Corax was gone.
The remaining Pilgrims stood around the stone wall, staring incredulously at the pigment stains that coated it.
Uuco was the first to find his voice.
“The cave painting ate him!” He blurted out.
“Don’t be dramatic, Uuco,” Lady Ira sighed. “Corax called this painting Dream World Art.” The Baruck Noblewoman walked forward, reaching her calloused fingers out to caress the the finger-painted hunting scene. “If the Lady Ira’s guess is correct…”
The moment Lady Ira’s fingers touched the stone wall, she also vanished in a flash of prismatic light.
“The cave painting ate Ira!” Uuco stammered.
“It did?” Dragon Face roared, veins standing out on his burly neck. “Damn you, painting! I’ll reach into your gullet and drag my comrades out with pure muscle–!”
Dragon Face charged forward and punched the cave painting square center. He too vanished in a swirl of light.
Uuco glanced at the painting, then at Rintha and V’vendy. “Well folks,” he said, “I reckon it’s time we cut our losses. I’ll be sure to records the lives of our dearly departed friends in my tablet…”
Rintha rolled his grass-green eyes. “Like the Lady said,” he muttered, walking forward to to touch the painting, “Stop acting so dramatic, Roarer.”
He rested his hand on the cave painting. Blue, red, and green light shone outward. Rintha the Roarer vanished.
V’vendy tilted her head to the side and scratched her white feather hair. “I’ve always wondered what the inside of the cave painting looked like,” she mumbled.
She touched the painting. Light flashed. V’vendy vanished.
Uuco looked around the now-empty room, stroking the end of his bushy mustache over and over.
Finally, he spat a clump of gleaming purple mana onto the stone table.
“Tarnation,” he cursed, walking up to the painting and touching it.
The rainbow swirl of light faded.
Uuco opened his eyes, sighing in relief as he realized he hadn’t been disintegrated.
Bright sunlight poured down from above, searing the Witness’s eyes. Shading his eyes with his two hands, he gazed around at the strange new land he found himself in.
The sky was a bright, unchanging yellow, with not a single cloud in the sky. The sun above was a pale blue orb, like an unblinking eye. The vegetation surrounding Uuco was a universal deep blood-red. The tall grass swaying back and forth in the valley, the tall pine trees atop the nearby cliff, the stray flowers and clumps of lichen on rocks––every plant was crimson, from leaf to stem.
Uuco spotted V’vendy and Rintha farther down the slope of the valley; the two hunters crept through the red grass, bow and sling at the ready. Clearly, they were trying not to be detected.
Uuco immediately opened his mouth to shout out a friendly greeting––
––he closed his mouth. No, he thought
It was fun enough to play the fool and watch his friends groan and wince at his scatterbrained antics. But if Uuco hadn’t missed his guess, they were going to go fight a God. An actual god, not a weird, demoted semi-god like Corax.
If ever there was a time not to be frivolous, Uuco realized, this was it.
Uuco the Witness pulled his clay tablet off his back and plucked a stylus from his pouch. With an effort of magic that came to him as naturally as breathing, he softened a portion of the clay surface. He scratched 17 sigils onto the clay with his stylus:
Today, we face the Hidden God Rothgar. He might murder us all…but at least it’ll be interesting.
Uuco replaced his tablet, smoothed his rebelliously bushy mustache one more time, and walked into the tall red blood grass. Unlike his fellow Pilgrims, he didn’t have to crouch down to hide.
Corax, Ira and Dragonface marched down the crimson prairie valley, heading towards the trail of campfire smoke that rose up into the green sky.
With every step Lady Ira took in this dream world, the more and more disturbed she felt, a creeping sensation of un-naturalness she couldn’t put her finger on.
She took a step forward and listened. Grass bent under her sandals, but did not rustle, crunch or snap. The grass blades, the flower petals and weeds folded in on themselves, then sprang back up again after Ira passed, pristine and unmarked.
Ira crouched and ran her fingers along the shoots and seed-pods of the grass. She could feel not stiffness, prick lying points, or razor edges. The grass was as soft and supples as a bolt of linen cloth.
Ira straightened up and saw Corax’s eyes on her.
“So you noticed?” He said.
Ira wasn’t completely sure what she’d noticed, but on the principle that it was better for a Lady of Baruck to be wise and unflappable, she gave Corax a sagely nod.
“This isn’t a real world,” Ira said. She looked down at her fingers: their tips were smudged and stained with the orange-Crimson hue of ochre chalk. “It’s like…a work of art the size of a world.”
