Azal sat, his hands clasped in front of his face, his elbows resting on the table in front of him. His eyes were narrowed, his expression tight. Unconsciously, he gritted his teeth a bit. There were too many things he didn’t know – far too many. When would the Council’s force arrive? How large would it be? Would the soldiers sent be the rank-and-file troops, or more experienced ones? Who would be leading them? Would they bother with any sort of strategy, or would they just try to destroy the Bloodhorns with sheer power?
He could guess at a few of those, of course. When would the force arrive? Soon. Who would be leading them? Probably not one of the Generals – Azal doubted the Council would pull one of them back for something like this – though Azal didn’t know who else it could be. Would they bother with strategy? Azal doubted it – more likely, they’d be confident enough in their superiority to think any sort of planning would be unnecessary.
But the issue was, he didn’t know any of that for a fact. And even disregarding the possibility that any one of his assumptions could be wrong, that still left several things he couldn’t even begin to guess at. Besides, even disregarding that, most of his guesses were far too vague to be useful even if they turned out to be correct. Take, for instance, his assumption that the Council’s force would arrive soon – what did that actually mean? Soon wasn’t good enough – he needed something more precise. But he had no way of getting it. He had no scouts, no spies, no influence to use to try and find out things about what his foes were planning. All he had, at this point, were blind guesses.
Of course, he’d considered ways to remedy that already. Sometimes, he’d considered sending Darius and having him find out whatever he could. But Darius was far too useful here, in the city, to send out for something like that. Johannes was away now, and in any case, he didn’t have the keenest tactical mind – which meant Darius was the only person who could truly help Azal with the military matters. Besides, Darius’ unique skills meant that, more than likely, he would be crucial in the upcoming defense. Azal knew Darius would be excellent at defending a place such as this city without engaging in direct combat, and avoiding direct confrontation would be their best chance to push back the Council. If he sent Darius out to get information for him, then even if he managed to get something useful (which was already doubtful), he didn’t know if he’d manage to get back in time to organize that sort of defense – and Azal couldn’t have that. Sending Darius out at this time was a recipe for disaster.
But that left him right where he’d started. He had no information. He had no way of knowing what to expect. All he could do was consider the possibilities, and then plan for the worst-case scenario.
Though even then, Azal wasn’t fooling himself. Whatever his plans were, whatever he expected or didn’t expect… at the end of the day, it was almost certain that the outcome of this battle would be decided solely by whether or not Johannes managed to convince Queen Lily. All that mattered, for now, was finding a way to hold out long enough for the reinforcements to arrive.
Assuming, of course, that they ever did.
Janus sat at the long table. And next to him sat the Creator of The World, the Lord of All Existence, the one who had brought the universe itself into existence at the start of time and molded it to his will. Melthar, the fabled Creator, sat beside Janus… and, surprisingly, this was perfectly normal.
Across from them, two more figures sat. One was an old woman, her shapeless grey robe falling around her, her equally grey hair tied into a bun. A long, gnarled wooden staff leaned against the back of her chair, and she sat with her hands folded on the table, an almost lethargic expression on her face. This was Avylia, the Grandmother, the Great Druid, the Progenitor of Life, the Great Power who had first birthed the spark of life, and by whose hands all that was alive had first come to be.
The other figure was a man, looking considerably older than Melthar, though certainly not old as such. His jacket and trousers, as elegant and decorated as those of any noble, were both primarily a deep blue, and a thick tome hung at his hip. On the other side from the book, a small dagger, its hilt beautifully shaped and coated in gold, was also at his waist. His hair was short, and carefully cared for – it was perfectly smooth, not displaying even the slightest inconsistency. This Great Power was Lein – the Worldsoul, he who had crafted the continents and islands that made up this wide world. It was by his power that mountains rose from the ground and that great canyons opened up, that verdant forests grew and that desolate deserts dried.
Well. That was what most people thought, anyway.
But Janus had known the three for a long time now, and he knew better. Oh, it was true, certainly, that Melthar had created the universe and that Avylia had created life and that Lein had created the planet. But that was roughly all that was true. The idea that Melthar had shaped the universe to his will was completely false – as far as Janus understood, he’d simply given it the spark of power it needed to come into being and let it develop on its own from there. It was a similar story with the other two – Avylia had created the first life, true, but from there, all the various lifeforms had developed on their own. (Janus had been confused when he’d first heard that – how could things such as, say, humans simply… come into being on their own? In response, Melthar had explained to him about something he called evolution. It sounded interesting, though Janus still couldn’t help but feel a bit of disbelief.) And Lein, while he had crafted the planet itself and laid the first oceans and landmasses upon it, had had little influence on it since then, and the planet as it was now barely resembled the original one he’d created.
