"Our Great Ruler spoke to you directly and gave you her blessings? That's wonderful progress!" Jadeite was sitting on a stone desk of a darker tone than his grey uniform, and beamed at Mercury.
Even though the rare sight of a genuine smile on his face made Ami's heart flutter, she couldn't properly share his enthusiasm. Her black-gloved hands tugged at both ends of her jagged chest ribbon in a futile attempt to straighten it. "Jadeite, I'm not happy about this."
The curly-haired blond raised an eyebrow as he took a closer look at the blue-haired girl, who was hanging her head. "Why? It means you are in her good graces and that we are one step closer to cutting Beryl off from her support. What's the problem here?"
"I find it terrifying that she is already so lucid! I'm scared that she'll wake up completely and destroy my world!"
"She was always going to wake up at some point in the future. You shouldn't worry so much about something you can't change," Jadeite said, his voice not particularly concerned.
"That's easy for you to say! Nothing you care about is in danger!" Ami accused, sounding both sad and angry.
Scowling, Jadeite's mouth opened, but he closed it without saying a word when he met Ami's eyes. He took a deep breath, and his expression softened. "Fine. All right. I may not have as much at stake as you do, but that doesn't change the facts. We cannot stand against Queen Metallia, and the only way to protect your friends is having her favour."
His words did nothing to cheer Ami up. She rested her head on her left hand and let out a heartfelt sigh. She didn't notice Jadeite approach before his white-gloved hand covered her right, which remained lying on the fine-grained wood of the table before her. Startled by the touch, she looked at him through her blue bangs.
"Look, the only thing that could possibly stop her awakening," Jadeite looked as if he had bitten into a lemon as he forced out the near-heretical words, "is doing away with Beryl. You can't do that before you get back, so let's figure out if anything you have gained from the blessing can help, yes? That's why we came here in the first place." He swept his free arm around in a grand gesture, from the blackboard behind him, over the soft mats covering the left half of the spacious chamber, to the wooden targets nailed to the rough granite blocks that formed the back wall.
Ami hesitated for an instant, during which her gaze rested his hand enveloping hers, and she blushed faintly. Filled with new determination, she nodded and got up from behind her desk. The unopened book that had rested before her rose into the air and flew back into the shelf to her right, seemingly on its own.
An orb of dark power impacted the wobbly sphere surrounding Ami, exploding into black flames that unfolded like a flower's petals. As soon as the flash had dissipated, the blue ripples arcing across the curved surface disappeared as the barrier faded back into transparency. Ami was breathing heavily and gritting her teeth. With barely a flicker, the egg-shaped force field disappeared when she let the triangle formed by the tips of her thumbs and her index fingers come apart.
Jadeite put his hands behind his back as he evaluated her performance. "Hmm. You can form a solid shield, but it will require a lot of practice until you can use it reliably in combat. We should see whether you have any more luck with the glamour exercises now."
Without needing to be prompted, Ami walked over to the mats covering the left half of the room, rose a few centimetres into the air, and assumed a cross-legged meditative pose.
"Let's start with something easy. Try to change your own appearance."
Ami complied, and light-devouring distortions flickered through the air surrounding her body, making her outline waver. She closed her eyes to help her concentrate while she tried to control the unfamiliar magic.
Jadeite watched her efforts go nowhere for a good ten minutes before declaring "Stop. You are doing it completely wrong. Don't try to control the magic, that will only distract you. Just focus on the desired end result!"
Ami opened her eyes and let herself drift down onto the mat. "But how am I supposed to do that? I can't just not think about the intermediary steps even if I want to. It doesn't make sense!" For once, the young Keeper's logical mindset was working against her.
"Heh, you probably would have trouble with that way of thinking," the dark general admitted. He stopped pacing up and down. "Hmm. Try it a different way, then. Just let the power flow, with no fixed goal in mind, and see what happens."
"Isn't that dangerous?" Ami asked, a questioning look in her eyes.
"Not for you, and I can protect myself." Nevertheless, Jadeite took a few steps back. "Give it a try."
