"Next, I'd like to show you the dungeon heart," Ami said into the crystal ball floating in her telekinetic grip, "but since that might be giving away its location, I'll instead show you one of the fakes I made to confuse invaders." Now that she was off the iceberg, she had so much room that it would have been stupid to not copy Malleus' idea. The teenager grimaced inwardly as she was reminded of the desert Keeper and the stomach-turning, and now thankfully dulled, memories that she had burdened herself with.
She appeared on the elevated stone platform on which the fake dungeon heart rested, her slender figure looking small next to the crystal sphere. Even though it was a fake, its rumbling heartbeat dominated the atmosphere in the small chamber, making the walls vibrate from the intensity of the sound. Each pulse of white light stretched out Ami's shadow grotesquely and cast it onto the steel-reinforced surfaces of the room.
Sailor Mars blinked. "So the source of your powers looks just like that?"
"It's pretty," Sailor Moon said, sounding surprised.
Made of crystal, encircled with bands of gold, and topped with a huge, cut gem, the orb supported by the bent backs of three gilded troll statues exuded a certain air of refinement and majesty. Ami had to agree that the crystal hearts disguised their abominable nature much better than the fleshy, pulsating organic hearts. Resting on an elevated dais and framed by four sturdy pillars, the crystal version was clearly designed to impress.
Ami waited for the pause between two thunderous heartbeats and explained "I assume it is meant to symbolise the Keeper's power and glory. Many Keepers hire new recruits by bringing them to the dungeon heart, rather than meeting them personally."
"But you don't?" Sailor Jupiter asked.
"That would defeat the point of making fakes," the blue-haired girl replied with a smile. "Besides, I'm cramming as many traps as I can into the passages leading to these things."
Sailor Moon's face turned curious and she frowned in concentration. Ami had come to associate the expression with the blonde shifting around the viewpoint of her crystal ball. "I don't see any traps," she admitted after a while.
"I'm glad. It means they are good traps," Ami said. "Here, I'll show you one." She raised her black-gloved right hand and snapped her fingers.
With a deafening clang, a section of the ceiling that looked no different from the rest slammed down, sealing off the only passage out of the chamber.
Ami's face turned serious. "And now, any invader attacking the heart would be trapped in here, unless they could teleport or get through thick steel walls enchanted to resist melting. And I can make life very unpleasant for anyone trapped in here."
"Can you give an example?" Luna asked.
Ami nodded, and the room lit as if an aquamarine sun had risen inside. Its metal walls reflected and amplified the light from the spells the blue-haired girl had retrieved from storage and suspended in the air. She stumbled, startled by the sudden brightness, and rubbed her eyes. "Maybe that was overdoing it a little," she said, hiding her mouth behind her hand. The light disappeared and her red-glowing eyes reopened. "As you can see, I can cast spells into this place from wherever I am, or bring other objects here. It is not a good place for my enemies to be trapped in."
The girls nodded uneasily at that, probably wondering how they could get out of a situation like that if the Dark Kingdom had similar defences.
"After what happened before, I'm taking my security seriously," Ami continued. "Still, my advisers tell me that I need to start relying more on my troops than on traps alone, especially now that my territory is expanding."
"Good advice. You should not try to do everything yourself," Luna agreed. "That will only wear you out. If you have people you can trust, then you should let them help you."
"I'm curious to see what kinds of creatures are working for you," Sailor Mars said. "Are most of them as," the raven-haired girl searched for a non-insulting word for a moment, "exotic as that tentacle beast?"
"The majority isn't," Ami said. "Venna - the woman you saw earlier in the baths, was a dark elf, for example. They have good night vision and are very accurate with their crossbows. Come along, I'll show you some of the others."
Ami took the scenic through the more public sections of her dungeon, a spring in her step as she walked instead of teleporting. With high ceilings and straight corridors meeting at right angles, the architectural style of her dungeon wasn't the most elaborate around, but she was fairly sure it was unique in its colour scheme. She doubted that marble-like whites for the walls and light blue and white chequerboard-patterns for the floor were very popular among other Keepers. In regular intervals, square pillars topped with a horizontal bar reinforced the hallway, reminiscent of wooden supports in a mine.
