"This doesn't look good! It's as if there's no end to the spiders," Cathy shouted as she cut through a stabbing foreleg, then finished her attacker with a cut between the eyes.

"Actually, we seem to be winning," Mercury, who had better battlefield awareness from her Keeper sight, contradicted and fired one of her freezing spells at a passing vampire. "We are getting closer and closer to the enemy dungeon heart. Look!"

Mareki hovered over the battle like a grey humanoid lizard and swept the stream of water from her gaping mouth in wide arcs over the lines of arachnids. The powerful burst pushed them back with smashed limbs and carapaces, securing the left flank of the forces that were slowly advancing on the enemy dungeon heart. On the right side, a semi-spherical patch of utter darkness served as obstacle to the enemy hordes. Ami didn't know exactly what Umbra was doing to those spiders that dared enter, but so far, none had left the one-armed youma's dome. With both flanks unassailable, the goblins, trolls, and warlocks were able to put pressure on the front that even the numerical superiority of the enemy couldn't hold back.

Ami was about to engage a vampire in an aerial battle when a jolt went through her mind. She turned very, very pale, and her crimson-glowing eyes widened in terror. What? The alarm wards? Now? "Intruders have breached my dungeon! Cathy, I have to leave!"

With her Keeper transport remaining suppressed by the enemy dungeon heart, she was glad she had the Dark Kingdom style teleport as alternative, or she would have been stuck here. Accompanied by a maelstrom of snowflakes, she sent herself to her workshop. Immediately, she felt Nero's magic tug and pull at her body, and realised that she would be yanked back in an instant. "Sorry, Tiger." Ami ended the possession, staying behind as the tiger-striped youma disappeared back to the battle. She hoped the mentally damaged creature would be fine on her own. Fortunately, the magic didn't try to seize her real body, too, since she didn't count as an underling. Unfortunately, with both the youma's magical reserves and the Keeper transport unavailable, she was down to Shabon Spray, Keeper spells, personal magic, and skill at arms to beat back the invasion. All on her own. I can't lose here when everyone else is out there fighting for me! At least she still had her Keeper sight to spy on the enemies within her dungeon, see what they were up to, and formulate a response.

"All right, Alphel dear," the red-eyed imp standing on Mercury's opulent throne said when a scarred dark mistress rose like a blob of black tar from the pooling shadows. "I'm ready." As it spoke, it emptied its squirming backpack onto the floor, disgorging around a score of toads. "Do your thing."

"You would do well to be more respectful, Arachne." The dark mistress, whose eyes were burning just as crimson as those of the imp, snapped her fingers. Three of her own imps teleported in within swirls of greenish motes, somersaulting as they dropped to the ground. They too emptied bags full of amphibians onto the floor. A wheel-shaped symbol appeared in the leather-dressed woman's eyes, rotating slowly. Where her stare met the floor, a matching many-spoked magic circle appeared, and the animals within abruptly changed shape as the transformation magic on them was broken. Out of Arachne's toads grew different kinds of giant spiders and a handful of warlocks, while Alphel had brought orcs and bile demons.

Far away in the workshop, Ami's knuckles whitened around the heft of the two-handed sword she had picked from one of the smithies. TWO Keepers after her, cooperating?

"So this is Mercury's throne room," Alphel said as she turned once around her own axis, taking in the glittering architecture. "I already hate it. Smash. Everything!"

The horde of orcs was only too eager to obey the command, and Ami's opulent throne was the first to casualty. Spiked warhammers ripped great chunks out of the stone furniture, reducing it to a pile of unrecognisable rubble and dust and chasing Arachne's imp body away.

"Mind if I join in?" she asked, unperturbed.

Alphel gave a mock bow. "Be my guest."

One of the spiders, a matte-black arachnid with short legs and a stocky build, increased to mammoth size. The Arachne-imp cackled and raised its stubby arms. "Dance for me! Yes, that's right!"

The titanic spider started slamming its legs into the ground to a clumsy rhythm, shattering the mirrored floor under its weight and bringing down some of the pillars from the quakes. The warlocks and other spiders scrambled to get out of its path while dodging the flying debris.

"Adequate," Alphel grumbled, never one to admit having been outdone. "My scrying indicates that the door behind the throne is the only way to her dungeon heart."

"Ah?" Arachne whistled, drawing the attention of the super-spider. "You heard the evil fellow. That way!" The imp pointed at the wall, and the monster charged it like a battering ram. To the Keeper's satisfaction, cracks started spreading from the impact zone. "Again! Haha! Again!"

