Ami felt miserable, even if her recent transformation had hidden the outward signs of the previous battle. Still, if she allowed herself to dwell on how exhausted she was, or on what had nearly happened to her, then she would break down completely. The residual panic in her mind just wouldn't go away, so she ruthlessly shoved it aside by focusing on something else instead. The cowled face within the crystal ball was a perfect distraction.

"You were introducing yourself before we were interrupted. Mr Nicodemus Asbraxe, correct?" Ami tried to sound as polite and pleasant as always, but it came out somewhat strained with the way her ribs were aching. A few might even be cracked, she feared.

The fat peddler in goods of dubious origins realised that he had been gaping, and his mouth snapped shut so quickly that his long, grey beard whipped upward. "Ah, yes, of course. What can I do for you Lady...?" he paused expectantly.

"I am Sailor Mercury," the blue-haired Keeper informed him, "and I am in need of some books for my library. Possibly maps too," she added after a moment of hesitation.

"I live to serve, " Nicodemus stated with a bow and a smile. Because I wish to continue living, he didn't add. "I do have some books relating to the arcane arts, but it would be helpful if you narrowed down a bit what you are looking for."

Ami needed a moment to consider the question. She hadn't anticipated an opportunity for shopping, after all. Her goal was getting out of this hell-hole and back home, hopefully without unleashing the demon on the world. "Books on travelling magic or transportation. Anything on dungeon hearts, too." The adrenaline was wearing off now, and she felt woozy. Perhaps the battle had taken more out of her than she had thought?

The merchant drew the obvious conclusion. A Keeper who wanted to travel and to create new dungeon hearts could only mean one thing. "Ah, you are preparing for some good old-fashioned conquest then? Any regions that a cautious man such as me should not plan on visiting in the near future?"

Ami felt her legs weaken and leaned forward abruptly, putting one hand left and right on the table next to the crystal ball to steady herself. She bit her teeth together to avoid yelping in pain as the movement shook her hurt rib.

To Nicodemus, it looked as if the Keeper's was baring her teeth at him in anger as her face suddenly filled out most of his conjured image. He jerked back and started sweating. "Forgive me Keeper, that was out of place. I did not mean to question your plans. As for the books you require," here he was starting to feel as if he was digging his own grave, "I am afraid I have nothing like that in stock right now, but I'm sure I could acquire some given-"

"Then get to it!" the voice of the Reaper interrupted. The demon had finished ripping off the last remains of the offending sailor fuku, though he had apparently missed the lipstick. With a satisfied smirk, he noted that the Keeper - Sailor Mercury, what an odd name - still cringed at his approach. His yellow eyes narrowed as he observed her hunched-over pose and the sheen of sweat on her forehead, and continued: "And add in a treatise on the basics of Necromancy while you are at it. Well, what are you waiting for?"

The trader looked from the terrifying monster to the more innocent looking one, who was therefore at least twice as terrifying, nodded once, and disrupted the communication spell, eager to finish this conversation.

Ami turned to face the Reaper with a frown. "Necromancy?"

He flashed her a toothy grin, and answered nonchalantly: "You look as if you'll need it soon."

The sailor senshi's eyes widened in surprise, and she took an involuntary step back. Then she fixed him with a glare. "What do you mean? That had better not been a threat!"

Ohh, her eyes had actually flashed red for a moment there. She must really loathe him. This could prove to be endlessly amusing, if he played it right. "Of course it wasn't," he drawled. "Don't you know anything?" He paused dramatically, making a point to let his gaze sweep over the empty shelves of the library. "No. It is obvious you don't. Oh, wait, there's something...". The Reaper bowed down to pick up a thin booklet that looked as if had been blown off a shelf earlier and barely contained four pages. "I stand corrected. It seems as if this is the sum total of your magical knowledge."

Ami, who had been about to simply walk away from the taunting, looked interested despite herself. At least until the Reaper started flipping through the issue and started laughing uproariously.

"Those are some of the silliest-looking monsters I have ever seen," he commented, indicating the illustrations of some of the monsters that Ami and her friends had fought together.

Ami had enough. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't just put you back in an ice block and be done with it!"

