The air in the torture chamber flickered with heat, and the strong smell of sulphur mixed with the miasma of blood and faeces. The spiralling maelstrom of fire surrounding the looming form of the Horned Reaper dissipated, leaving little tongues of fire crawling outward over the smashed and overturned equipment. Even as the flames died down, the yellow eyes of the crimson demon blazed brighter as he turned to the closest figure, raised his scythe, and lunged.

Ami, who was standing at the edge of the summoning circle, cringed away from the searing heat released by the completed ritual. She felt her blood freeze as the Reaper unexpectedly turned toward her and his scythe whistled down at her. Instinctively, she lashed out with the same power she used to transport and move her minions, holding up her hand protectively. The blade stopped, quivering, as the Reaper fought against invisible bonds. "Stop! What are you doing?" Ami squeaked, giving the creature an invisible shove that made him stumble back a step.

The Reaper's eyes went round with surprise as he looked at her in confusion, then disappointment. "Oh. That's you under all that filth." Without another word, he turned away, grin returning as he spotted the heroes pressing themselves against the walls in an attempt to get as far away from him as possible.

Whimpering, Jered voiced what all of them were thinking "By the gods, we are all going to die!"

Tugging at the Reaper and interrupting him in mid-stride, Ami shouted "Not them either! The spiders! ONLY the spiders! Nothing else!"

Irritated, the horned demon snorted and kicked at one of the fallen racks, breaking the device into two parts that landed with a splash in the coagulating blood "Are you sure? Hmph. Where? "

The other party members huddled together as the monster's gaze swept over them. Even the dwarf unashamedly hugged Jered's legs in fright. Fortunately, the sound of wood splintering distracted the Reaper as the improvised barricades gave way. In the doorway, a sheep-sized mottled spider pushed its way through the tumbling debris.

With a whoop of joy, the Reaper stormed toward the creature. It let out a surprised screech as the demon slammed into it like a freight train, completely ignoring its attempt to bite him. The tackled animal went flying, and the red demon disappeared out of the door, after it.

Ami let out some breath she hadn't realised she was holding. At last, something had gone almost according to plan. Then she noticed the faces of her companions, who were looking at her in a mixture of fear and awed horror.

From outside, hacking and slicing noises could be heard among the angry chittering of the arachnids. A severed spider leg flew in through the open entrance, trailing an arc of ichor before landing on the floor and bouncing twice.

Ami wondered what were they on about now "What? I told you I was going to call in some help."

Jered cleared his throat "I don't believe it. You don't do things half-way, do you? What were you thinking, summoning that?"

Ami's hands grasped at each other nervously "To be honest, it was something along the lines 'a goblin won't do'."

Cathy broke the stunned silence by exploding "And therefore you decide to call a fucking Horned Reaper? And it even listens to your orders?"

"No time to explain that now! Need to go help him deal with the spiders," the senshi fled from that line of questioning. "Shabon Spray!"

Meanwhile, the dwarf motioned to Jered to lean down, and whispered into the brown-haired man's ear "Are you sure she's on our side?"

Overhearing this, the other male survivor of the team shook his head in disbelief and muttered so quietly that only the others who were standing next to him could hear it "A Reaper. She can summon a Reaper. That girl is a disaster waiting to happen. We should do something about her while we still can. " He watched the retreating back of the blue-haired girl as she moved to the exit and cautiously peered outside.

The blonde swordswoman commented in a deadpan tone of voice "I'm sure her pet monster will appreciate that."

Outside the room, the Reaper let out an appreciative whistle upon spotting the mammoth-sized giant spider. "Now that is worth killing!"

He had moved underneath the monstrous arachnid, his hooves making faint squelching noises on the ichor-drenched silk covering the floor as he danced around his opponent's attempts to step on him. Hack. There went a chunk of leg. Slash. And another. The monstrous spider bellowed in pained fury as the Reaper went to town on its front legs, shortening them piece by piece and forcing the creature to lean forward. Once the head was low enough, the demon jumped, dodging a bite from fangs as long as his arm as he buried his scythe's blade up to the hilt in the spider's forehead with an overhead swing. The giant spider reared up in its death throes, but the Reaper refused to let go of his weapon, and was yanked upwards and thrown into the air. The scythe came free in a spout of gore, and the demons trajectory carried him high, above Mercury's fog bank that blanketed the lower levels of the cavern. While in mid-air, the murderous creature righted itself and looked for a good landing point. The spider that popped open like a grape under his hooves as his weight bore down on it from above never saw him coming.

