Evening had come, and Neleh and Asheara were sitting outside their house looking at the stars. The academy grounds were quiet as many of the students were either tired from the recent rank-up tests, or gathering strength in preparation for the upcoming qualifiers. Teachers were mostly resting, having spent their energy to administer the tests. It was a nice evening that gave the impression of calm before the storm. Or in this case, calm between storms.
“Are you sure you want to train the girl?” Asheara asked suddenly. “She’s already been through a lot, and as you yourself said, the training will be hard enough to break her.”
Neleh had a thoughtful expression on her face. “It’s admittedly a hard decision to make, which is why I’m letting her make that decision. On one hand she is choosing a very hard life, where she will most likely face difficulties beyond any normal person. On the other hand, she needs a purpose. She has lost everything. She could find love in a new family, and rebuild her life, but I’ve seen people like her before. It’s in her eyes. She is not the type to live quietly. She has a strong desire to live her life free of the burdens placed on her by others. She’s the type who can happily throw away her life in support of something she believes in, but will fight with all her power against a purpose laid on her shoulders by others.” Neleh gave a small smile. “She also shares one annoying trait with me. She will get bored of quiet life very quickly.”
“She’s a child! She’s too young to make decision like this!” Asheara huffed exasperated.
“And who would make that decision for her? Her family is dead. We might want to provide her with a new family with time, but we are not that family yet. We have no right to make that decision for her. Do note that I also gave her a chance to change her mind a year after I start her training. By then, she will have a better idea about what I expect of her, and she will also be able to create other options. At the moment she might feel like I am her only choice, but a year from now she will have other choices. In addition, I will have had the chance to teach her enough, that she won’t be the ‘useless’ child anymore, and will be able to have a proper life without the fear of the planet killing her.” Neleh replied calmly.
“She’s still too young for something like this.” Asheara sighed stubbornly.
“You should remember how young I was when I started training. In fact, considering the fact, that the lack of magic or Ki in her body has most likely slowed her growth, she is probably only a couple of years younger than I am now.” Neleh reminded her mother.
“Well you’re not exactly the standard to measure people by. You have memories reaching back hundreds if not thousands of years.” Asheara replied a little amused.
“You’re right. And here’s the thing you haven’t realized yet. She isn’t exactly standard either. One of the things that come with the powers her kind hold is heightened capacities of the mind. People like her mature faster and are usually a lot smarter than others of their age and kind. On the other hand, they usually also experience stronger emotions before they learn to control them. That girl is probably already smarter than most adults, but you can’t see it yet because she’s overcome by the events that have happened and despite her increased maturity, she is still very young. With proper guidance she could become the most intelligent person in the elven history, but she’s not there yet.” Neleh replied seriously.
“More intelligent than you?” Asheara asked with a sudden grin.
“Well, the most intelligent after me, but I barely qualify as an elf anyway. I also have a bit of a head start.” Neleh grinned back.
Asheara gave a small sigh, “It’s a little hard to believe. You talked about people like her, how do you know she isn’t one of the more normal ones?”
“She wasn’t really showing it off yet, but you could see it in her eyes, and hear it in her speech. She adjusted too fast and understood complex concepts too easily. She might not have the wisdom brought by age yet, but her ability for understanding is great.” Neleh replied confidently. “Now all that said, the training I will provide might prove to be too taxing for her. I have to appear strict for the sake of that training, but if you’re willing, I’d like you to be her emotional support through this. Be the mother to her that she needs, and that I know you want to be.”
Asheara was thoughtful for a moment. “My youngest daughter Shiori. I think I like the sound of that. Would that make you the strict father? Our first child together?” She teased with a grin.
Neleh gave a small chuckle. “If that makes you feel better about the whole thing. At least I think I’d make a better father than a certain someone we know. Even though I am very much female now.”
Asheara suddenly became more alert. “Oh yea, I forgot. I think Michael and Gabriel both pretty heavily hinted that you were male in your previous life. Must have been a bit confusing to be born a girl.”
“The past is in the past. I still can’t talk about my previous life in detail, retaining my memories is already a breach of the rules, but calling me strictly male would not be entirely correct. My original race didn’t really have a proper separation of genders. We did identify more with one sex or another, but it was more a case of which gender we found more attractive among the other races. I preferred females of other races, hence I identified as male. The bigger shock came from the fact that my new body worked differently than the humanoid form I had gotten used to.” Neleh replied in a quiet whisper barely audible to Asheara, as she was lost in memories.
“So you had the ability to shapeshift to a degree? And used a male form?” Asheara asked curious.
“Well you’ve already seen me use limited shapeshifting in this life, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. I did use a female form on a few occasions, when it was more appropriate.” Neleh replied smiling from nostalgia.
