As the sun began to creep into view over the riverside encampment, rising above the nearby treeline, Althos felt prepared for the events to come. The young deity had spent the remainder of the past evening preparing for what he knew would be happening perhaps minutes, perhaps hours after the sun finished its rise into the sky.
The deity starred out at the river, allowing himself to process the sadness he felt only in the privacy of the moments of solitude he had while others slept. He knew such moments were fleeting for the day.
He could hear the noises of nature rejecting and hiding from his demonic pet, as the creature returned to him, and off at the river he could see the imp he had asked to guard the encampment cleansing itself. The strange creature bathed in the river, its nude form muscular and scarred as it luxuriated in the cool water of the river. The thought of any leftover ooze that corrupted the water that came from the filth demon the devil had watched Althos banish didn't seem to bother the imp.
Althos visually examined it's body, studying it with the same precision and focus as he had studied the forms of the wolves that past evening. He took note of the body's angular nature, the odd red pigmentation of the imp's skin, and the diversity of scars that cluttered its naked backside like it was the messy canvas of a child playing at being an artist.
Once the deity felt satisfied with his investigation of the imp's form he turned away from it. He turned to look at his followers, some of whom he suspected would be leaving him today. They were still fast asleep, and that included Tristan and Silander, his two, mortal non-orc companions, as well as the only women who stayed with him and had physical forms.
There were other women in his service. One of his mental advisors had a feminine voice and appeared to go by feminine pronouns, and he had unintentionally gained two female worshipers who were dark elves. They were named Milene and Qu'Ren and while Althos walked back to the encampment after meeting another fungus, this one a strange monster, they and their male companions reached their home-city the underground settlement of Undermoon.
All four of the elves, including the non-worshiper, informed him separately that they had returned to their home safely. Althos had told them to keep him aware of what they were up too and reminded the elves that the sooner they begun their work to convert the city to his worship the sooner they gain their coveted shape-shifting power.
He also took time to craft a personal message for Qu'Ren suggesting that good service here would provide her with an extra reward, one that appealed to her brand of megalomania.
The party, aside from its non-mortal members, was sleeping soundly. Althos wondered what was occurring in their dreams.
I could enter their dreams... Perhaps that's a quiet way for me to remind them that there is no place I can't see. No thought I can't influence. Not even their dreams are an escape if I desire their eyes and ears. But is that the best way to retain their willing servitude? No... It isn't. Probably.
Maybe in allowing them to sleep undisturbed that'll show them that I am not without my mercy. Perhaps that'll be the key to convincing those who can be convinced to stay to remain at my side of their own volition. Perhaps kindness is what I need to show now. After all, I've already exhibited my power.
The deity's mind was a battlefield. He had taken the orcs for granted and only very recently, hours ago, began to struggle internally about their fates.
He recognized their skill and had quietly come to enjoy their company though he had been less than vocal about finding their presence pleasant.
He had intelligently made it clear that they weren't escaping him but had he ever informed them that he liked them being nearby? Had he ever talked to them of his own volition? A handful of times, perhaps. And now the deity feared it was too late.
I could tamper with their minds... reduce them to mush. It wouldn't be hard after all...
No! That is not the right move. If I do that then I'll just be hurting myself. That's why I'm doing this, right? To not hurt myself?
The deity snapped out of it after remembering why he had stopped treating them worse than he had treated the dark elves. For all of his flaws, he hated the idea of hurting himself, and keeping the orcs with him when they could be more productive or more useful elsewhere would have constituted him hurting himself, to him if no one else.
The deity had a somewhat logical mind, and unknown to him, mostly because he didn't ask, they were quietly grateful for the simplistic logic he had employed in justifying giving them a choice. It was a factor that elevated the deity's standing in their minds. The incredible powers that he had, again and again, demonstrated to them were also factors that made him experience yet another boost in their minds.
But at the end of the day, the deity's apathy towards his own decisions frustrated them. He had said they were going to stay with the other orcs, and then effortlessly seemed to forget about that, despite it being his decision. He was also cold towards the siblings, despite at times seeming to like both Ragnor and Bazur.
In time he would come to accept that the best choice was to accept things as they were, with no immature intervention, or mind-breaking magic. This was a harder decision for him to accept than the decision to allow the orcs to consider leaving. Perhaps it was because this decision was real and in making it he was committing himself to honor the wills and wishes of the orcs, as well as accepting his own failures as a leader.
He swallowed this bitter pill, and quietly committed to becoming a better leader who deserved subordinates not just because he was the most powerful, but because he earned the trust of those who followed him and because he could be relied upon.
