About an hour after Ami's fog had dissipated, Boris and Jered returned to the road, covered in bee stings and shallow scratches all over. In addition, it looked as if an entire thistle had gotten stuck in Boris' wild black mane. The mud-soaked trousers of both men made sad sloshing noises as the hapless adventurers shuffled forward with tired steps. Ami giggled at the sight, bringing her left hand up to her mouth. Snyder joined in with a snicker. The red-haired acolyte had woken up a while ago, but was still weak from the blood loss, so he was resting on the ground, with his back leaning against a tree. Cathy's features remained impassive, but her blue eyes gleamed with mirth. The swordswoman was tired herself, and her long blonde tresses clung against her sweaty cheeks and forehead. Re-capturing the two horses that had run scared during the altercation with the goblins had been hard work.
The two men had opposite reactions to spotting their elusive ex-captive waiting with the rest of the team as if nothing was wrong. Jered stopped where he was, one hand going to the dagger-filled bandoleer on his chest. He hesitated in mid motion and let the limb drop back to his side when he spotted Snyder. Ami noticed that the wavy-haired man's brown eyes betrayed some relief at seeing the acolyte awake and healthier. That went some way to soothe the anger she was feeling at his actions. Oh, she could understand why he had chosen to do what he did, but that didn't mean she liked it. Boris, however...
The bear-like man seemed re-invigorated by the sight of her, if the way he was bearing down on her, axe held high over his head, was any indication. Ami would have none of it.
"Shabon Spray Freezing!"
The barbarian's warbling war cry was suddenly cut off and replaced by a gasp of surprise. A coruscant blue blast of water magic struck the ground in front of the charging warrior, and a wave of Arctic cold spread out from the impact point, covering the sparse grass and fallen leaves with a blanket of slippery ice. Boris' right foot stomped down on the slick surface and failed to find purchase. The giant of a man landed with a crash that caused a spider web of cracks to spread through the ice. Carried by his own momentum, Boris continued skidding forward until he reached the edge of the frozen patch and rolled to a graceless stop. Ami used the opportunity to encase his axe in an ice block, effectively freezing it to the ground, and glowered down at the man. Cathy and Snyder both looked troubled by her use of offensive magic, but mollified by the fact that she had acted in self-defence and gone out of her way to avoid harming their travelling companion.
Jered was ready to tear his hair in annoyance. How was he ever going to restore some measure of order like this? "Everyone, stop fighting!", he shouted, advancing toward the two combatants. Fortunately, the witch looked willing to comply - she really didn't behave like he would have expected from a dark sorceress. Still, she was getting support from a Keeper, of all things. If she was supposed to be some kind of infiltrator, then this direct interference had already defeated the point, unless this whole situation had been staged to throw off suspicion. It was a plan he himself might have come up with. Sometimes, Jered wished he was a more trusting kind of person who could take things at face value. Life had to be less headache-inducing when one didn't see schemes everywhere. Shorter though.
Well, even if the girl was an infiltrator, her role would demand that she didn't cause any trouble right now. Honestly, he was surprised she hadn't run off in the confusion. This left Boris as the most immediate problem. The big oaf had grabbed the handle of his huge double-bladed axe, that being the only part of it not stuck within the ice, and was pulling with all his might. Despite his face was going red from the exertion, the weapon wasn't budging. Good, this lowered the urgency of that problem. Jered spared some attention for his allies. Cathy was backing away from him, frowning and pinching her nose shut. He couldn't fault her, that last mud hole had been vile. Snyder was looking at him with a half-lidded stare that he couldn't quite place. Was that resentment? Things were really getting better and better. "All right, everyone calm down and..."
It had taken over half an hour of intense debate, but finally the group had come to a compromise that everyone could live with, even if they weren't necessarily happy about it. Ami had returned to wearing the warding amulet. It was a symbolic gesture, as she had adamantly refused to be chained up again, and could remove it with some effort if she really wanted to. In turn, Boris had grudgingly assented to let the proper authorities decide her fate, grumbling all the while about this huge concession. Naturally, it didn't end there. Letting Ami ride behind him was completely out of the question, and likewise, Ami herself wouldn't feel safe if the violent oaf was out of her line of sight.
