Ami felt a flash of pain so brief she almost missed it, and the world around her filled with noise, light and motion. Startled, she needed a moment to realise that her host body was gone.

Zatkel had been talking to her to set her up for a sneak attack, she noted numbly. If her immaterial form had teeth, she would have been gritting them. She had been so happy there had been a dwarven noble willing to listen to her. It had felt as if she was finally making progress.

Bitterly disappointed, she drifted upwards through the falling debris to continue her attack. Mentally reaching out towards the rat she had left in the previous room, she launched herself forward to possess it.

Her cloud-like body came to a sudden and unexpected stop as she encountered an invisible obstacle in the air. The confining pressure was unexpected, but not entirely unfamiliar. She had encountered similar resistance before, when she had broken through wards. However, none of those had been strong enough to stop her.

Sliding experimentally to the left and right to test the boundaries of the barriers, she quickly found out that they surrounded her. Even rapidly ascending towards the ceiling and diving into the ground didn’t let her slip through the walls of force boxing her in.

It was possible for her to get trapped in her shadow form? Realising that she might be in a lot of trouble, she threw herself against the barriers to break them down. When they failed to shatter, she worriedly scanned her surroundings for their source. Were the wards more effective against her because she didn’t have a body, or was there something special about them?

Spotting them wasn’t hard, even with the dust and fog blown about by the breeze. In the rubble-strewn area around her, small pyres of crackling black energy sizzled and burned as they eroded the underground. Nearby plants were drying up and catching fire, and the constant discharges of dark energy turned the ground underneath the arcane symbols into fine, scorched powder.

Occasional glimpses of adamantine’s light blue shade made it through the corona of dark energies, revealing that the delicate metal constructs remained completely unharmed.

Even though Ami knew of no way to destroy them, she normally wouldn’t have been worried about wards small enough to be attached to crossbow bolts. While they wouldn’t crumble from her mere presence, they were light enough to shove them aside. Or at least, they would have been if she currently had a body. With a sinking feeling, she realised that she would have to find some other solution before the dwarfs could take advantage of the situation.

They were currently sprinting towards her location, with groups of three soldiers separating from the bulk of their forces. For each trio, one dwarf was wielding a shovel, one was holding a bucket, and the third carried metal tongs as long and thick as Ami’s arms. The buckets contained sand, which the soldiers dumped onto the shovels as each group approached one of the blazing wards.

Holding the tongs as far away from their bodies as they could, they reached for the adamantine symbols. Arcs of lightning-shaped darkness flashed between the wards and the tools that gripped them. The soldiers flinched, keeping their distance as they dropped the tiny objects onto the sand-covered shovels.

Holding the tools like that had to be tiring and uncomfortable, but Ami understood why they were doing it. The tongs were blistering and steaming where they had touched the dark energies, and patches of rust were flaking off like snow.

The dwarfs advanced, and so did the barrier anchored to the wards. For each step the formation of soldiers took forward, she was forced back an equal distance. They were pushing her towards the nauseating presence of the temple behind her.

Involuntarily, she turned to look at the building. The huge hole gaping in its window seemed like a maw ready to devour her, with the stumps of its support pillars being the teeth. She didn’t doubt that the Light gods could affect her if she entered a consecrated area. They had told her that they would imprison her the next time she entered one of their temples, and then it would be all over. She would never return home, never see her friends and family again, and wouldn’t be able to protect he world from the Dark Kingdom.

She couldn’t let herself be trapped! At the very least, she needed the dwarfs to stop pushing her. She accessed her Keeper storage to grab a freezing spell, but it didn’t work quite as well as she had hoped. The spells were there, but stuck somehow. She didn’t manage to get a solid enough grip on them to shift them back into normal space.

What was happening? It almost felt as if her spells were out of reach. Experimentally, she tried flinging one of them at a random tile of her dungeon instead, and was rewarded with a small pillar of ice.

This was definitely a range problem. Apparently, she didn’t count as a dungeon heart while she didn’t have a physical body. What could she do?

She needed a body. Looking down at the crater below her, she briefly mourned the two safety rats she had been carrying on her person for an emergency like this. They hadn’t survived the explosion any better than her ice golem or her giant sword.

Using Keeper transport was out. Even if it had been working correctly, she wouldn’t have had any friendly or neutral territory within the barrier to deposit an imp on. She would have to create a new body with a spell.

Which was a sound idea in theory, but the barrier wards weren’t her only problem. The dwarven soldiers surrounding her had brought their usual warding chains, which prevented spell effects from manifesting within their protected area.