"Aside from the fact that in your current condition, you would be hard-pressed to do so?" he asked, conveniently leaving out the part where she could technically just use her Keeper powers to put him right in the path of an attack. "You would also lose access to my knowledge, which you can't afford. You are just fumbling around, with no idea or plan about what you are doing, and hoping that everything will turn out all right in the end."

Ami winced. That had struck a bit too close to home for her taste. "Go on."

"You may think that you have plenty of time to figure out how all of this works, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Simply through the act of becoming a Dungeon Keeper, you have made powerful enemies. At the very least, Metriande, the Keeper who imprisoned me here, will have sensed that someone snatched up her inactive sub-heart here. She is bound to investigate sooner rather than later, as she will want it back." If she is still alive after all these centuries. He hoped she was, he would pay her a visit.

Noting the brat's brightening expression, he fought the urge to bury his face in his palm. "No, that is not a good thing! You cannot just give it back. Claiming a dungeon heart constitutes a pact with the forces of darkness. Once you lose your last dungeon heart, you die, and your soul is snatched up by one of the dark gods. The same happens in case you die normally, but the heart will survive and be up for grabs in that case. Which one do you think Metriande will go for?" Oh, how the girl was going white as a sheet now. She had taken an attentive posture at the start of his lecture, apparently on reflex, but now her fists were clenching and unclenching, and she was shaking.

"You didn't mention any of that before!" Ami shouted accusingly.

"Which is exactly why you need to keep me around. You wouldn't want to run afoul of any other nasty surprises, would you?" the Reaper retorted, enjoying this and making no attempt to hide the fact.

"I hate you!"

Ah, red-flashing eyes again, and now she was stomping off. Oh, faltered in her step there. Must have noticed the imps.

Ami blinked when she spotted the tiny bug-eyed servant creatures, all four of them sporting miniature versions of her sailor fuku, and looking quite happy about it. And why shouldn't they? It was a vast step up from the filthy loincloths they had been wearing before. Deciding that she didn't really care to find out how that had happened right now, and that she desperately needed rest, she gave them new tasks instead.

The Horned Reaper watched in amusement as the Keeper created a new, bare chamber for herself, and then lay down on pieces of coarse carpet pilfered from the library. Hah, a Keeper resting in conditions like that. He'd be able to tease her about that for decades if he didn't kill her first. Not that he could at the moment, seeing how the entrance to the new room was too small for him to fit through. Maybe he'd tell her how to use her powers to acquire more comfortable quarters when she woke up. Maybe.

Previous chapter: Next chapter:
Chapter 3: A Deal with the Devil Chapter 5: Fire Reading




Annoted Comments:

  • Number five should be interesting, especially if Pluto feels she should intervene. (Provided she can do anything about it, that is...)
    I'm not sure how I'm going to use Pluto yet. When I watched the anime, I kind of got the impression that she knew what was to come because she was from the future and it was already history for her, not from using the time gates. (Pure conjecture on my part, that) Later, I read the manga and found out that while she's guarding the Gates, she has no clue what was going on anywhere else, not even in the present. So I'm a bit reluctant to have her suddenly intervene at a point this early in time.

    Just had a thought about the empty libriary. What if most of the info is on cristal, DVD and harddisk storage mediums? This all could let Horny wonder about all the strange stuff in the libriary,
    Interesting idea, but shouldn't Ami have immediately recognised them if they had been there?

    And since Ami toke a piece of carpet from the libriary to her new room... Would she also have a piece of coal with her? Heck, maybe even a few of those jewel Horny trow off. In that case Ami would could be sleeping quite well.
    Unless nightmares kept her up, of course.

    Now, would she need some bones (or so) for any type of food farm?

    I figure she would need some critter or some initial piece of food that the magic could duplicate.
    The way I'm imagining the dungeon heart to operate is that it:

    1) has a bunch of stored design patterns left behind by the previous Keeper, which Ami can use but hasn't all figured out yet.
    2) can duplicate and/or modify things that are within the dungeon, given enough base materials. Alternatively, it can directly transmute the required materials from gold.
    3) can create whatever its master both knows how to make and how it works. Basically, it can't figure out something by itself, such as how to create a book full of spells that nobody in the dungeon already knows.

    The latter explains why the library is so empty: it's meant for magical research, and Ami just doesn't know much magic. It also opens the door for some non-magical creativity on her part, of course.