Deep within Ami's dungeon, inside a steel vault that darkened and brightened with each pulse of the dungeon heart, she stood on the artefact's dais and stared wide-eyed up at the glowing sphere.
It dimmed, and the echoing rumble of a heartbeat drowned out the soft whimper that escaped from her lips.
When the orb's returning glow washed over her pale face, she was creasing her brow in deep worry and dread at the sight of greyish, veined patches marring the smooth surface of her life-support equipment.
The heartbeat of the dungeon heart picked up in response to her own, and she fought to retain her calm as she analysed what she was seeing. The fungus-like rot penetrated the clear crystal with root-like tendrils, but didn't go any deeper than the width of a fingernail. On the positive side, the dungeon heart was fighting the contamination, slowly pushing infected material out to the surface, where it flaked off. This was the same mechanism it used to mitigate other damage, Ami pondered. It filled up the gashes and abrasions with material from elsewhere, shrinking in the process.
Her gaze moved downward to the layer of greyish-black dust that formed a disc underneath the orb and coated the three golden troll statues that carried the huge crystal on their backs. With her boot, she scratched a thin line into the dirt to evaluate its thickness. How long had this been going on, and how fast was her dungeon heart shrinking? With shaking fingers, she opened the Mercury computer and began calculating the time the dungeon heart could survive under these conditions.
The number she saw reassured her somewhat. She had forty-three days to figure out a way to prevent the artefact's destruction. That wasn't a lot of time, considering the complexity of the problem and the distracting side effects it caused, but -
The numbers on her screen changed to red as her sensors noticed a discrepancy between the projected volume of the sphere and its observed dimensions. With a sinking feeling in her stomach, Ami watched the remaining time correct itself downwards as the device accounted for a constantly increasing decay rate. She gulped as the countdown finally stabilised on two days, three hours, and fifteen seconds. Only two more days until the dungeon heart would collapse and suck her into the realm of the dark gods.
Ami felt the sudden urge to curl up into a shivering ball. Azzathra had been bad enough, and he had merely been mildly irritated with her. Crowned Death hated her like none other. She now understood completely why Midori was confident that she would accept his deal. From his point of view, she had the choice between giving up her title and between death and eternal torture. Unfortunately, nothing came immediately to mind that would prove him wrong. With weak knees, she got up from the floor – she hadn't even realised that she had sat down. She had no time for despair if she wanted to find a solution. First order of business: check how her two other dungeon hearts were doing.
A flash of blue light later, and Ami felt as if she had teleported into a freezer. The air within the hall housing her Arctic dungeon heart felt frigid, but the condition of the artefact itself was identical to that in her home base. At a quick glance, none of the storage rooms seemed to have taken significant damage yet, though she would have to throw out the frozen food. She wasn't confident about the state of the traps, which had a lot more complex parts that could go bad. Unfortunately, she couldn't afford the time it would take to check and fix everything.
With a wave of her arm, three imps wearing blue coveralls formed before her. “Keep things from falling apart down here,” she instructed the workers, who immediately darted off in separate directions. A quick teleport transported her to the experimental dungeon on the central eastern part of the Avatar Islands.
When her feet touched down on the cobblestone-like floor, she winced. Her Keeper sight had prepared her for the droplets of blood that dripped down from the red-glowing orb of her dungeon heart, but it hadn't warned her about the smell. The sickly-sweet stench of carrion assaulted her nose and made her bile rise. Ignoring the discomfort, Ami stepped closer to the four inclined pillars that rose from the ground around the artefact and merged into a pyramid above it. She didn't let the fact that they seemed to have partly turned into skeletal snakes deter her.
Her gaze rose to the ceiling. The short, pointy stalactites over her head were somewhat more worrisome, especially since she was sure they hadn't been there when she arrived. She watched them for a few seconds, but they didn't budge. Nevertheless, she moved a few steps to the side and kept throwing nervous glances around herself as she started to take readings.
The dungeon heart beat in a steady rhythm while Ami waited for the results, dribbling more blood-coloured liquid down on the corpse-like statues that held it aloft. While the substance looked more dramatic than the mouldy patches affecting her other dungeon hearts, she thought there was less of it total. A moment later, her computer confirmed that initial impression. According to the data, this type of dungeon heart would last four times longer than the others. She shouldn't have been surprised, given that she had designed it for increased ability to manipulate how corruption effects manifested. Good news, but this would have helped her a lot more if she was able to safely shut down the other two dungeon hearts, she thought, biting her lips. As it stood, once the first of them crumbled... she had to find a solution, fast!
In the flickering torchlight, the bookshelves lining the walls of the meeting chamber seemed higher than normal, their tops melding with the darkness underneath the ceiling. Shadows hid the eyes of the people assembled around the round table.
“Mercury? What's up? Did you turn into a dark elf when we weren't looking?” Jered joked, but didn't manage to coax a smile from the unnaturally pale girl.
“Stupid emergencies interrupting my bath,” Cathy sighed while towelling off her hair, dislodging a few glittering droplets that rained down on bare skin. One of them turned into a wisp of steam when it touched her metal brassiere and encountered a fading tendril of flame left from summoning the reaper outfit.
