The layer of dry old dust on the ground softened the sound of Ami's footsteps as she wandered through the old tunnels. In places, it was so thick that she couldn't even make out the floor tiles underneath. Nobody had walked through these halls in years, that much was clear from even a cursory inspection. Torchlight sparkled on the icy curves of the young Keeper's golem body as she advanced cautiously through the corridors, well aware that the presence of burning torches meant that, abandoned or not, this place still contained an active dungeon heart somewhere. Which meant that any remaining traps would probably still be functional too, and that the Keeper whom the dungeon belonged to could potentially detect her intrusion at any moment. If she gave him a reason to check in on it, at least. Given that Ami hadn't encountered anything of the least value during her exploration yet, she felt relatively safe.
Through her visor, she watched the remains of yet another smashed door that had once blocked a doorway. The entire situation made little sense to her, increasing the feeling of unease she had for being on another Keeper's territory. One she probably should get used to, as most of the territory on the Avatar Islands seemed claimed. But why wasn't she encountering anyone in that case? And if someone had stormed this dungeon and killed everyone, why did they leave the dungeon heart intact? Brushing away some cobwebs blocking her path, Ami instinctively flinched away from the little crumbled-up spider corpse that fell out of it and into her frozen hair. Feeling rather silly, she stepped into the room beyond. It was empty, aside from more dust-covered skeletons. Orcs and some trolls, from the looks of it. Her visor beeped, magnifying the indentations on the bleached bones. Tooth marks. They had been gnawed on? Not only that, Ami discovered when she knelt down next to one of the piles of bones and looked at a long, white femur more closely. It had been broken in the middle, and the marrow had been sucked out. Cannibalism? Ami vaguely remembered hearing something about a terrible famine a short time after the last resistance was crushed by the forces of darkness. So everyone had died of hunger in the end? Why hadn't the dungeon's chicken farms provided enough sustenance?
Shuddering and feeling queasy at the thought of what must have happened during those final days, the possessed simulacrum continued her inspection of the dungeon. Another room. More gaping emptiness. Had the Keeper just transmuted all of his rooms back into gold and packed up? But why? It was possible to turn mana into gold, albeit inefficient to do so. Still, even without her own boosted power reserves, sustaining a dungeon should have been feasible outside of combat situations. Also, why leave an active heart behind? Sure, it would maintain its claim on the land and prevent other Keepers from raising a new heart in its territory, but leaving it without guards seemed like an awfully risky move. Something wasn't adding up. Ami shifted her concentration back on the sensor readout. It was directing her toward the dungeon heart, whose muffled beating was the only sound aside from her footsteps that disturbed the tomb-like silence of these underground tunnels. She stopped suddenly, ceased all movement, and listened. No, that wasn't quite true. There was another low, faraway noise. A long, drawn-out roar just on the edge of perception, swelling to a crescendo before cutting off completely. That- that had sounded like a bellow? She wasn't alone here, but what could have made that noise? A dragon maybe? Ami waited for the sound to repeat itself, with her palmtop open and ready, but gave up after five minutes of nothingness.
Well, whatever it was, she would have her crew scry for it. Due to the diligent work of her warlocks, she had finally overcome the limitation of having to communicate via imps scribbling her orders with chalk on slate. In hindsight, the solution had been obvious. She already had one-way communication devices that looked like giant eyeballs on a stalk, and adapting their magic to a real eye hadn't been too difficult. Though there had been a few gruesome accidents during the development phase when the spell was being tested on chickens, or so she had been told. With a quick, near-triangular arcane gesture, she invoked the communication cantrip, and could feel the tell-tale tingle in her left eye that indicated that the magic had taken hold. "I heard a sound that could only come from another creature. From my readings, it must be somewhere in the lower levels. Please start looking for it."
"Understood, Keeper. We will inform you as soon as we have found it," a voice in Ami's mind replied. The alchemist, maybe? It was so hard to tell with the distortion caused by the spell.
