"I have a what?" Ami said, raising her voice in surprise.
Jered, the target of her outburst, shrugged his shoulders. "A reputation for losing dungeons," the weasel-featured man repeated, shaking his head. "It's making recruitment difficult. Especially since you don't have a portal and they'd be relying on your whim for transport."
Ami shifted her weight on her throne. "But why? I have only lost once!"
"You did abandon two dungeons without a fight, which looks a lot like losing," the brown-haired man pointed out.
"Those were all strategical withdrawals," the blue-haired girl protested. "I would have gained nothing from fighting or from staying around."
"Which doesn't change the fact that it looks like defeat to the monsters you are trying to hire. They aren't the brightest tools in the shed. Your warlock staff knows better, of course."
"What about my victories? Malleus, that West Coast keeper, Arachne - twice. The Reaper."
"They hardly count in their opinion. Imbeciles." Jered deepened his voice and smacked his lips as he quoted a bile demon "You're tellin' me that she defeated a Keeper without havin' a dungeon in the area? Weakest Keeper ever - if 't even happened at all!" Taking a more slouching posture, he added in a gravelly imitation of a troll's voice "Yeah, she's tough, but she hasn't really beaten Arachne, just led some other enemies to her. Didn't even gain anything from that." Seeing that Mercury was frowning lightly at his impersonations of the creatures he had talked to, the green-shirted man straightened and summarised in his normal way of speaking "Your greatest achievement so far, from the Underworlders' perspective, is your conquest of Malleus' dungeon. Unfortunately, they take that as an indication that he was far more weakened by the death of his deity than was commonly known."
With the unease she always felt when remembering that battle, or the vile Keeper himself, Ami objected "Malleus wasn't that weak. Any of the creatures I released from my service would confirm that!"
"Yes, of course the creatures whom you defeated and let go would say that, wouldn't they? So far, the unaligned monsters regard you as a bit of a scavenger. Feasting on the weak, but fleeing with your tail between your legs at the merest sign of serious opposition."
Ami paused to consider that, and her shoulders slumped. "I just can't win with the rumour mill, can I?"
"To be fair, I do think that some enemies are poisoning the well against you. It's accepted as truth in the Underworld so far that you lost three dungeons already, with no conquests to show for. While your victory over the Reaper impressed the masses due to your personal power, the fact that you are so disfavoured by the dark gods that you were in the duel in the first place is a further mark against you."
"I suppose it doesn't help that I'm not openly worshipping one of them," the blue-haired girl observed. "So what does this mean for recruitment? Does nobody want to work for me?"
"Not quite, but..." Jered let out a long-suffering sigh. "Let's just say that the potential recruits are of rather dubious quality. Anyway, there's of course all sorts of giant vermin - beetles, spiders, flies, that kind of thing. Expendable cannon fodder that's not smart enough to worry about the future."
Ami shook her head. "Not useful enough. Maybe if I had more room on the ship, but not right now."
"Right." Jered grimaced as he moved on to the next option. "Well, then there's a certain number of individuals that have been attracted by your reputation. They fall into two categories. The first is thugs and warriors of all species who basically just want you to teach them your crazy combat skills. I doubt they'd stick around once they discovered your real skill level." He coughed into his hand. "The second group is vastly more disturbing. They are the ones who hope to put your reputation for deviance to the test. I regret to inform you that this group also consists of all genders and species. I could have lived happily for the rest of my life without seeing a troll in black leather fetish gear, thank you very much. " He shuddered in disgust.
Ami felt her cheeks grow hot at the reminder of the vile rumours circling about her. "No thanks, I am not going to hire any of those either. Is there nobody left who wants to work for me who isn't either a warlock, misinformed, disgusting, or not sentient?"
"Well, they may violate the 'disgusting' condition, but that leaves goblins. They'll jump at any opportunity for employment, mainly because there's so many of them and nobody wants them."
"Goblins." Ami remembered the small, green-skinned humanoids that had been some of her first minions. Her lips narrowed into a thin line when she recalled that it was those triangular-eared little fellows who had initially gossiped about her alleged preferences. In her mind, she pictured one of the child-sized figures confronting a looming, pale vampire. She amended the scene to make it five of the sword-wielding greenskins surrounding the enemy, as goblins worked best in packs. Her brain immediately computed the most likely outcome, and the mental image turned into that of a vampire, bloated like a tick and patting its belly, standing over a heap of dismembered limbs. Gruesome, but probably accurate. On the other hand, some minions were better than no minions at all, and her alternatives were worse.
