Ami was breathing hard and feeling weak in her knees. Blood loss, she realised with a look down at her belly. Smears of dark red coated her skin there, forming a stark contrast with the brighter tones where sweat glistened in the orange light. The consequences of the hastily-healed injury were combining with Ami's previous sickness and aching muscles to make even standing a chore, now that she had time to dwell on the state of her body. Below the cliffs located a few steps behind the blue-haired girl, the lava river roared. The sweltering heat rising from the stream contributed to Ami's exhaustion, and she was suddenly grateful that she wasn't wearing anything warmer than the loincloth and red strip of cloth covering her chest that came with the Reaper's outfit. The metal armour covering her shoulders, shins, and hips was feeling uncomfortably hot and heavy, though. Her thoughts drifted for a moment to how little coverage such a design really provided, before turning to more unpleasant matters.
The plaza between her and the portal was still on fire, although the flames were in the process of dying down. Surrounding the charred remains of the palanquin lay three or four little bodies. The precise number was hard to tell because the half-cooked remains were in multiple dismembered parts. At their sight, Ami felt another sinking sensation in her stomach that had nothing to do with physical illness. The knowledge that the goblins had died in her service made her deeply uncomfortable, even if she intellectually knew that the blame lay entirely with the Reaper. She looked up at Cathy standing next to her. She was observing both the lava flow and the ramp leading to the city through narrowed eyes. Dark shapes, not all of them humanoid, had appeared before the bright doors and windows, apparently observing the battle. Gradually, they slipped back into the hollows hewn into the cavern walls when it became clear that the excitement was over.
"Cathy," Ami asked with a thin voice, "are there some customs that should be observed about that?" she indicated the chopped-up corpses strewn over the ground with a nerveless wave of her hand.
The blonde shrugged. "I haven't grown up in the Underworld."
Ami nodded in understanding. "I don't think I can continue on in this state. I'll move us back to the dungeon."
The air distorted faintly as it rushed into the vacuum where both girls had been standing before. Ami and Cathy re-appeared inside her dungeon, in front of the other denizens.
"Cathy! You are safe!" Jered exclaimed, voice filled with relief, and walked toward the blonde, "what were you thinking, going out there to fight that beast?"
"Mainly that the Reaper knows where this dungeon is and how to get back here," she answered, in a deadpan tone of voice, before snickering at the brown-haired man's flabbergasted expression. That thought had obviously not occurred to him yet. He turned nervously toward the four megaliths forming the portal. "He's not going to walk in at any moment now, is he?"
"No, we sent him running like a dog with his tail between his legs," the blonde stated with satisfaction, smacking her fist into her open palm. The surviving goblins leaning against the unfinished wall of the corridor let out a cautious cheer.
"You won?" Jered asked, incredulous. "And stop sniggering!"
"Sorry. You look so ridiculous in that skirt!" Cathy continued giggling at the sight of the man in a sailor fuku. "And we sure did kick arse! I tagged him with an ice blast and then sliced open his arm!" the swordswoman gushed, grabbing her blood-soaked spear and waving it about in her enthusiasm to display it.
"Wait, what? You used magic? How does that work?"
"I'm very interested in learning how you managed to do that, too," Ami chimed in. She was sitting on the floor, a pillow between her and the cold ground, and imps were scurrying around her. Two were busy draping a blanket from her bedroom around her shoulders, protecting the shivering girl from the chilly dungeon air.
"Well, you showed me how," Cathy explained. "I was right there when you used the spell, and could feel how you shaped it and how you were drawing power into it," the woman explained. "It took me a while to realise that I was still connected to the power source even after you left, and so..." She trailed off when she noticed that Ami had activated her visor and was now peering intently at her.
The blue-haired girl's fingers flew over the keyboard of her computer, and she asked "Could you demonstrate, please?"
Cathy complied, coating one of the walls with a thin layer of ice. Ami felt light-headed from the sudden drain, and slumped down on her pillow. Shaking her head, she straightened with a faint groan, and looked on the readout on her screen. "Could you do the regular Shabon Spray too, please?"
"Are you sure that's wise? You don't look so good," the fuku-wearing blonde cautioned. Seeing Ami's determined nod, she went ahead, and bubbles spread through the tunnel, filling it with white fog.
"That's strange, I barely felt that," Ami commented, comparing the readings she had taken of this attack with the ones from before. "There appears to be-"
"Wait. You are linked to the dungeon heart too now?" Jered asked with dawning horror as he looked from his girlfriend to Mercury.
