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Lying on the floor, Ami went rigid as she processed the Duke’s words. Her heartbeat quickened. She couldn’t be trapped in an inescapable prison fit to hold even a dark god, could she?

Unwilling to take his word for it, she reached for her dungeon heart.

Nothing. She couldn’t access its magic, nor see into her dungeon, nor feel any kind of connection to the creatures that served her at all. The knowledge held in her libraries had disappeared just like her ability to move objects into storage. She couldn’t even use her Keeper senses on the room she was in.

Shivering despite the warmth of the floor, she pushed herself up. It took a little more effort than she was used to, and she looked down at herself once she was in a sitting position. Oh, she was in civilian form, wearing one of the corruption-resistant outfits based on the fairies’ uniforms.

She pulled her arms close to her chest and started rocking in place. If the adamantine was keeping away even the magic she needed to sustain her transformation, then how was she ever going to free herself? Was she completely cut off from the outside world? Wait, something didn’t fit.

“How…?” she muttered softly.

Duke Libasheshtan had been watching her with a satisfied grin, and his expression brightened even further. Completely misinterpreting her question, he answered “Oh, it wasn’t all that difficult,” he said. “A clever mechanism to pour molten adamantine onto the trapdoor. You actually helped it harden faster when you tried to lock me in.” His eyes flicked briefly towards the block of ice clinging to the ceiling.

Ami raised her head to look at him, surprised by his explanation. If only he had been that cooperative where negotiations were concerned. “That’s, um, nice to know, but not really what I was wondering about,” she said.

In fact, she didn’t know how she was still alive. If the adamantine box blocked everything, then she should be cut off from her soul and dead. Either adamantine wasn’t as impenetrable as she believed, or there was some weakness in the prison that she could exploit.

She turned to glance at the dead golem lying behind her on the floor.

It looked like an inert ice statue, its glamoured skin having dissolved along with its Sailor Mercury uniform. In contrast, the light spells underneath the ceiling that didn’t need an external mana source were still working.

She dismissed the possibility of a hole in the prison. No matter how small it was, mana would have been able to flow in. It seemed more likely that adamantine had some unknown properties. Could she get more answers out of the Duke?

For someone stuck to his neck in ice and imprisoned with a Keeper in an adamantine box, he looked surprisingly smug and satisfied. Judging from his stance, he had been preparing to attack her the moment she appeared in her real body. Despite his plan failing, he didn’t look afraid.

She got to her feet. “Duke Libasheshtan, shouldn’t you be more worried? You are trapped in here too, and our air supply won’t last forever.” Which meant she was on a time limit. She didn’t know how to determinate exactly how long she had, but the room was several meters wide and deep, so she was at least not in immediate danger.

“My death is acceptable if it keeps my people safe from you,” he said. “Which it will, since there is no way for you to get out,” he added smugly.

“But, that’s completely unnecessary!” she protested, horrified. “I wasn’t going to attack. I came here to ask for a truce so that I could leave. With trains and access to the ocean, I could move to an iceberg. You want me gone from your territory, and I don’t want to stay,” she explained.

“Then you obviously shouldn’t have come here in the first place, Empress,” the Duke answered.

“I had no choice,” she said, lowering her head. “There was no time and no way to move all the people I’m responsible for, and I didn’t have any reliable defences against undead sea monsters either.”

“And you conveniently acquired some now that you are losing? A likely story. Empress, just how gullible do you think we are?”

“It’s the truth!” she protested. Torian had only recently developed his mass undead control spell.

“Even if I believed your tale, stopping you would still be worth almost any sacrifice. You are simply too dangerous to let live. I don’t know how you have made the Avatar and the Light reluctant to oppose you directly, but that’s a power no Keeper can be allowed to have!”

She hesitated only for a moment. “They leave me alone because I’m not evil!” There wasn’t really any point in trying to keep that secret from him. If she managed to convince him, then he would have no reason to tell her enemies. If she didn’t, well, she probably couldn’t get out of here alive without his help.

A quiet chuckle came from the Duke, his black beard bobbing as it grew louder and louder. He managed to stop himself before it turned into full blown laughter. “That’s all you can come up with? I must say, watching a Keeper realise there’s no way out and getting increasingly desperate is proving to be as amusing as I hoped it would be. A fine way to spend one’s final hours.”

“But-”

“In fact, I am going to use this unique opportunity to the fullest and gloat until you finally snap and start torturing me or something,” he continued in a cheerful voice.

