Kulgan watched as the gates to Jordaku swung closed, cutting him off from Adlis and Za. He dug in his heels, skidding to a stop just in time to keep from running face first into the massive wooden door.
“No!” He raised his fists and pounded on the gate, as if that would open them again. They didn’t budge, and even the sound of his fists against the ancient gray wood sounded muted, somehow. Adlis and Za were inside, and he was stuck out here with the—
He spun around, his back against the wall. In his panic, he had forgotten about the Shapeless. To his surprise, though, he saw the great gray blob still thirty feet away, unmoving. It writhed and convulsed like it always did, but it adamantly refused to come an inch closer to the city.
“Well,” he whispered to himself, “at least one of us has some common sense.”
He turned back to the gate. That d’yargo wench… what was wrong with her? Hadn’t she listened to a single word he’d said? Jordaku was bad. Bad beyond words. So bad that he had seriously wondered if the Shapeless wouldn’t be a better fate. The Gray Rangers themselves feared Jordaku enough to give it a wide berth, and now Adlis and that worthless simmk of hers were trapped inside.
A grim determination came over him. The smart thing to do would be to turn the other way and run as fast as he could. Even if he couldn’t outrun the Shapeless, that would be preferable to what lay behind those gates, in the Dead City. He couldn’t make himself do that, though. Not after promising to protect those two. He’d already tried to kill them once. He wouldn’t do it again.
There are four gates, he recalled from the scant lessons the Rangers had provided on the subject. One for north, south, east, and west.
This gate was closed, and it was obvious that it wouldn’t be opening again anytime soon. If Kulgan wanted in, he’d have to circle the city and find one of the others. He would have to hurry, too. He had no way of knowing how long Jordaku would stay in one place this time.
A pit formed in his stomach. That was the worst part of all of this. If he didn’t find a way in soon enough, the city would vanish. That was why he hadn’t known it would be here. It appeared and disappeared at random all across the Graylands. The only constant thing was that it always seemed to be in somebody’s way. If it vanished before he got in, it would whisk Adlis and Za away with it. And if it happened while he was in there, he’d be going with them.
Few enough people ever came out of Jordaku. The ones who were inside when it vanished never did.
BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG.
The bell seemed to be taunting him, and he clenched his good fist.
“Just stay alive a while longer, you two,” he said, slowly backing away. “I’m coming.”
Ten minutes went by. Ten minutes of silence and stillness. Adlis spent every second of it staring at the gate. The moment it had closed, all sound from the world outside had vanished. Part of her was relieved that she didn’t have to listen to Kulgan’s screams as the Shapeless devoured him. Still, she didn’t look away until she felt a gentle tugging at her sleeve. She turned to find Za standing beside her, trembling again. She had almost forgotten that he had come in with her.
“Miss Adlis, we can’t stay here,” he said. “We gotta move!”
Adlis looked back at the gate. “W- We can’t leave the gate. How will we get out?”
Za was about to answer, but then he jumped and spun around when his sensitive ears caught something Adlis’ couldn’t hear.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I don’t know, Miss Adlis, but we gotta get outta here. Th- There’s stuff watchin’ us.”
A chill went down Adlis’ spine. A gentle breeze blew through the streets, but there wasn’t a soul in sight.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Neither do I, Miss Adlis, but… let’s just go! Please?”
Still feeling stunned, Adlis let the simmk lead her down the street, away from the gate. She couldn’t help but look back at it over her shoulder. Closed or not, that was her doorway to the real world, and she was walking away from it.
The real world? she thought. All that’s out there are the Graylands! Your standards for the real world have become dangerously low.
She tried to smile at her joke, but couldn’t. The last thing she wanted to do was go back into the Graylands, but even that desolate, cursed place seemed more real to her than this city. Jordaku felt wrong. She couldn’t quite put her finger on why, but it was there, like a half-forgotten memory. She could feel it in the back of her mind, but when she tried to drag it up into remembrance it slipped between her fingers. It was just… wrong.
Za pressed against her side like a frightened dog as they slowly made their way down the street. Buildings, their windows dark and dusty, rose up on both sides of them. Abandoned though they obviously were, their walls still stood as strong and sturdy as the day they’d been built. Strangely, Adlis noticed that every one of their doors stood wide open. Not a single one was closed.
She tried to peer inside one as they passed, but the shadows were too thick, like a solid wall of darkness. The others were all the same. It reminded her of the night she and Za had spent outside Hammeth while Kulgan pilfered supplies. But… that shouldn’t have been possible. It was broad daylight outside. Even if every curtain had been drawn, there was no way the shadows should have been so thick so near to the doorway.
She shivered again and made herself face forward.
The two of them wandered down street after street, stepping lightly and never saying a word. It was, near as Adlis could tell, no different than any other city she’d ever been in. There were houses, stores, inns, everything she would expect to find. They even found a church. It stood tall and proud atop a hill with stained glass windows depicting Embin’s Chain, undulled by time, reflecting specks of colored light on the town below. There, Adlis stopped.
“Maybe we should go inside,” she whispered. There was no one around to hear her, but it felt wrong to break the silence anyway.