Ami relaxed her muscles and concentrated. So she just had to gather power and let it go? She focused inward, reaching for her magic. With the mental exercises Jadeite had taught her, it wasn't hard to twist her own power into the dark energy required for casting Dark Kingdom spells. It was so easy, in fact, that she suspected that the dungeon heart was assisting her in some way. Assisted or not, it she had always worked with her own magic. Now, however, dark power kept pouring in from somewhere beyond her perception as she reached past her normal limits. It swelled into a roiling torrent that streamed out of her body like a flaring aura. The flow intensified, and dust on the ground fled from her. Even the mats she was sitting on started to rattle when the black tide buffeted them. She could see Jadeite lean forward into the ghostly gale to prevent being blown backwards. Further away, her precious books were falling off the shelves, but she was still feeling the same as before. Was this working now? A mental yank retrieved a hand mirror from her room and floated it in front of her, allowing her to see whether she was successfully changing her appearance or not. She grimaces at the sight in the reflective oval. She hadn't changed at all, but the dark power emanating from her body wrapped her in deep, black shadows that let only the crimson glare from her eyes escape. With a soft gasp, she reigned in the evil energy and cut off the flow. Once the furniture stopped rattling, she shook her head. "Jadeite, I don't think this is working."
"You got something to happen, at least," the curly-haired man said with a grin and pointed at his feet. With his right boot, he was pinning down the tail of a woolly grey thing that clawed at the ground as it tried to get away.
"Don't hurt- wait, that's not a rat, is it?" Ami looked closer, zooming in with her Keeper sight on the little critter chewing on Jadeite's footwear with pointy teeth. "What is that?"
"Looks like an animated dust bunny to me," the dark general said and stepped on the tiny nuisance, squishing it. A puff of grey dust escaped from underneath his soles.
"Hey, I wanted to study tha-"
"Don't worry, there's more."
Ami's gaze followed Jadeite's pointed index finger to the bookshelf, where one of the severe tomes was walking around on four tiny legs. While she stared at it, dumbfounded, movement from the firing range drew her attention. She turned to take a closer look, and blinked. One of the round archery targets blinked back like a giant eye. "Jadeite, what is going on here? What are those strange things?"
"You made them. Or, more precisely, the vast amount of Queen Metallia's power you inundated the room with caused them to arise on their own," Jadeite explained. "There's no reason to worry, it happens all the time in the Dark Kingdom. In fact, many youma use the effect in combination with their glamour powers to produce servants that may perform simple tasks autonomously, though they never last long."
Ami picked up the crawling book and made it hover before her, turning slowly around its own axis. "Are they dangerous?" she asked when she spotted the toothy mouth hidden between the covers.
"No, they are mere nuisances, almost powerless. The luckiest of them may evolve into proper youma over the centuries, though." Jadeite crossed his arms. "It's unfortunate that they are the only thing your magic produced. I had hoped that your stray thoughts would cause you to unintentionally change something in the room into something else, but either your mental discipline is too good, or using glamour just doesn't come easily to you. Sadly, it appears as if this was a waste of effort."
"Maybe not." Ami considered the strange, struggling book. She had already had some success with substituting one source of magic for another, so why not give that method another try? Time for a little experiment. Drawing on Metallia's power once more, she funnelled it into the imp creation spell.
Ami stepped through the wavering orange glow between the four megaliths framing her Underworld portal, holding her head high. Tiger's tall body helped her look more imposing, and so did the fact that her feet weren't touching the ground. She would have loved to be wearing armour for this, but since the youma's body was still changing a little whenever Ami possessed her, constructing a suit would have been premature. For now, the dark version of her Sailor Mercury uniform would have to do. She hid her worry behind a mask of cold, arrogant confidence - an expression she had actually practised before the mirror until it stopped sending Jered into a fit of giggles each time he saw it. She swept her stern gaze over the monsters manning the barricades that had appeared around the Underworld-side exit of the portal.
"The Keeper!" a surprised and scratchy voice cried. With a twang, a slender silhouette that could have only belonged to a dark elf loosed a crossbow bolt in her direction and slipped back behind one of the uncountable stalagmites.
Ami suppressed a flinch as the bolt impacted her prepared shield, remained stuck to the transparent bubble for an instant while green motes sprayed from its shaft, and then dropped limply to the rust-coloured ground. "What is the meaning of this? Explain why you are preventing my minions from getting to the city!" she demanded, acting as if the unprovoked attack had not fazed her at all. In truth, she was uncomfortably certain that the enchanted projectile would have penetrated the shield if she had raised it herself, rather than asking Jadeite to apply it before she left. The drain from the bolt's impact had been something she would have expected from a projectile at least twenty times larger. From different spots within the shadows, a few similar bolts whistled in her direction, and met with the same success as their predecessor. Ami's continued survival seemed to curb the attackers' enthusiasm, and she could hear some frustrated muttering behind the metal-studded palisades as the bombardment died down.
