Ami found herself guided toward a large fire at the edge of the plaza. A rag-tag bunch of armed figures was sitting around it, sharpening weapons, strapping on armour, and generally getting ready for battle. Even the blue-haired girl, who was no expert on military discipline, could see that this group failed to exude an air of confident professionalism. Apparently "front line team" did not exactly imply quality troops. Still, things could have turned out much worse. Sure, she had been drafted to fight evil, but that was something she would have volunteered for anyway. More worrisome were the dark glances that she was still drawing from the crowd. She put a hand on the amulet around her neck, feeling its warmth beneath her fingers. She was no longer a prisoner, so she figured that she didn't need to wear it any more, and plucked it off.
She wondered briefly if her eyes only glowed red when she was wearing the thing, or if it merely being on her person was enough. If Snyder was around, she would have handed it back to him, but the acolyte and her other travelling companions had been sent in a different direction to sign up and get the administrative details out of the way. So she just held onto the golden talisman by its long chain, which seemed to do the job. At least, new people she was encountering were no longer automatically glaring at her. Upon arriving at the gathering point, she spotted a clean-looking free spot in the circle of clamorous warriors and set down. A tanned man who was adjusting the string of his longbow looked up, took in the white robe, and raised an eyebrow. "Didn't think we'd rate an acolyte, what with all the priests gone."
Before Ami could correct his mistake, a gong sounded, and a large man stepped into the circle, plated boots resounding on the cobblestones. The knight stopped in front of the fire, not even bothering to take off his horned helmet. Ami hadn't seen any of the other knights wearing a deep blue shawl. Maybe a rank insignia?
"Attention!", the newcomer began to speak with a full baritone, "I'm Sir Leon, and I'm here to brief you on the mission, so listen up! Your life may well depend on it!" He raised his mailed gloves, making shushing gestures, and waited for the muttering to die down before continuing "As you all should know, Arachne has infiltrated the cities through the sewers. We have been able to identify some of the tunnels her minions used to climb in, and which should lead straight down to her dungeon. It will be your job to enter the sewers- " here, a chorus of good-natured grumbling about the smell threatened to drown out his voice, "- as I was saying, you will be entering through Arachne's access tunnels and prepare the way for the main assault force."
The man looked into the round, trying to meet the eyes of everyone present. "The good news is that you won't have to worry about rats. The bad news is that Arachne's spiders ate them. Oh, don't worry, we finally managed to clear most of them out, but watch the narrow side pipes anyway. On a more cheerful note, the Keeper will be expecting you to enter through the abyss where the Abbey used to be, so who knows? You might be the firsts to her hoard, after all!"
The audience cheered at this latest proclamation, and Ami wondered whether they were really aware of what they were getting themselves into. Two pairs of footsteps behind her alerted her to the arrival of Cathy and Jered, who had shown up just in time to listen to Sir Leon go into great detail about the minutia of the plan. Jered looked as if he had just bitten into a lemon, while the swordswoman at his side had her arms crossed over her breastplate, expression neutral as usual. Ami skidded aside to make room for them, offering the warding amulet to Jered, who made it disappear in a pocket as he sat down next to her. "Bad news?" the blue-haired girl whispered.
"The baron was so impressed with the job we did keeping an eye on you that he told us to continue," the blue-clad blonde explained.
Jered raised a finger to his mouth. "Shush. We'll talk later." With that, the three continued listening to the war planning.
"... and there's going to be traps. Lots of traps. Which I had rather hoped to avoid," the weasel-featured man finished his explanation.
"Now, now. From what I have seen, you know your way around those," Snyder winked, grinning. "You'll just have to be careful, and you'll have Mercury over there to patch you up."
"Yeah, laugh it up, Mr I-am-with-the-main-force," Cathy commented drily. "At least that makes it your job to prevent Boris from charging off to challenge the biggest, meanest monster in sight."
"Don't remind me," the redhead replied, massaging his temples.
"Excuse me?" Ami interrupted. "Traps? I could really use my equipment, then. Is here some place I could change?"
