In hindsight, expecting the steel portcullis to stop the Avatar had been highly optimistic. He simply broke through the wall next to it, but at least he still ended up at the next obstacle on his direct path to the dungeon heart. A newly-built temple to Metallia shimmered in dark blue and violet hues, intimidating visitors with its jutting pillars and twisted skulls. The Avatar stepped forward without hesitation, his eyes and outline glowing brightly as he entered the nexus of dark power. The constant, incomprehensible whispers from the central pool turned angrier and more urgent as he approached the edge of the basin. His sword stabbed down into the liquid and struck with a loud tinging noise. From the point of impact outwards, the water froze, but the effect didn't stop at the edge of the basin. Tainted stone and marble pillars turned smooth and transparent, until the entire room appeared like a sculpture made of fine glass. A heartbeat later, it shattered like a mirror, and shards rained to the ground, breaking light up into all rainbow colours like falling prisms.
"Seriously, Mercury. Places like this are exactly what the mantle was originally made to purge. Did you really expect this to give me to pause?" Amadeus asked the black-armoured figure approaching him through the debris and carrying a long, two-handed sword.
"It was worth a try," Ami shrugged, "it couldn't do any worse than everything else I tried." She brought up her weapon as she got ready to attack. Her armour vibrated around her as she fed the fuel gems into its magical converters. She just hoped that she hadn't completely misread the situation. With a battle cry, she charged, using the greater reach of her two-hander to strike at him once, then displaced herself behind him to stab at his back. His sword was already there, performing a perfect parry that rattled her bones. In an instant, her slender form was in front of him again, and she exchanged accuracy for higher rate of attack. She didn't have more success than Cathy, but she managed to verify what she wanted to know during the quick exchange. Already breathing faster, she disengaged with another teleport and shouted "I'll be right back!" before disappearing.
"Don't hurry on my account." The Avatar continued his journey, the destroyed temple's shards making crunching noises underneath his boots as he walked.
"Cathy, I need your help! I need the Avatar to remain distracted and in one place for a short time, and he only stops moving when he's fighting one of us!" Ami appeared next to the bed on which the blonde was resting, startling Snyder and Jered.
The red-haired healer immediately protested. "Mercury, I just finished setting her bones. I really don't think-"
"I'll do it," Cathy said, sitting up. "I'm not sure how much damage I can do in this shape, and my armour is busted, but-"
"Don't worry about it, he doesn't actually slow down because we challenge him, but because he doesn't want to accidentally kill us. I am nowhere as good in a fight as you, and he still did the same for me."
"Hmph!" The blonde's face went red, and she turned up her nose. "Oh, whatever. What do we do about the armour?"
"Take mine." Ami concentrated and appeared next to the standing suit of armour, wearing her leotard minus the skirt.
"I don't think it will fit," the blonde commented.
"I'll make it work," Ami said with a smile.
Robed figures in white, gold, and red leaned over a well-shaped marble basin, gazing spellbound into the vision moving within the pool. Anybody of distinction working within the temple was vying for a better position. Nobody wanted to miss watching the champion of the Light heroically take on an entire dungeon by himself only moments after returning to power. Right now, he was exchanging furious blows with a slender female figure in necromantic-looking armour - the second such opponent that gave him trouble. A cheer went through the room when his brow scrunched up in irritation, which was followed by a quick horizontal strike that parted his opponent's head from her shoulders.
"Just another golem," one of the acolytes in the back row said, disappointed when the slashed-apart figure turned out to be a hollow suit of armour.
"Look! Keeper Mercury has arrived to deal with the problem personally!" An excited priest with a long, drooping moustache and matching beard mocked. He waved his index finger excitedly at the wispy, blue-haired female who had appeared in the Avatar's path, a sinister expression on her red-eyed face. The others shushed him for fear that the noise would send ripples across the surface of their scrying pool.
"Heh, she's no longer running away?" Baron Leopold took a bite out of the chicken leg he was holding, much to the chagrin of the surrounding clergy. "Praise the Light! She shall finally be brought to justice!" he cheered.