He had made mistakes early on, but it didn't matter so long as he learned from them. He was a god after all.
For each of the orcs, the decisions were easy to support. And not all of the orcs had come to the same decision. When they began to stir from their sleep, Althos felt nervous and wondered what farewells he'd be making in the next few hours or even minutes.
Althos had less than an hour after the first orc began to slowly awaken. Bazur stirred and began to move around in his bed, but wouldn't be out of bed for another fifteen minutes. It just so happened that the orc wasn't a quick riser even if he was an early waker.
It took around half an hour for the final orc to awaken after Bazur got out of bed ready to start the day. Gallow was the last member of his somewhat ill-fated raiding party to arise from his bedroll and join the rest of the party around the campfire.
Once he was out of his bedroll and seated near the campfire, everyone turned to look at Althos. They were clearly waiting for the deity to initiate the conversation. All of the eyes were on him, and he looked back at them one by one.
He was silent and he activated one of his divine abilities. By using it, his "Remote Viewing" ability and picturing Golorina, the lone woman in the orc's raiding party, the deity quickly located the other members of the party that Althos had assisted days ago.
Through his unusual divine ability, Althos was able to spread his senses far and wide. He detected the orc woman named Golorina quickly because she wasn't very far from where he was. Once he found her, he used his powers to enter her mind as an observer and see what she saw. Of course, he didn't let her know he had temporarily occupied her mind. He saw no reason to do so.
When he looked through Golorina's eyes, what he saw was a part of the forest he suspected wasn't terribly far from where the party was located. He saw a quiet encampment, much like their own, though it lacked a campfire. At the moment Golorina was sitting and quietly eating a few hand-cut apple slices. She was far from alone, as around her various orcs were either eating snacks or looking for something to do.
Althos could hear their activity in the background, as some of the raiders were sparring with each other, while others fired arrows at handpainted targets to sharpen their skills and to ensure they didn't stagnate as warriors.
Within moments Althos felt absolutely certain he knew where she was and could teleport his allies right next to her if that was what the orcs wanted. Satisfied that he wouldn't be deceiving his servants, he quickly deactivated the power and left her mind.
After deactivating the power Althos's mind returned to his body. Once he felt properly himself again the deity turned to his followers and spoke.
"I spoke the truth last night. I have used one of my powers to locate your allies. I have not informed them of my true nature, nor have I informed them about you. I didn't speak to them. That is on you. Now is the time to inform me of your decisions."
His voice was quiet, and the more attentive orcs, Bazur and Gallow, both swore they heard a touch of sadness in his tone. The deity was silent after he spoke, and he waited for them to speak.
There was a full minute of silence before the first orc spoke. It was neither Bazur nor Gallow. Instead, the first speaker was the orc Anthus.
The brawler turned to his master and opened his mouth to speak. He spoke his mind to the deity.
"Althos... I recognize your divinity, and I will continue to serve you. With my friends. With my fellow raiders. With Talvin. I hope that this decision pleases you because in making it I believe I can sway more people to your side. I believe that we, that you, can begin the process of uniting the orcs across the world."
The second the orc finished speaking a pillar of darkness engulfed him. At first, this alarmed the others, who nearly moved to interrupt Althos, knowing that this was one of his magical spells. But then they remembered that they had seen this strange magic in use within the cave of the dark unicorn named Qut. They calmed down when they remembered that this same spell seemed to empower and pacify the dark elves who it was used on.
Althos had wordlessly activated it, and selected Anthus's vestigial traits and brought them back to life. He also teleported the orc, using the magic for the first time without touching its target. When the orc rejoined his friends he'd be rejoining them as a stronger creature.
The orc would have a second heart, the ability to transform his limbs into fleshy weapons, a thick coat of natural armor, and an ability to detect other living lifeforms so long as they had some measure of Qi. Althos reached out to the orc mentally.
[I resurrected all of the abilities hidden in your blood and restored in you the powers your ancestors once had. This is both a reward for serving me and a way to remind you that you remain, my servant, just one I am willingly allowing to go on a wider leash. I shall remember what you said, that you'd be more useful to me with your friends than with me. Show me the truth in your words.]
Althos' tone was commanding, authoritarian and dark. At the moment the orc found himself explaining his circumstances to his friends who had immediately reacted to the orc appearing in the heart of their camp, but the part of him that paid attention to the god's words delighted in the power boost even as he zoomed through the system's notifications, and swore to himself that he'd, in fact, prove himself right to Althos and to the word.
