It was, by Adlis' best estimates, around midnight when Kulgan finally changed back. Telling time was difficult in the Graylands, since the sun and moon were both mere shades of their true selves up in the bleak, gray skies. She and Za sat side by side with their backs against the mountain, eating a sparse meal of cheese and water and not saying a word to each other. Kulgan hadn't moved an inch from his hiding spot behind the rock, and Adlis was content to leave him alone for now.
The darkness was like someone had thrown a mattress on top of Adlis, slowly smothering her under its weight. Occasionally a strange sound would break the eerie silence, making her and Za both jump. It was enough to make Adlis' ears turn white, but still neither of them did anything to light up their makeshift campsite. Kulgan may not have been able to boss them around right now, but they were smart enough, at least, to know that a campfire would be like a beacon to the Graylands' demented inhabitants.
Suddenly, a new sound joined the others: a series of bloodcurdling pops, crunches, and grunts of pain. A chill ran down Adlis' spine, but she made herself sit with as much dignity as she could anyway and wait. Za, on the other hand, began to rise, his body rigid with tension.
“Sit down,” she ordered him gently, putting a hand on his shoulder and pushing him back onto his rear.
“We need to go, Miss Adlis,” he whispered frantically.
“Not without Kulgan.”
“But Miss Adlis! You didn't see him when he—”
She leaned in close and whispered, “Za, if you haven't noticed, we are in the d'yargo Graylands! What do you think would happen to us if we ran off without Kulgan? Where would we go?”
The simmk wilted a bit, but was still as tense as a coiled spring. “But he's a Twister, Miss Adlis.”
She nodded. “I know, but given our current circumstances, I think our best option is to stay with the Twister rather than get lost in the Graylands without a guide.”
Za whined pitifully, but didn't protest when Adlis turned to face the rock expectantly. For a minute, nothing moved.
“Kulgan?” she finally asked. “Are you all right?”
The Ranger's reply came, soft and strangely timid. “Get me some clothes.”
Adlis raised her eyebrow. “Why do you... oh.”
She'd only had a couple seconds to take him in when she'd come back to her senses, but she remembered how tattered his clothes had been. Obviously, Vashiila didn't Twist one's clothes along with their body.
“They're in one of the bags,” he said without so much as poking his head around the stone.
Adlis nodded and rose to do as he asked. They had lost most of their bags during the Shapeless attack, but somehow Kulgan had managed to keep hold of two. One had some meager food supplies, nowhere near what he had pilfered from Hammeth, and the other had a few various other supplies. Amongst them she found a shirt, a pair of pants, and two brown leather boots.
“Here,” she said, fishing them out. “Where should I...”
“Just- Just set them by the rock,” Kulgan told her. The embarrassment was so thick in his voice that Adlis' ears began to turn pink in sympathy. She did as he said, and then hurriedly took a few steps backward so that she was standing next to Za again. He had gotten to his feet, too.
A hand, pink skinned and very human, peeked around the side of the stone and snatched the clothes. Nobody said anything for the next few minutes, but Adlis could hear the rustle of fabric and zippers being done up. Finally, with head hung low, Kulgan stepped out to join them. He made eye contact with Adlis for less than a second, and then looked away, cringing, like he expected someone to hit him.
Probably not an unwarranted reaction for a Twister, she thought.
When nobody moved, Adlis finally took the initiative and sat down, motioning for the two men to do the same. Za sat beside her, watching the Twister suspiciously, but Kulgan remained standing.
Adlis sighed. “I don't think we're going anywhere until morning, so you may as well sit down, Kulgan.”
He nodded, the movement so small that Adlis almost didn't see it, and then sat crosslegged across from her. He was still staring intently at his kneecaps. There were dark circles under his eyes, and the way his back hunched over made him look like he had aged forty years in the past few hours.
Another unseen creature roared in the distance, making Adlis start. Kulgan didn't so much as flinch.
“So,” she finally said, reaching for the bag with their rations, “we've got some cheese. A- Are you hungry?”
Of course he's hungry, she snapped at herself. He didn't eat any breakfast this morning either. He's probably starving!
Kulgan shook his head.
Adlis lowered her hand. “Oh. How about some water?”
“I'm sorry you had to see that,” he blurted out without looking at her.
Adlis' mouth snapped shut. No need to ask what he meant.
“It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I didn't see any other way to get us out of there alive,” he went on. “At first I only wanted to grow my wings, but I couldn’t concentrate…”
He looked down at his arm. It was still covered in ugly burns, but somehow looked a little better than it had before.
