The sun was beginning to set when Kulgan stopped, putting his hands on his knees to catch his breath. How many hours had he been running? Five, at least, though he’d lost track of time somewhere after the second hour, and there was still no sign of the west gate. How big was Jordaku? As big as any city in Tassendile, he knew that much, though he didn’t know the exact measurements. Still, after this much running he should have come across the second gate by now. Unless…
“Are you trying to keep me from getting in?” he asked out loud, giving the wall an accusing look.
The thought was utterly ridiculous— which was exactly what convinced Kulgan that he was right. The outside world’s rules didn’t apply to the Graylands. The Graylands rules didn’t apply to Jordaku. It was as if the city made its own rules, changing them on a whim. That is, if reality even had enough of a grip on this place for it to even need rules at all.
Adlis and Za were in there. Alone. And Kulgan was running out of time.
“All right, fine,” he muttered. “We’ll do this your way.”
Taking off his shirt and tucking it beneath his arm, Kulgan jabbed his Vashiila pendant into his wrist. His wings sprouted from his back in an instant, and he launched himself into the air. The wall flashed by him in a gray blur, and for a second he worried that the city would change itself again, make it so he could fly upwards for all eternity and never reach the top. His fears proved unfounded, though, and he touched down atop the wall without incident.
Jordaku didn’t seem pleased by this. Kulgan wasn’t sure how he knew, but he swore he could feel the city shudder in irritation.
He walked atop the wall for a while, back in the direction he had just come from. Adlis and Za had gone in through the south gate, so if he wanted to find them that would be the best place to start the search. His wings withered away after a few minutes, and he put his shirt back on. He could have flown back to the gate in a fraction of the time it took him to walk there, but he wanted to watch the city below as he went. Adlis and Za might have decided to wander away from the gate— in fact, he was sure they had. If he was lucky, maybe he’d see them before he even reached the gate.
That wasn’t the only reason. He was worried that, should his feet leave the ground, the city would change again and he’d lose his way forever. The Gray Rangers has studied the Shapeless, the titantulas, and just about every other monster the Graylands had produced. But not Jordaku. Jordaku was to the Rangers what the Graylands themselves were to civilians, and they avoided it at all costs. More than once, Kulgan had seen his brothers and sisters come back with their missions incomplete, just because Jordaku had appeared in their path. That was one of the very, very few excuses the officers would accept without question.
It was possible to escape the city, that much they knew, but it was a rare thing. Send a hundred men through those gates, and you’d be lucky if a single one got out alive. And yet, they learned nothing from those precious few who came back. Some of them were reduced to babbling simpletons and were retired. Others were still sound enough of mind to resume their duties as Gray Rangers, but if you asked them what they had seen, a haunted look would come into their eyes and they would refuse to answer. These were strong, battle hardened men. Whatever went on within Jordaku’s walls must have been beyond imagining.
He looked across Jordaku again. There was something about it that held his eye, a strangeness that wasn’t immediately apparent, but came to him the more he stared. The city was old. That wasn’t strange in and of itself, but the way it was constructed was outdated. What little the Rangers knew about Jordaku they had learned from staring at it from afar. By the way it looked, their scholars estimated that it must be at least seven hundred years old. An antique city. A relic that the Graylands had preserved almost perfectly, despite destroying everything else around it. These ramparts on which he walked would have been defended with bows and arrows, rather than rifles and bullets.
A shape appeared on Kulgan’s right, and he instinctively tensed up, reaching for his gun. It was only a skull, he realized upon closer inspection. A Kashni skull, still sticky with decaying juices, had been placed on the parapet and turned in his direction. A shiver went down his spine, but he ignored it.
“Charming,” he muttered.
He passed it without another glance. It wasn’t the first severed head he’d seen, and he doubted it would be the last. At least this one was mostly clean. He had found one once, years ago, that still had—
A scraping sound came from just behind him, and he spun around. This time Zam came fully out of its holster, hammer cocked. There was nothing there. Just the skull Kulgan had seen before. Except… Kulgan’s eye twitched, and he took a step back.
The skull had turned, and was looking at him again.
