Ami awoke from her slumber, feeling refreshed after a thankfully dreamless rest. The bed had just the right temperature, and the depressions in the mattress fit her body in that snug, comfortable manner that only ever happened mere moments before one had to get up in the morning. She didn't open her eyes just yet, content to drift right at the edge between dozing and wakefulness for a bit longer. Something seemed wrong with her pillow, though. It felt lumpier than usual, and the texture felt coarser against her right cheek than the fine linen she was used to. This brooked further investigation. Opening one eye halfway, Ami peered through her eyelashes at the offending mystery. Grey? Her pillow was a light blue colour, same as her covers! Alarmed, the teenager opened both eyes and traced the thin red line that went through the greyness to the collar - wait, collar? Her gaze shifted upward and came to rest on a male chin and blond curls, both of which she recognised. With a startled jerk, her head rose from the hollow of Jadeite's shoulder, alerting the man to her sudden wakefulness. "Jadeite?!"
Without the weight of the girl's head pinning down the dark general's arm, his already precarious balance on the edge on the bed shifted and lost the fight against gravity, and before he realised what was going on, he spilled onto the floor. Sitting on her bed with her covers drawn up to her chest with both hands, Ami blinked at the sprawled out, groaning figure on the ground with wide eyes. Her thoughts were racing as her face alternated in colour between red like a tomato and pale like a ghost. What was he doing in my bed? Now that her thoughts were a bit clearer, she noticed with relief that both of them were still fully dressed, so nothing too serious could have happened, but that didn't explain-
A quiet giggle from the corner of the room prompted the blue-haired girl to swivel her gaze into that direction, onto Cathy, who was sharing the armchair and a blanket with Jered. "Why is everyone in my room? And you," she turned to Jadeite, blushing "why were you in my bed?"
The brown-haired man leaning against his blonde girlfriend was the first to reply. "Well, when Cathy went looking for you and failed to return, I went to look for her, and here I am."
"I- " Jadeite began, frowning at the slightly accusing tone that had swung in Mercury's voice.
"That's not really his fault," the long-haired swordswoman interrupted, "even asleep, you were very insistent on him not leaving your side." Seeing Ami's incredulous expression, she continued "after he cast that sleep spell on you, you yanked him back into your bed any time he got more than a few steps away."
"I wouldn't!" Ami protested, cheeks burning. I might think about it occasionally, but...
"Oh yes, you did. It was quite amusing to watch, actually," Jered piped up, with a wide grin on his face, "any time poor Jadeite thought he had escaped - yoink, back to where he had started! Sleep-keeping, rather than sleepwalking."
"But don't worry, nothing untoward happened, I stayed around to make sure of that," Cathy reassured the girl before she burst a blood vessel. A colour like that couldn't be healthy.
"Oh, I'm terribly sorry about this," Ami apologised, her face beet-red. "Are you all right, Jadeite? I- I don't know what came over me!"
"Should I make an educated guess?" Jered asked mockingly, which earned the weasel-featured man an elbow in the rips, delivered free of charge by his girlfriend. Little wrinkles around the corner of her blue eyes belied the stern expression on her face.
With a strangled whimper, Ami pulled the blanket over her head. She heard her armchair creak as its occupants got up.
"Well, now that you are up and awake, we'll allow you some privacy," Cathy addressed the tent-like mound of embarrassment. Ami heard three sets of retreating footsteps, after which her bedroom door creaked open as the trio left.
"You are walking rather stiffly, 'general'," Cathy remarked with amusement, watching Jadeite stretch and work out the cricks in his muscles. The female blonde thought she heard a soft grinding noise when he raised his right elbow over his head.
"You try spending half the night forced into an uncomfortable position you can't move from," the dark general grumbled.
"I certainly wouldn't have expected her to be so clingy," the swordswoman nodded in thought.
"Sore?" Jered, the last person to leave the room, commented and waggled his eyebrowns. "Why don't you ask Mercury for a massage? I'm sure she'd be all to happy to- Ouch! Watch it, Cathy, that spot is still tender from earlier!" He pushed the door shut behind himself. The receding wood revealed a group of orcs further down the corridor, who were watching the trio leaving the Keeper's bedchamber with great interest, and were nudging each other. The purplish-skinned humanoids didn't even have the courtesy to pretend that they hadn't been listening in to the conversation. One of them had the gall to wink at Jered over his potato-shaped nose, before making a rude gesture with his elbow and fist that left the wavy-haired man with no illusions about how the creatures had interpreted their observations. Somehow, this was much more amusing when onlookers jumped to conclusions about Mercury alone.
A while later, after a late breakfast, Ami still looked ready to spontaneously combust from embarrassment whenever her gaze fell on Jadeite. However, none of the others assembled around the table were currently in the mood to properly tease her about that, and the dark general himself had yet to address the topic of what had happened. The young Keeper could do without additional distractions now that the Reaper duel loomed only a few hours in the future, and he hadn't sorted out all of his own thoughts yet, anyway.
"All right, to get to the point immediately, the priesthood of Azzathra has announced the site of the duel a while ago and is earning itself a golden nose by selling seats for the event." Four round bone chips embellished with an ochre painting of a seven-horned demon clattered on the table. "Tokens like these will allow one person each to enter."
"Oh my, you bought them?" Snyder asked grumpily. The usually good-natured acolyte didn't care to hide just how annoyed he was that Ami had chosen to venerate a dark god without at least consulting him first. "They are already profiteering from Mercury's misery, they don't need her money to!"
"Actually, these must have dropped to the floor when a foul-smelling and rather unsympathetic troll jostled me in the crowd. Good for me, bad for him," Jered reported with a straight face, polishing one of the tokens on the sleeve of his green shirt.
