To keep her deal with the Baron, Ami only had to find Arachne's new dungeon - not that she wouldn't have done so even without that added incentive, now that she knew the monster was back. It was her duty to protect innocent people from evil, and the enemy Keeper qualified as the worst possible kind of villain. However, this didn't mean that she had to do all of the work personally. She stalked past the row of warlocks bent over a long table and glanced at the active crystal balls into which the magicians were staring with concentration. So far, the images in the glowing scrying devices showed only rainy countryside, farmland, and the occasional unsuspecting villagers working the fields. Ami stopped to let an imp, bowed under the weight of the recharge battery it was carrying, pass. The metal blocks with winding, inlaid patterns were one of Snyder's creations, designed to capture some of the abundant mana flowing from Ami's dungeon heart and make it available for use to her minions. One application of which she was currently seeing in action: a whole row of dark magic users casting detection spells with power requirements that usually made them the privilege of Keepers. Even those did not use this particular spell, colloquially known as 'Sight of Evil', with reckless abandon due to the cost, but Ami had no such concerns. She would have been stupid to not use the tremendous additional mana flow that her being a senshi added to the dungeon heart's output.
"Keeper Mercury, I have located something that looks like enemy activity," one of the warlocks raised his voice over the droning arcane mumblings of his peers.
Ami made her way over to him and leaned forward to peer into the sphere. The golden embroidery on her black jacket gleamed in the white light that projecting an artificial pallor on her face. Within the crystal ball, the image showed a gnarled tree standing at the border between two wheat fields, only a stone's throw away from the muddy road. At first, Ami didn't see the sheep sized spider lurking among the tree branches, well camouflaged by its mottled green and brown pattern. Only the movement of its spindly legs when it ascended higher drew her attention.
"Well done," she complimented the warlock. "It was walking through the fields when you spotted it?"
The man nodded. "Coming from the direction of the hills," he pointed out. The view in the crystal sphere panned out to show a group of forested bumps in the landscape, looking drab and hazy through the rain.
"Okay, keep an eye on the thing," Ami instructed. "Everyone! Focus your efforts around this area!" She highlighted the target region on the large map of her command centre by having one of the colourful liquid golems inside flatten itself out over it. "I'll go have a closer look at this spider personally."
A quarter of an hour later, Ami had the tree in question within her sights. After moving the golem body she was once again possessing across the continent, she had homed in on her target by following the instructions that her minions at the home base whispered into her mind. The long, green blades of the growing crops concealed her squatting form from sight, and the rain pattering on her back felt like ice as she observed the spider through her visor. Once more, she was under Jadeite's glamour, reasoning that a human girl would frighten the locals less than a walking ice statue would, in case they spotted her. Besides, if Arachne thought she had a reasonable chance at killing her rival, she might commit more forces than she would otherwise.
The eight-legged creature in Ami's sights was clinging to a branch and staring at the distant village, unmoving. She wiped the raindrops off of her visor and resumed her observation of the scout. The object of her scrutiny wasn't the arachnid itself, but the thin link that was invisible to normal senses and connected the spider monster to an enemy dungeon heart. At this distance, it was hard to make out the green-shimmering connection, but at least the direction was clear. A thin line segment overlapping the map on the senshi's visor appeared, starting at the tree the spider was lurking in. It narrowed down the possible locations for Arachne's dungeon, but to get the exact coordinates, the monster would have to move, so that Ami could draw a second line segment. The enemy base would be where the two crossed. Rising from her crouch, Ami spread her arms and brought them forward. "Shabon Spray Freezing!"
The blast of supercooled bubbles springing forth from her palms deliberately missed the creature, striking the trunk below instead. In the wake of the azure glow, the wood remained encased in a layer of wind-swept looking ice, startling the spider in the crown out of its inactivity. It dropped out of the tree on a silken string and charged across the field as soon as the tips of its gangly legs touched the ground. Ami held her position, keeping her gaze focused on the creature up until it was less than ten metres away. With a high-pitched shriek, the many-eyed thing lunged, seemingly hanging in the air for a split second at the apex of its leap. Ami's eyes narrowed and flashed red for an instant before she moved, darting aside. The enemy landed where she had just stood, sending up a spray of mud as its frozen legs shattered from the impact. While committed to the motion, the monster had stood no chance at dodging the magical attack that its opponent had pulled out of Keeper storage. Just to make sure the spider was really dead, Ami walked up to the iced-over debris and kicked the head off the rump. There. This thing wouldn't be feasting on any villagers.