Za shook his head wildly. “Nuh uh, Miss Adlis. I- I think that’s where they are!”
“Th- The people watchin’ us, Miss Adlis.”
She looked around, but still couldn’t see anything that made her think they weren’t alone.
“Where? In the church?”
“No, Miss Adlis.” He leaned in closer and whispered, “Everywhere!”
“Sing of dark, sing of light, sing of feasting, sing of blight…”
Adlis gasped and spun around. The voice was faint, like a whisper, but she was sure it had come from behind her. But there was nothing there.
Nothing but an open doorway.
“Sing of love and sing of pain, in the end it’s… it’s…”
Adlis’ hand sought Za’s arm, and she squeezed him like a child gripping a stuffed toy, hoping it would chase away the bad dreams. The voice went silent for a few seconds, the singer breathing heavily. Then he chuckled. It was a cold, cruel sound.
“In the end, it’s all the same,” he finished the song.
“Miss Adlis, we need to go!” Za whispered.
Adlis didn’t move, though. Swallowing hard, she stepped up to the door.
“H- Hello?” she called into it.
There was no answer. Za continued to pull on Adlis’ arm, begging for her to come with him, but she refused to budge. Somebody was in that house. She didn’t know who, but the fact that it was speaking meant it wasn’t a monster. Perhaps it was a Gray Ranger, she thought. Who else would be this deep in the Graylands? And if it was a Gray Ranger, then perhaps all hope wasn’t lost. Kulgan was dead— he had to be. With the gate closing and the Shapeless chasing him, what other option was there? But if they found another Ranger, he could lead them out of Jordaku, and then on to the closest gate out of here.
“Hello?” she called again. “Can you help us?”
“Miss Adlis, please don’t bring it out here!” Za exclaimed in a whisper.
Something stirred in the darkness. Adlis couldn’t see what, but she was sure she had seen something. She waited a few seconds more for a reply, but got none. The man inside began to sing again.
“We go into the shadows now… before the mighty Mountain bow…”
“Sir?” she asked again tentatively. There was something wrong about that song but, again, she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. The mighty mountain? Could he mean Embin? If he did, she had never heard anyone refer to him as a mountain before.
The singing stopped. This time, something did move in the darkness. It started out as a ripple in the shadows, but then crept slowly out towards them. Fog. Tendrils of fog, gray and thick as storm clouds curled out of the open doorway.
“Someone calls,” said the voice inside. It sounded closer now. “Who calls me?”
“I- I- I-” Adlis stammered. She wasn’t able to form coherent words anymore. Suddenly, this felt like a terrible idea. She took a step back as even more fog spilled from the doorway.
“Who calls?” it asked again. There were no footsteps, only the voice, but it was definitely closer now.
“Miss Adlis…” Za whimpered. Adlis wanted to run away with him, but now terror had rooted her feet to the floor.
A hand appeared, gripping the doorframe. Adlis’ eyes widened and her mouth opened in a silent scream. The hand was completely devoid of flesh. The fog curled around it, like it was trying to pretend that it was skin, but that couldn’t disguise the slimy, decaying bones.
Two pinpricks of purple light lit up the darkness. The shadows were too thick for Adlis to see anything else, but the way they hovered just in front of her made her feel like they were eyes.
“Children,” the voice inside whispered.
Adlis sucked in a ragged gasp. The… thing… made no movement to come outside, but it stared unblinkingly at them with those two glowing points of light.
“Children… come inside.”
“N- No thank you,” Adlis managed to squeak.
“Come inside, children.” It raised its hands from the doorframe and began to beckon them with one finger. “Come. Inside, children. Come inside. Children, come inside.”
“No,” Adlis said again.
“We… have been waiting… for you... Come inside, children.”
Adlis was sure she must have been imagining it, but she began to feel something compelling her into the house. It wasn’t a push, it wasn’t a pull, it simply was, and she could practically feel her feet sliding over the cobblestoned street, toward the beckoning finger of whatever she had caught the attention of.
“I… I don’t…” she stammered.
“Come inside, children…”
Before she knew it, she was barely a foot in front of the door. The skeletal hand stopped wagging its finger and began to reach out for her.
Suddenly, she was jerked away from the door just as the hand lunged for her. Its fingers closed on nothing but air— and then collapsed in a clatter onto the ground. A human torso. The skull, ribcage, and its right arm, but everything below its top half was missing. The purple light glittered in its empty eye sockets, but as soon as it hit the ground they went dark. Adlis and Za simply stared at it, unable to tear their eyes off of it— until it was suddenly yanked back into the house, like a monster swallowing the last bit of its meal.
That seemed to break the spell. Adlis and Za screamed, turned, and ran as fast as they could. Adlis was the one in the lead, and she went to the only place her panic-stricken mind could think of: the church. The darkness inside was no less thick than anywhere else, but Adlis didn’t care. It was a house of Embin. Surely whatever evil had Twisted this city wouldn’t have found purchase in such a holy place.
Just as with the city gates, though, as soon as they set foot inside the church’s doors slammed shut.
NEXT TIME: Hey guys, hear me out here. I know it sounds crazy, but… I think coming here might have been a bad idea.