Traversing yet more cavernous, empty, and thoroughly uninteresting caverns, the ice girl finally stumbled across one of the more interesting features of the dungeon, and narrowly avoided losing a leg to it. Lying flat on her back, the girl stared wide-eyed at the blade that whooshed overhead at knee height, disappearing into a near-invisible slit that looked just like the other seams between bricks, and reappearing from it as it spun around. Only the icy nature of her body had saved her from serious removing the limbs outright. Puzzled, Ami crept out from under the spinning circle of death and examined it more closely. The trap fell back into a slumber once she was out of striking range. How curious, she had been scanning for things like that? Oh, it didn't match the expected search patterns because it wasn't powered directly by the dungeon heart, but had its own reservoir. Glittering fingers flickered over the keyboard of the Mercury computer, adjusting search parameters. A moment later, the entire corridor in front of Ami's visor lit up with warnings. "Oh dear."
Rather than rushing into the killzone and overwhelming the traps with numbers, as she had done in Malleus' dungeon, Ami analysed the detected obstacles, searching for a safe path through them. She wasn't pressed for time on this excursion, after all, and storming through the danger with a troop of golems seemed like the best way to attract enemy attention. However, she soon found out that there simply was no such thing as a safe passage through the overlapping layers of sharp, spinning bits, pits, and magical devices. She shrugged and put her computer away. If subtlety didn't work...
"Shabon Spray Freezing!"
...then coating the walls, floor, and ceiling with a layer of ice that would prevent the traps from striking at her would have to do. Ami nodded at the sight of the first few frozen metres of the passage, and put her foot down on it. Immediately, she heard a cacophony of ringing and scraping noises as blades and spears sprang from their positions, only to get stuck in the ice. The formerly clear mass turned a milky white as networks of small fractures spread out from the impact points, but the cover seemed to hold. In one place on the ceiling, the ice was glowing and melting around a rod that discharged lightning bolts, but it ran out of power before it could get at its intended victim. Satisfied that her ploy was working, Ami proceeded to freeze over the next section of the corridor.
Ten minutes later, the Ami-golem stepped into a larger chamber whose outer perimeter was free of traps. She was only half as tall as she had started out with, because one of the traps had unexpectedly expended all of its power in one shot, turning the tunnel into a blizzard of ricochetting high-velocity ice shards that took big sections out of the simulacrum, but she had managed to regenerate from the injuries. Right now, she was surveying the new room, turning her attention to the central dais. From each of the square structure's edges, a stone pillar reached toward the ceiling, and five steps led up to the central platform on each side. Taking a note of the traps guarding each of these four approaches, Ami turned her attention to the large, pulsing crystal orb resting on the back of three life-sized troll statues, which stood on top of the raised dais. The large hall brightened and dimmed whenever the beautiful white crystal in its golden casing, topped with a large turquoise gem, did. It took Ami a moment to realise what she was looking at, so different was it from her expectation.
"I-Impossible!" With her mouth wide open, the senshi stared at the device that pulsed in concert with the thunderous heartbeat echoing through the tunnels. How could this be a dungeon heart? It wasn't even alive! Where was the pool of dark power resting within? Not a single mote of greenish mana in sight! This looked like a mere artefact, not an unholy amalgamation of stone and living flesh. At this point, Ami's thoughts screeched to a halt as she considered the implications. It wasn't alive. It wasn't a hero dungeon heart, but it wasn't alive. It didn't need a Spark of Life from the dark gods to create! So this was why heroes could have one? Bubbling with excitement, the teenager started deep-scanning the device, taking in every detail as she stepped slowly around it along the trap-free perimeter of the room. Possibly a space to muster the defenders, she thought while she recorded the incoming data. No black-box component from the dark gods meant that she could probably bar them access, if she could only reverse-engineer this artefact. There were definitely similarities to her own type of dungeon heart, but also vast differences. Still, she had three living-type dungeon hearts originating from different Keepers, all with their own little divergences in some aspects. Now she had a fourth sample of an entirely new type. If she compared their differences and similarities and took Malleus' knowledge about dungeon heart construction into account, she could probably come up with a working model for this one. Eyes burning with determination, Ami dismissed her computer. She would have to return home and process the data. The golem went still when a red-eyed shadow poured out of it and disappeared through the ceiling. Statue-like, the construct would not move again until it received new orders, or until its owner possessed it once more.