It was certainly a bit disillusioning. And another thing Janus had found out in his time with the three of them was that, simply… they were nothing like he’d ever imagined. They weren’t some sorts of all-knowing, wise spirits or beings of such enlightenment and clarity that none else could ever understand them. No, they were… surprisingly human-like. With Melthar, in particular, Janus sometimes couldn’t help but have a bit of trouble remembering that he was probably the single most powerful being in the world.
As if on cue to go along with Janus’ thoughts, Melthar grabbed a glass of wine from the table and took a long drink from it. “I mean, seriously. Can you bloody believe it?” he said, his voice sounding a bit disbelieving. “Bandits. We were ambushed by bandits.”
From across the table, Lein sighed, deeply. “And how, pray tell, were they supposed to tell that they shouldn’t have done that?” he asked. “You have not announced yourself to the world for centuries now. By now, some doubt your very existence, and none truly believe they will ever lay eyes on you. There is nothing to be surprised about, then, if bandits decide to ambush you. I would not be surprised if the Reds simply assumed the person in front of them couldn’t possibly be Melthar.”
Melthar shrugged. “Well, I dare say I disabused of them of that notion,” he smiled.
“They didn’t have time to…” Lein began, frustration in his voice, before sighing again and cutting himself off. “Never mind.”
“Yes. I know they didn’t have time to realize what was happening,” Melthar said. “It’s called a joke. Have you ever heard of those things?”
“Melthar, you dishonor our dignity,” Avylia said, her voice firm. Janus had to restrain a sigh. It seemed like this was going to turn out to be one of those conversations…
At that, Melthar sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Dignity? And why exactly must we be dignified? Simply because we happen to be more powerful than anyone else – and not by our own choice, mind you – we have to act differently? What’s wrong, exactly, with us just being normal people like everyone else?”
“The mortals look to us for guidance,” Avylia responded. “They know we are their salvation. But what would happen if they saw us acting like… like this?”
“You’re implying it’s good that mortals look to us for guidance, Avylia,” Melthar said.
“Of course it is,” she said. “We are those who have created this world. We are those who have shaped it to our will. It is by our grace that the men and women who worship us even exist. Why should they not look to us for guidance? And if we are immortals who have lived since the start of time – if our well of experience, of knowledge is far greater than any mortal could ever hope to possess – is it not our duty to provide it?”
“No, actually,” Melthar sighed. “I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again: all we did is create the world. We don’t own it. The people who own the world are all the ones who live upon it, and it’s their duty to decide what to do with it. It’s hardly our place to try and tell them what they can and can’t do.”
He paused for a moment, as if in thought. “Besides,” he shrugged, “in this day and age, we’d probably be ignored anyway.”
“You cannot seriously believe-“ Avylia started, and this was the moment Janus decided he really didn’t want to hear any more of this at this particular time.
“Excuse me, Great Druid,” he interrupted. “But have you not spoken of this time and time again already? While I understand your desire to change Melthar’s mind, I think it is clear you will most likely not be able to, and certainly not now. And frankly, I did not come here to listen to you bicker.” His tone was more formal than he would’ve normally used. That wasn’t a conscious decision – there was just something about Avylia that always made him speak to her with some level of respect, even when he didn’t feel like it was deserved.
“Yes. Right,” Melthar hastened to say, backing him up. “We’ve got a guest, people. We can’t do things like this in front of the Legendary Swordsman himself.”
“What status a demon posse-“
At those words, an uneasy silence settled over the table. Avylia stared at the Creator, her eyes stern, her gaze withering – a stare that would’ve frozen any normal human in their tracks. But Melthar seemed like he barely even noticed it. He just looked back at her, perfectly unconcerned by her obvious unhappiness.
“Very well,” she finally hissed, a note of defiance in her voice. The subtext was clear – we’ll talk about this later. Melthar clearly got it too, because he looked away and sighed deeply, obviously dreading the upcoming lecture he was sure to receive.
Even now, Janus found it all amusing. How similar to normal people these gods truly were…
His first meeting with Melthar had been a long time ago, and it had been by chance. Back then, he was still in his glory days, when he would adventure around the world seeking greater and greater challenges. He’d defeated all sorts of people – great knights, respected swordfighters, heroes of legend… all fell to his blade. Once upon a time, he’d even killed a dragon with nothing but his sword, and while dragons weren’t truly anywhere near as powerful as the common folk said they were, it was still an impressive feat.
