Ami plummeted feet first through the black wound in space that hovered above her destroyed dungeon heart. Passing through felt like splashing into ice-cold water, and the horror-stricken girl found herself hurled into deepest darkness. Her wide-open eyes focused on the glowing circle she had just passed through. From this side, it was bright, and it receded far too quickly as she tumbled through space, resembling the moon, then a star, and finally disappeared completely. Bands of blue light shimmered around her right hand and arm, still extended from when she had held onto the carpet for dear life, its fingers cramped from the effort and sporting boils from rug burn. The ribbons of blue faded away, and then there was nothing but purest, featureless darkness. She heard sound, but it was only her own scream of fear and protest ringing in her ears.

Stop. Panic will not help! The blue-haired girl shut her mouth with an audible click. What had that glow been? Ami looked down at herself, which accomplished nothing in the complete absence of light. There was rustling in the dark as she patted herself down, which sounded obscenely loud in the dead silence. A skirt? her fingers fumbled around until they touched the seam of the garment, finding that it went down to below her knee. Not her senshi uniform. Could it be? Her hands wandered upward, feeling unexpected but familiar cloth, and encountered a ribbon. My school uniform? I'm back to regular Mizuno Ami, rather than Sailor Mercury? Just great. She felt like crying. She was floating powerlessly in a sea of dark nothingness. Her fingers crumpled up the ribbon on her blouse in despair. Suddenly, they froze as the terrified teenager noticed the absence of something she had taken for granted, and stopped to listen. The silence was deafening.

M-My heart isn't beating! Ami started at the realisation, only now noticing the absence of all the other sounds that her body produced when working normally, and which she wasn't even consciously aware of normally.I'm not breathing either? Am I dead? The schoolgirl felt a sudden wave of despair as she imagined herself stuck in this cold, featureless nothing forever. No, I have to think about this logically. I still have dungeon hearts left, so I should be able to return. Ami brought her right index finger up to her lips and moistened it. She waved the digit around. No change in temperature. Is there no air in this place? But how can I still hear or speak? Given this new information, she was inclined to believe, for the moment, that her current state of seeming lifelessness was a precautionary measure to protect her body from the conditions in this strange place. Slowly, she was calming down after the mind-numbing terror of the last few minutes. How fast everything had gone completely wrong. The dungeon hearts, Jadeite... she needed to get back!

"Mercury Power, Make Up!"

Nothing changed. Ami was still just Ami, not her super-powered self. She cried out the transformation phrase a second and a third time, with a similar lack of results. What could she do? She fished for the Mercury computer, but the magic that summoned it from where it went when she didn't use it failed to respond to her call, and she massaged her temples in frustration. She wished she could see, or at least know whether she was at rest or still drifting. Maybe regular magic? None of the incantation she knew did anything, but at least the sound of her voice was a comforting sensation in this silence, and banished part of her unease.

There had to be a way to get out of this. If her senshi powers didn't work, how about her Keeper ones? The drifting teenager tried to remember what Malleus knew about losing a dungeon heart. Hazy memories of falling through the darkness for an indeterminate but long period of time flashed through her mind. With sudden dread, she remembered the rest of what she had filed away as a bad dream, and if her heart had been functional, it would have beaten faster in fright. An impression of impacting something leathery and callused. Standing up from the surface that felt like a wet sponge and looking around with a sense that wasn't sight. The sudden shift as she - no, Malleus - recognised the five crooked, pointy-tipped towers surrounding this plain as fingers the size of mountains. A strange mixture of religious awe and sheer terror upon looking up and seeing a face like a small moon hanging over the city-sized hand, the gruesome visage's details thankfully shrouded by the distance. Caught up in the moment, Ami muttered the name associated with the menacing being at the same time as her memory-self did. "Murdrul the Devourer." The clawed hand hurled Malleus back the way he had come with a dismissive flick.

Ami shivered and looked around despite the futility of it, her hair standing on end. The dark gods were here? Well, not right here, but the knowledge was unpleasant enough. Her thoughts went back to the memory fragment. The late Keeper had been able to perceive his surroundings, even if the sense he was using wasn't vision. Keeper sight? Trying couldn't hurt, and suddenly, Ami had a very precise idea of what she looked like, and confirmed that she was indeed back in her school uniform. Ami smiled briefly at her progress. Keeper powers at least seemed still functional. Partially functional, she amended when a picture of either of her dungeons failed to form in her mind, despite her best efforts. She kept trying, however, as meditation was the only thing she could really do in this cold, formless void. She didn't know how long she worked on the acuity of her Keeper sense, but faintly at first, she sensed two incredibly distant pinpricks of light that felt like her, and which were receding by the minute. They could only be her dungeon hearts, but Ami felt another flare of panic when she realised that she was moving away from them! How could she get back?

