The knuckles of Ami's fingers whitened from gripping the armrests of her throne too hard. What had Jadeite done? The Baron, an implacable foe, was standing amidst her underlings, staring ahead with a blank expression. He may have been unarmed and unarmoured, but it was still unnerving having him here. The young Keeper was at a loss for words as her brain tried to come up with an appropriate reaction to the unexpected development. Regardless of what it would be, the last thing she needed was a crowd of useless onlookers. "You others, out! The audiences are over for today!"

Disappointed grumbling echoed through the throne room while the creatures obeyed hesitantly, shuffling toward the exit at a snail's pace. Upon reaching the doors, most minions stopped and looked back over their shoulders, eager to catch a last glimpse of the unfolding, gossip-worthy situation. The inevitable congestion caused the exodus to come to a complete stop. Recent events had hardly improved Ami's mood, and rather than wait patiently for the gaggle of monsters to sort themselves out, she used her Keeper powers to hasten their departure. Creatures vanished into thin air, and once the last of them had disappeared, the iron door leading into the chamber slammed shut, its wings rattling against the frame.

"Jadeite, I am torn about what to say," Ami began, keeping an eye on the calm-looking form of the Baron, as if he was a rabid animal she feared could attack her at any moment. "First, what did you do to him? I don't believe he would be so tranquil on his own accord."

If Jadeite had been expecting a better reception, he didn't show. "That circlet on his head," he pointed at the slim band of metal resting in the noble's short-cropped, greying hair, "is putting him under my complete control. While I met unexpected resistance in subduing him, I assure you that he is quite docile now."

"Oh." Ami nodded dubiously, looking both men over again. Her eyes narrowed as she took in their battered states properly. "Is he all right? And are you all right? Did you hurt anyone else?" She stood up from her throne, her footsteps echoing mutedly on the marble as she inspected the duo more closely, walking around them like a shark circling its prey.

"Nothing serious, just rendered anyone who attacked me unconscious," the dark general said, tracking the blue-haired Keeper with his eyes.

With an audible sigh of relief, Ami now approached the rigid figure of the Baron. He was shorter than the Reaper, or even Boris, but still loomed a good head and a half over her. A large tear in his silk shirt allowed her to gently touch the skin on his back with a faintly green-glowing hand. Did his fingers twitch at the touch? No, she must have imagined it. Focusing on probing deeper beneath the black-and blue bruise that extended beneath her fingertips, she quickly localised broken ribs, bruised muscles, torn ligaments, and inner bleeding. How was he still standing? Aghast, she started fixing the worst of the injuries. "Jadeite, he's hurt badly! Just how much of a resistance did you encounter? Sit down," she ordered the Baron, who followed the command without hesitation.

"Snyder!" With a wrench of violated space, the red-and white-robed acolyte suddenly stood in the room, staggering as he dropped down a finger's breadth to the floor. He blinked in confusion, looking at Mercury, and slowly put the fine-pointed chisel he had in his hand into a pocket.

"What? Oh, hello. I don't think I will ever get used to-" his brown eyes went wide when he took in who else was in the room. "Is that...? How? And WHY?"

"I'm still trying to work that out myself," Ami waved off his questions. "He's hurt, though. Can you please help him? I'm still not as fluent in healing spells as I'd like to be." There was only so much one could do with necromancy, after all. One of these days, she would have to look into acquiring books on real healing magic.

The redhead nodded. After only a short glance at the injured nobleman, he turned back to Ami. "Could you move us to the infirmary? This place has none of the amenities I would require for treating him." A moment later, he found himself in a brightly lit room with six empty and surprisingly clean beds. The Baron materialised over one of them, sinking deep into the mattress wrapped in white linen. Mercury and her newest minion appeared too, standing next to each other.

The blue-haired girl looked at the noble with a thoughtful expression. Coming to a decision, she also transported Jered and Cathy into the room. Maybe their input would help her come up with a way to do damage control. She let the couple regain their bearings and faced the bruised former dark general.

"Jadeite, I really wish you had asked me before doing something as disruptive as kidnapping the baron of a country, and I'm sure you are smart enough to realise that yourself. So why didn't you?"

"Because you would probably have rejected my plan," Jadeite responded, not even pretending to sound apologetic. He would not ever have spoken like this to Beryl, of course, but he had the feeling that Mercury would let him get away with it. "And, frankly speaking, you can't afford to. Don't try to deny it, now that I have seen the Reaper, I know that you will need all the help you can possibly get."

