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A/N: More dialogue in this one than in any other chapter before, I think. I hope you enjoy.

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After their exchange of pleasantries, the two of them took a more comfortable position around a table, hidden in a nook behind the throne.

“Before anything else, I have to ask out of sheer curiosity, do the naga know their Eternal Empress in not a naga?” Neleh asked, going straight to the obvious point.

The empress gave a small understanding smile. “It is not widely spread information, but it is known by those that need to know. We are an interesting pair, are we not? Me as the empress of the naga and you as the Chosen of both Elune and Satai.”

“We certainly aren’t what people would call usual. So, shall we then? You called me here, so I think it is only fair you present your proposition.” Neleh replied with a smile of her own.

“To the point then. There are a few minor things you can help us with, and one really major favor. In return I have a few pieces of information that you will find very helpful, and the power of the naga and myself to offer in return for the major favor.” The empress made her initial offer.

“Alright, let’s start with the minor things. Even if we won’t see eye to eye on the major point, we can still do the minor favors and separate in good will.” Neleh replied.

“One of the minor favors I will perform while you are leaving the Coral Palace. It’s simply something that will only become useful at that time. As for the other, how much have you discovered about your blessings? For the record, I know you are blessed by ten gods.” The empress asked suddenly.

Neleh raised her eyebrow due to the sudden shift in topic. “The deities decided to be uncooperative, and only gave vague descriptions. The blessing of Aphrodite is obvious. The blessing of the faerie goddess Lulu grants the ability to see through all illusions and secrets, as well as making it so that I can never get lost and will find my way even in a labyrinth. I know part of Medea’s blessing is the ability to move underwater without drowning. I have a theory about Satai’s blessing, but I’m not willing to share that one. The rest I have some thoughts about, but no real knowledge. The gods did a good job hiding their hand.” She replied a little annoyed at the gods.

“My first favor has to do with two of those blessings, and a hint. Firstly I can give the hint that a human with knowledge in spirit magic can help you with some of the blessings. I’m not withholding information, that’s simply all I know about it. Secondly the favor, which my representative told you about, a way to stop the second conflagration. There’s really no gentle way to put this, so I’ll just say it straight up. Two of your blessings will fully activate within two years, and one of their side effects will be the severing of the bond you hold.

The blessing of Sydonay, the protector god of demons, will make it so nothing can force you to be subordinate to another person or power. Even if the bond is fairly equal, your end is still considered subordinate, since you supply mana to the bond holder. The blessing will forcibly sever the bond. The blessing of Loki will have a similar effect. One of its effects is to make you the master of deception, which also means no bond or vow can hold you. You will be able to survive the forceful severing of the bond while your partner will not.” The empress’ voice held no emotion. It was held completely level on purpose.

‘Elune, explain.’ Neleh quickly sent her thought to the goddess.

“This is news to me. Now that I heard about it though, I can see that she speaks the truth. I can tell you, that it was most certainly not the intent of the blessings to cause you harm. I’ll have to have a word with the others, but I doubt we can stop it. Taking back the blessings is problematic at best, and it gets worse the stronger the blessing is. The blessing of Loki in particular is very powerful, maybe the most powerful after the ones granted by myself and Satai.” Elune replied in a very serious voice.

“How did you come by all this information?” Neleh asked the empress.

“I was given this information as a message to give you. It’s not really a favor from us. Instead it’s more of an apology from the gods in question. I have no idea why they chose me to convey this message, but if I were to guess, it’s about putting the two of us together. The two of us will need each other in the future. The message also continues that although there will be no way to stop this from happening currently, there are ways to stop your partner from suffering the effects of the break. I was told to suggest something called temporal stasis. I can figure out that it has something to do with time magic, but anything else is beyond me.” The empress explained with a small frown. Time magic was far beyond her abilities to understand.

Neleh was quiet for a while. She was feeling some regret over not doing more research into dissolving the bond more gently. Asheara had told her that she did not wish the bond to be removed, so Neleh had complied. In some moments she also admitted to herself, that she took great comfort in the bond, and not being alone. The temporal stasis would prevent Asheara from dying, but would also render her into a state that was the next thing up from death. She would be alive, but effectively removed from the life of their family. Luckily she had some time, so she might be able to come up with a solution. Luckily she got the word about it this early. Hope was not yet lost.

“Even if it wasn’t really a favor from you, I still thank you for the message. Tell me about the minor favors that you wish from me?” Neleh told the empress, while still half in thought.

“The first one is fairly simple to explain. Our Chosen, and our most powerful seer is afflicted with a strange disease or curse that we cannot handle. We also have no idea what might have caused it. However, our seers tell me that you have the ability to save her. Apparently the vision was vague, but it was something about you having knowledge we do not.” The empress explained.

“Consider it done. Healing someone sounds very reasonable. I am surprised you managed to see something that specific about my future. I have been told that I’m not bound by fate, and as a result seeing my future is sketchy at best.” Neleh replied a little surprised.

