“Torian, that’s not the Duke!” Ami called out mentally, her finger still pointing at the disguised dwarf on the throne.
Her chief warlock’s expression turned eerily similar to that of the imposter. His eyes bulged in surprise as the blood left his face, and a thin sheen of perspiration glistened on his forehead. “What? But- Please excuse me for a moment while I shout at these incompetent fools!”
He spun, robes swishing around him, and stomped towards the warlocks seated behind their crystal balls. Those who spotted his rapidly-reddening face ducked their heads.
The figure on the throne before her swallowed repeatedly and audibly, drawing her attention back to the chamber. “Empress Mercury,” he said, speaking very slowly. “W-why would you deny that I am the Duke?”
“I can see your real face,” she answered flatly.
He flinched and lowered his eyes even as the hands gripping the throne’s armrests started shaking.
She dismissed him as a mere distraction, just like the glowing throne. The way he had been dragging out his sentences would have convinced her of that if she hadn’t been certain before. Instead, she focused on the prime suspect for the Duke’s disappearance.
The wizard was standing still like a statue, trying to blend into the background. It would have worked much better without the eye-catching gems encrusting his tabard, which glittered in the light from the throne.
Hoping to get some use of her title, she stood straighter and tried to project authority. “Wizard. I, Empress Mercury, demand that you tell me what you did with Duke Libasheshtan!”
His mouth opened briefly, then closed with an audible snap as he fought down his reflexive reaction. His eyebrows settled into a stubborn frown even as his grey beard shook like leaves in the wind. “I will not betray my Liege! I am under no obligation to answer your questions, invader!”
Well, so much for that idea. Perhaps she should start practicing regal poses? In any case, she needed to figure out what had happened quickly. The dwarfs outside wouldn’t remain trapped behind her ice forever.
“Your Majesty?” Torian interrupted “I had your wretched minions scry on the Duke again. They can only tell that his current location is too dark to identify it.”
Progress, but her warlocks should have already been watching him at all times. She made a displeased noise.
The dwarven wizard whimpered in fright and pressed his back harder against the wall.
“How did you lose him in the first place?” she asked Torian.
“I got Rilgiar to admit that he briefly lost sight of the Duke in the purple smoke,” he answered quickly, sounding rather happy that he had found someone to blame. “He insists that he repeated the scrying, but I’m sure he didn’t bother when he saw that someone was still sitting on the throne.”
That sounded plausible, though she wasn’t convinced the other warlock was guilty of not doing his job properly. Scrying again would have shown the room with the imposter if the real Duke was still in it. “Could the Duke have sneaked out?”
“The door only opened once, to let him in. Perhaps there are other exits?” Torian guessed.
“There aren’t.” She had already scanned the room, but let her gaze pass over the rune-covered walls a second time. Again, she found no hint of secret doors, illusions, or other concealing magic. “Unless…”
The throne’s occupant tensed as she strode past him, completely ignoring his presence. There was a sink-like basin in the back of the room, its stone surfaces discoloured and stained with potion remnants. The drain at its bottom looked dark and uninviting, but large enough for a small animal to pass through.
Hesitating only for a moment, she turned to look back at the wizard. “You transformed him into something tiny, didn’t you?” she asked.
His face remained so impressively unmoving that she briefly wondered if he had used a spell to paralyse his facial muscles. Nevertheless, he couldn’t hide the sudden increase in his heart rate from her visor.
Now certain that she was on the right track, she wondered how she could find the Duke if he had fled through the drain. Wait, rats had a great sense of smell, didn’t they? She transported one of the rodents she had brought, dropping it onto her cupped hands. “Torian, I need the spell-eating wards gone. Have the warlocks target my golem body with messages, stop the moment I possess the rat.”
“At once, your Majesty.”
Both the wizard and the dwarf on the throne jerked in surprise when they heard the sudden, rapid-fire pings of bursting metal from outside.
Unlike them, she knew what was about to happen. She still winced when the last ward broke and a burst of messages filled her head with incomprehensible noise. Quickly, she cast her possession spell to flee from the cacophony.
A tendril of darkness shot from her visor into the rat. There was a moment of disorientation as her perspective switched, and then she felt cold metal under her feet and was looking up at a giant suit of armour. She sniffed the air, borrowing the rodent’s superior sense of smell.
The scent of sweat and what she assumed to be dwarfs was thick in the air – no surprise there – and strange, almost chemical odours rose from the basin below. It irritated her nose.
Sneezing, she jumped down into the sink and nosed the drain. The smells didn’t improve down there, but she caught a hint of something new and different. Fur, or perhaps some animal she couldn’t identify. Not a rat. With a resigned sigh, she jumped into the opening.
A renewed protective dome filled the ritual chamber with its bluish glow, reassuring its occupants. The soldiers were less tense as they swept away debris in small, organised groups, and the wizards were melting ice and regrowing broken crystal without looking over their shoulders every few seconds.
The relative calm ended when one of the soldiers, his head bandaged and his helmet in his lap, raised a shaking finger towards the entrance and shouted “She- she’s back! With minions!”
