The gate was longer than Adlis had expected. She had thought she was going to go in and come straight out the other side, but after five minutes of inching her way through the crevice, the Marshals’ angry voices long since left behind, there was still no sign of light.
“Miss Adlis?” Za asked tentatively behind her.
“Not now,” she shushed him. There was silence and darkness all around them, and that was perhaps what frightened her more than anything else. They were in the Graylands now. Who knew what kinds of unholy nightmares were sitting in the shadows, watching them, waiting for them to step close enough to...
Stop that! she chastised herself. Things were bad enough already. Thinking like that would only make them worse.
“We're gonna die,” Za whined, but lapsed into silence after that.
The tunnel continued to stretch on, never widening, for another ten minutes. The only sounds Adlis could hear were their own footsteps, but the way Za kept jumping told her there must be other things out there that were beyond her senses. She would have felt sorry for him if she weren't so busy feeling sorry for herself.
Just as she was starting to think the tunnel would never end, she spotted a thin line of light. She sucked in an excited breath. Nothing on Haroz could have looked more beautiful right then. Heedless of the stones that scratched and tore at her dress, she surged forward, fighting to get out of this oppressive darkness and into—
The most barren landscape she had ever seen.
Gray. Everything was gray. She found herself standing on a narrow ledge made of a brittle gray stone, over a gray cliff that went straight down until it was lost to shadow. Shuddering, she quickly took a step back so that she could feel the stone wall behind her. A look upward showed her an entire mountain range. Gray mountains that were unnaturally thin, coming to razor sharp peaks, rose up out of a gray fog that completely hid their bases. Even further above the mountains, the sky was shrouded by thick gray clouds that churned and roiled like river rapids. Even the brief glances she could catch of the sky itself were a dull, lifeless gray.
Gray. All of it was gray. Everything.
“Welcome to the Graylands.”
Adlis jumped a little, and spun to see Kulgan leaning almost casually on the wall. Not quite casually, there was too much tension in his posture for him to really be relaxed, but far closer to it than Adlis was. His wings had decayed since she'd last seen him, and he'd put his shirt back on.
“So,” she said slowly, her mind still trying to take everything in, “these are the Graylands.”
Kulgan nodded. “Yes, indeed. Home sweet home.” He paused. “Where's Za?”
“I'm in still in here.” His scrawny arm poked out of the crevice to wave at them. “Is- Is it safe?”
“It's never safe in the Graylands,” Kulgan said. “Now get out here.”
Za obeyed, stepping hesitantly out of the crack and onto the ledge. Even with his enhanced senses, Adlis doubted he was able to “see” the environment like she could, but he at least was able to sense the drop in front of him and backed away just like she had. Her heart was pounding in her throat, and her palms were coated with sweat.
“Try not to touch anything with your bare skin, if you can,” Kulgan warned them.
With a yelp like she'd been burned, Adlis yanked her hands away from the wall.
“There's raw Vashiila all over the place,” the Ranger went on. “You ever wonder how black pendants Twist people?”
Adlis shook her head. She'd been thinking a lot about it lately, what with her present company, but she didn't feel like discussing it.
“Living souls.” After a moment's hesitation, he pulled his own pendant out from under his shirt. “When a living creature touches a piece of raw Vashiila, it sucks their soul right out of their body. They're stuck inside it from there on out, their body dead but their soul living on for eternity.”
Adlis looked at the tiny black stone, spinning lightly at the end of its string. Suddenly, it didn't look at all the way it had before. It looked worse.
“So that means that...”
Kulgan nodded once. “Yep. Some poor wolf hornet touched this before anything else did, and now it lives in here.” He flicked the pendant, making it swing back and forth. “It still works like any other moon shard, though. The difference is that when you Pierce with another shard, you absorb its elemental power. When you Pierce with a Vashiila shard...”
“You absorb its soul,” Adlis finished for him.
“Part of it,” Kulgan confirmed. “Just enough for it to start altering your body.”
Adlis' stomach turned over inside of her, and yet she found herself strangely curious. “How does it do that?”
Kulgan shrugged and put the pendant away. “Nobody knows for sure. Our best guess is that two different souls can't exist in the same body, so when a new one invades it starts to alter things to fit what it's comfortable with.” He leaned back against the wall again. “The Rangers lose more people to that than they do to the Shapeless.”
