“Shh!” the zik maiden hissed.
Sharp, cold stone pressed in on her from both sides so tightly that she couldn’t even turn around to look at Za. It was like she was back in Forbidden Gate Tarz, except this one, somehow, was even smaller. A fraction of the bleak Grayland sky was visible in front of them, a sliver of gray just big enough to see by. The air was putrid and stale. Kulgan said the gases that rose from the depths of the Graylands were toxic, but promised them they would be safe if they were only in there for a few minutes. For once, to her own disbelief, Adlis hadn’t argued before squeezing her way inside. Even so, she took as shallow breaths as she could. Not just because of the poison in the air, but because the tiny cave was so tight that it actually hurt her chest to breathe.
That, and because she didn’t want it to hear her.
The sound of slithering flesh filled the air, audible even from inside the cave, and she stopped breathing entirely. Za was standing only a couple of inches behind her, and she could feel him trembling. It had been harder to get him inside, since without his coat and hat the rough stone walls scraped painfully on the skin beneath his shirt. He’d given up in the end, because a few scrapes were vastly preferable to what waited for them outside.
The Shapeless dragged itself in front of the mouth of the cave, a hulking black shadow in the weak gray light. She couldn’t see much of it, the opening was too small, but the way it rolled, stretched, and undulated was unmistakable. It moaned, a hundred voices all chorusing their displeasure together.
“Go in there and wait,” Kulgan had ordered them not five minutes ago. “Don’t come out until I tell you to. I’m going to lead it away.”
The Ranger had obviously failed to do his job, since the creature was right outside their hiding spot. Za gasped weakly when he saw it, and Adlis worried that he would start whimpering. If he did that, the Shapeless would find them for sure.
Why is it here? she wondered. What the Pit is Kulgan doing? Is… Is he even still out there?
She didn’t think that Kulgan had abandoned them, but what if the Shapeless had caught him? If that was the case, then the two of them would be stuck here forever. Either that, or the Shapeless would find them, and…
Adlis shook her head as best she could in the cramped confines of the cave. She couldn’t let herself think like that. It hadn’t even been a whole day since they’d escaped Jordaku, and she was already resigning herself to another life of imprisonment in here.
Even so, the Shapeless didn’t budge. It sat where it was, writhing. A stench emanated from it powerful enough to make Adlis’ ears turn green with disgust. It was like being stuck in a mausoleum filled with corpses on a sweltering summer day. She could hear Za trying not to wretch behind her. And still there was no sign of Kulgan.
Za was shaking harder than ever now, and Adlis didn’t blame him. She wanted to tell him that it was okay, the Shapeless didn’t know they were there, but… how good was a Shapeless’ hearing? Did it need to grow ears to hear? Would it make a difference what kind of ears they were? Or could it just sense noise around it? She couldn’t risk it. How horrible would it be if the words she spoke to comfort her friend were what alerted the monster to their presence?
An eye appeared in the Shapeless’ undulating body. It fell on them, dilating in surprise, and the entire creature went perfectly still for a second.
Kulgan, Adlis thought, if that thing eats me, I’m going to personally make it hunt you down and eat you too!
As if waiting for its cue, the sound of a gunshot echoed across the Graylands. The Shapeless immediately forgot about them, instead growing a dozen new eyes to find what had made the noise. When it didn’t immediately move, a second gunshot rang out. With a howl, the monster finally gave chase.
Adlis slumped over, breathing a sigh of relief. “That was too close,” she whispered.
“C- Can we get outta here now, Miss Adlis?” Za asked, hesitantly.
“No. Kulgan said to wait here until he came back.”
Kulgan fired three more times over the next few minutes, each one getting farther and farther away. Then there was silence for about ten minutes.
Za was bouncing anxiously on the balls of his feet. “Do you think…”
“I’m sure he’s fine, Za.”
Sure enough, a moment later the telltale thrum of Kulgan’s wings reached her ears. The Gray Ranger landed in front of the cave mouth, only a silhouette framed by the weak gray sun.
“You two all right?” he called in.
“Yes,” she answered. “Though you took your sweet time in doing anything, didn’t you?”
Kulgan shrugged. “Come on out.”
That was all the encouragement Adlis needed. Hiking up her skirts a little, she squeezed her way back out of the narrow cave. As soon as she was out, Za practically pushed her out of the way, falling to his knees, hyperventilating.
“Embin’s name!” Adlis exclaimed, kneeling next to him. “Are you all right?”
