Snow swirled gently through the air, pushed around by the whims of the slow winds that crawled through the sky. In its spiral, it slowly descended to the ground until finally landing on the stony mountain peaks, joining the thousands of other snowflakes coating the bare rock. The mountain was barren, lacking any plants or animals or life, and the plain white cloak of snow was all that lay on the hard stone. Sunlight fell onto the mountain, creating a beautiful shimmer across the snow and heating, even if only just a bit, the otherwise deadly cold air.
It was peaceful here. There were no grand buildings or throngs of people bustling about like in the cities. There was no deadly game of predator chasing prey or hidden ambushers in every shadow like in the uncharted wilderness. There were no turbulent waves or merciless pirates like on the seas or the ocean. There was simply… pale, white snow. And not a thing to disturb it.
Well, perhaps one thing. On the white surface was a single path, winding around the mountain, cleared out to serve as a way for travellers to move through these peaks. There, the grey rock was visible, only a few stray bits of snow covering the road. Of course, that was right now – at other times, even the path would be mired in snow, and this place would truly be impassable. But the path had been cleared out recently, and so, for now, there was a way to get through this place.
Across that path, something moved. It was not a simple traveller with a backpack on his shoulders like this place often saw. Rather, what was crossing these peaks right now was a carriage, its elegant ceiling and walls coated in snow, its gilded surfaces out of place and yet somehow fitting in this land where there was not a sign of civilization to be seen. Two horses pulled it, and despite the deadly, bitter cold, despite the lack of anything to eat or drink in this wasteland of snow, they strutted forward with their heads held high, not a sign of exhaustion on their equine countenances.
Inside the carriage, there were two people, both perhaps even more out of place than the carriage itself. One was a human, a blond man with hair as bright as gold, his eyes a brilliant blue. He wore a cloak of deep blue that concealed anything that he was wearing under it, but when it shifted, one could occasionally catch a glimpse of something golden underneath. As for the other, it was impossible to tell what he was – he too wore a cloak, but instead of the pristine blue of the first person, this cloak was a dark brown, ragged and tattered, and its hood concealed his face. The rest of it covered his body entirely, and so none could tell what he truly looked like.
The odd pair rode onwards, the two of them silent. Finally, the one in the brown cloak spoke up, glancing out of the window. “Pretty, huh?”
“Yeah,” the other man smiled. “I like this place, honestly. Don’t get me wrong, I still like all those kingdoms and cities too, of course, but… it’s nice to get away from all of that, once in a while.”
“Heh,” the brown-cloaked person chuckled. “Can’t say I ever expected to hear that from you.”
The man with the golden hair looked towards his companion, amusement in his eyes. “What can I say? As nice as it all is, it gets tiring sometimes.”
At that, the one with the hood chuckled again, and silence fell onto the carriage once more. The horses strutted along the path, going the right way even without anyone to direct them, and the steady rhythm of their hoofbeats on the ground continued.
And so, slowly, the carriage moved through this land of endless snow. The path took it lower, where the conditions were slightly more livable – where there was soil on the ground and the cold wasn’t quite so bitter – and they continued onwards there. Eventually, they came to a village on the mountain, its sturdy houses built of timber. But while the houses may have looked mostly like those from any human village, albeit better crafted, there was one thing about them that stood out – the size. Even at first glance, they were clearly far larger than a human would require, and far larger than would ordinarily be built in a small village like this one.
But both the travellers knew this village was not meant for humans.
As the carriage approached the village, the horses stopped, and someone knocked on the door. The golden-haired man looked out the window, and saw something that was clearly not a man.
Standing just outside the carriage was something that, while still resembling a human in its stance and general shape, was even farther from one than an alkite was. Perhaps the best way to describe it would be as a humanoid mountain goat – its body was covered in thick white fur, its face elongated and with a “beard” of fur hanging from it. Its ears were triangular, and curled horns rose from the top of its head. At the end of its snout, there was its mouth and, above it, a nose just like a true mountain goat’s – with a cold, wet, black surface just around the nostrils. Indeed, as far as its face went, at least, the only thing that was greatly different from an actual mountain goat were the eyes – they didn’t face to the side, like a goat’s, but rather forwards, like a human’s.
But most striking of all, perhaps, was its size. The thing was about as tall as a human and a half – perhaps a bit under 2.5 meters tall – and had the bulk to match. It looked like it could destroy the carriage with its bare hands if it wanted to. And – as the size of the houses attested – the village it stood in front of was full of more of its kind.
