Ami appeared hovering above the central pit of her original dungeon heart and drifted forward until her feet touched the ground. A smell of roasted chicken and burning feathers greeted her. Imps scuttled around with mops and buckets to take care of the aftermath of her alchemist's unorthodox solution to the wild magic problem. Most of the gunk and slimy stuff was gone, but some of the weirder results were beyond her little servant's abilities. The angry chicken head protruding from a wall and pecking at them with a beak as big as their heads was given a wide berth, and from the ceiling hung what looked like an upside-down tree, covered completely in large feathers. It was out of the little critters' reach, but at least it didn't seem to be harming anything. Nothing that was important enough to warrant her attention, for now.
She shuffled through the corridors, rather than simply teleporting, as she needed time to sort through her thoughts. Malleus' mind had been a treasure trove full of knowledge about the dungeon heart, ways to use it, and generally useful information on being a Keeper. Ami sighed and still felt awful. She had achieved what she had set out to do, but had it been worth the price? She looked at her hands. She had blood on them now, and she didn't mean the scabs forming on her knuckles.
Jered, Snyder, and Cathy looked up from their game as the door opened. Enthusiastic greetings died in their throats when they noticed the pallor of Ami's skin and the stiff way in which she approached and pulled out a chair, before flopping down bonelessly on it.
"Mercury? Are you all right?" the acolyte was the first to ask, half standing as he leaned over the table to get a closer look at the girl.
"I- well, yes, I'm uninjured," she replied in a monotone.
"That doesn't sound very convincing," Cathy said, looking concerned. "Did something go wrong?"
"N-no, everything went just as planned," the short-haired girl replied, not meeting the blonde's eyes.
"You don't look very happy, though," Jered pointed out the obvious, "In fact, I haven't ever seen you look worse than now, not even after the Reaper battle. What happened?"
"I saw things that... that I really didn't need to see," Ami replied quietly after a moment of silence.
"Oh. OH!" Snyder let himself fall back to his seat, a look of comprehension on his face. "Ah yes, a Keeper's memories - no wonder they disturbed you. Try to distance yourself from them. Those things happened in the past, they can't hurt you."
Cathy said nothing, and instead put a reassuring hand on the girl's shoulder.
In an attempt to change the topic to something more upbeat, Jered asked "But you got what you needed, right? You know how to make dungeon hearts now?"
"Yes." Ami rested her elbows on the table and buried her face in her palms with a sigh. "And it's... not very helpful. They literally cost their weight in gold to create, but that's not the main difficulty. The final step of the process requires beseeching the dark gods for a spark of life. If none of them feel that you are worthy, the heart will remain dead and useless," she droned tiredly.
The brown-haired man seemed to deflate. "Oh, of all the- it just had to be something like that!" He hung his head. "We are pretty thoroughly screwed then, with no way for you to make a second dungeon heart-"
"I already have one," Ami interrupted him, looking at the ground. She heard her companions suck in their breath as the atmosphere in the room suddenly seemed more tense.
"You- you didn't-" Snyder stammered, before his voice became stronger and he straightened in his seat "No. I don't believe you prayed to the dark gods, or even if you did, that they would approve of you!"
"I- I took his," Ami explained, nearly inaudibly.
"Oh, of course. You eliminated the enemy Keeper and claimed his dungeon heart. An elegant solution to two problems at once, well done!" Jered congratulated, raising his fist in a cheer.
"NO! No, you don't understand! I didn't kill him to steal his dungeon heart!" Ami protested loudly as she jumped to her feet, surprising the others with her sudden outburst. At their questioning looks, she realised how badly that could be interpreted, and continued on.
"I didn't plan to kill him," she continued, as tears started to stream down her cheeks. "But when I saw his memories - it was horrible. I - at first I touched them lightly," she sniffled, "I could feel what was in there, in an abstract sense, but..." Ami paused, closing her eyes and dislodging more tears with her eyelashes as she searched for words. "Have you ever been in a situation where you knew right away something awful was going to happen, but couldn't take your eyes off it? Or where something outrageous catches you attention without you wanting to? Memories are like that, too. Before you realise it, you are experiencing a scene from his life," Ami shuddered, but as if a dam had burst, the words just continued to flow "and before you know what's going on, you are already immersed in horror, doing unspeakable things, and the more the memory puts you off-balance, the longer it takes you to snap out of it."
