"I think they are catching up," Cathy wheezed as the group sprinted up the blood-slick stairs leading out of the amphitheatre.

Ami's fog was forming wafting banks below them as they emerged from its depths. The staircase was broad enough to allow all five of them to run besides each other, but instead, the three heroes were keeping to its left side. On the right trotted the Reaper, clearing a deep crack in the stone with an easy leap. "Why are we running? Just transport us back to the dungeon if you don't want to fight," the red demon suggested, steaming breath shooting from his nostrils.

"Can't transport them," Mercury explained with a hand gesture towards the fugitive heroes, whose footsteps were sounding right behind her.

"So what? Just leave them behind. They look worthless anyway, especially the short fat one," the demon continued, undeterred.

Ami's reply was a moment late as she had to step around the near-flattened body of one of the soldiers who had gotten in the way of the enlarged spider earlier.

"I can't just leave them behind! It's your fault they are being chased in the first place!"

"While your concern for out well-being is touching," Jered interrupted even as the group cleared the final steps of the staircase and arrived on the amphitheatre's top floor, "do you actually have any idea where we are going?"

Ami stopped at the top of the stairs and crossed her arms before unleashing her magical attack at the masonry. With satisfaction, she watched the slope turn into an ice-covered slide. Below, a strong wind was blowing out of the huge opening where the black gates had been and clearing away her mist. She shook her head. "I was more interested in getting away from them," she answered pointing at the armoured soldiers pouring out of the heart chamber, lead by a large figure with a whipping purple plume on its helmet. "We can't go the way the soldiers came in, it's bound to be guarded, so we'll have to backtrack our path. Now hurry!"

Fortunately, none of the heroes aside from Snyder seemed inclined to argue. "I shouldn't have to run away from them in the first place," the redhead whined, "what did I do to deserve this?"

"You are welcome to stay behind," the Reaper snorted at the young man, making him shut up with a whimper.

"So where exactly are we going?" Cathy demanded, running alongside the blue-haired girl with a practised pace. "It wouldn't do if we ended up in a dead end. We can't hide in here forever!"

Above, the light of the glowing threads that illuminated the area was dying down, and darkness started to settle on the dungeon. From behind came angry shouts as the pursuers were forced to use the staircase further away instead of the slippery one.

"Now that Arachne is gone, I can call in imps to dig us a new exit," Ami reassured the blonde. In front of her visor, the long, winding corridor started to fade into grey tones. She heard her companions stumble more and more often while running over the cracked tiles.

"Argh. Slow down! You and your beast may be able to see in the dark, but we sure can't!" Jered protested, after an unfortunate misstep sent him stumbling into the dirt. "Snyder! Make a light or something!"

"...associating with a Keeper and a horned reaper, of all things. Going to be stoned for heresy..." the portly man mumbled, white robes fluttering behind him as he moved forward.

"SNAP OUT OF IT!" Jered shouted, grabbing the acolyte by the collar and shaking him. He couldn't see the portly man's expression, but he seemed to relax a bit in the taller man's grip.

"Oh, oh, of course. Light. Why didn't I think of it?" the priest in training muttered an incantation, and suddenly, one of his rings started glowing bright white.

As the corridor narrowed, Ami suddenly stopped. "Wait a moment. This is a good place to slow our pursuers down." Two imps appeared out of nowhere, plopping down next to her. Their short blue mini-dresses, white leotards, and frilly ribbons drew some raised eyebrows and disbelieving snorts. Cathy inclined her head and looked at Mercury oddly. The blue-haired girl blushed faintly. "I'll explain later. You! Dig a deep trench here so no one can pass! You! dig out the ceiling so it drops and blocks the corridor!"

Stone chips went flying as the imps enthusiastically attacked the rock with their picks. Soon, the diminutive creatures disappeared in the darkness as Snyder's circle of light left them behind.

"I think that should hold them for a while," Jered commented when the crash of a rock slide sounded behind them, shaking the surrounding rock with the intensity of its echoing impact. "We should take the opportunity to look around a bit to see if we can't find anything useful."

"We are running for our lives and you are thinking about looting the place?" Ami asked incredulously.

The wavy-haired man nodded. "Naturally. This predicament you got us into has left all of us destitute. All we have left is what we are carrying on us," he continued, indicating the filthy rags he was wearing with both hands.

Ami looked down at the floor. "I'm sorry. Maybe you are right." She adjusted her visor to penetrate deeper into the rock so she would spot any potential valuables.

"Oh for darkness' sake, " the Reaper butted in, "You are rich, Keeper! Just hire them! I have no intention of going on a boring scavenger hunt!"

Ami faltered in her step, surprised that the demon had raised a good point for once. "Well, I suppose..." she began, looking at the three adventurers speculatively.