Dwarfs cursed and turned to face the entrance, their brooms and tools clattering to the floor as they went for their weapons.
Camilla flinched as she stared into the twilight that was suddenly filled with crossbows pointed in her direction. Perhaps it hadn’t been such a good idea for her blue-haired sister to walk at the front of the group?
Melissa stood frozen like a startled deer in front of the doorway, one leg raised to cross the threshold. She gulped and raised her hands very, very slowly.
“Stand down! False alarm!” a loud, imperious voice echoed from within the chamber. A tall dwarf strode into view, his face covered by a mask-like helmet.
Camilla allowed herself to breathe again as the weapons were lowered. Her gaze flicked over to the dwarven officer and briefly lingered on the dents in the sculpted iron beard jutting out from his chin.
“Last time I checked, the Dark Empress had brightly-glowing red eyes and no wings,” the officer continued in an acidic tone of voice.
The soldier who had shouted hung his head. “Lieutenant, I was-”
“Head wound. Impaired vision. I know,” the masked dwarf interrupted. “I also know that you are supposed to be resting. Back to the healers, now!” he finished loudly.
“Yes Sir!” the shame-faced dwarf jumped to his feet and saluted, almost hitting his bandages in the process. On wobbly legs, he hurried off towards the right side of the chamber.
“The rest of you, return to your duties!” the Lieutenant said, swinging his arm in a shooing motion.
The soldiers relaxed their posture as they sheathed their weapons and opened their visors. Chatting among each other, they walked back to their duties, glancing occasionally back at the group of fairies.
Camilla didn’t really know what to think of their lingering gazes. There was curiosity, but she also saw frowns, wrinkled brows, and some barely-disguised leers. It had to be their uniforms, she decided, thinking back to Kivith’s reaction. These dwarfs had some unhealthy issues if they associated a little exposed skin with evil.
“You must be Ambassador Camilla,” the officer addressed her, having approached her group while she was thinking. “I am Lieutenant Idenodur, overseeing the local troops in Duke Libasheshtan’s stead.”
“Pleased to meet you,” she replied, inclining her head.
Her sisters did likewise as they said their own greetings, and Kivith bowed deeply, putting one hand on Roselle’s shoulder to steady himself.
“Likewise. Please excuse the unfortunate reception, tempers are still running high after the recent attack,” Idenodur said.
“Oh, that’s all right, no harm done. Um, does he need help?” Camilla said, pointing at the dwarf with the bandaged head. “I can heal.”
“Thank you for your offer, but there’s no need. Our own healers will tend to him shortly.” He tilted his head to the side and focused on Kivith, who was leaning on Roselle for support. “Will your guide require their assistance too?”
The slouching apprentice looked up when he was mentioned, revealing the greenish tone around his nose.
“He isn’t sick, he’s just a wimp,” Tilia said cheerfully. The green-eyes fairy spread her wings and batted them demonstratively, lifting herself off the ground. “All we did was take him flying-”
Kivith’s blood-shot eyes flew open, and he whipped his head around so he could glare at her. “We weren’t flying!” he protested in an angry, high-pitched whine. “We were falling straight down most of the way! And you almost dropped me!”
“Hey, you almost squeezed my arm off!” Anise grumbled right back. Her upper arm sported a hand-shaped bruise that was almost as red as her hair.
“Well excuse me for being terrified while falling to my death, you crazy-”
“Ahem.” The Lieutenant cleared his throat demonstratively. “Aren’t you supposed to take them to Mengolin? Quickly?”
“Yes Sir. Of course.” Kivith had the good grace to look embarrassed.
“Be on your way, then,” the Lieutenant ordered. “Ladies.” With a shallow bow towards the fairy sisters, he turned and strode away.
Roselle, still supporting Kivith, was the first of the sisters to actually walk through the ruined doorway. In passing, she brushed with her fingers over its smoothed, worn-away stone.
Moving right behind her, Camilla turned to gape at a huge, blackened area where the ground looked like a pool of uneven, petrified mush. Meltwater was gathering in the depressions, boiling into steam that irritated her nose.
“Did the Dark Empress do all this?” Roselle muttered as her orange-eyed gaze swept over the devastation.
A wizard standing next to a mostly melted ice block put his drinking flask down and clipped it onto his belt. “Nah, we did most of that. Impressed?” he asked cheerfully, smiling at the orange-haired girl. He pointed at the destroyed floor. “Magma fountain. Helped cast the spell myself. We even forced the Dark Empress to flee from the room, you know. She couldn’t handle our defences.”
Melissa, who had approached as they spoke, said softly “Then what about the wounded?” She was looking at one side of the room, where healers walked through rows of blanket-covered dwarfs who rested on straw mats.
The wizard had to hop off his platform to keep up with the group and landed in a puddle of water that had cascaded down from his perch. He coughed into his fist. “Well, she couldn’t defeat our spells, so she stole a bunch of wards to stop us from using them.” His expression brightened. “Still, that didn’t break the protections we had already put up. Sure stopped her from killing anyone!”
