Neleh was just putting the finishing touches on one of the most complex magical formations Azrael had seen when she brought Asheara into the room. The formation was drawn using some kind of dust that was pulsing with magic. Azrael didn’t know what exactly had been used to make the dust, but it reminded her of some sort of crystal, ground into fine powder. It was not very common to use materials like that for magical formations because of the cost involved, but it was not incredibly rare either. On the other hand, the complexity of the formation was extremely rare indeed. Large magical formations were not rare, since the size of the formation needed to be in relation to the intended effect, but did usually require more power to activate.
This one however, had formations within formations, and Azrael had no idea what some of the symbols meant. Furthermore, she had never seen their kind before. It was like a language long dead to the world. It could not be a new language, because some of the symbols had the air best described as ancient about them, the weight of the years adding complexity and refinement. The large formation was made up of nine smaller formations, with eight of them forming a hexagon around the largest central one. The central symbol was located under a floating table, held immobile in the air by an unseen force. The girl had been right; she would see quite a few things she had not seen before tonight.
The girl had approached her that evening after their quite enjoyable shopping trip. Azrael had seen the girl and her mother locked in a conversation, and from the looks of things a decision had been made. A decision that had made neither of them very happy. The mother had gone off to prepare for whatever they had planned, while the girl approached her.
“It seems you have something on your mind.” Azrael stated, not really a question.
“I need your help for something tonight, and most likely a couple of times in the future.” The girl asked, not really showing any expression, but the air about her spoke of her unwillingness.
“Seems rather important. What is it?” Azrael asked interested. The girl had struck her as a person that didn’t really hate asking for help, but who very rarely was forced to. It was not the asking part that was the problem, it was something else.
“I’m going to have to perform a fairly large ritual to help Asheara on the path she has chosen. During the ritual, I’ll most likely end up needing a bit of your help. The ritual I’m about to perform is the type that I won’t be able to stop once started, and it will most likely take a lot out of me. I’ll need someone there to make sure I’m able to finish.” Neleh explained calmly.
Azrael had heard of rituals like the one she described, but had never seen one performed before. She was all too eager to see one, despite the possible dangers involved. She was even more curious about where the girl had learned such a ritual. “Sounds interesting. Also doesn’t’ seem too difficult.” She replied.
“The hard part comes next. You’ll see several things you’ve never seen before, and naturally you’ll have plenty of questions about what we’re doing. I need you to keep from asking those questions, at the very least until we’re done. Especially during the ritual, I need you to keep your eyes open in case there’s a need for you to step in and help, because I won’t be able to stop to explain.” The girl’s voice was serious.
That was acceptable to Azrael. She would get to see something new, and she would most likely have more questions after the fact anyway, once she’d had some time to think.
Azrael brought her thoughts back to the present. Neleh was applying her magic to the formation. The dust seemed to melt into the ground, forming a glowing formation on the ground. So that’s what the dust had been for. Now the formation was a permanent fixture on the floor, for as long as the house itself was there. Most magical formations tended to be temporary, disappearing after use. Since most formations were used to afford a better control over a spell, it made no sense to make permanent formations unless you planned on casting the same spell several times in the same place. It required something like what the girl was using to make a permanent formation; the materials used determining the quality of the formation. Permanent formations were usually reserved for situations where several people wanted to invoke a spell they had no skill to cast without help. In this case, the girl had indicated that there would be need to perform the ritual more than once, and the large formation was rather bothersome to create every time.
Neleh indicated that Asheara should lay on the table at the center of the formation. Asheara removed the robe she was wearing and positioned naked on the table, face down.
“I’m not entirely sure if there will be pain involved with the ritual. I would imagine it won’t feel pleasant at least the first time, since I will have to modify your Dantian an Ki veins rather heavily. However, once I start, I won’t be able to stop, or we might run the risk of burning out your Ki veins. I also need you to remain completely still. It should not be too painful though.” Neleh said with a grim seriousness in her voice. She continued. “It’s better if you try not to struggle and close your eyes. Azrael, would you be so kind and use your magic to make sure she doesn’t move?”
