In the black depths of the temple's rectangular basin, lights flashed and wandered, as if a thunderstorm was unleashing its fury deep beneath the surface. Ami bent away from the waters that her knees were nearly touching when a strong wind howled outward from the pool. It blew her blue bangs out of her face and felt icy cold on the wet spots where her sores had suddenly opened. She half-closed her eyes to protect them from flying dirt particles and scuttled backward. Was this a good sign or a bad sign? The storm continued raging without disturbing the waters, its howls mixing with and modulating the perpetual whispers that echoed between the many pearl-coloured arches surrounding the central basin until they sounded like roars. Ami still couldn't understand a word that was being said, but got the distinct impression that there were different voices, and that they were arguing agitatedly. The tempest beneath the waters seemed to inch closer to the surface, and Ami pulled herself to her feet so she could step away further.
One after the other, some of the clamouring voices dropped out until a single one remained. When that fell silent too, Ami felt a tremor under her soles. An enormous pressure seemed to hang in the air. Suddenly, the girl's head whipped to the left, from where she had heard a loud bang. One of the braziers shaped like the gaping mouth of some monster had exploded into shards. Even as she watched, the one next to it exploded into a spray of splinters. She ducked her head and shielded her face with her arms, already hearing similar cracks from the other side of the room. This chain of events was not reassuring. Deep, roaring laughter reverberated through the chamber, shaking the walls and making her bones and teeth vibrate. No, not reassuring at all. Ami stood frozen to the spot, not out of her own volition. She tried to move or transport herself, but her muscles weren't obeying her at all. Only her eyes could still dart around wildly in their sockets, taking in the devastation raging through the room. Like trees in a hurricane, the pillars surrounding the central basin bent and broke, smashing into the grisly decorations along the walls. With a groan of tortured metal, the huge silver idol depicting a horned, pot-bellied monstrosity that sat prominently in a central alcove at the other side of the room split in twain. The laughter reached a crescendo, and the quakes and winds started to die down, their fury expended. With all the braziers destroyed, the room was pitch black, except for the central basin, which seemed lit by something prowling just underneath the bubbling surface. Ami could feel the attention of the malevolent entity turn toward her. It felt like being scrutinised by a very large, hungry lion.
"So you are the Keeper who exterminated the last followers of my ancient enemy, the Devourer," a voice grumbled in the senshi's mind. "For that favour, consider your punishment suspended," the mental voice hissed.
"Thank you. That is very generous," Ami grovelled, waiting for the other shoe to drop. The use of 'suspended' didn't bode well.
"Silence! I am Azzartha the Mighty Tyrant, and while you have served me unwittingly in the past, your weakness offends me!" the dark god continued, "Eliminate it, for I shall test you. Succeed, and all is forgiven. Fail to rise to the task, and the plague will run its course."
Uh oh. "Test me? How?" the slight girl asked with a quavering voice, hoping that the being wouldn't demand that she commit massacres or other atrocities on its behalf.
"Defeat that other disappointment currently residing in your cell. You have until the next equinox."
"The horned reaper? But I have already beaten him," Ami protested, blinking.
"With trickery and spells," Azzartha dismissed, "Hardly a test of strength and martial prowess. No, I demand a victory in melee combat!" Chuckling at the blue-haired girl's expression, the oppressive presence continued "Oh, and before I leave, an entity that enjoyed your pathetic offering rather more than I did wants you to have this."
Ami could feel the hateful thing retreat, and she dropped to her knees. Not out of piety or respect, but because her legs were giving out under her. Defeat the reaper in close combat? Just how was she supposed to do that? This was as good as a death sentence. The monster was stronger, faster, and larger than her, and could take insane amounts of damage. Any time she had struck at him directly in the past, he had only been inconvenienced, rather than hurt.
Movement in the water in front of her shook her from her gloomy thoughts. A whirlpool was spinning the liquid inside the bottomless basin around, and something large was rising up through the funnel. Despite never touching the waves, the fire-trailing, scorched-looking crystal turned around its own axis at the same rate that the whirlpool did. Ami stepped aside when the sooty thing bobbed upward like a cork on a wave and bounced toward the shore, where it landed among the fallen pillars of the temple. A gift from a dark god? Cautious but curious, the teenager approached the oblong thing. Where it wasn't covered in ash, it had the same colour as ice. Was there something inside? Ami picked up a pennant lying in the rubble and used it to clean the black soot from the surface of the object. When she leaned over the clear spot, her eyes went wide with shocked recognition. From within the block, unseeing steel-blue eyes stared back from a face covered in cat scratches.
