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A/N: Ah the joys of finnish winter. I recommend you all to try. ANd by recommend, I mean don't do it unless you're crazy. Anyway, here's something to warm you up.

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Neleh was going over reports in her cabin on the flagship of the elven fleet. The fleet was midway on its journey crossing the wide ocean between the continents. The land-bridge connecting the demon and faerie continents was their destination and was about as far across the ocean from the elven continent as possible. The long journey made it hard for Neleh to do much besides read and reply to reports, and try to meditate to increase her own strength as much as possible. Yet her presence here was necessary, not because there was a large risk of enemies attacking their fleet midway, but because the losses would be too great if that risk did materialize.

From the outside the flagship didn’t look that different from the other vessels. It was slightly larger and more ornamental, but the biggest difference on the outside was the large flag bearing the white phoenix insignia, announcing her presence on that vessel. That flag was made so prominent mostly so that she could work as bait. The real changes were inside the vessel. The whole interior of the ship was fitted for her use, except for the sleeping areas for the crew that was comprised of the Legion of the Phoenix.

Most of the space was used by her large bedroom and her office. Personally she could’ve done with a smaller bedroom but she had to keep up appearances. The space used just to store her clothes was an atrocious waste in her opinion when she could simply create her clothes from the shadows if necessary. She was however rather fond of her large office, which allowed her plenty of room for large and detailed maps. She also had a small magical chest on the table, which allowed her to receive the reports that were delivered to the imperial palace, which held an identical chest connected to this one.

The contents of the reports were mixed. On one hand the reports from the cleanup done by the elven forces were positive, while on the other hand the reports by the people sent to observe the humans and the beastmen were not promising. The humans at least were doing decently with the aid of their spirit constructs, but Neleh had finally been forced to send the naga to help the beastmen. The beastmen were excellent mix of skirmishing ability and the ability to do well in pitched battles. One of their main advantages was their mobility and their almost tireless nature, which allowed them to take advantageous fights with local superiority. Since they moved fast, they could bring more forces to bear by drawing in forces from the surroundings.

The problem was that their current enemy was made up of magical beings and lifeless constructs, both of which were tireless. They were not fast, but to counter this, the enemy wizards created large sandstorms to slow down the beastmen forces. In pitched battles the large and slow but powerful constructs were beating the beastmen handily. Even though the beastmen still held the advantage in quick skirmishes, they were closely matched by the quick moving genies and the numerous wizards that liked to fly around on magical carpets to bombard the beastmen forces with their spells.

The naga forces should be able to match the wizards with their water and ice spells and bring the advantage back to the beastmen side. That did leave the humans at the mercy of the undead. Hopefully Khali would manage to handle her part as fast as possible. As Neleh was considering possible alternate strategies, she received a distressed magical communication.

“Neleh, we have a big problem.” Azrael’s voice came through the item they used to communicate. Azrael had also become a member of Neleh’s elite squad, and was sent to keep an eye on the celestials.

“Tell me.” Neleh prompted Azrael to continue, also confirming that she was available to listen.

“Anauel’s group detected a decent sized group of Trow separate from the main force. The group was led by one of the main Trow commanders, and they seemed to be traveling between armies. Even considering the possibility of a trap, this was too good of a chance to kill one of the most important Trow and his retinue, but a long ranged attack would not work against a group that large. The celestials have also gotten tired of these hit and run attacks and wanted a real victory for a change. Anauel led a large force of celestials to take them down.” Azrael reported.

“Let me guess, the attack didn’t go according to plan.” Neleh sighed deeply.

“Well, yes and no. The attack was successful in the sense that they did succeed in taking the Trow commander down. However, the group was made up of Trow elites and the losses Anauel’s group suffered were horrendous. They thought they were prepared for anything, but they underestimated their enemy. The Trow commander himself succeeded in striking down Anauel. She’s alive, but only barely. Our healers are able to keep her alive for now, but it might be more merciful to let her fade away.” Azrael said sadly.

“Why? What’s the situation?” Neleh had a bad feeling about this.

“Among the dead are most of Anauel’s friends and companions. She led her friends to take on the Trow to show that it could be done, and to show you were exaggerating the danger. Over 90% of the group Anauel led on the attack is dead, among them were her closest advisors. Neleh, she also took along a big portion of the leading council as well, just to show them it could be done. Now most of them are dead and the army is lacking leadership.” Azrael’s distress was clear in her voice and for a good reason.

