Kner shifted from one pink-skinned foot to the other, bored and nervous at the same time. The orc eyed the crowd of fellow monsters milling about in front of the portal with suspicion. He and the other three muscle-bound members of his warband had claimed a natural alcove a bit to the back of the cavern and growled at anyone who dared approach. He'd been part of the Retribution army before it dissolved, and wasn't too keen on trekking all the way back home to his cave on foot. By now, it had probably been plundered anyway. Stupid commanders, couldn't even prevent a portal from being torn down. Getting a well-paying job with Keeper - now Empress - Mercury was a more attractive notion than trying to find another employer willing to hire him. It was probably safer with her than with any other Keeper, too, now that the Avatar was back.

Feeling secure in his temporary shelter, he let his gaze wander over the other creatures waiting for Empress Mercury to acknowledge their presence. He shielded his eyes against the glare of the strange light source that the Dark Empress had affixed to the top of the cavern; an ostentatious display of how much power she could waste for trivial purposes. Personally, he didn't like the brightness, but there were six warlocks staring up at the undoubtedly magical contraption and discussing it, underlining their words with excited gestures. Idiotic spellcasters. They were ruining their night vision, but had the gall to think of themselves as the smart ones.

Other, more cautious or simply less social creatures, remained close to the megaliths forming the portal, pressing their backs against the smoothed rock walls as their gazes darted about. More confident and stupid beings wandered out and sat down on the smoothed ground to wait in relative comfort. Kner could only shake his head at that sort of behaviour. Getting comfortable when surrounded by throngs of potential enemies offended the soldier in him.

"Bet you a gold coin the one with the red-painted face is going to win," a gruff voice to the orc's left said. Mezok, an orcish comrade-in-arms, thrust a brutish arm past Kner's face to point at one of the two goblins circling each other with daggers out. The little greenskins were bleeding from shallow cuts, but neither seemed ready to back off. "Looks more vicious."

Kner snorted, irritated by how easily his companion let himself be distracted. "Keep watching the exit, you dolt!" Didn't anyone but him realise they were not safe here until they were hired? But no, instead of keeping an eye on their surroundings, many of the monsters had assembled in a circle around the fighters, cheering, jeering, and placing bets on the outcome. The loudest were the two different goblin gangs rooting for their respective champions, howling and brandishing their weapons in reaction to each thrust and dodge within the improvised ring. No discipline. And that was why they were going to fail.

The grey-haired orc felt sure that this wait was all a test to weed out the worthy from the unworthy. Keeper Mercury wouldn't want followers who couldn't even follow simple instructions. For example, her shifty-looking servant who had briefly addressed them had said that the Empress didn't want her servants to fight among each other. He snickered inwardly at the thought of what she was going to do to those unruly goblins. Cowardly little scum, always deserting and leaving their posts.

Still, the wait was nerve-wracking. He glanced at the exit through which the black-armoured man had arrived and left. In front of the heavy steel portcullis stood four of the Empress' demonic metal guards, scythes at ready and featureless faces unreadable. Kner had seen first-hand how hard the black, horned warriors really were to put down. The moment they approached him with hostile intent, he would make a run for it, pride be damned.

There was only one person within the cavern who made his leathery hide crawl more than those emotionless behemoths. A figure almost as tall as the metal guardians stood all alone in the centre of the cavern, facing the guards. Two jawless skulls of some long-snouted kind of animal covered the shoulders of its hooded black robe, and a third hung from its neck like an amulet.

Dark envoy, Kner thought with an irrational shudder. He was glad for the creak of metal that distracted him and kept his mind from dwelling on the gaunt figure any longer than absolutely necessary. He watched the steel portcullis barring the way into the dungeon proper retract into the ceiling, revealing a short and fragile-looking girl with crimson-glowing eyes behind it. The Dark Empress herself, wearing some sort of tight-fitting black outfit with a short blue skirt that left her legs bare. Kner did a double take when he noticed said legs were made of ice.

"All right, everyone, please stand in two orderly lines and approach me if you want to get hired," the deceptively harmless-looking female said. She sounded rather cheerful and smiled, obviously pleased with the amount of potential recruits waiting in the chamber.

Kner was a bit surprised at the polite, almost shy tone the Keeper was using. Perhaps, he pondered, if you were as powerful as her, you didn't need harsh words to convey your commands. He held no doubt that she had given an order, even though she had phrased it more like a request. Eager to make a good impression, he almost sprinted from his position to get a spot at the front of the file while the Empress was still in a good mood. It also helped avoid the jostling further in the back.

