A/N: Well, I wanted to say that the things hindering my writing are going away for a time, but it seems that's quite not the case. Have to put in some overtime the next two days, and have to take the better half to a threater play on wednesday. Not much writing happening then. Sorry about that.
On a completely unrelated note, I want to ask for some opinions from those that have bothered to read my story this far. I'm getting ideas for the next story, that I'm planning to write after this one finishes. Don't worry, I will finish this properly, and this one will go well into triple digits when it comes to chapters, so it's not getting cut short or anything. I simply have ideas that will not fit into this story, and I was planning on story boarding the next story a bit to put them down when ideas strike me. That said, I do need to make a decision before making any real plans. The next story will not be a gender bender. I have gained some experience in writing a female character with this story, so I think I would be able to do it in the next story. That said, I could also make the main character male and I've had some people complain about a female protagonist. I dont' really care about them, but it would be a change of pace to use a male MC and raises the point of what the readers want to see. I mean I haven't exactly been gentle with the male gender in this story.
I'm kind of ambivalent on the issue, hence I'm asking for feedback. Which one would you rather see?
Anyway, back to the story. I quite liked writing this chapter and how it turned out. I hope you'll enjoy it as well.
Once the conclave had gathered again and they had taken their places, Anauel started her process of trying to form at least a truce of sorts between the races. The celestials had plenty of experience with the process, and were fairly good at it. However, Neleh wasn’t interested in a long and arduous negotiation process that might or might not result in the kind of peace they were hoping for. Celestials were used to doing things at their own pace, which suited the immortal being’s sense of time. That pace did produce lasting peace treaties as shown by the long period of peace that had preceded the latest turbulent times. The time they could waste on the process could take centuries though.
That’s why Neleh decided to speed the process up a little, even if it didn’t result in a lasting peace. She only needed the peace to last long enough that something else would take their attention away from any ill will that existed between the two races. If that something wasn’t the forces of the Enemy, then she would have to engineer something else herself. There was always the presence of the cults that she could emphasize.
“As much as I appreciate the expertise of the celestials when it comes to making peace treaties, how about I try making things a bit simpler to speed things along? Let’s start with one of the two fundamental questions. What do you want?” Neleh asked while looking at the bearman chieftain.
“Excuse me?” Bjorn asked a little surprised.
“What do you want? What is your goal with the war you are waging? What would it take for the beastmen to stay their hand and stop this war? I’m sure a big part of the reason this war started in the first place was the desire for battle, the chance to gain valor and honor on the field of battle and to avenge various grievances. However, you’ve had the chance to do that for years now. Some of the ardor is gone, bloodlust of most warriors has been abated somewhat and some measure of revenge has been gained.
Now fatigue is setting in. Both of your societies are starting to suffer from the effects of war-time economy. What is it that is keeping you in the battle and is also worth the continued suffering, besides unwillingness to lose? As much as some of the people around this table might be for it, you must know that the other races will not allow for the extinction or enslavement of the whole human race. At the very least the celestials will step in to prevent that. Even if you assume that you were to be victorious against the humans, are you confident that your exhausted people would be able to stand against the might of the celestials? Some other race might also want to utilize the chance to remove two competing races at the same time.” Neleh asked with a gentle but firm voice. She also gave a meaningful glance towards the demons.
The celestials were an oddity among the major races. While one of the other races might eclipse them in power at one time or another, which usually resulted in that race trying to take over the world, the celestials were always at least the second most powerful. The position of the first might rotate among the other races, but the celestials were never worse than second, and as such were a very good deterrent against the excesses of the other races. The celestials also liked to enforce the balance, for their own reasons.
Chieftain Bjorn thought for a while, before answering. “The biggest issue is slavery. We beastmen have had enough of our kinsmen being captured by human slavers. The males are used as hard labor and those skilled with weapons are put to the arenas and colosseums to fight to the death for the amusement of humans. The women and children are used for a whole assortment of unsavory purposes, which I believe I don’t need to explain. We want their raids to stop, we want their people out of our continent and we want the release of every slave they hold captive. We would rather die as a race than suffer the abuse of the humans any longer.”
