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Azrael, Asheara and Shiori all felt a little lost after exiting the throne room among all the naga nobility. The nobles were arguing in a loud voice about the meaning of the Eternal Empress dismissing all of them from the throne room. The arguments only got more intense once the Kenshin and the priestesses guarding the empress also exited the room. One of the priestesses noticed the three of them looking lost, and led them to a room on the side, with a view of the hall where the nobles were gathered. The priestess was the same that had spoken on behalf of the empress, and was simply known as the Voice. Apparently the empress usually didn’t even deign to speak out loud with the nobles. Usually she only signaled the Voice, who knew what the signals meant, and then the Voice spoke on the empress’ behalf.

“It seems that the nobles are quite agitated. I’m guessing what happened in the throne room isn’t common?” Azrael asked the priestess.

“No it is not. You are among the rare few members of other races to even set foot in the Coral Palace. The Eternal Empress, may she live forever, never meets any of the naga nobles alone, not to even mention the members of other races. The Eternal Empress is treating the one known as Neleh as an equal. That has never happened before.” The Voice explained half in thought, obviously also wondering about what was going on behind the closed doors.

Shiori harrumphed. “The empress is overestimating herself.” Earning a shocked look from the priestess and an alarmed shushing from Asheara. Shiori could see the light produced by the mind of the so called ‘Eternal Empress’ within the empty space her own mind showed her. Even though that light was larger than any other she had seen before, with the possible exception of the biggest dragons she had seen in Jao’e’Tinukai, it was nothing when compared to the blazing sun of Neleh.

“How are the nobles taking it?” Azrael asked out of curiosity.

“I would imagine they are going to pay extra respect and attention to Neleh once they get over their initial shock and confusion. No one who is treated like this by the Eternal Empress can be anything else but a very important person for the future of the naga. They might not like it, but they will most certainly respect it. The rule of the empress is absolute.” The Voice replied simply.

“Any idea about what the empress has planned?” Asheara asked a little worried.

“I would not dare to speculate on the mind of the empress. The only thing I know is that she wanted to have a certain person healed, and had a reason to assume Neleh would be able to fulfill that request. Beyond that, I can’t say.” The Voice replied.

After talking about the naga politics for a while, Asheara wondered out loud. “Should we pay a visit to Kanako’s family? I mean we could put in a good word while we are here.”

Shiori shook her head. “As much as I’d like to cause trouble for the girl, I don’t think that’s a good idea. She’s in Rhi’a’non for a reason, and drawing notice to her could cause major parties to focus their attention on her. I doubt she would handle that well. I have my doubts about her, but until I have some proof I’d like to avoid destroying her life.”

Not long after they were all invited back into the throne room. Neleh and the empress had spent quite a bit of time alone.

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Neleh had expected the answer the empress gave her, but it still made her apprehensive. She had considered the possibility of children, and pretty much given up on the idea for the foreseeable future. She most certainly didn’t expect to father any children. She wasn’t against the idea in theory, but being the sire of a new start to a race might come with a fair bit of trouble later on. She most certainly had no desire to start parenting a clutch of Kirin.

“Let’s say that I’m not against the idea so far. What exactly are you expecting from me? I’m assuming you realize that even if I give my agreement, I won’t be able to fulfill my part for several years, maybe even a decade?” Neleh asked, testing the waters.

“This much is obvious. Not having reached maturity, such a large shapeshift would be near impossible even for you. We have waited for millennia without hope, so few more years to save our race is nothing but a blink of the eye. What we expect is for you to mate with the remaining Kirin that can still wake up. We will lay the eggs and check the genders of the hatchlings inside. If there are male Kirin among them, then you have done the minimum required, although we would hope for more than one birthing to give our young a better chance of carrying on the race. We do not expect you to parent them, as you would most likely not even make for a suitable parent for Kirin.” The empress gave a small smile.

