A/N: As some people wanted to see the songs that make an appearance during a chapter before the chapter starts, here we go. Unusually I was using three songs as inspiration during this chapter, in the order of appearance:
You will notice a common theme. Enjoy the chapter, and pleace point out any mistakes. Had to rush the PR a bit.
It was the early hours of what might barely be called a morning, when Neleh got up from her large bed. The dim light before sunrise was coming through the curtains, giving a slightly eerie glow to her naked skin as she slowly walked through her bedroom and approached a large black piano situated in the corner of the room. She idly ran her fingers over the wooden surface while half lost in thought. She sat down on the seat in front of the piano and started playing a slow tune. It was one of those songs that no one but her knew on this world, and was an example of how a seemingly simple and slow song could carry quite a lot of emotion. Kind of wistful and nostalgic emotion in this case, with maybe even a hint of sadness.
Today would be the tenth anniversary of her taking the throne as the empress of the elven people. Her decade as a ruler had been successful, so successful in fact that even she had been shocked. The elven people were more prosperous than ever. Everything was plentiful, and no people within her empire had to go wanting. There was no problem of over-producing either, as the continent was now connected with all the others with arches that enabled surplus to be traded away to other races.
It had taken almost the entirety of the ten years, but the elven army had in its entirety gone through the training for the Order, and was now the most powerful military might on the planet. If Neleh really wanted, she could take her people to war against all the other major races, not including the dragons, and have a good expectation of victory. Of course, she didn’t actually want to do that since she knew that strength would be needed for other purposes. The academies of Nan Yanoi were also becoming a marvel of learning, accepting thousands upon thousands of promising students on all paths of power and knowledge.
Perhaps the most important thing was the continued melding of the three elven clans. The three clans had been almost at each other’s throats at the time she ascended the throne, but now those lines were blurring. This was in major part due to the fact that the divided clans no longer lived in separate areas. As the wealth of the empire was focused towards the center and the improved methods of producing food and other essentials allowed for higher population densities, large portions of the Sun and Moon Elves had moved into the areas formerly controlled by the third clan, Eldarinwe. As it was widely known that the empress approved of such unification, the clans were slowly starting to dissolve into one people. It was of course not something that would happen over a single decade, but the process had at least started.
There was also an interesting shift in the elven society as a whole. As the borders between clans, and territories became more fluid, the power of the nobility waned. The increased wealth and opportunities also encouraged a more merit based society, as your station in life was less dependent on who your parents were. This again was something that the new empress encouraged, as she had little patience for anyone who couldn’t get their job done. Effectiveness and often flexibility was more important than position and titles. And this further weakened the position of the nobility. This might have caused trouble with the nobles if it wasn’t for one additional factor.
This advancement carried a certain personal cost to Neleh. As Elune’s favor toward her was so obvious, and her actions so effective, she herself became something of an object of worship. Among the people she wasn’t referred to simply as the empress, but got the added title of ‘divine’. She had encouraged this tendency herself in the beginning, as it served her purposes and made ruling easier, and later on was stuck with it. The problem was that everyone started treating her as something beyond a mortal.
It was rather sad to see even her friends and family look at her with awe. Even people that had known her when she was younger like Alduin, Maylin and Yunalesca bowed their head in reverence, and treated her almost as a holy object. It was impossible to get close to people when they held such reverence. They didn’t feel that they were worthy of her attention. There were only a handful of people that still treated her in a way that even slightly resembled normal. That made Neleh feel very lonely.
The tone of her playing got a bit more hopeful. As she glanced towards her bed, she decided that the song needed a little more, and used the magic she had devised such a long time ago to add the sound of other instruments to the song, turning the music into a love song of sorts, as she gazed at the naked form of Shiori still sleeping in their bed. The beautiful psion was still tired from their activities the previous evening and night.
They had become lovers almost five years ago. Shiori was one of the few people that still treated her as she used to. In fact Shiori’s treatment of Neleh hadn’t changed almost at all since her ascension. Neleh had always been the center of Shiori’s world and that remained unchanged. She didn’t care about Neleh’s position or origins, just that they were happy. She was Neleh’s secret protector and the blade that the young empress used to cut down those that opposed her. And she had become a very effective blade.
Neleh would’ve been lying if she had said that their romantic involvement had nothing to do with the loneliness that she felt due to the distance between her and the other people she used to be close with. It was also true that Shiori was almost the only person who was even close to being mentally an equal with Neleh, especially now that Shiori had gained more wisdom and experience to bolster the intelligence she’d had earlier. It would be hard to build a relationship when the two people involved were not even on the same plane when it came to their minds. Shiori could keep up with her, even if she didn’t have the life experience Neleh had, and that went a long way. Of course it also didn’t hurt that the girl of ten years ago had grown into a beautiful woman. Neleh had to admit that she did love Shiori, even if it didn’t quite reach the level that Shiori obviously felt about her. It was the comfortable type of love, instead of all burning passion. Not that they lacked passion, as shown by last night.