“That’s a relief,” Camilla said, feeling a little better than she had ever since she had learned about Mercury’s attack on the city. The way she treated her civilian prisoners had led the fairy to consider that, perhaps, the Empress wasn’t as bad as other Keepers. It was a silly hope, really, and Camilla certainly didn’t want her sisters to lecture her about the folly of it again. Still, well, she was glad nobody had died here. For more than the obvious reasons, that is.
Meanwhile, Cerasse had launched herself up in the air to get a better view at the casting diagrams. She whistled. “This is quite the impressive setup you have here, even with the damage. What caused all those pockmark-like burns?”
“Overloaded spell-eater wards,” the wizard as said, looking up at the flying fairy. “Same ones she stole from us. We could have fended her off indefinitely without the stupid things.”
Anise straightened and swept her gaze over the chamber that was brimming with armoured dwarfs. “Wait, you are telling us she fought her way through all of those soldiers without using magic?”
A soldier who overheard her snorted. “As if! That fiend mostly jumped around like a demented leapfrog trying to stay away from us!”
“Really, she did all that while running away?” Roselle asked, gesturing at the rows of prone, bandaged soldiers. Her wide-eyed expression turned into a bright smile. “You must be so relieved she wasn’t fighting you seriously!”
“What? No! I mean, that’s not-” the soldier sputtered, his cheeks reddening.
A few of the nearby soldiers shot dark looks at the group of fairies.
“Roselle, come along,” Dandel interfered, grabbing her sister by the wrist and yanking her onwards She faced the annoyed dwarfs and bowed apologetically. “Please excuse my sister, she meant no offence.”
“Ah, there you are! Took you long enough!” a voice called out from a platform above.
“Master!” Kivith replied, straightening his shoulders.
“And there’s my cue to get back to work,” the wizard who had trailed after the group said. He ducked into one of the side passages and darted away as the court wizard approached.
Mengolin was wrapped in a thick blanket, and his shoes made sloshing noises with every step, leaving wet footprints on the ground. “Ambassador, Ambassadorial Guard, I wish I could have met you under better circumstances.” He shivered and wrung water out of his beard.
Camilla bowed in turn. “Likewise.” She took in his soaked robes. “Um, Anise could cast a drying spell on you if you are uncomfortable.”
“Later, we are pressed for time,” Mengolin declined. “We didn’t manage to stall the Dark Empress for as long as we expected, and now she’s hot on the Duke’s heels. We need to act quickly to foil her plans.”
“Of course. What do I need to do?” Camilla asked. She had been wondering for some time why they needed her specifically if they had so many wizards already.
“It will be easiest to show you. Please follow me.” He spun so fast that he dislodged a spray of droplets from his clothes. A few of them landed on Kivith.
“Master, what happened to you?” the apprentice asked as he hurried after the older dwarf.
“Tried to capture the body the Dark Empress left behind. She objected.”
“W-wait, it’s still around?” Kivith stopped abruptly.
“It disappeared after I let go of it,” Mengolin said. “We are pretty safe here with the protection dome up again.”
“Oh, that’s one of the focal points of the ellipse formed by the magic circles, isn’t it?” Cerasse asked from above as the group approached a particularly dense knot of diagrams on the floor.
“An astute observation,” Mengolin praised the violet-haired fairy.
A dwarf wearing a sleeveless shirt awaited him, powdered stone clinging to his sweaty arms. He put a chisel down and bowed. “Court Wizard, I have just finished the final adjustments.”
“Wait, you made a statue of the Dark Empress?” Anise asked, pushing to the front of the crowd to get a closer look at the sculpture.
It wasn’t a complete statue, or even a bust, but only a head carved from a block of marble.
“I would have preferred the golem’s head, but this should be a close enough likeness for our purposes,” Mengolin said after examining the sculpture. He took a small, cloth-wrapped object from a nearby padded box and peeled off its cover. Inside was a glass replica of Mercury’s visor, which he affixed onto the carved face.
The sculptor took a step back and examined the effect. “The resemblance is uncanny, if I may say so myself.”
“Yes, you did great work. Wouldn’t you agree, Ambassador Camilla?” Mengolin said.
The blonde tilted her head to the side. “Well, yes, it’s impressive.” She paused. “I haven’t ever seen her with a scary scowl like that, though.”
“Artistic license,” Mengolin said. “In any case, we are confident that we got its appearance right. The next part is where you come in, Ambassador. Dugin!”
The artisan approached when he was called, straining from the weight of the large bag he was carrying in front of his belly. He deposited on the workbench with a faint thud.
It slid to the side, and a collection of aquamarine objects that resembled open books spilled out.
“What’s that supposed to be?” Anise asked as she circled the collection of strange objects. Her nose wrinkled in disdain as she spotted variants of the Mercury symbol decorating the ‘covers’.
“Your sister told us that the Dark Empress once showed her the magical artefact she uses to gather knowledge about things. Those are the closest approximations of its appearance that we could manage based on her descriptions.” Mengolin explained. He started flipping the stone computers the right way up so that their glass screens were facing them.
“They all look a little different?” Camilla asked, poking at one that was definitely larger than the real Mercury computer.
