B3 — 8. Discovering Worth

PoV :

1.  Fini (Our young Seaweaver that died by her best friend’s hand when controlled)
2.  Elinor (Our Lich Empress!)

Recap:  A Runic A.I. that seems to be putting on a show to appear tough when she’s really been struggling with some problems.  Can Fini do what our Empress needs and find common ground to connect with Noa?

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Fini’s tail flicked to the left, dull blue eyes shifting to the smooth granite black walls and soft white light that illuminated the corridor as she proceeded.

She knew Azalea was still tracking her through the web the silkweaver had spun around who knew how much of this maze at this point; honestly, the eight-legged disguised creature terrified her.  If it wasn’t for the time she’d spent with Camellia, trying to understand exactly what happened to the handsome and charming man that had given them a second chance at life, she’d be petrified in the Thélméthra’s presence.

It was obvious what their commander wanted them to do; manipulate Noa into a corner, but Fini genuinely believed they could find common ground.

A lump formed in her throat and she worked around her jaw, flexing the muscles around her neck.  Stomach in turmoil, Fini’s clawed fingers gently pressed against her gut, attempting to soothe the uncomfortable emotions swirling around her stomach, much like the humans comparisons she’d heard used in reference to the Empress’s ‘butterflies.’.

What do I know?  I’m just a little Nalvean girl—barely old enough to even join the City Guard’s intern program.  All I wanted to do was be like my mom and serve the Empire … Now I’m fulfilling that dream but not in the way I really wanted.

Her tongue slid through her teeth, hands finding her elbows while focusing on the seemingly infinite hall ahead of her, only occasionally broken by branching rooms and corridors.  I’m dead, though, right?  How can I even have an upset stomach!

“Ugh…”  she grimaced.  I feel like the Empress is moving us down the right path, but this—feels…

A quiver ran down the spikes along her spine to the tip of her tail as Azalea spoke in her mind.  “I told you to do it however you like, Fini.  I’m only interested in the results.”

Turning to look at the hanging spider girl as she reverted to her original form, her throat went dry; thankfully, that didn’t translate to the Nexus’s communication.  R-Right.  I’ll do that, Azalea…

“Hmm?  He-he-he, if reading your thoughts is troublesome to you, I will cease it.  There … You have your privacy.  Ramuk is blocked from intercepting them, as well.  Enjoy!”

At least a little of the stress weighing against her chest eased.  Thank you, Azalea … It’s not something I am accustomed to.  Can I…

“Hmm?  Speak however you wish of me.  Heh, it doesn’t affect how I feel,” she nonchalantly replied, and Fini figured she could still sense more than enough with her network of webs spanning the hallways.

Not that I don’t like having you around!  She forced a laugh, mechanically resuming her march to the nearest room.

Fini’s blood chilled as Azalea giggled.  “I care not how you view me, Fini.  Fear me if it makes you feel better.  I am only interested in results; I hope you bring me some.”

She could feel the countless unseen hands of the creature looming over her; of course, Azalea would never intimidate her—such actions were for the weak, Fini concluded.

Azalea said and did what she wanted.  Fini knew she wouldn’t attack her, either, yet couldn’t help but shudder at just the thought of disappointing Azalea because she didn’t know what she’d do.

All is for the Empress…

“Mmh, indeed!  Find some fun in this mission, too, Fini.  No need to be so tight!”

I’ll try.

Azalea’s mental presence faded as she withdrew, making some of the pent-up air in her lungs puff through her nose.

Unbinding her arms, she stretched them out, feeling the slight pops they made.  Relax … Just relax.  This is an important mission.  I can’t let the Empress down after she put so much trust in me—why did she specifically name me to join this mission, though?  Giliri and I aren’t even that strong.

The walk to the hallway was filled with shame as she reflected on her life.  All of the Seaweavers she’d seen aboard the Navy ships were proud and strong, and the Empress’s power had given her methods of using her bending abilities in a way only some of the most skilled Seaweavers boasted, yet she wondered if it was right.

Her mother had practiced until her body would tremble with exhaustion and her spine ached from overuse—meanwhile, here she was, able to fire a water projectile at a distance and speed many Seaweavers would likely be jealous of.

The words her father told her before leaving on an exploratory journey of their lands burned inside her heart.

Do I not have the willpower my mother had?  Giliri and I were somewhat of a joke to the City Guard.  Sure, we weren’t the best at controlling the crimson water but we practiced with each other every day.

She went back and forth, trying to hype herself up and tearing herself down on the next thought, trying not to boast because she had no achievements to point to.

