The long, serpentine tunnel leading toward the portal was growing only slowly. The imps driving it forward had trouble piercing the more solid rock with their picks, and the problem was only getting worse the they penetrated into deeper layers. Reaching the Underworld gate took long enough for the Reaper, still in Ami's body, to wake up and promptly get herself into trouble again.

Jered and Cathy stood to the left and right of the blue-haired girl, each having slung an arm under one of her shoulders. Brief periods of struggles to get loose interrupted longer intervals of dangling limply from their grip, head hanging. The spikes on the girl's huge metal pauldrons added an element of risk to the task of supporting her. Ami received the trio at the door to his lab, towering in the door frame as only a huge, barrel-chested horned demon could. He frowned at the three figures, the two taller of which were wearing red togas. A blue choker with a star decoration informed Ami that the blonde was wearing a sailor fuku under the red curtain cloth, but he dismissed that information as unimportant and instead focused on the unhealthy green colour of the Reaper's face. Arms akimbo, he asked. "What did she do now?"

As if in response, the sick-looking girl coughed, and three small yellow feathers flew from her mouth, one of which stuck to the left side of her chin.

"Oh no, she didn't. Please tell me she didn't." Ami's red hand balled into a fist and covered his fanged mouth as he hoped against hope that his suspicions wouldn't be confirmed.

"Sure did. Walked up to the chicken farm, grabbed a chick, and took a large bite out of it when it wouldn't fit whole." Cathy sounded rather amused as she quickly summarised the situation. Her brown-haired companion looked merely disgusted.

"There's - cough - something wrong with your chickens, Keeper," the Reaper complained through gagging noises, "that one tasted terrible!"

"I don't eat raw meat! Humans don't! No wonder you are feeling sick. I'm feeling queasy even thinking about what you just did with my body!" The others had the rare opportunity to watch a horned reaper pale, at least until Ami hid his face in his palms. "Just... eww. I hope the healing spell works on this!" To his relief, the necromancy, while not tailored to pumping out a stomach, was able to work its magic on the pieces of dead chicken, and the disgusting meat was removed from his poor, mistreated original body. He was getting serious doubts about letting the Reaper continue to inhabit it, despite the advantage of he himself being huge and tireless for it. Unbidden, even more embarrassing failures related to the misuse of bodily functions came to his mind.

Gritting his teeth at the mental pictures, Ami activated his scanner to see if he hadn't missed anything that was wrong with the girl sitting on the cold floor, and let out a small gasp when the screen came up with warning lights. While an imp cleaned up the grisly remains of the Reaper's meal, chittering disapprovingly, Ami rapidly tapped tapped the keys of his computer, trying to make sense of the readings. Even as he watched, the counter associated with the contamination alert sluggishly crept upwards, approaching the three percent mark. He didn't know yet what exactly this implied, but one thing was clear: it was all the Reaper's fault. The Mercury computer snapped shut, and the visor over the demonic figure's yellow eyes disappeared into a haze of sparkles as he dropped the senshi transformation. "That does it. I want my body back before you mess it up even more!" Ami said in a strained tone of voice.

A flash of blackness connected the bulky red form of the horned reaper to the diminutive one of the under-dressed girl on the ground, and the demon disappeared into a swirl of darkness that was sucked into the smaller body. "Finally! Free of this humiliating body! Ami could feel the searing heat of the Reaper's triumphant thoughts as their minds touched briefly.

My body is perfectly fine! Now GET OUT! With a metaphorical kick in the arse, Ami evicted the demon from her poor, aching body. An ink-like blot of black shot out of her forehead and into the corridor, past a surprised Cathy and Jered. It bounced off the wall as it resolved itself into the form of the Reaper, and the tall demon landed flat on the floor tiles with an earth-shaking crash.

"Ow!" Ami groaned, standing up with slow and cautious movements, nearly yelped in pain at the soreness in her muscles. "Didn't it ever cross your mind that when your limbs start hurting, you should stop doing what you are doing?"

"And stop killing? Are you insane?" the Reaper snapped back, fangs bared and murder in his eyes as he prepared to vent about his recent imprisonment in such an unworthy, weak mortal body.

"If you cause any more trouble, I'll put you into a chicken next time!" Ami threatened. Once I figure out how.

The Reaper's already opening mouth shut with an audible click. After a moment, he growled "Whatever." and stalked off, down the corridor, kicking an imp who was too slow to get out of his way. She could nearly feel the fury radiating off him.

Ami gagged as the taste in her mouth struck fully home. It was as if something had died in there, she thought, before remembering that that had, in fact, happened. "Blargh."

"You are looking mighty green there," Cathy said, grabbing Ami's arm near the shoulder to steady her swaying form.

