Miller Balen, the Priestess and their cronies lay bound and hog-tied to a post in the middle of Crimson Girth’s town square, most of them insensible, gagged and groaning. Chief Valeria of the Wailing Saber Longhouse frowned and spat to the side.
“As one of the leaders of this village,” she said to the Pilgrims, “I really must apologize for such poor hospitality!”
“Think nothing of it,” Lady Ira declared, loosening the green kerchief around her throat. “We are on pilgrimage, after all. When we finally reach the Infinite Temple and declare our deeds, the Hidden Gods shall smile on us!”
“Still,” Valeria insisted, “this is supposed to a village of hospitality that show travellers a good time! Not…some flying cesspool of magicians and monsters!”
“Ah, don’t fret, my dear!” Uuco replied cheerfully, stroking his thick mustache. “It was good clean fun!” He jabbed a finger at the sigil-engraved clay tablet strapped to his back. “I haven’t chronicled so much sights and sounds in years!” He frowned. “At least, I think I haven’t. I haven’t re-read my tablet yet.”
“Well,” Corax remarked, bending his avian head over his shoulder to nip at a molting feather. “Perhaps you’ll get a chance to re-read your work, once we landed this town back where it took off.” He glanced left. “V’vendy! How goes the navigation?”
V’vendy stood at the edge of the flying town, one step or crumbling rock away from a long fall. She let the wind blow through her white-feather hair, eyes closed in concentration.
Many air currents flow here,” she mused aloud. “But I’m certain we’re riding the winds of the northern Zephyr!” She walked back towards the group. “Judging by the time of day, ” she shouted, “I think we’ve drifted ten leagues due northeast!”
Chief Valeria swore and stamped her foot. “That damnable God Ghost! We’re more than halfway to the Infinite Temple! It’d take us longer to get back home than it would to go all the way there!”
Chief Vinckle, lying down on the grass, opened his eyes and frowned in thought. “Who says,” he said slowly, “that’s a bad thing?”
Deep in the catacombs beneath the flying town of Crimson Girth, Nerga the God Ghost sat on a burial slab next to a desiccated corpse, leaned on his phantasmal cudgel, and brooded.
“I shouldn’t have grown so angry,” he said to himself. “I didn’t mean to tear this town up and cast it up to the sky! But I did. I put everyone in danger. No wonder they were frightened up above.” Nerga’s shoulders slumped. “My master would be ashamed,” he muttered.
Nerga glanced down at the corpse next to him, which continued to remain dead. He scowled. “You shut your mouth, Harold! I won’t tolerate insults from a would-be lich who can’t even possess his own body!”
The fleshless eye sockets of Harold stared back at Nerga accusingly, making no noise.
“Well that’s hardly my fault, Harold!” Nerga replied, grinding his spectral teeth. “My body crumbled to dust a century ago!”
“Hello?” A voice called out, echoing from an adjacent chamber. “Is that you, Nerga? Are you down there?”
Nerga recognized the voice. “It is, and I am down here!’ Nerga shouted back. “Come down and be welcome!”
Chief Vinckle and Chief Valeria entered the tomb, lightning their way with beads of glowing purple mana that circled around their crooked fingers. The two chieftains bowed politely at the waist. “Honoured ancestor,” Valeria proclaimed. “As chieftains of this village, we would like to discuss something with you.”
“Returning your village to its rightful place?” Nerga asked. “Of course. I shall do so as soon as V’vendy the Deathweaver learns our location. I apologize deeply for letting my anger getting the best of me…”
“Actually!” Vinckle spoke up. “We had something different in mind! Could you land our village in a different location?”
As dawn broke, Zarek the guard woke from his cot, grabbed breakfast from the communal pot, took up his spear and walked out onto the Charging Walls of Baruck.
Zarek the guard stiffly marched over clay brick closely fitted without mortar or glue. The sun beat down hard overhead, but vanished as he strode into the shadow cast by the Infinite Temple.
He halted, turned in place and strode up next to Alun, his watch partner. They stood together in silence, gazing out at the distant landscape of roads, wheat fields, and zigzagging canals.
“Hot day, ” Zarek remarked to Alun. “Ain’t it?”
Alun sighed, removed his bronze helmet, and soaked his bald head with his water-skin. “Sure is,” he remarked. “My head’s getting boiled like an egg.”
Zarek chuckled softly, bending back his head and squinting at the pink-hued morning sky.
“What the heck is that?” He blurted out.
“Where?” Alun asked, glancing left and right.
Zarek pointed a finger up in the air. “That!”
Alun followed Zarek’s finger and saw it. His helmet fell from nerveless fingers and clattered on the fitted bricks of the Charging Walls.
