Ami grinned smugly down at the Reaper, whose furious expression looked completely incongruous on the borrowed face of the blue-haired girl. She - for Ami had decided to use the appropriate pronouns for the body, rather than the spirit inhabiting it - was uncharacteristically not acting on her violent impulses and was glaring at her possessed body through red-flashing eyes instead, arms folded over her chest. Not that she had more violent options, as Ami had remembered after the first moment of panic that she - he? This was taking some getting used to - could just immobilise and disarm the neo-girl with his Keeper powers. He resumed leafing through the possession tome with large, unwieldy red fingers, grateful that the claws at their ends were surprisingly useful for this. "Hmm, yes. I think I see."
The Reaper looked up with sudden hope in her eyes. "Then hurry up and fix this!"
Payback time."Oh, I don't think I will." She savoured the Reaper's jaw dropping open as she drew her head back slightly in surprise.
"Well, I noticed that this body is not tired, as opposed to my own. If I don't have to sleep, then I have more time to prepare before the enemy arrives. Besides, you are much more manageable this way."
The Reaper clenched and unclenched her fists rapidly, going red in the face from anger. "You can't do that! That's MY body you have stolen! Give it BACK! This... this is unfair!"
Smug grins really came easily to this demon body, Ami thought as he loomed over the girl, feeling the skin covering his fangs recede. "So? I am a Keeper, as you like to point out so frequently. If you want this body back, you better had better start behaving, for example by covering up!" He pointed at the girl's bare chest, which was quivering freely as the Reaper shook in rage. "Oh, and do try to take proper care of my body. I would be less inclined to return to damaged goods, you see!"
The Reaper's lips formed an angry pout as she simmered at the realisation of her own helplessness, and after a while, she hissed "FINE!" and stomped her foot. "Ow! Stupid, useless, weak girl body!" Before she could limp off, she felt herself picked up by the Keeper's invisible hand.
"Now go to my room and sleep. I will retrieve you when I need you." With that, Ami dropped his possessed body down on the soft bed in his own bedroom, hoping that the bluff had worked and that no harsher measures would be necessary. Having to watch your own body walk around, or worse, having to restrain it, was very disconcerting.
If turning the pages of a book was difficult with the meaty paws of a horned reaper, then handling the keys of the tiny Mercury computer was even worse. To Ami's relief, he had still been able to make use of the device. He probably shouldn't have been worried about that, as he had always been able to access the machine even in civilian form. His magical attacks, however... well, he technically wasn't in Sailor Mercury form, so the fact that his attempt to cast Shabon Spray Freezing had actually worked was surprising by itself. However, the effort required to do so had nearly floored him, and the pool of power slumbering within the dungeon heart seemed much reduced afterwards. He wondered if the Reaper's body was so fire-aspected that using ice magic required additional effort. As interesting as the question was, it would have to wait until later. Time was wasting, and he didn't intend to stay long in this body anyway, so the question was of low priority.
Ami mentally went over the list of current issues again. His primary goal, getting home, was unachievable with his current abilities. Even if he could do it in the limited time, he would be leaving Cathy, Snyder, and Jered to their fate, which most of them didn't really deserve. Researching a solution would drain invaluable time that could be used to deal with more pressing issues, the root cause of which was the likelihood of the Baron showing up in less than a week. Normally, Ami's preferred response to this problem would have been to vacate the area. He didn't want to fight people who had done nothing wrong, but in this case, he regrettably had little choice. He was linked to the local dungeon heart, and it was too big to flee with. While he was reluctant to take the Reaper's words at face value, the fact that the destruction of a dungeon heart did bad things to the Keeper was pretty much incontrovertible after having watched what happened to Arachne. He wasn't entirely sure if the enemy Keeper had perished right there, or if whatever kind of creature she had been could even properly die, but it had been clear that she had been sucked into some kind of hellish other world.