In the scrying pool, the Avatar walked toward the blue-haired girl, who started slowly circling him counter-clockwise from some distance away, her feet never touching the ground. Slowly, she raised her left hand, facing the champion of Good with her black-gloved palm. The Avatar's contemptuous gaze followed her, and he looked not worried at all. Mercury's eyes narrowed, and she thrust her palm forward. The Avatar's sword came up in a block to deflect the inevitable attack - only for the weapon to bang into his chest armour as it was pushed backward. He was thrown off his feet and went flying, still accelerating as his back slammed into the wall. Deep cracks spread out from the point of impact, clearly visible on the white-coloured stone.
"WHAT?" The cry of disbelief came from many throats at once, but abbot Durval's exclamation was the loudest. This somewhat surprised the elderly man, until he looked to his side. The boisterous Baron Leopold was too busy turning purple and coughing violently to dislodge a piece of food that had gone down the wrong hole from the shock.
"Good work, Cathy! I think I got him now!"
The blonde was sitting on her bed as she heard Mercury's mental voice, looking down at a crystal ball on the ground.
"Snyder, you can stop scrying on the Avatar for me now." The swordswoman took off the helmet of Ami's armour and shook her blonde hair to keep it from clumping. She tended to forget that the armours were, in principle, just another reaperbot that moved in concert with its wearer. Like the other automatons, it could be controlled remotely. When fitted with a fake helmet, it would seem occupied to someone who expected it to be. Not that the Avatar had taken long to see through the ruse, but Mercury hadn't expected him to. Cathy just hoped that the teenager had made good use of the distraction. She noted that Snyder was still staring into the orb, and took a closer look. Her eyebrows climbed up to her hairline. "Wait, did she just glue the Avatar to the wall?"
Eyes wide in total surprise, the Avatar struggled to move his arms against the enormous force pinning him to the wall so hard that he didn't even slide down to the ground. His muscles bulged underneath the armour, but he could not lift one finger. To make matters worse, it didn't even look as if that accursed slip of a girl was straining!
His eyes changed to pure white. "Admittedly, this is new. How are you accomplishing this?"
"I'd rather not reveal that while we are fighting, sorry," Ami said, sounding anything but contrite. She just hoped that they didn't realise that she was using no kind of magical power at all. Her raised hand was nothing but a bluff. The Avatar's current predicament was all due to the huge electromagnet behind the wall, which she had quickly thrown together during the time Cathy had bought her. She almost couldn't contain the giddiness about guessing correctly that, since the force acting on his armour originated partly from inside his shield, it would bypass his protections.
"This changes nothing! You still cannot harm me, and I will not be stopped, even if I have to rely on the mantle to simply outlast you!"
"Actually, I believe you count as my prisoner now," Ami contradicted.
Experimentally, she tugged at the Avatar's mantle with her Keeper powers. On a mental level, it burned as if she was reaching into a fire, but she clenched her teeth and persevered even as tears gathered in her eyes. With a final jerk, the resistance ceased, and the mantle disappeared from his shoulders. She quickly dropped it into a treasury before it could sear her more.
"Noooo! Give that back! Give that back at once, you thief!" Amadeus howled, his red face a mask of rage and despair.
"You have lost," Ami stated simply. "Without that artefact to reinvigorate you, your invulnerability will not last forever." Her Keeper hand appeared, balled into a fist as a not-so-subtle threat.
The Avatar's grimace of loathing melted into an almost exasperated frown as some glow returned to his eyes. "Unfortunate. It seems that you have gained the upper hand for the moment. What are you going to do now, young Keeper?"
"Well, I do not wish to kill him, but he's too dangerous to keep as an enemy," Ami said. What should she do with him, now that she had him? Armour creaked from the strain as the Avatar struggled once more against his confinement. "I suppose I could simply transform him back into a form that disables his powers and then imprison him, but that sounds cruel. Instead, I could let him go free, in return for a few concessions," Ami said, thinking on her feet. The Light was supposed to keep its promises, right?
"You would ransom back our champion?" the Light sounded more amused than offended by the idea.
"I would rather die than be used as leverage against Good," the Avatar hissed in his own voice.
"We are intrigued. Speak, then, but know that there are things We will not even consider."
Ami nodded, letting out a breath of relief. Inwardly, she wondered what her friends would think of her blackmailing the gods of Good. "Well, most importantly, I need your oath that he will not take up arms against me or mine again!"