“D- D- Don’t like them tight spots, Miss Adlis,” he gasped, painted eyes staring at the ground .”H- Hate ‘em!”
Kulgan ignored the panicking simmk, turning to look out into the distance. “I led it a few miles away from here. We should be safe now.”
As concerned as she was about Za, Adlis still had to ask, “Will it be back?”
“If it followed us this far, it’s safe to say it’ll keep following us. We shouldn’t have to worry, though. By the time it makes it back here, we’ll already be gone.”
After a few minutes, Za finally got himself under control enough to stand up, and the journey continued. The barren wasteland had changed little over the course of the day’s hike, still nothing but gray rolling hills as far as the eye could see. The Pit was clearly visible, and if Adlis turned around, she could make out the mountains they had come here from.
A stray thought occurred to her, and she furrowed her brow.
Adlis wasn’t the only one lost in thought.
Just stay calm, Kulgan told himself. You don’t have to go anywhere near her. In fact, she probably isn’t even there anymore.
He had repeated those lines inside his head more times than he could count over the course of the day. Even when he had baited the Shapeless away from Adlis and Za, that had been at the forefront of his mind. And no matter how many times he thought it, the words never sounded any less empty.
“Mr. Kulgan?” the zik girl asked.
“Hmm?” Kulgan replied without turning around or breaking stride.
“Why did we come out in the mountains?”
Kulgan blinked. “Come again?”
“Back where we came through the forbidden gate,” she clarified. “We were in the middle of the desert, and the gate led into an underground tunnel. When we came out the other side, though, we were on top of a mountain.”
Kulgan raised an eyebrow. “Out all the things you’ve seen here, that’s what you’re curious about?”
“Well, I just…” Adlis spluttered. Her ears turned pink. “I… I don’t want to think about anything else, all right?”
She ducked her head, looking at the ground, and Kulgan felt a twinge of sympathy. She was holding up well, all things considered. Certainly better than Za, the jumpy, trembly thing that he was.
With a shrug, he said, “Fine. How much do you know about how the Graylands were made?”
“It's just like you said: Vashiil crashed into Haroz and corrupted the land.”
“No. That's how everything started, but that's not how the Graylands were made.”
Adlis' ears turned a light shade of yellow with irritation. “All right, Mr. Know-It-All. Educate me.”
“Easier said than done,” Kulgan grumbled. “D'yargo, how do I explain this?”
Why not quote it straight from the source?
He took a deep breath. “The Words of Order, Chapter of Separation, Passage Forty Eight: And upon that day, there was a great calamity. The moon Vashiil betrayed the Organizer and smote itself on Tassendile.”
Adlis and Za exchanged a look, and the simmk shrugged. Kulgan ignored them. This passage was so familiar to him that it was practically engraved on his heart. He could recite it in his sleep. Any Gray Ranger could, because it was the cornerstone of who they were and everything they did.
“Thus Vashiil cast forth a terrible shadow: a Corruption of all that was good. A plague fell upon the land, and all those who were in its path were twisted by it. The ground turned gray and the air was black as soot, and the people cried out 'tis the end.’ No warrior could fight this enemy, and no whispers could calm its wrath. The witches and sorcerers alone found comfort in the shadow of the unnatural. Vashiil found them pleasing in its sight, for they had already forsaken that which was good and pure, and so spared them.”
Kulgan looked at Adlis from the corner of his eye. Sure enough, her ears paled when she heard that verse.
He went on, “For seventy five days and seventy five nights, Vashiil corrupted Tassendile, and there was no one to contest it. Then lo, upon the dawn of the seventy sixth day, from the village of Prallance, which is now called Embraus, came the Organizer made Flesh, Embin. He carried a chain forged from the light of the dawning sun, and with it He struck Vashiil as if with a lash and cast it deep within the ground. But from its Pit, Vashiil continued to corrupt the land, and the people cried ‘who art thou that giveth us this hope, only to take it away?’ Thus, Embin, perfect is His name, took the land that Vashiil had corrupted and cast it away. Tassendile shook, and the people cried out, and the grounds were connected. And lo, a fourth of the land was lost. 'Hence,' said He, 'these lands are cursed. Never shall man nor woman cross over, save for those my disciples choose to ensure the dark moon never escapes. Do this thing, and thou shalt all be safe.'“
Kulgan turned to look at Adlis. “Now do you get it?”
“You...” Adlis shook her head, “really like the Words of Order?”
Kulgan's mouth curled down bitterly. “You really don't have any respect for the sacred, do you?”
“Seeing as how you're a Twister, I'd say you don't either.”