"All right! We'll be able to lend you moral support from the sidelines, at least!" Cathy shouted enthusiastically, slamming her palm on top of the wooden table to underline her statement.
Gazing down at the tea that sloshed in her cup, Ami replied quietly. "It could be dangerous. It might be better if you stayed somewhere safe instead, rather than going to the Underworld."
"Don't worry, I will be able to evacuate everyone, should it become necessary," Jadeite stated with calm confidence.
"Besides, we aren't going to let you go through that alone. Some support is the least we can do, and that's final," Cathy declared, daring Mercury to contradict her.
"Very well," the blue-haired girl gave in, not in the mood for conflict at the moment. She focused on Jered, who was fingering his bandoleer full of daggers absently. "How much room to manoeuvre will I have?"
Wavy brown hair whipped left and right as the man shook his head in the negative. "Sorry, I couldn't get a look at the place, and neither did the scrying balls. The area is consecrated to Azzathra. I'd tentatively advise against attempting to escape, magically or otherwise. He can most likely stop any such effort and might consider it a forfeit."
The tightening of Ami's neck muscles betrayed that she was suppressing a shudder, but she nodded. "All right. Now, there are a few things that need to be properly arranged before the battle." Her voice became quieter, forcing her four listeners around the table to lean in closer to understand her. She caught each one's eyes in turn as she spoke "There's no denying that I might not survive the coming battle - no, don't interrupt," she raised her palm in Cathy's direction, who had opened her mouth to protest. "As much as I wish it didn't, the possibility exists, and not planning for it would be irresponsible." She took a deep breath. "First, the dungeon hearts. I don't want anyone to stumble over one of my inactive ones and damn themselves. This will not be a problem for the crystal heart, as I designed them so they will automatically crumble the moment I die. That leaves the organic dungeon hearts. I have already destroyed the inert one that was hiddenbeneath Leopold's barony." She ignored the surprised gasps around the table, but Jered spoke up.
"I don't know what to think about that. You destroyed a very valuable resource that you could have potentially moved and used elsewhere. It seems short-sighted."
Ami shook her head. "No, that's not true. After yesterday's events, I have to consider organic hearts a massive liability. I can't leave them guarded by my soldiers, because of the dark god's plague. I can't leave them guarded by traps only, because whatever Azzathra did to kill all my imps turned off the heart's mana respiration for a while, which would also knock out the traps. As the golems are based on imps, they would also be killed if I left them as guards. Thus, I can't leave any organic dungeon heart active, because anyone backed by Azzathra could destroy it and banish me back into the darkness," she added quietly and grabbed her shoulders, pressing her arms against her chest.
"What about right now?" Snyder asked, pointing in the general direction from which the dungeon heart's heartbeats echoed.
"If Azzathra is willing to move against me already, I'm doomed anyway," Ami shrugged with false nonchalance. "I also still need it to power my armour. I plan to disband this dungeon and shut it off once I have survived the duel. For now, I have rigged the dungeon so the heart will be destroyed by falling debris the moment I die and it becomes inactive. That way, nobody else will be caught up in this, at least."
"Hmm, I see. That means that regardless of the duel's outcome, we will not return here?" the red-and-white dressed acolyte asked.
"Yes. Each of you will find a bag of gold in your rooms when you return there - enough to start a new life somewhere where nobody will be looking for you. I hope Jadeite will find it in his heart to transport you, or help you recover the treasures on the iceberg." She looked the curly-haired blond straight in the eyes, and he nodded nearly imperceptibly.
"Don't talk like that! You won't die! I didn't train you to lose. You will pull through, I just know it!" Cathy said quickly, noticing the unshed tears glittering in the corners of Ami's large and sorrowful eyes.
"I intend to," the younger girl smiled at the blonde, "but knowing that everything is arranged for the worst case puts my mind at peace. There is one last thing to do, which I am very happy about," she said, standing up from her seat. "Without my golems, I no longer have a reason to keep these poor fairies imprisoned."
The group of seven insect-winged girls lunged and slouched around the table of their comfortable prison cell. Taken together, the hair colours of the swimsuit-wearing fairies showed all colours of the rainbow.
"Pass," the red-haired fairy muttered with a bored expression, slamming two worn-looking playing cards on the table in front of herself. Her sisters Rosette and Tilia shifted in their seats, eyeing the grand prize of the current game with barely-concealed greed. It was a bottle of bad wine that contained just enough of the burgundy-coloured liquid to refill one of the empty glasses waiting in front of each of the girls.
"Who would have thought that being a Keeper's prisoner would be so mind-numbingly boring?" Camille whined, scratching the top of her head with the edge of the cards she was holding in her hand, and incidentally showing them off to the others without realising this. "It's nearly enough to make one wish Cerasse's pet came back."
"It'sh not m-my pet," the violet-haired fae slurred. As the thinker of the group, she had already won the prize disproportionately often and it showed in the slight blush on her cheeks and the unfocused expression in her eyes.
A new, male voice from beyond the curtain that blocked the entrance to their abode broke up the routine. "Bored? Then I have good news for you."
"Huh? Who are you?" Anise challenged, rising to her feet in a single fluid motion. Without further delay, she tugged the curtain aside hard enough to nearly rip it from its holding. With her hand still on the violet cloth, she looked into the face of a curly-haired blond man waiting outside of the barred hallway. With his prim grey uniform, he looked quite striking, but the hand stretched out toward her cell, combined with the soft, blue-white glow of his eyes was quite worrisome, as was the smug grin playing around his lips. Black streamers of fog shot out from Jadeite's extended digits, and the redhead leapt back, a moment to late "Watch ou-" she managed to cry out before she collapsed into an unconscious heap on the floor, right in the doorway. Chair legs scraped over the ground as fairies scrambled to take cover while the darkness spilled in.
