The Incarnation of Extinction growled when the decorations fell off the temple walls and the lights went out. It closed its eyes for a moment, and the torches lit up once more, now burning with a white, colourless flame. "Clairmonte has been defeated. Our Master is going to be displeased with him," it hissed. Turning to the dark angels, it asked "Can the mantle be moved yet?"

"I'm afraid not, Great One," the foremost of the winged beings replied, not taking its red eyes off the glistening brightness pulsing around the holy artefact as he wrestled with its protections.

"Then I shall destroy anyone coming to seize it," the flame-crowned shadow stated, sounding almost pleased. "Priests! Attend me!"

Four robed skeletons, wielding spiralling bone staves and wearing animal skulls on their shoulders, shimmered into sight at the hawk-like feet of their master, already kneeling.

"Rise. Clairmonte has failed us. Without him to handle the logistics, the ritual has become infeasible here. Seek out and destroy the enemy Keeper's forces instead, so that we may preserve at least some of the sacrifices for our next attempt. Now go!"

Silent like ghosts, the four leering skulls of the clerics faded away.

The Incarnation of Extinction turned to face the door, eagerly awaiting anything foolish enough to enter its presence.

"Yes! That's the dungeon heart down!" Ami cheered as a tremor pulsed through the island, preceding a sound like a rocky death rattle.

A general cheer on the airship followed her announcement, and down below, her imps started claiming territory faster, now that it was unclaimed.

"How nice! Now do something about that imbecile of a monster, quickly!" Tiger screeched through the crystal ball. "It's going through the reaperbots like Usagi goes through a plate of cookies!

Ami winced at the apt analogy and experimentally tugged at her Keeper link to the youma-golem. She was relieved to find it working, and transported her away just before she could pull another automaton into her maw. Now what to do with her?

"Good job!" a female voice piped up from another scrying orb. Keeper Midori, wearing princess Julia's face, was back. A few droplets of blood ran down her left cheek. "Got a bit distracted there, but I managed to catch the end of it. That's an adorable pet you have. Care to trade it for- hey, is that the freaking Avatar in that other crystal ball? You sure like having an audie-"

An imp scuttled up to the glowing orb in question and threw a cleaning rag over it. Ami was too busy to let the other Keeper distract her right now.

"Hey! HEY! How rude!"

"Now, we need to get the mantle back. The temple remains active, and I still can't scry in there, so we need troops. I'll move the automatons to the section of claimed ground in sector eleven. Go for a surround. I want troops on each side, above, and below," Ami ordered.

Just as she was about to transport her warriors, four ornately-robed figures appeared amidst them, battle staves of Calarine meeting at a point above their heads. The sizzling, violet dome surrounding the attackers shoved aside the quicker-reacting reaperbots.

The lunging automatons bounced off the shield and slid to the floor, which saved them from the black beam that one of the four priests swept over the occupied hallway from the right to the left.

Three of the metal warriors crumbled into ancient rust before Ami could transport them out of the path of the attack.

As her magical counter-attack crept over the dark priests' shield in blinding arcs, one of them tapped the floor with the back of his staff. All four of them disappeared, along with a bowl-shaped section of the floor they had been standing on.

"Darn it! Where did they go?" Ami wondered. This kind of hit-and-run tactics wasn't something the automatons could deal with.

"Incoming," one of the warlocks back in the map chamber shouted, his voice transmitted by Tiger's crystal ball.

Forewarned, Ami spotted the glow underneath the ceiling where the undead quartet reappeared, along with their impenetrable shield dome. Claimed territory! Acting on a hunch, she dropped the golem monster onto the group, rather than trying to brute-force through their protections.

The death priests stumbled as their shield burst like a soap bubble, and before they could recover, the half-ton weight of the frog-mawed abomination landed on them and pinned them down. A split-second later, the room lit up as bright as noon, and a white-burning ball of expanding flame consumed the group.

Ami had chosen not to give the evil, eye-plucking clerics the chance to retreat, and from what she had seen so far, the golem-youma would appreciate the spell as a snack. She had been right too, as she could see her now sitting unharmed within the red-glowing scorch mark on the ground. She swept her tongue across the smoking bone staves on the ground, and with one audible gulp, the priceless artefacts were gone.