Both of the carriage’s occupants knew what it was. A deira – one of the continent of Aphage’s three sapient mortal races. They made their homes up in the mountains near the eastern shore, and, in general, had little contact with any of the other races. But the two people inside the carriage were inside their lands right now, and they had just stumbled onto one of their villages.
The blond man opened the door and leaned out. He looked up at the deira who’d knocked, seeming unfazed by their intimidating stature. Rather, the first thing he took notice of was what they were wearing – a black robe, with a silver image of a sword in a fire on its breast.
The man raised an eyebrow. “An Inquisitor?”
“Uh… yeah,” the deira said in a feminine voice. For anyone who wasn’t a deira themselves (or someone who’d studied their anatomy), it was difficult to discern a deira’s gender, but fortunately, the voice was generally enough to tell.
“Not many deirae in the Inquisition,” the man observed. “Well, thank you for your service. But if you’re an Inquisitor, shouldn’t you be somewhere else? I don’t think there’s anything going on here that would merit the Inquisition’s attention.”
The deira smiled. “What, are Inquisitors not allowed to go home once in a while now?” she asked sardonically.
“I mean, they are, obviously,” the man said. “But you’re on duty. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be wearing the robe.”
“Alright,” the deira sighed. “Yeah. I admit it. I’m not just visiting, though I’d love to.”
“So why are you here, then?” the man asked.
“It’s just…” She looked off into the distance, pensive. “You know the Reds?”
The man pursed his lips. “Mm-hm.” The Reds were, effectively, a gang of bandits composed entirely of deirae who liked to prey on anyone passing through these mountains. Though, calling them a gang was a little generous; they barely had any cohesion and members were more or less free to do whatever they liked, rather than following the orders of any sort of superiors. According to the Reds themselves, they believed that nature intended for the strongest to thrive and for the weak to be culled, and so, as the strong, they were merely taking what was rightfully theirs – but really, just about everyone knew they were just using that as an excuse.
“But the Reds aren’t the Inquisition’s problem,” the man said. “They’re not a magical threat. Doesn’t the Inquisition leave things like that up to the watchmen and the guards?”
“Well… yeah,” the deira admitted, sounding a bit down. “But there’s been a lot of Red activity here recently. And I know it’s not my job, I know I should be doing other things, but… I mean, I’m not even here to actually fight them. I’ve got other things to do. But… I just came up here to warn anyone passing by. I couldn’t just let them fall victim to the Reds, you know?”
“Alright,” the man nodded. “But don’t worry – I think we won’t have any problems with that. Still, thank you, Inquisitor…?”
The deira looked confused for a second, and then jumped a bit as she realized what the man was asking. “Uh, Linaflivi Milreus,” she said, with a sheepish smile. “But you can just call me Linaflivi.”
“Thanks, Linaflivi,” the man said.
“You’re welcome,” she smiled back. “May the Great Powers be with you.” The man smiled mysteriously, and with that last smile, he shut the door to the carriage and continued onwards.
Finally, the other man, the one in the brown cloak and hood, spoke up. “What in the world is with deira names?” he sighed.
The blond man shrugged. “They’re just overly descriptive is all. “Linaflivi” isn’t that long by their standards, honestly. It means… “flower of the sky,” if I remember correctly.”
“Yeah, I know,” the hooded one shrugged. “Still, really long. I mean… “Pergeleon,” for example. What sort of name is that?”
““Great clawed beast,” in the most literal translation,” the blond man said. “And you probably shouldn’t disrespect an archmage like that.”
The hooded person glanced at the blond man. “You disrespect archmages all the time.”
In response, the blond man just smirked. “Well. It’s different in my case.”
With a great, thunderous noise, a massive rock flew at the carriage. The two people inside flinched in shock, but there was nothing they could do. The stone struck the two horses pulling it, sending them flying through the air, and the carriage itself tipped over as the reins pulled it down.
When the shaking died down, the carriage’s occupants were unusually calm. “Well, those horses are very dead,” the blond one murmured. “She won’t like that…”
“She doesn’t like a lot of things,” the hooded one responded. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Sure,” the blond man said, and pushed open the carriage door. The two of them climbed out and jumped onto the snow.