With eyes reddened from crying, not from any eldritch glow, the senshi looked at the faces of her companions. Dawning realization, as well as worry, flitted over their faces. Cathy's blue eyes gleamed in sympathy, and her hand on Ami's shoulder gave an encouraging squeeze.
"The first times were really hard," the blue-haired girl said, her breath quickening at the images in her head, "I didn't know what was going on and how bad it would get, and breaking free was difficult," she was nearly hyperventilating now, "it got better with more practice, and I just saw short glimpses before moving on, but some memories, especially those with strong emotions attached, were just unavoidable. It's like when you are reading, and you are specifically trying not to notice certain words, because if you do, they suck you in. And there were just so many such memories! Flash after flash after flash after flash. Atrocity after atrocity, one more cruel than the other." Ami was swallowing now, as if fighting to keep down her bile.
"And at some point I was so angry that I decided that he had to die," she sobbed, and her hands were clenching into fists. "He, he sired children for the sole purpose of sa-sacrificing them! He was happy when he cut their throats! Happy! I just kept going faster and faster, ripping out what I needed, and not caring that I was destroying his mind! This wasn't a battle for life or dead, just me getting mad enough to tear apart a helpless victim." At the end of that statement, Ami's voice had become a low murmur, and the others had to strain to her the words. She had her arms wrapped tightly around herself and pulled up her knees until she resembled a small, shivering ball.
"Helpless my arse! He was completely irredeemable and had it coming a thousand times over!" Cathy had slid near enough that she could put her arm around the shaking girl in a comforting gesture.
"I have to agree there. Any guilt over that monster's death is completely inappropriate. It was something that had to be done, and you were the only one able to do it!" Jered commented. He had his arms crossed, the only outward sign of his discomfort at the situation.
"I- that's just it. I can't feel bad about killing him! I would do it again in the same situation! I just murdered someone and I feel nothing! What is this world doing to me? I'm turning into a monster just like him!" Ami wheezed out those last words with great difficulty, as if pained to speak them.
"So you are feeling guilty for not feeling guilty?" Jered asked.
"No, that's rubbish!" Snyder slammed both palms down on the wooden surface of the table as he stood up. "Already the fact that you are worried about this means that you aren't in any danger of becoming like him! You have a conscience, he did not! He might have looked human, but he hasn't been for a long time!" the young acolyte shouted, more passionately than Ami had ever heard him before.
"That's right! The reason you aren't feeling bad is that it was, without a doubt, the right thing to do!" Cathy held the shivering girl tighter, noticing how small she really was.
The support of the adventurers was making Ami feel a bit better, but she wasn't entirely convinced that they were right. She couldn't bring herself to tell them about what she had felt when she freed Malleus' enslaved women - she doubted she would ever be able to talk to anyone about that, as even her own mind shied away from it. If that ever came out, what would the others think of her? Or her friends, Usagi, Rei, and Luna? She withdrew more into herself, even as she heard the others make soothing noises.
A knock came from the door. "Keeper? Are you in there?" the call from outside sounded urgent, and the voice belonged to the tall, haggard warlock with a fake beard whose name Ami couldn't remember because he was usually so self-effacing.
"What is it?" Jered asked, giving Ami some time to re-gain her composure.
"The lookouts are reporting a large army on the East road, in the Barony's colours!" he slid the door open and looked in, only catching sight of the Keeper's back, with the blonde lieutenant's arm around her. His eyes widened a bit.
"Damn it! What lousy timing! How many?" Cathy asked, letting go of Ami, who wiped her eyes and didn't turn toward the assistant. His presence reminded her of Tasbaal, who had starred prominently in many of Malleus' memories. High priest of Murdrul indeed. She had never asked what that entailed, but now that she knew...
"How should I know? The goblins did say 'lots', which could mean anything from three upwards! Eeep! I'm sorry for disturbing you!" the last he blurted out when Ami turned to look at him with eyes flashing like bright red lanterns. The door slammed shut as he fled.
"Mercury? What's going on?" Snyder asked, alarmed at her sudden change in attitude.