Adlis almost asked what a Shapeless was, but then decided she didn't want to know.
Kulgan’s eyes went vacant. “There’s only one rule when it comes to Twisting. Never Pierce your heart.”
Adlis blinked. “What difference does that make?”
“Because… it’s hard to explain. Your heart is where your soul lives. Like a control room, you could say. But there’s only room in there for one soul. If you Pierce yourself there, you’re letting the pendant’s soul right into the control room, and…” His voice trailed off.
“And what?” Adlis pressed him.
Kulgan shook his head. “Never mind.”
Adlis sighed, but reminded herself that she really didn’t want to know any of this in the first place. Let the Gray Rangers handle these things. All she wanted to do was get out.
“So what's the plan now?” she asked instead.
Kulgan glanced at the gate. “We stay here for a while. An hour, maybe two. Then, once the marshals are gone, we'll head back out. They'll think we ran and hid somewhere in the desert.” He cracked a smile. “Even though the gate was right there, this is the last place they'll think we ran to.”
Adlis and Za shared a look.
Kulgan frowned. “That is, of course, unless you two did something stupid out there.”
Adlis' ears turned a shade pinker. “We may have made some noise.”
“It was an accident Mr. Kulgan, honest!”
Kulgan blew a long breath out of his mouth and seemed to wilt a little. He closed his eyes and slumped against the wall.
“Well,” he said a minute later, “that complicates things.”
“Not by much,” Adlis shot back. “They still won't follow us in here, will they?”
“No, but they'll stay outside the gate long enough to make sure we don't come out.”
“Then we'll wait them out.”
Kulgan chuckled and shook his head. “Adlis, these are the d'yargo Graylands, and you're a couple of city slickers. If we don't come out immediately, we probably aren't coming out at all.”
Adlis' ears turned gray to match her surroundings. “Oh. Well... it doesn't seem too dangerous right now, does it?”
“Spoken like a pampered little puff.”
Her ears went from gray to yellow. “Mr. Kulgan, I think the situation is bad enough without you antagonizing me!”
He shrugged. “Maybe. You know what would be even worse? If your screaming attracted a Shapeless.”
Adlis backed down, her ears turning white yet again. “And here I thought you had changed!” she hissed, more quietly this time.
Kulgan paused for the briefest second, guilt flashing across his eyes, but then he shook his head.
“It's too late for me to change,” he said, taking a few steps away to stand by himself. His hand absently reached up and touched the bump that marked where his pendant was pressed against his chest.
Adlis folded her arms. “So, what do you suggest?”
“The only thing we can do: we wait. That is, unless you've changed your mind about making the whole journey through here.”
Her ears yellowed. “Don't make me slap you again.”
“Then we wait. We wait, and we hope that something nasty doesn't find us in the meantime.”
Is he talking about the Shapeless? Adlis wondered. The urge to ask what he meant arose again, but she pushed it away. The less she knew about this place, the sounder she would sleep at night.
“How long are we going to have to wait?” she asked.
“A day at least. Maybe more, depending on how determined they are to wait us out.” Kulgan chuckled. “If Tikta's with them, we may have to camp out for a week.”
Adlis felt her ears turn gray again. “But you'll be able to protect us, right? You're a Gray Ranger. This is what you do.”
Kulgan leaned against the wall, but she could see the way his eyes darted around. “I make no promises.”
“Wonderful,” she grumbled. Turning away from him, she looked out across the barren landscape again. The Graylands... the hidden country that only the Gray Rangers ever laid eyes on. In truth, she was having trouble believing she was really here. Just the thought of it was so surreal.
That wasn't the only thing, though. When she looked across the mountain range, everything seemed so... peaceful. Even the roiling clouds exuded a sense of turbulent monotony, like watching smoke billow from a campfire. The weather was neither warm nor cold, it was simply there. A gentle breeze tugged at her hair and her dress. Was this really the evil, chaotic place the priests had told her about? As ugly as it undeniably was, there was a strange beauty to it too. This was a world untouched by mortal hands, a world left to fend for itself and become whatever it wished. Not at all like what the Church of Embin had led her to believe.
“That's a dangerous line of thought,” Kulgan said.
She turned to look at him again. “What?”
