A group of crows cawed in surprise when a sinister presence joined them on top of the inaccessible rock spire that served as their nesting grounds. Startled, the birds launched themselves into the cloudy sky, ascending in a spiralling path so they could keep a wary eye on the female figure that had disturbed them.

Ami briefly tracked them with her gaze, worried that they would come back to defend their nests. The crows back at Rei's shrine were somewhat aggressive, and the last thing she needed was being pecked at while she was preoccupied with not slipping on the weather-worn stone. There wasn't much room here up here on top of the rock, and taking more than two steps in any direction would send her tumbling down a near-vertical incline into the river below.

About half a kilometre downstream, the stream's slow-moving waters touched the city walls of Salthalls. Taller than the nearby pines, the massive fortifications followed the contours of the river, turning it into a natural moat. The smooth stone blocks on the bottom part of the wall had a muddier tone than the others, indicating that they were frequently submerged during floods.

Since they were above water right now, Ami concluded that the torrential rainfalls caused by her dungeon’s corruption hadn’t caused the surrounding rivers to swell so far. Good, that was one less thing the dwarves could hate her for. She turned her attention to the war preparations going on in the city proper.

Her elevated vantage point wasn’t quite tall enough to peer over the walls, but she could still see the parts of the city that were farther up on the mountain’s slope. The most remote buildings were hewn right into the steep mountainside, next to each other, forming tall rectangles with many windows.

Ami felt a pang of homesickness at the sight, as it reminded her of the skyline of a modern city. The scale was completely different, of course. The buildings here were far, far shorter than Tokyo’s skyscrapers, and the settlement itself was tiny by her standards. Yet, according to her dwarven prisoners, it was one of the largest cities of their kingdom, with over twenty-thousand permanent residents.

Even that comparatively low number was hard to believe when the parts enclosed by the city walls fit into an area of less than a square kilometre.

Ami reminded herself that most of the city was below ground and that the surface part was the proverbial tip of the iceberg. It wasn’t meant to house thousands of people, which showed. Carts laden with supplies slowly forced their way through the crowds, causing her to wonder how people weren’t constantly being trampled by the draft animals. There were militiamen everywhere, most of them congregating on the city’s open plazas. They had to be levies from the surrounding regions, assembled here to be drilled into proper soldiers. Soldiers she needed to prevent from reaching her dungeon.

With a sigh, she verified that she looked presentable. Under her cloak, a freshly-summoned Sailor Mercury uniform in blue and black remained yet uncorrupted, and the long metal staff she had brought had kept its mirror finish. With no reason to delay announcing her presence any longer, she projected a telepathic message in the direction of the city.“I am Sailor Mercury, Empress of the Avatar Islands,”she introduced herself.

Ahead, a bridge led over the river, straight towards one set of city gates. The travelers on it froze in mid-step, and an ox bumped into the cart before it when its wagoner failed to pay any attention to it. Sudden silence descended on the city as conversations stopped and workers paused in mid-motion. Wide-eyed, the inhabitants searched for the source of the message or ran for cover.

Ami regretted frightening the civilians, but people had already died in this conflict, and more would die if she didn’t hurry and gain the initiative. Besides, the distinction between soldiers and civilians was a fluent one when most of the dwarven military consisted of militia drafted fresh from their villages. “Duke Libasheshtan, I have come to negotiate with you, as is my right as a fellow noble. I am waiting for you on the rock needle jutting from the river upstream of the city walls,” she continued.

There was a strangled scream from nearby. A fisherman, his face white as a sheet, stood in the water and gaped up at her. When he saw that she had noticed him, he gulped, gave a shallow bow and spun on his heel. Water sloshed around his boots as he sprinted towards the shore, screaming the whole way. He stumbled twice on loose stones as he scrambled up the river’s bank and disappeared between the bushes, still screaming.

He wasn’t the only one who had seen her. Ahead on the bridge, the travelers were running toward the city gates, leaving wagons and animals behind. Above them on the walls, more and more bearded faces appeared between the crenelations. Guards pointed in her direction, drawing the attention of those who hadn’t spotted her yet. Belatedly, alarm bells started to ring.

As usual, Ami felt uncomfortable with so many people watching her every move. She tried to concentrate on the bright side. With so many eyes on her, she would have nothing to fear from the corruption. “Should you refuse to meet me before noon, I will be forced to seek you out instead,” she finished her message, giving the Duke some incentive to cooperate.

