A warm updraft tore at Kivith's robes as he descended the spiralling staircase, keeping close to its outer edge and well away from the gaping abyss at its centre.
In contrast, the blonde girl at his side seemed to relish the feeling of the wind through her hair and stayed closer to the railing than any sane dwarf would consider safe.
Judging from his limited experience, fairies weren’t particularly sane. Neither Camilla nor her sisters gave the chasm-like pit the respect it deserved. None of the willow-thin girls seemed to care that their drab grey robes billowed like sails in the wind, ready to carry them off into the darkness.
"So what does the Duke want me for?" the golden-eyed girl asked. She was the youngest of the seven, but he still had to look up at her.
He shrugged. "His Grace merely told me to bring you to the ritual chamber and instruct you in its basic operation on the way, Miss Camilla," he said. In his opinion, there was no need to rely on suspicious foreigners when there were already enough dwarven wizards around. Maybe she knew some rare and exotic spell?
The redhead in front of them harrumphed. "Your Duke is pretty bold to assume that we still want to help him after the endless interrogations and house arrest!" she said, frowning at him over her shoulder.
Kivith blinked. "I thought it was pretty lenient treatment for people like you," he said in confusion.
Anise turned to fully face him, walking backwards as she put her fists on her hips. "And what exactly is that supposed to mean?"
The scowl on her face reminded him that the fairy wasn't only a much stronger magic user than him, but that she was also armed. Coincidentally or not, her hands were very close to the swords at her hips.
"Well, that- you must admit that you were really, really suspicious! You even admitted that you were doing a task for a Keeper, for crying out loud!"
"Delivering a message! It's not like we could just refuse to her face!" Anise objected, not mollified in the least.
"Also, you claimed you were diplomats from a nation we never had contact with all while dressed like Underworlders!" he continued. Seriously, what did they expect looking like something a Keeper cooked up by attaching giant fly wings to some dark mistresses?
They certainly were glaring at him with enough malicious intent to convince him of that origin story on the spot.
"Dressed like Underworlders?" the green-haired one repeated incredulously.
"It's a honoured and traditional uniform!" Melissa protested.
"Are you blind?" Roselle said as she grabbed his shoulder and yanked to spin him towards her.
He shifted a little, but much less than either he or the orange-haired girl had expected. She was obviously much lighter than him, despite being taller.
With a yelp of surprise, she lost her balance and toppled forwards. The cloth covering her back bulged upwards as her wings pushed against it, unable to spread.
Fortunately for her, Anise caught her in her arms before she could fall down the stairs. A small cloud of glitter rose from their collision.
"This. Stupid. Robe." Roselle vented her frustration as soon as she was back on her feet. "I have had enough of it!" She lost no time grabbing its hem and pulling it over her head, leaving her clad only in the garment that had prompted Kivith's incautious comment.
He averted his eyes. She wasn't a dwarven girl, but still not entirely unattractive, and seeing so much bare skin might make him blush.
Unfortunately for him, Roselle had different plans. "Look!" she said, gesturing at her body. "Do you see any black? Of course you don't! It doesn't look like Underworlder garb at all!"
"The colour is not the problem," Kivith muttered, wondering when he had lost control of the situation.
"Roselle, we are wearing those robes for a reason," the eldest of the fairy sisters interrupted, sighing as she indicated the railing with a glance.
Oh, yes, the other point against them, in Kivith's opinion. There just had to be something deeply wrong with creatures that couldn't stand the touch of good, solid iron.
"I'm going to be careful, Dandel," the orange-haired girl said as she stretched her wings. "Ah, this feels so much better!"
"Just don't forget to look before sitting down. Again," Anise said, snickering.
"Oh, shut up!"
"Sisters, quiet," Dandel said, holding up her hands. "Kivith, I have a question about the ritual chamber for you."
"Yes?" he answered, eager to change the topic.
"Does it increase the amount of magic in the air?"
"Uh, maybe as a side effect? It's mainly used to concentrate most of the mana circulating through the city and putting it at the casters' disposition," he explained as best as he could. The exact mechanics involved hadn't come up in his studies yet.
The fairy brushed her fingers through her indigo hair and let out a long breath. "All right, that explains why I'm feeling a little tipsy. Everyone, high-magic environment."
Her sisters nodded and closed their eyes in concentration.
Kivith couldn't tell what was going on, but he noticed that they all looked more glittery than usual when they opened their eyes again.
"Good," Dandel said after a quick look at the others. She flashed a knowing smile at Kivith. "I think you'll be relieved to know that we should all be a little more focused now. Please, go ahead and continue with Camilla's lesson."
"Oh? Yes. Of course." The sooner he completed his task and was rid of these fairies the better. "We stopped with positioning on the circles, I believe? Well, the ascending-"
A loud gong sounded in the depths, echoing through the wide staircase.
His heart skipped a beat. "Oh, no."
"Looking pretty pale there," Tilia said, a hint of concern in her emerald eyes. "That sound means something bad?"
"It's a proximity warning," he answered. His shoulders slumped as he looked at the stairs spiralling down floor after floor until they disappeared in the darkness below. "The enemy is too close already, we'll never make it in time."
"Perhaps we can travel faster." Cerasse looked him up and down with a contemplative look. "You weigh about as much as one and a half of your barrels of beer, correct?"
That sounded about right. "Yes, but what does-"
"Good. We can carry that much." The indigo-haired fairy proceeded to take off her robe, and her sisters followed suit only moments later.