They’d passed the village by now, and they were currently in an uninhabited part of the mountain range. But the flight of that rock wasn’t caused by something natural – it had clearly been thrown. Combined with Linaflivi’s warning, that could only mean…
From up above, a deira ran down to the two of them, a crude club in their hands. They grinned, widely. “Heh,” he laughed, his voice, as before, revealing his gender. “Two lost little travelers, hm? Thought you’d know better than to take this path right now. Well… whatever. I’m not going to complain about something like this falling into my hands.”
The man with the golden hair sighed. “Well, I guess I should’ve expected this,” he admitted. He looked over to his companion. “You want to deal with this one or should I?”
For a moment or two, the hooded man stood in silent contemplation, then he shrugged and said “I suppose I might as well.” He reached up and threw off his robe and hood, revealing what was underneath.
And at that moment, the reason he’d hidden his face became clear. For underneath the hood, there was the rough, pale red skin and catlike eyes and tiny little horns of an aeadite.
As for what was under the robe, he wore light, leather armor, the kind that was made largely just to not impede movement – protection was clearly a secondary concern. At his hip, there hung a sword, its blade gently curved. Facing the deira that was far bigger and stronger than him, the aeadite didn’t show any fear. In fact, he didn’t seem worried at all. He just, completely calmly, reached down with his right hand and drew his sword. With it held at the ready, he fixed his gaze on his opponent.
The deira’s eyes widened. Of course – he was a Red, merely a barbarian who was used only to fighting unarmed civilians. Besides, it was likely he’d never even seen a demon before, and was, like most mortals, somewhat scared of them. And even discounting all that, the confidence with which the aeadite confronted the opponent against whom he was seemingly at such a disadvantage was disquieting on its own – it made it clear that he, at least, was certain this fight would not turn out the way it seemed it would.
But still, the deira grinned. “A demon? Really? You should’ve stayed in that little, stupid world of yours!” And with that, he charged.
And with the massive bulk of a deira rushing towards him, club ready to scatter his brain across the ground… the aeadite just sighed.
As the deira swung, the aeadite ducked to the side, just barely avoiding the deadly club – yet even though he’d only barely dodged, the motion itself seemed effortless, like he already knew what the deira would do and exactly how to avoid it. Yet the deira hadn’t expected that, and he’d put too much into the swing. He was thrown off balance, and with a little twirl, the aeadite spun around and got behind him, cutting a shallow wound across his torso as he went. The Red roared in anger and surprise and spun wildly, his club flailing, but the aeadite merely hopped out of his reach with ease.
The deira growled. “You little…” he snarled in rage. “Fine! You think you’re so great? Try this, you asshole!”
With that, the deira leapt. But the aeadite stepped to the side, and as the club descended, it hit only the snow. Another bestial roar tore itself from the deira’s throat, and he swung the club to the side, trying to smash the aeadite once more. But he ducked under the blow, leaving the deira to spin around, unable to stop his own momentum.
And through all this, the aeadite just looked bored.
He sighed, deeply. “You are pathetic,” he said, standing back up. “I can’t even block your weapon – my sword would break. And your range is greater, too. And you’re still doing terribly.”
“You bastard!” the deira snarled, lashing out at the aeadite with a wild swing. But it was a predictable attack, and even before he’d started to swing, the demon was already moving back. As the club itself started to approach, the aeadite leapt back, easily getting out of range.
The deira stood there, gasping for breath. “What… what the fuck are you?!” he managed.
“I don’t know how well known I am among mortals,” the demon responded, his sword still in his hand. “But… I am Janus, the Legendary Swordsman.”
At that, the deira actually flinched. “Bullshit,” he said. “He doesn’t exist.”
Janus shrugged. “Believe what you like, but I’m right here.”
For another few moments, the deira stood there, panting, clearly debating as to what he should to. Janus could tell that he was scared of him – that some part of him was just telling him to get out of here. It would be the smart decision. But if he had to guess…
“Fuck you!” the deira yelled, and rushed at him once again.
Janus sighed, stepped away from the blow he knew was coming – lowering his head a bit to make sure the club didn’t graze him – and stabbed the deira through the heart.
There was silence.
The deira looked down, his eyes wide, like he couldn’t believe what had just happened. Janus was familiar with that look. He’d seen it over and over again. In someone’s last moments, when their death – that thing they’d spent so long trying not to think about – was about to arrive, that was often the expression they wore. Because it had happened so suddenly. It had happened so quickly. And there was some part of them that couldn’t believe this was truly it.