Shivering involuntarily as he recalled the feel of that darkness, Ami sighed. He didn't want to die, doubly so if it meant going to hell undeservedly, something he didn't really want to think about a lot. As soon as the danger had passed, he would have to look into finding a way to disentangle himself from the dungeon heart and all the evil associated with it. Maybe Snyder's acolyte training would be helpful, but he rather doubted that, based on past performance. Right now, spending time on getting rid of the heart connection would be unhelpful, even counter-productive. Losing the dungeon heart would also cost him access to most of his resources, without deterring enemies in the slightest. With a sigh, he closed the file on that question. He really, really, hoped that this wasn't a mistake that would come back to haunt him in a week.
But enough of the unproductive fretting. He needed a way to survive the coming assault, and there were only two possibilities. Either he had to fend off the attack, hopefully without causing too much harm, or he had to acquire a new dungeon heart elsewhere. The latter option was more palatable, as it involved destroying another evil Keeper and not fighting innocents. Either way, more soldiers were required. At this point, he leaned back on his rock chair and looked at the vaulting stone ceiling with yellow eyes. What could he do about recruiting minions? More imps were a logical choice, they were obedient and required for any kind of fortification work. But fighters? Goblins were weak and impulsive, and he doubted their ability to not seriously injure whoever they were fighting, or whether they would even attempt to follow orders to that aim. Beetles and spiders? Nearly the same problems, and he didn't know if they were smart enough to understand a command like that in the first place. Human mercenaries? She would feel guilty if they gave their life fighting for her. Well, unless they were monsters like that warlock Nero. Feeling rather shocked at the ruthlessness of that idea, Ami nevertheless kept the option open, if reluctantly. He had never thought he'd actually think about youma fondly. At least, those never killed anyone in gruesome ways (if not for a lack of trying), and their energy drain would be really handy in this situation. With another sigh, Ami stood up and approached the stacks of books. Maybe one of those would hold useful answers.
"I see Mercury has been busy," Cathy said as she walked down one of the corridors, hair still frazzled from the night.
Jered nodded. Same as the swordswoman, he was clad in a red toga made from a curtain, and carefully manoeuvred through the mass of imps milling about without a plan or purpose "She seems certainly energetic. Somewhat surprising after last night."
The blonde blushed red like a tomato. "Let's not bring that up ever again. I mean, she and..? Brr. It doesn't bear thinking about!"
"Exactly! Exactly." Snyder was quick to agree. Somehow, his bowl cut was perfect, not one hair out of place, as Cathy noted with chagrin. There must have been some magic involved. "Where is she, anyway?"
"Let's just ask the imps," Jered suggested, grabbing one of the passing creatures by the shoulder. "Hey you, where's the Keeper?"
The bug-eyed imp looked up with something like surprise in its big black orbs, then pointed one of the three fingers of its right hand at the intersection leading to the briefing room, before it scuttled off to do who-knows-what.
The three adventurers arrived at their destination, only to hesitate at the doorstep. In their defence, the room contained a horned reaper, whose red-scaled form was still looming high, even seated and stooped over an open tome. He looked up and turned toward the humans, who were retreating nervously from the opening, and waved his free hand invitingly "Oh, good morning. Do come in!"
"Is- is he smiling?" Snyder whispered incredulously.
Jered grinned "Maybe all he needed to mellow out was a night of- OW! Cathy!"
The blonde rubbed her elbow. The brown-haired man's ribcage was somewhat bony. Ignoring his frown, she breathed a sigh of relief that the Reaper had apparently not overheard the comment, and asked "Um, is Mercury around?"
"I'm right here - just switched bodies with the Reaper so she could take a nap for me. Which certainly sounded better than "I just botched a possession spell, but don't worry, the situation is under control."
"Switched... bodies? Seriously?" Snyder took a look at the Reaper's scythe, which was, contrary to all expectations, leaning against one of the walls, out of reach of the demon. This gave at least some credibility to the idea.
"So you are Mercury in the horned reaper's body, and he is in yours? Are you sure that's a good idea?" Cathy asked, a hint of worry swinging in her voice.
