Ami woke up, covered in dust and draped uncomfortably over a piece of rubble that was pressing into her belly. With a start, she remembered that she had been attacking that big scythe-wielding youma before passing out. Given that she was still in one piece, her desperate plan must have worked, even if it had partially backfired on her. She noted that someone must have turned on the lights while she was out. Lying near one wall, she could only see a corner of the room. The view offered little to hold her attention, despite the murals now visible in the flickering torchlight. Their vaguely female silhouettes reminded her uncomfortably of the various Dark Kingdom youma she had encountered.
Ami heard a high-pitched noise, somewhere between laughter and a snicker, and realised she had no time to waste on admiring the architecture. Groaning, she pulled herself to her knees. The act of getting to her feet was hampered by the surprising stiffness of her joints, but at least she seemed uninjured. Absently brushing some dust and gravel off her short blue skirt, she looked about for the source of the sound.
Immediately, a raised dais, supporting three vaulting arches arranged in a triangle pattern around a circular pit drew her attention. The structure took up most of the room, and certainly hadn't been there before. Her lips formed an 'o' of surprise. Just how long had she been unconscious this time around? Judging from the pool of melt water surrounding the ice-encased form of the scythe-wielding youma, several hours at least. The visor still covering her eyes flared to life when she focused on the red figure. The readouts dancing across the screen left no doubt that the creature was still alive, and, as far as Ami could tell, its burning yellow eyes were following her every move. She shuddered. What did it take to bring that monster down?
She briefly pondered freezing it again, just to be on the safe side, when another squeal reminded her that she might have more immediate problems. Following the sound, she approached the dais taking up the centre of the room, and peered around the corner. On that side, a set of stairs led up to the arching superstructure looming above. She decided to cautiously approach them, and took a step forward. Unexpectedly, her foot encountered something soft that let out a shriek of protest.
"Gah!" Sailor Mercury jumped back, bringing her left hand up in a warding gesture as she looked down. A tiny figure, no bigger than a child, was lying on the ground, with its face buried in a heap of debris that Ami recognised as having belonged to the dungeon heart's cover. The creature flailed its arms up and down, striking at the ground repeatedly in order to extricate itself from the mound. The senshi felt a tinge of guilt when she noticed the dusty footprint standing out prominently against the green-tinged skin on the back of the being's bald head. Its clumsy struggles reminded her a bit of Usagi.
Any resemblance to the blonde klutz faded away when the creature finally managed to remove its over-sized head from the dirt, stood up, and faced her with an angry chirp. Ami stared down. Fist-sized black orbs set in a gaunt, near skeletal face stared up. Upon meeting her eyes, the thing's furious snarl relaxed into a blank expression. Ami's face mirrored the expression, and both remained unmoving for a few seconds. Then, tentatively, the imp's upper lip twitched upward into a cautious smile, revealing a mouth full of broad, jutting teeth.
Ami was out of her depth. Horrible monsters that snarled furiously and attacked? She knew how to deal with that. A youma that smiled and seemed more afraid of her than she of it? Completely new situation. Therefore, she could be forgiven for not returning the smile and keeping her face blank and unmoving as she continued staring down at it, wondering what part of her youma-fighting experience was applicable here. The imp seemed to interpret this as a bad sign and curled up in a ball, covering its face with its arms.
At this point, the blue-haired girl became aware of sniggering from above. Her head whipped around, and she spotted three more creatures just like the one in front of her, looking down from behind the low stone railing around the pit, and seeming unduly amused at the fate of their companion. When they noticed that she had spotted them, they ducked into cover again. Ami thought she heard something that sounded suspiciously like "Uh-oh." She heard a pitter-patter noise, when the creature near her made good use of the distraction and went to hide.
Ami went into active scanning mode to discover just how many of the bug-eyed creatures were hiding in that pit. Almost immediately, the screen all but screamed warnings at her. A torrent of evil energy was pouring into her, originating from deep within the pit. The information made her legs go weak with worry for a moment, but she didn't feel as if anything was wrong. Yet, a nagging little voice in her mind added. Ignoring the warning, as she couldn't do anything about it, she continued her investigation. Four more tendrils of dark power reached outward, tiny in comparison to her own. They had to connect to these small creatures, she concluded. Interestingly, no connection went to Big Red in his ice block.
"Hello? I know you are here! Show yourselves!" Sailor Mercury stopped at the top stair, getting a good view of the pit's interior for the first time. She didn't know whether the little ones could understand her, or would heed her request, much less what she'd do if they did, but she felt like she needed to gain control of the situation somehow. To her surprise, the things hopped out almost immediately, and formed up in a row in front of her. Despite their demeanour - one was putting a finger in its ear and twirling it around, another was hopping from one foot to the other, a third was licking its mining pick - she still got the impression that they were standing at attention. She noted that each one had the same equipment: an appropriately sized pick and a big bag slung over its shoulder.
"Can you understand me?"
Four affirmative nods, completely out of synch with each other.
Ami, encouraged by their cooperation, continued her questioning "Can you talk?"
