A large imp wearing a blue and black senshi uniform was lying on her belly under a thick bush. With three-fingered hands, she parted its wide-leafed branches so she could peer downhill at the dwarven town below, her eyes glowing purplish through her visor. Ami couldn't see much of the walls and the slate-tiled roofs from her current vantage point because high grass and a knobbly tree root obstructed her line of sigh. Fortunately, she was not here to spy on the surface structures. The dwarven railway – about whose existence she dearly hoped to be mistaken – would be underground. Having verified that there were no hunters or shepherds nearby who could stumble over her hiding spot by accident, she slowly crawled backwards, taking care not to rustle the leaves too much.
More and more of the town disappeared behind the hill's slope as she retreated from its steepest part. Finally, the flags on the highest towers sank beneath the horizon, leaving her surrounded by nothing but vegetation and the distant countryside.
Satisfied that she couldn't be spotted from below, Ami rose and headed for a rough-barked tree. She sat down against its trunk and wiped her fingers on the grass, carefully cleaning all the earth from her gloves before she reached into her backpack and retrieved a crystal ball.
On a branch above her, a magpie cawed and tilted its head to the side as it eyed the glittering sphere speculatively.
Ami shot the bird a suspicious look and clutched the scrying device on her lap tighter. It still had an important role to play in her plan, but that was for later. Her next step relied on a Keeper power she had only rarely found a use for up to now. She closed her eyes and focused on getting into the state of mind of a Keeper who wanted to place a new dungeon heart.
Immediately, the world erupted into loud, aggressive buzzing from every direction.
Ami jumped to her feet, hands raised to protect her face from the incoming onslaught of huge, stinging insects. It took her a moment to realise that the threatening noises had disappeared the instant she had lost her concentration. Feeling a little embarrassed, she sat back down and recovered her crystal ball.
The last time she had used that particular power, she had been in the dead wastelands of the Avatar Islands. Here, the environment was teeming with all kinds of life that produces a constant stream of background noises that she had been unprepared for.
She tried again, pushing her expanding awareness underground immediately.
The sound of insects receded, replaced by the groaning of wooden roots as trees swayed in the wind, the trickle of water making its way through worm tunnels, and the indistinct murmur of uncountable tiny digging creatures.
Ami briefly directed her attention to an ant colony that vibrated from the activity of thousands of legs, then to the scraping noises coming from a fox den she had spotted earlier. Both locations didn't feel hollowed-out to her Keeper sense, so perhaps it only indicated spaces large enough to fit at least an imp in? Curious, she shifted her focus even deeper, into the underground parts of the dwarven town.
The settlement expanded farther underground than it did above, and it was much louder than the natural noises that Ami had just encountered. Doors slammed like gunshots, thundering footsteps echoed through the halls, and a waterfall roared and hissed amidst a cacophony of clattering metal.
On second thought, Ami decided that the waterfall was only a boiling kettle. Her Keeper sense was definitely prioritising some kinds of sound over others, increasing the volume on liquid and impact noises while drowning out voices and music. At a guess, the former two would be more useful for finding caves and cracks within deep, quiet rock layers.
The amplified clang from a hammer striking metal was particularly loud, and the continued ringing of the anvil made it impossible to hear anything else in its vicinity.
Ami fled from the unpleasant noise, leaving the neighbourhood of the smithy by directing her attention to a quieter part of the town. By navigating away from the densest concentrations of footsteps, she eventually arrived at what she suspected to be its outskirts.
So far, listening to the ambient noises hadn't told her much about the town's internal organisation. The area was so saturated with sounds that she couldn't discern the tiny echoes that would tell individual rooms apart. With all those disturbances, it wasn't possible for her to discern where a train station would be.
This didn't discourage her at all. She directed her attention farther out to the northern side of the town, reasoning that the tracks she had seen in the crystal ball had led in that direction. Finding a long, hollowed-out space that extended beyond the town's borders should be feasible. Since she didn't know the exact depth of the tunnel, she would have to include an up-and-down zigzagging motion into her search pattern while she pushed her perception from the west to the east.