"Well, it took some convincing" for some reason, Jered waggled his eyebrows silently when he heard that statement, "but she's bound to cause less problems in that form, at least I hope so. Actually, I think she might be able to assist with training like that, as she won't be killing anyone accidentally."
"It's not 'accidental' deaths I'm worried about with a reaper," Cathy muttered. Still, Ami could see that the woman was mulling the idea over. "Well, we might as well give it a try, provided that we use training weapons."
"That won't be hard, as I have noticed a certain lack of equipment - well - everywhere," Jered said. "Even the goblins seem mostly unarmed. How comes?"
Ami raised a hand behind his head in an embarrassed gesture that didn't fit the hulking demon body he was wearing at all. "Ah, well, that would be because most of what they were holding was replaced by what my clothes-replacing transformation created." Seeing his companion's long faces, he quickly added "I already have an idea on how to remedy that, don't worry!"
Ami reached out with his Keeper power and, after checking that the Reaper was indeed decent, grabbed her from her room, and transported her before present company. Metal and chains clanked as the blue-haired girl wobbled and waved her arms in order to catch her balance. The adventurers just stared at the young female wearing the rather minimalistic horned reaper outfit, although it had been amended with a strip of red fabric wrapped around the chest. Notably, Snyder and Jered were staring longer than was strictly necessary.
"Keeper! Are you going to finally fix this mess?" the Reaper immediately rounded on the largest figure in the room, teeth grinding audibly in the sudden silence.
"No. I called you here because I have a task for you. We have a distinct lack of weapons, so could you make a few more scythes, please?" The polite request just didn't sound right coming from a huge red hell-spawned abomination. The Reaper's cheeks immediately reddened with anger as she heard that.
"What? Arm your unworthy minions with my scythes?"
"Not exactly. Cathy, do you still have that hammer?" Ami turned her attention to the blonde, who nodded in confirmation, but looked puzzled. "Good. If we fold the scythe blades upwards so they point in the same direction as the heft, then we can use them as reasonable spears."
"Spears? SPEARS? Argh!" the Reaper's chest was heaving as she breathed in and out deeply in an effort to calm down, and one of her delicate eyebrows was twitching. Ami was getting worried about the body suffering a stroke.
"That makes sense," Cathy pondered, blue eyes twinkling in amusement, "takes much less time to train someone to use a spear properly than anything else. Besides, it's a much more practical weapon than a scythe."
"Oh, that does it! DIE!" The Reaper's barely-existing patience was finally overcome by the anger at this slander of her signature weapon. With a cry of fury, she hurled herself in the blonde's direction, scythe held high - only to be stopped short as she felt an invisible grip restrain her.
"Now, Reaper, remember our previous discussion," Ami chided. "You want this body back, right?"
The demon in a girl's body kept struggling for a while until it sank in just how little her efforts were helping. Besides, her muscles started to ache after that little bit of exertion. Oh, how she hated being stuck like this! "All right," she growled finally. She threw her weapon down with a loud clang. A flash of red and a wave of heat later, she was holding a new one, which clattered on the floor next to the first one.
"Snyder, were you having any success hiding the emanations of the dungeon heart from the surface?" Ami asked, distracting the redhead from watching the blue haired girl bounce around conjuring more weapons.
"Ah, I'm sorry to inform you that my efforts haven't met with success yet," the acolyte said with a nervous smile, "in fact, the energy output of the heart leads to rapid degradation of my wards, and total failure quickly follows."
"In other words, they burst into flame," Cathy mocked. "How utterly unexpected."
"Don't worry about it," Ami interrupted. "Could you go to the library instead and use the crystal ball to call a certain Nicodemus Asbraxe and buy all the maps you can get? I don't mind if there is some overlap. Once you are done with that, experiment with different materials, please. Maybe it's enough to just chisel a larger ward into stone. "
"Oh, certainly. Why, with my considerable expertise, I will be able to obtain them at a good price too, I'm sure," the young man smiled, already moving toward the exit.