"Thank you," the young Keeper answered. Ow! Every movement hurt. She wasn't that out of shape, was she? Just how much exercise had her body gotten when the Reaper possessed it? Slowly and on tired, wobbly legs, she walked back into her lab. Snyder looked up from where he was crouching in the light of dribbling candles held by strange, distorted stone limbs protruding from the rock. His eyes went wide when he saw the girl staggering in.

"Ahem. Mercury? Are you all right? And aren't you cold wearing that?"

Ami looked down at herself. Right. Reaper outfit with added strip of red cloth to cover her chest. She quickly weighted the advantages of changing into the more modest sailor senshi uniform waiting in her room against the potential pain of going through all the movements required to get into the outfit. "I'm fine," she decided. What she was wearing was less revealing than a bikini, anyway. "Imps! A chair! And a few glasses of water!"

When the furniture arrived, she let herself drop into it with a sigh of relief. "So, Snyder, are you making any progress with that warding scheme?" she inquired with a polite smile.

The redhead cleared his throat and pointed at a series of scorch marks on the floor with his chisel. "I'm afraid that my experiments with re-routing the power drained by my wards into a battery is not working out as planned yet."

"Mainly because you have no idea how to construct a magical battery in the first place, right?" Cathy taunted. The blonde had stepped into the room and leaned against the book-covered table as her blue eyes took in the various unfinished or destroyed creations strewn around the room.

"I'll have you know that I'm making some progress deriving first principles from each attempt," the acolyte defended himself. "See, I'm thinking of applying Dorian's Theory of Gnostic-"

"All right, all right, no need to bore me with arcane details that I won't understand anyway. How's your home-grown monster research coming along, Mercury?" the blonde turned toward Ami with a hopeful expression. "Please say it's going well. Trying to drill discipline into the goblins is like trying to pull teeth from a rabid wolf."

"Ah, well," Ami sat up straighter as she unknowingly went into lecture mode "I have been investigating several methods to reduce the energy consumption of my golems. The first attempt was with using a liquid base instead of a solid one. Water, mud of various consistencies and compositions, tar, even some molten rock obtained from one of Snyder's more spectacular failures. However, none of them were able to keep a shape and just flattened into puddles and rippled sadly until the spell dispersed. You are standing in one of the more successful attempts, I believe."

Cathy looked at her feet. The puddle underneath her soles was trying, unsuccessfully, to climb up her boots. She stomped once in surprise, dispersing the water. It ceased moving.

"And that," Ami sighed, "is the second problem with using liquid bodies. They lose cohesion too quickly. Which brings us to my next sequence of experiments. Liquid bodies within an elastic hull." She took a sheet of notes from her desk. "Subject one-hundred and thirty two, burst. Subject one-hundred and thirty three, unable to move under its own weight. Subject one-hundred and thirty four, looted by goblins as novelty pillow. I think I need not go on."

"So that's where they got that thing from," Cathy muttered to herself. "No useful results yet?"

"I can run a tiny solid golem to drain off excess energy from the dungeon heart by now," Ami answered, "that's a small success. I'm also investigating a number of other promising leads. For example, a golem with mechanical joints could get around the whole deformation issue. However, progress is slow, as I don't have a spell that can create or assemble all required parts by itself yet, so I had to work with a crude prototype arm sculpted by the imps." Ami took a long breath and pointed at a collection of cylinders attached to each other that, in the right light, might pass as a mechanical arm at first glance. It was strapped to a rock block and rattled in an unsettling way.

"I take it something went wrong?"

"Aside from the production difficulties, I found out that the animating spirit will only affect the object it is merged with, none of the other components. While I could just summon more into the individual parts, which I attempted on that prototype, they simply don't work together, and all I get is a loosely connected, uncoordinated, twitching mess. In addition, the power drain of using so many spells on the same warrior, albeit less than with solid golems, is still considerable." Ami took a deep breath. She started to talk faster and faster. "So what I need to do is research a completely new spell to craft the parts, and another one to get the different components to cooperate. Or alternatively, one that animates all parts at once. In addition, I really need to find out out how mana batteries are built, and I also want to look into hollow solid golems. For the latter, I think I might need that fabrication spell, and fragility might be an issue. On top of that, I need to manage the dungeon and expand its defences. So much to do, and I don't even know what to start with!"

Cathy cocked her head. "Well, I can't help with any of the magic stuff, but to me it sounds that you are trying to do too many things by yourself. What you need is assistants."

Snyder looked up from his task of hammering another rune into a rectangular plate of stone "I am expanding my abilities by leaps and bounds, I assure you, so-"

"Competent assistants," Cathy elaborated.

"Where am I supposed to find assistants? Nobody is going to want to work for a Keeper, especially not one wanted by the Baron!" Ami winced, perhaps at the thought, perhaps at a twinge from one of her many sore muscles.