"What? Serve a Keeper? No wa- hmmpf." Cathy's outraged cry was suddenly muffled by Jered's long-fingered hand slipping over her lips. The blonde glared at him, while the lanky man looked at Mercury instead.

"Would you mind letting us discuss that among ourselves for a bit? Privately?" he asked, making a shooing motion toward the mud-covered blue-haired girl and the Reaper. Ami nodded and started walking away, followed by the horned demon. Cathy's voice faded away in the tunnel. "Jered, what were you thinking..."

Ami sighed. It hurt that the revelation that she was a Keeper had apparently brushed away any trust as if it had never been. She couldn't really blame them, she supposed. If Keepers like Arachne were the norm, rather than the- what was this? Something was moving on her sensors, a few metres through the rock of the left wall. She adjusted the settings, and the image came into sharper focus. Her eyes widened in surprised recognition before narrowing into red-glowing slits. An imp dropped down out of thin air, startling the red demon who was leaning bored against the wall. Immediately, the bug-eyed creature started hacking away at the unfinished rock in a frenzy, sending up a cloud of dust that billowed into the narrow corridor. After tunnelling through barely half a metre of rock, it broke through into the chamber behind, sending a spray of crumbling debris and stone spilling on the expensive carpet below.

The occupant of the room was sitting in a high-backed armchair with red cushions, and was staring at the intruder with wide eyes. His black hair would have been standing on end in surprise if it hadn't been so heavy from all the oil in it. Abruptly, the violet-robed warlock stood up when Ami stepped through the dust cloud and glowering at him. The blue-haired girl stared at the lanky man through blazing red eyes, taking in the tacky décor of the opulent chamber in passing. The stone arches weren't so bad, but did they really have to be studded with skulls everywhere? Her inner bookworm salivated at the sight of the shelves full of tomes that covered the walls, hiding the abstract tapestries. She returned her full attention to the evil wizard whom she had just interrupted - doing what? - tormenting a particularly large and ugly frog floating in a soap bubble above the table? She shook her head at the sadist's strange tastes.

"You could have used the door," the warlock stated with a nod toward one corner of the room, where the polished wood of an entrance gleamed in the fireplace's light. From the outside, it looked no different than any other piece of the wall. "From this," he pointed at the fuku-clad imp, "I brilliantly conclude that you are here to secure my not inconsiderable abilities for a Keeper with rather strange taste in uniforms."

Ami responded with a well-aimed Shabon Spray Freezing. Alas, the magician's hands, which had been concealed within the long sleeves of his skull-embroidered robe, shot up, already glowing greenish with gathered power. As if drawn by a magnet, the blue ray of concentrated bubbles tracked the wizard's outstretched hand, which traced a horizontal circle in the air as he spun around his own axis until his extended finger was pointing back at Ami. With an "Eep!" of surprise, she threw herself out of the way of her own attack, rolling off her momentum on the thick carpet.

"You didn't really think you could catch the great necromancer Nero with a trick like that twice, did you, little girl?" the man boasted, goatee bobbing up and down smugly as he spoke.

"Sic him!"

The thundering noise of something huge storming through the new entrance into his room alerted the warlock to the arrival of a new opponent. The Reaper had to duck to bring his muscular red bulk through the opening, and the maniacal grin on his face had returned full-force as he stalked into the chamber, scythe blade raised over his shoulders.

"Oh dear." The expression on the warlock's face at the sight of her red demon was priceless, in Ami's opinion. His skin had lost all colour, and the pupils in his blood-shot eyes contracted into little dots while his eyebrows tried to climb into his hairline. Survival instincts roused the man from his stupor, and he managed to just duck under first swipe of the monster's weapon, losing half of his high-necked collar in the process. He revealed pale, gangly legs as he gathered up his robe and made a mad dash for the half-open door in the back of his lair. Naturally, the horned reaper took off after him with a roar of glee. The door slamming in the beast's face didn't even slow him down, and the unfortunate obstacle exploded into kindling as the demon just kept going. He looked around the small bedroom, head rolling from left to right on the bull-like neck. Under the bed? Swish! Feathers went flying as the furniture was split cleanly in two, mattress, supports and all. Not there. Maybe the wardrobe? Two X-shaped cuts and a new heap of wooden planks later, there was still no trace of the warlock. The Reaper was starting to get annoyed, and the sound of furniture being reduced indiscriminately to debris echoed through the complex.

"... so you see, the only way we could currently clear our name is by showing up with the corpse of the Keeper. While I'm sure I could slip in a dagger before she knew what was going on, we wouldn't survive that pet demon of hers. Besides, cold blooded murder is ..."

