It was lunchtime, and the group had moved off the road and onto a tiny hill where the bedrock poked through the grass, forming several more-or-less flat schist slabs. A crooked pine swayed in the wind, casting shadow over the impromptu picnic site. The horses were grazing a bit further down the hill, tied to one of the larger boulders.
Ami chewed on a piece of bread. It was a bit dry, but since this was her first piece of food in a long time, it tasted heavenly to her. All too soon, the delicious morsel was swallowed, and she turned to the right, where the red-headed acolyte was sitting next to her. As the group had unanimously decided (she hadn't been asked) to not untie her, the task of feeding her had fallen to him. It was all quite awkward in her opinion. He held out another piece of bred, hand somewhat shaky.
"I don't bite, you know." Ami stated, with a friendly smile. It came across as rather more hungry than she intended, and Snyder didn't look particularly reassured.
"Well, she looks lucid enough now," Cathy commented to the brown-haired man sitting cross-legged next to her, and shifted to use his shoulder as a backrest."I tell you, she's up to no good," Boris, the black-haired, black-bearded bear of a man growled with his mouth full, glowering at the girl in question from his spot across the tablecloth. "We shouldn't be wasting our provisions on her!"
Ami shot him a nasty glare, then resumed devouring the offered food at a pace that made the priest-in-training who was feeding her fear for his fingers.
"Don't mind him, he used to live on Avatar Island as a child," the blonde Cathy stated, as if that would explain everything. "He hates everything associated with dark magic."
"Avatar Island?" Ami paused for a moment in her feeding frenzy to give the other woman her undivided attention.
"Right, you say you aren't from around here. Avatar Island used to be one of the most peaceful places in the world, ruled over by the paragon of light himself, the Avatar. After Keeper Mukrezar was done rampaging all over it, the land had become a soot-covered outpost of hell instead. Boris arrived here as a young orphan on one of the last ships that got out."
"Oh." Ami re-considered the hulking brute in light of this new information, a hint of pity slipping on her features. Noticing her gaze, the man bared his teeth at her in anger.
Quickly averting her eyes, Ami returned to her conversation with the blue-clad swordswoman. "This Keeper, did he attack other places too?"
Cathy smiled humourlessly "No, the bastard was an accomplished tactician, but sucked at long-term planning. Once he couldn't get any more resources by plundering adjacent territories, his empire went down in an orgy of violence cannibalism. Rumour has him ending up in a stewing pot Serves him right, if you ask me." Sombrely, she added "The land is still ruined and worthless, though, and nothing lives there." Narrowing her eyes at Ami, she continued "You had best keep in mind that everything Keepers touch comes to ruin. If you were seeking employment with one, forget about it!"
Ami nearly choked. "I wasn't planning on that!" she protested, entirely truthfully. "All I want is to find a way back home. I'm not evil!"
"Your awful red eyes say differently," Boris interjected.
"You do have quite the healthy appetite for a girl of your size, Mercury." Jered addressed the white-and-red robed senshi directly, cutting off his barbarian companion.
Gulping down the latest bit of half-chewed bread, Ami blushed slightly. "Sorry. I don't usually eat like this, I'm just really famished."
"Oh? And here I was thinking that it was because you need to replenish your mana supply. Those wards are syphoning of an awful lot of power," he pointed at the golden amulet around her neck. "Quite unusual for one so young to not have run out yet." A calculating gleam appeared in his brown eyes. "A sure sign of a remarkable amount of training. What is it you can do, aside from that little fog you demonstrated this morning?"
Ami hesitated. What could she tell them safely? "Well, you have already seen the fog. I also have a spell that conjures ice." With a sidewards glance at Snyder, she added "I also used to have a magical item that let me find out how most things work."
Jered looked at her for a long time, scratching his chin. "I cannot shake the feeling that you are leaving out quite a lot of things."
"Indeed, indeed. Elemental magic alone would not cause that much corruption," Snyder chimed in. He wagged a finger chidingly at Ami. "You had better confess, lying at the trial will just make things worse for you. The priests are very good at detecting falsehoods."
Ami pressed her lips together into a thin line as she considered her options. Telling them about being a Dungeon Keeper was right out. Boris would probably try to split her in half with that axe of his on principle. Better change the topic. "Err, about that trial. What kind of outcome can I expect from that?"
"Well, that would depend on your crimes. If you are indeed as innocent as you pretend to be, and considering your age, you would almost certainly be placed with guardians charged to make you abandon your dark ways. Maybe an apprenticeship with an experienced wizard, or a within an abbey," the acolyte explained. "Provided that they think you are trustworthy, which they might not, if you continue being so secretive. Maybe you will want to give a more extensive list of your abilities?"
Ami hung her head. In a hushed voice, she stuttered "I- I might know the one or other Necromantic spell."
As expected, Boris' face became a mask of disgust. Cathy narrowed her eyes slightly, and Jered seemed unsurprised.