Ami had merely hoped for a distraction when she had decided to call the Reaper for help. A disposable one, she admitted guiltily to herself. Instead, she was watching him carve his way through the twitching, chitinous masses, leaving nothing but mutilated corpses in his wake. As she watched, another spider went up in flames after it had tried to shoot sticky webbing at him from a distance. Slowly at first, then faster and faster, the spiders retreated, until they were in full rout. Roaring in glee, the Reaper gave chase.

"Hey! Wait!" Ami shouted, watching her minion disappear around a bend as he completely ignored her. She looked back at the opening to the torture chamber. Her companions were approaching reluctantly, looking at the piles of dead spiders with wide eyes.

"Is it gone?"

"No matter! We need to get out of here," Cathy pointed at one of the smouldering bodies, "This spider silk is slow to catch fire, but once it does..."

The implications, combined with the fact that no part of the huge cavern was not covered in webs, was motivation enough. Everyone was already running when the first flames started licking up the walls, filling the grotto with acrid black smoke.

Ami watched the readouts on her visor as the tunnels rushed past her, and tried to ignore the fact that there was an entire graveyard dangling from the ceiling, packaged into innocent little cocoons. Arachne seemed to prefer big and spacious natural-looking caves that joined each other at different heights and at odd angles. It made sense, she supposed. The spiders could just walk up walls, and any intruders would have to use the narrow, winding stairs instead. In the distance, she heard loud gongs and the crumbling noises of collapsing walls. The clanging of metal on metal echoed softly through the halls.

"The main force must be attacking," Jered concluded, skidding to a halt at the first intersection that opened up in front of the party. "Which way now?" Next to him, Cathy was panting, leaning forward with her palms resting on her thighs.

Ami dismissed the ascending left tunnel almost immediately, and pointed down the right one. The displayed energy flows in the cavern were denser in that direction. Besides, a trail of spider pieces led that way. "Arachne's dungeon heart must be that way. So is the Reaper."

"Them are two excellent reasons to go the other," the dwarf blurted out, and let actions follow his words. After only a moment's hesitation, the other new member of the group followed him, never looking back.

"Well, they do have a point," Jered looked ready to go down the same path, "we are here for the loot, not for the fight. Over there is where all Arachne's monsters will be."

Ami frowned. "But Arachne needs to be stopped, and I can't go that way! What do you think is going to happen when the Reaper encounters the other teams? I NEED to catch up with him!"

Cathy went pale as several mental images flitted through her mind, none of them pretty. "You have a point. We'll stick with you."

The wavy-haired man looked ready to argue, but then closed his mouth and nodded. "Right. We probably stand a better chance with you at our side then on our own," he admitted.

Knee-deep in spider corpses, Baron Leopold stood at the front of his forces, sabre held high in triumph, and ichor stains covering his enchanted dwarf-forged full plate. He lifted the face plate of his helmet, and immediately the ends of his enormous moustache uncoiled, freed of their confinement. "That was the last of them, men! Onward, let us rip out the dark heart of this monster!"

His features were cast in sharp relief when purple electricity danced over the transparent dome shaped shield that covered his position. One of the three wizards holding his staff horizontally over his head collapsed to his knees, droplets of sweat dripping into his long white beard as he struggled to maintain the barrier.

"My Lord, please keep your head down", Lieutenant Leon warned from where he was hiding behind a particularly bulbous spider's abdomen.

"Nonsense. I'm not afraid of that hoary old Keeper." He turned to the enormous black presence of the Keeper that was flitting around in the air above the amphitheatre-like hall, and shook a fist at it. "YOU HEAR THAT, ARACHNE? RAGE AS MUCH AS YOU WANT, I'M COMING FOR YOU!" In response, another lightning bolt shot forward from the red-eyed cloud of buzzing insects. One of the blue-clad wizards collapsed from the exertion of having to hold up the ward. The ranks of soldiers behind the Baron ducked deeper behind their shields.