Those, she could destroy simply by casting enough powerful spells in quick succession. It would take some long and tedious effort, but –

“Mercury, do you need help?” Cathy’s worried voice appeared in her thoughts. The swordswoman was pacing through the rows of crystal balls, glancing at those that showed the battlefield. “This isn’t anything we planned for!”

Ami could definitely use some assistance. It was fortunate that the communication magic targeted at her also affected her dungeon heart, otherwise the spell-cancelling wards around her would not let her receive messages. Cathy was definitely within range of the dungeon heart, so there was nothing stopping Ami from sending her reply.

Nothing aside from the fact that her communication spell was derived from the giant eyeballs in the scavenging room, and that her current shadow form didn’t come with eyeballs. This disembodied state was quickly becoming frustrating.

“All right, I’ll take your silence as confirmation. I’ll send some youma to bail you out,” Cathy said after waiting for a few seconds.

She couldn’t! They’d die if they tried to teleport into an area covered by the spell-suppressing wards!

The swordswoman turned towards the youma’s corner of the room. “Mareki, Umbra, you- eep!” Eyes wide, she took a stumbling step backwards as two squealing imps pounced on her, shaking their heads frantically.

“It looks as if her Majesty does not want your meddling,” Torian said, smirking at the blonde.

“Really? I’d have never figured that out without you,” Cathy answered with a flat expression. Frowning, she addressed the imps clinging to her arms. “And you, let go already! I got the message!”

Satisfied, Ami focused back on her own situation. Her momentary relief vanished when she noticed how much closer the temple was. She needed a quick solution. Right, she wanted to destroy the anti-casting wards, which meant she needed a barrage of spells. The dungeon heart was out of range, so she couldn’t use it to form the spells, but she had never needed it for using her Sailor Mercury magic in the first place.

Concentrating on her Shabon Spray, she hesitated in sudden confusion. How was she supposed to go through the instinctive motions without her hands and arms? It certainly felt as if she should be able to cast the spell even without them, but she didn’t know how. She glanced at the ever-shortening distance to the temple. It didn’t look as if she would have enough time to figure it out.

Could she push against the wards somehow? The dwarfs carrying the wards had to hold them down with their tongs, so there was definitely some resistance. Throwing herself against the barriers as hard as she could didn’t seem to change anything, though.

She remembered when she had visited a Light temple on her own. A force emanating from the building had tried to stop her from approaching. This seemed to be the same effect. At that time, she had been able to push her way through the resistance on muscle power alone, so it probably wasn’t strong enough to save her now. Admittedly, she had been in her senshi form at the time, but there were a lot of dwarfs working together.

The temple was looming over her, growing inexorably closer.

She needed to get out, quickly. Could she risk rematerializing? She would be reappearing in her true body surrounded by enemies, and the wizards in the temple would by now be ready to blow up her location again. They were looking very attentive.

She estimated her odds of being able to block their spell as about fifty-fifty. Those were terrible odds when her life was at risk, especially with the dark gods waiting for her. Knowing that the Light would treat her decently if she got captured made her even more reluctant to consider this option. Perhaps she would try it if she had exhausted every other option, or perhaps not even then.

How smart were the anti-spellcasting wards? If they couldn’t distinguish between unshaped mana pulses and completed workings, then she might be able to trick them. Would they expend themselves trying to prevent her from channelling magic in short, undirected bursts?

She gathered some power and expelled it in an eruption of blue, green and black sparkles. They expanded outwards in a flashy-looking wave until they hit the barriers, which stopped only the dark-looking motes.

The spell-suppressing wards didn’t react, but the closest dwarfs yelled in alarm and threw themselves to the ground to dodge the colourful lights.

Bright flashes briefly drowned out all colour as destructive energies discharged themselves into the wards on the shovels. Some of the sand started melted into glass from the heat.

The adamantine symbols were light enough to swim on the molten liquid’s surface, and one of the dwarfs muttered a curse as his ward spilled right off his shovel.

Ami felt a sudden surge of hope. Her opponents couldn’t push her into the temple if the wards became too dangerous to move.

The dwarfs were already trying to manoeuvre the fallen object back onto the shovel, using tongs and large amounts of sand.

Having no time to lose, she tried a much stronger pulse than before.

In response, the destructive energies lashing out the adamantine flared up brighter. One discharge struck molten glass, creating a spray of flying droplets, and one of the nearby soldiers started howling in pain.

There were a few clinking noises as the wards burnt their way straight through the shovels and dropped to the ground.

