“Easy, my friend,” Dragon Face said, cradling Corax like a farmer holding a calf.
Corax spat and hacked, running his narrow tongue along his teeth to force every single scrap of human flesh out of his mouth.
“Fah!” Corax cursed in disgust. “I used to be a God! Blight and Famine, I used to be the Sickleblade, Hero of the age of Calamity! And now I’m being used for a game of tug-of-war!” The Saurian sighed loudly. “Truly I’ve fallen far.”
“We won the fight,” Ira said dryly, brushing specks of dirt off of her stained dress. “You shouldn’t complain too much, Corax.”
“I suppose, I suppose,” Corax said, head slumping. He struggled briefly in Dragon Face’s grip. “Could you put me down?” He snapped.
“Oh!” Dragon Face exclaimed, jolted out of his gentle paternal reverie. “Oh course, my friend!” The masked wrestler set Corax down.
Corax adjusted his neck with an audible crack and wagged his tail until her feathers straightened out. He walked over to the spot on the roof where Captain Zarth lay bleeding out. Ira and Dragon Face joined him. Rintha and V’vendy hung back, ready to put their slings and arrows through Zarth’s skull at a moment’s notice.
“Well, well, well,” Uuco the Witness muttered, wiping a bit of purple Mana drool from his mouth as he joined the group huddle. “What in tarnation are we gonna do with you…Captain?”
Captain Zarth lifted his head and met Uuco’s gaze. He chuckled softly, and then hissed in pain between clenched teeth. Blood trickled from the Gnasher’s mangled, pierced limbs, seeping between the cracked, scattered roof tiles around him.
“You can do whatever you wish with me, little Roarer,” Zarth rasped. “That’s the victor’s right.”
“Fine,” Ira said, letting out a soft sigh filled with equal measures of weariness and disgust. “Then tell us what we want to know.” She crouched down to Zarth’s level, resting her bronze sword across her knee. “Why did you arrest us?” She asked.
“Our god…commanded it,” Zarth wheezed, face growing paler by gradual degrees. “We obeyed. That’s all.”
Lady Ira raised her sandaled foot and stamped it down on Zarth’s hand, the hand that had been sliced up inside Corax’s mouth. Zarth made a choking noise as he fought down the scream trying to escape from his throat.
“We were doing that right thing!” Lady Ira shouted. “We were destroying a threat to this Holy City! We weren’t even breaking the laws you Gnashers were supposed to enforce!” She snapped her mouth shut and glared at Zarth, Captain of the Gnashers. “Why,” she asked at last, “ would you support a destructive conspiracy like the Cult of Evolving Evil?”
Captain Zarth looked up at Ira. Despite all his lost blood, despite the pale look on his face, he still managed to smile. “Our god commanded it,” he rasped.
Ira raised her foot to stamp again.
“Our soft society needed to be strengthened,” Zarth added. “That…is what our god told us.”
Ira’s foot froze an inch from Zarth’s mangled hand. Zarth raised a single eyebrow, silently goading the Noblewoman of Baruck.
Ira slowly lowered her foot. “What are you talking about?” She asked Zarth. “How could all this… madness,” she spat, “strengthen society?”
Corax in haled sharply, struck by realization. The emerald feathers running along his head, spine and tail stood on end. “Rothgar,” he said quietly. “Your god is Rothgar.”
Captain Zarth hissed sharply, the pupils in his eyes dilating to pinpoint dots. “Do not speak his Hidden Name!” he growled, the fervor of a fanatic underlying his words.
Corax Sickeblade raised his snot and honked twice in mirth. “I used to be one of your precious Hidden Gods,” he replied. “I once pushed Rothgar the Relentless into a creek after he refused to bath for a month. I’ll call him whatever I blighted well please!”
Uuco whistled softly to himself. “I’ve never heard a Hidden God’s name before!” He exclaimed, as gleeful a child presented with a new toy. “Rothgar,” he said to himself. “Rothgar, Rothgar, Rothgar…”
His nose wrinkled. “I don’t think I like it,” Uuco said with a frown. Still, the white-mustached Nobble unslung his clay tablet from his shoulders, took out a stylus, and dutifully began recording the Hidden God’s name.