"Oh, he'sh ish cute," Cerasse hiccuped, catching a glimpse of the figure outside through the drawn-aside curtain, before the dark fog reached her and cut off further thought. "Sho tired..." Her head drooped, bumping into the wood of the table with an audible thud as the girl slumped in her chair.
Two more of the fairies dropped where they sat, with too little warning to do something about what was happening. Only the three who had sat furthest away from the entrance managed to get up. A chair clattered to the floor, carelessly pushed over in their haste to retreat from the evil fumes. Orange fairy tripped over the unexpected obstacle, and her flailing hands hit her sister on the back, right between her wings. "Ow! Watch where you are going!"
The two imbalanced fairies toppled, one with her arms around the waist of the other as she grasped for something to hold onto. Like dominoes, the two falling girls crashed into the third one, who might have otherwise stayed ahead of the billowing edge of the narcotic mist. The trio crashed to the ground in a tangled pile of flailing limbs and pained grunts.
"So tired... NO! I refuse to... to.. submit... Pinching herself and biting her tongue, indigo-haired Dandel fought against the spell threatening to send her into unconsciousness. She could feel the bodies of her sisters draped over her go limp, shielding her from the worst of the magic that was trying to overwhelm her mind. "Must... resist..." She heard approaching footsteps, muffled by the carpet, and gradually, the compulsion to close her eyes and go to sleep faded away. What was that strange man - he was the one the Keeper was interested in, if she remembered right - intending to do them? Faking unconsciousness, she watched through eyes that were barely-open slits as the blonde approached Anise, the closest of the fallen fairies. Dandel considered her options. If she played possum, maybe she could surprise him. The weight of her sisters pinning down her legs added a further complication she didn't need, but - he was squatting down next to the redhead now and put a gloved hand on her upper arm. The bastard had better not - "Damn it!" Before she could do anything, both he and her sister had disappeared in a teleport flash. What should she do? Confront him immediately when he returned - if he returned?
Even as she thought, the dark-dressed man shimmered back into existence next to Melissa and tapped the blue-haired girl on the shoulder, making them both disappear. Dandel nodded to herself. Right. If he was taking all of them away, she'd wait until he got to her. She'd be closer for ambush, and he might transport her to an area where her magic wasn't suppressed. Sure, there was a risk, but even if she beat him here, she would still be stuck in this cell with no way to go rescue her sisters. Yes, waiting was the better option. With her eyes closed, the fairy listened to the faint inrushing of air whenever the wizard removed one of the other girls from the room. She felt a weight disappear from her legs, then another, and suddenly, it was her turn. A shadow bent over her, and she could feel a warm touch on the back of her neck. From one moment to another, she suddenly felt grass underneath her hands, rather than rough carpet. Wait, grass? The indigo-haired fae was so surprised that she missed her opportunity to attack the blond guy while he was still bent over her. A moment later, he disappeared, and she opened her eyes and looked around. Bright! With a wince, she closed them again and listened to the sounds. Was that birdsong? She could also hear the gurgling of a brook nearby. Cautiously, she shielded her face from the sunlight and looked around. There were her sisters, lying in the high grass of a meadow and dripping golden glitter that the wind picked up. Dandel could smell the scent of summer flowers in the air, and sat up. Bemused, she wondered at their good fortune. Why would the dark-clad magic user save them, unless he was really a hero, like her boy-hungry sisters had speculated? Though he was quite handsome, and his eyes had glowed whitish, not red...
Unexpectedly, the man reappeared right in front of her, causing the indigo-haired woman to squawk in surprise and lean back so that she could better look up at him. Against the bright blue of the sky, he seemed a monolithic black silhouette. He cocked his head and raised an eyebrow as he saw her up and about.
"Hmm? Awake already?" Jadeite asked in a tone of surprise. A jingling bag dropped to the ground next to his boots. The string tying it shut came undone, and a gleaming gold coin spilled onto the grassy soil.
"Who are you? What's going on?" the fairy asked, gaping. Behind her back, lightning began to gather in her hidden fist. Better safe than sorry.
"I am Jadeite, general of the Dark Kingdom," the curly-haired blond introduced himself. "Sailor Mercury has decided that keeping you imprisoned is no longer useful to her. Enjoy your freedom."
"So she was going to get rid of us?" the indigo haired girl gasped, feeling a chill run down her spine. "What about that?" she asked, tapping the bag of gold with her toes.
"An indemnity for the time you were imprisoned, if you will," Jadeite explained.
"Wait! That Keeper might be mind-controlling you!" Dandel blurted out when the dark general turned his back on her as if to leave, and grabbed onto his shin. "We can help you!"
Jadeite looked down at her over his shoulder, presenting his face in profile. What was it with him and clingy girls today? "I sincerely doubt that," he smirked as he pulled his leg free. "Now scram, I have other things to do." His form dissolved into lines that shot upward before fading from sight, leaving behind a wide-eyed fairy with a confused and faraway look in her eyes. She let out a dreamy sigh before rushing over to her sisters, who were still lying sprawled out in the grass.
Tense silence reigned in the classroom, only interrupted by the footsteps of the teacher walking through the rows of desks, keeping a stern eye on the girls in grey school uniforms with red bows and dark blue shirts, who were sweating over a test. Rei chewed at the end of her pencil, glaring at the paper in front of her as if the questions had offended her personally. With all of her extracurricular activities, the black-haired girl had not been motivated enough to study as much as she should have. With a start, she straightened, bumping into her desk, which pushed it forward and caused a high-pitched scraping sound.
