A warlock on the first floor of Ami's command centre turned away from the scrying mirrors that lined the wall behind him. The glowing rectangles cast his face in shadows, hiding his expression. He approached the railing, bowed in her direction, and reported in a confident voice “We have not spotted any more dwarfs approaching the dungeon, your Majesty.”
Ami's rigid posture relaxed as some tenseness left her muscles. She dared hardly believe that the battle was finally over. “Acknowledged. Thank you, Halastor.” Now she only needed to figure out if this was more than a momentary reprieve. She swivelled her command chair a little to the left, and the crystal ball set in a pedestal before her flared to life.
Within the orb, images of the terrain surrounding the mountain flashed past in rapid succession. She found that the half of the enemy army that hadn't joined the attack had not been idle during the fight. In the dawn's light, she observed a few crude walls in strategic locations, cobbled together from roughly-worked rock. Behind them, workers were crawling all over the foundations of sturdy watchtowers.
She almost smiled at the sight. Fortifications indicated that the dwarfs were preparing for a siege, which meant they weren't about to hit her with a second attack wave of well-rested soldiers. Given the progress they'd made so far, they must have started construction simultaneously with their attack.
She checked, but didn't find any of her claimed territory remaining behind enemy lines, which gave her new insight into the enemy's strategy. She didn't doubt that the dwarfs would have been ecstatic if they had defeated her at once, but in hindsight, they had been going for containment. By cutting her dungeon down to a manageable size around its core, they reduced the length of the perimeter they needed to encircle her claim and prevent it from expanding.
Her mood sank a little when she pondered that the dwarfs would also be waiting for sufficient reinforcements to assault her dungeon successfully. A problem in the long run, but one she would be able to prepare for. The longer the wait, the more her gem production would shift the advantage in her favour. More importantly, in the short term it meant that she had time to recover from the attack.
She stood, drawing attention to herself, and faced her employees on the floors above. “Good work, everyone,” she said, a tired smile on her face. “We have won this battle.”
On the uppermost floor, the goblins started cheering and dancing on their chairs. “We the best! We the best!”
Ami's gaze darted towards them, her eyebrows lowering into a frown. Right now, she didn't have time for goblin antics. There was the aftermath of the battle to deal with. “Quiet!” she snapped, raising her voice over the noise.
The small creatures froze in surprise, except for the one who lost his balance and fell off his chair.
“I'll keep this short since everyone is tired,” Ami continued. Addressing one warlock in particular, she said “Halastor, organise a small crew of warlocks who will continue keeping an eye on the dwarfs. I want to be informed the moment they try something.”
“It shall be done, your Majesty.”
“Everyone else can go and get some well-deserved rest. Dismissed,” she finished, a proclamation that was received with smiles and approving mumbling all around. She stifled a yawn, feeling dead tired too because she had worked furiously all night.
Unfortunately, she didn't have time to rest yet. She had a dungeon to patch up and, more importantly, to make sure nobody else died today. Too many people had already been hurt for no good reason.
First, she closed her eyes and focused her full attention on sensing her dungeon and the imps sprinting through its darkened halls. The echoing patter of their footsteps froze for an instant as they felt her gaze on them and processed their new priorities. A moment later, they dropped their picks and rushed off to get stretchers to recover the wounded.
Speaking of the wounded, she needed to bring Cathy to the healers. The blonde had gone back into battle already injured, and her confrontation with the Avatar couldn't have done her any favours. The instant Ami started worrying about the swordswoman, her Keeper vision zoomed in on her location.
On the muddy, rain-soaked surface, the air vibrated with the sound of orc and troll voices as they chanted Cathy's name. The four largest of the creatures were carrying her on their shoulders, still in her bloodstained armour. A few goblins followed the odd procession, carrying a chunk of ice with a fancy-looking sword stuck inside.
Cathy was waving at the crowd and had taken of her helmet, letting her hair flow free. To Ami, the proud grin on the blonde's bruised face looked quite strained whenever her carriers jostled her.
