Dragon Face sprinted through the dark doorway the crying noise had come from, leaving purple vapors in his wake.
Ira cursed under her breath. “Nothing for it,” she muttered. “Follow the Lady Ira, fellow pilgrims!”
“Hold on a moment, please!” V’vendy called out. She picked up the unconscious Uuco and draped him over the back of Corax like a grain sack on a mule. Corax bared his teeth, but raised no objections. “Okay, now we can go!”
The Pilgrims raced after Dragon Face. Vincol trailed behind them, fingering the bright grey-metal dagger he’d picked up from the tomb. “Beautiful, “ he muttered, stroking the blade with one finger.
The party passed through a dark corridor and emerged into a round chamber with tarnished chains that hung from the ceiling like overgrown vines. Torches flickered on wall brackets, and the east corner was taken up by two wooden cages lined with molten feathers. In the middle of the chamber was a clay hearth pot filled with glowing embers, surrounded by bedrolls and traveling sacks.
Next to the hearth, a young, shaggy-haired boy was strapped to a wooden torture rack, arms and legs pulled taut. He moaned softly through chapped lips.
Vincol’s eyes widened, and he raised a hands to his lips to stifle a gasp.
Dragon Face slid to a stop and stared at the aggrieved child. A low rumble built in his throat. He strode over to the boy.
“Child,” the masked wrestler murmured, taking out his water skin and wetting a cloth with it. “Child, can you hear me?”
He touched the wet cloth to the boy’s lips, moistening them. The boy bit the cloth and sucked down some water. He coughed hoarsely.
“Who-” he whispered. “Who are you?”
“Friends,” Dragon Face replied, his muscles relaxing as the glowing vapor around his body dissipated.. “At least I hope you’ll think of us as such.”
The wrestler turned towards Vincol. “Come, Village Chieftain!” He barked. “Put your new dagger to use!”
Vincol blinked, stirred from his reverie. “On it!!” he replied, pulling out his dagger and sawing through the ropes binding the child to the rack.
“Gently now,” V’vendy reminded Vincol, drawing her own dagger to help. “We don’t want to dislocate his arms.”
After cutting the boy free, they laid him down on one of the bed rolls. Ointments from Dragon Face and V’vendy plus a short melody from Ira cleared up most of the child’s bruises.
“What’s your name, boy?” Ira asked, kneeling by the child’s side.
“His name’s Sar,” Vincol said between clenched teeth. All the other Pilgrims turned to look at him. “He’s the the son of Crimson Girth’s Miller,” Vincol explained.”He brings me brew grain every week.” He squatted on his knees beside Sar. “What are you doing in this labyrinth, boy?” He asked. “This is no place for a young’un’!”
Sar blinked. “Chief Vincol?” He wheezed. “What are you doing here?” The boy lowered his voice to a whisper. “My dad won’t like it if he catches you.”
“Why wouldn’t he like that?” Ira asked.
Sar stared down at his lap. “Well,” he murmured, “he doesn’t like it when other people learn about his experiments.”
“Experiments?” Corax hissed, baring his razor sharp teeth.
Sar flinched back. “Oh Hidden Gods!” he cried out. “Please don’t eat me!”
Corax snapped his mouth shut. He swished his tail back and forth “Sorry about that,” he said sheepishly. ”I promise I’m not going to eat you, Sar. However, I’m curious: what is your dad experimenting with”
“Well,” Sar said, nodding at the broken rack by the fire hearth, “recently Dad’s been trying to stretch my arms and legs out. Make them longer, you know?”
“Why?” V’vendy blurted out. She drew her cloak over her head so she could scowl in privacy. “Er…I mean to say…why’s your dad doing ?”
Sar fidgeted. “Dad wants to see…” he started to say. He hesitated, rubbed at his shoulders and mumbled: “Dad wants to stretch me out to see if my kids will grow up with longer limbs.”
Ira eyes widened. “That’s your father’s reason for…for this torture?” She spluttered. “He’s monster and a fool!”
“Don’t say that!” Sar shouted, raising his clenched fists. “He’s trying to help people! Dad and his friends say their work will make the humanoid races stronger and better!” The young boy fell back on his rump. “It’s just…sometimes he gets mad.”
“Friends,” Corax repeated, head-feathers rising: Uuco stirred and moaned on the dinosaur’s back. “Your father has friends in town that help him with his work?”
“Yeah,” Sar replied, blinking. “Dad and the others call themselves Testers. Because they like to test how evolution works, you know?”
