"Owwwww." Ami groaned, holding her aching head with both hands. Only her elbows resting on the table before her saved her from slumping forward and slamming her chin into the wooden surface. She glared at the cause of her pain, the straight, blue-glimmering dagger lying on a plate before her.

The metal sparkled as if mocking her.

The red-eyed teenager was too mild-mannered to growl in frustration, even in the solitude of her laboratory, and so the faint snarl echoing through the cavern must have been an acoustic illusion. Instead, she clenched her teeth as she resisted the irrational impulse to grab the taunting little weapon and throw it at the wall. It would be wasted effort since it wouldn't even damage the thing. Nothing had so far.

"Mercury, did something explode? The dungeon just shook, and the lights flickered!" Cathy's mental voice reported, sounding tense but professional. Distorted into a dreamlike whisper by the communication spell, her message resonated in Ami's head.

The young Keeper winced as her headache intensified. "There's nothing to worry about. I just tried something that was rather stupid, in hindsight, and the dungeon heart had a little hiccup," Ami sent a telepathic message back. "There won't be a repeat performance."

"Oh, that's all right then. Only the dungeon heart having a hiccup." the blonde commented drily. "Are you trying to get yourself killed? And you just lectured the warlocks about being more careful with their experiments, too!"

"Cathy, please, not so loud. My head hurts," Ami complained.

"Are you injured?"

"No, but I found out that the feedback from the dungeon heart attempting an invalid operation stings. A lot," Ami explained. "Fortunately, the pain is receding quickly."

"Good. So what did you actually do?"

"I tried to copy some adamantine," Ami said, frowning at the dagger before her. "Rest assured that I'm not going to attempt that again in the foreseeable future."

She probably wouldn't even have tried that experiment in the first place if she hadn't been so frustrated about wasting three hours researching the substance without making any appreciable progress. The weapon's innocuous-looking material stymied her attempts to discover its secrets, because it was completely opaque to her sensors. However, even without her computer, she had an arsenal of more mundane tests she could run. For example, she now knew that adamantine was light enough to float in water, conducted heat and electricity poorly, and could be attracted by magnets.

More interestingly, from what she could determine, it seemed to be all but indestructible. High temperatures, acids, enough force to break a steel girder - nothing so far had been able to damage the metal. Was it even a metal? It was so hard to gain any insight into the substance when it proved impervious to the usual methods of analysis.

While the confirmation of the material's near-invulnerability was reassuring in a way, it also presented an enormous problem. How was she supposed to work with it if she couldn't shape it? "I'm missing something here," Ami concluded, pacing up and down. "Someone has clearly forged it into this shape. Perhaps it needs to be in raw form?"

She closed her fingers around the heft of the weapon, sliding her thumb appreciatively over the perfectly-smoothed honeycomb pattern engraved into its surface to provide more grip. At least it doesn't make me shy away like the mantle, despite being allegedly made of dead Light god, she thought, deciding to look on the bright side of things. She could definitively live without that additional complication. It might be simpler to just ask the others what they know about working with adamantine, she decided.

The watchtower of the village of Sleepymeadows stood on the outskirts of the collection of straw-thatched buildings. Its crenelations reached two stories higher into the sky than that of the next-tallest building, which was the town hall. Since the latter only had two floors, the tower was not particularly impressive, even by local standards. This didn't stop the villagers from taking great pride in the fact that it was a full floor taller than the guard towers of the neighbouring villages.

Mirroring the watchtower's height, a narrow spiral staircase led straight down to a chamber carved into the bedrock. Just as a guardsman on top of the tower was keeping a watchful eye on the surrounding fields and pastures with a telescope, a second guard attentively observed the sensitive instruments that measured vibrations in the ground. In theory.

In practice, Theo considered watching the calm basins, swinging pendulums, and trembling indicators one of the most boring jobs in the world. He wasn't going to take a nap while he was on duty, but he also wasn't going to stare at the hands moving across never-changing charts all the time. That would lead to him falling asleep for sure.