Up in the sky, an island of rock and dirt floated towards the city as casually as a cloud. Its sides were coated with brick towers, walls, rounded balconies, and thin window slits. And on the top of the floating plateau–
“–are those people?” Alun blurted out. “People and houses–” He squinted. “And they’re waving at us?”
Zarek nudged Alun. “Go tell the Captain! Hurry! I don’t care if he lashes us for insolence, he need to hear about this!” Alun swallowed, nodded and took off running, his sandals, making a soft ‘pat-pat’ noise as he raced along the wall.
Zarek stared up at the floating village, leaning on his spear as he watched the impossible sight.
“Jeepers,” he said to himself.
With the aid of V’vendy the Deathweaver’s eagle-sharp eyes and instructions, Nerga the God Ghost landed the village of Crimson Girth in a deep valley outside the city of Baruck, lining up the town’s border with a short cliff of similar height. The rock, dirt and tombs beneath the village shook as it landed, but did not break.
At the moment of landing, the residents of Crimson Girth let out a rousing cheer of celebration. Families hugged each other. Artisans, shop-keepers and mana-harvesters examined their goods and sighed in relief. The caravan leaders hitched their horses to the wagons and rang their bells. Travellers and merchants poured out of the longhouses and loaded their luggage onto the wagons.
Chief Valeria stood outside her Wailing Saber Longhouse, and shook the hands of each Pilgrim one at a time. “Nothing I can say or give will truly express my gratitude for what you’ve done,” she said quietly, resting a hand over her chest and bowing.
“No need to thank us,” Lady Ira said, beckoning Chief Valeria back up with an imperious wave of her hand. “We are, after all, on Pilgrimage: helping others is our holy duty!”
“I could not agree more!” Dragon Face declared, slapping a fist against his breast. “Rooting these evil Zealots from your land was a privilege!”
V’vendy blushed and hit her faced inside the folds of her green cloak. “What everyone else is saying…yeah,” she said.
Corax picked his teeth with his talons. “Personally,” he said, “I can’t stand those blight-rotten Zealots. Taking them down was a pleasure, make no mistake!”
“Ayup!” Uuco the Witness declared, bobbing his wrinkly head up and down like a bird. “T’weren’t nothing at all, miss!”
“Hmm!” Chief Valeria replied. She set her hands on her hips, a wicked look in her eye. “If you all feel that way, then I suppose I can take back the gold shells, food and wine I snuck into your wagon as a reward!”
“Wait, no!” Lady Ira said hastily. “We’d still like all that!”
“It would be rude of us not to honour your generosity!” Corax added.
“And I must eat lots to maintain my magnificent muscles!” Dragon Face pointed out.
Valeria threw her head back and laughed. “Such piety and bravery,” she muttered, “mixed with such a thirst for loot and comfort!” She nodded at the Pilgrims with a smile. “You folks have quite the paradoxical nature,” she said. “Perhaps that’s what gave you the strength to do what you did. Regardless, I hope you find what you seek, Pilgrims.”
The Pilgrims bowed in farewell and set off towards their wagons: a group of villagers were currently occupied in tying up the captive Zealots of Evolving Evil to the sides of the wagons, sparing nose expensive in either length of rope or knots.
Uuco stopped walking. “Hold a moment, y’all,” he said, and rushed back towards where Chief Valeria was.
Lady Ira sighed and walked over to Chief Vinckle, who was currently sitting on a log and talking quietly with Nerga the God Ghost. Nerga nodded and sank back down through the earth.
“Well met, Chief Vinckle!” Ira said, waving at the village chief “Have you given thought to coming with us? Your longhouse is destroyed, and you have the funds to travel,” she pointed out.
Chief Vinckle waved his hand in dismissal. “Nah,” he said quietly. “Not just yet, I think. I’m still one of the Chiefs here, and this town needs me!” He grinned fiercely. “Plus, I’ve got to rebuild my village and sell caravan travellers on this new concept!”
He waved his fingers around. “Imagine it! Merchants would no longer spend weeks riding from one corner of the kingdom to the city of Baruck! They’d just climb aboard the migrating town of Crimson Girth and arrive at Baruck in a day, saving everyone time and wealth!”
Vinckle nodded to himself. “There’s a lot of work to do, of course: fences around the town’s borders, windbreaks, reinforced houses, maps and charts–” He chuckled suddenly. “But if we can make this work, I can travel across the land without ever leaving my home!”
Lady Ira smiled softly and inclined her head. “A fine goal,” she declared. “I hope you reach it, Chief Vinckle!”
Vinckle nodded and scratched the back of his head. “Hold on a sec,” he said, reaching into his belt pouch. He drew out the silver-grey knife and handed it to Lady Ira. “You could probably make better use of this; plus, Nerga would suck my soul out if he spotted me carrying it!”