Was that Torian Ami could hear burst into tears through the crystal ball? Oh, she had better pick the monster up again. The youma was already eyeing the reaperbots toppled by the explosion and lipping her lips. She was definitely not a team player. But she could be just what I need to assault the temple!

Despite the low chanting of the dark angels, the Incarnation of Extinction could hear enemy movement around the temple. Finally. It leaned forward, its transparent bulk darkening. It was tired of waiting. Its minions might have failed, but if that Keeper thought she would ever get that mantle back, then she was sorely mistaken. "Protection spells," it ordered in a bored hiss.

The dark angels barely had a moment to react before the ground trembled. A large pillar toppled, while ceiling blocks came lose and rained down to the ground, forcing the three to dodge.

The Incarnation didn't move to avoid the square column as it smashed straight through its body and cracked the ground. It didn't need to. There was nothing here that could harm it. Its weak minions, however, were coughing up dust and looking disgruntled. "Back to work!" it ordered.

Just then, the richly-decorated double door of the temple was ripped of its hinges, and a supremely ugly humanoid covered in glittering spikes and horns stalked in on all fours. She reared back and giggled dementedly, splitting her face with her grin. Then, she died.

"Next," the Incarnation challenged, watching with slight interested as the freak's corpse turned into dust and then expanded into a large mound of barely-chewed flesh, cracked bones, and mangled pieces of black scrap. A bolt of lightning struck its head and kept going, followed by a fireball, a ball of frost, and a giant hand holding a sword made for its size.

That last attack drew some interest from the Incarnate, in a purely academic sense, but since its death gaze didn't work on it, he opted to smash the limb aside with a furious blow when it floated over toward the trio of dark angels.

I am getting sooo tired of enemies that can just ignore my attacks, Ami thought sourly, shaken by the ease with which the crowned abomination had handled her magic-absorbing monstrosity. She had really expected that ability to protect her. Now, she was just glad she had decided to test the enemy's capabilities before sending her reaperbots at the giant and losing them all for no gain. Even its physical blows were incredibly fast.

"Avatar, some help here, please! It killed my strongest creature with a look, and my spells have no effect! How do I kill it?" Ami asked, seriously worried now. In the meantime, she targeted the dark angels. The dark-grey skinned beings were quite nimble though and good at dodging her spells, as well as countering them with their own. One of them even formed a group of skeletons from the dust hanging in the air and used them as ablative armour against her hand's attacks.

"That demon is made purely from the spiritual essence of Crowned Death himself," the man replied, his eyes glowing slightly. "Destroy the temple, and it will no longer be able to sustain its existence in this realm. Until it gains a physical body, only attacks with a spiritual component can hurt it. "

"How are you even aiming at it?" Midori wanted to know. "I still can't scry into the temple!"

Ami ignored her. She was glad that the trained rats she was using as her eyes were below the dark spirit's notice. "I don't have spiritual attacks!"

"Your reaper would be able to injure the creature, could he survive its gaze."

Ami nodded. "I'll focus on destroying the temple, then." It was a good thing she had brought as many sapphires as she could. More of the gems disappeared from her shoulder to fuel her battle magic.

"Please hurry. The lock on the mantle will be gone a few minutes," the Avatar continued.

"This is insane!" the deep baritone of a dark angel echoed through the room, swallowed almost completely by the rumble of the collapsing ceiling. The falling boulders smashed straight through the undermined floor, causing the ground beneath him to sink away. He spread his wings, taking into the air from the rapidly steepening incline, and glided toward the central basin.

"And where do you think you are going?" the Incarnate growled, glancing back at the two other dark angels darting toward the pool while dodging falling rubble.

"You keep telling us you'll be able to hold the enemy off no problem! Just wait the protections out!" the angels' leader said, not looking back.

"Yeah, you didn't pay us enough for something like this!" the second one said, folding his wings for a perfect dive into the basin. He disappeared below just as a metre-tall piece of rock broke off above and plunged toward the unholy well.