Kulgan stopped short. She had him there.
“Anyway,” he continued, “that's the story of how the Graylands were created. When Vashiil landed, it was pretty close to the center of Tassendile. Maybe it was coincidence. Me, I think it crashed there on purpose because it'd give it easier access to the rest of the country.”
“So,” Adlis interjected, “you actually believe that the Great Moons are alive?”
Kulgan raised his eyebrow. “They don’t follow a set path like the Nameless Moon, they just wander over Tassendile with a mind of their own. And they only ever shine on Tassendile—none of our neighboring countries, not even on the ocean just beyond Tassendile. They always drop new shards on exactly the same day, at exactly the same time, in exactly the same place every year. How can you look at all that and still think they're not alive?”
Adlis only shrugged. “They're just a bunch of rocks in the sky.”
Kulgan nodded sarcastically. “Right. And you're just a pile of fur wearing a dress.”
Adlis opened her mouth to reply, but Za was in front of her before she could. “Don't you be sayin' thing like that 'bout Miss Adlis, you hear? She ain't just fur. She's a—”
“Za.” She put her hand on his shoulder. “It's all right.”
Za deflated a bit, like he hadn't even realized what was coming out of his mouth, and then nodded and stepped back. Adlis flashed Kulgan an angry look, her ears changing color to confirm how she felt.
“If you don't mind,” she huffed, “please refrain from personal insults when I'm trying to have a civilized discussion with you.”
That stopped Kulgan right in his tracks, and he stared at the zik girl with wide eyes.
He pointed at her. “But you're the one who—”
“Can we please get back on topic, Mr. Kulgan?”
Kulgan let his hand fall back to his side and shook his head.
Should've left her in Jordaku.
“Anyway,” he said again, forcing himself to let it go, “Embin came around and tried to destroy it with his dawniron chain.” His hand unconsciously went down and patted Zam, holstered at his side.”
The volcano in the distance rumbled ominously.
“Yeah, I know you can hear us,” Kulgan yelled at it. “Deal with it!”
Adlis edged closer to Za, her ears a little grayer than before.
“It- It can't actually hear us from here, can it?” she asked, giving the lone mountain a worried look.
Kulgan smirked. “Not if it’s just a lifeless hunk of rock, it can't.”
Adlis blinked, then collected herself in a huff. “Why are we just standing here? Aren't we going somewhere?”
Kulgan snickered, but took the lead again anyway. While he walked, he continued his story, “When Vashiil kept on Twisting the land, well... nobody's sure what Embin did then. Not exactly. He took all the land that Vashiil had corrupted, and just... separated it from the rest of Tassendile.”
He left off at that, and gave Adlis a minute to let that sink in. After a little while, she shook her head.
“I don't understand,” she admitted.
“Neither do I. Neither do the priests. Neither does anybody. All we know is that all this,” he waved his hands around again, “suddenly stopped being a part of Tassendile. And, rather than just leave a big gaping hole where the Graylands used to be, Embin brought the ground together.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Exactly what I said. A good fourth of Tassendile got turned into the Graylands, and it was right in the middle of the country. So Embin lassoed what was left with his chain and pulled it all together to be one single piece of land again. People say that if you looked down at Tassendile from the Nameless Moon, it would all be warped and misshapen because of that.”
He paused for a second. It had been years since he'd been here last, but to his Ranger eyes he could recognize it as if he'd lived here all his life. Those crags in the ground, that boulder in the distance... they were close.
He pointed to an object, still blurry in the distance. “There. That's where we're going.”
Adlis leaned forward, hand over her brow and eyes squinting. “I don't see anything.”
“I know you don't.” Kulgan set off again. “Come on, let's go.”
“Are you planning on telling us what's out there?” the zik maiden asked, chasing after him.
“And what's on the other side of the gate?”
“Not the Graylands. That's all that matters.”
Adlis huffed. “Fine. Be that way, then.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes. For once, Kulgan wished that Adlis would start running her mouth again. If he was focused on answering her incessant questions, it would take his mind off where he was going. As it was, he had nothing to do but count the number of backflips his stomach was doing.
To his surprise, it was Za who spoke up next. “You didn't never explain why that gate put us in the mountains, though.”
He never begs my pardon or calls me sir anymore, Kulgan realized. In fact, he almost treats me like an equal. Interesting.
“Well?” Adlis asked expectantly.
