Asheara watched as the last of the members of Neleh’s elite squad gathered. Until a few hours ago they had still been fighting against the low level Blades near the land bridge connecting the two continents. Even if the Blades were low level, they were dangerous enough to pose a threat if one got careless. At least that was the case with the normal soldiers. For the elites, the low level Blades were barely a distraction, and as such might have been even more dangerous. The elite squad members were all powerful enough that they got bored while fighting and boredom could lead to mistakes. It had not happened so far, Neleh’s training had made it damn sure that none of them were the type to get too careless, but there was something that Neleh didn’t quite understand about the people she had trained.
All the members of the elite squad were stronger than was usually required to become recognized as a Great Silver. Their members included more than just elves, as Neleh had made efforts to find some of the best potential during the last ten years. There were a couple of demons, few celestials like Azrael and even two humans, one of them being the human Prince Alexis currently absent and sent to the human lands to observe. The members were selected due to their potential and not their level of power at the time they were recruited.
All of them received personal training from Neleh, Estelar, the masters of the Order and even the girl called Sinestra. As Asheara gained more of her memories back, she realized that Sinestra most likely wasn’t quite as she seemed, similar to Neleh herself, though her exact identity was still a mystery to Asheara. She knew that the girl was supposedly a child between Neleh and Elune, but that didn’t explain everything. Be that as it may, the girl was great at teaching things, unlike Neleh Asheara had to admit.
That was one of the few things Neleh wasn’t very good at. Her thoughts ran so far ahead of everyone else that she always seemed a little confused and a little disappointed when everyone didn’t catch her meaning from curt explanations. Neleh just didn’t have the kind of understanding of those beneath her ability that was required to be a good teacher. That understanding was also the reason that Neleh didn’t quite understand her students as well as she most likely should have.
Neleh had used a multitude of methods to increase the strength and skill of her students. She had used some silver colored needles in combination with elixirs and exercises to open whole new pathways to channel power through, as well as taught them methods to meditate and cultivate. That didn’t even touch the martial skills and spells they had learned. In short, Neleh had forged them into weapons, and very strong weapons at that. Asheara was quite certain that she herself could take out both Estelar and her old master Alduin together at this point, and she wasn’t even the most gifted of Neleh’s students. That title went easily to Shiori. The other members of the squad were very similar to Asheara in that regard.
The problem was that all this came with certain side effects. Not physical side effects per se, but more mental side effects. The changes had brought out their inner bloodlust and desire to test their mettle in combat against powerful foes. You also couldn’t expect to have people be chosen by the divine empress, a being second only to Elune in their minds, get forged into perfect weapons and not have that go into their heads a bit. The squad thought themselves as superior, as the chosen few. It wasn’t like they had disdain towards their ‘lesser’ cousins, not exactly, but they didn’t regard them as equals either.
Asheara was most likely the least affected by all this, as she had been trained by Neleh the longest, but even she thought it a good thing that the war came as fast as it did, because if the war had not come, they would have gone out in search of challenge themselves. That challenge would most likely have been sought by trying to force the other races under Neleh’s rule. Even the members of the squad that were from the other races felt that it was somehow their duty to show the light to their own races.
That thought brought Asheara back to their current situation. The Blades they had faced so far weren’t enough to keep the interest of their squad, and they would most likely have gone out soon to seek out further challenges, but Neleh had ordered them all to gather for a special operation. It was rather amusing to Asheara how Neleh always had such a perfect timing, even though she didn’t have the understanding required to see the restlessness among them. A special operation was exactly what they all needed right now, even though they knew very little of the details yet. They did now that the call had also gathered the strongest units of the Order as well, so whatever was going to happen would most likely be big.
Asheara herself had finally reached the point where most of her memories had returned, and with that came the realization of the pain she had caused her youngest daughter. Shiori had told her most of it due to spite, but it was one thing to hear that you were responsible for someone else’s pain, it was quite another to fully realize the extent of that pain yourself, and what exactly you had done to cause that pain. The full weight of responsibility had come to her just few days ago when the last of her memory had returned.
Now she just wanted to run to Neleh and beg for forgiveness. She knew her daughter would grant that forgiveness. That was the type of person she was after all. Asheara wasn’t so sure she could forgive herself that easily though. It was not the role of the mother to cause such pain to her child, yet she had given up her position as a mother a long time ago. That had come partly as a result of the bond, and partly due to the actions of Elluin, her ex-husband. Asheara had clung to her daughter like a piece of wood while adrift at sea. And then she had abandoned her. Not by choice, but still. She knew from her own experience with the bond and from what Elune had told her that Neleh still suffered the backlash from having the bond severed, and there wasn’t anything Asheara could do about that. At the very least she could try and become the mother she should have been so many years ago. She would be able to hold her daughter’s hand as she suffered through it.
She had not seen Neleh for several days now, but being summoned like this with the other elites gave her hope that she would be able to get a chance to finally talk to her daughter again. For the last ten years they had been a little more than strangers, but now she was back.