Ami went for the quick and logical option, and tried to transport herself in the right direction with her Keeper powers. Her face fell when she couldn't even disappear from her current spot, much less teleport herself in the right direction. It was a sensation akin to the one she felt on foreign, claimed territory, but infinitely stronger. What could she do? She still counted as her own territory, but teleporting into herself was an absurd idea, and probably fatal too, even if it worked by some strange twist of space. Well, she also had the ability to move things within her territory. While the scientist in her rebelled at the idea of something moving by pushing against itself, she still forced herself to consider the idea properly. Could she manoeuvre by pushing against one of her bones with her telekinesis - very cautiously, of course? Only one way to find out. It was an odd sensation, as if a hook was attached to her breastbone and pulling. Using her dungeon hearts as a frame of reference, she compared their relative velocities with hers. It was working! She was braking her descent away from them! If she kept up the acceleration, she would slow down, stop, and reverse direction!

With new hope, Ami focused her efforts on the tasks at hand, elation warming her. She paused. No, this wasn't just a subjective feeling, it had gotten warmer. She looked in the direction she had been falling, and saw, with her real eyes, that the darkness was no longer all-encompassing. The empty space where the horizon should have been was a shade of red so close to black that it would have been impossible to tell the difference, if the environment had been any brighter. Ami knew with every fibre of her being that she did not want to go that way. Is this where the dark gods lurk? the girl wondered, her thoughts straying back to the enormous, bloated and horned thing she had seen in the stolen memory. In the same instant, she felt the attention of something hungry, powerful, and tremendously malicious turn into her direction, seeking. Instinctively, she curled up into a ball and wrapped her arms tightly around herself, trying to make herself as small as possible. How else could she hide in an empty place like this?

"Who remembers my ancient enemy?" A voice like thunder challenged, hitting the frightened girl like a physical blow.

Ami's pupils turned into little pinpricks as she recognised the voice and the oppressive charge that was building up in the air. Azzathra, she realised. As if summoned by his name, the dark god was suddenly there and aware of her. Ami knew this, even if she didn't understand how.

"Oh. It's just you," the gravelly, merciless voice snorted. "Still the same pathetic worm as ever, I see."

Ami uncurled, trying to hide her terror. She could feel the power roll off the thing, buffeting her with its mere presence. It seemed to be behind her and to the left. Despite the danger she was currently in, Ami turned her Keeper sight in the direction, morbidly curious about what form this dark god had taken.

"You dare look at me?" Azzathra bellowed in anger, and suddenly Ami's mental vision burnt. She craned her neck and leaned back as she screamed in agony at what felt like a hot poker being shoved into her inner eye.

"What a pleasant sound," the dark god chuckled, a noise that felt like spider legs scratching over Ami's skin. "Let's hear it again!"

A new spike of pain hit the defenceless girl. Foregoing the safety of prudently applied pressure, she fought through the agony and hurled herself away from the monster and toward her dungeon hearts as fast as her Keeper power would allow. They still seemed so far away!

Behind her, Azzathra growled, and his malignant power pulsed. "I have not allowed you to leave yet." The dark god did something that Ami couldn't perceive properly. Still twitching from the after-effects of the evil deity's last attack, she watched with horror as one of her two guiding lights in the distant darkness dimmed until she could no longer find it. The fiend let out a growl of angry confusion as the second one refused his touch. The fleeing schoolgirl could feel his rage grow hot like a furnace. "Here I thought you had learned your lesson, but still you seek to betray us. Suffer!"

The sheer agony that Ami felt made the previous pains seem like a caress in comparison. She squealed hoarsely, not even able to consider putting up a brave façade while her veins felt as if the blood within had been replaced with molten metal. When she was able to think coherently again, she had lost sight of her dungeon heart from the lack of concentration. Even as she searched for it again, shaking with fear, she begged "No, please stop! ARGH!"

"Where is she?" Cathy asked, not for the first time as she paced up and down the room like a caged tiger. "When will she be back? Snyder!"

