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A/N: Three side stories, still tied to the main story though. First two are something that were requested by the readers. The third one is something new, laying the groundwork for the future. These side stories would be titled Lovebirds, Bane of the Empress and The Vow, but they wouldn't all fit on the title line. I'm personally quite fond of these three and I hope you enjoy them as well. Bonus points again available for those that recognize what I used as an inspiration for the third story. No google-fu cheating!

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After her match with Neleh, Aneirin had been swamped by those eager to talk with her. She had still been in shock over her loss, even if Neleh’s words had somewhat cushioned the blow. As a result, she had avoided talking with anyone and had returned to her room in the academy with all haste. She had even skipped the award ceremony, even though she had been granted two wishes, one for winning the solo competition and one for her great performance in the fight against Neleh. Because of the importance that she had placed on winning the match, and showing that she could beat Neleh in something, she completely missed the praise given to her due her excellent use of spells.

Delia allowed Aneirin to sort out her feelings for an hour, before forcefully entering her room without even knocking. She had watched Aneirin’s weird behavior for long enough, and had finally reached her limit.

“Isn’t it about time you stop feeling sorry for yourself. Your loss wasn’t that bad, is what I would like to say, but you’ve been acting weird even before the tournament. What’s going on? You can talk to me.” She said when she saw the disheveled and teary look on her girlfriends face. Aneirin was a mess.

“I lost.” Aneirin sobbed.

“Yes you did, but you have to consider who you lost to. I did warn you that Neleh was more than meets the eye. Like I said, you’ve been acting weird even before the match. So what’s this about?” Delia repeated in a half comforting and half confused tone.

“It’s because of who I lost to, that is the problem! I thought I would be better than her in magic at least, but I was soundly beaten. It wasn’t even close. Now there’s nothing left. You should just go to her. I’ve seen how you look at her.” By the time she finished, her voice was practically dripping with venom.

Delia was confused as heck for a moment, until the pieces started falling into place. Aneirin’s weird behavior had started with her first prolonged contact with Neleh, the mission to the Sun Elf lands. “Let me get this straight. You think I’m in love with my little sister, and you think you’re not worthy to be with me, because you can’t beat her?” She asked with a very level voice, devoid of all feeling.

“Well you obviously are. And look at her! She’s perfect! I’ve never seen anyone as beautiful as her, she’s a genius both as a warrior and a mage and she’s the Chosen as well! Is there anything she’s not good at?!” Aneirin yelled.

Delia was quiet for a moment. “You know, you might be partially right. I definitely feel more strongly about her than a normal sister. I mean I care about her more than I care about Selene for example. There’s a good reason for it though. You never really appreciate something or someone until you come close to losing them, and I’ve almost lost her several times. That said, I’m not in love with her and even if I was, it would never work. Our mother is a living example of that.”

Aneirin looked up confused. “What do you mean?” She asked, failing to define which part she was confused about, partly because she was confused about all of it.

“You know, there has always been a gap between Neleh and the rest of the family. Oh she cares about us, no doubt about that, and it’s not a gap she’s creating on purpose. It just feels like our bonds might be deep, but they are temporary. It’s like we are just a passing phase in her life, a phase that will eventually to an end when she goes on to bigger and more important things. We’ve always felt that she was meant for something greater than us. Mother has fought years against that feeling, and she’s still struggling to make herself relevant in Neleh’s life. Mother sees Neleh’s back growing smaller and smaller in the distance, and desperately tries to run after her, just to feel her touch again. She never will though.

Even as a child, Neleh felt like someone who is thousands of years old. She hides it well, but there’s this calmness and depth in her eyes that comes with the sort of experience that only very old people have. I don’t know any details, but I get the feeling that she’s something much greater born into the body of an elf. I mean, she’s the Chosen of Satai so it would make sense if her soul was actually that of a dragon. Can you imagine falling in love with someone like that? Even if you love and respect her, there’s just too big of a gap between the two of you. I compared myself to her once or twice when I was a child, but the futility of that became very obvious very fast. And that’s with me being eight years older than her.” Delia finished with a sigh.

“Even still, how can you settle for someone like me, when there’s someone so superior to me so close to you?” Aneirin asked bitterly.