Ami was riding an emotional roller coaster after the Dark Kingdom general had appeared in her dungeon. First came surprise at his presence and seeing him like this, then elation. If he was here, he couldn't threaten her friends back home! But what if he broke free? She had never seen him fight, but by Sailor Moon's own admission, she had been completely powerless against him. Wait, was he even alive in there? A quick scan with her visor revealed that he was not only alive, but also awake, and had been in the crystal for some time now, deprived of all sensory input. Anxiety turned to pity. That had to be terrible. As evil went, he hadn't been so bad, certainly not when compared to the Keepers, or even their minions. His plans had neither killed anyone nor inflicted undue pain. Ami smiled faintly. How quick one's standards could change. She moved the crystal into her prison, though into a separate cell from the Reaper's. Hope flared up in the blue-haired senshi's heart suddenly. Maybe Jadeite could get her home! If he could open a portal back to the Dark Kingdom, then he could certainly take her along, and she already knew that he was able to reach Tokyo from there! Then again, why should he? How could she get him to cooperate, and why was he even here in the first place? The terrifying thought that she might have endangered her home by furthering the goals of the Dark Kingdom went through Ami's mind, smashing her pleasant daydream of being reunited with her friends.
A cough that tasted like blood reminded her that she had more pressing issues than an immobilised dark general. The dark gods may have removed the disease, but they had done nothing to speed recovery or remove the damage already done. Which left Ami with a dungeon full of weak and comatose creatures who needed to be cared for. Necromancy only went so far in patching up wounds and battered organs. It did nothing about fatigue, lack of energy, or weakness. Ami put both hands on her stomach and concentrated on patching up what she could. It would be easier to recover without wounds and internal bleeding. She transported herself to the long corridor that served as sick bay, and let her eyes wander over her minions, lined up on the foul-smelling straw. At first glance, they looked dead, but to Ami's relief, she could still feel their connections to her dungeon heart, which proved that there was still life in them. The links also helped her to judge just how weak each one of them was, and she gave aid to the most needy first, teleporting from one patient to the next. It was disheartening how they remained prone and motionless despite her ministrations. What they were suffering from was exhaustion, lack of energy, and blood loss. Nothing that her magic could help with.
The minions needed rest, water, food, and hygiene. Feeling weak from the recent illness, Ami was glad that she could leave those tasks to her 'nurses'. As if summoned by the thought, a row of ice golems appeared within the tunnel, all turning their head toward her in eerie unison. Being stared at by twenty icy doubles of oneself was strangely disconcerting, Ami found. Especially when the icy armour covering some of the oldest ones had already melted away. Having no longer even the energy to blush, the girl ordered them all to approach her. Several rapid applications of the fabrication spell later, all of the statue girls were wearing identical white nurse uniforms. Sitting down, Ami instructed them about the dos and don'ts of their new job. If only there was some way to speed up- of course! Snyder was an acolyte, he should have better healing spells! What was he up to right now, anyway? Oh. Oh dear.
"Ahem, I assure you that I am not an apostate, despite what circumstances have conspired to make it appear," Snyder defended himself, looking up at the judge, whose oversized nose was peering over the edge of the bench like the beak of a vulture, presumably to check if the truth-finding diagram on the ground was indeed glowing green.
"But you admit to associating with and being in the employ of a Keeper?" he asked, attempting to dig deeper.
Snyder sighed. "Yes." He wilted under the glare of the attendant crowd, and quickly added "But I assure that Keeper Mercury is different from other Keepers! She is actually a sweet and gentle person if you get to know her!"
"Silence in the courtroom!" the judge banged his hammer on the wood, trying to calm the storm of disparaging remarks that the redhead's confession had triggered. "Do behave yourselves, or I will have you thrown from this room! You can see that the diagram is glowing green, so the accused certainly thinks he is telling the truth."
"The poor, deluded fool," someone in the crowd shouted.
"I am not deluded," the short acolyte protested. "She has never asked me to do anything evil or criminal, aside from getting into this city by night, and I don't believe that she intends to do so in the future!"
Peering down over Snyder's bowl cut at the still green lines under his boots, the judge frowned. "Very well. What have you been doing for that Keeper?"
The priest-in-training stopped to consider this. "Well, I have healed her a few times, but she prefers to do so herself. Most of the time, I have been working on a warding scheme."
One of the attending priests raised his hand, signalling that he wanted to ask the accused a question. "A warding scheme for what, exactly?"
Snyder turned to face him. "Several things, actually. A way to prevent the dark energy from her dungeon heart to have detrimental effects on the environment. Some research into magical batteries. And a ward to fix a rather specific problem with her dungeon heart. I think that is more or less it."
The priest seemed surprised. "She gave you access to her dungeon heart?" Frowning, as if deep in thought, he added "Did that ward work as intended?"
"Only partly," Snyder admitted, "but I'm sure I can get rid of the side effects if I only spend more time on it."
