The last thing she remembered was a man's face. An apology. A knife. It was as if she were looking through smoke. She knew what that smoke was. Knew why the man had done what he did. As she lay there dying, knife embedded in her chest even as the thing had coiled tighter around her soul, she tried to make her lips move, to thank him for stopping the thing puppeting her.
Then she watched as the monster work; Fuzen, Kronos, any number of a thousand other names made no difference to her. She watched it summon beings of Shadow that then took the black gemstone that was the physical manifestation of her soul and put it on a too large cradle.
Ishida's soul was somehow caged and shaped.
It howled in rage as it couldn't find the others. This brought Ami a sliver of comfort. Her friends were largely safe from this thing. With luck they would find each other again and eventually put an end to this monster.
What she hadn't expected was what her first neighbor would be. Even as Kronos screamed and howled, she laughed.
Then at the end. When Kronos, Kamio, Ishida, and Herself were nothing but the stuff of spirit fighting within the marble that was his core. She laughed. Even as everything again went dark and she could feel her soul sliding to the hereafter, she laughed.
She was free for the first time in years.
By every measure none would have faulted her for calling it quits. Those that knew her would have told her that her time was over, take her rest. Lay down her burdens.
She had no idea what this meant. Choose. What?
Then she understood. Not all of it, but enough. There was regret and guilt that guided her hand, but ultimately she felt she had more to offer, and there was so much she wanted to learn about this brave new world her and her friends were no longer being told by the cosmos itself to give up their lives for its sake.
Then it was dark again.
Unlike the other dungeon cores in the region, Ami knew what was going on. She saw the pond at the heart of what had once been parkland that was now her domain, and if she interpreted the alerts she was getting, the domains of other similarly young would-be dungeons. The one minion she had was a large bullfrog that sat atop her, protecting the tiny chip of pale blue rock with its bulk.
It wasn't the best starting minion and this was far from an ideal starting location.
'I take no pleasure in this.' She announced, or at least tried as her frog happily snagged passing insects. Some of these were natural, or at least unaffiliated. Others belonged to her neighbors.
What she got back was less words and more sensation. Fear. Hostility. Anger. A desire to protect themselves. This was problematic, since even if Ami wanted to forge alliances similar to the ones Lonely Hill had made she would be ringed in and the moment she was the smallest of the group she would be eaten.
The bullfrog that guarded Ami's core grabbed the fleck of pale blue crystal and, at her command, focused on evasion. Frogs were decent enough against the flies, beetles, and other such insects most of her competitors used. There were two that had somehow gotten Birds as their intial creatures.
Which left Ami instead scrambling instead of wait for mana to slowly roll in. Like her, they could sense when another's minions were near, couldn't instantly pick out from the long grasses and other bits of terrain if it wasn't actively attacking. This bought her time, and snagging the odd insect or so kept her in just enough mana to not shrink. Could she shrink? She didn't know, but wasn't interested in finding out.
The downside was she was in the same frog's stomach as said insects, and even if the majority of what she saw was a bubble of awareness around the frog? The idea that she was directly near bugs, inside of a frog's gut. She tried to shove it out of mind and instead focused on her surroundings. If she had birds she would have had them put her core in a tree.
The problem became one of seeing her target in a nest, and seeing the bird that nest belonged to. A normal frog couldn't make that leap, wouldn't have thought to try, and would have instead focused on burrowing down into the mud to try avoiding anything to do with birds.
Not that Ami could blame it given frogs were by and large feeder species for an untold number of things back home. Case in point; as she was eyeing the birds' nest Ami only noticed the snake after a tarantula scuttled out of the underbrush to get between her frog and it.
Compared to her frog it was absolutely massive. Ami, in spite of lacking any sort of traditional body or biology, swallowed. Scale was hard to judge, but when a spider is easily large enough for her bullfrog, which has her in its gut, to climb on. It is entirely too big.