“You are correct. Our seers have real trouble seeing anything about your future. However, your effect on the future of others is really powerful. Some of their destinies are so cast in stone due to your effect, that it is plain as day to our seers. For example, the time the first conflagration happened, we could see that it would happen and when, but not the cause. Apparently you had the option to stop the attack on the Sun Palace somehow, so our vision of that was fuzzy at best. On the other hand, we could see the celestials had important information able to prevent the event, but that they chose not to use it. The exact nature of the information became clear only later, but we knew something was going on. It’s also a bit hard to warn the elves about ‘something’ happening in one of their cities, and would also reveal our abilities.

On the other hand, the fate of the Chosen of Medea is strong after your attempt to heal her, so it is almost certain you will succeed, even though we don’t know how you will do it. The fates of others are also the reason we know you will become the empress of the elven people, known as the Empress of the Immortal Flame, and the most powerful being in the world. If you combine my abilities as the most powerful mage alive and your future powers, then there is very little that can stop us. Besides, we know that there is a storm coming, and being on your good side when the storm hits will be very important. That is what we offer as our major favor. Our full cooperation and alliance against the coming storm, as well as any assistance you require in preparation for it. It is obvious the other races, as they currently are, are not prepared to handle the storm. If it is your wish, we will even join forces with you to subjugate them.” The empress declared.

‘Oh.’ Neleh thought in a slight surprise. She had considered the possibility that the title the naga gave her might refer to her future instead of her past, but it still surprised her. ‘The empress, huh?’ She had guessed that it might come to that in the future, but it was still a bit weird to get a confirmation. Judging by her words, the empress was not sure if Neleh would take her up on her offer to subjugate the other races. Apparently it was something she would decide in the future.

“That’s a rather powerful offer. I’m assuming that what you want in return is something equally important?” Neleh asked mostly stalling for time, so that she could consider everything she heard.

“That’s a bit more complex, and will require a fairly long explanation. I would rather get the other small favor out of the way first, if that is fine with you? This one only requires your thoughts, and is one of those things that are really murky to our seers.” The empress said changing the subject. For some reason she seemed to be blushing and embarrassed. Was she trying to avoid talking about the major favor?

Neleh waved her hand assenting to the empress’ request, which brought a slight sigh of relief from the empress. She really was too embarrassed to talk about the major favor! “There was a large scale attack aimed at the heads of the major clans, and several important people like our seers. Many of the attacks failed, but some of them succeeded. We have run into nothing but dead ends in trying to investigate, and the major clans are at each other’s throats. You’ll notice that this is a favor we could not have asked of you if you had come a year later, so this one is a new situation. On the other hand, the second favor we will able to provide is also a recent development, so I suppose this is also fate of a kind. The attacks happened three weeks ago. We would like to ask your thoughts on the matter as an outsider, to bring a fresh perspective to the situation.” The empress requested.

Neleh asked the empress several questions about the events. One of the most striking details was that the timing of the attacks was really odd. Many off the attacks were aimed at targets that had just become under the protection of the Kenshin, causing the attacks fail. If the attacks had been performed a week earlier or a week later, they would have been much more successful.

“This is just a guess, but bear with my musings. There’s a game played by the demons called Qadesh, which means cunning. It’s considered highly complex. Thirty  different pieces played on a field of 120 squares of varying terrain. The demons have a great love of strategy in both intrigue and war, which is displayed in the game. Games of Qadesh can last for days, and some wise demons have been rumored to devote their whole lives to mastering its intricacies.” Neleh started to ruminate out loud.

“Something you have most likely already accomplished.” The empress replied with a wry smile. “Though I fail to see the connection.”

Neleh gave a small chuckle. “You’ll see the point soon. The real secret of Qadesh, as in many other games, is all in the opening. There’s a limited amount of variations, the most successful being the deceiver’s attack. It’s a series of moves designed to appear mainly defensive, but which in fact conceals an offensive sequence that will bring about victory in only ten moves, although the defeated will not realize his defeat until much, much later. The success of the attack is dependent on fixing the opponents attention on a separate overt mover in another region of the board. The key of the real offensive lies in its narrow focus. It has but one objective, to remove a specific piece from the board. It’s not the most powerful piece, but it is crucial for successful defense in the future. The opponent however has been convinced he’s facing a varied attack on a broad front.”

“So you’re saying that attacking all those people was only a diversion? They only intended to kill one of them?” The empress asked getting a sudden revelation.

“Perhaps, or perhaps two of them. If you apply the idea further, it might be that one of the Kenshin was the real target, and the others were simply an incidental smokescreen.” Neleh ruminated further.

“Is that your conclusion?” The empress asked.

Neleh shook her head. “While that is certainly a possibility, and something you’re more equipped to investigate further, there’s something else bothering me. All theories require a basic assumption on the motive of the mastermind.  If we assume that whoever made the attack intends to harm the naga, then their goal was accomplished. Kind of. Several clan heads were killed, but new ones would be appointed to their place, so the effect is somewhat limited rendering their whole point moot. However, the event has driven a wedge between the clans, and from your explanation we can conclude that some of the new clan heads are primarily responsible for driving that wedge further. In that way the damage is more significant.”

“So you’re saying that the attack was done in order to elevate those new clan heads?” The empress asked again.