There was a smile on Neleh’s lips as she thought about the ongoing competition between Shiori and the Legion of the Phoenix. The Legion felt protective of their ‘divine’ empress, and competitive towards the other protectors, namely the fifth Order and their most important member Shiori. Their little game had begun about the same time that she had gotten romantically involved with Neleh, as she sneaked to spend the night in Neleh’s room. For the Legion, it was dreadful that someone managed to sneak past them, so they tried their best to stop her. So it became almost a daily competition where Shiori tried to get past the Legion and the Legion tried to detect her. If she succeeded, she got to spend the night with Neleh, if she failed, then the Legion got to feel smug the next day about their victory. The Legion didn’t get to feel smug very often, though it wasn’t too rare either. Shiori could’ve defeated all of them in battle, but it was considered her loss when she was detected, as it would’ve been problematic if they tore the palace apart.
Her playing became a bit more somber as she started another slow but powerful song. She was thinking about one of her most challenging actions as an empress, an action that had won her the undying loyalty of the Legion, the bond between the Legion and her becoming beyond anything that had existed with previous emperors. They were now her Legion.
It had started as a sort of an idle thought. She had been reviewing the abilities she had gained from her spirits, and had noticed that the life spirit phoenix sort of stood out. The other spirits were either great in combat or tailored specifically to enhance her abilities. The rebirth ability of the phoenix felt a little weird though. Any enemy that was strong and skilled enough to kill her would also be skilled enough to counter the effects of the rebirth ability. While the bird of fire was very symbolic and far from useless in combat, she couldn’t really see any reason to utilize the spirit instead of one of the more combat able spirits like Jormundgandr or Surtr.
Suddenly and idea had come to her. Maybe the point wasn’t for herself to use the ability? As she had looked up, her eyes had fallen on the ever present guard around her. Maybe it was time to make the Legion worth their name. It had taken her months to prepare the spells, as she instilled the power from all the gods to form a flaming shrine in the depths of the palace. There she enshrined the phoenix spirit, with the spirits approval, and laid one of the most complex magical formations she had ever made, combining both magical and holy spells.
Then she had called up the gathering of the entire Legion within the large chamber to make her intentions known. “It is the duty of the Legion to give their lives in protection of the empress of the elven lands. That is your loyalty and the solemn vow you give. ‘I give my life, so that the life of the empress may be saved’. I say it is time that the empress honors your sacrifice and vigilance. It is time that I give back those lives that are given in my name. Today I offer you the chance to become worthy of the name Legion of Phoenix.
Those of you, who choose to become the real Legion of the Phoenix, give a drop of your blood into the flame that burns within this altar. By this blood, your souls will be bound to the altar until the day you are released from your service, or the day I finally meet my end. During that time, any of you that give your life to protect mine will have their souls return here after death, and in time your bodies will be reformed.
This rebirth will not be instant, nor will it be absolute. There will always be ways to bring about death that will counter the effect of this binding, but those are few and far between. The rebirth will take time, more if several of you give your life in my service at once and for the strongest of you, it might even take years, but you will return to life as whole.
This is my vow to you.” As Neleh finished, the Legion gave a somber soldiers salute as one. The Legion didn’t cheer or celebrate. Instead, they renewed their vow to do their utmost to protect this empress with everything they had.
Of course, the rest of the world had not stood still during the last ten years. Some changes were small, while some were rather major. The celestials were for the most part same, as the last ten years had been rather peaceful. The only notable thing was that the celestial noticed the elves preparing for major war, and decided to do the same. It remained somewhat unclear if they planned on going against the elves, or if they had finally learned to read between the lines and prepare for the coming storm in earnest.
The dragons were still dragons, and no one could tell what they were doing. The only thing clear to the other races was that the race as a whole had started to congregate into larger groups, especially focused on a particular mountain in the elven continent. Everyone could tell that something was going on, but nothing more specific.
The beastmen had finally chosen a high chief, a chieftain of chieftains. This had mostly been orchestrated in secret by Neleh, as she had supported a chieftain of a certain leopardman tribe for the position. She had gotten a good impression of him during the conclave of races, and considered him to be calm and collected enough to be entrusted with the position. Not to mention that he was most likely the strongest beastman currently living. Neleh purpose was to bring unity to the beastmen tribes, so that they would be more effective when the time came.