He stood there for a long, tense minute, waiting for the skull to… he had no idea, but he waited anyway. It never budged, or even gave a sign that it could budge. Gradually, Kulgan calmed himself. Still keeping Zam pointed at the Kashni skull, he walked up to it.
“I don’t like that look you’re giving me,” he said. Then he pushed the skull off the wall.
He resisted the urge to peer over the edge and watch it be smashed on the rocks below, and turned around— to find himself face to face with another skeleton. He backpedaled with a yelp of fright. This one was human, and it was missing its right leg, but stood as easily as if it had both. Swirling mist covered its body, as if that would disguise the fact that it was completely devoid of flesh, and two pinpricks of purple light shone deep within its eyes.
It opened its mouth as if to speak— and Kulgan filled it with bullets.
“What the Pit?” he gasped, watching as the skull exploded into tiny bone fragments. The two specks of light remained right where they had been before. The rest of the skeleton stood still for a few seconds, as if nothing had happened, but then the fog enshrouding it disappeared. The purple lights immediately blinked out, and the skeleton collapsed, its bones clattering noisily onto the stone floor.
Kulgan took a deep breath, and then hurried to reload Zam. His hands were shaking, making it difficult to get the bullets into their chambers. He considered taking out Zagyr, but a quick flex of his right hand told him that it was still too injured to wield a gun.
“What in Embin’s name was that?” he wondered out loud. He eyed the bones suspiciously, but they stayed right where they were, as if they’d laid there for a thousand years. No answers came to him except the obvious: this was Jordaku. Trying to make sense of it would drive him as mad as the people who had built this city. Trying not to look as he did it, he brushed the bones off the wall with his boot. In the unnatural silence, he heard them as they bounced off the roof of a house down below, and then landed in the street.
Trying to ignore how jelly-like his legs suddenly felt, he continued on his way. Not much farther ahead, the wall came to an abrupt end. Confused, Kulgan hopped up onto the ledge and looked down to find that he was already back at the gate.
“So it was changing!” he whispered. After hours upon hours of running one direction, the fact that he was able to walk back to his starting point in mere minutes felt strangely offensive.
He heard the clattering at the last second, and spun around to see another skeleton, a zik one this time, closing in on him. It, too, was missing some of its bones, and purple lights leered at him from beneath a covering of fog. For a heart stopping instant, he thought it was going to push him. It didn’t, though. It did something worse.
It reached out and grabbed him.
Kulgan flinched when its bony fingers wrapped around his wrist. Not because it hurt his burnt skin —though it did— but because a brand new feeling washed over his body. It wasn’t pain, pleasure, hot, cold, or anything in between. The only word that his brain could think of to describe it was wrong. Wrongwrongwrongwrongwrong!
With a panicked cry, he swung his other hand, the one holding Zam, and the moment the dawniron pistol touched the skeleton’s ribcage it released him. Kulgan stumbled backwards, short of breath— and tumbled backwards off the edge of the wall.
He fell for barely half a second before landing on something hard, splintery, and cold. He’d fallen on top of the gate itself. Pain erupted where his spine had taken the brunt of the impact, but he kept enough presence of mind to reach down and dig his nails into the old, gray wood, keeping him from rolling off and killing himself on the far less forgiving stones below. His vision spun when he opened his eyes, but to his relief it looked like the skeleton hadn’t pursued him. He gave himself a minute to recover, and then sat up, straddling the gate.
Jordaku on his right. The Graylands on his left. Considering his options, he got the feeling that this would be his last chance to get out. He could be one of the ones who survived. It occurred to him that, should he escape now, he was still of sound enough mind to go and tell people what he had seen. He could be the first person to give a firsthand account of what lay inside Jordaku’s walls. The idea almost made him laugh.
“Who are you going to tell?” he asked himself. “The other Rangers? They might thank you before putting a bullet in your skull. The church? You do that, you’ll wish you’d let the Rangers shoot you.”
He swung his leg over the massive door so that he was facing the city. Taking out his hunting knife, he drove it into the wooden gate and cautiously made his way to the ground, sighing in resignation the whole way down. As soon as his feet touched the cobblestone road, he spun back around, Zam held out in front of him. Nothing moved. He stayed like that for a minute, and then finally holstered his gun, yanked his knife out of the door, and knelt down.
