With one of her research projects completed more or less successfully, Ami felt that she could allow herself to flee to her bedroom and get good night's rest. She had moved her room and those of her companions to a new section of the dungeon that was off-limits to the most recently hired minions. None of them were trustworthy, so she was taking no chances. She didn't really expect any trouble from them right now, as they were as tired as she was, but it was better to be safe then sorry. In any case, a few traps and loyal imps would alert her long before any of them could get close to where she slept, if they dared go against her orders.

Ami's sleep was haunted by nightmares as her mind tries to come to terms with her recent experiences. Scenes replaying the bloody and painful ends of the men in Arachne's torture chamber and her own close brush with death during Reaper's revolt flickered through her mind. Relentlessly, the dreams showed her odd mixtures and variations of the past events, often substituting the faces of those who had perished with those of her friends, or making her re-enact her battles, but being just a moment too slow to pull through. In yet others, she found herself pursued by the Baron, the horned Reaper, or both, and unable to find back or shake them. In one of them, her skin was blue and sparkly, and she wasn't wearing any clothes. As a result of her over-active subconsciousness, Ami woke up drenched in sweat, feeling more rested than before, but still fatigued. Nevertheless, she had no inclination to go back to bed and face the unpleasantness again. Soaking in a good, hot bath sounded like a better idea right now.

Ami hadn't counted on being intercepted by Cathy, who seemed worryingly cheerful to the tired blue-haired girl. The blonde looked disgustingly relaxed and had pointed out quite logically that, if Mercury was going to take a bath, she should do so after training, or she would just be sweaty again. Thus, the senshi now found herself within the dungeon's training yard, facing the taller woman. the square combat arena was set into a square depression and took up most of the domed chamber. Ami could walk across its soft sand and straw mix with less than ten steps, so there wasn't much room for really long jumps and bounds. She and her trainer were wearing identical white and blue sailor senshi uniforms, same as the goblins watching the proceedings with great interest. Of course, the child-sized green creatures had not taken much care of their equipment, so the whites were stained and the skirts were mostly tattered and gone. Fresh metallic pieces of armour that clashed in style with the girly uniforms gleamed in the torchlight as the pointy-eared beings took seats on the walls and posts surrounding the ring. They were happily munching on snacks that smelled very appetising to the short-haired teenager, who hadn't had breakfast yet, especially as the fresh food from the Undercity was a welcome change to the routine chicken and eggs.

"Ready? Remember, no magic, no teleportation, nothing that your golems couldn't do on their own! Now attack me and show me what you can do!" Cathy crouched down into a wide-legged combat stance, bringing her wooden practice sword up into a defensive position in front of her body.

"Why do you have a weapon and I don't?" Ami asked, aware that she was sounding whiny now.

"Because your unarmed golems are going to fight armed opponents," Cathy said, smiling.

Ami was getting the impression that the blonde was planning to enjoy this a little too much. The way the scar on her right cheek was bending as the muscles underneath firmed looked positively mischievous. "I could give them weapons! Ice spears or swords, for example!" she protested.

"Yeah, right. I'm sure that will work really well against proper armour. Now stop stalling and show me what you have got!"

Lips firming into a thin, determined line, Ami rushed forward, intent on throwing a punch at the blonde. "Ouch!" She quickly withdraw the arm after the wooden sword whacked down on it, aborting the attack.

"That was visible from a mile away! Try again!"

The blue-haired girl's second attempt was more cautious. She feinted left, then darted in right to attack the taller woman's exposed flank. How she ended up head over heels on the ground with a smarting bump on her left temple, she had no idea.

"Put some effort into it!" Cathy demanded, frowning down at the girl in the straw. "Again!"

Ami decided to try kicks instead, if only to use their longer reach. For a change, the move didn't end with sudden pain, and she felt encouraged enough to try another blow, and another. The enthusiasm waned a bit when she realised that her success wasn't due to any improvement, but simply to the fact that the swordswoman wasn't retaliating. Instead, the long-haired blonde swayed left and right, seemingly dancing around Mercury's strikes with little effort. What wasn't dodged was parried easily, and the blonde's expression became more and more sour. Ami felt herself growing irritated at the treatment. "Sailor Mercury Kick!" She launched herself into the air, unleashing a textbook-precise flying kick at Cathy. A moment later, she slammed into the dirt, hard, and spat sand.