"Don't be an idiot. I have no interest in dealing with her traps. Since you were kind enough to get all her minions out of our way, we shall simply dig our own entrance," Alphel declared as she strutted toward the back wall. Prompted by an unseen warning, her head whipped around, catching a brilliant mote of light in her gaze. The wheel-symbols in her eyes flared, snuffing out the budding firestorm spell. "Aw, did you notice us, Mercury?" the Keeper called into the room, causing the troops to tense up. "Your efforts are futile. Lord Azzathra protects me from your weak magic, and is eagerly awaiting your imminent arrival!"

This isn't good , Ami thought, her muscles twitching from the power feedback caused by the stillborn magic. If the enemy could zero in and on her Keeper spells and deny them before they formed, then they were almost useless. Could she blind the enemy Keeper somehow? Shabon Spray was the obvious option, but without her transport power, she couldn't use it remotely. Could she risk getting closer? She watched the possessed dark mistress put her hand on the wall, causing its magical fortifications to crumble. An eager imp scuttled forward and drove its pick into the ice. As soon as the digging implement burrowed itself into the surface, the imp started twitching and shaking. Accompanied by a sizzling noise, it dissolved into a cloud of fading green motes and left nothing but a burnt smell behind.

"...the hell?" Alphel cocked her head, narrowing her eyes at the tiny puncture in the wall that gleamed metallic at its deepest point.

"What, Azzathra's ability to shut down magic failed you already?" Arachne mocked, and had to duck under a thrown shard. "Tetchy."

"Fine, do it your way, then," Alphel ordered when another imp died from an electric shock as soon as it struck the wall, despite her glaring at the wall with her anti-magic gaze on full power.

"I know you'd see reason. Minions, make room for the spider! Spider, break down that wall!"

Ami felt the dungeon vibrate when the massive bulk of the enlarged spider slammed into the wall. Huge chunks of ice skidded down the corridor behind it as the arachnid broke through the obstacle in a shower of clinking shards and sparking electric cables. It thrashed around with its hairy forelimbs and let out a piercing wail as it struggled to free itself from the tight breach. Arachne solved the problem by shrinking the animal back to its regular size. Not out of sympathy for the creature, who wobbled tiredly back to the safety of the ruined throne room, but because it had blocked the way. From the breach crept the dense dry-ice based fog that Ami used to protect the secrets of the forbidden part of her dungeon.

"Shabon Spray!"

The shout came from behind, just outside the throne room. Arachne spotted a faint blue flash through the ice wall, bereft of its stone cladding. Through the open door, more fog drifted into the vast chamber.

"Oh, she's here! That's perfect!" Alphel laughed as her gaze burned clear cones into the encroaching mist. "Are you thinking what I am thinking?"

Arachne just grinned and gave a hand signal to the five warlocks she had brought. The magicians nodded and faded from view, sparing the world the sight of their garish red robes with embroidered black spiders. "Find her. Kill her if you can," she told her invisible troops. "Spiders! More webs! Make sure she gets stuck if she dares follow us!" Under her watchful gaze, the arachnids started spinning their webs and draping them over the walls. She barely noticed the faint depressions that the footsteps of her cloaked wizards left on the debris-strewn floor as she returned her attention to the laid-open corridor. "Right. Traps. I have just the spell for this! Come, my pretties, and seek out what would harm us!" She let a gust of mana follow her words, and a carpet of vermin sprang from her fingers.

"Work fast. I'm going hunting!" Alphel said, her borrowed face distorting into a wide grin.

"Shabon Spray!" Ami pressed her back against the wall as she peeked around the corner with her visor. Alphel's ability being strong enough to dispel the fog had been an ugly surprise, but it seemed to be line of sight only. Thus, if she stayed away from the enemy Keeper, she could at least pick off the minions sent out to hunt her. The less could make it to her dungeon heart, the better. She was a bit nervous about her traps being able to stop this intrusion on their own, but first, she would deal with the problems she could handle. While her Keeper sight didn't pick up the invisible mages, her visor did so without problems. The one she had just targeted peered nervously into the fog, turning at random intervals. He never noticed her when she floated soundlessly along the ceiling, reached down, and ripped out his life energy through his scalp. Three down, two more to go. Ami leaned her sword against the wall and consulted her computer. The remaining two were close to each other and checking the living quarters, using a - visible - imp to open the doors for them. Whenever they had verified that she wasn't in there, they launched a fireball into the bedroom and torched the belongings of the inhabitants before proceeding to the next room. Ami grimaced at the wanton destruction and waited for the right moment. All right, one had just entered another chamber. With a flash of blue, she appeared behind his partner in crime. A quick grab to the neck with a hand shrouded in black, and he collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut.

"Got you."