The small disc of adamantine closest to Ami hopped off its perch. Like a coin that had landed on its edge, it rolled past its handlers. An unfortunately-timed discharge catapulted it over the tongs thrown into its path. Surrounded by crackling black lightning, it left a scorched trail in its wake as it accelerated into the line of soldiers waiting in the back.

Satisfied to feel the advance of the barriers falter, Ami decided to get rid of the wards by making them melt their way through the ground. Hopefully, the dwarfs would not get themselves burnt badly trying to stop her.

A ball of soft white light hit her from behind, slamming her against the barrier and breaking her concentration. The attack felt horrible, even if it didn’t seem to do her any real harm. She turned and saw a group of priests in white and golden robes stand near the temple entrance. The long-bearded dwarfs had their arms raised and were forming more of the white orbs between their hands.

Quickly, she slid aside when one of them hurled the spell at her. She may not have had much room to dodge within the barriers, but her immaterial form was very fast. Having to evade attacks was an unwanted distraction, but a lesser one than getting hit again. She consoled herself with the thought that the dwarfs really wanted her to stop what she was doing.

Ducking under another orb that made her shiver, she heard Count Zatkel shouting orders. Something about salamanders?

There was movement behind the somewhat disorderly front line as soldiers opened gaps in the shield wall. Wheelbarrows with something that looked like primitive bulldozer blades attached to their front rolled towards her.

She didn’t need much imagination to figure out what they were meant for. There was some sort of red-scaled leather covering the thick metal parts. It looked similar enough to a horned reaper’s skin that she was willing to bet that it protected against heat, too.

Her fears came true when the strange vehicles neared the dropped wards, pushed by heavily-armoured soldiers covered completely in several layers of drenched blankets. Droplets of molten glass hissed as they landed on the wet fabric, but the dwarfs pressed onwards. With large ladles improvised from polearm hafts and helmets, they scooped the adamantine symbols out of their glowing puddles and onto their wheelbarrows. Assistants rushed in from the sides and pinned the wards in place with iron slabs so heavy it took four dwarfs to carry them.

Once again, she felt herself being shoved closer to the temple as the vehicles started moving. She was distressingly close to it already, only about twenty more meters away, and some of the dwarfs started cheering.

Unnerved, she weaved out of the path of another attack. As far as she could tell, the heat wasn’t doing anything to the wheelbarrows, but their metal covers were starting to glow a dull red, corroding wherever an arc of darkness touched them. Damage was being inflicted, but not fast enough to prevent her from being forced onto sacred ground.

She needed to intensify the power of the destructive effects and decided to use the most straightforward solution: more evil energy. The strength of the violent flares seemed to be proportional to the amount of black magic stopped by the barriers. Drawing on her dungeon heart, she channelled a greater proportion of evil magic, as if she was trying to cast one of her corrupted spells. This time, she didn’t expend it as a pulse, but kept the power flowing out in a constant stream.

A colourless glare seeped out from underneath the metal covers, and the wards slammed against the backs of the wheelbarrows with audible clangs. Their drivers swayed, caught off-guard by the sudden impact, and had to lean heavily against their vehicles to get them moving again.

The wheelbarrows still weren’t melting, but the sudden increase in repulsing force from the temple was even better, in Ami’s opinion. Stronger evil magic obviously caused stronger rejection from the temple.

Hesitating only for a split second, she accessed the power she had been gifted by Queen Metallia. She didn’t like using it, since doing so felt as if she was betraying a part of herself, but she couldn’t afford to be squeamish in this situation. She needed evil energy, and what purer source could there be than a dark god?

The dark power flooded through her, leaking out into the surrounding air and attacking the wards.

Flame-like tongues of black energy licked upwards from the wheelbarrows, and the vehicles started quaking and creaking as the dwarfs pushed against them fruitlessly.

It was working! Ami smiled in relief as she felt the vehicles budge and retreat centimetre by centimetre.

A collective groan came from the soldiers surrounding her. One of the closest dwarfs tilted his head backwards to look up at her. His eyes widened behind his helmet, and his tongs slipped from his fingers. “L-light, she’s laughing!” he stammered.

Wait, she had a face they could see while she was like this? She paid more attention to the way her form was stretching and bloating from all the dark power she was drawing in. She had apparently grown, as she found the priests’ holy spells much harder to dodge.

One of the glowing spheres struck her, and she barely felt it. Still, she twitched from the impact and then almost lost her concentration when she noticed she had hands she could twitch with.

“She’s assuming her true form!” someone yelled, voice shrill and high-pitched.