To the beastmen, the war had taken a life of its own, and had almost become a holy war. They were not yet at the point where the bloodshed could not be stopped, but they were getting close. They had whipped themselves into a holy frenzy that was not going out. Neleh knew this from the intelligence she had gathered, which was another reason she wanted to resolve the war now, before it became too late. She had seen it before in her old life. A war took a life of its own, and could not be stopped even if both sides had already long since lost the original reasoning for it. The cycle of hate simply became too strong. The war was no longer waged for a good cause, but simply to annihilate the enemy at any cost. Fertile ground for the cult of the Blood God.
Neleh looked at the two princes for a reply. She would ask the same original question to get their answer as well, but first she needed to sound their willingness towards the terms the beastmen had laid down. It was prince Sanguinius who answered. “Many humans are also opposed to the practice; I’d even say the majority. However it’s not that simple. The slaves are a significant part of our economy at this point. The entertainment and unsavory use of slaves is something that would be easier to address. The entertainment section needs a viable alternative, while the unsavory elements are already looked down upon and even illegal in most parts of the empire. The unsavory elements still find ways to fulfill their desires. There’s also the fact that human slavers are not the only ones to prowl within the beastmen continent. The beastmen are only too happy to sell their own kind, as long as it is captives from another tribe or clan. It only becomes a problem when it’s one of your own that gets sold.” The last part brought a look of shame from some of the gathered beastmen entourage.
Prince Alexis continued from his brothers points. “Even if we solve the economic problem and ban the entertainment use of slaves, there’s also another problem. The emperor will never accept a truce that gives the impression that we lost the war. We might not be winning the war at the moment, but everyone here is aware that we humans only improve our position as the war carries on. We might be able to convince the emperor to accept terms that give the impression of a draw, with the truce forced upon us by a combination of the other races. That is something he can in turn sell to the nobles and the public. He himself is rather ambivalent on the issue of slavery, and he could claim that as a demand forced upon us by the combined other races. It is an issue that seems like something the other races could rally behind. But he would not accept terms that make us look like the losers of this war. Like it or not, he has the absolute power in our empire, and his will is the deciding factor. If he wants to fight to the bitter end, then that is what will happen.”
The prince’s statement got murmurs of approval from the demons and naga. Both races idealized absolute authority and could understand the importance of maintaining the image and authority of the ruler. A truce that looked like surrender would indeed reflect badly on such a ruler. There would be parties that would question his ability to rule, and with good reason.
“Then we come to you. What do you want?” Neleh asked simply, looking at the humans.
Alexis was the first one to answer this time. “Well now, this is an interesting question. Although I’m the first to admit that we humans were all too eager to engage in this war, for many of the reasons you stated, we were not the aggressors. We didn’t go into this war with a firm goal in mind, aside from protecting ourselves. Some elements in our continent are all too happy to see the war continue. The longer the war goes on, the better for them. If we are to take the demands of the beastmen as a basis though, we would need something of at least equal value to give the impression of a draw.”
Neleh interjected at this point. “I would appreciate it, if you would solidify those needs to concrete demands. The rest of us are running low on patience for your little tiff. I’m not above taking drastic measures to end it. I might as well mention it now, but if your two races will not come to terms in a reasonable time, I will make sure the war does end by my own hand. I will give the beastmen two months to withdraw their forces, at which time I will destroy the land connecting your two continents and park the combined fleets of Elves and Naga in the oceans now separating the two continents. The two fleets would sink any ships trying to cross the waters. Your two races can try their luck at war while swimming across the ocean.” Her expression made it certain that she was not kidding.
Chieftain Bjorn was opening and closing his mouth, as if having trouble processing the information, before roaring. “You can’t do that!”
“Oh yes I can. Very easily in fact. Chancellor Toyotomi, will the naga support me in this?” Neleh asked almost cheerily.
“The Eternal Empress has sworn our cooperation with the Immortal Flame.” The chancellor made a small bow towards Neleh with a small smile on his face. He was quite enjoying the sight of Neleh bullying the two races into submission.
“The wonders of diplomacy.” Neleh stated slightly ironically. “As we have all gathered here, I want to point out that things are not as they used to be in the past. In the old days the races kept to themselves except in times of war, but you might as well get used to the fact that the other races will have more say in the matters of tomorrow. This is just the first time of many such occasions. Times-a-changing and all that.”
“Speaking of, our benefit from this bargain doesn’t necessarily need to come from the beastmen. While we don’t have specific demands for the beastmen, I can think of several things of benefit we could gain from the other races.” Prince Alexis suddenly pointed out, looking at Neleh.