“You think I can’t love you just because you’re the second most gifted elf around? That’s not how love works, you should know that. You didn’t pick me based on a merit system, and I’m certainly not the strongest girl in the academy. Besides, despite what it looks like, Neleh isn’t perfect either. You have things she doesn’t, things that I appreciate.” Delia said with a smile.

“Like what?” Aneirin asked somewhat sullen.

“Well for one, your helpful and righteous nature. I mean, you’re the head of the discipline squad for a reason, and not just because of your strength in magic. And you’ve tried to hide it, but isn’t one of the main reasons that you haven’t graduated yet because there’s no one suitable to replace you? I know you have the skill to graduate, and you just showed it in front of millions of people.

Neleh on the other hand is fairly flexible in her morality. There are couple of principles that she will not compromise, but even then she’s more interested in punishing those responsible than helping the victims. I mean, she does help people on occasion, like with Shiori, but that’s based more on her fancy and whatever piques her interest than any sense of morality. And she definitely has a darker side too, as shown by her work as an Inquisitor. I haven’t seen it myself, but I’ve heard the stories about how she’s the scariest Inquisitor when it comes to getting information by force.

We’ve also talked about her distance from other people, and she can be very demanding. She has trouble understanding that everyone else isn’t as excellent as her, and thus you can’t expect the same level of performance from us. She doesn’t have much patience for those that don’t live up to her standard. She doesn’t yell at you or anything, but her disappointment shows in her eyes. It’s like she was really hoping for better, but you went and let her down. She’s horrid with people with authority. She tries to hide that too, but once again her disdain shows in her eyes if you know to look for it. She knows she could do better, and that leads to her disdain. The biggest problem is that there are very few people in high positions that can live up to even her most basic standards. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone whose authority she has really respected, aside from maybe Nimue and Maylin.” Delia finished with a small chuckle.

Aneirin was quiet for a long time, digesting everything. “Can you forgive me? Can you give me a second chance?” She finally asked.

“Yes, but only because I’ve also seen the long shadow my sister casts and I can somewhat understand what you’re going through. I got off easy, because I noticed the obvious quickly. That said, I won’t easily forgive you for completely ignoring my feelings. You just assumed everything, and thought of me as some kind of trophy that goes to the victor. This whole thing would have been so much less painful for both of us, if you had just talked to me, and treated me as your partner and not as some silly girl. Then again you didn’t believe me when I told you about her in the first place. That and your assumption about my feelings show that you don’t really trust me. I’m not sure if we should be together if we can’t even trust each other, but I’m willing to give it a chance. Just know that you’re on thin ice.” Delia said a little sadly.

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Nimue was exhausted. Since Neleh had fled after the tournament, it somehow fell on to her to answer questions about the girl. Well she had been the girl’s teacher as a priestess, so she could see why they would point the questions at her. That didn’t make the whole thing any less tiring. To top things off, the winner of the solo tournament had also disappeared after her great performance and had skipped the award ceremony. Of course, most of the wishes of the various participants that had distinguished themselves had something to do with Neleh.

The boldest tried asking the girl’s hand in marriage, just to be summarily shouted down by everyone. The more tame ones ranged from being accepted as her apprentice, to having a date with her. There was even one girl that asked to have Neleh become her sworn onee-sama, or some other nonsense. Nimue of course had to shoot all their wishes down, by telling them that Neleh had requested blanket immunity for all the wishes, as her own wish. As expected, this had gone over like a ton of bricks with the audience. It had taken her several days to sort through the mess.

Her head was already lying on the table, and she banged it against the table surface couple of times. Who would have thought that one of the most bothersome parts about being an empress, was cleaning after the messes their wayward Chosen left behind. The duke of Halamshiral had also visited, and had been fairly disgruntled because of the decree granting the mountain range on the border of Halamshiral and Jao’e’Tinukai to Neleh. The man wasn’t stupid, and knew that there must be a good reason Neleh wanted those mountains. Besides, no duke would be happy about losing even a small piece of their demesne, even if that part hadn’t really been theirs to begin with. The duke had finally been forced to accept the situation, when Nimue had asked if he was capable of driving away the dragons living in the mountain range. That had been the condition for Neleh as well. Despite the duke’s apparent acceptance, Nimue had a feeling this wasn’t the last time the fate of the mountain range came up.