"Very well, hire them," she said, sounding tired and resigned. "I should be able to find some use for them."
The goblins had settled in rather quickly, and also solved more problems than they caused, Ami pondered as she toured her ship. Her first stop was the canteen, a large hall filled with long stone tables and benches where her minions could sit while eating. To account for the size differences of the different beings, the furniture, and even the counters running along the walls, came in the sizes normal, high, and low. At the moment, only two warlocks were having a break, sitting at one of the human-sized tables. They interrupted their discussion briefly to give a polite nod in her direction when they saw her. The gaggle of goblins stuffing their faces at the low table didn't show that much reverence, probably because they were too engrossed with their meal. Plates clattered as the green creatures emptied them of their contents, foregoing the use of cutlery in favour of using their fingers. Ami wrinkled her nose in slight disgust as she watched one of them wipe his hands on his neighbour's shirt. She would need to talk to them about hygiene again one of these days.
The mouth-watering smell of food emanated from the kitchen, and Ami could hear fat sizzling in pans and water boiling beyond its closed doors. The bored-looking goblin slouching on a footstool behind the counter ignored her as she walked past and slid the double-winged door open. Making sure that the food-preparation area - and the goblin staff handling the food - remained squeaky clean had been one of the few occasions where she had put her foot down, exercising her authority as the absolute overlord of her domain. The large-eared humanoids had, of course, been confused and irritated by the strange and pointless, nay, tyrannical instructions. Nevertheless, as Ami peeked into the room, she could see goblins with buckets and mops scrubbing the floor, and the smell of soap mingled with the aroma of frying onions. Where two hours of lecture and explanations about the dangers of filth, complete with diagrams and pictures, hadn't been able to stop the questions of "Why we must clean? Is silly," a frustrated shout of "Because I say so!" and the appointment of six burly 'health inspectors' with heavy clubs had worked like a charm.
Goblins, so the magical teenager had learned, loved titles and being of higher status than their peers, and the recently-promoted greenskins had taken to enforcing the rules with great enthusiasm. Ami had made them understand that they would lose their positions in a heartbeat if they couldn't keep up with Ami's exacting standards, so they were highly motivated in spite of the usually short attention span of their species.
Despite the fact that the six supervisors were large and menacing examples of their kind, they still ducked and covered when the true power in the kitchen snarled at them. Brugli, a hideously obese she-goblin wearing a stained apron, dominated the kitchen visually as well as socially. The matriarch of the goblin clan enforced her authority with the help of an acid tongue and fearsome skill at wielding her hot soup ladle. Even as Ami watched, the oversized spoon emerged from the huge pot of stew that the goblin woman was standing in front of, and unerringly smacked down on the greedy hand of a kitchen aid who was sneaking toward the carrots behind her. The chastised goblin let out a loud shriek and ran around holding his scalded appendage, but Brugly ignored him. It was quite impressive, really. She hadn't even needed to look back.
While Ami wasn't particularly thrilled about having a goblin as chief cook, the warty creature seemed to know what she was doing. Her stew and dumplings would never win any prizes for culinary excellence, but they seemed edible enough. Much better than any of Jadeite's attempts at cooking, the blue-haired girl thought and suppressed a giggle. "Keep up the good work," she said, drawing a few grins from the creatures bustling about the room. "Are there any ingredients you are missing?"
The fat goblin replied without hesitation, her triple chin wobbling as she barked out her answer. "Real meat. Can't believe no chicken in dungeon!"
"Ah, yes. I'm sorry, but for now, you'll have to make do with fish," Ami said. "The warlocks are working on converting the chicken farm design, though. In fact, I am going to check up on them right now."
Walking through the main hallway of her ship on the way to meet with her researchers, Ami heard a cacophony of rapidly approaching footsteps, accompanied by the rattling of armour and loud huffing and puffing. Cathy jogged into view at the head of a disorderly group of sweaty goblins. Ami could see long tongues lolling out of open mouths as the creatures panted from the exertion.
"Halt! Stand at attention! Keeper Mercury is present!" Cathy snapped, prompting the mob of exhausted goblins to stop and line up in a reasonable approximation of a military formation. Reasonable for goblins. Ami stared at the pitiful-looking group of smelly greenskins lurching and swaying on their feet, forming mismatched rows with different numbers of soldiers. Their gear looked just as ragtag as their attempt at appearing professional. Helmets that were too large or to small, rags of leather that hung askew on their gangly shoulders, and one of the goblins was using a tea kettle that had been hammered flat as a shield. The large-eared creatures shuffled their feet nervously as the Keeper loomed over them, her red eyes glowing brightly. For Ami, being able to loom was a novel and not at all unpleasant sensation, as she usually was the shortest person around. Before she could mention the deplorable state of her minions' gear though, Cathy spoke up.