"No. Absolutely not! You will not neglect your training just because you may have found a way to avoid this duel entirely. It may yet turn out to be a dead end." Cathy was dragging a reluctant blue-haired teenager toward the training room.
"But- very well." Ami's shoulders sagged, but she admitted that the older woman had a point. Finding out how to make the new dungeon heart was a potentially long-term project, and the date of the duel was getting closer and closer. There were still nearly two months left, but she had no time to waste. "Say, did the warlocks find the other creature in that dungeon?"
The long-haired blonde nodded once. "Yes, they know where it is, but not what it is. Its chamber is pitch-black, so they can't see a thing. However, it's at the very bottom of a collapsed shaft, so it probably won't get out unless its Keeper returns and frees it manually." She took one of the wooden training weapons from a rack on the wall and handed it to Mercury, who plodded toward the central arena. Cathy called her back. "Wait, no dragon for you today. Go change into your armour and wait for me."
Ami threw the swordwoman a questioning glance but complied and slipped into one of the changing areas, but was quite surprised to see that the blonde disappeared into one of the stalls too. From the rustling and clanging of metal, she judged that Cathy was putting on some kind of armour of her own. After the imp assisting her had tightened the last strap on her - entirely nonmagical - breastplate, Ami stepped out to face her instructor. She heard more metallic noises, followed by a muffled curse when something fell over. There was more rattling, and then the scar-faced blonde stepped out from behind the curtain, carrying a strange skull-like black helmet in her hand. She was still wearing a Sailor Mercury uniform, though. Ami wondered where this was going.
"Ta-da!" Cathy pulled the curtain aside, revealing Ami's opponent for today.
"A life-sized stuffed Reaper puppet?" Ami blinked at the towering construct that just reeked of shoddy craftsmanship. The general dimensions and shape were right, but the skin was a patchwork of mismatched leather scraps, and the head was swinging left and right on a large spring. Ami could see some metal gleaming beneath the seams in its covering. All in all, the looming figure looked more like a zombie than the red demon currently imprisoned in one of the cells. It didn't help that one of the yellow buttons serving as its eyes had already fallen off. If the real Reaper saw this caricature, he would certainly lose his temper. "Are we going to practice aiming for vital spots?" the blue-haired girl ventured a guess.
"Not exactly," Cathy grinned. It was the wide, slightly manic grin that usually preceded a particularly painful learning experience, and Ami wondered again what the woman was up to.
"That," the blonde pointed at her frankenstein, "is a version of the prototype armour I asked your minions to custom-build."
"We haven't solved the power issue yet," Ami cautioned, eyeing the sinister construct more warily now.
The swordswoman waved her hand dismissively. "Well, I only have to actually wear the helmet to control it, so I just told Snyder to cram the inside full with all the mana batteries that would fit. It still only has power for about forty heartbeats, but during that time, it will be the best approximation of your opponent that you'll be able to get."
Oh joy. Ami watched the blonde raise the black helmet with both hands and put it over her head. From within, her voice shouted "Ready? Go!"
The mechanical monstrosity straightened and raised its wooden scythe. Suddenly, it looked much less ridiculous to Ami, who fell into a guarded combat stance. "Wait! Aren't I supposed to only fight him while wearing powered armour too?" Clanking and rattling like an entire shelf of tableware falling over, the frankenstein barrelled down on the much smaller and lighter girl who stood her ground until the last moment. The scythe whistled through the air in a devastating downward arc, long before the monster was in Ami's striking range. It had that much reach?! The girl threw herself aside, cheating by using her flight ability to avoid a fall to the ground. The ruse bought her just enough time to interpose her own weapon between herself and the puppet's follow-up strike. A bone-shattering impact later, the two-hander was ripped from her grasp by the force of the blow, its handle splintering as it screeched over her metal-covered palms. A strong, painful punch into her armoured chest drove the air out of her lungs, reminded her that staring in wonder at her suddenly empty palms during a battle was a bad idea, lifted her off her feet, and slammed her hard into the wall. Everything went black.