Ami watched the last corner of his white robes disappear around the corner, and addressed Jered, who was still watching the Reaper, much to his more conservatively dressed girlfriend's annoyance. "Jered, can you go around and make a list of things that we are lacking and can't improvise or magic up ourselves? Oh, and don't go into the Heart Chamber. The traps are indiscriminate."
"Okay," the wavy haired man nodded.
Cathy faced Ami's red bulk expectantly, wondering what her task would be.
"Ah, yes, that's quite enough scythes, Reaper. Thanks. Cathy, can you please take those to the goblins and start converting them? Imps, give her a hand." Ami paused at the blonde's nod and watched as a bunch of imps filed in, each one picking up a weapon and then lining up behind the woman like ducklings behind the mother duck. "Once you are done, I would be grateful if you started training them. The beetles too, if possible. Dull practice weapons only to start with."
That left the horned reaper. Ami contemplated letting her train with the others, but one look at the angry furrows marring her brow killed and buried that idea. "You, come with me and stay out of trouble. I may just have a task for you."
Hours later, clouds of grey dust wafted through the room, coating the precariously swaying stacks of open books on the rickety table with a layer of stone particles. Sharp-edged stone chips went flying as a heavy hammer struck again and again, propelled by a slender figure whose blue eyes gleamed with manic glee.
"I think that's enough, Reaper. It stopped moving a while ago." Ami was towering in front of the table, scaled hands leaning on the wood as he looked down at the scribbled notes, frowning. Behind him, a group of imps dragged and shoved a fresh stone cube about twice as tall as themselves into room, accompanied by horrible scraping noises. "I said THAT'S ENOUGH!" He had to shout to make himself heard over the din.
"Aww." The Reaper's pout on Ami's face might have looked cute if the owner hadn't been plastered in dust that stuck to her sweat-soaked skin, it's paleness only interrupted by streaks of crimson where flying stone splinters had drawn blood. The body was panting with exertion, though the demon inside sounded happy, and the lack of red light in the eyes indicated an unusual absence of anger. "Make a new one! Hurry!" She bounced up and down with excitement, waving the sledgehammer about as if it were her trusty scythe. Under her metal-clad feet, the remains of what seemed to be a half formed statue were ground deeper into the dust.
"Experiment number eighty-six: failure due to fused legs," Ami noted down, looking at the data on her palmtop's screen once again to determine what she was doing wrong. Taking the spirit animating the conjured flesh of an imp and fusing it with stone had seemed like such a promising idea at the start. Use a spell, get an obedient and durable rock soldier out of the deal. It hadn't turned out to be quite that simple. The only one who was enjoying the experiments so far was the Reaper, who had enthusiastically taken up the job of disposing of the failures. The remains of previous attempts were stacked along the walls, big blocks of multi-coloured rock with distorted faces, grasping malformed hands that reached out of the flat sides, and even more disturbing tangles of limbs and other features. For some reason, the imps had thought it a good idea to enhance the mad-scientist lab atmosphere by using the horrid sculptures as holders for suitably dribbly candles. At this point, Ami wouldn't be surprised if one of the bug-eyed servants suddenly turned out to speak with a lisp and started calling him "Mashter."
"Experiment number eighty seven: base material basalt, twenty-six percent increase in mana density over previous experiment." The towering horned form turned toward the innocent stone block and extended its hands, forming a sphere of green-streaked darkness between them. It shot forward and hit the rock, whose already dark stone surface blackened even more and flowed like mud as it grew taller and slimmer. Lumpy features became more defined, until finally a tall, three-fingered, roughly humanoid figure stood in front of Ami. Very roughly humanoid. It had two eyes and a mouth, but all the proportions were off and asymmetric. However, nothing was missing or too much, and there seemed to be at least some awareness behind these black basalt orbs. Success at last? Ami held up a hand, causing the Reaper to put her raised hammer down in disappointment. "Wait, this one might actually work."
"It is incredibly ugly and should be put out of its misery," the demon in a female body commented. The golem's head turned around to face her with a grinding noise.
"I need them to be able to fight, not to be beautiful. Golem, throw a punch!" Ami ordered, walking in a circle around his creation as he inspected it from all sides.
