Count Zatkel stood with his back to the sealed gates of the palace and compared the disposition of his troops with the plans in his head.
His elite forces, professional soldiers with years of experience each, guarded the final approach to his position. The gently inclined stairway, as wide as the open square at its bottom, tapered towards the top. This was suboptimal, since it meant he could fit fewer defenders on higher ground. He had compensated by placing his top warriors on the lowest steps, where they could swarm any invader.
If the enemy made it that far, she would be stopped at the bottom of the stairs or not at all.
From the square itself, stairs led down in three directions to the garden-like court. Its elevated position made it an ideal spot for his archers, though the round basin of the fountain in the middle took up valuable space. He had already had the decorative spouts deactivated so they couldn’t obstruct his men’s line of sight.
A sneer flitted over his face as his gaze moved farther, following the two water-filled channels that bordered the gardens and led straight ahead. He grabbed the enchanted amulet positioned exactly under his throat and amplified his voice. “Militia squad eleven, don’t treat the water like an impassable obstacle! Our enemy could either freeze it or just jump over it!”
The barely-trained recruits twitched at the sound of his thundering voice. Some turned to face him and saluted, some turned to face their corporal instead, and some just looked at the channel in confusion.
The Count suppressed a grimace. At least these rookies were in a position where they would only encounter combat if they were very, very unlucky. It wasn’t impossible, unfortunately. He had run the numbers and analysed the maps, but he couldn’t predict with certainty where the enemy would arrive from. One of the many side entrances was the most likely possibility, much more so than her appearing on one of the multiple tiers of balconies that lined the walls. Her climbing down one of the support pillars, which were wider than a dwarf and sculpted to resemble tree trunks down to the bark, was statistically unlikely, but not impossible.
He shook his head, reluctantly emerging from the comforting stability of numbers and probabilities to bring some more much-needed structure to the real world.
His words, while intended for the worst offenders, had been overheard by the other squads along the water. Small numbers of shield-wielding dwarfs were positioning themselves along the shores as their leaders reduced emphasis on the defence of the many bridges.
“It is always good to see some initiative,” he muttered approvingly as he memorised the names of the commanders in question.
“Nevertheless, your plan remains terrible, my Lord,” the looming figure at his side commented.
He shot his champion and bodyguard a withering look. If it had any effect, it wasn’t visible through the man’s face-concealing helmet. “For the last time, Baldran, my presence here is necessary!”
Baldran was armoured from head to toe in master-crafted steel plate that left no part of his body exposed. Even with no enemy in sight, his hands hovered near the hilts of his swords. “Which is exactly what makes it a terrible plan. I cannot guarantee your safety in a large-scale battle, my Lord.”
“We are not having this discussion again,” Count Zatkel said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “I have taken every precaution I could to make this confrontation as one-sided as possible.”
A little more than a thousand men were awaiting the arrival of the enemy, keeping close to the palace. The troops under his direct command formed a rough line along the structure’s front face, while his barons had fortified their positions along the left and right channels. Together, all three wings of the army formed a kind of horseshoe formation that reached down one third of the enormous hall.
At its other end, opposite the palace, loomed the huge stained glass window of the Shrine of Radiant Mercy. A few civilian stragglers were still passing through its pillar-lined entrance, seeking shelter within the holy site.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to protect them or the building. He didn’t expect Keeper Mercury to approach it, and if he was wrong, well, that would be one less worry for the Kingdom as a whole.
“Count Zatkel!” a female voice shouted in the distance, barely audible over the chatter of the troops. A messenger was crossing one of the bridges about half-way down the court, sprinting at top speed.
One of the men at the guard posts handed her a large tankard with a lid, which she snatched out of his hand in passing. Some of the drink spilled when she took a swig while running, staining the emblem of Baron Rulal pinned to her leather breastplate.
Count Zatkel waved for his men to step aside, and he rushed through the narrow passage that opened in their formation. A messenger meant urgent news.
The moment the sweat-drenched woman arrived within easy speaking distance, she put her half-empty tankard down, wiped her lips with her sleeve, and saluted. “My Lord.” She paused to draw in a large gulp of air.