The faint noise of something rolling in the distance mixed with the muted background hum of the settlement intruded on her search.
A train or wagon? Her heart beating faster, Ami chased after the sound. She moved past a pair of squelching footsteps and crossed a grid of empty-sounding tunnels on her way. Was she passing through an abandoned part of the town? She heard water dripping into puddles, indicating a state of disrepair.
Ahead, the rolling noise picked up again, tinged with the ringing of metal. It continued for a few seconds until it stopped, replaced by the stomping of two heavy boots.
Ami memorised the location and let her perception return to normal as she looked at the crystal ball in her hands. Would she set off a scrying alarm if she tried to take a look? The problem wasn't the dwarfs extinguishing all lights. Darkness was not an effective counter against her scrying when she was nearby and knew where to remotely place some light spells.
Instead, she worried about the dwarfs mistaking her investigation as preparations for an invasion. She didn’t want to provoke them into doing something rash, as the last thing she needed was another immediate assault on her dungeon.
Shuddering at the thought, she wondered if their scrying detection worked like her own. If it did, then the detector would need to visible in her crystal ball to be triggered. While that was almost inevitable when spying on a town from the sky, it should be an acceptably low risk when she was trying to see the inside of a tunnel outside the settlement. Prepared for the worst, she activated the orb.
The mirror-smooth surface changed from showing a distorted reflection of her imp-face to solid darkness, as was to be expected from an unlit location.
Proceeding according to her plan, Ami added a light spell to the spot she was scrying on, but the image in the orb did not change in any way.
Mildly disappointed that she hadn’t hit her target on the first try, but unsurprised – locating something by sound wasn’t especially precise - she adjusted her aim and tried again.
The scrying device stubbornly remained blank even after she peppered the area at random with another bunch of lights.
By now, she was getting a little nervous. Was a ward cancelling out her light spells? It would make sense to protect a train against hostile magic. To gain some distance from the potential obstacle, she moved the orb's point of view through the surrounding rock.
Something flashed violet within the crystal. A pre-existing light source?
Quickly, she backtracked to its location and found a muddy tunnel covered in in bulbous, violet mushrooms.
The light was coming from a young dwarf wearing glowing wristbands. It shifted with his every motion, bobbing up and down as he shovelled sticky muck from a wheelbarrow onto the artificial rock shelves on which the densely-packed fungi grew.
His wheelbarrow had a metal-clad wheel.
Ami hung her head. In her eagerness, she had followed a wheelbarrow to some kind of farm. At least, she comforted herself, he remained unaware of her scrying. She considered the pile of fertiliser inside the wheelbarrow.
Moist and dense-looking, it had to weigh a lot. It was unlikely that he had driven it out here all the way from the settlement.
Acting on impulse, she decided to backtrack his path. At worst, she would spend a few minutes to find nothing but a large pile of manure nearby, and it wasn’t as if she had any better leads yet.
Even with only the dim light coming from his wristbands, his tracks were clearly visible. The wheel had left a shallow groove on the mud-stained ground, clearly visible until it disappeared into the darkness behind a bend.
Ami projected a weak light spell, no brighter than a candle, into the shadows. To her relief, it appeared with no issues, proving that the previous failures were simply due to her casting the spells into solid rock. Continuing down the tunnel, she idly wondered if the mushrooms lining its walls were edible for humans. Food variety in her dungeon could be better, and those fungi wouldn't even need light to grow inside her farm rooms.
She found a large heap of fertiliser at the end of the tunnel, underneath some dirt stains running vertically up the wall. Following them, she spotted a dirty mine cart on a ledge above, standing on train tracks.
