Ami's eyes widened in horror as she found herself at the end of the rope, with no sign of her dungeon heart anywhere in the surrounding darkness.
“Clever. For a mortal. I approve.” A flat, female voice came from every direction at once, its source invisible.
Startled, Ami flinched. Her right hand jerked upwards toward her necklace. Before she could grab the beads, something thin and pointy stabbed her in the back and emerged from underneath her collarbone before piercing her lower arm and arresting its motion.
“The sound of Crowned Death's disappointment fills me with glee,” the unknown voice continued as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. Despite the much louder roars of the death god worrisomely close by, its words were clear and understandable.
Too shocked to listen, Ami pawed with her left at the thin, crystalline spike that pinned her in place.
“A mere precaution. You would have tried to flee. It does not even hurt,” the owner of the voice said, perhaps noticing the girl's distraction.
That was true, Ami realised through her fear and confusion. There was no pain; there was only the awful, sickening feeling of something stuck in her flesh that didn't belong there. Nothing reassuring about that. She had been run through and captured by something that felt impaling her was a good conversation starter!
“I am the Unraveller of Mysteries,” the voice continued. “You have caught my interest, Keeper Mercury.”
The Unraveller, another dark god! Ami's heart would have raced in terror, but like the last time she had been banished to this realm, it was not beating. A detached part of her mind noted that this probably explained the lack of bleeding. With her Keeper sight, she followed the shaft of the spike back to its origin.
As if in reaction to her inquiry, bluish lines appeared in the glass-like material of the weapon. They ran parallel to each other, moving downwards until they reached the base of the spike, and then spread out in every direction. Soon, their glow expanded to cover a flat panel about the size of a parking lot.
The pattern of the lines reminded Ami of a picture of a microchip under a microscope that she had once seen. She had never heard of a microchip that fractured and folded itself into a three-dimensional arrangement of spirals, though. The more the dark god shifted into visibility, the more frightened she became. It was enormous! Winding crystal arches as tall as mountains loomed up around her, composed of meticulously arranged panels and pyramids. Farther away, lights flickered around jagged spires that jutted up from the horizon.
Ami's mind went over that last thought again. She had been trapped by an entity large enough to have a horizon. A close one, but still! She had to get away! Despite the risk of aggravating her wounds, she attempted to move, but a wave of weakness centred on the spike paralysed her limbs when she tried. “W-what do you want?” she asked meekly. Secretly, her thoughts raced, seeking for a way out.
“I want you to worship me. Also, I have questions. You will answer them.”
Ami gulped. “I'm flattered you'd go through all this effort to make me this offer, but...” she trailed off, unsure what she could say that wouldn't trigger an immediate torture session. And questions? Not good. She needed to leave! Perhaps her other gift from the Light could- no, stealth was pointless while she was pinned like a moth to the Unraveller's surface. How could she – of course! Her Keeper powers! She could squish a bead with them and teleport away! Without hesitation, she put pressure on one of the tiny spheres, feeling it give for a few millimetres before it turned hard as diamond.
“None of that,” the Unraveller chided. A glowing, hexagonal panel not much larger than the teenager rose from below and split up into six identical triangles, which started orbiting the girl. One of them continued splitting into smaller components, and a shard no larger than Ami's palm shot forward and past her neck.
Cut apart, her necklace drifted toward the centre of a formation of counter-rotating, glowing tiles.
The remaining shards darted towards Ami like a whirling swarm of scalpels. Almost soundlessly, they sliced through her clothing, closing in far enough that she could feel their tips brush over her skin. Despite her shivering, none of them drew blood. After a moment, they withdrew, carrying along everything Ami had been wearing on her person.
The glowing lines on the panels surrounding the necklace turned red. “Functional but flavourless. No souls. Suitable for its apparent purpose. Minimal usefulness or amusement value outside of it.” Soft blue light pulsed with each syllable the dark god spoke, and a few of the smaller polygons cut one of the beads apart with their edges. “Storage method using known principles.” The motion of the animated pieces of geometry stopped. “Uninteresting.”
Ami watched in despair as the amulet was tossed aside like a piece of thrash, becoming smaller and smaller as it tumbled away into the infinite darkness. She suppressed a whimper when the dark god extracted something else from the shreds of her clothing. The finger-long wand would be extremely hard to explain away.