“I wouldn’t-” she protested, frustrated that he seemed determined to martyr himself.

The immobilised dwarf carelessly interrupted her. “Are you, for example, aware that your side is slowly but surely losing?”

“I know my situation doesn’t look very good right now…” she admitted reluctantly.

“Not just you. I meant Keepers, Dark Gods, Evil in general.”

She blinked rapidly, not sure what to say. That sounded too good to be true.

“You don’t believe me? I swear on my honour that it is true. We dwarfs have been working on making this happen ever since the Light first blessed our ancestors with the means to thrive underground,” he said, his voice booming with pride.

Not yet sure whether to believe him, she was nevertheless eager to hear more. “Could you elaborate on that, please?”

“With pleasure. You would have to get violent to stop me from talking,” he confirmed. “Let’s start with the basics. Do you know where the foundation of the Underworld’s is?”

She shook her head. “I wasn’t aware it had one.” Besides, Jadeite’s attempts to map that place had never gone anywhere.

“Well, it’s right here, about a mile or two straight down,” the Duke said.

Involuntarily, she looked at the floor. “You mean the remains of the dark god sealed in adamantine?”

The Duke’s eyes widened in surprise, but he nodded. “So you know about that already. Yes, you are correct. That decomposing corpse is the origin of the Underworld; the dark heart that keeps it working.”

Conflicting information had kept her from making that connection. “But I thought it was sealed away?”

“If only! The adamantine covers it like a blanket, forming a roughly bowl-shaped shell that’s open at the bottom. The dark power trapped underneath creates a chaotic hell that protrudes down into the magma. Currents carry it along, stretching it out into a labyrinth of diluted tendrils. Fortunately, the conditions down there make that labyrinth impossible to traverse, so its worst parts remain unreachable. Less fortunately, some parts eventually rise back to the planet's crust, where their dark power corrupts their surroundings and births monsters.”

Ami nodded slowly, thinking of Metallia’s power animating random objects. So far, this sounded fairly believable. “And you are working on closing the opening?” she asked, interested despite her need to search for a way out.

“No, we can’t dig that deep because the bedrock doesn’t support the pressure. We simply collect and use the filtered mana that seeps through the adamantine.”

A jolt of excitement went through her body, and she leaned forward eagerly. “Adamantine can let magic through?”

“That’s what I just said.” He paused and raised an eyebrow. “Not yours though, so you can wipe that hopeful expression off your face. It’s a divine material, it’s meant to stop everything tainted by evil. There’s no way anything touched by a dungeon heart can get through.”

She frowned. “But somehow, the magic of an actual dark god can?” she asked sceptically.

The Duke’s shook his head as much as the ice let him. “No, what gets through is mana that has changed so much during random decay that no trace of its original structure, intent, guidance, or allegiance remains.”

“I see,” she answered thoughtfully. Her own mana, handled by the dungeon heart, apparently failed to meet those conditions. Perhaps there was unaligned ambient magic permitted into this prison that she could draw in for her own use?

“Anyway, there’s a considerable amount of free power rising from below that we put to good uses, such as lighting, temperature regulation, healing, transport, food production, and crafting.” He grinned at her expectantly.

She felt a little lost. While she now knew that the dwarfs powered their city with a decaying dark god – not something she had expected, really – she still had no idea which conclusion the Duke was obviously expecting her to reach. “I don’t quite follow how this would lead to the side of Evil losing?” she asked hesitantly.

The Duke’s grin waned. “I thought that should be obvious. Dark gods gain power from causing evil and lose power from causing good, even if it’s unintentional. Using that dead abomination to improve lives, thwart evil, and create great works permanently weakens it, and with it the Underworld!”

She blinked. There was a giant, glaring problem with that explanation. “Shouldn’t all the misery and suffering created by the Underworld empower it even more, then?”

Unperturbed, the Duke smiled. “Yes, but, fortunately, evil is self-defeating.” He chuckled. “To be more precise, the other dark gods ruin everything. As usual. Only the last god involved reaps the spoils.”

She considered her own visits to the Underworld, where every aspect of society and even the unnatural terrain was shaped according to the whims of dark gods. “The dark pantheon claims all the credit,” she concluded, her mood improving a little.

He nodded. “And thus, the Underworld withers while adamantine grows. You must have noticed that the more magical evil monsters have become rarer and rarer over the centuries. When was the last time you saw a naturally-occurring horde of more than fifty demonspawn?”