Neleh narrowed her eyes while looking back at the prince. “Such as? Do note that it needs to be less bothersome than the other option I mentioned.”
“Well, I’ve been to the new center of wealth and power in the elven continent, the city of Nan Yanoi. I know of some of the changes you have made. Say that we were granted access to conduct trade through the system you call Nexus, with the elves, and were granted some favorable trade deals. That would go a long way to tide over the economic issues caused by the loss of slave labor. I know you won’t give us free access to the Nexus for our own purposes, but I’m also aware that you used spells to vastly improve the roads in your duchy. If we had access to that magic that would improve our internal economy a lot. Easier passage to the elven lands, as well as the new products we would gain access to would also offer an alternative source of entertainment, to tide over the loss of slaves in the arenas. We could also turn the arenas to prizefights instead. Maybe with occasional visits from the members of other races? That should rouse their interest.” The prince said with a small smile. He had kept his eyes open while in Nan Yanoi.
“I’m sensing the word ‘and’.” Neleh replied curtly.
“Well, as you know, we too have our problems with the cults that are plaguing all the major races. The information I’ve received tells me that the inquisitors of the elves have access to magic that can separate the truth from lies. That would be a major help for us to get rid of both the cultists and of the slavers of the more unsavory type that already operate on the fringes of law. I’m sure the emperor would be most interested in a deal that resulted in us gaining that kind of information.” The dark haired prince was now openly grinning.
Neleh knew the spell would be used for other purposes besides what the prince mentioned, like ensuring the loyalty of the nobility, and hunting spies and dissidents. That said, she herself used the magic to ensure the loyalty of the Order, during the Test of Truth, so she wasn’t exactly in a position to judge. The benefits for the humans from these terms would be great, but it’s not like the humans would be the only ones to benefit. The elves would also benefit from the new chance at trade, even if the first deals were generous towards the humans. It would also be beneficial to Neleh’s goals to have the power of the cults cut down. She could do it effectively among the elves, but it would be a lot more difficult among the other races. It would be especially beneficial to her, if she could spin it so that the humans knew that she was the reason they could get rid of the cults. That would help extend her reach among the humans.
“Those terms are acceptable, for now. Assuming both parties are satisfied with the terms as they are, you can take them to your own people to be approved. Do note prince, that the humans will get no information until the slaves are released.” Both the beastmen and the humans nodded, and left to report to their own races.
As only the celestials and the demons remained, Neleh knew something was still up.
“Quite an effective way to negotiate.” Anauel said half disgruntled half impressed. “Do you think they will go along with it?”
Neleh gave a small grimace. ”To a point. Then I’ll have to remind them of the alternative again. Threat of force is always a powerful motivator. It won’t be even close to perfect, but it will be good enough for now. The human prince was right, the beastmen tribes are partially responsible for the slave trade themselves, and so they will also need to deal with that internal problem. Additionally there will be more bad blood, when the hopeful relatives will not get family back, either because they have already died, or because their spirits have died and the only things that return are their battered bodies. Most of the slaves will be mentally and physically traumatized, and some will be dead inside. That won’t go over well. This won’t be the last we hear of it.”
Suddenly Azrael raised a question. “Something has been bothering me. When we started, you mentioned something about one of two fundamental questions. What did you mean by that?” To her surprise, Azrael’s question brought a gale of laughter from both the demons and Neleh.
The one to reply was the female demon representative. “Come now celestial, as a representative of Order, you should be aware of the two fundamental questions driving our two sides. The fundamental question of Chaos and change, what do you want? That question inspires us to think of our desires, wants and dreams. It drives us to improve our lot in life, and is the fundamental driving force behind all change. It is only thought want that we desire to improve and change. We want something we don’t have, and strive for it. So the question that haunts us all is, what do you want?”
Azrael looked shocked, but managed to ask anyway. “And the second question? You said there were two.”
Neleh answered this time. “The question of Order, who are you? It drives self-reflection and self-discovery. It helps you find your place in life, your place in the universe. It encourages you to go beyond false labels, drives away false pride and bares your true self for your own eyes. It is only through knowing yourself that you can really know others, and to know where you belong. If want drives change, then knowing yourself and others drives peace and Order, by helping you to find yourself and your place. Knowing drives away illusions, presumption and false hope and despair. Want drives you to change, while knowing yourself helps you to make the best of your current self. So the question everyone should find an answer for, who are you?”
