Ami looked up, scanning the ceiling of the narrow tunnel with her visor. Tree roots were protruding from the earthen roof and formed a dense web. Nothing gave the impression that anything living larger than a rabbit was anywhere near the location she had chosen for her first foray to the surface. At her nod, an imp squeezed past her legs and started swinging its pick at the soil, soon opening a hole through which faint light fell in from above.
Ami brushed a stubborn root out of the way and stepped into the pillar of light, revelling in the smell of fresh air as she got a look at the forest canopy above. Loose earth crumbled under her gloves as she reached for the edge of the exit and pulled herself up. Staying ducked with one knee in the grass right after emerging, she cautiously surveyed the surrounding trees and bushes. The complete absence of danger convinced her to stand up. She couldn't see very far due to both the tree trunks and the lighting conditions. Quickly identifying the tallest nearby tree, she hopped to its lowest-hanging branch and made her way up from there with little difficulty. Her feet and fingers easily found purchase on the ancient oak's gnarled bark, and soon enough, she found herself sitting on a branch that gave her a good view of the surrounding countryside.
The sky near the horizon glowed a faint red as daybreak approached, but Ami could still make out stars above her position. None of the constellations were familiar to her, quashing the faint hope that she was still in some part of her own world. She felt a wave of homesickness hit her at the discovery. Was she ever going to get home and see her friends and family again? What was this prolonged absence going to do to her attendance record?
The growling of her stomach snapped Ami out of her morose thoughts and focused her attention back on a more immediate and more solvable problem. She looked around, getting a good view of the landscape from her elevated vantage point. She was in the middle of some kind of forest. A few kilometres to the east, it gave way to open countryside, with wheat fields swinging softly in the breeze. She could make out the squat buildings of a sleepy village in their midst, as well as a road that led somewhere into hilly territory beyond. In the distance, thin streamers of smoke rose into the sky, indicating the presence of more towns. People meant she could get food and information, Ami thought happily. Nothing else really stood out to her, except for a patch of forest that looked more sickly than the rest. Mentally correlating it with the position of her dungeon, Ami concluded that there could be a connection. Yet something else to look into, she sighed.
The girl started to make her way to the nearest village. She pondered how she was going to handle this. Should she transform back to her civilian form? The thought of being unpowered in the middle of an unknown and potentially dangerous world didn't sit too well with her. Besides, she could make much better time in senshi form. She wouldn't be able to hop from branch to branch like this as her normal self, she mused, while underbrush rushed past underneath.
Money would not be a problem. Or maybe it would, if someone recognised that it was her own face on the gold coins. She wasn't sure how, or even if, that interacted with her senshi disguise magic, but she felt no need to find out. The imps could prepare a few coins by scratching off that side while she approached her destination. This left the issue of clothing. She was well aware that her sailor fuku wasn't exactly the most modest of garments, and she had no idea whether it would constitute acceptable female clothing in this society. She could sew, as she insisted in doing well in all of her classes, which included Home Economics. That didn't help all that much, as she didn't have time or material to make something more concealing. Unless...
The Reaper awoke with a start when a loud ripping noise resounded through his throne room. He noted that the exit was still blocked by a pile of rubble - curse the brat - so what had made the noise? An asymmetry in the room drew his attention to one of a pair of decorative curtains dangling from the ceiling. Its twin was conspicuously absent. The demon's expression turned more displeased than normal. What was the Keeper vandalising his room for?
Ami felt somewhat ridiculous wearing the long, hooded cloak that had been a dark red curtain only minutes before. Imps were not the most talented tailors, to put it mildly, but the garment hadn't turned out too badly. Sure, it was a bit frayed around the edges, but it did its job quite well. They even had managed to put the darker-coloured patterns on the curtain near the bottom seam. She just hoped those strange symbols in a darker colour were just decorations, rather than having a meaning she didn't know.
Ami could feel the first rays of the rising sun warming her chin. Her eyes were still in the shadow cast by the hood, which she had pulled down deeply into her face. While she didn't need to hide her tiara, which she had left behind, she might want to use her visor at some point, without attracting undue attention. Well, more attention than she was already drawing, she admitted. The few other people on the road were wearing peasant garb and doing agricultural things, such as driving cows to the pasture. All of them were giving her curious and suspicious looks. Well, I do look almost exactly like one of those stereotypical evil sorcerers from one of Usagi's mangas, Ami though with a sad smile, all I'm missing is a sinister-looking staff. A younger boy sucking on a straw was so distracted by the sight of her that he didn't watch where he was going, and collided with the rear end of a slow bovine. Ami nodded a greeting, which the villagers answered with a nod of their own, or a wave of their hand. None ever approached her though. Even the cows circled around her in a wide bow. Hanging her head, Ami figured that she might have been better off just arriving in her fuku.
As the hungry girl approached the settlement, the heavenly smell of freshly-baked bread made her pick up her pace. A few steps further in, the smell of medieval squalor hit her full-force, and made her wrinkle her nose in disgust. The morning breeze did its best to disperse the unpleasant odour, and Ami resolved to simply ignore it and find something to eat. The villagers were still watching her with suspicion, even though none seemed outright hostile. She also noted that none of the women were wearing anything that revealed more than their ankles, so the cloak had probably been a good idea after all.