"Did those 'side effects' ever hurt anyone?" the bearded holy man asked, twirling the point of his beard as he waited for the answer.
"Unfortunately so," the acolyte had to admit after a short pause. "But that was an accident, and nobody could have predicted that!"
"Was the person who was hurt an enemy of the Keeper, by chance?"
"Yes." Snyder didn't like the direction in which the conversation was being led, "but-"
"So, to summarise," the older man interrupted him, raising a finger for each point, "the Keeper has tricked the accused into working on - one: a system that would make her dungeons harder to detect, - two: enhanced mana storage, and three: a new kind of last ditch defence for her dungeon hearts. Her approach is worrisome in that she is attempting to co-opt the powers of Good for her evil plans. The skill with which this poor acolyte has been brainwashed is another indication of the kind of threat this Mercury poses. Honoured judge, I humbly request that he be confined to house arrest within the temple, where the Keeper cannot get to him and where the nefarious conditioning can be undone."
The judge pondered this, then nodded slowly so he wouldn't dislodge his white wig with the movement. "That sounds like the best option. He is not evil, merely gulli-"
"Oh nonsense!" Snyder exploded.
"I will have silence from the accuse-"
"Fine! I admit that she could have brainwashed me! But are you really so arrogant to assume that she could have brainwashed the Light, too? She was in their temple, praying to them, after all, and nothing bad happened to her!" Snyder's face was red with anger as he glared at his opponent.
The old priest's mouth opened and closed several times as he searched for an answer to that. Then, his eyes lit up in realisation. "Of course! That girl with you was never the Keeper, but just someone who would do that villain's bidding! Someone who looked the part but was wretched enough that the gods would take pity on her. Rumours have it that during her trial, it came out that she was some kind of who-"
The doors to Evercalm's courtroom flew open with a bang. "Hold it right there!"
All heads turned in the direction of the intruder, whose slender silhouette was standing in the doorframe, with fog streaming in past her long legs and her eyes glowing like red pinpricks. Someone in the back row started screaming. Ami was not in her senshi uniform. For one thing, she didn't want to risk transforming when the transformation could spread to all of her sick minions, for the other, the outfit was rather risqué for the local culture, and she didn't want to make an even worse impression than she was about to. So she had created an approximation of the uniform by herself. She had kept the leotard and the familiar colour scheme, but had gotten rid of the ribbons and sailor collar in favour of some light armouring. The skirt had been replaced by more modest blue trousers. Seeing how everyone was paying attention to her, she was rather glad about that choice. Foregoing a speech - that was Sailor Moon's shtick - she strode into the room, giving way for her team of four ice golems to take position on her flanks. Ami had been following the proceedings through Snyder's senses, and the misrepresentation of her character hurt. She hadn't know how much she had longed for approval, for one normal village in which she wouldn't be considered pure evil, until those hopes were dashed by the priest's suspicious words. "I will not let you lock away an innocent man just because you cannot believe the truth!" She stated.
"Guards!" the judge was ducking out of sight behind the bench, and Ami could see the men and women in purple and white armour march toward her reluctantly, cowering behind the points of their halberds. Ami's golems shifted to face them. The guardsmen had been friendly enough when Ami had been their prisoner, and she didn't particularly wish to fight them. "Hello? I defeated a Reaper on my own, remember?" the blue-haired girl smiled in their direction. They paled and hesitated.
"Naturally, that was staged too! It all makes sense in hindsight!" the priest shouted, standing up to his full height and looking imposing in his white-and-gold robes.
Instead of answering, Ami walked past the guards and toward Snyder, who seemed speechless at her sudden intrusion. She took position on the magical diagram next to him, looked the priest straight in the eyes, and said "The Reaper really was trying to kill me, everything Snyder said was completely true, and," she blushed slightly, "I'm really the Keeper, nothing else!" The magical diagram under her boots flared bright green, confirming everything she had said. The priest faltered under her glare, and from the crowd came shrieks of terror and muffled sobs. Ami turned to look at the pale, terrified faces all cringing away from her, and felt her righteous indignation shrivel up and die. Scaring them had not been her intention, and it hurt that they considered her a monster. She forcefully turned her expression into a soft smile. "Please, there is no need to panic. I promise that I will harm nobody who doesn't try to prevent us from leaving." The cold fog billowing around her legs shone green under the light of the diagram. "Snyder, let's go." She tugged at his sleeve. "Um, that is if you want to," she added softly, scratching her head with her left hand. Maybe she should have asked him first if he didn't want to stay with his own people, now that his life was in no danger.
The redhead blushed lightly and nodded after only the shortest moment of hesitation. "Thanks for coming to save me."