”Cathy, I'm going to send you to the infirmary” she informed the blonde, not giving her any time to protest as she transported her out of her battle-damaged armour.
”Wha-” Cathy suddenly found herself lying on a soft cot.
Ami paled at the sight of the woman's blood-encrusted and tattered undersuit. There were gashes and rips everywhere, some of them with charred edges. She had fought like that?
Cathy prodded at the wet garment and blinked when her finger failed to encounter metal. “Oh. Thanks. The armour would have been really fun to take off,” the blonde messaged with a grimace. “I guess you want the details about the Avatar? He-”
“Later,” Ami interrupted gently. Cathy had already done more for her today than could be reasonably expected.“Please, just rest for now.”
”Not complaining,” the swordswoman agreed and let her head sink onto a pillow.
Ami wished she could ease the blonde's suffering right now, but there were other people who needed help more urgently. Through Cathy's minion bond, she could feel that the exhausted warrior's life signs were stable, even if she wasn't in any fighting shape. One of the healers would eventually get around to treating her wounds.
Reacting to Ami's current interest in her healers, her Keeper sight showed her Snyder. The young acolyte was hurrying from bed to bed and touching his monstrous patients, a soft glow surrounding his hands. Behind him followed a warlock and several bandage-carrying veteran soldiers to provide more mundane first aid in his wake. Not far away behind a curtain, Monteraine was treating the more grievously injured underlings. Currently, the black-haired sorceress had her hands buried wrist-deep in the guts of a pink-skinned troll.
Ami quickly averted her gaze from the operating table, feeling queasy.
Locating the last of the trained magical healers in her dungeon required a conscious effort of will. Being neither a minion nor prisoner, Abbot Durval lacked any connection to the dungeon heart that would have let Ami find him at once. Instead, she knew to look for him a floor below, where the dwarfs were treated separately from her own troops for their own safety.
The abbot looked his age as he reached for the dwarven patient before him, his shaking left hand resting heavily on his staff. Even with a few warlocks assigned to assist him, he looked as if he was about to collapse from exhaustion. Tiger was at his side in her human disguise.
Ami was surprised at her sister's presence, but that was something she would investigate when she didn't need to deal with a number of life signs ebbing away throughout her dungeon.
Immediately, a troll pinned to the ground by a spear through his stomach appeared in her mind's eye. Elsewhere, a dwarf with a shattered helmet rested on a heap of rubble, strands of brown hair matted with dark blood. In yet another corridor, one dwarf on the ground was coughing up blood while a second sat next to him, threatening the gawking monsters around them with his pickaxe. The dungeon heart showed Ami another motionless and dying dwarf, but she couldn't tell at at a glance what was wrong with him. Finally, a group of orcs was staring down at one of their own lying in a pool of blood on the ground, arguing about whether or not moving him would make the bleeding worse.
Ami's heart skipped a beat as she realised she didn't have the means to save all of them in time, and she felt as if someone had doused her with ice water. How was she supposed to decide who got to live or die?
She tried to imagine her mother, a real doctor, in a situation like this. Had she ever had to make such a choice? If so, she had never told Ami about it. Still, the memory of her mother's calm competence helped Ami to snap out of her paralysing indecision. Mother would try to help those who had the best chance at surviving.
Without hesitation, Ami snatched Snyder from the infirmary and dropped him down next to the bleeding orc, not wasting time with an explanation. The nature of the injury – a large axe stuck in the pink-skinned soldier's right thigh – would be as blindingly obvious as its solution was straightforward. Even with the acolyte's comparatively weak healing spells, he should be able to prevent the patient from bleeding out.
Next, she was forced to chose whom she would help personally. The dwarf with the head wound was out of luck, as she didn't think she would be able to put damaged parts of the brain back together properly with her necromancy-based healing spell. Likewise, the dwarf whom she hadn't been able to diagnose moved to the back of the queue, as she would have to spend time figuring out what was wrong with him first.