Comprehension dawned, and Kivith's eyes widened in horror. Despite his best efforts, his gaze darted from the girls spreading their wings to the gaping abyss. He took a step away from them. This was madness!
The worst thing was that it could possibly allow him to complete his task. Duty demanded that he went along with this insanity, and so he settled for whimpering softly as several pairs of hands reached for his limbs.
The dwarven elevator was nowhere in sight, so Ami simply jumped into its empty shaft. Kicking off the masonry, she bounced from side to side as she descended deeper into the city.
"Three more floors," Torian informed her, sounding less certain than usual.
In the monochrome view of her visor's night vision mode, she spotted the exit he had indicated. The doorway was blocked by a thick iron grate.
She had expected needing to go all the way down. Hastily, she extended her legs, managed to tag the wall, and change her course enough to grab one of the bars in passing. She swung so far that she was almost horizontal, nearly losing her grip before she managed to latch on with her other hand.
The grate hadn't even shaken through all this. Forged from high-quality steel to resemble intertwining vines, it was a credit to dwarven craftsmanship.
It would have been a shame to break it – not to mention quite difficult to do from her current position. She would need her Keeper hand to lift it. There wasn't enough room between the bars to accommodate its fingers, so she pulled out mist from her storage, and condensed it into a hand-shaped blob of water around the grate before freezing it.
The resulting hand was more or less stuck in place, courtesy of the bars piercing it, but it could still move vertically.
A mechanism in the wall groaned as she forced the hand upwards, opening a gap between grate and floor that she could swing herself through. The moment her feet touched solid ground, she started running again.
"The Duke has stopped," Torian resumed his commentary. "Looks like he's bunkering up for a last stand."
That was good news. She hadn’t been catching up as fast as she had hoped, since the dwarfs had turned off the lights again. Apparently, they had decided that they'd slow her down more by making navigation difficult than by fighting her every step of the way. They were right, too.
"Where?" she asked, hoping that there wasn't another temple involved.
"Close to your position. He is in the back room of a complex of casting chambers.”
She wasn’t familiar with the term and checked Torian’s crystal ball.
The Duke was sitting on a large marble throne covered in branching lines of precious gems, frowning at a wizard standing inside of a magical circle in front of him. The designs on the floor were pulsing green with every motion of the mage’s arms and occasionally filled the chamber with opaque but short-lived clouds of rainbow-coloured smoke.
“Do you have any idea what he is doing?” she asked.
“I’m not familiar with the spells involved,” Torian admitted. “My best guess is that he’s being imbued with powerful protective spells. There are quite a few circuits empowering the central sanctuary.”
To demonstrate, he zoomed out to the much larger room outside. “For example, the shelter stands in one of the focal points of the large ellipse formed by those sixteen subsidiary circles,” he explained.
Ami needed a moment to notice the greater design her chief warlock had indicated, since its individual parts weren’t all at the same height. The chamber consisted of various plateaus, separated by narrow alleys and interconnected with ramps and stairs. Complicating things further, there were free-standing cylinders that stopped at various heights and never reached the ceiling. She could guess that those could be raised and lowered to form vertical patterns, but interpreting the current configuration of the chamber was beyond her.
“Have someone keep watching the Duke and inform me the moment he starts doing anything,” she instructed.
“As you wish, your Majesty.”
She continued on in the direction she had been going, having no need to ask for a route. Her visor was showing her mana streams converging all at the same location, which could only be the chamber. One of them crossed her current path, so she simply followed it.
After running for a few minutes, she reached a closed gate fit for a castle. On her visor, it was so covered in annotations that she almost couldn’t see the engravings of dwarven wizards within the metal.
“You are standing right in front of the chamber,” Torian informed her.
She absently nodded, keeping her attention on the readouts. The doorway was an impressive weave of shields and barriers that extended out into the walls, demonstrating exactly how much the dwarfs wanted to keep her out.
“Is anyone directly behind that door?” she asked her chief warlock.
“Nobody. There are soldiers grouped around the casting platforms, however.”
Brute force had served Ami well so far, and she already had a giant sword that could serve as battering ram. With a casual wave of her hand, she propelled the floating object towards the obstacle to test the defences.
It struck the door with a loud ringing sound and bounced back twice as fast as it had come, spinning as it returned towards her.
“Eep!” She threw herself out of the path of the weapon. It whistled past and buried its tip into a wall, where it remained stuck. Wide-eyed, she stared at the blade as it vibrated from the impact.
Behind the door, she could hear alarmed shouts and barked orders. Dwarven voices started chanting, directing magic to rapidly recharge the shield her attack hadn’t damaged all that much.
It looked as if she would need to break down the defensive enchantments first. The earthquake spell was designed for the task, having components that worked similar to imp picks in stripping a dungeon wall of its defences. She wasn’t exactly dealing with a dungeon wall here, but the same principles should apply.
She stepped right up to the gate, carefully examining it and the walls for traps before she put her hand on the cold metal. A simple, undirected quake would get rid of some enchantments, but it might also rain debris unto the guards. However, if she changed her mental frame of reference a little, then she could convince the spell that she was doing a handstand and that the door was actually the ground.
A moment of concentration later, and the heavy gate trembled as if struck. Weakly at first, it bucked harder with each subsequent jerk, and she could feel the ground starting to shake as the wobbling intensified.
Not waiting for something to violently give way, she backed off and moved aside. She felt rather smug about making the gate smash into its own protections with each tremor, gradually battering them down.
