Ami rubbed her aching jaw, narrowing her eyes at the twisting patterns on the solid rock gate in surprise. When she had knocked at the door, she hadn't expected for it to knock back. While not any stronger than the rap of her knuckles, the unseen counter-attack would have pushed her off the top of the withered stairs leading out of the water and up to the rounded obstacle, had she not been flying. In silence, she hovered above the gurgling pool that shimmered green like unripe lemons in the ward's ochre light, listening to the last echoes of her call being swallowed by the darkness. Only the sound of the occasional droplets dripping from the ceiling kept her company as she strained her ears to hear whether there was any reaction from the other side of the door. At least she could pass time by scanning that arcane pattern etched into the surface of the magical door more in-depth while waiting to see if anyone would react to her greeting.

After several long and moments during which she found out just how loud her own breathing sounded in the absence of other sounds, a thin, pipe-like contraption popped out of a hole set into the door frame, surrounded by a cloud of old dust and pebbles that had clogged its tube. A flat mirror gleamed at the end, reflecting the dim light as it twisted and turned. A periscope, Ami realised, and stayed perfectly still until whoever was holding it had properly focused on her.

A voice, muffled by the metre thick rock between the waiting girl and the speaker, called out "Who are you? What do you want?"

"That sounded like a speaking pig," Mareki commented uncharitably.

Ami's expression remained unchanged. "Trolls all sound a bit like that," she explained. Loud, she called "I am Sailor Mercury! I'm here to find out who is living on this island and if we can help each other!" Something bumped into the rock behind the door, and she could hear a grunt before the periscope twitched slightly.

"She could be a vamp. Look at them fangs!" A new voice said loudly, but not loud enough that Ami could have interpreted the exclamation as meant for her.

"I'm not a vampire!" Ami shouted, awkwardly manoeuvring her tongue around the pointy teeth in question.

"That's what a vampire would say!" the voice shouted back.

"Look, I am floating right over a pool of water," Ami pointed out calmly. "Vampires can't do that."

"Lemme look! Lemme look! Ow! At least tell me what she looks like?" a third voice chimed in, speaking at a volume that indicated that the troll wasn't addressing the seaweed-haired visitor.

"Like some human got it on with a scrawny lizard and tried to drown the result in a bucket of white paint," the first speaker described magnanimously.

"Hey!" Mareki's offended mental voice rang through the teenage Keeper's skull, her ire hot like a bonfire.

"And she's wearing a really ugly dress," the creature added.

"Think she's edible?" the third voice asked, sounding hopeful.

By now, Ami could feel her right eyebrow twitch, which surprised her because there wasn't any reason to get irrationally angry. Emotional bleed-over from the youma? "I can hear you," she stated through clenched teeth.

"Yeah, but you can't get through the door if we don't let you, freak!" the troll taunted back, adding a farting noise to emphasize his point.

Ami lowered her eyelids and took a deep breath to calm herself down. Mareki shouting incoherently about skinning the worthless scum alive wasn't helping. "I do notice that you failed to describe my eyes," she said in an icy tone of voice, glowering up at the viewing device with a gaze that burned as bright as hellfire.

"What about them?" The periscope squeaked as it was adjusted from pointing at Ami's cleavage to her eyes. "Oh shit!"

There was a moment of silence as the trolls huddled together and debated among themselves, their whispers swallowed by the thick stone. "All right." It was the second voice, sounding much more respectful than before. "Please wait right here. Need to go ask the boss what to do. This is not something we can decide."

Flanked on both sides by four muscular trolls whose green hides were covered in battle scars and dragging massive war hammers behind them, Ami advanced through a corridor, floating a few centimetres in the air. She was not merely showing off, as the uneven ground with its deep cracks and missing tiles would have been treacherous even when well lit. The sputtering torch held by the foremost troll revealed only the closest of these hazards with its flickering light, all the while emitting a noxious smoke that prickled in Ami's noise. The slightly monstrous-looking girl took in her surroundings with interest, following the hunched-over shadows creeping over decaying murals with her gaze. This ruin looked as if it had been abandoned a long time before the creatures had made their home here.

"Can you tell me about this 'boss' we are going to see?" she asked, returning her attention to her wary escort. The trolls she had seen so far gave her the impression that they survived, rather than thrived. Empty flabs of skin where usually pot-bellies bulged were proof of hard times.