This was a disaster! The celestials would be much less effective without proper leadership, and even with the victory they had gained, the price had been too high. They could not really count on the celestials until they managed to sort out their leadership issues. The elves would have to send all their forces against the Trow and the Blades instead of helping Khali. That would delay the help to the humans even further. It would also be much harder to deal with the Trow and Blades with the celestials at half strength.

Suddenly Neleh had a bad feeling. What would she do now if she was in the shoes of the lost-deity commanding the enemy forces in the faerie lands? She would try to strike at the forces coming to aid the dragons and celestials, especially now that the elves were forced to hurry.  What was the best way to do that, assuming the enemy had access to enough information?

Neleh moved to the deck of the ship and surveyed her surroundings. Nothing but ocean in all directions. She tried to extend her senses in all directions in order to try and detect hiding enemies. She even tried to cast several different spells to counter any chance of an intelligent enemy. She tried to search for magical power and even for nearby souls. The crews on the ships as well as the magic of the ships made both methods limited in usefulness. She found nothing.

“Am I simply being paranoid?” She mumbled to herself. Was she giving the enemy too much credit? The attack towards the ships was the best option the enemy had, and pretty much the only way to strike at the elves considering that most of their forces were moving through the Nexus. But that assumed the enemy was aware of the ships.

Neleh lowered her gaze to the ocean below. The ocean. What about an underwater attack? The ship she was standing on and the natural mana in the water would mask any approach at low mana. But how would they hide from her ability to detect souls? That assumed the presence of enemies with souls. Neleh carefully made preparations, which turned out to be a good thing.

Suddenly a huge serpent covered in metal grey scales appeared from the water and struck straight towards the flagship Neleh was riding on. The fangs of the huge serpent seemed to be made of diamond and were dripping with green drops of a powerful poison. The silvery eyes of the serpent had no sign of life within. “Well at least the bait worked as planned.” Neleh said with slight sarcasm as a magical circle appeared next to her and the spirit Jormungandr surged out of the circle towards the metallic serpent. A giant wyrm facing an enormous serpent. The two entwined as they struggled and sunk back into the ocean.

“Prepare for an attack!” Neleh announced in a loud voice in case there were more opponents.

Sounds of alarm rung trough the fleet as the ships took a defensive formation and the more nimble gryphon riders took flight to surround the ships. Neleh focused her senses to focus on the battle under the waves. Her spirit was successfully fending off the attacker, but was not doing well. The metallic serpent was clearly stronger of the two, but interestingly the underwater battle favored the spirit instead. Fighting in the water was not the specialty of the metallic serpent. Neleh suddenly realized that she recognized the metal serpent. It was something she had hoped not to see again.

“Serpentia.” Neleh hissed the name of particular enemy. Now she knew that the attack of the metal serpent was aimed at her and not against the fleet itself. It wasn’t a really serious attack, more like a greeting and a test. If it did manage to take down some of the ships, then all the better, but that was not really why the attack had been made.

Almost to prove her point, the metal serpent drew back before Neleh intervened in the battle between raging below the waves. Not that she could actually kill the serpent anyway. It wasn’t a living being, instead it was a weapon. The serpent was simply the whip used by Serpentia, one of the main reasons for the name. Not the only reason of course, as Neleh remembered her old enemy.

It would be better if Khali did not find out about this. The two had always hated each other more than anything. Serpentia was perhaps the only being that could match Khali in melee combat. At her best, Khali could beat Serpentia, but she wasn’t at her best at the moment. In fact, Khali was pretty far from her best, but it was doubtful that the prideful ruler of Inferno would consider that before rushing to fight her old enemy.

“Does Serpentia know I’m here, or is she just testing the person she considers to be her enemy?” Neleh wondered in a quiet voice.

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Khali was observing the battle raging below her. She was standing on a cliff overlooking a large valley covered in black volcanic ash. Her army of demons was withdrawing, luring the enemy into the right position. Usually the demons wouldn’t be giving ground as easily, but one of the things Khali had hammered into the minds of her subjects was obedience to orders and a sense for tactics. She had wondered for a while why the cunning demons weren’t interested in equally cunning tactics, before she realized that more direct engagements allowed the powerful demons to display their great power more easily. As usual, the demons evaluated power higher than cunning.

She noticed that the enemies were in the target zone. Standing next to her was the previous demon lord and Khali’s current lover Shazhar. Because Khali had very little magical ability, Shazhar’s help had been invaluable. While she could defeat any enemies that stood against her, some plans required the use of magical power. The demoness also knew the terrain very well, which had let to their current plan.