“Yes. Please find the one that looks closest to the original. The greater the similarity, the better the spell will work,” Mengolin said with an encouraging smile. “Go ahead.”
“Oh!” Cerasse said, snipping her fingers. “You are going to use the similarity as a link to target the real one!”
“Indeed,” Mengolin confirmed.
“But,” the fairy said dubiously, “your copies are just stone and glass. Unless I’m severely underestimating the amount of magic you can bring to bear with your damaged casting diagram, it won’t work. According to all the books I have read, to affect the target, the focus needs to be made of the same material.”
Mengolin chuckled. “Just watch, you may learn a trick or two,” he said jovially. “Ambassador, please stand over here,” he said as he pointed at a looping diagram on the floor.
The youngest fairy approached slowly, carrying one of the fake computers under her arm. She stopped in front of the engraved lines and looked at wizard questioningly. “Why me? Wouldn’t someone more experienced be better suited to this?”
“Your memories of the artefact make you uniquely suited to forging the link,” Mengolin explained. “I will, in fact, be handling the visor personally, since I got the opportunity to see it up close.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” Camilla said as she stepped into the circle. “I’ll do my best!” she promised, her expression growing determined.
“Still can’t see this working,” Cerasse commented from the back. “The power requirements to make up for the difference-”
“Shush, you,” Dandel said. She walked around Camilla once, examining the arcane sigils on the ground before turning to Mengolin. “When do we start?”
“Best get ready immediately,” the court wizard stated. “We need to be able to unleash the spell as soon as we get the signal.”
Ami’s hair whipped into her face as she plummeted into the darkness, the uneven rock walls just out of her reach. She was spinning around as she fell, and her fluttering cloak got tangled around her head.
Irritated, she brushed the cloth away from her eyes. At her current angle, she could see the ledge of the cliff above, and she caught a final glimpse of the minecart she had just been riding.
It was speeding down the rails, its tub still swivelling back upright after it had dumped her into the pit.
She imagined that somewhere, a very smug dwarf was standing next to a lever, and chided herself for not expecting an automatic unloading mechanism.
The bottom of the pit was rapidly approaching, its floor hidden underneath a large pile of loose ore clumps.
They didn’t look as if they would soften her landing. Nevertheless, her golem body should survive the impact and regenerate any damage in short order. It certainly wouldn’t be as painful as her rat-body being ambushed by a hungry cat earlier.
She grimaced at the brief memory of claws and teeth tearing into her borrowed flesh. Dying while possessing a real, living creature was not an experience she ever wanted to repeat. Poor animal.
There was a loud cracking noise as she smacked into the heap of fist-sized stone chunks. Droplets of water sprayed outwards, and a few clumps of ore came loose and rolled on top of her prone form.
Ow. As it turned out, belly-flopping into a huge pile of ore hurt even when you only had a thin outer layer of glamoured skin. She decided to lay still for a moment while the cracks in her ice shell mended.
“Well, this is embarrassing,” Torian’s mental voice commented.
“I’m well aware,” Ami replied, sounding a little irritated.
Torian didn’t answer immediately. In her Keeper sight, he looked over at one of the crystal balls and saw her sprawled out, half-buried form. His eyes widened, and he raised his hands, palms facing outwards. “Oh, no, no, no, this is a misunderstanding, your Majesty!” he said so quickly he would have had to gasp for breath if he hadn’t been speaking telepathically. “I was referring to the situation with the Duke!”
“Explain,” she said, distracted by repairing her body. Injecting water internally with a spell so the golem wouldn’t shrink felt weird.
“We reached the wrong conclusions from his travelling speed,” he said, drying the sweat off his brow with his sleeve.
She frowned. While her warlocks were unable to see the Duke in the darkness, they could still scry on him and raise the point of view straight up to the surface to get a rough idea of where he was. He had been covering ground too quickly to be moving on foot.
“He wasn’t riding a minecart,” Torian continued. “He was a bat. Flying.”
A bat. That made sense. A fast, manoeuvrable animal that could travel without needing light that her warlocks could have used to spot it.
“You know where he is?” she asked.
“Yes, we observed him turning back into his real form as he flew into a temple. It’s somewhere under surface square D-19.”
Her face fell at the prospect of having to deal with another temple. At least, a building would be easier to locate than an individual. She sat up on the shifting ore and quickly entered the coordinates into her computer.
On her visor, a vertical bar appeared, indicating the volume of space that hid her destination.
“I’ll remotely scatter colour-coded lights in the target area. Report to me at once when you spot one,” she instructed.
Large, rectangular stone plates formed a decorative pattern along the walls of the side passage. Tiny alcoves at head height fitted seamlessly into the design, but the lamps they held were hidden behind bronze covers. Nevertheless, it was bright enough to see just from the glow of the temple on the main road outside.
Ami listened for hints of danger, motionless except for the last traces of black lightning still playing over her newly-possessed golem.
Hammering noises echoed from afar and a minecart rumbled in the distance, but she didn’t hear anything moving nearby.
Cautiously, she leaned past the side tunnel’s entrance and peeked around the corner.