"Marda's the meanest troll you'll ever lay your eyes on, Keeper," one of the greenskins to her left answered, and the others nodded their big-nosed heads in unanimous agreement.

"She's strong, then?" Ami asked, not having expected the community's leader to be female.

"Strong? Ha!" the troll slapped his thighs in amusement. "'Strong' she asks." Hesitating suddenly, he scrunched up his face as he looked at Ami's figure. "Err, you are a lady outside of this minion too, right?" At Ami's nod, he continued "Okay, just making sure. Anyway," his tone became louder and more enthusiastic, "strong and wily. Not even Zarekos' pet dragon messed with her!"

Ami's heart skipped a beat. "Zarekos has a dragon?" she asked in a small voice.

"Nah, the thing flew away when the old bat ran out of money. Wish I had wings," someone behind Ami said, pursing his lips into a nauseating pout. "She rallied us when everything went to hell and the bloodsuckers started trapping the portals and dragging everyone to their prisons for food."

"Oh yeah, remember when she nailed the count Beol to a tree? He never lived that down!"

"Should have seen her when that overgrown leech across the channel still kept trying to root us out every week or so," another troll laughed. "Nobody can take a skeleton's skull off with a single swing and have it fly as far as she did!"

"And she's smoking hot, too!" One of the trolls in the back, who had the large, protruding brow of a Neanderthal, guffawed.

The troll walking right in front of him lifted his leg and kicked backward, hitting the speaker in the shin. "Shush. She'll kick your arse if she hears you!" he blurted out, black eyes darting left and right as if he was expecting someone to attack from the shadows any moment now. "You know how she gets." All the other trolls grimaced, holding their legs, arms or fingers in remembered pain.

"Yeah, don't need no more mangled bones for the- Ow!" The troll who had praised their leader's appearance furrowed his brow as he glared at the warrior walking in front of him, having been kicked again, harder. He bared his crooked teeth in anger, but the creature to his left shot him a dark look and shook his head, silently indicating Ami by looking at her from the corner of his eyes. The offended troll's mouth closed with an audible snap, but he continued glowering unhappily at the guard who had hurt him.

While Ami still tried to make sense of the byplay, her guards abruptly changed direction when the group reached a junction in the corridor, and she nearly bumped into them. They were taking her deeper into the ruin, bypassing a side passage whose unfinished stone walls looked as if they had only been recently hewn out of the mountain. As the trip through the winding passages continued, she noticed that dust covered earlier tracks, indicating that these tunnels were unused most of the time.

"I wouldn't show a stranger important areas of my fortress either," Mareki chimed in, having been content to remain silent for a while.

The corridor opened into a larger, circular hall, filled with more trolls that lurked in the shadows along its walls. The cold steel of unsheathed weapons gleamed here and there in the candlelight as the creatures shifted when the group entered. In the centre of the chamber stood a tall rock that had been hollowed out to form a crude throne, occupied by a muscular greenskin who looked different from any that Ami had met so far. She was wearing a full suit of armour, for one, and the intense stare of her coal-like eyes seemed more alert and calculating than anything Ami had come to expect from this species. The lizard-tailed girl's escorts filed into the crowd, while the troll ruler gestured imperiously, motioning to her to come closer. "Keeper Sailor Mercury. I am Marda, the leader of this tribe."

Various warning lights flared up behind the transparent surface of Ami's visors, the most alarming of which was the seizable amount of black powder secreted away just underneath the tiles where visitors would be expected to stand. The girl hesitated at the sight and gave the trapped area a wide berth, ending up close to the crowd to the right side of the room, rather standing directly in front of the throne. Its occupant kept watching her movements in silence, and Ami got the impression that those piercing black eyes were judging her. She hoped that the verdict was positive, but Marda's features remained unreadable.

Unsure of how to address the trolls' ruler and feeling all eyes in the room on herself, Ami shuffled her feet and settled on a polite and generic title. "Lady-" she began, only to be interrupted immediately as a frown appeared on the troll's face.

"Lord," Marda corrected, and added "I am male," upon noticing her guest's puzzled expression. The troll's irritation grew as Ami kept looking incredulously at the two prominent bumps bulging underneath the creature's chain mail shirt. "Ignore the body. It is merely the result of a very juvenile curse," the creature said, gritting her teeth. "Mukrezar, may the dark gods feast on his entrails for all eternity, found it so amusing that he made it permanent."