She continued. “The seers have not found out too much about your personality, but according to them even being a teacher is not your forte, not to even speak of being a parent to hatchlings. We would however wish that you would do your best in cooperation with me to ensure their safety until they can look after themselves. In this case it’s more a case of trying to safeguard the world against the storm that is coming, with maybe a little extra consideration for our safety. Strictly speaking, you probably won’t need the full support of the naga before that, but we are ready to provide it should you require it. We will trust your word that you will do your part.”

Neleh gave the deal a good amount of consideration. It was not a bad deal as it was. The problem was that there might be unforeseen consequences. For example, the dragons were content to leave the remaining Kirin alone for now, but would that still be the case if the numbers of the Kirin begun to rise? And how would they feel about Neleh who was the cause of it? If she found someone to share the rest of her life with, how would they feel about Neleh having dozens of children running around in the form of Kirin? Yet, having one of the races, especially the naga as the rulers of the oceans, as her ally would go a long way towards safeguarding the world. Saying no to the deal would most likely also sour that possibility through other means.

“Let’s say I agree for the time being. My duchy is the home for most of the dragons on the elven continent and I’d rather they not burn it all to ground once they learn of this. I will have to sound out their reaction to all this. I can agree to this on principle, but I can’t put my lands to a risk like that.” Neleh provisionally agreed to the terms.

“I would expect nothing less. Then from now on, the naga are allied with Neleh Khalidor, the one who will be known as the Empress of the Immortal Flame. I had these made to facilitate communication between us. Do not hesitate to call on us when necessary. Also I’d like to hear about it once the deal is certain.” The empress said, while handing Neleh a small bracelet that looked to be made of pearls and silver links. She also showed a similar bracelet she was wearing herself.

Neleh put the small bracelet on her wrist and tested it immediately, channeling a bit of her power through the bracelet. “In the meantime, you can probably agree that it would be in the best interest for the both of us if the infestation within the naga ranks was dealt with. I happen to know of a spell that allows one to tell the difference between the truth and lies. I am also a neutral observer unfamiliar with the politics of the naga, so I can be used as a completely objective way to discover all traitors.” Neleh said with her thoughts going through the bracelet.

“Agreed. Getting rid of traitors should be our next priority.” The empress gestured Neleh to stand by the throne, near the spot the Voice was standing earlier. She then gave a small magical signal, inviting the others back inside. It soon became obvious that the signals the empress used to communicate with the Voice were magical in nature, as without more than a few gestures, she had the Voice ordering the important people that had reached their position as a result of the assassinations lined up at the front of the room.

The events that followed were almost too easy for them. The empress ordered the people lined up to submit to a questioning. Neleh had to display her ability to see through lies only once, before two of the newly raised clan heads tried to escape the throne room. The attempt was futile of course, since the Voice had the Kenshin standing by expecting something like that to occur. The two runners, and one more clan head who was uncovered by the continued questioning were arrested and taken away. Neleh even offered her help in interrogating the three, but the empress refused so as to avoid the clans of the three arrested having bad feelings towards Neleh. The clans of the three traitors had been disgraced, and for a good reason. For now, Neleh was just someone the Eternal Empress used to find out about the betrayal, but if Neleh was to take further part in the investigation, she might become an object of hate and blame for the disgraced clans.

After the tumult, the empress announced the alliance and ordered a huge banquet to be prepared to honor it. She wished Neleh to spend some time during the celebrations to form relations with the various naga present, so that it would be easier in the future to have the naga work in a way advantageous to Neleh. They would do so in any case if the Eternal Empress ordered, but it would be much simpler to not have the naga clans object. Hence Neleh brought all her charm and grace to bear during the celebration, forming friendships and bonds. Her plans towards the duchy of Jao’e’Tinukai were of much interest to the naga, and the improved trade opportunities were also a big help. Some of the new products Neleh had proposed would find many opportunities among the naga.

