Rothgar, God of Gnashers, ancient champion of the wilds, made good campfire chicken.
The blue-skinned ravager plucked the lumps of clay out of his campfire and smashed them open on a rock. Clay shards fell off the chickens, peeling their softened feathers away from their hide.
Rothgar pried a wing off the chicken and held it out to Lady Ira. Lady Ira slowly drew her belt dagger. The god raised his eyebrows, but didn’t react.
Ira speared the chicken wing with her dagger, held it to her mouth and took a bite.
She chewed. She swallowed.
“This is good!” She exclaimed, eye wide. She held the wing out to Dragon Face. “Try this!” She told the masked wrestler.
“Oh?” Dragon Face peeled a strip of skin off the chicken and plopped it in his mouth. “Oh!” He exclaimed. “Such rich flavor! Such a soft texture! Surely this is the chicken of the Gods!”
“Yes,” Rothgar said dryly. “It is.”
Dragon Face froze, then threw his head back and laughed. “Indeed it is!” He chortled. “Can all Gods like you cook this well?”
Rothgar, the Hidden God of the Wilds, shook his head. “It’s a family recipe,” he said. “My father, the Old Rothgar, passed it down to me. He got it from his father, the Elder Rothgar, and from his father before them.”
Corax grabbed the chicken wing from Ira’ dagger and swallowed it in one gulp. “Mmm!” He murmured, crunching down meat and bone with his Saurian jaws. “I’ve missed your cooking,” he said after swallowing. “All the other campfire meals…they never measured up to yours.”
“None of you ever learned to make good food on your own,” Rothgar grumbled. “You relied on me for your dinner, and that made you weak.”
“Can we not, right now?” Corax asked, resting his claw on his snout.
“I’m going to kill you all after this meal,” Rothgar said with a growl. “This is the last chance I’ll get to express myself to you.”
“Fine!” Corax snapped, spitting a leg bone into the roaring fire. “What do you want to say? That I’m a traitor? That’s I’m a naive fool? That I don’t have the guts to do what needs to be done?” His voice rose in volume. “I’ve heard all those platitudes before…usually when you’re about to do something evil––!”
As Corax and Rothgar spat at each other, Lady Ira glanced around the campground they were in. Her eyes focused on key details–the crackling fire, the blossoming warhammer at Rothgar’s feet, the leather-skinned hand-drum lurking behind Rothgar’s perch.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“CORAX!” Ira shouted.
Corax froze, long serrated jaw hanging open.
“Calm down,” Ira said. “We need you focused.”
Corax Sickleblade, Hidden God of the Harvest, closed his mouth. The feathers rising along the ridge of his back sank back down.
Rothgar grinned, showing his tusk teeth. “Oh-Ho!” He murmured. “Corax listens to you. That’s quite a thing you’ve managed, child.”
Ira sniffed. “Corax listens to reason when he hears it, that’s all,” she said to Rothgar. “Besides,” she added, “if you’re going to kill us at the end of this meal, the Lady Ira would rather not spend the last moments of her life listening to your childish squabbling.”
Rothgar’s jaw tightened. Ira stiffened, worried she’d said a word too much. To her right, she heard Dragon-Face take a deep breath, readying himself to spring forward.
Rothgar chuckled. “Well said, child!” he declared, slapping his knees with gusto. “You and your friends have come far to get to this place. You deserve some satisfaction before you die.” The hidden god’s bright eyes narrowed. “What do you want, child?” He asked Ira. “Name a boon, and I’ll give it to you.”
“Don’t kill us,” Ira blurted out, knuckling tightening on the grip of her dagger.
“Done,” Rothgar said brightly. “I’ll chop your hands and feet out, slice out your tongue and sear your eyes shut with fire. But I won’t kill you!”
“Wait, no–!” Ira blurted out, eye widening in alarm.
Rothgar smiled impishly. “Fine, fine,” he said. “I’ll give you one more chance to ask me for a boon.” He waved his finger back and forth. “Don’t be clever this time.”
Ira leaned over and carved another slice of chicken from its cracked clay shell. “Fine,” she said, chewing and swallowing the delicious flesh. “The Lady Ira has questions. Questions anyone face-to-face with their god would want to ask.”
Rothgar spread his arms wide, a silent invitation.
“Why?” Ira asked. “Why are we here? Why did you make our world filled with suffering? Why did you create the Cult of Evolving Evil?”
Rothgar raised his eyebrow. “Corax didn’t tell you?” He asked.
Lady Ira scowled. “Hints and riddles, mainly,” she said, sparing the silent, downcast Corax a sideways glance. “I get the impression he’s consumed with guilt.”
“That sounds like him,” Rothgar said, cutting and eating some more chicken. “Tongue-tied over a question that’s so easy to answer.”
The Hidden God of the Wilds leaned back from the campfire and cleared his throat. “We did all those things,” he said to Ira and Dragon Face, “because we need soldiers.”
Corax closed his eyes in anguish.
Rothgar watched the fire burn.
“Soldiers?” Dragon Face asked, head tilted to the side. “Do you mean soldiers in the spiritual sense? Fighting the war within our souls for spiritual truth?”
“No,” Rothgar said with exasperation. “We need soldiers. Millions of them. The more cannon fodder, the better.”
Lady Ira felt a pulsing pain behind her eyelids. “You–” she started to say.
“What is a cannon?” Dragon Face blurted out.
“That doesn’t matter,” Rothgar said with a wave of his hand. “You wanted to know what your life’s purpose is?” He folded his arms across his chest. “Now you know. We need an army to defeat the Enemy.”
Lady Ira closed her eyes, thoughts a bleak, chaotic storm. She’d suspected for a long time that the Hidden Gods didn’t care for their world. This was merely the final nail in the coffin. And yet it still hurt.
“Were you a part of this, Corax?” She asked softly.
Corax bowed his snout. “Our original plan was to build a new civilization,” he said hopelessly. “A beacon of hope to liberate our homeworld from the Enemy. That was what we agreed on…!”
“…and then we decided our civilization was growing too slowly,” Rothgar said with a sigh. “We all agreed on that. Everyone but you.”
“We could have just told them the truth!” Corax insisted, glancing at Ira and Corax. “We could have just told them about the Enemy and asked for their help! Some would have volunteered.”
Rothgar shook his head. “The Enemy controls an entire world, Corax. We can’t beat them with only half a world at our backs.” His bright eyes grew dull and bleak. “Our civilization’s like a heap of raw iron. It need to be forged into a weapon to defeat the Enemy. The Cult of Evolving Evil is the flame of the forge.”
As Rothgar rambled on, Ira shared a glance with Dragon Face. Dragon Face. Met her gaze. Ira silently gestured towards the skin drum behind Rothgar’s seat. Dragon-Face nodded sagely. Ira hoped he understood.
“Rothgar,” Corax pleaded, blinking rapidly, trying to cry in a body that could nod shed tears. “This makes us no better than the Enemy.”
Rothgar shuddered: a slight, short, yet noticeable shudder. “Nothing could ever be worse than the Enemy,” he said, voice haunted.
Ira balanced on the balls of her feet, readying herself to spring up. “Who is the Enemy?” She asked Rothgar.
Rothgar shook his head. “Enough Questions. Enough Talk.” He rose up and seized his blossoming Warhammer. “It’s time for you to die.”