After a few seconds that felt like a breathless eternity, the weightlessness of free-fall ended with an abrupt impact. Ami felt her back strike not the expected jagged rock, but the cold, yielding putrescence of the sewage dribbling down from above and gathering in a basin here. Around her, she heard the frightened screams of her companions cut short as they plunged into the vile-smelling, viscous liquid with loud squelching sounds. She had no time to feel disgusted when the muck closed over her head; even with a senshi's toughness, the shock of the landing had left her dazed and disoriented. The sludge, while much softer than stone, was still harder than water. Suddenly, her feet met the hard bottom of the basin, and she had the presence of mind to kick herself off and upward, to the surface. The nausea-inducing pool of liquid waste was only about as deep as she was tall, but that was enough to drown in.

With a gasp, Sailor Mercury broke the surface, grateful that her visor had prevented the unhealthy muck from getting into her eyes. She tried to brush it clean with one hand so she could take a look around, but before she had finished the motion, something slimy whipped through the mud, leaving a thin trench of parted sewage in its wake. Ami felt something like a muscular steel cable wrap around her waist and lift her up into the air. Her ineffectual struggles against the tentacle's smothering grip sent glistening droplets flying off her mud-covered form. A sudden yank jerked her sidewards, toward the looming walls. She got a fleeting glance at motionless bodies floating in the bubbling sewage, and then felt a sharp pain in her head as it met the rock with a loud thud.

Ami awoke to the sensation of lying on a cold floor, in a place that smelled undistinguishable from a public privy, with her head resting on something warm and soft. She opened her eyes, only to find her vision swimming. Her headache re-doubled.

"She's waking up!" the voice sounded strained, if relieved.

"Careful, that's a nasty bump on your head," Cathy's voice cautioned from very nearby, indicating that it was her lap that Ami's head was resting on.

Braving the movement, Ami sat up, blinking rapidly to clear away the double vision. Feeling a bit woozy, she looked into the round, taking in the three bare, clammy walls and the opening where the fourth should be, blocked by arm-thick vertical steel bars. The blonde behind her followed the direction of her gaze, and explained bitterly "Yeah. Got captured by the Keeper. Damn it all."

"The others?" Ami asked, coming up short three after a quick count of the various sad figures with her in the room, all of which were in their underwear, bereft of arms and armour, and caked in half-dried sewage. Looking down at herself, she saw that she was just as filthy, but still fully dressed, having had no equipment to confiscate.

To her right, Jered shook his head sadly "Didn't make it through the fall."

Ami felt her blood go cold when the realisation sank in that some of her comrades had already died on this mission. Her secret identity as a sailor senshi had gotten her used to danger. Sure, the battles were often scary and painful, but nobody ever got hurt, at least not permanently. It made her feel as if someone had punched her in the stomach. "Oh."

"Are you well 'nough to heal up some of us, lass?" the dwarf asked, limping into her field of vision, and making her aware of the low-level whimpering that permeated the room. It seemed that nobody had survived the fall completely unscathed.

"Right. Of course!" anything to distract herself from her morose thoughts. "Who's the most hurt?"

Ami was kept busy as she patched up injuries and mended broken bones, though she didn't know how to deal with the various inevitable infections. Killing off the bacteria with an intense influx of necrotic energy could potentially do more harm than good. She hoped that would be a problem for later. It was strange that she, as a prisoner, had been keep her magic, she reflected. In fact, the room seemed to conduct and amplify her Necromancy. What purpose could that possibly serve? Maybe their captors just hadn't known about her abilities? While walking to her next groaning patient, she turned her thoughts to escape. Maybe call an imp to dig a way out? She picked one up from her dungeon and attempted to drop it into the shadows outside the cell, but found that something blocked it from re-manifesting in the real world. She grimaced. Could Keepers block each others powers in their own territory? Her grip tightened involuntarily around the arm of the battered soldier she was tending to when she repeated the experiment and found that she couldn't even send or receive a gold coin. She was stuck in here!

The patient winced, and she realised what she was doing and loosened her grip, apologising. "I'm sorry, that arm is dislocated. I'll have to set it, this will hurt for a moment."