"On the surface. Keepers never seem to lack for minions from the Underworld. Remember those goblins? They had little hesitation to sign up with you. Anyone from the Underworld is probably going to be an utter bastard, though," the blonde pointed out. "Plan accordingly. You'll just have to come along on the shopping trip and find some hirelings."

The portal reminded Ami of pictures of Stonehenge. Four arches, composed of two tall stone pillars with a horizontal crossbar on top, were arranged in such a way that they touched at the corners. The area inside the square they formed glowed with hazy images of faraway territories and emitted a warm orange light that suffused the spacious cave that the construct was located in, causing the group of comparatively tiny figures assembled in front of it to cast long shadows.

"I don't know. Are you sure this is a good idea?" Ami asked, nearly drowning in the heap of pillows she was lounging on. On Jered's behest, the goblins had found a huge chair, sawed off its legs, and added some cushioning and horizontal bars to its sides. To top things off, Ami had been asked to take a seat on the makeshift palanquin.

The brown-haired man nodded. "Naturally. This way, you won't look infirm, merely decadent."

Ami pushed herself up higher in her seat so she could frown properly at him. The dull ache in her muscles that she felt at the movement reminded her uncomfortably of the fact that he might have a point.

"Don't look at me like that. 'Decadent' is very much the only impression you can make with your army in this state." Jered extended his arm, pointing at the gaggle of fuku-clad goblins who were more or less following Cathy's instructions, makeshift spears that had once been scythes held vertically into the air. The blonde woman barked a command, and the small green humanoids stopped, even though some bumped into each other, and at least one straggler tried to run up and hide within the formation. A wave of wobbling spears marked the progress of its obscured body.

"Oh? Is that why you talked me into dressing up like this?" the swordswoman glared at the weasel-featured man, pulling down the hem of her much-too-short miniskirt as she turned.

"You must admit that it looks better when the entire military is in uniform, and this scratchy curtain cloth is no picnic either," Jered replied, patting his own improvised toga. "Besides, what our dear leader is wearing is even more revealing, and you don't see her complain about it, do you?"

Cathy spared a short glance at the blue-haired girl, who was still in her modified reaper outfit and baring way more skin than the adventuress was comfortable with. The corners of her lips went down slightly. "Well, we already knew that she has no problem with wearing embarrassing things. At least we left Snyder behind."

"Well, if it helps, I think you look adorable," the wavy-haired man tried to defuse his companion's temper, "but I think we should get going, time is wasting."

The Underworld city was not what Ami had expected, not that she had a very precise mental image of what one would look like to begin with. However, there was a notable absence of warped little sheds huddling against each other, of city walls, and of winding little alleys. Instead, the initial impression she got when she was carried through the magical gate on her swaying palanquin, flanked by two rows of spear-holding goblins, was that of crushing heat. A surge of hot air washed over her exposed skin as soon as she had cleared the veil-like distortions of the portal, and she got her first good look at the area beyond. It was an open plaza located in one of the side arms of a wide canyon, whose steep slopes became near vertical at the top, until they disappeared into the smoke-filled darkness above. Presumably, there was a ceiling somewhere beyond the murk, but she couldn't see it from her position. Rather than being dark, the area was well lit by a stream of slow-flowing lava at the bottom of the canyon. Its glow gave a reddish tint to everything, similar to the interior of a forge. It took Ami a moment to realise that the black, leaf-like shapes covering most surfaces near the fiery river were, in fact, plants. They must have adapted to better absorb the sparse light they get in here, the studious girl mused.

The new arrivals were not alone on the portal plateau. About an arrow's flight away stood what looked like an unfriendly welcoming committee, about a score of green humanoids with large, knobbly noses, thick eyebrows, and broad mouths. They were considerably taller than Ami's own goblins, held hammers or cudgels, and were wearing loincloths and little else. The pot-bellied things started pointing and jeering when they noticed Ami's skirted troupe. "What are those?" the inexperienced Keeper asked.

"Trolls," Cathy replied, the grip on her own spear tightening. "They are about as strong as humans, but their leathery hide is hard to pierce. They must have been camped out here for a while, look at those empty beer barrels."

"The fat blob over there has to be their leader," Jered added. He was referring to a large, near spherical mass of fatty red folds, covered by a breastplate. It had no legs, but still managed to stand as tall as the trolls that were giving it a wide berth. The creature was dragging itself toward Ami's group with the aid of its long, nearly comically thin arms. Its companions were following it with a slow, swaggering walk, posturing to look as big and intimidating as possible. Lop-sided grins appeared on the green faces, revealing large molars protruding like tusks from their lower jaws.