That left her with the impaled troll and the blood-coughing dwarf, and suddenly, her method of prioritising was no longer applicable. Stabilising either of them would be roughly the same difficulty, so she needed another criteria.
Ami felt torn. On one side, the troll was a soldier in her army, and the dwarf was an opponent. On the other, her underling was a mercenary who had signed up for this, while the dwarf looked like a militiaman with neither the equipment nor the build of a professional soldier. She didn't want to abandon someone who had fought loyally for her, but she also didn't want to let someone die who had been forced into this situation. Most of all, she didn't want to make this decision, but then they would both die. Wringing her hands, she searched for a quick reason to choose one over the other.
Save the soldier so he could fight for her again, or save the dwarf so his death wouldn't give the others more motivation to continue fighting her? Pragmatism wasn't helping, either.
Her mind flashed back to the less injured dwarf who was still protecting his dying companion. Without really wanting to, she imagined herself in his place, trying to defend a dying Usagi, only to later learn that she had been keeping away the medics who could have saved her friend.
With a small strangled noise from the back of her throat, she disappeared, her decision made.
Her troops started when she appeared in a flash of blue behind the injured duo, close enough that the snowflakes from her teleportation swirled around the two dwarves.
With a gasp, the dwarf sitting next to his bleeding comrade tried to turn towards the threat behind him.
Ami tapped the back of his neck with an energy-draining touch, sending him off into unconsciousness. While he keeled over quietly, she knelt down next to her patient, touched his face and drew upon her healing spells. She could have tried healing him remotely, but the physical contact helped her sense the composition of his body, greatly improving how accurately she could manipulate the flesh.
The magic mapping out his body immediately confirmed that his lung was damaged, punctured by sharp splinters from a broken rip, and one wing had collapsed.
First, the internal bleeding needed to stop. Ami directed her magic to seal ruptured blood vessels, focusing less on restoring function and more on getting the patient stable enough for transport to the infirmary. She immobilised the broken rips so they wouldn't move and cause more damage. Their splinters were harder to neutralise. Frowning, she borrowed some cartilage to pad their sharp parts. Someone would need to remove them properly later, but right now, she had to concentrate on keeping the patient alive.
At the edge of her perception, she noticed her soldiers had lowered their weapons and given her some space. The distance didn't prevent them from watching curiously, or from chatting among themselves with low voices. A few of the goblins were whispering.
Ami listened in closer – anything to distract her from the horrible gurgling noise the dwarf made as she drained bloody liquid from his lungs – and had no trouble hearing the words spoken on her own territory.
“Why she healing stupid hairbag? Should be healing me instead!” a goblin who was favouring his left leg whispered to another.
“Is for evil,” the second one replied.
“Not caring about loyal minions is evil. She Keeper. Is obvious.”
The first goblin grimaced. “Me no like. That wrong kind of evil! She-”
A female troll rapped both of them on their helmets with her knuckles. “She can hear you, idiots,” she said in a sing-song voice.
The goblins gulped and craned their heads to peer closer at their empress. “Why you say that? She not doing anything!”
“Because she wasn't scowling before you started talking,” the troll pointed out with unconcealed glee.
Ami realised that the warrior was right and relaxed her facial expression. It had hurt to hear her difficult decision questioned like that only moments after she had taken it. Irritated, she shifted her head a little and briefly glanced in the direction of the green pair from the corner of her eyes.
“Eeep!” the first goblin paled and dived into hiding behind an orc's shield.
The other grabbed him and pulled him back out in the open. “Me very sorry, your Majestic Empress Majesty!” he shouted loudly. “Not sure what wrong, but it all his fault!”
With a drawn-out breath, Ami stood up. A moment of concentration, and her stabilised patient disappeared, only to reappear over an empty bed in the infirmary's emergency wing. Ami lowered him gently onto the soft surface before she turned towards her gawking troops. She gestured at the remaining unconscious dwarf at her feet. “Get him to the infirmary,” she snapped, not waiting for an answer before she teleported again. She had to hurry and save as many of the other mortally wounded people as she could!