With a bump on her head, Ami was reclining in a comfortable chair in the living room, using the free time she had gained from the abbreviated training session in a productive way by staring into the crystal ball on her lap. The image within showed Usagi staring at a sheet covered in Morse signs. Her tongue was peeking out at one corner of her mouth as she frowned in concentration, one finger tracing the lines in the book in front of her as she searched for the right translation. Next to the book sat Luna, her tail twitching as she double-checked the pigtailed blonde's work. Rei was sitting nearby with a pen, carefully taking notes of the intervals during which Ami was looking in on them. Blink. The crystal ball went inert. Ami counted to three, then renewed her scrying efforts. She was keeping a slow conversation going, mainly answering her friends' questions. They had a much easier time asking her things than the other way around. After all, she could just read what they were writing on a paper. This wasn't too bad an arrangement, the blue-haired girl judged. There were things she didn't necessarily want to burden her friends with, such as the way she had acquired most of her Keeper knowledge, or the upcoming duel. If her plans for the new dungeon heart panned out, she wouldn't even have to fight, and she didn't want to worry them for nothing. It wasn't as if they could help her either way.
One uncomfortable topic that came up again and again was Jadeite, on Luna's insistence, Ami suspected. Not that Usagi and Rei seemed very enthused by the fact that he was working for her now. Both were urging her to exercise caution, as she didn't really know what he was plotting. Even from her crush-befuddled perspective, she could see that they had a point. She had no idea what his motives were, and while the dungeon heart ensured a minimum of loyalty, his plans and aspirations remained a great unknown. It was quite negligent, wasn't it? Maybe she should ask him, out of professional interest, of course. Far be it from her to want to know more about the man she was crushing on for personal reasons.
The grey-uniformed dark general shimmered into existence, one arm held over his chest as he bowed politely. "Lady Mercury, you summoned me?" His eyebrows rose at seeing the young Keeper with a glowing crystal ball in front of her, sitting in a chair large enough that it could have qualified as a throne. The involuntary associations were unpleasant.
"Yes," Ami replied shortly, continuing to peer into the orb. "What are you planning?" Well, the choice of words may not have been the best one, but half her attention was still on the image in her scrying device.
"Pardon me?" Any satisfaction at having finally been called by Mercury outside of their regularly-scheduled lessons evaporated at these words. What did she mean? She couldn't be suspecting him of plotting against her, could she? Whoever was machinating against him was working fast. Uh oh. Wrong answer. She was frowning now.
Ami peered into the crystal ball once again, furrowing her brows in concentration as she tried to decipher Usagi's handwriting. It was well worth the effort, as sending a request for clarification would take much longer.
Jadeite shifted nervously on his legs at the continued silence. What was he supposed to say if he wasn't even sure what he was being accused of? Finally, the blue-haired girl looked up, only meeting his eyes for a moment. "I wanted to know what your ambitions are," she clarified. "I can't imagine that serving me figured prominently in your plans for the future."
"Yet serve I will," the curly-haired blond answered, "there are worse fates than being the right-hand man of the future ruler of the world."
Ami coughed and blushed lightly. "Ahem, I don't really plan to conquer the world," she replied, secretly wondering whether admitting that wasn't a great mistake.
"I doubt you will have a choice in the matter," Jadeite answered, fighting hard to keep a smirk from appearing on his face.
Ami cocked her head. "Explain."
