The Khalidor sisters arrived at the elven capitol without incident. The elven lands weren’t without dangers, but the paths around and leading to Rhi’a’non were well patrolled and protected. It simply wasn’t worth the risk for bandits to take up their business there. Monster attacks were a frequent occurrence in the elven lands, but banditry was surprisingly rare. Reasons for this were many, but the main one was that elves were a naturally gifted people, and the empire was able to offer lucrative work for any who desired it. That was also one of the reasons why the refugees from other races were so deeply tied to the Rhi’a’non Empire, their lives were good and they reacted violently to anyone trying to take that away from them. Even more so because many of them still remembered the reasons and conditions that drove them here in the first place. So why go into a dangerous, immoral and dirty business of banditry when you could have a better life as a law-abiding citizen?
When they reached the city, Delia and Selene returned to the academy. They had taken leave to attend their sister’s Awakening, but they had to get back to their lessons. Neleh and Selvaria went towards the mansion of Alduin and Maylin Rhys. Selvaria because she wanted to utilize his connections, and Neleh because she owed them a visit. She also wasn’t sure how to approach getting enrolled in the academy as a warrior, and she also played Michael’s words about seeking some training from the temple in her mind. She knew he was right, she was horrible at trying to borrow the strength of others, but had no idea on how to broach the subject. She hoped Gabriel wasn’t monitoring the mansion so strictly that her clothing couldn’t hide her identity, because she might end up spending quite a bit of time there.
Alduin and Maylin were happy to see the two and welcomed them to their home. Maylin was especially excited and wanted to throw a small party with them and a few closest friends, but Alduin managed to convince her to keep it to the family. The two elves had always considered Asheara to be something like a daughter to them, and by extension felt like Selvaria and Neleh were their grandchildren that they never had. Neleh could see that Alduin had questions, but he held his peace for now. They would have time, and the old elf was used to waiting. Their little party was going great until Selvaria mentioned her plans to join the army and mentioned her wish to get some introductions from Alduin. The serious faces on both the old elves faces told the sisters that something was not right.
“You have chosen a very bad time to join the army.” Alduin said. “I would recommend seeking training from the city guard instead, but all the guards in Rhi’a’non are hired from the army. The army teaches many other skills aside from how to wave around a weapon, and it is those qualities that the city guard appreciates. The elven army is famed for its expert use of tactics, both for whole armies and for group tactics. It’s also famed for the discipline it instills in the soldiers and the ability of the army to work as if controlled by one mind. The biggest down side of the elven soldiers, when compared to other races, is the length and difficulty of the training, so we are very bad at absorbing losses in attrition warfare. But all those qualities are perfect for guardsmen, hence why the guard only recruits from the army.”
Both girls were confused. Selvaria was the one who voiced the question. “Why would it be a bad time to join the army?” Neleh added on. “Something big is going on, isn’t it?”
“Unfortunately yes. It seems the long period of peace is coming to an end. The humans and the beastmen are already at war, although it’s not widely known yet, and Demons and Faeries are expected to soon start their own.” Alduin’s voice carried regret. The old man had long worked to maintain the peace among the races, and had hoped he would be never be forced to see large scale war again.
“What of the other races?” Asked Neleh, suspecting there was more, since that wasn’t yet enough to endanger the elven army.
“The four warring races are searching for allies from us and the naga of course. The celestials are running around trying to maintain some semblance of peace or at least limit the conflict. The minor races have all gone to ground, trying to avoid the whole storm and goddess only knows what the dragons are doing. Sleeping I guess.” The old man raised a hand to forestall Neleh, who was obviously about to ask for more.
“Us and the naga don’t seem to be in a position to interfere. There are rumors about trouble brewing among the naga underwater kingdoms, and their cities on the coasts are isolating themselves from everyone. I’m not sure about the details, because I’m not exactly in the inner circle of the elven court, and the information I can gather through the guild is limited. The salient problem in your case…” Alduin looked at Selvaria and continued “…is that the elven clans seem to be headed towards a civil war. It seems the Sun Court and the Moon Court aren’t directly involved so far, but they’re not exactly stamping it down either. The Emperor is understandably taking a very dim view on such activities, but that has so far only managed to draw the ire of the other clans towards the Eldarinwe instead of stopping it. So it is quite possible that you might be drawn into battle if you join the army, and possibly even against your own people.”