To her left, multiple branching tunnels opened onto the main passage, which widened to allow the individual minecart tracks to merge. The single remaining track passed under a marble arch formed by a two storey building.
She clenched her teeth at the sight of the structure, fighting down an unnatural urge to flee. Instead, she swallowed and took a closer look to determine if any of her plans were applicable here.
The temple reached from the tunnel’s floor to its ceiling and had tall windows. Silvery shutters were slamming closed, though the deep engravings of winged figures that both decorated and weakened the material made their protective value dubious at best.
Clearly, the elegant building with its thin pillars and ivy-like decorations was a place of worship, rather than a fortress. It didn’t look as if it could keep out a determined burglar, let alone a Keeper. Of course, the dwarfs had no intentions to keep her out of a temple.
As she scanned the court and the glowing façade for traps, she felt a small tug underneath her feet. She looked down.
An imp wearing a cloak so large that half of it trained over the floor stared up at her. The creature uncrossed her arms and tugged at the fabric again where it was stuck under Ami’s boots.
“Ah, yes. Please move to safety for now,” she said as she stepped off the piece of cloth.
The imp huffed and twirled, the cloak billowing as it wrapped around her. Nose up in the air, she somersaulted and disappeared in a flare green.
Ami blinked. Imps experienced enough to teleport on their own were a great boon, but she wasn’t comfortable thinking about the implications of them occasionally displaying unexpected quirks. In any case, she needed to focus on the Duke. “Is he still in there?”
“Yes, my Empress,” Torian confirmed. “We cannot currently observe him directly, which strongly indicates that he hasn’t left yet.”
That, at least, was good news. Nodding to herself, she stepped into the open and slowly approached the holy building as far as she was comfortable with. Which meant that she stopped at the edge of the courtyard.
She took a deep breath and shouted “Duke Libasheshtan! I, Sailor Mercury, Empress of the Avatar Island, wish to negotiate with you! I’m not going to leave, so just talk to me! Please!”
The Duke being in a temple was problematic, but also predictable. Nevertheless, she wasn’t eager to try any of the solutions she had come up with, as she had no idea how far she could escalate without seriously offending the Light. Best to start off with the method that left the temple undamaged.
For a few long seconds, there was no reaction aside from the echo of her voice fading in the tunnels. Then, a curtain on the upper floor moved, right above the top of the archway.
Her hope soared as the door leading out on the balcony opened. Conducting negotiations by shouting across the court of a temple would be awkward, but she was willing to take what she could get.
A dwarf with a long, snow-white beard appeared in the open doorway, leaning on a wooden staff. Not the Duke.
While disappointed, she remained cautiously optimistic. The priest wore a layered robe of white and golden cloth that was far more elaborate than she had come to expect from the rank and file. He wasn’t Libasheshtan, but he was clearly a high-ranking member of the clergy. Perhaps he would be acting as go-between?
The dwarf didn’t step outside as he met her eyes. “Keeper, Duke Libasheshtan has made it abundantly clear that he wants nothing to do with you,” he said with intense disapproval.
With his free hand, he traced a large symbol into the air. “Begone, creature of Evil!”
Bright, blinding light filled Ami’s vision, and she felt the horrible sensation of holy magic clashing against her. For a nauseating split second, some force was reached inside of her and pulling at every point of her body.
It took her a moment to separate her own revulsion from the disorientation the possessed ice golem was feeling. Almost on reflex, she filled the area with a Shabon Spray fog to protect herself from further attacks and moved to the side.
When she tried to focus on her attacker, she noticed the absence of readouts from her visor that should be projected across her vison.
She blinked in surprise and tapped her earring to dismiss the damaged device, then tapped it again to materialise a replacement.
It was just as non-functional as its predecessor.
She bit her lips. Damage from the priest’s spell? Did she need to transform again to fix it?
A sphere of holy radiance tunnelled through the fog towards her, distracting her with waves of revulsion.
She vaulted backwards so she could duck into one of the side passages. Now in cover, she summoned her computer to run diagnostics.
The little palmtop device hummed softly in her grip, but its screen remained dark.
She felt her legs go weak. “Darn it!” she gasped. This couldn’t be happening! She needed that computer! How could the dwarfs even have a spell to disable her gear? Had the Light gods figured out how to do it when she was in their temple? But why now? Had she already overstretched the limits of what they were willing to tolerate? But- they had to know she couldn’t afford to lose her computer!
That last thought helped her calm down a little before the ramifications of losing access to her computer could cause her to panic. The device was still working; it simply wasn’t displaying anything. Some kind of curse?
She raised her hand to cast one of the general-purpose dispels from her library’s tomes, but reconsidered at the last moment. Hitting her magical computer with an indiscriminate magic-disrupting dispel sounded like a great way to damage it further. Adjusting her aim, she hit her visor instead.
Arcs of greenish lightning crawled across her vision, dissolving into sparks. Numbers flickered into visibility so briefly that they might just have been wishful thinking, and then the visor was blank again.