“It’s a demon! Kill it! Kill it now!” one of the female soldiers yelled as she raised her crossbow with shaking hands.

“Soldiers, raise shields and brace for impact. Wizards, prepare to fire on my command,” Count Zatkel ordered. He waited for three seconds and made a chopping motion with his hand. “Fire!”

Ami knew what was coming, but just like the first time, she didn’t see the wizards’ combined spell move before it hit her. Briefly, she felt her form tear apart, reducing her to a cloud of shapeless shadow.

Dust and debris shot upwards through her immaterial body, concealing her surroundings.

Disoriented but unharmed, she continued channelling Metallia’s power and waited for the airborne debris to drop back into the new crater below her.

As the air currents carried away the floating dust, she found herself facing concentric semi-circles of battered shields. The dwarfs hiding behind the upright rectangles were in the process of standing up again, except for a very few who had been flung onto their backs by the blast.

She was glad to see that none of them were dead. From the sad state of the ruined flowerbed below her, she concluded that the wizards had used a smaller explosion than before in order to avoid friendly casualties. More importantly, the vehicles with the adamantine wards had gained some momentum moving away from her.

The dark power surrounding her was now so thick that it darkened the surrounding air. Like smoke trapped behind glass, it pressed against the barriers and made their boundaries visible.

She could see exactly which parts of the obstacle, formed by the individual spherical field originating from each ward, were giving ground fastest. Directing most of her output towards the weak parts, she managed to make one of the wheelbarrow pushers stagger.

His vehicle jerked backwards, almost running him over before three alert soldiers managed to grab and stop it.

“Men, don’t be discouraged now!” Count Zatkel roared. “We are going to win this! The enemy remains contained and victory is close! Everyone, help with pushing the wheelbarrows! We will not fail now! For Nimbadnur, charge!”

With only a few nervous glances up at her, the soldiers rushed towards the stuck vehicles. When there was no more room on the handles for more hands, they put them on the backs of the men in front of them instead. Together, they started pushing, synchronising their efforts with a chant of “One. Two. One. Two.”

Their cooperation was bearing fruit as the vehicles started moving towards Ami again. The boundary walls of the barriers crackled with dark energy as both forces collided and the space between her and her enemies compressed. Step by painful step, they reverted the gains she had just made.

Desperate, she tried to draw in more power. Returning to her real body was not a viable option as the wizards had just demonstrated. Motes of blackness coalesced in the air as she was pushed even closer to the temple. The building's presence felt more than a little nauseating now and was sapping her of strength she needed to keep pushing back.

Something bat-like passed her above and shot straight towards the marble walls behind her. It caught fire and burnt to dust before it could splatter on the hard stone.

What was that? She started paying closer attention to the knots of darkness that drifted in the air like snowflakes. One of them collided with a tumbling leaf and sank into it. Even as she watched, the piece of dry plant matter started changing, growing thicker and sprouting tendrils.

Before it could finish transforming, it was catapulted towards the temple and ended its brief existence as a fiery streak.

Suddenly excited, she realised that this was the same phenomenon as the animated dust bunnies back when she had first experimented with Metallia’s power. The tiny beings were obviously affected by the anti-evil wards, but didn’t contain enough dark power to resist being pushed towards the temple. If one of them survived long enough…

She searched the area below her, spotting a few indistinct forms being flung towards the holy building before her gaze settled on a delightful sight. A thorny plant was stubbornly anchoring itself to the ground with its wriggling roots while its tulip-shaped flower whipped around, its petals gnashing their teeth.

As soon as she identified the body she could possess, she shot towards it. The mindless creature didn’t put up any resistance as she sunk into its form, instinctively recognising her as its superior.

The dwarfs cried out in shock as she disappeared from their sight. Her first priority was protecting her newly-gained and fragile body from the wizards. With access to her storage restored, she drew water from her storage, spraying it towards the temple’s window. Hurriedly, she froze the liquid and shielded herself. Now she -

The ice disappeared in a searing flash, and the shockwave from the explosion washed over her shield and made it glow a bright purple.

“Get her! GET HER NOW!” Count Zatkel screamed at his startled soldiers while the thunder still echoed through the hall.

The dwarfs stopped looking at the explosion and focused on her glowing shield. Raising their weapons, they charged through the barriers, shouting battle cries at the top of their lungs.

From the perspective of a defenceless plant, the incoming warriors looked like giants. Ami used up another Shabon Spray Freezing spell and surrounded herself with a barrier of ice, buying herself a few seconds. She needed to move, which meant possessing a new golem body. Dropping one next to her was impossible, since she was on enemy territory, but she could still create one from scratch.