"Meh, wimp. You, acolyte, get over here and patch him up!"

Crawling on all fours, a redhead with a bowl cut reluctantly left the protective ranks of soldiers and left forward. "My Lord, I'll do my best, but I'm not really trained to..." Snyder started to protest.

"Blah, blah, you are once again useless. Abbot Durval, do it instead. What do they teach acolytes these days?" the Baron seemed disinclined to tolerate incompetence.

"Actually, I do have talents that- what's that noise?" Looking up from the exhausted wizard, Snyder raised his head and peeked over the wall of mangled body parts. Through the flickering, multi-coloured hues of the magical shield, he could see the large circular room expanding in front and below of him. Resembling an arena, it was most likely used by Arachne to hold audience with her minions. Therefore, the double-winged black door fit for city gates blocking the bottom-most of the three exits from the room must lead to the inner sanctum, the Heart chamber itself. The stone banks ringing the circular open space in front of the ebon gates were trembling, and a sound like distant thunder was growing ever louder.

From the wide hallway opposite the one the forces of Good were currently regrouping in spilled a wave of moving limbs and glistening chitin. "Shit! More spiders! Combat positions!" "Wait, they aren't coming for us!"

Legs pumping madly, the spiders climbed over each other in their haste to get down the arena walls and to the black doors. Wails of fear went through the ranks of the heroes when they spotted the red scythe-wielding figure responsible for the stampede. "HORNED REAPER! She has a horned reaper!"

"Correction," Baron Leopold stated calmly, flicking at the grey strands of his moustache with a finger, "she has a berserk horned reaper. Good for us, bad for her. Say, Leon, I don't have a stuffed reaper in my trophy room yet, do I?" he added, rubbing his gauntleted hands together.

"My Lord? You aren't planning to-" the knight with a blue shawl draped around his shoulder tried to reason, before he noticed that his liege was no longer listening.

The Baron had already turned back to watch the chaos in action. Above, the black cloud of thousands of insects that composed Arachne's projection was screaming in rage. "No! Back, fools! You are going to ruin everything!"

One of the first spiders to reach the sandy circular plaza in front of the gates spontaneously burst into flames, while a second disappeared into a pit trap. The wave of arachnid bodies pressed on though, despite spiders being impaled by spikes shooting from the ground or being hurled into the air by explosions. Above the carnage, the shadow of Arachne buried its non-existing face in its disembodied palms. With a hiss that sounded suspiciously like a sigh, the black apparition disappeared through the wall leading to the heart chamber, and its huge gates opened slightly to let the remaining sanctuary-seeking minions in.

"Three more figures from the tunnel, My Lord," Leon, who had kept an eye on the side passage, informed his liege, "two-legged, possibly orcs."

"Ahem, ahem, I do believe those are merely incredibly filthy humans," Snyder corrected when the new arrivals approached at a jog. "These must be what remains of the advance group," he added with sudden worry for his travelling companions.

The baron nodded. "Smart idea, following that panicked mob trampling all the traps in its way."

The broad corridor that Ami was running along widened into a large, circular chamber, lit by the same kind of glowing spider thread as the rest of the dungeon. Behind her, she heard the wheezing and panting of Jered and Cathy as they tried to keep up. Ahead, the tail end of the spider stampede disappeared over some kind of cliff, and that infuriating fool of a Reaper jumped right after them. Moments later, she heard explosions and saw smoke, pillars of flame, and flying spider bits. Arriving at the edge of the amphitheatre, she slowed down and surveyed the scene below. A smoking, burning field of sand was littered with dead or half-dead spiders. Ahead, black gates were closing after allowing passage to the frightened minions. Obviously, her own so-called underling had somehow managed to put on a burst of speed and to slip inside too. Through the crack between the closing wings of the door, she could see the room behind flash a bright white as three curving bolts of lightning shot down from above, striking the red demon. In an explosion of shattered floor tiles, he was thrown into the air, and uncountable white threads shot toward him from all sides. Then the door slamming closed blocked her vision.