“So you still have the ability to shapeshift? Couldn’t you simply return to your old form then? I mean if you were more comfortable with that.” Asheara asked, suddenly a little worried for many reasons. She felt that she would lose something as Neleh’s family if the girl chose to take her old form. She had also fallen in love with Neleh’s current form. Although the inside was more important than the looks, it would still be too jarring if Neleh were to suddenly turn male. And it’s not like the looks didn’t matter at all, especially in Neleh’s case.
Neleh could sense some of Asheara worry through the bond, and decided to explain more thoroughly. “No need to be worried. I’ve gotten used to my current form. Besides, shapeshifting isn’t that simple. Currently I have trouble changing my shape at all, because I’m still growing, and that interferes with the ability. There’s also the biggest fundamental law of shapeshifting. All beings capable of changing their form unconsciously try to revert the changes and return to their true form.
This is partly because our bodies affect our minds, but when someone shapeshifts, the mind isn’t affected by the new form anymore. The mind tries to rebel against the unnatural body. This and the other myriad of problems manifest as a feeling of pressure and discomfort that grows worse the more time you spend in the other form. Finally you are forced to return to your true form, when the pressure becomes too much. The further the other form you have taken is from your true form, the faster that pressure builds. As you might imagine, changing one’s gender is a pretty big change. When I reach maturity, I might be able to do it for a few hours, but currently that is impossible. The only reason I can change my shape at all right now, is because those are some of my old powers returning, and aren’t really counted as proper shapeshifting.” Neleh finished with a sigh. The recent dragon transformation had been a good example of the difference.
Asheara thought for a while and then asked. “So everybody has a true form, and that’s the one you’re born with?”
“Not necessarily. You can have more than one true form. It’s actually common among some magical beasts to have both a true beast form and a true humanoid form. And in some cases, the true form changes. In my previous life, this was the case for me too.” Neleh replied carefully, trying again not to give too much of her old life away.
They retained their silence for a long while after that. Neleh lost in memories and Asheara thinking about what she had learned. Suddenly a thought occurred to Asheara.
“Michael and Gabriel mentioned the Enemy, and I’ve seen you make preparations for upcoming trouble. I think it’s about time you tell me more about what we are facing. They said something about you defeating it before.” She suddenly blurted out the thought that had suddenly taken form in her mind.
Neleh was quiet for a while. “The Enemy is something that keeps coming back, no matter how often it is defeated. Even my powers as a Destroyer can’t remove the Enemy for good. I can’t tell you exactly what the Enemy is, because even I don’t know all the details. That said, hopefully you won’t ever need that information either. The problem is, the Enemy has powerful servants and we are likely to draw the attention of at least a couple of those servants in the future. Those servants I can explain.”
‘You should probably also pay attention to the next part’ Neleh sent the thought to Elune.
Neleh gathered her thoughts on how to best explain things. “You heard before, how the role of a Destroyer is to destroy certain worlds, and it isn’t too hard to imagine how some worlds can destroy themselves even without any help from us. What do you imagine happens to the deities of those destroyed worlds?”
Asheara hesitated for a moment and shook her head as an answer. She was shocked when she could also hear the voice of Elune talking to both of them. "I would imagine they either perish with the worlds they once ruled over, or try to find new worlds."
“Partially true. Some deities do end up like that, but most will not. Most lose the power they gained from their followers, but in exchange they become similar to those immortals that would usually be forced to go to the Eternal Sea of the Immortals. Extremely powerful beings with a lot of inherent knowledge, except they are not bound by the same rules as either deities or mortals would. These beings then feel the call of the Enemy and come under its control. The Enemy is not a force of creation, so how can it gather any forces to make war with? It enslaves these lost-deities. The lost-deities then go and gather the forces the Enemy requires. The weaker lost-deities join forces and go into other worlds and enslave some of the races they find, while the stronger ones are capable of creating their own race meant for war. The lost-deities and the races they command are what we usually called factions. A weak faction might be a single lost-deity that managed to enslave an empire of humans or monsters, while a strong faction might be a group of powerful lost-deities that created and bred their own army of dragons for war.” Neleh finished with a small shudder.
“And you think one of these factions might come here?” Asheara asked with trepidation.
“One or more. We have no way to know the extent of the danger we are facing. We also can’t be sure when they will come. They might come in a few decades, or they might come in a few centuries. They might come one at a time with centuries between factions, or they might come several at once. Only thing we do know is that they are coming. That’s one of the reasons I’m so keen on training Shiori. Sooner or later she will see war, and I’d rather she had the power to defend herself. She could also be a great asset in fighting against the Enemy.” Neleh said grimly.
“This is a lot to take in. Thanks for telling me, honey.” Asheara finally said and went inside the house, leaving Neleh alone with the beautiful view of the night sky.