"Unacceptable. That would put too much of a limitation on Our actions in case we had to stop your aggression. There will be no general immunity," came the immediate reply.
Ami didn't like hearing that, but the objection was valid, from their point of view. "What about not attacking me on this continent, then?"
The Light was silent for a while, during which Amadeus glared at Ami with furrowed brows. Very well. We promise that you shall be safe here from Our Avatar, as long as you do not abuse the spirit in which this immunity was granted. Attempt to abuse it for evil, and it is null and void.
"That sounds good, but also ill-defined," Ami said cautiously.
"It is precise enough for those who are willing to abide by those terms," the Light contradicted. "A more elaborate contract would not protect those who would search for every loophole from our wrath."
Ami didn't think she would get a better deal out of them. "I accept those terms. Um, does he?" Amadeus, once more in control of his facial features, looked as if he wanted to do nothing more than rend her limb from limb.
"He will abide by Our agreements. You may let him loose now."
Ami didn't slacken her hold just yet. "But I have more questions that I need answered! How can I defeat a dark god to get my soul back?"
"You cannot. No matter how powerful in life, mortals have no power of their own in the realm of the dead." The Light's voice sounded apologetic, as if the deities regretted having to dash Ami's hopes.
"But Queen Metallia is in the Dark Kingdom, not there," Ami protested undauntedly.
"What?" the brilliance in the Avatar's eyes exploded like miniature suns. "Explain! Leave nothing out!"
For the next ten minutes, the teenager explained what she knew about the Dark Kingdom, Queen Metallia, and her interactions with them. The Light listened intently, asking questions whenever something remained unclear.
"The situation is dire. Once before, in a time so long ago that even the continents of this planet did not yet have their present shape, a race now forgotten managed to bring one of the dark gods into this world. One of Us followed the fiend through the breach it had rent into reality, and took the monster down at the cost of His own life. An age of sorrows followed as the world recovered from the aftermath of their battle. This must never be allowed to happen again. However, this tragedy produced a glimmer of hope for you. Adamantine."
"Adamantine? The same material Baron Leopold's armour is made of?"
" A metal not of this world, inimical to the forces of darkness. The powers of entities like Us or our dark analogues do not disappear simply because their wielder is dead. When the corrosive power of the fallen Evil seeped into the deepest crevasses of the north, that of his conqueror congealed into a layer of unearthly metal that sealed this cancer away from the rest of the world and keeps growing to this day. Forged into a weapon, it can even harm the physical forms of the dark gods."
Now that was something Ami could work with, and she smiled. "Thank you. That sounds useful."
"Be aware that challenging a dark god is an almost impossible task. Consider how much trouble you had with only this tiny splinter of Our own power. You MUST cease sending life energy to this Metallia!"
"Does it really make her that much stronger?" Ami asked. Not that she wanted to continue sending Metallia anything, but she had always wondered how the Dark Kingdom's plots could be beneficial. From a purely quantitative point of view, most of Jadeite's energy-gathering schemes had squandered a lot more power than a human body could contain, even if you burned it as fuel.
"No, but she seems wounded. The dark ones' own power is unsuitable for healing themselves, and so they must steal vitality from those weaker than them to restore their patterns."
"Oh." Ami nodded as things clicked into place. Metallia's preferences for certain types of energy fit with what she had learned just now. Goblins' vitality manifested through extremely fertility, and dragons were large, strong, and lived for a long time. "Can you also help me rein in the corruption produced by my dungeon hearts, or at least turn it into something harmless?"
"The corruption's nature reflects that of the realm of the dark gods. Destructive, capricious, perverting, hostile and chaotic, it will actively resist efforts to go against its themes and to be put to good use. You could theoretically try to discharge most of its power by guiding it into blatant and powerful manifestations, somewhere where they won't do much harm. It is a topic We have not investigated very thoroughly, since We typically go for the root cause."
Somewhat discouraged, Ami tried an alternate angle. "Speaking about that, what about hero dungeon hearts? Could I use those to avoid the problem altogether?"
"The hero dungeon hearts, as you call them, are crippled imitations of the original design. In the process of purging its evil, We also removed much of its functionality. While still useful, they cannot support a Keeper's life.