"Is something wrong, Hino?" the teacher asked, turning her inquisitive gaze on the blinking shrine maiden, who rapidly shook her head. "Then please refrain from causing a disturbance in the future," the old woman snapped acidly and resumed her rounds. Rei hung her head. That feeling just now, that was Ami! And here she was, with no piece of paper in front of her to write down her burning questions, aside from the multiple-choice test waiting in front of her. And she would have to hand that in later. The fiery-tempered girl balled her left hand into a fist in frustration while she quickly jotted down dots and lines into the margin of the sheet of paper. They corresponded to the lengths of time during which she could feel her friend's presence. The message was short, obviously. Ami wouldn't disturb her more than absolutely necessary during an exam if she could help it. Suppressing a sigh at her friend's excessive studiousness, Rei turned her attention back to the test. Despite her unsatisfied curiosity, she felt relief at the contact. At least, Ami was still enough in control of herself to let her allies know what was going on.
The anti-reaper measure that Jered had been working on turned out to be two walnut-sized spheres with thin shells. "Both harmless on their own" the wavy-haired man had explained with an unpleasant grin. "Get them into the Reaper's stomach and crack them during the fight. The liquids will mix, and BOOM," he gestured with his hands upward, "massive internal damage, and you'll be able to win easily. The shells will also slowly dissolve from his stomach acid, but how long that will take is pretty unpredictable. Anything from one to three hours."
It was blatant, unashamed cheating, of course. There was also a great chance of success, and any moral objections Ami might have had were tag-teamed by the fact that she would be using it on a loathsome, evil, completely irredeemable mass murderer, and by the knowledge of what might happen to her if she failed. The objections never stood a chance. Transporting the spheres into the Reaper's stomach with her Keeper powers was a trivial, if gross, exercise while he was still her prisoner. Now, the blue-haired girl was floating above the beating membrane of her dungeon heart, bathing in the stream of green mana pouring out of it. She held the helmet of her magical armour in her trembling hands, and looked at the visor that so resembled the hollow eye-sockets of a skull. With a sharp intake of breath, she pulled it over her head and watched the surrounding hall through its vertical slits. Under her left gauntlet, Azzathras magic pulsed as the outer circle of the orange design, now little more than a single line, continued to disappear. Drenched in cold sweat, Ami summoned her sword and closed her eyes, waiting.
Irresistible power whisked Ami away, and for an instant, the world seemed to whirl around Ami's eyes. The momentary disorientation passed, and she could feel solid ground under her feet again. She gulped. The moment she had been dreading for so long had finally arrived. From all around, a many-voiced roar assaulted her ears, and she recognised the noise as the sounds of rowdy fans lining the ranks of a stadium. She was in a massive stone Colosseum, similar to the ruined one in Rome, and the benches ringing the arena itself were filled with excitedly-shouting burly creatures. The bile demons had a section to themselves, as nobody but the loudly-shouting food vendors would voluntarily approach them, but the other seats were taken up by a more heterogeneous mix of occupants.
Ami let her gaze wander over the ranks, searching for her friends amidst the excited green faces of wide-jawed trolls and the white-greyish tufts of shaggy hair that crowned the heads of the orcs. Oh, there they were, sitting together in the third row from the bottom. Rather than being jostled for being some of the smallest in the brutish crowd, they were being given a wide berth. Ami squinted, noticing the hunched-over figures sprawled out and draped over the seats directly in front and behind her four companions. Jadeite's handiwork, no doubt.
It was hot here, Ami found, as if the place was lit directly by sunlight. She raised her head and looked up, only to stare in wonder at the stream of lava crawling along the ceiling, openly defying gravity and drenching the entire area in its orange light like an ancient, angry sun. If Ami had needed more proof that this place was permeated with Azzathra's power, she would have had it now. Shuddering, she swept her gaze across the battlefield proper. She was standing on a round basalt platform, about ten metres in diameter, that rose from the bottom of the combat pit like a vast, black pillar. That brought it to the same level as the special box interrupting the north end of the seating arrangement. The elaborate carvings and pillars along its walls made it immediately clear that whoever occupied it was more important than the common rabble on the surrounding seats. Ami recognised the thirteen black-robed, hooded figures with crimson cords around their waists as priests of Azzathra. They stood in a semi-circle around a wide bronze brazier that could have held all of them. Incense within roasted on glowing coals, and its aromatic fumes flowed around a pedestal carved from smoke-blackened bones. The elevated podium served as the centrepiece of the small temple, and Ami watched in fascination as a tall, unfamiliar creature walked out of the shadows and took position behind it, while the priests bowed to it. The man - for he was bare-chested - had a figure like a Greek god, and his skin tone was hard to distinguish in this light. It was either dark blue or greyish, Ami decided after a moment of observation. The bald head looked human, except for two ridges that started above his eyebrows andcurved around to his temples, where they swung upward and turned into short horns. More impressive were the massive black wings folded up on his back. He spread them wide as he addressed the crowd, and a deep, painful voice that felt like fingernails scratching over a blackboard rumbled through the arena. "SILENCE! The games are about to begin!"
That caused the hubbub to die down as the spectators took note of the combatant who had arrived in the centre of the arena, covered from head to toe in sinister plate armour crafted to resemble a skeleton, holding a two-hander as tall as herself, and whose visor blazed with red light.
"Here, we have our first warrior, the treacherous Keeper Mercury," the dark angel announced, making the stone vibrate with the volume of his voice. A murmur went through the crowd, and Ami found herself the object of intense scrutiny, much to the timid girl's discomfort. Most of the comments she could make out were either awestruck cries of "A Keeper", or disparaging snorts about her lack of size.
A flicker of orange light drew the heavily-armoured girl's attention back onto the platform. Not far away, A pillar of fire shot from the black stone ground, revealing a darker figure within.
