With a bell-like ringing tone, Marda rammed her armoured shoulder into the rubble that blocked her path. She let out a satisfied grunt when the rocks and debris clattered inward, stirring up dry dust that caked her armour. "Finally a tunnel that's still accessible. Men, get digging!"

"Yes, Lord," one of the eight broad-shouldered trolls accompanying her replied. His stocky silhouette was barely visible in the dim light falling in through the collapsed ceiling. "Damn it. I'd hoped this excursion would be a break from digging in the dirt," he complained while he poked and hacked at the detritus left by the cave-in. "Can't we go for an easier target?"

"The others I know of are even harder to get into," Marda said while fighting against one of the larger boulders, wheezing from the effort. At last, the block that was almost as tall as she was gave and slid aside. With a loud crash, it toppled inward, leaving a hole big enough to crawl through in the natural barrier. "I'd hoped that Mercury would have dealt with this one already, since it's close to her dungeon, but she's as unpredictable as ever."

"Wish I was in her dungeon right now having a good meal," muttered one of the green-skinned workers and vented his frustration on the rocks with furious hammer strikes.

"Whatever. Get over here with the torches," Marda snapped as her ears picked up the familiar clattering noises of bony feet walking on stone floor. She detached her own warhammer from her belt and gripped the haft with both hands. "The welcoming committee is upon us."

Marda angled her arm and caught an incoming sabre on the ringmail covering her forearm. Without breaking her stride, she countered by ramming the bottom of her torch through the attacking skeleton's skull while she walked past, deeper into the abandoned dungeon. Behind her, she could hear bones crack as her troops stepped on the remains as they tried to keep up with her. None of the creatures so far would have been a challenge for even one of them, and for her, they were almost below notice. No, the only reason her eyes were sweeping the decrepit walls and cracked floors in meticulous search patters was the danger that some traps remained functional. This far down in solid bedrock, she was no longer worried about the possibility of further cave-ins. Her greatest inconvenience were the layers of dust that painted all surfaces a dull, monotonous grey. Not only did they cover every suspicious nook and cranny, they also stirred at the slightest breeze and made her eyes water. She heard a sneeze from her side and gritted her teeth as the expelled air blew another cloud of mouldy particles into the air. "Watch it," she grumbled.

"Sorry, boss," the offending troll sniffled. "It's this rotten dust. How far to the dungeon heart?"

Marda swept the dust off of one of the cyclopean pillars that supported the ceiling of the vast underground chamber, tearing a black rent into the bleak cover. It revealed geometrical patterns that had been carved into the black stone with impeccable artistry. "I'd say this was once part of Mukrezar's own chambers. Only the best for the bastard," the troll stated with barely suppressed rage. Her armoured fist crashed into the intricate carvings, crushing them into sand. "Thus, it should be nearby somewhere." Marda froze and lifted her torch-bearing hand, signalling to the others to stop and remain silent. "Shush. Did you hear that?"

The other trolls remained motionless as they emulated their leader and listened into the darkness. "Doesn't sound like a heartbeat," one commented, sounding mildly disappointed. "Close though. Footsteps? Not a skeleton." A short clattering noise disturbed the tomb-like silence "Now that sounded like a shattering skeleton all right!" the same warrior added as the stomping noises resumed.

Something about their cadence made Marda feel uneasy, and she could feel goosebumps form under her mail coif. "Those footsteps sound familiar, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Proceed with caution." From that point on, she moved much more quietly than could be reasonably expected from a heavily-built troll in armour, making no more noise than her loincloth-wearing companions. She was leading the group toward the footsteps, of course. It was better than combing the place at random in the hopes of stumbling upon the inert dungeon heart by chance, and she didn't believe there was anything active on the continent that could stand against her and a group of her veterans. Certain blue-haired Keepers included. However, the other intruder seemed to have an identical train of thought, since he felt no need to mask his presence. In fact, the footsteps were approaching. Whatever it was had to be somewhere around the next bend. The footsteps stopped, to be replaced by loud sniffing noises that sounded like a scenting animal sucking air into its nostrils.

