The dungeon heart flared like a red miniature sun as Ami dropped out of its orb, and she cried out from sheer joy when she felt the chilly air rush over her bare skin. She had escaped!
Below, at the bottom of the stairs, Cathy raised her arm to shield her eyes against the sudden glare, her hair blasted backwards by the sudden burst of power from the dungeon heart. Squinting past the raised limb, she jumped aside just in time to avoid Snyder, whose voluminous robes caught the gale and dragged him backwards like billowing sails. Behind her, Tiger protested as he crashed into her and dragged them both down into a tangled heap. Cathy ignored them and leaned into the storm instead, pushing herself forward step by step.
Ami grazed her knees when she landed, but that didn't diminish her exhilaration. Panting, she lay on her belly and simply enjoyed the pounding of her heart in her chest – clear proof that she had returned to the world of the living.
The eruption of light from the dungeon heart died down, and a rumbling heartbeat echoed through the chamber, making the ground vibrate. Rapid, metallic footsteps approached as Cathy sprinted up the stairs and squatted down next to Ami.
“You are injured!” the blonde exclaimed, her eyes lingering briefly on Ami's head before travelling down towards the blood trickling from the teenager's right shoulder and forearm. “Snyder, get over here this instant! Merc- Ami! What's wrong? Say something!” Cathy demanded, her voice growing more and more worried. “Talk to me!”
Still catching her breath, Ami pushed herself up into a sitting position, favouring her injured arm. “I'm back,” she answered, her voice weak but accompanied by a wide smile.
“I can't help notice that you are missing some things,” Jered commented, averting his gaze from the naked girl as he reached out to help Tiger and Snyder back to their feet.
“Now is not the time,” his girlfriend snapped at him. “Injuries first, questions later! Snyder!”
With a rustle of cloth, the acolyte sidled up to the two and examined the bleeding hole underneath Ami's collarbone.
Ami tensed. While fleeing, she had been too busy to pay attention to her wounds. Now that the adrenaline and euphoria were fading away, the burning ache became harder and harder to ignore. She bit her lip, paling. What if the wounds were cursed? The attacks of a dark god had to rank near the top of the list of things that could curse injuries!
“I am going to treat the puncture wound through your forearm first,” Snyder said as he gently grabbed her right wrist and lifted the limb. “Does this hurt?”
“It's fine,” Ami said softly, blushing a little as his proximity brought her current state of undress more into focus. Not yet used to the layout of her new dungeon, she needed a few seconds to locate a suitably large towel with her Keeper sight. A quick mental yank, and the white cloth wrapped around her. Was Jadeite here too? Worriedly, she looked around. When she didn't spot him, she realised that still had to be on the Avatar Islands. ”Jadeite! I have returned. Thank you!”
”Welcome back,” his telepathic reply echoed in her mind, sounding relieved. ”Are you all right?”
”A few injuries, but I feel better than last time,” Ami told him.
”I'll be back as soon as possible.”
“-clean. Since you seem awake and coherent, would you prefer to heal yourself with necromancy instead?” Snyder asked.
Ami blinked. Considering where she just came from, cleansing any potential lingering taint away with Light magic sounded like the much preferable option. “No, please go ahead.” She wasn't too confident about casting complicated spells while untransformed, either, even though being a Keeper meant she shouldn't have any problems.
“Very well. Cathy, Tiger, if you could keep her from struggling, please?” The acolyte's fingertips glowed white as he prepared his healing magic.
Tiger took a seat behind Ami on the ground, wrapping an arm around the smaller girl's waist as she propped her up and let her lean against her. The youma's free hand brushed over Ami's hairless scalp with one finger. “That's a new style for you. Looks like a lot happened while you were away.”
“Well, I-” Ami flinched as Snyder's healing magic touched her forearm, but managed to refrain from pulling away. The feeling of revulsion was mild in comparison to her experience with the invisibility potion earlier, and she endured it with clenched teeth.
“Keep breathing normally,” Cathy advised, keeping a tight grip on Ami's good arm.
Ami nodded and didn't take her gaze off the blood-smeared wound in her forearm. To her great relief, it shrunk slowly while the white light sank into it, and perfect new skin grew to cover the hole. The Unraveller must have been taking precautions, then. Which made sense if she intended to patch her up later. Why make more work for herself?