As Empress Mercury handed out gold coins with both hands to the hirelings passing her, taking them officially into her service, she continued speaking "Magic users, please follow warlock Torian to my right. If you have talents and skills aside from fighting, register them at Jered's desk to my left. There might be a better-paid job ready for you."

Kner grumbled a bit at that. He was a soldier first and foremost, and quite a good one, in his humble opinion. The two green-skinned trolls in front of him cheered upon hearing the announcement, though. Both fell quiet at the same time, and the orc felt a sudden chill in his bones. The skull-adorned figure he had noticed earlier glided past, following a weirdly-garbed imp. As soon as they had passed, so did the cold feeling. The line continued shuffling forward, and Kner found himself looking forward to seeing his new home.

Having dealt with the influx of new recruits, Ami now could handle the dark god's emissary without distractions. Her imp had already led the visitor to her audience chamber not far from the entrance. Carved from rock, this new throne couldn't dazzle visitors with myriads of reflections and refractions playing across semi-transparent ice. Instead, it made every effort to intimidate those standing in front of the stairs leading up to the throne, and to make them feel like insignificant worms. Backlit by the light of four large braziers reflecting off the metallic back wall, her marble throne offered the only reprieve from the glare for the squinting eyes of hypothetical visitors.

Ami was sitting on the massive piece of furniture, wrapped in shadows so deep that not much aside from her glowing red eyes was visible, and thought that Jadeite had gone completely overboard when he designed the place. Still, it had been so nice of him to offer. Even if the effect of the architecture was about as subtle as a fist to the face. In retrospect, Ami wished her dark general had exercised a bit more restraint. The claw-like protrusions that gave the imposing piece of furniture a jagged appearance were a bit much.

Ami would have liked to project a more approachable image, but didn't want to hurt his feelings by making significant adjustments. There was at least some merit to the arrangement, after all. While her own face remained hidden and unreadable, anyone who stood before her was bereft of concealing shadows, unable to hide facial expressions, and easy to read.

Not that this was actually working on her current visitor. True, the lights had no trouble piercing the darkness underneath the tall figure's black hood, but a blank skull simply had no facial expressions for her to read. Aside from the tattered black robe, the figure's only possession she could see was a three-pronged staff made of spiralling bone.

"Empress Mercury," the skeleton began unasked, expressing neither signs of discomfort nor respect for Ami's position with its body language.

Her ice golem body sat up straighter. It's confident, she thought. Or rather, he is confident. The skeleton's voice was male. How did a creature without vocal chords manage to talk, anyway? I hope his attitude comes from a lack of fear of death, and not because he thinks he has some power over me.

"I am Taleth, priest of Crowned Death. Your pointless destruction of the undead on this continent greatly angers my Lord! Your petty vengeance against the vampires of this realm in particular has drawn His ire."

No such luck. Ami almost sighed, but managed to maintain her regal façade. Another dark god taking an interest in her actions was just what she needed.

"You are to cease this these foolish activities immediately," the skeleton continued, its voice echoing. Ami got the impression that some of the sound emerged from the two animal skulls decorating his shoulders. "However, my Lord would be willing to forego your well-deserved punishment if you performed a task for him as a token of good faith."

"Such as?" Ami asked, getting a sinking feeling about where this was going. The last time she had negotiated with a dark god, she had ended up in a rigged duel against a horned reaper.

"The Avatar recovered a certain mantle from Keeper Zarekos when he slew him. You, in turn, recovered said artefact from the Avatar, albeit in a much less useful state. It must be profaned and properly reconsecrated to my Master!"

Yes, this wasn't going anywhere that Ami was comfortable with. "What would I need to do?" She asked, buying herself some time to think. She didn't have to fake the curiosity in her voice.I am probably going to regret asking for the details. Her mind raced as she tried to remember what she knew about Crowned Death, searching for hints about how he could make her life miserable when she refused.

"It is a trivial task for a Keeper of your abilities," the skeleton said, "you may not have a proper priest of Crowned Death in your service to conduct the ceremony, but your horned reaper is an acceptable substitute. Simply kill Light worshippers on top of the mantle from sundown to midnight. The delay between deaths must be no longer than it takes for the heart of the latest sacrifice to stop beating. In addition, their blood must soak the fabric of the mantle."

