For a dwarf, a spider web of cracks appearing on the ceiling above was one of the scariest things in the world.
Medtob’s breath hitched, his muscles tensing for a desperate sprint. Each fibre of his body screamed at him to run; to get away before the cave-in crushed him under tons of rubble. He didn’t though, because there was no way out. Standing shoulder to shoulder with his fellow soldiers, he had no room to manoeuvre. All around him, there was an oddly synchronised metallic rustle as his comrades flinched, having reached the same realization.
Uttering a desperate prayer, he raised his shield and braced for impact.
The cracks in the worked stone above now spanned the entire width of the underground road. As the shaking intensified, dust and small pebbles cascaded into the room, and the sphere of magical light above grew dim.
To Medtob, it looked like the sun disappearing behind clouds.
The ceiling burst into pieces like a smashed plate, turning into a hail of shards and gravel. Solid stone turned into a chaotic avalanche of dust and debris, blotting out the remaining light on the way down.
With terrified resignation, he saw that the biggest shadow was coming straight at him. Reflexively, he ducked and closed his eyes, but somehow, he managed to keep his spear steady. If he was going to die, he was going to die doing his duty-
Pain flared in his wrist as a blow struck his kite shield, forcing his arm lower. The metal rang so loudly he almost couldn’t hear the clangs and impacts all around him, though he didn’t miss his neighbour screaming in pain and staggering against him. He fought to maintain his balance, jostling his other neighbour by accident. Surprised to be still alive, he opened one eye.
Right in front of him, someone took a rock to the helmet and went down. Soldiers were yelling, but he couldn’t understand anything due to the deafening noise of the stone hail pinging off armour.
A new impact on his shoulder drove him to one knee, and he almost dropped his spear when something pushed against it. There was a horrible, high pitched scraping noise right next to his ear as piled-up debris slid down his shield, and he clenched his teeth in discomfort.
How was he still alive? He had seen that shape above him. It had been larger than him and should have squished him into mangled paste. Not that he was questioning his good fortune, but his survival was nothing less than a miracle.
The room got brighter; the noise diminishing to a patter like hail on sheet metal.
Figuring that all the big pieces had already come down, Medtob dared to peek out from underneath his shield.
Everything looked greyish-white, covered by a blanket of dust. Many of the soldiers around him were on the ground or on their knees, coughing and groaning, but just as many were still standing.
His throat burned from the dust particles hanging heavily in the air, and there was weight pressing against his spear. He looked up.
Crimson eyes glared down at him.
He flinched back, a hoarse shriek escaping from his throat even as his back collided with the soldier behind him.
The Dark Empress herself was floating above him, her blue and black garb untouched by the dust. Wait, she wasn’t flying. She was at the centre of a bubble-like shield that glowed purplish-blue where it rested on the spear tips below.
He and the surrounding dwarfs were effectively carrying her.
The bubble wobbled and rolled on the spears whenever they moved, but it touched enough of them to avoid falling down. With every motion, the black cloak of the terrifying figure inside billowed.
He suddenly realised that the large shadow he had seen falling towards him must have been the Dark Empress, not a huge boulder. That explained why the impact hadn’t squished him flat. She felt surprisingly light, even if he wasn’t supporting her weight alone.
He risked a closer look, fully expecting her body to be living darkness or an animated skeleton or something at least as horrifying. Instead, he saw mostly boots and bare legs that belonged to a scrawny human girl.
If he survived this, he would surely be mortified about having looked up the skirt of an Empress. Right now though, he was too terrified to focus on anything but the danger he was in.
Such as the threat of the weapon she was wielding. She was holding the hefty staff horizontally, and it poked through her shield on both sides, so she could obviously use it to attack if she so desired. The massive thing had to account for a significant portion of the weight he was feeling and could probably punch through armour like a warhammer.
He needed to get rid of her before she killed him.