In full combat formation, split into three squads of three that guarded each other's flanks, the trolls darted around the corner. Marda bit back a curse when she spotted the athletic red figure that was facing them, its scythe raised in anticipation. "Rabixtrel," she hissed, tightening her grip on her war hammer. She had hoped he had perished in the tumultuous times since Mukrezar's reign.

The horned beast's blank white eyes opened a bit further, but none of the murderous intent faded from its features. If anything, its fanged grin widened as it took a thundering step forward, its hoof shaking the stone.

From the corners of her eyes, Marda could see her trolls quail at the mere sight of the monster. "Steady! None of you attack him from the front! Fall back to the big hall!"

The demon charged, ploughed through the dust clouds that his rapid advance stirred up and causing them to swirl like moth-eaten wings in his wake.

"Here we go again," Marda sighed. Then, the monster was upon her, snorting sulphurous breath from his nose slits as his scythe sliced through the air in a wicked downward curve. Her outline blurring with the same kind of acceleration magic that the reaper was using, the she charged forward so that only the haft of the weapon hit her shoulder, rather than the deadly cutting edge. She let the blow catapult her to the right, aligning her feet with the wall. As soon as her soles made contact with the bricks, she launched herself off the vertical surface and sped toward the reaper like a green and angry dart, adding her considerable momentum to the swing of her warhammer. The crimson demon tried to protect his side, but a burst of forge fire summoned up by one of Marda's allies struck his face. The flames did no harm, but obstructing his vision just long enough for the head of Marda's weapon to crash into his rips. He grunted in pain, despite the ghostly armour that flickered into sight above the impact location just before the steel could burrow in his flesh. Unfortunately, the hit didn't even make him stagger, and he made Marda pay for her aggression with a furious backhanded blow that crushed her collarbone. Or at least that had been his plan, but the agile troll somehow slipped underneath the strike, slammed her shoulder into his belly, hooked her leg around his knee, and heaved. With a textbook throw, she lifted the lean demon off his feet and rolled him down her back, then spun around and raised her hammer as if she wanted to drive a nail through his prone body. She received a hoof to her face for her trouble when reaper reared up instead of lying dazedly. The kick lifted her off her feet and send her skidding down the corridor, trailing sparks as her chainmail screeched over the stone tiles. She blinked to clear the stars from her eyes and immediately grabbed the proffered hands of her warriors to pull herself back to her feet. Damnation, that had hurt. Her ears were still buzzing.

"These must be Mercury's minions," the strange hum seemed to say, "leave one alive to interrogate!"

Wait, the hum was real! There was a cloud of insects surrounding the horned monster who was stomping her way. Which meant... "Retreat, now!" Even though the blow Marda had taken had rattled her more than she was willing to admit, she still believed that they could defeat the reaper. Unfortunately, she knew they couldn't defeat him and his allies. Him not being on his own changed everything.

Her warriors were more than happy to obey that command and dashed off, backtracking the way they had come. Soon, she could see only the bobbing torches as they retreated. Marda herself followed at a more sedate pace, since she knew that trolls couldn't outrun a reaper with their shorter legs. Someone had to slow the beast down. Or kill it, the voice of the ever-present shard of cold fury in the back of her mind insisted. Behind Marda, the echoing thumps of sprinting hooves ceased, and Marda threw herself aside, being aware that the demon could leap a distance of over five mens' length if he so desired. Just as planned, his leap carried him past her, and she darted in to strike at his back. As if it had a life of its own, his huge scythe lashed out when he reversed his grip, more than happy to trade taking a hit for a chance at eviscerating her. She threw her weight back as the claw-like blade shot upward toward her stomach and brushed past her warhammer with a screech of tortured metal. She heard a low thud in the dust and grimaced at the suddenly lighter weapon in her hand. The head of the hammer was gone, cut cleanly off the metal heft. Looks like old Rabixtrel learned a new trick.