Upon seeing the vehicle, she would have loved to jump to the comforting conclusion that she had simply mistaken mining infrastructure for a railway. However, if the dwarfs were already applying mining technology to agriculture, then they could also be using it for transport and travel in general. The main limiting factor, in that case, would be propulsion.
Moving her vantage point closer to the squat, square cart, she noticed another alarming detail. A hook was protruding from the iron vehicle's front, clearly designed for attaching it to another.
While the cart did have handles for manually pulling or pushing it, it also looked very heavy. She didn’t think she would be able to pull more than a single full cart unless she was transformed. So far, she hadn't seen any of the dwarfs perform feats of superhuman strength, and a cursory inspection of the tracks revealed no evidence of draft animals either.
How would they move a chain of carts? For her own safety, she needed to investigate further.
After moving her point of view along the rails for a while, she spotted a light source in the distance. Wary about raising alarms, she inched her field of view towards the edge of the illuminated cave. Still working on the principle that a scrying detector would not spot her unless she established line of sight with it, she moved as if she was sneaking around physically. Thus, she remained focused on the ground until she spotted shadows indicating that she was next to a pile of crates. Shifting her viewing angle, she examined the wooden boxes.
They were filled with mushrooms from the farm, their stems cut cleanly near the bottom with a sharp tool.
Ami would have expected the ones at the bottom of the pile to be squished into a messy paste from the weight, but apparently, they had a texture more akin to raw potatoes than to the softer fungi she was used to.
One of the uppermost crates suddenly rose into the air, leaving a gap in the stack that showed her much more of the cave than she had originally planned.
She froze, waiting for an alarm to go off, but when nothing happened, she zoomed out further to see the entire place.
With a single glance, she could see that it was some kind of loading and unloading area for agricultural products. Next to the nearby stack of filled boxes, more mushrooms lay on spread out cloths and waited to be packed. Empty wheelbarrows stood near a closed door, and the gravity-challenged crate that had surprised her was in fact dangling from a small crane.
She turned her attention to the complicated-looking wooden contraption. Equipped with pulleys and a swivelling arm, it looked as if it could reach every spot of the circular chamber. Gears and axles turned inside as a red faced-dwarf cranked a winch, sweat running down his brow.
The crane’s operator had a seat higher on the apparatus and was yanking levers to manoeuvre its cargo towards a chain of connected mine carts.
Ami felt the muscles of her imp face twitch and noticed she was glaring at the train, frustrated by its mere existence. The question foremost in her mind now was how much of a threat it posed to her. Determined to find out how it worked, she directed her attention to the larger, roofed wagon at its front end.
She was hesitant to call it an engine, since, as far as she could tell, the wedge-tipped vehicle had no propulsion aside from a set of seats with pedals. It was as muscle-powered as the crane. While she considered that reassuring, it didn’t necessarily mean she was safe.
Her attention briefly turned towards the cave's light source. There were small alcoves where normally would have been torches affixed to the wall, each holding a statuette of a squat, armoured figure. Every stone carving carried on its head a glass disc that shone like a miniature sun. Those lamps were a good reminder that the dwarfs were fond of creating enchanted objects and that she shouldn’t let a first impression deceive her.
She made her view circle the train, considering it within its surroundings. She could easily deduce that it had been parked at the top of a ramp so it could be pushed down and gain speed when it left the station fully-loaded. Obviously, it had arrived on one prong of the horseshoe-shaped track, been unloaded, pulled up the ramp, and now waited to be filled with the harvest.
Nothing so far indicated that it was able to move under its own power.
Ami glanced at the lavish illumination again. If the dwarfs had enough mana for something like that, then they could certainly enhance a few carts if they wanted to. She examined the underside of the engine and found a number of runes that she didn’t recognise. With the aid of her fabrication spell, she copied them onto a sheet of paper so she could show them her warlocks later.
With the paper safely stashed away inside her backpack, she made another pass around the engine. It had a number of evenly-spaced indentations along both of its sides where the metal looked worn, but their exact purpose remained unclear to her. All things considered, the engine looked less advanced than she had feared, but that didn’t necessarily mean that it was slow, at least over short distances. Besides, simple things could be more easily replaced than complicated ones.