Kulgan nodded toward the other mountains. “You were starting to think that this place isn't as bad as everyone says. That's dangerous. It may look peaceful now, but that's a trap. It's trying to lure you into a false sense of safety before it pounces on you.”
Adlis snorted, tossing a stray lock of hair out of her face. “You make it sound like the Graylands themselves are alive.”
She expected Kulgan to dismiss this as the inane prattling of a spoiled little puff, but the look he gave her sent a chill right down into her bones.
“Sometimes I think they are,” he said in a low voice.
Adlis waited for him to explain, but all he did was slide down the wall so that he was sitting and stare out over the spear-like peaks. Her ears turned gray again. That was strange as well. She was in the Graylands, the part of Tassendile that Embin himself had locked away to keep Vashiil’s Corruption from spreading. A place that had killed more creatures than could ever be counted, and continued to do so every day. Gray ears only meant mild unease. One would think being smack dab in the most accursed place on Haroz would warrant ears as white as polished snow.
Kulgan says we're not safe, but he's sitting down, she noted. If it were truly dangerous here, he'd be on full alert. Why, it looks like he's about to fall asleep!
Well, if their guide and former Gray Ranger could sit down in the Graylands, then Adlis could too. Adjusting her dress, she took a seat a few feet away from Kulgan. The Ranger glanced at her but didn't say anything.
“You said that time moves differently in here. How long will we have to wait for the marshals to leave?”
Kulgan shrugged. “Depends. How time moves in here comes from a lot of different factors. It could be a couple of hours, a couple days, or a couple weeks.”
The thought of staying in the Graylands for a week made Adlis' ears turn gray again. “Are you a Gray Ranger or not?”
“Then, shouldn't you know these things?”
With a sigh, Kulgan sat up a little straighter and looked her in the eye. “Sure, of course. Let me just climb to the top of this mountain so that I can compare the wind speed to the descent of the sun, then multiply it by the diameter of the bloodsplatter when I prick my thumb four and a quarter feet above the ground. After that, then maybe we'll have a rough estimate about the time difference.”
Adlis turned up her nose. “Well, if you're offering...”
“Go to the Pit. You and Za are the ones that gave away our position. However long we have to stay in here, it's your fault.”
Adlis blinked in surprise, her ears burning yellow. With a huff, she resolved to look at nothing but the gravelly stone floor until they left.
“Miss Adlis?” Za asked a few minutes later.
He titled his sackcloth covered head. “I think I hear something.”
A jolt of fright shot through her, and she sat up a little straighter. She could hear the breeze whistling in between the peaks, but other than that there was complete and utter, unnatural silence.
“I can't hear it,” she admitted. “What does it sound like?”
“Footsteps, Miss Adlis.”
“It's more Rangers coming to relieve the ones outside,” Kulgan spoke up.
Adlis was on her feet in an instant. “What are we still doing here, then?” she demanded. “We need to hide!”
Kulgan was much slower in getting up. “Maybe we could try jumping over the cliff.”
The very thought turned Adlis' ears white. Za was acting even antsier now, wringing his gloved hands and looking frantically in the direction Adlis guessed the noises must have been coming from. The narrow cliffside path ran straight for a good hundred feet, but then followed the curve of the mountain out of sight.
“Did you bring us here just to be caught again?” she demanded, spinning to confront the Ranger. Kulgan was still on his knees, rummaging through one of their packs.
“Of course not,” he snapped. “While you two were taking your sweet time coming through the gate, I was scouting out the area.”
He produced a coil of rope, a metal stake, and a hammer. Adlis' eyes widened, and she took a step back.
“You're insane!” she screeched. “You actually expect us to go over the side of the cliff?”
“There's another cave just a few feet below the ledge,” Kulgan said without looking up. Holding the rope firmly against the ground, he began to hammer the stake through it. “We can hide in there while they go through the gate.”
Za was still watching the path. “I think they're getting closer, Miss Adlis.”
“I- I dunno. The mountain's makin' their footsteps bounce around all crazy like.”
The clank of Kulgan's hammer echoed off the rock walls around them.
“This is bad,” Adlis said. Her ears turned even whiter. “If they go through the gate, they'll find what we did!”
“No, this is good,” Kulgan argued. “They'll go out there, find the marshals, and tell them they didn't see anybody on their way out. Everyone will assume we're dead. They'll be gone within the hour.”
