The Hidden Sanctum of the Hidden Gods was a work of majesty, a sliver of sky carved off of the heavens and brought down to earth.
Lapis Lazuli tiles coated the floors, walls and ceilings in tight, swirling patterns, shimmering a rich dark blue. Brilliant clear gemstones broke up the dark swirl, shinning like stars, arranged in constellation patterns—a bow, an axe, a rearing tiger.
It was not quite like the shining stars, hazy galaxies and deep void that the night sky held…but it was just as radiant.
Six pedestals flanked the doors to this heavenly chamber, six pedestals that held six blocks of stone grey stone, etched with six different symbols:
A crescent moon, holding a sheaf of grain like a bowl.
A balance scale with only one weighing platform.
Three feathers, their tips touching each other in a triangle formation.
An open hand, thumb touching the ring finger.
A six-rayed sun, its disk split open by a jagged crack that ran down the middle.
Two maces with bulbous heads, crossed together to form an x-shape.
The stones of the Hidden Gods trembled on their pedestals as the doors shook and pale blue fire hissed past the hinges.
The doors flew open with a loud bang, charred on the outsides. The stone with the crossed maces fell off its pedestal and shattered into two chunks.
The Pilgrims ran through the open doors, chased by the roaring, sharp-toothed lion-head of Minbarg’s Chimera.
Uuco tried to tuck and roll as he sprinted through the door, but tripped, fell on his face and slide forward along the tiled floor. “Ow,” he muttered as he picked himself up. “Hooh boy…I really need to magic up some thick skin…”
V’vendy backed through the open doors, quietly and methodically emptying a quiver of arrows at the roaring beast outside. “Should I shoot its eyes out?” She asked out loud, for anyone who might be listening. “It’s got lots of eyes, but I think I can shoot them all out?”
“Don’t!” Lady Ira hollered as she raced through the door. With her dress’s sleeve, she batted at the small flames that crept up her long hair. “Close the door!”
Dragon Face slammed his palms against one of the thick oak doors and shoved, veins standing out along his bare arms. “Come on, Corax!” He shouted. “Put your flank into it!”
Corax hissed and slammed his shoulder into the other doors, clawed feet scraping against the floor tiles.
“Eat them!” Minbarg screamed from atop his Chimera steed, waving his mace around in the air. “Gobble them up and spit out their bones! Except for the Clayborn,” he clarified, voice shifting to a gentler tone. “He’d give you indigestion.”
Rintha loaded two obsidian stones into his sling’s pouch. “So what?” he growled. “I’m not good enough to be eaten by your pet?” The Roarhunter whipped his sling through the air; two black blurs flew through the air, shattering against Minbarg’s chest and spraying splinters of volcanic glass into the Quillkeeper’s face. “Rude,” Rintha declared, voice filled with utter disgust.
“Ahhh!” Minbarg screamed, blood trickling from the black slivers sticking out of his round cheeks and wrinkled, care-worn brow. “Ahhh! Ahhh!” His hands yanked the reins back on reflex. The Chimera reared back on his hind legs, all three heads screeching in alarm and blood thirst.
“And that’s my cue!” Uuco the Witness chirped, hopping to his feet. Purple mana condensed around his fingertips like sweat on a hot summer day, and then condensed into an azure bolt of lightening that shook the sanctum of the Hidden Gods.
The bolt flashed past Ira, tickled the feathers of Corax and V’vendy and struck Minbarg and his Chimera face on. Rider and steed convulsed in a flash of light, cries of agony bursting the throats of lion, serpent, goat and human.
With one final heave, Corax and Dragon Face pushed the double doors shut with a loud, decisive thud.
“Get the crossbar,” Corax hissed to his companions, leaning against his door to keep it shut. “Get the cross!”
Ira and V’vendy lifted the post of ebony wood from its corner nook, hauled it over, and dropped into the door’s hooks.
“Are they dead?” Ira whispered to Dragon Face. “Are they still out there?”
Dragon Face pressed his ear against the door’s grain, held up a hand for silence and listened. Outside, he heard a howling roar, a deep hiss and a yodeling bleat. Then he heard the sound of flapping wings, growing more and more faint.
“I think they’ve left,” he said slowly.
Ira visibly relaxed. “Thank the Hidden Gods,” she whispered.
Corax honked loudly. “The Hidden Gods had nothing to do with this,” he reminded Ira. The sword saurian walked over to one of the pedestals and adjusted the stone with the crescent moon and wheat carving.
“Well,” he added, “they mostly had nothing to do with this.”
