandrad. What happened to her?”
“She became slop for the pigs her family owned.”
Serilda blinked, looking very much like she was hoping she hadn’t heard that sentence correctly, taken back by the visceral admission to the point that she really didn’t know how to react to it. She had always sensed that Mercury had a bit of a dark, sadistic side to her but she hid her thoughts and emotions so well that it wasn’t something she had ever really been exposed to. The first real evidence of it was when Mercury had shown up in that hospital absolutely coated in the shameless evidence of her act of genocide. Victoria, on the other hand, gave a soft sigh of resignation. “That’s a shame.”
The Xocili frowned at her curiously. “Why do you say that?”
“I can do a lot with a person’s blood,” the seal explained. “If there had been anything left of her, I could have used her blood to search through her memories. You said she was taken in and tortured and experimented on by the Dread Masters. Perhaps that could have shown us something, if there had been anything left. But considering the state you were in, I get the feeling it would be nearly impossible to have deciphered her blood from that of the othe–”
Mercury quickly sat forward as Victoria spoke, cutting the woman off. “How fresh would the blood need to be?”
Victoria raised a brow. “It need not be fresh at all. It just needs to be blood.”
“So, theoretically…. If I had, say… kept her head…”
“Mercury..!” Serilda looked utterly aghast by the thought.
“Look, there was tech in it. The Engineer hardwired her brain and I wasn’t going to throw away an opportunity to reverse engineer his work to learn potentially critical details about him and his work. “
The princess shifted uncomfortably in her spot, clearly not a fan of the act but also understanding the logic. “I suppose…” she conceded.
“If you do have her head and there is blood with it, I can work with that.”
Mercury wasted no time. With the wave of her hand, she conjured the metal box that she’d stored with her victim’s cranium. Pulling the lid off, she held it out to the Seal. “How much do you need?”
“Just a drop,” the older woman informed her, dipping her hand inside and swiping a finger’s worth of crimson plasma on the pad of the digit. Serilda grimaced slightly as she watched Victoria put the ichor to her lips and taste it, still very much not a fan of the entire process but unable to deny how handy the ability was. Mercury closed the box back up and dismissed it, watching the Seal eagerly as Victoria closed her eyes and began to search through the dead woman’s most recent memories.
Serilda was able to read alongside the woman too, the two of them sharing one mind. As a result, both women saw the scene of Sabine’s death from her eyes, the setting of carnage that Mercury had set out for the woman. It was a frightening and disturbing image to behold, but for now it was tucked away and ignored as Victoria went back further. All the while, the Xocili sat and tried to be as patient as possible.
“Hm. There’s some sort of bunker underground. Similar to where we were with the Order, but more active. There’s guards on patrol. Lots of labs and technology. I see… a man in a mask, fully covered. Most of her memories are of him standing over her and performing experiments on her, so I presume that’s the Engineer.” She was silent for a long moment sifting through the memories back and forth and looking for any bit of a clue. After several long minutes she sighed and opened her eyes. “I’m sorry, there wasn’t anything that could tell me where it was located. There was nothing distinctive inside the base that she saw, and everything the Engineer spoke of just involved his research. There were no clues that might tell us where they were.”
So she was back to square one. Mercury growled and beat her fist down on the arm of her chair. For a moment she’d had some hope but it had quickly been ripped from her once again and now despair was beginning to settle in. Vandrad needed her, and even with all her skills as a spy she couldn’t even find him! The emotional spiral was quickly gaining speed, her eyes darting frantically around the room as she sought for something, anything.
Finally she stopped, a curious frown touching her face as her gaze flicked back up to the Seal. “How did you know the bunker was underground?”
“There was a brief moment when she was brought to the bunker where I could see the entrance. However, it was just set in the base of a mountain range. There are hundreds of such places on Ishgar, and with no distinctive landmarks in the area it would be almost impossible to narrow down a single such range.”
“I can work with ‘almost’ impossible. What did it look like? Is there anyway you can describe it to me?”
“Well, I…” The Seal stopped and sighed, earnestly wanting to but there really wasn’t any way to describe a mountain that wouldn’t make it sound like every other mountain in existence, particularly when there wasn’t anything immediately distinctive about it. “There was a lot of snow and ice, but that narrows it down very little. That could still be anywhere in Fiore, or Iceberg, Stella… Seven… even Bosco and Pergrande.”