Ami's hackles rose when she heard the tiny and entirely unexpected voice behind her, and she teleported out immediately. To her shock, the magic she gathered around herself dissipated instantly, and she remained solidly where she was. Whirling around in sudden dread, she spotted the imp she hadn't considered a serious danger. Its huge eyes were glowing red, and the wheel-like symbol within gleamed with sinister yellow light.

"Don't run away now, little girl. My minions will be here soon enough to put you out of your misery!"

In a split-second, Ami evaluated her options. Darting into one of the burning rooms was out, since Alphel's anti-magic gaze must have shut down her fire immunity. Running down the corridor was an option, but she didn't want to turn her back to the miniature enemy. Imp or not, it was possessed by a spell-casting Keeper. That left eliminating the source of the danger. Almost as soon as the thought was finished, Ami was already moving, lunging with her two-handed sword at the miniature enemy - who disappeared in a swirl of green motes and reappeared at the other end of the long, straight corridor, grinning at her evilly. Foiled, she made a break for the closest open door and smacked face-first into the invisible warlock. Quick-witted, the evil mage slammed the door shut in her face while she bounced back. Slightly dazed by the impact, Ami remained aware enough to hear the bar behind the obstacle slide shut. "Darn it!" Very well. She only had to be out of the other Keeper's sight long enough to teleport. As fast as she could, she sprinted toward the corner at the opposite end of the corridor, where her shadow was moving in a many-spoked magical circle. It even generates its own light! That kills my other plan! Ami looked back over her shoulder to see if Alphel wasn't casting anything. If she was lucky, he would have to shut his suppressive stare down to use magic. The sheltering corner was close now. Only two more bounds. Ami's eyes widened, and only her senshi reflexes saved her from the eviscerating claws strapped to the wrists of the leather-clad, scarred woman who had been waiting for her there. The muscles in Ami's legs protested as she thrust as hard as she could, pushing her entire weight backward and away from the scissoring arc the gleaming blades scraped to the air. Three shallow lines just below her left ribs burned on her skin, and a few white scraps of cloth from her fuku fluttered through the air.

"Die!" the dark mistress shouted and thrust her right hand forward, then blinked when the bolts of lightning jumping from her fingers died before it could reach its target.

Thanks, Alphel Ami thought sarcastically as she took advantage of the woman's momentary confusion, grabbed the extended wrist behind the claws, and yanked her close. A quick knee to the stomach and a follow-up strike with the pommel of the sword to the woman's chin sent her reeling to the floor, moaning in ecstasy. Even without Keeper senses, Ami could already hear the trampling footsteps of an entire horde of orcs closing in rapidly on her position. She darted past the corner, out of the imp's line of sight, teleported, and felt like screaming in frustration when she remained where she was. Behind her, the prone mistress was staring at her with red-glowing eyes. Ami lashed out with her sword, but the weapon came to a screeching stop between the raised claws of the possessed enemy.

"Give it up, Mercury. None can escape me."

Hearing the orcs approach, Ami turned tail and ran. She knew there was a spiral staircase not far away, where she should be able to dive out of sight long enough to get to safety. By now, she was wishing that she hadn't designed most hallways long and straight for security purposes. With her heart pounding, she checked on the position of the orcs, only to find that they were splitting into squads and methodically entering all of her possible escape routes. They'd block her path at the nearest intersection. Ami almost stumbled from dividing her attention between running and watching a different region of the dungeon at the same time. Alphel can't be protecting them as long as she's staring at me! she realised. Casting a spell while dashing was difficult, but she somehow managed without swallowing her tongue. A rumbling burst of flame shot from the side tunnel to the right, thundering across her path like a speeding train. The explosion raced onwards into the right tunnel, from which Ami briefly heard appalled screams. The fires didn't die down quickly enough and blocked the corridor, but Ami just increased her pace. She covered her face with both arms as she jumped straight through the wall of searing flame, over a charred corpse, and teleported. She failed once again, and dropped into a roll on the other side. A few hurried pats put out her singed skirt as she got back to her feet. Six pink-skinned orcs were charging at her, one with wheel-marked burning eyes. With reflexes ingrained from Cathy's painful training sessions, Ami's made her sword flash up and met a descending war hammer with much more force than could be reasonably expected from the slight girl. She saw the creature's beady eyes widen in disbelief as she batted its weapon aside, one-handed no less, and stabbed it in the stomach. With the wounded orc tumbling back and stumbling into its allies, Ami had a moment to assess her situation. She needed to get out of Alphel's sight, but he was protected by his orcs and ready to switch bodies as soon as she made a break for it, with imps positioned in many strategic locations by now. So she did the last thing he expected. With a loud battle-cry, the slight girl lunged forward, sword raised high.