Ami's breath caught as her mind immediately calculated the number of victims required for the monstrous ritual. Several thousand, at the very least. The population of a medium town or two. Her eyes flared bright red, and she couldn't keep the disgust she felt out of her voice "What if I already have my own plans for the mantle?"

"Come now, Keeper," the skeleton said, entirely too nonchalant about leaving off her noble title, "what could possibly compare to appeasing Crowned Death and gaining the power of the mantle for yourself?" Taleth spread his arms in a grandiose gesture. "Imagine your foes falling before you, only to rise again and swell your armies! Imagine having the power to cast the greatest spells as if they were mere cantrips! Imagine any undead you encounter submitting forever to your will! Or is it knowledge that you want? Dark and forbidden lore, lost for ages? Imagine having access to all the secrets and experience of those who died before you! All this and more shall be yours if you only perform this trifling favour for my Master!"

"Really? And here I thought you told me not a few minutes ago that he was displeased with me," Ami countered in a deadpan tone of voice. What's in it for him? she wondered privately. The memory of the blood-red mantle floating in the air, draped over an invisible figure wearing a flaming black crown, came to her mind.

Taleth waved a limp skeletal hand several times, as if shooing away her concerns. "Whatever your reasons for destroying the undead were, you will certainly come to your senses on your own once you realise that they will all serve you as loyally as they once served Zarekos. However," his unnatural voice became more dangerous, "In case you still - unwisely - consider passing over this offer in favour of your own so-called plans, remember that your realm might as well be one giant graveyard. Do you really wish to antagonise the Lord of the Dead even further?" His skeletal fingers made a scraping noise as they tightened around his staff.

"Are you threatening me in my own dungeon?" Ami asked, the red slits that were her eyes narrowing.

In response, the two black metal automatons that had so far flanked the visitor quietly twitched as their goblin pilots reacted to her anger. One of them took a clanging step forward.

"I am merely making you aware that the wrath of my Lord will fall upon you if you deny his reasonable request. "

Ami's frown did not disappear from her face. "His request is impossible. As you may have noticed, there are no Light worshippers in my realm."

"A commendable state of affairs, Empress," the dark priest said, apparently assuming that she was concerned about the feasibility of the plan, rather than reluctant to go with it. "This is not an obstacle. My Lord's reach is long. Since you agree, his servants shall commence collecting the sacrifices at once."

Horrified at the thought of people being dragged screaming out of their homes by cold, dead fingers, just because her words were misinterpreted, Ami blurted out "No!"

"No?" Taleth did not sound happy.

"The mantle is mine to do with as I wish," Ami declared. "Besides, I find your offer suspiciously generous, and shall need some time to perform my own investigations before I would be willing to commit to it. If you started gathering them now, you would have to keep them alive until I was ready," she said, hoping that her explanation was plausible.

Eye sockets that didn't feel as empty as they appeared fixated on Ami, as if the death priest was trying to dissect her with his stare. "You are lying," he concluded. "The rumours of your brilliance must have been greatly exaggerated if you would choose another god over Crowned Death. So be it."

"How did you get th-"

"Then, I shall be the tool that delivers his punishment onto you!" the skeleton's voice boomed, its echoing undertones becoming more distinct. With no more warning than a slight twist of his staff to point its end straight at the figure on the throne, he attacked.

With magically enhanced senshi reflexes, Ami transported herself out of the path of the light-devouring black ray that shot from the magical weapon, and to a chamber on the opposite end of the dungeon. She was in a golem body, but nobody familiar with Keepers would attack a possessed body in this situation if they didn't expect to inflict harm on their real target, right?

An instant later, the black, necrotic energy enveloped her throne. The imposing seat cracked and crumbled into dust, worn away by the ravages of time. Suddenly, Ami was immensely glad she had dodged. She recognised the spell as similar in nature to the rapid ageing one she used on her crops. This version was a lot more powerful, and though it probably wouldn't have harmed the ice that constituted her current body, her mind might not be protected. Would she have experienced the ageing process as if it happened in real time if that ray had struck her? How long did it take for rock to wither away like that, anyway?

While the throne collapsed into a grey cloud of gravel and dust that blossomed outward and rolled down the stairs, the reaperbots lunged for her attacker, swinging their scythes in horizontal arcs that should have cleaved the enemy into three sections. Instead, the weapons cut right through a flash of tear-shaped darkness without encountering resistance.

He can teleport! Ami realised when a black beam shot down from behind and above the metal warriors.