Well, she would be able to do so if she was able to cast spells. Her new body had no limbs, but she could use her dungeon heart to form the spell now that she counted as being in range again. This left the issue of being surrounded by soldiers wearing chains made from spell-suppressing wards.

Quickly, she tried to create a golem among the group of dwarven wizards, who obviously weren’t protected by said wards. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been able to create an explosive projectile to hurl at her. Sadly, they were protected by being inside a temple instead. To her remote spell-casting ability, it felt as if the space they were in didn’t even exist.

Cracks were spreading through the ice surrounding her as her enemies hacked into it with axes and swords.

“Mercury, they are bringing picks!” Cathy warned.

One of the enchanted digging tools flew through the air in an arc, bypassing five lines of soldiers before someone in the sixth caught it and passed it on. A horribly unsafe but fast method of getting the picks to her location.

She grabbed hold of one instance of corrupted black fog in her storage, but hesitated before releasing it. This was going to hurt a lot of people, something she didn’t really want to do. Unfortunately, it was her best shot at driving off the dwarfs striking at her, which would also get rid of the warding chains they were wearing. At least they were right next to a temple where they could get healing, she consoled herself as she unleashed the spell.

The black clouds billowed outwards from her location, enveloping the dwarfs striking at the ice around her. Instantly, they howled in pain and dropped their weapons to grasp at their eyes, ears and noses. Blood stained their gauntlets as they backed off, stumbling into each other. Some were quick-witted enough to shut their eyes, only opening them for brief glances at their surroundings. Those who were still able to grabbed their less fortunate comrades by the arms and guided them in the direction of the barriers.

In this particular case, the impenetrable adamantine wards were working in Ami’s favour. They trapped the evil spell just like they trapped her, holding it back from the bulk of the dwarven force and preventing the wind from dispersing her mist.

Using their distraction, she created a Keeper hand and started sweeping away any wards that were lying on the ground.

A large chunk of her ice shelter disappeared in a fiery explosion. One of the wizards on the balcony behind the broken windows was sitting upright, his staff pointed in her direction. The others were still in various stages of picking themselves off the floor, clearly having been too close when their spell blew up prematurely upon encountering her ice.

She quickly hurled a few stored freezing spells in their direction – being unable to target them directly didn’t mean she couldn’t aim at them the normal way, even if the angle was poor. Hopefully, that would stop them from collaborating on another combined spell. Her Keeper hand took a break from swiping at the anti-magic wards and flew in their direction, only to disintegrate into a spray of water as it crossed the temple boundaries.

A stabbing headache discouraged her from trying that again. She took a little comfort in the fact that the water continued on its trajectory, smashing into the magic users and toppling them. Mission half accomplished.

“Leave your spell-eaters behind!” Count Zatkel shouted from his command post near the palace. “Or better yet, toss them back in!”

The soldiers fleeing from the black fog complied with his orders as best they could. Even though some of the dwarfs were so disoriented by the fog that they threw the chains the wrong way, enough of them landed near Ami that her situation hadn’t notably improved.

By now, she was feeling very tired of hearing the Count’s voice.

Her growing frustration aside, she needed to focus on burning through all those chain links before her current body got destroyed. It looked as if the dwarfs were aiming a cannon, and she didn’t think their wizards were out of action for good either.

Casting that many powerful spells in the time she had left seemed impossible. Unless…

“Out! Everyone, out of the room now!” she addressed her support crew.

Her warlocks were already half-way to the exit after her first few words. Research magicians who hesitated and asked questions when someone told them to run tended to have short careers.

Cathy was actually the last to reach the door. “Mercury? What’s happening?” she asked, looking over her shoulder at the desks melting into an evaporating azure sludge.

“Renovations!” Ami replied as she finished selling off unneeded equipment, which was everything but the mana conduits for her power-hungry crystal balls. With a little tweak to the scavenger room blueprint, she could connect those cables right to the giant eyestalks without things going awry. Probably. For a few minutes, at least.

Pumpkin-sized eyeballs erupted from the floor, riding upwards on red stalks of sinew and muscle. Each one stood where a crystal ball had been, undulating slowly.

“Go back in!” she told the warlocks. “I need everyone to send messages to my current body. Not to me, to the plant,” she clarified. “It doesn’t matter what you say, only that you keep sending messages.”