"...and I made the tunnels so wide because some of the creatures can get quite large," the black-clad Keeper explained, spreading her arms to show that her fingertips could not touch either of the side walls. The generous dimensions of the passage combined with the vaulting ceiling to create an illusion of openness.
"What's the largest creature you have?" Sailor Moon asked with interest.
"Right now? A horned reaper. I used to have a small dragon for a while, but it didn't come back when I abandoned the desert dungeon and moved to the iceberg."
"D-dragon? I'd be running in fright from half of the things working for you," the pig-tailed blonde admitted. "How did you get used to it?"
"I haven't really," Ami confessed. "It helps that I know they can't harm me, but some of them..." she trailed off, suppressing a shiver. The cold, dead eyes of her vampires flashed through her mind.
"Um, Mercury," Sailor Mars said, sounding curious, "why did you add those murals?"
Ah yes, the bas-reliefs of stylised demonic creatures of either gender, often showing them with intertwined limbs. "I don't get a choice about those," Ami said, faintly embarrassed by the designs. Some of the engravings were rather risqué, but fortunately, they didn't cross the border into the obscene. She was rather glad about that, since some of them were supposed to represent her own exploits. "When the imps fortify walls, they include them, and I can't persuade them otherwise."
"Make them clean them away," Jupiter suggested pragmatically.
"I tried that," Ami said as she walked past a picture of a short-haired, slender female crossing scythes with a huge horned demon. While too simplistic to make out facial features or details of the body, it just had to refer to her duel in Azzathra's arena. As if she wanted to be reminded about that. "The fortification magic breaks if I do," she sighed. "Sometimes, I think it's the dungeon heart making me pay for preferring well-lit, orderly rooms."
"I think it looks- huh? Was that a rat?" Luna was suddenly in front of the crystal ball, her tail twitching excitedly. An instant later, she backed off and sat down, trying to look dignified.
Ami giggled, covering her mouth. "That's all right, Luna, they are pets of a sort." She raised her right hand, open palm facing upwards, and flexed her mind.
An instant later, a grey-skinned rodent appeared on her hand, standing on its hind legs as it sniffed in the direction of the crimson-eyed girl's face.
"See the little belt and the square block on its back? It's one of my workers." She gently stroked the rat's head with one finger before sending it back to its cage. "It probably escaped from the beastmaster. I don't use the rats much now that I have the imps, but I wouldn't have been able to make any progress without them. And the beastmaster is a goblin," she answered the unasked question she was sure would have followed. "You'll see some soon."
Ahead, voices groaning from exertion and metallic thuds spilled from a half-open doorway. Ami's friends were spared the smell of sweaty goblin that permeated the air, growing thicker the closer she got to the door of the training hall.
As soon as she stepped into the room, rows of green humanoids wielding scythes and wearing loincloths stopped what they were doing and turned to face her. Letting themselves get distracted wasn't the wisest course of action, since one of the exercises included dodging heavy punching bags swinging back and forth on a rope suspended from the ceiling.
Ami winced when two goblins went rolling across the floor following two meaty thuds. One landed in front of her, looking up cross-eyed. From her crystal ball, she could hear Sailor Jupiter snicker.
"Please continue what you are doing," Ami said before her arrival could cause more of a mess.
"You heard her, back to work!" a loud, female voice shouted from behind Ami. With a few deft steps, Cathy loomed before her. "Hello. Are you here to catch up on your training sessions? You already missed two with all the excitement of the last days!"
Ami shrank back, disconcerted by the mischievous gleam in the eyes of the undisputed mistress of the training room.
Whenever the blonde, who towered one and a half heads over Ami, had that particular look in her eyes, the next training exercise promised to get rather uncomfortable for the target.
I'm almost glad I no longer have a dragon. Thinking quickly, Ami grabbed her crystal ball and thrust it into the swordswoman's face. "Cathy, these are my friends Sailor Moon, Sailor Mars, Sailor Jupiter, and Luna. Everyone, this is Cathy, the commander of my forces and chief trainer of the troops. She has been with me almost from the beginning, and I wouldn't be here today without her."