“Weapon. Antithetical energies.” The little rod turned and spun under the dark god's scrutiny. “One shot. Storage capacity severely under-dimensioned. Unable to cause more than momentary, local discomfort. Useless. The implications of its presence are more intriguing.”
This time, the dark god didn't simply toss the object into the void. A pitch-black, cube-shaped box formed around the wand and shrunk away into nothingness, accompanied by crunching noises.
The dark entity's attention became palpable as it pressed down on Ami and caused tiny arcs of static electricity to dance between her hairs. “I wish to know how you coaxed the hated Light into providing you with toys.”
Ami remained silent. What could she say that wouldn't damn her more, anyway? She cringed when hundreds of golden needles as long as her forearm flew into her field of view. Rather than digging into her flesh to punish her for her silence, the needle-shapes instead chased the ribbons of cloth that had once been her clothing. To her great relief, the Unraveller's attention withdrew. The dark god didn't seem to be in any hurry to get answers.
Moving chaotically like a swarm of flies, the spines reconstructed Ami's outfit as if it was a large puzzle. The dark entity never once hesitated as she separated the bits into different piles, not even when she had to determine whether pieces of cloth belonged to a left or right sock. Just as fluidly, she put them into the right positions with the right orientations. When she was done, intact-looking articles of clothing floated in the space before Ami, the gaps separating their pieces barely visible.
The process would have been fascinating to watch under different circumstances, the terrified girl thought bitterly. Paralysed, naked, and uncomfortably aware of the spike piercing her flesh, she couldn't spare thoughts for anything other than escape. Lacking other ideas, she started surveying the environment. Crowned Death howled somewhere nearby and wasn't likely to improve the situation. She thought she felt the presence of something else farther back, but wasn't sure. Her attention moved on to the stair-like slabs of crystal forming a deep valley around her. Were there people frozen within the wider blue lines?
A random pulse of light raced across the transparent material. It crossed a section where the blue was tinted violet, and Ami caught a thankfully brief glimpse of the smaller shapes within. Her stomach lurched. Yes, people, in various states of disassembly. Despite her lifeless state, she started hyperventilating as she got an inkling of where the Unraveller's title came from.
The dark god completely ignored Ami's distress, and her needles took formation around the first sock. “Clothing. Made from unknown fibre.” One of the spines split apart at one end until it vaguely resembling a very narrow octopus with its six new arms. Its limbs came apart at the tips in the same way, and after several more steps of this, it was a bristly, tree-like structure. The Unraveller used the undulating instrument to pull threads from the cloth and tear them into finer fibres. “Not plant either. Not treated with magic.” By now, the thread looked like a ball of fine fluff. “Mineral or artificial?”
The motion of the microscopic tendrils reversed direction, and they spun the fibres back into a single thread, which they inserted back into the weave. “Properties somewhat akin to silk. Inferior to spider silk.” Moving almost too fast to see, the many-pronged tool caressed the sock, sewing the different pieces back together and leaving no trace that they had ever been separate. “No surprises.”
The bristly instrument melted back into a needle shape and rejoined the swarm, which moved to encircle the watch it had salvaged from a pocket of Ami's school uniform. With quick and mechanical efficiency, the instruments disassembled it and lined up its individual components next to each other.
“Time piece. Good craftsmanship.” The orbiting motions of the glowing shapes picked up speed. “Where are the springs? No magic detected either. Combustion or creature-powered? No. How can it work?”
The pieces blurred as the dark god reassembled them, observed the result for only an instant, and took the mechanism apart once again. This time, she built a construction of her own design from the pieces that didn't resemble the original watch in the slightest. It also failed to move at all. ”Not this.” Not deterred in the slightest, the dark entity tried anew. “Not this either. Oscillating crystals. Why?”
Ami relaxed as much as she dared when she realised that the Unraveller was talking to herself. She certainly wasn't complaining about the dark god ignoring her in favour of reassembling the pieces again and again in increasingly random-looking arrangements. But how could she get away? There had to be something she could do. Should she try triggering the potion? To what end? She'd never be able to get away far enough while it lasted with Keeper powers alone, even if she somehow got off this skewer.
