Ami had had to check three times, once every hour, before the Baron decided to agree to her proposed method of completing the deal. Through the eyes of her minion, which were located somewhere within its squirming mess of dark green and black tentacles, she could see a map. Her lips curved upwards in faint amusement when she recognised the drawing as a copy of the greater map that the noble must have recovered from her abandoned first dungeon. The tentacle monster in question rested in a thick-barred cage, moving only sluggishly. Ami didn't know if this was normal, or if it was tired from whatever the priests had done to separate it from Boris. The loud, large, and hairy barbarian didn't seem to be around, which was just as well in her opinion. Through one of the windows of the room, part of a white marble cupola was visible, leading her to believe that the wooden shack her creature was stored in was located on temple ground, or at least close to it. Straw covered the floor, indicating that the building served as a stable most of the time. There were no horses around right now though, only the huge form of the Baron with his guards. He was in full armour, and the purple plume on his helmet jutted proudly, trying to out-do the protruding ends of his enormous moustache. He was currently glaring at the heap of bored pseudopods and tapping his foot impatiently.

"Baron Leopold? I am ready to begin our transaction. Simply leave my minion where it is right now please, and I will retrieve it once I have given you the location of Arachne's dungeon."

The armoured man started at the sudden intrusion of her voice, then stepped over to the map, his blue cape billowing behind him. With Ami's clear and concise instructions, he managed to place a pin on the correct location quickly, even if he was scowling throughout the process. Ami let go of the giant eyeball she had been using to communicate telepathically, and whose stalk felt cold and stringy in her hand. She hoped the Baron's honour would demand that he uphold his end of the bargain - she couldn't really force him to. She did not have anything important to lose if he failed to, but would probably feel guilty if she didn't concoct a plan to rescue the strange tentacle creature. Sometimes, having a sense of responsibility was nothing but trouble.

The black-clad girl used her Keeper powers to transport herself into the sweltering heat of the desert above her dungeon. The region still looked as if burnt to fine, grey ash that swirled around the dunes. Her mental view returned to her captured minion. Aside from the Baron and his men now giving the monster's cage a wide berth, nothing had changed. Ami nodded to herself and wiped some sweat from her brow. If the Baron had prepared some sort of unpleasant surprise for her, then making sure it didn't arrive within the dungeon proper was well worth the discomfort of putting up with the scorching sun for a while. Ami took a wide-legged stance and started chanting the words of the summoning ritual that allowed her to draw a single person to her location, provided her target did not move from its position. In the sand, fiery lines formed a blue-burning circle, around which sand swirled as if caught in a dust devil. A few minutes of chanting later, a pillar of more naturally coloured flame shot into the air, distorting the sand in a blossom-like pattern, and the cage containing the wayward minion suddenly stood where the most intense fires had been.

"Keeper! I admit, I wasn't really expecting to see you again. You have my gratitude. You wouldn't believe how vexing it was to share a body with that loud, uncultured brute. He had no conversational skills to speak of, and the smell... um, would it be too much to let me out of these confining quarters?"

The tentacled minion certainly was talkative after his captivity, Ami noted with some relief. That probably meant it hadn't been mistreated. Her visor snapped into place, its surface gleaming in the sun as she turned it on what she had just drawn through space. The numbers on the readout seemed normal, as far as they could be for a slimy, multi-eyed bag of tentacles that had just been pulled magically across half a continent. She was pretty sure the life signs were as they should be, and that there was no foreign magic attached to her employee. "Welcome back," she finally said. "Go get some rest after your ordeal." With that, she plucked the underling out of his cage and deposited him deep in the bowels of the dungeon. All this dry heat couldn't be good for a creature like that. She turned her gaze back on the metal cage, whose bottom was already disappearing under the shifting sands. Her eyes narrowed as she confirmed the readouts. While her creature had been clean, so to speak, its prison was not. The blue-haired girl could not identify the exact effect that the lingering magic trapped in the iron would evoke, but she was familiar enough with spells by now that she could recognise a transformation enchantment when she scanned one. Her head tilted forward and her hands balled into fists. Would it have been too much for the Baron to deal fairly with her, even if she was a Keeper? Obviously. Well, she could understand that being abducted did nothing to make him more favourably disposed toward her, but... eyes flashing, she looked back at the empty cage that gleamed mockingly in the light. "Jadeite!"