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Two important things happened during the night that followed. Firstly Elune came back from her discussion with the other gods. “I have news. I confirmed the words of the empress with the other gods. The blessings of Sydonay and Loki were planned to reveal themselves when you had your eighteenth birthday. The two had judged that to be about the age when the blessings would start being useful to you, though you’re ahead of schedule. They didn’t even know of your bond back when the blessings were given. According to the two of them, the effect of the blessings really will sever the bond. They also were the ones to pass word to the empress, through Medea of course. They didn’t dare to tell me, because they knew I would rip them a new one for their mistake. I think they also didn’t want he relations between the two of us to suffer, seeing as it’s fairly important for us as well to keep good relations with you.”

‘I can forgive honest mistakes, but I’m not so sure I will feel as forgiving once the severing actually happens. Forgiveness is one thing, but the resulting consequences are another. Can anything be done?’ Neleh asked, dreading the answer.

“Unfortunately not. The blessing of Sydonay might be something we could remove with the joint effort several gods, but there’s nothing we could do about the blessing of Loki, so there’s no point. The lesser gods don’t have Chosen, but the soul of Deception granted by Loki is as close as it comes. He is the God of Deceit, Lies, Thieves and Assassins after all. It’s almost ironic. If he were a greater god, the power of Chosen we could remove, but his current blessing we can’t. Another piece of bad news, the bond was made to be foolproof against tampering on purpose. If it wasn’t, then anyone with the bond would be too easy to deal with, due to the backlash. Even with your knowledge it seems impossible to deal with. I tend to agree with the suggestion Sydonay made. It is most likely for the best to use something similar to temporal stasis on Asheara once the time comes, and try to find a way to deal with the effects afterwards.” The ever cheerful goddess was once again sounding glum. She did that too often lately.

Neleh sighed. ‘I know. I spent a fair bit of time studying the bond earlier, and could not find anything that could help. There are a few reality altering spells that might be a possibility, but their side effects might be worse than the backlash from the bond, and even then they probably wouldn’t work. I’m not quite ready to give up yet though.’

“Just don’t get too focused on that. Instead, try spending what time you have together with her. Who knows when you can meet her the next time? Besides, although the empress said you would be able to deal with the bond being severed, I doubt even you can just shrug it off. I’d try and come up with some things to protect yourself as well.” Elune said worried.

‘I actually already have an idea concerning that. I think you might even like it.’ Neleh was just about to elaborate when she felt the second important event of the night happen.

She could feel several gateways opening around the planet. Gateways similar to the one that she had felt before, when the scouts of the enemy entered the world. “Well that was faster than I thought.” She said to herself.

“How many and where?” Elune asked, knowing that Neleh’s senses were sharper, because she knew what to look for.

“About twelve, open only long enough for one or two beings to come through. It’s hard to tell exactly while at the bottom of the ocean, but I’d say they were spread quite evenly across the continents. At least one opened on the elven continent and one on the island chains near us. I would guess it’s the first of the Harbingers. They are most likely here to sow chaos and find agents to work for them among the populace of this world.” Neleh made an educated guess.

“Harbingers already? Does that mean that the forces of the enemy are not far behind? As if we don’t have enough trouble and chaos without their help.” Elune worried.

“I doubt it. My guess would be that they noticed that this world is particularly vulnerable to the effects of the Harbingers, so they sent them in early to do as much damage as possible. When you consider the current unrest and the effects of the Consortium, this world is ripe for their influence. This might actually be a good thing. If the lost-deities think this world is easily influenced by the Harbingers, then they might not send the strongest factions against us in the future. It will be a balancing act though. We can’t leave them to do their work freely, but if I start hunting them too overtly, then we will draw the eye of the lost-deities.” Neleh mused.

“Well, we always knew this wouldn’t be easy. Will you go after the ones closest to us? It would be bad if they came among the naga and spoiled what you just accomplished. Can you even find them?” The goddess asked.

‘For the next week or two, easily. A forceful transfer like that leaves a mark on the ones being transferred. It will be harder after that though, once the traces disappear. Then it depends on the form and skill of the beings that came through. And I suppose I should deal with those that thought it wise to appear so close to us. We should bid our goodbyes to the naga tomorrow. I would’ve liked to stay longer, but I can always leave a doorway behind.’ Neleh decided.