Instinctively, he looked for a vulnerable spot to stab. The only piece of armour she was wearing was that strange transparent visor dimming the glow of the crimson slits behind it. He wouldn’t have to aim carefully at a weak point.
The insane noble’s questionable choice of battle attire aside, he was pretty damn certain that just poking at her shield would not get him anywhere. Was there something else he could use against her?
Wait, she barely weighted anything, and he wasn’t alone. “Comrades, quickly!” he shouted, his voice scratchy from inhaled dust.
The soldiers farther away turned to look at him, gravel and shavings flying out of beards. Those in range of the Dark Empress kept their eyes glued on her, but their shifting posture indicated that they had heard him.
Keeper Mercury’s red-glowing gaze was suddenly focused directly on him.
With a superhuman effort of will, he managed to continue without stammering. “Throw her! Now!” He didn’t wait to see if the others would join him before he jumped at the bubble, slamming his shield into it.
With barely any hesitation, the others nearby followed his example. They didn’t hit the magical shield all at exactly the same time, but every dwarf still managed to impart some momentum to the Dark Empress.
The hellish red pits that were her eyes widened as she was tossed back up in the air, the spherical barrier around her shimmering from the impacts.
Grinning, Medtob let out a whoop of satisfaction. Bouncing her around should buy everyone a moment to shake off the effects of the cave-in and let the officers come up with a way to breach her magical protections.
With a quiet gurgle, a giant, transparent hand appeared in mid-air. The ball containing the empress slammed into its palm, sending ripples across its surface.
Mouth agape, Medtob stared at the sphere caught between the fingers of the disembodied limb.
That- that had not been part of his plan. Were his eyes playing tricks on him, or was that a faint smile on the Dark Empress’ lips? “You made it worse,” one of his neighbours breathed as the hand pushed down, propelling Empress Mercury straight back at them.
The glowing bubble smashed into Medtob much more forcefully than it had the first time.
He caught the impact diagonally on his shield and was shoved into the dwarfs behind him, his efforts to brace himself utterly futile. Gasping as the air was driven from his lungs, he was pinned against the ranks behind him by the curved surface pressing down on him.
There was no room between the dwarfs to fit a sphere as large as the Empress’ shield. The hand that kept pushing it downwards didn’t care; it maintained a constant pressure and simply forced spears and dwarfs aside. A wave went through the dwarven formation as soldiers were shoved outwards and bumped against each other like dominoes.
Medtob feared that he would slowly be squeezed to death, caught between the transparent bubble and the armour of the soldiers behind him.
Suddenly, the resistance against his back disappeared. The dwarfs on the edge of the formation had fallen over or backed away, giving the deeper ranks enough space to do the same. He had never been so happy to land hard on his back before.
Pain in his legs reminded him that they remained pinned between the enemy and the ground. Above him, spears jabbed at the bubble from every direction, filling the space above his head like the bars of a cage.
Hope reinvigorated him as the shield started flickering from the constant attacks. The Dark Empress was turning her head rapidly as she looked around. Her last manoeuvre must have overstrained her defences.
Hurting, out of breath and prone on the floor, he looked for a way to pitch in. He had lost his spear, but the dagger at his waist remained a serviceable weapon. His hand was already on its sheath when he had a better idea.
Empress Mercury was holding her staff upright in a one-handed grip right now, and the bottom part poked out of her bubble. If he managed to get her weapon away from her just before her shield collapsed, then his allies would have a much easier time defeating her!
He whipped his upper body upwards into a seating position, bringing the unprotected length of metal into his reach. His hands closed around the cold haft of the weapon even as thoughts about curses, traps and lethal wards went through his mind.
He was honestly surprised when nothing terrible happened. Emboldened, he yanked on the staff with his entire weight, trying to get as much leverage as possible.
The weapon gave a little before the Dark Empress tightened her grip and looked down at him in surprise.
Until now, he had thought that her reputed power was an exaggeration. It was hard to believe the slender figure in front of him could be physically strong enough to fight a horned reaper. Now though, he was starting to worry she might simply rip out his arm.