The ploy worked, and the blonde inspected the glowing orb curiously instead of plotting a merciless assault on Ami's muscles. "Hello there. How are you?"
The girls in Tokyo returned the swordswoman's look with just as much curiosity, partially due to the sailor senshi uniform she was wearing.
"Thank you for keeping Sailor Mercury safe," Luna was the first to speak.
Cathy boggled, her jaw dropping. "Talking cat!"
"I'm a moon cat, not a regular cat," Luna pointed out. "I'm sure Mercury has at least mentioned me?"
The swordswoman nodded slowly. "Oh yes, how stupid of me to forget. That's truly enough to make a cat unexpectedly speaking to you for the first time completely unsurprising. "
"Miss Cathy? Why are you wearing Sailor Mercury's regular uniform?" Sailor Mars asked, tearing her gaze away from the sight of dozens of goblins striking at wooden practice dummies.
While the tall blonde's uniform had seen better days and was decidedly non-standard due to the leggings and armoured greaves that Cathy wore underneath the short skirt, it still looked more than Sailor Mercury's uniform than the black variant that Ami was wearing.
"Mainly because it's something people think I'd never wear, so nobody will connect me with my untransformed identity. Working directly underneath a Keeper doesn't look good on a resume," she answered with a grin.
"I didn't know we could transfer our powers to other people?" Sailor Jupiter asked, looking at Luna.
"You can't," the black feline answered. "That's something unique to Sailor Mercury's situation." Shaking her head, the cat muttered "I'd never have expected one of you girls possessing someone else to become an issue."
"Yes," Ami agreed. "It's not really a transfer of powers, either, it's more like Cathy borrowing some of my abilities. I'm still maintaining and fuelling all the powers she uses myself."
"Those enchantments are really great," Cathy commented, "the enhanced speed, strength, and toughness are incredibly useful for warriors. It's too bad that she has so little training, but I'm remedying that slowly but certainly."
"Hmm." Luna's ears twitched, moving to point at the blonde. "Would you be willing to tutor the girls here too? While they fight mostly at long range, I'd feel better if they knew how to defend themselves if an enemy got close, too."
Cathy stared intently into the scrying device, giving each of the three senshi the once over. She scratched the scar running down her right cheek as she pondered her options. "Well, I'm not sure how effective actual combat training can be from a distance, but I'm willing to try. Dodging exercises at least can be easily arranged," she glanced over at the goblins collecting bruises as they tried to make their way through an obstacle course full of swinging bags. "No need to be gentle about it either, these enchantments protect from a lot of damage. Yes. Endurance training should work out fine too. A long run every day. Or even better, combine the two. Run while dodging! Of course, some strength training to get muscles on those scrawny-"
Sailor Moon let out a whimper. "Mercury!" she interrupted in a pleading voice, "weren't you in a hurry to show us the rest of the rest of the dungeon?"
The blue-haired girl stood no chance against the watery puppy-dog eyes her friend was unashamedly bringing to bear on her. "Well, I suppose that's true."
Cathy's face lit up as she turned to Ami. "Oh, right, we haven't re-scheduled your own training sessions either-"
"No time right now! Need to show my friends the rest of the place," Ami blurted out, and her slightly panicked face vanished behind a swirl of snowflakes.
"And this is my favourite room!" Ami announced cheerfully, after having shown the others the kitchen, her farms, and part of the iceberg.
"I should have known," Sailor Moon groaned when she caught sight of the well-stocked bookshelves that reached up to the ceiling, separating the room into different sections.
Luna and Sailor Mars nodded mutely, completely unsurprised, while Sailor Jupiter tilted her head to the side.
"Ah, my Empress!" the short-bearded warlock Torian arrived from around a corner and headed straight for Ami, a winning smile on his face. He bowed deeply, holding his arm across his chest in a gesture obviously copied from Jadeite. "What brings us the pleasu-"
"EMPRESS?" four voices from the crystal ball shouted, cutting him off rather effectively.
"You are calling yourself an Empress now?" Luna asked, her voice slightly reproachful. She narrowed her eyes at the blue-haired girl. "Are you sure you aren't getting into all of this a little too much?"
