Freezing rain poured down on the battlefield, a rocky slope where clouds of unnatural mist billowed over the sparse grass and moss. Rainwater ran downhill in meandering trickles, cascading off rocks as it searched a path through the uneven, debris-covered terrain. Worse, it found its way into the clothes and armours of the combatants, soaking them to the bone.
Cathy was no exception. Shivering from the wind chill, she landed close to a dwarf, splashing him with the mud fountaining up around her feet. The startled soldier had barely begun turning his head in her direction when her punch rattled his breastplate, lifted him off his feet, and launched him downhill.
The swordswoman did her best to ignore the hint of guilt in the back of her mind. He'd bowled over the dwarfs behind him, so he landed softly and would be fine. Probably. Damn, she hated having to hurt good guys. Fighting off heroes who had come to drive a Keeper from their land wasn't something she had ever imagined herself doing. Not so long ago, she would have reacted with violence to the suggestion she would ever do such a thing.
“Boss! Help!” An orcish voice drew her attention to the right.
Through a wall of dwarfs, she caught a glimpse of two of her soldiers standing with their backs to a rock wall. The orcs in damaged, blood-covered armour didn't look as if they could hold out much longer. "On my way!" she called, her shout distracting the dwarfs and buying the orcs a few more moments.
Alerted by her shout, five enemies broke from the encirclement and faced her way, watching the fog intently. The warriors wore breastplates and mail shirts that didn't fit quite right, but they were professional enough to react quickly and drop into proper combat stances. Their eyes went wide when Cathy got close enough that the mist no longer concealed her form. "Black knight!" one of them warned, taking a step back.
It didn't help him at all when she closed in and swung her long-handled maul at leg height. With one foot steadied against the rock for leverage, she brought the strength of her powered armour to bear and swept all of them aside, sending them sprawling.
The rest of the dwarfs gasped at the sight and hurried to turn towards the new threat. "It's her! Get her!" one of the them shouted as he lunged at her with his pickaxe held high.
Cathy intercepted him with a kick to his chest that sent him back the way he had come. She followed him with a jump, landing between the orcs and the remaining dwarfs. Risky, but she should be fast enough.
Wielding her weapon like a staff, she held it horizontally and pushed forward. Metal rang as the heft of her weapon slammed into a hastily-formed wall of shields. With her armour granting her the strength of a horned reaper in addition to Mercury's own enchantments, she simply kept walking, shoving the grunting, resisting dwarfs backwards. With only three steps, she had gained enough speed to send them tumbling, the sloped terrain working in her favour.
Three dwarfs remained and backed away. Two broke and ran, but the one further back blew twice into a signal horn as he retreated. "She's over here!" he managed to call out before she slammed her fist into his jaw.
Quickly, she checked whether any of the dwarfs scattered in the dirt around her were getting up again, doing her best to ignore their moans of pain and cries for help. Any bones she had broken should keep them safely out of the fight. It was for their own good, in a way. Oh, and someone had risen to his feet and was staggering towards her.
He didn't get far, as one of the bloodied orcs she had saved slammed his club into the dwarf's thigh from behind. A sickening crack later, and he was writhing on the ground, howling in pain as he held his leg.
The orc grinned at Cathy and gave her a thumbs-up as he kicked the downed dwarf for good measure.
With the orcs watching her back, the swordswoman used the opportunity to catch her breath for a moment. She renewed the Shabon Spray fog covering the battle and then let her aching arms dangle. Her powered armour was great and all, but when it moved at inhuman speeds, it sometimes felt as if it was trying to rip her limbs out.
“Thanks for the save, boss,” one of the pink-skinned warrior said as got close enough to be heard over the noises of the battlefield. He raised his helmet's visor, a scowl furrowing his oversized brow. “We should leave. Bunch of midgets coming here. Must have heard the horn.”
“I'm aware.” A loose double line of twenty dwarfs stomping directly towards her was hard to miss. “I'll handle them. You two, head over there.” Cathy pointed at a horned metal figure that towered over the other nearby combatants. Crowded by enemies, it was at the centre of one of the skirmishes that made up the ill-defined front line. "Stop them from slipping past the bot!"
“Sure, boss.” With a final worried glance at the dwarfs running toward Cathy, the orcs saluted and ran off.