At the last moment, it swerved aside, narrowly missing the structure, and continued onwards toward a hole in the ground. Upon closer observation, other rubble acted the same way, repelled by an invisible force from the most essential part of the blasphemous complex.

"Cowards," the Incarnation of Extinction spat, crossing its arms. Like a motionless titan, it stood vigil over a miraculously undamaged part of the room, which included the basin and remained free of debris and cracks in the ground. Even though the almost-free floating structure was held up only by a few thin pillars of rock that should have long collapsed under its weight, it didn't sway.

The demonic entity looked into the mist-filled cavity below, wiping out a bunch of hapless, digging imps. "Come now, Keeper. If this is the best you can do, you will never defeat me! Oh," it added in a sickeningly sweet voice, and pointed at the dimming mantle. "It looks as if your time is running out, too."

Even without the demon's taunt, Ami was aware that her position was getting untenable. It was becoming increasingly obvious that the creature could protect the temple in defiance of all laws of physics, and her reaper would die the instant it got anywhere near the monster. It had just demonstrated that it could see through her mist, and was impervious to physical attack. What could she do? She was no Rei with her spirit wards, and lacked any spells with a spiritual component. Or did she?

Well, it was a long shot, but she could give it a try. Skeletons and ghosts had weak life energy, so... "Everyone, out!" she ordered, her tone leaving no room for argument.

The armoured ice girl cupped her hands before her and focused on casting the drain remotely. Her fingertips tingled oddly as she sought out the immaterial bulk of the enemy and gave it an experimental tug. Immediately, a ball of blackness wreathed in ghostly white flame surged up between her hands, and she felt it drag her arms downwards like a lead weight. She had done it! She had some of the creature's life energy in her hands! Sure, it was trying to escape and reunite with its owner, but she had torn something away from the previously invincible beast!

"What are you doing, Keeper?" Amadeus asked, frowning. "That stuff is dangerous."

"What is she doing?" Midori asked. "Come on, don't block my scrying like that! This sucks!"

Spirits lifted by her success, Ami yanked as hard as she could, and checked how much damage she was doing to the monster. Her face fell when she had to actually search for the wound, and if she hadn't known where her drain was originating from, she would have missed it.

A scratch, as if made by a house cat's claws, marred the immaterial monster's left arm. Since the creature was much larger than any human, the blemish might as well have been non-existent.

Ami's stomach plummeted. Her hydraulically-enhanced arms were shaking just from trying to keep a grip on the energy she had drained, and that was all the damage it did? This was like trying to empty out a lake with a teaspoon!

Her mind raced as she tried to come up with a solution, and hit on an idea. Sometimes it wasn't the amount of damage you did, but where you applied it. She let go of the ball of caustic not-quite-life energy and took a deep breath. Her eyes flew wide-open. Rabixtrel, kill!

A dark ball of demonic energy between her palms reappeared as she flung the reaper through space, landing him on claimed terrain near the temple.

Within the structure, the death spectre howled and clasped its hands over its eyes, blinded by the tiny slashes in its pupils.

Rabixtrel charged, a red blur hopping from pillar to crumbling pillar as he made his way over to the levitating remains of the temple. His hooves struck sparks as he skidded to a halt near his target. He lashed out with his cursed weapon, lobbing one of the giant spirit's avian toes straight off.

The injured foot blurred and came crashing down on the spot the horned demon had just occupied, only for thim to jump up and cut a gash into its back. A huge palm smashing into the ground forced the red-scaled creature to withdraw before he could swing again, and soon, he was locked in a deadly exchange of attacks, dodges, and counter-attacks with the blinded avatar of destruction.

On Ami's flagship, the ball of energy she was containing with difficulty between her palms started to change. A thin film formed on its smooth top, elongating and darkening.

She gasped when she realised that she was suddenly holding an eye, and transported herself out of its line of sight in the brink of time when it started swivelling downwards toward her. She just managed to grab the thing again before it could return to its main mass.

What followed was a fast-paced, high-staked game of cat and mouse as Ami transported herself around rapidly, always adjusting her grip on the lethal ball of energy as if it was a pivot and outracing its turning speed. Rabixtrel! Hurry!" she shouted as she desperately tried to stay ahead of the thing's gaze.