When the pillar of darkness faded from view and Anthus was gone, Althos was looked at with concern by Bazur and Ragnor. Althos looked back at them, a mixture of contempt and sadness coating his gaze. Then he spoke.
"Anthus made his choice. I gave him his reward and sent him on his way. Reach out to him and you will see the truth in my words. I shall do the same to anyone else who wishes to join him."
At first Althos' gaze was leveled at Ragnor and Bazur, but during the deity's last sentence he spread his gaze out equally to make eye contact with the others in the encampment.
The orc's siblings tested the veracity of the deity's claim by sending their brother a message. Moments later they nodded when their sibling responded to their mental words. They were calmed by this, and though still wary they now suspected the unusual deity was being honest with them.
Silence gripped the encampment again. Althos was perfectly capable of waiting, though each passing moment filled him with a bit more apprehension. Before a minute had passed, Ragnor opened his mouth to speak.
"Althos, I wish to be a commander of your forces in the future. I intend to stay in this world and be one of the people who urge our kind to follow you. I do apologize for deciding to leave, but in doing so... I will be able to gain experience and build my reputation as a warrior among my fellow orcs. I believe and I hope that I may one day be invaluable to you."
Althos listened to the orc. He quietly and calmly assessed the orc's motives, listening and searching for signs of deception. After a few moments of contemplation, Althos believed that the orc spoke the truth and activated his vestigial resurrection power, targeting the orc. He also activated it on his brother, Bazur.
He willed the orc who had just spoken away, sending him to join his sibling. A few moments passed, and the pillar of darkness that had descended around the oldest of the siblings faded away. This time Althos took the lead.
"I take it you are going to join your siblings?"
His voice was quiet, accepting this all in stride. Bazur looked at Althos, a surprising emotion flickering in his eyes: pity. The orc nodded.
"Would you like an explanation as to why?"
The orc's decision to ask that question was an odd one. The deity looked at him and considered how to respond.
Althos understood the power of familial connections. One of the creatures whose memories he had absorbed was Milene, a dark elf woman with a sibling of her own. Althos felt the kinship the two of them shared through her memories and thoughts. The deity may have been devoid of empathy on its own, but he wasn't ignorant to the power of family.
Althos was silent for several moments. Eventually, after what felt like an eternity but was merely a few seconds, the deity spoke.
"No. I... don't blame you for choosing to stay with your family. You only stopped fighting me and joined me after I defeated them and told you I'd heal them if you served me. Choosing to keep your family together is a decision that is consistent for you. I wish you well Bazur."
Althos spoke fondly of their first encounter, eagerness sinking into his voice while he reminisced on what was possibly the scariest moments of Bazur's life. He gazed at Bazur one last time, his cold eyes containing uncharacteristic warmth. Then he closed his eyes and the orc vanished.
"And then there was two."
He spoke, his voice soft, filled with a sense of sadness that permeated the campsite and he turned to look at his two worshipers. He had his suspicions about how this would go.
Gallow spoke up, eager to cheer up the living god he worshiped. As he spoke he turned to look Althos in the eyes, aware of the surprising sadness the deity was feeling. Seeing the deity melancholic reaffirmed the choice Gallow had made.
"Master, I'm staying with you. I want to join you on adventures, and see the sort of creatures you recruit to join you. I want to aid you and learn from you, while maybe even teaching you what I can."
His voice was energetic, his eyes warm and his tone was eager. Althos grinned at him. This went a long way towards cheering him up. He was happy that the rogue wanted to stay with him, and after grinning at him for a few moments the deity wordlessly turned to the last orc.
Ranthor was silent for a moment, wondering how to word what he was about to say. He wracked his brain for the right words and for the best phrasing. Eventually, he was satisfied with what he had settled on and began to speak.
"Althos, you know that you are my god."
The aforementioned deity nodded at the archer, acknowledging the truth of this claim, wondering where this would lead too but having a susipicion he would feel mixed emotions about it.
"I wish to lead my kind in your faith. I wish to be an evangelist of yours. Please, allow me to return to my kind and teach them about your ways."
Althos sighed. He suspected this would be the way this would go down, but he hadn't believed that it would involve Ranthor becoming an "evangelist". The deity couldn't hate this response, because of all the responses that involved leaving it was the only one to explicitly include a part about converting orcs into his worshipers.
When the pillar faded away, Gallow was surprised to see Ranthor still in there. Ranthor was surprised to see Gallow and Althos, as well as the camp's few remaining inhabitants, looking at him instead of his orcish brothers and sister in arms.