Interrupted in his spiel, the ignored purple-wearing mage shifted mental gears when he saw the slight flush on his young liege's face. He sneered at the floating crystal ball as he took a step closer and leaned over it. "And who are you to question Her Imperial Majesty Sailor Mercury of the Avatar Islands?"
"Torian, back off. These are my team mates." Ami was not going to let him act snobbishly toward her friends.
"Of course. No offence intended," the warlock back-pedalled. "I should have noticed immediately from your attire. A regrettable oversight." The gold medallion dangling from his neck jingled as he bowed quickly in the orb's direction, though shallower than to Ami before. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Torian, Imperial chief research-"
He was interrupted again, this time by a spray of colourful sparks shooting across the room from behind one of the shelves and raining down on one of the work benches cluttered with scrolls and open tomes. A robed man with a grey, scorched beard ran past, juggling a forearm-long wand in his hands as if it was a hot potato. "The box! The warded box! Where did you put it, you bastards?" he screamed before disappearing behind another bookshelf.
By now, the wide eyed girls noticed that the other warlocks in the room were cowering behind furniture, their starched collars poking out from behind tables and stacks of tomes like shark fins from the sea.
The runner's high-pitched shouts cut off abruptly when a blast of rainbow sparkles came from the direction he had disappeared into, accompanied by a whooshing noise. Some of the other wizards in the room smirked and snickered.
"What happened? Is he all right?" Sailor Moon asked, wide-eyed.
"He's alive and uninjured," Ami confirmed, her link to the dungeon heart informing her of his status the moment she focused on it. From the corner of her eyes, she noted Torian walk off to have a look at the results of the disaster, taking care not to step into one of the sizzling, colourful marks on the carpet.
"Does that kind of thing happen often around here?" Sailor Mars asked when the lighting in the room returned to boring whites and yellows produced by lamps resting on corkscrewing brass pedestals.
"Exasperatingly so," Ami confirmed, letting the thin, wobbly shield that had appeared around her fade away. "This isn't just a library, it's also where my warlocks conduct research." She underlined her words by gesturing toward one of the shelves stuffed not with books, but with glass retorts, tiny crucibles, and similar lab equipment. "Though they aren't supposed to try out new spells in here."
Torian returned with a white-bellied red frog sitting on his palm. Strangely enough, the amphibian was wearing a small warlock's robe and a scorched wizard's hat. "I'm afraid old Stavers here managed to turn himself into a frog."
The animal let out a mournful croak.
Ami heard several sharp intakes of breath from the crystal ball. "It will wear off on its own in a few minutes," she said after watching the victim of the magical accident through her visor. She touched her right earring with her index finger, dispelling the device. "Actually, please figure out if you can reproduce that effect as some potion or pill, please."
"As you desire, my Empress." Torian acknowledged, bowing once again.
"Excuse me? What do you need a potion to turn people into frogs for, Mercury?" Jupiter asked, sounding justifiably suspicious.
"I recently fought an enemy Keeper who had a spell to bring all of my employees to a battlefield of his choice. I analysed the magic and found out that it only works on creatures above a certain size," Ami explained. "If everyone carried a potion like that and used it at the right time, then the spell would be essentially harmless."
"Brilliant as usual, my Empress! Your genius is truly beyond compare," Torian congratulated with a wide grin that bared his gleaming white teeth.
"How did this happen in the first place?" Ami wanted to know, pointing at the frog and ignoring the flattery.
"Oh, we are all very enthusiastic about working with the dragon materials you have so cunningly secured for us, your Majesty. Our motivation when working with the materials you have so generously provided is so high that some shared tools can get misplaced in our zeal to perform beyond your expectations!"
"He's laying it on a bit thick, isn't he?" Sailor Mars commented.
Torian's smile became strained. "Your Majesty, would you mind controlling your team mates? They are clad similarly to you, but lack the marks of arcane accomplishments. Certainly, you are the leader of the group?"
Ami shook her head. "No, actually. I act purely in a support and analysis role."
Torian looked incredulous. "If I may ask, why is that so?"
