“Next!” the voice of the sergeant called out, carrying far in the narrow tunnel. Mosek gratefully lowered his pickaxe and pressed himself against the wall to let the next digger pass. He took off his helmet and raised a proffered wine bottle to his lips, the taste of the liquid washing away some of his tiredness.
“Good work,” one of the other soldiers said as he patted him on the back. “We'll be through any moment now."
Mosek wiped the sweat from his brow, frowning. Was that supposed to cheer him up? It didn't. In fact, it was terrifying and he wished he was back at his farm. Scraping lichen off wet rocks wasn't any less exhausting than mining, but at least he wasn't doing it in chafing, ill-fitting armour. Also, there weren't death and torture waiting for him around every corner back home. Military life looked far more glorious from afar.
Hard work aside, his group had been lucky so far. The worst they had encountered was an imp - a hideous creature with grotesquely large, dead eyes, the light on its helmet casting intimidating shadows over its face. Keleb had shot the bloodthirsty little monster before it could go for them, but there were far worse creatures waiting for them underneath this mountain. He shuddered and didn't even want to think about the Dark Empress herself, an evil powerful enough to challenge the plans of gods.
“Put your helmet back on, we are about to-”
There was a loud clang as the miner's pick broke through the dungeon's brick wall and bounced off a steel surface behind it.
“Tangled beards! Where did that come from?” the miner shouted in confusion.
Mosek stared in surprise. He would never have missed sensing that much metal through the rock when he had been at point digging, which meant it was a recent addition. "She knows we are here!" he muttered in a strangled voice, jumping to the obvious conclusion.
“Nah, don't worry, it's just some goblins on the other side,” Ashkad reassured him, one of her palms touching the bare rock. The copper-skinned artisan had her eyes closed in concentration. “The obstacle is a plate on rails, like a sliding door. Ingenious."
“I'd admire it more if it wasn't in our way,” the sergeant grumbled.
Mosek couldn't help feeling relieved. Enchanted picks could neutralise the reinforcements on dungeon walls, making them no harder to dig through than regular walls. This didn't help a whole lot when all you had was a pick and there was a steel wall in your way. He wouldn't have to enter the dungeon proper just yet. Sure, he knew that the enemy Keeper needed to be stopped - never mind the insistent lies of her minions - and he had no intention of shirking his duties, but he still preferred to avoid danger for as long as possible.
“It's not as if she can afford to armour the entire dungeon,” Ashkad said. “We can dig sideways and go around it."
“Pointless. The corridor will be swarming with troops by now,” the sergeant dismissed the suggestion. "We need to try somewhere else. Pull back, men!"
Mosek, resting safely at the end of the group, suddenly found itself at its front as it reversed direction. Not that he minded leading them away from the danger.
“And collapse the tunnel, we don't want any enemies pouring in behind us!”
Even in complete darkness, the dwarven diggers struck with precision and skill. It only took them a few deft strikes before the rock collapsed inwards, rumbling and stirring up a cloud of dust behind the departing soldiers. As the debris rained to the ground, Mosek thought he heard a quiet clicking noise that came from ahead. "Did you hear that?"
“It's one of those freaky rats with a backpack!” someone shouted behind him. A hurled stone landed close to the animal, and it disappeared underneath some rubble.
“What I heard didn't sound like a rat.” If anything, the odd noise reminded him of a millipede. It hadn't been a single, defined sound, but more something like hundreds of small objects striking at the same time. His imagination conjured up an enormous, spindly insect whose legs could touch the tunnel walls in multiple places at once, all at the same time. He shuddered. What a time to be reminded of monsters from ancient myths.
“Stop, there's definitely something wrong,” the sergeant said, holding up his hand. “What are those glowing specks?"
The passage looked as if a swarm of red fireflies had alighted on its walls, each one several steps apart from the others.
“I'd say embers, but they are getting brighter,” Ashkad said, her voice betraying her unease. “Mosek, watch out! There's one on your stamp!"
