Three figures stood around a table, lit only by the white flicker above the staff held by the shortest one. They were casting long shadows that stretched out into the darkness veiling everything outside of the circle of light. Only partially illuminated stone pillars disappeared into the blackness above, giving the impression of extending into infinity.
"It is strange how an abandoned dungeon can be creepier than an inhabited one," the tall knight wearing a blue shawl around his shoulders muttered, eyes darting left and right. His voice echoed eerily through the darkened halls.
"A poignant illustration of how impressions can be deceiving, is it not, Sir Leon?" abbot Durval asked rhetorically, grey eyes peering at the map on the large table.
The Baron snorted, the metal of his gauntlets glittering as he stepped closer. "I don't like this. This was too easy! Durval, what do you think?"
The old man didn't hurry with his answer, and the lines on his forehead deepened in concentration "I think, Baron, this map may be more valuable than the few coins you found in this dungeon's vaults," he gestured him to lean closer, "it seems to be rather more accurate than the ones available to us, at least from what I can tell."
"Great. The Underworlders have better maps of our lands than we do, how reassuring." Leon was crossing his arms over his wide, armoured chest.
"Have your men found out anything useful?" the Baron asked, not in the mood to admire quality craftsmanship.
"Well, we did an extensive search of these tunnels, and it didn't take that long. It was a rather small dungeon. Aside from this throne room, there were only few other rooms, rather low quality all. The most interesting of these were a burned out library, a few well-equipped bedrooms, and what looked like a laboratory. Other than that, there seemed to be nothing of value in this area, aside from the portal. We have already collapsed it, naturally."
"Good," the Baron nodded, the plume on top of his helmet mirroring the motion, "what about this lab?"
"It seems to have been used to develop that golem thing the Keeper showed up in," the soldier guessed, "we also found what looked like the equipment used by a horned reaper in one of the bedrooms. Too small for the monster by far, strangely enough. Do those demons have kids?"
The last was a question for the abbot, who looked up from his studies "we can only hope they don't," he muttered into his beard. "Didn't those poor girls you rescued know anything useful?"
Sir Leon shook his head "They had all just been moved here from another dungeon, at which point it had already been empty. Apparently, the local Keeper took them from someone called 'Malleus' and had no use for them, so she brought them here. Some said they thought that she was lying, due to the way she was looking at them. Ahem. I'm kind of surprised she didn't just kill them."
"Have them checked for plagues or other hidden nastiness," the Baron decided, "Malleus. His dungeon would have been around here?" His finger struck the surface of the map with a clanging sound close to the little red flag that was still sticking out of it in the desert area. He got a nod of confirmation. "Good riddance. These other red flags are more targets of Mercury, then?"
"Or a clever ruse left here to make us think so," the abbot sighed.
"Huh. This still leaves us with an unexplained dungeon in a poor location that serves no purpose, and a Keeper who refused to fight. Not that I'm complaining about not losing any men, and neither are they, but I'd like to have had more to show for all this effort than just a few coins of gold, a giant chicken head, and a lot of questions!" The Baron marched up and down, cape waving behind him. "Any ideas on what's going on here?"
"Well, my Lord, I have a few theories, none of them pleasant," Sir Leon began.
"Out with them! The less pleasant, the more likely, unfortunately."
"The relatively small size of the dungeon here indicates that the Keeper didn't intend to use it for long. She may have searched for something very specific and already recovered it, and thus had no more interest in this dungeon. It might also have been a hidden outpost to launch plots against the capital, except that Arachne pre-empted her."
"Worrisome, but likely. Go on," the Baron demanded.
"The last option I came up with is that this entire place is nothing but a distraction to draw your troops away. Wasteful, but if she is in thrall to another Keeper, she might not have had any choice."
"I think you are forgetting a possibility," the voice of Durval interrupted his musings. Both other men turned to look at the bent, wizened abbot. "She might have been saying the truth."
There was a long silence. "You aren't joking?" Sir Leon asked incredulously, "the idea of an unwilling Keeper is preposterous. Especially when we know she has a Reaper serving her. Besides, she is powerful enough to have taken out at least one other skilled Keeper, and to capture one of the high priests of the dark gods!"
"A dead dark god," the Baron corrected, "but even if it was true, it wouldn't change anything. Through becoming a Keeper, she lost her soul to the darkness, and nothing will be able to change that, peaceful intentions or no. For the safety of our world, destroying her is the only option."