A communication spell targeting her would just take the shortcut through her dungeon heart. Specifically contacting her host instead would aim it at her current location - where the dwarven wards would try to absorb it before it could take effect. The amount of power contained in a message normally wouldn’t even cause one of those chain links grow warm, which was why she was plugging the power supply for her crystal balls into the eyestalks she intended to use as signal boosters.

“It shall be done, your Majesty,” Torian said, returning to the room at the head of the group. His confident expression slipped as one of the nearby eyeballs vented sparkling steam. Another was whipping around randomly, while a third was growing oozing bubbles on its stalk. “You heard the Empress! Hurry up!” he shouted as he stepped aside, waving his subordinates past.

Ami felt a sharp dip in her mana reserves, enough to make her dungeon heart supplement her magic from her treasury. One spell strong enough to burn out a warding link was barely noticeable. Over forty at once certainly made her feel the drain. She took it as confirmation that her idea was working.

A constant rumble of rapid-fire snapping noises reached her as link after link of warding chain snapped. Several dwarfs lingering just outside of her caustic fog stared down at their belts and called out warnings to their comrades.

One of them saw that his chain was down to the last four links and straightened up. He snatched one of the picks from the ground, sucked in a deep breath, squeezed his eyes tightly shut and charged straight into the banks of black mist.

She couldn’t see his face underneath his helmet, but she could see enough blood to know that he was suffering horribly for his bravery. Once again, she wished the dwarfs were more reasonable so she wouldn’t need to hurt people just to survive. She prodded him gently with her Keeper hand, and his desperate, blind charge missed her ice block completely.

Hopefully, others wouldn’t follow his example. The idea of good people sacrificing their health or lives to stop her was incredibly disturbing.

Suddenly, a cacophony of voices all talking at once flooded her mind as the communication spells got through.

Immediately, she seized the opportunity to conjure a new body for herself. Gold turned into magical power, and a pillar of ice appeared next to her. It quickly flowed into the shape of a slender human female.

A black tendril lashed out from the animated plant and briefly connected it to the ice golem, whose eyes filled with crimson light. Ami’s perspective changed to one she was more used to, and she immediately used her new-found mobility to jump high into the air. Safe from attacks aimed at her previous location, she shielded herself, reapplied her glamour, and triggered her senshi transformation.

Blue light briefly enveloped her form even as her frozen outer layer turned into hair and skin and her Sailor Mercury uniform replaced her ice chain mail. Another quick conjuration at the apex of the leap recovered her cloak, and she felt finally prepared to break free of her confinement.

She landed in a crouch, her cloak draping itself over the ground behind her and providing her with territory from which she could grow a replacement for her giant sword. Now that the closest spell-devouring wards were gone, she could use her entire magical arsenal directly against nearby opponents.

The combined mental voices of the warlocks were no longer reaching her in her new body, as they kept addressing the plant.

“Good work, everyone,” she congratulated the magicians. She frowned in the direction of the enemy leader, but her lips twisted upwards in a vicious smile. “Please continue by sending your messages to Count Zatkel instead.”

Count Zatkel watched his men through a telescope, wishing they were faster about clearing the ice off the wheelbarrows. He couldn’t fault them for being reluctant to get close to the stuck vehicles, as the constant discharges of vile energies against the wards were sending spikes and shards in every direction. Still, he was proud to see his soldiers think on their feet and attach longer handles to picks while approaching behind a multi-layered wall of shields.

His gaze moved onto the billowing black cloud contained between the wards and the temple, and his expression darkened. He was less satisfied with the performance of the wizards. The Keeper’s new body was conveniently confined into a limited space right in front of them, so they should have blown her to pieces already!

A sudden patter made him put down his telescope in surprise. It sounded like hail striking armour, but he wasn’t feeling anything.

“My Lord, the spell-eaters!” Baldran’s urgent voice said to his side.

Reflexively, he looked down at the chain of intricately-crafted wards he had wrapped around his waist. His eyes widened in surprise when he saw that it was only half the length it should be.

In the short moment he remained frozen, three more of the links snapped in rapid sequence.

This was impossible! Nobody could- at least not from over there-

Speechless, he raised his gaze back towards the column of black fog in front of the temple.

A wheelbarrow was flying through the air, spinning and trailing smoke as it travelled on a ballistic trajectory towards one of the room’s balconies.

No! The wards! His men had to move to patch up the weak point and-

His hand was half-way up to his voice-amplification necklace when he spotted a small flash that sent another wheelbarrow airborne.

A large bulge deformed the barriers, ballooning outwards. The black fog behind it suddenly surged forward as if a dam had been broken, banks of agonising mist creeping towards his soldiers.