The dumbfounded orcs grinned in anticipation. Their faces fell when lightning-quick strikes rained down on them with enough force to send them reeling. They were well-trained, but they were neither reaper nor at least senshi-level combatants. Individually, they wouldn't even be a match for one of Marda's trolls, Ami realized as her blade drew gleaming arcs through the air, parrying strikes left and right with loud clangs. Against this kind of opponent, the physical superiority provided by her senshi enhancements was enough to make up for her relative lack of skill. Maybe she needs to touch targets to disable enchantments? Ami wondered, remembering how Alphel had torn down the fortification on a spot of wall. An orc was not fast enough to protect his throat from her blade's darting tip, and he slumped to the ground with a ghastly gurgle. Ami gasped in pain when one of the many whirling clubs slipped through her defence and scored a glancing hit against her right shoulder blade, but the adrenaline pumping through her veins kept her from fully registering the injury. She rolled with the blow and kicked away an attacker sneaking up on her from behind, warned by her Keeper sight. A vicious hack to the right, and another troll went down, missing his lower leg. That left her enough room to manoeuvre closer to Alphel and enact her plan.

The possessed orc grinned at Mercury's approach, and why shouldn't he? This wasn't Alphel's own body, so there was no risk to herself. She had the panting, blood-covered girl right where she wanted, and reinforcements were arriving. Azzathra would reward her greatly for personally destroying this thorn in his side!

Ami rammed her elbow into the solar plexus of the orc to her left, squinting through the blood that was dripping into her eyes from a cut just below her tiara, and lunged at Alphel. The enemy Keeper easily caught the overhead blow on her spiked hammer, disregarding her borrowed body's safety limits. Ami wasn't discouraged, though. All she cared about was getting close enough that those terrible eyes could not keep track of all of her body. She bent forward so that her left palm was at about the same height as Alphel's knees. Ami's plan was simple: surprise Alphel by making her slip and get behind her before she could turn or jump bodies. The execution was tricky, however. She didn't have the magical reserves to cast her freezing spell under her own power. If she tried, she would drop to her knees from exhaustion and be an easy target for the orcs. Her dungeon heart, however, was only too happy to use gold to provide an alternative power source. "Shabon Spray Freezing!"

The improvisation worked better than Ami had expected, and Alphel was suitably surprised when the black shards of the corrupted spell tore her feet off and made her topple forward like timber. Somewhat cheekily, Ami slammed her hands onto the head of the falling orc and leapfrogged over him, clearing his field of vision. In a flash of blue, she was gone.

"Arachne! Why haven't you gotten to the dungeon heart yet?" Alphel fumed as she strutted into the room in her favourite dark mistress' scarred body, followed by white-haired orcs, who slumped their shoulders like whipped puppies. The sight of the corridor leading deeper into Mercury's inner sanctum told her enough. It was covered in scorch marks, scrapes, and uncountable finger-long spiders. An impaled spider hung from a ballista bolt in the ceiling, and in places, the passage looked as if it had collapsed in on itself, requiring imp labour to clear it.

The other Keeper, still possessing an imp, was down to two measly spiders and actually looked embarrassed. "I am making progress, but I'm afraid these traps are devious. Many of them don't seem to be fuelled by magic and just kill their victims with invisible lightning. Others have a delayed reaction, or wait for the second person to trigger. But don't despair, my little beauties are hard at work discovering and disarming all of these nasty surprises for us."

A flash of blue came from the door, accompanied by the challenging voice of a young girl. "Alphel! Face me again if you dare!"

Mercury! Quick like a snake, Alphel focused her glare on the slip of a girl that stood in the open door of her shattered throne room, striking an incredibly silly-looking pose. What was the stupid brat thinking, doing something suicidal like that? She wasn't even taking a ready stance! As if felled by the eager Keeper's death glare, the blue-haired teenager slowly fell over, her arms still fixed in their initial positions. The mannequin's blue wig came lose as it struck the ground. "What the-" Alphel whirled around, realising that she had been had. At the same time, the minions started howling in pain. An evil black fog was pouring into the ruined room through the cracks in the ground, with devastating effect on the living creatures trapped within. It dispersed as soon as she looked at it, but the damage was done.

"Lady Alphel, I can't see," one of the orcs complained before stumbling into another. All around, similar complaints echoed through the chamber.

"Well, this sucks," the red-eyed swarm of insects that had squeezed out of a writhing imp's body commented with a thousand voices. "I can't work with all my minions blind and deaf. I'm out of here!"