Her fingernails tightened as she scolded herself, glancing around at more piles of broken silvery Quen’Talrat.  Why am I thinking about myself when I have a job to do!  Get your mind in the boat!  She growled, palm smacking the side of her head and slamming her tail against the ground in agitation.

“What … are you doing?”

Fini jumped, tail pressing against the cold floor as her feet left the stone.  “W-What!  Where…”

Her focus shifted to the giant ape woman as she stood to her right, a conflicted look on her two faces.  “I asked what you were doing?  Is this some … Nalvean ritual or something?  You should tell those others to leave,” she coldly muttered, but in Fini’s mind, she must have been putting on an act.

“Oh, umm, can—you know, we kind of talk—just for a bit?”  She shrugged, rubbing the back of her neck and shifting her posture a little.  “I know what—well, Azalea and Ramuk were really rude…”

Noa’s fists tightened, making Fini fixate on the muscular fingers—if she were physical, she could easily make mashed apickle juice out of her.  “I … Why would you want to talk to a slave?”  she whispered, eyes moving to the floor.

Finding it much more enjoyable to talk to this very intimidating colossal Quen’Talrat—a historic horror—than the terrifying, much smaller human-looking Thélméthra, Fini turned the question around, “Heh, why would you want to talk to some random Nalvean girl that just broke into your home?”

Noa’s nose creased a few times as she breathed, her much brighter blue eyes darting to look at her.  “That … I’ve never heard anyone talk about themselves in such a manner.  You are not going to boast of your power and force this slave to do your bidding?”

Knowing how painful words could be, Fini’s hands tightened around her front, realizing how damaged Noa was.  “Can we talk a little, uh … should I call you Ke’Noa’Thra?”

A shiver ran through Noa’s frame as she shuffled away, rubbing both of her left arms.  “What power do I have to claim … The stupid little Thélméthra was not wrong, and—and a true Elite Hunter has rebuked me for my hubris.  I should be torn apart for disgracing my father—no, how can I claim such when I hold no—no real power of my own,” she choked, voice cracking a bit.  “I-I need to go…”

“Wait…”  Fini’s jaw and forehead tightened, stepping forward to try and put a hand on her hind leg, but the vision of the hurt woman hazed and vanished.

Slowing to a stop at the place where Noa dissipated, Fini took a deep breath, scanning the well-organized area of what she assumed was something of a graveyard for her fallen soldiers.  It put burning wood against her heart the more Fini’s mind theorized just how long this creature lived in isolation.

Shaking herself out, Fini wandered around the room and connected hallways, leading to more piles of broken and damaged metallic Quen’Talrat.  She figured Noa could hear her; of course, Azalea could as well, but that was a given no matter what, and she had to talk to someone about the emotions pulling at her heart.

“I can’t imagine how you must have felt … being alone for over a hundred years.  I’ve felt kind of lonely, too, but—but not like that.  Heh, Giliri’s my best friend, but she’s got this kind of—I don’t know, a super-easy way of not letting things bother her.  I try to do that … I don’t know how it seems so simple for her because it’s so hard for me.”

She stopped in front of a pile of neatly stacked arms, sliding her fingernails over the long cuts in the metal, which seemed almost melted by fire.  “My mom was a great Seaweaver—a great warrior, I suppose, you could say.  At least, that’s how I remember her.”

Fini’s sad smile turned to examine the legs in the corner, showing signs of similar damage.  “She was in the Navy and went to battle the pirates of the Judicus Isles—keeping our border towns safe from raids, and she lost her life two years after I was born.  There was a big Pirate Lord she fought…”

Tears came to her eyes as she recalled the sailors’ stories that talked about the battle to one another in the local military respites.  She used to sneak into the area when certain vessels grounded in their small city in the hopes of catching a few words about the big battle.

“Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s the truth when—when you weren’t there.  Some of the stories say she was a coward, but others say she was a hero … I like to think she was a hero … My dad says she was the greatest Seaweaver in the entire fleet at the time.”

Her tongue slid through her teeth while releasing a hot puff of air.  “Everyone has their own opinions about it—the story always changes, though, so I don’t know what’s true or not.  All I know is that I want to live in a way that no one can tell me my mother was a coward—she inspired me by what others told me about her, you know?”

Fini’s nose twitched a little before she pulled down the semi-elastic neck-guard she wore to scratch between her scales.  A burn soon moved from her chest and up her throat, shame leaking from her dull blue eyes.  “I wanted to make her proud … But I was killed by my best friend.  How is that living up to her legacy?”