On one of those travels, he’d met Melthar. As far as Janus understood, Melthar’s life mostly just consisted of him following his whims – he would go wherever he liked to go at any particular time and do whatever he wanted to do. And so it was that coincidence fated them to cross paths. Janus, unlike most people who encountered Melthar, had actually recognized him – and Melthar had recognized him, too. The stories of his exploits had even spread to the Great Powers themselves.
And so, Melthar, apparently just for the sake of a thrill, had challenged him to a duel. A fair duel, using nothing but their swords, of course – Melthar didn’t use any of his actual powers or his skill as a mage. And Janus, to his own absolute surprise, had won.
That was where everything began.
Melthar had been greatly impressed by Janus’ skill, and the two of them ended up becoming friends. Soon enough, he’d introduced Janus to the rest of the Great Powers, and while his relation with them was more tenuous, they still seemed to tolerate him. Since then, Janus had learned more about the Great Powers than anyone else had ever known in many centuries – perhaps even millennia – and he’d truly become a friend to the Creator of the Universe himself. Even after all this time, it still felt so surreal.
“Anyway,” Melthar said, cutting off Janus’ train of thought, “that’s what happened. Honestly, it was pretty fun. I don’t get to show off that often.”
“It is somewhat concerning that that is apparently all you can think about,” Lein muttered from the other side of the table. “What would have happened if the Reds had attacked someone else? You are a Great Power, and Janus, while far less powerful, is still an excellent swordsman. But if the Reds had struck someone else, they would be defenseless. Do you not care about this? Not even slightly?”
To that, Melthar just shrugged. “It’s the mortals’ problem. Let the mortals deal with it.”
And that was something else Janus had noticed. Melthar always seemed… disconnected from the world, almost. He truly didn’t care what was happening out there as long as it didn’t concern him. Well, that wasn’t quite right – he was quite interested in the events that took place across the world. But he never made a single move to affect any of them himself. He was perfectly content to just sit back and watch, even when it would be easy for him to help.
Janus wasn’t sure how he felt about that. But then, he’d been like that himself too, back when he’d been adventuring. And, he supposed, he was actually still like that, even now.
“That is a selfish worldview, Melthar,” Lein said, an unmistakable tone of criticism in his voice. “Perhaps it is the mortals’ problem, but you have more than enough power to assist them. If you so wished, it would be easy for you to shatter the Reds. Or, alternatively, there are a million other issues that you could solve. Dragons and other beasts attacking settlements, evil mages doing what they please, tyrannical kings ruling with an iron fist… those are all things you could help with. Yet you sit here, doing nothing. Why, Melthar?”
“I just told you, didn’t I?” he asked. “None of that’s my problem. I’m content to just sit back and watch.”
“Do you not care for what happens to the mortals?” Lein asked. “We have the power to protect them. Are we not wasting it if we choose not to do so? What would they think if they knew how easily you could help them, and how callously you chose not to?”
“Mm,” Melthar muttered with a shrug. “I guess I don’t. Care, that is. Whatever happens to the mortals, if they couldn’t protect themselves against it, it’s their own fault. The only reason we should have to get involved is if they mess up, and if they do… do they really deserve our help?”
“The mortals are doing all they can,” Lein said, his voice firm. “But their power is limited. It is impossible for them to stamp out the Reds alone, for instance – they do not have enough warriors to spare, and they would be unable to take the time to pursue such a task without leaving critical vulnerabilities for others to exploit. And even if they make a fatal mistake, that is no unforgivable crime. Every single creature on this world makes mistakes,” he continued. He fixed his gaze on Melthar, and said his next words in a cold voice. “You should know that better than anyone.”
At that, Melthar’s eyes narrowed slightly. He didn’t like what Lein had just said, but Janus could tell he couldn’t refute it, either. Frankly, he wasn’t surprised. As much as Melthar was mostly willing to share his knowledge with Janus, there were a few things he was noticeably silent on – and his own past was one of those things. There was something Melthar had done – or, as Janus assumed was more likely, failed to do – long in the past, and it wasn’t something he liked talking about.
There was a part of Janus that desperately wanted to find out what it was. He’d told himself many times that it was wrong, that – first and foremost – Melthar was his friend, and he deserved some privacy. But he couldn’t quench that burning flame of curiosity, that spark within him that wanted to know what it was Melthar had done that was so bad.