"What the hell was that supposed to be?" Cathy shouted angrily."Taking the time to alert your opponent to your next attack is wasted effort, as your moves are easily readable already. 'Sailor Mercury Kick' indeed." She turned away from the girl, who was slowly picking herself off the ground, and started stalking left and right. "You have the same magical enchantments as I do, I would assume, so why are you so much slower and weaker?"

"Well, you are fully grown and trained," Ami pointed out as she brushed the sand and straw off her skirt. They made the ground looked way softer than it felt, she noted.

"That shouldn't make that much of a difference! You shouldn't suck this much unless you were out of shape and never got into any brawls as a kid!"

"Sorry. I didn't," the younger girl said, clasping her hands in front of herself. She wasn't sure what to think about a teacher scolding her for not fighting.

"It figures," Cathy reflected. "Wait, you mentioned being some sort of monster hunter. You should have some sort of combat experience!" the blonde whirled around abruptly, making her hair fan out like a golden halo.

"I learned how to get out of the way of attacks, " Ami answered. "I stayed out of close combat range. You might have noticed that my transformation doesn't come with any weapons."

"Well, not dying is the most important part of combat," Cathy nodded, "at least that's something. Of course, I'll have to test just how good you are at that." She showed rows of white teeth as she grinned. "Of course, after that we'll have to see about getting you properly in shape. A long run each morning should be a good start, and then-"

Ami took a step back and raised her hands defensively "Ah, thanks for the offer, but no. My physical capabilities won't influence the golems, only my skill, so there is really no no need for that. Let's focus on the essentials for now, please."

Cathy looked slightly disappointed at the lost opportunity, but a grin soon graced her features again. "Very well then. Time to test your reflexes!" Ami's smile became strained.

"Right, I think you have the blow-avoiding down more or less," Cathy confirmed and pulled back her extended sword arm. "you could do better still if you learned to use more sidesteps and ducked more instead of just throwing yourself out of the way, but your defence is certainly better than your offence. So we are going to focus on teaching you how to beat things up properly!"

Ami, sitting in the dirt, looked up with resignation as the blonde's gaze swept over the jeering goblins hanging out in the chamber. The senshi was breathing a bit harder from the recent exertion as she rose to her feet.

"Maybe you should start sparring with them," Cathy extended her thumb, pointing over her shoulder toward the green child-sized beings. Upon seeing the sceptical looks on the young Keeper's and the green-skins' faces, she reconsidered. "Well, it was just an idea. You'd probably spend more time patching them up after breaking them than learning anything." Suddenly, her smile widened. "Oh, I know! Get some golems in here and fight those! That way, we can teach you and evaluate them at the same time.

Great. Punching and kicking the ice-things would feel just like hitting stone, Ami figured and slumped her shoulders. It was a reasonable suggestion, though, and she couldn't really object. Straightening, she pointed one hand at an empty corner of the arena. A quick Shabon Spray Freezing summoned the raw materials, which she kneaded into a humanoid form and hollowed out with the fabrication spell that her researchers had developed. Adding the hydraulic tubes and cylinders within the limbs required more precision, and Ami gritted her teeth in concentration. Then came the part where she animated the hull, internal parts, and the water by imbuing them with disembodied imps. She stopped for a moment to consider her handiwork before moving on to the final step.

At first, Ami had been worried that basing part of the creation's controlling intelligence on herself might make copies of her, doomed to a nightmarish existence of inescapable slavery within an inhuman body. However, as part of the spell required her to possess the entity, she could directly observe its mind, which laid her fears to rest. Its thoughts remained those of an imp; a dark, vicious, alien stream of thoughts closer to animal than to human, even after she burned her modifications into its self. It thought it was her, but it certainly wasn't, and could never be. Naturally, this made the chain of command interesting. Fortunately, what the being considered itself to be had no influence on what it actually was. Imps took orders and didn't give them, and that was that. So whenever it followed commands from Ami, it justified this to itself by feeling that they clearly had been its own idea in the first place. It was the Keeper, after all!

The boxy ice construct now looming in the corner gleamed in all rainbow colours as the torchlight broke within its water-filled innards. Cathy leaned against the wall, looking bored as she tapped her feet. Apparently, she'd had the time to go and make herself a cup of tea while Ami cast her spell. "Finally. Is that the fastest you can produce them? Because we'll need more than that."