Dragon Face crouched down and plucked a flower from the ground. He ran his fingers along the blood-red petals; his fingers came away caked with a crimson chalk. “It’s true!” He blurted out. “It’s all pigment! How is a world like this possible?”
Corax sighed deeply. “In my world,” he said, then corrected himself. “In our world, monarchs and president would pay whole fortunes in order to get the glamourwrights to make them Dream Art Worlds. They were the perfect playgrounds, storage rooms, and spiritual retreats, but…”
A deer stood up from it’s bed in the long grass, antlers, sleek hide, and hooves as black as soot. It charged right at Corax, lowering its spurred horns to pierce the saurian’s hide.
Corax leapt to the side, slashing the deer’s hide with his claws as it thundered past him. The deer yelped in pain, hopped straight up into the air, then dissolved into a flock of crow-colored doves that soared away into the green sky.
Corax showed Lady Ira and Dragon Face his pale claws, now stained with charcoal dust. “As you can see,” he told them, “there’s no substance to things.”
Dragon Face grunted, the mouth beneath his copper mask sinking into a a frown. “Your friend Rothgar lives here,” he said out loud.
“Probably,” Corax said, nodding towards the campfire smoke in the valley ahead. ‘Someone is definitively living here, at least.”
“How are they still alive?” Dragon Face pointed out. “If nothing here has substance, then wouldn’t he be starving to death.”
“He could be sneaking out to get food and water,” Lady Ira pointed out.
“He also holds the God Spell of Eternal Life,” Corax said. “Technically, he can’t starve to death.”
Lady Ira felt a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. “Or die?”
Corax snapped his avian jaw shut and said nothing more.
That didn’t exactly comfort Ira.
Rothgar didn’t run, hide or charge. The Hidden God waited for the pilgrims to come to him, silently tending his fire with a stick.
At first, Lady Ira saw a indistinct blur of blue and green in the distance, crouched next to the warm orange flicker of a campfire.
As they drew closer, Ira picked out more and more details.
She saw a man with blue-tinted skin, dressed in brown and green clothes, sitting on a log with a large hammer at his side.
Then she saw he had sharp, saber-tooth-like fangs protruding from the top of his mouth, and thick, bristled whiskers protruding from his cheeks. His molded plate armor was decorated with purple flower petals and green leaves; so was the shaft of his warhammer.
Ira took one more step closer.
No, she realized. The flowers were growing from his armor. His chest plates and shoulder pauldrons were made of carved bark, hacked from the trunk of a great oak tree. The bark should have dried up and died off long ago…but the oaken hide was still supple and living, hosting a garden of blossoms and a carpet of leaves. Green buds and full leaves poked form the carved, hardened shaft of the warhammer.
Ira glanced up at the pillar of white smoke drifting up into the green sky. She looked more closely at the burning campfire.
Even the burning logs were sprouting beautiful green shoots.
Rothgar raised his square sturdy chin. He stared at Dragon Face (taking note of the wrestler’s dented mask, rippling muscles, and rough, calloused hands), then Corax (taking particular note of the Saurian’s sharp teeth and wicked Dewclaws). Last of all, Rothgar looked directly at Ira, with pale green eyes that seemed to peel away her layers like a hunter dressing their game.
Ira tensed under the Hidden God’s gaze. Dragon Face stiffened, eyes glittering with excitement.
“So,” Rothgar rumbled. “You must be the folk my followers have been praying for me to kill.” His blue brow wrinkled in thought. “How are the Gnashers doing?”
Lady Ira closed her eyes. She took a deep breath, calming her frazzled nerves. She opened her eyes and addressed the Hidden Gods of the Wilds.
“Many of them are dead now,” she told Rothgar.
Rothgar let out a few sharp barks of laughter, thick shoulders shaking. “Good for them!” He chortled. “Weeding out the weak will make them stronger for what’s coming. Hello, Corax,” he said, glancing up at the slick-feathered Saurian.
“Rothgar,” Corax said quietly.
Rothgar grabbed a handful of ashy soil from the ground and rubbed it into his palms. He raised his clasped hands to his nose and inhaled the the scents of earth and cinder.
“It’s been too long, old friend,” Rothgar said at last. He gestured towards the fire, where two pheasants caked in layers of clay sizzled on atop of the clothes.
“Come, everyone,” the Hidden God said, beckoning the Pilgrims in. “Share my fire. Enjoy some of my food before I kill you.”