Though, he’d gotten one clue, a while ago. The thought had come to him, once, that if Melthar had created the universe of Verta and Lein had created the planet of Verta and Avylia had created the life of Verta… where had Aead come from? He’d asked Melthar about it, and the only response he’d gotten was “There were four of us, once.” And Melthar would speak no more of it.
“…Maybe,” Melthar said, snapping Janus back to reality. “Maybe you’re right. But I’m still not dealing with their problems for them. Call me a bastard if you will, but… that’s how it is.”
Lein looked at him sternly. “Very well,” he finally said. “Then I will take care of this myself.” He pushed his chair out from underneath the table and stood up.
Melthar raised his eyebrows. “Weren’t there other things you were dealing with?”
“Yes,” Lein said. “Which is why I wanted you to deal with this. But if I must… well, in either case, this shouldn’t take long. I should be free to return to my other duties soon.”
“Alright,” Melthar said. “Well, bye, then, I guess.”
“Farewell,” Lein said, and turned and walked out of the room.
For a few moments, the three of them who remained sat in silence. Avylia looked at Melthar with her disapproving eyes. Janus was a bit stunned by the sudden decision Lein had made, and was sitting in his chair with wide eyes. As for Melthar… he just looked like he didn’t have anything to talk about.
“Janus, let’s go somewhere else,” Melthar said after a while, getting off his chair. “Avylia’s a bore, and besides, it’s not like we’re really using this table.”
“Alright,” Janus said, standing up as well. “Why is this table so long, anyway? There aren’t that many of you.”
“Once upon a time, we used to have guests here,” Melthar said. “Not anymore, of course. Well, except for you.”
“Okay,” Janus responded with a small nod. Melthar walked to one of the room’s exits, and Janus followed him.
“You think you can escape consequences so easily?” Avylia said from behind them.
“Oh, shush,” Melthar said, annoyed. He rolled his eyes. “I’ll be back, don’t worry.”
“Mmm…” Avylia hummed unhappily from behind them, but she made no move to stop the two.
Janus and Melthar walked through a stone hallway, one among what must have been dozens at least. This one wasn’t really decorated in any way – it was simply bare stone. Janus had noticed that a few times, actually – it seemed like only the largest rooms in this entire place had the sort of décor one would expect from the home of the Great Powers. The rest were largely bare, simple structures of stone.
He had to admit, though, he sort of liked it. It gave the place a feeling of… age, he supposed. Like it was truly ancient, which, Janus supposed, it was.
This was Ligengard, the… palace?… of the Great Powers. Janus supposed it would be accurate to call it a palace, yes – even with how plain it was, it was certainly grandiose, if only because of its sheer size (though, of course, the architecture was excellent too). But he couldn’t help but think of it more like a castle. That wasn’t right, not really – Ligengard wasn’t particularly fortified (though considering its occupants, it didn’t have to be), which meant it wasn’t a true castle. Yet it certainly looked the part of one – much more than it looked like a palace, anyway.
In either case, it didn’t really matter, because almost nobody even knew where Ligengard was. Of course, as a friend of the Great Powers (of one of them, anyway), Janus was one of the few privy to the secret – it was deep inside a forest near the northern end of the continent, one that was technically the land of the human nation of Altalm, though none of the Great Powers really cared about that. Getting to the palace, ordinarily, wasn’t an easy task even if one knew its location – the terrain around it was harsh and treacherous, it was easy to get lost, and this particular forest was infamous for the amount of wild and dangerous beasts lurking around. Even forest dragons had occasionally been sighted in the area. But, fortunately, the Great Powers had, a long time ago, created several secret passages that allowed anyone who knew about them to get to the palace with ease, entirely bypassing everything that made the trip hazardous. Janus was doubtful the Powers truly needed them, but… for his own sake, he was glad they existed.
“So,” Janus said, turning to see Melthar walking beside him, “did you want to talk about something?”
“Mm-hm,” Melthar murmured. “Are you aware of what’s been going on in Aead lately?”
Janus’ eyes widened a bit. “No, I’m not,” he admitted. “Is there something happening?”
“There’s some sort of rebellion going on,” Melthar said. “Apparently, someone’s trying to overthrow the Council. It started somewhere in the North, and so far, it doesn’t seem to be too much of a big deal, but…”
At that, Janus stopped walking. “A rebellion?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Melthar said, turning towards him. “What, are you still loyal to the Council?”
Janus shrugged. “No, I don’t really care about them. But… this is a big thing, isn’t it?”