"Why must you torment me so, Mercury? Just one lap around the ship, and they already look as if a stiff breeze could topple them! How am I supposed to turn this bunch of weaklings into proper soldiers?"
The goblins didn't even have the energy to grumble at the insult.
"Um." Ami scratched her head. "Getting them to take better care of their equipment might be a start. What they are using right now looks as if it could use a very thorough cleaning and repair."
"Cleaning? You got to be kidding. The dirt's the only thing that's keeping their stuff together. Just throw them in the swimming pool, add some soap, stir a bit, and I doubt there will be much left," the blonde suggested, only half joking.
"Well, they do look as if they could use a bath," Ami agreed, causing her creatures to exchange worried glances and to huddle together. "So you think we would be better off replacing their gear completely?"
"Yes, but we don't have a smith right now, and even if we had, I wouldn't trust them to keep it in good shape." The swordswoman scowled at her troops.
"Hmm. Maybe... yes!" the senshi's expression brightened, and she caught a book that appeared out of thin air. "Please teach them this. All of it."
Cathy took the proffered tome, and her eyebrows rose so high they risked disappearing into her hairline. "The reaper techniques? That's..."
"If even one of them learns that spell, they'll be able to replace part of their gear at a whim, at least. And I have a plan for the combat techniques," Ami said. "It's not as if they could do any worse with them, right?"
"You can say that again," Cathy sighed. With a grin, she said "I'm sure the Reaper would have been overjoyed to learn who would end up learning his prized skills!"
Ami barely recognised the library and attached labs she had built only days ago. Oh, the basic layout of shelves and desks was still the same, but it seemed as if each of the warlocks she employed seemed intent on adding his own personalised brand of chaos to the room. Her inner neat freak curled up into a whimpering ball as she stalked through the rows of bookshelves that reached to the ceiling, passing robed figures standing on ladders, searching for books, or congregating around manuscript-laden pedestals. She had to step around wobbly stacks of tomes several times, and loose pages circled underneath the vaulting ceiling like a flock of vultures. Metallic-smelling fumes rose from a set of test tubes, and Ami made sure to keep her distance. With a glance upward, she wondered for a moment at the purpose of a cross-shaped device with round spheres on its prongs that hung from the ceiling and rotated, making intermittent ticking noises. Her eyes wandered to the electrical lights, which had become a victim of whatever was redecorating her dungeon when she wasn't looking. Orderly, straight rectangles had bent and mutated into clusters of grape-like spheres that sparkled in all colours of the rainbow. What should have been clean white light now looked as if it was falling in through stained glass windows, giving the room an ominous atmosphere. Ami suspected that the heart's corruption effect was somehow at fault, but she would have to investigate further. The wizards seemed to prefer the new ambience anyway, and had provided their own light sources, most prominent among which were dribbly candles.
Their Keeper was distracted from her musings by a sharp trill to her right, and she spotted a canary cage on an untidy desk. The songbird within was nothing but a skeleton, but that didn't stop it from singing. Before she could investigate the phenomenon more closely, something unusual caught her attention, and she let out a loud shriek, backing away. The outburst alerted the working magicians to her presence, and all turned to look at the black-clad girl in surprise.
Ami's skin was pale as a ghost, and her index finger trembled as she pointed at one of the robed figures that was missing its head and was sporting a gruesome, wet-glistening network of pulsing red veins in its place."W-w-what...?" she stuttered as she tried to keep her lunch down.
"Oh, that's just Nemez," the closest warlock snickered, revealing yellowed teeth. "He's managed to turn his head invisible. Only his head."
"Correct. Now he's got perfectly normal blood pumping through his invisible head. Pretty gross, but the novelty wears off quickly," another minion commented with a snort.
"I s-see," Ami said, lowering her finger. "Where's the head warlock?"
She found the man in his 'office', a secluded corner far in the back of the library. He had to be the eldest wizard here, and due to his stooped posture, his long, grey beard nearly reached the floor. He craned his bald head forward as Ami explained her ideas, resembling a tortoise with the way it emerged from the shell formed by his elaborate hardened collars. He fingered his pencil-thin moustache as he considered his answer. "Give the goblins a fighting chance against vampires by teaching them to use elaborate magical weapons?" he turned away and walked around his desk slowly, bobbing his head like a pendulum. He startled Ami by stopping unexpectedly and barking "Bah! Utter nonsense!" Calmer, he added "Given complicated equipment and sufficient time, the probability that a goblin will set itself on fire approaches one!"