An imp ran up behind her and leapt, ramming her adamantine dagger into the spectral eyeball, at the cost of meeting its gaze. Weapon and imp clattered to the ground, having dispersed the evil eye for the moment. Unfortunately, Ami could already see it starting to reassemble itself. She used the momentary reprieve to check how her horned reaper was doing. Oh, he had somehow managed to race up the immaterial creature's back and was heading for the neck! This was going to be a killing blow!

Then, the enemy cheated by growing a third hand from his back and closing it around the reaper's legs and torso. The new arm flipped him over and hammered him head-first into the ground, hard-enough to crack the floor. Then it raised him and did it again. And again. On the eighth repetition, the ground crumbled away, and the hand finally let the limp and unmoving form drop into the resulting hole.

Ami whimpered and stared at the reforming eye. She'd have to defeat the monster by herself now, and she could only do so by draining it dry. Unfortunately, she needed a way to get rid of the syphoned energy first so it couldn't snap back to its owner as if it was linked to it with a rubber band. A glance at the almost faded glow of the Mantle forced her to consider options she'd otherwise reject as too risky. She gulped and muttered in an abject tone of voice "I- I'll have to consume it."

The Avatar's eyes bugged out. “You want to eat a lesser aspect of Crowned Death? You are insane!”

“Wait, what?” Midori's muffled voice came from the covered crystal ball. "Take this stupid rag off! I want to watch!”

Ami called upon Metallia's power, using ten parts of the dark goddess' magic to dilute one part of Crowned Death's vile essence before absorbing it. The alien power writhed and burned in its confinement, trying to eat away at its surroundings even as she drew it into herself and into her dungeon heart. She was using the fact that the artefact counted as part of herself to establish the remote connection, and aimed for the garbage disposal unit that got rid of the chaotic magic released by stopping her transformation from affecting her minions. Even though she shunted the vile concoction as quickly toward its destination as she could, her body died within two seconds.

The black-armoured ice golem fell over, but a red-eyed mass of darkness remained floating in its place, still absorbing a stream of power from the orb shrouded in spectral flames before it.

Ami concentrated harder than she had ever concentrated before, knowing that her life depended on it. She could feel the dark god's energy trying to slip from her grasp, tear her apart, and wear away at her very substance, even in this immaterial form. Given the slightest opening, it would erase all that she was, devour her, and add what was left to itself. The knowledge of how many lives depended on her gave her the will to struggle on, despite the weakened and diluted essence searing her.

Faces of eyeless children crying tears of blood flashed through her mind, fanning her anger and determination. This would happen again if she failed! Even more motivated now, she increased the drain. At first, the effect was subtle, but soon, she noticed that the more energy she pulled away, the easier it flowed. Fighting through the pain, Ami yanked harder.

Underground, pieces of the floating temple ruins started breaking off at the edge, and the Incarnation of Extinction staggered. "You can't do this to me! This is impossible!" it howled as it felt more and more of itself disappear. The lesser aspect of Crowned Death felt a pull that dragged it upwards and got stronger with every passing second. It extended a ghostly arm toward the Avatar's mantle, which had started sinking toward the ground.

The pulling force tugged the creature away before it could grasp the garment.

Desperate, the being clawed a the disintegrating ground, trying to drag itself forward. Its eyes widened as its hold on the world grew too weak to maintain its grip, and it felt itself shooting upwards, away from the temple and through the rock layers above. "Death cannot die! Noooooooooo!" Instinctively, it reached out for any trace of familiar power around itself and consumed it in order to stave off its own end.

"Girls! Look!" Melissa shouted, pointing at the island crawling with undead ahead. An unshaped blob of darkness was rising from the ground, anchored to the surface with uncountable black lines.

Dandel drew her telescope and brought it up in one smooth motion, just in time to see the shape strike the gondola of one of the battered air vessels. At the same moment, the black trails of necrotic energy attached to it disappeared. The indigo-haired fae's jaw dropped.

A bit later, an insistent poke between her wings drew her attention back to her sisters. "Sorry, could you repeat that?"