She clenched her fists and took long, deep breaths to calm down before she did anything else she would regret. "Sorry, it's just the memories. He reminded me of Tasbaal. I found out that he is nearly as bad as Malleus, and I don't know what to do about him."
"I see, I see," Snyder said, "that doesn't surprise me much. I never liked him, and he's creepy."
Jered and Cathy exchanged a look, both understanding immediately that having to perform another execution would be devastating for Mercury's fragile psyche. "If you are concerned about justice, then truss him up and leave him to the Baron," the weasel-featured man said. "He'll get a trial according to the laws of the land. That's what you want, right?"
"That- that's a very good idea, thank you!" Ami gave him a weak but heartfelt smile and sat up a little straighter, as if a heavy burden had just been lifted from her shoulders.
"Happy to help," Jered said, "however, there is the inconvenient fact that the Baron's forces will start looking for us. Are you feeling up to organising the defence?"
Ami stood up and forcibly set her inner turmoil aside to consider the situation. "We are not going to fight," she decided. "We evacuate to the secondary site."
"But that means losing the spare dungeon heart," Jered pointed out, "you'd be back to square one!"
"I am not going to fight and hurt good people who are simply misguided if I can avoid it!" Ami's determined expression left no doubt that her decision was non-negotiable. "Besides, I have another plan I can try out." She turned to face the blonde, spinning so fast that her short blue skirt whipped around her legs. "Cathy, I can't easily transport people over large distances. Do you think it's worth the hassle of keeping the goblins around?"
The swordswoman, noting with some relief that Mercury seemed more composed now that her mind had a different problem to deal with, scratched her chin as she considered the question for a moment. "Nah. Discipline is lousy, they haven't learned much, and only two or three of them show any promise."
"Thanks. Please have them take their final wages and shoo them out through the portal. The beetles too, I think. They are comparatively weak and too stupid to follow elaborate orders."
The lanky warlock and the alchemist appeared in the room, both caught off-guard by the sudden transition. The latter was still in the motion of pouring a pink liquid from a vial. It dripped to the ground and etched a frothing hole into floor. Ami succinctly informed them that they were to pack up their belongings, as they would be moving to a new dungeon shortly. If they were intrigued by Tasbaal's absence, they didn't show it. The evil monk in question was currently enjoying the hospitality of a newly-built magic-proofed prison cell, its design pilfered from Malleus' mind.
Ami reappeared in front of the beating dungeon heart. Below it and out of sight, her imps were labouring. The sound of their picks striking rock could barely be heard over the rumbling heartbeat. Many things that had been puzzling her had fallen into place with what she had learned from her disturbing sifting through Malleus' brain. The artefact's magic followed some ill-defined rules of ownership in what it allowed a Keeper's powers to affect. To move something within her own territory, the target had to either serve her or to not belong to anyone else. Any such objects or persons she could also return back to her dungeon, if they stayed within a distance of around sixty kilometres of it. Of course, there were exceptions. If someone's claim conflicted with her own, whoever had the contested item in his possession was considered the real owner. Sickeningly, this rule was also applied to people, which allowed Keepers to take captives when the unfortunate victims were rendered unconscious or restrained by minions of the Keeper. An image of heroes starving wretchedly to their deaths flashed unbidden through the senshi's mind, causing her to shudder and reminding her of the cost of that information.
For objects imbued to a high degree with the Keeper's own power, such as creatures Ami had conjured herself, the rules allowed more leeway in where she could place them. Only areas claimed by others barred her access. Strangely enough, this wouldn't work for her own body. However, she counted as her own territory, for what it was worth. Being able to summon small objects to herself was very helpful, but it didn't allow for the transport of creatures. Well, unless... Ami had a brief mental picture of herself lying flat on the ground and a bile demon appearing above her. No. Didn't allow for creature transport. What it all boiled down to was that her Keeper powers were woefully inadequate for moving her employees between the dungeons. She'd have to resort to the slow and unwieldy teleportation spell that she had first used to summon the Reaper to Arachne's dungeon. Worriedly, she remembered the flames and fire that had accompanied that attempt, and was determined to first test the spell on something less resilient than a horned reaper to see if there would be any adverse effects.