Cathy, dressed in a Sailor Mercury uniform she had improved by wearing trousers with lightly-plated legs, knocked on the door to the room that Mercury and Jadeite used for magic lessons.

"Enter," a slightly harried voice from within called.

Cautiously, the long-haired blonde pushed open the creaking door and peeked in through the gap. Just barging in was dangerous, as she had learned a while ago. The scorched ends of her hair could still attest to that. Her prudence paid off: from the left, Mercury rushed past, waving her arms up and down and staggering as if she was about to fall. Cathy winced in sympathy, fully expecting the girl to run head-first into the wall at the other end of the room. Instead, Ami disappeared. Her soft gasps alerted the watching swordswoman that the young Keeper had merely transported herself back to the left side of the room. Only on her second pass by the door, which was no more dignified than the first, did Cathy notice that the blue-haired girl's feet weren't touching the ground. On the third, the blonde valiantly grabbed Mercury's arm as she passed. Despite being heavier, she had to steady herself against the door frame when the sudden jerk threatened to topple her.

Ami let out a startled yelp when her forward momentum was suddenly cancelled. Floating horizontally in the air, she blinked owlishly at the blonde who was holding her outstretched hand. "Thank you," she stammered after a moment.

Cathy let go, throwing a questioning gaze at the still floating girl. Ami tried to turn herself around so that she would have been lying on her belly if she was on the ground, but only managed to make herself spin around her own axis slowly. Grasping and flailing at the just out of reach floor and walls did nothing to help. Looking not unlike a kitten who had climbed on a tree and couldn't get down, Ami craned her head to look pointedly at Jadeite, who was snickering to himself at the sight.

"Jadeite, are you done with your lesson yet? Mercury needs to work on her combat skills," the swordswoman demanded.

The dark general grinned. "Does it look to you as if she has grasped what I am trying to teach her yet?"

Ami was making swimming motions in the air, but her efforts were barely even moving her forward. Sighing, she braved trying to control the spell once more, closed her eyes in concentration, and then suddenly shot backward, slamming into the right wall with her feet first. She let out a grunt at the impact, but at least now she had something solid she could walk on. Even if it was a wall. Moving was still awkward, as gravity still had a partial hold on her, which her hanging hair attested to.

"You know, most youma get this on the first try," Jadeite jeered from his corner.

"Did they have you as a teacher?" Cathy shot back acidly. "Come on, cancel that spell. We don't have all day, and she needs that training, scrawny as she is."

"Don't I get any say in this?" Ami complained. She was currently looking at the chequerboard-patterned tiles of the floor from a distance less than an arm's length away, and didn't particularly look forward to the opportunity to introduce her face to them.

"Fine, turn off the spell when you want to," the curly-haired general allowed magnanimously, before disappearing, leaving only a few rapidly fading vertical lines in the form of his silhouette behind.

"Well?" Cathy asked, turning back to Ami, who was cautiously fumbling her way further down the wall with her legs, trying to re-achieve verticality.

"Sorry, I'm still working on that," the blue-haired girl informed her self-appointed trainer, "that would have been the next lesson. Wait, I think I have it- oh, for crying out loud!"

Cathy looked up at the young Keeper, who was now nursing a bump on her head and hovering just below the ceiling. "I'll go get a rope."

Ami ran along the track, panting and face flush with exertion. She didn't think of herself as out of shape, but had to admit that, aside from a few short burst of frantic violence, she hadn't gotten much exercise these last few weeks, and most of that not even in her own body. In any case, her legs felt leaden, her throat was dry, and her muscles burned. The cloth of her sweat-soaked T-shirt clung to her back, in stark contrast to the comparatively immaculate senshi uniform that Cathy was wearing. The blonde was running easily at Ami's side, still looking disgustingly fresh as their footsteps echoed through the hall. At least, nobody else was watching this, because the blue-haired girl had made use of her Keeper's prerogative and evicted everyone else from the training hall while she was using it.