To the swordswoman's left, Tiger let herself drop into the free seat, only to freeze when a chair leg groaned and started wobbling under her weight.
Snyder caught Jadeite's attention by brushing his elbow against the other man's arm. He met the dark general's eyes and jerked his head to the right, indicating Ami's clenched fists resting on the polished wood. When the dark general raised a questioning eyebrow, the acolyte grabbed one of his own hands with the other and gave an encouraging nod.
A warm touch pressing gently down on her left hand startled Ami from her frantic thoughts. She glanced over and spotted a white-gloved hand resting on her own. Her gaze met Jadeite's steel-blue eyes and noted the ghost of an uncertain smile around his lips. Her spirit lifted by the gesture, she unclenched her fists with a conscious effort and leaned against the leather-cushioned back of her chair. “The situation... it's really bad,” she began. “Crowned Death is attacking me from the realm of the dark gods, by turning the dungeon's corruption against it,” she summarised. “That's the cause of the recent accidents and health problems.”
Cathy frowned and brushed with her fingertips over her cheek where her rash had been earlier.
“And it's going to get worse, fast,” Ami elaborated. “The hostile corruption builds up over time if we don't find a way to stop it!” She gulped, her mouth dry. “Also, my dungeon hearts can't take the damage and will crumble in a few days if we can't find a solution,” she added in a small voice and hung her head. “Ideas?”
“How much time do we have?” Cathy asked, her eyes narrowed.
“About two days,” Ami stated, drawing a soft gasp from her audience. Jadeite's grip on her hand tightened for a moment. “I think I can buy some more time with the limited control the dungeon hearts have over the corruption, by perhaps a day or two.”
“So,” Tiger hit the table with the flat of her palm, “we have only four days to find a way to kick Crowned Death's arse and stop him from doing this?”
“Better plan for three,” Ami corrected her, shuddering as she remembered the previous time she had challenged the dark god and been helpless before his power. She slowly shook her head. “Most of my magic doesn't even work in his realm, and I have no way to attack him from this one.”
“Not even by sending something back through the dungeon heart?” Cathy suggested. “You got rid of his Incarnation that way.”
“Or flush something nasty down in a dark temple,” Tiger suggested. “He thinks he's getting a sacrifice, but instead he gets blown up!”
“I'm not able to aim anything like that. At all.” Ami objected. “I don't even have a way to observe the other side.” Besides, anything strong enough to affect the death god was likely to obliterate whatever she was using to send it before it got through.
“Well, that's lame,” Tiger commented. She crossed her arms and pouted. “All right, the satisfying option is not possible. What else can we do?”
“Midori claimed that he had allies in the realm of the dark gods who could put a stop to this,” Jered said and looked at Ami. “Could we hire dark angels?”
A memory of three black-winged beings diving into the basin of Clairmonte's crumbling dark temple flashed through the teenager's mind. Agents who could operate on the other side would be useful, even in case they couldn't do more than collect information about the enemy for her. ”Torian!”
In the space before the wall screen used for presentations, a short-haired warlock. Transported in mid-step, he swayed for a moment as he recovered his balance. His eyebrows shot upwards as he spotted the people assembled around the table, and he bowed in the young empress' direction. “Your Majesty? You called for me?”
“Torian! How would one go about recruiting dark angels?” Ami got straight to the point.
“Dark angels?” Torian smiled and steepled his fingers. “That is not particularly difficult, since they are quite mercenary. Offer them sufficient sacrifices at an appropriately large temple and they will appear. With the number of townsfolk in your care, even the upkeep in souls will not-”
“Thank you,” Ami interrupted him, closing her eyes in disgust. “That is all.”
“If I may ask-”
“Later.” Ami sent the magician back to the laboratory she had snatched him from.
“No dark angels,” Snyder said. It wasn't a question.
“No dark angels,” Ami confirmed. That price was not one she was willing to pay.
“Unless we managed to abduct and brainwash one, perhaps,” Tiger quipped.
“I don't think we'll have the time,” Cathy said, folding up her towel. “Not to mention everything else that's wrong with that plan.” She looked the tiger-striped woman sitting to her left up and down. “Say, are you youma demonic enough to work the same way?”
“Do I look like a native of the dark god's realm who has taken on a physical shape to you?” Tiger asked back.
“Yes. No. Maybe?” The blonde rubbed the back of her head. “You've got horns.”
“So do cows!” Tiger crossed her arms.
“Youma are denizens of the physical realm,” Jadeite cleared up the issue. He let go of Ami's hand and looked her straight in the eyes. “Queen Metallia could help you. The best way to fight a god is with another god.”
“I- I can't do that,” Ami said. “If I woke her, I'd be betraying everyone and dooming both worlds.”
“It's not a question of whether the Great Ruler will wake up, but of when,” Jadeite insisted. ”Having her favour is the only way to protect yourself and your allies when that happens.”