Ami stepped into the dungeon heart and out on top of the great pyramid in the desert fortress. Her determination nearly faltered and she felt weak in the knees when she spotted the body still lying at the bottom of the golden construction, ignored by the ice golems playing around in the chamber. "Get that out of my sight and buried somewhere, please," she ordered, before finding a large, empty, and most importantly fireproof chamber to go to work. Despite the flashing lights, magic circles, pillar of fire, and general rise in room temperature, the imp she transported with the spell seemed unhurt by the ordeal. Sooty, yes, but there were no traces of burns - screaming man roasted alive over glowing coals - Ami staggered at the unwanted association, cold sweat forming on her palms. Would she have to suffer through these flashes for the rest of her life? She needed help.
The imp was unharmed, though, which was what counted. No corruption with the spell had manifested either. She still didn't know what had caused that, even with the benefit of Malleus' knowledge. She suspected that it was some effect of mixing her senshi magic with the dark power flowing from the dungeon heart, as she had ample evidence that something was going on there that she didn't understand entirely yet. The transformation side effects were one thing, but now she also knew that her mana pool refilled at a speed that the late Keeper would have found absolutely preposterous. Now that she thought about it, even the Reaper had seemed impressed with the ease with which she threw ice magic around. She would have to postpone research into that until after the current crisis was dealt with, though.
Fortunately, summoning the five employees she wanted to keep went without a hitch, and the only complaint she got was from Snyder, who felt put upon by the soot marring his features when he walked past a mirror. After some deliberation, Ami also summoned the tentacled abomination that was Boris. The forces of Good might have been able to cure him, but with the way he looked now, they would probably think that he was a monster and slay him on sight. There was very little that resembled a human, just a large mass of pinkish and green tentacles, with shaggy patches of wiry black hairs in places. At the sight of the pseudopods, another foreign memory haunted Ami with pictures that made her stomach turn. She was still feeling really sorry for the man, though the sympathy waned a bit every time he opened his mouth. "I'm really sorry for this inconvenience, Boris," she addressed him, "I promise I'll look into a way to cure you. If all else fails, I could probably put your mind into a new body, so please don't despair!"
Teleporting all six people via spell had taken over half an hour, more than enough time for her imps to prepare for her plan. A pity she couldn't have the heart automate the magical procedure, but it had too many variables, such as different distances, origins, and destinations. Ami stepped out of the original dungeon heart and touched it, using her connection to calm it into quiescence. The effect was very similar to what had happened when Keeper Malleus had died. The three pillars and arches of the superstructure dissolved, their stone recycled to form a symbol-inscribed disc covering the sleeping heart pit. The dais the artefact was resting on also disappeared, and the torches on the wall went out. Ami had to summon her visor to see in the darkness, and the grey tones of the chamber reminded her of the terrifying first moments after her arrival. The room looked a lot like it had during those first hours, though the clucking of the monstrous chicken head and the upside-down feather tree were new. Her imps were waiting in a circle around the inert heart, black orbs all looking at her as they waited for their next orders. With a thought, Ami was at the bottom of the deep, cylindrical shaft that the servants had dug out underneath the dungeon heart. It was just a bit wider than the fully active artefact would have been. With great care, the young Keeper scanned the precision of the spiralling winding hewn into the walls for any unevenness. When she was satisfied that the deviations from her blueprints were within tolerable ranges, she transported herself back up and nodded.
The imps struck the floor, disconnecting the dungeon heart from the surrounding rock. She knew now that this wouldn't harm it, in stark contrast to the rest of the dungeon. Her claim on the terrain shattered, along with the floor tiles and wall murals. The effect was very similar to what had happened when Arachne's had been defeated, though fortunately, there was a notable absence of a black void sucking in the Keeper.
"Careful now! Start pulling, all at once! On my mark, go!"
The edge of the round piece of rock containing the dungeon heart fit perfectly into the groove of the cylinder's winding. When the imps pulled in concert, the dungeon heart started turning around its own axis with a loud grinding noise.
"Keep going! It's working!"