Looking back at her visor, she quickly determined that the lines tracing back to the enemy dungeon converged at a point somewhere beyond the hills. She transmitted this information to her supporting minions at home, via imp-scribbling. If only the researcher she had put on the job of creating a proper communication spell would produce some results already, she thought impatiently. Having the little minions paint each individual letter on a slate was rather cumbersome.
"All right, we are looking at the dungeon now," she heard Cathy's voice in her mind. "Let's see... oh boy, that's not going to be easy to clean out. Wait, let me get a better look."
Ami focused on seeing what was happening in her own dungeon, the forming mental picture displaying the crystal balls lined up in her command centre. They were showing deep shafts, rather than rooms, all filled with thick white webbing and cocoons that adhered to their steep walls. Arachne was making no concessions to the needs of creatures that could not fly or walk on the walls this time. And of course, there were spiders everywhere, reaching in scale from no bigger than a palm to the size of a horse, without counting the legs. The sheer amount of wriggling chitin was enough to give anyone nightmares. Going deeper, the scrying revealed that the dungeon heart was once again positioned on the ceiling, rather than the ground floor. A thick network of sticky webbing zigzagged down the shaft, blocking the access route. The blue-haired girl couldn't help but agree with Cathy's assessment. Any army trying to get through this dungeon would have to deal with the inaccessible terrain as well as the inhabitants. It would be a meatgrinder.
Seeing that this was the case, Ami knew that she had to at least try to weaken this dungeon's defences before she disclosed its location to the Baron. But how? She had the imp scribble another question to the swordswoman in command of her forces.
"No, there are only imps and spiders within the dungeon, nobody else. At least nobody else alive." the telepathic voice of the blonde replied. Ami nodded once in grim satisfaction. She had some vermin to fumigate.
The entrance to Arachne's dungeon was not hidden very well, if one knew where to look for it. Ami's footsteps rustled on the wet forest ground as she approached the small clearing surrounding a simple hole leading down. The giant grey spiderwebs hanging like drapes from the surrounding trees were a dead give-away. Accompanying the senshi were eight ice simulacrums - as many as she could afford while also keeping her floating dungeon crewed. She would be able to replace them many times over though before she would tire herself out, especially if she took care to not die in the possessed body. Ami took another step forward and felt a shudder go through to her body when the ground suddenly felt alien and hostile. This must have been the border of Arachne's territory. Quickly, the blue-haired girl took several steps back. She couldn't use many of her abilities on enemy land.
Activating her visor once more, she surveyed the area around the gaping abyss. A series of warning signs flashed brightly, denoting the locations of hidden pits surrounding the dungeon's entrance. At the bottom of each of the web-padded depressions lurked a spider, coiled to jump out of the trapdoor covering its lair and drag an unsuspecting victim inside. This, Ami figured, was only a minor inconvenience. "Shabon Spray Freezing!"
A thick slab of ice now covered the lid leading down to the closest spider's hideout, and the monster went frantic, scrabbling at the blocked exit with its forelegs to no avail. The senshi quickly repeated the process for the other six traps. The last of the ambushing creatures got wise to her idea and was struck in mid-dash by the scintillating stream of bubbles as it tried to escape its lair. Unable to move its stiffened limbs, it sank back into the depression, hitting the ground with a dull thud. So far, so good. Ami hadn't even had to direct her minions into danger. Now, she would have to get as many enemies to come to her as possible. Fortunately, she had a tool that would allow her to properly fumigate the spiders. She had a few copies of the black, corrupted version of the Shabon Spray stashed away and ready for use. Even if she was reluctant to employ the vile, painful spell in normal circumstances, the creepy man-eating arachnids dwelling in the shafts below did not evoke any sympathy from her. Jumping up onto a low-hanging branch, she peered through the streaming rain again. Yes, from here, the angle should work out right. A brief instant of concentration later, and a column of black miasma shot from the girl's outstretched arms, hitting the circular hole leading underground right on. The smoke-like magic rushed down the tunnel, seeping into side-tunnels as it spread out.
