Ami appeared in the dark crimson sky above the ruins of Skybird Trill, the former capital of the realm. The ice-golem body she was possessing immediately dropped like a stone, the short skirt of its black leotard fluttering around it. On the way down, she still had time enough to touch her right earring and summon her visor. The very visible pillar of light had erupted from somewhere on this hill, and she quickly scanned the area to see whether approaching further was safe. Satisfied that the symbols flitting across the eyepiece showed nothing but residual energy dissipating into the area, she caught herself with her Keeper hand and gently deposited her frozen form on top of a remaining piece of the broken city walls. The scorched stone groaned and shuddered underneath her weight, and she jumped back when a withered piece of the crenelations sagged and broke away, followed into the depths by a rattling avalanche of smaller debris and dust. About two seconds later, the piece of masonry struck the ground with the sound of snapping wood. At the unexpected sound, Ami turned her back to the city and curiously approached the newly-damaged spot. She hadn't seen any deadwood in the area for the boulder to strike. Perhaps the remains of a siege tower? Her fingers went up to her mouth once she peered into the dust cloud, down at the spot where the plummeting weight had sunken deeply into the snowdrift-like slopes nestling up against the base of the wall. White, bleached bones shone through the broken layer of ash and dirt. Ami boggled as she realised the sheer amount of skeletons needed to form an elevated ring that encircled most of the fortifications. This wasn't a simple mass grave, a scan through the dirt cover informed her. All these beings had fallen in combat. On the piles of bones, she saw crushed and broken goblin skulls, orc skeletons pierced by arrows and broken spears, and even a dragon with a harpoon stuck between its neck vertebrae. Ami's mind shied away from the sheer scale of the carnage that the desperate defenders had inflicted on the attacking forces. She shuddered as another thought went through her head. How terrifying must the leaders of the besiegers have been to make their troops throw themselves into this meat grinder?
The young Keeper put these thoughts out of her mind as she prepared to find Marda. Her gaze swept over the remains of the city as she scanned for traces of the column-of-light phenomenon. The besiegers had not been kind in victory. Behind the inner walls, the fortress itself was nothing but a pile of charred rubble, and even with the aid of Ami's visor, it was hard for her to determine what had once been streets and what dwellings. Only some structures were in a slightly better state, perhaps due to their thicker walls. Ami decided to start her search with the tallest of them; the lower half of a caved-in guard tower looming over the wasteland like a tall, half-burnt candle. She almost didn't need her computer to find her quarry, since she could simply follow the strong feeling of apprehension that radiated from that direction. After a short moment of hesitation, she transported herself to the moving sources of warmth that her visor was detecting on the second floor of the ruin.
She appeared in a dusty hall whose furniture had been plundered and smashed. On its other side, the troop of missing trolls entering through the doorway froze in mid-step when they spotted her gleaming form, and took combat stances. Their leader, a tall human with narrow, elegant eyebrows and a short, reddish beard did not show surprise and crossed his arms. The white mantle draped over his armoured shoulders wrapped around him like folding wings as he threw a challenging look at his uninvited guest. "Keeper Mercury."
"Marda?" The figures she read on her visor were making her nervous, and her reaction to the holy power emanating from the man didn't help either.
The regal-looking figure frowned in distaste, cobalt-blue eyes cold. "My real name is Amadeus, though Keepers like you should refer to me by my title. Avatar."
"So Cathy was right," Ami muttered. "You are the previous ruler of this realm, then?"
"Previous and current ruler. Now that my powers are restored, you and all the other dark ones shall finally be purged from my lands!" His tone remained deceptively calm, but Ami thought she could detect some of that intense, tightly controlled anger that she had sensed in the back of Marda's mind.
"Um, I'm not here to challenge your claim on this domain," the statue-girl said quickly. "I only came here to find knowledge. Surely we can negotiate a non-violent solution?"
Rather than removing some of the tension, Ami's words seemed to annoy the Avatar. A few swift steps brought the armoured figure to the balcony. "Come here! Look around you! Look at what you Keepers did to my country! Do you think I would tolerate the presence of a Keeper in my lands after all they did?"
