"So, you have electricity over there? Where do you get it from?" Sailor Jupiter asked, watching sparks coming off a cable behind Sailor Mercury.
"I built a few generators with the help of the library books you provided for me," Ami explained. "I'll show you what drives them, follow me!"
She disappeared in a whirl of blue, only to wink back into existence in a large grotto. The cloud of snowflakes accompanying her arrival melted the moment she appeared, and the flash of her arrival mixed with the reddish lighting, painting the raw rock walls violet for an instant. Sets of metal pipes, huge enough to crawl through, wormed their way along the raw stone walls before angling down into the ground or disappearing into the ceiling.
"I used to use windmills to power the generators," Ami shouted to make herself heard over the noise of water rumbling and steam hissing within the tubes, "But since a perpetual storm would be bad for the environment, I'm transitioning to steam." She gestured with her right hand toward the valve-studded pipes that rumbled behind her, and walked toward the exit from the cave, keeping the crystal floating at eye height before her. With increasing distance, the noise coming from the pipes sank to a more bearable level. She wiped away small droplets of sweat from her forehead. "This is the lowest point of my dungeon, even deeper than the dungeon heart. Seawater runs down into the underground through the pipes back there, encounters the molten rock in the depths below, and thunders up through the other pipes as steam that I use to power generators," Ami told them, proud in her accomplishments.
"Molten rock, as in magma?" Sailor Jupiter asked. At Ami's nod, she continued "Isn't that dangerous?"
"The magma around here has many routes to the surface and isn't under much pressure. I also have some limited control over the underground through my dungeon heart," the blue-haired girl said, "but I'm not relying on it. There is only a single, narrow tunnel connecting this place to the rest of the dungeon, and it's rigged to collapse if the inbuilt steel hatches fail. I'm minimising risks here."
"Sailor Moon, stop playing around with the focus! Move it back to Mercury!" the annoyed voice of Sailor Mars came from the crystal ball.
"But this looks interesting! Hey, Sailor Mercury, what are those huge-eyed little things doing?"
Ami walked over to the next room, where a group of eight tiny, bug-eyed creatures with helmets and blue overalls were walking clockwise around a round a metal pillar protruding from the ground. They were pushing at bars that fanned out like spokes of a wheel from the central column, which emitted soft grinding and scraping noises as it rotated.
"Those imps are drilling a hole for a new pipe," Ami explained. "Due to the heat, pressure, and instabilities in the rock, it's too dangerous for them to dig down there. It's a bit more complicated than just using picks, but since I can recycle the steel used for the drill, I don't lose much gold in the process."
"Oh yes, gold. You are kind of rich now." Sailor moon exclaimed. "Can you show us-"
"Stop!" Ami interrupted, holding up both arms with an alarmed expression on her face. "Don't mention where my wealth comes from! Others may be listening in on our conversation. I think it's safe to assume that at least the Light gods can monitor what you do with your crystal ball, so use it responsibly, please."
"What? Does that mean they already know our civilian identities?" Sailor Mars said heatedly, gripping the table's edge hard with both hands. The notion didn't seem to sit well with Luna either, judging from the way her fur bristled.
Ami raised both hands in a placating gesture, leaning away from her crystal ball as Sailor Mars' face filled it, purple eyes narrowed.
"Please don't worry! They are, without a doubt, good guys! They oppose me, but that's only because they don't want me to return home and allow the dark gods access to our world." Ami's faded smile returned as she continued "but I'm sure they'll help me get home once I have my soul back!"
Sailor Moon nodded briefly and slammed her fist into her open hand. "Right! That means the faster we beat that Metallia thing, the faster we get you back! Can't be too hard to defeat a comatose monster, right?"
Usagi's optimism was heart-warming, but Ami didn't believe it would be quite that simple. "I'm afraid the Dark Kingdom forces guarding their 'Great Ruler' would have something to say about that. Stopping the Dark Kingdom from gathering enough energy to wake Metallia is the best way for you to help me right now," she said without hesitation. "Aside from that, I also appreciate being able to access science books." Her face turned less serious. "Actually, the next book I need isn't going to be in the science section. You know that I need to act like an evil overlord in front of the others here from time to time, yes? So I thought some literature on that might be helpful."
"The library has books on evil overlording now?" Sailor Jupiter asked, sounding rather sceptical.
"They probably put them right next to instruction manuals for teachers," Usagi quipped.
Ami shot the blonde a reproachful look. "I'm talking about books on acting, of course. I'm really not very good at it," Ami said, eyes downcast, "so I thought if I studied it more...."