"Necromancy? Whatever did you learn that for? That is really dark stuff, not to mention somewhat useless in most situations." Snyder seemed more upset by the choice of subject, than the black magic itself. He shook his head disapprovingly. making his bowl cut whip around.
Telling them that a demon made her do it wasn't going to improve their opinion of her, Ami thought. "I was hurt, and the book had a healing spell, so I wanted to use it. After that I kind of just kept reading," she laughed nervously.
Jered raised an eyebrow. "You actually used it on yourself, as a rank amateur? You are lucky that you didn't end up with side effects that make your hair look normal."
"Eh?" another reason to be angry at the Reaper. On the other hand, he might not have known. He didn't strike her as the intellectual type, loathsome violent beast that he was.
Having finished lunch, the group was back on the road towards the capital. Ami was riding with Snyder now on the acolyte's spotted mare, as Cathy didn't want to strain her horse by making it carry two people for too long. Sitting so close in front of a boy, who had to put his arms around her in order to hold the reins, was a new and awkward experience for the girl. Usagi and Rei would probably have found it romantic, but she found the fact that she still had her wrists tied behind her back an inconvenience. She didn't want to accidentally touch something she shouldn't. So far, she had been blushing most of the time, especially when the movement of the mount shifted the riders around, and the red-haired man's hands brushed against her upper thigh. Not on purpose, she hoped. Were holy men in this world supposed to be chaste? For all his bluster, the acolyte seemed to be just as embarrassed by the situation as she was, fidgeting more than usual and being uncharacteristically quiet.
A bit ahead of the rest of the group, Jered and Cathy were having a private discussion.
"...you think she's on the level?" the long-haired swordswoman asked, keeping her voice down.
"Not a chance." Jered shook his head emphatically. "Unless she keeps her money in very strange places, she did not have any on her at the inn. Despite that, she clearly had enough to pay for the meal earlier. She clearly has some abilities she hasn't told us about. Still, there's something plain wrong about her. Just look." He discretely turned his head. The suspected witch was sitting on the horse, looking deceptively innocent in the borrowed acolyte robes, until one noticed her red eyes, which were darting to the left and right regularly, never focusing on anything in particular.
For her part, Ami was unaware of their scrutiny, as her mind's eye was currently in her dungeon, flitting over the pages of her newest acquisition. From time to time, an imp darted in to turn a page of the heavy tome. Reading this way was slightly nauseating, similar to riding in a car and reading in the same time, but it was also distracting her from the warm body her back was touching. Nothing in the dungeon required her immediate attention. One of her imps was scouting the beetle tunnels, attracting more of the insects as it went, but so far, it hadn't found anything interesting yet.
"I see what you mean," Cathy agreed with a nod. "Think she's a Keeper spy, after all?"
The wavy-haired man shook his head in the negative. "Not a Keeper spy, no. She's too peculiar-looking. A Keeper's runaway kid, though? Possibly."
His companion sat up straighter with a start, eyes widening, before looking at Ami from the corners of her eye "Are you serious?"
"That, or maybe some powerful warlock's daughter. Let's see," he held up his hand, extending a finger. "One. She is saturated with dark magic and looks weird, indicating that she may not be entirely human. Two. Someone has to have taught her magic, because freezing is an advanced spell. Three. With the way she acted around horses, she must have never been around them before. Four. She acts repulsed by little everyday inconveniences, such as manure on the road. Five. She wasn't carrying a single weapon, so she must come from a place where she was well-protected. Six," here his expression turned a little greedy, "she paid with an unknown gold coin, where a few coppers would have sufficed. And seven, all her clothes were conjured. Not many people can waste mana that thoughtlessly."
Cathy nodded, examining the information from all angles. "So you think she's some kind of sheltered princess from the Underworld, out on a bout of teenage rebellion?"
"More or less."
"I'd have expected someone like that to be brattier," the woman voiced the only immediately obvious problem she could find with the theory."
"Would you act bratty if you were tied up and alone with a group of four armed strangers? Wait, don't answer that," he added with a mock sigh as her lips parted in a grin.
"Should we mention your conclusions to the authorities, then?"
"Heavens no! Think what a valuable bargaining chip she could be if we handle this right!" he grinned and rubbed his hands together, "Besides, she seems to have access to daddy's stash, so..."
The blonde brushed long strains of hair out of her face so she could properly massage her temples. "You are incorrigible. What about Boris? He isn't going to like this," she pointed her thumb at the brooding giant trailing behind the party on his much stressed horse.
He waved away her concern. "He's hired help, just like the acolyte. He will simply have to set aside his personal feelings on the matter."