Sparks flashed all over the bucking obstacle, and the dwarven voices became more panicked.
“Oh, they don’t like what you are doing at all!” Torian commented with audible glee.
In the time it took to break down the door, she looked at his crystal ball. There were less soldiers waiting for her than Count Zatkel had brought, simply because there wasn’t as much space in the room. The soldiers were huddling tightly around the casting diagrams, blocking the way to the wizards. Judging from their full-plate armour and tight formations, these were elite troops that made up with quality what they lacked in quantity.
The magic users themselves were positioned around the chamber in groups of three to six and were facing the door, red-tinged light gathering at the tips of their staves.
Therefore, when the door ripped off one of its hinges, bucked a final time and fell half-way out of its frame, she didn’t simply rush in through the gap. Count Zatkel had taught her a valuable lesson about the danger of dwarven wards, and her Mercury Computer was scanning for adamantine, warding patterns, and even fragments of said patterns that could be quickly reassembled.
Finding nothing of the sort, she decided to have an ill-defined Keeper hand, made of only slightly condensed fog, walk on two fingers through the doorway.
An explosion lit up the gap between door and wall, knocking the heavy portal completely out of its bracings. It skidded down the hallway, striking sparks as it dug scratches into the stone.
Taking advantage of the attack’s bright flash, she dashed towards the dissipating flames. With her opponents hopefully blinded, this was a perfect opportunity to cross the threshold under the protection of a freshly cast shield.
She had barely entered the chamber when the numbers scrolling across her visor turned red, warning her about the oppressively powerful protection spell layered over the terrace-like plateaus stacked before her. Magical power so thick it tinted the air blue outlined a solid dome that covered the wizards as well as the soldiers.
“Fire at will!” someone in the back shouted.
Her shield rippled from an impact, and two flashes right behind her kicked up dust. Fortunately, most of the wizards seemed too surprised to track her sudden move. In any case, most of them were busy tending to the protection spell.
Involuntarily, she swallowed as she inspected its anchor points in closer detail. Each intricate crystal pattern bundled the incoming mana flows, concentrating them until they rivaled a dungeon heart’s output in strength. With eight of those nodes powering the defensive spell, she would not be able to simply brush it aside.
“Torian, report on the Duke!” she ordered mentally as her eyes darted over the forces arrayed against her. He wouldn’t be willing to confront her here without a plan, and there were four more currently untapped mana nodes that were making her nervous. Retrieving more spells from storage, she constructed a small barricade from three ice pillars so she had some cover.
“No change in his status, but the other warlocks report that the city has gone completely dark. I assume that all power is being directed to your current location,” her chief warlock cautioned.
She nodded, having gotten the same impression. What were the dwarfs hiding underneath their city that could provide that much power, and could she disrupt – she had to move!
Her mist vanished, blown away by a sudden gale. An instant later, the ice barricade protecting her turned into a waterfall that did nothing to hold off the huge bolt of lightning that tore through it.
Some of the electricity was conducted through the ground and raced up her leg making it twitch, but she was no longer close enough to take serious damage. Maintaining her speed, she darted towards the enemies. Their defensive spell, as far as she could tell, wasn’t meant to stop physical attacks. If she could slip into one of the alleys between the plateaus, she could avoid most of the incoming fire.
A square pane of force suddenly appeared in her path, conjured by one of the groups of wizards. Like a giant flyswatter, it rushed forward and rammed her. Her own shield failed to cushion the impact, and the room spun around her as she was thrown back.
Wondering when her shield had been broken, she cast a replacement while she flipped herself upright and landed in a crouch. Ready to dodge at the slightest hint of another attack, she tried to figure out what had happened.
A quick glance at the enemy wizards showed her four distinct groups that had hands or staves raised in her direction. It seemed likely that each group had cast a different spell in order to strip a specific layer of her defences.
Experimentally, she released more fog from her storage, fired off a salvo of Shabon Spray Freezing spells in the direction of her opponents, and created a Keeper hand.
Almost immediately, the dwarven wizards started to draw on the mana provided by the chamber. Her fog cloud barely reached car size before it vanished, and her Keeper hand flopped to the ground, splashing her legs and leaving her standing in a puddle.
Her lips parted in surprise. Were they augmenting their perceptions in order to identify and react to her attacks this quickly?
Her freezing spells hit the protective dome and slid sideways, stretching out into rapidly fading smears. The Keeper hand she followed up with evaporated within an instant.
Unhappy with the lack of results, she raised her hand to unleash a bolt of keeper lightning at the magical construct, aiming over the heads of the defenders.
Immediately, several of the wizard formations burst into action. As they intoned their spells, her lightning struck the dome and crawled over its surface without penetrating.
The soldiers right underneath the affected area flinched and ducked their heads, but maintained their formation.
At the same time, the area where she had just been standing filled with multi-coloured bursts of light. Some of the expanding spell effects washed over her mid-dodge, leaving her briefly worried but unharmed.
She bent sideways, twisting out of the path of a greenish beam so bright it made her squint, only to spot a disc of red-glowing energy on the ground where she was about to land. Having only a split-second to react, she hit the spot with one of her stored Shabon Spray Freezing spells.
The resulting steam explosion scattered shards of ice across the room and catapulted her backwards, away from what looked like a fountain of lava erupting from the floor.