Ami stopped, unsure of what to feel about that. She didn't get the chance to collect herself, because a large armour-clad figure approached with ringing footsteps, purple helmet plume whipping up and down.

"Ah, one of the front line teams. You are just in time for the final assault." The baron turned to the ranks of soldiers and wizards pouring in behind him "Wheel in the ballista! Beyond this door lies the dungeon heart of Arachne! We will scour her evil from this land forever!"

The last of the heroes emerged and formed up in ranks. Accompanied by loud rumbling, a compact little siege weapon was pulled in by six dwarves, who proceeded to point it at the door, surrounded protectively by a quartet of blue robed magic users. In well-disciplined rows, the warriors advanced down the amphitheatre's steps and started walking over the smoking field, toward the towering gates. Ami and her travelling companions were moving alongside them. As they approached, she could hear the deep heartbeat of the enemy heart vibrating through the bedrock.

"Watch out, a spider near the ballista!" Ami didn't know who had shouted the warning, but with a sinking feeling she saw a lone arachnid that appear out of nowhere. As she had already observed once before, the spider started growing larger and larger. Before the siege weapon's team could react, the improbably huge creature had stepped on the apparatus, reducing it and two of the handlers to a pulp. By now, soldiers were screaming in fear and fleeing in blind panic, away from the behemoth that looked as if it could fit all of them in its stomach.

"Cowards! It's just a spider!" the Baron shouted, shouldering his way against the stream of the fleeing masses and toward the creature. "Come back and fight it! FIGHT IT I SAY!"

"He's insane, isn't he?" Cathy asked. Ami nodded dumbly. From past experience, she knew that her ice attack did nothing to stop a monster of that size. The spider was unhurriedly climbing down the slope of the amphitheatre, approaching the main mass of troops at the bottom.

"Wizards, assemble! On my mark! Fire!" Lieutenant Leon brought down his hand, and a dozen fireballs streaked like comets through the chamber and toward the monstrosity, impacting with bright flashes. The spider let out a high keening wail, and turned from a towering, sharp-bristled, poisonous whirlwind of death and destruction into a towering, sharp-bristled, poisonous, burning whirlwind of death and destruction.

"Belay that order, focus on the gate instead! Arachne can just enlarge a new one if this one fails! We must reach the Dungeon Heart to put an end to this!" a hunched-over man in extremely elaborate priest's robes shouted.

"Who's that?" Ami asked as she was swept up in the crowd moving toward the heavy reinforced doors blocking passage into the inner sanctum.

"Abbot Durval," Snyder informed her, "He wasn't at the abbey when Arachne destroyed it, and wants revenge for all the innocent deaths."

Ami felt as if she would be crushed to death in the mass of people all pressing against the doors and trying to get away from the super-sized arachnid. Overhead, fireballs pattered against the gates. Suddenly, the pressure vanished, and the huge wings of the door swung inward with a creaking sound. Immediately, the crowd of soldiers poured inward. Ami looked over her shoulders to the outside, and could see the Baron's cape waving as he charged toward the monster, accompanied by only a handful of his most fanatical followers. Because she was looking in the right direction, she could see the enormous gates quietly swing shut again after letting the 'intruders' in. "Watch out! It's a trap!"

An unwilling murmur went through the crowd, all asking roughly the same question. "Where is the Dungeon Heart?"

"Now that 's just unfair!" Jered cursed, looking up. Others heard the brown-eyed man's heart-felt exclamation and followed his gaze. They saw that the heart chamber was in truth a cylinder, much taller than wide. In the middle of the ceiling disc sat the dungeon heart, far out of reach of the heroes. About half-way up, a spider web spanned the chamber, with the Keeper's surviving minions covering the walls above it, staring at the adventurers from sets of unblinking eyes. A single thread was suspended from the centre of the horizontal web. At its end hung a writhing cocoon that swung around like a pendulum as something inside fought to break loose. A single straight horn was poking out of the silky prison.