His arms dropped back to his sides, his hands limp. The wards had been breached. This wasn’t what he had planned! According to his calculations, the chance of failure was so small that only gross incompetence-

He felt a touch at his shoulder and swallowed around the painful lump in his throat. His bodyguard demanded his attention.

“…Lord, you need to evacuate! Now! Everyone’s spell-eaters are disappearing!” Baldran said, tugging insistently at Zatkel’s shoulder.

“We can still- no, you are right.” He turned towards the stairs just as another ballistic wheelbarrow smashed itself to pieces against the room’s wall. “My personal guard, to me. We shall retreat to the Duke’s chapel!”

The soldiers wearing the most elaborate plate harnesses saluted and stepped out of their formation to move towards him.

Yes. He would retreat for now. Perhaps he should direct some parting insults at his opponent so that she chased him instead of the Duke? Fighting her way through his army would slow her down enough to give him a considerable head start, so-

Suddenly, he could no longer hear his own thoughts. Voices filled his head, all loud and talking over each other so they merged into an incomprehensible, mind-numbing drone.

He staggered and covered his ears as he frantically looked around, searching for the source of the attack.

His men had stopped too and were grasping at their helmets. Braided beards writhed like snakes and elongated rapidly, while patches of unkempt hair peeked out of visors.

Baldran’s helmet popped off his head, and an untamed curtain of black hair spilled out. Grunting, the tall dwarf brushed it aside with his left while pulling his sword with his right.

Before the bodyguard could hack off the offending growth, he staggered backwards, his head pulled down when one of the soldiers behind him stepped on his hair. He had enough presence of mind to let go of his naked blade before he waved his arms to recover his balance, but the damage was done. Like a falling tree, he toppled onto the men behind him.

Mounds of hair cushioned the fall and also muffled its sound, not that Count Zatkel was able to hear this. Wide-eyed, he watched as his elite soldiers entangled themselves worse and worse in the ever-lengthening strands. The only comparable thing he had ever seen was a runaway sheep that hadn’t been shorn for seasons.

His soldiers were also growing at an alarming rate, and their struggles were making things worse. “Stop moving!” he ordered, but what escaped his throat was an odd clucking noise.

Eyes bulging, he turned towards a polished shield that had miraculously stayed clear of the encroaching hedge of hair.

A tiny yellow chicken stared back at him from the improvised mirror.

Reeling in shock, he stumbled backwards, only for a flash of green behind him to demand his attention.

He spun and found a blue-clad imp grinning down at him, showing crooked, uneven teeth. Fist-sized eyes sparkled with mischief as they met his own.

Baldran bucked and shouted, but like the rest of the nearby soldiers, he couldn’t manage to tear himself free to drive the abominable creature off.

The imp poked her tongue out at the bodyguard and made a rude gesture before she returned her attention to Count Zatkel. Her grin grew toothier as she raised a large, empty brown bag.

Being a chicken offered him a larger field of view than normal, and as the dark opening descending on him, he caught a final glimpse of the Dark Empress. She was standing on her giant sword, leaning into the wind as the ridiculous weapon flew over his army and towards the palace.

Exquisite statues, elaborate wooden panelling and silken banners flashed past Duke Libasheshtan as his donkey accelerated. Some of his best soldiers were right behind him, the sound of their mounts’ hooves muffled by the thick carpet.

“Mengolin, what’s the status of the Dark Empress?” he asked, turning to his court wizard.

The bearded magician was swaying in his saddle and looked sick. If it wasn’t for the apprentice seated behind him and holding him, he would have fallen off his mount already. “Angry and taking the shortest possible path toward us, your Grace,” he said in a thin voice as he stared into his crystal ball.

The Duke nodded. If he had to take a shortcut through his palace and let donkeys make a mess of it in order to prevent her from chasing him through heavily populated areas, then that was a sacrifice he was willing to make. Carpets could be replaced, lives couldn’t. Nevertheless, he wasn’t satisfied. Running from a Keeper within his own city was vexing in a way he found hard to fully grasp. There was worry for his citizens, outrage at the fiend’s presence, and growing exasperation that her daring attack seemed to be working so far.

The riders arrived at the marble staircase leading to the lower courts. Now, donkeys were not exactly noble steeds, but they had their advantages. They could certainly carry a dwarf in armour, and more importantly, were experts at traversing difficult terrain. Thus, the riders could continue unimpeded.

Mengolin yelped, and there was a rustle of fabric and a frantic cry of “Master!”