Thus, the two of them ended up riding on opposite sides of the road, with Ami sitting behind Cathy on her horse. Snyder would have still been too weak to prevent the blue-haired girl from falling off the mount if she had been riding with him. In fact, he had some trouble staying in the saddle by himself, which was why he was riding sandwiched between Cathy and Jered. This left Boris all alone on his side of the road, as he objected to be anywhere near the 'accursed Keeper-loving witch'. This arrangement suited the other party members just fine, as the shaggy man, unlike Jered, had not taken Ami up on her offer to provide the necessary water for a bath. The brown-haired man sneezed just then. Okay, maybe the bath water had been a just a tiny bit on the cold side, Ami reflected unrepentantly. Still, that had to be better than smelling like an entire pigsty.
The lost senshi wondered, not for the first time, if sticking with this group was really her best option. She reminded herself that, while she might have had more liberty exploring on her own, she would also proceed more slowly, as she didn't know how to ride. Besides, disappearing now would prove Boris right about not trusting her. Not to mention the fact that the adventurers were travelling in a direction that Ami would have chosen on her own. With heroes from all over the land gathering in the capital, the place was her best bet for finding someone who could help her get home. However, there was also the issue of her trial looming like a dark gallows-shaped shadow in the not-so-far future. She hoped that she could convince the judges that she was no threat, and that her travelling companions would vouch for her character. Except for the brute, of course. There was little chance of getting him to do anything that aided her. He hadn't even let her heal his wounds, despite the fact that Snyder was in no shape to do it instead. The black-bearded barbarian had decided that it was better to just tough it out than to accept her help.
In addition, Ami liked having humans for company, despite some of them being a bit annoying, even if she didn't count Boris. Snyder, for example, was exceedingly grateful for her saving his life. Unfortunately, this manifested in him trying to do something nice for her by getting her to renounce her 'evil ways' and embrace 'The Light', which seemed to be one of the central tenants of his religion. She had politely informed him that she wasn't worshipping any dark powers, but alas, that hadn't put a stop to his conversion attempts. Technically, Ami was Shinto, but didn't practise it much. Not that the acolyte had ever heard of it, and she doubted that even if he had, he would have given up.
For that reason, Ami was somewhat relieved when Jered decided to strike up a conversation with her. She should have known better.
"Don't you think you owe us something of an explanation?" the wavy-haired man asked, leaning back to talk past the hunched-over Snyder. "For starters, what exactly are you? You look human, except for your hair colour, but you have shown some abilities that are clearly not."
He must be talking about her senshi powers, Ami realised. She could answer that easily enough. "That's just some magical augmentation to my normal physical abilities. I'm completely human." "Oh, and where did you get these augmentations? That Keeper who is aiding you, maybe?" Jered continued on this line of inquiry, his facial expression unreadable.
"What's up with that Keeper, anyway?" Cathy interrupted unexpectedly.
These questions were a bit harder to answer. Somehow, Ami didn't think that "I got my powers from a talking cat." sounded believable, even if it was the unvarnished truth. Instead, she partly evaded "I was given these powers to hunt monsters and already had them before I got here. There was no Keeper business involved."
"Well, that doesn't explain why one is helping you," the blonde insisted, "and none of the explanations that I'm coming up with are very reassuring. So spill it. What's this Keeper's name?"
"Um..." this was bad. She had been acting on the wrong premise earlier, believing that the group already knew that she was a Keeper, and she didn't have a prepared explanation for this. She was sure that revealing herself was not a bright idea, though. None of the other party members ever mentioned the word 'Keeper' with anything but venom and loathing in their voice. Hanging her head and avoiding looking into anyone's eyes, she replied "I can't answer that question, but I can assure you that that Keeper means no harm to anyone in this land, except maybe Keeper Arachne, and only wants is to see me safe."
"That's it? You can't tell us? Why not?" Cathy erupted. Ami could feel the woman's muscles tensing in anger.
Sighing, the blue-haired girl said. "It would be bad. Please believe me. I really can't go into more details, but you have nothing to fear from me or the Keeper. All I want is to find a way home."