Ami approached with slow, hesitant steps, careful to not make any threatening moves. "I could leave on the iceberg once-"
"Look out there!" he pointed at a valley far out in the wasteland. "That sea of lava used to be a town that was famous for its art and music." His arm moved to another spot. "This used to be lush forest, where fairies danced around standing stones. The laughter of their children turned into heart-rending screams as the Keepers' hordes boiled them alive!" He swept his arm around in an all-encompassing gesture as his voice grew louder. "All this wasteland was once full of life and joy, destroyed for the sick enjoyment of your ilk! All those lives, gone forever!"
Amadeus ignored Mercury and thrust his index finger at a cobblestone-covered spot in the ruins that looked no different to Ami than any other. "That used to be a beautiful park. Its blooming cherry trees burned while Mukrezar's troops slaughtered my sons on the steps of its fountain. And there," his accusing digit moved again, "is where they forced me to watch as they tortured the citizens to death one by one, mingling my blood with theirs to desecrate this Mantle." He finally looked at Ami, glowering at her with death in his eyes. "After all that, do you really think I would let a single Keeper escape? My poor country, my poor people! I would be doing a disservice to their memories if I even considered leniency!"
"I-I'm sorry for your loss," Ami said lamely. What could you say in response to something like that?
"Don't you dare mock me, evil one! Your dark days are numbered! "
Ami found it wiser to retreat out of his reach. Her hopes for a peaceful solution were disappearing faster than ice cream in front of Usagi. "Wait! Please listen to me! I only came here to find out how to kill a dark god! Won't you help me with that?"
"Oh, certainly." Sarcasm dripped from Amadeus' voice. "I'm no expert on the topic, but It's simple! Just get a stronger god to kill it for you." He let out a short, hate-filled laugh that reminded Ami of his troll form. "I am, however, an expert in dealing with their foul minions." He took a step toward her, his fist closed around the grip of his sword.
"But I'm not evil!"
"Your lies will avail you nothing!"
"I'm not lying! I found out about you worshipping the Light and did not do anything!"
"Pragmatism. We were still of use to you," the Avatar said, his face stormy. "Now defend yourself!"
Ami transported her magically-created body to the opposite end of the chamber and tried a different approach. Perhaps he would be more receptive to logic. "Mar- Avatar! Please reconsider. Reason dictates that even with your trolls, you won't be able to breach my prepared defences. Even if my current forces aren't enough, the remaining vampires on the island should be willing to join me if it means a chance for survival!"
Amadeus snorted. "I know your strengths, weaknesses, and defences, and they do not impress me."
"Then what about the Underworld army?" Ami pleaded her case once more, "You and the trolls can't possibly fend it off alone!"
"Let them come. Ten or a thousand, it makes no difference to me. Besides, you are wrong," the Avatar almost smiled as he tugged his mantle closer around himself, "I am not alone!" A curious dual quality had crept into his voice, and his eyes shone solid white.
Ami involuntarily took a step back at the sight, feeling sickened and repulsed by the power rolling off the knight in waves. She remembered that foreign tone and inflection, and the urge to flee his presence became almost a physical force. "The Light!" she gasped. Under the Avatar's boot, an old piece of a broken chair spontaneously sprouted fresh green leaves.
"That is correct, Keeper Mercury," the voice replied while the Avatar's frown dissolved into a serene expression for a moment.
As soon as it was gone though, he grimaced as if he had bitten into a particularly sour lemon. "It appears that I am not supposed to wipe you from the face of the world after all, Keeper," a hint of disbelief tinged his voice, "since you were apparently speaking the truth." Were that his teeth grinding together? The white light returned to his eyes as he continued "However, you have not yet turned from the path we warned you against. We cannot allow you to render your world vulnerable to the influence of the dark gods, and shall proceed to seal you away within your dungeon. Will you do the right thing and surrender peacefully?"
Ami's fingers clenched into fists. This was bad! "I'm sorry, but I can't do that. My friends need me!"
"So be it," the Light declared with a hint of sadness.
"I hoped you would say that," Amadeus replied as soon as his vocal chords wore his own again. While he looked more stable now than during his earlier tirade, it wasn't by much. With a smirk, he drew his sword from its sheath, only to freeze in mid-motion. An unusual noise from outside had caught his attention.