Hmm, those were his escaped prisoners, huddled together and discussing something in whispers. Some short, portly guy had joined them and was glowing too, exposing just exactly how filthy his companions were. Someone had done some nice healing on the burn victim, though.

"...still, a Keeper! My brothers will want to kill me! Though either she's the best actress I have ever encountered, or something's not right. You wouldn't expect a Keeper to puke her stomach out from watching a torture session. I don't like..."

Ah, the blonde girl. Still holding on to the hammer too. None of the three were aware of his presence, it seemed.

"... and we'll need a place to lay low. Wanted posters will be going up everywhere ..."

"... family will disown me... "

"... damned ... at least find ... dungeon is ... redeem ourselves ..."

The voices were fading into the distance now. He had gotten past without them ever noticing he was around. Nero would have snickered if his current form had allowed. Instead, he silently slithered onwards. Whoever had written that turning into a snake never helped was an idiot of the highest calibre. Sure, escaping through the drain of his own sink wasn't dignified, but it beat the alternative. The scaly warlock came to a sudden stop. Oh great, rock slide blocking exit. Oh well. He wasn't a great wizard for nothing. There was a strange shifting and rustling of cloth before a geeky-looking man in gaudy robes replaced the snake. He cracked his knuckles and pulled up his sleeves, then started a short chant accompanied by complicated arcane gestures. Something spiny and smoking appeared in his hand, and he tossed it at the roadblock before covering his ears. With a loud bang, rocks and debris went flying, and the warlock peered through the rain of falling rubble at his route to safety. From the other side, a wall of armoured figures plastered in white stone dust peered back, just as surprised to see him as he was to see them. Nero groaned. Today just wasn't his day.

Jered and the others found Mercury within an opulent room, standing in front of long shelves filled with books. She was touching one after the other, and whenever she did, the tome would disappear into thin air. Behind a broken-down door in the back, he could see the Reaper sulking within a completely devastated chamber. The weasel-featured man walked over to the blue-haired girl, clearing his throat. "We have decided to accept your offer."

Ami looked up from her activity and turned toward the others, who were slowly entering the room through the new passage. She could see that Jered's face was unreadable as usual, while Cathy's lips were nothing but a thin line and her fists were clenching and unclenching, as if she was fighting with herself. Snyder just slumped his shoulders, looking defeated. As the redhead walked past the table, the floating bubble holding the green frog burst. With a questioning croak, the animal hopped toward the acolyte, who looked down at it quizzically. The improbably large frog let out another croak, and then a thrust of the powerful hind legs catapulted it on the man's shoulder, where it settled down within the red folds of his stole. "Strange." Even this oddness couldn't shake the man out of his funk, and he joined Cathy and Jered, forming a short line in front of Ami. He sighed "Well then, get on with it, Keeper."

CROAK! Suddenly, Ami's face was full of cold, slimy amphibian, and she backed away, eyes crossing as they tried to focus on the animal clinging to her nose and kicking at her chin. Her back hit the shelf, which nearly toppled, and on the rebound showered her with a hail of books. The three heroes looked down at the shifting pile of occult tomes out of which protruded one white-gloved fist holding an ill-tempered amphibian.

"I must admit that I was expecting a somewhat more dignified ceremony," Jered commented while helping Mercury out from under the literary avalanche. "What is it with that thing, anyway?"

Ami shrugged and looked at the huge frog, which was now sucking on her thumb. She had the vague impression that it was trying to bite her and just hadn't realised yet that it lacked teeth. She'd deal with the strange animal later. Instinctively, she knew that she should symbolically pay her prospective underlings to seal the deal, and summoned three gold coins from her treasure chamber. "No need for some elaborate ritual. Just take a coin each if you want to enter my service."

Jered was the first to take her up on the offer, and he took the gold with barely any hesitation. Snyder was the second, plucking the coin from her extended hand with a limp gesture. Cathy took the longest before reaching for the money, and the blonde's hand was shaking in trepidation as her fingers closed around the precious metal. Any time a coin left Ami's hand, she felt a new connection form between her and the recipient, similar to the one she shared with the Reaper. She nodded. "Good. I am able to transport all of us out of here now. Now help me with those books, please." With united efforts, all the tomes were soon gathered up and bound together, allowing Ami to transfer the bundles in bulk. Once done, the four humans, one demon, and one annoying frog attached to Ami's ear disappeared from Arachne's dead dungeon.

Previous chapter: Next chapter:
Chapter 18: Spiders Everywhere! Chapter 20: Strategy Meeting



Author's comments: By the way, I'm up to episode 19 with re-reading. This time, I mustn't forget to keep track of the passage of time. Episode 19, for example, happens during the 5th day of Ami's arrival in the DK world.