Noa’s voice spoke from several points around her, not showing herself.  “You … feel as if your death disgraced your mother’s accomplishments?  I see, so … you are dead creatures … Hmm.”  Confusion moved the Quen’Talrat’s words, and she spoke so softly, Fini barely heard her.  “Why did someone you believed to be your closest ally take their fist to your head?”

Finding an empty wall, Fini tucked her tail around her side and leaned against it, pulling her crossed legs up to her chest; she was a little surprised she just accepted that they were dead, but it wasn’t really important to what was on her mind.

“She was being controlled by someone else … by someone else I trusted—heh,” she smirked, “great judge of character, huh?”

Fini looked up at the stone releasing light overhead, vision blurred from the liquid in her eyes.  “You know, everyone talks badly about Quen’Talrat where I’m from, and Ramuk is really scary—without a doubt.”

Noa grunted.  “Of course, he’s an Elite Hunter … Trained by the Ke himself…”

Fini nodded, rubbing the soft part of the fabric covering her arm.  “Mhm … I’m just—I know he’d never hurt me, though, because we’re on the same side.  Why are the people that hurt me the most my own people?”  she asked, gut tightening before streaming out more hot air to calm her thumping undead heart.  “It doesn’t make sense.”

The massive white figure of Noa almost shyly emerged from shimmering lights in front of her, sitting cross-legged while facing her.  “Nalveans … fight each other?  The Ke stomped out that kind of behavior long ago.  Quen’Talrat were united under his supreme rule; no one dared to fight amongst each other because he made it clear we…”

Her heads lowered, eyes saddening.  “They … were brothers and sisters.  I didn’t know the Nalveans hunted each other.  Why?”

Fini leaned back and sighed.  “I don’t know … Jumi’kerune had some kind of device planted in my best friend’s spine that turned her crazy.  Why would you build something like that—put it in loyal people?  The Judicus Isles Nalveans just want to take the products the port cities of the City-States work hard to produce—why not work the fields for yourself?”

“Hmm…”  Noa’s low growl rumbled the ground underneath Fini.  “The Ke conquers—mmh, conquered—other weak races to show his supremacy.  Quen’Talrat were looked down upon—forced to work inhospitable lands and make war over the scraps of good land for generations untold.”

She seemed to be reciting the lectures she’d received from the Quen’Talrat’s god and hero.  “The Ke brought the Bloods under his heel and took his people south to claim that which was denied to them—he stood victorious and told the Bloods to build as he took the bulk of their strength north, claiming revenge against all that had hunted and spat on his noble race…”

Noa’s seemed somewhat conflicted as she continued.  “Glory followed the Ke—my creator was the greatest being of pure radiance that built the most powerful force in existence.  None could conquer the conqueror … Yet, he died.”

Fini tightened her arms around her pulled-in legs; Noa’s four arms were trembling in her lap.  “How does that make you feel … Is he a hero to you?”

The ape woman’s lips pulled in, eyes scanning the pile of metal heads beside them.  “I … don’t know what a hero is.  I feel a little angry … Why am I angry at the one who created me?  I should never experience these things for my god … my father.”

“Hmm…”  Fini’s chest pressed against her thighs, tail lightly slapping the ground in mild agitation.  “Do you feel like your father abandoned you?  I kind of feel that way…”

“Abandoned me?”  A quake ran down Noa’s massive muscles, causing her arms to tighten around her core.  “I suppose … The Ke was supposed to be invincible … the greatest that could never fail.  He was everything … everything I wanted to become.  Yet … he vanished, and I thought it was because I was a,” she choked, “a disappointment.”

“Why?”  Fini asked, glancing around at the hordes of broken soldiers around her.  “Look at everything you’ve done.”

A sharp snort rushed through the ape’s nose, shockingly sending a hot gust to brush against Fini’s thin figure.  “Done?  Exactly, what have I done?  I’ve lost 98.774% of my army—not that they were ever intended to be an army in the first place—I realize that now after the Elite Hunter’s words.”

Tears fell down her furry face.  “I hoped—if I lined up the trophies of my conquest—like the Ke had done in his victory over the Skull Bashers of the north, he would return.  Shower me with his holy presence again, but now—now I know everything I have done—I’ve fought for has been in vain.”

“Not true,” Fini urged, hoisting herself up to stand before the crying Quen’Talrat.  “I think you’re amazing so far!  I honestly believe you’d love to meet Empress Elinor.  She’s different from Azalea and Ramuk … Strong yet compassionate.  She was the one that brought me back to life—breathed life back into me—I was reborn to walk beside her and carry on the flame of my mother in a different light.”