“The titantula threw me off, and I couldn't focus enough to only do the wings, so I was... I had to just let the pendant take me.” His hand reached up and felt the bump beneath his shirt where his pendant hung. “I Pierced, and I let it do whatever it wanted. It nearly turned me all the way into a wolf hornet, but I got my wings. Because of that, I was able to...” His voice faltered, like he was about to start crying. What a strange thought, the big, tough Gray Ranger bursting into tears like a little schoolmaid. “Adlis, I'm sorry.”
Za nodded, like this was to be expected, but Adlis leaned forward with eyes wide. “Why on Haroz are you apologizing to us?”
“You had to see me. The real me.”
This was the second time in one day she'd seen Kulgan like this. Beaten down, spirit broken, his rebellious streak crushed. Strangely, seeing him like this bothered her more than anything she'd seen so far in the Graylands. The thought was strange. He had done almost nothing but antagonize her ever since they'd started their journey. One would think she'd have been grateful for the break.
Instead, she felt the opposite. Kulgan's facade had been torn open, and she was seeing the real him now. Not the sarcastic Ranger who always had an insult ready... the hurting, lonely, ashamed young man who had been driven out of civilized society, abandoned by everyone and everything he cared about.
“When you turned into a bug?” she asked, trying to sound dismissive. “So what?”
“Don't give me that!” Kulgan snapped. He looked up at her, and Adlis was taken aback by the emotions she saw burning in his eyes. Anger, disgust, hatred, fear— but, she realized, none of them were directed at her. “I saw your face when you looked at me. You think I'm a monster like everyone else!”
Adlis' ears turned a shade bluer, but she doubted Kulgan noticed.
“And you're right,” he said.
With that, he stood up and walked away. Adlis reached out for him, but before she could ask, he said, “You two get some sleep. We have a long walk tomorrow.”
Oh, right, she realized. Out loud, she asked, “What's our plan now? Climb the mountain?”
Kulgan shook his head without turning around. “No. We could do that, but the mountain is probably crawling with monsters.”
Adlis shivered. “Like that Shapeless?”
“Yeah, and others.”
Za whimpered, and Adlis shifted uncomfortably on the hard stone ground. She had already encountered two kinds of the Graylands' predators in a matter of hours. What else did this place have to offer? She didn't want to know, but she got the feeling she was going to find out anyway.
“There's another place we can go,” Kulgan went on. “Someplace closer.”
Adlis cocked her head. “Where?”
“I... can't say. Grayland geography wouldn't make sense to you anyway. It's another gate, though. We can use it to get out of here faster than if we climbed back to the top of the mountain.”
She thought about this for a minute, and then nodded. Coming here had never been what she wanted to do, which made getting out top priority. She wasn't sure how she felt about using yet another Forbidden Gate to get there, especially when Kulgan wouldn't tell her where it led, but the fact that it was closer than the one at the top of the mountain chased away her objections.
“All right,” she said with a nod. “I'll trust you.”
Kulgan visibly flinched when she said this.
“Get some sleep,” he said after a few seconds' hesitation.
Sleep sounded wonderful. There were no sheets or blankets to lie on, only the bare stone, but Adlis didn't feel like that would be a problem. Part of her felt like that was wrong— not because of how uncomfortable the ground would be, but because of what she had seen in the last twenty four hours. First the Kashni had cut his throat, then four Rangers had been devoured by the Shapeless. After Kulgan had thrown them to what should have been their doom off the side of the mountain, she had woken up to an army of spiders bigger than she was, mummifying her as a snack for their mother. Add to that the fact that she'd ended the day by watching Kulgan turn into a giant insect himself, and the very idea that she would ever be able to sleep again just seemed absurd. And yet, as she lay down on the rough, craggy stones, she could already feel her eyelids growing heavy. She would fall asleep as soon as she rested her head, and that sleep would be deep and mercifully dreamless.
And yet, when she looked up at Kulgan, standing guard at the edge of what passed for their camp, her ears turned blue in sympathy. He was obviously just as tired as she and Za were. Probably even more so, she realized. While she had been busy being carried around by the mother titantula, Kulgan had been the one to free Za and then fight the colossal spider all by himself. Apart from catching him that one time, Za hadn't been much more help than her.
I'm surprised Za's taking all this so well, she thought, watching him fold his arms behind his head, eyes staring sightlessly up at the dark sky. With his coat lost, that only made how scrawny he was even more obvious. He was a timid creature. All simmks were, that's why they made such wonderful servants. How he had managed to spend even a single day in the Graylands without losing his mind was beyond her.
Still, something needed to be done about Kulgan.
“Za?” she said, sitting up.