"I am aware of that," the abbot nodded. "Tragic, but ultimately necessary."
"So what do we do about these other targets on this map, my Lord?" Sir Leon asked, drawing the older men's attention back to the decision-making process.
The Baron hesitated only for a moment. "They are outside our borders. Send a warning to the local Lords. Even if Mercury isn't going to attack, they will need to know that a Keeper is lurking in the area. As for this location, have some of the mages take a closer look at it. If nothing else, they might find a weakness in these golems the Keeper is using. I want no stone left unturned."
"All right, this has gone on long enough!" Cathy stared angrily through her blonde bangs at the door blocking her passage. It wasn't as if the tall, iron door inlaid with rhombus-shaped panels had done anything to her. It was only blocking passage into the dungeon's library, which presumably contained not only books, but also the Keeper. "Mercury! Open up! We haven't seen or heard anything from you for nearly two days now!"
The portal continued looming in silence between the two thick marble pillars framing it, shimmering violet in the light of the large crystals forming the eyes of the snakes carved into their tops. Behind the swordswoman, a group of warlocks was shuffling backwards nervously, their long robes swishing over the immaculate floor tiles. Their desire to get back into the library warred with their self-preservation instinct that told them in no uncertain terms to not draw a Keeper's ire.
The crazy, provocatively-dressed blonde whom the new Keeper had brought along obviously had no such concerns. She stalked over to the group, let her gaze sweep over them, and then ripped the magic staff out of one's hands. The dark mage looked as if he wanted to object, but closed his mouth at her glare. He didn't particularly want to become an icicle like the bile demon who had attempted to "put the uppity new arrival in her place" earlier. Of course, it didn't help that she was now holding his staff, which, aside from its magical properties, was also a long, heavy lump of metal. With trepidation, he watched the woman jab the end of the dignified arcane instrument under the gap between door and floor and then use it as a crowbar. She must have been stronger than she looked, because with a loud creaking sound, one of the two door wings was pried open.
"Ha!" a kick widened the opening enough for Cathy to slip in. The abused staff clattered to the floor, forgotten. The magic users stayed outside and waited. They hadn't reached their current positions by being reckless. It was better to let the impetuous youth absorb the fireballs than to rush in themselves.
"Mercury? Where are you?" The blonde found herself in a hall tall enough to match a two-story building, with bookshelves reaching up all the way to the ceiling. Wherever she looked, musty tomes blocked her way, forming alleys leading deeper into the maze. She could get lost in here! The blonde stopped to orient herself, and spotted a balcony running all along the walls at about half the room's height. It formed gangways protruding deeply into the library at points, and would make a much better vantage point to search for the elusive Keeper. Cathy ascended the creaking wooden stairs and searched for her quarry, stepping cautiously as she walked over the bumps in the lime-green carpet. Didn't these warlocks ever clean up after themselves? For a moment, her gaze lingered on one of the pedestals holding a glowing crystal skull. Tasteful. However, a better idea than having torches as light sources in here.
After going around another high shelf, Cathy finally found what she had been looking for. "Mercury?"
The girl was sitting with her back to the blonde on a chair in front of a table, a wall of open tomes stacked around her like fortress walls. Climbing over a pile of scrolls, Cathy approached and looked over Ami's shoulder. The girl was leaning forward, her chin resting on one hand, and looking wistfully into a crystal ball. It showed a somewhat recognisable scene: an oddly dressed woman standing before a blackboard talking to children, who were all sitting at small desks, taking notes. The boys were wearing dark blue trousers and matching shirts, all made of very expensive looking cloth. The girls were wearing something that resembled the outfit she and Mercury had on right now, but was of a more modest cut. She suddenly understood.
"Is this your home?" she asked, putting a hand on the shoulder of the homesick girl. This finally got a reaction, and Ami turned to look at her, nodding. The short-haired girl had dark rings under her eyes and looked as if she had cried again recently.
"Mercury! How long have you been staring at that? Have you even been eating anything?"
