Chains clinked and rattled as the Reaper tore at them to no avail. The heavy metal bands attached to his wrists and ankles kept the red-skinned demon suspended and spread-eagled against the wall, despite the best efforts of his bulging muscles. Ami didn't think that he would manage to ever break the chain-links that were as thick as her arm, even if he displayed every intention to. His massive hooves hammered against the wall hard enough to send vibrations through the stonework that she could feel even from ten metres away. In one corner of his cell, a pile of chicken bones folded in on itself while the demon raged against his restraints. Spittle sprayed from the monster's fanged mouth as he bellowed, yellow eyes blazing bright with unholy fury.

Ami kept staring at him through her visor, typing away at her keyboard, looking for anything that she could use in a fight against him. Know the enemy. Her findings so far were not encouraging. The reaper, was if one included his long, straight horns, nearly twice as tall as she was, but massed over eight times more, most of which was muscle. Despite the bulk, she knew from her confrontations with him that he could move at least as fast as she could in senshi form. Considering his strength, even fattening him up would not do much to slow him down, but it might interfere with his coordination and flexibility, especially if she didn't give him any opportunity to get used to the new weight distribution before the battle. A whitish cloud of plaster rained from the ceiling, making her wonder if her plan would even work if he kept burning off all that excess food with his struggles. For the moment, she was not so interested in his physical prowess though. He had been tracking her unerringly during their last fight, and she wanted to know how. That he was still capable of it she knew, because he had started screaming profanities at her the moment she had appeared within these deep vaults, far out of his line of sight.

More diagrams appeared on her screen, surrounded by a cloud of mathematical symbols and formulas. Below all the different colours, the silhouette of the Reaper could barely be made out. Still nothing that would explain his ability. Maybe if she focused on the eyes? No, unlikely. The sense had nothing to do with vision. Some external magical effect, maybe? Ami adjusted a few parameters, and the outline of the demon dimmed, while his surroundings lit up. There was a connection from the beast to her dungeon heart, which was expected. She had 'ownership' of him, as far as the dungeon heart was concerned, because he was her prisoner. That would change the moment he got free, unfortunately, but for the moment, it meant that she could affect him with her Keeper powers just like one of her regular minions.

Ami frowned. She had been about to filter the output so it only showed incoming effects - maybe the dark gods were feeding the Reaper the information directly - when she noted something odd. Her fingers flew over the buttons, striking them at a breakneck pace. The image of the normally invisible link between prisoner and dungeon heart grew until it filled the whole screen, and then disappeared completely. Or at least that should have happened when Ami filtered it out. However, something remained, something that shouldn't have been there. The senshi pondered the second connection she was seeing. It was extremely faint compared to a regular one, and its outline was frayed, but it looked somewhat like a minion bond. The computer had coloured the energy coursing through the line with black, very different from the aquamarine she had come to associate with her own magic. The basic pattern of the connection seemed to be the same, though. Ami examined the brilliant torrent that was her own link to the dungeon heart, and made the same discovery. The unknown thread was hiding within the much stronger link that eclipsed it. With a short examination of an imp, Ami confirmed that the foreign magic did not affect anyone else, and furrowed her brows.

With a likely enabler for the Reaper's new ability to focus on, the genius girl's investigation came to the comforting conclusion that the link was not one that had been imposed on her externally. In fact, it was the one that the horned demon had severed so one-sidedly. She had never properly fired him, which must have given the dark gods an opportunity to reconnect him to the fraying end still dangling somewhere in metaphysical space. Whether they had been able to do so because contact with the Light had temporarily burnt out her Keeper powers or not, she couldn't decide. Bar them telling her, she would never know. Unless they did it again. With a bitter smile, Ami excised the connection, and watched on her visor as it shrivelled in an instant, retreating from her toward the dungeon heart like a fuse that had been set on fire.

Registering a change in the background noise level, she looked back up to the Reaper hanging from his manacles. He was holding still for now, and his mouth was moving, making his nose ring dance up and down.

"Excuse me, I didn't catch that?" Ami asked, plucking out her earplugs, which prompted an annoyed growl from the creature.

"I said, 'what did you do'?" the chained beast growled with barely-restrained fury.