At that moment, the giant hand on top of the sphere lost cohesion and turned into a flood that cascaded down and washed him away.
Ami had left her welcoming committee sprawled out in the cave-in’s muddy rubble and was travelling down a wide underground road through the residential area she had dropped into.
Behind closed doors and shutters, families huddled together and tried to hide from her. Only the occasional sounds of crying infants being urgently shushed betrayed their presence. Farther away, rapid, retreating footsteps indicated that the civilians outside of Ami’s line of sight were fleeing the area.
She kept moving at a normal pace to avoid catching up with them and causing a panic.
“That enemy formation was eight ranks wide and six deep,” Torian informed Ami over their telepathic connection.
That meant her welcoming committee represented less than one percent of the military forces in the city. Its members wouldn’t even be out of action for long, at least not all of them. They were good people just trying to protect their homes, so she hadn’t hurt them after scattering them. It had already been hard enough to simply leave those with broken bones and bleeding bruises behind, trusting their comrades to tend to their wounds. She didn’t want to think of the damage she could have done if her quake spell hadn’t been strong enough to reduce the pieces of falling ceiling into small chunks.
“Are they following me?” she asked.
“The effects of your magnificent black mist on the first fool who dared venture into it was quite sufficient to discourage pursuit,” Torian answered, his words dripping with malicious joy.
She winced. Her corrupted Shabon Spray Freezing attacked sensory organs and was painful and debilitating. She felt pity for everyone who didn’t know better and walked into the thick, stationary black clouds. Nevertheless, the spell was her best option for stopping enemy forces that could rapidly dig through physical obstacles.
“Warn me if more soldiers come my way,” she replied, trying to keep her disgust at Torian’s amusement out of her voice.
“Of course. That should not be a problem now that our opponents have stopped hiding.”
Her chief warlock was referring to the lights that had turned back on, thin stone covers retracting to reveal glowing carvings behind them. The unexpected scraping noise and motion above had startled her at first, drawing her attention to the vaulted ceiling. There, between the criss-crossing support arches, glowing figurines of the sun and stars shone like lamps within recesses.
She didn’t know for sure why the dwarfs had decided to stop obscuring her surroundings, but she could make a few informed guesses. The bracelet that warned her of foreign scrying was glowing constantly now, and she suspected that the dwarven mineral sense wasn’t precise enough for fighting in the dark.
Tactical disadvantages aside, she was glad she could see her surroundings properly. She would have missed the interplay of colours and shapes on the sculpted, painted façades if she had only seen them in night vision.
Her gaze slid over the fake pillars and support structures that defined the basic design of a façade, skipped over the engravings beside the door, and came to rest on the rectangular depression that seemed to serve as a front yard. In a sandbox littered with hastily-abandoned children’s toys, she spotted a half-finished wooden figurine and a carving knife. Its grip was just the right size for the tiny hands of a toddler.
Wasn’t that dangerous? She knew that dwarfs loved crafting, but she hadn’t known they let children play with sharp tools. It was as much of a surprise as seeing the many plants growing from pots and alcoves almost everywhere. She had expected mushrooms, but these were real, green-leaved shrubs and flowers. Some even formed leafy curtains along the street, hanging down from pots suspended from the ceiling.
Which brought her right back to thinking about the lights. Green plants required strong, constant light to thrive, and the only light sources here were clearly magical. Where did they get their power from? Her visor could detect mana flows moving through the architecture, guided by both engraved runes and crystalline arrangements. It couldn’t tell her where the power was coming from more specifically than “from below”, and neither did it provide any hints as to its source.
“Torian, tell one of the warlocks to investigate the lowest levels of the city. I want to know what’s down there,” she told him.
“Immediately, your Majesty.”