"A the moment, yes, but my assistants are currently working on merging all the steps of the procedure into a single spell. There's no modification or adjustment required between castings, so the pattern can be stored within the dungeon heart and just empowered when I need it, which should make the casting time near-instant."

"That's good." Cathy eyed the icy figure critically. She could make out the faint glitter of the Mercury symbol within its head, slowly sinking lower as its anchor piece drifted within the water-filled hollow. "How many of them can you maintain, anyway?"

"I haven't been able to test the limits yet, and it depends on the ambient heat of the environment, but theoretically, about fifty should be the maximum. Less if the water isn't pure enough," Ami ventured an educated guess.

"I see. Get that prototype over here too so we can start, I don't particularly feel like waiting for you to make more," the blonde ordered, putting down her cup, and returning to being all business.

With a sigh, Ami yanked the ice golem that looked exactly like her through space, making it appear next to its more lumpy sister. It was wearing a short, sack-like brownish dress with holes for the head and arms in order to protect its - or rather, Ami's - modesty. While the magic holding the construct together prevented its ice from thawing, air humidity was condensing against its cold exterior and giving it a humid coating. As wet cloth was wont to do, the drab garment clung to the statue's curves suggestively, making Ami blush as she caught sight of it. "I really need to find a way to fix that," she stammered.

"If anyone asks, say it's to distract male opponents," Cathy suggested. Now all of you, get in position!"

Ami entered her throne room, which had formerly been the Reaper's, still in the process of drying her hair with a towel after taking a bath. She had made some adjustments to the place to make it more suitable for her needs, the foremost of which were the pillows for the cold, hard marble throne. Gone were the huge demon statues glaring down at visitors from their aisles, and she had re-arranged the rows of pillars leading from the door to her seat. Now, they stood in a circle instead of flanking the long red carpet, framing a square stone table. It had seats for twenty people, more than Ami had minions right now, unless she counted the goblins of imps. She didn't, as neither of those had any business being here for this meeting.

On the side closest to her throne stood Snyder, Cathy, and Jered. The latter took a look at Mercury's bruised face and arms, and winced. Turning to his blonde girlfriend, he asked "That looks painful. Did some good come out of her training? And do you think it's wise to antagonise a Keeper like that?"

The swordswoman shrugged "She's no longer relying purely on being faster and stronger than her opponent, but you can't expect to train a novice up into a useful fighter in just a few hours. Let's just say she had better stick to throwing magic at things from a safe distance."

"Regrettable. Very regrettable. What does this mean for the fighting ability of the constructs? Can they still fulfil their role?" Snyder asked worriedly.

Cathy laughed. "Oh, there's no problem there, I think. I had Mercury spar against them for practice, and to further evaluate what they can do. They aren't very fast or skilled, but whenever she was too slow to pull an extended limb back after an attack, they would grab onto it, and there's no getting loose once they have clamped down on something. At least not without breaking off their arms."

"That explains the bruises," Jered noted, looking up and down Ami's body, gaze lingering where it wasn't covered by her fuku.

"We also found another flaw," his girlfriend continued, "the golems are wobbly and off-balance when they are asymmetric due to regenerating parts. Fortunately, Mercury should be able to circumvent that problem if she immediately summons them in final form, despite the embarrassment factor."

Ami ignored her throne, wandered over to the trio and smiled "Hello all. I'm glad to hear that at least some benefit came out of this training session, and I suppose you all want to know why I called you here." With an arcane hand gesture, she made the smoothed surface of the table glow, causing a partial replica of her world map to grow out of the polished stone, showing only the largest continent. A small blue flag with the Mercury symbol in yellow protruded out of the location of her dungeon. Slightly to the east, another flag denoted the country's capital. It was golden, and a caricature of the Baron's angry face was on it. "In short, after considering our options, I have come to the conclusion that waiting here for the Baron to arrive is a losing proposition. Therefore, we are going to war." She heard three audible intakes of breath.