In response, Ami pointed at a half-eaten sandwich serving as a bookmark between the pages of a skull-encrusted tome. "Not for very long. It takes a lot more power to see something in my world than in local places," she said. Cathy didn't look very convinced. "No, really. I'm sorry for worrying you, but I'm not just sulking and going to pieces here," Ami attempted to joke. Her friends were all right, even if there was a bandage around Usagi's head, and just knowing that already made her feel better. She had also been strongly tempted to use the scrying device to follow her classes remotely, but unfortunately, her other duties took priority. Besides, the crystal ball didn't have audio. "What I'm working on here isn't meant for the eyes of the warlocks out there. Besides, I only got the crystal ball tuned correctly this morning. Unfortunately, there is nothing in this library that could help me get back," she sighed.
The blonde took a look at the diagrams on the open pages, which might as well have been written in a foreign language for all she understood. "Is this about dungeon hearts?"
Ami nodded again. "I have been going over the details of Malleus' knowledge again, and have come to the conclusion that there are inconsistencies regarding the war for the Avatar Islands. I cross-referenced it with some history books from here, and found out that at least two dungeon hearts were destroyed that belonged to the lord of the land, and I somehow doubt that they prayed to the dark gods for support."
"You think there's an alternative? That would be convenient," Cathy said, before her tone became angrier, "however, that's still no excuse to just disappear on us and lock yourself in the library! We were all getting worried, and you don't look as if you were getting enough food or sleep. Or baths, for that matter," the blonde moved away a bit further from Ami, grimacing.
The blue-haired girl blushed faintly. "Sorry, but I really needed some time alone to gather my thoughts and pull myself back together. This last week has been more stressful than anything I have ever gone through, and I just needed some distance. I'll join you in a bit when I have investigat- ack!"
At this point, Ami found herself grabbed by her arm and bodily dragged away by the blonde. "Your research can wait. Clean yourself up and get some food! The books won't run away, and you'll be able to concentrate better when you aren't on the brink of collapse!"
Half an hour later, Ami was forced to agree with Cathy's assessment. She was soaking in a nice, hot bath in Malleus personal quarters. The square tub sparkled with white marble, and fragrant steam was rising from its waters, fogging up the mirrors on the sandstone-coloured walls. They had given her a good view of herself when she was undressing, the first time in a long while that she had really been able to just relax and take care of herself. Her appearance had reflected very little of the troubles she had gone through in the last week. She thought that she might have gained some muscle tone, and there was a nearly invisible discolouration on her belly where the Reaper's spear had impaled her, an injury she remembered with a slight shudder. The most drastic change had to be the eyes, she concluded. They were shining with red light most of the time now, even when she was completely calm. When at its faintest, the glow was still making her blue irises appear violet due to the colours mixing. She hoped that the effect wouldn't stick around when she got home. It wouldn't do for her eyes to glow like burning embers whenever she got angry or mildly irritated. Even if it would probably do a good job of keeping Usagi from goofing off when studying, she giggled. Sobering, she thought that she might have to start wearing sunglasses if she found no other solution for this complication.
Ami let herself sink deeper under the soapy bubbles until only her head, resting on her arms, was still poking out of the water, and then closed her eyes. The mirrors also had forced her to face something she had been trying desperately to avoid. But when the sight of her own naked body evoked the same reactions she had felt a while back with the harem slaves, there wasn't exactly anywhere she could flee to. So, with great reluctance, she had dared to explore this most disturbing aspect of what the dive into Malleus' deeply corrupted mind might have done to her. Know the enemy and all that. To gain some sense of detachment, she attempted to dissect the facts logically. Ami blushed. First, to stop tiptoeing around the issue, she got aroused when confronted with the sight of attractive nude girls. Sometimes even if they were clothed, though that had only happened once, with one of Malleus' slaves. She had not had any such reaction to Cathy so far, for which she was very grateful. Second, Ami was pretty sure that she was supposed to be straight. Blushing deeper, she exercised her imagination. Yes. She definitely still liked boys. For scientific purposes, she repeated the thought experiment with women and found that, her body's inappropriate reactions notwithstanding, she wasn't attracted to females. Fantasising about being intimate with them just felt awkward, not exciting. Puzzled and somewhat relieved that the experience hadn't messed with her sexual orientation, she theorised about what exactly those unwanted reactions were.