Nervously, she wondered if the dwarfs had something like a dungeon heart somewhere within the city. She would never be able to catch Duke Libasheshtan if he had access to a Keeper transport analogue. It was unlikely, she tried to reassure herself. She would have spotted signs of corruption or of minion bonds. Besides, the output of the power source was – was…
She blinked as she realised she couldn’t simply calculate an estimate in her mind. The mana was streaming in complicated patterns, often forming cycles that fed back into each other to recycle spilled power.
It was an intricate, efficient pattern that she was going to analyse and incorporate into her own dungeon once she got the time.
“Your Majesty? Unfortunately, the deepest parts of the city are insufficiently lit for a complete survey. They seem to mostly consist of labyrinthine mine shafts, magma, forges, and tombs,” Torian reported.
She frowned and spared a moment to consult the notes he had jotted down. From a cursory glance, she got the impression of branching tunnels spreading through the underground like a root system, but there was nothing to suggest a central energy source.
Deciding to question Duke Libasheshtan about this mystery later, she turned left at an intersection, following the marker on her visor that indicated his last known location.
“Ah, your Majesty? Going that way will lead you to a checkpoint with fortified gates,” Torian’s voice interrupted her musings. “A large force of soldiers including mages and priests is assembling there.”
Ami’s fingers clenched tighter around her staff, but her steps didn’t falter. She had known that some battles would be inevitable when she had come up with her plan. “Thank you, I will prepare accordingly.”
The presence of priests was both worrisome and reassuring. On one hand, holy magic made her feel sick, but on the other, those healers could save people if she used too much force in the heat of battle.
Her standard precautions should be enough to deal with them. Since there were no soldiers with spellcasting-inhibiting wards nearby, she replaced her shield and concealed herself with a field of mist. There weren’t any other types of wards currently affecting her either, so she could call in some reinforcements.
At her mental command, an imp wearing heavy gloves appeared from a twirl of green motes. Grinning, the worker upended the wriggling bag she was carrying and shook it, dumping a few rats at Ami’s feet. The imp teleported back to the dungeon with a faint giggle before Ami could reprimand her about dropping the animals from such a height.
The scared rodents darted away towards the nearest safe-looking crevices and hid, which was exactly what Ami would have ordered them to do if she had gotten the chance.
Disagreeing with the imp’s methods but satisfied with the outcome, Ami shook her head and continued on her way. It didn’t take her long to reach a larger room where three roads met in front of the gate that her chief warlock had told her about.
He apparently hadn’t considered the civilians stuck in front of the blocked passage worth mentioning.
There were about three dozen of them, breathing heavily, whimpering and looking around with wide, fearful eyes. Some of them were praying.
“T-t-the fog is coming!” A flour-stained man with cloth-wrapped beard and hair shouted, pointing in her direction.
Gasps and cries of fear went came from the crowd as its members turned to face her, pressing their backs against the wall. A little boy clutched the hands of his mother and started crying, while his younger sister hid behind her legs.
“No! Nooo!” A woman wearing embroidered leather robes shouted in a shrill, panicked voice. “Let us through! Please! Let us through!” she begged as she hammered her fists against the closed gate that was over four times her height.
The metal of the massive door didn’t even budge enough to ring from the impacts. The woman’s hands made muted, meaty thuds as they collided repeatedly with the unyielding surface, leaving red smears on it.
“Stop!” Ami shouted.
The civilian dwarfs flinched as her voice echoed in the sudden silence. They froze, keeping their limbs stock still except for uncontrollable shivering.
Ami froze too as she realised that all those pale-faced people were waiting for her to do something. She had only wanted the woman who had been striking the gate to stop hurting herself.
A droplet of blood dripped to the floor as the civilians waited, growing more afraid with each passing second.
Deciding on a course of action, she mentally tagged them as non-hostiles to let them see through her fog.
Eyes widened in horror and pupils contracted into tiny pinpricks as the dwarfs caught sight of her. Someone screamed, and a baby started crying in the arms of a broadly-built woman.