The golem obliged. Its fist struck the wall with considerable force, then clattered to the ground, most of the arm still attached.
"Can I get rid of Arms-Fall-Off-Boy now?" the Reaper asked eagerly.
Ami sighed and nodded, and immediately, the sounds of violent demolition recommenced. The enthusiasm with which the Reaper took to killing was rather disturbing. Ami hoped with all his heart that those little moans and gasps he heard over the clanging impacts and crumbling noises were only signs of strain and effort. Better to just focus on learning more from the most recent failure. Hmm, the main difference between this experiment and the last, other than stone texture, had been the amount of energy spent on -
A soft thumping sound, very different from the loud strikes of metal against rock, along with the cessation of all other noise, alerted him that something was wrong. He turned around and saw his motionless original body lying on the debris of the latest failed creation, the hammer that had slipped from her fingers forgotten on the ground next to it. In a near panic, Ami ran the few steps over there and knelt down next to the Reaper and picked her up. Still breathing, good. He quickly diagnosed that she had passed out from exhaustion. He probably should have expected something like this. The Reaper simply wasn't used to a body that could get tired, and had ignored all the warning signs. Ami winced. That wouldn't feel good once he returned to that form. Maybe the Reaper could keep it a while longer. Yes, that sounded sensible.
There was an upside to this sudden collapse, though. With the Reaper unconscious, this was too good an opportunity for finding out what was wrong with the senshi transformation to pass up. Ami dropped off the Reaper in her bedroom and removed what little she was wearing before tucking her under the covers, then disappeared into thin air and re-appeared next to Cathy, who let out a startled shriek as the towering monstrous form suddenly appeared next to her.
"Shit! Don't do that!" the blonde narrowed her eyes at Ami, making the scar running down her right cheek twitch, and waved a long wooden stick at him. Behind her the two rows of ten goblins each collapsed into complete chaos.
"You bunch of wretches! Who said you could relax? Back in line! Maka, I saw that!" Cathy shouted, whirling back to face the little green rapscallions, most of which were still wearing short blue miniskirts and formerly white leotards.
There was much grumbling and stumbling around and crashing into each other, but slowly the mess sorted itself back out into two rows of triangular-eared humanoids holding long wooden sticks straight up, for generous definitions of "up". "Yes, Sir!" answered a high-pitched chorus.
"That's better," the swordswoman commented.
Ami noted that the blonde's toga was torn in places. "Did they give you any trouble?"
"Only at the beginning. It seems that getting something into their dense little skulls takes a certain amount of force," the woman replied, grinning.
A closer look revealed that many of the goblins were sporting bruises and welts, especially on their heads. "Right. I will be doing some experiments in a few minutes that may well cause everyone to end up in a uniform like the goblins."
Cathy tried to argue, but Ami just continued talking over her protests. It helped that he was in a body with much larger and more powerful lungs than the blonde. "I am sorry about the inconvenience, but everyone of you had better find some privacy and remove everything they intend to keep from their person. I will be starting in a little while, and will send the imps to alert you when everything is over." Without a further word, he disappeared to give the same warning to Snyder and Jered, who both protested even more vehemently than Cathy, but to no avail.
After making sure through Keeper sight that everybody had acted on his advice, Ami teleported himself to the Dungeon Heart and deposited his Mercury computer nearby, open and in scanning mode. Now came the more embarrassing part. He might be in the Reaper's body, but he had no idea how he summoned his gear, so he would have to remove it first. All of it. Sure, there was a good chance that simply de-transforming would get it back, but why take an unnecessary risk? This was one of the situations where being a teenage girl stuck in a male body felt like a rather large problem. Ah well, nobody had ever died from embarrassment, and he wanted to be a doctor later, so he had best get it over with quickly. At least on this body, nobody would ever be able to spot a blush.