"Because I'm the weakest senshi of them," Mercury said simply. Behind her, she heard someone drop a book. Oh, great, everyone was eavesdropping now.
Torian looked as if he had bit into a lemon, and let his eyes wander back to the glowing orb. None of the girls in it looked too happy with him. A thin film of sweat formed on his brow.
"In fact, none of my powers were able to even harm the enemies we were fighting," Ami continued, feeling slightly mischievous.
"I- I see." Torian's fingers developed a nervous twitch. "By your leave, I shall return to my experiments. It would not do to leave them unsupervised for too long."
The blue-haired girl magnanimously inclined her head, and the paling warlock fled at the fastest pace his dignity would allow.
"That was evil, Mercury," Sailor Mars snickered. "Amusing, though. You don't like him much?"
"He's competent enough," Ami said, "but his persistent, heavy-handed attempts to curry favour get tiresome after a while. This is the fastest I have ever been able to get rid of him," she said, joining the giggles.
"Let's get back to this 'Empress' thing," Luna declared. "What possessed you to name yourself that? I hope the power isn't getting to your head!"
Ami looked hurt and wrung her hands. She glanced around, aware that she was still the centre of attention. "Not here. Follow me."
When Ami reappeared, it was underneath a rock outcropping that shielded her from the torrential downpour falling from the thick, dark clouds in the sky above. Out here in her own territory, far away from prying eyes, she could talk freely and explain the situation better at the same time. "It wasn't my idea to declare myself empress," she began, "I got the title bestowed on me by the Light gods when I defeated their champion. I know that sounds bad, but I was only defending myself at the time!"
"So why would they make you empress for something like that?" Sailor Jupiter asked.
"Well, I let him - the Avatar, that is - go, of course," Ami explained. "The Light gods gave me the title so that the Keepers and Underworld denizens would think that I ransomed him back for this rise in status. Otherwise, they would have come after me for being a traitor. I don't really think of myself as an empress," she finished.
"So the title is real." Luna sounded stunned. "I'm not sure what to think about that."
"I think it's amazing!" Sailor Moon cheered. "Our Mercury is real royalty now!" She paused, and her eyes went wide."Hey, if Sailor Mercury is a real empress now, can we substitute her if we don't find the Moon Princess?"
"Don't be silly, meatball head!" Sailor Mars said.
"Absolutely not!" Luna shouted at the same time, glaring at the pigtailed blond. "This isn't just about a title! The Moon Princess is the only one who can defeat the Dark Kingdom, I'm sure of it," she stated, voice brimming with conviction. "Ahem." Her ears drooped a bit. "If I could only remember why."
As Moon and Mars started bickering, Sailor Jupiter looked around the blackened landscape, where rain turned to steam on jagged rocks. "So... the Light gods thought an empress needed land, too, so they gave you a nice, rainy piece of hell to rule?"
Ami scratched the back of her head. "Hell? I know this place looks pretty bad, but what gave you that idea?"
Wide-eyed, the brunette pointed a shaky finger at something that was approaching rapidly. "Well, to me that looks exactly like the devil chasing the souls of the damned around some fiery lakes!"
"Huh?" Jupiter's outburst was enough to catch the attention of the others.
Ami turned in the indicated direction, and immediately spotted what the green-skirted girl was referring to. "Oh, that's just my horned reaper clearing the area of ghosts. Well, he is a demon," she admitted, "but this continent is not hell. It would almost be better if it was," she said with a heavy sigh as she returned her attention to the crystal ball. "This used to be a normal, living continent full of life and people and cities before the Keepers came, murdered everything, and poisoned the land."
Everything was silent for a while, aside from the constant patter of the raindrops on rock. Ami slowly unclenched her fists and raised her head. "But I hope I'll at least be able to restore the land, eventually. Since the corruption of the dungeon hearts is magical in nature, I think the toxins in the ground will fade into nothingness once I stop the corruption from sustaining them. I doubt very much that the Keepers paid gold to make it real."
"If anyone can find a way to do it, it's you," Sailor Moon encouraged her friend. "With your farms- Mercury, watch out!" she finished, her voice shrill.