Eyes widening, the miner pulled the tool off his back and held it as far away from his face as he could while still getting a good look at the source of the glow. There, stuck between the intricate ridges that formed Count Ornish's crest, he saw an odd nail split half-way down the middle. Faint veins of glowing red energy condensed out of the air and seeped into the iron, which channelled it into the tool below. Even as he watched, the masterfully-crafted lines deformed and ran like water, slowly turning the crest into a blotchy, unrecognisable mess.
His eyes darted back to the tunnel walls, and he paid special attention to the positioning of the glowing spots. His jaw dropped in dismay. "They, they are attacking our territory markers!"
The sergeant rushed toward the closest glowing spot. After a cursory examination, he started cursing loudly, confirming Mosek's speculation.
From far ahead in the tunnel came a very faint rustling noise, like rodents moving in the dark. Dim aquamarine flickers brightened the walls, not unlike clouds glowing from a far-away lightning storm. Despite the pretty colour, Mosek felt dread as he recognised the exact shade of Mercury's dungeon tiles and made the connection with the rat. “The evil one is reclaiming the land! We need to get out of here!"
“Troops, regroup around me,” Cathy shouted, waving her arm for attention. She stood on an exposed rock needle, visible from afar - provided you were an ally and could see through the magical mist. Her elevated vantage point also gave her a great view of the battlefield, and the situation wasn't looking good. The majority of the reaperbots under her command was missing, and she suspected that the invaders had used the same trick on them as they had on her. Which, now that she thought about it, was a blatant imitation of Mercury chaining a temple bell to her first reaper. Her own troops had lost ground while she was away, and the dwarfs kept pushing. Right now, they were using their superior numbers to send soldiers around the left and right flanks of her force, preparing for an envelopment manoeuvre.
”Ready,” Lishika's telepathic, message echoed in her head, sounding a little uncertain.
Cathy evaluated the situation. By falling back towards her position, her warriors were ceding ground, but they were also lowering the risk of being encircled. She drew an imaginary border through several landmarks she had memorised and determined that all of her forces were on the correct side. ”Our troops are in the clear! Go right ahead!" she replied to the youma. Our troops who are still alive, she added in private, spotting several pink and green-skinned bodies lying behind enemy lines. She wouldn't be able to hold this position if Mercury's plan didn't work.
She almost missed the moment when dwarfs started toppling without visible cause, forming a straight line of prone bodies across the enemy formations. Cries of alarm and confusion replaced the regular rhythm of marching boots as the advance faltered before the invisible obstacle. Dwarfs swivelled their heads at a frantic pace, trying to figure out who was attacking them. Those on the ground shouted in pain and confusion, prompting some soldiers to rush forward to assist their comrades. The rescuers fell over too as they moved over the underground corridor, brought low by the electromagnets within pulling on their armour.
Cathy let out the breath she had been holding. The impassible zone had appeared close behind the front line, trapping a manageable number of dwarfs between itself and her troops. Unlike other noises muffled by the mist, her voice carried over the battlefield loud and clear as she addressed the stuck soldiers.. "Dwarfs of Nimbadnur! In the name of Empress Mercury, I order you to lay down your weapons! Those who do will be allowed to leave unharmed!"
A barrage of slurs and insults answered her as the bulk of the dwarven army turned into a sea of raised fists and brandished weapons. The dwarfs actually trapped expressed their defiance less enthusiastically, but none of them looked ready to surrender.
“Yeah, that worked about as well as expected,” Cathy muttered to herself. With a sigh, she raised her replacement weapon - she had made sure this war hammer had a steel handle - and signalled her troops. “Soldiers, charge!"
She hopped off her perch and threw herself into the fray. At the front of her forces, she cut a path through the opposition, her sweeping blows hurling dwarfs left and right.
Unable to retreat, they fought with reckless ferocity. One of them threw himself at her without even trying to mount a defence. She knocked him away, but not before his axe had struck a dent into her breastplate. Others tried to circle her and risked taking blows from the orcs behind her just to strike at an unguarded spot.
“Stay away from her, it's pointless!” ordered some dwarf in the back she couldn't see.
Cathy smiled under her helmet. Good. They were recognising the futility of their efforts.
“Take down as many of the others as you can instead!”