The snake had much the same thought and backed down when the arachnid raised its forelimbs and bore venomous fangs. Had it wanted, the tarantula could have ended her. Ami knew it. The frog knew it. So too did the tarantula know it.
Instead, it lowered itself, wiggling its abdomen seemingly to get her attention. Ami saw its legs sprawl out, fangs lower. It was, to her, fascinating to the point of outweighing her fear. The rules of this place were clearly similar to, but not quite, what she knew from before. There was something intelligent guiding the tarantula's actions. That much was clear given not just how it intentionally showed it's abdomen to her rather than try herding or attacking Ami's frog, but also the feel she got from it.
That was the literal designation she got when examining it as she watched it scuttle up the tree her rival's nest was in, knock it over, and then intentionally stand its ground against the bird that came to investigate.
Ami couldn't afford to watch, though her curiosity practically screamed in frustration at what was going on. Instead she forced herself to focus on where the nest had fallen. The tarantula had knocked a competitor where her frog could grab and pull their little orange gem into its gullet.
'I'm sorry,' Was the only thing she could manage as she felt it dissolve amid the wash of panic, fear, and other emotions.
Yet it was what needed to happen. Her little blue gemstone chip grew, and her frog's skin grew leathery. It was still vulnerable, but she felt less uneasy at her odds as she resumed her search.
The next core belonged to one of those that had an insect as its minion. As large as the centipede was, and were she still human Ami wouldn't want anywhere near it, it and or its master had done a lousy job of using it as cover. Her frog's tongue flicked out, and she was on the move again as her rival dissolved.
As she encouraged her minion to run she thought back to that spider. They don't do that naturally. Except this one was clearly part of another dungeon. She racked her mind to try thinking. Lonely Hill's territory wasn't anywhere near here. She knew because she remembered Kronos sending Shadows out to explore. the park she was in was past that range, which by rights meant this spider had to belong to someone else.
So why was it, when she looked at a large weaver did it seem to recognize her?
It scuttled about, hopping in ways Ami wouldn't have thought possible. Yet here it was, using silk line as way to hang from a branch, swing its body about, before cutting the line and letting momentum carry it as it created a drag loop to slow its fall. At the scales insects operated at especially with a wide body plan, long falls weren't nearly the danger they were to larger animals. Yet Ami could have sworn the spider had used the drag line to aim where it would land rather than some attempt at just slowing itself.
Again. that unknown quality. Ami followed, mostly because she didn't feel safe, and her new friend (?!) kept doubling back to make sure her frog was still there. Could this be a trap? Of course it could be, but given whatever sent this spider probably threw the other spider away to help her? From a pure numbers perspective it didn't make sense. Just eat her and be done with it.
So she continued prodding her frog along until the spider raised its forelimbs and then streached upward to draw her attention.
Plain as day. Words written in a spiderweb.
A cold pit formed in Ami's middle. The list of people to know that name were impossibly small.
Then if anything the pit became a singularity when she saw the next web it gestured towards.
'Soldier of Aquarius.'
The spider approached her frog before pointing to a burrow several tarantula exited from. Then to athird sign.
'He does not know I have found you.'
two of the tarantula flanked the burrow, almost gesturing with their forelimbs for her to enter. Stone. Something moles and other small burrowers likely wouldn't be able to dig through. A singular defendable entryway. It would make a good starting location.
ACCEPT GIFT Y/N?
The spider watched as Ami's frog spat out her crystal, now rounded and the size of a small pearl. the two tarantula that came with the burrow moved to start hunting. It was pleased with this arrangement. The Weaver only knew that it was gone exploring. Its attention to of ocused on other things to know what she was doing here. Which suited it fine.
The Weaver would need allies beyond what it had, and what better ally than one freed from an enemy web?
Charlotte was pleased as she scuttled away. She would help Ami only a little further. Much more than that risks drawing attention she did not want. It was much the same as creating an egg sac. Not enough preparation risked the endeavor to failure. Too much attention causes it to be noticed and preyed upon.
All eyes that looked here had to believe this one was merely lucky in how it had gotten established.
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