A/N: I'm too ill and tired to do a proper pr, so you'll have to make due. It shouldn't be too bad as I was writing slowly, but there will be errors.
A/N redux: The song I had in mind for the chapter in case some people are interested. The last one went over well, so...:
Two weeks after the battle with Caledorian forces the Order had finished taking over the county that had allowed the enemy entry into Jao’e’Tinukai. This process had been helped immensely by the fact that the current ruler of the county wasn’t actually all that liked by the populace. He wasn’t a bad man, but he was self-centered and cared fairly little for his subjects. As such, Neleh faced very little resistance when taking over the county, as she herself was wildly popular among the masses and the prosperity she had brought to Jao’e’Tinukai during her rule was obvious to everyone that paid even a little attention to matters outside their own home.
The Caledorians had also been active during this time. The loss their previous force had suffered had been absolute, and the attacks conducted by the fifth Order had lit a fire under them. The fact that their treasuries were also emptied left them in a bind if they didn’t manage to gain access to the riches of Jao’e’Tinukai to compensate. Waging war was expensive, and unlike Jao’e’Tinukai Caledor didn’t have a huge amount of wealth to draw upon. They were a militarily focused faction after all. Hence their only option was to rely on that military.
They drew upon forces from all the provinces that belonged to their faction, in order to create a force that could overrun the Order forces. Showing their shrewdness, the other provinces that made up the faction saw that the Caledorians were getting a little desperate. They also realized the risk of failing. As such, they only sent token forces that they could afford to lose, should the worst happen, just enough to keep up the bare remains of appearances. Their actions were almost an open judgement on the ability of the Caledorians, but veiled enough that they could not be accused of rebelling. They realized that they would have to change factions if Jao’e’Tinukai ended up winning, as even if the Caledor duchy remained free of control, its power would be gone.
Nevertheless, the Caledorians were a military faction and managed to gather almost half a million soldiers under their banner, which was exceptional for a provincial army. Most of this was due to the fact that the Caledorian heavy cavalry was the best in the empire, and was almost an official part of the imperial army. As such, the duchy retained a much larger standing army than most other factions. Only the royal forces of each kingdom were larger. Even the next largest factions of Saphery and Avelorn were left far behind, as Saphery’s might was tied in mages and Avelorn favored more free-form groups similar to the Hunter’s guild, due to the pioneering nature of the area.
The might of provincial armies was of course dwarfed by the imperial army, but they would always remain neutral, unless matters turned into a full blown civil war like what had happened few years ago. Even then the army was ostensibly supposed to remain neutral. Most Great Silvers were also either part of the imperial army or had a high position within the management of the three major clans, and as such very rarely took part in any struggles between provinces directly. Neleh was something of an exception as she was one of the rare Great Silvers who held a rank of provincial nobility.
“The Caledorians will most likely try to draw our forces into the plains, where their cavalry has free range of movement. They will most likely try to surround our forces to try and avoid any chicanery from us.” Elendil explained. He, Estelar and Neleh had gathered to make their plans for the battle they planned to be final against the Caledorian forces.
“Let us oblige them. The more advantageous the situation is for our enemies, the more striking example we can make of them. The other duchies should be shown what happens when they stand against us. We are not yet even at full strength, and can do this to one of the militarily strongest factions. Let them imagine what we will be able to do once we are at full strength.” Estelar said with unusual fervor. He was getting into this little war a little more than he had expected.
His mention of their less than full power was a reference to the fact that a majority of the Order were still in training, especially the faeries that had joined in later. It took several years to complete the training, and despite their current strength of about two hundred thousand Order brothers and sisters, majority of their future forces were still in training. The powerful economy of the duchy allowed a higher portion of their population to be part of the Order, their population density was off the charts and Neleh had ran a focused effort to get as many trainees to join the Order as possible. All this combined would leave the duchy with a force capable of rivaling the three kingdoms once her plans were finished. Her plans also accounted for the expansion of their territory. Most of that was in the future, so their current forces were limited, and they had to leave enough garrisons behind to maintain order and safeguard the duchy. As such, they could use only about one hundred and fifty thousand members of the Order.