She sighed and considered her options. The quick and dirty solution wasn’t working, and she couldn’t use her broken gear to acquire the data she needed to fix it.
Her eyes narrowed as she snapped the palmtop shut. She could, however, ask the dwarfs what they had done once she had secured Duke Libasheshtan, who was right over there in the temple.
“Torian, where exactly in the building is the Duke hiding?” she asked, peering through her fog.
“Going by viewing angles alone, he seems to be on the right side of the arch on the lower floor,” her chief warlock replied after a moment.
Stepping out of cover, she extended her arm and aimed her palm towards the indicated location.
A cone of mist disappeared as her invisibility spell expanded towards the building. When it struck, a semi-circular section of the wall reaching from the ground to the top floor windows simply vanished.
She squinted as light spilled out into the mists. There was an altar far in the back that she hastily averted her eyes from, since it felt like staring directly into the sun. Her gaze slid over the rest of the palace-like sanctum, dismissing the gleaming marble and jewel-encrusted furniture as unimportant. Her attention was firmly on the startled dwarfs whirling to face her.
A few priests were kneeling near pews, eyes widened in surprise. The priest in layered robes from before was descending a staircase leading to the upper floor. Finally, Duke Libasheshtan was staring in her direction, motionless, one arm extended towards a cabinet full of elaborate crystal bottles.
The cone of invisible fog hadn’t yet begun to drift apart when he shook off his surprise. He tore his gaze away from her and grabbed the bottles, hurriedly stashing them in a padded bag at his side. As he did, he was walking sideways, moving farther away from the outer walls.
The high-ranking priest on the stairway gestured, sending a wave of silvery light towards the wall. He turned his head to meet Ami’s red-glowing eyes, his scowl turning into a smirk as the outer wall shimmered back into visibility.
His smug expression died when a power-armoured golem crashed through the closed window, sailing through the cloud of glass shards, plaster, and broken shutters.
The female-looking intruder crossed half the distance towards Duke Libasheshtan before her feet first touched the ground. She lunged at him, thrusting the carpet backwards with her legs.
“Impossible!” one of the priests shrieked, stumbling as the fabric under his feet jerked.
Teeth bared, Duke Libasheshtan backpedalled and reached for his sword.
An armoured hand blurred towards his collar, only to come to a sudden stop with a loud clang.
He suddenly had a great view of the intruder slamming into an amber-coloured wall of light so hard that her fingers bent the wrong way before she bounced off. Gratefully, he inclined his head towards the priest in layered robes, whose raised staff was glowing in the same colour as the barrier.
The golem started raining lightning-quick punches onto the force field, their ringing impacts echoing through the building and drowning out the new instructions Ami was shouting at her.
She wished the golem would turn and look at her through the ragged hole where the window had been. In the back, she could see the altar radiating the same amber glow as the barrier that split the room into two parts. It certainly wouldn’t fall before the armour’s gem reserves were all used up.
She tossed a small ball of ice at the golem’s back to get its attention just when the high-ranking priest gestured with his free hand.
Some of the golden wind chimes hanging from the ceiling came loose. Like pen-sized javelins, they shot towards the golem and burrowed into its armour, sticking out of it like bristles.
An instant later, the animated ice sculpture toppled sideways, paralyzed.
Ami hung her head in disappointment. That had been her plan with the least amount of collateral damage, but, to be honest, she hadn’t really expected it to succeed. Apparently, she would have to quite literally flush the Duke out. As she prepared to freeze over all openings that would prevent her from flooding the building, she tried to spot him through the broken window.
“Your Majesty,” Torian contacted her, “the Duke is trying to escape through the back door!”
Ami felt a jolt of excitement, and her eyes snapped to the area behind the arch while her Keeper sight focused on her chief warlock. “Show me!”
“Here,” the chief warlock said, pointing at a crystal ball. “Note the empty invisibility potion on the ground.”
That sounded as if her visor would be really helpful right now, but she could manage without it. Immediately, she remotely projected a Shabon Spray mist behind the temple, as close to it as she could.
Instead of the mist parting around a dwarf-shaped void, something moving faster than an arrow cut a straight lane through the expanding banks of fog.
“He’s no longer in the courtyard!” Torian told her, leaning over his crystal ball. “He must have ingested more than one type of potion,” he speculated.
She clenched her fists in frustration. She had been so close! “Track him! Use the colours to guide me,” she ordered as she cast a differently-coloured light spell into each of the three tunnels leading away from the temple.
“Understood. Pink,” Torian replied.
The teleport-capable imp with the oversized cloak appeared at her side, ready to be possessed so she could get past the temple quickly.
She would not let the Duke escape, not when he was this close. No matter how fast or invisible he was.
The tunnel Ami had been following opened up into larger caverns lined with buildings, not unlike a main street in a surface city. There was even rain in the form of a mild drizzle that dripped down from clouds of steam that gathered under the ceiling.
Ami didn’t mind the water at all, as it felt refreshing in the sweltering heat. There were narrow streams of glowing magma trickling down the walls, serving as a kind of street light.