V’vendy leaned in and whispered into Corax’s ear. “Um,” she said meekly, “does this mean you can finally tell us what’s going on?”
“Maybe,” Corax whispered back. “All this talk of evolution and strength reminds me of Rothgar’s personal philosophy.”
V’vendy blinked. “Philosophy?” She asked.
Corax bobbed his avian head up and down. “Rothgar,” he said with a deep sigh, “had some unique ideas about how to live. He and your mother would have gotten along. Or tried to kill each other. Or both at the same time.”
“The Lady Ira,” Ira announced, “is no longer interested in this Madness.” She stood and pointed a finger down at the fallen Captain Zarth. “You,” she announced, “will be our hostage. If any of your Gnashers come after us, you will die.”
Zarth nodded slightly. “I see,” he said, eyes fluttering closed. “That’s only reasonable.”
“This way,” Rintha said, jerking his head towards the rooftop’s eastern edge. “There’s a courtyard we can drop down to with V’vendy’s wind gift.”
Dragon Face picked up Captain Zarth, cradling the bloodstained Gnashers in his burly arms. “Such a pity,” the copper-masked wrestler sighed. “I still hope we can pit our muscles against each other again one day…but I do not know if you will ever recover from these wounds.”
Zarth chuckled slightly, a chuckle that turned to a wet burbling cough. “Fool,” he said.
“Yes,” Dragon Face agreed.
“Everyone stay close,” V’vendy whispered as the Pilgrims stepped up to the edge of the roof “Jump when I do, okay? Right…now!”
V’vendy jumped off the roof. Ira, Uuco, Rintha, Corax and Dragon Face followed. As they fell, V’vendy white-feathered hair shimmered with purple sparks. A cyclone of wind swirled around the Pilgrims, slowing their fall. Drifting like pollen in the breeze, the Pilgrims landed gently in the center of the courtyard.
The ground of the courtyard was made entirely of tightly packed brown-gold sand. Polished wooden staves leaned against the walls, along with enormous clay water jugs. Crude wooden statues occupied the center of the courtyard, covers with splintered cracks and nicks.
“What is this place?” Uuco wondered out loud, stylus flying over his clay tablet as he recorded everything he saw.
Zarth, held like a babe in Dragon-Face’s arms, made a soft, pleased, humming sound. “This,” he explained, “is where my Gnashers come for their morning exercises.”
The courtyard doors flew open in unison. Gnashers filed in from every direction, wolf-hide cloaks swaying from their muscled frames. They saw the Pilgrims in the middle of the courtyard and drew their maces from their belts.
“Stay back!” Lady Ira shouted, stepping next to Dragon Face and raising her sword to Zarth’s throat. “A single act of violence, and your captain dies!”
Zarth, swaying from Dragon-Face’s arms, licked his lips and raised his head. “Lawkeepers of the Gnashing Order!” He shouted, voice resonating through the courtyard. “I relinquish my position as Captain…”
Zarth raised his mangled hand and pointed at Ira. “…to the first person that smashes this one’s skull!” he proclaimed.
Ira hissed sharply. “Tell them to stand down,” she demanded, pressing her sword point into the divot of Zarth’s throat.
“You were my forge,” Zarth hissed back. “In your flames, beneath your hammer, my alloy proved weak.” He closed his eyes. “It is time,” he said, “for a better alloy to lie on the anvil.”
Beneath his dented copper mask, Dragon Face’s eyes widened. “Wait, Zarth–!” He exclaimed.
Zarth bit down on his tongue with an ugly, wet, squelching noise. Throat working, he hacked and spat a lump of pink flesh at Ira’s face.
The Gnashers surrounding the pilgrims let out feral cries and charged forward, raised maces flashing in the morning light.
Ira batted the severed tongue off her shoulder with a shudder of disgust. “Hidden Gods,” she exclaimed, face growing pale. “Why?”
Captain Zarth, red foam bubbling from his lips, didn’t answer Ira. Instead he died laughing, bright, giddy laughter that was slowly drowned in his own blood.