"Enough for the warmup," Cathy decided.

Gratefully, Ami sat down on the low wall surrounding the rectangular arena at the centre of the room, and took a few deep breaths. She looked down at her slender legs, which protruded from the white shorts she had created for the occasion. Bending forward, she put her palms on the skin over her calves. Green necromantic light flared from the seam between hand and skin as she tended to the the sore muscles.

"Better?" the tall swordswoman asked, doing some stretches. At Ami's positive answer, the blonde's lips split into a shark-like smile. "Good! If you can fix yourself right up afterwards, that means I don't have to go too easy on you!"

Ami gulped. This was going to be a looooong lesson.

"Oh, cheer up. At least you are getting a weapon this time around. What do you prefer? Swords? Spears? I don't think a mace would work well against the Reaper, you'll need more reach..."

A black, two-dimensional ellipse opened in the air of Ami's living room, causing Cathy, who was reclining in a comfortable armchair, to look up in alarm. A curly-haired blond head poked through, followed by the rest of Jadeite. While the dark general floated gently to the floor, another head, this one crowned with brown and wavy hair, poked through cautiously, as if not entirely trusting this mode of transportation.

"I don't have all day, Jered. Get in here," the grey-uniformed man ordered, and his reluctant companion pulled himself through the hole in space, sliding down from the lower edge and letting himself drop to the floor.

"Jadeite, you figured out how to properly open portals between here and the Underworld without flooding the place with lava? Great," a voice from the right murmured, sounding too tired to put much enthusiasm into the praise.

"Cathy, you realise that we need Mercury alive if she is to win that duel, right?" Jered said with a wink when he turned toward the source and spotted the blue-haired girl sprawled out on a couch with her eyes closed, sporting fading bruises on what little skin he could see. She had a book, but it was lying unopened on her belly.

"She's just horrible out of shape," the scar-faced woman replied, not even looking up from the cup of tea she was sipping, "nothing that some exercise won't fix. She'll get enough of that during our fighting lessons, which she is in dire need of."

Ami opened one eye, which swivelled tiredly in the direction of the speaker. "I much prefer swimming," she groaned.

"Swimming won't help you survive the Reaper," Cathy remarked.

"On that note, I managed to get some more information on how these Azzathra duels usually take place," Jered said and sat down on the armrest of Cathy's armchair. "The armour plan is definitely an option." Seeing that he had Mercury's attention - her other eye had opened too - he continued "The fights in Azzathra's honour take place with equipment that both combatants brought themselves. However, if they enhance their wearer magically, this enhancement is shared. There was a fight between two dark knights, or so I have heard, where one of them brought a ring that made him invisible. As soon as he used it, his opponent disappeared from sight, too."

"I'm sure the audience was pleased," Cathy commented.

"Well, they started tossing foul eggs and rotting tomatoes until both combatants were so splattered that they were visible again," Jered said with a shrug. "Also, absolutely don't try to fight in a possessed body. There's a story about a warlock who was forced to enter this contest, and he tried to show up while possessing a bile demon. Azzathra yanked him right out and tossed him into the arena as a disembodied spirit that promptly expired. Shortest duel in their history."

Ami's mouth went round with surprise. "Oh."

"As for procedure, once you state that you are ready for the duel, an orange mark consisting of a disc and a surrounding circle will appear on the back of your left hand. The circle is going to open and disappear slowly, like sand trickling down a hourglass. This gives the priesthood a few days to prepare an arena and get out word of the event. The moment the last bit of circle disappears, you will be moved to the arena, with all the equipment you currently have on you." The lanky man continued "Weapons, well. Ranged weapons just don't show up at all, unless they are multi-purpose, like a throwing dagger. The restraints on magical enhancements are a bit less strict there. If it enhances physical prowess, it's still copied over to the enemy. If it's just deadlier, it's not. The theological justification for that is that a superior fighter will just be able to take the enemy's weapon away and beat him with it."