But Janus had no pity for this bandit. He’d brought it on himself, after all.
The sword tore free, blood coating it. More blood sprayed out of the wound, staining the snow below the battle – if it could even be called that – a deep red. Clutching at the hole in his chest, the deira fell to his knees, tears in his unblinking eyes, a silent scream on his lips. And then he fell to the ground, and the flame of life went out, quenched by cold steel.
The other man, the one in the blue cloak and with the golden hair, hadn’t moved from his spot. Up until the last moment, he’d just been observing the battle. Now, finally, he spoke. “Nice job, Janus,” he said. “Though, I didn’t expect any less.”
Janus shrugged. “Well, of course. From the start, this was the only possible outcome.”
“You were toying with him, though,” the man accused. “You could’ve just slit his throat after his first leap. There was enough of an opening.”
“Well, life gets a little boring when you’re the best swordfighter in the known world,” Janus said with a little smile. “I get my amusement where I can.”
The golden-haired man chuckled in response. “That’s… a little worrying.”
“Maybe,” Janus admitted. “But you can’t claim you’re much different yourself, can you?”
“Guess not,” the blond one smiled.
“So, how are we going to go from here, then?” Janus asked. “The carriage’s destroyed.”
The man simply shrugged in response. “I don’t know. We’ll fi-“
And then there was another sound, and the two of them looked up once more. The blond man sighed. “Should’ve known they’d travel in packs.”
Up above, there were more Reds rushing down to meet them. Four, by Janus’ count. They scrambled down the mountain in a bloodthirsty rage, rushing towards the two of them.
“Janus, huh?!” one of them chuckled. “Think you’re so great with that sword you’re swinging around? Hey, boys! Let’s give him a taste of reality!”
Janus hissed in frustration. Unfortunately, even he was forced to admit that trying to fight four deirae at once would be suicide. No matter how good he was with a sword – and he was incredibly good – the fact was, there were just too many of them. Even if they were humans, or something else of similar physical capabilities, Janus would be hesitant to take them all on at once – but they were deirae. Fighting them all by himself with nothing but a sword would be more or less impossible.
But he wasn’t by himself.
He turned to the blond man. “Well,” he sighed, “looks like I’ve had my fun. You take care of these ones, alright?”
“Sure,” the blond man said with a small smile. From beneath the cloak, an arm clad in a golden gauntlet came out and reached up. The man undid the clasp and threw the deep blue cloak off, revealing a suit of gold armor underneath. Across his back, there was a long, heavy-looking sword – this one straight, unlike Janus’ curved one. With it sheathed on his back like that, it seemed like it would be impossible to draw it – but in either case, the man made no move to do so.
For their part, the bandits didn’t even hesitate. They just charged down the mountain, clearly prepared to tear this one man to pieces.
What idiots, Janus thought. They should’ve realized that something’s up by now.
But they hadn’t. And that would spell their doom.
The four of them finished their charge down, ending up on even ground with the odd pair. And as they continued rushing forth, as they prepared to cut the two down-
-Janus saw something impossible.
Behind one of them, the one at the very back, there was a blue shimmer in the air. It lasted for just a moment, and then, space warped. At the back of the group of bandits, the fabric of reality twisted and tore apart, a sight that the eyes of no living thing were meant to ever see. To Janus, the utter violation of all that made sense looked merely like a distortion in the air – that was the only way he could perceive it.
And from the distortion emerged the golden-haired man, his sword somehow drawn and already positioned for an attack. Before any of the Reds even realized what was happening, the blade was driven through the deira’s heart.
But the man didn’t stop there.
In an instant, the air around him blurred once more and he vanished, reappearing in the air next to another of the deirae. With a quick twirl, he slit that one’s throat as he fell, and then teleported again and planted his sword in another deira’s brain. But it was only for a moment, as almost immediately afterwards, both him and the sword disappeared once more, and the man reappeared in front of the last remaining deira. The Red staggered back in shock, and as he did, the man stabbed him through the heart.
The four deira all dead or dying, the man turned back to Janus. With another distortion of space, the sword vanished from his hand and reappeared inside the sheath on his back.
“Got ‘em,” the man said, the smile still on his face. The “battle” had lasted, at most, two seconds.
“Bloody…” Janus murmured. “Every time I think I’m impressive, you go and show me up.”
The man’s smile widened. “Well, I am a Great Power.”
“Yeah,” Janus said. “Let’s go, Melthar.”