The acolyte scratched his head. "I am actually not sure. The texts of Saint Laneas mention that a defeated Keeper falls into deepest darkness and is banished forever from the land."

"Which is obviously bullshit, seeing how Arachne came back," Jered said quickly, hoping to reassure his girlfriend.

"Well, um, at his time, city states were the norm, so 'land' should probably not be taken quite literally. I am sure she will pull through, she is a smart girl."

"Yes, and she's really great at this dungeon keeping stuff," Cathy snapped, the vertical scar on her right cheek turning into a distorted curve as the corners of her mouth pulled downwards in worry. "Did you ever consider that she might have no idea how to come back?"

The room fell silent while the others considered this. "Is there some way we can help her?" Jered asked, brushing back his wavy brown hair that had gotten caught in the collar of his shirt.

"I have already tried contacting her with those eye things, but it didn't work, and the scrying balls show nothing but black," the blonde replied, balling her fists in frustration.

"Maybe- " Snyder's guess was cut of by a startled blink when every imp in sight suddenly keeled over and dissolved into specks of green.

Jumping up from his seat, Jered shouted "What the hell just happened?" He threw a confused glance at the swordswoman, only to find her gone and the door wide open, while rapid footsteps disappeared down the corridor. Everywhere, the torches were dimming and slowly going out.

"Unfortunately, I don't know what exactly is going on," the white-and red-robed acolyte admitted as he scratched his head, looking at the dungeon heart. "It is certainly still alive and active, but I am missing the fountain of glowing motes above the pit." Before him, the membrane of the artefact was beating at a slower pace than normal, but its thumping heartbeat sounded just as strong as usual.

Cathy chewed on her lower lip as she thought. Suddenly, her eyes flow open. "Snyder, where's Jadeite? I have an idea!"

The redhead shrank away from the intensity of her stare. "He's in his room, but he's still weak from blood loss," the priest-in-training replied.

"But moving and doing magic won't kill him?" the blonde asked, storming off when the round-eyed acolyte confirmed this.

Two blonde figures, about the same size, shimmered into existence within a domed chamber that glittered like a jewel in the light of the four-posted crystal dungeon heart. The longer-haired one wearing a blue senshi uniform let go of the one in a grey uniform, and stormed toward the pulsing white orb resting on a dais in the chamber.

"You could at least have let me grab something warmer to wear," Jadeite protested, wrapped in a blanket. At least he didn't need a shawl with all the bandages wrapped around his neck up to his jaw. He was holding his head stiffly as he walked towards the swordswoman, whose shadow on the wall reached from floor to ceiling as she climbed the stairs up to the dungeon heart itself and stood in front of the light source.

Cathy put both her palms firmly on the smooth, warm surface of the crystal sphere and called "Mercury? Mercury! Can you hear me? Mercury!"

"That's the extent of your plan?" Jadeite asked incredulously as he joined her on top of the dais and leaned against one of the pillars, crossing his arms.

"Shush, I think I hear something," the short-skirted blonde chastised him.

"... help! ... lost ... can't find... AIIIE!"

"Mercury! Listen! This way!" Cathy shouted again, then turned to Jadeite. "She's hurting and lost and needs our help! Come here and help!"

"What am I supposed to do?" he grumbled, but complied with no further protest. The dungeon heart seemed to pulse faster when his hands touched the nacre-like shell. "Sailor Mercury, come this way," he said tentatively.

"...being attacked... ARGH ... far ... can't see..."

The dark general frowned, wondered what this awful feeling in his chest was. He felt an obligation to save her, he decided after a moment of reflection. She had saved him from certain death earlier, after all. It was only natural that he wanted to repay his debt. Yes. "Mercury, don't give up, we are waiting for you here. You can do it!" I'm starting to sound like this Tuxedo Mask dweeb, Jadeite thought with a shudder.

"You heard him! This way!" Cathy agreed at his side, trying to sound hopeful.

The curly-haired blond doubted the effectiveness of what they were doing. Sure, talk cost nothing, but he felt that something more effective was required here. Hmm, maybe...? It was a crazy idea, but it might just work. He still had the human energy he had drained before Beryl banished him, stashed aside for a rainy day. Well, he didn't have a better plan. Maybe it would distract whatever was after her. "Mercury, see if you can use this!" That said, he offered the stolen lifeforce to the pulsing crystal orb, which had no compunctions about sucking it straight out of his hands as fast as he was releasing it.