Maybe they were more like a confused reflex or something like that. Ami intellectually knew that the memories weren't hers, but did her brain? Did it even care that the equipment in the memories was all wrong? If Ami could blush any deeper, she would have. Right now, her brain was working with several experiences of having a good time doing that with other girls, opposed by exactly zero of doing anything romantically-related with males. It probably didn't help a whole lot that the girls in the memories had been so slim that they had a boyish figure, either. Was it any wonder that her body made the wrong associations? There probably were hormones being pumped into her bloodstream too any time this confusion was triggered, further influencing brain chemistry and compounding the issue. Ami let out a long sigh. The problem with this theory was that she had no way to know if she was right or wrong, or how to fix it. The only ones who could possibly know enough about this topic to talk with any authority would be other Keepers. In the unlikely case that she could ever have that conversation, she would probably die from embarrassment alone before getting any useful results. Truth be told, she could think of one possibility how to fix this. Making her own, more appropriate memories. Ami caught sight of her face in the steamed mirror. Was a colour this red still healthy?
That reminded her, she really needed to scan herself properly one of these days. There had been that contamination warning from the time the Reaper had possessed her body, and she also wanted to know if the times she had healed herself with necromancy didn't leave any lingering after-effects. She didn't feel any aches now, but it certainly wasn't a bad idea to check if that was going to pose any long-term problems. Ami lifted herself out of the water, feeling the cooler dungeon air cause goosebumps on her wet skin. She was sure that she had made some real progress now that she had dared confront her problem. If she knew what to expect, she could avoid freaking out, and it would be unreasonable to feel disgusted with herself over something she had no conscious control over. It was irritating and embarrassing, but something she could live with, if necessary. How often would she be around the stimuli that triggered this reaction, anyway?
She finished drying herself of and looked at her fuku, wrinkling her nose. How long had she been wearing the same one now? It could do with a wash. Normally, she would just transform again to replace it, but her new dungeon heart wasn't warded against spreading the uniform to all of her minions, and she was waiting for Snyder to develop a new warding scheme that wouldn't free uncontrollable wild magic. Thus, she had to find something else to wear, which was a refreshingly mundane problem. Did she have any female minions she could borrow something from? A quick search through her mental map of the dungeon revealed four of them, but the way they chose to dress caused her to avert her gaze quickly. Black leather, and very little of it, wasn't exactly what she was looking for. Maybe she could find something in her size in Malleus wardrobe, or at least adjust- Ami slapped her forehead. Nothing like that was necessary because she already knew a perfectly fine fabrication spell, which wasn't limited to only making golems.
"Hello Mercury, it's nice to see you have decided to rejoin the world of the living," Jered greeted the young Keeper.
Ami was tugging at her trousers to reduce the chafing. It seemed that the ability to just create her own clothing did not make up for a lack of experience and skill, and she would have to see a tailor later. Her current outfit was baggy by necessity, resembling a blue martial arts gi held together with a belt. It made sense to wear something she could move well in, just in case Cathy had scheduled another training session. She inclined her head in the weasel-featured man's direction in greeting, cheeks colouring slightly. "Ah, yes. That wasn't too well thought out, was it?"
"Don't worry about it. Nothing that required your personal attention came up," the wavy-haired man leaned back in his chair, which was high-backed and thickly cushioned. Apparently, dark wizards liked to be comfortable when doing research. He certainly wasn't complaining and used a tome as thick as a coffer as footrest. "The troops' daily routine is the same as it was under Malleus, because you haven't made any disrupting changes yet. Well, except for the warlocks whom you kicked out of this library, but they are too fascinated by Boris to grumble much. I also had a look at the treasury, and I don't think you have to worry about money for a long time, unless there were to be unforeseen expenditures."
"I must say that this dungeon is a rather comfortable base of operations, all things considered. You should have a look at the kitchens, the food is amazing," Snyder praised. "I suppose it makes sense when one worships a god called the Devourer," the redhead continued. He was holding a thin booklet on holy magical items, though the text was more focused on defeating rather than constructing them.
Ami nodded an acknowledgement. She had not explored the dungeon herself much yet, as it frequently triggered memory flashes, even if they were becoming less intense with time. She turned to Cathy, who was sitting on the desk, in one of the few spaces not covered in books, and looking at the active crystal ball. "Is anything interesting going on?"
"Well, that Keeper in the northern mountains is dead. At least I found nothing but ruins and corpses when I checked that area," the blonde reported. "Our alternate target, the Keeper at the west coast, is still about and lying low for now."
Ami's eyebrows lowered as she frowned in concentration. "Thank you. Anything on the Reaper or Baron Leopold?"