Zarekos' temple had seen better days, but the general air of decay and ruin only served to make the atmosphere more oppressive. As if the circle of vampires praying to the dark empress and staring straight ahead with blank looks hadn't done a good job of that already. Camilla shivered. Intellectually, she knew that the bloodthirsty things wouldn't harm her. Their minds had been leashed by warlocks. Somehow, that didn't make her feel better.
How had she ended up back here, on a toxic continent, in the middle of a ritual to bring back a great evil? Oh, yeah. She was being coerced to participate by an absurdly powerful sorcerer. Seriously, how could he just turn that statue of Zarekos into one of Mercury with a wave of his hand? Okay, so he had only changed the head, but still... “Why would I want to bring that Keeper back? You can't make me help you!” she protested, flapping her wings harder than necessary.
“Nobody is forcing you, Ambassador. The ritual will work without your help, if not as well. Look!” He showed her a brilliant ball of light that rotated above his palm, tendrils snaking outwards. “Here in my hand, I hold the life force of the civilians in Mercury's dungeon.”
The fairy gasped.
“It is slowly being sent to the her so she can use her powers in the realm of the dark gods,” the curly-haired general continued with his explanation. “Now, the vampires inform me that someone who can attune to the tower could serve as a gateway for prayer, channelling it to its intended target much more efficiently. Sadly, we don't have anyone who can do that aside from you.” Jadeite met her gaze with his steel-blue eyes, his expression dead serious. “Now, I intend to continue with the ritual until the Empress is back or until the energy is used up. If you decided to help us, it would last much longer.”
Camilla blinked at him. He- he couldn't be serious? But... there was no hint of deception or regret in his expression. Reluctantly, she concluded that he would indeed do exactly what he had said. “But they will- you are a monster!” she spat heatedly, blood rushing to her face as she balled her fists in anger. She couldn't just abandon those people to their fate! “Fine! I'll help you! But I'm not ever going to forget this!”
Ami didn't know what to do. She had even tried praying to Metallia for help, to no avail. Before her, the components of her watch were still being rearranged over and over again, and she hoped that the mystery would keep the Unraveller distracted from her for a while longer. Being forgotten entirely was probably too much to hope for. Suddenly, she felt a gentle tug. It wasn't a physical sensation though, but more of an insistent feeling that urged her to move towards a particular direction. At the same time, she felt a weak trickle of energy flow into her body – only to be drained into the spike still burrowed into her flesh as fast as it arrived. Had Jadeite used the temple despite her wishes? In her current situation, she couldn't quite muster the will to feel anything but grateful about his insubordination.
The Unraveller briefly stopped the motion of her tools. “Backup plan. Loyal minions. Very thorough.” Pulses of light briefly moved in the direction of the death god's loud and angry presence. “Could even have worked on Crying Death over there. You will make an excellent servant.”
The dark god's filigree manipulators herded tiny bits of metal and floating drops of liquid into a single location. Moving like frantic spider legs, they welded the pieces back into the tiny battery they had once been.
In Ami's opinion, the process should have rendered the little device useless, but when it was placed into the Unraveller's newest mechanism, the cogwheels moved.
“Interaction of certain metals and copper to produce a continuous source of lightning, combined with oscillating crystals. A refined application of well-known principles. Ingenious.”
Ami felt the dark god's attention focus on her once more, making her skin tingle.
“Are you ready to answer my questions now?”
Ami kept her mouth shut in defiance.
“Suit yourself.” The Unraveller's tools started shifting back into simpler geometric shapes and circled Ami like a flock of vultures. “I do in fact prefer to extract answers not distorted by the inadequacies of language.”
“W-what?” Thick strands of blue hair drifted past her face as sharp-edged squares darted in and scraped over her scalp.
“Vivisection of the brain is a superior way to access memories,” the Unraveller stated.
Ami's eyes shot open wide as the blades withdrew and grew saw-like teeth. It was going to cut her skull apart! She was out of time!
“There is no reason to panic. I will put everything back together when I am done. Better, even. Make some adjustments and improvements here and there.”