Cathy looked down at the girl tugging on her sleeve. "Change? Into what? Are you going to conjure up some clothing again, even after what happened last time?"
Ami's cheeks coloured. "I don't expect that to happen again. So how about it? I could really use something that I can move easier in than these robes."
"Well, we aren't supposed to leave the camp," the blonde stated, walking over to where the group's horses were tied up together with those of the other adventurers, and retrieved a large blanket from the saddle bag. "If you really want to change, I can hold it up around you."
The blue-haired girl considered this for a moment, looking at the large square of fabric in the woman's hands, and then at the mass of soldiers all around, most of whom weren't paying any attention to them. Blushing faintly, she nodded. What other choice did she have? Getting her visor back was worth the little - if potentially embarrassing - inconvenience.
It turned out that there was precious little room in the tube formed by the blanket, held up by Cathy's outstretched arms. Jered certainly seemed to enjoy ogling the contortions of Ami's silhouette, backlit by a torch in the background, as she struggled to remove her robe within the confined space. She didn't know what would happen if she re-applied her transformation when wearing something else in her senshi form, and she didn't care to experiment here where someone could potentially see her (though she made a mental note to look into it later). Besides, it would be inconsiderate to just risk destroying the borrowed robe. As soon as she had shed the white and red garment, Ami blurted out "Mercurypowermakeup!"
Cathy couldn't help but get a good view of the flash of blue light that enveloped the girl right in front of her for an instant. Momentarily blinded, she blinked to clear the sparks dancing in front of her eyes. Squinting, she eyed the skin-tight white leotard and the very, very short skirt. "If you intend on wearing that, why did you insist on a blanke- hey, are you all right?"
Ami was staggering, not because of any physical discomfort, but because an unexpected, loud wave of protest and outrage from her dungeon had caught her off-guard. Blue eyes going blank, she launched her mental presence outward to check up on the situation. What she found made her jaw drop, and a nervous giggle escaped her throat even as her left eyebrow twitched.
"KEEEPER! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE NOW!?" the Horned Reaper raged, cussing up a storm. The red demon was in the process of tearing up a sailor senshi outfit that had appeared on his body, expertly tailored to fit his proportions. Strips of fabric were flying all over the room as the monster ripped the offending garment into little pieces. A bent and broken tiara was lying at his feet.
Ami, having some idea of what had happened, if not of the why, turned her attention aside before she was exposed to the sight of more of the Reaper's anatomy than she ever cared to see. A little imp in a fuku ran past, seemingly unimpeded and not at all bothered by the change of clothing. A flare of orange light that made the blue murals on the dungeon walls glow violet prompted Ami to look back at the demon. She was just fast enough to see long, thin streamers of fire rise up from a circle around the Reaper's hooves and twist themselves into the shape of the equipment that had been replaced by the senshi transformation. A moment later, the tongues of flame solidified into the metal and leather of his pauldrons, greaves, loincloth, and most importantly, scythe. So that's why he treats it as if he didn't care much about its condition, the confused Keeper reasoned, fixating on a little detail that made sense in this whole mess. She opted to transport the Reaper back to his throne room, the rubble in front of which still hadn't been moved. The murderous expression on the demon's face could only spell trouble.
"Me got shiny crown!"
"You looking silly!"
"You looking sillier!"
The goblins, as a whole, seemed to take the effects of the transformation more or less in stride. Ami wasn't quite sure what she should make of the collection of midget-sized, long-eared green senshi-lookalikes, but the way they were bickering, complete with blowing raspberries, reminded her painfully of Usagi and Rei, and she felt a pang of homesickness.
"Bwahaha! Maka look like a girl in that dress!" one of the goblins taunted, pointing a crooked finger at another, who promptly picked up a wooden stool and swung it by one of its three legs, clobbering the mocker into the ground.
"Maka IS girl, idiot!" the still fuku-clad goblin crossed her arms and huffed.
All right, crisis averted. She could focus back on her body and- Movement in one of the corridors attracted her gaze. She froze and stared, brain unwilling to process the sight, then stared some more. Even the BEETLES!?
