With one eye closed, Torian stared at the drop of reddish liquid quivering at the tip of the dropping glass he was holding over a half-filled vial. Would the addition of dragon blood increase the duration of the shape-shifting potion, or would it lead to new and interesting effects? Either way, he was eager to find out. He smirked at the shivering imp sitting on one of desks, tied up with enough rope to make it look like a large-eyed sausage. Unfortunately, he would have to delay his experiment, since he felt the familiar tug of his dark empress dragging him through space.

The well-groomed warlock had expected to arrive in the Empress' study or in the command centre, so the cold wind that sprayed raindrops into his short-bearded face came as an unpleasant surprise. He flinched away from the wet sensation and retracted his head deeper into the high, starched collar of his robes to seek shelter from the elements. He seemed to be on a cliff overlooking the sea, but the iceberg dungeon was nowhere in sight. Against the backdrop of the storm clouds, he spotted the dark-clad form of an ice golem standing nearby. The eyes of the animated statue in the Empress' likeness were crimson slits, and so he bowed deeply in her direction. "Your Imperial Majesty," the dark magician greeted her, hiding his distaste at standing in ashen mud with a grovelling smile. "How may I serve you?"

"Torian. I apologise for dragging you out here in the rain, but I have recovered something that I need a second opinion on before I bring it into the dungeon proper."

Interested and quite pleased that he had been chosen over that annoying blond prettyboy or that snivelling fallen priest, he followed her outstretched arm with his gaze. There, in the shadow of a rock, stood a huge block of ice with something elongated held within.

"Can you identify that item?" the water-filled golem asked.

Torian stepped closer to the object in question, feeling his eyes widen and his pulse accelerate as he saw the rod formed from spiralling bone within the ice. Could this be...? Yes. Yes, the tree-pronged end left no doubt. He had serious difficulties containing the drool gathering in his mouth. "Your Majesty," he asked reverently, but without taking his eyes of the staff. "Where did you find this?"

"You recognise it?" Mercury asked, rather than answering the question.

The purple-dressed man nodded enthusiastically. "This has to be one of the battle staves of the sunken realm of Calarine," he explained. "Very rare and priceless. The secret of how to create them has been lost since that part of the Underworld flooded over a millennium ago. To see one with my own eyes..."

"Interesting, but what does it do?" Mercury interrupted, sounding a little impatient.

"Oh, it is a strong amplifier for dark magic," Torian said. "Any spell channelled through this wondrous artefact will end up at least an order of magnitude more powerful than normal. A novice wielding it would be a challenge for the most experienced archmages," he said, gesticulating as if he was wielding the weapon and blowing something up with it. "Now imagine what it can do in the hands of an already powerful warlock, or even a Keeper!"

Mercury blinked once. "I see." The crimson glow in her eyes became more intense. Four walls of metal as thick as Torian's fist grew from the ground, enclosing the artefact. It disappeared from sight as the young empress added a lid on top. She jerked her frozen fingers upwards, and the newly created box shot up into the air.

To Taleth's growing horror, the container did not slow down. It ascended through the falling raindrops until it was no more than a rectangular spot in the distance, moving on a ballistic trajectory that would take it out over the ocean. He darted forward until he reached the edge of the cliff, climbing up the rocks with no regard for the dirt he was getting on his expensive robes, and followed the box with his eyes. When it disappeared underneath the salty waves with a splash, his expression probably matched that of a puppy who had just had a succulent bone snatched out of his bowl. "Your Majesty. Why would you do that?" he asked in a petulant, incredulous tone of voice.

"I couldn't be sure before, but now that you confirmed that the object would actually be useful for me, I am quite certain that it was a trap," the female-looking golem explained. "I got the weapon off the body of a death priest that I destroyed. My scans show that the material of the staff contains hundreds of irregular regions whose molecular boundaries do not line up with their neighbours in a strictly continuous way."

Torian tried not to let his face show his confusion while he tried to figure out what the Empress meant. How could he ask for clarification without damaging his carefully-cultivated façade of impeccable competence?

"In other words, it was recently shattered into hundreds of pieces," the Empress elaborated, obviously seeing straight through his mask. "Since that was exactly what I did to the skeleton priest, the staff must have been patched together and left for me to find."

Torian scratched his beard and rolled his eyes upward as he pondered this. "You assume that there is a curse of some sort on it, ready to strike at you the moment you use it?" It made a frightening amount of sense, but still, tossing the invaluable artefact into the ocean seemed like an overreaction to him. He gazed longingly at the spot where it had disappeared underneath the waves. "Perhaps it just has a self-repairing spell on it."