"And here is her opponent, a horned reaper who failed in his task," the master of ceremonies bellowed, raising his hands grandiosely. Like everyone else, he blinked when the demon's knees buckled and his whole, massive bulk crashed to the ground like a felled tree. His scythe clattered down next to him. Laughter, muffled at first, then louder, echoed through the compound, especially when the more sharp-sighted among the crowd picked up on the red monster's relative chubbiness.
"A little pre-battle roughing-up, Keeper? A cheating Keeper. How unexpected," the winged being commented. A few seconds later, he let out a disappointed sigh when the vast majority of his audience completely failed to get the sarcasm. Trolls and orcs looked at each other, shrugging their shoulders.
"Oh whatever. By Azzathra the Mighty Tyrant's power, be restored!"
Ami could feel a prickling sensation, and a cramp in her neck went away. For the Reaper, the infusion of divine energy had much more visible effects. Eyes like blazing yellow slits in the demon's crimson face opened and focused on her with murderous intent. The horned monster let out a hot, sulphur smelling-snort and pulled himself to his feet, his intense gaze never once wavering from Ami's metal-clad form. "You. Will. Die", he growled, making the threat sound like a promise. Ami took an involuntary step back from the figure that was nearly twice as tall as she was, and nearly as wide as he was tall. How was she supposed to beat that with her hastily-acquired skills?
All around the arena, rapid drumbeat picked up, as if the drummers were trying to whip everyone's adrenaline glands into a frenzy. Ami hated them for it. She was tense enough already!
"Both of these warriors are here today to prove that they are strong enough to deserve a second chance," the dark angel's grating voice resonated through the building once more. "The rules are simple: whoever dies loses. Falling off the platform and into our Great Lord Azzathra's domain counts as losing." Oh no. Ami peered at the edge of the round pillar of stone. Where once the ground had been, waiting comfortingly only around ten metres below, gaped now a bottomless black pit. Dropping in would make her worst nightmares come true. "And without further ado, BEGIN!"
Ami's heart skipped a beat at the announcement, then her eyes narrowed behind her visor as she saw the Reaper starting to move. She would finish this as quickly and unfairly as she possibly could. The audience was treated to the sight of a sudden whirl of snow obscuring their view of the smaller combatant. Ami reappeared in a flash of blue behind the charging Reaper, the metal of her boots screaming on the stone as she pirouetted, swinging her sword in a cutting arc that would cut the monster in half at the waist. However, he was already further away than she had expected, and impossibly fast, the hulking red demon bent bent down. The blade whistled past a finger's breadth above his bent spine. Wide-eyed at the failure of her surprise attack, Ami nearly missed the massive incoming blur that was the monster's left hoof. With the last bit of speed that she could eke out of her powered armour, she managed to remove her head from the attacks path, rather than having it removed from her shoulders. The hoof still scraped along the left side of her helmet, rattling her skull and making the metal screech as sparks flew. The girl, half-deafened on that ear, staggered backward. The Reaper, still bent over with his hands on the ground and one leg outstretched, propelled himself into a textbook perfect cartwheel with the other leg and landed on his feet, now facing his opponent again. His lips were twisted into an ugly, fang-baring snarl as he took the measure of his enemy. Around them, the public, stunned by the intensity of the first exchange, broke into wild cheers.
The Reaper wasn't one to wait for his opponent to make the next move, and thundered toward Mercury, blade lifted high as the brittle basalt under his hooves cracked from the force of his steps. He's incredibly fast with these mirrored sailor senshi enchantments, Ami realised, disappearing into a swirl of snow a split-second before the demon's scythe parted the air where she had just been standing. Expecting another sneak attack, the Reaper brought his long-handled weapon close to his body and let it flash around himself like a staff, but the gleaming armour of his opponent appeared a distance away, close to the edge of the platform.
"Shabon Spray!" The scowling, skull-like leer of Ami's helmet, twisted upward by the dent in the metal, disappeared behind a solid wall of fog. Her vision went blank too as the mirrored magic copied her spell into an unfriendly version. Loud boos and whistles reached her, muffled by the mist, as the audience protested against being unable to see the action. What the senshi really used the distraction for was grabbing a set of five enchanted daggers from her belt and relocating to the other side of the platform with a quiet teleport.
"And Keeper Mercury shows incredibly bad taste in obstructing our view. Let's correct this, shall we?" the master of ceremonies boomed, and suddenly the fog was gone, revealing the Reaper in a forward-leaning stance, horned head held low between his massive pauldrons as he craned his neck and searched for his opponent. Almost immediately, he spotted her new location and barrelled down on it like a freight train.
Ami flicked the handful of seeking daggers into his direction, watching the triangular blades glow with magic as they fanned out and dived down onto their respective targets like blood-seeking mosquitos. The red-skinned demon decelerated upon hearing their angry buzz, his hooves screeching across the ground as his heavy mass continued moving him forward. The five glowing lines in the air streaking toward him stopped abruptly when his weapon became a blur in his hands, spinning fast enough to appear like a translucent disk that the daggers impacted with.
Perfect, Ami thought. In a flash of blue and snowflakes, she was at his side and too close to be in effective striking distance, her long, near triangular blade already hissing through the air and towards the beast's chest. The Reaper reacted by lowering his shoulder, catching the devastating blow on his pauldron at the last moment. Rather than sinking into the demons flesh, the sword bounced off of the metal with a loud bang, throwing sparks - and not the regular kind. Her nose picked up a trace of ozone, and the Reaper let out a shocked bellow as the electricity contained within secondary batteries in her armour discharged itself through her sword, into the pauldron, and from there into the monster. Ami drew back her weapon and hacked at the neck of her smoking foe, whose muscles were twitching and spasming from the abuse. Somehow, her overly large foe managed to stagger back, and only the tip of the blade slashed a deep, gushing furrow just below his collarbone. The blood that oozed out and splattered against Ami's armour was darker than the red of the monster's skin.