“At ease. Finish drinking, you look like you need it,” he decided.
“No time,” she blurted out. “Dark Empress could be here any moment now. Almost through Baron Rulal’s defence line when I left!”
His head jerked back a fraction, and he held up his palm. “Wait, already? There are almost two hundred men in her way.”
“She’s hard to engage. Too much fog, and she has a giant floating sword. Fast, too, and freezes important enemies.”
He appreciated the succinctness of the report, if not the content. “What about the Baron?” he asked, grimacing.
She shrugged. “Still shouting orders last I saw him. Enemy had gotten pretty close, though.”
“What would you say worked best against her?” he asked, deciding to worry about his vassal’s fate later.
“Best?” The messenger paused to think for a moment. “Holy magic makes her flinch if you can hit her. Nets work. Only briefly, because, well, giant sword.” She shuddered. “The hand is fragile when it’s liquid, but it breaks up into a small flood. Dangerous.”
“Can it be captured?” he asked. If he could remove the floating limb permanently, then her most useful tool for fighting against multiple opponents would be gone.
The messenger shrugged. “Don’t know, my Lord.”
“Anything else that could be useful?”
“No – maybe. She can’t hit you with her staff from too close. Kicks and punches instead. Still throws people about, but maybe less lethal?”
“Engage with short swords or one-handed axes,” he noted out loud. “Good. Dismissed.”
The panting woman sat down on the floor right where she had been standing and went back to drinking.
“Captain, recall the skirmishers. They won’t slow the enemy down if more than a dozen squads couldn’t. Warn the troops that combat is imminent.”
“Immediately, my Lord.” A stern-faced dwarf wearing a white cape over his armour bowed. He turned and stalked off, barking orders as he disappeared into lines.
A moment later, horns sounded a warning. Count Zatkel returned to his position in front of the palace gates, his bodyguard always a step behind him. How did Baldran manage to make even his clanging footsteps sound disapproving?
In any case, he had done everything he could to rig the odds in his favour. He still wasn’t keen on actually fighting. Battles were messy, chaotic and wasteful. In particular, he hated visiting the families of the fallen. The tears, the guilt, and the awkwardness when none of his memorised lines were appropriate. He tended to upset people when he had to improvise. It was better to avoid all this unpleasantness and resolve the situation without a costly fight.
“You did it, Molnar!” a wide-eyed dwarven soldier cheered, while others just gaped. “Incredible!”
A dwarf in lighter than usual armour had lunged forward so far his leg, torso, and extended right arm formed a straight line that was almost parallel to the ground. He was wearing a round armoured cap, which did nothing to hide his stunned expression. The surprise on his face was slowly turning into a grin as he stared at his sword, its purple-glowing blade buried to the hilt in the Dark Empress’ stomach.
“It really was an impressive stab,” Ami agreed in a conversational tone of voice. “One of the fastest I have seen.”
Molnar’s grin died as she reached down and caught his wrist. He looked up, met her eyes, and his mouth fell open in horror.
She yanked his arm upwards, reeling him in even closer, and slammed her knee into his chin.
Spittle and blood sprayed from his lips as he fell over backwards, landing at the feet of the other soldiers close enough to see her through the fog.
“What the hell?” one of them gasped, taking a step back.
Another stared at the trickle of blood staining the visible part of the blade. “Impossible! With a wound like that-“
She pulled out the sword with a slurping noise. It hurt like a paper cut, but underneath her glamoured skin, her ice golem anatomy was already repairing itself.
The dwarfs started whimpering as she gave the enchanted weapon an experimental twirl. She took a step towards them, and they backed away.
“She- she’s not hurt at all!” someone cried out and retreated on wobbly legs.
“Our weapons are useless!” another despairing voice added.
In the fog behind her, a string of clangs and pained cries quickly approached. Her giant sword was returning to her side, moving at chest height. The flat of its blade collided with the soldiers in its path, bowling over everyone who didn’t duck fast enough.