“Remember that this battle is different from the previous ones. The previous two battles were for us, so we can test our tactics and strategies. The next battle is for others, so they can see an example. In the next battle we will show the enemy an army at full strength, led by their duchess. We don’t need to kill all enemies this time, in fact it is better if they run away and carry the word to others. What we are here to do is to destroy their army in as flashy and convincing way as possible.” Neleh gave a small chuckle. “I can already feel the familiars and monitoring magic of other factions gathering in the area. Gentlemen, we have the eyes of every elven faction, on most likely some other races as well, gathered on us. Let’s give them a show!”
“Initiate the operation Golden Goddess!” The two men yelled together, as if they had practiced it. They had in fact practiced it, just to annoy Neleh.
“Really?! You went with that name?” Neleh asked a little exasperated.
The grand magus of Saphery had gathered many of the most powerful mages in his faction to a room that had multiple chairs surrounding a large crystal ball. The crystal ball was connected to several familiars that had been sent out a few days ago, and it was currently showing a vision of a large plain with two armies gathered on opposite sides. The familiars had spread themselves around the area to guarantee the best possible coverage of the battlefield.
The gathered mages were currently discussing what the crystal was showing them and the odds they were each giving for the two sides for winning. They could all see the numerical advantage of Caledorian forces, but strangely they all felt that the larger army was the one disadvantaged. The Jao’e’Tinukai forces had been victorious so far and they had all learned the hard way not to underestimate the new and young Chosen of Elune. So far everything she had done had been a raging success, and they were unwilling to bet against her any longer.
The duke of Saphery had advocated joining forces with Caledor when the duchy of knights had decided to wage war on the Chosen. His reasons had been sound, as their economy had suffered from the rise of Jao’e’Tinukai and together with Caledor they would’ve held a huge advantage over the upstart duchy. Despite this the gathered mages had stopped the duke, and had adamantly refused to make war on the Chosen if the duke went against their wishes. Unlike the duke, the mages understood the significance of all the advances the young Chosen had made in such a short time. Someone who made those kinds of advances was bound to also make advances when it came to the battlefield. The mages really didn’t want to pick a fight with a threat like that. Let sleeping dragons lie, and all that.
“Didn’t our information say that Jao’e’Tinukai almost a million people in training over a year ago? So why is their army so small?” One of the mages vocalized the question that many of them were considering.
“They’re still in training. I’ve heard some of the details of their training, and they’re not half-assing it. Their training takes even longer than the imperial army. Most of that million are still not ready in her opinion, I guess.” One of the other mages replied.
“That, and she probably feels they don’t need more troops. She’s making an example, the wily one that she is. The more stark the difference, the more convincing the example. They’re only down about one to three. Not odds I would take willingly, but then again I’m not her.” The grand magus replied cynically. They all had enormous respect for the new Chosen, not as a Chosen but as a mage of great skill and power. When any of them said ‘her’, there was no need to specify who they were talking about.
“It looks like they’re getting into it.” One of the other mages commented.
They could all see and hear the duke of Caledor holding a rousing and passionate speech to increase morale and fervor of his troops. There were loud cheers as the speech went on, while the other side of the field was eerily quiet, not a single person saying a word.
“The duke can still make a fine speech. Most of it is pure bullshit of course, but his men are buying it. Pathos always worked wonders on the muscle heads.” One of the mages commented with a laugh, getting a chorus of chuckles as a reply.
“The other side on the other hand…” One of the mages said with a small shudder.
“It’s eerie how not a single word is spoken. That takes more discipline than I care to think about. There are always jokers and nervous people who like to blabber in every army. They on the other hand are simply coldly confident. It’s as if they know they will win, and the battle is just a formality.” Another mage commented in a quiet voice.
“Wait! Something is happening!” One of the mages suddenly yelled interrupting all other talk.
They all watched as the ranks of the Order silently split, allowing the passage of their ruler. The golden fire forming her wings and halo drew the eyes of every mage in attendance. They had no idea how she was doing that. The golden being was dressed in a white armor of unidentified metal, with an abundance of golden highlights and intricate scrollwork. Her majestic appearance made every mage silent.
