“Time for Charisma Checks…”

“Stop rolling before you attack, Uuco!” Dragon Face shouted, standing up and facing the wrathful God Ghost that marched towards him and his fellow Pilgrims.

“What?” Uuco shouted, blood trickling down from his ears. “I can’t hear you!”

V’vendy drew and loosed an arrow at the apparition: mid-flight, its white fletching twisted, spinning the arrow along its axis and generating a small cyclone of wind as it raced towards the God Ghost.

The God Ghost narrowed its dust-formed eyes and glared at the incoming projectile. The entire burial chamber shuddered, dust and dirt raining down from the ceiling. The arrow halted in mid-air with the falling debris, frozen in space like a portrait or mural.

“Such powerful mental powers!” Corax hissed, feather standing up along his back. “So this is what cast Crimson Girth and this buried tomb far up into the sky…not dark magic, but the wrath of an elder ghost!”

“An elder ghost, is it?” V’vendy remarked with a strange serenity. She sheathed her bow over her shoulder, lowered her hood and crouched in a combat stance. “I’ve have seen worse,” she said softly. The feathery down hairs on her head stood on ends, and a nimbus of purple light gathered around her head. “And slain worse!”

“Grave Robber, Trespassers, Villains!” The God Ghost roared, hefting his spectral great club over his head. “Once I failed to guard my master in life…but I swear you shall not disturb him in death!” The God Ghost drifted through the air towards V’vendy.

“Wait, wait, wait!” Lady Ira shouted, sheathing her sword and raising up her empty hands. “We are not tomb robbers, and wish only to pursue the criminals that have disturbed your monster’s rest!”

“So you say you’re not tomb robbers?” The God Ghost rumbled, the bristles on his translucent beard standing up. “That sounds like something tomb robbers would say!”

Corax hissed, and gathered white-hot energy at the back of his throat to fire at the God Ghost.

“Don’t!” Lady Ira shouted, pointing at the saurian warrior. “Stand down, Corax, now! That goes for everyone else!”

She walked forward at met the God Ghost’s eyes. “Honoured ancestor,” she declared. “We have no true proof we can offer, for we are armed and equipped in the same fashion as Tomb Robbers. But we have no malice in our heart. Our hands are empty of plunder from your master’s tomb.”

“That’s right!” Vinckle declared hastily, tucking the dagger and necklace he’d taken deep into his belt pouch.

“Humbly, we place our lives in your hands,” Ira concluded, falling to one knee in front of the God Ghost. She briefly glared over her shoulder at Dragon Face, Corax, Wendy, Uuco, and Vinckle. They hastily followed her lead and knelt as well. “Please, honoured ancestor,” Ira said. “Trust us, and listen to what we have to say.”

The God Ghost frowned and crouched before Lady Ira, peering at her face with eyes that, despite being formed from dust and moisture, seemed deep and knowing.

Finally, he grunted to himself, and rose. “I’ve seen many a tomb raider beg…but I’ve never seen one place her and her comrade’s lives in my hands with such grace before.” He let the giant ghostly cudgel in his hand dissipate into a cloud of dust and ash. “Rise, strange intruders,” the God Ghost rumbled. “For now, I shall withhold my wrath.”

Lady Ira rose from her kneeling posture, letting out a shaky sigh of relief.

“So this is where he died…” Corax muttered to himself as he rose. “Fah. It’s good thing I’ve changed shaped since then…”

“What was that?” Uuco chirped.

“Nothing,” Corax scowled, baring his needle-sharp teeth.

Dragon Face stood up and folded his arms across his chest. “Such a tremendous frame!” He remarked to the burly God-Ghost. “What is your name, proud sentinel?”

“My name?” The God Ghost asked, scratching the back of his illusory head. “No one’s asked me that in a long time… Nerga. Nerga’ is my name.”

%%%

Nerga and the Pilgrims sat in a circle around the coffin that Vinckle had set afire, chuckling as the ghost told his story.

“Then Tom declared himself a lich! Even though he couldn’t even make his own skeleton move!” Nerga exclaimed, gesturing wildly. “I pointed this out, but he claimed that he could move his corpse…if he really wanted to!”

“What a soft-noggined fool!” Uuco chortled, slapping his knee.

“Indeed, he is a donkey’s ass.” Nerga chuckled. “But alas, ghosts cannot choose their neighbors.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to be freed you from your haunting?” V’vendy mumbled, hiding her face deep in the folds of her cloak. “It wouldn’t be a hassle or anything…”

“I am sure,” Nerga said. “I chose this fate, to linger on after my death and do what I could not in life. One day, I think, I might depart this world for the next…but not yet. Not yet.”