“I'll tell you all about it soon,” Ami muttered as Snyder moved on to her injured shoulder. “Did anything happen that I need to be aware of? How is everyone doing?” she asked to distract herself from the acolyte's poking and prodding.
“The caravan picked up a bit of an audience when it travelled through the Underworld,” Cathy reported. “Unavoidable, really. Nobody tried anything, but the news that you moved a lot of material, troops, and prisoners is going to spread soon.”
“How are the – eek!” Ami twitched, her muscles jerking as she fought her flight instinct. Her right elbow struck something soft behind her. “Sorry, Tiger!”
The youma snorted. “You are untransformed, I barely felt that. If there's something you want to feel sorry about, then do so about being too cowardly to explain everything to our friends and family before you left and expecting me to pick up the slack! Do you think I was looking forward to that conversation?”
“I was- well- “ Ami hung her head, trailing off. She hadn't wanted to needlessly worry everyone at the time, especially since she was in a hurry, but her adopted sister had a point. What if she had never seen the others or her mother again? She would have never come clean about being Sailor Mercury, for one thing. Her cheeks felt warm, and she tried to put the depressing thoughts aside. “Sorry? In any case, I was about to ask about the civilians.”
“Blind and passed out in the barracks,” Jered said. When Ami turned to look at him with wide eyes, he shrugged. “Hey, Jadeite had to get that life energy from somewhere. Just look on the bright side. They are too unconscious to be afraid or get into trouble, and none of them went missing during the journey.”
“I haven't had time yet to check if all the troops are accounted for, though” Cathy added.
“You expect desertions?” Ami asked, straining to keep still as her flesh crawling from Snyder's healing spells.
“Nah, more like goblins managing to get themselves lost,” the blonde elaborated. “I don't think your minions are unhappy with you, corruption issues aside.”
“Speaking of which,” Jered said, showing the sleeve of his shirt to Ami, “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but...”
The green fabric in question had tiny holes in it, as if it had spent some time with hungry moths.
Ami glanced at it briefly and shook her head. “That's nothing to worry about. Even with the new dungeon heart, more control over how the corruption manifests in one area still means less control in others. Keeping everything safe required some concessions.”
Cathy sighed. “All right, in how much trouble are we?”
“None, really,” Ami hurried to assure her. “The effects within the dungeon itself will be harmless, mostly cosmetic, and won't affect any living being. Um, you may want to avoid going outside, though,” she added as an afterthought. “I haven't gotten around to bundling the most lethal effects into easily avoided, designated areas yet.”
“No problems with that, seeing how we have a grand total of zero exits to the surface.” Cathy pointed at Jered's sleeve. “So you are sure this isn't suddenly going to eat holes into our skin instead?”
“Living beings are strictly off-limits,” Ami confirmed. “It won't interfere with function or integrity, either. The dungeon isn't going to fall apart or try to kill us again.”
“Well, I am glad to hear that,” Snyder said as he straightened. “Your wounds are healed to the best of my abilities. I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of complications, but it is my professional opinion that you should get some rest now and take things easy. You did lose a lot of blood.”
“Most of which is coating you,” Tiger added as she let go of Ami. She looked down at her fingers. “And now us, too. Eww. Take a bath before you rest.”
“I wouldn't mind a long soak in a hot tub either,” Cathy agreed. “Did you install the hot water already, Ami?”
“No, but I can heat some easily enough.” A little fireball into a basin, and it would be indistinguishable from a hot spring.
“Good!” Cathy slung one of Ami's arms over her shoulder and helped her to her feet. “You can tell us all about what happened while we relax!”
Clairmonte flapped her wings, startled by the ground groaning and shaking. Her motion kicked up a cloud of volcanic ash, preventing her from getting a good view at the giant, sooty paper cocoon about an arrow's flight away.
The ovoid construct leaned a few degrees sideways, and the constant clanging of dozens of imp picks against rock came to a sudden stop. The sorceress-turned chicken heard panicked squeals, and moments later, a wave of bug-eyed workers sprinted out of the ditch around the formerly-flying dungeon, kicking up dust with each panicked step.
A few of the creatures got tangled in the limp chains strewn around the cocoon, their fearful cries drowned out by the loud grinding noise with which the dungeon slid sideways and deeper, dragging them under.