The blonde shook her head. "The Reaper seems to have dropped off the face of the Earth, and the Baron is at a victory party, being undeservedly lauded as one of the great heroes of our time. Apparently, his latest expedition is being spun as the Keeper fleeing rather than having to face him," she added with a hint of irritation. She had no love for the man who had forced her and her fellow adventurers to become outlaws.
"I see." Ami thought some more. "Capturing that west coast dungeon heart might become necessary if I can't figure out how to make new ones without the dark gods' approval. It's close to the ocean, so it might be possible to load it on a ship and bring it to the Avatar Islands. Because I'm not going to just give up. If there is a way to be free of this dark taint, I will find it!"
"A ship? Won't it sink? Those dungeon hearts are rather big and heavy," Jered voiced some concern.
Ami dismissed it easily. "Ice floats, and I can make a large ship out of it. It will be a long journey around the continent, but transporting the heart by ship is the only way I can see of actually getting it across the ocean."
"It makes sense," Cathy agreed. "Will you be attacking the Keeper, then?"
Ami shook her head, opening the palmtop in front of her. "No, I want to learn more about my powers first before I try this. It wouldn't do to be caught unaware by some clause or other again, and I have a few ideas I need to test. However, I would be grateful if you continued to scry on the enemy and started coming up with a plan, Cathy. Jered too," she added.
"All right. I'd prefer it if you attacked now while he's still weak, but you are the Keeper. What about Snyder?" the swordswoman pointed her thumb at the acolyte, who was absently browsing the books.
Ami smiled. "He will be assisting me."
"I will?" the redhead looked up, his face betraying amazement. "I mean, of course I will. What can I help you with?"
"Well, I figured that the heroes of Avatar Island who had dungeon hearts would not have prayed to the dark gods. But what about the good gods? You are an acolyte, that means you would know how to do so properly."
"Of course!" the redhead hesitated, "but, um, are you seriously considering praying to the Light? I mean, you are a Dungeon Keeper!" his eyes went wide when Ami frowned at him disapprovingly. "Erm, of course I didn't mean to say that you are evil, but you would have to go to a Good temple, where the gods can interfere directly with the world. And, well, they might not approve of your occupation, so you might not even get to state your case." He patted his forehead to dry the sweat that was forming on it.
Ami pondered this. "But they are good and fair?"
"Definitely," the acolyte confirmed.
"Then you'll just have to go first and announce me so they don't smite me on sight," she decided. "It's a risk I am willing to take. It could even clear all of your names."
Snyder hung his head and unfolded the map. "All right, if you insist. There should be a temple right here. News of our supposed treachery shouldn't have arrived there yet, here at the river bend..."
The destination that Snyder had picked was a town of around five-thousand inhabitants, going by the name of Evercalm. Like most cities, it was surrounded by a high wall, and its gates were closed for the night. Ami had arrived in her usual way of long distance travel, by possessing an ice golem and teleporting it across the land in many separate hops. Once in close vicinity to the sleepy town, she had hidden in a copse of trees nearby, and used the several minutes long flashy summoning spell to transport Snyder to her location. Above them, the moon sickle stood high in the sky, painting the countryside in grey tones with its light. Snyder had insisted on not trying this during the day in order to avoid scrutiny by the town guard or alarmed citizens. Mercury's appearance was rather distinctive, and the temple's wards would inevitably alert someone to her presence, even if everything else went right.
The city wall loomed tall and impenetrable, providing an illusion of security to the citizens inside. None of them would have found anything strange with the fog billowing upward outside. Sure, it was unusual for the season, but not unheard of. Any observer would have been more alarmed by the two cloaked figures approaching through the mist, their footsteps muffled by the murk. The shorter of the two stopped in front of the wall and inclined her head backward as she looked up at the battlements. Had any guards be around to spot her, they would have seen two pinpricks of red under the face-concealing hood - and gotten a much more close-up view when the girl jumped impossibly high, putting a delicate foot down in an arrow slit, then leaping again from that foothold and alighting on top of the wall. Ami let down a long rope to Snyder waiting on the ground, who wrapped it around his waist while Ami tied the other end to a battlement, before pulling on the rope to help the redhead up. Gasping and wheezing, the man arrived on top and took off the grey cloak hiding his more noticeable red and white acolyte robes.
"That's the temple?" Ami asked, looking at the tall white building standing in a small park, separate from the rest of the quarter. The religious imagery, such as the winged angel statues standing to the left and right of the entrance, and the high central tower with an enormous bell in its top made the question somewhat moot, but Snyder looked so nervous that some conversation might calm him down.