Forewarned, the man still shrieked in pain, convulsing under her attentions.

"Starting without me? How impatient!" an unknown male voice from outside the cell interrupted. The prisoners turned to face the new arrival, backing away from the bars when he stepped into the circle of light in front of the cell door. If he had hoped to make a dramatic first impression, he certainly didn't manage to pull it off. Even the magnificent dark violet robe with yellow skull patterns couldn't hide the fact that he was a comically lanky man, if tall. With the flowing long sleeves, black goatee, and high Dracula-collar, he was certainly going for the evil wizard look, but was sabotaged by the fact that he reminded Ami of a geeky college student trying his hand at cosplay. "Well, what do we have here?" he asked rhetorically, walking up and down in front of the cell.

The warlock hummed to himself for a bit, unphazed by the insults and angry demands to be released from the more short-tempered prisoners. His oil-slick hair glittered in the torchlight as he continued "Hmm. Four scruffy-looking hooligans, two mildly attractive females, and a dwarf of indeterminate gender, all in dire need of a bath. Hold!" he held up his long-fingered right hand, palm facing in the dwarf's direction, displaying black-painted fingernails, "I'm not interested in that information!"

Having pre-empted the dwarf's outburst, he continued his monologue. "Ahem. In any case, I suppose the girls will have to stay intact until the victory party-"

"Screw you!" Cathy interrupted, throwing a clump of dried sewage at the warlock. Sadly, it disintegrated before reaching him.

"That is the general idea. As I was saying," he spread his arms grandiosely, "Behold your fate!"

A ball of white light formed above his head and floated to the apex of the domed ceiling, revealing the chamber behind him in all its grisly details. The racks were the least intimidating of the various torture instruments placed neatly throughout the room. Innumerable scalpels, knives, and rusted saws gleamed all along the walls. Ami stared in horror at a seat composed of nothing but spikes, braziers full of glowing coals, several sharp hooks hanging from the ceiling, and other, more exotic appliances whose undoubtedly unpleasant function she couldn't even begin to guess at. Pale as a sheet, the girl gulped and took a step back. "Wh-what? You can't mean to... Monster! Shabon Spray Freezing!"

The blast of bubbles shot forward from her outstretched arms, shooting toward the smug peacock. When it reached the bars, it suddenly turned aside and frosted over an innocent patch of the cell's ceiling.

"Uh-uh." the dark wizard wagged a finger chidingly. "Any spell from the inside stays inside. Nice try, though."

The other prisoners had similar reactions to Sailor Mercury's, minus the spellcasting, though some expressed their feelings with insults or frightened pleas, rather than just appalled stammering.

"Oh, be quiet. I haven't even gotten started yet. You should feel honoured that a great warlock such as myself is overseeing your torture personally. Lady Arachne," he added with a polite bow, "if you would?"

The light flickered, and the four surviving men and one dwarf disappeared from the cell one after the other, each one yanked upward brutally before fading from sight. They re-appeared high above the torture devices, slamming down on them violently. Chains and manacles writhed and moved on their own, snapping at the victims' extremities like snakes, then pulled taut. The four male adventurers found themselves strapped to tables with bonds tight enough to cut into their flesh and make their bones crack in protest, while the dwarf landed in a large black pot filled with water. A fire lit up under it almost immediately.

"No! Jered!" Cathy shouted in fright, running to the front of the cell and rattling the steel bars futilely. "You let him go, bastard!" Ami joined her a moment later, worry for her companions clearly visible on her dirt-covered face.

The warlock ignored her completely, admiring the different saw-toothed daggers on the wall instead. "Oh, right. This is going to be messy work. I could do with an assistant. Let's see..." he studied each of the immobilised bodies for a moment. "Nope. Can't say I particularly dislike any of you wretches any more than the others. Well then," he pointed his finger at the closest table, which happened to hold Jered, "Eeni meeni miini moh, my assistant is you!"