She tapped her finger against the crystal ball, thinking about what the verified existence of enemy trains meant. If she assumed that they were only muscle-powered and moved with the speed of a bike, they were still much faster than a soldier on foot. Just as importantly, they could travel through the mountains on a path that ignored the intervening terrain. When she considered them from that point of view, then the technical specifications of the engines were secondary to the extent of the network and the number of trains that existed.
Which meant that she needed to figure out just how connected the dwarven settlements really were.
With a puff of smoke, Ami appeared inside the empty tunnel she had chosen as her destination. It counted as claimed territory, so she couldn’t simply transport an imp inside, but that was why she was possessing one who had learned how to teleport herself. Arriving in mid-air and upside-down hadn’t been part of the plan.
Quickly, she tucked in her legs to increase her spinning speed. Despite the glowing smoke cloud from her arrival interfering with her visor's night vision, she managed to hit the ground feet-first, if at an awkward angle. She waved her arms to keep her balance, took a few rapid steps forward, and tripped over one of the metal rails.
Her imp arms were just a little too short to reach the wall and steady herself.
On the ground, uninjured but annoyed, she decided that imp teleportation had to be the result of malicious design on the part of the dark gods. Why else would a short-legged creature who typically carried a heavy backpack need to perform a somersault in order to activate a magical ability?
It was almost enough of an inconvenience to make her reconsider her other scouting option, but only almost. She would have to scry on a spot, cast a light spell, move her scrying target to the edge of the light radius, cast a new light, and repeat the previous steps. Over a distance of many kilometres. Not only would it be a tedious process, it would also take more time than simply teleporting around.
Besides, being physically present let her investigate the system in more detail than watching it through a crystal ball. She could start with the wall she had almost smashed her head into.
She placed her fingers against the rock, barely finding purchase on the smoothly-hewn stone as she pushed herself to her feet. Her gaze moved upwards, following the wall as it curved to form a graceful arc above the two parallel-running railway tracks.
This tunnel was larger than the ones from the farming station, and its shape was so regular that she wouldn't have been surprised to learn that it had been made by a large digging machine. In her mind, she pictured something like a battering ram, with a huge drill at the front that ate its way through the underground like a dwarven pickaxe.
Speculation aside, the rails merited additional attention. Contrary to her expectations, they weren't made from metal, or even assembled from pieces larger than her current body. Each rail consisted of individual pieces of carved stone, slotted next to each other like a very low and narrow brick wall. They stood so close together that they would have been hard to recognise as separate if it wasn’t for discontinuities in colouration.
In her opinion, stone, even if it was plentiful – the pieces for the rails had obviously been carved from the surrounding rock – was too brittle and prone to splintering for what it was being used here. She squatted down to have a closer look, fully expecting to find abrasions, cracks, and other signs of wear.
While the rounded, topmost part of the rail had been worn so smooth it gleamed, she didn’t discover any structural damage with her superficial inspection. She raised her hand, searched for a moment before she found the earring on the imp’s unfamiliar head shape, and adjusted her visor’s vision mode.
On the display, the stone gained a faint aura that indicated a weak magical charge, concentrated more within the lower parts that were hidden underground. If Ami was interpreting the numbers correctly, then the enhancements were meant to reinforce the rail against the effects of weight and pressure.
Ami looked up and down the tunnel, following the faintly-glowing lines of the rails that faded into the distance in both directions. Not for the first time, she wondered how the dwarfs were able to support all this without a dungeon heart.
Well, she wouldn't get answers by standing here, and she still needed to find out where this railway led. Since the town closest to her dungeon was to the south, she turned towards the north and looked at the farthest parts of the tracks she could still see. With a soft sigh, she ran a few steps to gain enough speed for a somersault.
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