Nimue was just about to go and have a hard earned meal, when she felt the floor tremor a bit. She frowned. Earthquakes didn’t happen in Rhi’a’non, the mages made sure of that. It would be a disaster on an unprecedented scale, if the imperial capital were to be destroyed by an earthquake. So it required something quite major for even small tremors like these to reach the city. She moved to the balcony to see if there was any hint towards the origin of the tremors.

Once she scanned the horizon, she had trouble believing her eyes. There was a huge mountain reaching the clouds in the horizon. Nimue was pretty damn sure that mountain had not been there before. How much power would it require to raise a mountain like that? Why would anyone do something this absurd?

“It couldn’t be…” Nimue mumbled to herself.

Oh who was she trying to fool? That mountain was clearly within the borders of the Jao’e’Tinukai duchy. Who else in that duchy was silly enough to do something like raise a mountain? Who else had the skill required?

“Elune damn it, Neleh! What did you do now?” Nimue cursed.

She used the messaging magic to try and reach for Neleh, and succeeded after an hour. The spell required you to have an approximate location of the target, for the conversation to remain private, and it had taken her that long to locate the girl in the surroundings of the mountain.

“Well hello there Nimue. What can I do for you on this fine day?” Neleh answered cheerily.

“Don’t give me that! You now damn well why I’m messaging you. You had something to do with that mountain, didn’t you?” Nimue asked angrily.

“I haven’t got the faintest idea what you’re talking about. But I do know who is responsible. Or at least the about thirty dragons near that mountain are a pretty strong hint.” Neleh said feigning ignorance.

“Don’t you dare! We both know that one of the few weaknesses of dragons is that they couldn’t earth magic themselves out of a paper bag. It’s one of the few things we dare to make fun of them about. I doubt it’s an accident that you needed to get some dragons moved, and now there just so happens to be a freshly made mountain perfect for their habitation in your province.” Nimue replied sarcastically.

“Bzzt! Oh I’m sorry, the spell, bzzt, seems to be failing! Some bandits must, bzzt, be disturbing the spell. I have to go deal with those miscreants!” Neleh suddenly said terminating the spell.

“Khali dammit!” Nimue screamed. She had heard Neleh use that phrase, and felt it was strangely appropriate. The stone railing under her hands cracked due to her anger.

She knew it was pointless to try and reach for Neleh again, so she reached for Estelar instead. The steward might now something about her master’s actions, and might be more willing to share.

“Empress Nimue.” Estelar replied politely but concisely.

“Explain to me right now! What did your master do this time?! I can see the damn mountain all the way from Rhi’a’non!” Nimue demanded in a heated voice.

“I can neither confirm nor deny my liege’s responsibility on any matters.” Came Estelar’s polite refusal to implicate Neleh.

“Don’t give me that! You aren’t suited for that sort of thing. I know she is somehow responsible for that mountain; I just need to know the details. What did she get us into this time? What can you tell me?”

“All I can say is that the power of the dragons was used for that mountains creation. The dragons in the contested mountain range are gone, and it is likely that almost all of the dragons on the continent will come to live on that mountain. Neleh gave her approval for that. She’s sheltering the dragons on purpose, partially because she has some influence over them and partially because she is the Chosen. Dragons are her responsibility after all.” Estelar replied concisely.

“Every dragon nesting a few hundred kilometers away from the capital? How was this a good idea in her mind? She even had the gall to fake some bandit interference to the communication spell.” Nimue grumbled.

“Ah well, the bandits really are something of a problem. It seems the majority of the bandits in the empire are converging on the duchy. You don’t gather that many bandits for tea and crumpets. We are in the process of training a military of our own, but they aren’t even close to being ready. We need the help of the army.” Estelar requested seriously.

“See if I care!” Nimue yelled back, finally losing her patience. She was developing a severe headache. Neleh had created another huge mess.