Ami noted that the enemy heart looked much like her own, despite being upside-down. There was the beating membrane in the central shaft, the superstructure, and the column of swirling energy in its centre. More interesting was the giant, cloud like face of Keeper Arachne leering down on the assembled heroes and laughing from thousands of insect voices. "Welcome, welcome. If you think that this is unfair, you have seen nothing yet," she mocked. Red eyes flashed brighter "Drown like the rats you are!"

The rattling of heavy chains preceded a metallic scrape as a heavy floodgate sat in the lower third of the wall slowly opened. A stream of ice-cold water cascaded out, washing away the closest soldiers. Ami and some of the brighter heroes immediately realised what intruding water and no exit meant. Fortunately, she had the means to do something about it. "Shabon Spray Freezing!" Some of the inrushing water froze, partially plugging the source. She shouted her attack again and again, each time reducing the inflow some more. Her visor flashed red in warning, and she jumped aside, just before a lightning bolt from above slagged the tiles on which she had been standing. As she rolled to a stop, she counted herself lucky that the floor wasn't wet yet where she had been standing, and resumed throwing freezing bubbles at the floodgate. The plug of ice blocking it was growing and growing.

"Protect the sorceress!" Someone shouted, and Ami saw a purple shield intercept the next two arcs of electricity headed her way. Giving up on trying to smite her directly, Arachne instead directed her lightning into the puddle that had formed close to the now sealed floodgate. The group of unfortunate soldiers standing in the water convulsed and went down, smoke rising from their twitching bodies. Obeying an unseen command, all the spiders along the wall jumped and descended toward the heroes on silken threads like a cloud of huge, sharp-fingered venomous hands. Things were about to get really ugly.

Ami didn't know where to look first. Enemies and the screams of the dying were everywhere! At least her fog had made sure that it was the spiders who did most of the dying. The huge double doors exploding inwards drew everyone's attention. With a thunderous noise, the gates were blown off their hinges and tumbled inside, flattening friend and foe alike. Through the opening stormed the huge, ugly, enlarged spider, long lanky legs flailing about in a frenzy as it nearly slipped on the metal of the door wings underneath. Ichor seeped from gaps in its chitin, and it was trailing smoke from charred black spots on its carapace as it rushed forward in a straight line, trampling anything in its path.

"ARACHNE! I'M COMING FOR YOU!" the Baron hollered at the top of his lungs, riding atop the frenzied creature and whacking its bulbous yellow-spotted back with the flat of his enchanted sabre, spurring it on to go faster and faster. His cape was nothing but tatters, and the ends of his moustache were on fire, but the crazy man had his left arm wrapped tight around the constriction between the spider's back and head and didn't let go even as it ran out of even ground and went straight up the wall instead. It was certainly fast. In an eye-blink, the web blocking the path half-way up the room's height had been ripped to shreds. A moment later, spiderzilla had run out of wall and moved onto ceiling instead. Finally realising the danger, Keeper Arachne plucked the giant animal out from under - or more accurately, above - the Baron. Momentum conspired to keep Leopold going in the right direction, and moments later, he was hanging from the upside-down superstructure of the Dungeon Heart.

The heroes on the ground lost sight of him when something huge appeared in mid air and obstructed their view - in her anger, Arachne had hurled the giant spider at the greatest concentration of heroes she could see. To Ami, the incredible bulk of the spider seemed to move in slow motion, turning around its own axis and wriggling its legs as it inexorably sped toward the ground. She ripped her gaze away from it and broke into a sprint, ribbons trailing behind her as she dashed madly to get out of the growing shadow of the beast. With a grunt, she leaped forward and rolled to a landing, just as the impact of the creature shook the ground behind her and catapulted her up in the air again. Great fountains of spider innards fountained in all directions.

Ami landed on her back, just in time to see the glittering form of Baron Leopold far above use the stone gargoyles and other knick-knack decorating the Dungeon Heart superstructure as handholds to pull himself ever-closer to the beating membrane. The shadowy form of Arachne was batting at him in desperation, but being composed of flies, it did not achieve much more than irritating him. Finally, Leopold reached up, took his sabre out if his mouth with his free hand, and stabbed.

