After using imp teleportation a few more times, Ami had adapted to arriving mid-somersault. She landed on the tracks with only a minor stumble, straightened, and prepared for her next hop farther down the tunnel.
Something moved farther ahead, catching her attention and making her hesitate.
The monochromatic display of her visor showed her the back of a train. A few helpful annotations around it told her that it wasn't going very fast, moving at around twenty-one point seventy-two kilometres per hour and decelerating.
She didn't want to be spotted, so this was a bit of a problem. If she teleported ahead of the train, then the passengers would definitely notice the green flash. They might not be able to identify her in the darkness, but they would know that something strange was going on. Gathering information would be much harder when everyone was on high alert, and she really hoped she would be able to find a map of the railway network somewhere.
Perhaps she had been lucky. The train was slowing down, so it might be nearing a station. If it hadn't warned her, she might have teleported somewhere where people could see her. In any case, a train in motion was a perfect opportunity for finding out if there was something more to its engine than just muscle power.
Given teleportation's highly-visible side effects, she couldn't just appear next to the train, but she had other options. With a short leap, she moved to the free area between the two parallel tracks and broke into a run. She was possessing an imp body enhanced with senshi enchantments, and the little creature knew a speed-boosting spell on top of it. Unless the train suddenly accelerated, she would catch up in no time.
The vehicle made life easier for her by continuing to decelerate until it was moving at a crawl.
She hoped that nobody on the train would look backwards while she approached. While she was tiny at the moment, her red-glowing eyes could still give her away in the darkness. After briefly considering sunglasses fit for an imp, she regretfully came to the conclusion that they would interfere with her visor's night vision – in addition to looking ridiculous. For now, she simply hoped that any dwarfs who turned to face her would not see enough, their eyes still used to looking at the part of the tunnel illuminated by the engine's head lights.
Ahead, said tunnel split into two branches, one for each track.
Ami briefly wondered why they stayed parallel instead of one of them veering off and leading elsewhere. As she inspected the walls, she noticed a brighter gap ahead and slowed her step.
On the floor, a matching brighter rectangle confirmed that light was shining from a doorway.
She stopped and ducked, unwilling to approach the train while it was pulling into the suspected station.
The train came to a stop with a screeching noise and six dwarfs jumped out of the engine. Most of them positioned themselves next to the carts, but one walked towards the doorway. He was carrying something that looked like a long, thin plank with regularly-spaced marks.
A local dwarf emerged from the opening and shook hands with him. The two conversed with each other for a while, their gestures calm and relaxed. The conductor's shoulders shook, perhaps from laughing, and he pointed at one of the wagons.
With eager steps, the local walked over to it, lifted its tarp, and bent over the cart. Some rummaging later, his hand emerged holding a large bottle in his hand. He returned to the other dwarf with a bounce in his step and slapped his shoulder. Taking the proffered ruler-like object along with the bottle, he disappeared back through the doorway.
Meanwhile, the other dwarfs were gripping the carts by their side handles and leaned against them with all of their might to push the train forward centimetre by centimetre.
Ami wondered what they were doing. From her vantage point, she could only see that the tunnel – both branches, actually – narrowed so much that there was barely any space between the sides of the engine and the walls. The remaining carts were narrower, but even for them it was a close fit.
The workers stopped pushing when the front part of the engine had disappeared into the narrowed section of the tunnel so far that only the door in the back still poked out. All of them turned to face the doorway, clearly waiting for something.
With the train standing still, Ami could hear clicking noises coming from ahead, along with the voices of the dwarfs. She also heard another strange sound and went completely still, holding her breath so she could listen better.
It was a high-pitched whirring noise that reminded her of a hungry gnat, or perhaps a dentist's drill. In any case, it was not a noise that she had ever associated with railway operation.
Finally, the local dwarf re-emerged from the doorway and returned the flat object to the conductor, nodding.
The others reacted immediately, rushed back to the engine's door and climbed back in with hurried motions.
The door had barely slammed shut when a horn echoed through the tunnel. It sounded again, and then a horrible metallic screeching noises startled Ami.
Blinking, she stared at the back of the train. Without her visor giving her the numbers, she wouldn't have noticed that it was moving again, very slowly.
Again, the screech of stressed metal assaulted her ears, and the train accelerated with a jerk that must have been unpleasant for its passengers. It was now twice as fast as before.