"Something I would have done earlier if I had known about it," the blue-haired girl answered, sounding distracted. Good, nothing seemed to remain of the foreign magic. She just hoped it would remain that way. While potentially useful, the connection had been a liability. And she didn't think that Azzathra would look favourably on her sucking out the Reaper's life energy through it. With the duplication effect in place, she would run out long before him, and the monster was dangerous enough when he didn't know exactly where she was at all times.

"...bribes are not going to work! What do you take me for, a dog to be swayed with treats? Hey! Come back here!"

This time, Ami wasn't alone with Cathy in the training hall. Jered and Snyder were sitting on the central arena's surrounding wall, and even Jadeite was leaning against one of the training dummies. It was more of a strategy meeting than an exercise session this time, the blue haired girl thought.

"All right, we need to find the best weapon for Mercury to use in her duel. We don't have much time to get her passably proficient at several, so we need to keep the goal of Reaper-killing firmly in mind," the swordswoman began, walking past a rack on which blades and long-hefted weapons of different kinds gleamed. "Normally, if I wanted a complete beginner to become dangerous fast, I would recommend a spear. It doesn't get any simpler than jabbing the pointy end into an enemy from a distance, and simple is good. However," she paused, putting the weapon back in its place, "in the Reaper's case, he would still have the range advantage with his longer arms and scythe."

"I would also like to mention that even a solid hit would not necessarily put the demon out of action," Snyder added, standing up and walking over to the life-size diagrams of the enemy on the wall, stopping at the one that showed the organs. He started moving his index finger around as he pointed out various locations. "In my opinion, it would take a direct stab to the heart or to the brain to kill him quickly enough. Any other location, and you just have your weapon stuck in a place where it does not do much good."

"That's debatable," Jadeite commented, "With the right enhancements on the spearhead, a single wound could be enough to take him out of action."

"There are limits on how much power can be crammed into a single weapon," Jered said, "whatever the enchantment is, it had better work fast enough that he can't grab a hold of the weapon while it is stuck in his flesh and disarm her. In any case, the optimal range for a spear is also the optimal range for his scythe. That alone makes it a bad idea."

Ami nodded. "I have little to add to that."

"Blunt weapons are right out, of course," Cathy continued, letting a warhammer whoosh through the air a few times. "Not only do they require long swings, they are mainly meant for piercing armour, which the Reaper doesn't use. While a good hit to the head can stun even a strong opponent, Mercury doesn't have the reach for it.

"I hit him in the head with an iron bar once," Ami interrupted, "it did nothing."

The swordswoman nodded in acknowledgement. "Besides, with all the weight located in the top, they are poor for parrying with. Axes suffer from similar problems." This time, she didn't even bother to pick up a few of the wide-bladed implements.

"Well, they can also be thrown," Snyder pointed out.

"That's true, but we don't exactly have anyone here who could teach me how to properly fight with an axe, do we?" Ami asked, being reminded of Boris. The large fighter had not seemed too concerned with defence, which was suicidal against a horned reaper. With a shudder, she looked back at the blonde.

Snyder wasn't done though. "Speaking of defence, or lack thereof, what about shields? Should she use a one-handed weapon and a shield, or should she go with a two-hander for greater capability to injure the demon?"

"A shield is a no-go. A blocked, rather than deflected, blow would send her flying or shatter her bones," Cathy rejected that possibility. "Besides, we should probably make a list of available trainers before we continue. Myself, I'm best with swords, but am also trained with polearms and blunt weapons."

Jered raised his hand. "Daggers and throwing weapons here, though I'd not go so far as to call my training in them formal."

"Well, I have some rudimentary skill with a staff, though I am hardly qualified to teach. However, some of the other minions may have other instruction to offer. I believe the women in particular are frighteningly skilled with bladed gauntlets and whips," Snyder fidgeted, his cheeks colouring at the memory.

Ami watched all heads turn to the last advisor who had not spoken yet. Jadeite shook his head. "I don't need weapons. However, I am familiar with using swords, should the 'commander' not be up to the task of teaching you."

"Right." Cathy stepped away from the weapon rack and considered. "I don't see a whip inflicting nearly enough damage to serve as anything than a choice for a secondary weapon, and they are notoriously difficult to use properly. Bladed gauntlets don't offer any real advantage over daggers, and are less flexible. I think that leaves us with only swords and daggers as the remaining options."

Ami looked at the gleaming weapons still lying on the rack, comparing them with the illustrations of the Reaper. Compared to his size, they looked like toothpicks. The thought of fighting the creature with something like that was terrifying.