She landed on her side, half rolling and half skidding. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw glowing staff tips tracking her movement. With a well-timed kick, she propelled herself upwards and turned her roll into a hasty tumble, which lead into a mad dash towards the doorway.
Crackling noises and hisses thundered in the air right behind her as she darted out of the chamber.
She grabbed the doorframe with one arm as she passed it, letting her momentum swing her to the side and into cover.
A pinkish light shot past her and etched a rectangular depression into the hallway in front of the doorway, and the hand that was gripping the doorframe stung.
She jerked the limb back and blinked at the stumps of her fingers. There was an odd tingling sensation while they regenerated as icy digits, with neither fake skin nor gloves covering them.
Back in the chamber, the dwarves were jeering and congratulating each other.
Her eyes narrowed as she heard them celebrate their minor victory. Boosting their morale was unfortunate, but at least she had figured out how they were shutting down her defences so fast. They weren’t actually reacting to her actions. They simply had enough mages to hit her with every specific countermeasure they had devised at once.
It was a strategy that could effectively keep her from approaching, unless she tried something new. Alternatively, she could try to wear down the defences by throwing spells at them remotely, but she didn’t know if she could afford the time necessary.
“Torian, the Duke?”
“His throne is glowing brighter, I think,” the warlock dutifully reported. “Unfortunately, we have not made much progress figuring out what he is trying to achieve.”
She was certain that whatever it was the Duke was doing, it was in her best interest to not let him finish.
“I see. Backtrack the route I took to get here with your crystal ball,” she instructed, glancing at the open doorway.
“As you wish, your Majesty.” Torian sounded confused but didn’t waste time complying with her order.
In her Keeper sight, she watched his scrying device as tunnels and rooms flashed past, and she assisted him by remotely placing a light spell whenever it got too dark to see. When the view neared the room where the dwarfs had tried to drop the heavy gate on her she interrupted. “Stop, this is the place.”
Carefully, she cast additional light spells on the ground level to localise areas not covered by the spell-devouring wards still littering the floor.
The sudden brightness revealed several civilian dwarfs cleaning up the debris. They stared at the glowing spheres in fright and scurried off into the darkness.
Briefly, she worried that soldiers were still around, too, but she couldn’t spot any in the crystal ball. She decided to go ahead with her plan, and one of her most experienced imps started moving.
The little creature appeared right on top of one of the light spells, reassured by its presence that she wasn’t going to die from a blocked teleportation attempt.
Now that Ami had one of her underlings present, she could observe the area with Keeper sight. Green motes swirled and coalesced into two more of her imps, and she immediately directed her workers toward the chamber littered with coin-sized spell-eater wards.
Working at top speed, the blue-clad imps swept the metallic coins into their bags.
The imps couldn’t teleport while carrying the wards, but that didn’t stop her from simply using Keeper transport to tuck them into storage. With a chagrined look at the singed tatters of her cloak, she raised her hands to catch the first imp she dropped onto herself.
Snickering, the imp landed feet-first on Ami’s head. The creature’s cargo jingled as she somersaulted to the ground.
A sudden, tense silence replaced the jeers and taunts from within the chamber. Apparently, the dwarfs had someone watching her.
She was quick enough to grab the remaining imps before they stepped on her and allowed herself a small, satisfied smile as she considered the bulging containers. Even if there were enemy wizards scrying on her, they couldn’t see into the bags. Hopefully, the wards would catch them by complete surprise.
“Oh, using their own weapons against them. That’s always an admirable classic,” Torian piped up. “Will you require additional troops for your assault, your Majesty?”
“That won’t be necessary,” she answered, hoping she was correct about this. Without the interference of enemy mages, she was confident that she could fight her way through the soldiers on her own.
She raised her arms sideways in a T-shaped pose, making sure she stood perfectly straight. If she made a minor error here, the results would be uncomfortable and inconvenient. Were her shoulders in the correct position? Feet at the right angle? She thought so. Exhaling, she closed her eyes and concentrated.
A suit of powered armour like the one she had worn during the reaper duel appeared all around her the instant her senshi uniform vanished into storage. Something pushed against her right elbow, pressing it inwards, but she had been precise enough that she only suffered minor scrapes.
She had left her feet bare due to the impossibility of making the armour appear between them and the ground while she was standing on it, which she remedied quickly by lifting her feet and completing her ensemble.
Unlike the first version of her armour, this one was conjured entirely so that she could transport it just as easily as her spells. Using gold instead of mana, just like she did for her imps and golems, had made it into the most expensive piece of equipment she had deployed here so far. A necessary precaution to avoid it simply dissolving from blessed water – not that the dwarfs had deployed that against her yet.
Small pricking sensations at her sides informed her that the armour was ready to draw magical energy from her body. With its strength enhancing her own, even the large, two-handed sword she pulled from her Keeper storage felt light as a feather, even more so than she was used to in her senshi form.
She ordered her imps to retreat and approached the doorway. Holding the three bags, she stepped confidently over the threshold.
Streaks of colour shot towards her, curving towards the wards and burning tiny holes into a bag’s fabric. Only the spells that created an effect outside of their range remained unaffected.
Moving at superhuman speeds, she turned sideways, letting an orange fireball zoom past her, and then weaved between two slightly slower spells.
Mouths gaped and eyes widened as the wizards saw that their barrage of spells had failed. They paled when they spotted the figure in sleek black armour rushing at them through the dissipating haze of sparkles.
She tore her bags open and swung them, spilling their contents in a wide arc.