“I’m only fifteen,” she replied, still thinking through the implications.

The Duke tilted his head to the side. “Centuries?”

“Years!” she protested, surprised.

“Seriously?” His brow furrowed as he looked her up and down silently for several seconds. “You are as old as you look? If that’s the truth, your Majesty, then you are way too young to wear something like that,” he said with obvious disapproval.

She felt her cheeks heat up and crossed her arms. “It’s a recoloured fairy uniform. Which is used by Light side forces,” she defended herself. “It’s the most respectable outfit I can wear without the dungeon’s Corruption making embarrassing changes.”

“In other words, not respectable at all,” he replied, obviously enjoying her discomfort.

She turned away from him, unwilling to discuss her choice of attire when she had much more pressing problems. Not that changing into her senshi uniform was a bad idea at all. If adamantine was permeable to non-evil magic, then she definitely should try transforming.

Raising one hand into the air, she called out “Mercury power, make up!”

Her transformation pen appeared, but it remained inactive between her fingers. Insufficient power. Apparently, just having a dungeon heart was enough to contaminate her senshi magic so it couldn’t pass through the adamantine.

“Was that supposed to do anything?” the sardonic voice of the Duke asked from behind her after a few seconds.

With a sigh, she lowered her arm and considered her transformation pen for a moment before dismissing it. If her personal artefacts still worked, then her computer should also –

She concentrated, feeling a mild drain before a reassuring weight appeared in her hand. With a relieved breath, she flipped the device open. Despite having used it frequently in civilian form, she had been a little worried there.

To her even greater relief, the screen was bright and functional. Whatever had been interfering with it couldn’t make it through the adamantine, at least not while staying a finished and functional spell.

The Duke craned his head and tried to look at the screen. “Oh, is that the thing that reveals secrets to you? Not that knowledge will get you out of here.”

“I have to try anyway,” she answered, staring at the screen. “Actually, how did you disable it earlier?” Provided she managed to escape from here, she needed to keep that from happening again.

“Simplicity itself,” he explained. “A mere sympathetic link to its appearance to replace it with an illusion was enough to confound the Dark Empress. Fairly basic magic, but hard to get rid of with the power of the ritual chamber backing it. Which, by the way, also protected its casters from any retribution you could have brought to bear at range.”

She hung her head. “I could have simply changed the screen’s appearance with some dirt if I had known how it worked,” she muttered, more to herself.

The Duke gaped at her. “But- That couldn’t have- could it?” he asked before falling quiet, leaving her to her work.

In the ensuing silence, she typed away at her computer, trying to get a better read on her situation.

The link to her dungeon heart was missing completely, to her surprise and worry. Didn’t she need it to stay alive? Then again, underlings had minion bonds too, and they suffered no ill effects when a dungeon heart was destroyed.

Her soul had to remain connected to her by some other mechanism. Which, when she considered the problem from a different angle, made a certain amount of sense. The attraction exerted by the soul on a dungeon keeper’s body was so great that merely approaching the site of a lost dungeon heart would lead to being sucked into the dark realm. Forging a direct magical link to the source of said attraction - well, the mental image it brought to mind was a dungeon heart with Usagi’s face, the connection as a straw, and the Keeper as a ball of runny ice cream.

Could it be that the dungeon heart was actually shielding the body from the soul? She had so many new questions. This imprisonment would actually be a wonderful experiment if only she didn’t have to worry about surviving it.

Deciding that the more metaphysical mysteries had to wait until later, she focused on the walls. Even superficial scans revealed that there was metal hidden underneath a thin layer of stone.

Behind her, the Duke swallowed audibly as she plucked an ornamental double axe off the wall.

Even using both hands, the weapon was too heavy for her to easily swing. She spun in a half circle to make it pick up speed before slamming it against the wall.

The axe bounced off hard enough to jump from her grip. Ringing, it dropped to the ground amidst a spray of pulverised stone and skidded away.

She briefly shook her aching fingers and then brushed over the gash she had made. With a bit of effort, she managed to pry away more of the cracked stone camouflaging the blue-gleaming adamantine underneath.

Her computer told her that the layer was very thin, roughly three millimetres thick, and that her blow hadn’t affected it at all.

She turned towards the Duke. “Do you know why my equipment can suddenly measure the adamantine’s thickness? I have never been able to do that before.”

“Of course you couldn’t. It is a holy metal, the power of a dead god of Light in physical form. It may not be alive, but it has purpose. It thwarts evil like you to the best of its abilities.”