Anise put her arms akimbo and pouted. "For the third time, what did you see?"

Dandel lowered her telescope slowly. "I think Empress Mercury just did something to make that entire army of undead creatures stop moving."

On the airship, the last bit of the Incarnation of Extinction disappeared into the crimson-eyed, grimace-like shape of Ami in her possession transition state. A moment later, she reverted to her real body. The blue-haired girl wearing her schoolgirl uniform hit the ground with a thud and remained lying flat on her belly, her arms spread. "R-recover the mantle," she whispered in the direction of Tiger's crystal ball. Too exhausted to move, she focused her Keeper sight on the demonic metal figures storming toward the temple's remains.

Soon enough, they were climbing across the shaky debris toward the pure white garment that glimmered on the ground.

"YOU WILL NOT HAVE MY PRIZE!" a hollow voice roared so loudly that it shook the ruined chamber and blasted the intruders backwards. A pillar of purest darkness shot from the dwindling liquid in the temple's basin, curved down, and struck the Avatar's mantle head on. The blackness exploded outwards, forming a huge crown-shaped field of force around the mantle.

The last motes of light around the garment flared up brighter. It burst into flame, shrivelling up like a desiccating leaf and wadding up into a ball. Its glow dimmed, growing darker and darker until it was pitch black and rose from the ground in a tar-like column. The apparition bubbled and started taking on a more defined shape.

"Keeper! Crowned Death is consuming the mantle to bring some other creature into this world! Do something!" The Avatar demanded, his face distorted by its proximity to his own crystal ball.

"Seconded!" Keeper Midori's frightened squeak came from the covered crystal ball. "You got to stop him!"

"I'm trying!" Ami groaned back hoarsely, marshalling what remained of her magical strength. "Nothing I do is getting through the shield around it!" Through the raging inferno of her own spells turning the ground around the mantle into lava, she could see a humanoid shadow appear. It looked vastly less impressive than the Lesser Aspect she had defeated, probably due to the lack of ritual. Nevertheless, she redoubled her efforts to break through the dark god's protective wall of force.

"BRING DEATH AND DESTRUCTION TO THE WORLD IN MY NAME!" Crowned Death's voice thundered at the same his chosen champion arrived fully within the protective field.

Ami blinked at the figure that had appeared inside the dark dome and was whipping its head left and right, as if surprised to be here. She had not expected it to be so pink. It cringed and covered its head with its hands when she slammed a particularly bright and powerful bolt of lightning into the barrier. The creature was an elf, Ami realised, or at least it looked like one. Despite the smooth, snow-white skin and the long pink hair, the wild-eyed new arrival was clearly male. She was sure about that, since he had not been summoned with any clothes.

While she was distracted by that observation, the slender man took a last look at his surroundings and disappeared into a vortex of red energy.

"Darn it! He got away!" Ami groaned even as Crowned Death's barrier collapsed and the last remnants of the temple went inert. She had a dreadful feeling about this.

"What was it? What did it look like?" Midori demanded to know, sounding less whiny and more insistent than before.

Figuring that the other Keeper, or at least the Avatar, might know more about the creature, Ami focused on delivering a short, concise description. "Like an elf. Pointed ears, male, slender but tall, not muscular, white skin, pink hair that reached almost to the ground, brownish eyes."

"Hmm, that sounds vaguely familiar," the covered crystal ball commented.

Amadeus' face had gone completely blank. When he spoke next, his voice was cold as ice. "Did he have a horizontal scar on the bridge of his nose?"

Ami thought for a moment, then nodded. "It could have been a shadow, but I think so, yes."

The Avatar's face transformed into a mask of pure fury, and the skin around its bulging veins took on an ugly purplish-red colour.

Ami would have taken an involuntary step back, had she not been a heap of misery on the floor. She wondered if the man was having a seizure. There was foam coming from his mouth!

"MUKREZAAAAR!" the Avatar howled like a blood-thirsty animal, and then his crystal ball went black.

Previous chapter: Next chapter:
Chapter 130: Backfire - Part 1 Chapter 132: Mukrezar's Return

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