Sar looked up, eyes wide with concern. “Oh! I just remembered! Dad just called in these scary fighters called Seekers to hurt anyone who came down here!” He bit his lip. “You need to get out of here guys, before they find you,” he urged. “I promise I won’t tell them you were here!”
V’vendy and Corax stared at the young boy in dismay. Ira frowned in thought. Dragon-Face trembled in silent fury. Then the masked wrestler smiled warmly, and wrung the wet cloth in his hands dry.
“You’re a brave boy, Sar, and I’m glad to have met you,” he proclaimed gently. He tied the wet cloth around a cut on Sar’s arm. “I promise you this, child: you, I, and my friends are going to be alright,” he said, knotting the cloth tight. “We’ll talk to your father and his companions, and make sure they never hurt you or anyone else again!”
Sar frowned. “But they might try and hurt you–”
“Ha-Ha! They can try!” Dragon-Face proclaimed, flexing his well-oiled biceps. “When the great Dragon Face makes a promise to a child, no monster or villain can stop him from keeping it!”
Sar’s eye widened, this time in awe. “For real?”
Dragon-Face nodded vigorously, his copper mask gleaming in the torch-light. “Believe it!”
As Dragon-Face and the young boy chatted, Ira beckoned Vincol and the other Pilgrims off to the side.
“The Lady Ira sees suplexes in the future of this boy’s father,” Ira mused. “But for now, what conclusions can we draw from the boy’s story?”
“First, that some of the folks I’ve known all my life are part of a evil cult!” Vincol grumbled. “Hidden Gods, I never thought I’d say that!”
“Ha!” A grizzled old voice exclaimed. “I was right! I’m writing down how right I was!”
Corax craning his neck over his shoulder to glare at Uuco the Witness, who was conscious, riding on Corax’s back like a steed, and busy carving notes into his large clay tablet. “Ah,” Corax muttered. “Glad to have you back, Uuco.”
“Of course you are!” Uuco agreed, stroking his mustache with the tip of his reed pen. “Ya’ll would be crow-food without me! Anyways!” Uuco jutted his neck forward. “It seems this town has been infiltrated by the Zealots of Evolving Evil! The kid’s little Tester sect must be their equivalent of a fan club!” Uuco nodded to himself. “Ayup, and those Seekers must be the cult equivalent of the Royal Guard!”
“What are the Seekers doing here, though?” V’vendy asked. “I mean, uh…they’re dead now,” she amended. “That’s what they’re doing. But what was their goal here?”
“EVOLUTION!” Uuco boomed, hopping of Corax’s back, stumbling and almost dropping his clay tablet. “These Zealots are crazy about evolving themselves and others! Stronger, faster, quicker, smarter, taller, larger, furrier, warmer, magicker…they sky’s the limit for those bastards!”
Uuco glanced around the room they were in. “Heh-heh!” He snorted. “Sky’s the limit. Get it? Because the city we’re in is…”
“Yes, yes,” Ira said impatiently. “As long as we’re on the topic…do you know why these Zealots of Evolving Evil–”
“–whom you seem suspiciously familiar with–” Corax chimed in, glaring at Uuco. Uuco stuck out his tongue at Corax.
“–would be running around in this place?” Ira finished.
“Or why the heck they’d be making my town float around in the sky like a milk seed?” Vincol added. “Because this sure as hell wasn’t me!”
Uuco chewed his lip over Vincol’s question. “Ain’t got a clue!” He admitted. “Why you asking me, of all people? I’m old, you know!”
Ira pinched her nose and groaned. “Perhaps the boy knows more. Sar!” She called out, walking over to where Sar and Dragon-Face were thumb wrestling. “Sar, why did your father and his friends base their operations in these underground catacomb?”
Sar looked up at Ira. “Because they want to study the God Ghost” he said casually.
“The God Ghost?” Corax echoed.
“Yup,” Sar said, freeing his hand from Dragon Face’s grip and jabbing his thumb over his back. “He’s right through that door there!”
Everyone looked at where Sar was pointing, and noticed a door in the west wall that was, for all intents and purposes, evil.
The thick oak door was coated with black jagged shards of metal and had brass door rings shaped like human skulls with gaping maws. Dark fog leaked through its edges, and each Pilgrim heard the faint howling of damned souls coming from the other side.
“Huh,” Uuco muttered. He slung his clay tablet back over his shoulder and pushed Vincol forward. “You try the door!” he said to the village chieftain. “I believe in you!”
Dragon Face stared at his hands in awe. “You broke my grip!” He stammered to Sar. “Young boy, you have an astounding amount of untapped wrestling potential!”
Sar’s face lit up. “Really?” He blurted out.