"No, I don't know what's wrong with her. There was this flash of light, then she was wearing this costume and looking somewhat out of it, and suddenly she put her hands in front of her eyes and backed into me." Cathy was holding the whimpering girl in her arms, preventing her from falling over. The scene had drawn quite a bit of attention, partly because of the light show, but mostly from Ami's attire.
"Must be the embarrassment from being seen in an outfit like that," one of the female archers snickered.
"She does have the legs to pull it off," an unmistakably male voice jeered. "Wish she was in our group!" The comments degraded rapidly from there.
Ears burning, Ami opened her eyes and pulled herself to her feet, successfully focusing back on her present situation. She stood straight and did the best to ignore the jibes. It helped that she felt confident in her ability to take down any single man here while transformed, even without resorting to magic. "I'm fine now. Just some unexpected backlash," she quickly reassured all those who cared.
Amused, Jered asked "Ending up looking like this was your intention, then?" Nice tiara and earrings, those. Too bad they were only conjured. Well, maybe if one found the right buyer...
Ami just sighed. "Where I come from, most girls my age wear something similar to this," she explained, referring to school uniforms.
The brown-haired man found this rather hard to believe, but the sorceress' body language did indeed indicate that she wasn't considering her outfit immodest. "That place I'd like to see," he drawled after a moment of quiet contemplation, earning himself an elbow jab in the ribs from Cathy. "Ow!" he took a step aside from his blonde companion. "Do you think displaying your initiation ranks so openly is wise, though? Especially using the Underworld symbols."
Ami's eyes went round, and she blinked as she looked down at the indicated spot on her sailor collar, pulling the fabric upward with her right hand to get a better look at the black mark. Where did that come from? That hadn't been there before!
"Looks a bit skull-like. Necromany, right?" Snyder barged into the conversation. "What does this other bent squiggle mean?" the acolyte was bringing his face very close to the fabric, nearly bumping into Ami's nose with his forehead.
The blue-haired teenager bent away, covering the symbol with her gloved hand, and took a step back. "I don't know! Those weren't there last time I did this!" Does just reading a book count as initiation?
After a while, even the interest in Ami's strange attire had waned, not that this had stopped the stares completely - most of the soldiers and heroes were male, after all. The begin of the mission did its part to distract everyone involved from the comparatively scantily dressed girl's. As if that wasn't enough, the stench emanating from the sewer opening once its rectangular wooden cover had been removed was enough to kill anyone's libido.
Ami's visor was covering her eyes, providing her with information about the narrow tunnels ahead, and giving her the best night-vision out of the team. The foul-smelling sludge covering the ground sucked at her boots with every step, and she was glad she hadn't come here wearing Snyder's sandals. Yuck! Her group consisted of ten people, including herself, Cathy, and Jered, and everyone was hoping that the sewage levels wouldn't rise any further. Especially the dwarf. In the circle of torchlight, thin pipes in the walls disgorged bursts of greenish-brown effluents within short intervals, as if blinking mockingly at the explorers.
"That way," a leather-clad man ordered. He had a shawl wrapped around his mouth and nose to protect himself from the smell, and had stopped in the middle of an intersection between their tunnel and a somewhat narrower one. The new corridor's only other distinguishing feature was that the wet-glistening cobwebs hanging from its ceiling were swinging slowly in a mild breeze.
"You sure?" a rough voice coughed out.
"The muck is flowing faster in that direction, the opening should be there," Ami confirmed independently, informing the others of the results of her scan.
"How can you even see that, girl? Not even a cat could see-"
"WATCH OUT!" arrows flashed over Ami's screen, alerting her of something hand-sized dropping down from the ceiling onto the man at point. Her warning was a split-second too late, and a black, furry spider alighted on the adventurers shoulder, immediately lunging for his face. With a pained shriek, the hapless victim clawed at the thing, feeling inch-long fangs pierce his cheek. With a wet crunch, the grotesque attacker was crushed into a sticky pulp in the man's fist.
