Thunder rumbled in the air, giving Kulgan pause.
“What is it?” Adlis asked, taking advantage of the momentary break to catch her breath.
The three of them had set out at the crack of dawn, more than four hours ago. It hadn't taken long to leave the mountains behind, though they still blotted out most of the sky behind them. The land was dotted with hills now, low and rolling and every bit as desolate as everything else. Not a single plant broke the ash colored ground. Only stone and gravel as far as the eye could see.
The rumbling came again, like the growl of a mountainous creature, and Kulgan turned his eyes toward...
“Nothing,” he said at last with a shake of his head. “Don't worry about it.”
He'd hoped that Adlis' weariness would distract her from the way he'd callously deflected her question. After his revelation the previous night, she had become as cold as she’d ever been— not that he blamed her. He couldn't think of many people who would take well to the news that somebody had attempted to kill them.
His deflection only seemed to make her even more interested, though. Brushing off her dress, she came to stand beside him, following his gaze.
“Adlis,” he said warningly.
She thrust her hand out, pointing. “Is that a volcano?”
Kulgan sighed, but nodded. Out in the distance, so far away that it was barely a shadow on the horizon, a large spike jutted up from the ground. Unlike the mountains they had just come from, this one stood alone on an otherwise flat plain. The dark cloud of smoke rising from its top was visible even against the overcast sky. Every once in a while an orange flash would come from it, followed a few seconds later by another rumble of thunder.
“Not like any volcano you've ever heard of before,” Kulgan answered. “What you're looking at right there is the Pit.”
He turned to see Adlis' ears graying. “The Pit?” she echoed meekly. “You mean...”
Kulgan nodded again. “The place where Vashiil crashed into Tassendile. The cause of all of this.” He waved his hand around.
Another flash, and the ominous rumbling filled the air again.
“That doesn't look like a pit,” Adlis said a minute later. “In fact, I'd say a mountain is the exact opposite of a pit.”
Kulgan chuckled darkly. “It wasn't always like that. When Vashiil landed, there actually was a Pit. Some people say it was so deep that you couldn't see the bottom. Others said you could see the bottom, but the Dark Moon was so black that you couldn't tell it from the shadows. Whichever it was, it didn't stay that way.” He set off again, waving for the others to join him. “Come on.”
The plume of smoke was growing even thicker, the flashes coming with more regularity. Kulgan doubted the effects would reach this far, but he still wanted to get out of here as quickly as he could. Adlis hesitated another few seconds, staring at the Pit, before scurrying after him. Za came after her. Kulgan could feel the simmk's hateful, eyeless glare on the back of his head.
They hadn't encountered any monsters today. That wasn't unheard of. Vashiil had scoured most of the land clean of living things. While there were still plenty places occupied by its mutated predators, there were easily ten times as many places that were completely devoid of life. Most of the monsters tended to stay together in packs, like the titantula nest in the mountains. Part of Kulgan was thankful for that. Fewer monsters meant less danger, and less danger meant quicker travel. The Ranger part of him was growing increasingly wary, though. Every mile they trekked without spotting a monster just made it more likely that they would be there on the next mile.
What would he do if something found them? He still had Zam and Zagyr, but only one hand to use them with. His right arm tingled, and he could barely move the fingers. It was a lot better than it had been the day before, but still practically useless. Twisting had a strange way of healing injuries, especially on body parts that had to regrow after changing back. It was one of the only benefits Twisting had.
Not enough to make up for everything else, though. Not even close.
“How much farther is it?” Adlis asked a few minutes later.
“Another few hours, assuming you don't slow us down,” Kulgan snapped.
Adlis' ears turned red. “I thought you said this was a shortcut.”
“It is a shortcut.”
“You are aware that a shortcut is supposed to be a quicker way to get somewhere, right?”
Kulgan jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “If you think it'd be faster to climb that d'yargo mountain than these nice, easy hills, then be my guest.”
The red of Adlis' ears deepened. “That's not what I—”
“Of course, those marshals are probably still waiting for you out there.”
“All right, all right!” Adlis put a hand over her brow. “I get it. We'll use your stupid shortcut.”
Kulgan kept going without looking back. “Glad to hear it. Now move your feet.”
They walked in silence for a while, but Kulgan could tell that Adlis was having a hard time keeping quiet. With every step, the questions were filling her mouth, threatening to burst out all at once in a flood of words. How long would the dam hold? Her tension was enough to make the hairs on Kulgan's neck stand up.
“Just ask, will you?” he finally snapped.
She didn't need any more encouragement than that. “How did the Pit become a volcano?” she blurted out.