Monteraine looked away as the displaced air spewed up ash and dust around the construct, concealing it from sight. Not out of respect for the deceased imps, but because she was hoping to get back behind cover before someone spotted her. Morrigan was busy getting his dungeon heart safely underground, but that didn't mean that his imps let any opportunity to torment her pass. She just hoped that he'd realise soon that he had won the battle. If she caught his attention before he had calmed down a bit...
The hen shuddered at the memory of the crimson-eyed imp hopping up and down, howling in fury as it threw a tantrum in front of the dungeon heart. That had been her signal to run. Perhaps she should have kept running? Cautiously, she peered around the stone she was hiding behind, watching the lifeless landscape around her. Smoke and ash rose from red-glowing fissures, opening and closing randomly as earthquakes shook the land.
She made a disappointed clucking noise. All that nasty volcanic stuff in the air would probably dissolve her feathers long before she found a portal that wasn't buried under tons of dirt. She'd have to wait until Morrigan's imps dug one up. Leaning out a bit further, Monteraine turned her head sideways to observe the group of imps claiming a straight path away from the dungeon. The speed at which they were doing so proved to her that they weren't removing prior ownership of the territory. Definite proof that Keeper Mercury had lost here. Morrigan would realise that soon enough, too.
The transformed sorceress paused to think. Sure, all the undead minions were gone, but they hadn't cost her Keeper anything in the first place. No big loss there. Besides, he had accomplished his mission. His prior defeat had been avenged by sending Mercury to Crowned Death and Azzathra, who would certainly reward Morrigan for his success – and keep her from coming back. Clairmonte straightened as some of her confidence returned. There was also the prestige of having triumphed over the dark empress! And it was all due to her plan! Perhaps leaving wasn't in her best interest right now?
A shadow fell over the sorceress, interrupting her dreams of being showered with riches and fame. Its maliciously-grinning face alone was half the size of her body, reminding her abruptly that right now, she was still a chicken. Not a completely helpless chicken, though. When the imp raised its foot to kick her, she jumped at its face, batting her wings furiously. She had a sharp beak, and those fist-sized black eyes were inviting targets.
With a startled squeal, the imp backed off and fell on its behind, waving about its pick as it tried to fend off the pecking bird. Eyes clenched shut, it couldn't prevent Clairmonte from using its head as a springboard to launch herself into the air.
Having never learned to fly as a bird, the sorceress couldn't maintain her altitude. She crashed after a few meters, cartwheeling across the ground and leaving a shallow trail in the ash as she skidded to a stop. Choking from the dust she had breathed in, she felt an odd prickling sensation. A wave of nausea made her lose her balance, and then the world started shrinking. When the vertigo passed, she was kneeling in the dirt. Wait, she had knees?
The sorceress jumped to her feet and thrust her hands into the air, a brief laugh escaping from her throat. The transformation had finally worn off! She patted herself down to confirm everything was as it should be, absently adjusting the loosely-connected bands of black fabric that Morrigan passed off as a dress. Now where was that stupid imp? Time for some payback! She whirled around, purple arcs of electricity dancing between her fingers.
She quickly found the target of her ire, upside down and quite a bit higher up than she expected. Blood gushed from its headless neck and into the wide-open mouth of the pale stranger holding the corpse by its ankles. For an instant, she froze in surprise.
The vampire raised an eyebrow at her and tossed the corpse aside, his red eyes focusing on tastier prey. While he grinned, showing long fangs, dark blurs fell like arrows from the sky behind him and swooped down onto the unsuspecting workers.
The new bathroom smelled of freshly excavated rock. Tiny droplets of water dripped from its ceiling into central basin and sent circular ripples across its surface. They washed over Ami's chin, prompting her to raise her head higher above the water and contemplate how the precipitation reminded her of rain. It even fell from thick clouds of concealing mist that hid the ceiling and protected the privacy of the bath's occupants. They also dimmed the light, but lanterns on slender stands at the four corners of the small pool provided islands of sufficient illumination in the twilight.
Ami still wondered how the violet flames within the glass bowls were floating a few centimetres above the oil they were supposed to be consuming, though. She hadn't used electrical lights so close to the water for safety reasons - not to mention that the dungeon still lacked the necessary infrastructure.