Instead, he reclined on his chair and flipped the pages of a worn booklet, glancing from time to time at the instruments. The introductory treatise on magic belonged to his eldest son, who had already progressed past the basics covered in this manual and was now studying at the academy in the capital. Theo's tongue poked out from his mouth, licking across his stubble-covered upper lip as he concentrated. He snapped his fingers, and the small white light in the ceiling lantern redoubled in intensity. Got it on the first try this time, he thought proudly, smiling. Now what's this noise?

He listened intently for the feint ringing that sounded just as if he had struck his helmet with a teaspoon. It repeated, and his eyes darted toward the cylindrical chimes hanging from the wall, connected to one of the vibration-measuring devices clicking away before him. Alarmed, he stood up, put the book aside, and wiped the dust and spider webs off a huge board that covered the right wall. Nervously, he searched the comparison chart for patterns matching the graphs the mechanical instruments were drawing. Once he found them, he paled. Underground digging. Too far away - thank the Light - to get a precise location, but close enough for the small tremors it caused to propagate through the rock and reach this location.

Theo's hands shook. Hadn't Keeper Subfa been spotted in the neighbouring Barony recently? But certainly, the fiend wouldn't spread his forces so thin? The proper authorities needed to be informed immediately! His keys jingled as he approached the dusty cabinet that held a crystal ball for just that purpose. He missed the keyhole twice in his haste, and hoped the orb would still be in good shape. As far as he knew, there hadn't been a need to use it in the last two decades.

"I'll have to talk to the dwarfs, then." Ami said, summarising what she had learned from her advisers. Even the warlocks had confirmed that they knew of nobody else who had ever discovered the secret of shaping adamantine. Somehow, Ami doubted that the dwarfs would be willing to share a methodology they had guarded through the ages with a Keeper. "Baron Leopold has a suit of armour that incorporates the material, doesn't he? How did he acquire it?"

Jered let himself drop onto the living room's couch. Cathy shot him an irritated glance when the furniture's springs bounced from impact, rocking her body and causing her to spill some of her drink. "One of the dwarfish kingdoms awarded it to him as a reward for his heroic exploits during their succession war. Some nasty business about a pretender to the throne backed by a Keeper."

Ami digested that for a while. "So, could I find a dwarfish smith and commission objects from him, for a price?"

Cathy snorted. "I doubt it. No dwarf in good standing would be willing to give a Keeper the time of the day."

"So we'd have to find a criminal?" the blue-haired girl asked, frowning as she considered the problem.

"The only ones who even get the privilege to work with adamantine are the master smiths deep within their mountain homes. Or so rumour says," Snyder dashed her hopes. "However, history suggests that they have an almost unhealthy appreciation for nobility, so your title as an Empress may be an asset here."

"I might have to negotiate with the kingdoms directly, then," Ami said, not discouraged too much by the sceptical expressions that appeared on Cathy's and Jered's faces. "This might be a good thing. I can try to secure a steady supply at the same time."

"How much of the stuff do you need, anyway?" Cathy asked, straightening her back as she leaned forward.

"Um, I can't really tell with any precision without knowing more about its properties. Perhaps enough to fill the treasure chamber?" Ami made an educated guess. The room she was talking about was ten metres wide and of similar depth and height, and could, at her estimation, hold around two hundred tons of the low-density substance.

"Bwah?" Cathy's eyes went wide, and she started coughing violently as she choked on her drink.

Snyder sucked in his breath sharply, and his eyebrows rose.

"That's... quite the impressive amount," Jered commented after a moment of silence. "In fact, that's likely more than the all adamantine items that have ever left the dwarfish strongholds taken together. What could you possibly need that much for?"

"I'd like to know that too," Cathy exclaimed.

"It's a high estimate," Ami said. "I'll probably need less than half of that, but I need to have a large margin of error in case things don't work out the way I need them to."

"Oh, of course. That makes the amount much more reasonable," the swordswoman said, voice dripping with sarcasm. "And you still haven't told us what you are planning with all of that!"

