A/N: Greetings from the world of overtime! Anyway, I'd like to mention that I'm not too happy with the current pace of releases either and I'll try if I can manage something more next week. That said, it all depends on our customers. Anyway, I hope you'll enjoy. This chapter has something I plan to do more, by which I mean backfilling some of the things that happened during the time-skip in small doses from the POV of other characters.
Neleh and Khali watched as another group of Blades got wiped out in a hail of arrows and spells. This was something both of them had seen dozens of times over the last few weeks, and by all accounts should make both of them happy. Yet, they both had a nasty expression as the last Blades fell in a slag of molten metal. Things were going according to their plan, yet not at all in the way they had expected.
“Another group of low ranking Blades. Where are all the high ranking Blades and Trow? We’ve already pushed them out of the demon continent, and are now clearing a landing on the faerie continent. What are they doing? This is too easy…” Khali wondered out loud.
“I’ve wondered for a while why it took them so long to reach any habited villages in the demon continent. We managed to deal with the first two portals faster than we could’ve hoped for, but it doesn’t take that long to march an army from the faerie continent to the demon continent, even under constant harassment by the celestials and dragons. Yet, where are they? We know from the reports made by the celestials that there are high ranking Trow and Blades on this world, and they aren’t going to the other continents either.” Neleh also wondered about the weird situation.
“Have you heard anything from the dragons?” Khali asked.
“Not really. Even though I’m supposed to be the Chosen of Satai, the dragons don’t feel obligated to report to me. I think they are holding back due to their limited numbers, saving their strength for the time when things go sideways. I know they’ve made some attacks against the enemy forces, but that’s about it. Even Zamekh is keeping silent on the matter. I think they’re keeping me out of the loop on purpose.” Neleh mentioned her suspicions.
“Any idea why they would do that?” Khali looked stunned.
“I can make a few guesses, but I can’t say for sure. I think a large part of it is embarrassment on their inability to deal with the enemy on their own, and regret over pushing the fight against the lost-deities on my shoulders. They’re used to being the most powerful beings in the world, and by a pretty wide margin at that. Now their strength is insufficient and they are forced to have their ‘little sister’ deal with the biggest threat. I just hope that they don’t decide to try and reclaim their glory by throwing themselves into an all-out attack against this enemy.” Neleh gave a small sigh of frustration.
“You know, that would explain the lack of action from the enemy’s part. If they were stuck dealing with the full might of the dragons, then they would be too busy to seek other enemies.” Khali suggested.
“While I wouldn’t discount that possibility, I think we would have felt the echoes of that battle. No, I think there’s something else going on.” As Neleh replied, they both heard the cry of a returning gryphon scout. “And I think we’re about to get some answers.”
As they both approached the place the scout had landed, Neleh was surprised to see Shiori also jump down from the back of the gryphon, while the rider turned out to be Elsaria. Both of them had been among the scouts sent to search through the faerie continent, but they most certainly had not left together.
“Looks like you picked up a stray on the way sister dearest.” Neleh joked.
“Yeah, she looked so lost and forlorn all by herself wandering the desolate lands that I just couldn’t bear to leave her by herself. You know I’m bad with the puppy-eyes types. I thought you might like her, and decided to give her to you as a gift.” Elsaria joked. She still retained the same sense of humor, even if she didn’t show it to too many people.
“I thought we agreed you shouldn’t bring strays home? I mean who knows where she has been? She might have fleas or something. I know you have a soft heart, but we can’t save every pitiful creature that comes along your way. Your heart is in the right place though.” Neleh joked back with mock severity.
“Alright dear sister, I see your point. Should I bring her back where I found her? I mean she is now here and all.” Elsaria had reached mastery in the ability known as ‘keeping a poker face’.
Shiori finally interrupted the two. “Alright, if you two jokers are done, can we get back to the business? I mean I do have important information, but if you’d rather keep making fun of me…”
“I don’t know, I vote we keep making fun of her.” Elsaria suggested.
“Agreed, I mean you probably have information too, right? So even if she gets mad…” Neleh didn’t get further before getting punched in the ribs by Shiori. Not very hard of course, but Neleh still went through the motions of pretending to be hurt.