Well, crap. It seemed their continued ignorance would have been more useful, after all.
Dwarfs moved away from her, seeking easier opposition. With neither side significantly outnumbering the other, the melee devolved rapidly into a confusing mess of small, clashing formations.
Cathy dispatched another opponent, wondering how to turn the situation more into her favour, when she picked out faint but persistent cheering noises. She turned towards the magnets, dreading to see what her enemies were so happy about.
The cheering got louder, spreading to more throats, and then a bright white light lit up the mist. The noise of the battle lowered a little as its participants turned to look at the phenomenon.
An armoured knight, too tall to be a dwarf, was holding a glowing two-hander up over his head. Around him, the veils of concealing fog ripped apart and vanished like a bad dream. The blade's light faded away shortly after banishing the last of the mist.
All around, the cheering of the dwarfs redoubled. Without the glare, Cathy could make out more details of the figure.
She drew in a sharp breath she recognised the face underneath the open visor. "Mercury! The Avatar is here!"
”What?” Mercury's mental reply arrived at once, and she was talking almost too fast to understand. ”Busy. People trapped under cave-in. Can you talk him down?”
”I'll do my best,” Cathy promised with a sour look at the figure in shiny armour.
By now, some of her own troops had recognised the Avatar. The goblins wailed in dismay, almost as loudly as the dwarfs were cheering.
Cathy started walking toward the Avatar with fake confidence, and none of her opponents tried to bar her way as she walked closer to their champion.
Yellow cloth draped over Amadeus' full plate mail waved in the wind as he strode forward to meet her, deft steps carrying him right past the dwarven bodies stuck to the ground. The self-satisfied smirk on his lips grew more distinctive.
Cathy stopped a good distance away. She wasn't magnet-proof proof like he seemed to be now. "What are you doing here? You had an agreement with my Empress!" she challenged.
“My duty to prevent further unnecessary bloodshed here takes precedence,” he stated, his voice calm and steady, with only the merest hint of an apology in his tone. He narrowed his eyes at the blonde. “Yield."
“Oh, that's bullshit! She's just a victim of circumstances!” Cathy shouted. "The blame for any bloodshed here lies entirely on the dwarfs!" Perhaps the champion of the Light deserved more respect, but right now, she was too angry to care. Damn it, couldn't he let Mercury get a break? She hadn't even fully recovered from all the previous trouble, and the Light had to know what she had recently gone through. The Avatar was supposed to be good and fair, and him siding with the dwarfs here certainly wasn't!
“Yield,” Amadeus repeated as he kept striding toward her, shifting his grip on his sword into a ready position.
“Make me!” Trying not to let her nervousness show, Cathy stood her ground. Yeah, challenge the greatest warrior into the world to a fight, she reproached herself. Great job talking him down, by the way.
From her brief battles with Amadeus on the Avatar Islands, she knew that her power armour and enchantments were not enough to even the odds. Okay, he didn't have his mantle this time, so perhaps she could - nah, no use lying to herself. Unless this was an imposter, she was going to get her arse kicked. Not that it mattered. Someone needed to stand up for Mercury, and if it was her - well, Mercury was her liege lord, so she was duty-bound to defend her anyway. The fact that the blue-haired girl had managed to gain her respect just meant she had even less reason to hesitate.
The Avatar moved first, a blur of white and yellow. Cathy blocked his opening swing with the hilt of her weapon and skidded backwards, her feet leaving furrows in the mud.
She noticed a small gash in the steel where she had blocked his sword. Did it have an adamantine edge too? Fuck. She might have to pull her blows in order to avoid damaging her weapon further. Her arms moved on instinct, propelling the war hammer through the air in a whistling arc.
The Avatar took a single step out of its path. She pressed her attack, striking faster. Metal clanged against metal, and this time it was Amadeus who was pushed backwards as he redirected the force of the blow.
Their weapons met again and again, moving almost too fast for Cathy to follow their movements. Both combatants circled each other, vying for position with sudden bursts of motion. With each abrupt change of direction, their boots sprayed wet dirt over the area around them, prompting the surrounding fighters to give their duel an even wider berth.