Recovering from her surprise, Marda dashed toward the towering monster and collided with him, now past the effective range of his lethal blade. The sharp knee protector part of his greaves thrust upwards, aimed at her pelvis. Physically superior or not, I'm still better than this thing! Marda thought and used the rising knee as a stepping stone to bring herself into reach of his face. With the torch in one hand and the stump of her weapon in the other, she met the murderous demon's eyes for a split second. A triumphant smile played around her wide lips as she brought down both rods to stab them through these hateful white orbs, through the eye sockets, and into the brain behind. That was when a fanged mouth like a bear trap closed around her left forearm. The finger-long spikes that were the demon's teeth almost managed to get through the chainmail, but Marda had different problems than just the painful pinpricks piercing her leathery skin. The grey environment turned into horizontal blurs as the red monster spun her around in a circle by the captured arm, and she could feel some bones popping from the strain. Suddenly, the pressure was gone, and she hurtled uncontrolled through the air. This was going to hurt, she realised when a stone pillar grew rapidly in her vision. Like a cannonball, she impacted the column with enough force to shatter it. Bruised all over, she scowled in pain as more debris rained down on her chest and rattled her armour. Furious, she spat out a bloody tooth. If it wasn't for this accursed body throwing off her balance, she would show him! She'd- probably die, since he had just tagged her with his slowing spell. Feeling as if she was trying to move through viscous mud, Marda stemmed her wobbly good arm against the ground as she tried to get up and dodge the huge monster leaping at her.

"Argh! Some help here, quick!"

Ami managed to locate Marda just as a section of broken pillar smashed into the reaper at the apex of his jump, shattering against his chest and throwing off his landing just enough that the blade of his scythe stabbed into the ground between the prone troll's legs, rather than pinning her to the ground like an insect. Ami didn't believe there was time for further delay, and yanked the militant troll through space and deposited her nearby on the floor. "Marda! What happened?"

"Ow! Don't ask stupid questions while there's a reaper to kill!" the green-skinned warrior shouted. Clenching her teeth together, she tried to sit up, but had to abort the motion with a hiss of pain, not caring at all about Eline gaping at the perceived disrespect.

"Right. Reaper," Ami confirmed with a wide-eyed look at the dark blood that was seeping through the twisted metal rings constituting Marda's armour.

"We'll talk later, Eline," she said and dropped the troll into Snyder's lap, figuratively speaking. She caught a glimpse of the acolyte fending off Venna's attempts to climb just there. The redhead seemed rather grateful for the excuse to push the well-endowed albino away and rush toward the new patient who had appeared on one of the infirmary beds. Ami teleported herself over to the command centre and commandeered one of the scrying windows, ignoring the startled squawk of the warlock she unseated and dumped onto the next closest chair. She stared into the water behind the vertical glass, and the location from which she had just picked Marda appeared. It was empty. However, she only had to follow the hoof-shaped footprints in the dust to find the fearsome demon, who was sprinting toward a panicked-looking troll who was moving as if he was underwater. Glad that the red demon was within range, she hit him straight on with a stashed-away Shabon Spray Freezing. She would start worrying about what he was doing so close to her lands after she had stopped him.

The reaper encased in ice continued onwards at his previous speed as his slippery cage slid over the floor and straight into a wall, where it shattered. This time, the red monstrosity was fast enough to throw himself aside when Ami's watery fist appeared and cratered the wall where he had just been standing.

Ami frowned when moving the giant limb became much harder after the demon made a strange gesture with three fingers of his left hand. Before she could move the sluggish mass of water aside, the reaper sliced into it with his scythe again and again, reminding her of a homicidal blender with his many spins and arcing blows. The expression of uncomprehending fury on his face when the successful attacks failed to do more than get his weapon wet brought a smile to her lips. It died when he walked - not dodged - walked around her next swing, which would have done no damage in the first place since the fist of water was moving slow as molasses. Trying something new, the vexed reaper attacked by whacking the floating hand with the flat of his blade, sending water fountaining with each strike and dispersing the limb bit by bit. With a satisfied snort, he walked through the puddle that remained of his target, and turned his head in the direction of the fleeing trolls. Ami struck him from behind with a new fist and embedded him face-first in the wall. Dragging crumbling bricks along, he pulled himself out of the cracked surface and bellowed in rage, loud enough that Ami could see dust trickle down from the shaking masonry. Barely an instant later, he had put her incoming hand under his slowing spell. Her attack hit him straight on and had about as much effect as if she had thrown a pillow at him. And now the cocky bastard was just walking through it as if it wasn't worth his time. "Well, if he's inviting me to do this," the young Keeper thought, grinning as she drew upon her gold reserves and felt magic soar through her veins in response. An instant later, her lightning bolt lit up the corridors and turned the mass of water containing the reaper into rolling clouds of boiling steam. "Finally got him!" she called, thrusting her fist into the air.