The enemies arrived, and Cathy leaned to the right, letting a blow whistle past her. A knee to the chin sent her attacker stumbling backwards.
Cathy didn't give them the opportunity. She swung her weapon at the first soldier trying to bypass her on the left. Shield and bone crumbled under the impact of the blurring maul, and her opponent fell, howling in pain. An axe blade scraped over her greaves as she darted back out of reach, almost tripping her.
More cautious, she continued her attack, felling an enemy with each strike. She wondered how many casualties it would take to make the dwarfs break off their assault. The bulk of their forces hadn't even engaged yet. There were too many dwarfs on the slope for her to properly count, but at a rough estimate, she was facing more than there were goblins in the dungeon. Which would put their number at around four hundred or so.
She wished, not for the first time, that Mercury could have sent her more than twelve reaperbots. That would make her feel more confident about her forces being outnumbered four to one, which was never good. Especially when over half of said forces were goblins.
A dwarf kneeling in the mud over a fallen comrade froze in terror as she skidded to a halt near him. She strode past without a second glance. Even without Mercury's orders, she wouldn't lower herself to go after enemies who were recovering wounded and stunned comrades.
“She's coming this way!”
As long as she didn't let herself get surrounded, defeating the soldiers who opposed her was - well, not effortless, since the powered armour put quite a strain on her body, but not too challenging either. She would have been causing a terrible bloodbath if she had been using an edged weapon.
Likewise, the reaperbots didn't have any scythe blades attached to their hilts. She watched one of them spin in a circle with his staff held out, batting away any surrounding dwarfs that didn't dodge in time. More dwarfs poured in from behind it, hacking at the back of its knees. Most of their blows just bounced off the metal without doing any damage.
“Regroup! She has to make a mistake at some poin- argh!”
She stepped over her latest unconscious foe. About forty enemies per reaperbot. So far, she had only lost one of them, and that was to a freak hit from a catapult. Umbra should be dealing with the remaining artillery emplacements, so that wouldn't happen again. Add to that the advantage of high ground and the banks of Shabon Spray fog, and Cathy was feeling optimistic about her defensive line holding.
“Shoot her! Shoot her now!”
“I would if I could see her!”
“You are going to hit our own men in this mist!” someone else protested.
One of the heavy automatons slipped in the mud, its metal soles poorly suited for the rough terrain. It toppled, and a few of the more courageous dwarfs capitalised on the opportunity by giving it a good shove. The construct started rolling downhill, grasping futilely at the ground and picking up speed like a miniature avalanche. With shouts of alarm, the dwarfs in its path scattered.
Cathy grimaced. Well, the defence would hold unless something like that happened. Assuming that the reaperbot survived its descent, it still wouldn't make its way back up soon enough to be useful. She broke into a run, intending to take its place at the front.
“Aiiie! It's her! She's unstoppable! Run! Run!” One of the dwarfs shouted as he spotted her, turning tail and fleeing.
Well, she certainly didn't mind dwarfs not getting in her way for a change.
“Don't panic! Just handle her like one of the tin cans!” contradicted a calm voice that was used to commanding.
Treat her like one of the reaperbots? Hah, they'd find out to their detriment that she was much more agile than the automatons. Cathy turned her attention to the speaker. Clearly an officer of some sort, wearing an armour engraved with decorative line patterns.
“For Nimbadnur! Charge!” the dwarf pointed forward with his massive axe, a two-handed weapon with a half-moon shaped blade that was designed purely for battle.
Air whistled past Cathy as she jumped over the incoming tide of murderous, armoured dwarfs and headed straight for their commanding officer. Breaking the enemy morale was more important than taking down a few more of the rank and file soldiers. Not to mention safer than wading straight into the thick of things.
To his credit, her opponent didn't flinch at her approach. His horned helmet only covered his face from the nose up, and she could see him press his lips together in determination. "Split, scatter, surround!" he instructed as he took a wide-legged stance, the six braids hanging off his chin bobbing.
Cathy smiled under her helmet as she heard the worried exclamations. A captive dwarven noble could be just the hostage Mercury needed to put an end to this fight! With a glance, she evaluated her opponent. Weight shifted forward, hands far apart on the handle of his weapon. Yeah, he was planning to parry, rather than dodge. Without warning, she launched herself forward.