"Arachne! Don't you dare!" Alphel raged, but the insect cloud had already turned into black lightning and darted away through the ceiling. "MERCURY! Do you think you have won? Do you really think you can get away with humiliating me like that? More powerful Keepers than you have tried, and none remain among the living!" The dark mistress fell quiet, not because she wanted to, but because her lung capacity was exhausted. She took a deep breath and continued, slightly calmer. "Who needs Arachne, anyway? I will show you why brute force and power triumph over sneakiness and trickery! You will now have the undeserved honour of being eradicated by the greatest of my minions, Azzathra's most favoured servant!"

Huddled against the dungeon heart and taking some comfort from its calm beat, Ami felt like banging her head against one of the four pillars surrounding the artefact. Would she have to deal with yet another reaper now? Nervously, she watched an imp appear next to Alphel and pull a chicken from its backpack. Black lightning shot from the dark mistress into the bird as the Keeper switched bodies. The scarred women, back in control of her own body, took one look at the transforming monstrosity and dashed for the closest shadow, diving into it as if it was a pool. The chicken was growing quickly. Its beak elongated into a long, toothy snout, and its wings took on a bat-like appearance even as it sprouted another set of legs.

A dragon, Ami realised. A huge dragon! Fascinated, she watched the head on top of the serpentine neck duck when its horns scraped against the ceiling. Azzathra's Favoured kept growing, long past what Ami would have considered possible. It was hard to believe that a creature that big could exist. The dragon had to crouch and tuck in its tail to even fit its enormous bulk into her vast throne room. Ami thought it wouldn't be very combat-effective confined like that, but unfortunately, she had no idea how to kill something that big, even if she could avoid Alphel's dread gaze.

"Now, you shall realise the futility of standing against me!" the creature roared, shaking the iceberg with its voice.

Hundreds of fist-sized balls appeared in the air around its body and dropped to the floor, reminding Ami of fairy glitter. They were all mirrored spheres, she realised, and Alphel would be able to see any part of his surroundings reflected in at least some of them. Was that enough to suppress magic? Sacrificing a gold coin, Ami cast a light spell underneath the dragon's tail, only to have it snuffed out without the beast even noticing. No sneaky teleports into blind, vulnerable spots for her, then. Not that her computer had detected any yet. At least, the monster was still stuck in the throne room.

"You like knowledge, don't you?" Alphel growled. "You are in luck, then. I will teach you why you shouldn't have built your dungeon out of ice! It will be the last lesson you ever learn!"

The dragon whipped its tail against the wall, and Ami could feel its magical reinforcements shatter where it was hit. If she had been observing the scene through her own eyes, she would have had to avert her eyes from the glare when the room lit up like the sun. Its icy surfaces mirroring and reflecting the light of the bright white flames streaming from the dragon's maw, dimmed only by the steam rising from the boiling puddle where the wall had been.

Alphel wasn't satisfied with merely melting a tunnel to Mercury's dungeon heart. She would not crawl through a confined passage, but walk proudly with her head held high! Bursts of flame shot into every direction, devastating the surrounding dungeon and causing boiling water to pool around her feet. She didn't mind. Neither did she mind the huge chunks of ice that bounced off her emerald scales when the ceiling collapsed, pelting her with masonry and broken furniture. The few, miserable minions who hadn't been trampled or fried yet were not so lucky.

Ami winced as yet another dry ice container exploded, overheated by the stream of fire vomited forth by the behemoth. The dragon was making a complete mess of her dungeon while it inexorably advanced toward its destination. The blue-haired teenager realised that she was shaking in fright. At the foot of the dungeon heart's dais, gold coins appeared while she sold off rooms in the path of the monster before they could be destroyed. For once, she had no good plan. The ballista bolts and cannonballs were just bouncing off the creature's skin, magic was out, and Alphel was smart enough to not undermine anything sufficiently heavy to inconvenience her. Even the sparking cables draped across her snout and front legs did nothing to slow her down. She simply melted her way through the ice as if she was wielding a blowtorch. Ten more metres until she would arrive in the vast heart chamber, forcing a confrontation. Ami renewed her fire protection and stood her ground in front of the dungeon heart, glaring in defiance at the cracks forming in the orange-glowing ice. All too soon, the wall crumbled, and the horned, red-glowing head of the creature poked into the room. Ami's heart almost stopped when she got her first look at it in person. That maw looked big enough to swallow an elephant without chewing! Fire! she thought, directing the array of traps covering the walls to aim at the crimson slits in the gigantic lizard face. The purely magical devices misfired, cancelled-out by Alphel's gaze, but there were enough mechanical ones to fill the air with the whistling of ballista bolts and cannonballs. Ami yanked on a lever, and the floor dropped out underneath her as the dungeon heart sank into a cylindrical pit, breaking its connection to the rest of the dungeon. A metal disk slid into place above her, sealing the entrance. The lid, at least, was still connected to the dungeon heart and counted as Ami's territory, allowing her to observe the effects of her last desperate ploy.