Ami covered her ears as the noise repeated again and again, with each interval a little shorter than the previous one. With every repetition, the train gained more speed, an almost linear increase with each jerk. When the noises finally stopped, she stared at the final reading with a sinking feeling.
The train had left the station at a speed of almost ninety kilometres per hour.
Ami re-evaluated the railway's threat level. With that kind of periodic boost, the enemy could have soldiers from all over their nation on her doorstep within days. She needed to do something about this.
With the risks of inaction now outweighing those of discovery, she tiptoed closer to the station, eager to learn how the boost worked. The whirring got louder with every step, putting her more on edge, but she tried to look on the bright side. At least it masked the sounds of her approach.
She arrived near the doorway without difficulties and pressed herself against the wall. Quietly muttering her fabrication spell, she created a tiny mirror with a long, stick-like handle. Extending it close to the floor like a periscope, she managed to peer past the door frame.
Her caution was well worth it because her mirror showed her boots facing the door.
Angling her spying tool a little higher, she saw that the owner of said feet was sitting at a massive desk made from dark wood.
She recognized the dwarf who had come out earlier to meet the conductor. He was currently writing into a thick ledger, using a feather similar to the one sticking out of his felt hat.
Ami didn't know how he managed to concentrate with the constant whirring in the background, but perhaps the content of the large stone mug next to him helped him stay calm. Personally, she would only grew more nervous if she was in his place. She would be worrying the entire time about spilling something on the expensive-looking piece of furniture. While she would have loved to admire its intricately-carved geometrical patterns in greater detail, she had other priorities.
With the way the dwarf was sitting, it would be impossible to get into his office without being noticed.
She briefly considered rushing past the doorway when he lowered his eyes to investigate the narrowed section of the tunnel first, but then she had a better idea. Her gaze rose to the ceiling, confirming that there was enough space between it and the top of the doorway. She jumped, her senshi enhancements allowing the imp body to leap clear over the opening.
The moment she was past the doorway, she darted forwards, hiding in the darkness just in case the whirring noise hadn't masked the noise of her landing completely. She glanced back several times as she approached the narrowed part of the tunnel, but nobody arrived to search for her.
Inside the narrow section, the noise was even louder than outside, and the walls were completely straight and vertical. Their defining features were the horizontal slits located at the height of Ami's head, placed in pairs that faced each other. Parts of steel cogwheels poked out, the edges of their teeth scraped blank by wear and tear.
They weren't moving right now, but she could see that they were about the right size to match up with the strange indentations in the sides of the engine she had observed back at the mushroom-packing station. If the cogwheels gripped the engine properly and had enough raw strength behind them, they could conceivably accelerate a vehicle.
She looked farther down the tunnel, spotting more pairs of cogwheels facing each other. That confirmed her hypothesis. The system would have to be calibrated precisely, and any inaccuracies would result in unpleasant jerks for the passengers, but it could work.
Her visor informed her about a heat source behind one of the walls, on the same side as the doorway. Intrigued, she wondered about what kind of power source the dwarfs were using. She placed one ear against the rock to listen in more closely, and managed to make out a rattling noise despite the whirring. The stone against her skin vibrated, as if shaken by a sound much deeper than the loud whirring.
As much as she liked solving riddles, she just didn't have the time to figure out what was going on the hard way. Quietly, she crossed her arms and cast Shabon Spray, surrounding her current location with obscuring mist.
The inside of the magical fog cloud swallowed a flash of green, then another a few seconds later.
Ami had returned from her brief trip back to her dungeon holding a rat, which was wriggling excitedly in her grip. She stroked the animal's head with a finger to calm it down – it hadn't appreciated the somersault any more than she did – and placed it on the ground.
A moment of concentration later, a trail of black lightning connected her with the rodent, and the red light in the imp's eyes died down.
The world appeared to grow much larger around Ami as she took possession of the rat's senses.
Mentally, she ordered the imp to stay put and moved her new body towards the doorway. As rat, even if noticed, she wouldn't be much cause for alarm. She jumped up the two stairs looming before her and hurried through the entrance, hoping that the dwarf didn't have a pet cat.