A wealthy-looking dwarf wearing a dark blue jacket over a frilly white shirt took a shaky step forward, placing himself in front of the group. He took off his ruby-topped beret and held it to his chest as he bowed deeply. “E-Empress Mercury, please-“
“Leave. I have no reason to harm you,” Ami interrupted and swung her arm in what she hoped was an imperious manner towards the passage farthest from her own. “My business is with Duke Libasheshtan alone.”
The man swallowed and bowed again. “Y-yes, of course. Thank you, your M-Majesty.”
For a few seconds, the other just stared with their mouths open, as if they couldn’t believe what they just heard. Some of the most courageous started moving, imitating the blue-wearing man as they bowed and thanked her. They moved hesitantly at first, shuffling sideways along the wall as they made sure to keep facing her.
It looked almost as if they were expecting her to shoot them in the back the moment they turned away. Ami felt rather awkward as some of them kept bowing in her direction every few steps.
The blue-dressed man glanced nervously at Ami before going back to approach a dwarven girl who remained paralysed with fear. He grabbed her by the arm and dragged her along, all the while watching Ami like a hawk.
She considered the locked gate once more and grew angry. Whoever had given the order to keep it closed had been willing to sacrifice these people just to buy some time. Intellectually, she understood that a fortified door that remained open when the enemy approached was useless, but she still hated that kind of disregard for the fate of the stragglers.
The retreating civilians ducked their heads and moved faster, and she realised that some of her emotions were showing on her face. Forcefully relaxing her features, she distracted herself by focusing on the obstacle instead.
The door was several meters tall and wide enough to drive two carts through it at the same time. Sensibly, its hinges were on the side facing away from her, and it looked sturdy enough to withstand prolonged bombardment with Keeper lightning. It completely blocked off a short, rectangular passage made from the same reinforced rock used in dwarven railways.
The undecorated section looked suspicious to her, and she inspected it more closely. To her side, she heard the sounds of running footsteps as the first of the civilians broke line of sight with her.
Yes, there was a barely visible slit in the roof at the beginning of the fortified part, as well as a matching groove across the road. A portcullis could drop there to trap intruders inside the passage, which meant – ah, up above. The ceiling was slightly angled to conceal the openings of small pipes.
She shuddered as she imagined what it would be like to be stuck between the door and the portcullis while water slowly flooded the chamber, knowing that there was no way out. Not that she had to worry about drowning in her current body. Actually, the dwarfs would be doing her a favour if they tried this on her, since she should be able to use the water pressure and her ice as leverage to crack the door open.
With the last of the civilians gone, she moved forwards, pushing against the same kind of anti-evil wards that had covered the city walls. She didn’t see them, but her visor pointed out several rapidly-heating spots just below the road.
“What are the enemy troops doing?” she asked, ready to advance.
“Looking constipated while staring at the gate, getting their weapons blessed, and piling up ammo for their siege engines. In other words, nothing useful,” Torian replied “Oh!” he added cheerfully, “someone just set his beard on fire by trying to paint a ward in your presence!”
“Three ballistas and two cannons.” He fell quiet for a moment, and then continued in a somewhat more irritated voice “Your Majesty, Cathy informs me that there are a number of bombs placed near the door that I should also count among the siege weapons.”
“She is correct,” Ami confirmed, “knowing about them is useful.” Particularly if she wanted to avoid accidental fatalities. “Thank you. I will proceed now.”
Surrounded by her mist, she strode into the passage with confident steps.
As expected, the portcullis came crashing down when she was about halfway through the chamber. The solid plate of steel rang like a bell as it struck the floor, the deafening sound echoing off the bare walls.
Unperturbed, she stopped and stared up at the door, waiting for the water. Was it preferable to break down the gate or the wall? Excessive collateral damage wouldn’t do her any favours when it was finally time for negotiations.
The pipes stayed dry but made a noise as if a tide of loose nails was passing through them. A moment later, circular pieces of gleaming metal showered down on her as if it was raining coins. The metallic hail bounced high when it struck the ground, and the pieces striking her shield were slowly wearing it down.