The soldiers in front of her broke and ran as soon as its shadow fell over them, escaping through the nearest doorway that was too narrow for it to follow.
Quickly, Ami slammed the door shut behind them and froze it solid in case they recovered their courage. She considered the looted sword she was still holding. It was long and thin, almost like a fencing foil, and clearly magical. Should she keep it? It had pierced through her ice shell with almost no resistance. No, too lethal.
She dropped it near its owner and moved on, taking care not to step on any of the injured dwarfs on the ground.
“The stairway down is behind the fourth door to the left, your Majesty,” Torian informed her as she looked down the corridor.
She nodded and dashed forward, throwing the door open only to come face to face with four additional guards.
She braced her feet against the step behind her and swung her staff like a golf club at the shield before her. She liked aiming for shields; they were great targets when one didn’t want to cause accidental injuries.
Her blow struck metal with a loud clang and launched the shield’s owner backwards, down the staircase. Luckily, he only flew a short distance before slamming into the three dwarves behind him, striking their line like a boulder from a catapult.
The middle soldier took the brunt of the impact and was pushed back, toppling and flailing his arms. In a last-ditch effort to restore his balance, he latched onto the trousers of the man to his right.
His already staggering target yelped as his leg was yanked out from under him. His boots slipped on the smooth stone, its surface wet and slick from the freezing mist flowing down the stairs. He ended up falling on top of the dwarf who had grabbed him.
Together, the three dwarfs rolled down six steps and then hit the wall where the staircase made a right turn.
The only one of the four who remained standing had managed to grab the railing in time. For a moment, he stared at the clattering, cursing and groaning pile of soldiers below before whipping his head back towards Ami. Wide-open brown eyes stared at her through the slits of his helmet. He looked back at the heap of dwarfs, back at her, and then his posture tensed. With his axe raised high, he leapt at her.
His speed wasn’t anything noteworthy, and she easily side-stepped the descending weapon. With no dwarfs directly behind him to arrest his fall, she didn’t want to throw him down the stairs. Instead, she grabbed his shoulder and spun in a half circle, yanking him along fast enough that his feet left the ground. At the end of her swing, she only had to let go.
He went flying out through the entrance to the staircase, screaming until his landing knocked the breath out of his lungs. He flipped over once and came to a rest on his back, groaning.
Despite her throat being made of ice, she felt a thickness in it as she realised that she had lost count of how many injuries she was directly responsible for today.
“Your Majesty, more troops are converging on your location,” Torian’s mental voice distracted her.
He needn’t have bothered, since dwarfs running in armour were very loud. The clanging footsteps of a large group of soldiers echoed through the corridors behind her, approaching rapidly.
She concentrated. The soldier she had just thrown let out a piercing shriek when her giant sword floated past and blotted out his view of the ceiling. It was too big to pass through the narrow stairway, but it could certainly block its entrance. She leaned it against the wall, gently.
Despite her caution, bits of engravings crumbled under the blade’s weight. Down here in the underground city, most surfaces were covered in surprisingly intricate artwork. She had probably just wiped out days of painstaking work. With a chagrined expression, she froze the discarded sword in place.
“That will stop them,” she replied to her chief warlock, gesturing at the solid metal obstacle.
“I don’t doubt it. Also, Duke Libasheshtan has started moving again,” Torian said.
“Circling towards the west?” she guessed as she descended the stairs.
The prone dwarfs she had just defeated froze as she looked at them and wisely let her pass.
“Yes, there’s a temple you will need to go around if he gets far-“
“I noticed,” she interrupted him. The familiar feeling of holy magic from about three floors down made her hackles rise. Duke Libasheshtan had obviously noticed that she could track him and was leading her through an obstacle course. “Is the way forward clear?”
“About twenty soldiers are just entering the stairway from below-“
She retrieved enough water to form a Keeper hand from her storage, but let it go without trying to control it. It splashed onto the stairs in front of her and flooded downwards with a loud roar.