The digit came to rest on the tanned warrior who had been bitten by a spider earlier today, and the black wizard stepped up to him, put his hand on the soldier's forehead, and leaned on it with his entire weight. His eyes flashed a bright crimson as pale green light gathered around him and crept down his arm, sinking into the shuddering victims skull. Quickly, the gaudily dressed magic user took a few steps backward, taking cover behind an iron maiden. On the table, the man started convulsing even as his chains flopped loose. He sat up, his posture rigid. His bloodshot eyes started darting around in their sockets in helpless panic. A long, unending scream escaped from his wide-open mouth as his eyes focused in terror on his hands, which had started moving on their own. They rose to his face, fingers entering his mouth, grabbed the meaty flabs of his cheeks, and started pulling outward. With a sickening tearing noise, the flesh ripped loose, and blood gushed freely.

Ami, was at first too shocked to believe what her eyes were telling her. Aghast, she started vomiting at the sight, and turned away. A long minute later, the man's hoarse screams abated with a final gurgle, but that didn't stop the horrible tearing noises as the poor soldier's animated skeleton continued peeling off the layers of flesh, skin and sinew covering it, discarding them with great gusto. An unrecognisable chunk of bloody flesh flew through the bars and struck the wall next to Ami, causing the sobbing girl to sink to her knees and continue dry-heaving. This was beyond cruel! What kind of monster did this to other people? What would he do to her? She had to escape, to find a way out! No, pull yourself together, there must be a way!

"No! I'll tell you everything you want! I'll do anything! Please! Stay away from me!" one of the other surviving men gibbered, sprinkled in dark red blood not his own.

"Not interested, I have a better use for you," the warlock replied brusquely, stepping closer with a sharp-looking knife in his hand, "besides, this is a thoroughly recreational activity." Ignoring the pleading of his victim-to-be, he turned to the waiting, blood-soaked skeleton and pointed at Jered "Get started with that one. The hot irons are over there."

"No, leave Jered alone! Please!" Cathy shouted from the cell, desperate. Ami moved closer to her, feeling numb, and put a comforting arm around her. She tried to put the duet of screams, the hissing, slicing noises, and the sickening smell of burnt flesh out of her mind. Need a plan. Think! Think! She activated her visor, scanning the cell entrance for weak points. Frustratingly, there were none. The bars were arm-thick, flawless metal, buried deep within the rock of the ground and ceiling. If anything, the cell door was even sturdier. The reinforced frame showed no traces of rust, and the lock was heavy, its key hole positioned in such a way that there was no manoeuvre room to try any complicated lock-picking tricks. Not that she had any. No, if she wanted to get out that way, she needed the key.

From outside, the self-absorbed muttering of the warlock drifted over as both tortured men gasped for breath at the same time by random chance "...'foggy with a dash of hail and sulphur'? What kind of augury is that? Maybe I interpreted that wriggly bit here wrongly... yes... oh, what's this? Dead already?" disappointment tinged his voice as he he straightened, moving away from the nest of sprawled-out entrails that had once been a man. A pale, luminous form rose from the smoke, rattling ethereal chains around its limbs. The ghost had the features of the dead body it was hovering over, twisted into a death mask of torment and all-consuming hatred. No sound escaped its bloodless lips as its arms extended toward the warlock's neck. "Oh, stop being so melodramatic. Off to the Keeper you go!" With a negligent wave of the sorcerer's hand, the apparition was flung all across the room, sinking through the smoothed rock of the walls as if they weren't there. Humming, the torturer approached the next stretched-out figure.

Ami bit back her bile. The key. If only she had the key! Her visor was showing her exactly what it looked like, but she couldn't locate it anywhere within the area. What could she do? The screams were doing nothing to help her think clearly, and she shuddered. She was feeling more detached from the situation than she should, she realised. I'm in shock, she self-diagnosed. Unhelpful. She still needed a way to get out of here and save whom she still could. But what could she do? Wait, she had a good three-dimensional representation of what the key should look like... Grasping at straws, Ami concentrated on using her freezing magic in a more controlled way. Whispering the invocation, she consciously breathed deeply and regularly, and focused only on assembling an exact copy of the images on her visor. It took her three tries, but then she was reasonably certain that the glittering ice resting on her shaking hands would work. Handling the slippery, fragile key with great care, she approached the door. A reluctant glance outside at the torture chamber revealed that the warlock was distracted, busy with a meat saw. Ami quickly looked away. So much red. She slipped the hand holding the replica key through the bars, fumbling around at an awkward angle before she managed to find the keyhole. With great care, she turned the piece of ice slowly, constantly worrying about it breaking. Click. The heavy cell door moved under Ami's experimental pull.