“Say,” Vinckle mused aloud. “As long as you’re manifested, do you suppose you could help us catch that wicked Priestess?”

Nerga grinned unpleasantly. “Why do you think I haven’t lowered my master’s tomb down to earth yet?”

%%%

The Priestess of Evolving Evil stood at the crumbling edge of the town of Crimson Girth and stared at the long, long drop to the ground.

“Ah,” she muttered.

The ground exploded behind the Priestess, ripping open a hole in the village market area. Dust billowed out from the hole and was quickly blown away by the high-altitude air currents.

Nerga, guardian ghost of his master’s tomb, rose up through the hole, arms folded across his chest. The Pilgrims drifted up behind him, wafted up by the currents of the ancient spirit’s power. They stepped off the air and onto sturdy ground.

The Priestess giggled nervously. “Magnificent!” She breathed. “Such power, such strength! Strength enough to rip a village from its moorings and cast it into the sky! And no god did this! A disembodied human soul did!” She jabbed a quivering figure at Nerga. “Tomb Raiding? He is the true treasure of that tomb! If we could unlock that power in living human souls, we could do anything! By the Hidden Gods, can’t you see–!”?

V’vendy drew and loosed in a single motion. An arrow sprouted in the Priestess’s outstretched hand.

“Ha!” Vinckle exclaimed, pumping his fist. “Try praying to your gods with a gimp hand, you mad-woman!”

“You…” The Priestess hissed, clutching at her maimed hand. “Such rudeness!” She took off in a sprint towards the edge of the floating town. “You’ll pay for all of this!” She shouted over her shoulder. “By the Hidden Gods, I swear–”

Corax cleared his throat and spoke. “KNEEL.” He commanded.

A hum filled the air. The Priestess fell to her knees mid-stride, eyes bulging in shock. “Damn it all,” she hissed at Corax, struggling against an invisible weight. “You of all people should be on our side…!”

“Prepare yourself, Zealot–!” Dragon Face roared, leaping into the air and doing a backflip. “–For my DRAGON CHOKER!” He landed on the Priestess, pinning her arm behind her back and snaking his arm around her throat. The Priestess groaned and tried to wriggle free. Dragon Face narrowed his eyes and tightened his choke. The Priestess wheezed and ceased her efforts.

“So much for your dramatic escape, heretic,” Lady Ira declared, folding her arms over her chest. “Uuco,” she called out, addressing the elderly spellcaster. “Question her, if you please. You’ve proven quite good at coaxing answers out of stubborn folk.”

Uuco stroked his moustache. “Sure thing!” he replied. He walked over to the pinned Priestess and crouched by her side. “Well now,” he said conversationally, “You’re in quite a pickle. If I were you, I’d answer all our questions.”

The Priestess ground her teeth, twitching against the masker wrestler’s iron grip. “Fine…” she spat bitterly.

“Well thank you kindly for being so cooperative!’ Uuco drawled. “My first question is…” Uuco scratched his head. “Hmmm…”

“Was the Underworld King a member of your cult?” Corax asked.

The Priestess blinked. “The Underworld King?”

“There was this crazy Stout necromancer that dwelled in the caves to the north,” Vinckle clarified. “A fellow who controlled wild creatures with his flute.”

“A fellow who was obsessed with choreographed performances!” Dragon Face added.

“Ah, that one,” the Priestess replied, nodding stiffly. “He called himself Warryn. Yes, he was a part of the Zealots of Evolving Evil. He was too clever to sit still, and too foolish to realize his incompetence, so he left to pursue his own projects.” The Priestess glanced up at the stern Lady Ira. “Did you kill him?” she asked.

“Excessively,” Lady Ira proclaimed with a chilly dissatisfaction.

“Are there any other Zealot war bands in range of this town?” She asked. “Answer me, heretic!”

The Priestess tensed. “If you’re asking whether a Zealot army is going to march into this pitiful village and set it to the torch, then no. No, there are no Zealots in range of this town,” she said. “Telling you that won’t harm our cause.”

Chief Vinckle, his hands clenched, stepped forward and asked his own question. “Why?” He blurted out. “By the Hidden Gods, why are you freaks doing all this? Why kill people, and stretch them out on racks, and breed eyeless killer birds and skeleton riding sludge…and…and cause a bunch of ruckus! Why?”