As she had expected, her opponent raised his own cleaver, one hand steadying the back of its blade to catch the blow on its edge.
Their weapons clashed, screeching as she pushed through her opponent's block. The effort drove him down to one knee, and even she felt a little rattled and unbalanced.
With a wet splash, the mallet-shaped top half of her maul landed in the mud.
Blinking at the remaining half of her weapon, Cathy belatedly realised that she had not actually broken through the noble's defence. Or batted his axe out of his hands. With a curse, she ducked just in time to get a great close-up view of its blade as it whistled past her head. A band of light blue metal glittered along its edge where the paint had been scratched.
Someone with an adamantine-lined weapon could parry with the edge, Cathy thought sourly. The thing would also cut through her armour, and she back-pedalled rapidly out of its reach. Which brought her in range of the dwarfs she'd bypassed earlier. Keeping one eye on the dwarf leader, she whirled around to parry a blow from behind. The enemy pickaxe came to a stop against the handle of her destroyed weapon, and she grabbed the pick-shaped part to pull it from her opponent's hand.
He didn't let go. Attached to his armour with a locked gauntlet, the pickaxe remained stuck to her opponent. Too pressed for time to abandon her plan, Cathy yanked hard, pulling the soldier off his feet, and swung him in a circle. Feet flailing in the air, the screaming dwarf proved to be effective at gaining her some space, since his comrades were reluctant to hit him.
She let him go before she could get dizzy from all the turning, releasing him in the direction of the dwarven noble. Now to retreat and find another weapon before the dwarfs could close in again.
Someone tossed a net over her. Annoying, but she could just rip that apart before the dwarfs closed in and - wait, they were running away from her?
Cathy's eyes widened. Not fleeing from her, but from the small round object rolling in her direction. Bomb!
She tripped as she took an instinctive step back, her legs tangled in the net. "Crap! Shabon Spray Freezing!"
Magic borrowed from the empress rushed through her body and shot towards the explosive. The pillar of blue light rushing from Cathy's palms solidified as it struck the ground, turning into a wall of ice that towered over her.
The bomb struck the obstacle with a soft thud and exploded with a painful, deafening boom, accompanied by an orange flare. Shards of metal made buzzing noises as they shot through the air, and splinters of ice pelted the swordswoman.
She sat up and stared at the crack-covered wall, her heart beating rapidly. Damn. That had been too close. She had been lucky Mercury hadn't been drawing on their shared mana source at the same time. Damn dwarfs. Still, she had to act confident. They wouldn't flee if she couldn't demoralise them. She stood, demonstratively brushing the dirt off her armour. "So much for your brilliant plan," she mocked.
“The distraction, anyway,” the noble quipped right back. Then, he gave the large, precariously-balanced boulder tied to the net a good kick.
Five staff-wielding silhouettes stood in a semi-circle around a stone altar, backlit by the ember-filled braziers that bathed the room in a red light. Each of the high-collared figures occupied one point of the vaguely star-shaped diagram etched into the floor.
The dark general floating on the opposite side of the ritual chamber looked less than impressed. Arms crossed, he singled out the central warlock with his stare. “Torian. I hope you have a good reason for calling me away from the battle."
“Obviously.” The chief warlock's tone made it clear he would have rolled his eyes at the dark general if he had dared. “We will ruin the enemy's foolish strategy in one fell blow! Observe!"
He gestured with his staff at the three metal rods standing upright on the altar, resting on their disc-shaped base. They toppled and revealed each a different emblem on their dusty underside.
“Those things,” Torian lectured, “are three of the stamps the invaders use to mark the walls, not unlike a noble pressing his seal into wax. A crude but quick way to reinforce their leaders' claim on the land. Instead of a skilled artisan chipping away with a chisel for hours, any soldier with a stamp and a hammer can leave marks all over the place. That has to be delightfully offensive to dwarven sensibilities, really! Still, it accomplishes what they are trying to do.”
Jadeite glanced briefly at the stamps before focusing on the warlock again. "The point being?"
“So impatient! Well, as fast as their method is, it suffers from an exploitable flaw. Each stamp produces identical marks. Are you following me?”