Sailor Mercury quietly swung the barrier out of the way and stormed out, Cathy hot on her heels. Despite being dressed only in her blue pants and a chest wrap, the unarmed woman's tear-stained face was set into a mask of determination.

"Shabon Spray Freezing!" foregoing the usual posturing, as a butcher like this man had lost all entitlement to what was basically a 'cease and desist' warning, Ami tried to catch him unaware.

"Oh, bother!" the sorcerer was quick enough on his feet to duck underneath the blast of blue, and the weapons on the wall behind him disappeared under a layer of ice. He wiggled three fingers in an odd gesture and became transparent on Ami's visor, then calmly walked to a new position and started moving his hands in arcane gestures. He seemed completely taken aback when Ami launched another stream of azure bubbles straight at him. Interrupted, he dodged out of the way and made a bee-line for the door, gathering up his robes as he ran. The heavy wooden gate opened up for him on its own accord."Master! The prisoners are escaping!" Ami took off after him when she lost her clean line of fire, but slipped on the ever-present blood splatters. This slowed her down just enough for the door to slam shut in her face. She punched the grainy wood in frustrated anger.

Cathy had only looked around for a split-second before deciding to leave the sorcerer to Mercury, rushing to Jered's aid instead. She grabbed one of the long-handled hammers off the wall and launched herself at the skeleton from behind. The animated construct of gory bones was a moment too slow in pulling its red-hot iron bar free from its tormented victim's flesh, and its parry came up short. The hammer head struck the skeleton's pelvis with a crunching noise, shattering the bone and sending the creature to the blood-drenched ground. The blonde fighter wasted no time in capitalising on her advantage and swung her weapon again and again until little more than a heap of bone fragments remained. "Mercury! Forget about that bastard! Quickly, get over here and help Jered!" Cathy was cradling the head of the brown-haired man in her arms. His body was a mass of charred burns, and he was groaning softly. "Oh, Jered," tears were flowing freely down her cheeks as she stroked his mud-encrusted hair.

Ami made her way through the abhorrent chamber, uncomfortably aware of the slaughter-house smell now that no immediate danger was occupying her thoughts. One of the men was little more than a hollowed out torso surrounded by entrails, completely beyond her help, another was unconscious and bleeding from long, shallow cuts. An absent-minded spell extinguished the fire under the pot that contained not-yet-dwarf-stew. What had happened here was terrible. This whole place was terrible. And these wounds. She didn't want to look, but had to. Trembling, she extended her hands, focusing on knitting the flesh back together as well as she could. It was complicated work, and she knew this was going to leave scars.

"Can anyone get me out of 'ere?" the dwarf complained. Cathy, being unable to assist while Ami tended to the wounded, proceeded to break open his chains with her hammer, as she had done for her friend before. Once the stocky, bearded individual was free of the hot water, she moved on to the free the third survivor.

"Th-thanks, Mercury" Jered groaned hoarsely, sitting up from the torture instrument and standing on wobbly legs. "G-good as new. We need to g-get out of here, though." He moved over to the wall in order to re-arm himself with the tools hanging there. The scalpels weren't his throwing knives, but better than nothing.

A wave of coldness passed through the room, and the light dimmed. "INCOMING!" Ami shouted, taking a ready stance.

With a strange wrenching noise, a quartet of giant spiders dropped out of thin air, each one landing in a separate corner of the room. Even the smallest of the ugly, hairy monsters was as big as a sheep at least, not even counting the long legs covered in sharp bristles.

Ami used the time that the monsters needed to sort out their many limbs and re-orient themselves to call out her trademark attack. "Shabon Spray!"