"Swords or daggers, but which one?" Snyder asked.

"They are not too different, aside from the throwing part," Jered said, patting the bandoleer on his chest. "I can use a shortsword if the situation requires it, but I much prefer staying back and slinging my daggers at targets of opportunity."

"So would I," Ami sighed, "but I won't have that option."

"Ahem, I think daggers might run into trouble stabbing deeply enough through muscle tissue to reach the Reaper's internal organs," Snyder objected, referencing the anatomy charts that Ami had produced from her scanned data.

"That can be worked around with magic," Jered said, "the greater problem, in my opinion, is the lack of reach. The most vulnerable spots of the Reaper are his neck and eyes, and she'd be hard-pressed to reach them with a short weapon like that. However, daggers would be better at fighting while staying too close for him to use his scythe, as the Baron suggested."

"Swords allow for better reach and more cutting power, though" the swordwoman defended her favoured weapon. "Besides, daggers provide practically no defence at all. With a good sword, you can deflect a blow. Though I'd advise dodging when fighting that thing."

"Ahem. Couldn't she use daggers to strike at weak points closer to the skin, like sinews, and cripple her opponent?" the acolyte was still looking at the charts and trying to find an easy way to bring the monster down.

"Yup," the long-haired blonde replied sarcastically. "Because hitting a specific spot on a fast-moving target that's doing its best to kill you is the easiest thing in the world. I bet even Mercury could do it."

"Be nice," Jered chided disapprovingly upon seeing the look on the blue-haired girl's face. "I know for a fact that some archers are very fond of enchantments that guide their arrows precisely into the intended target."

"Something to keep in mind," Jadeite said. "So far, I'm most in favour of the sword. Enchant the daggers to seek out a target and keep them as a backup weapon, if you like. Fighting with a weapon that can't significantly hurt the enemy without striking a weak spot is just stupid."

"I think I agree with that," Ami said, "I'll probably be too busy staying alive to properly aim my blows."

"It's workable," Jered admitted, "have the sword for offence, and keep some daggers around as a ranged weapon."

Ami thought that she would much prefer having a gun with a bayonet affixed as a ranged weapon, but she doubted that the bullets would arrive with her. On the other hand, she did have a fabrication spell. She should probably put some more thought into this. "What kind of sword though? I heard that rapiers are quick and good for fighting unarmoured opponents."

"If you are fighting humans maybe. They'll usually stop coming at you if you puncture them. It's the same basic principle as a spear. Have more range than your opponent and stab them before they get to you. Not going to work here," Cathy objected. "I'd say a two-handed sword. You may look as if a stiff breeze could blow you over, but you are strong enough to wield it one-handed if necessary. I know I am with these enchantments," the woman said, and promptly demonstrated this by grabbing one of the large weapons by the handle and whirling it around. Snyder ducked his head at hearing the sharp metal whistle through the air.

"Not the best weapon for close-in fighting, though, and won't the weight slow her down?" Cathy's wavy-haired boyfriend seemed less than enthused by the idea.

"With it, she has enough range to stay out of his arm's reach, but is still close enough to make scythe strikes impractical. She can use the dagger in her off-hand if she closes in further. The Reaper is large enough that something will always be at optimal sword distance, too. Besides, it's not that much heavier than a one-handed sword, and will force her opponent to remain more on the defence," the swordswoman answered. "What I'm most worried about is her getting past the Reaper's weapon in the first place. He's just too big. That's a problem that will persist with any weapon, though."

"I expect that she will be able to teleport herself past his guard by then," Jadeite commented, uncrossing his arms. "Despite appearances, she is actually progressing very well in what I am teaching her."

Ami blushed faintly at the praise and lowered her head. "Really? But,don't you think that teleporting will be on the list of discouraged magic?"

"I can't imagine that Azzathra will have a problem with you using it to get closer to your opponent," the dark general guessed. "Even, if it's duplicated, the Reaper will just maintain his original distance, and there's nothing lost."

"What about flight? Cathy asked. "She was floating yesterday, and not very gracefully. It looks like controlling that is an acquired skill."

Jadeite smirked. "Well, that depends on how much progress she makes. The spell she used is an enchantment, but I have no idea what the dark god would make of it when it turns out that it is something beneficial, but only if you are trained in it. My way to levitate is more advanced and more like an innate power, but currently beyond her skills."