"It is," he confirmed, inclining his head. "See those ponds on either side of the way leading to the entrance? Once you walk past those, you will be on sacred ground. I'd advise you to wait further away than that until I have prepared your arrival."
As the two walked closer next to each other, Ami could see that the temple had a central symmetry to it. The tower protruded from the middle of a high dome that had windows and alcoves for statues at half its height. Four smaller buildings with pointed gables projected out in a cross pattern from that main structure. She and her companion were approaching the closest one, which had beautifully-carved wooden doors. An oppressive feeling was emanating from the structure, slowing Ami's steps down as she reached the point that Snyder hat indicated. The young man gave her an encouraging nod and continued onwards, using the brazen knocker to announce his presence. While he stood under the arch formed by the wings of the angels framing the doorway, she let her gaze wander over the area. Beautifully kept rock gardens, ponds with fish to both sides of the road, and trees nearly as high as the secondary towers combined into a picture of harmony. And she got the distinct impression that all of this abhorred her presence.
The door opened, and she could see Snyder talk animatedly with someone inside. His backlit silhouette gestured several times in her direction, before he held up his palm, indicating that she should wait, and disappeared inside. A severe-looking man with a tonsure and robes that resembled the acolyte's, but had red switched for gold, took his place. The priest looked at her with interest, obviously trying to figure out what to make of the short, hooded figure with red dots for eyes. A short time passed, and Snyder returned to her side. "What did you tell the priest? Is it safe to go in now?"
"I told him you were someone from the Underworld, heavily ensnared in the machinations of the dark gods, who wants to convert to our side, and that I needed to pray to the Light to tell them that you mean no harm. If you want to go in, you can do so now."
Ami didn't want to go in. In fact, every cell of her body was screaming at her that this was a horrible idea and that she should run while she still could. Despite the feeling of being unwelcome, she gritted her teeth and put one foot before the other, slowly approaching the building, as if fighting against a strong gale. The pressure increased the closer she got to the doorstep, and once she had passed the temple's threshold, a searing sensation on her skin added to her discomfort. The interior of the temple was brightly lit. Too brightly for her to see much, and so she raised an arm to shield her eyes against the glare. She noted that neither Snyder nor the priest seemed inconvenienced.
"Tell me, young man," the cleric addressed the redhead as both watched Mercury struggle to advance deeper into the temple, "would you know what kind of demon exactly taints her line?"
Snyder blinked. "I'm afraid I do not know what you are talking about?"
The priest shifted from one leg to the other. "To my magic, she registers as having demonic heritage. Faint, fourth or fifth generation perhaps, but it is there. It is admirable that someone with such inauspicious roots would seek to free herself from the hold of evil."
"That is news to me," the acolyte replied. "In any case, the only demons I am familiar with are bile demons and horned reapers, and neither seem inclined to produce half-human offspring, thank the Light." He was eyeing the warding runes cautiously, which were frosting over in Mercury's wake.
"Hah, yes. Thus my curiosity."
Both men fell silent and watched as the girl approached within a few steps of the altar.
"That is close enough, Keeper Mercury." The voice was neutral, neither male nor female, and seemed to come from everywhere at once. Ami found that she was standing in a small circle of darkness, while all around her, white light stretched into infinity. It was unbearably bright yet didn't sear her eyes. Because this was all happening in her head, she thought.
"You are correct. What is it that a Keeper risks coming into Our presence for?" the voice, or chorus, sounded mildly interested, but there was a hint of steel too, indicating that any lies would carry unfortunate consequences.
"I need your help! I'm not evil, and I never wanted to be a Keeper! Please don't turn me away." Ami pleaded her case.
"Truth," the voices replied, sounding surprised and also dismayed. Ami felt something touch her mind, accessing her memories of the event. "That is tragic, child. However, Our options are limited. What do you wish Us to do?"
"I cannot create new dungeon hearts without the aid of the dark gods, and I do not wish to commit evil just to gain their approval. Could you assist me with that instead, please?" Ami held her breath, waiting for the reply.
"You ask for the impossible. Your soul is in the realm of the dark gods, anchored to the human world with the devices you call 'dungeon hearts', and forming a conduct through which their corrupt power flows into the land and increases their hold on it. You could not use one infused with Our power, even if such a thing existed."