"NOOO! DIEEEE!" Arachne gathered up the last of her available mana and put together a feeble lightning bolt, which she poured directly into the madman's body. Spasming and twitching, he held on with dogged determination, grimacing, biting his teeth together, and content to let the metal of his sabre conduct the electricity back into the heart's membrane even as he cut and hacked.

The moment the dungeon heart died was unmistakable. It was as if the entire dungeon shuddered and groaned, roaring like a wounded animal. Floor tiles jumped out of their spots and cracked, murals crumbled into sand, and an unseen wind seemed to blow toward a vacuum where the heart had been. A black sphere of a pitch blackness had opened at its location, and the shadowy form that was Arachne spiralled around it like water going down a drain, inexorably drawn deeper and deeper. "Nooo! NOOOO! YOU WILL PAY! YOu will all suuuuufffeeeer...."

Against the background of pure darkness swallowing the Keeper, the falling shape of Baron Leopold appeared like clearest silver. Smoking, his armoured body dropped, like the huge spider had before him.

There was a sudden flash of pure, wholesome light, and within moments, the giant spider web hanging in tatters from the walls knitted itself back together as if it had never been broken. Abbot Durval was holding up his staff, chanting quietly. Everyone seemed revitalised by the light, Ami saw. However, she herself had flinched away, as if seared by its touch. She wondered what that meant for her. Absently, she watched the restored web bend as the heavy body of the Baron plummeted into it. Despite being stretched to its limits, it held, turning suicidal stupidity into shining heroics. Nevertheless, Ami had to admit that the Baron's escapade had been more impressive than anything Tuxedo Mask had ever pulled off. As she watched, the man used one of the dangling threads to rope down to the ground, where he was immediately surrounded by well-wishers and sycophants. Even the Abbot hobbled his way, intent on patching up whatever still ailed the hero of the hour.

Within the giant, burst-open corpse of the megaspider, something stirred. Soldiers moved away from it warily as its torso started to shake. A smell of sulphur permeated the air, and suddenly, flames rushed outward, burning a circular hole in the carcass, through which a scythe-wielding figure strode.

"Oh no! It's the Reaper!" "Why is it still here?" "Run for your lives!"

Ami moved closer to Snyder, who had gone pale at the sight, though he didn't run like many others "What's the big deal about that demon, anyway?"

With a cry of glee, the Baron sprang to his feet, face plate snapping shut as he pulled his sabre. "Huh, there's my trophy, after all!" Even the best efforts of his advisers couldn't prevent him from rushing toward the red-scaled engine of murder. The Reaper saw him coming, and his annoyance at being covered in spider guts turned into anticipation as he brought up his scythe to eviscerate the approaching fool.

Snyder looked surprised that Ami didn't know. "Horned Reapers are some of the most feared minions of evil. Legends tell of them as unstoppable killing machines, bestowed upon deserving Keepers as a sign of favour by the gods of evil."

The corners of the red demon's mouth lowered in irritation as his quarry evaded another of his strikes. The noble was expletive-inducingly quick on his feet, staying within the demon's guard to cancel out the latter's strength and reach advantage. Under his helmet, the baron's eyes were gleaming with a battle-lust mirrored in the Reaper's. Oh well, if the human wanted to play in close with that sabre of his... The Reaper grinned, baring his teeth. Suddenly, the crowd gasped when a lightning-quick thrust of Leopold's magical sabre ended in the weapon protruding through the Reaper's silhouette. The awe turned to dismay when they saw that, rather than killing the demon, the weapon was trapped between the monster's muscular left arm and his torso. The Reaper's grin widened in anticipation of the kill.

Blinking at the course the battle was taking, Snyder added "In hindsight, their reputation might have been exaggerating a bit."

The horned reaper's eyes widened in surprise when the disarmed baron simply let go of the weapon. Raising his arms, the militant noble grabbed the demon's long, straight horns as if they were handles, and yanked downward. With a deafening clang, helmet collided with nose ring, and the demon staggered in pain. Grabbing his blade when it fell from where it was lodged, the Baron turned the motion into a cut at the demon's unprotected chest.