"No, I don't think so," Ami replied, "From what I am seeing here, she is tapping directly into the magic I had before linking with the dungeon heart. I think the connection was forged when I transformed using her body, and that it will disappear once she de-transforms."
"I'd rather not, if it's all the same to you," Cathy objected. "These enchantments make me stronger and faster, and it doesn't look as if it's consuming too much of your energy to maintain them."
"Well, uh," Ami scratched her head, not having expected that, "but it's quite likely that nobody who hasn't seen you transform will recognise you, unless you directly tell them who you are."
The blonde thought about this for a moment."I'm shocked and appalled at the idea that nobody will be able to connect the girl wearing this ridiculous outfit with me," she finally said, "I really am."
Ami suddenly turned to the goblins, feeling guilty about being too distracted by her own curiosity to think about them. "I'm sorry about your dead comrades - is there something that needs to be done about them?"
"Is safe to go out now?" the largest goblin, who was still a good head shorter than Ami, asked while pointing at the wavering images within the portal. At the Keeper's confirming nod, he shouted "You heard! Go loot bodies before someone else do!"
The disorderly mob of green creatures elbowed and jostled each other in their haste to get through the portal first. The other surface worlders just stared after them with surprise and not a little disgust. "Figures," Jered spat after the silence had grown uncomfortably long. "Now what, Mercury?"
Coaxing Snyder out of his hiding spot had been unsuccessful until Ami exasperatedly dropped a large strip of red cloth next to him, showing the vain redhead that she knew where he was. He used it to cover the senshi uniform he was now wearing instead of his white and red robes. Unfortunately, it turned out that he couldn't do much for Ami except provide her with a temporary energy boost, not unlike a chemical stimulant, though they did learn that the feel of his holy magic disturbed her greatly. What both healers agreed on was that Mercury needed rest and good food to regain her strength, both of which were currently unavailable.
Ami had refused to stay in bed when she so pressingly needed assistants, and was now accompanying Cathy, Jered, and the gaggle of goblins on the second trip to the Underworld city. In a concession to the state of her health, she had gotten rid of the weighty pieces of metal armour, and was being carried on a new palanquin. Sure, she could have possessed another body, but her own needed time to heal, and would be in a form of stasis while she was within one of her minions. The remaining goblins were trailing behind, chatting excitedly at the prospect of some entertainment in the city. This time, there was no welcoming committee, despite the fact that her group must have been looking ridiculous to the inhabitants of the cave. Except for herself, each and every member of her party was wearing Sailor Mercury's blue and white outfit with bows and miniskirt, even a grumbling Jered. The argument that the monsters here now associated the outfit with the Keeper who managed to defeat a Reaper had convinced him to go along with that, even if he was still grumbling from time to time.
As the group approached the city, Ami could see that the citizens tended to move in well-armed groups, much like her own. The few individual travellers always kept a hand near their weapon, as if expecting to be attacked at any point. All closed doors looked rather sturdy, and she could see massive locks and bars on the open ones. The atmosphere here was clearly one of mutual mistrust and barely veiled paranoia. She also noted that humans were vastly outnumbered by other creatures, many of which she couldn't name, though the majority seemed to be trolls. Most "people" here went for a very minimalistic clothing style, which made sense considering the local temperatures. The few exceptions were wearing long and gaudy robes and cloaks, and had an aura of magic surrounding them. More than once, denizens stopped on the stairs and pointed as Ami and her posse passed. She could hear them starting to whisper amongst each other, and frequently picked up the word "Reaper". It seemed that she had gained some kind of reputation already.
Instead of the large communal market the young Keeper had expected from a medieval city, there were individual shops strewn haphazardly all over the slopes of the canyon. All were advertising with signs that depicted the goods or services available here, probably for the benefit of the illiterate costumers. Many of the signs made Ami blush bright red, and Cathy wasn't faring much better. Even Jered's cheeks had taken on a rosy colour.
However, despite the distractions and sights, Ami found herself dozing off again and again, lulled into sleep by the swaying motions of the palanquin, the heat, and the exhaustion hitting her like a ton of lead as Snyder's magic wore off faster than expected. From time to time, she woke and caught the tail end of a conversation or haggling process, or was woken to summon gold required to pay for the purchased items. All in all, the shopping trip was rather unexciting, and Jered seemed to have things well in hand. Ami could already see a new sword hanging from a belt around Cathy's waist, and a few of the goblins were holding bags full of groceries, raw materials for the lab, cloth, and various other conveniences that the dungeon couldn't produce for itself yet. She decided to transport the goods home with her power before the little greenskins managed to lose track of them. With a yawn, she sat up and stretched. "I'm feeling much better now. Thanks for taking care of things."