Hopes dashed and deeply disturbed at the independent confirmation of the Reaper's information, Ami was sounding panicky now "What? Can't you get it back somehow? I never intended to worship the dark gods! I literally didn't know what I was doing!"
"We cannot directly affect the realm of the dark gods, same as they cannot affect Ours. If We could help you, We would. Alas, We are powerless in this case. All We can do is offer advice." there was real pity in the chorus now.
"The only way to get your soul back is by convincing the evil deity holding it to return it to you. Before you ask, We do not know how. Their motivations are impenetrable to Us."
"Oh. Wait! How do I find out which one has it?" Ami asked. Her situation was worse than she had imagined.
"It is currently in limbo, waiting to be snatched up by whomever wants it at the time of your death. However, should you choose to worship a specific dark god, it will go to that one at once."
Ami thought about this for a moment. "A-are you encouraging me to worship a dark god?" she asked, incredulously.
"It is the wrong thing to do, but your only chance at salvation."
"Oh, great. You aren't making things easier for me." she was starting to get angry at the non-committing answers.
"Would you prefer for Us to deceive you in order to ease your mind?"
Ami didn't reply.
"Why do you even wish to create additional dungeon hearts, child? We can offer you sanctuary in a monastery, with a single heart shielded by Our power so it cannot do harm nor be harmed. You would be doomed to walk this world forever, but it would be a preferable alternative to what awaits you after your death."
"I need to find a way back to my own world, and I want to destroy as many evil Keepers as I can while I search for the means that will return me home. And I don't want to die and go to hell. Wait, would you be able to send me home? Ami asked, feeling hopeful.
"We could, but We will not," the Light answered, "You must never return to your own world."
"What? Why not? My friends need me!" Ami's tone was hostile and desperate now.
"You would remain a conduit for the dark gods, and We will not allow them to taint another world if We can prevent it. We will not risk the souls of billions for the good of one."
"But my world is already under attack by evil! I have to go back! Please!"
"We can see that nothing We say will sway you. So be it. You have come in good faith, and it is not in Our nature to pay back trust with betrayal. Thus, go safely, but know that We will oppose your efforts if you continue on your chosen path. In a conciliatory tone, the voices added "Our offer of sanctuary remains open, if you will just see reason. A final word of warning: your direct contact with Us has burned out your Keeper powers for the next few hours. Farewell, Mercury."
Ami was suddenly aware of her surroundings again, and found herself slowly pushed backward, her feet gliding over the floor with little traction. The irresistible force moved her faster and faster, and she slid past the two astonished holy men, waving her arms for balance. Once she was out of the door, both the force and the effect making her soles slippery disappeared, but not her momentum, and she landed hard on her behind. "Ouch!" In a testament to how much this conversation had rattled her composure, she added "Jerks!"
"Mercury! Are you all right?" Snyder was already running toward her, looking worried.
A bright orange flash from beyond the temple grounds caused everyone to turn around. At the end of the straight path between the ponds, a rotating pillar of flame blazed into the sky, its light colouring the surroundings as if they were drenched in blood. Out of the conflagration stepped a familiar, muscular and horned figure.
"So we meet again, Mercury," the Reaper laughed. "What you just tried has really annoyed the Dark Gods, and they want to see you. Right now." the beast's fanged grin widened, and his scythe appeared, whooshing threateningly through the air as he stomped forward slowly, "Guess who gets to send you to them?"
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- Plus the conversation was 'leaked' to the other side pretty fast to.
Well, her soul IS linked to the dark gods, so getting her powers suppressed by the good gods for a while might have given them a bad case of indigestion ;) She herself is the leak here.
- Am I looking at it wrong? It said she cannot use her Keeper Powers, can she use her Senshi ones? What I mean is, in the normal course of things, one improves with effort & experience, her Seed? Was constantly being used to power the Heart, so it is used to giving out POWER.. it cannot be used to do the things it was before.. so can it 'upgrade' her to a later 'season' version of herself?
It already did. Shabon Spray Freezing is a Season 2 attack ;)
Only Ami's Keeper powers are nullified from the contact with the Light. Her senshi magic isn't powered by evil, so why would it be affected? However, Sailor Mercury did get a slight boost from having a dungeon heart. You may remember Cathy using Shabon Spray Freezing in an earlier episode without the benefit of one, which left Ami feeling drained.