"It doesn't. I cannot properly analyse the inner workings of the device without seeing mana flow through it," the Empress elaborated, "but I can exclude the possibility of there being active enchantments on it."

"Perhaps someone else could use it for you then, your Majesty?" Torian suggested. "If this is really a plot against you, then giving the plan away by harming one of your minions first would be counter-productive. It should be safe to use. I would be willing to-"

"No! I don't want something that Crowned Death may have sabotaged specifically to harm me anywhere on my territory. The plague the dark gods sent me last time I ran afoul of them has taught me not to leave myself open like that."

"But your Majesty, you should at least observe someone using it in a safe location and create a copy! With your genius and the amount of dragon parts we have, it should be easy!" Torian explained, the sleeves of his robe waving in the wind as he mimed the outlines of two staves.

"Maybe I will recover it from the bottom of the sea when I have time to spare on research projects less specific to my current goals," the ice golem gleaming in the twilight said. "For now, I am happy with where-" Mercury turned her head sharply, narrowing her eyes. An instant later, both the animated statue and Torian found themselves back in the warm, well-lit corridor in front of the library. "I'm afraid we need to cut this discussion short, since something just triggered an intruder alert."

Torian blinked for a moment at the empty spot that the statue had just occupied, then turned on his heel and stormed into the library, throwing the wings of its double door wide open. He headed straight for his desk, not worried about potential invaders. The Empress would deal with them, just as she had dealt with the Avatar. No, he had geography to sketch from memory, treasure maps to draw, and to see about finding a nice, reliable water-breathing spell.

Ami stood on a balcony overlooking the hall full of machinery she had recently constructed. She leaned onto the railing as she looked at the brightly-lit clouds of dry ice fog below, inspecting the rows of identical gem furnaces. Absently, she reached down to her side and handed sunglasses to the large-eyed imp staring up at her. Without them, the tiny worker would be as good as blind in the glare that permeated the room, produced by powerful floodlights that activated whenever someone scryed on the room. They hadn't gone dark yet.

Someone is very interested in what I am doing, Ami mused. She was glad that she had taken steps to prevent others from easily figuring out what was going on.

The imp to her right put the shades on, let out a happy yelp, and darted down the stairs to disappear into the fog. Ami could hear the tiny creature's footsteps join those of the other imps flitting about on the walkways. They were moving vials, refilling glass beakers, and tending to clusters of crystals in all colours of the rainbow. The blue-haired teenager hoped that anyone watching the blurry shadows in the mist would be too busy analysing all this misdirection to figure out how her sapphire production worked.

One of the imps opened a metal hatch in the tub-like bottom of one of the inactive furnaces to perform a rare real maintenance tasks.

With her Keeper sight, Ami could see a few dark puffs off soot ejected from the device as the imp scrubbed out its interior. So far, so good. However, that wasn't what had brought her to this place. The apparatuses were all purring and bubbling contentedly, operating without a problem and didn't need her supervision. No, her visor was pointed at a large scorch mark on one of the walkways. The grate forming its surface was distorted, partly melted from extreme heat. Something that shouldn't have been in here had triggered one of the lightning traps.

I'll have to tell the warlocks to recharge that one, Ami reminded herself as she checked the charge of the lethal magical device. She had simply opted to copy the regular design used by other Keepers here. It saved her the effort of having to come up with her own friend/foe identification, and the trap was good enough to get the job done. Satisfied with what she was seeing, the girl wearing a blackened Sailor Mercury uniform deactivated her visor and teleported away, leaving a swirl of drifting snowflakes behind.

When Ami arrived in the planning room, the flash of blue alerted Cathy to her presence. The blonde immediately looked up from the table laden with maps she was sitting at and asked "Did you find the intruder?"

Ami raised her hand in a placating gesture. "It was just an imp that had teleported in," she said calmly. "I could still track some of the dispersing mana it was made from."

"A spy, then," Cathy decided. "Or a saboteur. I shudder to think what would happen if one got into the pantry without us noticing. Teleporting enemies are such a pain!"

"Imps skilled enough to use that spell are not exactly common. Also, we have guards, and all food goes through screening wards before it's prepared in the kitchen," Ami reassured the now pacing blonde.

"I'd feel safer if it hadn't been Snyder who made those," Cathy said. "He's getting better, but his skills still don't match the overinflated opinion he has of them," she added.

"It's very in line with what he studied, though," Ami defended the acolyte, "as opposed to me asking him to invent new warding schemes for tasks he has never considered before. Without him, my uniform would still appear on everyone linked to my dungeon hearts whenever I transform."