“Who knows?” Melthar wondered aloud. “If it succeeds, then it’ll undoubtedly be big. The Council’s ruled demonkind for centuries now, and they’ve built up this image of demons as purely evil beings who want nothing else than to conquer all the mortal races. If another government replaces them, and this one isn’t as warlike… well, it’ll be a big change, at the very least, and probably for the better. Still, I wouldn’t get my hopes up this early.”
“Is it really going to be that impactful?” Janus asked. “One way or another, it’s not like the Council’s going to be ruling for much longer.” After all, demons, despite what the juxtaposition between them and “mortals” implied, weren’t actually immortal. They lived for a much longer time than the so-called mortal races, and they didn’t get any weaker with age, but they still couldn’t live forever. And the Council had been ruling for centuries now. They wouldn’t last much longer, rebellion or not.
“They aren’t,” Melthar conceded. “But someone’s going to succeed them, and if they’re allowed to die peacefully, then I’m sure they’ll first do all they can to make sure their successors carry on their torch. The demons will have a different government, sure – but in all the important ways, it’ll be exactly the same as the old.”
For a few moments, Janus pondered that. “I suppose you’re right,” he admitted. “So, what? This rebellion’s the only hope demonkind has to stop being the bad guys?”
“No,” Melthar said. “Things happen, after all, and besides, what the demons are currently doing is incredibly unsustainable. Eventually, something’ll crack one way or another, and things will change. But in the foreseeable future – yes. This rebellion is probably the best shot they’ve got.”
“Hm. I suppose that’d be nice,” Janus said. “To not be seen as a monster anywhere I go… well, whatever. I don’t really care what people think of me. But… say, how do you actually know this?”
Melthar smiled mysteriously. “Oh, I have my ways. There aren’t many things that slip by me.”
Janus sighed, and smiled a sardonic smile too. “I’m not sure what I was expecting.”
“Well, I can tell you about it later, if you’re really curious,” Melthar shrugged. “But yeah, I’ve got a pretty extensive information network. I’m not omniscient or anything, but if something’s going on, chances are I know about it.”
At that, Janus narrowed his eyes. As far as he knew, Melthar had been living, basically, apart from the world for centuries now, if not millennia – and yet he knew that much about it? Well, Janus supposed it made sense. He’d always been interested in just about anything happening on Verta (or Aead), so it would be logical for him to make sure any news got back to him. But he couldn’t help but be curious how he did it.
Well, he supposed he’d ask about it later, like Melthar had said. For now, there was one other question he wanted to ask.
“Alright then. But… I assume you’re not going to be doing anything about this, right?”
“Of course not,” Melthar said. “I am merely a spectator. And I will continue to be one.”
“Okay,” Janus shrugged. “So, you’re just going to let this play out however it does?”
“Yeah,” Melthar nodded.
Azal looked out from the window of his tower.
It had been a few days since he’d sent Johannes out. He didn’t know where the descendant was right now, but he could only hope he’d get news soon. Sagnir’s assistance, if they could secure it, would be incredibly valuable – and the sooner they could get it, the better. Getting it too late, or never getting it at all, could be disastrous.
When Azal looked out the window, gazing outwards from the great tower’s peak, what he saw outside the city’s borders was unmistakable, even from as far away as it was. It was an enormous army approaching the city, prepared for battle. This, he had no doubt, was the Council’s force – and it would arrive soon. If he was lucky, perhaps he had a day before they arrived – if he wasn’t, it was completely possible the battle would begin today.
Thankfully, all the preparations had been taken care of already. And they didn’t have to worry about actually winning, not for now. All they needed to do was hold out, delay until Johannes got back with help… assuming, of course, he ever did.
But there was something else worrying Azal, too. From this distance, he couldn’t clearly see who was at the head of the army, but unless his eyesight wasn’t as good as he believed, he thought he could make out one thing – it was a descendant. And judging from the discipline with which the army moved, the indomitable sense of order in their ceaseless march… Azal felt he had a good guess as to who was leading it.
The Hero of the Council. She who had overcome endless obstacles to get to where she was, and who had more than proven herself after finally getting her position. Of the Council’s victories, many of them could be attributed to her – and even when she lost, she was well known for turning what would normally be a disaster into merely a minor setback. Her loyalty was unmatched, too, to the point where she seemed to have no purpose in life other than to serve the Council.
The woman now approaching Redgate was the one person that Azal had prayed more than anything he wouldn’t have to face until he was ready. General Katherine.