"Are they going to fight? They are between us and the entrance to the city," Ami pointed out. The wall of approaching green-skins blocked the way to the ramp leading out of this side-gorge and up to the city proper, which was located within the rocky walls of the main cavern. Lit openings covered the canyon's slopes nearly down to the lava level, some of them big, some of them small. As much as they varied in size, they also varied in the quality of the masonry. Where at some points pillars loomed, framed by straight lines and topped by proud gargoyles, other locations showed a predominance of simple holes hastily hewn into the wall. The more affluent-looking dwellings seemed to cluster around the lower parts of the cave, according to Ami's preliminary analysis. Connecting the labyrinth of entrances, windows, and terrace-like protrusions was a network of stairs and promenades that, with their horizontal and diagonal arrangement, formed a pattern that reminded her of a house of cards.

"They are probably going to see how much we are willing to pay to avoid a fight," Jered said. He felt vulnerable in just this thin toga, which wouldn't offer any protection against a blow by one of the trolls' weapons. The goblins, who were moving closer to each other as the larger green figures formed a large semi-circle around the party, didn't do much to re-assure him. Some were already looking back at the portal with longing.

The meaty cadence of blunt instruments smacking into open palms was well-calculated for maximum intimidation factor, and the biggest trolls occupied the front ranks, looming in a professional, threatening way. The whole procedure had the feel of a well re-hearsed performance, Ami thought.

"You puny weaklings there! You are trespassing on our territory! You must pay us for this transgression, or face the consequences!" the blob-like leader bellowed, and his thugs nodded and made approving grunts.

While Ami was thinking about an appropriate reply, the thing's body odour hit her, having much the same effect as an unexpected slap. She blinked in surprise and startled astonishment, unwilling to believe that she had really just smelled that. The goblins were more vocal in their reaction, making retching noises and holding their noses. The lack of concentration didn't do much for their ability to keep a palanquin steady. The girl on it let out a startled yelp as it swayed right and left, prompting much sniggering from the ranks of the trolls. "I see your point," she held up her hands in a placating gesture. "Why don't you discuss the payment details with him?" Ami pointed with her thumb over her shoulder, at the portal. She flexed her Keeper power. Grab! The Reaper disappeared from his throne. Drop! He landed in front of the portal, a look of angry confusion on his face. Shove! The red demon staggered through the gate.

The watching trolls turned their heads as the portal flared orange, and a blurry silhouette peeled itself out of the glow, approaching with clanging steps. When the Reaper's towering form became fully visible, along with his furious grimace, the grins on their faces disappeared. The red demon stopped, turning his head left and right as he took in his new surroundings, and then smiled. he raised his scythe high, leaned back, and let out an ear-shattering roar. Ami could feel the wood under her fingers shake from the intensity of the sound, and suppressed the urge to cover her ears. In the back of her mind, the part that she associated with being a Keeper, something snapped, and when she returned her gaze to the shadowed face of the demon, backlit by the swirling energies of the portal, she realised what. A shiver of dread ran down her spine as she looked into those yellow pupils, flaring like miniature suns.

"FREE! Free at LAST!" The monster took a clanking step forward, his grin widening, and raised his scythe so it glittered in the light. "And now, you useless worm of a Keeper, we shall see how well you fight when you can't teleport around at will! And if you even think of running, I'll gleefully slaughter everyone in this city! You will suffer for all the humiliations you have inflicted on me!"

Previous chapter: Next chapter:
Chapter 21: Mad Science for Beginners Chapter 23: Reaper Battle!



Attached comments:

  • There's nothing magical about Ami's ice except the fact that it has been conjured by magic. In the series, it thaws rather quickly even from sunlight.
  • Rare did an attack effect the enviroment despite how many Fire and lighting attacks miss the target Juuban did not burn to the ground durring a senshi fight.
    There's presumably some sort of stop mechanism in there. The moon tiara has one for certain. Also, when used deliberately against the environment, the attacks simply blast obstacles out of the way.

    I mean come on people hit with giant fireballs just get a little scortched then stand right back up, lucky to even singe their hair.
    To be fair, both the senshi and their enemies are quite durable. Consider that Jadeite could still stand after being rammed by a rolling aircraft, and that it took an awful lot of Eudial's machine gun fire to take down Sailor Neptune.
  • You yourself had it capable of holding a demon (the reaper) for a while that BLATANTLY uses magical fire.
    Seing as Fire>Ice, it follows that the Ice itself was magical.
    Wrong. You missed the fact that the Reaper couldn't use his fire magic because he was unable to move. I described how once the ice directly in contact with him had melted slightly, he could move a bit, and then broke free shortly after.
  • [Regarding Youma as Keeper minions]
    The Dungeon Heart isn't picky about what it accepts as minions.