Kulgan scoffed. “You still haven't figured it out? All of this used to be part of Tassendile. The gates were here as soon as the Graylands were made.” He shrugged. “Nobody knows why Embin left the gates here. Maybe he didn't have enough power to separate the Graylands entirely. Maybe there has to be a connection. Unlike the ground, though, the gates stayed right where they were when he pulled Tassendile back together. So...”
He looked at Adlis.
Adlis bit her lip. “So... where the gates are now is where they were when the Graylands were first made?”
Kulgan nodded. “So why would a gate in the desert put us in the middle of the mountains?”
“Because...” She faltered.
“Because there were mountains there before Embin pulled everythin’ together!” Za blurted out.
Kulgan looked at the simmk in surprise. “That's right.”
Adlis looked even more stunned than Kulgan did. When she realized Kulgan was looking at her again, she collected herself as quickly as she could.
“Well... thank you, Za,” she said snootily. “But one mustn't interrupt a lady. Honestly, how are you ever going to survive in civilized society if you keep forgetting these kinds of things?”
Za wilted again under her harsh words, and Kulgan felt an unexpected twinge of sympathy for the simmk.
“Relax,” he said over his shoulder. “She's just mad because you figured it out before she did.”
Za looked up in surprise, and Adlis' ears turned red with indignation. “Mr. Kulgan, I'll have you know that my father had me very well educated, and I don't appreciate you insinuating that I am as stupid as a common simmk! I would like you to—”
“You think I'm stupid, Miss Adlis?”
Both of them stopped, and turned around to see Za lagging behind them. Even without a face, his stooped back and trembling knees told Kulgan exactly what the masked creature was thinking. Adlis' ears immediately turned from red to blue.
“Oh no,” she whispered. More loudly, she said, “Za, no, I didn't mean that! You- You're a very intelligent young man!”
Za pointed at her. “But you just said...”
“I didn't mean it. I was just angry. Za, please don't be mad at me!”
While the two of them bickered, Kulgan took a step back and crossed his arms, content to stay out of this particular argument. Adlis bustled over to where Za stood, her ripped and torn dress trailing behind her. Za tried to shy away from her, but she grabbed him by his hand. He looked far less imposing without his coat—and Za was hardly an imposing figure to begin with.
“I think you're brilliant, Za, I really do,” she whispered, clutching his bony, gloved hand in both of hers. “Now come on, we need to get out of here.”
Slowly, reluctantly, Za let the zik maiden lead him onward.
I wonder who she blames for this outburst? Kulgan thought as they came to rejoin him. Sure enough, Adlis gave him an acidic glare as soon as she was finished whispering comforting nothings into the simmk's ear. You'd better get over that, Adlis. You're going to make a lousy governor if you keep passing your problems off onto everyone else.
He didn't say anything, though. Adlis was right about one thing: they needed to get out of here as quickly as possible. It was a miracle that they'd made it this far alive, and he didn't want to press his luck. An argument would only slow them down. Besides, he didn't give a snake's tail how well Adlis led her people. As long as she kept her promise and gave him sanctuary from the church, local zik politics didn't mean a thing to him.
Then again, if she's worthless as a leader, then who's to say she'll be able to...
He cut off that line of thought, and turned to lead them onward.
“It's just a little bit further,” he said.
They came upon the gate just a few minutes later. A short, squat hill, no different than any of the others. What set it apart was the man-sized hole at the base, framed by aging, gray timbers.
Adlis paused. “Is that...”
“An old mineshaft?” Kulgan finished for her. “Why yes, it is. Come on.”
Za made as if to follow him, but Adlis' grip on his arm halted him. “Is that safe? That place has to be thousands of years old!”
Kulgan smirked. “You keep asking me that. How many times do I have to tell you? You're—”
“I know, I know, we're in the Graylands.” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Nothing is safe.”
He pointed at her. “There you go. But seeing everything we've already been through, would you really rather turn around and go back than go underground for a few minutes?”
Adlis gave a wary glance behind her. Kulgan didn’t have to ask to know she was thinking about the Shapeless. He had meant what he’d said earlier about it coming back for them. Their hunger was ravenous and eternal. It had spotted prey, and wouldn’t stop until it caught them, or lost their trail completely. Fortunately, that was exactly what the mineshaft was going to do.
Adlis sighed again, but nodded her consent. With a determined step, Kulgan led the way into the old mine.
“Za, take Adlis' hand,” he said as they passed into the shadows, leaving the bleak light of day behind. “She won't be able to see, so it'll be up to you to guide her. Got it?”
“Uh, yessir,” Za said, momentarily forgetting his loathing for the Twisted Ranger.