Holding her hands behind her back, Fini smiled up at Noa, finding a kinship she hadn’t felt in a long while as she got to know the misunderstood creature.  “I have my own doubts in myself—heh, I’ve told you some of those.

“Hmm … But I really think that this Empire the Empress is building—the unity—how everyone gets a place, and how considerate she is of even someone as insignificant as a backwater wannabe Seaweaver girl … the trust she’s putting in me wasn’t a mistake.  You aren’t a mistake, either.”

An answer finally came to her brain.  “You know … to doubt myself being here—in a way, if I do that, I’m doubting her.”

Noa was still hugging herself as if cold.  “What are you going to do?  Why are you here?”

The pressure against Fini’s breast lifted as the clouds blocking out the sun in her mind lifted.  “I’m going to work hard to live up to both the Empress’s expectations and my mother’s legacy in my mind!  So, to accomplish that, I want to know what I can do to help you.”

Silence filled the space as she finished, Noa looking at her as if she were crazy—at least, to Fini, it appeared that way.  Once several seconds passed, Fini cleared her throat and put her hands on her hips.  “So … Can I help you?”

Noa’s foreheads creased, deep in thought while staring at her lap, but Fini had no doubt given her size, she could see her.  “…”  Her tongue slid out to wet her lips; the realism of Noa was pretty cool, Fini had to admit, which further lowered the intimidation factor of the timid ape.

“Don’t Nalveans hate Quen’Talrat … like you said?  Well … not that I am a Quen’Talrat, and you did have Elite Hunter Ramuk,” she mumbled to herself, trying to understand the odd alliance dynamic that had stepped into her halls.

Fini took in a deep breath before slowly letting it out, frowning a little.  “I’m sure I wouldn’t like the Quen’Talrat that much, given the way Ramuk acts, but I like you so far.  Isn’t that enough to want to help someone—no matter what they look like?”

A sour tilt to her lips narrowed her double-lidded eyes while looking away.  “Do you recall the Judicus Isles?”

“Yes,” Noa whispered, fidgeting uncomfortably as if in a classroom and being asked to recite something in front of a class.  “The people your mother went to battle with.”

All Fini saw was a vulnerable woman looking for anything to latch onto, shattered by loneliness and culture she didn’t fit into, no matter how hard she tried.  She couldn’t understand how the others didn’t see it or disregarded her feelings simply by the way she looked.

“The big difference between the Judicus Isles and the mainland is the color of our skin—the Pirates have white scales while we have red, blue, and green.  We’ve been at war for … as long as I can remember, and a big part of that is because of that—the color of our skin.  We don’t allow their color on our land, and they shun all other but white.”

Fingers closing into a fist, Fini brought it up to her breast, feeling a new passion she hadn’t felt before filling it.  “I don’t want that anymore … I know I’ve never seen a white Nalvean, but isn’t it stupid?  I mean, look at us—look at the Empress’s Empire.  We have Ri’bot, humans, Thélméthra, Yaltha’ma, Nalveans, Quen’Talrat … bird things,” she hesitated, unable to recall the name of the creatures.  “Can’t we all live in harmony?”

A low rumble shook the air while Noa rose to her feet, fiddling with her fingers as she studied a pile of her inoperable soldiers.  “I—don’t understand what you’re saying.  Did not those white Judicus Isles Nalveans slay your mother?  Why would you wish for peace after sustaining loss?”

“A good question,” Fini muttered, grip tightening around her left arm as she followed to stand beside the giant ape.  “I can’t say it doesn’t hurt … It does.  Then again, other Nalveans that look like me have done so much to hurt me, too.  Should I hate all of my race?  I don’t know … heh, maybe I should, huh?”  she asked, looking up at the melancholy expression on Noa’s two faces.

Fini pondered the emotions she’d been forced to suffer through while growing up in the ensuing silence.  Giliri saw being a Seaweaver as fun and something they could do together, but it was more to Fini.  She hadn’t thought about how heavy reality really was, nor the weight of walking a path took on one’s heart.

Fini cleared her throat.  “I don’t think I can forgive everyone—not every Nalvean will want peace, or may even have a different way of viewing what peace means … Maybe, in the end, something like what your Ke did is necessary.  I don’t know.”

She scratched her forehead, reaching out to touch the smooth surface of the fallen soldiers.  “What I do know is that I want to make the Empress’s dream of a united Empire a reality … I want to see other little girls like me looking up to their parents and aspire to be noble like them—to fight for something they believe.  What do you fight for, Noa?”