This time, the heads shook from left to right.
"Too bad. How many of you are there, total?"
One of the creatures held up four fingers. It needed two hands to do so, as each one had only three fingers.
Ami nodded to herself. That matched what her visor told her about the power flows. "Are you planning to attack me at some point?" a bit of a stupid question that, as they'd just lie if they really were hostile. Nevertheless, she hoped that she could learn something from their reaction.
The expression on the creatures' faces ranged from perplexed to a look that very eloquently asked "Are you stupid?" Accompanied by frantic head-shaking, this was about as definite an answer as she could hope to get. Interrogating the creatures about a way out of this place proved fruitless, and she couldn't think of any more questions to ask them right now. So she thanked them for their time and bowed politely - which drew a round of confused looks, for some reason - and proceeded with the inspection of the chamber.
Stepping up close to the circular pit, she got her first good look into its depths. Sickly green motes of light swirled around above a red, fleshy-looking membrane that pulsed rhythmically, producing a rumbling sound like a beating heart. This is obviously the fabled dungeon heart, Ami thought, realising with a start that she had not noticed its omnipresent noise before now. It had always been there, but felt natural, just the way things should be. Ominous. When her own heartbeat sped up, so did the beating of the magical device. Ami frowned. Could she have claimed the heart accidentally? Was that even possible? Had this been the youma's plan from the start? She shot a glare at the dripping pillar of ice, deeply disturbed by that possibility. She didn't know enough, hadn't known enough since coming here, and doubt was gnawing at her.
Taking a deep breath, the girl sat down on the edge of the dais, letting her legs dangle freely. The four little creatures were probably not going to be a problem - they had had opportunity enough to do whatever they wanted to her while she was unconscious. She needed to calm down, learn more, study the dungeon heart and finding a way home to her friends. Now that she wasn't in immediate danger, she pulled out her Mercury computer in order to properly analyse her options. The pool of power she had tapped to defeat the Reaper was replenishing itself, apparently by sucking in ambient power from the dungeon. It was already half full again, and she quickly put it to good use by re-freezing the red demon. Thankfully without any side effects this time.
After some time of focused typing away at her palmtop, Ami was starting to feel hungry. She had been here for several hours now, without a single bite to eat. So far, she didn't have a clue on how to coax the dungeon heart into sending herself back home (or if it even could), so food would become a problem. Drink not so much, she could create water herself. She knew that there was no food to be found anywhere here in the dungeon. She didn't know how she knew, but she was nevertheless convinced that this was true. More importantly, what could she do about it? Her gaze wandered over to where one of the gnome-things was wiggling its bottom at the frozen Reaper, blowing raspberries, and generally trying to goad the hapless demon into a homicidal rage. Entirely redundant effort, in her opinion.
Back to the food problem. Wasn't there anything in here she could eat? Her gaze fell on the deep-frosted Reaper. Naaahhh. Where had that idea come from? Not only was it disgusting, she also had no idea how to kill that youma, and it would probably turn into dust anyway. Yet, the analytical part of her mind would not let go of an idea until it had completely thought it through. Her gaze drifted lower, to the little green thing. Maybe it was edible? The imp stopped what it was doing and turned to look at her suspiciously. Maybe if a limb was separated while it was still living? The midget-sized monster's expression turned into one of pure horror, and then the critter ran off as fast as its short legs could carry it, while letting out a shrill wail.
Ami froze, palmtop dropping into her lap. The being could read her thoughts? Experimentally, she turned her attention to one of the others, wishing for it to come closer. It did so, almost at once, and stared up at her expectantly. She mentally ordered it to hop on one leg. Immediate obedience, accompanied by a look that was part confusion, part annoyance. She imagined it doing a handstand. With great reluctance, the less than agile creature gave it its best attempt. The imp managed to get its feet in the air all right, but then its pack dropped to the ground, upsetting its balance, and both went tumbling off the dais. Ami watched this, wide-eyed, scratching her temple with one finger in embarrassment.
Experiment successful, more or less. Maybe it had something to do with their mutual connections to the dungeon heart? The scary youma had told her that Keepers were rulers of the Underworld, which fit seamlessly into the bigger picture. Unfortunately, it also was another indication that she had unwittingly stumbled into accepting the role. In any case, it appeared as if she had a bunch of loyal slave workers now. Her expression turned sour at the notion. Even if they were youma, the idea of completely controlling someone else did not sit well with her. She had better find a way to fix all of this.
Her progress so far indicated that the dungeon heart needed precious materials for some of its advanced functions. Whether they were used as a catalyst, or used to pay other entities was still a mystery to her. She took off her tiara, holding the thin gold ornament with a single blue gem in her hands, and looking at it. Maybe she could use this? If she did, would it be gone next time she transformed? Putting the ornament back on her forehead, she continued her attempts to discover the mysteries of the dungeon heart.
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- [Regarding the study of warlock magic and lore]
It involves books and studying, which makes her reaction utterly predictable. Whether she likes what she finds is a different question, of course.