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Author's note:

Since the Anime Addventure is currently not accepting new story posts due to technical problems, I'm posting this episode here. The previous episodes can be found here:

Also, this entire episode was actually supposed to be just the introduction scene. As usual, things bloated completely out of control. You'd think I'd have learned how to better estimate sizes after 160+ episodes.

The inside of Ami’s command centre was a strange blend of modern war room and dungeon architecture. Wide stairs led up from the bottom of the square chamber in all cardinal directions, providing access to the four successively receding floors. On each of these terraces, screen-like mirrors in ornate metal frames lined the walls and showed images of the outside. Between them, water trickled down over the murals, veiling the more objectionable motives and cooling the hot air.

On the top floor, some goblins were playing with the cascading water instead of occupying their cushioned armchairs made of rock. Undeterred, the mirrors they should have been watching kept showing needles that traced lines onto scrolling paper.

Fortunately for Ami, the warlocks seated on the two floors below were more disciplined and kept scanning the surface for her enemies. Only one of them was not paying attention and feeding a potted carnivorous plant instead, but in his defence, there was nothing to see on his dark screen anyway.

One floor deeper still, none dared shirk their duties. Not only did the command staff reside on this level, but the dark empress herself was in attendance just below, at the bottom of the chamber. Her command chair, currently empty, stood at the centre of the lowest floor, surrounded by seats for her personal assistants. Various map tables were scattered around the place, leaving enough space for groups of imps to dart between them.

One of these tables showed the mountain and its neighbours in accurately-modelled detail. An imp stood astride two peaks, updating the flooding status of the valley below with the aid of a ladle and a bucket of water.

Ami shooed the creature away with an impatient twitch of her hand because she needed an unobstructed view. She leaned on the edge of the round table, frowning at the many crevices, forests, and rocky protrusions that could be hiding her enemies.

Footsteps approached her from behind, and she turned to see Jered come down the stairs. “Here, the latest requests for flares,” he said, holding out a sheet of paper covered in coordinates.

Ami took the note and covered a yawn with her free hand, no longer even batting an eye at seeing him walk around shirtless. She glanced at the map for reference, reached through space, and projected a number of overcharged light spells outside her territory. Several scrying mirrors two floors above brightened, showing raindrops turning into glistening threads as they fell towards the dimly-lit circles of forest canopy below.

“Tired?” Jered asked as Ami rubbed her eyes. “Personally, I think you would have been better off sleeping than hunting dwarfs all night. Even with your lights, the scrying spells don’t show much in the dark.”

“Which is exactly why I need to be here,” Ami contradicted. “I can patrol with my Keeper sight, which isn’t impeded by the darkness.”

Jered shrugged. “On your territory, anyway.” He approached the map, eyeing the parts shaded in aquamarine critically. “Which would limit you mainly to this mountain and to those thin paths leading outwards. Still?” He raised an eyebrow at Ami.

“The rats aren’t claiming as fast as expected,” she allowed.

“Ah, yes. Rain, backpacks and silly dances on steep inclines don’t make for a safe working environment.”

“Actually, that’s not the main issue. They simply don’t know instinctively where I need them to go, like the imps do. In narrow tunnels, that’s not much of a problem, but in the open terrain...”

“I don’t event want to think about having to order them all around individually,” Jered said, shaking his head. “So, I take it the dwarfs are staying away from your sensory trails?” He traced one of the straight aquamarine paths with his finger as it followed the terrain contours up a nearby mountain.

Ami nodded, her shoulders drooping. “At least I know where they aren’t.” She stared at the regions not in her colour, worrying about how much area that included. ”Every little thing helps.” In a whisper, she added “I don’t want this fight.”

Above, metal armour rang against stone as Cathy leaned over the railing. “I bet you stopped them from approaching anyway. All those flares must have messed up their night vision,” she said cheerfully, a tone that didn’t properly match the dark circles around her eyes.

“I'll take that bet,” one of the warlocks said, turning away from his mirror to face her. “Because, technically speaking, dwarfs can’t see in the dark. They can, however, sense the concentration of minerals in their vicinity, which, in close proximity, makes for a suitable substitute and-”

“Unless you can do the same with your scrying, I’m not interested,” the blonde cut him off. “Sun’s about to rise anyway, so search harder!”

Ami jerked in surprise when she felt something unexpected from her territory.

“Here!” A goblin on the top floor shouted, climbing up on her chair and jumping up and down while she pointed at the mirror behind her. “Flat line thingy going all spiky!”

