Distorted by a thick layer of ice, the Horned Reaper saw the four dwarf-sized forms of the imps approach his prison. He couldn't bend his neck to look down, so he lost sight of the impertinent things when they arrived at the foot of his icy prison. Moments later, his field of vision swung downwards abruptly as the block containing him toppled over and hit the floor with a clang. The vaulted ceiling was no improvement over seeing that blue-haired fool of a Keeper fumbling around without a clue, but at least it was less likely to infuriate him further.

The change of perspective didn't last. Almost at once, the world started spinning around him rapidly when his prison started rolling down the only corridor leading away from the Heart chamber. On each full rotation, he could make out the giggling forms of the imps, gleefully pushing his prison forward with a combined exertion of strength. Oh, the indignity of it all. He wasn't some kind of room ornament that could be unceremoniously discarded when one got tired of it! The motion stopped, leaving him trapped like a fly in amber within a thick layer of ice, and staring down at rotten straw.

The Reaper simmered with rage, nearly literally so. He was a demon with an affinity for fire, and while he much preferred his scythe, he could unleash a fireball in a pinch. Or would have been able to, had the ice not prevented him from going through the necessary motions. In any case, his body exuded enough heat to make the ice around him melt, slowly. Sure, the damned brat of a sorceress applied a new layer from time to time, but that was all added on the outside. Already, a bubble filled with water, rather than ice, followed the contours of his body. Once he got a bit more elbowroom, he would be able to apply force directly, and then the girl would pay.

Ami covered her mouth with one hand in surprise, watching as the Reaper's prison disappeared into the tunnel with loud clanking noises. The sight of him made her nervous, so she had ordered her servants to move it to the farthest corner of the dungeon. She had expected them to just slide the ice block there, though. Apparently, the exact details about how to execute a command was left to themselves. She'd have to keep that in mind for later.

She felt tempted to have the little beings use their picks to dig a route to the surface. The lure of sunshine, fresh air, and possibly even people who could help her get home was nearly irresistible. In contrast, this place was dank, empty, and it smelled unpleasant. Not to mention the lack of food and the abysmal company. Unfortunately, she couldn't in good conscience allow the currently frozen youma to reach innocent people. She had the means to fight it off, but that wasn't necessarily true for whoever lived above, and once she left for home, it would be free to do as it pleased. She hoped her friends were all right. Feeling homesick, she wondered if her mother had already returned from work at the hospital and noticed that she was missing.

Right. Dawdling wouldn't solve any of her many problems. She thought she had a good enough grip on the fundamentals of constructing things with the power of the dungeon heart, and the only way to test this theory was to give it a try. She walked over to the wall on the opposite side of the corridor leading away from the dungeon heart, and let her fingers slide over the smoothed bricks. Grey dust stuck to her white-gloved fingertips. Good, it was dry. She needed more space for her construction, and accidentally flooding the chamber just wouldn't do. Something had already told her this on an instinctive level, but she wasn't ready to simply trust information that came seemingly out of nowhere. "All right then. Get to it!"

The imps needed no more encouragement. They attacked the wall as with great enthusiasm, as if it had personally offended them. The tools bit into the stone with an ease that should have been impossible for implements wielded by such slight creatures. Ami took a step back when the bricks collapsed inward and a great cloud of dust billowed up, more than she had expected. A second look revealed that the stone and debris were sublimating rapidly, turning from solids into a fine greyish smoke that rose to the ceiling in fine streams. Frowning, she pulled out her computer and tracked the phenomenon with her scanner, watching the tendrils make their way through the air and straight toward the dungeon heart, where they swirled down into the pit, never to be seen again. Some form of intrinsic magic catching her unprepared again, then. And here she had wasted half an hour working out the most effective way to store the excavated rubble.

The sounds of collapses and metal striking stone stopped, and her little helpers started squealing excitedly. One of them was writhing on the floor, a long, pale maggot wrapped around it. The head of the snake-like thing was darting back and forth rapidly, its mandibles holding a little chunk of imp flesh every time it rose from the body underneath. Before the senshi could do something, the other imps were already on it, bringing their picks down on the segmented body again and again with wet smacking noises. They hit their hapless companion as often as the target. Ami could feel bile rise in her throat at the sight.