Libasheshtan turned around and saw his court wizard draped over the neck of his mount. The apprentice had a claw-like grip on the back of Mengolin’s robe, preventing him from sliding head-first to the ground.

“Sorry, sorry,” the court wizard apologised. “I have just learned that she found a counter for our spell-eater wards. This means she can target us if she figures out exactly where we are!”

“We shall keep moving, then,” Duke Libasheshtan said. He turned to the figure riding at his side.

Countess Zasod was balancing an active crystal ball on the palm of one hand, keeping her other on the reins of her mount.

“My King,” the Duke addressed the crowned figure shown in the glowing orb. “You heard Mengolin’s report; the situation is dire. Loath as I am to beg for help, I have no choice but to ask you to send the Avatar to our aid.”

The King looked as if he had just bitten into a sour apple. “I would grant your request in a heartbeat if I could. Unfortunately, Lord Amadeus has left the Capital to chase down the minions of Keeper Mukrezar.”

The Duke’s mouth slackened, and he stared at his liege lord in disbelief. The Avatar couldn’t just abandon them in their hour of need! “He left? When the Kingdom is under attack by Keeper Mercury?” he asked in a low voice, slowly shaking his head.

“Yes, that concern was brought to his attention while he was on his way to the hero gate.” The King’s bushy, white eyebrows narrowed into a frown. “It pains me to say it, but I fear his judgement is impaired when it comes to the new empress of the Avatar Islands.”

“Impaired?” Duke Libasheshtan repeated. A man who communed directly with the Light would surely be safe from ailments of the mind. Then what could affect – wasn’t the Dark Empress rumoured to be attractive? No. No, he was not going to impute such weakness to the Avatar, not even in the privacy of his own mind.

“I believe his exact words were,” the King began, imitating the Avatar’s impatient and disdainful tone nearly perfectly, “’just stop provoking the bookworm and she won’t bother you.’”

Duke Libasheshtan remained silent as he parsed the absurdity of the statement.

The King sighed. “He proved unwilling to further discuss the issue after my dear wife very diplomatically pointed out that ‘it was exactly because of this kind of thinking that he didn’t have an empire anymore’,” he said, his voice sounding like the Queen’s as he quoted her.

Duke Libasheshtan winced. While he agreed with the sentiment, he would have never voiced it aloud in the Avatar’s presence. His shoulders slumped. “He will not be aiding me, then.”

“I shall, of course, grant you as much support as the hero gates can handle,” the King offered. “Elite soldiers, mages, magical items – tell me what you need, and you shall have it.”

The Duke shook his head. “Thank you, my Liege, but I am not lacking any of those. All they do is slow the enemy down.”

“Then what will you do? Enter the hero gates to escape from her?”

“I am not leaving my city!” the Duke replied, louder than appropriate. He would not repay his people’s loyalty by fleeing like a coward. Even if they forgave him, he wouldn’t be able to live with the shame of having left his people at the mercy of a Keeper. “Do you think she will be satisfied with having driven me off? She would switch targets or take out her anger on the citizens! I will stay and oppose her to my last breath!”

“In that case, there may be a way to outright slay the monster,” the King said after a moment. “However, it will almost certainly cost you your life.”

Duke Libasheshtan perked up. He had risked his life in battle before, often for less worthy causes than killing a Keeper. If the price for taking down Keeper Mercury was his life, then it was his duty to pay it. “If I can end this war without a costly invasion of her dungeon, then I am eager to do so,” he said.

“Very well. Baron Leopold did not kill the foul Keeper Bartholomeus.”

What did the instigator of the great civil war have to do with- wait!

The Duke’s gauntlets closed into fists with an audible clang as he straightened his back, feeling a vein pulse on his forehead. “Bartholomeus lives?” he shouted, spittle flying from his lips.

“No, that despicable monster is dead. Calm yourself,” the King ordered, waving his wrinkly hand in a shushing motion. “Baron Leopold was made to take all the credit so the true circumstances of the Keeper’s death would remain a secret.” A predatory gleam appeared in the ancient monarch’s eyes. “These circumstances can be reproduced.”

Duke Libasheshtan decided to ignore the more surprising parts of these revelations in favour of that which was truly important. “What do I have to do?”

“Buy time. I will send you the equipment that you need, but it needs to be properly installed.”

“By the Light, I will do whatever it takes to stall her as long as necessary!” the Duke exclaimed. “Countess Zasod, head to the ritual chamber. I have a plan.”

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Chapter 190: Palace Defenders Chapter 192: Cornering The Duke

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