“Are they trying to bribe you?” That was Jered’s voice, sounding hopeful.
She caught one of the discs, took a closer look at it, and shook her head. The metal showed the same intricate design as each link of the chains the dwarven soldiers wore to protect themselves from spells.
By now, the things covered the ground in a thin layer. The dwarves wanted to make absolutely certain that she couldn’t cast any spells near herself. Why?
“Your Majesty, they are shooting at the gate!” Torian suddenly blurted out.
An instant later, she heard a loud bang, and the door shook.
What were they doing? There was no point in confining her, making sure she couldn’t teleport, and then breaking open her prison. She scanned the door for damage, but couldn’t spot any deformation in the thick metal from her side.
Another impact rattled her cage, and something cracked and broke on the other side. They were targeting the hinges?
The door wobbled, and its top started leaning towards her.
She understood. They weren’t opening the gate for her; they were trying to squish her underneath it. Admittedly, flattening her with tons of metal would work, and none of her stashed spells were intended to protect her from a big slab of falling steel. Her gaze darted back to the portcullis. No room to dodge. If necessary, she could abandon this body, possess one of her safety rats, and try again.
No. She needed to appear unstoppable if she wanted to demoralise the dwarven soldiers. The harder they fought her, the more she would be forced to hurt them. In addition, there was the very real danger that she would run out of prepared spells if the fighting went on for too long.
She grabbed her cloak. It wasn’t just a way to hide embarrassing alterations to her wardrobe. Here in enemy terrain, she had no owned territory aside from herself. The cloak was a nice, wide piece of fabric for her to build on. She crouched down, draping it over the floor even as it started fluttering.
A draft brushed over her bare upper arms as the door toppled towards her, pushing the air out of its path.
From the building designs stored in her dungeon heart, she selected the giant sword she had her Keeper hand wield during her conquest of the Avatar Islands. As she drew on her gold reserves, the weapon’s sharp tip grew from the dark fabric on the ground and shot skywards.
Air pressure from the falling door blew the coins on the ground around like leaves. The huge steel rectangle had already descended far enough to be more ceiling than wall and had almost reached Ami. The tip of her giant sword clanged against the falling mass of steel and was immediately dulled by the impact.
However, a cloak did not make for a solid foundation. With an ear-piercing screech, the partially finished bottom of the sword skidded over the ground as it was pushed back by the tons of metal it was trying to support.
Ami made a brief strangled noise as she was jerked backwards by the pull on her garment. The world blurred past her as she was dragged by her neck along the floor, ward-coins digging into her fake skin.
The bottom of the sword hit the portcullis, which arrested its backward motion.
Carried by her momentum, she slammed into the flat of the blade and bounced off.
The half-finished sword wasn’t done moving yet. Holding up the weight of the door like a poorly-anchored tent pole, it slid sideways along the portcullis until it finally lodged itself in a corner.
Ears ringing from the noise, fake skin shredded by the coins on the ground, and regenerating one icy arm, Ami sat up in the gap between door and floor.
In hindsight, this hadn’t been one of her better ideas. Nevertheless, she had to finish growing her sword and to get moving before the dwarfs came to investigate.
The first sign that something had gone wrong was the horrible metallic screech just after the gate toppled. The next sign was said massive door being slowly raised and pushed out of the doorway it had previously occupied. It crashed to the floor a moment later. Fog and dust poured out of the empty door frame, staying low to the ground like an unrolling carpet.
At that point, none of the watching dwarves were really surprised when a dark silhouette with burning red eyes jumped onto the fallen gate, a ragged cloak fluttering around her. One arm was holding a long, straight staff, the other wasn’t visible. Instead, the shadow of a sword as long as door had been tall was floating in the mist, held aloft by a disembodied hand fit for its size.
The Dark Empress permitted her audience a moment to gaze at her in silence before the mist that had poured from the chamber became milky and opaque.
Now the only remaining traces of her presence were her steadily approaching footsteps.
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