She glided to the front of the army, her feet just above the ground. She turned to face the gathered army silently, and let her view meet the ranks of her subordinates. In a quick gesture she banged her fist on her breastplate once. It was as if thunder had struck the field as the gathered members of Order returned the gesture as a single loud bang rang across the battlefield. One bang, as the Order had moved as if controlled by a single will, instead of a clattering of bangs that a normal army would’ve made.
In a gentle yet powerful voice the winged being sang in the first notes of a haunting song.
“Walk free, walk free, walk free, believe…The Land is alive, so believe…” Sounded the first verses.
After the first verses, the entirety of the gathered Order joined in the song. The haunting song rouse to a whole new level as hundred and fifty thousand voices joined together in the song. Unknown to the mages, Neleh had picked a song she knew the Order members had sung among themselves to gather their spirits among their grueling training. A song all of them were familiar with. She knew this was a much better way to rouse their spirits than any speech, as they were already conditioned to gain strength from the song.
The mages could feel the strands of magic move, as the being wove the gathered voice into a powerful magic which they didn’t understand yet, but the purpose of which became obvious as the battle started. Neleh had joined the voices of all the members into the battle hymn she had used earlier in the battle that had spawned the legend of the ‘Golden Goddess of War’ among the humans. Now it was enhanced by the voices of the others, and the new power she had gained from the spirit of Morael, the Words of Death.
The being made a gesture towards the gathered enemies, that had suddenly had their morale drained. The forces of Order surged as one. The Golden Goddess charged the front of the enemy with the force of a tsunami, with her followers close behind. Her two weapons, a spear and a sword, burnt with a golden light as those unfortunate enough to stand before her were cut down like they weren’t even there. And the Order continued to sing their song.
The Order had maintained their new formations, but hey were hardly necessary as the battle turned into the biggest one sided massacre the mages observing had ever seen. The forces of Order were like Asura war gods, empowered by the song, while their enemies were as if children holding weapons for the first time, shuddering in fear.
The silence among the gathered mages was deafening. They watched as the remains of the Caledorian army fled in desperation.
“So are we all agreed then?” The grand magus asked, finally breaking the silence.
Soft murmurs of agreement rose from the mages. “Of course we are. We knew what must be done, we just didn’t want to accept it before. I’m sure what we just saw has solidified the will of everyone gathered here. Why fight change when you can join her?” One of the older mages finally grunted.
“So all that remains is to decide how we should do it.” One of the mages said in a quiet voice.
“I will do it. I’m supposed to be attending a dinner with our duke this evening to discuss what we saw. I’ll take a few of you along to ostensibly support my story. You all make sure the word doesn’t spread outside the duchy until the meeting of the court the duke of Caledor will undoubtedly gather. Our duke will not see the end of this evening.” The grand magus said grimly.
Neleh was rather gleefully waiting her plans to fall in place, while attending the gathering of the imperial court. The duke of Caledor had been all too eager to call for the gathering after they had lost the battle, and the forces of Jao’e’Tinukai had started taking ownership of chunks of his duchy. Neleh had also gotten other good news from another source just a while ago. Saphery had tried to hide the events in their capitol, but the fifth Order had managed to get word of the events anyway. Neleh looked meaningfully at Yunalesca while listening to the duke of Caledor talk himself into a frenzy, trying to paint Neleh as a tyrant, terrorist and a usurper.
Nimue, bored with the rant waved the duke into a silence and looked Neleh a little tiredly. “Duchess Neleh, how do you answer to these allegations?”
“Well, the duke painted a rather glum picture, but I’m afraid very little of it is true. We are all aware that Caledor was the side that declared a war on us with an excuse that is hardly even worth mentioning. It’s only fair that we reply to that aggression. As to his charges of terrorism, those accusations are simply false. How could I possibly organize covert attacks on several major cities within his duchy, when I have my hands full with so many other matters? It must be some other party taking advantage of the situation. I heard the treasuries of Caledor were plundered, so there’s the motivation for such a move.” Neleh explained with obviously feigned innocence.