A rooster crowed from the gable of one of the straw-thatched wooden buildings, drawing her gaze into that direction, and from there to the larger two-storey building whose sign clearly identified it as an inn. While walking in its direction, she noticed that several horses were stabled in the stable attached to the building. Business must be going well.
Ami opened the door and stopped for a moment until her eyes adjusted to the dimmer conditions inside. All eyes inside turned to the cloaked and hooded figure outlined within the door frame. The murmur inside died down. This early in the morning, around half of the round wooden tables and chairs were unoccupied, but Ami nevertheless fidgeted at being the centre of attention. A faint blush appeared on her cheeks and she stepped inside. The aroma of cooked meat wafted in her direction, and she felt her mouth water. When she sat down at one of the tables near the counter to the right side of the room, conversations resumed, and hands that had moved to swords in anticipation of trouble relaxed. She drew a second round of curious glances when she lowered her hood, this time directed at her short blue hair, and the hushed gossiping doubled in intensity. She overheard a few sentence fragments.
"... blue? ... think she's fey?" "... no, touching the iron cutlery..." "... but ... gloves ..." "...rather young... " "... witch looking for trouble..." "... hair's so short... disgraced... ?"
The innkeeper distracted Ami from the fact that she was currently the object of the local gossip by asking to take her order. He was lean, slouched, and with his overly long nose and the two tufts of greying hair around his ears on an otherwise bald head, he reminded her a bit of vulture. Ami ordered a large breakfast, and had to pay in advance. She whisked one of her adjusted gold coins from her stash, hoping that it would be accepted without too much trouble. The innkeeper took a look at it, then bit into it, and nodded.
"Can't say I have seen that symbol before. Good, solid gold though. Travelled a long way, have you?"
Ami shrugged, and answered honestly "I don't really know. I got here by a magical accident, and am not even sure where 'here' is."
The man's eyebrows seemed to develop a life of their own as they crept up his forehead. "Oh, how curious. This is the village of Goodplace, within the Barony of Blisshire, in the Kingdom of Morgan the Great." His expression turned sympathetic when it became clear that the girl (she couldn't be older than his own daughter) did not recognise any of these names. "You must be from a far away place indeed."
Ami, who noted that conversation was dying down again since the other guests were trying to eavesdrop, decided that it couldn't hurt to let them know about her origins. "I'm from the city of Tokyo in Japan."
"Sorry, I can't say that I have heard of it, Miss" Perking up, the innkeeper asked. "You mentioned a magical accident. Are you a wizard's apprentice, then?"
"I can do a little magic," Ami admitted. "Not enough to get me home, unfortunately."
"I thought so, " the man replied, "but you might be in luck." He stretched his left arm in a wide gesture that encompassed the room. "You may have noticed that the inn's unusually well occupied for this time of the year."
She hadn't, but at his words, she took another look at the other guests. There were the expected farmer types, but many of the men and women looked to be of a rougher sort. Mercenaries or guards perhaps. Some of them were wearing light leather armour, and she could see a bunch of spears and swords resting in a corner.
"A week ago, the Baron's herald passed through town, notifying everyone that the Baron is gathering heroes for a strike against the terrible Keeper Arachne, who is devastating the North of the shire. Thus, we have all kinds of adventurers passing through. If you accompanied them to the castle, you'd meet many wise and powerful wizards, one of whom might be able to send you home."
After these encouraging words, the talkative man lowered his voice conspiratorially, "Although you might want to change the style of your robes, no offence. If you went looking like this, people would think you were going to join the Keeper. In this land, that style is associated with evil warlocks and other unsavoury types. They use the hoods to hide how the dark magic twists their features, you see."
Ami suppressed a gulp. Technically, she was one of those 'other unsavoury types', but there was absolutely no reason to mention any of that. The waitress appeared and set a plate down in front of the famished girl. It contained steaming potatoes and some kind of sausage she didn't recognise. The meal also came with a large mug of foamy beer. She was too young to drink, wasn't she?
One of the other guests, a man build like a bear, with a shaggy black beard and matching hair, stood up slowly, and interrupted her train of thoughts. "Twisted features indeed," he bellowed in a voice loud enough to draw attention to everyone in the room. "You can't tell me that that hair colour is natural!"
Ami crossed her eyes to look up at his pointed index finger, which quivered with rage, less than a palm's length away from her head.
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|Chapter 7: So Hungry||Chapter 9: A Youma's Report|
- I don't think there would be anything "accidental" about it [joining raids against other Keepers]. Fighting evil is something that's very in character for her. Obviously, she'd much prefer to work with heroes over working with monsters. On the other hand, the heroes would have to be grossly incompetent to completely miss that something's off with her, especially if they spent a lot of time together.
However, claiming a dungeon heart or territory without her knowing it is pretty much impossible without contradicting past episodes. She has a map of all her territories just a thought away in her mind.