The question elicited a flinch from the woman.  “My purpose—I’m to administer this place—I need to keep it safe and operational, but … I can’t—not since many of my core functions haven’t been completed and my building systems have been broken.  I … am a failure…”

Fini stepped back to scan the area, smiling a little.  “I can’t agree with you, Noa.  To me, this looks amazing … You said you were at war, and look how well you’ve defended this place—the number of battles you’ve seen and still this place stands.”

“No,” Noa coughed, sucking in a deep breath while looking around at the broken parts of her warriors, “I have failed.  My enemies have outmaneuvered my attempts to slay them—I won one war to be pulled into four more.  Soon, I will be overwhelmed, and my limited defenses will fall apart without the energy to power them … I am doomed to die.”

A shiver ran through Fini’s bones.  “Why didn’t you ask for help?  I told you, Noa, the Empress can save you!”

“Heh, well … I would need the Ke to truly be saved,” she muttered, looking up at the ceiling with a smile that showed the abandon and shame she’d suffered for over a century.  “Can you tell me there are Quen’Talrat rune scribes able to repair and complete me?  I think not.”

There was a dead grin in Noa’s longing blue irises as her gaze moved to her.  “I am running on my last gem reserve … The foul creatures discovered my weakness and, in a surprise underground raid, found an incomplete path through the runic defense to my Energy Matrix—I have a month to live.”

Fini’s brow furrowed.  “No, there are still options!”

Noa ignored her, turning away to walk to the doorway before pausing for a moment.  “I do not know what to think about everything you have told me, little Nalvean … but I could not bear another day of silence, and … and you are the most comfortable person I have ever spoken to.”

She turned around, tears in her eyes again as she smiled.  “Will you come back to speak with me again before my last drop of strength leaves my parched core?  I’d like to see you again—you make me wish to be something more than … this.”

Passion filled Fini’s marrow.  “I will be back, Noa … I’ll be back with the Empress, and she’ll save you.  You’ll see just how merciful, and capable the Empress is—I want you to discover what kind of person you want to be—not what your creator wants.  I see a real person in you, Noa—don’t believe anyone that tells you you aren’t!”

A sad, thankful smile lifted Noa’s slick face, tinged with the tormenting solitude that had been her life.  She vanished without a word.

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Empowered by her conversation and connection to Noa, Fini stretched out her back, realizing how tight she’d gotten throughout the exchange.  “You’ll see, Noa, I’m here now, and I won’t leave you to die … You’re not alone anymore.”

* * *

Elinor hummed, looking out of the glass walls in her high tower, hands clasped behind her back while following Azalea’s group through the mountains; snowfall fell over the city as the gloomy clouds hovered across the sky.

Theresa remained by her side while Luisina aided Tiffany and Esmeralda as best she could to draw the needed chalk designs across the city to protect them from Demon’s constant eyes, among other things. 

Violet was still by the Maw, Angélica by her side.  Something must have been happening inside the pit, but it seemed she was content with observing for now.  To be sure, though, Elinor sent Voukey, her Mythic Songweaver bird that could act as a Nexus bridge, to make a sweep, checking on how each of her projects was coming along.

Emelina was returning along the river, but it would be later in the day that she finally made it back for her report; luckily, Voukey could speed things up and allow her to discover if the Head Maid had actually spent the free time she’d given Klaus and her wisely—if not, back she went.

“Your thoughts on the snow?”  Elinor asked, scanning the falling veil that obscured a part of the city.

Theresa hummed, serene blue eyes settling on the rooftops.  “It’s thicker than we anticipated, but I suppose Azalea didn’t specify exactly how much she perceived to be heavy.  I should have anticipated it would be more … It is pretty, though.”

“Hmm,” Elinor nodded.  “I grew up in California, so I rarely was able to enjoy the falling snow.  It will probably be a rare sight … Sari’aél is having a troublesome time with the children.”

She chuckled while mentally following the Seraph’s slight frustration that her presence melted the joy the children indulged in.  Still, her acting as a heater for the parents was something the adults seemed to relish.

An angel turned into a living radial heating device … hilarious.

Theresa smiled, happy she was happy.  “It says a lot that you are able to laugh, Empress.  I hope our growing security will last so you may remain at peace.”

“Not too much,” Elinor whispered, “but enough to enjoy ourselves every once in a while isn’t terrible.  We can’t expect this world to go easy on us.  Hmm, Voukey has reached Violet.”

Her maid nodded her head, acknowledging the prompt that she’d be busy; she noticed the group within the mountain were returning at a rather swift pace, which temporarily drew a frown.  Violet, how goes the investigation?