“And now it can tell that I’m not evil?” she asked, perking up.

He snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s probably your artefact that doesn’t register as evil now that it’s not under the influence of a dungeon heart.”

“But- oh, never mind.” She couldn’t really disagree with her computer’s lack of evilness. She kicked at the damaged wall in frustration, and a palm-sized piece of stone flaked off.

The gleaming adamantine underneath it wasn’t as smooth as she had expected. Dense, precise lines formed elaborate wards that reminded her of magnified circuitry.

The complexity of what she was seeing baffled her. “You can’t have had the time to make all this!” she gasped.

“Oh, this trap wasn’t for you originally,” the Duke offered. “Keeper Bartholomeus died in here. We only had to bring it through the hero gate and reassemble it.”

She nodded in comprehension. “So it can be opened!” she concluded. For a moment she paused to focus all of her computer's sensors on the trapped dwarf. She didn’t want to miss any sign he was lying when he answered her next question. “Can you open it?”

He shook his head. “No. Even if I could and was willing to, I would still fail because the adamantine would resist me trying to free a Keeper.” His smile turned downright nasty. “That also means your minions won’t be able to coerce anyone into letting you out. There is no hope for you.”

He just had to remind her that the people back at her dungeon were in danger too. Clenching her teeth, she wished she knew what was happening back there. Hopefully, Jadeite and the others wouldn’t try anything reckless.

The readings on her screen indicated that the padding of the Duke’s armour kept him warm under the ice, and there was no shivering to obscure his body’s involuntary reactions. There were no indications that he had been less than truthful, either.

“Darn it!” Never mind this being her first attempt at using her computer as a lie detector, the results made too much sense. One didn’t leave the means to escape in a prisoner’s cell. Forcing aside her increasing worry, she studied the incredibly intricate wards again.

Too much work had gone into them for them to be unimportant, even if she didn’t know what they did. Something with space? Her computer couldn’t detect anything beyond the adamantine, weirdly enough.

“So, what are those wards for if the adamantine is indestructible?” she asked.

“To stop you from teleporting out, of course. Adamantine can stop many things, but just going around it isn’t one of them.”

Her breath quickened. A way out! She only needed to find a weakness in the wards and she could free herself! Or, to be more precise, she could get a message about the weakness out to someone who could retrieve her. Being in civilian form effectively stopped her from using her self-teleport.

With a smile, she turned to the Duke. “I can’t help but notice that you are being surprisingly helpful.”

“Respect for your title, Empress,” he grumbled. “Besides, I quite enjoy rubbing in all the reasons why you will never make it out of here alive.”

“You aren’t worried at all that I will find a way to bypass those wards?” she asked, tilting her head to the side.

“No. They were designed by the Light and inscribed into indestructible adamantine. There is not even a tiny chance that they will fail,” he said confidently.

She blinked. “I thought you didn’t trust the Light?”

“Watch your words, Keeper!” Duke Libasheshtan bellowed, glowering at her. “I have complete faith in the Light’s abilities!”

She shrunk back from the dwarf’s furious gaze. “But, it doesn’t look like it to me,” she hurried to explain. “I mean, it was pretty clear that the Avatar didn’t want you to fight me, but you didn’t listen.”

“That’s just being aware of the Light’s limitations,” the Duke answered, and his red face returned to a healthier colour. “The Light gods are unsurpassed when it comes to creation, nurture, improvement, healing and protection. However, causing destruction is against Their nature, which makes them prioritise defence over offence. Sometimes unwisely so.”

“And you thought this was one of those times,” she said, letting out a long breath.

“The results speak for themselves. You are here, defeated, while waiting would have let you build up your forces,” he pointed out.

“Defeating me wasn’t even their objective,” she protested. She narrowed her eyes at him. “Also, I’m not ready to give up just yet.”

“The adamantine doesn’t care, and neither do the wards. Also, it is my great joy to inform you that shielding and protecting an area from travel does fall under the Light’s strengths. Nobody is getting in or out of here without being able to work adamantine.”

“Which you obviously won’t tell me how to do,” she said with a sigh.

“On the contrary.”

“What?” She stared at him with wide eyes, certain she had misheard him.

He nodded jovially. “Oh, yes. Since the knowledge is completely useless to someone like you, it will simply make my victory so much sweeter.”

“I’m listening,” she replied in a flat voice.

“Good. First, you need to heat the metal – its melting point is a little higher than that of iron – not that this will have any effect unless the other conditions are also met.”