The sickening smell of ruptured bowels struck her when she arrived next to the impaled troll. The wooden spear haft protruding from his stomach like a macabre flag pole stood completely motionless, not even a tiny quiver hinting at life remaining within the body. Ami had arrived just in time to feel his minion bond dissolve as death claimed him.
She balled her hands into fists, her fingernails digging into her palms. “Darn it!” She had been too slow, too late.
She lowered her head. Did she make the wrong choice by healing the dwarf first? Could she have saved them both if she had stabilised the orc first instead? Should she have taken more of a risk instead of wasting time making sure her patient was stable?
No. Guilt was not productive. Ami clenched her teeth in determination. Those were questions for later. Right now, she needed to focus on more important tasks. How could she save the two remaining wounded?
She could theoretically use her necromancy to glue damaged brain tissues back together, but she had very little control over how the different cells would connect with each other. The result was bound to end up messy and unsatisfactory for everyone involved. Better to leave that to one of the Light magic healers, preferably the Abbot. No, he was busy healing, and she couldn't move him with Keeper transport anyway. Was Snyder done with his patient?
Yes. Well, not really, as the redhead was still kneeling next to his patient, a soft glow from his hands sinking into the axe-free and scabbed-over wound. Nevertheless, the dungeon heart informed her that the orc's condition was no longer deteriorating.
That should suffice. It had to. Ami yanked Snyder through space and dropped him down next to dwarf with the head wound, prompting a surprised sputter from the Acolyte. “Sorry, just get him stable,” she sent a telepathic message before she transported herself to the last dwarf.
He was still conscious and made a horrified croaking noise as she appeared before him. In his polished helmet, an ember-eyed reflection with a tattered cloak mirrored Ami's movements as she reached for him. With barely enough strength to lift his hand, the frightened dwarf tried to fend her off.
Ami closed her fingers around his limb and held it firmly, using the contact to initiate her healing spell.
Inner bleeding from blunt impacts, the magic told her at once. Well within her ability to heal, though his heart racing from terror was accelerating the blood loss.
“Don't be afraid, I'm here to help,” she comforted the shaking dwarf in a soft voice, which didn't stop him from trying to pull his hand away from hers. Undeterred, she started patching up leaky blood vessels, a comparatively simple task. With a few minutes of concentrated work, she stopped the bleeding.
Her Keeper senses confirmed that the prisoner was no longer dying, and so was nobody else in the dungeon right now. Snyder's two patients remained alive, if very weak.
Ami inhaled deeply before she contacted the acolyte. “Great work, Snyder. Thank you so much!”
”I'm glad I could help,” the redhead sent back, the tiredness in his voice noticeable even through the distortions from the communication spell. “Take care to handle the dwarf's head like you would a fragile eggshell when you transport him.”
“I'll be careful,” Ami promised. ”I'm sorry for yanking you from place to place so abruptly, but there was no time to lose.”
“No need to apologise, I saw the condition of the wounded. Now, could you give me a lift back to the infirmary, please?”
“Of course.” Ami did as he requested and moved on to make transport arrangements for the rest of the wounded. After verifying that there was nothing else requiring her immediate attention, she sat down where she stood and closed her eyes, grateful to finally get a break.
With no emergency to occupy her thoughts, they drifted back to the troll who had died due to her prioritisation.
She sighed, wondering again if she had overlooked a better solution. In any case, he was dead and beyond her help. The only thing she could do for him now was moving the cooling body to the morgue personally, rather than letting the imps do it. It was only a symbolic gesture, but she felt that she owed him that much. With her Keeper hand, she began the grisly task of pulling the spear from the corpse's entrails while she switched her Keeper view to the morgue.
Wait, there were not supposed to be goblins inside the ice-filled room. At least not living ones.