Ami thought that the same could be said about warlocks. You couldn't become a magic user without possessing a certain level of ambition and drive to learn, so Ami's researchers were this world's equivalent of well-educated people, and all of them were fairly smart. The stupid ones tended not to last long in the evil wizard business. Therefore, she found it always surprising how elementary safety measures could slip their mind from time to time. Take, for example, the group trying to find out how to turn electricity into magical power. Spell not working, despite the calculations looking correct? Simply use more lightning! After that little disaster, Ami had made sure that the restored labs contained nothing flammable.
"Very well. I'll take your advice into consideration."
Still, the lightning-to-power group was making more progress than the gold-to-power one. The former had at least produced an initial design, even if it didn't work. The latter had only managed to successfully turn gold into less gold. And the warding group seemed to take their lack of clear starting point as an invitation to research whatever they felt like. Oh well. Ami would introduce some academic rigour and demand that they turn in detailed documentation of their experiments at the end of the week. She predicted more than a few all-nighters as they scrambled to come up with something that would at least look like what they were supposed to have been doing already. "Thank you for your time."
The head warlock let out a sigh of relief when Mercury disappeared, being very glad that he wasn't the target of the shark-like smile that had flitted over her face for a moment.
The next stop on Ami's tour was the menagerie. Squeaking and rustling greeted her, and the smell of dusty straw was thick in the air. The snores of a goblin lying in the heap of fresh hay cut off abruptly as his instincts screamed at him that something dangerous was in the room.
Karo, a goblin with long, bandaged fingers, who was wearing a horned helm that was too large for her, had emerged victorious over her competition for the coveted title of Beastmaster. Ami didn't quite see why the goblins were fighting so hard for the privilege of feeding her rats, cleaning their cages, fastening their backpacks, and getting bitten a lot. Bragging rights perhaps. The animals sitting in the straw-padded cages stacked against the wall were not tame by any means, as they had been captured in the wild. They would do what Ami wanted, but everyone else had better steer clear of their teeth.
The green humanoid opened her eyes and peered at Ami, jumping to her feet hastily as she recognised the Keeper. "Karo on duty, Mistress! Karo doing good work! Rats all counted and caged!"
"Very good." Ami decided to inquire about the health of her land claimers. Rats could transmit all kinds of nasty diseases, after all. "No problems with parasites? Flea, lice, or the likes?"
"Lots. Also itching," Karo said, scratching her butt. "Wait, mean rats? Them fine."
For the last part of her inspection, Ami stopped at the farms. Three of them were currently sealed and filled with steam as the new crops underwent the accelerated growing process. A quick check with her Keeper sight revealed no problems with the young sprouts. The portcullis to the fourth farm was open, and a short, green figure appeared within the doorway, ducking its head as it crawled forward on all fours, toward the exit. Something dark and whiplike whistled through the air and wrapped around the goblin's leg. With a loud wail, the unfortunate creature left a furrow in the soil as it clawed at the ground while a black and green tentacle dragged it back into the farm.
"Haven't you noticed yet that I do have eyes in my back, you mental midget? You! Yes, you, the ugly one with the bitten ear! Don't think I missed you pocketing that! Back to work! You others! If you moved any slower, you'd be walking backwards! Stop slacking off! Get that foot off the plant you klutz! You are trampling the harvest! And you! Stop picking your nose and start digging!"
Ami had rejected her first plan for the tentacle monster, which was using it for harvesting, which in turn would free Cathy and Jered for other tasks. Sure, it had many, many limbs that could grab and collect a great number of plants at once, but she had overlooked one critical fact: slime. Eating food that had once been covered in tentacle goo was an entirely unappealing proposition. Tserk could, however, hold the baskets for goblin harvesters, and was a dedicated overseer to boot. Perhaps too dedicated. The short-haired Keeper felt a bit bad for the goblins working the underground fields, but in all seriousness, they were whining too much. The things were lazy and had the attention span of a butterfly, and she certainly wasn't overworking them. In any case, having a universally hated assignment that she could dole out as punishment could potentially come in handy in future, she pondered with unusual ruthlessness. In any case, it didn't look as if she had to intervene here.
An hour later, Ami stared into her crystal ball, eyebrows rising at the strange sight within. It showed Rei's room, where a frazzled-looking Luna was sitting on the floor, hitting the keys of a typewriter with her paws and managing to compose a letter. "Ami, please find a way back soon. We could really use your calming influence right now."