Tense silence followed her statement, and Ami couldn't help but feel that she had lost some of the trust she had built. Only Boris chuckled into his beard. "The trial will be interesting, don't you think?"
This sombre mood set the tone for the remainder of the journey. The party spent a night camping out, rather than stopping at the overcrowded inn, as Ami's red-glowing eyes would have led to more trouble than the added comfort would have been worth. The white-robed senshi was excluded from the guard rotation, for obvious reasons. Despite this, she placed one of her imps somewhere well outside of the campfire's light radius in order to keep an eye on things. She didn't trust Boris to not have another go at her while she was asleep. Jered and Cathy were sharing one sleeping bag, which caused the blue-haired girl to blush, but at least she could use the spare.
The group continued its journey as soon as dawn broke. As the landscape slowly changed from wilderness to farmland, the party met more and more travellers along the way, all moving away from the capital. Ami saw carts and wagons loaded with household items and furniture, accompanied by many women and children. They reminded her of pictures of fugitives she had seen on TV. A few short conversations confirmed that guess. Apparently, Keeper Arachne was gathering her forces underneath the city, trying to pre-empt the Baron's strike against her, and the people were fleeing the impending confrontation. In their anger and fear, many of them sent hostile glares at Ami, whose glowing eyes were making her stand out. It got so bad that Jered ordered her to take the warding amulet off so that the group wouldn't have to deal with a lynch mob.
Finally, close to sundown, Ami got her first glimpse of the capital of Blisshire. It looked much like the medieval cities of her textbooks, Sprawled out between a hill on its west side and a river on its east. A high stone wall surrounded the entire settlement, and the highest point of the area was dominated by the looming crenelations of a keep. "That's the capital?" Ami asked, a hint of disbelief swinging in her voice. It looked so tiny, compared to Tokyo. "You don't get cities that big in the Underworld, do you, witch?" Boris crowed.
Ignoring the two, Snyder had halted his horse. His brown eyes had widened, and were scanning the slope of the city's hill, darting left and right. Slack-jawed, he stammered out "Where is the Abbey?"
"Hrm?" Boris asked intelligently.
"The Abbey. It should be right there on the hill. Big, square building with a central clock tower and a wall around it. But it is gone! I need to know what happened!" the young acolyte explained, spurring on his horse. The others hurried to match his pace.
The moon was rising when the group arrived at one of the city gates. Ami spotted two guards with helbards, much more impressive in their gleaming plate with violet vest than the milita that had arrested her. These men here had the look of professional soldiers, and took their job seriously.
"Hold! Who goes there?" one of them shouted, suspicion tingeing his voice.
"Adventurers looking to join the fight against Keeper Arachne," Jered answered, directing his horse to the point of the group. "We also need to see the Baron about delivering a prisoner," he raised his thumb at Ami, who tried to hide herself behind Cathy. The ward was back on, and her eyes were glowing nearly as intensely as the torches. They clashed rather spectacularly with her acolyte robes. The guards gave her a calculating look.
"It's good to get some reinforcements. You'll find the Baron at the Fish Market. Stay away from the Keep. In fact, don't go anywhere into the good parts of town if you want to avoid a pointless and agonizing death." the guard waved them through.
Snyder stopped halfway through the arching gate. "Excuse me, but could you tell me what happened to the Abbey?"
"Keeper Arachne," here the guard spat on the ground, "is what happened. Bastard hollowed out the underground below. One moment, the building was there, and the next there was only a big hole with dust rising from it." His face turned sorrowful as he added "We lost many volunteers who had been lodged there. Most of the priests too, I'm afraid."
The young man with a bowl cut wobbled in the saddle, as if he had been hit. "I see, I see," he nodded weakly. "Thank you for the information."
Ami searched for something comforting to say, but couldn't think of anything that wouldn't sound trite. Cathy and Jered were busy discussing the situation in hushed voices. "...already lost the Abbey..." "...still think this is a good plan..."