Good, she was in full-attention lesson-absorbing mode now. However, her eyes were burning a brighter red now, denoting irritation. Being the focus of that intense stare when it was displaying more emotion than just academic interest was disconcerting. Choosing his words carefully, the dark general continued "Well, you are already planning to defeat the other Keepers in this world, which means conquering the underground, at least. And I won't insult your intelligence by assuming that you think the surface-dwellers will not come after you once you attempt that. Which will lead to you having to defeat them too," he explained.
Ami nodded once, her lips turning into a displeased downward-turned arc, and her head remaining more inclined than before.
Raising his white-gloved hands, Jadeite continued "Also, frankly speaking, if you think that your senshi friends back in the other world are achieving anything more than fighting a delaying action, you are deluding yourself!"
Ami's eyes flashed a bright red. "I trust in them!" she barked, glowering at the blond.
"No doubt," Jadeite stated in a conciliatory tone of voice. "But you have to face the facts. Eventually, the Dark Kingdom will manage to scrounge up enough energy to revive their Great Ruler, and then nothing will be able to stand before them. And should the other senshi go on the offensive before then, well, look around you," he spread his arms and turned slowly in place to encompass the entire dungeon in the gesture, "how well do you think they would do against your forces?"
The glow in Mercury's eyes dimmed, and her head sank at the realisation that her troops alone would give her friends great trouble. Add in the dragon and Jadeite, and their chances would be so small as to be near-inexistent.
"Exactly. And there are many more youma, who are also individually more powerful, in the Dark Kingdom. Any attack would be doomed to failure. But," he approached the seated girl, grinning confidently, "you have managed to catch Metallia's interest. Me being here proves that. Gain her favour so she makes you the one in charge once she awakens and takes over the world, leaving dear queen Beryl out in the cold. You have the vast advantage that no annoying senshi would get in our way while harvesting enough life energy! Just give the word, and I'll get to it."
"That- that's monstrous!" The red glow was back with a vengeance.
"It is the only way to save yourself and your friends," the dark general contradicted, crossing his arms. "Not to mention myself. Beryl will be displeased, to say the least, once she discovers that I escaped her punishment."
"There must be another way," Ami insisted, tightening her grip on the crystal ball until her knuckles went white. "So," she continued, "that's it? You are here for status and because you think I'm your best shot at survival?"
"Is this a problem?" Jadeite asked, looking directly into the dimming embers that were the blue-haired girl's eyes.
Mercury was silent for the time needed to take a long breath. "No," she admitted, "your work has been to my full satisfaction so far, aside from that one time where you kidnapped Baron Leopold."
Jadeite could hear a hint of sadness in her voice. Was she disappointed that she couldn't chew him out? No, that seemed unlike her. Strange. In any case, it was time to re-gain some ground while she wasn't pretending he didn't exist. "Likewise. It is a refreshing change to serve a ruler who appreciates my skills and who seems genuinely interested in improving her abilities," he complimented. "And you are much more pleasant to be around than Beryl ever was," he added with a bow.
Ami's vision went strangely pink-tinted. He thinks I'm pleasant to be around! Arghh! Stupid hormones! Nearly deafened by the thumping of her fast-beating heart, she said "Thank you. You have given me much to think about. Please leave me to my contemplations." When the man bowed again and teleported out, she felt contradicting emotions. Disappointment at him leaving, and relief that he hadn't noticed her rapidly-reddening cheeks. Why did her life have to be so complicated? She looked down at the crystal ball in her lap. She had better inform her friends that she was all right before they worried themselves sick about her suddenly dropping out of the conversation. How much she should share about what she had learned, she didn't know.
A day later, Ami appeared in front of the cell block housing her fairy prisoners, and blinked at the sights. Sitting in front of the new, more tightly spaced bars sat the tentacle monsters. This wasn't entirely unexpected, even if she tried to discourage such behaviour. The cause of the senshi's astonishment was the violet-haired fairy sitting on the other side, enveloped by a few of the thin pseudopods that had squeezed through the barrier and wrapped around her lithe body. Noticing the Keeper's arrival and round-eyed stare, Cerasse looked up from the chess board and shrugged, making the tentacle resting on her shoulders hop with a wet smacking noise. "It's the only decent player around," she offered as explanation. At Ami's continued silence, she continued "Oh, come on. You are hardly in the position to talk about odd habits."