"Mercury?" Cathy asked, after the young Keeper hadn't responded for a while.

Jadeite tried his luck once again, too, and felt silly for shouting at a large glowing sphere. "The dungeon heart is in this direction! Follow the energy!"

The heart dimmed and brighten once more, but suddenly, there was a shadow moving within. Small, soft hands emerged between Jadeite's gloved palms, shooting forward. In the blink of an eye, the head and shoulders of the short-haired girl followed as she came flying out of the orb, slamming into the dark general and sending him reeling. He would have recovered his balance, had the girl not clung to him like a barnacle, wrapping her arms around his torso. With the added weight, he staggered backward until his back collided with one of the dungeon heart's pillars, whereupon he lost the fight against gravity. He slid to the ground, his back upright against the column, while the girl landed on his lap, still firmly attached. His angry outcry died on his lips when he looked down at the blue-haired head whose face was currently buried in his chest. Was this girl really Sailor Mercury? She was dressed all wrong. He looked at her trembling back. Some kind of school uniform. From Tokyo. This fragile teenager making quiet sobbing noises was a senshi?

Cathy's hand went to the heft of the sword hanging from her girdle, but hesitated. Blue-haired girl coming out of Mercury's dungeon heart, same size and age, but dressed in strange garb she had only seen once in Mercury's crystal ball. It couldn't be her, but at the same time it had to be her. The disguise magic failed, and suddenly she recognised the young Keeper. "Mercury!" she shouted in relief, running to her side. "Mercury, are you all right?"

The girl sitting on Jadeite's lap did not react. To Cathy's exasperation, the dark general threw her a wide-eyed, confused look and raised his hands in a shrug-like gesture, hindered by the arms of the shaken Mercury holding onto him as if her life depended on it. Rolling her eyes, the long-haired blonde pantomimed a hug with her arms. The dark general looked dubious, but slowly put his arms around Ami's slender torso, moving as if she could explode at any moment. When their warm weight settled on Mercury's back, the chattering of her teeth quieted down, but the sniffling and muffled sobbing sounds continued.

"There, there. It's all right. You are back with us now," Cathy made all the right soothing noises, knelt down next to the two, and stroked the younger girl's hair. "Everything will be all right." This could take a while, she thought, feeling great sadness at the sight.

Jadeite didn't really know what to make of the situation. The hug was kind of nice, actually. Especially in this cold. Well, except for the crying, that made him uncomfortable in a way that he didn't fully understand. She was messing up his blanket with all those tears, too. "You will be fine," he said, taking another cue from the swordswoman, who seemed more apt at handling situations like these. Looking down at the weeping girl in his arms, he felt another emotion well up, one that he was much more familiar with. He would hurt those bloodsuckers, and not just for the wound they had inflicted on him!

Ami, despite being in a warm, comforting hug, still heard the parting promise of Azzathra echo in her mind.

"You will return sooner than you think", the sadistic voice disappearing back into the depths behind her had taunted, "and I will make sure to be the one who collects you!"

On the back of her right hand, which currently rested over Jadeite's spine, an orange ring surrounding a disc of same colour opened as a countdown started.

Previous chapter: Next chapter:
Chapter 53: Invading the Avatar Islands Chapter 55: Dread



Attached comments:

  • A quick summary for the confused: (Argh! I messed up if readers are confused! Failure!)

    Ami learned how to make crystal dungeon hearts from DK1. (which cast spells with golds, not mana). She created one crystal dungeon heart in the Arctic on an iceberg, and intends to use it as store room/mobile mining outpost/hidden refuge. That's the one for which she took Cathy along.

    She also created a second crystal dungeon heart on the Avatar islands, in close proximity to the organic one on her ship before the cost. The two didn't get along, and the organic one blew up*. The explosion alerted the local Keeper to her presence, who stomped her flat with his army of expendable ghosts (those things are numerous and pretty useless in a fight) and high-level vampires (which can all teleport). Jadeite got injured during the fight, and then the vampires destroyed the crystal dungeon heart too, which banished Ami into the deepest darkness. There, she came to the attention of the dark god Azzathra, who tortured her before she could escape, and activated the magical countdown that will whisk her away to her duel with the Reaper in a short time.

    *the organic dungeon heart was the one to explode because magic in DK1 is vastly more powerful than in DK2, which is why I chose for the crystal heart to be stronger.

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