The girl’s voice held curiosity.  “Unusual, Empress.  As previously reported, the mist has continued to recede.  My silk is able to reach far below, yet I am unable to touch the bottom; I cannot say exactly how deep it goes, but the corroding substance I am trying to bypass is weakening as my thread gains resistance, it seems to be gradually failing.  I cannot say for what reason as of yet, but I am discovering new routes I had previously been unaware of underneath your valley.”

I see.  Elinor slowly moved across the polished granite while attempting to penetrate the veil of white without luck.  Has the snow reached your location yet?

“No, Empress.  It will not because of the atmospheric currents; the largest mountain to your north will pull it north and into its gravity.”

Gravity, hmm?  Interesting.  Stay as long as you believe is necessary and before leaving, reinforce your sensory webs to be warned if anything unusual occurs.

“I will do as you instruct, Empress.  Would you like me to explore these caves that are opening up?  There are unusual scents within, yet they are faded in a way I have not experienced before.”

Elinor smirked.  You’re the cautious one of your sisters, Violet.  If you believe it safe, I have no issue with you following your own leads.  If you are not back by tomorrow, andAngélica is still by your side, I will send Voukey to connect us again.

“Understood.”

Cutting the connection to the spider, Elinor’s narrowed green eyes shifted to the mountain.  Gravity, pulling in clouds, chilling them to generate a blizzard unlike any recorded on Earth … Why?  Our power is cut off, and it has been for some time.  It started decades ago, which rules out many things—and it was after the Avana brought terror to the valley, creating the Maw.

Voukey.

“I answer your call, Empress,” he responded in his deep, musical tone.

How long until you are in range of Emelina?

“Twenty minutes, Empress.”

And passing over Shi’Shuka?

“An hour and twelve minutes, given the location, but my projection time since my skill’s activation will fall before I have a chance to reach the area.”

Mhm … thirty minutes of broadcast from anywhere on the planet for a week cooldown isn’t that terrible.  Receive Klaus’s report and fly around the area Iris was heading to obtain an update on her progress.  It may be a day or two trip, even flying, given the scope of the Nalvean Empire, but if nothing serious comes up, continue to gather information on the key players before returning.

“While building a new flock, Empress?”

Of course.  It will be critical that we place your bird spies among the nobility and prominent figures in each City-State.  We will start in the southern territories, and if Iris conscripts your aid, then, by all means, heed her call.

“Is there any news specifically you would wish I return immediately to report on?”

Elinor’s lips tightened; Azalea’s group had increased their pace, with the spider and Fini taking the lead.  Ramuk was staying behind with Giliri and the specialists, their velocity too swift for the Quen’Talrat workers to follow with their added supplies, Elinor was sure.

Anything of significant threat to our relationship with the Nalvean Empire should be directly carried to Klaus, followed by me.  Information on Iris’s daughters goes straight to her before anyone else, which includes Jumi’kerune’s group.  As for Demon … bring it to whoever is closest.

“As you command, I obey.”

Elinor could feel her artificial body becoming stressed by how much she’d been standing and moving lately; she’d need to sit soon but pushing the skill was something she was investing in.  It only produced mild annoyance, so it was no loss to her.

She felt Edmon and Tiffany making conversation with Voukey, further clarifying certain things to be on the lookout for, such as ancient sites or specific types of fauna for the Witch’s rituals the bird was familiar with.

Elinor’s focus was now entirely on Azalea and Fini; if she didn’t know any better, the middle Spider Sister was carrying the Nalvean, which brought back memories of Camellia and her victorious but broken return—she didn’t like the sensation.

Sari’aél.

“Empress?”  the angel’s lovely voice returned.  “You wish for me to go recover Azalea and Fini when they exit the cave?”

Smiling, Elinor let out a soft puff of air while shaking her head.  Perceptive as ever.  You sense their flight?

“Mmh, I sense your worries, Empress, and their swift action; although, I would say urgency is more of the feeling I get from what little leaks through the Nexus of Fini and Azalea’s current state.  At this distance, in any case.”

Not the threat of an enemy?

“I cannot be certain, yet it does not give me that impression … Hope is what bleeds through the most.”

In?

Sari’aél’s giggle lightened Elinor’s heart.  “Their Empress.  Fini is putting her faith in you to realize her budding dream, which is something I sense more from the Religious side of your System than the Undead.”

A slight twist lifted Elinor’s green-tinted lips.  I wasn’t aware my Undead could be connected to that System.

“In terms of drawing upon it, absolutely not, but there is a faint spark that can be sensed if the opportunities align … He-he-he, no, which does not mean they will evolve to further access it, but it is simply a bleed-through of your dual Systems—a lingering touch that draws upon the most brilliant part of its function.”