"Ah, yes, that makes more sense," Sailor Mars said.
Luna shook her head. "Sailor Mercury, I think acting is one of those fields where practice makes perfect. You would probably waste your time trying to pick it up from books."
"At the very least, it could tell me what not to do," Ami said, not too discouraged. "So, is there something else I can do to help you with in return?"
The other girls looked at each other. "Well, the crystal ball alone will help us keep better track of Dark Kingdom activities, so the burden won't be on Mars alone," the black moon cat sitting on Sailor Moon's shoulder pondered.
"Be careful about that!" Ami cautioned. "Make sure you transform before you spy on the Dark Kingdom. There are ways to see who is scrying on you."
"Thanks for the warning," Sailor Moon said. "Do you know any useful spells you could teach us that aren't too dangerous?"
"How about flying?" Sailor Mars suggested, looking eager. "It's so frustrating that all our enemies can fly and we can't!"
"Hmm." Ami frowned, thinking. "Yes, that could work. I'll assign one of my youma as a teacher for you."
"You want them to learn from a youma?" Luna's tail stood straight in the air. The girls didn't look too thrilled, either.
"Well, I learned it from Jadeite in the first place, and I don't have the time to teach you personally," the blue-haired girl said apologetically. "It's not an easy spell. Since you'll need continued tutoring, and all the youma can fly and should be powerful enough to reach you with scrying, they are a logical choice."
"If you say so." Sailor Mars' enthusiasm seemed somewhat dampened by Mercury's suggestion.
"Promise me to only practice the spell indoors as long as you haven't mastered it!" Ami ordered, her voice stern. "It's hard to control, and I bumped into the ceiling and walls a lot while learning it. You wouldn't want to zoom off into the sky with no way to get down safely."
Sailor Moon let out a small whimper, eyes round. "I promise!"
Mars and Jupiter nodded too.
Ami seemed satisfied by their serious expressions. "Good. Actually, having the youma scry is a very good idea that I really should have come up with earlier. I'll have them help you keep an eye on the Dark Kingdom's activities, too. If something comes up, I'll contact Rei."
"Thanks, Sailor Mercury," Luna said. "That will help us out a lot."
Dead twigs, weakened by rot and mould, fell apart as leather-gloved hands gently pushed apart the dense undergrowth in front of their owner. The elven scout froze, suppressing a curse at the snapping sounds. Not one muscle twitched as he listened with baited breath for any reaction from the swamps around him. A few large bubbles rose from the murky, greyish waters and disgorged a putrid smells into the swarms of gnats buzzing above. Aside from those unpleasant sounds, the wilderness was silent.
Carvon remained still for several minutes, until the foot carrying almost all of his body's weight started to itch from lack of blood flow to the limb. Reasonably sure that nothing would suddenly pop out of the swamp and devour him, the scout proceeded onwards. Concealed by enchantments that made his skin and leather clothing match the colour of his environment, the elf was a silent, chameleon-like blur moving through the dead and dying vegetation.
Scrying was all well and good for finding an enemy, but it didn't make navigating terrain any easier. Without people like him, an army could wander around in an inhospitable marshland like this one for months without ever finding its destination. His hand went to his pocket, touching the reassuring shape of Baron Leopold's transformed hero gate underneath the thin leather. Once he had planted the valuable, currently nut-shaped artefact in the proper location, it would revert to its original shape. Wouldn't Arachne be surprised when the baron and his men suddenly showed up on the doorstep of her largest and most remote dungeon?
The sickly sweet stench of carrion grew stronger, and Carvon flinched when what he had mistaken for a black rock dissolved into a cloud of thick flies with gleaming carapaces. The sweltering, stagnant air filled with tiny black bodies, and for a nightmarish moment, he feared that the Keeper herself had found him. When the insects settled back on the ground without bothering him more than was natural for their kind, he spotted the corpse that the crawling, black carpet had hidden. The elf's delicate eyebrows rose at the sight of the giant spider in an advanced state of decomposition, its chitinous carapace broken open along the back. It belonged to one of the largest species in Arachne's employ, vicious and armed with a deadly poison to boot. Not something that should fall prey to the natural dangers of a swamp.