“This seems a little too much to be a pure coincidence. All the races facing trouble at the same time?” Neleh asked suspiciously.
“Indeed it does. It is possible that seeing the other races get busy simply offers the opportunity for the others to hash out their issues without interference. But then again, some of these issues seem manufactured. I assume your mother told you about the Darkhunter incident when you were a baby? There have been hundreds of cases off trouble like that over the years, seemingly created to cause tension without a good reason. Some cases seem innocuous and small if you consider them alone, while some quite big, like the one you encountered. Someone is stirring up trouble, but I do not know why.” He continued. “I’m not privy to all the details, but you might be able to squeeze more out of Nimue. She was quite impressed by you, and she’s the representative of the temple in the court when the Chosen is otherwise engaged.”
“Well, that is convenient. I had some other matters to discuss with her anyway. Now I’m even more interested.” (Neleh)
“If there is trouble brewing, then all the more reason I should join the army, to help resolve things. I’m also not willing to put my dreams on hold until this crisis might or might not pass. I’m going to join the army and I hope to gain your assistance Lord Alduin.” That’s Selvaria for you, always the righteous one.
Alduin took off to take care of matters with Selvaria, while Neleh stayed to hash things out with Maylin.
“As much as I like seeing you again, I’m assuming you’re here to do more than just brighten an old lady’s day?” Maylin said in that voice that suggested that she was both moving things forward, and fishing for compliments. Neleh decided to oblige on both accounts.
“Old lady? You could pass as my mother’s sister. And what’s wrong with brightening a friend’s day?” Neleh gave her a smile bright enough to light the whole room. “Although I am in the city for a purpose. I need to discuss a few things with Nimue about getting some training as a priestess. I’m not sure if that can be done without the Awakening ritual. I’m also here for a new teacher in the warrior skills. My previous one doesn’t specialize in the use of spears, and I’m aware the academy takes on younger students if they possess enough skill.”
Maylin gave it a bit of thought. “Well, strictly speaking you don’t use your mana for the magic wielded by the priestesses and you’ll need to learn other things before that point anyway, if you’re serious. Most acolytes are recruited after the Awakening because the ceremony shows what kind of blessing they hold, and whether they have the required affinity for holy magic. And I know the temple especially likes priestesses who excel at close combat too. That type can be used by the temple solve their problems in a more direct fashion. As for the academy, they only take in new students at the start of the year, which is a couple of months from now, but I suppose I could ask one of the warrior teachers to come and take a look at you at least. If you make an impression, they might start giving you training before then. I can’t make any promises on that though, the warrior teachers aren’t always the biggest fans of us magic teachers. There’s a bit of a rivalry going on there.”
“I should probably start by trying to meet Nimue then. Fancy a little sightseeing picnic to the temple?” Neleh asked with a grin, knowing about the weird relations between Nimue and Maylin.
“You know what, I think I do. I’ll pack the picnic basket and you go get us a blanket. We’ll plop ourselves down right in the middle of the temple park.” Seems Maylin was getting fired up. Getting competitive?
Neleh had been joking about the picnic, but Maylin had not. They went into the temple garden and threw out a very classic looking picnic blanket with red and white squares in a checkered pattern, and started to eat and enjoy the scenery. For added effect Maylin had Neleh bare her hair and face so that they would draw the maximum attention. That part of the plan worked swimmingly. It didn’t take long to have several acolytes and priestesses gathering to stare, one of whom apparently went inside the temple to call for someone. Apparently you weren’t supposed to picnic there.
It ended up being Nimue who came to shoo them away, though the old priestess changed her mind and also sat on the blanket when she saw who it was that caused the disturbance.
“Pass me some of those you old conjurer.” Nimue said pointing at the pastries and using conjurer clearly in a derogatory fashion.
“Are you sure your old body can handle it? A woman at your age should watch what she eats. Might help stave of death a few more years.” Maylin replied icily.