“Hang on.” Sitting forward with an idea in her head, Serilda closed her eyes again and drew the shared memory back up, freezing the image of the bunker’s entrance in her mind. Holding out her hands with one on top of the other, palms facing each other with a bit of space between them, two circular runes of black energy materialized between her hands and began to spin. Ice began to take form between them as she utilized her ice and void magics together to form as close of a replica as she could to the view of the mountain range that they had from what Sabine had seen.
When she finished, Mercury studied the fabrication carefully, analyzing every angle and jut of the mountain’s peaks and throwing out a search through the web, commanding her processors to single out images online that had similar key shapes. It took a minute or two due to how many pictures she had to sift through, but she quickly compiled enough hits on a mountain range in Iceberg that was an exact match. “This actually helped me tremendously,” she told them, the spirit back in her step as the hunt was on once again. “This should point me in the right direction. Thank you so much, both of you.”
Standing to her feet, she turned to leave. “Mercury!” Serilda’s voice caused the lavender haired woman to pause, turning to look back. “You don’t need to do this alone. Please, let us go with you.”
Mercury stood there for a moment, giving serious consideration to the offer. If she gathered a small force of even just Serilda, Mythal, Themmy, and Gren alone, that would be more than enough to send the Dread Masters rocking on their heels. She certainly couldn’t deny that every single one of them had a right to put the malevolent order in its place. Ultimately, she sighed. “I want to, but… no. If we strike in force and overwhelm them, they may do something rash in response to being backed in a corner. If I’m going to get any information at all, I need them to feel comfortable and like they are in charge. As far as I am aware, they should not see me as too much of a threat. They know I’m strong – they’ve watched me keep up with Vandrad and they know my skills in engineering run deep… but outside of a few bits of information here and there, they know next to nothing about me. In comparison to you and Mythal and Themmy… I can’t imagine I’m viewed very seriously as a threat. And that will work to my favor.”
Serilda watched her quietly, clearly unhappy with the situation but ultimately nodding. “I understand. Just…. Please be careful. And don’t go rushing into anything. You won’t help Vandrad that way. Trust me, I know..” The voidwalker hung her head slightly as she referred back to her outburst from when Faera was trying to take over Mythal from the inside, and the way she had tried to jump straight into action without much of a plan. Not one of her finer moments, and while her idea had become a major part of the plan she could have seriously doomed all of them by throwing caution to the wind and not approaching with a level head. She didn’t want Mercury to do the same.
The Xocili nodded her understanding gently. “Thank you. I’ll be as careful as I can. I promise.” With one last glance at both women, she turned back toward the door and left.
It was well past nightfall by the time Mercury had set all the pieces in place. Once she knew where she was going, it had not taken long to get there, but scoping the area out had been another matter entirely. Before she could get anywhere near the entrance she’d had to scan the area for magical wards and other devices that might have been able to detect her before she even could make it to the door. Then she had to find a way to get a rough readout of the structure with her drones so she could get an idea of the bunker’s depth and the bodies within. And while the task had been one she could more than accomplish, it was not done with the same ease as she could do with nearly any other facility on Earthland. In fact, if she hadn’t already gathered so much of the Engineer’s tech to study over the last several weeks, she may not have been able to do it at all. Or at the very least, it would have taken her much longer than it did.
But between her skills in espionage, her stealth suit, her magic and gadgetry, and her insurmountable patience, she had managed to make her way inside the bunker without being detected. Mercury had waited until the end of the day when most of the scientific crew had gone home, leaving only a skeletal group of guards. She had done as thorough a search of the place as she could manage, looking for any clues or signs of Vandrad and finding infuriatingly little about the prince, though there was certainly plenty else around that was worth taking an interest in – particularly things that would give her more insight into the Engineer.
However, all of that paled in comparison to what she truly wanted, and with little to show regarding Vandrad directly, she decided it was time to start some of her more aggressive steps. And so she set herself up in what appeared to be the head office of the building, sitting in the chair behind the large desk there, her legs propped on the table’s surface comfortably as she leaned back very much like she belonged there. Mercury had purposefully set off the silent alarm in the room only moments ago, knowing that someone was bound to respond sooner rather than later. Until then, she lounged lazily and read from one of the ancient looking tomes she had plucked from a shelf, waiting to see what company would arrive to greet her…