The Priestess looked up at the quivering, red-faced Vinckle, and laughed bitterly. “Why?” She repeated. “For the same reason anyone ever does anything. To grow. To evolve. To become more than we are. To grow stronger by defeating the weaker…until we reach the next level.” She turned her bright-eyed gaze towards, other Pilgrims. “You must have felt it after slaying my Seekers…that rush of power as the limits on your mind and body expanded–!”

Uuco yawned loudly, cutting off the Priestess. “Look, ma’am,” he said. “Don’t try to improve yourself by murdering people and making mutant chickens! That’s stupid!” He smiled and patted the Priestess’s shoulder fondly. “Go back to your parents, borrow some money, enter a scribe academy…build a better life for yourself!”

The Priestess snorted in contempt. “How can you be such a powerful sage and cling to such petty delusions?” She exclaimed. “There is only one truth to this world’s existence, and that is evol–!”

Uuco picked up a rock and smacked the Priestess over the head. The priestess fell limp. Uuco then removed the clay tablet from his back, softened its clay surface with a wave of his hand, then started pressing sigils into its blank portions.

“Today,” Uuco recited aloud as he wrote, “we met a prick. We smashed her head in with a rock.”

The villagers of Crimson Girth started to rush towards the scene of commotion. Chief Valeria was the first to arrive on the scene, clad in a fur cloak and wielding a ribbon-adorned spear. “Ira, Uuco, …you’re alive!” She exclaimed, sliding to a stop in front of the party, dragging an exhausted looking Sar behind her by his hand. “We’d all thought you had fallen to your deaths! Thanks the Hidden Gods you’re alive!”

Uuco perked up. “Valera!” He shouted, waving at her cheerfully. “Oh, how I’ve missed your radiant face! You wouldn’t believe the time we’ve had! We found a tomb city buried beneath your town, fought some evil chickens and cultists, found a stretchy boy, and befriended a ghost!” He gestured to the stern, impassive and incorporeal Nerga. “Say

hi, Nerga!”

A shaggy-haired, lanky herb farmer took several steps back at the sight of the translucent spirit. “A GH-GH-Ghost!” He shrieked, turning and running in the opposite direction. Several other townsfolk gasped and cowered.

“I was afraid this might happen,” Nerga muttered sheepishly, starting to sink back down into the hole he’d emerged from. “Here, let me get out of sight. I shall lower this strange town back to earth and then return to my lonely vigil–”

“Hold, brave soul of a valiant warrior!” Dragon Face declared. He dumped the unconscious Priestess and stood up. He adjusted the fit of his copper mask, its snarling dragon design gleaming in the sunlight. “There is one more group of people we must keep from fleeing.”

%%%

Balen the village Miller, father of Sar and Tester for the Zealot of Evolving Evil, ran into the alley between two longhouses and gasped for breath.

“This was beyond all possible predictions!” He wheezed, hugging a stack of clay tablets to his chest. “A floating town…no, floating tomb with a town on top–such a mighty ghost!” He shook his head. “No,” he muttered to himself. “I must focus: the Evolving Conclave must be notified!” He walked towards the other end of the alley. “I’ll find Sar, lay low, and–“

A shadow fell across the alley’s exit, cast by a tall, well-built man. The man wore a copper mask, beat into the shape of a roaring dragon.

“Balen!” Dragon Face roared, flexing his fingers at his side. “I would speak with you about the treatment of your son!”

Balen stepped back, and narrowed his eye. “Sar?” he echoed, his eyes narrowing. “What have you done with my boy? What has he told you?” He glared at the masked wrestler. “If you’ve poisoned him against me, I swear I’ll–!”

“Unfortunately,“ Dragon Face explained, walking towards Balen. “I am no good with words. Therefore I shall express my disapproval…with MUSCLES!”

“Wait!” Balen blurted, stumbling back and raising a hand. “You like wrestling and strength, yes? I’ll teach you to gain new power, to evolve your body!” He pulled a tablet out from the stack he clutched and held it up. “The secret lies in this–!”

Dragon Face dashed forward in a blur, slipping behind Balen’s back. He clamped two beefy arms around Balen’s waist.

“PLATINUM–!” Dragon Face bellowed into Balen’s ear. The Masked Wrestler bent backward, suplexing Balen into the dirt. “–BUSTER!”

Tablets flew from Balen’s suddenly limp hands and shattered on the ground.

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