Uuco looked around the heavenly chamber with undisguised curiosity. He slid the clay tablet off his back, repaired the cracks in its surface with an infusion of mana, and started jotting down notes. “So where’s this Rothgar fellow of yours anyway?” He asked Corax. “Has he got a throne room or something here?”
Corax shook his snout from side to side. “Rothgar doesn’t do thrones,” he said with utter seriousness. “The Gnashers were convinced he was hiding up here…but Rothgar would go crazy spending that much time indoors…”
Corax hummed softly to himself in thought. He prowled deeper into the heavenly chamber, peering closely at the walls murals, burnt-out wall lamps, and the occasional animal statue.
Ira glanced from side to side. Seeing no other way to go, she followed the former Hidden God deep into the chamber, a hand resting on the pommel of her sword. The other Pilgrims followed Ira, marching single-file under a manufactured sky.
In the back of the heavenly chamber rested what seemed to be a dining hall.
Raw crystal geodes, resting on fluted brass stands, glowed with a pale orange light. They illuminated a round stone table, chipped and pitted around the edges, surrounded by six rough wooden stools.
“You’d think,” Lady Ira mused, “that the Hidden Gods could afford better furnishings than this…”
Corax ran his claw over the old stone table, talons making a soft scraping sound.
“We used to meet around this table,” he whispered softly.
Ira narrowed her eyes. “The Hidden Gods, you mean?” She asked.
“Before we were Hidden Gods,” Corax said, tapping the table with his thumb talon. “Back when we were just the Fellows of the Horizon, just simple explorers seeking mysteries and glory.” He sighed, a deep, rumbling sound. “Believe it or not, we assembled this world–your world–right on top of this table!”
“Really?” Uuco blurted out, eyes wide with awe. The old Nobble clambered onto one of the stools and rested a hand on the stone table. “How did you create the world on a table?” He asked, trembling with excitement. “Was it like carving a statue…or molding a pot?”
Corax chuckled suddenly, a sound not dissimilar to a snake coughing up a cat that was coughing up a hairball. “It was more like telling a story or singing a song, to be honest,” he replied.
“Like telling a song?” Ira blurted out, eyes growing wide as Uuco’s. “What kind of song was it?”
Corax scratched the back of his head. “Well…it was a song,” he said, somewhat lamely. “Really, anyone can create a world, if they’ve got vision and knowledge of the God Spells. And the six of us managed to claim the God Spells before the enemy could…”
“The Enemy?” Rintha asked, twirling his leather sling around his waist and frowning. “Are there other Gods out there that want to kill you?”
Corax bowed his head, starring down at the grey-pitted table surface. “It’s a difficult story to tell,” he said softly. “One day, I hope can tell you that story without making you hate me afterwards.”
Ira stared intently at the quiet, disheartened Saurian across from her. She’d slowly grown used to the idea of traveling alongside one of the Hidden Gods (along with a dangerous Roarer, a pair of violent snipers, and a masked wrestler, no less). But staring at Corax now, Ira began to realize just how ancient—and haunted–– this deity was.
“Anyway,” Corax said, raising his snout. “We need to keep moving. It should be around here somewhere!”
He walked around the table and prowled towards the farthest wall, a semi-circular curved of smoother, polished granite. “Ah-hah!” He cried out. “Look over here!”
Curious, the Pilgrims followed Corax over to the wall, away from the stone table at its crystal lights. As their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they saw what Corax saw.
Crude pigments of charcoal, ochre and ash coated the wall, forming an intricate cave painting. Black humanoid streaks ran around with spears and bows, chasing down pale white deer, mammoths and bulls through a maze of red-hued trees and crimson-peaked mountains.
“I knew Rothgar wouldn’t hide in a dark, cramped hall like this!” Corax said, snorting in triumph. “This is more to his likening!”
“Corax Sickleblade,” Ira said with a heavy patience. “We understand that you like make mysterious statements without context that rouse our curiosity and make us want to learn more…but we’re all in a hurry. “ The Noblewoman of Baruck pinched her nose and squeezed her eyes shut. “Could you please just explain everything we need to know?”
“Of course, of course,” Corax said, nodding in understanding. He gestured at the wall painting. “This is magic from the old world, a discipline called the Dream World Art.”
“Corax,” Ira groaned. “You’re still doing it.”
“Basically,” Corax continued, “if you do this…”
Corax reached out and tapped the painting with the tip of his claw. A rainbow vortex of light flashed out from the painting, washing over the Saurian.
The light winked out as suddenly as it had come….and the Sickleblade was gone.