“The same way any other volcano is made,” he answered. “When Embin confronted Vashiil, he drove it down into the ground. That was the Pit. Then he buried it, thinking that would cut off its access to the outside world. But then Vashiil started sending surges of power into the ground above it, explosions big enough to cause earthquakes all across Tassendile. Eventually it broke through Haroz’s crust hard enough to thrust a brand new mountain into the sky.” He nodded toward the Pit.
Adlis blinked. “Oh...”
Kulgan couldn't help but laugh. “You look disappointed, Puff.”
“It's not that. I just expected something a little more... mystical.”
“What, is an evil moon corrupting the land not mystical enough for you?”
She shook her head, ears turning red again. “You know what I mean!”
Another boom, louder than the ones before, came from behind them. Kulgan glanced back to see that the smoke plume was a big, black smudge in the sky now. There were flashes coming from it now, as well as from the mountain. Adlis turned to look too. It was an ominous sight, and Kulgan wasn't surprised when Adlis took a step closer to him for comfort. He doubted she realized what she had done, though.
“What's happening?” she asked.
“Ash storm,” Kulgan replied. “Vashiil makes one every few weeks.”
Lightning crackled in the building storm.
“C- Can it hurt us?”
“Worse than that, it can turn every one of us into Shapeless.”
The zik maiden jumped as if Kulgan had pinched her, her ears turning from gray to white. That was even enough to distract Za, who had still been glaring holes into the back of Kulgan's skull with his painted eyes.
“There'll be winds strong enough to blow down houses, and little flecks of Vashiila in every gust. It's one of Vashiil's favorite ways to spread itself around.”
“I... I can't sense anything,” the simmk said.
Kulgan huffed. “Of course you can't. The Pit's at least forty miles away.”
Za wilted a little, but Adlis was far too worked up to care. “What do we do? Is there someplace we can hide?”
“Plenty of places, if you know where to look for them. I told you, though, you don't have to worry.”
She turned to him in bewilderment. “This sounds like the perfect time to worry!”
He met her gaze with cold eyes. “Not unless you plan to run those forty miles between us and it.”
Adlis faltered. “What... you mean it isn't...”
Kulgan stuck his finger in his mouth and held it up above his head. “The wind's in our favor. It'll blow the storm right away from us. So unless you—”
“I heard you the first time,” she snapped. Still, she seemed relieved.
Za, on the other hand, was a different story.
“And what if you're wrong?” the simmk demanded, rounding on Kulgan. “What do we do then?”
Kulgan shrugged. “I'm not wrong.”
“But what if we do if you are?”
Kulgan ignored him. Za wasn't his employer, after all. He didn't owe the simmk a d’yargo thing. He would rather have thought about their destination. Unlike Forbidden Gate Tarz, this gate didn't have a name. Not unless it had been discovered since the last time he'd been there— which, he reminded himself, was a distinct possibility. He hoped it hadn't been. If the Rangers had found it, they had probably found...
He shuddered, trying to push that thought out of his head. Using this gate was easily the last thing in the world he wanted to do— and, being in the Graylands, that was saying something. If anyone had given him the choice, he would have gladly taken a running dive into the closest Shapeless if it meant not having to pass through that gate and face what was on the other side.
Good thing it's not your choice anymore, he thought, giving his companions a sideward glance. He sighed. Who was he kidding? He never could have left Adlis and Za out here in the first place. Going through this undiscovered gate had been their only course of action the minute he had thrown them off the cliff.
An unexpected twinge of pain bit at his chest as that thought passed through his head, and he flinched. Adlis turned to look at him, eyebrows raised.
“My arm,” he grunted, looking down at his charred hand.
Thinking back to the previous day, he found that his memories were hazy. That didn't surprise him. Even as a trained and experienced Gray Ranger, times of violence or danger tended to blur together after everything was done. His brain has been acting on instinct for most of it, with as little manual input as possible, and so was less concerned with remembering what was going on than it was in simply staying alive. How many titantulas did he shoot? How many Rangers had been there when the Shapeless attacked? If anyone had asked him, Kulgan wouldn't have been able to answer.
And yet, the sound of Adlis' scream echoing across the mountain range as she plummeted to near-certain death came back to him with frightening clarity. That wasn't a sound one heard in the Rangers. When you put on the gray poncho and stepped through your first gate, you went in knowing full well that you probably weren't coming back. It may not be this time, or the next time, or even the time after that, but the Graylands eventually claimed everything within its borders. Animals, plants, even the land itself— and it hungered especially for people. Only a small handful of their number ever reached the age of retirement. When you joined the Gray Rangers, it wasn't a question of if would die, but when.