The spray of coin-shaped wards passed through the protective dome, devouring a quick-witted spell before it could be completed. The metallic hail rained down on the assembled dwarfs, plinking off metal shields and striking a few of the magic users.
Some of the less alert mages continued casting, and more still-born spells were sucked into the wards littering the casting diagrams. Other dwarfs were already looking at the ground and kicking at the coins.
She tried hitting the enemy line with finished spells she pulled from her storage, but found that the protection spell still held and tore them apart. Under her helmet, her lips pressed together as she realised she could only rely on her physical advantages.
Her enemies recovered from their surprise with commendable speed. A dwarven commander, wearing a helmet that included sculpted armour for his beard, took a brief look at the perplexed wizards and at the coin-shaped wards strewn about the ritual chamber. “Back ranks, pick up those things and throw them out!” he shouted. “Front ranks, engage!”
She leaned forward to gain more speed, preparing to hop straight over the soldiers and take down the magic users. With a strong thrust of her armoured legs, she launched herself into the air, cracking the floor underneath her boots.
Helmeted heads turned upwards as if in slow motion, bearded faces gaping in alarm as she passed over the shield wall. A halberd was the first weapon to swing up at her, attempting to block her path.
She struck at the long-handled obstacle with her sword, batting it out of her path without losing speed.
Two spears rose to block her flight arc, and she brushed one aside with her hand. She couldn’t reach the second in time and crashed into the vertical handle.
Below her, the spear’s wielder let out a cry of pain as the force of her impact ripped the weapon from his grasp.
Having lost very little of her momentum, she continued on her trajectory. The formation below her blurred past, and she took note of where she would land among the wizards.
The closest of the robed dwarfs were only now turning to run, and she figured that she could take down at least eight of them before the soldiers moved in.
A rattling chain whipped against her ankle and wrapped around it. There was a sudden jolt as it extended to its limit and pulled on her leg.
Reflexively, she tensed her muscles to resist the pull.
The dwarf who had snagged her wasn’t heavy enough to stop her, but he refused to let go. He was yanked off the ground and dragged on, smashing into his comrades like a wrecking ball.
Anchored by his unexpected weight, she fell short of her destination. With her captured leg extended straight behind her, she landed hard on her knees and hands.
Metal boots clanged as the soldiers turned and rushed towards her. Dwarfs weren’t particularly tall, but seen from the ground, they looked like an avalanche of armour ready to crush her.
Thinking quickly, she pushed herself towards them with her hands, turning so she was lying on her back in the same motion.
The move made the chain around her ankle go slack, and she wasted no time brushing it off with a quick sweep of her sword.
By now, the dwarven soldiers had almost reached her. Some were lunging at her, arms spread wide as they prepared to trap her under their bodies.
Still on her back, she pulled her knees up to her chest as dwarfs sailed through the air towards her. Uncoiling like a spring, she kicked up at the two closest soldiers.
Their armour rang like gongs as she struck their bellies and sent them and went flying back into the mass of incoming soldiers.
Sliding backwards from the force of her own kicks, she remained just out of reach of her enemies. With a quick overhead roll, she managed to get herself into a squatting position, her feet back on the ground.
A glancing blow from a thrown spear left a scratch on the rib-like shapes decorating her breastplate, and a thrown net was flying straight at her.
The last thing she wanted was getting entangled and buried under a pile of angry dwarfs. Rising explosively from her crouch, she catapulted herself upwards and rose like an arrow.
Surging forward, the soldiers swamped her former position and readied themselves for her inevitable descent.
At the apex of her leap, she used the moment she hung in the air to reprioritise. The chamber was spread out underneath her, with the door leading to the Duke’s sanctuary a good distance farther back. If she wanted to proceed quickly, she needed to eliminate the protective magic that suppressed her own spells. That meant chasing off the wizards maintaining it, rather than going straight for her target.
Unfortunately, she would first have to get away from the group of soldiers she was currently plummeting right into the middle of.
Faces hidden behind the visors of their helmets tracked her as she descended, and the warriors in full plate shuffled back just enough that she wouldn’t land on any of them.
Her feet hadn’t even touched the ground when blows started raining down on her from every direction. She parried and deflected as many as she could, power armour and senshi enhancements turning her sword into a blur. Still, it couldn’t be in more than one place at the same time, and even though she twisted and dodged, some strikes got through.
She was glad she wasn’t there in the flesh. Maces shook her with their impacts, war hammers dented her armour and occasionally pierced the ice below, and even the swords and axes shoved her around with each impact.
Despite her vast physical superiority, she had some trouble striking back effectively. While she was competent enough at handling her weapon, she didn’t trust herself to hold back enough if she used it to attack. She swept the legs out from a soldier in front of her and turned to jab her elbow at someone’s helmet while he crashed to the ground.
A soldier immediately jumped over the prone body, swinging his mace in an overhead swing.
She backed off, deliberately ramming the soldiers behind her in the process. This turned out to be a bit of a tactical blunder, as she felt arms wrap around her waist.
More dwarfs caught on to the idea and lunged, grabbing hold of her wherever they could as they tried to wrestle her to the ground.
Her helmet rang uncomfortably loud as she headbutted an attacker who had wrapped his arms around her neck. He slid off, and she gritted her teeth when another immediately jumped to replace him. At least nobody could effectively attack her while she had dwarven bodies draped all over her, but she couldn’t allow herself to be restrained.