Three red flags, distributed widely over the map, appeared. Each one was adorned by a face reminiscent of a horned reaper. Seeing the wide-eyed expressions of the adventurers, she explained. "I don't know how to make or move dungeon hearts, but we can't stay here for long, as this one will be discovered soon. Thus, I must either claim a new dungeon heart by conquest, or gain the necessary knowledge to create one. The only way to do any of this is by defeating another Keeper." She pointed at the new markers. "These are the approximate locations of Keepers that Jered has identified as being susceptible to subjugation. That is, they are independent and have only a single dungeon heart. Two of them are rumoured to have come into their powers only recently. The one to the west and to the north, to be precise."

"You know, something strikes me as odd," Jered interrupted. "A Keeper's life is linked to his dungeon hearts, and he dies if he loses the last one. So why are there Keepers who don't have spares?"

Ami shrugged her shoulders helplessly. "Unfortunately, I don't know this myself. I can only guess that the process of creating a new one is either difficult, can only be done under certain conditions, or is extremely expensive. In any case, I intend to find out."

"Which means we'll have to take a new one from some Keeper's cold dead fingers. Fine with me," Jered grinned.

"None of these locations are anywhere remotely close to us," Cathy pointed out more pragmatically. "They must be hundreds of miles away! How are we supposed to get there?"

The blue-haired girl turned to face her. "I don't intend for any of you to be anywhere near the fighting," she noted that Snyder let out a sigh of relief, while the blonde's eyes narrowed. "I have been experimenting with the golems, and found out that they are still very much like imps." Exasperatingly so, in fact. Seeing an icy double of herself carrying bricks as if it was a regular imp, all without wearing a stitch of clothing, was an experience that Ami could have done without. "That is, to my Keeper powers they feel like imps, so I can teleport them to neutral territory that I have seen, not only to my own dungeon." Which was an unexpected perk, really. It hadn't been in the design specifications at all, and might be the greatest advantage of these constructs yet.

"That's useful," the blonde whistled appreciatively. "So which one will you attack?"

"Well, from what I have heard, the one to the west is the most weakly defended," Jered offered.

"The west coast is densely settled," Snyder pointed out. "We would be tripping over adventurers if we moved there. It seems like a stupid place for a dungeon unless one plans to wage war upon the surface world."

"Thank you. That's important to know." Ami didn't know how long creating a new dungeon heart would take, and switching from one endangered location to another seemed suboptimal. "What about the other two?"

"Well, the one to the north is somewhere in the mountains, near the Arctic circle. Very cold, sparsely populated area with lots of rich ore veins, or so I've been told. Uses mostly orcs as guards."

"That sounds near-optimal," Cathy said. "Isolated, riches, cold environment for the golems."

Ami was inclined to agree. "What about the last one?"

Jered stroked his wavy hair with his fingers before beginning. "Well, that Keeper used to have a vast territory, but recently, there was some upheaval in the dark pantheon, and the god he worshipped exclusively was destroyed by another. His rivals have made use of the shift in fortune to drive him back to his main fortress. Which, as you can see, is in the middle of the desert. He's probably the most experienced of them all."

"North it is!" Snyder clapped his hands together, looking to the others for support.

Ami nodded slowly, and so did the others. "It does sound like our best option," she agreed, "still, let's ask the others too what they think about this. We might have missed something."

A moment later, the white-haired alchemist, the fat ex-priest, and the haggard black-robed wizard appeared at the opposite end of the table, looking disoriented. "Hi," Ami welcomed them, "please have a look at this map, especially the red flags. Those are the locations of enemy dungeons. Which one do you think would be most suitable for a test run of the golems?"

The three researchers bowed over the map, looking at the terrain and comparing the regions. "That idiot to the north is probably dead already," the old alchemist who looked like a mad professor croaked dismissively, "mountains are crawling with dwarves, and they don't like it when anyone gets close to their precious adamantine. Would love to get my hands on some of that stuff, I would."

"Loathe as I am to agree with my worldly colleague, he does have a point there," the cold voice bubbled up from the dark monk's folds of fat. He looked at the remaining two marked locations. "A fun exercise, for certain, but not very useful if you are looking for long-term gains. As for the other locations, let's see. I know nothing about the west coast target, but this in the desert should be Keeper Malleus' main fortress. My poor, dear brother in faith, what have you been reduced to," he giggled, "hounded by rivals across the continent and forced to hide out in your last holdout."

"You know that Keeper?" Ami asked, interested.