“No!” Desperate, Ami did the only thing she could when a buzz-saw like star shape approached her forehead. She triggered the Light's invisibility potion and hoped that the Unraveller wouldn't try brain surgery on a subject she couldn't even see. The holy power surged through her body and toward her skin, and she almost fainted from the nauseating wave of revulsion she felt.
She didn't suffer alone. With a slurping jerk, the crystal spike shot backwards as the Unraveller flinched and let out a startled screech.
With wide eyes, Ami gritted her teeth and used her chance to collect every little scrap of life energy that was trickling in. She couldn't see her hands any longer, but with the flare of brilliant light escaping from her wounds and reflecting off the Unraveller's shiny facets everywhere, the stealth part wasn't working out so well.
The tools closest to her shied away from the glare, their smooth surfaces cracking as they were exposed to the brightness.
“Oh. No.” The Unraveller managed to convey resigned disbelief despite its emotionless voice. “You did not just do that.”
The enraged roars of Crowned Death had gone silent. “MIIIIIIIINE!” the death god roared, and his presence started moving. It swooped down from above like a vengeful black sun, wreathed in tongues of dark flame. A sinister pulse of something barely perceptible lashed out, speeding toward the Unraveller.
With the spike gone, it no longer suppressed the pain of Ami's injuries. They hurt, but were only a minor distraction compared to the dread she felt as her nemesis filled the sky. With much less power than she would have wished for, she teleported.
“My schedule. You ruined it,” the Unraveller complained. In the blink of an eye, huge blue-streaked triangles swirled outwards, unfolding into umbrella-like rings in front of her.
Ami reappeared, still close enough that she could see the crystalline entity in all of her ever-shifting, fractal glory. Before she could jump again, Crowned Death's attack slammed into the Unraveller's shield and exploded.
A tsunami-like wave of power picked Ami up and shook her around, tossing her head over heels. She gasped and pushed herself out of the path of a skyscraper-sized crystal shard that hurtled past her, spinning around its own axis. A cloud of smaller splinters followed in its wake, but only one got close enough to her that she had to dodge. For a brief instant, she saw a horrifying, flayed bag of semi-transparent flesh and pulsing organs in its surface. Wait, the traces of white light pouring out of it in familiar locations - it was her reflection! The invisibility was wearing off!
The Unraveller's voice crossed the gulf of space, sounding as close as if Ami was still within her clutches. “Do give me a call if you ever change your mind about serving me.”
In a fright, the teenager looked back over her shoulder. The dark god was still where she had last seen her, half-engulfed in Crowned Death's amoeba-like flames. Ami's answer was another frantic teleport in the direction she sensed her dungeon heart to be. If only she hadn't fallen so deeply into the dark realm!
“UNRAVELLER, YOUR TREACHERY HAS GONE TOO FAR!”
“Imbecile. What are you attacking me for? If you want her, she's right over there.”
Suddenly, the skin on Ami's back felt as if it was ablaze and decaying at the same time. She shook off the phantom sensations caused by the intense hatred focused into Crowned Death's gaze, and her eyes darted left and right as she searched for the exit. Where was her dungeon heart? Was that a tiny pinprick of light ahead?
“MERCURY! You will now pay- GRAH!”
“Oh. Was that something important?” The Unraveller sounded decidedly cheerful.”Please, do ignore me again. I don't mind.”
Ami felt the gaze of the death god flicker, as if he couldn't decide whom to pay attention to. Not waiting for him to sort out his priorities, she teleported once more. The power calling to her was closer now, and that was definitely her dungeon heart ahead!
Another shockwave from the clash of the deities behind her made her bob like a cork on the waves. Looking back to avoid the hail of debris, she spotted winged shapes rushing towards her against the backdrop of the explosions. With plenty of additional motivation to move faster, she darted ahead, greedily sucking in life energy as she did.
“DIE! YOU ARE GOING TO DIE FOR THIS!”
“I am not the one turning my back to Azzathra. Like you are do- ”
A brief blue flash, scattered snowflakes, and Ami dived head-first into the luminous glow before her. As the warmth of the dungeon heart enveloped her like a comforting blanket, she didn't mind one bit that she missed the rest of what the Unraveller had to say.
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