Adlis eyed the rope. It looked strong enough, but the strength of the rope wasn't what she was worried about. With sweaty palms she glanced over the side of the cliff, and then backed away again when vertigo threatened to make her tumble forward. There was no way to know how high up they were with the mist obscuring the bases of the mountains, but it was more than enough to turn her into a smear on whatever rock she landed on.
“I'm not climbing down that rope, Kulgan,” she said.
Kulgan looked up at her with a smirk. “Right. And you're not going into the Graylands either.”
Adlis' ears took on a yellow tint. “That was entirely different!”
He tugged on the rope, giving a satisfied grunt. “You're right. Going into the cursed Graylands is nothing compared to climbing a few feet down the side of the cliff.”
“I will push you off the cliff if you don't start taking this seriously, Kulgan!”
Standing up, the smirk fell from his face and he gave her a dark look. “Who's the one not taking this seriously, Adlis? I promised to get you and Za home safe. I'm not playing around here. If I tell you to do something, it's because it's in all of our best interests.”
Despite the situation, Adlis' ears turned a shade pinker. “But...”
He pointed an accusing finger at her. “You're the one who keeps arguing with me. I get it, you don't like any of this. But if you want to survive your trip home, then you need to start shutting up and doing what I say!”
Adlis stood there for a few seconds, stunned. If it hadn't been for the approaching Rangers, she might have stared at him in shock all day. As it was, though, the sounds of panic snapped her out of it.
“We're almost there! Keep going!”
As one, all three of them spun to where the sounds had come from. Adlis could hear the slap of scaly feet on the mountain path, followed by a scream of horror.
“Artuaz!” one of the Rangers shouted.
Kulgan froze. “D'yargo! Adlis, get down the rope. Now!”
Adlis glanced at the rope and then back up at him. “What's going on?”
The Ranger's face has become as pale as Adlis' ears. “There's a Shapeless chasing them.”
The look in his eyes was nearly enough to make her panic by itself, and the sounds were getting even closer. Suddenly, the footsteps were drowned out by the most horrific noise Adlis had ever heard. As if a hundred different animals had been sewn together and were howling in unison.
“Wh- What's a Shapeless?” she asked, backing away.
Kulgan spun around and grabbed her by the shoulder, pulling her back to the rope. “It doesn't matter. Now get down there before it kills you!”
Adlis looked at the rope, nailed firmly into the ground, and then down over the cliff, So far...
“I... I can't,” she gasped, shaking her head violently. “I just can't!”
Kulgan's grip on her arm tightened. “Yes you can,” he growled, leaning in closer to her.
Another one of the Rangers screamed, and the Shapeless, whatever it was, howled again.
“You first,” she said.
Kulgan blinked. “What?”
“You go first, then I'll follow you.”
Kulgan looked over his shoulder. The voices sounded like they were nearly at the corner.
“Fine,” he finally spat. Grabbing one of the bags, he slung it onto his shoulder and hopped over the ledge. Adlis gasped, but he grabbed the rope at the last second. Looking back up at her, he said, “Just keep your feet on the wall and slide down. You'll be fine. Now come on!”
He did just as he had instructed her, sliding down the rope with one hand holding the sack before dropping out of sight into the cave he had mentioned.
Another scream split the air.
“Okay,” she whispered to herself, drying her palms on her dress. “Okay.”
Kneeling down, she picked up the rope. Kulgan may have been crazy enough to just jump off the cliff, but Adlis wasn't sure she could bring herself to do it with both hands around the rope.
“Miss Adlis, we gotta hurry!” Za exclaimed.
Adlis looked up just as a single kashnila raced around the bend, a terrified looking Gray Ranger on its back. Hot on the lizard's heels was...
“Oh, holy Embin,” Adlis whispered.
The creature chasing the Ranger defied explanation. Utterly formless, like flesh made liquid, the creature crawled and slid across the mountain path after its prey at an alarming speed. Its skin was a pale, sickly gray, just like everything here seemed to be. Adlis knew she ought to start climbing, but she couldn't tear her eyes off the nightmarish apparition.