“Eh, I’ve already done all the damage I need to do, now I can just enjoy the years *cough* centuries *cough* I have left. On the other hand, you might still be able to salvage something of your dreg of a body, though if you keep eating like this, you’ll end up fatter than you are.” Clearly baseless accusations. Both of their bodies look like they were in the prime of their lives.
“Now now girls. It’s not good to air out old laundry where everyone can see.” Neleh joined in on the fun, while still trying to mediate.
Both of the older women looked at her with disbelief. It had been a while since anyone had called either of them a girl. They did both realize that as much as they liked trading barbs, it might be better to do so in a place where all the acolytes and priestesses weren’t around to observe.
Nimue made a small groan. “Well come on in then. I assume even the old conjurer isn’t dumb enough to really be here just for a picnic. Might as well come inside.” She then led them inside the temple, where nothing had changed since Neleh’s last visit. Temples usually weren’t all that big on change. It didn’t come as a surprise to see Nimue take them to the only room with a door.
“I know about one of the reasons why you’re here. I got some reliable information that you might be very important for protecting this world from evil and you’d come to us for some training. Also some errands as I heard it.” Nimue said with a raised eyebrow.
“It can’t be all that reliable if it talked about evil. Good and evil are relative terms, purely in the eye of the beholder. I might be able to crack some skulls and perform a few rituals though.” Neleh said with a grin.
“Well it can’t get more reliable than this. We priestesses of Elune dream of the day when the goddess speaks to us directly. It’s the dream of any priest or priestess of any god. Now imagine my surprise when I finally get the honors, and you are the subject.” This little nugget from Nimue made Maylin raise both her eyebrows. She had known Neleh had some business with the temple but hadn’t known what. She also knew how rare it was for Elune to directly influence the world. She always had known the young girl was special, she just hadn’t realized how special.
“Well, let’s just say that there’s a deal that has been struck. I’m going to need some help getting used to all the things required to…well make things happen as the priestesses do. As for the errands, well we’ll see what happens with those. You help me, and I’ll help you. Though truth be told, I’m not sure how much help I will be until my awakening, since I don’t actually know how much I’ll be able to accomplish before that. I’m planning on taking lessons from the warrior trainers at the academy at least. Assuming Maylin here can get me tested by them.” Neleh said while contemplating.
“No need to worry. Even if this old conjurer can’t get things straightened due her stupid rivalry with them, the warrior trainers love to train acolytes with aptitude in warrior skills, and they owe me a few favors. The Inquisitors and the Templars, names for the combat capable priestesses alluding to abilities in magic and close combat respectively, are a powerful force for good and solve many problems in the elven lands that are beyond other means. They tend to make a mess, but problems have a habit of getting solved real quick-like when they get involved.” Nimue had some pride in her voice. Neleh assumed it was because the old priestess had once been a member of either order herself.
“Inquisitors meaning priests trained in magic, and Templars being warrior priestesses?” Neleh made sure she understood.
“Broadly yes. It’s not uncommon for the lines to blur a bit between the two orders, since that isn’t the only thing that separates the two. Templars are a more direct fist of the temple and focus mostly on protection and fighting monsters, while the Inquisitors are more like a scalpel that strikes at the heart of those that would do either the temples or the elves as a whole harm. It is not uncommon for the Inquisitors to seek out corruption from within, while the Templars are more focused against threats from the outside. Then there are of course the normal priestesses that go around officiating ceremonies and helping people as healers. They are usually not as suited for combat, and it is often the duty of the two orders to protect them. We take a very dim view of anyone harming the priestesses that go out of their way to help others.” Nimue had some fire in her eyes when she finished.
“I’m assuming that such events might’ve happened lately? That might be part of the other reason why we are here. Lord Alduin surmised that there may be some force trying to cause problems among all the races, but he wasn’t sure on the specifics. If I was someone trying to egg on a civil war within the empire, attacking the priestesses of Elune seems like an effective way to keep the martial orders too busy to look into other things.” Neleh said in a pondering fashion.
Nimue gave the girl a sharp look. “Right on the mark. Sometimes you seem too smart for your own good. If the emperor had heard you speculate like that, you’d be in for some lengthy questioning right about now. You are right that there seems to be some force behind all this chaos. Before I go into specifics though, let me pick your brain a little, since you might have a fresh view on things. Who would you guess to be behind something like this?”