Cathy nodded hesitantly. "Yes, I suppose that's true. Actually, I never asked how you dealt with the chaotic magic released by that process. Is there a chance for another Boris incident?"

Ami shook her head. "I incorporated the wards into the dungeon heart design, which lets me shunt the run-off directly into the dark gods' realm."

"Sounds fair. They send us their corruption, you send them your toxic waste," the blonde approved.

"To get back on topic, I don't think Crowned Death was behind this intrusion. Unfortunately, I can't be one hundred percent certain, since the imp may have well belonged to a Keeper aligned with him. I would have expected it to probe the defences in that case, though, and not to investigate my production sites."

"Are you going to tighten security because of this?" Cathy asked.

Ami nodded and pulled out her Mercury computer, turning it so that the tall blonde could look over her shoulder onto the screen. A few soft keystrokes later, the small monitor showed a map of the Avatar islands. "Since I want to keep other Keepers out of my realm, I'll have to claim all of its territory first. Now, even with the boost to my claim that I get from being the land's legitimate Empress," she said, lowering her voice as if embarrassed to bring up her title, "this dungeon heart isn't positioned optimally to guarantee coverage of the entire continent." She hit another key, starting an animation that showed what she meant.

A disc of blue spread outward from a spot on the west coast of the roughly oval-shaped continent, covering more and more of its surface as it travelled east.

"The blue area shows how my influence has been spreading on its own since I was given my title. The amount of land my imps and rats can claim in the same time is negligible compared to this natural extension. However, at the current rate, it's going to take almost a month for the edge of my territory to reach the east coast - assuming the process doesn't slow down with increasing distance."

"That's enough time for an enemy Keeper to dig in and become a real hassle to dislodge, if we don't catch his arrival," Cathy commented.

"That's why I am going to do this." The short-haired teenager reset the animation and dropped a heart-shaped icon onto the map so that it was two thirds of the distance between her current dungeon heart and the eastern coastline. The blueness spread over the continent anew, with a second zone of influence originating from the marker Ami had placed. Since it could now expand to the east and to the west at the same time from the marker, in addition to moving in from the west coast, it covered the distance in a third of the time it needed earlier. "See? With a second dungeon heart here, I can have the continent solidly under my control in around eight days."

"I'm not sure I like that idea. Can we really afford to split our forces to defend both hearts?" Cathy said, creasing her brow.

"We won't have to. I can send the imps ahead to claim a corridor of land leading toward the new location, starting from Wemos' former dungeon. Both dungeon hearts would be connected from the start, allowing me to freely move troops between them." Ami closed her computer and put it away. "Besides, by not designing the new dungeon to be inhabitable, at least initially, I can vastly increase security. Corridors too small for most creatures to wander through, traps with no need for a safe way to bypass them, that kind of thing."

"That's going to work brilliantly, since enemy imps never make their own entrances." Cathy clearly wasn't too impressed.

"Ah, well," Ami scratched her right cheek with her index finger, not entire sure how the swordwoman would react to the next part. "Even approaching the new dungeon heart could be dangerous. I made some modifications to the design."

"From that forced smile, I conclude that you aren't talking about something like the heart getting up and punching intruders in the face," the blonde suspected, narrowing her eyes as she stared at Ami intently.

"Um, I might have removed some security measures that prevent the corruption from affecting the dungeon proper in exchange for more overall control," the blue-haired girl confessed. "Oh, please don't look at me like that. Nobody is supposed to live there until I have concluded my calibration experiments. In the meantime, I can utilise the violent environmental hazards to keep potential invaders at a distance."

"Well, excuse me for not wanting to suddenly sprout horns or something from bathing in corruption," Cathy snapped. She sighed, visibly calming herself down, then nodded reluctantly. "All right, I can see where you are coming from. Sorry, but I'm a bit nervous right now because Jered hasn't returned from his mission yet.

An old wooden door too shabby for most pigsties creaked open, and a tall orc female with orange-tinted hair appeared in the dark opening. Around her, humid air thick with the stench of cheap alcohol and other intoxicants gushed out into the cooler cavern and condensed into wispy little clouds. She sucked a deep breath into her nostrils and stepped out, ducking her head so she wouldn't bump against the tavern's faded sign, which hung crooked from the last nail holding it. Alert little eyes scanned the area for threats before she looked back over her shoulder and waved her mace in a come-hither gesture. "All clear, boss."