Finally, the overgrown insect stopped twitching, lying in a pool of its own body fluids, and the imps went back to work as if nothing had happened. She looked at the carcass. Eww. It was all whitish and icky and slimy. It was also not turning into dust or dissolving the floor with its blood, which put it into the "potentially edible" category, as the only candidate. Ami gulped. She'd have to be much hungrier than she was now before she'd try giant maggot roasted over open torch. A lot more hungry. A quick attack encased the worm in a glistening layer of ice. For now, it could go into the corner of the Heart chamber she had tentatively labelled "larder".

Meanwhile, the imps were putting the finishing touches on the new extension to the dungeon. Ami could see them smooth the floors and walls with astonishing speed. She closed her mouth. Really, she should be used to such weirdness by now. Interestingly, she could feel a very minor increase in the power flows through the dungeon heart when the servants imbued the ground with its power. She surveyed the new room. Square, as she had intended, with a domed ceiling to better carry the weight of the soil above. The white and black chequerboard pattern of the floor she had not specified, nor the stylized bas-reliefs of chess figures on the walls. A slight smile flickered over her face. They were more to her tastes than the creepy murals on the old parts of the dungeon, at least.

Now for the more difficult part. She re-checked the plan on her palmtop, painstakingly extracted from the depths of the dungeon heart, and nodded once. The screen displayed a magical pattern that she was reasonably confident would furnish a room from raw materials, if activated by will and magic. Just by watching the arcane symbols, she could feel the word 'library' form in the back of her mind, along with the knowledge of how to bring it out into the world. Another creepy side-effect from accessing the dungeon heart no doubt, but one that was admittedly useful. The library wasn't her first choice, a bedroom (the floor was rather hard) or well-stocked kitchen would have been better, but she just knew she did not have what it took to build them. In contrast, she could sense that most of the resources required for a library were nearby, somewhere outside the dungeon. She had already ordered her minions to dig an exploratory tunnel and fetch them, and they were even now returning with their quarry.

Ami looked at the growing pile of various substances on the ground, while the imps emptied out their bags, adding more to it. With enough gold, she need not have bothered, but aside from her tiara, had none. Hopefully, the feeling that the spell would still work if the right base materials were provided was right. The girl frowned. The feeling called for wood, which she didn't have. She hoped that substituting coal would work. It had been wood at some point, after all. Likewise, no dye was available, and she had sacrificed the bow on the back of her skirt, hoping that the spell would be able to extract the blue dye and use it. Satisfied with the preparations, she stepped out of the room, preceded by the quartet of imps vacating the area in the orderly fashion of frightened chickens.

At Ami's command, the room exploded into a maelstrom of activity. A whirlwind glittering in every colour of the rainbow picked up the assembled materials and spun them around the room, transforming and shaping them as they were flung to the air. From time to time, a piece struck the ground or walls with a loud clang and snapped into place, no longer participating in the violent flurry of transfiguration. Before Ami's eyes, the room assembled itself. First, a charred-looking carpet (probably the coal's fault, she surmised), then desks, benches, chairs, and rows of shelves - all pure black (the coal again, probably). Finally, the swirling sands melted into glass and formed rows of beakers, alembics, and more enigmatic instruments, taking up a whole corner of the room. The library came with a lab, Ami nodded approvingly. But where were the books? The shelves were empty, as far as she could tell. Nevertheless, both her computer readouts and feeling insisted that the process had worked perfectly fine.

Perplexed, Ami entered the room, looking around to see if she had missed anything. That stupid dungeon heart was not performing as advertised. Rule the underworld? Hah! She got four loyal midgets, and the one youma in here was trying to kill her. Riches? She didn't even have a bed. And now it was even withholding her books. What good was a library without books? She needed some source of information to learn more about her situation, and now this spell wasn't cooperating! Had she been a more outspoken person, she would have screamed in frustration.

Her gaze turned to a round object sitting on one of the lab benches when she felt the magic around her react to it. The crystal ball, for it looked as if it had emerged straight from a fortune teller's tent. A glowing white nimbus surrounded it, and fog within was swirling to form a face.