The naga were going through similar war preparations as the elves and celestials, and the Eternal Empress was rather pleased with the large clutch of Kirin eggs they had managed to gather. It would take a long time for them to hatch, but at least her race now had a future. The faeries had now integrated into the elven society almost completely. They still yearned to see the trees if their old homeland again, but the majority of the faeries would rather remain in the elven lands even if they had the chance to return. Their relationship with the elves was rather symbiotic, and they could recreate their beloved forests on the elven continent.
The biggest changes had occurred among the humans and the demons. The two princes Alexis and Sanguinius had gotten caught up in a rebellion against the emperor, not because they actually wanted to rebel, but because they had stood up against the orders of the emperor that they had found to be immoral. That wasn’t actually tied to the rebellion, but had happened at the same time and had been interpreted as supporting the rebels. The emperor had ordered their arrest and Prince Sanguinius had seen this as the final insult by their uncaring father. He had joined the rebellion in earnest and the human empire was now divided.
Prince Alexis on the other hand didn’t want to go against their father in such a hostile manner, as he considered the man to currently be the best hope for humanity, even if he was on occasion too cruel. He had instead elected to seek asylum among the elves. He was now a part of the forces specially trained by Neleh against the more dangerous enemies the Lost-Deities would send against them. That group of individuals was now almost twenty individuals strong, and would be her trump card once the time came. Emperor Azemar wasn’t happy about the arrangement, but wasn’t going to sour the relations between humans and the now extremely strong elven empire over Prince Alexis.
Neleh wasn’t too happy about the situation with the humans, but having only one of the major races slip from her fingers wasn’t too bad. The humans could still serve their use even now. Theoretically the internal conflict among the humans could theoretically be over before the storm hit, but she had a hunch again. She had a feeling that the time was running out. She had done what she could, and would not be able to pull out any miracles at this point.
As she considered what had happened among the demons, she decided that the piano was insufficient for the task to show her feelings on the subject, and had to once again turn to the spell for a more complex combination of instruments. She needed something appropriately pompous and something much faster on tempo.
Khali had really done her job when it came to subjugating the demons. Once she had gathered enough power, and had changed her looks to be more those of a demon than an elf, she had taken the old demon lord with her to take control of the continent. The old demon lord was there as her servant and her purpose was to lend legitimacy to Khali’s actions. It would be harder to ignore someone that had the support of someone the demons recognized as very powerful. Neleh also suspected that the two had formed a more intimate bond during the time they spent on the elven continent. Khali was too jaded for love, but lust? That she could do.
Khali had shown her strength almost immediately, and had risen to prominence with unprecedented speed. To her annoyance, the other demons had adopted the way of stalling and obfuscating once they discovered her strength in combat. Even with the old demon lord’s support, it was hard to get things done when everyone just delayed, made empty promises and flimsy excuses and avoided confrontation. Normally this would have been too shameful since the demons valued power so highly, but political power was power as well, and the repercussions never materialized because all of the high ranking demons were doing the same thing.
As a result, Khali had returned to one of her old favorite tricks. She wasn’t a stranger to plotting either after all. She had invited everyone that had been part of the effort to stall things to a very special dinner. Neleh had almost cringed when she had heard that. Khali’s dinners were infamous to those that knew about her past life. This time she had chosen to go with a particularly mean option to drive her point home. She had even enlisted Neleh’s help to acquire the necessary ‘ingredients’.
The demons had felt safety in numbers, and had all come. Each of them was presented with their very own, specially prepared dish. As the first course had been eaten, Khali called for attention. “I hope all of you have enjoyed your time so far, and I hope the meal has been to your satisfaction.”
She had gotten nods and agreement from the jovial feeling demons that had gathered. The food had been delicious. Khali had gathered spices and drinks that could not be found on this world after all. “Good, I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself. I have prepared a very special dessert for everyone, and I hope you will enjoy it just as much.”
Servants brought covered silver trays in front of everyone, hiding the contents until everyone had been served. Once she gave the signal the covers were removed from every tray. As the contents were shown, a chorus screams, wails and curses sounded around the room, while many of the guests were shocked to silence or in denial. On every tray was the head of a loved one of each person served. It might have been a son or a daughter, husband, wife, girlfriend of boyfriend, or perhaps a family member, a parent or a sibling.
As the realization was starting to dawn on them, Khali continued. “I hope you especially liked the meat in the previous dish, since it goes so very well with the dessert you have been served.” She said, making absolutely clear where the meat they had eaten before had come from.
As the sounds of gagging and retching joined the wails and angry shouts, Khali finished her point. “You have chosen to act dishonorably, so I’m making the consequences of that choice clear. I have no qualms about using whatever methods I so choose against those with no honor. I hope I’m making my point clear. Enjoy you dessert.” She said as she rose to leave.