To Ami, it sounded almost like the roar of a motorcycle's engine. Curious about the distraction, Ami risked a glance out of the window. A red, scythe-wielding blur was approaching through the field of debris, trailed by a cone-shaped dust cloud. The demon's angry bellows became louder and more distinct the closer he got."I didn't call him!" Ami blurted out.
"Rabixtrel," the Avatar said with a sneer. "Of course he would show up the moment he sensed my presence."
"Um, I could send him back if you leave me alone," Ami offered hopefully.
"Don't bother, he'd just return" the Avatar declared as angry stomps echoed through the rooms one floor below.
Ami considered sending the monster back anyway, but figured that if the Avatar could have handled it - somewhat - as Marda, he should be able to do even batter in his true form. Perhaps I can learn something to use against him, she thought as she prepared to record the battle.
Suddenly, the stomping noises from below cut off. Amadeus took a long step to the right. Where he had just stood, the floor exploded upward in a shower of dust and bricks, carried on Rabixtrel's back and shoulders as the demon noisily made his own entrance. He swung his scythe to the right while rising from his crouch, intent on cutting the Avatar in half at the waist. With a loud clang, his weapon came to a stop, parried by - no! Ami's eyes widened. Amadeus had caught the haft of the weapon with his left hand, and was now holding back the entire strength of the reaper with one arm! She didn't have time to properly analyse the forces involved, since the armoured warrior's counter-attack was so quick that she almost missed it. A straightforward stab with the sword at the demon's belly forced the beast to evade, but rather than let go of his scythe, Rabixtrel jumped over the blow, using his trapped weapon like a pole-vaulter would to launch himself high in the air. Two fiery hooves bore down on the Avatar's head, but the divinely-enhanced fighter's sword blurred upwards like an arc of quicksilver. Gravity did the rest. Ami winced in sympathy as dark, steaming blood sprayed, and the horned reaper's roar suddenly became much higher-pitched. That had to hurt! She almost missed the hero let go of the scythe and dive into a roll to avoid the falling monstrosity's vicious backward kick. Amadeus got up faster than his red-scaled opponent and was suddenly within the demon's guard. For an instant, Ami saw the tip of a white-glowing sword protrude from Rabixtrel's right biceps, and then the Avatar hurled the heavy demon off the balcony with a textbook-precise judo throw - swinging him by the injured arm, of course. Ami gasped and caught her employee, sending him back to the nearest piece of claimed terrain before he had dropped more than two metres.
"Yes, I still got it," Amadeus nodded in satisfaction as he twirled his blood-tipped sword around, none the worse for wear from the short altercation.
Ami swallowed. This promised to become difficult. Done with his battle, the Avatar moved past her, paying little attention to her golem body as he walked toward the exit, followed by his troops. Where did he want to go, anyway? He was marching toward a staircase leading up. Hmm. Her visor beeped as she located an energy source above, through two ceilings. A hero gate! In the blink of an eye, Ami was in front of the glowing oval that billowed unaffected by the howling winds. The rest of the tower above was missing, and the cloudy sky above visible through the missing ceiling. The hole gave her an idea. She didn't know how to shut these portals down yet, but perhaps she could make it inaccessible to the enemy. With three snips of her green-sparkling fingers, a trio of imps in blue overalls appeared. "Collapse the floor, quickly!"
Small picks bit into the floor in a circular pattern, chipping through rock blocks and girders alike. The imps were only about half-way done when the structurally damaged surface groaned and collapsed under its own weight, dropping to the level below with a loud rumble. A second impact echoed the first when that floor collapsed too from the additional weight. Ami had to save her imps before they went tumbling down with the debris, but when the dust cleared, she was very satisfied with the outcome. The portal was now free-floating over a hole in the ground that was almost as wide as the tower's base. The Avatar and his troops would have to build ladders if they wanted to get to it. She could hear their swift footsteps as they emerged from the spiral staircase, coated in greyish-white dust but otherwise unharmed. The greenskins stopped at the sight and were hesitant to approach the ragged edge, where parts still broke off and tumbled into the depths when the wind picked up. Not so the Avatar. His frown merely deepened for a moment before he broke into a run, his armoured boots clattering as he raced down the stump of a broken support beam and leapt. He sailed through the air, over the gaping chasm below, and directly toward the portal.