Neleh pulled out the box of needles and the salve she got from the alchemist, while Azrael cast a spell to render Asheara immobile. The row of needles floated in the air at her side, while she applied the salve to their tips. The formation below her glowed, while she drew several complicated glowing patterns in the air. When finished, the patterns floated above the eight smaller formations in a hexagon around them. The ritual would mostly drain her internal power, so she was in no danger of running low on mana, but magic was used to control the effects of the ritual very precisely. Internal power to force change, magic to control the change in a way she desired.
She took a deep breath gathering her internal power while she took the first needle. Her Ignasia glowed brightly. She put as much power into the needle as possible and her hand made a movement so fast, that even Azrael was unable to follow it. The needle was placed deeply in an important meridian just below Asheara’s neck, where several important Ki veins intersected. The power within the needle flowed into Asheara’s veins. The needle also worked as a conduit to break the natural barrier than skin formed against hostile magic, allowing Neleh’s magic to flow into the veins directing the internal power flowing inside. Tearing, rebuilding and strengthening.
Neleh gathered her power again and picked the second needle and repeated the process on the next meridian below Asheara’s left shoulder. And so she proceeded along the veins, placing needles in every important meridian and along all the important veins. Starting from the most important meridians from the back, outwards towards the extremities and then towards the Dantian. Each needle took a little more out of her. Partly because she was expending her limited power and partially because she was now also fighting against her own power, now flowing within Asheara’s veins. The power tried to form a protective layer on top of Asheara’s skin, trying to stop the invasion of further needles. Because of this, every needle required more power to penetrate that layer. It also required a huge amount of control out of Neleh. She needed to use just enough power to both penetrate the protective layer and affect the changes in Asheara’s body that she wanted, but not anymore, so as to avoid doing any damage.
Asheara could feel each needle slowly remaking her. There was an uncomfortable feeling associated in the tearing of her old Ki veins to allow for the change, but the salve soothed the pain and helped the change to happen. She could hear and feel the heavy panting of Neleh, while she worked. Asheara was getting worried.
By the 65th needle Neleh was already swaying as if drunk, having trouble standing up properly. She suddenly felt Azrael’s hands holding her up, steadying her. They had been at it for most of the night now. She took the first of the last seven needles and looked at it for a moment. Now they came to the most important part. She took another deep breath and placed the needle, stopping the Dantian from working. She took the next five needles and rapidly placed them in a pattern around the Dantian, remaking it. She felt so tired. She took the last, the 72nd needle and drew all the power she had remaining. In another blur of movement she placed the last needle, allowing Asheara’s Dantian to work again at full power, forcing the Dantian to flood Asheara’s system with power, both Neleh’s and her own. The flood of power stretched the newly reformed veins to their limit. Neleh controlled her magic to utilize the flood of power into further strengthening and improving the veins.
Once the burst or power was gone, she rapidly removed all the needles, cleaning them with a quick burst of purifying flame and turned to Azrael. The celestial was still helping her stand. “We’re done. Would you be so kind as to help her spread that salve on the places where I used the needles? It will repair any damage done, and will help against irritation of the skin. I’d rather she didn’t have a rash the next time we have to do this.” Neleh’s voice sounded very tired.
“So you will need to do this again?” Azrael asked, releasing the spell holding Asheara in place. Apparently the last burst of power had taken a lot out of the woman, since she was also lying still, tired.
“This time was quite a success, so we most likely won’t need another session this heavy, but I’ll make sure tomorrow. Most likely we’ll need to make some more local changes though. I would be very surprised if every vein had formed just as we want them to, and I don’t expect that to happen either.” Neleh sighed. “For now, I’ll need to get some sleep to gather my strength back before the party.” She dragged herself into bed, while Azrael stayed to help Asheara.
Neleh attended the empress’ party while accompanied by Azrael and Asheara. Mostly recovered from the previous night, she had decided to repeat her fashion faux pass from the previous party at the palace, and was yet again the only one dressed in pure white. This caused some murmurs among the other guests. She heard some references to the girl in white, in a context that made it seem like her previous visit was still remembered. Apparently the White Lady would join her row of nicknames.
She could see the held back questions in Azrael’s eyes. The celestial had shown considerable restraint and had not posed any of those questions so far. Neleh knew she would have to leave some time aside soon to have a proper talk with the celestial. As soon as she figured exactly what she would tell her, that is. Asheara on the other hand was almost giddy with her newfound power, letting it flow freely within her body. Neleh would have to teach her proper mediation techniques to help her cultivate the power further.