Ami figured that the attack would be less devastating than the one time she had used it against Keeper Malleus' dungeon. This time, no previous assault had shattered doors that could be sealed, which would limit how far the attack penetrated. Nevertheless, she fell into a combat stance that was mirrored by the silent ice golems standing in a loose circle around Arachne's territory. The attackers did not have to wait long; pained shrieks and chitters from below approached rapidly, getting louder and louder. A stench of stale, mildewy air preceded the horde of panicked, wriggly things that clambered up each other in their haste to escape the poisoned atmosphere within the dungeon. At the sight of the first spindly limbs protruding from the opening and setting foot on the wet ground, Ami opened fire, casting a regular Shabon spray freezing at the wave of chitin. Clusters of seeping eyes, damaged from the exposure to her caustic black fog, swivelled around and glared hatefully as they searched for their attacker. With unrestrained fury, the injured creatures re-oriented on the slim female figures standing tauntingly at the borders of the clearing and scuttled forward.
Ami saw her golems raise their arms, fingers pointed forward. The digits detached with popping noises, meeting the front line of the spiders. The beings faltered only for a moment before continuing their charge, gushing a pale, blood-like substance from gashes in their exoskeletons. It took Ami unleashing more of her stored arsenal to stop the circle of spiders expanding away from the entrance of the dungeon. Blue flashes of icy death struck without warning, flashing into existence in front of their targets and turning them into frozen, gleaming sculptures. More spiders were pouring out of the opening in the ground, and Ami aimed higher to strike at them as they climbed over their frozen predecessors. The bolt of spiralling bubbles flew true and would have spelled the end for its targets, if only those targets had not suddenly all disappeared.
Ami blinked, listening into the sudden silence that was only broken by the pattering of the rain and the muted grinding of her statues' limbs. There was no movement in the clearing except for the droplets of water running down the frozen bodies of the spiders she had killed. Keeper Arachne had reacted faster than anticipated, removing her minions from the line of fire. Ami grimaced, then looked up as a flash of movement in the lead-coloured sky above the clearing registered. As she watched, the black silhouette of a spider dropped down, growing bigger as it approached. Ami's eyes went wide. It was getting bigger much too quickly for this to be merely a result of closing the distance! She leapt backward, trying to put some room between herself and the open area. With an earth-shaking crash, a brown spider many times the size of a regular one landed over the pit leading into the dungeon. Fountains of mud sloshed around its feet as its hairy legs bent, cushioning the impact. Not yet fully risen from its crouch, the behemoth already whirled to face Ami, trampling vegetation at both ends of the clearing in the process. Eight red orbs, big as street lights, flared in the monster's face.
"How does she do that?" Ami wondered, staring at the super-sized monster. She wished she had a spell like that! With a wince, she watched the left hind leg of the arachnid lash out, pulverising one of her golems under a claw that was as big as the statue's torso. The earth shuddered as the monster advanced. The blue-haired girl looked up at the belly of the spider, looming above the forest canopy. The last time she had attacked one of these with her Shabon Spray Freezing, it had done nothing.
"You. I remember you," the monster suddenly snarled, making the puddles on the ground vibrate with its rumbling voice.
Great, so Arachne was possessing this thing, too. Well, if that was the case, she probably wasn't paying attention to her dungeon heart. Maybe if Ami could keep her distracted, Jadeite could go for it? It was risky- Ami transported herself out of the path of the monster as it charged, breaking trees like straws and making the ground shake with each step. She appeared on the side of the clearing opposite of the monster, seeing the deep gouges it had clawed into the ground where she had just been standing. Her golems darted into the direction of the entrance to Arachne's underground realm. The enlarged spider would be unable to follow them into the pit, at least.