Hope in the future I can bring.  Is that it?  Elinor questioned, turning her head to see the angelic woman hovering outside of the tower’s glass to her right, shining like a beacon in the flurry.

Sari’aél’s elegant smile even outshone her own radiant glow.  “You are the spark in the darkness, Empress.  The strength of those that truly believe in you and the power they can gain is phenomenal.  I can say you will not understand until you can feel that unity pulsing within your breast like the image of man and god meeting in the memory of your planet’s sacred arts.”

I look forward to it, Elinor replied, watching her pulse with light before shooting off like a star toward the mountain; eventually, even her glory was swallowed by the thickening storm.

A few minutes passed in silence as Elinor waited; Voukey came into range of Emelina before Sari’aél returned with Azalea and Fini.

The Head Maid’s soft voice entered her mind.  “A new method of communication, Empress?  An impressive accomplishment to your growing Empire.”

Elinor sighed, drawing Theresa’s gaze.  How many times must I repeat myself … I need to send out a declaration to you all.

“Have I displeased you?”  Emelina asked, pondering her words; it made Elinor happy that she came to the correction before she had to explain it.  “Ah, my sincerest apologies, Empress.  An impressive accomplishment to our growing Empire.”

We are a body of separate individuals, seeking the same goal, Elinor hummed.  Now, I also have my expectations of this body, Emelina.

“I … cannot express my gratitude for your thoughtfulness.  Klaus took me to a romantic meadow where we shared lunch, explored each other’s interests, and discussed our thoughts about pursuing relationships given our current climate.”

Elinor didn’t quite expect so much detail into their time together, and the fact they openly spoke to one another on the subject was beyond her experience in the field.  So long as you made use of the time I gave you.

Clearing her throat, she felt an edge of happiness, knowing her subjects could find other joy within the Empire than simply serving her.  Now, what is happening in Shi’Shuka?

“Right,” Emelina prepared to give her report.  “Ahem, Klaus is continuing the discussions on possible trade goods and the best routes for constructing a road between our Empires.  A path between Shi’Shuka and Nethermore seems to be the most desirable discussion, but such a feat would require the construction of bridges rivaling the greatest feats of architecture on Earth.”

Elinor’s mind instantly went to the Wandering River’s colossal width and how close it would need to be to Nethermore for the most simple route, and she wasn’t wrong.

Edmon would be thrilled to tackle the challenge.  That being said, such a project will be long-term, given the workload he is currently under improving Nethermore itself, she replied, which would be carried to Klaus via Voukey.

“Indeed.  He is far more interested in a path from Nethermore to the Golariex holy Empire, though, Empress.”

Understandable, Elinor smirked.  Having an excuse to visit his love by the excuse of visiting our nation will be most convenient for him and creates a middle ground outside of Nalvean women’s scrutiny.  Tal’tamine?

“The Princess is still recovering.  Many of the royal medical staff are seeking to soothe the trauma she has sustained from the nightmares of what she was forced to do while under Jumi’kerune’s influence.  She is a strong girl, though, and wishes to better understand you for doing so much to free her.”

Smile fading, Elinor’s jaw lightly pressed together.  Yet another reason to pursue Demon’s agent.  What of the Embassy the First Prince is so fixated on?

Emelina’s voice darkened a tad.  “Speaking of the First Prince, Klaus has discovered he is having private dealings with Yesenia.  She has kept the humans far from us through a spy network that updates her on our current location.  We suspect they are plotting something behind the scenes, but little is coming to light.”

Sari’aél picked up her two passengers and began her return, causing Elinor to keep her gaze on where they would emerge from the blizzard; she could sense Edmon’s discomfort at having the Seraph leave the city, even if temporarily, with Sha’Guala so close, but couldn’t deny the pact of peace they’d made.

Elinor sighed, glancing down at her locked legs; any more standing and they’d begin to tremble.  Theresa, ever the observant one, had already called over her throne; the spider drone lowered itself for her to step up its extended two front legs to reach its head.  Taking a seat, she instantly felt her fragile body’s relief.

Voukey responded without prompting.  “I will set a few birds in the area to observe and report to me when I complete my round trip.”

Excellent, Elinor said, letting a low rumble roll around her throat, and add Stateswoman Lukuroha’s City-State to the list of targets.  If anyone is plotting against her or us, we need to be prepared … Heh, and a little more information about how the Argent Dawn is progressing in their mission wouldn’t hurt.  I like a few spoilers.

“It will be done.”

Shifting her posture to lean against the side, using the back of her hand to rest her cheek, Elinor frowned.  The Embassy?