"And Keeper Mercury draws first blood, despite her despicable tactics!" the dark angel commented, his voice apathetic. A few of the troll in the audience hooted, and so did Cathy. "You go, Mercury!"
"Darn it! DIE!" Frustrated at her lack of progress, Ami brought her blade down again in a vicious arc, letting out an inarticulate scream. She was still too close for the Reaper to use his scythe effectively, and she wasn't about to give up that advantage! Clang! The sound of metal on metal rang out like a gunshot, and sparks flew as the weapons met each other with incredible force. The Reaper was using his scythe like a staff, interposing it between himself like and back-pedalling rapidly, trying to get some space between himself and his opponent, but Ami wouldn't let him. The audience watched incredulously as both opponents moved slowly across the platform while the armoured Keeper, her eyes blazing red, rained down blows on her much larger and heavier opponent at a breakneck speed, letting out a short cry with each strike. After the initial surprise, they started shouting in approval at the amazing show and climbing on the benches to see better. The excited roar got louder until it nearly drowned out the clashing of metal on metal.
The Reaper's eyebrows were attempting to climb onto his forehead as his opponent chased him over the battlefield, forcing him to give ground and leaving him no opportunity to mount an offence of his own. How had she gotten stronger and faster than him? Each impact was hard enough to rattle his bones, send sparks flying, and physically lift the girl a hand's width off the ground, but she was somehow compensating for that. Magic again, without a doubt. With a grimace, he moved his grip on the heft of his weapon. The little bitch was aiming for his fingers!
Ami did not hear the hollering of the crowd and did not see the confusion crawling into the Reaper's features. There was no time for fear, no time for doubt, only time for aiming, striking, obliterating her enemy. Again and again she struck, falling into a rhythm that her body, rattled around by the magical armour, could barely keep up with.
"She's winning!" Snyder shouted happily, watching the spectacle on the platform as it approached their location. But suddenly, a gasp went through the onlookers. Before Ami had realised what was going on, the horned demon had given up on his failing tactic and stepped forward, bowling into her, rather than giving more ground. His greater bulk meant that she was the one to be toppled by the impact, and to add insult to injury, he kicked her between the legs while she was falling and sent her flying like a football. While the armour had softened the blow, it had still dazed Ami. Gritting her teeth and holding on to her weapon was all she could do as she tumbled through the air. As the world spun around the grille of her visor, she saw the monster make a run for her, his scythe already lifted for an overhead blow and gleaming like molten metal in the light of the lava above. Maybe I could... "Shabon Spray Freezing!"
The blast of blue bubbles hit the charging red beast, who was unable to dodge at this distance, head-on. As soon as the magic encased him in a block of ice, Ami felt herself become very cold and unable to move, too. However, she had trained for this. A quick teleport released her from her own prison and brought her next to the frozen Reaper. Now! With a loud shattering noise, a hailstorm of fast-moving ice shards pelted her all over, striking like a hurricane of punches as the Reaper exploded out of his confinement. Blown back and sprawled out on the ground, Ami watched round-eyed as the monster flexed his muscles and stepped out from the remains of the cracked ice, some of which had buried his feet up to his armoured shins. How? The sailor senshi upgrade can't have- oh no! All that struggling against the restraints must have made him stronger! Ack! No time to think! A shadow fell over Ami, and the Reaper's weapon scythed toward her prone form in a deadly arc. With a desperate thrust of her arms, she catapulted herself backward and rolled out of the path of the blow that tore a deep furrow into the raven-coloured stone where she had just been. The demon grunted in irritation.
That had been too close. Ami needed a breather and decided to go with her one tactic that probably wouldn't fly, figuratively speaking. She was, in fact, hovering in the air above the battlefield, too high for the Reaper to reach, even with a several storey jump. Like everyone else, he was still looking around to see where she had reappeared. Under her breath, she muttered the incantation for the lightning spell, and the brilliant, forking bolt shot down from her fingers and toward her opponent below, making a beeline for the scythe that protruded into the air like a lightning rod. The surprised demon jerked and twitched from the current, and smoke rose from his form. Unfortunately, he was still moving, and growled up at her.
Ami herself lit up like a light bulb as the copied attack spell struck her, but the nonmagical protection woven into the layers of her plate mail protected her. Now all eyes in the stadium were locked on her. The boos and whistles started. Let them. Ami threw another lightning bolt at the robust demon, which he dodged, impossibly. Where did these reflexes come from, the armoured girl wondered while the small explosion caused by her miss sent steam and splinters through the air. The booing from the audience was becoming louder now, and many of the creatures were shaking their fists and making rude gestures in her direction. Well, she wasn't here to please them. She could keep this up all day, if necessary. Drifting to the left to dodge the Reaper's return fire, a ball of flame that whooshed past her without getting close, she sent more destructive power after him. On the ground, the red demon zig-zagged, avoiding her bombardment for the most part even as she cratered the surface of the arena with her bolts.
"Oh dear, Keeper Mercury is resorting to foul and underhanded tactics again. While there's nothing wrong with that, she is using the tactics of a weakling. Let's bring her back down to earth, shall we?" The black-winged master of ceremonies mocked and waved his hands in a ritual pattern.