The girl read the message and took in the tense and unfriendly atmosphere between her two friends with a sinking feeling. Both were sitting on mats in front of the table, but had their backs turned to each other and looked as if they didn't quite want to be here.
"What is going on?" was the transmitted message that Rei and shoved over the table toward Usagi for translation, without looking at the blonde.
"Rei is trying to steal my Tuxedo Mask!" the blonde scribbled in reply as soon as she had deciphered the short sentence of dots and lines.
The raven-haired girl caught a glimpse of what her friend was writing down and whirled around with an expression as if she was about to spit fire. "I was dating him first and you know it!"
"Oh? So why is he always rescuing me, and not you?" Usagi asked with a half-lidded stare, pointing her index finger at the shrine maiden.
Rei crossed her arms and turned half-away from the blonde. "Maybe that's because I don't need saving all the time, not like a clumsy meatball head I know!" she said with a smug look on her face.
Usagi's face went red, and she let out a growl. Her long pigtails whipped around as she turned her head and huffed "But it proves that he likes me more!"
Rei very maturely replied by blowing a raspberry at the blonde, which Usagi returned in the spirit it was intended, escalating by also pulling down her left eyelid. Needless to say, the black-haired girl responded in kind and was no longer receptive to Ami's messages.
Luna's head drooped as the girls quarrelled behind her. The black moon cat typed out a summary for Ami, who couldn't hear what her friends were arguing about. "It's a mess. It turned out that Tuxedo Mask is Chiba Mamoru, who Rei was currently dating, and now the two are fighting all the time over him."
Chiba Mamoru? Ami tried to remember who that was. The name conjured up the vague mental picture of an older teenage boy with black hair, who was usually wearing a green jacket. She had barely exchanged more than two words with him, and mostly remembered him for infrequently poking fun at Usagi.
"We found out who he was when general Zoisite ambushed the girls while they were stopping his youma.. Tuxedo Mask foiled his plan, but Zoisite managed to stab him in the leg. He wasn't injured badly, but he couldn't limp away from the girls fast enough to stop them from bringing him to a hospital. And now we know who he is. I certainly hope thatzugkkkkkk"
Keys clacked at random as an errant flying pillow smacked Luna in the back, sending her sprawling over the typewriter's keyboard. The cat let out an angry yowl as she shot out from under the pink object and whirled toward the two bickering girls.
Rei was holding a pillow over her head, frozen in the gesture of swinging it at the blonde as she blinked at the black feline in surprise. Usagi had her hands free and was rubbing the back of her head, a sheepish expression on her face. It turned to worry when she noted the way that Luna was sheathing and unsheathing her claws.
"This is no way for sailor senshi to behave! Enough is enough!"
"Eeep!" More familiar with her advisor and taskmaster, Usagi was already half-way to the door, her pigtails fluttering behind her, when a black blur shot toward Rei. It slammed into the pillow that the raven haired girl had brought down in front of herself at the last moment, and Rei dashed after Usagi, the angry moon cat hot on their heels.
The glow of the crystal sphere faded out as Ami let the vision slip, feeling nagging worry for her friends. They should be working together to fend off the Dark Kingdom, not have a silly spat! Couldn't they see that it would be up to Tuxedo Mask whom he wanted to pursue? She sank back in her chair with a faint blush. Not that I'm in a position to talk about making rational decisions where love is involved.
The empty sparkle of the orb in front of her reminded her of the several times over the past days that the glowing of her amulet had alerted her to an enemy spying remotely, interrupting her work. She had only recognised Beryl, the other watchers had been a mystery to her. Three of them had ember-like Keeper eyesr, but others had looked like regular people. Agents of good keeping an eye on her, perhaps? All the scrutiny was making her skin crawl, and she couldn't wait for the anti-scrying research to produce some results. Failing that, she would settle for finishing the engines, which would at least make her a moving target. They had been her main project for the past few days, to the point that she had cut short the time she spent communicating with her friends. That was something she regretted now that Usagi's and Rei's friendship seemed strained. She missed them terribly, but transmitting messages took a large chunk out of her time that she really couldn't afford to lose. Maybe she should get the warlocks to find a better way to contact them?
"Mercury?" Snyder's mental voice drifted into the girl's mind as she was working on her palmtop, attempting to come up with a better way to harness her storm's power for propulsion. The acolyte was currently out on the continent, investigating vampire lore for her. The redhead came straight to the point for once. "HELP!"
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