The simmk jumped when he heard his name, and turned to her in confusion. “Yes, Miss Adlis? Is somethin' wrong?”
She looked again at Kulgan's haggard appearance. “Yes. You need to take first watch tonight.”
This time, Kulgan and Za jumped in unison when they heard that, and the bewilderment was written all over Kulgan's face when he turned around.
“Don't be ridiculous,” he immediately said. “Just go to sleep.”
Adlis crossed her arms stubbornly. “Za is just as capable of keeping watch as you, Kulgan. In fact, I'd say he may even be better at it than you.”
That, at least, hadn't been a lie. Gray Ranger or not, Kulgan was still a human, which meant he was just as blinded by the darkness as Adlis was. Za may not have had eyes, but that by itself gave him the advantage. His hearing and sense of smell weren't dependent on the light.
Kulgan scowled at the simmk. “And if something attacks us, you expect him to fend it off?”
Adlis wasn't backing down, though. “If that happens, he'll wake you up.”
“Kulgan,” she said as if she were speaking to a disobedient child, “you may be our guide, but you're exhausted! What good are you going to be if you're too tired to move?”
That was one thing Kulgan couldn't argue with. Even Gray Rangers had their limits. Even so, she could tell by the look on his face that he was going to argue anyway.
“Just for a few hours,” she reasoned with him in a gentler voice. “Please, Kulgan. You need some rest.”
Kulgan didn't reply immediately, but Za did. Leaning across to her, he grabbed her shoulder with a bony hand that was shaking with fear.
“Miss Adlis,” he whispered, “what are you doin'? I don't wanna be out here alone in the Graylands!”
“You won't be alone,” she comforted him, softly taking his hand off her shoulder. “Kulgan and I will be right here.”
“But you'll be asleep...”
“And if something happens, you can wake us up. There's nothing to be afraid of, Za.”
Her ears turned a slight bit greener when she realized how big a lie that had been. They were in the Graylands— the only time they wouldn't be in danger was the minute they walked through the next gate. Even so, with Kulgan right next to him, even if he was asleep, there wasn't anything for Za to worry about... right?
“Okay, fine,” Kulgan finally agreed. Adlis got the feeling the argument had mostly been a formality so that she and Za wouldn't forget who the tough guy in their group was. His feet already dragging on the ground, he rejoined the other two and sat down.
“Miss Adlis...” Za whimpered, looking out into the inky darkness.
She put her hand reassuringly over his. “Za, Kulgan needs to sleep, and I can't do it. It has to be you.”
“But what if somethin' finds us?”
She leaned in a little closer. “Please, Za? For me?”
Almost before she knew what she was doing, she leaned in and planted a little kiss on his sackcloth covered cheek. Za froze, his hand going up to feel where her lips had touched his mask, and then nodded.
“A- All right, Miss Adlis,” he finally said, getting to his feet. “I just...” he leaned in and whispered into her ear. “I don't trust him, Miss Adlis. It's his fault we're here.”
“He's doing his best, Za,” she whispered back. “That's all anyone can do.”
He shook his head, his whispers getting more frantic. “No, Miss Adlis, it ain't! He ain't tryin' to save us. He- He throw us over a cliff!”
Adlis opened her mouth, but found she didn't have anything to say back to that. Za got up and made his way to where Kulgan had just been standing without another word. Kulgan lay down beside her, guns clinking against the stones, and removed his hat. His gray hair was a sweaty tangled mess, much the same as Adlis felt her fur must look.
At least this dress covers my tail, she thought, ears turning pink at the memory of the sheer red dress she'd arrived in Everydry in.
The night seemed calm, or at least as calm as things could be in this cursed place, so Adlis pushed the thought from her mind and laid her head down again. She could barely see Za in the darkness, but at least he was standing his ground. If anything came near their camp, she had no doubt that he'd alert Kulgan in an instant.
This is probably as safe as we'll ever be, she thought. Maybe things will look better after a good—
“Go ahead and ask,” Kulgan said, interrupting her thoughts.
She turned her head to look at him. “What?”
Kulgan was staring up into the sky, his eyes just as blank as Za's painted ones. “What your simmk just told you. About me throwing you over the cliff. Go ahead and ask.”
Adlis' ears turned gray with uneasiness. Did she really want to know? That hadn't been the act of a sane person, much less someone who had her best interests at heart. She wanted to believe that Kulgan was looking out for her and wanted to keep his end of the bargain, but the question was still gnawing at the inside of her head. What if the answer was something she didn't like?
The temptation was too much, though.
“Why did you throw me and Za off the mountain?”