That doesn't sound good, Ami thought, which an unexpected blow to her head confirmed. A flat, amber-coloured forcefield had slammed into her from above like a giant flyswatter. With her back pressed against it by the acceleration, she was propelled toward the ground. Rather than let herself be hurled into the floor, she teleported to ground level, letting the strength of her armour cushion the impact. It was still enough to make cracks appear in the rock and make her feel as if she had just jumped down from a roof - in civilian form. The artificial ceiling stopped approaching about ten metres above, but, attracted by the azure teleport flash, the Reaper was already sprinting toward his soon-to-be-victim, a maniac grin on his face. Ami brought up her hands, unleashed another twisting arc of electricity in his direction, and teleported away, not waiting for the results. Now on the opposite side of the platform, she saw that the bulky creature had once again managed to evade. While turning, he had already released another of his fireballs. It struck Ami head on, engulfing her armoured form in a wreath of flame that momentarily hid her slender frame from view. The demon smirked viciously, until a stream of blue-white lightning from within the cloud of fire wiped the grin off his face. Sizzling, he charged toward Ami's position with an outraged bellow, only for her to teleport back to the other side and throw more bolts of arcing electricity at him.
Audible clearly above the booing and disappointed grumbling of the viewers, the dark angel, surrounded by his coterie of priests, spoke up. "And once again, Mercury shows off her cowardice by using magic instead of brawn. I think it is time to-"
"SHUT UP! I will deal with this myself!" the Reaper growled with barely-restrained outrage, baring his fangs at the dark angel, who cocked his head and shrugged his shoulders. The red demon turned back to face Ami, and received an unsportsmanlike blast of lightning to his face for his trouble. Despite the pain and his facial muscles moving in uncontrolled spasms, he let out roaring laughter, which made him look like a demented maniac. "I know how to get you now, you worm!" The largest fireball yet shot from his scythe and bore down on his opponent, howling as it consumed the air in its path. Ami, unimpressed and still immune to fire, didn't budge and used the time to take proper aim - until the reaper's spinning scythe, following unseen behind the ball of flame obstructing her sight, bounced off of her helmet with a metallic ring. Staggering, Ami teleported away, expecting the Reaper to be hot on his weapon's heels. To her surprise, he hadn't moved from his spot, but was raising his arms above his head and leaning back, roaring at the sky with ear-splitting volume. A cloud of flame spun around his legs, closing in on them. A similar one had appeared under her own feet. What was he - OH NO! Mirrored magic! Ami's heart sank to the pit of her stomach when she realised what was going on, moments before her vital armour flickered and disappeared. Streamers of fire crept along her limbs, snaking upwards like tendrils of liquid metal, and forming an appropriately-sized copy of the Reaper's equipment on her body. Which consisted of greaves for her shins, a tiny loincloth, pauldrons for the shoulders connected by a chain across her collarbone, and, of course, a scythe.Fortunately, the demon didn't give her enough time to properly reflect on her terror and mortification, or to let the realisation that she was as good as naked on a stage in front of thousands of eyes sink in, because he immediately leapt toward her, nearly catching her during her state of momentary shock. His scythe only cut a few unlucky snowflakes in twain, but he didn't seem to mind. With a happy grin, he gave chase, not giving his prey a moment to catch her breath and come up with a new plan.
The jeers and hollers of the crowd rose to new heights as the onlookers realised what had happened. Four of the observers were not in a festive mood, though.
"Oh, poor Mercury," Snyder sighed, slowly shaking his head from the left to the right as he hid his eyes behind his palms.
"Don't look at her! Give her some privacy," Cathy demanded, elbowing her boyfriend, who was staring unabashedly. Jadeite wasn't acting much more dignified, to her chagrin. However, his next words surprised her.
"This isn't good. She is in worse shape than it looked like with the armour on," the curly haired blond commented, prompting the swordswoman to take another look at the scantily-clad teenager fleeing from the horned reaper. Her movements were still coordinated, and the muscles working under her sweaty skin seemed to be moving smoothly enough, but her body was covered over and over in bruises, especially around the arms.
"The armour must have put more strain on her body than she let on," Cathy worried and bit her lips, forgetting about chiding the guys for ogling the blue-haired girl. "Mercury, please come up with a solution like you always do," she begged.
On the platform, Ami knew that she had to regain the initiative. If this turned into a contest of endurance, the Reaper would win, no questions asked. Panting, she weighed the scythe in her hand as she fled. It didn't feel too different from her two-hander, so maybe she could - yes, the way he held his scythe would leave him open from the back and the left when he charged. Narrowing her eyes in determination, Ami flashed out of existence, only to fade back into being next to the rapidly-moving monstrosity. Pumping red legs pivoted when she raised her scythe, and a moment later, the blue-haired girl found herself back-handed and batted away, with the right side of her ribcage feeling as if it was on fire. It got worse when she landed and rolled over the splintery rubble, scraping and scratching her skin in the process. The red of blood joined the black and blue marks on her pale skin. No good! I can't match him without the armour! With a groan that turned into a girlish "Eek," she managed to teleport away just before the large-hooved twin figures blurring in front of her swimming vision could land on her.
The chase continued, and the initial excitement of the fickle crowd turned into displeasure. In the special box, the master of ceremonies spoke up once again. "This is pathetic. It is already clear who has won, and I will now shut down all magic use in the arena. Go get her," he nodded to the horned reaper, who grinned as a many-pointed seal flared up as purplish veins in the rock of the arena.
Ami's legs nearly buckled when she heard the announcement , accompanied by the familiar drain of an anti-magic ward divesting her of her mana. Tears of fear and despair started gathering in the corners of her eyes, which blazed like red gates to hell while under the effect of the drain. I can't die! I can't go to Azzathra! I can't can't can't! Slowly, she faced the large, barrel-chested demon, who was sauntering in her direction, unhurried now that he knew she couldn't escape. Stone splinters crunched under his hooves as he readied his scythe, while Ami fell into a combat stance, shivering all the while. She couldn't give up!