When everyone turned to Althos, confusion plainly clear in their eyes, the deity began to speak, in annoyance.
"If he's gonna be an 'evangelist' he needs to know what he's converting people too! We've only established a few bits and pieces of what one form of... me-worship looks like. Orcs and dark-elves have very different cultures!"
Everyone considered his words, and then they nodded. Althos wondered why people weren't making a bigger deal out of the fact that Ranthor had two pairs of arms now, but he supposed the fact that the orc was still there took precedence in their minds.
Humanoids are weird. He observed, with a neutral expression etched on his face.
Althos spoke again, a malicious grin on his face.
"Alright, gather round. If we put our heads together we can surely come up with something that will get orcs excited."
The camp's remaining inhabitants rearranged themselves, moving closer together and contemplating what a religion that excited orcs would look like.
A lively discussion took place at the campsite that morning. It covered various components of religion and worship.
"What can we offer successful orcs?" Asked one of the participants, a young half-devil priestess herself, in a mental message to the rest of the people and creatures gathered around the campfire.
"Mutations and access to strength-enhancing templates." Responded the deity who was at the center of the chat. His response was met by stunned silence. He looked around, noticed the confusion on the faces of his comrades, and then he clarified.
"As a special reward for the quest yesterday I gained the ability to mutate things, and to use the 'templates menu', which basically means I can super modify creatures. I haven't taken the time to check it out but I can almost guarantee it'll allow me to make violent orcs even more violent and even more orcish."
His companions grinned at him after he clarified. He smiled back.
Minutes later another important question was asked.
"I hate to ask this, but Althos... you know that lots of creatures eat fungi right?" Asked Gallow, having a reason to be the one to bring up the topic others in the party had considered asking the deity, who was the "god of fungi" after all.
Althos looked at him and nodded.
"Yes, I do. I realized it after searching through the memories of the dark elves. It seems they even grow some fungi precisely because of how they taste. Why?"
The deity's answer contained a measure of calmness and acceptance the orcs weren't expecting. The deity's outward behavior towards fungi hadn't changed all that much, but they knew that their god was capable of considerable and unexpected violence.
Gallow nodded at his master and began to speak again.
"I was just thinking about how to encourage orcs to be guardians of fungi, which is something I assume would be pleasing to you." The orc's voice was soft and nervous.
He spoke again shortly after finishing his past statement. "Would you be opposed to commanding orcs to develop agricultural relationships with fungi? Having orcs plant and care for fungi, and eventually allowing them to devour them or otherwise use them?"
This statement was carefully worded and though it might have seemed brave of the orc to ask, he was hoping that the god he worshiped would be reasonable. Althos considered the question, and the whole camp's eyes were on him, even Tristan's. He was translating things for her so she could participate as well, through their mental link.
The god had searched his brain for a few moments before remembering something related to his fungal wards that gave him his answer. He remembered the traits of coprophilous fungi, fungi that released spores that coated nearby plants and were eaten by herbivorous animals, where they grew into their more mature forms after being excreted by their herbivorous consumers.
Althos, wisely, realized that if he told his allies about the fungi that leaped to mind when he was asked this question they may be inclined to not allow their peers to eat fungi. He quickly decided he'd just find a way to get them to eat primarily coprophilous fungi as they began to eat more and more fungi. The deity began to speak.
"I would allow such a thing. This practice is a part of nature after all. My role as the guardian of all fungi is not to overturn the natural world, but to protect fungi and allow the organisms to develop more positive relationships with humanoids and other lifeforms. I am not opposed to my worshipers developing positive, symbiotic relationships with my other worshipers."
The deity gave a surprisingly complex answer to that question, but it was a positive one. Gallow and Ranthor looked at each other happily, and once he translated his answer for her, Tristan gave him her approval as well. The deity didn't feel that he needed it, but he didn't mind having it either. It reassured him that he was making the right choice.
Towards the end of the conversation, the orcs brought up something that the deity was only familiar with through the knowledge he had gained from the dark elves.
"What about sacrifice?" Asked Ranthor, the orcish archer and soon-to-be evangelist.
"What about it?" Responded Althos, knowing full well what the orc meant, but wanting him to be clearer in his communication. Althos did after all know everything Ranthor knew.
"Well, master, orcs believe that the strong gods deserved sacrifice. If you are a strong god, and I believe you are, it's worth talking about. Should it be carried out? If so, how?"
Althos considered the orc's words. He thought about the concept of sacrifice and spent several moments in silence. Then the deity began to speak.