Nicodemus Asbraxe considered himself an adventurous merchant, daring enough to snatch a profit from situations nobody else would touch, and smart enough to turn a blind eye to the less than legal activities of his clients. His customers considered him a pompous, fat fence with too much greed and too little sense of self-preservation. They were wrong about the last point, at least. He had once been apprenticed to a wizard, but found that he was averse to risking life and limb performing experiments in draughty laboratories. Still, he had adapted some of his master's summoning spells to allow for transactions at a distance instead, which proved to be a veritable wellspring of money if you weren't choosy about your customers. Self-preservation also dictated that when a Keeper wanted something, you dropped whatever you were doing and gave them their full attention. Nicodemus liked Keepers. They did not ask pointed questions about where a particular object came from, or why there was blood splattered all over it. More importantly, they were, without fail, filthy rich.

One of the devices in his study alerted him that a Keeper was searching for some unspecified item, and the fence quickly pulled his hood down until his face was hidden in a pool of darkness out of which only a long, mangy beard protruded. He then muttered a well-practised incantation, and a picture formed in the air above his coffee table, showing him the prospective client and part of the dungeon directly behind her. Hmm, cute that one. Female, rather young too, strange blue hair in a short cut, and matching blue eyes with a look of confusion in them. He mentally adjusted his prices up a bit at the sign of inexperience. He also took note of the dark circles around her eyes and the scabbed-over scratch on her left cheek. Exhausted, has been in a fight recently, and is possibly desperate. He nearly rubbed his hands together in glee. Better and Better.

"Greetings, Lady Keeper. I am Nicodemus Asbraxe, at your service. To whom do I owe the pleasure of speaking with?" he began, with what he hoped to be a charming tone of voice. The girl seemed to be surprised to hear him speak, if the widening of her blue eyes was any indication. Oh, this would be good. Prices increased another notch. Unexpectedly, she whirled around, facing away from him, a brief look of panic on her face. He could empathise. The sight of a charging Horned Reaper would do that to anyone. Even here, safe in his home, he had gone white as a sheet. Immediately, he cut the connection. If the Reaper was after this Keeper, she was dead meat anyway, and he didn't want the beast to get a look at him. The last thing he needed was it extending whatever its grudge was to him. Sighing, Nicodemus sank deeper into his couch, lamenting the lost opportunity. His last glimpse of the girl through the dissolving picture was of her preparing to unleash some sort of spell.

Oh no! How? How had he gotten loose? Ami was acting on reflex, making the arm movements preceding her signature attack. Damn, that youma could move fast when he wanted to! But she had noticed him in time, barely.

"Shabon Spray Freezing!" A swirling spray of freezing bubbles shot from her hands, toward the Reaper. She could have sworn its lips twisted upward into a hideous grin when their eyes met. Then, quicker than she thought possible, its armoured right hoof swung around in a sweeping kick, catching one of her servants and turning it into a speeding projectile. Halfway the distance between Ami and her enemy, the screaming imp slammed into her own attack and was silenced abruptly, turning into a hard block of ice before continuing onward on its trajectory and slamming into her like a cannonball. The impact was hard enough to send her flying backwards and drive the air out of her lungs. Less than an eye blink later, she bounced off the wall behind her and slid to the floor, dazed.

Her sight blurring as the pain drove tears into her eyes, she desperately struggled to get off a spell at the rapidly advancing red figure. "Shabon Sp- AHH!"

"No more of this!" the Reaper growled, interrupting the spell through the simple but effective way of stomping down on the girl, hard. He thought he heard some rips cracking as the girl gasped in pain. He smiled. Life was good. The next part was going to be tricky, however. If he killed her, then he would be stuck here for the foreseeable future. If he didn't, she would probably freeze him again, and then look for a more fail-proof way to keep him confined. If that happened, he wouldn't be able to escape even if she excavated a portal. No, he'd have to bully her into going along with his plans and being too scared to do anything about it.

"I am greatly displeased by your treatment of me," he continued, leaning down to the figure still trapped underneath his weight until his steaming breath touched her face with every word. "Order your imps to start digging toward the south-east, or I will kill you!"