Snyder wasn't particularly skilled at healing magic, which translated in him looking dead tired even after only strengthening Cathy and Snyder. The two adventurers, who had occupied the beds in Ami's private chambers, were sitting next to each other within the late Malleus' living room. "Sorry," the acolyte excused himself, "I am really best with magical items, not with direct spells."
"We still appreciate your help," Ami assured him with a bright smile.
Even Cathy gave a grudging nod in the redhead's direction. "Yes, it's nice to be able to walk on my own again. For a while, I thought that plague was going to be the end of us. Though I'm feeling kind of weak and unprotected now, without Mercury's enchantments."
"Oh, right, they dispersed at some point while Mercury was away," Jered confirmed, already dressed in his usual combination of green shirt, brown pants, and bandoleer of daggers around his chest.
"Now that you mention it, she looks a bit different now," Snyder agreed.
"Can you replace the enchantments?" the blonde asked, making puppy-dog eyes at Ami, who shook her head.
"Not right now, sorry. This dungeon heart isn't warded yet against the transformation side effect spreading to everyone else, and I would prefer to not annoy my employees further after all this," the blue-haired girl explained.
"I can understand that," Cathy replied, then took a long sip of water from a bowl that one of the ice golems had brought her. "Actually, how did you get rid of that disease?"
"Well..." this was one of the questions that Ami had dreaded. She put her hands together in her lap and fidgeted with her fingers, while looking at her toes. "I- I tried everything I could think of," she said reluctantly. "I even managed to create a cure of my own, but the dark gods just improved their plague and made all my work worthless."
Snyder and Cathy listened intently to her words, but by Jered's raised an eyebrow, apparently aware of where this was going.
"I saw no other solution, so - I prayed to the dark gods. I couldn't just let everyone die!" Ami blurted out, looking up and expecting to find disgust on the faces of her companions. Snyder seemed the most surprised, his brown eyes were wide, and he looked as if she had just slapped him. Jered took the news in stride, and Cathy's lips narrowed to a thin line, as if she had bitten into something bitter.
"And they took away the plague, just like that? What did they ask of you?" the blonde's voice sounded sharper than she might have intended to.
Ami cringed. "They, well, I bribed them." Before her listeners could jump to conclusions, she quickly added "I didn't kill anyone! I just adapted a spell my enemies in my world used to drain energy from people, used it, and offered the lifeforce to the dark gods! Everyone will recover completely from that with enough rest!"
"Really? That doesn't sound quite evil enough to mollify them," the blonde said dubiously. She looked greatly displeased with the news.
"It didn't, unfortunately. The punishment is suspended, not lifted. I have to defeat the Reaper in close combat until next equinox for it to be lifted," Ami said with a shiver, pulling her knees up to her chest and encircling them with her arms.
"What? Are they insane?" Cathy shrieked. "With the way you fight, that's not a chance, that's certain death!"
"Next equinox? That's still three or four months," Jered commented. "Enough time to come up with a good way to cheat."
Snyder was concentrating on a different issue "You, you prayed to the dark gods," he stammered, "I understand that you thought you had no other choice, but what about the gods of the Light? Why didn't you ask them for help at the temple?"
"I did. They basically told me that there's nothing they can do for me since my soul is in the realm of the dark gods, and I'd have to get it back first. For which I'd have to start worshipping one of the dark gods first to know where exactly it is."
"I hope you didn't do that," the redhead answered, wide eyed.
Ami shook her head. "No, I used a general prayer to all of the dark gods. Though one of them apparently liked my offering more than the others, and sent me a 'gift'."
The others leaned forward. "A gift? You don't look too unhappy about that, what could it be? One of those sparks of life to make a new dungeon heart?" Jered guessed.
"No, someone from my own world," the blue-haired girl answered looking up. "An enemy actually, trapped in crystal, still alive. I don't know why he is here, but I intend to find out. Maybe I can even get him to take me home. He is dangerous, though, so there are some precautions to take..."
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|Chapter 35: Corruption?||Chapter 37: Recruitment Preparations|
- [Regarding Jadeite's powers and abilities]
He can't manipulate time himself, he got a youma to do this for him. I actually wonder why that youma isn't used as a plot device more often. Maybe because it appears too early in the series? It could be useful for time travel fics when you don't want to rely on Pluto or the Black Moon's spaceships.
In any case, it can be pretty hard to judge what's his own power and what is youma-derived during the episodes. The airport thing was clearly himself, though it wasn't as impressive as it sounds at first glance, because the place was empty except for security personel. He can also fly (are there any Dark Kingdom youma/generals who can't? I can't remember off the top of my head) and teleport. His most impressive ability seems to be telekinesis - moving three airplanes around, stopping Sailor Moon's tiara in mid flight, and then making her bounce off of his shield - and he also likes to take different disguises.