Cathy, bleeding from a shallow cut in her side, thought that she should be coming out a little ahead in their lightning-quick exchanges. Her opponent was slower than her, if only marginally so. Whatever magic was boosting his speed didn't make him much stronger though, and he opted to deflect her blows, rather than pitting strength against strength. He was also favouring his right arm, where she had managed to land a glancing blow. Still, she didn't get the feeling she was winning. “You are one of the fakes!" she accused him, trying to bolster her confidence.
“My skill alone will suffice for defeating you,” Amadeus replied between fast, shallow breaths. “Though it admittedly doesn't grant me enough leeway to go easy on you."
As if to drive his point home, his sword darted at an already damaged section of the armour covering Cathy's abdomen, parting the segmented metal with a screech.
She avoided sudden disembowelment by twisting away from the blade at the last moment, but not before its tip had tasted her blood.
Capitalising on her awkward posture, the Avatar followed up with a cut at her wrist. It failed to penetrate - narrowly - but still rattled her limb inside the gauntlet.
“If it reassures you,” he continued, “my healing skills are also sufficient to prevent you from bleeding out once I'm done with you. There was definitely a smug expression on his face. The bastard didn't even take her seriously enough to close his visor.
Under her own skull-themed helmet, Cathy scowled. His damned adamantine-edged sword - she hurriedly moved her face out of its path - would make her die a death of a thousand cuts. How much damage could her armour take before it stopped working, anyway? It was long past time she tried something new.
She drew power from her connection to Mercury's magic, gathering it to her hands. The mystical energy tingled and popped under her skin, and her fingers felt as cold as if she had dipped them into liquid ice. Strangely enough, it wasn't an unpleasant sensation. Now, timing was everything. His sword approached again, almost too fast to see. She barely managed to brush it aside. Too quick. She needed to await a solid parry like - now!
Blue light erupted from her hands as she released the prepared energy. Not a real spell, she just didn't have the time to go through the motions for Mercury's technique. Instead, she tossed the gathered magic out in the right general direction as an uncontrolled spray.
Blue motes sprayed from her hands as if she had tossed a bucket of glowing water at Amadeus, and his eyes widened a fraction. He jumped back instantly, but there was no way he could get away from the expanding blast in time. While moving, he traced a finger along the back of his blade, imbuing it with a faint glow. His enchanted sword hacked through the incoming spray, sucking it towards the weapon in a swirling spiral.
Upon impact, Mercury's magic did what came naturally, and encased the blade in a torso-sized chunk of ice.
Cathy doubted that the Avatar had been going for that result. Neither had she, but it was a still a nice consolation prize. Lacking superhuman strength, he wasn't going to swing that kind of weight around.
He knew that too and let go off the handle without hesitation.
Cathy didn't hesitate either. She lunged, war hammer raised high, and then she was suddenly flying backwards, her vision swimming from a bright flash. A heartbeat later, pain flared up in her back as she slammed into the ground, the impact driving the breath from her lungs. Ow. The world spun around her as she rolled to a stop.
She hurriedly glanced back at the Avatar. He stood within a circle of bare rock, the stone scoured clean of soil and mud. The closest onlookers were wearing the muck as a thin coating, and her goblins and orc whimpered as they rubbed their eyes. The dwarfs seemed unaffected, even if they weren't any less dirty than Cathy's warriors.
She could have kicked herself. Good job forgetting he could fall back on plain old regular light magic even without his fancy special Avatar powers. It wasn't as if he hadn't already showed that by dispersing the mist. Groaning, she pushed herself up into a crouch, keeping her eyes on Amadeus.
Her opponent held out one hand in an imperious gesture, palm facing the sky. Immediately, one of the nearby dwarven soldiers threw him her own pickaxe, which he caught with practised ease. Its edge burst into silver flame as he gave it a testing swing.
Well, crap. Here he came, swooping down on her like a bird of prey made from gleaming silver and fluttering cloth.