“I'm familiar with the weaknesses of mass-produced garbage,” Jadeite said, nodding.
“Good. So are the dwarfs, annoying little midgets that they are. They are using differently-sized stamps, paint, and scratches to add some individuality to each mark. That doesn't offer anywhere near as the protection that properly hand-crafting the things would,” the warlock furrowed his neatly-trimmed brows, "but that is, unfortunately, still enough to prevent us from blowing up all of the emblems with a single ritual."
“And you have found a way to keep the energy of the spell focused despite the counter-measures?” Jadeite asked, sounding a little more interested.
Torian shook his head. “Not exactly, but I have found a workaround. While we can't directly affect the marks, we can still use each of them to find all the others. After that, well, that's where you come in."
Three of his assistant warlocks took a step forward, grabbed one stamp each, and brought them down hard on the altar. It's surface rippled like liquid tar, and when they lifted the tools again, three perfect emblem-shaped impressions were left in the black glass.
The fourth warlock approached and dropped a nail into the centre of the triangle formed by the three impressions. Aside from having been split half-way until it resembled a tiny tuning fork, it didn't look any different from regular nails one might find in a carpenter's toolbox.
Jadeite raised an eyebrow. "I don't sense any magic from that."
“That's because it's not magical,” Torian said. “I assume duplicating it will be no problem for someone who can conjure up thousands of fully-functional eyes?" Not waiting for an answer, he continued "Now go ahead and use the emblems to sense where their copies are. We have a battle to turn around!"
Ami had her eyes closed, her lips pressed together in a thin, unhappy line. In her mental view of the dungeon, steel girders slammed into place, reinforcing a ceiling that groaned under the weight of the rock above it. Her opponents had no compunctions about digging into the load-bearing parts of the mountain, keeping her distracted with staving off collapses while people were fighting and dying elsewhere.
Drawing entirely on the gold-fuelled magic of her dungeon heart, she filled the concerned caverns with the caustic, corrupted version of her her fog. Alarmed cries and rapid footsteps rewarded her as a group of dwarfs spotted the hazardous obstacle and ran. Area denial was the key here.
“The updated list of highest-priority emergencies, your Majesty,” one of the warlock assistants interrupted her train of thought.
Ami glanced at the small page of paper he'd left on the battle map, and quickly worked her way through each item, moving troops and the wounded.
By now, she had a managed to piece together a much better idea of what her enemies were up to. The half of their army participating in the assault, anyway. There were three distinct groups digging into the mountain from different directions, each one under the command of a different noble. At least, that was what she concluded from the markings on their equipment. It would explain the differences between their tactics.
The group to the south-west, for example, was trying the most traditional approach. Large groups that breached the dungeon walls and invaded. In a way, they were the easiest to deal with, since there were less separate incursions to track. Her troops could team up and deal with the incursions more or less on their own. Of course, that didn't paint the whole picture, since the enemy had also brought heavy mining equipment, such as large drills that needed several dwarfs to operate. Originally, they had tried to go in deep, but a few hit and run attacks by Mareki had flooded their descending tunnels, which put a stop to that.
“That runaway wagon just exploded!” someone shouted on the upper floors, and Ami was forced to spend a few precious seconds running damage control.
The saboteurs from the east were taking the opposite approach from the previous group. Small teams of three dwarfs each were roaming about, destabilising large volumes of rock, placing explosives and sniping any imps they could find. In short, they were making as much trouble for her as the other two groups put together. She had no reason to assume that they numbered less than their allied forces either - about five-hundred dwarfs each, by her estimations. It explained why she found it impossible to keep track of all the tiny squads. Their one redeeming feature was their lack of combat power. Too small to risk confrontations, they focused on property damage, rather than on inflicting casualties.
Ami wanted them gone nevertheless, and had picked up on their main weakness. With only three dwarfs to rotate through the strenuous task of digging, they lacked endurance. Even the various potions they were carrying could only slow down how quickly they tired out. It meant that whenever she forced them to make a detour, they couldn't move much further to find an alternate target.
Corrupted Shabon Spray fog was great for denying them the use of existing tunnels, and since she had observed the dwarfs being very good at avoiding such hazards, she didn't even need to feel guilty about using the horrible stuff. That was a reactive measure though, and didn't really stop them from collapsing her tunnels. For that, she had been improvising.