Startled, Ami looked at the orb instead of heeding the warning. She saw movement reflected in its curving glass, but before she could react, something huge and menacing was behind her. Muscular arms that felt as if they were made of steel wrapped around her with crushing force, pinning her arms to her sides.
"Eeep!" Ami screamed in surprise as she felt herself lifted off the ground and twirled around in a circle, her legs almost horizontal from the centrifugal force. An instant later, her assailant let go, and she dropped back onto the ground, her knees wobbly. Eyes round and hair standing on end, Ami whirled around just in time to watch Rabixtrel jump off the cliff and resume his chase.
"What was that all about?" Sailor Mars demanded to know.
Gulping back in the air that had been driven from her lungs by the bone-crushing hug, Ami shrugged her shoulders and blinked in confusion. "He's - happy, I think?"
"Ohh, he's hot!" Sailor Jupiter exclaimed as she caught her first glimpse of Jadeite through the crystal ball. "I can see why you fell for him."
"Jupiter! Did you just use the crystal ball to spy on Jadeite in his bedroom?" Ami asked as a rather hostile feeling toward the tall brunette welled up in her. The blue-haired senshi was sitting at the desk in her own bedroom, eyes flaring bright crimson as she stared at the scrying device.
"Well, you did tell us we couldn't talk to him because he was sleeping, and I was curious," the green-skirted girl said, not very apologetic at all.
"Please respect his privacy!" Ami managed to say through clenched teeth.
"Yes, give that thing back," Sailor Mars agreed with her blue-haired friend and took the orb away from the taller senshi with a quick grab. "Besides, he's a dark general!"
"So? All of them so far have been gorgeous," the pony-tailed girl pointed out, undeterred.
"It's too bad they are all evil," Sailor Moon agreed wistfully.
"Sailor Moon, don't be greedy! Or are you giving up on Tuxedo Mask, then?" the red-skirted senshi reprimanded her friend.
"No way! He's mine!"
As the girls playfully argued with each other, Luna seized the orb. "Sailor Mercury, I'm still unhappy about you working with a dark general, but what's done is done. Are you sure you can trust Jadeite to do only what you want him to?"
"Yes!" she exclaimed immediately. She really wished she was as certain as she had sounded, but since she was a very honest girl, she continued "I - well, he ignored one of my instructions when the Avatar invaded. But it was only to protect me!" she excused his actions quickly as she detected the disapproval on the moon cat's face. Truth be told, she hadn't be thrilled by him using excessively lethal force against the champion of Light, but had let it pass since nothing bad had happened in the end, and because it had been for her benefit. Nevertheless, a tiny sliver of worry remained in the back of her mind.
"Sailor Mercury," Luna sighed, shaking her head slowly. "Still, I trust you to know what you are doing. Just be careful, okay?"
"I will," Ami said seriously.
"I also want to question him thoroughly when he wakes up," the moon cat continued. "He may have useful information you haven't thought to ask him about yet."
"I'll arrange that," Ami agreed. "Luna," she began after a pause, not looking at the crystal ball. Instead, she was letting her gaze wander over her bedroom, modelled to resemble her apartment so much that homesickness threatened to overwhelm her. "I want to talk to my mother!"
The other senshi fell silent, now listening in attentively. Luna sat down. "I can understand that," the cat said. "It's only natural. What exactly do you want to tell her, though?"
Ami looked up, meeting Luna's gaze head on. "That I am alive and well," she stated simply. "I'm not going to make her worry even more about me by mentioning the problems with my soul or the danger surrounding me, but I will tell her that I'm learning magic to find a way home."
"Are you sure you want to reveal even that much?" Luna cautioned. "That's a big decision. If she knows you can do some magic, she might also deduce more on her own..."
"After all the anguish my disappearance has caused her, she deserves to know at least that," the blue-haired girl said with steel in her voice. "I don't think I'll be able to keep myself from revealing my abilities to her when I get home anyway," Ami confessed. "With the healing magic I learned, I couldn't just stand by idly if I could help so many people instead. This is too important not to share, and I will need her help!"