It didn't have to. Without crossing the intervening terrain, Arachne was suddenly between the fast-moving, transparent figures, turning into a whirling dervish of death. The trees swayed and the earth quaked as the giant spider stomped everything on the clearing into splinters with a tap-dance that would have looked comical under different circumstances.
"Darn it!" Ami's mental sight flashed to her own dungeon. Jadeite was only now reading her instructions. She'd have to keep the colossal monster occupied for some time yet. Well, if one Shabon Spray Freezing didn't work... She closed her eyes for a moment, blocking out the sight of the colossus that was still moving around in place, searching for more enemies. Suddenly, the clearing flared with aquamarine light, making the rain gleam like sapphires as the senshi emptied her entire stored arsenal of freezing spells in one go. Comet-like streamers of blue light shot toward the oversized arachnid from all sides, striking it one after the other within intervals of less than a second between them. The first attack that struck did nothing but make the beast flinch, but as the barrage kept up, more and more of the spider was coated in gleaming ice. It let out an annoyed roar, struggling against the weight holding it down, then went silent as it was completely encased. Ami's self-confidence soared. That had worked much better than last time! Who needed a Reaper, anyway? She checked on Jadeite, seeing through his eyes. Oh, he was still looking at the map.
Clink. The blue-haired girl's head whipped back to the trapped spider. A long crack was running diagonally over the ice, obstructing her view through the otherwise transparent ice. Clink. Clink. More cracks sprang from the initial one and forked, expanding into a network. Within moments, large sheets of ice loosened and slid off the monster's body, who reared up, rising from the sparkling avalanche like a spectre of death. Ami blinked several times, hiding the 'o' of surprise formed by her mouth behind her hand. Maybe this situation called for something more lethal. With but a thought, the corrupted version of the Shabon Spray Freezing was retrieved from storage and hurled at the irritatingly resistant target. The spiny arrow of pitch-black ice whistled through the air, spinning around its own axis like a drill as it drew closer to the enormous spider's head, momentarily obstructing Ami's sight of the twitching mandibles. For an instant, a blindingly white flash drained all colour from the clearing, leaving nothing but a stark relief of black and white. Through squinting eyelids, the young Keeper saw her attack burst apart before reaching its target, exploding and raining razor-sharp shrapnel all over the clearing. The crackling arc of lightning shooting from the spider's maw continued onward, splitting the tree behind Ami down to the roots. Flames played around the wreckage, but quickly died down in the rain. More Keeper lightning played around the arachnid's mandibles, giving Ami the split second warning she needed to get out of the way. Reappearing on top of a tree, she summoned a new golem that darted off in a different direction. Spotting the movement, the spider lashed out at the forest with a scything strike of its forelimbs, cutting through the tree trunks as if it was mowing grass. Ami disappeared from her toppling perch, hoping that the cacophony of falling lumber would hide her.
Jadeite shimmered into visibility within a dark shaft that smelled of mould and looked bottomless in the poor illumination. A low, even heartbeat reverberated through the gorge, originating from above. Looking up, the dark general could see the beating enemy dungeon heart set into the ceiling about thirty metres above, staring down at him like an angry red eye. Spiderwebs attached to the curving stone walls of the cylinder-shaped shaft waved in a non-existing breeze like weightless curtains, partially obstructing the poison-green light from the motes of mana swirling just beneath the artefact. Disgusted, Jadeite wiped a few threads that had drifted onto his face off before sneering at the sight. What kind of moron put something that heavy into the ceiling, of all places? He'd just have to pull a little bit, and gravity would do the rest. Chuckling to himself, the dark general raised his arms above his head and gathered his power. And then, without warning, he started falling.
Ami took her hands off her head and peered out from underneath the smoking timber she had taken cover behind. Her gaze swept over the cratered, splinter-littered expanse of thoroughly churned mud that had been a clearing only minutes ago. There was no trace of her giant nemesis.
"Mercury," Cathy's agitated voice shouted in Ami's head, "Jadeite just got turned into a frog! Do something!"