The countryside had turned to woodland, and the road had become narrow, winding between ancient trees that had been standing here long before its first cobbles had been set. Ami welcomed the shelter from the suffocating heat. The air felt as if there would be thunderstorms later in the day, but for now, specks of sunlight were dancing over the leaf covered ground whenever the wind picked up and shook the leafy canopy. While the red stole covering most of her upper body was causing her some discomfort with its warmth, she was glad to have it. With the way she was sweating, being covered with only with the white fabric of her robe would be more revealing than she was comfortable with. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Her arms were falling asleep.
A whistling sound shook her out of her thoughts, followed by a wet thud. Suddenly, she found herself flung through the air as the horse reared up, letting out a pained whinny, and then galloped off, an arrow sticking out of its right flank. With a thump, she landed on her back, more softly than expected. Underneath her, Snyder let out a groan and stirred weakly. Ami, rolled off him, feeling slightly guilty. Even if she didn't look it, she was still in her senshi form, and thus tougher than him. From all around came the noise of weapons being drawn. Jered was shouting commands, and from somewhere in the bushes, she heard a high-pitched, angry voice.
"Gamuk stupid! Not fire yet!"
A short, green creature with long, triangular ears nearly as big as its face, was emerging from the bushes, waving a dagger. The blue-haired girl struggled to get up from the mossy forest ground, slowed down by being unable to use her hands.
"Fucking goblins," Cathy swore as she slid off her mount, an arrow pinging off her breastplate." Archers in the trees!"
"On it!" Jered replied, loosening a dagger with a twirl of his wrist. A short humanoid figure with the weapon embedded in its chest screamed as it fell off its perch on an oak. More goblins were appearing from the bushes, but Ami had no time to pay attention to them. The first goblin was moving toward her, sensing easy prey. Behind her, the acolyte let out a whimper of pain, but didn't get up.
"RAHRRG!" Boris had gotten off his horse, a feat easily accomplished by stretching his legs and standing up, and was charging at the diminutive attackers, his double-headed axe held high. The three small arrows sticking out of his own leather armour didn't seem to slow him down.
Ami took a step backward as the goblin approached, its piecemeal armour dangling. It got a good look at her face and hesitated, seemingly taken aback by the red-glowing stare. Not one to let an opportunity like that pass, Ami took advantage of its distraction, and brought her foot around in a spinning kick. The child-sized creature was caught in the head and went tumbling, flipping over once as it skidded over the ground. Its horned helmet went flying, its unmoving owner in the dirt.
She sprinted back to Snyder's side. "I need some help here!" The acolyte was still writhing on the ground helplessly. Looking around, she saw that the others weren't doing so hot, either. Cathy was slowly moving in Ami's direction, her long sword flickering about in precise arcs as she parried blows from three attackers. The weapon's point was covered in red. Boris, for his part, was surrounded by a circle of the hunched-over creatures, who gave him a wide berth. Like a pack of hyenas, they capered around him, darting in for his legs whenever his back was turned, and retreating when he whirled around, axe moving in wide swings. She noticed two small, limp forms at his feet, but it was clear to her that the goblins would soon overwhelm him.
Ami spotted Jered making a rolling jump that carried him through the legs of his horse, who was stomping around and kicking up dust in fright. The manoeuvre bought him some time from the band of goblins that had been ganging up on him, and he looked around frantically, nearly giving himself whiplash as he searched for an escape route. A moment later, he took a decision and dashed in her direction, head held low. A goblin trying to get in his way found his route blocked by a thrown dagger whistling past. Ami hoped that the brown-haired man would remove her chains, but instead she felt herself pulled toward him roughly, and then used as a human shield.
"EVERYONE STOP!" Jered shouted, causing an interruption in the melee as the combatants turned to look at him. Incidentally, this also postponed the meeting between the blue-haired girl's heel and his crotch.
"GOBLINS! Harm this girl, and you will draw the direct and personal ire of a Keeper!" he shouted. Cathy gave him a look that could only mean THAT's your plan?
Ami's heart skipped a beat. They knew? But how? Should she flee? No, she couldn't just abandon them here to die. They weren't bad people, from what she had seen so far.
The green skinned attackers also froze, but for a different reason, interrupting their attack to take a closer look at the figure in white robes.
"You dumb! Girl dressed like priest!" one pointed out suspiciously.
Another whacked it on the helmet with a club. "Dolt! She's got them eyes!" A chorus of awed exclamations followed, interrupted by the smallest goblin. "She still look scrawny." "She kick Dub far," another chimed in another, pointing at the unconscious body lying with its face in the dirt a few metres away from Ami.
"She prisoner," the second goblin added. "Not with stupid ones!"
"What we do? What we do?" a few others yapped.
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|Chapter 11: Travelling Companions||Chapter 13: A Poor Plan|
- [Regarding Mercury appearing to worship the Moon] Unfortunately, the Moon cultist idea is unworkable, as Ami was plucked from a point in the series when the senshi were still completely unaware of the existence of a Moon Kingdom, much less of their allegiance to it.
Which, now that I think about it, makes it rather unlikely that Ami's computer has large databases full of ancient Moon Kingdom lore.