She concentrated, and gold flowed from her treasure chamber. The section of dungeon floor she was focusing on trembled, tiles parting and lifting as an elongated shape rose from below with a grinding noise. A giant sword glittered on the ground, but not of the type she had wielded with her Keeper hand before. She had adapted her sword room to produce a thin, narrow weapon that resembled a foil or spike instead. Less practical for cutting down enemies, but she didn't plan on using it for fighting. Instead, she drove the metres of pointy metal right into the dungeon wall.
In practice, she wasn't doing anything more sophisticated than sloppily nailing her corridors to the underlying rock. It wasn't a perfect solution by a long shot, and she couldn't afford either the attention or the gold to turn every corridor into something that resembled a porcupine, but it stopped the dungeon from collapsing the moment it was undermined. Now she needed to build more-
The urgency in Cathy's transmission startled Ami, immediately drawing her Keeper sight to the area. She gasped when she saw the armoured figure skidding and bouncing downhill at a break-neck pace, dragged onward by a rolling boulder. "Oh no!"
Frightened for the blonde's life, Ami concentrated and transported her out of the net by transferring her into Keeper storage. Momentum. Too much momentum to just drop her off in the infirmary. It needed to be bled it off first, and quickly. Aiming for a deep water basin, Ami released the swordswoman.
A loud splash later, Cathy was underwater and slowed abruptly. She made jerky swimming motions while bubbles escaped from her helmet. With the way she was flailing her limbs, they probably weren't broken, and Ami transported her to the infirmary.
Cathy dropped to her knees, coughing so much she bent over, and water spilled out of her armour's joints.
Ami noted the mild pink tinge of the growing puddle with worry. ”Cathy, are you all right?”
The coughing from underneath the helmet grew angrier, but also less intense as the blonde straightened. "What does it," another cough, "look like?"she snapped, though she stood up under her own power. "Sorry. I've felt better, but I'm really angry about falling for that trick."
”That's a relief.” Ami clasped her hands underneath her cloak. ”Just let Snyder heal you, and-”
”No, send me back,” Cathy demanded. ”I can still fight!”
Ami blinked. ”But you are hurt!”
”The enemy won't take a break just because I'm not in top shape. We'll lose before I get out of this armour and back in!”
Ami hesitated. She didn't want to send Cathy out to fight wounded, but the swordswoman had a point. It was a painful reminder that she was neglecting urgent duties while she was having this conversation. Besides, someone able to cast Shabon Spray out there on the battlefield would indeed be invaluable. She hung her head. "All right, but be careful, please!"
”I will. Can you drop me off near the breaches?”
Ami searched the battlefield for a spot behind friendly lines and complied, but not before noticing that her troops were precariously close to being overwhelmed. Even armed with magic, Cathy wasn't going to turn that situation around all on her own.
Deciding that she needed to assist, Ami briefly checked if there were no higher-priority emergencies. She stabilised a pillar damaged by an explosive charge before turning her attention to the tunnels underneath the surface battle. There were traps that should have prevented a situation like that. Why were they not working?
Power failure. She sighed. She could fix the broken power lines, if she took the time to search where they were damaged, or she could improvise and throw some magic at the problem to make it go away. Or, more precisely, a magical minion. A mere exertion of her will summoned a pale grey figure before her.
“Ehh? Your Majesty!” The hairless, fin-eared youma seemed to shrink under Ami's red-eyed gaze.
“Lishika! You'll help Cathy stop the enemy on the surface,” Ami said, half of her attention occupied with rewiring the power grid.
“M- me? But I'm not good at fighting!” Lishika protested quietly, eyes shifting left and right as if looking for an escape route.
Ami finished her preparations. "After I transport you, you will see a vertical metal rod. Grab it and keep zapping it when Cathy tells you to," she instructed.
The youma relaxed a little. "All right. How long do I need to-"
“Now!” Ami instructed, and Lishika disappeared.
Problem hopefully handled, Ami dealt with a request for evacuation from a flanked group of trolls while she pondered how to best deal with the third group of invaders, which used middle-sized teams of soldiers. Perhaps they could be denied entry?
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