"If you k-kill me, you'll be back to being stuck here forever," the insufferable brat breathed, voice faltering.

How inconsiderate. She might be smarter than he had given her credit for, or at least was more perceptive. "You got me there. I'm merely going to make you wish I had killed you. I am a demon after all, and causing pain is what we are good at." She shivered in fear. As she rightfully should.

"You are still going to kill me after you have what you want," she answered in a whisper.

"Not necessarily. You see, I ~was~ rather furious at you for backstabbing me, and putting me on ice like that. I should have expected it, really, that's what Keepers do. I think what angered me the most was that a slight girl like you succeeded at taking me down. But now that I have re-affirmed the natural order, I am willing to let bygones be gone. Let's have a fresh start and work together, how about it?" He realised he meant it, too, even as he casually decapitated the imps coming to their mistress' aid, one after the other.

However, there still was that obstinate, defiant look in her eyes even as she struggled to shake her head. "I don't trust you."

Which left him with a bit of a problem. It was embarrassing, really. He had no problem with torture as such, except that he wasn't very good at it. Killing he could do. Torture, not so much. Lack of experience combined with a sick enthusiasm for cutting flesh left most of his victims dead before any desirable results could be achieved. Other than death, of course. Hmm, what could he do that wouldn't cause too much damage? He snorted at the thought. Him, worried about causing too much damage. Then he had a bright idea. She was a female, so...

"A stupid choice. I see you need some more 'convincing'."

Ami felt true terror at the malice expressed in those few words. Then, a scaled hand reached down, and grabbed a hold of the front of her sailor senshi uniform. Her body jerked as the demon gave the garment a violent tug, and with an agonised ripping noise, the front half came off. Oh no. No! No! NO! Not that! Ami froze in horror as she felt the chill of the dungeon air on the exposed skin of her chest. I wish I had died instead! I wish I was a real Keeper and knew how to get out of this situation! Having barely finished the panicked thought, she felt a surge of energy from the dungeon heart, as if she had just re-affirmed their connection. The next moment, she was gone.

The Horned Reaper looked at the blank ground in dismay and dropped the ragged piece of bow and white cloth he had been holding. Why did the brat have to pick now of all times to figure out Keeper transport? Uh oh. He felt the familiar drop in temperature when the air filled with fog. "Goodness," the demon let out a heart-felt curse.

"Shabon Spray Freezing!"

The voice calling out the attack name was full with righteous female fury, its direction lost to the sound-muffling qualities of this accursed fog. He barely managed to get out of the way. That had come from behind. Then he had to throw himself to the ground to dodge another blast of freezing water, this time from the right and above. So her transportation hadn't been a one-time thing. Double goodness. To summarise: he was fighting an angry Keeper with a ranged attack that could take him out of the fight in a single good hit, who was able to teleport nearly at will within her own dungeon, he couldn't even see her, and to make matters worse, he couldn't even attack her dungeon heart instead! This was the kind of unfair fight he never wanted to be on the wrong side of.

"You know, I," he dodged under a ray of frost,"really meant what I said about starting over," the Reaper ran, diving behind the cover of the dungeon heart's dais just as a spray of icy water splashed against it, turning into icicles.

"We don't have to fight! I could serve you by - ah, will you give it a rest already?" deflecting an incoming attack with a fireball from his scythe, he stepped aside, only to slip on the floor covered with ice. Great. Now she is getting creative too! "There's no reason for us to fight! You have shown that you have the needed ruthlessness to succeed as a Keeper!" Were her attacks coming less frequently? He thought so. "Come on, be reasonable. You are mortal and will tire out eventually. I am not, and can- Darkness!" he barely jumped out of a blast that came from straight above. How in the blazes of hell had she done that? He continued trying to convince her. "Look, if trust is the issue, I can swear allegiance to you at the dungeon heart, Then I won't be able to attack you or the heart, and you will be able to use your powers on me! Even if I chose to betray you later, the bond dissolving would warn you! Just consult the heart and you'll know that I'm not lying." Hating himself for doing so, he added: "Please?"

Silence, but no more attacks. He took that as an encouraging sign, and walked toward the looming black pillars that were the dungeon heart superstructure seen through the fog. He felt the familiar lure of its power, and opened himself to it, basking in its acceptance for a moment.