"Oh, of course!" Ami put her hands together and smiled. "Please keep in mind that this is an idea in its first planning stages. I haven't had the time to do more than the most rudimentary calculations yet, and I still need to conduct a proper feasibility study." Seeing the impatient look on the blonde's face, she continued "Basically, I want to make a dungeon heart from it."

"A dungeon heart." Jered said in a deadpan tone of voice. "Made from adamantine."

Ami nodded, a bright smile on her face.

The wavy-haired man whistled. "Wow. You'll want to keep that one a secret as long as possible," he advised. "It's going to scare a lot of people."

Mercury blinked. "What, why?"

Jered tilted his head to the left and narrowed his eyes at her, as if wondering how this could have escaped her notice. "How do you defeat a Keeper with an invulnerable dungeon heart?"

"Oh." Her smile turned a bit more strained. Yes, she should probably have occurred to her. "That's not why I want one, though."

"In that case, I fail to see the point," Cathy said.

"Well, it's a bit complicated," Ami began. "Feel free to interrupt me if I made some mistake in my reasoning here. Basically, my soul still has to be linked to me in some way through the dungeon heart. Otherwise, I would be dead."

The people in the room nodded wordlessly, agreeing so far.

"You also know what happens when a dungeon heart is destroyed," she said, her voice getting quieter. "My data suggests that any dungeon heart brought into the vicinity of a place where its Keeper had previously lost a dungeon heart would be sucked into the dark god's realm too."

Cathy's puzzled frown disappeared as she latched onto an idea. "Oh, you want to protect yourself from the banishment?"

"That would be a nice side effect if it could be achieved, but it isn't my primary goal. So far, I have developed a theory on why getting pulled in happens. First, only the owner of the heart is banished, which means the effect is selective. Second, well," she turned to look at Snyder, who was absently scratching his chin as he listened to her explanation "Could you please repeat what happens to the owner of a hero heart when it is destroyed?"

"Of course. The texts recovered from Wemos' collection all agree that the unfortunate lord bound to the demolished heart would be summoned to its former location, usually right into a waiting group of enemies, " the redhead summarised.

"Exactly. That suggests that the pull neither originates from the dark gods nor their realm. Since the Light confirmed that the hero version is just a crippled variant of my type of dungeon heart, it stands to reason that it, too, steals the user's soul. However, since the hero hearts have no connection to the evil realm, the soul likely remains trapped within."

"You therefore assume that, upon destruction of a dungeon heart, the removed soul attempts to reunite with the body, causing this attraction?" Snyder asked, following the blue-haired girl's train of thought.

"Yes, exactly. It makes sense, doesn't it?" Ami exclaimed, happy that someone else had come to the same conclusions independently.

"Well, actually, I can see several problems with that theory," the white-robed man began. "First, according to you, a lord bound to a hero heart should quite literally stick to it, unable to move away."

"But the dungeon heart is part of the person. As long as it exists, the soul would already be reunited with its body," Ami countered.

Snyder furrowed his brow as he considered the answer. "Admittedly, you would know more about that than I do," he conceded. "Very well. The second problem is the zone of banishment that remains around the tear in space where a dungeon heart once stood."

"That one is actually quite easily explained. The pull decreases rapidly in function of distance from the tear," Ami replied, having already thought of that herself."Besides, 'tear in the world' is not quite the right term. That implies that just anything could pass through. It's more the specific link the dungeon heart used to connect Keeper and soul, laid bare."

"Ah, but if the power of the pull drops off with physical distance, then why is the Keeper banished when his dungeon heart first breaks, no matter his location?" The acolyte grinned triumphantly as he pointed out the flaw in Mercury's reasoning.

Ami smiled, finding the intellectual challenge quite enjoyable. "At first glance, that does look like a glaring inconsistency, doesn't it? However, it assumes that the power required to banish the Keeper remains constant at all times. I posit that the destruction of a dungeon heart renders the body temporarily less substantial, making it much easier to move. As evidence, I offer the fact that I passed through intervening matter with no resistance when Zarekos destroyed my heart," she said with a slight shudder at the memory.