Ami's eyes widened. It couldn't be! Was he really trying to get into her dungeon alone? He would make it, too! Ami's Keeper hand appeared in his path with a gurgle, ready to catch him like a thrown ball. His sword flashed twice in a cross pattern, and he burst through the glittering shower of water droplets, only to disappear into the two-dimensional gate upon touching it. "Darn it!"
With a whooshing sound, the Avatar emerged from the portal in the back of Mercury's command centre, startling the guards and warlocks alike. His mantle fluttered behind him as he disappeared into the pit, continuing on the same parabolic trajectory that had carried him through the tower gateway. He did not shout in fright, however. A clang from below announced his landing. The reaperbots leaned forward to peer over the edge, but instead of finding the intruder writhing on the ground with broken legs, they saw a knight standing ramrod straight in the centre of a spider web of cracks. Underneath his feet, the blue tones of Mercury's claim slowly eroded away. With a single leap that trailed streamers of silver light, the Avatar was suddenly among the scythe-wielding automatons. Controlled by their pilots, the two closest lunged at the enemy, whose sword flashed out in a gleaming arc. Pilfered from Ami's workshop, it was made of good quality steel, but that shouldn't have allowed it to cut through the automatons' legs the way it did. Amadeus calmly stepped between the two toppling guards, caused a third to freeze up when he stabbed it through the abdomen and right through the energy converter, and dodged out of the path of the fourth when it charged at him, only to help it along a bit further with a kick to the back. Metal clanked from the depths of the pit an instant later. His immediate attackers dispatched, the Avatar approached the centre of the room, where scrying screens lined the walls. An ice golem with red-glowing eyes appeared in front of him, only to shatter into its component shards before it could make its first move.
Having watched the recent confrontation, the warlocks, being some of the smartest dungeon dwellers around, immediately deduced the correct course of action for confronting a living legend. Screaming like little girls, they pushed and jostled each other in their haste to make it through the exit first. Blinding light flashed and thunder clapped as lightning bolts out of thin air licked at the Avatar, only to be stopped cold by the blade swishing around him so fast that he looked as if spiralling arcs of light surrounded him. Despite the magical assault, he did not slow his pace. Cathy got up from the command chair with a conflicted expression, her hand on the grip of her own sword.
Snyder grabbed her by the shoulder, his chubby face pale. "Cathy, no! Are you insane? He's the Avatar, guided by the Light! We can't fight him! That would be like denouncing the Light directly!"
The blonde's lips quivered in indecision, but then she pulled herself loose and stepped into the clouds of Shabon Spray mist that had filled the ozone-smelling room. Flashes of blue came from the Avatar's direction as Ami switched to the heavier artillery and threw stored freezing spells at him with reckless abandon.
"More importantly, he's going to kill you! Cathy, come back!" Jered shouted as he ducked underneath a table to avoid a deflected burst of freezing bubbles."Fighting him is the worst decision you could ever make! Damn it!" His fingers moved to the daggers slung across his chest as his girlfriend ignored him and reached the exit before the intruder. She flinched as a frozen-over mirror clattered to the floor and ice shards pinged off her armour, but held her ground. She didn't pull her weapon though as Amadeus approached through the fog, surrounded by a nimbus of pale light. Instead, she spread her arms and blocked his path, completely defenceless. "Look, Mercury is a nice girl who hasn't hurt anyone! This is a misunderstanding! Just give her a chance!"
To Jered and her own relief, the invader stopped. "We are merely going to imprison her, not kill her. Still, if misguided loyalty demands that you attack Us, do not worry. We will not hold it against you." the Light promised. "However, any such efforts will be futile."
"Not to mention painful," the Avatar added in his own voice. He shot a venomous glance at Snyder, who was flattening himself against the far wall. "Filthy traitors." His next step shattered the sheet of slippery ice that Ami had conjured underneath his feet, and he moved to push the blonde out of his way.