"It is done. Now do you finally believe me?"

The Reaper stood motionless, waiting for a response. It came rather quickly. SLAP! Reeling, from the invisible blow, he wondered what had just happened. SLAP! Ouch! Oh, that. He had all but forgotten that Keepers could do that. SLAP! SLAP! SLAPSLAPSLAPSLAPSLAPSLAP! Stumbling backward from the cascade of stinging blows, the Reaper felt himself roll down the stairs leading up to the dungeon heart. To add insult to injury, his own folded-up scythe hit him in the head on the way down.

Stupid, hysteric, overreacting human females. "All right! I get the message! Stop it already!" Perhaps it was the hint of barely restrained fury in his voice that convinced the girl that continuing would be a bad idea. In the ensuing silence, he heard faint sobbing from somewhere else in the room. The fog was fading out of existence now.

"Mercury Power, Make Up!" A flash of blue light concealed Ami for a split second when she triggered her transformation to restore her ruined outfit. It also re-applied her make-up, removing all traces of crying, and cleaned her body, as it was intended to. To the senshi, everything felt normal. Her sailor crystal, embedded within the dungeon heart, felt rather confused though. Not with providing its magical power, everything was working as normal there. No, it wasn't quite certain what to apply the cosmetic operations to. There were just so many connections, going every which way. Which one to choose? The non-sentient crystal had no way to take a decision, so it just chose all of them. A cylinder of light, centred on the heart, started expanding through the dungeon, leaving only gleam

The Reaper in Ami's garments

ing cleanness in blue and white tones and the occasional Mercury symbol in its wake.

The Horned Reaper felt weird, but not unpleasant sensations when the light washed over him, momentarily blinding him. He blinked against the glare, then stared at the new imps, his eyebrows rising up nearly to his horns. He let out an amused snort. Then, as a horrible suspicion dawned, he slowly looked down at himself. "Must not kill her. Must not kill her. Must not kill her. Must not kill her," was the mantra he desperately repeated inside his mind for the next several minutes. It took him that long to re-gain enough of his composure to growl out the words: "Whatever you did just now, NEVER. DO. IT. AGAIN!"

Ami missed a step at the bellow, startled. What was his problem now? Never mind. She had better get to that crystal ball quickly and see if she could call up that Nicodemus guy again, he might be able to help her with her problems.

The pot-bellied man in question was surprised to get a second request from a Keeper in one day. This was one was targeted at him specifically, too. That could be good or bad, but he wouldn't know until he answered. He gaped in amazement when he saw the girl from before, looking none the worse for wear.

"You? But the Reaper- "

"We reached an agreement," the blue-headed lady replied, her eyes going hard.

Nicodemus nodded dumbly. No surcharge for her, no. He did not want the ire of anyone who could fend of the Reaper and not even look bedraggled. That appearance had to be a glamour. What he caught a glimpse of next through the passage behind the Keeper had him gaping in shock, mouth open like a fish. The Horned Reaper, angrily ripping off a miniskirt just like the one the girl was wearing? A blue bow was waving behind the terrifying red figure like a flag, held in place only by a single thread. Were- were those earrings? LIPSTICK?! Forget about no surcharge, bring out the Valued Trusted Customer Please Don't Kill Me Discount. Whatever could do something like that to the Reaper had to be a horrible, powerful nightmare in disguise.

Previous chapter: Next chapter:
Chapter 2: Just how does any of this work? Chapter 4: Some Unfortunate Truths




Annoted comments:

  • This turned out much, much longer than I originally intended it to be.
    Something I wanted to add, but couldn't fit in was an explanation for why the library turned up devoid of books. The spell gathers the magical knowledge of Keepers, who have to be very accomplished magicians in order to be able to create their own dungeon hearts, from their heads and turns it into tomes. Those are then made available to warlocks for independent research. Somewhat censored, of course. Wouldn't want to train rivals who create their own dungeon hearts. In Ami's case, she simply lacks any useful magical lore, thus no books.
    Also, I'd be grateful if option 3 wasn't used to alter Ami's body or mind. I like her just fine the way she is.
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