After they had enough of their horseplay, they retreated to a more private location secured by the Legion. It wasn’t that they really expected anyone to eavesdrop on them, or that they would mind their own troops listening in, it was just something that they did naturally due to their cautious nature. After they had settled, Shiori took the position at the front to explain her findings.
“First things first, there are only low level Blades for about two week’s travel from here. They’re not here to really cause problems or damage. Instead, they’re here merely to delay us. If they actually manage to cause any losses to us, then all the better, but judging from their positioning the enemy leaders are counting on us taking things nice and slow to avoid taking careless casualties. You tend to be rather soft on your troops Neleh honey, so they are rather safe in their assumptions.” She pointed out with a small smile.
“So they’re stalling for time. For what purpose?” Neleh asked, conceding the point.
“They’re building fortifications. They know that we will try to avoid pitched battle as far as possible, so they’re planning on forcing the issue. Unlike the other lost-deities, this one isn’t just rushing to battle trying to cause maximum carnage. This one is planning on taking land and holding it. This one is in it for the distance. I actually managed to get fairly close to the portal. It’s a damn big and sinister looking construct made from some black gemlike material. They already have a huge fortress built around the crater that thing caused while landing, and I think I found some of the beings you called Soulforgers. They have these huge furnaces built around the fortress, with a constant stream of Blades being built.” Shiori explained, seeming wary of giving such bad news.
She knew why the enemy built those fortifications. The elves were very adept at fighting a war without any proper battles, especially after their Order training. They would strike and retreat; doing all the damage they could in a short burst, and then vanishing like smoke. Unlike the dragons and the celestials, the elves didn’t have the sort of pride and arrogance that would tempt them to act rashly, and they had the discipline to do their damage even as they saw their allies retreating. But you can’t take fortifications by using skirmishing tactics, especially against an enemy that didn’t require supplies that could be intercepted.
The elves would have to accept a pitched battle to take the fortifications, and that would let the Blades and the Trow shine. They could ignore most of the archers as they were too well protected to withstand anything except the most heavily enchanted arrows. In addition, they were almost immune to pikes and spears and could freely smash into the elven formations thanks to their superior strength. The elves only real weapons were magic and their flying forces. Even the flying forces were at a risk. Even though neither Blades nor Trows used much in the way of archers, even a dragon could be felled by a heavy lance thrown by a Trow at almost the speed of sound. That would do horrendous things to the elven flying ships if given the opportunity.
“That’s…” Neleh started to say, before being interrupted by Khali.
“…the stupidest thing I’ve heard in a long time. The enemy can’t be that foolish, can they?” She asked, hoping for a positive answer.
“Say what now?” Shiori asked confused. “I thought their strategy was a relatively decent one. Not exactly something brilliant, but pretty good given the circumstances.”
Neleh gave a small chuckle and Khali gave a long exasperated sigh. “I expected better from your girlfriend Neleh.”
“Hey, your girl looks just as confused.” Neleh said gesturing towards Shazhar, who had remained quiet all this time, wary of Neleh.
“That’s because I picked her because of her looks, yours is supposed to be smart.” Khali pointed out with a small smile.
“Will someone tell me what’s going on instead of mocking me again?” Shiori asked already resigned to her position.
Khali turned back towards Shiori. “Alright, let me educate you. So the only way these fortifications would work, is if the majority of their forces are actually holed up inside. By necessity, there will be some distance between their forces, as they can’t just build one contiguous fortress over the whole continent. They don’t have the centuries or millennia required for that. The idea is that we either take every fortress on the way, or they will surround us in the open if we try to go between them. This is all fine and good, except we have access to the Nexus.
Now Neleh is sneaky enough to get fairly close to their main fortress, and then she can drop a dozen arches down to rapidly deploy our whole army. Now we might not have enough magical power to destroy all their fortifications and their armies, but we can surely collapse one fortress on top of them. Now, mobile forces would be able to return to aid their force surrounding the portal, but with this strategy they’re stuck inside fortifications long distance away from their portal. It will take time for them to recall their forces, and by that time we’ll be done and can retreat back to the Nexus. Then we can sink the whole bloody continent from under the rest of their forces when their precious lost-deity is no longer protecting them.” Khali looked at Neleh. “Did I miss anything obvious?”