Shiori was holding Neleh’s hand as her lover was lying on the bed collapsed from the pain. They had been having a meeting to plan for the assault on the portal and the fortress surrounding it, when Shiori had noticed the signs in her lover’s demeanor. She had hastily concluded the meeting in Neleh’s stead and brought her back to the Nexus so that her suffering could not be seen by others. Usually Neleh was capable of holding anything from showing on her face when it happened, but that was less and less the case as time went on and it was important that none of the others realized anything was going on.
Neleh was their pillar of support and besides Khali the only one that could really face the lost-deities. It was Neleh’s unshakable figure that allowed them all to not panic in the face of a strange enemy from another world, and a storm that might have become their doom if she wasn’t here. They could fight the enemy troops without care because they knew they had the Golden Goddess at their back to keep everything from collapsing. Shiori could only imagine the blow to their morale and will to fight if they were to find out there was something wrong with their divine empress.
“It’s getting worse, isn’t it?” Shiori asked simply, already knowing the answer. She was patting Neleh black hair with her other hand. Even that hair had lost some of its sparkle as Neleh lay on the bed.
Neleh gave a small and forced laugh without any real mirth. “I’m afraid there’s a price that needs to be paid for the type of power needed to fight the lost-deities.”
Shiori could only grimace in reply. Neleh used some of her strength to keep this in bay, and using her strength to fight the lost-deities aggravated the problem. “I wish you’d let me help you at least.”
“No, you’re the plan B, in case I can’t do it for some reason. There needs to be at least one person that can carry the burden if something should happen to me. The price for the plan C is too high.” Neleh demanded through gritted teeth, referring to her own power as a Destroyer.
Neleh had taught Shiori a technique that let her make an attack against almost any target that would be lethal if successful. She had also taught Shiori methods to hide herself in a way that she would be able to strike from hiding, catching her target by surprise. The attack would most likely be enough to destroy even a lost-deity. The only problem was that Shiori would only be able to use that attack once, because it drained all her power, leaving her an easy target should the attack fail.
Shiori could see that Neleh was already getting a little better. These attacks were luckily not too frequent and didn’t take too much time. The whole problem stemmed from the remains of the bond. At first the pain had been almost completely emotional and mental. None of them could have expected the problem to get worse over time. Even Elune had been stunned at the development. As the mental and emotional pain got worse, it was only a matter of time before the pain also radiated to become physical. There wasn’t anything really wrong with her body, so there wasn’t anything to heal either. Elune had tried.
All they could do was hope that it would not become so bad that it would interfere with things. At first Shiori had not even been aware of how serious it had gotten, but five years ago was the first time she had seen Neleh collapse from the pain. Since then, Shiori had done her best to stay as close to her as possible, whenever she wasn’t personally on a mission, and held Neleh as she suffered through it. Shiori was aware that the pain and her ministrations were part of what had eventually brought the two together as lovers. Another part had been Neleh’s loneliness due to her life as the ‘divine empress’. The times Shiori had been there for Neleh was a major part of the reason that Neleh had finally developed feelings for Shiori. Not the only part, but a major part, and Shiori knew that and accepted it. She also knew that Neleh did love her for other reasons as well.
Despite the pain her lover was going through, Shiori couldn’t help but remember fondly the first time they had taken a step to become something more than they had been before. It had been after one of these attacks, though not even close to as serious as this one. Neleh had simply felt the need to be held afterwards, and Shiori had been all too happy to oblige. As the two had held each other, one thing had led to another, and the two had allowed their passions to take over. Neleh had been almost confused afterwards, which had been one of the first times Shiori had seen her like that. She had found it extremely cute and endearing. Two adjectives that weren’t all that often associated with Neleh. It had taken some time, but the two had become proper lovers afterwards.
“Even after all this time, I still can’t figure out why the bond could be causing such pain to you.” Shiori said petting her lover’s hair again, as she noticed the pain subside.
“Part of the problem is actually the fact that my soul is so powerful. It stresses the remains of the bond that aren’t capable of dealing with that. That’s why my recent use of power keeps aggravating it. In the end the bond is a fairly mysterious field of magic. Even in other worlds it is very uncommon to see people tied together like that. In addition the bond was far from perfectly designed and formed. Once the mages of this world realized the downsides, they abandoned the research which makes the magic sloppy at best. The sad truth is that I wasn’t supposed to survive the severing, no one should. I only did because I am what I am. No one can say the exact side effect that surviving something like that would have. Although…” Neleh frowned a bit as she thought about the possibilities.
“What?” Shiori prompted.
“Well, this is just a theory I’ve been developing lately. I’m not sure how accidental the severing of the bond really was, and I doubt that the problem I’m having now is entirely natural. The whole thing seems a little too engineered.” Neleh mused not really very confident with her theory.
“What do you mean? You think the gods are doing this to you on purpose? Why would they? I mean you’re their only hope of survival.” Shiori asked, already starting to get angry at the gods.