Carvon's gaze remained on the corpse's jagged injury, and he shivered despite the heat. Was there something worse than giant spiders hiding in these swamps? Unknown dangers were always worse than expected ones. Distracted as he was by going through the mental catalogue of dangerous creatures he knew, he could be excused for not immediately noticing the ever-present buzzing becoming louder. However, when a moving shadow appeared in the sky, his eyes immediately sought it out. A giant fly was overhead, flying so low that its beating wings almost touched the leafless branches of the rotting trees grasping at the clouds. His keen elven sight could make out the facets of its bulbous eyes and the individual bristles covering its segmented legs. They did not miss the bleached skeleton riding the beast, holding a ruby-encrusted wizard's staff in its bony fingers.
The buzzing did not abate when the fly and its rider disappeared toward the west. Instead, the vibrations in the air became even stronger, and to Carvon's surprise, an entire flight of nearly thirty of the beasts darkened the sky, each one carrying a skeletal passenger. The scout was glad they had not spotted him, but something struck him as very strange here. Spiders and flies did not get along, and using both of them at the same time was just asking for trouble. Arachne wasn't know for using the undead much, either. No, if he combined all those facts with the dead spider before him, he could only reach one conclusion. There was another Keeper active in the area. The Baron needed to be informed of the changed situation immediately!
On Sailor Moon's insistence, the next stop of the tour was Ami's treasury. "Wow, you are rich, Sailor Mercury!" the blonde exclaimed when the black-dressed girl appeared in the well-lit chamber.
Mars and Jupiter, and even Luna, stared goggle-eyed at the sparkling coins and sapphires. Appreciative squeals soon followed.
"Hey, Mercury's face is on all of them!" Jupiter pointed out. "It's almost like she's a real queen," she giggled.
"Well, actually-" Ami began, putting one hand to her mouth shyly.
"Ohhh, look at those gems! Are they all sapphires?" Sailor Moon asked, interrupting her friend. She inspected them more closely. "Hmm, they all have the same, kind of boring cut," she declared with familiarity gained from hanging out with Naru, whose mother was a jeweller.
"The coins and gems are prepared automatically from raw materials I put into this room," Ami explained, "these seem to be the default settings. I don't have a skilled gem cutter working for me."
"You should get one. They'd fetch a much better price with a better cut," the blonde said.
Ami opened her mouth to say that the shape of objects didn't affect what the dungeon heart could achieve with them, but stopped. She didn't actually know that, did she? Logically, if the chamber turned two gems of same weight and quality into gold, their shape shouldn't matter to the outcome. Then again, magic doesn't always behave logically, she thought with a sideways glance at the frost patterns decorating the room. Testing that theory couldn't hurt. "Thanks, that might be worth looking into," she said with a smile.
Truthfully, the girls' enthusiastic reaction to the riches left her feeling a bit like an outsider, since she didn't share it. She wondered when she had become so accustomed to gold that the sight of a pile that reached up to her knee left her only with a nagging feeling of worry that it wouldn't be enough for all she had planned.
"This is the best part of switching to geothermal power," Ami said with a smile when warm, humid air wafted into her face. "Heated baths!"
With all the fog and steam in the air, the rounded pool framed by several rocks to sit on looked like some sort of evil, water-filled crater just waiting for unsuspecting victims to stumble into it. In Ami's opinion, that was a mild enough concession for keeping the corruption from making its own unpredictable, and potentially uncomfortable alterations.
"Oh, your own hot springs!" Mars said, undaunted by the deliberately raw and unfinished look of the place. "I'm envious!"
"This are public baths, actually," Ami corrected. "Anyone living here can use them, though they are usually busier."
"Yuck!" A high-pitched female screech echoed through the hall, coming from one of the denser banks of steam. Splashing and thrashing noises followed. "Get away from me, you freak!"
"Mercury, what's going on?" Luna wanted to know.
Sailor Moon was already fiddling with the crystal ball, trying to find out on her own. Her eyes went wide. "Mercury, there's a naughty tentacle monster in your pool, accosting some pointy-eared person!" she shouted out, biting her nails as she peered into the orb, unable to do something to help.
"Eek! Gross!" Sailor Jupiter looked sick as silhouettes of thin tendrils in the fog wriggled toward an agitated female shape.
"I'm aware of the problem," Ami sighed, burying her face in her palm as her Keeper sight showed her exactly what was going on. Namely, Venna stabbing furiously at the green and black tentacles rising out of the water around her. Where'd she get that dagger from, anyway? Ami wondered, considering the voluptuous dark elf's current state of undress.
"Then what are you waiting for? Do something!"
Ami turned toward the pool and mimed a lifting motion with her right hand. The liquid in the basin frothed as if was boiling, and a big, green and black lump broke the surface. It continued rising into the air, resembling spaghetti dangling from a fork. Tentacles writhed and dripped as a multitude of eyes in the main mass turned to face the blue-haired girl.