“-no, they just turned tail and ran out again,” Torian corrected himself. “Ah, you flushed them out. Unfortunately, the stairs lead to a wide-open park with an army waiting for you.”
Her step faltered, but only for a moment. Lips pressed together in determination, she moved on. Duke Libasheshtan was near, and she only needed to get past the army, not to defeat it.
Fog preceded her out of the doorway, shooting into the open like steam from a broken pipe. The banks of mist piled up on each other, granting her cover as she entered the palace courtyard.
Dwarven trumpets sounded in reaction, playing three short notes.
The presence of the temple behind her felt as if she had suddenly stepped into sunlight – sunlight that was slimy, pressed down on her, and caused her stomach to contract. Which was an impressive feat, since her current body lacked said organ.
She fought down the instinctive revulsion and took in her surroundings, only to pause in surprise at the sheer splendour of the place. It was as if she had suddenly stepped into a cathedral large enough to contain flower beds and rivers. The bridges arching over said channels were richly decorated with engraved plant motifs, and even their railings had stone vines winding around them.
Something glittering above drew her gaze upwards. Shiny bands of metal criss-crossed, forming branching patterns that shimmered in silver and coppery hues. They bundled together into thicker branches centred on the support pillars which held up the vaulting ceiling, reinforcing the impression that they were giant mineral trees.
Only reluctantly, she took her eyes off the fascinating sights to focus on the army waiting for her. The troops had formed lines three to five ranks deep, blocking her path to the palace. A wall of shields was facing her, gleaming like colourful beetle shells in the light pouring from the stained glass window behind her.
“Your Majesty, do you see that fop in between the two statues right on top of the stairs? The one with the beard in a single braid and the rectangular moustache?” Torian’s voice asked in her head. “He’s the one who has been giving orders here so far.”
“Thanks.” Knowing where the enemy commander was would be as useful as knowing the disposition of his troops. She spotted a few robed dwarfs with staves sprinkled through the formations, most of them close to the largest, most elaborate banners. Wizards or priests, the primary ranged threat. There were also a large number of soldiers with crossbows on a raised platform behind the shield wall, who could potentially chip away her golem body through weight of numbers alone.
Darkness would be a good way to neutralise the threat of both groups. She glanced back at the temple, whose window seemed to be the main light source. It was arched and split into many vertical sections by slender pillars, since it was too large for the glass to support its own weight. Its abstract patterns were pleasant to look at despite the general unease the temple caused her.
The light also seemed to be coming from the temple’s interior, which she wasn’t willing to mess with. Not only was she not confident about her chances, but there were also frightened civilians inside. Covering the window with mist from the outside should work, however.
Wait, since when had there been a strong breeze blowing her fog away?
Count Zatkel had complete confidence in the accuracy of his calculations, but not as much in the ability of his subordinates to perform their tasks with sufficient precision. He was therefore very relieved when he suddenly felt wind brush over his face, just as he had planned.
Elsewhere in the city, numerous water basins and reservoirs were draining simultaneously, sucking in air to replace the lost volume. By ordering the right doors opened, respectively closed, he had made sure that the pressure difference pulled the required air right from this chamber.
The resulting breeze was a potent weapon against the Dark Empress’ fog, but it would only last until the water reservoirs were empty. For now, it was working as intended and tearing away the blanket of fog she was hiding in.
Banks of mist crawled across the flower beds, retreating from a female figure standing next to a support she could use for cover. The Dark Empress’ cloak was fluttering in the wind, and the hellish red glow of her eyes was visible even from his position.
A few of his men blushed or tittered at the sight of her bare legs, exposing themselves as inexperienced young yokels from backwater villages. While her blue and black attire was inappropriate for a noble, a battlefield, or polite society in general, it was downright conservative by Underworld standards.
He supposed he should be grateful that she was wearing something he could look at without feeling embarrassed, especially since she was an empress. The lack of a proper crown was fairly damning, though.
He felt a nudge at his shoulder. “Get on with it,” Baldran whispered. “I don’t see anything worth staring at like that.”