Cathy jumped back and closed the visor of her helmet. "Fine then! Mercury doesn't deserve such a fate!" Magic surged through the structure of her armour, providing her with more strength and speed than her body could have handled without the senshi transformation - for a few minutes, at least. She was a trained soldier, and the combination of powered armour and enchantments that had allowed Mercury to keep up with a similarly-enhanced horned reaper made the blonde a much more capable combatant than the barely-proficient girl. Almost too fast to see, she launched herself at the Avatar. It was time to pay back 'Marda' for all the humiliating sparring defeats. As fast as she was, Amadeus still managed to parry her attacks. To outside observers, it appeared as if the space between the two warriors was filled with falling stars as their weapons met each other hard enough to strike sparks. Cathy grinned underneath her helmet. She was feeling pretty good, even if she could already feel the strain on her muscles. She was fighting the Avatar, the greatest hero in the world, and had actually stopped his previously inexorable advance! The metallic clashes of sword against sword blended together, becoming a constant ringing tone that echoed through the dungeon. Maybe a little feint could get her ahead? Cathy suddenly felt cold air brush over her left cheek. What the- ? He had actually cut off a piece of her helmet? When? Sweat formed on her brow, and she redoubled her vigilance. There! Following a parry, an after-image of his sword darted down, toward her knee! The swordswoman shifted her weight, twisting the limb away from the treacherous blow. So that's how he did - wait, when had the right part of her helmet gone missing?
"Your sword does not look as if it will take the stress much longer," the Avatar pointed out, dispassionate as if he was talking about the weather. He wasn't even breathing heavily. To Cathy's growing alarm, he was right, too. The battered, notched remains of what was once a proud blade looked as if they would break apart at any moment now. How could she- "Yargh!" The blonde's world went upside down as a flick of the Avatar's own sword - still unmarred, the cheating bastard - took what was left of her helmet clean off her head. With it, he had removed the control mechanism for her armour, and the remaining momentum sent her topsy-turvy as she stumbled over his extended foot and crashed into the wall, hard.
Turning away from the groaning heap of bruises and broken bones, the Avatar resumed his stride toward Mercury's dungeon heart. "Not bad for a mortal," he commented with a nod as Jered and Snyder rushed to their injured companion's aid.
As soon as the Avatar stepped into one of the larger halls, the metal portcullises at each end slammed shut, locking him in. Tiger, wearing a black senshi uniform, appeared some distance away from him, and stared at him with crimson eyes dimmed only slightly by the visor covering them. "Stop, please! I don't want to have to hurt you!" Ami shouted. With a loud grinding noise, her frozen Keeper hand pulled a sword five times as long as her enemy from the stone.
"Do your worst," Amadeus replied, continuing on unperturbed. His eyes glowed white. "Rest assured that you will not be able to hurt our champion, no matter how hard you try."
With a drawn-out sigh, Ami swung the over-sized weapon at him. It was a reluctant swing, since she didn't actually want to kill him. She needn't have worried. Amadeus simply raised his sword, angling it so that her massive blade scraped over his, rising higher until it passed over his head. Her visor dutifully registered the faint white glow that had appeared around his form during the move. Her next attack came in a bit faster from straight overhead, but he swiftly stepped aside and let the heavy sword bite into the ground. He was still moving toward the dungeon heart at the same pace as before. Suddenly, the room went dark, and the path before him twisted and curled, parting into five strange, meandering routes.
Jadeite's head and hands appeared in the darkness, larger than life. "Well then. Let's see how you measure up against the might of the Dark Kingdom!" Water rose from the ground, covering the Avatar's feet while lightning struck its surface. None of the beings hovering above it were affected by the conducted electricity, but neither was the Avatar. According to Ami's visor, the water wasn't really touching him. This hardly discouraged the dark general, though. The Avatar swatted another strike of Mercury's oversized weapon aside, completely ignoring the curly-haired blonde's gloating. A forceful beam of water shot at him as Mareki appeared for a flyby attack, and orbs of dark power threw themselves at the white-mantled man. The area around him erupted into a chaos of fountaining water, black-coloured explosions, flashing weapons and silver light as Jadeite shaped more and more weapons to entangle, crush, or maim his foe. The Avatar kept advancing, dodging what he could, parried what he couldn't, and was inconvenienced by neither. Phantom blades separated from his real one, blocking blows it was too distracted or too busy to intercept on its own. Through all this, he still managed to cut down the quintets of ice golems that Ami sent to block his path.