From the crenelations, a single bolt arced through the air and splashed into the river before making it even half-way towards her location. The shot wasn’t part of a coordinated effort, and the dwarf who had fired it didn’t try again, but it was representative of the kind of response Ami expected to her ultimatum.

It would be a nice surprise if the Duke agreed to negotiations, and she would happily take the opportunity if it presented itself, but she didn’t really believe it would happen. Nevertheless, giving diplomacy a final chance didn’t cost her anything at this point. Her plan to force a meeting was anything but subtle, and she could use the wait to prepare.

In a run-down part of the city, a well-fed and comparatively clean rat hid within a garbage pit from the alley cats above. The animal didn’t notice when the light, already dim due to the two-story buildings looming above, dimmed further. A cold, clammy fog expanded from a spot just above the cobblestones, creeping outwards at a sedate pace. Soon, an imp materialised from motes of green light, their glow hidden by the mist. A moment later, the rat had company down in the garbage pit, and the sound of digging rang out, dampened by the magical fog.

Kivith's footsteps echoed through the hall as he hurried towards his master, his cheeks burning with shame. With every step, the wet cloth of his apprentice robes slapped against his shins, reminding him that it was stained with bright yellow liquid. Normally, he wouldn’t have cared – potion accidents happened – but today, his master stood at the massive gilded table seating most of the Duchy’s highest nobles.

At its head, duke Libasheshtan himself sat on a large oaken throne inlaid with enough gold and silver to hide most of the wood underneath. He had donned gleaming armour, and with his short, smooth black beard and determined expression, he looked as if one of the statues of ancient heroes had come alive.

To his right, countess Zasod looked radiant as ever despite the frown on her face. She was wearing a plain and practical breastplate instead of the more form-fitting ceremonial ones she preferred.

Finally, count Zatkel sat opposite her, to the Duke’s right. The count’s fingers were constantly in motion as he moved beads on an abacus and jutted down notes, which he passed to the barons and command officers sitting further down the table.

All the splendour assembled around the table made Kivith doubly aware of his own filthy appearance. Approaching the assembled nobles like this was like something out of a nightmare! This was all the Dark Empress’ fault for startling him with her message while he was brewing.

His master, the court wizard Mengolin, shot him an impatient look from where he stood beside the Duke’s throne.

Kivith swallowed and increased his pace, which had slowed to a crawl without him noticing. The covered crystal ball he was balancing on a small padded tablet suddenly felt very heavy in his arms as he took position at Mengolin's side. “It’s her,” he delivered the news, his words sounding like a squeaky whimper. Biting his lips, he cast furtive glance at the arguing nobles, hoping they hadn’t heard him.

His master lifted the black cloth covering the crystal ball just long enough to verify that it showed the river and part of the city. He nodded and knocked with the bottom of his staff against the floor thrice. All faces turned towards him. “It is confirmed, proven by the divinations,” he announced. “The Dark Empress is indeed personally present.”

There were gasps and frowns around the table. One of the barons jumped to his feet. “We must evacuate the-”

“Are we safe-” another began at the same time.

“My men! I have to-” a third shouted without paying attention to his peers.

“We must smite the monster!”

Despite the danger of the situation, Kivith felt relief at the barons’ reaction. Everybody was too excited to pay attention to him, the bringer of bad news. It was petty, but he really couldn’t afford to make a poor impression on the movers and shakers of the Duchy. He was, to put it mildly, not the most promising of master Mengolin’s apprentices. In fact, he had probably been specifically tasked with scrying on the Dark Empress for that exact reason. He was expendable.

Duke Libasheshtan raised his hand. “Quiet. Cease the useless chatter,” he commanded, his voice cutting through the noise.

Immediately, the assembled dwarfs fell quiet and looked at him expectantly.

“Yes, that insolent Keeper is here. This changes what, exactly?” he challenged. “She’s stuck on the surface, and our citizens are already retreating underground. There's no reason for alarm.”

In the privacy of his own mind, Kivith disagreed. The Dark Empress being close enough to rain spells down on the city was very, very alarming indeed. He was glad he was currently in one of the most arcanely protected chambers in the city, even if he felt guilty about doubting the Duke.

“She wants us to overreact in order to disrupt our war preparations,” duke Libasheshtan continued. “But seriously, what do you expect her to do? Throw a tantrum and attack us all on her own?”

“Your Grace, she threatened to come after you,” countess Zasod cautioned.

“She hasn’t brought an army to even make the attempt,” duke Libasheshtan said calmly. “Unless one of you has learned something new in the meantime?” he addressed the seated dwarfs.