"Warlocks, stand ready to ward off her magic," a voice grunted behind the horizontal logs blocking the tunnels leading away from the portal. "WEMOS! The Cities are coming to make you pay for your transgression! Better kill yourself now before we can get our claws on you!"
"What? You have the wrong dungeon!" Ami shouted in the direction of the voice. Judging by its sound, the speaker was probably an orc. She floated higher into the air to see if she couldn't peek over the barricades and spot him. "Do I look like a vampire to you? I am Sailor Mercury. I am at war with Wemos!"
"Doesn't matter. I've got orders! Nobody is leaving through a portal from the Avatar Islands, even if they were Mukrezar himself! Go and slink back into the hole you came from!" the voice barked with the confidence of someone who held his rank for reasons other than his abilities.
Ami blinked at the order, not having expected it. "Now wait a moment! We are all fighting Wemos, so it would make sense to work together! Who's in charge of your operation?" A quick touch to her left earring activated her visor, which immediately detected around fifty heat sources hidden between the dripping rock formations and behind the hastily-erected walls. The speaker seemed to be the largest one. A much smaller one stood very close to his right, leaning forward as if whispering something to the taller figure. Possibly an aide of some sort.
"Bah, we don't need your help! It's your fault that Zarekos' vampires got off the leash and harassed us! You just had to use some cheap trick to kill him instead of fighting through his forces properly!" came the dismissive reply from behind the blockade.
The smaller dot of warmth seemed to shrug and shake its head before darting away from the larger one. Ami breathed in deeply for another shout. "That would be up to your superiors to decide! Besides, this defensive arrangement," she pointed at the newly-dug, water-filled trench circling the portal, "may be able to stop the vampires cold, but it won't do a thing to keep Wemos' horde of other undead out. Neither," she disappeared with a flash of blue and flashed into existence within arm's reach of the creature she had identified as the leader, "does it stop me!"
The large orc's beady black eyes widened when two burning red slits suddenly appeared out of a swirl of snowflakes, right in front of his face. With a gasp, the pink-skinned humanoid jumped backwards and tripped over his own feet in his haste to get away. His armour clattered loudly as his bulky posterior struck the unyielding ground, and he stared up in horror at the red-eyed figure wreathed in flames of black energy. Shouts of alarm sounded through the camp even as the warding diagrams on the ground burned around the intruder's boots, releasing acrid smoke. His eyes darted to the warlock's shack, searching for arcane help. The sight of the black-frocked magicians stumbling and retching from the magical feedback caused by their collapsing wards only served to further lower his spirit. A callused hand reached for the steel maul at his belt, shaking as its owner remembered the tale of this slender-looking girl defeating a horned reaper in single combat. "B-back! If you harm me, we will c-come after you too! You c-can't handle us!"
"You know who else thought that in the last four days alone? Keepers Zarekos, Morrigan, Arachne, Alphel, and Nero. Guess who's still here?" the terrifying figure standing over him quipped and took a step forward, reaching for him with clawed fingers.
Ami blinked and covered her mouth when the big, scarred orc passed out and fell on his back. She had only wanted to take his hand to help him get up. Nervously, she looked around the war camp, hoping that his warriors wouldn't draw the wrong conclusions. "Wait! I'm not here to fight!"
Her visor informed her that most of the troops had ducked out of sight, hiding behind barrels and chests, into tents, and inside the dense forest of stalagmites and stalactites that filled the tunnels. It seemed as if every crossbow and bow in the encampment was currently pointed at her. Nevertheless, none of the dark elves, orcs, and trolls dared open fire on her - yet.
"Look, who's in charge here now?" Ami asked again. "All I want is to talk to your superiors. I'm sure we can work things out without bloodshed."
"What did you do to the boss?" A short orc with his helmet sitting askew on his head peeked out of his cover.
"Nothing, he will recover easily enough. Look, just contact your leaders and set up a meeting, okay? I'll leave if you do."
The pink face nodded so quickly that the white hair framing it fell in front of its eyes like a curtain. "Very well." He looked over at the fallen form of the big orc on the floor. "We'll send a letter through the portal when arrangements are made, is that acceptable?"
"I have no objections," Ami said. "Hopefully, we will have this little misunderstanding cleared up quickly." She rose into the air and teleported back to the portal, glad to be out of the line of fire.