For the most part, the party was just as dreadful and dull as Neleh had feared. Lot of pointless small talk with people she didn’t really care about, but had to remain on polite terms with, in case they became important in the future. She kept a charming smile and pretended to be interested in what they were saying and with the small issues they brought up, that didn’t matter a whit to anyone besides themselves. Why would anyone care if count Edyrm had acquired a great new horse, or that Countess Cyithrel’s sister had given birth again?
Then there were those that hoped to gain a piece of her power or influence. It had become obvious when the new empress had been selected that Neleh’s words carried a lot of weight, despite her age. She was friends or at least friendly with most of the most powerful individuals in the empire, now known as Electors. Add to that her status as a Chosen and her upcoming appointment as the duchess of one of the most important duchies in the empire, and she was probably the most influential person after the new empress herself. How long that would last was a mystery, but currently irrelevant.
The hopefuls ranged from those that wanted to convince her on a certain issue, to those that just blatantly proposed marriage. The marriage proposals were a little less numerous now that she was clearly out of reach of some people, but still annoyed her to no end. They had to break the arms of three different nobles that tried to get a little too close and personal. Neleh had expected this, and had prepared her magic to zap anyone that tried to get too close, while Asheara quite gleefully exacted the appropriate punishments on the surprised culprits.
Neleh wasn’t officially the duchess of Jao’e’Tinukai yet, and would not be until she left the academy, but it was obvious to all of the at least semi competent nobles that she held the reins on Estelar, who was cracking down on the unrest inside the duchy. Neleh managed to get some respite from socializing when she convened with Estelar to make some plans regarding the duchy. They had withdrawn to a corner of the grand ballroom to make plans, while Azrael and Asheara made sure they were not overheard. They had decided to hold off on many of the more radical changes until Neleh officially took the position, mainly focusing on restoring order or the duchy currently.
As they had expected, many of the corrupt nobles and their families that had managed to escape the purge had gathered within the duchy, in the hopes of finding a passage out of the elven lands on Consortium controlled vessels, but Estelar’s quick crackdown had trapped them. Many of them had turned to banditry in order to survive. Estelar was very successful in hunting them down, but it was a time consuming process. Related to that, one of the most visible things they had done was offer to take care of any children orphaned by the civil war, or any people displaced by banditry. These people were all given a chance at new life. In exchange they would be trained as the fist of the duchy. Mostly they attracted children and orphans throughout the empire, who had nowhere else to go, and no discernible future.
On Neleh’s command, Estelar had founded several military Orders that gave harsh and effective training to their members. The members were paid well, clothed and fed by the Order, and in return they would go through training harsh enough to make the Legion of the Phoenix balk. In many cases, more important than the food and money, the members were given a new purpose and a future. In the case of those wronged by the bandits, they were given the chance for revenge. The training was designed by Neleh, Estelar and some veterans of the elven army, and would repeatedly break, rebuild, break and rebuild those subjected to it. It was designed to break even the strongest of individuals, but even the most fragile individuals were put back together by the trainers and healers of the Order, a group of grizzled veteran officers and priestesses hand-picked by Estelar.
As a result, they could take a broken and battered housewife fleeing from an abusive husband, and turn her into a hardened professional warrior. Talent and previous experience were not required, only will. Only thing that changed with talent, was how long it would take to break you enough times to become the kind of warrior they aimed for. Not all would manage the training, and anyone who gave up were given some coin and sent on their way. The Order didn’t have many standards in the beginning, but weak willed people were weeded out fast. They had no place in the Order, although many weak willed individuals would mature into iron willed veterans during the harsh training. Assuming they didn’t give up. On the flipside, anyone could apply.
If their plan was successful, in ten years they would have the meanest and most professional fighting force in the empire. They had taken everything that worked from the elven army training, and removed that which was superfluous and didn’t’ work. The army had its own quirks after all. They added things that Estelar and the veterans had learned in their careers as professionals and topped things off with several ways and methods Neleh had learned in her previous life.