The nobles turned towards their own court wizards, who were waiting at their side. These senior magicians, easily recognised by the jewelled tabards they wore over their robes, in turn looked towards the back of the hall, to the place Kivith had come from earlier.

In the shadow of ornate stone bookshelves, groups of apprentices were linking hands, working together to mitigate the strain of operating their scrying devices and divination bowls. The youngest member of each group had the duty of keeping an eye on the war council in case their masters wanted to give them new instructions.

These young dwarfs, upon seeing their masters’ hand signals, rushed over with long lists of locations and scrying results. Even the children among them were well-dressed and clean, much to Kivith’s chagrin.

“So, it seems that there is no trace of an enemy army anywhere within the vicinity of this city,” duke Libasheshtan summarised after the wizards had delivered their reports. “Oh, wizard Likotrab?”

A brown-haired dwarf standing behind one of the barons straightened, his expression worried.

“Good thinking checking the bottom of the river. Very thorough,” the Duke complimented, and the magician bowed with a proud smile on this face.

“Your Grace?” one of the officers at the far end of the table spoke up. “Some traders reported goblins in the east, near the village of Calmstone.”

“Known quantity. We have reports from the area going three weeks past,” count Zatkel interjected, not looking up from his abacus. “Additional guards were deployed eighteen days ago.”

The officer who had brought the issue to attention nodded and sat down.

“Right. As I said, no traces of an enemy army,” Duke Libasheshtan stated with satisfaction. “Still, let us be thorough. Count Ornish.”

“Yes, your Grace?” count Ornish wasn't physically present, but a grey-bearded wizard sat in his throne, operating a crystal ball. The Count’s voice had come from the orb, which showed his face. It did not show any of his three barons, however, and the three thrones reserved for them at the table remained vacant.

“Have you or your men noticed any signs that Keeper Mercury is moving troops?”

“Her flying vessels keep landing and departing from the tower, but they are not travelling towards Salthalls,” count Cornish answered. “I cannot completely exclude some treachery, but they appear to only have small crews when they depart.”

“Ah, yes, those things,” the Duke said with displeasure.

Flying vessels? Kivith had never heard of them before. He shuddered. How could one even defend against flying raiders? He was suddenly glad his parents didn’t live in one of the hamlets out in the countryside.

Paper rustled as Count Zatkel consulted his notes. “There have been no records of these so-called airships either here or in the neighbouring baronies,” he said after only an instant of hesitation.

“Glad to hear it,” count Ornish said from the crystal ball. “Your Grace, if the Dark Empress is currently distracted, then perhaps now is the time to launch an attack? We have been preparing spells to detect nearby ghosts, and-”

Kivith’s master grimaced and shook his head, but the Duke wasn’t looking at him. Nevertheless, his next words confirmed that he shared his court wizard’s opinion. “Nonsense, distance doesn’t stop Keepers from managing their dungeons.”

“It doesn’t?” Ornish sounded surprised and horrified.

“Indeed not. You stay right where you are, keep your men safe and the enemy contained. I’m still not convinced this entire farce of an ultimatum isn’t just another attempt to goad you into attacking. She knows she needs to defeat our forces in detail if she wants to have a slight chance at winning, so we deny her the opportunity.”

“As you wish, your Grace,” count Ornish said. He didn’t sound disappointed at all about not having to lead an assault.

“Good.” Duke Libasheshtan looked at the two rows of faces down the table. “I think it’s safe to say that our enemy cannot attack the city unless she wants to do so all by herself.” He chuckled into his beard.

“But, but what if she does?” a nervous voice asked from among the barons. “She defeated the Avatar, so why wouldn’t-”

Duke Libasheshtan snorted. “There is a slight difference between her defeating a single strong opponent in her own dungeon, surrounded by her loyal minions, and between attacking an enemy stronghold filled with thousands of soldiers all on her own. Nevertheless, if she wants to try,” he rose from his throne and slammed his palms on the table, “then we’ll make her pay for her overconfidence!”

Through the thin cloud cover, the sun was visible as a bright disk as it neared its highest position in the sky.

Doesn’t look as if the Duke is going to show up,” Cathy spoke telepathically in Ami’s head. “Also, they are loading a nasty-looking bolt into that ballista on the right tower.” Ami took a moment to zoom in on the red-glowing tracery on the arrow-shaped piece of metal. It reminded her of some of the curses described in her library’s darker tomes. Surprising to see here, but the effects would probably be limited to the body she was possessing. She still didn’t intend on letting it hit her. “I have seen it,” she replied.