Ami stared. "Oh. That must me awkward. Um, he was the Keeper who originally conquered the Avatar Islands, right? I thought he was dead. Shouldn't his magic have faded away?"

"Yes, the bastard is dead, and good riddance!" A glob of spit splashed onto the floor. "Zarekos grabbed some of his dungeon hearts in the free-for-all when his money ran out. As long as they still exist, my curse persists," Marda said sourly. "But enough of me. What brings a Keeper out here to our modest, portal-less abode?"

Thrown of balance by the sudden topic change Ami blinked once. Being the centre of attention didn't help her eloquence any. "Um, I wanted to know who was living here. That is, I want to conquer the Avatar Islands, and my minions spotted traces of inhabitation in this supposedly dead place while looking for a good landing point, so I came to investigate."

"Conquer the Avatar Islands?" Marda raised an eyebrow, ignoring the excited chatter triggered by the Keeper's statement. "As much as I would enjoy seeing Zarekos crushed into the dirt, the burning question here is: why? Any riches are long gone, and there aren't even potential victims left."

"Oh, I am independently wealthy," Ami waved off that concern. "I'm looking for knowledge and vast, empty territory for my experiments, among other things," she explained. With a smile that was made less reassuring by her fangs, she added "I really think we can help each other here. Your living conditions aren't all that great," this was a reasonable guess, as most of the trolls she had seen looked undernourished, "and I could feed and pay you. In turn, you must have ample experience fighting Zarekos' undead hordes - just what I need! And of course, defeating him would free you from your curse."

The background chatter increased in intensity at the prospect of food and gold and the warriors were whistling among each other in excitement.

"QUIET!" Marda slipped out of her elevated seat, armour rattling in the sudden silence as she stepped toward Ami. Despite the youma body being taller than her normal form and floating a hand's breadth above the floor, the large-nosed creature did not have to look up to meet the teenage Keeper's eyes. The gleaming war hammer dangling from her belt clinked against her legs as she circled her visitor like a vulture. "And do you have enough troops for such an undertaking? Despite his empty treasury, the bloodsucker still commands an impressive amount of vampires, along with vast hordes of ghosts and skeletons."

"I'm aware of that and working on a solution," Ami admitted hesitantly, shuddering as she remembered her painful loss against the self-styled emperor. "Actually, I'm surprised he didn't manage to claim this island too," she said, spreading her arms to indicate her surroundings.

Marda's lips split into a malicious grin that revealed surprisingly even teeth. "Who said he didn't?" she said, savouring every word. "We kicked him out. Dungeon hearts make such soothing noises when they shatter, don't you agree?"

"Is she threatening us?" Mareki asked as Mercury felt the urge to back away from the troll invading her space.

"Err, yes," Ami agreed, drifting a step away from the troll ruler, "the defeat of an enemy tends to lift one's spirits." In the privacy of her mind, she answered "I think it's more intended as a warning."

"Your offer is intriguing, of course. However, I'm not convinced that you have what it takes to assault his holdings. We didn't survive the chaos after Mukrezar's fall just to end up as cannon fodder!" Marda continued walking around the possessed youma and inspecting her from all sides.

"I don't treat my employees as expendable," Ami said quickly.

"Oh? Have you won many battles with that attitude yet?" Marda quipped, her cheerful tone of voice indicating that she wasn't believing a word.

"I should probably amend that to 'I don't treat my employees who aren't mindless magical constructs as expendable'. I have destroyed other Keepers though, the most prominent of which was Keeper Malleus."

"Malleus. Hmm." Marda's right hand rose to her chin in a reflexive gesture as she thought, but stopped before the cold metal gauntlet could touch the skin. "I've heard of him, vaguely. He was around for a long time." Turning her back on Ami, she addressed the assembled warriors. "What do you think about her offer?"

The creatures whooped enthusiastically and banged their weapons against each other. "Hell yes! Working for a real Keeper again!" "Never liked farming anyway!" "As long as she's got money."

"Very well. I, too, am tired of mere day to day survival. I want revenge and see Zarekos and his brood crushed and rendered into dust! We shall assist you."

"That's gr-" Ami's budding smile froze as the troll raised her hand in a shushing motion.

"On several conditions."

Judging by the faint grumbling from the shadows, Ami estimated that Marda's proclamation had taken her subjects as much by surprise as herself. She closed her mouth and cocked her head, intrigued that the troll would dare ask concessions from a Keeper. Either she was a very good judge of character, or she simply didn't care about the possible consequences. "Name them."