"Oh." Disappointment flooded Ami. Had coming here been pointless, after all? "Could you fix that flaw?" she asked, not giving up yet.
"Unknown. If that task is indeed possible, you would be better served performing it yourself," the Light admitted, "your own modifications to the dungeon heart were done more skilfully than Ours."
"What?" Ami's eyes widened in surprise.
"What?" echoed the Avatar in his normal voice. Ami had let him go by now, but he still leaned against the wall with his arms crossed.
"Alas, no souls with knowledge about dungeon heart creation have ever made it to Us. Even as captured artefacts, they remain so filled with dark powers that they prove difficult to study before they incur irreparable damage. Any of Our modifications involve experimentation and erring on the side of caution. " A pause. "Would you be willing to lend Us your notes?" the genderless voice continued, its inflections reminding Ami strongly of classmates asking her to please let them copy her homework.
The young Keeper blinked a few times. "Um. Well, I suppose I could write down what I know for you, but it will take a while. And I want another favour for this," Ami declared. Not that she was unwilling to hand that knowledge over for free, but in her current situation, she had to take anything she could get. "I want you to relay messages from this," she raised her left hand, where her senshi communicator rested on her wrist, "to my friends home and back!"
"Out of the question. You are too ingenious by far, and this could be just what you need to guide you home."
"But I really want to talk to my friends again," Ami said, looking at the ground. Doing what the gods had suggested had not been her primary reason for asking, even if the idea had lingered in the back of her mind.
"That could be accomplished by sending them a crystal ball that you have never been in contact with," the Light offered.
"Really? Thank you!" Ami said with a big smile.
"I believe this concludes our business here, except for one more thing."
"You want that mantle back, right?" Ami guessed.
"No, We have already started the process of creating a new one. You may keep it... Empress Mercury."
"Wha?" Ami blinked, dumbfounded.
The Avatar's facial expression eloquently expressed that he was dearly hoping that his gods were kidding. "Empress? Her?"
"The title exists, even if Zarekos had no right to it. Since you now de facto control these lands, it is yours."
"Err, thank you? But I-" Ami began. She felt overwhelmed, but mostly confused.
"It's unthinkable! She's a Keeper!!" A vein pulsed above Amadeus right eyebrow. All that rapid switching between facial expressions couldn't be good for him. "Why are you giving her that kind of legitimacy?"
"Because she would be dead within weeks otherwise," the genderless voice stated simply. "Letting the Avatar go free and unharmed for no good reason? Inexcusable. The entire Underworld would howl for her blood for such a sacrilegious act of mercy. However, doing it to blackmail Us into granting her unprecedented concessions? Enviably devious."
Ami blinked rapidly and paled. She hadn't even considered that yet! "T-thank you," she stammered, still off-balance. She would have bowed in gratitude if her glowing wristband hadn't warned her about unwanted observers. A Keeper bowing to the Avatar would send entirely the wrong message.
"This is less of a favour than you might think," the gods pointed out. "It will make sure that your opponents take you seriously from now on, even those that were not inclined to do so in the first place. We can only hope that this will keep you too busy to conduct your perilous research.
A small light approached through the tunnel that the Avatar had crossed, announced by scurrying footsteps. As it got closer, Ami recognised it as the lantern topping one of her new imps' helmets. The small creature gawked nervously at the Avatar as she approached, and made sure to keep her Keeper between herself and the armoured warrior. In her three-fingered hand, she held a rolled-up message that she proffered to the short-skirted girl. Ami took it and wondered why there were bloody tatters of a warlock's robe protruding from the imp's mouth.
She unrolled the scroll and read the message written in large, shaky handwriting produced by a shivering writer. "Keeper Mercury, I send this imp for fear of a telepathic message breaking your concentration at a critical juncture. I hope that it finds you unharmed. It is only with the greatest reluctance that I dare interrupt your business humiliating the Avatar, but the wretched Underworld army is on the move and demands the immediate attention of your superior intellect! -Torian."
|Previous chapter:||Next chapter:|
|Chapter 110: Divine Opposition, Part 1||Chapter 112: Underworld Army Attack|