"We'll support that decision," Sailor Moon promised.
Sailor Mars nodded, for once in perfect agreement with her blonde friend.
Sailor Jupiter smiled too, but it was a sadder smile than that of her companions. "It's good to have a trusting relationship with your parents while you still can."
"Very well then. We'll work out a time we can visit her and let you know," Luna said without further protests.
Ami clapped her hands together in happiness, the red light in her eyes dimming to a bluish shade of violet. "Thank you! Thank you so much!"
Until the Tokyo senshi had to split up and go home, the conversation turned to lighter topics. Ami learned about the newest gossip and entertained her friends with anecdotes from her time here. The goblins and their antics featured prominently in her more amusing tales.
Warlocks and even a vampire prostrated themselves on the cold, smooth floor tiles in front of the warped stone skull in Ami's temple to Metallia. They murmured prayers directed at the large, warped stone skull in the wall whose gemlike eyes shimmered with a violet glow. The Keeper's unannounced arrival by teleport disturbed the wafting swathes of fog and incense just as effectively as her words destroyed the atmosphere of quiet meditation. "All right, everyone, out! The temple is off limits to everyone while I'm using it, is that understood?"
The robed worshippers jumped to their feet, hurrying past the delicate, mushroom-like pillars encircling the structure's central basin in their haste to evacuate the area. Ami would never use anyone as a sacrifice, but they didn't know that, and were therefore disinclined to stick around. The young Keeper waited until she could no longer hear their retreating footsteps. Strangely enough, the echoes of their muttered prayers could still be heard from above the hypnotic waters in the central pool.
Ami suppressed a shiver and summoned Snyder, taking care to transport the acolyte onto a spot just outside the borders of the dark temple. She greeted him with a polite smile. "I'm really grateful that you are willing to help me with this."
"It makes sense to get as much information as possible on the dark goddess Metallia," the redhead said. "Know your enemy."
On his arms rested the folded-up mantle of the Avatar, held with such reverence that Ami almost felt bad about her imp experiments. Almost. Her instincts insisted that she should toss the object into the most remote volcano she could find, or at least get away from it. It was hard to feel chagrined about not treating something like that with the respect it was due. I hope I won't feel the same way about Usagi's moon tiara when I get home. "That's true. Still, don't take any risks. Step away the moment you suspect that something is wrong."
"I will have the very best possible protection for this," Snyder reassured her as he slowly unfolded the mantle and draped it over his shoulders. The short, portly man had to stand on tiptoes so the silver-runed seams didn't trail in the dust.
"I'm just glad I have you to negotiate for me with the Light gods," Ami said. "I could have asked Jared or Cathy, but you are trained for the job."
The acolyte smoothed his bowl cut with his fingers. "Indeed. Though in this particular case, not much convincing was necessary. The Gods are just as eager to learn more about the capabilities of a potential enemy than you are. It is not every day that They get uncontested access to a dark god's temple to perform Their investigations."
"Understood. Please proceed as soon as you are ready."
Snyder nodded and took a step forward, setting foot onto the dark, polished tiles of the temple proper. Taking a deep breath, he stepped toward the basin and sat down in front of it, just close enough that he could touch the not-water with the tip of a long wooden staff he held in both hands. He closed his eyes and breathed slowly, and Ami watched in fascination as a white glow appeared around his finger and crept down the wood, causing it to sprout new leaves. An instant later, the pure light travelling down reached the partially submerged part, and a soft ripple pulsed over the oily-shimmering surface of the liquid.
Ami tensed, ready to act if the temple reacted in any unforeseen way to the probe. She hoped that the Light gods, acting through the mantle, could get at least a glimpse of the Dark Kingdom's supreme ruler. She needed more information! I have to know if my plan even has a chance at success before I can commit to it!
Despite Ami's fears that Metallia could somehow detect or react to the probe, nothing happened. After a minute or two, Snyder let go of the staff, which was quickly swallowed by the pool. With a few deft steps, the acolyte was back on safe ground. Ami backed away when he approached, which caused him to hesitate and look confused. A glance down reminded him of the reason. "Oh, of course. The mantle." He removed the garment and handed it to a waiting imp.