"Done running away?" the Reaper teased with not a trace of humour, towering over the defiant girl. With a snort, he swung his weapon, making it blur with the force behind it. Cathy closed her eyes.
A deafening clang resounded through the building, even more audible in the silence caused by everyone holding their breath to see the conclusion of the battle. The demon stared incredulously down at the bar of metal that had stopped the descent of his weapon. It was the handle of Mercury's scythe, held up horizontally by the trembling girl. It was slightly bent in the area between the Keeper's hands, where his own weapon was applying pressure on it. Despite the enormous force he was exerting, the weapon held by the trembling girl, who looked as if she could barely remain on her feet under her own power, wasn't budging even a bit. The Reaper's frown deepened, but suddenly, his grin returned. "Oh, I see what you are doing," he growled, "using the Keeper power of moving your possessions in order to keep your weapon locked in place. Clever." The girl's eyes widened, confirming his guess. His grin now threatened to split his face in two. "However," he continued, and let go of his own scythe, grabbing Ami's with his freed hands, "This is my weapon now!"
With abject terror, the battered and bruised girl felt her influence over the scythe fade when the monster contested her possession of it. He yanked at the metal, making her stumble toward him as she tried desperately to keep control of it - and his rising knee caught her in the stomach, hard enough to throw her into the air. Her vision was fading from the pain, and she could barely breathe. As if in slow motion, she felt herself fall back down to the ground, toward the smug demon whose face grew larger and larger as she fell head-first toward him. Spinning from her momentum, she rotated and lost sight of the creature, but knew she was falling past his shoulders now. She could taste blood-flavoured vomit on her tongue. No! It couldn't end like this! Suddenly, her descent stopped as a rough hand closed around her left ankle. The reaper turned the girl dangling head-first from his raised right arm around by rotating her ankle. There was a loud snapping sound, and Ami reared up in pain, letting out air she didn't know she still had in her lungs with her cry of pain. Through the veil of tears covering her eyes, she could see the upside-down face of the monster, his hateful eyes burning like malicious yellow moons.
"And now," the Reaper spoke, corners of his mouth turning up in satisfaction at the sight of the broken, blood-covered, half-naked body of his hated enemy dangling in his grip,
I can't die like this! Not here! I must survive! There must be something I can do
What can I do? I have no weapon, no powers, no magic, nothing! What am I supposed to do, beat him up with my bare hands?
Sudden hope flared up behind Ami's eyes as she remembered something she still could do.
Her body was her territory. It belonged to her. Being banished into the darkness had taught her that she could move parts of herself with her Keeper power. She still had two functional hands that she could use as a weapon. Of course, she'd be lucky if something more than a pulp of flesh and bone splinters remained, but being crippled was immeasurably better than being tormented forever.
Jaws dropped all around the arena when the harmless-looking slip of a girl dangling head-over in front of the towering reaper launched a single, lightning fast jab with her left fist into the stomach of the demon - reputedly one of the strongest monsters that walked this realm - and the blow kept going upon hitting the red-skinned abdomen, sinking into the folding mass of leathery skin and solid muscle up to the wrist. The demon let go, his prey forgotten as his eyes bugged out and he doubled over in pain, pressing his enormous hands on his stomach.
"Cathy! Cathy, look! It isn't over yet!" Jered shook the quietly crying ball that was his girlfriend, prompting her to raise her head and look back at the arena. Snyder, who had been looking at the ground with a grim expression on his face, heard the excitement in the wavy-haired man's voice and looked up too. There was the horned reaper, doubled over, choking in pain and coughing up copious amounts of foamy dark blood and bile. At his feet lay the tiny form of Mercury, looking heart-breakingly weak, but still moving as she crawled toward the discarded weapons on the ground.
"Your concoction seems to have worked as advertised," Jadeite congratulated the green-dressed rogue, "I was getting very, very worried there." And the Reaper wouldn't have been around long enough afterwards to enjoy his victory, he thought with sudden possessiveness.
Ami's hands fell on the handle of her scythe, the smaller of the two. Not far away, the Reaper was still coughing up his entrails, but with the state she was in, he might as well have been back in her own world. Running on adrenaline alone, she closed her grip around the weapon. She probably could throw this thing pretty hard if she used her Keeper powers, she mused. So she did.
The applause in the arena was indescribable when the seemingly-defeated girl cowering on the ground picked up one of the fallen scythes, raised it, and hurled it like a throwing axe. As if guided by fate, the long, pointed blade burrowed itself in the Reaper's chest, and he staggered backwards, roaring like a wounded animal and leaving a trail of hot, dark blood. His shambling movements brought him closer and closer to the edge of the platform until his hoof found no more ground to step on. Losing his balance, the monster keeled over and was devoured by the abyss.
"And... in an utterly surprising turn of events, the winner is Keeper Mercury!" the master of ceremonies announced, sounding as baffled as everyone else. "If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes..."
With a sensation that felt like the snapping of a matchstick, Ami, who was cradling her useless left hand and hurting everywhere, felt Azzathra's magic on her shatter. This nightmare was finally over.
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|Chapter 55: Dread||Chapter 57: Recovering|
- Relating to Metallia, is Mercury going to have to create a temple for Metallia and continue to provide life energy else suffer some of the changes she secretly feared?
- That depends on how much use Ami wants or is willing to get out of Metallia.
- [Regarding if senshi might have scryed on the fight]
- They were not, for two reasons:
- 1. Rei needs about half a week to recover enough to catch another glimpse, and she just checked on Ami the evening ago.
- 2. The arena was protected against the scrying of Ami's warlocks, because the Azzathra priesthood isn't going to allow just anyone to watch for free.
- While I agree that the implications could be interesting, the above two points pretty much prevent that.