Preparations complete, Ami called out "Mercury Power, Make Up!" and felt the familiar transformation, which ended with him, still male, in a short pleated miniskirt and a white leotard with large ribbons, which looked even more ridiculous than it sounded. A quick grab at his ear confirmed that, yes, his scanner now worked even in this body. Staring directly at the Dungeon Heart, he transformed again, and another three times for repeated measures of the data he was recording. Satisfied, he popped over to the Reaper's bedroom and removed the senshi uniform from the unconscious girl and stashed it away in the wardrobe. He would want to have it available once he took his body back. And now it was time to get out of this familiar but embarrassing outfit and back into the horned Reaper garb. When finished, he sent some of the imps, now also fukued, to alert the other dungeon denizens that the "danger" was over.
With an angry grunt, Ami kicked her newest failed creation. The unfortunate statue was catapulted out of the door and impacted the wall, where it shattered into thousands of pieces. This stone golem business wasn't working out as planned. The statues were becoming more lifelike, but he still had not been able to fix any of the brittleness issues. Besides, he was getting the suspicion that the bound spirits would not be able to exert any more force than a regular imp.
"Heard that noise? I think Mercury is over there," Snyder's voice approached from outside. Soon after, he and Jered appeared in the opening of the door and stared into the lab. The weasel-faced man was looking quite tall next to the red-haired acolyte and was holding a strip of paper.
"Mercury? Are you here?"
Both men suddenly went very pale and backed away into the wall, shaking. Ami looked into their wide eyes and said "I know the room looks a bit bad, but that seems like an overrea-"
"Who the hell are you?" Jered shouted, his hand disappearing into his toga and rummaging for a knife, while Snyder sank to his knees muttering "...second one... she has two of them... " under his breath.
Ami seemed puzzled for a moment before understanding dawned. The disguise field is working in this body? He had felt more like Sailor Mercury, but different, too. Now that he thought about it, his initial body hadn't de-transform, did it? He'd have to remember de-transforming before leaving this one. The regular Reaper was bad enough, a magically boosted one... "I am Sailor Mercury, " he flat out told the two men, which was enough to break the spell, "it was a side effect of what I did earlier, sorry. Don't worry about it."
There were two surprised gasps from the adventurers, before they shook their heads as if to clear away the cobwebs.
"Ah, I see." Jered peered into the lab, taking in dust, debris, and broken statues everywhere. "Not having much success with whatever it is you are doing?"
"No," Ami admitted, "Or rather, it's a partial success. I can make animated statues, but they consume so much energy when moving that I can only maintain one or two, and that at low activity level or they fall apart."
The red-headed acolyte, who had picked himself up from the floor, coughed to clear the dust from his throat. "Oh, that's normal. Golems always are energy hogs. I had the opportunity to see the one in the kingdom of Neverdark. It runs on a mana battery that needs to recharge for two months for every hour of action," the acolyte proudly offered his knowledge on the matter.
"Would you happen to know why this is so?" Ami asked. She didn't have two months to charge some batteries!
"Not exactly. This is advanced magical theory. Still, it has something to do with the material being hard and inflexible, so every movement involves either expending magic to make the solids temporarily soft, or banishing what's in the way and conjuring new material where it needs to be replaced. Usually, the latter method is chosen, as it isn't much more expensive than the former and also makes the golem nearly invulnerable. In any case," the redhead coughed again, "it is like constantly casting a very high level spell. Extremely draining."
"I see. So the solidity is the problem." Ami's statement was not a question, and a far-away, thoughtful look flickered over the horned reaper's features, which certainly had not been made for it. Picture of icy tubes filled with liquid flitted through Ami's mind. Hmm, yes. Fragility would be a problem and strength would remain one... unless... maybe hydraulics... hmm, that would be slow but...
"Hello? Mercury?" Jered was waving his piece of paper in front of the red demon face, a feat he wouldn't even have dreamed about even a day before.
"Oh, sorry, yes. This is the list of things we need and lack?" Ami took it and skimmed over it. It was uncomfortably long. "Well, my imps are digging in a direction that the Reaper informed me would lead to a 'portal', which she expects to give us access to some Underworld cities. Maybe we can go shopping there."
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