Maybe that was why the hairs on Kulgan's arms stood up as the zik maiden's scream played itself over and over in his mind. Adlis wasn't a Gray Ranger. The very idea of it was laughable. She was just a girl in over her head in the most dangerous place in the world. She knew full well that the journey home would have been dangerous, but she had still held onto her hope. And, if Kulgan had done the smart thing, her hope most likely wouldn't have proven unwarranted. Instead, he had tried to keep her from swindling him by swindling her first, and that had landed all three of them here. And even then, Adlis had trusted Kulgan to keep her safe.
And he'd thrown her off a cliff.
He tried to tell himself that that had been the right thing to do, and he believed himself. It truly would have been better for her to die rather than be absorbed by the Shapeless. But there was still one indisputable fact he couldn't ignore: part of her innocence had died in that moment. She had been betrayed, and she could see death looming in front of her because of it. The fact that all three of them had survived was inconsequential. Kulgan had let go of her with the full intention of killing her. She wouldn't forget that, not ever.
Part of what had drawn Kulgan to her, to take on this crazy mission, was her innocence. And, whether his actions were warranted or not, part of that innocent young girl had died when he'd sent her plummeting into the mist. How much had died and how much remained was something he'd have to find out over time. He doubted even Adlis knew yet. He had made the right choice on that mountain, of that he was sure, but it wasn't the choice he’d wanted to make. Just like going through this gate he was leading them to, it was a choice he'd been forced to make because all the other options were worse. But just because it was the right choice didn't make it okay. Nothing would make what he had done yesterday okay.
Adlis would probably hate him until the day he died.
But not as much as he hated himself.
BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG.
Kulgan looked up with a gasp, jerked from his thoughts like a fish on a line. He froze, eyes wide.
“No,” he whispered.
“What’s that?” Adlis asked. Her head swiveled around, trying to locate the noise, far too curious and not nearly terrified enough.
Breathing heavily, Kulgan pushed her out of the way and dashed up the hill in front of them.
“No!” he said again. Even after two years of patrolling the Graylands, taking on everything it could throw at him, nothing could chill his blood and stop his heart in dead fright like what he saw now.
“Kulgan? Kulgan!” Adlis called after him, giving chase. “Don’t you dare leave us behind, you…”
Her voice trailed off when she crested the hill and saw what was in front of them.
A city. A massive, sprawling city. Though the Graylands had turned it gray, just as they did everything else, the buildings and houses still stood as tall and sturdy as the day they’d been built. A twenty foot wall of stone had been built around the entire place, but the gates stood wide open, like the yawning maw of a massive beast. In the dead center of town there was a bell tower, from which the last notes of its tolling still echoed weakly.
“W- What’s that?” Adlis asked, inching closer to him.
This can’t be happening, Kulgan thought, numbly. Of all the… why here, why now?
With a mouth that he had to force to obey, he answered in a low, terrified voice.
The name itself sent a shiver down Adlis’ spine as she stared at the abandoned city from atop the hill. Nothing moved down there. No people walked the streets, no smoke drifted from the chimneys. There weren’t even any birds roosting on the rooftops. Not that any of that was strange, given that these were the Graylands, she reminded herself, but the entire scene just looked unbearably eerie to the zik maiden.
“What’s Jordaku?” she asked a minute later, when Kulgan didn’t offer an explanation.
“A bad place.” Kulgan shook his head, his eyes still wide as saucers. “A very, very bad place.”
Adlis gave a huff. “And here I thought you were a Gray Ranger. Look at you, scared stiff by a little ghost town.”
She had hoped that would rile Kulgan up, help him regain some of his courage, but all he did was shake his head again.
“That’s it,” he said decisively. “We’re going back.”
Without another word, he turned around and walked back the way they’d just come.
“Wait, what?” Adlis exclaimed. She grabbed him by the elbow, halting him— which wasn’t easy, because he tried to keep walking even with the added weight. “Hold on! After all this, now you want to turn back? That will take all day!”
Kulgan pointed at the city. “If it means not going through there, then yes. I would walk the length of the Graylands a hundred times just to keep from going into Jordaku.”
“What is so bad about— hey!”
Kulgan had shaken her arm off, and was determinedly putting distance between himself and the city.
“Hurry up or be left behind,” was all he said.
Adlis shared a look with Za.
“What was that all about?” she asked.
“I dunno, Miss Adlis, but I figure we ought’a follow him.”
“Well, obviously we have to follow him.” Adlis rolled her eyes. “We’ll be dead in a heartbeat if we didn’t. But… what is it about that place that’s got him so scared?”
She looked curiously down at Jordaku again. For a single, spine-tingling second, she almost felt like something was looking back at her. She turned and hurried after Kulgan.
“So that’s it, then? We hiked all the way through this Embin forsaken place just to turn back?”
“Pretty much,” he grunted without looking at her.