"What if the magical weapon casts spells?" Jadeite asked, trying to contribute.

"If it hits, the user suffers the same effect so the tougher fighter wins," Jered commented. "Oh, and there's another tactic we have to scratch. In one fight, a captured elderly hero wizard developed a spell to turn himself into an exact replica of himself so that the duplication effect would bring his heavily-armoured opponent down to his level. Azzathra was furious and turned his opponent back into his true form, then copied him, thus turning the fight even more one-sided than it previously was."

The girl on the couch paled. She had been planning something along those lines.

"It seems that anything to make your opponent weaker or yourself stronger will be negated," Jadeite analysed the situation. "However, it also seems that this so-called dark god doesn't know in advance what a certain magical effect will do. Maybe we can exploit that."

"What did you have in mind?" Cathy asked, interested.

Jadeite had always liked being the centre of attention, even if the current setting, especially the way his current employer's head lolled to the side so she could look at him, lacked the dignity of Beryl's court. "I propose an upgrade to the self-animated armour plan. Put an enchantment on it that weakens yourself slightly. It will still look as if you were faster and stronger when you control the suit, and the Reaper will get the copied debilitating spell."

"Risky," Jered commented, "but it would probably raise more eyebrows if there was no enchantment affecting Mercury on her armour which is so obviously making her stronger."

"The armour I still don't know how to create," Ami sighed sullenly.

"Well, your warlocks are currently trying to figure out how an animated skeleton works, using your recordings. That should at least give you a starting point," Cathy comforted her.

"After which I'll still have to apply it to a suit of armour, strengthen it a lot, and make it work with mental control," the short-haired girl pointed out. Oh well, she would deal with that after a nap.

The door opened, and Snyder rushed in, slamming it behind him and leaning against the wood with his back. The acolyte's bowl cut was a mess, and his normally immaculate white robe with red stole and collar hung askew and dishevelled on his short and portly frame. "Mercury," he nearly squeaked.

Ami opened her eyes again unwillingly, taking in the acolyte's agitated state. "Yes?"

The redhead straightened. "Mercury, please do control your minions. These, these... such an undignified ... " he stuttered, reaching for words.

"What happened?"

"Your... employees, these women, the black-leather clad ones. They state that they are bored, and that I would make a great 'pet project'." He shuddered while his cheeks coloured. "They, they are trying to corrupt me!"

"Well, you could stand to loosen up a bi- Ouch!" Jered rubbed his side, where the steel-like elbow of his girlfriend had jabbed him.

"Thanks, but no thanks. For your information, I have no ambition to acquaint myself with sharp claws, whips, and hot pokers. Please do something, Mercury!"

Ami wanted nothing more than to take a nap, but the imploring tone of voice of the adventurer told her that this was something that would brook no delay. And the young man hadn't really asked anything of her before so... but she really didn't want to get up! Maybe she could put this morning's magic lesson to good use?

Loud moans, shrill shrieks of pain, and meaty smacking sounds formed the acoustic backdrop to the scene Ami dropped in on. One of the quartet looked up at the floating form just lying in the air, using her arms as a pillow, and purred "Oh, Keeper. Are you hear to join us? This looks like it has so much kinky potential!"

Ami turned her head away so fast that she nearly gave herself whiplash, blushing to the roots. "Ulp. NO! I'm just here to tell you to leave Snyder alone, and," a wet cutting noise, followed by an ecstatic thrill, nearly drove the bile to her throat. "Could you stop that while I'm talking to you? And put some clothes on!"

Discontent muttering accompanied her command, but she heard some rustling and sliding behind her while she kept her gaze firmly fixed on a spider web in the upper corner of the room. "Aww, but it's so boring. The horned reaper is useless if we can't touch him." Two more voices made what sounded like affirmative noises through their gags. "We should really find a more fun dungeon," the first speaker added.