Something tugged violently at the Reaper from behind, and he was thrown off his feet, dropping underneath the Baron's blow. The same irresistible force continued pulling, and the demon skidded over the floor, lying on his back and trailing sparks as his iron pauldrons scraped over the hard stone. Soldiers who had not moved during the fight were scattering in all directions as his bulk slid in their direction. He came to a stop looking up a familiar looking, if mud-covered skirt. Growling, he sat up, whirled around and bellowed "What are you doing, Keeper?! I nearly had him!"

"KEEPER?!" Jered, Cathy and Snyder were not the only ones who shouted this, eyes going wide as they looked at the blue-haired girl in new light. They were, however, the only ones who wished they hadn't stuck around the sorceress when the Reaper suddenly shot their way. It look like some show of loyalty, they realised with a start. So did the soldiers who were forming a wide circle around the group, weapons pointing inward.

Ami hid her face in her palm and groaned "Good going." Why had she given into the impulse to save him?

"So it's true?" Snyder stammered in disbelief. "Aren't Keepers supposed to be huge and monstrous, like Arachne?"

The Baron stalked toward them, sliding open his visor. His bushy, seared eyebrows were furrowed in anger. "So the little witch is a Keeper, huh? Here no doubt to get rid of a rival and loot her dungeon. Placed that fake acolyte close to me so that-"

"I'm not fake! It's not tru-" Snyder started to protest, hyperventilating.

"QUIET, villain! It also makes sense now that the only survivors of the frontline team are your so-called 'captors'."

"That's not what happened!" "We didn't kno-"

Tired of being ignored, the Reaper interrupted, amusement in his voice "Oops, was that supposed to be a secret, Keeper? Don't worry, there is an easy way to salvage the situation."

Ami threw him an irritated and dubious look.

Grinning, the beast continued "That is, KILL THEM ALL!"

The Baron raised his sabre "Incidentally, fiend, I was thinking exactly the same thing. MEN, GET THEM!"

"No, don't!" "This is a misunderstanding!" "Mercury, tell them this all your fault!"

Mercury did nothing of the sort. Instead, she raised her hands, and the forces of good gasped in fright when the area disappeared under dense, cold fog. "Save your breath and RUN!"

Grinning like the maniac he was, the Reaper raised his scythe to start carving a way through the soldiers between his Keeper and the exit. He was rather surprised when a wave of force blew him off his feet and threw him at the enemy formation, rolling over the floor like a living bowling ball. Pulling Cathy along and blurting out an apology whenever she stepped on a fallen soldier by accident, Ami fled toward the broken-down doors. Cathy seemed utterly stunned by the turn of events, nearly as much as Snyder. The red-headed priest was being ushered along by Jered, who proved to be surprisingly adaptable when it came to saving his own skin.

Behind them, in the mist, the Baron bellowed "AFTER THEM!"

"My Lord, we can't see them!" the soldiers were understandably reluctant to charge blindly into a fog that contained not only a legendary horned reaper, but also a Keeper.

"Wizards! Do something to get rid of this nuisance! I will have my trophy!"

"I ~huff~ still think we should have ~pant~ stayed around and explained-" Snyder was having trouble keeping pace with the others, not being used to much physical exertion.

"Because having a rational discussion with a man who considers head-butting that a good idea is certain to work!" Cathy replied sourly, pointing at the horned reaper jogging alongside the group. The demon was grumbling about being denied his fun, but had given up on trying to stay behind by 'accident', because whenever he did, Ami just dragged him along with invisible chains.

"What's up with that, anyway? I thought he was supposed to be unstoppable. Sure didn't look like that when old Leopold had a go at him," Snyder remarked, with a wary look at the red creature.

The Reaper muttered something indistinguishable.

"What was that?" Ami asked.

"I said 'My skills might be a little bit rusty after centuries of disuse'," he hissed angrily. "What of it?"

Sailor Mercury suppressed the urge to face-palm, if only because doing that while running wasn't safe. The beast had just slacked off for centuries? Not even Usagi was that bad!

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Chapter 17: Captured! Chapter 19: Escape from Arachne's Dungeon