Ami transported both of them back to the living room. Discussing ways to oppose Metallia near her own temple would be unwise, even if she was comatose. The blue-haired girl's intensely red gaze remained on Snyder. She barely managed to restrain her curiosity until he had taken a seat. "Well? Does the Light think that adamantine will be effective against her?"
The acolyte nodded once. "Limited by the need for secrecy and by acting outside of Their domain, They had some difficulty gauging precisely how much power the dark goddess would have at her disposal if she was restored to a fully functional state. Even under optimal conditions, judging the might of a dark god is an inaccurate art, and in this case, there was additional interference."
"Interference?" Ami leaned forward in her chair.
"Despite appearances, she has not sunken back into quiescence," the acolyte pointed out involuntarily lowering his voice.
Ami gripped the armrests of her chair so hard the wood creaked underneath her grip. Her lips tightened into a straight, pale line. "She is awake?"
The white-and-red robed acolyte raised his hands in a placating gesture. "While aware, she remains too damaged to take the initiative. As the Light put it, she is currently fully occupied by doing the metaphysical equivalent of regurgitating a shard of the Mighty Tyrant that is incompatible with her essence. Its own emanations obstructed observation of the primary target to some degree," the redhead explained.
"Wait, she ate Azzathra?" the blue-haired teenager gasped, her heart beating faster. Couldn't have happened to someone more deserving!
Snyder shook his head. "No, Azzathra is alive and well, unfortunately. My initial reaction was identical to yours, and I asked the very same question. As the Light explained, it is not uncommon for battling dark gods to shape tiny slivers of their own power into disruptive weapons that they thrust into their opponents. Costly, but effective."
Disappointed, Ami filed the potentially useful information away for later. "So they fought, and that's why she went quiet. Azzathra almost did me a favour there. Hmm. But let's get back to the adamantine. Can I count on it working against her?"
"At the Light's educated guess, a restored Metallia could draw upon at least as much power as any four members of the dark pantheon put together." His rounded cheeks lost some colour at the thought. "Which is, apparently, well within the limits of what adamantine can deal with."
"Good!" Ami felt the muscles around her shoulders relax in relief, not only because now she knew she had a (small) fighting chance, but also because that meant that it was unlikely that another dark god could destroy Metallia and claim the young Keeper's soul as spoils of the battle. Still, the thought of having to face something like that... Even the presence of Azzathra alone had felt like an infinite ocean of focused malevolence bearing down on her. Ami suppressed a whimper has she wrapped her arms around herself. How much worse would Metallia be if she was so much stronger than the dark god of brute force, bullying and tyranny?
But, if that wonder metal still works... "Snyder, how do the Light gods compare to Metallia?"
"They did not mention," the redhead said, shrugging. "Considering that They are at constant war with the dark gods, of which there are more than four, I severely doubt that They are overly concerned about Their Own safety."
"I see." Ami wondered briefly what her and her friends' chances against the Dark Kingdom would have been if she hadn't been sent here, and didn't like the answer she came up with. She was starting to see why Jadeite thought opposing the Dark Kingdom's ruler was hopeless. Turning her attention to more practical purposes, she asked "How thick would an adamantine shield need to be to protect against her attacks? Or to prevent her from coming in through the temple, in case she wakes up and I need to keep her out?"
"I do not know, but I could ask, if you wish."
"Yes, please do so." Ami raised her hand as a courtesy to Snyder, warning him that she was about to transport him.
An instant later, he was gone from the room and relocated to the Avatar's mantle waiting in one of the treasure chambers.
Now I only need adamantine.
So far, the only item made of the material that Jered had been able to locate was a small dagger, offered by one of his sources at an exorbitant price. Ami wished the stuff was worth its weight in gold, given its low density. The price the seller asked was closer to its volume in diamonds. Nevertheless, she already knew she would authorise the expense. She really needed to get her hands on a sample.
Her plan to get her soul back was taking on a more concise shape in her mind. First, though, she would finish transcribing her information on dungeon hearts and feed it to the mantle. With new energy, she went to work copying the information on her computer's screen onto regular paper.
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