When the explosions and thwacking impacts subsided, the dragon's sooty face looked as if it was covered in stubble from all the bolts and harpoons sticking out of its skin. Eyelids like safe doors lifted, revealing that the monster's crimson orbs remained unharmed. Alphel cocked her head when the bombardment stopped and threw a bemused glance at the metal disk where the dungeon heart used to be. She dragged the rest of her body into the room through the crumbling wall and blew a playful gust of flame at the cover. The surrounding ice melted away, revealing a metal cylinder within the cooling pool she had just made..

"Seriously, Keeper? Tinned food?" Alphel gloated as she sat down before the covered pit, raising a giant paw like a cat ready to strike. "I shall crush you with these very claws!"

Ami was at her wisdoms end and stared up at the raised limb with terrified resignation. If only she had been rich enough to make the bunker walls thicker! Much thicker! Her thoughts flashed back to her friends. Usagi. Rei. Luna. Would they be all right without her? And would Cathy, Snyder, and Jered survive? She had failed them. She had no way to stop something this strong! She didn't want to die and go back to Azzathra! Hot tears form stung in her eyes as she beheld the huge creature that would be the end of her, bringing its clawed forelimb down to smash through the steel lid above. It would take an act of god to stop - wait!

The dragon's forelimb whistled down like a falling bus, and Ami cringed as it tore through the bending steel with an awful tearing noise. Like a spear, it kept going deeper, straight toward her and the vulnerable dungeon heart.


The enormous creature's tortured bellow was incredibly loud and caused Ami to yelp in pain and curl up into a ball as its echoes rolled like thunder across the landscape. The dragon's forelimb had penetrated the cover and descended up to its elbow, deep enough to pierce the dungeon heart and burrow through the floor below. Ami, instead of being sucked screaming into Azzathra's clutches, was looking up at a second artificial ceiling. The intruding limb disappeared after a mere meter, vanishing into the swirling, hypnotic pool of the dark temple she had constructed in its path at the last moment.

Ami dropped to her knees in relief. "It- it worked." Shaken and bleeding from her ears, she looked outside just in time to see something black and shadowy detach itself from the enormous dragon and zoom off over the ocean, toward the west. Even to her rattled senses, it looked incomplete and sluggish. At the same time, the light in the monster's eyes died, and its reared-back head succumbed to gravity. Its enormous jaw crashed down next to the metal cylinder, cracking the ice with its weight. The resulting quake toppled Ami, but she noted that it hadn't made any sound. Frowning, she raised shaking hands to her ears and fixed her hearing. Then, she let out a relieved breath. She almost couldn't believe that she was still alive. Under her feet, the devastated iceberg kept quaking from the dragon's death throes. Now, she finally knew what happened to someone who touched the temple's pool. Her scientific mind wondered whether the part that was inside the basin was simply gone, or whether she would need to pull it out. She also should return to the battle with Nero. Then, strange crackling noises from above drew her attention, and she received the next unwelcome surprise of the day. The temple's dark violet carvings weren't supposed to glow or rearrange themselves into the approximation of a many-horned skull! Before Ami knew what was happening, she found herself on the ground right next to the dead dragon's limb, looking at the dark blue, veined rock sculpture.

Queen Beryl shielded her eyes with one arm when the black crystal ball tipping her staff flared brightly, and she squinted into the unexpected, flame-shaped glow that wafted around it for several seconds. Her mouth opened once, then closed again. "Queen Metallia?" With no thought spared for her courtiers, she sank through the bottom of her stone throne like a ghost and hurried toward the Great Ruler's cocoon.

"Rise!" a thundering, female voice sounded in Ami's mind. Confused, she noted that her knees were still touching cold floor tiles.

"Q-queen Metallia?" She asked as she complied with the order, trying not to show her dread.

"You have proven yourself a worthy servant," the voice confirmed, and tendrils of blackness crept out of the basin to wrap around the blue-haired girl. "Receive my dark blessing!"

The evil energy sank through Ami's skin and into her body, startling her. It was not an unpleasant feeling, as such, and partly reminded her of her transformation sequence. Nevertheless, the sensation of something caressing her organs was creeping her out incredibly, as did her ignorance about what was going on. Metallia took the dragon's life energy? Her teeth chattered. Had she saved herself and thereby released the dark goddess, dooming the world?