"Oh, shit!" Cathy, recognising the Baron, turned her head so fast that her long blonde hair whistled through the air like a whip, forcing Jered to dodge. She glared at Jadeite, eyebrows furrowing deeply. "I can't believe it! So that's where you disappeared to so quickly!" Turning to Ami, she apologised. "I'm sorry, I didn't think just telling him about the Baron being able to beat the Reaper would cause him to do something so harebrained."

"Harebrained? It worked fine! Despite your misgivings, I managed to beat him without problems," Jadeite smirked smugly, crossing his arms!"

"I didn't think you'd consider it a dare! How childish can you get?" Cathy fumed. "And 'without problems' is a bald-faced lie! You are bleeding, and your face is coloured like a badger's!"

"It's nothing," the curly-haired general grumbled.

"Oh? Well, then you won't mind if I do this," Cathy said, stepping behind the dark general and jabbing her index finger into his side just below a gash in his uniform.

"Ow! Are you crazy?" Jadeite winced and stumbled, then batted the woman's probing hand away.

"If that's nothing, then I'd hate to see your 'something'," the swordswoman looked at the tip of her finger, which was glistening reddish.

"She has a point," Ami agreed, "you could use some healing, too. Lie down over there," she ordered, pointing at one of the remaining free beds.

"I'm fine," Jadeite protested, not moving from his spot. Rather than arguing, an exasperated Ami just picked him up with her Keeper powers. "Now wait a minute! Hey!" he found himself floating horizontally in the air and unceremoniously lowered onto the soft mattress. Apparently, Mercury wasn't putting up with any more insubordination, at least for now.

"Now take that jacket off so I can see what's wrong with you. The shirt too," Ami added once she caught a glimpse of the garment under his uniform jacket, blushing furiously even as she gave the order. Jadeite narrowed his eyes at her, but just harrumphed as he followed the order ever so slowly.

"There's no need to be embarrassed," Jered teased from where he was sitting on one of the beds, watching their antics from a safe distance, "after all, if Keeper Mercury wanted to look at your scrawny chest, she could just peep on you while you are changing - she can see everything in this dungeon she desires," the brown-haired man pointed out, chuckling. At least until Cathy elbowed him in the ribs.

"What? I wouldn't!" Ami sputtered, her face taking on the same same colour as a ripe tomato, and she raised both hands defensively, waving them left and right.

Jadeite harrumphed again, glaring sideways at the green-clad man. Only a faint colouring of his cheeks betrayed that he was uncomfortable with that revelation. At the very least, it would make keeping secrets difficult.

Clearing her throat, Ami tried to speak in a professional tone of voice. "That wasn't nice very nice, Jered. Now, let's see. Oh." She had a good view of the now shirtless Jadeite, and the remnants of the recent battle were clearly visible as a network of bruises, cuts, and burns. "What made this? She asked, pointing at a a charred-looking mark.

"Hot fire rake," the dark general said shortly.

"And that?" the blue-haired girl asked, putting her green-glowing hands over two strange puncture wounds just above Jadeite's heart.

"Tuning fork," he grumbled.

"Tuning fork? How-"

"Look, could you just concentrate on the healing already?" the blond snapped, "Or do you enjoy pawing at me too much? Ow!" A wince banished his short-lived smirk when an embarrassed Ami put too much pressure on one of his wounds at the unexpected accusation.

"That's one hell of a love bite," Cathy got another dig in, looking at the teeth mark's on Jadeite's shoulder, "no problems, eh?"

The dark general groaned in irritation. "Why don't you use your time more meaningfully and interrogate the Baron? That's why I brought him here in the first place!"

"Point," the other blonde conceded, turning to look at Snyder, who was still treating the injured prisoner, who had acquired a more healthy colour in the meantime.

"That does sound like a good idea," Ami said quietly. "Let's see whether the information he has was worth jeopardising all possible peaceful future relations."

"Well, he should be out of danger by now," Snyder informed her, "in fact, he is recovering astonishingly well, faster than even my skills can explain completely." The acolyte looked nervous and unhappy as he backed away from the occupied bed to give the others a clear line of sight.

"Baron Leopold, are you still in pain?" Ami asked, getting no reaction from the large man sitting on the bed.

"Answer her questions," Jadeite instructed, which prompted the noble to speak. A fine layer of sweat was forming on his brow, above the large and bushy eyebrows.

"I am not," he finally said, grey eyes looking straight ahead.