"I- well, I might have something else to do for you," Ami admitted. "I need the Reaper to fatten up. Do you think you can get him to eat a lot, even if he doesn't want to?"

"What a strange request," one of the women said, eyeing the floating girl speculatively. Ami could nearly read the odd conclusions she was leaping to from her eyes. The young Keeper felt her cheeks get hotter at the sound of the leather corset squeaking under the strain when the provocatively-dressed lady breathed in. "Interesting, though." Her tone became throatier. "Don't worry, we'll have him eating out of our hands in no time!"

"Um, well, I'll leave it to you then," Ami replied, before transporting herself away to her room and cancelling her spell over her bed. She dropped like a rock, sinking deeply into the soft covers, and didn't even move to get into a more comfortable position. What a day. If Jadeite was a demanding teacher and a bit of a jerk who was amused by seeing her struggle, then Cathy was a slave driver. Despite the healing spells, she was still feeling sore in muscles she had formerly only known the name of. As she drifted closer to sleep, she thought back to the tentacle monster, and its cage. Jadeite had gotten rid of it for her, good. As far as super-powered minions went, he was a real improvement over the Reaper. More flexible power set, better temper. Yawn. Much more handsome, too. Her dreams claimed her a moment later, never once realising what she had thought.

"It will have turned back by now, your Lordship," a blue-clad wizard with a pointy had and a long white beard stated authoritatively, looking at a structure that resembled a canopy tent, except that it was made of stone and rested on four thick, round pillars. Within the structure wavered a water-like surface, forming an upright oval that looked like a full-length mirror. "

A man in light leather armour poked with a long stick at it, which went through the ellipse with no resistance, but did not emerge on the other side. He moved the pole around several ways before pulling it out, apparently satisfied with the result. A low bow brought his face close, then through the portal. He pulled it back. "It is safe. Dark, but no guards!"

Baron Leopold walked around the construct with clattering footsteps, then swivelled around on his heel to address the lines of troops assembled in the courtyard. "You heard him, men! We'll sneak up on that insolent Keeper before she knows we are there, bypassing her traps. Tonight, there will be one less of these monsters!"

Abbot Durval stepped up to his side and stretched so he could whisper in the taller man's ear. Leopold lowered the arm he had raised in pre-emptive cheer, his face falling. "Oh, and as the good Abbot just reminded me, the Light, for some unfathomable reason, wants that Keeper to be taken alive in the improbably case that she should surrender. Whatever! To victory!" He was the first one to charge through the wavering portal. Once on the other side, he stepped aside to let his men through, who entered more orderly in rows of three. With great discipline, the soldiers fanned out, securing all directions and illuminating the dust and spider-web covered place with their torches. After them came the magic users, remaining within the secured perimeter.

"This place is a mess. Typical Underworlder filth," one of the soldiers whispered, looking around and finding untidy stacks of crates and chests.

"Ew, and the smell. Don't they clean here, ever?"

"Well, what do you expect of such scum?"

With each word, the Baron's right eyebrow twitched some more. "Wizard," he growled out through clenched teeth as he rounded upon the gangly man who was scratching his beard, "Why is the other end of the hero gate in my attic, huh?"

Previous chapter: Next chapter:
Chapter 44: Magic Lesson Chapter 46: Choice of Weapons



Attached comments:

  • Sailor Moon and/or a bunch of Senshi do a sailor teleport while Ami is in the arena. Big fight, dark god gets purified or blasted into next Thursday. Happy reunion though Ami's connection to her dungeon heart would likely equal remaining behind. If Sailor Moon does go Princess Serenity and blast the dark god - it happens enough in the series that she just runs out of juju to be able to purify the dungeon heart itself.

    It's not as if she has to fight the dark god itself, or as if Azzathra could be physically present even if he wanted to. At least not without some major, major preparation on the part of his aligned servants.

    Purifying the dungeon heart would be a pretty horrid idea, though. It would be kind of like purifying Galaxia's bracers. Nuking the life-support isn't a good idea.

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