In her opinion, their decorative value wasn’t worth the detrimental effects on the room climate. She swept her gaze over the cranes, various piles of ore, and crates of finished metals that cluttered the sides of the road, and slightly adjusted her assessment. If the magma had already been pumped up here to heat forges and furnaces, then it made sense to get the most out of it before it cooled down.
A shirtless dwarven worker didn’t hear her approach with all the hammering and rumbling that echoed through the district. When he finally spotted her, he dived behind the minecart he had been pushing and waited until she had dashed past.
Not all of the civilians who noticed her fled. A group of them were pouring molten metal out of a huge crucible, and they tracked her nervously with their eyes as she hopped over a few crates that jutted into the road and ran past.
That was some courage and dedication to duty she could admire, particularly since it was a duty that didn’t involve getting in her way. She spotted a smith move so that his anvil was between him and her, but he didn’t stop hammering the bluish metal before him. Adamantine! He was working adamantine! If only she had the time to observe, or at least had her visor to record this!
“Your Majesty, you need to veer left into the next alley, then to the right, then up the stairs onto the bridge,” Torian directed her.
She almost overlooked the indicated intersection amidst all the crates, support pillars, and forge equipment. Another reason to miss her visor. She couldn’t be sure there weren’t traps waiting for her. Just because the civilians were leaving her alone didn’t mean that guards had given up on stopping her.
A dwarven woman carrying an amphora-like pot spotted her as she rounded the corner, screamed, and ducked into a hallway.
Case in point, Ami hadn’t noticed her arrive. At least up on the bridge Torian had guided her onto she had a better field of view of the twisting maze below. She seemed to be moving towards the edge of the metalworking district.
When she was past the middle of the bridge, her chief warlock spoke up again. “Now jump off, onto that pile of tiles that reaches almost up to the railing. Yes, that one,” he said. “Oh, and the Duke’s speed boost must have worn off. You are catching up to him,” he informed her cheerfully.
The stack of tiles wobbled and toppled as soon as her feet touched it.
With a yelp, she waved her arms to keep her balance and tried to ride the avalanche of metal squares.
It worked for almost a second, but then the soldier who had been lying in ambush whipped a chain around her legs and yanked.
She lost the fight against gravity and fell right onto the pile of shifting squares. Immediately, she rolled sideways to avoid tiles from another stack falling onto her.
Amidst the clanging of metal plating, she almost missed her attacker shouting “Now!”
Behind her, further up the incline, a minecart started rolling in her direction. Its driver’s mustache was waving in the wind as the vehicle hurtled toward her, and his teeth were bared in a manic grin.
He had a passenger, a soldier who was pointing a lance at her as if he was a charging knight.
Dodge? She would have to rise and get rid of the chain draped around her legs first. On the other hand, she was lying on a pile of rather thick tiles.
Acting quickly, she propped one up against the ground like a shield and sat behind it.
The lance screeched horribly as it slid over the angled metal. An instant later, the vehicle reached it.
She wasn’t holding her shield vertically like a wall, but inclined at a shallow angle.
Instead of slamming into the plate with all of its momentum, the minecart drove over it as if it was ramp, barely losing speed.
The two soldiers screamed in surprise as they went sailing through the air.
With a casual gesture, she tossed the heavy plate aside and stared at the remaining soldier.
Mouth wide open, he stared at her, then at the cart disappearing down the incline, then at her again. He was still gaping in disbelief when Ami stood up, shook the chain off, and resumed sprinting after the Duke.
She was rather irritated that the dwarfs had figured out that a few attackers could slow her down almost as much as large groups.
After running for a few hundred metres, the decorations around her became more elaborate and occasionally featured angels.
She slowed her step, her worry about wards she couldn’t detect increasing. “Torian, the imagery on the walls is getting more religious. Am I approaching another temple?”
“It’s just a cemetery. Well, noble tombs and vaults, really. Pompous, lots of gold and silver. Guess they don’t want to get separated from their wealth even in death.”
“Why would he flee down there?” she wondered.
“We are still checking,” Torian replied. “At a guess, he expects that door up ahead to stop you.”
Cogwheels rattled somewhere inside the walls as a truly massive metal door, as thick as her forearm was long, slid across the tunnel. It was engraved with so many anti-evil wards that she could feel them from a distance.
She felt as if she was pushing through thick syrup as she approached the obstacle, trying to get through before it could close completely. With a wave of her hand, she put an ice block into the narrowing gap between it and the wall.
It cracked and splintered, and hissing steam rose where the ice touched the white-hot, melting wards. Still, it slowed the groaning mechanism down a little.
With the wards disintegrating, she recovered her full speed just in time to squeeze sideways through the gap between wall and door.
It slammed shut behind her with a loud thud, and there wasn’t even a trap waiting for her.
Taking a moment to place some lights for her warlocks, she surveyed the tunnel before her.
On both sides were vault doors with family crests, inlaid with gold and silver. Statues lined the way, and there were prayers for the dead inscribed on some of the arches.
She ignored those, as she could hear the echo of running footsteps. “Duke Libasheshtan, please wait!” she shouted, on the off chance he would listen.