Fortunately for Ami, Queen Metallia seemed to mistake her silence and lack of reaction for overawed reverence. "You may now draw upon my dark power as easily as any of my generals can. Use it wisely to gather more energy so that I may fully awaken!"

The young senshi's relief at not having accidentally freed the greatest threat to her world enabled her to throw off her paralysis. "Thank you," she said respectfully and bowed, despite feeling like screaming inside. She had enough problems with dark gods without offending another one, particularly this one.

Now, I- Metallia's voice wavered, and the next utterance of the malevolent entity was a growl of bone-chilling outrage. "Who dares attack the Queen of Darkness?" she hissed as her voice faded away. The temple's pool bubbled as its pillars shook, and after a few heartbeats, the violet light faded away. They had been short heartbeats, too, since Ami's heart was racing. She looked down at herself and grimaced. Still, if the whites of her uniform turning black and the bows becoming more jagged were the worst of the changes, she would count herself lucky. No time to dwell on all of this now, since she still had a battle to finish and employees to save!

It was a good thing that Nero no longer had hair, since he would have been pulling it out right now. Where did Mercury find these freaks? It just wasn't fair! His invincible reaper was being stalled by a troll, of all things, and that weird water-spewing lizard woman was bowling over his formations wherever she chose! The clump of spider corpses dragging itself forward like a macabre tortoise while firing bolts at an insane rate was less mysterious, since it was simply a tentacle monster emulating a hermit crab while cycling through six crossbows. A remarkable feat of dexterity, yes, but one that Nero wasn't inclined to admire. The damn thing kept perforating his all-important spiders.

He still had no idea what was inside the black dome that had appeared on one of the slopes and was inching towards his dungeon heart, since none of his forces that entered it ever left. Worst of all, however, was that blond, grey-uniformed arsehole floating above the battlefield and laughing maniacally. His shield seemed impervious to anything the spiders threw at him, and he kept making the arachnids fall asleep, only to turn them against their rightful master like animated puppets . That guy had to go! At least, the few surviving vampires were performing as advertised. Nero buzzed toward one in swarm form. "You! Blow that troll away from the reaper!"

"Yes, Keeper." Mud sprayed as the vampire unleashed a gust of wind, succeeding in separating Marda from her opponent and tossing a few goblins on their backs.

"Rabixtrel," Nero shouted as he floated past the demon's horns, "leave the troll alone, kill that guy instead!" A hand made out of black insects pointed at Jadeite.

The reaper seemed to consider the words for a moment, then snorted and walked in the indicated direction. Each spider in the immediate vicinity lunged at Marda, preventing her from catching up.

"Oh, what is this? Someone dares challenge a dark general?" With an arrogant smirk, Jadeite drifted closer to the ground to make things easier for the charging reaper.

"Do not underestimate him!" Snyder called from where he was hiding behind the dark elven sharpshooters. "His cursed scythe can cut through almost anything!"

"I'll take your advice into consideration," the dark general said while he made a come-hither gesture toward the demon.

Eager for his next kill, the horned reaper blurred with speed and launched himself off a spider's back. The human's hand was raised, palm outward and ready to receive the charge on his shield, as if that could save him.

Jadeite's smirk did not falter, even when he felt the reaper's magic wrap like invisible restraints around him. "Bye bye," he quipped when the red demon was committed to his leap. Instead of a shield, a black ellipse appeared in front of the curly-haired blonde, swallowing the fearsome creature whole. The portal sealed up as fast as it had come.

Nero gaped and went nearly apoplectic with rage when he realised that the spell had removed his most valuable minion out of range of either dungeon heart. Things got worse when the funnel-shaped web connecting his dungeon heart with the ceiling inflated like a balloon and exploded, cutting off the reinforcements from above and sending burning spiders flying like shooting stars. The former warlock saw red. Curse Arachne and her stupid plans! If he was going down here, he would take as many others with him as he could. Like the troll swinging on a spider silk rope like a pirate and hitting a flying vampire in the face so hard it failed to revive, or the knight-type hanging back and tossing knives. Or that bare-chested blonde covered in mud and wielding a scythe. His attention lingered on the woman a bit longer. Oh, and that floating blond arsehole, too! Yes! Well, maybe not. He could fly. Hopefully, some fountaining lava would get him. As Nero's last act of defiance, he ordered his imps to cut down the tall stone pillar on which the entire battle was taking place. He still had a chance. If Mercury had not enough troops left to march on his remaining dungeon heart, he could save himself.