"First, my men remain under my direct command. I will not have them separated or have them take orders from someone else."

"Provided that you still take your orders from me, that's acceptable," Ami agreed. She would have to delegate power at some point anyway. Jadeite probably wouldn't like it, though.

"Second, I will be actively involved in crafting the battle plans. If I don't like them, my men won't fight."

Ami grimaced. That condition could prove problematic. "Um, while I tend to listen to my advisers I'm not in the habit of granting them outright veto powers. Besides, how would I know that your strategic abilities are up to par?"

Marda bared her teeth and tapped ami on her collarbone with one finger, bringing her face so close that the troll's foul breath hit her like a physical blow. "Excuse me? When was the last time you led a rag-tag band of survivors through undead-infested Keeper territory, successfully smashed his dungeon heart, and established and held a fortress in enemy territory? Well? Yeah, didn't think so."

Ami stumbled back, eyes widened at the repeated invasion of her personal space, and blinked rapidly. "Point taken." Put that way, a plan that the woman disapproved of was likely to be a bad plan in the first place.

"And third, you will not use this island as a foothold for your invasion. In fact, you will not create a dungeon heart here at all."

Now this, Ami found unreasonable. "But from what you have told me, Zarekos will never be able to return here! It would be the best location! Why?"

"These are my conditions. That is the only offer you will get, Keeper. Take it or leave it." Marda didn't bother to explain her reasons, standing with her arms crossed and ignoring both Ami's frown and the muttering of her troops.

Ami could hear the unshakeable resolve in the troll leaders' voice. "I- all right." It was a concession that Ami didn't like, but any help was better than no help at all. These creatures knew the lay of the land and had experience fighting her enemy.

"You will, of course, be providing supplies and equipment," Marda stated, making it sound like an order, rather than a question.

"That sounds reasonable, given your current resources. I will need about a fortnight to get ready for my invasion, so you have time to prepare," Ami said, suppressing the need to squirm underneath the creature's stare. Something about the troll's powerful presence set her on edge, but her visor couldn't make out anything really strange about her. Not even the curse - if it existed - showed up as anything but background noise.

"Good, we are agreed then." The headstrong troll held out her hand, palm facing upward, and Ami realised that she was waiting for her first payment that would seal the deal. Producing a tiny sapphire from thin air, Ami held it between thumb and index finger, ignoring the awed whispers as its facets broke the light.

"However," the hovering youma stopped just before the gem could reach the troll's hand, "I am rather interested how you expect to hold me to my end of the deal, once you are mine. You probably aren't just going to take my word for it?"

With a lightning-quick motion, the armoured creature snatched the gem from the girl's fingers before she could react. Wage received, her dungeon heart forged the connection, recognising Marda as Ami's newest minion. "That's simple. Let me demonstrate."

Ami reeled as an indomitable will raced down the freshly-forged connection between her and her new minion, slamming into her own like a wrecking ball made of tightly-controlled and suppressed anger and determination. The invisible tether linking the troll to Ami's dungeon heart seemed to hum, strained to its limit. The tiniest bit more power and it would snap.

"We will just leave," the female troll grinned maniacally.

"R-right." Legs wobbly from the intensity of what she had felt during the brief contact with the troll's mind, Ami pulled her still outstretched arm away as if burnt.

Mareki accurately summarised the young Keeper's racing thoughts. "That creature has issues."

Once Keeper Mercury had left, the newly-hired trolls remained in the room, looking to their ruler and waiting for a sign.

"All right. Her attention is no longer on us." Tension seemed to leave the attendants at their leader's announcement.

A heavily-built warrior stepped forward. "That was unwise, Lord Marda. What if she had just left instead of accepting your conditions? Then we'd still be stuck here!"

The armoured greenskin spun on her heel to spear the speaker with a glare. "You are a fool, Toreb. They were necessary. How long do you think it would take her to find out if she had free reign of this place? And how do you think she would react to our little secret?"

Toreb's skin turned a sickly light-green as he paled. "You are right, my Lord. Of course. I apologise."

"What do we do if she finds out?" someone else called from the crowd.

"At that point, we should have access to some portals if she is too strong. If not..." Marda's face split into a grin that wouldn't have looked out-of-place on the Reaper's.

Previous chapter: Next chapter:
Chapter 75: Mysterious Island Chapter 77: Lab Visit

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