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A stern and dignified looking human man stood over a pair of cradles. The man’s appearance was a fine example of authority and power. The man’s dark brown, almost black beard and moustache were cut clean and relatively short, framing his chin and face. His hair was combed back cleanly, as was often done by men with power and maturity. The man was wearing the attire and regalia of someone in power. His black clothes, highlighted with gold, were covered by white chest armor with golden insignia and decorative patterns. The armor wasn’t meant for battle, it was instead something that signified position. The insignia bore what looked like the sigil of a House in the form of a fierce wolf, and there was the facsimile of a dragon head highlighted on the chest of his armor. Both his clothes and his armor came high on his neck.

The man looked coldly at the twin boys in the cradles. He was clearly not very moved by the newborn children, and seemed to planning their future, deep in thought.

“You majesty. Both boys are healthy and are perfect specimen of newborn humans. They seem to have inherited the blood of High Humans heavily, and will most likely grow up to be great warriors and have a long life. Your wife is fine and resting. May I inquire about names for the boys?” A priestess in an ornate robe was talking to the man, kneeling behind him trying not to disturb him too much. She was kneeling on one knee to show deference.

“Alexis and Sanguinius of House de Wolfe.” The man said simply. He had plans for the little princes, ambitious plans that didn’t include coddling them. His oldest son was smart but weak, and would make for a poor ruler. The poor sod didn’t even inherit much of his blood. Humans with strong blood of the High Humans would live for several hundred years, and were physically stronger and faster than their weaker kin. Most of the population of the empire had varying amounts of the blood, but the first son of the emperor had almost none.

His second son had inherited the blood, but he had been lazy and decadent. He had coasted on the power and wealth of his father, and made many enemies. Finally the boy had gone too far, and had been caught by the father of one of the girls he had taken by force, and was killed like a dog. The emperor didn’t weep for the lost son. But he did need a strong heir. He had unified many of the fractured human kingdoms into an empire, and a weak heir would not be able to hold them together.

He intended to make things right with these sons. He believed that man can have anything, if he is willing to sacrifice to get it. “With your birth, comes a solemn vow. You will have nothing handed to you. Your privilege is the blood and sweat, as you’re beaten down to the dirt. Ambition will be your guide. The oaths you make, the promises you give are yours alone to uphold. Your freedom will be in the wars you wage. Your birthright will be the losses you suffer on the battlefield and beyond. Your entitlement, the pain you endure. And when evil and darkness find you, you will face them, alone. This will be you trial by fire. This will forge your strength. And in the end, if you are strong enough, you might find some measure of peace.”

The man turned around, his cloak flaring, and strode away. He had an empire to rule.

-----

The twins were not coddled as children. As soon as they could manage, they were subjected to grueling physical training. They were stretched to their limit with exercise, beaten to the ground by those training them in unarmed combat, and dumped into their beds battered and bruised. They cried once, and in one of the few times their father spoke to them, he told them that only weaklings cried their lack of strength. His sons were not supposed to be weaklings. They never cried again, even if they were broken by their training.

The scant free time they had was spent with each other, since their father isolated them from others to remove liabilities and bad influence. They were trained in etiquette and social interaction by stern faced tutors and mock situations, so their manners didn’t suffer from their isolation. As soon as they were strong enough to hold a practice sword, their weapon lessons began. The beatings and the bruises were constant. Yet somehow, they managed to keep each other sane, and from becoming twisted.

The only thing Alexis and Sanguinius strived for was the acceptance of their father, emperor Azemar de Wolfe. The emperor ruled with an iron fist, but was not unjust and provided security, so he was at the very least respected by his subjects, even if not loved. The emperor managed to make time to watch the twins train, but never spoke to them, never reached out to them, simply observed. Even when the twins managed to defeat a squad of ten elite imperial guards in combat at the age of nine, he simply turned his back and walked away.

The next morning, the greatest general of the humans, the Chosen of Iarus Nicholai became their new trainer in armed combat, as well as strategy and tactics. The Chosen was a fair and kind man by nature, but had been told to be stern if not brutal in the training of the twins by the emperor. Because of his respect for the emperor, and because he could see the effectiveness of the training they had received so far, he complied. He did teach the twins in the knightly virtues though, and for the first time the twins learned of kindness and gentleness, even if they themselves were not beneficiary to either.