Floating below the ceiling of the throne room, Taleth swung his arm, sweeping the ruinous ray over the guards. The flickering dark energy drained the colour from the magically-reinforced floor tiles and washed over the metal hulks, leaving reddish masses of crumbling rust in its wake.

Since the young Keeper didn't want to find out through personal experience what getting hit with that weapon would feel like, she counter-attacked from the safety of a different room with the fastest attack she had.

A shabon spray freezing, retrieved from storage, slammed into the black-robed skeleton at point-blank range. Instantly, the ice magic encased the undead priest in a block of ice and restricted his movement. Trapped like a fly in amber, he started dropping toward the ground within his glittering prison. However, the skeleton turned transparent and remained floating where it was before the frozen shell could reach the floor and shatter.

Ami blinked in surprise and speared the spectre-like apparition with a blindingly bright lightning bolt. To her chagrin, the attack passed straight through and melted a glowing dot into her floor instead.

"Did you really think Zarekos' magical breakthroughs would disappear from the world? Death is no barrier to my Master!" Taleth taunted, diving toward the ground in a curving arc. Unexpectedly, the wraith-like apparition swerved to the side, ghosting through the broken ice shell on the ground. For the faintest moment, his form flickered back into opacity. It was just long enough for his staff to discharge towards the sole entrance of the room, where two more reaperbots had just thrown open the door wings. Instantly, they turned into a heap of scrap and rust.

He can't use magic while he's ghost-like! Ami realised. Her greatest fear at the moment was him getting out of the room and into an area with actual living employees. Searing networks of magic glowed within her transparent body as she unleashed her power against the skeleton again and again, continuously piercing his body with explosions and lightning bolts while swatting at him with her water hand. She couldn't let up and allow him the time to teleport! Reflexively, she activated her visor, which sadly didn't help at all since she was watching the robed figure remotely through Keeper sight. Still, it was necessary to be prepared just in case she was forced to fight this thing personally.

"Your efforts are useless, Keeper! I will exterminate every living being working for you," the skeleton gloated, the prongs of his staff surrounded by darkness despite the violent spellfire going off all around him. "Or perhaps I will see what this wonderful weapon does to your dungeon heart, first!" Despite his confident words, he was zigzagging wildly, trying to throw off Mercury's aim.

I need to force him to drop his spell somehow, Ami pondered. She wouldn't be able to keep this bombardment up forever, and any tiny mistake could give him the opportunity to teleport. Somehow, she found the time to retrieve a regular shabon spray from storage and filled the throne room with fog. This would at least make it harder for him to aim at underlings attracted by the noise. Zarekos used this same spell, and the Avatar punched right through it with holy power. What do I have?

Snyder was an option, but Ami was not willing to put the acolyte into a combat situation. The evil priest was moving fast as a snake and would certainly win in any fight between the two. Besides, she might accidentally hit him with a quick spell. Rabixtrel would be a much better choice, since he was fast enough to dodge on his own, and his cursed scythe could cut through things it really had no business cutting. Perhaps it would even work on Taleth's insubstantial form? Hmm. However, she would exhaust all her other options before she put someone who worked for her in danger.

"Ack!" Ami's eyes widened for a moment when the dark priest dodged by moving through the solid stone dais that her throne had rested on. He didn't emerge in the spot she expected, and had to correct for this with an overly large explosion that sent the braziers in the room flying. Danger narrowly averted, for the moment. This had to stop!

On the muddy ash-plains outside, Rabixtrel grunted in complete surprise when a violent tug ripped his scythe out of his hands just as he was about to strike down three ghosts perfect lined-up for the blow. Bellowing in anger, he looked around, unable to locate the missing weapon.

Even the reaper's scythe, wielded by Ami's water hand, passed through the dodging and weaving spectre just as harmlessly as all of her other attacks. She had another weapon of similar power sheg she could try, though. Her adamantine dagger didn't have the right balance for throwing, but that didn't matter much for someone who could simply propel it telekinetically. The bluish-gleaming weapon appeared out of nowhere, aimed at the back of Taleth's skull. Gliding toward one of the walls, the immaterial figure never knew what hit it. Mainly because the anti-evil weapon passed straight through its target.

The black-clad priest actually stopped and tilted his head to the side as he stared at the vibrating dagger that had buried itself up to the heft within the magically-reinforced wall. "Adamantine? As exotic as useless. Just imagine, this invincible protection could have been yours too," the skeleton mocked. "But no, in your unwarranted pride, you threw the opportunity away! Are you thinking about converting yet?"