After a while Neleh heard the voice of Elune again. “I think I finally figured out what you meant when you said that the last time the Enemy came, you went too heavy, and that this time would be worse than last time. You went straight for the Enemy and left all the factions untouched. Now we face all the surviving factions, as well as those that the Enemy has managed to gather since then.”
“That is part of it, but not the whole of it. Were you listening when Michael guessed that the reason I’m not willing to really form deep bonds of love, is that the worst thing that can happen to the world is a Destroyer blinded by rage? Do you know why he guessed that so easily?” Neleh asked with a grief laden voice.
“It’s because it would not be the first time, isn’t it? You had once formed such bonds and went into a blind rage.” Elune asked almost rhetorically in a sad voice.
“That would be what I meant when I said I gave into my darker nature. I had another family once. I tried living in peace, but then the Enemy came. I managed to get my revenge, but in my grief I didn’t care who paid the price for it. You know what fuels my powers as a Destroyer, and believe me when I tell you that beating the Enemy forced me into using those powers often and hard. The only reason this didn’t become an issue when I was reincarnated, was because the Enemy would have caused a hundred times more destruction than I did, if I had not done what I did.” Neleh replied almost numbly.
“And those worlds had their own deities, which now fill the Enemy’s ranks.” Elune finished the thought sadly.
“Exactly. So not only did my heavy handed approach leave the previous factions untouched, but I also gifted them with new lost-deities that now have their own factions. I do not envy the work the Celestial Host and Inferno are facing.” Neleh finished with a sigh.
Shiori was ashamed. She had let the child out. Due to her intelligence, she had matured much faster than any of her peers. This, and the fact that the people around her family viewed her as broken because of her lack of magic and Ki, had forced her into hiding any traces of the childishness that she had left. Her parents had already been forced into dealing with enough trouble because of their ‘weird’ child, that she could not add to their burden with any childish demands of her own. One of the reasons they had left their old village, and joined the caravan that had been attacked by the bandits, was that the people of their old village regarded Shiori as an oddity at beast, a monster at worst. A broken child that was too smart. Unnatural.
So she had been forced into living her life as a sort of balancing act. She acted mature and didn’t hide her intelligence with her parents, and she tried to act quiet and subdued while hiding her intelligence with everyone else. Her childish side was buried, preferably for good. Her parents would be burdened if she acted childish, and the others, the mean people, would be encouraged to bully her more if she showed her childish side, or if she showed how much their words and actions hurt. So she had chained and buried any vestiges of childish desires she had left.
Except now she had let the child out. The death of her parents had broken her resistance, and the presence of the woman named Neleh had done something to her. Perhaps even worse, Neleh had also seen right through her. The woman had noticed that she was different and more intelligent than she should be. And yet, she didn’t seem to hold that against Shiori. She wasn’t sure how to feel about Neleh.
Shiori had some slight basic control over her powers. If she closed her eyes, she could see the minds of others in the darkness, like small flames from candles. Whenever she was in a city, the darkness in her mind was like a sea of candles. She had tried to reach for the minds of other people, but had so far been unsuccessful. The bigger the flame the harder her attempts had been rebuffed. If most minds were like candles in the darkness, then some of the bigger ones were like torches or the fire of a fireplace. Once or twice she had seen a mind the size of a bonfire from a distance. Eventually Shiori had realized that the bigger the flame the stronger the mind.
When she had woken up after the attack, she had sensed the presence of a very powerful mind, and now she knew that mind belonged to the one known as Neleh. They had mentioned that Neleh was the Chosen, but that would not explain what Shiori saw in her mind. When she closed her eyes, she could see the raging inferno that was the mind belonging to Neleh. If normal minds were like candles, then Neleh’s mind was like seeing the sun at close range. Except the sun was shaped like a majestic bird of fire. Before this, the little sea of flames in her mind had been fun and maybe a little weird, but for the first time a mind in the darkness made her afraid. Strangely the power of Neleh was also comforting.
Shiori knew that the great power of Neleh could snuff out her flame without any effort, if she so chose. On the other hand, for the first time in her life Shiori also felt safe. If she could get close to the great power, then she would no longer need to feel afraid. If she could become close to the great power, even make it part of her family, then she would no longer need to feel fear about losing the one she got close to. She didn’t need to feel like the small problems she caused would burden her loved ones. The great bird of fire could easily carry such feeble burdens and not even notice them. And perhaps the most important thing was that the great fire might help her get strong as well.
She could turn from a burden to someone who could help carry the burdens of others. She could finally be free of ridicule and scorn. The eyes of others would no longer look at her and think ‘monster’. For when standing by the side of the great flame, who would pay attention to someone like her and her oddly sharp mind? She might be able to live her life as she saw fit. And maybe, just maybe, she might also be able to help the great flame. Not that Neleh would need her help. But one could always hope. Hope. For the first time since others discovered how strange she was, Shiori felt hope. Hope that she could finally live as just herself, not hiding her nature.