When Ami possessed Tiger, the youma was standing over a sandcastle and pulling a spider's legs out one by one. More legless torsos wailed piteously nearby. Disgusted, Ami squished the animal she was holding between her borrowed hands and surveyed the battle. Her forces were almost at the dungeon heart, and only the constant reinforcements through the silk tube dangling from the ceiling were stalling them. The corners of her lips curved up. She could help with that! One firestorm spell, coming up! As soon as the orange flash above the enemy dungeon heart announced her return, she teleported over to the main bulk of her forces to assist their push.

"Cathy, what's the situa-" Ami gaped and covered her mouth, taken aback by the sight of swordswoman wearing not much more than mud, a loincloth, and a few bits of metal.

"Reaper cut up my sword and kicked me into a clump of spiders, so I had to get a new weapon really fast," the blonde explained, lifting her scythe. "Thanks for the shield charm, by the way. That saved me there."

"I'm glad you are all right," Ami smiled, just when the first strike against the enemy dungeon heart rang out like a bell, raising the spirits of her forces and invigorating them for the final advance. Just then, the ground shook and let out a deep, rolling groan that easily drowned out the noise of the fighting. In its wake followed a deep silence as all creatures fidgeted and looked around for the source of the danger. Almost as one, the spiders secreted silk threads from their bulbous behinds, launched them at the ceiling, and abandoned the trembling, shaking ground. The silence turned into a panicked cacophony of screams when a crack went through the platform near the edge and part of it broke off. Even the most slow-witted goblins suddenly understood what was going on.

"The pillar! Nero's imps are hollowing it out!" Ami shouted when her giant flies spotted the tiny workers hewing away at the rock with all their might, about halfway down to the lava-filled bottom.

"Can you get us out of here yet?" Cathy asked when the ground wobbled some more under her feet.

"Not until the dungeon heart dies," Ami answered with a grim expression on her face. "All flies! Hunt down those imps!" she mentally broadcast her orders. At this rate, the platform would crash down before the dungeon heart could be shattered, especially with the way her minions were panicking and running around like headless chicken. One of the lose white threads of silk dangling from the ceiling drifted past her. "The spider webs!" Everyone, follow the spiders! Jadeite, Mareki, Umbra, keep the enemy from detaching the threads!

Ami disappeared as her minions made a mad dash for the closest silk strings, pushing and jostling each other to be the first in line. Goblins, trolls, and warlocks started climbing the ropes, urged to hurry by those behind them and cursed for their slowness. Another wave of panic went through the masses when the platform inclined by several degrees, coinciding with Jadeite releasing the swamp-creating glamour. He needed his magic to affect the curtain-like spider webs above, even though the adjustment he made was minor. Nevertheless, turning even the strings meant for walking over into sticky ones meant that the colony of giant spiders lurking above literally had to remain glued in place.

"Shabon Spray Freezing! Shabon Spray Freezing! Shabon Spray Freezing! Shabon Spray Freezing!" Ami fired the scintillating bubbles into the imp tunnels as fast as she could go through the motions. She was trying to slow down the collapse and buy time for her soldiers by filling in the gaps with ice, stabilising the rock. "Shabon Spray Freezing! Shabon Spra- aiiiiee!" Suddenly, a swarm of stinging, biting and pinching insects enveloped her, filling her mouth and nostrils and trying to chew through her eyelids. Coughing and choking, she batted at her face while the aggressive insects tried to force themselves down her throat.

"Scream and suffer, you worthless piece of shit!" the swarm buzzed. "I won't let you save them! I won't! I won-"

A bolt of lightning struck Ami's back, sending agonising spasms through her body and frying the insects besetting her. The blackened organisms flaked off her face easily enough, but her body still shook from bloody coughs as it tried to expel the attackers who had done their best to rip open her throat from the inside. She felt strong, cold arms wrap around her from behind, catching her. She hadn't even been aware that she had been falling.

"You can thank me properly later. The spire is about to come down on us, if you hadn't noticed," Nurgil's ice voice said from somewhere behind her neck, making her hackles rise. "I hope you don't mind if I get us out of here."

Already? Were that all of her troops, hanging from the ceiling like garlands? Her Keeper sight informed her that the giant flies and flying youma were sweeping down on the last moving bodies and gathering them up, just as the platform crumbled for real. She didn't miss the many bloody and unmoving ones lying between the corpses, either, before the rock slide thankfully hid them from her view.

Hanging from the ceiling like ugly pearls clinging to many different strings, Ami's surviving minions watched with baited breath as the stone spire broke apart in the middle with a deafening rumble and toppled sideways. The red-pulsing dungeon heart on its tip smashed into the side of the crater and shattered into glittering shards that followed the rest of the avalanche down into the lake of lava, accompanied by terrified, yet still hateful howl.

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Chapter 101: Nero's Spell (Part 1) Chapter 103: Back to the Iceberg

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