Once the recruits managed to survive the grueling training, they were divided into the several parts of the Order according to their talents and inclinations. Most would become the members of the first Order, soldiers and warriors. The second Order was in charge of support and logistics, drawing those who had skill in organization and medicine. The third Order was for those that had talent either as a priestess or a mage, but had either never gotten the necessary training, had been too young to discover their talents before or joined anyway. The order would in time draw many gifted young people, much like the Hunter’s Guild or the academies. Fourth Order was for those that showed talent as a scout or a ranger, or as a spy. The members of this Order would be in charge of gathering information, and making sure the other members would not walk into traps. As for the fifth Order, which would gather the most talented, the most cunning and those that had less trouble with dealing death…well, Neleh had special plans for the members of the fifth Order.
These moves did not go unnoticed by the other nobles, but since most duchies trained their own troops, they paid less attention than they should. What Jao’e’Tinukai was doing might have been on a larger scale and with more focus than the other duchies, but it was basically what other duchies also did. They also assumed that Neleh and Estelar would not be able to afford to complete their plans on a large enough scale to really matter. Heavy training like theirs required funds after all, and the members of the Order were well paid, in compensation of the harsh training and to discourage the need for corruption. Why take the risk of a bribe, when you were already well paid by the order, and the duchess was a well-known enemy of corruption. Of course the nobles didn’t know of the other plans Neleh had prepared for the duchy, some of which might make them wealthy enough beyond imagining. Additionally, Neleh didn’t feel the need to hoard wealth like the other nobles did, and instead planned to put any wealth she managed to gather back to work for the duchy. Why bother with money, when you could just conjure almost anything up with magic? Still, it became obvious that Neleh would have to pay a visit to the duchy in the near future, for the next part of their plans.
After Neleh had finished with Estelar, she was pulled aside by a messenger from Nimue. Apparently there were people that wanted to have an audience with her. The messenger didn’t know much else, except that the people waiting were naga. Neleh and her two companions quickly made their way towards the meeting place, an audience chamber just a little outside the din of the party. Neleh had expected this meeting to happen, although she was a little surprised when she arrived to the meeting chamber and saw that Nimue was also present along with Yunalesca.
After they greeted each other, the naga representatives were shown in. The naga contingent was fairly sizeable, with almost twenty members. Their apparent leader was a very old male naga that had a long white beard and hair. On both sides of him were two of the biggest naga Neleh had ever seen, reaching almost three meters in height, and both were wide and heavily muscled. They were the quintessential bodyguards, at least appearance-wise. The chamberlain at the door announced the presence of the Left Chancellor of the Naga Empire, the rest of the naga were apparently just entourage.
Before there was any chance to exchange greetings, the old naga bowed deep and spoke. “On behalf of the Naga Empire and the Eternal Empress, may she live forever, I Left Chancellor Fujino Toyotomi give our most heartfelt and humble greetings to the Empress of the Immortal Flame.”
There was confusion on the faces of both Yunalesca and Nimue. Empress of the Immortal Flame? What was going on? Since when has Nimue been anything of the sort? Their confusion both cleared and deepened when they noticed that the old naga was looking at Neleh, after rising from his bow. Neleh stepped forward with a smile and without missing a beat.
“The Immortal Flame greets the representative of the Eternal Empress, may she live forever.” Neleh said with a clear voice and a smile. She wasn’t sure where they got the information, but it would just be silly to try and pretend she didn’t know who or what they were referring to. Her words brought raised eyebrows from Nimue and Yunalesca.
Neleh continued. “What brings the representative of the Eternal Empress to elven lands? I hear you have been looking for me.” Another shocked expression from the other elves, and a grunt even from Azrael.
“The Eternal Empress seeks to establish formal relations with the Empress of the Immortal Flame, and wishes to extend you an invitation to visit Coral Palace.” The old naga said, bringing gasps from the elves and Azrael. The naga and especially their empress were famously insular, and other races were not allowed access to the Imperial palace of the naga, known as the Coral Palace. In fact, none of the other races had even seen the empress before.
Nimue spoke eagerly. “You’re saying that the Eternal Empress wishes to establish relations with the elves? What kind of relations?” Of course she was eager. The naga ruled the seas, and the combined power of the two normally neutral powers of elves and naga together would be an alliance of the highest importance on the world stage.
“You misunderstand me elven. The Eternal Empress has little interest in your kind. The one she wishes to form bonds with is only the Empress of the Immortal Flame. If Flame and Thunder join hands, then no one can stand against them. That is Her desire.” The old naga said dashing Nimue’s hopes.