Her first proper glimpse of the room's interior surprised her with the quality of its interior decoration, which seemed fit more for a mansion than for a random train station's office. Even the floor tiles were so smooth that her claws found little purchase, and she skidded almost all the way underneath the desk before she managed to brake.
It wasn't a bad observation spot as long as she made sure she didn't get kicked. The dwarf above certainly wouldn't be able to see her through the thick wooden surface.
With great interest, she analysed the various charts and diagrams carved directly into the shiny wood panelling. As far as she could tell, many of them were tables meant to associate weight and wagon types with various line patterns similar to the one the conductor had brought earlier.
Next to the references were two glass tubes connected to the floor that reminded her of huge thermometers, complete with scale and liquid inside. According to the numbers next to them, they measured weight, rather than temperature.
To Ami, it was clear that they had to be involved in measuring the weight of the trains waiting in the tunnels outside. While she hadn't noticed any mechanism for it, she hadn't been paying particular attention to the ground. Nevertheless, everything she was seeing in the room so far confirmed what she had already suspected. Accelerating the trains required precise, individualised calculations and adjustments. Since she didn't see any controls here, they had to be past the door in the north wall, closer to the source of the noise.
She slowly approached said obstacle, staying close to the wall behind the dwarf's back. The door looked just as sturdy and well-crafted as the rest of the room's furniture, and there was barely any gap underneath it. There was also a complete lack of convenient rat-sized gaps or holes. She would have to risk opening the door.
Guided by rodent instincts, she climbed up the vertical surface, using its engravings as footholds. A valiant leap, and she was hanging off the handle with her forelegs, in immediate danger of sliding off the smooth metal. Kicking her hind legs, she managed to touch the door and awkwardly pushed herself upwards. When she was finally sitting on the handle, she treated her current body like an underling and moved it downwards with her Keeper telekinesis. The pressure was unpleasant, but the handle tilted downwards before the push could become painful.
At once, a gust of warm air blew the door open and scattered the documents on the desk, prompting a startled curse from the dwarf as he jumped to his feet.
Ami was flung off the handle when the door slammed against the wall, and she dropped to the floor. Disoriented, she heard the dwarf stomp closer. At least she had landed between the door and the wall where he couldn't see her.
“Lorga! What do you think you are doing?” the dwarf yelled as he walked past her.
“What?” a young-sounding voice shouted back, barely audible over the whirring.
Ami darted out of her hiding spot when the door started closing. The dwarf was pulling it shut as he passed through, and she dashed forward to slip in before it was too late.
The door slammed shut with a loud bang and only missed taking off the tip of her tail by a hair's width.
“Lorga! Take off the damn earplugs when I'm talking to you!”
A female dwarf who looked only slightly older than Ami was sitting on a stool amidst a thicket of levers. Large blue eyes blinked in the direction of the doorway as she tugged something that looked like a fluffy headset off her head. “What is it, old man? Did you forget something?”
“I want to know what you were doing at the door instead of concentrating on your job, you useless apprentice!”
Lorga glanced over at a complicated assembly of cogwheels and spinning axles, most of which disappeared into the ceiling.
“Have you been drinking the special brew again? I haven't moved from this spot at all!”
While the two argued, Ami was inspecting the mechanism. Most of it seemed to be dedicated to switching out cogwheels of different sizes in order to adjust their rotation speeds.
“Don't play dumb! Am I supposed to believe that the door opened all by itself?”
“But I really didn't- ow!”
Lorga rubbed her head where the older dwarf had smacked her with his knuckle and glared at him, a pout on her freckled face.
“Don't lie to me! Do you see anyone else who could have done it?”
Ami felt bad for getting the innocent apprentice into trouble, but most of her attention was captivated by what had to be the power source she had been looking for.
A enormous flywheel made of stone was spinning like a top on the far side of the hall.
She gaped at the device's dimensions. It was wider than her dungeon heart and had to weigh several tons. How was it spinning without losing most of its energy to friction, falling apart, or at least destroying the floor underneath it?
Her gaze wandered down the axle, which was equipped with cogwheels of various diameters. Against all logic, its bottom part was hair-thin. Only the light-blue gleam of the needle-like tip gave away how it managed not to collapse under the weight resting on it. An indestructible material like adamantine opened up some unusual engineering options.