“Emergency! There’s a hero gate down there!” Torian shouted suddenly. “Check crystal ball nine!”
Her heart skipped a beat. An escape route! Now his decision to come here made sense. Hurriedly, she followed his footsteps and scattered light spells as she ran.
A dim blue glow appeared near the gateway-like arch set into the wall.
There! Target acquired! Was the Duke carrying a magical pick? If so, a simple block of ice wouldn’t stop him. She needed something he couldn’t dig through quickly. Rubble!
Her mind focused on the pattern of the cave-in spell. She felt a moment of regret for the priceless artwork she was accepting as collateral damage, and then thunder rolled through the tunnels.
The ceiling above the hero gate cracked and collapsed, burying the exit underneath tons of loose debris.
“Oh, that took the wind out of his sails!” Torian commented. “He was close enough to get knocked on his arse by the displaced air. I can see his silhouette as a void in the dust cloud!”
“Good.” She smiled at the thought of finally being able to catch him.
“Oh, now he is panicking. Looks like he’s trying to hide in one of the tombs.”
A heavy door slammed shut just ahead.
Dust sprayed around her feet as she skidded to a halt in front of the building in question. It looked fairly recent, even stained with dirt from the cave-in.
She read the memorial plate set into the wall. “Duke Libasheshtan? If you don’t come out, I’ll have to damage your family’s tomb!”
There was no answer.
With a sigh, she formed a crowbar with her production spell and applied the strength of her golem body.
Unable to bear the strain, the locking mechanism tore apart, and the door swung open. The room before her was dark, but she could see the shadow of a sarcophagus in one corner.
Wary of traps, she placed dozens of light spells in a random pattern so she would hit every room of the building.
“He’s still invisible,” Torian warned her. “He went down a secret hatch under the carpet in the next room.”
“Any other exits?” she asked as she stepped through the door, briefly examining the swords on dispay on the walls. She added Shabon Spray fog to the lights to counter the invisibility.
“None. He’s trapped like a rat,” the warlock said with obvious relish.
She found the carpet he had mentioned and pushed it aside. Even knowing there was a hatch, she had to squat down and brush with her fingers over the ground to spot its edges.
A tiny section clicked as she put pressure on it.
The sound of a bottle smashing against the wall came from below.
“Oh, this is interesting. He threw a potion that is sucking up your mist,” Torian said.
She smiled at the thought of the Duke preparing the battlefield for a final stand. It meant he couldn't get away. She pushed a little harder, and the hatch swung open. Hesitating only for a moment, she jumped down.
“Duke Libasheshtan? It’s over. Just come quietly, please,” she pleaded, ready to defend herself against his last desperate attack.
Above her, the spring-powered hatch closed.
She raised her hand and froze it in place. “The only exit is sealed shut. You cannot sneak past me. I just want to talk to you, so please cooperate.”
“You haven’t won. You can’t find me before I can kill myself,” the Duke said suddenly, his voice echoing so strangely she couldn’t track its source.
“N-no! Don’t do that!” She blurted out, freezing in place. She hadn’t really expected him to take himself hostage. “Please don’t do anything rash! I mean no harm.”
Where exactly was he hiding? The only movement was the green stain on the wall sucking up the last vestiges of her fog. If only her visor was working!
“Do anything to find me and I’m dead! Understood?” he said, his voice still echoing from all sides.
“Yes,” she replied. Of course, the Duke had no way to know she was in constant mental communication with her warlocks. “Torian, use scrying to triangulate his exact position and tell me,” she ordered. “I need the best possible precision.”
“Just a moment. Hmm. Yes. Imagine a straight line between the wide end of the emerald-studded sarcophagus and the right foot of the statue on the wall. Imagine a second line between you and the garish double-headed axe on the wall. He’s standing right on their intersection.”
“Are you absolutely sure?” she verified.
“To about a hand’s span close, yes,”
That was good enough for her. Aiming for the average dwarf’s height, she brought a Shabon Spray Freezing from her storage and launched it at the indicated location.
The stream of bubbles travelled about a finger’s length after appearing before it collided with something invisible and expanded into a block of ice.
The Duke let out a surprised hiss and flickered back into visibility, his enchantment broken. Only his head was poking out from the ice, leaving his limbs immobilised.
“I’m sorry for that,” she said as she finally got to look at him. She didn’t feel too much remorse for trapping him like that though, since he had obviously not been preparing to commit suicide.
With an open potion bottle in his left hand and and a sword in his right, he looked ready to lunge at her. “Well, that didn’t work,” he said, his voice still producing the odd echoes. “Bah. Keeper, start talking. You finally have your captive audience. Not that it will change anything.”
“But you haven’t even heard yet what I’m offering,” she said as she stepped towards him. “You want me gone, I don’t want to be here-”
Her vision went black as her golem died. There was a wrenching sensation, and she felt as if she was burning up from the inside. When the room stopped spinning around her, she was sprawled out on the cold ground.
In her real body.
The Duke laughed. “You already lost. This room is an adamantine box, and it just finished sealing.”
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|Chapter 192: Cornering The Duke||Chapter 194: Adamantine|