"That's good to hear," Ami said with a small smile. "Okay, you defeated a horned reaper in close combat about two weeks ago. What allowed you, as a human, to overcome the Reaper's advantages and do so?" The blue-haired girl leaned forward, muscles tensing with anticipation as she waited for the answer. This could be the solution to her problem.

Leopold seemed to hesitate, but Ami couldn't tell whether it was because he was collecting his thoughts or actively resisting the mind-control. His projecting moustache quivered as he spoke. "A combination of factors. A body steeled by over thirty years of daily training, the experience to read the monster's moves and the reflexes to act on this information. Natural speed and strength inherited from an angelic ancestor far up the family tree, and unsurpassed adamantine equipment enhancing these attributes even more."

With each item on the list, Ami's face became longer. Only the final one sounded like something she could potentially make use of. On further consideration, it occurred to her that she might also qualify for the second-last item on the list, if demonic contamination was roughly comparable with divine ancestry. She doubted she was that lucky. "Adamantine?"

"Ah, that is an incredibly rare metal that is mined exclusively by the dwarves in the north, who are also the only ones who know the secrets to properly working it. It's ideal for weapons and armour, and has some other interesting properties. Legend has it that ages ago, it played a pivotal role in denying the dark gods entry to this world," Snyder lectured. "However, no two sources can agree on what, or even whether something like that actually took place, so I would take this story with a grain of salt. In any case, the metal is exceedingly rare and valuable."

Ami nodded at the explanation, then focused on the Baron again, noticing that he was sweating harder and that the muscles in his neck were clenching under the skin. "If someone of my size and build wanted to fight a horned reaper, what advice would you give them?"

"Don't go anywhere near it," Leopold replied without hesitation.

"Assume that this is inevitable," Ami sighed.

"In that case, get too close for it to use its scythe effectively. It can still turn you into a smear on the ground with its regular limbs, but they will be moving slightly more slowly than the blade." The Baron's reply came slowly, and he stalled between words. The circlet on his head gave off a few sparks

"I don't think your trinket is going to keep him in check for much longer, " Cathy shouted, directed at Jadeite. Ami felt inclined to agree. She could read the effort he was putting into resisting on his contorting face. Well, better safe than sorry. With a mental flick, she picked him up along with the mattress he was sitting on, and put him into her safe prison. Appearing before the bars, she was just in time to see his arms rise upward slowly, as if they were straining against a great weight. Inexorably, they inched toward the evil headband.

Fighting the influence of the mind-control jewellery was causing him great discomfort, Ami could deduce from his grimace. Not being one to condone suffering, she remotely plucked the offending object from his head - he would manage to take it off by himself soon enough, and this way she could have a closer look at it later.

Immediately, the Baron jumped to his feet with a great, angry roar. His now wide-awake eyes immediately focused on the slip of a girl waiting outside his cell. "Keeper Mercury," he spat venomously, "what heinous plots against my nations are you scheming now? Know that even with me captured, my realm will not bow to you!" Despite the steel grate separating them, Ami couldn't help but feel intimidated by the imposing figure walking toward her, body language speaking of hostility.

Ami inclined her head. "I'm very sorry, this is all a big misunderstanding. Jadeite acted without my knowledge. I have no designs on your nation, I assure you."

"Huh, you don't really expect me to believe that, do you?" the Baron replied, glaring at her.

"No," Ami looked sad, "people just automatically assume the worst of me now, whatever I do. Especially when I'm telling the truth."

"My heart's bleeding for you, fiend," Leopold replied in a deadpan tone of voice, unimpressed.

"See? That's exactly what I'm talking about. It's very, very frustrating," Ami complained tiredly.

"Those were some strange questions you were asking me," the Baron changed the topic. "Trying to use me to find and remove your Reaper's weaknesses? Why don't you come closer and I'll tell you." He grinned winningly, gripping the bars of the cell. Ami took a step back, well out of arm's reach.

"I was more hoping to exploit them myself. He'd kill me if I gave him a chance!"

"So the rumours about you are true, and it ran away? Despicable." Leopold looked down on her, sneering in revulsion.

"NO! That's all based on a misunderstanding!" A pause, and then her shoulders sagged. "You are not believing me again."

"Why should I? You have tried to control me with your filthy magic, and I'm now stuck in your prison instead of coordinating the defence against your rival Arachne!" The Baron raged, losing the tenuous control over his temper. He walked up and down inside his room quickly, muttering curses under his breath.

Ami froze. "Arachne is back? Where?"