Lady Ira took the dagger with a nod, and made it vanish on her person. “I swear I won’t breath a word to anyone.” She said solemnly. “May we meet again!”
She turned and walked back to V’vendy, Corax and Dragon Face, who were throwing their belongings onto their wagon. Uuco the Witness chose this moment to saunter by, a bright red lip-mark on his cheek.
“Heh-heh-heh!” He chortled. “Whew-eee! What a woman! What a Chieftain!”
After half an hour spent traveling down a dusty road, the trade caravan reached the Charging Walls of Baruck.
Dragon Face looked up from his stretching exercises. His eyes widened, and he nearly fell off his perch on the wagon. “Is that–?” he exclaimed.
“It is!” The Lady Ira declared, emerging from the wagon tent and sat next to the masked wrestler, harp in hand. Wrist bracers of copper wound around her arms, earrings studded with beads of lapus lazuli adorned her ears, and thin lines of kohl ran along the edge of her cheeks. “Feast your eyes, grappler, upon the one true wonder of the world! Testimony to the might of man and gods!” She strummed a chord for the sake of music rather than magic. “Behold the Infinite Temple!”
Houses, mansions, granaries and towers all poked over the edge of the Charging Walls. The Infinite Temple dwarfed them all, a massive slab of cylinders and pyramid steps that crouched over the city and tapered to a thin tower that seemed to scrape the heavens. The temple’s slopes were coated with pillars, gateways, open halls, and pavilions–a thousand temples and shrines to a pantheon of secretive gods.
“There are people still working on it!” V’vendy exclaimed, throwing back her hood. “I can see them hauling stone and mortar up!”
“Indeed,” Lady Ira replied. “The Infinite Temple was well named, for it is constantly being built up! In truth, we have to move the city walls outwards every few decades to keep pace with its expansion.”
She glanced at Corax; the saurian warrior trotted alongside their wagon, sickle sword slung over his back. “Surely there’s no better tribute to the gods who watch over us!” Lady Ira said loudly, pitching her voice to carry.
Corax twitched at her comment. One of his claws clenched into a fist.
Lady Ira narrowed her eyes. “Intriguing,” she muttered.
“Mmmph!” The Priestess tried to say, rolling her eye and chewing at the cloth gag wedged into her mouth. “Mmmph-Mph!”
“Awww, don’t worry yourself, missy!” Uuco chortled, patting the hog-tied Zealot’s head. “You can say all the things you like once we hand you over to the city torturers!”
The caravan arrived at the city gates. Its oak doors slid open, and a band of chariots raced out of the city, manned by bronze-armoured city guards. Kicking up dust, they surrounded the caravan, pulled their horses to a halt, and levelled spears.
“Identify yourself in the name of the King of Baruck!” A guard captain with a purple-feathered helmet shouted shrilly. “Or we shall attack!”
Lady Ira stood up from her wagon seat, glaring at the city guards. “Is this the reception the Lady Ira receives?” She asked archly, raising her harp over her head for all to see. “Do you not recognize your Royal lineage?”
The guard captain gasped, dismounted from his chariot, went to his knees. “Lady Ira–!” He blurted out, bowing and touching his nose to the dirt. “My deepest apologies! We did not think you’d return so soon!” He frowned. “What were you doing atop that flying mountain?”
Lady Ira lowered her harp. “Rise, Captain,” she proclaimed. “It is only natural to be alarmed at a flying mountain parking itself on one’s doorstep. But fear not: our beloved city shall not come to harm today!”
She nodded to herself briskly. “Now then,” she said to the gathered guards. “We have some criminals that need to be thrown in a pit–“
In the distance, a small section of the Infinite Temple exploded in a gout of purple flame, dust and rubble flying out to rain down on the surrounding city. A roaring boom echoed through the air, and the ground rumbled. The chariot and caravan horses reared in a panic.
Uuco’s face paled. He clamped two trembling hands over his mouth and ducked underneath the wagon.
The Lady Ira tumbled off her perch and landed roughly on her knees. “What was that?” She muttered, clutching at her harp tightly to keep it from breaking. “What was that?”
“Mmphmphmmph–!” the Priestess of Evolving Evil said, her single visible eye twinkling with mirthless delight.
“What do you know?” Lady Ira growled, looking up. She marched over to the bound Priestess and yanked out her gag. “Talk, heretic,” Lady Ira hissed, fingers poised on her harp’s strings. “And if you try your shouting trick again, I’ll play a melody that’ll gouge out your eardrums!”
The Priestess coughed several times. “I know who caused that explosion,” she said coyly. “I’m even willing to lead you to them…if you promise to set me free!”