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The ceremony was kept simple as they were leaving, mostly due to Neleh’s request. They had partied enough the previous evening. She had requested that the other’s be transported back to Bluepearl the same way they came, while she would make a small trip to the islands where the gateways had opened. The empress had immediately understood when Neleh had sent the message during the night. In fact the empress had expected it, since it had to do with the other minor favor she was planning for Neleh.

As they were leaving, the empress contacted Neleh through the bracelet. “Time for me to do the other favor. Once you have dealt with the ones that came through the gateway, you should take the chance to help a fleet of human vessels that are in trouble near the islands you are traveling to. I think you’ll find that saving the people on those vessels will be beneficial to you in the future.” There was some odd mirth in the empress’ voice when she gave the hint.

“I’m sensing there’s something special about these particular humans. Does this by chance have anything to do with the earlier hint about finding some humans proficient with spirit magic?” Neleh asked dubiously. There was something else weird about these vessels, she could sense it in the naga’s voice.

“Among other things. Have fun.” The empress laughed and cut the connection.

“I’m not so sure I’m too happy with this favor. I might have to ask for another one later on.” Neleh grumbled to herself.

Azrael, Asheara and Shiori were not too happy with Neleh’s decision to separate from them, but they couldn’t travel underwater at high speeds like Neleh could, and it would’ve been too suspicious to take a doorway back to home. The empress finding about the Nexus was one thing, but even the more incompetent naga nobility would figure something was wrong, if they didn’t need transportation back to Bluepearl. After they exited the Coral Palace grounds and Neleh saw the others off with the weird ship, she flew up towards the surface as if shot from a cannon. She had adopted the form of the Seraph again, and thankfully her wings of holy fire were not susceptible to water thanks to the inclusion of the holy element. A seraph didn’t actually fly according to the normal laws of physics, and had the ability of a sort of magical three-dimensional movement instead. As a result, the water didn’t much affect her speed. To further help her movement, Neleh formed a globe of air around herself, which even kept her dry during the journey.

Once she reached the surface and started closing in on the islands, she spread her senses out trying to find the telltale feeling of the magic that had transferred the Harbingers here. She found the two enemies fairly easily and started monitoring them from a distance. The two looked surprisingly human, most likely due to assuming the shape of those that lived on the islands. The two were also alone in an area with no one else around. The good thing was that she could fight them without collateral damage. The bad thing was that she had no way to gauge their strength and they would be able to sense her approach if she got closer.

It would be very handy if she had that blessing of Loki, since the concealment abilities would come in handy right about now. Concealment was not really her specialty, although she wasn’t bad at it either. But she had no idea of the capabilities of her enemies, and she would rather they didn’t get the chance to send a message to the others. So if she couldn’t assassinate them close up, then how about long range sniping? From this range, they would not be able to sense her forming the spell, and she might catch them by surprise, but again she had no idea of their capabilities, so she would have to be serious in her attack to make sure it would work from this distance.

After a small moment of thought Neleh decided to use one of her most powerful long range attacks. She gathered her power and burst it towards the enemy in a straight line. “Gravity cannon.” She mumbled the activation key to the spell.

The sea split in a straight line from Neleh towards the two enemies forming a tunnel that reached the two, and continued a little beyond the small cape. The two creatures felt alarmed as their bodies started to float upwards and they hurriedly raised their magical protections and looked towards where Neleh cast the spell from. They didn’t even have the chance to turn their heads completely before they were engulfed by a stream of blue energy. The energy was filled with competing gravity fields far beyond the ability of any humanoids to handle, and the two were torn to shreds before they even knew what had happened. There was a clear U-shaped hole in the cape, as the water rushed to fill both the hole and the tunnel Neleh’s power had formed earlier.

“Well that was easier than I thought. Did they only send small-fry this time? The Harbingers aren’t known for their combat abilities, but for their ability to control and influence others.” Neleh mused to herself with a frown. “Oh well, saves me time if they make it easy. Now where are those pesky humans the Eternal Empress mentioned?”
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