“You dare to avoid responsibility?” The duke asked in anger. Suddenly his anger vanished as if it had been completely fake, as most likely was the case. Looking triumphant he suddenly pulled out a small item and displayed it to everyone. “Then how do you explain this? Plenty of people have seen the badge your so called ‘Order’ uses. This was taken from one of the attackers we caught and killed. It’s one of yours is it not?”
“No.” Neleh replied confidently. None of the attackers had been caught and no badges were missing. The badge was an obvious fake.
“What do you mean no?” The duke asked a little surprised and confused.
“Just what I said. That’s not one of our badges. As you yourself said, plenty of people have seen the badges, and could make a fake one. However, our badges are not that simple, and it’s easy to tell a real one from a fake. That one is an obvious fake.” Neleh replied with confidence. The duke was making this easier than she had thought.
“You lie! How could we trust the word of an obvious schemer like you?” The duke yelled with anger.
“Ah, you forget. I am an inquisitor marked by Elune as well as the Chosen. I cannot bear false witness under her gaze. By Elune’s name, I swear that badge is a fake.” Neleh replied with a wide grin.
“Half true. Yes that’s a fake, but you did order the attacks. Also, thanks to the blessings of Sydonay and Loki, you can now lie freely again. You are no longer beholden to the truth as an inquisitor.” Elune laughed in Neleh’s mind. Of course she was the only one to hear that voice.
Neleh pressed on before the duke could recover, wholly ignoring Elune. “While we are on the subject of lies and crime though, I think there’s something you’ve been hiding dear duke. The aforementioned third party delivered some very interesting documents to my hands concerning your ties to the Pleasure Cults, and their illicit and illegal activities in your duchy.”
“Lies!” The duke screamed, sudden panic audible in his voice. He had hoped those documents had burnt in the fires that had been lit by the fifth Order.
“I’m afraid not. Our dear Grand Inquisitor had been quite busy personally investigating things in your duchy the last few weeks, and would most likely greatly enjoy detailing them to everyone present.” Neleh said, stepping aside letting Yunalesca take the stage.
Yunalesca spent quite a bit of time describing the new levels of depravity the Pleasure Cults had sunk into in Caledor, and also the duke’s ties with them. Most importantly, the cults activities had finally moved into overtly illegal territory, which provided the Inquisition the change to start hunting them. After she was done, no one had any doubts about the duke guilt, and they had no objections to any punishment he might receive.
At this point Neleh stepped forward again. “As the Inquisition is now moving forward to hunt the cults throughout the empire, Jao’e’Tinukai will take control of the Caledor duchy to guide them through this turbulent time, and to cleanse the cult from the duchy. We also consider the duchy adequate compensation for the hostile actions conducted against us, and tacitly approved by others. The duchy requires some strong and effective leadership in these turbulent times. The duchy needs the chance to recover and regrow, and I’m sure we can all agree that I can provide that best.” She finished with a grin.
This caused a disturbance among the gathered nobles, but before it could get out of hand a new voice was raised in her support. “Saphery recognizes the claim and authority of Duchess Neleh Khalidor.” The grand magus of Saphery proclaimed. The gathered nobles had wondered his presence and the absence of the regular duke.
“On that note, why are you here, and not the duke of Saphery?” Nimue asked, suddenly curious.
“The mages council of Saphery has recognized that the previous ruler was a danger and would’ve led us all into our death. As such the council has assumed control of the duchy. In addition, the council recognizes that our future lies with Jao’e’Tinukai as the duchess can lead us into great prosperity and a promising future. As such the council had decided to accept the rule of Duchess Neleh Khalidor, and cedes the control of the duchy of Saphery to her.” The grand magus explained calmly.
If the previous proclamation had caused a stir among the nobles, this sent them all into uproar. This was a coup within the empire. The mages council of Saphery had removed the previous ruler and decided their new ruler themselves, usurping the authority of the empress. In addition, this crossed another dangerous line. One duchy ruled by one duke was the norm. Two duchies was already weird, even though some factions contained two duchies, in effect allowing the leader of the faction to control over two duchies in effect even if not in name. Three duchies directly controlled by one duchess was no longer within the authority of the rank. Three duchies could be considered a kingdom.