Ami teleported into the large chamber, her breath condensing immediately in the cold air. She had no trouble spotting three green figures moving between the hills of glittering ice inside the room.
Two haggard-looking goblins were clinging to the large, empty barrel they were carrying, fighting to keep their balance on the slippery floor. The third and fattest of the trio had a large cleaver strapped to her belt and was leaning over a dwarf corpse lying on an ice slab, pinching its arms.
“Brugli! What are you doing here?” Ami confronted the leader of the group, getting goosebumps not just from the chill.
The goblin cook turned slowly towards Ami, her mouth widening into a pleased grin. “Empress! Brugli selecting best meat for victory feast! Will be great! Not just boring chicken and eggs!”
Ami's stomach lurched at having her sickening suspicion confirmed. “No, absolutely not! You are completely forbidden from cooking anything you could have held a conversation with!” she shouted, horrified. Cannibalism aside, she didn't even want to speculate about what the dwarfs would think if she let her minions desecrate their dead. What was she supposed to do about their bodies, anyway? Were there special burial rites she would have to follow in order to avoid giving offence?
Brugli blinked and shrugged, making the rolls of fat around her neck quiver. “If you say so. Raw is fine too-”
“No, it's really not!” Ami narrowed her eyes at the goblin, unsure whether she was being mocked or if goblin culture was really that different. “You – actually, anyone - is forbidden from taking anything from this place,” she clarified in a tone that left no room for argument.
“But saw your sister taking pieces,” Brugli protested, her tone petulant.
Ami gaped. Tiger? But she couldn't- wouldn't want to- Oh. She relaxed as she made the mental connection between Tiger, the infirmary, and body parts. Transplants. She shook her head. “Just get out,” she told the goblins and pointed at the door.
The goblins left, Brugli waddling behind her slimmer companions. Their footsteps faded away, leaving Ami alone in the silent hall filled with fresh corpses.
She briefly glanced at the bodies on the frozen slabs and lowered her gaze, unwilling to meet their unmoving, accusing eyes. All of those soldiers, dead because of her. She hadn't wanted any of this. Would it have been better if she had surrendered to the Light gods and avoided all of this fighting?
She felt something wet at the corners of her eyes and wiped it away. What would her friends and her mother think of her when they learned that she hadn't managed to prevent this? She was almost glad it was early in the morning and she didn't have to face them until they got out of school or back from work.
Intellectually, she knew that the fatality rate among the dwarfs had been amazingly low, less than thirty dead when they had attacked with fifty times that number. She still felt she had failed, even though she had proof that things would have been much worse if she hadn't instructed her troops to fight non-lethally. No, especially because she had proof of that. The dwarfs hadn't been pulling their blows, and the dead trolls, orcs, and goblins in the room outnumbered them by a factor of four – a fact that only made Ami feel worse.
She reminded herself that the battle had still been a solid victory in her favour. She had around a quarter of the attacking force locked up in her prisons, while the dead in this room were most of her side's casualties. She paused. That was kind of concerning in itself, now that she thought about it. There should have been more wounded than dead. A skewed ratio like that meant that her opponents had outright killed everyone they could get their hands on.
Some of her sympathy for the dwarfs waned. Yes, she could understand that they felt afraid for their homes and loved ones, but that was no justification for wholesale slaughter.
What should she do with this knowledge, though? Did she need to punish those among her prisoners who were guilty, and if so, how? She didn't know the local laws pertaining to war crimes - if they even existed. In any case, she doubted that the Light condoned the killing of defeated enemies. On the other hand, the Avatar, or at least a good copy, had fought on the side of the dwarfs. Had he been involved in the massacre too, or had it happened away from his eyes? She hesitated and decided that she lacked sufficient information to commit to a course of action.
She needed to ask Cathy about the Avatar and to talk to Snyder about Light-approved conduct in battle. The help of a lawyer could also be useful, so she should question Tiger about how her mission to hire one went – among other things. Actually, it would probably best if she called everyone important together for a proper debriefing.
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