Ami raised her head, taking only an instant to verify that the position of the supervised seismograph coincided roughly with the odd disturbance she had felt - past the first ring of defensive corridors already! Barely a moment later, an image of the place in question formed in her mind. Flat and rocky, it lacked vegetation that could have hidden invaders. There weren’t any suspicious footprints in the mud either, and the raindrops splashing into the omnipresent puddles didn’t hit anything invisible on the way down. Certain that she had sensed something, Ami remotely filled the area with a Shabon Spray fog before she turned her attention to the underground.

Her Keeper sight - maybe she should call it Keeper sense instead - didn’t let her see through the layers of earth and stone, but she could still use it to listen, even some distance away from any claimed surface. In a way, it was similar to a seismograph, with her dungeon heart interpreting small noises and vibrations for her in order to show her the general layout of her subterranean surroundings.

“-troops to those coordinates!” Cathy ordered, her metal boots having left a little dent in the floor when she had jumped down from above. She was standing at a different table, moving tiny figures of orcs and goblins across a map of the dungeon. A pointy-bearded warlock stood across from her, sparks of mana twinkling in his right eye as he mentally relayed her orders.

“Wait, there’s nothing!” Ami interrupted, her attention fully returned to the command centre.

Cathy threw her a surprised look and quickly told the warlock “Call them back, false alarm!”

The magic user nodded mutely, grabbed the representations of the soldiers and moved them back to the nearest guard post.

Ami felt the same sensation as before, this time from the opposite side of the mountain. She didn’t even wait for one of the goblins to announce the disturbance and immediately observed the area in her mind. Movement, just above the tree line. She suppressed the momentary fright at having several layers of her defences bypassed and took a closer look at the descending rocks and gravel. A little cloud of dust, present despite the rain and mud, made it clear to her what had happened here.

“Bombardment,” she stated for the benefit of those in the command centre even as she felt two additional impacts. Not that anyone could hear her with the way four goblins were shouting at the top of their lungs.

“Here too!” a corpulent green-skinned girl screeched. “Look!”

“No, look mine! Jaggier!”

“Mine more better still!”

Ami sighed. Manning the internal surveillance stations with goblins had sounded like a good idea at the time. With an external mana supply and no need to adjust anything, the job wasn’t complicated enough to warrant wasting the time of her more skilled employees on. Attention-seeking goblins could be handled with a little forethought.

Something whistled and cracked in the air. “Shut up, all of you! Quiet!” A woman in a black leather outfit that had nothing to fear from the corruption stalked towards the unruly greenskins, stretching a whip between her hands.

“Eep!” The closest goblin dived behind his chair and hid, and the rest paled and ducked too.

Keeping the goblins in line was about the limit of what Ami was willing to use her few dark mistresses for. They weren’t allowed to touch the small underlings, but the goblins didn’t know that. “Bombardment,” she repeated now that the room was quiet. “They are throwing rocks at us.”

“So they are messing up the surface. How scary,” Cathy deadpanned. “What do they intend to achieve? Well, aside from getting the goblins all worked up, that is.”

Ami wasn’t taking the situation quite as lightly. “Blinding us to their approach. The constant impacts are actually very distracting,” she stated with a sour expression. “Imagine someone is prodding you with a finger in random places, except in your mind.” She looked up at the higher floors and raised her voice. “Goblins! Change of plans! Stop reporting single spikes. Only look for constant activity!”

“Only shout if the there are no holes between the spikes for a while,” Cathy translated, being more familiar with the goblins’ large selection of uncomprehending expressions than Ami.

“Yes. That,” the young Keeper confirmed. Digging dwarfs should produce a different pattern than the boulders raining down on the territory now. Her seismographs could still provide her with a warning, even if it would come much later than she would have liked. She wondered briefly if the dwarfs knew about her detectors. No, probably not. The steady drumming of the falling boulders would also hide any digging noises from more mundane listening attempts. Additionally, the insistent reminders that her land was under attack were getting really, really annoying. Was that why Keepers usually waited with claiming the surface until they had done away with the resistance?

“Where are they launching all those things from?” Cathy mused aloud, peering at the map. “I find it hard to believe that we missed every single catapult being built, even if it was under the cover of a starless night.”

“I’m working on that,” Ami snapped while entering the impact locations into her Mercury computer, trying to keep up with what her Keeper senses were telling her. She reminded herself that the bombardment, while irritating, didn’t pose a direct danger, and let out a long breath. “Sorry. The impacts are making it hard to concentrate,” she apologised for her outburst. Still, the sooner she found the source, the better.

Jered was unashamedly looking over her shoulder, blinking at the screen. “Is it just me, or are the rocks landing closer to inhabited areas?”