"Crap, damn spiders! HEALER!" Cathy's hair looked as if it would have been standing on end if it weren't for her bowl-shaped helmet. Ami was already running toward the victim, splashing through the muck. Her patient was spitting out blood and something lighter-looking. Ami touched the stubble-covered cheek with her fingers, calling on her magic. She closed her eyes to avoid perturbing the other group members even more with the red glow. Closing the injuries was actually quite simple, as they were small and smooth.
"You were lucky," Ami commented after a moment. "The fangs over-penetrated and injected their poison into your mouth, not your flesh."
"You wouldn't be callin' me lucky if you'd had to taste this crap," the man joked, slapping her on the back jovially and making her stumble. "Thanks, girl."
The group advanced more cautiously after this near-disaster, and soon found what it had been looking for. A jagged hole yawned in the side of the rounded wall, like a black wound. A steady flow of sewage was streaming into the opening and disappearing with an echoing gurgle into its depths. The brackish brown liquid formed an arching waterfall bereft of any beauty. The adventurers gathered around the gap, leaning in to peer into the downward-leading chute.
"Careful, don't slip!" "Damn, how deep does it go? Can't see in the torchlight!" "All right, get the ropes."
"There's a kind of broad balcony about four man's lengths down on this side," Ami informed the others after putting her scanning equipment to good use. "The shaft widens below that and goes still deeper, about twice that distance."
"Right. We should be able to reach that, no problem."
"Doesn't anyone else see a problem with that plan?" Jered spoke up. "Namely, we'd have to climb through that," he sneered, pointing at the spray of stinking muck cascading down. "I don't know about you, but I don't fancy a nice and thorough sewage shower."
"Oh, don't be such a sissy, prettyboy," one of the archers taunted.
"I could freeze up a dam," Ami suggested. The idea of being drenched in raw sewage made her shudder in disgust.
"Nah, save your magic for when it's needed, lass," the dwarf interjected, holding up his pick-axe. "We'll just have to make ourselves a fine alternate entrance!" Moments later, he was already at work, hewing an opening well above the 'water' level into the wall to the right of the original hole. With interest, Ami noted that his tool seemed to work in a similar way to the picks of her imps, maybe even a bit more effectively. Then again, the wielder was stronger and bigger. A crumbling noise informed the waiting party of the fact that the digger had reached his destination and connected his fresh tunnel with the pre-existing one.
"Wait, if you can do that, why don't we make our own tunnel instead of braving that chute with ropes?" Ami asked.
The dwarf gave her an odd look, as if he couldn't understand why anyone would ask such a stupid question. "Because I get tired, lass. Duh."
About ten minutes later, Ami joined the others on the jutting rock balcony below as the last party member to descend. The group had roped down with no difficulties and was now looking for a way further down. As soon as the senshi's feet touched the ground, she could feel an odd sensation. It was a sort of charge in the stone itself, as if she was approaching an invisible boundary. "I have a bad feeling about this. Let me have another look," she demanded.
Unexpectedly, a cold wind chilled her to the bone, and humming, as if from a great swarm of bees, echoed through the shaft. Even the light of the torches seemed to shy away from the dreadful noise. Suddenly, a cloud of darkness, composed of uncountable minuscule black bodies, surged out of the depths and reared up, expanding outward like a wave braking against the cliffs. Panicked gasps went through the crowd as the swirling blackness formed into a vaguely humanoid head and upper torso, its fanged, clawed and horned form more implied than outlined by the shifting darkness. Its eyes alone were well-defined, fiery red slits in the enormous head towering metres above the intruders.
"Shit! Shit! Shit! It's Arachne!"
A laugh, formed by the synchronised rasping of thousands of limbs over chitinous carapaces, echoed through the chimney-like hall as lightning started to arc between the disconnected hand-shapes of the apparition. Before anyone could think of an appropriate defence, the enemy Keeper hurled a devastating bolt at the platform everyone was standing on, reducing it into so much rubble. Ami's eyes were widened with shock as she fell through the cloud of rubble and debris that also contained her comrades, into the waiting darkness below.
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