The oversized arachnids hesitated as the sudden fog robbed them of their vision, a fatal mistake. One of the yellow and black monstrosities suddenly found itself shock-frozen, then shattered by hammer blows from Cathy, who was venting her pain and anger at the situation on this easy target. A second spider charged blindly into the direction that it had last spotted the smallest of the targets. The dwarf, being one of Ami's allies, could see it coming despite the strangely transparent mist, and hopped out of the way. The beast let out a shrill warble as its lunge carried it onward, straight into the spike-studded interior of the iron maiden. The impact toppled the open torture device, and its lid fell shut, trapping the injured monster inside. Long legs protruding from the gap under the iron coffin's lid twitched a few times before going still. Meanwhile, the third attacker found that it couldn't move very well with thrown daggers sticking out of its joins, while the last one joined its companion in being frozen statuary.

Wisely, Keeper Arachne refrained from throwing any more minions into the impenetrable murk.

"We really need to get out of here," Jered repeated. His body was covered in scabs, grime, and freshly-healed burns. "We are hurt, have no armour, only salvaged weapons, and half the team is dead. We should try to avoid combat and reach one of the other teams."

Ami felt inclined to agree. She would have loved to get revenge against their captors, but her companions were in no shape to fight, and she didn't want to leave them to fend for themselves. Nodding, she scanned the surroundings, producing her computer out of thin air. "All right. We are in a dead end here, and the only exit is through that door. There is a large open area behind it, and I can't find any secret exits."

"Aye, didn't spot any myself," the dwarf agreed. He had picked up a hammer himself, and was approaching the exit. "Get over 'ere and help me with that door," he ordered.

After a few determined blows, the obstacle was reduced into its splintery component parts. Ami climbed over the sawdust-smelling debris. The cave behind the doorway was enormous, large enough that an entire cathedral could have fir inside. A soft blue-green glow illuminated the area, emanating from special threads spun into the white spider silk that covered any exposed surface with smooth, shining threads. The entire place reminded Ami of the interior of a giant cocoon, ethereally beautiful in its own way. Bulbous, elongated forms hung from ceiling on long threads, reminiscent of pears hanging from a tree. However, this was no fairy tale grotto, as Ami was quickly reminded of when she scanned the silk-wrapped bundles. It was a larder, and each of the hanging cocoons contained a human skeleton, some of which were small enough to belong to toddlers. Shaken, the blue-haired girl clenched her fists in anger. Was there nothing that this Keeper wouldn't stoop to?

"Holy crap, that's an awful lot of spiders," Cathy commented after looking down the length of the cavern. Awful sets of eight faceted eyes stared back hungrily. "Watch out! They are even climbing along the walls!"

"We can take them," Ami declared, her blue eyes flickering red with rage as she stood her ground in the face of the onrushing chitinous wave, fury clouding her judgement.

Surprisingly, the spiders stopped as one. "Is that so?" the scratchy not-voice of Keeper Arachne asked, sounding quite amused. A humanoid shadow that hadn't been there a moment before was covering the ceiling, defying the rules of physics. Red pinpricks in its darkness pulsated cheerfully. "Then what about this?"

A giant, nebulous black finger stabbed down from the shadowy figure, into one of the spiders. Under the party's incredulous stares, the arachnid grew larger and larger, until it had reached the size of a town house. Eight eyes as big as Ami's head stared down at her, and the ground trembled when the oversized monster advanced on its trunk-like legs. A Shabon Spray Freezing struck the animal in the face, having about as much effect as a snowball hitting a human. Ami did what came naturally, and ran like a little girl. "Back! Everyone back into the chamber! Get away from the entrance!"

The party piled back into the horrible blood-drenched room and scattered, fighting against nausea as they breathed in the miasma. An enormous limb covered in razor sharp bristles stabbed through the opening and stoked around, overturning tables and equipment in the process. Shouting to be heard over the cacophony of bouncing furniture, Jered turned to Ami, who was pressing herself against the far wall. "Think your Keeper ally can do something to get us out of this?"

The limb retracted, scratching over the ground with its barbs as it did. A heavy impact shook the outer wall, making the torture tools lining it rattle. Rocks and dust rained from the ceiling.

"It's trying to break through the wall! DO SOMETHING!" the other surviving male adventurer shouted, looking ready to soil his pants - not that it would have been noticeable in his sewage-encrusted state.