"Baseless rumours founded on misunderstandings," the blue-haired girl muttered on reflex. A redhead, alerted by her voice, pulled aside the curtain to the fairies' living room and planted herself in the opening, arms akimbo.
"Cerasse! Are you playing with that filthy thing again? Just because you haven't won yet doesn't mean-" noticing Mercury, the fae shot her a glare. "Oh, it's you, Keeper. What brings you here today? Got a new plan to seduce us to your side?"
Her statement caused more heads in all colours of the rainbow to appear in the doorway, wearing curious expressions. "Just checking up on you. Are you all right? Nobody is sick or needs anything?"
"Aside from our freedom?" the indigo-haired Dandel asked bitterly.
Ami sighed. "I have already explained to you why I can't let you go."
"Oh, right, it would get in the way of your evil ambitions," Anise sneered. Ami hung her head and leaned against the wall, letting out another long sigh. Why couldn't they understand that she wasn't doing this for fun, and was genuinely trying to keep them as happy as she could? There were more pleasant things she could be spending her time on, like daydreaming about a certain general...
"Hey, look at her! That's exactly the same longing expression that Dandel always has when she's pining after some boy!" the blonde fairy mocked, pointing her index finger at Ami.
"Hey!" Indigo fairy protested.
Orange fairy leaned forward, narrowing her eyes "Oh, look, she's blushing! Could that guess have been right?"
"Why so depressed, Keeper? Bile demon rejected your advances?" green-haired Tilia jibed.
Anise pushed her sister aside "Pining after a handsome troll?"
"Went after a dragon, but he liked it?" the blue-haired fairy joined in the heckling.
"For the last time, I'm not interested in monsters! Those rumours were all started by a bunch of goblins who completely misinterpreted the situation!" Ami protested.
"Prove it!" the fairies chorused.
"Yeah! Show us what he looks like!" Camille demanded, bouncing up and down so excitedly that blonde bangs escaped from behind her tiara.
Ami considered this harder than she should have. Doing so would be childish and stupid, but on the other hand, if it got them to shut up about her alleged preferences, it could be worth it. Besides, they were imprisoned and had never met Jadeite, so what harm could it do? She really wished she could have some normal girl talk, and why not with the fairies? Rei and Usagi would just worry more about her if she told them about her crush, and talking to Cathy, Jered, or Snyder about something like that would be horribly embarrassing. Jadeite himself was right out, for obvious reasons. Against her better judgement, she conjured a reasonably accurate picture of the curly-haired general and handed it through the bars. The fairies immediately huddled around the picture.
"Eww, don't lean on me, Cerasse! You are all slimy!"
"The evil Keeper is after a charming hero! Poor guy!"
"Ha! Someone dreamy like that would never give a Keeper the time of the day, much less fall in love with one!" Roselle proclaimed, causing her sisters to make agreeing noises.
Irrationally annoyed at their dismissal of her chances, Ami couldn't help but boast in a calm voice "Oh, is that so? He's already working for me."
"There must be black magic involved!"
"Think what you want," the teenage Keeper replied, feeling somewhat smug, and telekinetically retrieved her picture, much to the disappointment of the other women.
"If that's true, send him our way," the orange-haired fairy demanded with a wink, prompting her sisters to giggle.
Ami pouted, feeling a pang of jealousy, and already regretted telling them anything at all. Why again had she thought that would be a good idea? "Unfortunately, that won't be possible. I'll be back tomorrow, so if you think of anything you are missing in the meantime, you can let me know then." She disappeared, oblivious to the fairies putting their heads together and starting to exchange hurried whispers. "So we have another objective when we break out," Melissa began, "find that handsome guy and undo whatever evil mind control she has put him under." The others giggled and nodded in agreement.
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