“Not really. We must of course check for the whole thing being a trap, and the surroundings of the portal should be heavily defended, but on the other hand the Blades aren’t the only ones able to run a delaying action. Maybe we can ask the dragons to help with the surroundings of the gate. They should be happy to finally get a free hand to strike at the enemy they’ve had to be careful with so far.” Neleh replied, honing the plan as they went on.
“About that, I didn’t see any sign of dragon activity anywhere.” Shiori suddenly pointed out.
“Neither did I.” Elsaria said from the side. “Our group was flying all over trying to see what where the dragons had gone when I picked up this little stray.”
“That’s worrying. Where could they be?” Neleh was now starting to get worried.
Shazhar watched with loving eyes as her master interacted with the elves here. Her master didn’t like Shazhar calling her that, but that was the only title that fit Sinestra in her mind. The natural way her master interacted with these people went beyond anything she had seen happen when her master was spending time with the demons. Sinestra always kept her guard up, even when around Shazhar herself, which saddened her greatly. She could understand the wariness with the other demons considering the methods master had used to gain her position in such a short time. Methods like that would garner enemies and master would have to keep her guard around them, but Shazhar liked to think that she herself would be different. She was different, just not to this degree.
The one known as Neleh especially seemed to relax master with just her presence. It’s not that Shazhar couldn’t understand why that might be the case, Neleh had a strong effect on anyone around her. That said, her presence had the exact opposite effect on Shazhar. Part of that was how the being in the guise of an elf had completely defeated her in battle and changed her life forever. Before that battle Shazhar had been the hope of demonkind with a bright future as the youngest demon lord to ever assume that position. Well the youngest until master came along.
Shazhar had great difficulties at first to come to terms with her defeat and fall from grace. The way Neleh had crushed her had left little to question, but as time passed the shock had worn off somewhat. Just a few months ago she had imagined that she might be able to take revenge and defeat Neleh this time, but that thought had vanished the instant she had come face to face with Neleh again. The elf now radiated power in a way that no other being she had ever seen.
That was before she met master. At first she wasn’t sure about the connection between master and these elves, and it still confused her to an extent. Yet it was clear that there was something different about both master and Neleh. Perhaps this something was the reason her master could relax around Neleh and by extension those elves around her. She wondered if she could acquire this something. She just wanted master to feel as relaxed around her.
The first time she had met master she had considered killing the child as revenge, but Neleh had made it obvious that the small satisfaction would not be worth the suffering afterwards. The next time Shazhar had seen master she had been much older and more grown. She still didn’t know how they had managed that, although master had given a vague explanation one night during pillow-talk. To Shazhar’s shock, master had told her to try and take that revenge, and had then proceeded to demonstrate the difference between them in direct terms. They had fought a thousand times since and master always gave her pointers to improve herself.
That was one of the reasons why she had got her confidence back, and had even inflated her ego enough to think she might be a match for Neleh this time, although master had told her in no uncertain terms just how bad that idea was. Shazhar still didn’t’ quite believe that the elf had the power to destroy this entire world if she so chose, but master had stressed that even she herself would lose an all-out no holds barred fight against Neleh, just that the consequences would be more than either of them wanted.
Master’s power and teachings had been what dispelled her grudges and resentment, while her mind and plans had been what had won Shazhar’s heart. Master mind had this delicious deviousness, and her plans still made her shiver. She had been skeptical when master had promised to return both of them into a position of power among the demons, but here they were leading the demons against enemies from other worlds. It had even happened with speed that was still hard to imagine. That’s one of the things Shazhar loved about her, when master wanted something she went for it with such power and confidence.
She wasn’t sure what awaited them in the future, as master had alluded towards bigger things once this war was over. Master would be leaving this world, and Shazhar hoped to be worthy enough to be taken along. That was the goal she strived for. She no longer gave much care for the fate of the demon race, or even the fate of this world, let that be the problem of Neleh who seemed to care about both for some reason. Shazhar was pretty sure the elf could find bigger and better things elsewhere, but there’s no accounting for personal taste. No, the only thing that mattered to Shazhar was her future with her beloved master.
Maybe someday she too would achieve this something that gave master such peace.