Ami's eyes had glazed over, and her attention was elsewhere. Back in the dungeon, the pages of her travel magic spellbook rustled as an imp turned them for her with reckless haste. Something to move faster. Interesting, but inappropriate. A spell to increase a horse's stamina. Useless. Seven-Mile-Boots. She didn't even want to think about the mechanics involved. Ever-full sails. Useless. Useless, useless, useless. Wasn't there anything about teleportation? Skipping forward to the more advanced spells, she read as fast as she could, until she reached the end of the book. A spell that took half an hour to cast and would transport the caster to a point she had visited before. Useless under current circumstances. Most of the teleportation chapter seemed to be about retrieving, rather than sending things. She had the imp flip several pages back. Maybe this.

"I- I think I might be able to call some help," the blue-haired girl suggested after a while, awareness returning to her eyes.

"Only 'might'?" Jered asked, trying his best to keep his fear from affecting his voice.

"I have never actually tried this spell before," Ami admitted. "You had better move back a bit." Unknown to the others, she was questioning the wisdom of her decision. The ritual would be able to move a single, stationary creature to her location. Her imps and beetles were useless against the current foe, and the goblins wouldn't fare any better. The only underling she had who was potentially of any use was the one she loathed most and was wary about unleashing on the world. Her resolve to never release the demon had suffered a crushing blow from recent experiences, though. At least all the Reaper wanted was mindless slaughter, a slight but appreciable step up from Arachne and her underling. How weirdly perspectives could change. She noticed that she was procrastinating, and prepared to get started. Of course, the red demon had to make things difficult by pacing around in his throne room, snorting furiously and stomping his feet in a rage.

The scaly, horned monster turned its head, shoulder pauldrons rattling, when a circular diagram made of blue flame appeared on the red carpet going through the centre of his lair. An imp-drawn sign slammed down in front of the restless demon, short and to the point: "Need something killed. Get into circle!"

"FINALLY!" the demon nearly tripped over his own feet in his puppy-like enthusiasm as he raced toward the centre of the counter-rotating circles, earlier rage forgotten.

Back in the half-ruined torture chamber, Ami had both of her hands raised high over her head as she struggled to pronounce the unfamiliar syllables of the spell. A clean circle of ground had expanded in front of her, pushing a ring-shaped wave of clogging blood outward as it grew in diameter. The magical circle's perimeter burst into icy flame, and thirteen evenly-spaced flickering runes appeared in the burning curtain.

"What's the lass doin'? Look at her eyes! That's a downright evil look!" the dwarf edged away from the chanting sorceress, eyeing her suspiciously.

"She's trying to summon help. I'd rather take my chances with her than with that monster spider outside! Get over here and help me, the small ones are trying to get in!" Jered put a stop to that line of thinking. The room shook again under a heavy impact as he and Cathy barricaded the entrance with an overturned rack, both bracing themselves against it with their shoulders as blows rained down on the obstacle.

"What could she possibly be callin' that could help with that?" the dwarf asked, even as he pulled another table toward the improvised barricade, adding loud scraping noises to the clamour.

Ami's voice reached a crescendo as she refused to let herself be distracted by the plight of her comrades. In response, lines of fire pulsed and drew a pentagram in the centre of the summoning circle. Suddenly, the entire room coloured with the bright orange tones of an active furnace when a tornado of flame exploded from the ground, sending large chunks of the summoning circle flying. Within the pillar of fire towered a dark, horned silhouette, holding up a wicked-looking scythe as it bellowed a challenge to the world.

Previous chapter: Next chapter:
Chapter 16: Deeper Into Trouble Chapter 18: Spiders Everywhere!



Attached comments:

  • her only real use most the time was let the computer visor tell her the monsters weakness then shout it out to the rest of the team
    Her bubble attack is actually surprisingly awesome, from a tactical point of view. I can't think of a single regular monster that wasn't completely useless after she used it, and it doesn't impede allies. It also seems to have mild anti-magic/purifying properties, as she uses it to quickly take out Youma's lesser minions - such as possessed animals, animated dolls, and the likes. She even uses it to protect herself against the heat of a fireball that she has to enter in the second-last episode of season 1, if only for a short time.
    Her problem is really the total lack of something to actually deal damage with.