As soon as she had left, the smaller orc ran to the side of his captain and prodded his side with a foot experimentally. When this failed to rouse the much larger creature, he rubbed his hands, grinned, and rushed off toward his masters tent. He had to compose a letter, and if he remembered right, his fearless leader kept his booze in the same chest as the ink.
"...and that's the current situation," Ami explained to her advisers, who were currently assembled around a round table in one of the new rooms of her dungeon. A large crystal ball rested before her, showing the outpost she had just left. She was paying attention to the messenger approaching the portal, since she wanted to track him to the main camp of the Cities' army.
Jered moved his fingers across the entries in his ledger. "Hmm. We have enough food to last us another day, which means the troops will have to fast for a day before the new farms will provide their first harvest. From the supply point of view, this little blockade is irksome, but not threatening."
"Are you sure they won't try to pull a fast one on you if they invite you to a meeting?" Cathy asked, more worried about the immediate tactical implications.
"Why would they? My cooperation can only be to their advantage. They'll take less losses and have an easier time getting at Wemos!" Ami said, not taking her eyes off the scrying device.
"I suppose more troops would be good, now that he's reinforcing his defences with ghosts from the temple," the swordswoman conceded.
"I emphatically advise against allowing them to set foot onto the continent," Nurgil said in a dead-sounding tone of voice. "While punishing Wemos is their main objective, a large army such as theirs will not shy away from plundering targets of opportunity, such as your dungeon. Distance is no protection, since their maps will tell them to which set of destinations each portal in the area connects. They only need a few teleport-capable magic users to repair a nearby one. Afterwards, they can be right on top of us in an instant. What slows them down right now is not travel time, but the logistical problem of integrating proud troops from many different communities into a single command structure."
"Ah, there's the main camp!" Ami interrupted. "That's a lot of soldiers," she commented as the crystal ball showed her rows upon rows of tents filling a vast grotto. Some were made of leather, others of cloth, wood, or bone, and barely any resembled each other. As mismatched as the habitations were the different monsters mingling in the camp. She spotted trolls, orcs, bile demons, dark elves, armoured humans, and even two small dragons. Some of the species were unknown to her, and she instructed her computer to record them so that she could look them up later. With interest, she noticed pens and cages holding giant spiders and other monsters that could be unleashed as shock troops and cannon fodder. One particular anomaly drew her attention almost magnetically "What is that?" Ami pointed at a large, black cube with gilded edges that was being transported on a cart drawn by twelve manacled goblins, whose backs were marred with whip marks. An intricate, meandering symbol glowed on the object's top face, resembling a spiral as well as a beetle. Ami could almost make out some hidden meaning within the convoluted pattern of narrow lines. They spelled out something important, she was sure.
The pale vampire glanced at the crystal ball at Mercury's question, and quickly averted his eyes. "The sigil of the Unraveller. You shouldn't look at it for too long or you might lose your mind."
With effort, Ami pulled her gaze away from the fascinating design. "The Unraveller?"
"The Unraveller of Mysteries, yes. One of the Dark Gods. She takes a dim view of Keepers who violate their role in the great scheme of things and take up arms against the Underworld. I am not surprised that she provided a gift to the avenging forces."
"What kind of gift?" Cathy asked.
Nurgil shrugged. "It is a mystery. If I was in charge of this army, however, I would have asked for an alternate route to the Avatar Islands, just in case Wemos and his minions managed to render all portals unusable."
"That makes sense." Ami turned to Marda, who had been following the conversation with a rather bored expression on her face. "What would you advise?"
"Work with the Underworlders. Their forces will be useful, not only to beat Wemos, but also to spread your fame, which should make future recruitment that much easier. If they do betray you, just show them the dead dragon to make them rethink their poor decision. With their goal already accomplished, they will be looking for quick profit only. Their troops won't have the stomach for a protracted siege." The armoured troll kept staring into Nurgil's unmoving eyes the whole time as she challenged the vampire's point of view.
"I will not reiterate my reasons against this course of action," the undead answered, addressing Mercury. "Instead, I suggest that you attack and wipe out Keeper Wemos before the Cities get properly organised. The rank and file of their forces does not desire a fight, since there is not much loot to be expected from a purely punitive expedition, especially here. Should you defeat Wemos before their army takes action, it will dwindle into nothing on its own. With their goal already accomplished, the leaders of the various factions will not violate their contractual obligations by withdraw their expensive support."
Ami sighed inwardly as she pondered her choices. With her two advisers who knew most about this region suggesting contradictory approaches, the final decision would rest entirely on her shoulders.
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