"If you are right, then a Keeper who lost a dungeon heart would not necessarily be drawn to the most recently destroyed heart, but to the one closest to his physical location," Jered pondered.

"Jered, I believe you just designed an empirical test. Let's find us a Keeper with more than one heart," his girlfriend suggested with a nasty grin.

"That would be a beneficial experiment, even if the results contradicted Mercury's theories," Snyder agreed. He turned back to look at the black-uniformed teenager. "However, a final problem remains. How does the Keeper manage to return from the realm of the dark gods if the soul keeps tugging at him?"

"It doesn't," Ami said abruptly. "I didn't feel external forces acting on me while I was there, and I don't know why. I'd prefer not to dwell too much on that." She gripped her shoulders with one hand each, pressing her arms tightly against herself as she shivered.

"All right, all right. We believe you," Cathy said in a soothing voice. "Now, while this all nice to know, it still doesn't explain why you need an adamantine dungeon heart."

"I was getting to that. Assume that the soul and the body exert an attractive force on each as long as they are not both in the dark gods' realm. The soul must be the more difficult of the two to move, since it's the physical part that gets drawn in. Thus, if I can create an unmoveable physical anchor, I should be able to reel in my soul and take it back that way!"

"Ah, that's great!" Cathy cheered. "Wait, no. I still don't see where your shiny new adamantine dungeon heart comes in. Even if you placed it next to one of those tears, it would just be pulled in, too. So unless all you want is to brain a dark god with it, I don't see how that would help."

"The trick is making it large enough that I can put a regular dungeon heart inside," Ami explained, then waited until the brains of her wide-eyed companions had digested the concept.

"One dungeon heart inside the other? The last time you brought two close together, one of them blew up in your face!" Jered said, blinking rapidly.

"That's the general idea," Ami said. "Since the adamantine heart is invulnerable, it will be able to bear the strain of containing the tear pulling at it from the inside. Thus, my soul will be the part that is less anchored and has to move here."

"That plan sounds completely crazy," Cathy said, shaking her head. "Still, I like it much better than the idea of you having to fight - or worse, serve - some dark god to retrieve your soul. If you think there's a chance it will work, take it!"

"It will be difficult to implement," Jered said with a crooked grin, "but any plan that consists of us amassing riches equivalent to a large hill of gold finds my approval!"

"I agree with the assessment of my colleagues and support this plan, on the condition that you run the details past the Light. I fear you might cause irreparable harm to yourself if even one of your assumptions does not hold."

"I'll do that once I have the details worked out for myself," Ami said. There was an additional complication she hadn't even mentioned yet. Since her dungeon heart couldn't work with adamantine, it wouldn't be able to assist her with the ritual to create the new one. Instead of relying on the complex patterns within her existing hearts, she would have to assemble the new one manually, part by part. Even so, it was still a better plan than summoning Metallia to put her into a box.

Although the latter remained a hidden option with this new plan, even if its primary purpose failed. The adamantine dungeon heart would be an appropriate prison to contain the dark goddess. It was also a nice workaround for the potential danger of Ami dying if her soul was sealed away with the evil deity. Since the container would be a dungeon heart, the connection to her body should not break. Still, I better don't even mention that backup plan, Ami thought, feeling somewhat guilty at the deception. There was no way the others would approve of Metallia coming to their world.

"Oh, and Mercury?" Jered said, "If you have time, you should visit the portal and collect the new recruits before they change their minds and wander back out."

"I'll deal with that right away," Ami said, happy to hear that the reopening of the portal had attracted new prospective employees.

"Watch out for a big guy in a black cloak who thinks that skulls make a nice fashion statement," the weasel-featured man called out as his Empress summoned an ice golem to possess. "He creeps me out. Even the other creatures give him a wide berth. In any case, he demanded to talk to you in the name of Crowned Death."

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Chapter 119: Gauging the Opposition Chapter 121: Dark Messenger

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