Time wasn’t on her side. Everyone she wasn’t fighting directly was sweeping the spell-eater wards away, and she didn’t want to find out what their wizards could do while she was unable to dodge.
“Where are the chains? Hurry before she breaks free!” someone shouted.
She took this as her cue to leave. If they thought the weight of a few dwarfs was enough to stop her, then they were still underestimating her strength. Even with them hanging off her, she managed to rise and stand straight. Slowly at first, she started to spin in place, dragging the soldiers on top of her along.
As she picked up speed, their feet left the ground. One by one, they lost their grips as the centrifugal forces tore at them until only two remained.
The last two were screaming as they whistled through the air like flails, unable to get loose because she had gripped their hands and wasn’t letting go.
Their metal greaves and boots smashed into their comrades as she spun like a top, forcing everyone nearby back or to the floor. Soon, every enemy within reach was either down or ducking underneath her improvised weapons, and she released her captives.
With startled yells, they were flung into the ranks of the soldiers encircling her.
Having cleared her immediate vicinity of everyone who could hold her down, she leapt towards the closest half-pillar. This time, she was ready as more nets and chains lashed at her, and nimbly avoided the restraints.
A wizard was hurrying down the ladder at the pillar’s side. His eyes widened in fright as he suddenly came face to face with the red-glowing slits of her helmet.
With a quick swipe of her hand, she brushed him off the ladder, mentally apologising. She hoped his landing wouldn’t hurt too much. At least, it would result in lesser injuries than her armoured body colliding directly with him. She slammed against the stone, held on tight, and slid partway around it. From this new position, she leapt off at almost a ninety-degree angle to her original trajectory.
Below, suits of armour clanked against each other as the dwarven formation skidded to a halt in order to follow her unexpected change of direction.
Her quarry was one of the chanting crews maintaining the protective dome. The colourfully-clad men and women saw her arc over their guards and stopped chanting.
She landed in the centre of their formation, on top of the intricate glowing lines of the arcane symbol they had been tending to.
The magic users were already scattering like scared chickens, revealing hairy calves as they lifted their robes so they could run away faster.
Instead of chasing them, she raised her weapon and brought it down hard on the crystalline symbol instead.
Stone cracked and splintered, and carefully-shaped mana conduits spilled their contents into the furrow her attack had left. It flared up bright like a lightning bolt and melted, scorching and blackening the surrounding lines.
The soldiers she had jumped over were still hot on her heels. A wizard who had fled towards their charge yelped, ducked, and curled up in a ball as the metal-clad horde jumped over him on their way towards her.
Fighting them again wouldn’t bring her closer to her goal. With a running start, she leapt again, somersaulted in mid-air, and hit one of the half-pillars feet-first. Bouncing between different pillars, she quickly reached the next node she intended to attack.
As before, most of the wizards were unwilling to face her without their magic available. Only an elderly witch, her wrinkly face distorted in rage, swung her staff at the fast-moving blur that was Ami’s form.
She dodged to the side, not because she felt threatened, but for fear of the weapon bouncing off her armour and hurting the frail-looking woman. Unwilling to attack her, she placed her palm on the witch’s stomach and walked forward, awkwardly shoving her away from the arcane diagram.
Undeterred, the old woman proceeded to whack her on the head with her staff over and over again, cursing her with language so coarse her cheeks grew hot.
The elderly lady’s presence was convenient in a way. The soldiers didn’t throw any of their entangling weaponry for fear of hitting her, which gave Ami a few moments to inspect the diagrams on the ground.
Even with the banging of the staff against her helmet distracting her, she quickly deciphered the rough meaning of various lines on the ground. She pulled her sword back and aimed at one particular junction, ready to test her understanding.
Her elbow accidentally hit the old witch, sending her to the ground.
Ami winced at the soft crack she heard, but proceeded to stab her weapon into the design.
Just as she had hoped, the severed conduits spewed forth a spray of green mana that dissipated harmlessly in the air. One more power node offline.
Satisfied, she side-stepped an attempt from the crone to trip her and decided on her next target.
A hard blow to the back of her right knee made her leg buckle just as she was about to jump.
She staggered and turned her head, fast enough that she still saw her attacker retract his leg from his flying kick. While she recovered her balance, she whirled and struck at him.
Grunting with effort, the dwarf let the blow slide upwards along the edge of his own sword, steering it away from his body. He needed to put his free hand on the flat of his blade to steady it, but it was still an impressive feat of strength. Unlike the rank and file of the soldiers pursuing her, he was wearing light leather armour reinforced with metal plates in critical locations. With a lightning-fast twist, he kicked an object on the ground behind him.
She threw herself aside as the net flew towards her, spinning and unfolding. Her opponent was faster than the dwarfs she had fought so far, but she was faster still. Her arm blurring, she darted forward, only to spot movement behind her.
Metal screeched as the blow from the huge axe glanced off her armour, leaving a furrow behind her right shoulder. The brief moment of distraction was enough for her initial attacker to lean aside and let her jab pass.
In contrast to the attacker in front of her, the fighter at her back looked like a knight in heavy plate armour. Nevertheless, he moved almost as fast as some of the stronger vampires she had fought.
A flurry of attacks rained down on her from both sides, and the clash of metal against metal turned into constant ringing noise as she as she whirled and spun to deflect both of her opponents’ weapons. Even a horned reaper would struggle to defend himself against the frenzied combination attack, but she managed to always stay a step ahead of her attackers.