“I don’t think all the gods are involved. I’m pretty sure Elune at least is kept out of the loop. You’ll note that I’m not suffering from these attacks any time it would actually put my efforts at fighting the enemy at risk, even though you’d think the time I fought with the Prince of Pleasure would have been the most likely time for something to happen.” Neleh explained, the pain subsiding and her thoughts picking more steam.
“So you’re saying that they want you to win, but still are causing this? I don’t quite follow.” Shiori asked.
“Well I don’t think the point is to stop me from fighting, the point is what happens after.” Neleh said.
“I think I see now where this is going. You’re saying some of the gods are worried about what happens once the war is over? So they’re setting the stage for your eventual tragic demise to stop you from taking over the world and subjugating the other races, instead having you fall as a martyr, a final sacrifice for the horrible war. Something like that?” Shiori asked now seriously angry.
“Something along those lines yes. That’s also why I think they have to keep Elune out of it. One, she would never go along with it, and two, she would actually benefit if I were to take over the world.” Neleh said.
“Not to mention she’s quite in love with you.” Shiori pointed out wryly. Elune was one of her only real competition for Neleh.
“Still, those ungrateful bastards! This is too much.” Shiori got up, looking around angrily. “Elune! Get your butt here and explain, or I’ll swear to all that holy, I’ll burn down every single temple you have!”
A faint figure looking like Neleh shimmered next to the bed. “No need to get mean child. I’m watching over her just as much as you.” She looked at Neleh on the bed.
“Well a whole load of good that has done to her so far.” Shiori grumbled. “Is there anything to her theory?” She finally prompted the goddess who was still silent.
“I can’t say for sure, but I’m afraid there’s a decent chance that at least one or two gods are involved. Not entirely for the reasons you outlined though.” Elune finally admitted after thinking for a long while.
“Then what is the reason?” Shiori demanded in anger.
Surprisingly, it was Neleh who answered as she suddenly realized something. “Fear. They’re doing it out of fear.”
“Exactly. There might be some of what you mentioned earlier, but fear is most likely the main reason.” Elune confirmed.
“Fear? Why are they suddenly afraid?” Shiori asked in slight confusion.
“They are rattled because they are coming face to face with their own potential death for the first time. Even though the lost-deities have somewhat lost the right to be called deities, that’s doesn’t stop the fear that is caused by their deaths. We always knew Neleh was supposed to be strong enough to stand against them, but now the others fear that she might decide to stand against normal gods as well. Normal mortals don’t know how to get at us even if they had the power to fight us, but Neleh is different. And she might even manage to gather the support of the other mortals, so that they’d cheer her as she strikes down the old gods.” Elune explained with some sadness in her voice.
“Even still, that can’t have started with the war, seeing as this started after the bond was severed.” Shiori pointed out.
“Despite everything, we gods do have some predictive ability. I’m afraid that the fear set in long before, probably around the time you made your connection with Malassa. Having her support turned things real in their minds. I firmly believe that the bond severing was not planned, but I am afraid they might have taken advantage of that opportunity.” Elune was wringing her hands while talking, clearly not sure what she should do.
Neleh got up from the bed, finally having recovered. She put her hand on the goddess’ shoulder, signaling that she wasn’t blaming her for what had happened. “I’m ok for now. We always knew there would be consequences from the severing of the bond, and it is just another thing I’ll have to deal with for now. We can’t even be sure how much if any of it is caused by the gods. We’ll have to face that problem when we have the time and opportunity. That said, I do need a favor from you Elune. Two favors actually.”
“Anything.” The goddess said, and truly meant it.
“I need to get in touch with Fate and Satai. Can you arrange that?” Neleh asked.
Elune thought for a while. “Putting you in touch with Satai should not be too difficult. I’m not sure about Fate though. I think I can arrange it, but I don’t know when. How soon do you need them?”
“Satai I would prefer to talk to within the next few days, but that’s a preference not a necessity. It has to do with what we just talked about. Fate I’ll need to see before the Enemy gets here. The timing isn’t so important, just that I absolutely need to ask Fate something before we face the Enemy. It might be key to the survival of this world.” Neleh spoke quietly.
“I’ll see to it then.” Elune said, her form disappearing.
“Well then, we still have a war to wage.” Neleh said, getting her spirit back.
Shiori knew that Neleh had something planned in retaliation in case the gods really were to blame for what was going on. She also knew that Neleh would not say anything until she had solidified those plans more. As the two of them returned to the main army camp on the demon continent, they both suddenly felt a great burst of power coming from somewhere far away. Shiori could recognize some of it because she had felt something similar twice before, when Neleh and Khali had fought the two lost-deities. This feeling was very similar.
“Is someone fighting another lost-deity, or are we under attack? Where’s Khali?” Shiori asked Neleh, knowing that her lover would have more precise answers.
“This is not caused by Khali. This is…coming all the way from the beastmen continent. Someone is fighting the lost-deity there. More than one someone if I can judge correctly.” Neleh replied narrowing her eyes. Suddenly her eyes got large and she created another doorway to return to Nexus. “The dragons!” She yelled angrily.