"Well, of course. I was the high priest of his god, you know." The black orbs that were the man's eyes seemed to turn their attention toward the girl in the sailor senshi uniform. "A difficult target, but potentially well worth it. As Malleus' personal abode, it should be full of treasures and secrets, and right now, he is at the weakest he has ever been."

"So what's keeping his rivals from following him and claiming it all for themselves?" Cathy asked the question that had gone through everyone's head.

The fat, rich-robed man laughed again "Enough traps to swallow entire armies whole, that's what. No Keeper has enough manpower to throw into that meatgrinder while still remaining capable of mounting a defence against a counter-attack or against his own rivals."

Ami thought about that. "Except me," she realised after a few seconds.

"Indeed," Tasbaal nodded, the motion of inclining his head turning his double chin into a triple one, "that is, if you are really able to maintain as many ice golems as you have stated, you will be invulnerable to attrition. But even with your affinity for frost magic, the mana cost would be outrageous."

"I can do it," Ami hurried to re-assure him, shrinking a bit under his scrutiny. He must be overestimating their upkeep, she thought, they really are surprisingly efficient. "Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?" she focused on the third of her new minions expectantly, but the tall warlock just looked as if he'd like to hide behind his beard when her attention turned to him, and he shook his head in denial.

"Very well then. Thank you for your time. Please get back to work." She inclined her head politely as she dismissed them, transporting them out of the throne room and back into the lab.

"Looks like we dodged an arrow there," Jered commented.

"Yeah, but I'm still worried about the distance," Cathy said while circling the table to consider the map from all sides, "Mercury said she could transport the imps to any neutral place she has seen. I doubt she has ever been to the desert."

Ami smiled. "Don't worry, I have a plan! Snyder, you did finish that ward for the dungeon heart that should prevent my transformation from propagating to unintended recipients, right?"

The redhead nodded, wondering where the young Keeper was going with this.

"Well, I certainly wasn't expecting that," the acolyte said, watching the little imp wearing a sailor fuku and blue goggles over its eyes as it strapped what looked like a huge tablecloth to its back. Ropes connected the corners of the cloth to a harness that the imp was wearing, and there was a little hole cut into its centre.

"So, to summarise, you are going to transport yourself high into the air, where you expect that rag on your back to slow your descent while you take pictures of the surrounding area? And then you move yourself up and to the south-west before you reach the ground, again and again?" Cathy was shaking her head in disbelief.

"It's called a 'parachute'," Ami clarified enthusiastically, "And yes, that's the plan in a nutshell. It will also allow me to update the maps. See you later!" The possessed imp gave a cheerful wave while it squeaked out the reply and then disappeared, presumably to plummet to its death somewhere on the surface.

"She's crazy. Why doesn't she just use her crystal ball?" the blonde asked, arms akimbo.

"Let her have some fun," Jered replied, "besides, she probably doesn't know how to use it."

"I'd be more relaxed if I knew what happened to a Keeper who is possessing something when it dies. Or not, depending on what the answer is," Cathy snapped, walking in a circle nervously.

"I'm sure she's smart enough to get out before that," the brown-haired man tried to re-assure her as he put an arm around her waist. "And Snyder, what are you so happy about?"

"Well, well. My new ward protecting us all from unwanted clothing changes - a challenging and interesting project of astounding complexity indeed - worked without a hitch. That is a reason to be happy, isn't it?"

In the dungeon heart chamber, arcing trails of blue sparkles shot through the air and bounced off the walls, unnoticed by any observers.

Previous chapter: Next chapter:
Chapter 26: Production Model Chapter 28: Inhuman Waves



Attached comments:


Ami with her current minions

  • Is the fact I can't see any 'control cubes' in them due to the fact Ami fixed that problem of them being visible or were they just to hard to draw?
    They aren't all that obvious if one isn't close and looking for them.

    Though I wonder if it's truely so hard get the ice to form up some clothes, even Sailor Mercury's fuku would be better then nothing or is it just a case where her researchers are not trying to hard?
    Making clothes is not difficult at all, but they'll just disappear as the golem moves and regenerates, as they aren't part of what it feels is body is.
  • Was the alchemist's resemblance to Dr. Wily intentional, or were you just going for an archetypical mad scientist?
    He was the inspiration (for the appearance only), yes.