Her sword blurred, tracing silvery arcs through the air as it intercepted her opponent’s weapons. She was on the defensive, yes, but with her senshi enhancements on top of her powered armour, she didn’t feel pressured particularly hard. Already, she could hear her the two dwarfs breathing harder, and their strikes had less and less strength behind them.
Nevertheless, the two champions had managed to monopolise her attention for a few seconds. Their allies took the opportunity to climb after them over the various platforms and to take up more advantageous positions.
When she glanced around, there was a wall of soldiers with nets, chains and hooks ready to keep her from advancing towards the next anchor point of the protection spell.
She pondered her chances of jumping past without getting ensnared, and found them lacking. With a sudden dash forward, she went on the offensive.
Her lighter armoured opponent grunted in surprise when her free hand shot past his blade with a lightning-quick grab and latched onto the bottom of his breastplate. His grunt turned into a strangled gasp when she yanked him upwards, one-handed, and threw him over her head like a javelin.
His comrade took a moment too long to decide between catching his ally and getting out of the way, and the thrown dwarf slammed into his angular chest plate.
Before her improvised projectile could slide completely to the ground, she was already in front of her staggering target. As he boggled at her speed, she grabbed the wooden handle of his axe, immobilising it.
Armoured fingers closed into a fist, crushing the wood trapped between them into a splintery pulp. With nothing to hold the head of the huge axe up, it plummeted to the ground.
In passing, she kicked it aside with her knee as she stepped on the moaning warrior on the ground. She felt bad about that, but he had been aiming his sword at a vulnerable knee joint.
An armoured gauntlet with spiked knuckles rocketed right at her face.
She ducked underneath the punch, rammed her shoulder into the disarmed warrior’s chest, and kept going. Half dragging, half lifting the champion, she kept accelerating, hoping that his heavy armour would protect him from what she had planned.
The dwarven champion was as tall as she was, but wider, even with her armour. Chains and snares clanked against his back as she ducked her head and sprinted straight at the soldiers barring her path.
She hit their line like a bowling ball. Screaming soldiers toppled left and right as she bulldozed her way straight through their ranks, internally wincing at every cry of pain.
Then she was through, with no more bodies between her and the wizards around the symbol. Their eyes widened and the determination fled from their faces as they stared at the chaos behind her. After a moment of hesitation, one of them charged at her with a feeble war cry.
Her boots struck sparks on the ground as she braked, unwilling to hit the unarmoured magician with full force. She winced when the champion jerked in her grip, accompanied by a soft thud and a yelp of pain.
The other wizards held their ground on the symbol, their staves shaking in their sweaty fingers as they took up fighting positions.
She discarded her living shield and swept her gaze over the arcane diagram on the ground as she advanced.
Her helmet briefly faced one of the mages directly, and he flinched. Clearly, he was aware of just how little he could do to stop her without magic, but also unwilling to back down. Then again, there was no telling what surprises they were hiding within their intricately carved staves.
She wasn’t going to take them lightly just because they obviously weren’t fighters. Ducking and weaving between their attacks, she rushed right into their midst. It didn’t take more than an open-palmed shove to toss one after the other away from their diagram, towards the soldiers chasing her.
With the wizards no longer directing the flow of power, only five nodes that supported the protective spell remained. This time, however, she wasn’t going to merely render the node inoperable. By now, she had finished her mental math and come up with a working theory of how the arcane symbol functioned, and she had an experiment in mind.
Using her sword as a chisel, she made a slight alteration to the looping lines that allowed the wizards to draw power when they stood within them.
In response, mana fountained upwards from the circle she had modified, rising towards the ceiling as a pillar of brilliant green light.
The incoming soldiers hesitated, shielding their eyes against the glare that was reflected by their armours. “What the- “
“Get over there, now!” an old wizard on top of the highest platform shouted. “Quickly! Destroy the symbol!” he added, speaking so fast that spittle flew from his lips.
She chipped away at the diagrams within a second circle, causing another pillar to join the first.
Nobody looked particularly eager to charge her while she stood between the two emerald geysers, sword at ready and visor glowing crimson.
“…kind of don’t want to explode,” someone muttered.
“It’s just a leak, you fools,” the old wizard raged. “The only thing dangerous about it is the way it wastes the magic we need to protect you from her spells! Now do something!”
“Did I stop whatever the Duke is trying?” Ami messaged Torian, happy to get independent confirmation that her analysis of the magical diagram had been spot-on. Now she only needed to defend it while it drained away the power intended for the remaining nodes.
“His throne remains garishly incandescent,” he answered, and a little less confidently, he added “We are starting to suspect that it’s actually not connected at all to the casting chamber’s circuitry.”
She frowned at the news even as she brought up her sword to fend off a charge from the no longer hesitant soldiers. Gripping the weapon near its tip with her free hand, she held it like a horizontal bar as she rushed forward to meet them.
The collision sent her staggering backwards, as she hadn’t gained enough momentum to make up for the fact that her opponents out-massed her several times. Still, she hadn’t been driven back all the way to the node, and the three foremost soldiers she had crashed into had come to an abrupt stop.
Only the press of the bodies behind them was still pushing them forward as they crumbled to the ground, turning into an obstacle for their comrades.
With the soldiers in the middle of the formation slowed down, those on its flanks moved around the congestion and reached her first.