The tip spun on top a small plate of adamantine, explaining how it wasn't drilling its way into the ground. The contact point between both pieces of the holy metal glowed hot from the friction and produced the loud whirring she was hearing.
The power source was actually more of a power storage device, she corrected herself. If she understood the system correctly, then Lorga's task was picking the correct combination of cogwheels for matching the speed of the rotating axles protruding from the ceiling to that of the flywheel. That way, she would be able to gradually spin it up faster and faster so that enough power to accelerate trains was stored.
“...told you it wasn't me!” Lorga was still arguing. Her eyes suddenly went wide, and she paled. “M-maybe there's an invisible monster in here with us?”
The older dwarf swept his gaze over the room, frowning.
Ami didn't like where their conversation was going and hid behind a lever. Mentally, she ordered the imp to enter the other room and have a look at the paperwork. Through the underling's eyes, she searched for hints of a map.
The records listed arrival times, departure times, weights, cargo, service fees, as well as other technical details that weren't useful to her. No map anywhere, but there had been more passenger trains than usual going north during the last few days.
“I don't sense any bones anywhere,” the master of the station said after a moment, but he didn't sound entirely convinced.
“G-ghosts don't have b-b-bones,” Lorga pointed out, shivering.
Ami couldn't in good conscience scare the girl more by opening the door again, especially when she had a much more efficient way to leave. She ordered the imp to move back into the tunnel and possessed it, her shadowy form passing through the wall without resistance. She didn't even have to leave the poor rat behind. Her head counted as a large enough piece of claimed territory that she could snatch it from the room with Keeper transport and drop it there.
For her trouble, she gained a few scratches as the animal launched itself off the back of her skull and fled into the tunnel, away from the noise.
She didn't interfere as it escaped, figuring that it had earned its freedom. Also, she didn't have a comfortable way to carry it when she teleported again.
Her thoughts returned to the flywheel. She still didn't know exactly what the dwarfs were using to feed it, but that had ceased to be important. Theoretically, anything that provided a more or less constant rotation would do. Windmills, draft animals, or even cranks could all work as long as there was enough time between trains. If she had to interfere with the railway network, then the mechanisms in the stations would take far more time to replace.
Ami had travelled inside the tunnel for a few more teleports when it came to an end. A large cave opened before her, its stalactites and stalagmites covered in odd blackish moss. Water ran down the walls in small rivulets, pooling at its bottom. The tracks continued on a wide, sturdy bridge that led over the quiet lake. Marble pillars and winged statues flanked them on both sides before they disappeared behind a huge gate set into the back wall of the cavern.
Just looking at the double doors with their intricate silver and golden sunburst designs made Ami want to run and hide. She was suddenly very glad she hadn't tried to stow away on a train. Entering a temple of the Light wouldn't end well for her, even if she wasn't in her own body at the time.
Keeping her eyes on the ground, she didn't even need to wonder why the dwarfs would run a railway line through a temple. After all, it was already proving effective at keeping her out, and she assumed it would also deal with spies, diseases, and other unwelcome surprises. It was clear that she wouldn't be able to continue through that route.
However, she wouldn't give up that easily. She had an imp body and a pick, and if necessary, she could dig a path around the obstacle. First, however, she needed to find out if such drastic measures were even worthwhile. Wanting to know where exactly she was, she made another somersault and disappeared in a flash of green motes.
She reappeared in bright sunshine, high up in the cool air. Before gravity could accelerate her too much, she transported herself on top of an unclaimed hill, where dense vegetation softened her landing and helped hide her from view.
Well-hidden, it didn't take her long to figure out that she had arrived at another dwarven city. She zoomed in with her visor, taking in the above-ground structures.
There were many more dwarfs than she had expected. Weapons and armour gleamed on every plaza, and she could see tents around the city wall.
Her hackles rose when she realised that there were too many soldiers for single city. With her visor's magnification, she could see that the militiamen training in the city were wearing insignia from at least eight different nobles. This army had been gathered from all over the region.
Quickly, she did some simple maths in her head. The army besieging her dungeon had around three-thousand soldiers serving three different nobles. Assuming that each noble here could call upon the same number of troops, then there were about eight thousand enemies here preparing to attack her.
Her breath went faster and faster when she compared potential travel times to her projected wealth growth and concluded with certainty that her defences would not be ready in time. If she remained passive, then she would be crushed.
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