They had been here, all right. He knew he shouldn’t have been surprised, but he wouldn’t have put it past the city to let them in one gate, and then somehow let Kulgan in through a completely different one. But no, their trail was clear as day to him. A lesser man wouldn’t have been able to see anything on the hard cobblestones, but Kulgan’s Gray Ranger eyes were trained to see what others couldn’t, and soon he was on his way after them. His hand itched to hold Zam again, even though there weren’t any more of those glowing eyed skeletons in sight. Eventually, he gave in and unholstered it. It’s cold dawniron was comforting in his hand.
BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG.
Jordaku’s bell rang its mournful tones across the city yet again. Four tolls. Never more, never less. Kulgan tried to fix his eyes on the ground and follow Adlis and Za’s trail, but it felt as if someone had tied a string to his nose and was tugging it. Every time he passed one of those wide open doors with their impenetrably thick shadows, his eyes were inexplicably drawn to it.
Stopping for a moment, Kulgan turned in a slow circle. The doors were open. Every one of them. He wondered if Adlis and Za had been the ones to open them, searching for someone to ask for help. No, he decided, it couldn’t have been them. It might have taken Kulgan hours to get in here, but even that wasn’t enough time for those two to open every d’yargo door in the city.
That wasn’t the only thing, though. Whenever Kulgan looked inside one of those doors, he could… sense something. It was like an itch inside his head, one that didn’t go away when he looked at the ground but grew stronger when he faced the doors. The farther he walked, the harder it became to ignore it. He couldn’t think of the words to describe it, it just felt…
Wrong. This city was wrong, from the inside out.
The trail was slow. That much, at least, gave Kulgan hope. Those two had been too scared to charge blindly ahead, and so had crept through the city as slowly as possible. Perhaps he could find them before they got too far ahead. Then again, he thought, giving the buildings on either side of him a suspicious glance, he wouldn’t put it past the city to pull some sort of trick on him and throw him off their trail completely.
For now, though, Jordaku seemed content to allow him to follow them. Nothing moved, living or dead. Though Kulgan could feel those… whatever they were… watching him from the shadows of every home. They never emerged far enough to be seen, but he occasionally he would catch a glimpse of their glowing purple eyes. They would only stay there for a second before blinking out, as if they didn’t like Kulgan knowing they were there. With a shiver, Kulgan resumed his effort to ignore the otherworldly pull that urged him to look into the darkness. He had a feeling that if he looked too long, he would find that he wanted to go in there, and once that happened… he wasn’t sure, but he knew that at that point there would be no going back, one way or another.
He fixed his eyes back on the ground again, and jumped a little in surprise when Adlis and Za’s trail took a sudden detour. They had gone up to one of the houses —idiots, Kulgan thought— and then suddenly took a straight shot away from it. They were running, now. Something had scared them.
Kulgan looked up again, and realized he didn’t need the trail to know where they’d gone anymore. The city’s Church of Embin stood tall and proud, though it was dimmed by the taint of the Graylands like everything else. Those were the only closed doors he’d seen since coming here.
“D’yargo!” he yelled, not caring who heard him, and took off at a dead sprint toward the abandoned church. The wind whistled around his ears as he ran, and in that he almost began to think he could hear voices. A ghostly choir.
“Sing of dark, sing of light, sing of feasting, sing of blight. Sing of love and sing of pain, in the end it’s all the same. We go into the shadows now, before the mighty Mountain bow. Give up flesh and give up bone, live forever in Eyes of—”
Kulgan skidded to a stop in front of the church’s door, and the voices instantly vanished. Raising his leg, he kicked the door as hard as he could. He expected it to resist, for some supernatural power to hold it closed, and so he was surprised when they flew right open, banging loudly on the walls behind them. His hand sweated as he gripped Zam tightly in a white knuckled fist, and stepped inside…
The church was empty. Adlis and Za were nowhere to be seen.
BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG.
NEXT TIME: It’s okay, Kulgan, they’re just in the Upside Down. But no, seriously… where’d they go?