It quickly became apparent to the hounded teenager that nothing was working. Teleporting in as close as she dared, she focused on her link to Metallia's dark power and opened the floodgates, letting the evil energy flow with reckless abandon. Perhaps her dark power would be able to somehow counteract the holy energies enhancing the champion's every move? It seemed to work, too. From the water covering the ground, grasping hands rose on their own, clawing at the enemy's legs. They were not cut down as swiftly as the foes before them. The Avatar's motions faltered for a moment, and a frown appeared on his face. When the next wave of ice golems threw themselves at him, they almost managed to distract him long enough for a swat of Ami's oversized sword to hit home. Almost. A casual stab pierced another ice golem in the chest, dispatch- its glamour dissipated, revealing the towering, demonic form of Rabixtrel with his scythe held high. Ami's eyes went wide as the cursed blade parted the air, darting for Amadeus' neck. His own weapon was still stuck in the beast's thigh, and with Mercury's sword forming a wall of steel behind him, there was no room to dodge. With a dull thud, the blow found its mark. Ami felt like crying. She hadn't wanted him dead! The moment of sorrow passed instantly when she saw that the Avatar was still standing and heard Rabixtrel's disappointed roar. A dull white glow was stopping the deadly scythe only a centimetre away from his thin neck armour.
"A shield?" Ami gaped.
"Protection and healing is what We excel at," the Avatar stated as light filled his eyes completely. "You will not be able to breach our defences." Idly, he freed his sword from the reaper's flesh by tearing it through the muscle, causing the injured and angry demon to retreat for the moment.
Ami wasn't so sure about that. Her visor told her that the Avatar's heart rate had picked up, and his breath was going faster. Blocking the blow this way had tired him somewhat, if not much. No, scratch that, energy flowed from the mantle into his body, reinvigorating him so fast that she would have missed this sign of weakness if she had blinked.
"Mercury, dodge!" Jadeite's voice came from the darkness. The dark general moved down his fist as if he was bringing down a hammer.
Ami teleported away instantly, and then noticed what he had done. A block of stone as large as a school bus had detached from the ceiling and was dropping toward the comparatively tiny, glowing figure walking underneath it. Rabixtrel took this as his cue to disengage at his best possible speed. "Jadeite, no! I don't want to kill him!"
"Holding back isn't working, if you hadn't noticed yet!"
Her gasp turned out to be premature. The Avatar stabbed his sword vertically in the air, and when the giant block touched its tip, it just stopped, obeying neither gravity nor common sense. A crack formed along its length and it split in half. Both parts crashed to the ground to the left and right of the champion of Good, leaving enough space for him to continue his advance between them.
"I- Impossible!" Ami gaped as despair welled up in her chest. "How did you ever lose the war with powers like that?"
"Treachery." Amadeus' voice had become cold as ice. "My mantle was stolen and replaced with a convincing fake by someone I trusted. The Keepers struck before the exchange was noticed, and by then, it was too late to do something about it!" His face was absolutely murderous. "Whenever I see that acolyte in your employ, it taxes my willpower to not slay him on the spot!"
"Er, I'll let him know to stay out of your sight?" Ami hoped that Snyder wouldn't faint when he learned that piece of news.
"Enough of this magical nonsense!" The Avatar's bellowed as he arrived at the fork in the road that Jadeite had created. A brilliant aura erupted from his body like a bonfire and spread outward, clearing away the glamour and slamming in waves against the black flames surrounding Ami. When it touched the ice golems, they screeched and turned into lifeless husks. Jadeite beat a hasty retreat when his shield burst like a bubble after stalling the curtain of light for barely two seconds. An instant later, the black shell surrounding Ami guttered out like a candle, and she found herself baffled and surprised when Tiger evicted her out of her body, using the force of her sheer, gibbering terror to seize control. The orange-striped youma darted away and climbed the wall in the far corner of the room in her attempt to put more distance between herself and the Avatar.
In the form of a black shadow, Ami shot toward an imp and considered just putting the entire room under water, but at this point, she would be honestly surprised if the Avatar couldn't breathe underwater. Dread filled her. The situation wasn't quite as bad as with Alphel's dragon, since the Avatar didn't actually want to kill her, but he seemed even harder to defeat. Darn it, she needed to stop making unstoppable enemies! Cathy had been the only one able to even slow him down, and she had hardly seemed the most formidable of the forces she had thrown at him. Perhaps... "Everyone, retreat for the moment! New plan!"
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