"I see. Our tactics had better not rely on it, then."

"Mercury, what do you think about all this? You will have to learn how to use the weapons, so if you have any suggestions or objections, tell us now." Jered encouraged.

Ami had her reservations about swords, or, more precisely, about using them to hack apart and mutilate a body. The thought sickened her, but she could see that she probably would have to go along with it anyway. "I'll do my best, but I'll also keep looking for a way to avoid this duel altogether. If I could just find out how to block the dark god's access, then I wouldn't have to worry about the choice of dying slowly but certainly from their disease, or only probably dying from the Reaper." The problem was the spark of life, the gift from the dark gods that was the final component required to complete a dungeon heart and turn it into something more than just its base materials, something alive. She had the suspicion that this was the entrance point for their power, but knew nothing about it. Her hope rested with the ice ship even now on its way to the Avatar Isles, where an answer might be found. She looked up, eyes flashing red, and said something that her friends would have been very surprised to hear "In any case, I intend to cheat as much as I can get away with it!"

"What do you have in mind?" Jered asked, interested.

"Science," she answered simply. "There are some surprising things that can be done without magic, and which wouldn't be duplicated. Like, hmm, let's see..." Ami decided to do something suitably spectacular. An imp dropped out of thin air and landed amidst the gathering, looking up at their faces quizzically. It squeaked in alarm when bars of metal grew from the ground around it, enclosing it in a spherical cage. It started blinking worriedly in the blue-haired girl's direction when a thick tome fell into her hand and opened to a bookmark. "Step back from the cage, please. It is non-magical, except for having been conjured. Ami glanced at the pages before her, then extended her right hand toward the trapped creature, whose large black eyes went wide in terror. She muttered a two-word incantation, and blinding lightning arced from the pointing fingers toward the greenish-brown target. The smell of ozone permeated the hall, and the others blinked to clear the spots dancing before their eyes. "As you can see, the imp is unharmed," the senshi smiled brightly. The cowering imp in question opened its eyes, made a disbelieving noise, and started patting itself up and down to see if everything was still attached.

"... and you say that's done with no magic?" Jered asked, somewhat paler than before, and stared in wonder at the undamaged construction, while the healthy imp inside rattled the bars. Only Jadeite seemed unimpressed, probably already familiar with the concept of a Faraday cage.

Ami nodded enthusiastically. "No magic, just simple physics. If properly incorporated into the armour, I could probably give the Reaper a nasty shock while remaining unharmed by the duplication. And I'm confident that I can come up with a few more tricks like that!"

"Well, that's a good start," Cathy nodded. "But we have no time to waste, so catch!"

Something long and wooden tumbled through the air toward Ami, who grasped it reflexively, noting that the object was a large training sword. With a sinking feeling, she looked at the grin threatening to split Cathy's face. Why did the otherwise nice woman have to be so energetic when it came to violence? Resignedly, she nodded. "Good. Jadeite, you know how to open portals from the Underworld to this one now, right? I think Arachne's dungeon would look a lot better with some magma in it. Jered, could you please go to the command centre and coordinate that with him? Snyder, can you brush up on your healing magic? I fear I am going to need it," she finished with a look down at her wooden weapon.

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Chapter 45: More Lessons Chapter 47: Time Flies



Attached comments:

  • Without Mentor or a similiar guide, she's barely scratched the surface of what she can really do with the Dungeon Heart. And unless she thinks of the need for it, or is actively rejecting the idea (torture chamber for the Dark Mistress or new evil temple - for obvious reasons) she does not even know all of the rooms she can create. Her dungeons are woefully underdefended with minimal traps, sentry posts, or even "go away/fear" devices.
    This is not entirely correct. The dungeon she is currently in is extremely well defended with most of Malleus' traps still active, and the ice one is mostly underwater and doesn't have much space. She also knows the rooms she can make from the knowledge she pilfered from his mind (except for non-Devourer temple and graveyard), and is even combining and improvising already, such as using the scavenger room corruption devices as radio.
    It's true that she has the wrong mindset, though. Fortunately, some of her employees are more pragmatic (Jered, Jadeite), but it's going to be an uphill battle to convince her of doing distasteful things. Her finances are fine for the moment, as she isn't spending much.

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