“Yes,” Emelina sounded somewhat agitated, which was unusual for her calm tone.  “The Seaweaver Grand Council is proving to be difficult, as High Ruler Nukulara insinuated.  Until you return corpses of Yesenia’s dead family to her, she will not allow leniency on the topic.”

Figures, Elinor muttered, feeling Voukey reaching the limit of his transmittable distance from Emelina.  Very well, we’ll discuss other topics when you return.  I look forward to you being by my side again, and Aileen has been adorable; she’s building many friends among the children and teens, given her feats of strength and bubbly personality.

A hidden spark of joy touched the Head Maid’s heart, and Elinor added, Also, she has been practicing all the lessons you’ve taught her.  While she may be clumsy, she’s making fantastic progress.

Emelina giggled.  “I look forward to continuing to foster each woman you have put under my care.  Theresa’s progress?”

Only allowed on Creativenovels.com

She’s done exceptional work in your stead, Elinor responded, twinkling eyes wandering to the oblivious motherly maid.  Given a bit more time, she could evolve into a Head Maid herself.  You should see the work she’s put into Luisina, the poor girl.  Even with my System, she struggles, yet Tiffany is working on a treatment.  Are there any parting remarks?

“Mmh, I hesitate to report this, in speaking of Luisina, but the High Ruler has requested an answer as to a method the Empire has of supporting Tal’tamine.”

Elinor’s left eye creased at the woman’s connection to Tal’tamine.  Luisina’s powers are for physical ailments, not mental.  I would think Tiffany would be a better subject to bring into the conversation … Are you suggesting lingering physical effects need to be purged?

“It is a possibility.  Some of the royal healers have commented that there is some kind of foreign agent within her blood that is concerning; they suggest it might actually be the cause of the nightmares and terror that can sporadically grip her at times.”

Hmm…  Elinor’s lips tightened; the Seraph was going to enter the city soon with Azalea and Fini.  If that’s the case, Voukey, tell Klaus to suggest Tal’tamine take the journey to Nethermore with the possibility that we may find a solution.  We know travel could be dangerous for her health, but we have methods that may help, yet I am concerned about my own healer’s health, given her constitution.

Truthfully, she was more concerned about the young, literally self-sacrificing woman being anywhere away from supervision, given her inability to refrain from killing herself if someone in need was nearby.  In a manner, she wasn’t completely capable of being on her own, physically, emotionally, and mentally.

“I will carry out your will, Empress.  May I continue my journey?”

You may, Elinor said, cutting off her connection to the bird.

Another two minutes passed before the Seraph came into the Nexus’s range with her targets, forced to move slower when using her powers to carry others.

Sari’aél’s voice bloomed in her mind.  “An opportunity has presented itself, Empress.  An army, control over the mountain, and an enemy to curb your boredom.  How will you proceed?  Hmm, I wonder.”

Elinor’s gut shook with silent laughter at the angel’s playful tone.  Explain…

Fini took over, bringing her attention to the fascinating topic of an artificial intelligence built by Ke’Thra’Ma himself, yet the girl was incomplete, and by how Fini described her, she was a girl, frightened, desolate, and in need of aid she didn’t expect to come.

The drone her throne sat upon rose as Elinor’s small smile brightened her lips.  Theresa, prepare for my coat to be brought to the entrance hall.  We’re going to war.

An emerald aura of flames roared to life around Elinor’s frame, illuminating her throne and sinister expression as Lich’s Conquest activated.  Territory needed to be won, and she was sure this wouldn’t be more than an evening stroll.

“It is being delivered, Empress,” Theresa calmly replied.

Sensing the inner hopes of Fini as she stood before her, Elinor was more than happy to oblige; an artificial intelligence crafted from the mysterious runic technology they’d only scratched the surface of was more than worthy of her attention.

We won’t give up on Noa, Fini.  Sari’aél, tell Jumi’calro his services are required.  He’s going to be brushing up on his rune scribing because he is the only one who can hope to comprehend what we are walking into—that should motivate him.

Azalea cheered internally as Fini mentally prepared herself.

“Thank you, Empress!”  Fini said.  “Are we bringing anyone else if this is war?”

Elinor gave the question a short chortle.  Why?  Sari’aél is by my side, my Death Pool is nearly full, and I have the capable team Azalea leads.  Our army is inside the mountain.

Fini’s eyes widened with realization as Elinor moved to the elevator, Theresa standing behind her throne.  “Oh…”

Solving a little bug problem should be a fun distraction for the day, Elinor mused.  Let’s have a little fun, girls.


Maps:

Post Conquest

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