Cathy flung herself aside, and the flaming axe bit into the ground instead. Flying pieces of steaming earth pinged off her armour as she swiped at his legs, forcing him to retreat instead of attacking again before she could finish rising to her feet. He darted past her on her left, too fast for her to parry the burning blade completely. She clenched her teeth in pain as it struck her upper arm, the weapon's heat searing her skin through her armour.
Still turning toward him, she used her rotation for a vicious kick - only for his elbow to slam down on her knee. No effect due to her armour, but she wobbled precariously - enough for him to slip past her defences again and slash at her thigh. Ow! This wasn't - her eyes closed reflexively in response to a nearby flash, and she felt the sting of a blow deflecting off her armour. Back-pedalling, she flailed her weapon wildly to gain some room, squinting as she observed her opponent carefully.
This time, she spotted the Avatar's free hand draw an arcane gesture in the air before another flash robbed her of her vision for an instant - and the sudden pain in her sword arm told her that it had been enough for him to slip past her defence again. Another flash, another vulnerable moment, more pain. Cathy found herself giving ground rapidly as Amadeus performed his sequence with precision. Block, flash, blink, pain. Block, flash, blink, pain.
Screw this! She was in neither mood nor shape to deal with this annoying but effective trickery for much longer.
Before the next flash, she made her longest leap yet - away from him and into the unsuspecting crowd. As she sailed through the air, an orb of light flew at her from the Avatar’s position, evaporating the raindrops it encountered in its path. Crap, she couldn't dodge in the air! "Shabon Spray Freezing!" She recited hastily, glad once again that Mercury now had enough power to fuel the spell quickly. A focused stream of bubbles shoot from her hands an met the incoming projectile. Both exploded into a shower of hailstones, which Cathy ignored it in favour of preparing her landing.
The baffled dwarf she picked as her target barely had time to scream in surprise before she knocked him to the ground and yanked off his warding chain. It was time one of those annoying things worked in her favour for once. Trophy in hand, she returned her attention to Amadeus.
He wasn't hard to find, as nobody on either side of the battle who was currently between them wanted to remain there. As the troops scrambled to vacate the area, she saw that he hadn't been idle while she was mugging the dwarf. His panting had stopped, vanished along with other signs of exertion, and even the sweat on his face was gone.
Now that was completely unfair! Here she was, bleeding, exhausted, and bruised pretty much everywhere, and he looked just as fresh as he'd started out. She wrapped the stolen chain around her wrist with a flick of her hand. At least he wouldn't be able to use abbot-like magical power against her from now on, and he hadn't recovered his sword either. The adamantine-edged weapon was still stuck in an ice block a good distance away. That meant her opponent was weakened to being no worse than Marda in a more suitable body.
She hadn't actually beaten Marda in a fair fight ever.
On the other hand, she had never fought the troll while wearing powered armour either. Cheered by that comforting thought, she launched herself back into combat.
As the clanging of their blades rang over the battlefield once more, she found herself more evenly matched with her opponent now. Still, it was ridiculous that she wasn't getting any telling blows through his defences. He might be the best fighter in the world while she probably didn't even rank among the top thousand, but she was stronger and faster than him! Hell, they were trading blows so quickly that she had trouble reacting to them, even with the all-around boosts that Mercury's enchantments provided. How was he doing it?
Experience. Had to be. He could read her body's movements and pick an appropriate response even before she struck. Could she exploit that, do something unexpected and trick him that way?
She thought of goblins. When you were looking for surprising combat moves, you rarely had to look further than the closest goblin. Mainly because they couldn't tell that they weren't supposed to do the damn stupid thing they were about to try next. This didn't actually make them more dangerous.
Okay, scratch that plan. The Avatar would see through any feint she tried anyway. Maybe she should just ask for help from Mercury? Cathy didn't like that option too much either. Giving up would feel like betraying the trust the young empress had put into her. Not that Mercury would hold it against her, but she wouldn't forgive herself for simply giving up on such an important task. Besides, the teenager was busy rescuing people and would probably blame herself for any deaths that happened while she was distracted.
So, the hard way, then. She'd just have to push herself to the limits and try to wear him down before she passed out from her injuries. Forgoing some defence, she struck as fast and as hard as she could.