She pondered for a while. “I don’t really have enough information on all the different races, their relative strengths and their motivations to make a good guess. As a blind stab, the first thing that comes to mind is that there are always people who benefit from war and chaos. If such people were to be able to gather together, they might be able to accomplish something like this. Though a grouping like that being able to gather like-minded people from all the different races seems a little farfetched, right?”
Nimue looked at Neleh stunned. She cleared her throat, trying to hide her agitation. “Who would you peg as likely members, should something like this…Consortium be possible?”
Neleh had taken a wild stab at it, but Nimue’s tone and agitation suggested she might be on the right track. “Well, there’s always the merchants of certain products who would get rich during a war, because war always inflates the prices of some products needed by the armies. Those that make weapons, arrows, consumable items, foods favored by the army. That sort of thing. Also conversely, someone who might want to see the downfall of a merchant with a product that loses value during a war. Speaking of downfall, nobles that have reached the ceiling of their ability to climb the social ladder, without some of the families above them getting destroyed by war or uprising. Royalty that might want to see those before them in the succession have an ‘accident’ during the chaos. Kingdoms or duchies that are in a position to make gains during a war. Glory hounds and wannabee heroes. Then there are some people who just want to watch the world burn.”
Maylin had blanched. “That’s…a pretty exhaustive list. Covers a big majority of people doesn’t it?”
“Indeed. And unfortunately, that’s pretty much in line with what the high ups in the royal court have also figured out. Though they took a few months to come up with all that, and that’s with the help of several spies and informants. The name Consortium isn’t something I pulled out of thin air. It is something that was found out in interrogation with a minor member of said group. Fairly…persuasive interrogation I might add.” Nimue said with disgust in her voice.
“Well then. I suppose you wouldn’t mind a new recruit that might or might not end up a member of the martial orders.” Neleh prodded with a suggestion.
“Oh we don’t mind. In fact I’m going to make damn sure you aren’t going to run away. Someone with a mind like yours will fit in excellently with the Inquisitors.” Well that kind of answered which order Nimue had been a part of. “I’ll have one of the warrior teachers come here and get you tested. We wouldn’t’ want to give the old conjurer any reason to run away with you now would we?” Nimue gave Maylin a wicked grin, clearly enjoying the possibility of snatching away someone Maylin had taken a liking to, and adding her to Nimue’s own domain.
“Oh I don’t mind. You can borrow her until her Awakening. Something tells me, I’ll be getting her back when that happens.” Maylin laughed, in a way suggested she was sure of her impending victory.
Alduin had gotten Selvaria enrolled with the army, under a commander he trusted not to get the girl killed needlessly. He hoped the girl would be able to get her training without getting sent to war, but he wasn’t too confident about that. Even less so when he heard from Maylin what had happened in the temple and what they knew about Consortium.
Neleh got enrolled as an acolyte in a record time. Nimue had not been kidding about not letting her run away. She was unpacking a few personal belongings in the acolyte’s quarters near the grand temple within a day, and would be enrolled as a student in the academy only a few days later when all the formalities would clear. The acolytes had separate dorms from the rest of the academy, mainly to discourage them from forming too close bonds with the male students in the academy. It wasn’t so much that the priestesses had to remain maidens or anything, it was more a matter of allowing them to focus on their studies instead of gallivanting around the city on dates and romance. The policy worked surprisingly well, though not so much due to the merits of the policy, and more because everyone in the academy was afraid of Nimue and the few other priestesses who had taken it upon themselves to keep order.
Neleh would often run into Selene in the coming months and years, but their duties managed to limit their interactions, since Selene was already far enough in her training to take on practical assignments and Neleh would have other training. Namely warrior training, assuming she could manage the tests that she would have to take a week after getting enrolled as an acolyte. Nimue really had managed to get a few teachers interested in checking her abilities out.
Nimue had not told Neleh the main reason why she was so insistent on getting her enrolled quick. The voice from Elune had told Nimue that Neleh was only on loan to them, as a show of good will towards the girl’s race. They would train her, and get to utilize her abilities in trade. The god who had the real claim on her didn’t have temples or priestesses after all…