She slammed the flat of her blade against the foremost soldier to her left, throwing him back into the ranks and collapsing that flank. At the same time, the force of her blow sent her skidding backwards, making her wish she had a way to counteract her lack of mass. “Torian, make a note to research a flight spell I can use when I’m not in my own body,” she messaged her chief warlock.
“It shall be my pleasure, your Majesty,” he replied. “Also, someone is trying to sneak past you!”
Looking away from the right flank, where she had just smashed three opponents to the ground with downward strikes, she spotted one of the champions she had defeated earlier. It was the lighter-armoured one, swinging from a grappling hook attached to one of the half-pillars behind her.
He was holding a round object with a lit fuse in his free hand. With a casual-looking twist of his hand, he tossed it right at the two glowing mana fountains.
Abandoning her holding action, she dived towards the projectile as it arced towards the diagram. Her eyes traced the small black silhouette as it passed the brilliant backdrop of the mana fountains, and she desperately batted her sword at it.
There was clinking noise, and the bomb went flying off. The manipulated node was safe and continued draining mana from the others.
She let out a relieved breath, then cringed when she realised she had no idea where the explosive would land in the populated chamber. Hopefully, its owner had taken the presence of allies into account. Now, which soldiers had gotten close enough during this distraction?
Another clinking noise from above drew her attention back up.
A spinning knife glittered in the green light as it descended from where it had collided mid-air with the bomb. Which was bouncing back towards the diagram and straight at her.
She shifted her gaze away from the almost-burned fuse and onto the lightly armoured champion, still swinging on the rope. His arm remained extended from his throw, and she imagined him grinning smugly under his helmet.
The bomb exploded while she was leaping toward it.
Blinding light and fire enveloped her and flung her away. Momentarily stunned by the noise, she didn’t react as her back slammed into a raised shield.
As soldiers pounced on her and dragged her down, the green brilliance filling the room guttered out.
Darn it! No! This had been her chance to quickly regain the use of her magic and end this! The scattered spell-eater wards still stopped her from spellcasting, but it was the dome-shaped enchantment that provided general protection against the finished spells she had brought.
With the leak plugged, the other nodes would quickly regain full strength. They hadn’t been weakened as much as she would have liked, but she had to either overwhelm them now or to go after each of them separately.
“Get her armour off!” Someone shouted, and one of the dwarfs kneeling on her chest started tugging at her helmet. Losing it would be a problem, since it housed the armour’s control elements.
In fact, the damage to her power armour was slowly adding up. Some of its joints were creaking after the explosion, which was enough to make her reach a decision.
She concentrated and unleashed more of her stored arsenal into the dome than she would have liked.
A small, fiery sun appeared above and smeared out into a spiral - the brief-lived effects of a firestorm spell. Bubbly streaks of grey and azure joined it as Shabon Spray Freezing attacks popped out of storage and hung like snowflakes in the air as they collapsed. Ghostly outlines of Keeper hands flashed into existence and winked out again almost too fast to see.
The dwarves, deeply disturbed, huddled closer together as she kept up her bombardment and prolonged the spectacle. Their mutters grew more worried as the blue tint in the air grew clearer.
A many-voiced cry of pain echoed through the room, and the wizards around the still functioning nodes grabbed their heads.
At the same moment, the liquid for a Keeper hand successfully manifested above Ami, who was too distracted to take control of it.
She sputtered in surprise when it crashed down on her, the short-lived waterfall washing her away along with the dwarves that were pinning her down. Success! With a surge of elation, she sat up amidst the sputtering dwarves, dragging along the particularly tenacious warrior who insisted on keeping her in a headlock.
Somehow, she wasn’t surprised to see that it was the champion she had been using as a shield earlier. His determination was admirable, but she still froze him to the ground before prying his arm away from her neck. She also addressed a freezing spell at his bomb-lobbing comrade before moving on, just to make sure he wouldn’t inconvenience her again.
Now that she had her powers available, getting past the rest of the defenders was more or less routine. Hide in magical fog, use Keeper hand to clear a path, and freeze it into an icy obstacle where appropriate. Soon enough, she stood in front of the door of the Duke’s sanctuary.
To her left and to her right, dwarven soldiers trapped behind frozen barriers shouted threats at her, while in front of her, the door frame was on fire from all of its wards against evil burning out.
Prepared for the worst, she removed her helmet’s metal visor, replacing it with the one provided by her Sailor Mercury transformation instead. “Torian, any more info or warnings?”
“Nothing, my Empress. Be aware that the throne looks fully functional, whatever it’s supposed to do.”
Well, it seemed she would have to scan it personally. With a determined step forward, she reached for the door.
Metal crumpled and bent under her fingers, and with a short yank, she almost ripped the door off its hinges. Purplish smoke escaped from the opening.
She entered, her stride unbroken.
There was a wizard in the back of the room, facing the entrance with wide eyes. He held his hands up protectively, backing away as far as the walls let him.
“It wasn’t locked, you know,” the figure on the throne commented drily, far less impressed than his court wizard.
“Duke Libasheshtan,” she said, inclining her head slightly in greeting. It was the polite thing to do and let her have a good, clear look at the glowing throne.
Nothing she saw was reason for alarm. In fact, she got the impression that its enchantments didn’t do anything besides glowing.
Mildly confused, she raised her gaze. “I’m glad to finally-”
She blinked and went completely still for an instant as she processed her visor’s readings, and then angrily pointed a finger at him. “You- you are not Duke Libasheshtan!” she accused the dwarf on the throne, whose real face she could see through the superimposed illusion of the Duke’s features.
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