Ami stopped typing. “Now that you mention it, it does look as if the shots are getting more accurate, but-” she paused as she felt something that chilled her to the core. “What was that?” It had felt like one of the other contacts, with the all-important difference that it came from one of her tunnels underground.

Not losing a second, she investigated with Keeper sight. Sure enough, she found rainwater trickling down into a smooth-walled pit. It gathered on top of the reinforced ceiling of one of the defensive corridors ringing the mountain, and a faint plume of smoke rose from the hole. There were still no dwarfs around. Her eyes widened. “Darn it!”

“Mercury, what’s going on?” Cathy asked.

“It’s not just a distraction, they can put burrowing enchantments on their rocks!” In her mind’s eye, Ami discovered more pits leading deep down now that she knew to look for them. Since they hadn't hit anything directly, they had not felt any different from the regular impacts.

“Shit! If they can just charge and dive into the holes, they’ll bypass many of the traps!” Cathy hurried over to Ami’s map table. Her eyes darted across the various terrain features, lingering on the closest woods. “Where are the most holes?”

“I’m moving some reaperbots to the critical areas,” Ami answered. “There and there. Over here too.”

An imp rushed over to the dungeon map and removed a number of scythe-wielding figurines.

Even as she positioned the automatons on the surface, Ami realised that they wouldn’t be enough to properly defend the entire threatened area. Not if she didn’t know where the attack would be coming from. “I’m using up the water reservoir in sector F9,” she informed the others.

Her tremor spell split a cliff, and water gushed forth as if a dam had broken. As it cascaded down the mountainside, it swept along rocks and mud, gathering more and more mass on the way down.

Satisfied, Ami watched the holes in the stream’s path fill with liquid and gravel. If the dwarfs wanted to invade from that direction, they would need diving equipment. Still, this was a temporary measure at best, and she needed to find the source of the rocks and shut it down. It was too bad her visor couldn’t enhance her Keeper sight. “I’ll be back shortly,” she announced before she disappeared in a flash of blue.

After the sweltering heat within her dungeon, the air above the snow-topped peak of her mountain felt as if she had jumped into a tub filled with ice water. Frigid raindrops smashed against her visor, drenching her in moments. The parts of her cloak that weren’t plastered to her body fluttered in the howling winds, threatening to carry her off like a kite with its rope cut.

Ami remedied the problem by casting a shield around herself, creating a bubble of force that held off the elements. To the east, she could see the sun starting to rise, its disc tinted a mild shade of pink by the layer of magic. In the morning sunlight, the trickles and rivulets running down the west side of her mountain shone red like lava - an impression that wasn’t helped by the stack of black thunderclouds that piled up above the peak.

The clouds around the neighbouring mountain peaks all hung much lower, but Ami didn’t question her luck. If the weather above her dungeon wanted to defy the rules of physics to allow her a clear view of the valley below, then she wasn’t complaining. With fingers stiff from the cold, she instructed her computer to track the trajectories of any flying object below. Shivering, she dismissed the wet cloak that felt as if she was wearing an ice block. Her short shorts and equally short blouse were not meant for this climate either, and with clattering teeth, she muttered a formula that conjured a dry version of her lost garment. Since she had started using that spell, cloaks had quickly become fashionable among the more powerful corruption-plagued magic users inhabiting her dungeon.

Her visor kept recording data, and more and more lines gathered on her screen. One set originated from a copse of trees, another from underneath an overhanging cliff. Too far away to see the equipment from her current location, Ami simply unloaded a Shabon Spray onto both of those locations. She would deal more permanently with them after a little scrying back in her comfortably warm dungeon. As soon as she had located the rest of the launch locations.

Consulting her screen in more detail, she blinked in surprise. There were boulders incoming from what looked like empty ground, rocks, and cliffs. How could anyone position siege equipment on a near-vertical wall, let alone without her being able to see it? No, wait. With projectiles that could smoothly penetrate a considerable distance of rock, there was nothing stopping the dwarfs from firing them from underground.

“I’ve found them!” Ami announced upon teleporting back to the command centre. “Second floor warlocks! I’m going to mark twenty-six locations on the map. I want each of you to scry on one of them.” She raised a finger, pointing at the wrinkly magic user seated closest to her. “You will take the first location.” Her finger moved to the right, wandering across the seated magicians in sequence “You take the next, you the next, and so on.”

“Yes, Empress!”a chorus of voices replied.

Once she was done placing the markers, she hurried over to her command chair and sat down in front of her own crystal ball. A brief, enthusiastic squeal was her only warning before an imp jumped onto her armrest and attacked her hair with a towel, sending droplets everywhere.