Why did he have to make the abhorrent option sound so reasonable? After challenging Crowned Death with the undead control spell, Ami knew exactly just how outmatched she was against a dark god. In a direct confrontation, she didn't stand a chance, not even with the aid of the other senshi. And Metallia was supposed to be even stronger than the death god.
Would it really be so wrong if she saved herself, and in the process those she cared about too, rather than nobody at all? The faces of her friends and her mother appeared in her mind's eye, looking at her in disappointment. Ami's fingernails dug into her palms, and she felt ashamed for her thoughts. She couldn't do that. It was her duty as a sailor senshi to protect everyone! Metallia's awakening might be inevitable, but she wouldn't speed up the process! Even if she was terrified of what was going to happen to her. “There has to be a better way,” she broke her silence, startling herself with how weak her voice sounded.
Cathy shifted slightly in her seat and breathed out, and the muscles around Jered's mouth relaxed.
Before Jadeite could say anything else, Snyder interrupted “You can ask the Light for help. That has to be a better option than bringing more dark gods into this.”
“And end up sealed away,” the dark general commented, frowning at the redhead.
When compared to eternal torture, imprisonment didn't sound as bad as it should to Ami any more. “I'll have to talk to the Avatar.” Perhaps in the meantime, the Light gods had been able to glean something that could help her from her notes? Feeling a bit of hope, she faced Jered.
The green-clad man stood up. “I'll try to contact him. This is all out of my area of expertise anyway.”
“Thank you. Now-”
With a splintering noise, the doorknob came off under Jered's grip. “Argh. This is getting annoying.”
Ami was about to open the door for him, but it swung open moments after he fiddled with its lock.
He paused briefly in the doorway. “I'll let you know as soon as I have managed to get the Avatar on the crystal ball in person.”
As his footsteps faded away, Ami stared at the almost blank sheet listing possible solutions before her. “What about Midori's offer? I never wanted to be an empress in the first place...”
“You would look terribly weak, for one thing,” Tiger said immediately.
“Besides, can you trust him to keep up his side of the deal?” Cathy asked.
“Perhaps the terms of the transfer of titles could be set in such a way that it is only valid once certain conditions have been met. We might need a lawyer.” Jadeite sounded faintly amused by the notion.
“Ah, actually, I think this course of action might have some significant drawbacks,” Snyder spoke up. “You see, I have been wondering why exactly Midori would want a valid noble title. Granting him ruler-ship of some wasteland here on the Avatar Islands does not sound very useful, at first glance.”
Ami had been wondering about that herself. She couldn't lawfully grant titles anywhere else, so what was the point? “Go on,” she encouraged the acolyte.
“So, in order to satisfy my curiosity, I discussed the issue with Abbot Durval,” Snyder continued. “He isn't entirely certain, since he is no expert on the topic, but he theorises that the fallen princess serving Midori might technically have a claim to the elven throne. If she accepted him as her sovereign while he already had a legitimate title, then their realm would be part of his – and you know how a dungeon heart reacts in that case.”
By grabbing all the area it could get. Ami covered her mouth as she realised what would happen. “The elves wouldn't stand a chance against him!”
”Jered, please find out exactly what exactly princess Julia's position is in the line of elven succession once you are done with your current task,” Ami mentally requested of the brown-haired man.
”Sure,” his mildly distorted voice responded in her thoughts.
“So I can't accept Midori's help either.” Ami hung her head.
“Unless you wipe him off the map once you have what you want!” Tiger underlined her suggestion with a swiping gesture that sent the blank notes in front of her flying.
“Or simply kidnap the princess,” Jadeite elaborated on the idea.
Surprised, Ami blurted out the first thing that came to her mind. “That's rather dishonest.”
“Eh, I'm sure Midori deserves it,” Cathy said, shrugging her shoulders. “I'm more concerned about making yet another enemy when we are already in a precarious position, militarily speaking. With the current state of the power grid,” she pointed at the torches illuminating the place, “the reaperbot controls are rather unreliable.”
Ami nodded. The corruption wasn't only threatening her life directly. With the near-endless amount of complications it could cause, the dungeon was no longer a safe place. Her responsibility for the health and safety of the thousands of civilians within the underground complex weighted heavily on her mind. “Our food supply is compromised too,” Ami noted. “The farms depend on a steady power supply.”
“Just wonderful.” The swordswoman put her elbows on the table and rested her head on her hands. “Any other good news I should know about? Please tell me the dungeon is still structurally sound.”
Ami pulled an update on the state of her tunnels from the dungeon heart. “Err, aside from a minor ceiling collapse in one of the less frequented outer corridors, nothing-”
Cathy groaned and punched the innocent table. “Great, so we also have to worry about the place caving in on us!”
Ami could understand the blonde's frustration with the situation very well. “Most of the dungeon won't do that for a while yet,” she hurriedly reassured her.
“Most,” Cathy repeated, glaring at the ceiling as if she expected it to rain down on her any moment now.
“In any case, those are problems we can address,” Ami said, straightening. She took a moment to meet the eyes of everyone around the table. “Here is what we are going to do about this...”
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