So you are really planning to go through with this?” Cathy asked.

I have to,” Ami replied “I won’t let this conflict consume any more lives if there’s anything I can do to stop it!” If that meant that she had to fight her way to the enemy leader to personally drag him to the negotiation table, well, so be it.

Cathy sighed. “Well, I hope you can pull it off. Even then, I doubt the Duke will be reasonable.” If he wasn’t – well, she would take him prisoner and talk to his replacement. She was sure that if she demonstrated a few times that she could get to any noble she wanted, then one of them would eventually be willing to negotiate.

The more pessimistic part of her wondered if that would happen before or after the dwarven army was rendered non-functional due to lack of leaders.

I will, at least, give the dwarfs a reason to hold off on attacking me,” Ami replied. Intimidation was one reason why she wouldn’t be trying the subtle approach – this was intended as a show of force. The other reason was that she didn’t have enough information about the city for a stealthier approach.

Your Majesty,” Torian’s slimy mind-voice intruded on her thoughts. “The preparations on our side are ready. I have personally made sure to brief each and every warlock on his role in this operation.”Thank you. Stand by and wait for my signal,” Ami answered. She hadn't been idle while waiting either. The dwarven wards that stopped spells from forming would seriously hamper her combat capabilities, and so she had filled her Keeper storage with already finished spells to bypass that problem. She had personally guided individual rats deeper into the city so she had minions to possess if she needed a quick escape. Under the cover of Shabon Spray, she had even been able to sneak some imps past the alarm wards.

Movement on the wall demanded her attention. The huge ballista was swivelling in her direction, the dwarfs manning it cranking small winches to make minor adjustments. According to Ami’s visor, the bolt was accurately aimed and would hit either her or the rock she was standing on even without magical guidance.

She quickly checked the position of the sun. Noon. The time limit she had set had passed, so she could just start moving and avoid the coming shot. Simple and easy. But would it send the right message? She was supposed to make the dwarfs believe that she could easily shrug off their best efforts to stop her.

On the tower, a dwarf with purple trim around his helmet brought his open hand down in a hacking motion. The ballista fired, jerking backwards from the recoil as it catapulted the long chunk of sharpened metal towards its target.

The bolt whistled as it shot through the air, going too fast to easily catch it.

Ami, however, already knew the arc it would be travelling on to reach her. She put her Keeper hand in its path, pulling conjured icy gravel from storage to turn it into a physical barrier.

The shot hit the obstacle and passed through it too fast for Ami to grab a hold of the bolt. Her eyes widened fractionally as the shot continued towards her. She’d have to hope her shield would be enough to-

A geyser of hissing water shot up in front of her as the bolt hit the river, slowed down from the mid-air collision enough that it failed to reach its intended target. Underneath the stream’s rippling surface, red lights flashed like some kind of underwater thunderstorm.

Even from several meters above it, Ami felt the hostile magic pull on her body, making her fake skin feel both numb and cold. She saw some unfortunate fishes drift to the surface upside-down and hoped that the dwarfs wouldn’t be willing to use such dangerous magic within their own city.

The spray of water before her collapsed back into itself, revealing to the defenders on the wall that she hadn’t moved at all. Which hopefully looked like confidence in her defences to them, rather than reacting too late to an only partially successful attempt at intercepting their attack. In any case, Ami wasn’t about to give them time to think about the situation.

She raised her staff with an exaggerated and superfluous motion. The weapon was a long metal rod with a decorative blue gem on each end. While it could be used for magical purposes, she had brought it mainly to have a melee weapon that was about the same size and weight as a greatsword, but far less lethal. Waving it around was pure theatrics to give the dwarfs advance warning about her counterattack.

High above the tower, above the range of the wards, wisps of green mana crackled and coalesced into a swirl of spiralling bubbles. The ballista operators looked up at the phenomenon that had appeared right above them and immediately decided to jump off their siege engine and run.

Ami waved her staff downwards, and her remotely-cast Shabon Spray Freezing compressed itself into a huge icicle. Gravity did the rest, and she could hear the noise of splintering wood and the dismayed cries of the dwarfs all the way out here on her tiny island.

She nodded to herself as she surveyed the ice-covered remains of the mechanism. Swift, flashy retaliation without casualties. “The operation begins now,” she sent a message to her dungeon and launched herself high into the air. Wind whistled past her ears and her cloak rustled behind her as her arc carried her closer to the city. “Give me the location of Duke Libasheshtan!”

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Chapter 187: Noble Conversations Chapter 189:Making An Entrance

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