Right, she was incredibly dangerous despite her waifish appearance; something she was currently demonstrating by growing a giant sword from her cloak.
He blinked, took a closer look, and felt the impulsive desire to walk up to her and rap her on the head for making something so shoddy. The thing was poorly balanced, too thick for its length, and even the edges looked dull. Why, if one of his smiths-
Stop, focus. He straightened and activated his voice amplification amulet. “Empress Mercury of the Avatar Islands!” he said, loud enough to reach the farthest corners of the hall. “I am Count Zatkel, ruler of Crystaltunnels!”
She froze, and the red lights in her face flickered for a split-second. She turned towards him and stared in apparent surprise.
Good, he had her attention and she wasn’t advancing farther. “For someone who professes to be here to negotiate, you are certainly behaving very violently.”
She actually ducked her head and blurted out something that sounded like a protest, but she was too far away for him to understand the words. Apparently realising this, she straightened and shouted her reply. “You are not giving me any other choice! Nobody was willing to talk to me!”
“You are a Keeper, your Majesty. What could you possibly offer that’s worth negotiating about, aside from your complete and unconditional surrender?” He was actually a little curious to learn just how far her insanity went.
The red slits in her shadowed face narrowed. “I- well, you are talking to me right now, so apparently just getting me to leave is worth something to you!” she snapped heatedly. There was a moment of silence, and then she grasped one hand with the other and continued in a much more timid tone “Not that I wanted to escalate things this far. All I want is to stop the fighting. A cease-fire so we can resolve the situation peacefully.”
“I don’t have the authority to decide something like that,” Zatkel replied. Did she really think someone would fall for her blatant attempts to buy herself more time?
“Ah, but you could talk on my behalf to the people who do,” the Dark Empress answered quickly, sounding optimistic.
“Well, yes, I could, if I was so inclined.”
Unfortunately for her, he wasn’t. All he wanted was for her to stay still long enough.
The temple’s window shattered outwards. A cloud of coloured glass shards hung in the air like glittering jewels, moving much slower than the magical blast that had disintegrated the work of art. Too fast for the eye to follow, it struck the enemy Keeper head-on and exploded.
Scrying didn’t work inside of temples, and none of the robe-wearing dwarfs prominently displayed out here in Zatkel’s army were actually wizards. The real magic users had been working on a combined spell while he stalled the Dark Empress, and his plan had worked beautifully.
There was nothing but a barn-sized crater where she had been standing, but he knew how Keepers worked. There was no way this hadn’t merely been a possessed body. The most critical part of the operation was only about to begin.
“Fire! Forward, men! Go!” he shouted, just to make sure. They had already been told what to do the moment they heard the detonation, and were rushing towards it.
His crossbowmen, just as disciplined, were firing heavy bolts with very special, cyan-blue tips. Like the fragments of the oversized sword, they started raining down around the black wisp of red-eyed shadow who was rising from the crater.
To the best of Zatkel’s knowledge, a Keeper ejected from her host could only do one of three things. Possess another minion, reappear in her true body, or travel to safety.
Now, the ward-tipped bolts currently raining down on Keeper Mercury’s location should keep her boxed in, unable to reach either safety or another minion to possess. He was betting that she couldn’t exert enough force as an immaterial shadow to push the wards aside, and even if she could - well, there were a thousand soldiers rushing at her who could hold them in place. They would also be useful if she decided to materialise as her true, vulnerable self.
The cloud of darkness looked angry as it shot forward, only to bounce off an invisible surface. It paused for an instant, glaring at the wards in apparent confusion.
When you had the resources of an entire city to draw upon and were facing a Keeper so evil that normal wards disintegrated in her mere presence, then the solution was adamantine.
The darkness fled straight upwards, only to find out that there were wards in the tunnels above the chamber too. Her attempt to sink into the ground yielded the same result.
He would have been lying if he said he didn’t enjoy the sight of a Keeper darting around uselessly like a frantic fly. The costs of his plan had been huge, but he doubted that Duke Libasheshtan would care about the expenses once his men had pushed that pesky invader straight into the temple behind her.
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