Kulgan sighed and turned his head to face her. His eyes were so glassy she wasn't sure if he could even see her.
“Most people think the term 'a fate worse than death' is just an expression,” he said. “If there's one thing the Graylands have taught me, it's that death is by far the most merciful of ways to end your existence.”
“What on Haroz does that mean?” she asked.
“I mean, being caught by a Shapeless is literally worse than dying,” Kulgan answered. “You saw that one this morning. What do you think it was?”
Adlis thought back to the horrible sight. Like a creature that had been melted down to a liquid and then somehow solidified back into a fleshy state. She could still remember all the different body parts that had sprouted from it. Hands, feet, heads, even eyes, all before being sucked back inside its nightmarish body as if they'd never existed at all.
“I- I don't know,” she admitted. “I've never seen anything like it before.”
“That's because they’re like the titantulas, they didn't exist before the Graylands were made. If Vashiila rules the Graylands, then the Shapeless are its subjects. Some might even say they're its children.”
Adlis shook her head. “I don't understand.”
“You know what happens with I Twist, right?” Kulgan's hand wandered to the bump under his shirt again. “I told you, I absorb part of the wolf hornet's soul. That changes my body to become more like a wolf hornet. Well, what do you think happens when some poor puken gets a Vashiila shard stuck so deep in their body that they can't get it out? Or what happens if they eat it?”
“They... wouldn't be able to turn back?” Adlis guessed.
Kulgan nodded. “Exactly. They'd be stuck like that forever. Now, what happens if they get two shards stuck in their body? Or three? Or ten?”
Adlis' ears turned white when she guessed what Kulgan was hinting at. “They become a Shapeless?”
He nodded again. “All those souls stuck in one creature's body, all of them fighting to Twist their host into their own shape. They just... collapse. It's almost like their body comes to a truce with the other souls, and it finds as close to a neutral form as it can. In the end, they become exactly like what you saw on the mountaintop.”
“Dear Embin,” Adlis whispered, raising her hand to her mouth. Her ears couldn't decide if they wanted to turn green or white. A thought occurred to her. “But that still doesn't explain why you threw us over the cliff?”
Kulgan shook his head. “If I hadn't, you would have become a Shapeless too.”
I would have... turned into one of those things? The thought was too horrible to even imagine.
“Nobody knows why,” he went on, “but once a creature loses its shape, raw Vashiila stops affecting it. Maybe it’s because there are too many souls trapped in one body for a single shard to suck them all out. Anyway,” he waved his hand dismissively, “they've got so much of the stuff inside them that it's in their blood, in their saliva, even in their sweat.”
“So, if it had touched us,” Adlis hazarded a guess, “it would have sucked my soul out of my body?”
“Exactly. But that's not the worst part.”
“I don't see how anything could be worse than that.”
“How about becoming the Shapeless itself? You soul would have been added to the army of other souls that were already inside that thing. Imagine, being trapped inside that disgusting blob with a thousand other tortured souls, unable to die. Nobody knows how much consciousness you retain once you're soul's been ripped out, but I can't imagine it'd be pleasant. You may even have to watch as your real body turned to gray sludge and was absorbed the Shapeless.”
He looked at her again staring straight into her eyes. “Being killed by a Shapeless means losing yourself to it, body and soul. In the Gray Rangers, we're even told that it's better to put a bullet in your skull than fall prey to one of them. At least that way,” he mimed firing a gun into the side of his head, “you get to die. If the Shapeless gets you, you'll live forever as the lowest, most disgusting form of life on Haroz.”
He rolled over onto his back again. “And that's why I threw you and Za over the cliff. Because I really thought that was the better option.”
Adlis' ears paled again. “You... actually meant to kill us both!”
“Only because the alternative was something I wouldn't have wished on my worst enemies. Adlis, once a Shapeless absorbs you, there's no going back. The only way we know to free the people it eats is to destroy the Shapeless itself, and that's no easy task. Those things are Pitting hard to kill. Better to let you both die a normal death than for that to happen.”
Adlis stared at him, eyes wide with disbelief.
“I can't believe this,” she whispered.
“If it helps, I expected to die right there with you. I jumped off that cliff right behind you, remember?”
Adlis blinked. Had he just... Did he really think... This was all too much. After everything she'd been through in the past twenty four hours, she couldn't bring herself to think about this too.
“It may surprise you, Mr. Kulgan,” she hissed, lying down and rolling over to face away from him, “but that doesn't help at all!”
NEXT TIME: Geez, it’s like every time these idiots start to get along, something happens to make them start bickering again. But where is Kulgan leading them now? My guess is somewhere where they can bicker even more.