Two of the enraged demons charged straight at her, but where cleaved in two by an almost casual looking swing of her two-handed blade. While it looked casual, it carried unbelievable strength and moved so fast that those looking could not even see it. “Any else that desires to express their dissatisfaction over my dinner party? Now is your chance.” As the other demons could only swallow their hatred, Khali casually walked out of the room.
This of course made her numerous enemies, but enemies she could deal with and the delays had stopped. She had become the new demon lord only six months later, and had kept that position for two years now.
Neleh hummed a small sad tune. Khali had been one of the other people to treat her normally, which was only natural since the old ruler of Inferno knew better. Still, now that she was too busy with the demons, Neleh was left with one less person she could relax with. There were only three others beyond Shiori and Khali, Nimue, Delia and Elsaria. Even Selene had become a worshipper instead of a sister; in fact she was one of the worst. With Selene’s character and almost blind devotion to Elune, it was hardly surprising that she would end up revering Neleh as well.
Nimue was one of Neleh’s closest advisors, and spent the most time with her. That was in large part because Neleh often got tired of dealing with the veneration in the eyes of others, so she managed many things through Nimue. Delia did her best to keep Neleh grounded, although that wasn’t so hard, as Neleh didn’t buy into her own legend. Delia had finally married Aneirin, and the two seemed happy enough. Aneirin would most likely otherwise be one of the people to put too much stock in Neleh’s so called divinity, but it was easier for psyche to imagine Neleh as something beyond mortals. It reduced her inferiority complex, which was a good thing for her relationship with Delia. Elsaria had become a full-fledged sister of the Order despite the added challenge, and now spent most of her time hunting down Neleh’s enemies.
The saddest part was Neleh’s relationship with Asheara. They had managed to talk and had started to form a connection of sorts, even if it wasn’t what it used to be. That was about the time when the people started treating Neleh differently, and Asheara had followed suit. She had felt that Neleh wasn’t a normal mortal, though she couldn’t explain why, but this gave her an explanation. It also allowed her to redirect what remained of her feelings to a new path, and also assuaged her guilty conscience.
Ironically, she had not lost too much of her skills as they had become part muscle memory, and part memories separate from the bond because the countless hours spent training. As such, she became one of the people to join Prince Alexis as trump cards against the enemy. Still, it was painful for Neleh to see the awe in her mother’s eyes, so the two mostly kept their distance from each other.
The sun started to rise above the horizon, to mark the dawn of the day that would change the lives of everyone on this world. As Neleh started to move towards Shiori to shake the shoulder of her lover, who was pretending to be asleep in the hopes of getting a gentle wake-up, she suddenly stared at the walls of the room. She could feel the space twisting as portals opened around the world, on all the continents. Portals that led away from this world. Though the important part wasn’t where one could go through them, but who came through them to this world. These portals weren’t small temporary gates to allow few individuals though, but large permanent ones.
There were couple of important differences between deities and beings that at least some point were mortal. Even if a mortal gathered enough power to be stronger than any deity, this differences would remain. The deities were bound by certain rules. They could not go beyond their domain, and while they could be shockingly powerful in some area, they could be completely useless in others. On the flipside, some things were easier for deities. Instead of complex spells to achieve almost impossible result, they could simply throw power at the problem and get the effect they desired. While it was almost impossible to make portals between world if a mortal tried it, the deities could do it, especially if they had someone ritually prepare a target destination.
The Lost-Deities might have lost some of what made them gods, but retained some other things, as shown by the portals now opening around the world. Even Neleh at the prime of her old life couldn’t have done it, but here it was done in several places.
“They’re early. Neleh grumbled. Shiori, get your lazy bum out of the bed and sound the alarm! The storm is here!” Neleh yelled.
Then she suddenly looked towards the sky in shock. “Oh, fuck.” She cursed simply. A huge magical formation sprung around her, as she flung her entire strength into the sky, to change the direction of a certain falling object. After a few minutes of struggling, she slumped to a chair, all sweaty and panting.
“What happened?” Shiori asked alarmed, already pulling clothes on.
“Let’s just say the faeries aren’t going home anymore. I doubt that there’s much left of their continent beyond fire and ash.” Neleh sighed, getting her breath back under control.
“Details, please. I know you like to be cryptic, but this is not the time.” Shiori sighed a little exasperated.
“Well, apparently one of the Lost-Deities decided that casting a portal straight to here was too much trouble. Instead, it made a solid gateway and threw it at us. Quite hard to redirect I might add. Would have originally landed on the celestial capitol instead.” Neleh explained.
“Eh, you should’ve let it land. The pigeons are nothing but trouble. You mean it threw a gateway from another world?” Shiori asked incredulous.
“Now you know why I’m here. Are we having fun yet?” Neleh simply smiled back.