Blinking, Ami decided to endure the treatment - she had been getting fed up with rainwater trickling into her eyes anyway - and concentrated on the locations she hadn’t put on the map. Her crystal ball activated, showing her the copse of trees. In the twilight, it was hard to make out the catapult between the tree trunks, but its rectangular contours gave it away. She also spotted five dwarfs servicing the siege equipment, their armour covered in mud and leaves to mute its shine.

For a short while, she observed, wanting to learn more about her opponents. A little off from the centre of the clearing, she spotted two more dwarfs kneeling in front of a boulder. The tools in their hands moved deftly, carving additional runes into a surface already covered in tiny symbols. Ami couldn’t tell what they were supposed to do, but circumstances suggested that the patterns were responsible for the projectile’s terrain-penetrating properties. Her warlocks should take a look at that, later.

As the dwarfs loaded another rock into the catapult, Ami struck. A single bolt of lightning, strong enough to shatter the construction. Or at least, that was what she expected to happen. Instead, the spell veered off-target as it formed, sucked into a chain made of thick metal links. One of them snapped, crumbling away into thin grey ash. Her target was warded.

The dwarfs stopped what they were doing, their heads whipping into the direction of the magical light show. One of them shouted something, and they all dropped what they were doing.

Ami let them scatter and disappear into the forest because she wanted them to know that fleeing was an entirely viable option. Briefly, she considered testing the properties of the ward. While knowing the capabilities of her opponents would be useful, stopping the bombardment was more urgent. One compressed Shabon Spray later, she had a large, floating Keeper hand with which she gave the closest tree a good shove. The pine’s roots tore from the wet ground as it toppled right onto the catapult, smashing it into kindling. One down. With the animated hand, she sifted through the debris and pulled out the chain. An instant later, it landed in one of her laboratories. The boulder the dwarfs had been working on suffered the same fate.

Ami addressed the small group of cloak or robe-wearing figures seated near her chair. “I have dropped some recovered equipment in library appendix three,” she told them. “I need its wards analysed as soon as possible.”

“Immediately, your Majesty!” The five eager-looking warlocks hurried away at once.

“Loot! Loot! Loot!” one of the goblins above shouted, a chant that was picked up by a second and then cut short by the crack of a whip.

Ami turned her crystal ball’s attention to the emplacement underneath the overhanging cliff. Expecting more wards, she didn’t waste time with spells. Her ice hand dropped into the hideout before the dwarfs down there knew what was going on. One moment, they were carefully aiming their cannon, the next, the thick tube was ascending toward the sky in the grip of a giant frozen hand. A quick toss later, and a muddy column of water rose from the flooded valley below. Two down.

Ami teleported to one of the mirrors prepared by her warlocks, who flinched at her sudden appearance.

“There’s a cave down there, but it’s unlit and I can’t really see inside, my Empress,” he muttered apologetically.

“It’s not your fault they don’t need light,” Ami reassured him absently. She gazed at the image underneath the glass, inspecting the clustered holes in the rock. A light spell should - no, it didn’t form. There had to be more wards down there. Overloading them with powerful spells thrown in blindly wasn’t an option - she wanted to stop the dwarfs, not kill them. Was there anything nearby she could set on fire and throw into the cave? The rain would be working against her in this case, but -

One of the goblins interrupted her train of thought. “Me think this is steady pointy line?”

“Yes.” Ami answered in a flat tone of voice, her heart rate increasing. “Yes, it is.” She didn’t even have to look at the seismograph for confirmation. The sensation of someone trying to dig into her dungeon left no room for doubt.

“Got proper line too!” a different goblin yelled.

“Me too!”

“They like mine here?”

“Right signal look like this?”

“Enemies emerging from the woods, Q23!” One of the warlocks yelled.

“Same, S21!“

The noise in the command centre surged as different observers began calling out coordinates in quick succession, too fast for Ami to follow them all.

The invasion had begun, faster and more coordinated than she had expected. “You all know what to do!” she shouted over the noise. “Direct your assigned squads to the breaches! Only signal me personally when our soldiers have trouble!”

In the scrying mirrors showing the interior of her dungeon, orcs and goblins rushed through the tunnels, weapons in hand.

“Cathy, concentrate mainly on keeping away the dwarfs on the surface,” Ami instructed as she stared at the markers her imps were constantly updating the map with. A forest of red pins surrounded her mountain on all sides, creeping closer as she watched. Reluctantly, she selected warriors from her reserves and reinforced the most likely routes her attackers would take. Under her cloak, hidden from her underlings, she wrung her hands as her dread rose. She had been in worse situations before, but this time, she was fighting innocent people who meant well.

Previous chapter: Next chapter:
Chapter 175: Frenzied Fortification Chapter 177

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