The twins had worked hard to defeat the guards at the age of nine, because they wanted to do it before their spirits awoke at the age of ten. Both of their personal spirits ended up being some of the most powerful in existence, as befit the noble offspring of House de Wolfe. Sanguinius had a spirit that symbolized their house, the great wolf Fenrir. Fenrir had been the spirit of one of their ancestors that formed the House, and the kingdom. It was a very suitable spirit for a warrior, granting its owner great strength, speed, cunning, internal power and a great battle sense. As a bonus, the spirit Fenrir also granted its owner bonuses with ice magic.

It later turned out that ice was the only magic Sanguinius was gifted in, but that hardly mattered because by the time he turned sixteen he had proven himself to be a genius warrior. His skill with the blade was unmatched, except maybe by the Chosen and it was only a matter of time before Sanguinius would surpass Nicholai as well. His smooth movements flowed like he was dancing with the blade, except his strikes had enormous power behind them, as his boundless internal power was expertly applied. Sanguinius was usually dressed in white clothing and armor, similar to the white armor of his father the emperor.

Alexis had a spirit that had never before been seen by the humans. His spirit looked like a grim reaper, with a deadly looking scythe. The spirit granted its owner an odd mix of power suitable for one that practiced both magic and warrior skills. In addition to the strength, speed and internal power second only to Sanguinius, the spirit also granted Alexis power with death magic. Death magic was something mastered by a handful of humans, mostly due to their Protector God Iarus being the God of Death. Death magic was feared due to its ability to reach into the magic territory of others. Even the strongest of lives could be snuffed out, if unable to defend against the power of a death mage. In addition to death magic, Alexis was also gifted with earth and shadow magic, specializing in quick spells that allowed him the freedom to fight in melee without being interrupted. Instead of the magical artillery that many mages resembled, Alexis was more of an arcane warrior. His skills didn’t quite reach those of a Medjai yet, but he was on the path.

Opposite to his brother, Alexis elected to dress mostly in black and gold, in honor of his father’s clothing. Both brothers had the chiseled and muscled look of those that had spent their life in training, but they had avoided too much muscle on purpose to retain their mobility and agility. Their handsome looks, inherited from their father, earned them the affections of many ladies, but the ladies were largely ignored, partly because the twins were too busy in training, and partly because the ladies seemed so useless and weak to the twins. To the twins, a woman worthy of their affections would not be some simpering fool who spent her days in frivolous activities, but someone who spent effort similar to their own to better herself. A woman of strength.

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After the twins reached their nineteenth birthday, they took part in several campaigns to subjugate the remaining free human kingdoms. They distinguished themselves as great fighters and capable commanders. Sanguinius was an expert tactician, with an uncanny eye for the flow of battle, while Alexis excelled in more wide scale strategy, mapping out the paths the war should take with skill and foresight beyond his years. As per their fathers vow, they found death and loss on the battlefield. The few friends they made met their ends at the hands of the enemy.

The only freedom they had felt in their lives came from the freedom to choose their way on the fields of war. Sanguinius found this lack of freedom harder, and despite his paladin-esque image, would have taken it out on the people they conquered, except Alexis reined him in. Alexis had learned more of Nicholai’s teachings on kindness and mercy, and he also realized that nothing good would come of it in the strategic sense. It’s not that Sanguinius was a bad person either, he was simply frustrated, and had very little in the way of outlets outside of the battlefield.

After the unification of the human lands was accomplished, the great war with the beastmen started. The twins once again distinguished themselves on the fields of war, as did their father and Nicholai. The unfortunate fact was that the other human forces weren’t as successful. They were holding their own, but the highly mobile beastmen forces were pushing them hard. They had managed to reach a stalemate of sorts, due to the beastmen being extended a bit too heavily, but the humans were clearly not winning. They sought help from the other races, but the faeries and demons had their own war, Celestials were doing their diplomacy thing, naga had withdrawn to their underwater empire and the elves were in the middle of a civil war.

They had received a word of a new empress of the elves being crowned though, and rumors told of a powerful young Chosen. Humans and elves weren’t on the best of terms, but maybe an agreement of sorts could be reached…
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Vihyungrang

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