The demoness gave a chuckle. “A representative of Order that doesn’t even know the basics, getting lectured by one of the most obvious servants of change and Chaos. What a wonderful scene. In case you were wondering, there is no ‘correct’ answer to either question. The point is in asking, and in trying to find the answer.” She then forgot all about the celestials, and turned to Neleh.
You, elf! While the others might be here to negotiate, we are here to test the best the Elves have to offer. You know we honor power over other things, so we want to test if the elves of today are worth honoring. Your meddling with the affairs concerning the faeries didn’t sit well in certain circles. We want to test if you have the strength to back up your meddling, or should we simply remove you as a bother.”
Neleh had been expecting a reaction from the demons, and was kind of hoping for an opportunity to prove her strength, as that would allow her more leeway to deal with the demons. As such, she had been quite happy about the clear belligerence shown by the demons. Still, she should try and take more advantage of the situation, since they were offering such a great opportunity to do so.
“So you say, but what reason do I have to accept your challenge? You want to challenge me due to your own reasons, but what do I gain from this circus act?” She asked pretending slight unwillingness.
“Hah! Words of a coward. There’s no need for reasons other than showing your superiority!” The heavily tattooed male demon said.
“What do I care what some low level demons thinks of my courage? Let me tell you a little secret. Only those unsure of themselves are worried about what others think of them. The only reason you are worried about being seen as a coward, is because deep down you’re afraid of being seen as one.” Neleh replied with a confident smile.
“You bitch! You dare to call me both a coward and low level?” The demon jumped up from his chair and charged towards Neleh in a fit of rage.
“Koszhal, stop!” The older and smarter demon yelled futilely. He had sensed that Neleh was provoking the warrior demon on purpose, but his yell came too late.
“Jormungandr, if you would.” Neleh said simply, summoning one of the spirits she shared a connection with. The great wyrm appeared besides Neleh coming out from a large magical sigil and lunged towards the demon warrior. The demon was unable to avoid the great wyrm in the air, and the two went straight through one of walls of the building they were in. Neleh could sense that the great wyrm had dragged the demon over the edge of the flying island and into the ocean that was more favorable terrain for the wyrm.
“Alarae dammit!” The three celestials cursed as if one, looking at the devastated wall of the building and the impeding battle between the demons and Neleh. They knew that all three of them were at the high end of Great Silver status, and the devastation they would cause could bring the whole island down.
“Neleh, not here!” Azrael yelled half in panic.
“Don’t worry. Jormungandr already took the hotheaded one into the ocean below.” Neleh words brought raised eyebrows from the other two demons.
“Using the power of others? Not what I would’ve expected from you.” The female demon said a little disappointed.
“I’m pretty sure the power of my spirit still counts as my power. Besides, I really think you can’t afford to say anything with three against one.” Neleh gave a sinister smile.
“Oh, I was planning on fighting you by myself, but since you insist.” The female demon returned the sinister smile.
“Oh I do insist. It wouldn’t be fun otherwise. Besides, with the other two out the game, you will have to fight me by yourself anyway.” Neleh replied, her smile widening.
“Two?” The demoness turned towards the old mage demon, only to discover Shiori nailing the mages hands to the table with her dagger and sword.
“Now behave, and I might spare your life.” Shiori said, twisting the dagger a bit inside the wound, producing a scream from the old mage.
“Oh right, there was the girl as well. My mistake for discounting her.” The demoness replied unconcerned.
“Shall we then?” Neleh asked, once again showing the bright golden wings and halo, before flying towards the sky, followed by the eager demoness.
All the other representatives of course either saw or sensed what happened, staring with the huge wyrm plunging into the ocean. They were about to come and interfere, before they noticed the three celestials running out of the building as two bright forms flew out through the hole in the side of the building. As Anauel and Rachiel quickly flew to warn the other celestials to use their magic to protect the island, Azrael walked a bit more calmly towards the other representatives.
“What’s going on?” Prince Alexis voiced the question in everyone’s mind.
“Neleh and the demons decided to have a go at it. If we use our power together, we might be able to see something rather special. It’s not every day that the ‘Golden Goddess’ and the current Demon Lord have a contest of strength. It might also be the first time to see two Chosen directly battling each other.” Azrael said surprisingly calmly.
After she got over the initial shock, and the worry about the danger towards the island, she was getting almost eager to see the fight. Neleh had defeated her years ago, and she could sense that the enigmatic woman had only become stronger since.