"Yes, we have almost everything on the list, except for clothing and armour. It might be best if you hired tailors or smiths for that, as they'll need to be custom made." Jered answered.
"Good. Did anything noteworthy happen that I should know about?"
Cathy grimaced. "Well, we ran into the group of thugs from before again. Oh, they didn't want to fight," she quickly continued upon seeing Ami's concerned expression, "but some wanted to know what the Reaper meant when he talked about the humiliations suffered by your hand. I'm afraid the goblins were only too happy to oblige."
Feeling still sleepy, and unaware that some of the passers-by were listening in, answered, "Oh. That doesn't sound so bad. They weren't around for most of them, anyway," and thus unwittingly added fuel to the rumour mill.
"I'm afraid you don't really get - ah well," the blonde seemed hesitant to talk about the topic, "there's another problem, too. We are missing six of the little pointy-eared freaks. They are probably off getting drunk, gambling away their wages, and talking about things they shouldn't be talking about."
Ami sighed, and used her Keeper sight to update herself on the location of her wayward minions. Quickly counting to six, she unceremoniously snatched up the troublemakers and yanked them back to a bare cell in her dungeon. Maybe that would help with discipline, but she doubted it. "I have dealt with them," she informed the swordswoman. "That leaves hiring assistants, and a smith or two. How would I go about that?"
"Check the taverns," Jered suggested. The brown-haired man was sporting a new bandoleer full of daggers that clashed horribly with the sailor fuku, but so did his hairy legs. "That's where unemployed creatures hang around and recruiters look for them. We should also be able to find out about other Keepers in the area there."
The largest tavern of the city was impossible to miss, one just had to follow the smell of alcohol and the rowdy cries of the patrons. It was located in the lower levels of the city, which was the better part of town, due to the easier access to the heat and light provided by the lava river. A skewered helmet dangling from a chain served as sign of the Severed Head Inn, and Ami felt a glimmer of irritation at the casual disregard for life when she noticed that the skull inside was real. Her palanquin wouldn't fit through the door into the grotto-like interior, so she had to get out and walk on her own. One of the duo of burly troll bouncers leered at her scantily clad body. She gave it her best glare, eyes flashing red, haughty expression and all. The creature shrank back and made way for her group.
Ami took a first step into the room, and immediately her nose was assaulted by a smell that was a mix of tobacco and more intoxicating substances. The haze in the air was so thick that the lighting was dim despite the multitude of burning braziers lining the walls. The establishment looked like a wide, refurbished tunnel. Along the entire left side ran a long counter, with mugs and glasses of different sizes than only the standard ones on top. Most of the tableware was terracotta, not glass, and she didn't even recognise a tenth of the brews standing on the shelves. To be honest, she didn't think that would be any different if she stepped into a Tokyo bar, as she had led a rather sheltered life. Following the theme of 'one-size-doesn't-fit-all', the furniture was a wild mishmash of small and big. Some enterprising interior designer had made the stunning observation that small creatures could pass through spaces sized for large ones, but not the reverse, and acted on the obvious conclusions. Near the entrance of the tavern, chairs and tables were sized for giants, but became smaller and smaller the deeper one walked into the room. The human-sized furniture was located around the middle, and Ami, who was a fourteen-year old Japanese girl of average size, felt rather intimidated surrounded by so many beings much larger than her. It didn't help that many of the guests stopped talking and eyed her speculatively when she entered. She overheard some of the commentary, and it made her ears burn. Stupid goblins!
"...that her?" "Seen it himself..."...riding the Reaper like..." "...even possible with the size difference..?" "...heard she made them exchange bodies first..." "Kinky."
The comments from some of the completely inhuman creatures were the most disturbing. Seriously, what was a giant orange lizard even doing in here, sipping something unidentifiable from a bowl? And that mass of green tentacles taking up two of the chairs in the corner... She shuddered, but grit her teeth and held her head high, going as far as to summon some magic for the sole purpose of making her eyes glow brighter. She was here to recruit some hirelings, and looking weak wasn't an option. Behind her, she heard the re-assuring steps of her companions as they followed her toward an empty table.
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