She nodded, taking notes. Difficult in her current position, but not impossible. If she could come up with a way to collect the ambient mana, she could shape it into a simple spell to heat up a small spot of the wall. She didn’t need more than a tiny hole.

“Second, you need a priest to infuse the adamantine with holy power, giving it back a semblance of the life it once had,” the Duke continued, his smile widening as she paled.

Her shoulders slumped. There was no way for her to do that. Unless… she looked up so abruptly that she startled the Duke. “What does it take to become an acolyte?”

Mouth agape, he stared at her for almost half a minute. “You know what? I’m not even going to dignify that kind of insanity with an answer. Moving right on. The next step is anointing the metal with some blood.” Remembering that it was a Keeper he was talking to, he hurried to clarify “and no cheating, it needs to be from the person who works the adamantine.”

That sounded easy enough, provided she could clear the previous obstacles. For only making a tiny hole, she wouldn’t need much.

“Now, the adamantine will judge you. If you and your intentions are good, it becomes as malleable as ordinary metal to you. As you can see, that’s yet another impossible step,” he concluded triumphantly.

For a regular Keeper, certainly. Without the dungeon heart tainting her, she felt she could pass the test. Unless the adamantine objected to some of her more questionable actions in the recent past. Best not to dwell on that now.

“Is that everything that’s required?” she asked in a thoughtful voice. “I was expecting there to be some skill barrier, like applying a complicated procedure with little margin of error.”

“Great skill is required to actually forge something worthwhile, as heated adamantine is rather sticky,” he answered obligingly. “Anyone less than a master smith would just waste-” The room jolted, making the frozen dwarf sway. The emerald-studded sarcophagus in the corner jumped, its lid raising a finger’s breadth before slamming shut again.

“What was that?” she asked, startled. “Are your men moving the room?”

“No, they won’t do anything to it until they have quite thoroughly verified that you are dead,” he replied as he looked around. “This must be your minions trying something stupid and futile.”

She placed her ear against the wall. Only the youma and Jadeite would be able to teleport near here. “Hello? Can you hear me?” she shouted, worried for their safety. Tiger in particular might have followed her despite the danger.

Faint rumbling reached her, and occasionally masonry cracked or rock groaned. No voices at all, even when the room shuddered again. It didn’t sound as if any living being was nearby.

“It sounds a little like a very slow cave-in,” she reported to the Duke. “Was there perhaps a plan to bury this trap after it had gone off?”

He shook his head. “Why? That would be pointless. We don’t get any earthquakes here either.”

She considered more possibilities until she remembered something important. “Actually, what is happening to all the mana that can’t reach me?” she asked in a shaky voice.

The Duke looked surprised at her tone. “It hits the adamantine and gets stuck outside, obviously.”

“That’s what I was afraid of,” she answered. “Did you consider how dangerous that is?” When Snyder had first made wards to stop her sailor uniform from appearing on her underlings, the blocked magic had stuck around her dungeon heart and produced chaotic results.

He didn’t share her apprehension. “Nothing to worry about. It’s merely more power for the city’s infrastructure, which will consume it just like the mana rising from below.”

“That’s even worse!” she blurted out.

“What, contributing something beneficial to society during your last moments?” he said, winking.

She wasn’t in a mood for jokes. “Flooding your city with mana that’s tainted by a dungeon heart, mixed with dark magic from my patron deity, and containing all the Corruption that can’t reach me in here!” she elaborated.

He scoffed. “A drop in the ocean, you mean. With all the power we harvest from below, yours will be so diluted by the point it hits the wards that nobody will notice anything. It’s not an issue.”

“I- I don’t think you realise how much mana I can draw upon,” she answered. She wasn’t boasting, but saying that still felt awkward.

“Your attempts at unsettling me are pointless. I can’t help you get out, so you can stop pretending to be concerned for my citizens,” he said. “Unless you are simply trying to make me miserable?”

“No! But you can’t deny that something strange is happening outside!”

As if on cue, the room shook again.

“I still believe that it is merely a doomed rescue attempt,” the Duke said, rolling his eyes.

“And I have yet another reason to break out of here fast,” she replied. Her fingers danced over the keyboard, bringing up arcane diagrams. She would draw one of those right now so it could collect and concentrate ambient mana while she worked. She wouldn’t get out without being able to cast spells.

Previous chapter: Next chapter:
Chapter 193: Hunt's End

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