Turn by turn, the dungeon heart sank deeper as it was screwed in, until it reached the bottom far below and could go no further. Now that it was back in contact with the rock, Ami reactivated it, enjoying the lightshow that she hadn't been able to pay attention to earlier today. The grooves of the winding were large enough for her imps to move in, and formed an unbroken path to the surface that allowed the reclamation of her former territory. Only two more things to do. At her direction, her workers chiselled a thick, horizontal slab of rock out of the shaft's wall close to its bottom, which they slid into place over the dungeon heart, forming a protective ceiling and hiding it from view. Ami reinforced the cover by filling the bottom quarter of the cylinder with ice, which hopefully wouldn't melt before the heroes arrived. Finally, she drew on Malleus' knowledge once more, building a fake dungeon heart over the gaping hole, in the same spot that the original one had been. This emptied most of her treasury, but she couldn't take the wealth along easily anyway.
Further clean-up involved setting fire to the secret library full of dungeon heart lore after copying it to her new dungeon first. What had she been thinking when she had put it here in the first place, when she knew that this location was untenable? With a shake of her head, she moved herself back to the dungeon heart and used it as a gate to the desert vaults. Again, she had left the task of dealing with the harem girls for last. It was something she really didn't want to do, and everything in her screamed to run away rather than face the possibility of unwanted reactions again, but these women deserved to be treated with care after all they had gone through, and she wasn't going to let her own discomfort get into the way of that.
An eyeblink after appearing within Malleus' private quarters, which would have done any palace proud, she had to duck under a flying piece of pottery. It shattered against the wall, defacing an ugly landscape drawing and spraying shards all over the thick carpet. With gasps and strangled cries, the women in the room backed away from Ami, pressing themselves against the wall and staring with wide-open, terror-filled eyes. All of them had covered themselves with fine robes from the dead Keeper's wardrobe, and even the catatonic-looking ones on the ground were dressed, much to Ami's relief.
Still, she kept her eyes on the ground as she raised her hands, palms outward. "Please don't be afraid! I'm not going to harm you!"
"Who are you, and why should we believe you?" the woman who had thrown the vase asked, not relaxing one bit.
"My name is Sailor Mercury. I'm the one who destroyed Malleus," she explained.
"You are a Keeper!" the woman accused, green eyes flashing, but with despair in her voice.
"Not by my own choice. Please believe me, I am not interested in you as the late Keeper was," I hope. I really, really, REALLY hope! To Ami's surprise, many of the slaves started whimpering and shivering at that. Oh, of course. They thought she was going to use them for something even worse, or just kill them outright. "No, I already told you that I'm not going to harm you! Another dungeon of mine is about to be overrun by the forces of Good, so I am going to transport you over there for them to find you. They'll be better able to help you than I am. So please don't be alarmed when some of you start disappearing. It will take me a while, as there are," her eyes darted around the room "twenty of you. Just stay here, you will be free soon, I promise!"
"As if we had any choice," another girl said with bitter resignation.
Ami looked at her, taking in the elegant curve of her jaw, and the pout on the lips that had such an inviting red- appalled at the realisation what she was thinking, Ami fled. No, no, no! Stupid body! Darn it! She was so messed up in the head! Why did this have to happen to her? She needed professional help. After losing her lunch, she threw herself into the work of moving the poor women, so that she wouldn't have time to think about the implications. Once done, all that remained to do was waiting for the heroes to arrive and then disconnecting the real heart the moment they destroyed the fake one. With luck, they wouldn't look any further than that, especially if the heart chamber started collapsing the moment they did, as she had prepared it to.
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|Chapter 30: Knowledge Hard Earned||Chapter 32: Some Resolutions|
- Also seemed odd Ami couldn't take her money with her, though it really should been less then her 'conqured' treasure she found. Shouldn't it only taken seconds of teleporting imps or something to move the gold? It's claimed, it's hers, and it's a non living object it should been easy to move.
It's the out-of-range problem. She'd have to possess an imp, have it pick up some coins, then hop it all the way to the new location, then return and repeat this procedure again and again.
- By sheer fact the keeper cared nothing for the kids and had them just to kill off sort takes away any 'bonds' to them. It's like giving away a rotten apple you don't want, it's not the same as the prized twinkie desert.
By that reasoning, tossing your own creatures or captured heroes into the temple shouldn't work either, yet it does. Clearly, the whims of the gods are incomprehensible to mere mortals.