This left her some time to admire the buildings passing by. The architecture seemed familiar, reminding her of German whitewashed frame houses. Most of the dwellings only had a ground and an upper floor. If there was an underlying plan for the city's growth, the builders had happily ignored it. Streets met at odd angles and varied unpredictably in width. Between the houses were narrow little alleys that looked like black alcoves in the fading twilight. The torch that Cathy was carrying did little to improve visibility. What shocked Ami most was the smell. Compared to a modern city, the place was filthy. It had the aroma of a dunghill at best, often spiced up with a sickening smell of decay of indeterminate origin. From time to time, the stink of old fish drifted down the street, indicating that they were moving in the right direction.
Suddenly, there was a bend in the road, and the rows of houses parted to form a wide plaza near the river. At the moment, it was drenched in orange torchlight and resembled a stirred up anthill. Soldiers were running everywhere, carrying wood and ropes, while others were de-constructing stalls or standing around in groups and talking. Nobody took much notice of the new arrivals at first, until someone spotted Ami's eyes, at which point swords were drawn.
"What's this? You! Get off the horses! Who are you, and why are you here?"
Jered and the others complied without hesitation. "Prisoner transport for Baron Leopold. I have a letter from the Mayor of Goodvillage here, and- "
"All right, take it up with him. Up there on the podium, you can't miss him."
The crowd parted, opening a passage to the centre of the plaza. Ami huddled against Cathy, feeling uncomfortable with all the hostile stares in her direction. Then, she got her first glance at the Baron. He was striding around on an elevated wooden platform in the centre of the market, pointing this way and that way. A large purple plume on his helmet whipped up and down in unison with his truly enormous grey moustache. The crowds seemed to avoid the area around the red-faced man, and as she walked closer, she got an indication why.
"...idiots! Move that plank over there, we need more palisades! Where's the away team? I want those goddamn spiders gone yesterday! And someone find the bloody wizards and ask them if they still don't know where this thrice-cursed Keeper's dungeon heart is." As the baron talked, he turned around his own axis, his extended index finger moving like the pointer of a clock as it fixated on whoever the noble was talking to at the moment. Soon enough, the digit came to rest on the approaching group. "You there! The acolytes over to the docks with the wounded, the fighters to Lieutenant Marcus over there!" He moved on, not even pausing to see if his orders were obeyed.
"Ahem. I'm afraid that won't be possible." Jered held up his hands as he interrupted the flow of commands.
The Baron's head whipped back, huge eyebrows furrowing as his steel-grey eyes focused on the green-shirted man. "Explain!"
"Well, the girl here," Jered grabbed Ami's right shoulder and pulled her forward so that the baron could get a better look at her, "is, despite her outfit, a prisoner whom we were tasked to bring here for judgement." He held out the letter from the mayor, which the baron snatched out of his hand, ripped open, and skimmed over.
"Dark witch, huh?" Leopold muttered, "and you want me to figure out what to do with her. I don't have time for this!" he crumbled up the letter and tossed it over his shoulder, barely missing the large pauldrons that held up his cape. "Did she commit any crimes?"
Ami shook her head, while Boris gleefully barked "The witch is working with a Keeper, who even sent some imps to assist her!"
An angry mutter went through the crowd at the loud proclamation, and the empty space around the party suddenly felt much smaller.
"Keeper, huh? Spying for Arachne?" Leopold asked, upper lip quivering with fury.
"No! I haven't done anything wrong!" Ami defended herself hurriedly. The baron looked less than convinced.
Cathy sighed, and sent a glare at Boris. "Actually, we think she's some Keeper's runaway kid," the blonde explained, figuring that this was less damning than any other possible association with a Keeper.
Ami's eyes widened in surprise. So that was what they thought about her! Unfortunately, she didn't have time to fully explore the implications of that, as the baron was addressing her directly.
"Keeper's kid, huh? Whatever. Can you do anything useful, girl?"
Ami nodded, then elaborated "I know some ice and healing spells."
"And are you willing to fight against Arachne?"
"Yes!" she replied simply. Ami was a sailor senshi, and defending people from evil was her duty. She would have done so even if she hadn't been asked.
Leopold seemed satisfied. "Good enough. Put her on some front line team. Case closed."
Boris gaped, along with some of the advisers. "But, your Lordship! You can't just-"
"Stop wasting my time!" the irascible noble turned away, cape swishing. "What are you still waiting for? Back to work!"
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