The tide of large humanoid warriors clad in full magical armor, combined with several powerful sorcerers with wild and unpredictable spells had proven a more difficult enemy to the demons than Khali had expected, and had even managed to win several battles against the demon forces when Khali herself wasn’t leading the battle. That was about to change. Today would mark the day where the might of their enemy would be broken, and the tide would turn in the favor of the demon forces for good. After today, all that would remain was the slow advance towards the portal and the final fight against the Changer of Ways. Hopefully Neleh would help with the latter.

Weird mages like the Great Sorcerer were always a headache for Khali. If she managed to get into a position to use her Ki against them, then her victory was certain, but weird casters like the Changer of Ways and even Neleh always had a huge bag of tricks to make things difficult. The best way to counter that was to pit the freaks against each other while she struck the finishing blow. She focused back on the battle below. Finally the whole enemy army was moving into the trap.

The army below was the collection of the most powerful warriors and sorcerers of the enemy, and the demon army was only barely able to hold them back without incurring prohibitive losses. Luckily they didn’t have to do it for long. At Khali’s signal, Shazhar lead the demon mages to join forces into a single spell, and struck the ground below her. A wave of power radiated from Shazhar’s position shaking the ground under the two armies. That in itself would not have been dangerous, as shown by the demon army simply stumbling as a result of the quakes. The army on the opposite side however was not so lucky.

Khali had a sadistic smile as she watched the thin crust of ground crumble under the feet of the enemy army. Below their feet was a huge vein of magma that had barely been covered with a thin cover of volcanic rock. The enemy army might be skilled, powerful and equipped with powerful weapons and equipment, but that didn’t help them when it came to swimming in hot magma, in fact the heavy armor only made their doom even faster as they sunk into their burning deaths. Almost the entire enemy army fell to their deaths, while a few enemy sorcerers managed to avoid it due to their ability to fly. Even those were hunted down by the elite troops of the demons that took advantage of their confusion.

“Well, I’d call that a success. It’s not every day you get to see so many strong enemies die with such ease. Makes me all giddy.” Khali said with a small shudder of joy.

“Congratulations my lord. A great victory. Shall we start the march towards the portal?” Shazhar asked.

“Yes, but don’t rush too much. We could still use Neleh’s help to deal with their leader, and she’s still crossing the ocean to us. We don’t want to force the enemy to act before she arrives.” Khali said in reply.

“Surely you don’t need her help. Who could stand against your power?” Shazhar asked with genuine confusion. The only being she had ever seen that could possibly rival her lord was Neleh, and even that was questionable in Shazhar’s mind. She had managed to forget some of the terror she had felt while fighting Neleh and couldn’t imagine Neleh’s power growing all that much since then.

“There’s a difference between needing her help, and her help making things much easier. Just because I am capable of doing something alone doesn’t mean I should.” Khali replied with a wide smile.

“But then you will be forced to share the glory.” Shazhar pointed out.

Khali gave a small laugh. “You think I’m doing this for glory? Here’s something you should’ve learned about me by now. I don’t give a toss what people who believe in something like glory think about me. All that matters is what I think about myself and what one or two of the most important people to me think about me. As long as I have confidence in my abilities and others can go fuck themselves. If someone looks down on me, that simply shows their ignorance. If they try to taunt me, I’ll kill them if they get annoying enough. It really is that simple.”

Shazhar simply gave a small bow in reply, conceding the point. Suddenly Khali’s expression changed. “It seems Neleh’s forces were attacked on the way here. She repulsed the attack, but she’ll have to be more careful in the future. That’ll slow her down.”

“Who managed to attack her forces?” Shazhar asked in confusion.

“Apparently the lost-deity leading the forces in the faerie lands. It seems the pigeons fucked things up and got most of their leaders killed, freeing the enemy to strike at Neleh.” Khali scoffed. “I didn’t expect all that much from the pigeons but this is worse than I thought. It takes real skill to fuck things up this badly. Useless celestials no matter what planet…”

“Wait, so the enemy in the faerie lands is picking a fight with elves in addition to the dragons and celestials? We knew the elves were going that way anyway, but who would be foolish enough to pick a fight with three races at once?” Shazhar asked shocked.

“I don’t know who it is, but I like their moxie. They made a mistake in pissing off Neleh though. Even I’m not stupid enough to do that. It seems we might be on our own with the portal. I may get all the useless glory anyway.” Khali replied with a grin.

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Vihyungrang

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