“... but, maybe you should keep it that way?” Cathy joked from the other end of the square pool, barely ten steps away. “I'm sure nobody else has had their hair done by a dark god.” The curtains of fog and steam couldn't hide her grin from Ami's supernatural senses. “You'd be the envy of Keepers and cultists alike!”
“Tiger, could you splash her for me, please?” Ami said tiredly and let herself sink deeper into the water, submerging most of her bald head. Her new look was a sore point and something she intended to correct as soon as possible. The thought of being seen like this by someone back home or by Jadeite was mortifying. At the very least, she didn't want to be reminded by her reflection in the mirror about what had nearly happened to her.
“Yeah, the Unraveller really sucks at styling!” Loud splashing noises informed Ami that Tiger was enthusiastically flinging water in Cathy's direction, laughing.
The silhouette of Cathy's upper body, obscured by the fog, rose in front of one of the lanterns as she fought back, sending water in the youma's direction.
“Anyway, do you know if there are any hair growth spells?” Ami asked in an effort to stop the battle. If it got any more vigorous, the waves would roll over her face, and she'd have to move. She'd prefer not to, really, since the water was making her sleepy.
“Glamour would work, obviously,” Tiger said.
“Ask the warlocks?” Cathy suggested. “Though Torian seems to be the only one of them who gives a damn about his appearance.”
“Maybe some necromancy, then,” Ami pondered. “Hair isn't exactly living material, so – gah!” Water fountained up to her left and right, splashing into her eyes. She choked and blinked at the two imps that had jumped in right next to her.
Grinning, the little workers put a three-fingered hand each on one of Ami's shoulder blades and pushed, apparently responding to her desire to raise her back without having to exert herself.
Ami sat up quickly on her own, gasping. Those hands were cold and felt strange!
The imps giggled at her reaction, and she eyed them suspiciously. Had the mischievous creatures planned this?
“What happened?” Cathy called.
“Imps in the pool,” Ami explained, tracking the little creatures as they started dog-paddling in the deeper water. It was odd to see them out of their coveralls, even if the twilight and fog made it hard to make out any details.
“That's it, I'm out of here!” Water sloshed as Tiger climbed out of the basin. “Better change the water, I haven't ever seen those things wash themselves! Hey, maybe that's why they seem to be getting bigger? They accumulate additional layers, like an onion made of dirt!”
With two angry squeaks, the heads of the imps disappeared underneath the surface, and two trails of bubbles moved fast in the direction of the youma's voice.
Shadows moved through the fog when Cathy stood up and briefly eclipsed one of the lanterns. “I'm getting out too. My skin is starting to look like a prune. What do you want me to do for the moment?”
“Keep the peace between the soldiers and the civilians,” Ami decided after a moment. “We don't have enough room here yet to keep them as segregated as before,” she continued, “and I'm worried about them having to interact with each other.”
“I'll put the fear of you into our soldiers,” Cathy said. “They'll behave themselves. So will the civilians, at least until Jadeite restores their sight.”
Ami sighed. “They'll be scared and angry. I hope nobody will start anything.” If there were riots, the situation could turn bloody very quickly. She had better get started with expanding this site as soon as possible. There simply wasn't enough living space for everyone in a hastily remodelled mine. Which reminded her of another problem. “We must re-establish diplomatic contact with the dwarfs. I want to resolve this situation peacefully, if at all possible.”
“Don't these lands belong to the kingdom that didn't want anything to do with you?” Tiger asked as she towelled herself off.
“Yes, but I've still got to try! It would be better for everyone if they would just let me buy this land.” Most of Ami's gold and gems remained untouched in the transport crates, ready to be used to expand the dungeon. She'd gladly spend it to prevent unnecessary conflict.
“Well, I'm glad this is Jered's problem and not mine,” the youma said, shrugging. A moment later, she screeched in outrage when the two imps jumped out of the mist and emptied a bucket of water over her head. “You vile little shits! I was just dry! Get back here!” She took off after the little creatures as they faded back into the fog.
Ami closed her eyes and tried to return to enjoying her bath. Transforming back into Sailor Mercury had already cleaned her body, but the hot water helped her unwind from all the stress. Despite the screams and the gleeful giggles, she felt as if she could fall asleep any moment now.
“Hey! What the- Mercury!” Cathy's alarmed shout came from the antechamber. “Didn't you say the corruption wouldn't destroy things?”
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