"Indeed, my Lady," one of the warlocks said, tapping his fingertips together nervously. "But, um, he doesn't appear to be dead, I regret to inform you."

Ami's face fell and the crimson light in her eyes intensified as she peered closer at the screen. Not only was the demon not dead, he was still standing! He wasn't unharmed, since she could see muscles twitch underneath his red-scaled skin, disrupting the smoothness of his motions, but still! "Darn it! What does it take to keep that monster down?" Ami drew more power from her treasury. If at first you don't succeed...

As if sensing her intention, the reaper broke into a run, and his blurring red form darted out Ami's zone of vision. With a suppressed grumble, she concentrated on readjusting her point of view, only to have the creature dart sideways into a passage as soon as she had him in her sights again. Naturally, she gave chase. This time, she unleashed her lightning bolt as soon as she caught a hint of red. It gauged molten scars into the walls, but the reaper had already zigzagged and backtracked the way he had come, slipping out of her sight again. All the dust stirred up by the thunderclap following her spell didn't make finding him any easier. Ami focused once more. There! No, gone again. Where? Up? The arch from which he had been dangling by one hand disintegrated into a cloud of debris and molted slag. Missed again! So did her Shabon Spray Freezing when the nimble demon twisted out of the way unexpectedly and disappeared into another of the narrow side passages. Their many twists and turns made it difficult for her to maintain line-of-sight. Is he taunting me? she wondered as the beast continued leading her on a merry chase. She didn't really have the money yet to waste spells frivolously, she reminded herself even as her eyes narrowed. Ah, there he was-

"-cury! MERCURY! Get down!"

Ami's aiming was rudely interrupted when Cathy tackled her and threw her aside. The room spun around the blue-haired girl as the two rolled over the hard ground, away from the seat she had just occupied. She screamed in pain when a strong electrical shock coursed through her body, undoubtedly caused by the intense flash that seemed to leech all colour from the room. She wasn't the only one affected. The pained squeals of the surrounding warlocks merged with the bang of her chair exploding into kindling under the action of an arcing blue bolt of lightning. "W-what-"

"Dammit, move! You aren't the only one who can project spells! Get us out of here!" the Cathy shouted into Mercury's ear, her long blonde hair standing on end.

In sudden appalled understanding, Ami teleported herself out of the command centre, taking the woman draped protectively over her along. "Shabon Spray!" Shivering, and not from the sudden cold mists, the blue-haired girl looked at Cathy. "What happened?"

"Your warning bracelet started glowing, and your little device was suddenly beeping like mad, but you weren't paying attention," the swordswoman said as she picked herself off the floor. "I saw some sparks gather in the air above you and just reacted!"

"Are we safe now?" Ami's head whipped left and right as she stared wide-eyed up at the ceiling from her prone position, searching for any signs of a renewed attack. A moment later, her visor slid over her eyes.

"Well, your bracelet isn't glowing. The enemy probably can't see us through your fog."

"Good. WAIT!" Ami's heart skipped a beat as the implications hit her, and cold sweat appeared on her brow. "Arachne could still be scrying on some other room and pick off whoever she wants! I need to move everyone! I need to spread more mist, and I need to find the Keeper!" she blurted out, hyperventilating as she tried to figure out how to react properly to this kind of emergency.

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Chapter 98: A Surprise for Nero Chapter 100: Both Sides Prepare

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