“Not all of them most likely, but my guess is that one or two of them, yes. It would be my personal guess that at least one of those new clan heads is serving the mastermind behind the attacks, and the other attacks were just a diversion, to hide a tree within a forest so to speak. The turmoil between the clans is a nice bonus, but I would guess that the real bonus is to utilize the one new clan head at a later date for some separate purpose.” Neleh finished her thought.

The empress considered Neleh’s words for a while. “I think I see the enemy now. Thank you for your assistance. This might have become a real problem without your help.”

“Well, those are just some theories I came up with on the spot. You will need to do the follow-up investigation.“ Neleh replied lightly.

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In order to perform the healing, the empress led Neleh into a room to the side of the throne room. They had expected Neleh to agree to the healing, so they made the Chosen of Medea rest in a room with an easy access. Despite that, there was no one within the rooms the empress led Neleh into. The empress explained that because they didn’t know the cause of the mysterious illness, they had quarantined the Chosen. The proximity to the throne was due to the seers assuring the empress of the safety of doing so.

Neleh sent her senses into the sick naga girl lying on the bed. There was no disease at least. She also couldn’t find any spells affecting the body, like a curse would. There was ostensibly nothing wrong with the girl’s body, except it was dying without an apparent cause. Neleh pondered for a moment, and suddenly had the idea of sending her senses to study the girl’s soul.

She frowned deeply at what she found. “This should not be possible.” She mumbled.

“What is wrong with her?” The empress asked alarmed.

“Her soul is being corrupted. Not in the sense that she’s becoming evil, I mean literally. There is a corrupting power lodged in her soul that is eating away at it.” Neleh explained.

“Can it be cured?” The empress asked.

“Oh that’s not the problem. Corruption like this is not too hard to remove if you know how to do it. Paradoxically, the best way to deal with illnesses of the soul is with death magic. I’m already letting my power fix the damage, though she might be very weak for a few years after she wakes up. The real issue is how she was infected with such corruption in the first place. This isn’t something you pick up from a cursed item or something that can spontaneously develop.” Neleh wondered out loud.

“I don’t know if this had anything to do with it, but she started developing the symptoms when she had visions about the coming storm. She is the only one powerful enough to see that far and even she cannot say when the storm is coming.” The empress explained.

“That might be it. Have her be careful about it in the future. When you look into the abyss, sometimes the abyss looks back. Next time the corruption will have easier time progressing.” Neleh mused. Visions concerning the Enemy? That might do it. The only other option that Neleh could think of would be one of the scouts that came through the portal earlier. Spreading chaos was their likely purpose, but attacking the Chosen of Medea seemed like an odd choice.

They left the room, and the empress sent for some servants to attend to the Chosen now that there was no danger of a contagion.

“I think it’s about time for us to get to the main point. Could you explain the major favor you expect from me? You’ve tried to avoid the subject for some reason, and that’s making me worry.” Neleh asked in a firm voice once they reached the throne room again.

The empress gave a small sigh. “To really understand, we have to start with a bit of history. When the greater gods were choosing their races, there were two races of dragons in the world. You might have noticed that I’m not like the dragons you have met so far. Unlike Sydonay, the protector god of demons, Satai was not willing to pick two races, no matter how they were related. In the end, this resulted in a war between my kind, who were usually called Kirin by the other races, and the other dragons. While we were more magically gifted than our dumber cousins, they were much stronger than us physically. Perhaps more importantly, they outnumbered us almost ten-to-one. I do not blame our cousins for the war, since our kind wanted the favor of Satai just as badly, but I am regretful that we lost that war.

In the end, the vast majority of dragons were dead even if they won, and they decided to take out their rage by exterminating our kind. The others of our kind made a last stand, heroic or otherwise, and our queen who was carrying eggs at the time fled to try and salvage what was left of our race. She sought refuge among the naga, because our cousins have a dislike of water and don’t enter the oceans lightly. This was roughly a million years ago. Our mother left her eggs with the naga and sacrificed herself to quell the rage of our cousins.

They know of our existence, but even they don’t care to carry a grudge any longer. They won, Satai made his choice, and we were left alone. The only problem was that all the eggs were female and thus our race is facing its end. Although it took the youngest of us until about 100 000 years ago to hatch, we have been losing members one at a time. They either succumb in battle against various foes, or they lose all hope and will to live. We do not die of old age but once we lose the will to live, we go into an eternal sleep, never to wake again. There are only four of us left alive, and it takes the others longer and longer to rouse themselves from their rest every time they lay down.” The empress finished with tears in her eyes.

Neleh gave her a moment before asking. “The twilight of a race is always sad. That said, I’m not seeing your intention yet. I’m guessing you expect me to do something about it?”

“Yes. You have the power to shapeshift into the form of a male Kirin, even if only for a time, do you not? This is what our seers hinted to me at least.” The empress asked a little shyly, wiping away her tears.

“Eh?” Neleh couldn’t help but utter a small strangled sound. “Aah, it is not entirely impossible. I do not have the power for it currently, but it is something I might be able to do in the future, when my own body stops growing. I have to make sure though, are you asking me what I think you are?”

“Yes I am. I want you to be the new forefather of our race.” The empress said firmly, while blushing furiously.
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