Paling, the short-haired girl switched her view to see from Jadeite's perspective, and could only make out vast, blurry shapes rotating around as wind whistled past. He was falling! Reflexively, she yanked him out of danger. Only belatedly, she realised that she couldn't put him down anywhere, as he was not made of pure magic like her golems or spells, and she had no claimed territory nearby. Not that she would have just been able to drop him there, either. His momentum wasn't cancelled, and he'd go splat on the ground as soon as she pulled him back into the real world. Leaving him in storage wasn't an option either. She couldn't move beyond the normal sixty-kilometre range with anything non-conjured stashed away. Well, she could, but the object in question would be violently expelled. There remained one option, then. Ami sighed. Her own body counted as her territory, and despite current appearances, was filled with water. As an amphibian, he should be able to survive within, and the liquid should cushion the fall somewhat. Feeling queasy at the idea, she went ahead anyway. It wasn't as if she had many alternatives. The ice girl heard something gurgle within her stomach region, and then felt a decidedly odd tickling sensation as the neo-animal scrabbled against the inner surface of her ice shell. "Ha! Stop," a giggle, "that! Uh-oh!"
The rain had stopped, mainly because the bulky spider body looming above was forming a horrifying roof. Ami disappeared from underneath its shadow just as claw ploughed through the mud where she had just been. What were her options? She had nothing to hurt the big spider with, and there was no way she could make it through the dungeon on her own if she had to scale the walls. With a heavy heart, she reached the conclusion that she currently lacked the power to take out her enemy, and retreated.
"Welcome back," Cathy greeted when the young Keeper appeared in front of her. "What happened? Did you rescue- WHAT THE HELL?" The blonde abruptly stopped speaking, and her eyes bugged out when the bluette suddenly burst like an overpressurised bottle, glamour fading as she did. The swordswoman shielded her eyes from the spray of cool water and ice shards, then lowered her arm and blinked at the sight in front of her. A thoroughly drenched Jadeite was on all fours, kneeling between the broken remains of an ice golem, and coughing up water. "Why - oh forget it, I don't even want to know!"
A black fog that hung in the room coalesced into Ami's form, shaping first a column, from which then the limbs and the head grew. The girl looked down at the mess on the floor, lips clenched into a thin line. Whether she was irritated at what had just happened, or at the failure to eliminate the enemy dungeon, Cathy couldn't tell.
"What is the status on Arachne's dungeon?" Ami asked, not looking up.
"The big spider is still outside, looking around," Cathy dutifully informed her. "The remaining uninjured spiders are withdrawing into the deeper tunnels around the heart chamber. Looks as if you frightened Arachne."
"That's all I did," the young Keeper said sadly, balling her hands into fists.
"I wouldn't say that," Jered looked up from where he was sitting near the board that the imps used to scribble down Ami's messages. "The inhabitants of the surrounding villages are fleeing because of the big spider monster in the hills. Arachne won't be able to catch them unaware now, if at all."
Ami's slouched posture became more relaxed upon hearing that. At least some good came from this expedition then, aside from a large number of dead spiders. Still, there was no question in her mind that she had failed: nothing she had thrown at Arachne's boosted monstrosity had more than slowed it down, and to make matters worse, her trump card, Jadeite, had been handily neutralised. The main problem, she figured, was that all her great Keeper powers only worked on friendly or unclaimed territory. When in the enemy dungeon, she would just be plain old Sailor Mercury, with her fog and her ice attack. Reasonably effective, but with no way to really hurt her enemies. And didn't that bode well for her upcoming duel with the Reaper? Well, aside from developing more effective tools, at least one solution came to mind to deal with her sad lack of mobility. She looked up, focusing on the dark general shivering in his wet, grey uniform.
"Jadeite. Teach me how you teleport."
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|Chapter 42: A Solution to the Reaper Problem?||Chapter 44: Magic Lesson|
- [Regarding time magic]
Nobody in the DK world has anything remotely like that, so I think developping all the theory and spells required from first principles would take years, at best.
- [Regarding Haste and Slow spells]
Oh, they got those. It's just that that strikes me more as a direct application of force, such as "put more power into moving your limbs" and "restraining your opponent's movement", rather than some esoteric time-manipulation.