Even as she watched, a dozen limbs burst forth from the monster's front, if it even had a front. They scrabbled on the ground, grabbing anything they could, and dragged the monster after the fleeing Ranger. What looked like a Kashni's head rose from its fleshy mounds, like a gas bubble rising from a swamp. It opened its mouth and let out an unnatural howl before melting back into the thing's body only to be replaced by a zik's head.
Suddenly, Adlis understood exactly why Kulgan called them the Shapeless.
“Miss Adlis!” Za interrupted her thoughts. “What are you doin'? We gotta go!”
Adlis blinked, and then nodded. “R- Right. Come on, Za!”
As she grasped the rope tight in both hands and looked down, she found the fall didn’t frighten her nearly as much anymore.
“Hurry up before it sees you!” Kulgan yelled from down below. Adlis looked, and saw him standing at the mouth of the cave with one of his guns drawn, but as long as the Shapeless remained above on the path he was as helpless as the rest of them.
Stepping off the edge of the cliff, Adlis loosened her grip on the rope as much as she dared. She abruptly slid a few feet down, her shoes grinding against the mountain, and instinctively tightened her grip so quickly that the jarring stop nearly jerked her free of the rope entirely. She gasped, clenching her eyes shut.
“Adlis, hurry!” she heard Kulgan yell at her. “I'm right here. Just a little further!”
Even though her hands felt like their fingers had been welded together, somehow she managed to pry them loose from the rope and slip another few inches downward. The journey was slower this time, and when she paused she was able to work up the courage the open her eyes again...
Just in time to see the Ranger spot them.
“What in the Pit?” he asked, reining his kashnila in to keep from running over Za. “What's going—”
He didn't get to finish, because the Shapeless rose up and threw itself on him like a tidal wave of flesh. Both the Ranger and his kashnila were buried underneath it, but even the Shapeless' innumerable folds of skin couldn't drown out his scream of horror. Even that faded within a few seconds, and when the beast flattened itself again there wasn't so much as a bump to show where the Ranger's body had been.
“Embin protect us,” Adlis whispered with eyes wide.
“M... Miss Adlis?” another frightened voice asked.
With a gasp, Adlis looked up and realized that Za was still up there with it. And with the Ranger taken care of, now it turned its attention to him.
“Climb, Za!” she screamed. “Take the rope! Hurry!”
Za clambered to do what she said while Kulgan cursed from below. He grabbed the rope between two glove hands just as the Shapeless surged forward toward its new prey. He leaped over the edge with a yelp— and Adlis realized too late that she was still directly below him. His feet came down on her shoulders, and light as he may have been, Adlis still couldn't support both of them. Her hands came free of the rope. She opened her mouth to scream—
Their descent was suddenly halted when Kulgan's strong hands caught them both, Za by his collar and Adlis by the back of her dress. The air was jerked from Adlis' lungs, and when she opened her eyes all she could see was the bottomless cliff below her.
“Pull us up!” she shrieked. “Pull us up!”
“I'm trying,” he grunted, straining. He was lying flat on his belly on the cave floor. Holding both Adlis and Za in each arm, he wasn't able to lift them up, so instead he began to inch his way backwards, hoping he could drag them into the cave with him.
Another blood chilling howl came from above them, and Adlis craned her neck around to see the Shapeless looming over the edge of the cliff. It began to send tendrils of flesh down toward them, like a melted candle overflowing its candelabra.
“Kulgan, it's coming!” she screamed.
“What?” He looked up as well. “D'yargo!”
“Pull us up, Mr. Kulgan!” Za begged, hanging as limp as a ragdoll from him grip. “Hurry!”
Kulgan didn't move.
“Kulgan!” Adlis screamed again.
Slowly, he shook his head. It was getting even closer.
“It'll get us,” he whispered.
Adlis saw the haunted look on his face.
“No escape,” he said, so low she could barely hear him. “Never let them touch you. Never...”
Even more of the Shapeless began to spill over the cliff, sensing easy prey. Eyes appeared in its fleshy tentacles to look at them.
“Kulgan, what are you doing?” she asked.
He turned to look at her. His eyes were big, and filled with fear and sadness.
“I'm sorry,” he said.
She didn't get to finish, because he threw himself over the edge of the cliff, bringing Adlis and Za with him. Together, all three of them fell down, down, down, into the mist, into darkness.
NEXT TIME: The end! OR DID I?! (dun dun DUNNNNNN!)