"Tserk! What have I told you about the pools?" Ami asked, arms akimbo and glaring up at the creature.
"Don't scare the other bathers?" the tentacle monster replied, doing its best to sound innocent.
"Exactly! And what do I catch you doing?"
"Now wait a moment!" Tserks many pseudopodia flailed around, and a set of three pointed back at the albino stomping furiously toward the shore. "Did she look scared to you, your Majesty?"
Ami blinked. The elf had looked as if she was about to cut a few of Tserk's appendages off, not frightened. "That's not the point! You know what I meant!"
"Not seeing it," the tentacled creature muttered like a stubborn child.
"Mercury? Can you actually communicate with that thing?" Sailor Moon's incredulous voice asked from the crystal ball.
"You can't hear it? Oh, of course you can't. The crystal ball probably doesn't transmit telepathy," Ami explained. "Yes, it can talk, and is actually quite intelligent." She turned back to Tserk and shot him a glare "Certainly intelligent enough to understand what I mean when I give an order!"
The monster's tentacles went limp like the branches of a weeping willow. Somehow, the ball of pseudopodia and eyes managed to pull off a chagrined expression. "Forgive me, your Majesty, but I was feeling very down lately. Nobody is letting me give them a massage." It's mental voice suddenly became hopeful. "Perhaps you could use a nice and relaxing one?"
Truthfully, Ami was feeling a bit tense after all the stress she had been under during the past days. She nodded. "Maybe later." With a quiet pop of inrushing air, Tserk disappeared.
The dark elf, in the process of leaving the pool and wrapping a towel around her body, drew attention to herself by missing a step and making the water splash loudly. Her head whipped to the left to gape at Ami with red pupils that had shrunk to the size of pinpricks from surprise. The dark elf continued staring for a long moment, as if seeing the blue-haired girl in an entirely new light.
The young Empress wondered if she shouldn't critically evaluate her behaviour in the near future if she had managed to shock someone like the clingy elf woman. Sure, a short application of the Avatar's mantle had undone the mental conditioning that Morrigan had inflicted on her, but she was still more forward and grabby than poor Snyder was comfortable with.
"-what? What did it say? Mercury!" The others had obviously noticed the albino's reaction, and Sailor Moon was loudly voicing their shared curiosity about the part of the conversation they were missing.
"Oh. It offered me a massage," Ami answered calmly.
"What? And you accepted?" Sailor Mars managed not to shout. Barely.
"Well, it is talented at it." A pause. "Why are you all looking at me like that?" Ami had been the target of that kind of stare before, usually when she had suggested studying instead of doing something unproductive and time-wasting, such as visiting the Crown arcade.
"Sailor Mercury. That's a tentacle monster," the pig-tailed blonde said slowly, as if explaining things to a child.
"So? It's perfectly harmless. A weird fairy trained it," Ami dismissed their concerns. "There's nothing to be concerned about."
"Mercury, I'm beginning to worry about you," Luna said, shaking her head.
"So what did you do with the monster?" Sailor Mars tried to steer the topic back on safer paths.
"Oh, I sent it over to the guys' side."
"There's a guy's side?" Sailor Jupiter perked up and reached toward the crystal ball, her eyes gleaming. "Ow!" The brunette pulled her hand back, shooting a sour look at the cat sitting protectively in front of the scrying device, one paw raised and her claws extended.
"No peeking!" Luna ordered, frowning at the green-eyed girl as well as her cat face allowed her to.
"No fun," the green-skirted sailor senshi complained, and pointed her thumb at the orb."She can do it whenever she wants to!"
Ami froze like a deer in the headlight. "What? No, I can't- I mean I could, but I wouldn't!" she sputtered, turning as red as her eyes.
Sailor Moon brought her face so close to the crystal ball that her nose almost touched its curved surface. "Oh? Not even when Jadeite is in there?" She asked with a stage whisper.
"Oh, look, she's blushing even harder," Sailor Mars said, "I think you struck a nerve!"
"You didn't, Mercury!" Luna shouted, sounding scandalised.
"Guuuyyys," Ami whined, looking down and covering her cheeks with her hands to hide their colour, "please stop teasing me!"
"Sorry, Mercury," her friends laughed. At least they didn't ask any more uncomfortable questions, or point out that she hadn't actually denied the accusation. Nevertheless, Ami felt that changing locations might be in her best interest.
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