Adlis vanished from sight, but her voice was still crystal clear when she asked, “How far in is the gate? Aren't you worried about getting lost?”
“We collapsed the other tunnels the last time we were here. Even if we hadn't, I'm a Ranger. I could walk the path from sheer memory.”
“But what about—”
“And we rigged the entire place with explosives, so you don’t have to worry about monsters either.”
Adlis gave a strange half-scream, half-gasp sound, but he ignored her. He continued through the manmade cave, his pace not slowing a bit despite the utter lack of light. Even so, he put one hand out in front of him, and the other on his gun. It had been years since he'd been here. No use taking unnecessary risks.
“I thought you said nobody knew about this gate,” Adlis said a minute later.
Kulgan groaned and rolled his eyes. “Yes, I did say that.”
“Then who's the we you keep talking about?”
Kulgan paused. “Nobody you need to worry about.”
And, hopefully, nobody you ever need to meet.
It wasn't much longer before a bright glimmer of light became visible in the distance. He heard Adlis gasp when she spotted it, and had to hold out his hand to keep her from dashing away.
“Don't go running off,” he ordered her.
“And why not?” she shot back, sounding positively desperate to leave the overwhelming darkness behind. “Didn't you say there was nothing to worry about?”
“Because that’s what got you stuck in Jordaku!” Kulgan snapped, his face turning red. “Now get behind me and Pitting stay there!”
She must have felt the anger in his words, because she backed off without another word. Nodding, Kulgan led the rest of the way to the growing circle of light until they emerged from the mineshaft. The sun was so bright that Kulgan flinched when he stepped into its warm gaze. And yet, the heat wasn't able to mask the cool, gentle breeze on his face, or the sound of rustling plants.
Adlis didn't fare much better. As soon as she stepped out of the mineshaft, she let go of Za and clamped both hands over her eyes. “Oh, that hurts!”
“Keep them closed for a while,” Kulgan advised her. “The sun in the Graylands isn't as bright as in the real world. If you take it all in at once, you could hurt your eyes.”
Adlis nodded and kept her hands over her eyes. Za may not have had eyes, but he wasn’t doing much better. He kept flinching, hissing in pain. He would try to tug one sleeve down so that the skin on his wrist wasn’t exposed, but in doing so would undo what he’d just done to the other sleeve. Already, angry red welts were sprouting on his blue skin.
I'll have to find him a new coat, Kulgan thought, and then turned to survey the area.
The sight that greeted him was about as different from the Taksten desert as it could be, and even moreso than the wasteland they had just left. Gently rolling hills rose and fell all around him, like an ocean that had been turned to soil, and waist high grasses waved back and forth in the breeze. After spending more than a year in the desert, this much green hurt his eyes almost as much as the sun did.
And yet, he couldn't detect a single sign of anybody else nearby.
Kulgan sighed in relief.
“We- We really made it out?” Adlis asked. She seemed more stunned by this than anything else.
Kulgan nodded. “Hard to believe, isn't it?”
Her eyes still hadn't adjusted all the way, so he took her by the shoulder to guide her a few steps. “Come on. The nearest town is a day’s walk away, but we can still—”
He put his foot down, and the ground beneath him gave way. With a shout, he toppled forward into the pit, bringing Adlis with him, who in turn pulled Za down. They fell for a few feet, and then landed in a pile on a net that had been strung up about halfway down the pit.
“What was that?” Adlis immediately demanded, trying to stand up and promptly falling back over again. “Kulgan, what—”
She tried to get up again, and Kulgan rolled over on top of her. Before she could ask, he clamped his hand over her mouth.
“It's a trap,” he whispered. “Don't move. There are wooden stakes at the bottom, and if the net comes loose... understand?”
Adlis' ears paled, and she nodded. When Kulgan took his hand away, she stayed still.
“What... What is this?” she asked, eyes wide with fear. “Who would put a trap like this right outside the gate?”
“Any Gray Ranger with a smidge of common sense,” Kulgan grumbled.
The sound of footsteps came from above them, and all three travelers fell silent. A moment later, a dark silhouette appeared at the edge of the hole. None of them could make out anything about it, but the gleam of the sun on the barrel of its rifle was easily recognizable.
“Well, well, well,” a feminine voice said. “Look who decided to come crawling back.”
With a groan, Kulgan closed his eyes and ran his hand through his messy gray hair. He managed to put on a weak, unconvincing smile.
“Hey, honey! I'm home!”
NEXT TIME: Honey? That’s a weird Tassendillian name. You don’t suppose… ohhh, shooooot!