A second orc emerged from the darkness of the pub, which was little more than a hole in the rock that had been nailed up with a bunch of planks. He was smaller and leaner than the female, but a multitude of old scars gave his skin a battle-worn appearance. In the dim light of the two skulls carved into lanterns that flanked the door, he looked almost like a very pink patchwork zombie. He spat on the floor and shot a glare at a lone troll passing by in the street.

The greenskin met the gaze of the obvious thug, taking note of how the long-maned orc's hand was moving toward the dagger at his belt, and looked away quickly, increasing his pace.

Satisfied, the boss stepped out of the doorway, making room for a second orc female whose left arm was in a sling. She had skin so dark it was almost violet and moved to blend in with the shadows as easily as if she was doing it by instinct. He let his gaze wander over the shacks and side caverns that made up the bulk of this backwater Underworld village once more, looking disappointed. "Just sit at the portal and wait for him to get back, eh?"

"That's what the bartender said, boss," the darker-coloured of the two female orcs grunted.

"Well, can't be helped, then. Come on," he ordered and started walking.

The others fell in step at his side. The group moved in silence toward the portal on the hill, past the thorny, black-leaved creepers eking out an existence in the light that the orange glow between the four megaliths provided.

"Ambush him?" the mace-wielding female asked as they got near the magical gate.

"If we can," the boss confirmed. "Probably won't be able to. Can't tell which direction he'll be coming from with that portal."

The orcs didn't have to strain their patience for too long. At one end of the portal, five transparent figures appeared, becoming more solid the closer they got to the centre of the gateway. They all looked human at first glance, but their black-robed leader certainly wasn't. Humans generally didn't float or have red irises and fangs. The quartet following him with shuffling steps did look like a common peasant family, though. All four of them had the glazed eyes and flaccid facial muscles of people who were enslaved by a vampire's mind control.

"Hey you, wait!" the boss orc said, holding up his palm as the vampire moved towards one of the megaliths, intent on touching the huge stone column and connecting the portal to his next destination.

"What is it, orcs?" the bloodsucker answered, not bothering to uncross his arms. He looked at the pink-skinned creature as if it was some kind of disgusting vermin that had suddenly scuttled out from underneath a wet rock. "Your companions can stop hiding, I can hear their heartbeats."

Slowly, the two females emerged from a stone pillar each.

"I've got a question," the boss said, pointing at the vampire's thralls. "I've heard the priests of Crowned Death are paying well for live sacrifices. That true?"

"Your information is accurate. Is that all?"

"We could use some extra gold," the orc said. "What do we need to do?"

"Obviously, you will need to secure some sacrifices and bring them to the death priests," the vampire said, sneering. "You can find them at their temples, or at the markets of Nirnak, Geruune, and Blackmine." He turned away, obviously losing interest in the conversation.

"I thought they wanted live sacrifices?" the darker-skinned of the females asked. She pointed at the leather-clad male of the dumbly-staring group, whose shoulder was caked with dried blood. "Doesn't look as if he'll make it much longer."

"They don't need to last longer than two, three more days, so it doesn't matter if they end up a bit roughed up. In fact, the proper set of injuries can be quite convenient if it prevents escape attempts. Has your ignorance been suitably diminished now?"

The orc leader seemed to weigh some options in his head, and his face split into a wide, uneven grin. "Actually, no. We'll be taking those prisoners of yours. Much easier than finding our own."

The vampire laughed. "You must be insane to challenge one such as me!" He spread his arms and drifted closer. "Insolent fools. You could have found well-paying employ anywhere, now that the Keepers are all accelerating their plans because of the Avatar's return. But no, you had to try a get-rich-quick scheme that is going to do nothing but provide me with a snack!"

"Mareki, deal with this," the orc boss ordered, ignoring the threats.

The lighter female's form blurred and rippled as she unhinged her jaw and reverted into her green-tressed, tailed youma form. A strong blast of water shot from her maw toward the sharp-fanged undead monster.

While the vampire was startled for a moment by the unexpected transformation, he still reacted with the speed of a striking cobra and dodged to the side.

Mareki simply swept the continuous stream sideways, close to the ground, not even bothering to aim precisely. As soon as it passed underneath the vampire, he burnt up into black sludge, brought low by his inability to cross water.

"Good. Umbra, get us all out of here before he revives and comes back," Jered said.

The humans, snapping out of their daze now that the vampire was gone, started screaming. The male was howling from pain and confusion, his wife in fright at his state, and their children in pure terror at the sight of the three monsters facing them.

Jered saw the young girl cling harder to her older brother, and spotted the way their eyes widened as he approached. "And get this glamour off me!"

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Chapter 123: Sneaking Around Chapter 125: Deadline

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