"Sacrifice... I shall allow it. But, when orcs feel like having their first sacrifice to me, inform me ahead of time. We shall discuss the matter more, then. Perhaps it's better to have this arise organically instead of trying to predict and control it. That said, I still wish to be informed as to what they would like to offer me so when your followers begin to discuss it make sure I am aware."
Althos' response was quiet and calm. Ranthor nodded at his words, appreciative of the flexibility of the deity.
The end result of the conversation was that Ranthor had a much firmer grasp on what Althos envisioned worship of him would look like. It was exciting for the orc to know what the master thought of when he contemplated things like religion and his own worship.
For Althos, by the time the conversation was over he had learned fairly little new information but he did gain knowledge as to what Ranthor as a cult leader would be like. The deity was appreciative of the chance to help organize the orc's thinking, and vocalize components of what he, the object of faith at the center of this theoretical cult, would like any cult to him to be like.
Much to his surprise, the deity felt excited about the future, as he nodded at his orcish worshiper and teleported the orc to his friends. Then he sat in silence for a few moments.
After sitting still for a few moments the deity turned to his other allies. He looked out at the campsite and the creatures that surrounded him.
He quietly commanded them to clean up the campsite, while also participating by retrieving the bedrolls left behind by the orcs who had chosen to join their fellows and teleporting them to those warriors. Soon enough the campsite was clean, and the fire was put out. After cleaning up their mess and clearing out any evidence of their stay, they looked at each other again.
The deity was joined by the imp Salifinos, the half-devil Tristan, the great-frog Silander, the sentinel demon Raverangos, and the orcish rogue Gallow. He was also joined by two awakened soul-orbs who had become his familiars along with Salifinos and Silander.
He reflected on the various memories he had steadily acquired while adventuring with the party and smiled.
"Alright. There's nothing else for us to do here right now. Are we ready to go to Infernius? To go back to the Tomb of Agowraith?"
He asked this first question to the creatures who hadn't been with him when he made it to the Cathedral of the Dark Saint. He asked the second to Tristan and Salifinos.
A silence fell over the campsite, and after a few seconds, the inhabitants of the place looked at each other and nodded. Then as one they turned to Althos and nodded. The deity grinned. Then he issued his first command.
"Grab onto each other. We're just gonna go as one."
The members of the party all grabbed each other's shoulders. Once everyone was secured, and the orbs were close by so as to also be affected by the magic, the deity willed them to return to where he had been when he first left the dungeon.
They immediately vanished, leaving behind no evidence that they had ever been there in the first place.
An instant after they vanished, the party was surrounded by darkness. They had successfully reentered the plane known as Infernius and were where Althos and his infernal allies had been when they were teleported to him hours ago.
The familiar, intense darkness annoyed Althos. The deity may have been back in the tomb, but he wasn't who he had been when he first entered the wretched dungeon over an entire day ago. He was confident, had his allies, and was ready to make use of the full breadth of his powers
The darkened lair of the dead had two sources of light within its long passageway. One of those sources was the tiny forms of the soul-orbs. The other was a familiar face who was immediately informed of their return and was gliding towards them: the floating skull who flew on green gases and guarded the dungeon and had inscrutably observed the once smaller party as it made its way through each chamber, trap, and puzzle that was thrown their way.
Althos rolled his eyes at the approaching floating skull and wordlessly created an explosion of light centered on himself that flooded the annoyingly long passageway. Sadly, he was thoughtless as he did this and hadn't warned his allies.
His companions weren't warned that this was the deity's plan, so mere moments after they went from the light-filled campsite to the darkness of the tunnel, they were right next to an explosion of light that seemed to radiate out of the body of their master, and in response, they collectively hissed in annoyance as they covered their eyes to block out the intense light.
"Sorry!" Responded Althos, who wordlessly used healing magic to alleviate the pain they felt. They issued various noises of relief as the pain subsided, and they slowly opened their eyes so as to see what the now lit passageway was hiding from them.
Althos mentally chided himself and swore to not make the same mistakes again. After recovering, the party began to walk towards the skull in the distance, itself approaching them with a visible and skeleton approximation of a grin etched on its face.
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Bio: Luciano Joshua Gonzalez-Vega is a fan of monsters, mythology, & might. He writes stories wherein monsters are the protagonists, and characters are not what they appear to be. He's also a Peace & Conflict Studies Graduate Student pursuing a Masters of Arts degree and a YouTuber. His neck hurts from all of the hats he wears.