"Do you think you'd have still found me in my castle if I knew where she's attacking from, you twit? " the large man shouted.

"There is no reason to be impolite about it." This was going nowhere, and his information had been near worthless. Stupid Jadeite, she ought to... suddenly, the girl's face lit up with a smile. Maybe she could solve an old problem and get some petty revenge in the process. "Baron, I propose a deal-"

"Never, servant of darkness!"

Ami massaged her temples, feeling a headache coming. She had considered asking him for amnesty for Cathy, Jered, and Snyder in exchange for his freedom, but she had no idea what an extorted promise like that would be worth, and she wouldn't risk their well-being on it. "Please let me finish. I'm planning to let you go back where you belong, because I didn't want you here in the first place, okay?" The Baron let out a disbelieving snort. "Now, I have another hero here who got unlucky when he tried to attack me. You might remember Boris? He ran afoul of some chaos magic. The trouble is that he got all mixed up with one of my minions, and I have no way to separate them, but your light priests do." She paused, watching Leopold carefully for a reaction. His expression remained stoic and unreadable. "What I want is for the two to be separated, and to get my minion back. In exchange, I offer to find the location of Arachne's new dungeon for you."

Leopold remained silent for a long time, furrowing his brow as he considered the offer, searching for hidden hooks. "Your minion is some being of great power, I assume?"

Ami shook her head. "Just a tentacle monster."

The Baron actually blinked at that reply. "I don't think I want to know why you want something like thatreturned. Very well, I accept, provided you keep your word, and don't try any tricks. If you do, the deal is null and void."

"Good. Jadeite!" Ami had to wait for a while before the dark general shimmered into existence next to her, time he presumably used to put his shirt back on.

"Mercury?" he asked with a faint bow, unfailingly polite before the outside observer waiting in his cell. The unfamiliar smirk on the blue-haired girl's face when she turned to him made his own falter for a moment.

Jadeite glared at Mercury, who had a hard time hiding her amusement behind her raised right hand. "You can't expect me to carry that!" the dark general pointed at the cage containing a slimy thing covered in black hair. There were other features, like eyes, hands, and mouths, but they weren't arranged in any logical way. The unholy hybrid was about bear sized, but its chaotic mess of tentacles made getting any accurate measure a futile task. As if reacting to the accusingly pointed index finger, the fusion howled, and, a long, thin tentacle stretched out through a gap in the cage's mesh and wrapped around the blonde's boots at ankle height.

"Please do not blame me for my co-inhabitant's mindless aggression, he-"

The mental voice turned into a sudden scream when a zigzagging bolt of energy sprang from Jadeite's gloved hand, striking the abominable creature and causing it to spasm and shudder. Its violent twitches had the same effect as a dog shaking himself, and the mucus trapped within the monster's beard-like hair went flying in every direction, showering the dark general standing nearby. He grimaced, baring his teeth, and intensified his glare in the giggling Mercury's direction. A trickle of slime ran down his forehead, getting into his left eyebrow, which started twitching violently.

"Consider it your reprimand for not consulting with me before pulling your stunt with the Baron," Ami said. "But if that's not to your taste, I have some bile demons that need washing." This was true. The task of administering a bath to the fat blobs of lard and muscle was not going well. After good initial progress by her golems, which were blessed with no sense of smell and had taken to the task of kicking the spherical demons back into the soapy bath water with frightening enthusiasm, their unwilling victims had organised their resistance and were now barricaded in the bathroom.

Jadeite gave Ami a dark look, grabbed the limp creature, then faded into vertical upwards-shooting lines, taking the quivering and slightly smoking beinge with him. The girl nodded to herself in satisfaction. The Boris problem at least was out of her hair now. Time to find Arachne, and then get properly started on finding a way to live past the next equinox. The rules enforced by Azzartha were a problem, to say the least. She was fairly certain that, if beneficial enchantments were shared, then the Reaper would be profiting from her senshi enhancements too. Just what she needed. However, the armour approach offered at least a potential way out. If it was the equipment itself that had enhanced physical attributes instead of bestowing them on the wearer, it should bypass the sharing clause. Of course, the wearer would need some way to control the gear as if it was her own body, or the forces exerted would kill her just as easily as the Reaper would. At least, this tied in somewhat with her former golem research. She would assemble her team and get to work on it. One magical armour powerful enough to match a horned reaper. Well, nobody could accuse her of a lack of ambition.

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Chapter 41: Out-of-Dungeon Experiences Chapter 43: Creepy Crawlers



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