Adlis threw her hands in the air. “But why? Why even bring us out here if you didn’t want to go through that city?”
“Because I didn’t know it would be there.”
Adlis huffed again. “Some Gray Ranger you are. I thought you were supposed to have memories like photographs!”
Kulgan clenched his fists, his jaw tightening. “It wasn’t there before, okay?”
“Oh, of course it wasn’t. I suppose it just hiked up its skirts and-”
Before she could finish, a low, haunting howl rang out in the direction they were going. A howl that sounded like a dozen different creatures crying out at once. Adlis froze, her ears turning white, and Kulgan took a few steps forward to look into the distance.
“D’yargo,” he muttered.
“Is- Is that… It can’t be a…”
He gave a sharp nod. “Yep. It’s a Shapeless.”
She was by his side again in an instant. “Is it the one from before? Did it follow us all the way out here?”
“Might be, might not.” Kulgan shrugged. “I’ve known Shapeless to hunt people all the way across the Graylands, but this could just as easily be a completely different one.”
“So what do we—”
“Will you be quiet so I can think?”
Adlis stepped back in surprise, but didn’t say another word. A second howl echoed across craggy gray land in front of them. She thought this one sounded closer, but she couldn’t be sure.
“Shapeless one way, Jordaku the other,” she heard Kulgan muttering. His eyes were blank, like he was a thousand miles away. “Shapeless… Jordaku… Shapeless…”
He kept repeating himself for over a minute, never moving a muscle either direction. There was a third howl, and there was no doubt this time that it was getting closer.
“Is it really that difficult of a choice?” Adlis finally demanded.
“As a matter of fact, it is!” Kulgan snapped, his eyes flashing with anger. “Now will you shut up and—”
Za pointed past them. “There it is!”
All three of them spun to see a massive gray blob rise over the hill in front of them. Just like the last one, the Shapeless looked like someone had taken an entire town’s worth of people and then melted them like candles into one disgusting mass. Tendrils of flesh rose from it, forming different body parts entirely at random. What looked to be a gigantic human head emerged from its depths and turned to fix its blank stare on them. It opened its mouth as if to scream, but instead it vomited up a hundred arms, all scrabbling on the craggy stone ground, dragging itself toward them with unbelievable speed.
Terror flashed through Adlis’ mind. “Kulgan?”
“Be quiet, I’m trying to think!”
Adlis’ eyes opened wide, and she wrenched her gaze away from the Shapeless to look at him. “I’m not just going to stand here and let that thing catch me! Come on, Za!”
She grabbed the simmk’s wrist and turned tail, running back toward Jordaku.
“Adlis!” Kulgan yelled, but she didn’t slow or even look back at him.
Jordaku’s gates rose up in front of her invitingly, promising safety from the hideous predator. She sprinted for them with every ounce of speed she could muster, her dress flapping like a flag in the wind and threatening to trip her. She could hear Za whimpering as he tried to keep up with her. Her hand was still wrapped around his wrist, but she didn’t let go. If she let go, the Shapeless would surely snatch him away, devouring him, or absorbing him, or whatever it was they did, and she’d never see him again. The gates were close enough now that they were all she could see. Just a few more seconds and she would be inside.
“Adlis!” she heard Kulgan yell. His voice was high pitched with desperation, almost enough to make her stop. “Do not go—”
BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG.
The peal of the bell was enough to drown out Kulgan’s voice, and even the howls of the Shapeless. The sound was utterly devoid of life, as if the bell took no joy from being rung. It was an odd thought, but one that rang true— truer even than the bell.
They were through the gates in an instant, with the reassuring feel of solid cobblestone under their feet instead of the sandy, unworked stone outside. Adlis skidded to a halt, nearly yanking Za’s arm out of his socket in the process, and turned around. Kulgan was still fifty feet away, running full tilt toward them, the Shapeless hot on his heels. Even from here, Adlis could see how wide his eyes were.
“Get out of there!” he was screaming. He waved his arms frantically. “Get out! Get out!”
“Miss Adlis,” Za spoke up, “I think maybe—”
“He’s not going to make it,” she breathed, watching as the ravenous blob gained on him.
The Ranger ignored the Shapeless, cupping his hands around his mouth and shouting, “Adlis, get out of there before it—”
Before she knew what was happening, Za had grabbed Adlis by the back of her dress and pulled her back— just as the city gates swung shut. A boom like thunder echoed through the city streets, and when it faded it was followed by a low thunk like a bolt being slid into place.
A very, very big bolt.
NEXT TIME: Heeee… spoke of tortured souuuuls… so outrageous the tolllll… you could lose all you haaaave… he refused to give innnnn… to the town that takes allllllll.