Holy power! I need holy power to stop him. Keeping up this constant bombardment was tiring her out and draining her reserves. Perhaps the Avatar's mantle could help? The creature had offered much in order to have the silver-runed garment tainted. Ami dropped an ice golem into her treasury, close to the thick lead box that contained the artefact.

Instinctively knowing what Ami wanted from it, the icy simulacrum gathered up the mantle and draped it around its shoulders. Perhaps enough holiness would rub off on it to affect the evil being?

The teenager reached through space again, forcing herself to ignore the feeling of being on fire as she picked up the white-mantled golem. A quick twist of space, and the ice girl lunged at the ghostly form of the death priest, cloth fluttering around her like white bat wings.

Ami didn't have to wait long for a reaction. Even though the statue's fist passed through Taleth ineffectively, the mantle touched his form as she jumped through him. He let out a roaring, reverberant scream that swelled in intensity as his body burned away, dissolving into black smoke from the Light's power. His staff clattered to the ground and rolled over the floor, away from the golem landing in a crouch. It promptly embarrassed its Keeper by getting up and doing an imp-like victory jig.

Rather relieved by how well that idea had worked out, Ami ordered the simulacrum to return the mantle to its resting place. She would rather not go through the pain of manipulating it again if she could avoid it. Now she only needed to deal with any retribution Crowned Death would send her way for destroying his priest. If more of his minions could use Zarekos' dematerialisation magic, then she was potentially in huge troub-

Abruptly, the golem screeched, drawing Ami's attention back to the battlefield. A bleached skeleton stood behind the animated statue, the three-pronged end of Taleth's staff stabbed into the mantle and through the ice creature's back.

The enemy twisted his weapon, gathering enough of the silver-runed fabric between its prongs to get a good hold on the garment. Where the bone shaft touched the holy artefact, angry red flames flared up, visible for only a brief instant before both skeleton and mantle disappeared within a raindrop-shaped blob of darkness.

The golem toppled, already dead even before the dark priest took along its back half with his teleportation.

"Darn it!" Shocked, Ami stared at the empty spot that had only an instant ago contained both dark priest and mantle. The copy of his staff still on the ground quietly faded away. Wet, bony footprints led away from the debris of the ice block she had trapped him in earlier, and she found his empty, skull-adorned robe among the debris.

Illusions and invisibility! He had tricked her! The transparent image of the priest had been nothing but an illusion to distract her! No wonder nothing could affect it! If Ami currently had lungs, she would have started hyperventilating. "Darn it, darn it, darn it!" On the verge of panic, she summoned a crystal ball, almost dropping it in her haste. She had to get that mantle back! The scrying device erupted with light from the amount of power she poured into it as she searched for the thief.

Taleth had teleported to some place in the Underworld; there was no way that the green shafts of light falling in from cracks in the black sky could be natural. Clad once more in a hooded vestment, the dark priest rapidly ascended a narrow set of steep stairs. The Avatar's mantle hung from his burning staff like a banner. Pairs of obelisks framed his path, jutting into the air like petrified ribs. At the top of the structure, which reminded Ami of Aztec pyramids, shimmered a round basin full of strange, swirling waters.

Ami's despair grew as she recognised its hypnotic, ever-changing patterns. This was a dark temple, no matter how unconventionally-shaped. She would have expected a temple to a death god to be filled to the brim with bones, or at least partly carved from them. However, the only skulls that glinted wetly in the poisonous light were large sculptures carved into the building's obsidian flanks. Perhaps Crowned Death was loathe to waste raw material for more minions?

Taleth arrived on top of the ziggurat and stopped right in front of the unholy basin. He slowly turned his head until he was looking over his right shoulder, and met Mercury's remote gaze with his empty eye sockets. A flick of his wrist, and the Avatar's mantle slipped off his crumbling, burnt staff and fell, tumbling like a leaf in the wind.

Ami gasped as the garment hung in the air for a timeless moment, unable to stop the inevitable. She didn't even know where that temple was located. The mantle touched the liquid and sank into it; the runes embroidered into its seams flaring up. For a moment, it looked as if a shooting star was falling into the liquid, and then the last of its light was gone. Aghast, Ami continued staring at the unholy temple until the undead priest waved his staff, causing her crystal ball to go dark. "No..." She protested, unwilling to accept what had just happened. How was she going to explain this to her allies?

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Chapter 120: A Better Plan? Chapter 122: Formulating a Response

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