The Avatar gave ground, pushed back by the additional force behind her blows. He reacted to her change in tactics by shifting his grip on his pickaxe, turning it so that the pick-shaped part faced her.
Cathy swallowed. Where his axe blade had trouble actually penetrating armour, the solid metal spike of his weapon would go right through if she gave him the opportunity to land a square hit. He had to be counting on her aggressive approach providing him with an opening. Should she reconsider? Jered would disapprove so much of her putting her health on the line like this. She was seriously tempted to let up, but no. She wasn't going to last much longer anyway, and if he pierced her armour, his weapon would be stuck long enough for her to do something. She'd just have to bear the pain and-
The Avatar's silver-wreathed pickaxe broke under the force of her latest blow, catching both of the combatants off-guard.
Amadeus recovered faster from the surprise and stepped into her guard. When had he grabbed her arm? A leg hooked behind her own, and she found herself losing her balance.
No! Cathy yanked the arm he was holding onto upwards, lifting him off the ground. Robbed off leverage, he could no longer complete his throw. She was still toppling forwards though.
Pulling the Avatar even closer, she turned her fall into a vicious head-butt directed at his face. That should teach him to close his visor!
Her helmet collided with his chin and rang like a gong. A very faint flash of light covered his face as it filled her vision, and it felt as if she had just slammed her head into a brick wall. Damn it! She actually bounced back enough to arrest her momentum.
Through the pain-induced haze before her eyes, she saw the Avatar's face rock away from her own as if in slow motion. His gaze met hers, and one of his eyes closed and re-opened as he toppled backwards. His armour rattled loudly as he landed on his back, unmoving.
Cathy blinked dumbly at the still body before her, only vaguely aware that the battlefield was falling quiet around her.
Slowly, a cheer rose from monstrous throats, swelling as more and more of her troops noticed her standing victoriously over her opponent.
“The Avatar has fallen!” shouted a voice shrill with disbelieving terror.
“Save him! Rescue the Avatar!” another nearby dwarf cried out.
Cathy's eyes widened as every nearby dwarf turned towards her and charged with suicidal determination. Legs feeling like molten lead, she catapulted herself into the air and backward, escaping from the converging circle of fanatical soldiers by jumping over it.
Panting, she watched one dwarf kneel down at the Avatar's side while the others shielded him with their bodies, forming a weapon-bristling perimeter around him.
She started to wonder whether or not her opponents were aware that this Avatar was an imposter - she had been too busy previously to think about that - when the kneeling dwarf pulled something from Amadeus' belt.
There was a flicker of white, and a transparent oval rose into the air, waving mildly in the breeze.
During the moment it took Cathy's tired mind to catch up, she wondered why the Avatar would keep a ghost in his bag. She cursed when she finally identified the phenomenon as a hero gate. Already, someone was pulling the Avatar through, his legs and feet being last to disappear. His guardians jumped in after him, prompting a general rush towards the newly-provided escape route.
She raised her hand, signalling her troops to not interfere now that she finally had the dwarfs running. She glanced over at the rest of the enemy troops behind the magnetic barrier.
They hadn't been idle while she was fighting, using thrown ropes and sticks to drag their stuck comrades back to safely. Their movements lacked their initial zeal and determination, though, and they were quieter too.
Cathy returned her attention to the hero gate, which looked dimmer now that most of the dwarfs on this side of the barrier had fled into it. Mercury would not be happy about the gate's presence. On the other hand, she would have been even unhappier if the thing had been carried deep into her dungeon, so Cathy was willing to count this as a qualified success.
Somewhere behind the enemy lines sounded a signal horn. It's noise was repeated by several others further away. Slowly, the warriors behind the barrier started to pull back, gather their wounded, and walk back toward the west.
Cathy almost collapsed to her knees in relief. She had won. The dwarfs were, if not running, then at least retreating. Dimly, she heard the signal being repeated somewhere deep under her feet, too.
”Cathy?” Mercury's mental voice sounded about as exhausted as the blonde felt, but also elated. ”The dwarfs are pulling back! Did you manage to convince the Avatar?”
”Uh, about that...”
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